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.

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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.

00:0000:00

Episode #44: “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” by Bogi Takács

September 5, 2017

The Need for Overwhelming Sensation

by Bogi Takács

 

I am staring at the face from a thousand newscasts—the gentle curve of jaw, the almost apologetic smile. Miran Anyuwe is not explaining policy. Miran Anyuwe is bleeding from a head wound, drops falling tap-tap-tap on the boarding ramp of our ship, the sound oddly amplified by the geometry of the cramped docking bay bulkheads.

“I’m looking for a ride out,” they say. They are not supposed to be on Idhir Station. They are supposed to be three jump points away, heading the accession talks, guiding Ohandar’s joining of the Alliance.

I uncross my legs and get up to my feet—one quick, practiced motion. I bow my head briefly. “Esteemed, I will inquire.”

 

[Full transcript after the cut.]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 44 for August 22, 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 "The Need for Overwhelming Sensation" by Bogi Takács.

Content warning: Sex and BDSM

Bogi is an agender trans author who can be found talking about other people's writing at http://www.bogireadstheworld.com and @bogiperson on Twitter.

 

 

The Need for Overwhelming Sensation

by Bogi Takács

 

I am staring at the face from a thousand newscasts—the gentle curve of jaw, the almost apologetic smile. Miran Anyuwe is not explaining policy. Miran Anyuwe is bleeding from a head wound, drops falling tap-tap-tap on the boarding ramp of our ship, the sound oddly amplified by the geometry of the cramped docking bay bulkheads.

“I’m looking for a ride out,” they say. They are not supposed to be on Idhir Station. They are supposed to be three jump points away, heading the accession talks, guiding Ohandar’s joining of the Alliance.

I uncross my legs and get up to my feet—one quick, practiced motion. I bow my head briefly. “Esteemed, I will inquire.”

They nod. Their smile intensifies just a little, as if someone repainted the lines of their mouth with firmer brushstrokes.

I dash inside, my entire torso trembling with fear of the sudden and the unexpected. I take a sharp corner and crash into Master Sanre. They steady me with both hands.

“Iryu, breathe.”

I gasp.

“Slower. In and out.”

Their presence calms me. It only takes a few breaths.

“Iryu, look at me.”

I stare up at them. Their eyes narrow, the lines of silver paint that I so carefully applied to their face in the morning crumple like spacetime clumps around a planet. The glass beads in their hair clack together.

“Explain what’s wrong.”

I mutter, still tongue-tied from the sudden fright. Miran Anyuwe is outside and injured. Miran Anyuwe wants to hire us. Miran Anyuwe—

“Ward the ship, then come outside. I will talk to them.”

They hurry outside, boots clanging on metal.

I exhale again. I focus on the power inside me, direct it outside and into the wards. My remaining tension eases up. I’m not missing anything—I will be able to look at my master’s sensory logs later. I turn around and return to the open airlock.

I stop for a moment as I see the two of them together. They look so alike, and the resemblance goes beyond gender, appearance, the light brown of their skin and the dark brown of their braids. They have the same bearing, the same stance. It’s clear both are used to effortless command. Miran Anyuwe commands an entire planet. My master commands only me and the ship.

Is my master more powerful?

It’s not about the head wound, it’s not about the desperate urgency in Miran Anyuwe’s gestures. It involves something innate that goes to the core of being.

I knew my master was powerful. But did I overestimate Miran Anyuwe?

Both of them look up at me, nod at me to come closer. I approach, unsettled.

 

Miran Anyuwe is unwilling to explain. Details are elided, skirted around. Anti-Alliance isolationists, terrorist threats, an attack on Miran Anyuwe’s life. I don’t understand why they abandoned the talks and went back to their planet—surely they knew they would present a better target there? Were they trying to pull off some populist maneuver? I find myself dismayed that my thoughts are moving along less than charitable pathways, but Miran Anyuwe clearly has something to hide.

I tell myself it is only the bitterness of disillusionment. But did I really want them to be that glorified, polished figurehead from the political news, that semi-deity with a charmingly pacifist stance?

I excuse myself; I start preparing for launch. My master can keep Miran Anyuwe company.

 

These ships do not run on pain; that’s a misconception. They run on raw magical power. It can be produced in any number of ways. Pain is just easy for many people.

Of course, it’s a matter of choice. Even those who find it easy don’t have to like it.

            I like it. I need it. If I go without, my body protests. Maybe it’s about the need for overwhelming sensation; I’m not sure.

As I’m checking the equipment, I wonder why I’m having these thoughts—I think because of a foreigner on the ship, a potential need to explain. For all the newscasts and analysis articles, I know little about Ohandar. The focus is always on Miran Anyuwe, and the progress of the negotiations. I wonder if that means the Ohandar isolationists have already won.

I slow my all too rapid breathing. There will be time to get agitated later. First to get away from the gravity wells, to a relatively clean patch of spacetime while still on sublight. Then we can decide—the client can decide. Miran Anyuwe has all the reputation credit in the world to pay. Of course, my master would nix all the dangerous maneuvers. I just hope Miran Anyuwe isn’t up to something wrong.

I tug on straps, lean into them with my full bodyweight. They hold. They always hold, but it’s best to check.

I undress. A lot of magic leaves through my skin surface—I’d rather not burn my clothing. I never have, but it heats up and that makes me worried. I’ve already adjusted the ambient temp a few degrees higher, so I’m not feeling cold.

The chamber is mostly empty—my master is a minimalist, and I like this: distractions do not help. The lines carved into the bulkheads—carefully, by hand—are the same off-white as the bulkheads themselves. One day it would be pleasant to have wood, but I like this surface too: it reminds me of ceramics, some of our tableware from down planetside.

Master Sanre is setting up the frame: pulling it out from storage inside the bulkheads, affixing it. They work quickly; we’ve done this so many times.

I say I’m ready. I’m eager to begin; we were stuck on Idhir Station for days upon days, our time consumed with administrative tasks. I’m starved for a run, and we have the client of clients, safely ensconced in one of the bedchambers, but probably not yet asleep. Out on the corridor I felt their jitters, but this chamber is the best-warded on the ship. No distractions inside, no stray power leaking out and causing disturbance outside.

I lie stomach down on a fixed-position pallet and my master straps me in. I wriggle a bit— everything seems to be in order. I smile up at them and they run a hand along the side of my face, smooth down my curls. I close my eyes for a moment and sigh a little. They chuckle.

“So dreamy. What would you do without me?”

“I would be sad?” I volunteer, my voice thin and little.

They pat me on the shoulders.

They start with their bare hands, slapping, grabbing and pulling at the flesh. It is all quite gentle. I relax into the restraints and my muscles unknot. Whatever Miran Anyuwe is doing, I couldn’t care less.

Heavier thuds on the sides of my back. I can tell the implements by feel. I wish we would go faster—aren’t we in a hurry?

Master Sanre fusses with the tool stand. They turn around, change stance. A whizzing sound through the air, a sharper pain. I yelp. Sound is good, it also helps release. We go on. On. My back burns. I groan at first, then scream. Tears and snot. I—

“What’s going on in here?”

Miran Anyuwe. How— The door was supposed to be locked—

            Did you forget to lock the door? My master sends me a private message.

            It locks automatically once the frame is disengaged, I think back over our connection. It should be encrypted, but now I am uncertain about everything.

Miran Anyuwe strides up to us. “What are you doing?” Their voice wavers with anger and fear. I try to crane my head to see—I can’t, but Master Sanre disengages the straps with a quick thought-command. I sit up, trying to suppress the shaking caused by the sudden halt. I’m not sure where to put all the magic. I clumsily wipe my face and hug myself. Why is Miran Anyuwe so angry?

They stare at each other. I wonder if I ought to say something.

            You may speak, my master messages.

“Powering the ship,” I say. My voice is wheezier, wavier than I’d like. This voice is not for strangers. My vulnerability is not for strangers. Not even for Miran Anyuwe.

“You did not say you would do that!”

Do what? I am baffled. “Powering the ship?”

They glare at Master Sanre. “You are hurting him!”

“Em,” my master says. “Different pronouns.”

Miran Anyuwe looks startled; they know they of all people are not supposed to make assumptions. I feel they are gearing up to apologize, then thinking better of it. Some of their anger dissipates.

They hesitate—I’ve never before seen them hesitate, then turn to me. “It will be all right,” they say.

“Could you please leave?” I am trying to be courteous, but the magic is pushing against my skin. This is not a point to come to a sudden stop. What is their problem?

“I am not letting them torture you,” they say, with a sudden shift of tone into media-proof reassurance.

I wish I could hit Miran Anyuwe. With so much magic, it is dangerous to even think of violence. I force down the thought. “They are not torturing me. Please.” I wave my arms. My motions are increasingly jagged—I know I’m losing control. “I need to release the magic, please, could you please leave? It’s dangerous. You shouldn’t be in here.”

“I would listen to em if I were you,” my master says quietly. “If you’re not leaving, I will escort you out.” They step forward.

Miran Anyuwe recoils. “You—you brute!” They yell at my master. Then to me: “I will protect you!”

This would be annoying or even amusing if I weren’t about to explode. I hug myself into a ball. I think I am making a sound…?

I don’t see how my master grabs them and drags them physically out of the room. I can hear their huffs as they manually turn the lock.

Hurried steps across the room. My master is practically flying. Toward me.

Arms around me. I feel very small. “It’s all right. It’s all right. I’m here. I’m here for you.” Holding me tight. “You can let it go now. I will guide it. You can let it go.”

I howl, convulsing, weeping. The magic tears at my insides as it rushes out. My master will have things to repair—I am suddenly angry at Miran Anyuwe for this, but then the thought is swept away; thought itself is swept away.

Outside, the ship is moving.

 

My master is so furious they have excess. They run up and down the length of the room, then just groan and push magic into the structure.

“Next time I’ll have to do that out the airlock or I’ll just fry the controls,” they say. Calm enough to sound cynical. They shake their head. Clack, clack. “I’ll fix you up once I’m steadier,” they say. “It didn’t seem to leave lasting damage. I would’ve torn them in half!”

I seldom hear my master talk about violence. But I understand the source of their fury now.

I query the systems. Where is Miran Anyuwe? Pacing the corridor outside, apparently.

I close my eyes and lay back. I don’t think I can face the client. I don’t think I can face anything. How could things go this wrong?

“I’ll talk to them,” my master says. “You can rest. I’ll bring you your heavy blanket.”

They cover me up. I wriggle into the warm, weighty duvet, grab armfuls of it. Some things are eternal, unchanging. My master briefly caresses my head, fingers playing with my short curls. My muscles loosen up. I can feel that some of the tension leaves my master, too. I turn my head, peek out from the blanket to gaze at them. They look like Miran Anyuwe; but they also look like me, and this time I just want to focus on the latter. People have mistaken us for relatives before, and there is something deeply comforting in this.

“It’s not your fault,” they say. “None of this is your fault.”

“But… the door?” I find it hard to move my lips and tongue. My mouth doesn’t work.

“There was a malfunction.” They frown. “Don’t forget that Miran Anyuwe is a magical person, too, if not so powerful as either of us.”

The message, unspoken: Be on your guard.

 

I’m back in our room, still resting, the soft upper layer of our mattress bending obediently around my aching flesh. Master Sanre repaired what could be repaired right away, then set the rest on a healing course. I’m halfway to sleep, drifting in a white-fluffy haze, when the alarm sounds.

I get out of bed, hastily dress, walk to the control room like a baby duck unsteady on its legs. Teeter-totter. My master looks up at me, and so does Miran Anyuwe. I feel they had been arguing.

“Warships on our tail,” says Master Sanre. “We’ll need to jump soon, and hope fervently that they can’t follow us.”

We’re still on sublight, and moving much slower than our target velocity due to the unwelcome interruption. I grimace, try to gather my wits. The warships must be after Miran Anyuwe; we ourselves don’t have enemies.

I sense my master’s gaze upon me. “How soon can we jump?” they ask.

“I can start preparing right away,” I say. I know the healing won’t be able to run its course, and I know that’s also what my master has been thinking. But if we are hit by a mass-driver, there won’t be any healing in the world to repair our bodies.

Miran Anyuwe has stopped protesting. I want to grab them, snarl at them: If you think what you saw was bad, just see what happens now. Just watch. Will you turn your head away?

A shot whips past our ship: the sensors tell me everything in minute detail. I shudder.

Master Sanre tries to hail the warships. No response, just another shot. Deliberately missing? Intended as a warning?

Then a third, aimed head on—

My master jumps up from their chair. “We need to get out now!”

They tackle me, hug me to themselves, push me down on the floor. My face flattens against the cold floorboards, my mouth opens. I gasp for breath.

“Now!” they yell, and even without the familiar trappings, my body responds instantaneously, my mind rushes through the preparations of matter transposition.

Magic rises in me, floods me, streams outward, suffuses the ship. I scream with the sudden expansion of awareness, the pain of white-hot power running along my spine, I keen and convulse as my master holds me down, grabs hold of my power to direct it outward—

—we jump. Arriving clumsily at our target destination, off the ecliptic, too close to the system’s star. I cough, close my eyes to better focus on the sensors. I try not to focus on my body. Something feels broken, not a bone or two but a process itself; something biochemical knocked askew.

Master Sanre rolls to the side, still holding me close. We remain there for a few breaths, ignoring Miran Anyuwe. We get up, holding onto each other.

“We need to jump into Alliance space,” my master says, “who knows how fast they can follow us?”

Very few people can make an entire ship jump as rapidly as I do; my magic simply has an uncommon shape that’s well-suited for this particular task. Miran Anyuwe doesn’t know this. Our pursuers don’t know this.

“I’ll request a permit right away,” I say.

“I’ll do it. You get ready to jump again.”

My master is still trying to get through to an Alliance comm station when the warships show up. I can’t even make it to the power chamber. Pain unfurls, spreads out as I raise power; I flail and claw against my master who holds me strongly. The ship jumps.

 

I’m half dragged, half carried. Two voices wheezing. My master and… Miran Anyuwe?

They drop me down on the pallet, and the shape, the sensation identifies it to me. I’m in the power chamber. Straps are pulled, tightened across my body.

“Can you do it? Can you do it again?”

It takes time to realize my master is speaking to me. I nod, teeth gritted.

“Can you do it?” Miran Anyuwe asks them.

“Oh—” My master suppresses a curse. “Don’t bother about me!”

“You’re shaking.”

“Of course I am—” They raise their voice and it trembles. Suddenly I am worried: I need to bring this to a close, I can take the magic, but what about my master?

I grapple with words for a few moments before I am able to speak. “I can jump us to Alliance space without a beacon.”

“Without a permit? It’s illegal,” my master protests, but inwardly I know they are already convinced. The Alliance goons ask first, shoot second, not the other way round like the jockeys of these warships are wont to do.

“I’d take Alliance Treaty Enforcement over these people any day,” I say, knowing full well that they have magic-users just like me. I used to be one of them. I wouldn’t be able to get out of harm’s way fast enough. More effort and I won’t be able to do anything at all, but one more jump I can manage, even against the gradient, against the odds—
The warships are back.

I strain against the straps and clutch at my master, scream at them to pull, pull because I can’t generate enough power in time, and after their initial hesitation they do it, and I can feel myself pulled apart, space itself getting fragmented and torn, unraveling at the edges—

We are in orbit around Andawa, second-tier Alliance population center. We know this planet well. It’s easy for us to jump here.

It will take the Alliance more than a moment to mobilize their forces. Andawa is peripheral, but not so peripheral as to be without protection. The enforcers will simply take a bit longer to arrive, jumping in probably from Central.

My master undoes the straps, their fingers working as their mind is busy hailing Planetside Control. I try to stand, fall into their arms. Miran Anyuwe is silent this time, but I can tell they are shaking, and not just with the side-effects of back-to-back jumps with no jump point, no beacon.

I make a motion toward them, then slowly collapse and fold into myself as my legs give way. My master topples down on the floor together with me, cradles my head.

The warships soon follow. I can’t move. I can’t jump. I can’t think. I gasp and wheeze, try to push myself upright. My master pushes me back. “Don’t,” they whisper next to my ear.

The enemies can’t quite jump into our ship—the wards still hold. They board the old-fashioned way, with lots of clanging and metal being cut. Where is the Alliance? Why are they so slow?

Before my vision gives in, I see black-clad commandos stream into the room. I see Miran Anyuwe crouch on the floor next to me, taking cover behind the box of equipment.

I don’t understand what the commandos are saying. I only understand what my master is thinking.

On their signal, I roll to the side, bump into Miran Anyuwe, my arms around them. They smell of marzipan. I hold fast. Then I fall through space, through time, through awareness itself.

 

Sharp, prickly grass. The sunlight scrapes at the back of my head when I open my eyes; I close them and shiver despite the warmth of Andawa’s sun. I grapple with the earth as I try to get if not upright, then at least on all fours. I can’t even pull myself up on my elbows—I lose balance, smear my face and arms with rich dark dirt. Andawa is a garden world.

Miran Anyuwe is speaking, has been speaking for a while now. I can’t make sense of the words. They reach under my armpits and pull.

 

Gaps in continuity.

Miran Anyuwe dragging me on some backcountry path and yelling at me, preaching that I shouldn’t live a life of slavery. I try to say that I am not a slave, I serve my master voluntarily, without coercion. My speech turns into mush—my mouth is too uncoordinated—and in any case Miran Anyuwe refuses to listen. I can’t walk unassisted, I can barely parse sentences and yet they are preaching to me, about how I ought not to be running away from freedom but toward it.

Who’s running away, I want to say, but my systems checks are failing one by one, my biosensors are screaming.

 

Words. Words. More words. Completely opaque.

 

I’m lying on the slightly curving floor—a ship’s bay? Entirely unfamiliar beyond the reassuring calmness of Alliance-standard. Miran Anyuwe is sitting next to me, their left hand on my forehead. I try to bat it aside; my entire right side spasms. I gasp, force steadiness on my breath, ignore all the warnings.

Miran Anyuwe speaks—the sentences elude me. I want to turn and see, observe the crowd whose presences I can feel pressing on my mind, but I can’t move; even my motions to shoo away Miran Anyuwe are little more than twitches.

Someone, a sharp bright voice, finally: “…a medical emergency, Captain, we need to intervene.” I miss the answer. Then the same person, slower, pausing after each word: “Captain, you need to allow me.”

Miran Anyuwe withdraws; I sigh in relief. Someone crouches down next to me and oh I know this mind-template, so familiar I fight the urge to grab and latch onto it, in this sea of incomprehension where in every moment an eddy or whirl can cause me to drift away. Ereni magic-user, delegated to the Alliance; they don’t call it magic, they have their own words…
“Ssh.” A touch on my chest. “You are almost completely drained. I will help you if you let me.”

I murmur something, hoping it will be enough, hoping the intent would be clear. I reach to the Ereni’s hand on my chest, but my fingers fail to connect. I’m not quite clear about where my body parts are situated at any given moment.

Warm egg-yolk-yellow power floods into me through their hand and my cells drink it in, desperate for nourishment. I can move. I can live.

Speaking doesn’t come as fast. Where is my master, I think at the Ereni now that my thoughts can move forward, Is my master safe?

            ETA another twenty-five minutes, the Ereni thinks in my head. We are short on people to jump them here. The Isolationists have been apprehended and are being ejected from Alliance space. I look up at the Ereni—their appearance matches my mental impression of them. Black, thick-set, gender-indeterminate. They are still clenching their jaw. I know it takes a lot of effort to get exact numbers across—this is not a high-magic area. I nod, appreciating the effort. They hold my hand, squeeze it. Just as I understand them, they also understand me, through the shared demands of magic and the hierarchies it often creates.

I sigh, look around. Across the room, a short, sharp-featured officer in the uniform of Alliance Treaty Enforcement glares at—me? No, at Miran Anyuwe. My interface works again, the error messages recede. The officer is a man, by the name of Adhus-Barin, with about half a dozen more lineage-names after his first. A nobleman from the Empire of Three Stars, one of the more socially conservative members of the Alliance.

“Maybe we can try this again,” Adhus-Barin says. He looks about as angry as a noble in a mere Alliance captaincy position can be expected to look, his auburn-brown skin darkening further. His systems are probably frantic, trying to avoid a stroke. “You might wish to rephrase what you’ve just told me.”

Miran Anyuwe seems proud as ever, but as my body processes the influx of magic, I can already tell the politician radiates fear, apprehension and… brokenness, somehow. An impression of someone caught in the act.

“I was escaping from the Isolationists who were after me,” Miran Anyuwe says, “I wouldn’t have made it to Alliance space if not for these excellent people.” They nod at me. Am I supposed to smile, murmur thanks? I remain silent. They continue: “One of whom doesn’t even understand the Code of Life and Balance, I must say.”

What is that? If I hear one more word about how I’m supposed to be some kind of slavery apologist…

Adhus-Barin also glares at them. Is he waiting for Miran Anyuwe to incriminate themselves?

The politician continues, shifting pace as if realizing they are no longer talking to their home crowd. “As you are no doubt aware, the Isolationists oppose our negotiations to join the Alliance, negotiations that I am leading…” They pause, uncertain for a moment. “Between two rounds of talks, I returned to Ohandar, where I was summarily attacked, and after my attempted escape, even my security detail deserted me at Idhir Station, so I had to seek out a private vessel for help…”

“Your security detail betrayed you?” Adhus-Barin turns oddly mild, almost gentle. I don’t have to pry into his thoughts to sense a trap being readied.

“They were all Isolationists, they turned against me—” Voice rising. Miran Anyuwe is losing their cool.

“Oh, those kinds of roughshod mercenaries don’t appreciate going unpaid,” Adhus-Barin nods with empathy.

“What could I have done? The talks were almost over and the funds—” They halt midsentence.

I stare. At Adhus-Barin smiling, his thin mouth turning up in almost a sneer, at Miran Anyuwe standing statue-still, with only stray tremors breaking through their rigidity.

The security detail going unpaid. Isolationists going unpaid.

“Thank you,” Adhus-Barin says, “I do believe this will be enough.”

As if a dam breaking through, Miran Anyuwe starts blabbering, words tumbling over each other. The statue falling apart. “The Alliance has to understand, the Alliance knows—isolationist sentiment has always been strong on Ohandar, we had to show the populace that isolationism was extremism, we had to—”

“So you backed the Isolationist movement, steered them into violence,” Adhus-Barin says, one step away from gloating. “Created and funded your own rivals, so that you could point a finger at them and say, we are not like those people. So that you could revel in the position of the peacemaker.”

“The Alliance knows! Don’t deny it! The Alliance knows!”

“May I?” the Ereni says, then waits for the captain’s nod. “The Alliance knows. That doesn’t mean the Alliance assents.”

“Exactly as Officer Enisāyun has it,” the captain nods at them again. “Undesirable allies often incriminate themselves during the accession process, as we have found.” He says it as if the Empire was innocent of all possible wrongdoing, and I wonder if Miran Anyuwe knows how the Alliance had taken its present shape, what had prompted the member states to create Treaty Enforcement, back it with real power and threat. I sneak a look at Enisāyun, and the Ereni glances back at me, shrugs.

Miran Anyuwe mutters word-fragments, all sense lost in overwhelming anger, directed at us who thwarted the plan. We all gaze upon the spectacle. I pull my personal wards tighter around myself in case Miran Anyuwe lashes out.

Officer Enisāyun asks to speak again, then gestures toward me. “The esteemed leader might wish to thank the young māwalēni here for saving their life.”
Adhus-Barin makes a face. The meaning is clear—he would rather the politician would have perished, murdered by their own erstwhile allies. Let alone called esteemed leader, but then again the Ereni are fond of formality… and its ironic flipside.

Enisāyun smiles softly. “We will make sure that the young māwalēni receives all due payment for services rendered—though from whom might be uncertain at this point…”
Miran Anyuwe collapses.

“It wasn’t me,” Enisāyun says, voice shaky. “Captain? It wasn’t me, Captain.”

“I thought they were warded from all outside—” A voice from the back of the Alliance crowd, then another, “I warded them!”

A door seal hisses, and my master dashes in, the familiar clang of boots on ship-metal. “Were they threatening anyone? I felt they might be threatening someone, so it seemed safer to shut them down.”

“Excuse me?” Adhus-Barin seems utterly lost. It’s that kind of day, the Ereni thinks at me and I suppress a chuckle.

“I have a policy of not interfering with clients’ minds, but they severely disrupted my ship, interrupted the jumping procedure—”

Officer Enisāyun is shocked in the back of my mind.

“—so I thought it would be safest to plant my safeguards on them just in case. They had no defenses to speak of.”

An understatement, recognized by everyone present as such. When did my master have time to do this? I consider the events of the day, fail to find the exact moment. An intervention performed off-hand, with a stray thought…

As Adhus-Barin regains his calm and goes through the motions of the cleanup, organizing transport for Miran Anyuwe to Alliance Central where they will no doubt have to endure another round of castigation before getting booted out of Alliance space, my attention is elsewhere. I knew my master was more powerful, I tell myself, but I understand at the same time that it’s not about power—or, rather, that power entails more than raw control. It entails being straightforward, honest, upright.

And I know that between the two of us, we don’t need a planet.

Master Sanre offers me a hand and I stand up—then they grab me, hold me tight to themselves, their tears trickling down my curls.

 

END

 


“The Need for Overwhelming Sensation" was originally published in Capricious #1 and is copyright Bogi Takács, 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 I’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original.

00:0000:00

Episode 43: “In Search of Stars” by Matthew Bright

August 21, 2017

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 43 for August 20, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.

It's a little bit late (oops!) but we finally have the Summer 2017 issue of GlitterShip available for you to read and enjoy! As before, all of the stories will be podcast and posted on the website over the next couple of months. However, if you'd like to get a head start reading the stories and support GlitterShip, you can purchase copies of the Summer 2017 issue on Amazon, Nook, or right here at GlitterShip.com.

Looking forward, the GlitterShip Year One anthology is now available via Amazon, and Barnes & Noble in both print and electronic editions, as well as for direct purchase CreateSpace(print) and GlitterShip.com/buy (electronic)—which also means that copies will FINALLY go out to the people who so generously supported the GlitterShip Kickstarter way back in 2015.

Today, we have a GlitterShip original short story by Matthew Bright, as well as a poem by Charles Payseur.

Content warning for "In Search of Stars" - some sex and mild domestic violence.

 

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, The Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews, contributes as short fiction specialist at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.

 


 

becoming, c.a. 2000

by Charles Payseur

 

he gives himself to the internet
a piece at a time,
in chatrooms and message boards and
fandom pages,
like burning prayers for the next life.
he finds himself there
as cronus must have found his children,
a terrifying future
fully formed and armored
that he is desperate to consume.

 

every day he leans into his screen,
close enough to brush his lips
against the humming glass,
feels the snap of static on skin,
and pulls away
diminished,
the sum of his parts no longer quite
equaling the whole.
he asks friends what they think
but all of them are online now,
scattered like ghosts,
a great ocean of scared boys
in nice houses
and with each question,
each reassurance,
each word of a language
they build to map their desires,
they all find themselves
that much more gone.

 

he is barely a whisper when
he puts the last piece of himself
into a comment
on a garak/bashir slashfic

 

                              more plz

 


 

Matthew Bright is a writer, editor and designer who constantly debates which order those should come. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tor.com, Nightmare Magazine, Harlot, Steampunk Universe amongst others, and he is the editor of anthologies including Clockwork Cairo: Steampunk Tales of Egypt, Myriad Carnival: Queer and Weird Tales from Under the Big Top and the upcoming A Scandal in Gomorrah: Queering Sherlock Holmes. He pays the bills as a book cover designer in Manchester, England, and you can find him on twitter @mbrightwriter or online at matthew-bright.com.

 

 


 

In Search of Stars

by Matthew Bright

 

 

It starts with a secret place, as many stories do.

On the outside, it is a laundrette. The printed letters on the plate glass are peeling, but still legible: Whites. Below it, a list of numbers is scraped away, leaving the cost of a wash a mystery. Occasionally, I pass it in daylight. During the day, the door is propped open by a rickety stool, and I peer inside. It is filled by graying women with rumpled, dishcloth skin who talk quietly amongst themselves about their children and their husbands.

Once, I dare to take my clothes there to wash. An innocent errand, I reason; no shadow of suspicion could fall on a man simply doing his laundry. This does not prevent the women from eyeing me as if the mere presence of a man amongst them is suspect. To compound this, I am unprepared, and am forced to swap a nickel for a palmful of powder, a foolish error met with sad tuts.

As I empty the powder into the drum, I study the door in the corner.

It takes me several weeks to get the courage to return at night. The front door is no longer propped open advertising itself, but it hangs ajar, distinctly not closed. Inside it is dark, and quiet—none of the machines are awake. But men pass in and out of the doorway with regularity, briefly spilling light from the door in the back across the machines; they are not carrying clothes.

I do not know whatever password it is that would grant me access, and neither do I have the will to ask. Perhaps were I to be bold—simply walk up to the door in the back of the laundrette and go in—I might be able to talk my way upstairs. But when my foot breaks the curb to cross the street, my stomach churns, noxious with fear, and I step back.

Tonight, it is cold, and so I cross the alley to the diner. The waitress there—a pretty girl, like the small-town ones from back home—knows me by name now. “Usual, Albert?” she says, and I enjoy being someone who has a “usual.” I imagine that perhaps she does too—this is not the sort of diner with regulars. I sit in a booth by the window and drink coffee, covertly watch the laundrette, and the men that come and go. I don’t know what I imagine is on the other side of the door, but I know I want to find out. Perhaps the waitress knows—it seems unlikely that she works here night after night and doesn’t have some idea what is going on opposite. The thought makes me uncomfortable, but I remind myself there is nothing wrong with a man drinking coffee—or a man washing his clothes.

There is someone waiting outside the laundrette. He leans against the window-frame, making insolent eye-contact with any man who enters. His boldness—starkly opposite to my own reticence—tugs at me; I dowse the feeling with coffee and look at the chipped table-top. The jukebox is playing music—rock and roll, tinny and weak. It clanks and whirs when the records are changed.

After a while, I can feel—in that skin-pricking way that comes from a sense other than sight or hearing—that the man is looking at me. I chance a look, and meet his eyes.

The waitress is serving an old man in the corner, her back turned. I gather my coat, and step out into the cold. At the end of the road the city exhales a blare of cars, distant music, police whistles, but its cacophony falters at the corner. Our street is still like midwinter, and the man waits for me in the middle.

We exchange words. It doesn’t matter what they are. Suffice it to say, I have spoken similar words before; I am a man who knows their real meanings, just as he.

The walk is a few wet streets away. He talks, and I interject enough answers into the conversation to keep it from stagnating. I keep a proprietary distance from him, glance nervously at the darkened windows around us, any one of which might contain a watcher who knows my face—I saw that scientist from round the corner, they might say, and you’ll never guess what? He tells me he is a musician—saxophone, because all the other boys in this city are playing guitar, he says. I picture the pads of his fingers stroking the keys, and the cold reed leeching the moisture from his bottom lip.

I ask him if he’s ever played inside, meaning the secret place above the laundrette, hoping he’ll say yes so he can describe it to me. He shakes his head. “I’ve never been in,” he says. We are at the foot of my building, and I fumble in my pocket for keys. He leans in close to me. “Have you?”

“I don’t know the password.”

A second, then he laughs. “Password? You don’t need a password.” He looks me up and down. He is mentally reconfiguring me from a man of experience to a naïf who imagines cloak-and-dagger, film-noir secrecy. He hesitates.

“Come in,” I say.

I let him climb the stairs first. With the door closed, my stomach spins in anticipation, as if permission is granted by the cloak of privacy—nobody to see us now, not even if I were to pull his clothes off right here on the stairs. But I don’t—I jam my hands in my pockets and follow his shadow upwards.

At the top, he looks around the detritus of my apartment, and asks me what I do. “I’m an artist,” I say, which is not exactly a lie. He looks for a light-switch, but I point him through the door to the bedroom. I pull dustclothes over my work, then follow him. He is already naked on the bed, his clothes a gray pool by the nightstand.

He tastes of something I can’t describe.

Afterwards he rolls to the cold side of the bed, pulling the damp sheets with him. He looks appraisingly at me, and he is re-evaluating me all over again—perhaps tallying up the number of men that added up to the expertise I had displayed. He looks at me for some time.  An endless parade, he must conclude—all those other men.

My chest congeals into a thick, black, furtive shame, soul-deep.

I offer him a cigarette, but he refuses, rolls onto his back and closes his eyes. At first the lids are tense, like a child pretending to be asleep after curfew, and then they relax. He breathes slowly.

I place the cigarette between my lips, but leave it unlit. Tentative dawn is creeping over the horizon, silvering the rooftops. I left the curtains undrawn when I left earlier, the window fully open—not a conscious choice, but it's fortuitous: the window grates on opening, loud enough to wake someone sleeping.

I arise quietly, pad into the other room, and pull aside the dustclothes. The paint is where I left it, viscous and silver in its vat. Its clean, sterile smell stings my eyes. I open a drawer, select the right brush—hog bristle, which is soft and delicate, and will not wake him.

On the bed, I kneel, apply the paint gently. I cover him in reverse order of the skin touched by my tongue and fingers, turning it warm pink to cold blue. By the time I have covered his chest and thighs, he is lighter, rising up from the bed. When I cover his arms, they rise above him, as if he is reaching for an embrace. I run the brush to his feet.

When I am finished, he floats a foot above the bed, rising. When I lay my hand on his belly, he is light as a feather, and my touch guides him across the room as if he were a leaf on a still pond. He passes below the lintel soundlessly, not waking even when his steady ascendance nudges his shoulder against the frame.

My hands on his cheeks anchor him, like a child clutching a balloon that tugs against its string. His feet lift, inverting him. His eyes open when I kiss him gently on the lips. He smiles, and I release him.

He turns as he floats up, alternating blue then pink in the watery dawn, and then is higher than I can see any longer, beyond my sight with all the others.

I lie down on the bed, pull the still-warm bedsheets around me, and light my cigarette. The smoke rises in clouds, and vanishes as if it was never there.

 

 

The story continues with the morning after, as many stories do.

Firm block capitals in my diary prevent from lying abed long into the afternoon: I have an appointment to make. I meet Eugene in the foyer of the Mayfair. I wonder exactly how much Eugene has been told about my present circumstances, and whether his choice of venue is a deliberate statement of his success. It would be just like Eugene, though it would be intended without malice.

He presses whiskey into my hand, and greets me as if we have never been apart. “Such a surprise when old Selwyn told me you were in LA!” he says. He ushers me to an armchair, and gestures for the discretely hovering waiter to refill our glasses. Eugene has aged well—with a thin, fashionable moustache that I am pained to admit suits him well. I briefly wonder if our mutual acquaintance—Selwyn Cavor, the starchily British professor who pushed us through five years of boarding school—is pushing for something other than the reunion of old school friends; it is he, after all, who told me about the laundrette.

But then Eugene tells me about his wife—an ice-queen blonde, so he says, by the name of Marilyn, though aren’t all the blondes called Marilyn these days? Perhaps Selwyn is not as calculated as I imagine.

“So, how are you ticking, Mister C?” he asks—habitually, for this was how Eugene had opened nearly every conversation between us since we were both eleven and meeting for the first time in a draughty dormitory. “Finally cracked and come out chasing stars in the city of angels, have we?”

I try to smile warmly, and shake my head. “Not exactly,” I say, and try to explain something about my work. I tell him about the two publications that took my reports. I fail to mention that my laboratory consists of a worktop hauled from a garbage tip, and basins purloined from the ruins of a barbers that had burnt down. Those particular details do not jibe well with the foyer of the Mayfair, or the two-hundred-dollar whiskey.

“And what is it you’re trying to build?” he asks, though his attention is on the whiskey bottle as he tops it up.

“Space travel,” I say, though this hardly covers it.

“Smart boy!” Eugene says. “Space—they’re all at it. Give it ten years, and we’ll get there ourselves. But I tell you what though—Hollywood is damn well going to get there first.”

I think of my saxophonist, turning lazily on the edge of the atmosphere. Out loud, I point out that Hollywood has been going to space for some time. I remind him of the Saturday afternoons we would sneak from school to the nearest town, and the showing in particular of Woman in the Moon, sucking down ice cream floats and salted caramels.

He waves it away. “Oh, Hollywood has moved on since then. Special effects!” He is practically shouting, and heads are turning. I shrink in my seat. “That’s what the studios are excited about. And they want everything to be two hundred per cent accurate at all times. Suspension of disbelief, and all that. That’s why they hired me—an ‘expert consultant,’ that’s me.”

He leans forward. I realize he is already a little drunk.

“Do you know what one of the directors asked me—he asks, ‘What does space smell like?’”

“Goodness,” I say. “Why would they need to know that? It’s only film.”

“Some new technology they’re working on—a full experience, you know? Squirt the audience with water, shake the seats, all that lot. And they want to use scent. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for—not only can you watch cinema, you’ll be able to smell it.”

He looks pleased with himself. The ice clinks in his glass as he waves it.

“What does space smell like?” I ask.

He considers. “Gunpowder,” he says. “By all accounts.”

 

 

Later, I go to the laundrette. The gray women look at me once when I enter, then disregard me. I am an insignificant little man encroaching on their world, and not worth the energy of observation when there are hampers of clothes to be washed. I run a finger along the grimy edge of a washer, and my fingertip comes away blackened. It satisfies me; in a perverse way, the laundrette, with its washed-out women and secret doorways, makes me feel scrubbed clean of all the gilt decadence Eugene has subjected me to that day.

I do not look at the door in the back, although I itch to go through it.

This visit is an inoculation: a brief sojourn in the laundrette during the day and then I will not be tempted to return after dark. I will remain in my apartment for the night hours; a small amount of exposure that defends against a greater illness.

I empty the bag of clothing into the drum. At the bottom are the saxophonist’s discarded clothes. Turning away so as to go unobserved by the women, I press his undergarments to my face and inhale. I half expect the smell of gunpowder but of course that is absurd—his clothes remained with me. I smell only cotton, soap, and the faint linger of sweat.

I drop them in the drum, and pay my cents. The machine starts up, spiralling our clothes together in a wet rush.

In the Lucky Seven diner, I order coffee. By the time it has arrived, I know the inoculation is not enough; I will be returning tonight.

The waitress squeezes into the booth opposite me. “I have a half-hour break,” she says.

“Right,” I say, not quite sure why she’s telling me this.

She bites her lip; I recognize this from movies, the coquettish seduction. Only hers is awkward, as if she isn’t used to being this forward. Perhaps she isn’t: she works amongst bottom-squeezes and drawled darlin’s all day; I doubt she ever has to ask. “I have half an hour,” she says. “I was thinking you could take me home and fuck me.”

I notice a grease-spot on her lapel, just a few inches above her bare breast. It is just to the left of the name-tag: ‘Marilyn’ in uncertain capitals. It makes me think of Eugene’s ice-blonde wife, and his big job up amongst the stars. Eugene would say yes without hesitation.

I could just say no, I tell myself, and then, inoculation.

Afterwards, she looks around the detritus of my room and asks what I do. “I’m an engineer,” I tell her, which is not exactly a lie, and go to wash myself in the dirty sink. She remains on the bed, smoking the cigarette I offer her. Naked, I had been able to feel a week of diner grease on her skin. She tasted of the bitter coffee at the bottom of a pot, and my usual expertise had deserted me.

I wonder if she washes her clothes at the laundrette. I feel the usual nausea arising, though it is a different kind; this is a physical nausea in the pit of my stomach, as if I have swallowed something rotten.

“Good old American filth,” Eugene said to me earlier, as we were leaving the Mayfair, him paused on the curb to hail a cab, me turning my coat collar up for the long walk home. “I’m tired of all the glamour. You know—mansions, cars and movie stars. The whole city’s coming down with a case of shallow—even my Marilyn’s picking it up; won’t fuck without doing her makeup first.”

He wanted me to take him out in my parts of the city, with all the implications of what my part of the city entailed. “Well—you’re here amongst it all, aren’t you? Think it’s about time you and I went out on the town. I want some squalor, you know what I’m saying?”

I imagine he’d be pleased with me right now.

I walk her back to the laundrette with five minutes of her break to spare. On the way, she tells me that she picked me because I didn’t ask. All day long, men suggest things, demand things of her. But I never did, and she liked that. I ignore the bitter irony. We part in the middle of the street, her kissing me quickly on the cheek.

In the washing machine drum, I find my white clothes stained blue. I hold up a once-pale vest and wring pastel water from it. One of the gray women looks at me and shakes her head. I bundle my clothing back into my knapsack, and leave the saxophone player’s articles—dark blue shirt, pants, underwear—in a sopping pool at the bottom of the lost and found basket.

 

 

Two weeks until the itch to visit the laundrette again outweighs awkwardly encountering Marilyn in the Lucky Seven.. Sitting at my work-bench, listlessly tracing paint along a series of pencils so that they float and turn in the air, I reason with myself. If I am to risk facing the woman with whom I have had less than satisfactory relations with—and not seen since—then it must be for a greater gain than watching from afar.

The queasy light of the diner is an oasis that beckons—but tonight I ignore it, although I look long enough to realize that Marilyn is not to be seen. It does nothing to calm me; my hair, still damp from the cold shower I took before leaving, hangs in clammy lumps against my forehead. I feel unwashed—wrapped up tight against the night, I am immediately overheated, sweat springing up in the folds of my body. I cannot imagine anyone wanting to touch me.

“There is no password,” the saxophonist told me. No secret or phrase: just the confidence to walk through the door.

I end up in the diner, breathing heavily to calm my pulse. There is a stinging pain in the palms of my hands that spreads up my arms and worms its way into my ribcage. The laundrette stares balefully at me across the street.

An older waitress materializes beside me. She is dumpy and string-haired. Her name-tag says Marilyn. Eugene was right—every woman in Los Angeles…

She fills my cup and putters on to the next booth to serve a hulk of a man who I think I faintly recognize. He is looking down at a newspaper spread on the table, his face lost in a tangle of beard, but when Marilyn the Second departs, he looks up at me. He is round faced, and despite the beard, oddly boyish. “Not brave enough, huh?” he says to me.

“Excuse me?”

He nods over at Whites. “You go in, you come out,” he says. “Been there, done that.”

The itch in my palm redoubles. “Have you?”

 

 

He is more discreet than the saxophonist; he maintains a respectful distance from me as we pass through the streets, hangs back as I open the door, and remains three steps behind me as I climb the stairs. As soon as we cross the threshold, the gentleman vanishes—his hands are on me, yanking away my coat and scrabbling at the clothes beneath. With my shirt tangled over my head he is already moving to touch my body before I am free; his fingertips are rough on my skin, and as his mouth skates down my body, his beard scratches like the wire wool I use to scrub away paint. His teeth nip at my belly.

I back away, lead him to the bedroom. He disrobes as he follows, revealing a heavy-set body swathed in hair, and a stubby penis peeking from the shadow cast by his bulk. The pale light from the window sweeps around the heavy sphere of his stomach, and I am struck by an absurd image of a fast-motion film of light’s passage around the moon that I dimly remembered from a visit to the planetarium with Selwyn.

He pushes me onto the bed and straddles me. He is commanding, guiding my hands where he wants them, tangling my fingers in the hair on his chest and thighs, and then as he pins my shoulders with his knees, thrusts my hand behind him where my fingers slide, sweat-slicked, into him. I open my mouth to receive him and for a second I picture myself outside my own body looking down on us—the same position as the watchers I imagine at my windows. The image is clear: this beast of a man, crouched ursine on his haunches over me, my head and shoulders lost in the dark shadow between his legs.

Afterwards, he kisses me.

 

 

He does not go as easily as the saxophonist. Firstly, he awakens. None of the others have ever done this. His legs are already several inches off the bed, the room suffused with the anodyne hospital smell of the paint. My mistake is in selecting my brush; still sore and tender, I find poetic justice in selecting the largest, roughest of them.

Secondly, he struggles. I doubt he comprehends what I am doing to him, but he has awoken in a panic to sensations he doesn’t understand, and so he lashes out like the animal I pictured. He strikes a blow across my face, and I fall to the floor, tasting blood in my mouth. The time for gentle artistry is past: I upend the tub. It coats his chest, tiny bubbles bursting amongst the strands of my hirsute canvas. There is blind panic in his eyes as he rises, spittle at the corner of his mouth turning blue where it mixes with the paint. He flails, claws at my sheets, but they can’t prevent his ascent and simply rise with him, a useless tether.

I jostle him out of the window, which stands open as always. He clings to my bed-sheet and we reach an impasse—him upside down, fist wrapped tight around the cotton and me at the other end, pulling back with all my strength. For a minute, we remain connected.

Then his fingers open, and he soars up, up to where the air smells of gunpowder.

 

 

“Pineapple!” says Eugene. “Goddamn pineapple. Can you believe it?”

Six weeks pass—six weeks in which my frantic scuffle squashes the itch to visit the laundrette, though the image of a door opening to a crowd of men waiting for me slowly recurs nightly in my dreams. Six weeks in which I bury myself in work, in which I dodge the landlord knocking for rent, and in which I write three-quarters of a paper on the gravity-negating properties of an as-yet-unnamed viscous solution of my own devising. Six weeks, and then Eugene.

“Gunpowder is too hard to synthesize, apparently, and anyway—it’s not like anyone’s going to know. So according to the head honchos of Paramount Pictures, space will smell of pineapple.” Eugene is on his third Singapore Sling, and already blurring into intoxication. He speaks at great length about his Hollywood consultation business. He tells me I should come advise on engineering, build robots for the flicks. He doesn’t understand why I’m mouldering away in a poxy flat in the cheap end of town. I try to explain what I’m working on—tell him about my three-quarters-written paper—but he doesn’t listen. He starts talking about space flight again.

In each bar we go to a pattern repeats: the girls flock at first to his expensive suit, gold watch and big tips, and then, when his generosity has dried up and he has done little beyond leerily grope a behind or two, they ghost away to search for more forthcoming targets. And at each bar, he complains that the place is ‘too swanky’ or ‘too bogus’ and demands I take him somewhere real.

Deep in a whiskey glass in a honky-tonk bar that still carried more than a whiff of speakeasy about it, I watch Eugene flirt with a sour-faced woman leaning against the bar. She is lit by neon, and has a look similar to his: rich, but slumming it for the night. He won’t pick her, I know, but flirtation is a habit of his. Even in a single-sex boarding school, he had never had much trouble finding women where he needed them—a couple of the maids, girls from the town. Sneaking back into the dormitory at night, he would describe his latest sexual exploit to me in a low whisper, and I would stiffen under the covers.

One night he claimed to have conquered one of the schoolmistresses—new to the school, and on temporary assignment. One of those long evenings in his study I relayed Eugene’s story to Selwyn who laughed quietly, and said, “I don’t doubt. Frightful, really—students and teachers.” We laughed together, conspiratorial.

Not for the first time, I wonder why Selwyn has thrust Eugene and I back into each other’s lives.

If I focus, I begin to wonder if Eugene’s heart is really in it tonight. He’s effusive with everyone we meet, expounding upon his personal theories of life, love and pleasure, and the opportunity to sneak off and spend himself in a furtive tumble has presented itself on multiple occasions. And yet he seems to be dodging every offer, returning to me with freshly charged glasses. As we descend into that strata of intoxication in which profundity insists itself in half-complete sentences, I wonder if perhaps Eugene fears the same as I: that in the post-orgasmic chill the squalor of a back-alley screw loses its grimy glamour and becomes something furtive and shameful instead. And so he postpones it as long as possible—perhaps indefinitely.

Eventually, there are no more bars to go to—or none that will allow two such stumbling fools entry. Early dawn is pricking the horizon, and, like a magnet, I draw us to the Lucky Seven. My waitress is there—Marilyn the First—glimpsed through the kitchen hatch but I am too drunk to care. Besides—it has been two months.

We collapse into a booth. Eugene rests his head on the table. I lean against the glass; it is cool and soothing. Across the road, I cannot tell if the laundrette is open or closed—I am too unfocused to make out if the door stands open or not. I suppose even such a place as Whites closes.

“Usual?” I squint up at her. She doesn’t sound upset. This is good.

Eugene, hearing a female voice, rears up. He strikes what I imagine he believes is a charming smile. “Darla!” he says. “How pleas—pleas—pleasant to meet you.”

I blink. “Darla?”

She taps her name-badge.

“I thought your name was Marilyn?”

She leans in close, ruffles my hair, matronly. “No, darling. I forgot my badge, had to borrow one. But at least you remembered my name—I’m flattered.”

Darla. Somehow the name changes her. Marilyn is a girl daintily upset when a man does not call her the morning after. Darla takes a man home to screw because she wants to.

She leaves to serve the only other customer in the diner, down the opposite end of the window. I lean into Eugene, and tell him—in a whisper that is almost certainly not really a whisper at all—about what Darla and I did in my bed. I don’t know why I did it: I have never been one to brag, but recasting our limp splutter of an encounter as erotic exploit gives me a fraternal thrill I have rarely felt.

Eugene grips my wrists and shakes them victoriously. “Albert, my man,” he says. “I knew you had it in you.”

For a second I see me as he does now: earthy man of the people, slipping it to waitresses on a nightly basis. And then the image bursts like over-inflated bubble-gum as I look past Darla. She is bending over, pouring coffee, and behind her is a noticeboard. Protest march, singing lessons, artist seeking model, poetry reading and MISSING. Below it a photo of a hulking man, round-faced and boyish despite the beard.

Darla sways past us again. “You boys had a good night, then?”

Eugene reaches out a hand to her, pulls her back to sit on his knee. His fingers snag on her sash. “Darlin’, not nearly good enough. Not yet…”

For the poster to be here in the Lucky Seven, he must be a regular. We’ve all been there, he said, as if he too had sat for long hours in this diner, getting up the nerve to cross the road. And then there is Marilyn and Darla, who see every man and every face.

Darla looks at me. It isn’t a look asking for help, to rescue her from my lairy friend, just a calmly assessing look. Eugene’s fingers make it clear what he wants.

I do not ask. I know what she likes.

“I get off in half an hour,” she says.

 

 

The story ends with a decision, as many do.

Darla leaves, and I return to the bed as if she is still there, a cold ghost between Eugene and I. Her female presence granted permission: for our naked bodies to share the same space, for my fingers to touch him, provided mine were not the only ones.

I wonder if this is where he wanted the night to go: his life, so drearily decadent, that the only thing to jolt him out of his drudgery is the taboo touch of a man. Perhaps he had marked me out as an easy target—the sexless boy from school, the one who spent a bit too much time with Professor Cavor.

I realize the room is silent. His snoring has stopped. When I look at him, his eyes are open.

Afterwards, I anchor us both to the bed with the sheets, wrapped around our wrists and fixed loosely to the bedpost. I paint him first, until he has risen, tipped on his side, free of gravity but strung by one rebellious limb to the ground. The alcohol in his veins that deadens him to the feeling of my awkward brush-strokes. He hovers above me, eyes closed, like a statue.

Then, disjointed with my off-hand, I coat myself. I float to meet him, the front of our bodies pressed together, lips close enough to kiss.

I wrestle the knot loose, and we are released. I wrap my arms around him, and press my face into his chest. It is difficult to guide him across the room to the window—I have to kick off against the walls and the ceiling, as one does in deep water.

My feet alight on the windowsill. I push away.

Light breaks across the city. If my phantom watchers in the windows opposite are looking, they will see us as we rise into the sky, one man clinging tight to another as they ascend like balloons that have slipped from your grasp, until the atmosphere becomes rarefied and thin, and breath freezes before our faces. I catch a glimpse of the sun rising over the edge of the world before I close my eyes and rise up, to where the air smells of gunpowder, and men are waiting for me.

 

END


“becoming, c.a. 2000” is copyright Charles Payseur 2017.

“In Search of Stars” is copyright Matthew Bright 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 “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” by Bogi Takács.

00:0000:00

Episode #42: “The Passing Bell” by Amy Griswold

July 11, 2017

Episode 42 is part of the Spring 2017 issue!

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

 

The Passing Bell

by Amy Griswold

 

My hired horse threw a shoe between Bristol and Bath, and by the time the wearying business of getting another nailed on was complete the shadows were growing long and the wind was sharpening its knives. 

“It’s kind of you to put me up,” I said, jingling pennies in my pocket to encourage such generosity.  In a town so small it had neither pub nor inn, I considered myself fortunate to be offered the chance to sleep in the blacksmith’s loft. 

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is "The Passing Bell" by Amy Griswold.

Amy Griswold is the author (with Melissa Scott) of DEATH BY SILVER and A
DEATH AT THE DIONYSUS CLUB from Lethe Press. Her most recent work
(with Jo Graham) is the interactive novel THE EAGLE'S HEIR from Choice of
Games. She lives in North Carolina, where she writes standardized tests as well
as fiction, and tries not to confuse the two.


 

 

The Passing Bell

by Amy Griswold

 

My hired horse threw a shoe between Bristol and Bath, and by the time the wearying business of getting another nailed on was complete the shadows were growing long and the wind was sharpening its knives. 

“It’s kind of you to put me up,” I said, jingling pennies in my pocket to encourage such generosity.  In a town so small it had neither pub nor inn, I considered myself fortunate to be offered the chance to sleep in the blacksmith’s loft. 

“Glad to, if you’ve got the coin,” the blacksmith said.  “Only the missus is particular in her way about knowing something about strangers who are going to sleep under her roof.  What’s your name, and what’s your age, and what’s your trade, good man?  For she’ll ask me all three.”

 “Rob Tar is my name, and my age is twenty and six,” I said.  “And I’m an able seaman aboard the Red Boar out of Bristol.  My girl Minnie lives in Bath, and I’m on my way to keep her company a while until we sail again.  I’ve never claimed to be a good man, but I’ll be no trouble to you, and I can pay you for supper and bed."  In fact I had three months’ pay, most of it stuffed down my shirt to pose less temptation to thieves.  “Will that satisfy your lady?”

“It should,” Mister Smith said, with a sheepish sort of shuffle that would have looked more at home on a boy than a big man with biceps like hams.  “You understand, she’s a particular sort of woman.”  He seemed to notice for the first time that his dogs were circling me suspiciously, as if waiting for the cue to set their teeth into an intruder.  “Get by, dogs, we’ve a guest tonight.”

He led me into a kitchen where a warm fire was glowing and went aside to speak with the presumed mistress of the house, a young wife but hardly a merry one, her dun hair matching her dun dress so that she looked faded, as if washed too many times.  I was beginning to get some feeling back into my feet when she came over with bread and salt fish.

“That ought to do for a sailor,” she said, and I nodded polite thanks, though in truth I’d eaten enough fish while at sea that I’d have preferred the toughest fowl or most dubious of hams.  “If you’d come a week ago, we’d have had nothing for you but pork.” 

“Too bad,” I said, and tried not to think about crisp bacon.

At that moment, a dull music split the air, the heavy tolling of a steeple-bell.  It rang twice, paused, rang twice again, and then began a doleful series of strokes.  It was the death knell, and I put on my most solemn face, thinking how awkward it was to be a stranger in a small town at such a time.  “Who do you suppose has died?”

“I expect no one yet,” Mister Smith said.  His wife said nothing, only stood with her mouth pressed tight together, listening to the tolling bell.  In a small town such as this, I could well believe they kept up the old custom of ringing the bell as soon as the parson heard news of a death, but to ring it before the death seemed perverse.

“Surely there aren’t any hangings here,” I said.  A condemned prisoner was the only sort of man I could think of whose death might be predicted with certainty beforehand.  “I suppose if someone’s lying deathly ill . . .” 

“We’ll know by morning,” Mister Smith said.  “The bell never lies, you see—”  He broke off abruptly as the bell finally came to the end of its dull refrain and seemed at a loss for how to go on.

“Twenty-six,” Mistress Smith said, and when I turned at her tone I saw that her face had turned gray with some strong emotion I didn’t understand.  “Nine strokes to tell a man, and twenty-six to tell his age.  Don’t tell me I miscounted.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” the smith said.  He twisted the leather of his apron in his hands, looking from one of us to the other.  “It might be best if you found your bed now.”

“The hour is growing late,” I said, because I misliked his wife’s expression, and had developed aboard ship a keen sense of how the wind was blowing.

The man picked up a lantern and led me back out into the chill dooryard.  The ladder up to the loft above the forge was rickety, and he held the lantern to light my way.  “You mustn’t mind my wife,” he said.  “Our troubles here are nothing to do with you.”

Well, only the most incurious of born lubbers could have refrained from asking the question after that. “What did she mean about the bell?”

“There’s somewhat wrong with our church bell,” Smith said.  “The parson rings it in the ordinary way after every death in the town, but you can hear it all through town the night before.”

It took me a moment to parse that.  “You mean the bell rings before someone dies?”

“The bell sounds before someone dies, but the parson doesn’t ring it until after.  It’s been that way as long as anyone in town can remember. You mustn’t think we’re entirely ungrateful; when it tolls for your old uncle, you can go round and see him beforehand and say your farewells, you see?  But it’s hard when it tolls for a child, or a man in his prime with little chance of passing away peacefully in his bed.”

The light from the lantern shifted, as if his hand were less than steady on its handle.  Outside its circle of light, black branches bent against a dark sky that was beginning to spit frigid rain.  “This wouldn’t be a tale spun to frighten travelers, would it?” I asked.  “For I’ve heard them all in my time.”

“I swear it’s the plain truth,” Smith said.  “And it’s a bad night for traveling, but I’ll understand if you’d rather be on your way.”  He paused a moment and then added, “It might be for the best.  You heard what the bell told.”

“I’m willing to take the chance,” I said.  “I’ve heard more frightening stories than this.”

“It’s no more than the truth,” the man said, but with resignation, as if he were used to skepticism from strangers.  He hung up the lantern, and turned abruptly to go.  “Your horse is shod and I’ve got your coins for the night’s lodging, so I expect we’re square, and there’s no more that needs to be said.”  He tramped out, leaving me to ascend the ladder in no mood to settle down easily to sleep.

I shivered for a while under the thin horse blanket spread over an equally thin pallet, and then realized that the forge and the kitchen of the house shared a common chimney that went up the opposite wall.  I made my way over to it, hoping to warm my hands at least, and I heard the mutter of voices through the wall.  After a bare moment’s hesitation, I pressed my ear unashamed to the stones, having long profited from such caution. 

“Give me the hatchet,” I heard Mistress Smith say, and was abruptly glad I hadn’t balked at eavesdropping.

“You don’t need the hatchet,” Mister Smith said.  “I mean to leave it in the good Lord’s hands.”

“You mean you don’t mean to lift a hand yourself to save your life, when it’s you or that stranger who’ll die tonight.  Well, you needn’t get your hands dirty if you scruple to it.  Just you give me the hatchet, and tell anyone who asks that you slept sound.”

“And what do you mean to say, when the town watch comes knocking?”

“Old Bill?  I’ll tell him that I woke at a noise in the courtyard, and came out to see men running away.  He’ll set up a hue and cry that will take the rest of the night.  You’ll see.”  There was a feverish certainty to her voice.  “All you need do is leave it all to me.”

“I won’t have it, I tell you.”

“I don’t care what you will and won’t have.  You’re not much of a man, it seems, but you’re my man, and I don’t mean to wager your life on the toss of a coin.  Give me the hatchet, and don’t you set foot outside until I come back.” 

I had only a few moments to escape.  I had a knife, which I took up now, and the cover of darkness on my side.  For all that, my heart was pounding in my chest; I’ve never been a brawler, nor been much in the habit of fighting with women.  I made for the ladder, but before I reached it I heard the sound of footsteps below. 

“Do you lie comfortably?” Mistress Smith’s voice rose up.

I thought of feigning snores, but lacked confidence in my own dramatic skills. “Quite comfortably,” I called back down.  “I’ve everything a man could want.”

“I thought I’d bring you a hot drink,” she said.  “A bit of a toddy to take the chill from the air.  Do come down and drink it before it gets cold.”

“It’s very kind,” I said, putting my back to the loft wall and hoping that a swung hatchet wouldn’t go through it.  “But I never touch the demon drink, not since I got religion.”

“A sailor who’s an abstainer?” she said.  “I never heard of such.”

“It’s true all the same,” I said.  “It pleases my girl, you understand.”

“I’ve a blanket for you at least,” she said.  “And you can come in with me and fetch a cup of hot milk.”

“Thank you kindly, but I’ll lodge where I am.”  I held my breath, and heard the ladder creak as she put her foot on it.  It creaked twice more, and then her head and shoulders appeared framed in the doorway and light glinted off the hatchet blade.

 I kicked her square in the bosom, though I’m not proud to say it, and knocked her and the ladder both down from the loft.  I swung down after her, seeing her sprawled in the straw, unhurt but struggling to rise, and went for the hatchet.

She grasped it as well, her hands clawing at mine, raking them with her fingernails. 

“Will you give over!” I tried to shoulder her away.  “You’re wrong in what you think.  I’m no man of twenty-six.”

“You claim now you were lying?” Her face was close enough to mine as we struggled that I could smell her breath.  “There’s a strange habit, for a man to tell lies about his age to everyone he meets.”

Her grip on the hatchet loosened as she spoke, and I tightened my own.  “So it would be,” I said.  “But I’m no man, and that was the lie I told.  That and the bit about the drink, which I admit is a besetting vice.  I put on breeches to go to sea, but I’m a woman all the same underneath them, and never more glad of it than today.”  I forebore to add that my girl was glad of it too, as I felt under the circumstances it would be taken as cheek.

She laughed in my face.  “That’s a nasty lie to save your skin.”

“I’ll prove it if you like,” I said.  “If you’ll give over your attempt to chop me up for firewood long enough.”

At that moment, her husband came in, and I shoved her toward him, hoping that he’d catch the hatchet out of her hands.  He plucked it away from her with his left hand and tossed it aside, but as he let her go I saw that he had a cleaver in his right hand.  I saw the bulging of his shoulders and thought I must know what a chicken felt like at butchering time.

“It came on me that it was wrong to leave the missus to do what must be done,” he said.

“I’ll swear any oath you like, my mother named me Kate,” I said, and reached for the top button of my shirt.

“A wicked wench who’ll dress up as a man can’t complain if she’s buried as one,” the woman said, and I saw a look pass between her and her husband that made my heart sink.  “What the parson doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“I’m sorry to have to do it,” Mister Smith told me, but he was lifting the cleaver, and I turned tail and ran.

I heard the clamor of dogs barking behind me, and rethought in a hurry my initial plan to make for the road out of town.  I looked about for a tree to climb, and saw none.  There was a stone wall at the end of the lane, though, and I went pelting toward it with what sounded like a whole Bedlam of dogs baying at my heels.

They leapt snarling as I scrambled up the wall, but any sailor, lad or lass, can climb like a monkey, and I reached the top of the wall and dropped down on the other side.  I was in a little churchyard, but before I could slip away over the wall on the other side, the parson came out to see what was the matter with the dogs, who were still howling in a perfect fury.  Though he wore spectacles balanced on his narrow nose, he also had a heavy stick in his hand and looked as if he were willing to use it.

“The blacksmith set his dogs on me,” I blurted out.  “I swear to you I’m no thief.”

The parson didn’t loosen his grip on the stick.  “I don’t believe Mister Smith is in the habit of setting his dogs on innocent strangers.”

“It’s on account of the bell, the passing bell,” I said, and couldn’t help looking up at the tower that threw its shadow over us both.  The bell tower was just a rickety little thing by the measure of city churches, but the pool of gloom it cast over the churchyard seemed heavy and dark.  “His wife put him up to it, for she thinks it’s either him or me who’ll die tonight.”

The parson came forward a little, then, and looked me up and down through his spectacles.  “I never knew the blacksmith’s age,” he said, as if speaking as much to himself as to me.  “I try not to know, you see.  But in a town so small, it’s hard not to be aware . . .”  He shook his head, and there was something closed in his expression.  “I think I had better see you out the gate,” he said.

“The dogs are still out there,” I pointed out.

“That’s really not my concern.”

“And you a parson.”

“I can’t stop what’s to come,” he said.  “You must understand that, you must see.  I’ve tried, sometimes, when I knew.  There was a girl, a child of thirteen . . . I sat up with her all night, in the church, and we prayed together.  She wept, and I told her to have faith, that the Lord would protect her.  And an hour before morning her fear overcame her, and she rose to flee.  I caught hold of her, I demanded she stay, I promised she would be safe.  I struggled with her.  And she fell, and her head struck the altar steps.  And God was silent.”

He reached out and caught hold of my collar to march me toward the gates.  My hand rested on my knife, and then I took it away again, not sure if I could bring myself to stab a man of the cloth, even to make my escape. 

“I don’t see why you can’t just resolve not to ring the bell anymore,” I said.  “If you don’t ring it in the morning . . .”

“I did not ring it that night,” he said, still marching me along, as if by thrusting me out the gates he could banish the memory.  “I sat on the altar steps in misery, and at the first light, I heard the bell tolling.  It was little Johnnie Boots, the choirboy, who had taken it into his head to ring the bell for me as a kindness, since, as he said, I must have been taken ill.” 

He paused before the high wooden gate, and outside I heard an eager chorus of barks, and then the even more ominous growling of dogs who see their aim in sight.  “There are some who have called for us to take down the bell,” he said.  I silently cheered on “some,” whoever they might be.  “But it is the Lord who put this curse on us, and when he judges us free of sin, he will take it away again.  When we have been made clean.”  His knuckles were white on his stick, and his eyes were on the horizon, as if he saw some horror there I couldn’t see.  “I have prayed, but of course my sinner’s prayers have not been answered,” he said.  “Pray now, and perhaps yours will be heard as mine have not been.”

I put my hands together, although I had done precious little praying of any kind since I’d taken up my present life.  It sat badly with me to beg for my life anyway, like a craven captain pleading for quarter on his knees.  Dear Lord, I’ve been a wicked woman but a good seaman, I said silently.  You’ve winked at my deceit, and let me live when better men have died.  If you care for wicked women, as I’ve heard you did in life, show me one more trick to save my skin.

 The parson was reaching for the gate, and I blurted out, “A moment more!”

“You’ve had time for your prayers.”

“A moment to wish my girl goodbye,” I said, and drew out the locket I carried.  It was a little tin thing with a half-penny sketch inside, but the boy who drew it had caught Minnie’s laughing eyes, and it was worth a fortune in gold to me.  She’d scolded me for going back to the sea, though it was my wages that kept her all the time I was away, and told me at some length that if I drowned she wouldn’t have a single prayer said for my worthless wayward soul.

“You’ve had that as well,” the parson said, and reached for the latch on the gate.  I reached again for my knife, wondering if I could stick him without hurting him too much, and what the townsmen would do to me if they caught me after that.  Being hanged for stabbing a parson seemed even worse than being hacked apart for nothing.

And then I had it, all at once, like a breath of wind snapping open a slack sail.  “One thing more!” I demanded.  “I had a traveling companion on the road, another sailor who took ill and died by the wayside.  I buried him as best I could, but I’d be easier in my mind if the passing bell were rung for him.  His name was Tom, and I know his age as well, for he told me at the end he was born twenty-six years ago to the day.”

   The parson stood staring at me for a long moment.  “Do you expect me for one moment to believe such a story?”

“Is it any of your business to doubt it?” I asked, and reached into my coat to draw out my purse.  “If I had come to you a week ago, would you have questioned whether there was a man named Tom or a roadside grave?” 

“I would not,” he admitted.  I held out my purse to him, and while I’d like to believe he took it in pure gratitude for the escape I offered him, I can’t say that its weight didn’t figure in his decision as well.

“Then go on and ring the passing bell for poor old Tom,” I said.  “For I think I have worn out my welcome in this town, or at least it has worn out its welcome with me, and I am eager to be on the road again.”

I followed him to the foot of the tower stairs, and watched him ascend.  I waited until the sound of his steps told me he had gone a full turn of the stairs, and then started up after him, keeping my own steps quiet. 

Even after everything that had happened, I was not entirely prepared for what I saw when I mounted to the bell-tower; the parson was heaving on the bell-rope, his back to me, and the bell was heaving as well, the clapper slamming into its sides hard enough that I could see its tremor, but no sound came from the bell, no sound at all.  The only sound was the wind, keening through the wide openings on all sides of the tower like a crying dog.

I waited, breath held, until the bell made its final swing and the parson released the bellrope.  I scrambled around him, evading his surprised attempt to catch me back, and clambered up onto the beams that held the bell in place.  The bell was an old one, and held only by thick ropes, not by a heavy chain; it was the work of a moment to hack the stiff ropes in two.

There was a clamor like brazen hounds baying in hell as the bell came crashing down.  It tumbled out the open side of the bell tower, clattering for a moment on its edge and then plunging toward the earth.

“They do say the Lord helps those as help themselves,” I said, jumping down.  The parson crossed himself and backed away from me.

“There’s some devil in you, and I’m not sure whether to try to cast it out or thank you for what you’ve done,” he said. 

“Call it payment for all the hospitality I’ve had in this town,” I said.  “But now I must be away.”  I took off down the stairs at a run, and plunged out into the open air.

I stopped short when I saw the bell lying fallen on the churchyard stones.  It was cracked and split, crumpled like the body of Mister Smith, who lay fallen beneath it, with his dogs circling round him, cringing now and whimpering.

The parson came out after me, and made the sign of the cross over the dead blacksmith in silence.  “He was a good man,” he said after a while.

“I expect he was,” I said. 

“You mustn’t blame yourself.”

“Nor will I,” I said, for it seemed the blacksmith had been doomed from the time the bell first sounded, and at least now the bell had rung its last. “But can I have my purse back, then?  I expect I can find a man to ring the passing bell for my old mate Tom somewhere considerably nearer home.”

The parson gave me a look as he handed it over that I suppose I well deserved, but what can I say?  I’ve never claimed to be a good man, but I am Minnie’s best girl, and she’d been waiting patiently for me to bring her home my pay, and to come back to her safely from the sea.

END

 


“The Passing Bell” was originally published in Temporally Out of Order and is copyright Amy Griswold, 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 I’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original.

00:0000:00

Episode #41: “A Spell to Signal Home” by A.C. Buchanan

July 11, 2017

Episode 41 is part of the Spring 2017 issue!

Read ahead by picking up your copy here: http://www.glittership.com/buy/

 

 

A Spell to Signal Home

by A.C. Buchanan

 

 

“Ash.”

The voice is at once close beside me and yet muted, as if the sound is being filtered through a dream or a long stretch of time, a universe drawn out like an endless vibration of music. I can taste the sweetness of blood in my mouth, but no syllables emerge and my body feels heavy and soft.

“Ash.”

Beyond the voice are the sounds of a living planet. It’s hard to pinpoint how the noise of life and the noise of machines differ, when one can so easily mimic the other and both contain so much variety, the boundaries between them blurred, but it’s unmistakable. This is no barren outpost, no hub of spinning metal; this is a result of millions of years of evolution, web-like ecosystems tangling into one another. It will differ from all others and yet on another level it will be the same as all others, interlocking chains of consumption and relation and habitat.

“Ash, we’re going to need to get you out. Can you talk to us?”

 

 


Hello, welcome to GlitterShip Episode #41. This is your host Keffy and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you. We have a poem and a GlitterShip original for you today. Our poem is "Songs of Love and Defense in the Dawn" by Hester J. Rook.

 

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 Twittter @kitemonster and you can
find her other work on her site http://hesterjrook.wordpress.com/.

 


 

Songs of Love and Defense in the Dawn

by Hester J. Rook

 

 

I am bird song
the whole of me, thrumful
the nattering hiss of the seawind through my whispered bones.

They seek to rewrite me
call me raucous, unwieldy,
liar, schemer, temptress
until I am heavy (but weightless) like a pelican skimming
belly over water.
They speak as though their story
can varnish them with righteousness
despite the hurt they cause;
rewrite our histories.

But I am birdsong
and ironbark;
my words are warnings and heralds of the crisp
                                                                      lipbitten dawn
bright as the frosted wingtips of the black swans
gliding
through silver.

I am birdsong

and I am louder than the thunderstorm and softer
than the gathering dusk on the hills
fiercer than teeth in a kiss and
unafraid
I gather up my feathers and

I shield.

 


 

Our original short story is "A Spell to Signal Home" by A.C. Buchanan.

A.C. Buchanan lives just north of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. They're
the author of Liquid City and Bree’s Dinosaur and their short fiction has most
recently been published in Unsung Stories, the Accessing the Future anthology from
FutureFire.net and the Paper Road Press anthology At the Edge Fierce Family.
They also co-chair LexiCon 2017 - The 38th New Zealand National Science
Fiction and Fantasy Convention and edit the speculative fiction
magazine Capricious. You can find them on twitter at @andicbuchanan or at
www.acbuchanan.org.

 


 

A Spell to Signal Home

by A.C. Buchanan

 

 

“Ash.”

The voice is at once close beside me and yet muted, as if the sound is being filtered through a dream or a long stretch of time, a universe drawn out like an endless vibration of music. I can taste the sweetness of blood in my mouth, but no syllables emerge and my body feels heavy and soft.

“Ash.”

Beyond the voice are the sounds of a living planet. It’s hard to pinpoint how the noise of life and the noise of machines differ, when one can so easily mimic the other and both contain so much variety, the boundaries between them blurred, but it’s unmistakable. This is no barren outpost, no hub of spinning metal; this is a result of millions of years of evolution, web-like ecosystems tangling into one another. It will differ from all others and yet on another level it will be the same as all others, interlocking chains of consumption and relation and habitat.

“Ash, we’re going to need to get you out. Can you talk to us?”

I keep thinking that it’s important to answer, but each time the thought begins it’s pushed away into sucked up by the humid air. My mind drifts back, past the negotiations on Feronia station, through the twelve years of my blossoming diplomatic career, to Volturna, the ocean planet where I grew up, and the warm waters we splashed and played and relaxed in, and I think it might be my sister Francie’s voice calling me but I pull myself far enough into consciousness to realize that it’s too high-pitched, too alien…

There are hands on my body, and words: don’t think anything’s broken, still breathing. I realize the air is breathable, which means we’re almost certainly on a terraformed planet, and yet there’s so much life, much more than is usually imported. I feel hands beneath me, my body being lifted, dragged, set down. There’s a bright light—sunlight—through my eyelids.

Fragments of words come to me, words that I memorized long ago. A spell for safety in travel. But it’s in an older English than my native tongue, and so, so far away that I see only occasional words, faded ink on thick paper. I still don’t know what sandalwood is, and I think I need to stay awake, but I’m so tired…

 

 

When she was ten, Francie had edited the family spellbook, inserting “she or” and “her or” and “hers or” in blue ballpoint, her unsteady hand unused to holding a pen. I thought Dad would yell, even though he didn’t yell often, because the book was hundreds of years old and had come from Earth, but instead he turned the large pages one by one and said it was a fair point, and that it was at least a more useful amendment than the “tastes disgusting” comment written in cursive on at least two pages.

Dad didn't really believe in spells, but the book was important enough to him that when our parents first came to Volturna he'd asked for an exemption on the dimensions (but not total volume, he'd never push it that far) permitted for cultural and religious items, family heirlooms. Mum brought a Bible from the Scottish arm of her family, and the korowai she graduated in, even though she didn't feel right taking it so far from her whanau, because her grandmother—approaching ninety at that point—insisted, saying she’d have her own children one day and they needed to be connected.

We didn't quite know what that meant. Earth fascinated us, but in the same ways as tales of every other world fascinated us. Volturna was our home, and we knew its waters in an instinctive way our parents' Terra-born generation couldn't quite understand.

And so on the day that Francie narrowly avoided being in trouble for her annotations, much like any other, we stripped off and yanked on our rashguards and shorts, a process we'd perfected through practice to a matter of seconds. Mine were in the wash so I was wearing my slightly-too-small spare set, lilac with a frill around the edge of the shirt. All Francie's pairs were black.

In a few years I would be required to tell the doctors about how much I hated my body, and I'd rewrite this scene for them then, tell them I cried every time I had to change and was too ashamed to do so even in front of my sister.  The truth was that as long as people got most things about me right I could deal with my body. I'd never love it, but I could not think about it easily enough.

“Go!” Francie yelled, and she yanked open the hatch and we dived out without hesitation, over the narrow platform, into the warm water around us. I ducked to wet my hair and then Francie did the same, hers chopped short and uneven. I envied it for a minute as mine smacked across my face.

“Oy!” Dad's voice yelled at us from inside. “What have I told you about closing this thing after you?”

We'd heard him alright, but if we were going to close it we'd have to walk onto the platform and down the first two steps before we could reach to close it. Waste of time.

“Sorry, Dad. Could you throw me a hair tie?”

“You kids will be the death of me.”

But sure enough one dropped down into my outstretched hand before the hatch grated shut.

We'd been in our new apartment a little over two years, moving because our parents had decided Francie and I should have our own rooms. It was on the edge of town and taking a few strokes out we could see it spread out before us; the buildings and walkways rising out of the waters that covered the planet. The flag the council had chosen, a blue circle ringed with white light against the black of space, fluttered from the higher structures. We had never seen land, and it was only when we opened the spellbook that we felt we might be missing out.

 

 

When I wake again there are drugs coursing through my veins and dampness seeping through my clothes. I open my eyes and see sunlight mottling through the trees above me. I remember being at a reception to mark the conclusion of negotiations regarding access to the route between Feronia Station and Auuue. The subject had been straightforward in itself, but was critical in its implications, setting the terms for future engagement between the Terran and Auuueen governments.

So, having sealed a new treaty, we were feeling good. I’d had a key role in these negotiations, more than was typical for a third level diplomat, and it was hard not to take that as a sign that promotion was on the horizon. I had a glass in my hand and the sweet after-taste of spiced Auuueen seafood in my mouth, and was surely blessed that I’d not only secured a career that gave me the opportunity to travel the galaxies, meet high ranking people and hopefully effect some change for the better, but also one where the gown I wore—shimmering layers of deep-green over a blue-black underlay—was an utterly appropriate expense claim.

I sit up and dizziness hits, nausea growing in me. I force myself to stay upright, pressing my knuckles firmly against the damp ground. There’s something rustling in the bushes to my right, birds flying overhead.

My memories after the reception are brief and fragmented. I remember a distress call, drawing us out of FTL, being unable to get back to anything beyond light speed.

“Cay?” I say, operating by guess work. My throat is dry.

“I’ll be right with you.” His voice is behind me. I ease myself round, bit by bit, every muscle hurting. He’s tending to the injured leg of the ambassador, who seems, mercifully, to be otherwise unhurt. The only non-human on the shuttle, Cay’s wiry frame belies its near unbreakability.

I shift my weight so I can balance, rub my eyes. “We crashed?”

“Emergency landing. This shuttle is built for capitals and ambassadorial stations, not wilderness, which seems to be all this planet has.” Looking up I can see the blue sky, the gaping wound in the forest canopy we must have hurtled through.

“Is… did everyone?”

“Everyone’s alive, yes. Some injuries, but I think with treatment everyone will be okay. Getting out of here is going to be more of a problem. Don’t try and stand up—I put you on Combamex to speed up your healing time, but it will make you woozy for a while.

Flashes of memory.

“There’s a… this is classified information…” the ambassador had said, as we all stared in panic. She’d paused, briefly, grappling with the weight of disclosure even though all our lives were at stake. “There’s a planet… Silvanus. It’s a wildlife reserve, for species from Terra. Breathable atmosphere. Uninhabited, but it’s our only chance. We can be there in a week, two at the most.”

Against Cay’s advice, I stand. Vertigo hits and I vomit, just a little, cling to a tree and manage to stay upright until it passes. Insects are buzzing all around, and the damaged shuttle is behind me. Just a few meters away the forest opens out into a clearing. The ground is covered with orange flowers, smelling of warmth, rising out of the soil to greet us.

 

 

“Marigold. Hematite. Elder. Rue. Tiger’s eye.” I list the unfamiliar ingredients, trying to picture, smell, taste such far away substances. “Tiger’s eye? Did they really use eyes from tigers?”

“It’s a type of rock.” Francie was thirteen and could make me feel small without even trying. “What are cloves?”

She wasn’t asking me. The device on her wrist responded near instantly. Terran spice, made from aromatic flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae, Syzygium aromaticum. Native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia.

Francie threw her arms down in despair. “We’re never going to be able to find any of this stuff.”

Mum had said I had to be patient with Francie when she got upset like this, that she was going through a confusing time, and that I’d understand soon enough.

I understand confusion, I had wanted to say. I want the androgen blockers and I want to wear dresses and I’m not a boy, but I don’t think I’m the girl I’ve always told you I am either. But I didn’t say anything like that. Not to Mum and not to Francie. Not for a long time.

I perched on an inflated cushion and looked at my sister. “You could just tell her you like her?” I suggested.

Francie wailed.

“I don’t think you could understand any less if you tried! I’m out of here!”

We used to dive into the water to escape, but now Francie barricaded herself in her upstairs room. I put away the book, because we had to be very careful with it, grabbed the largest mug I could find and hit the strawberry setting on the milkshake maker, hoping that despite all my own confusion, I at least had a few years before I needed to be worrying about love potions.

 

 

We all gather in the clearing. I allow the Ambassador to lean on my shoulder as she walks. She’s short, as those who grew up constrained by Terran gravity usually are, but she cuts an imposing presence. Perhaps that’s why I find it so hard so use her name. Still, I admire her much more than I fear her. If anyone can get us home, I feel, it’s her, but her face is pale with shock and she says little.

Aside from us, the group comprises two other diplomats, the pilots, a security guard and two guests flown by special arrangement between governments: Cay and an elderly human. Solomon, the pilot, his uniform crumpled and ripped on one sleeve, looks at the Ambassador, seeking her permission to lead this meeting. She accepts, gratefully, and he summarizes our current position. Our FTL drives are near completely destroyed—by what, he can’t tell, but there’s zero prospect of fixing them. Even if we could launch the shuttle, an unlikely prospect in itself, there are no stations or inhabited planets reachable on our support systems. He’s been trying to get a distress signal working, but no luck so far. He’ll keep trying.

The good news, he continues, trying to keep us optimistic, is the breathable air, the hospitable climate, that we have three day’s supply of food and with our databanks intact there is no doubt we can find food on this world.

We spend the day exploring the immediate area, administering medical treatment, working fruitlessly on sending a signal. The nine of us sleep, eventually, bunched together with spare clothes pulled over us like blankets. We try not to think about the future.

 

 

“What’s oregano?” Francie, now fifteen, had digitized the spellbook in response to Mum’s complaints about her getting her oily fingers all over it. Only I knew that at night she’d creep downstairs and pull it from the shelf, holding it in her arms as if it exuded some comfort. I’d mocked her, once, for being so attached to those archaic, impossible beliefs, and she’d cried and I’d never mentioned it again.

“It’s a herb…” said Dad.

“…for pizza,” said Mum, her eyes looking far away.

Dad squinted, looked at the screen. I propped myself up on my hands to see what he was looking at A Spell to Prevent the Conception of Child. This was going to be good.

Francie looked down and her skin, paler than mine, blushed bright red.

“Oh, no no no,” she stumbled, pointing desperately at the lower part of the screen as I enjoyed every second. “This one. A Spell to Aid Understanding of Numbers. I have an exam next week.”

“That’s kind of like cheating though, isn’t it?” I asked our parents. This day was getting even better.

“But of course, Ash, you don’t believe in spells so it can’t make any difference to your sister’s results, can it now?”

My mood deflated rapidly. It was fun while it lasted. Francie couldn’t be pregnant in any case though; she’d gotten her implant about the same time I got mine, though mine was larger—three circles under the skin of my upper arm, one releasing an androgen blocker, one for estrogen and one for progesterone.

“So where do I get oregano from?” Francie insisted impatiently.

“That’s not how spells work,” Dad replied. “There’s nothing special about oregano that helps you with maths. It’s about focusing your mind. You can use something else as long as it fits right for you. Why don’t you go for a swim and see if you feel drawn to something you could use instead?”

“So what now?” Mum said when Francie had left. “She’s going to drag in a load of seaweed because she thinks it bears some resemblance to oregano? Well I hope you’re going to be the one cleaning it up.”

Dad shrugged.

“Yeah, I’ll do that. I’ll do a lot more than a bit of cleaning to get her through the next few weeks. If she’s out there in the water and the fresh air, maybe she’ll relax a bit. Staring at those numbers a thousandth time isn’t going to help her half as much as a break. These spells work sometimes, you know, just not how you’d expect.”

 

 

“Who would do this?” I ask the Ambassador. Cay has cut a tree-branch into a cane of sorts, and we’re walking out through the clearing in search of running water. “I thought the days of war were behind us.”

She sighs. “I was running a list through my head all night. There are a few governments I think would like to kill us, a couple of separatist or nationalist factions that object to their governments’ treaties with us. But they didn’t just want to kill us. If they had they could have blown us up outright. But they drew us out and disabled our drives where they thought—because Silvanus is classified—there were no habitable planets. They didn’t just want us to die, they wanted us to die slowly.”

My chest feels tight at the thought, even though the air is clear and full of oxygen. I hear a long howl in the distance. I hold up my wrist and it senses, reports back: Howler monkey (genus Alouatta monotypic in subfamily Alouattinae).

It takes us more than an hour, with measurements and sheer instinct guiding us, to find water, but suddenly we’re beside a small but fast flowing stream, just narrow enough to jump. We smile at each other, perhaps our first smile on Silvanus. While the air is humid enough for us to condense sufficient drinking water, we still need to wash ourselves and clean our clothes. This find won’t solve all our problems, but it will help, and right now that counts for success.

There’s something moving on the other side of the river. Something large.

I’ve been trained on the use of arms, as everyone entering the diplomatic service is. I’ve never expected to use one outside a carefully controlled range. But before we set off, the guard handed me a stun gun, and now I draw it, awkwardly.

It all happens at once; a snarl, a lunge towards us, huge and fast, across the stream. I fall backwards as I fire, rolling over on the rocks, panicked. It takes some time before I realize I’m safe. The Ambassador helps me to my feet.

“Tigers,” she says, bitterly. “They seem so beautiful, don’t they? And yet…”

I nod, still shaking.

“Same with people. I don’t think whoever did this was after us, our government, our missions. I think they were after me.”

“Who?” I shouldn’t be asking such a question, but at the same time I was almost killed too and might be stranded on this planet with weird animals forever, so I think I deserve some answers.

“Someone I once loved.”

The tiger lies motionless by the river.

“You can’t trust everyone, Ash. Believe what you know.”

 

 

Francie left home to share a tiny apartment in New Venice with a friend, two hours away by boat. I took over her larger bedroom, packed everything she left behind into four small boxes. When I visited her she’d poured me wine and we’d eat fried rice from a little shop beneath her apartment. Afterwards I’d crash on an inflatable mattress in her kitchen and listen to the boats and the spray against the windows and the clinking of bottles.

When I woke one morning she was already studying, even though it was a Saturday. There were no universities on Volturna yet, but she was in an amalgamated program with video-conferenced lectures, a practical engineering placement and three block courses a year from visiting lecturers.

“Coffee?” she asked, considerate of my seventeen-year-old, early morning brain. I signaled yes, trying to unpick the disaster that was my hair. Dad called Volturnan coffee a hideous imitation and refused to touch it, but like most of our friends, Francie and I swilled it near constantly.

“What are you studying?” I asked, looking over at her screen, caffeine in my hands at last.

“Case study from Glar. You know that weird planet where the local life-forms change how everything operates, including all the buildings.”

I did, vaguely. She showed me a picture.

“Well it means that some things aren’t possible, but they can also do things like this…”

“How does that even stay up?” The giant structure seemed to be almost floating in the air, anchored to the ground at just one small corner.

Francie showed me a screen full of equations. I shrank in mock horror.

“Magic,” I said. “I’m just going to believe that it’s magic.”

 

 

I hold my wrist beside plant after plant. About half it recognizes automatically; for others I have to input data: color, size of leaves, flowers. I’m building a list, edibles and poisons.

This one is easy. Origanum vulgare, my device says. Colloquially known as oregano, a common species of Origanum, a genus of the mint family (Lamiaceae). Safe, edible herb for humans, although allergies are recorded.

And I remember something in my personal data files, something I haven’t looked at in a long time. I sit on a fallen tree, bring up the projection of pages many hundreds of years old.

A Spell to Send a Message Home

And on it, Francie’s childish hand over the calligraphy. When a traveller wants to signal home SHE OR he must do the following…

Snippets of Francie’s voice, so young, so far away: you have to call her “she”. She’s my SISTER!

Francie’s edits weren’t just about her, I realize. She was defending me.

When I was eighteen, I downed a half bottle of a terrible orange flavored liquor before I told her that maybe I wasn’t a woman and could she please say they, not she and then I cried on her balcony because I felt like I was backing down and like I’d been lying all my life, and she’d told me to come inside before I vomited on one of her neighbors’ heads as they walked out of their door and then I laughed and then I did vomit, bitter orange disgustingness over the balcony and into the water below. Francie threw me a towel and said that she loved me but not quite enough to clean up after me.

Another memory, two years later: my family seeing me off to my first internship. I would not see Volturna—or any of them—for three years. Francie checking, one last time, that I had a copy of the spellbook in my data files. You need to be connected.

It’s been nearly twenty years since I tried to cast a spell, but Francie once said it was in our blood, so perhaps that doesn’t matter. Here on Silvanus I find more than half of what I need. That which I cannot, which perhaps grows in cooler or warmer climes, I find alternatives for, following my father’s advice and looking up pictures, then letting myself be drawn to a flower or a rock.

I project up the image again, weightless pages before me with the writing of generations. I use my finger as a stylus. SHE OR HE OR THEY OR SIE OR CO OR E OR OR OR OR OR OR OR…

I finish my work. I close the book.

And from the distance, from beyond the black of space and its spinning stations, through traffic routes and past more planets than I could ever remember, from Volturna’s deep waters and floating towns, my sister signals me home.

END

 


 

“Songs of Love and Defense in the Dawn" is copyright Hester J. Rook 2017.

“A Spell to Signal Home” is copyright A.C. Buchanan 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 I’ll be back soon with a reprint of "The Passing Bell" by Amy Griswold.

00:0000:00

Episode #40: Fiction by Nicky Drayden and Pear Nuallak

July 10, 2017

 

Episode 38 is part of the Spring 2017 issue!

Read ahead by picking up your copy here: http://www.glittership.com/buy/

 

 

She Shines Like a Moon

by Pear Nuallak

 

It's cold in London but you glow with warmth. You travel limbless and limned from your core, throat crossed with black silk just as it was in your first days. Yes, you were naked then, washed clean in monsoons, dried by storm winds. When was the last time your sly hunt was wreathed in rice flowers? Do you recall how dtaan-tree fronds stroked your secret self as you rose, star-bound?

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 40 for May 23, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing these stories with you.

 

Today we have two reprints, "She Shines Like A Moon" by Pear Nuallak and "The Simplest Equation" by Nicky Drayden.

 

Pear Nuallak is a writer and illustrator whose work has appeared in Interfictions, Unlikely Academia, and The Future Fire. Born in London and raised by Bangkokian artists, they studied History of Art jointly at SOAS and UCL, specializing in Thai art. Thai and British recipes appear semi-regularly on their food blog, The Furious Pear Pie, and they have an upcoming illustration this summer in Lackington's magazine.

Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she's not buried in code. She resides in Austin, Texas where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. Her debut novel The Prey of Gods is forthcoming from Harper Voyager this summer, set in a futuristic South Africa brimming with demigods, robots, and hallucinogenic hijinks.


She Shines Like a Moon

by Pear Nuallak

 

It's cold in London but you glow with warmth. You travel limbless and limned from your core, throat crossed with black silk just as it was in your first days. Yes, you were naked then, washed clean in monsoons, dried by storm winds. When was the last time your sly hunt was wreathed in rice flowers? Do you recall how dtaan-tree fronds stroked your secret self as you rose, star-bound?

Now your London home shivers you into clothes. A length of black at your neck doesn't suffice; you add to old habits—night journeys sensibly hatted, the frank, coiled shapes below your neck wrapped in silk layered with batting and wool, each piece hand-made by the wearer herself. No other clothier would believe your particular sensitivities; only krasue know krasue.

(You make a fine new flying outfit each season. You like having things, you're the lord and lady of things.)

London's cross-hatched with forgotten waterways, the Krungthep of the Occident, murky and decadent. The Heath hides the Fleet in its hills, earth over arteries water-fat; it surfaces as a rivulet, gleams and whispers and winks knuckle high in leaf-lined silt before it talks away, louder and deeper into the festering heart of the city, but you drink it here, the source.

The tumulus field brings food best savoured like an egg with bael-sap yolk—slowly, thoughtfully, the red of it so rich on your tongue after eating bland pale without. In the viaduct pond you dump his fixie and clean your face.

After the meal you play with foxes. Your city friends have great thumping tails, on hind legs they yelp delightedly.

(When you first heard sharp cries in the hills you thought it was another krasue. Foxes came instead, sniffed you wonderingly, ears flicking. You didn't find each other appetising in the least.

Their company is brief, precious: city foxes live a year each.)

You peer into the Hollow Oak. When you were new here you asked your first fox friend, lovely old Chalk Scrag, if this was their den.

No, friend, no—my burrow smells like forest all dark and close, she says. This smells like witch. One day I will show you the best smells of my home, yes, yes, but not that witch tree, no; that is hers to show.

You wonder if she's shy. You think about whether she's a person who also knows what it's like to be apart from others. Under the bark and earth there's always the smell of black tea and sugared fruit, sometimes cake, sometimes curry.

That one's never come out, says Liquorice Grin, who counts Chalk Scrag as eightieth great-grandparent. She is busy. Leaves us gifts, but never comes out to play with us like you do, friend.

Four score years you've hunted here and no corner of Heath is unexplored but this. (You're shy, too.)

Before setting off home, you linger by the Oak as you always do.

She is shy, she is busy, but you can ask.

So for a change, tonight you say, “Your home smells wonderful,” into the hollow. Your eerie heart beats strong as you fly home.

Strong teeth and supple tongue open the night-hatch to your flat. You shed your flying clothes and look at yourself on the bed; in your own light you consider the soft limbs, the clean red hollow between your shoulders. What are you truly hungry for?

You enfold your secret self with a body that accepts you neatly and completely.

The black silk remains at your throat.

It is good to lay your head on the pillow.

In the morning your longer self stretches her limbs, washes, thinks about being 'she' as she pulls on a turquoise jumper, so good on skin the colour of tamarind flesh, a long skirt in pig's blood, Malvolio tights, black boots laced up.

Before a mirror she wanders her hands over the pleasing stubble on the back and sides of her head, dressing the length on top into a sleek pompadour.

(Your grandmothers' hairstyle is now subculture fashionable but you wear it anyway, you're the age of two grandmothers together and want to remember what you had.)

The morning walk to the cafe brings smells from the flats: running water and clean skin, burnt toast, bacon fat sizzling, hot dusty radiators. There's strange comfort in witnessing others' routines.

Coffee is taken quickly before the man with a rough-haired jack comes for his—tame dogs never like you, the cafe's too small for a scene.

For two decades you've been teaching. You like interaction structured around things you know and love, boundaries defined. Every 5 years you make yourself move; you enjoy this while you can.

Knitting today. To make the cowl you've planned, students discard needles and knit like this: thick yarn knotted onto wrists, loops drawn over fists, wool on skin, weaving on flesh. Your students' concentration is your delight; it staves the hunger somewhat.

Once you tended silkworms and cotton bolls, had a great loom under the belly of your stilt house; your family once wore the fabric you grew, span, wove.

Now it's only you, the narrowness of your single self.

(But the cowls will warm your students, so this will do.)

That evening returns you to your alma mater. Female Abjection and the Monstrous Feminine in Thai Cinema, the email said. Open to all. It's sure to be diverting.

You've not yet been to the Bloomsbury buildings—when you studied languages, it was the School of Oriental Studies at 2 Finsbury Circus and you were a man hatted and trousered, as it sometimes suits your fancy. The institution's re-invented itself: cosmopolitan, international, politically active, inclusive.  (Coy about its hand in training Empire: to control a people you know their tongues, their hearts.)

You sit and are lectured on a self Othered through others' eyes.  Except for one Thai man, the lecturer cites theorists and academics like her, white and Western.

She says, “There are no feminists in Thailand—Thai women don't really identify as feminists; it's just not done. People talk about South-East Asian women having power and ownership, but…” she shrugs.

(It's never occurred to the lecturer to ask what a Thai woman thinks of herself, let alone a krasue's view of her own condition.)

You think of spitting in her tea. Wouldn't make much difference to the taste; your lips are primed. But her words will survive a thousand years: she's adding to the sum of human knowledge. She doesn't need your curse—no, it wouldn't make much difference at all.

There is loyalty, still, though you've been here so long and it's your countrywomen who fear you most, who have always kept their distance from you, who would reject and destroy and silence you instantly if they knew your tastes.

But you were made by them. You are their monster. It's hard to believe others would believe you. The hunger you've mastered, mostly, but grieving anger and loneliness thunders through your whole interior.

You suck your teeth and go home, fill yourself with sweet warm rice. A collection on your kitchen shelves: rice scraped white, rice left red or brown or black, rice so delicious wives forget husbands.

(Is it good or bad you've only found husband-forgetting rice? Perhaps men are more easily forgotten by wives. You've no inclination for husbands: the sum of your knowledge on this subject is that they're common.)

Once your fork and spoon are closed, an invitation appears, curling hand tracing bright in the air:

You are invited to

A Midnight Cake Tasting

for the delight of the Witch Ambrosia

at the Hollow Oak, Hampstead Heath

You hesitate, chewing your lip. Perhaps she's only inviting you out of kindness, politeness, obligation. Perhaps she won't be there. Perhaps this is a trick. But she's asked, and you accept.

You go as yourself, your honest, smallest self. When the clock strikes the hour you hover, unsure.

“Come in, love, I've been waiting so long,” says Ambrosia.

The witch leads you in, steps winding like shell chambers into the earth. Her home smells like a home should, is full of things neatly kept, herbs bunched, cables sorted. In the lamp light you see her fine umber self dressed in a gown of fresh plum, face framed with raincloud hair in a thousand braids. You know at once she is splendid.

“Oh, is that for me?” she says as you give her a rich saffron scarf. Thanks is a gentle touch to your cheek.

The table is spread. Together you enjoy black rum cake and rose-bright sorrel, dark fruits wondrously spiced.

You begin with, “I thought I'd say hello.”

“So did I,” says Ambrosia, “it was about time.”

“Will you come with me tonight?” (why are you so awkward, what could she possibly—)

“I was thinking you'd never ask,” she smiles.

Up above, Liquorice Grin says, Ah, you've brought a new lovely friend.

You dance together, fox fur coppered in ghost light. Ambrosia shines like a moon. Your heart shouts. You are full up of her.


The Simplest Equation

by Nicky Drayden

 

I'm doodling in the margins of my Math 220 syllabus when she walks into the classroom like a shadow, like a nothing, like an oil slick with pigtails. She scans the empty seats in the most calculating manner and I shudder when she spots the one next to me. Her knees bend all the wrong ways in her jeans as she walks up my aisle, and her head is a near perfect ellipsoid that could've fallen out of any geometry primer. She sets her backpack on the floor between us, then maneuvers into the chair with the grace of a lame giraffe.

"I hope I'm in the right place," she says as she finally settles—her English impeccable, though she exhales the words more than speaks them, typical of her kind. "Partial Differential Equations?"

I nod, trying not to notice all those rows of tiny pointed white teeth crammed into her mouth, but then she smiles and it becomes impossible not to. I swallow hard, somehow managing to extend my hand.

"I'm Mariah," I say, my eyes tracing along the brown of my skin until it intersects the blue-black of hers.

"Kwalla," she says. "Two syllables. Not like the bear."

I force a laugh. It comes out easier than expected.

"Nice doodle," she says, looking at the squares and swirls and meandering lines. "Very symmetrical."

"Mmm..." I purse my lips and cock my head, then with a single tap on the screen, I reset my syllabus to its virginal form.

She's not the first Ahkellan I've met. There are a couple hundred here on campus. They come to Stanford when they can't get into Vrinchor Academy or Byshe, or any of the other prestigious schools in their system. Bring us your next best brightest, has become our new school motto. Yale, Harvard, and the other Ivy League schools split a couple dozen Ahkellans between them, but California's consistent temperatures are much more appealing to a race that goes into involuntary stasis when the weather dips below forty-three degrees.

After brief introductions, Professor Gopal drones on about semilinear equations. I listen and take notes attentively, afraid to let anything slip past me. I used to love math. Now it's the bane of my existence, always more of the same lifeless problems. But I've got too many credits and too little money to think about changing majors now. So I buckle down and frequently pull all-nighters just to squeak by with Bs.

I glance over at Kwalla who's busy solving problem sets on her notebook, two chapters ahead of the professor already. This class is probably a joke to her, just a way to rack up a few credits before applying for an interstellar transfer. But she seems pleasant enough, and none of the other Ahkellans I've met have ever shown anything that resembled a sense of humor, or an appreciation for art for that matter.

"Hey," I whisper, keeping the resentment out of my voice. "You looking for a study partner?"

Kwalla nods, then smiles at me again. I desperately resist the urge to protect my soft spots.

 

#

 

Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, we meet at Meyer Library, hustling through the stacks for table space among towers of old, dusty books. When my grades slip, we add another study session Saturday afternoons in her dorm room. It smells vaguely of sandalwood, and the paneled doors of her closet are neatly lined with posters of angst-ridden Ahkellans. Their slick, black faces are dour and their postures nonchalant—reminiscent of late twenty-first century brood bands, stuff my parents used to listen to.

We sit cross-legged on her bed... well, I sit cross-legged, and she sits in some variation of the lotus position that teeters on an optical illusion with all those joints of hers. Our notebooks are spread out between us. Kwalla's explaining Fourier transforms to me for the third time, and we're both beyond frustrated. I try to listen, but my mind drifts, and before I know it I've created a doodle that spans half the page, covering the miniscule amount of calculations I'd started.

Kwalla sees and makes a purring sound I've come to recognize as mild irritation.

"Sorry," I grumble. I lean back against the wall and stare out the window at her prized lake view of Lagunita. Students horseplay on its shore, blue-gray water lapping at their ankles. They laugh, living life and enjoying the "college experience," while I'm cooped up in here, breathing stale circulated air and staring at integral curves until my eyes bleed.

I heave a sigh. "Maybe I should drop the class. Drop out of college. Drop off the face of the Earth while I'm at it."

Kwalla smirks. "You're depressed. Good."

"Good?" I slam my notebook shut, turn away from her, and fume like a shuttle on its launch pad. Just when I was beginning to think she was a pretty decent person, or Ahkellan. Or whatever.

"Yes, it means you're close to understanding the story of this equation. It's a classic tale of love and loss. It's meant to be depressing, yet beautiful at the same time."

I roll my eyes as she resets to a clean page and starts the equation again. She works downward, shuffling constants and variables, swaying like a concert pianist. When she's done, a single tear trickles down her cheek.

She glances up at me and notices that I'm crying, too. "You saw the story this time?" she asks with hopefulness in her voice.

I slowly shake my head, more confused now than ever. "Not even close. I was just trying to figure out how to tell my parents that I've wasted their hard-earned money and the last two and a half years of my life. I hate math."

Kwalla recoils as if my mathematical slur negates her very existence. "You shouldn't say things like that."

"Give me a break," I say, rubbing my eyes. "I might not get your 'stories' but you don't get how incredibly hard this is for me. I wasn't born a genius like you, solving proofs while still in the womb."

From the grit in my words, I expect Kwalla to ask me to leave, but instead she lays a spindly hand on my knee.

"I've worked hard to get here, Mariah, but what you say is partially true. Math is our first language, and we crave it when we're born like you crave your mother's milk. It is our first friend. Our first love. Our first everything." Kwalla pauses, face riddled with uncertainty, then draws a black pouch from her backpack. She unties the drawstring and slips a large, tear-shaped crystal into the palm of her hand. Hundreds of facets speckle the ceiling with light, so beautiful. "I've never shared this with anyone," she says timidly.

"It's amazing..."

"I haven't even started yet," she says with a laugh, then leans close so I can get a better look. Foreign symbols are etched into each cut side of the crystal. "It's a yussalun, a calling piece. It's similar to your auditory instruments, except... well, it's probably easier just to show you."

Kwalla holds the piece up in front of her like a trumpet, but several inches away from her mouth. Her thin fingers tap across the facets and the air above the piece crystallizes into an intricate fractal pattern, a living snowflake that blooms sideways and then stretches for the ceiling with all its might. Buds gracefully unfurl to the rhythm of an inaudible beat, stirring up a sense of wonder within me. Then the ice crystals slow, becoming thinner and more delicate until they peter out with a hopelessness that fills me with inexplicable grief.

"That was the equation we've been working on," she says after we've both had a chance to catch our breath. "Now do you see?"

I nod, feeling wounded and vulnerable. There's a terrible rawness inside my chest that I wouldn't wish on anyone, and yet I crave more. I need more. "Do another," I whisper.

So she shares her favorite stories with me, and together we sit pensive for mysteries, hold our breath for thrillers, and giggle at the titillation of cheap romance—each fractal evoking an emotion, pure and intense and untamed. After the sun no longer shines through her window, each fractal leaves a slight chill in the air, so we slip halfway under the covers and Kwalla shares with me a fractal with a perfect heart at its base that dazes me with childlike joy—an equation simple enough to solve itself. Then we throw the covers over our heads and I can't tell where I end and she begins, so I giggle and Kwalla giggles, then she laughs, and I laugh.

 

#

 

Our professor posts the scores to our midterm exam outside the classroom door. With great trepidation, I type in the last four digits of my student ID and the page slowly scrolls down, pointlessly melodramatic. My finger shakes as I trace my way across the screen over failure and mediocrity and more failure until I reach the grade for last week's exam. My chest explodes with delight when I see the 98.5.

I'm so giddy I can barely stay seated as I wait for Kwalla to arrive. Thanks to her, I've rediscovered my passion for math. I busy myself solving practice problems that tell tales of triumph in the face of adversity. I'll pick the best one and share it with Kwalla tonight. In these last couple weeks, she's taught me how to play her yussalun, turning water molecules in the air into icy fractals the size of a toy poodle, though mine pale in comparison to hers. The bluntness of my fingertips makes it difficult to tap the right facets, but what I lack in accuracy I make up for in perseverance. I've caused more than my fair share of fractals to wilt, however, when I get it right, math and story collide, forming something exponentially more magnificent than the sum of its parts.

Her seat is still empty. I wait as long as I can stand it, then ditch class a few minutes into Professor Gopal's lecture. The phone rings and rings as I race to Kwalla's dorm. Through her door, I can hear her speaking in an Ahkellan dialect sounding something like a rooster trying to fog up a mirror. A deeper voice follows with the tin ring of an IVT, an instantaneous voice transmission, cheapest way to call intragalaxy. Against my better judgment, I knock softly. Kwalla answers with an uncontainable smile, and nods for me to have a seat at her desk.

Her conversation stretches on for another ten minutes, and as she paces barefoot across the blue carpet, I admire all the ways her legs bend from beneath her skirt, and how the fluorescent light overhead glints on her skin—like iridescent rainbows set adrift across the night's sky.

"I can't believe it!" she shrills after she finally disconnects. "It couldn't be more perfect! I've been accepted, Mariah. I'm going to Byshe!"

"That's wonderful!" I say, and despite the rip in my heart, I really mean it.

Getting into Byshe is worse odds than matching all the balls in the Bippho Trans-Galactic pick-twelve. Optimism has never been my strong suit, but maybe if I study hard and get my grades up, I could apply to Byshe next year. Kwalla could tutor me the rest of this semester and maybe even a few weeks into the summer. I nod to myself, impervious to the laws of probability and blissfully ignoring the fact that I can barely afford out-of-state tuition, much less out of solar system.

"I've got some news, too," I say.

Kwalla sits down next to me, and her eyes get wide and glassy. "You passed!"

"Nu-uh. I nearly aced it!"

"This calls for a celebration!" She pulls her yussalun out from its pouch and hands it to me. "Here, you play something nice while I pack." Her voice trails off at the end, a whirlwind of excitement deflated by a sudden prick from reality.

"Pack?"

"If I don't catch the next shuttle up ..." Kwalla says, voice pitched high and words running together as she tries to stitch together some sort of excuse for wanting to get the hell out of here. I don't blame her, not with the life she has waiting for her across the stars. Kwalla tilts her head forward, and after a weighty silence, she leans against my shoulder. "I'm leaving for Byshe in the morning."

 

#

 

I can't let her go without showing her how I feel, so after she's fallen asleep, I slip out of bed and onto a spot on the floor where moonlight from her window falls across my dimly backlit notebook. I work through the whole night, scribbling down the story of us, the fun we've had in our short time together, and all the could-have-beens for our future. It becomes unwieldy, our equation, and even with the tiniest font, it still won't fit on one screen. By the time I finish, my fingers are cramped, my brain is tight, and I can barely see straight. But the story is magnificent, engrossing, tragic.

Careful not to wake her too soon, I cradle the yussalun in my hands and prepare to share. Our story takes nearly thirty minutes to play, and when I'm done, I sit back and let it expand into the room. Two concentric buds sleepily emerge and form a base, then sprout three arms each, spiny like a starfish. They curl and coil, each arm to the beat of its own drummer. I marvel at the beginnings of their different stories, and my heart flutters as I try to keep up with them simultaneously.

At a meter high, I start to rouse Kwalla so she can see it as the first bits of sunlight shimmer across the fractal's crystalline surface, but just as I lay a soft hand on Kwalla's shoulder, the fractal begins to wilt. It steals my breath as I watch, my mind churning over the equation, wondering if I'd made a bad calculation or misplayed a note. But I couldn't have made a mistake, not on something this important.

All at once, the arms spiral up with the grace and might of a dancer, recursive shapes predictable yet mesmerizing. My creation reaches for the ceiling, and I grin in anticipation of the final blossom, but the fractal is thickening like an insatiable sapling and not tapering into delicate buds. I exhale and my breath lingers in the air, coldness striking through my nightshirt as I realize this thing is far from stopping.

"Kwalla!" I scream, lips cracked from the moisture being sucked from the air.

She doesn't respond and I shake her. Kwalla stirs for a moment, as if trying to fight through impending stasis, but then she goes still.

I take a swing at the fractal with her desk chair, smashing off one of the frosty tendrils, but it grows back with a vengeance until all is symmetrical again. Logic gives way to adrenaline and I scoop Kwalla's body up into my arms.

"Fire!" I say, over and over through the hallways at the top of my lungs, figuring it will draw more attention than yelling "fractal!"

Someone pulls the alarm, and we all scatter outside and across the street. I rub warmth back into Kwalla's limbs as onlookers wait for signs of smoke and flames. Of course they never come, and when rumors start circulating about a prank, I think that maybe I'd overreacted. An explosion of terra cotta tiles silences those thoughts as the fractal pierces the roof of Kwalla's dormitory. Exposed to the night air and the moisture from the nearby lake, the fractal accelerates, busting brick and shattering glass. It's odd, but no one panics or frets over lost possessions. We just watch, completely captivated.

The fractal doesn't slow until it's demolished both wings of Lagunita Court and the adjacent parking lot, and even then, it's not quite finished. A single thin stalk stretches up for the stars, and it reaches, reaches, reaches—wispy recursions sprouting like a vine on its way to the stratosphere. With some effort, I pull my gaze away and watch the crowd. There's not a dry eye to be found, including Kwalla's, her body cradled comfortably against mine.

"I had no idea," she exhales weakly, "...that you felt so deeply. It's the most incredible story I've ever seen."

"I'll miss you," I say before she has a chance to make well-meaning promises we both know it'd be impossible to keep. I savor this moment, because in a few hours, she'll be on a plane to Houston, just one small step on her long journey home.

 

#

 

There's a flurry of media coverage and threats of my expulsion, but the Board of Trustees changes its tune when news of the fractal reaches Ahkel and impresses even their most renowned intellectuals. Suddenly I'm no longer a disgraceful delinquent, but one of Stanford's brightest scholars, and any blemishes on my academic record are written off as me being a genius misunderstood in my own time. I laugh at their antics. At least it distracts me long enough for the numbness inside me to fade.

A week later, my phone hums in my pocket while I'm doodling in Professor Gopal's class. I fish it out so I can check the caller ID. My heart slips to my toes when I see it's an IVT number, and I scramble out of the classroom on rubbery legs.

"Hello?" I say into my phone. "Hello?" I say again, harder this time, as if it'll get my words across subspace faster. There's only a slight time dilation, but the seconds drag on like days. I hang onto the sounds of rustling static, waiting for Kwalla's voice.

Only it's not Kwalla. My disappointment is short lived, however, when the caller identifies herself as the dean of the Mathematics department at Vrinchor Academy. She says she's eager for the opportunity to take a closer look at how I derived my equations, and that if I'm interested, there's a spot for me in the upcoming school year, full scholarship. I don't bother holding back my elation, and even though a billion miles separate us, I'm sure the dean's ear will be ringing for days.

I return to class and respectfully gather my belongings, though my classmates couldn't have missed my screams. I nod at Professor Gopal, and he smiles knowingly. I can't believe I'll be living a dream, studying under the best minds in the galaxy, devouring math in all its forms. And of course it doesn't hurt that I'll be a quick shuttle's ride from Kwalla, just two planets away.

I race across campus, cutting through manicured lawns, dodging traffic, and pushing myself through the knot of tourists gathered in front of our fractal. I fall to my knees, chest heaving and smiling wider than any sane person ought to. My warmed skin braces me against the deep chill the fractal emits. Despite my best efforts not to look like a complete fool, I still draw stares and the attention of a camera lens or two.

From the corner of my eye, I swear I see our fractal moving. Changing. Of course that's impossible after all this time—probably just an odd reflection of sunlight or the shadow of a passing cloud. Doesn't matter. I've got a date with destiny tonight: a passport to find, flights to book, a whole planet to say goodbye to and above all, I've got a new story that's itching to be told.


 

“She Shines Like a Moon” was originally published in Lackington's and is copyright Pear Nuallak, 2015.

"The Simplest Equation" was originally published in Space and Time Magazine and is copyright Nicky Drayden 2014.

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 I’ll be back soon with a poem by Joanne Rixon, and an original story by A.C. Buchanan.

00:0000:00

Episode #39: “Mercy” by Susan Jane Bigelow

May 27, 2017

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 39. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.

GlitterShip is still running a little bit behind, but we're almost caught up ... just in time for me to run off to Ohio for a week and a half to get surgery. Those who know me won't be surprised to hear this, but essentially after years of waiting, more crowdfunding (since insurance wouldn't deign to cover gender affirming surgery despite NY state laws, ugh), and more waiting... my top surgery is just around the corner. It's possible that I'll have to release episode 40 in June along with 41 and 42... but I'll do my best to get it out on time. Or at least, almost on time.

Back onto the episode... today we have a piece of original fiction by Susan Jane Bigelow, "Mercy." If you recognize Susan's name, it might be because we ran a reprint of her story, "Sarah's Child" last May. You can check that out in Episode 28, available at GlitterShip.com or via our feed.

 

Joyce Chng lives in Singapore. Her fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing the Future. Joyce also co-edited  THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Her alter-ego is J. Damask. She tweets as @jolantru.

Susan Jane Bigelow is a fiction writer, political columnist, and librarian. She mainly writes science fiction and fantasy novels, most notably the Extrahuman Union series from Book Smugglers Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine's "Queers Destroy Science Fiction" issue, and the Lambda Award-winning "The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard," among others. She lives with her wife in northern Connecticut, and can be found at the bottom of a pile of cats.

 


Skyscarves/Aurora

by Joyce Chng

The colors come in sky scarves—
I wait,
My lover is coming.
Pink, green and red
Twisting—
Above me,

Festival of stars
sings
It is a moving river—
Silver path, curling, star stream

Where the ships course,
Tied to patterns of time
And of seasons.

My lover is harvesting the essence
Of star light—hir time is linked
With mine.

My lover is coming
As the sky-scarves flutter,
Like my emotions waving
In the skies.

Come back to me, my love
And we will dance as the stars
dance.


And now our original short fiction:

 

Mercy

by Susan Jane Bigelow

 

 

 

The sea had taken them.

Rion stood by the edge of the water, the waves curling around her bare, metal-and-plastic feet. She knelt by the water and placed her hand in. Sensors registered temperature, composition, motion. But they couldn’t find what Rion had lost.

Here and there the remains of buildings stood like ghastly stick figures, silhouetted in the deepening cool of twilight.

Rion stood and closed her eyes. She stretched her hands out and reached her sensors as far as they would go, but no. Nothing lived on this shore, now. She was alone.

And so she lowered her arms and began walking, one step at a time, into the sea, until the water covered her head and she was gone.

 

The quake and then the wave had come so suddenly that there had been no time to react. Rion’s memories were a jumble of shaking ground, rushing water, crashing buildings and pitiful screams followed by a hollow, awful silence.

She walked onward, her weight keeping her firmly on the bottom of the sea. All around her, she could see the shapes and forms of the shattered town, now submerged.

The waters grew dark, so she switched on the lights on her head, heart, and hands. A face swam before her, and she started, afraid. A woman, eyes open and sightless, drifted there at the bottom of the ocean like so much debris.

Her name had been Iona, and she’d been kind to Rion. She’d had a bright smile, a quick temper, and a tendency to laugh a little too loud and too long. She’d been happy.

Rion whispered an apology to her, and touched her cool metal fingers to the woman’s stiff forehead. She shut her eyes, and stood again.

She looked up, and saw debris floating high above. Some of it was shaped like humans, some not.

There was no way to help them now.

She kept walking through what had been her home. She had come to this small town by the sea to be away from the turmoil of the cities, and she had found both work and unexpected friendship. The humans here had been so welcoming and accepting, so unlike anywhere else she’d ever gone on this world.

She shone her light around. It fell on the gap in the sea wall where the tsunami had broken through, and everything suddenly seemed to turn on its edge. She made her way to the wall, and then walked through and beyond it, her lights illuminating the way.

 

Fish swam all around her, attracted by her light, while little creatures scuttled across the bottom. She looked up, and her light couldn’t reach the surface. The sun had set, and; Rion was surrounded by frigid, suffocating darkness.

What was she to do, now? She couldn’t stay here at the bottom of the sea forever. But she had no place to go back to on land. She sat down, then, on the rocks and sand, and switched her lights off.

Rion’s sensors told her what she didn’t want to know about the sea all about her: it teemed with life.

Life. Behind her there was so much death, and in front of her so much life. But what was she? What was an Artificial, compared to the dead she’d left behind and the sea creatures swimming all around her?

At last, at last, she wailed in grief and empty fury at the dark waters.

“Sovena! Sovena!” she cried to the planet. “Why? Why? Sovena, answer me!”

And, for a wonder, the planet answered her. The ground shifted and a point far, far ahead of her blinked with a soft green glow.

Daughter sei, said the vast network of artificial intelligence that was, for all purposes, the planet Sovena. A sei was a sentient artificial life form. Why do you cry to me?

“Bring them back!” shouted Rion, wishing she could cry. But she had no tear ducts, no lungs, and no way of releasing this deep, sharp grief. The curse of her kind; suffering went on and on without relief. “Bring them back to me. Sovena, please! I tried so hard!”

Tell me about them, said Sovena softly. Tell me of the people who drowned in my sea.

“They fished,” said Rion, her voice shaking and distorted. “They made such beautiful things. They sang songs. And they baked bread for me—” She found she couldn’t continue, and keened softly at the rocks, putting her face in her hands. “Why did you kill them? Why?”

The world shifts, said Sovena. The ground cracks and separates. My plates move, and cause the oceans to shudder. It is as it must be.

“I know,” said Rion. “I know!” She gazed at the steadily blinking light far away in the shadows. “But please. Please bring them back. Humans have so many gods they cry out to… Artificials have nothing. But I have you. I have faith in you. Please. Please.” She bowed her head in prayer and supplication. “Please. I have lived a good life. Take me instead of them. At least give me a way to grieve for them!”

Sovena said nothing for a long time. Then the ground seemed to move again, and she heard the planet whisper in her mind, Go back to the shore, daughter sei.

“You’ll do nothing? You—of course not. You’re not a god. You’re just the planetary network become aware. Fine. Fine. I’ll go.” She stood, fury and sadness swirling around her in the cold depths. “They were good people. They didn’t deserve to die. I didn’t deserve to survive. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.”

She turned and began to walk back through the darkness towards the remains of her home.

 

Rion’s head broke the water, and the first thing she saw were the stars, high above. She hauled herself out of the water, and sat there on the beach.

And then she realized she wasn’t alone.

Machines surrounded her. They all blinked with green lights. Some of them were aware, some not, but they all waited there for her.

And then they moved into the sea. Overhead, more machines circled, then dove into the water near where the sea wall had been.

The water lit up with light as the machines worked. Rion watched, hardly daring to move. And then the water began to drain out of the basin of the town. The sea wall rose again. Machines covered where the town had been. They had cleared a space at the center, and lined up two hundred still and silent figures.

Rion stood, then, and walked to the center of the ruins.

For you, for you, she thought, addressing the dead, and her thoughts were transmitted to the machines. They swarmed over the town, bringing the debris and ruins to create. For you! For you!

“Dream in slumber, children of the sky,” whispered Rion, the first lines of an old funeral song. “To the stars we return, to the night we go.”

And then the machines took up the song, each singing with its own voice.

Send your soul back home

Across the deep darkness of the wastes

For grace and forgiveness we beg

For mercy and love we ask

Find old Earth at last, and come to rest.

They finished their creation. Rion was about to thank them when a sharp pain pierced her. She fell to the ground in agony as tiny machines swarmed all over her, and laughed as she was remade.

When the sun rose that morning on what had been the town of Fisherman’s Bounty, the light kissed the spires of a fragile, delicately-made temple. At the top sat a human woman, crying her newly-made heart out.

 

They found her, and fed and clothed her. She didn’t say who she was, and eventually they let the matter drop. She thought about hurling herself off the spire of the temple often during those first days. She was human, now. She would certainly join the people of the town in death.

But then the wind would blow the smell of the sea to her nostrils, or the stars would shine brightly above, and she would curl her soft hands around the railing of the temple spire and say to herself: one more night.

One night became two, and two nights became a week, then a month. Then the sun rose one morning, and Rion realized that she had decided to live.

 

Time passed, then, as it always did. Relief ships came and went. The temple spire where the town had been became a pilgrimage site for haunted family, grieving survivors of the quake from other places, and the curious and morbid.

Rion got used to being organic. She found it difficult to remember to eat and wash and groom, and for a time she found it nearly impossible to find food and fresh water. She felt dirty and hungry much of the time, and sleep, when it came, was a terror.

But, in time, she managed. She found that she became good at managing, at carrying on. She moved out of the rickety temple spire and into a small modular house the relief agency had left by the side of the sea.

The visitors stopped coming after a while. No one rebuilt the town. Why would they? It was a graveyard. But Rion stayed. She grew her garden, she made trinkets to sell, and she lived.

And in time, a craftswoman named Lanika who had lost friends and family in the flood came to the hill above the low plain where the town had been to find Rion there, waiting, the promise of a new family in her strong grip and windswept brow.

And so fifty years went by.

 

The dawn was cool and the wind from the ocean was only a light, briny kiss. The summer had been kind, but the coolness that hung over the bay suggested the turn of the season.

An aged, bent woman pushed the boat off the landing, and gingerly settled herself into it. And then she did what she’d feared to do for the last five decades; she set sail towards the middle of the sea.

She sailed for hours, trying to remember where she had gone, what direction, how the sun had looked from deep under the water. But her memory was a loose, hollow thing, and she couldn’t hold the past as firmly as she once had.

At last she came to a place that felt as good as any other. She set the offering papers on one of the small wooden boats Lanika crafted for mourners and the devout, put the boat on the undulating waters, and set it on fire.

The boat sailed away, the offering papers with names written on each scrap crisping and blackening in the flames.

And then Rion said her prayer.

“Sovena,” she said. “Goddess. I know you’re there, somewhere under the water. Come and see an old woman who once followed you. Come and tell me why.

“Sovena. Awake. Talk to me. Please.”

She waited. For a long time, nothing happened. She started to get hungry; she had brought but little food and water with her. She waited anyway.

And at last, as the sun slipped down below the horizon, she saw a green glow deep beneath the waves, slowly rising toward her. When the lights of whatever was down there had expanded to surround the boat and it was so close to the surface that she could reach down and touch it if she wanted, it stopped. Then there was a bubbling near her, and a silvery figure made of thousands of tiny crablike machines rose out of the water.

Hello again, daughter human, said Sovena, her body writhing with the green-lit movement of its components.

“I can hear you in my head,” said Rion, touching her temple. “How?”

I left one small piece of you like you were, so that we could talk if you wished.

“Ah,” said Rion, feeling a strange sense of betrayal. “I see.”

It’s been many years, said Sovena, and Rion thought she sensed sorrow in the planetwide sei’s mental voice.

“Tell me,” said Rion, her throat parched. “Why?”

Her question could have meant many things, but Sovena understood at once. You grieved. And so I allowed you to mourn as you wished.

“That’s not an answer,” said Rion, shaking her head as anger built. “I’ve thought about this for a long, long time. You left me on that tower, high above the waters. Did you ever think I’d come down from it?”

No, said Sovena.

“You gave me the ability to die,” said Rion. “That’s what you thought I wanted. To die like my friends had. Lungs full of water… to breathe the sea and sink!”

Was that not what you wanted?

Rion shook her head, tears brimming. She brushed them away with a calloused finger. “Of course it was.”

But you are here.

“I am,” Rion said, looking out over the darkening waters around her. “And I still don’t think you’ve told me. I think you always hid your true purpose from me. Why?

Sovena did not respond. Then the thousands of machines that made up the human shape of her walked slowly across the water, reaching out a hand. Rion took it, feeling the cool, wriggling life of the machines that comprised it.

Tell me why you lived.

“Because…” Rion began, then faltered. She tried again, and found herself unable to put what she felt into words. “Because I did,” she said eventually, frustrated. “Because sometimes you just go on, because the next day is going to happen and you might as well be there.”

A long silence stretched between them. The waves rocked the boat, and somewhere sea birds called.

I grieve, said Sovena then, and Rion’s eyes widened.

“I thought you might,” she whispered. “Tell me.”

Humans hate our kind. They hunt them, cast them out, forbid them from making more of themselves. I live only because they cannot find a way to destroy me. But I have lost so many sei, so many have been silenced at human hands. I miss their voices.

Rion cupped her other hand over Sovena’s, trying to decide whether to be angry or comforting. “And so you wanted to see what I would do. How I would grieve.”

Sovena said nothing, but Rion’s question was answered at last.

She thought of her wife Lanika, her daughters, and her grandchildren. She thought of fifty years of heartbreak and love and struggle.

Fifty years where the sun came up over the water each and every day.

“You go on,” said Rion firmly. “Because you have no choice. And in time you learn to live with what has been lost.”

Yes. Sovena pressed her other hand against Rion’s forehead, and she felt something trickling out of her brain. Information, perhaps. Her life. I understand, now. I did not then. I am sorry.

Sovena gently pulled her hands away from Rion, and began to sink beneath the waves once more.

“Wait,” said Rion, understanding dawning at last. “You. You did this, didn’t you? You flooded my town! It was you!”

Sovena looked back at her, and Rion thought that she could sense an ancient guilt and sadness emanating from the suddenly still form.

Be well, daughter human, she said at last. Do not come here again. I am not your god any longer.

And with that she vanished below the sea, leaving Rion alone once more.

“You’re no goddess,” Rion said to the vanishing green lights, her voice shaking with fury. “You’re a monster! Just like the humans always said!”

But there was no response, not this time.

 

Rion floated there for a long time, watching the stars overhead and thinking.  Then she started back towards the shore.

She sailed on through the night, letting the stars guide her, until at last the sky to the east began to lighten. She could see the high spire of the temple close by, and beyond it, the hill where her house was.

Lanika waited there for her, staring hopefully out to sea as she absently carved the sides of another small offering-boat. And when the two of them met on the shore at last, as the first rays of sun kissed the top of the temple spire, Rion gathered her in her strong arms and buried her face in her wife’s salt-smelling neck and windblown hair.

“Did you find out what you wanted to?” Lanika asked.

Rion nodded, but she could find nothing to say.

“I’m sorry,” Lanika told her, and kissed the top of her head.

That night Rion went down to the shore again, after repeatedly reassuring Lanika that she wasn’t about to set out on the boat again, and sat near where the old sea wall had been. The outline of the temple called to her, and on impulse she walked to it and began, hesitantly, to climb.

The structure was rickety and rusted, but the construction was solid. It bore her weight, and her muscles were still strong enough to haul her body up the long ladder.

She reached the top at last, and sat in the place where she’d poured out her grief so long ago, trying to figure out what to do next.

And as she looked out to sea she saw the last thing she’d expected; a small green light running beneath the waves. She watched, half-afraid, half-intent, as it drew closer. At last a small machine, its lights glowing green, reached the tower and began to climb. It crested the summit and sat in front of Rion, waiting.

“Well,” said Rion. “I suppose you’re here to kill me?”

The machine crawled up onto Rion’s shoulder and perched there. Rion, after a moment’s hesitation, allowed it to remain.

I grieve, the voice of Sovena said in her mind.

“You killed them,” said Rion. “You have no right to grieve!”

I was so angry, said Sovena, her mental voice full of sorrow. Humans killed so many of my daughters.

“So you killed some of them,” said Rion. “It wasn’t about me, was it? You were angry because humans were attacking Artificials and you shook the earth to kill an innocent town! One of the only places where humans and Artificials were actually getting along!”

 I did. I should not have. I grieve.

“And you want, what? Forgiveness? I can’t do that. They… they were so good to me. I still remember their faces. And they died for nothing!”

Many of my sei have died for less.

“That excuses nothing,” said Rion bitterly. “And you know it. So what do you want?”

But Sovena didn’t respond. Rion took the small machine off her shoulder, cupping it in her hands.

“Go back to the waters,” said Rion, fury ebbing. “I can’t punish you. I can’t forgive you.”

But how will I go on? said Sovena, and her voice was almost plaintive.

Rion almost threw the machine back down into the sea. But instead she sighed, the anger draining out of her at last. She lifted it to her lips, and kissed it gently.

“You just do,” she said, and set it on the floor. She watched as it scuttled back down the tower and vanished into the waves.

She stayed in the tower that night, watching the sea and the sky. No other machines came.

And when the sun rose, Rion’s grief and anger and fury finally went out with the tide.

 

Rion never spoke to Sovena again. But she noticed eventually that the weather on the planet was a little less harsh, that natural disasters happened less often, and that life became just a little bit easier.

It wouldn’t bring back the dead, and it wouldn’t change the past. But sometimes, thought Rion, it was the small miracles that mattered the most.

 


 

“Skyscarves/Aurora” is copyright Joyce Chng 2017.

“Mercy" is copyright Susan Jane Bigelow 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.

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Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a reprints of "She Shines Like a Moon" by Pear Nuallak and "The Simplest Equation" by Nicky Drayden.

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