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.

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 the first original story from the Autumn 2017 issue.

00:0000:00

Episode #47: “The Last Spell of the Raven” by Morris Tanafon

October 5, 2017

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 47 for September 23, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Today we have a poem by Jes Rausch, "Defining the Shapes of our Selves," and a GlitterShip original, "The Last Spell of the Raven" by Morris Tanafon. This is the last original story from GlitterShip Summer 2017, which you can pick up at glittership.com/buy if you would like to have your own copy. More importantly, however, this means that the Autumn 2017 issue is coming out soon!


Jes Rausch lives and writes in Wisconsin, with too many pets and too much beer for company. Nir fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Strange HorizonsApex Magazine, and Lethe Press. Find nem not updating nir Twitter @jesrausch.


"Defining the Shapes of our Selves"

by Jes Rausch

 

Book One

when we reached Fire Nest on Summit, hot
sun hanging low in the sky like an egg, biding,
the dirt streets were dusty as smoke.
So this is what the capitol of the Dragon Lands is like,
i said, and, i never dreamt i’d be here, breathe in dust
that must once have been the scales of ancients.
There, you said, and pointed out a spire among spires, the
twisting of another sculpted tail
in a sea of swirling tails and horns and There, you said,
and interrupted my awe with one of your smiles, man to me.
When we reached Fire Nest on Summit, our
pouches full of rubies, the aura of crime
marinating them to a fine delicacy, we strode
down streets dusty with smoke, smoky with the scent
of food and sounds and flashes of golds and crimsons.
We were here for a reason, a purpose, a journey, and
here we were at the door carved of real dragon bone
before the set of scale-clad guards, to bargain and banter and
barter our way into the deal of a lifetime. Said the guard
who stepped forward, He requires men and women meet
specific challenges attuned to their natures to pass, and
Step this way, to you. When we reached Fire Nest on Summit,
you walked through your designated door, and i
left behind in your dust, was told to wait when
the guard could not determine which frame fit. Said
the guard, it is better this way, after all, you cannot meet
the challenges without a reason, a purpose, a journey.

Book Two

When I stepped into the apartment I heard
the burble of the fish tank, that constant watery murmur
that gives me what little comfort it can. I turn on
all the lights today, and a little music too. The curtains
already drawn, this little home a sanctuary
where I can pee however I want to, and with the door open.
Out there in the world deemed real, I can try too hard
to talk with coworkers, meet company standards, go by
unseen. But here I can make chicken tikka. Chicken tikka
doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care
if you live or die either, so in a way, it is
the world deemed real, and here, in my home
I can devour it.

Book Three

when we slid into Io Port 7 dock, powered down, cleared
the security scans, and disembarked after five long
hours of waiting around in the mess, prisoners
in our own ship, i was ready for a bit of fun. Ten months
out in a vacuum will do that to you. Chasing odd jobs
around stars, snagging a get-rich-quick scheme out of orbit
is a tiring way to live. Dull as an old hull, random
as a time of death. Our boots made the obligatory clank-
clank noise down the corridors, our voices blocked
them out. See, i was never free ‘til i reached for a star
and grabbed a bucket of rust, made the engines run on sweat
and blood and nightmares. See, you can smell the aching shell of it
from the inside, but then, you probably never will.
i take care choosing a crew who can withstand
the raw scent of a being rotting from the inside out, fighting
against the lack of friction for all days. When we
emerged from the decaying ship, pristine outer hull, and slid
ourselves into Io Port 7 dock and down and down the corridors
already the rest and relaxation curled its way up to us. Somewhere
in the center of port, a band was playing, Venus Colony 3-
inspired beats pulsing and ebbing through
the artificial grav. Some persistent restaurant owner
was preparing dishes from Old Earth, warm smells
competing for dominance with the aromas of Orion-inspired
cuisine. When we descended into Io Port 7 dock, followed
the sounds and smells down to get our access passes
from the automated entrance bot, i entered in my name,
retinal scan, handprint, voice sample. i completed
the three-part questionnaire: reason for visit, profession,
personal information. i turned to accept my pass scan, and the bot
flashed dismissal. I’m sorry, the cold voice said, but you
don’t have the appropriate body mods to legally be permitted
to select that gender. I count only two
of the required five.

END

 


 

 

Morris Tanafon lives in Ohio but still feels like a New Englander. His work has appeared in Crossed Genres and Mythic Delirium and he blogs sporadically at https://gloriousmonsters.wordpress.com


 

 

The Last Spell of the Raven

by Morris Tanafon

 

 

When I was very young, I watched my mother win the Battle of Griefswald. Standing knee-deep in our ornamental pool, she transformed the surface into a picture of Germany, and dripped fire from her hands into the water. I stood with my tutor in the crowd that watched, and did not understand why she gripped my shoulders until they ached, or why the people watching cheered and gasped. I saw the fire snake around the houses, and tiny people running from it. But until I was older I did not understand that it had been real.

Nobody talked to me about magic. My father never spoke of it, and my mother believed that I took after my father and had no talent for it. Still, at the age of seven I used it for the first time—a desperate child will reach for any tool. I knew that magic existed, from my mother’s conversations with her friends, and that it could be used to do wonderful things. And I knew that my cat Morrow was dead. So when I was given the body to bury it, I took her out to the backyard instead, and performed my best guess at a spell. The form was foolish, but the intent genuine, and intent was all it needed.

Morrow stirred, and my cry of delight caught my mother's attention. She looked from me to the cat, heard five seconds of my babbled explanation, and began screaming.

"Galen, you idiot!" She slapped me. "Things that come back are barely alive, and now you've wasted a spell! If you use more than four spells you die, do you want to die?"

I began screaming, convinced I was going to drop dead on the spot, and the reborn Morrow added a thin, ugly caterwaul to the din.

It was my father who ended the stupid affair, in one of the rare moments he left his study. He scooped up Morrow, plucked me away from my mother, and took us both inside, ignoring my mother's spitting rage. I don't know what she did after that. It didn't matter to me at the time, because my father took me into his study. I had never seen the interior before, and when he put me down I froze in place, afraid I’d break something. He dropped Morrow in my arms; I could feel her tiny, tinny heartbeat against her ribs. She smelled like mothballs and felt like paper-mâché, as if I hugged too tightly I'd crush her.

"I have no say in the matter," my father said, "but I suggest you never use magic again."

I must have looked ready to start screaming again, because he began speaking quickly—something he never did.

"I would never have married Evelyn if I knew she was a magician. In the country I come from, it is despised, for good reason. Who would willingly rip their soul apart?" He sat down, drumming his fingers, and watched me for a minute. I stared back dumbly—I still didn't understand.

"There's a story we tell children," he said. "Once, a raven was swallowed by a whale, and inside it he found a little house. There was a beautiful girl there, with a lamp by her side."

Morrow scratched my shoulder. I put her down but she stayed by my legs, winding around them.

"She told the raven: The lamp is sacred, do not touch it. But every few moments she had to rise and go out the door, for she was the whale's breath." I wanted to ask why the whale's breath was a girl, but my father signaled me to be silent. "And the raven, being arrogant and curious, waited until she was gone and touched the lamp. In an instant it went out, the girl fell down dead, and the whale died too, for the lamp was the whale's soul."

I pressed my hands to my chest.

"You're not going to die," my father said. "Not if you stop now. But listen—the raven dug its way up through the whale's dead flesh, and found it beached. There were men gathered around. And instead of telling them, 'I meddled with something beautiful and destroyed it', the raven merely cried, 'I slew the whale! I slew the whale!' And he became great among men, but lived a cursed life thenceforward."

The meaning was not obvious to a seven-year-old. "Am I cursed?"

"All magicians are," my father said flatly, "for that raven, greedy for the power he tasted from the whale's soul, became the first magician. Now go, and think about what I told you."

I went, and I did. To this day, that's the longest conversation my father shared with me.

 

Morrow perished again seven years later, despite my best efforts. I fed her bugs and graveyard dirt and tiny pieces of liver and locked her in my room to prevent her from jumping off a too-high surface and crushing her fragile front legs. But I forgot to lock the door one day, and a maid wildly kicked at the grey shape that appeared in front of her, and that was the end of Morrow.

I was angry, but the maid cried and helped me gather up the pieces, and she was very pretty. That, at fourteen, had begun to matter, and I forgave her enough to give her part in the burial service.

My mother watched from the window until Morrow was well buried.

 

When I wove my second spell I knew what I was giving up, and I knew my mother would kill me if she discovered what I’d done. I was to go to university that autumn, and become certified as a magician in service to the Crown, as my mother was—I risked that as well. I thought the price cheap in exchange for a smile from Asuka.

Fujimoto Asuka, the ambassador's daughter. We attended the same parties, hated them with the same passion, and exchanged weary looks over the rims of our wineglasses until I finally got up the courage to speak to her. She had come with her father to England to find a magician to change her body's shape. She was born with one wrong for her. We were a good match for that summer—she appreciated my adoring glances and felt kindly toward magicians. I was glad of admiration from one as worldly as her.

On the last day of summer, I convinced Asuka to slip away during a party. She didn't take much convincing, and it's a miracle we weren't caught—giggling like schoolchildren and exchanging significant glances anyone could read. Perhaps the other guests were humoring us. We went to the nearby lake, so well-tended it was our ornamental pool writ large, and I took off my shoes.

"You asked me how magicians first came to be," I said. "Nobody knows the full history, but I can tell you one story."

The pictures I made in the water were not real, but they looked it. Even now, with my regrets, I feel a twinge of pride thinking of the spectacle. I'd studied ravens for months, memorizing how they moved, and drew inspiration for the woman from Asuka; and like any good storyteller, I lied, adding my own spin. I transformed the raven into a man in the last moments and sent him and the whale's breath, hand-in-hand, into the crowd of gaping humans. Their descendants were magicians, I told Asuka. The raven saved the breath-girl at the last moment by lighting the lantern with a piece of his own soul.

When I was done, Asuka's eyes glittered with tears.

She promised to write to me; but the autumn was cold and long and the mail services from Japan to England not too reliable, and after a few exchanges our talk petered out.

 

I expected my parents to find out about it, but they never did. Instead, I had to explain to the records officer at Iffley College. Anyone who wished to register as a magician had to give an account of all magic they had used. She made notes as I spoke, and squinted at me as if she could see magic filling me to a certain point like a cup.

“From the sound of it,” she said, “you have three spells left. That’s the minimum for a certified magician—you have to give two spells in service, and one left over to keep you alive. You’d have to get through university without using any magic.”

That should have been my cue to turn away from the path of a magician, but I was stubborn and scared. I was not particularly good with mathematics, writing, speaking, or any other useful trait, and I feared my father might not leave me much when he passed away. Magic, no matter how I'd misused it, was the one thing I was certain I could do. I resolved to hoard my last three spells until graduation.

 

Iffley should have been the site of my third spell.

It was reasonably progressive, so male students were allowed in female student's rooms if the door remained open—as if, Amel said, girls and girls and boys and boys got up to no trouble together.

Amel Duchamps was my best friend, and one of my only friends at Iffley. Most of the magicians there had more spells to their name than I, and loved to talk about what they planned to do with their two 'extras' after the service to the Crown was given; most of the non-magician boys thought me strange and shy. Girls suspected that I only wanted to speak to them for amorous reasons, which was far from the truth—after Asuka, my heart was too raw for romance. I wanted friendship.

Amel provided that and more. She was not a magician, but she did not fear them-—or anything. When she was ten, a horse had gone wild and crushed her legs. The doctor had asked her: would you rather leave them dangling, or cut them away? Amel chose to have them cut, and she told me that all her fear was cut away with them. She had gone about taking dares after that, everything from eating bees to sticking her hand into stinging nettles, and at fifteen she volunteered for experimental mechanical legs.

They were beautiful, wide white-and-bronze things with gears winking through the joints. The ones being produced now, mostly for military veterans, are more workmanlike; but the woman who designed Amel's wanted to make her fifteen-year-old test subject smile, so she had boots painted on the feet and winding vines on the calves.

"Imagine if magic took a piece of your body, instead of your soul," Amel said to me the day we met. "Then I'd be the one who'd spent two spells. I imagine the first would take your legs up to the knees, the next would go to the hips, then your torso... and finally you'd just be a head, rolling along. Fancy that!"

She was a year older than me, but never seemed to notice. We loved each other absolutely in the way of friends, with never a hint of lust; and we both loved the boy in the room across from me with every bit of romance and lust in us, although we never dared reveal that to him. His name was Isaac; he was blind and he had the most beautiful voice I had ever heard.

"How's himself?" Amel would always ask when I came to see her, and I'd tell her what Isaac had done lately. Then we'd move on to food, magic, sympathy over the cross of races we both were—English and Inuit for me, French and African for her. Iffley was a hard school, and the deeper into our education we got the more time we spent simply talking and the more our performance faltered. I might have failed altogether and been forced back home had—had the event not occurred.

I know very little about the attacker; only that he was a magician, and had decided how to spend each and every one of his spells. The newspapers, of course, spent weeks on the matter, on the carnage from beginning to end and the inspiration for it and the attacker's history and potential madness, but I don't want to know another thing about him. I know all I need to: the third dark, wet January I was at Iffley, I had gone out into the town for a much-needed drink and was returning in the afternoon when I heard the screams. I saw the blood, splattered in haphazard patterns over the wall, like wet lace slapped against the bricks. And for one minute I saw him, the killer, in the doorway across from me. He was bright-eyed with excitement, his hands curled up near his chest as if he had been physically tearing away pieces of his soul to do this with; and he looked at me. For a moment, I saw him consider.

But, as I was to learn later, he was on his last spell, and I was just one man. Why waste your power on one man when you can run to another room and kill a crowd? He turned away from me. And I, freezing as if I were seven years old again, let him.

Someone will stop him, any moment now, I thought. Some other magician, one of the ones with all five spells. They can spare it.

A minute later he cast his last spell and fell dead. A magician in the room even managed to deflect part of it. But that last spell still claimed lives—one teacher, one bystander who had been forced into the college, four students. Amel Duchamps.

 

I threw myself into my work in an attempt to forget, but it didn't help. Amel should have been the magician, I thought over and over. She had given up her legs in an instant. She would have given up a piece of her soul.

But what could I do now? I graduated Iffley College and the Crown claimed me. The last scraps of my soul no longer belonged to me.

 

My third spell is not worth remarking on. It was a military operation, one part of a massive whole. Performing it, I felt the pain of separating soul from soul for the first time, and I wondered if the pain came with age or only with reluctance.

 

At thirty I spent my fourth spell in a moment's decision. I had another purpose, another spell laid out for me, although I can no longer recall what it was. Suffice to say I was accompanying a group of soldiers, police and other magicians, retrieving hostages that had been taken from the Royal Opera to the house of an art-obsessed crime lord in Liverpool.

I found Isaac among those rescued. I got up the nerve to greet him, but he only tilted his head. Then he opened his mouth and showed me that the criminal devil had taken his tongue.

I did not think about it, or even tell him what I was going to do, which in hindsight I should have. I kissed him lightly, passing the last easily taken scrap of my soul mouth to mouth, and restored his tongue. "It's the least I can do,” I said.

My superiors raged. My mother heard of it and sent a letter to tell me how stupid I was. Isaac embraced me, which was the high point of the whole affair. But I realized that I could not hear his voice without remembering Amel, and how much she had loved him as well, and so I could not be with him long. When I received orders of discharge I bid him farewell and good luck, and set off wandering.

I found work as a teacher, here and there, although what people most wanted me to do was give lectures on how greatly I had wasted my magic—provide an example to the younger generation of magicians by accepting responsibility for my foolishness. That I could not do, and sooner or later I had to move on from a place when the attention grew to be too much.

My life was lonely. But it warmed me a little to think of a piece of my soul clinging to Isaac, like a flower-petal on the back of his tongue, reverberating with the sound every time he sang.

 

In the summer of my thirty-sixth year, my mother died and the aggression between England and Germany flared into war once again. Newspapers made poetry of it, suggesting that Germany was given courage to attack by my mother's death. They ran photographs of the Battle of Griefswald, the side that had taken place in my old home's ornamental pool, and some reporters tried to interview me on the matter. With mourning as my excuse, I returned to my old home and locked myself in. My father had gone back to his land of birth, and wanted nothing to do with the house or me.

In time, interest died out. The war occupied everyone's attention. Sides were taken, attacks were made, and after a while I stopped bothering to read the newspapers. With a place to live and the money my mother left behind, I no longer had to go anywhere, and as the days passed I wanted to less and less. People only spoke of magic when they spoke of how it might be used in the war. I was despised, quietly, for my lack of contribution. I came to see the few kindnesses I was still shown as undeserved, and I retreated into my home completely, stocking up on food so I wouldn't need to leave for a long time.

A few people still found me. Young men and women going off to war passed through my part of the country, and some of them stopped at my door. I didn't understand why; finally, I allowed a girl named Katherine inside just to see what she wanted, and over a cup of weak coffee she blurted out that she only had three spells left.

I realized that she wanted to tell me about the first two.

That was what they all wanted, really, the people who knocked at my door. Some had three spells left, some two, but all of them had spent the first on impulse. Katherine had cursed her stepfather's vineyards. A boy called Natanael had resurrected his favorite apple tree after it had been struck by lightning. Gita had brought a patch of earth to life, and it followed her around. "It used to be bigger," she said, looking down at the muddy little golem. "I think someday it will wash away completely."

All I could do was listen, but I realized that was all they wanted.

Eventually they stopped coming. Germany was inching across England's shore near my home, and people fled the area. I stayed deep within my house, and it might have been mistaken for empty; certainly, nobody came to evacuate me. I lived in a looming house over a ghost town, with the sounds of warfare drawing nearer every day, and I could not bring myself to care. I began working my way through the wine cellar.

It was when I was down there, one day, that the bombs came down. I felt the earth shake over my head, and when I mounted the stairs an hour later my house had collapsed around me. Cavernous walls bowed in, shattered windows were obscured with earth, the wooden beams of the house creaked and groaned under the weight of rubble. It was dark and stifling and still large, like the belly of a whale, and in the center of the floor lay a bomb.

It didn't seem about to go off, so I circled it at a distance and tried to remember what I'd read about German bombs. There had been an article in the last newspaper I'd bothered to look at. They were iron shells full of destructive magic, released when their metal shell was cracked or some requirements for the seething spell within were met. Every one one-fifth of a magician's life, and the Germans were beginning to drop dozens of them. I remembered Iffley, the blood on the walls and the cracked windows, and bile rose in my throat. That man had chosen to use his magic in that way, but I could not imagine that a rational magician would agree to it willingly. I felt a strange sympathy for the magician who had spent part of their soul in such a manner.

But what were the requirements for this spell? It had been dropped rather precisely here. Perhaps, ascribing more credit to me than I deserved, they thought I might follow in my mother's footsteps and kill a great deal of their people. Still, why would it be meant for me and not awaken when I stood within twenty feet of it?

A thought struck me, and I almost laughed aloud; then I remembered that nobody was here to think me mad, and I did laugh. They had meant the bomb for a magician, of course. But while my spell for Isaac had been publicized, my earlier expenditures were shrouded in mystery. They had expected a magician with at least two spells left. My one remaining scrap was not enough to trigger the bomb unless I stood next to it.

I left it where it lay and went to investigate the doors.

 

My bad luck held, and they were all blocked by wreckage. I was trapped and help was not likely to come. And for all that I'd willingly shut myself off from life, I felt a pang of huge and echoing terror at the thought. I wanted, for a fiery moment, to survive; or at least to know that my death would be noticed, that I would be mourned. If I had still possessed two spells, I would have used one then.

But I only had one, and the moment passed.

In two weeks' time I had run through most of my food, and had nigh-unconsciously begun spending time nearer to the bomb. It was a contest of wills, fueled by my ragged mind; it seemed to me that my own weakening instinct to live fought against the soul-fragment of the magician who wished me to die. I spoke to it, sometimes. Would have named it, if I were a little more mad. Told it the story of my life, as far as I knew it. "We haven't gotten to the ending yet," I informed it, in a conspiratorial tone, "but I know I shall die. It only remains to see how."

In my defense, I was rather drunk during those weeks, and in my further defense, my father kept a far more extensive wine-cellar than I did a pantry. Recalling my mother, I can hardly blame him.

Regardless: after two weeks, as I sat and studied the bomb and wondered how swift a death it might be to trigger it, I heard noises faint and far above me. I thought at first they were delusions—I had imagined, many nights, the sound of a cat padding through the hallways, or the creak of mechanical legs—but I kept listening, and realized they were the sounds of digging.

Someone had come.

I leapt to my feet, head spinning, and looked upwards. I could hear a voice now, shouting, but it was too far away to recognize. But as I stood there, shaking, so overwhelmed I did not know whether I felt joy or terror, I heard another noise: a slow and measured cracking.

There must be magicians in the group above. The bomb began to tremble, like a hatching egg, and in a moment it would split open.

I wished that I did not have time to think. Magic, excusing the spell I performed unwillingly, always came in a moment of impulse. But the metal egg cracked slowly, and my hands trembled, and my traitor mind said Wait a moment longer. It has not gone off yet; they might be near enough to call to, soon, and someone else—

Someone else, I knew with utter certainty, would come too late. That did not make the magic come easily, it did not spur me on without thought, but it gave me the strength to raise my hand toward the shivering spell on the floor.

"You were meant for me," I reminded it, and as the shell finally opened I enclosed it. The force was strong, almost stronger than I, and had to go somewhere, so I directed it toward the part of the ceiling which I had heard nothing from. I had to hope that was enough.

The spell was silent, save for the roar of the roof parting before it, and nothing more than a glimmer of light to my eyes. I sank to my knees, watching the ceiling split open, and saw the cloudy sky for the first time in weeks.

"I slew the whale," I said. My tongue felt thick and heavy in my mouth. "I slew the whale."

Far away, I heard a shout. I still could not recognize the voice, but it seemed familiar. Perhaps it was one of the young magicians who had stopped at my door. Perhaps it was Isaac. Anything seemed likely, in that moment. The cloudy sky dimmed before my eyes as my vision failed, but my mind's eye seemed to sharpen. I thought I saw the house from the outside, clear as day, and felt a cat winding around my legs, her purring weight incredibly familiar. The weight transformed into water and I stood, for a moment, in the lake where I wove Asuka’s spell.

Some say a magician splits into five pieces at their death, but it felt more like becoming whole.

And here—no, this cannot be death, for I find myself back in Amel's room in Iffley, where I never worked a spell, and she smiles at me so hard her eyes crease up to almost nothing. "How's himself?" she asks, and I answer, and while I do she gets up—her legs no longer creaking as badly as they did—and paces to the door to open it. Morrow slips half of her long grey body inside, but in the way of cats she can't make up her mind; as Amel and I sink deeper into conversation she comes in and goes out, in and out, in and out and in and out.

 

END


"Defining the Shapes of our Selves" is copyright Jes Rausch 2017.

"The Last Spell of the Raven" is copyright Morris Tanafon 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 reprint of “Circus Boy Without A Safety Net" by Craig Laurance Gidney.

00:0000:00

Episode #46 — “Nostalgia” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

September 29, 2017

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 46 for September 21, 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 by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, "Nostalgia."

Content warning for the good, the bad, and the ugly: sex, drug addiction, and references to stalking.


 

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam's fiction and poetry has appeared in over 40 magazines such as ClarkesworldLightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She has been a finalist for the Nebula Award and Selected Shorts' Stella Kupferberg Memorial Prize. Her audio fiction-jazz collaborative album Strange Monsters was released from Easy Brew Studio in April 2016. You can find her online at www.bonniejostufflebeam.com or on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle.

 


Nostalgia

by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

 

 

Tori takes another hit of nostalgia; the smoke is creamy mint cookie down her throat, smooth and hot. It fills her lungs, tickles, burns, and as she coughs it out she laughs, smoke pouring from her lips. Fog fills her head. The live oaks’ winter skeletons crisp into focus as the drug takes hold. Tori feels the cold on her skin as if she is a little girl in the snow, her hand in her father’s glove, surrounded by his smell of smoke and vodka. Her mother hates the cold but watches from the window. Tori’s belly is full. It hasn’t been this full for years, not since home, that word a lighthouse beacon she will never again reach without this burn of throat, cloud of mind, her parents having pushed her out once they met her first girlfriend. Tori passes the pipe to her companion.

“I haven’t done nostalgia in years,” Kay says. “Since I was in college. Homesick.”

“No pressure,” Tori says. “Just offering.”

Her new friend confuses her; she’s never been with a slate before, and even though Kay is pre-op, it’s taken some concentration not to mix up the pronouns. Shu¸ Tori practices on nights that Kay does not sleep over. Shur. Still, she’s messed up a couple of times, accidentally said she instead of shu, her instead of shur. Kay does not seem to mind these slip-ups, and it is because of this easy-goingness that Tori has let Kay into her head nearly as much as nostalgia.

Kay flicks the lighter over the blue-black herb but does not inhale. Instead shu watches the leaves char in the pipe’s bowl.

“Hey, knock it off.” Tori grabs the pipe, the lighter. “Don’t waste it.”

“Sorry.” Kay shrugs shur thick shoulders; the grey scarf around shur neck shifts in the breeze. Tori itches to bat the decorative balls which hang from it but doesn't.

Instead she remembers. When she was a little girl, she had an orange cat who batted at her scarves. Another cat in college, living with that first girlfriend, Meredith. Meredith’s skin against her own, protection from the cold, a laugh like medicine she didn’t know she needed.

“You okay?” Kay asks, squeezing the nub of her shoulder. Tori opens her eyes. She had closed them without realizing. This is sad to her, like the day Meredith moved up north.

“Fine,” she says. “Cold is all.”

Later, atop the flannel red-and-white holiday sheets, Tori closes her eyes again and imagines familiar fingers, longer and thinner than Kay’s, inside her, lets the nostalgia hum within like a tongue, lets herself dissolve into the memory of love. One day, she thinks, kissing the nape of Kay’s bare neck, shu will feel like memory, shur blank, nippleless chest a comfort of familiarity rather than this stiff newness, this gloss. Tori wants it dull like a pencil worn to the nub.

When they are finished, breathless in one another’s embrace, Tori burrows her face in the hair of Kay’s armpits, the smell of animal musk and orgasm. As the nostalgia wears off, a veil lifts on this moment, the past fogging instead like a breathed-upon window. Kay’s skin is real under her ear, the drum of shur heartbeat a surge through her. It makes her own heart beat faster, her palms sweat. She swallows her spit. To quiet the silence, she pulls her face from the sweat of Kay’s body and examines shur in the room’s dark.

“Your photographs,” she says, “they’re good.”

Kay laughs. “I know. Is that the only reason you’re with me?”

Tori lets her head fall back into place. She knows that Kay is not comfortable enough yet to push, and the question is difficult to answer. Yes, she should say, the photographs. But this would be too much. It would stress her throat, already sore from the smoke. Behind her eyes she recalls them, the photographs, dancers leaping from frame to frame like in a flip-book.

Tori had glimpsed Kay every day at the college as Kay walked past Tori mopping the same spot again and again, trying to look busy so that she would not have to catch Kay’s eye. Because she knew who Kay was, had seen shur picture in the school paper, had heard shur name repeated back when Tori was a student, back before her only affiliations with the school were the mop and broom they issued her, the paycheck they sent her monthly for cleaning the classrooms and bathrooms of the art buildings.

Whenever Tori had a moment, she stopped to stare at Kay’s photographs. Once she dared to touch them; she wanted to see if the dancer was real, some little person imprisoned in the film, forced to tango and ballet and flamenco hour after hour, day after day, year after year, but it was just paper under Tori’s finger, glossy as what would be Tori and Kay’s future bedroom shenanigans. The dancers were always slates, or disguised as slates. Tori couldn’t believe there could be so many of them in Riddle, Texas, their small college town. And the way they changed from photo to photo, like devils. Like angels. Like monsters. Like memories Tori struggled to remember without the help of smoke down her throat.

“Do you want to learn how to take them?” Kay asks. “I can teach you. I think you’d be good at it.”

The idea sends a shiver down Tori’s spine; it both intrigues and terrifies her. Too new.

“I can’t,” she says.

 

Tori is at the sink filling a glass with water when Meredith knocks at the kitchen door.

“Whose car is that outside?” Meredith asks as she pushes past Tori. “You better not dance for her, whoever she is.” In the time since she has been away, she’s shaved the sides of her head so that the middle patch of hair falls over two bald spots. “If you dance for her, I swear.”

It isn’t a surprise to see Meredith there, but also it is a surprise, as each time she shows up it sends a shock down Tori’s belly to her groin. A Pavlov’s bell. Tori leaves the faucet on, lets the water run over the sides of the glass and down the drain.

“I don’t dance,” Tori says, leaning against the sink, digging her hands into the pockets of her pajama pants.

“Bullshit you don’t dance,” Meredith says. “We used to dance all the time.”

“Not anymore. I only danced with you.”

Meredith's smile dimples her cheeks. She looks stronger, thicker; from her letters, Tori knows that she’s been climbing rocks, running races, cycling across mountains until her muscles quiver. “Prove it,” she says.

Even though Kay is in the other room, asleep with shur head on Tori’s pillow, Tori’s belly aches for a kiss she knows the taste of. Berries and salt. If she could bury her head in Meredith’s hair, she would smell the slick oil sweet. She knows this. She knows, too, the way Meredith will move against her in a dance of sweat, the way Meredith will not let Tori touch her. The way she will, once Tori is gasping in her arms, jump up and disappear to the bathroom, how she will emerge flushed and breathless. How she will say, “I took care of it myself.” And how Tori will accept this. She knows, too, that as they sit on the couch with their legs intertwined, Meredith will not ask about Kay.

Sure enough, it happens like that. Meredith is out the door twenty minutes later. When Tori crawls back into bed, Kay rolls over and kisses the top of her forehead.

“I don’t care, you know, about her,” Kay says. “I think you’ll find I’m pretty open-minded.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Tori closes her eyes and counts the hours until she can light up again.

 

When she runs out of nostalgia, she calls up her high school friend, Logan. He and her other friends from that time have never left the small town where they all grew up together, Agape, where they spent weekends downing stolen vodka and imbibing a rainbow assortment of drugs until nostalgia became their drug of choice.

One hour’s drive south and Tori is knocking on Logan’s door. Logan answers, his skintight jeans smeared with forgotten food particles. His eyes are red as emergency exit letters. When he wraps his arms around her, she feels as though this moment has already occurred. Déjà vu. But of course it's happened before, at least once every two weeks for the last six years of her life.

“You have some?” she asks.

Logan leads her by the hand back to his room, where four old friends and one man Tori has never seen sit around a hookah. Inside his parents’ house everything is the same: the same black curtains drawn across every window, the same stuffed moose head mounted above the neglected fireplace, the same smell of stale smoke and semen-filled napkins left too long in Logan’s wastebasket. The coal atop the hookah smolders redder than their eyes. As Tori's eyes adjust, her chest constricts; it’s a scene straight from senior year when she didn’t yet know who she was, when she hadn’t yet grown into her own skin, was still shy and ashamed of herself, awkward in her body. This is a thought she struggles to swallow every time she comes here. Instead she takes the pipe they pass her and sucks in the rancid smoke.

Once her eyes match theirs, she feels right again. She looks from face to face in the circle. Back in the day, they used to sneak into the woods to smoke this stuff. They would break into a rundown shed and sit on a ratty couch that smelled of mildew. They nearly got caught by the cops a couple of times, but they were young. Maybe that is the difference, Tori thinks, I know now that I can crumble like charred nostalgia. There was another one of them back then, a boy Tori thought for a while that she loved. They let Daniel be their leader, clung to his every word. She let him be her first boy. The only mistake she ever admitted to.

She recalls his lips on her neck, his fingers tracing the necklace he slipped around her neck like a collar. This is not the way, he said, this is not the way to love you. Even though his raving words made no sense, she believed them.

Later she realized he wasn’t right in the head. He smoked too much. Took other drugs. Shot some into his veins. Back then, especially, it had been nothing more than cigarettes and booze pilfered from the bottom shelves of their parents’ vice cabinets for the rest of them. They left Daniel to his own.

“Are you staying for a while?” Annie asks.

“I don’t think so,” Tori says, taking another hit. This one tastes like day-old salad in her throat. A bad hit. She pulls her water bottle from her purse and tries to swallow the taste. “I have to get back.”

“It’s okay,” Logan says. “Big college grad, we know you’re not like us anymore.”

Nothing could be closer and farther from the truth.

 

At home Tori arranges the baggie of nostalgia in a cedar box where she also keeps papers and a glass pipe with a rainbow flower blown onto it. She calls Kay and asks shur to come over.  When shu arrives, shu has brought along a digital camera which shu hands to Tori like a holy relic. The camera is red and feels heavy in Tori’s palm.

“It’s neat,” Tori says, thrusting it back at Kay. “Is it new?”

Kay won’t take it back. Instead shu stands by Tori’s side and shows her how to turn it on.

“It’s for you,” shu says. Shu arranges Tori’s fingers over the buttons, uses Tori’s hand like a puppet to take a photograph of the window in Tori’s living room. “You have an eye for this,” shu says. “Don’t waste it.”

“I can’t take this,” Tori says. It feels hard and slick and smells of new plastic. She hates the smell. She tries again to give it back, and when Kay won’t take it, her fingers go limp. The camera falls to the carpet with a thud.

Kay leaves it where it has fallen. Takes Tori’s hands in shur own and kisses the knuckles. “It’s okay,” shu says. “You don’t have to.” Lets shur lips graze the hairs on Tori’s arms, kisses the mole on her neck, kisses her eyebrows. Unbuttons her. Tori can tell shu wants to disrobe all of her, peel off her skin even, see inside her body like an X-ray. But Tori won’t let shur.

Kay’s body will change after shur operation. Tori isn’t sure that she will be okay with this. Thinking of Kay’s body as something she will have to get used to twice leaves a heavy food feeling in her stomach. Although she’s familiar with the way a typical slate body looks post-op – she took a class on gender and sexuality at the university – she wishes she could have met shu once she was already complete, once shu had already grown into the new skin, the smooth Barbie V between shur legs. At least, Tori thinks as she runs her hands over the flat chest she has made a fascination, Kay got this part out of the way before we met.

“I won’t know what to do with you,” Tori whispers, “after the operation.”

Kay’s voice, usually calm, is hard-edged when shu responds. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Tori isn’t one hundred percent sure. She laughs at herself. When is she ever?

“I just wish, you know, that we’d met once you were complete.” She thinks it might help if she explains, but she can't seem to spit the words out. Not without time. She wishes she could freeze the moment and collect herself, but the world doesn’t grant wishes that way.

“Complete?” Kay pushes Tori off shur chest. “I’m just as complete now as I’ll ever be. I'll be more comfortable in my skin, sure, but I'm not incomplete. And besides,” shu says, “you’re one to talk. What are you doing with your life? You think your reason for living is so you can clean other people’s messes?” Shu stops, though Tori can tell shu wants to go on. Then shu looks away. “I’m sorry,” shu says. Shu doesn’t wait for Tori to say anything, and Tori isn’t sure she would say anything given the chance.

Once Kay has gone, Tori loads a bowl, tripping over the camera on her way back to bed. She kicks it underneath the couch like the soccer ball she and her father used to pass back and forth out in the cool green grass, tinged with dew, until the chill on her bare feet became too much and her father would carry her inside and lower her onto the dry carpet. It's a memory empty of the sound of ice clinking in a glass, empty of the alcohol smell. She scrunches her toes against the carpet, a dirty shag she hasn’t vacuumed in at least a month. It doesn’t feel the same. If the world granted wishes, she would wish that it would feel the same.

 

The bonfire in Tori’s yard is already blazing when Meredith skids into Tori’s gravel drive on her Harley. It has been three days since Tori’s fight with Kay, and she is surprised to see Meredith so soon after the last visit. It’s surprising not to have to reacquaint herself; it’s nice. The fire’s warmth makes her bare legs burn.

“Long time no see,” Tori says.

“I missed you,” Meredith says.

Tori has known Meredith long enough to decipher this code. What she means to say is, she couldn’t stand the thought of Tori with someone else. And so she has returned. Tori takes another hit in the hopes that she can convince herself that this time will be forever. They sit by the fire.

“Can’t believe you still do this shit,” Meredith says, lighting the bowl.

“And you don’t?”

Meredith laughs. “I didn’t say that. Just, you were always so smart, Tori. Smarter than any of us. I figured you’d grow up faster.”

Tori doesn’t want to think about it. She blows smoke from her nose. The burn makes her body tremble the way fingers will, later, when the two of them are once more wrapped in Tori’s sheets. Tori recalls that first time, when Meredith pushed her onto her own bed. Took control of Tori’s room without asking. Tori loved that she didn’t ask. She felt in capable hands. They made love to B.B. King on repeat. When they woke in the morning, the air was too hot for such closeness, but they clung to each other anyway. They turned off the music and let the noise of their breath soothe them back into fevered half-sleep.

“Where’s the old gang?” Meredith dumps the cashed bowl into the fire. “Call them up.”

Once Meredith left, there was nothing more to hold their group of college friends together, though during the five years of undergrad they spent every weekend together. Meredith had been glue, and none of them had ever noticed, not even Tori, who had felt her sticky sweat-soaked skin. But Tori still has their numbers.

An hour later, three chairs around the bonfire have filled with the warm bodies Tori used to cling to, sloppy with drink and smoke, as they stumbled home from evenings of smoke circles and study sessions, one-night stands and late-night movie marathons. When Daniel wouldn’t stop calling, even two years after the breakup, it was these friends who, never having known him, demanded he leave her alone. Only two of their old gang is able to make it; the rest, like Meredith, moved away from Riddle after graduation. Still, looking from face to face around the fire is like looking four years into the past, and Tori’s body hums, static building under skin. She wants nothing more than to run through the field surrounding her house, to float kites as Meredith scribbles poetry in her little black notebook. Always Tori used to wonder if Meredith was writing about her. Then she knew she never was; instead she wrote of the foreign places she disappeared to more and more those days. A fantastic life she hadn’t asked Tori to be part of.

Once the beer has been drained and the empty bottles tossed into the fire in hopes that they will burst, once they have finished off the last of the nostalgia, leaving only ash and a charred roach to burn, they sit back in their chairs and dream of running, though in reality none of them could summon the energy. The hum takes Tori over like an orgasm that never stops. She feels as if, for the first time since graduation, since she lost her place in this college town, she is home.

The hum intensifies. It vibrates her legs and creeps up into the space between her legs. For a moment she remembers Kay. Then forgets. Then it is Meredith again, Meredith’s dimpled smile, her soft thighs. Music that she recognizes.

“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Meredith slurs, clapping her hand over Tori’s pants pocket, where Tori’s phone has been ringing.

The phone feels strange in her sweaty palm, like an object that was never meant to be in this world. The caller ID tells her before she picks up that Logan’s will be the voice on the other end of the line.

“I’m sorry,” Logan says when she picks up. “I had to tell you. Daniel killed himself two weeks ago.”

A wave of numb travels from her ear to her feet. Her stomach flops as if she has swallowed sour milk. She can feel Daniel all of a sudden. His hands like a bandage across her wrist, pulling her onto his bed while his parents were away. Refusing to let go of her hand in the night. Saying, if something ever happened to you. If anyone ever hurt you. And she knew, back then, that he was damaged. Had seen his own stepfather’s dead body hanging from the ceiling. Had heard the fights from the other side of thin walls for all his childhood. She thought he was strong, thought he had grown from these experiences. How, she wanted and did not want to ask. So she didn’t. She could feel his lips down her neck and thought of how those lips would go blue-black in the earth.

“God,” she says, as if she believes in Him. “How do you know?”

“His mom called me today. Got my number from his phone.”

Meredith’s hand grips her knee, travels up her leg. Tori doesn’t think to stop her.

“Is there a funeral?”

“No. They had a secret funeral already. But we’re having a memorial, next weekend. We’re going to the barn. We’ll say a few words about him, you know. We’re meeting at my house. If you want to come. If you can stay a while.”

“I’ll be there,” Tori says.

The phone goes quiet. Meredith doesn’t ask who it was, what it was, and Tori moves her leg so that Meredith’s hand falls away.

“What’s up?” Meredith asks, crossing her arms across her chest.

“Daniel’s dead. Killed himself.”

Meredith’s eyes widen. “Are you okay?” she asks.

“Will you go to the memorial with me next weekend?”

“I can’t. I have a family thing next weekend, out of town. I already told them I’d go.”

“Right.” Tori nods, though what Meredith said seems strange, like déjà vu again. Tori remembers her grandfather’s death, how her tears made Meredith anxious, how Meredith shrugged stiffly, told Tori she had to leave. That she had a family reunion to go to. Left Tori on the edge of her bed, clutching her own shaking body. “Right,” Tori says.

Tori leaves the fire, goes inside, locks the door behind her. No one bothers her for hours, and when they do, she ignores the knocks, the pleas to please let them in to use the restroom. She googles Daniel’s name. She finds an old arrest brief from Daniel’s breaking-and-entering charge, which happened the year after college. Daniel had called her about it, drunk and sorry for himself. But there is no obituary, no news of a suicide. She searches for hours and finds nothing more, her fingers a fever on the keys, her mind a blank race of guilty thoughts. Could she have saved him? She wishes she had someone to tell her that she couldn’t have. But it sounds as if, outside, the party has moved on.

It’s the hour of nothing good when there is another knock at the door.

“Please open up,” Kay says. “I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

When Tori opens the door, Kay wraps shur arms around her. Tori shakes in shur embrace. “What’s wrong?” Kay asks, running shur hands through Tori’s hair. “What happened?”

Tori tells shur everything. “Doesn’t it sound fishy?” she asks. “There’s nothing, nothing at all online about him.”

“It’s weird, but maybe they just wanted to keep it secret. Don’t tear yourself up about this, okay? Listen, I’ll go with you, if you want, to the memorial.”

Tori lets herself disappear beneath Kay’s armpit. Breathes in the musk smell. She will let shur take care of her. Will let shur hold her and hide her from the light. Will let shur apologize for her and, yes, even love her.

 

Having grown up in the city, Kay says during the drive down from Riddle, shu has never been in a town like Agape.

“As you can see, you’re not missing much,” Tori says as she navigates the car along the one road which curves like a snake through the small town, from the high school to the diner to the post office to the elementary to the gated community of houses which could fit five of Tori’s tiny duplex within their walls. This is her past, laid bare without the itch in the throat, though Tori has brought along the last of her nostalgia for the memorial.

“I bet you could take some great photographs here,” Kay says as they pass the stone mega church. “Will the memorial be there?”

The memorial. For the length of the drive, she let herself forget, but now she must remember. Every bitter detail. There will be no turning around. For the last week she has felt on edge, always shaking in the night, looking every day for information, calling up old friends to see if they have heard. And no one else has.

“No,” Tori says. “Not there.”

To stop her shaking, and because she cannot, at the moment, go on to Logan’s, Tori stops at the town’s only coffee shop, a little place with crosses on the walls and in a jewelry case at the front counter. The young man behind the counter is someone Tori used to know, an old friend. Jaden. She wonders why, smart boy like him, he never got out of this place.

“How are you?” he asks, smiling briefly at Kay before looking back to Tori. Kay stands with shur arms in shur jacket pockets.

Tori shrugs. “Okay enough, considering the occasion.”

“What occasion?”

He doesn’t know, she realizes with cold dread. Although he and Daniel were never best friends, were never lovers, they were close. As if shu can read her, Kay grabs her hand.

“Daniel’s dead,” Tori says. “Killed himself.”

“What? When was this?” Jaden says.

“Three weeks ago.”

He laughs. The sound is a fire alarm. When he realizes Tori isn’t laughing with him, he opens his mouth, shuts it. “I saw Daniel at the general store last night. He was fine.”

Cold dread is becoming as familiar as a fever. Because this news is neither good nor bad; it moves into her gut and twists her insides.

“Excuse me,” she says, and she rushes from the coffee shop, the door’s jingle a throb in her head. Beside the car, she calls Logan. He answers on the first ring.

“Where are you?” he asks. “You’re late. The rest of the gang is here already. We’re ready to go.”

“Daniel’s alive,” Tori says. “Jaden says they saw him last night, at work.”

“That's impossible,” Logan says.

“I’m telling you, I just saw Jaden, and he says Daniel is one hundred percent fine.”

“We’re all here. Waiting for you. Just come on. It’ll be like old times. We can’t know for certain. Let’s just have the memorial, go out to the barn, share some bowls. Say a few words. In honor of Daniel. I mean, his mom called me. She called me the day it happened, a week ago. She was crying. There’s no way she was faking that.”

“A week ago,” Tori says. And she knows then not to argue. She hangs up. Kay has joined her beside the car, and without explaining where they’re going, they climb in. Tori drives. She remembers the way; she would remember it with her eyes closed. Back then she took this road out of mind. She is out of mind again, and no drug has passed through her system since the night before, when Kay watched her smoke a bowl of nostalgia to black.

Daniel’s father’s house is stone, situated back from the road and surrounded by lean live oaks. The yard is dark, and as they walk hand in hand up the gravel path Tori’s heart hyperventilates in her chest. Before they reach the door, a man emerges, his arms crossed.

“Can I help you?”

“We’re looking for Daniel,” Tori says. She doesn’t know if Daniel’s father will remember her. If he knows that she was the first woman to strip him down and take him into her mouth, to crawl on top of him and initiate him into the world of lovers. That she has regretted that decision, and not only because Daniel wasn’t ready, not only because Daniel blamed her for losing himself. “I’m an old friend. I had dinner here once.” Matzo balls in broth. Toast and steamed Brussels sprouts.

“Not really, but my memory’s not all it used to be. Daniel’s in his room, up there. Do you want me to go get him?”

Tori’s body wilts. Relief. She thinks about the last time she saw him, his hair tangled, clothes baggy and torn, eyes bloodshot. The memories overwhelmed her like a drug, and it was because of him that she no longer frequented Agape unless she needed to. Unless she needed nostalgia shoved into clear plastic baggies.

“No, thanks,” she says. “I’m tired of rehashing. But he’s not dead?”

“Dead? No, Daniel’s not dead. Why?”

“A friend lied to me,” she says.

“Doesn’t sound like a friend to me.” Daniel’s father’s arms have come uncrossed, and Tori isn’t sure when in the conversation it happened, but it seems to signal some small degree of remembrance. And what else could she ask for but to be remembered?

“Yeah,” she says. “Thanks so much. Don’t tell Daniel I was here, please.”

The man nods. "I remember you," he says. "I won't."

Tori and Kay turn and walk from the driveway, slower this time, Tori listening to the crunch of their footsteps on the path. Kay’s hand in hers makes her feel safe, as if Kay could protect her, if she needed it, which she doesn’t.

They don’t go to Logan’s. Tori deletes his number from her phone, as she did Daniel’s long ago. Later she will block it, too. She is not mad at him. She understands the urge to hold on, to keep the people who were once close nearby. To relive that which you remember in a hazy euphoria. Instead, she and Kay drive home, where they sit beside the fire and look, without speaking, into the waves of heat lifting to the sky like a mirage in the air. Tori doesn’t load a bowl.

Kay snaps a picture of her in the firelight; when developed, it will show her body dark as night. She will not be smiling, though there will be a rosy fire glow on her cheeks.

“Can I?” Tori asks.

“So long as you don’t drop it.” Kay grins. Shur grin splits shur face like a crack to let light in.

The camera feels like her pipe in Tori’s palm, the same weight.

 

It will not be easy, Tori thinks, to stop. She will want to remember. Her photographs, then. She will capture the places she once loved, the people she will try to love in new ways. She opens the box on her desk and spreads the remaining nostalgia across a blank piece of paper. Arranges it to form a picture; a figure with no shape, no curves, no breasts, no genitals. Not too bad, she thinks. I can get used to it, she thinks.

The flash lightning cuts the room in half. Dots swim before Tori’s eyes. She hopes the picture will come out, but there’s no way to know until she develops it in the art building’s darkroom. It’s a beautiful feeling, to see and not see what the future will bring.

END

 


“Nostalgia” was originally published in Interzone, and is copyright Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam 2015.

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: "The Last Spell of the Raven" by Morris Tanafon and a poem by Jes Rausch.

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Episode #45: “The Pond” by Amy Ogden

September 24, 2017

Hello! This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you. Today we have another GlitterShip original and a poem. Our poem today is "A Seduction by a Sister of the Oneiroi" by Hester J. Rook, and our original story is "The Pond" by Aimee Ogden.

If you enjoy this story and would like to read ahead in the Summer 2017 issue, you can pick that up at glittership.com/buy for $2.99 and get your very own copies of the winter and spring 2017 issues as well.

Finally, the GlitterShip Year One anthology is still on sale in the Kindle and Nook stores for $4.99, and you can pick up the paperback copy for $17.95.

 


Hester J. Rook is an Australian writer and co-editor of Twisted Moon magazine, a magazine of speculative erotic poetry (twistedmoonmag.com). She has previous prose and poetry publications in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Liminality Magazine, Strangelet and others. She's on Twitter @kitemonster and you can find her other work on her site http://hesterjrook.wordpress.com/.

 

A seduction by a sister of the Oneiroi

Hester J. Rook

 

The night is velvet warm,
mosquito pricked.
There is prosecco through my tongue
and pear juice sticky down my wrists.
Her mouth is sugar rich and cream softened,
velvet dipped in moonlight.
“We are goddesses already,”
she is wine voiced and dusk cloaked,
autumn leaves behind eyes translucent as cathedral glass.
“My heart is wraithlike sour,
bitter as lemon rind
and my realm soft-surreal and afraid.
But you
you taste of marzipan at sunset
earthen-toed and iron scented, like a storm.
A goddess already.”
She ties back her dream-soaked curls and lights up each star,
palm raised high and fingertips aflame.
“Come back with me.”
And, fizzy-tongued and plum sweetened,
I do.

 

 


Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester. Nowadays, she writes stories about sad astronauts and angry princesses. Her work has also appeared in Apex, Shimmer, and Cast of Wonders. Aimee lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where you can find her at the gym, in the garden, with a faceful of cheese curds at the local farmer's market, or, less messily, just on Twitter: @Aimee_Ogden.

 

 

The Pond

by Aimee Ogden

 

 

 

Laura almost misses the first message.

A screaming match with Sana has driven her out into the frost-rimed evening. The baby’s cries and Sana’s frustrated shushing chase her across the yard; Ifrah is not an easy infant like her brother was. Laura and Sana’s relationship is not an easy one like it was back when Christopher was born, either.

Laura stops to cram her skis onto her feet only once she is far enough away to shut out the sounds from the house. Her only illumination comes from the headlamp clipped to her hat; the moon hides behind thick, dull clouds. It would have been so easy to race past the windswept pond without a second glance. But the headlamp glints on the dull frozen surface, and two stark words etched beneath catch and hold her eye: HELLO MOMMY.

Snow crunches when she hits her knees beside the pond. Her ankles twist under the torque of the skis, but she is paralyzed by the cruelty carved into those two words. Her heart throbs in her chest. Which of the neighbor’s teenage children could have, would have done such a thing?

In spite of herself, she reaches out and puts one hand on top of the words. Through her thin gloves, she can’t feel the ridges that the prankster’s knife should have left in the ice. Impossible. She lays both hands flat over the words, squeezes her eyes shut, as if her hands can erase what has been done.

When she opens her eyes and parts her fingers, the words are gone.

Relief and panic wrestle for control inside Laura’s chest. After this awful year, is she finally losing her mind? Maybe the heat from her hands has melted the ice and erased the words.

As she struggles for a grasp on reason, new lines appear in the spaces between her fingers. Her hands curl into claws around the new letters: ARE YOU MAD AT ME?

And Laura is lying on her side on the ice crooning to a carved question from a dead little boy: “No, baby, no, sweetheart, never. Never. Never.”

When she finally drags herself to her feet, there is a long, shallow indentation in the ice from the warmth of her body, and pink light seeps over the horizon. Her body is stiff and cold, and there have been no more messages but those first two, but there is a smile on her face as she walks back to the house.

Sana emerges from the bedroom with crusty eyes and mussed hair as Laura tiptoes up the stairs. “Were you up all night?” she hisses, and Laura shrugs. “Well, I hope you got your head clear. You can have the bathroom first; I need to go make the baby a bottle.”

“Thanks,” says Laura, and Sana gives her a look that cuts deep, probing for insincerity under that solitary syllable. Whatever she finds, she grunts, and brushes past Laura onto the stairs.

Laura turns the shower on as cool as she can tolerate and stands beneath it as long as she can. The more alive she feels, the more distance stretches between her and Christopher. She wants that space to shrink down again, to a few narrow inches of ice. A distance measured in inches is still too far, but it’s better than the entire universe.

She ignores Sana’s first bangs on the door, but when Sana shouts that she’ll be late for work, she finally kills the flow of water and reaches for a towel. Her fingers, still half numb from her night on the ice, only start to tingle with life when she finally steps out and begins to rub herself dry with a towel.

Her office at the back of the hospital lab is a welcome refuge from home. No noise here, except the distant chatter of the technologists out front and the regular whir of the pneumatic tube. Reports to write and biopsies to result: this one cancerous, this one benign, this one missing margins and in need of re-sectioning. No patients to see today, and Laura has mastered the art of speaking to the techs as little as can be politely managed. Right now she can only deal with small chunks of humanity: a twenty-millimeter cube of breast tissue, a fraction of a gram of liver, a two-minute update on a test result from Dave or Xue.

 

When she arrives at home, both Sana and the baby are napping: Ifrah in her swing and Sana sprawled along the length of the couch. Dark rings are smeared under her eyes, and a half-eaten bowl of instant soup cools on the floor beside her. Her full, hard breasts stretch the fabric of her stained shirt, either she or Ifrah will wake soon to make sure the baby gets fed. The puckered, soft flesh of her belly peeks out from under the hem of her shirt, too, a sight Laura is both disgusted by and grateful for. Sana has carried both of their children. To Laura, the development of a fetus, pushing and groping for space inside its mother’s viscera, is too much like the growth of a tumor, unseen and unknowable and somehow obscene.

She slips out the back door without a sound.

There are more words etched into the pond today. Laura is almost running by the time she gets close enough to read them: DO YOU MISS ME?

She gets down to her knees more carefully today than yesterday, afraid of breaking the ice under her weight. “I miss you more than anything. You took my heart with you when you left us.” Can he hear her? Laura seizes a stick poking up through the snow, but it’s too soft to scratch the surface. Panic sets her heart thumping wildly in her chest as the question melts back into the ice, but then new shapes form. I MISS YOU TOO, MOMMY.

The words pour out of Laura then, memories of family weekends and long vacations, favorite meals, books shared under the covers on quiet Saturday mornings. And of that fearful diagnosis, the one that Laura understood long before either Sana or Christopher could.

When she finally lapses into silence, the pond is as blank as the cloudless sky. The words skitter out a line at a time, scattershot with hesitation. IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT.

And Laura kisses, just ever so briefly, the frozen surface of the pond, as if she can force her love through the layer of ice with the pressure of her lips.

 

Sana is on her hands and knees beside the couch, scrubbing spilled soup out of the carpeting. She looks up at the creak of the door as Laura steps inside. “There’s dinner in the fridge,” she says. “I didn’t know when you’d be home. Did you...” The rag twists between her hands. “Did you have a good day at work?”

“It was fine.” Ifrah is on her belly on a blanket on the floor, grunting as she works to lift her head off the floor to watch what Sana is doing. Laura puts a teddy in front of her so the baby has something to look at as she walks past to the kitchen.

She takes a plate of cold morgh polou with her into the office. Out in the living room, Sana is reading to the baby, one of those tiresome books with an ounce of story stretched over a pound of pages. Laura shuts the door and sits down at the computer, where she opens a private browsing session.

There are thousands, millions of hits for people claiming to have been contacted by the dead, but Laura can’t find anything comparable to her experience. Sad, desperate people reading messages from lost loved ones into lost-and-found objects, oddly-timed sounds, piles of soggy tea leaves. She closes tabs one by one until she’s only left with a blinking cursor on an empty search engine field. She types: how to bring back the dead.

Sana is already in bed by the time Laura turns off the computer and trudges upstairs. She unbuttons her pants and slides out of her bra in the hallway before sneaking into the bedroom and slipping beneath the covers. But Sana rolls over anyway, putting her mouth beside Laura’s ear. “I’m worried about you.” Her whisper is too soft to disturb the baby, but blunt enough to batter at Laura’s heart. “I know this time of year is hard for you. It’s hard for me, too.”

“I’m fine.” She could tell Sana about the pond. She could tell Sana what she saw on the Internet. She doesn’t. This secret is all hers, twisting darkly in the corners of her heart. “We’ll all be fine. I promise.”

“Laura, I think you should—”

“You’ll wake the baby.” Laura knots her hand in the blankets and pulls them with her as she turns onto her side. The warmth of Sana’s body lingers behind her, and then she curls away from Laura, turning toward the corner where the bassinet rests.

 

A pink-fingered dawn is reaching through the blinds when Laura wakes. Her alarm won’t go off for two more hours; she turns it off and crawls out of bed anyway. The blankets are tangled around Sana, who has been up and down feeding the baby during the night. Laura tucks a flap of the comforter over her wife’s bare feet, and pulls jeans and a sweater from the pile of clean laundry on the dresser before slipping out of the bedroom and down the stairs.

A greeting is waiting for her on the surface of the pond. GOOD MORNING MOMMY.

She sits cross-legged in front of it and traces each letter with one gloved fingertip. “Good morning, baby,” she says, and yawns curling steam out into the morning air.

YOU’RE TIRED.

“Yes. I didn’t sleep well last night.”

BECAUSE OF THE BABY?

Laura flinches. Neither of them has made any mention of Ifrah till now, nor Sana either. “No ... no more than usual. I was up late, that’s all. We don’t have to talk about the baby. I have something I want to tell you about.”

But the words on the ice drive all the air out of the lungs, all the air out of the space around her. DID YOU HAVE HER AS A REPLACEMENT FOR ME?

No, thinks Laura, and her mouth silently shapes the word. But her finger traces a different word on the surface on the ice: YES.

There is no answer from the pond. Laura shifts as the cold gnaws at her ankles. “We thought ... we thought we needed someone to take care of. To keep us from falling apart without you. She doesn’t fill the hole that you left.” And Ifrah isn’t enough to keep Laura and Sana from falling apart, either, but Laura can’t make herself say that aloud. “We missed you so much. We were so lonely.”

I’M LONELY TOO.

Tears burn Laura’s cheeks. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. But baby, listen, I have an idea, I was doing some research, on how we can be together again.”

YOU’LL COME WITH ME?

“No...” Laura drags the back of her hand across her face, trailing tears and snot. “No, honey, I think it’s possible that I can bring you back here. To live with us. Me and Mama Sana and—and the baby.”

COME WITH ME. The words repeat themselves: COME WITH ME. COME WITH ME. COME WITH ME. The lines crisscross and fold back on themselves until they are unreadable.

“Christopher!” The palm of a tiny hand slams into the ice right beneath Laura’s knees, making her scream. She scrambles backward off the ice, falling elbow deep into the snow just as the ice cracks under the place where she was sitting. “Stop!”

The words vanish, leaving only the white lightning-strike pattern of cracks behind.

Laura stands alone in the yard with her arms wrapped around herself until the sun heaves itself up over the horizon. Then she puts her head down and hurries back to the house.

 

She spends the day at work responding to Xue and Dave in odd monosyllables. Her queue of specimens grows and grows while she buries herself in a new set of web searches, fruitless ones. When she looks up, the lights are off in the front of the lab and she is alone. There’s no amount of research that can give her the answers she’s asking for, and there’s nothing on the Internet that can make her accept what she already knows in the pits of her heart.

The house is dark when she comes in: no cries from Ifrah, no kitchen clattering or TV noise. She finds Sana in the office, scribbling on a pad of paper. The grocery list, maybe, or a list of chores for her and Laura to ignore. Laura clears her throat. “I’m going out.”

Sana’s head bobs up, and a tremulous smile swims onto her face. “Okay,” she says. “Everything is going to be all right, Laura. You know that, right?”

“Sure.” Laura looks away. “I’ll see you in a little while.”

She makes one stop before going out to the pond. She stands at the water’s edge, and the weight in her hands reassures her that what she is doing is right.

MOMMY?

Laura hefts the axe and brings it down into the ice.

The impact judders her arms up to the shoulders. The impact crater left by the axe head is like a broken mirror, reflecting spiderwebs of words: MOMMY NO, MOMMY NO, MOMMY NO. She raises the axe again, brings it back down, chops until she can see gray water between the floating chunks of ice. She is in water up to her knees as she reaches the center of the pond, her feet are numb. Everything is numb. But she keeps working until a scream splits her in half.

It’s not the child’s scream she expected. It’s the scream of a woman grown. She turns to see Sana, clutching a shawl around her shoulders with one hand and holding the baby carrier in the other. She’s staring at the axe in Laura’s hands. “What did you do?”

Laura fumbles her way into a lie about being afraid of the ice growing thin and the neighbor’s kids falling through. But Sana’s eyes are wide and unseeing, and the words die in Laura’s mouth. “What did you do,” Sana repeats. “What did you do?”

She drops the carrier and runs into the pond. But not toward Laura, and Laura’s name is not the one she cries out as icy water splashes up to her knees, to her thighs. Ice floes in miniature batter around her waist, deeper than this little fish pond has any right to be. Laura reaches out for her, but Sana chooses instead the embrace of the water. She disappears beneath the surface.

Laura climbs up onto the bank. The ripples in the water grow still. The broken bits of ice tinkle gently together. In her carrier, Ifrah pumps her little red fists and wails.

But the pond is silent.

END

 

“A Seduction by a Sister of the Oneiroi” is copyright Hester J. Rook 2017.

“The Pond” is copyright Aimee Ogden 2017.

Assorted dog noises are copyright Finn, Rey, and Heidi, 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 reprint of “Nostalgia” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam.

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