That it has long been our joke that our hair lengths are inversely proportional, and cannot exceed the same cumulative mass it possessed on the day we met;
That our faith was bound by this same Law, your exuberant pantheism balanced against my quiet nihilism;
That this Law does not apply to beards;
That you were the long-haired hippie boy, born too late for Woodstock, and I the butch bisexual with a pixie cut marching beside you in the climate change rally;
That we shared the same celebrity crushes—Michelle Obama and Nicolas Cage—and this surprised and delighted us;
That on our first date, we solemnly swore this vow: If we ever found a wardrobe portal, take it; or a TARDIS, hitch a ride; or a UFO, board it without hesitation;
That for such an act we should forgive each other implicitly and completely, because there would be no time to ask, and you might only get one shot;
That brides traditionally grow their hair long, and mourners shave it;
That I shaved mine anyway;
That you wore tiny white field daisies gathered by your niece in your braids, like faraway stars;
That you wore them in your beard too, except one you plucked for the justice of the peace to press in the pages of her Sufi poetry book;
That though we both had liberal arts degrees and too many strong opinions on Sappho, we loved the stars, and the phases of the Moon, and B-grade sci-fi cheese with rayguns and swamp things;
That we were both the type to volunteer when no one else would;
That when, in the strength of my passions, I rushed headlong into a cause, you would be the sword wielded by the arm of my conviction;
That the best swords are alloyed, and folded many times upon themselves;
That I believed in peace above all else, because life was short, and we were mortal, and once life was lost, it ended;
That you believed in peace too, but for opposite reasons;
That no one had yet survived First Contact, and the ships had been recovered empty and adrift, the astronauts completely vaporized;
That I pointed out how this was an absurd conclusion, because all matter, like hair, has to go somewhere;
That fear is an easier thing than hope;
That the fleet drew nearer each day;
That Earth wanted to launch a nuclear arsenal;
That they were running out of astronauts;
That you didn’t ask me before you signed us up for the mission to babysit the shuttle’s payload;
That I didn’t mind;
That they made you cut your hair before we left Earth so your helmet would fit properly, but I had to grow mine out for the same reason;
That you stopped praying that day, and I quietly started;
That we passed the time on the shuttle to the asteroid belt reading aloud from Carl Sagan;
That we agreed the aliens were surely made of star stuff too, in their flat black triangular fleet falling toward Earth like a cloud of loosed arrows;
That they came upon us while we slept, and we jolted awake in our sleeping bags when the shuttle jerked to a stop;
That when we radioed them, they bathed the cockpit in shimmering blue light which tickled my nose like ginger-ale fizz and made me sneeze;
That instead of hitting the launch button, we waited;
That it was just like on Star Trek when we disintegrated, like Scotty beamed us up, except nobody asked permission first;
That we reappeared on their craft, whole and sound and long of hair;
That they had followed the climate change rally too, and taken pity on our plight, and this was a conservation effort;
That I insisted they send us back to explain;
That when I rematerialized on our shuttle, you didn’t return with me;
That you did it on purpose;
That it was, after all, the deal we made;
That I was angry anyway;
That I blasted Nickelback over every radio frequency as your punishment;
That the fleet answered me with mandolin music, distorted as in a dream;
That every sword is wielded by the arm of a conviction;
That every arrow is loosed toward a bullseye;
That all matter—not just hair—is conserved, neither created nor destroyed;
That it is all the stuff of stars;
That the stardust would love me in any form, and I him;
That we will always expand and diminish ourselves for each other’s sake;
That we will take turns being the rock or the slingshot, so we may fling each other into adventure;
That I jettisoned the payload;
That my shuttle shot homeward in a cloud of arrowheads;
That the arrows arced over the Earth, but did not strike;
That from the ground, it looked like long, dark tresses threading through the night sky;
That the bright white stars above flashed like a field of daisies;
And that when they fetched me dripping from the cold grip of the sea, the first thing I did was shave my head, as if for a wedding.
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, an addiction to running, and a couple degrees. Now she writes speculative fiction in Athens, Georgia, where she lives with her husband. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of venues, including Lightspeed, Accessing the Future,Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Crossed Genres, and Daily Science Fiction. She is an editor, a SFWA member, and a secret android. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
Things used to be pure inside me. Separated. When I was a boy, I was wholly a boy. When I was a horse, I was wholly a horse.
Things used to be simple inside me. I was all one thing or I was all another. And the two only got close when the change was happening.
But things aren’t so simple anymore. The lines inside me feel blurry, more and more every day. And as I sit here across from that pretty Beiler girl, all I can think about is how she smells like dew-damp clover. She’s got eyes as bright as bluebells, a smile like sunshine and I know that should make me feel something, but all I can think of is that smell.
It makes me hungry. I press my hands over my stomach to keep the rumbling quiet. My shoulders twitch and I imagine rolling over, scrubbing my sunburned back against thick sweet grass and the dry Michigan soil beneath.
A few dozen boys and girls pack the Stoltzfus’ barn, all chattering like blue jays. All laughing as the Sunday singing comes to an end. The smell of musty alfalfa hay wafts down from the loft. Two draft mares in the far stalls snort softly and munch on sticky-sweet molasses grain.
The Beiler girl—Katie?—is speaking. My face feels hot as I lean forward, head cocked sideways. “What’s that now?”
She smiles, her face going probably the same shade as mine as the kids around us start rising. “I said, you’re Abram Fisher’s son, jah?”
“Jah,” I say, and stand with the crowd of dark-clad teenagers. I’m a full head taller than most everyone here. Standing makes it more noticeable. I feel a dozen eyes on me and fight the urge to bolt. “Jah,” I say again. “I’m Joash.”
She sticks a hand out, still smiling. “I’m Katie.”
I take her hand in mine, feeling the calluses on her palms scrape the calluses on mine. She doesn’t let go right away, so I do it for her, shoving my hand awkwardly back in my pocket.
Katie’s talking again, but there’s laughter and chaos all around us. The boys are showing off, flexing muscles hidden by somber blues and blacks, harnessed by suspenders. They heft the well-worn benches and stack them along the barn wall, jostling each other like good-natured colts.
I promised Dat I would look for a good girl to settle down with. And I reckon Katie’s as good as they come, but the horse in me tramples through my head and it’s hard to think of much else.
My gaze lands on Daniel Yoder, follows him as he lifts a bench over his head. He’s the only one near my age—the two of us have outgrown terms like “boy” and “kid.” Near outgrown Sunday singing, too.
Little Katie of the clover turns away and I realize I’ve been ignoring her something awful. I trip over an apology, but she’s already disappeared into the mingled pack of youngsters. They’re all pairing off, and I stand alone.
I brace myself with a shaky hand on the barn’s support beam. There’s a painful emptiness deep in my gut, an emptiness that’s got nothing to do with being hungry. Least not for food. It’s got everything to do with feeling walled off. Hindered. Strapped down.
Everybody’s shuffling out the barn doors and I follow the kids out into the yard. There, dozens of buggies and horses wait. All I can see is the leather straps, the gleaming bits of metal jammed between strong teeth. I hear every faint snort and whinny, catch every hoof scraped in annoyance against the earth.
It’s wrong. It’s all wrong.
I just stand there watching as Katie lets another boy take her home. I don’t know his name. Truth is, I don’t know most of their names. Our family only moved here a few months ago, and I haven’t exactly tried to get to know these kids. Weren’t for Dat, I’d never have come out tonight in the first place.
Daniel Yoder brushes past. His shoulder catches mine and something like lightning zips between us. He stops, laughs and pats my back. “Sorry ’bout that, Fisher.”
“Joash,” I say, instinctively. Fighting the trembling of my body, I offer my hand for a shake. “And… no trouble.”
His grip is firm. Warm. The wind picks up behind him and drives his scent into me. Horse-hair and sweat. My heart beats unsteady, and my stomach’s all churned up like butter.
“Joash,” he says. “Good to meet ya.”
He’s already turned away by the time I reply. “Jah… you, too.”
He drapes his arm around the shoulders of Rachel, a plump girl with a hearty laugh. They make their way to his buggy where he helps her inside. I watch their hands link, watch them smile at each other, but mostly all I see is Daniel.
I don’t understand what’s inside me. I want back the simple division of my two selves. I been this way—half horse, half human—most my life. Mam says it started when I was only five. I have no memory of that first change, but I sure remember my first time in horseflesh. It’s a crisp memory, cold and clear like frost on the grass.
The moonlight pales the skin of my upturned palm. I stare at the surface, remember the warmth of Daniel’s grip, and I shudder. I bolt forward, down the dirt road toward home. There’s no light in the Stoltzfus’ house, but I don’t trust them not to be watching. I gotta get some place safe before it overtakes me.
Before she overtakes me.
I’m breathing harsh, but it’s not the running that does it to me. It’s Daniel. His skin against mine, his voice warm like a sunrise, and those eyes—flashing in my memory a cornflower blue… And there’s a panic and I—
I plunge off the side of the road, slosh through a ditch and into a thin tree-line. Just a little bit of cover. I collapse and the change hits me like it always does.
Real sudden. Real uncontrollable. The panic is second only to the pain. I clench down to smother a scream. It hurts down to the bone. Sometimes I feel this invisible instrument scraping at marrow, unravelling me. Jabbed between joints, levering my bones apart.
My skin stretches. Burns. There is a lingering moment of agonized anticipation as I wait for it to rip like thin cotton. When it does, I am barely able to keep my silence. Skin gives way to thick, tough horse-hide. I rake my fingers through the soft soil, desperate for some anchor.
“Father, please,” I gasp, before the change takes away my voice. My prayers become whinnies. My hands become hooves. My clothes split and rip as the other part of me emerges, full in the flesh.
When it’s over, she stands there for a long moment. Her name is Belle; she’s been with me, part of me for as long as I can remember. She shakes her massive head; her flaxen mane slaps against her neck. A fly buzzes somewhere close and her tail twitches over tawny haunches. Pain recedes. Fear lingers, though it didn’t use to.
She waits. I wait.
And finally, it comes.
It’s a rush. Power. She bursts forward, out into the freshly churned soil of the Stoltzfus’ fields. Thick haunches propel her forward. Hooves reach for more ground. The wind combs invisible fingers through her coarse mane and tail.
Inside her, I give myself over to animal abandon. Here, everything is okay. There are no rules and frowning elders. There are no demands to find a spouse, to choose the church or the outside world. There is only sweat and the strain of muscle, and the wind and the grass, and the power.
Belle snorts uneasily. Slackens her pace and cocks her head to the side. There’s a fearful sensation, creeping in, and I am sick with it instead of lost in the mare’s power. She slides to an abrupt halt and whirls. There is nothing but the wind behind her, nothing but the crickets and their serenade. Her hooves churn the soil as she skitters to the side again, always looking behind.
What’s wrong? It has never felt like this before.
We are both disturbed by the sensation that she’s dragging something along behind her. An invisible buggy, a burden—and at that moment, it hits us, as one.
She’s carrying me. She always has, but now she feels it.
Our forms used to be pure inside her. Separated. When she was a horse, she was wholly a horse. When she was a boy, she was wholly a boy. She was all one thing or she was all another.
But things aren’t so simple anymore. The lines inside her feel blurry.
Pale streaks of light are beginning to bleed into the sky outside our barn. I am on my hands and knees in the straw of my stall. A neat pile of somber-colored clothes waits on a worn bench beside me and, next to it, a bucket of water and ladle.
Mam is a gut woman. Too gut for me.
When my sides quit heaving and I can finally breathe evenly, I rise on shaky legs like a newborn foal. I scoop up handfuls of water from the bucket and scrub away the sweat and grime on my chest, shoulders, and thighs. Pulling on the coarse black pants feels like a sin. They scratch against my renewed skin and the horse in me shudders. The plain white shirt clings to my still damp chest as I slide the suspenders over my shoulders with a grimace.
Mam’s smell—mostly flour, a hint of vanilla and a whole lot of fresh-baked-bread—reaches me before I hear her step behind me. She leans against the outside of the stall, peering around carefully. Our eyes meet and shame instantly fills me, a hot sensation spreading from stomach to face in a flash.
There are so many questions and tentative hopes in the lines of her face. I avoid her gaze and it’s all the answer she needs. Still, she steps closer. “Did ya meet anyone then, son?”
Yes. Daniel’s face floods my mind—the squared jaw, the slightly bent nose and that playful smile. I inhale sharply and pull Mam to me so she won’t see my face.
Mam clings like a child. Used to be, she was taller than me. Bigger than me. But that was many years ago. Now she feels too thin, too fragile. And I bear guilt for that, too. In Pennsylvania we were surrounded by loved ones—her and Dat’s cousins and sisters, brothers and grandparents.
But then I saw that Zook boy thrashing his horse. All I could see was the whites of that creature’s eyes. I could feel its panic and pain. Feel the harness and the buggy traces hemming it in on both sides, and it was scared and he kept striking it with the whip and…
“Joash?” Mam pulls back enough to look into my face. “You okay, boy? You’re shaking.”
She blinks tears from her faded blue eyes. I shake my head. Mam and Dat have been there for me, all my life; they’ve made sacrifices for my sake. I even told them about Belle. But how can I tell them about the two halves merging? About my lustful thoughts for Daniel Yoder?
“I just feel poorly for failing you, Mam. I know ya miss all—”
“Shh,” she chides, sliding an arm around me and guiding me out of the stall. “We best put the past behind us and thank the Lord for the blessings of today and tomorrow. I raised you better than to be dwelling on things such as can’t be changed.”
Things such as can’t be changed.
I do my best to put them evil thoughts behind me as I enter the kitchen with Mam. We take up our familiar places at the counter and I help her get breakfast ready for Dat. I lose myself in the comforting smells and sounds of this place: the crackle of bread’s still-warm crust as I slice through it, the sizzle and pop of bacon, the whiffs of smoke leaking from the wood-stove’s flue.
Only when the door bangs shut behind me am I pulled out of this momentary calm. Dat scrapes muck off his boots on the mat. His eyes are dark, watching me, brows pushing down in a frown as he hangs his hat on a peg. He’s a big man, dusky of hair and eyes. His skin is bronzed from hours of labor beneath the sun, and all these colors makes the bland white walls of our home seem blander.
“Been out all night, boy,” he says, his voice a thunder-rumble of judgment. “Take that as a good sign?”
He wants me to find a girl like Katie Beiler, ask to take her home in my buggy—only I never bring a buggy, ’cause I can’t stand hooking old Mae up to one. Instead, I’m spending my rumspringa stalling and changing shapes in the night. Sometimes I think he’d give up the world for my sin to be drinking, smoking, or anything other than what it is: bone-deep and unshakable.
He huffs at my silent admission and stomps into the dining room.
“C’mon now,” Mam says gently. I help her carry breakfast to the thick cherry-wood table, handcrafted by Mam’s father. We set out the serving dishes: piles of greasy bacon, rolls of spicy sausage, the still-warm braid of friendship bread, eggs scrambled the way Dat likes. I fill our glasses with chilled milk from our Jersey cow, Daisy. And Dat’s eyes follow me, a constant silent reprimand. He lets me help Mam in a way that most Amish would find shameful. Women’s work.
But if you’re half mare and half man, what does that make you? Where does that put your God-given roles and responsibilities as laid down in the Bible and the Ordnung?
Dat offers a prayer and we tuck into our meal.
My silverware lies untouched; I eat with my fingers. The taste of metal in my mouth brings back bitter memories of the day Deacon Zook found me in my horse-form and tacked me up. I shiver at the memory, almost glad when Dat speaks.
“Can’t put off the plowin’ anymore.”
The horse in me twitches. “That so?”
He’s trying to ask without asking. “Wouldn’t be gut to start out wrong. Best give the People time to get used to us, ‘fore we go adopting peculiar ways again.”
My hands clench under the table. Mam’s eyes are on us. Tension whirls around us like smoke off pine brush.
“Mae’s too old for that kind of work,” I say. An image flashes in my mind—old Mae harnessed up straining as she drags the plow. Muscles bunching, hooves slipping in the soil.
“Joash, we got to be careful—” Dat starts.
I stand. My knees jar the table. Milk splashes out of my glass. With shaking hands, I use my napkin to clean up the mess. “It ain’t right,” I whisper. “I can’t…”
Most times, I control the change. But the need is always inside me, sometimes burning hot and sometimes just embers in my belly. Whenever I get tore up with emotions, she surges to the front of my mind. Same thing happens when I go too long without letting her out—like with the Deacon that time. Never should’a turned mid-day like that; I learned my lesson well.
Dat’s standing now, too. He’s got his hands out as if to show he isn’t going to hurt me. He’s treating me like the animal inside me. Careful not to spook me.
My eyes are wet when I meet his gaze. “Please, Dat…”
His jaw clenches as he steps for the door. “So be it. Best hope Mr. Knowlton’s got time to tend to our work then.” His heavy tread sounds his retreat through the kitchen. The door slams and I settle shakily back on the bench.
Dat’s off to hire an English farmer and his tractor. The Ordnung isn’t specific about hiring your fieldwork out, but I know what kind of disapproval the act will bring down upon my family’s head. We used the English when necessary, but they’re still outsiders.
My family’s given almost everything for me.
Come next Sunday Singing, I’m going to ask to take Katie Beiler home. It’s the right thing to do.
The steady clip-clop of hooves and the rattle of buggy wheels signal the arrival of our neighbors. My fingers freeze up, still carefully holding the needle. Mam’s stopped her quilting, too, and we listen to the muffled chatter of masculine voices.
The kitchen door opens and I scramble back from the quilt.
It’s only Dat. “Put down your woman’s work now. I need ya.”
I move to the window and peer out. A dozen buggies and strapped-up horses. I wince. When I catch sight of Daniel amongst a group of young men our age, my heart stutters. I straighten quickly and face Dat. “Mam needs me—” I’d been helping her sew the wedding quilt. Mam was always more kind, open, and understanding about my peculiarities.
Dat grips my sleeve in one strong hand and lowers his voice. “I ain’t asking, boy. I did what you wanted and hired out the fieldwork, now you gotta at least act like you might be a man.”
Mam inhales sharply, but doesn’t speak against her husband. I reel back from his words, but he’s already dragging me toward the door. I shake him loose to pull my boots on. When he closes the door behind us, he does it nonchalantly, as if nothing is wrong.
It isn’t normal for Amish families to keep secrets this big. The weight of this settles on me as I tuck my hat down against the sun.
The young men are gathered around the skeleton of a barn we’ve been in the process of raising. Bare blond rafters and stacks of sheet metal wait for us.
“Hullo, Joash!” Daniel calls. The group parts, allows me in. They nod a welcome, but I can feel the distance even in that expression. Most of them are bearded—a sign of their marriages. Daniel and I are the only two clean-shaven men.
“Hello,” I offer back, mustering a smile.
The group passes back and forth some friendly banter as if I’m not even there. I can’t keep my eyes off Daniel as he joins right in. There isn’t a scrap of fear or awkwardness in him. It’s like God took all the strength and courage of a self-assured stallion and wove it into this man standing before me. My face flushes hot and I wipe sweat out of my eyes.
On the roof, the entire unit moves in tandem, laughing and sweating and striving together. I fumble with the sheet metal. It’s hot and the edges are sharp. I nearly let a piece slide down off the rafters, but Daniel catches it in time.
“Ach, you act like you never roofed a barn before, Joash,” he says, smiling.
“Jah, been a while,” I lie. I grip the rafter between my thighs and help him hold the sheet as a few other fellows begin bolting it down.
“Here.” Daniel steps across the rafters as if he’s skipping over a puddle and offers me a pair of gloves from his back pocket. “Helps with the edges.”
Our fingers brush as I accept the gloves. For a heartbeat, we remain that way, hands touching under the safety of the garment, and our eyes meet. Something sharp and wistful passes through me. I want him—really and truly, in a way that terrifies me. I keep telling myself it’s just the horse in me, but I don’t know anymore. Daniel’s lips curve in a gentle smile, like he knows, like he sees the hidden parts inside me. But then he breaks the contact, retreats to his spot on the roof.
“Th-thanks,” I say, then clear my throat. Normally the gloves would feel unnatural—and I can hear Belle echoing her distaste in my mind—but today they feel like a gift. Like a sign of… something that can never be.
We work through the heat of the afternoon. I lose myself in watching Daniel. He works quickly, chattering with a lightness I envy. The muscles under his tanned forearms bunch and cord as he hefts the sheet metal up over the rafters. The other men in their white shirts and dark pants blur around us until I am completely lost in the rhythm of Daniel’s words, the marvel of his strong hands.
Someone nudges my shoulder and I jump.
“Fisher, you gonna help us or what?” I blink, blush, and realize that they’ve all moved on to the next panel. They’re all looking at me.
“I-I’m sorry. The sun…”
Dat’s dark-eyed frown lingers on me from the other side of the roof; Daniel’s still laughing, his cornflower blue eyes twinkling like something magical. I’m all mixed up and it’s hard to focus on keeping my footing.
When the laughter settles down, a few of the men around me start humming hymns from the Ausbund. The words of praise to God usually have a lulling effect on me, but I hear Deacon Ezra Beiler, Katie’s father, ask a question of my father.
“So what ’cause you got for hiring them English tractors, Abram?”
The humming drifts into silence. Now there is only the warping cry of sheet metal and the steady breathing of the men around me. My body tenses as I peek at Dat on the other slope of the roof.
He settles back on his heels, meets my gaze briefly before looking to Deacon Beiler. “We’s still settling in. Our mare is gettin’ too old for that kind of work and I ain’t had the time to get a new one.”
A moment’s silence. My pulse pounds through my temple at the lie my father told. I yearn to fly apart, to fly into Belle, and leave behind the burdens of this world.
I walked Katie Beiler home from singing. She asked why I didn’t have a buggy.
Seems like I have to lie more and more every day. I thought about marriage, the way the lies would pile up like the husks of dead leaves.
She’s a true beauty—not just in the coils of wheat-blond hair under her kapp and those bluebell eyes always seeking mine—but in her heart and soul. She has a gentle way with animals and seems especially fond of her dat’s dairy cows. She told me, as we walked, of a time when she’d helped one of the cows with a difficult birth. Her eyes glittered with unashamed pride as she told me of tying twine to the babe’s front legs and pulling with the cow’s contractions.
“I named him Jonah,” she said with an easy laugh. She laughs like that often and speaks kind of everyone. In that way, she is so similar to Daniel. But of course, she isn’t.
But I won’t be selfish. And life is all sacrifice, all struggle. I’ll join the church, let them baptize me, pray they never find out what I am. I’ll lie to Katie—assuming she accepts me as her husband. I’ll lie with Katie in one bed and raise a family and pray they’re not cursed like me.
I used to pray for God to take this thorn out of my flesh. I used to ask him why he did this to me. And I used to be afraid that maybe he didn’t make me this way. Maybe I did something when I was little, so bad it cursed me.
As I step onto our porch, I square my shoulders. There’s a soft flickering light from the lantern in the dining room. Did Mam wait up for me again? Standing outside the door, I try to summon up strength like Daniel’s got. No more thoughts of him. No more. You just gotta shut that off. My eyes sting. I blink back the tears, try to shove back Belle as she noses her consciousness into mine. We want something more than what we’re about to choose.
We want more than a lie of a life with Katie Beiler.
We want more than pretending to be one of these people, and all the while hiding our true self.
But this is what we must do.
Mam and Dat are huddled around the lantern at the table, their hands linked. They both look up and even in the wan light I can see Mam’s puffy, red-rimmed eyes. Dat’s jaw keeps working in the way that tells me he, too, is near tears.
“Mam? Dat? What’s—”
“Sit down,” Dat says, and he doesn’t sound angry. He sounds tired, and somehow that’s worse.
I obey. Fear pulses through me and I remember the way they looked when they told me we had to leave Hickory Hollow. It was my fault then. Is it my fault again?
“Bishop Stoltzfus came by this evening,” Dat says.
“Why?” My voice croaks and I’m suddenly parched.
Mam’s shaking, but she won’t speak. She bows her head, graying strands of hair escaping her kapp.
“He gave us a warning ’bout using the English tractors,” Dat continues. There’s still no anger in his dark eyes. They reflect the flame, they do not harbor it. “Says it’s not in line with the spirit of the Ordnung. He thinks we do it for the convenience. ‘If any would not work, neither should he eat.'”
“I-if we don’t stop—” Mam says, but can’t finish.
I scoot down the bench so my knees brush hers and I rest a hand on her arm. “I’m sorry, Mam. I’m so sorry.” She doesn’t need to finish. If we don’t stop, we’ll be cast out. Again.
Mam draws herself up when she sees my tears. She straightens her shoulders. “We can find another home. We can try again. One of those less… them modern orders, where—”
“No.” My whisper stops her.
“That’s not all,” Dat says. “Bishop says you got to choose your path before the week’s out. He had to tell Daniel Yoder the same thing.”
The utterance of Daniel’s name makes me flinch. So we’ve both got to choose. Conflicting thoughts surge through me and the trembling begins in my hands; I remember and long for the surety of hooves.
Squeezing Mam’s hand gently, I stand. “Use the horse, then.” It’s hard to speak when I’m trembling like this. My vision is blurry, but I catch the surprise in Dat’s voice.
“No more tractors.”
“Are you sure, Joash?” Mam sounds as broken as I feel. Gratitude and love flood my chest, and they are warm feelings, but they are not enough.
“Jah, I’m sure. And I’ll join the church. Bishop ain’t gotta worry about that.”
I’ve got to get outside before Belle tears me apart.
Belle rears and scrapes her hooves against the sky. We fly across the fields, mindless of the corn and wheat shoots we trample. I try to lose myself in the rhythmic pounding of her hooves.
Despite a recent rain, the night is steamy and hot. We shift and slide on the slick soil as we run. Sweat froths on our neck, our chest. Belle no longer flinches or skitters away, trying to see her burden. We are becoming one.
And we’re both wondering how we’re going to carry this lie for the rest of our lives.
We stretch low over the ground, avoiding Amish and English homes alike. We streak toward the trees surrounding Barrowman’s Pond. The thought of cool water, washing over our steaming body and soothing our feverish minds, is appetizing, like sweet clover calling.
I am trying not to think of how I will ask Katie to marry me when Belle pulls up sharp and snorts in surprise. We stand at the edge of the pond, surrounded by creaking trees. Cattail fronds bob around the water. A young man surfaces, splashing and triggering a cascade of ripples around him.
We do not move, Belle and I.
We are pierced. Our heart beats too fast, our breath comes too quickly as we recognize the man in the water.
Daniel Yoder tilts his head to the side as he sees us. He stands and the water comes only to his waist, leaving his bare chest dripping under the pale moonlight. The sight burns deep inside me, inside us both. With Belle at the helm, my feelings are amplified. She trembles.
“Well, hullo there,” Daniel says. “You slip out of somebody’s pasture?”
Belle snorts. Scrapes her paw greedily through the mud. She wants to bolt into the water, but for the first time, I am fighting her, trying to wrangle her back.
Daniel steps toward us. His clothes are piled in a heap on top of a nearby boulder. Our gaze rolls over the muscles of his chest, the strong shoulders and forearms, the abs rippling down to…
Daniel pulls on his trousers. His suspenders loop over his bare, wet shoulders. Belle snorts and shakes her head. He smiles as he rubs his hand down the length of our face. He caresses our muzzle and laughs when Belle nuzzles her head against his hard chest. His skin is surprisingly soft. He slides his hands down our neck and we tremble. The slow slide of his skin against ours makes every part of us feel painfully awakened. It should be enough—this gentle touch—but it isn’t. She needs more. Panic shoots through me as she presses our body into his.
His edges are sharp against us, his touch playing against my hunger and I—
I need more and there’s a panic and I—
Belle screams a protest as we begin unravelling. Our vision blurs, pain seeping in on every front as we collapse in the wet clay. Daniel stumbles back and the removal of his touch eases off some of my panic, but it’s not enough. My fear is redoubled as Belle’s bones grind down. Pressure in my chest, in my head. No, no! Not in front of him.
He doesn’t run. I can hardly see him through the tears in my eyes—eyes that are being squeezed and pushed and compressed into the proper size to fit my shrinking skull. Rough horsehide sloughs off in peels, as if grated away by an invisible hand. The strength of my hooves is lost to trembling fingers. When at last my world stops blurring, when my body stills, I am curled up in the mud. Belle’s last whinny twists into words, “God, please!”
I can’t raise my eyes. The mud is cool against my new, naked skin. My breathing is wet and thick, shuddery.
Daniel steps nearer and I am forced to look up. I try to brace for disgust, for horror, for any number of judgmental expressions I have pictured a thousand times. Instead, there is only awe in the clean lines of his face. His eyes are wide, glittering by the moonlight as he crouches down and carefully extends one shaking hand.
“…Joash?” His voice is breathy.
My stomach churns as I wipe tears from my face. “Daniel.” I sit back on my haunches, hands struggling to hide myself. He glances down, then away. There’s color in his face, as if he’s just worked a full day under the heat of the sun. He whirls to his pile of clothes and returns quickly with his shirt. I accept it when he presses it into my hands.
I cover myself and whisper a raspy thanks. Another few heartbeats of silence. We stare at each other and I am sick with dread. I shiver with it.
“I-I’m sorry you…” I start, but the words escape me. “I’m sorry.”
He’s already shaking his head. “I find myself speechless, Joash. And I tell you that is not a frequent thing!” He laughs, and the sound is a little skittish, but still warm. “I don’t even know what to say.”
I drop my head. If I could, I would turn and flee, but his shirt cannot hide the truth of me. “I know. It’s… horrible. I think I am cursed—”
“No.” He kneels beside me, laying his hand on my shoulder. I shiver, but he doesn’t pull away. His eyes are full of an earnestness that strikes me in the chest. “It is a wonder, brother.” That light in his eyes, that awe! “Truly. I knew our God was a God of wonders, but this…” He laughs again and it is a merry sound that washes over my bruises and my fears. “Joash, it cannot be a curse. It is a sign of the Lord’s power.”
“Y-you don’t think I am… wrong? An unclean thing?” My hand rises to his shoulder, emboldened by his touch.
“An unclean thing? More like a miracle. It is a gut thing, do you not think? A gift to be embraced, welcomed, even. I—”
I cannot stop the tears. I sag against him, my forehead against his bare shoulder, and I am powerless under the sway of this relief. Belle is, for once, at peace within me. We are both still, even as our shoulders shake with all that has been held back and pressed down. Daniel’s hand still rests gently on my shoulder and he does not pull away. His warmth is overwhelming; I feel his breath on my neck and only when the heat of my attraction rises do I pull away, necessarily.
“I’m sorry,” I say again, wiping my face.
He squeezes my shoulder and stands. “Do not be. I have very many questions for you, Joash. I would ask them all, but I have to get back.”
The thought of him leaving rips at my insides. I start to rise, then stop, clutching his shirt against me. “I-I could take you… carry you, wherever you need go.”
His head cocks to the side as he considers me for a moment. I fear my voice was too eager, my expression too hungry. Then a smile cracks his face and he nods. “Jah, if it wouldn’t trouble you?”
Heat rises up my neck as I surrender to Belle again. The change is slower this time, but no less painful. I am aware of Daniel’s marveling eyes upon me as my bones are leveraged apart, as they groan and lengthen. Pain blinds me, a half-human, half-horse cry escaping my lips. My skin shudders, then gives, an audible rip that rises into the night air.
Within moments, my weakness becomes strength. My flesh becomes hide. I am strong and sturdy and I rise to see his shining face. He laughs again and scoops up the rest of his clothes. When he returns to us, he stands at our side. “May I?”
When we bob our head, forelock dancing over our eyes, he grabs a fistful of our mane in one hand. We’ve never tolerated a person on our back. That one time under the harness was enough. But there is no suppressing leather now, no metal bit between our teeth.
There is only Daniel. He climbs on our back and speaks softly, “You are a wonder of God, Joash, and a gut man.”
The next minutes pass in a slow blur. It is hard to feel guilty for enjoying Daniel when he is so near, when his touch is constantly on my neck. My neck. Because Belle and I are the same now, or soon will be. The lines inside me dissolve like sugar in water. This is my powerful body. These are my strong hooves, my wild gaiety and fierce exuberance for life. Yet, there are still parts of me that are afraid. There are parts of me that still reprimand me for this sin. I am at once happy and miserable.
But I am one. I am whole. I am wholly man and wholly horse.
Why did it take Daniel to bring me to this conclusion? His knees hug the barrel of my sides and his hands are bunched in my mane and it feels so right, and I am no longer a secret. He beheld me and he did not turn away. He saw in me the handiwork of God, not the abomination I have always deemed myself. He accepted me and if he can accept that, perhaps… Perhaps I could stay. I could live a lie for the rest of our community if only I knew Daniel knew and cared, if only I… If I could tell him…
I begin to carry him home, but he directs me elsewhere. We trot down dusty dirt lanes, lined with sentinel-straight oak trees. We move under the moon, then under the branching shadows of trees.
We reach a home I do not recognize. My heart beats quicker as I try to find words to express how he moves me, how I am constantly lost in thoughts of him. I am still grasping the edges of these slippery words when the door opens and Rachel slips out. When she nears, I see joy in her face. Daniel slides off my back, still shirtless, and pulls her into an embrace. They whisper back and forth, affirming vows that will soon be spoken in front of everyone.
Daniel kisses Rachel and a cry, both equine and human in its torment, wrenches from my lips as I stumble back. Daniel flinches, turns, and our eyes meet. My sides rise and fall unsteadily as he disentangles himself from the girl and steps to my side. He brushes his fingers against the side of my face and there is something like an apology on the fullness of his lips. A shadow flickers over his strong cheekbones.
“I’m… I’m sorry, Joash.” His voice is low, so she cannot hear.
I sway, but keep my feet. I nicker softly and brush my head against his shoulder. He turns, drapes an arm over my head, and the warm susurrus of his voice and breath flood my neck.
“I can’t,” he says. “You need something I haven’t got in me. I don’t… But I meant it back there, brother. This is a gut thing. You are a gut thing. You mustn’t forget that.”
Through the rumbles of pain, thundering inside me, I nuzzle his chest. I enjoy the touch for just a moment longer.
And then I turn and trot away. It takes every ounce of resolve I have to leave him behind, but I do not turn and I do not look back. Still, he fills my thoughts. I let his words echo in my head. It’s hard to think through the pain, but something in me feels alive and awake, almost hopeful.
Daniel welcomed the truth about me. I can’t be with him, but I can take his words with me. Beyond the cornfields and Sunday singings, I will find someplace both man and mare can call home. This world is big, bigger than Amish and English put together. Shadows litter the path ahead, and I do not know the way. A thrill of fear almost makes me almost want to turn back.
Instead I race under the moonlight. The packed dirt roads are solid as a rock beneath my hooves.
I can still feel the imprint of Daniel’s body against mine.
Maybe I always will.
Alexis A. Hunter revels in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction. Short stories are her true passion, despite a few curious forays into the world of novels. Over forty of her short stories have been published, appearing recently in Cricket Magazine, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Read Short Fiction, and more. To learn more about Alexis visit www.idreamagain.wordpress.com.
Child’s mistress was out when the scentless woman entered the shop and laid a strip of severed cloth upon the counter. For once, Child wished her mistress were at her side.
“May I help you?” Child asked around a clot of fear.
“Make me a vial of this perfume,” Scentless said, her voice honey-sweet though her sillage was hollow, “and another exactly the same, but with the tiniest hint of the sea.”
Child squinted, desperate to find a hint of the woman’s identity beneath the netting she wore across her green-brown eyes. Scentless had forgone the usual patterns women painted around their eyes. Her face was a bare mask.
Unease dampened the palms of Child’s hands. The woman was old enough to have passed her Naming Day, but no matter how Child flared her nostrils and breathed, she could not scent the woman’s name. Scentless wore the wrap all named men and women wore, covered hair-to-toe in thin black fabric to protect her skin from the poison of the sun’s red glare. The cloth of her wrap had a subtle sheen, the fabric so smooth Child could not even see the weave. She must be wealthy. The slender arc of her cheekbones rose just above the bottom of netting, hinting that she was beautiful.
And yet the woman wore no scent. She was nameless.
Even the dead smell, Child thought, then shook herself. This was business. Whatever had urged this woman to go out into the world without a name was none of her concern.
Forcing the pleasant shopkeeper-smile her mistress had taught her, Child made a show of rinsing her hands in clean water, then scrubbing them with salt and rinsing them again. She dried her hands on a fine, fresh rag, and held them up for Scentless’ inspection. The woman leaned forward, sniffed the air, and nodded her approval.
Thus prepared, Child gathered the cloth into her hands and brought it as close to her nose as she dared. The aroma was warm, spice-tinged. Cardamom and violet with the faintest whiff of balsam. The sea would be a pleasant addition to such a scent, but Child had no idea how to blend such an aroma.
“I can recreate this by this evening,” Child said, “but the addition of the sea will take time. There is no single oil for such a scent.”
Scentless inclined her head, the supple fabric of her wrap hissing softly as the folds brushed against each other. “I will need it by the full-moon,” she said, and laid a rope of silver upon the counter alongside the cloth.
Child’s throat clenched. Such a sum was no small thing to turn one’s nose up at, even if the deadline was nigh impossible. Not daring to touch the silver, lest she spoil the cleanliness of her hands, Child folded the cloth and set it aside, then took up a slip of paper and a grease pencil. She breathed deep, settling the butterflies fighting to escape through her lips.
“Forgive my asking, but what is your name? I cannot smell it on you.”
The woman’s eyes crinkled at the corners. Whether in amusement or anger, Child could not tell. “I wear none. Put what you like on your paper, I will return in three days to check upon your progress. I will bring you a gold rope if you finish in time.”
She pressed black-gloved hands together and bowed deep, then turned and stepped from the shop back into the hot red eye of the sun’s regard.
Child stared at the paper, stunned. A whole gold rope. Enough to buy her own wrap, her own name. Chewing her lip, she wrote: Scentless.
Then crossed it out, over and over again, until the name was little more than a black square. Her mistress had not been here. She did not need to know. Heart hammering, Child filled in the square until it was black as coal.
Beneath it, she began to make notes on what she had smelled in the cloth.
Ivy-beneath-cedar returned that evening with wine so rich on her breath Child scarcely scented her arrival. She staggered a step, then slung herself into a creaking chair in their workshop, squinting eyes veined with red spiderwebs at her. Child tensed, turning on her stool so that her back guarded her work, and laid her palm flat over Scentless’s receipt.
“You’re working late,” her mistress slurred.
“We had a new client today. A wealthy one.” Hesitantly, Child pulled the length of silver from the pocket of her apron. Ivy-beneath-cedar’s eyes sparked beneath the netting of her wrap, reflecting the glitter of the lantern light against the precious metal.
“What did she want for so much?” her mistress scoffed, “To change her name?”
“Cardamom-over-violet, centered with balsam,” Child added in a rush, “Two vials.”
“Well.” Her mistress heaved herself to her feet and took the length of silver from her. “That is a simple enough task for you. If you make her happy, we might use some of this for your own Naming Day. You’re meant to take the wrap in what, a month? Two?”
“Four weeks,” Child said, unable to keep a flush from creeping across her cheeks.
“Right. Good girl.” Ivy-beneath-cedar gave her a thick-handed pat on the shoulder. She straightened, brushed the rumpled folds of her wrap smooth, and then stumbled through the back door toward her bedchamber, humming an uneven tune all the while. Child’s small fists clenched. She was no fool. There would be no silver left for her by the time her Naming Day came. Ivy-beneath-cedar would drink every last silver away.
But the gold rope. That she could use.
Child smoothed the wrinkles her sweating palm had left on Scentless’s receipt and returned to her work, fingers dancing amongst warm amber bottles lit by the glow of her oil lamp. She didn’t dare burn candles—tallow and beeswax were too strong of scent, they would muddy her work. And she needed clarity now, if she were going to distill the sea.
Child walked the edge of the cold shore, bare feet sinking in rough sand. The red glare of the sun cast the pale beige granules in eerie, pink light, as if blood had been spilled across them and then diluted by the waves. Beak-pecked carcasses of sea creatures lay along her path, their poisonous flesh bulbous with tumors even after those few birds who could stomach them had picked them over. Why anyone would desire to smell like those wretched waters, Child could not guess.
The beach was empty, as it always was, save for a small group of mourning. They bundled their dead—two or three, she could not tell—onto a floating bier, set light the wooden slats, and shoved it out to sea. Child caught her breath, anger tightening her fists as flames licked up around the bier, revealing the wraps the dead had been sent to their rest within. Such a waste. But then, they had earned them. It was their right.
She turned upwind to avoid the smoke and breathed deep of the air, closed her eyes, and flared her nostrils. At the base of the scent of the sea was the brittle bark of the trees which ringed it. Warm, dry. Overlaid with the overwhelming crush of the water itself; a cool, menthol middle mingled with the wet vegetal aroma of aquatic plant-life.
But there was something else above it all, something that took those two meager elements and made them say sea. There was brine, metallic iron, and the air itself, crisp as if lightning had just struck. Both aromas too ephemeral to bottle.
She sighed, opened her eyes, and kicked clumps of sand tangled with rotted seaweed. The Cardamom-over-violet she had already made she clutched tight in her pocket, warming the hard glass with her palm. Ivy-beneath-cedar’s workshop was not suitable to this task, she did not have the ingredients required.
Child extended a finger in her pocket, felt the small thread of copper she kept hidden there, her week’s meager pay. She could buy a new fragrant oil or resin.
And then, with the gold rope, she could start her own shop. Blend her own name.
The market awnings of the city Bahat were dyed green, but in the high light of noon the tops of them turned brown under the red light. Child blended amongst the crowd as best she could, but she was tall for her age and that made her difficult to miss. She drew stares, the people of Bahat wondering just what a girl her age was doing unnamed and without her wrap.
Child paused, glancing at the backs of her hands. Even under the shade of her hat the sun’s glare took its toll. Her skin, nearly fourteen summers old, was already dry and cracked as an ancient lakebed.
Soon it would be dangerous to go without. Soon, the cracks in her skin would begin weeping dark fluids, and no emollient salve would hold the spread of the sun-sickness at bay.
Ivy-beneath-cedar wouldn’t care; apprentices were easy enough to come by. The Justice of Bahat would see no harm done—those who failed to earn enough to purchase their own wraps before the sickness took them were considered useless. Just another mouth to feed from the scorched soil.
Child swallowed, shook her head. No. She would capture the sea. She would claim the Scentless woman’s golden rope.
Embarrassment blushed her cheeks, added haste to her steps. She wove amongst the hundreds of other men and women of the market, catching hints of their names as she slipped between them. A blunt name struck her—without nuance, without balance. Myrrh-under-clove, or was it over? She couldn’t tell, the dominant notes had been blended in equal measure. The heady scents competed with one another for dominance, bludgeoning her senses.
Curiosity lifted her head and she turned, following her nose. A male silhouette familiar enough to tickle the back of her mind stood beside a market stall, weighing a bottle in his hand. The man paid for the bottle and set it in his basket—a basket she recognized. That man—no, that boy—was Lemon-over-neroli’s apprentice. Not even twelve summers, and he was already named. Poorly, but named and shielded from the sun none the less.
Child hunched her shoulders and hurried toward another merchant, eager to prove her own worth. The first stall she came too was filled with the usual base notes; sandalwood and patchouli, white musk and dark. She moved on, systematically, sniffing every single offering until her nose went numb and she was forced to rest. Child lingered near the stall of a kafa-maker so that the bitter-bright aroma of his roasted beans would refresh her senses. At the shop her mistress kept a platter of the beans for cleansing the nasal palette, but she hadn’t dared bring them with her. Ivy-beneath-cedar would suspect her of stealing before borrowing.
While Child rested, a tall woman approached and purchased kafa, her voice sweet and her eye makeup elaborate; whorls of black danced like eddies of wind around her lashes. As she turned to leave a breeze ruffled her wrap, blowing her scent towards Child’s overtired nose.
Balsam. Violet. Cardamom.
Child stiffened, sniffed the air once more to be certain. The woman drifted back into the crowd, nursing her kafa. Entranced, Child followed.
Cardamom-over-violet led her out of the market and into wider, half-empty streets, until they were climbing up winding ways and skirting the fences of homes bigger than any shop Child had ever seen.
Strange gardens grew beyond those gates, inedible plants that thrived under the harsh light, their huge leaves drooping between forbidding iron. Child attempted to slow, to blend into those lingering, but her clothes were too filthy and her feet dribbled ocean sand with each step. She did not belong here.
She did not even have a wrap to obscure that fact.
Cardamom-over-violet turned into one of those iron gates, the trailing edge of her wrap disappearing amongst vibrant greens. Child hesitated, then took a few quick steps forward, hoping to catch sight of some small clue, or just another sniff. Just to be sure.
Fingers wrapped round her arm, vise-tight, and yanked her into the greenery.
She stumbled, tripped, tried to wrench away on instinct but her other arm was grabbed and pinned to her side. Cardamom-over-violet peered at her through her wrap’s obscuring eye net, her eyes a familiar green-brown. Child stilled in her grasp.
“Why are you following me?” the woman asked, and though her voice was sweet it was not the honeyed tones Child remembered from Scentless.
“I thought I knew your scent, Cardamom-over-violet. Please forgive me, I was mistaken.”
The woman released her and leaned back, pressing her back against the gate. Relief flooded the woman’s posture, a slump came to her shoulders. “No, forgive me for grabbing you, Child. I am on edge.”
Child eased forward a half-step. “Are you well?”
Cardamom-over-violet’s head jerked forward, her shoulders squared, “I am fine, only grieving. The spirit of my sister…” She broke off, shook her head. “Never mind. I am a silly, mad woman.”
Child licked her lips, clenched her fist around the vial in her pocket. “Maybe it was your sister’s scent I recognized?”
“Impossible,” the woman snapped, “my sister drowned in the sea. An accident. Now go,” she pointed, “back to your world, little one.”
Child crossed Bahat in a haze, unable to peel her fingers from the vial. Cardamom-over-violet’s scent had been correct, she was certain of it. Her nose never lied to her, even if it was tired from a day of blending.
As she pushed her way free of the market press she caught a whiff of something, clean and sharp. Like the rain around lightning. Like the air above the sea. She froze, turned slowly, found the aroma turned with her. Shaking herself, leaves fell from her hat, their vibrant green bruised deep where they had been crushed against her. Leaves from Cardamom-over-violet’s garden.
Before they could be trod upon she scooped them up, gathered them up near her nose and breathed deep. Yes, that was it. That was the scent of the air above the sea. Now she would just need the brine. The iron.
Regret panged through her, bitter and queasy. Regret because she had already made her choice—already knew what she must do. To survive. She drew a deep breath to steady her nerves.
Every good perfumer knew where to find the scent of iron.
She glanced at the angle of the rusted sun, saw it seeping down into dusk. Ivy-beneath-cedar would be out by now, drinking away her silver.
And Child had her own key to the shop.
Scentless came the next morning. Her wrap was the same fine weave, the same loose fit. Her eyes bore no marks, but shone green-brown down at Child. A green-brown that was familiar to her now. Peering through the shadow of Scentless’s eye net, she followed the partial line of a cheekbone, marked the edge of the top of her nose. More than sisters. Twins.
Child’s fingers trembled as she sat the first vial upon the counter, nudged it forward. She had not bothered to set the wax on the cork with the seal of the shop; she wanted no link between the two.
“Here is Cardamom-over-violet,” she said, and watched the corners of the woman’s eyes twitch with subtle recognition.
“And the other?” the woman asked.
Taking a deep breath, Child set a second vial upon the counter. It was a sliver less full than the first, its cork also unwaxed.
“It is unfinished,” Scentless said, her voice as dulcet as ever.
“I need to know two things first.” Child willed strength into her voice, heard it crack anyway.
“Ask,” she said, a lilt of curiosity creeping through.
“First, will you pay me the gold?”
Scentless pulled a rope of glittering gold from within the folds of her wrap and laid it upon the counter with deliberate care. She took her hand back, leaving the gold. A promise.
Child nodded, cleared her throat. “Second. Did you drown in the sea?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed, and she gave a slight shake of the head. “No. I was drowned in the sea.”
“Give me your hand,” Child said as she uncorked the unfinished bottle and slid it forward. Scentless hesitated just a breath, then held her wrapped hand above it. Child grasped it in her own, felt the lush weave of the fabric, softer than any silk. She pricked the woman’s finger with a fine needle. Scentless sucked air through her teeth, but did not flinch.
Child squeezed drops through the cloth into the bottle. Drops that were not red. One, two. The deep-teal ichor was slow, viscous. Child whisked the bottle away and gave the woman her hand back, then stirred the mixture with the needle. Sniffed.
Metallic brine tingled her nose, mingling with the fresh-air aroma of the leaves. It would not last, the ichor would decay and lose its scent, but Child suspected it would last for as long as the woman needed.
She corked the vial, and still did not bother to wax it.
Scentless gathered both, bowed her thanks, and turned to leave.
“Wait,” Child blurted, and blushed as the woman glanced back, one thick brow raised. “What will you do?”
“This,” she held up Cardamom-over-violet, “will be for me. And this,” she held up the other, “is for the sister who squats in my home.”
Long after Scentless had gone, Child closed the shop and stepped under the red light of the sun’s regard, gold rope heavy in her pocket. In one hand she clutched a new vial, its wax stamped with a sigil of her own making. She held it to the bloodied light, the contents sloshing slow and viscous within their confines. It smelled of air and earth, of sand underfoot, and rain threatening above.
Of a storm about to break.
A fitting name, to start a new life in a new city. Far away from the nameless Child who had blended a killer’s end. Ozone-over-fern turned toward the market. She was going to need a wrap before she could buy a workshop of her own.
Megan E. O’Keefe was raised amongst journalists, and as soon as she was able joined them by crafting a newsletter which chronicled the daily adventures of the local cat population. She has worked in both arts management and graphic design, and spends her free time tinkering with anything she can get her hands on. Megan now lives in the Bay Area of California with her fiancé and makes soap for a living. It’s only a little like Fight Club. She is a first place winner in the Writers of the Future competition, vol. 30. Her website is: http://www.meganokeefe.com
Georg Cantor waits while his wife Vally pulls at the heavy door to the Nervenklinik. The crisp air smells of leaves and wood smoke, but as they pass into the white-tiled halls disinfectant envelops them.
The nurse comes and introduces herself. Cantor says nothing. He has not spoken in a month. He rarely even focuses his eyes. The nurse leads them down long passages. Their shoes snap at the marble floor. After many turns, they stop at a white door that opens to his room: a narrow bed covered with taut white sheets, a comfortable chair facing a window that looks out onto a lawn edged by waving oaks, a round rug on the cherry floor.
Vally seats him in the chair. “You need rest, Georg,” she whispers.
Cantor looks out at the oaks. They hold tenaciously to their last few leaves.
To the nurse Vally says, “We lost our dear son Rudolf. That was hard. And my husband is a professor. A mathematician. He has achieved great things. But the strain is great. And then, that wretched Kronecker in Berlin. It’s all too much.”
The nurse nods, professionally sympathetic as she straightens the room. The name means nothing to her, but the point is clear: the cruelty of other men.
Vally leaves, followed by the nurse, whose soft shoes squeak as she backs out and pulls the door till its lock clicks. Cantor holds his breath and listens. The rustle of scales against plaster is faintly audible. He expected this. The dragon is here already, coiled in the walls of the clinic.
Cantor stands and presses his cheek to the cool plaster by the window. “I hear you, wyrm,” he says.
The dragon rustles in response, contracting.
“Wyrm,” Cantor whispers, to provoke, to invoke.
Cantor kissed his son’s forehead after the boy coughed blood one last time and stopped breathing. Vally gasped and held her breath. The doctor backed into a corner, ashamed. And Cantor heard, distinctly, an eager rustling in the walls.
Two days later, when Cantor finally collapsed into sleep, he had the nightmare that silenced him and led him to the brittle quiet of the Nervenklinik.
He sees a rising narrow stair. It stretches up and up. Beyond its peak a golden light glows, pale and weak with distance. Children sit and stand on the stair. Most of them weep as they peer at the impossible summit, wishing they could catch some sliver of its meager warmth. Others have collapsed with despair, their backs turned on the light.
“Climb!” Cantor cries to them. But his voice is a choked moan. It moves no one.
That’s when the horrible thought comes to him: Rudolf is on that slope. With his weak lungs, his throat choked with blood, and without his father, Rudolf will give up. He is halted on the way, in the half darkness.
“Climb!” Cantor tries to howl. The effort does nothing but wake him.
The second night in the clinic, after the nurse leaves with the dinner plates under silver lids, clucking disapproval because Herr Doktor has merely tasted his food, the dragon folds the wall aside. Cantor is surprised. He did not know the dragon had this trick. He half expected the dragon did not exist.
It pulls at a corner, and the plaster bends neatly away. Someone will prove that kind of folding is possible, Cantor realizes. He sees in an instant how it works: sets of uncountably many points can be rearranged into new, smaller spaces.
But Cantor has other, more pressing thoughts. He beholds the dragon’s black head, its black shining scales, the smooth and sensitive circular membrane of each ear, vibrating behind a black eye. Cantor cannot discern the dragon’s tongue from the flames that churn in the cup of its jaw. Fire rattles in its throat, a sound like Rudolf’s failing lungs.
The dragon is waiting on his words. It too expects him to speak.
Cantor frowns, silent and furious. Outside, strong winds turn the last leaves of the oaks over, flashing white. Black clouds speed over the bending trees and weep rain on the windows. Thunder rumbles so close that the glass rattles in the sash. Finally, Cantor can hold back his anger no longer. He hisses, “Wyrm, did you kill my son?”
Cantor knows his son died of consumption. He knows that black spots ate the boy’s lungs. But he asks again, “Wyrm, was that you, coiled in the bottom of his breath, weighing down his every gasp?”
“I am infinite,” the dragon whispers, goaded to answer, “but not everywhere.”
They are silent together a long while. Wet gusts lash the glass. Then Cantor tells the dragon, “Kronecker says I am mad: that no such thing as infinity exists, and I am a fool to claim to have tamed it. And: I talk to a dragon. The dragon cannot exist. Hence, I talk to something that does not exist. Ergo, I am mad. But about the infinite, I don’t believe I am mad. The infinite exists. Endless infinities, each larger than another.”
The dragon shifts and scratches at a scale with a single stony toenail. “How do we know if something exists?”
“If a thing would spawn no contradiction, then that thing exists.”
The dragon stretches out its neck and lifts its wings as best it can in its parallel confines. The delicate black skin hisses over the coarse, unfinished wood slats that make the back of the wall.
“And what of the dragon?” it says. “Can there be a dragon? A beast that ate too, too much? That feasted on human hopes? Count my scales. They are as numerous as numbers. My dragon brain lies folded in my scaly tail. And my tail stretches forever.” The dragon blows twin streams of pale smoke from its nostrils: dragon laughter. The gray fumes smell of coal heavy with sulfur. “But I contradict nothing: no hope, no faith, no prayer. Thus the dragon exists.”
“Quod erat demonstratum,” Cantor whispers.
There were days when his son stopped coughing blood. One April morning they went out to the park. They sat in the grass, with Rudolf wrapped in a blanket. Crocuses thrust up through the cold, damp soil. Rudolf picked them, and Cantor did not stop him, did not ask that he wait till the blooms opened. Rudolf might not live till the blooms opened.
“You take three, father,” the boy said. He always whispered, not wanting to start a coughing fit, not wanting to punctuate his words with blood. “And I’ll take three. Six is all there are.”
“Others will grow,” Cantor told him.
“For how long?”
Cantor considered this. “For so long, that it might as well be forever.”
The boy nodded. “Time enough, then.”
Vally brings Cantor a letter from a priest in Italy. The Pater writes to ask if the infinities of Cantor contradict the finitudes that Saint Thomas Aquinas demanded of the pious. Cantor is excited. He sees in an instant how the church needs his wisdom.
“I shall abandon mathematics,” he says. “And dedicate myself to philosophy and God. Theology. The Church.”
Vally smiles with hope and relief. Georg is talking to her! Like his old self!
She clutches his hands. “Yes,” she says. “You have your inheritance. We shall be fine. Come home to us. Don’t worry about those men who spurned you. They’ll be forgotten. We miss you at home. You’re such a fine father and husband. The doctor will let you come home soon, I’m sure.”
Even the dragon has seen Cantor’s kindness. At dinner every night Cantor had asked each of his children in turn to tell the story of his or her day, before he looked to his wife and said, “Thank you for this meal.”
Every day the same. The precision of a mathematician in attending to these cares: axioms of love.
“You’ll leave before the winter,” the dragon says one gray afternoon. Cantor is surprised. He thought the dragon could speak only if spoken to.
“Before the winter,” Cantor says.
“And I will curse you.”
“What empowers you to curse, wyrm?”
“I curse everyone who wonders.”
“On such a foundation I too might have this power, and curse you in kind.”
The dragon smiles, the corners of its lizard mouth curling. “My curse comes first. Soon you’ll die…”
“Soon each mortal dies,” Cantor says impatiently. “That is no curse.”
“That is not the curse,” the dragon says. “Soon you’ll die. Then you must decide between heaven and hell. Hell is near and crowded. God is infinitely far away. If you are to ascend into heaven, you must take the Dragon’s Stair. This is my curse.” The dragon shifts his head to reveal, in the dark behind his vast bulk, a narrow stair of stone.
“The first step on the stair is carved with a name,” the dragon says.
“The second step is carved with a name.
“The third step too is so carved.
“Yes, on each step is cut a name.”
And Cantor can see the names on the risers of the first stone slabs. Falcon Ells. Edgar of Canterbury. Danniston. Ali Quartermain…
“God is at the top,” the dragon says. “You climb toward God. But if you find your name on a step, you must stop there, and wait. You must wait until Judgment Day, both feet on your stone plinth.
“And Judgment Day has never come.
“Judgment Day, like God, is infinitely far away.
“No saint has made it up the stair. The innocent wait, despairing, along the way.
“Heaven is empty.”
Rudolf was usually fearless. But when he last lay down in his bed, never to rise again, he said to Cantor, “I’m scared, Papa.”
Cantor fought his tears with all his strength. He did not want to weep in front of the boy and betray his failing hope. He managed to say, “Our bodies must die. But our minds, our minds can touch the infinite.”
Rudolf nodded his head very slightly, his mouth pressed closed in determination.
“And,” Cantor said, “you must have faith that you cannot fail to find your way to God.”
“But will I be alone?” Rudolf whispered.
“Only ever for a little while. I promise you, only for a very little while.”
Outside the clinic, the leaves on the oaks darken and curl as autumn ages. Cantor scrawls symbols on stolen scraps of paper, working in secret because he has promised to remain at leisure.
“Wyrm, what is it you do, when you are not haunting me?” Cantor asks.
The dragon folds down the wall. “I sing from rooftops, hidden from view. I paint murals on buried walls. I pen short stories that are printed in little magazines. All to infect dreams.”
“Braggart,” Cantor says. Then he switches direction: “Who decides my name?”
The dragon understands the question immediately. “You do.”
Cantor smiles. “Can I name myself while climbing the stair?”
The dragon thrashes its tail in anger. It growls, and blows smoke, before it answers. “You must start to say your name before stepping upon the way.”
“But I need not finish naming myself before starting on the way?”
The dragon is silent an hour. Cantor listens to the fire fluttering in its lungs. He patiently writes out his proof as he waits for his answer.
“No,” the dragon hisses, leaking flames that cast flickering shadows along the walls. “You need not finish naming yourself before starting on the way.”
“I choose heaven,” Cantor says.
“Do not be hasty. You can wait till death before you choose.”
“I choose heaven,” Cantor repeats. “And I will choose a name for myself, a name to be writ in the Book of Judgment and to which I will answer.
“And the first letter of my name will be the letter in the alphabet that comes after the first letter of the name of the first step of the Dragon’s Stair. If it be A, I will choose B. If it be B, I will choose C. And so on. If it be Z, I will choose A.
“And the second letter of my name will be the letter in the alphabet that follows the second letter on the second stair.
“And so I will make my name, letter by letter, step by step, as I ascend.
“And this name cannot be writ on any step.”
The dragon clamps its trembling eyelids down and squeezes its mouth shut hard, choking on its own fires. Bested.
The wall is straight and white when the dawn comes. Cantor puts both hands on the plaster by the window, and says in a clear voice, “Here is my curse, dragon. You must tell, to all who will hear, this story of how I beat you.”
Before the dragon can answer, Vally pushes open the door. The nurse has brought a key that allows her to open the window. She slides the glass upward. Fresh air stirs in the room. The leaves have all fallen now from the oaks. The trees wait for the sleep of winter.
Vally packs Cantor’s few things. Her hand on his arm, they walk out into the hall and on into sunlight.
“Soon you’ll be dead,” the dragon hisses. No one hears. “Soon you’ll be alone in heaven.” But this is only spite. The dragon well knows that as Cantor rises on the way, he will gather to himself all the children of judgment and show them the way to infinity.
Craig DeLancey is the author of Gods of Earth. He has published stories in Analog, Cosmos, Shimmer, The Mississippi Review Online, Nature Physics, and other places. His short story “Julie is Three” won the Anlab reader’s choice award. He teaches philosophy at Oswego State. Stop by his web site at www.craigdelancey.com.
The stars are all dead. You wish it didn’t haunt you, but it does, it does.
The dead come out to watch over you at night.
A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.
You tried to bring her back to life. Someone told you—wish on a star—so you wished, wished hard as you could. You didn’t know you were wishing on ghosts.
Some days, your wish came true. She looked at you those days, read you books, put on new clothes.
But the next day she’d go back to stumbling through the house.
There is a girl lying at your feet. She is the kind of dead that cannot make sandwiches, cannot blink, cannot stumble. You pick up her body and carry it to the trunk.
You drive for miles and miles. The silence is too heavy, too much. You turn on the radio to drown it out—only it’s all Kurt Cobain, Donny Hathaway, Mindy McCready, Nick Drake. You switch to Catcher in the Rye, the only audiobook you own.
The narrator sounds like your mother.
“What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day.”
Your mother would have been good at that, if she hadn’t been dead most days. She’d said it sounded like the best job, maybe the only worthwhile job. There was something other about your mother, something reaching for magic in a dull, dirty world. You wish you could have caught children with her in the rye, but that’s not the job she left you.
You get to the spot, near the river. You get the body. You get the shovel. You feel the weight of the stars as you dig and dig and dig.
Don’t fall, you think, don’t fall. Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall.
But stars will do what they want. People, too, when they are hopeless. You can’t reason with the hopeless, can’t make them love you enough to stay.
You wonder who the dead girl is. You wonder where she comes from, where any of them come from, the ones who just . . . appear beside you when the sun goes down. You lower the girl in the unmarked grave, careful of her left wrist, sliced wide open, and deep, so deep, like she was digging for something. A way out, maybe—she found it. You wonder how much blood she left behind.
It doesn’t matter. A bathtub might be painted in blood, a razor in the sink, an apology upon the glass—but if there’s no body, then no one’s dead, not for sure, not for forever. There is always room to hope, for those who are left behind. This is what you can do for them. This is what you can do for the world.
It’s important work, you know. It’s a gift others can’t bring themselves to give—but you don’t understand how the dead find you, how they know to seek you out. You don’t understand why the bodies keep coming to you and you alone.
Another girl appears at your side before you finish burying the last one. There are rope burns around her broken neck.
It’s going to be a busy night.
You found it before you found her, submerged and naked in the bathtub:
I wish you didn’t have to find me. I wish there was someone to take my body away, hide it somewhere lonely, somewhere secret, and you could just keep on going, pretend I was somewhere golden, catching everyone in the rye.
I’m sorry, she wrote. I’m sorry.
But is she sorry she left, or for what she left to you?
The sun is just beginning to rise as you finish burying the bodies. Six in all. Very nearly a record.
You wish you had another job. You wish you could help in some other way, become a detective, maybe, find clues, fight crime. Provide closure instead of preserving open wounds. You even wish the police would catch you, but the bodies, they wouldn’t stop. They’d just follow you to your cell, their cold flesh piling between your bed and the bars. If only you knew what ghost your mother had wished on, to make a prophecy of her regret.
You’d wish her back, if you knew what ghost. You’d wish she’d stayed for you.
When you sleep, you dream about stars falling. They drop down and down by the dozen, and you have to pick them up, bury them somewhere lonely, somewhere secret, and then nobody will start crying; nobody will be afraid. Everyone will just stand together, holding hands, whispering that the stars could always come back, that they’re just traveling somewhere else now, some other, better, magical place.
Carlie St. George is a Clarion West graduate whose work has appeared in Lightspeed, Shock Totem, and Strange Horizons. When she’s not busy incorporating her odd obsession with peanut butter sandwiches into even her most macabre and melancholy stories, she blogs extra-snarky movie reviews at mygeekblasphemy.com
The fisherman’s wife breathes out, and tendrils of smoke curl around her. She listens to the tide inside and out — salt sea and salt blood, eroding shores of sand and making a hollow space within her skin and bones. She listens, and the ebb and flow tells her what she does not want to hear.
She needs no doctor to know: When the moon swells to full, she will bleed again.
A sigh laced with more smoke. This time, for just an instant, the tendrils thicken, become solid. One brushes her cheek, chasing salt slipped from within to without, aching to join to sea. The fisherman’s wife starts, but doesn’t move, holding her body quivering-taut.
The touch does not withdraw. Cautious, she pulls on the pipe again, adding more smoke, more weight. The first tendril, more a tentacle now, is joined by a second and a third. One slips past parted lips; one traces the edge of her parted robe and curls around the swell of a breast that isn’t as full as she wishes.
Dive. She feels the word against her flesh, then the smoke is gone. She shudders, hairs rising, skin puckering tight.
It was a dream. Was it?
She draws her robe close, tucks her legs up, and waits for her husband to come home.
Below the pier where their hut crouches — all one room and no place to hide — waves surge, bringing the scent of green weeds wrapped around wooden piles. The fisherman’s wife raises her head from the drawn-up pillow of her knees. Through sleep-puffed eyes, she squints at the edge of the lowered shades. Still daylight. She didn’t mean to doze. Outside, seabirds call, squabbling over fish guts baked dry by the sun.
She rises as her husband steps through the door. The fish-stink on him is laced with sweat. It is his scent, her scent, the scent of their life together, and for a moment it breaks her. Her eyes sting, but no more salt falls.
The boards creak, the light changes as her husband shifts, uncertain, as though afraid of and for her until she folds into him. Her hands go to the nape of his neck, the small of his back. His fingers meet and lace together between her shoulder blades, pulling her close. There is black blood under her nails and his fingers are calloused from tying knots, casting nets, hauling lines. They are the hands of a fisherman and a fisherman’s wife. They fit together, two halves of a whole.
“No.” She murmurs the word against his throat, breathing in the salt-sweat of him, answering his unspoken question. It is the same answer she gave last month, and the month before. He softens a moment, before tightening his grip, fingers stroking her spine to soothe.
She shivers, reminded of…what? Should she tell him of the dream that wasn’t a dream, the word spoken into her jaw by a smoke-tentacle, caressing her tongue?
The fisherman draws back, concern in his eyes. “Wife? What is wrong?”
She shakes her head. “Only a chill wind from the sea.”
The fisherman’s wife rises. Is she sleeping still? If she glances back to the pool of moonlight holding her husband in their tangled sheets will she see herself lying beside him, chest moving steady with the in-out tide of breath? She steps outside, barefoot; from the pier to the sand, to the edge of the shore where the water traces a silver line against her toes.
She sheds her robe. The memory of poppy-smoke lies heavy on her tongue, slicks her throat, slows her blood. Could it be a vision? Must it be a dream? Salt-tinged breeze stirs her black hair, all loosed down her back. Cold slaps her skin as she steps into the waves. Deeper. Her hair spreads like an octopus’ legs, spilled ink on the sea.
Underwater, she opens her eyes. It is bright as the noon day sun. There is so much life, color everywhere. Above-wave, the world is grey and increasingly dull, whether with poppy-sheen or age, the fisherman’s wife cannot say. She knows only that with each year that passes there is more emptiness. It is not just want of a child. She feels the changing of the world within her bones. It is drying up, falling silent. But underwater, armies march. Children play. A blind man sculpts coral into delicate figures with too many eyes. Women with shark skin and shark teeth tend kelp gardens. Buildings crumble and rise again. The world, drowned, is reborn.
A shape darts at the corner of her eye — smoke made solid. She reaches after it as it slips past. A tentacle coils around her wrist, strokes her palm.
This is and was and can be again. All you have to do is choose.
The fisherman’s wife blinks, disoriented. The current has tugged her, turned her; the many-limbed creature is gone.
The blind old man takes her hand. “Mother,” he says and kisses her cheek. Even below the waves, his lips are paper dry.
A little girl leaves the army march to press a bouquet of sea anemones into her hand. “Mother,” she says, before swimming away.
Silver bright fish form an aura around her. Their mouths open and close. “Mother,” they say.
Eels and sharks and starfish and whales join the chorus, repeating the word. It booms like thunder, a low, reverberating note rolling out from the epicenter of her being, stirring a tidal wave to wash away the land.
“I don’t understand,” she tries to say, but salt-water floods her mouth.
She kicks, chokes, her head breaks the waves, coughing up icy water and strands of seaweed that slick her skin until she claws them away. She thinks she sees her husband on the pier, waving. But when she wipes salt-heavy hair from her eyes, he is gone.
A tendril traces the arch of her foot, strokes her calf, beckoning.
“No.” The fisherman’s wife kicks free. “Not yet. It is too soon.”
She wakes, or she swims, long, powerful strokes carrying her back to the shore, back to her husband’s arms.
The fisherman’s boat rocks gentle as a lullaby. He would catch more with the other fishers, working together instead of alone. There is a woman who sings her catch into the boat without ever casting a line. There is a man who knots the full moon into his nets and lowers it to lure a large, flat fish like a flounder, but bigger than anyone has ever seen. It is the same fish every time, the man says, and the whole village gathers to make a fire on the beach, bright enough to light the darkened sky. They roast the fish on long wooden poles, then burn their fingers pulling flesh from bone as fast as they can. As the fish cools, the bones poison the flesh. If they don’t eat the fish fast enough it will kill them.
The fisherman has no patience for the company of others today. Last night, he thinks he woke in bed alone. He also thinks he woke with his heart thumping like the tide, his wife lying beside him, insubstantial limbs the hollow color of moonlight; his fingers would pass through if he tried to touch her. Both things are true. When he looked through the window, he saw his wife’s head break the waves, hair like ink against her sea-chilled flesh, swimming toward the shore. When he turned, she breathed beside him, troubled in her dreams.
He has been restless ever since. Afraid. So, in his smallest boat, painted white like a pearl, he drifts alone. A jar balanced in the boat’s prow brews salt-water tea with the heat of the sun. It tastes of squid ink and tears, but he has heard it is used for prophecy, and so he drains the last drop. It sears a word on his tongue.
The word slams into him, sudden certainty. He must follow his wife down; he must find her under the waves. They must find each other. As the sun passes the apex of the sky, the fisherman strips and describes a perfect arc into the blue.
The water slices him open, steals his breath. Cutting knife-clean through the dark, he swims down and down. As a boy, he dove with his brothers for silver coins falling from rich men’s fingers. He could always go the longest without coming up for air. The fisherman’s chest is narrow, but his lungs are strong.
A tendril brushes his leg, an octopus’ arm or only a weed. An electric thrill, which is also panic. He kicks away, streaming bubbles like pearls. The shadow slips past him, ahead of him, ink darting in a jet of bubbles all its own. It pauses, turns as if knowing the fisherman watches. Its limbs bloom like ribbons of hair. The fisherman stops, suspended, rocked by the current. In the center of that tangle of limbs he catches a glimpse of his wife’s face, moon pale. Then the creature is gone.
Panic of a different kind — pulse beating a new rhythm of hope and desire, the fisherman gives chase. He dives deeper, fighting the aching cold in his legs, the pressure of breath in his lungs. He follows a smoke swirl here, an unfurling of ink there.
His chilled fingers grope. Fish nibble his calloused skin. He is almost there, even though he doesn’t know what he’s reaching for. A moment longer and he will allow himself to breathe.
There. The tip of one finger brushes a smooth curve, a perfect round. But sharp, the razor edge of a shell meets his skin, draws blood. He kicks, instinct shooting him to the surface. No! he thinks. I was almost there. It’s too soon.
His head breaks waves and he draws ragged, stinging air into wounded lungs. He shakes water-wet hair from his eyes. His little boat bobs beside him, patient and waiting. Stars prick the sky like a million eyes. Impossibly, the sun has set and the moon risen while the fisherman sought beneath the waves.
The hut is dark, but neither the fisherman’s wife nor the fisherman sleep. The walls smell of smoke and fish and salt. They hold a space of emptiness between them, an absence sharp-edged. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, they both decide. The wife reaches out, fingers seeking like a starfish across the vast gulf of the bed. Her husband’s hand is waiting.
“Wife,” he says. “I have dreamed.”
“Husband,” she answers, “I, too, have dreamed.”
Lips almost touching so the fearful words will not escape them, the fisherman and the fisherman’s wife whisper of what they have seen.
“Limbs like ink.”
“It is a prophecy, not a dream,” the fisherman’s wife says.
“What do we do?” the fisherman asks.
Fear curls and uncurls; a tide within and without.
“I don’t know,” the fisherman’s wife says. “Not yet. But I will soon.”
Sun draws sweat from the back of her neck as the fisherman’s wife bends to her work. Her legs cramp. Her hands are slick with blood, her little knife quick as she guts fish to hang on racks above the fire. The air around her stinks of offal. Below, the tide rushes in; she peers through the slats and she sees it, dizzying, fraught with secret glints of light.
Ropes of intestines fall through her hands, glittering green and black, slithering back into the sea. The scales and blood that catch on the wood and wink in the sun make a pattern, spelling the future. She half-closes her eyes, scrying, dreaming.
Her hands continue their steady rhythm of work. At the same time, she stands on the edge of what used to be a shore. The world is hollowed, the oceans and seas gone, all the secret places dried out and laid bare. The bones of vast creatures litter new-formed canyons. Wind stirs her hair, laden with the memory of salt. The sun, red-gold and low, peeks between withered pillars of stone, drags her shadow away from her heels, and tatters it across the sand.
There are cities in the skeletons of the drowned-in-air creatures — arching Temples of Whale, intricate Labyrinths of Squid, strong Fortresses of Turtle, and perfect, recursive Gardens of Nautilus and Conch. This is the world that might be.
There are buildings she recognizes, too — the Temple, the Market Square, her neighbors’ homes — all empty. This is the world that was.
Two futures fork away from her. It is for her and her husband to choose. Embracing one world forsakes another. The land or the sea. If one rises, the other must fall.
What is there for them here? The hope of a child that never comes? Poppy smoke and a village growing emptier every day. One day, the woman will not sing her catch from the sea; one day, the man will not net the moon so they can burn their fingers on flesh hot from the fire. Then it will be only her — the fisherman’s wife — and her husband. The world is moving on without them, drying up, blowing away like dust on the wind. But there is color and life below the sea, and if they will it, it will rise to meet them.
The fisherman’s wife glances down. A bundle lies cradled in her arms — delicate, moonlight-translucent bones, wrapped in a fine-woven net of silk; a fleshless, milk-tooth mouth held to her breast. With a shout, she opens arms. The bones tumble toward the sea floor and she shouts again, reaching too late to catch them.
She opens eyes never fully closed. Not yet, but soon, it will be time to choose.
The fisherman rises from the bed he shares with his wife. Is he dreaming? He dares not look back to see. Naked, he climbs the ladder at the end of the pier, down to his little boat, tied and bobbing on the waves. He rows, muscles bunching, following the path of moonlight laid across the sea.
The sky’s pearl is full tonight, swollen. Its twin lies beneath the waves.
The fisherman jumps, a needle threading the waves. He is blind, no sun tracing his descent. He gropes, hands outstretched, chasing the elusive thing that slipped from his grasp last time.
Shapes move around him, shadow-soft in the dark. A questing tentacle wraps around his leg, brushes belly, chest, and thigh. He shivers on the edge of ecstasy.
No, he thinks. Not yet. His wife must be with him. And he pulls away.
Stars burst behind the fisherman’s eyes. How long has he been underwater? Surely by now he must have drowned.
There, again, a tentacle brushes his leg, not a question this time, but a directive: Follow. Dive.
Touch, soft, strokes his cheeks, his back. The fisherman nearly weeps, already surrounded by the salt sea. It is still too soon. He pictures his wife crouched on the pier, her back aching, her hands bloody. He can’t leave without her.
The tentacles tap, lighter this time, relenting but still directing — here, here. The fisherman’s breath is running out. His hands sweep, frantic, and there, there, his fingers close.
They snatch. They pry. The sharp-edged shell draws blood again, but this time he doesn’t let go. Not until he has his prize.
Stars trail from his lips and blaze behind his eyes as he shoots upward. He breaks the surface as the sun climbs over the horizon, weeping, a pearl clutched in his hand.
“We could leave,” the fisherman’s wife says, but she doesn’t mean it. “Leave rather than choose.”
“The sea is our life,” the fisherman says.
He is here, but he is swimming through the dark at the edge of a vast continental shelf. She is here, but she is standing on a shore, willing the water to return and restore flesh to a city of squid carcass and whale bone. If he goes further, everything will drop from beneath him. He’ll be weightless, surrounded by water made of night, lit by drowned stars. If she opens her arms, she will no longer feel the dust-dry breeze and cradle wind-stripped bones. The world will call her mother, and she won’t be afraid.
They are choosing. They have already chosen.
“There is life in the sea,” the fisherman’s wife says.
“Yes,” the fisherman says. “But how…”
The fisherman’s wife closes her eyes. The memory of a tendril of smoke grown solid, a tentacle of ink and flesh chases across her skin. She opens her mouth, parts lips, breathes out a sound that is not quite a sigh.
“There is a song,” she murmurs, and lays moon-cool fingers against the fisherman’s skin. Thrum, from the point of contact — a note, shivering through both of them. The fisherman’s teeth clench tight a moment, the reverberation in his jaw, then he lets go.
The walls of the hut drop away, leaving them exposed to the wind and crashing waves.
Gentle, with net-abraded hands, the fisherman unties his wife’s robes. Beside the bed stands a bucket of fresh water drawn from the rain barrel outside. He dips a cloth and passes it over her skin, washing the sweat of the day’s work away.
Water beads, droplets catching the light. The fisherman’s wife trembles with the strength of her desire. As her husband moves the cloth, she snatches a moment here to unlace his shirt, there to undo his trousers. His clothes are salt-stiff and smell of fish; they resist when she pushes them to the floor.
The fisherman removes the pins from his wife’s hair. It spills around her, dark as limbs unfurling beneath the waves. She takes the washcloth and touches him as gently as he touched her. His chest and shoulders are beaten bronze from the sun, but from the waist-down he is fish-belly pale. She is the same. Only the nape of her neck is tan where the sun beats all day, and the tops of her feet where they peek from beneath her robes.
She drops the cloth into the bucket and watches it sink. It is a living thing, spreading limbs, darting away, then only cloth again.
The fisherman holds up the pearl, cupped in his palms — an unspoken question. By way of unspoken answer, the fisherman’s wife plucks the pearl from his hands and places it against his mouth. He accepts it with a curl of his tongue, and holds it cradled there. His skin glows.
The fisherman’s wife traces the light in her husband’s veins. It pulses in his belly, his groin, and the hollow of his throat. She chases the light with her fingertips—an underwater sea creature, a pilot fish leading her to delight and doom.
The fisherman groans, a soft sound. She follows her fingers with her lips. Her tongue. The fisherman tastes of brine — rainwater-washed — of sunlight and wind. Her fingers catch in the fisherman’s salt-stiff hair, the one place she did not wash. She pulls him close, urgent but not rough. Full of need.
Her lips press to his, drinking, crushing. His tongue passes the pearl into her mouth; its taste is nothing she can describe.
The fisherman’s hands are on her back, her buttocks, holding her close.
They drift in untold seas.
Their cheeks are wet with not-unhappy tears. She wants to swallow the pearl, but she’s afraid. She traps it between soft palate and tongue, pressing it against the roof of her mouth until it hurts. She is drowning on dry land.
The fisherman and the fisherman’s wife tumble into their narrow bed. The wind gusts over them, snapping the linens like sails. Crashing waves shake the pier and the entire house trembles, a ship spun upon the sea.
The pearl passes back and forth between them. It is in her mouth. It rests in his navel. She catches it between her fingers. He steals it with his tongue. Through shared motion, they press it between her legs.
Close, she thinks, so close. But not there. Not yet.
“Dive.” She sears the word against his lips with a kiss, and hears it echoed back to her from him.
She closes her eyes, opens her throat, and tries to replicate a song from her dreams.
They are here and they are now, but they are elsewhere and elsewhen, too. Smoke pours from the fisherman’s wife’s mouth and becomes a creature with many limbs. It unfurls down her body. She rises to meet it, mouth open, legs open.
It winds around her, singing of oceans rising to devour the world — birth of a different kind. Together they can call it, the water, the dark-limbed creature, to reclaim dry canyons, nautilus cities, temples of whale bone. A tendril, a tentacle, wraps round her tongue. Its motion teaches her a song.
She is already singing it. Has always been singing it. She will sing it until the end of time.
There is life in the ocean’s pulse and swell. Her hands cradle her belly. She lets the music pull her down.
The fisherman clings to his wife. Beyond the horizon of her shoulder, it is midnight, or the sun is just now rising. The sun is sinking; it shines high overhead. Beneath them, wooden floorboards thrum with the surge of waves. Stars wheel overhead. He remembers the touch of ink-dark limbs guiding him through water only a shade lighter than themselves.
He chases them down.
“We have to go farther,” the fisherman’s wife says.
“Are you afraid?” the fisherman asks.
“Yes.” She takes his hand. Their fingers fit together as they always have—two parts of a whole. But they are not complete yet.
“So am I,” the fisherman says. “But not too afraid.”
The fisherman and the fisherman’s wife rise and walk together out onto the pier.
The waters will rise if they call them, but it is better than a slow-emptying village — the Market, the Temple, their neighbors’ houses abandoned one by one. There is so much color beneath the waves, so much life, and it will call them mother and father if they choose. It is not the child they once wanted; it is greater — the destruction of a dying village and the birthing of a whole new world.
Together, they sing.
Salt water washes around them, but they do not drown. Called by the notes thrumming from their bodies, the creature rises to meet them. Ink dark, everything they have ever dreamed. It is as small as their hopes and big as the world—a tangle of limbs the color of midnight, blue-black and glimmering with light. It lays the fisherman and the fisherman’s wife down on the wooden pier. Below them, the pulse of the waves matches the tide of their blood and their desire.
The fisherman’s wife turns toward her husband, their fingers still entwined.
“Are you afraid?” she asks.
Legs part, hips rise. The creature knots between them, stroking hip, breast, thigh. It binds them. Swell of belly, swell of tide. Smoke made solid slips inside the fisherman’s wife. Her husband joins it. She sings.
Touch traces the fisherman’s spine, his legs. His body opens, responds. Ink fills him and he shudders in answer.
The fisherman kisses his wife’s lips, and kisses her lips. He savors her pearl, and savors their pearl.
The many-limbed creature flows between them. It twines and re-twines, a creation myth in reverse, stirring sea from the land.
On the pier, with the waves crashing beneath them, their bodies move to the rhythm of salt and blood. Their children swim around them, waiting to be born. Children with human faces and skin and teeth like sharks. Their smiles glow like moonlight among a tangle of hair like a multitude of limbs.
Yes, the fisherman thinks, rising to meet them.
Yes, the fisherman’s wife thinks, her body thrumming with song.
Together, they choose — a strange apocalypse of rising tide over the barren canyons of desolate buildings. They re-enflesh the drowned world of squid rot and whale bone, bringing back a new world, an old world, with a surge of the tide.
Together, the fisherman, the fisherman’s wife, and the creature of ink and smoke, sing.
A.C. Wise hails from the land of poutine (Montreal) and currently resides in the land of cheesesteaks (Philadelphia). Her fiction has appeared in previous issues of Shimmer, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4, among other publications. In addition to her writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story. You can find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise
“My mother is the swamp,” Peregrine said. He leaned towards the mire’s trees, heaped as dark and snarled as bull kelp on a beach. His movement was drunken—he swayed forward, and back, then stumbled in.
Ebb hesitated. Peregrine had given him the kind of answer he expected: nonsensical. The man wore a leather jacket lined with wolf’s fur and branded with a skunk-cabbage motif. Some days he hated sushi, other days it was all he’d eat. He was stubborn, he was subservient; he was abusive and he hated sex except for when he didn’t. His words were always unpredictable; the only thing you could expect from him was anything.
Ebb reached out to touch the swamp’s air, thick enough to feel, thick enough to clog your lungs and drown you.
“Your mother’s a swamp, yes, of course she is,” he murmured. “Is that what the dreams told you?” he called, still motionless, hand outstretched. It closed on air.
Three months ago, Peregrine had started sleepwalking. He said his night’s mind was always full of abandoned taxidermy shops, and tea brewed from obsidian dust and anise and silkworms. But his waking mind was full of these things, too, so they hadn’t worried Ebb. It was something else—other—that was making him anxious. After a month of the sleepwalking, he’d started to wonder what Peregrine wasn’t saying. He could tell when his lover was holding back; it was their nature to know each other. When he realized Peregrine was keeping something he couldn’t have, Ebb knew it had to be wrong. Invasive.
“Peregrine?” he called.
No answer. All he could hear was the swamp sucking at his lover’s feet.
Ebb followed Peregrine’s footprints. The swamp had receded recently; lilies were strewn across the mud and tangled around cypress knees. He didn’t like it here. He didn’t like the smell—it wasn’t salty enough—and the sticky air made him feel the mire was trying to pull him deeper and shove him out all at once. Why did Peregrine feel so drawn to this place? How was that possible? How could he like something and Ebb not understand it?
Peregrine was waiting for him just beyond a spiderweb. A large orb-weaver sat at its center, near his face. Ebb hesitated, looking for a way around, but Peregrine hooted laughter and jumped through the web, pulled him close, murmuring something Ebb didn’t hear because he’d ripped away, rending his skin and face and clothing. He tore off his shirt and kicked it into the mud, scraped frantically at his neck and flanks, stumbling through the branch-tangle until he fell limp, shoulders stooped, arms hanging. There were scrapes against the softness of his belly, down his arms. A cut stung on his nose.
Peregrine was still laughing.
“The dreams don’t tell me anything. They just call me,” he said, tossing his head and continuing on. Ebb was still standing there, shirtless and jumpy as his lover walked away.
Coolness trickled in between Ebb’s boot laces. He looked down. Water.
Together, they waded through the creeping ooze. Peregrine walked backwards, facing Ebb the whole time.
Peregrine’s hair was so heavy it was motionless, a strange, leaden specimen of old man’s beard: dark, thick, and oiled. His eyes were grey-pink. Sometimes they shifted like grubs exposed to fresh air and sunlight.
Ebb had met him at a lecture on the physics of black holes, had been with him ever since. Peregrine was tall, wide-shouldered and had big, graceful hands. He had natural poise and muscle, though his favorite things were reading and pinning moths and butterflies into shadow boxes. He used to collect moss and make miniature terrariums. Ebb had no idea how he maintained his perfect physique. Mostly Peregrine just sat inside, especially those few weeks before the dreams had started.
Ebb was the one who worked (gathering seaweeds off the northeast coast), bought their food and cooked it. He’d almost been relieved when Peregrine started sleepwalking; at least something was getting him outside. Fearful and sensitive in the day, at night he sleep-staggered to the boundaries where forest wormed into city slum. He’d come home and make slow, slow love to Ebb, hold him fast against his chest before falling asleep. In the morning, Peregrine would beg him to forget work for the day, for every day. But Ebb always pulled on his rain jacket and rain boots over his wet suit, kissed him and left for the sea.
Then, a week ago, Peregrine said it was time. Time for what? Ebb had asked. Time for you to meet my mother.
Peregrine’s movements through the swamp had become heavy, silken; his intoxicated sway was gone. Ebb felt like the drunk now, slipping in mud, brushing away feathery cycads with erratic swats, expecting spider webs. He shook off the clacking shudder that threatened to wrack his spine. Sand fleas, crabs, and bloodworms he could handle, but spiders.
“Was that really necessary?” he said. “Back there? Dragging me—”
“I wanted to hold you,” Peregrine interrupted. “I couldn’t be bothered wasting time with spiders.”
Ebb shuddered, but accepted his answer. It was exactly what he’d wanted to hear.
“Is this place an old haunt of yours?” he asked. Five years with the man and he knew so little of his past. Peregrine always said he hadn’t lived before they’d met and Ebb always rolled his eyes and said, yeah, I certainly haven’t heard that one before.
Peregrine stopped beside a sinkhole, a pit full of mud like wet ash, and gave his answer.
“In a way,” he said, “it’s the eldest of my haunts. I was born here.” He pointed to the hole. “She pushed me out and I surfaced with the decomposed bodies of her former children clinging to my face. I wish you had been there. I was beautiful, Ebb. More than I am now. My skin was blue and my eyes were rainbow like a beetle’s exoskeleton.”
“You’re beautiful now. Impossibly so,” Ebb muttered, with complete, gut-deep honesty. He’d never met anyone who engrossed him like Peregrine. Yet the man always spoke of how beautiful he’d once been. “Anyway, what sort of woman gives birth in a swamp, in the remains of her dead children?” he asked. He reached forward and grabbed a handful of his partner’s mane. What sort of man jokes about being born in the leftovers of his rotted siblings? Peregrine, of course. What sort of man stays with a lover who likes to gag him with a raw eel when they fuck? I do, of course.
“What sort of mother?” Peregrine asked, then answered himself: “Mine.” He jerked his head and the fistful of hair Ebb held came away in his hand. Ebb stared at it, breath shallow.
Peregrine pulled up his hood. “I told you,” he said, bitterly. “I’m not like I once was.” He took Ebb’s wrist and drew him close. With no spider between them, Ebb came willingly.
“Are you okay?” Ebb whispered, cheek pressed against his lover’s jaw. “You’re sick, aren’t you? How did I miss it, I—” He could feel the fever hot along Peregrine’s skin, the frantic pulse of his blood.
“Shush,” Peregrine said, pulling out the tie holding back Ebb’s hair and running his hands through the loose yellow. “Damn it,” he said, after a moment.
“What?” Ebb asked, drawing back, sickness rising to his throat.
“Nothing,” Peregrine said, but held up his hands. His fingernails were gone. His thumbnail clung by a thread of cuticle. No blood, just flaking skin. “They just…fell off,” he said, half-smiling.
“No,” Ebb said faintly.
“Don’t worry,” Peregrine crooned, putting an arm around Ebb’s waist. He bit the skin behind Ebb’s ear. “I need you,” he said.
Ebb’s scalp and the back of his neck tightened, but not in fear. It was that feeling of slow, hot sand poured down his spine; lovely, warm. “Not now,” he told Peregrine, told himself.
“I told you, I need you.” His lover’s voice was raw and thick, like his throat was full of mud. Ebb struggled as Peregrine released his waist and jerked at his belt, but the air went out of him as they backed into a tree. He worried about bugs and spiders falling on his head, but he didn’t want to fight. Not with Peregrine’s musk-smell of sweet, fresh butter and mead, and his mouth there and his tongue there and his hands there, there, there. Why so weak? Ebb asked himself. But it wasn’t weakness. It was lust. Incineration. This was how he liked to be touched, aroused—with power, desperation. Before Peregrine, he spent years selling his body to get through school and life, giving himself up to desires seemingly strange and discrete, but all hunger and loneliness and home-searching at their core. That yearning became his world. It ate him up and spat him out, ready and willing, at Peregrine’s feet.
Peregrine, who had come to him that first evening at the lecture, in his wolfskin jacket and with a knife at Ebb’s throat. He’d done this during the intermission, in line for coffee. Had taken out this strange knife—its blade like the iridescent eyes of crocodiles, hilt an uncomfortable-looking, darkly polished piece of knots and warped wood—and laid its edge along Ebb’s jugular, asking can I buy you dinner? At the restaurant, Peregrine asked, can I fuck you if I pay for it? Then, after the sex, Peregrine had bought him again: I’ll pay for all your schooling if you’ll keep me. The choice had been easy for Ebb. Their love-making left him with an emptiness he’d always wanted, and he liked the man’s quiet, his quirks and inevitable pull. As Ebb worked on his MS in Aquatic Botany, they sunk deep into each other, smoking mugwort, sharing cream-rich tea, pillows, socks, feasts of live octopus.
It was after graduation that Peregrine started hurting him. When Ebb was still in school, the man just wanted to have sex in uncomfortable, dangerous places—in ocean-shallows as the tide crept close, in grimy public restrooms where broken bottles and wadded toilet paper littered the floor. But after Ebb graduated, Peregrine refused to go outside. He painted their room black, lined the shelves with jars of formaldehyde and animal fetuses, hung logs of mushrooms over their bed. He cut runes into Ebb’s belly and chest before they fucked, so they’d be red-slicked by the time they came. Afterwards, Peregrine would salt and lick the wounds. He’d have Ebb bring home dark rye bread and suet so they could make black pudding together with blood Peregrine tapped from his own wrists. Ebb didn’t mind the pain and strangeness, but sometimes he wondered if Peregrine was even human—or maybe it was that the man was truly human and everyone else just pretended. To Ebb, that visceral authenticity was irresistible; he knew humanity intimately, had played out too many of his client’s hidden desires to not know it. But they all wore their masks, except when they came to him crawling on their knees (or paid him to crawl on his knees to them). Peregrine, though…he wore humanity’s intestines on his sleeve. They were his sleeves. Or maybe it was that he had no skin. He had no fear. And that was what Ebb wanted. Dark emptiness. A drug to burn everything down. Yes, he worked on the days Peregrine wanted him home, but otherwise, he’d never been able to say no to him. And Peregrine knew it now as he ever had, because he released Ebb’s wrists and went to his knees.
He watched Ebb the whole time. Ebb could feel Peregrine’s gaze, though his own eyes were closed and stayed closed until he’d come. When Ebb opened them and buckled up his pants, Peregrine was standing, wiping honey from his mouth, licking it from his fingers.
“Is that…me?” Ebb said.
Peregrine laughed softly. “Of course. Want a taste?”
“Fine.” He wiped his hands on his pants.
“Let me see them. Your hands, Peregrine,” he clarified when the man tilted his head. Peregrine shrugged and put both of his hands into Ebb’s. “But…”
“They grew back,” Peregrine told him.
“No. That’s not possible.” Fear was returning, now that his lust was dissolving. Anyway, Peregrine was wrong—partially. He had fingernails, yes, but not. They looked wrong, like the tawny striped shell of a snail. “This isn’t possible.”
Peregrine ignored him and asked, “How do my eyes look?”
Ebb stared at them closely. “Purple,” he said slowly, “but that’s just the light in this place.”
“It’s not. They’re purple. I mean it. Come on, we’re almost there.”
Ebb swallowed, and shook his head. It took him a moment to force the word out, but finally, it came. “No.”
Peregrine just stared.
“Let’s just please go back,” Ebb said. That thing he’d felt when Peregrine’s dreams had started, that one piece he couldn’t consume, was growing the farther they went into the mire. It was like Peregrine was peeling them apart.
“Just a little farther. Don’t you want to meet my mother?”
“But I already have, haven’t I? That spider? The pit full of her children’s muck? She’s the swamp, you said it yourself. So I’ve met her. I’m in her.” It was ridiculous to say, but it was the sort of thing Peregrine believed.
“No, you aren’t. Not yet,” he said quietly.
The ground punched up and shifted beneath his feet. He stumbled against Peregrine. Muttered, “What the hell?” with closed eyes as he pressed his face into his lover’s chest, wishing the rest of him wasn’t so far away.
“It’s her. She’s eager to see you.”
Or there’d been an earthquake. He felt Peregrine’s hand on his head, stroking his hair. He straightened and looked up for his lover’s eyes. Peregrine watched back, and put a hand on his stomach like he did when he was hungry. “Come on. We’re so close now,” Peregrine said, and pinned Ebb’s arms to his sides and pushed him on.
“I don’t want to,” Ebb mumbled. But he didn’t fight.
His lover’s smell of fermented molasses and buttermilk was too strong. His lover was too strong. He felt dry, as if when Peregrine had sucked him off, he’d taken something from him, something more than that strange honey-cum. Peregrine was draining him. He was a pig hung upside down with its throat cut—which would have been fine, if it had been mutual, if he could have cut Peregrine’s throat, too.
Whatever it was, Ebb couldn’t move. This was what he wanted, after all. To be betrayed, but only by Peregrine. To hurt. But only at his lover’s hands. Because he could trust they wouldn’t leave him.
Peregrine nudged him off the muddy expanse they’d been wandering along, into water. It was surprisingly pleasant and clear, Ebb noted absently as he floated belly-up. He let his fingers trail through the water, thinking of how it might feel even nicer if he had no nails.
“Bet you’re glad I never lost any weight. I float better this way,” he said, as Peregrine stepped off an underwater ledge. The surface came up high on his lover’s chest as he pulled Ebb along.
For awhile, he drifted, half-asleep, and only woke fully when they stopped moving.
“We’re here,” Peregrine said, mouth close to his ear.
Ebb opened his eyes and looked up to see a huge cypress stretched far above their heads. White catkins hung from it. He laughed and struggled in the water a moment, till his feet sank into the silt at the bottom. The water lapped at his bottom lip. “Is this what you wanted to show me? This tree’s your mother?”
“Oh, yes. She’s very close now.” But Peregrine wasn’t looking at the cypress. Ebb followed his gaze, far off, beyond the other water-bound trees. It was dark in the mire, but Ebb could see an approaching murk, seeping beneath the surface.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“She’s coming,” Peregrine said, kissing Ebb’s forehead. Then he took out his knife.
Ebb went still. He hadn’t seen this coming, but he knew what the knife was for. He almost laughed. He should have known, he should’ve expected this, but of course he hadn’t. He never would have guessed. How could he have? The closer you are to something, the harder it is to see it.
Peregrine lifted and dropped the blade; Ebb dropped with it, plunging underwater. He clenched his fists and teeth like the blade had bit him, but it hadn’t and anyway, it didn’t matter; everything still hurt and devouring was so different than dying. He’d done so much for Peregrine, given so much. But this was Ebb’s line. He wanted emptiness, not an end to it.
The knife stabbed into his right shoulder as he clawed through the silt. His arm felt wet and cold. Darkness swilled into his open eyes and flowed around the cypress trunks till his head was lifted up out of the water.
“Don’t struggle, Ebb,” Peregrine said, holding him up by a handful of hair. “I love you so. See, she’s coming for you. She wants to meet you.” Peregrine grit his jaw like he always did in hate and frustration, tongue mashed against his front teeth. Ebb watched the slight gaps between them fill with blood and mud. He jerked at Peregrine’s grip, felt hair rip; he couldn’t lift his stabbed arm, but he clawed with the other at his lover’s chest and hair. Feeble attempts, every one. He felt sleepy, as if the knife was a sedative.
Peregrine spoke over his silent struggles. “My mother always wants for herself anything I have, anything I’ve ever had. Venison, puppies, lovers. And you know what? I give them to her. I always have. So I can be free, so I can be human.”
Ebb leaned against his vice-arm. “Peregrine, please, let me go.” The words were like crabs, claw-hung from his bottom lip, trying to crawl back down his throat. “We can escape and I’ll keep you safe from her, I promise. You’re mine as much as I’m yours and I know well what that belonging means, requires. We have time, but we have to go.” Lies, though. He knew they were. The water fused into darkness and the cypress’ white catkins fluttered without wind. They reached towards Ebb and his lover.
“See how she watches, Ebb? She wants you, more than I ever could,” Peregrine said. Ebb wished he could pretend he heard sadness in those last few words.
Air brushed his face, startling him; it was so thick in here. The breeze was the first he’d felt since entering the mire. On the tree, the catkins stirred and detached, drifting in a trailing mass, pearly canines sliding from their small flowers.
“No…” he whispered, because he knew what happened next, no matter how impossible—the catkins would latch onto him and it would all be over.
Peregrine released him before he could struggle. Ebb sloshed through the water, but the catkins flurried around his face. They pricked his flesh and froze him.
Peregrine stood back and watched. Ebb pleaded with wide eyes through the catkin’s pale haze—which was mad, he knew; his lover had just stabbed him, after all. Peregrine wasn’t going to save him; his face was unrecognizable with greed. Or was it love? Why can’t I tell them apart? Ebb wondered, desperate. Why the fuck do I care right now?
“Not yet, mother,” Peregrine hissed and ripped the catkins from Ebb’s head. Darkness shifted to the mire’s flower-scattered surface. It felt rough against Ebb’s skin. “Soon, mother, soon,” Peregrine murmured, running his fingers across Ebb’s throat. “Just let me have my last few moments.”
Ebb wanted to cringe away. He wanted to lean into his lover’s palms. He couldn’t do both, so he didn’t move.
“She’s just keeping me alive. You understand that, right?” Peregrine said. Ebb said nothing. “I’m just an infant,” Peregrine went on. “What she makes of you becomes milk for me. Eating is her way of loving. Don’t you think consumption is the truest form of love? I mean, fucking’s no different, right? I enter you, you consume me.”
Don’t you dare compare us. I love you. She doesn’t. Ebb forced air into his lungs, forced his mouth to move. “Don’t you know she’s using you? You’re just her lure.”
“Perhaps. But I have to live somehow. This is just how it is. After I kill you, the waters will pull me back to that pit where I’ll rot and then be reborn—because of you, Ebb. You keep me human, don’t you know that? God, I want you so much.”
Ebb forced air into his lungs. “So have me, Peregrine. Just once more, and then you can kill me.”
“Fuck, I want that so much,” Peregrine said, voice shivering, the hand on Ebb’s face shaking. “Want you so much…”
Ebb coughed, limbs twitching. Peregrine’s touch torched a thousand memories of a thousand touches, so much emptier, and far warmer. It burned up his daze.
Ebb spun around, choking out, “So take me.” He gripped Peregrine’s knife-hand and shoved the blade into his lover’s throat, ripped it out.
Ebb dove below, screaming at himself—dead, dead, dead—spewing bubbles. But he knew it was a lie. A knife wasn’t going to kill Peregrine. Not even a knife in the throat.
Swamp-water was nothing like the ocean. The sea was giant and hollow; the swamp was primal stew. He’d been free-diving kelp beds for years; he could escape this place, easy. Land wasn’t far; nothing gave chase as he swam, or as he scrambled from the slough. His arm felt like it was ripping off. He wished it would. Mud sucked at his soles, but didn’t slow him. Something trailed beneath the water’s surface, but it didn’t rise, just lapped at the bank as he ran.
Something was wrong, of course, and not just the fact that Peregrine wasn’t chasing him. It was Ebb that was wrong. He’d been wrong, for years. Energy spit heavy and bright through his veins and he thought, I’m leaving myself behind.
He’d been wrong about Peregrine; he’d been wrong about himself. We both cling to emptiness, yes. That’s true. But I crave it and Peregrine leaves it in his wake. I have too much of everything in me, he has too little. We aren’t the same, and that’s good. Because we can give each other what we need.
Ebb wanted the space between fingers and teeth, the constant restarting, the void before burgeoning. And so he stopped. And turned. Peregrine stood at his back, grinning at him from the shallows, purple-eyed with a mane of lank, wet marsh grasses. His smile was full of broken, pointed teeth and punctured bladderwrack, but it was still Peregrine. He gripped Ebb’s forearm and hauled him close. Pinned him on his back, coughing, splattering seawater across his face. Ebb couldn’t see his lover’s ruined throat for all the mud.
“See what I am without you, Ebb?” Peregrine groaned. His voice was guttural and fractured. Then he smiled and it was endearing as always, even with his chaotic mess of teeth and seaweed. “I won’t let her have you, Ebb. I won’t.” Ebb smiled back as Peregrine leaned down, nuzzled his face against his partner’s throat, kissed it, bit it out.
Ebb arched his neck into Peregrine’s mouth, into his teeth. He felt for his lover’s own throat—it was gone. He smiled wider as Peregrine’s tongue found his esophagus. This was how it was supposed to be. A feast.
He knew his lover’s hunger and thoughts and dwindling life. Peregrine’s mind reminded Ebb of swimming beneath a warm, waterless ocean at night, and he could feel moss against his bare feet. Water filled their bodies, and catkins, rotting wood and leaves. The swamp was engulfing them; they were eating the swamp.
They became enormous, a vortex of feeding. Not man, not human. Pregnant wilderness.
Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.
The next birds were larger: larks and grackles. They crawled their way not just out of the dirt round Elyse’s own house, the old Devereaux homestead, but farther out west, towards the town of St. Auburn. When Elyse drove down for her week’s worth of groceries, she could see the holes by the sides of the fields, the raw earth scuffed up and still teeming with worm-life. The birds picked at the worms for their meals, pulling them like long threads from a sweater, unweaving their bodies’ hard wet work. Sometimes the corn had died in patterns close to the holes, like it had been burned.
Elyse thought the town’s new sheriff would notice, and he turned up just as the grackles gave way to magpies. His old police cruiser ground in the driveway, wheels spinning on rock, a sound she knew, and she went out on the front porch to meet him. She was barefoot. She did not like to wear shoes. An old superstition; she had not outgrown it.
“Sheriff,” she said.
He squinted through sunlight. Did not approach her. “Miss Mayhew.”
“Is there something I can help you with?”
She was aware of the way she must look to his eye: her black hair tangled, autumn skin sunburned, the backs of her hands and her wrists cross-hatched where she’d scraped them rooting through cedar and yew. She would have put on a whiter dress, she thought, something less hedge-witching than wine-colored cotton—but no, let him see it, the darker stains on it.
“Some strange reports,” he said. “What you might call violations.”
A magpie took flight over his head: black-and-white plumage precise and foreign. The sheriff raised his hand in a gesture to ward off ill luck—then caught himself. Still, he tracked the bird on the skyline.
“One for sorrow,” Elyse said.
“Hell of a lot more than one in town. If you’ll excuse my saying.”
She held his gaze, thought about staring him down. She couldn’t, though, summon up the anger. She toed the peeling paint of the porch. “It’s not my work,” she said. “You know that. And he’s under the dirt.”
“Still,” he said. He had keen eyes, blue eyes. Hair the sandy color of birch when you’d stripped all of the pale skin off it. And he gave her that same kind of stripped-plain look. “It’d be best if you scared the birds off.”
They both looked up, to the gabled rooftop. The brown slates of it were covered in birds, a shifting mass of dappled feathers. The house looked alive. Elyse heard a burst of song—a lark, she thought—and then another bird singing, and another bird, but none of the songs seemed quite complete. They quit mid-pitch, fell off too soon, as though the birds had not learned the notes yet; as though no one, in the places they had come from, had ever been able to teach them the tune.
“They’re birds,” Elyse said. She crossed her arms: final. “They’re not my creatures. They’ll do what birds do.”
But larger birds began to surface: a turkey vulture, a hawk or two. There was talk in St. Auburn about a condor. A farmer in Woodbine shot a goose, and turned up on Elyse’s doorstep.
“Cut it open,” he said, “to clean out the soft parts. For cooking. Found a letter addressed to you.” He held out the letter: blood-stained and wrinkled. It hadn’t been opened.
Elyse looked down and knew what spindly hand had written that address. She touched the paper, dry as the rue she kept hanging over her kitchen counters. It was a special kind of lacewing dryness. It made her think of insects that moved in the summer night, all wings and shadows. They might have been ten thousand years in the tomb by the time she found them, all lifeless. Just tinder. She swept them off of the porch with a broom, thinking how they had been wet with life once.
The farmer said, “Do you want the feathers?”
Startled, she looked up.
“The bones and feathers. I saved the most of the bird for you.”
He was a shy man, with that shut country look to his face, and she took the bones and feathers because she didn’t know what else to do. All of it fit in one plastic bag: a mass of down and sinew, so light now that the meat was not on it.
She waved goodbye to the farmer’s truck. It bounced down towards the two-line blacktop. She could see black birds circle over the cornfields. The bright of the sun turned their wings to fishhooks. She could not say if they were crows or vultures. The wind sighed; dust stirred, and the corn moved.
Later she sat and read the letter. The lamp in the kitchen wrote a curve on the whitewood top of the breakfast table. The letter, when she held it up to the light, was marked with blood through and through. She could still read the writing, crooked and narrow.
My dear Elyse,
I write from the ocean. I cannot know what messages have reached you. Perhaps you do not know there is an ocean. I mean the ocean that is here, not the Atlantic or the Pacific or any such body. The body here is not seawater. It is dark in your hand, and the double moons cast no kind of reflection on it. Sometimes I can see fish in the water, or some things that look like fish, the color of fish if you peeled the skin off them, but they move so fast they drop from view.
I am never hungry here, and I don’t drink the water. I lie in the well of the boat to sleep, but it seems sleep is not of this country. I watch the stars. They still turn in a wheel, the strange stars I wrote you about. And sometimes I sail past the shapes of islands and see lanterns on them—are they lanterns? is that the word?—and I hear voices, but not any human voices. The lanterns scatter when I come near.
I think about you, the stroke of an eyebrow, the shell of an ear, the map of your hairline. That long uncharted archipelago you make with all the parts of your spine. There is nothing I forget about you.
When she was done, she folded the page back in segments. She poured herself a finger of whiskey and drank it just out of the lamplight. Dusk had gone and darkness was settled. Insects were pocking their bodies on glass, trying to come in out of the night. Peter’s work boots were still in the corner. She had not moved them in his absence. The mud on them had long since dried. Flakes had cracked off of the leather like skin. Tomorrow, she thought, she would put them outside; out on the porch, maybe clean the soles. Prise the mud off with a pocketknife.
She slept sitting up in the velvet armchair. Her mother had told her that when witches died in the old days, no one who’d seen or known them would sleep in a straight-bed for a fortnight, for fear that the witch would sit on their chest and steal the breath from them. Elyse had tried to picture this: the witch pressing his ghost against a body, trying to get what was inside. She had thought, I just want to press my body against another body, when I’m a witch and I die. But she knew bodies did not work like this; had known it already when she was a child.
In the morning, the sheriff was on her porch step. His hat was in his hands. He stood up fast when he heard the door open. “Miss Mayhew,” he said.
She was wearing a gray cotton dress with flowers. The weight of her long black hair was wet. She still felt scrubbed-clean, unshelled by the shower. She didn’t want to face a man like that. She put Peter’s boots down on the porch boards, rested a hand on her hip. “Sheriff,” she said. “Have you come to arrest me?”
“No, ma’am.” He put his hat back on his head; went around to his car and opened the trunk. He came back with a white swan in his hands. It was dead: there was blood still on its chest-feathers, gone dark now, not that living red. She could see the place where the bullet was in it. Its wings and its lithe neck drooped in death.
She reached out and put one hand on a wing. Lightly, only: the brush of her fingers. She didn’t want to trouble it.
“Fellow out in Marsdale brought it down. I figured you’d know what to do with it.” The sheriff fixed her with his gaze. His face was very patient.
“It’s not mine.”
“Never said it was. A letter, though, once it’s sent…”
Elyse said, “You spend too much time talking to farmers.” But she took the swan from him. It felt like a child, the weight in her arms. Cradling was what you called the motion. There was no other way to carry it.
She didn’t want the law in her house. There was lead and gunpowder lining the threshold, cloves over the door to guard against it. But she asked the sheriff, “Have you got a name?”
He paused halfway to turning. “Linden.”
“You’ll bring the birds?”
“When I find them.”
“Did you shoot this one down?” She hefted the swan a little.
He looked at her with those August sky eyes, like she was confusing to him. “No, ma’am. I never had much time for hunting birds.”
Elyse said, “Only men.”
Later she watched him drive off, the lone car on the road. It was early, still, and the air was cold. Autumn had started moving in: setting the first of its furniture up in the room that summer had not vacated.
There was no point to putting off unpleasant tasks. She set the swan on a broad cutting board and went to work dismantling it. The feathers went first, in matted handfuls, because she could make some use of them. Then she took the butchering knife and carved a space between the ribs. She had to snap the breastbone first. It was hard, the bone slippery in her grip. Even birds had such tough bones, bodies built for survival. She marveled at it. But when she got into the soft meat of organs, she found the letter almost at once, feeling for it with her fingertips. The same envelope, sealed and dirty; the same precise and crooked address.
She opened it and read it with the blood still on her hands.
I worry that time doesn’t pass for you the way it does here. I worry that I’ll get out of sync before I find you, before I find my way back. I told you about the birds in the forest, how they seemed to migrate so fast, so that one moment there were summer birds, then just starlings. And moss seemed to cover the bark of trees as I walked past. Like everything was living in motion. I saw a flower open and close. A fox get carried apart by ants, till all that was left was the bones of it. I want to date these letters somehow, but don’t think I can.
I am following the railroad out towards the ocean. There are no trains ever, only tracks. I see animals, but no other people. Sometimes lights very far in the distance, lights that look like cars in the dusk, driving on highways, out to the west. If there are train tracks, why not cars? But it makes me so sad to see them.
I miss our own quiet country road. I miss the unmarked settler graves you found along it, that summer that we went bone-hunting. You were the one who could find the dead where the ground hid them under its skin. You are a better witch than I was. I admit it. I miss the way you smelled of witchcraft. Soot on your fingertips, sage and hyssop, sweet dock and cedar tips. Even in the thick of the forest, nothing here has a scent.
Be safe and know I am trying to reach you.
Elyse put the letter beside its cousin, in a box she had once kept recipes in. She finished stripping the swan of feathers and set them aside. The meat and bones and skin she took outside and laid in the garden, hoping wolves would come to eat at it—the skinny wolves that haunted the fields, gray interlopers. Being a witch, Elyse had nothing to fear from their presence. The townsfolk objected, were frightened of them. But Peter had had the gift of wolf-speaking, and when Elyse saw their black shapes in the night, the glint of their eyes, she thought of him.
Out in the yard, she saw new hollows, places where birds were still breaking the surface. The roof of her house was thick and busy. A crane landed for a moment, ghostly white legs crooked and graceful, then flourished its wings and was flying again. Elyse could not think why the sheriff had spared her. By rights, she should have been taken in; the birds were evidence of witching, and this was the place they had marked as their home. Men had been put in the ground for less; she would know. She would know.
She cleaned off the cutting board in the kitchen; made a sandwich, cut it in two. The whole house smelled of blood and magic. She could hear the birds on the roof. For a long time, when Peter went into the ground, she had not eaten. It had been hard to swallow, hard to chew; hard even to take the knives from their drawers, to knead the bread, measure coffee to brew. This was not a widow’s grief, or not all of it; green onions, when she touched them, sprouted anew, and eggs cracked, and the yolks crawled out on the counter. Potatoes sent out new roots. A leg of lamb once pulsed with blood. She feared what her hands might do, while something in her reached for resurrection. It was easier not to touch food.
The wolves left rabbits out on her doorstep. A whole deer once, its eyes still dark, its dun skin soft and smooth. Wolves, she thought, had simple thoughts. Hunger, not-hunger, and sometimes the moon.
The sheriff—newly appointed—had brought a casserole. From the ladies down at Mission Valley, he said. Then another day: from the ladies at St. Jude’s. Elyse had thought they came from the same kitchen.
“Charity,” she’d said: scornful in her anger.
He’d shrugged: awkward in the new uniform. “It’s just food.”
Now she ate in hard little bites. A hummingbird floated at the window, all dark green chest and nose like a needle. It was too small to carry a letter, she thought. Maybe just the tiniest rune, written down on a thin strip of paper, wrapped round its heart. Or the very same rune, cut into the fluttering muscle. Carved in one motion: a word, a wound.
She drove into town. The neighbors were watching. She wore her best dress: bright red, with a plume of flowers that spread up across her chest. Her hair was unbrushed; it frayed like a spume of water just breaking off the ocean. She’d thought for a moment of going barefoot; instead, wore Peter’s old work boots. She shopped through the aisles of the little co-op, ignoring the whispers. Her feet were heavy, and she liked it; felt knobbly and wild, substantial, good.
In frozen foods, a woman stared: somebody’s mother or grandmother, in a lime-green-colored cardigan and laced white tennis shoes. The cashier, through heavy eyelashes, kept sneaking furtive looks. She didn’t want to touch Elyse’s money, not at first; then grabbed it in one rushed fistful and shoved it under the register’s hooks, breathing out in one heavy exhale.
Outside, Elyse leant against the store and ate an apple. Scattered birds came and sat at her feet. The wind, when it blew, had a charred spark to it: the scent of autumn or witching or both, embers blossoming, ashy and new. She licked her lips. The apple was still green, sour.
A car pulled up, dust-covered: the sheriff. He rolled down his window. “Miss Mayhew.”
“Linden,” she said.
“You have an audience.” He nodded at the birds.
He rummaged in the passenger seat for a moment; came back with a bundle of letters that he held out in the air. “Got something for you.”
She stepped forward to take it. There were five or six letters, she thought. Hard to tell. Her fingers were sticky from the apple. Her hand brushed the sheriff’s. She glanced at him.
“Told folks to bring in what they find. They ought to pay me for delivering your mail,” he said.
Elyse didn’t know what to say. She said, “I appreciate the gesture.”
The sheriff shrugged. “Any idea when this might end?”
“The birds. The whole damn uncanny.”
She moved back, minding her feet round the birds. Some rose in a rush; one perched on her shoulder. “I’m not doing it,” she said.
“I know that. Just hunting around for some insight.” He started to roll up his window, then paused. “Got a cider tree in my backyard, been giving up apples early. If you like them. I don’t have much use for so many.”
Elyse looked down at the core in her hand. She could see her own teethmarks in the white flesh. “I’d like that,” she said.
“I’ll bring some around with the next batch of letters.”
He left. Elyse watched. The bird on her shoulder toyed with an uncoiled strand of her hair. She brushed it aside, harsh and impatient. Witches had to be careful with hair, with toenails and blood, with bones and eyelashes; leave any part of yourself, unaware, and someone, somewhere, would set it against you. Burn what you shed: that was the lesson. She combed her thick hair back with her fingers, feeling its mass, its thousand snares.
At dusk, she lit a lamp with witch-fire and sat on the porch. Moths came crawling through still air, and clicking junebugs with hard little bodies. A few fireflies made themselves signal flares. Elyse sipped wine from a solid glass jam jar; unfolded the letters.
There is a road that leads down to the sea. I have to believe that it’s the way out, the one. I have to believe.
Seagulls keep circling as I walk. It’s winter here already. But things keep pushing up through the snow; not plants, exactly. I can’t ever seem to get warmer or colder, but I feel it in objects: the ice, the heat. I never thought I would miss the chill, but I do; I think of when I would run alongside the wolves, in December or January, and come home to find the house full of warmth. You at the kitchen sink: peeling rosemary leaves from the stalk, slicing ginger, the smell prickling.
I never see another person. I wonder where they all must be? No ferrymen, even; no toll-takers. Only me. I write these letters to keep words alive. It gets strange when I don’t speak. I forgot the name for an arum lily the other day; couldn’t think of it, just couldn’t—think. Then I worried I’d get like the wolves. There’d be a wilderness that I couldn’t come in from. You’d be inside a warm scented house. I’d come to the window; I’d press my cheek just there, against the pane of glass. But you wouldn’t ever let me inside. By then I’d be just claws and teeth.
Don’t lock me out, O arum lily. O rose of Sharon, don’t forget me.
She put that letter to one side. She didn’t want to go on with the rest. She didn’t know if she had the strength. A moth batted up against her hand. She nudged it away gently. The witch-fire burned with a red-moon light inside its lamp, wavering. Out in the dark, a nightingale called. There was no answer. The silence waited; went on waiting.
At last she stood and gathered the letters. She would read them, she thought, when she was in bed. She doused the lamp and went indoors. The air was sticky: the end of summer. It promised no easy sleep.
I cannot remember the names of colors. I put my ear to the railroad tracks and hear a rumbling. Something moves under the earth, a light or a dark thing. Do you think that if I die in this place, I’ll go in the ground and find another country, just a little bit dimmer and stranger than this one? I don’t want to die again, Elyse.
At night here the stars are very thick, and I think that none of the animals sleep. I hear them moving out in the forest. Pacing, clawing; the stir of air when they breathe…
Sometimes I think I could walk on this water. The world here is flat and like a dream. I walked on water once before—you remember—the old mill pond—handspan insects—Spanish moss drooping—soaking our socks right up to the ankles. It smelled like a color. Cut vegetables. Herb beds. Dowsing rods. Grave digging. But how could I make the spell last so long here? You’re far from me; I see how far. It just stretches on, the sea. Sea, is what we used to call it.
I see catamarans out on the horizon. Catamarans: is that the word I mean? Something floating, something with sails. It looked like a cut lily. Then I was homesick, crying for you, but I can’t cry in this country. I make the motion but no tears come. What is the name for that kind of motion? It isn’t a color. It tastes of salt. It’s like and not like breathing. I know you’ll remember the word for it…
I woke in the dark green wild of a forest, filled with birds, all migrating…
It rained for a week, and the birds started dying. The sky up over the fields was blue—not the cloudless blue of an arid August, but a peat-smoke color. Peter’s blue. His eyes had once been almost that color. Elyse waited to feel melancholy.
The rain was a steady, scouring fall. It turned dirt to muck and washed out seeds that Elyse had planted in the herb garden. She went out to eye the ongoing damage. Her blouse and skirt plastered flat under siege; her hair stuck to her face and shoulders. She wiped the water out of her eyes and saw two dead birds: a crow and a starling. They were lying feet-up by the lemon verbena. Rain had distorted the shape of their wings.
Elyse scraped them into a cardboard shoebox and brought them inside. They did not smell like anything: not particularly of death, nor even of herb beds. No worms or beetle-marks could be seen. When she touched them, Elyse could feel the echo of witchcraft under their feathers, very faintly. She resisted the urge to cut them open, to check for letters. If every bird had a letter, she thought—all the sparrows and larks, the nightingales, all the geese, every bird that had crawled its way up… She imagined the envelopes moldering in boxes, more than she could ever read.
The next day she found three more birds in the front yard: three grackles, dead, with storm-battered wings. She picked them up, carried them to the porch by the hooks of their little clawed feet. Over yonder the crust of the earth was upset, by the root of a live oak tree, where another bird was scrabbling to surface. Its curved beak poked up. A kestrel, she thought, or some kind of hawk.
It was still raining.
The sheriff came by one morning, early, when Elyse was still asleep. Later she woke and went out on the porch. A milk crate of apples was waiting, and a grocery sack filled with water-stained letters. The apples were small and hard, but sweet-smelling. She rolled one in the palm of her hand. Broke its skin with her teeth. It tasted like autumn, red and familiar. A note on the crate said:
Hope didn’t wake you. Harvest good. Need to talk re: plague of birds. Will swing by later this wk.
She smiled, and was mystified by the motion. She touched her hand to her lips, her cheek. The smile remained. She finished the apple, bemused, watching the branches of wide trees bow in the rain. She could see on them the tips of autumn, leaves beginning to shine like copper. Soon the whole would be ablaze.
She carried the apples indoors to the kitchen, thought of pie-making. The letters she left in their bag on the porch. They could hardly get more battered or wet. She left the door open to smell the rain. Clouds shifted on the far horizon. The light got darker, then lighter again. She went barefoot all day, enjoying the feeling, the thrill of the first cold starting to set.
Nineteen birds died in the garden that week. She picked them up and stowed them in boxes; set them on the porch with the rest.
It was dusk when the sheriff drove up the gravel. The clouds had cleared, but the twilight was heavy: damp and filled with swollen scents. Elyse sat on the edge of the porch. There was mud on the narrow crests of her ankles. She drank cider cold from a jar in her hand.
The sheriff approached. He said, “Storm’s broken.”
“Not much of a storm.”
“You say that, and yet I got a river over in Woodbine’s been flooding. Water up all the way to the town line. Carrying off houses. Power’s down.”
“Is it.” She’d never had much use for that kind of power.
“Funny thing: lot of dead birds in that flood. Not just river birds. Eagles. Cactus wrens. Your fair number of sparrows, seeing as lately we’re overrun.” His eyes strayed to the back of the porch, where the bodies of all the dead birds sat. Elyse had not bothered to cover them over. She had found that the wolves and the foxes and vultures were not interested in them, not unless she took out the heart, took the witchcraft and made them just birds again. They took up a lot of room on the porch. She’d stopped counting them.
“Seems you have a problem yourself,” the sheriff said.
Elyse took a sip of murky cider. “Why don’t you sit down,” she said.
He did: settling long legs on the porch stoop. She offered him the mason jar. He drank from it and grimaced. “Are those my apples?”
“Put to good use.”
“I remember them having less of a kick.”
They sat in silence for a while. Moths moved in the early darkness. A mourning dove uttered a short sad cry and plunged to its death, pale gray and not particularly graceful. Neither Elyse nor the sheriff paid much mind to it.
“They’ll all die eventually,” Elyse said. “It’s in their nature.”
“And then? They die, but they don’t go away. Can’t seem to burn or bury ’em.”
She didn’t know how to answer that statement.
He sighed. “I was real sorry about what happened to your husband.”
“It’s the law. He knew the risk he ran.”
“The witch woman of Auburn County?” She laughed. The sound rasped her throat. “If you’ve come for repenting—”
“No.” He drank again from the jar. “I was there that day at the station. You know.”
“I knew you might have been.”
“I should have done something. I wanted to.”
Elyse pushed one bare toe down in the dirt. The rain had left it rich and wet. “They planted quick-tree—witchbane—all around his grave so witches can’t come near. Standard procedure. Can’t even visit.”
“They don’t want him coming back.”
“He’s not coming back,” Elyse said. She covered her mouth.
“No,” the sheriff said.
She felt his hand on her hand in the dark. Just a touch, nothing more or less.
She asked, “So what the hell do I do with all these birds?”
He laughed: a low and gentle sound. “Have you considered witchcraft?”
“It’s against the law.”
“I promise not to look.”
He stood up and turned his back, placing his broad hands over his eyes. A joke.
“No,” Elyse said. “Look. I want you to look.”
It was almost night by then, but she could still see his face. He leveled his curious eyes on her. She walked out in the yard and picked up the dove. It was still slightly warm, like a stone in summer, ghosting with heat when the sun has gone down. She could feel the magic inside it, inert.
“I can’t bring them to life,” she said. “Not in a way you would want. The witchcraft doesn’t work like that. I don’t think they were real birds to start with, you know. Just other things made into flesh.”
“Sure seem real enough when they’re eating the sweet corn. They’ve got bones and blood, don’t they?”
“Lots of things have that.” She thought of Peter, lost somewhere on his ocean, long underground. For a moment she felt his lips on her neck, his breath against her collarbone. But he was not really Peter anymore. He was speaking a language, a kind of wolf-language, that she had not learned yet.
She held the dove up close to her heart. A white glow started between her hands. There was no heat to it, no smell and no texture. Still, it made her flinch. She forced herself to hold very steady. She felt the dove fold up like paper. The weight of it lessened. When she opened her hands, there was nothing in them but pale gray ashes. Fistfuls of ashes, and bits of burned paper. She could see the ink on some of them. She let the wind take them out towards the cornfields. She wiped her hands against the skirt. The air smelled of witching, a mournful scent.
“There,” she said. “Just wishes and paper. Nothing to it.”
She looked at the sheriff. She thought he’d been crying. The magic sometimes took them like that. She affected not to see his expression. Men got odd. She leaned against the porch railing.
“I’ll have to do all of them, one by one. Better to get it done fast,” she said.
“You want to make a night of it?” His look was not very readable.
Elyse tilted her head. “You won’t be needed.”
“I know,” he said.
After a moment’s pause, she said, “It’ll be a long night, so you’d better come in, then. Have something to eat, find a place to set down.”
The doorway was still guarded by gunpowder. She broke the line of it as she passed. Later she could take down the cloves, unmark the lead; redo the witching, to keep out what needed keeping out, and keep in what needed keeping in.
It stretches so far, this scentless water. Every day I forget and forget. I wave to the flowers that drift in the distance. What is their name again? There was something I promised not to lose. I locked it in the cage of my chest. I can feel it there, like a bright-winged bird. But the bird is restless…
Elyse. Elyse I. Everyday I think. Elyse. Elyse, Elyse: forget.
Sometimes a bird still struggles through to the surface, breath coming in unsteady gasps—even in the dead of winter. Elyse finds and carries them in her bare hands to the reed birdcage at the back of the house. They don’t live long. But she feeds raw seed to them, coaxing the life in them while she can. At night they sing (they are all songbirds) and when she wakes, she feels she can almost finish it: the last line of the song they are singing. She feels it in her bones, that coming warmth, the completeness.