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Boneset, by Lucia Iglesias

The blind Bonesetter’s townhouse enacts the architecture of a skull. Windows imitate eye sockets the Bonesetter has known. The front door comments on the vigor of the jaw, swinging up and down on mandibular hinges. When the hinges thirst for oil, the door munches up the lucklorn gutter-mice who skitter over the threshold, chewing them into flesh-jelly and spitting them across the foyer until the Bonesetter serves the hinges their oil from a crystal eyedropper. The home’s ample upper-story suggests the sage proportions of a prodigy’s frontal lobes. At the back of the house, in the occipital chambers, the Bonesetter puts his patients back together. Here, the ceiling slopes low and the walls have a curious slant, leaning inwards as if to scrutinize the Bonesetter’s living art.

Phials, jars, flasks, flagons, and bottles—celadon-glazed or blown from floss-glass—peer down from the Bonesetter’s shelves, winking in the light of the firefly lamps. The lamps, two dozen orbs of quartz, hang from fishing line strung along the ceiling beams. Each orb imprisons a family of fireflies. Convicted of incandescence, they serve a life sentence, their rueful glow seeping through the quartz. Encircling the room like a ribcage, twelve rows of shelves hold the Bonesetter’s secrets: powdered amber laced with damselfly or drakling, sprigs of feverfew dried under a child’s pillow, strips of skin inscribed with sonnets, cats’ whiskers, three dozen flavors of bottled laughter, pennyroyal pressed between pages of a harlot’s autobiography, reflections caught from mirrors or windows or the backs of spoons, rainbows skimmed off oilslicks, the language of rain trapped in a bottle of pebbles, rosehips pickled in spite, teardrop cordial, candied cobweb, two dozen sets of milk-teeth, glitter ground from the wings of butterflies and luna moths, bioluminescence smoldering in saltwater from an underground sea, a tantrum preserved in formaldehyde, unborns sleeping in amniotic fluid (unmice, unmoles, unmunks, an unfox), strings of abandoned punctuation, letters jettisoned from sinking languages like cacophonous ballast, faceless pocket watches, the chiming of rogue bells, antimony lozenges, vixen-milk, electricity combed from the fur of a catamount, essence of jubilee, essence of melancholy, and a fever dream distilled into pure alcohol.

These rare and irascible ingredients make the Bonesetter a master of anesthesia, antiseptics, and antipsychotics. On the night-market, the Bonesetter could earn a lifetime and a half of luxury from the sale of a single phial of jubilee or an ever-sleeping unmunk. Fathers would sell their daughters’ hair and mothers would sell the roses from their sons’ cheeks for vixen-milk or bottled laughter.

While these dozing riches lie upon his shelves, the Bonesetter hoards his true treasure in a cabinet above the sink. As he rinses sweat and a spritz of blood off his socket-clamp and wrenches, he fancies he hears his leather-bound prize rustling behind the cabinet door. Like the echoes that once chased his bounding son through the corridors, the book’s pages betray secrets not their own. After kneading his hands dry on his apron, the Bonesetter spiders his fingers over the cabinet door until he finds the latch. His head turns, trying to follow the hands it cannot guide. His eye sockets are scooped and empty as oyster shells.

The cabinet’s leather-bound book weighs the same as a promise kept or a winter evening unraveled by the fireside: It is the sum of fulfillment and fortune, and when the Bonesetter runs his fingers over the embossed spine, he knows that if Death dropped by to settle the accounts tonight, he would find the Bonesetter quite willing to cash in his life and scratch his debt to the soul-banker. The Bonesetter will leave life having given more than he took. And if his son overdraws the account, as rumor whispers he will—well, that is a story still to be written. For now, there is only the blind Bonesetter and his book, which he lays on the operating table and opens with a sigh. He foots around for a stool and, finding one, draws it up to the table’s rim. Sitting straight-spined as only a virtuoso chiropractor can, he stares at the chamber’s single octagonal window as his fingers read.

Splashed in the blue sluice of twilight, the Bonesetter appears discreetly luminous. Lustrous as a black pearl, his skin is slicked with dusk’s light. Reading the raised text with his index finger, he nods along to the familiar rhythm of his own words. He remembers penning this chapter—in the hollow hours between midnight and a new morning—how he wrote through two whole bottles of bone-meal ink and had to ask his son to pelt down to the cellar for a spare femur to grind into a third bottle. Oleander ran away before the end of the next chapter, and the Bonesetter had to spivvy up a pulley system to replace his young bone-runner. The boy had taken such carnivorous interest in skeletal anatomy that his father had felt certain Oleander Bonesettersson would become his apprentice after dusting up his paleontology and troglobiology exams at school. After the boy left, taking only a coil of rope and his father’s entire supply of jaw-wire, the Bonesetter’s wife opined that their son had been spending indulgent helpings of time with the mad aunts in the attic, and that the spinsters were to blame for infecting him with the feverish whim. The Bonesetter had always classified the aunts amongst the vermin he shared his home with only because he had yet to devise a humane way to evict mice, spiders, and mother’s sisters. Still, he contended, nearly every house in the City had an aunt or two in the attic, and they hadn’t launched fleets of runaways. However, by the time he embarked upon writing his epilogue, a runaway-epidemic struck the City and devastated the youth population. Though his wife never stooped to “I told you so,” she did introduce a bill amongst her fellow senators to ban the atticking of aunts. Somewhere under the opal-studded dome of the Senatorium, her bill was growing a coat of dust. The prospect of seeing the dickered biddies loose on the streets was too frightful for the senators to compass. And some whispered that she had only introduced the bill to lure attention away from the rumors that pinned her son as Patient Zero, the poison in the well.

Dark as the lacquered shell of a mussel, the Bonesetter’s fingers rub word-nubs, tracing letters built from bone-meal, letters as spare as their author, shorn of flourish and arabesque, sleek and bald as a god. His handwriting is as familiar as his own methodical anatomy, each popped P and high-shouldered H as intimate as the regal vertebrae rippling down his diagrammatic spine. Amongst the granite facts chiseled into his skull, the Bonesetter knows he is more father to this book than to Oleander, for he never learned to read the boy’s mood from the angle of his elbows or the slant of his jaw, whereas his book speaks to him in the acute language of powdered bone. Though the boy is flesh of his flesh, the Bonesetter never learned the unique knobble of Oleander’s knee joints, never played the xylophone of his spine, never measured his unfurling wingspan. As Oleander grew into his bones, his father was welded to this stool, breeding this book. The Bonesetter rarely molders in remorse. He has no time for the soft and fleshful. Bones are his business. Yet every night, he falls asleep over this book, waiting for his boy to come home.

Under the Bonesetter’s fingers, the words warm, coming alive on the steel operating table. When the Bonesetter scoops a child from Death’s doorstep and carries her back to her parents, they often call him a Vivimancer. Many believe he is a warlock who can spell any doll or daughter to life. However, the Bonesetter knows it only takes a posset of fetal-vole and violet-oil to stimulate balking nerves. He knows the words under his fingers have no more life than a clench-fisted fetus in its formaldehyde bath. It is his own life he feels quickening under the skin of these words, a whole lifetime of study injected between leather covers. He skims from chapter to chapter, savoring the cream of each case study. He relishes the purity of his signature taxonomy, untainted by an erroneous genus or a fretful crossbreed. Pain is the purest sensation, and he has strained the case studies to clarify kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Not a twinge has escaped his sifting. The Bonesetter can pin the speciation of any ache, be it a mocksome noddler bobbing under the lumbar, or a gwee tweakler kindling only on twenty-ninths of odder months. His case studies—case stories really—are a Wunderkammer of spasms, a cabinet of curiosities, a circus shriek-show, a freakgasm, a back alley, a bucket of screams, a torture garden, a family tree, a brood of masochists, a torturer’s dictionary, a surgeon’s thesaurus, a child’s encyclopedia, a captain’s log, forensic evidence, a fancier’s guide, a three-hundred-page equation, a collection of recipes, a dream atlas, the ingredients for a nightmare, a sacred text, a fifth dimension, an old wives’ tale, a new metric, a riddle written on a Möbius strip, an un-nameable shade of red, a prophecy, an iridescent menagerie.

Yet of all his weeping treasures, of all the wailing, groaning, giggling agonies nestled between the snug leather covers, his most exotic specimen, the crowning jewel of his algesiology can be visited in Chapter the Last: In Which I Meet Pain’s Brother. A researcher’s treatise can never be anything other than a flagrant autobiography, a spiffing-up of the diary and laboratory notes, a plummet into rambling marginalia and restless hypotheses. However, few researchers become protagonists in their own case stories. The Bonesetter had never been one to guinea-pig himself, but that changed after he was visited by the most effervescent caller ever to fondle the bell cord beneath the sign of crossed bones.

On that fate-encrusted night (fortune-varnishing visits always happen in the owl-hours, by an eldritch rule), the Bonesetter’s wife was out, carousing with her constituents at the neighborhood malt-bar. Oleander ought to have been deep into the second or third layer of sleep, which meant he was probably gossiping with the aunts in the attic over porcelain thimble cups of triple-distilled dew. When the doorbell squalled, the Bonesetter was prying into the structural secrets of a fledgling’s wing-bones with his octoscope. On this night, he still wore both his eyes, bright as geodes, only casually myopic from a lifetime of study. A bit stiff from spending the day swan-necked over his octoscope, he creaked to the door. No business hours were posted under the sign of crossed bones because bonesetting was his life’s work, and obsessions don’t come packaged in eight-hour increments. Absorbed as he was in the intricate dialogue between skeletal articulation and biological function, the Bonesetter did not find it peculiar that someone else in the City was fraught with an osteological quandary at this owlish hour. When he wrenched the lever to open the mandibular door, it would have seemed to anyone on the stoop that the door’s jaws had opened upon a gaping foyer, for the Bonesetter was quite camouflaged in the unlit atrium, blending into the suave umbra thrown by the streetlamp. However, his visitor spied the noble glint on his lofty cheekbones and spoke through the jaws of the door.

“You’re the Bonesetter? What an emerald pleasure to meet you at last. I read your article on sentient spinal growths with relish. Absolutely lip-smacking the way you chronicle the sub-phases of fetal pain. And you gave a tantalizing hint about a new book in the tumbler, didn’t you? Your Taxonomia Algesia. May I borrow an hour of your evening, Master Bonesetter? I have a proposition I think you’ll find savory.” The man spoke as if his teeth were slick with butter. His sibilants glistened with a sheen of caviar.

With his back to the streetlamp, the man was a silhouette snipped out by the keenest of scissors. His head was cocked at a wily angle, leaving his features in blackout (the kind of blackout that in the theater is followed by a scream cropped short). However, even in two-dimensional cut-out, the insolence of his anatomy was broadcast by the lamplight. The Bonesetter automatically catalogued his brash bone structure, noting the skeletal audacity not with shock or revulsion, but with a collector’s buttoned-up interest. The caller’s polydactyly failed to raise an eyebrow, for the Bonesetter could have filled a smuggler’s false-bottomed trunk with all the gratuitous fingers and toes he’d met over the course of his career. The stranger’s supplemental pair of arms raked up a bit more interest than the superfluous fingers. Sprouting from his iliac crest, the arms breached from his coat pockets and dangled to his knees. Yet what really won the stranger his guest-right in the Bonesetter’s home were his genu recurvatum, his back-bending knees, or more precisely, the tango-dancer’s grace with which he glided upon those perplexed joints as the Bonesetter stepped aside and watched the visitor swan over the threshold.

Most of the Bonesetter’s visitors are somewhere between sweat-drenched endurance and octave-shattering agony. Therefore, by latched habit the Bonesetter led his guest to the examination room, where he drew up a second stool at the steel examination table. In the formaldehyde light reflecting off the specimen jars, the Bonesetter inspected the man he couldn’t help thinking of as his patient. Formaldehyde-yellow is a tint that flatters few, yet the stranger wore it well. Whereas most men and peaches are coated in a thin glisten of hair, the stranger was slicked in a filmy sheen of feathers. The thickened light caught in his quills, rinsing them in amber. A translucent third lid flicked over his eye, as if to polish away the jaundiced light, leaving his cornea amnesia-white. If he suffered from the freeloading fingers, the unwarranted arms, the concave knees, the gossamer feathers, or the lizard-lids, the pain was imprisoned so deep within that the Bonesetter couldn’t sense its locus. What symptom had brought the stranger at this owl-hour? He waited for his patient to unlock the matter himself.

“You do speak, don’t you?” said the man with a twist of the lips that was several degrees short of a smile. “This will be mammothly tedious if we have to precede in miner’s hand-language.”

The Bonesetter, who often goes days without opening his mouth for anything except yawns and nettle-butter sandwiches, realized that his visitor expected some species of greeting.

“What disturbs the peace in your bone-house, sir?” he tried. “Whether it’s a rogue disc or a dickered rib, I guarantee you won’t leave my operating room until I’ve spiffed your skeleton back into the wonderwork it once was.”

A smile split the stranger’s face like an unhealed wound. “My dear bone-buckler, I’m quite at home in my skeleton. It’s book-business, not bone-business, that brings me. I know a publishing house that would glut your ledgers with more gold than you could shake out of a dwarf, if your manuscript arrived wrapped in my endorsement.”

As the Bonesetter calculated the surface area of an average tunnel-dwarf in cubits-squared, and derived an approximate maximum gold-load based on the tensile strength of dwarf ligaments, his guest closed his auxiliary eyelids and watched the chiropractor through their iridescent film. After settling upon a sum that would amount to a lavishly embellished diploma with unimpeachable letters of reference for Oleander, along with six dozen phials of the rarest pathological specimens to round out his research collection, the Bonesetter blinked the numerals from his eyes. He studied the visitor varnished in formaldehyde-light.

“And whose bones do I have the pleasure of greeting, sir? You seem to know me, but have not, I think, labeled your specimen.”

“Only because there isn’t enough ink in the City to pen the length of my name. I have worn so many monikers, epithets, sobriquets, aliases, and noms-de-plume that I would have to hire the entire Librarians’ Guild and empty the City Archives of their scribes just to write a taxonomy of myself. Then you could thumb through the card catalogue and find a nickname that doesn’t give you lock-jaw. Some of my older pseudonyms have grown aggressive in their dotage. I wouldn’t trust anyone’s tongue around them except my own. Of course I also have a passel of harmless-enough names. I’ll fan them out for you like a gypsinger’s cards and let you choose. Like the gypsinger’s painted menagerie of hermits and fools, each name has its own will and wiles. Thief-of-Thieves, he’s quite the sneakster, and hard to parry, that Lie-Smith. Sif’s Husband is no slick-groomed foppet; there’s teeth on him, the Otter-Killer. Hel’s Father knows too much about the sunk and dead, but Neck-Risker is always smirking at Death. You’ll know Scar-Lip by the way he wrings his words, and the Lad always has a laugh tucked up his sleeve. Pain’s Brother knows a redder way and he will always win when it comes to grips, though Plague’s Nurse prefers loss, watching it slow and blue as it strangles men.”

Upon finishing this catalogue, Pain’s Brother straightened his legs to the clicking point, his recurve knees retorting like rifles. He crossed his ankles under the Bonesetter’s stool and leaned back with all four elbows propped on the examination table.

That a single being should be strung together from so many names did not strike the Bonesetter as anything other than ordinary, for he sees every organism as a calcium palace of spire-spines, gabled skulls, latticed ribcages, and hinged knuckles. No woman is simply Sabriye or Adelaïde or Bryony, no man merely Mordekai or Fenimöre or Wolfgang. Each creature is an illuminated encyclopedia of anatomy, from clavicle to sternum, coccyx to calcaneus, lunate to lumbar, ethmoid to ulna, tibia to trapezium. The Bonesetter was less interested in a catalogue of gregarious epithets and more interested in the flexion of those knees and the reshuffling of ribs that accommodated those arrogant additional arms. Still, as the names spilled across the examination table, he recognized a few from the rumors that gusted down back alleys on Rubbishday. The Thief-of-Thieves was known to steal bad luck and poverty, leaving nothing but riches, though Sif’s Husband might tuck a seventh son into his satchel before leaving by the back door, and the Lad had as much arsenic as ingots in his pockets.

Pain’s Brother stretched himself still further, as if intent on smearing himself over the entire examination room. His feet emerged on the far side of the Bonesetter’s stool, and he laid his head back against the steel table. The faint plumage that papered his skin vibrated like hummingbird wings, flicking fidgety reflections against the luminous glass jars that lined the walls like mortality’s mosaic. His third lid remained sealed, but beneath that iridescent film, both indigo irises were fixed on the Bonesetter.

Though the man had spread himself like a bacterial culture on a microscope plate, the Bonesetter muzzled the impulse to unbutton his examination instruments and conduct a full osteological analysis of the unique specimen. In fact, he was mildly nauseated by the man’s appalling posture, and in his unease he ratcheted his own spine up another notch. At this interlude in the transaction, the Bonesetter’s wife would have poured herself a measured nipper of triple-distilled mallow-malt, but her husband poured himself a measured breath. He crocheted his exquisite penumbral fingers in his lap and exhaled.

“Your offer is as attractive as a well-aligned spine, and if it’s as sound as a logician’s brain-case, I would be a jingling fool to decline. However, I fear you must wear the motley and bells tonight, for there is no book. You have wasted your incandescent company on an old bonesetter whose hands are more suited to realignments of the cervical vertebrae than to wordcraft.”

The stranger’s smile puckered his face like a scar, a crease so deep you could fall in if you looked too close.

“I’ve worn the motley and bells enough times to know that the fool always leaves with full pockets. There is no book yet. But surely you have a squalling manuscript tucked in a cradle somewhere just waiting to be swaddled up in red leather and adopted by an affluent publisher and her husband?”

The Bonesetter’s fingers knotted themselves together so tightly they seemed intent on strangling one another. “The manuscript was stillborn—malformed—not viable.”

Cracking all twenty-four knuckles in a lazy fusillade, Pain’s Brother said: “A transfusion. A transplant. High voltage resuscitation. We’ll save it somehow. What are the symptoms?”

“It stopped growing at Chapter Eight. Total cessation of mitosis. Stunted. A runt.”

“Diagnosis?”

“I can’t carry the manuscript to term. My taxonomy of pain was organized based on a hierarchical principle of magnitude. Extrapolating from a lifetime’s collection of case studies, I started my speciation with the most domestic pains: the frolicking twinge of a papercut, the bloated ache of a bruise. Then I ventured into more idiosyncratic kingdoms of pain: the auroral menstrual cramp, the starburst contusion of the ulnar nerve. However, my case studies yielded no material for the final chapter. Where was my apex species, the mind-predator, the carnivore who devours rationality, the beast that turns a man into raw meat beating away at its bone-cage?”

Pain’s Brother butterflied his two dozen fingers, splaying them like specimens against the steel examination table. He tipped his head back, spilling onion-colored hair across the table. The more space he blotted up, the more the room seemed to cling to him, and the Bonesetter felt as if he were being squeezed out of his own office like the last tumor of dried-up glue squeezed from the tube.

“Spoon out your eyes,” said Pain’s Brother to the ceiling.

“Pardon?”

“Spoon out your eyes. Then you’ll meet a pain you could never snare in a case study. Your last chapter must be written in first person. You’ll only know the mind-carnivore if you feel it gnawing at your own sanity.”

A smile gouged across the guest’s face as he met his host’s gaze. In the gore of that smile, the Bonesetter saw his guest was right. He couldn’t name the predator pain until he knew it more intimately than he knew his wife.

For the first time since growing into his full, exacting height, the Bonesetter drew his knees up to his chin and balanced on the stool like a perverse egg. He laced his arms around his shins and sealed his eyes against the rancid gleam of the light. Inhaling a steadying dose of starch from his trouser-pleats, he spoke into his kneecaps.

“Will a grapefruit spoon do?”

The stranger’s laugh rebounded from the walls like high-speed whiplash, leaving the glass jars whining. The Bonesetter’s teeth ached.

“When the manuscript is spackled, spiffed, and spit-polished, post it to Delphinia and Daughters. They’ll have the presses ratcheted and ready.”

The Bonesetter heard the stranger’s stool scuff his tiled floor. Then a sound like sinews unclasping their skeleton, tendons unfastening from flesh, bones unsleeved from skin—he flashed his eyes open, but caught only the smirking swing of the back door as it flapped on its hinges. A few slivered feathers listed in the door’s updraft. It was as if the stranger had unmade himself, distilled into a fever dream.

The Bonesetter allowed himself a dozen diaphragmatic breaths, watering his lungs with the clammy midnight spilling through the door. Then he unkinked his knees, ironed out his spine, and strode to the kitchen. Light from the streetlamps curdled on the marble counters and in the bowl of the porcelain sink, streaking the kitchen in shades of broth and clarified butter. The lamplight foamed on the mother-of-pearl inlay in the knob of the silverware drawer. The Bonesetter raked the drawer open, and as he shoveled through the silver, the yolkish light dribbled in. Not a single grapefruit spoon remained.

“Oh Doctor-Daddykins, oh Bonesetter-Baba, oh Postured-Papa—whatever could you be pawing for under midnight’s skirts? You look guilty as a boy-o caught with his thumb in the kumquat pudding. Did you hope to pluck out a succulent night-truffle? Do you like the burnt-caramel flavor of nighttime? Or are you looking for these?”

Oleander had perched himself owl-wise on the marble counter opposite the silverware drawer. He was hocked back on his heels in a mess of shadows so thick you could slather them on rye. Leaning out into the frothing light, he brandished a bouquet of silver grapefruit spoons at his father. He had his da’s cheekbones—sharp enough to perform surgery—but his complexion was watered down by mother-blood. In the lamplight, his father was a painting in oils, rich with lapis and ultramarine, whereas Oleander was sketched in chalk.

“Only rag-taggle vagabonds and prize-wives ought to listen at keyholes, Oleander,” his father scolded. “If you ever kip that trick again, your mother will hear about it, and you know what that means: A senate interrogation and an ear-ache. Now be brave, my little fibula, and give me a grapefruit spoon. You can lick the rest like silver-lollies if you fancy a midnight snack. I need only the one.”

Oleander slumped back against the wall, drenching himself in shadow. “And I need the skeleton of a juvenile shrew. Only the one. What a soup we find ourselves swimming in, Dumpling-Da.”

“So it’s your pestilent intention to make me buy my own grapefruit spoon back from you for the price of a mint specimen? You do realize that a fully articulated juvenile shrew skeleton with copper wire ligaments is not an urchin’s plaything? It will win you no back-alley battles against aluminum soldiers.”

In the ferment of shadows, Oleander mined his ear-canals for wax with the handle of a spoon. “There’s nothing left for me to win in the back-alleys, Doctor-Dadums. The ragamuffins and streetlings won’t play with me anymore. They say I cheat worse than a Doggoblin.”

In the skimmed light, the Bonesetter was several shades nobler than the dignified night that idled at the window. “And is my son a maggot-tongued cheat?”

“No. I’m a scientist.”

As if fingering an extravagantly fractured femur, the Bonesetter at last found the fulcrum upon which his son’s grievance seemed to rotate. His patient would flinch. And then they would bring the bones back into agreement.

“The gutter-mice wanted to live again,” continued Oleander, his voice thinning to a whisper. “I could feel it under their fur. They were dead, but I quickened them back to life in my bare hands. It’s not my fault that the urchins couldn’t bring their aluminum soldiers to life. My undead mice were better warriors.” His lips perked with a chalk smile. “They were romping first-rate, to tell it true.”

“So you will give me back my own grapefruit spoons if I sacrifice one of the princes of my collection—the very spine of my scholarship—to feed your necromantic addiction?”

Oleander knuckled the spoons together, clicking up a racket with the improvised castanets. Above the sterling syncopation he chanted: “It’s science, Osteo-Daddio. As scientifical as your bone-fiddling and spine-spiffing. You diddle inside live bodies to make them livelier, while I diddle with dead bodies to liven them up.”

In the silver cacophony, the Bonesetter discovered a subspecies of pain not yet catalogued in his manuscript. Although he had abandoned those pages to the dust-boggarts under his bureau months ago, his fingers itched to speciate and log this new finding. A tunneling throb, he would call it. And even as its silver claws gouged deeper into the sanctum of his inner ear, he gloried in the resuscitation of his manuscript. For the price of two eyes. Why, it was a champion bargain. Practically burglary. Who knew dreams could be paid for from the pockets of the eye sockets?

So much time has sifted through the Bonesetter since the lamplight buttered that fermented midnight. Even now he feels time flaking away in flossy nubbins, weakening his ankles and aching under his arthritic knees. He is but a scaffold of brittle bones, soft sift in an hourglass, a bower of bone, calcified home to a parasitic mind which remains supple and strapping, even as the bone-house goes stale and crumbles away.

Under his fingertips, the words rise defiantly, brazen bone-meal calligraphy that calluses his reading fingers. The words are his own, more familiar than his wife’s voice, but he prefers to feel them rather than hear their tarnished echo toll through memory’s auditorium. He can’t stop worrying their edges, scuffing the crossbeam of a T until his finger goes numb. They are the scabs of wounds he can’t give up. He won’t give them the peace to heal. He chafes them through billowy blue afternoons, as the examination room sombers and dusk flutters down on moth wings. Spine aligned with the earth’s poles, he is a statue carved from rarest hematite. He has the secret sheen of an unfathomable well. Dusk-light pools in his eye sockets, empty as eggshells.

The word-scabs rasp under his fingers, and he feels his way back to that night where he lost his eyes and his son to a hunger he once called science. Though Oleander didn’t disappear until he had grown into his father’s height and daunting posture, he amputated himself from the family on the night the Bonesetter spooned out his own eyes. In those strange days, the boy haunted the house, a specter never pinned by sharp lights. Only the aunts in their cobweb-quilted attic ever saw him sit still. His skin was smoke-blue with bone char and bruises. As skeletal treasures vanished one by one from the Bonesetter’s pathological collection, new squallings and squeaks were added to the uncanny symphony singing behind Oleander’s bedroom door. A few of his uncreatures, including the gutter-mice and the shrew, must have marched after the Necromancer when he left his father’s house, but most were later discovered in the silent bedroom, starved carcasses snuggled into drawers and looped over door handles, waiting for their erstwhile master to wake them once again.

In the house modeled upon the human skull, the Bonesetter has begun another collection. He bottles the rumors that waft through the vents, filing them by theme: mercenary necromancy, corpses kidnapped from crypts, a break-in at the City Archives, a mammoth skeleton gone missing from the paleontology museum, militant gutter-mice, an epidemic of runaway children.

Dusk’s last light filigrees the page with silver wire. The Bonesetter cannot see twilight, but he can smell it. He knows he ought to put his masterpiece to bed between its leather covers. Yet still he worries his word-scabs, wondering which wound is more predatory, the gnash of the grapefruit spoon as it chewed through his optic nerve, or the fanged memory of Oleander’s last smile as he tossed the spoon to his father, the gleam of his teeth shearing the darkness in two. Angry teeth were the last the Bonesetter ever saw of the boy. After paying the pain-price, he buried himself in bandages and bookwork and when he emerged, the boy was gone. The Thief-of-Thieves lied about the price of publishing. The book cost more than a pair of eyes. It cost him his son.

Tonight, like every night, he will wait all through the owl-hour, hoping to hear the doorbell bawl. He will pay the Thief anything to steal back his son.

For Gerard Manley Hopkins,
master word-setter, who found the poetry in bones.

Lucia Iglesias has taught English in Germany, packed produce at the farmers’ market, cared for other humans’ cats, and modeled for art students. She travels widely and often. Though she grew up in California, she suspects she is a changeling and is still searching for her real home. Her first publication appears in this issue of Shimmer and she is still beaming.

 

Return to Shimmer #40

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace

Smoke rose from the center of Asunder Island, marring a sky so blue and so clear it made Aurelia’s eyes ache. The sailors had been insisting for days she would see the Atrox swooping and turning overhead, if only she watched long enough, but there was no sign of the great birds.

The hull of the dinghy scraped the black beach. A sailor splashed through the shallows to pull the boat ashore and help Aurelia out. Her sealskin boots kept her feet dry, but her wool skirts were instantly sodden.

“Tomorrow?” the man said.

“Yes,” said Aurelia. “Thank you.”

He was already rowing back to the open sea, eager to be away. The ship was a dark blot in the distance, tiny and fragile as a toy.

It was a cold day, but calm for the Southern Ocean, the air raw with the stink of fish and penguins. A thin trail wound from the beach up an eroded crack in the black slope. Aurelia chose her steps with care and did not stop until she reached the top.

Asunder Island had the shape of a cat’s eye: round at the shores, split down the middle by an elongated chasm, its depths hidden by smoke and darkness. The wind carried the island’s sulfurous gasps away from Aurelia, but she could taste the fumes on her tongue, feel the sting in her throat.

motion-pull1In Aurelia’s trunk aboard the ship was a monograph: Observations of the Southern Ocean Atrox in Their Island Colonies. The author, Mr. Davies, would have preferred to write about penguins, but people only wanted to read about the Atrox, or so he told Aurelia when they met in London. He would talk for hours about birds, but when she turned the conversation to the Summer Star he had only laughed.

“Nonsense,” Davies had said. “What place do sailors’ superstitions have in this modern age?”

Aurelia withdrew her mariner’s compass from her satchel. It did not matter what men like Mr. Davies said. She was here, black stone beneath her feet and cold wind on her face, and he was not. On Mr. Davies’s map, the crevasse was oriented precisely north to south, but her own measurement showed a northeast-southwest trend of at least fifteen degrees. She could not make a note yet — her ink would be frozen solid — but she would record the correction later.

She tucked her compass away and took a breath to steady herself. She stood now at the north end of the island. A colony of chinstrap penguins swarmed over the western flank, but Aurelia’s destination was to the east, where a long ridge of tumbling volcanic rock led to a village. Beyond the village, perched atop a cliff overlooking the end of the world, was the observatory.

Asunder Island was by all sensible measure a terrible location for an astronomical observatory. It was too remote for regular use, and the Southern Ocean too stormy. The telescope offered little to modern star charts that better observatories could not provide. The Asunder Island observatory existed for a single purpose: as the southernmost telescope on Earth, it was the only place suited to observe the Summer Star and measure its curious proper motion.

Tucked in beside Mr. Davies’s monograph in Aurelia’s trunk was a copy of Lord Petterdown’s Celestial Bodies of the Southern Sky, which devoted five pages to a spluttering dismissal of the Summer Star’s unusual motion. The measurements had to be wrong, said Petterdown, because common adventurers and uneducated sailors had no place mucking about in scientific inquiry. Aurelia found his careless argument offensive to her sense of intellectual rigor, but enticing as well, like a challenge to a duel. She was very much looking forward to proving him wrong.

As they had been preparing for their voyage, Aunt Theo had suggested that perhaps the words also stung Aurelia’s pride, as her parents had been among those common adventurers who had stopped briefly at Asunder Island. Aurelia had brushed aside her concern. Her parents were long dead, and it was Theo’s nature, not Aurelia’s, to be more swayed by sentiment than science.

The trail to the village was rough and steep. Aurelia paused to rest and the crunch of her boots fell quiet. The sounds of the island surrounded her. There was the wind, always the wind, scouring the stone and buffeting the fur flaps of her hat, and there was the grumbling sea. But there were also faint hisses and groans, a rustle like pages turning in a breeze, the knock and clatter of falling stones.

Aurelia turned, heart pounding, but she was alone. The sounds were rising from the chasm, the gaping heart of the island.

She stepped off the trail to peer over the edge. The smoke was as thick as the murkiest London fog, and the sulfur stench was strong. To the south a crooked stone staircase crawled into the darkness.

Standing above the crevasse, smoke stinging her eyes, Aurelia was for the first time willing to believe the lurid, far-fetched tales of explorers who had ventured into Atrox colonies: underground landscapes of bottomless pits and lakes of lava, impossible cities carved into stone, wild yellow eyes glowing from towers with predatory intelligence, a thousand black wings rustling in the darkness.

An ache in her lungs reminded her to breathe. She could not stand here all day gawking at shadows, hoping to glimpse one great bird. She had work to do. She turned away.

The village was a ring of six stone huts with roofs fashioned from battered shipboards. There were no windows. Every door was shut tight. The only sign of occupation was the greasy black smoke rising from the chimneys. On the ground, discarded fish scales glinted in the sunlight. A skinny brown rat scurried into hiding.

Aurelia swallowed her revulsion. She was tempted to bypass the village and head straight to the observatory, but at this latitude, on the rising edge of summer, there were only a few hours of darkness each night, and it would be some time before the sun set. The ship’s captain had warned her to treat the islanders politely. There was talk among the sailors about the islanders and their relationship with the Atrox colony, sordid rumors that made the men snicker behind their beards when Aurelia and Theo approached. Aurelia had little patience for the gossip of sailors, but she would not allow their bad manners to excuse her own.

She strode to the nearest door and knocked. Something rustled inside; she leaned close to listen.

“Hello!” she called. “Is anybody here? Hello?”

“They won’t answer.”

The voice came from another building; a round face peered through the cracked door, a girl of about eighteen, pale and freckled.

“They don’t like strangers,” the girl said.

“Hello,” said Aurelia. “I didn’t see you there. My name is Aurelia Gallagher. I’ve come to use the observatory.”

The girl disappeared into the hut and the door swung inward. Her voice floated from the murky shadows. “It won’t be dark for some time. Would you like to come in?”

The inside of the hut was as squalid as the outside. The only light came from a low fire on the hearth, and the room stank of fish and smoke. A lumpy cot crowded one corner, a small table another. Wedged into the wall above the table was a plank, and on it an assortment of objects: coins, rusty nails, medicine bottles, a fob watch with a cracked face.

“We don’t get very many visitors,” said the girl. “My name is Constance. Where have you come from? Please, go on, sit there by the fire where it’s warm.”

Aurelia sat gingerly on a crooked bench. She held her satchel in her lap and pulled her feet close. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Constance. I’ve come from London.”

“I’ve heard so much about London. My fiancé has told me. Will you have tea?”

“Only if it’s no trouble,” said Aurelia.

“Oh, it isn’t.” Constance was already reaching for a dented kettle. She moved stiffly, favoring her left side; her shoulder was hunched beneath a heavy shawl. “Gran would like some too, wouldn’t you?”

Constance smiled toward a dark corner of the hut. Eyes glittered in the shadows, and a mottled gray lump moved. Aurelia startled. She had mistaken the old woman for a pile of blankets.

“Aurelia has come to use the observatory, Gran,” Constance said. “Isn’t that grand? We don’t have many women come to our island.”

Aurelia twisted her gloves together on her lap. One of those rare women had been her mother, Letitia. Aurelia’s parents had stopped at Asunder Island long ago, before she was born. Their memories of soaring great Atrox had been among her favorite bedtime stories — although they had neglected to mention the grim village where wretched old women lived little better than animals.

“Gran likes visitors from far away,” Constance said.

Crouching in the corner, knees bent to her chest, the old woman said nothing. Beneath the folds of her skirt her toenails were yellow and curved. Gray hair fell in dirty hanks around her face. Beside her, in the corner, a wooden ladder jutted from a hole in the floor.

Gran blinked and Aurelia looked away, her face warm.

Constance set out chipped cups and saucers. The tea, she said, was a gift from her fiancé, a sailor at the whaling station on South Georgia Island.

“We’re going to be married soon,” she said.

“Does he visit often?” Aurelia asked.

“He was here last summer,” said Constance. “January, at the turn of the year. That was when we courted. He’ll return soon.”

“Will you go with him when you’re wed?” Aurelia asked, examining Constance with new interest. “Are you very excited?”

Constance knelt by the fire. The flames made her pale face look sickly and flushed. “Life aboard a whaleship is no place for a bride, is it?”

Aurelia’s vision of two young people sharing whispered plans for escape evaporated, and she felt pity so overwhelming she could almost taste it. The young man was likely oceans away by now, having forgotten all about the strange hunched girl waiting on a black lump of rock in the Southern Ocean, except perhaps when he needed a tale to share with friends. She thought I would marry her, he would say, and pass the bottle along. She smelled of fish and slept with rats and she thought we were in love, and he would laugh, he would light his pipe, he would speak of other things.

The kettle pinged and hissed. Constance wrapped her skirt around her good hand to lift it out of the fire. As she turned, her shawl slipped from her left shoulder.

The useless limb wasn’t an arm at all. It was a wing. The feathers were as black as oil.

Aurelia stared, her pulse thunderous in her ears. The captain’s warning, the sailors’ knowing laughter. The way Mr. Davies had shuddered with distaste and touched his handkerchief to the corner of his mouth when Aurelia asked about the inhabitants of Asunder Island and how they lived with the Atrox colony so near. She hadn’t listened. She hadn’t even understood what she was refusing to hear.

Constance tugged the shawl absently back into place and she was a girl again, only a girl, her deformity hidden. “Hot tea is the only thing for a day like this, don’t you think? Do you have wind like this in London? Here we are. I hope it’s strong enough.”

Aurelia drank without thinking. The tea tasted of moldy wood; she gagged and coughed. In the corner dark eyes sparked, and the old woman’s dry laughter filled the room.

“No,” said Aurelia, recovering. “We don’t have wind like this in London. Nothing like this at all.”

“Will you tell me?” Constance asked. When she spoke faint lines around her mouth creased; she was older than Aurelia had first thought. “We have so few visitors. I love to hear all about where they’ve come from.”

Aunt Theo would know what to say. She would overcome her shock at the existence of this chimerical girl, she would laugh away the awkwardness, she would fill the silence. But Theo had remained on the ship. Here there was only Aurelia with her unease and an afternoon to endure before dark. She sipped the foul tea and hoped Constance could not see how her hands trembled.

“What do you want to know?” she asked.

Constance’s expression was eager. “Everything.”

It was easier once she began to speak. It was only conversation, she told herself. It did not matter what Constance hid beneath her shawl. As the day waned she told Constance about London’s gardens in springtime, the rattle of carriages on paving stones, the markets and the pickpockets, church bells on Sunday morning. Constance was full of questions about the world beyond her island. Aurelia tried to explain how it felt to stand at the heart of London with the crowds pressing all around, so many people and so little space, the air so thick with the noise of them it felt like drowning, but all of her words were inadequate to span the distance between Asunder Island and home.

“It sounds remarkable,” Constance said, soft and wistful, pouring out the last of their second pot of tea.

“It is,” said Aurelia. She and Theo had left London months ago aboard a morning train to Southampton, and not until they passed the equator on their voyage south had Aurelia felt the pinch of homesickness in her gut and wished she had looked back for a last glance.

Her mother would laugh to hear them now. Letitia had always insisted London was dull and mundane, no comparison at all to the dark jungles and vast deserts and ancient cities of the world, all the places where a bold woman might go to feel joyous and alive.

Aurelia felt only cold and anxious. Her revulsion had softened, but she could not find enthusiasm in its place. Perhaps the joy came later, in the drawing rooms of less adventurous friends, where a crooked stone hut that stank of fish might transform into a bold Antarctic outpost, a lonely half-winged girl into an island princess.

“It will be dark soon,” Constance said. “Would you like to go to the observatory?”

motion-pull2The question caught Aurelia by surprise. The afternoon had slipped past in a dream of moldy tea and tiresome wind, and she felt breathlessly unprepared for the night. She fumbled for her satchel, dropped her gloves, mumbled her assent.

They went into the blustery dusk. Sunset burnished the sky in fiery shades, and faded, the last daylight leeching away. Bright stars emerged and Aurelia counted them one by one. Her neck ached. The wind was brutally cold but she lingered, watching the horizon, waiting. Years of planning, months of travel, and the tea had grown cold, and the earth had turned, and it was time. She had come so far to see —

There. The Summer Star was rising. A spark at the edge of the world.

From the chasm rose a sudden clattering roar. The Atrox were awake.

In the twilight Constance’s eyes had the same beetle-shell gleam as her grandmother’s. “They’re always restless at night.”

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Inside, the observatory was surprisingly warm. There was a fire in an iron stove, and behind it, tucked in the corner, was the old woman.

Aurelia stopped short, but Constance didn’t notice. She bustled around the room lighting candles and lamps.

The old woman stared at Aurelia, unblinking. Here too she crouched beside a square hole where the arms of a wooden ladder reached from below. The noise of the Atrox was quieter inside, but the ground felt unsteady, as though the island itself were the flank of a great beast, rising and falling with slow breaths. Did those people who chose to — Aurelia glanced at Constance’s wing, cringed — intermingle with the Atrox stay below to live? Did they surrender to the caverns entirely? Aurelia strained to listen, but she could not hear human voices in that muffled roar.

“Do you know how to use the telescope?” Constance asked.

Aurelia pulled her gaze away from the old woman. “Yes, I do.”

“I don’t know much about it,” Constance admitted. “I used to play with it when I was little, but I could never see anything more than smudges of light. This here, this is how we open the roof.”

The observatory roof rattled as they turned the crank.

“It must be important, that little star,” Constance said. She wasn’t hiding her wing anymore. Hanging uselessly at her side, the long black feathers almost resembled fingers, or claws. “So many people come to look at it.”

“It is,” Aurelia said, “although not everyone agrees. Many astronomers say it’s only a curiosity.”

Before her journey began, Aurelia had received a dozen letters from concerned relatives and members of the Royal Society suggesting that while her capacity with sums was impressive for a woman, it would be better for her to devote herself to a more appropriate pursuit, such as a respectable marriage or a career as a governess, rather than spending so much ink pleading for an unnecessary Antarctic expedition. Think of Hugh and Letitia, they said. Would her parents not want better for her? After what happened to them, desiccated by disease beneath the pink stone palaces of Jaipur, surely they would want her to remain safe in London?

“But I think it’s far more than a curiosity.” Aurelia said. “You see, the Summer Star is moving.”

“All stars move,” Constance said.

Aurelia shook her head, warming to her explanation. “Not like this. It moves unlike stars around it. It moves with them too, rising and setting every day and through all the seasons, but it’s also moving between them. Not so we can see it with our eyes — we have to watch for years. But it’s still much faster than any star should move. Other stars have shifted only half a degree since the time of the Greeks, but this one, it’s crossed that span in less than a century.”

“Is it coming closer or going farther away?” Constance asked.

“I don’t know,” Aurelia said, an edge of frustration creeping into her voice. She was speaking too quickly, at a pitch too high. “There’s a man in England who suggests that all stars are moving away from the earth. But even for him, even with all of his equipment aimed at the very brightest stars, his flint prisms and his spectra — even then it’s a very difficult measurement. And the Summer Star is so unusual in its other motion, so strange…” Aurelia gestured helplessly. “I don’t know.”

“So much bother for one tiny speck of light,” Constance said, amused. “And there are so many stars.”

Aurelia stopped herself from making a sharp reply. Constance wasn’t being unkind. She didn’t care to hear about parallax and prisms, degrees and declinations. Aurelia turned her attention to adjusting the telescope. Soon the Summer Star’s nearest celestial neighbors would be high enough above the horizon for measurement.

“Do you need this? This is where the others have written down their numbers.” Constance carried a large leather-bound book to Aurelia, holding it against her body with her one hand. “You’ll have to write yours as well, won’t you?”

Aurelia took the book from her and laid it on her knees. She dug through her satchel to find her pen and ink. “Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you.”

The book’s pages were full of numbers, notes, and trigonometrical calculations spanning more than a century. A young stargazer aboard Captain Cook’s Resolution had been the first to measure the curious motion of the Summer Star, and a few years later his observations had captured the interest of Lord Petterdown’s father, who had spent an unseemly portion of his family’s fortune constructing the telescope on Asunder Island. New measurements had been added at odd intervals ever since, whenever a traveler or a sailor with a liking for astronomy made the journey.

Aurelia turned the pages carefully — the paper was dry and rotting at the edges — and stopped when her eyes found familiar handwriting. Her heart began to drum and her breath shortened. She traced the columns with her fingertips, catching on imperfections. She had known they would be in here. She had always known. But she had, somehow, expected her father’s handwriting, not her mother’s, not the elegant lines and curves of script she had coveted since she was a child, yearning for every new letter. At the top of the page were careless drops of ink and the smudge of a fingerprint.

“I remember them,” said Constance.

Aurelia resisted the urge to cover the book with her hands, to hide it jealously and clutch it to her chest.

“Do you?” she asked doubtfully. Her parents had visited Asunder Island before Aurelia was born, and she didn’t think Constance could be much older than her own thirty years. “You must have been very young.”

Constance sat beside her on the bench, brushing Aurelia’s shoulder. Where her arm should have been there was the unnatural give of feathers. Aurelia leaned away.

“They were a young couple,” Constance said. “Man and wife. I remember because so few women come here.”

Aurelia swallowed. Her mouth was dry.

“He was ill. He ought to have stayed on the ship. That’s what his wife kept saying,” Constance went on. “She made him rest on a pallet over there on the floor. They argued about it, but I think she was quite used to getting her own way. They didn’t seem to care much about the star, not the way you do. It was only a diversion to them.”

A storm of answers gathered on the tip of Aurelia’s tongue: But they were never ill, not until the end. They never argued. How could you possibly know what they cared about? They were alive and in love and this place, this grim little island, it was only a flicker in their lives. A breath, a blink, a bedtime story. They never told me about you.

“I confess I pitied her,” Constance said.

Aurelia closed her hand into a fist, creasing the edge of the paper. “What reason could you have for pity?” she asked, because she could not say: how dare you?

“She was unhappy.”

Aurelia had no memories of her mother being unhappy. Letitia was as radiant as a fairy queen, always in motion, pulling Aurelia’s laughing father in her wake. Aurelia could scarcely imagine how it must have changed at the end, when they were struck down by cholera. She had never forgiven them for dying so very far from her.

“Why do you say she was unhappy?” Aurelia asked.

“She told me a story to pass the time. Would you like to hear it?”

The answer thrummed in Aurelia’s fingers with her heartbeat. The numbers on the page blurred. She unclenched her hand and laid it flat, thumb covering the smudge of Letitia’s fingerprint. Everything she had learned, everything she had prepared, it all fled from her mind. There was only the wind rattling the roof, the woman beside her with an impossible wing, the restless Atrox, her mother’s ink beneath her hand. She had always thought her mother had such delicate hands, but she had been a child, and a child’s memories were less trustworthy than the sea before a storm.

“I have quite a lot to do,” Aurelia said.

It was the coward’s response.

“This woman,” Constance began, “she said — “

“Letitia,” Aurelia said. “Her name was Letitia.”

Constance looked at her with something like pity. “I thought you had the look of her.”

Aurelia set the book aside. Her breath hitched, and she was a child again, watching through the parlor window for the carriage that would bring her parents home, excited and terrified and hungry for a glimpse of their faces, for the music of their laughter.

She said, “I would very much like to hear the story she told you.”

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They had been sailing between England and the Australian colonies, adventurers flying across the world, never allowing the snares of society to catch their heels. Letitia was the only woman aboard, but the crew gave her little trouble. She was a gentlewoman, and her husband was strong and blessed with an Irish temper.

(Aurelia smiled, remembering her father’s red face and untrimmed whiskers, the boom of his voice, the songs he taught her to shock disapproving nursemaids. They could have been great friends, father and daughter, if only he had quelled his wanderlust, or lived long enough to take her along.)

One night during this journey Letitia woke from a restless sleep to find the ship still in the water. Desperate for a breath of fresh air, she slipped from her husband’s embrace and fled their stuffy cabin. On deck the sailors had fallen asleep at their watch; not one stirred at her approach. It should have worried her, but she felt only relief to have the night to herself.
There was no moon, but the starlight on the sea was bright enough for her to see an island nearby: a gentle hump of land, a necklace of silver sand, a dark thatch of palms.

The night air was cool and pleasant on her skin. She gulped it in greedily, tasting each breath. Though she was newly wed and very much in love, Letitia still harbored the suspicion that the farther she ran, the smaller the world became, the more insidious its traps. London had grown too close for her, England as well, and every grand city in Europe. She had thought to escape by setting sail, but even the world’s oceans seemed to be shrinking around her, the horizons creeping closer with every day. She knew in the morning her restlessness would fade, and she would walk the deck on her husband’s arm, and they would talk of the places they would go, the wonders they would see. You are so very lucky, her mother had said when she married, the needles in her voice belying the kindness of the words. You are so very lucky to have found a man to indulge your whims, to keep you safe from your wildest impulses.

But now Letitia stood with no one but the sea. She could not bear to return to the suffocating cabin and the scratch of her husband’s chest against her cheek. The night was as untethered as a dream. It had been too long since she let a wild impulse take her.

She stepped out of her nightgown, climbed onto the wooden rail, and dove into the water. She swam toward the island with long, smooth strokes. She did not stop until she felt the sugar-soft sand beneath her feet.

When she emerged from the sea, the women were waiting.

They stood like sentries on the beach, unsmiling in the starlight. They were dark and pale, sturdy and thin, young and old. Letitia wrung seawater from her hair and did not let herself tremble under the weight of their stares.

The line of women parted, and an old woman appeared. She was hunched and round with plaited gray hair hanging over her shoulders. She held out a hand and led Letitia up the beach to where a great bonfire raged.

Around the fire the women danced and sang into the night. Letitia did not know their languages, for they spoke dozens, but she understood every song. They told stories of escaping their own husbands and mothers and the pretty cages their families had built for them, how they crafted boats and wove sails and chased the wind across storms and sunrises. Each woman’s voice lifted in an exultant shout, and she threw her arms to the sky, and her arms became wings, and she rose on the cries and cheers of the others.

(In the eyepiece of the telescope, the Summer Star wavered, blurred. Aurelia remembered sitting quiet as a ghost in her mother’s room, watching Letitia dress for a party, and the thin twin scars she spied between Letitia’s shoulders. She had invented her own stories for her mother’s old wound: a jaguar stalking through the jungle, a headhunter in the Amazon, a sultan’s flashing sword in an Arabian desert. Had she imagined a pair of wings unfurled? What a fanciful child she had been.)

The night lasted years. Letitia danced until her skin wrinkled and her breasts sagged, her voice cracked like old wood and her hair grew matted and gray. She forgot her own name, her husband’s touch, her mother’s voice, the cool green homeland she had left behind. She danced to welcome every new woman who surged ashore.

Then it was her turn to stoop and shuffle as the younger women stepped aside, to hold out a welcoming hand to a girl who emerged dripping and wary from the waves.

But when Letitia caught the girl’s hand, smoke and saltwater cleared from her eyes. The girl had Hugh’s red hair, Theo’s Roman nose, Mother’s pinched scowl. The sky to the east was brightening. The dark silhouette of a ship marred the water.

Letitia gripped the girl’s hand and pulled her into the waves. Fear was a fire in her throat. They dove together, and with every stroke the years washed from Letitia’s body. When she reached the ship and scrambled up the ropes, her hair was dark again, her skin smooth, her limbs straight and strong. Her nightgown lay where she had left it. She dressed with shaking hands.

She looked back, but the island was gone. There was only a burst of seabirds, specks of shadow in a gray dawn, whirling and rising as the sun swallowed them.

It wasn’t until she was settled again at her husband’s side that she remembered the girl. She pressed her fingers to her lips to muffle her sobs. They had been swimming together, then she was alone, and she had not felt the moment the girl slipped away.

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“That’s all she told me,” said Constance. “The island was gone. The sailors had never seen it. She was your mother?”

Aurelia scrubbed at her damp cheeks and cleared her throat. “Yes. She — yes. She used to tell me stories of her adventures. She was… They were always sailing away to somewhere new, some faraway place. Every time they sent a letter I would find them on a map.”

Aurelia had been twelve years old when a letter brought the news of her parents’ deaths to Aunt Theo’s house in London. Old enough to read it for herself, young enough to declare it a lie. She was adamant: there was no way they could know for certain what had happened. They had no proof. For two months she presented her hypothesis every morning over breakfast. India was very far away, and who was this army officer sending them letters anyway? Her mother and father had never contracted cholera here, in London, and why should Indian cholera be so very different? Had they not survived ordeals far stranger? The next letter — this was the culmination of Aurelia’s thesis, punctuated with the clatter of a spoon on china — the next letter would arrive any day now, and that stranger would be shown for the fool he was. What a mistake I have made, he would say. It was another girl’s parents who perished. Yours have already set sail for home. They will be with you soon. What a terrible mistake I have made.

Aurelia remembered how Aunt Theo had listened with tears in her eyes, tears Aurelia scorned because there was no reason to cry. She remembered finding Jaipur on a map of the world and tracing the long route back to London: overland to Bombay, aboard a ship around the Cape of Good Hope, north across the doldrums, riding the westerlies home. She remembered the feel of the map beneath her fingertip, the clean lines made imperfect when ink smudged from her touch.

What she couldn’t remember was when she had stopped imagining her parents as a speck on a map coming ever closer, and when she had begun instead to see them as shades retreating into the distance, all color and light and laughter washed away, echoes of echoes fading to silence.

“She never told me that story,” Aurelia said, envy sour at the back of her throat.

Constance’s face fell. “I’m so sorry. I’ve always remembered her.”

Aurelia’s jealousy vanished as quickly as it had sparked, and in its place she felt only sadness. Sadness for Constance on her lonely island, collecting the stories of strangers, forever trapped between the two worlds to which she could never fully belong. For the restless young woman Letitia had been, sitting on this same bench, beneath the dome of this same telescope, sharing a small secret piece of her heart. For the little girl who had traced her fingers over maps and watched at rain-streaked windows for a carriage that never came.

“I could tell you more,” Aurelia said, “if you like. My mother had so many adventures, and even a short night can feel very long.”

Through the night they shared stories as Aurelia measured the stars. Aurelia spoke of her parents and eventually herself, her voyage south and how long she had yearned for it, and Constance told her about all the people who came to Asunder Island to study the stars or the Atrox, from those who stayed only a night to the others who went into the chasm and never returned. Aurelia could not bring herself to ask if there was a woman below with Constance’s pale face and freckles, human in form but birdlike in manner, thinking only sometimes about the hybrid daughter who lived above. Her curiosity was fierce, but it was not more important than allowing Constance the dignity of deciding what parts of herself to share.

Accompanying their voices was the ceaseless wind, the restless birds, the soft scratch of Aurelia’s pen. With every memory and every measurement she felt something untangle in her chest. The Summer Star had four close companions in the night sky, and she recorded the distance between each pair carefully, once in the book, again in her own journal. So much fuss for such a little speck of light, but for that night, in that place, the star was hers.

She made notes as new ideas occurred to her, planning the first of what she was sure would be many letters to the Royal Society. It was time to learn about spectra and prisms and the optics of starlight falling on earth, if she wanted to discover which direction the Summer Star was traveling. There was no reason to wait for somebody else to solve the problem for her.

Eventually dawn chased away the polar night and the stars faded. Constance had been quiet for some time; Aurelia had not noticed when their conversation faltered. She made a final note in her journal, rolled her tired shoulders and rubbed her eyes.

Her movement broke the quiet that had settled over the observatory. The old woman, still as a statue for hours, blurred into motion. Her legs unbent, her arms flashed. Aurelia saw yellow teeth, the red cave of her mouth, and before she could even catch a breath the old woman was gone, scurrying down the ladder like a spider on a web.

“She worries about them before they fly,” Constance said. “She likes to see them off.”

Her voice was mild, but Aurelia felt the words as a reprimand. She had scarcely been able to glance at the old woman, too afraid of staring, too absorbed in her own disgust. Had she looked closer she might have seen the concerned grandmother beneath the grime, the one for whom the colony below and the island above were only different rooms in the same house.

Constance banked the fire and doused the lamps. Aurelia blew on the book to dry the last of her ink. They closed the observatory dome and went into the cold, cold morning.

The Atrox were even louder outside. Aurelia stepped toward the chasm, but Constance stopped her with a hand on her arm. They stood shoulder to shoulder, backs to the sunrise, rocked by the wind. The sky was a painter’s canvas of pink and gray and orange, brush strokes untamed and beautiful.

Beyond the black shoulder of the island, beyond the chasm and the smoke and the gray waking sea, the Summer Star lowered itself toward the horizon. The sun rose, and Aurelia’s shadow stretched beside Constance’s, long inseparable spindles reaching to the crevice. A heartbeat, a held breath —

The Atrox took flight.

They exploded from the chasm in a fury of thunder and black wings. The gust knocked Aurelia backwards — hot, scented of sulfur and fire. The noise was deafening. The birds whirled in a long spiral, blanketing the island in shadow. The sky was a shroud of wings and reptilian yellow eyes. Claws, curled. Heads angled toward the sky.

Aurelia’s heart was racing. She began to shiver. She felt impossibly light, freed from gravity. All she had to do was raise her arms and she would soar as well.

The cloud of birds lifted and dawn returned, and with it the shimmering sea. The last Atrox beat their way out of the chasm to follow the black cloud to the west, to their star, the Summer Star, their noise and their stench fading as they raced away. The flock became a puff of coal smoke, a thread of black silk, and the sky swallowed it in a flash of impossible starlight. The birds were gone. The Summer Star had set.

“They’re lovely, aren’t they?” said Constance softly.

Aurelia had no answer. Weight returned to her limbs, pressed her feet to the ground. She hesitated too long, pulled herself back to earth too slowly, and Constance was turning toward the stone cottage.

“Wait,” Aurelia called.

Constance stopped.

“You can come with me.”

Constance tilted her head, an unnervingly birdlike motion. “Come with you?”

“To England. To London. You don’t have to stay here. Come with me.”

In the dawn light the faint lines on Constance’s face stood out as shadows. “You’re very kind,” she said. She tugged her shawl over shoulder, hiding the wing that would never carry her to the sky. “It was so lovely visiting with you, but you had best hurry to the beach. The sea is rough today. They’ll be wanting to take you away soon.”

She disappeared into the hut.

Aurelia looked at the closed door for a long moment, seized by indecision. She could run after her, pound on the planks, convince Constance of her sincerity. Prove the disgust and pity she had felt was gone — but it was a selfish impulse. Constance was not a child, however young she looked. She did not need Aurelia’s approval, nor her rescue. Aurelia turned her back to the village in a confusion of disappointment and relief, sensations unmoored by the morning wind.

The trail to the beach was littered with black feathers. Aurelia collected a handful and tucked them into her satchel. They were unexpectedly sharp, pricking her skin like nettles. Mr. Davies had neglected to describe the physical properties of the feathers in his monograph. She would have to write her own account — her interaction with the Atrox was limited, to be sure, but she could at least mention the feathers.

She had scarcely considered what might come after her journey’s purpose was fulfilled. She had been following the footsteps of others, looking to affirm what they had already discovered. She could not remember why she had ever thought challenging Lord Petterdown would have been enough. He was only a man, a diversion in a world of wonders. There were truths yet to discover about that odd outcast star that sat so uneasily in the night sky, questions pressing at the back of her throat. Asunder Island sat alone at the end of the world, but an end was not so very different from a beginning.

motion-pull3But that was for tomorrow. Today she would return to the ship, and Aunt Theo would check her calculations and chuckle in her deep alto voice, and she would propose a toast: to proving the men of the Royal Society wrong, to humiliating Lord Petterdown, to unladylike curiosity and scientific inquiry, to questions with answers waiting to be found. To the excitement of traveling the world and the comfort of returning home. They would drink the cognac Theo had been reserving for this occasion, and they would drink more, and as the warm sleepy flush spread, Aurelia would tell Theo about Constance and Letitia’s lost island in the South Pacific. Theo’s eyes would soften with surprise, and it wouldn’t be as difficult as Aurelia had always imagined it to be, to allow Letitia to shine again for moments between them, as infuriating and impossible as she had been in life.

And they would toast again, Aurelia to her mother, Theo to her sister, to the life she had lived in the only way she knew how, to sailing their own oceans to do the same. They would toast to one journey ending and another beginning, and because Letitia would have laughed they would laugh as well, their voices small in the heart of the sea.

Clouds crawled across the sky. The ocean was choppy and flecked with white. Aurelia picked her way down the steep slope to the beach. She drew her scarf over her nose and watched the dinghy appear as a black speck in the distance.

end_of_story

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Kali Wallace studied geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. Her first novel will be published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in 2016. She lives in southern California.