Episode #6: “And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness” by Lisa Nohealani Morton

May 15, 2015

AND OUT OF THE STRONG CAME FORTH SWEETNESS

by Lisa Nohealani Morton

After the Collapse and the Great Reboot, Lila moved into the city and opened a barbershop.

Great things were happening in the city: spaceports and condominiums and public works projects outlined their soon-to-be-erected monuments to great men and women and superior city living in holographic glows. Angels patrolled the sky, resplendent with metal wings that sparkled in the sun when they banked for a turn. Everyone seemed to be full of exciting plans for the future, but Lila came from a long line of barbers and her humble shop only seemed fitting. She called the shop The Lion’s Mane, because there were lions, once.

 

A full transcript appears under the cut.

[Intro music]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode Six for May 14th, 2015. I’m your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you.

Not a lot of news to give you this time. I’ve prioritized getting the podcast running so that you all have something to listen to each week, but there’s a lot of odds and ends that I hope I’ll be able to pick up soon.

Our story this week is “And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness” by Lisa Nohealani Morton.

Born and raised in Honolulu, Lisa Nohealani Morton lives in Washington, DC. By day she is a mild-mannered database wrangler, computer programmer, and all-around data geek, and by night she writes science fiction, fantasy, and combinations of the two. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as LightspeedDaily Science Fiction, and Fireside. She can be found on Twitter as @lnmorton.

And our reader this week is Marguerite Kenner, who is the host and editor at Cast of Wonders, a YA audio fiction podcast, which you can find at www.castofwonders.org.

 

AND OUT OF THE STRONG CAME FORTH SWEETNESS

by Lisa Nohealani Morton

 

After the Collapse and the Great Reboot, Lila moved into the city and opened a barbershop.

Great things were happening in the city: spaceports and condominiums and public works projects outlined their soon-to-be-erected monuments to great men and women and superior city living in holographic glows. Angels patrolled the sky, resplendent with metal wings that sparkled in the sun when they banked for a turn. Everyone seemed to be full of exciting plans for the future, but Lila came from a long line of barbers and her humble shop only seemed fitting. She called the shop The Lion’s Mane, because there were lions, once.

At first she only had a trickle of customers. After all, they had machines for what she did, now – cunning booths that let you try a hundred different cuts and styles on their screens until you settled on just the one for you, then produced it on your head in a flurry of laser-precise snicking. The booths even had presets for a wide selection of celebrities, for when you cared enough to imitate the very best. Only those too wealthy or old-fashioned to submit to the booths’ impersonality, or too poor to live in a neighborhood that had them, bothered with the time and expense of a human barber.

Soon enough, though, as she cut and styled the neighborhood’s tradesmen and women, her hands began to regain a little of the strength she had lost in her years of hiding and fleeing from one place after another, and she could feel the old magic returning. Word then spread, and her appointment app began to fill up with trims and foils and updos. If any of her customers noticed a certain lassitude filling them as she chattered and clipped, they chalked it up to the relaxing sensation of having their hair washed for them. And at any rate, it all grew back.

“It’s so much more tiring than the booth,” a middle-aged woman said to her companion, as she wrote a check for a modest amount (plus tip). She patted her hair with limp satisfaction. “But it’s worth every minute.”

“Come back soon,” Lila said cheerily.

When closing time came (early, because it was Sunday, and she had obligatory services to attend like everyone else), she swept the day’s clippings into black garbage bags and carried them into the cellar, where they joined the modest pile at the back. She smiled at the sight of them, lifting up onto her toes and bouncing, experimentally. Then she went out to do her errands before services.

 

On the way home, she made sure to stop and say hello to Wylie. Wylie was a homeless man who slept in the stoop three doors down from her own. He had been there as long as anyone could remember, and it was rumored that he’d had some kind of run-in with the Angels. Lila could feel the strength in him, both like and unlike her own, and knew him for a sorcerer or a magus of some sort. The Angels didn’t suffer witches; they made the witches suffer instead, and something had brought Wylie to their attention. Whatever they’d done to him, it hadn’t cut away his strength, but it had left him too little mind to do anything with it. Lila tried to make sure he had enough to eat and a warm place to sleep, because of that near-family feeling as much as her own fear of the Angels.

This morning Wylie was more active than usual, rocking back and forth and muttering to himself. She bent and placed a few coins in his cup.

He straightened suddenly at the rattle. “Witch-woman!” he shouted, and she flinched, looking around to see who might have heard before remembering that no one took any notice of Wylie.

“I’m not a witch,” she told him for the third or fourth time. None of her line were, even if the Angels wouldn’t appreciate the differences.

He glared at her with yellow-hazel eyes. “Flashes in the sky,” he muttered. Then he looked up and seemed to see her for the first time. “Lions around you,” he offered, in an almost conciliatory tone.

Lila gasped. She dreamed of lions, sometimes, but she’d never told anyone. “Lions? Do they…” Her voice dropped as she realized she was questioning a madman about her own dreams. “Do they…lie down for me?”

Wylie didn’t answer for a long time. “Lasers,” he said at last, looking sadly at her feet. He looked up at her face again, and his own face contorted with pain. “Laser eyes!” he shrieked, pedaling backwards with his feet until he hit the wall, then scrabbling on the ground with his hands. “Laser eyes! Laser – ”

Lila backed away slowly and hurried down the street. As she rounded the corner, she could still hear Wylie screaming, “Witch-woman! Laser eyes!”

 

A woman stood outside when she came up from stowing away the results of her errands in the cellar.

“I was hoping to get a haircut,” the woman said, her hand stealing up to pat at her shoulder-length red hair. She looked strong and uncertain in a pretty sort of way that left Lila completely tongue-tied. “Are you Lila?”

Lila came up the last few steps and closed the cellar doors, glancing behind herself nervously. “Yes,” she said, “but we closed at -” Her throat closed at the disappointed look the woman gave her, and she couldn’t continue.

A hand rested on her arm; she stared at it mutely, and swallowed. The woman smiled. “My name is Rebecca,” she said. “I’d like to cut it short, if you can help me.”

With an effort, Lila tore her eyes away from the hand on her wrist. It hadn’t budged. She cleared her throat and her gaze locked with amused brown eyes. “Why don’t I make some coffee and we’ll talk about it,” she said.

 

Coffee became regular and turned into brunch on Sundays. Lila started jumping at shadows, found herself distracted at key moments by mental images of the two of them necking on a bench in the park, and generally couldn’t get thoughts of Rebecca out of her head. Rebecca drove her mad with little touches – a hand brushing the hair out of Lila’s face, a head resting momentarily on her shoulder – but never quite crossed the line, and Lila didn’t know how to cross it herself. In the meantime she cut hair and grew strong. She never did cut Rebecca’s hair, though, no matter how many times Rebecca asked.

“Not now,” she said, glancing up at the skies. A glint of metal answered her look. “Your hair is so beautiful like this, why do you want to cut it?” Daring greatly, she reached out and stroked it, letting the ends run through her fingertips.

She closed her eyes when Rebecca said, yet again, “I just want to know when you’re going to work your magic on me.”

Never, she thought, and felt her lips smile, falsely.

“Sometime soon,” she said.

 

“You haven’t been here that long, have you? In the city.” Rebecca eyed her.

“What gave me away?” Lila kept her tone light, but questions about her past always made her tense. It wasn’t that far from “where did you…?” to “what did you…?” and “how are you able to…?” And not long after that usually came the pitchforks. She didn’t understand what got them so upset. It all grew back, after all, unlike what some of her other family members did. But in the end, it always came back to pitchforks.

Rebecca didn’t give any sign that she noticed Lila’s sudden tension. “Little things, mostly…like the way you flinched when I mentioned the Angels just now.”

She tried, unsuccessfully, to keep from flinching again. Thou shalt not suffer a witch… She forced a little laugh. “City people don’t find them a little frightening? The wings, the laser eyes, and, well, everything?”

“Why should we? The Angels protect our city,” Rebecca said, her chin coming up stubbornly.

“But what if they decide you’re what the city needs protecting against?”

Rebecca frowned. “What do you mean? The Angels defend against intruders.”

“I’ve heard things,” Lila said, struggling to keep her voice from shaking. “People rounded up, dragged out of their homes in the dead of night, things like that.”

“We defend the city from all threats,” Rebecca said steadily.

Lila, for her part, choked on her coffee.

Rebecca leapt to her feet and came around the kitchen table to pound on Lila’s back as she coughed. Her hand stayed on Lila’s back, warm and heavy, as Lila managed to get enough breath to wheeze out, “We?”

“I’m one.” Rebecca’s tone was casual, but there was an undercurrent of worry just beneath the surface of the words. Her hand lifted off Lila’s back for a moment, leaving the spot where it had lain cold. After a second it dropped down again, stroking almost defiantly over her shoulders.

Lila shivered and closed her eyes, desire and fear warring inside her. After a long moment, she felt in control enough of her voice to say, with false cheer, “So you don’t suffer witches, then?”

“Don’t be silly,” Rebecca laughed. “There’s no such thing as witches. It’s just an old superstition, from back before the Collapse, even. Besides,” her voice dropped, becoming something more intimate, caressing, “you must have cast some sort of spell on me, and I haven’t arrested you yet.” Her fingertips traced up the side of Lila’s neck and into her hair, making Lila shiver again.

Lila swallowed, hard. “Are you making a pass at me?” she managed to ask at last.

Rebecca laughed again, a sound that tinkled like the door to Lila’s shop. “Only because you didn’t make one about, oh, three weeks ago,” she said, bending to whisper the last words in Lila’s ear before dipping her head to kiss along Lila’s jawline to the corner of her mouth. She hovered there, nearly but not quite touching her lips to Lila’s, as if waiting for permission.

Lila turned her head sharply, bringing their mouths together. She heard Rebecca give a small, muffled chuckle before they were too busy kissing for anything else.

 

“Good morning,” Lila said to Wylie. He ignored her. She dropped some money in his cup, as usual.

“Flashy in the sunlight. Flash like wings.” He looked up at her. “You be careful, girl. She’s a flashy one.”

“What do you mean?” Lila asked.

He shook his head irritably. “Blood will out,” he said. “Her kind will be coming for me soon, mark my words.”

“Whose kind? Wylie, who’s coming for you?” Lila asked, knowing the answer.

“I give you my power willingly.” He gave her an oddly proud look, and then lapsed back into muttering. Lila backed away before he could start screaming again.

 

That night Lila dreamed of lions and Rebecca. She was surrounded by the beasts in a little clearing, and Rebecca was looking on, terrified. “Lila, come away,” she called. “You’ll get hurt.”

Lila ignored her and went on shearing the lions’ manes. Golden hair piled up in her lap as lion after lion lay down before her to be shorn, and she felt herself fill up with power until she was shifting in her seat, barely able to contain it all. As she finished with each lion, he moved a short distance away and went to sleep. Rebecca began to weep, quietly, but Lila went on ignoring her, although inside she was screaming with the need to go and comfort Rebecca.

The last lion approached, but instead of lying down to be shorn, he roared in Lila’s face. Rebecca screamed and the lion turned around, saw her, and crouched to spring. “No!” Lila screamed as it pounced, and lasers began spearing down out of the sky.

 

“Laser eyes and all, huh?” They were lying in Lila’s bed above the shop, letting the afternoon breeze dry the slickness of their lovemaking.

Rebecca snorted. “They’re not actually our eyes,” she said. “Though we do control them that way. They’re attached to our helmets, like this” – she wiggled her fingers at the sides of her head like antennae – “and the helmet tracks where we’re looking and fires if we squeeze our eyes the right way. Tons better than aiming by hand.”

“Plus it’s really scary, right?” Lila teased.

Rebecca nodded matter-of-factly. “Plus it scares people.”

 

When her basement was nearly full, she took to flying around the city at night. She took care to keep low and out of restricted airspaces. There were Angels everywhere in the skies these days, with metal wings that glinted in the moonlight. If you were a descendant of Lila’s line you did best to stay beneath their notice.

She flew over the zoo nearly every time, buzzing low over the empty lion habitat. She thought she’d like to try her hand at trimming a lion’s mane, and remembered the feel of it in her dreams, rough and strong under her scissors. She pictured the awe on the onlooker’s faces as she finished, and the lion went to sleep at her feet. But she never saw any lions.

 

“What did you want to be when you grew up?”

“An Angel,” Rebecca said promptly. “What about you?”

Lila thought for a long time. She supposed she could have been nearly anything. Her aunt Maxine cut off people’s destinies with their hair. She was the Queen of Las Vegas these days, and while she didn’t see many clients anymore, she would have had a spare dream or three tucked away for a favorite niece. But Lila had never wanted to be a princess, or rich, or famous. She just wanted to fly. “A barber,” she said at last. At least she didn’t have to keep each client’s hair separate, like Maxine did. What a bother.

Rebecca laughed delightedly, a tinkling sound that Lila thought she could listen to forever. “So we’re both living the dream, aren’t we?”

“For now,” Lila said pensively. That morning, when she’d gone past his usual corner, Wylie had been gone. Only his cup lay there on its side, the sole testament to the fact that he’d existed at all.

 

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” Rebecca said, pulling away from their comfortable Sunday afternoon embrace on the park bench. Not nearly so many old ladies sniffed as they passed as Lila had imagined. “You’ve been tense for days. What’s going on?”

Lila considered her words carefully before she spoke. She hadn’t been able to fly for a week now, because patrols of Angels had been over her house every time she considered it. The feeds didn’t suggest any reason why they might be in her neighborhood, other than the obvious, so she was lying low, not taking more than her hands absolutely demanded of her when she cut hair.

It hurt to give up flight, though, when she’d been so long grounded, and she resented the need. If only the Angels would see that she was essentially harmless. Her ultimate grandmother’s traits had bred true, and everything she cut grew back. But the city had its rules, and under them she was a witch, and not to be suffered.

“It’s nothing, really,” she said at last, when Rebecca gave her a quizzical look. “It’s just – my rent went up last week, and I’m not sure how everything will shake out.”

“That’s terrible!” Rebecca exclaimed. She opened her mouth to speak again, but stopped, an odd expression on her face. Lila could hear a faint buzzing as Rebecca dug a phone out of her purse. “Dammit – I wasn’t supposed to have to go in today -” she muttered.

Lila laughed bitterly. So today was the day that they’d come for her.

“Lila…?” Rebecca said uncertainly.

She forced herself to give a smile that she knew looked false. “It’s nothing. Go ahead – if you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.” She bared her teeth even wider in a parody of cheer. “We’ll catch up another time.”

Rebecca gave her a haunted look. “I never – I have to go,” she said urgently, holding up the phone. “They’ll be wondering -”

Lila barely had an instant to register Rebecca’s weight shifting and then her arms were full of her, warm mouth soft and slightly open on her lips. She kissed back, desperately, hardly able to believe that this was happening. Not so soon, she thought.

“I love you,” Rebecca said, slightly muffled against her mouth. “I’m sorry, I have to -” and then she was pulling back, and then she was gone, sprinting towards the nearest transit stop.

A few minutes later, Lila realized she was standing outside her own front door in a daze, one hand on her lips. She gave herself a shake and hurried into the shop.

 

She saw them coming an hour before they got to her shop. She had that much strength and more, these days. She didn’t run, though. She was done with running. She sat in her kitchen and waited for the Angels and their laser eyes.

A sudden banging came at her door, and she started. The Angels wouldn’t knock – they’d just come in. Thinking it was an unexpected customer, she went to warn them off. The words died on her lips when she saw Rebecca standing there.

It was the first time she’d ever seen Rebecca in her Angel suit. Her wings were resplendent in the sunlight, nearly blinding as they caught and reflected the beams. Lila could see at the sides of her helmet where the lasers would emerge to burn their way through obstacles – or wrongdoers. Lila supposed she was a wrongdoer. She took a deep breath, although she didn’t know what to say.

“We have to go,” Rebecca said. Her face was white and drawn. “Lila, they’re coming, we have to -”

It only took a second to regain her equilibrium. Not a wrongdoer after all. She smiled, and felt as though she might burst. “I’m staying here,” she said gently. “I’m tired of running.”

Rebecca stared at her. “But it’s not true,” she said. “You’re not a witch, they’ve just got it wrong. We have to run, until we can prove to them that you’re not.”

Gingerly, she reached out and took Rebecca’s hand. “Do you even know how much I love you?” she asked. Rebecca just looked confused. Lila could see the Angel formation approaching in the distance. “Follow me, if you can,” she said, and took off.

For a moment she flew alone; then she heard Rebecca’s burners kick in, and she caught up, calling Lila’s name.

They flew alongside each other in silence for a while, leaving the residential neighborhoods for the park. “It’s true, isn’t it,” Rebecca said after a few minutes. “You are a witch.” She didn’t peel away, though, and Lila took that as a good sign.

“We don’t call ourselves that,” she said. “It isn’t magic, exactly. It’s just a family tradition.”

She felt the air underneath her grow less supporting, and she dipped alarmingly. “Lila!” Rebecca shouted as she fell.

At the last second Lila managed to pull herself out of the dive, and she knew the Angels had found her basement, were dragging the garbage bags out and into the light, setting them afire with lasers that weren’t their eyes. “We have to land soon,” she called. Rebecca had pulled ahead, but somehow Lila knew that her dip was agreement and not fatigue. Soon they were landing in a clearing.

The first thing Lila did was take stock of her surroundings. The high fences gave her pause at first, but then she realized where they were – it was the empty lion cage at the zoo.

Only it wasn’t empty. A lion paced the confines of the cage, watching them with his yellow-hazel eyes.

“Lila,” Rebecca said with alarm. “I don’t have much more power -”

Lila bounced on her toes a little, catching the lion’s attention for a moment. Nothing happened. “I’ve got none,” Lila said, stepping forward to stand in front of Rebecca. She dipped one hand into her apron pocket, gripping her shears tightly, although she didn’t take them out. At least she’d make the beast pay for their lives.

The lion stalked closer, and then did something inconceivable: he lay down in front of her, quiescent.

Rebecca gasped behind her. Unbelieving, Lila bent slowly to run a hand through his mane. She felt a strength in the lion that was both unexpected and familiar. “Wylie?” she breathed. The lion turned his head slightly, rubbing his mane against her hand.

Was it even possible? Lila didn’t know. Wylie had had power, but this was unlike anything she’d ever heard of. No time, she thought. She turned back to Rebecca. “It’s OK,” she said. “I think it’s OK.”

The lion made a strange groaning sound in his throat, and nudged his nose at her apron pocket. Only long practice at hiding her emotions kept Lila still. The lion nosed her insistently until she removed the shears from her pocket, then nuzzled them.

She cast a wary eye at the sky. The glint of Angels’ wings was closing in. “Do you want a haircut?” she asked the lion, feeling inane. She ran her hand through his mane again. He was so strong…

At her words, the lion lay quiet again, turning his head so that she could easily reach his mane. Scarcely daring to breathe, she grasped the coarse hair in one hand, brought the shears forward, and began to clip.

Strength like nothing she had ever felt flooded her as the golden locks fell around the great head. She knew she could fly again, suddenly, but she kept on snipping until the mane lay on the ground and she hummed with strength.

“Lila,” Rebecca said again, uncertainly.

“Sssh,” Lila hushed her. “Come here.” She held out her hand, peremptorily, not paying any attention to the propriety of it. The glints of metal in the sky were getting closer. Rebecca took her hand, but still stood apart, so she drew her closer. “Come on, love.” She took Rebecca’s hand, placed it on the lion’s head. Rebecca gasped, but stroked the shorn head gently. “You poor thing,” she breathed.

“He gave me his power willingly,” Lila said softly, still awed by the lion’s gift. “It’s even stronger for that.” Holding tight to Rebecca’s hand, she summoned all her strength. “It’s time to go, love – are you ready?”

Rebecca smiled, and it nearly broke Lila’s heart. “Of course I am,” she said.

Together, they sprang into the air. Rebecca folded her useless wings with a shrug of her shoulders as they cleared the cage and headed west. Lila blinked and used her free hand to shade her eyes as they flew into the late afternoon sun. The first of the lasers speared the air just behind them.

“Stop immediately or you will be brought down,” a man’s voice called out behind them. “Rebecca Clifton, you are wanted for aiding and abetting the flight of a witch from God’s justice.”

“We’re not going fast enough,” Rebecca said.

“Stop immediately,” the voice repeated. “This is your final warning.”

Lila reached deep, pulling power for a new burst of speed. She wasn’t used to carrying two, and it took more than she thought it would.

“Hold on,” she shouted to Rebecca over the wind. She felt Rebecca squeeze her hand in response.

Behind them, the voice called, “Fire at will.” The lasers ripped through the air.

The most uncanny thing about the chase was its near-complete silence. Lila could hear her own harsh breathing over the howl of air rushing past them, but the lasers made no sound. Only the occasional flash of light betrayed their existence.

Suddenly, Rebecca gave a cry, and her hand slipped slightly in Lila’s.

“Rebecca!” Lila shouted. She clutched at Rebecca’s hand, but it continued to slip. Twisting desperately, she brought her other hand around, locking it on Rebecca’s wrist, holding her up.

They listed wildly in the air, losing speed with every second, and Lila fought to right them. She had no idea how badly Rebecca was hurt. Her chest ached with the need to stop and find out. Instead, she screwed her eyes shut, reaching as far as she could into her reserves. Energy coursed through her and they flew even faster. At last, Lila felt Rebecca flex her fingers against her own, in the first sign of life since she’d been hit.

Lila risked a glance over her shoulder. The Angels were falling behind, their lasers no longer in range. It wasn’t a moment too soon – she felt herself burning through the power the lion had gifted her too fast.

At last, they came to the outskirts of the city, and the Angels gave up the chase. Lila didn’t stop flying, although she did slow down a little.

“Rebecca,” she called over the wind. “Are you all right? Do you need to stop?”

“It’s OK,” Rebecca gasped after a second. “My armor deflected it, but it scared me.”

Lila felt a smile spread over her face. They were going to make it. “Where to, love?” she asked.

 

After the chase, and the flight, Lila and Rebecca settled in a new city, where there were no Angels, and opened a barbershop. Soon they had built up Lila’s  clientele, and Lila’s strength grew again.

They called the shop The Lion’s Mane, and when anyone asked why, Rebecca smiled and said, “There was a lion, once.”

END

 

Outro:

Marguerite: I really love this story, I’m really curious where the mythology comes from. The only hair-related strength thing I know is Sampson and it was hair on his head, not other people’s hair. You know, the idea of stealing power from someone’s physical self, hair, fingernails, etcetera, etcetera, is a classic witch trope, but I’ve never heard this take on it. Or the lions, either. Well done, Keffy. Talk to you soon.

Keffy: And thank you for your reading, Marguerite, and thanks to Lisa for allowing me to run this story on GlitterShip

“And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness” was first published inHellebore & Rue, Tales of Queer Women and Magic edited by Catherine Lundoff and JoSelle Vanderhooft, and was reprinted in Heiresses of Russ 2012: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction.

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.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll have another story for you on May 21st.

[Music plays out]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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