Tag Archives: history

A Drop of Ink Preserved In Amber, by Marina J. Lostetter

Amber knew normal girls didn’t have drawers in their chests. Or in their stomachs, or backs, or thighs. She knew her parents had had her specially designed by a geneticist in Pakistan, where the international genome-manipulation laws were more difficult to enforce than in the U.S. In the history of the world, there had never been another human like her. And she was human, even if she didn’t look it on an X-ray.

ink1And her parents had made it quite clear that X-rays were to be avoided at all costs.

“You are too special,” they told Amber when she was little. “There are some things other people were simply never meant to know.”

At six, she rode her first airplane. She loved it — the roar of the engines, the rush as the aircraft took off and she was thrust back into her seat. It was her favorite part of their family trip.

Her least favorite part was airport security. That first time falling in love with flight was also the first time she was embarrassed about her body. Her parents asked for a private screening, and she didn’t understand why. The TSA agents ushered them behind an opaque barrier, still within earshot of the bustling and beeping of normal security. The area smelled strangely sterile, like a hospital, but the lady who approached Amber didn’t look anything like a doctor. The pat-down she received wasn’t especially intrusive — the woman was polite and explained everything she was doing and why. But it still made Amber feel terrible. Not because the lady was poking and prodding her, but because Amber lied when the TSA agent asked if she’d emptied all her pockets.

Mama had instructed her to say yes–had told her ahead of time that her drawers weren’t pockets and no one would ask her about her drawers.

After, they got on the plane. Amber rode the whole way with her hands over her heart, protecting the secret Mama had stashed there.

They flew from New York to LA. Mama called it a “test flight.” Daddy said her drawers were big enough to use now, but they had to be sure. Neither of those things made much sense to Amber, but, they were her parents, and she wanted to do them proud.

Six long hours later, they landed and retrieved their bags. Emerging from the terminal into the hot California sun, her parents gleefully loaded her into a rental car, laughing. Daddy drove, and Mama sat with her in the backseat.

“You can open them up now,” Mama said with a smile. “You did a very good job. You’re a very good girl.”

Amber didn’t feel like a good girl. She didn’t know why, but hiding her drawers from the lady in New York felt wrong.

She took off her shirt anyway — the one with the cartoon dinosaur with googly eyes — and pressed the center of what should have been her breast bone.

When closed, the drawers were invisible; she looked like any other pudgy child, with uninterrupted contours, a round belly, and tiny limbs. But when she pressed just right, large sphincters unfurled like flowers, letting the bony drawers slide out.

Supple skin covered in fine, velvety hair encased the calcium structures. The drawers were well-padded with cartilage and thick skin, protecting whatever she — or her parents — chose to hide in them.

Mama kissed her forehead and gently plucked a piece of cut amber from her daughter’s chest. It was set in a roughly worked bronze brooch, with small accent rubies encircling the main stone.

“Look,” Mama pointed to the center of the honey-colored gem. “There’s a spider in the amber, perfectly preserved.”

Breaking News: In light of the twelve genetically-modified babies born at UK Centurion Labs — all exhibiting signs of what some are calling transmorphic-posthumanism — members of Congress have pushed forward consideration of a bill that would regulate modifications and define what changes are acceptable here in the U.S. Modifications of intelligence and basic human anatomy are thought by many to be clear violations of ethical reproduction by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Amber’s parents told people they were archaeologists. It wasn’t until long after that first flight that she learned “archaeologist” did not mean “smuggler” or “black-market dealer.”

“Is it because of what we do?” Amber asked when she was eight. “I can’t tell them about my drawers or else they’ll find out about the pretty jewelry and stuff?” She sat at the kitchen table, swinging her little legs while munching on dry cereal.

“The average person doesn’t want to know that people like you exist,” her mama said. “It makes them angry that you’re different. It makes some of them violent.” She brought her tablet over to Amber and pulled up a news article.

“Six Dead at Mod Clinic, Suicide Bomber Suspected,” read the headline.

“So you can’t tell people, understand?” Mama said. “It’s to protect you, to keep you safe. Daddy and I don’t want anything to happen to you. There are people who would want to hurt you. People who would want to study you. The government might want to take you away from us because of how extensively we modified you. We just couldn’t take it if something…”

Her lip trembled and she took a deep breath — at which point she devolved into tears.

Even at eight, Amber had the wherewithal to think, If you wanted to protect me so much, why did you modify me?

Update: The federal government has now outlawed human genetic modification. A doctor caught modifying an embryo will have their license to practice permanently revoked, and may spend up to ten years in prison. If a woman is discovered carrying a genetically modified fetus in the first term, the overseeing medical professional is responsible for ensuring the pregnancy is terminated, under threat of similar penalties.

In grade school, Amber didn’t tell anyone about her drawers, but she used them to do magic tricks. Because her parents often took her to foreign countries for weeks at a time, Amber missed many of the social crucibles of youth. Birthday parties and sleepovers were held without her, as were dances and soccer games. She did her best to capture the attention of other children when she could.

When springtime came, she did a special trick. She would invite a handful of kids down to the river and show them how she could make birds and frogs disappear. First she had to catch them, which was a special trick on its own and led to many bruised knees and bum lips. But when she had her prize, her audience would watch, enrapt, as she moved her hands swiftly behind her back or under her shirt before revealing them to be empty.

ink2“You just dropped it,” a boy inevitably accused, and she always took it as her cue to bring the creature back again.

Once, when she caught a young songbird, it started singing inside her chest. The chirping had a hollow, far-away quality to it, ghostly and reverent. Amber opened her mouth to make a joke, and the song sprang past her lips as surely as if she’d sung it herself.

It took the trick too far. That particular set of classmates wouldn’t speak to her after that. One of the boys threw rocks at her every chance he got.

Play magic is one thing, he said. Real magic is another.

It was the first time she understood how the headline about the suicide bombings applied to her. In sharing some of her secret, she’d scared the other kids.

Mama hated it when Amber did tricks with animals. The frogs made her drawers slimy, and the birds left welts and scratches. “And, you smell like a pond,” she said. “Plus, it’s cruel to use a living thing like that. Now be a good girl and hide this ring for me. Your aunt is coming over and I don’t want her to realize I took it.”

Update: The United States is the fourteenth country to pass a federal law that not only prohibits the creation of genetically modified humans of any kind, but details the legal methods of post-delivery disposal. Should one of these, quote, ‘abominations,’ be discovered, the law describes the threshold for corrective surgery versus euthanization. Any modification of the brain is automatic grounds for extermination.

When Amber didn’t get her period like other girls, her mama explained that it was because she didn’t have a uterus. They’d had to shift a lot of her organs around to accommodate the drawers, and something had to go for them all to fit.

“It’s okay,” Mama assured her. “A uterus and company are nothing but problems anyway. Cramps, cancer, cysts. Be thankful we spared you all that.”

At thirteen, Amber was too young to really care that they’d also ‘spared’ her the problem of pregnancy. Well, at least I’ll never have to worry about ruining my jeans like Aki did.

When she reached high school, Amber realized secrets were currency. Gossip was good, sharing secrets with other girls was good. But, keeping secrets from adults was better.

When the head cheerleader offered her a cigarette behind the gym, she said no. Her dad smoked the occasional cigar and it turned her stomach every time. That stuff stank. But as she was waving the offer away, Coach Green came around the corner. The other girl looked so distraught, Amber had to do something. She took the smoldering cig and stuck it in her thigh drawer. It burned, but she did not cry out.

The blisters stung for days. She had the cheerleader’s admiration for months. She bore the scars for years.

It wasn’t just her parents’ gratitude and love she could earn with her drawers, she noted. If she let other people use them, perhaps they would grow to love her, too.

But, she had to be careful.

The boy who had thrown rocks at her in elementary school did his high-school senior project on “The Ethics and Morality of the Disposal of Human Experiments.” His thesis was not that such experiments were cruel to the subjects, but that they were cruel to the people who had to interact with those subjects. What might these man-made monsters do to “true” humans? How might they oppress them or violate them?

Throughout his presentation, Amber could have sworn that he was staring straight at her.

“In conclusion,” he said, “all modified ‘people’ should be institutionalized. For their own safety, and ours.”

Roaring applause followed.

If he’d known for sure about her drawers, what might he have done? Who might he have called?

In college, she majored in archaeology. Real archaeology. She built up enough courage to tell a few people about her drawers, but only her closest friends. She didn’t want to hide forever, but the recent abolishment of all mods made her wary. Sick-to-her-stomach wary. What if her friends rejected her? None of them had ever expressed anti-mod sentiment, but one never knew.

Maybe they would throw stones at her, too.

She cried when she told Aki. Amber had known her the longest, so it was only fitting she came first.

“It’s okay,” Aki said, hugging her close. “I know it’s not the same, but my eyes are mods. Near-sightedness runs in the family, so… I kind of get it.”

Yeah, she kind of did. But only kind of.

Afterward, they went out and got matching tattoos on their wrists. Two little gold keys each.

ink3Thankfully, all of Amber’s friends took it in stride. No one was horrified, no one threatened to turn her over to the law, and a lot of them seemed pleased. After that, her drawers were never empty. Charlotte hid her pregnancy test in Amber’s stomach when her dad barged in on them. Raj dropped his bag of weed in her shoulder when a cop pulled him over for speeding. Quinn wrote a long, angry letter to her step-mom and asked if Amber could keep it in her chest until she felt ready to confront the woman who had abused her.

Eventually, Amber allowed herself a lover. She’d always been afraid of being intimate with a boy — once, during a hasty make-out session in high school, one of her drawers had popped open, and she’d fled the scene before anyone had a chance to find out. But, in college, she let herself be seen. A few potential lovers left once she’d shown them her body. Enough of them stayed. One even hung around, and he hid secrets in her drawers as well.

Amber’s own secrets never went in her drawers. They couldn’t fit; they were big and balloon-like and made her head swell as though it were filled with steam.

Update: During her upcoming address this evening, the President will remark on the topic of genetic modification — specifically whether or not all adult cases have been corrected. Our White House correspondent believes the President will say the brief era of modification is over, and that we as a nation — and perhaps even the world–can forget about this terrible period of human experimentation and return to the unified forward-stride of mankind.

Even after earning her doctorate, Amber still traveled with her parents; to Turkey, to Belize, to anywhere with antiquities worth stealing. It was the only way she could spend time with them; her parents were only ever home long enough to offload their loot. They filled her up like a treasure chest, muttering as they went — talking to their plunder more than to her.

Unfortunately, Amber’s profession lent an air of legitimacy to their black-market comings and goings. An air they wallowed in.

“One of these days they’re going to start weighing passengers when they fly, and I’ll have a hell of a time explaining how I gained thirty-five pounds in a week,” Amber joked as her mother stuffed a small gold censer between her shoulder blades.

They were in a dingy hotel room in Greece, the walls sported peeling wallpaper. The carpet had a bug problem, and the torn curtains were drawn tightly over the small, open window so that no one could see what they were doing. The room had no air conditioning, though the Mediterranean humidity made the room feel like ninety degrees when it was seventy-five.

Soft snatches of Greek wafted in from the fruit stand on the street below. Amber understood little bits of it, and the swift glimpses into local lives made her smile to herself.

Amber stood in the center of the room, mostly naked, which made it easy for her mother to access whichever drawer she needed.

“It’s called tourism, dear,” her mom said absently. “People tend to eat themselves to death when they travel. But you’ll never have to worry about that. Weighing passengers is too insulting, however practical.”

After her mother finished, Amber pulled on her robe and belted it tight. All of her drawers were heavy with relics from a vandalized fifteenth-century Roman-Catholic cathedral. The metal pieces in her hips poked at her, and she clinked when she shifted. The section of split tapestry in her side was rough — sure to leave a carpet burn. The most gruesome treasure, a mummified tongue — supposedly that of a saint — jumped slightly with every beat of her heart.

Secrets bled out of the brain, through the tongue. Keeping it in the drawer in her chest, the drawer she considered the most important, felt…fitting.

Amber stood full of history. She could feel them — all of the human fingers that had touched all of the human things in such human ways.

History was beautiful, and terrible, and full of secrets that need not be forgotten. Secrets that were all the more important now that their creators were gone. Secrets she was tired of stealing.

“Mom,” she said.

“What, dear? You need to hurry up and get dressed if we’re going to be on time.”

“I think this is going to be my last trip. This kind of trip, I mean.”

“Why?”

Because stealing is wrong? Because my drawers sport enough scars as is? Because I’m tired of you seeing me as a pack animal instead of a person?

“Because history shouldn’t be hidden,” she said. Amber pressed on her breastbone and her chest opened. She plucked out the tissue-wrapped tongue. “This isn’t just a thing you can attach a price tag to. It belonged to someone, saint or not. Someone spoke with this, kissed with it, ate with it.”

“It’s a tongue,” her mother said flatly. “We all have them, but very few are worth a villa.”

“That’s not… What I mean is… What about my drawers? What if, centuries from now, someone digs me up and sells off my pieces? What if I’m all that’s left of modified humans, and someone sticks me in their personal vault, and the world never knows.”

“Most people stay in the ground, dear. The world never knows about them anyway.”

Amber pursed her lips. “I’m trying to say that one person doesn’t own history, and shouldn’t hide history. If people dig me up in the future, I don’t want to stay a secret.” I don’t want to be a secret now. I want people to accept that I’m part of this world, too.

“You’d rather be put on display, like a relic, is that what you’re saying? You think this man wanted his tongue set under glass for people to ogle?”

“If the ogling means they try to understand him, that they acknowledge him, acknowledge the part of history he represents…maybe. I don’t know. I can’t speak for him, I can only speak for me.”

“And speaking for yourself, you’re too good to help your father and me? You’re standing on awfully shaky moral high ground. Selling these treasures has kept you in good clothes, fed with good food — you’ve seen the world. And if you think ‘legitimate’ archaeologists like yourself don’t shove history away, you’re wrong. For every artifact you see in a museum, how many hundreds — thousands — are stuffed away in warehouses? We’re doing exactly what you want: this way, someone gets to appreciate the past. We save history from the dead-depths of university collections and government vaults.”

Amber waved the tongue pointedly. “This was in a damn church.”

Her mother shrugged. “A church where mods like yours are considered a deadly sin. Nobody’s perfect. Now, get dressed.” She slammed the door on her way out.

We save history,” Amber chuckled mirthlessly. She carefully placed the tongue back in her drawer. “Well, who’s going to save me?”

Her entire life, Amber had watched the news. They were always talking about her, even if they didn’t know it.

But in the last several years they’d stopped talking about her. No news updates, no new editorials or information spots. Nothing but the occasional rhetorical nod in a ‘somebody’s wrong on the Internet’ spew-fest.

She knew she should be pleased. She’d gotten away with it–she still had her drawers, and no one was suggesting they euthanize modified humans anymore. She was safe.

But safety meant disappearing. Being forgotten — like a dead language or a small tribe.

Modification is important. It happened. Its destruction happened. Why is everyone so eager to forget?

She’d drafted several letters to news stations, a few to her department head at the university, and a handful of blog articles she could post anonymously. She was just waiting for the day she’d be brave enough to break her silence and submit one of them.

But the truth was, she wasn’t brave. She’d never been brave. She didn’t know how to stand up to her parents — she was a grown woman, a professional, and still she helped them smuggle. She didn’t know how to tell her friends that, just because she’d told them about her drawers, it didn’t mean they were free to use them. These days her drawers concealed proof of her friends’ affairs, secret credit cards, and past-due statements.

She knew now that sharing her drawers didn’t equate love, but it was a difficult habit to grow past. Just like she knew hiding her drawers from the general public didn’t equate with normalcy.

How could she stand up to the world if she couldn’t stand up to the people she loved? How could she be sure that she wasn’t expunged from history if history was intent on forgetting her?

When Amber turned thirty-five, she gave herself a present. It was a painful present, a permanent present.

She took all her secrets and poured them into her drawers: her desire to know another modified human; her fear of being forgotten; her perpetual grief over her sterilization; her anger at her parents and her friends; her anger at herself; her anger at the world.

ink4And her deep love of the ancient, of the past.

And her love for her parents. Her love for herself.

Her love for the world.

Amber covered every inch of her drawers with beautiful, broken secrets. Secrets that she would ensure could not remain hidden forever.

In the years that followed, she tracked down the brooch she’d first carried–the one with the spider suspended in amber. The man who owned it became a good friend, and never asked to put anything in her drawers.

Ten years after that, Amber began to make funeral plans. Not for her parents, but for herself. She knew she still had long years ahead of her, but there were a lot of pieces to put into place if she was going to get the postmortem treatment she wanted.

Her death was important because her life was important.

She told her elderly parents about her plan, and they didn’t hate it. She showed them what she’d done to her drawers, and they cried.

They cried because, for the first time, they understood what they’d done to their daughter.

“We defaced you, we…” Her mother couldn’t get the words out. She dabbed at her weak, watery eyes with thin, shaking hands. “We were selfish.”

Amber took her mother’s hand. “Selfishness is very human.”

She told her colleagues at the university about her drawers. They wanted to tell the news, to let the public know that mods were still around.

But Amber knew it would mean little. The people of today wanted to forget mods. It was the people of tomorrow Amber needed to tell.

No one was sure what they’d find when they opened the Tomb of the Unknown Doctor.

Three centuries previous, a Brown University professor had been buried underneath Rhode Island Hall, home to the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology at the time. The individual’s name had been purposefully expunged from the record, though innumerable campus legends swirled around the possibilities. Instructions for the tomb’s opening were left at the university, carved in the stone of the tomb’s outermost wall. On the three-hundredth anniversary of its closing, the tomb was to be opened by three archaeology graduate students specializing in, of all things, ancient ink and tattooing.

One of the selected grad students went by Melissa, though Melissa wasn’t her real name. Her given name was attached to a rap sheet filled with ridiculous charges of self-mutilation, and she preferred to keep such absurdities to herself.

Ink was her life — was a part of her very soul–and though she was allowed to study it, her culture forbade her from using it to express herself the way she wanted. Tattooing was a nasty, backwards habit, they said. Only a barbarian would want to mark themselves for life.

Melissa wore long sleeves in public, even in the dead heat of mid-August. Whenever a cuff rode up she quickly tugged it back down, afraid the black spirals of her first self-applied tattoos might show. Friends and would-be-boyfriends who had accidentally seen her markings had all urged her to get help. They thought the artwork covering her body indicated mental illness.

What the ink represented was her lust for life, for memory. When Melissa looked in the mirror, all she saw was beauty. A beauty that connected her to thousands of years of history.

Now, Melissa sat in a darkened university lab over her lightbox — well after the building had officially closed for the evening — studying captures from the CT scan taken of the mummified body they’d found in the Tomb.

She and her team had expected tattoos, of course. Why else would the instructions call for such specific grad students? But this —

This was glorious.

The whole team had been present for the scanning, which had revealed rectangular, calcified structures within the corpse. That in itself was a major discovery. How could someone filled with compartments — moving compartments, like drawers — have survived? The organ displacement alone should have led to a stillbirth if the drawers were natural. The team suspected they weren’t, but until now, such extreme modifications were thought to have been a myth.

During the scan, Melissa had seen something unusual and kept it to herself. There were patterns on the inside of the drawers — the internal skin was almost black with it. The others thought the variations just the natural texture of the skin, but Melissa had her doubts.

Yes, the body had external tattoos, but nothing extensive or unusual for her time. Nothing that would have warranted the grad-student request.

So, what if the patterns weren’t natural?

Maybe she’d been selfish to keep the notion to herself. It didn’t matter now.

Holding a magnifying glass over the first cellulose slide, Melissa squinted. There — was that swooping line a letter? Could it be script?

She could have turned on a holo-table to take her notes digitally, but instead she grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil.

She sketched the lines without looking, hoping they’d appear more familiar in her own hand. Yes, yes — that was an S — not just an S, a whole word. Yes, yes!

Frantically, she transcribed all she could make out. Some of it appeared to be garbled nonsense; they’d need better images to decipher it. But some she could clearly read.

It’s a memoir, she realized. This woman, this unknown professor, had tattooed her life story on the inside of her drawers.

Melissa worked all night, giddy with the discovery.

“But, what’s your name?” Melissa asked the cellulose.

After a long while, the mummy divulged the secret.

As the sun’s rays slipped in through the lab windows, Melissa’s inhibitions dissolved away. This woman was as marked on the inside as Melissa was on the outside. They were two sides of the same skin; sisters-in-spirit separated by centuries.

Slowly, Melissa stood and strode away from the lightbox, toward the morning glow. With each step she shed an article of clothing, leaving fabric scattered across the floor like flower petals. When she reached the windowpane, she looked down at herself. A myriad of black marks — depicting everything from her mother’s smiling face, to a silhouetted flock of starlings, to the Chinese character for eternal — stared back.

This body is for all the people who have been used, then forgotten, stated a portion of the memoir she’d transcribed. For all of those history overlooks or chooses not to remember. It is a symbol of every inconvenient historical fact, every dirty secret and every ‘dangerous’ life.

“Thank you, Amber,” Melissa whispered.

It were as though the long-dead professor had given Melissa her blessing–as though somehow she’d known that the future would continue to forge secret-people who lived secret lives.

“Rest easy,” Melissa said. “We will not be forgotten.”

end-of-story-nov

marinaMarina J. Lostetter’s original short fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Flash Fiction Online.  Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex.  Marina enjoys globetrotting, board games, and all things art-related.  She tweets as @MarinaLostetter, and her official website can be found at www.lostetter.net.  She’d like to give a special thank you to SB Divya for providing the prompt that became this story’s title.

 

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Dustbaby, by Alix E. Harrow

There were signs. There are always signs when the world ends.

In the winter of 1929, Imogene Hale found her well-water turned to viscous black oil, which clotted to tar by the following Monday. A year later, my Uncle Emmett’s fields came up in knots of blue-dusted prairie grass rather than the Silver King sweetcorn he seeded. Fresh-paved roads turned pock-marked and dented as the moon. Tractor oil hardened to grit and glitter, like ground glass.

dust01In 1932, the dust began to blow and it never stopped. That was the only sign the rest of the world seemed interested in, especially once some of our dirt rained on Mr. Roosevelt’s head in D.C. and turned his morning milk an ugly pinky-brown. Then it was suddenly a bona fide Natural Disaster. Newspapers all over the country worried about THE BLACK BLIZZARDS OF THE MIDWEST, and asked WILL WE BE NEXT?

The newspapers didn’t mention the tractor oil or the bad seed. They didn’t say how sometimes you looked south through the haze and saw pale green hills where there weren’t hills before, like distant cities made of moss, and felt a strange pressing on your limbs as if some vast, unseen force were pushing you away from the land you worked. I guess they didn’t believe it. I don’t blame them. I barely believed it myself.

Until I found you, babygirl. Until you came back to me.

Now, I know people find babies sometimes and it doesn’t mean the world’s ending. It usually just means some poor girl found herself in a bad way and made her child a raft of reeds and floated him downriver, or left him on a doorstep. Babies are pretty ordinary in the grand scheme of things.

But she wasn’t ordinary. I was walking the field—field being a relative term, nobody in their right mind could’ve seen those scraggled stalks sticking up from the ground like dry-rotted teeth and recognized it for a field—and there she was. Naked as a turnip, the color of dust. Nestled among the broken wheat like she’d grown there all spring, sage-bright eyes waiting just for me.

I had time to think oh, babygirl, I missed you, and then I was back home, kneeling on the floor, clutching her to my chest and heaving with hurt. My tears caked into salted mud on my cheeks. Where they landed on her cinnamon skin they seeped like rain into cracked earth.

Babygirl, I missed you. Why did you go? I carried you seven long months, right below my heart, and then you up and left me before I could even give you a name. And I was all alone with nothing for company but this damn dust that chatters and whispers to me in my sleep.

In D.C. all those smart folks and science-types got together and published a thin blue pamphlet that said exactly why our dirt had risen up like a great red ghost and whistled away from us. They used words like “dryland farming” and “over-plowed,” and I’m no great shakes at reading but I know when I’m being blamed for the end of the world. Like we should’ve known better than to plant our wheat right in the belly of the country, and harvest and plow and plant again, like we’d been warned and this was God’s own retribution for our arrogance.

Horseshit, Uncle Emmett would say. The rain follows the plow, that’s what they said when he came west to farm his plot of prairie grass and bluestem. He plowed and plowed and the rain stopped coming, and now the people follow the rain.

The pamphlet also gave us a five step system to prevent further erosion. John and I tried our best to follow the directions, and so did our neighbors. When your fields stand barren and the wind whispers ugly truths in your ears and all your fresh milk goes sour overnight, there’s not much you won’t try.

1. Terrace Your Fields! Have you ever tried to pile dust into terraces? It’s like building a sandcastle out of sugar in a windstorm.

2. Irrigate Regularly! We laughed and laughed when we read that one, John and me. We shook our fists at the hazed orange sky and advised it to irrigate regularly. But John’s laughter turned to coughing, and we fell into silence that wasn’t silence because even on a clear day you heard the dust shush-shushing over the ground.

3. Build Windbreaks! John tried. I helped, but I was pretty far along by then and he didn’t like to see me hauling pallets in the noon heat, leaning them against our old fence line. Get gone, he told me, in that false-rough way of his. That’s what I liked about him the first time I set eyes on him—he had that stoic, hardscrabble jaw, like every other man in western Kansas, but John’s eyes were laughing eyes. Bull-thistle blue, crimped in brown lines at their edges.

The next morning our windbreaks were splintered and scattered, strewn across the land in queer jagged shapes. We didn’t try again.

4. Let the Land Rest! We figured that was another way of saying: Leave. The soil you remember, the soil you used to run your fingers through like wet black coffee grounds when you were a girl, has gone away and you ought to follow it. I wish we had. I wish John and I and our babygirl were lying in an orange grove in south Georgia, and the world was bright green and blue like it is on the label of FAULTLESS BRAND FRUIT SALAD.

5. Keep Your Chin Up! There is nothing more galling in the world than somebody better off than you telling you to keep your chin up. Imagine Mr. Ford pausing beside the bread line and advising those poor hungry-eyed bastards to keep their chins up. I cursed a blue streak the first time I read it.

The second time, I took a match to it and tossed the ashes into the wind. Maybe it ended up back in the East and turned the President’s milk char-black.

That was after John drowned in the blood and mud of his own lungs. It was the middle of a storm, one of the boiling black ones that lasted days, so I just sat and sat at the kitchen table because there was nowhere to go, no one to tell, nothing but the sound of dust slithering like a great snake across the tin. I hoped it would slide down through the rafters and swallow me whole.

I should’ve remembered to eat, babygirl. I know that now. I should’ve slept. I should have curled around the tiny flutter of your heart and kept you safe and stopped the bleeding, and when you slid red and purple-white into the world, small as a crow, I should have fought for you. Instead I just sat, dizzy and dull, listening to the dust.

But you came back to me. I don’t know how because I buried you and John deep as I could in the hardpan, but maybe the ones we love best come back to us. Maybe John is walking towards me right now, out of those distant green hills.

dust02


Charity Glover and the ladies of the Baptist Women’s Union of Ulysses arrived at some ungodly hour the next morning to check up on me. The way vultures like to check up on roadkill. They’d been coming once a week since the bad storm, clucking and shuffling and leaving pies with the crusts cut just so.

“Good morning, Mrs. Dawley,” chirped Charity. She always seemed to swallow the second half of the missus, like she still couldn’t believe I’d married a penniless tenant-farmer and she was giving me the chance to undo it now. “And how are we to—”

She saw the red-cotton bundle in my arms. One little fist waved cheerily at her. The ladies of the Baptist Women’s Union of Ulysses stood still as hens with a hawkshadow overhead.

“Where—oh, Selma, where did you get that baby?”

Did she think I’d stolen her? I knew they didn’t like me much, because I refused to join their club and only went to Church about every fifth or fifteenth Sunday, but Jesus H. “I found her.” I made my voice flat as cold iron.

The other women shuffled, but Charity was made of sterner stuff. “Where, dear?”

I found her in the dust, but she’s mine, I know she is—from dust to dust, isn’t that how it goes? “In the wheatfield. To the south.”

I watched her face, white as an undercooked pancake, turn whiter. All the trouble seemed to come up from the south, from those wavering green hills we tried to ignore.

Imogene Hale opened her mouth and closed it. She finally got out, “And just what do you intend to do with it?”

“I don’t see how that’s a damn bit of your business, Imogene,” I spat. That temper, John used to tell me, it’ll get you in trouble one day. I made myself smile in that softening way, like a woman overworked who just didn’t know what she’s saying, bless her heart. “I just mean she was left on my land, and that makes her my trouble.” They knew about the sovereignty of property lines. “I guess I intend to take care of her.”

Charity pasted a matching smile on her face. They fluttered amongst themselves and produced a pot pie and a jar of pickled beans in a basket. A little blue pamphlet stuck out of it like a flag. “You can get the basket back to me on Sunday,” said Charity. “And I noticed you didn’t come by the Post Office so I brought you the new Better Farming booklet. Read it close, now.”

They scampered back through the rust-colored yard and left us alone to watch the sun swim up from its bloody sea, dim and distant.

I should have asked about spare milk; I’d dried up weeks ago and the baby from the field wasn’t very interested in powdered milk warmed on the stove top. She’d howled until tiny tears gathered like dewdrops at the corners of her eyes and I’d given up in disgust with myself, a woman near thirty who didn’t know how to care for a baby.

She was mewling now. I repeated the powdered milk experiment inside. She spat it out, unrepentant eyes glowing scrub-green.

You must’ve got that anger from me, babygirl. Your Daddy would laugh and laugh if he were here.

I flipped through Better Farming: Strategies for Soil Conservation in the Drought-Affected Areas, rather than curl up on the floor and cry myself sick. The booklet was the same waste of ink and pulp it was before, but there were six steps now.

6. Don’t be afraid! However, should you encounter any unusual events or irregularities, DO NOT ENGAGE. Report them to your Extension Agent IMMEDIATELY.

Apparently somebody official, somebody with a nice corner office in a government building, believed in our portents. The horseshoes rusting to dust overnight, the apple trees turning to chalky stone, the green mirages in the south. And he didn’t like them much.

The wailing sharpened, burrowing like a bonesaw into my chest. A dull, pressing ache began in my breasts, thump-thumping with my heartbeat, and dampness dotted my dress like two tears. I unbuttoned, but it wasn’t cream-colored milk leaking from me. This liquid was clear as rainwater. I touched my fingers to my breast, licked the water from them—it tasted of low-hanging clouds and morning dew, the spring thunderstorms that no longer rolled across the flats. The baby watched with animal-hungry eyes. I pulled her to me, and she suckled like a fawn after a too-long night.

I watched the rainwater gathering at the corners of her red-earth lips and doubt came to me for the first time. She looked so alien, so inhuman, nothing at all like the baby I’d carried in my belly. Prairie-colored eyes flicked up to me, as if they were trying to tell me something, to send me some obscure message in an unfamiliar language.

No, no that isn’t so. You’re my babygirl. You just need to learn how to live here with me, in this dear, dry, dying world.

That Sunday I dressed her in a laced frock the color of old pearls. It made her dark skin seem darker, like dust after rain. (Do you like it? I made it for you, when you still lived beneath my heart.) I wore my best dress and we walked to town under a sky as blue and fragile as bird’s eggs. The wind rose around my ankles, hissing up from the south.

After John died I was a regular at Church, sitting in the back pew waiting for God to come down from his cloud-covered castle and explain why I’d lost my love and my firstborn. Isn’t that kind of thing usually reserved for His enemies? But He never arrived and I grew tired of the sweaty smell of desperation.

That day, I was just going for the pure spite of it. I wanted to show Charity and her hens I wasn’t afraid of them or their damn pamphlet, the way you’d stamp your foot to scare off hungry cats. I wanted to march in with my chin up and my eyes blazing and show them my babygirl, safe in my arms.

I lingered in the open doorway just long enough for heads to crane around, for silence to flutter like a white curtain around us. I smiled a brazen, biting smile with twenty extra teeth that didn’t belong in Church. The heads flicked back towards the pulpit, except for one old man with a bright ring of white hair. Uncle Emmett. I didn’t look at him as I passed.

We sat in the very front pew. In my arms, the baby shifted and tugged in discomfort. Her back arched against my arms. I tried to look like a good mother, with the kind of child who didn’t drink rainwater, whose eyes weren’t green and distant as the hills.

By the time Preacher Jacob stumped his way to the front and began his usual list of announcements, he was speaking over a discontented whine issuing from my arms. He ignored it. Preachers are good at turning their cheeks away from you.

“Now, folks—” He always slipped a “folks” somewhere towards the beginning of his sermons, like a politician. “It seems to me that it’s time to talk about the battle each and every one of us is fighting, against our great enemy—the one great enemy, he who Peter called a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” I felt the congregation lean towards him like moths to a match.

The baby squirmed more forcefully in my arms.

“But I fear we do not see the lion, even as he stalks among us. We see his works and call them uncanny, or strange, or irregular. We dismiss them. But I would remind you that there are only TWO POWERS IN THIS WORLD—” His audience rippled in pleasurable shock, “—yes, that’s right, ONLY TWO POWERS. There is OUR LORD GOD ALMIGHTY, and there is our ENEMY.”

Eyes pressed against the back of my head. The baby wailed. I wished we were both curled in our quilts at home.

The preacher turned slowly until he faced me. From the first pew I could see the dampness of his hands clamping the lectern, his pupils like distant dead stars, but I imagined it looked more impressive from further away. “And I advise us now to PUT ON THE WHOLE ARMOR OF GOD, that we may STAND AGAINST THE WILES OF THE DEVIL—”

And my babygirl let out a sound like a screech owl at midnight. A wild, fey sound that made every hair stand on end. I stood and walked as fast as a woman can walk without running, eyes burning me like lit cigarettes as I passed.

The wind outside was already meaner and grittier, the fragile blue of the sky rotting to a crusted old-blood color. The door opened and someone shuffled out.

“Selma.”

I wanted to ignore him, or spit in his wrinkled walnut face. But Uncle Emmett was the first one to come by the house after that black storm. He found a ragged husk of a woman lying in the field beside two fresh-dug graves, certain the world had already ended. Instead of hollering for help, he sat down in the dust with me and kept vigil until dusk. Until I decided I didn’t want to die of stubbornness, clinging to the dead bones of the world I’d loved. Until I decided only cowards believed in the end of the world. I owed him for that.

“Selma, don’t you mind Preacher Jacob and his malice.”

“I don’t.”

“Well.” He stepped forward, peered into the blankets to see her springtime eyes watching him solemnly. “As it happens, I think he’s got it wrong this time. I don’t think either of the two powers he was talking about made the dust rise, or sent this baby. Which means there’s some third power. An old, strange one.”

“And here I thought you were a Christian.”

“After a fashion. But what was here before we brought Christ? Just a dead, empty grassland, without a miracle in sight? Horseshit.” I’d never much worried what was here before me, or what came after. “I think whatever was here before—the buffalo, the lions and jack rabbits, Coyote himself—is tired of being forgot. Tired of being plowed and planted and plowed again without so much as a thank you, tired of fence lines and railroad tracks slicing her up like a goddamn jigsaw puzzle. And she’s setting it right.”

He nodded at the white-lace bundle in my arms. “And I figure she’s a part of it, someway or another.”

“No, she isn’t.” Don’t you listen to him, all right babygirl? I know you left me once, all alone except for the old-penny smell of my own blood, but you came back to me and you just haven’t learned yet how to be tame, how to be real. “She’s my daughter. John’s daughter.”

His weathered-wood hand touched my elbow. “What’s her name then, Selma? Call her by her right name.”

She didn’t have a name because I never gave her one, but—

I remembered saying her name long before she was born, when my belly was a soft swell. Bad luck, John said, but he didn’t mean it and I kissed him where his eyes crinkled into crow’s feet. I’d named her, used a bent nail to scratch it into the cross over her grave—

I looked south where the once-green horizon boiled like black tar.

“You better get in there and tell them, Emmett. The dust is rising.”

dust03I ran and the dust ran behind me, shuddering over the dry fields and tossing the earth into the air, playful and cruel as a cat. Red and black swirled around us. I looked down to see her face bright and wild in the wind, her mouth opening to the dust and letting in pour in, her arms waving as though the dirt were a part of her own queer world and she was glad to see it.

Oh Lord, what are you?

The house was dark, the windows alive with black whorls of dust, faint clouds filtering soft as snow through every crack. I laid her on the bed and began the feverish ritual of tying curtains closed and jamming pillows against the door jams, feeling my mouth turn to mud. When I finished we were a pair of pill bugs curled in the dark with the air stale and hot around us.

I know your name, don’t I?

I used to whisper your name as I watered my little kitchen garden, my line of coffee cans trying to protect the soft green shoots in their bellies. I said it as I fell asleep on black nights when every single star was eaten up by dust. I said it to you, do you remember it? I called you—

Her eyes were locked on mine, green with secrets and the silhouettes of cities on the horizon.

“Helena,” I tried to say, but the word tangled in my throat like a calf in barbed wire. It thrashed and fell still.

You’re not my babygirl, are you?

My babygirl died. I remember her tiny chest in my palm, shuddering up and down before the terrible, choking stillness. I remember wiping the blood and fluid off her arms, frail as sparrow wings, and tucking her in an old JC Penny box because I didn’t have anything else.

Helena was her name.

You don’t have a name. You’re not her.

Grief, in my experience, is a lot like dust. It turns food gritty and sour, it sifts onto your pillow as you sleep and burrows into every pore of skin, and you can never truly be rid of it. For a little while I thought I’d finally escaped it—I thought my babygirl came back—but I was wrong.

At dawn I found myself beached on the bed with the dust baby beside me, wet-lipped and watchful.

She blinked at me, solemn as a saint. The dust that settled on her dark limbs in the night was damp, as if she slept beneath a gentle patter or rain. She smelled of the springtimes of my childhood, walking through the fields and feeling the greenness of each wheat stalk unfurling beneath the soil.

She didn’t look much like the end of the world. She was too vital, too alive, and her eyes were pressing at me again as if there were some wordless message she wanted me to read, or an offer she extended.

I rolled away and pulled against the front door until it shhhhed through a drift of glittering dust and hung crooked against the light. The world outside had been remade in the night, sculpted into brown and red hills that shimmered dully in the dawn, beautiful and strange as the surface of a dead planet. It took me a while before I noticed it.

Our old Allis-Chalmers tractor reduced to a few thin iron bones. The ends of my hoe and digging spade rusted to gray dust. The hinges on the door behind me eaten away. There wasn’t a single piece of iron left untouched. The wind had come hissing up from the south and gnawed the metal to dust. On the horizon, that strange green-tinged city shone more clearly than I’d ever seen it.

It was then that I believed, for the first time, the storms would never stop. No matter how many windbreaks we built or how far up we kept our chins. Something out there—something old, something powerful—was through with us. It would peel us off the back of the land like a dog scratching away fleas, and the world would end.

But I’d decided once before, lying atop my husband’s grave and wishing I could sink through the earth to join him, that only cowards believed in the end of the world. It changes, sometimes brutally, and we can either change with it or die of stubbornness.

I stumbled back inside and curled again on the bed beside the dust baby. Is that it? Are we supposed to choose?

Maybe she was an ambassador sent from a neighboring country, offering one last chance for peace before the war. Perhaps if we learned to care for her, and for the wild, strange earth beneath our feet, things would come to a different end. The change might be less brutal. But I thought of Preacher Jacob, of the lean hate on the faces that turned towards me, and knew they’d made their choice.

And so had I.

I pulled the dust baby to me and unbuttoned my dress again. You’ll need that strength soon, dust baby. It won’t be long now.

It wasn’t. They came at dusk, a shambling crowd like a single many-legged beast trudging through the dust. I’d spent the day trailing my fingers over the familiar shapes of home, making furrows in the dust and staring south out my windows.

“Selma Dawley! We’d like a word!” Well, I could hardly lock them out, with no hinges or latch. “Bring that devil out with you.” I thought I recognized Mr. Glover’s voice. I bet Charity was standing at his elbow with her mouth all crimped up like a Christmas bow.

I gathered my few things and settled the dust baby into her crude sling. We faced them together, a horde with nothing left but a hot red thread of hate. Their farms had turned to deserts, their wells were dry, their tools had been eaten away in the night. People get mean, when their world ends.

Mr. Glover stepped towards me. I didn’t move. “Mrs. Dawley, I think you know why we’re here.” I did, but I wanted to hear somebody say it. Like a school ground dare. “We know that storm last night wasn’t natural. And that baby of yours, she isn’t either.” Mr. Glover floundered into silence. I looked for Uncle Emmett, but he wasn’t there. Good man. Somebody would surely tell him where I went, next day, and I pictured his wood-seamed face bending in hope.

Preacher Jacob bulled forward. I guess all that preaching gave him an aversion to silence. “We’re here to set it straight, to cast out our Enemy wherever he lives.” Nodding, shuffling, mean jaws clenching. “We’re calling on you to take that thing back where she came from. Right now.”

Well, they weren’t yet so red-eyed they’d swing an infant by her ankles and smash her skull against the doorframe, but they were teetering on the edge. They were all watching my face for something—rebellion or weakness or possibly Satanic possession—but they didn’t find anything.

I walked through them, barefoot out across the dust-drifted field, putting them at my back. Knobbled wheat stalks hid beneath the sliding dunes, turning my ankles beneath me. The wind tossed little handfuls of dust in my face. The baby in my arms waved her arms in unseemly delight.

Soon the townsfolk were nothing but smudged blurs behind me, wind-blown mirages like the city on the horizon. I passed the little hollow where I’d found the dust baby, but I didn’t stop.

You don’t even have a name. I gave my daughter a name—HELENA DAWLEY, 1934, it says above her grave—but it didn’t save her. Names are just prayers mothers make to the future, that the world will keep spinning on its axis, undying, for as long as you live.

It will, Dustbaby. I didn’t look back. Not once. You only look back if you’re leaving something behind, and all I was leaving was a dead world of neat-planted wheat rows and combines and fresh-paved roads lying like ropes across the land. We’d thought it would last forever. We’d thought we could plow the wild out of the west and build our lives from its sun-bleached bones.

But the wildness slid beneath the thin crust of cornrows and tractor tines, the way prairie fires sometimes dove down into the earth and burned unseen, waiting for months or years before rising and turning the sky red with its heat. I didn’t know what might grow back after the burning, only that I meant to rise from those ashes.

Don’t be afraid! Isn’t that what the pamphlet said?

The blue-green horizon in the south grew clearer and stranger as we walked towards it. The air smelled wild, like mud and stars. The dust beneath my feet began to feel cool and damp, with that almost-vibration that means live things burrowed and crawled and oozed somewhere beneath the surface. Tiny white flowers dotted the earth like constellations. One night, it rained.

They were signs. There are always signs, when the world changes.

end_of_story

Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow

ALIX E. HARROW recently resettled in her old Kentucky home, where she teaches African and African American history, reviews speculative fiction on her blog and at Strange Horizons, and tinkers with fiction. She and her partner spend their time rescuing their gloriously dilapidated home from imminent collapse, and accumulating books and animals.

 

Return to Shimmer #27Become a Sparkly Badger

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. Harrow

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. HarrowIsa died in a sudden suffocation of boiling blood and iron cinder in her mouth; she returned to herself wearing a blue cotton dress stained with fresh tobacco. She was younger and leaner, as she’d been when she first met Leslie Bell. Her skin shone dark and warm without the black dust of the mill ground into it.

After death, ghosts are sculpted like cold clay into the shapes they wore when they were most alive. Some people are taken awfully by surprise. Women whose whole lives were about their husbands and homes are, without warning, precisely as they were when they met a stranger’s eyes on a crowded streetcar. Men who had the kinds of careers that involved velvet-lined train cars and cigar smoke are suddenly nine years old, running their spectral fingers through the tall grasses and thinking of nothing at all.

Isa wasn’t surprised by the blue cotton dress. She had always known what she was about.

She came back to herself, with a feeling like hot wire being drawn through the die, in the rusty gravel on the west side of the Sparrows Point steel mill. She was disoriented for a moment, used to seeing the mill like a distant map below her from the top of Betty the blast furnace: the glowing arcs of welders and the arterial railways pumping coal and ore and sand and coke through the mill, and the distant rows of clapboard homes where her daughters waited for The Adventures of Superman to come on the radio at 5:15.

The foreman was coming up the road towards the mill with his white arms resting across the shoulders of two young, dark girls. Isa’s children. Oh, she hated the weight of that arm on her daughters’ perfect shoulders. Vesta—tall, brave Vesta, who fried eggs every morning for her little sister before school—walked like a person who had lost the trick of it. Effie’s oversize lunch pail banged against the side of her leg with every step. Their faces were like stones, or the faces of children who have lost their mother and father, and seen the red-hot maw of the world open up beneath their feet.

Isa already knew, but her daughters’ faces told her she was truly dead and could never hold her children again. The rage and pain and wishing-away of it swallowed her whole and she lost track of herself for a while.

Ghosts don’t linger, much. A few days of strolling through the world, which is much too loud and bright, then the dirt calls them down to trickle amongst the low, burrowing things to lose the boundaries of themselves in the rich smell of rot. Some stay, in the name of love or vengeance, but most people are pragmatists at heart, and lay themselves down to rest.

Isa lingered. Leslie used to call her mule-headed. Some parts of herself frayed and tattered when she died—the taste of grits with molasses on them, the way her daughter’s tight-braided hair felt beneath her palm—but not the mule-headedness.

weldThat first night she stayed so close to her daughters they felt a constant, humid chill down their necks. She walked beside them as they returned to their home, identical to a hundred other homes in Sparrows Point: a single, dirty box with a bare bulb dangling in the center, a leaky parlor stove in the corner. She touched the tears on Effie’s face with moth-wing fingers. She followed Vesta to the back stoop where, unwatched by her younger sister, she beat her fists on the stones and tore her tight braids lose. When her children finally closed their eyes in the center of the rope bed they shared, she lay down and slipped her arms around them. Effie shivered and burrowed further beneath the blankets.

Isa told herself she would only stay through that first terrible night. But dawn found her in the kitchen running frictionless fingers across the parlor stove, wanting badly to fall into the morning rhythm of coal and cooking. She pulled at the stove door, but she was a breeze blowing against a rusted-iron mountain, and it remained closed.

She pulled harder. The faint edges of her fingers frayed and spooled, half-slipping into the door, and she felt every humped weld and fractured seam in the parlor stove before it creaked obediently open.

She ripped away from it, reeling, and her other hand landed in the bowl of eggs on the counter. Beneath her weightless palms, the eggs rotted in their shells.

She did not touch anything else that morning, but huddled on a kitchen chair remembering the sweet slipping-away of her hands into the iron, feeling both fragile and dangerous.

Vesta rose and fixed breakfast, casting suspicious glances at the open stove and the faintly graying eggs. When her sister set a tin plate of grits in front of her, Effie burst into sudden, loud sobs.

“Effie. Effie, listen honey.” Vesta sounded so much like her mother that Isa’s hands shook. “Persephone.” The occult power of her full name stopped her.

Vesta sat and pulled her sister’s gangling legs into her lap, and spoke to her in a tone that no fifteen-year-old should have to use and no nine-year-old should have to hear. “Listen: Momma and Daddy are both dead, and it’s just us two girls left. But we can’t sit around and bawl about it, can we?” Effie’s expression said she didn’t see why not.

“No, we can’t,” Vesta continued. “Remember what Momma did when they came to tell us about Daddy? She made biscuits and swept the floor and combed our hair.” And then she’d gone to the common privy and vomited until she had nothing left in her but bile and despair. Some of the neighbor women fluttered as though they might say something, but she bared her teeth at them like a feral creature and they’d all remembered things they had to rush home and tend.

“That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pack our lunches and go to school and come home and make beans and a hambone for dinner.” And, because they were each trying so fiercely for the other, that’s what they did.

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. HarrowIsa stayed in the house. She couldn’t wash their dishes or fold their nightgowns, flung across the bed with the abandon of children who haven’t yet realized there’s no one left to pick up after them. But she could murmur to Effie’s cat—a slinking, ugly animal that only a nine-year-old could think was pretty, alternately named Lord Snowflake or Dustbucket depending on the quantity of coal grit in his fur. He wound himself around Isa’s ankles, purring with the conviction of a former stray. He didn’t seem to mind that she was dead. Cats have never seen the allure of the dualistic philosophies that plague humans, and some of our most cherished divisions—between right and wrong, life and death, rodents which are acceptable to kill and songbirds which are apparently not—seem rather arbitrary to them. She stroked him, and pulled her thoughts away from the dark, Southern earth that called her.

In the early afternoon, Isa went to the edge of the bay and waited for Leslie’s ghost to come home to her across the ocean. She wondered if war had changed him, and if he’d died with one of her letters in his breast pocket.

Yellow-gray steam boiled out of the mill and hung over the Liberty ships bobbing in the bay like deadly toys. She saw the ships the way a surgeon might see a person, looking through their steel skins to the skeletons of beams and welds running through their bodies. Isa wondered if the men who went to war saw the labor of their wives and sisters in the steel around them. She wondered if their labor was winning the war and saving their soldiers, the way the posters said, or if it was all just coal tossed into the ravenous belly of war.

Leslie did not come.

She went to the bay every afternoon for days or maybe weeks; time is a humped and lurching thing for ghosts. Effie’s cat followed her, genially acknowledging the other ghosts they passed. Isa recognized some of them easily, but many of them were unfamiliar to her as their past selves. Few people were at their best in Sparrows Point; most of them had traded away the smell of summer rain on the fields for the heat and stink and incredible noise of the mill town, on the promise of a regular paycheck. Most of them dreamed of going home.

Isa dreamed too, during the long nights when she lay weightless beside her daughters. But ghosts only dream of the past.

She dreamed of her first day in the mill, hired because the foreman liked the way her shoulders pushed against the seams of her dress and the unfashionable shortness of her hair. “Just about like hiring a man, isn’t it Sissy?”

He clapped her on the back and led her to a group of other new women, and spoke to them all about the war and the state of the nation and the sacrifices everyone had to make. He handed out aprons and warned them that long hair, fingernails, and jewelry were safety hazards. Isa touched her locket, a tarnished heart containing three ebony curls of hair, and tucked the chain beneath her collar.

At first, they put her in the black places below the ground, shoveling coal. She became a sweating, muscled beast in the center of a labyrinth, trying to shovel her way out of the dark. Her dreams of that time were scattered and clogged with coal dust.

Moving up to the top gang was rising out of the underworld into spring. “This here is Betty, the biggest blast furnace in the East.” The woman training her was short and gap-toothed, with dark rings around her eyes where her goggles sat. Later, Isa would find out that her name was Mary and she was from Lewisburg and her twin brother was a mess man on the USS West Virginia and they would be friends.

“Listen, this is the truth: Betty Grable might keep our boys happy when they’re over there with nothing but a couple of pin-ups, but our Betty is the one that saves their goddamn lives.” Isa could tell it was a worn joke, but Mary was proud of it.

She worked years on the top gang, climbing up and down Betty’s vast, many-tentacled body twice a day. They kept the vents clean and the charger rolling and they skimmed the flammable dust off every surface. They couldn’t speak to each other, with their faces buried in the rubber and metal of gas masks and the roar of the furnace deafening them, but they learned to read the language of each other’s bodies. When the wind blew the smog out over the bay and cleared the sky, when she and her team worked in a perfect dance of sinew and iron on top of the world, Isa was happy.

Often, Isa dreamed of Mary’s accident: Mary leaning over the hatch of the northernmost stove, hauling it open—a sheet of blue-white flame, Mary’s screams just audible over the mill’s grinding thunder. Mary came back to work with her left arm a black and pink mass of lumped scar. One-handed, she was only good as a tin-flopper or a record-keeper.

Isa met Mary for lunch on her first day back and neither of them said a word about it. The foreman strolled by and thumped Mary on the back and told her she was a real trooper, and left a Moon Pie on the bench “in case she was homesick.”

Mary unwrapped the pie from its filmy plastic. Then she crushed it, methodically, beneath her boot. She said, calmly, “Goddamn them all to hell, Isa. They want you to think we’re serving God and country—and an old white man who sure as hell isn’t any uncle of ours. But we’re just serving Mr. Eugene Grace and his ten thousand foremen, always patting us on the goddamn back and calling us his girls. And you want to know the part that eats me up at night? Soon as my brother comes home they’ll boot me and my bum arm right out and I’ll never see a fair wage or the top of Betty again.”

Isa didn’t say anything. “Ah, you already know it. I know you do. This place swallows us whole and spits out bones.”

The rest of her dreams were of Leslie, and the girls when they were young.

weldpull2Leslie did not come.

If Leslie could have come to her, he would have. It wasn’t something Isa believed about her husband, the way wives believe their husbands never look at other women or won’t drink up their paychecks, but something she knew about him and her and the shape of the thing between them. It was like knowing which way was north, or how much buttermilk to add to the biscuit dough.

She worried that death in battle was different, and Leslie’s ghost had been ripped asunder. But steel was war, too, and her death was surely no less violent and fiery and brave than his. Or maybe he’d gotten lost in the unfamiliar shapes of a foreign landscape.

But Leslie never got lost. If he could have come to her, he would have, and no oceans or continents could ever have stopped him. And so, no matter what those typewritten letters had said, shining up from the page like tiny, blackened bones, Isa knew her husband wasn’t dead.

The rush of elation and deepest sorrow almost unmade her—and oh, how sweetly the earth whispered to her, tempted her—but she snatched the fraying edges of herself and ran. She had always been long-legged, but now her steps ate up the ground in the weightless bounds of a doe. She passed children playing unattended on their stoops and laundry hung out to dry, absorbing the hot stink of coal smoke. Then she was outside the school, a sagging clapboard rectangle at the edge of the white neighborhood. Children poured down the steps.

Vesta held Effie’s hand in hers and did not look left or right. Isa fell in beside them, reaching reflexively to straighten their stiff collars and tuck away stray hairs before she stopped herself.

“Vesta and Persephone Bell?” The voice was clipped and northern. A white woman in a brown khaki dress stood in front of the girls. Everything from her square handbag to her narrow eyes said she had the authority of state behind her. Vesta regarded her with a flat, unimpressed stare which, if she hadn’t been fifteen years old, would have sliced right through the woman.

She only readjusted her round glasses. “Your parents were Leslie and Isa Bell, residents of Turner Station on Sparrows Point?” The past tense jarred Isa, but Vesta nodded.

“I’m Mrs. Patterson. I’m here to speak with you about your future now that your parents are at rest. Would you both please step back inside—”

Effie interrupted in a dangerous, chirpy tone that Isa knew very well. “Oh, Momma and Daddy aren’t resting anywhere, Miss Patty. Both their bodies got burned right up.” The woman blinked. “Well, we don’t know about Daddy—they said he was missing after a air raid. But Momma died cleaning the dust out from under the blast furnace. Couple hundred pounds of red-hot dust came down on her—poof. We didn’t get her body neither.”

Isa felt a sudden depth of sympathy for the state worker, whose mouth had fallen slightly open. In a certain mood, Effie could provoke preachers to cuss and sweet-natured dogs to bite. The woman gathered herself, and ushered Vesta and Effie back up the steps into the school. Isa drifted after them, a worried shadow in blue cotton.

The trio arranged themselves around a teacher’s boxy metal desk. The state worker explained to the girls that it had taken a while for their situation to become clear to the office, because their mother’s death wasn’t reported in a timely fashion. But they were legally orphans and couldn’t continue living on their own in company housing. They would come with her into the city to live as wards of the state. As a younger girl, Effie would be sent to St. Mary’s—

“Ma’am, it seems to me that some of your facts are wrong.” Vesta’s tone was mature, cool. “I turned eighteen in March, and I’m Effie’s next of kin, so we don’t need to go anywhere.” Vesta was tall and broad-shouldered like her mother, and a few hungry years in her childhood had taken the roundness out of her face and limbs. She passed easily for eighteen.

The woman squinted at her, and ruffled through her folders. “I’m quite sure we have your correct age down in our records, Miss Bell. And since when do eighteen-year-olds go to school?”

“Well, I never had a birth certificate because Momma had me at home on the kitchen floor. So I don’t know that you do have my correct age down in your records, unless you were in Pulaski County Kentucky in 1926.” Isa rested her insubstantial hand on Vesta’s shoulder. Vesta sat even straighter. “And I got held back in school. I didn’t learn real well.” Clever Vesta. It was never hard to convince white folk that you were stupid.

“Well.” Mrs. Patterson’s ruffling continued, increasingly random. “Well, that doesn’t mean you get to keep living in worker housing, does it? That’s for workers, isn’t it Miss Bell?”

“Yes, ma’am. I work at the mill four nights a week, sorting scrap.” The lies tripped off her tongue with military precision. “Now, I thank you kindly for your time this evening, Mrs. Patterson, but I’ve got to get home and start supper.” Vesta pulled Effie with her out the door and left Mrs. Patterson and her folders in the empty classroom.

It was hard, that night, for Isa to keep herself from spooling away. Leslie would come home soon and take care of their girls, and she was so very tired. But the grim line of Vesta’s jaw as she stalked out of the school and the stubborn way she held Effie’s hand kept Isa rooted, waiting. She made restless circles through the house, trailing her fingers across familiar objects, almost dissolving into the delicious warp and weft of Leslie’s favorite shirt folded on the dresser.

Vesta got out of bed when the whistle blew for the end of third shift. Effie curled into the warm place she left. Vesta pulled on her mother’s coveralls still stiff with grime and buttoned the collar below her chin. They were big on her, but not very. She tied a faded yellow kerchief around her head, scribbled a note on an old envelope, and left. Vesta paused to pet the cat curled on the stoop, but his eyes followed Isa’s spectral shadow hovering behind her. Vesta frowned over her shoulder, but saw nothing.

A sound had begun in Isa’s head like a claxon or a scream. She no longer had a pulse, but it beat in her temples as she followed Vesta along the rutted road to the mill. She joined the stream of workers pouring towards the punch clocks and pushed with them against the third shifters still trickling out. Isa was nothing but a chill along their backs and a flash of despair.

Vesta found the foreman’s office and slid inside.

“You’re Isa Bell’s oldest, aren’t you?” He was unsurprised. “What can I do for you?” His eyes sketched the strong outline of Vesta’s shoulders with something like greed. Isa stepped between him and her daughter. Neither of them noticed.

“Mr. Everton, I’d like to take my Momma’s place in the mill. If it’s open.”

“Well now, it might be. But not for anybody scared of hard work, or girls who can’t tough it out. We make steel, here, and steel is war.” There was something unshakable in his voice that reminded Isa of the preacher back home, except the foreman’s gods were profit and progress and the roar of the ceaseless mill.

“No little girls here, Mr. Everton. I’ll work.” He told her to show up for second shift and talk to a woman with a crippled arm on the main floor. Vesta left, while Isa’s ghost ripped through the foreman’s office like a furious, feeble tornado. A few papers fluttered gently off his desk. In a last flash of futile hate, she ran her hands over his stash of canned sardines and chocolate bars. They rotted in their wrappings.

This place swallows us whole and spits out bones.

Rage no longer possessed Isa, but perched heavily on her shoulder like a red-eyed crow. Plenty of young girls went to work when their fathers were at war and their mothers were dead or sick or busy drinking and trying to remember why they’d ever come to this terrible yellow-gray town on the bay. Plenty of girls did it, but not Vesta. Not Vesta, who had read her mother’s copy of Metamorphoses in fourth grade and whispered the stories to her sister beneath their quilts. Not Vesta, who cried when her father took the smaller portion of beans and gave her the last of the milk. Every woman in the mill was somebody’s child, but Vesta was Isa’s child.

weldpull3Isa would be damned if any child of hers would work in that mill. When Leslie came home, he’d find his two daughters whole and healthy and still in school, unscarred by the spatter of welders or the slower poisons of gas and steam. That was the reason for all of it.

Why else had Leslie and Isa gone to war with the world, trading away muscle and blood and the late-summer smell of tobacco curing in the barn—if not for their daughters? Hate and fear sent some people to the front lines and blast furnaces, but love sent far more.

The dirt had been waiting for Isa for a long while now, and it was growing impatient. It sang her songs about moss and loam and the sweetness of falling apart.

But Isa was listening for a different song, a song that groaned and grated in a thousand iron voices about never-ending shifts and coal trains that never stopped coming. She knew it very well, had heard it waking and sleeping since she left her home in Kentucky. It was the steel mill’s song, and Isa leaned into it. She pretended it was the good earth she sank into instead of a city of machines. She let herself fray and slip away, remembering the way her hand sank into the parlor stove. The blue cotton dress tattered and her long legs grew thin and faint and then she was nothing at all.

When she opened her eyes, she was the steel mill at Sparrows Point.

Her blood vessels were railways pumping coke and scrap. Her skull was made of brick offices and punch clocks, her lungs were heaving combustion stoves, her bones were ore. Her heart was Betty, beating and burning at the center of the machine, and across her skin, in every organ, ten thousand men and women toiled. Every skittering spark from every welder permeated her. Mary leaned against her on lunch break, struggling one-handed to unsnap her apron. The foreman clomped amongst the women in his heavy boots.

All ghosts operate under the same set of laws: They have a short time to exist, a voice that can’t be heard, and an uncompromising terminus. Much the same as the living. But laws last precisely as long as people follow them, and not a second longer. Every now and then, out of desperation or desire or pure mule-headedness, somebody stops following them. So Isa Bell didn’t go down into the clay and minerals beneath her feet. She became a steel mill.

Amid the grinding and roaring vastness of her body, there wasn’t much left of Isa-the-woman or Isa-the-mother. But there was just enough that she worried for the ten thousand people inside her, working in the soot and steam for their families. They would never leave, because Isa-the-mill was a city that never truly slept, a city that required an army of men and women every hour of every day, an unceasing thing.

A Whisper in the Weld by Alix E. HarrowSo, Isa-the-mill ceased. She had died once before, and was familiar with the seizing of organs and limbs required. All the hundreds and hundreds of motions of the mill stopped. Trains drifted to a halt in the middle of their lines with their engines gone cold and black. Molten slag ceased to flow from the casting holes and orange-hot metal turned dull and ashen in its vats. Crane loads of scrap hung suspended in the air as though they’d forgotten where they were headed.

People boiled out of her like ants from a nest. At first they shouted and swore, mostly at each other, but then a fearful bafflement settled over them. Cautiously they tried to rekindle fires and flipped switches on and off, but Isa stayed still and dark. It didn’t take very long before the company became aware that it was paying a smallish city of people to stand and stare. Everyone was crushed through the punch clock and sent home with instructions to listen for the whistle. While the foremen called their bosses and the bosses called in experts, Isa became the ghost-town of a mill.

She was tired the way only a ghost who has stayed too long is tired, and forgetting herself in the smell of coal and iron. But Isa remained a woman who got on with things, and knew if she simply drifted away the mill would reopen in a week with an apology to the Defense Department for missing their projected quota. Isa wanted it to never open again, even if it put her neighbors out of work, even if their families suffered long, hungry nights. Even if Sparrows Point fell into rot and decay without its mill.

And so she tore herself apart, bolt by bolt. She began delicately: Support beams cracked, welds fractured, mortar grew weak and powdery, as though the mill were failing a dozen safety inspections all at once. Then she gained momentum. Vats and stoves burst and poured out their lavas of molten tin and aluminum and pig iron. Fires caught in perfect synchrony across her body and she blew out her coal-dust breath to make them higher, hotter. Isa made of herself a grand pyre, for Mary and every man and woman swallowed whole since the first flame caught in the first engine.

At the very last, while the heat turned her body to slag and ash, she burst her own heart. Betty the blast furnace poured herself out in a cloud of blue sparks and poisonous gas. Isa hoped Vesta and Effie saw the orange glow as they sat together on the stoop, and knew their mother loved them.

Isa wasn’t anything, after that. She slept in her own ashes and hardly heard the boot-steps over her or the muttering of engineers and contractors that came to rebuild her only to find that the project was too expensive and none of their survey stakes stayed where they left them. Eventually they left her alone to rust. No one visited her except aimless children who picked through her for treasures (goggles with cracked lenses, a thousand scraps of metal warped in fantastical shapes, a burnt-black heart that might have been a locket), and sometimes an ugly cat who liked to lie on her sun-warmed iron. Mostly she rested, as weeds grew up through her bones and mice made homes in her skin.

And then one day, the faint reverberation of a footstep she knew as well as she knew her own heart rumbled through her skeleton.

With a groan of wind over an abandoned field, she woke up. Leslie limped through the knee-high ragweed, her husband home from war and looking for his wife without knowing he was looking. He wasn’t the way she remembered—war had sapped the humor from his face and mapped unkind lines around his mouth—but he was whole.

All the thistles and dandelions growing up through Isa bloomed at once, out of season, in a riotous bouquet. They turned their mauve and gold faces towards Leslie, beckoning.

He smiled the shadow of his crescent-moon grin. “You always were stubborn, Isa.”

Smoke and grief roughened his voice. He told Isa about their girls and how tall and smart they both were, and the job he had directing ships on the bay. He told her about the war, and how men died without a bullet ever coming close to them and then came home and walked around just like live people. He told her about the telegram printed on cheap paper he read in a French hospital bed that told him his wife was dead. And how he had still expected to see her, somehow, when he came home.

Then he sat down in the flowers and put his face in his hands and wept. Isa sipped the delicate salt of his tears through her dandelion petals. She thought some of it was for the loss of her, but mostly it was for himself, facing the endless labor of going on. She watched the tiny muscles moving across the backs of his large hands. She’d always loved his hands.

She began to unwind herself from the taproots and tangled wires that pierced her. It was hard work. It was baling hay all day after a long night up with the baby and no hope of sleep the next night. It was a double shift on an empty belly. But she’d never shied away from work. With the very last of her strength she pulled herself into a single shape.

She became again that moment when she was most alive, in the sweet green of a tobacco field in August. She’d straightened up from slicing the stalks and shaded her eyes and seen Leslie for the very first time, drawn by the early-evening sun like some ancient idol made of muscle and sweat and white teeth flashing. It wasn’t falling in love so much as falling into place, perfectly, and seeing the whole future in the shape of his shoulders and knowing it was full of hurt but knowing too that it was worth it.

For a stolen second so small that time might not notice its pockets were lighter, Leslie saw her as she had been in that field seventeen years ago. Young and broad-shouldered and taller than him, wearing a blue cotton dress stained with sweat.

Isa kissed him once, or perhaps a salty breeze blew across his cheek, and she was gone.

end_of_story

Alix E. Harrow recently resettled in her old Kentucky home, where she teaches African and African American history, reviews speculative fiction on her blog and at Strange Horizons, and tinkers with fiction. She and her partner spend their time rescuing their gloriously dilapidated home from imminent collapse, and accumulating books and animals.

Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow
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