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Trees Struck by Lightning Burning From the Inside Out, by Emily Lundgren

It is sweet and fitting to die with one’s pack under the full moon, but the sky is clouded by the city lights: orange and yellow and red like fire. Roque is running. Like a cracked whip, without sense. Under a sliver of jagged sound, under the leering fray of glossy towers, he smells a dog without a leash, the sharp of silvered bolts. He sees a woman with a cardboard sign reading something-something about the world, who catches his eye, whose own eyes widen, whose mouth opens and makes a howling noise: something-something about wolves! wolves! The road towards dawn outstretches before him, choking on cars and steam and fur and bone. Roque is running, running. His paws thump in tandem with the code of his heart, and he transforms.

I shit you not, the den was in this underground shithole out by the train tracks. Outside, on the gate leading to it, there was an honest-to-god sign that said NO DUMPING, but as soon as we crossed beyond the gate we had to navigate piles of actual junk. Old coils of bedspring, plastic toys, a sagging couch, at least five ancient television sets, a mountain of cassettes. On the gravel, spools of black videotape were tangled in neatly arranged piles, like someone decided to sit there and chew apart all the plastic. The den itself was past all that shit, in the rubble of an enclave painted with the words FAIR IS FOUL & FOUL IS FAIR FUCKERS. Some real nice digs.

There shouldn’t be a fire pit. I know we’re all thinking it—the wild ones, they’re not supposed to have thumbs, you know? After the carnage, some of us stand near the arrangement of cinderblocks that circle the fire pit like sad-ass lawn chairs. Our crossbows hang limp in our hands. Someone’s phone goes off but we don’t even pick it up. This fire pit is fucking weird, none of us says just yet. It looks like a stump, the midsection carved in a big X with raw pulsing pinks and reds at its heart, peeling the core back white. The stump sits in a charred indentation in the ground, and it reminds me of one summer when lightning struck a tree on the farm and ate it from the inside out. Once in a lifetime, tops.

Behind us, snaking from beneath the circular enclave that might’ve once had something to do with trains, there’s a root-path leading crooked into the den. If we listen, which we all do, we can hear shouting. Will and the rest of us are still down there, probably counting up the corpses. They didn’t really fight us when we found them, and I know we’re all sort of disappointed. They howled and cried and clawed at the dirt but their den was nothing but damp earth and dead ends. Wolves used to live in caves or in the woods, but shit, where can you find places like that anymore? From the earth’s belly, I hear Will start up about skinning their hides.

Someone’s phone goes off and this time it gets answered. This shakes us apart, gets us moving. So what if they carved a stump and made a fire and sat here at night watching it with their dumb eyes? We round the perimeter, keep watch. Another of us takes out his phone, too, and snaps a few pictures. “This fire pit is fucking weird,” he’s the first to say. “I’m putting this thing on Instagram.” I shrug. I got rid of all that shit after my parents died. Facebook before the funeral—then afterwards, Twitter, then Tumblr, even Snapchat, and definitely my Grindr profile. Online, time vaults would lurch open at the stupidest times. I’d be checking my phone in bed and then next thing I knew, my Ma’s face would peer up at me and I’d go to her profile, which I should’ve deleted a long time ago, but never did. I’d reread the RIPs, the thoughts and prayers, and I guess there was probably a way to disable all that shit, like unfollow her, but I never did. I just shut it all down. Now I only talk to fellow hunters, I guess.

Growing up, I didn’t give a single fuck about wolves and neither did my parents. But even in Big Sky Country they’d crop up, and sure, we had a coalition in town meant to protect us and all that shit, but for a long time, the worst you’d hear about was someone’s raided chicken coop or a missing cow or two. There’d be rumors, or whatever, about a family that went missing, but that was always on rez land and the coalition would say well, you know, that’s out of our state jurisdiction, and no one wants us out there anyway, and that was true, so that was that.

The most controversial law didn’t get passed until around the time I was born because it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the wolves started smartening up. There was the Wolf Man, sure, and maybe a few like him in the Middle Ages, so now people are figuring hey, that might explain a lot—but it didn’t happen in droves until much later, and pretty soon, for a few days out of every month, wolves could walk and make sounds and use thumbs. Then they got to thinking, which was when the real trouble started because it pried open a big can of fucking worms, so it was all “civil rights” this and that. Anyway, even the human-ones are born wolves, so this law passed in maybe 1996 and it prohibited hunting them unless they’re wild. The ones that can transform are tagged—assimilated into our Great Fucking Society.

I know this guy who used to hunt with our coalition who dated a tagged one once, but it was real hard seeing as they couldn’t be together most of the time, and then it got to the point where the few days out of the month they could be together, they mostly argued about his job. But all of what we do’s legal, you know, legit. Except I guess that wasn’t the problem.

She was very sophisticated and all that shit. She even had a YouTube channel, I think.

But then even he got her to admit wild wolves don’t give a rat’s ass about anyone but their own packs and they give into their hunger real easy, she even said she didn’t like running with them—but come on, she’d said, it’s still kind of fucked, what you guys do, isn’t it? So then this guy, he sat her down, told her all our stories. He saved mine for last, Little Arlo and His Daddy’s .22 against the Big Bad Wild Wolves. I watched them tear Ma and Pa to shreds. They smelled like piss and their fangs were long and yellowy and there wasn’t anything human about them. Whenever I talk about it, my chest starts feeling numb and the numbness stretches into my fingertips. I get dizzy and sometimes I throw up, and honestly, I was pretty angry about the whole fucking thing, having to listen to him tell the likes of her about that night.

Will comes up from the den and glares at us. “Tell me you fucking got it,” he grits, “and you already tossed it onto a goddamn junk pile!” Will’s a man with hobbies. I think years ago he might’ve been a teacher, but mostly I think that’s bullshit, even though he does know a lot about the Second Amendment, and arsenals, and what George Washington would think about all this shit. He owns a gun range on the outskirts of the city, and he started this little hunting business on the side because of all the government incentives. I mean, that’s what he said, but it’s pretty clear he enjoys himself out here real good. He smokes a cigar and looks like he’s playing a Vietnam vet. I’m not sure he’s ever been to war. Some of us did a tour or two in Iraq, but I didn’t. When I turned eighteen, I only wanted to kill one species, and it wasn’t other humans.

We tuck our phones away, but only one of us has the courage to ask Will what he means. “Huh?” says Horace. He’s a couple years older than I am, went to the same school as me and all that shit. Circled the same hangouts. My last year was kind of a blur on account of my parents getting killed, and the switch from Big Sky Country to Shit Can City. There were a lot of counselors and a lot of fights with the wolf-kids. The wolf-kids had a special program, and would only show up for a few days out of every month, and so it was hard not to hate them. I roughed them up on the regular, I guess. Horace, too. We’d lost something, and yeah, it was that simple.

They owed us a healing. Everyone knew it.

His crossbow hanging from its strap on his shoulder, Will takes a big puff on his cigar. I quit smoking yesterday and I can already tell that’s all gone to fuck in a dickbasket because I really want a smoke. His glare worsens, like it’s lowering us into our graves. “Arlo, how many were in this pack?” he cuts.

I flinch. I was on recon, so I should know. “Um, like, there were six,” I say. “Sir,” I add, already knowing what he’ll say.

He looks at all of us. “We’ve been watching this pack for months. We got all the goddamn fucking permits. You’re supposed to be guarding the perimeter, making sure they were all down there—and what the fuck do I emerge to find?” We don’t answer. “All of you—staring at your goddamn dicks—your phones in your hands! Our count is five. Now one of them’s out there—” He makes an accusatory motion with his cigar, “and so help me god, if it kills anyone, that death is on you. The way I see it—Jesus, I hope it’s only some fucking bum gets killed.”

We look to one another and I feel really hot, like I’m wedged in the heart of the burning stump. Will gives one look at the fire pit and the cinderblocks and he sneers.

I order coffee and eggs and bacon and three chocolate-chip pancakes, and I only have appetite for the coffee, so I just kind of sit there staring at the syrups. I’m always buying shit I can’t afford. Horace, who likes us all to call him Ace due to something that went down back when he was a kid—I’ve guessed probably involving a different nickname—orders waffles that look like they’ve been dressed in a whipped cream and strawberry tutu, and he avoids catching my eye. No one should blame me about what happened, but it’s pretty clear they all do because I’m the one Will barked at, and when he said that death is on you, his grave glare was right on me—even though all of us were distracted when we came up from the den.

Ace watches my coffee ritual. Two packets of Sugar In The Raw. One thimble of vanilla creamer. “R,” Ace says. “Dude. Are you going to eat that?” He stabs his fork at my bacon.

“No, dude,” I say, and I mean it to have a little edge, but it doesn’t. “It’s yours, man.”

Before we left for Denny’s we checked the junkyard’s perimeter a few more times and all that shit. A few of us pissed on the burning stump and the fire went out and then Will went home with some of the older guys and that was that. Lone wolves usually get picked off by the police if they’re spotted in the city and all of us figured it probably ran that way even though we don’t have a good reason. Abigail, who used to be called Abby until her little brother got his throat ripped out by a wolf or something, ordered hash browns with cheese and said, whatever, assholes, that wolf’s as good as dead anyway—so shut the fuck up about it, will you?

Now she goes by Gail, which Ace and I think is ugly but we’ve never said so.

“Hey,” she says now, nodding her chin somewhere behind me. She’s sitting opposite Ace and me, next to Logan—who has always just been Logan and a heaping pile of steaming bullshit. Logan ordered fries and a Diet Coke and he’s gay, so Ace always makes stupid jokes. Like I’m supposed to want to fuck every gay guy I come across, shit, man, and Logan’s not even my type. First of all, fuck Diet. Second of all, wolves have never fucked with his people, so, I mean, it’s kind of fucked he’s always hanging around with us. Now he double-takes at Gail’s nod, and raises his plucked-perfect eyebrows and that’s how I know even before I turn around that there’s going to be wolves in the far corner booth, scowling at us.

Both Ace and I sit up straight and turn around—what else are we supposed to do?

“Guys!” Gail hisses even though I know she can’t mind. “Jesus,” she grits, just like Will.

When we turn back, the wolves we saw—the wolf I saw—makes me feel like I’ve been stun-shot and now I’m sinking. Like I’m ghosting down through the booth and through the layers of the earth we learned about in school. Crust, mantle, outer core. I don’t make it to the inner core, though, because by that point, I’ve melted into liquid fire.

The wolf’s name was fucking Casper, so that’s on me, I guess. When he said his name I was grinning, I was like, “Ha ha ha, like the friendly ghost?” and when he gave me this “huh?” face, I should’ve figured and all that shit. Who never saw Casper? But I guess at the time I was more figuring, maybe I just remembered the movie real well because when I saw it growing up and Casper turned into a real human kid at the end it made me go fuck, well, I might be into guys.

We met at this gay bar that Logan likes that’s really chill on Tuesdays and sometimes I go with him, and then sometimes, but rarely, Gail will show up with Ace in tow.

Casper found me at the bar waiting for a drink, already drunk and kind of pissed because it was one of those nights. Ace was showing everyone this YouTube video back at our booth and they were crowded around him but I couldn’t hear shit. Three people around a phone is fine and all, but four is pushing it and just for the record, I’m not one of those anti-tech dickwads or anything, I’m just fucking poor and after my grandparents died, my iPhone cracked all to shit. They were footing the phone bill, so that’s that.

Anyway, now that I’m thinking about all this, I guess there were more signs than his stupid reaction to my teasing. His grin, for one. It was a very nice grin, but now that I’m looking back, it was maybe a little too wolfish. Like I could tell there was a little bit of hunger for human flesh lurking behind it, but at the time, that wasn’t the kind of human flesh I was thinking about. He had jet black hair shaved into one of those punk haircuts I used to wear but couldn’t maintain—right after my parents died I was really into the Dead Kennedys, and there was something weirdly sexy about Jello Biafra’s voice when he sang “Police Truck” that was loopy and aggressive but desperate all at the same time—and Casper reminded me of that sound. His eyes were narrow and brown, and they laughed really easy, but never at me. Also he had a tragus piercing and I mean, shit, man, I mean, really—how does that play out on a wolf’s ear?

So I got my drink, and then he was like, “You smoke,” but it wasn’t a question and like a total fuckup I was, like, yeah, how’d you know? And he tapped his nose and winked, and he was like, “I could smell it on you.” And now I’m thinking fuck, well, that was pretty obvious, Arlo, you fucking brainless dick, but at the time I was kind of relieved because he asked if he could bum one. I wanted everyone to see me leaving, having a good time, so we went out back together and we smoked the rest of my pack, and then we made out for a while and then we went back inside.

He was like Joe Strummer, if Strummer were East Asian and at a gay bar and not dead.

The fucked up part is that I saw Casper a couple of times after that, which led to him getting my number, which led to him knocking on my door one night pretty drunk, and I guess things had been so good the past year, you know, that I wasn’t really paying attention to the moon anymore. I paid a lot of attention to it after my parents died, and I guess I always carry a vague awareness of it because I’m a hunter, but I never thought about hunting when I was with Casper and we never talked about it.

After he spent a few nights with me, he found my crossbow in the closet with its silver-tipped bolts and I found him staring, and I told him it was cool. I was like, you want to give it a shot? I know a place we could go. I have the license and all that shit, and he was like, “Have you ever killed anything, R?” and I told him yeah, I’ve killed plenty, and then he actually grinned. He was like, “Me too.” But after that he didn’t come around as much, so that was that.

It’s not like we were in love or anything, but I guess, lately, I’d sort of missed him.

They’re two booths down in the corner, but the booth between us is empty. Gail starts throwing these tiny little balls made out of Logan’s straw wrapper. Her aim is shit, but you’d never know it because when we’re down in the dens, a lot of the time there’s really no aiming involved. She starts using his napkin and Logan just lets her, nodding and smiling like isn’t this funny? We’re regulars at this Denny’s, so I don’t see how we’ve never seen them here before.

I start imagining how white trash we must look in our gear and how we brought our bows and bolts inside and how fucked up that kind of is. Back in school, Ace and Logan, who lived on the edge of some trailer court hinterlands, had these four-wheelers and we used to go down and shoot paintball and I’m starting to think maybe we never grew out of it because we’re still wearing all our stupid-ass shit. We have these bandanas around our arms with this wood-axe emblem. Like ha ha, get it, like we’re the huntsmen from that story where that girl gets eaten by a wolf, which by now, I guess, everyone figures was probably true.

I sink a little lower, trying to remember if any of them ever saw Casper with me, and then I get my answer. Logan shoulders Gail. He’s looking at me. “What’s wrong, R?” he says, and I can hear it in his voice, this cruelness he gets when he’s about to start whaling on someone.

Under the table, my hands clench and unclench, and my palms are sweaty.

Gail is laughing now, and Ace starts in on my eggs, and Logan winks at me.

“Hey, will you fucking shut up?” I say. I want to tell Gail to stop throwing shit, but I don’t.

“What crawled up your ass and died, R? Chill the fuck out.” Gail rolls up another piece of Logan’s napkin and dips it in my coffee—what the fuck, I growl, but she sends the wad sailing. “It doesn’t fucking matter,” she says for the thousandth time. “Just because you’ve got your panties in a bunch over losing one doesn’t mean we’ve got to share your shit mood, you know?” She snorts with laughter, “Fuck—they’re catching on, I think—”

I can’t help sneering. “The thing we lost wasn’t one of them, it was wild, it can’t even transform—” like the pack that killed your brother, but I don’t say that part. Gail’s still laughing, but Logan gets this frown going and I know he hears me. “And seriously, what the fuck?” My voice is a little louder now, “I’m not the one who lost it, why am I getting blamed? Ace was the one on his phone, and you’re the one who was fucking with Snapchat filters the whole time—”

“Dude, um,” Ace looks up from his phone, “you were the one staring at that fire pit—”

“Yeah, um, actually,” Gail chimes in, “that was weird, wasn’t it? I mean how’d a bunch of wild wolves cut a stump like that and light it on fire?” They’re all looking at me. “You’re the one who did recon,” Gail says, like I don’t already fucking know.

Then I see the flicker of dangerous excitement in Logan’s eye. “Hey guys,” he says, interrupting Gail, and I know he’s going to tell them. “Did you know R here fucked one of—”

“Excuse me.”

We look up.

It’s one of the wolves, but it isn’t Casper. The wolf-girl doesn’t say anything more, just dumps a cup of her yellowy piss right on Gail’s head. Gail screeches, chokes on it—and I’m out of the booth like lightning, Jesus, shit! not because I’m afraid of getting piss on me, but because everything is fucked and my heart’s thrumming crazy like it did on my first hunt and I’ve got to move. I push the wolf-girl out of the way and she’s howling, like, howling with laughter, and I think I’m totally leaving, but I don’t have a car, and even if I did, Ace always drives.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I say, once I’m out in the parking lot. I figure the cops will be here soon because this isn’t such a bad side of town, I guess, and it’ll be this whole thing. They’ll see we’ve got our bows and all that shit, not that it really matters, but we’ll have to stand around in this Denny’s parking lot all night showing them our licenses, getting looked up in databases—they might call Will, fuck, I mean, I doubt I’d lose my job, but maybe I could.

I pace, trying to remember. I don’t know. I didn’t see shit. I didn’t see that fire pit on recon, I just saw a fucking hovel, and wolves, and piles of junk. The moon’s been high the past few days, and just yesterday I was there, and I didn’t see any of them transform. Not the month before, not the month before that. I mean, it’s not like we just shoot up any old pack we find. They’ve got to be verified, you know? And they were, but even if they weren’t—who the fuck am I shitting? Will’s taken us to a few jobs way outside the city, in the suburbs that need a quick favor after a kid goes missing. It wasn’t my fault. It’s not my fault. No fucking way, man.

Casper doesn’t say anything, but I know he’s standing there. Watching me after he lights up his smoke, and I let him watch and take a few drags. Finally, he says, “They called the cops, I think, but Amadeus and Freya just ran—she’s the one who came up to you guys.” He shrugs and takes another drag and I want very badly to ask him for a smoke, and I know he wishes I’d ask.

“Why aren’t you running?” I say. I stop pacing, but now I’m shaking. I can’t get calm. They get to pick their human names, I heard. Whatever names they want and I don’t give a fuck why Casper picked his. Something is moving through me like a tremor now, the kind that splits mountains.

“I will,” he says. He still looks the same, only he’s got new boots. He fidgets with his phone in his free hand and it lights his face up, the sharp of his bones, his narrow nose. Deep down I know he’s anxious, but he looks indifferent. Like whatever, man, you’re on your own.

“Fuck you,” I say. I let the words cut my mouth and they hurt and I want him to know how bad they hurt even though I can tell they’ve cut him, too. It doesn’t fucking matter.

He tenses when I move towards him, like he’s watching the earth crack wide open, but he’s not going to move, he’s just going to let himself fall in like a stupid fucking idiot. Like those wolf-kids at school or the wild ones in the den. Like they just exist to take it and do nothing, just lie down and die, only, I’m wrong—and he doesn’t take it. He flicks his smoke and then right here in some Denny’s parking lot we tear each other into hundreds of raw, bloody pieces, and we don’t say a word the whole time we just keep hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting and I don’t know how but it starts ripping me up inside, too, how easy it all happens.

When I moved to the city, I moved in with my grandparents who owned this little townhouse in a retirement community, I guess. They’re gone now too, so when I moved out on my own, I got this place near the city park and whatever’s left of the gardens. The trees aren’t like they were back home, but it’s about as close as I can get to real colors, you know?

I live in a basement apartment with one window and one room. It’s No Smoking, but I smoke anyway and all that shit. Some nights, I can’t stand the smell, so I wander outside in the dark, on the trails near a ravine that cuts through the park like a wide gash. The ravine goes on for miles that way. By my place, on the trails, there’s usually a shitload of litter and something strange will come over me and I’ll get right up next to the bank smoking my smoke, and fish out all the trash. I never put it where it belongs though—I sort of just pile it up beside me in the rocks.

The first few times, I liked it—the hunting, I mean—and this pack, it’s not like they were innocent and all that shit. They’d killed a few people living near the tracks, so at first, no one was saying much about the deaths, but then the police got involved and Will stuck his nose in, got us hired. Will calls them hunts. Lately, they’ve felt more like exterminations. My first kill was pretty scrappy and all that shit. Thing put up a fight. I’ve got scars, sure. I used to be proud about them, but one night, when Casper found one (and I guess he must’ve known but he asked anyway), I said it was from falling out of a tree when I was a kid.

I didn’t even know he was one of them so it’s weird, you know, that I lied.

Will’s always going on and on about the world dying, and getting worse, and how the apocalypse is nigh and all that shit, but lately I sort of feel like the world’s been totally shit-canned since probably forever, I guess. Since man first fucked some woman in a cave. There’s never been anywhere safe, or perfect. Not when people are always around to ruin it all to hell.

But now I get to thinking about the fire pit again, that stump cut into sections. How it reminded me of the lightning-struck tree seeping at the seams with fire, back when my parents were alive. I fish the last of the trash out of the water and sit, taking a long drag on the last smoke from Casper’s pack. My fingers are numb. Back at the hunt, that wild wolf tricked me, I guess. When he heard us coming, he was probably outside, keeping watch like we should’ve done on recon. I’ll bet he knew I was in his yard, made sure I saw what he wanted me to see. I’ll bet he was a sentinel, like I am.

I mean—or, I don’t know.

The cold moonlight bites Roque as he staggers down a steep ravine. There are no birds here. He is human. He is clumsy, naked. There is only the sound of rust, and grinding halts, and Roque is shivering. He has to stop so he can weep. Roque is human. He gags on his tears. They taste like slivers of silver. Near him there is water, and he laps it up to wash the taste of grief out of his mouth. Later, he will throw it back up because it is rotten and contaminated and his insides are raw. The trees hiss at him, his feet cut from the rocks of the stream. He is weeping, weeping, weeping. He is alone. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a shadow in the dawn with smoke pouring from its mouth. Roque is human. When he sees the shadow, he knows it sees him.

Emily Lundgren is a student of fiction at the Northeast Ohio MFA where she is working on a fantasy novel narrated by a poet shapeshifter, a lost witch prince zombie-vampire, and a woman with an electric guitar. She is from South Dakota and is still getting used to Ohio’s narrow roads. This is her first publication. When not writing, she is probably lighting the bonfire at The Painted World in Dark Souls. You can follow her on twitter @emslun.

Run With Other Packs:

Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Reed – Heat like a hand at her throat then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

Another Beginning, by Michael McGlade – Ógán is twenty-one. He is studying history at Queen’s University, Belfast. Succumbed to a powerful drug fugue in his dorm room, he is paralyzed, unmoving for a whole day except that within himself he’s travelling through Indonesia; a trip he and his fiancée Niamh have meticulously planned for years, and which they intend to take after graduation. When he eventually comes to, Ógán realizes the places he wants to travel to will never live up to his dreams. He rushes over to Malachy’s.

Even in This Skin, by A.C. Wise – Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.

Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light, by Malon Edwards

You keep running even though you know you can’t escape the fifty-foot-tall Pogo. But you were built for this.

You are taller than all of the girls and most of the boys in your Covey Four class. Your legs are longer. Your steam-clock heart is stronger. Your determination is unmatched. Even against the rocks they throw. Even against the insults they hurl. Even when they entimide you and chase you home after school every day, all because your mother could not save their friends.

They have not caught you yet. And they never will. Because you will not let them.

But you are trying to do the impossible here. You are trying to outrun the Pogo, a kakadyab, an ugly, hideous entity no timoun has ever escaped. Not even your best friend, Bobby Brightsmith. And he knew the chant to send it slinking back into Lake Michigan.

Yet, you are confident. You have just rescued Bobby. You hacked his writhing, tentacled body off the Pogo’s scaly, diamond-shaped face with your machete, Tonton Macoute. You wrapped Bobby’s slimy, bloody snake-form around your torso. And then, you ran like you have never run before.

Kounye a la, your lungs burn, your legs are wobbly, and your steam-clock heart is going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in your chest. It has never beat this hard. It has never beat this fast. You can feel the overdrive of its tiny springs. You can feel the rotating thump of its miniscule cam.

You are worried.

You have one more block to run before you make it home. You’re almost there. When you arrive, you can ask Manmi to look at your heart. After all, she did design and build it.

But when you round the bend leading to your street, you see, through the gloaming of the half dark, a shadowed figure standing in front of your house. You stop. Or you try. But you can’t. Not at first. You have underestimated your own determination.

Your momentum continues to propel you forward. Only a meter or two. Your arms flail. Your legs give way. You skid across the hard, uneven cobblestones.

Your hands and knees press against the cold ground, bruised and skinned by your fall. It is in this position you heave—sèl fwa, de fwa, twa fwa—before you retch sticky, ropy bile that turns invisible in the weak light of the gas lamps when it hits the dark cobblestones. The gas lamps have never been this dim before. Not on your street. Not on Oglesby.

Your mother and father made sure of that when you moved to La Petite de Haïti in Chicago from La Petite de Haïti in Miami. They do not mind giving a few more pièces de monnaie to the Lamplighters Guild. They want you, Michaëlle-Isabelle, their ti fi cheri, to feel safe, especially on your walk home from school within the heavy shroud of the half dark. They want their patients to feel welcome when they visit, pandan jounen an, during the day, and a leswa, at night.

But this is not welcoming.

It is not safe.

It is not comforting.

And this is all because of the man standing in the middle of the street in front of your house.

You are certain the shadowed figure is a man. A woman would not participate in this awful game. A woman would not play jwe lago—hide-and-seek—in the darkness between the downcast lights of the gas lamps, clothed in shadows, hoping you find her. She would not even consider the notion, knowing an eleven-year-old girl would be walking home by herself in the half dark.

An plis, you have never seen a woman radiate such malevolence. It is apparent in the way this Shadow Man holds himself. It is apparent in the way he stands, hunched and menacing. You are quite certain you will never, in your lifetime, see a woman adopt this evil, wicked stance.

The Shadow Man is, as your mother would say, pa bon ki nan kò l. He ain’t no good.

Epitou, as if to confirm this, you hear the Shadow Man say, “Ah, ti chouchou, I thought you’d never come home from school.”

And he says this in your father’s voice.

You are a smart girl. You should not be surprised your father is the Shadow Man. Not if you had been nosy when you were living in La Petite de Haïti Miami. Not if you had been paying close attention. Not when it was just you and him.

You look confused. Allow me to remind you.

Your mother was called to La Petite de Haïti Chicago by the old and wizened Lord Mayor himself, John Baptiste Point du Sable. He enticed her with anpil lajan (more money than you or she had ever seen) and the title Surgeon General. He needed her to help him combat the polio outbreak in the city-state.

He wanted her to build steam-clock hearts for the children whose sweet flesh hearts had been withered by the disease. He assured your mother he had people who could implement an assembly line production to churn out the mechanical hearts faster.

He was desperate. Eighty percent of the children in his city under the age of twelve were stricken with polio. Limbs and organs, but especially the heart had no chance. He did not want one more timoun to die.

You were sad to see your mother go, but you are more your father’s ti chouchou than your mother’s ti fi cheri. An plis, you and he would join your mother in Chicago as soon as she stemmed the tide of the polio epidemic there.

Those were fond times for you, despite your mother tending suffering, faceless children one thousand three hundred miles away. Your father laughed a lot. He let you do anything you wanted. He had no rules.

Save two: Go to school every day, and don’t leave your room until daybreak after he tucked you in for bed.

Ah. You remember now. It has been three years past, but you remember. I see it. M ka wè recall in those big, beautiful brown eyes of yours. But you don’t know.

Not yet.

You take three steps forward. You are hesitant. You are tentative. You are wary.

You refuse to believe the Shadow Man is your father.

And yet, your father’s rich, melodic baritone has just slipped across the cobblestones and through the half dark from him over to you. This was the same comforting voice that wished you fè bon rèv—beautiful dreams—after he pulled the covers up to your chin each night in La Petite de Haïti Miami.

You do not think about how he did not do this often for you in Chicago. Soon after you two arrived, he disappeared.

In La Petite de Haïti Miami, you told yourself it was the coziness of your father’s voice that made you stay in bed until the sun painted the horizon with soft strokes of morning warmth and fun, and not the dark shadow that skittered across his face before he turned, left your bedroom, and closed the door behind him. But you cannot lie to yourself in La Petite de Haïti Chicago.

“Do you see what he is holding?”

Bobby’s husky voice startles you. The last time you heard it he was screaming as you cleaved him off the Pogo’s face when the Pogo crouched down to eat you.

You squint into the half dark, but you cannot make out any details. You believe the Shadow Man to be tall, trè wo, but the half dark plays with your eyes and the light from the gas lamps. The half dark is a tricky thing. It is a dangerous thing.

But you already know this.

You realize Bobby’s eyes, as small and black and beady as they are, can see far better than yours in the half dark now that he is one of the Pogo’s face tentacles. Was one of the Pogo’s face tentacles.

“I can’t tell,” you whisper to Bobby, hoping the Shadow Man does not hear you. “What is he holding?”

Bobby slithers around your ribs, across your chest, and up to your neck, leaving a trail of coagulated black blood, but not as much as before. He wraps himself around your throat, like a scarf, and tugs you forward, another step or two. His touch is cold and slimy, but gentle.

Enpi, you see it. The Shadow Man is holding a gunny sack.

Once, and only once, did you leave your room after your father had tucked you in for the night.

You were a bit of an odd child then. The dark did not scare you. But you were more of a curious child. An intrepid child.

When you think back upon that night, time has dulled your memory. You are no longer sure if you truly saw a shadow flit across your father’s face. The thought of it does not bring you unease. Not much unease, manyè, since the more you think about that night the less defined that memory is.

It does not make sense for such a malevolent cast to have been upon your father’s face. That comforting voice you know so well is also playful, always hinting at an oncoming laugh. An infectious laugh. A belly laugh. A laugh you associate with your father more than anything else.

An plis, as you play that night through your mind over and again, for what seems to be the thousandth time, you only remember being eksite. You only remember the flip-flop thrill in your stomach as you disobeyed your father and got out of bed.

The house had been dark. It felt empty. It felt lifeless. You and your father had said so the night your mother left for Chicago. But the night you sneaked out of bed something was different.

You knew where you were going: to your father’s side of the house. You knew the route to his office by heart. It was forbidden to you, one of only two such areas in the house. The other was your mother’s office.

Your parents barred you from their professional space because they thought you might play with the sharp, stainless steel instruments. They were concerned you might open the dark bottles of medicine or uncap the flat tins of unguent, and smell and drink and taste.

You were curious, but you were not foolhardy. Except for this one time.

You made walking through the darkness a game. If you bumped into something, you lost a point. If you stubbed your toe and cried out, you lost five points.

That did not happen, though. You knew that house like you know the lines on your palm—every turn, every corner, every hallway. You arrived at your father’s office with all of your points intact. Your glee did not last long, though.

The gunny sack was in the middle of the floor, knotted tight. Something was in it. It bulged. It moved. It seemed to be stained dark and wet in places.

You could not tell by the sputtering light of the kerosene lamp, but the dark and wet looked like blood. And that’s when you heard it: the whimpering, the crying.

Someone was in the gunny sack.

You gasped. You heard the sloshing of water in next room. In your father’s bathroom. He was in the bathtub. He was washing off the blood. He was the Sack Man. He snuck into houses at night and carried naughty children away. You were sure of it.

You heard sloshing again. Louder, this time. Your father was finished bathing. He was getting out of the bathtub.

His bathwater would be pink. Its warmth would have dissipated. He would be cold. He would want to warm up. He would want to eat. He would want a full belly. He would walk back into his office any moment now. He would eat the child in the gunny sack. And if you were still here when he stepped again into this room, he would eat you, too.

His daughter. His only child. His ti chouchou.

So you turned and ran back to your bedroom. You did not lose your way. You did not make a wrong turn. You did not run into a wall. You did not stub your toe.

You jumped into your bed. You pulled the covers over your head. And you never got out of your bed again after dark.

“I’m not a naughty child, Papa.”

You say this to your father from quite a distance away. You still cannot see his face. You do not want to see his face. It may not be the face you remember.

“Ah, ti chouchou, I know you got out of bed.”

Your father’s voice has its familiar playful tone, as if he’s admonishing you with a smile. You believe, if he is smiling, his teeth are long and sharp and dripping with saliva. Not like the teeth you remember.

“Papa, you cannot eat me. It would not be right.”

You do not want to cry. You refuse to cry. But you have never been so scared in your life. Not when your father went missing after you came to Chicago. Not when you liberated Bobby Brightsmith from the Pogo. Not even when you saw the gunny sack in your father’s office three years ago.

“Come here, ti chouchou. Come closer.”

“Wait.”

Bobby’s whisper is close to your ear. He uncoils from around your neck, glides down your left shoulder, and twines himself around your left arm. His severed end rests in your palm, and his mouth latches onto your bicep. He bites down, hard, with his many small, needle-sharp teeth. You cry out.

“Don’t worry,” Bobby whispers. “If your father eats you, my poison will kill him soon after.”

You do not have much time, so you move forward and halve the distance between you and your father. You can see his face now. It is lean. It is gaunt. He looks as if he has not eaten in days. Weeks. This is not the hale, handsome father you know.

“Pa kriye,” your father says. “Wipe your tears.”

“I’m not crying!”

You have never screamed at your father before. Not in anger. But it is true; you are not crying. Yet, you are close. Your eyes burn with tears. You refuse to let them fall. You do not want to show your father or Bobby or the half dark just how afraid you are right now.

Instead, you reach behind your head, between your shoulder blades, and slide Tonton Macoute from the sheath you sewed into your knapsack. Your father gave you this machete. Your father taught you how to use this machete. And if he tries to eat you, your father will die by this machete.

“Pitit fi, eske ou sonje—”

Your father switches to English. You have always thought he sounded unlike himself in that language.

“My beautiful little daughter, do you remember when I gave you Tonton Macoute?” You nod. “Do you remember what I told you?” You nod again. “‘I give this to you so you will always remember and I will never forget.’ Do you know why I said that?”

He does not wait for you to answer. Your father bares his teeth, and in two quick strides he is standing over you. He is as tall as the street lamps. His empty gunny sack is slung over his shoulder. His teeth are as long and sharp as you imagined.

“Well, it’s time for you to remember, pitit fi, because now I am the Sack Man, and I have forgotten my daughter.”

The Sack Man lunges at you, his hands wide, holding the gunny sack open to swallow you whole with it. But your father taught you well. You are faster. You unleash three swift Rising Butterfly strikes with Tonton Macoute and rend the gunny sack to shreds.

The Sack Man is surprised by your ferocity. But you do not pause.

You sidestep the Sack Man as he tries to snatch you up with his thin, gnarled hands. You let him go by you. As he does, you step into Form of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, whirling to gather momentum. Your footwork is precise. As you complete your turn, facing the Sack Man again, you disembowel him with one vicious slice.

Your father falls to the cobblestones. He holds his intestines in his hands. He looks small. He looks frail. He is dying.

And so are you.

Your legs give way. You collapse next to your father. Bobby’s venom is swift and powerful. The cobblestones are cool against your cheek.

Enpi, the half dark gathers above you and your father, coalescing into an opaque, full dark cloud. You cannot see this, for your eyes are now closed as you lie dying, but black, wispy tendrils of the half dark rush from every part of the city-state to be here. To be here with you. To be here with your father. To be a part of this cloud.

To become one with me.

For the first time in the three years since I have arrived in Chicago, I can see the half-light of dusk. I can see the evening as it truly should be, for the half dark no longer obscures it.

La Petite de Haïti Chicago used to look this way, especially now, especially in winter. Enpi, I arrived, and I did not save the children of Chicago. I could not save the children of Chicago.

It was not my fault. The Lord Mayor’s assembly line production was flawed. It churned out defective steam-clock hearts. Those hearts—my hearts—killed Chicago’s children with their brittle springs and their wobbly cams.

And so, the half dark descended. And with it, came the Pogo. I was distraught. My despair was great.

This must be a shock to you, finding out your father is the Sack Man, and your mother is the half dark. But the Children of Night are drawn to one another.

Sometimes, the results are horrible—like the Pogo.

Other times, the results are lovely—like you.

But never did I think the repercussions would be catastrophic—like this.

But this I can fix.

Do not be alarmed; that cold you feel entering your nose and your mouth is just me. Just the half dark. Just La Sirène de la Nuit, healing you, removing the poison.

And do not worry; your father will be well. I will get him a child. A sick one. A dying one. One whose heart is flawed.

That is what the half dark does. That is what I have been doing here. Your father will heal once he has eaten. His strength will return.

You may not like this. You may hate your father for who he is. You may hate me for who I am. But you are of us. You are a Child of Night. And now, you have found your way.

The people of Chicago do not love your father and me, but they will love you. You are brave. You fight well. Their children will no longer be terrorized by the Pogo.

But you will not be able to save them all.

Do not fret. Pa enkyete w. Do not worry. Do not feel guilty. You cannot help this. You are not like me. You cannot be everywhere in this city at once. You must sleep. You must eat. You must go to school.

Tandiske, you will save enough of them. Mothers will thank you in their bedtime prayers. Fathers will commission machetes from the local blacksmith for their precious ti chouchou. Children will chant your name out on the schoolyard. You will become their champion.

So get up. Pick up Tonton Macoute. Go reclaim another tentacular child for her mother. Go fight your monster.

Malon Edwards

Malon Edwards was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, but now lives in the Greater Toronto Area, where he was lured by his beautiful Canadian wife. Many of his short stories are set in an alternate Chicago and feature  people of color. Malon also serves as Managing Director and Grants Administrator for the Speculative Literature Foundation, which provides a number of grants for writers of speculative literature.

More Shadow Men:

The Half Dark Promise, by Malon Edwards – Something moves in the half dark two gas lamps ahead of me. I hold fast at the edge of a small circle of gaslight cast down from the street lamp above me. I don’t breathe. I don’t move. I just hold my breath so long that I get lightheaded as I try to drop eaves hard into the half dark around the gas lamps ahead. But all I hear is my steam-clock heart going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in my chest.

Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey – 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.

The Seaweed and the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen – 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.

The Wombly, by K.L. Morris

The Wombly arrives first on my father’s back. He brings it home, and it travels ’round the family faster than a whip crack. It passes from him to Liza Lee to Mom to me, except I don’t tap, so Mom doesn’t tap back. The circle hangs open around our necks, a family all Post-Wombly except for one, that’s me, I’m still Pre.

“I’m scared,” I say.

“Of course,” Mom murmurs. As the seconds pass, the Wombly steals around her neck. It goes up her thighs, her pits, her back. Slowly, so slowly, it creeps. I watch it go, and while I watch, she weeps.

“We’ll wait,” she says. “Go out and find someone to Bear it.”

wombly01It is a soap Wombly. Some say these are one of the best. Little Liza Lee had it for so short a time, she will shave the pebbly suds from her sides and her back, and no one will ever know she Bore it. But Dad will have it forever. He’ll don plastic bags to shower and be careful of rainstorms and puddles and dense fog because they will melt him. He’ll make a collection of galoshes and rain coats and rubber gloves and live forever in fear of water.

We have to wait to see how Mom turns out. Wait and see until I come back with a Bearer.

All Womblies can be passed off to someone else, except they can never be passed back. People with the worst Womblies, like steel or wood or sand, creep down the street begging for relief. Some people, the worst people, knock against you in secret to pass the Wombly on. You don’t even know you have it until you arrive home and take off your coat and see your fingertips are turning to brass or wax or concrete. If the Wombly Watchers catch you street-passing, they’ll chain you to a post and build a Wombly fence around you, and keep you there ‘til you die. It won’t take long because almost all Womblies need twenty-four hours to complete.

First, I went to Jill’s house, but nobody answered when I rang the bell. There was a sign on the door—At Uncle Rod’s Funeral. Wool Wombly to the Grave. God Bless His Soul.

Since the Womblies came, people believe in God again. And some of them believe in Womblies. I have to pass tiny knots of both on the street corner, Womblies on one side of the street and people on the other. Repent! say the signs. Repent and Be Free.

And on the other side, Surrender to Wool. Surrender to Glass. Surrender and Be Free.

It’s weird they both want the same things. But some of them are standing while Womblies eat them up. The man with the glass sign is already frozen in place, his fingers crystalline where they grip his sign, the lower half of his face see-through like a broken mirror. On the other side of the street, the people who believe in God throw things at him. They want to chip bits of his Wombly off and kick them down the street.

I know a girl named Savannah. She has long red hair, and I hate her because she is beautiful. I go to her mother’s house and tap, tap on the door. When it opens, I say, “I need a Bearer.”

Savannah’s mom pulls the door open further. Savannah’s father is on the floor, almost all bronze, but still he says through clenched-together jaw, “Don’t come near.”

I see now Savannah’s mother is crying. She says, “He’s chosen to take it to the grave. He won’t let us near.”

Not Savannah. Not her mom. Not like my dad. I leave the house, and I hate Savannah even more. I seethe with hate for her.

I think about the moment the Wombly came to the house. About how, without a thought, Dad passed it to Liza Lee to Mom, but not to me. How they left me dangling out the end, like the tail of the whip. How they are all Post-Wombly now, and I am still Pre. Why didn’t Mom move? Why didn’t she sandwich me between them, too? Like Liza Lee?

I go to Monique’s house next. She answers the door with her jaw made of tin, and when I gasp, she sputters tears.

She tells me it was her brother’s first. She says, “He’s out to find a Bearer. Would you—Could you Bear it?”

I don’t answer her. I think of the soap waiting for me at home, how at least it won’t freeze me up the way the tin has frozen Monique. I back off the steps away from her, away from her tin and her request, and the desperate, desperate eyes that perch above her neck. I bump into Old Man Roger, his arms bound behind his back. Monique’s brother, James, hauls him into the house. He shoves past me without even a hello and kicks the door shut behind him.

I peek through the windows and watch James pin Old Man Roger to the floor. I hear him scream and scream. All Monique has to do is tap him, a tap would be enough. But she straddles his stomach, leans in close, and licks the side of his face. Old Man Roger’s scream cuts off real quick, like he knows he’s done.

James leans over and whispers something into his ear. I can’t hear, but I can guess. To the grave, James says. To the grave. I run from the house. I should call someone and tell them what Monique and her brother have done, but I can’t. Because I am thinking—maybe that’s what I should do.

I go to the town square. There will be people there. There may be one or two with a kind enough heart to come home with me and tap after I tap. I even imagine not tapping at all. I imagine finding a woman who’s middle-aged, with love in her eyes, who stays my hand. She taps my mother instead. The Wombly passes from Mom to her right over my head, and I am safe.

wombly02But when I get to the town square, there are twenty people already there. Some yell into megaphones. Some hold large, bedazzled placards with rhinestones that catch the sun. They say, “Bearer Needed! Wool Wombly.” “Begging for a Bearer. Mere Soil. Save my Son.” There are even two or three with signs that say, “Bearer for Hire. $3,000.”

The ones who hold these signs are the worst. Little bits of everything cling to the people like layer cakes with barely any flesh left. They wrinkle with soil and cement, soap and concrete. There’s rumors that they’re the Street Passers, that that’s how they can take on a Wombly and pass it off so fast. There’s rumors that entire networks of Bearers for Hire exist, passing the Womblies from one to the next until they get to a town or a place where they can kidnap someone and threaten their family, a Wombly-turned finger pressed close, so close, to their neck. I wonder how they are human at all.

I go home well past midnight and steal into the house, but they are not asleep. Mom sits at the kitchen table beside my father. She is worse than he is now, the soap curling into her hair so it looks dried and dead. Her ears are all soap now. I wonder if she liked Dad to kiss her ear lobes, the way people sometimes do in movies. He will never kiss them now. There are whole parts of her that he will never kiss.

I tiptoe past them toward the stairs. I hear Mom say, “No, I don’t want you to look for her. I want her to come back on her own. I want her to want this.”

Father reaches out to grasp her hand, but freezes just above it. Her fingers are lined with soap, as if the curves of her joints have dried out and flaked. He stretches past them, past the place where his hand might leave imprints, and takes her wrist. “And if she won’t?”

Mom shrugs. “I cannot force this on her.” She clears her throat, and I wonder if it’s inside her now, crawling up her esophagus, lining her stomach. “I will not.”

Father’s hand clenches on her wrist. “She will take it. We have all Borne it, as a family, as we should, and she will do her part.”

Mom raises her hand and lays it on Father’s, and despite the soap that limns his elbows, that creases his eyes, I still see him flinch.

I creep past them up the stairs, and behind my eyelids in my bed that night, I see Savannah’s father hardening on the floor.

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In the morning, I wake to Liza Lee sitting on my bed. Already, she has developed a nervous habit, scratching at the soap hidden in her armpit. Large pieces of it crumble onto the bed beside me. Horrified, I brush them away.

“Stop that.”

Liza shrugs. She is tiny for eight. “It is what it is,” she says. This is a saying she has learned from someone at school. “Are you afraid?”

“Of course. What does it feel like?”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she singsongs. Liza sticks a finger up her nose and pick, pick, picks. When she tugs it out, there is soap dust on her fingers. “It feels like fizzing wherever the Wombly sits.”

She rubs the soap dust onto my pillow. I flip it over and pull it away from her in disgust. “Dad says they will take me to a doctor to see what can be removed. Probably, there won’t even be any scars.”

No one will know, then, about the Wombly and Liza Lee.

story_bullet

I hide in my room. I flick Liza’s soap flakes off the bed, being careful to only use my fingernail. One time, I slip and it grazes my cuticle. I feel a tingling—the fizzing Liza Lee said? I can’t tell. My whole body has frozen in place, my heart beats dully in my ears. No soap forms. I don’t feel the tingle anywhere else. I can’t get the Wombly from Liza Lee’s soap, then. It is as harmless as dead skin. I am surprised by the disappointment that swoops through me as the adrenaline fades. It would be easier to have gotten the Wombly by accident than to have to take it from my mom.

Downstairs, they are calling me. They don’t know I am home. Dad becomes desperate—his cries going sharp like birds. When I roll over, I hear them through my pillow, their voices echoing around in my bed. Mom can only whisper now, her throat husky with soap. “I want her to come on her own. I want her to want this.”

Then Liza Lee’s voice, singsong-y and free: “She’s upstairs.”

I hear a shuffling on the stairs, ascending, ascending, ascending. I know it is her, even though it sounds nothing like her, nothing like the light skipping-step of my mother. The doorknob to my room makes a single guck, like a hand has knocked it, a hand that can’t use its fingers anymore. There’s a long pause before I hear it again—the soft tings of the knob being touched. Then the ease of it sliding open, pulling its trigger to the left.

I am hiding under my covers now, furious at my body for its terror. I whisper over and over: It’s just Mommy. Just Mom and me. The words slur together until I can’t tell the difference between “Mommy” and “Mom and me.”

wombly03And then the door creaks open so I see a crack of light. It widens to show the shape of my mother, her body blurred by soap. The hand that opened the door is still raised, she cannot put it down. She’s freezing right there, freezing slowly in place.

“Please,” she says, her words garbled, nearly lost, and I can tell her teeth are soap now, that the dumb press of her tongue is melting them. “I can’t take it anymore. It hurts.”

Even if I could hear the pleading at the bedroom door and connect it with my mommy, even if I could cure myself of terror and move to her, tap her cheek, her hand, her heart, even if. I could not save her. The Wombly has claimed her now. There is nothing left to save. In moments, she’ll be dead, freed from the Wombly or not.

She wheezes, “Please,” and her voice is vanishing.

“Please,” and it’s the whisper of a door that’s closing.

“Plea—” she says, and her esophagus has frozen shut.

Her arms stretch towards me, her fingers twitch once, twice, and stop. I think she is soap. I think, she is gone now. But then I see—she is still staring at me. The soap has not covered her irises, not yet, though it’s creeping close. I will be the last thing she sees, the daughter who sits, Wombly-Free, and watches while she’s eaten right in front of me.

 march-endof

karalynmorris

K.L. Morris earned her M.F.A. from Lesley University in 2013. Her work has appeared in The Flexible Persona and Body Parts Magazine: A Journal of Horror and Erotica. She spends most of her time writing, walking her dog, and ignoring her husband in order to write. When no one’s around, she writes inside of a tent with a large glass of wine. When people are around, she writes inside of a tent with a large glass of wine and the door zipped shut. She’s neither as broody nor as introspective as she presents herself. Connect with her on Twitter @KareMoreIs. She blogs at www.thewritinggeek.com.

These Are Also Spooktacular:

In the Pines, K.M. Carmien – “You stink like the city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago.

A July Story, K.L. Owens – Iron red, linseed-cured, and caked in salt, in a place where the mercury never crept much above fifty Fahrenheit, the two-room house chose to keep its back to the sea. A wise choice, given the facing of the windows and the predilections of the wind. Still, in other Julys, Kitten had stood naked between ancient trees or buried his toes in sun-warm sand. In this new July, he donned the buckskin jacket from the peg by the door and used wool socks for gloves, swaddled his head in a gaily-patterned scarf given to him by a gray-haired marm in some other July on some other island. Shivering on a shore made of black cobblestones—waves did not break, but clattered and rumbled—Kitten watched a bazaar of common murres bob on the wind and wondered which side of what ocean the house had selected this time.

The Earth and Everything Under, K.M Ferebee – 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.

Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed

mire01

Louisiana, 1915

Heat like a hand at her throat then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

Late light on the cordgrass lifted up the red at its edges, sharpened it to spindle fingers plucking the brackish air. Winnie rode her oar low and turned along the fat curve of an island. Eight plump, silver drum shone on the flat bottom of her cypress-board pirogue. Enough of a catch that she could go off on her own business now, in that last hour before the mosquitoes and tappanoes claimed the marsh for their own night kingdom.

Winnie was Saint Malo’s bunso, the smallest, so morning and afternoon she changed the Spanish moss under the sleeping dorm, collected the eggs, and fed the chickens. They were wiry, hardy hens. Fifth-generation swamp creatures born with mud on their feet. Last night there were twelve of them, in the morning only eleven. Not strange to lose a hen to a gator in the night, but it was the third gone in a week. Most gators, they ate once a month, then lived on air. Sat out in the sun and swallowed air whole through their gaping mouths. This must then be a weird lizard, beyond the work and sleep and lost rounds of three-card monte that made up the total of Winnie’s life. She glided across the water in hope of the beast.

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Some things that Winnie knew about alligators:mire03

They were lazy creatures. An active hunt was against their nature, and if a skinny young girl slipped into the water, all unknowing that an alligator lurked a spare few feet below, the gator would leave her be rather than swim the distance between to swallow her up. But if a foolhardy older man, perhaps named Francisco, were to splash up a ruckus within reach of the gator’s snout, he would for certain live the rest of his life left-handed and lucky for it.

Gators were truly unsentimental. On a young girl’s first journey through the marsh, a big bull of a gator would demonstrate this by rising up a broad, algae-crusted snout and snapping the body of a youngster of its own species into two neat bites. Welcome to Saint Malo, it would seem to say. You will live and die here.

A gator was a solitary monster. A young girl in the marshes will find no alligator cities, no gator nations or schools, no broad alligator avenues, no matter how long she may look.

They were strict heathens. God formed them not to kneel, and so they worshipped nothing but the sun. Mid-morning to noon, punctual as priests to mass, they gathered in the half-dry dirt and needlegrass and prostrated themselves before that searing orb while Christian species huddled in the shade.

They cared not for the flesh of the dead, or else despite being irreligious they held Catholic rites in some awe or respect. Winnie’s mother had been safe in her mudflat grave now for more’n a month.

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mire04The bulrushes were in flower, round heads flaking into feathered cotton. Floating pollen landed on the water, in the mud, on the bow of Winnie’s pirogue, but nowhere onto the knotty hide of a gator. She turned her boat to home, the white canvas of Saint Malo’s two-sailed paraw visible as it slunk ahead of her beyond the mud bar that kept the lake from the marsh. It was then, among the high roots of the low mangrove, that Winnie saw dragging alligator prints in the mud. A mound of leaves, branches, and earth as high as her head resolved itself into a nest, with prints all about. Large prints, adult beasts, at least a dozen of them going to and from the mound.

Dark was coming on. The marsh made its warnings, and Winnie had to heed them. She headed for home, but she watched the nest for as far as her head would turn.

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Winnie couldn’t sleep that night. Her bed was double-large and empty. The men in the next room rustled and shifted. The frog and mosquito choir outside droned on, encompassing. Moonlight spilled through the window netting to dusk across her skin.

Winnie dreamed, these days, of her mother. She dreamt a hot, wet cathedral stretching darkly into the distance, and a vision of the marsh barred by moon-white teeth. Being carried; gently, gently. The muddy perfume smell of her mother and her tough, scaled legs. Her mother’s voice so low that it rattled in Winnie’s skin.

In the Saint Malo night, Winnie heard the thousand, thousand mosquitoes and felt the blood hot in her body. She got up and went to the door on cat feet. The moon was nearly full, white as a fish belly. Winnie’s nose to the netting, she could feel the night outside, the hum and the hiss of it. Out in the water: a rush of movement. She thought of the chickens. Quiet as she could manage, she lit and shined a lantern.

Across from the door was Hilario’s enormous house. On stilts, like all the buildings here. Its full twenty piles cast a jumble of spiderleg shadows skittering over the water. Winnie roved the light. And then she saw, as if in a dream after all, an eye as wide around of a grown man’s hatband. Bright as the devil, shining in the dark. Her hand shook; she lost sight of the eye, then couldn’t find it again. But she would swear, despite the size, she’d swear it was the gator.

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Winnie’s father, Tomás, was patching up a net across his knees. Loops and hitches, knots and diamonds. The net was hooked to the porch rail, and Winnie sat with her back to the house, her legs under the shadow of the net, her fingers seeking out gaps.

“Francisco asked after you again,” she said. Her father winced at the name.

mire02“Mm,” he said, and tugged at the net. She let him drag it his way.

“At the card table,” she said.

“You shouldn’t be there.”

“I’m old enough,” she said.

“No. Susmaryosep!” He shook his small head. “Only men there.”

“Of course there are men, I’m the only woman here.” Winnie found a gap in the net and marked it with a yellow ribbon.

“You are a girl. You are a young girl.”

“I’m a Manilaman,” she said, and he jerked with laughter. His face stretched wider to expel it. The noise cut into Winnie. “That’s what they said when we went into the city.”

“Where was your mamá from?”

Winnie shrugged. “Up Proctorville way?”

“Hm,” he said. It was the most he’d said about her mother since she’d died. “And ako, where was I from?” She shrugged again. “Batangas. So where you going to be a Manila Man?”

Some silence, and the breeze buzzing through the reedgrass. Then she asked, “What’s it like in Batangas?” And she knew she said the name all wrong.

“Hot.”

“Like here?”

“No. Hot, with a different sun. Flat as a foot, but for the mountain watching. A river, no marsh. Big mango trees and coconut. The rice. The priests. Very many priests.”

He ran out of language to explain, or memory to spare, and left her craving. She passed her eyes over the flat expanse of the marsh and the raised outlines of Saint Malo houses. She’d never seen a mountain or known the shape of a mango. A curl of her mestiza-brown hair fell into her eyes. She blew it up and away.

“Papa, you been to Proctorville? Where mama grew up?”

“No.” His fingers and knife threaded through the net without hurry. “She came to the marsh. Swam to Saint Malo, met me. Never went back.”

“Swam to Saint Malo?”

“Sailed,” he corrected, although it was the rare sailboat that could make the journey.

She wanted to tell him about her dreams, the dreams she’d had in her mother’s arms and out, but she didn’t have words that he’d understand. He didn’t care for her dreams the way her mother had. Alligator scales solid as Spanish tiles. Teeth as thick as the piles that held up Saint Malo, sharp as salt, lowering over her heavy as grief. She bit her tongue and searched out the gaps.

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Winnie’s mamá had been a strong swimmer, that much was certain. The two of them in the pirogue, she’d slipped over the side and into the lake. From the still air into the still water, her hair uncoiling, her eyes wide with pleasure as she dipped low so only her face was above the surface. She’d wanted Winnie to come in after her, to abandon the boat, to slip overboard and sink with her. Winnie never did.

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Another hen gone. To the mud bar again, to the gator nest. Winnie floated past on the lake side, where the pile of muck and grass intermingled with thick mangrove roots to form a thick wall. In the warm of the day there was a greater warmth emanating from the nest. A cloying heaviness that drew Winnie in like a memory. The smell was mud and rot, and familiar.

Winnie poled her pirogue over the bar and into the marsh, around the other side of the nest. Here it poured itself out into the water. Here there were lizards waiting for her. Three gators with wide mouths agape. Young, striped black and gold. They surrounded the nest entrance, sitting with that gator-stillness that no other creature could match.

She took ahold of the fattest crappie from between her feet and tossed it among the alligators, an offering. Its silver tail flapped twice, then lay quiet. It was a long time Winnie sat there, the water between them, while the beasts didn’t shift and the fish died. Beyond the brim of her hat, sunlight hardened into afternoon.

mire05Finally, the smallest of them made a move. Delicate as fingertips, its jaws scooped up the crappie. Shuffling and dragging, it ascended the nest and disappeared. From the water, Winnie couldn’t see all the way to the top, but there was movement there. A bump that she’d thought was a rotted log bobbed up and down. Then the small gator again, only as long as Winnie was tall, slid its way back out of the nest and into its old spot. It clawed at the dirt before settling. It turned one algae-dark eye on Winnie and, slow as the moon slipping behind a cloud, the creature winked at her.

The downhill tilt took her. Winnie slipped one leg, then another from her pirogue. Her feet found mud under the water and she sank to her ankles. Shallow, still. Her fingers trailed the surface. Raising as few ripples as she could, she advanced on the nest.

The lizards moved with sudden speed. They formed a barrier of their bodies, barring her from the entrance. Winnie stood in the marsh, mud advancing up her legs, and wondered what offering would be sufficient.

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Card games were held in Hilario’s front room, lit by lamplight that swayed to the steady rhythm of the men’s hisses and hollers. Winnie hooted and wailed with them, going from end to end of the long, low table to the other and making faces at the cards, elbowing between elbows to see the action. This is where they called her bunso, the littlest lizard darting among them. Or buntot, for the way her long braid wagged behind her head.

Her father didn’t come to the table often, one of the reasons Winnie did, but he was there that night, lit up, winning hand after hand. Smiling at everyone, even at her. He paid Francisco back the five dollars he’d been asking after for weeks, and threw in a nickel on top.

“Get you an ice cream cone,” he said. “Down at the hokey-pokey store!” The closest being a day’s journey away. Francisco laughed, though he’d wanted to win the money off him. He slapped Tomás on the back and dealt him into another round.

Outside the window netting was the living night, but it didn’t encroach here, it could not touch them. Winnie and the Manila Men were yellow in the lamplight, from their sun-brown faces to the whites of their eyes. The flowing rum was a virile red. Hilario’s boy Augusto let Winnie sip from his glass. She felt vibrational as a mosquito. She could have walked onto the marsh right then; she could have found her mother and danced into the bottom of the lake.

Money is money, but at the turn of the night it was time to bet on things that couldn’t be bought. Francisco wanted Winnie’s father to put up his pirogue, the one that was named Valentine after her brother who’d died a baby. Tomás said no, no, but he’s got just the thing. He stepped into Hilario’s back room that served as Saint Malo’s safe deposit, and came back carrying a shallow chest. Everyone got up and crowded around to see him open it. Winnie wended among their jutting hips to the front.

She’d never seen this chest, didn’t know her father had it, or anything at all in Hilario’s bank. It was a very fine chest, fitted with brass, the leather top gone a bit moldy from the weather, as everything did. Tomás made a leisurely show of unbuckling the straps, then running his hands across the top. He met Winnie’s eyes with a funny little twinkle. Then he flipped the lid.

Like Spanish tiles, or cracked mud. Black like a rotted log, and smelling old and sweet, it was an alligator skin. Tomás lifted it from the chest and held it high above his head, but still couldn’t unfold the full length of it. Augusto took hold of the other end and between them they stretched it near across the room. Fifteen, maybe seventeen feet. Wide as Winnie was tall. It was the grandest, blackest, most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. The men were afire with wanting it.

Winnie went to her father.

“No,” she said. “Don’t bet it away.” And she knew he would, as nearly every man there was getting dealt in. Tomás laughed and squeezed her about the neck.

“It was your mother’s,” he said. “No need for it anymore.” And he did lose the skin, lost it to Marcelo, who took it to drape like a hammock across his sleeping dorm.

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In the crowd of pirogues heading out of Saint Malo the next morning, Marcelo crowed.

“Oh, that lizard, my lizard,” said Marcelo. “She’s fat like the belly of galleon! Creaks in the night like one too.”

Winnie couldn’t speak. Her father rowed along in his Valentine with a smile. The bulrushes were heavy with summer bulbs and leaned arches over their path through the marsh. All breeze dropped out of the air, and even their movement against the water barely brought a wind to their faces.

“Storm coming,” said Augusto.

“When the storm comes,” said Marcelo, “I’ll crawl up inside my great big lizard! Come out with the sun, bone dry!” A thoughtless rage opened inside Winnie at his words.

Just like that, all the way onto the lake. There, the group scattered itself and cast their nets. Pulled in, cast again. This, more than any stilt house, card game, or line of drying fish, this was Saint Malo: the casting and the pulling. The whiz of the net through the air and the pish of it slicing the water. The flit of fiber through Winnie’s hands when she pulled it back and sifted it for prey. The dotted line of men and Winnie spread over the western edge of the lake, marsh air and marsh sounds hard at their backs. For this, her father and the rest had fled the Spanish whip, for this they’d lost Batangas, Manila, the Visayas, and a dozen other homes. For this heavy air and these low pirogues. For Winnie, perhaps, though they hadn’t known it. For that she could be born to the marsh with her muddy eyes.

Winnie cast and pulled and daydreamed tough alligator hide like a gnarled crowd of overlapping hands. White alligator night-eyes and deep alligator voices. The nest and the monster she’d fed. The downhill pull of that uphill slope.

By late afternoon the air hollowed out and the birds fled north. A pair of egrets cut a silent path right above Winnie’s head. The spread of boats cinched towards the mud bar and the marsh. Tomás drew up alongside her. His boat sagged with the catch. She wouldn’t look him in the eye.

“A hard wind tonight,” he said. “You sleep in the men’s dorm.”

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mire04The rattling walls, the jumping floor, the hot rip of the wind and rain at the shutters and the wet smell of the thatch roof. Winnie lay curled on a pallet in the middle of the room, the men unsleeping around her in their bunks. In the corner: the gator skin. It shuddered and swayed, its thick tail lashing. When the wind began there were prayers and singing, but now just the storm around them and Marcelo’s gasps as the gator swung from its hanging place above him.

Winnie spared a thought for the chickens, transported to Hilario’s living room and likely head-tucked and shivering. She spared a thought for her mother in her grave, drowning. The dorm went side to side. She closed her eyes and tried to sink. Heavy bones and thick skin, mud crusted over her eyes and salt sharp on her teeth.

A howl outside, a howl that didn’t end, but pitched up and up like the bow of a sinking ship. The noise of somethings flying through the air and smacking the walls of Saint Malo. The walls of the dorm, hit and hit again by the objects of her imagination. Turtles, crappie, trout, drum, uprooted mangroves, and unmoored rafts. The roof whined. The men muttered, but there was nowhere safer to flee.

There had been storms on the marsh before. Winnie had laid awake through them and poled through their debris on gray mornings. She’d tucked her head into her mother’s side and slept through the wind. She’d lost rounds of three-card Monte with the weather menacing among the stilts of their houses, pressing at their bellies and slipping through their boards. She was a marsh creature, born with mud on her feet and salt in her hair.

All this, and still when the back wall fell in and men and bunks and the gator skin tumbled onto Winnie’s pallet, she screamed. Limbs and the tail, bodies and the snout, a slick mess of swamp-stuff suffocating her. And the wind now free among them drove rain into their hides.

Drier arms reached into the jumble and pulled apart the wrecked bunks. They extracted Marcelo, Francisco, Bambol, and Florenzo.

“Winnie!” Tomás shouted. The others were at the door, making to fight their way to Hilario’s intact house. “Where’s my Winnie?”

They pulled apart the fallen wall, dragged away the wrecked netting, the ruined sheets and moss mattress stuffing. They accounted for every man. They flipped the gator skin onto its wide, white belly. Tomás called for his daughter. Winnie blinked her double-lidded eyes and took him gently between her jaws.

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The night path was lit for her. Everything alive, everything alight. Movement all around, sensed through the skin of her snout. The smell of home and of earth. The storm’s violence was muted and slowed underwater. Impacts rolled through the liquid and against her, inconsequential. Behind her, the dorm house collapsed entirely. Men sloshed into the water and mud. They were tempting, but her mouth was full of her father. He did not fit entirely, but his arms were pinned, and his head was tucked against her tongue. She could feel him struggling and screaming, but it was nothing to the power of her wide and sure mouth.

A power was upon her like an embrace. A quiet, uncomplicated power something like anger but more like an inevitable victory. She had slid downhill every moment of her life, and now was in the sure trench, the awaited valley, the lush prize. She was done with mourning.

Her body was her body and her body was her tail: a muscle stronger and more able than she had ever felt before. Movement smooth and quick despite her bulk. Skin like a crust, so thick that the world could not touch her. With one set of eyelids closed, the wind was nothing to her. Winnie tucked her legs close in to her belly and jackknifed through the marsh.

Reedgrass and fimbry were battered flat and sputtering. The mangroves stood stolid while they were stripped of their leaves. The bulrush bulbs that had so dominated the skyline flew here and there. Between Winnie’s teeth, the water seeped. She kept her head up, aware that Tomás must breathe frequently.

There were other gators in the water around her, heading in the same direction. A crowd, an alligator boulevard through the marsh, a procession to their only destination.

The mud bar had disappeared beneath the flood, but the nest still rose, a tower of detritus. The marshward approach was cut by a pitched glacier of mud. Winnie drew herself out of the water and up the slope. She found herself more awkward on land. She felt the weight of the offering in her mouth. She was flanked and preceded by other, smaller alligators. Young beasts half her size who rushed around her and over her. She clambered among them on her slick belly.

Up, up into the nest where waited a mouth more vast than even her own. A mouth that gaped like the doors of a cathedral and into which her sisters and brothers rush in a black stream of leathery bodies. Outside: the wind and the rain, the storm taking the marsh to pieces, Saint Malo in splinters behind them. Inside: a humid, cavernous hall with a fleshy scent that Winnie could taste through her skin.

She knew this place, this scent and this heat, this moist and crowded abattoir. Deep within was a pounding drumbeat that she recognized as intimately as the taste of her own breath. Her mother, her skin: This was their place. This was her place. She clambered deep inside, opened her mouth, and gave up her father’s struggling body to the family of her mother.

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Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in Comma Press, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Liminality, Inkscrawl and Beyond: the Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology. A member of the Queer Asian SF/F/H Illuminati, Nicasio currently resides in Madison, WI. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.

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In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien

“You stink like the city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago.

The body, technically, is still living. The girl herself is gone or erased or sleeping in whatever dream the woods-thing can build for her.

The drifter is in pieces in his potter’s grave. Only the woods-things are allowed to kill in here.

That is, in fact, the subject of this meeting.

Harry Kang shrugs. She can’t argue there–she just got back from Duluth. The ghosts of steel shavings and city smog are still sunk in her shadow. Her brother works there in a warehouse that ships car parts. By all accounts he seems to like it, but you never can tell with Reg.

“I hate it,” the woods-thing continues, “Why do you go?” It seems more petulant than normal, and more on edge. It won’t stop moving — shifting from foot to foot, picking at the moss lining its cuticles, tugging its curls.

“Family calls,” Harry says.

It spits into the leaf-mould at its feet. Woods-things think family means never leaving. Means a fisher-king binding to the land. So none of them have ever thought much of Harry’s brother, when they consider him at all.

Woods-things spare very little thought for humans who aren’t either witches or annoying them. Or both.

“Come this way,” it says, “To see the body.”

That’s the thing about witching. At some point there’s always a damn body.

pines1Harry has always been a witch.

It comes down through her mother, though they are so entirely different that’s it strange they have anything at all in common, even eye color (brown like soaked bark, like forest streams). Her mother’s magic is books and symbols and long bright lines of numbers. Harry’s is dirt and leaves and roots, blood and antlers, deadwood. Like her grandmother, long dead.

When she was younger, no one but her dared enter the family garden, for fear that the herbs growing there would rise up and choke them for daring to not be her.

In the town of Canby, Minnesota, home to fifteen hundred sixty-seven people, there is an understanding about the women of the Kang family and their little cabin just on the edge of the woods. It wasn’t always the Kang family — before her mother married her father Michael, new-come from Korea to look after the paper-mill’s machines, human as human and loving as the whole wide sky, they were the McKinnons. And it was known that the McKinnon women, for a price, would…help. In little ways. Lower a mortgage, ease a birth, punish a wrong the police ignored. A gift left on the concrete stoop of their little house at the edge of the forest could buy much.

(It was also known, although less well, that the woods, too, would answer a request, if paid in blood.)

At school, people would sometimes ask Harry to show them things. Harry, six years old and tick-swelled with pride, said that it was not for showing off.

And she did not, though they sang to her, though she slept and ate and dreamed restless hungry dreams in their shadow, though her father and brother went in with rifles and came out with deer, enter the woods. Her mother had asked her not to, and in those days Harry was a good girl. No matter how much she ached to go in — she was a good girl.

Then there was the murder, in the winter of 1998.

The girl in question, Harry feels it’s important to remember, was named Maisie Grant. Harry knew her, because Canby is so small that one must work not to be known, but not well. She was a junior in high school. She wanted to go to New York for film school, so she could make nature documentaries. Maisie was not afraid of the woods. She loved them, spent her weekends hiking with an antique compass and maps and fair-trade trail mix, taking gorgeous pictures with her little camera and pouring her adoration out over the trees.

The woods repaid her as best they could, but they could not save her from the knife. Woods-things must be woken. And despite all her love, Maisie never knew how.

When she didn’t come home that October Sunday, and when the police found nothing after those crucial forty-eight hours, Maisie’s mother asked Evelyn Kang to find her.

But it was Harry, fifteen and prideful and wanting the woods like some people want a lover, who went in.

The trees said to her: she is here.

The trees said to her: this is what you are.

The trees said to her: is it not time to become?

A good many of Harry’s reasons were selfish.

In she walked, her battered work-boots making no sound on the carpet of pine needles. A ghostlight burned pale gray-white in her upheld left palm. Shadows snapped and rolled around her, thrown into a frantic dance by her light. If she were being honest with herself, Harry would have to admit that the ghostlight wasn’t actually helping,

But witch or no, she was a child alone in the dark forest, and being without the light frightened her too much.

(Some of the shadows were not shadows at all, only things that looked that way, and were watching her. She could hear them whispering right on the edge of sound, but was still too young to know them.)

The trees sang, still, but did not speak. They weren’t going to hand her everything. Witches should know.

For a long time, till past moonrise, Harry wandered, not quite lost but not quite sure of the path. The still core of her where she kept her magic was buzzing with nervous excitement and worry and nausea.

Even then Harry was a realist. She knew how likely it was that there was a corpse waiting at the other end of this night, and that probably she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

The shadows dogged her path. Wolf-eyes gleamed about her, there and gone in half a heartbeat.

pines2Finally she stopped beneath a massive, twisted pine. This wasn’t working. “New plan,” she said under her breath. Her voice trembled more than she’d like, but there was a thin clear thread of strength in it. Harry sat down, cross-legged, on the cold ground, and made her mind into a tiny hard-light sphere.

She breathed in. She breathed out.

She cast her mind like a dragnet over the woods.

Life jackhammered through her. Trees and insects, sleeping birds, owls on the wing, the huge slow pulses of moose and bears, great cats and the bright, brief little stabs that were rodents. The woods-things, alien and familiar all at once. The coiling, endless heartbeat of roots and moss and bones at the center of it all. And she forgot her name, and her purpose, and that she was a her and not part of the woods.

And, as payment for this forgetting, she knew everything.

Later, when she went home, Harry would learn just what she’d done and fear it. Then she knew it well enough that she didn’t fear it, because among the everything she understood how someone might remember she was a fifteen-year-old girl and become that again.

She knew where Maisie Grant was, and where Maisie Grant’s blood soaked into the earth, and she knew where the man who had killed her was, and what had been done to him for his crimes.

Then Harry collapsed back down into her flesh, and was only a girl. But she remembered what she needed. Harry stood on shaking legs, throat dry, eyes burning, and made her way through the dark woods to the clearing. Moonlight lay gentle over the leaves and the blood and the glassy-eyed dead face of the drifter, and on Maisie Grant’s body, which sat primly on a fallen log. The woods-thing inside Maisie’s skin smiled a rictus smile, wide as the ragged slash across Maisie’s throat, and said, “You’re the witch. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Harry swallowed down fear and revulsion and said, “I came for Maisie. Her mother wants answers.”

“And she may have them, but this — ” The woods-thing ran Maisie’s dead hand possessively over Maisie’s dead thigh. “This is mine. She gave it to me. She said I want to live I want to live, and she paid me with all of her blood, and this is what I could do.”

A bargain, freely made and finished in good faith. As much as Harry hated the idea of this thing made of wood and sap and old hungers inside the body of a girl she’d known — it was fairly done. To break it would break her power and anger the woods and a whole host of other things that she, young as she was, couldn’t imagine but knew would be terrible.

“That’s fair. And the drifter?”

“She wanted him to be punished.” The smile, which hadn’t gone away, widened. Maisie’s teeth were white and pearly, straight from years of braces, and gleamed unsettlingly in the moonlight. “I punished him.”

“That’s fair, too.”

“You’re a smart witch.”

“Well, that’s a requirement.”

The woods-thing laughed, and mercifully it wasn’t Maisie’s laugh, but high and chiming and completely inhuman. “Only sometimes. What will you give her mother for answers?”

“Give me her pack,” said Harry, “And a lock of her hair. It’ll have to be enough.”

It wouldn’t be. But then nothing would have been.

Harry buried the drifter in a shallow grave using his own collapsible shovel, and strode out of the woods into the Tuesday dawn with an aching back and blistered hands and a throat full of sour failure.

Her mother waited for her, and Maisie’s mother, and when they saw that she was alone, Mrs. Grant began to wail.

The trees said to her: come back soon.

Now Harry walks with the woods-thing that wears Maisie Grant’s flesh, hand-in-hand in the greenish light. (Over the past months it’s begun to touch her more and more, and she hasn’t found the voice to ask it to stop because she fears it will actually listen to her.) From far away they look almost ordinary, just two girls in the woods. Sideways Hansel and Gretel, ersatz Snow White and Rose Red. It leads her on a long and winding path, over streams and through thickets, skirting copses. She knows where she is, of course. A witch always knows. What she doesn’t know is quite where they’re going.

At last they come to a clearing, blasted and bare, an unnatural miniature wasteland in the heart of the forest. It stinks of rot; where the land is not bare dirt, broken-trunked dead trees stand. The wrongness of this is a coiling physical thing that punches up through her stomach and strikes at her heart. Her power buzzes angrily, shaping itself long sharp spines in answer.

Nauseated, Harry grips the antler-and-deadwood amulet around her neck so hard the points press little dimples into her skin, grounding herself with the pain, and raises a shield around herself. It cuts the feeling. Not enough, but she can work with it. Harry steps forwards. The woods-thing lets go of her hand, and shrinks into the shadow of the trees.

She never thought that she would think this, but it looks afraid. What has happened here?

In the center of the clearing lies a tangle of coyotes, bloodied, eyeless, mouths open in futile, soundless snarls. Even dead the bodies tug at the eye–they run into each other, with no clear ending or joins; they’re all one thing. They cast no shadow.

This was a woods-thing. Was.

“No,” she says, “No — “

“Yes,” says her woods-thing.

“What did this? Do you know?” Her voice is shaking. She lets it.

“One of us,” says her woods-thing. The anger and disgust in its voice are crawling dark things, tangled up and rusted-sharp. “One of us.”

No.

Yes.

“Help us.” It holds out its hands to her, pleading. “Please. Kill it and we’ll give you whatever you want.”

She’s being asked to answer an abomination with an abomination. And worse, she knows her decision already.

Harry steps out of the clearing, and she takes her woods-thing’s hands between her own and says, “Yes.”

She takes samples, blood and bone and earth and wood, and pictures with her phone. So many pictures that she has to start deleting older ones to make room. Then she plants bundles of green twigs (asked for, paid for, freely given) and tufts of her own short dark hair tied with twine taken from her pack around the perimeter of the clearing. Nothing will get in. If something rises, it will not get out.

She hopes.

Then she texts her mother and Amy Dove, who’s several miles north on the Fond du Lac reservation. By her own hand will the execution be don — but finding the killer woods-thing, that’s not something she has to do alone. It will go faster with three. And the faster, the better. How long before it kills again? How long before it tries to reach beyond the forest? How strong is it, fed on death?

“Stay here,” her woods-thing says as they reach the edge of the trees, “Don’t go.”

This is normal. It asks her, every time, and every time she refuses it because of course she does. She still lives in Canby no matter what she is. It’s a ritual, by now half-meaningless and comforting.

Now, though, it sounds afraid and on the edge of desperate.

Harry notices that more of them than normal are out — tangled through each other, dogging her steps. The trees around them are heavy with other woods-things, clad in shadow and leaves and mud.

They’re not meant to die, and there one of their own has gone sideways and awfully wrong, and so, against their nature, they’re trooping. And hers (since when is it hers? Since she needed a way to differentiate between it and the others in her head.) wants her to stay with it. For comfort. For safety.

It would be sweet, almost, if the heavy sick wrongness wasn’t still lingering in her gut.

“I’ll come back,” Harry says. And then, “Here.” She pulls the chain of her amulet over her head and loops it around her woods-thing’s neck. “There you go. Insurance.”

They stare at each other for a lightning-charged moment, and then it hugs her hard and fast and awkward. On instinct her arms come up, and for a second she hugs it back, breathing in its flowers-growth-sweat smell.

Then it melts away, and so do the others, and she heads out into the field.

pines3The three witches hold their council of war in Canby’s best diner. Harry’s mother looks as she always does: hair falling out of its bun, clothes rumpled, glasses sliding down her nose. Amy is straight from her job as the rez’s public defender, pantsuit impeccable, scrolling forearm tattoos peeking out from the sleeves of her crisp white shirt. Over thick black coffee and cherry pie, amid the noise of conversation and the crackly stuck-on-the-sixties jukebox, they pool what they know. Or rather, what Harry knows.

Amy sums up their feelings with a succinct, “This is shit.”

“Tell me about it,” Harry says, in a tone that more accurately conveys fuck the universe.

“Language,” Evelyn adds mildly, and, “I have a search algorithm I can adapt for you.”

“And I’ve got a devil’s trap I can change,” says Amy. “Tell you what, I’ll stay overnight.”

Absentmindedly, Evelyn makes a sign with her fingers, and in response her phone texts Michael, telling him to make up the guest bedroom.

“Once we’ve got it,” Amy says.

“Once I’ve got it,” Harry says, “It’s my job. I catch it. I kill it.”

“How?” They ask in stereo.

“Greek fire,” says Harry. “Reg knows a guy who knows a girl in Duluth. I can keep a lid on it.” She’s only half as certain of that as she sounds, but she must destroy it on her first try and there is little Greek fire won’t burn. A woods-thing, born of trees, will stand no chance no matter how strong it is. Containing it after —

With a sort of grim humor, Harry thinks, I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.

“Are you sure,” says her mother. “About doing this alone? I know I can’t help, but Amy — “

“Mom,” says Harry. “No. This isn’t the kind of thing you can split.”

“She’s right,” says Amy. “It ain’t the Ides of March, here. Doing it together won’t make it less…”

“Shit,” supplies Harry. It’s easier to say that than to call it what it is.

Amy shrugs.

“Sweetheart, I don’t like the idea.” Evelyn squeezes her hand. “I want you to be safe, you know that.”

“I know, Mom.” Harry manages a smile at her. “But witching isn’t safe. You know that.”

“Oh, save us from overly clever daughters,” grumbles Evelyn, but worry still edges her voice. “Finish your pie.”

Dutifully, Harry finishes her pie, and tries not to think about what she’s going to do.

A day later, in the small hours of the morning, she rides shotgun in Amy’s car, a small pot of Greek fire balanced carefully on her knees. They drive on through the misty darkness, the world narrowed to the sedan and the half-circle of cracked asphalt illuminated by the headlights.

Amy says, “What’ll you do, after?”

Because she won’t be the same.

“Dunno.” Harry smooths one finger around the rim of the pot. “Stay, if they’ll have me.”

“Will they?”

“They asked me to.”

Amy shoots her a sideways glance. “They don’t think like us. Sometimes I think you’re too close to them, kid. You think they’ll be grateful, when you’re done? Maybe you’re right. But maybe they’ll kill you for it.”

Harry thinks of her woods-thing lacing its fingers through hers, and she thinks of the shadows weaving behind her footsteps and the gleaming wolf-eyes that follow her sometimes, yellow and utterly alien, and knows Amy’s right.

“Be careful, is what I’m saying.”

“I will.”

The forest at noon is no less dangerous than the forest at midnight, but the sun plays through the leaves and the birds sing, and it seems warmer, somehow. Harry knows that’s just her, but she takes comfort from it. God knows she’ll need it.

At the very edge of the trees, her mother draws her into a fierce hug. Harry breathes in the smell of faded perfume and old books and lavender conditioner and holds Evelyn tight against her. When they part, Evelyn folds a thin silver chain that glitters in a way that has nothing to do with light into her palm. Amy claps her on the shoulder and hands her a tiny burnished-bronze eight-pointed star. The word here is etched on the bottom in tiny Anishinaabeg letters.

Harry does not say the words if I don’t come back. Reg knows she loves him. Dad knows she loves him. Her mother will know what to tell them.

She says, “Thank you.”

And she walks into the woods, and she doesn’t look back.

Soon they close around her.

Soon after that, there is a woods-thing at her heels, and another, and another. Fox-shaped and thicket-shaped and twisting into her shadow. A stumbling bear; a silent shine-eyed moose.

Hers isn’t there.

It isn’t there.

And then, from much too far away, it screams.

The scream isn’t so much a sound as a feeling, shooting up from the forest like a new tree, piercing Harry to the marrow. She hits the forest floor on hands and knees, gasping, retching, and then forces herself to her feet and runs like she’s never run before. Desperation burns new-star hot inside her. Half of it’s hers and half of it’s theirs, spilling over into her through the winding roots of her bond with the forest. The silver chain of the search spell jumps and stutters in her hands and she keys it to her woods-thing and lets it go.

Witch and woods-things sprint through the woods. They bend the world around them by sheer collective will alone, shifting trees and roots and copses and thickets to make a straight path to the growing weight on the skin of the world. Harry can feel it. It’s starting to make her sick, that heavy dark wrongness that wants and wants. Endlessly hungry; endlessly ferocious. A rabid animal with magic twisted in it.

The woods spit them out into another blasted clearing. And there it is, a shifting mass of shadows and roots and what looks like the drifter’s corpse that turns the eye away. There are teeth in there, and a glint of sunlight-through-leaves, and thick gloppy sap. It’s swelled up like a spider full of blood from its first kill.

Harry’s woods-thing fights, stretching past the limits of the skin it wears. It’s not girl-shaped, not quite, not anymore. Fingers have crooked into branches, feet into hooves; where it’s been cut it leaks sap mixed unevenly with blood. Whip-thin thorny branches hang from its curls. It opens its mouth, wide and wolf-toothed, and screams again. Now it’s a sound, ragged, high, sharp and piercing.

Harry can feel the bright little point of her amulet around its neck.

That’s something to work with.

She draws the pot of Greek fire from her coat and holds it at her side, and with her other hand holds the eight-pointed binding star.

One chance. She’s got one chance to pull her woods-thing out of there, and if she doesn’t make it she’ll have to kill them both, because it can’t be allowed to eat her woods-thing and grow stronger. The knowledge is a stone in the pit of her stomach.

No time to brood, though.

“Hang on!” Harry winds up and softball-pitches the binding star into the center mass of the killer woods-thing and yanks, as hard as she can, on the power of her amulet.

pines4The dead earth contracts under her woods-thing, pulling it back. It scrambles towards her, hands outstretched and growing, and loops its fingers around her forearm. She pulls. It’s heavy as lead, heavy as a lake. The killer woods-thing throws out feelers of shadow, clinging to it, but the shadows curl up and die at the edges of an invisible wall. Still it hangs on.

Hers, it’s hers, this monster-thing can’t have it.

“Mine,” she growls, and braces her feet, and gives one last great pull.

With a tearing pop, it comes out of the trap she made and falls at her feet.

It’ll live, she thinks with a stab of relief, but this isn’t over.

The killer woods-thing roars, and, with all her might, Harry throws the pot of Greek fire at its heart.

White-hot flames lick the sky. Heat sears her front, and an awful ratcheting scream drills into her ears, the sound of an animal in pain multiplied a dozen times over and folded back in on itself. The woods-things behind her scream too. Hers grabs her hand with fingers nearing human.

Tree-tendrils scratch and scrabble at the edges of the trap, desperate, seeking. Slowly, they crisp and curl and die. The screaming stops.

And her power snaps and cracks, turning inwards, clawing at her insides and slipping out at the seams. It leaks from her mouth and her nose and streams down from her eyes. Harry’s knees give out and she falls.

(She knew this was coming, she knew, but she wasn’t ready.)

She hits the ground and barely feels it. Someone is shouting at her. Someone is prodding at the sick sharp place where her magic is. Someone is calling, “Harry! Harry Kang!”

The words mean nothing that she can understand.

“Harry! Witch!” A slap cracks across her face. The sting is muted. “The fire is escaping, get up, stop it — Harry, please!”

Hot air rolls over her, intense as a kiln.

Her power curls inside her. Nausea stirs her stomach.

Harry, please.

Slowly, she cuts her way through the fog to rationality; realizes that she has to get up, but can’t quite grasp why. She gets one palm flat against the ground, then the other. Then she gets to her knees.

Then she sees the Greek fire eating its way through the barrier.

Oh. That’s why.

With a rush, she comes back to herself. Everything is too much, battling for her attention, scratching her mind raw. The broken pieces of her magic stab at her and at the fire alternately. She’s going to vomit. She’s going to pass out.

She’s going to quell that fire if she dies doing it.

(She really hopes she’s not going to die.)

Fire is hungry, always. There’s no way to feed it to satisfaction; it’ll always want more. But she can starve it to death, if she’s careful.

It’s so big, looming over them all like a wave about to break, and she can feel the weakness running in her bones. Harry swallows and gathers what she’s got left.

It will burn air. It will even burn on water.

But what’s left of her magic —

Maybe not that.

Harry snaps the trap open wide, and holds out her arms to the fire, and draws it inside her.

It burns all the way down her throat and into her stomach, and it fills her to bursting. It hurts so much, worse than the time she broke her arm jumping off the barn roof, worse than the time she left her mind wedged open and spent a week full of everyone else’s dreams, worse than the time she left herself inside a deer while it died.

She swathes the fire with every shard of power she has, cutting it to ribbons and smothering the individual pieces. Tiny sparks escape and bite at her.

Her fingertips start to smoke.

Still she goes on.

The burning climbs her arms, and she breathes out a long stream of woodsmoke with a whimper on its heels. An arm winds around her waist; shadows clump around her legs. The foxes and the moose press into her, their forms blurring. They open the heart of the forest to her.

But the influx of power is not enough. Stretching, choking on a scream, she draws on a year of her life, two, three. Four.

The fire inside her goes out, and Harry falls again, falls a very long way.

When she wakes, it’s to still greenness, and waxy-skinned hands tipping water down her throat.

A bone-deep exhaustion weighs her down. The world is dull and far away and she feels sick, still. Everything blurs. Her tongue is swollen and useless. And something–something else, something worse, is very wrong with her. What is it?

Her woods-thing says, “You’re awake.”

No, am I? she wants to say, but the words don’t come.

Her power is gone entirely, she realizes. She’s empty, drained dry. How is she alive?

Her woods-thing brushes the backs of its knuckles butterfly-wing-light over her cheek. “Do you even know how much you gave us? Everything. You brave idiot. What will I tell your mother? What will I tell your bird-witch?”

What’s going to happen to her?

“But we’ll take care of you,” her woods-thing goes on.

The earth is softening under her, slowly but surely. Swallowing her down. Peace steals over her.

Artificial. Imposed. The woods are doing this.

Harry licks her lips. Manages to whisper, “What are you doing?” Her voice is a barely-coherent rasp.

“Sending you to sleep.”

“For how long?”

“Shhh.” It lowers her to the ground gently and stretches out beside her, curling an arm possessively around her middle. “For as long as you need,” Harry’s woods-thing whispers in her ear. “Until you’re well again.”

Oh. That sounds nice.

The earth closes over them.

She sinks into sleep.

Months later, as autumn marches onward to winter, Amy Dove and Evelyn Kang stand beside a long low mound. Despite the cold, despite the frost, despite the pine-shadow it lies in, it grows with tiny blue-white flowers and nettles and tangled ivy. A many-eyed, many-jointed fox lies lazily atop it, watching them, motionless but for the lazy flick of its tail.

The woods are quiescent.

“I wish I could see her,” says Evelyn. “I wish Michael could.” He knows, but he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that Harry will wake again, a line of code rescued from the cache, a bulb flowering in spring after a long winter. To him, she’s just gone. Reg knows better, but Reg is so far away.

Amy sighs. “Me too.”

They are silent a moment. Then they turn from the sleeping witch, and leave the woods whispering behind them.

In four years’ time, while summer rages green and hot, one short-nailed olive hand breaks up through the dirt of the mound.

end-of-story-nov

kathleenK.M. Carmien is currently a full­time student in Princeton, New Jersey, where she attends Rutgers University. She currently reviews books for SFRevu. This is her first published story.

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Good Girls, by Isabel Yap

This story contains scenes dealing with suicide and violence relating to infants, which some readers may find upsetting.

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You’ve denied the hunger for so long that when you transform tonight, it hurts more than usual. You twist all the way round, feel your insides slosh and snap as you detach. Your wings pierce your skin as you leave your lower half completely. A sharp pain rips through your guts, compounding the hunger. Drifting toward the open window, you carefully unfurl your wings. It’s an effort not to make a sound.

girls-pull1You’re a small girl, but it’s a small room, and though your boyfriend is snoring you can’t risk being caught. You look back at him, remembering how he’d breathed your name a few hours ago, pouring sweat as you arched beneath him – Kaye, baby, please. You wonder if he’ll say it that way when you eventually leave.

The half you’ve left behind is tucked in shadow: gray, muted pink where your intestines show through. The oversized shirt you’re wearing hides the worst of the guts that hang from your torso as you glide into the sticky night air. You suck in a deep breath as the living bodies of your housing complex flood your senses. A girl sobs in her bedroom while her father hammers at the door. A pair of elderly foreigners lie in each other’s arms. A stray dog licks its balls outside the iron gates while a security guard dozes in his cramped sitting room.

Manila is a city that sleeps only fitfully, and you love it and hate it for that reason.

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The first thing taught at the Bakersfield Good Girl Reformation Retreat is the pledge: “I’m a good girl. A good girl for a good world. And while I know it is not always easy to be good, I promise to at least try.” The girls are made to repeat this three times at orientation, and one girl seems moved enough to shout “Amen!” at the end. Or she could be mocking it; Sara can’t tell. The girls on either side of her are listless, mouthing the pledge without care or conviction. One scratches her knee then digs underneath her fingernails, puckering and unpuckering her mouth like a goldfish. Sara suspects she’s wearing a similar expression. She frowns and squints at the clear blue California sky, the same one from the home she was just forced to leave.

Afterward they’re herded onto the field for physical exercises and split into groups. Sara’s group starts running. She quits on the second lap out of five, short of breath and thinking nope, not worth it. She jogs off the field and is trying to disappear someplace when Captain Suzy, who is in charge of PE, catches sight of her. Captain Suzy frowns and starts heading for her, except the flag football team erupts in a hair-snatching free-for-all. Captain Suzy surges into the brawl and flings girls away from each other, so that by the end mud and grass is strewn everywhere and more than one girl has fainted from the heat.

Later, Sara learns the fight was because of a butterfly knife that someone had snuck in and stupidly showed off. Lots of girls wanted it.

They’re given Exploration time after lunch, with the stern reminder that they have to be prepared for Group Sharing (4:30 PM), followed by Journals (6 PM) in their respective rooms before Dinner (7 PM). After leaving the dining hall, Sara surveys the abandoned schoolhouse where all Good Girls are forced to stay. It’s mostly dusty classrooms with chalkboards. Tiny white bugs swirl in every sunbeam. Most chairs and tables are child-sized, and colored mats cover the floor. A mesh-wire fence circles the entire yard, and past it, a tall rusted gate. Beyond them lie endless fields, roasting under the sun. The fence is too tall to climb, and Sara is neither agile nor motivated. She heads back to her room and decides to Explore her bed.

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There are meals all over the Metro, so many routes to explore. You’ve mapped them out over years and months of nightly travels: countless delicacies, different treats for different moods. The only difference is your start point, your end point. You never last more than a few months in the same place. You always need to find someone new to take you in–to believe you’re human, just like them.

Tonight your hunger is confusing. You don’t know what you want, what will satiate you. You decide to start upscale and work your way down, so you veer toward the part of the city with its lights still on.

Music pulses loudly from a club. Three high school girls totter out on four-inch heels, standing awkwardly on the carpet to avoid the potholed road. One of them is holding a phone to her ear. A car comes up; a maid hops out of the front seat and opens the door for the girls, and they climb in, unsteady from lack of practice or too many vodka Sprites. You think about dancing, about what it’s like to occupy the skin of a beautiful party girl, something you can do with ease–-slipping into a bar with confidence, slipping out with someone’s fingers twined in yours, ready to point at the stars and laugh then lean in close for a kiss.

They can never smell the blood and sputum underneath the liquor in your breath. Humans make up wonderfully intricate rituals, pretend to have such control–-but they easily devolve into animal longing, just heartbeats flaring in their cage of skin and bones.

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Something is knocking at Sara’s door. A monster of some kind, an overgrown baby bleeding from the chest. Its clawed fist is tapping in a way that’s supposed to be quiet, almost polite-–then Sara realizes she’s asleep and scrambles out of bed.

She opens the door. It swings into the hallway and bumps into the girl standing there. “Sorry,” Sara says. Her shirt is soaked in sweat.

“No worries. I’m Kaye! Nice to meet you.” The girl’s hand is cold and dry in Sara’s gross sticky one.

“Sara,” Sara says. “So I guess we’re roommates?”

“Yep,” Kaye says. She is petite and gorgeous, with shiny black hair and flawless honey-colored skin. Asian, but Sara can’t guess which. She wears an easy, friendly grin as she wheels in her luggage. She stops to note which bed Sara has occupied, then throws her backpack onto the empty one.

Sara shuts the door and sits on her bed. She picks up her regulation Pen + Diary in a halfhearted effort to prep for Group Sharing, but ends up watching Kaye unpack instead. Kaye unzips her overstuffed luggage, displaying piles of neatly folded clothes and small colorful snacks: Sweet Corn, Salt and Vinegar Chips, Boy Bawang. Notebooks and papers are wedged between socks and shoes in plastic bags. Kaye fishes out a pair of slippers and slaps them on the floor triumphantly.

“So what’s your deal?” Sara asks, as Kaye peels off her shoes and socks and sticks her feet into the slippers.

“I eat fetuses,” Kaye replies. “If I feel like it, I eat organs too.”

Sara frowns and shuts her notebook. Kaye doesn’t elaborate, and starts sorting clothes on her bed. Sara leans forward so that she can better inspect Kaye’s luggage. There are stickers all over it. One says Fragile, another says Delta Airlines; three are written in Chinese Characters; two read Wow! Philippines. They’re faded, the edges picked off as if someone with long fingernails was extremely bored.

“You came from abroad?”

“A few months ago.” She opens a pack of chips and holds it out to Sara. Sara peers in; they look like shriveled corn kernels. She shakes her head.

“So you were flown all the way out here to stop eating babies,” Sara repeats. Her gut churns, and a voice in her brain goes no, no, no.

“Unborn babies,” Kaye clarifies. “But it’s not like I can help it.” She starts laying out her clothes on the bed, methodically. “I would tell you what they call me, but you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it anyway.”

“Try me,” Sara says.

Kaye smirks and rips out a page from her regulation Diary, then scribbles something on it. She holds it up for Sara to read.

“Manananggal?” Sara tries.

Kaye collapses onto her bed laughing.

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The sky is outlined by skyscrapers, some still in construction. A half-finished high-rise condo is fenced off with boards bearing the image of the newest starlet. She’s wearing a red dress, hair fetchingly arranged over one shoulder, glass of champagne in hand. The flowery script next to her head reads: Where luxury and comfort reside.

The giant open-air shopping complex next to it is almost empty. A few cafes remain lit, although the chairs inside are turned up. A barkada of young professionals staggers back to the parking lot, high on caffeine and the adrenaline of overwork. They are laughing louder than the silence calls for. One man swears he will kill their boss the following morning.

You like these declarations. They can only be made at this hour–-witching hour, your hour. You like them because they’re not true.

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The Group Sharing discussion leader is named Apple. Sara ends up on her right, legs curled on the pink-and-orange mat. Apple greets everyone with a giant smile, then takes attendance. There are five girls in the sharing group, including Kaye. Apple begins by saying how happy she is that everyone has come to the Good Girl Reformation Retreat, where all girls are expected to be supportive and encouraging in their journey toward goodness.

“In order to get to know one another better, I would like each of you to tell the group which particular circumstances brought you here. There is no need to be shy or secretive about it. While we know it is not always easy to be good, we are now at Retreat, and we are going to try.”

Tamika, seated on Apple’s left, starts: She knifed her last boyfriend in the ribs. Trang has a habit of setting small fires because they are very pretty. Lena stalked her favorite lab teacher and sent threatening messages to his wife. Dana doesn’t say anything, but she pulls up her shirt and shows everyone a scar that cuts across her extremely toned belly. Sara notices Kaye looking at the pinkish flesh marring Dana’s brown skin with a sad smile.

“You have to tell us, Dana,” Apple insists. Dana says, “It hurt,” and that’s all she can be persuaded to say.

“Maybe next time then,” Apple says, with too much hope. “And you, Kaye?”

“I was brought to the US to marry someone,” Kaye says, the perfect mix of defiant and ashamed. Someone gasps. Sara’s mouth drops open, but Kaye doesn’t notice, and adds: “I’m not as young as I look.” She gives a tiny, tired grin, before proceeding to tell them about the drug bust at her husband’s place, her illegal papers, how no one will pay for her flight back to Manila. How the US government took matters into its own hands, and sent her here. How she’s homesick and rattled and maybe it’s for the best that her husband of two months OD’ed, but really mostly she’s glad to just be here, it seems safe. Everyone nods solemnly, and Dana reaches out and holds Kaye’s shoulder, briefly.

Liar, Sara thinks, but no, this is the truth. Of course this is the truth, and Kaye was just messing with her. Kaye was just having a little fun.

Then suddenly Apple says, “Sara? What about you, Sara?”

“I-– “ Sara says, and wonders how she can explain.

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girls-pull2Manila’s gated communities, home to the rich and famous, swanky as fuck. You flap past some consulates, flags drooping from their balconies, but you’re not interested in foreign food today. You sweep closer, lower, appreciating the distinct features of each house: angels cut into columns, black iron gates with gold accents, circular driveways sweeping up to meticulously lit front doors. Gardens overflowing with gumamela blossoms and palm trees. All the houses are humming with electricity, air-conditioners running at full blast. The humans moving inside them are less electric: house-helpers clearing leftover party dishes, children stuck on their game consoles, everyone else asleep. It’s all boring boring boring until you smell tears–-so much sorrow in the saline–from the odd modest house, a little decrepit for the neighborhood. The sound of sniffling is amplified. You stop and circle the air with interest.

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Sara explains it like this:

“It started after I dropped my sister’s baby. Nobody knew if the baby would be okay. Then the baby was okay, after they’d checked it out at the doctors ‘cause everyone was convinced that the bruise was some kind of tumor. I was just playing with it. I just wanted to hold it for a little while. So anyway after that, I was forbidden to touch the baby. That was okay. I could deal with that.

“The problem was, I started always thinking about babies. Because a baby is this terrible, fragile thing, you know? And so many things can happen to it. I just kept theorizing: if you keep pushing your thumb into its head, won’t your thumb actually sink into its brain? Or if you hold it upside down for too long–-like those dads on TV you know, always swinging their babies around?—like, maybe all the blood fills up its little brain and it gets a mini-baby-stroke. It got so bad that whenever I saw a baby, any baby, I got the sense that, like-–me being alive–-like it could cause that baby to die. Them or me, you know, and why the hell should it be me?

“So I started thinking I should fix that. I started looking out of windows and thinking I’m better off-–you know–-out there. Like when I’m in a moving car. Or when I’m on the fourth floor corridor of my school building. I get this sense that I can jump out and all the babies in the world will be saved. I kept trying, but something would always stop me, and when they asked me what my problem was-–you see how hard it is to explain? So I would just tell them-–I want to fly. That’s all I could say. I want to fly.”

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She is pregnant, the private-school princess in her immaculate bedroom. The tiny thing growing inside her is incredibly fresh–-six or seven weeks old–-and she’s just found out, or just admitted it to herself. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s composing an email to her boyfriend, or maybe her best friend. She types in quick bursts, interspersed with falling on her bed and beating her pillow with impassioned fists. You imagine the taste of her child in your mouth; you consider sucking it up and sparing her the agony of waking tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be a mercy to this child? Not having to live with the shame of bearing her own, so young, and her parents so disappointed, and her schoolmates so ready to talk shit about her?

You settle on the roof, testing the tiles, positioning yourself above her bedroom.

Then she starts playing a Taylor Swift song. It’s blaring from her iTunes and she is wailing on the bed, and suddenly it’s so hilarious that you can’t bear to end it. Besides, you don’t want to wait for her to fall asleep. She might not fall asleep at all.

You sigh, take off again, and decide that it’s time for a change of scenery.

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“So that’s your story,” Sara says that night, eyes gazing into the pitch darkness (Lights out at 9, 9 is so early, do they think anyone can actually sleep at 9?). “Mail order bride. Drugs. Gross old man. That sounds really terrible, but that…makes more sense.”

“That’s why I’m here, but only you know the truth about me,” Kaye says, an undercurrent of laughter in her voice. She sits up in bed, looks across at Sara, and Sara’s just imagining the weird light reflecting in her irises. “Hey Sara, I’m glad the baby was okay, by the way. It wasn’t your fault you were careless. Well I mean, it kind of is, but can anyone really blame you? Babies are such fragile things. I don’t know why you girls keep having them.”

“Says the baby eater,” Sara says, with what she hopes is humor, but she’s exhausted and suddenly imagining a baby tumbling down the stairs.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Kaye laces her arms across her knees. “That’s okay. I only told you because I thought maybe you wouldn’t–-haha. If you did believe me you probably wouldn’t like me, and I’d have to say it’s in my nature, and then we’d fight, and god I’d have to leave again, when I’m not even hungry yet. When I’ve got nowhere to go.”

“You’re weird,” Sara says, because clearly Kaye is more messed up than she lets on.

Kaye laughs. There’s so much laughter in her, it surprises Sara. Kaye crosses the room and sits on the opposite end of Sara’s bed-–so quickly, suddenly she’s there and Sara sits up and draws her knees back reflexively. She should be freaked out, but after weeks of being treated like broken glass back home, in school–-this proximity is not entirely unwelcome. Everyone sidestepping the baby issue, Dad and Mom hissing about suicide treatment in the kitchen after dinner, her meager friends suddenly evaporating.

A person who treats her like she’s real? It’s an odd relief. Kaye leans closer. She smells nice, and her eyes crinkle.

“Tell me about your home,” Kaye says.

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You head for a shantytown: homes made of hollow blocks, roofs of corrugated metal. It’s hardly a mile from the fancy neighborhood. The nearby river is peaceful, although the banks are still torn up from the last typhoon. From a distance you can already smell people, piss, dogs with festering sores, wet grass, shit, washing detergent. The earth is always damp here, soaking up rain, and the proximity of the houses makes everything feel warmer, more alive.

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They do this nightly talking thing a lot, exchanging stories, doodling on each other’s Diaries then laughing and ripping out the pages. Then shushing each other. There’s no TV and no nail polish and no ovens to bake brownies in–-only these, their words, their memories.

Sara finds herself in Kaye’s beloved Manila: garish colors everywhere, clogged highways, grimy naked children running next to spotless cars, in which the bourgeoisie sit with a driver, a maid, sometimes a bodyguard. Sara doesn’t have much to say about her own suburban neighborhood in Pleasanton, but Kaye seems fascinated by America anyway, so Sara tries. She explains the difference between Democrats and Republicans, and the nuances of California slang: Hella bomb, they repeat. Hella sick.

Kaye describes the parts of the body she likes best–-she eats the fetus pretty much whole because it’s the tastiest (“I take it down my throat, and, uh…it’s a little hard to explain,”), then the heart, liver, stomach. Kidneys are surprising flavorful. It must be the bile.

When she talks about her monster self Sara just holds the thought apart from her brain. It’s too weird. It’s almost funny, how earnest Kaye is about it.

Sara recounts her sister’s wedding in Vegas, which they couldn’t really afford, but it was cool to act touristy and kitschy, posing next to the unsexy French maids in the Paris Hotel casino. It was stupid, and that’s what made it fun.

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You count the number of warm bodies in each house you pass, considering the possible damage. Family of four, six, another six, three (absent father), four (absent mother), five (including grandmother). That one won’t manage if you eat the mother, because Lola is sickly and Tatay beats the children. Interesting drama, but you seem to be craving something else. Entrails won’t do tonight–-you want a baby.

You’re enchanted by the amount of closeness you find in many homes: sweaty couples pressed together, children crowded on either side, useless electric fans whirring. It’s love and hunger bound up in acceptance, minute joys punctuated by a mostly typical dissatisfaction, the longing for something better, some way out of this.

They’re not exactly unhappy, despite everything. You think you understand that.

girls-pull3Very lightly, you settle on a gray roof with a gaping hole in the corner. You look down at the man and woman tangled and snoring on a bed, their two-year-old squashed between them. The scent of fresh mangoes is just enough to entice you. There’s only so much time left to properly enjoy your meal, so after a brief consideration you open your mouth and let your tongue slip through the ceiling.

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The Retreat is all routines. After the first day, it’s only variations on a theme, and it gets harder to remember when they started, although that’s what the Diaries are for. Sara isn’t too worried. It must be expensive to run the retreat. Girls come in batches, sponsored by donations, desperate family or community members, and government money; they can’t stay forever. Three weeks, she figures. Four. In the meantime: free food, thirty other girls that are just as fucked up as she is, and even the daily exercise is starting to become manageable.

She figures things out. The cooks are on rotation, and the one every third day actually makes edible food. If you wake up at 5 there’s still hot water left in the showers. It’s okay to walk quickly instead of running during laps, as long as you finish all five. Apple expects you to write at least a paragraph in your diary every day, or else you’ll have to do a long-ass recap at the end of the week. If only there was more to say.

Most girls stay in their rooms during off hours. If the retreat is for repentance, Sara’s not sure how effective it is. At night she can usually hear sobbing down the hall, or hard objects (bodies? heads?) smacking against the walls (sex? Fights? A mix?). Girls who act out are given warnings and punishments. There are no field trips, but they do painting and basket weaving, and learn an alarming number of songs in different languages. If not for the fact that someone always showed up for music class with a burst lip and a black eye, it would almost be like summer camp. Even the Captains turn nicer, only harsh when someone gripes about exercise or doesn’t finish her tossed greens.

Still, despite the moderated peace, restlessness is starting to build beneath the monotony. Someone claims that on their last day the teachers will clear out, and they’re going to gas the place, kill all the girls. It’s a stupid claim, but it has its effects.

“What the fuck are we doing here?” becomes a common question, a chant: in between tooth brushing, or eating soft-but-actually-hard rolls, or making honest-to-god charm bracelets.

Sara asks it, herself, sprawled out on her bed. It’s Going to be Okay! is the motivational statement Apple has assigned them this week. It’s pretty weak, as far as encouragement goes. “What the fuck are we doing here?”

She doesn’t really expect an answer, but Kaye says, “Learning to be good girls. Right?”

“Well when do we get to say okay already, I get it, I’m good?”

Kaye shrugs. “What are you going to do when you get out of here, anyway?”

Sara doesn’t answer, but she pictures it: going back, holding up her nephew triumphantly, the mediocre joy of normalcy after so much exposure to other people’s shit. So she’s thought about killing herself and has a weird thing about babies. She’s never actually hurt anyone. I’m not like these girls, she thinks, and it makes her feel both proud and disgusted. Then she sees herself climbing onto a balcony, feeling the salt edge of the wind, wondering if there’s still a part of her that wants to leave everything.

“Hey Sara. Were you serious about wanting to fly?”

Sara feels jolted. Kaye’s eyes are opaque on hers.

“What do you mean?” Her heartbeat quickens. Kaye smiles and looks out their window.

“You get to decide. Are you going to be good when you leave here? Are you going to turn out all right? You could, you know. You could. There’s no need to stop trying.” She stands and stretches, then clasps her hands over her stomach meaningfully. “But not me. I don’t get to pick. I never get to say I’m good. I can try, but I’m powerless against my hunger. I mean, we all need to eat sometimes, right?”

Sara swallows. Her saliva sticks in her throat. She isn’t afraid of Kaye. Kaye is her friend. Her gorgeous, crazy, baby-eating, compulsively lying friend.

Kaye crosses the room, lightning quick, until she is standing before Sara. The setting sun turns her face a weird shade of orange. She crouches down so that she’s level with Sara, stretched on her bed.

“You know,” she says, face contorting, like she’s holding back tears. “I’m getting hungry. I’m going to need to feed soon. Promise me something. We’re friends, right, Sara?”

Sara pauses, maybe too long, before nodding. Then, to increase her conviction: “Yeah. Of course.”

“When I feed–-promise me that you won’t care. You can just-–sleep. It doesn’t really change anything. I’ve always been this way, you know? And all you girls-–” she shakes her head, stops herself. “You do that for me, I’ll let you fly for one night. It’s nicer here than in Manila. It’s cooler.” She pats the top of Sara’s head. Which is funny, because she’s shorter than Sara.

“What do you think?” she asks. “I can fly, you know. I’m pretty fucking great at it.”

Sara thinks of falling, of landing on the pavement and hearing her shoulder shatter, seeing her own blood streak out past her vision. Her mother sobbing by her bed at the hospital, saying I can’t do this anymore, honey. It has to stop. And after being released, how she’d had no idea, how the van had come one day, and in a haze of anti-depressants she’d stepped onboard. She’d come here.

If Kaye could fly–-hold her, dance her through the air–-she’d be able to see. If it’s safe to go back. If she’s tired of being this way, at least for now.

But more than that, Kaye just wants her to pretend everything’s fine. She can do that. She’s had a lot of practice.

She reaches up and puts her hand on top of Kaye’s, not feeling scared or threatened or awed. Just tired. Bonesucked tired. She squeezes Kaye’s hand and says, “Okay.”

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Your tongue settles on her stomach, and you start feeding, sucking greedily. You’re starving, and it tastes so fucking delicious. The woman squirms, and the child next to her utters a short, soft moan. You don’t want this. You do.

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Sara wakes up sweating. It’s sometime past midnight? It’s too early. She needs to go back to sleep. She shuts her eyes. The sound of her breathing is too loud. She decides to get a glass of water and stumbles out of bed, bumping into something in the middle of the floor. She falls backwards, landing on her ass.

The window is open, the metal fastenings they installed after some girl attempted escape somehow undone. A cloudy moonbeam streams through it, illuminating the lower half of Kaye’s torso and her legs, her feet still in their slippers. It is standing erect, perfectly immobile, like someone sliced a girl in half and left it there for fun. The insides are shimmering, grisly, unreal.

Sara crawls back under her sheets and goes to sleep. Sometime later something slides in next to her, nudging for space on her pillow. Something wraps its arms around Sara and puts its forehead against the small of Sara’s back. Sara smells blood mixed with the faint tinge of–-mango?-–and after a moment’s hesitation, she holds those arms against her. The back of her shirt grows damp with what might be tears.

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When you’re finished, when you’ve shriveled up everything inside her stomach so that your own is full, you spool your tongue back into your mouth and breathe deeply. The horizon tells you that you have about an hour before the sun rises. That’s just enough time to head home, rejoin your lower half, shuffle back into bed. Good girls don’t get caught with babies in their bellies; good girls don’t lie; good girls don’t sneak out wearing only their boyfriends’ shirts.

You know what you are; you know what you aren’t.

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In their twentieth session, Apple says they’ve all been exceedingly Good Girls, and they’re going to be moving on the following week. The girls have demonstrated that they’ve absorbed the values of the retreat and are ready to rejoin the good world. Once Admin gets their paperwork done, the Captains do their sign-offs, and the discussion leaders file their reports-–the girls will be free.

“You get to go back home,” Kaye says, while they’re packing.

“So do you,” Sara says, but she’s suddenly not sure.

Kaye flashes her teeth, feral. “I told you, girl, I don’t have one. I go where the wind takes me!” She flings out her arms, dramatically, and flops backwards on her bed. “This was nice,” she says. “Even when it sucked it was okay. I should hang out with girls more. They don’t want as much from you as guys do. I can stay full for longer! Girls are like fiber.”

Sara doesn’t like the wistful tone in Kaye’s voice. Sara doesn’t like how her own heart squeezes, or how lonely she feels. How afraid she is of going home to find-–but no, it’ll be okay. She’s different now. She’s going to do better.

You get to decide, Kaye said. It’s not that easy. But she can try. Some girls will break their promises, lose their homes, keep on rattling against the gates, biting and sobbing and breathing. Sara, if she wants to, can change.

Kaye rolls over on her bed, arm covering her eyes. She lifts it to peer at Sara. “I still owe you. How about tonight?”

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You’ve never detached with someone watching. You’re so fascinated by her gaze on you that you hardly notice the pain. Sara’s big blue eyes are an excellent mirror–-how there are stringy bits when you twist off, how the way your spine tears from sinew is fluid, almost graceful. Your shirt is short this time so she sees your entrails hanging out, nearly glowing with all the slick against them.

To her credit, Sara doesn’t vomit. You move slowly over to the window, keeping your wings folded, and undo the latches with your knifelike fingers. You drift out and motion for her to stand on the desk. She climbs up, shakily, and says, “Can you really carry me?”

You like to think your smile, at least, is familiar-–even if the pointed tongue between your teeth isn’t.

“Yeah,” you say. “Trust me.” This is you: this is your life, the strength that fills you as you fly, feed, move on. Spanning provinces, cities, countries, continents. Finding new homes to leave, new bodies to keep you warm when you’re not hungry, new strangers to suck dry when you are. And you’ll keep on doing this, as long as you can make it back in time. Before the sun rises, or someone finds the parts you’ve left behind–-something must always be left behind.

This is how you survive.

Sara will get to go home. You’ll just have to find a new one.

“You ready?” The trees are crowding out most of the wind, but you can still taste the breeze, drifting over the dormitories where so many girls are sleeping like wolves, retreating from the world. Just waiting to bare their fangs.

Sara nods. You can’t read her expression–like she’s about to scream or laugh or cry. You squeeze her hand as hard as you can without hurting her, and spread your wings.

end_of_story

isabel

 

Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. This story is an ode to two places she calls home: Manila and California. Her work has appeared in The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2005-2010, Tor.com, Interfictions Online, and Nightmare Magazine. She is @visyap on Twitter and her website is isalikeswords.wordpress.com.

 

 

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The Mothgate, by J.R. Troughton

19th September

“This is your most important lesson.” 

It was a rifle she handed me. Long and cold, ornately decorated. It was heavier than I’d expected, heavier than the one I had practiced with. She laid the barrel on the low wall before us, and that helped.

“Watch and wait. No mistakes, Elsa. I know what is coming,” she had said, staring off into the trees. “Look for the butterflies. See them, and you’d best be ready to shoot what’s coming behind.”

We knelt behind the crumbling wall, rifles balanced over its brow, peeking over the moss-stained stone and into the dense trees that lay beyond. I tried as best I could to stop my teeth from chattering, but the winter night was bitterly cold. Mama Rattakin didn’t seem to notice. She was staring toward the tree line, pointing with her black and withered hand.

“Look, there.”

I peered into the gloom. Amid the tall trees I saw them, purple butterflies, flitting into view and sparkling in the moonlight. This was the first time I had seen them in the wild, though I recognized them immediately.

I tried to ignore them and slow my breathing. The forest was almost silent, other than the whisper of wind blown leaves and my own thunderous heartbeat. My skirt was soaked through, and my body ached from the hours of waiting. My fingers slid across the trigger, and I chewed at my lip. Daring to glance sideways at Mama Rattakin, it was as if she was made of stone. Perfectly still, other than the gentle sway of her grey hair.

moth-pull1How many times had she been here, I wondered? How many nights had she spent alone, keeping watch with nothing for company but her rifle and the cold stars?

How many had she killed?

A sudden burst of movement came from the trees. I raised my rifle and tracked the fast-moving thing as best I could, though if I had fired, my bullet could have gone anywhere at all.

Mama Rattakin grabbed my rifle barrel and smoothly brought it back down onto the wall. Despite her age, she was still quick as a fox. The owl that had drawn my aim flew into the night.

“There,” she whispered. “They will come from there. Be patient.”

I felt guilty. She had prepared me as best she could, but the pressure of my first guard was getting to me. Shaking my head, I returned to my sights. Mama Rattakin had been more than specific in telling me where to aim. Between the cliff face and the tree with the sheared branches. She would cover the rest of the tree line.

I heard the breaking of twigs and the sound of wet leaves underfoot. White shapes far back in the dense forest, growing closer.

“Be ready, Elsa.” I wasn’t sure if Mama Rattakin had spoken or I.

A gentle tune came floating through the woods. The words of a song that felt familiar, like they had been sung to me as a babe. Just one voice at first, then many. It was a haunting and beautiful harmony, soothing like honey and milk tea. My grip on the rifle loosened.

I felt Mama Rattakin’s hand on my shoulder and tried to focus once more. A fierce bite to my bottom lip helped. I stared into the wood and watched them come.

Emerging from the trees, glistening in the moonlight as they danced, came the witika. Sylph-like figures covered in pale robes who spun and twirled as they sang, stepping closer and closer. Their long white hair flowed like rivers of snow, swaying about their hips. Each of their heads nodded along to the song in perfect synchronicity.

Mama Rattakin’s rifle cracked. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the witikas burst in a shower of snowfall. Another crack, another explosion of white close by. I wanted to turn and help, but Mama had made me swear on my birth mother’s grave that I would only focus on the cliffside path. Her rifle was now dancing its own deadly beat.

A white figure appeared by the cliff face. She was facing away from me, dancing backwards through the mulch, spinning on her tip toes.

I took a deep breath. I aimed for her heart.

I pulled the trigger.

The gun slammed into my shoulder and knocked me to the ground. The kickback was far fiercer than the rifle I had practiced with, and it felt as if I had been kicked by a bull. Scrambling back to my knees, I placed the gun on the wall and looked for the witika. She was gone, and where she had stood was an explosion of white powder. As I scanned the trees, that haunting song continued, only interrupted by the sharp cracks of Mama’s rifle. Every couple of seconds, it sounded again, and with each crack another song died.

Another witika appeared by the cliff face and leapt forward, landing in dainty arabesque. It flicked its hair back, smiling, revealing teeth like glass needles. I aimed once more and fired. I was ready for the kickback this time and saw the bullet pierce the witika’s chest. She seemed to unravel for a moment, like a patchwork quilt coming undone, before bursting in a shower of white powder.

Mama’s rifle continued its own steady beat.

The path I watched was clear. Disobeying Mama’s instructions, I scanned the tree line ahead of us, watching for the next interloper to appear. I had settled now and my hands had stopped shaking. I spied another witika on my path, and I aimed once more. Each time a new witika danced into view, I took my time, as Mama had taught me, and firmly squeezed the trigger.

Snowfall all around.

Eventually, the dancing troop thinned, and the witikas stopped coming. I lowered my rifle and after a few moments of peace, laid it against the wall.

“Wait, Elsa. Always wait.”

Mama kept her gun trained on the forest before us. Her eyes were watering. How long since she had last blinked? Eventually, she too lowered her gun, stood up, and massaged her cramped legs.

“Well done, Elsa. You saw them all unravel?”

“Yes, Mama Rattakin.”

“Every single one?”

“Yes, Mama Rattakin.”

“Good girl. I knew you would. Happy birthday, my pride and joy.”

With that, she picked up her bundle of ammunition, threw it over her shoulder, and began to hobble back down the winding path towards our cabin. I snatched up my gun and chased after her.

Always to the point, Mama Rattakin.

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She took me to the Mothgate the following day. It was dull and cold that morning, the sky the color of slate. Trooping through the woods and down past that moss-covered wall, I saw the remains of the witika had vanished during the night.

“Not of our world. Not stable. Never stays long,” Mama Rattakin had muttered. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or not.

Weaving through the trees from which the witika had come, we eventually came to the gate. I had studied the pictures in Mama’s lore book and it was unmistakable. Cracked and crumbling, it was an archway of black stone, spotted with purple lichen. The trees immediately on either side were twisted and spotted, stripped of bark and leaning away from the gate, desperately trying to move from their station. Atop the archway was a great stone moth the size of a small dog.

“This is the Mothgate,” Mama whispered. “They come through here when the sun is hidden and the wild things can roam.” She picked up a branch and tossed it through the portal. It landed on decaying leaves. “The gate is of this world now, Elsa, and holds no terrors. Nightfall brings it strength. Nightfall opens the gate and then the monsters come through.”

“Have you ever seen it open, Mama? At night?” I could not imagine those ghastly ballerinas from the night before emerging through this thing. It seemed so mundane.

“Yes, my dear.” Mama Rattakin sat against a rock and pulled out her pipe, wincing as she massaged her crippled leg. Taking a long pull and blowing a finely crafted smoke ring, she watched it drift away as she continued. “Many times, when I was younger and more foolish. I would come closer to guard the gate and try to stop the witikas and the ettersops and tallemaja from coming through. I was a better shot back then.” Tapping her pipe, she raised a hand and pointed at the gate. “I would rest here, rifle ready, and see how quickly I could stop their trespassing. It’s too close though, too risky. The moss wall is a much better place. You should always watch from there.” she stared at me. “Always from the wall. You’re not skilled enough to fight so close. You would be overwhelmed.”

I ignored the insult and tried to imagine those days long ago. A younger Mama Rattakin, full of verve and courage, sitting outside the Mothgate with her rifle and her revolver, solemnly guarding the world from the Nightfall creatures of the gate. A better shot, she says! Impossible to imagine. I had never seen Mama Rattakin miss a target.

“Can we not just break it, Mama? Could we not fetch the hammer and knock out the stones?”

A wry smile crept across Mama’s lips.

“I tried once, Elsa. The gate is tougher than it looks. These stones do not break.”

I stared at the Mothgate in silence. Mama continued to smoke her pipe.

“You will learn, Elsa. The gate is what it is. We cannot move it. We cannot break it. All we can do is stop the things that live beyond it from entering our world. That is what we do. That is what we always will do.”

She raised her withered hand to the gate, pointed it like a gun, and pretended to shoot.

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Back at the cabin, Mama lit the hearth and kicked her shoes to the corner. I brewed a kettle of barley tea and served it in cracked pewter mugs. We sat in silence for a time, sipping our herb-infused drinks. Mama’s eyes were closed and her chest rattled as she breathed.

“How long since the last true Nightfall, Mama?” I asked.

“Oh, many years. Long before I was born. I’ve only read about it in the book. It was long before we found the gate and began our stewardship. Would you fetch it for me, dear?”

I placed my tea to the side and went to Mama’s study. It was a catastrophe of paper in there, each piece covered in arcane scribblings and counter scribblings. The lore book was open on her desk, on the page concerning witika. Mama must have been amending the entry.

A diagram of a witika’s face filled the middle of the page, annotated with crude sketchings. There they were, the teeth I had seen last night. Thin and long and sharp as scorpions’ tails. I shuddered as I imagined them sinking into my skin. I had not seen the eyes, black as pitch, that stared out of the picture at me.

Some years earlier I had asked Mama how old the book was, but she had simply laughed and rolled her eyes. The pages were yellowing and cracked, the spine bent. Entries on different monsters of the gate had been entered, amended, crossed out in their entirety, then added in once more with new names and new impressions. Mama’s own script was arcane, but fresh. As a young girl I had tried to find the oldest and faintest hand I could, hoping to find some forgotten lore I could impress Mama with. This never worked. Mama seemed to know everything about the land of Nightfall, and studied the book daily.

I closed it with care, picked it up with both hands, and brought it to her. It took up Mama’s entire lap.

“The witika?”

“Yes. There were more than I expected last night. The dance felt different, too. New patterns.”

I nodded.

“Do you think it means something?”

“It all means something, Elsa. Every change, every new motion, every new expression or song. We have to watch out for these things. It is only through understanding that we can stop them,” she sighed. “So, Elsa. Are you ready for your exam?”

“Mama, no! I’m tired.”

Mama clicked her tongue. “We’re all tired. I suppose you’ll say that when a fossegrimmen leaps at you from the fog, cudgel raised? Or a witika catches you in its cold palms and shears your neck with its fangs?”

I sat back down. Mama had her rituals.

The questions went on long into the night.

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19th September, again

“I don’t understand, Mama,” I cried out in anguish. “Why must you leave?”

moth-pull2“This is always the way, dear. You have done well over these past years. You have become quite the guardian. As long as you keep your calm and your sense, you can hold the gate alone now, as has always been intended. Whether it’s tallemajas or pollogrubs, or any other devil of Nightfall, you know how to stop them.”

“But why can’t you stay with me?” I wailed. “Why go through at all? It’s never worked before!”

Mama laid a hand on my shoulder and tried to soothe me with nonsense words of heroism.

“This is what we all do, Elsa. When it’s time to pass the guard on, we have to try to end things. My Mama marched through the gate, as did her Mama before her. This cannot continue forever, my dear. One of us must find a way to close the gate, and when we do, nobody else will be left with…” She waved her hand around the barren cabin. There was no need for words.

“But you’ll die, Mama.”

“Maybe I’ll set you free from this burden. We can but hope. Things might be different this time.”

I wiped a tear from my eye. It wasn’t fair. Mama was right, as always, but I didn’t want to see her leave. She had been there for me since I was a cub. She never spoke much about my youth, just that I had been left on her doorstep and she raised me as her own. I loved her for this.

The walk to the Mothgate was too short. Mama limped ahead of me, using her rifle as a walking stick. I tried to find the words. Something, anything, to express my gratitude and love for her. It all turned to ash in my mouth. None of the words I could find were suitable. Tears continued to solemnly march down my cheeks.

As we walked down the gloomy trail and towards the Mothgate, I wondered how long she might live once she crossed the threshold and entered the Nightlands. Poor Mama Rattakin. She was quick and deadly, but there was no knowing what she would find when she entered the Mothgate. The book only contained so much, after all.

We stopped at the old moss wall and prepared as normal. I had stopped shivering, having learnt to focus through the cold and through the fear. I was as steady as hard stone, no matter what my heart felt.

“Once tonight’s guard is finished, I shall leave you,” Mama said. “Trust me, Elsa. You are ready. And do not cry for me. This is what I was meant to do. I don’t have a choice. Do not follow. If I fail, and the gate remains, you too will one day have to make this journey. You’ll know when the time is right.” She wiped a tear away from my cheek.

The book said we would see nokken this night, and we did. They came as expected, beautiful white horses stampeding towards us, backed by the thrill of violins played by unseen hands. I was expert now and between us the chatter of our rifles soon stilled the hoofbeats of those devilish shapechangers. I saw only one change; a nokken that reared up in front of Mama, scorpion tail erupting from its back as its front legs melted and thickened into chitinous plates. Mama’s rifle laid it to rest with a bullet to the heart. She never even blinked.

Mama Rattakin had raised me to fight the creatures of Nightfall, teaching me their weaknesses and strengths. I learnt to separate beauty from good. Not all things that come through the Mothgate are as delightful to look upon as the nokken or witika, but they are all equally dark and cannot be allowed to enter our world. She had shown me the stories in the book of the old times, where the creatures of Nightfall had come into our world and feasted upon our kind. Faeries and nymphs, beautiful as silk and silver, dripping with crimson. Beauty could not be trusted. Mama Rattakin was all scars, aged from stress, but her heart was pure as mountain snow.

We waited, rifles primed, but nothing more appeared before us. The nokken had been stopped.

“It’s time.” Mama pulled herself up and limped through the trees, stepping over the chalk dusted grass and on towards the gate. She almost seemed keen. I followed behind.

This was the first time I had seen the Mothgate at night. Through that same stone arch lay an unfamiliar place. It was a forest, still, but not the same forest in which we stood. I’m not sure how I could tell, but it was clear. Something in the color of the trees, perhaps.

Mama turned to me, her eyes sparkling.

“Elsa, you have kept me young. Thank you for your help all these years. You shall be a wonderful guardian.” She drew me close and caught me in a bear hug. “I’ll see you again, I’m sure.”

“Do you promise?”

Mama did not answer this. She simply smiled, as was her way.

With that, she stepped through the Mothgate and into the unknown land beyond. She looked from side to side, scanning the trees around her, before settling on a path and disappearing out of sight. I stared into the empty air where she should have been, and shivered.

It was with a heavy heart I turned and headed toward our cabin. Now my cabin.

I felt like an empty shell.

story_bullet

19th September, once more

Four years since Mama Rattakin left me, and the gate still opened most nights. Each night I sat and waited with my rifle primed.

It was summer now and I was lying against the rock opposite the Mothgate. Mama had said to stay at the moss wall but I preferred it here, where I could watch the gate and pick off the monsters as they crossed into our world. She had said I was not skilled enough. I came here to prove a point to myself.

It had been trolldes tonight. Great and hairy and fat, they could only fit through the gate one at a time. True enough, it took more than one bullet to bring them down, but it had been a simple task. Over the years I had turned shooting into a craft. I am better at this than Mama was, I am sure.

Under the moon I sat, watching the gate, making certain that no other creature would cross through, when I saw it. I saw her.

Mama Rattakin.

It was only for a moment, but there was no mistaking that limp. She hobbled past the gate and out of view once more.

My jaw dropped.

“Mama! Mama Rattakin!” I called out, approaching the gate. Could it truly be? After all these years, that she still hunted in the Nightlands and searched for a way to break the gate?

I crept forward. What could I do? Mama had always warned me about the danger of the gate, but my mentor and teacher, the woman who raised me, was so close. What if I could bring her back? After all these years, surely she could abandon her quest and rejoin me? She could rest while I took stewardship.

My mind was fastened. I primed my rifle and stepped through the Mothgate and into the new forest. My heart raced and my stomach leapt towards my throat. Old Mama Rattakin was alive. How I had longed to hear her voice, to feel her calming hand on my shoulder just once more. Now it was possible.

The Nightfall forest. Twin moons loomed large in the sky above. It was a busy place, alive with the unfamiliar chattering of unfamiliar creatures.

It was colder, too. Much colder.

I held my rifle steady and slipped through the trees, heading in the direction Mama Rattakin had gone. My nerves were on fire, every sense heightened. I had slain thousands of unwholesome beasts from this land, but now they could be anywhere around me. This was no shooting gallery. Every snap of a twig or rustling bush set my nerves alight once more.

Stepping through the trees and up a steady slope, I heard the distant song of the witikas. Creeping over the brow of the hill, I discovered it was the lip of a basin. Pine trees grew sparsely and a deep lake glistened at the bottom.

There were witikas by the water, dancing their mad ballet, heads dipping and rising in time with one another. Peering through the sight of my rifle, I saw many more creatures I knew around the lake; fossegrimmen working their fiddles, huldras bathing in the water and basking in the moonlight. I stepped back, taking care to not make a sound. Mama Rattakin would never have been foolish enough to venture into the basin, of that I was certain.

I turned to head back out of the basin and continue my search for Mama, and froze. Before me stood a great bear, a karhu. Saliva dripped from its fangs and it stared at me hungrily with beady pink eyes. These beasts had rarely come through the Mothgate, but I knew how dangerous they could be. A rattling growl came from deep within its throat.

I raised my rifle, aiming for its head. It lunged forward as I fired, and time slowed.

First came the crack of my rifle. My aim was true and a gout of white burst from the karhu’s head as the bullet entered its skull and struck the beast dead. Second came the crack of my leg as the great bulk of the karhu fell upon me. It sent a lightning bolt of agony through my leg and up my spine as I collapsed to the ground. I howled in pain.

The monstrous corpse had rolled sideways after landing on me, tumbling down the slope before settling in thick bracken. Waves of pain pulsed through my leg and back.

I lay on the ground, tears pouring from my eyes. Taking a deep breath, I stood and put what weight I could on my leg, nearly collapsing back to the ground as it buckled under me. How could I search for Mama Rattakin now? Using my rifle to support me, I hobbled down the hill as best I could. As I moved, I could hear beautiful and harmonic song growing closer.

The witika were coming.

I hobbled down the hill as fast as I was able, whimpering to myself as I tried to remember my way back to the gate. Any thought of finding Mama had evaporated. All I could think of now was survival, and that meant finding my way home.

“Elsa.”

I froze.

At the bottom of the hill stood Mama Rattakin, revolver in her good hand. She was covered in mud and white powder, her clothes ripped. Somehow, miraculously, she didn’t seem surprised to see me. Nothing rattled Mama.

“Mama Rattakin!” I sobbed, hopping toward her as best I could. She looked down at my injured leg, looked to her own, and smiled.

“What a pair,” she said, shaking her head.

Oh, Mama. Only she could keep so calm in such difficulty.

“You’re alive, Mama! I’d always hoped, but when you never came home I didn’t know what to think.”

She nodded. “You were foolish to come through, Elsa. But what’s done is done. I’m glad to see you.” Mama started to limp away at a pace I could not hope to meet.

“Mama, wait. I cannot keep up.”

“You must.”

I stumbled after her through the undergrowth, fending off branches and thickets with numb hands, tears of pain streaming down my cheeks.

“Mama, I’m so glad to see you. But, I don’t understand. How have you eaten? How have you survived?”

“I’ve only been gone for a few days, Elsa.” Mama looked me up and down. “For me, anyway. Time is a broken thing in Nightfall. It does not run like the river, as in our world, but it thrashes and whips like a hurricane. Days are weeks and months are seconds.” She shrugged as she walked. At no point did she stop and wait for me, though she had slowed her pace. “But you must listen, Elsa. This is very important. I am taking you back to the Mothgate now and you must, no matter what happens, go through. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mama. You’re coming too, right?” My heart sank even before she answered.

“I can’t return, Elsa. My time in that world is over.”

And with that, Mama Rattakin upped her pace.

Only when the peak of the Mothgate loomed did Mama Rattakin stop. Breathing heavily and drinking in the cold air, I tried to compose myself. Mama was always so assured. It was as if ice ran through her. We had put distance between us and the witika now, who must have gone cavorting and gamboling in the wrong direction. It was quiet. Just the murmur of wind that crept through the trees and the rustle of wet leaves as I dragged my shattered leg behind. The sounds of moonlit animals hunting.

I heard a whimper.

Was it Mama?

She was shivering. It was now that I realized the rich scent of winter mulch and bracken in the air was not alone, and had been joined by smoke and charcoal.

An oddly warm breeze cut through the crisp night chill and quickly rose in temperature. Over Mama’s shoulder, floating through the trees, hanging limply in the air, was a man. Dressed in waterfalls of red cloth, chin resting against his chest and a wide brimmed hat upon his head, he drifted towards us. Blackened feet brushing through grass that died as he passed, he stopped and slowly raised his arms. Fingers of coal stretched out, spilling ash that floated on the breeze. Broken fingernails and scoured knuckles. The daemon lifted its head and revealed its face; a cracked skull with a quivering jaw that ground its teeth without pause.

I recognized this thing from Mama’s ancient book of monsters. This was one of the few creatures that I had never seen come through the gate. One of the most dangerous things that lived in the Nightlands, a brasskarl. A corpse risen by a pyromantic curse with a desire to incinerate all living things.

It stood between us and the Mothgate.

“Through the gate, Elsa.” Mama’s voice quivered. I realized with a jolt that, for the first time, she was afraid.

“But, Mama…” My voice trailed off and her eyes dulled.

“You must go home, Elsa. Do not try to help. You must get home to guard the gate and maintain the book.” Her voice cracked. She hugged me, before turning back to the monster before us.

The brasskarl floated, flames licking the air around it. It ground its teeth so hard that shards of bone started to break away.

Mama stepped towards it, raising her revolver. She fired three times, the bullets tearing into the burning monster, gouts of steam bursting from its wounds. It moved towards her, slowly, arms extended.

I shuffled sideways, dragging my hurt leg, making a curved path around Mama and the brasskarl. The gate wasn’t far. Mama fired another three times and this did not still the brasskarl. It had reached Mama and grabbed her with brimstone hands. Flames shot down its arms to engulf Mama Rattakin in fire. She screamed, much as I had screamed earlier, and thrashed in its grasp, kicking and punching with all her strength.

I could not help myself, despite Mama’s plea. I threw myself towards them and tried to drag Mama away. Yet the moment I touched her, those cursed flames lit up my hand. My skin began to blister and I let go, swearing and swinging my hand wildly in the air. The brasskarl was focused entirely on Mama, shaking her violently as she immolated. Her struggles waned.

I thought I would be sick, but the weight inside me was too heavy. Trying to ignore the end of my Mama, I hobbled through the black stone Mothgate and collapsed in a heap. I lay in the mud, staring up at the dawn sky, and waited for the monsters to follow.

They did not. Mama had been enough.

I peered through the gate, but Mama and the brasskarl were out of sight. As I stared, the forest shimmered and morphed. Soon enough, it was our own forest once more. I had returned through the Mothgate just in time. The image of Mama burning was still fierce in my mind.

Inspecting my hand, I saw it was ruined. Blistered and raw, I was sure it would never be of use again.

The sun rose and the night died away, and with great effort, I made my way back to the cabin, limping up the grassy path. Opening the old wooden door, I hauled my exhausted body inside and collapsed into Mama’s armchair. This comforted me, however slightly.

Closing my eyes, I soon fell into slumber, but sometime later a knock at the door roused me.

Dragging myself to my feet, I cautiously hobbled to the door and answered.

On the step of the cabin, wrapped in rags, lay a newborn babe. She slept quietly, her chest rising and falling. Dreaming of her mother, perhaps? I stared down the path and all around, but nobody was there. Bending down, I scooped up the child, taking the weight in my good hand, and took her inside.

moth-pull3I returned to the armchair, cuddling the well-swaddled babe close. She had a birthmark on her hand, a crescent moon stretching from the base of her thumb across the back of her hand. Just like my own.

I lifted my scorched hand to try to make it out, but the blisters had completely masked it. Carefully placing the babe down on the wooden table, I cleaned my hand and dressed it, wrapping it tightly in bandages. I needed to see a doctor, but there were none for miles around and I had no hope of reaching one, not on my own. I strapped it and splinted it, just as Mama had taught me.

I froze as I pulled the splint tight. A foolish thought crossed my mind.

The lore book was sat on Mama’s desk. I placed a palm on an open page and closed my eyes, thinking of Mama. Skimming through, I found the page concerning the brasskarl. There were not so many entries on this monster as the rest, though they were still numerous. Some faded, some new, some almost worn away completely. Upon the diagram of the creature were drawn dozens of X’s, on elbow, hip, and heart. With Mama’s pencil, I marked the six points where I had seen her shoot the brasskarl. There was a pattern. Chewing the end of the pencil, I studied the notes with care. It was methodical, like a surgeon probing.

The baby stirred. Hobbling to the table, I picked her up in my arms and cuddled her close. Exhausted as I was, it was only now I noticed the envelope tucked into her swaddling. I removed it clumsily with my good hand and tore it open.

The girl opened her mouth and I readied myself for her bawling.

“Mama,” she cooed happily.

I opened the envelope, my heartbeat racing.

‘I am sorry to ask this of you, kind stranger, but please look after our darling Elsa,’ it read. ‘She is our pride and joy. With your love and care, I am sure she will be a special person one day.”

I slumped into Mama’s chair. I looked at the calendar. It was the 19th of September. My birthday.

story_bullet

19th September, 19 years on

We approached the tree line and set up camp by the moss coated wall. Elsa’s hands shook as she unpacked her bag. She glanced to the tree line over and over again, though she tried her best to hide it. It was a big day for her. All those years of practice, leading to this.

I knew she would do well. I was stronger than my own Mama, and my own dear Elsa would be stronger than me. One day, perhaps, one of us would find a way to close the gate. The brasskarl was the key.

I had often thought about telling her the truth, yet it was too heavy a burden for such a young mind. I am not sure I would have lasted the years of long and lonely nights if I had known. Not at her age. What if she had left the gate, or made a decision that changed my past, her future? Nightfall might have overtaken the world with blood and beauty. No. She would understand, just as I had.

It is different for me, as Mama. Having Elsa had given me purpose. She needed my protection. She needed a guide. How else would she have grown strong enough to guard the gate? How could she grow to become… me?

Telling her the truth was too great a gamble.

“This is your most important lesson.”

I handed her the rifle. Long and cold, ornately decorated. Passing it on was harder than I’d expected. Seeing her struggle with the weight, I took the barrel and laid it on the low wall before to us. I knew that would help.

“Watch and wait. No mistakes, Elsa. I know what is coming,” I said, staring off into the trees.

end_of_story

james

 

 

James Ross Troughton is a writer of speculative fiction who lives and works in Essex, England. After graduating from the University of Leicester in 2007, he moved to Seoul, South Korea, where he worked in language academies for three years before returning to the UK. He now works in Primary education. He likes cats.

 

 

Shimmer #25

The Scavenger’s Nursery, by Maria Dahvana Headley

A boy finds a baby in the garbage. It’s hotter this summer than it was the summer before. Everyone in the city is trying to get to the country, because in the city, the rat population is exploding. Rats themselves are exploding, though not of their own volition. Sometimes rats swallow explosives. Sometimes explosives are wrapped in little bobbles of food.

The boy, Danilo, has been doing some work in this regard. Rats are a renewable resource. Today, he’s tracking a big rat up the mountain. Beneath his sandals is a hill of plastic and peelings, rubber, blank screens, glass formerly glowing, now reflecting nothing but sun. He looks through red knock-off sunglasses labeled GUCCY. His feet skid on something. Something across the hillock ignites, and he looks suspiciously at the area, judging distance. Fine. No wind today.

garbage-pull1This mountain can be seen from space. It has a name, and on maps, it’s part of the topography. It’s only when you get closer that you can see it for an assemblage, invented earth. Secretly, the boy calls the mountain after himself: Danilo’s Bundók, as though he’s the first explorer to reach its summit. Beneath Danilo’s feet, the mountain shudders. A quiver, a coursing, and garbage slides.

In the town below, roofs clang with tin cans, and automobile parts thunder down. It’s a storm of junk.

As the avalanche subsides, Danilo becomes aware of something at his feet, pushing out from the layers of refuse. The rat, he thinks, ready for it. It’s long as his forearm. He nearly spears it, a wet black thing, its skin shining, blurry, dazzled eyes opening. But it isn’t a rat. It is an animal, its flesh hard and soft at once, like a banana bound in iron.

He’ll take it home, he thinks, and make it a pet. He’s owned other pets, some friendly, some feral. There’s a chicken in his history, smut-feathered, beak shiny and perfect, and when he owned that chicken, he stroked it until he lost custody and it became a soup. This pet won’t be eaten. There’s nothing about it that looks edible.

The thing blinks, showing pale yellow rubbery eyelids, somewhat transparent, and Danilo reaches out and picks it up. It shifts, comforting itself against his fingers, and he thinks Baby? Danilo once held his sister over his shoulder, her silken cheek resting against his neck, her fuzz of hair brushing his face, and so he tries to hold the thing using the same method. He jogs it a bit, and coos, shifting his sack to the other shoulder. Below him, metal roofing vibrates in the sun, hot and glittering, but where he is, far above the town, he’s king of the bundók.

He considers his new pet. It’s not a monkey, though it has a tail, and grasping fingers. It has a feathery black fringe around its neck, and small rough horns made of something very solid. No teeth, but a clamping mouth, the sort of mouth that would cause a bruise were it allowed to bite. It is very ugly.

Danilo knows he hasn’t seen everything. He hasn’t seen the stars, though he knows they exist, or once did. On the mountain, he found a tourist magazine with a yellow jacket, and photos of places all around the world, including the bottom of the sea, where a glowing jellyfish orbited in the dark, like a balloon caught in a current, floating higher and higher until the clouds took their color.

Antennae tendril against Danilo’s face, radio, television, insect, whisker, he can’t tell, but they belong to the baby. The little thing stares up at him, and he feels powerful. He might put the baby down and leave it here in the sun, or he might take it and save it. It’s his choice.

It makes a sound, a gurgling crow. Then it begins to cry. Danilo gives it a bit of his T-shirt to suckle at, and it clamps its mouth down on that, nursing at the dirty cotton, smacking. He considers for a moment, and then wraps the baby in the rest of his shirt, constructing a small sling. He makes his way, bare-chested, down the mountain toward home.

As Danilo descends, the mountain pulsates. He looks around, wondering if there’s a relief organization bulldozer bringing dirt to cover over some particular toxicity, but shortly, the quivering stops, and he continues, the baby sleeping against his chest.

The last of the river dolphins. The last of the poisonous frogs. The last of the polar bears. The last of the Siberian tigers. The last of the dodos, gone two centuries now. The first of these.

A small boat moves like a hungover partygoer in Times Square on New Year’s Day. Nets stretch out to take samples from the patch—bones and tangles. It’s a glittering gyre, colorful bits of wrapping, and metal-lined sacks.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine, somebody’s music shouts from the cabin, and somebody else yells “Fuck off, Jack. That song’s banned from this boat and you know it.”

“I miss the ‘90’s,” says the somebody, unrepentant.

On deck, Reya Barr sifts fingernails through her fingers. A container of decorated plastic press-ons fell from a Chinese ship six months ago, and here they are, as predicted. She’s mapped their theoretical progress on a current chart, but no one ever knows what the ocean will do, not really. She reads the pale pink ovals, one letter at a time. B-R-I-D-E. As though a woman might need to look down midway through her wedding and read her fingertips to tell herself who she is. She puts one on each finger, and crimps her fingers into claws. It’s for the money, this cruise. Her student loans are due. BRIDE. Her other hand’s all glitter lightning and storm clouds.

This is a particular kind of expedition, a sponsored sail though a plastic sea. The goal is to confirm that the garbage patch is growing, and also to confirm that it’s drifting toward Hawaii. Everyone already knows this, but this is science; one hypothesis requires confirmation before another can be made. The scientists are mapping the boundaries of the mass. Garbage flows over the water like something fluid, but it’s also distinct, each piece something that can be captured in a net, examined.

garbage-pull2She imagines garbage crossing thousands of miles, drawn to this place. A kind of magnetic desire, drawing like to like. The world is collapsing under plastic ducks. Hula hoops. Water bottles. Were she plastic and thrown into a gutter, Reya might be drawn here herself. She’d sail across the sea, until she arrived in this civilization of crumple.

She leans far out over the rail, squinting at something shiny moving in the garbage. Maybe a gull or a trapped fish. There’s an ancient smell out here—rot, salt, and darkness.

There’s a kind of weird beauty in the reinvention of an ocean. It’s not as though things have never changed before. It isn’t as though what she floats on wasn’t once ice. And the land she walks on, when she’s at home? That land was covered with ocean, the sand full of bones of the sea.

She thinks about that when she feels like pretending that none of this is really going to have repercussions. There was oil geysering up in the Gulf of Mexico; the oil was in the news for a while, and then mysteriously gone, as though some giant mouth beneath the ocean sucked it away. It isn’t lost. That much oil doesn’t get lost. But the world is content to believe that water is big enough to win.

Reya has vials full of water thickened with photodegraded plastic, a slurry of children’s toys and dildoes, of baggies, shiny leggings, medical tubing and plankton, and all of it looks like the same thing. It looks like water.

Sometimes she dreams of dropping to the bottom, where none of the world has yet gotten, but even the deepest vents are full of mermaid tears and microplastic. The arteries of the earth are clogged with hotel room keys.

The world’s ending, yeah. It’s begun to bore her, the sort of horror that’s dull when considered too deeply from the deck of a research boat out in the middle of the Pacific.

The thing in the garbage patch is still moving. She watches it idly. There was a storm last night, and today the mass has rolled over. New things are visible, bodies of gulls and fish skeletons, dead jellyfish wrapping about indecipherable gleam. She aims her camera at the thing, zooming in on its motion and filming it. She’ll post it to the vessel blog. Look at this, expedition donors, this bit of plastic that looks like an animal. Look at this un-thing that looks like life.

The un-thing looks back at her.

“What,” she says, quietly, and then her voice rises. “What the hell is that?”

It’s not a seal. It’s not a shark. It’s not anything like anything.

A cloud drapes itself over Mexico City, yellow with gasoline and cigarettes and souls. It hangs there like something solid, low enough to graze the skyscrapers, putting them to their original task, that of touching the fingers of god. But the cloud is not birthing a god; it’s birthing another cloud—small, dark, heavy, wet.

In an office building in London, a janitor pushes a wastepaper bin down a hallway. Inside the bin, a plastic sack of shredded accounts rustles against coffee grounds, newspapers. Its heart is full of decapitated payables, receivables, half words and splintered sentences, crumpled muffin wrappers, its blood copy machine toner and printer ink.

The newborn lies at the bottom of the bin, too wobbly to support its own limbs. The janitor swipes a mop along the floor and dumps wastepaper baskets, and each time wastepaper joins the mass, the baby at the bottom of the bin grows bigger.

scavengers-nursery-illustration-topDanilo puts his garbage baby into a box and feeds it fruit. It rattles and bares its tiny tin teeth. His sister looks into the box, once, and gives him a look of confirmation. Yes, Danilo is a devil on earth. Yes, he would adopt a thing like this thing. She runs from the room spitting tattle like she’s a can full of crickets.

Danilo’s mother looks into the box, but doesn’t really see. It’s dark. All she can make out is tail and a fringy black ruff. “That’ll get too big,” she says. “Better put it out now and save yourself the pain.”

“I’ll keep it just a little longer,” Danilo says.

“Don’t get attached,” says his mother, knowing he will. These are the sorrows of having a son. Daughters are more bloodthirsty.

So the baby grows. The mountain outside shudders and shakes, shedding layers of garbage, earthquaking, and the baby cries. Danilo worries about it. He isn’t feeding it the right food. He gives it a Coke. It whirrs like a motor, and grows fat and sleek on sugar. It sleeps in his bed. It eats a bicycle tire, then a bicycle, broken and twisted after a run-in with a car. Danilo looks at it, assessing its appetite. The mountain is there, and periodically a particularly succulent piece of garbage surges up through layers, a gift for the baby’s belly.

Reya reaches over the rail, the fake-fingernails three inches longer than her fingertips. The un-thing swims to her. She hauls it aboard. The garbage gyre roils, and then is still. The creature is small and light, its body covered in aluminum wrappings and fingernails, bones of fish, a bit of kelp, a tentacle of some dead cephalopod caught in a net. It has a black beak, and large, lidless hazel eyes.

The other scientists examine it, brows furrowed, tweezers taking samples. They argue. It’s a gull covered in oil; maybe it drifted in from the Gulf. No, it’s some other seabird, messed about in garbage and plastic. At last, they decide that it is—it must be—a creature that’s been mutated by the plastic water. They photograph it, post the photo to the vessel’s blog, and then send the photo to NOAA, asking for backup. People take notice. A contingent rises up and screams about the end of the world, beast numbering, signs.

The un-thing curls in Reya’s stateroom, wrapped in a heat blanket, opening its beak periodically for food. Its tentacle twists around the bottle. The only woman on the ship, and here she is, feeding a baby. She’s appalled, repulsed, guilty. She can’t bring herself to think about what sort of baby it is. It’ll become a paper in Nature. She’ll be the head author. Career-making. New species. She looks at its glassy doll eyes. There was a container of five thousand drink-and-wet baby dolls lost from a ship late last year. She’d originally thought of tracking the baby dolls instead of the fingernails, but decided it was too much metaphor, mapping a sea full of fake babies.

Though she should’ve known they were coming, Reya isn’t expecting it when the helicopter lands on their pad and the uniformed men get out. They’ll take the un-thing away from her, probably to a laboratory to be dissected. She looks into the baby’s eyes. If anyone’s going to kill it, dissect it, display it, it will be her.

garbage-pull3Reya carries it onto the helicopter. She cradles it all the way to Washington. She feeds it Styrofoam cups and foil-wrapped candies. She doesn’t croon to it or lullaby it. She learns it. That’s her job. Does it have reflexes? Yes. Can it speak? Also yes, a mynah, a mimic. She knows things about it that the other scientists don’t. It’s intelligent. She’ll be damned if she lets it pass through her fingers without…without, what? She wants to know where its mother is. It didn’t come into being out of light and photosynthesis; it was born from the patch. The creature’s mother is drifting toward Hawaii.

In the laboratory, Reya looks at the creature, and the creature looks back. It opens its mouth, stretches its jaws, and crumples itself back into a ball. It lives in a tank beside the tanks of the seagulls and the ocean fish to which the lab is comparing its DNA. Reya doesn’t feel sympathy for it. It’s more complicated than that, and also simpler. She feeds it a classified document, which gives it codes for entry into any locked door in the building. Later, the baby will use the codes to open its cage and rustle out. Later in the night, it will become a Top Secret, but for now, she passes it a latex glove, and watches as it sinks its teeth into it.

A heap of cell phone parts glimmers green as beetle shells. Children sort them. A goat minces its way through a thousand ghost voices, recorded messages crushed into oblivion, texts, naked photos, emails, and pleadings. The goat’s white-yellow fur is splashed with turquoise powder from a festival that’s now over. It nibbles at a bit of metal, faintly annoyed at the new thing rising from the heap of broken. Children crouch on their heels and watch as a newborn creature stands, twelve feet tall, flashing in the sun. It opens its mouth and screams, and all across the sky, satellites tremble.

This one, at last, hits the international news, but is dismissed as a hoax. Hysteria. Mass hallucination. Some sort of Techno-Environmentalist Bigfoot. Eyes roll in the countries that still have all the money. The creature in the photo is convincing, and that is to the credit of whoever made it, but that’s all.

The monster crawls into the forest, its feet tender still, bruised by rocks. After a time, some of the children creep into the trees to feed it. Children are better at feeding monsters than adults are. They don’t have the burden of suspicion.

Danilo finds the baby standing in his bedroom one day with a rat in each of its claws. They struggle, upside down.

“Rats aren’t food,” he tells it, suddenly anxious. He can’t tell whether or not the rats are explosive. The baby is six feet tall now, but still doesn’t sleep through the night. Its long tail is whippy, and it knocks things down.

It’s becoming difficult to keep the baby quiet in his room, though it folds itself small when it sleeps, and he’s reminded again of the tiny creature it was when it was born. It requires bottles of oil and dirty water. It needs gasoline. When Danilo fails to feed it on time, it bites at itself. When he fails to feed it what it wants, it bites at him. He feels exhausted by responsibility.

It eats the rats. They explode inside its belly. Danilo cringes, hands over his face, simultaneously hoping for freedom and fearing disaster, but the baby doesn’t die. It grows bigger.

In a forest in Montana, a newborn made of sawdust, splinters, engine oil and bird’s nests encounters a thing with a chainsaw. It picks the thing up, looks at it curiously, considering its purpose. Satisfied, it crumples the thing in its giant hand, and throws it away, off the logging road and into the river, where it floats for a moment—a bright, chaotic piece of red and white garbage. The body sinks, slowly, and the fish eat it.

The rest of the logging crew is speechless for only as long as it takes to dial the police, who bring news crews along with their sirens.

The monster stands in the place where it was born. Is it confused? Does it care? It is unclear. The newborn’s still standing there when the loggers surge around it and cut it down.

Hysteria begins with that footage, worldwide.

Danilo’s baby eats more than its weight, making its way onto the mountain at night, scavenging cars. It speaks to the mountain, until, one day, the mountain itself stands up, raining down on all the people surrounding it, and walks away from the place it has always been. The mountain carries its baby in its hands, and Danilo, standing in the doorway of his school building, covers his eyes.

Danilo goes about his business, what business there is. Rats explode. His family flees the city. At night, he looks out and as the world gets darker, the stars are, for the first time in his life, occasionally visible.

Reya Barr lets the monster take her with it when it leaves the lab. It carries her in its arms, and she looks up into its glassy eyes. When it opens its beak to speak it says Bride. It says love. It says sleep. It swims out into the sea, and she rides on its back, free of her student loans, her publication graphs, the way she prayed for an article a year, the scientists who’ve told her, despite her accomplishments, that she’s not their equal. She still thinks of dissecting the monster, but now she feels like a dissected object herself, a doll made of soft materials and stuffed with batting. A thing fallen off a ship and floating. She no longer minds. She sings the song from the rock and roll band, the end of the world song, and the garbage monster, the mimic, sings with her.

“And I feel fine.”

There are guns, of course, and bombs. There are thoughts of nuclear strikes, but the summer is hotter and hotter, and at first, the monsters aren’t killing many people. Those they do kill, they crush efficiently, placing them in sloping piles in the dirt.

Scientists and politicians deliberate. They try bombs, but bombs do nothing. They try poisons and guns. One monster curls up into tiny pieces of garbage, and then resurrects from each piece, a thousand-headed hydra, an impossible excess. More emerge newborn from buried trash, destroying houses and buildings. The earth wears a mantle of paper and plastic, tin cans, DVDs, and all of it is hatching. Perhaps the cold will kill these creatures made of useless things. The research supports it. Blooms have always ended and waters have always run clear again. Eventually, even plagues of locusts starve and fall out of the sky, and the humans, what humans remain, will do as they’ve always done. They will shovel.

Live and let live, say some.

Already dead, say others.

Use everything, say still others. The people on earth who’ve been living in places where everything has already been used look out across the dry plains at the dry crops. They move into caves. They set fires around the perimeters of their camps and villages, because the only thing that keeps the creatures away is fire. Those people survive. The ones who are used to excess do not. They hide amongst their own stockpiles, and there, the conditions are right for births. Even a scrap of paper forgotten might yield a newborn. Even a toothpick, or a rind. Even the dead might yield a newborn, and in a city with an underground full of pauper’s unmarked graves, things shake and stir and skeletons assemble into horses, large enough for the monsters to ride.

These are new conditions to become accustomed to, but this is the planet shifting. Earthquakes have flattened cities. Cities have been murdered. The ice has melted. The world adjusts, after screaming and panic, to a new normal. The monsters keep to themselves, and most of the remaining population of the planet does not eventually care. The garbage sleeps at night, and sometimes someone tries to kill it with a gun, or with a knife, but it doesn’t die. The rivers run and drift into the sea. Lazy twisted currents, water traveling into lakes and into sky. The garbage moves through the water and rain from the clouds, floats and drifts, and slowly makes a changed world out of mess.

scavengers-nursery-illustration-bottomThe documents from this period are public now. The deaths—called mysterious—of the team of scientists sent to examine that first sea-born baby, the way they were, months after they harvested it from the Pacific Patch, crushed in its tentacles and torn by its beak, the way the hazel eyes blinked when its head moved to swallow them.

The way Reya Barr, the scientist who fetched the baby from the water, was the only one spared as the laboratory was torn apart from the inside out, returned to metal and glass, and how that broken metal and glass rearranged itself into something new. The way more babies were born from this new garbage, and how they emerged from the building, flooding the parking garages, swarming down the street, overturning cars as they moved, turning the cars into wrecks, turning the wrecks into more of themselves.

A bloom of babies. A swarm. A plague.

And can joy be read between the lines of the official prose? Vindication, certainly. The world was indeed ending. Certain of the official documents reflect that conviction. Everything was beginning again. Slates were wiped clean.

The President gave an address, of course, an Emergency State of the Union, but as he spoke, he realized that all he could say was that people should stay away from the garbage.

Fresh Kills landfill walked into New York City, miles tall and miles deep. In Rome, Monte Testaccio shook off the trees on its back, and stood up to trample, its body made of the shards of ancient amphorae, once full of olive oil, now coated in lime.

The rules of the world changed. There was an evolution, a shift in everything.

The last of the senators. The last of the secretaries. The last of the chieftains. The last of the burlesque dancers. The last of the astrophysicists.

The first of these.

The cities empty. The streets stop moving. The nights get quieter and darker. Danilo is one of the last left in his city, and as he grows older, sometimes he sees the garbage mountain walking, moving past his shack, and beside it, the smaller body of its baby, walking with long strides, a slipping thing with a hard shell, horns, a black plastic fringe fluttering in the hot breeze. Beyond the city limits, there’s a new mountain, this one made of human bones, and in its layers the rats move as they always have, turning the secrets of centuries to sediment.

Somewhere in the Pacific, Reya Barr floats on a raft made of detritus, her back supported by plastic bottles, held above the surface by the fingers of soda rings. Her hair is long and white now, and it trails into the deep, and her eyes are blind from too much sun.

Some things are still as they’ve always been on earth. There are fewer people, but they still fight and still fuck. Some people are frightened of the dark, and some are not. In one of the cities, a human throws something away. A dog finds it in the garbage, snuffles it and barks, and a gleaming, clattering creature kneels and picks the garbage up, carries it away, cradling it, rocking it.

As it’s carried, the human baby cries, a thin cry, and then it’s soothed by the thing that has found it. This green-skinned creature sings out a lullaby in all the former languages of the world, for more signal, for

Can you even hear me? And

Fuck you, just go and fuck yourself if you’re going to be like that I’m telling you I’m done and

I love you so much, oh my god I love you so much and

I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before and

The creature opens its mouth wider and vibrates to all the satellites, to everyone who has ever occupied the place it occupies now. It holds the human baby in its metal hands, and talks to the sky.

I’m losing you, it trills in every language ever spoken through telephony. I’m losing you.

fin

 

mariaMaria Dahvana Headley is the author of the upcoming young adult sky ship novel Magonia, from HarperCollins, the dark fantasy/alt-history novel Queen of Kings, the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes, and The End of the Sentence, a novella co-written with Kat Howard, from Subterranean.With Neil Gaiman, she is the New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the monster anthology Unnatural Creatures, benefitting 826DC. Her Nebula and Shirley Jackson award-nominated short fiction has recently appeared in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Subterranean Online, Glitter & Mayhem and Jurassic London’s The Lowest Heaven and The Book of the Dead. It’s anthologized in the 2013 and 2014 editions of Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction, Paula Guran’s 2013 The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror.

She grew up in rural Idaho on a survivalist sled-dog ranch, spent part of her 20’s as a pirate negotiator in the maritime industry, and now lives in Brooklyn in an apartment shared with a seven-foot-long stuffed crocodile. Twitter: @MARIADAHVANA Web: www.mariadahvanaheadley.com

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The Half Dark Promise, by Malon Edwards


S
omething moves in the half dark two gas lamps ahead of me. I hold fast at the edge of a small circle of gaslight cast down from the street lamp above me.

I don’t breathe. I don’t move. I just hold my breath so long that I get lightheaded as I try to drop eaves hard into the half dark around the gas lamps ahead. But all I hear is my steam-clock heart going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in my chest.

As my breathing slows, I peer into the half dark. Zye mwen fè yanyan—my eyes search right and left and up and down. I can’t help but think about Bobby Brightsmith, about his little sister and his little brother. I can’t help but wonder if I’m about to join them.

Wherever they are.

Something moves again. I press my hands tight over my mouth. I try not to whimper too loud. Mwen pa vle kèlkeswa sa li a manje m. I don’t want whatever is out there to eat me. M pou kont mwen. I’m out here all alone. I can barely hear the laughter and shouts from timoun yo on Yates Avenue, the next street over.

Since Bobby went missing, Ollie Cobbler and the other children won’t walk home with me. They don’t like me. They’re scared of me. They give my harness the side eye. They think Bobby disappearing is my fault. They think Manmi did some vodou on him.

At lunch recess, them fast Covey Four girls who sit in the back of my class tease me about it out on the schoolyard. They sing:

Michaëlle-Isabelle, Michaëlle-Isabelle,
Don’t get close, or you will smell.
Michaëlle-Isabelle, Michaëlle-Isabelle,
Here she comes, go run and tell.
Michaëlle-Isabelle, Michaëlle-Isabelle,
Her mama casts them voodoo spells.
Michaëlle-Isabelle, Michaëlle-Isabelle,
Take your Haitian tail to Hell!

Don’t believe them. Mwen gent sant siwo. I smell sweet, like honey. The half dark thinks so, too. The voices come at me from everywhere—from the low rooftops above my head and the cobblestones beneath my feet. Tell us, little girl, it whispers to me, do you taste just as sweet?

Pye, sa’m te manje m’pat ba ou! I want to tell my feet. I want to run away like Bobby told me. I want to flee. I want to be gone from this place. Instead, mwen espere maybe whatever speaks with those voices can’t see me. Mwen espere, I hope, maybe their night vision has been ruined by the gaslight. Then I realize that they live and prowl in the half dark. Their eyes are used to it—that is, if they have eyes.

The first thing Bobby Brightsmith told me when I moved to the South Side of Chicago from La Petite Haïti with Manmi was to run like a scalded dog if I ever saw zonbi la in the half dark on the way home from school.

halfdarkpull1See, when Bobby was eight years old, a little girl and a little boy were snatched from the half dark not far from home. They were never seen again. Bobby said because of that little girl and that little boy, timoun yo in Chicago now walk home from school in groups, in the half dark just before nightfall. The half dark comes fast this time of year.

I was surprised on the first day of school when Bobby took my hand on our walk home. He was nervous. He flushed rose-red down to his neck. But he didn’t let go. He’d signed the half dark promise just like every other timoun in Chicago. Even lekòl segondè elèv yo with their teenage swagger and their foul mouths held hands on the walk home. Bobby’s hand was sweaty. Large. Callused. The hands of a smith’s son. But I didn’t mind. Vrèman vre—truth be told—I was just pleased Bobby wasn’t calling me names while speaking to me. That didn’t happen at my old school. Actually, that didn’t happen at my new school, either.

The second thing Bobby told me was, if I’m ever bab pou bab—face-to-face—with something nasty in the half dark, call it out, and make it Tell It Like It Is. He’d said if I do it right, I’ll take away its power and it will have to answer me with total honesty. Once it does, once it’s under my control, I could even tell it to go jump in the lake, if I want.

Kounye a, I don’t want to be face-to-face with it. But I do want to go home. I want to go home now.

So I take a deep breath, and say:

My name is Kaëlle
(tell it tell it)
and I’m on the line
(tell it tell it)
but I’m not scared
(tell it tell it)
because I’m so fine!
(tell it tell it)
And you know what?
(what)
And you know what?
(what)
You can. Kiss. My. Butt!

Just so you know, that wasn’t me answering. It was the half dark.

But just like Bobby says it will, the half dark does its part and Tells It Like It Is:

We are the Pogo
(tell it tell it)
and we are many
(tell it tell it)
we feast on girls
(tell it tell it)
both strong and skinny.
(tell it tell it)
And you know what?
(what)
And you know what?
(what)
We will. Eat. Your. Guts!

For three ticks of my steam-clock heart, the world goes quiet. I can’t hear timoun yo on Yates Avenue anymore. Never before have I been this scared in all my life. Not even when papa mwen disappeared. But I feel my hope grow some. I can’t help it. Bobby might not know what an equilateral triangle is, or how to do long division with remainders, but he knows how to throw down with the half dark.

And then, I remember he’s missing.

Maybe he didn’t Tell It Like It Is. Maybe he got too scared. Or maybe he just never got the chance to tell off the half dark. I won’t miss my chance, though. I pull up my britches, as Manmi says, lift my chin, and tell the half dark: Go jump in the lake.

"The Half-Dark Promise" by Malon EdwardsIn response, the shadows breathe, long and low.

And then, nothing.

For five whole minutes, four hundred ticks of my steam-clock heart, I stand in that circle of gaslight, trè trankil. Nice and quiet. My forehead tightens. A soft sigh tickles the back of my neck. It’s warm and damp. Something is out there in the half dark. So I begin to create my sanctuary.

First, I strip down to my leather chest harness bodice. I pull the skin from my face and my neck and my arms. I take my time. I want to remove the skin in one untorn sheet.

It comes off wet. Sa fè’m mal. It hurts. A lot.

M kontinye ale. But I keep doing it. M pa lage. I don’t stop. M se fin prèske. At heart-tick eight hundred and seventy-five, I’m almost done.

When all of the skin has been pulled off, I spread it open and I blow on it. It’s brown with translucence. It catches my breath, like a parachute. It dries with patience, like butterfly wings. As it hardens, I shape it around me, from head to foot.

This is my chrysalis. Sa bèl. It’s beautiful. The joy in its creation makes the world go slow. Ti Mari pa monte, ti Mari pa desann. All is dead and silent.

Until, far off, I hear somebody’s mama calling for them to come home. Pa manman mwen. But I wish it was my mama. Kounye a, right now, manman mwen is making her rounds in Back of the Yards, tending the miners and their families.

I don’t know whose mama is yelling, but I do know she will never see her child again. Bobby told me no one escapes the half dark without the chant.

Not even him.

One day on the walk home from school, I told Bobby the half dark promise was silly. He just looked at me. His eyes were all big and wet. Li t’a pral kriye. He was going to cry. I was sure of it. But instead he said, You know that little girl and that little boy who went missing? That little girl was my sister, and that little boy was my brother. He said nothing else on the walk home that day.

I wanted to brush his loose dark curls out of his eyes and kiss his tears before they fell. But I didn’t. He wouldn’t have wanted that. So I squeezed his sweaty hand instead.

Bow! The half dark tests my chrysalis. It tries to snatch a knot in my head, or eat me. I’m not sure which. Either way, li kanpe fèm—my chrysalis—stands firm against its assault. Mwen pa bridin kò l. I don’t even flinch. Ata pa yon ti kras. Not even a little bit. Tankou yon wòch, li kenbe fò. My chrysalis is as hard as a rock.

And the half dark knows it. So it tries a different tactic.

The half dark presses against all sides of my chrysalis, sending tentacles over its surface. I know what it’s trying to do. It’s looking for weak spots. I think it won’t find any, but then, my chrysalis starts to shiver and creak. The tentacles (I stopped counting at twenty) try to squish me all at once. Mwen pa pè. But I’m not scared, or so I tell myself.

The half dark chuffs a laughs. It sounds like stretched faces and eyeless sockets. M trè pè.

Now I’m scared.

In La Petite Haïti, zanmi lekòl mwen, my classmates, called me the Snake Girl.

At the slightest touch, my skin sloughs off, as scaly as you please. My classmates threw rocks at me to make my skin fall off. They thought if they held me down and pulled it off they would catch my disease.

It was Papa who told me I have epidermolysis bullosa, and he knew what he was talking about. Li te yon doktè. Manmi is a doctor too, a pulmonologist. She only knows about respiratory diseases. And polio. She developed the steam-clock heart, like the one I have ticking in the socket of my chest harness right now, during the polio epidemic ten years ago.

It was Papa who told me, Pran kè. Be strong. Don’t let estipid sa yo get to you.

So, whenever my classmates threw rocks, I pulled my skin off, stretched it tight, and then blew it dry, all while running from them, in preparation for my chrysalis. Sometimes, I did this two or three times a day. Before school, during lunch recess, after school. Back then, my hands were gwosomodo. Clumsy. Dousman. Slow. Forming my chrysalis hurt. And I don’t mean the three or four rocks that would split my forehead and cheek before I could finish.

When I got home from school, I used to just stand in the foyer, my arms bent and hanging away from my sides. I’d stand that way for as long as I could, completely still, because if I took one more step, or if the wet new skin on my arms touched the sides of my chest harness, I would faint with pain. Now, I’m trè vit—so fast—my hands blur when I make my chrysalis. I’ve learned to ignore the pain. I’ve learned to embrace it. But there’s only so much pain a girl can take.

Epoutan li te ye merite sa. But the pain of my new skin was worth it. The rocks hurt more. They always hurt more.

Papa made me feel better, though, once his last patient of the day left. He was gentle when he wrapped my new skin in gauze and tended my wounds in his office. As he did so, I would tell him how strong I had been at school that day, how I protected myself with my chrysalis. And he would kiss my afro puffs and call me his Butterfly Girl.

It was easy for me to be strong for Papa. I loved him so.

I feel the first crack of my chrysalis deep in my chest, the same way I feel the thoom! thoom! thoom! of the bass drums during the Back-to-School Bud Billiken Day Parade. Tout bagay byen. But everything is fine. My chrysalis is still strong. At least that’s what I tell myself. Until now, my chrysalis has never been smashed or broken. Not even by Number One Bully in Mob Three, Ollie Cobbler. And he has a steam piston in his left arm. But the half dark isn’t Ollie Cobbler.

I hear the second crack, much louder this time, behind my left ear. Golden brown splinters of my chrysalis sting my cheek. Cold air rushes into me. Three tentacles push through the jagged break. The tentacles have suckers, and beaks, and mouths with tiny sharp teeth.

I reach behind my head and slide Tonton Macoute out of the sheath in my backpack. Nan yon klendèy, just three quick Rising Butterfly strikes, and the tentacles fall to the smooth floor of my chrysalis, coiling and flopping like snakes with their heads cut off. The Pogo howls in surprise. Not a howl like a lougawou throws at the full moon. But a howl that says, You done just pissed me off.

Tonton Macoute does that sometimes.

Papa tried not to make a big show of giving me Tonton Macoute, but he couldn’t help himself. I’d just gotten home from school. I hadn’t needed to pull my skin off to make a chrysalis at all that day, so I was happy, and even more pleased when Papa allowed me in his office after his last patient of the day. He sat me on his knee in that big leather chair I liked, placed the machete across my thighs, kissed my afro puffs, and told me, Ti chouchou, I give you this so you will always remember, and I will never forget.

I was eight years old.

Manmi was standing in the doorway. Her last patient of the day had cancelled. Papa had thought Manmi would still be in her office. Manmi te fache avè Papa. I’d never seen her that angry with him before. Pissed off doesn’t even begin to describe the look on her face.

But all Manmi said was, Pa fè estipid. Don’t be a fool. And then she went back to her office on the other side of the house and stayed there all night.

I’d just looked at Papa. I hadn’t been sure if she’d been talking to him or me.

Even today, I’m still not sure.

There are too many tentacles. For a moment, I forget my training, and just hack and slash and chop. I scream as I do this. It doesn’t sound like my voice. And then, other screams join mine. Screams from the tentacles. The awful screams of children. They ask, Why are you killing us? What did we do to you? We just want to go home!

So do I.

Which is why I don’t stop hacking them to bits.

Tonton Macoute wasn’t new when Papa gave it to me. The handle was worn, and there were reddish-brown spots on the blade. Those spots could have been rust. Those spots could have been dried blood. I never asked. I wasn’t too scared to ask. Mwen te okipe. I’d just been busy. The day after Papa gave me Tonton Macoute and Manmi gave him the side eye he showed me how to use it. For two hours after school every day, he trained me with the machete.

I learned to float swift Rising Butterfly strikes, and drop vicious Iron Butterfly chops. I learned to flow with confidence into Form of the Monarch, and feint Papa out of his Preacher boots with Form of the Viceroy. I even learned to unleash brutal savagery through Form of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing.

Like I’m doing to the tentacles in the half dark now.

The children’s screams have stopped. But I haven’t. I don’t realize that I am crying through my rage until the Pogo whispers to me in its many voices, Little girl, there is no need to cry. Do not worry; we shall gobble you up in just two bites. You will hardly feel a thing.

halfdarkpull2Silly half dark.

I’m not crying because I’m afraid of the Pogo.

And I’m not crying because I’m afraid of being eaten.

I’m crying because Bobby was my best friend.

I’m crying because I’d never had a best friend before.

I’m crying because I’ll never have a best friend again.

I’m crying because I’ll never see Papa again.

I’m crying because I know Papa is dead. I know he did some horrible things. Mwen pa estipid. I’m not a fool.

But I don’t tell the Pogo this. It doesn’t need to know.

All it needs to know is Tonton Macoute.

I can’t remember my last moment with Papa. I can’t remember where I was when Manmi told me he was missing. I can remember him widening my stance, dropping my elbow, bending my knees, lifting my chin, adjusting my overhand grip, and then, one day, he just wasn’t there. I asked Manmi, Poukisa lap kriye?

She never answered me.

So I hugged her and said, Pa kriye, Manmi. Don’t cry.

But she couldn’t stop. She’s never stopped.

More tentacles tear my chrysalis, my comfort, my leave-me-alone space, from around me. I’m done with this. M fin ak sa a. I’m tired of being bullied. I’m tired of being scared. Most of all, mwen bouke fatige tèt mwen. I’m tired of being tired. So I let the Pogo know. Each time a tentacle slithers into my broken chrysalis to rip away another piece, I hack with Tonton Macoute. The tentacles scream again. Black blood splatters my face. It burns. Ki mele’m. I don’t care. I lick it from my lips. Mwen pa pè. I’m not scared anymore. So I hack on.

But the tentacles keep coming out of the half dark.

As fast as I am in Form of the Malicious Skipper, I just can’t keep up. My chrysalis is soon gone. It doesn’t take long. I know I should run. Bobby said so. Two more blocks, and I’ll be home. But I don’t. Chunks of my chrysalis are at my feet. I’m exposed. Unprotected. Covered in blood and ick. Tired. Men pa trankil. But not quiet. No, not quiet at all.

M pa pè! I yell, jabbing Tonton Macoute. I’m not scared of you! Pa yon ti kras! Not even a little bit!

"The Half-Dark Promise," by Malon EdwardsHigh above the gas lamps, where the half dark is its darkest, something bends toward me. Li menm jan ak kay. It’s as big as a house. It blots out the world. It puts its huge, diamond-shaped scaly head with its small, squinched-up reptilian face smack dab in front of me. It smells of water rot. A mess of tentacles sticks every which way out of where its mouth should be. This is the Pogo.

The tentacles all have tiny mouths. The tentacles all have tiny teeth. The tentacles all wail in children’s voices. But one voice is louder than the others. Bobby’s voice. Run! he shouts to me. Go home, now!

I can’t run from you, I whisper to him.

And then I hack his tentacle off the Pogo’s face.

The Pogo flinches into the half dark sky and chuckles deep. Tomorrow, out on the schoolyard, timoun yo will tell each other thunder is when the half dark laughs after it has snatched a child. Bobby writhes and twists in pain, scattering pieces of my chrysalis, making the cobblestones slick with black blood. His wails have turned into terrible screams. So I pick him up, and wrap him around my middle. His screams stop.

That’s better, now isn’t it? I ask him.

In response, Bobby coils his bloody, clean-sliced end around my waist, slithers his tiny mouth full of tiny teeth up my chest, across my shoulder blades and to my neck, where he nestles just below my chin. My chest harness is smeared with a trail of red. I wrap my arms around myself, pressing Bobby tighter against me. This is the first time we’ve hugged. He’s warm. And soft. I like how he feels.

Now I can run. Now I can go home.

I probably won’t make it, though. The Pogo still blots out the world. Ki mele’m. I don’t care. I’ve found Bobby.

But I run, anyway. And I don’t look up.

fin

Malon Edwards was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, but now lives in the Greater Toronto Area, where he was lured by his beautiful Canadian wife. Many of his short stories are set in an alternate Chicago and feature people of color. Currently, he serves as Managing Director and Grants Administrator for the Speculative Literature Foundation, which provides a number of grants for writers of speculative literature.

Malon Edwards
Malon Edwards
Interview with Malon | Shimmer #23 | Subscribe to Shimmer

Caretaker, by Carlie St. George

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.

caretakerYou 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.

fin

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

Carlie St. George
Carlie St. George

 

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