Tag Archives: non-binary

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg

palingenesis-title

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
~Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I

Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves. Seven bridges straddle the river between First and Barton Road as it winds through a downtown of antique stores, the crepe-streamered American Legion, the purple house advertising tarot and palm readings. One of the bridges goes nowhere, ending four feet above the ground behind a solitary Chinese restaurant, and no one has ever been able to tell me what it used to reach. On the east bank, sitting mostly by itself between the paved river walk and the ties of an abandoned stretch of railroad, you’ll find the county art museum, a sliver of white concrete and glass.

palin06Most people are wrong, as it happens. I’ve lived in this city all my life, and the real explanation has nothing to do with the river. In the early 1840s, a pair of hearty Dutchmen were surveying for the highway that would link the port and railroads of the urban south to the farmland and sawmills of the north woods. Here, nestled among the ridges and kettles that the glaciers’ icy fingertips carved out eons and eons ago, they planted the sign that marked the halfway point along that road. A resting place for weary travelers. A city born of exhaustion.

I am so fucking tired.

The thing is — and I’m finally starting to admit this to myself — I don’t believe there’s a puzzle here. There’s no way to turn these jagged pieces into a smooth picture of something that makes sense. First you’d have to crack off the extra material and file the edges down, like you’re shaping a mosaic from pottery shards; you have to break away more and more to even get the right shape. This story is like a vase made from other, broken vases. And maybe it will hold water when you’re finished, but probably it won’t.

The painting is still there, hanging at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. The landing makes a shallow triangle between the main collection, the American Indian gallery, and the eternally empty corridor labeled “Special Exhibits” on the map. You can use up all the fingers on one hand counting the number of times I’ve gone to that museum in the last year, and I find myself pausing in that tight and windowless space every time, hoping to see something different. I’m always disappointed.

Both the printed and electronic maps call the painting White Moose, but the name on the museum placard is Katabolism. The word has something to do with digestion, with the extraction of energy from chemical compounds. The first time I saw that title, I thought the artist was a pretentious fuck. Now I’m not so sure.

In any case, the title on the map is an accurate description. The oil painting shows a white bull moose, lumbering through a landscape that looks not unlike the glacial moraine that gnaws perpetually at the city limits. He’s no local fauna, though, and he’s bigger than life-size on the canvas: seven or eight feet high at the shoulder, his antlers spread off the edges. The antlers are thin and asymmetrical, with six points on his right and seven on his left. His eyes are the same color as his coat, slightly filmed.

Every time I see him, I think how much better I would feel if he were an albino, a lovely red-eyed creature like the rabbits and sometimes deer that I find stumbling in my backyard in winter, when the snow-reflected sun is too bright for them—something natural, fragile, and not-at-all sinister. But the white of the moose is not an absence of pigment. His color is something creeping over him, coating the duller, natural life underneath. Every time I see him, the white has spread a little farther.

The placard gives only three initials and a year: Y. L. H. 2012.

If you’re one of the people who believes that Blair is dead, then near as I can tell, this is the painting that killed them.

I’m not certain, yet, if I’m one of those people. But then, I’m certain of very little where Blair is concerned.

palin02They were not my son, and they were not my daughter; but what they were remains unfathomable and changeling. I’m not talking about sex, those hundreds of quiet and not-so-quiet confusions that stalked my child for the seventeen years of their life in this city. I am talking about how hard it is to even think of Blair as my child — to claim Blair as mine, when they seemed so determined to be anything but.

(Speaking of Blair in the past tense has started to come naturally, and maybe that’s the most fucked-up thing about this whole mess.)

When I get home from my shift at the library, I stand in the laundry room at the back of our little bungalow, take their t-shirt from the hamper, and smell the cinnamon smell of their shampoo. I can’t remember their face, not really: only pale skin, dark eyes, red hair that was always too long and always faintly damp. White as daisy and red as sorrel, or however that fairytale goes. I don’t even have a photograph.

I stand in their bedroom beneath the pitched roof of the eastern gable and smell the stinking richness of their favorite myrrh candle, which is still cemented to the window ledge with its own gray wax. The desk beneath the window is littered with sheets of the cheap, yellowish paper that the secretary at the Catholic church on Kilbourne let me rescue from the recycling. I can’t see any words or lines of ink, perhaps because whatever was there has faded after so many months of sunrises. Or maybe there was nothing there to begin with.

Alone in Blair’s bedroom, I cover my mouth with both hands and say things that a mother should never say to her child. The words tear their way out of my throat like knives. I beg them to come home, you little bastard, come back and stop all this bullshit about the paintings, about Y. L. H. and the things we see in the forest. Please, come home. You’re killing me.

Finally, when I am too tired to beg, I tell them to go fuck themself.

But to begin at the beginning.

January, grey and dreary, and school was back in session after a tempestuous winter break. I found out from the newspaper that a membership card for the art museum cost twenty-five dollars, fifteen with student identification. I got a letter from Blair’s art teacher and that was good enough for the woman at the ticket counter. Unlike me, Blair never had a talent for words. They pulled Ds and Fs in one English class after another, losing books, failing to turn in essays. I thought art might give them whatever we try to get from stories.

Once upon a time there was a forest, ‘savage, rough, and stern…’

From that first afternoon, all they could talk about was the White Moose.

“I think he’s one of them,” they said.

We were walking home along the east bank of the river, where shards of brown ice ground against the shoreline. On either side of the path, the Rotary Club’s rosebushes slept under cones of yellowed Styrofoam. I was cold and only half-listening.

“One of what?” I asked.

“You know. One of them from the forest.”

And in the savage forest there lived a mother, and her child…

I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye. Their hood was pushed back despite the cold, and their hair glinted like copper. Hair like a lost penny, my mother always said. She was a woman to whom anything beautiful looked lost.

“In the painting, I saw ripples on the leaves at the bottom,” Blair said. “The light’s distorted, almost like they’re underwater. But it’s just him. He fills the whole kettle — the whole canvas. It’s just that he’s denser in the shape of the moose.”

No, I thought then, it’s impossible. In the January daylight, I wasn’t even disturbed.

“That’s only the style,” I said. “Don’t make something out of nothing.”

On our left, a brick staircase ran from the river walk up to the Fourth Street Bridge. I began to take the steps two at a time.

“It isn’t nothing,” Blair said stubbornly. “Whoever painted that picture must know about them.”

“No one else knows about them, Blair.”

Blair wasn’t following. I looked back over my shoulder and saw them staring, not at me on the stairs, but at the glimmer of black water threading through the ice.

“Who do you think the artist is?” they asked. “Y. L. H.?”

… a mother, and her child, and a witch.

“I don’t have a clue,” I said, and kept walking. I meant: I don’t want to know. Let’s not find out.

Or maybe it began before that.

Maybe it began the day Blair told me that they were not a boy, and the only thing I felt was relief. Does that sound terrible? Does admitting that make me an awful mother? I don’t know. But I know that I had never wanted a son. I didn’t grow up with brothers or cousins, only with the faces on the news, and the broad and smirking faces in the bars south of the depot, the hungry faces trailing tired women in convenience stores, the post office, the high school gymnasium. Savage, rough, and stern. When I imagined having a son, I imagined him growing up like that. I’d never wanted to deal with that kind of man, and I can’t help but feel, guiltily, like I was granted an unspoken wish.

palin01Blair’s father had that particularly male helplessness, sucking and draining, pressuring and pleading, and both the best and the worst you can say is that it doesn’t leave bruises. I can remember all those nights in supermarket parking lots or under movie theatre marquees, when he had followed me somewhere on the bus because he just had to be sure. “I’m such an idiot, Joan,” he would cry. “I always knew I’d do something stupid like this and make you leave me.” And because he was pitiful, because he needed saving, I had to tell him I’m not going anywhere, baby, and hold him while he sobbed.

In the end, he was the one to leave. He found the energy somewhere, and followed the freeway south. Maybe this all started the day he left, and I stayed. The day the forest pulled me stronger than he had pushed, in the way of every fairytale without a happy ending.

One evening in February, a week or two after that first visit to the museum, Blair was late coming home from school. Not late enough for me to really worry; merely a dress rehearsal for everything yet to come. I sat by the kitchen door, watching the sky darken and considering whether to call, when I heard the front door snap against the siding, and Blair swept in with a slushy gasp of twilight. They were looking at something on their phone as they stepped into the kitchen and flipped the light switch.

I closed the book whose pages I hadn’t turned in half an hour.

“Where have you been?”

They shrugged. The shoulders of their thrift-store jacket were fuzzy with dust. “Downtown,” they said.

“Anywhere specifically?”

It was a chance laugh, to break the tension that wasn’t quite thick enough to acknowledge. They looked at me without smiling.

“Victor’s.”

Victor’s was a café on Rhodes Avenue, the very edge of downtown. I don’t know what the cavernous pile of red brick had been originally, with its alcoves and square turrets like the growths of some rhomboid crystal, but the interior space glowed with recent renovation, all waxy yellow wood and bare Edison bulbs. The coffee was mediocre, the pastries gluey and flavorless, but they housed a spectacular collection of shit: knock-off Tiffany chandeliers, assorted sporting equipment signed by virtual unknowns, and musical instruments missing strings or vital knobs. The café was a garage sale written by H. P. Lovecraft and illustrated by Virgil Finlay.

“What’s that on your phone?” I asked.

Their fingers tightened around the pale blue case, an almost undetectable moment of hesitance. But they passed me the phone without a word of complaint.

I don’t know what I was expecting to see. Dim and indistinct, with the hallmark shallowness of a cheap cellphone camera, the photo showed a woman sitting at a high table at Victor’s pastry counter. The first thing I noticed was her scarlet leather boots, the black heels hooked over the rung of her chair. The second was her hair, white as milk and hanging down to her thighs.

I felt a creeping chill up my spine, like the sensation you get when you swim into water that is suddenly deeper than you expected.

“It’s her,” Blair said. “Yelena Linden Hersh.”

I handed the phone back. “How do you know her name?”

“I asked, after I took the picture.”

“How did you know who she was?”

Instead of answering, Blair swiped their screen and passed me the phone again. It was still Victor’s — I recognized the pounded tin on the wall. Blair had tried to photograph a painting, but the phone camera wasn’t up to the task. The texture of the canvas stood out prominently. So did the globs and ridges of paint caked along the bottom. It looked like a painting of a bog, some vast surface of black water, and the thick knobs of paint bobbed along it like something alive.

“It’s brilliant, isn’t it? Look at that one towards the front.” Blair tapped a red-enameled fingernail against the screen, on a pale blur in the foreground. “It looks like a frog, doesn’t it? But there’s a woman just under the water. That white thing rising to the surface is her breast.”

The sick feeling had traveled to the pit of my stomach. “Blair,” I began, but I couldn’t finish. The painting was at once too strange and too dreadfully familiar.

Blair slid the phone into their jacket pocket without another word. They tucked a lock of flame-orange hair behind their ear and stepped into the living room. I heard the static click of the analog television turning on, and took a slow, shuddering breath.

What do you call the opposite of déjà vu? Not the sense of a recurrence, but its inverse: The feeling that this is a moment to which you will return. That was what I felt, envisioning that painting by Yelena Linden Hersh. That small breast in the water, beckoning like a ghost.

The things in the forest are still there: still filling the kettles like mist and twisting the light like water, still pulling at my heart like every hunger in hell. They haven’t gone away just because Blair did. It’s not that I thought they would leave — just that it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had. I don’t know the shape of this puzzle, remember. I can’t begin to imagine how all of it does or doesn’t fit together.

palin07But they are still here, as much as they have ever been. Vaporous and vast, they seem as much air as flesh, although sometimes I can make out a shape — a deer or elk, or else some long-snouted, carnivorous thing. Soft black eyes emerge from the places where they are densest, and nearly human mouths shape words I can almost understand. Sometimes I think they are drawn to me, although this might be abhorrent self-flattery.

Still.

Some mornings, just after sunrise, I walk down to the woods behind the bungalow. For an hour or two, I sit very still on the remains of a farmer’s fieldstone fence, holding out my empty hand. They come to me out of the water, out of the air, and they kiss my palm as though tasting for sweets.

Some of these mornings, I have seen Yelena Hersh in the forest, walking in her scarlet boots. Her black jacket is buckled to her chin and she walks briskly without looking down. I called to her, once, but she didn’t even look my way.

There is nothing strange about her being there, I try to tell myself. It’s a small city, and the trails through the forest are popular. I have seen a lot of people walking. But she’s the only one I’ve ever seen when they are around.

In March, the art museum hosted a show of local women artists. It was mostly watercolors of cats and pencil sketches of tractors: also a quilt, a ceramic beehive, a few mercury-glass sculptures that I couldn’t figure out. The latest offspring of Yelena Linden Hersh’s brush hung just outside the gift shop, between a pastel sketch of sleeping kittens and a rack of dusty scarves.

It was called Anabolism. Which is the opposite and compliment to katabolism; it’s a kind of reassembling, the re-linking of molecules after the body grinds them up for energy. Anabolism is how the body lengthens bones and grows muscles. How it makes more of itself, I guess, out of everything it takes in.

The painting showed Blair emerging from a pond in one of the larger kettles. The water came up only to their knees, but there was a weirdness about the ripples that made me think Blair was floating rather than standing on the ground underneath. There’s no telling how deep that water is out there in the moraine; geologists say it can be as little as two or as many as two hundred feet.

In the painting, Blair was naked. Each skinny muscle tensed in the cold, layering blue shadow on pale skin. The slight tuck of the waist looked like a teenage girl’s. The flat thighs, even larger than life on the canvas, seemed small enough for you to cup your hands around—to snap with a flick of your wrist. I don’t remember the face.

“What if people recognize you, Blair? What if kids from school go to the museum?” Arms folded across my stomach, I sat on the sea chest in the corner of their bedroom. Despite the asthmatic chug of the heater, everything felt cool and damp to the touch. The candle on the window ledge burned greasily, leaving a myrrh-scented streak on the ceiling.

“Blair?” I repeated softly.

They looked up from the spread of paper on their desk.

“What do you think people will say?”

“Fuck people,” Blair said. The thing that lurked in their eyes was tense and coiled, too ravenous to be fear.

Here is the damned thing, or one of the many damned things in this whole hellish business: I can’t prove that Yelena Hersh had anything to do with Blair’s disappearance. I can’t even prove that Blair began meeting her. Those fucking paintings might have been proof once. They aren’t any more. They still exist, but they aren’t Blair any more. And maybe I’m mad for thinking that they ever were.

People in this city, they have all the answers they feel like looking for. Blair was a sad kid, a confused kid: it’s all there, wrapped up in whatever was or wasn’t behind the zipper of those weathered black jeans. “Kids like him disappear all the time, Joan,” the secretary at the station said to me. “They just do. Don’t go dragging a woman’s name through the mud over it.”

So where do they go, the kids like Blair? Do they evaporate into thin air? Wash down the river, get carried out to the lake, like all the other flotsam and jetsam from exhausted cities like this? Sometimes I imagine Blair has gone to find their father; other times, while walking over one of the bridges downtown, I think I see their face in the river, floating between mats of leaves. Sometimes the fantasies comfort me, and sometimes they don’t.

Maybe the kids like Blair start spending their evenings with strange women twice their age — women who wear scarlet boots and black wool, who dream of ghosts and monsters, whose hair is white as milk. Maybe they spend too much time wandering in the forest, snooping in the ruins of barns and sugar houses that the maples are slowly reclaiming: maybe they get lost in the woods. Or maybe they get eaten by witches.

Maybe you’re getting frustrated with me now, with my increasingly evident disregard for the facts. What really happened? you may well ask. What’s the true course of events? But the only truth I know for certain is that I am fucking exhausted. You cannot begin to understand how tired I am. And I don’t think that having the answers will let me sleep any more soundly.

Palingenesis. In its simplest translation, it means rebirth. Sometime in the nineteenth century, it got picked up to describe the now-discarded hypothesis that ontongeny recapitulates phylogeny — the development of the fetus proceeds along the same lines as the evolution of the species. Or, in another version, that children become educated by passing through the earlier stages of human society. From barbarity to civilization. Another discredited, Victorian idea.

palin05In the painting, Blair could almost be sleeping. Their eyes are closed, the lids wet and purple. Their limbs are folded up, almost fetal, the dry pink of knees and elbows picked out with the medical detail of anatomy plates. The setting sun is at their back, and the blowing leaves have started to mound up around their feet. You can feel the wind gusting from that direction: a bitter, northern wind.

Why is this the image burned into the back of my eyelids? Why do I remember this, and not their face? I’m afraid that’s a question to which I already know the answer.

(Another riddle: If Katabolism is the painting that killed Blair, what does that make Palingenesis?)

I don’t know if there are other things in that painting, or if the bending of the light along the forest floor is just an accident of style. I must admit that I haven’t brought myself to look too closely. The one unforgivable piece of strangeness — the part that would tell you the name of the artist, even if you didn’t see the stark initials in the corner — is the sapling that sprouts from Blair’s genitals. It is slender, leafless, and almost the same color as their skin: a sickly, peeling white with scabs of pink. Where the bark pulls away, the pulp that shows beneath is black as rot.

In the second week of April, at Yelena Hersh’s request, the directors hung Palingenesis at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. They put the White Moose back before the end of the week, after unspecified complaints.

By then, of course, it was too late. By then, Blair was gone.

In our last conversation, the day before they failed to show up for school, Blair told me a secret about Yelena Hersh.

“She has a son,” Blair said. It was Sunday evening, and we were loading groceries into the trunk of the Nissan: cans of beans, boxes of macaroni, and a half-gallon of skim. Everything teetered on the edge of the mundane, precariously normal, until Yelena intruded like a ghost.

“A son?” I repeated, and Blair tipped their head in a nod.

“When she was younger than me, she got pregnant. She gave him up for adoption.”

I frowned, at a loss for the proper response. Blair slammed the trunk, disturbing a layer of late, powdery snow.

“She says the news terrifies her now. It’s all men with guns, men with knives. Men who run over women with trucks and strangle children by playgrounds.” Blair watched me wheel the cart to the side of the car, sliding their hands into the pockets of their jeans. “She’s afraid she’ll see him on the news one day. Or she’s already seen him, just didn’t recognize him as hers.”

The next day, Blair was gone. And I wonder, now, if the news is something that terrifies every mother with sons. Or if we were just the strange ones, Yelena Hersh and I — the Pasiphaes of our century, afraid that we would give birth to monsters.

To early-twentieth-century sexologists, anabolic and katabolic were gendered terms. The female was anabolic, conservative and preserving. She consolidated the evolutionary adaptations of her species, passing them to her offspring. The katabolic male, creative and destructive, was responsible for the mutations, for everything novel or monstrous — two sides of the same coin.

All of that is bullshit, of course. If Blair has taught me nothing else, it’s this — the creative and the destructive chase each other perpetually, like blood and bathwater swirling around a drain. But preservation, that’s the most ridiculous fantasy of all.

palin04Sometimes, I imagine that Blair’s father saw those paintings. That he recognized his child and came to find them, that he offered Blair a better life than I could give them here. This is improbable. As if Blair’s father could be in this city without me knowing. As if he had any interest in art. It’s easier to believe that they left with their father, though, than what the school counselors try to tell me about suicide and statistics and ‘kids like him.’

It is easier, also, than imagining that the forest had something to do with it.

There is a new tree, now, where the dead farmer’s fence runs to a halt some fifteen yards from my property line. A skim of peaty water pools over the fallen leaves, and the tree grows from it, white as milk. I’ve gone so far as to step into the water, reaching for the bark, which looks so warm and soft. But the mud beneath my boot gave way, and my foot sank far enough that I knew the water was something more than snowmelt.

Maybe if I hadn’t stepped back onto solid ground, I would have something closer to an answer.

Or maybe Blair ran away. Maybe you ran, sweetheart, all on your own, without your father, without ghosts or monsters or Yelena Linden Hersh. You were never good with words, and you wouldn’t have left a note. You left me paintings instead, and maybe all the explanation I’m searching for is there. If only I could bring myself to look.

“I know why you don’t like her,” Blair said to me once. It was a morning in late March, before they left for school. We stood on the back deck in our jackets, and with cold, bare hands, they held the birdfeeder steady while I poured in the mix of seed.

“You want to be special, don’t you?” Blair said. “That’s why you won’t believe that she can see them, too. You want them all to yourself.”

On a sudden impulse, I pressed a kiss to their forehead. Some of the seed missed the feeder, pouring out into the slush, but they didn’t turn away.

“Yes,” I whispered, mouthing the words against their skin. Maybe they heard me, and maybe they didn’t. “I always have.”

Katabolism should not be confused with katabasis, which means a journey into the underworld. Katabasis is Dante and Aeneas, Orpheus and Psyche. It’s revelation and love and disaster. Anabasis would be the return, if a return from the underworld is possible—a suggestion for which I haven’t seen much evidence. The words can also mean, respectively, a retreat down to the water, and the journey back inland or uphill.

Some of the reviews in the papers and the online magazines misprinted the titles of Yelena Hersh’s paintings. Anabolism and Katabasis, digestion and descent. The pieces from two different puzzles pushed inelegantly together, and that makes as good a metaphor for me and Blair and Yelena Linden Hersh as any other I could come up with.

The word palingenesia appears once in the New Testament. It describes the new creation, in which the order of the old will be utterly overturned. I’m not holding my breath. But I guess every city has an explanation, even the divine ones. And I guess creation requires destruction—revelation, uncovering, apocalypsis — before everything else.

If you were here, sweetheart, I’d tell you to run.

This city is not for you. You are not tired yet.

Today, by the white tree in the brown water, Yelena Hersh is sitting on the remains of the fieldstone fence. Her scarlet boots are speckled with mud, and a vast white creature like a moose leans down to nuzzle her shoulder. She does not seem to see him. She sees me on the trail and raises one hand, a trembling salute, and her white hair falls around her face like a curtain.

The things in the forest — I don’t think that they are older than us. Not exactly. I’ve begun to think they are us, or us as we will be. That is why the painting called Anabolism has started to look like something else: not Blair anymore, but a white canine thing, a carnivorous thing rearing on its hind legs. Another stage in our evolution. Perhaps the things in the forest are nothing better or worse than our children.

That’s all the Minotaur was, in the end.

I worry, sometimes, that I will wander into the woods one morning and they will no longer be there. It will only be the trees and water and dead leaves, and the unrelenting anabasis and katabasis of a landscape birthed by ice. I think the reason they frighten me is not because they are so strange, but because they are fragile. I am afraid that they will disappear.

Or that one day I will look, and look, and will have forgotten how to see.

palin03

end-of-story-nov

megan

Megan Arkenberg lives in Northern California, where she is pursing a Ph.D. in English literature. Her work has appeared in  Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, and dozens of other places. She was recently the nonfiction editor for Nightmare‘s Queers Destroy Horror! special issue; she also procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance. Megan tweets @meganarkenberg and blogs sporadically at blog.meganarkenberg.com.

 


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Even In This Skin, 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.

skin1“How are you doing?”

“Same old.” Jamie offers a lopsided almost-smile, lifting one shoulder to match.

Shadows tuck beneath his skin. His gaze cuts right, a pointed look to the empty seat beside Mar; neither of them are surprised, but it still hurts.

“Did you bring me the shiv I asked for? Or the cake with the file baked inside?” Jamie looks pointedly away from the empty chair, smile broadening into a grin, but one without real feeling.

The joke falls as flat, same as the last three times. Mar places a pack of cigarettes on the table.

“Mom did ask about you at least. She wanted to know if you’re eating okay.”

“Nice of her to call you to check.”

“It was an email.”

“Three squares a day, since she asked.” Jamie pats his stomach.

It’s flatter than hers; his jumpsuit hangs loose around an already narrow frame. His hair is buzzed short, and there’s a new mark above his ear, dark ink beneath the shadow of stubble.

At fourteen, with Jamie sixteen, Mar had come down the basement stairs to find Jamie’s friend Val giving him a homemade tattoo on the inside of his left forearm with a broken pen. Most of the tattoo had washed away, not deep enough to last, just deep enough to leave a faint scar from infected skin Jamie couldn’t stop scratching. This is how they’ll know you’re one of us, Val had said.

She doesn’t look away quick enough, but Jamie seems unfazed. “You like?”

He turns to show the stars marching crookedly up the back of his skull. At least none of them look infected.

“Jamie.”

Her hand is already halfway across the table between them, wanting to touch the stars. She pulls her hand back, and Jamie’s smile falters.

“They look great,” Mar says.

Hurt flickers in his eyes, but he schools his expression, the smile coming back at half force.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Jamie says. “Promise. I’m done with that shit. Really. They’re just stars.”

“I know.” Mar answers as quick as she can, but it’s not fast enough.

At sixteen, with Jamie eighteen, the flat crack of a gun -a sound like a branch breaking, like a fracture dividing their lives into then and now and no way to build a bridge between them – is indelibly imprinted on Mar’s mind. She ran, feet thudding on the pavement, trying to be as swift as she’d been when they were young and running through the woods, but she was too late to tell who fired the shot. Val and Rico and Tommy and Jamie all stood around the boy on the ground, and Jamie looked at her with stricken eyes, I didn’t do it, Mar, I swear.

Jamie pulls the cigarettes across the table.

skin4“Don’t spend them all in one place.” It’s her turn for a joke that falls flat, smile feeling tender and bruised.

She plows on and they talk about nothing as the time ticks down. Then chairs scrape back from tables.

“Same time next week?”

“I’ll be here.”

Mar’s heart turns over, wanting to escape; only the comforting press of the binder keeps her heart in place. She leans in for a quick hug, tight and hard, because it’s easier than looking Jamie in the eye.

“Be good.” She brushes lips against his cheek.

At the door, Mar looks back. The angle of sunlight slanting through the barred windows washes out Jamie’s face. She steps outside, leaving her brother and the other faceless men in the prison behind.

A ghost dogs her footsteps across the parking lot, the echo of a gunshot. I didn’t do it, Mar. She’s never doubted him, but he still chose. He put the gun in his hand at some point; his fingerprints were on it. Val and Rico and Tommy’s fingerprints were on it, too, and none of them were fast enough when it came time to run. Mar hurries her footsteps, doing her best to outrun the ghosts, though she knows she’ll never be fast enough either.

At six and eight, Mar and Jamie are in the woods behind their house, running. Even this young, they understand their mother doesn’t care if or when they come home. They are hungry, not just because the groceries haven’t been bought for the week, and their mother forgot to leave money for a pizza before she went out. It’s a different kind of hunger, tied to the one in their bellies, but separate. They fill it with wild motion, the sleek burn of their muscles and the relentless pulse-beat of their footsteps in the dark.

In their future, Jamie will try cutting. Mar will be the one to find him, flimsy disposable razor in hand, blood plinking against the white curve of the sink. Later still, Mar will try starving, something she can control even though food is scarce. But with no one to see, and no one to care but each other, they will give up these things. They will revert to the knowledge they have now – that their hunger is deeper than skin or food, and they will learn different ways to cope.

But for now, at six and eight, they run. Tucked beneath the leaves and roots closest to the cul-de-sac where they live, there are rotting tires, broken bottles, worn-out porno magazines. Mar vaults over a fallen log, crossing a boundary where, if she looks back, she won’t be able to see the softly-glowing crescent of houses anymore.

Between one heartbeat and the next, the night shifts. The space between the trees thickens to blue-black, then the purple of a bruise. The trunks stretch taller, slender and silver smooth. Footsteps drum around her, a steady rain of shifting, fleet shadows.

Hooves and horns, wings and claws. Skin. Hybrid, impossible creatures. All running toward something Mar doesn’t understand, but wants so badly she can taste it, a salted sweetness on her tongue.

Then a flat crack, the sound of a branch breaking, draws her up short. Mar stumbles, knees barking leaf-rot and hands catching her fall. The shadows slipping past her fall to silence, leaving only the drum of her pulse in her ears. A shape moves ahead of her in the dark.

“Jamie?”

No answer. Light spills between tree trunks, outlining a tall, slender figure. Not Jamie. Not human? Mar doesn’t know how she knows this; the truth of it is simply down in her bones. A catch of breath and Mar realizes the figure is animal and human, bound in one flesh.

For a moment, her heart refuses to beat, and when it starts again, the tempo is strange. There are two hearts inside her skin, and for once, the hunger in her belly is still.

Mar stretches out a hand. Another crack, a bone-snapping sound of more branches breaking as Jamie blunders through the woods, calling her name.

“Mar?”

She can’t see her brother, only hear him wading through undergrowth, clumsy feet tangling in low branches, roots, and dead leaves. The impulse to shout go away rockets through her. The shadows seep back, retreating. She wants to beg them to stay, but Jamie is ruining everything. Her pulse rabbits, and a terrible thought strikes her. If Mar curls herself small, if she holds very still, Jamie won’t see her; she can stay and hide forever in this magical version of the woods that aren’t the woods she left behind.

“Mar?” Panic edges Jamie’s voice.

“I’m here.” Guilt twists and she jumps up, heart slamming back into its normal rhythm.

Jamie rushes toward her. The tall, thin figure is gone. All the shadows with their horns and hooves and feathers vanish. Cold seeps in around the edges of the night. Mar shivers, and Jamie throws an arm around her shoulders. He’s limping, and there’s a long gash on his shin.

“A branch. I tripped,” he says.

Mar lets him lean on her, despite being younger and shorter, taking his weight.

“Come on, let’s go home.”

She looks back one more time, but the light between the trees is only gray now; dishwater-dirty, touched orange by the city’s glow burning through pollution. Headlights sweep by beyond the trees, and the woods are finite again, bounded by the neighborhood on three sides. No mystical shadows pace them in the dark, no two-hearted creature waits for Mar to take its hand.

With her arm around Jamie’s waist, and the weight of his body against hers, they walk slowly home.

The line outside the club inches forward. Mar jams her hands into her armpits, trying not to shiver. The men around her – and it is mostly men – are under-dressed. They breathe steam in the cold night air. She imagines them stamping hooves. Bulls. Minotaurs. Ready to run.

skin2

She’s packing tonight, but the strut isn’t there. She keeps thinking of Jamie, lost and falling behind, his face washed out by the sun in the prison visitation room. She fingers the outline of her phone in her jacket pocket. There’s an unanswered message from her boss, trying to change Mar’s mind. Before she left work on Friday, he offered her a new position, a transfer, with a higher salary and relocation costs paid.

Mar turned it down, hunger gnawing in her belly as she did. A new city, a new life, but it would mean leaving Jamie behind. A half a dozen times tonight, she’s pulled out her phone to erase the message. A half dozen times she’s been poised to call her boss and turn in her resignation. She’s been sick, her mind running around it in circles. Tonight, she doesn’t want to think about anything at all.

A fug of cigarette smoke and pot hangs in the air. Light from the club’s neon sign tints the bodies around her cool blue. It highlights the bulk of shoulders, the line of jaws. Looking at them stamps an ache into Mar’s skin. At the same time, she can’t stop herself from scanning the crowd for someone she recognizes, but doesn’t know. Someone like her who isn’t just one thing, but everything. Someone who will understand.

Mar reaches the front of the line, fumbling bills into the bouncer’s hand with chilled fingers. Inside, lights strobe, shocking her blind. Then everything kicks loose all at once. Bodies pack tight, sweat-sheened and writhing. Heat pulses from Mar’s groin to her throat; the bass thumps inside her ribs, replacing her breath and heartbeat. She’s un-fleshed, her whole body a raw nerve, open to the night.

She doesn’t bother with a drink. She flings herself into the fray. It’s as good as running. The only important parts of her body are the muscle and sinew moving her limbs, her feet pounding hard against the floor. She doesn’t have to care about moving forward, or turning back, making a choice. There’s only here and now.

The bass-thump moves her blood to mirror her feet flying over the forest floor, over fallen logs, dodging roots, showing her teeth to the night. She’s not looking behind to see Jamie’s eyes, wide in the mirror, blood plinking against white porcelain. There’s no ink on his skin, and she doesn’t have to ask how he suddenly has extra cash to buy a car that isn’t a piece of shit, get her new clothes – tight layers, sports bras doubled up, one backward one forward, bandages, and finally the binder, anything to change the curve of her body. There’s only running, and if she’s fast enough, the gunshot sound will never come. She’ll outrun it this time. Outrun the stricken look in her brother’s eyes, wordlessly saying I need you, help me, please don’t leave me behind.

A hand touches Mar’s arm. She whirls, lips peeled back from feral teeth. The man flashes teeth in turn, mistaking her expression for a smile.

“Buy you a drink?”

She has to lip-read the words for the ear-shattering music. Mar crashes back into her own too-human skin, dizzy. The hand on her arm becomes a steadying one, holding her up.

“You look like you really need one.” He screams the words next to her ear.

Without waiting for her answer, the man guides her to the bar. Mar sips the blue-sugar sweetness pressed into her hand. It steadies her long enough to take in a square jaw, frosted hair, eyes that would still be blue even out from beneath the flashing lights.

Mar forces herself to smile. It’s only slightly quieter away from the dance floor. They shout an exchange of names. Chad – at least she can put a word to her regret, if it comes to that. A second drink, one she doesn’t remember asking for, and more, continually finding their way into her hand. Alcohol blurs the edges of the night; she forgets to be afraid.

The reassuring bulge between her legs makes her widen her stance, broaden and square her shoulders. In the flickering light, she can believe she is the wild, changeable thing she wants to be. Narrow hips, sharp cheekbones, a creature straddling two worlds. Chad’s hand strays to the small of her back. His lips find her ear.

“Wanna get out of here?” His breath raises hairs on the back of her neck.

The music steals her words, but she follows him, sweaty fingers tangled in his. They stumble into the alley behind the club. It’ll be okay, Mar promises herself, directing Chad’s hands carefully, her hips, her shoulders, her ass. Keeping him away from her shirt, the binder wrapped tight around her chest. Keeping him away from the front of her pants for any touch longer than the faintest, teasing brush of fingers against denim. Then she’s on her knees, his fingers in her hair as he groans, thrusting into her mouth. This is good, it’s safe, she can do this.

Then he says, “Wait.”

Mar’s stomach flips, sick with excitement. Chad’s eyes are liquid, unfocused. “I don’t want to come yet.”

The husk in his voice suggests otherwise, but with remarkable self-restraint, he pulls her up.

skin5“I want to feel you.”

His fingers go for her fly, surer than hers, despite the drink. Mar’s whole body is a string, taut. She almost lets him. Because, oh god, she fucking wants this. Just bodies. Contact. Flesh against flesh. Pleasure the only definition between them, and no need for Mar to be this or that, to choose.

Her mouth crushes his – the taste an echo of too-sweet drinks and the memory of ash from a cigarette hours old. Mar wants to melt into him as his hands slide lower on her body, but panic slams adrenaline through her brain. The bulge in her pants feels wrong, not because it isn’t her, but because it is still a solid choice. It defines her and pins her when she wants to be liquid, quicksilver, wild and strange.

“No.” She slaps Chad’s hands away, shoves him hard.

His eyes widen in confusion. Mar wraps her arms around her body, holding herself in. Her jaw clenches tight, tensed for a strike. Whatever he thought he would find when he unwrapped her, she won’t give him the chance. If the disappointment of not knowing is too much for him, maybe she can define herself by pain instead. Bruised flesh is still flesh. Bones cracked in rage are only bones. Everyone is red on the inside, no matter their shape otherwise.

Chad shakes his head in disbelief, stuffing himself back into his jeans.

“Fuck you, then.” He slams her with his shoulder as he moves back into the club, but nothing more.

Mar sags against the wall, letting the bricks take her weight. The trembling starts at her feet, making its way up her body until she’s clenching her teeth against the enormity of it. As much as she wills them not to, tears come, and she’s a mess of salt, wiping at her face.

It’s a moment before she registers the scent of cigarette smoke. Not soon enough to brace herself against the soft voice that comes in its wake.

“What if you could have everything you wanted?”

Mar jumps, scrubbing her eyes until black spots burst behind them. The owner of the cigarette melts out of the shadows – tall, sharp-featured, and with gold eyes that must be a trick of the light.

“What?”

“Everything you want.” Two slender fingers, holding the cigarette and trailing smoke, point at Mar’s chest.

Mar’s breath stalls. Even though the club’s blue neon still shines on them, the stranger’s hair is shockingly red.

The ghost that has been dogging her since leaving the prison crashes into her. Mar is back in the woods, looking through blue twilight at an impossible figure, tall and thin, a flickering creature refusing to hold its shape. She blinks, shaking her head. Too much alcohol.

“Where did you come from?” Mar looks around, pulse skittering; was she being watched the whole time she was on her knees, the whole time she cried?

“I smelled your tears.”

The stranger closes the distance so smoothly, Mar doesn’t have time to step back. A tongue sweeps over the wetness of her cheeks like a dog licking her pain away. But the hands framing Mar’s face and holding it still are human.

“Honey,” the stranger says. “Your tears taste like honey.”

Mar shakes her head again, huffs a sound that isn’t quite a word. A hollow ache presses against the back of her eyes.

skin3“I’m Fox.”

“Okay,” Mar says, voice squeezing up from the depths of her.

For the first time since she started wearing it, her binder crushes her. Or maybe it’s only her heart beating too hard in her chest, her lungs going haywire. It occurs to her, over the frantic drum of her body that she doesn’t know whether the stranger said ‘Fox’ or ‘a fox.’

“Okay,” she says again.

The drinks catch up with her and Mar turns away, dropping to her knees to be sick this time. A hand touches her back, comforting, or merely keeping her in place. After a moment, a napkin is offered. Mar wipes her face, cleans herself up as best she can, and climbs shakily to her feet.

“What do you want?” Mar asks.

“It’s what you want that’s the question. Do you know?”

She’s about the say she wants to be left alone. The words are like her boss’s, still saved on her phone. What do you want, Mar? You need to think about your future, and what’s best for you. The world won’t wait for forever. Don’t let opportunity pass you by. Before Mar can say anything, Fox steps close again.

Lips graze Mar’s jaw, sharp teeth behind them. Fox’s cigarette vanishes, leaving hands free to roam. Mar braces for the panic, but it doesn’t come this time. Fox’s touch is gentle, a question Mar’s flesh shivers to answer. There’s a scent like fallen leaves, like earth, tucked just under the cigarette smoke. Beneath her clothes, Mar’s skin pulls taut, her bones shifting, her body hollowing and swelling in accordance with each movement Fox makes.

Mar catches her breath, an audible sound. Fox draws back, amusement shining in gold eyes, a half-smile resting upon lips. The shivery buzz recedes in the absence of Fox’s touch. A cigarette flicks back into place between long fingers, conjured from thin air.

“Shall we find out?” Fox asks.

Mar doesn’t trust herself with words, not yet. Instead, she follows; Fox leads. The streets twist away, the city becoming unfamiliar. In Mar’s peripheral vision, houses and buildings stretch tall into the sky, thinning into smooth trunks with branches and leaves lost deep among the stars. She stumbles over a tangle of roots, or her own feet. Streetlights blur in the afterglow of rain, making everything shine.

Through a door, up stairs, and through another door into a messy, close space smelling faintly of animal musk and juniper berries. Mar allows Fox to lay her down on a bed, push her into a nest of covers. She’s dizzy, but in a pleasant, dream-like way – past sickness and back to buzzed. The edges of everything are rounded and vague. Safe.

She lets Fox undress her. Fox sets the prosthetic aside. At least Mar thinks so; a ghost weight lingers beneath her legs, stirring to heat and proximity. Fox leaves the binder in place – even when everything else is stripped away – with a preternatural understanding that it is essential to Mar. It was her first act of defiance against the shape she was born into, her last line of defense against the world. This simple act leaves Mar shaking with gratitude. Gratitude and desire. The shaking doesn’t stop as Fox’s hands trace over her again. Tremors wrack her body, tiny earthquakes smoothed or awoken by Fox’s hands.

The world blurs further; not just the edges, but reality itself loses cohesion. Mar’s skin and bones are liquid honey, made soft by Fox’s touch. Malleable. Her flesh changes, solid one moment, rising to Fox’s hand, hard flesh to be grasped; concave the next, so Fox’s fingers sink into her and Mar answers with a shuddering gasp.

The only thing Mar is certain of is that Fox’s eyes are indeed gold; it wasn’t a trick of the light. Then Mar surrenders, ceases thinking at all. Nothing matters but muscle and blood. Like dancing. Like running. Pure motion. She lets her body talk, scream, and arch into Fox’s touch.

When the shuddering is done, Fox reaches for a pack of cigarettes, showing shocks of red hair sprouting from beneath armpits. Gold eyes assess Mar; Mar gazes back, blinks. Fox’s chest is smooth, but swelling slightly where breasts might be. Or not. Fox’s nipples are small, hard, dark like winter berries. Mar cups a hand over one, then runs her palm downward. Her breath snags, thrilling to find a whole line of equally hard bumps beneath her touch. Fox pushes her away, not unkind, but business-like.

“Now,” Fox says, breathing a stream of smoke. “Do you know what you want?”

“I…”

She wants to melt under hands that touch her the way Fox does. Always. She wants to feel her bones stretched like taffy, her whole being infinitely malleable and capable of remaking itself from one moment to the next. She wants to flicker and run and never have to choose.

“The world doesn’t work that way. Not quite.” Fox places a finger against Mar’s forehead, between her eyes, smiles sly.

Mar squeezes her eyes closed, lashes rimmed with tears harder than the ones she shed before. These are like frost, unfalling.

“Not choosing is still a choice, but every body has to take a path, sooner or later. Every choice comes with a cost, but if you don’t step onto the path, you run the risk of being dragged along it.”

It sounds like a fairy tale, but Mar knows that isn’t what Fox means. In the woods, she chose; she turned toward the city and a wild, strange thing slipped away from her. Jamie chose to put ink on his skin, a gun in his hand. It’s not as simple as trading the name of a child for straw spun into gold.

Jamie sits behind her eyelids, small in his prison jumpsuit, shoulders curled inward and ink marking his skin – the image printed there like a bruise. It isn’t fair. Any choice she makes seems to leave Jamie behind. But if she doesn’t choose, if she stays here forever, then she’ll curl inward too. She will grow smaller and fainter every day until finally, she disappears.

“I don’t know.” Mar breathes out, opens her eyes.

Fox rolls slightly to face her, propped on one elbow.

“I could eat your heart.” The words are matter-of-fact. Mar stares as if the words will show in the curls of smoke circling Fox’s red, red hair, waiting for them to make sense.

“Think how much easier it would be to go through the world heartless.” Fingers trace the edges of Mar’s binder, but do nothing to pull it away.

Gold eyes watch Mar, unblinking. If any tears should taste like honey, they should be from those eyes, not Mar’s, but she can’t imagine Fox crying.

Is that what it means to be heartless? Never in danger of tears, but never in danger of love either? Mar studies Fox’s narrow face, the impossibly sharp cheekbones. A wild animal, a myth. Both. Neither.

The suddenness of Fox’s body over hers startles Mar. Fox’s teeth rest against the edge of her binder; gold eyes pin her in place.

“I could bite through,” Fox says, “and you wouldn’t feel a thing.”

“Before, or after?” Mar says.

She means the words as a joke, but they don’t sound like one.

A shadow flickers beneath the surface of Fox’s gaze. Hunger. Wanting. A space that can’t be filled devouring by hearts; an emptiness too big and complicated to name.

skin6“Yes,” Fox says.

Mar’s pulse trips, insistent at her wrists, between her legs, in her throat. Fear, real, sweeter than any she’s felt before.

Her body responds. Heartless. Yes, she wants this. But she needs time to think, and right now, with Fox’s lips grazing her belly, and moving lower still, she doesn’t want to think at all.

“You look happier than I’ve seen you in a long time,” Jamie says.

The hard plastic seat cups her uncomfortably. A hum of voices surrounds them, a susurrus of conversations half-held, everyone saying too little and too much in the short window of time they’re allowed. Her cheeks warm.

“You finally meet someone?” Jamie’s grin is sly.

But there’s an edge to it; the corner of his mouth quivers. Guilt needles her. She hasn’t made a choice, but sitting here feels like a lie, like she’s hiding something good and secret when Jamie has nothing at all. Jamie runs a hand over the stubble field of his scalp. One leg bounces, restless, under the table.

“Are you okay?” Mar leans forward.

“You know me, I’m always okay.” The lines of Jamie’s smile dig deeper, determined, like he’s got something to prove. The stretch of his skin shows his skull. Mar’s heart cracks, her binder too tight again.

She reaches across the table, catching Jamie’s fidgeting hands.

“Jamie…”

Her voice fails. She can’t look him in the eye, not just because she’s afraid he’ll see the shadow of her leaving, the possibility that she’ll choose something that will pull their worlds apart. She’s afraid she’ll see a shadow in his eyes, too. Doubt. Guilt. And some sick part of her wants to see it there. She wants to know he chose, that some action led him here and not random chance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Would it make it easier if Jamie confessed? Could she walk away with a clean conscience? No. Jamie would still be written on her heart, her brother, no matter what he did or didn’t do. If she lets Fox devour her heart, what happens to Jamie?

“Don’t,” Jamie says before she can even try to go further. “One of us should be happy, Mar.”

At the pressure of his fingers on hers, Mar can’t breathe. She closes her eyes. They’re running together in the dark. The smell of churned-up leaves, the trees lengthening around her, the light bruising to a new color. His legs are longer than hers, but hers carry her ahead. A branch cracks under his weight; Mar’s heart cracks. Jamie trips, tangles, and Mar is alone. At six and eight, a shadow comes for her, and Mar turns away, back toward home. And now? Her heart cracks again, fracturing beneath the binder, drawing a line through Jamie’s name.

“Just keep running,” Jamie says. “And don’t look back.”

The fact that he knows her so well, can read her thoughts even as Mar hides her eyes makes it hurt all the worse. She forces herself to look at him, she owes him that much.

The smile sliding across his face is almost real this time, shadow-touched, sorrowing, like he understands. Jamie releases her hands, and it’s a moment before the world rights itself.

“Jamie.” Tears thicken the name in her throat. She doesn’t try to go further this time.

When the time is up, Mar hugs Jamie as hard as she can, feeling the bones move under his skin, letting the pressure of her touch say goodbye for her where the word itself refuses to form.

Mar doesn’t know where to find Fox, but she knows where to be in order for Fox to find her. The woods behind the house are a little more unkempt, the trees a little more ragged, a few more years of secrets and discarded things lodged among the roots. Empty bottles, cigarette packs, used condoms. The woods are where people come to test personalities, passions, and vices before they let the world see them.

“You’ve made a decision,” Fox says.

There’s no cigarette to herald the appearance this time. Fox is simply there in the space between two trunks, hands in the pocket of a long coat that nearly brushes the ground.

“What are you?” is what comes out of Mar’s mouth, a question instead of an answer.

“You already know.” Fox’s head tilts to one side.

Fox presses a hand against Mar’s chest. Mar’s pulse thumps beneath her binder and her skin. She imagines sharp teeth, biting through muscle, through bone. Fox promised she wouldn’t feel a thing.

“Are you ready?” Fox asks.

Mar nods. Fox takes her hand, leading her deeper, where the trees grow straighter, less ragged, where stranger secrets than sex and addiction are hidden between their roots and their leaves. There’s a hollow where the earth has been tamped down by the shape of a body curled nose to tail.

The sky is flat white above trees whose branches have been stripped for winter, but shadows still dapple Fox’s cheeks. Broken sunlight filters between the non-existent leaves and a wind warmer than the one Mar left behind stirs over them. The shadows in between the patches of light on Fox’s skin are the color of a bruise.

“Will you let me eat your heart?” Fox asks. “All your wanting, all your pain?”

Dark lashes lower over eyes the color of amber with insects trapped inside. Beneath those lowered lids, something shifts and flickers in the gold crescent of Fox’s eyes. Fragility, hope, love, fear. None of the words sit easy on Fox’s shoulders. They slide around, come back to Mar like a flutter in her belly. Not one thing, but all of them. Old and young, terrible and lovely. Human and not.

What would it mean to let Fox eat her heart? And what kind of creature would want such a thing? A dangerous one? Or simply a tired one, wanting to be hollow instead of full, soft instead of hard? Mar catches her breath. There’s another choice she can make, with a different cost attached to it.

She could eat Fox’s heart instead of offering up her own. It’s what she’s always wanted. Two hearts in one skin. Animal and human. Male and female. Both and neither. Melting and changing, swift and quicksilver and remaking herself at will.

But with the swiftness come the shadows. If she keeps running, she leaves Jamie behind. If he picks up the gun, there’s a flat crack, the world sundered and they can never go back again.

There is infinite patience in Fox’s honey-colored eyes. And impatience as well, jaws snapping at Mar’s heels.

Hunger. Wanting. Mar knows about hollow spaces that cutting and starving can’t fill. She knows that some desires go beyond skin.

She closes her eyes, breathes out. She conjures Jamie’s face, his voice calling to her through the dark of the forest, his eyes fixed on hers saying I didn’t do it, Mar. Lying curled small in the forest, wishing for the shadows to stay, it wasn’t only guilt that needled her to turn back home. It was love. Jamie is her brother, and he’s always known her. He will know her still, even in this skin. Her heart, beating strong and true beside a second heart, wild and strange. Together, they will be enough to fill her. She wants this. She is sure.

Mar opens her eyes.

She presses her lips against Fox’s mouth. She tastes salt and honey. Liquid gold, Fox’s heart melting on her tongue.

Far distant in the woods, there’s a flat sound – a gunshot, a branch breaking, Mar cracking wide. Breathless, she leans back, licking clean the last drops of salty sweetness with her tongue.

“Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.”

end-of-story-nov

A.C. Wise
A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise’s short fiction can be found scattered around publications such as Uncanny, Apex, Shimmer, and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2015, among other places. In addition to her fiction writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story, and contributes a regular Women to Read: Where to Start column to SF Signal. Her debut collection, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, was published by Lethe Press in 2015. Find her at www.acwise.net or on twitter as @ac_wise