Episode #57: “You Inside Me” by Tori Curtis

July 4, 2018

You Inside Me

by Tori Curtis

 

It'll be fun, he'd said. Everyone's doing it. You don't have to be looking for romance, it's just a good way to meet people.

"I don't think it's about romance at all," Sabella said. She wove her flower crown into her braids so that the wire skeleton was hidden beneath strands of hair. "I think if you caught a congressman doing this, he'd have to resign."

"That's 'cause we've never had a vampire congressman," Dedrick said. He rearranged her so that her shoulders fell from their habitual place at her ears, her chin pointed up, and snapped photos of her. "Step forward a little—there, you look more like yourself in that light."

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 57 for May 21st, 2018. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you.

GlitterShip is now part of the Audible afflilate program. What this means is that just by listening to GlitterShip, you are eligible to get a free audio book and 30 day trial at Audible to check out the service.

If you're looking for more queer science fiction to listen to, there's a full audio book available of the Lightspeed Magazine "Queers Destroy Science Fiction" special issue, featuring stories by a large number of queer authors, including  John Chu, Chaz Brenchley, Rose Lemberg, and many others.

To download a free audiobook today, go to http://www.audibletrial.com/GlitterShip and choose an excellent book to listen to, whether that’s "Queers Destroy Science Fiction" or something else entirely.

Today I have a story and a poem for you. The poem is "Dionysus in London" by Tristan Beiter.

Tristan Beiter is a student at Swarthmore College studying English Literature and Gender and Sexuality Studies. He loves reading poetry and speculative fiction, some of his favorite books being The Waste Land, HD’s Trilogy, Mark Doty’s Atlantis, Frances Hardinge’s Gullstruck Island, and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. When not reading or writing, he can usually be found crafting absurdities with his boyfriend or yelling about literary theory.

 

Dionysus in London

by Tristan Beiter

 

The day exploded, you know.

Last night a woman
with big bouffant hair told
me, “Show me a story
where the daughter runs into a stop
sign and it literally turns into a white flower.”

I fail to describe
a total eclipse and the throne
of petrified wood sank
into the lakebed.

James made love to Buckingham
while I pulled the honeysuckle
to me, made a flower crown for
the leopards flanking me
while I watched red
and white invert themselves, white
petals pushing from the center of the sign
as the post wilted until all
that remained was a giant lotus
on the storm grate waiting
to rot or wash away.

I let it stay there while the Scottish
king hid behind the Scottish play
and walked behind me, one eye out
for the mark left when locked in.
You go witchy in there—or at least
you—or he, or I—learn to be afraid
of the big coats and brass
buttons, like the ones in every hall
closet; you never know if they will turn,
like yours, into bats and bugs and giant
tarantulas made from wire hangers.

The woman showed me
our reflections in the shop window
while one or the other
man in the palace polished
the silver for his lover’s table
and asked me who
I loved; I decided
on the cream
linen, since the wool
was too close to the pea coat
that hung

by your door.
I suppose that the cat
is under the car; that’s probably where it fled to
as we walked, knowing
we already found that
the ivy in your hair was artificial
as the bacchanal, or your
evasion, Sire, of the question
(and of the serpents who are well
worth the well
offered to them with the wet wax
on my crown). I

suppose the car is under the cat,
in which case it must be a very large
cat, or else a very small car.
I eat your teeth. I see brilliantine teeth floating
in her thick red lipstick. James
tears apart the rhododendron
chattering (about) his incisors
and remembering the flesh
and—nothing so exotic
as a Sphinx, maybe a dust
mote or lip-marks
left on the large leather chaise.
Teeth gleam from the shadows
where I wait, thyrsus
raised with the cone
almost touching the roof
of the forest, to drown

in a peacock
as it swallows (chimney
swifts?) the sun—or
was it son—or maybe it was
just a grape I fed it so
it would eat the spiders
crawling from the closet.
It struts across the palace green
like it owns the place, like
it will replace the hunting-
grounds with fields of straggling
mint that the king
would never ask for.

The woman teases
up her hair before the mirror, filling
the restroom with hairspray
and big laughs before walking back
into the restaurant, where we
wait to make ourselves
over—the way the throne did
when the wood crumbled under the
pressure of an untold story,
leaving nothing but crystals and dust.

We argued for an hour over
whether to mix leaves and
flowers, plants and gems,
before settling on four
crowns, one for each of us.

Her hair mostly covers hers.
The cats will love it though,
playing with teeth
that were knocked into your wine
in the barfight (why did you
order wine in a place
like that, Buck?) and you
got replaced with gold, like I
wear woven in my braids
as the sun sets on the daughter
that, unsurprisingly, none
of us have. But

if we did, she would turn yield
signs into dahlias and
that would be the sign
to move on with the leopards
and their flashing teeth and
brass eyes and listen.
To the walls and rivers,
to the sculpture that is far
whiter than me falling. And
to the peacock which has just
eaten another bug so you don’t have to
kill it. Get yourself a dresser
and cover it with white enamel
it’ll hold up, and no insects
live in dressers. Keep

the ivy and the pinecone
in a mother-of-pearl trinket box
with your plastic volumizing hair
inserts and jeweled combs.
And put a cat and dolphin
on it, to remember.

 

 

Next, our short story this episode is "You Inside Me" by Tori Curtis

Tori Curtis writes speculative fiction with a focus on LGBT and disability issues. She is the author of one novel, Eelgrass, and a handful of short stories. You can find her at toricurtiswrites.com and on Twitter at @tcurtfish, where she primarily tweets about how perfect her wife is.

CW: For descriptions of traumatic surgery.

 

 

 

You Inside Me

by Tori Curtis

 

It'll be fun, he'd said. Everyone's doing it. You don't have to be looking for romance, it's just a good way to meet people.

"I don't think it's about romance at all," Sabella said. She wove her flower crown into her braids so that the wire skeleton was hidden beneath strands of hair. "I think if you caught a congressman doing this, he'd have to resign."

"That's 'cause we've never had a vampire congressman," Dedrick said. He rearranged her so that her shoulders fell from their habitual place at her ears, her chin pointed up, and snapped photos of her. "Step forward a little—there, you look more like yourself in that light."

He took fifteen minutes to edit her photos ("they'll expect you to use a filter, so you might as well,") and pop the best ones on her profile.

Suckr: the premier dating app for vampires and their fanciers.

"It's like we're cats," she said.

"I heard you like cats," he agreed, and she sighed.

 

 

Hi, I'm Sabella. I've been a vampire since I was six years old, and I do not want to see or be seen by humans. I'm excited to meet men and women between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five.

"That's way too big of an age range," Dedrick said. "You want to be compatible with these people."

"Yeah, compatible. Like my tissue type."

"You don't want to end up flirting with a grandpa."

I'm excited to meet men and women between the ages of twenty and thirty-five.

I'm most proud of my master's degree.

You should message me if you're brave and crazy.

 

 

It took days, not to mention Dedrick’s exasperated return, before she went back on Suckr. She paced up the beautiful wood floors of her apartment, turning on heel at the sole window on the long end and the painted-over cast-iron radiator on the short. When she felt too sick to take care of herself, her mom came over and put Rumors on, wrapped her in scarves that were more pretty than functional, warmed some blood and gave it to her in a sippy cup. Sabella remembered nothing so much as the big Slurpees her mom had bought her, just this bright red, when she’d had strep the last year she was human.

She wore the necklace Dedrick had given her every day. It was a gold slice of pepperoni pizza with “best” emblazoned on the back (his matched, but read “friends,”), and she fondled it like a hangnail. She rubbed the bruises on her arms, where the skin had once been clear and she'd once thought herself pretty in a plain way, like Elinor Dashwood, as though she might be able to brush off the dirt.

She called her daysleeper friends, texted acquaintances, and slowly stopped responding to their messages as she realized how bored she was of presenting hope day after day.

 

 

2:19:08 bkissedrose: I'm so sorry.

2:19:21 bkissedrose: I feel like such a douche

2:19:24 sabellasay: ???

2:20:04 sabellasay: what r u talkin about

2:25:56 bkissedrose: u talked me down all those times I would've just died

2:26:08 sabellasay: it was rly nbd

2:26:27 bkissedrose: I've never been half as good as you are

2:26:48 bkissedrose: and now you're so sick

2:29:12 sabellasay: dude stop acting like i'm dying

2:29:45 sabellasay: I can't stand it

2:30:13 bkissedrose: god you're so brave

 

(sabellasay has become inactive)

 

 

"Everyone keeps calling me saying you stopped talking to them," Dedrick said when he made it back to her place, shoes up on the couch now that he'd finally wiped them of mud. "Should I feel lucky you let me in?"

"I'm tired," she said. "It's supposed to be a symptom. I like this one, I think she has potential."

He took her phone and considered it with the weight of a father researching a car seat. "A perfect date: I take you for a ride around the lake on my bike, then we stop home for an evening snack."

"She means her motorcycle," Sabella clarified.

He rolled his eyes and continued reading. "My worst fear: commitment."

"At least she's honest."

"That's not really a good thing. You're not looking for someone to skip out halfway through the movie."

"No, I'm looking for someone who's not going to be heartbroken when I die anyway."

Dedrick sighed, all the air going out of his chest as it might escape from dough kneaded too firmly, and held her close to him. "You're stupid," he told her, "but so sweet."

"I think I'm going to send her a nip."

 

 

The girl was named Ash but she spelled it A-I-S-L-I-N-G, and she seemed pleased that Sabella knew enough not to ask lots of stupid questions. They met in a park by the lakeside, far enough from the playground that none of the parents would notice the fanged flirtation going on below.

If Aisling had been a boy, she would have been a teen heartthrob. She wore her hair long where it was slicked back and short (touchable, but hard to grab in a fight) everywhere else. She wore a leather jacket that spoke of a once-in-a-lifetime thrift store find, and over the warmth of her blood and her breath she smelled like bag balm. Sabella wanted to hide in her arms from a fire. She wanted to watch her drown trying to save her.

Aisling parked her motorcycle and stowed her helmet before coming over to say hi—gentlemanly, Sabella thought, to give her a chance to prepare herself.

“What kind of scoundrel left you to wait all alone?” Aisling asked, with the sort of effortlessly cool smile that might have broken a lesser woman’s heart.

“I don’t know,” Sabella said, “but I’m glad you’re here now.”

Aisling stepped just inside her personal space and frowned. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude,” she said, “but are you—"

“I’m trans, yes,” Sabella interrupted, and smiled so wide she could feel the tension at her temples. Like doing sit-ups the wrong way for years, having this conversation so many times hadn’t made it comfortable, only routine. “We don’t need to be awkward about it.”

“Okay,” Aisling agreed, and sat on the bench, helping Sabella down with a hand on her elbow. “I meant that you seem sick.”

She looked uneasy, and Sabella sensed that she had never been human. Vampires didn’t get sick—she had probably never had more than a headache, and that only from hunger.

“Yes,” Sabella said. “I am sick. I’m not actually—I mentioned this on my profile—I’m not actually looking for love.”

“I hope you won’t be too disappointed when it finds you,” Aisling said, and Sabella blushed, reoriented herself with a force like setting a bone, like if she tried hard enough to move in one direction she’d stop feeling like a spinning top.

“I’m looking for a donor,” she said.

“Yeah, all right,” Aisling said. She threw her arm over the back of the bench so that Sabella felt folded into her embrace. “I’m always willing to help a pretty girl out.”

“I don’t just mean your blood,” she said, and felt herself dizzy.

 

 

It was easier for Sabella to convince someone to do something than it was for her to ask for it. Her therapist had told her that, and even said it was common, but he hadn’t said how to fix it. “Please, may I have your liver” was too much to ask, and “Please, I don’t want to die” was a poor argument.

“So, you would take my liver—"

“It would actually only be part of your liver,” Sabella said, stopping to catch her breath. She hadn’t been able to go hiking since she’d gotten so sick—she needed company, and easy trails, and her friends either didn’t want to go or, like her mom, thought it was depressing to watch her climb a hill and have to stop to spit up bile.

“So we would each have half my liver, in the end.”

Sabella shrugged and looked into the dark underbrush. If she couldn’t be ethical about this, she wouldn’t deserve a liver. She wouldn’t try to convince Aisling until she understood the facts. “In humans, livers will regenerate once you cut them in half and transplant them. Like how kids think if you cut an earthworm in half, you get two. Or like bulbs. Ideally, it would go like that.”

“And if it didn’t go ideally?”

(“Turn me,” Dedrick said one day, impulsively, when she’d been up all night with a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop, holding her in his lap with his shirt growing polka-dotted. “I’ll be a vampire in a few days, we can have the surgery—you’ll be cured in a week.”)

“If it doesn’t go ideally,” Sabella said, “one or both of us dies. If it goes poorly, I don’t even know what happens.”

She stepped off the tree and set her next target, a curve in the trail where a tree had fallen and the light shone down on the path. Normally these days she didn’t wear shoes but flip-flops, but this was a date, and she’d pulled her old rainbow chucks out of the closet. Aisling walked with her silently, keeping pace, and put an arm around her waist.

Sabella looked up and down the trail. Green Lake was normally populated enough that people kept to their own business, and these days she felt pretty safe going about, even with a girl. But she checked anyway before she leaned into Ais’s strength, letting her guide them so that she could use all her energy to keep moving.

“But if it doesn’t happen at all, you die no matter what?”

Sabella took a breath. “If you don’t want to, I look for someone else.”

 

 

Her mom was waiting for her when Sabella got home the next morning.

Sabella’s mother was naturally blonde, tough when she needed to be, the sort of woman who could get into hours-long conversations with state fair tchotchke vendors. She’d gotten Sabella through high school and into college through a careful application of stamping and yelling. When Sabella had started calling herself Ravynn, she’d brought a stack of baby name books home and said, “All right, let’s find you something you can put on a resume.”

“Mom,” she said, but smiling, “I gave you a key in case I couldn’t get out of bed, not so you could check if I spent the night with a date.”

“How’d it go? Was this the girl Dedrick helped you find?”

“Aisling, yeah,” Sabella said. She sat on the recliner, a mountain of accent pillows cushioning her tender body. “It was good. I like her a lot.”

“Did she decide to get the surgery?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask her to choose.”

“Then what did you two do all night?”

Sabella frowned. “I like her a lot. We had a good time.”

Her mom stood and put the kettle on, and Sabella couldn’t help thinking what an inconvenience she was, that her mother couldn’t fret over her by making toast and a cup of tea. “Christ, what decent person would want to do that with you?”

“We have chemistry! She’s very charming!”

She examined Sabella with the dissatisfied air of an artist. “You’re a mess, honey. You’re so orange you could be a jack-o-lantern, and swollen all over. You look like you barely survived a dogfight. I don’t even see my daughter when I look at you anymore.”

Sabella tried to pull herself together, to look more dignified, but instead she slouched further into the recliner and crossed her arms over her chest. “Maybe she thinks I’m funny, or smart.”

“Maybe she’s taking advantage. Anyone who really cared about you wouldn’t be turned on, they’d be worried about your health.”

Sabella remembered the look on Aisling’s face when she’d first come close enough to smell her, and shuddered. “I’m not going to ask her to cut out part of her body for me without thinking about it first,” she said.

“Without giving her something in return?" her mom asked. "It's less than two pounds."

“But it’s still her choice,” Sabella said.

“I’m starting to wonder if you even want to live,” her mom said, and left.

Sabella found the energy to go turn off the stovetop before she fell asleep. (Her mother had raised her responsible.)

 

 

12:48:51 bkissedrose: what happens to a dream bestowed

12:49:03 bkissedrose: upon a girl too weak to fight for it?

12:53:15 sabellasay: haha you can’t sleep either?

12:53:38 sabellasay: babe idk

12:55:43 sabellasay: is it better to have loved and lost

12:56:29 sabellasay: than to die a virgin?

1:00:18 bkissedrose: I guess I don’t know

1:01:24 bkissedrose: maybe it depends if they're good

 

 

“It’s nice here,” Aisling confessed the third time they visited the lake. Sabella and her mom weren’t talking, but she couldn’t imagine it would last more than a few days longer, so she wasn’t worried. “I’d never even heard of it.”

“I grew up around here,” Sabella said, “and I used to take my students a few times a year."

“You teach?”

“I used to teach,” she said, and stepped off the trail—the shores were made up of a gritty white sand like broken shells—to watch the sinking sun glint off the water. “Seventh grade science.”

Aisling laughed. “That sounds like a nightmare.”

“I like that they’re old enough you can do real projects with them, but before it breaks off into—you know, are we doing geology or biology or physics. When you’re in seventh grade, everything is science.” She smiled and closed her eyes so that she could feel the wind and the sand under her shoes. She could hear birds settling and starting to wake, but she couldn’t place them. “They’ve got a long-term sub now. Theoretically, if I manage to not die, I get my job back.”

Aisling came up behind her and put her arms around her. Sabella knew she hadn’t really been weaving—she knew her limits well enough now, she hoped—but she felt steadier that way. “You don’t sound convinced.”

“I don’t think they expect to have to follow through,” Sabella admitted. “Sometimes I think I’m the only one who ever thinks I’m going to survive this. My mom’s so scared all the time, I know she doesn’t.”

Aisling held her not tight but close, like being tucked into a bright clean comforter on a cool summer afternoon. “Can I ask you a personal question?” she said, her face up against Sabella’s neck so that every part of Sabella wanted her to bite.

“Maybe,” she said, then thought better of it. “Yes.”

“How’d you get sick? I didn’t think we could catch things like that. Or was it while you were human?”

“Um, no, but I’m not contagious, just nasty.” Aisling laughed, and she continued, encouraged. “Mom would, you know, once I came out I could do pretty much whatever I wanted, but she wouldn’t let me get any kind of reconstructive surgery until I was eighteen. She thought it was creepy, some doc getting his hands all over her teenage kid.”

“Probably fair.”

“So I’m eighteen, and she says okay, you’re right, you got good grades in school and you’re going to college like I asked, I'll pay for whatever surgery you want. And you have to imagine, I just scheduled my freshman orientation, I have priorities."

"Which are?"

"Getting laid, mostly."

“Yeah, I remember that.”

“So I’m eighteen and hardly ever been kissed, I’m not worried about the details. I don’t let my mom come with me, it doesn’t even occur to me to see a doctor who’s worked with vampires before, I just want to look like Audrey Hepburn's voluptuous sister.”

“Oh no,” Ash said. It hung there for a moment, the dread and Sabella’s not being able to regret that she’d been so stupid. “It must have come up.”

“Sure. He said he was pretty sure it would be possible to do the surgery on a vampire, he knew other surgeries had been done. I was just so excited he didn’t say no.”

Ash held her tight then, like she might be dragged away otherwise, and Sabella knew that it had nothing to do with her in particular, that it was only the protective instinct of one person watching another live out her most plausible nightmare. “What did he do to you?”

“It wasn’t his fault,” she said, and then—grimacing, she knew her mother would have been so angry with her—“at least, he didn’t mean anything by it. He never read anything about how to adapt the procedure to meet my needs.” She sounded so clinical, like she’d imbibed so many doctors’ explanations of what had happened that she was drunk on it. “But neither did I. We both found out you can’t give vampires a blood transfusion.”

"Why would you need to?"

She shrugged. "You don't, usually, in plastic surgery."

"No," Aisling interrupted, "I mean, why wouldn't you drink it?"

Sabella tried to remember, or tried not to be able to, and tucked her cold hands into her pockets. "You're human, I guess. Anyway, I puked all over him and the incision sites, had to be hospitalized. My doctor says I'm lucky I'm such a good healer, or I'd need new boobs and a new liver."

They were both quiet, and Sabella thought, this is it. You either decide it's too much or you kiss me again.

She thought, I miss getting stoned with friends and telling shitty surgery stories and listening to them laugh. I hate that when I meet girls their getting-to-know-you involves their Youtube make-up tutorials and mine involves "and then, after they took the catheter out..."

"Did you sue for malpractice, at least?" Ash asked, and Sabella couldn't tell without looking if her tone was teasing or wistful.

"My mom did, yeah. When they still wanted her to pay for the damn surgery."

 

 

Aisling pulled up to the front of Sabella's building and stopped just in front of her driveway. She kicked her bike into park and stepped onto the sidewalk, helping Sabella off and over the curbside puddle. Sabella couldn't find words for what she was thinking, she was so afraid that her feelings would shatter as they crystallized. She wanted Ais to brush her hair back from her face and comb out the knots with her fingers. She wanted Ais to stop by to shovel the drive when there was lake effect snow. She wanted to find 'how to minimize jaundice' in the search history of Aisling's phone.

“You’re beautiful in the sunlight,” Ais said, breaking her thoughts, maybe on purpose. “Like you were made to be outside.”

Sabella ducked her head and leaned up against her. The date was supposed to be over, go inside and let this poor woman get on with her life, but she didn’t want to leave. “It’s nice to have someone to go with me,” she said. “Especially with a frost in the air. Sometimes people act like I’m so fragile.”

“Ridiculous. You’re a vampire.”

Her ears were cold, and she pressed them against Aisling’s jawbone. She wondered what the people driving past thought when they saw them. She thought that maybe the only thing better than surviving would be to die a tragic death, loved and loyally attended. “I was born human.”

“Even God makes mistakes.”

Sabella smiled. “Is that what I am? A mistake?”

“Nah,” she said. “Just a happy accident.”

Sabella laughed, thought you're such a stoner and I feel so safe when you look at me like that.

"I'll do it," Ais said.  "What do I have to do to set up the surgery?"

Sabella hugged her tight, hid against her and counted the seconds—one, two, three, four, five—while Ais didn't change her mind and Sabella wondered if she would.

 

 

"I have to stress how potentially dangerous this is," Dr. Young said. "I can't guarantee that it will work, that either of you will survive the procedure or the recovery, or that you won't ultimately regret it."

Aisling was holding it together remarkably well, Sabella thought, but she still felt like she could catch her avoiding eye contact. Sabella had taken the seat in the doctor's office between her mother and girlfriend, and felt uncomfortable and strange no matter which of their hands she held.

"Um," Ais said, and Sabella could feel her mother's judgment at her incoherence, "you said you wouldn't be able to do anything for the pain?"

To her credit, the doctor didn't fidget or look away. Sabella, having been on the verge of death long enough to become something of a content expert, believed that it was important to have a doctor who was upfront about how terrible her life was. "I wouldn't describe it as 'nothing,' exactly," she said. "There aren't any anesthetics known to work on vampires, but we'll make you as comfortable as possible. You can feed immediately before and as soon as you're done, and that will probably help snow you over."

"Being a little blood high," Ais clarified. "While you cut out my liver."

"Yes."

Sabella wanted to apologize. She couldn't find the words.

Aisling said, "Well, while we're trying to make me comfortable, can I smoke up, too?"

Dr. Young laughed. It wasn't cruel, but it wasn't promising, either. "That's not a terrible idea," she said, "but marijuana increases bleeding, and there are so many unknown variables here that I'd like to stick to best practices if we can."

"I can just—" Sabella said, and choked. She wasn't sure when she'd started crying. "Find someone else. Dedrick will do it, I know."

Aisling considered this. The room was quiet, soft echoes on the peeling tile floor. Sabella's mother put an arm around her, and she felt tiny, but in the way that made her feel ashamed and not protected. Aisling said, "Why are you asking me? Is there something you know that I don't?"

Dr. Young shook her head. "I promise we're not misrepresenting the procedure," she said. "And theoretically, it might be possible with any vampire. But there aren't a lot of organ transplants in the literature—harvesting, sure, but not living transplants—and I want to get it right the first time. If we have a choice, I told Sabella I'd rather use a liver from a donor who was born a vampire. I think it'll increase our chance of success."

"A baby'd be too weak," Aisling agreed. Her voice was going hard and theoretical. "Well, tell me something encouraging."

"One of the first things we'll do is to cut through almost all of your abdominal nerves, so that will help. And there's a possibility that the experience will be so intense that you don't remember it clearly, or at all."

Sabella's mother took a shaky breath, and Sabella wished, hating herself for it, that she hadn't come.

Ais said, "Painful. You mean, the experience will be so painful."

"If you choose to go forward with it," Dr. Young said, "we'll do everything we can to mitigate that."

 

 

Sabella had expected that Aisling would want space and patience while she decided not to die a horrible, painful death to save her. It was hard to tell how instead they ended up in her bed with the lights out, their legs wound together and their faces swollen with sleep. Sabella was shaking, and couldn’t have said why. Ais grabbed her by her seat and pulled her up close.

“You said you couldn’t get me sick?” she asked.

“No,” Sabella agreed. “Although my blood is probably pretty toxic.”

Ais kissed her, the smell of car exhaust still stuck in her hair. “What a metaphor,” she murmured, and lifted her chin. “You look exhausted.”

Sabella thought, Are you saying what I think you’re saying? and, That’s a terrible idea, and said, “God, I want to taste you.”

“Well, baby,” Ais said, and her hands were on Sabella so she curled her lips and blew her hair out of her eyes, “that’s what I’m here for.”

Sabella had been human once, and she remembered what food was like. The standard lie, that drinking blood was like eating a well-cooked steak, was wrong but close enough to staunch the flow of an interrogation. (She’d had friends and exes, turned as adults, who said it was like a good stout on tap, hefty and refreshing, but she thought they might just be trying to scandalize her.)

Ais could have been a stalk of rhubarb or August raspberries. She moved under Sabella and held her so that their knees pressed together. She could have been the thrill of catching a fat thorny toad in among the lettuce at dusk, or a paper wasp in a butterfly net. She felt like getting tossed in the lake in January; she tasted like being wrapped in fleece and gently dried before the fire; her scent was what Sabella remembered of collapsing, limbs aquiver, on the exposed bedrock of a mountaintop, nothing but crushed pine and the warmth of a moss-bed.

She woke on top of Ais, licking her wounds lazily—she wanted more, but she was too tired to do anything about it.

“That’s better,” Ais whispered, and if she was disappointed that this wasn’t turning into a frenzy, she didn’t show it. They were quiet for long enough that the haze started to fade, and then Aisling said, “I couldn’t ask in front of your mother, but was it like that with your surgery? They couldn’t do anything for the pain?”

Sabella shifted uncomfortably, rolled over next to Ais. “I was conscious, yes.”

“Do you remember it?”

It was a hard question. She wanted to say it wasn’t her place to ask. She tried to remember, and got caught up in the layers of exhaustion, the spaces between the body she’d had, the body she’d wanted, and what they had been doing to her. “Sounds and sensations and thoughts, mostly,” she said.

Ais choked, and said, “So, everything,” and Sabella realized—she didn’t know how she hadn’t—how scared she must be.

“No, it’s blurry,” she said instead. “I remember, um, the tugging at my chest. I kept thinking there was no way my skin wasn’t just going to split open. And the scraping sounds. They’ve got all these tools, and they’re touching you on the inside and the outside at the same time, and that’s very unsettling. And this man, I think he was the PA, standing over me saying, ‘You’ve got to calm down, honey.’”

“Were you completely freaking out?” Ais asked.

Sabella shook her head. Her throat hurt. “No. I mean—I cried a little. Not as much as you’d think. They said if I wasn’t careful, you know, with swallowing at the right times and breathing steady, they might mess up reshaping my larynx and I could lose my voice.”

Ais swore, and Sabella wondered if she would feel angry. (Sometimes she would scream and cry, say, can you imagine doing that to an eighteen-year-old?) Right now she was just tired. “How did you manage?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I think just, it was worth more to me to have it done than anything else. So I didn’t ever tell them to stop.”

 

 

“Please don’t go around telling people I think this is an acceptable surgical set-up,” Dr. Young said, looking around the exam room.

It reminded Sabella of a public hearing, the way the stakeholders sat at opposing angles and frowned at each other. Dr. Young sat next to Dr. Park, who would be the second doctor performing the procedure. Sabella had never met Dr. Park before, and her appearance—young, mostly—didn’t inspire confidence. Sabella sat next to her mother, who held her hand and a clipboard full of potential complications. Ais crossed her fingers in her lap, sat with a nervous child’s version of polite interest. Time seemed not to blur, but to stutter, everything happening whenever.

“Dr. Park,” Sabella’s mother said, “do you have any experience operating on vampires?”

Dr. Park grinned and her whole mouth seemed to open up in her face, her gums pale pink as a Jolly Rancher and her left fang chipped. “Usually trauma or obstetrics,” she admitted. “Although this is nearly the same thing.”

“I’m serious,” Sabella’s mom said, and Sabella interrupted.

“I like her,” she said. And then—it wasn’t really a question except in the sense that there was no way anyone could be sure—“You’re not going to realize halfway through the surgery that it’s too much for you?”

Dr. Park laughed. “I turned my husband when we were both eighteen,” she said as testament to her cruelty.

Sabella’s mom jumped. “Jesus Christ, why?”

She shrugged, languid. Ais and Dr. Young were completely calm; Ais might have had no frame of reference for what it was like to watch someone turn, and Dr. Young had probably heard this story before. “His parents didn’t like that he was dating a vampire. You’ll do crazy things for love.”

Sabella could see her mother blanch even as she steadied. It wasn’t unheard of for a vampire to turn their spouse—less common now that it was easier to live as a vampire, and humans were able to date freely but not really commit. But she could remember being turned, young as she had been: the gnawing ache, the hallucinations, the thirst that had only sometimes eclipsed the pain. It was still the worst thing that she’d ever experienced, and she was sure her mother couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to do it to someone they loved.

“Good,” she said. “You won’t turn back if we scream.”

Dr. Young frowned. “I want you to know you have a choice,” she said. She was speaking to Ais; Sabella had a choice, too, but it was only between one death and another. “There will be a point when you can’t change your mind, but by then it’ll be almost over.”

Ais swore. It made Dr. Park smile and Sabella’s mom frown. Sabella wondered if she was in love with her, or if it was impossible to be in love with someone who was growing a body for them to share. “Don’t say that,” Ais said. “I don’t want to have that choice.”

 

 

The morning of the surgery, Aisling gave Sabella a rosary to wear with her pizza necklace, and when they kicked Sabella’s mom out to the waiting room, she kissed them both as she went. “I like your mom,” Ais said shyly. They lay in cots beside each other, just close enough that they could reach out and hold hands across the gap. “I bet she’d get along with mine.”

Sabella laughed, her eyes stinging, threw herself across the space between them and kissed each of Ais’s knuckles while Ais said, “Aw, c’mon, save it ‘til we get home.”

“Isn’t that a lot of commitment for you?” Sabella asked.

“Yeah, well,” Ais said, caught, and gave her a cheesy smile. “You’re already taking my liver, at least my heart won’t hurt so much.”

They drank themselves to gorging while nurses wrapped and padded them in warm blankets. Ais was first, for whatever measure of mercy that was, and while they were wheeled down the dizzying white hallway, she grinned at Sabella, wild, some stranger’s blood staining her throat to her nose. “You’re a real looker,” she said, and Sabella laughed over her tears.

“Thank you,” Sabella said. “I mean, really, for everything.”

Ais winked at her; Sabella wanted to run away from all of this and drink her in until they died. “It’s all in a day’s work, ma’am,” she said.

It wasn’t, it couldn’t have been, and Sabella loved her for pretending. Ais hissed, she cried, she asked intervention of every saint learned in K-12 at a Catholic school. A horrible gelatinous noise came as Dr. Young’s gloves touched her innards, and Ais moaned and Sabella said, “You have to stop, this is awful,” and the woman assigned to supervise her held her down and said hush, honey, you need to be quiet. And the doctors’ voices, neither gentle nor unkind: We’re almost done now, Aisling, you’re being so brave. And: It’s a pity she’s too strong to pass out.

Sabella went easier, hands she couldn’t see wiping her down and slicing her open while Dr. Park pulled Ais’s insides back together. She’d been scared for so long that the pain didn’t frighten her; she kept asking “Is she okay? What’s happening?” until the woman at her head brushed back her hair and said shh, she’s in the recovery room, you can worry about yourself now.

It felt right, fixing her missteps with pieces of Ais, and when Dr. Young said, “There we go, just another minute and you can go take care of her yourself,” Sabella thought about meromictic lakes, about stepping into a body so deep its past never touched its present.

END

 

 

"Dionysus in London" is copyright Tristan Beiter 2018.

"You Inside Me" is copyright Tori Curtis 2018.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and we'll be back soon with a reprint of "The City of Kites and Crows" by Megan Arkenberg.

 

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Episode #56: Njàbò by Claude Lalumière

June 6, 2018

Njàbò

by Claude Lalumière

 

Njàbò, my only child, my daughter, walks with me. She is as old as the forest, while I was born but three and a half decades ago. Our ears prick up at the sound of drums. We scan the sky and spot a column of smoke to the northwest. We run toward it. The ground trembles under our feet.

The settlement is ringed by rotting carcasses. Their faces are mutilated, but the meat is left uneaten. These are the bodies of our people.

I weep, but Njàbò is past tears. She sheds her calf body. Njàbò the great, the wise, the ancient thunders with anger; her flapping ears rouse the wind.

 

[Full transcript after the cut.]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 56. This is your host Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.

Our story today is Njàbò by Claude Lalumière, read by Leigh Wallace.

Claude Lalumière (claudepages.info) is the author of Objects of Worship (2009), The Door to Lost Pages (2011), Nocturnes and Other Nocturnes (2013), and Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment (2017). He has published more than 100 stories, several of which have been adapted for stage, screen, audio, and comics. His books and stories have been translated into seven languages. Originally from Montreal, he now lives in Ottawa.

Leigh Wallace is a Canadian writer, artist and public servant. You can find her latest story in Tesseracts 19: Superhero Universe and her art at leighfive.deviantart.com

 

Njàbò

by Claude Lalumière

 

Njàbò, my only child, my daughter, walks with me. She is as old as the forest, while I was born but three and a half decades ago. Our ears prick up at the sound of drums. We scan the sky and spot a column of smoke to the northwest. We run toward it. The ground trembles under our feet.

The settlement is ringed by rotting carcasses. Their faces are mutilated, but the meat is left uneaten. These are the bodies of our people.

I weep, but Njàbò is past tears. She sheds her calf body. Njàbò the great, the wise, the ancient thunders with anger; her flapping ears rouse the wind.

Njàbò charges the human settlement, trumpeting her fury. Everywhere there is ivory, carved into jewellery and other trinkets, evidence of the mutilation of our people. She squeezes the life out of the humans and pounds them on the ground. The humans and their houses are crushed beneath the powerful feet of the giant Njàbò. She kicks down the fireplaces and tramples the ashes. She screams her triumph.

Njàbò’s shouts go on for hours. Our scattered tribe gathers from around the world to the site of Njàbò’s victory.

Throughout all of this I have been weeping, from pride and awe at Njàbò’s beauty, from horror at the deaths of both elephants and humans, from relief, from grief, from sadness and loneliness at my child’s independence. And, like too many nights of the past eight years, I wake, quietly weeping, from this dream that is always the same.

 

Waters is sitting on Cleo’s chest, nuzzling her nose, purring. Cleo’s cheeks are crusty from dried tears. She guesses that she’s been awake for two hours or so. She’s been lying on her back—motionless, eyes wide open—trying to forget the dream and the emotions it brings. The skylight above the bed reveals that dawn is breaking. She should get up, get started.

She stretches. It sends Waters leaping from her chest and out through the beaded curtain in the doorway. Cleo slides out of bed, two king-size futons laid side-by-side on the floor. She looks at her lovers in the diffused early-morning light: a domestic ritual that marks the beginning of her day.

Tall, graceful, long-legged Tamara, with her baby-pink skin, rosebud breasts, and long hair dyed in strands of different colours, has kicked off the sheet, lying on her back.

The hard curve of West’s shoulder peeks out from under the sheet he holds firmly under his armpit.

Assaad is sleeping on his stomach, his face buried in his pillow, his arm now stretched out over Cleo’s pillow, his perfectly manicured feet sticking out from the bed, as always.

And Patrice—gorgeous, broad-shouldered Patrice—isn’t back from work yet.

 

Patrice comes home from the night shift at The Small Easy to find Cleo yawning over the kitchen table, the night’s tears not yet washed away. He crouches and hugs her from behind.

“You look so tired, baby.” Cleo hears the smile in his quiet voice, the smile she’s always found so irresistible.

She turns and rubs her face against his chest. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

Patrice kisses her on the forehead. “Then go back to bed. Let me make breakfast.” Again, that smile. She feels herself melting, almost going to sleep in his arms.

“But,” she says, yawning, “you’ve been cooking all night at the café. You should rest.”

He laughs and pats her butt. “I’ll be alright, Cleo. Allow me the pleasure of taking care of you, okay?”

She thinks, Can you make my dream go away? But she says nothing. She squeezes his hand, forces a smile, and leaves the kitchen.

 

For a few seconds, Cleo is confused, does not know where she is. Has she been sleeping? And then she remembers. This is the girls’ bedroom, the girls’ bed. The curtains are drawn, the door is ajar. What time is it?

She’d quietly snuck into the girls’ room after Patrice had come home, careful not to wake them. She’d crawled in between them and was calmed by their sweet, eight-year-old smells. She had only meant to lie down until Patrice called breakfast. Where were the girls now?

Shouldn’t Cleo be smelling tea, pancakes, eggs, toast? Hearing the chaotic banter of the breakfast table?

The kitchen is deserted and wiped clean. Indefatigable Patrice, again. No-one leaves a kitchen as spotless as he does. She looks at the clock: it’s nearly half past noon. She can’t remember the last time she slept in. Last night, the dream was more vivid than usual; it drained her.

Her mouth feels dry. She gets orange juice from the fridge and gulps it down. She wanders from room to room. She stops in the bathroom to splash her face.

The quiet is strange. She usually spends the morning and early afternoon tutoring the girls. West must be at the university, Assaad at The Smoke Shop. Patrice, she notices, is sleeping. Waters is curled up on the pillow next to his head. Where are the girls? And then she remembers: Tamara is back. She must have taken them out somewhere.

Just two days ago, Tamara returned from a six-month trip to Antarctica. She brought back photographs she’d taken of strange vegetation, species that paleobiologists claim have not grown for millions of years.

Cleo ends her tour of the house with Tamara’s office and is startled to see her sitting at her computer, fiddling with the photos from her trip. “Tam?”

“Clee, love, come.” Tamara, naked as she almost always is around the house, waves her over. Cleo is enchanted by her beauty, more so all the time. Cleo missed her while she was away.

Cleo settles in Tamara’s lap. Tamara is so tall that Cleo’s head only reaches up to her neck. Tamara’s poised nudity makes Cleo feel frumpy and unattractive, especially now that she notices the rumpled state of her own clothes, slept-in all morning. The feeling evaporates as Tamara squeezes her, digging her nose into Cleo’s neck, breathing her in. “I haven’t been back long enough to stop missing you, Clee. There were no other women on the expedition.” Tamara pulls off Cleo’s T-shirt, cups her sagging breasts. As always, Cleo is fascinated by the chiaroscuro of the soft pink of Tamara’s skin against her own dark brown. “They were like little boys, nervous at having their clubhouse invaded by a female, at having their secret handshakes revealed, protective of their toys.”

“Tam ... Where are the girls?” How could Cleo have thought that Tamara had taken the girls out? Of all of them, Tamara was the least interested in the girls. She let them crawl all over her when they felt like it and was unfalteringly affectionate with them, but she never set aside time for them. She was vaguely uneasy with the idea of children.

“West took them to school. At breakfast, he talked about his lecture, to warm up. His class today is about the symbolic use of animals in politics. One of his case studies is about African elephants. You should have seen Njàbò! She got very excited and asked him tons of questions. She wanted to go hear West at school, and he thought it would be a treat for both of them. Especially seeing as how you seemed to need the sleep.”

“I can’t believe Sonya would be interested in that.”

Tamara runs her fingers through Cleo’s hair and says, “Doesn’t Sonya always do what Njàbò wants? Sometimes I think all of us are always doing what Njàbò wants. She’ll grow into a leader, that one. She’ll trample anyone in her path.”

Cleo is momentarily reminded of her dream, but she makes an effort to push it away. She jokes, “Wanna play hooky and go out for lunch? At The Small Easy?”

 

Eight years ago, Cleo gave birth to Njàbò. Most people thought that the girl looked like Patrice, especially because of her dark skin—like Patrice’s, darker than Cleo’s—but she could just as easily have been fathered by West or Assaad. The five of them had agreed not to do any tests to find out.

Assaad was Sonya’s biological father and her legal guardian. She’d been the daughter of their friends Karin and Pauline. Both women had died in a car accident the day after Njàbò was born. Sonya was three months older than Njàbò.

A few days later, a grey-brown cat jumped through the kitchen window while Patrice prepared breakfast. The cat drank water from a dirty bowl in the sink, and then refused to leave. The family adopted him and called him Waters.

 

At The Small Easy, while waiting for their order, Tamara goes to the washroom. A few seconds after she gets up, a man wearing a denim jacket materializes in her seat. One moment the seat is empty; the next, the man is there. Cleo is seized with a paralyzing fear. The man is short, almost like a child, but his face is that of an old man. His wrinkled skin is a washed-out greyish brown. He grabs both her hands in his. She feels his fingers, like vises, almost crushing the bones of her hands. “Do not fear your dreams. Do not fear Njàbò. You, too, are one of us, daughter. Believe in Njàbò. Follow her.” He vanishes as inexplicably as he appeared. Still numb with fear, all Cleo can focus on is how the old man hadn’t spoken in English, but in what she assumes must have been an African language. How had she understood him?

Tamara returns. Cleo says nothing about the old man.

 

When Cleo and Tamara come back from lunch, the girls are still out with West. There’s a message on the voicemail. He’s taking them out downtown; there’s a new Brazilian restaurant he’s curious about, and then they’ll go the Museum of Civilizations. He says he’ll pose in front of the paintings and sculptures and have the girls try to figure out his ancestry. His favourite joke.

When asked about his roots, West never gives the same answer. A mix of Cree and Russian? Hawaiian and Korean? Tibetan and Lebanese? He looks vaguely Asian, but his features don’t conform to any specific group. He loves to confuse people, to meddle with their expectations. His odd wit has always charmed Cleo.

Thinking of his easy silliness helps take the edge off her strange encounter at The Small Easy. Cleo takes this opportunity to give herself the day off from mothering and housekeeping.

She goes down to her sanctum. In the basement of their house, she’s set up a studio. There’s a small window high up on the wall, but she keeps it covered, lets no natural light in. She burns scented candles and incense. She’s comfortable painting only in the dim, flickering light, breathing in a rich blend of odours. Full, harsh light makes her feel exposed. The dim candlelight, the smoke, and the smells all contribute to a sense of being enveloped, of being in a cocoon, a womb, in a world where only she and her imagination exist. Sometimes, like today, she smokes a pipeful of hash, not only to relax but also to enrich the room’s aroma. Today, she needs to relax.

Had she hallucinated that man in the restaurant? She still remembers the feel of his rough hands against her smooth skin. His smell: like damp soil. How could he know about her secret dream?

She holds the smoke in her lungs as long as she can before blowing it out. She wants the hash to wash out her fears and anxieties. She wants to paint.

The hash is strong. She feels its effects within a few seconds, a soothing combination of numbness, purpose, and timelessness. She loses herself in the canvas.

She emerges from her drugged creative trance. Hours later? Minutes? It is darker: only a handful of candles still burn.

She goes to the sink and splashes her face with water. She forms a cup with her hands and drinks from it.

She lights a few fresh candles and returns to the canvas. She finds that she has painted a scene from her dream, one of the most violent moments. She had never before let herself depict such brutality. The giant elephant, who, in her dreams, is somehow her daughter Njàbò, is trampling humans beneath her enormous feet. She is throwing a mangled man in the air with her trunk. Cleo notices that she has painted words in the background, including “NJÀBÒ”—but also other strange words that she has never heard of before, such as “MÒKÌLÀ” and “MOKIDWA.”

“Why are you afraid of the dream?” Cleo is startled by this intrusion.

Njàbò?

Cleo turns, but her daughter doesn’t wait to hear the answer. Cleo hears her rush up the stairs and shut the door. Does she know that Cleo has no answer? Cleo isn’t surprised that Njàbò knows about her recurring dream. She’s scared, and what scares her most, somehow, is that lack of surprise.

 

It was Patrice who had known what “Njàbò” meant, but Cleo who named the baby. How had it come to her?

After the midwife had left, the whole family had slipped into bed with Cleo and the new baby. Cleo had immediately fallen asleep, exhausted from the long labour. She had slept deeply, had not remembered any dreams, but had woken knowing the baby’s name. “I think I want to call her Njàbò”—it was an odd-sounding word that meant nothing to her—“but I don’t know why.”

Patrice, who had been devastated by the elephant tragedy and had read many books to assuage his grief, recognized it. The last elephant, a female African forest elephant on a reserve in the Congo, had died nearly a year before Njàbò’s birth. Poaching, loss of habitat due to increasing human encroachment, spiteful slaughters in backlash against conservationists, and disease had finally taken their toll. All efforts at cloning had failed and were still failing.

“I know!” Patrice had said. “Njàbò ... Njàbò is a mythical creature from Africa: the mother of all elephants. A giant with enormous tusks who appears whenever the elephants need a strong leader. All elephants gather around her when she calls. It’s a beautiful name. A strong name for our strong girl. I like it.” Everyone had agreed. Cleo had pushed aside the question of how the name had come to her. It was one of those unsolvable riddles best left alone.

Now, looking at the name on the canvas, she is more convinced than ever that she had never heard or seen the name before it mysteriously came to her eight years ago.

 

The dream now plagues Cleo nightly. She is always tired, never getting enough sleep, never fully rested.

She avoids Njàbò. She has begged off mothering. Tamara, Patrice, West, and Assaad now share the task. Cleo, after all, has taken on the bulk of that work for the past eight years, devoted her time and life to raising Njàbò and Sonya, to taking care of the house while the four of them pursued their careers. There had been that book with Tamara, five years ago, when the girls were three years old. The paintings, the shows, the tours. Of course, they say to Cleo, she should explore that aspect of her life again, let someone else take care of the house, the girls.

Tonight, the house is quiet. The whole family has gone for a walk in the park. It rained all day, and finally the cloud cover broke to give way to a warm evening. Cleo had agreed to go, but decided against it at the last minute. Assaad, especially, insisted that she come along, to spend time with the family. But in the end she’d stayed alone in the house. Well, not quite alone.

Waters follows her as she walks into the living room. She takes down a big art book from a shelf built into the wall. Cleo sits on the floor; Waters sits in front of her, purring and rubbing his head on her knee. She opens the book at random and remembers.

 

The book, The Absence of Elephants, was a worldwide success. Trying to exorcise her dream, which she never talked about, Cleo had created a series of elephant paintings. Some were scenes from her dreams, but not all. She had used no photographic references. The results ranged from photorealism to evocative abstractions. She painted in the evenings when the girls were in bed, asleep. The whole family was extremely excited about her paintings. Patrice and Njàbò, especially, spent hours looking at them, but it was Tamara who had been inspired by them.

Tamara had sold her publisher on the idea: an art book combining Cleo’s paintings with photos of forests and plains where elephants used to thrive, of human constructions that now stood in areas that were once habitats for elephants. There would be no words: the pictures, especially in the wake of the global desolation over the extinction of the elephants, would speak in all languages, allowing the book to be marketed worldwide without the cost of translation. Tamara would go to Africa, India, and anywhere else where any elephants—even woolly mammoths—had once lived, hunting with her camera the ghosts of the dead creatures.

The Absence of Elephants led to gallery bookings. Cleo’s paintings, along with Tamara’s photographs, were hung in cities all over the world, from Buenos Aires and Montreal to Glasgow and Sydney ... but not in India, where the book was too hot politically. The two women had gone on tour with their work—wine, food, and five-star hotels all expensed. It had been a glamorous, exciting experience for Cleo—and it had forged a complicit bond between the two women. Before then, Cleo had often been intimidated by the beautiful Tamara’s fashionable elegance.

The book, the sales of paintings and signed, numbered prints of Tamara’s photos, the DVD-ROM, the web rights, and the CGI Imax film had made the family not quite wealthy, but certainly at ease.

West took a sabbatical from the university and looked after the house and the children. After nearly a year of book tours, art galleries, and media appearances, Cleo missed Njàbò and Sonya, yearned to return to domestic life. She came back home, to the girls. For the next few years, she rarely painted. But the dream continued to haunt her.

 

Cleo now spends entire days in her studio, has even taken to locking herself in. Sometimes she stands silently behind the door, listening to the others talk about her. They assume that she has been overtaken by a new creative storm, is painting a new series, and needs time alone to focus her creative energies.

In truth, Cleo’s days disappear in a cloud of hash. She hides from her fears: of Njàbò, of what she would paint if she were to take up the brush, of being in public, vulnerable to the appearance of the wrinkled old man.

 

The first thing Cleo thinks is: Patrice and Assaad look so uncomfortable sleeping on that small ugly couch. Patrice is lying on top of Assaad, resting his head on Assaad’s shoulder. Assaad’s arms are wrapped around Patrice, one hand on the small of his back, the other on his shoulder blade. “Patty? Assaad?” The two men snap awake. And then Cleo peers around the room, touching the mattress beneath her. She thinks: Is this a hospital bed?

Cleo notices that Patrice looks worried, but she can’t read Assaad, whose face is even more inscrutable than usual. Getting up, the men stand on either side of Cleo, each wrapping one of her hands in their own. Cleo takes her hands back before they can say anything. “Enough. This is too much. Go sit down. What am I doing here?”

They go back to the couch. Assaad squeezes Patrice’s hand, nodding at him to speak. “No, love, you tell her.” Patrice says. “You found her.”

Assaad looks straight into Cleo’s eyes, willing her to keep her eyes locked on his. His voice is dry ice, fuming with wisps of cold mist. “None of us had seen you for more than a day. For weeks, you’ve been distant, aloof, oblivious to the girls, oblivious to all of us.”

Cleo’s muscles tighten up, in a reflexive effort to protect herself. She’s never heard Assaad speak in such a cold, hard voice before.

“We thought you were working on a new series. You let us believe that.”

Assaad pauses, his eyes still locked on Cleo’s. Is he waiting for an explanation? Or a reaction? Cleo wants to look away, but can’t.

“As I said, we hadn’t seen you for more than a day. You hadn’t come to bed the night before. You’d locked yourself in your studio. The girls and I were ready to have lunch. I knocked on your door, calling you, inviting you to eat with us. You didn’t answer. I knocked harder. Yelled out your name. Still, you didn’t answer. I had to take the door out. I found you unconscious. The air was foul. You’d pissed yourself. Vomited.”

Again, a pause. Cleo feels the cold mist of Assaad’s anger go down her throat, into her stomach. Of all of them, he is the most patient, the most understanding, the one who resolves conflicts, soothes hurts and pains. How could she have let it come to this?

“There was but one new painting. Later, Njàbò told us you’d painted that one weeks ago, the day West brought them to his class. I called the ambulance. I couldn’t rouse you.”

Another pause. Patrice fills the tense silence. “The doctor told us you were suffering from dehydration and malnutrition. Why haven’t you been eating? What have you been doing? Are you angry with us? Speak to us, Clee, we all love you. Maybe we should have been more attentive. You were looking weak, tired. We should have paid attention. We were all too preoccupied, with work and with the girls. Why are you hiding from us? What are you hiding from us?” Patrice’s voice gets louder and increasingly reproachful. “Why did you let this happen?”

Assaad looks away from Cleo, puts his hand on Patrice’s shoulder, calms him, and, in the process, calms himself. Patrice frowns, “I’m sorry, Clee, I—I’m just worried about you.”

“Patty, I...” She avoids their faces. She feels ashamed. Why has she kept the dream a secret all these years? The dream is a chasm into which intimacy is falling ever further from her grasp. Can it reemerge from those depths after so many years of secrecy? “How ... How are the girls?”

“They’re fine, Clee. Assaad quit his job at The Smoke Shop. He’s a great mother.” Patrice’s grin fills his whole face. He ruffles Assaad’s hair, kissing him on the cheek. Assaad fights a losing battle against the grin spreading on his face. “We didn’t really need the money. It’s a stimulating change to be at home with the girls. It’s a challenge to teach them, and to learn from them.”

“Who’s taking ca—”

Assaad answers, “They’re with West today. He took them to see the new Katgirl & Canary movie that they’ve both been so excited about.”

“How long have I been here?”

Patrice glances at Assaad, then gets up and sits next to her on the bed, stroking her face. “You’ve been out for four days. It’s Sunday.”

Cleo closes her eyes. She wishes she knew why she’s been so apprehensive, why she’s been hiding a part of herself from her lovers. She remembers falling in love with Patrice when she was still waiting tables at The Small Easy. She remembers him introducing her to his family—Assaad, Tamara, West; her family, now. She takes a blind leap. “I’ve been having this dream...”

 

The Baka—the few hundred who remain—live in the forest, in a territory that covers part of Cameroon and the Congo. They believe—or believed, Cleo isn’t sure—that the Mòkìlà were a tribe of shapeshifters, both elephant and human. The Mòkìlà would raid Baka villages and initiate the captives into their secret society. Their sorcerers, the mokidwa, would transform their captives into shapeshifters. The captives became Mòkìlà and were never again seen by their families.

The mokidwa could take on the form of any animal. They also knew the secret of invisibility.

Njàbò is the ancestor of all elephants, sometimes male, sometimes female. Stories abound of avatars of Njàbò, giant cows or bulls, leading herds of elephants against Baka warriors or villages. Njàbò’s tusks are so enormous, they contain ten other tusks within them. Njàbò is often flanked by a retinue of guards.

Cleo has been trying to demystify her experiences. She searched the web for those strange words on her painting and found them. She asked West to get books from the university library. She’s been reading about the Baka and the myth of Njàbò. She’s never cared before about her ancestry and now finds herself wondering if perhaps there are Baka or Mòkìlà among her ancestors. The Mòkìlà are a myth, she reminds herself.

She’s been painting again. The new canvasses are violent, raw. When she painted her first series years ago, she hadn’t felt this uninhibited. Now, every session leaves her exhausted, yet exhilarated. Having shared her dream with her family, she has nothing to hide. She feels free.

She still dreams every night, but the dream is changing. Now the whole family walks with Njàbò. And the dream is getting longer. There is more violence, more bloodshed. Njàbò leads the tribe around the world. They crush all human constructions. They kill all the humans. Theirs is an unstoppable stampede. Cleo has painted much of this. Now, the dream continues beyond the violence. The tribe walks the Earth in peace. The tribe grows and Njàbò reigns. Today, for the first time, Cleo’s painting is inspired by that part of the dream.

The others tell her that they, too, have started dreaming of Njàbò, the elephant.

She leaves her door open; sometimes the others come down and watch her work, quietly, discreetly. At first, she knew, they were keeping an eye on her, worried that she would withdraw once again. After a few weeks, that changed. Now they come down because they find it exciting to be in the room while Cleo paints. The candlelight, the thick odours, and her absolute devotion to the canvas all combine to create a mesmerizing ambience. Even Waters has been spending hours curled up under her stool.

Every day, Njàbò comes, silently, to see her paint. Cleo is still nervous around her daughter, still avoids talking with her. Cleo senses that Njàbò is in the room now. The painting is finished. It depicts Njàbò, the elephant, towering over her herd, young elephants running around her, playing, celebrating. Around the elephants, the forest is lush.

Njàbò, the eight-year-old girl, walks up to her mother, in silence. She gazes at the painting. Cleo sees the tears running down her daughter’s cheeks. Cleo gathers Njàbò in her lap. The girl buries her head in her mother’s breasts. They both cry. Cleo can’t remember crying with such abandon, feeling so cleansed by the act. She hugs her daughter, firmly, proudly.

 

I am awakened by a light kiss on the mouth. Njàbò has crawled into bed, is holding my hand. Sonya is behind her, quiet, submissive. Njàbò whispers, “I am the dream.”

Njàbò rouses the entire family, kissing them one by one: Patrice, West, Assaad, and, finally, Tamara. She whispers lovingly to each of them, her lips brushing their ears.

She leads the family outside. The street is deserted in the middle of the night. Njàbò turns to face us all together. We are all naked.

Looking straight into my eyes, Waters rubs himself against Njàbò’s leg. Behind my daughter, a group of old men materializes. The mokidwa have shed their invisibility.

Njàbò smiles. Soon, the ground will tremble.

 

END

 

Njàbò was originally published in On Spec Vol. 15, no. 3 and is copyright Claude Lalumière, 2003.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original.

00:0000:00

Episode #55: “The Huntsman’s Sequence” by Octavia Cade

May 12, 2018

 

Episode 55 is part of the Autumn 2017/Winter 2018 issue!

"The Huntsman's Sequence" is a GlitterShip original.

Support GlitterShip by picking up your copy here: http://www.glittership.com/buy/

 

 

The Huntsman's Sequence

by Octavia Cade

 

01011011101111....

m-configuration: Knife

The war is blank.

Not in its individual parts, but as a whole. It covers everything, smothers everything. It blows continents open with opportunity. Much of that opportunity is for death, for carcasses hung up and split open in massive consumption, a grind of bone and blood, but for some the opportunity is a tool for all that. Something to insert into the space between ribs, to lever open and dissect.

Not everyone dies in war. Not everyone sinks into blank nothingness, into unmarked graves and mass burials, into fields turned red and mud that stinks of iron. Some fight with symbols instead of flesh, their weapons heady and hidden, and it is in combination and in permutation that Turing finds his battleground.

 

[Full transcript after the cut.]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 55 for May 5, 2018. This is your host Keffy and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you today.

Before we get started, I want to let you know that GlitterShip is now part of the Audible afflilate program. What this means is that just by listening to GlitterShip, you are eligible to get a free audio book and 30 day trial at Audible to check out the service.

If you're looking for a great book with queer characters, I recommend checking out Amatka by Karin Tidbeck. Amatka is set on a colony world in which objects can only maintain their shape if they are properly named. While visiting a colony not her own, Vanja discovers truths that alter the way she thinks about the world forever.

To download a free audiobook today, go to http://www.audibletrial.com/GlitterShip and choose an excellent book to listen to, whether that's Amatka or something else entirely.

 

On to the episode, we have one original story and a poem for you today.

The poem is "Telegram From Tomorrow's Lovelorn" by Shannon Lippert.

Shannon Lippert is a reluctant New Yorker, a former professional
Internet surfer, and a performing artist. She writes plays, essays, poems,
short fiction, long fiction, bad fiction, and fanfiction.

 

 


Telegram From Tomorrow's Lovelorn

By Shannon Lippert

 

oh how good it is to be alive in a time
without miscommunication, we have so many
tools for reconciliation, we are inclined to be happy
with our upward trajectory—the next tool to be improved upon
is love

we have experimented with procedures and
policies that calculate for irregulars and
deviations in nature, and designed a program
suitable for all kinds, in the future we will not worry about
a thing

the remarkable innovation of the essential human
experience is made possible by contributions
made by companies you’ve never heard of
with wealth you’ve never dreamed of, for the creation of lovers
to be

no more the messy business of
hiring a writer for your profile or
interviewing for the position of life-partner
you will be intuited, distilled,
contained STOP

in the future love will be sleeker
an organic machine of orgasmic proportions
conducted by an algorithm calibrated to destiny
the beta version has been intriguing, and produced an
object

an artifact of more visceral traditions, tomorrow
there will be no more incompatibility, no more
irreconcilable differences, for all will be reconciled
categorized, tagged, compartmentalized, converted
to data

this is virtually reality, with a few minor upgrades
the bugs reported and removed, like
the hair between one’s brows, or the
men with low testosterone, the women who are too
driven

unnecessary inclinations will be resolved in the future, with
equations installed in a binary system of zeroes and ones
the problem is not one of variables, but imbalance, which
drove the initiative towards simpler paradigms of
passion STOP

reducing the complexity has caused initial disturbances
but overall the product has been well-received by
focus groups, carefully selected, who long for a time
when lonely is no longer something one has to
be

it is a wonder the species was able to replicate
at all, with the mire of mundane relations
and deeply confusing infatuations, and now
our relief is in the last stage of development, to learn the art of
loving STOP

we will have models that are easy to duplicate, simple
to impose on any group or subgroup, our
assets determined not by unquantifiable inherent
value, but by the concrete fact of what we need to
be

to other people, to those that assess us
like the auditors of old, only for fate
we can now be evaluated for attractive features
more easily, leaving more time to construct our true
love

 

Our original short story for this episode is "The Huntsman's Sequence" by Octavia Cade.

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer with a PhD in science
communication, who particularly enjoys writing stories about science
history. She’s currently working on a collection of short fantasy stories
set at Bletchley Park during WW2; “The Huntsman’s Sequence” is one
of these. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and
Shimmer, amongst others. She attended Clarion West 2016.

Our guest reader is Jacob Budenz.

Jacob Budenz is a writer and multi-disciplinary performer whose work has been published by Assaracus, Hinchas de Poesia, Polychrome Ink, The Avenue, and more. Currently, Jacob resides in New Orleans in pursuit of an MFA in Creative Writing.

Content warning for mention of suicide and dysphoria.

 


The Huntsman's Sequence

by Octavia Cade

 

01011011101111....

 

m-configuration: Knife

The war is blank.

Not in its individual parts, but as a whole. It covers everything, smothers everything. It blows continents open with opportunity. Much of that opportunity is for death, for carcasses hung up and split open in massive consumption, a grind of bone and blood, but for some the opportunity is a tool for all that. Something to insert into the space between ribs, to lever open and dissect.

Not everyone dies in war. Not everyone sinks into blank nothingness, into unmarked graves and mass burials, into fields turned red and mud that stinks of iron. Some fight with symbols instead of flesh, their weapons heady and hidden, and it is in combination and in permutation that Turing finds his battleground.

He’s under no illusion that it keeps his hands clean. The information he extracts from the body of Enigma, the sweet little Snow White of his waking dreams, is used for murder as much as if he did the stabbing himself.

He can live with that, because he has the skills and it is a necessary thing, what he has become. The war, when he holds it, is sharp and bright and clean-surfaced and he knows his role, knows what it makes him.

For Turing the war is a knife that cuts him off from the old life; that sutures him into the new. He uses it to make little holes in his skin; to lace up the flesh again in new configurations, for the open theater of conflict comes with orders and betrayal. Academia was exploration, but what he does at Bletchley comes with focus, with tracking down and opening up. He cuts through code as if it was wild boar, slices out the heart of it, the liver and lungs, and offers the organs up to others.

He is the Hunstman.

new m-configuration: Huntsman

 

m-configuration: Huntsman

The huntsman is 1.

Turing is solid in himself, upright. Not simply in a physical way, though he is proud of his body. A runner’s body, swift and sure and when he runs of a morning, he is certain of his steps for he counts each one, catalogues the variation and speed and distance. There is little fat on him. He is smooth and straight and lean.

This is the shape he admires in others. A man’s shape, like his own, and he is not ashamed of where his desires lead him.

A huntsman is built for the chase. He has stamina, and strength. He has the determination to follow through mud and thorn thickets and shell holes, through bureaucracy and ill weather. He has patience, too, for there are times a huntsman has to stay downwind, to wait and wonder and make his best guess as to where the prey is hiding.

The huntsman is an analyst. He is able to follow the bare pattern of footprints, covered over as they are by leaves and leavings to pick out the true trail amidst the false. There are many false trails. They’re left to confuse him, to put him off the scent. It’s hard to pick out one pattern among many when the letters are sneaking by, in such numbers that the ones he wants are camouflaged by the rest.

It takes an analyst to butcher, too. The huntsman’s job isn’t over with the hunt: he must string up and dissect, pull out the organs for inspection and passing over.

He must have the scent of blood.

new m-configuration: Huntsman

 

m-configuration: Huntsman

The huntsman is 0.

The queen is the loveliest figure the huntsman has ever seen. He feels that he is nothing in her presence.

Will you give me your allegiance? she says.

She is built of abaci and cogwheels and calculation. She is built of logic and syllogism, axiom and tautology. Turing can see numbers in her hair and her dress is embroidered over with computation.

He does not worship her as if she were a woman, for women he finds difficult. They are expectations he cannot fulfil. He worships the queen as if she were an ideal: mathematics come to life, and that life does not expect him to lie with her.

He’d rather lie with men anyway.

The queen knows and does not care. You are what you are, she says. Why deny it?

She is all objectivity and questions.

Am I not beautiful? she says, head cocked to one side with cool assessment. Could you make me more beautiful?

It’s not as if truth needs decoration to shine. Still, Turing thinks he sees a path forward, and that path lies in mechanism, in the potential for engines and computing. He is the huntsman, and he knows the value of haste, of not letting a trail go cold. The queen chews equations slowly, with slide rules and logarithmic tables. He thinks he could make her work faster, more accurately.

You are already the most beautiful, he says. But it’s not like you couldn’t stand a few improvements.

His social skills have never been a strong point, but the queen is not insulted by accuracy.

I will give you my allegiance, he says, as if she’d never had it already as he worked through his arithmetic exercises as a lad, as he studied logic and looked in mirrors and recognized himself for what he was.

The queen is satisfied.

new m-configuration: Queen

 

m-configuration: Queen

The queen is 0.

The queen is 1.

She sees in black and white. A binary code, and even her mirror lacks color for color comes in degrees and all that the queen can see is certainty.

The mirror shows her troop movements and casualty lists. They are in black and white for dead is “not alive” and alive is “not dead” and these are the switches she has. Injuries are the same. Her soldiers are “fixable” or “not”, where “fixable” means “able to be returned to the front”.

There is an increasing proportion of “not”.

The fronts too are binary things, for all they change on their many border. This town is ours, that ridge is theirs. She has no room to wish them shaded with pink or lavender or violet. Dreams are a distraction, and wishing for victory will not make it so. Better the queen looks the whole horrid situation in the face, clearly assesses her chances.

Mirror mirror, she says, and it’s no surprise to hear that Enigma is prettier than she is. Younger, smoother, more efficient in her workings. No surprise there, they’re related enough for beauty to cross over, based as they both are in numbers and logic. It’s a family thing.

Nothing the queen does can crack that lovely surface, and with every failure, with every not-success the casualty lists become larger, the fronts closer.

She sees projections and possibilities, feels the mirror start to tremble with strain for it’s hard to show truth without color and that’s what the queen is: truth. How can she be truthful without certainty?

The truth is that the war will be won or it will be lost. It is not a pleasant truth but the queen is unconcerned with pleasantry. She’s always preferred surety to manners.

What are you certain of? she says to her reflection, and it’s less a question than a means of building up. A foundation for future plans.

You are certain that you are pretty, she says.

You are certain that Snow White is prettier.

There’s a viable argument in there, one that rests on removal.

new m-configuration: Queen

 

m-configuration: Queen

The queen is blank.

In another world, another story, the queen would look into a mirror and her frustrations would come out in anger, in wrinkled hatred and the end of blooming, and these things together would wash out her reason and leave her mind a mirror of continents: breaking up into little pieces in preparation for war.

In this world, the world where war is no longer a thing of plans and dark dreams and potentiality, rage is self-indulgent. Victory requires reason, the cool and easy flow of numbers, and there is no room for anything but rationality and the stepped resolutions of engineers and mathematicians.

(Control may be the only thing the two queens ever shared; the mirror that binds them together.)

In this world, the queen must speak truth and that truth is objective and binding.

“If we do not break Enigma, we will fail,” she says.

Turing watches her speak her truth every morning in the mirror. It is a truth he knows in his bones and his water, in his cheekbones, in his fingertips.

A queen should be that way. Regal, with nothing of the lie about her.

“If we do not break Enigma, we will fail,” she says.

(“If you do not kill Snow White, I will fall,” she says.)

Enigma is the focus of his days. Turing pictures her sometimes, the way she’s snuck up on him with her perfect complexity, with the smooth supple shape of her code. Never has he seen such a perfect encryption. He’d like to pin her under glass, to keep her still and silent and spread out for observation, but she’s too much of a living thing to lie quietly.

new m-configuration: Snow White

 

m-configuration: Snow White

Snow White is x.

She marks the spot.

Enigma is information. She is dates and coordinates. She is rotors and contact points and letter routes, and she cannot be decrypted until her position is known. She is shiny keys and crossed wires and combinations that can be remade over and over. She is sleek and slinking and beautiful and she shines bright enough to hide the truth.

Where is Snow White? says the queen, when the organs on her plate are shown to have come from other encryptions. Snow White is the threat, the unbreakable one.

Enigma is in the castle, in the woods, in the cottage, in the coffin. Her positions are different each time the queen looks for her.

Snow White romps over the countryside, cleaning up for the men who employ her, washing out submarines and rinsing out battalions, hanging them up to dry. She is sweeping airfields off the map.

She is very hard to catch.

Messages spill over the queen’s plate, and all of them are inedible. Tainted by combination, watered down with alphabet and permutation. The queen can’t chew fast enough to eat her way through to the marrow of them, and the truth of the messages is hidden from her.

But the queen has a huntsman, and she is chewing faster and faster.

new m-configuration: Queen

 

m-configuration: Snow White

Snow White is ǝ.

She is a placeholder, essentially. The point in the story tape that indicates beginnings.

It’s beginnings that illustrate again for Turing the difference between knowledge and truth. Some confuse them, but he never has. Snow White is a story of beginnings: of conception and transmission, of birth and ciphers and familial betrayal, the crossing of borders and what it’s like to run and hide against an enemy too strong to fight.

She’s a need for science, is Snow White, for poison antidotes and the exact number of kisses necessary to break the spell and open up glass and lungs, to start the heart beating again in the resistance. That too is a beginning, for waking comes with new rules and allied forces, with ambush and undermining and troop movements, the silencing of submarines as well as confetti and the roasted meats of feasting time.

She’s pure numbers, is Snow White. They make up her spirit and her bones and the typewriter casing of her flesh, but as Turing tries to tease meaning from her blood he is certain in his own warm marrow that there are only two endings to her beginning.

In one, Enigma sleeps in her coffin and never wakes, and there is blood and blackened hulls in the water, an island overcome.

In the other, the Huntsman learns enough from the red evisceration of her organs to be able to satisfy the queen.

Turing knows the ending will be one of these. He knows also that there is only one he is prepared to tolerate. He’ll see to it that Enigma has a happy ending.
Because happy endings might not be truth but they’re a type of knowing too, and one he’s pinned his hopes on.

new m-configuration: Apple

 

m-configuration: Snow White

Snow White is blank.

In this she reminds him of war and knives, though it’s a knife that brought Enigma to life, it’s an apple that ends her. There is such a range of possibilities in her, spread out and spread open. Thousands of permutations, millions of them, and they are all packed so close together that the mass becomes a single body, smooth and inviolate.

The trouble is that Turing was brought in to violate, the huntsman tracking down, snatching skin and code from the airwaves and carving it up for queen and country. He can’t regret his post. Enigma is clean and lovely and he admires the way she moves, the kinetic precision of her, the way she skips and teases.

He is confounded by her. Fascinated, and if a huntsman has dogs to bring to bay he too has beasts that growl and bite, and these are made of metal. Bletchley is full of machines, their colossal presence a bulwark and barking behind him, ready to gobble. Turing feeds Snow White to them in thin pieces, in tiny paper strips and she’s opened up before him, her blankness taking brief form and breaking up again.

He doesn’t begrudge the girl her figure. Not even that it’s always changing. The variation keeps him interested; it’s more than any other woman’s ever been able to manage.

But Snow White isn’t any other woman. She’s perfect, siren-voiced and something to come back to again and again. Though Turing knows he has to open her up, has to pin her down to pin meaning to that fascinating blankness, there’s part of him that’s glad for knives.

It’s such an opportunity they’ve given him, to put Enigma in her coffin.

new m-configuration: Snow White

 

m-configuration: Apple

The apple is 0.

The apple is 1.

The apple is x.

The apple is ǝ.

The apple is any number of bloody things.

If there’s one thing his work at Bletchley has given Turing, it is knowledge. More than that, it’s the knowledge that what he knows is frequently useless.

It’s a discouraging realization.

This is a list of what he knows:

Turing knows that he has cracked Enigma. He sees her in his dreams sometimes, code come to life in a perfect construct of flesh and glass, black and red and white and delicate as snowflakes. And it’s such a satisfaction, he doesn’t deny it, and a relief to know that for all this hideous war has cut his country to ribbons he has helped to settle it, to blunt the sharp edges and turn them away from others, from himself.

He knows constriction. Not just the pressure of routine and isolation and the need for silence, but that which comes from silence extended. For when the war is over and his work has been buried under official acts and promises, he knows limitation and what it is to bite his tongue until the bites never heal.

And he knows, above all else, what it is to be lonely. Bletchley is full of people and there’s always the sense of them massing at his borders but he finds it difficult to reach over. This is especially so when these people begin to spill out of manor grounds, to go home and on and he is left with all the connections he never could make, quite. The connections he most wants, those that come with firm warm flesh and hardness moving over him... well.

There is black bile within him, red teeth, the white of lips bitten down, and Turing comes to understand that, after all, knowledge can be poison as well as panacea.

He knows what it is to be betrayed.

He knows what apples taste like.

new m-configuration: Apple

 

m-configuration: Apple

The apple is blank.

The apple is bright and sweet and carries the promise of nothing; of gaps and absence and the thought of these is a restful one.

(Lately rest seems very appealing.)

Turing knows what permutation is—knows it in his flesh, softer now than it used to be with his runner’s body ruined by estrogen, the chemical castration that has given him breasts.

Snow White has breasts, no matter how much old Walt tried to cover them up. Turing would like to think a prince would come for him, wake him from this drugged state and break him out of the glass coffin of expected behavior but he is—has always been—the queen’s man and he knows he is not Snow White.

Snow White was sealed away behind glass and put on display. She has always been Enigma for him: something to be manipulated and spread out, to be opened up for silent viewing.

The apple did for both of them. Knowledge is half the time a poisoned fruit, and for all it can break a code into pieces it can break other things as well. His permutation is not nearly so subtle; it doesn’t have the camouflage of mathematics and he’s never been good at lies. Never seen the value in them.

Poison seems to be the only possible solution. Simple enough to track down and Turing has made a career of tracking, of long-distance pursuit.

He dips the apple in cyanide, a parody of the Evil Queen because truth is confused so often with knowledge and when he looks in mirrors they stand behind him, these so-close permutations and he’s the only one to tell difference between them.

The apple is bright and sweet.

He is the Huntsman.

He is the Huntsman.

new m-configuration: Huntsman

 

END


"The Huntsman's Sequence" is a GlitterShip original and is copyright Octavia Cade, 2018.

"Telegram From Tomorrow's Lovelorn" is a GlitterShip original and is copyright Shannon Lippert 2018.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of Njàbò by Claude Lalumière.

00:0000:00

Episode #54: “Oh, Give Me A Home” by Nicole Kimberling

April 14, 2018

 

Episode 54 is part of the Autumn 2017/Winter 2018 issue! (Yes! It's actually out now!)

Support GlitterShip by picking up your copy here: http://www.glittership.com/buy/

 

Oh, Give Me A Home

By Nicole Kimberling

 

Up along the edge of the ridge, Gordon could see them gathering. The mass of bugs formed a ragged silhouette against the hazy lavender sky. Each critter stood only ankle-high—about as big as a yappy dog—six-legged, like ants, with azure exoskeletons hard as crash helmets. Individually they posed little threat, but if only a few of them spooked, panic could ripple through the herd, bringing all thirty thousand of them swarming down.

The stampede could crush him and Paint flat.

From his position at the bottom of the crater, Gordon gave a long chirping whistle. Amplified by his hardsuit’s external speaker, the trill echoed through the crater. Gordon imagined it lifting up through the thin atmosphere to reach the three rings that encircled New Saturn. Here, near the equator, the rings bisected the sky in a thin, glittering band, shining apricot and peach, reflecting the light of the G-class star that shone down on him.

A few of the bugs—called microbe-seeding terrestrial injectors or MSTIs, by the terraforming corporations that had genetically engineered them—turned their attention toward Gordon at the sound, but still hesitated. The bugs were naturally fearful of new territory, preferring to follow the scent trails previously laid down by other bugs.

Gordon had loaded new scent into Paint’s dispersal unit before riding down into the crater, so he knew a perfectly good trail existed. The bugs should be following him to the center of the crater, where Gordon had spread a banquet of feed—so many white pellets they almost obscured the fine pink sand.

[Full transcript after the cut]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 54 for April 10, 2018. This is your host Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.

After a long wait, the Autumn 2017/Winter 2018 issue is now available, and you can purchase that at www.glittership.com/buy or via some of your favorite ebook sellers.

Our story today is a reprint by Nicole Kimberling, "Oh, Give Me A Home," read by Dave Liloia.

Nicole Kimberling is a novelist and the senior editor at Blind Eye Books. Her first novel, Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award. Other works include the Bellingham Mystery Series, set in the Washington town where she resides with her wife of thirty years. She is also the creator and writer of “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” a serial fiction podcast, which explores the lesser case files of Special Agent Keith Curry, supernatural food inspector.

Dave Liloia is a voice actor and narrator from Seattle, WA. He co-hosts both the Warp Drives podcast with his wife TJ and Rat Hole podcast. His day job is to move electrons. You can find him on Twitter @warpdrives.

 

Oh, Give Me A Home

By Nicole Kimberling

 

Up along the edge of the ridge, Gordon could see them gathering. The mass of bugs formed a ragged silhouette against the hazy lavender sky. Each critter stood only ankle-high—about as big as a yappy dog—six-legged, like ants, with azure exoskeletons hard as crash helmets. Individually they posed little threat, but if only a few of them spooked, panic could ripple through the herd, bringing all thirty thousand of them swarming down.

The stampede could crush him and Paint flat.

From his position at the bottom of the crater, Gordon gave a long chirping whistle. Amplified by his hardsuit’s external speaker, the trill echoed through the crater. Gordon imagined it lifting up through the thin atmosphere to reach the three rings that encircled New Saturn. Here, near the equator, the rings bisected the sky in a thin, glittering band, shining apricot and peach, reflecting the light of the G-class star that shone down on him.

A few of the bugs—called microbe-seeding terrestrial injectors or MSTIs, by the terraforming corporations that had genetically engineered them—turned their attention toward Gordon at the sound, but still hesitated. The bugs were naturally fearful of new territory, preferring to follow the scent trails previously laid down by other bugs.

Gordon had loaded new scent into Paint’s dispersal unit before riding down into the crater, so he knew a perfectly good trail existed. The bugs should be following him to the center of the crater, where Gordon had spread a banquet of feed—so many white pellets they almost obscured the fine pink sand.

“How’s it going down there, Gordy?” Henry’s voice poured into Gordon’s earpiece, smooth as cool water.

“Not great,” Gordon’ replied. “We’ve got a bunch of shy Shirleys at the front of the column when what we really need is a couple of bouncy bold Bonnies to start moving down the trail.”

Though learning the personality of every bug would have been impossible, Gordon had broken the herd down into a few basic temperaments. Shirleys were the workhorses of the MSTIs, processing feed quickly and more efficiently than any other type. But they were also the most recalcitrant. The Bonnies showed distinct initiative and curiosity, behaving as scouts. They also got lost a lot. If Gordon had to negotiate some rocky ledge at a suicidal angle during a sandstorm, nine out of ten times it was because a Bonnie had gotten herself into a jam. A few other personality types had emerged in this, the first-ever free-range experiment: lusty Leroys, deceptive Daisys, lazy Lorraines. But there was only one Queen Elvira. She stayed in the enclosure at their homestead, laying eggs.

“Did you try a whistle?”

“Of course I tried a whistle,” Gordon said. “I did ‘Turkey in the Straw.’”

“I’m almost at the lip of the crater now. I’ll swing around and see if I can get them going from the back.”

“Roger that,” Gordon said.

Lifting his head to scan the crater’s rim Gordon spotted Henry mounted on his excursion vehicle, which he called Bucephalus, after Alexander the Great’s horse. In truth, neither Paint nor Bucephalus resembled horses so much as long-legged spiders, but a dearth of positive musical or historical arachnid names had naturally led them to choose equine names for the robotic transport vehicles.

Gordon raised his hand, and Henry returned the gesture. The sunlight glinted off the arm of his blue hardsuit. Henry pressed the MSTIs from the flank, urging them forward. Still they balked till the jostling from the back pushed one over the edge. Instinctively the MSTI rolled into a tight ball. Another tipped over the edge and another till a steady stream of bugs rolled toward Gordon.

Being given to spontaneous musicality, Gordon began to sing:

 

See them tumbling down

Pledging their love to the ground

Dusty but free I’ll be found

Drifting along with the tumbling MSTIs

 

I’m a rovin’ cowboy ridin’ all day long

MSTIs around me sing their lonely song

Nights beneath New Saturn’s Rings

I’ll ride along and tunes I will sing

 

“Nice one, Gordy,” Henry said. Sitting astride his vehicle, encased in a hardsuit that could barely contain his muscle, Henry was hale and hearty as any old-time terraformer or wildcatter sent from a mining company.

Gordon couldn’t be more different. Having been born and raised in space, he’d simply never developed the muscle or bone to cope with the daily terrestrial struggle against gravity.

When they’d first started courting, Gordon had gone to great lengths to never fully remove that armature—not even when they were in orbit at the Free Station 19, where the pull of gravity wouldn’t cripple him. He felt sickly against Henry’s strappy, Earth-bred muscles and thick, sturdy bones.

But Henry’s three-pronged strategy of sincerity, sweetness, and song had eventually gotten him inside the hardsuit long enough to get a ring on Gordon’s finger. A homestead had followed soon after. Now they ran the only free-ranging herd of MSTIs across ten thousand acres of barren soil for Homesteads for Humanity Interstellar. They’d completed three years of a five-year contract. The MSTIs were part of the second phase of terraforming. Their job was to masticate and defecate, enriching the soil with microbes crucial to farming Earth-style plants. Once the soil was ready, he and Henry spread spores of beneficial fungus. Then, after the fruiting bodies emerged, their work was done. He and Henry would mosey along to the next homestead, leaving the land for the first-generation farmers. They would bring their pressurized greenhouses and be the true pioneers here on New Saturn.

In a previous life, Gordon had worked for Vanguard Commercial Terraforming as an animal wrangler and vet tech. After culling thousands of bugs that could have been useful given even the tiniest amount of medical attention, he decided to trade his fat paycheck for the grand experiment run by Homesteads.

By the time Henry reached him, the first wave of MSTIs had finished their spherical descent and were beginning to unroll and tuck into the chow.

Or most of them were.

A couple of lusty Leroys who’d landed by each other had decided to hump instead.

“They’re at it again,” Henry remarked. “You’d think they’d go after a Shirley.”

Gordon shrugged, “Some Leroys prefer the simplicity of other Leroys, apparently.”

“You should make a note of it in your log,” Henry said. “And get a VR image for documentation.”

“Yes, professor.” He did, though he couldn’t help feeling slightly perverted taking the time to film the luscious Leroy love.

Henry leaned forward on Bucephalus, scanning the far horizon while the MSTIs crunched and munched around the robot’s legs. Now and then one paused to squat and leave that shining pellet of pure biological enrichment. Being a hardware man, Henry wasn’t as prone to anthropomorphizing the MSTIs as Gordon. Instead he felt a strong attachment to the machines that kept Gordon ambulatory and kept them both alive in this prehuman environment.

After he’d finished the VR capture, Gordon glanced up to see Henry still scrutinizing the horizon.

“What are you seeing?” Gordon asked.

“A blip at the lip of the crater.” Henry squinted, reading the display projected on the inside of his faceplate. “Heading southeast.”

“One of the Bonnies again?” Gordon swung around to scan for a signal. Sure enough, a lone MSTI had left the herd.

“I imagine so.” Henry turned to face him. Through the visor Gordon could see fatigue setting in—mainly at the corners of his full mouth, which had settled into a frown. They were only supposed to use the suits for six hours at full power, and Henry had already been out for a full ten on half power, taking advantage of the warmer temperature brought by long summer days. Henry had a habit of running his battery down dangerously low, which vexed Gordon to no end.

“That little girl is really making some fast progress,” Gordon observed. “I bet she’s going close to fifty kilometers per hour.”

“I suppose you’re going to go after it?”

“If she strays onto Vanguard property, she’ll be thrown into a hopper.” Liquidated—they called it. More like liquefied. Mashed into pellets and turned into feed. “She’s valuable.”

“I don’t like you going close to the property line,” Henry said. “I think you should reassess the value of that asset. We have 29,999 more, at least. I don’t see the point in risking yourself, particularly not when you’re already tired and your strength is flagging.”

“Well, I don’t like you running your power down so low,” Gordon retorted. “I told you to head back three hours ago, yet here you are.”

“If I had gone, who’d stay with the herd while you went after a straggler of dubious monetary value?”

“It’s not about the damn money,” Gordon’s voice betrayed the edge of anger that always reared up when Henry make any remark about his physical stamina. He didn’t like having his limitations pointed out any more than Henry enjoyed Gordon’s incisive commentary on his stubborn nature.

“You’re too tenderhearted about the bugs. It makes you reckless,” Henry chided.

Gordon found that rich, coming from a man who genuinely worried about hurting his robot transport’s feelings.

Gordon sighed and said, “I’m going after her. It shouldn’t take too long.”

Then he tapped the foot control on Paint, and the robot went into cross-country mode. The main body lowered slightly to give Paint’s six legs greater stride and maneuverability. Gordon switched from manual and gave Paint the Bonnie’s signal to target. Then he clamped the legs of his hardsuit firmly to Paint’s sides and away they went, scampering up the crater’s soft side. The MSTIs lifted their heads as he passed by, then went back to grazing.

Just as he reached the rim of the crater, he heard Henry say, “Be careful.”

 

 

Once over the rim of the crater, Paint lit out across the boulder-strewn sand at top speed. Gordon hunkered down and hung on, keeping his eye on Paint’s screen. The MSTI really was a mover and seemed determined also to be a trespasser, which Gordon found strange. MSTIs didn’t like being separated from the rest of the herd. Even adventurous ones, who had strong scouting instincts, never ran like this.

Could something be chasing it? But what? New Saturn had no indigenous life. It had the components, minerals and plenty of water—though that was mostly frozen at the poles right now, waiting for the atmosphere generators to finally provide enough greenhouse gasses to heat the surface. But that would happen generations from now.

Now it was just Homestead and Vanguard and the UN reps who refereed their frequent clashes.

As Paint raced to the top of a small rise, Gordon saw tire tracks. But not just any tire tracks. These marks had been made by massive machines plowing directly through the cryptobiotic soil fields he and Henry had seeded the previous year. Huge ruts rent the soil three meters deep in places. Pink soil showed through like gashes in the dark, knobby surface. They’d worked all year to get even that thin layer of cyanobacteria to grow and prosper, and now some asshole had destroyed weeks of work on one destructive joyride.

“Hey, Henry?”

“Yeah, Gordy?” Henry sounded tired but not necessarily apologetic.

“Bad news on the southeast forty.”

“Did you break Paint’s leg in it?”

“No, but I think Vanguard drove their earthmovers right through it.”

Henry swore—which was something he rarely did. Then he said, “Make sure to get—”

“—the documentation,” Gordon finished. “As soon as I find the Bonnie. I think she’s running along one of the ruts.”

“I’m taking the herd back in now. There’s some dust on the eastern horizon that troubles me.”

“Roger that. I’ll see you there.”

Gordon urged Paint down the steep incline and followed for a few more kilometers until he found the Bonnie. The MSTI was trying to climb the side of the rutted wall but the steep, sandy soil kept collapsing beneath her.

Gordon let out a whistle as soon as he thought she was in earshot. The MSTI swiveled her head around to look at him.

“There you are, little girl,” he said in the singsong voice he always used around the bugs. “You come on up here now.”

The MSTI cocked its head and tried again to scale the wall only to fail and come rolling down, curled up into a ball.

“Okay, then, have it your way.” Gordon switched to manual and urged Paint forward. Leaning down, he scooped up the MSTI before she could fully uncurl. Out of reflex, the bug retracted its legs and again curled into spherical defense mode. Which made it easy for Gordon to stuff her in his saddlebag.

He felt a sense of achievement that bordered on joy. He’d saved one more genetically engineered life-form. Never mind that it was probably defective—chasing out cross-country heading toward nowhere. But the MSTI having a screw loose didn’t diminish his pride.

He spent longer than he thought he would documenting the damage, making sure to get good pictures of the tire tracks—just in case. He knew Henry would dutifully file a complaint with the governing board of New Saturn, and that board would turn around and fine Vanguard a stupidly small amount for damages. But if they didn’t file, the harassment would continue.

Vanguard had never been on board with Homestead being allowed to develop human habitation sites for the planet. Not that they were against colonization—far from it. But they preferred to be able to choose which humans were allowed to come down to the planet’s surface and which had to continue the confined existence on the overcrowded chain of space stations that stretched across the galaxy.

Gordon stared up at those rings arching across the vast sky. Up there the space stations teemed with life and bustled with every kind of diversion known to man. But down here he had the whole, empty planet in its geological majesty, silent but for the wind and the sound of Henry’s voice. And he had the weather—the changeable, unstoppable, magnificent forces of day and night and wind and season. Being space-born, Gordon had at first been frightened by the power of it. Now he felt only awe looking at the rising storm on the horizon.

Thinking of it, though, he realized he should get back, before his battery got so low Henry would call him a hypocrite.

 

 

The official address was Homestead #99 New Saturn, Chiang System, but Gordon just called it Dome Sweet Dome. It was a series of domes, really, connected by walkways. The entire complex resembled a wagon wheel when viewed from above. Gordon entered on the southeast side, still riding Paint through the unpressurized tunnel that formed the complex’s perimeter until he reached the large dome where the MSTIs bivouacked.

Because the escaped Bonnie, whom he’d dubbed Screw-loose during the long ride back, could have something wrong with her, Gordon went to the quarantine zone. Being super-social, the MSTIs hated being left alone—especially when within scenting distance of the rest of their colony. So Gordon had made the place as comforting as he could, filling it with jointed toy animals painted blue to resemble the MSTIs. He’d also recorded himself singing all the cowboy songs he serenaded the herd with, as well as the weird chirping noises made by Queen Elvira. Still, isolated bugs felt real anxiety and usually chirped all night.

Gordon deposited the Bonnie behind the door. He felt bad about it, but he had to follow the protocols. He then made his way down the next spoke toward the human living quarters at the center. He dismounted Paint and began to remove his hardsuit, though he still wore an armature that helped support his spine and limbs in terrestrial gravity. Light and thin, the armature could have been mistaken for jewelry so long as Gordon wore clothes over it. The rings that helped support his fingers could look especially decorative in certain lights.

Gordon had never thought of it this way until Henry had pointed it out. He still only half believed Henry had any real physical attraction to him, because how could he? Then Henry would prove it with his body, which went a long way toward convincing Gordon it was possible to find a long, thin spaceman beautiful.

Because the day had been so warm, he wore only thin underclothes and these were stained with sweat. As the air lock door opened to the robotics workshop, a chill prickled at his skin.

“Go back to your stall, Paint,” he said. The robot gave a little whinny (which Henry had programmed it to do just for Gordon) and made its way between the tables of equipment to a battery-charging cubby toward the rear of the workshop, adjacent to the living quarters.

Gordon walked down the short hallway to the great room, which contained areas for cooking, eating, and socializing. The central dome sported ten such apartments, each with three bedrooms and private bath facilities, to house the families that would form the farming outpost.

Henry sat at the kitchen table, which was, as always, strewn with small machine parts. He didn’t appear to have cooked any food or showered, but set to tinkering with a machine straightaway. The entertainment center was on and tuned to the latest grav-cross tournament. Santiago seemed to be doing well—coming back from a spine-shattering crash in his last tourney.

“Do I want to have a look at the damage to the cyanobacteria?” he asked as Gordon entered. “Or just file the complaint right away?”

“You probably want to have dinner before you do either,” Gordon went to the refrigerator and surveyed the interior. They had some fresh veg and synth meat and chili paste. “How do you feel about fried rice?”

“I love anything you cook,” Henry said.

Gordon glanced around the edge of the door. Henry seemed sincere—and somewhat apologetic, which Gordon found suspicious.

“Why so sudden with the compliments?”

“I feel bad about saying your bug wasn’t worth enough to go after,” Henry said simply. “I know how attached you are. And they are cute in their own way.”

Gordon closed the door, closed the distance between them, and draped himself across Henry’s shoulders. He wrapped his slender, elongated arms around Henry’s sturdy body and planted a kiss on the side of his neck.

“I know. You were just worried,” Gordon said.

“You take too many risks for a man in your position,” Henry said.

“And just how much battery did you have left when you came back?”

“That’s beside the point,” Henry said.

“I don’t think so. You rely on those suits just as much as me out there.”

Henry shifted to be able to look Gordon in the eye and said, “But you’re more important than me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“You are to me.”

“You’re so sweet when you avoid answering my questions,” Gordon said but gave him another kiss anyway.

After dinner they conserved water by showering together, which was Henry’s stated favorite method of prudent resource management. Then they made their way to bed.

If they’d been in zero gravity, Gordon would have removed the armature to allow more flexibility in their position, but here on the planet’s surface, he didn’t want to force Henry to have to lift his arms and legs for him. He straddled Henry and moved so flesh met flesh without the intrusion of the hard resin that braced his muscle. Henry waited for him to settle, careful as always when Gordon was out of the suit.

Though Gordon had made himself a specialist in taking Henry inside his body, that night he didn’t. They were both too tired for any such procedure and settled for Henry holding both their cocks together between his big hands while Gordon pumped into them and against Henry’s own flesh as well. He hung above Henry, hands braced against the bed on either side of Henry’s shoulders watching his lover’s face.

Henry was a funny one. Gordon could see an idea moving through his mind the second before he decided to move his hands this way or that. A smug look would come over him, and he’d smile just a little so that the dimple showed in his cheek. Then he’d make his sly move, gazing up at Gordon. More often than not he’d say, “You like that?” or “What do you think of this,” or, should he have been tight inside Gordon, he’d be more tender, asking him how he liked it or whether he wanted more or less.

Though the feedback was necessary on account of Gordon’s fragility, answering Henry’s more intimate questions always embarrassed him, while somehow also making the feeling more intense.

Tonight Henry stayed mischievous and systematic, making a production of his motions until finally Gordon broke down and came into Henry’s hands in a series of sharp uncontrollable thrusts. Henry followed soon after, and Gordon rolled back down to the bed beside him—beyond spent yet still once the glow and a few final kisses had been finished—full of worry.

“I didn’t sing Queen Elvira her lullaby,” Gordon mumbled into Henry’s shoulder.

“I think she can survive one night without one,” Henry replied.

“But we should check on her—secure the enclosure at least.” Gordon started to push himself up, but Henry stopped him.

“You did a lot of riding today. I’ll do it,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“But I’m not singing.”

Gordon was asleep before Henry even left the bedroom.

 

The shrill pulsing shriek of an alarm sliced through Gordon’s dreams. His eyes flew open. The overhead lights blazed to life while a single flasher whirled yellow and red. Somewhere there had been a breach. Gordon jackknifed into sitting position, but he could see nothing wrong. No wind to indicate pressure escaping the habitat.

“Henry?” Gordon bellowed, his voice barely audible even to his own ears above the alarm.

He staggered to the living room console.

“Silence alarms!” he shouted at the screen. Abruptly the sound ceased. Its absence washed over him like cool water. “Show breaches.”

A diagram flashed on the screen showing two separate breaches: one in the outer spoke near the corral that held the MSTIs and one in the Queen Elvira’s enclosure. He could find no visual for either. Immediately he punched the icon for Henry’s hardsuit communicator.

“Henry, do you copy?” he asked.

No answer came, save some slight static. Heart in his throat, he punched up the vitals for Henry’s hardsuit, Those showed that he was still in it and that his vital signs were within normal range. Though the battery to his communication pack had flatlined and Henry appeared to be moving slowly away from Homestead #99.

What the flying hell?

Gordon loped through the robotics shop, yelling for Paint as he went. The robot scuttled out of its closet to stand at the ready. Paint’s battery charge was still only at 55 percent, as it had been plugged in for only three hours, but it would have to do. He pushed himself into his hardsuit so fast that he missed closing the seams twice.

After the second warning, he forced himself to take a breath. Whatever had happened, it wouldn’t help to get himself decompressed rushing out into the air lock with an unsealed suit like some kind of Earth-born know-nothing. He was a fucking native of space, damn it all. He shouldn’t be acting like this.

Though he felt the slowness of the extra minute might kill him, Gordon forced himself through the safety checklist before opening the air lock.

Outside the night sky shone as the rings formed by accretion discs blazed with blue-white light. Beyond the rings, stars in their millions glittered and danced with the distortion of winds high in New Saturn’s thin atmosphere.

Gordon rushed for the queen’s enclosure and found a rectangle cut into the canvas wall as neatly as if there had been a dotted line to follow.

He put on his external speaker and raised his bolt rifle. “Is there anybody there?”

Nothing. Not a sound.

He gave a whistle—Queen Elvira’s favorite tune, which she always chirped back at him. Again nothing.

Carefully he edged into the enclosure to find nothing. No queen. All at once the knowledge came upon him, and he rushed through the queen’s enclosure to where the rest of the herd was corralled. This too was empty of all MSTIs.

They’d been rustled.

Only one outfit on New Saturn had the ability to steal thirty thousand MSTIs—his old employer, Vanguard—or, more likely, someone bankrolled by them. Gordon did a circuit of the perimeter and easily found the three-toed tracks of several MSTI “dogs” heading southeast.

The dogs were quadruped robots that performed a function much like sheepdogs on Earth. With only a few dogs the rustlers could control tens of thousands of MSTIs—especially if they captured the queen.

But there was no way to drive that many MSTIs over a long distance. They needed water. So there would be a livestock mover somewhere close—perhaps just out of sight.

Gordon accessed his night vision and scanned the horizon.

But about three hundred meters from their homestead, the ground gave way to a frozen lake and the visible tracks disappeared. Gordon did a herd-location scan and discovered that the MSTIs locator chips were, like Henry’s coms, being scrambled by a frequency jammer. Once Gordon got past the soft sand he’d have no way of knowing which direction the rustlers had headed. But they couldn’t have gone far.

He needed some way to track them. Calling the orbital station to request a visual scan of the landscape via satellite would take too long—an hour at least just to get the permission to point the cameras at them. Henry could die any minute from power loss in his hardsuit.

Then Gordon realized he had a tracker.

Screw-loose—the Bonnie in quarantine. She’d followed the Vanguard track earlier.

Gordon wheeled Paint around and galloped to the quarantine. Screw-loose was predictably happy to see him and climbed right up Paint’s leg to butt her head against Gordon’s faceplate.

“I know, I know. I’m sorry to have left you in there. Now you’ve got to help me.”

Gordon knew he couldn’t just trust Screw-loose to come when he called. She’d already wandered off once. So he took a length of lightweight cord and knotted it firmly around Screw-loose’s abdomen. He gave her enough lead to go a couple of meters ahead of him and Paint. Then he went to the caterpillar track and set her down.

Screw-loose didn’t hesitate. She took off after the big machine, yanking on her leash like an eager terrier. Gordon set Paint to follow, and then he did what no human should ever do in this situation—he headed into the darkness alone.

They reached the frozen lake in a matter of minutes. The flat black expanse of its surface stretched for at least five kilometers. Screw-loose hesitated for only a moment before lunging out onto the ice.

Paint followed more cautiously, shifting to adjust its gait on the slick mass. Looking down, though he knew the water to be frozen solid right down to the lakebed, Gordon still felt trepidation crossing the glassy surface.

New Saturn had many lakes and even whole frozen oceans. Many, like this one, were situated near geothermic founts that occasionally melted the water, sometimes all the way to just a few feet below the surface. During these melts, pale gasses became trapped in the dark ice like gleaming bubbles in champagne. Riding across felt like striding through the stars.

Henry would have thought it was beautiful.

For a moment terrible fear for Henry seized Gordon. It was so easy to die in this inhospitable world. But Gordon refused to think that Henry could be lost to him already. He couldn’t have kept going if he did. He had to believe Henry was still alive.

After this was all over, he would show this lake to Henry, he decided. They would come out here together and see the center of this beautiful sight together. Suddenly Paint slid and Gordon lurched, nearly thrown. Gordon held on till Paint righted itself, and they kept going, straight across until they finally neared the far shore. If the sand on the other side showed no tracks they would have to turn around and start again.

Anxiety formed a hard knot in his gut.

He should have called the station, he realized, before setting out. Now he’d gone too far from the signal booster for his suit’s messages to reach orbit.

He nearly cried from relief seeing the familiar pattern of a three-toed dog tracks starting up from the other side.

“Screw-loose, you’re my girl.”

When the MSTI didn’t answer, he whistled a tune. This got her attention for a moment, then she chirped and tried to keep going, but he hauled her back up into his saddlebag. He had the fresh track to follow now.

Once Screw-loose had balled up and been secured, Gordon switched Paint to auto and set the speed for full. They scuttled along the track, kicking up dust behind them until finally a massive machine came into view.

Bigger than their entire living quarters, the livestock mover stood several stories high. It was set on caterpillar treads capable of handling anything the New Saturn terrain could offer as an obstacle. The MSTIs docilely climbed the lowered ramp and filed into the multitiered vehicle. Because the rustlers were most likely used to the cowed and frightened industrially herded MSTIs, they’d only covered the sides of the vehicle with lightweight mesh. It was strong enough to keep the MSTIs from falling out the sides of the mover, but Gordon could see that a few of the bored and mischievous Bonnies had already begun to sample the netting and, finding it weaker than their mandibles, chewed the stuff to pieces.

Once that livestock mover started running, a fair few of them were going to fall out the side and become separated from the herd.

That notion only increased Gordon’s feeling of urgency. He had to stop this mover right here, somehow.

But no way could he simply assault a thing like that. And he had no means of calling the authorities.

He focused his attention on the livestock mover. Though it was possible to automate this entire process, he knew that there must be at least one human here—only high-grade military robots could be programmed to harm humans, and these dogs were definitely on the lower end of retail availability. So at least one human had to have overpowered Henry.

Gordon just needed to find them and work from there.

Could negotiation actually be an option? It would be a ballsy move, but could he bluff the bastards into thinking he’d already relayed their particulars? That a team of marshals would be on their way with the next launch window?

And where was Henry, anyway? Getting him back was the priority, no matter how much Gordon liked Queen Elvira.

Fear coursed through him when he realized there was no guarantee that the rustlers had taken Henry with them. They could have killed him and dumped his body. Gordon might have ridden right past it and never seen it in the darkness.

He reined Paint to a walk and together they crept closer to the livestock mover. A steady stream of MSTIs filed into the mover’s holding tank. When one Bonnie strayed, a dog chased it back into line, blaring a god-awful siren that caused all the MSTIs to cringe.

The loading had only just commenced, it seemed. Gordon could still see Queen Elvira far in the back. He edged along, careful to keep himself and Paint out of the light. Then with a rush of relief he saw Henry. The man was clearly unconscious, hanging over the back of a one of the dogs like a carcass, his limbs bouncing as the dog loped toward the head of the livestock mover.

And there, Gordon saw the operator. He wore a hardsuit and cradled a plasma rifle. Gordon couldn’t see the man’s face, but he instantly recognized the custom paint job decorating the hardsuit. His blood boiled at the sight of the man’s back, sporting the words “Big Shot” topped by a blast pistol firing one suggestive blob of plasma across the boundary of the fiery corona that ringed the entire stupid design.

Gordon could not believe he’d ever slept with this man, nor that he’d once found this hardsuit charming.

Horace Scott ran the MSTI program for Vanguard. Even among the roughnecks who took up terraforming, Horace stood out as the kind of man who’d break any rule or backstab any friend to turn a profit for his corporate masters. Horace was a true believer, and he loathed Homestead for Humanity above all else.

During their last fateful argument, when Gordon had told him that he’d been thinking of leaving Vanguard to join the Homestead organization, whose chief goal was to reduce overcrowding and ease station life, Horace had only said, “New Saturn is a beautiful, unspoiled world. Why would you want to bring down a bunch of station rats to ruin it?”

Gordon wasn’t surprised to find Horace supported sabotage of Homestead properties, but he was curious as to why a man so invested in management that he painted the words “Big Shot” on his back wouldn’t have delegated this dangerous and illegal task to one of his underlings. Then again, maybe he had tried and not been able to convince anyone to do it for him.

The discovery that the rustler was Horace did clarify one thing for Gordon, though. He no longer had any desire to hide in the shadows. Not that he thought Horace wouldn’t shoot him or try to get an EMP on his suit. The sight of the man just made him so hopping mad that he started Paint running before he even had a chance to think.

The dog carrying Henry swiveled around immediately and sounded the alarm. From his place alongside the livestock mover, Horace whipped around and saw Gordon bounding across the pink sand toward him.

It took a couple of seconds for their coms to link frequencies, so when they did Horace was already talking.

“… an idiot thing like this, Gordon?”

“What did you do to Henry?”

“He’s fine. I just gassed him out.”

Paint skidded to a halt beside the dog that held Henry. Looking through the faceplate, he could see that Horace told the truth. Relief coursed through him. But as he reached out to touch Henry, Horace called the dog to him. The robot trotted forward and, at Horace’s command, dumped Henry on the ground at his feet, where he lay like a discarded doll.

Horace brought his rifle to bear on Gordon and Paint immediately, and Gordon stilled and raised his hands.

Now that Gordon came into the circle of light surrounding the livestock mover, some of the MSTIs had caught sight of him and Paint. He turned on his external speakers and could hear them chirping to greet him and gave a long, trilling whistle in return. That triggered a wild cacophony of chirps and whistles from the MSTIs.

Even from three meters away, he could see Horace wince. But glancing to the side he could also see that the MSTIs were gathering at the breach in the netting that had been chewed away by one of the Bonnies.

They had responded to his call. Could he just get them to turn around and go down the ramp? If they all rushed down together, the dogs would be overwhelmed at once.

“You and that lousy whistling,” Horace ground out from between clenched teeth.

“Don’t forget the singing,” Gordon added.

“No way I can forget the singing. I had that stupid song of yours stuck in my head for months after I kicked you out.” Horace hoisted his plasma rifle.

“You didn’t kick me out. I left you.”

“That’s not the way I remember it,” Horace said, as if there were anybody else out here to impress. Maybe he just needed to impress himself.

“You know you’re going to have to give me back these MSTIs,” Gordon said.

“No, I don’t think I do,” Horace said.

“Look, I understand your bosses want us shut down—”

“This isn’t about my bosses. This is about keeping New Saturn unspoiled,” Horace said.

“The point of terraforming is to bring human beings a new world to live on.”

“No, the point of terraforming is to bring deserving human beings a new world. Your Homesteaders are nothing but trash chosen by lottery. They’re unqualified scroungers.”

“You take that back.”

“I didn’t say you were one of them,” Horace said, as though the fact that Gordon included himself among the station rats might be the only real problem with his argument. “But the rest of them—unemployed and lazy. Handing them this place would be like handing a baby over to a pig.”

“It’s not your choice who gets to live here.” Gordon tried to keep his cool. “Look, we’re never going to agree on this, so let’s just call it even. You give me my MSTIs and Henry, and we never need to mention this again.”

“If only I believed you would do that, Gordon, I might take you up on that deal. But you won’t. You’ll be radioing the marshals the second you get within amplification range.”

“How do you know I haven’t already?”

“Because if you had, you’d have told me right away.” Horace flipped a lever on his rifle—setting it to EMP. “I tried to keep you out of this, but you had to come running out into the night like the idiot you are. Now I have to kill you too.”

“What the hell do you mean ‘kill me too’?” Gordon demanded.

“Well, this one was always in the plan.” Horace kicked the side of Henry’s hardsuit.

“What have you got against Henry?” he said. “Far as I know you two have never even met.”

“And yet there his name was at the bottom of every single grievance against me and my crew.” Horace’s voice rose and turned nasty. “Right down to the last one that got me fired.”

“Fired?” Gordon couldn’t keep the amazement from his expression. “How could they shoot down the Big Shot?”

“That’s what I want to know! I’ve done everything—everything those sons of bitches have ever asked of me. And then this guy comes along and I’m out? Terminated? Ordered to leave New Saturn to go live crammed onto some filthy station while this fucker gets this whole planet to roam?” Horace kicked Henry again for good measure.

Gordon understood Horace enough to know that he didn’t mean to ever go back into space.

“So what are you planning to do? Try and buy your way back into the company with my MSTIs? Or do you have another outfit you plan to buy your way into?” Gordon asked, though he supposed he already knew the answer. New Saturn was a big place with plenty of colonial interests. From mining companies to isolationist religious communities to people just like him and Henry.

“Let’s just say that other parties are interested in my services—provided I have something to offer,” Horace replied. He lowered his rifle, taking aim at Henry’s head.

“Wait!”

Horace glanced up but didn’t change his aim. “What? You want to kiss him good-bye or some such thing?” Horace stepped closer to Gordon and angled the rifle at him. “Or maybe you want to go first so you don’t have to see him die?”

“I want you to think about what you’re doing. You can’t shoot me and Henry and expect no one will ever find us.”

“There are plenty of bad guys out here. One of them will be found guilty, I imagine,” Horace said.

Gordon considered his options and decided he only really had one. He jacked up the volume on his hardsuit and began to sing:

I know when this guy is gone

This new world’s gonna be born

You’ll keep rolling along

Tumbling down with the tumbling MSTIs

At once the Bonnie up high in the livestock mover let out an answering chirp and launched herself from the breach in the netting. She curled into a ball mid-fall and bounced to the ground a few feet behind Horace.

Horace whipped around, taking in the spherical creature, then with a single foul utterance, punted the Bonnie back toward the ramp. He looked up just in time to see the next one falling straight toward him. The MSTI nailed him in the shoulder. The third hit immediately after and drove him to one knee.

The MSTIs were on a roll now, shouldering past each other to pour down. The big dog rushed toward Horace but was soon overcome by the MSTIs pouring out in their dozens, bouncing and uncurling.

Pinned now, Horace would be a goner—crushed under the weight. And so would Henry if Gordon didn’t get to him. He urged Paint forward, and the robot bounded across the sands at top speed.

“Attach hardsuit!” Gordon commanded. “Unconscious worker.”

Paint bent and gathered up Henry immediately, clipping Henry’s hardsuit close to its underbelly. Gordon hefted himself into the saddle just as the first wave of blue MSTIs reached him. He hung on for dear life, as Paint scuttled back toward the periphery.

Once at a safe distance, Gordon watched the MSTIs pile up on one another, trying not to look at the cracked hardsuit that he knew no longer protected Horace from New Saturn’s deadly atmosphere.

He whistled for the MSTIs and heard Queen Elvira answer, along with a little echo from Screw-loose in his saddlebag.

All that remained was to lead them all back home.

 

The inquest into Horace’s death lasted too long. For six weeks Gordon had to sit in the orbital station to answer questions and have his hardsuit recorder examined. Homestead stood by him all the way, paying for his legal representation and even a couple of sessions of counseling. Not that Gordon needed it; except for the claustrophobia he now experienced at being crammed onto an orbiting station with another hundred thousand people, he felt fine.

He missed Henry keenly. And New Saturn’s weather almost as much.

He returned to New Saturn along with the first five families of homesteaders who would jointly take possession of #99. They seemed to be a nice mix of planet and space-born people, and so giddy with excitement about their lives on the new frontier that it brought tears to Gordon’s eyes to watch their awe as the shuttle descended.

Henry met him at the landing site, along with Paint, who Henry claimed had missed him.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Henry said. He led Gordon to a new, small dome on the periphery of the compound. Inside Gordon spied the long legs and bulging abdomen of a Queen MSTI—but not Queen Elvira. The new queen swung her head around to him and whistled “Turkey in the Straw.”

“She started metamorphosis into a pupa the day after you left. Turns out Screw-loose had a plan all along,” Henry said. “She was trying to break off and start her own colony.”

“But the MSTIs are not supposed to be able to do this on their own. Their modifications shouldn’t allow it. Did you document it?”

“Isn’t that my line?” Henry asked. He gave a little shrug. “Ours have gone through several generations of natural breeding now. Guess nature found a way.”

“But what about Queen Elvira?”

“They keep their distance from each other,” Henry said with a chuckle. “The bosses want us to split the herd. Take one queen and leave the other for the homesteaders. But I told them I wouldn’t make any decisions till you came back. What do you think?”

A pang of sentiment moved through Gordon as he thought of his years with Queen Elvira. But he felt equally bad forcing her to move. MSTIs were, by nature, a colonizing species. So he put on a brave face and said, “I think it’s time for you, me, and Screw-loose to move on.”

As if she understood, Screw-loose let out a loud chirp, but when Gordon looked over he saw that she was just announcing production of her latest egg.

END

 


“Oh, Give Me A Home” was originally published in Once Upon a Time in the Weird West (Dreamspinner Press) and is copyright Nicole Kimberling 2016.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original.

00:0000:00

Episode #53: The Questing Beast by Amy Griswold

March 29, 2018

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode #53 for March 29, 2018. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing these stories with you. Today we have three GlitterShip originals for you: a poem, a piece of flash fiction, and a short story for you. The poem is "Cucumber" by Penny Stirling.

 


Penny Stirling edits and embroiders in Western Australia. Their speculative fiction and poetry can be found in Lackington's, Interfictions, Strange Horizons, Heiresses of Russ, Transcendent and other venues. For aroace discussion and bird photography, follow them at www.pennystirling.com or on Twitter @numbathyal.


Cucumber

 

Penny Stirling

 

 

He lullabies my ghosts so I can sleep in,

my life-compeer, my comrade-errant,

and I risk griffin bite for his medicine.

We don't kiss or act how a couple should

and people enquire: when will we progress?

Surely we've been just friends long enough.

 

We find tracking migrating dragons

more wondrous than our hearts,

entrusting each other's lives in combat

more significant than vows,

unearthing riddle-hid treasure before rivals

more satisfying than sex;

we are closer than quest-allies

yet less physical than love-couples.

But feelings outside romance have less import

even if we are one another's most important.

Just friends.

 

He doesn't care, he says. He never cares

what allies or enemies say, he says. I say

enough! My life-partner, my peril-mate,

we are enough. But I just

have had enough. My friend, please:

matching rings, balance-enchanted.

He doesn't care, either, congratulated

for finally maturing enough.

 

We don't kiss or act how a couple should

yet people don't enquire if we will progress.

Being just spouse and spouse is enough.

 

END

 


Izzy Wasserstein teaches English at a midwestern university, writes poetry and fiction, and shares a house with several animal companions and the writer Nora E. Derrington. Her work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from ClarkesworldLady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Pseudopod and elsewhere. She is an enthusiastic member of the 2017 class of Clarion West. She likes to slowly run long distances. Her website is izzywasserstein.com


Ports of Perceptions

 

Izzy Wasserstein

 

 

 

Chase had come down with both kind of viruses, and worried Hunter had been growing distant, so Hunter suggested they indulge in some PKD. While the drug kicked in, they sprawled on the mattress in Hunter’s flat and exchanged. Hunter’s arm-ports synched with the receivers on Chase’s back and data flowed between them, which they agreed was worth the risk, despite Chase’s cold and the v0x virus still being rooted out by antivi. Chase felt Hunter’s concern turn to desire, and they explored each other and the PKD. Chase unclasped each of their right forearms, then swapped them. Hunter’s arm, which was, or had been, or would be Chase’s, moved over their bodies. They disconnected Hunter’s not-quite-legal sensory enhancer and synched it with Chase’s, and the rush was like data exchange but more immediate, more vivid. They swapped more parts as the sensory loop built between them. Soon Chase cried out for release, but Hunter let anticipation build, feeling Chase’s rising desire, which was Hunter’s. The drug worked on their flesh, their firmware, their coil of tech and limbs; it bypassed the neurons that told Chase which body was Chase’s, which Hunter’s, that told Hunter where Hunter ended and the Universe began; and so they grew into each other, their bodies and consciousnesses spreading from their node across the web. They were together. They were everywhere. When finally they collapsed and held one another, Chase said Hunter’s name, or Hunter said Chase’s, or each said their own. They lay in the tangle of each other, and Chase was Hunter and Hunter’s thoughts were Chase’s, and neither was sure where they ended and reality began. Hunter caught Chase’s cold, or had always had it, or had always been Chase. Neither cared, if indeed they had ever been separate.

END


Amy Griswold is the author (with Melissa Scott) of Death by Silver (winner of the Lambda Literary Award) and A Death at the Dionysus Club, fantasy/mystery novels set in an alternate Victorian England. Her interactive novel The Eagle's Heir (with Jo Graham) was published in 2017, and their second interactive novel Stronghold, a heroic fantasy game about defending a town and building a community, is forthcoming in 2018.


The Questing Beast

 

Amy Griswold

 

 

 

The first time Sir Palamedes is tempted to give up pursuing the Questing Beast, he is tramping through the woods on a bleak winter day, his frosty breath hanging in a white cloud each time he exhales.  His feet are sore, and his shoes are worn thin.  His horse went lame a week ago, and is returning home in the uncertain care of Palamedes' squire.  Palamedes is following the sound of distant barking, and is beginning to think the sound will drive him mad.

He is far off any beaten track, although he can see the prints of men and horses frozen into the icy turf.  They might have been following the Questing Beast themselves, overcome with wonder at a sight that Palamedes is beginning to find commonplace.  Or they might have been about some other errand entirely.  They might even now be sipping mulled wine by a warm fire at home, rather than tramping through the woods after an abominable beast.

The trees are thinning, and through them Palamedes can see the rutted track of a road.  It will be easier walking, and surely he can pick up the trail of the Beast again later.  Nothing else leaves such tracks, shaped like the hoofprints of a deer but dug deep into the turf under its monstrous weight.  Nothing else makes such a clamor, like a pack of hounds gone mad with no answering music of horns.

He smells smoke before he sees the little camp by the side of the road. A horse is picketed and cropping at the thin brown grass, and a man is warming his hands over the fire.  His shield is propped against a log, and it is by the arms more than by his travel-dirtied face that Palamedes knows him: Sir Tristan, who swore to kill Palamedes when they last met.

They have been sworn enemies for years, for reasons that begin to seem increasingly absurd. Once when Palamedes was a light-hearted youth, Iseult the Fair smiled at him, and he supposes that explains why he and Tristan must be enemies, even though Iseult has long since wedded Mark of Cornwall in obedience to her duty.  He suspects that competing for a lady's adulterous favors is less than the true spirit of chivalry.

And yet he pauses, thinking of Iseult with sunlight on her hair, her face tipped up to him as she asked him curiously about distant Babylon which he will never see again.  She did not scorn him for keeping faith with the gods of his childhood.  Perhaps she would never have married a pagan, but there can be no question of marriage, now.  If Tristan fell, and he were there to bring her the comfort she would not seek in her unloving husband's arms …

But these are unworthy thoughts.  If he steps out of the woods and declares himself, it will be to meet Tristan in battle as Tristan has long desired.  Tristan looks cold and drawn, clearly the worse for his travels, but surely no more so than Palamedes himself.  Tristan has been riding, not walking, his heavy cloak not frayed to shreds and his boots not worn parchment-thin.  It would be a fair fight, surely.

The sound of hounds baying rises over the woods, a wild familiar clamor.  Tristan lifts his head, gazes into the trees for a moment, and then turns back to warming his hands, like a man too weary to think wonders any of his concern.

Palamedes turns and sees the Questing Beast through the trees, distant but clear, its serpent's neck outstretched, its heavy leopard's body, from which the barking of hounds perpetually sounds, crouching balanced on its cloven hooves.  The beast itself is mute, no sound coming from its throat even when it opens its mouth as if to taste the air.

The voice that whispers in his head is an older one, the goddess of his childhood, Anahita-of-the-beasts.  Or perhaps there is no voice at all, only the familiar sound of his own thoughts, his only companion on his long road.

Will you keep faith with him, or with your oath? it asks.

He swore to follow the Beast, and not only at his leisure.  Palamedes turns his back on the fire, the fight, and the ease of following the road, and follows the Questing Beast, quickening his steps as the Beast begins to run.

 

The second time Sir Palamedes is tempted to stop pursuing the Questing Beast, he is riding down a well-traveled road on a warm summer evening.  He has met with many travelers, and answered their courteous inquiries with the tale of his quest, which is becoming wearisome to tell. Most of them look at him as if he is mad, which is not entirely out of the question.

The tracks of the Beast are dug deep into the mud beside the road, and he does not fear losing its trail, though it must be a day or more ahead of him.  It will sleep, for the night, and so must he.  He turns his horse's head from the road into a meadow beside a running stream.  Another traveler is camped there already, and as Palamedes dismounts he prepares to tell his story once again.

Tristan emerges from his tent, stops as he recognizes Palamedes, and stands staring, apparently at a loss for words.  He looks well-fed and well-rested this time, and certainly fit for a duel. But it feels a bit ridiculous at this point to call themselves mortal enemies, having rescued each other from perils that interfered with their duel to the death so many times that it’s clear neither of them relishes having the duel at all.

"Well met, Sir Tristan," he says.  "May I share your camp, or must we settle our differences on the field of arms first?"

"I expect it can wait until morning," Tristan says.  "Sit and have some dinner."

They share a roasted grouse and sit chewing over the bones as the stars come out.

"You've never told me how you came to hunt the Questing Beast," Tristan says.

He supposes he hasn't, although it feels as if he's told the tale to everyone in England.  "Sir Pellinore was growing old," he says.  "But he said he couldn't lay down his charge until there was a man willing to take it up, and he wouldn't lay such a thing on his sons."

"So he laid it on you?  That seems sharp dealing."

"I offered to do it," Palamedes says.  "And I suppose he thought as a stranger to these shores I wouldn't be leaving a home and responsibilities behind."  He shrugs.  "I don't regret it."

"You've had little chance of winning a lady this way, though," Tristan says, as close as Palamedes thinks they will come to speaking of Iseult.  He wonders how many years it has been since Tristan has seen her.  "Surely that must come hard."

"One hardly misses what one has never had," Palamedes says.  The memory of Iseult is a distant dream.  The reality is this, the road, the quest, and the sometime company of other knights who are willing to go some distance down his unending road at his side.  "If I have been deprived of the favors of fair ladies, I have had the friendship of the most gallant of knights."

"I hope you count me among them," Tristan says, and Palamedes does, although he is aware they still might end by shedding each other's blood on the thirsty earth.

"I would be honored," he says, and reaches out a hand to clasp Tristan's.  The other man's hand is rough and warm in his, the pulse beating hard under the skin.  It is a warm night full of possibilities.  He pulls Tristan toward him for a kiss he does not intend as brotherly.

Tristan turns his head, and it ends up a brotherly salute after all.  "You know I am a Christian knight," he says.  Palamedes spreads his hands to grant that Tristan's god may be more forgiving of adultery than of other sins of the flesh.  The blood is high in Tristan's cheeks all the same, his eyes intent.  "If you were a Christian as well …"

Palamedes breathes a laugh.  "Then you would feel it justified?"

"Well so, if it brought you to Christ."

It is a high-handed offer, and a perverse one, and still for a moment tempting.  Of all men, there are few he respects as much as Tristan, and few whose company he desires as much.  "And would you then bear me company on my quest?"

"I think you would find if you accepted baptism that there were other quests more worth the pursuing," Tristan says.  "Whether the Grail or the peace of a Christian marriage and a family."  There is wistfulness in his voice when he speaks of such comforts, which certainly Tristan has never had himself.

For a moment Palamedes is tempted himself to agree.  He does not regret his quest, it is true, but it is growing ever difficult to remember why it matters.  Friendship and ease would surely be worth putting himself in the bleeding hands of the Christian god.

There is a breath of noise that might be the murmuring of the brook, but he knows it for the distant sound of hounds barking, barely a whisper on the wind.

Are you his or mine? a voice says in the quiet of his heart, the warm implacable voice of Anahita-of-the-winds with her outstretched hands.

"I can only be as I am," Palamedes says, and stands.  "And I have tarried here too long.  If I ride through the night, I can at least get closer to my quarry."  He bows to Tristan.  "We can fight next time we meet."

"I will look forward to it," Tristan says quite courteously, and Palamedes swings himself up to the saddle and turns his horse's head into the darkness.

 

The third time Palamedes is tempted to stop pursuing the Questing Beast, he dismounts to drink at a forest stream in a crisp autumn, and raises his head to see the Questing Beast on the other side of the stream, its head bent to the water.

It is silent while drinking, as if the water calms the maddened hounds who howl from its belly.  Palamedes reaches silently for the bow hung from his saddle, and fits an arrow to the string.  He draws it back, aiming for the Beast's heart.  One clean shot will bring it down, and end his quest forever.

The Beast's eyes are closed as if in pleasure at the taste of the cool water.  Its sinuous neck lowers, and it settles down on its haunches, resting in the mossy bank.  It must be an effort to support that bulk on ill-fitted hooves, and to sleep with the noise of baying eternally in its own ears.

It is the child of a human woman, or so Pellinore told him, the child of a liar who lusted after her own brother and lay with a demon to win him.  It will never have a mate or a home.  He thinks for a moment that he knows how it must feel.

But Palamedes has friends he has loved well, and the satisfaction of having mended a hundred small hurts while on the road: he has fought monsters and found lost sheep, brought stray children back to their mothers and jousted with menacing giants.  The road has been more a reward to him than a punishment.  He wonders which it is for the Beast, and knows that he will never know.

Palamedes puts down the bow and stoops to fill his cupped hands with water.  The Beast startles at the movement, raising its serpentine head and staring at him with its unblinking eyes, its whole body poised for flight.

He holds out his hands to it, and the Beast takes one step into the water, and then another, and then lowers its head to drink.  Its flickering tongue is warm.  It stands quietly, trusting, and Palamedes knows that this is a wonder no other man has seen before him.

Would the Grail be better? a voice asks, the teasing voice of Anahita-of-the-waters.

"You know it would not," he says aloud.  The Beast raises its head sharply at the sound, the clamor of barking beginning again.  It whips its bulk around and springs away, the barking retreating through the underbrush.

Palamedes bends to drink, and then mounts his horse again, turning its head toward the sound of baying hounds.  It is a long afternoon's pursuit through the cool clear autumn air, the leaves turning to all the colors of a tapestry lit by dancing flames.

The trees thin at the edge of the wood, and when he comes out onto the road, he is somehow unsurprised to see a familiar knight riding under a familiar banner.  Tristan's face is set in lines of frustration, and Palamedes supposes that he has been trying to persuade Iseult to run away with him again, as suitably impossible a quest as any.

"Well met, Sir Tristan," he says, falling in beside him on the road.  "May I ride a little ways with you, or must we stop to have our battle?"

"We might ride on a little ways beforehand," Tristan says.  He smiles, and some few of his cares seem to lift from him.  "Have you given more thought to baptism since last we met?  It seems to me you were undecided when we spoke before."

"I was not, and I am not," Palamedes says.  "But you may go on trying to persuade me."  He spurs his horse on to a faster walk, knowing soon enough he will have to turn away from the road toward the sound of distant baying.  But for now he has a good road underfoot, and on such a fine day, he cannot think of any road he would rather be traveling.

 

END


“Cucumber” is copyright Penny Stirling 2018.

"Ports of Perceptions" is copyright Izzy Wasserstein 2018.

"The Questing Beast" is copyright Amy Griswold 2018.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint.

00:0000:00

Episode #52: Three Short Reprints

March 9, 2018

Do-Overs

by Jennifer Lee Rossman

 

 

I have ridden dinosaurs. Big, bitey ones. I've traveled on the Hindenburg, fought alongside Joan of Arc, punched Jack the Ripper right in the face.

The point I'm trying to make is being a time traveler puts you in some scary situations, but this is easily the most terrifying.

Asking out a pretty girl.

(Insert shriek of terror here.)

I've been putting it off, shoving it to that dusty place in the back of my mind where I keep things I'm afraid of—like the fact that house centipedes exist—but it has to be now, before she goes back home.

I take a deep breath, my heart beating like a drum roll, and step into the lab.

And there's Ada, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, world's first computer programmer, and unquestionably 1840's sexiest woman alive.

 

[Full transcript after the cut.]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip for March 9, 2018. This is your host Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing these stories with you. First things first: if you're listening to this episode when it comes out, you have until March 12, 2018 to get a great deal on the ebook of GlitterShip Year One. This anthology collects every GlitterShip story that came out between our launch and the end of 2016 and is on sale for just $2.99. You can pick it up direct from the GlitterShip website at glittership.com/buy, on Kindle, Nook, or Kobo.

Today I have three short reprints for you.

The first is Corvus the Mighty by Simon Kewin

Simon Kewin was born and raised on the misty Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea, but he now lives in the English countryside with his wife and their daughters. He is the author of over a hundred published short stories and his works have appeared in Analog, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex and many more. His cyberpunk novel The Genehunter and his Cloven Land fantasy trilogy were recently published and his clockpunky novel Engn is to be published by Curiosity Quills Press in 2018. Find him at simonkewin.co.uk.


 

Corvus the Mighty

by Simon Kewin

 

 

Gedric found the ramshackle hut half way up the hillside. He tethered his horse, the best they’d been able to spare, to one of the low stone walls marking the garden out from the sweep of sloping land. He stood and waited to be spoken to. The man he’d come to find, stripped to the waist, powerful but grey-haired now, dug a trench in the heavy soil with rhythmic swings of his shoulders. The man didn’t speak, didn’t appear to have even noticed his visitor.

Gedric had grown up with tales of him. They all had: the exploits of Corvus, Corvus and his trusty Shieldsman Way, were the stuff of children’s bedtime stories and mead-hall roister. Corvus, who had saved the seven clans again and again, defeated marauding nightmares then drunk for a week to celebrate. And now here he was, tilling the reluctant peat of this desolate hillside, this man who could have lived out his days in golden palaces had he chosen to.

While he waited, Gedric turned away to look out over the land. Now that he saw Corvus in the flesh, his doubts returned. Could one old man really save them? He regretted this fool’s errand more and more. He should be down there, fighting the invaders. At least he’d be doing something. Dimly, in the far distance, he could make out a line of smoke cutting into the sky. Some homestead or town burning. Impossible to say where from up there. But it might be Ravn. Ravn, with its walls of spiked pine trunks and its stone tower. Ravn where he’d left Eliane two days earlier, vowing he’d return with help. The invaders had been sighted even as he’d galloped away. Was she still alive? She and their child she carried within her? Were any of the people he’d grown up with still alive? He imagined her calling out his name in desperation as she died, surrounded by shrieking bone-men.

Corvus speared his shovel into the earth as if it were a beast he had slain. He regarded Gedric, an irritated look on his lined face. His chest heaved from his exertions.

“I come in search of Corvus the War Chief, Lord of the Seven Clans,” said Gedric.

“Have you now? Well, you’ve come a long way for nothing, boy.”

Gedric had been warned Corvus had turned his back on everything he’d been. Wanted only peace and solitude now. This reaction was only what he’d expected.

“My lord, the clans are in great need,” said Gedric, giving him the speech he’d practiced in his head as he rode up the hill. “The bone-men have come out of the west, hundreds of their white ships making landfall on the coast to pillage and destroy. We fight them, but they keep coming, more and more every day.”

“Sorry to hear it. At least they shouldn’t bother me all the way up here.”

“But the clans, my lord. They fall, village by village, town by town. Soon there will be none of us left.”

The man shook his head.

“And I told you. I’m not the man you’re looking for.”

“But you could be him once more, my lord. You are still Corvus. You could unite the clans, lead us against the foe.”

The old man laughed. He looked up at the sky in the manner of farmers and homesteaders everywhere, assessing the chances of rain.

“Young fool, I mean I’m really not him. Corvus died six winters ago.”

Gedric smiled. He’d been told to expect this, too.

“You mean, he died and this humble crofter I see before me was born at the same moment. I understand your desire for solitude, Corvus, but times are desperate.”

“I mean he died, boy. Corvus the Mighty, Lord of the Seven Clans and so on and so on. He gave up his ghost. In his sleep. He was just a ragbag of wounds by the end, anyway. Couldn’t feed or clean himself. Don’t mention that in the sagas, do they?”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I’ll show you his mighty bones if you like, buried on the hilltop.” The man nodded up the slope. Gedric saw the line of a well-worn path leading up there.

“But I don’t understand. Everyone I spoke to said Corvus lived here. And here you are. Yet you claim you’re not him.”

“I am not Corvus.”

“Then who are you?”

“Are you really the brightest one they could find? My name is Way, boy. Obviously.”

“No, but, I’m sorry, Way was a small man. Clever and agile as a cat. It’s in all the sagas.”

“Let me tell you something about storytellers,” said the old man. He looked around in an exaggerated way, as if there were anyone within thirty leagues who could overhear. “The thing is this. They make things up. That’s what they do, what they’re for. I can assure you I am Way. I should know. I’ve been me all my life. And for the record, I was a hand taller than Corvus. Better swordsman too, truth be told.”

Gedric had never even wondered what had happened to Way. He was just the constant companion in the tales: the one who broke into the dungeons to rescue Corvus the night before he was to be executed, or who cut his ropes when the Pirate Kings thought they had him bound and trapped belowdecks.

“But I don’t understand, Corvus came here for peace and solitude. Everyone knows that. And yet here you are. What, you came up here to rescue him from these ferocious sheep?”

The old man shook his head.

“I see the storytellers got that wrong, too. We came here for peace and solitude. They have me as, what, Corvus’s faithful companion? His servant?”

“His Shieldsman.”

The man laughed. “Do you really think we could have stood each other all that time if we’d been just comrades? Or master and servant? The world was ours to roam together. I was his lover, not some Shieldsman. Ah, he was a beautiful man in his youth, let me tell you. People would do anything for that smile of his. I know I did.”

A weight of dread filled Gedric at these words. Corvus had been their last hope. A remote hope, to be sure. He thought of Eliane and the bright, fearless look on her face. The swell of her belly. Her gentle touch.

“Then I am sorry,” said Gedric. “You have lost a lot more than just a hero.”

Way shrugged. “We had our time together, down there in the world and up here in the quiet afterwards. It barely matters now. He’s gone. Isn’t a day goes by I don’t miss him, but pining won’t bring him back, will it? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get these stonefruits planted before the rains come. Make yourself useful and I’ll let you rest here the night. You can leave in the morning.”

Unable to think of anything else to say to the old man, Gedric climbed over the wall to help.

 

That night, Gedric lay on a mattress of springy heather beneath the furs Way had provided. The old man was outside somewhere, tending to his tatty, distrustful sheep. Gedric sighed. He had failed in his quest to find Corvus, failed to bring him triumphantly back to the clans. They would all die now, sooner or later.

He leafed through the sheaf of dispatches he’d brought with him: descriptions of the skirmishes fought against the bone-men, plans for future battles. He sought good news, some flaw they’d missed, some new strategy they could adopt. He found nothing. The bone-men came in their hundreds and left behind a trail of the dead and dying. Gedric read for an hour or more by the flickering light of Way’s fire until his eyes began to prickle. Exhausted by his journey, by his labor in the field, he lay back and fell asleep.

 

He woke to rain drumming on the wooden roof of the hovel. He thought, still half-asleep, the bone-men had come for him, had set fire to their house. Imagined Eliane there beside him, reaching for her axe to fight off the invaders. But when he opened his eyes, he was alone. It was early morning, the inky darkness outside just beginning to shade to purple. Embers of the fire glowed orange in the old man’s hearth.

It took Gedric a moment to realise the despatches were gone, plucked from his hand as he slept.

How could he have been so foolish? The details they contained would be invaluable to their foe. He had vowed never to let them out of his sight, had been allowed to travel with them only in the hope they might goad Corvus into action. Now Way had them. If he really was Way. Perhaps he was someone in league with the bone-men, set up there as a trap. Alarm hammered through Gedric at what he had done.

He rose, quickly, thinking to chase after the man, catch up with him. He would be hours away by now. Gedric stood there in the early morning chill, naked, trying to decide what he should do.

“You’re in a sudden hurry, boy.”

The man sat unseen in a shadowy corner of the room. Gedric heard the rustling of paper.

“Return the despatches to me,” said Gedric.

The old man ignored him. “Tell me, who commands the warbands now?”

“Each clan chief leads their own.”

“Well, they’re all fools. See here, they turn and face the bone-men with the river to their backs. And here, again, in the High Passes, where scree-falls can easily be set off to crush a pursuing enemy, nothing is done. The warbands flap around like gaggles of geese.”

“We do what we can. There are too many of the enemy.”

The man stood and stepped out of the shadows into the orange glow from the fire. He wore full armor. Gedric recognized it immediately.

“So … you are Corvus after all.”

The man looked at him for a moment, not speaking. He shook his head.

“No. I am Way. Didn’t I tell you? But I kept his armor, boy. That’s all I have left of him. I get it all out and buckle it on sometimes. Had to loosen the straps a little. Ridiculous, I know, but it makes me feel he’s still here, makes me feel close to him again.”

“You miss him.”

Way shrugged. “Also I look rather good in it. Don’t you think?”

“You look like Corvus.”

“That’s what you see?”

“I … I thought you were him, stepping out from the sagas. That armor with those crows emblazoning it.”

“Good.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you saw that, others will see it too,” said Way. “They’ll see what they need to see. All those stories about us. A lot of it was just people believing in us, believing in him: the black-haired hero who always won, despite the ridiculous odds.”

“You’ve decided to help us now?”

 “I read your despatches,” said Way. “The bone-men. I thought you were just some lad who’d seen one battle and run for the hills. But you’re right. The clans need Corvus once more.”

“You mean, you’re going to pretend to be him?”

“Riding out of the old tales, just when the clans need him most. Don’t you see, boy? The story is irresistible. The bone-men won’t have a chance. And … I would see Corvus at the head of the warbands once more. In a manner of speaking.”

“Can this work?”

“I won’t tell anyone if you don’t. They’ll want to believe I’m Corvus. Now get dressed, boy.” Way glanced down and back up, an amused grin flashing across his face. “I can see from here how cold you are.”

Gedric began to struggle into his clothes. Way pulled Corvus’s helmet over his head and the illusion was complete.

“Come,” said Way, his voice muffled by the helmet. Changed. “Let us ride. We can’t just sit around on this hillside when the clans need us.”

Together they stepped out into the morning light. The rain had passed over now and shafts of sunlight lit the world. The whole land lay stretched out before them, like a map waiting to be drawn on. Way opened the little wooden gate that kept his sheep penned up, giving the creatures their freedom.

“Will we have a chance?” Gedric asked. “Is there really any hope?” The fate of all the clans depended on this old man, but he could think only of Eliane. Eliane and their child.

Way laughed. “The situation is hopeless, the odds ridiculous. How can we fail? We will ride to Ravn and rally their defences. And then we will ride to every other town. The story of the return of Corvus will spread like a fire across the land and we will be unstoppable.”

Then Way—Corvus—nodded, climbed onto his horse and set off down the hill to do battle.

END


Next we have "Pastel Witch" by Jacob Budenz.

Jacob Budenz is a writer and multi-disciplinary performer whose work has been published by Assaracus, Hinchas de Poesia, Polychrome Ink, The Avenue, and more. Currently, Jacob resides in New Orleans in pursuit of an MFA in Creative Writing.


 

Pastel Witch

by Jacob Budenz

 

 

Where wealth is measured by the pinkness of the sky there is a man standing at the window wearing a yellow sundress as dusk descends. His lips are lavender. His toenails match. His fingernails match. He does not wear shoes.

Where teeth hang from the doorway by silver thread and tinkle in the breeze the man crushes daisies with a mortar and pestle. The teeth are his own and he has grown them back and torn them out, grown them back and torn them out, grown them back, year after year after year after year. From his kitchen he can see the lake ripple, the mountains lean in. He is pregnant with his third child. The father is the wind.

Where the moss is a pillow and the tree is a lamp, the man will give birth to his daughter and hand the baby to the queen of the crickets. The child will return once she has learned to fly and to sing. She will be thirteen years old, then. In the mean time the man will weep once a week for the first two years, once a month for the next four, twice a year for the next three, only once the next year, never again until she returns. When his daughter returns he will tell her he never wanted any sons. Both his sons died before learning to fly, he will tell her. This is a lie. He had one daughter and one son before her. They are still alive, and have turned into a narwhal and a beetle, respectively.

Where the water is warm he will never swim. He does not know how to swim. Yet here he lives in a house by the lake, here he lives in a house by the lake. The sun has gone down, and the banshees are smiling, and he swears he will never drink a drop of liquor again, after tomorrow morning.

END

 


Finally, we have "Do-Overs" by Jennifer Lee Rossman

Jennifer Lee Rossman is a science fiction geek from Oneonta, New York, who enjoys cross stitching, watching Doctor Who, and threatening to run over people with her wheelchair. Her debut novel, Jack Jetstark's Intergalactic Freakshow, will be published by World Weaver Press in 2019. She blogs at jenniferleerossman.blogspot.com and tweets @JenLRossman.


Do-Overs

by Jennifer Lee Rossman

 

 

I have ridden dinosaurs. Big, bitey ones. I've traveled on the Hindenburg, fought alongside Joan of Arc, punched Jack the Ripper right in the face.

The point I'm trying to make is being a time traveler puts you in some scary situations, but this is easily the most terrifying.

Asking out a pretty girl.

(Insert shriek of terror here.)

I've been putting it off, shoving it to that dusty place in the back of my mind where I keep things I'm afraid of—like the fact that house centipedes exist—but it has to be now, before she goes back home.

I take a deep breath, my heart beating like a drum roll, and step into the lab.

And there's Ada, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, world's first computer programmer, and unquestionably 1840's sexiest woman alive.

She's bent over a laptop, her dark hair falling over her little serious face, dressed in jeans and a V-neck that are a far cry from the silks and gowns a countess would wear in her era. She makes my skin feel warm just looking at her.

"So," she says as I approach. "I've run a final check on the new operating system and it all looks good. I've worked out the kinks that caused that paradox, but there are a few new guidelines I want to run by you—"

I love the way she says paradox in her accent, with a long O sound that makes her lips get all round and pouty. Like when she says my name.

"Roz?"

I blink and look up from her lips.

"Roz, did you hear a word I said?"

My nod is a vigorous, enthusiastic lie.

"Then if you want to test your machine—"

"You're gorgeous."

Her entire face stops like someone paused her video in mid-word and I just want to melt into a puddle of embarrassment.

"I'm... gorgeous," she repeats, her voice devoid of any inflection that would help me know how to fix this. Should I take it back? That seems offensive. Maybe I should tell her I don't mean it in a gay way?

But I do. I mean it in the gayest way possible. I mean it as the start of a relationship that will lead to us getting married in matching princess dresses and having babies and operating our own time travel business and—

Time travel. Duh.

"You know what?" I say, holding my hands up. "Let me try this again."

I leave her to her bewilderment and step outside. I set my wristwatch time machine back two minutes, and a blue glow envelops me. When it subsides, I go back in to find her bent over the laptop again.

She looks up when she sees me. "So..."

"Do you like girls?" I interrupt, because I am just the smoothest. When she doesn't answer right away, I add, "I do. And boys. And, in one very confusing instance, a cartoon fox. But the girl part is the most relevant now because I like you."

Facepalm.

Out the door I go without another word, and back in time with a blue glow. We never used to have a blue glow; must be one of her improvements to the system.

This time, I go in with a plan, and that plan is poetry. What girl can resist wordplay!

And I have the perfect poem in mind. Before she can say anything, I launch into a passionate recitation. "Maid of Athens, 'ere we part. Give, oh, give me back my heart!"

Her initial amusement slips from her face, leaving her looking confused and... is that a teensy bit of disgust?

"Or since that has left my breast," I continue, "take it now and leave the rest. Hear my vow—"

Oh, no.

I just remembered who wrote the poem.

Ada's perfect eyebrows knit together. "Roz, are you trying to woo me with a poem written by my father?"

"Yes. Luckily, I'm about to change history so you won't remember any of this when I get back," I say, and dash out the door. I do the Time Warp again.

Okay. Focus.

I breathe slow, deep breaths and think of exactly what I want to say. I got Napoleon and Josephine together when a time rift erased the day they met. If I can do that, I can totally do this.

...is what I tell myself so I don't throw up.

"Hello, Miss Lovelace," I say this time, trying to stay calm despite a raging blush that has to be visible from space. "Do you have a moment to talk about something important?"

Ada is leaning over a closed laptop, a knowing smile on her strawberry cream lips (she borrowed my flavored lip gloss, so I know her kiss will be delicious). A jolt runs through me – does she want to talk about what I want to talk about? But she says, "Yes, I think we should go over some of the new features of your operating system before I leave," and I deflate just a tiny bit.

Did I imagine all the glances she stole when she thought I wasn’t looking? The flirtastic banter during all the late nights we stayed up coding? All the times her hands drifted from the keys and found my hand for no reason except that we're so obviously the leads in a romantic comedy?

I bite my lip and join her at the table. My confidence fizzles out like candles on a forgotten birthday cake, but I have to try.

"Ada—"

"One of the changes I've made," she interrupts, resting her chin in her hands, "will hopefully prevent paradoxes." Pouty lips on paradoxes.

I mirror her posture and pay attention this time.

She speaks slowly, like she's teasing me with information. "I've implemented a safeguard to keep time travelers from interfering with their own timelines."

Wait.

"If you try to go back and change your own history, the machine won't work. I've set it to flash a blue glow instead of an alarm."

But that would mean...

"So, for example, if you wanted to undo your embarrassing attempts at confessing your feelings, the girl would see you walk out the door, only to return a few seconds later to try again."

Oh.

Oh no.

Frost replaces my heated blush as my blood cools to the temperature of a cherry slushie.

Can you die from awkwardness?

My mouth hangs open in horror, which somehow makes it all the more awkward when she leans forward to kiss me. All at once, my warmth returns, and I wish she hadn't made it impossible to go back in my own timeline.

Because I want to relive this moment over and over again.

END


 

“Corvus the Mighty" was originally published in Vitality Magazine and is copyright Simon Kewin 2015.

"Pastel Witch" was originally published in The Light Ekphrastic and is copyright Jacob Budenz 2015.

"Do-Overs" was originally published in Spectrum Lit and is copyright Jennifer Lee Rossman 2017.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a couple of  GlitterShip originals.

00:0000:00

Episode #51: “Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings” by Andrea Tang

March 5, 2018

Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings 

by Andrea Tang

 

 

The flyboy crash-landed into Magdalisa’s life on a Wednesday, just before mid-afternoon prayers. More specifically, he crash-landed into the spindly stone watchtower over Dalaga Cemetery, and really, that amounted to the same thing. Magdalisa, for her part, probably wouldn’t have noticed if the flyboy’s spectacular nose-dive hadn’t so thoroughly disturbed the ghosts.

 


 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 51 for March 3, 2018. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you.

Our story today is "Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings" by Andrea Tang.

Andrea Tang is a DC-based speculative fiction writer and international affairs wonk who earns her keep scribbling stuff about power politicking that slides on a scale from very real to very fictional, depending on who's asking. When not hunched over a notebook misusing her imagination, she's known to enjoy theater, music, and martial arts. Catch her on Twitter @atangwrites, or drop by for a hello and a virtual cup of tea at http://andreatangwrites.com.

 

Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings 

by Andrea Tang

 

 

 

The flyboy crash-landed into Magdalisa’s life on a Wednesday, just before mid-afternoon prayers. More specifically, he crash-landed into the spindly stone watchtower over Dalaga Cemetery, and really, that amounted to the same thing. Magdalisa, for her part, probably wouldn’t have noticed if the flyboy’s spectacular nose-dive hadn’t so thoroughly disturbed the ghosts.

Tita Shulin, naturally, was the ghost tasked with telling Magdalisa, who’d been dozing off over a half-swept catacomb beneath the graveyard proper. The blast of icy air across Magdalisa’s ears put an abrupt end to the nap. Yelping, the girl scrambled awake. “Tita Shulin! I’m sorry, I’m on my way to prayers, I promise—”

“Sod the prayers,” said Magdalisa’s tita. Those three words, more than anything, alerted Magdalisa to the fact that something serious indeed had happened. Sleep-fog fled her mind. Twisting her hands together, Magdalisa leaned forward, until she was practically nose-to-nose with Tita Shulin.

“Tita,” said Magdalisa, more quietly now, but a good deal more urgently. Her words bounced off the catacomb walls. Tita, tita, tita. “What’s the matter?”

Tita Shulin’s mouth pursed. Ghosts were funny creatures. Tita Shulin didn’t glow, or go dramatically translucent, or otherwise give much indication that she was dead. She looked nearly the same as she had in life: square-shouldered and square-jawed, with golden-brown skin, her hair—dyed stubbornly black well into her seventies—close-cropped in a fashion that had supposedly scandalized the family when Tita Shulin was still a young woman, and not yet a tita at all. Tita Shulin, as a ghost, turned the air around her cold, and when particularly exasperated with Magdalisa, sometimes floated a few inches off the ground and telekinetically bandied objects about. Still, given that Tita Shulin, when living, had been a veteran of the Corrazon Witches’ Corps, death had done little to change her.

Now, invisible forces tugged Magdalisa upright from the catacomb surface, and smoothed down her collar with perfunctory sensibility. “A sky-sailor has crashed his paper phoenix into the tower.”

“What?” shrieked Magdalisa, scurrying after Tita Shulin. The ghost floated up the grimy stone stairway with alarming speed. “Is he all right?”

“No. Come on, kid, pick up those human legs of yours. You may live with ghosts, but that doesn’t mean you have to move like the dead.”

Magdalisa, legs burning protest by the time she panted her way to the top of Dalaga’s watchtower, caught sight of the wings before anything else. Painted sleekly red and black, even their collapsed length spanned the tower’s highest turret, brightly-colored paper still fluttering weakly against the wind. Fierce, hand-painted phoenix eyes stared blankly at Magdalisa from the smoking wreckage, devoid of life. Magdalisa swallowed an odd lump at the sight. Then she heard the faint, low-pitched keening beneath. Magdalisa hurried forward and crouched low. Grimacing as her knees hit a sticky little puddle of blood, she pried up one of the singed, broken wings.

When Magdalisa caught sight of the sky-sailor—or what remained of him—her entire body flinched. “He’s dead.”

Murmurs of dismay greeted this answer. When Magdalisa turned, she found herself facing the entire lineup of Dalaga ghosts, their faces wide-eyed and curious. Tita Shulin, standing at the front like the self-proclaimed matriarch she was, snorted at Magdalisa’s proclamation. “Please. We’re dead, kid. Flyboy’s just on the brink of it, that’s all. You of all people should know the difference, hmm? He’s probably a goner, either way.” One inky, ghostly eyebrow lifted. “Unless, of course...”

Magdalisa recoiled without quite meaning to. “I can’t. High Priest Stefan won’t like it.”

One of the other ghosts, a stout scowling woman called Nia, clicked her tongue irritably at the High Priest’s name. “Sod old Stefan. Petty little man.”

Her sister, Luchia, gasped and shoved at Nia. “Quiet, foolish girl! He’s the High Priest!”

Nia’s mouth set mulishly. “High Priest or not, I don’t see him around right now, do you?”

“Ah,” said Tita Shulin, tapping her chin. “What an interesting point Nia’s raised.”

“I could get in trouble,” said Magdalisa, but staring at the broken red wings, and listening to their sky-sailor’s terrible, broken animal sounds beneath, she could already feel the magic bubbling mutinously in her veins.

Tita Shulin shrugged. “No one here’s gonna tell. Right, girls?”

Fervent, nervous agreement chorused between the other ghosts.

Magdalisa swallowed, and turned back to the phoenix’s smoking wreckage. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. She didn’t know if she was apologizing to herself, or the three-quarters-dead flyboy, or the sun god Dal above, whose High Priest’s commandments she was almost certainly violating with the spark of unnatural, death-kissed power between her hands. Now, kneeling in the drying puddle of the flyboy’s blood, she lay her hands against his limp, broken-angled body. The flyboy had stopped keening, and lay unresponsive, his light brown skin now waxy and grey-tinged. His flank, terribly cold, barely rose and fell under her touch, but what little air he had left was enough. Magdalisa had more to give. A sigh shuddered through her. She let the power go.

At first, nothing happened. Then a second sigh tore through the body beneath hers, violent in its exhalation. The flyboy bucked against her palms, muscles tightening under his skin. His eyes, flying open, rolled back in his skull, as his mouth widened in a soundless cry. Bones snapped back into place. New blood rushed to his previously pallid cheeks. Shudders wracked him over and over, as his body knit itself arduously back together. Still, Magdalisa’s hands held steady, her fingers twining through the fleeting threads of the flyboy’s soul, feeding its life back into his convulsing body.

A final bone snapped into place. He whimpered once, then went slack in Magdalisa’s arms. She pressed her ear to his chest, and blew out a sigh of satisfaction at the drumming heart inside. When she leaned back on to her heels, the flyboy was blinking dark, slightly unfocused eyes at her. “I’m alive,” he croaked.

“Yes,” agreed Magdalisa, a bit crossly, “no thanks to your sky-sailing skills. Welcome to Dalaga.”

His smile at the name ‘Dalaga’ was weak, but strangely giddy. “Sanctuary,” he rasped.

“What?”

“Sanctuary,” he repeated, more sluggishly now. “Dalaga. I claim...” He trailed off, eyes drifting shut.

Nia patted Magdalisa fondly on the shoulder. “Let him rest. Dying and coming back in the same day is hard work. You know how it is.”

“I do,” said Magdalisa, frowning as she tried to arrange the flyboy’s arms more comfortably, “but I—” She hissed, as her fingers brushed cold metal at his fingers.

“What?” Luchia asked, anxiously poking her head over her sister’s. “What’s the matter?”

Arranged across the flyboy’s fingers were a series of gold and silver rings carved with interlocked triangles. That meant one thing. Magdalisa’s heart thudded with alarm inside her chest. “He’s a Wanderer.”

“Lots of sky-sailors are,” said Tita Shulin, taking a seat beside Magdalisa. The blood-stained ground seemed to bother ghosts a good deal less than living humans. “I expect they have more need of paper phoenixes than most.” Her eyes fixed on Magdalisa’s. “Are you really going to judge him for it?”

Magdalisa had the good grace to feel a stab of guilt. “They’re heretics,” she said defensively.

“Ah,” said her tita, “and so are all residents of Dalaga, technically speaking. Even if he’s not a woman, a Wanderer flyboy ought to fit in just fine.”

 

“Remember what brought you to Dalaga.”

Every so often, between chores, Magdalisa considers the epithet carved across the entrance to the cemetery. Dalaga’s name in full is Dalaga Cemetery for Misguided Ladies, the sun god Dal’s final refuge for women who strayed from the holy path of righteousness in life. The ghosts of Dalaga have been prostitutes and adulterers, god-deniers and conspirators, each new addition finding more creatively myriad ways to spend lives of merrymaking sin, before succumbing to death. The High Priest declares that the beautiful towers and ancient catacombs of Dalaga Cemetery are a tribute to Dal’s grace, a refuge for sinful females to repent in their afterlife and bask in the god’s glorious forgiveness for all eternity.

Magdalisa’s not sure the High Priest has this bit quite right—in her experience, Dalaga’s ghosts aren’t especially interested in penance or forgiveness. Mostly, they seem interested in bad jokes, the latest Witches’ Corps gossip, complaining about the dust on their graves, and generally busybodying their way through Magdalisa’s life. But then, Magdalisa’s just a graveyard keeper, who earns her living cleaning the catacombs and weeding the gardens. What does she know, anyway?

“I know what brought me to Dalaga. A job, that’s all. Nothing more, nothing less.”

 

Magdalisa had been tending the latest, strangest newcomer to Dalaga, when a blast of winter-worthy cold announced the ghosts’ presence in the tower’s spare room.

“You have a visitor,” announced Tita Shulin.

“It’s the High Priest,” blurted out Luchia, bobbing over the elder ghost’s shoulder, eyes very wide, as she wrung her hands. “He’s here for one of his dratted surprise inspections. Oh, Magdalisa, Magdalisa, what shall we do?”

“Quiet, girl,” snapped Tita Shulin. “You’re not helping.”

“What a curse it is to be a woman,” moaned Luchia, ignoring her. “What a curse, to spend a woman’s life at the whims of men, only to spend death at Dalaga and discover yourself at the whims of the High Priest, of all possible men. The High Priest!”

Magdalisa sighed. Sometimes, there really was no help for Luchia. In life, she’d been a minor priestess of Dal, the third daughter of an impoverished man using his offspring to vie for respectability, which Luchia had promptly dashed when she’d run off with a young man from one of Corrazon’s neighboring cities. The rebellious lovers had lived a happy enough life together, before illness took Luchia, and sent her home to be buried at Dalaga Cemetery for Misguided Ladies.

Now, Luchia began to wail. “A curse to be a woman, and no respite from it, even here! I don’t know why you would ever choose such a life, Magdalisa!”

“I didn’t,” said Magdalisa, a little dryly. “I’m afraid it rather chose me.”

“Magdalisa,” said Tita Shulin. Her voice was a knife, cleaving straight through Luchia’s histrionics. “How’s the flyboy?”

Magdalisa glanced down at the guest bed’s occupant. For the past several days, the young Wanderer had lain unconscious more often than not, and when he woke, he barely kept his eyes open long enough to string two words together. She didn’t even know his name. Still, his color improved daily, he swallowed the congee she spooned into his mouth, and his once-thready pulse seemed to grow stronger each time Magdalisa checked it.

“Alive,” said Magdalisa. Often, the barest truth was also best.

Tita Shulin clicked her tongue. “It shall have to do.”

“He’s coming!” hissed Nia from around the corner. “Magdalisa, you’d best have a story ready!”

Helplessly, Magdalisa looked to her tita, who looked back with the same, unperturbed calm she’d carried everywhere in life. “Eh,” said Tita Shulin. “Let him come. This is Dalaga Cemetery, and you are still its keeper, for the moment. That position leaves you some sway over the goings-on of this refuge, and don’t you let old Stefan tell you otherwise.”

It was good advice to go out on. The High Priest of Corrazon burst into the spare room in the same instant the ghosts vanished. “Graveyard keeper,” he barked. His beady blue eyes swept toward the bed where the flyboy slept. “Explain yourself.”

Magdalisa folded her hands primly over her apron, and bowed her head to the High Priest. “I have been performing my holy duties as the keeper of Dalaga Cemetery, Your Grace.”

“Holy duties!”

“Indeed, Your Grace.”

“Do you know what the city watch told me this afternoon?” asked the High Priest, in the low, dangerous voice of someone who does not actually expect you to answer the question. “One of those wretched sky-sailors on their ridiculous paper birds was shot down by a sentry on suspicion of espionage. But when runners were sent to find the body, none was recovered. Instead, we hear word of a paper wreckage on the very watchtower of Dalaga Cemetery, and...” He trailed off meaningfully. Magdalisa, even with her head bent, could practically feel those beady eyes boring into her skull. “You, sheltering an unexpected guest.”

“Yes, Your Grace.” Magdalisa kept her voice even. “It’s as I said. Being a cemetery, Dalaga is a sacred space, holy to our sun god Dal. You have reminded me yourself, Your Grace, on many occasions.”

“I don’t see why—”

“As Dalaga’s graveyard keeper, is it not then my holy duty to take in the wounded who arrive seeking care and refuge?”

“Yes, yes,” snapped the High Priest, flapping an irritable hand, “but if you are harboring a spy, an enemy to the city and the god himself—”

“I’m not a spy,” said a new voice.

Magdalisa’s head jerked up, deference forgotten, as she and the High Priest rounded as one on the bed in the corner. The flyboy was awake, and sitting upright, black curls mussed, thick-lashed eyes narrowed at the High Priest. He looked a little wan, beneath the usual dusky complexion common to the Wandering folk, but the expression behind those pitch-dark eyes gave every impression of alertness. And anger. “I’m not a spy,” he repeated. “I was delivering routine messages to the sky-sailors’ charities within the city.”

“Then why, pray tell, did the sentry shoot you down?” demanded the High Priest.

The sky-sailor’s lip curled. “Corrazon’s city sentries have never been overly fond of sky-sailors.”

The High Priest’s face grew mottled. “Keep in mind, boy, your position.” Mouth pursed, his gaze raked the young man up and down. “The sentries are protectors and servants of Dal. And no one believes the words of Wanderers. Be careful where you choose to fling your accusations.”

“I’m not accusing anyone of anything,” said the sky-sailor in even tones. He smiled unpleasantly. “I’m sure it was a mistake.”

“Then you will not mind being tried for espionage at the city courts.”

“On what grounds?”

“You are a Wanderer,” began the High Priest, eyeing the rings at the flyboy’s fingers with a grimace, “and a sky-sailor, besides. It is well within the authority of the High Priest of Corrazon to detain individuals of suspicious background—”

“Not in a sanctuary,” interrupted Magdalisa. A memory clicked into place at the back of her mind.

Both men’s gazes whipped toward her, one cold, one bemused. “What are you talking about?” demanded the High Priest.

“Sanctuary,” repeated Magdalisa. “Cemeteries are sacred to our sun god. In a refuge holy to Dal, no blood can be spilt, and no hands lain on another against their will. As such, so long as we stand on Dalaga’s grounds, Your Grace, I’m afraid you’ll be quite unable to detain...”

“Rigo,” the flyboy supplied, looking rather amused now. “I’m called Rigo.”

“Rigo,” agreed Magdalisa, head bowed to the now crimson-faced High Priest. “There you have it. I’m terribly sorry, Your Grace. I’m but a humble graveyard keeper, who answers only to Dal’s will, which commands us all.”

At the invocation of the sun god’s name, the expression on High Priest Stefan’s face shifted just a little, as he glanced skyward, toward Dal’s domain. But it was enough. His mouth worked. “Stay here then, heretic,” he snarled at last. “And may you rot within these walls, by the eternal mercy of the god whose name you disgrace.”

With that particularly dramatic proclamation, the High Priest slammed out of the room.

Slowly, Magdalisa lifted her eyes to Rigo, the flyboy. “Well,” she said awkwardly. “It seems you may have returned to the land of the living just in time for me to trap you in a cemetery for eternity. I’m dreadfully sorry.”

Rigo blinked at her. “You just saved me.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Magdalisa. “When you first smashed yourself to bits against the watchtower turret, certainly, I’ll take credit for that save. I’m not sure this one counts, though. Caging you in a graveyard might not be much better than letting you stand city trial.”

“Anything is better than standing city trial for a Wanderer,” said Rigo, very wryly. He blinked slowly and shook his head, his grin full of uncertain wonder. “You don’t even know me. Why help me?”

“Ah, well.” Magdalisa rolled her shoulders. “You can blame my tita for that one.”

 

Remember what brought you to Dalaga.

Tita Shulin—in her life before Dalaga—proudly serves the city government as a member of the Corrazon Witches’ Corps. She’s Magdalisa’s very favorite tita. Magdalisa, at this point, isn’t yet called Magdalisa; that part won’t happen until later, but the name she bears right now isn’t important. The child who will one day become Magdalisa laughs when Tita Shulin makes Mama’s cookware dance around the family kitchen, and exclaims over the silky uniform pinafore that Tita Shulin carefully airs out on the balcony every Sunday. “Hey, tita!” Magdalisa calls, dangling heels thumping together between the balcony bars. “Tita, when I’m big, I’m going to join the Witches’ Corps too, and wear pinafores just like yours!”

Tita Shulin laughs, and nudges her sister, Magdalisa’s mama, crowing, “This kid’s going to be a handful.”

“I know what brought me to Dalaga. My tita’s pinafore, that’s all. Nothing more, nothing less.”

 

“Wanderers aren’t technically heretics.”

Magdalisa squinted up at the figure silhouetted against the afternoon sun. “Excuse me?”

Rigo, the flyboy, dimpled down at her. He still walked gingerly, and bore a particular pallor that suggested his body hadn’t quite caught up with Magdalisa’s magic, but he left the guest bed from time to time to wander the cemetery grounds, picking up books from the tower library and offering Magdalisa assistance with minor chores around Dalaga. Now, he’d caught her in the garden, tending one of the jade plants. Apparently, he was in a mood to debate theology.

Magdalisa patted at the dirt. “Anyone who refuses to recognize Dal the sun god is a heretic by definition.”

“But there’s the thing,” mused Rigo in that habitually cheery, soft-spoken tone of his. “We do recognize Dal. We think he’s a rather fine fellow, in fact. Who wouldn’t?” Squatting beside Magdalisa, he caressed the little jade plant’s leaves, brow furrowed in thought. “The sun brings us all life. Where your High Priest and his ilk seem to take exception is that we also recognize Meera the earth mother, and Hiseo the god of sea and stars, and Shara the holy queen of the eastern skies.”

Magdalisa said, carefully, “The traditional scriptures of Dal do not recognize other gods.”

“True,” granted Rigo, dimples still out in full force. “Still, the sun god doesn’t strike me as a petty deity. I can’t imagine he begrudges those less fortunate, homeless gods a place in somebody else’s pantheon. We Wanderers can’t help but feel for the poor aimless creatures.”

The corners of Magdalisa’s mouth, traitorous, twitched upward. “The High Priest and his followers would have you burned in the city square for speaking of Dal in such friendly terms.”

“But does Dal not proclaim for the virtues of companionship and charity? He must feel for his fellow deities. Why, consider Shu of the western wind, for instance—such a blustery fellow, blowing this way and that, uncertain of his welcome anywhere. We cannot all be so graciously secure in our spot in the sky as the sun god.”

Magdalisa glanced sidelong and the sky-sailor. “I’m not at all sure we’re still speaking of Dal.” Curiosity warred with polite wariness, and won. “How does a Wanderer come to fly paper phoenixes for the sky-sailors’ brigade, anyhow?”

Rigo winked. “Well, to start, I’m quite good at flying.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed, from the great bloody mess you left on the watchtower turret,” said Magdalisa dryly.

“An injustice!” Rigo pulled a face at her. “It was hardly my fault the city sentries decided to have a go at me!”

“They did think you were a spy.”

Rigo sighed, still grinning, but his dark gaze went oddly somber. “All sky-sailors are spies in the eyes of the sentries. The city government—the sentries, the Witches’ Corps, even the High Priest, bless his soul—they all wish to protect the people of Corrazon. It’s a noble task, but one where they do not always succeed. Precious little protection exists for the poor, or for so-called misguided women”—here, he winked again at Magdalisa—“or indeed, for Wandering folk. We of the sky-sailors’ brigade merely wish to assist by filling the neglected gap. The sentries seem to find this an unwelcome interference. Can’t think why.”

Magdalisa’s brow furrowed. “You think the city government dislikes the sky-sailors because they defend Corrazon’s outcasts?”

“I didn’t say that at all!” cried Rigo, injured. “Perhaps the good servants of the government are merely jealous that we remember what they’ve forgotten. How frightfully embarrassing for them, poor fellows.”

Helpless, startled laughter bubbled out of Magdalisa. “You know,” she admitted, “I wanted more than anything to join the Corrazon Witches’ Corps once. I thought I’d help the government protect people too, just like my tita.”

Rigo’s smile was slow, genuine, and sun-bright. “You would have made an excellent addition, if my still-beating heart is any indication,” he pointed out. “Why didn’t you?”

Magdalisa shrugged, eyes averted. “I grew up, and discovered that being magical is rather more trouble than it’s worth.” She touched the jade plant’s leaves. “Besides, the graveyard needed a new keeper.”

 

Remember what brought you to Dalaga.”

Magdalisa’s mama spends most of Magdalisa’s childhood hoping Magdalisa will grow out of Witches’ Corps ambitions. When Magdalisa doesn’t, Mama blames Tita Shulin. “This is all your influence!” An angry voice floats up from the balcony late one night, when Magdalisa is supposed to be in bed. “How am I supposed to raise a child properly by myself, when you cavort about, telling lewd stories about women you’ve bedded in the Corps and teaching witchcraft behind my back?”

“You don’t have to like it,” chides Tita Shulin, sounding tired. “But your kid has a real gift for magic—”

“Gift!”

“The Witches’ Corps should be so lucky to recruit such a talented magic-worker into Corrazon’s service. Be proud, sister.”

“I would,” says Mama, in a low, tight voice. “I know how much the child wants to be a witch. But it’s not what boys are supposed to want.”

Mama’s words thud inside Magdalisa’s chest like a misplaced heartbeat. The next morning, after prayers, Magdalisa finds Tita Shulin. “Tita,” she asks, “must I be a boy?”

Tita Shulin sighs. “Your Mama, and most of the family, seem to think so.” A pause. “That does not mean you are a boy, or under any particular obligation to pretend you are.” She smiles. “Eh. Boy, girl, both, neither. You’re young. You don’t have to know everything about yourself right now, hmm?”

“Did you always know you were a girl?”

“Sure,” says Tita Shulin. “But I didn’t know I was the sort of girl who fancies other girls until I was past twenty, and in my second year with the Witches’ Corps.” She shrugs. “Your grandpapa—my papa, and your mama’s—didn’t like that so much either.” Tita Shulin offers a wink. “But that did not stop it from being true.”

“I know what brought me to Dalaga. The truth, that’s all. Nothing more, nothing less.”

 

“That sky-sailor’s sweet on you,” said Nia, without so much as a word of preamble, or a blast of cold to announce her presence.

Magdalisa shrieked into the nightgown she’d half-pulled over her head. “Dal’s sun! Don’t you ghosts understand a human need for privacy? I was indecent!”

Nia rolled her luminous eyes, clearly unimpressed. “Little one, all women who reside at Dalaga, living or dead, have been indecent at some point. We’ve practically made indecency an art form.”

“Still!”

“Nia has a point,” added Luchia, following her sister. “Granted, she didn’t have one true love, as I did, but rather, a great collection of them—”

“Luchia!”

“– but the two of us do share an understanding when it comes to men who fancy women,” continued Luchia. “And the flyboy fancies you.”

“Codswallop,” said Magdalisa, fire-cheeked. “You’ve all been dead too long to know the first thing about fancying anybody.”

Luchia’s eyes narrowed. “Why, it’s true. You do like him back!”

“Told you,” crowed Nia. “You owe me the next three rice wine offerings on your grave.”

“You said two!”

“I said three, little sister.”

Magdalisa stomped out of her bedroom. Living with ghosts was all very well, but a human girl could only stomach so much gossip and bickering at her expense. Struck by a chord of determination, she went to find Rigo.

The source of all ghostly speculation himself was propped up in the guest bed, reading an old volume of Corrazon history. Upon seeing Magdalisa, he smiled. “You’re still awake! I was the only night owl in my family. It’s nice to know someone else who doesn’t drop like a snoring rock as soon as Dal’s sun sets.”

“Do you fancy me?” demanded Magdalisa.

Rigo blinked over the book cover. “I’m feeling rather attacked by this line of questioning.”

“It’s all right if you don’t,” Magdalisa added quickly. “I don’t expect—”

“Yes.”

“– any obligations from you. What?”

“Yes,” Rigo repeated. He marked his place in the book, set it aside, and said, “I fancy you.”

“Is it because I stuck the life back in your body after you essentially died?” demanded Magdalisa, whose heart had begun to rattle unpleasantly beneath her bones.

Rigo’s mouth twitched. “That was a very nice point in your favor, but not the only reason.”

Eyes averted, she flopped down on the foot of the guest bed. “Is it because I’m the only living woman at Dalaga?”

“Shara of the Sky bear me witness, I’d like to think I have higher standards for women than a mere beating heart!” Rigo raked a hand through his curls, looking genuinely nervous for the first time since she’d brought him back from the dead. Then he took a deep breath, and said softly, “I like debating theology with you. I like how clever and funny you are. I like that you treat the graveyard plants so tenderly. I like how your hair curls at the ends when it rains, and how your skin goes dark with Dal’s summer sun. I like—”

Magdalisa leaned over and kissed him.

 

“Remember what brought you to Dalaga.”

Magdalisa’s sixteen. She’s been going with Tomo, the butcher’s boy, for all of three months, when they get into a tremendous row right after Wednesday’s midday prayer service.

“My papa says the magic inside you is a Wanderers’ curse against Dal,” claims Tomo, who at seventeen, at least has the self-awareness to look shame-faced. Magdalisa, though, is having none of it.

“What complete codswallop,” she snaps, hands on her hips. Embarrassed indignation burns like a furnace inside her belly, heating her cheeks. “I have never spoken to a Wanderer in my entire life!”

Tomo shakes his head, clearly miserable. “I know, but it won’t make a difference to Papa. He says I’m not to see you anymore, and that I’m to find a proper, beautiful woman who will give him proper grandchildren.”

The furnace inside Magdalisa might as well be a full-fledged bonfire. “Well!” she exclaims. “My mama says your papa is a miserable pig, and going with you is beneath our family’s dignity, anyhow. You’re just jealous that I have sufficient magical talent to sit the Witches’ Corps exams, while you must spend all your days in your miserable papa’s butcher shop. I’m well rid of you, Tomo!”

She starts to stalk off, but can’t quite resist shouting over her shoulder, “And another thing! I am a beautiful woman, so good luck finding another foolish enough to have you!”

Magdalisa waits until she’s safely home, ensconced on Tita Shulin’s balcony, before she finally allows the tears to flow, ugly and unchecked. A few minutes later, Tita Shulin herself stomps out to scold Magdalisa for skipping the post-prayer luncheon, but stops short at the blotchy, sorry sight of Magdalisa’s face. “Dal’s sun above, kid. What on earth is the matter?”

Magdalisa opens her mouth to say, “Nothing.” Instead, the whole mortifying story blubbers out: about how much she liked Tomo, who liked her back, but not enough, in the end. How Tomo’s papa wanted Tomo to marry a normal, pretty girl who could produce normal, pretty children, instead of some shrewish witch-girl who’d spent practically her entire childhood being mistaken for a boy.

“Ah, kid,” says Tita Shulin, very quietly, when Magdalisa’s done. “That’s a rough break.”

Magdalisa hiccups. “Are you mad at me?”

“Nah.” The old witch’s arm slings rough and tight around the young witch’s shoulders, as Magdalisa’s tears silently soak Tita Shulin’s pinafore collar. “Everyone misses a prayer luncheon or two. You got nothing to be ashamed of, you hear? Nothing at all.”

“I know what brought me to Dalaga. My own silly, broken heart, that’s all. Nothing more, nothing less.”

 

Rigo’s mouth, soft and full-lipped, tasted like fruit from the garden. His hands, rings cool on her skin, cradled the back of her skull like it was something precious, thumbs rubbing gentle circles just under her jawline.

Magdalisa broke the kiss with some reluctance, her own fingers still curled in his hair, memories a lump in her throat. She didn’t owe the flyboy anything, not truly, but the lump needed to be spoken, for her own sake. She groaned, forehead thudding against his chest. “Rigo, listen, before we go any further. You might not—I have too much magic in me. People expected me to...” Rigo’s heart thrummed patiently against Magdalisa’s forehead. She didn’t dare look up, unable to stomach the thought of those expectant, liquid dark eyes. How to pull this off gracefully?

Magdalisa leaned back, gaze fixed on the ceiling, and blurted out, “I think you’re assuming that I have all the particular physical bits people usually expect of women, and that I was born into this world knowing I was a woman, but I don’t, and I wasn’t, all right?”

Oh no, she thought, mortified, that wasn’t graceful at all.

Rigo blinked a few times, pupils still blown, inky brows furrowing. Almost absently, he traced a thumb over her cheekbone. “All right.”

“All right?” she echoed, a little incredulous.

He shrugged, looking amused. “If I had anything against unusually magical women, I probably shouldn’t have confessed my affection after your magic literally knit my soul back to my body.”

“And the rest?”

“Magdalisa,” said Rigo, “we’re currently necking in a cemetery dedicated to women who broke with Corrazon expectations. Your particular womanhood, however you came to it, clearly follows in the footsteps of a rich tradition.”

“Oh,” said Magdalisa, flooded by a curious, insistent warmth, and reached for him. “Well,” she managed, as his mouth found her ear, “I suppose we’d best get back to that then.”

No further interruptions occurred.

 

“Remember what brought you to Dalaga.”

When the Witches’ Corps send Magdalisa a politely-worded rejection letter—she still wants them, but they don’t want her—Magdalisa’s not the one who breaks. It’s Mama. “I knew it,” Mama moans, over and over again, “I knew this encouragement of your magic would come to no good end. The Witches’ Corps was the only hope for a child like you, and now the Witches’ Corps have turned their backs on us too. What place is left for you now, hmm? What are we to do with you?”

Magdalisa watches this all in silence, knowing better than to voice the words resting sharp on her tongue’s edge: The Witches’ Corps turned their backs on me, not you. Stop twisting my pain into your own, Mama.

“We’ll fix this,” Mama decides at last. Her wet eyes are hard and narrow. “I know a man who can help. He’ll sort this all out, and our lives will be our own again.”

Magdalisa, staring at the floor, wonders what Tita Shulin would say to Mama. The thought is a foolish indulgence. A bad heart killed Magdalisa’s tita more than a year ago. What worth can be found in a dead woman’s imaginary words?

“I know what brought me to Dalaga. One unfortunate letter, that’s all. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

The Festival of Dal’s Sunrise would fall on a Friday. It was, Magdalisa realized, with an odd twist of her gut, the perfect day to plan an escape for Rigo. The High Priest and his most trusted men would be occupied all day at the city square with holy festivities. No one would bother to monitor arrivals and departures from Dalaga.

“I agree,” said Tita Shulin, when Magdalisa told her this, one hot day in the graveyard gardens, “but I don’t see why you can’t go with him.”

“Who, Rigo?” Magdalisa turned her face toward the garden wall. “Don’t be ridiculous, tita, I’m the graveyard keeper.”

“Yes, and so you’ve been for years now. You’re too young to be stuck in a cemetery forever. You wanted to protect Corrazon’s living people, once. That young flyboy of yours, he shares the same dream. Why not make something of it together?”

“In the sky-sailors’ brigade?” Magdalisa asked, incredulous. “What place could they have for a graveyard keeper, a forgotten little witch-girl that no one—”

“Stop that this instant,” said Tita Shulin, suddenly ironlike. “I didn’t indulge that kind of talk from you when you were sixteen, and I certainly won’t indulge it now that you’re grown. You live with the dead, but you are not one of us. You were always going to have to move on, one day.”

“We can argue about my career choices later,” snapped Magdalisa, stomping from the garden. “Right now, I’m going to find Rigo, and share my plan.”

“He’s in love, you know.”

Magdalisa blinked rapidly. “I know, tita. So am I. That’s why I have to set him free.”

She found Rigo in the library, and stared at the ceiling the whole time she recited her plan. She’d considered everything: the little-known catacomb tunnels beneath the cemetery proper, the map to point the way, the back-door entrance hatch just outside the city gate. “Will the other sky-sailors find you?” she asked urgently, when she finished. “They need to be able to find you.”

“Yes,” said Rigo, “and I need to find them. I’d always planned to escape, eventually, but I thought...” In the corner of her eye, hurt skittered across his features for a moment, before smoothing into habitual cheer. “I thought perhaps you’d come too. That’s all.”

Magdalisa closed her eyes. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I’m still the graveyard keeper. I’m sorry.” She swallowed. “Please don’t fight with me about this. I—it may be your only chance, you understand?”

The silence between them felt longer and heavier than any Magdalisa had ever borne. “I do,” said Rigo at last, soft-voiced. “Thank you. For everything.”

Magdalisa heard his footsteps depart the library, but didn’t turn to watch. She didn’t seek him out for a final goodbye, either, when the fateful night fell. To what end? She’d given him his map to freedom. It wouldn’t do, to make salvation harder on either of them than it had to be.

 

Remember what brought you to Dalaga.”

Mama’s cure-all man works off the books, but he guarantees he can wrest unwanted magic from any human vessel, for the right price. What happens to Magdalisa in his secret shop, in the back alley, isn’t worth remembering. There’s darkness, and pain, and at the end of it all, Magdalisa’s magic, sure enough, bleeding out on to the floor, along with the rest of her. Magic, after all, is tied to the soul.

Mama weeps over her. “I’m sorry, girl. Mama’s so, so sorry.”

Magdalisa’s final, furious thought is that being sorry never fixed anything. Then darkness eats her world.

“I know what brought me to Dalaga, but you have no right to it. You have no right at all.”

 

Luchia was the one who brought word of the ambush. “It was a trap!” she cried. The ghost burst into Magdalisa’s bedroom in a flurry of cold that sank into Magdalisa’s very bones. “A few of the High Priest’s men, they thought Rigo would take advantage of the festival day to run, so they waited for him at the gate.”

“They’re going to burn him in the city square.” Nia’s voice was quieter than her sister’s. “I’m so sorry, little one.”

Magdalisa sat there in the winter-deep chill of her bedroom, absorbing the ghosts’ words. “Don’t be,” she said at last. Despite the chill, she felt hot beneath the skin.

“Magdalisa!”

Tita Shulin appeared then, the only ghost whose face wasn’t a picture of distress. Her fingers found Magdalisa’s, and squeezed tight, just once. Then the touch was gone. “Go on then, kid,” she said. “You know what to do. You’ve always known.”

Magdalisa stood. Her nails bit into her palms, as her heart thrummed with some savage feeling she couldn’t name. It shoved her to her feet, carrying her out the bedroom and up the stairs, to the watchtower’s highest turret, where the remains of Rigo’s paper phoenix still lay spattered with his bloodstains. Standing before the phoenix’s blank-eyed stare, Magdalisa glared up at Dal’s setting red sun.

“I am well and truly sick of my magic being a burden,” she declared. “Witness, for once in my life, my magic is going to work for me.”

Power jumped inside Magdalisa’s veins. Beneath her hands, the paper phoenix rustled and groaned, unfurling its great red wings. Its painted eyes widened, then narrowed at Magdalisa, whose magic curled plumes around them both. With painstaking care, Magdalisa curved her body along the phoenix’s spine, burying her face in the paper feathers. “Help me,” she whispered, fists full of feathers and furious magic. “Help us both.”

The phoenix emitted a great, shrieking war cry. Then, Magdalisa astride its back, launched into the sky.

Clinging to the bird with her knees, Magdalisa scanned the ground until she smelled smoke. “There,” she whispered. She felt the paper phoenix hesitate beneath her. She stroked its bright-painted plumage, power sparking between them. “Don’t worry. You won’t burn. Not under my watch.”

The phoenix dove.

The pyre wasn’t lit yet, but the torches were ready. A crowd had gathered. And someone was tying a familiar, dark-headed figure to the center.

Not under my watch, thought Magdalisa, and dove again.

She barely had time to register the shock on Rigo’s bloodless face, before she’d kicked aside his guard, and pulled the sky-sailor astride his own phoenix. “Miss me?” she shouted, over the crowd’s roar of surprise.

“You have no idea,” he shouted back, and then his arms were wrapped tight around her ribs, as the three of them—the flyboy, the graveyard girl, and the paper phoenix—hurtled away into the star-streaked sky.

“Goodness,” he said, some time later. His arms were still a vise around her bones. It occurred to Magdalisa, as they zigzagged through the air, that his reasons were probably practical, as well as affectionate. “Perhaps you’d best let me steer.”

“Just don’t crash us into the watchtower again. Trouble enough saving your life the first time around.”

Rigo laughed, nose buried against her neck. “Don’t worry. I can land us there nice and easy, now that everyone below is too shocked to shoot in the dark.”

“No,” said Magdalisa. “We’re not going back to Dalaga.”

His hands, subtly reining the phoenix around by its feathers, went briefly still. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Magdalisa smiled against the wind, hot-eyed, but certain as the magic pulsing warm and alive beneath her bones. “I am.”

“You’ll have to become a better sky-sailor. For all our sakes, really.”

Without turning around, Magdalisa swatted at his thigh. “I think I’ll manage.”

Rigo went quiet. When he spoke again, his tone was thoughtful. “You know, Wanderers never had permanent physical homes. I think that’s why we share a tradition of telling the stories of what brought us to the places we’ve lived. It’s a way to remember homes that mattered. Homes we carry in our hearts, even when we wander. Will you tell me what brought you to Dalaga?"

Rigo’s arms around her were warm. Resting her head against his chest, listening to the steady rhythm of his heart, Magdalisa told him.

 

After the end of everything, Magdalisa wakes up. At first, she’s certain she’s dead. For one thing, her entire body aches. For another, Tita Shulin, a year and a half past her funeral date, is staring down into Magdalisa’s eyes.

Magdalisa’s lying in a bed she doesn’t recognize. Barren stone walls surround what look to be a modest, if tidy, room. “If this is the land of Dal’s glorious afterlife,” she croaks, “the High Priest is in for a surprise.”

“I’m afraid not,” her tita says, sounding amused. “We’re merely at Dalaga Cemetery. I don’t blame you for not recognizing the place. The last time you came to the cemetery was for my funeral.”

Magdalisa blinks, wiggling her toes. Something strange sparks between them. “My magic,” she murmurs, heart thudding. “It’s back.”

“Of course it’s back,” says Tita Shulin, nonplussed. “You silly girl. Did you really think the ghosts of Dalaga Cemetery would restore your soul to your body, and neglect something so important?”

Magdalisa glances up at her tita, alarmed. “Then I—”

“You are very much alive, yes, I saw to that.”

“Are you—”

“Still dead, rather.” Tita Shulin shrugs, as if this matters very little. “Eh. It’s not so bad, really. Being a ghost quite suits me.”

Unbidden, Magdalisa’s eyes fill. “I missed you. After you died, Mama was never the same.”

“Ah, kid,” sighs Tita Shulin. An old sorrow colors her features. “Your grandpapa was a hard, small-minded man, and your mama always had more trouble ignoring his harshness than I did. She wanted so much to please him, but she should not have taken that out on you. You’re her child, magical or not.”

“Magic’s what killed me in the first place!”

“No, it is not,” says Tita Shulin. “What tried to kill you—and failed, I might add—is a world that didn’t know how to handle magic properly. The world is often foolish in that way, and cruel. But death isn’t ready for you, yet. Your magic still has work to do. I could tell, all the way here in Dalaga, as soon as I sensed my Magdalisa’s soul struggling to stay tethered to her body.” Tita Shulin taps her heart. “I’m a witch too, remember? Magic always knows. A tita’s heart always knows. So the ghosts of Dalaga did what had to be done.”

Magdalisa swallows the lump in her throat. “But if I’m not dead, what happens now?”

Her tita shrugs. “Eh. The cemetery’s been needing a new graveyard keeper for a while now. The poor gardens are terribly withered. You’ve always been quite good at restoring life, and protecting it. You take after me that way. Why not make some use of those talents, for the moment?”

“All right,” says Magdalisa. “All right, I will. For the moment.” She takes her tita’s hand, and follows her to the gardens, where all the other misguided, defiant women of Corrazon wait, their souls eternal, the life growing green and bright around them beneath Dal’s sun.

“I know what brought me to Dalaga. Somebody loved me. Nothing more, nothing less.”

 

END


“Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings" is copyright Andrea Tang 2018.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a selection of three short reprints.

00:0000:00

Episode #50: “Smooth Stones and Empty Bones” by Bennett North

February 24, 2018

Smooth Stones and Empty Bones

by Bennett North

 

 

 

There’s a skeleton in the chicken coop. It’s some bare collection of abandoned bones, maybe a former fox, and it’s slishing through the pine needles and bumping liplessly against the gate. The chickens, for their part, don’t look concerned.

Mom is still in the house, folding laundry. I take a watering can from where it’s sitting next to the potted mums and haul it out to the coop. When I dump it on the skeleton, it shivers like a wet dog but doesn’t retreat.

I glance over my shoulder at the house again, then open the gate to the coop. The skeleton doesn’t appear to notice, so I get behind it and shove it out. The skeleton stumbles around like a dog with vertigo.

“Shh,” I say when it clacks its teeth. If Mom sees this, I’m in so much trouble.

 

[Full transcript after the cut.]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 50 for February 20, 2018. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm back with a reprint of "Smooth Stones and Empty Bones" by Bennett North.

By day, Bennett North maintains computer labs at a local university. By night, she writes both short and long format speculative fiction (when she’s not too busy playing Minecraft or Fallout 4). She likes to think of herself as a runner and a rock climber, although she doesn’t do either of those things nearly as often as she’d like. She lives somewhere between Providence, RI and Boston, MA.

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Smooth Stones and Empty Bones

by Bennett North

 

 

There’s a skeleton in the chicken coop. It’s some bare collection of abandoned bones, maybe a former fox, and it’s slishing through the pine needles and bumping liplessly against the gate. The chickens, for their part, don’t look concerned.

Mom is still in the house, folding laundry. I take a watering can from where it’s sitting next to the potted mums and haul it out to the coop. When I dump it on the skeleton, it shivers like a wet dog but doesn’t retreat.

I glance over my shoulder at the house again, then open the gate to the coop. The skeleton doesn’t appear to notice, so I get behind it and shove it out. The skeleton stumbles around like a dog with vertigo.

“Shh,” I say when it clacks its teeth. If Mom sees this, I’m in so much trouble.

Its vertebrae are sharp and don’t look to be held together by anything tangible. I haul the thing out of the yard, stepping over the low stone wall that rings my mother’s property and marching out into the pine forest until I can’t see the house anymore.

The further from the house I get, the less the skeleton moves, and by the time I’m down by the river, the skeleton is shedding bones like breadcrumbs. I drop it and it doesn’t get up again. I rub the indents on my palm left by sharp bone-points and hunch my shoulders a little.

I hope it was the only one.

When I arrive back at the house, my mother is hollering out the door for me. I shout a reply and then collect the eggs I’d originally been sent to get.

My mom is a witch, or at least that’s what the people in town call her. She dyes her frizzy hair black and when she’s working she gives herself full drag-queen makeup, with the blood-red lips and glittery green eyelids. Right now, though, her face is washed clean of makeup and she looks old. She’s sitting at the table, the newspaper spread in front of her. Coffee is perking and strips of bacon sizzle in the pan. I put the basket of eggs on the counter next to the open bag of ground coffee.

“How do you want them? Over-easy?” I ask, hoping she won’t ask why it took me so long.

Mom hums. “Poached,” she says. “I’m watching my weight.”

I fill a pot with water and put it on a burner. The bacon is crawling with white foamy grease.

“How late are you working today?” Mom asks.

“Just until three.” I dash some vinegar into the water and don’t look at her. “I think I might hang out with Mariposa after work, though.”

My mother beams. “I’m glad you’ve found a friend,” she says. “I was afraid you wouldn’t meet anyone new after you dropped out.” She rises from the table and plants a kiss on the top of my head, then grabs some tongs to flip the bacon.

My name is Helena. I’m seventeen years old.

Tonight after work I’m going to show my girlfriend how to raise the dead.

 

 

I work in the local Gas ’n’ Go. Business is pretty slow, so I mostly spend the day reading the newspaper. The local news headline is about the continued search for a nine-year-old boy who went missing in the woods a few days ago. It’s been cold these last few nights, nearly down to freezing, so it’s becoming less and less likely that they’ll find the kid alive.

Quarter to three, one of the high school coaches comes in. I vaguely remember him from back when I still attended school, although I was never in any sports. He picks through a rack of cookies for a few minutes and I continue reading my magazine until he comes up to the register and tosses a pack of Oreos on the counter in front of me.

“Forty bucks on number nine,” he says. I ring up the Oreos and the gas as he roots in his back pocket for his wallet.

“That’s forty-two ninety-nine,” I say.

He fishes a couple twenties and a five out of his wallet and nods at the newspaper rack. “They come by to talk to you yet?”

“What?” I glance at the rack, too.

“That missing kid. Fucking suspicious, if you ask me. Kid goes missing, I say to start with the Satanists in the woods and their animal sacrifices. ”

“We had nothing to do with it,” I say stiffly.

He snorts and waits for his change. Once I give it to him, he adds, “If another kid goes missing, I think a couple of us might take matters into our own hands. You tell your mother that.”

He leaves the store. I stare at his retreating back and wish I were a witch like my mother. I’d make him piss sugar ants.

The mental image keeps the sick feeling in my stomach at bay until Geoff shows up for the next shift. I try to wash off a bit of the stale coffee and gasoline smell in the bathroom, then head outside. Mariposa’s car is just pulling into the lot and she waves at me as I approach her.

She’s borrowing her mother’s car, which is a teal Ford Taurus that’s probably as old as me. There’s a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror between two pine-scented air fresheners. I slide into the passenger’s seat and close the door.

“Hi,” I say giddily. I reach across the seat and she grabs my hand. It’s the most I dare to do within sight of Geoff in the gas station.

“Missed you,” Mariposa says.

“It’s been ages,” I say, and we both laugh. We’ve spent more time together in the past week than we have apart.

She exits the lot and onto Reservoir Street. Technically we shouldn’t be driving together since we’re both under eighteen, but I don’t think anyone’s going to catch us.

“How’ve you been?” I ask as she drives. “Any . . . news?”

Mariposa shakes her head and her mouth tightens. She’s got lots of glossy black hair and perfectly plucked eyebrows, and even when she’s upset, she still looks like a movie star. I can’t comprehend how someone can be so attractive.

“Nothing,” she says. “My mom’s arranging a vigil. She still thinks they’ll find Javi alive.” Her breath hitches. “And I mean, I do, too, but I think . . . I don’t know. It’s like some kind of nightmare.”

I squeeze her hand tightly. She squeezes mine back.

“I don’t want to think about it,” she says. “Every time I do I just feel helpless. Distract me.”

I tell her about work, although I don’t mention the high school coach. I don’t have many interesting stories, so I make some up and get her to laugh. By the time we arrive at her house, the two of us are giggling.

Mariposa’s house borders the woods just like mine does. The same woods that her little brother has disappeared in. A bunch of cars are parked in the driveway and along the side of the road.

“There’s a group of local guys looking for him,” Mariposa says. “They leave their cars here.”

I think of the coach and then look down into my lap. “Um, want to go somewhere else?”

“Like where?” She looks at me. “Oh, Helena, it’s fine. They’re not going to be jerks to you.”

I’m not so sure. “I just sort of wanted to go somewhere . . . private?”

She looks at me and her cheeks turn a little pink. “Okay,” she says.

“The reservoir,” I say. “Let’s go there.”

 

 

There’s a kayak launch on the reservoir behind a row of houses. Mariposa parks there nearby and then we pick our way along the shore until we find a little rocky beach. There’s a ring of scorched stones here where some teenagers lit a beach fire. The fire pit is filled with a couple half-burnt potato chip bags and broken Heineken bottles.

We sit on a patchy bit of grass at the edge of the beach. The air is sun-warmed but has that mid-autumn chill to it that means tonight will be cold, too. The trees towering behind us are all red and yellow. A damp burnt smell lingers over the fire pit. Mariposa huddles under my armpit and clasps my hand between hers, trying to warm it up.

“I feel like . . . like television lied to me,” she says, and then sort of laughs in a way that doesn’t sound happy.

“What do you mean?”

“Whenever bad things happen on TV, it’s because someone was doing something wrong.” She laces her knuckles between mine. “Like the kid goes missing because his older brother was smoking pot while babysitting. The girl gets raped because she was underage drinking. And it’s always some moral lesson. If you don’t do anything wrong, bad things won’t happen. If you do something wrong and apologize, you get a second chance. But it doesn’t really work like that, does it?”

“People don’t want to hear about bad things harming good people,” I say.

She’s silent for a moment, looking down at my hand. I can see that her lashes are wet.

“Do you think this happened because we slept together?”

I hug her tightly against my side. “No! Of course not. Real life isn’t like that.”

“If my mother knew about it, she’d say I was responsible for this.”

“She’s dumb. Sorry. But that’s just . . .” I shake my head. “It’s so stupid. There’s nothing wrong with us being together. It’s not like we’re going to get pregnant or diseased or anything.”

“But we’re both girls,” she says quietly.

I feel shaky and cold. “I know that,” I say. I want to take my arm off her shoulder, but she’s still holding my hand.

“Do you think it’s wrong?” I ask.

She shakes her head and then lets out a sob. “No, but I’m so afraid that they’re not going to find Javi.”

She rests her head against my chest and falls silent. I have a knot in my throat like I might cry. It’s not as if I haven’t had these thoughts before. Most of my life I’ve been told that being queer is wrong. Maybe it’s becoming more acceptable in the world at large, but I live in a small town and they have small minds around here.

“I don’t regret it,” Mariposa says finally. “I just . . . I get scared sometimes when I’m praying with my mother.”

“I want to show you something,” I hear myself say.

She lets go of my hand and I disentangle myself. The box is in my purse. I fish it out and then just clutch it in my hands for a moment. Shit, shit, shit. My stomach clenches. There’s no going back.

“So, um,” I say, my mouth dry. I swallow and tongue the welt inside my cheek. “So you know how my mom is a witch?”

Mariposa nods. Of course she knows. Her mother started a campaign to have mine evicted after my mother set up shop in town. There’s a strong Catholic community in town and they don’t like it when people claim to read fortunes and inflict curses.

“Mostly she just reads palms and stuff,” I say. “She makes charms and things. That stuff’s not usually real. But sometimes it is.”

I look up at her. Her dark eyes are serious.

“Okay,” she says cautiously.

I’m still clutching the box. It’s just an old cigar box, water-stained and dirty. I’d mostly brushed off the clumps of soil when I dug it up in the yard, but it had been buried for so long that the dirt had gotten into the grain of the soft wood.

Maybe I can back out now. Make up some story. But I want to tell her. I like her a lot. I’m still not sure about that other L-word, but I think this relationship is pretty serious. She should know.

“Do you believe in magic?” I say, stalling for time.

After a pause, she nods. “I think so.”

I set the box down. “You have to swear to never tell anyone about this. Ever. My mother would kill me if she knew I was showing this to you.”

“I swear.”

I flip open the lid of the box. Mariposa stares inside, a frown creasing her brow. It’s filled with maybe a dozen smooth river stones, each the size of my thumbnail.

“These can raise the dead,” I say.

She looks from the rocks up to me, waiting for me to explain. I swallow.

“If someone dies, you put one of these in their mouth, and it will bring them back to life.” I close the lid of the box again. “It’s not . . . not real life. Not completely. They’ll be conscious and able to walk and talk and they’ll even have a heartbeat, but it’s temporary. The stones are like batteries—they keep someone alive for a year or two, but then you need to put in a new one.”

She looks down at the closed lid of the box, then up at me again. “Prove it.”

I chew my lip. “I don’t really want to waste them. Once we run out of these, they’re gone for good. Just think of them as . . . a second chance.”

Her eyes widen slightly. “They would work on Javi?”

“It depends on how long he’s been—” I don’t want to say the word “dead.” “If he’s too . . . far gone . . . these won’t work that well. The stones can only do so much.”

Mariposa claps a hand over her mouth. Her eyes are shiny and wet. “So if they find him soon—”

“I don’t want to make any promises. He would only live so long. He’d need a stone a year, and I can’t give you all the stones. My mother would notice.” She’ll notice if I even give away one stone, but Christ, I’m willing to take that risk.

Mariposa rubs roughly at her cheeks. I can’t read her expression. Something scrapes over the rocks to my right. We both look and then Mariposa shrieks and leaps to her feet. Half of a chipmunk is sitting up on the rock, sniffing the air. It’s matted with dirt and blood.

“The box . . . leaks,” I say.

“Holy fuck,” she says, backing away. “It’s dead.”

“That’s not like how he’d be,” I say. “It’s just because the box is here. It’ll die again as soon as we leave.”

She’s making little gasping noises, hunched over and hugging herself. I get to my feet and then stand there awkwardly. I think she might scream again if I touch her.

I shouldn’t have shown her the box. For all I know, they won’t find Javi in time. And how will I even get access to him if the searchers find his body?

“So what do I do?” she says. She sounds like she’s having trouble breathing. “How does this work?”

I pop the lid open and remove one stone. I hold it out to her. “I don’t know. It might not even work. Just take this in case you get a chance.”

She doesn’t reach out for the stone. “I can’t take that with me. It’s witchcraft, Helena. If my mother knew—I mean, fuck, we buried my dead dog in the backyard. Is that going to get up if I take this stone home?”

It might. I close my fingers over the stone. “Well then, um. If you hear news, call me? I could try to get there quickly . . .” It’s not going to work. It’s so obvious now that this was a mistake. But if it does work, and Mariposa gets her brother back, she’ll be so happy. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life than to make Mariposa happy.

Mariposa continues hugging herself. Her face is wet. She’s staring at my closed fist. She slowly nods.

“Okay.”

I put the stone back in the box and bury the box in my purse. Something splashes in the water, a fish, and I wonder if that’s dead, too.

We both stand there in silence a minute, and then she creeps forward. She wraps herself around me. Surprised, I hug her back. She presses her face into my neck.

“Thank you,” she whispers.

 

 

When I get home, Mom has a client. The living room of the house is where she does her work. The walls have been painted dark purple and the windows are hung with lacy black curtains. The furniture is all old, dark wood and the room is lit with antique lamps. People wouldn’t believe my mother’s fortunes as much if all the furniture came from Ikea.

She’ll be busy for a while, so I go out into the backyard. Our yard is always in twilight because of the tall pines that surround it. In the back, by the stone wall, there’s a flat piece of slate with a potted lily on top of it. I move the slate aside and look at the soft, freshly turned dirt.

My mother keeps the box in here because the dirt muffles the power of the stones and stops dead things from crawling out of the woods. I scoop a hole in the dirt with my hands. It’s still loose from when I dug out the box last night. When I get down about two feet, I shove the box into the hole and push the dirt on top of it. I put the bit of slate on top of that and sit back on my heels.

I brush the dirt off my hands and look around. My stomach is still tight. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing. I suspect that I haven’t.

 

 

That night, Javi comes out of the forest.

I hear the noise through my bedroom window, which is open a crack to let in the cold air. I’m reading a book, my head propped up on a couple pillows. There’s a scritch-scratching in the yard, which catches my attention immediately. I’m afraid it’s another dead fox or something and I don’t want my mother to notice it.

But when I step out the kitchen door and into the yard, I can see the hunched form of a little boy. He’s squatting in the dirt by the wall, pawing at the pine needles. He doesn’t appear to notice me.

“Javi?” I whisper. My mother’s bedroom is on the other side of the house, and I’m grateful for that.

He stops pawing in the dirt. I can see pine needles and leaf mold all over the back of his shirt, as if he’d been laying down recently. The only light I have to go by is what’s spilling from my bedroom window, but I think his dark skin might be mottled and bruised.

“Javi, are you okay?” I inch forward, knowing he isn’t. When I touch his arm, his flesh is glacial. He turns his head blindly to me and I see more dirt caked on one side of his face. His eyes are opaque white. He’s been dead for days. The hypothermia must have got him the first night he went missing in the woods. My carrying the box around must have woken him.

He makes a distracted humming noise, just air flowing over vocal cords with no intent behind them. I pull back, feeling a surge of horror in my throat. It’s one thing to see animals like this, mindless puppets of the stones, but it’s different to see a child I once knew.

I back away. He doesn’t follow, not even when I run to the piece of slate with the potted flower on top.

It takes me five minutes to dig up the box. The whole time, I’m composing text messages in my head. I’ve found him. He’s okay. Mariposa, sobbing, thanking me.

My fingers hit wood and I scrabble the box open. The rocks clatter inside in my haste. I pull one out and toss the box on the pile of dirt, then jump with a tiny yelp when Javi bumps into me. His face nuzzles against my arm, but only because I’m in the way. He’s drawn to the rocks.

“Open your mouth,” I whisper and touch his cheek. “Shh. Open it.”

He doesn’t know enough to obey, so I push my thumb between his teeth and shove the stone in. I can almost feel the power behind it. It pulls at me as much as it pulls at him. I hear it clack against the back of his teeth. He sways a little on his feet and shakes his head.

“Javi?” I whisper.

His cold fingers clutch at my arm. He wheezes, a dead tongue moistening his lips.

I wipe the dirt and leaves from his face. “Javi, do you remember me? Can you hear me?”

His eyes move in their sockets but they’re still blind-white. I poke my fingers up under his chin, searching for the pulse in his neck. There’s one dull thump, and after a pause, another, but then nothing.

Too far gone. He’s been dead too long.

I can’t tell Mariposa. But . . . I can’t report finding him, either. Me, finding the missing boy when half the town is convinced my family is behind his disappearance?

I found him but the stones didn’t work. I can almost taste the sickening disappointment of that. Mariposa won’t forgive me for offering her hope and taking it away.

I sit down on the ground and hug my knees. Javi stumbles away from me. It makes me feel physically ill to watch him.

What if I just hide his body? The rescuers might not find him. Mariposa and her mother won’t know what happened to him. Is it worse to find his corpse, or never find him at all?

My mother might know what to do, but I have a feeling she’ll just contact the authorities. She would lose business and maybe even face police harassment, but I don’t think that would stop her. She wouldn’t want another mother to go through the horror of not knowing what had happened to her child.

I tongue the welt inside my cheek and watch Javi make his slow way in circles around the yard. The stone will keep him in a state of suspended animation, never growing, never needing to eat or sleep. Never getting worse, but never getting better, either. He’ll be nine years old forever . . . or rather, for as long as the stone lasts.

What if it were Mariposa who had gone missing? Would I rather she not be found? Or would I want a chance to say goodbye?

 

 

Mariposa arrives half an hour after I send the text. She must have parked down the street and walked because she comes through the woods. I can see the bobbing light of her cellphone flashlight through the trees. I take Javi by the hand and wait for her.

She steps over the wall into the yard and spots me, then comes to a dead stop. She keeps the flashlight pointing down at the ground, and I think it’s because she’s afraid to look at Javi directly.

“Is he . . . ?” she says. “Is it . . . gruesome?”

I look down at Javi. Apart from his eyes, he just appears to be sleepwalking. The few beats of his heart have cleared a bit of the bruising away, forcing his sluggish blood to circulate.

“No,” I say.

She raises the flashlight a little. The light dances over my feet, then up a bit until it’s shining on Javi’s face. He doesn’t respond to the light at all; doesn’t even seem to notice it.

There is a long pause, as if Mariposa is steeling herself. Then she comes forward. She reaches out and touches his cheek, then flinches back.

“He’s cold,” she says. Her voice is tight, as if she can barely force the words out.

I say nothing. She reaches out again. He turns slightly into the touch, maybe responding to the warmth of her hand. She catches her breath at the movement and then pulls him into a hug.

“Fuck,” she whispers. “Oh fuck, oh fuck.”

He stands in her embrace with the patience of the dead. He doesn’t hug her back, but he doesn’t try to move away, either. Is there something in him that recognizes her? I can’t tell.

“I’m so sorry, Javi. So, so, so sorry.”

Mariposa rocks, pulling him into her arms like he’s a rag doll. I watch, wishing I could do something, but there’s nothing I can contribute here.

“Is it cumulative?” Mariposa asks quietly.

“Pardon?” I say.

“The stones. If you gave him more, would they help? What if you gave him the whole box?”

I hesitate. She sees it and goes alert.

“Would it be enough?”

“I don’t . . . I don’t think so.” I don’t know. It might. Each new stone, erasing a little more of his death.

“Let’s do it. Where are they?”

I don’t look toward the box. “We can’t. Fill his mouth with stones? One’s hard enough to carry around.”

“He’ll be alive, Helena.” She gets to her feet, sweeping the light over the grass. “You keep it outside, don’t you? I saw the dirt on it.”

“What happens in a year or two? Use them all now and they’ll all run out at once.”

“Can you make more?” She pulls Javi by the hand as she stalks through the grass. “Where did you get them?”

“There aren’t any more. This is it.” I chase after her. “Mari, please. You can’t.”

She turns to me. “He’s my brother. I can’t leave him like—” She shakes his hand in her grip.

“I know,” I say helplessly. “But you can’t fix him, either. You have to let him go.”

Her eyes flick over my shoulder. I tense.

She lets go of Javi’s hand and darts around me, sprinting for the box. It’s still laying on top of the pile of dirt where I left it, the wood pale against the dark mud.

I run for it, too, and we both arrive at the same time. Her hand knocks the box over and it spills into the dirt. She scrambles to pick up the stones but I just go for her hands, trying to grab her wrists.

“Mari, no,” I beg. “I can’t spare them all. I need them.”

“I’ll scream,” she says. “I’ll tell everyone I found Javi at your house.”

“Mari—”

“I’ll—” She stops and looks at me. “Need them for what?”

“We don’t have many left,” I say.

“Helena. What do you need them for.” Her voice is very flat because she already knows.

I tongue the welt inside my cheek where the stone has rubbed my flesh raw. “I was only gone for a couple hours,” I say. “I had a heart condition. My mother found me.”

Her wrists lie still in my grip. She’s not fighting me anymore. She’s just watching me, her eyes wide.

“These are all the years I have left,” I say.

“Please let go of me,” she says.

I do.

She opens her hands and lets the stones fall onto the dirt. Her expression shifts slowly from shocked to angry, and then to cold.

“Why do you get a second chance and he doesn’t?” she asks quietly. “What makes you deserve that?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

She rises to her feet, leaving the stones on the ground. Javi has wandered halfway across the yard. She goes to him and takes his hand.

She doesn’t say anything to me as she leads him out of the yard.

 

 

My mother finds me sitting at the kitchen table the next morning, resting my head on the smooth wood surface. She rubs my back and then goes to the percolator to start a pot going.

The TV is on mute. The news flashes back and forth between pictures of Javi when he was alive and footage of an ambulance moving slowly away from the edge of the forest. The words “Body of missing boy found by search team” scroll at the bottom of the screen.

“Hard night?” she says.

I roll my eyes up to look at her.

“I heard a bit of it near the end, when you two got loud.” She looks over her shoulder at me, pulling a new filter out of the bag. “I’d have come out if I thought it was necessary.”

“I didn’t want to tell her like that,” I mumble.

She sighs. “It wasn’t the best way to go about it, no.”

For a few minutes there’s nothing but the sound of cooking breakfast. Mom hums as she works, fixing her coffee just right.

“Why did I deserve a second chance?” I say finally.

She pauses in the middle of spooning grounds into the filter. “Oh, hon,” she says. She puts down the spoon and sits in the chair next to mine, wrapping an arm around me. I lean back against her shoulder.

“You deserved it because you’re a good person and I love you,” she says. “And because I’m selfish and didn’t want to lose you. I had the option of bringing you back. Most people don’t.”

“I could have given her Javi, if she’d taken all the stones,” I say.

“I’m not willing to give you up yet,” she replies. “I know you love Mariposa, but I don’t think it would have been doing her a favor.”

“She’ll never speak to me again.”

“Maybe. Maybe it’s a good thing, learning to let someone go.” Her voice is sad. She rubs her hand through my hair. It hasn’t grown since I died two years ago. My nails are stubby and short and will never get any longer. I’m stuck in the same body I was in when I died. “I never did have the knack for it.”

 

END

 


"Smooth Stones and Empty Bones" was originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine and is copyright Bennett North, 2016.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original by Andrea Tang.

00:0000:00

Episode #49: “Granny Death and the Drag King of London” by A.J. Fitzwater

February 13, 2018

Episode 49 is part of the Autumn 2017 / Winter 2018 double issue!
"Granny Death and the Drag King of London" is a GLITTERSHIP ORIGINAL.

Support GlitterShip by picking up your copy here: http://www.glittership.com/buy/

 

 

Granny Death and the Drag King of London

By

A.J. Fitzwater

    

Monday, November 25, 1991.

Lacey James had been working for Redpath Catering for three months when Freddie Mercury died.

"Fuck," she mouthed around her fist and bit harder into her numb flesh. The news was hours old, but still her oesophagus made odd wheezy hiccups, and she couldn't swallow past the perpetual lump of granite in her chest. "Fuck fuck fuck."

All going terrible, the weird black sparkles that invaded her vision at a whiff of death would arrive soon, the awful memories of helping nurse Stevie and Toad would nail her, or the creepy old lady that haunted funerals on her catering beat would turn up. Or all at once.

Kitty. Stevie. Gin-Gin. Toad. Paulette. Manil. Now Freddie. Not another one. Not Freddie. No. Hold it together. Big bois don't cry.

 

[Full transcript after the cut]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 49 for February 13, 2018. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.

I'm sorry that it's been so long since I last brought you any fiction—to make it up to you, this episode is part of a double issue, which means that there are six originals and six reprints coming your way as quickly as I can get them out for you.

I would also like to officially welcome Nibedita Sen as GlitterShip's official assistant editor. She will be helping out with keeping the Ship running smoothly... and hopefully more on time than it has been in the past.


Today we have a poem and a GlitterShip original for you. The poem is "Seven Handy Ideas for Algorithmic Shapeshifting," by Bogi Takács read by Bogi eirself.

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person currently living in the US as a resident alien. Eir speculative fiction, poetry and nonfiction have been published in a variety of venues like Clarkesworld, Apex, Strange Horizons and podcast on Glittership, among others. You can follow Bogi on Twitter, Instagram and Patreon, or visit eir website at www.prezzey.net. Bogi also recently edited Transcendent 2: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction 2016, for Lethe Press.


Seven Handy Ideas for Algorithmic Shapeshifting

by Bogi Takács

 

Try it now guaranteed enjoyment or your money back!

Loss of life not covered under the terms of the user agreement.

The classic original: Shapeshift to a surface color the inverse of your environment [reverse chameleon]

To confuse people: Shapeshift to duplicate a nearby object, then change as others move you around [pulse in rhythm / undulate / who turned the sound off]

For a drinking game: Shapeshift into a weasel for 5 seconds whenever someone drinks a stout [some puns deserve to remain obscure] [mind: wildlife needs to be careful around humans]

To make a somewhat mangled political statement: Shapeshift into an object whose possession is illegal in the state and/or country you are entering [no human is illegal] [weaponize your thoughts / fall under export restrictions] [make sure to read the small print]

To receive blessings: Shapeshift into a monk when in the 500 m radius of a Catholic church, respond to Laudetur [nunc et in æternum – practice] [works well in combination with previous]

For the trickster types: Shapeshift into a set of food items, then change back to your original shape as the first person attempts to eat you [do not change back] [change back after you passed through the alimentary canal / the plumbing / all water returns to the sea]

To satisfy extreme curiosity:
Shapeshift into a cis person, at random intervals of time. Cry for 5 minutes. Change back [how did that feel?]

 

 


 

The GlitterShip original short story is "Granny Death and the Drag King of London" by A.J. Fitzwater, also read by the author.

Amanda Fitzwater is a dragon wearing a human meat suit from Christchurch, New Zealand. A graduate of Clarion 2014, she’s had stories published in Shimmer Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, and in Paper Road Press's "At The Edge" anthology. She also has stories coming soon at Kaleidotrope and PodCastle. As a narrator, her voice has been heard across the Escape Artists Network, on Redstone SF, and Interzone. She tweets under her penname as @AJFitzwater

There is a content warning for slurs, homophobia and a lot discussion of AIDS deaths.


 

Granny Death and the Drag King of London

By

A.J. Fitzwater

    

Monday, November 25, 1991.

 

Lacey James had been working for Redpath Catering for three months when Freddie Mercury died.

"Fuck," she mouthed around her fist and bit harder into her numb flesh. The news was hours old, but still her esophagus made odd wheezy hiccups, and she couldn't swallow past the perpetual lump of granite in her chest. "Fuck fuck fuck."

All going terrible, the weird black sparkles that invaded her vision at a whiff of death would arrive soon, the awful memories of helping nurse Stevie and Toad would nail her, or the creepy old lady that haunted funerals on her catering beat would turn up. Or all at once.

Kitty. Stevie. Gin-Gin. Toad. Paulette. Manil. Now Freddie. Not another one. Not Freddie. No. Hold it together. Big bois don't cry.

The brick wall of the east end church (where the hell am I today?) didn't do its job of holding her up and she slumped behind the rubbish skip. She didn't care if that bastard Rocko docked her pay for a wet and dirty uniform. She didn't care about the latest job rejection letter crumpled in her pocket. She didn't care if the cold bricks made her back seize up; there'd be no sleep tonight.

The back door pinged on its spring-hinge, banging off the scabby handrail, and Lacey sprang to her feet.

"Oi!" Rocko Redpath barked, all six foot two of his dirty blondness. "How long does it take one to take out the rubbish. Move one's dyke arse."

Not a dyke, arsehole.

Lacey let her square ragged nails do the work on her palms.

"Coming."

"You better be."

The stagnant scent of cabbage and wine biscuits gusted out as the door banged shut.

Why do I have to keep putting up with this git? Because I can't get a serious job in this town. No one wants a dyke import. Loser.

Lacey knuckled her dry eyes and straightened her ill-fitting jacket best she could. The darts under the arms made it too tight across the chest even though she'd bound up with a fresh Ace bandage that morning.

Come on, loser. Be the best king Freddie'd want you to be.

Inside, the strange blast of cold concrete and oven heat sunk claws into Lacey's flesh. She bit her lip hard to hold back another dry heave sob. Breathing deeply sometimes delayed the black sparkles. But this was a funeral. They were bound to come.

Stainless steel clanged. Ovens whooped. Crockery clattered. Scones hunkered everywhere. Girls in too tight skirts bickered with too young chefs in too skinny pants.

Rocko Redpath lorded over it all. Redpath sounded like a lad but he dressed Saint Pauls, pretending he was James Bond on a Maxwell Smart budget.

"Jesus, you kiwis are all so bloody lazy." He sneered, the perfect villain. "What's the matter, Lace? Who took a dump in your cornflakes?"

Only my friends call me Lace, arsehole.

"Got the news a friend died," she mumbled as she swung towards the door with a tray of finger sandwiches.

Was that a flinch from Rocko?

"Aww, poor widdle Wace all boo hoo. You gonna cry, widdle girl?" He clicked his fingers in front of her face, blocking her path, sunshine breaking across his craggy, broken-nose face. "Wait, wait. I think I heard it on the news. That rock star fag you like. That who you mean?"

That...feeling. A tickle on the back of her neck; it was how she imagined if the black sparkles were made flesh. All jokes about gaydars aside, she was one hundred percent dead on (dead. on) at picking them. She knew some closeted gay guys had massive internalized issues, but Rocko?

One of the girls whipping cream flinched, her pink mouth popping open in shock. "But Freddie only announced two days ago..."

Rocko snapped his fingers in her direction and pointed, finger quivering slightly. "Quiet. Lace. That homo with the mo. That who you cut up about?"

Shut up I need this job shut up. Good girls don't get into fights.

"Ah forget it. One less virulent motherfucker clogging up the NHS." Rocko flipped a hand. Lacey flinched away. Rocko's eyes were red like he was on another bender. "Do yer job. Go say hello to your favorite funeral-loving geriatric."

"What?"

"Eff-day Granny-yay," Rocko stage whispered as he whisked aside dramatically and held the door open.

Fuck. Now this. Granny Death.

Parishioners were doddering into the hall while bored kids played in the dusty blue velvet curtains. Ancient radiant heaters fizzed and popped, and Lacey dodged along the walls from cold to heat. She needed a new pair of brogues as desperately as she needed a haircut, but neither was in her next pay day.

The black sparkles arrived. The languor of death clung tight to church walls, its nails scraping along the gravel lodged in her chest like on a blackboard.

Freddie Freddie Freddie's dead that fucking virus who's next you's next DEAD.

Lacey swung with the sandwich tray through waves of evil-smelling olds. Sure enough, there she was in all her silver coiffed, green-pink-cream-yellow floral glory. The scent of lavender smacked Lacey in the face clear across the hall.

Fucking Granny Death. An emotional vampire. An ever moving shark in necrophiliac waters. She was worse than the front page of The Sun.

"Excuse me, dear. Could you tell me where the powder room is please?"

Fucking hell!

She was Right There. Her face wrinkled by a smile and expectation, but still oddly smooth. Her eyes weren't blue like Lacey had expected but a very light green.

God, I spaced out again. Concentrate. They'll send you right back to the loony bin.

"Umm." Where it always is in these cold concrete pits of 1950s hell, you creepy old bat. "Down that ramp by the kitchen, then straight ahead."

"Thank you, dear."

Granny Death's walking stick thumped a death march on the heel-scarred floor.

Lacey bit her free fist again, squeezing her eyes shut. They made a liquid pop when she opened them. The black sparkles parted just enough.

In between the strands of perfectly set silver hair on the back of Granny Death's head, a gold eye stared out at Lacey, bloodshot, like it had been crying.

What the...?! That's it. They said this is what happens to girls who wear too much black. I've got that fucking virus and it's made me batshit.

The idea of some loony old lollypop lady going round churches scaring the beejus out of mourners weighed heavy.

If she turned up at Freddie's funeral, I fucking swear...

The stench of ammonia and cheap soap hit Lacey full in the face as she pushed into the ladies toilets.

Granny Death leaned against the cracked sink, hands folded primly before her.

"Well, this is interesting," she said.

"What?" Lacey pulled up short. The finality of the door boom sealed her in.

Oh shit. What if she's some sort of serial killer?

"You can See."

"What?"

Granny Death sighed and rolled her eyes. Lacey shuddered, imagining that third eye doing the same. "Come now, dear. I know you're not stupid. I don't have all the time in the world. There are other funerals to get to today. What did you See?"

Freddie, help me. That fucking virus is eating my brain.

"Uh. I get black sparkles," Lacey stammered, wriggling her fingers beside her temples. "But you...you've got an eye in the back of your head."

"Hmm."

Granny Death's stillness disturbed Lacey.

Come on, this is absurd!

"What do you mean 'hmm'?" she demanded, hands on hips in an attempt to make herself bigger. "You have an eye in the back of your head, lady!"

"I mean 'hmm' because usually they see horns—" Granny Death twiddled her fingers above her head. "—or hooves. Or wings. Sometimes just bloody stumps of wings, depending."

"On what?" Lacey glanced behind her, but no one came in.

No rampaging horde of hell beasts?

Granny Death chuckled as if she could hear the noise constantly taking up space in Lacey's head. "Whatever they gods pleases them. Whatever they think lurks under the skin of a harmless old lady."

Lacey backed up two steps. "Lady, there is no god in this world if AIDS exists. There's an explanation for everything. I'm having a meltdown coz it's a bad day. You don't seem harmless to me. What are you? What's with all the funerals?"

"Hmm. So you've seen me before." Granny Death stroked a beard that wasn't there.

"Damn right. I see you stuffing sandwiches in your handbag at least twice a week." Now it was Lacey's turn to fold her arms, but it didn't have quite the same effect as Granny Death's quiet poise. "Is this how you get your jollies? Knocking off the catering staff, scaring them into not reporting you to the police?"

Granny Death didn't stare at Lacey like she imagined a whacko would size up their prey.

"You have questions. You deserve answers." Granny Death scooped up her walking stick and took an assured step towards towards Lacey. "I take the sandwiches because I like them. No, I don't like scaring people. Funerals are hard enough places as they are. And people who See—" Granny Death scratched the back of her head. "—do so because they are close to the end of the line."

Oh god, I do have that fucking virus.

Despite her tiny stature, Granny Death came face to face with Lacey. She continued: "You have lost someone very dear to you recently. That agony slices through The Templace. We feel those cuts."

Lacey flinched, but Granny Death didn't pat her on the shoulder awkwardly in comfort. She didn't even say she was sorry.

What's the point of saying you're sorry to the bereaved, anyway?

The black danced close around Lacey's vision again.

Granny Death nodded. "When you're ready for the full truth, we'll be ready for you. We'll find you. We need more good people."

Granny Death pushed out through the toilet door, her lavender scent obscuring the dankness.

"Wait!" Lacey called. "Who is this 'we' you speak of?"

The third eye winked, and Granny Death glanced back. She didn't smile or grimace, sneer or raise her eyebrows.

"Death," came her quiet reply. "I work for the entity you know as Death."

 

 

Tuesday, November 26, 1991.

 

Even the tube couldn't lull Lacey into a desperate rest.

Calling in sick allowed Rocko a hysteria-tinged rant about lazy kiwi dykes. The tea-bags her flatmates had left for her—what she had stolen from the Redpath pantries had run out—gave her no sense of comradeship. Throwing the letter from Gore, New Zealand unopened in the rubbish extended none of the usual satisfaction. Wrapping herself around a hot water bottle in her dank Hackney flat didn't bring any comfort. The impossible backwards lean, open lips, and microphone as extension of self of her Queen: Live at Wembley poster was a constant reminder.

I'll never see darling Freddie live, see him alive, now. I'm two years too late. Did you know way back when, dear Freddie? Did you have that fucking alien in your brain, and you were just ignoring it? Don't look don't look don't look don't look death in the eye.

The crowd on the tube did their best to ignore the girl in a cheap suit, though her pride and joy was the only thing holding her together. The granite lump in her chest grew too large, the mountain of its pressure almost choking her. The younger ones eyed the AIDS posters like they'd leap out and bite them.

Kitty. Stevie. Gin-Gin. Toad. Paulette. Manil. All Gone. All invaded. All stats. Maybe I picked it up off the shit piss blood vomit. Maybe it's been dormant in my mattress all this time.

She'd had no experience in nursing, but she did her best when the families of her friends shut their doors, ignoring their wasting away until it was time to play the magnanimous heroes and return their soul to where it didn't want to be.   

A strange thought grabbed her: Had Granny been there? Had she witnessed?

A too skinny guy in a too big trench coat coughed, and Lacey swore everyone in the tube car flinched.

Never going to eat going to die emaciated and covered in lesions never going to fuck again. Would Granny Death come and laugh at my funeral?

She'd be the only one I'd want there.

Where had that come from?

Logan Place would now be packed with, but a crowd meant touching. A crowd meant all new sorts of pain, a public display of grief she couldn't face yet.

Old Compton Street felt the safest place to be. The girls there knew when to touch and when to not. It would be a shitter of a wake, but at least she could bum free alcohol off Blue.

Someone behind her barked a laugh just like Rocko's and she had to turn to check it wasn't him. He'd been his usual self on the phone, but his nastiness had sounded forced. Judging tone of voice, pitch, weight of the words had been a skill she'd honed over her years to avoid the knife tip slipping under her ribs.

Questions. Granny said she had the answers. What a load of horse shit. No one has answers to anything. Not a yes for a good job. Not to this virus.

"STOP WHINING," said her mother, thousands of miles and years ago. "Why can't you just wear a dress like all good little girls? You'd look so much prettier."

I don't want to be pretty. I want to be handsome.

The walk from King's Cross looked the same. The tourists, the red buses, the yuppies in their Savile Row suits, the casuals in their too clean Adidas trackies yelling slurs at the too tired girls in their big wigs and small skirts. Some caring Soho record store blared out Bohemian Rhapsody. Street lights flickered up, too bright for the street, too dim for the faces.

How can you all carry on like nothing has changed?

It had taken Lacey an entire year to work up the gumption to walk back on to Old Compton Street after a disastrous first visit to the Pembroke in Earls Court. Even three years on she often had to stop and take a moment to check if she was allowed on the street, but women in suits or ripped jeans and plaid either ignored her or offered small up-nods.

Lacey shivered, resisting the urge to touch-check the mascara on her upper lip and sideburns. Her chest binding and suit were alright, but just alright. She didn't have the money to keep up with Soho.

I like my suit. My suit likes me.

The door to The Belle Jar was propped open. Lacey watched a pair of kings enter the black maw before working up the courage to approach. Flipper sat inside the stairs on a slashed up chair, licking closed a thin rollie. The muscled bouncer stood up when she saw Lacey, but didn't offer a hand.

The girls round here knew how things went.

"Fucking sucks, man," Flipper grunted, her blue eyes more steel than sea.

"Tell me about it," Lacey sighed.

"You're taking it well." Flipper undid the two buttons of her Sonny Crockett jacket, then did them back up.

Lacey shrugged.

"You want in? Blue says no cover charge tonight and tomorrow."

"Good of her. Might ask for a shift."

"Yeah. The girls have been crying into their Midoris since the news broke. It's like a fucking morgue in there." Flipper offered Lacey a drag of her cigarette, but Lacey shook her head. More down-in-the-mouth kings, queens, femmes, and butches passed by (just for once all moving in the same direction; marching to or from death?). Flipper blew out a long trail of smoke. "Funeral is tomorrow. Private thing."

"Yeah, saw that on the news." Lacey couldn't look at Flipper in the eye. The big girl had tears forming (no no don't please fuck what do I do).

Lacey barrelled down the stairs. The sticky-sweet stench of years of liquor trod into the carpet, sweaty eye shadow, weed, and clove cigarettes rose up to greet her. Bronski Beat throbbed gently from the speakers. Girls lounged over every upright surface, too many glasses scattered across table and bar top.

None of them were anywhere near old enough to be Granny.

Have you ever seen an old drag queen? An old dyke? Where do they go?

Two shot glasses banged on the bar.

"How the fuck is Maggie Thatcher still alive, and Freddie Mercury isn't," growled Blue, sloshing tequila.

Lacey accepted the offering without complaint despite her bad relationship with tequila.

How is anyone alive while Freddie isn't?

"We only just get the country back from the old witch, now this." Lacey tried on a joke for size.

"God fuck the Iron Lady," Blue growled.

They tugged the bottoms of their waistcoats, saluted with their glasses, and slammed.

"Next one you'll have to pay for, darlin'," Blue said after they coughed it down.

"Don't worry. I 'spect tonight will be easy selling the top shelf." Lacey took a long hard look around the bar. It was already too full. When girls got all up in their liquor, tears and fists tended to fly.

"Great, we're short-handed. I'll give you six percent, cause I'm feelin' generous." Blue slid a glass of water towards Lacey.

"Ten." Lacey grimaced at the DJ who had just put on Adam Ant. It was too early for Adam Ant. No one got up to dance. Lacey gave the DJ the fingers.

"Seven and a half. Final offer."

"Tally carries over if I don't use it all tonight."

The DJ gave Lacey the fingers back and lit a cigarette.

Blue sighed. "Fine."

"Tell that dick to play better music."

"Oh god, shut up," slurred some girl at the bar with bright red lipstick. "I happen to like Adam Ant."

"Lacey. Drop it," Blue said in a low voice. "Go sell something to table five. They've got dosh."

The lipstick girl's top lip curled up and she whispered something to her friend.

A flash of silver caught Lacey's eye as someone slid onto an empty stool.

"What's the best whiskey you would recommend?"

Lacey's tongue went numb. "You!"

"Hello, dear."

"Hey, Blue! You see this old bag here?" Lacey pointed at Granny Death smoothing out her gloves on the sticky bar top.

Blue gave a don't-care shrug and turned away to serve Lipstick again. "Sure. I see her round here all the time. Her money is good as any other girl's."

All the time? Oh my god, not Blue no no no NO.

Lacey sat, blocking Granny's view of the rest of the bar. "This funeral bloody well isn't for you," she growled.

"Perhaps not," Granny replied. Her eye shadow was a green twenty years out of date. "But I go wherever I'm needed, and tonight I am needed here."

Lacey leaned to get a better look at the back of Granny's head. Sure enough, the red-rimmed gold eye blinked at her. She gestured at Blue to pour out a couple fingers of whiskey. Granny smoothed out a note, Blue pinged it into the register without comment, and made the first mark on Lacey's tally.

Lacey drank without salute. "Come to get your jollies off a pack of miserable kings and queens, huh?"

"I get my jollies off a good cup of tea and watching Star Trek," Granny replied, sipping delicately at her drink. "I get no joy from seeing people in pain. I'd take it all away from all you lovely dears if I could. I like your clothes. I like your faces." Granny sighed. "It's not fair. He was a very nice chap."

It's not fair.

Lacey grimaced and helped herself to another measure. She didn't care she was drinking too fast. "Then what's with—" She circled a hand. "—doing Death's dirty work tonight? Freddie's funeral is tomorrow."

Granny dabbed her lips with a paper serviette. "Mister Bulsara does not get just one funeral, my dear. There are many funerals, big and small, happening all over the world. The unmarked ones are just as important. There's no quality control on this particular passing. Mister Bulsara's essence has well and truly passed through a Rift to the next dimension. A stable Rift in the Templace is simply a random, if rare, occurrence."

Lacey rudely crunched ice through the speech. "Nice line, grandma."

Granny placed the glass carefully on the bar. "I am no one's grandmother, let alone anyone's mother. This is a calling, not a job. And besides, despite what this form may allude to, I could not procreate if I wished to. Which I do not."

Bloody hell.

"I have another, more important reason to be at this particular funeral," Granny continued. "I am here for you."

Lacey slid backwards off her stool, hands up. "Woah now there, whack job."

I AM dead, I just don't know it.

Granny sighed. "I am here with a proposition—"

"You got to be shitting me. Our age gap has to be illegal." Lacey backed up further until she bumped into Lipstick, who cussed her out for spilling her drink.

"—of a position within our administration. Death wants you to apprentice to me. You can See me. You talk about the black sparkles. That's a prelude to being trained to see the Rifts.."

"I said, you owe me another fucking drink, you ugly cunt!"

Hate that word hate it go on call me it again.

"And I said hold your fucking horses," Lacey growled.

But when she turned back, Granny Death was gone. Only the prim outline of pink lipstick on her glass suggested she had even been there.

Lipstick shoved Lacey in the shoulder. "You fucking ugly dyke cunt. Replace my drink now or I fucking swear."

"Or what?" Lacey whirled, fingernails cutting her palms.

Don't don't, be a good girl. Everyone's desperate. Desperately sad, desperately drunk, desperately afraid.

Lipstick scowled. She looked just as scared as Rocko had been the day before.

"Have some common decency." Lacey lowered her voice. "There's a funeral going on here."

Lipstick's friend tugged on her arm. "Come on, not tonight."

Lipstick shook her off. "Oh yeah? Which of these ugly trannies did us a favor and fucked off?"

Lacey's fists ached. Heat rushed from her groin to the top of her skull.

Good girls don't get angry anger is so ugly.

Lipstick's friend whispered at her.

"Oh riiight. Wah wah. One less gay white man to colonize our spaces," Lipstick spat.

"That's it, you're cut off," Blue growled.

Don't don't I've got this.

"He's not gay. He's bisexual, like me. And Parsi. He's from Zanzibar." 

"Wot?" Liptstick got so close Lacey could taste the sour sweetness on her breath. "Bisexual? You hiding a dick in there too?"

By now the friend was backing away, hands up, wanting no part in Lipstick's charade. Lacey knew the taste of a bully's fear.

"Wrong one, asshole. Bye-secks-ual."

"You a Paki loving tranny? Is that it?" Lipstick sneered.

"You better stop," Lacey said. There was something satisfying in the simple threat.

"Or what? Bisexual. Bullshit. You're either with us or against us. No wonder he died. So fucking promiscuous. Good riddance to bad rubbish."

The bar disappeared. The granite in Lacey's chest didn't so much as shatter as simply melt away. What she had imagined as meters-thick solid rock was nothing more than a millimeter thin shell that gave way beneath the lightest touch.

Kitty. Stevie. Gin-Gin. Toad. Paulette. Manil. Freddie.

The names became a chant, faces whirling about, grating along her knuckles, clipping the rims of her ears, the smell of antiseptics and fresh washed sheets clogging up her nostrils. 

Infect. Rinse. Repeat.

The granite infected her fists, like she was attempting to build a wall one punch at a time.

"Lace." Blue's voice. "Hey, Lace."

Hands on her arms. Arms across her chest.

"God damn it, Lace." Flipper's voice, angry, cold, annoyed, satisfied.

Lacey struggled to shake off the infecting hands, but they held tight. Lipstick stood near the stairs, a wall of girls in suits blocking her in. Blue stared the girl down, her words lost beneath the screech of stone on stone in Lacey's head. Lipstick had a hand over her bloodied nose.

The virus is passed through the sharing of infected bodily fluids.

Someone sauntered out of the bathrooms. "Hey Blue. The condom and dam dispensers are empty," they shouted, oblivious to the tense scene.

Flipper's hands relaxed, and she smoothed Lacey's hair with a sigh.

Don't TOUCH me...

"What?" grumbled Blue. "I've refilled them once tonight already."

A figure at the top of the stairs, weak twilight framing curly hair into a halo. When they turned away, a golden point of light shrunk with each step, like a train moving back up a tunnel. Doom moving in reverse.

That's right, little virus, you better run.

 

 

Wednesday, November 27, 1991.

 

Lacey fingered the scratch down the side of her nose.

'Tis nothing. How much of me is left under her fingernails though?

The crowd milled about Logan Place in respectful patterns. Most were sitting, waiting for something, anything. Lacey ran her fingers along the flapping letters tacked up on the fence, catching a word here or there.

I should write something let him know but I can't I can't what are words inadequate how could I compete.

"Hello dear."

Granny Death blocked her way, wrinkled face scrunched up at the outpouring of love and grief.

Lacey hung her head. "I'm sorry you had to see that display last night. It wasn't like me at all."

"You're not sorry, and of course it was you. That was you in that moment, the you you needed to be." Granny Death didn't scold. Blue had done that enough.

"I'm banned from The Belle Jar for a month," Lacey said. "That other chick's banned for life. She's not going to press charges because that was her third strike. Caught her flipping coke in the bathroom. Blue assures me she threw the first bitch slap, but, well, I don't remember. It was pretty tame by all accounts. But I did land a good one on her nose."

"And you're very proud of that."

"First and last, Granny. First and last."

But it felt GOOD. Flick of the wrist, and you're gone baby.

Lacey looked up from her battered sneakers, raised an eyebrow. "You said you have a job for me. Some interview that was, then."

"So you believe I am who I say I am." Granny Death pressed a floral note in amongst the forest of words. Lacey didn't recognize the language.

"No. Yes. I don't know." Lacey sighed and rubbed her eyes, catching the edge of the scratch. She licked blood off her finger. "Everything's...weird. Heavy and light at the same time. I wouldn't be at all surprised if I'm having a dissociative break."

"Yes, it has been a strange few days," Granny Death replied, sounding surprised at being surprised. She pulled the shade of a tree around them and the quiet murmur dampened further.

"What do you want to believe?" Granny continued, taking out a pack of hard mints. Lacey sucked the lolly thoughtfully until the taste stung the back of her nose.

"That Freddie isn't dead," she said, voice as meek as if her mother stood over her.

"It doesn't work like that," Granny said. "We only see them to the edge of the Rift. What becomes of them after? Death doesn't even know."

"You make Death sound like a semi-decent kinda person," Lacey said.

"As far as employers go, they're better than most," Granny said. "It's a service someone has got to do. And the benefits aren't all that bad. Form of your choosing, extended life span—"

"—free lunch."

"You get to know who does the better catering," Granny admitted.

Suddenly her eyebrows lifted.

Expecting a spectral figure in a black robe come to put her blood on the dotted line, Lacey turned to follow her gaze.

Rocko Redpath slinked through the crowd, features set in a brokenness Lacey could never have imagined his rat-like face achieving. He held the hand of a handsome muscle man.

Lacey couldn't move, couldn't breathe.

Rocko was right in front of her.

He flinched, shuffled a little. Muscles said 'You right, love?'

Lacey gave her boss a nod. Rocko nodded back, fumbled in his net shopping bag. A peace offering: a packet of PG Tips.

He melted into the crowd.

"So, I'm beginning to suspect I don't just See things when it comes to Death," Lacey said. "I knew about Rocko, and it wasn't just gaydar. Not sure if I forgive him though."

"You don't have to," Granny said. "Let time do its thing. Life has a way of surprising you."

"Does Life have an admin division too?" Lacey shoved the packet of tea into her backpack, and scrubbed at her face with her palms. Her scratch caught again.

Pain is good. I can feel it this time.

"I presume so, but we don't do Sunday barbeques in Hyde Park," Granny replied, deadly serious.

"Never the twain, and all that."

"Something like that," Granny said.

A ripple passed through the crowd. People were returning to the house after the service. Some paparazzi called out, jostling for space.

Fucking paps.

"So, is a benefit one of those eyes in the back of your head?" Lacey asked in an undertone.

Her fingers tingled, and she felt like her body was rushing through a tunnel, rushing through all the spaces in the world at once but the meat of her brain stood stock still, sloshing up against the thin eggshell that held her inside. Asking for release.

Let me out, let me be.

"Dear." Granny patted the air above Lacey's hand. "We have eyes in all sorts of places."

Together, they waited out the rest of vigil in silence. Because silence felt good.

 

 

Monday, April 20, 1992.

 

Lacey paused in her duties of handing out red ribbons, condoms, and dams to watch in wonder as Extreme stormed the Wembley Stadium stage with a hot shit rendition of 'Keep Yourself Alive'. Seventy-two thousand people surged, thundered, cried, and laughed. It was turning out to be a hell of a funeral.

Granny Death popped up beside Lacey, one of her hideous floral scarves tied around her forehead like an aging hippy. It went well with the terrible green polyester flares, sleeveless pastel pink twin set, and pearls.

"How the hell did you get tickets!" Lacey laugh-shouted over the roar of the crowd. "This concert sold out in three hours!"

"I have a little sway here and there." Granny clapped out of time with the music.

"What, Death is a Queen fan?"

"Something like that."

Lacey squinted up into the glary Easter Monday sky. The weather held, actually pleasant for London temperatures, but the haze made it difficult to spot Rifts.

Granny followed her gaze. "Relax. This is a day off."

"You? Saying relax?" Lacey made a whip-crack noise.

"Someone else is covering our territory for the day," Granny replied, jiggling her ample hips.

That's new.

More passers-by dug their hands into Lacey's box of goodies. She'd have to go back for a refill soon.

Just like Blue had to keep refilling the dispensers in the bogs at the Belle Jar. Just like supplies had to topped up at the house. 'No rubber, no loving' had become the slogan whenever someone brought a date home to the Hackney flat. Even Blue had gone to get herself tested.

Clear. Thank the Templace, she's all clear.

Lacey carried her own letter detailing her HIV negative position like a good luck charm in a hidden inner suit jacket pocket.

Granny followed her at a trot as she took a swing through the upper terraces, getting winks and up-nods from the odd king or butch.

"That's nice dear," Granny said, sipping a beer.

"What is?"

"Seeing you smile."

"Ugh, Granny." Lacey rolled her eyes. "Don't be so sloppy."

Freddie, my darling. I miss you so hard gone away gone away.

The chunk of granite in her chest orbited once. Glittering dust sanded off, softening an edge.

Rubbing the hopeful bump on the back of her head, Lacey stared hard into the white hazy sky, forcing her eyes—all of them—to stay dry.

With a gleam like the dust from the fresh edge in her chest, a Rift pondered its way open over the top of stadium.

"Granny, look!" Lacey pointed up. "That's the biggest I've seen yet!"

"Well done!" Granny clapped her hands, bouncing in place. Lacey was sure the old bat would ache like buggery the next day, and she'd be fetching cups of tea and hot water bottles. "Goodness me, that's a pretty one!"

And it was pretty, layers of blue-shot silver with sparkling black on top, the edges curled up like a smile.

Lacey nudged Granny. "He's watching us, I swear!"

"Now you're just being fanciful." Granny danced off into the crowd. Her voice wafted back along with a teaser of lavender perfume. "You know the Rifts are only a one way trip."

The Rift stayed open for the entirety of the concert, the longest Lacey had seen. Every time she looked up at the iridescent void, the Nothing that held Everything, her voice inside quelled to a quiet murmur.

Tomorrow. I'll take my letter down to the fence at Logan Place tomorrow...

 

END


"Seven Handy Ideas for Algorithmic Shapeshifting" is copyright Bogi Takács 2018.

"Granny Death and the Drag King of London" is copyright A.J. Fitzwater 2018.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and we'll be back soon with a reprint of "Smooth Stones and Empty Bones" by Bennett North.

00:0000:00

Episode #48: “Circus Boy Without A Safety Net” by Craig Laurance Gidney

October 10, 2017

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 48 for September 26, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is a reprint of "Circus Boy Without A Safety Net" by Craig Laurance Gidney. Potential background dog noises are unintended, but provided by Rey, Finn, and Heidi.

Content warning for slurs, homophobic bullying, and descriptions of porn.

 

 

Craig Laurance Gidney is the author of the collections Sea, Swallow Me & Other Stories (Lethe Press, 2008), Skin Deep Magic (Rebel Satori Press, 2014), the Young Adult novel Bereft (Tiny Satchel Press, 2013), and The Nectar of Nightmares (Dim Shores, 2015). He lives in his native Washington, DC. Website: craiglaurancegidney.com. Instagram, Tumblr & Twitter: ethereallad.

 


Circus Boy Without A Safety Net

by Craig Laurance Gidney

 

Lucifer came to him in drag. He was disguised as Lena Horne.

C.B. went to see The Wiz with his family. The movie was pretty cool, by his standards, even though he thought Diana Ross was a little too old to be playing Dorothy. But the sets were amazing--the recasting of the Emerald City as downtown Manhattan, the Wicked Witch's sweatshop, the trashcan monsters in the subway. The songs sometimes lasted a little too long, but they were offset by Michael Jackson's flashy spin-dancing. But it was the image of Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch that would follow him.

She appeared in the next to last scene in a silver dress. Her hair was captured in a net of stars, and she was surrounded by a constellation of babies, all wrapped in clouds, their adorable faces peering out like living chocolate kisses. He fell in love. Ms. Horne was undeniably beautiful, with her creamy, golden skin, and mellow, birdlike features. Her movements during the song "Home" were passionate. They were at odds with shimmering, ethereal-blur in which she was filmed. Indeed, she could not be of this earth. In all of his life in Willow Creek, NC, C.B. had not seen anything like this before.

He was in love, all right. He researched her in libraries, finding old issues of Ebony and Jet; he watched old movies that she'd appeared in, like Cabin in the Sky. He collected some of her records; his 8-track of "Stormy Weather" was so worn, he had to buy another copy.

But in the weeks afterwards, he began to sense that this love of his wasn't quite right. His brother and his father would tease him about his "girlfriend," who was 70 years old, and about how, when he came of an age to marry, she would be even older than that. Of how he could never have children. His brother was particularly mean: he imagined a wedding, held at Lena's hospital bed, with her in an iron lung, exhaling an "I Do" as ominous as Darth Vader's last breath. But C.B. wanted to explain that it wasn't like that at all. He couldn't quite put it into words.

Lena wasn't an object of desire, someone who he wanted to kiss or hold hands with. She was something more. She was a goddess of Beauty, an ideal. She was something beyond anything he'd ever known. She hovered above Willow Creek, an angel, looking down on its box houses that were the color of orange sherbet, lemonade, and his own robin's-egg-blue house. She wasn't someone to sleep with; she was someone to be like.

C.B. made a bedroom shrine to his goddess. Old pictures of her, protected in cellophane, marched up his wall. But the ultimate treasure lay unseen. In the unused chest of drawers in the back of his closet, he hid a Barbie doll, bought at a flea market and transformed into her likeness: painted skin, eyes blackened with a pen, stolen hair dye darkening the blond tresses. And he sprinkled lots of glitter on her dress, so it would be silver, like hers was in The Wiz. (This had involved experiments with several doll's dresses. There was a measure of discretion; he came up with a story about how his sick sister collected Barbie dresses, so that the store clerks wouldn't think he was strange. He ended up dunking a powder-blue dress in Elmer's glue, and dredging it in silver glitter. He learned it by imitating his mother, when she made fried chicken: first the eggwash, then the seasoned flour).

But buried treasure sends out signals. Especially to mothers.

She zeroed in on the spot. Oh, there was some excuse about her wanting to check out the chest, so that she could sell it at the church bazaar. Lena was exposed. His mother and father met him at the kitchen table one day after school, holding his creation in their hands. When C.B. saw them, looking as solemn as they did when they watched reruns of King's historic speech, he knew something was wrong. He thought he was going to get a lecture on idolatry. Instead, he was told, in the calmest tones they could muster, that he was not to play with dolls ever again. That was that. His mother stood up, and started making dinner. His father left the room, his head hung in shame.

C.B. felt strange. They were treating him as if he were diseased. As if they'd discovered that he was freak of some kind. ("When your child reaches the age of twelve, his eyes will grow to the size of grapefruits..."). It was his brother that laid it out for him. He'd been listening in on the conversation.

"They think you're a faggot."

When he got to his room, the walls had been stripped. Everything of Lena was gone. The walls looked like he felt: exposed.

He didn't eat dinner that night. They didn't call him to the table.

He popped an 8-track of The Wiz into the player, and put the giant earmuff headphones on. Lena sang softly: "If you believe in yourself..."

C.B. snatched the tape out of the player. He unspooled the brown ribbon, until it lay in curls on the floor around him.

#

C.B. had a Voice. That's what everybody at the church choir said. He felt it, too. His chest would fill with warmth, the spirit of sound. And when he opened his mouth, all of that warm feeling would come sliding out, like a stream of maple syrup, rich and sweet. It would circle over the church. He could feel it soaring like an angel, over Willow Creek, notes raining down on the box houses the colors of mint-green, bubblegum pink, and pastel violet.

He convinced himself that he was singing to God. All of the ladies with their wiry hats would come up to tell him what a wonderful gift he had. For a while, he gained the pride and trust of his parents. Sort of. At least of his mother.

His father grudgingly gave him respect for his voice; but his father must've known that singing didn't really undo all of embarrassment he'd caused when he failed at various sports. Having a musician son was a poor substitute for having a normal one; but it would have to do.

Within the tiny whitewashed church, he was safe from the worst of himself. The Devil—or Lena—was imprisoned, locked away. Her smoky vocals couldn't slip in between the glorious notes of hymns. Her fabulous gowns were safely replaced by neutral choir robes.

He jumped through a hoop, pleasing the Lord. C.B. thought of God as a great ringmaster, and Heaven as a circus-dream of angels and tamed beasts. The dead could trapeze through the stars, and see the little marble that was Earth below. But first, you had prove yourself worthy. Jump through this hoop, ringed with razors. Now through this circle of fire... C.B. knew that his life would be a dazzling and dangerous tightrope performance from now on. One slip and he'd fall into a Hell of naked boys and show-tunes. The church was his safety net.

Another bonus of singing was the admiration of the congregation.

C.B. was an average student. He struggled through math and science, tolerated history and English. He didn't have any friends. Regular kids tended to avoid religious kids. Since that was his disguise, he was a loner. He avoided the actually religious kids himself—he felt that if anyone could see through his charade, they could. They would sniff it out like bloodhounds. Everyone was at a safe distance. And the holiest of music surrounded him like a shield.

He felt the most secure, when the Devil heard him sing.

He came in the form of the music and drama teacher, Mr. P. Mr. P traipsed into town in loud colors. He wore banana yellow jackets, pink shirts, and bow ties as large and comical as a clown's. In a way, he matched the colors of Willow Creek's houses. His skin was dark and smooth, like a Special Dark candy bar. He had large glasses that magnified his sad-clown brown eyes. And his hair was a mass of wild and wet Jericurls. His lisp reminded C.B of Snagglepuss, the cartoon lion. Like Snagglepuss, Mr. P was prissy and aristocratic, given to fey and archaic phrases.

Word got around school that C.B. could sing. He'd fastidiously avoided anything to do with the drama and music department. First of all, he reasoned, they played secular music. He sang for the glory of the Almighty. But the real reason was Mr. P. A whiff of his spicy cologne in the crowded school hall made him cringe; Mr. P's loud, theatrical laugh when he was a lunch hall monitor could set his teeth gnashing.

It was around January when he was approached. He left the lunchroom, walking right by Mr. P. (who wore a suit of lime-green, with an electric blue bow tie), when he was stopped.

Mr. P. spoke his name.

"Yes, sir?"

"I heard that you can sing, child. How come you haven't been around the chorus?"

"I... I guess that I've been too busy. With school. And church." He invested the last word with an emphasis he hoped wasn't lost on Mr. P.

But Mr. P flounced right by the Meaning, with a pass-me-my-smelling-salts flick of his wrists. "Nonsense. I would just love to hear you sing. Can you stop by the music room sometime this week?"

"No, sir. My course load is pretty full..."

"Any study halls?" (His sss's grated on him).

"Not this semester," C.B. lied.

"How bout after school? Just 15 minutes or so."

"Uh, this week's not too good, cause I, uh, have to help my dad with some chores."

Mr. P smiled, revealing gums as pink as deviled ham. He touched C.B. on the shoulder.

When he left the cafeteria, the nutmeg smell of the cologne tickled his nose. It wouldn't leave him all day.

That Sunday he was to sing a solo section of the hymn, "His Eye is on the Sparrow" during the distribution of the Host. Before he walked out on stage with the rest of the choir, he did a customary scan of the audience. Mr. P was there, in the pew behind his mother. His heart leapt into throat. But then, of course Mr. P would show up. The Devil can't resist stirring up souls in turmoil.

In the church basement, over fizzy punch and stale cookies, Mr. P lavished praise over C.B.'s voice, how pure it was. His mother was beaming beside him.

"Why, Mrs. Bertram—"

"Imogene, please."

"Imogene, when I heard that he had a Voice, I just had to investigate. It exceeded my wildest expectations."

C.B. kept his eyes firmly trained on the linoleum.

Snagglepuss continued: "I am casting parts for the spring musical. I'd like your son to try out."

His mother clapped her hands.

"I can't act," C. B. interrupted. He could see where this going; he had to cut it at the source.

"You don't have to act," (darling, he heard Mr. P add subliminally) "you just have to perform. And you've got that down pat." (Honeychile).

His mother pestered him into trying out for the spring musical, which was The Music Man. C.B. had enjoyed the movie, and found that he couldn't resist the temptation. It was too much. He felt Lena stirring in him. She whispered in his sleep. One night she came to him. She wore her sparkling fairy queen dress. Her chocolate star babies were grinning behind her. The only thing different about her this time was that she was in black-and-white. She'd occasionally ripple and sputter out of existence, like an image on an old television set. He took this as her blessing.

I won't give up going to church, so I'll be safe.

He landed the role of Professor Harold Hill.

The play ran four nights and a Saturday matinee. It was a success. The last performance earned him a standing ovation.

But in the back of his mind, there was always the issue of Mr. P. The jocks and class clowns of the school would always be whispering about him. They called him the Black Liberace. "Hand me the candelabra," they'd say when he passed them in the hall, or "I wish my brother George was here," in mincing voices. C.B. felt himself slipping. Movie posters of West Side Story, The Fantasticks, and The Sound of Music competed with the camouflage of his mother's hand-stitched prayer samplers and collected Willow Creek football bulletins.

The worst was gym class. He refused to take showers. But that didn't stop the boys from making fun of him. As they emerged glistening and nude from the showers, they would faux caress and grasp one another.

"Yeah baby, push it in harder!"

"Stab that shit, sweetie."

"Oh daddy, be my butt-pirate tonight."

He knew they were directed at him.

Summer came, and C.B. immersed himself in church activities. He became an aide for the church-sponsored camp for kids. He sang every Sunday, declining solo parts. It was a sacrifice that God might notice.

For the fall assembly, Mr. P put together a show comprised of songs from musicals. C.B. sang lead for "New York, New York," and "Send in the Clowns." He bought the house down. Basking in the light of adulation, he was mindful of the rot that hid behind and beneath Willow Creek's façade of cheerful acceptance: a hate that corroded the aluminum siding covered in pastel icing.

Church ladies in floral hats: "Mr. P, he's so, you know, theatrical. You know them theater folks."

And the antics of the locker-room boys.

Mr. P approached him for the lead in the spring play.

"I think you'd be perfect as the Cowardly Lion in The Wiz!"

C.B. told Mr. P he'd consider it. That night, Lena and her entourage appeared before him. And he was Icarus, tempted by her beauty. If he flew too high, she would supernova, and scorch his soul as black as the void surrounding her cherubs. He was a tightrope walker, and Lena was the spirit who watched over him, waiting to push him off, waiting for him to fall.

He could not ignore the sign that God had sent him. This was temptation.

He declined Mr. P's offer, claiming that he had to focus on his grades that semester, if he was to go to college.

C.B. did the right thing. But there was no sense of liberation.

Danger lurked, a phantom image just behind his eyes when he slept at night. He imagined Glinda turning into the Witch, snarling in frustration.

#

Manhattan spread out before him, glitzy, dirty, and labyrinthine. The architecture was as alien to C.B. as the Emerald City was to Dorothy. He was thrilled and terrified at the same time. There was no warmth, no open spaces like there was in Willow Creek. The buildings were naked and thin, and met the challenges of gravity head-on. The houses of Willow Creek were humble—modestly clothed in cheerful fabrics. C.B. wasn't so sure that he liked it. The crowds, the hurried pace, and the anorexic qualities of the landscape rejected him. The unending gray color oppressed him.

The Willow Creek Community College glee club had performed in a drab little church just outside of Harlem. C.B. swore he could hear rats skittering around the eaves. The nasty hotel the glee club stayed in had water stains on the ceiling, and the beds were hard and tiny. There had been a drunk sleeping in one of the chairs in the hotel lobby, his overripe smell and loud snoring filling the space. The hotel staff didn't seem to care.

Still, it had to be done. He had to test himself, to see once and for all if the Devil still lived in him. New York City was the perfect place to "experiment" without anyone knowing.

The first step was to ride the subway to Greenwich Village. He moved to the smelly hole in the ground. Its mouth was wide and yellow. He remembered the monsters in the subway in The Wiz. Trash cans with gnashing teeth, pillars that detached themselves from the ceiling and chased people around. What he found was a whole less interesting. The concrete floor in the subway was dirty, covered with gray lumps of long-forgotten chewing gum. He glanced down one of the platform tracks. Fearless brown and gray rats scuttled, each holding some treasure in their claws—a crust of Wonderbread, a squashed pink jellybean. C.B.'s skin crawled.

His train howled up to the platform, and the breaks squealed to a halt. He entered a drably lit car, with sour-faced people crushed next to him. He took a seat next to a blind man. The door clapped shut. His rattling trip began.

About three stops later, two men entered the subway together. Both of them wore black leather jackets, and had long beards, like ZZ Top. One man wore a tight leather cap on his head, while the other had chaps encasing his pants. When he turned away from C.B., he could see the two pockets of his ripped Levi's spread out like countries on the globe of his butt.

C.B. felt excitement wash over him. He allowed himself this one night. He had to know what he was giving up for the Lord. He stepped off the tightrope and tumbled into space.

Christopher Street was his stop. C.B. spilled out of the train and into the warm spring night. The first thing he noticed was that the Village wasn't as crowded and squashed together as downtown. There were no tall buildings. The sidewalks were thronged with people. Men, dressed like GQ models prowled the street. C.B. looked down. He made a decision; and looked up again. I'm tumbling.

He felt vertigo.

Cafes and bakeries spun past him. C.B. wandered into a bookstore. The atmosphere was thick with tension in here. Heads hunched over pornographic magazines glanced up then turned back to pictures of naked men spread-eagled and airbrushed on glossy pages. C.B. cautiously crept up to the magazine stand. He picked up a magazine, called Carnival of Men. He began trembling (tumbling).

The model's face was vacant. His body glistened and reflected the studio lights. His genitalia were objects: huge, flesh-colored fruits. Hairless and smooth. C.B. flipped the pages of the magazines. He found another picture, where a model spread the cheeks of his buttocks wide open. In the valley he created, he revealed the puckered rosebud of his anus.

If C.B. had been white, he would have been flushed as pink as Snagglepuss.

This is what it felt like, to give into temptation. What his mother hoped to destroy with church, what his father wanted to suppress with sports. The ground of Hell was fast approaching; it seethed with naked men and serpents. C.B. stayed in the bookstore, looking at magazines, for at least an hour. He was tempted to buy one of the magazines—this might be the only chance he got for a long time. But, then there was the chance of discovery, like his shrine to Lena. And it would be a visible souvenir of his shame.

He left the store empty-handed. The sky above the street was the sludge of sepia and purple-black, with the stars erased. There was a hint of humidity in the air.

He wandered the streets for an hour or more, putting off his eventual goal. He saw sophisticated men and women dressed in black. There were people with hair in colors of mint-green, daffodil yellow, and bubblegum pink. They wore safety pins through their ears, and some of them had white makeup on their faces, and tattoos on their arms. They were the clowns of hell. C.B. tried walking by them without gawking. He saw a shop that sold sex toys. He was too chicken to go in, so he looked through the windows, staring at the various tools and instruments of pleasure.

Finally, C.B. steeled himself. A couple of blocks from the Christopher Street stop he'd exited, there was a bar where men swarmed like bees. The name of the bar was the Big Top. He took a deep breath, stepped inside.

It was dark and crowded. Men perched on stools, sipping drinks, or clung to walls, gripping the nozzles of their beers. It was the sort of aggressive, ridiculous stance that the boys in the locker room mimicked. Others prowled the spaces between in cutoffs and T-shirts, leaving trails of perfume behind. The walls of the bar were paneled with some dark wood and wainscoted in a thick, red vinyl with large buttons on it, like the inside of a coffin.

Willow Creek was a dry county, and his mother didn't drink. His father did, but C.B. had little experience with alcohol. He went up to the bar, and asked for a rum and coke. The bartender wore an open vest. His chest was as smooth and built as those in the magazine C.B. had seen earlier. The bartender nodded sullenly, and gave him a full glass of rum, and colored it lightly with the soft drink.

C.B. looked at the drink doubtfully. He tipped the bartender, and wandered to the second room, which lay behind a black curtain.

He passed through, expecting a backroom, like he'd heard about. Darkness, smells of sweaty close bodies, groping hands. Instead, he slipped into wonder.

The room was decorated like his circus dream of Heaven. The walls were covered with paintings of elegant Harlequins and court jesters, their faces regal and dignified, not silly or sinister. One of the painted jesters wore a checkered garment of green and pink, and on the points of three-pronged hat were pansies, instead of the customary bells. There was a small stage at the end of the room. A circus dome capped the room, so you couldn't see the ceiling. A silver balloon rose from the back of each chair.

A man in a tuxedo walked to the microphone set up in the center of the stage. He waved C.B. to a table. When he'd taken a seat, the MC spoke:

"Tonight at the Big Top, we are proud to present the vocal stylings of the beautiful Lena Flügelhorn!"

The lights dimmed to spectral blue as a figure made her way to the microphone. She wore a dress of stars, her hair pinned up in some gravity-defying coiffure. A single white spotlight pierced the stage. The golden skin was a miracle of foundation. The likeness was uncanny, save for a huge Adam's apple. An invisible piano started the familiar chords to "Home."

And C.B. tumbled, plummeting to the floor of Hell. But the voice—resolutely male and tenor, yet somehow imbued with the essence of Lena—came and blew his poor body upwards, towards the star-babies of Heaven. C.B. found himself singing.

As he fell (or rose), C.B. felt Lena swell with him in. She rose up and held his hand. Lucifer—or Lena was there for him, as God had never been. If this was Hell, it couldn't be all that bad. It was beautiful here. A celestial circus of fallen stars. At once, C.B. recognized the anemic heaven he strove for, and rejected it.

Lena Flügelhorn's song ended, and with it, a chapter of C.B.'s life.

END

 


"Circus Boy Without A Safety Net" was originally published in Spoonfed and is copyright Craig Laurance Gidney 2001.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

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Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with the first original story from the Autumn 2017 issue.

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