GlitterShip
Episode #71: “Barbara in the Frame” by Emmalia Harrington

Episode #71: “Barbara in the Frame” by Emmalia Harrington

April 18, 2019

Barbara in the Frame

by Emmalia Harrington

 

 

 

Bab’s stomach growled for the third time in five minutes. “You were right,” she said, pushing away from her desk, “It’s time for a break.”

Summer classes meant papers and tests smashed close together. There was hardly time to get enough sleep, let alone shop on a regular basis. The only food in her dorm room was an orange. Bab picked it up and walked to her dresser, where the portrait of Barbara, her grandfather’s great-aunt, sat.

 

Full story after the cut.

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 71 for April 15, 2019! This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is "Barbara in the Frame" by Emmalia Harrington read by

Before we get started, a reminder that there's still a Tiptree Honor Book sale going on for the GlitterShip Year One and Year Two anthologies on gumroad! Just go to gumroad.com/keffy and use the coupon code “tiptree,” that’s t-i-p-t-r-e-e to get the ebooks for $5 each.


Emmalia Harrington is a nonfiction writer, librarian and student with a deep love of speculative fiction. She hopes to have many more publications under her belt. In the meantime she continues to plug away at her novel and short stories. Her work has previously appeared in Cast of Wonders, FIYAH and is upcoming in other venues. She is a member of Broad Universe and volunteers with the Speculative Literature Foundation.

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali is a writer, editor and narrator.

Her publications include Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fiyah Magazine and others. Her fiction has been featured in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 12 edited by Jonathan Strahan and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Three edited by Neil Clarke.

You can hear her narrations at any of the four Escape Artists podcasts, Far Fetched Fables, and Strange Horizons.

She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com.


 

Barbara in the Frame

by Emmalia Harrington

 

 

 

Bab’s stomach growled for the third time in five minutes. “You were right,” she said, pushing away from her desk, “It’s time for a break.”

Summer classes meant papers and tests smashed close together. There was hardly time to get enough sleep, let alone shop on a regular basis. The only food in her dorm room was an orange. Bab picked it up and walked to her dresser, where the portrait of Barbara, her grandfather’s great-aunt, sat.

She put a segment in her mouth and gagged. “Sorry,” she said, spitting the fruit into her hand. Bab forced it down on the fifth attempt.

Aunt Barbara’s portrait frowned and glanced at the bookcase. The clothbound spine of Auntie’s handwritten cookbook stood out among the glossy college texts.

“You know it’s too early for the kitchen,” Bab kept her eyes on the shelves and away from her aunt. “Those girls will be there.”

Even looking away, Auntie’s disappointment made her wilt. Bab retreated to her desk to choke down the rest of her fruit. “I’m safer here,” she said as she wiped her hands. “It’s just you, me and a locked door.” She closed her eyes, imagining what diet could sustain her until the cafeteria opened for the autumn. Carrots lasted days without refrigeration, and if she soaked oatmeal overnight, it would be soft enough for breakfast.

Auntie’s book said food was more potent when shared. It had nothing like the recipes the other girls loved to make for their Soul Food Sundays. Placing succotash next to their cheese grits and fried okra was little better than exposing her whole self.

“Remember when I came home from the hospital?” Bab asked, turning back to her aunt. “I was so skinny Dad and Papa wouldn’t let me see you.” She gave a thin smile. “They thought seeing me would crack your frame.”

Her throat shrank at the memories. The bureaucracy at her old college insisted on using the name and gender on her birth certificate and stuck her in the boys’ dorms. Her roommates alternated between hitting on her and punching inches from her head when she rebuffed them. One loved spiking her food with hot sauce and worse. After a few weeks she couldn’t sip water without panicking; a full meal was impossible. 

“None of that will happen here.” Bab cracked her knuckles and tried to type as memories of the last year washed over her. This women’s college’s administration accepted Bab for who she was, name and all. She still felt safer keeping to herself.

That midnight, she entered the kitchen with cookies on her mind. She pulled out her baking sheet and spices before she came to her senses. Food never worked right in an unconsecrated space.

After several deep breaths, she was scrubbing the counter and attempting to meditate. Incense was not allowed on campus, but would have done wonders to erase the pork and garlic scent left over from the soul food dinner. Even when her dormmates weren’t there, they were reminding her how she wasn’t. Curvy figures to her still-underweight frame. Cornrows and other cute hairstyles while hers couldn’t grow longer than peach fuzz without breaking combs.

Bab bit her tongue. A clear mind was the best way to perform a ritual.

A pristine table and stovetop later, she was assembling Auntie’s happiness cookies. Rice flour provided security and cloves purified the mind and heart. Cinnamon brought comfort and strengthened the power of the other ingredients. Mix with water to create a dough, pop them in the oven for fifteen minutes and suffer from anticipation. Tidying right away added power to the food and gave them time to cool, even if the aroma of fresh cookies filled her mouth with drool.

Back in her room, there were things she needed to do before eating. She paid homage to Aunt Barbara, placing the nicest smelling piece by her picture frame. Next was covering her desk in a clean towel in lieu of a tablecloth and folding a pretty bandanna into a napkin. A duct tape flower decorated the space. After a prayer of thanks, she took her first bite.

At first, it tasted like a cracker in need of dip. As she chewed, spices spread through her mouth and into her nose. Tension fell from her shoulders and neck. The more she ate, the more her cookie took on an extra flavor she couldn’t describe. The closest she could get was “a hug from the whole family.”

When she checked on her aunt, Barbara’s cookie was gone, crumbs and all.

 

College was a never-ending battle between sleeping in and being on time for class. Bab had just enough time to pull on jeans and run to the Humanities Building, cursing herself with every step. Life was hard enough as is, she shouldn’t make it worse by writing papers after 2am.

By pinching the back of her hand, she stayed awake all through the lesson. The effect faded as she headed to the bathroom, where she fought not to drift off on the toilet.

She was washing up when a familiar voice went “I said ‘Hey!’” It was Jen, dormmate and Political Science/Africana Studies major, standing between her and the exit.

Bab stretched her lips into a smile. “Not working today?”

Jen laughed and shook her head. The beads tipping her braids tinkled as she moved. Bab wished she had a scarf to hide her own hair. “My internship with the Congresswoman is this afternoon. I’m between classes now.”

“I wouldn’t want to keep you,” Bab hoped the other girl didn’t notice the wobble in her voice.

“There’s time yet.” Jen headed for the water closets and paused. “You’re the reason the kitchen smelled so good this morning?”

Bab forgot how to breathe. Nodding had to do.

“Will you come next Sunday? The three of us can’t make dessert to save ourselves.” Without waiting for an answer, Jen entered a stall. The sliding lock sounded like a guillotine blade.

It was all Bab could do to run to her next seminar. Terror percolated inside her, tightening her throat until she couldn’t get a lungful. The Number Systems for School Teachers lecture passed in a haze of greying vision. At her next course, the professor took one look at her and ordered her to rest.

Back in her room, Bab spent an endless time curled on her bed, fighting for air. Clattering from the dresser pulled Bab out of herself enough to check the noise’s source. Auntie’s picture had fallen.

“Thanks,” she returned to the bed, hugging the portrait like a teddy bear. Her heart bumping against the frame’s glass made a double beat, Auntie’s pulse moving in time with hers. Bab’s airway relaxed, and her head cleared enough to grab last night’s cookies.

“What should I do?” she said after filling Auntie in on the bathroom encounter. “Dad and Papa couldn’t teach me black girl stuff. Jen and her friends have way more practice than me.” She took a bite. “If I change my mind, they’ll know something’s up, but if they get to know me, they’ll be just like my boy roommates and…” Aunt Barbara was pursing her lips.

“You haven’t heard Jen, Maria and Tanya speak. Their majors are going to help them ‘change the world.’” Bab stuck her chest out, superhero style.

Auntie raised her eyebrows.

“I know becoming a teacher’s important,” she sighed. “But tell that to people outside my department. Anyway, that’s not the main reason they’ll hate me.” She glanced at Auntie’s cookbook. “On Sundays the kitchen smells like those TV shows with sassy mothers who teach girls how to cook the ‘real way.’” She made finger quotes. “Nothing like what we eat at home. They’ll take one look at my food and treat me like my old roommates.” Her stomach twisted. “I don’t want to go to the hospital again.”

Finishing the cookie kept the worst throat swelling away. She still felt like barricading herself until graduation.

Light glinted from the portrait. When Bab took a closer look, Auntie met her eyes. Aunt Barbara resembled a professor, stern but caring. If photos could speak, Bab would be getting a speech on conquering fear.

The eye lecture finished with Auntie glancing in the direction of her book. Bab crossed the room, picked it up, and flipped through the dessert section. She doubted grapenut pudding would go over well. Apple-cheddar pie might work, but she wasn’t masochistic enough to make crust from scratch. Hermits seemed easy enough, but the next recipe stopped her cold.

Froggers. Above the recipe, Aunt Barbara had written a few notes about Lucretia Brown, the inventor. Bab read and reread the page before saying “They might like it.”

 

Summer lessons meant more homework and less time. Bab spent her free days camped in the library, reading hundreds of pages worth of assignments before trudging back to her room to bang out papers.

She peeked from her window before going outside. Maria, a Soul Food Sunday girl, wasn’t out running laps. Bab headed to the library, wiping sweat off her palms every couple of steps. If the Pre-Law/Economics student wasn’t marathoning, she was on work-study. Bab needed to find a secluded corner to avoid detection.

Maria was nowhere near the front desk when Bab checked out her classes’ reserve texts. She walked the opposite way from the book return cart, in case the girl was shelving. Bab spent the next two hours in the clear until it came time to make copies. The other girl was bent over loading paper into the machine, looking more voluptuous than Bab could hope to be.

Bab closed her eyes, praying to avoid a repeat of yesterday. “Hey.” Maybe starting the conversation would help.

The other girl yelped, whirling around and overbalancing. Bab rushed to steady her, half-wondering if she landed in a romantic comedy.

Maria’s face flushed redder than her shirt. “I didn’t see you.”

It was Bab’s turn to freeze. She studied the wall behind the other girl’s head as she tried to form words.

“Oh! You’re coming Sunday,” Maria sounded relieved. “We can talk then.” She stepped away from Bab and hurried to the front desk.

Two hours and five textbooks later, Bab emerged from the library, dazed. Motor memory led her to the campus coffee shop, where she ordered a red eye. She needed the caffeine to unfry her brain and conduct decent extracurricular research.

Maria was nowhere to be found when Bab walked to the reference librarian’s desk. There wasn’t too much on Lucretia Brown, but what existed came from places like the Smithsonian. The state historical society had a series of frogger recipes as well as official documents on Brown’s business. Bab’s coffee went cold as she pored over the papers.

 

“What do you think, Auntie?” Bab asked that night. “Those three might hate them because they have ‘frog’ in the name.”

Aunt Barbara didn’t react. Bab twisted her hands and continued. “I found a zillion ways to make froggers. Some I don’t have to buy a ton of new ingredients for. One is similar to your happiness cookies and isn’t very sweet. They’ll think I was lying about making dessert. Another’s fried, not baked. Those three…” She drifted off as Auntie wrinkled her nose.

“What do you think I should do?” Bab said, hoping Auntie wouldn’t give the obvious answer. She gave Bab a hard stare. “I can’t do that,” Bab said, backing away. “I’m safer not making friends.” She bumped into her bed.

Auntie looked miserable. Bab stroked the picture frame before returning to fretting. Silently this time.

Every recipe called for allspice, which promoted luck, success and health. It was also quite masculine. Bab wasn’t keen on infusing virility in herself or the others. Liquor united the feminine elements of water and earth, but she was too young to buy the rum froggers required. Bab prayed rum extract with its high alcohol content was an acceptable substitute. Auntie’s book had nothing to say about the power of molasses. Maybe it took after its sister sugar in terms of protection and enhancement. It could also be a soul food ingredient, though Bab was too afraid to check.

 

Spices were never cheap. Bab spent the next few days outside of class in the city. Ethnic enclaves had spices at better cost than supermarkets, and she was going to find the best prices. She always went on foot to channel bus fare into grocery cash. Her feet swelled until she could barely pull her shoes off at night, but she got all the seasonings she needed, plus extra rice flour.

By Saturday afternoon, Bab recovered enough to limp to the market nearest to the dorms. Butter was easy enough to find, but molasses and extract remained elusive, no matter how many times she wandered Aisle 5. Between her focus on the shelves and her still complaining legs, she didn’t notice company until she bumped into them.

Bab’s heart froze when she realized who she crashed into. Tanya was Jen and Maria’s buddy, a Business/Chemistry major and heir to a cosmetics firm that made products for black women. She might have been in jeans and ponytail, but her skin glowed and her hair smelled of jasmine and coconut oil.

“I’m sorry!” Bab couldn’t apologize fast enough. “I should have seen you-”

Tanya waved her hand. “I ran into you. Let me make up for it.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a wad of papers. “Have a coupon.”

Bab reached for the offering, doing her best not to brush Tanya’s fingers. She didn’t want to piss the girl off by mistake. There were discounts on powdered soup, meal replacement shakes, frozen dinners…

“Mind if I have this one?” Bab held up a voucher for oranges.

Tanya shrugged. “It’s not like I’ll get scurvy.”

Bab’s grin felt foreign on her mouth. “They’re also great for clearing the mind and cheering you up.”

The other girl raised an eyebrow, something Bab had yet to master. “Isn’t that what chocolate’s for?”

Bab’s cheeks burned, but before she could answer, Tanya said, “Maybe I’ll get some chocolate peanut butter this week. They taste good with strawberry Caffeine Bombs.” She waved goodbye. Bab couldn’t decide whether to stare at her, or her basket of white bread and neon drinks.

She resumed her search for the remaining ingredients, trying to imagine what Auntie would think of Tanya’s cuisine. There could be rage, terror, or horrific rage.

“Victory!” Bab announced later in her room. “Now I have everything for froggers.”

She picked up the portrait. “Will it be all right?” Auntie beamed. “Of course you think that, we’re family. I don’t have that advantage for tomorrow.”

Aunt Barbara looked Bab up and down before raising her chin.

Bab crossed her arms over her bust. “They’re prettier than I am, and I don’t think a padded bra would help.” Auntie’s eye narrowed.

“What’s worth knowing about me?” Her voice wobbled. Auntie glanced at the mirror. Bab stood in front of it for ages, trying to see what Aunt Barbara did. It never appeared. Whenever she turned away, Auntie nodded for Bab to return. Her throat ached from not shrieking her frustration.

Her reflection continued to show someone who did not have the looks, goals or background as the other black girls in the dorm. She had bits and pieces of other kin in her appearance, like Papa’s forehead, Grandfather’s nose, and Auntie’s love of frilly blouses. Bab straightened her back and assumed the formal pose of Auntie’s portrait. She still couldn’t find what Auntie saw, but her urge to scream faded. Maybe one of these years she’d be as awesome as Auntie believed.

 

If Bab was going to bake undisturbed, she was better off starting at midnight. The cookies wouldn’t be the freshest, but she half-remembered one recipe saying froggers grew tastier with time. Or she could scrub the kitchen for so long, Monday would roll by before she finished.

Giving the counter, sink and other surfaces the once-over wasn’t going to be enough if she wanted to win the trio’s favor. Bab scoured until her arms ached, shook them out, and started again. She filled her head with prayers for the cookies’ success and her continued safety. Whenever her mind wandered, she bit hard on her tongue.

Now that she thought about it, froggers might taste better if she rewashed the baking sheet. As she worried it with a sponge, she caught a glimpse of herself on the aluminum. She was nothing more than a blobby outline, but it was enough to remember the afternoon. Auntie thought she was worth something and Bab needed to act the part. She preheated the oven and pulled out the measuring cup.

Auntie’s recipe didn’t specify rice flour, but she could do with its protection. The spices that went into happiness cookies went into the mixing bowl, along with lucky nutmeg and ginger’s love. Macho allspice went in after all, to impart success.

Wet ingredients went into another bowl, before she combined everything to make a sticky dough. Nothing a bit of flour couldn’t fix. She rolled everything out with the side of an empty glass, used the mouth of the same cup to cut out froggers and stuck them in the oven.

Baking and cooling times stretched until every second felt like forever. Despite her best efforts, no amount of tidying would speed things. Sweat oozed from her face and armpits.

As soon as she could move the cookies without burning herself, Bab fled to her room. “I did it!” She hitched her shoulders in lieu of a fist pump. Dropping the froggers now would mean baking them later in front of an audience. Once they were safely on her desk, she fell to her knees.

“I thought of you as much as I could and how you want me to be.” On the floor, she couldn’t meet Auntie’s face. “I’m still not there, sorry.” Even through her jeans, the tiled floor felt so cool, but passing out here would mean a stiff back in the morning. “Just a minute.”

It took a few tries to lurch off the floor and back on her feet. Bab placed a frogger by Auntie’s picture. “What do you think?”

Between one blink and the next, the cookie vanished. Auntie’s smile threatened to push her cheeks off.

 

It was ten when Bab woke up, and eleven before she rolled out of bed. She only had a few hours, and laundry wouldn’t do itself. Typical for Sunday, all the machines were full, but one just had a few minutes left to run. She buried herself in a textbook, wondering if she could drop out of dinner, saying she had a test tomorrow. Auntie would be disappointed in her.

The afternoon vanished in a flurry of chores, grooming and actual homework reading. Bab shaved, brushed her hair until her arm ached, and smoothed out the wrinkles in one of her nicer shirts. Whenever her throat threatened to swell, she turned back to studying.

An hour before the event, Bab’s heart thrummed in her ears. She had one last thing to do before she was ready, but it meant going to the kitchen, possibly in front of everyone.

The room was filled with cell phone music and off-key singing. Tanya and Maria’s backs were to Bab as they chopped away. Jen hadn’t arrived. Bab was free to cover the table with a freshly washed sheet, though she ached to clap her hands over her ears. The file quality, song genre and the girls’ lack of skill made it Vogon poetry in human mouths. She placed her duct tape flower in the center of the table before retreating to gather the froggers.

When she returned, the pair was belting out what might have been “Baby Come to Me.” Bab prayed “4:33” was next on the playlist as she arranged cookies on her largest plate. She couldn’t do anything more artful than a pyramid of concentric circles, but it looked good enough for a magazine.

A shriek stole the last of her hearing. “Bab, when did you get here?”

Bab turned to Tanya, rubbing her ears. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”

Tanya laughed. “It’s either sing or put up with Maria’s preaching.”

“Soul food _isn’t_ vegan,” the third girl hissed.

“Aren’t you making peas and carrots?” Tanya said.

“Doesn’t count, I use butter,” Maria said.

“See what I mean?” Tanya said to Bab with a hammy sigh.

Bab’s smile shook around the edges. “Why not vegan?”

“Thank you!” Tanya abandoned her cutting board to crush Bab in a hug. “You understand.”

“Does that mean no cookies tonight?” Bab winced at her lack of subtlety. “They have dairy.”

“Of course cookies,” Tanya stepped back, giving her a hard look. “Cookies need butter, chicken need salt, and collard greens are better with orange juice instead of pork.”

“Blasphemy,” called a new voice from the doorway. Jen walked in, arms full of cans and equipment. “Smoked pork is food of the gods.”

As the trio rambled amongst themselves, tension fell from Bab’s shoulders. She set the table, making sure everything was picture perfect while the others worked by the stove and countertops. Aside from the odd comment thrown in her direction, they left her alone until their food was ready.

“What did you do?” Jen breathed as she took in Bab’s handiwork. “It looks like a real Sunday dinner now.”

“Ahem,” Tanya said, looking in the direction of the garbage bin. An empty tube of biscuit dough and gravy can sat on top of the trash.

“I was busy--” Jen started, but Maria cut her off.

“I forgot salt, gravy will help the peas and carrots.” She plopped her dish next to the duct tape flower. “Let’s start?”

No one commented on Bab sitting in the spot closest to the door. They were too busy saying things that threatened to stop her heart.

“How’s the food? Maria used fresh carrots this time.” Tanya wiggled her eyebrows. Maria, Bab’s bench partner, turned the color of rust.

The taste was on par with cafeteria food. Bab liked safety too much to say it aloud. “You’re right, it does go well with gravy.”

Maria stared at her plate as more blood rushed to her face.

“You know what would be great? Bacon.” Jen said. “Everything it touches turns to magic.”

Bab opened her mouth, closed it and lowered her head so no one could see her face. Auntie’s cookbook never limited power to a single ingredient. The other girls were too busy arguing which brand of cured meat was best to notice Bab.

It wasn’t long before the serving plates emptied. With competition out of the way, the froggers perfumed the table and made full stomachs grumble.

“Are these the cookies you made last week?” Jen asked.

Bab shook her head. “It’s a diff--” the trio snatched froggers for themselves and went to work reducing them to crumbs.

Jen’s first bite took out a third of her cookie. Her eyes widened. Tanya chewed slowly, lost in thought. Maria closed her eyes and clasped her hands like a church lady. “What did you say these were?”

“They’re molasses cookies.” Bab coughed, but her throat kept tingling. “Froggers.”

“Made with real frogs?” Tanya said, her mouth wry.

Bab took a deep breath and wished her lungs were bigger. “A woman named Lucretia Brown invented them.” All eyes were on her, none of them hateful. She looked at Tanya. “Lucretia was a black woman who ran an inn and made perfume and other things to sell.” To Jen and Maria she added “She was born in 1772 Massachusetts and owned property.”

No one spoke. They were too busy considering their froggers. Bab took one for herself and bit in deep. Spices spread through her mouth and seeped into her being. Her throat relaxed enough to ask “Maria, mind if I jog with you tomorrow?” before she realized it. A second mouthful of cookie kept panic at bay.

Maria’s ears darkened, but she said “I’d like that. Front door at eight A.M.? Wear good shoes.”

Bab took a second frogger, but when she reached for a third, all she found was an empty plate. Hearing the trio tease each other as they helped with cleanup almost made up for it. The lack of singing certainly did.

With four people helping, dishes and everything else were done in no time. Bab trailed the other girls out of the kitchen, itching to tell Aunt Barbara about tonight. It was too soon to tell how they’d take knowing Bab’s whole self, but for now they added warmth she couldn’t get with cookies alone.

END

 


 

"Barbara in the Frame” was originally published in FIYAH and is copyright Emmalia Harrington, 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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a new issue and a GlitterShip original, "Raders" by Nelson Stanley.

Episode #70: “The Girl With All The Ghosts” by Alex Yuschik

Episode #70: “The Girl With All The Ghosts” by Alex Yuschik

April 11, 2019

The Girl With All the Ghosts

by Alex Yuschik

 

It’s her second-to-last Friday night at Six Resplendent Suns Funeral Palace and House of the Dead, and Go-Eun is getting terrible reception on her cell.

Part of it’s because everyone’s on the network, but mostly it’s the ghosts, garden variety specters who unfold themselves into nine-story menaces, shadow-thin and barbed with carcinogens. Go-Eun would not have thought they could bring this many cell phone towers down running from fox mechs, but then again, she never thought she’d end up working the night shift at an inner-city funeral palace either.

 

Episode 70 is a GLITTERSHIP ORIGINAL and part of the Summer 2018 issue!

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

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 70 for April 11, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story and poem with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original by Alex Yuschik, "The Girl With All the Ghosts" and a poem, "Chrysalis" by Kendall Evans.

Before we get started, a reminder that there's still a Tiptree Honor Book sale going on for the GlitterShip Year One and Year Two anthologies on gumroad! Just go to gumroad.com/keffy and use the coupon code “tiptree,” that’s t-i-p-t-r-e-e to get the ebooks for $5 each.

Just as an aside, I apologize for all—[Finn barking loudly] Finn. I apologize for the dog noises—[More loud barking]—dog noises—[barking]—in this episode. If I put them outside of my room, they cry. If I put them in the backyard, they bark at the neighbor. And if I let them in my room [dog rustling and grumble barks] they don't understand why I'm not paying attention to them.

 

 


Stories and poems by Kendall Evans have appeared in most of the major SF and fantasy magazines, including Asimov’s, Analog, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium Amazing Stories, Dreams & Nightmares, Weird Tales, Alien Worlds, Nebula Award Showcase, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.  His novel in verse, The Rings of Ganymede, and his novella Bring me the Head of Philip K. Dick’s Simulacrum are both available from Alban Lake Books.

 


Chrysalis

by Kendall Evans

 

 

I.

The newborn starship
Bathed in sunlight & starlight
Dries its gossamer wings
Preparing for the far reach
To the stars

II.

Festive-colored ribbons
Spiral.  You and I
Dance around the Maypole
At dusk
Circling
Eying one another
While we discuss
Darwinian logic

III.

Recombinant forms emerge
From interstellar dust
Mutate & shift & merge
Ruled by the coldest equations
And analogs of lust

IV.

I have watched
Exotic robots hatch
From ovoid metal shells
& Peck at nuts & bolts
Upon my parquet floors    

 


And our story is "The Girl With All the Ghosts" by Alex Yuschik, read by Faylita Hicks.

Alex Yuschik is a PhD candidate in Mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh. Besides math and writing, Alex enjoys traveling, hanging out in as many cat cafes as humanly possible, and waking up before dawn to lift heavy things and then put them back down. Their short fiction has also appeared in Escape Pod and Luna Station Quarterly.

Faylita Hicks (pronouns: she/her/they) is a black queer writer. She was a finalist in the 2018 PEN American Writing for Justice Fellowship and the 2018 Cosmonauts Avenue Annual Poetry Prize. Her debut book, HoodWitch, is forthcoming October 2019 with Acre Books.

Her poetry and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Slate, Huffington Post, POETRY magazine, Kweli Journal, The Rumpus, The Cincinnati Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Lunch Ticket, Matador Review, Glass Poetry, Pidgeonholes, Yes Poetry, American Poetry Journal, Ink and Nebula and others.

She received her MFA in creative writing from Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency program and lives in San Marcos, Texas. She is at work on a memoir.


 

The Girl With All the Ghosts

by Alex Yuschik

 

It’s her second-to-last Friday night at Six Resplendent Suns Funeral Palace and House of the Dead, and Go-Eun is getting terrible reception on her cell.

Part of it’s because everyone’s on the network, but mostly it’s the ghosts, garden variety specters who unfold themselves into nine-story menaces, shadow-thin and barbed with carcinogens. Go-Eun would not have thought they could bring this many cell phone towers down running from fox mechs, but then again, she never thought she’d end up working the night shift at an inner-city funeral palace either.

“Load.” Go-Eun taps her phone screen again.

Honestly, most of it’s not so bad, the shelves of urns and silent hallways, the familiar and calculated snake of her path through the dim ossuary. The thirtieth through fiftieth floors make up her soon-to-be-former territory, and the clamor of light pollution keeps anywhere from getting too dark. Neapolitan swipes of pink-gold-cyan bleed through from neon nightclub signs and adorn the shelves in glimmer and flash, and aisle lights frame every niche in respectful and seemingly infinite ellipses, dot-dot-dots sealing in the city’s sleeping dead.

Before one gets into the mechanics of proof, it is necessary to state a few definitions that will be useful later.

The building is a magpie. Listen, and it carries noises up its sides, slipping them into windows like jewels: revelers from a nearby bar stumble loudly through the ladder of numbers in Baskin Robbins 31, a TGX-Mauve/F stretches its tiger mech joints in a hiss of pneumatics, and a couple breaks up or makes love or both too near an open window somewhere in the apartment complex next door.

The building is covetous. Go-Eun never needed the Six Resplendent Suns employee pamphlet to know this, but it’s listed there as well.

She taps her phone again. There’s an email from her boss, asking her to reconsider quitting. Go-Eun deletes it. That’s what breaking up is, another number that won’t reply, one more open question that their system of deduction isn’t complete enough to answer.

It’s exactly why Jae-Yeon won’t text her back either.

Finally, the page she’s been trying to refresh comes up.

YES SO AWESOME I can’t believe they kissed!!! YOU ARE A LITERAL GODDESS UPDATE SOON

“There was no edge without an end, and if this was their end, he thought, then so be it.” holy shit be still my brigadier-loving heart

THIS FIC I AM RUINED best Brigie/SJ ever

One thousand reviews. She high-fives an urn. For an eighty thousand word slash masterpiece she’s written in the small pauses of her life, not too shabby.

And it’s almost enough to make her forget about the ghosts, the hallways that stretch on and on and on, the now-empty shelves where relatives used to leave flowers and other small offerings, until Six Resplendent Suns and every other Numerical Family in charge of an ossuary mandated mourning training. Most of the time it’s beautiful and silent, a second, stiller universe to mirror the riot outside.

Sometimes it’s not.

Go-Eun bows and enters, bows and leaves, thumb-typing a drabble about Seo-Joon waking up as she heads to FF, the twice-cursed floor, those two unspoken hungers grating against each other like teeth in gears that don’t line up. It’s a pity her new job at the construction company probably won’t let her be on her phone as much. She’s almost finished with the scene when she pauses.

In the middle of the rows, a pale shape, unsteady, picks itself up from the wreckage of an urn.

Most ghosts understand they’re dead. The body gives its two weeks’ notice to the soul and the connection is gradually severed, a proof ending in a neat white box, QED, or even that infuriating the rest is left as an exercise for the reader. Only the violent ends do this: the wide gaze of the war dead, the slow unraveling of conditional and consequent, and then a soft and tremulous oh.

It’s a young man, maybe Go-Eun’s age, maybe a little more. He’s wearing pilot’s fatigues, but before her mind can race to pin a mech animal to him, he spots her.

The first time she saw a ghost that was not in a training video, pamphlet, or out of control and tall as a building being subdued by a mech, it was in the F2nd bathroom and something kept playing with her hair. A girl dressed in white rose behind her in the mirror like a dark star, cracked lips daring Go-Eun to look at me.

The boy’s not a tiger pilot— people like Jae-Yeon stand out miles away. Not tortoise or dragon mech either.

No, with reflexes that fast, eyes that dark, the boy’s got to have been a fox pilot. Most of them specify banishment immediately after cremation in their wills because they don’t want to become the things they destroy. Maybe this one didn’t. Maybe he is exactly as unlucky as spending his afterlife on floor FF implies he must be.

“You,” Go-Eun says, fighting the tremble out of her voice, “are not my problem anymore. I’m quitting.”

She must not be very convincing, because the boy with rogue eyes and mouth full of knives smiles at her and vanishes.

 

Before the ghost war, Go-Eun had two parents, a younger sister, and a house full of art.

The father and sister vanished quickly, the art slowly. We can’t afford the rent anymore, her mother said after the funerals, but we need another month before we can move. The paintings were traded for old cabbage and limp fish, and their empty house became emptier. This was before Go-Eun took the Six Resplendent Suns job, before houses of the dead and funeral palaces knew they’d need people like Go-Eun.

She enters in danger and leaves in safety. That’s why it pays so well. She will return when the rest of the ossuary guards are too scared to tread floors with F’s on them instead of numbers, and she will toss her badge and heavy keys to the dawn attendants for thirteen more days, her phone’s LED screen turning her into one more bright skull fading with the stars.

When Go-Eun gets back to the Faintly Glimmering apartments, it is dawn and all the ghosts are quiet. She slugs down a strawberry milk in the kitchen as her mother gives her the once-over.

“If I had spectral poisoning you’d see the teeth, Mom,” Go-Eun says. “Less than two weeks to go.”

Star Gilded Hye-Kyeong deposits a kiss on her forehead. “I just want you to be safe, sweetheart.”

Her mother works urban restoration projects. They never pay well, not as well as a job at a house of the dead, especially not Go-Eun’s. But when her mom’s team got additional funding from the city, Go-Eun turned in her letter of resignation. She’s not going to be able to fight off ghosts forever, and there are safer places to work.

Go-Eun shucks the milk into the garbage and finishes a reply to a reader with an elaborate winking face. “I just feel like I’m giving up by leaving. Like I could help, but I’m choosing to run instead.”

The water runs a few moments longer than it needs to.

“We all do, honey. It’s part of living in this city.” Her mother is a skyscraper swaying against its ballast, the heavy weight above her head the only thing holding her still. This is all an exercise of translation, a change of variables between coordinate systems. When Hye-Kyeong says, “Six Resplendent Suns called earlier about your severance package.” what she means is: “This isn’t a game that you win.”

Go-Eun says, “I’ll call them back.”

What she means is: “Then why do I want to keep playing?”

And she hates it, that she has to walk herself calmly through brushing her teeth and changing into an oversized t-shirt, that her hands tremble as she sheet masks before bed, feeling like a damp ghost and smelling like cherry blossoms. She writes the next chapter in her house slippers before barricading herself under the covers, hating that she can’t keep the shivers down once she shuts the blinds.

It always takes until her phone runs out of battery, when she runs out of ideas for fics or her hands lack the strength to swipe out stories in which Seo-Joon and his mysterious Brigadier end up together and happy. In less than two weeks she won’t have to fall asleep with her face stuck to a notebook, with the last thing she sees ink in a pen waiting to be used, another form of hunger.

Sometimes positive statements require proof by contradiction. The tenuous claim: Go-Eun is not afraid. To show this, suppose Go-Eun is afraid.

Because secretly, her mother is right.

 

It is now possible to prove some elementary results.

Suppose there is a ghost loose in an ossuary and it is your job to catch them. You may take as long as you need to solve this problem or until you retire or are injured or someone notices. Points will be taken off if you are poisoned, and you are under no circumstances allowed to die. Here is a pencil. Go.

The next day, Go-Eun doesn’t pack food. She gets a kids’ meal because it’s cheap and there’s a fast food place right next to the house of the dead. Also, she likes kids’ meals. They have Havoc Party toys in them now, and she would not be half the super-fan she is if she didn’t at least collect Seo-Joon and the Brigadier.

On the way into work, she waves to the tiger mechs patrolling the building, another TGX-Mauve/F and four TGX-Granite/III’s, each of them five stories tall, high enough she can’t see who’s piloting them.

Before Jae-Yeon hated her, they’d met after their shifts, one girl leaving her ghosts and the other her mech. Jae-Yeon had propped a hand on her pilot’s belt and asked cavalierly if she could buy Go-Eun a tea sometime. This led to more teas.

She can reverse-outline their romance into a spindly ladder of deduction: that pivotal universal introduction to the final existential elimination. Maybe that’s why she excels at this job, she’s just that good at destroying things. She makes it through the start of the F floors, pausing on FF.

Something cold and cruel passes over the back of her neck.

A fact nestled in an absurdity: the hollow or sometimes shaded box at the end of proofs is colloquially referred to as the mathematician’s tombstone.

Go-Eun’s hand tightens around her phone, but no one’s there. FF remains quiet in its combinatorial worship, ancestors suspended in waystations to sainthood. This is what Six Resplendent Suns promises, that this mess with skyscraper-tall specters is only temporary, that you too can assure your relatives’ continued divinity with prompt monthly rent payments and the proper clearances.

By the time she’s halfway through the floor, she finishes chapter revisions. Her next update will be a break-up scene, because happiness is one of the lesser hungers of the body: it can’t last if you want the story to keep going. She knew this before Jae-Yeon, but it still surprised her.

Footsteps follow her along aisles, wards and sparse mourning cards moved slightly out of place. This is how it starts, the small disturbances.

She opens the kids’ meal, half in defiance, half because she’s hungry, and says her quiet prayer: in all things, I will outlast you.

The fries are tinier than she remembered and this injustice truly must be some small god laughing at her, but at least the chicken nuggets are good. When Go-Eun outlined her plan to collect all the Havoc Party toys this morning, her mother said she had an unsophisticated palate. Go-Eun said of course she does, that’s why she writes amateur fiction. It’s not about taste; it’s about devotion.

Something clatters behind her.

It always comes for you from your shadow, the history you trail behind you in a string of dark theorems, assumptions, and implications. This you may use without proof.

Go-Eun whips around just as the ghost lunges.

The kids’ meal hits the ground and his teeth go right through her jacket, though the protective vest she’s wearing keeps them from breaking skin.

What he doesn’t expect is the glimmer and the fade, the axiomatic crawl that shivers through him when her fist connects with the side of his face, two planes intersecting in a line of ice. He staggers back into the aisle, toxins dripping from his teeth like he’s been drinking machine oil, and watches her.

The rips aren’t that bad, not this time. She brushes herself off, picks up her things, and pretends she doesn’t see his eyes following her hands as she assembles the toy from the kids’ meal. He pretends he’s not still shivering from her strike.

She sews the jacket up in the staff room before she goes home, a hand hesitating over the emergency intercom. One call to the banishment department and he’s toast. This ghost isn’t her problem anymore. She’s already handed in the paperwork. Doesn’t her last week and a half on the job deserve to be easy?

And she and the ghost must both be good liars, because he follows her for the rest of her shifts and she’s halfway home before she realizes she’s gotten the Brigadier.

 

In proof, there is a technique called induction. The reader is shown how to handle an initial case and then a successor case; in short, given a set of objects and a desired property, a mathematician shows the property holds for the first object and then every object thereafter. The beauty of induction is that it traps the infinite within the finite. That is to say, as long as the structure of your proof is solid, you have created something that can run forever.

During her last week, Go-Eun gets more kids’ meals and Havoc Party toys, but not Seo-Joon. Six Resplendent Suns drags its feet on termination paperwork and night after night she contemplates the emergency intercom and night after night never presses it.

Because probably, it’ll be fine. The floor wards get more powerful as you descend— that is, the strength of the binding spells increases like pressure under an ocean. The pamphlet promises that escape is crushingly improbable, and surely the security of knowing one’s relative will never become the latest shade shredded by fox mechs is worth the exorbitant fees and more.

The first time Go-Eun sees the ghost on F3 she nearly drops her kids’ meal. It’s not supposed to happen this fast. He’s not supposed to figure out how to get out this fast.

This time he doesn’t attack. Instead, he tracks her hand as she pulls the toy out of the box, eyes so dark it’s almost impossible to tell the pupil from the iris. It takes her a moment to notice she’s finally gotten Seo-Joon.

Go-Eun pauses for a moment, then holds the figurine out. “Truce?”

The ghost wrinkles his nose. Yeah, she’s speaking extremely casually, but he also tried to bite her the last time, so whatever.

Go-Eun shrugs and moves to put Seo-Joon in her bag because damn it, she worked hard for this, but the ghost steps forward in a rush of frost and darkness. He spreads his hands as though to say, sorry, sorry, I know it’s all a terrible inconvenience, but yes, I do want the toy.

Warily, she hands it over. When the weight transfers from her hands to his, Seo-Joon’s thereness shifts. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t done this before, but it becomes easier to talk about the figurine in a different domain than its native one. The ghost runs a hand along Seo-Joon’s face, then smiles in a pull of noxious lips and serrated teeth.

Once, Jae-Yeon was bitten on duty. They kept her overnight in pilots’ medical, and Go-Eun sat outside the double doors to the clean rooms, overhearing every whisper about toxicity and keen bile until a surgeon told her Jae-Yeon was stable. In the weeks following her release there were phosphorous dreams, a winding purple-black scar, and Jae-Yeon murmuring some nights it feels like I’m split between existences and whenever I meet you in all the other elsewheres you terrify me.

They fell apart slowly, a universe screaming back to its point of origin.

“You have a name?” Go-Eun asks the ghost.

He shrugs, but when they meander back to FF he kicks something out from below a shelf. It’s a shard of an urn, bearing in red the words Iridescently Codifying Byeong-Dal.

“Cool.”

Byeong-Dal shakes his head like this is the least cool thing he’s heard since he died, but he keeps turning the figure over and over, like it’s something that matters. He doesn’t look like your typical Havoc Party fan, but who knows. A tiger mech moves abruptly outside, and when Go-Eun looks back at him, Byeong-Dal’s gone.

Go-Eun does not see him again that night, and no matter how much fanfic she writes on her shift, when her coworkers congratulate her during her retirement party her stomach aches. Not one of them mentions her ghost or even knows how quickly this is becoming a problem.

 

“What if quitting doesn’t make me happy?”

Her mother cooks in abrupt clatters of pots and utensils as they hash out the same argument, a tired deduction ad infinitum. The assumptions: Go-Eun came home late. Go-Eun always arrives on time except in emergencies. Conclusion: something must have gone wrong (obviously it has, there is a ghost loose and no one’s doing anything about it).

“You have no weapons, no guarantees in that horrible building except your extreme good luck.” Her mother calmly checks the black bean noodles and clicks her tongue. “How could staying in a death trap make you happy?”

“Sorry.” Go-Eun just wants to have dinner, not trot this out over side dishes. It’s her last stupid night at work, and when her phone buzzes with a new fanfic review she’s not sure if she’s disappointed or relieved Six Resplendent Suns hasn’t discovered her ghost yet. Idly, she clicks it.

“I keep trying to tell you, you can’t have everything. Or you can ignore me because you’re too busy with your phone.” Her mother slams the refrigerator door and one of Go-Eun’s Havoc Party toys on the window sill falls into the sink. Hye-Kyeong plucks it out and swears. “Gods, you only did love useless things.”

Go-Eun grabs her coat and leaves.

When college still mattered, she was tutored by a grad student at SKY University who studied formal logic. They had bone-straight hair which they always wore in a ponytail and an impressive collection of blazers. In tutoring breaks, they told Go-Eun about their research.

Do you know that mathematics is incomplete? They asked, balancing a mechanical pencil on a slender finger. It’s a major theorem: our system is a poor oracle, unable to divine the truth or falsehood of everything you hand it. Set theory is not adequate; it cannot answer its own most basic questions.

It’s like when you finally realize how big the domain of discourse is, or how truly large infinity is, when you try to hold the universe in your head and something always escapes. Her tutor laughed. Yeah, that’s why I don’t study set theory anymore. I nearly drank myself to death.

Why? Go-Eun said. It’s just math.

They set their chin on their hand, spun the pencil with hooded eyes, and asked, is it?

She’s half an hour too early for her shift so she stops by the fast food place for another kids’ meal (with extra fries, because they are tiny as shit). Go-Eun scrolls through her friends’ latest pictures as she climbs the ossuary stairs, and because apparently the universe is out to torture her today, Jae-Yeon’s changed her profile pic to her and her latest girlfriend, a mech repair specialist. The two of them sport identical necklaces, both winking with opposite eyes at the camera so they look a bit like a mirror in love with itself.

Go-Eun has taken this same kind of photo with her other ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends, and all those pictures inhabit the same folder on her laptop, timelines extinguished.

“Why does everything always fall apart in real life?” She fumes at Byeong-Dal on F0 and throws some fries at the ghost. He catches and eats them. “Like, why can’t I have it all?”

He frowns, then opens his mouth like he’s about to say something when a fox mech careens too close to the building. There is a bright burst of ghastly light and neither the skyscraper’s steel skeleton nor its ballast prevent them from shaking when the explosion’s aftershocks hit them.

Something shatters.

Byeong-Dal’s eyes go wide a second before he vanishes, and Go-Eun pulls the distress signal just as the door to the stairs opens.

Of all the heirs, it had to be Six Resplendent Suns Tae-Ha. He’s in his late twenties, tall and lithe in a way that makes him look like a living shadow, and his pocket square remains soldier-straight even with a bite-proof vest covering most of it. “Star-Gilded Go-Eun.” He nods. “I’m sorry to hand you a catastrophe on your last day, but here we are. Good hunting.”

He takes off, greatcoat flapping. Go-Eun chases after him. “Mr. Six Resplendent Suns, if that blast really did knock over an urn then this is too dangerous for you to be here alone, even in a vest.”

Tae-Ha smiles in a cutthroat kind of calculus. “Your concern is touching. Rest assured, I’m taking no risks with the chairman watching me this closely. And I am by no means alone.”

Three banishers walk out of the stairwell in their pressed suits, guns drawn.

“Banishers?” Go-Eun asks. “Already?”

She is not adequate; she cannot answer her own most basic questions.

“The threat is too great not to address immediately.” Tae-Ha coughs to cover up her too-casual address. “Please continue to exceed my expectations.”

They head off. Go-Eun rushes down to Floor 37 where a dark shape waits for her.

“Thank gods, you have to hide.” She’s shaking. “Banishers are here and they think you’re the escapee. Well, not like you’re not, but—”

Except the shape isn’t Byeong-Dal, not the tall and silent fox pilot with sad eyes, but someone else made mad and hungry by quiescence and the veils of captivity.

It smiles in a line of dripping teeth.

Go-Eun runs for the stairs. The banishers are floors above her, so the wards will have to do. Her shoes skid down the stair treads, past 36 and 35, all the way to 32 where she slams the door shut, out of breath.

For safety reasons, the employee pamphlet says, there is only one set of exits to each floor. It’s easier to close off that way, minimize the damage. The building is covetous, after all.

A black puddle seeps under the door.

This is what she’s most afraid of: that at the end of the story she, the banishers, and the ghosts are all the same shade of monster, something that talked to itself long enough to think it was a god.

And then someone comes between her and the wild ghost: a familiar shape that punches through the newcomer with eerie precision, like he’s used to doing this in a mechanical body several stories taller and more vulpine.

Howling, the ghost sinks its teeth into Byeong-Dal’s shoulder. His translucent skin darkens and he shakes, but he does not stop his sure and ponderous deconstruction of the rogue, not until it turns back into ash. He presents the remains to Go-Eun, weary but triumphant, his expression not unlike hers as she handed him plastic figurines all those nights before.

“Thank you.” Go-Eun laughs, eyes bright. “But we have to—”

The stairwell door opens. “Found it!” A woman in a black suit levels her weapon at Byeong-Dal. “Firing in three.”

Byeong-Dal rises, venomous and horrible, between Go-Eun and the banishers.

“No, don’t!” Go-Eun yells.

But the banisher fires in a loud crack of sound, Go-Eun’s ears ring, and there’s nothing but smoke rising, dead air, and Jae-Yeon asking the same question all Go-Eun’s significant others have asked her, angrily, in tears, over texts or face-to-face: why don’t you want me anymore?

On the ossuary floor is a small marble about the size of her thumbnail. It is cold when she touches it and looks wrong, too glassy or too opaque. There is no more Byeong-Dal. When Go-Eun holds the marble up to the hallway light, something in it flashes, like the hazy, indecipherable smile of a fox, like a toy, like the shell of an exploded sun.

Like a boy, half-there, half-not.

That has been her curse, her prayer, her promise: to outlast them all. But by all the gods, she is so damn sick of being miserable.

For once it should end like it does in her stories.

Her shadow trembles. She holds the tiny clouded sphere up to her bombed-out eyes, and before anyone can see what she’s doing, swallows it.

 

Six Resplendent Suns Tae-Ha helps her up, compliments her skill in neutralizing one of the escapees, and offers her a new job as a banisher with an impressive litany of perks, a raise, and better hours. The three banishers look smug. Go-Eun excuses herself, declines the new job, and heads to the roof of another desiccated building, so awash in floodlights it makes her shadow look like an asterisk, a little glyph with her at the center.

There is one more line coming off it than usual.

“Well, I didn’t think this would happen. But since you’re here, uh,” Go-Eun says, bowing low to the figure on the newest spine of her many-legged star, “I, uh, hope you don’t mind hanging around a while.”

Byeong-Dal stands a shadow’s length from her and holds his hands up to the night sky, tracing their wild, starry city with his fingers. He laughs, and for the first time since she met him his teeth are completely normal. “I thought I’d never see this again.”

As she walks home, Go-Eun hums and pulls out her phone to work on a new fic. Halfway through a chapter, she stops. A result is only valid if it can be repeated. And if she can rescue one ghost—

She begins an email to Tae-Ha titled About That Banishing Job and laughs when she sends it. She is the last hidden library, a catalogue of ghosts, and when she hits Save, nothing is lost.

This completes the induction. The rest of the proof is left as an exercise for the reader.

 


“Chrysalis” is copyright Kendall Evans 2019.

“The Girl With All the Ghosts” is copyright Alex Yuschik 2019.

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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of “Barbara in the Frame” by Emmalia Harrington.

Episode #69: “Ratcatcher” by Amy Griswold

Episode #69: “Ratcatcher” by Amy Griswold

April 4, 2019

Ratcatcher

by Amy Griswold

 

 

 

1918, over Portsmouth

The souls in the trap writhed and keened their displeasure as Xavier picked up the shattergun. “Don’t fuss,” he scolded them as he turned on the weapon and adjusted his goggles, shifting the earpieces so that the souls’ racket penetrated less piercingly through the bones behind his ears. “It’s nothing to do with you.”

The two airships were docked already, a woman airman unfastening safety ropes from the gangplank propped between them to allow Xavier to cross. The trap rocked with a vibration that owed nothing to the swaying airships, and Xavier lifted it and tucked it firmly under his arm. He felt the soul imprisoned in his own chest stir, a straining reaction that made him stop for a moment to catch his breath.

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 69 for April 4th, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Our story today is "Ratcatcher" by Amy Griswold. 

Before we get to the story, GlitterShip has recently had some exciting news. Our second anthology, GlitterShip Year Two was listed as a Tiptree Award Honor Book for 2018. We're very happy that the Tiptree jury enjoyed the book, and owe a great debt to all the authors who have allowed us to publish their work. You can find out more about the Tiptree Award and check out the winner Gabriela Damian Miravete's story, "They Will Dream in the Garden" at tiptree.org.

You can also pick up copies of the GlitterShip Year One and Year Two anthologies on gumroad at gumroad.com/keffy for $5 each. Just use the coupon code "tiptree," that's t-i-p-t-r-e-e.

Amy Griswold is the author of the interactive novels The Eagle’s Heir and Stronghold (with Jo Graham), published by Choice of Games, as well as the gay fantasy/mystery novels Death by Silver and A Death at the Dionysus Club (with Melissa Scott). Her short fiction has been published in markets including F&SF and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination.

Robin G has been an entertainment manager, entertainer/vocalist, theatrical producer and writer of several pantomimes including a UV version of Pinocchio that toured 20 theaters in the UK. He was first alerted to the supernatural in a strange dream sequence while in the Royal Air Force that placed him at a future event. The knowledge that a part of our brain exists in another reality has shown him many unusual incidents of the sixth sense. He writes both fiction and non-fiction which includes Jim Long — space agent, a series of stand-alone stories in 7 books, including one as a radio episodic creation, and the non-fiction book Magical theory of life—discusses our life, history, and its aftermath in non-religious spiritual terms.

 

 

Ratcatcher

by Amy Griswold

 

 

 

1918, over Portsmouth

The souls in the trap writhed and keened their displeasure as Xavier picked up the shattergun. “Don’t fuss,” he scolded them as he turned on the weapon and adjusted his goggles, shifting the earpieces so that the souls’ racket penetrated less piercingly through the bones behind his ears. “It’s nothing to do with you.”

The two airships were docked already, a woman airman unfastening safety ropes from the gangplank propped between them to allow Xavier to cross. The trap rocked with a vibration that owed nothing to the swaying airships, and Xavier lifted it and tucked it firmly under his arm. He felt the soul imprisoned in his own chest stir, a straining reaction that made him stop for a moment to catch his breath.

“If you’re ready, sir,” the airman said, and Xavier forced himself into motion. He nodded crisply and strode out onto the gangplank with the ease of long years spent aboard ships, his gloved hand just brushing the rail. He scrambled down from the other end and got out of the way of airmen rushing to disengage the gangplank and close the hatch before the two ships could batter at each other too dangerously in the rising wind.

The Coriolanus’s captain strode toward him, and Xavier winced as he recognized a familiar face. He set the trap down, both to get it farther away from the casing that housed the soul in his chest, and to give himself a moment to banish all envy from his expression.

He straightened with a smile. “Hedrick. I see you landed on your feet after that muddle over Calais.”

“I’ve got a knee that tells me the weather now,” Hedrick said, scrubbing at his not-entirely-regulation stubble of ginger beard. “They told me you’d been grounded.”

“I’m still attached to the extraction service,” Xavier said. “As a civilian now.”

Hedrick’s eyes flickered to the odd lines of Xavier’s coat front, and then back up to his face without a change of expression. He’d always been good at keeping a straight face at cards. “We could use the help. We had a knock-down drag-out with the Huns a few weeks back—just shy of six weeks, I make it. Heavy casualties on both sides, and some of them damned reluctant to move on.”

“Only six weeks? You hardly need me. Chances are they’ll still depart on their own.”

“You haven’t seen the latest orders that came down, then. We’re supposed to call in the ratcatchers at the first sight of ghosts. Not acceptable on a well-run ship, don’t you know.”

“You’re also meant to shave,” Xavier said. “It’s not like you to comply with every absurd directive that comes down the pike.” He couldn’t help reveling in the freedom to talk that way, one of the few rewards of his enforced change in career.

“These are Colonel Morrow’s orders.”

“Mmm.” That put a different face on it, or might. Morrow supervised the ratcatchers, civilian and military, and his technical brilliance had saved Xavier’s life when he lost his soul. That said, it was entirely in character for Morrow to go on a tear about efficiency without regard for how much work it made for anyone else.

“Besides, there’s more to it,” Hedrick said as the Coriolanus drifted free of the Exeter. “We’ve been having damned bad luck of late. Pins slipping out of a gangplank just as one of the lads stepped on it—he just missed ending up a smear on the landscape. More engine malfunctions than you can name, and some of them dangerous. If the Coriolanus weren’t in such good repair to start with, she’d have burned twice over in the last month.”

“You suspect sabotage.”

“Some of the Jerries had their boots on our deck when they bit it. We tossed the bodies over the side, but still I’m not entirely easy in my mind.”

“Next time, don’t,” Xavier said. “The soul’s more likely to stay in the corpse if it’s well treated. Ill handling breaks the ties faster.” He directed his gaze out the porthole window of the gondola rather than at Hedrick’s face. “You weren’t using shatterguns?”

“We haven’t got them mounted. No budget for them in our grade, I hear. And just as well if you ask me. They give me the cold chills.” Hedrick glanced at the shattergun under Xavier’s arm.

“A necessity in my profession,” he said.

“Better you than me.”

It was a backhanded enough kind of sympathy that Xavier didn’t cringe away from it. “Any particular area of the ship most affected?”

“The crew quarters, I think—I’ve had men stirring up their whole deck with screaming nightmares, and not the usual nervous cases.”

“At least it’s a place to start.”

He followed Hedrick through the narrow corridors of the airship’s gondola to the cramped berthing area that housed the enlisted men. Only the night watch was there and sleeping, young men squeezed into claustrophobically low bunks, some with their knees tucked up to keep their feet from dangling off the end. A panel of canvas made a half-hearted divider screening the row of women’s bunks from the men’s view.

Xavier set down his gear and stretched out on the nearest unoccupied bunk. “Leave me alone, now, and let me work.”

“Funny kind of work,” Hedrick said, raising an eyebrow at his recumbent form.

“‘They also serve who only stand and wait,’” Xavier said, and tried not to sound bitter. “Now get out.” He closed his eyes at the sound of Hedrick’s retreating footsteps and schooled his breathing into the steady rhythm that would send him swiftly into a doze. The soul in his chest shifted once, making him break his rhythmic breathing with a gasping cough, but he spread an entreating hand across its cage and it quieted.

He knew he was dreaming when he saw Thomas walk into the room and sit down on the foot of the bed. For a moment the more rational part of his mind protested that it was impossible to sit down on the foot of an airship bunk, but his dreaming mind obligingly replaced the scene with a four-poster bed lit by streaming sunshine.

Thomas’s hair was limned with gold, his eyes bright and laughing. “Haven’t you got work to do?” He was dressed in the uniform he died in, but as Xavier took his hand, it faded like smoke to reveal freckled skin.

“I do,” Xavier said. “I’m most remiss.” He raised his chin unrepentantly, and Thomas grappled for him like a wrestler. He was aware of reality as soon as they touched, the sensation of Thomas’s soul writhing through Xavier’s body painfully erotic but nothing remotely like physical sex.

He heard himself gasp, unsure whether he’d actually made a sound the sleeping airmen could hear, and realized how genuinely unwise this was. He pushed Thomas away, and the other man’s soul retreated, dissolving into curling smoke, and then retreated too far, tugging away in unstoppable reflex. It felt like someone was pulling a rib out of his chest.

“Thomas—”

The smoke resolved itself for a moment into the golden-haired man, his face contorted. “I’m trying to stop,” he said. His shape exploded into smoke again, and twisted almost free of Xavier’s chest, leaving Xavier unable to draw a breath for long enough that his vision darkened. Then Thomas was back, sprawled against Xavier’s side as if in the exhausted aftermath of love.

“Christ, that hurt,” Thomas said. “Like trying to hold onto a hot iron.”

“You know it will only get worse.”

“And so what’s the point in talking about it?” The image of Thomas appeared to stand, now pressed and correct in his airman’s uniform, looking around the dim barracks-room. His soul lay quiet in Xavier’s chest, a weight that eased its lingering ache. “We still have a job to do.”

“So we do.”

“There have been ghosts here,” Thomas said. “Two, I think. I’d look in the engine room if I were you.” He turned, frowning. “And don’t lay aside your gun. At least one of them is in a dangerous mood.”

 

In the engine room, the thumping of the steam engines pulsed through Xavier’s bones, and the heat coming off every surface beat against his skin. Through his goggles he could see wisps of what looked like steam but were really the lingering traces of the dead, men and women who had died in the recent battle. Not ghosts but something more like bloodstains.

He turned a circle, looking for a more solid form, and settled the goggles’ earpieces more firmly against the bones behind his ears. A hundred sounds were familiar, the cacophony of airship travel he’d long ago learned to drown out. Under them was the faintest of animal noises, a tuneless moaning. He took a step toward it, and then another.

A rattling on the other side of the engine room distracted him, and he turned. A connecting rod was flailing free, its pin out and the mechanism it served shuddering with the interrupted rhythm. He crossed the deck swiftly, keeping his head lifted as if watching the loose rod, but his eyes fixed on the deck.

He caught the movement and stopped short as a hatch swung open in front of him, steam rising from the gaping space he had been intended to step into.

“A creditable try,” he said. “Pity I’ve seen these tricks before.”

He raised his shattergun, keeping his expression calm despite his awareness of his danger. A ghost could only move small objects, but here there might be a hundred small objects that could release steam or poison fumes or heavy weights if moved.

“Why don’t you go in the trap like a good lad?” he said, putting the trap down on a section of deck that he made sure was solid. “This is the end of the road, you know.”

Silence greeted him. He turned a slow circle, raising the shattergun.

“You’re dead,” he said. “Stone cold dead. Your corpse is sinking to the bottom of the Channel or spattered across some unfortunate farmer’s hayfield. All that remains for you is to let go your precarious grip on this plane of existence and go to whatever awaits you.” There was no answer. “Or I can shoot you with this shattergun and destroy your soul. Would you like that better?”

He heard the moaning again, rising to a ragged wail like a child’s crying. He took cautious steps toward it, aware of every rattle in the machinery around him.

A wisp of smoke was curled up in a niche between the steel curves of two large engines, wailing forlornly. He raised the shattergun, and the smoke solidified into a dark-haired shape in an English airman’s uniform. It was a woman, and when she raised her head, he could see from the jagged ruin of one side of her skull that she’d met her end in an abrupt collision with some blunt object.

“Don’t shoot me!”

He lowered the shattergun cautiously. “I would far rather not.”

“I don’t want to be dead,” she said. “I’m still here, I’m still here—”

“You died weeks ago,” Xavier said. Six weeks ago, assuming she was a casualty of the most recent skirmish. “Your body is miles away and decomposing. You are dead, and the sooner you grasp that, the sooner you can move on.”

“I won’t go in that thing.”

“You will,” Xavier said briskly, knowing gentleness would be no mercy now. “The trap will confine you painlessly while I remove you from the site of your death.” He hefted the shattergun, but left the safety on. “Or I destroy your soul. That, I promise you, will hurt.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said, lifting a stubborn chin. It took stubbornness to be a woman in the service.

“There’s been sabotage.”

“It wasn’t me.”

“No, I don’t think it was,” he said. He was watching her face, and he saw her eyes move past him, fixing on something behind his shoulder. She cried out, but he was already moving, and threw himself to the deck as a blast of superheated steam singed the back of his neck. Steam swam in front of his eyes, and something darker within it: a second ghost, and one that was up to no good.

He pushed himself up to one elbow and reached out with his gloved hand, thrusting its mesh of wiring into the yielding substance of the new ghost and then clenching his fist. The ghost was a chill weight as he began drawing his hand back toward the trap. He had expected it to be too clever to be caught so easily.

There was no resistance. He understood why a moment too late as the ghost rushed toward him, and then into him, reaching for Xavier’s heart. Clever after all, he had time to think, before the sensation of being hollowed out from the inside sent him plunging into shellshock-vivid memory, a predictable and yet unavoidable descent—

 

—Xavier ducked under the web of grappling lines that bound the two ships together and fired between them, flattening himself against the remains of the breached gondola wall to reload. Through his goggles, he could see souls curling up out of the bodies that littered the deck, drifting free or swirling in snakelike muddled circles as if seeking a way back in. The wind screamed.

He reached down with his gloved hand to yank the nearest circling soul firmly free from its body, and held it flailing in his fist. He found his trap with the other hand, or what remained of it, shattered fragments. He shoved the soul at them anyway, but it wouldn’t go in.

“Never mind the sodding dead!” someone shouted, firing from beside him, but the only certainty he had in a world full of flying debris and blood was that the souls needed to come out of the corpses, extracted like rotten teeth. He raised his head, and saw the shattergun pointed at him from across the narrow gap between the ships.

He flung himself to one side, and the blast caught him on the side of the chest rather than between the eyes. I’m still here, he thought, I’m still here, and then saw the curling smoke trailing away from his chest like a ragged cloud torn apart by the wind. His breath caught in his chest, and then stopped, like something he’d forgotten how to do a long time ago.

He didn’t breathe, but he still moved, crushing the soul in his fist against his chest, reaching out mechanically for the remains of the trap, pressing it to his chest, then pressing harder. Harder, until the glass cut through skin and flesh, trapping the soul coiled half in, half out of his chest. Harder, until he bled, and breathed—

 

—He gasped for breath, and he was in the hospital ward, with Morrow sitting in a straight-backed chair at the foot of the bed, a look of interest on his stubbled face. “You know, it never occurred to me to try what you did. Not that it would have worked for long.”

Xavier looked down, and saw an alien construction of glass and metal wrapped around his chest, smoke swirling in its depths and an electric buzz humming against his skin. He breathed, trying not to gasp like a drowning swimmer. Each breath came more predictably than the last, but not more easily.

“I built you a more stable housing for your passenger,” Morrow said. “Tell me, what is it like? Having someone else’s soul animating your body?” He leaned forward eagerly, chin rested on his fist.

“Who is he?”

“Corporal Thomas Carlisle. Now unfortunately deceased. His service record is brief and unenlightening. You haven’t answered my question.”

“I’m alive,” Xavier said, but he had seen his soul shattered. Had felt himself dying. He reached up with one shaky hand and spread his fingers across the warm metal. Someone else was there as well, holding on to the inside of his chest as if wrapping desperate fingers around his ribs, determined not to let go—

 

His head snapped back and he tasted blood as Thomas’s shadowy form erupted from his chest, thrusting the invading ghost out with him and holding it at arm’s length.

“Possessive, are you?” Xavier managed, reaching blindly for the trap and finding it thankfully intact. He maneuvered it closer to where the ghost was writhing in Thomas’s grip, trying to ignore the warning ache in his chest.

“You know it.”

The German ghost was solid enough now for Xavier to see his uniform and the grim set of his jaw as he fought Thomas’s grasp. Xavier’s thumb slipped clumsily off the trap’s trigger the first time he tried it, and then slipped again. The increasing pain was becoming a problem. Finally he hit it solidly, and watched in satisfaction as the ghost became a rushing fog that swirled into the trap and disappeared.

His vision blurred, and he realized he hadn’t breathed in some time. He spread one hand in warning, and felt the soul rush back into his chest, its grip tightening, but still not as firm as it had been even a few hours before. Xavier spread his hand across the soul cage, a habitual gesture that still brought irrational comfort. Not much time. But enough to finish the business at hand.

“Your turn, now,” he said to the English airman’s ghost, as lightly as he could manage. “Don’t dawdle, we haven’t got all day.”

She slipped down from her perch and approached the trap, hanging back a healthy distance from its electric hum. “What happens after this?”

“There’s an air base in Manchester where we’ll empty the traps. It’s far enough from where you died that you’ll have no trouble moving on.” And considerable trouble doing anything else, with no death energies to give her a grip on the world of the living.

“I mean...what happens after that? Where do we go?”

“I’m not going to find out,” he said.

She met his eyes, something like sympathy kindling in her expression, bearable from someone already dead. “I am sorry,” she said, and then bolted away from the trap.

He already had his gloved hand out to catch her. “So am I,” he said, and crammed her ghost into the mouth of the trap, thumbing the switch to suck the swirl of angry fog inside.

Footsteps clattered on the metal decking, and an engineer stuck his head in, probably in answer to alarms from whatever essential piece of machinery the German ghost had employed in his attempt to kill Xavier. “What’s all this?”

“Tell the captain I’ve taken care of his pest problem,” Xavier said. “And that he can drop me in Manchester. I’m going to sleep until then.”

 

The moment he closed his eyes he could feel Thomas lying beside him, as if they were ordinary lovers indulging in a late morning lie-in.

“You could be wrong,” Thomas said.

“I think my clock keeps good time.” Even in the dream, he could feel the ache in his chest, his hands and feet cold.

“I hear Gottlieb thinks that the shattergun doesn’t really destroy the soul, just keeps it from being able to manifest as a ghost.”

“Gottlieb is a German.”

“Does that make him wrong?”

“Morrow thinks his work is fundamentally unsound.”

“For Christ’s sake.”

“Morrow has occasionally been wrong,” Xavier said, but he couldn’t believe the world was fundamentally merciful enough for any part of him to survive when the link between Thomas’s soul and his body rotted away. They would put him in the ground, and that would be the end.

“How long?” Thomas asked finally, his voice more even.

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

“You’re the ratcatcher. I was just an ordinary aviator. Blow those men down for king and country, yes, sir.” Thomas saluted jauntily, rolling away from Xavier in bed to do it. The ache in his chest worsened, and he ignored it.

“A day or two, I should think. Time enough to report to Morrow and offload these poor sods.”

“Maybe Morrow can do something.”

“We’ve discussed the problem. He hasn’t been optimistic.” Morrow’s soul cage had lasted for months longer than Xavier’s own bloody improvisation would have, but it was still failing, the link between Thomas’s soul and its electric cage fraying faster every hour.

“A day or two,” Thomas said.

“Yes.” Xavier was certain it wouldn’t be two. He slept until Hedrick shook his bunk to wake him.

“Manchester,” Hedrick said. “Come on, sleeping beauty.”

“It’s a harder job than you’d think,” Xavier said, following Hedrick up to the observation deck to debark. “Or would you like me to put them back and you can have a go at rounding them up? You were right, by the way. One of them was a Jerry, and up to considerable mischief.”

“I suppose that’s patriotic, by his lights,” Hedrick said. “But I’ll tell you this, if I die up here, I’ll go quiet as a little lamb. No more fighting for me. I’ve had my share and that’s a fact.” He clapped Xavier on the shoulder. “Next time I’m in Manchester I’ll stand you a drink.”

“Have one for me,” Xavier said, and stepped onto the waiting gangplank.

 

The air base towered above Manchester, an iron tree twenty stories high with jutting piers and thrumming generators that made the floor gratings shudder under Xavier’s feet. Morrow met Xavier on the pier.

“Good news,” he said, falling in beside Xavier as he walked. “I think I have a solution to your problem.”

“You said it was insoluble.” Hope rose unbidden in his throat, a hard knot that he swallowed down ruthlessly.

“I’ve worked out a technical solution. A side application, actually, of another process. Not that way,” he said, as Xavier turned toward the end of the pier, eager now to release the souls in his care and free himself to find out what Morrow had concocted. “Bring the trap down with you.”

Xavier frowned, but followed Morrow to the lift cage. It clattered downward, descending through a hell of industrial machinery past levels that bustled with airmen and engineers down to the quieter cargo bays. The lift stopped on the ground floor, generally deserted except when shipments of raw materials were brought in by truck. Bare electric lights swayed overhead, casting harsh shadows.

“You have no idea how much we all owe you,” Morrow said as Xavier followed him out of the lift. “What we’ve learned about how to maintain a ghost’s link to physical objects—it’s invaluable.”

“You mean physical objects like my body,” Xavier said. His chest was aching again, Thomas’s soul stirring uneasily in its housing. He wished Morrow would get on with it and either offer up whatever fix might help him or stop holding out hope.

“Incidentally. Not most importantly.” Morrow had been leading him through the shadowy bay toward the heavy bulks of vehicles, and stopped now with his hand caressing the hard lines of a tank. Its turret swiveled toward Xavier, and he froze in momentary alarm. “There’s no danger, its guns aren’t loaded.”

“I didn’t think these things were radio-controlled.”

“They’re not.” Morrow drew a bulky pistol from his coat pocket that Xavier realized after a moment’s examination was a shattergun, though a smaller model than any he’d seen before. “Can’t you see it?”

Thomas’s soul was writhing in alarm, and Xavier squinted at the tank, adjusting his goggles. When he turned them up to maximum sensitivity he could see the curl of smoke at the tank’s heart, swirling in tight unhappy circles and then battering itself against the walls of an invisible cage before returning to its circling.

“It’s haunted,” Xavier said.

“Inhabited,” Morrow said. “By a ghost with the power to control it without risking any living men.” His eyes were alight. “The next step in modern warfare.”

“Its occupant doesn’t seem very pleased.”

“They never like being in a trap. Surely you’ve learned that as a ratcatcher. There’s a certain discomfort involved in being bound into something other than a living body.”

By discomfort Morrow generally meant excruciating pain. “How long can you keep it there?”

“Indefinitely. Which provides a solution to your own problem, by the way.” He extracted a glowing puzzle-box of glass and metal from his pocket, something like the central cage within the maze of glass and wiring on Xavier’s chest. “But this is the real promise of it. There won’t be any more need for our men to leave the service just because they’re dead. No more excuses for desertion.”

“I wouldn’t call it desertion.”

“Retreating from the field,” Morrow said. “Going to their rest. Well, no one’s resting until this war is over.” The glitter in his eyes suggested that it had been long since he slept himself.

“As long as it’s voluntary.”

“Of course it’s voluntary.” Morrow brandished the shattergun and bared his teeth. “So far they’ve all preferred it to the alternative.”

“I see,” Xavier said. He was very aware of the weight of the trap under his arm, the souls within it only dimly aware, but moving restlessly in response to Thomas’s agitation. “One of these is a German,” he said. “Not good material for your purposes.”

“There’s an easy cure for that,” Morrow said, thumbing the safety off the shattergun.

“Of course.” He wondered how long it would take for the German high command to hear about this, and how fast the order would go out to destroy any English soul found haunting German battlefields. It couldn’t take much longer for Gottlieb or someone equally clever on the other side to replicate Morrow’s process and fill the battlefields with machines powered by the unquiet dead.

His vision swam, and he gritted his teeth in mingled panic and frustration—not yet—before he realized that Thomas was pulling him down into a waking dream, appearing at his side overlaid on the shimmering forms of tanks.

“The man in that tank was a gunnery sergeant,” Thomas said. “A good soldier. He’s in incredible pain, and Morrow threatens him with the shattergun whenever he makes a credible effort to tear himself free.”

Xavier spread his hands in acknowledgement, but did not reply. Morrow was in no state to hear objections to his plan, and if he objected too strongly, Morrow had the life-saving soul cage to withhold from him. The hope Morrow had kindled beat in his throat, a desperate desire to live at any cost. All he had to do was accept.

“We’re dead men anyway,” Thomas said.

“So we are,” Xavier said, and opened the trap.

The ghosts erupted out of the trap and streamed as one toward Morrow. Thomas followed them, striding forward, and Xavier staggered back, his chest burning.

“Xavier,” Morrow said, disapproving but not afraid yet.

“So clumsy of me,” Xavier said. He managed to take a breath, and then couldn’t remember how to take another one.

Morrow pointed the shattergun at Thomas’s chest, and Xavier strained to move, but his limbs felt filled with lead. Morrow pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t fire. The safety was engaged again, and clearly stuck fast as Morrow struggled to disengage it.

Xavier could make out some individual forms within the roiling mass of souls, the faces of dead men and women, all painfully young. The soul of the woman airman hung back, reaching into the tank with both hands, tugging the ghost inside free of its metal bulk.

Other ghostly hands were on the shattergun, twisting it in Morrow’s hand, pressing its muzzle toward his temple. Morrow tugged at the gun, and then fought for it, still looking more annoyed than afraid.

For a moment Xavier met Thomas’s eyes. He knew he should shake his head, forbid murder, but he took refuge in the weariness that made shaking his head a Herculean task.

The ghosts were moaning, now, a rising wail of single-minded purpose. Even without goggles, Morrow looked as if he could hear them now, or perhaps he only felt their chill as they swarmed him, writhing against his skin.

“You’re all dead men,” Morrow said.

There was acceptance in their voices. Their grip on this world was loosening, the pull of whatever lay beyond growing stronger by the second. Now, he mouthed in choking silence, and he saw Thomas nod, his eyes smiling. It seemed all right then to let his eyes close. He heard, rather than saw, the safety catch on the shattergun give, and as if from a long way away he heard it fire.

 

Time passed, and went on passing. He could feel hands inside his chest, holding desperately tight to his ribs, familiar and yet strange. The metal grating of the floor was cold against his cheek. He lifted his head.

Hurry, someone urged. Xavier tried to stand, and failed. He crawled instead, inching his way toward Morrow’s still form. Morrow’s chest was moving shallowly, but his stare was sightless.

He felt across the grating until he found the soul cage that had fallen from Morrow’s hand. It felt warm even through his glove. He tore open Morrow’s collar and pressed it to Morrow’s skin. Wires sprouted from it, burrowing into bare flesh. He felt a surge of envy, and the presence within him writhed in denial and anger, holding on tighter.

Morrow opened his eyes. “Maybe not such dead men,” he said, the voice Morrow’s but the tone teasing and familiar.

“Morrow?”

“I expect I had better be.”

“If you’re in there ...” Xavier spread his hand across the soul cage on his chest.

“Airman Anna Lambert,” the woman airman said, as close as if she were sitting on his lap, not a position he’d ever been in with a woman. He could feel her amusement at that thought. “You’d better get used to it, since I don’t want to die and neither do you.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Such pretty manners, yet. I think we’ll do all right.” She retreated back into the soul cage, settling in like a cat turning round before curling into its basket.

Morrow sat up cautiously, fingering the soul cage where it pulsed against his skin. “We need to find another one of these to house your passenger in the long term,” he said, and then frowned. “Unless he made only one?”

“Morrow never made only one of anything.” Xavier looked around at the empty trap and the motionless tank. Souls still roiled within the others, aching to be ripped free. But first things first. “What are we going to say happened here?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Morrow said, looking at him with Thomas’s most level gaze. “I admit I’m not feeling...entirely myself. A touch of shell shock, maybe. Requiring a holiday from my work while I figure out what in blazes Morrow was doing here and how to give the impression I understand it.”

“His mind is gone?”

“Gone wherever shattered souls go. Gottlieb might still be right.”

“I’m not going to weep for Morrow either way,” Xavier said.

“I’m Morrow. You’d better keep that straight.”

“A touch of shell shock myself,” Xavier said. “I don’t know what I was saying.”

“Think nothing of it, old chap,” Morrow said, and turned to regard the tanks. “Gruesome things, aren’t they? I think we’ll be writing this off as a failed experiment.”

“You mean that you’ll be writing it off,” Xavier said. “If you can transplant Lambert here into more permanent housing without accident—I expect Morrow left good notes—”

“I devoutly hope so.”

“Then I’ve got work to do in the field. This war won’t stop making ghosts.” He felt a twinge of loss at the thought of making those bloody rounds without Thomas curled under his breastbone, and told himself angrily not to be a fool.

“Kiss him, for Christ’s sake,” Lambert said. “I would.”

Xavier coughed, and Morrow looked at him in alarm. “My passenger has an unfortunate sense of humor,” he said by way of explanation.

“That ought to suit you,” Morrow said. He looked as if he felt a certain degree of loss himself.

It would have been madness to make any such gesture in the air base, but Xavier reached out and caught his hand, and Morrow held it, his rough fingers unfamiliar in Xavier’s own.

“I’m still here,” Xavier said, and went on breathing.

 

END

 

"Ratcatcher" was originally published in Mothership Zeta and is copyright Amy Griswold, 2016.

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

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original, "The Girl With All the Ghosts" by Alex Yuschik.

Episode #68: “These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God” by Rose Lemberg

Episode #68: “These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God” by Rose Lemberg

March 18, 2019

These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God

by Rose Lemberg

 

Father is trying to help me get into NASH. He thinks that seeing a real architect at work will help me with entrance exams. So father paid money, to design a house he does not want, just to get me close to Zepechiar. He is a professor at NASH and a human-Ruvan contact.

Reason and matter­—these are the cornerstones of Spinoza’s philosophy that the Ruvans admire so much. Reason and matter: an architect’s mind and building materials. These are the attributes through which we can know God.

And then, of course, there’s particle technology.

 

Full story after the cut:

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 68 for March 18, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original, "These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God" by Rose Lemberg, and "Female Figure of the Early Spedos Type, 1884-" by Sonya Taaffe.

This episode is part of the newest GlitterShip issue, which was just released and is available for purchase at glittership.com/buy and on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and now Gumroad! If you’re one of our Patreon supporters, you should have access to the new issue waiting for you when you log in. For everyone else, it’s $2.99.

GlitterShip is also a part of the Audible Trial Program. This means that just by listening to GlitterShip, you are eligible for a free 30 day membership on Audible and a free audiobook to keep. Today's book recommendation is The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison. In a world ripped apart by a plague that prevents babies from being carried to term and kills the mothers, an unnamed woman keeps a record of her survival. To download The Book of the Unnamed Midwife for free today, go to www.audibletrial.com/glittership — or choose another book if you’re in the mood for something else.

 


 

Sonya Taaffe reads dead languages and tells living stories. Her short fiction and poetry have been collected most recently in Forget the Sleepless Shores (Lethe Press) and previously in Singing Innocence and Experience, Postcards from the Province of Hyphens, A Mayse-Bikhl, and Ghost Signs. She lives with her husband and two cats in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she writes about film for Patreon and remains proud of naming a Kuiper belt object.

 

 


 

Female Figure of the Early Spedos Type, 1884-

by Sonya Taaffe

 

When I said she had a Modigliani face, I meant
she was white as a cracked cliff
and bare as the brush of a thumb
the day we met on the thyme-hot hills above Naxos
and by the time we parted in Paris, she was drawing
half-divorced Russian poets from memory,
drinking absinthe like black coffee
with the ghosts of the painted Aegean still ringing her eyes.
Sometimes she posts self-portraits
scratched red as ritual,
a badge of black crayon in the plane of her groin.
In another five thousand years,
she may tell someone—
not me—
another one of her names.

 


Our story today is "These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God" by Rose Lemberg, read by Bogi Takács.

 

Bogi Takács (prezzey.net) is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person currently living in the US as a resident alien. Eir speculative fiction, poetry and nonfiction have been published in a variety of venues like ClarkesworldApexStrange Horizons and podcast on Glittership, among others. You can follow Bogi on TwitterInstagram and Patreon, or visit eir website at www.prezzey.net. Bogi also recently edited the Lambda Award-winning Transcendent 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction 2016, for Lethe Press.

Rose Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their fiction and poetry have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed‘s Queer Destroy Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, and many other venues. Rose’s work has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and other awards. Their Birdverse novella The Four Profound Weaves is forthcoming from Tachyon Press. You can find more of their work on their Patreon: patreon.com/roselemberg

 


 

 

These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God

by Rose Lemberg

 

Father is trying to help me get into NASH. He thinks that seeing a real architect at work will help me with entrance exams. So father paid money, to design a house he does not want, just to get me close to Zepechiar. He is a professor at NASH and a human-Ruvan contact.

Reason and matter­—these are the cornerstones of Spinoza’s philosophy that the Ruvans admire so much. Reason and matter: an architect’s mind and building materials. These are the attributes through which we can know God.

And then, of course, there’s particle technology.

The house-model Zepechiar has made for my family is all sleek glass. It is a space house with transparent outer walls; the endlessness of stars will be just an invisible layer away.

“I do not want to live in space,” dad hisses. Father hushes them.

Zepechiar’s model for our new house is cubical, angular, with a retro-modern flair. The kitchen is the only part of it that does not rotate, a small nod to dad’s desire for domesticity. Outside of the kitchen capsule, the living spaces are all zero-g with floating furniture that assembles itself out of thin air and adapts to the body’s curves. There is no privacy in the house, but nobody will be looking—out there, in space, between the expanses of the void.

“Bringing the vacuum in is all the rage these days,” the architect says.

I pretend indifference. Doodling in my notebook. It looks like nothing much.

Swirls, like the swirls our ancients made to mark the landing sites for Ruva vessels. For thousands of years nobody had remembered the Ruva, and when they returned, they did not want to land anymore on the curls and swirls of patterns made in the fields. They had evolved. Using reason.

They razed our cities to pour perfectly level landing sites. They sucked excess water out of the atmosphere and emptied the oceans, then refilled them again. But then they read Spinoza and decided to spare and/or save us. Because we, too, can know God.

If we continued studying Spinoza, Ruvans said, we’d be enlightened and would not need sparing or saving.

I want to build something that curls and twists between hills, but hills have been razed after the Ruva arrived. Hills are frivolous, an affront of imagination against reason, and it is reason that brought us terraforming particle technology that allowed us to suck all usable minerals from the imperfections of the earth: the hills, the mountains, the ravines, the trees, leaving only a flatness of the landing sites between the flatness covered by angular geodomes.

I learned about hills from the rebel file. Every kid at school downloads the rebel file. All around the world too, I guess. I don’t know anybody else who actually read it.

I do not notice anything until my father and dad wave a cheerful goodbye and leave me, alone with Zepechiar. He’ll help me with entrance exams. Or something.

He pulls up a chair from the air, shapes it into a Ruvan geometry that is perhaps just a shade more frivolous than reason dictates.

He says, “Your father lied about the purpose of your visit. What is the reason behind it?”

I mumble, “I want to get into NASH.”

“Show me your architectural drawings,” Zepechiar orders. His voice is level. Reason is the architect’s best tool.

I hesitate. Can I show him—

No. I need something safer, so I swipe the notebook, show him a thing I made while he was fussing over dad’s kitchen: a cubical model of black metal and spaceglass, not unlike Zepechiar’s house model for my family. The distinction is in the color contrast, a white stripe of a pipe running like a festive tie over the steel bundle.

Zepechiar nods. “Show me what you do not want to show me.”

There is something in his voice. I raise my hand to make the swiping motion, then stop mid-gesture.

“You could have convinced dad to say yes to that kitchen,” I say. “They would have cooked breakfasts for eternity, looking out into an infinite space until their heart gave out.”

“I’m selling my architecture, not my voice,” he says, but something in his voice is bitter. Bitterness. Emotion, not reason. He is being unprofessional on purpose, perhaps to lull me into trusting him.

“Why did you decide to become an architect?” I ask, to distract. A tame enough question. My father’s money bought me an informational interview.

“Architecture is an ultimate act of reason,” Zepechiar says. It’s such a Ruvan thing to say. I must have read it a hundred times, in hundreds of preparatory articles. “I teach this in the intro course. Architecture is key to that which contains us: houses. Ships. The universe. The universe is the ultimate container. The universe is God. God is a container of all things. We learn from Spinoza that we can only know God through reason; and that is why we approach God through architecture.”

“If God contains all things, would God contain—” swirls? Hills? Leviathans?

“The thing you do not want to show me?” says Zepechiar. His voice lilts just a bit, and I am taken in.

I swipe my hand over the notebook, to show Zepechiar what will certainly disqualify me from NASH.

It is a boat that curves and undulates. Its sides are decorated in pinwheel and spiral designs. There is not a straight angle anywhere, not a flat surface. I have populated my Ark with old-style numbers—the ones with curves. There are two fives, two sixes, a pair of 23s.

Zepechiar rubs his forehead. “What are the numbers meant to indicate?”

“Um… pairs of animals.” I read that in the rebel file, but I do not know what they are supposed to look like.

“This… is hardly reasonable,” says Zepechiar. “You know what Spinoza said. The Bible is nothing but fantasy, and imagination is anathema to reason.”

I am stubborn, and yes, I’ve read my Spinoza. Scripture is no better than anything else. But God’s existence is not denied. I say, “You could use reason to replicate the Ark in matter.”

“Yes,” Zepechiar says. Yes. We can use particle technology to manipulate almost any matter. Even sentient matter. His voice hides a threat. “I want to know where you learned this. And why did you draw this.”

God told Noah to build the Ark and save the animals. Ruvans just sucked all the water out of the seas, froze some, boiled the rest, and put it back empty of life. The rebel file does not always make sense, but this is clear. “I wanted to recreate the miracle of the Ark, to imagine the glory of God.”

Zepechiar says, “No. It is only through reason that you can reach God. God is infinite, but reason and the material world are the only attributes of God that we can reach. I want to know where you learned this.”

His voice. His voice bends me.

The rebel file. Everybody knows about the rebel file. Nobody cares about the rebel file. I can speak of it. Nothing to it. Just say it. Do what he says. Use reason. Straighten every curve.

I mumble, “Ugh… here and there, kids at school, you know.”

“I don’t.” He squints at me, halfway between respect and scorn. “Erase the Ark.”

I breathe in. I have always been stubborn. “I do not want to erase the Ark. It is a miracle.”

He breathes in. His hand is on my arm. “Miracles are simply things you cannot yet understand. Like particle tech and sentient matter.”

He folds me. I’ve heard of the advanced geometry one can only learn at NASH, but this is more than that, this is something more. It is nauseating, like I am being doubled and twisted and extended.

Dimensionally, stretched along multiple axes until my human hills—my curves, my limbs—are flattened into a singular geometric shape, a white pipe that runs around along the lines of the design studio, wrapping around the cubic shape of it like a festive ribbon.

I am… not human anymore. I am sentient matter altered, like the rest of Earth, by Ruvan/human particle technology. I see Zepechiar from above, from below, in multiple angles. I have no eyes, but some abstract form of seeing, a sentience, remains to me.

“I want to know,” Zepechiar says, “who altered you.”

He falls apart into a thousand shiny cubes, then reassembles himself again, a towering creature of glimmering metal, a Ruvan of flesh behind the capsule of dark steel.

I, too, am altered by him now, a thousand smaller cubes scattered by his voice, reassembled into the dimensional model of the house in the void. I see dad and father standing above my form. Perhaps they never left. They do not seem to care if Zepechiar is human or Ruvan.

Zepechiar speaks to dad. “The perfect kitchen just for you—look at these retro-granite countertops, self-cleaning—” He pokes me. “Where did you learn this?”

I think back at him, quoting the Scripture the best I can. “Two by two, they ascended the Ark: Male and female in their pairs, and some female in their pairs and some male in their pairs, and some had no gender and some did not care. Some came in triangles and some came in squares. And some of them came alone.” Like the Leviathan. The Leviathan holds all the knowledge the Ruvans discarded for reason’s sake, all the swirly landing sites, their own hills, their poetry. The Leviathan is the Ruvans’ rebel file.

I no longer know my initial shape. I am made of hundreds of shining squares. My parents are here, in the room, but they do not know me. They are human—all curves and lilts of flesh. Forever suspect. I am Ruvan/human now. I am an architectural model, sentient matter transformed by an architect’s reason—and architects are the closest thing to God.

“Think about all the damage scripture did,” says Zepechiar. “Holy wars, destruction, revision, rewritten over and over by those who came after but made no more sense. Think about what imagination did to this planet and to ours. It is dangerous. It makes you dangerous. But I will make matter out of you.”

I am a house. Floating in space, rotating along all my axes. Inside me, the kitchen is the only thing that is still. I have been human or Ruvan, I do not remember, but I carry two humans inside me. They no longer remember me, but they came in a pair. I am their Ark.

Zepechiar made me. A Ruvan/human architect. An architect is the closest thing to God. But so are the buildings architects create. So am I.

Slowly, I begin to shift my consciousness along the cubic geometry of my new shape. Slowly, I move the space house, away. Where, in the darkest of space, there swims a Leviathan.

 

END


 

“Female Figure of the Early Spedos Type, 1884-" is copyright Sonya Taaffe 2019.

“These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God” is copyright Rose Lemberg 2019.

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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of “Ratcatcher” by Amy Griswold.

Episode #67: “Instar” by Carrow Narby

Episode #67: “Instar” by Carrow Narby

March 8, 2019

Instar

by Carrow Narby

 

 

 

They just broke ground this week on a new high rise. When they cracked into the earth it flooded the neighborhood with the stench of sulfur. There’s a layer of ancient rot beneath the pavement. Centuries worth of life, ground into filth.

Or so I imagine. I had to look up the source of the smell and some local news site attributed it to “organic materials” in the soil. I was worried that it might be a gas leak.

For the past few mornings the wind has pushed the awful smell in through the screen above my bed. As bad as it is, it isn’t worth shutting the window. Even as late summer beats on, I can’t sleep without the weight and softness of ten thousand blankets. Without the breeze my nest would become unbearably hot, so I tolerate the smell of brimstone and corruption. It’s sort of fitting, I think, given the maggoty turn that my life has taken.

 

Full episode after the cut.

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 67 for March 8, 2019. This is your host Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Our story today is "Instar" by Carrow Narby, which is part of the Summer 2018 issue of GlitterShip.

 

Carrow Narby lives on the north shore of Massachusetts. Their writing has been featured in Bitch, The Toast, The Establishment, and PodCastle. Follow them on Twitter @LocalCreature.

 

 

 

Instar

by Carrow Narby

 

 

 

They just broke ground this week on a new high rise. When they cracked into the earth it flooded the neighborhood with the stench of sulfur. There’s a layer of ancient rot beneath the pavement. Centuries worth of life, ground into filth.

Or so I imagine. I had to look up the source of the smell and some local news site attributed it to “organic materials” in the soil. I was worried that it might be a gas leak.

For the past few mornings the wind has pushed the awful smell in through the screen above my bed. As bad as it is, it isn’t worth shutting the window. Even as late summer beats on, I can’t sleep without the weight and softness of ten thousand blankets. Without the breeze my nest would become unbearably hot, so I tolerate the smell of brimstone and corruption. It’s sort of fitting, I think, given the maggoty turn that my life has taken.

There are these long, wonderful moments, in between waking and rising, when I am both sentient and senseless. The light doesn’t resolve yet into images. Sensation doesn’t crystallize into meaning. Best of all, I can’t feel my body or apprehend its shape.

You see an awful lot about monsters these days. Just everywhere you look, endless breathless chatter about fucking monsters, turning into monsters, giving birth to monsters. Beautiful and interesting people who just happen to be monsters: some sad grackle-winged boy, a girl with coral antlers. Everyone always looks so slender and sharp. Perfect rows of needle teeth, perfect iridescent scales, perfect gold stiletto claws. It seems downright glamorous, like it would all be neon witches’ sabbaths and subterranean raves or something.

For me, monsterhood is mostly just strangers demanding to know what I am. There wasn’t any kind of initiation waiting for me. No coven or cabal. No prophecy or secret past was revealed. It was on my own and by creeping increments that I realized I had become a thing.

Kris is a friend of a friend. I saw her around a few parties and we fumbled into each other’s orbits. She called out my name from across the room once, amid the din of disparate conversations. It was so charming, that little gesture of being summoned. I let her ask me out, to sit with her in that park at the edge of the North End.

When we meet, she wants to go down Hanover to Mike’s but I point just across the street to a tiny storefront with a blue and yellow sign. “It’s way better,” I insist, and I feel strangely proud as she acquiesces.

The leading edge of autumn has brought a welcome break from the suffocating heat, but it also means that the sunlight has shifted. As Kris and I sit together, the late afternoon light lances down at us. It’s relentless, prying. I wonder if she can tell how much I’m trying to hide from it.

Despite my anxiety, we talk easily and idly. When she was little, Kris recalls, she heard somewhere about the dangers of zebra mussels. They’re an invasive species around the Great Lakes, she explains. Her mother must have read a sign to her or something, warning boaters to inspect and clean their hulls. Except that Kris was maybe four at the time, and she had no concept yet of what a mussel is. She heard “zebra muscles.” What she pictured, she tells me, was downright nightmarish. Not a muscular zebra or something, but a boat encrusted with disembodied, pulsing zebra flesh. She says that the image came from nowhere except the most literal understanding of what she had heard, and that it became horrible only afterward, in retrospect.

“I didn’t understand but I just accepted it,” she laughs.

I grin too, and I tell her “I love that.” And I love sitting here, with a friend of a friend that I met at a party. Normality is too distant even to long for, but here is something so conventional, so pleasantly dull. I wonder if there are people who feel like this all the time and I almost ask that out loud.

But all at once I realize that she’s looking at me, and I can’t bear it. She can see me in the slanted orange light. The rays reveal the translucency around my edges, the ugly pulse of slime beneath the membrane of my skin. I can feel the buttons of my jacket straining. I can’t eat the pastry that I’ve bought, not in front of her. She must realize that my clothes are holding me into a human shape. She’s imagining the strange organs that shudder and twitch beneath the seams.

I can’t force myself to say much more before we part ways. She knows. I’m sure that I won’t hear from her again.

I slump back toward Haymarket. I huddle stingless on a crowded E train. My spines are sparse and transient: often I neglect to shave, sometimes my keys poke out through a hole that they’ve worn in the pocket of my coat.

It is the fate of monsters, no matter what, to attract would-be monster-slayers. For me, this has never been as straightforward as a jeering mob or as romantic as a lone man with a glittering sword. This time it’s kids. A small group of ninth or tenth graders, maybe, standing on the other side of the train car. They gesture toward me and consult each other in stage whispers, wondering aloud what I could possibly be.

There’s this image, a fragment of a story. I don’t remember where I picked it up or what first made me think of it, but it’s there in my brain and it’s this: Once upon a time a baby was found in a beehive.

By chance, a passing witch heard a newborn’s squall. Amid a hovering cloud of bees, she cracked apart a hollow log. And there was an infant nestled in the rot, slick with honey, as pale as a grub.

I don’t know what happens after that or why any of it happened at all. It had started with sacrificing some of the other larvae to widen her cell. And things just took off from there, I suppose. Things took a turn, as they will do.

At home I start to undress as soon as I’ve closed the door. When I finally peel the tight undermost layer away from my torso, my body sags out, shapeless. I slump onto the bed and burrow down into the tangle of blankets. As I curl up tight, I tuck a bit of sheet between every segment and fold, so that I don’t have to feel the awful touch of myself.

I can’t say when or how my metamorphosis began. Day by day I watched my face bloat outward, swallowing up my eyes, my jaw. My skin became a pallid casing. It strains to hold in my shuddering mass, as if my body wants to burst and dissolve.

I have always been drawn to hollows and nests and to the dirt. Spaces in the dark where a thing might press itself flush against the walls, unseen and safe. As a child I would build a cairn of pillows around myself before falling asleep. I used to turn over the rocks that edged my mother’s garden, to watch the millipedes and woodlice scatter. Eager to recoil from the sight of a grub writhing helplessly against the light.

In my tiny apartment there is an alcove that, I think, was meant for a writing desk. But I wedged my bed into it, and closed it off with a heavy curtain.

I guess that it has all been a sort of instinctive preparation. Like the bees widening the larval infant’s cell. The thing is, it’s not just shiny little flying things that start their lives as fat, fumbling worms. It isn’t all butterflies and bluebottles. There are things in the world that wriggle freely as larvae and then pupate into sessile blobs. I think about all those mornings when I stretch out shapeless and insensible. I wonder if I’ll turn out to be more of a sea sponge than a sphinx moth.

Kris calls. She wants to see me again.

We meet at my place. I don’t know what to say about the evening in the park but she doesn’t ask about it. She calls me by my name again. She wants to know if I’m alright.

I tell her about that unshakable image of the bee-child. “What must it be like,” I sigh. To wonder why, out of a sea of sisters, you were the one to swell into something wingless and terrible.

“What must it be like,” she echoes. She’s sitting beside me, looking down at her hands. She smells like soap and trampled grass. I want to settle in closer to her—to kiss her, I realize—but she has seen me in that searching autumn light.

“You know,” I say.

She takes my hand. “Is that your bed?” she asks, nodding toward the alcove.

“Yes.”

“Can I show you something?”

I don’t know how to respond. She tugs me gently toward the bed and draws the curtain aside. The final cast-off rays of sunset are glancing in through the window. She turns and looks at me. Her cheek catches the light with a faint damson iridescence. She tilts her head and reveals a weird translucency about her neck and face. I can see the steady pulse of veins and pulpy glands beneath her skin.

Her tone isn’t mocking, just forthright, as she asks, “Did you really think that you were special?”

I guess that I did. I tell her: “I thought I was alone.”

She reaches out to draw me close. We sink down into my nest and curl up tight against each other. In her touch I can feel the hum of twenty thousand sisters, the promise of clover and of wings.

 

END

 


 

“Instar” was originally published in The Fem, and is © Copyright Carrow Narby, 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. You can also pick up a free audio book by going to www.audibletrial.com/glittership or buy your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with "These are the Attributes by Which You Shall Know God" by Rose Lemberg.

 
Episode #66: “Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit” by Cynthia So

Episode #66: “Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit” by Cynthia So

March 5, 2019

Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit

by Cynthia So

 

On the day Sunae turned nine years old, there was no joyful feast. A monster burst from the sea that night and ate five people. The Mirayans gathered upon the shore to watch this, as they did every Appeasement. Sunae’s mother covered Sunae’s eyes, but Sunae still heard the screams. The crunch of brittle bone between teeth. The wet gulp of gluttonous throats.

Sunae prayed to the Goddess that the warrior Yomue might rise from the dead and defeat the monster yet again. No warrior came, but a hand grasped Sunae’s and squeezed. A hand as small as her own.

When it was over, Sunae’s mother murmured, “Now we will be safe for another ten years.” She removed her hands from Sunae’s eyes, and Sunae flinched from the gore before her. The older children always said that this was why Miraya’s beaches were pink, but she hadn’t been convinced until she saw the sands now drenched with fresh blood. Dark red on dusk pink.

Full transcript after the cut:

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 66 for March 5, 2019. This is your host Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original, "Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit" by Cynthia So and a poem by Chanter, "The Lamentations of Old Money."

This episode is part of the newest GlitterShip issue, which was just released and... is very late. The "Summer 2018" issue of GlitterShip is available for purchase at glittership.com/buy and on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and now Gumroad! If you're one of our Patreon supporters, you should have access to the new issue waiting for you when you log in. For everyone else, it's $2.99, and all of our back issues are $1.49.

GlitterShip is also a part of the Audible Trial Program. This means that just by listening to GlitterShip, you are eligible for a free 30 day membership on Audible and a free audiobook to keep. If you'er looking for an excellent book of short queer stories to listen to, you should check out Bitter Waters by Chaz Brenchley. This book is full of speculative fiction featuring gay men and was awarded the Lambda Award for best LGBT speculative fiction.

To download Bitter Waters for free today, go to www.audibletrial.com/glittership -- or choose another book if you're in the mood for something else.

Up first, our poem:

 


Chanter is a proud Wisconsinite who took flight (alas, not literally) from her originating small town, headed for the big city’s more accepting climes and never looked back.  She’s proudly asexual, demisensual, and some flavor of bi- or panromantic that’s as yet proving difficult to define.  She’s also brand squeaky new (emphasis, occasionally, on squeaky) to official publication.  Besides holding down a day job, she’s an active shortwave radio DXer and ham operator, as well as a crowdfunded author currently based mainly on Dreamwidth.

 


 

 

The Lamentations of Old Money

by Chanter

 

Jennifer doesn’t want a white dress.

She doesn’t want a church,
an altar, a tangle of coast-grown flowers,
sisters in matching silk, trained doves, stained glass,
twenty overlaid colognes and splintering sunlight,
rehearsed organ music and
recorded pop shorthand warbling through weak speakers,
biting April breezes, overthought hair and makeup,
snow in hardwood aisles.

Jennifer doesn’t want a wild time.

She doesn’t want hips around shoulders, tools and toys,
filthy supplications and hot breath ideas,
hours between bedsheets, sticky aftermaths,
bruises as tawdry mementos in hard to reach places,
hands and mouths, teeth and tongues and fluids,
too many entrances,
the junctions of legs and legs and legs.

Jennifer doesn’t want hard edges.

Not for her, leashes, spike heels and bad girl pretense.
not for her, the bite of too-demanding fingertips
grinding at her biceps,
cold and bruising at her cheeks,
clamped into the flesh of her wrists.
Not for her, orders with teeth both behind and in them,
whipcracks in voice and deed.
Not for her, daddy’s little anything, mommy’s little anything,
a schoolgirl’s life, a paddle’s life,
princess, flower, whore.
Not for her, latex and custom-made chains,
iron protocol and a child’s tear-stung punishments,
revoked names and Halloween’s expected trappings.

Not for her, anonymity.
Not for her, all of the spice
and none of the wine to mull with it.

What Jennifer wants?

Fits on a two-sided coin.

One side:

Jennifer wants nights asleep in a hayloft, clothes on,
with siblings in arms—and black coffee,
and cotton-coarse humor, and blood—
to her left and right.

Jennifer wants a uniform,
wants honest lamplight with a wick beneath it,
wants a hundred songs and a hand-tuned fiddle,
a guitar played at a campfire,
laces and burlap, branches and homespun wool,
antique language, tactile camaraderie,
respected rank and unresented ceremony,
world-spanning care so personal it can’t be feigned,
so simultaneously subtle and frank that it confuses,
so elegant it’s genuine,
so casual it’s ancient.
“To be fair, that one does drive me utterly mad of an afternoon but
God be good, dear fellow, why wouldn’t I?”

Jennifer wants a certain amount of ignored anachronism,
wants a world where ‘dear fellow’
as affectionate genderless address is just fine,
where ‘she’s a good man to have beside you in a fight’
is perfectly acceptable wording,
but where the phrase ‘man up’ is both soundly off limits
and considered decades or centuries distant, depending;
a world where, at the end of the day,
it’s quietly acknowledged and otherwise near-forgotten
that oh yes, that one there, she’s a girl.
As in woman.
As in, see also, dame. Noun.
Example I: To go to work for the war effort
on the road under cover of darkness,
on the air for the BBC,
or on the battlefield firing decisive cannon blast volleys
like a real dame.

Example II:
I’m a girl, and mostly,
I prefer other dames to fellas. Mostly.
But when I don’t, I kinda have a type? Ahem!”

Somewhere, a coin is balancing on its edge.

And the flip side:

Jennifer wants to write a hundred stories and bind them in hard covers,
wants modern skirts to her ankles,
comfortable jeans and blue corduroy coat sleeves,
wants city streets, steel toes and long hair,
near-distant clocktower bells,
silver jewelry bought by her own hand, in her own name,
a rocking chair made to last for decades,
a damn fine radio setup,
the solid strength of a wooden door at her back
after she and she - he and she - they and she
after they’ve crashed through it
and, fully clothed, battered it closed behind them.

Both sides:

Jennifer wants her wrists pressed flat against that wooden door,
all benevolent force, all warmth,
all welcome gravity, all burgeoning life in orbit,
all the steady strength of a star
in symbiosis with a planet.
Jennifer wants voices and voices and voices,
innocent details and muscle-melting,
breath-stealing turns of phrase,
sound serving as light serving as
lodestone to the iron in every millimeter of her
except, except, for a bare and unbared few.

One side:

Jennifer wants the wind at her back,
a message, a mission, a reason and a warning,
miles and miles and miles rolled out
under a sky filled with leaden stars,
a purpose and a signal, a gesture,
an anticipation of command
that tenses her like a bowstring
before—wait, wait, wait for it—rush for it— “Fire!”

Both sides:

Jennifer wants to be eager,
to be teeming under her skin with silver,
wants a reason and a cause and a leader who’s
fallible by self-description, near-matchless by others’ accounts,
wants to thrill to rank, surname, simple designation,
wants to know at exactly what she’s aimed,
near-precisely what will happen when she hits
and that yes, the trusted, entirely human hands
of gravity to a planet
are the only hands pulling or perhaps, perhaps,
the only hands directing those pulling her string,
wants to be entirely, mindfully, consensually willing
to be fired like a longbow.

And the flip side:

Jennifer wants to bring
a girlfriend home to her parents,
wants to curl into accented words
like they’re warm compresses and quilts,
wants to make promises and keep them,
find each others’ keys,
play each others’ record collections,
brush cat hair off each others’ sweaters,
adore and be adored forever,
not live together.
Jennifer wants to never grow tired of hearing herself say
“This is Elaine.” Or “This is Kim.” Or “This is...”
“This is my better half.”

Both sides:

Jennifer wants orders that both delight her
and fill her with clean purpose,
stoking a fire that consumes every inch of her
except, except, for the space between her thighs.
Jennifer wants the intersection
where bravery meets well-placed loyalty.
Jennifer wants to know exactly what she’s doing,
wants to be utterly sure of her cause,
to make up her entire mind, on her own,
and then raise her voice
and throw herself into the thing with abandon
because yes, this is right, this is reason, this is exuberance
and happiness and righteous fury blazing, this is
bright history, this is justice, this is--

One coin. With two sides.

Jennifer wants
the rarity that is liking of, love for,
acceptance and welcome of
both the existence and the admission
of her two sides.

Even when she’s difficult.
Even when she’s horrible.
Even when she’s irrational.
Even when she’s just, so most people would say,
plain off baseline weird.

Especially when she’s weird.

All of the wine to mull with
all of the spice
ground by capable hands.
Hands ringed in silver.

Hands at the ends of corduroy sleeves.

The sleeves of a coat that may have,
once or twice,
been a makeshift pillow in a hayloft.

After a night’s ride.

After a night’s mission.

 

 


 
Cynthia So is a queer Chinese writer from Hong Kong, living in London. She spent her undergrad crying over poets that have been dead for 2,000 years, give or take. (She’s graduated now, but still crying.) Her short fiction has appeared in Anathema, Arsenika, and Cast of Wonders. She can be found on Twitter @cynaesthete.

Zora Mai Quỳnh is a genderqueer Vietnamese writer whose short stories, poems, and essays can be found in The SEA Is Ours, Genius Loci: The Spirit of Place, POC Destroy Science Fiction, Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler, Strange Horizons, and Terraform. Visit her: zmquynh.com. Rivia is a Black and Vietnamese Pansexual Teen who has a passion for reading, video games and music. She says “I’m gender questioning but also questioning whether or not I’m questioning...Isn’t gender just a concept?” You can hear her vocals on Strange Horizon’s podcast for “When she sings…”

 


Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit

by Cynthia So

 

 

 

On the day Sunae turned nine years old, there was no joyful feast. A monster burst from the sea that night and ate five people. The Mirayans gathered upon the shore to watch this, as they did every Appeasement. Sunae’s mother covered Sunae’s eyes, but Sunae still heard the screams. The crunch of brittle bone between teeth. The wet gulp of gluttonous throats.

Sunae prayed to the Goddess that the warrior Yomue might rise from the dead and defeat the monster yet again. No warrior came, but a hand grasped Sunae’s and squeezed. A hand as small as her own.

When it was over, Sunae’s mother murmured, “Now we will be safe for another ten years.” She removed her hands from Sunae’s eyes, and Sunae flinched from the gore before her. The older children always said that this was why Miraya’s beaches were pink, but she hadn’t been convinced until she saw the sands now drenched with fresh blood. Dark red on dusk pink.

She looked at the girl next to her, the girl who was holding her hand, and she saw a determination in those eyes as bright as the moon, as bright as her own. A determination to make sure that this would never happen again.

“I’m Oaru,” the girl said. “What’s your name?”

Sunae looked down at their clasped hands and told Oaru her name.

 

The Temple of the Moon Goddess is the most beautiful place on the island. There are no straight lines and sharp angles within, but everything is curved and gentle and swooping. Shades of blue deepen as one enters through the front, the colors of twilight intensifying into midnight, accented by silver and broken up by patches of brilliant white that gleam through the dark. A pool of water from the Moon Lake shimmers in the atrium. Frosty glass cut into lunar shapes hang from the ceiling in long, glittering threads.

All of it is flawless craftsmanship, except for the wall of the prayer hall.

The hall is perfectly circular. Spanning a semicircle on the wall is a painting of Yomue, splendid in lustrous armor, wielding a sword as black as her hair and an expression as fierce as the sea. The sand of the Mirayan beach is pink beneath her feet, and she glares at the monster that towers over her. Its writhing, many-headed form is etched into the blackness of the night. The moon hangs above them, solemn and full.

The other half of the wall is blank, its contents effaced and forgotten.

Warrior confronts monster. What’s the rest of the story? Monster leaves island alone for a hundred years. Warrior dies, and monster comes back. It is starved and salivating, with too many teeth. Every ten years, it must be fed.

Is that what was on the other half of the wall?

Sunae’s mother buys her Carrucean books to read, because Carrucean is an important language to learn well. In Carrucean tales, monsters are always slain. Heroes sometimes journey into foreign lands and kill other people’s monsters for them, and they are rewarded with riches and brides and thrones.

Sunae is ten years old, but she knows this: there are Carruceans living in Miraya. Miraya was owned by Carrucea for hundreds of years, and then there was a treaty of some sort not long before Sunae was born, and now Miraya belongs to the Mirayans again.

The Carruceans came here to their island. They governed the island and lived here for centuries, but no Carrucean ever killed the monster for them. Yet here they are on the island still, with their wealth, their power. Their Mirayan wives.

“Mother, have any Carruceans ever been fed to the monster?” Sunae asks.

Her mother frowns. “Can’t we talk about something more cheerful?”

Sunae just wants to know how to defeat the monster. If no Carruceans will come to their aid, then who will?

 

The old Library of Miraya is a burnt husk with a blackened facade, secluded from the town and set into the side of a hill, a little way from the Moon Lake. Sunae doesn’t understand why it hasn’t been torn down to make way for something new when fire ravaged it long ago, but perhaps its remote location preserved it. Evidently the Mirayans of yore prized a peaceful reading environment. Sunae can hear nothing of the bustling town here, only a chorus of birds.

She also doesn’t understand why she is letting Oaru drag her into the grim ruins. Inside, the half-collapsed roof lets in some lemony sunlight, but there is an unpleasant smell like overripe tortoise fruit, and rows of charred shelves loom and menace. “It went this way,” Oaru says, and drops to her hands and knees to crawl through a tiny hole in the wall.

Sunae sighs and follows. She gets stuck, her shoulders being broader than Oaru’s, but Oaru wrenches her free with a painful yank. She emerges into a cramped and airless space, illuminated only by the glow of the phoenix fox, which is swishing its enormous tail back and forth, sweeping away layers of ash and dust from the wall behind it.

Sunae coughs, but Oaru grabs her arm excitedly. “There’s something on the wall!”

Oaru leans over the fox and scrubs at the wall with her sleeve, gradually revealing the faded colors of a painting: a woman in an ethereal blue gown, sitting with a brush in her hand. A long scroll of paper unfurls before her, inked in an illegible, swirling script.

“Doesn’t that look a bit like Yomue?” Oaru asks.

It seems impossible that this serene woman should resemble the powerful warrior in the temple, but she does. It’s in the proud tilt of her jaw, maybe. Sunae reaches out and traces the woman’s chin. She has never been permitted to touch the temple mural, though she has longed to.

“What is she doing?” Oaru wonders.

“Writing poetry?” Sunae ventures.

The phoenix fox smirks at her and stretches lazily before slipping out through the hole in the wall, leaving them in absolute darkness. Oaru yelps, “I’ve got to catch that fox!” She tugs at Sunae’s elbow and Sunae reluctantly goes with her. It’s as much a struggle to get out as it was to get in, and the fox is nowhere to be seen by the time Sunae has wriggled through.

 

The new Library of Miraya is a clean and functional building, centrally located, right next to the Town Hall. Most of the space is dedicated to Carrucean books, with the Mirayan literature section tucked into a dismal corner. Sunae asks a librarian to help her find Yomue’s poems.

“Yomue wasn’t a poet,” the librarian says, puzzled. “But I can recommend poetry from the same time period. Not much of it survived, what with the old Library burning down... But there is some, and it’s very beautiful. Do you know how to read Classical Mirayan, though?”

In the end, Sunae walks away from the Library with a few books and a leaflet for free Classical Mirayan lessons.

By the time she turns twelve, she has read all the Classical Mirayan poetry that the Library has to offer—and all the modern Mirayan poetry, too.

She tries her hand at writing her own poem. She writes about Yomue and the monster. Yomue’s husband, wrongfully convicted of murdering a man, chained to a pillar on the shore, awaiting his execution. Yomue weeping at his feet. The moon trembling in the sky, the Goddess watching. Yomue dressing herself in armor, carefully lacing her breastplate, looping her belt through the buckle. Whetting her sword and sheathing it. Her hair, tied back with a ribbon given to her by her husband. Her boots hitting the ground, her armor jangling. The monster howling, crashing back into the sea where it nurses its wounds for a hundred years.

Sunae wins a competition at school with this poem, and gets a shiny badge that she pins to her satchel.

She is fourteen, and she writes about nature: trees touching, sands blushing. The ocean embracing the coast. Leaves tender for one another. Mountains asleep next to each other. The moon observing everything.

She is sixteen, and Oaru bets a boy she can beat him in a swordfight. Sunae has watched Oaru practise in her garden every week for five years, first with a toy sword, then with a real one; Oaru is graceful and deft with it where Sunae has always fumbled and flailed.

Oaru and the boy are wearing white clothes and using wooden swords dipped in red paint; the boy soon looks like a bloody mess and yields, while Oaru is still pristine.

“You were amazing,” Sunae says afterwards, as Oaru is cutting into a celebratory tortoise fruit. Oaru waves a slice of it in her face, and Sunae grimaces at its distinct mustiness. “Ew, no thank you.”

“How can you not like tortoise fruit?” Oaru says, shaking her head. “Are you even Mirayan?”

Sunae sticks her tongue out. “It smells like a sweaty armpit and it tastes even worse.”

Oaru eagerly bites into the purple flesh of the fruit. “You should know though, you kind of looked like a tortoise fruit just then, when I wafted it under your nose.”

Sunae blinks at the wrinkled skin of the tortoise fruit in horror. “I looked like that? Don’t be so mean!”

Oaru laughs and nudges her side. “All right, I’m sorry—but hey, do you think I’ll be good enough to defeat the monster someday?”

No. Don’t you dare try. Sunae swallows. Oaru must be the best fighter Miraya has seen in generations. Surely if anyone has a chance to ward off the monster and stop more Appeasements from happening, it’s her. How can Sunae be so selfish as to hold Oaru back for fear of losing her?

She says, “You look so much like Yomue in the temple mural when you’re moving with that sword.”

Oaru’s breath catches, and Sunae suddenly understands what it is she has really been trying to write poetry about all this time. They are alone in Sunae’s bedroom, and Sunae kisses Oaru. There is tortoise fruit on Oaru’s tongue, cloying and bitter, but Sunae doesn’t scrunch up her nose. She doesn’t mind at all.

“That has to be the boldest thing you’ve ever done,” Oaru whispers, her lips soft and purpled, her hair mussed by Sunae’s hands.

“I guess you inspired me,” Sunae says, and Oaru grins and grips Sunae’s arms.

“Remember that time I tried to catch the phoenix fox?”

Sunae nods. Every day she thinks of the painted woman lit by the phoenix-fox fire. The nameless poet buried in the rubble, her face so strangely like Yomue’s. Sunae returned to the shadowy wreckage of the old Library once, but she has grown and can no longer contort herself to fit through that hole in the wall.

“I wanted to give the fox to you,” Oaru says.

Oh.

It is a Mirayan custom for young men to present phoenix foxes to girls they wish to marry. This fact had utterly escaped ten-year-old Sunae, who merely assumed that Oaru wanted the fox as a pretty pet.

Sunae raises her eyebrows, stroking Oaru’s cheek with her thumb. “You already wanted to marry me when you were ten?”

Oaru shrugs. “I didn’t know then, what it meant. I only knew I wanted to be your friend forever. But now I know what it actually means, for me to want to marry you.” Her eyes are serious, like a cloud veiling the moon.

It means we could both be a part of the next Appeasement if anyone finds out. Sunae closes her eyes against the thought and kisses Oaru again.

Sunae is eighteen and she is awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Wimmore, one of Carrucea’s world-famous institutions. If she takes the scholarship, she will be absent from Miraya for a year. She will be absent from Miraya on the day of the next Appeasement.

Tell me what else there is, she pleads with the impassive image of Yomue on the wall, as everyone else in the prayer hall lifts their cupped hands repeatedly to their faces in the traditional gesture of worship. Tell me.

Because if there is more to the story than a swordfight, then maybe she can convince Oaru not to risk her life. And if she has to go to Carrucea to find the answers, she will.

At the end of the prayer session, when people are either shuffling off or lingering to socialize, Sunae tells Oaru about the scholarship.

“It’s stupid that you have to go to Carrucea to learn more about this island, our island that we’ve been living on our whole lives.” Oaru spits the words, and her frustration echoes in the chambers of Sunae’s heart.

“I know.” Sunae wants to run her hands through Oaru’s hair to comfort her, but it would be foolish to show such affection in public. She wants to hold Oaru’s hand, but they are not children anymore. They will not get away with it, not here where everyone can see. “Just promise me that you won’t try and take on the monster when the Appeasement comes. Please. You’re not ready.” I’m not ready.

“I promise.” Oaru’s voice sounds fervent with honesty.

Sunae hopes she has known Oaru for long enough to tell when she is lying.

 

The Moon Lake is luminous as a heart that brims full with emotion, and Sunae stands at the edge and dips her toes in.

Oaru is naked in the water, moonlight dripping from her hair. Oaru wears a smile like a phoenix fox’s, sly and burning through Sunae. Oaru’s arms are muscled and impatient and open wide.

“Come on, Sunae.”

Sunae’s fingers hover over the knot that ties the sash around her waist. “You’re breaking the law,” she whispers.

Oaru wades closer to Sunae. She lifts the hem of Sunae’s gown and kisses Sunae’s ankles. “We’ve been breaking the law for a long time, tortoise fruit,” she says, her dark eyes looking up into Sunae’s. “When has that ever stopped you?” She leaves wet handprints on the skirt of Sunae’s gown, droplets trickling down the backs of Sunae’s calves. “Who knows when we’ll get to do this again?”

I’ll only be away for a year, Sunae thinks, but Oaru’s eyes are darker than fire-scorched walls, and Sunae knows it will be the longest year of their lives.

She loosens the knot. Her gown joins Oaru’s in a careless heap on the sandy bank, and soon her body twines with Oaru’s in the water. Mist forms around them, as though the Goddess herself wishes to hide them away from the world.

 

Let’s skip ahead for a moment. It is Sunae’s nineteenth birthday, and she is chained to a pillar on the pink shore of Miraya. Her lover Oaru is shackled to a different pillar. They cannot touch or kiss each other. The monster is about to rear its ugly heads from the sea, and Sunae is crying, but she is speaking. She is reciting a poem she wrote, and I am watching, as I always have. I am listening.

So how did they get here?

 

Sunae sits on the steps of a lofty sandstone building, shivering in the wind and eating a whole tortoise fruit by herself.

She has been studying in Wimmore for four months, and she hasn’t made a single friend. The light in Wimmore is muted and cold, the streets narrow and grey, the houses foreboding and tall. People laugh at her accent. The dresses fashionable here are too tight, and she can never get enough air into her lungs.

The air tastes nothing of salt, anyway. She misses the sea.

She runs her fingers over the tough, knobbly green rind of the fruit. Her professor had bought it for the class to try—an expensive import from Miraya, not easily purchased. The others in her class had squealed over how disgusting the fruit looked and smelled as Dr. Janner was dissecting it like a corpse, and Sunae thought of Oaru’s teeth tearing into a wedge of tortoise fruit. Oaru’s tongue stained purple by its juice.

Sunae had stood up, gathered the massive fruit in her arms as though it were a baby and marched out of the classroom. And now she is sitting on rain-wet stone and chewing miserably.

How Oaru would tease her, if Oaru were here.

A girl sits down next to her. Talia from her class, with wheat-colored curls flattened in the drizzle. “You really like tortoise fruit, huh?” Talia says.

“I hate it,” Sunae says.

“Let me try a bit, will you?”

Sunae gives her a small slice and she takes a tentative bite. “Hmm, it tastes a lot better than it smells. Definitely not the texture I was expecting, though. It’s... squidgy?” She finishes the slice, throws the rind over her shoulder, and grabs another immediately.

Sunae smiles. She thinks it must be the first time she has smiled since she set foot in Wimmore. “You like it more than I do, then.”

“So what are you doing out here eating something you hate and crying?” Talia asks, squinting. “Don’t tell me that’s just the rain.”

“It’s not just the rain,” Sunae says, rubbing a hand over her face. “It’s just... It’s what a friend calls me. Tortoise fruit.”

“An affectionate nickname?” Talia turns the piece of wrinkly rind over in her hand. “Is it a cute boy who’s waiting for you at home?”

Sunae hesitates. “Um. Not a boy.” And then, to distract Talia from fixating on that, she launches into an account of everything that’s been overwhelming her. She explains that the next Appeasement is happening soon, and that she has been trying to conduct research into the history and literature of Miraya to see if she can find any clues as to how Yomue defeated the monster last time and why the monster came back, but she still hasn’t found anything useful.

“I just want to find another way,” Sunae says. “I don’t want my friend to do anything rash. I don’t want to lose her.”

Talia presses her shoulder gently against Sunae’s. “One of my ancestors was part of the first expedition to Miraya. We have an attic full of things left behind by various family members. We’ve never managed to go through all of it properly, but you’re welcome to come and have a look.”

This is how Sunae finds herself cross-legged on the dusty floor of Talia’s ridiculously big attic, cross-eyed after three continuous days of rifling through boxes of miscellanea in dim light, unable to believe what she’s looking at.

It’s a roughly colored sketch of Yomue the warrior, copied from the temple wall. Sword and monster and moon. And beneath that, a sketch of Yomue again—a woman dressed in the same armor, holding not a sword but a scroll open in her hands. Next to her is something a little like a mirror, or a full moon: a vast circle, shaded in silver. Within it coils a spiral shadow.

Sunae isn’t sure how to interpret this, but she knows that this Yomue and the painted poet in the old Library are one and the same.

She rummages through the rest of the box which contained the sketches, and her hand touches worn leather. She pulls it out of the box and it falls open on her lap, yellowed pages crammed with neat handwriting.

It’s a diary.

 

Why do all you rich Carruceans have stuff just lying around in your attic that I’ve only been searching for my entire life?” Sunae mutters under her breath to Talia, who is sitting next to her at this dinner. She clenches her fist around her fork.

“Well, at least now you can read Yomue’s poetry!” Talia whispers back.

Dr. Sotkin, a dear friend of Dr. Janner, carries on explaining to everyone how he recovered the lost manuscript of Yomue’s poems when he was cleaning out his grandfather’s house after his grandfather recently passed away. Sunae saws away at her chunk of boiled beef.

“I’ll be publishing a translation later this year,” Dr. Sotkin announces.

Sunae takes a sip of water and a deep breath. “What kind of poetry is it?” she asks, proud of how calm and polite she sounds.

“Sadly, it only survives in fragments, but I’ve brought a copy of some of them to share with all of you as a preview.” Dr. Sotkin digs in his bag and retrieves a sheaf of papers. “I believe Dr. Janner told me you can all read Classical Mirayan?”

“Some of us better than others,” Talia murmurs to Sunae, and Sunae hides a smile behind her napkin. Some of the boys in their class seem to be getting by with barely any knowledge of Mirayan. Sunae assumes it must be their wealth that passes their exams for them.

She takes the sheet that Dr. Sotkin offers to her and scans it quickly. Her mind whirls dizzily and she pushes away her plate and reads the fragment again, more slowly this time. And again.

She closes her eyes and envisions the inscrutable moon in the night sky to steady herself. Dr. Sotkin is saying something about a man that Yomue is drinking with. “She compares her love for this man to the Moon Lake—a blessing that glimmers on and on.”

Sunae hands the sheet to Talia and holds onto the edge of the table. “Dr. Sotkin,” she says, and she isn’t able to sound calm anymore. Her voice quavers. “I don’t believe Yomue is talking about a man. I know it’s only a fragment, but it’s clear from the grammar that she’s writing about a woman.”

Dr. Sotkin frowns. “Did you not hear when I said that this is a love poem?”

“Yes, I know, and I believe that Yomue’s beloved is a woman.”

“That’s preposterous. It’s simply impossible.”

“You think it’s impossible that Yomue loved another woman?”

“What you are speaking of is highly illegal and punishable by death, young lady,” Dr. Sotkin sniffs. In both Miraya and Carrucea, yes—Sunae is extremely aware. “Are we to believe that Yomue shared these poems with the public and was not executed for her sins?”

“Well, she warded off the monster, so there were no Appeasements—”

Dr. Sotkin tugs haughtily at his cravat. “You do realize that it is possible to execute people without feeding them to a monster as you barbarians love to do?”

Love?” Sunae’s voice is shrill to her own ears; drums thunder in her ribcage. “You think we love having to feed people to a monster every ten years to keep it from destroying our whole island?”

Dr. Sotkin’s face is pink as the sand on Miraya’s beaches. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Yes,” Dr. Janner joins in. “Sunae, your behavior of late has been extremely rude and disruptive and I’m afraid we cannot tolerate this. Dr. Sotkin is the foremost expert on Classical Mirayan and he will not be insulted by your bumbling reading of this poem.”

“But she’s right!” Talia protests, jabbing at the sheet of paper. “Dr. Janner, Sunae’s right. Look at this line here.”

“It’s all right,” Sunae says, putting her hand on Talia’s arm. “I’m leaving.”

 

Sunae’s head is still spinning from the fragment of Yomue’s poetry. It was so much like the poems that she has been writing about Oaru, folded into envelopes and sent across the ocean to her lover. One was about the glow of sweat and moon-water on Oaru’s skin, the night they drifted together in the Moon Lake, the last night they spent together.

And now, this letter from her mother. She sinks to the floor of the post room and clutches her knees. She is going to be sick.

The door creaks open. She looks up and Talia is there. “I’m so sorry,” Talia says. “You were such a fearsome warrior back there, speaking up to Sotkin like that. He’s utterly dreadful. Janner, too. I want to lock them both up in my attic and never let them out. Janner revoked your scholarship but he hasn’t even tried to suspend me.”

Sunae stares at Talia and cannot speak. Talia doesn’t know about the letter yet. She thinks Sunae is just upset about what happened at the dinner, but the world is crumbling at Sunae’s feet and Talia has no idea.

A smile stretches across Talia’s face. “Can you believe your legendary Yomue’s one of us?”

Sunae’s shoulders loosen a little. “One of us?”

“One of us,” Talia repeats and holds her hand out to Sunae, and Sunae understands. Instead of taking Talia’s hand, she lifts up the letter and gives it to Talia.

Talia reads it and is speechless, too. She sits down next to Sunae and together they watch the flickering light bulb. It is no moon, but it soothes, somehow.

Eventually, Talia asks, “When is the next Appeasement? Will you make it back in time?”

“If I leave at dawn, I might,” Sunae says, hoarsely.

“You’ll be arrested too if you go back, won’t you?”

Sunae nods.

“But you’re definitely going.”

Sunae nods again.

“Good luck,” Talia whispers. “If you don’t die, write me a poem. You have my address.”

She kisses Sunae’s forehead.

 

Sunae crosses the ocean home. She prays to the Goddess. She prays to Yomue.

She writes.

 

Which is what brings us here, to Sunae’s nineteenth birthday, and Sunae and Oaru on the beach where they first met ten years ago. “I love you,” Sunae says to Oaru. There is white sea-spray in Oaru’s windblown hair, and if Sunae’s plan doesn’t succeed, she wants this to be the last thing she ever sees.

She closes her eyes. The waves lap the shore. Her lungs are full of salt air. The moon caresses her face with its white light.

She opens her mouth.

The truth comes out.

Sunae wrote that silly poem when she was twelve, where I saved my husband from the monster. I laughed when I heard her read it to her classmates. Now she is a much better poet, and she has learnt so much—from sketches and diaries and mistranslated fragments—and this is what she tells the Mirayans.

Four hundred years ago, Yomue loved another woman, and they had flowers and wine and stars; they chased phoenix foxes together in the valleys. They ate tortoise fruit and kissed each other’s mouths purple. They wrapped themselves in moonlight.

Yomue was skilled with the sword, but even more skilled with words, and she was the Goddess’ favorite. She could not stand by and watch a monster kill more people in her town. She wove a spell out of poetry and enchanted the monster, led it to the Moon Lake where it slumbered for as long as she lived, and longer, because she taught others the poem.

But the Carruceans came; they brought their laws with them, and they knew how powerful fear was. How to control a people with it. Fire bloomed in the Library; in the temple, fresh paint dried on the wall. Yomue the poet was erased from history. The monster was awoken, and anyone who caused trouble could be thrown into its devouring jaws.

“Now you tell me I cannot love Oaru.

 

We chase a phoenix fox that Yomue tamed once,

Reborn from the ashes of the Library.

It hides poems in its fur.

Tell the phoenix fox I cannot love Oaru.

 

We eat tortoise fruit grown from centuries-old trees,

Roots as deep as our island.

It hides poems in its rind.

Tell the tortoise fruit I cannot love Oaru.

 

We bathe in the Moon Lake Yomue drank from,

Water sacred to the Goddess.

It hides poems in its bed.

Tell the Moon Lake I cannot love Oaru.

 

Tell the Goddess I cannot love Oaru.

Tell Yomue. Tell her and the woman she loved.

Go back in time and bind her to this pillar and

Tell her she was wrong.”

 

The monster rises out of the sea, torrents of water cascading from its back.

Oaru was arrested because of Sunae’s poetry. Because Oaru’s father found the incriminating poems, because Sunae had sent so many and they overflowed, spilled, flooded Oaru’s room. Poems alight with the memories of all that Oaru and Sunae did together, all the times they were wide-eyed travelers in the landscape of each other’s bodies, all the smoldering hearths they built in the secret corners of each other’s hearts.

The monster bellows and the earth quakes and Sunae is not afraid. She knows she is not the first who has been here. She is not the first who has done this.

 

“Let her tell you she is me.

Let her open her mouth and

Sing the monster to sleep

Again.”

 

Sunae’s pores still have the magic blessing of moon-water in them, and I am with her. Through her, I sing. I was here, like her. I loved, like her. I fought the monster and won, and she will, too.

 

If you visit the Temple of Moon Goddess today, you will see this scene painted alongside my mural in the prayer hall:

The monster walks spellbound across the island, and the Mirayans walk with it, every one of their faces slack with awe. Sunae leads them, freed from her shackles.

She holds Oaru’s hand.

 

END

 


“The Lamentations of Old Money" is copyright Chanter 2019.

“Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit” is copyright Cynthia So 2019.

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 reprint of “Instar" by Carrow Narby.

Episode #65: “A Memory of Wind” by Susan Jane Bigelow

Episode #65: “A Memory of Wind” by Susan Jane Bigelow

January 1, 2019

Episode 65 is part of the Spring 2018 issue!

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

 

A Memory of Wind

Susan Jane Bigelow

 

Yeni looked up at the right time, just for a single moment, and she saw a girl fly past far overhead.

No one else in the wide dome of Center Garden, the bustling, cavernous heart of the greatship, noticed. Yeni had to run to catch up with her mother, who walked a few steps ahead.

“Did you see?” she demanded. “A flying girl!”

“Don’t lie,” her mother said tiredly.

 

[Full story after the cut.]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 65. Today we have a reprint of "A Memory of Wind" by Susan Jane Bigelow to finish off the episodes from the Spring 2018 issue of GlitterShip.

Susan Jane Bigelow is the author of the Extrahumans series, the LGBT YA novel The Demon Girl’s Song and numerous short stories. Her Grayline Sisters trilogy will be released by Book Smugglers Publishing in 2018. She lives in Connecticut, where she is a librarian and political columnist/commentator, with her wife and too many cats.

"A Memory of Wind" was narrated by A.J. Fitzwater.

A.J. Fitzwater is a dragon wearing a human meat suit from Christchurch, New Zealand. A graduate of Clarion 2014, she’s had stories published in Shimmer Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, and in Paper Road Press’s At The Edge anthology. She also has stories coming soon at Kaleidotrope and PodCastle. As a narrator, her voice has been heard across the Escape Artists Network, on Redstone SF, and Interzone. She tweets under her penname as @AJFitzwater.

 


 

A Memory of Wind

Susan Jane Bigelow

 

Yeni looked up at the right time, just for a single moment, and she saw a girl fly past far overhead.

No one else in the wide dome of Center Garden, the bustling, cavernous heart of the greatship, noticed. Yeni had to run to catch up with her mother, who walked a few steps ahead.

“Did you see?” she demanded. “A flying girl!”

“Don’t lie,” her mother said tiredly.

Long after, her mother claimed she’d never even heard her say this, much less that she’d seen anything.

But Yeni had seen, and she remembered.

 

Yeni pulled the handle with all the strength of her twenty-two years. Sweat trickled into her eyes, and her muscles cried out in pain.

“Just a little more!” grunted Shan, and then the door gave way at last, opening out into the deserted corridor. They fell back, astonished.

“See?” Yeni said, puffing and wiping the smooth top of her head with the sleeve of her tunic. “It’s here. Just like the story said.”

A ladder.

Shan looked worried. “I don’t know. This is a bad idea. We’re going to get caught.”

“Don’t get scared on me now,” snapped Yeni. “Who’s gonna catch us? There’s nobody in this section.”

He looked up into the darkness, then back at her.

“This is our chance,” she insisted. “Go ahead. I’ll be right behind.”

 

She followed Shan up, keeping a close ear out for anything or anyone coming up behind them. They’d both turned their implants down to the lowest level, so they only did things like regulate heartbeats, monitor vital signs, and give them better night vision. The parts that told the ship where they were and what they were doing were off, now; disabled through an old trick Shan had dug up. Anyone looking for them would think they were back in their shared quarters in Supardy Forward.

“I think we’re three decks up,” said Shan. He’d reached a ledge with a door, and was sitting on it. She climbed up next to him. “So this must be it.”

“The door has dents in it,” she said wonderingly. “And… are those scorch marks?”

Shan pointed at the shaft around them. It was riddled with holes and burn marks.

“We’re here,” she said, standing. “Bunda Forward.”

 

They walked slowly, reverently, into the destroyed section. Numbers fed into Yeni’s vision: sensor scans and her own vital signs.

“Fifty years,” whispered Shan into the heavy darkness. “I’m not getting any radiation.”

“No,” murmured Yeni. “Because it was all a lie. Look around.”

The Bunda Incident had happened when their parents were young, and the only stories they told were of some kind of terrible accident that had resulted in the section being sealed, the Lord Captain taking tighter control of the greatship, and the end of a thousand years of civilian rule.

Some people had written down different stories, though, and Yeni had hunted those stories down one after another. Those stories spoke of riots and rebellion, and ShipOps sweeping in to purge the greatship of the last of the Select Board and their supporters, sealing the section behind them.

But when they made subtle, discreet inquiries of the people who had written the stories, they blinked at them and shook their heads. It was an accident, they said with perfect sincerity. Why would you think otherwise?

Memory was a funny thing. Humans were so fallible and breakable, brains leaked information like sieves. Even Shan seemed to forget important things from time to time, and she had to remind him.

It was like that with the access door. She and Shan had found a story written on a singed sheet of plastic detailing where the access ladder from Supardy up to Bunda Forward that ShipOps had used was. He hadn’t wanted to come, he didn’t see the point. He didn’t even remember the door, or what was so important about Bunda Forward to begin with. She reminded him, patient as always.

Yeni was used to people forgetting.

She held fast to her own memories, sure that someday she, too, would forget. She left notes for herself everywhere, written down in plastic so they couldn’t be changed. She had yet to need them, but someday she knew she would.

She recorded everything with her implant, filing it all away to use later.

“See here,” she murmured. “Symbols of the old government. And this name? I think she was on the Select Board. It was true, Shan! The stories were true.” She pointed to the scorch marks on the wall, and the brown stains on the floor. “There was a battle here. It wasn’t an accident.”

She felt a little tickle at the back of her mind, an odd sense that she sometimes got. It usually didn’t mean anything, but here… it felt dangerous, somehow. She stood and looked around.

“Shan?”

He was a few meters away, looking blankly at a wall.

“Shan!” She snapped her fingers in front of his eyes.

He blinked. “Yeni? We should go home.”

“Not now,” she insisted. “You can’t do this now. We’re in Bunda Forward. We came here just now. Remember!”

He frowned. “I don’t know what you mean. I have to go home.”

He got up and started to run towards the end of the hall.

“Wait!” she cried, and sprinted after him.

There was an open door. A lift tube, filled with an anti-gravity field that would gently bring you up or down, depending on where you wanted to go.

But this section was sealed off. There was no power, and no field. And if Shan didn’t remember that—

Yeni shrieked in horror as he plunged over the edge.

And then she scrambled back as a woman rose smoothly up the tube, carrying a limp Shan in her arms.

She said nothing, but smiled at Yeni. The words hello again formed distinctly in her mind.

 

The woman had already carried Shan down, and now she waited for Yeni, her arms wide. She was beautiful, Yeni thought longingly. Her body was rounded but muscular, her cheeks were high-set, and her eyes deep and expressive. Yeni thought she had a tattoo of some kind on her head until she realized with a shock that the woman had grown hair.

She watched Yeni with a touch of bemusement.

“How can I trust you?” Yeni whispered into the pregnant stillness of Bunda Forward.

The woman made no sound in reply. She only waited, her arms spread, for Yeni to come to her. A sense of welcome and safe drifted across the empty space.

Hesitantly, Yeni stepped out to her, her arms grabbing hold of the flying woman’s narrow waist and shoulders. She felt her arms twine around her back.

They began to slowly descend.

Her skin smelled like the plants in Center Garden. Yeni lay her head against the woman’s shoulder as they drifted down into darkness.

“Who are you?” she wondered. “What’s your name?”

In response there was a wild, almost chaotic sense of brightness, greenness, and of a stiff, constant breeze—the kind Yeni had rarely ever felt here on the greatship.

There was a word for that, she thought, from long ago when the greatship had still docked at planets to trade.

Wind.

 

When they reached the bottom of the tube, Wind gently released Yeni.

“I saw you,” she said, voice trembling. “Years ago. Everyone forgot. I didn’t, though. It was you, wasn’t it?”

In response, Wind’s serene face lit up into a grin.

“It was you! You… you taught me to look for things everyone else was ignoring,” said Yeni, the words pouring out of her. “That things aren’t what they seem to be. I remembered you.”

Wind clapped her hands, then leaned in to give Yeni a quick, electric kiss before rocketing back up into the darkness of the lift shaft.

Yeni watched her go, heart pounding. She could still feel Wind’s lips on hers long after.

 

Shan fell away from Yeni after that. He denied ever being anywhere near Bunda Forward, he didn’t remember Wind at all, and even started to forget who Yeni was.

He drifted back to classes and his old friends, leaving Yeni on her own. She felt more and more like a guest in their shared rooms.

One day she came back from her job as a vent cleaner to find their quarters blocked off by ShipOps. Shan was talking to them, and she caught her name.

She caught her breath, heart shattering. Then, not knowing what else to do, she sprinted in the other direction.

 

She found someone in a nearby section who could input new codes into her implant, so that anyone looking would think she was someone else. She also acquired the ability to turn the beacon on and off whenever she pleased. It was just a start—the implants couldn’t be completely removed because of danger to the nervous system—but it was better than nothing.

Yeni began to wander the emptiness of the greatship alone. She needed little food or water; her body had been bioengineered to survive. She needed only herself.

And, she told herself, the solitude suited her. She didn’t mind being the woman everyone forgot. She didn’t mind being nobody.

But during the night cycles she found herself curled in a far corner of the greatship, feeling as empty as the corridors.

 

She broke into places left empty for long decades, using the tubes and tunnels reserved for ShipOps. Her mother had been ShipOps, and she’d shown her daughter some of the ways around the greatship only they knew. That had been before a tunnel had swallowed her up, one day. Another accident, they said.

So many accidents.

Yeni found levels below the ones she knew, below the ones anyone had even suspected. She found what looked like massive landing gear at the very bottom of the ship, and a marvelous, grimy window that looked out onto the cold vastness of space.

She thought she would find ShipOps around every corner, waiting for her, but she didn’t. They were nowhere in sight. They never came after her.

The only place she couldn’t go was the Red Pearl, the heavily guarded plaza in Center Garden where the Lord Captain and the commanders of ShipOps sat. This was where they made the decisions that determined where the greatship went on its endless journey through space, and where they ruled its population of five hundred million humans. It was the heart of everything.

But Yeni had no desire to go there. Whoever went to Red Pearl never came back.

 

A few conclusions began to penetrate the fog of loneliness and heartbreak that surrounded Yeni. There were not five hundred million people living aboard the greatship. There couldn’t be; where would they all be? Yeni knew how to calculate, and she knew that her own home section of Supardy, one of the more full sections, had only about five thousand. Many sections were simply empty.

Every official account said there were five hundred million, though. Those numbers never changed, and no one else seemed to think they were wrong.

But as she wandered long, empty corridors that wound through section after section, she knew they had to be. The greatship was full of nothing but ghosts and ruins.

She found the remains of sections long since abandoned. She traced her fingers over the mosaics on the walls, sat by the dormant fountains, and picked through the remains of gardens, all while that little sense of danger-change-danger constantly tickled the back of her mind.

But she could tell that many of these sections had been inhabited once, maybe a century ago. She found dates on some of the mosaics and in names scrawled on the floors. Sometimes she found other things, too. Like ancient scorch marks, or pieces of plastic with strange symbols on them. We fight, they said. And we will die for what we believe.

Where had everyone gone? What had happened?

She kept walking. She looked everywhere, poking her nose in and out of every corner.

Yeni told herself she was trying to find the truth, to piece together what had become of everyone, but it was more than that. At night she dreamed of warm skin that smelled like gardens, and arms tight around her as they flew together through the air.

 

And then one day she was walking through yet another massive, empty open square, picking through garbage and absorbing the beautiful, solemn silence, when there was a gust of wind and the sound of feet hitting the ground.

Yeni turned, and there she was. She wore a bodysuit several shades darker than her deep brown skin, and her hair had grown. It was straight, and neared her shoulders. Yeni fought the urge to touch it, to smell it.

“You,” she whispered, her heart leaping.

Wind smiled, and held out a hand. Yeni felt her welcome before the words formed in her mind.

Hello again.

“I’ve been looking for you,” said Yeni.

Joy. Anticipation.

And I for you.

Yeni stepped forward, trembling, aware of her own heartbeat, her own breathing.

“You remember me?”

Wind took her hand. Then her strong arms were around her again, and they were in the air.

 

They shot through vacant corridors and access tubes at dizzying speed. Yeni tightened her grip on Wind, pressing her head against the softness of her chest. In response, the woman gave her a quick, reassuring squeeze.

They flew up and up, then through an open space, then up again and into another dark access tunnel.

At last they alighted atop a promontory high above a circle of lights. Yeni looked down, dizzy, and clawed away from the edge. Center Garden, she realized once her heart stopped pounding. It was the night cycle, and and she could see the lights of the open plazas at the heart of the greatship below.

“You… why? Why did you come for me?”

But Wind only smiled.

“You don’t talk at all?”

Wind slowly shook her head no.

But then a thought slowly congealed in Yeni’s mind.

You saw me, long ago. You remembered.

“Yes,” said Yeni. “I know. You… you remember too? I don’t meet many people who remember. I…”

Yeni felt other things from Wind then. Loneliness. Longing. Hope.

And more.

Yeni didn’t hesitate. She leaned into the woman, inhaled that rich garden scent, and kissed her.

 

They sat high above the gleaming lights of Center Garden for hours, curled together, until the night ebbed and the day cycle began. Then Wind gathered Yeni into her arms again and leapt from the promontory. Yeni shrieked in alarm, but of course they didn’t fall. Instead, they sailed out high above the great open area below. Yeni could see the ceiling above, so close now, and the buildings and gardens below. She could even see Red Pearl at the core of everything.

She feared Wind might bring her back to where she’d found her, or even back to Supardy or even Bunda Forward. But instead she dove into a narrow access tube, and then there was darkness and the rush of air until they were somewhere new.

She alighted outside an ancient door, painted with symbols Yeni couldn’t even begin to decipher.

Wind pointed. “In there?” asked Yeni. The woman nodded. Yeni could sense something like urgency coming from her.

“Why?”

Because you remembered me.

She gathered her courage and opened the door.

There was a small room inside, filled with old equipment. At the center was a tank of some kind of solution, illuminated by a ghostly green light. Suspended within was the naked body of a woman.

She was small, and her hair formed a halo around her head. Yeni touched her own bald scalp, and thought of Wind. Most humans had stopped growing hair a long time ago.

The woman opened her eyes.

“Hello,” said a loudspeaker. “I am the greatship.”

 

Yeni sat on the floor, battling confusion. “But you can’t be.”

“At the heart of every greatship is someone like me,” the greatship said through the loudspeakers. Her lips didn’t move, and her eyes seemed like they were looking somewhere else. But her attention was riveted to Yeni, nonetheless. “Someone to be a guide, a living mind to contain the will of the ship.”

“So… you’re a computer?”

“Nothing so crude,” the woman—the greatship— said. “A vessel so vast can hardly help but become aware. My purpose is to be its consciousness. This is the bargain we struck with the Intres, long ago. This is the gift of Great Yea, long lost to the universe.”

Yeni didn’t understand any of what she was saying. None of it made sense to her. “What do you mean ‘every’ greatship?” she asked, plucking one fact out that made sense. “There are others?”

“Oh, yes. There were hundreds of us, once. My poor child,” said the greatship. “You’ve forgotten so much.”

“No!” said Yeni fiercely. “I don’t forget anything! I’m the only one who doesn’t forget.”

“Ah,” said the greatship. “Yes. I know. That’s why I asked Wind to bring you here.”

“Me? Why?”

“We need your help, Yeni.”

“What?” asked Yeni. “You must be joking. My help?”

“Yes.”

“Why me? I’m nobody! I’m just a hallway rat. A creeper. I don’t have a job anymore, I have no function. I’m dead weight.”

“You are no such thing. We need you because you’re like us,” said the greatship. “You’re like Wind, and you’re like me.”

Yeni turned to Wind, who stood watching them intently in the door. “But… you fly,” she said helplessly. “And you speak with your mind. How am I anything like you?”

Wind put a hand on her forehead, and Yeni heard words in her mind again.

Because you remember.

Foreign images flickered through her mind. Implants… men in a room… war… decisions. Forgetting.

Implants; everyone had them. But when someone decided that they should forget something, all it took was a simple, silent command sent from Red Pearl.

“People let things slip away from their memories,” said the greatship. “But you don’t. Your mind is different.”

Yeni stood silent, not daring to admit to anything.

“Long ago,” said the greatship. “There were people who could do things you’d think of as amazing, now. We could fly. We could heal ourselves in an instant. We were faster and stronger than humans. But there were so few of us. Eventually, there were only a handful, and even those died out. I was the last born; there were no more after me. But I always believed that someday, if we were careful, that these abilities would return to some of us again. Wind is the first of the new ones born. You were the second.”

“But… I can’t fly or any of that,” protested Yeni. “I’m nobody!”

She was Yeni, the woman who slipped through the cracks. The woman her own lover had stopped remembering.

“I’m nobody,” she insisted.

The greatship’s human body stirred. Her eyes focused on Yeni.

“You’re anything but. You remember. They can’t touch you. That’s why I need you,” she said.

“Why?”

“I’m dying. I must be repaired. We must try to save everyone before it’s too late.”

 

Wind walked on her own two feet, hand-in-hand with Yeni though the wide plazas and gardens near Red Pearl. All around, the people of Center Garden came and went, oblivious. There had to be thousands of people packed into this place. It was possible to believe, here at the heart of everything, that the greatship was still full.

The greatship herself had said otherwise. Yeni had been right; there were once hundreds of millions more here. But then there had been a terrible civil war aboard the greatship, and a full tenth of the population had been killed.

After that, most of the survivors had left the greatship’s smothering embrace to seek new lives on new worlds. Millions and millions had left, until at last the Lord Captain forbade them to dock at planets altogether.

And so, section by section, systems had been shut down to save energy. The remaining people had been consolidated into a dwindling number of places. The greatship herself calculated that there were fewer than a hundred thousand aboard, now. When the Select Board had objected to more shutdowns, the Lord Captain and ShipOps had eliminated them at Bunda Forward.

Yeni and Wind approached the forbidding, heavily guarded gates of Red Pearl. The greatship had told them that she could help somewhat, that she could from time to time subvert ShipOps’s protocols, but that over the centuries the Lords Captain had ensured that she could do very little on her own.

She could, however, open a certain door for a certain period of time.

They walked around the curving perimeter of Red Pearl until they found it; an almost seamless door set into the red wall.

They waited. Yeni’s hand felt small and warm in Wind’s. She thought of the stunner in one pocket, and the small data crystal with navigation orders on it in the other.

“I’m glad you found me,” said Yeni softly. “I’m glad you remember.”

Wind smiled at her, and squeezed her hand. Yeni could see no fear or nervousness in her eyes.

And then the door made a small beeping sound, and slid open. Wind dashed through, dragging Yeni behind.

 

Red Pearl was a labyrinth of connecting corridors, all of them full. ShipOps was all around them.

At first no one took notice of them as they navigated the outer layers. Their implants had been tuned to broadcast an “It’s okay for us to be here” signal to ShipOps.  But as they moved farther in towards the heart of Red Pearl, they were stopped and questioned more and more. At last, their cover story about delivering certain documents to an office somewhere in the complex failed them, and they were surrounded.

Yeni fingered the stunner she had hidden in her pocket. She could set it off, and everyone around her would collapse—including Wind. Then she’d have to run alone to the center of the complex to find a place where they could connect the data crystal to the greatship’s navigation systems. When that happened, the greatship could take control, and guide them to a planet where they could be repaired.

She tensed, readying the stunner.

But Wind put a hand on Yeni’s arm. Not yet.

And she rose into the air.

The ShipOps people gaped at her, then all looked off into the distance. Yeni felt that same little tickle at the back of her mind.

Confused, the ShipOps people wandered away. Wind gave Yeni a triumphant grin, then rocketed off down a now-empty corridor.

Understanding dawned, and Yeni laughed. Wind was the kind of thing that merited an automatic memory purge. It had happened to her mother, once, long ago, and then to Shan.

She might be that herself, now, she thought as she hurried after Wind.

 

They encountered no additional resistance. The corridors leading to the navigation center were entirely empty. Yeni began to panic as they traversed one empty hall after another. It shouldn’t be like this, not here in the heart of the greatship!

At last a set of doors opened in front of them, and they were suddenly drawn into a bright room by a strong gust. The doors slammed shut behind them.

A lone figure sat at the center of the room, surrounded by monitors, input devices, and complex equipment. She recognized him at once; he was the one person aboard who would never, ever be forgotten,

“So you’ve arrived,” the Lord Captain said. He was ancient and wizened, his skin dry and sagging. “I knew it as soon as she opened her door in the wall.”

Yeni gathered herself and stepped forward, anger spiking. “You—you’re the one who changed everyone’s memory. You’re why they forgot so much!”

He shook his head. “It was necessary.”

“How could it possibly have been necessary!” Yeni exclaimed.

“You don’t understand,” he said scornfully. “You’re just children. You can’t comprehend how it was, during the wars. Millions died in the last civil war; the greatship was nearly destroyed. And then when I acted to preserve what little was left after war and exile, they fought me again! More war and death. So I did what I had to do. I made them forget.”

“Not me,” said Yeni defiantly, feeling brave. Wind’s hand tensed around hers; she ignored it. “I remember. You can’t make me forget.”

“There are other ways of forgetting,” said the Lord Captain. “But tell me, young ones, what’s worse? Another war, filled with suffering and death, or a whole greatship full of happy people who forget things from time to time? Which is the greater evil?”

“She’s dying,” said Yeni. “The greatship. You have to find a planet where we can be fixed. There are repairs she has to have!”

He shook his head, a hollow look in his eyes. “I can’t do that. People would leave. Others would come aboard. The wars would start again. So many would die… so many.” He looked at them with his sad, heavy eyes. “The Select Board thought I was evil, as well. A monster.” He tapped his head. “But I remembered the wars. I remembered the bitterness, the thirst for blood and vengeance. It fed off itself, until it would explode in fire and death. There was no way to ever stop it… until I had an idea. I thought—what if we simply forgot what divides us?” He banged his fist on the arm of his chair. “I have saved us.”

“But she’s dying!” insisted Yeni.

She told you that,” said the Lord Captain, his eyes narrowing. “But she lies. She would do anything to undermine me. She despises me, and all of the Lords Captain who have dared try and exert their will against her. I’ve had to act to neutralize her. It’s my job to protect this ship. I was born to protect this ship!”

He stood, wobbling, and then he spread his arms and lifted off the ground.

Yeni gasped.

“I will protect us!” he bellowed. The room seemed to hum with the buildup of electricity. A bolt of lightning singed the ground near Yeni. She screamed and dove for cover.

Then there was a terrible scream unlike anything Yeni had never heard before.

Wind!

She streaked through the air, smashing square into the Lord Captain’s chest,and carrying him across the room. They crashed into the wall, and then he was above her.

Lightning struck Wind over and over again.

“No!” cried Yeni, thumbing the stunner’s trigger.

 

Wind and the Lord Captain both lay inert on the ground. Wind’s breathing was shallow and ragged, but she was alive. The Lord Captain had landed hard, and his own breathing was far more labored. His legs were splayed at a funny angle, and his ancient head was covered in bruises.

Somewhere she heard a distant alarm sound.

“Greatship,” whispered Yeni. She withdrew the data crystal. “Did you lie to me?”

There was no response. The greatship couldn’t talk to her here. She might not even be able to see her, here in the middle of Red Pearl.

The Lord Captain had been right about the war. It had really happened. Did she really want to bring back war and strife? Did she dare?

Her hand hovered by the interface. All she had to do was insert the crystal, and the greatship would have control. They’d make for the nearest planet with facilities to fix the many things that had gone wrong. The greatship’s engines were magnificent and powerful; they’d be there in only a few weeks.

“You said Wind was the first,” she said. “And I was the second. But that can’t be true. Did you not know about the Lord Captain? Or did you keep it from me?”

She called up the navigation system. It was all open to her, here in the room.

There was a star system with a habitable planet nearby. They had drifted towards the edge of the galaxy, where few  of the galaxy’s hundreds of sentient races lived. There was a small colony of humans on one side of it, and no repair facilities in orbit.

The other side was empty. They could be there in less than a day.

Wind groaned from nearby. Yeni looked over at her. Soon the Lord Captain would rise, as well. She had to act quickly.

“I’m sorry,” she said, not sure who she was addressing. Wind? The greatship? The Lord Captain? Herself? “This can’t continue. We can’t live as a people who always forget. We can’t go back to fighting in the corridors. We… we must start again.”

She input the command. The greatship seemed to shudder and moan as it changed course.

Yeni sat next to Wind, stroking her hair as she stirred into wakefulness, and waited.

 

Brilliant sunlight fell on her shoulders and head, and her skin pimpled as a cold breeze buffeted her. The sky was so empty, no ceiling above! Some people screamed and cried as they made their way from the dead hulk of the greatship, but some wept with joy.High above, Wind flew in great looping circles. Yeni could hear her joyous laughter, and smiled to herself.

They would remember her now, thought Yeni. They would remember both of them.

She guided a slight woman dressed in a simple robe over the uneven ground. She walked unsteadily and hesitantly, as if her limbs hadn’t seen use in thousands of years.

“How do you feel?” asked Yeni.

The woman looked back at the massive ruin of the greatship. The wind stirred her long dark hair, and she swayed back and forth in the breeze.

“Smaller,” she said at last.

 

END

 

Episode #64: “Sabuyashi Flies” by Sebastian Strange

Episode #64: “Sabuyashi Flies” by Sebastian Strange

January 1, 2019

 

 

Episode 64 is a GLITTERSHIP ORIGINAL and is part of the Spring 2018 issue!

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

 
 
Sabuyashi Flies
by Sebastian Strange
 

Sofie Faucher advertised her solution to the age-old magic problem well. I can still remember the first night I stepped out of Ellen’s dorm building, late, and looked up to see one of Faucher’s billboards; a crisp square of white and silver against the darkest, featuring Faucher’s trim torso and winning smile. Her large dark eyes were fixed on the future, somewhere behind me and much higher up, and her hands clasped a glass pitcher full of shimmering silver.

NOBODY HAS TO DIE was written across the bottom. FAUCHER’S SPARK.

[Full story after the cut.]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 64. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Today we have a piece of original fiction, "Sabuyashi Flies" by Sebastian Strange, and a poem, "how to exist in between" by Danny McLaren.


Danny McLaren is a queer and non binary writer who uses they/them pronouns. They have been writing short fiction and poetry for as long as they can remember, but only entered the world of publishing this year. They are currently an undergraduate student majoring in gender studies. They often explore themes associated with mental health, gender, identity, and social justice in their work. They are an editor and co-founder of Alien Pub, an arts and culture magazine.

 


 

How to exist in between

 

find a crack in the floorboards where you can hide.
this will be your home.
don’t worry if you can’t fit now; their words will make you feel small enough to fall through the slats eventually.
listen to the footsteps and laughter above,
hear how they stomp around with violent intent.
know they’d crush you if they knew you were here.

teach yourself to be quiet enough that no one pays you any attention.
it’s better to go unseen than draw the eye of someone unkind,
someone with a word or two for people like you.
feel their eyes on you either way,
and know that the questions about your hair, your clothes, your voice, are already on their lips.
walk faster, so that you’re gone before they can speak.

take note of what they say when they think you can’t hear.
scribble them all down in the back of your notebook,
everything overheard in the back of a lecture hall,
or on the bus,
or to your mother,
save them for a time when you will need to be reminded why you exist,
why you continue to exist.

ask them to call you by your name.
when they don’t, hold your tongue.
when they ask if you are a boy or a girl, say no.
you do not owe them an answer, least of all to a question for which you have none.
remember how they seem to take offence to your pronouns, as if your existence has anything to do with them.
know that these people are not worth your time.
know that one day you will find ones who are.

 


 

Sebastian Strange writes from Ohio but still feels like a New Englander. His fiction has been published in Mythic Delirium and Crossed Genres. Find him trying to figure out Twitter at @MonstrousMor.

"Sabuyashi Flies" was narrated by Maria Rose.

Maria Rose is a graphic designer, writer, astrologer, classicist. Sometimes saturnine, mostly eccentric. You can hear her audiobook narration work in “Messengers of the Right” from University of Press Audiobooks or at Gallery of Curiosities Podcast.

 


 
Sabuyashi Flies
by Sebastian Strange
 

Sofie Faucher advertised her solution to the age-old magic problem well. I can still remember the first night I stepped out of Ellen’s dorm building, late, and looked up to see one of Faucher’s billboards; a crisp square of white and silver against the darkest, featuring Faucher’s trim torso and winning smile. Her large dark eyes were fixed on the future, somewhere behind me and much higher up, and her hands clasped a glass pitcher full of shimmering silver.

NOBODY HAS TO DIE was written across the bottom. FAUCHER’S SPARK.

Some of the early adverts, I heard, had the outline of a raven by the product name, or sketched on the glass container. The papers went briefly wild over it—she was said to be catering to Galenites, who were a fringe element and shouldn’t be catered to; then everyone printed letters from Galenites who supported Faucher and thought she was bringing in the future, and Galenites who thought she was perverting everything Galen Guntram had stood for and ought to be stopped. How, they didn’t specify; there was no law against taking Galen Guntram’s name in vain.

I just thought if you were really a Galenite, you would have to be pretty stupid to write in to a paper, because your letters would probably get seized by the police and used to track you. It wasn’t against the law to be a Galenite (yet) but it was considered unpatriotic and in bad taste. And in these days, those things could get you shot. L’Amérique la belle—that’s what my mother always muttered when she saw another death on the news.

She was Japanese, not French, but she learned a little French from my father; said she liked the sarcastic, slippery sound of it. My father came from France, but was Roma by birth; I don’t mention that part to most people; I’m tired of being asked about ‘living on the road’. I don’t know much about how my father lived, but I was born in America, in a slender apartment; number five in building number four in the housing for the magicians America had imported from other countries. Mama told me the walls were so thin everyone heard me crying, and before long the doctor opened the door to a handful of women bearing gifts. They were all from different countries, and only one of them spoke broken French and another knew a few textbook phrases in Japanese, but Mama said they managed to understand each other. Food and smiles and helping hand when it was needed—that was the language of people far from home. The crying child says, there is need, and in return you silently say I will help you, and an equally silent promise is made in return. Mama told me what all the women looked like, so if I ever met them again I could pay them back.

I never quite knew what she expected me to do. These days, I could offer them a spell, but back then I had my chubby fingers dipped in ink and four-fifths of my soul signed over to the Massachusetts Department of Magicians before I could write my name. The price for the housing, and the monthly allowance; my father had already used two of his spells when he’d heard about the program, and they’d wanted magicians with more to spare. So he’d thrown in his firstborn child and, amazingly, America shrugged and accepted.

L’Amérique la belle!

 

Faucher’s Spark appeared in my first year of college, and I tried it at the end of my second. My father was dying, of a sickness nobody could quite explain or pinpoint, so I’d started drinking a little to see if it dulled the pain. It didn’t do much, but at the third party I got into, the boy presiding over it all (Jack, English, stupidly rich) produced a bottle of Faucher’s and announced he’d be mixing drinks with it for anyone brave enough to try. Ellen, ignoring my horrified whispers, was the first to swagger forward and offer herself as a test subject. I watched as she swirled the silver liquid into her half-depleted drink, swigged the rest, and grimaced.

“It tastes nasty,” she declared, then shuddered. Put her hand out in the air with a look of wonder, more as if she were high than drunk, and snapped her fingers. Feathers materialized, tiny and glittery and perfect. Snap, and they became bubbles before they touched the floor.

She snapped again, but nothing happened. Turning around, she thrust her glass out at Jack. “I don’t care how horrible it tastes,” she said. “Fill it up.”

I went up somewhere in the second wave, the people who weren’t brave enough to leap forward immediately but didn’t want to feel left out. Jack dripped a tiny amount into my glance, giving me a half-smile. I couldn’t tell if it was cruel or flirtatious; either was equally unwelcome.

Faucher’s goes down smooth but sick-tasting, like meat and polluted earth. But in your belly, it sings. It warms you from the inside out, and makes you feel invincible. And when I held out my hands, a rain of jewel-like beetles pattered down into them. They clung tight to me, friendly but not invasive, crawling over my shoulders and tickling inside my shirt collar. They scared away a boy or two who got too near, and I whispered thanks to them.

I got drunk enough in the early morning to walk home, wanting to show my father, but by the time I got there they’d dissolved into nothing; leaving a thin, dry layer on my skin, like the aftermath of a soap bubble. My father believed me anyway, listened to my babbled descriptions of their beauty with his hand on my hand. “They sound wonderful, Sabuyashi,” he told me. “I’m sure your mother would have been proud.”

 

My mother was a beetle enthusiast. Her great-great-grandmother had discovered the sabuyashi beetle, and my mother lived joyously in the shadow of that glory. She died when I was twelve, but almost died before I was born; she stowed away on a ship out of Japan when she was eighteen (having presumably exhausted the store of interesting beetles in Japan) and was found mid-voyage. It was between wars but women have rarely been treated kindly on the sea, especially when they don’t speak the language the sailors know. My mother spoke only a few words of English, the language they tried to address her in, and lost them all in her fright. She only survived because one of the men spoke up for her, pointed out to his fellows that she seemed harmless enough.

She never told me that man’s name or what he looked like, and she told me why shortly before she died. “He wanted something from me, Sabuyashi,” she said. “Something I didn’t want to give. It’s not important whether he got it or not; what’s important is that you recognize there are people who will offer help, and not truly mean it. Learn to recognize those who mean it and those who don’t.”

I don’t know if I’ve learned to tell the difference yet, but my mother escaped from the man’s clutches when they stopped at their next port. She dove into the winding streets of a city she didn’t know with nothing but her case full of beetle specimens, and somehow survived. That’s always how she put it—somehow, with a little shrug.

“How?” I’d ask. I was practical and stubborn as a child; uncertainties bothered me.

“Oh, you know—by the grace of God. With magic.”

“But you’re not a magician.”

She’d always shrug and start humming. After ten minutes of humming and fruitless questions on my part, she’d pick up the story again as if she’d never left it, telling how a sabuyashi beetle had led her to my father. He had met her when he took his mother to the local doctor, and found a strange woman hovering around the doctor’s doorstep, examining beetle nests through a magnifying glass. “And he fell in love,” she proclaimed, “the first moment he saw me.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said. I was a rude kid. “Nobody does that.”

“He did! He fell in love the moment he saw me. I could see it in his eyes. All because sabuyashi beetles had brought us together. And magic.”

Even at nine, I knew how magic worked. “Magic comes from the soul,” I told her, with the patronizing tone only available to ninety-year-old professors and nine-year-old children. “It can’t be produced without sacrifice, and you can only do five spells before you die. Magic doesn’t make people meet.”

“It did with us,” she’d say, and start humming again. I thought she was mean, at nine years old. I’d just begun to comprehend that I’d had a chunk of my life signed away before I could hold a pen, and it seemed incredibly unfair. I hated magic and resented my father, and it seemed callous to love them both so obviously in my presence.

Now it just seems callous of the world to take her before I could comprehend how brave she was. I used to blame God, but I’m old enough to put two and two together now, and know that God didn’t make her vanish into thin air. I don’t know whether it was some idiot’s grudge held from the second war against anyone with a Japanese face, or a killer who targeted any kind of woman, or a goddamn accident someone decided to cover up in a shallow grave. I only know she’s gone, and magic can’t bring back the dead. Not even Faucher’s can manage that.

 

“But we’re working on it,” Sofie Faucher told me, during my interview at the Spark store. “I don’t believe in ‘impossible’.”

I nodded, awe-stricken. I hadn’t been prepared to meet her; I’d been assigned an interview with the store manager, a thin man called Martin with a Galenite tattoo on his upper arm that had been awkwardly converted from a raven into a constellation in the night sky. But Sofie had slid through the door five minutes past the assigned time, announced brightly that she liked to drop by stores and interview various candidates herself, and taken my resume from my surprised hand.

“Nobody has to die,” I quoted, finding my voice. Sofie smiled brilliantly, and my heart flopped from side to side.

“You got it! Of course that referred to the old way of doing magic, the…” she gestured, frowning, “…ripping your soul into pieces thing… Honestly, how did that get off the ground? What fifteenth century geniuses discovered you could rip your soul, your God-given life, out of your body and decided it was a good idea?”

I shrugged helplessly. My father had called it the most beautiful sacrifice possible. He’d never been a Galenite, but he’d died in a way they all dreamed of; using his last spell in a selfless gesture. “I’m already dying,” he’d said to me, gently, as I screamed. “Don’t get excited.”

He somehow made me love and hate him with everything he did. Sofie brought me back to the real world by exclaiming over the front page of my resume, which she’d finally gotten around to reading.

“Sabuyashi, like the beetle?”

“Yes.” My hands clenched tight on my knees. I’d asked the Department for permission to use a less strange name on job applications, but they’d denied me. I don’t doubt they’d rather see me jobless, surviving only on the magician’s allowance. “I’m descended from the woman who discovered it.”

“Never heard of who found it, but that is a wonderful coincidence. What do you think we use to give Faucher’s its silver color?”

“The exoskeletons?”

“Exactly! Sabuyashi, I do believe this is a coincidence ordained by God.” Sofie held out her hand and I took it, not sure of what she was doing, not sure what to do when she clasped it with both of her own. She looked into my eyes. “You’re not getting the counter job,” she announced. Before my face had time to fall, she continued. “You’re coming with me to where we make Faucher’s. You’re going to help me bring our magic to the whole wide world.”

I didn’t believe my mother when she said you could fall in love in a moment. I wasn’t sure I believed my own lips when they said, “That sounds wonderful, Miss Faucher.” The whole meeting with Sofie felt like a dream.

But it became easier to believe when I went to the MDM the next day and filed my right-to-move paperwork, and easier yet a week later when I demonstrated, in front of a very annoyed committee, that I could down a bottle of Faucher’s and produce magic without harming my precious soul. “Therefore,” Ellen announced, tapping my paperwork and leveling her best negotiator gaze at the men, “there is no reason for my client to undergo surveillance and live in state-mandated housing. She will be able to produce the two spells she still owes you at any time, with no danger that she’ll use her magic up before then.”

They’d argued. Primarily that the formula to Faucher’s Spark was still a company secret, locked down tighter than the Coca-Cola recipe, and it was sure to be discovered to be made out of some unpatriotic material soon, and then where would I be? I finally signed an agreement stating I’d return to them in a hot second when Faucher’s folded, or risk jail time. Then we skipped town before they could figure out I wouldn’t come back if there was a gun to my head, and that Ellen wasn’t formally a lawyer yet. Sofie had already gone ahead, but when Ellen left me at the train station with a kiss to the cheek that made my heart jump, I found myself in the company of three other women on the way to Faucher’s headquarters. They all looked whiter than me, but they were polite enough; one told me stories about her great-grandmother, who was Chinese, and I was forgiving of her ignorance. We pooled our money for a bottle of wine and drank to our beautiful futures in the dining car, too full with thoughts of magic to be hurt by mundane things.

 

I discovered that while I’d assumed my role would be in managing things behind the scenes, Sofie had something different in mind for me. “You’re going to be one of the faces of Spark,” she told me, positioning me in front of a mirror. “We’ll have you photographed, perhaps painted as well. You’ll do demonstrations at parties. The girl who escaped the old way of magic and embraces the new. You’re perfect for this, Sabuyashi.”

Looking at her brilliant eyes in the mirror, I couldn’t tell her no.

She lingered even after she’d passed me into the hands of dresses and makeup artists, and I didn’t know whether to be pleased or terrified. She was more than a decade my senior, and looked like a woman accustomed to getting what she wanted, and I doubted what she and I wanted would quite match—women made my heart sing, but nobody ever roused my body. I could understand the appeal of sex in theory, but shied from it in practice. But for the moment I couldn’t help but enjoy her admiring glances, the compliments she offered on every potential dress.

I had always dressed plainly, especially during the years in college that I felt lower than I ever had before, but I didn’t dislike pretty things; just couldn’t quite figure out how they worked. It was a strange, disquiet joy to watch myself transform in the mirror from a recognizable slip of a woman to a glittering stranger. They swathed me in silver and white, painted my eyelids with silver dust. “This is made with sabuyashi beetles as well,” the girl on makeup told me; meant kindly, I knew, but it made my stomach churn for a moment. I wasn’t sure why; my mother loved beetles, but nature was far more vicious than man to them. You couldn’t get sad about them dying without being sad every three seconds, and I didn’t want to be sad. I never wanted to be sad again.

And finally, they put a glass jug in my hands. I felt myself slip into a dreamlike state again as I was photographed; I felt as if I were looking at myself from the outside, from below that billboard years ago. “We’re working on new slogans now,” I hear Sofie saying distantly, as if I’m underwater. “Something to work with how angelic you look, how you don’t have to be trapped as a state magician anymore. Whole and Free.”

“The Sabuyashi flies,” a woman pinning my skirt suggested.

“Clever, but I’m not sure if enough people will get it.”

“The sabuyashi beetle doesn’t fly when it’s silver,” I heard myself saying. “It’s only after it sheds the silver coat that it flies. It’s brown then, and has three markings—”

“That’s nice, sweetheart,” the woman pinning my dress said. “Nobody will know that.”

The camera flashed again and again, people cooed and argued, and I swam around the space above myself. I only drifted back down when someone took the jug out of my hands and Sofie put a hand on my shoulder. “I must run now,” she said, “but we’ll see each other soon enough. Get some rest, say some prayers. You look dazed, darling.”

Someone else was holding my hand. I turned my head groggily to find a woman wiping off some silver glitter that had stuck to my wrist; she had paused, and was frowning at the paper-thin scar that ran up the inside of it. I pulled my hand away, and said to Sofie, “I’m just tired. Too much of a good thing.”

Perhaps that was right. Perhaps that was why alarm bells kept ringing inside my head; I wasn’t used to good things happening, much less so many of them at once. I already knew my brain was slightly broken, had been since I was a child. That shouldn’t stop me from enjoying life.

 

There’s no way I can say that my sadness broke after my father died without seeming heartless. But it did; it broke like a storm, or a sudden overflowing of tears after several hard weeks—transforming from a continual, dull ache of depression into the rich depths of grief. I wept more than I ever had before, and after a while my tears dried. I could get out of bed again. I felt hungry, I could picture tomorrow in my head. Not next week or next month, but tomorrow was a victory in itself.

My greatest fear was that I hadn’t really escaped the cloud that had hung over me for so long; that this was only a temporary lift, a hill rising out of the darkness, and before long I’d be going down again. I’d barely survived it last time. My greatest hope was that I could keep it at bay, because I had a theory and so far it had worked.

When I was a teenager, just before I’d entered college, the Department had demanded one of the spells I owed them. I’d been transported from my front door to a helicopter to a slimy bank over a rapidly flooding town, pointed at a broken dam and told to fix it. I didn’t remember the next few hours; my father told me, later when he was bringing me tea in bed, that I’d mended the dam and replaced all the water where it had come from, then screamed and collapsed.

I still don’t remember how I’d ripped a piece of my own soul out. Nobody could explain how it happened; some could do it and some couldn’t, like the ability to raise a single eyebrow or curl your tongue a certain way. But afterward I’d gone to college, and started to barely make it to my classes, and started to stay in bed longer each day and find it harder to eat and wash my hair and do all the little things that make up staying alive.

I needed the spell to be the reason that it had happened. Because if that was true, I’d be OK. With Faucher’s Spark, I’d never have to damage my soul again. And even if I had only dubious faith in God, I did value whatever intangible thing lived inside me; if I had to sell Spark to keep it whole, I’d do it gladly.

I tried to make myself stop wondering what it was made of, other than sabuyashi wings.

 

Drinking had never quite worked for me; I didn’t have the tolerance for alcoholism. But magic—that I could get drunk on.

I went to parties and met polite, shriveled old men who I’d later learn held some government office I had never heard of. Occasionally I’d get something familiar, like a mayor, which was refreshing. Once the government personage was a stunning red-haired woman, her eyes bruised with lack of sleep. I poured her and I small glasses of Faucher’s and showed her how to make little butterflies appear from her cupped hands. Her smile stayed imprinted on my mind for weeks, shadowing me at other parties, making me smile when there was nothing to smile about.

Most people didn’t want to touch Faucher’s themselves, not yet, despite its popularity among the richer parts of the new generation. So I’d swig a bottle in as genteel a manner as possible, trying not to grimace over its taste, and do requests. After Sofie put a blanket ban on anyone asking for ‘adult material’, things got more fun. I’d pull coins out of people’s ears, produce tame snakes out of lady’s hats. I’d move on to bigger things, folding napkins between my hands and shaking birds out of the folds; making a rainstorm briefly appear around the house, when the weather was favorable. When the weather wasn’t, I spent fifteen minutes explaining clouds to belligerent guests, internally bemused over how much they wanted rain.

It had rained at my father’s funeral.

I made myself a living cloak of sabuyashi beetles, and enjoyed the way people cringed away or looked at me with fascinated eyes. I spent half an evening showing an adventurous girl how to make sparks appear when she snapped her fingers, and left the party dizzy, with the taste of the wine she’d been drinking on my lips. I made a barren rosebush bloom in three different colors.

I discovered the first small, caustic burns around my lips and eyes three weeks in. Sofie spaced my performances out after that, murmured something reassuring about Spark being mildly irritating to the body in excess, but not truly dangerous at all. The burns faded, but I began to dream; not nightmares, but strange dreams. That I was going to a corner store in a part of town that I’d never been to, that I was hurrying home through a side street where all the signs were in Spanish but I could read them easily. That I was standing over a man with a gun in my hands, and I was trying to remember something I’d read in a book about disposing of bodies.

“What is Faucher’s Spark made of?” I asked Sofie, once.

She gave me an odd, gentle look. “Honey, ask when you really want to know.”

I didn’t ask again.

 

Blood was the one thing I couldn’t forget.

My father had never been a Galenite, but he’d admired their spirit. I understood that better after he’d died; and that answered another question, why he’d chosen the path of a magician for me before I could choose for myself. He was confident that I’d find the same beauty in it, no matter how I was restricted. Galen Guntram had been a state magician, after all; but he’d used his magic impulsively, for love and healing and and other selfish things, until they cast him aside in disgust. Then he’d died young, saving some other lives with his last spell, and so got martyred when he might have only been a failure.

I’d never been a Galenite, and when I was younger I couldn’t imagine tomorrow, much less finding beauty in a life that had already been signed away. Still, I can’t remember exactly what prompted the night I’d called a nurse to come see my father in the morning, locked myself in the bathroom, and opened a medical textbook to the section on veins. I still can’t remember the pain, or my father’s voice; just the slow, mesmerizing drip of blood from my body, and how it had finally stopped when my father closed his hands over my wrists.

 

Blood was, clearly, what Faucher’s was made of.

“It’s more complicated than that,” Sofie said. We were sitting in her office; I’d pulled myself away from party preparation, already dripping silver and white, to sit in the chair across from her and point out the obvious. “It’s the essence, the soul it carries—and people donate it freely, you know.”

“What people?” I could already guess; like I’d known about the blood for a long time, while turning my eyes away from it.

“Criminals, darling.”

“Prisoners.”

Sofie smiled. “Same thing, isn’t it? They’re even compensated for it—not much, but more than they deserve. But it might cause upset, you know? People wouldn’t like to think of themselves—”

“Drinking blood.”

L’Amérique la belle.

“Exactly. But it’s not like some people don’t know. I tell the people I do business with; they come around to it all right.”

I looked down at my hands. “So instead of damaging your own soul, it’s outsourced to dozens of other people. That doesn’t seem right.”

“Sabuyashi,” Sofie said, putting down her pen. “These are people with previously damaged souls—thieves and liars and killers. Not people like us.”

“Good people.”

“That’s right, honey.” She paused, and a note of regret entered her voice. “But if it’s too much of a problem for you, we could let you go. You’re perfect for this, but we can always find another girl who’s perfect for it, if you don’t want—”

“I do want,” I said, and I knew she could hear the truth in my voice. “I want to keep doing this. I want the magic.”

She touched my chin, smiled at me. “Then I’ll see you tonight.”

 

I did want the magic.

Faucher’s Spark was how magic should work, I felt. A potion you could drink, that anyone could drink. Snap and you can make a little rainstorm. Snap and you can make a beetle that sang like a lark. Snap and you could kiss a girl without feeling quite so terrified. Good little magics, not the complex set-pieces and dramatic gestures of soul spells. No pain, just the unquiet dreams left behind in the blood, in the silver threads of soul woven through it.

I stood at the heart of the group, my lips sticky with glowing paint and my eyes dusted with sabuyashi silver, and smiled at a man I vaguely recalled worked with the President. I held the bottle of Faucher’s before me and I asked, as I had asked a dozen times before: “Do you want to see some magic?”

My mother had spoken of magic like a force beyond our control, and I had called it sacrifice. Maybe we were both right; I felt like I was watching from outside of my own body as I opened my hand and let the bottle fall to the floor, to shatter in wet pieces on the hardwood.

But I was inside myself, fully and painfully, when I met Sofie’s betrayed eyes across the room and called on my own soul.

Nobody would recognize the beetles as sabuyashi beetles, I knew, because they were brown instead of silver. I saw a camera flash as I scattered into a million pieces, and I wondered if I’d make the front page. I had to laugh at myself for my own self-absorption. Then I was lost, whirling in a million directions. I was on the doorframe and crawling over a senator’s shoes and buzzing in Sofie’s snarling face, and a hundred or so of me were escaping out the window. Twelve or so of me started wondering if beetles had souls, and a dozen others were crushed and killed, but that left more than enough to get the job done.

Sofie didn’t fear me because no matter what I did, I was one girl. And she might not know whether to fear me as a thousand or so beetles. She should. A thousand or so beetles can whisper a secret to a thousand or so people, and they’ll pass it on to more, and yet more—

In my wanderings, maybe I’ll meet the women who greeted my birth with gifts. I think, in return for their kindness, I’ll give them a story. It’s about how I lived because of my mother and my father and the grace of God, and magic. It’s about how I’m trying to change the world by the smallest fraction, so others can change it further. It’s about how the sabuyashi beetle gathers small particles of silver and plasters them into its exoskeleton, and nobody yet knows why. Some of them are crushed under the weight, and some of them shed that layer and fly.

END

 

 

“how to exist in between” is copyright Danny McLaren 2018.

“Sabuyashi Flies” is copyright Sebastian Strange 2018.

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

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes. You can also pick up a free audio book by going to www.audibletrial.com/glittership or buying your own copy of the Spring 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of “A Memory of Wind” by Susan Jane Bigelow.

 

 

Episode #63: “Gravedigging” by Sarah Goldman

Episode #63: “Gravedigging” by Sarah Goldman

January 1, 2019

GRAVEDIGGING

by Sarah Goldman

 

When I woke up, I noticed first that Clarissa was there, because she was always the first thing I noticed.

I noticed three things immediately after that: it was dark, I could feel dirt under my fingers, and my mouth tasted disgusting, like charcoal and rubbing alcohol and cotton.

"What the fuck?" is what I tried to say, except I don't think the words came out quite right. I started coughing and I couldn't stop.

"Just give it a second," Clarissa said, rubbing my back. I got a good look at her once the coughing subsided and my eyes stopped watering, and she looked like she'd been run over by a truck a few times: dark circles, greasy hair, unwashed skin. Clarissa always tried to look as put together as people expected her to be. I'd seen her look this messed up once or twice before, and it never meant anything good.

 

 

[Full story after the cut.]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 63! This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to share this story with you. Today we have a reprint of “Gravedigging" by Sarah Goldman.

This story is part of the (late) Spring 2018 issue of GlitterShip is available for purchase at glittership.com/buy and on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. If you’re a Patreon supporter, you should have access to this issue waiting for you when you log in. We also have GlitterShip Year Two available in both ebook and paperback formats to add to your queer science fiction collection.

GlitterShip is also a part of the Audible Trial Program. This means that just by listening to GlitterShip, you are eligible for a free 30 day membership on Audible, and a free audiobook to keep.

If you’re looking for an excellent queer book to listen to, check out Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. This book has a ton of cool concepts and really intriguing characters. If you're a fan of patent-fighting drug pirates or AI characters working out their identities, this is the book for you.

To download Autonomous for free today, go to www.audibletrial.com/glittership — or choose another book if you’re in the mood for something else.

 


 

Sarah Goldman grew up near Kansas City and studied sociology at Bryn Mawr College. She is a First Reader at Strange Horizons, and her short fiction has appeared in Cicada and Escape Pod. You can find her online at sarahmgoldman.com, or on Twitter @sarahwhowrites.

"Gravedigging" is narrated by A.J. Fitzwater.

A.J. Fitzwater is a dragon wearing a human meat suit from Christchurch, New Zealand. A graduate of Clarion 2014, she’s had stories published in Shimmer Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, and in Paper Road Press’s At The Edge anthology. She also has stories coming soon at Kaleidotrope and PodCastle. As a narrator, her voice has been heard across the Escape Artists Network, on Redstone SF, and Interzone. She tweets under her penname as @AJFitzwater.

 


 

 

GRAVEDIGGING

by Sarah Goldman

 

When I woke up, I noticed first that Clarissa was there, because she was always the first thing I noticed.

I noticed three things immediately after that: it was dark, I could feel dirt under my fingers, and my mouth tasted disgusting, like charcoal and rubbing alcohol and cotton.

"What the fuck?" is what I tried to say, except I don't think the words came out quite right. I started coughing and I couldn't stop.

"Just give it a second," Clarissa said, rubbing my back. I got a good look at her once the coughing subsided and my eyes stopped watering, and she looked like she'd been run over by a truck a few times: dark circles, greasy hair, unwashed skin. Clarissa always tried to look as put together as people expected her to be. I'd seen her look this messed up once or twice before, and it never meant anything good.

"Are you okay?" I asked. I had a little more luck with pronunciation this time. "You look kind of like death warmed over. No offense."

Clarissa started to laugh, loud and wild enough that it was more scary than comforting. When she stopped, I only had time to open my mouth to ask a question before her eyes rolled back into her head and she slumped over next to me in the dirt.

We were lying on dirt. It was dark. I looked up, and up, and up, and when I saw the edges of the hole we were in, I understood what Clarissa had done.

I clambered up the sides of the grave to get a good look at the headstone. I knew what it would say, but I had to see it.

It told me that May Tenenbaum had died at nineteen years old. If I'd lived another three weeks, I would have been twenty.

I sat back down next to Clarissa, passed out in my grave in the wedge of space she'd carved out next to my coffin. A crowbar lay beside us, where she'd used it to pry off the lid, next to the pile of small stones she'd brought for the spell.

I looked down at my fingernails, which were neat and manicured like they'd never been while I was alive, and I wondered if I should try to wake Clarissa up.

I'd seen her do this before, after she overexerted herself on a spell, and she'd always been all right afterwards. Her pulse, when I checked, was steady, so I stole her phone out of her pocket instead. The last day I remembered had been the fifth of June. My tombstone told me I'd died on the sixth. Today was the seventeenth. I must have been buried for at least a week or so, then. I know my father would've wanted me buried quickly, a Jewish funeral.

A good thing, too. No embalming fluid for Clarissa to deal with.

Performing necromancy on humans was a felony, and it was horrendously, skin-crawlingly terrifying besides. The idea had made me queasy when it happened in books or movies, when TV pundits went on rants. But from this side of things, it wasn't so bad. My hands were distressingly pale when I looked at them, and my head was in bad shape, but when I checked my face in Clarissa's phone camera, I honestly looked okay. Like I'd been at a fancy party, had too much champagne, fell down in the dirt outside. Messed up, but not a zombie.

I didn't feel dead at all.

What I should feel was furious. I should be demanding that Clarissa take it back. But I wasn't betrayed that someone I loved would do such an awful thing, like the girl in that modern day Frankenstein blockbuster we'd seen last month. I wasn't thinking about the greater good. I was selfishly and vainly glad, because the girl I would do anything for had done this for me. I'd seen the faces Clarissa made during that stupid movie, and yet: here we both were. Her passed out in a grave she must have spent all night digging up, and me alive when I should be dead.

I ran my fingers through her hair, and after fourteen minutes by the clock on her phone, Clarissa woke up.

She stared at me, and then she sat up too fast and almost fell right back down afterwards. I grabbed her shoulders to steady her.

"It worked," she said, watching me with wide eyes.

"It did," I said. "You still look terrible."

"Shut up," she said automatically, with no heat behind it. She put her hands against the sides of my face. I wondered, distantly, if my cheeks felt cold, or if my blood had already started to warm them up again.

Very suddenly, Clarissa yanked me into a hug, almost overbalancing the both of us. I hugged her back, and politely ignored the fact that she was crying into the shoulder of my nice dress.

"I'm okay," I said, because Clarissa probably needed to hear it. "If anyone isn't okay, I think it's probably you. Were you supposed to pass out?"

Clarissa snorted, and then shrugged without removing her face from the crook of my neck. "Occupational hazard," she said, muffled into my shoulder. After a moment, she raised her face, eyes puffy and red. "It happens sometimes, with larger—with anything more substantial." She'd probably been about to say ‘animals.’ I guess she didn't think I'd find the comparison flattering. I felt a little sick.

Clarissa wiped her face on her sleeve and shook out her hair, visibly trying to pull herself together. "We need to get out of here. The sun is supposed to rise in—" she fumbled for her phone before I handed it back to her, "—about ten minutes."

I immediately felt better. Following Clarissa's plans was something I was used to. Together, we gathered up her things and climbed out of my grave, using her shovel to push the soil back as best we could, and we walked out of the cemetery together, the sun rising at our backs.

 

Clarissa had always known how to make loud and spectacular mistakes.

Even as a kid, she made spellwork look easy. When we were ten, I watched her bring back our class's pet guinea pig. We all huddled around Clarissa, crouched in the dirt. She held a chunk of gravel in her hands and closed her eyes for a moment, and we were all sure that she was faking, that nothing would happen.

Then the guinea pig got up, and we had to race to catch it.

Afterwards, the other kids ran to show our teacher. I stayed behind with Clarissa. She was on her back, staring up at the sky, tossing the piece of playground gravel that tethered the guinea pig's life up and down in her hand.

"That was amazing," I told her.

She shrugged, and coughed. "I missed him. What else was I supposed to do?" Then she looked at me and grinned, smile so bright I could feel it in my own stomach. "It was cool, wasn't it?"

Clarissa wore that little piece of playground gravel she'd used for the spell on a chain around her wrist, humming with warmth for as long as that guinea pig was still alive. She kept adding to the chain, too, doing stupid things like bringing back songbirds in the park, using chunks of gemstones she kept in her pockets to store their life. They all went out, eventually—necromancy wasn't a ticket to eternal life—but she did it often enough that there was always something warm on her bracelet, always a little piece of life hanging around her wrist.

When we were nineteen, nine years after she brought that guinea pig back to life and two weeks before I woke up with her in my grave, Clarissa asked me to go with her to a protest.

Necromancy unsettled people, but it wasn't really as uncommon as everyone thought it was. Clarissa had explained it to me once. It was just healing, in the end, and there were plenty of people who could do that. Except putting enough force behind the spell to draw someone back from death required more ability than almost anyone had.

Back when she was ten, people laughed, and told her that soon, she would know better than to do frivolous things like resurrect dead class pets. Telling Clarissa she couldn’t do something was never a good idea; I could have told them that. When we got older, no one thought it was cute anymore. She scared people. Historically, necromancers didn't turn out well, if you looked at Rasputin or van Hohenheim or Countess Bathory. Healers were dicey enough, if you asked the kind of people who campaigned against them working in hospitals or making vaccines.

The day I died, I was with Clarissa at a protest against a local bill that would prevent the teaching of magic in schools. I wasn't really into politics, honestly, but Clarissa was spitting mad.

"What do they think is going to happen?" she'd said, pacing back in forth in my apartment kitchen. "Magic is so dangerous, right? Well, if they don't teach kids anything then of course they're going to screw up, of course there's going to be accidents—you know my cousin, the one who can light fires? Can you imagine if he had no formal training?"

I sat at the kitchen table and nodded.

"There's a protest on 39th and Blackwood tomorrow night. Think of it as an early birthday present for me?" She didn't have to ask me if I would go with her, and I didn't have to tell her that I was coming. It was understood. That was who I was: I did what Clarissa asked.

My dad didn't want me to go, but I was nineteen, so I didn't have to sneak out my window, the way I always used to whenever Clarissa had a bad idea.

"Be careful, May," was all my father said as I left, right after I gave him instructions on reheating his dinner.

And once we got there, I was careful, up until some asshole from the other side of the picket pushed Clarissa, and she pushed him back, teeth bared. Then, suddenly I wasn't anymore.

Clarissa was dangerous when she got mad, and she shrugged me off when I tried to drag her back. She started yelling at the man who'd pushed her, and there were people all around us, and Clarissa wasn't listening to anything that I was saying in her ear.

"I know you," the man said to Clarissa. That wasn't very surprising; most people around here knew about Clarissa. He pushed her a second time, harder, and she would have fallen if I wasn't in her way.

"Clarissa, leave it." I steadied the both of us and rubbed at the bruises forming on my arm where she'd run into me.

She ignored me. "You got something to say?" she asked the man.

He didn't. What he did have was a mean right hook but terrible aim, and what I had was no self-preservation: I shoved my way in front of Clarissa, and I went down hard.

He was a bit like Clarissa, I think—he didn't know when to stop. The last thing I remember was his boot in my face, and a sudden, terrible fear that he was going to break my nose.

Touching it now, I didn't think he did. I could feel the place in the back of my skull, under my hair, where he'd got me instead.

 

We got some odd looks at the diner Clarissa took us to. That made sense—we both had dirt in our hair and smudged on our faces, and beyond that we didn't look much like we belonged together. I was wearing what I thought of as my synagogue dress, complete with pearls around my neck, but also a beanie I'd pulled from Clarissa's bag. Clarissa was dressed like she expected to be going grave-digging, in baggy jeans and boots, her hair pulled back into a bun. She still looked like she might pass out at any moment. It was obvious she'd been crying.

It was six in the morning at a twenty-four hour diner, though, so mostly everyone just ignored us.

Clarissa ordered coffee and eggs. I ordered tea, matzah ball soup, and a slice of banana cream pie. Even exhausted, Clarissa raised an eyebrow at me. I ignored her. We had more important things to worry about.

"Clarissa, what the hell are we going to do? I can't exactly go home." If my dad had any sense, which I happened to know that he did, he would call the cops in two seconds. Clarissa's family would certainly do the same. We didn't have anywhere to go.

An awful feeling crept into my stomach. There was no way this was going to work.

When my food came, the soup gave me pause: matzah ball soup was my dad's favorite. But I couldn't go home. I would never make it for him again.

When I looked up, Clarissa was watching me. "It's better when you make it, right?" she asked.

I laughed and went back to eating. Clarissa picked at her eggs, and I ended up finishing half of them for her.

"Do we have somewhere to sleep, at least?" I asked. Clarissa looked like she was about to fall over again.

"I'm fine," she said, swaying a bit, which was so very her that I couldn't help but smile.

"Of course you are. I could use a nap, though."

She sighed. "Alright. There's a motel nearby. We can rest there and then we can do whatever you want."

"Me?" I'm not exactly the planning type.

"What, there's nothing you want to do? No last requests?"

I stared at my hands, clutched tight around my tea. I didn't want to get caught, or for Clarissa to go to jail, or to never see my father again.

I wanted things to go back to the way they had always been. I wanted to be alive again, and what Clarissa had done was close to that. But not quite.

"I just want to spend time with you," was what I settled on.

She put her hands over mine, and tilted her head until I had to look her in the eyes. "Okay," she said, reassuring, like she'd heard all the things I hadn't said. "It's gonna be fine, May." Her voice was certain and steady like the stones wrapped around her wrist, and just then, I believed her.

 

Clarissa took the first shower, and was out like a light the minute her head hit the pillow. I grinned, and wasn't even bothered when I discovered that she'd used up all the hot water. At least that was normal.

After I dried my hair, I lay back on the other bed, not particularly tired. I couldn't help but think that if I fell asleep, the spell would snap, like a wire drawn too taut, and I'd never wake up again. That wasn't how this worked: anything Clarissa brought back would live out its natural lifespan. That guinea pig had lived to a very respectable age. I still couldn't bring myself to close my eyes.

So I sat cross-legged on the scratchy motel comforter and turned on the news, volume off and closed captioning on. Clarissa slept like a log once she was out, but if she woke up she'd probably refuse to sleep again.

I knew what I was going to see on the TV screen, but I still couldn't help but wince, seeing my grainy prom photo on display.

Somebody had noticed that the dirt on my grave wasn't quite how they'd left it, or that Clarissa had broken the lock on the gate, or maybe they'd just checked the damn CCTV, and so of course it was all over the news. Necromancy scandals were rare, because most necromancers didn't have enough power to do what Clarissa had done, and all the ones that did had enough sense not to.

I flipped through the channels for a while. There was coverage about the protest where I'd died, suddenly relevant again two weeks later. The police were looking for us, of course. There wasn't any doubt in anybody's mind what had happened—Clarissa was locally well known.

We were on the national news, too. I watched Megyn Kelly's mouth move silently as the subtitles talked about how this was just another example of the need for greater laws monitoring necromancers—scratch that, all magic. I turned the TV off before she could start talking about Jesus and I put my head in my hands.

After a while, Clarissa sat down beside me on the bed and put her hand on my back. She was very warm. Her hand was shaking a little, and I wondered if she was crying. I wanted to turn and hug her, bury my face in her neck, tell her what a goddamn idiot she was being.

Still, I couldn't help but treasure the thought that she was doing all these stupid, ridiculous things for me, just like I'd always wanted her to.

"May?" she asked, hesitantly, when I didn't move. "Is everything okay?"

I looked up at her and smiled as brightly as I could. "Of course," I said, as if the answer was obvious. She wasn't crying like I'd thought. Her hands just weren’t very steady. "Let's go. We really shouldn't stay here, Clarissa."

Clarissa stood. I helped her pack up our stuff. Her stuff, mostly. Everything fit into a single backpack, which I shouldered, glaring at Clarissa when she tried to take it. I followed her out the door.

 

We checked out of the motel, but we didn't make it to the train station, although it was only a few blocks away. There were two problems: people kept looking at us, speculatively, as if they were sure they'd seen our faces somewhere, and after about five minutes of walking Clarissa nearly collapsed, because between one step and the next it seemed that her legs couldn't hold her.

I grabbed her just before she went down, so we both stumbled but didn't quite fall.

"Clarissa?" I tried to get my arm under hers so that I could hold her up.

"I'm fine," she said, and it was less endearing this time around.

"No, you're not." I dragged her into the nearest store, an ice cream shop. I dumped Clarissa in a booth in the corner, grabbed her wallet out of her pocket, and went to buy something, both because it would look suspicious not to, and also because we could probably use it.

When the girl at the counter handed me my cup of ice cream, she also handed me a wad of napkins. "For your friend," she said, sympathetic.

I looked back at Clarissa, confused. She had her fingers pressed above her mouth, and her nose was bleeding. I winced.

"There's a free clinic a couple blocks over," the girl at the counter offered. "I think they have a few healers around at this time of day."

I thanked her, and took the ice cream and napkins back to the table. I handed Clarissa the napkins and sat down across from her as she pressed them to her face where her fingers had been.

"Thanks," she said, a little bit muffled.

"Are you going to tell me what's going on now?"

She closed her eyes and tipped her head back against the vinyl seat, napkins still pressed to her nose. "It's just a reaction to the spell," she said. "I'll be okay in a little while."

"A reaction is you sick with a cold for a week," I said, a little harsher than I intended. Clarissa opened her eyes. "This is different. I'm not stupid. It's never been this bad before."

"Well, why do you think that is, May?" Clarissa snapped. "I've never done something like this before. I knew this might happen, so don't worry about it, okay? I have it under control."

A thin stream of blood was leaking out from under the napkins. I grabbed another one off the table and leaned in to wipe it off for her. "Clearly," I said, and she glared at me.

"You're going back to bed," I decided, and Clarissa sat forward so fast she probably made her nosebleed worse.

"Absolutely not," she said. "You were right. We have to leave."

I looked at her, sitting across the table and trembling. I didn't think she noticed she was doing it. I wanted to reach out to her and hold her. "We can stay for another night," I said. "There's something I need to get before we go, anyway. I can sneak into my apartment and grab it tonight, and you can rest, and we can leave in the morning. Okay?"

She nodded, and didn't even ask what it was I needed so badly. It felt like there was a stone sinking in my gut. Clarissa was always asking questions, demanding answers.

I wasn't used to being the one who had to protect her and I wasn't sure I liked it. I took her arm and led her out of the shop, so we could find another place to stay for the night, and Clarissa let herself be led.

 

I left Clarissa at the new motel and I walked home. The apartment wasn't far, but it was hot, and I was still wearing Clarissa's beanie and my velvet dress.

When I got there, I went up the fire escape and climbed in my window, like I'd done so many times when I was younger. I hadn't seen my dad's car in the lot, and it was the middle of the day, so I had to hope that he wasn't home.

My bedroom hadn't been touched. I grabbed some clothes and some money, shoving them into my backpack, and I didn't let myself spend too much time looking around.

I'd left the book that I'd come for on the bookcase in the living room, although I had no way of knowing if it was still there. It was supposed to be my birthday present for Clarissa. She was always complaining about the lack of materials on necromancy, because almost all of them were rare or illegal or both, so I'd stalked eBay for a few months to get an old book for her. I didn't understand half of the information in it, but surely there was something in there that could help her. I had to at least look.

When I walked into the living room, I heard a crash from the kitchen before I'd taken two steps. For a moment I thought my heart had stopped again, but it kept beating, much faster and louder than I liked. I pressed back against the wall the living room shared with the kitchen and prayed that whoever was home didn't walk in here.

God, I shouldn't have come. Of all the stupid things I'd ever done for Clarissa, the one she didn't even ask for was what was finally going to screw us over.

There was another clang from the kitchen. This one was the telltale sound of my father knocking over a pan while he was cooking. By reflex, I almost offered to help him, but I clamped my hand over my mouth and kept quiet. I shouldn't have bothered. I knew exactly what was going to happen next: my dad would curse, and throw the pan in the sink, and go to find a hand towel from the linen closet. Which was in the living room, of course, where I stood.

I tried to step back into my bedroom before my father walked in, but there wasn't any time. I dropped my hand and bit my lip and desperately tried to think of what in the world I was going to tell him.

The moment my father caught sight of me, I knew. The change in his face was immediate.

I wanted to speak first, head off whatever he was going to say, but the words stuck in my throat like dirt. I choked and I said nothing.

It felt like I'd been here before, and it took me a moment to realize why. My frozen feet and the sick feeling in my stomach and the words trapped in my throat, the thought that if I moved or spoke or did anything that he would hate me—I had done this before. I'd been thirteen when I'd come out. But back then, I'd known, deep down, that he wouldn't care. This time I knew that he would.

"So it's true," he said. He folded and unfolded his arms, uncomfortable as I'd ever seen him.

I wondered if he would stop me if I tried to leave. I couldn't make my legs move. "Dad."

He took off his glasses and rubbed at his nose, and I closed my eyes against the tears fighting to escape.

I didn't think I'd ever see him do that again.

When I was thirteen, my father had opened his arms wide and hugged me, letting me hide my face in his chest. Now we stood apart, the few feet between us impassable.

There was nothing stopping me from stepping forward and closing the gap.

But I couldn't do it. If I did, he might step back.

"I knew that girl was trouble," he said, looking not quite at me but at the space above my left shoulder. It was a trick he'd taught me for public speaking, a long time ago.

I looked him in the eyes. "She's not," I said, and at least this conversation was familiar. We'd spoken this way about Clarissa hundreds of times.

It’s awful, to have to admit that your parents were right. It didn't matter that Clarissa was trouble. It didn't matter that she'd made a mistake, was always making mistakes. She was still my friend.

"I miss you," he said, and on the last word his voice broke.

I wondered what it was like to have something you loved in front of you, wanting it with all your heart, and still knowing that you couldn't keep it.

Then again, maybe I didn't have to wonder.

"I'm right here, Dad," I said. "I'm the same as I was two weeks ago."

He shook his head. "You're not. If you are, I'm going to have to bury you twice."

I couldn't help it. I was stung. Who was I, if I wasn't me? I turned my face away, looking at the book sitting where I had left it on the mantle, and I said, "I miss you too."

Dad looked at the book when I picked it up. "For Clarissa," he said, barely a question. I nodded.

"Please don't call anyone," I said. "Clarissa was just—she's my friend. They'll never let her go."

His jaw worked. "And you?"

I did my best to smile. "I'll be fine. She'll take care of me."

In the end, he nodded, and the last thing my father said to me was, "Goodbye."

And I suppose that's more than most people get.

I left the way I'd come, book clutched close to my chest.

 

I went back to the motel and settled on the rickety chair in the corner. Clarissa was still asleep, and I looked down at her present, sitting in my lap. The book was old and faded, pages falling out of its leather cover.

I flipped through it. I'd spent a lot of time imagining the face Clarissa would make when I gave it to her.

I tried to imagine Clarissa's expression if I told her that I'd gone home just to get a book on the off-chance that it might be able to help her, and I had to stop myself from laughing.

I wished I hadn't seen my father. I'd known that I couldn't go back, but seeing him threw everything into sharp relief: my father would never hug me again, never smile at me, never tell me that everything would be all right. Clarissa had brought me back, and I meant what I'd said to him. I was still me. But except for her, my life was gone.

Once, I would have thought that Clarissa would be enough. But now, I couldn't stop thinking of my father's face, of all the things he'd never say again.

I looked down the book, opened it to the first page, and started to read.

 

Clarissa was still asleep when I finished. I curled up next to her on the blanket and closed my eyes and listened to her breathe.

Her breathing wasn't very steady. She was shaking a little, even in her sleep, and her skin was so pale you'd think that she was the dead one.

I was so stupid, thinking for even a minute that this could work, and so was Clarissa.

I lay there for hours, fighting off sleep and watching her shake, until her eyes fluttered open and she looked straight at me.

"Hey," she said, a little muzzily.

I couldn't decide if I wanted to kiss her or hit her, so I asked her how she was feeling instead.

"Fine," Clarissa said, struggling to sit up. I sat up too and put my face in my hands. "Did you find what you wanted?" she asked, sliding an arm around my shoulders, like I was the one who needed comforting. But she was warm, and I couldn't bring myself to shake her off.

"Not really," I said, thinking of what I'd found in that book of hers. "Clarissa, what exactly are you hoping to get out of this, really?" We hadn't spoken about it, exactly, but it hung suspended between us: my existence was an abomination and a disgrace, and Clarissa was the same for making it happen. There was no place for us anywhere anymore.

And there was another thing we hadn't talked about. I took a deep breath, and forced the words out: "Clarissa, this is killing you."

She didn't seem surprised, which was the worst part of it, really. She'd known all along what she was doing to herself, and she did it anyway. It was just the stupid sort of thing Clarissa would do, knowing the consequences and not caring. Clarissa never knew when to stop. I loved her so much.

She didn't say anything. I tipped my head back to stare at the ceiling. "I can't believe you," I said thickly. "I don't want you to die for me."

"Well, I didn't want you to die," Clarissa said. "And you did anyway, and it was because of me. You can't expect me to just let that happen, not when I could—what's the point of all this, of all this shit I can do, if I couldn't help you? What was I supposed to do?" Her eyes were bloodshot and watery and she was trembling still, her hair falling in her face, and she was so, so beautiful.

"Clarissa," I said. "Look. I just don't see how you think this is going to end."

She looked at me, brow furrowed. "We'll figure something out," she said. "We'll catch a train tomorrow, and we'll keep running, and they'll have to stop looking eventually, and as long as we stay together, we'll be fine."

She believed it, too. She wouldn't have said it if she didn't.

We wouldn't be fine. Even if we never got caught, Clarissa's hands wouldn't stop shaking, her nose wouldn't stop bleeding, her teeth wouldn't stop chattering. I was killing her every minute I was alive.

And no matter what, neither of us could ever go home.

Clarissa hated being told she couldn't do something--the fact that I was here at all was proof of that. Sometimes, she just needed someone to stop her, if she wouldn't stop herself.

I took her face in both my hands and I kissed her.

It was funny. Since I'd met her, I could never remember a time when I didn't love Clarissa. I don't know why it never occurred to me, before all this, that she might be as hopeless for me as I was for her.

She kissed me back. Of course she did. She kissed me back, because she'd broken every law of magic, was working herself literally to death, just to keep me with her. I sat beside her on the crappy motel bed, her hands in my hair, and felt her breath against my cheek. I closed my eyes against it and willed myself not to cry.

She settled back on the bed, and I curled up beside her, so we were lying face to face. Clarissa breathed in deep, tucked her nose against the crook of my neck. "I thought I lost you," she said quietly. "I couldn't do nothing, May, you know I couldn't." I pushed her hair out of her face and kissed her forehead and held her hand, the one that had her bracelet, and I didn't say anything at all.

Maybe it had all been worth it, for the chance to have this with Clarissa. Even for just a moment.

She fell asleep with my hand running through hair, and I stole her bracelet.

Some of the stones on it were cool, inert, and some were faintly warm, and the uneven chunk of amethyst that I knew had to be me was hot to the touch. The stone was rough; I could see the places on her wrist where it had cut into her skin. I untied the knot on the cord and pulled the amethyst off.

I rummaged through the pile of our things in the corner until I found the crowbar from my grave. At the rickety table, I took out the book and opened it to the right section. I tucked the train ticket I'd bought for Clarissa between the pages and I left the other things I'd taken from my home for her: hair dye, a hat, baggy clothes, sunglasses, five hundred dollars from the emergency fund in my closet. Not much, but it might be enough to keep her free. And maybe Clarissa could have what I couldn't.

I looked at the book again. I guess I should have known that reversing the spell would be so simple. All I had to do was break the stone, and the connection would sever. Clarissa would be fine.

The crowbar was heavy in my hands. I turned it over a few times before I raised it over my head.

I thought about my father, about all the years of kissing Clarissa I'd missed out on, about how angry and hurt she would be when she woke up.

I thought of how Clarissa wanted so badly to protect everyone else, how desperately I wanted to be the one to save her, how she refused to let me, even when I'd died. Clarissa wanted me to live badly enough to destroy her entire life, and I was so used to wanting what Clarissa wanted. I'd tried to want what she wanted this time.

I couldn't. I didn't want this.

Mostly, though, I thought of the scratches the stone that tethered my soul had made on Clarissa's wrist, of her dying to keep me here.

I looked at the amethyst and smiled, and I brought the crowbar down.

END

 


“Gravedigging” was originally published in Cicada and is © Copyright Sarah Goldman 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. You can also pick up a free audio book by going to www.audibletrial.com/glittership or buy your own copy of the Spring 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original, “Sabuyashi Flies" by Sebastian Strange.

Episode #62: “Stories My Body Can Tell” by Alina Sichevaya

Episode #62: “Stories My Body Can Tell” by Alina Sichevaya

November 26, 2018

Stories My Body Can Tell

by Alina Sichevaya

 

My mama used to tell me I was born screaming, sticky, and uglier than every sin she’d ever known, which was all of them. I still like to remember that. Gives me a warm feeling in my stomach. Especially when it looks like I’m about to die the same way.

I’m remembering it now. My throat feels skinned, but on the inside, and my lips stick to each other, the blood from my nose drying over them. It’s definitely broken, and one of my lips might be split. One of my eyes is swelling shut. I’ve had worse—I’m not exactly dying—but it hurts to breathe, and my ribs feel like they’re falling to pieces inside of me. They probably are.

 

[Full story after the cut.]

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 62! This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original, "Stories My Body Can Tell" by Alina Sichevaya and a poem, "Daddy Death" by Jeana Jorgensen.

This episode is part of the newest GlitterShip issue that is now available. The Spring 2018 issue of GlitterShip is available for purchase at glittership.com/buy and on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. If you're a Patreon supporter, you should have access to the new issue waiting for you when you log in. The new issue is only $2.99 and all of our back issues are now $1.49.

GlitterShip is also a part of the Audible Trial Program. This means that just by listening to GlitterShip, you are eligible for a free 30 day membership on Audible, and a free audiobook to keep.

If you're looking for an excellent book to listen to, check out Hild by Nicola Griffith which is a historical fantasy about the youth of St. Hilda in 7th century Britain. The book is full of lush historical descriptions and the sometimes brutal life of a young woman with extraordinary gifts.

To download Hild for free today, go to www.audibletrial.com/glittership — or choose another book if you're in the mood for something else.

 


 

Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dance, and sex educator. Her poetry has appeared at Strange Horizons, Liminality, Stone Telling, Enchanted Conversation, and Mirror Dance. She blogs at Patheos (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/foxyfolklorist/) and is constantly on Twitter (@foxyfolklorist).

 


 

Daddy Death

by Jeana Jorgensen

 

Death is just.
Death is fair.
Death was ours first
and still he loves us best.

I only had one father that mattered:
Daddy Death, godfather to lost boys like me
who arrived alone and quaking, newborns at the gates
of the club, too new to know our language, our customs.

I was Daddy Death’s favorite, strong and young,
a pup lapping up rules and adoration and learning so quickly
to spot our kind in the waking world:
the closeted businessman, father of four;
the baker, the lawyer, the burly school bus driver;
and more politicians than I could count.
I eyed them all, a specter of Daddy Death in my vision
nodding, as if to say, he is one of ours,
he belongs to our underworld,
if only he’d let himself.

Daddy Death is fair and even-handed with all
(even me; especially me)
bears and pups and dykes and more
meting out punishment when deserved
but oh so tender, so gentle with aftercare.

That was before the rumors,
the slow illness preying on us;
whispering grid, gay, go away
and the clubs closed as the body count rose.

Aging monarch on shadowy throne:
Daddy Death lasted longest
but stopped going out
(except for the appointments)
and I was his messenger boy.
I, who passed well enough in the straight world;
I, who charmed all the pharmacists;
I, who could still see unerringly
when I meet a man that
he is one of ours; he may yet escape the plague
though Daddy Death looms over his bed
each night, an invitation, a warning,
a man whose heart can hold us all.

Love is a door, love is a dungeon
where a tender man presses pain
into your skin and shows you to yourself.

Daddy Death waits for me in the next world
while I do his work in this one, shepherding boys
so young to be in so much pain, but so was I at that age
and now we know so much more,
and the medicine takes root in our bodies
and though decimated, we grow strong again.

 


 

Alina Sichevaya is a writer and student based in North Carolina. She is a graduate of the Alpha Workshop, was a finalist for the 2017 Dell Magazines Award, and her work has previously appeared in Strange Horizons. In her spare time, Alina plays a lot of Overwatch and waves a string around for her very large orange cat. She can be found on Twitter at @alina_sichevaya and you can visit her website at https://sichevaya.wordpress.com.

Our narrator is Kirby Marshall-Collins. Kirby is a Los Angeles-based writer and director with a hunger for authentic, hopeful storytelling. She got her start writing Disney spec scripts as a child before going on to gain a BA in Theater, Film, and Digital Production. She'd like to thank her high school English teacher for always volunteering her to read in class--if she can do "The Odyssey" solo, she can do anything.


 

Stories My Body Can Tell

by Alina Sichevaya

 

My mama used to tell me I was born screaming, sticky, and uglier than every sin she’d ever known, which was all of them. I still like to remember that. Gives me a warm feeling in my stomach. Especially when it looks like I’m about to die the same way.

I’m remembering it now. My throat feels skinned, but on the inside, and my lips stick to each other, the blood from my nose drying over them. It’s definitely broken, and one of my lips might be split. One of my eyes is swelling shut. I’ve had worse—I’m not exactly dying—but it hurts to breathe, and my ribs feel like they’re falling to pieces inside of me. They probably are.

The girl doesn’t punch me again. She doesn’t have to. I feel like my insides are turning into soup as she hauls me upright by my hair. Somewhere in the parts of my head that aren’t full of feeling-like-shit, I think that I need a haircut. “Tell Craiden where she can shove her cheap fists next time,” she hisses in my ear. Then, she bites it. Just for good measure. It could be hot, if she doesn’t then pull away and take part of it with her. I don’t scream. Or, I do, but I don’t have the air in me to do it right and it comes out in a low, embarrassing wail.

“I don’t think she can fit an entire grown woman up her ass, but I’m sure she’ll appreciate the message,” I hiss. Flecks of pink spittle land on the carpet in front of me. It’s satisfying to watch them soak into the plush surface, especially when they’re next to the bright red stains that got there when the kid shoved my face into the floor and held it there.

“She can leave now,” says the man at the window, some official from bumfuck-nowhere with six lifetimes’ worth of gambling debts. How he can afford this kind of muscle is beyond me. How he can stand there, not even glancing over as I get the shit beaten out of me—that, I can understand.

The kid hauls me back to my feet, meaty hand still fisted in my hair. Some of it comes out in her fingers as she pulls me out of the study, and she readjusts her grip.

“Y’know, s’not,” I start, but forget my words. “S’not polite,” I say. “Beating your elders to a pulp, ‘s a dick move.”

“I’ll remember that the next time a crusty hag like you shows up at the door,” she says before letting go of my hair. I turn around, raising my fist for a last punch. Before I can even get close, she plants a hand squarely between my tits and shoves me backwards out the door.

I skip all three of the steps leading down to street and land on my ass, hard.

I get up. I rub at the ache in my assbone. That makes it worse, so I stop. I want to fall down again, on something else, maybe something that doesn’t already hurt, but I walk. If I don’t tell Craiden that she’s not getting her money back anytime soon, I never will, and that will end badly for me. Even worse than it’s already turning out.

All the way to Craiden’s building, the skin on my back aches, the same way it always does when I miss the woman who used to drag her nails down the name burned into it and curl up against me after. It’s a nagging, touch-hungry kind of ache, the kind that wants comforting. I do my best to ignore it.

My best is pretty shit.

Craiden runs a hand over her stubbly scalp, scowling down at me like I’m a stray dog she can’t afford to feed. “Give me one good reason to keep you, Jansse.”

I don’t have one. I can’t tell if that’s because there isn’t one, or because my head has stopped working.

“Well?”

I shrug. “Can I…” I have to think for a minute or two. “Can I get back to you after I get my face fixed?”

Craiden laughs. The stamps burned into her face, scars from her own extremely brief career as a fist-for-hire, wrinkle with it. “Honey, if you want your face fixed, you gotta go back to whenever it was you were young and decide to do something else with your life.”

“Know it didn’ go well,” I say, breathing in that shallow way I know helps get air past my ribs. I shift from foot to foot in the alley. Her doorway opens onto the hidden refuse of the city, piled up in stinking heaps of wasted food and waste itself against the walls of buildings. I wonder if I’m more like the wasted food or the waste.

“That’s not what I asked you for. One reason, Jansse.”

“I don’ know righ’ now, a’right?” I say, letting myself sag against the frame. “I’ll do better. Next time.”

Craiden sucks at the insides of her lips, drags her teeth over the top and bottom ones in succession. “Jansse, there’s not going to be a next time.”

“Wha’ you mean?” The split lip and broken nose are making talking harder and harder.

“You have to understand, at this point, I’m about to start sinking more money into keeping you alive than you’re bringing back to me,” said Craiden. “You get that, right?”

“Wai’—“I lean forward, shaking my head quickly before getting dizzy and stopping. “No, you can’—”

“I’m sorry, Jansse, I’d keep you if I could,” she says. It’s almost like she means it, her face folds in all the right ways, but I know better. What she says next hurts worse than the letting me go. “It’s just business,” she says. “You’ll still be a friend—”

My breath comes faster, the spaces between my ribs filling with the ache of panic to complete all of me. “You can’t,” I say, forcing the consonant out as good as I can. “I got nowhere else to work, nobody else—” I try to breathe enough to keep talking. It takes me a good few moments. “You’re the only one hirin’ at my age,” I say. “’M only fifty, please—”

“That’s the problem,” says Craiden, and she’s already closing the door. “You’re fifty, Jansse. You can’t do this forever. The fact that you’ve made it this long is impressive.”

“Wai’,” I say, and it sounds like I’m yelling from really far away. “Lemme try agai—”

The door clicks closed. The little sound it makes is louder than anything I can produce in response.

Fuck, but everything hurts, and the marriage burned across my back hurts the most, maybe because there’s nothing like getting your ass handed to you by a someone at least two decades younger than you and losing your job for it to make you want pity from someone who’s been done with you for years. Even my bones hurt, the whole ones, with the shame of it—this is what I do, and besides, it’s not right, losing to someone when you’ve got thirty years of experience on them.

I shouldn’t go, but focusing on where my feet take me and on staying conscious is too much work, so I choose consciousness and let my legs follow a familiar path of back alleys to a home that isn’t mine anymore.

It’s a little unfair of me, but I never claimed to be a good person, and besides, we’re both used to it by now. Avne’s a better person than I am. She has to let me in if I’m hurt, and she does, though her graceful dark face is pinched with disapproval. My insides do the same warm thing they did when I met her, even though she’s not smiling this time.

“There’s nobody following you, is there?” she asks as she pulls me through the door and settles me, oozing fleshy lump that I am, into a chair at her kitchen table. The faint light of her fire is more than I could see by outside. I don’t know how long it’s been since the last time, but there’s definitely more gray in her hair.

What a pair of old crones, we are.

“Well, Jansse? Is there?” she disappears behind me, and I can hear her pouring water.

It takes me a moment to find my tongue. “Nah,” I say. My mouth feels thick, the words distant. “Craiden don’ need me anymore.”

“She paid you like shit,” says Avne, and I almost smile, but my sticky mouth protests. Then I remember that she’s not paying me at all anymore, and I don’t want to smile after that.

“Thought you didn’ care what I was makin’,”I say. This is old talk, warm talk. My insides do the thing again.

“Arms up.”

I obey, as much I can, and she pulls my shirt and wraps off. The weight of my tits falling free makes my ribs hurt, and I breathe in sharp and fast before I can remember not to. My middle is a bruising, swelling, scarred wreck.

The only good stories my body has to tell are in the marks she’s left on me, the rounded twists of her name-letters burned into my back by the priest at our wedding, two decades ago, and in the stamps she sears into me every time I come crawling back to her for fixing-up.

“I do care what you make,” says Avne, stiff, dabbing at my face with a warm, wet cloth. It comes away red when she stops to rinse it off. “Especially when you come back thinner than when you left.”

I’ve got nothing to say to that, so I don’t answer, but after she puts the cloth down in the bowl of bloody water, she goes for my nose and I flinch away.

“Don’t be a child,” she waves her hand for me to come closer, and I force myself to lean forward. “I can’t repair it without setting it first.” When she does push the bone back where it belongs, I let out a groan that squeezes my ribs. I’m too proud to scream.

She keeps me talking, just about random bullshit, as she finds the right stamp and pulls it from the fireplace. It doesn’t hurt, even though the metal’s glowing bright orange when she presses it to a convenient clear spot on my cheek. My nose has been broken enough times that it’s hard to find good places on my face to stamp fixes onto, but she always manages to get to one.

Stamp healing always leave me feeling softer, warmer. I don’t understand how it works, but all I need to know is that after the little circle with the right character inside gets burned into me I start feeling like life’s way easier than it really is.

Names are different. They hurt going on and feel all kinds of ways after.

She goes to work on my ribs next, and my split lip. My ear, she can’t do much about—“I can’t grow your flesh back,” she says, but the rest she patches up until I’m warm all over. It’s like sleep, but better. She lets me just sit there like that for a little while, come off that flood of calm nice and slow, and when my eyelids are light enough to lift she asks, “What went wrong this time?”

I whisper it first, then say it louder when she asks me again. “I got beat by some kid bodyguard over money someone owed Craiden.” My body doesn’t hurt anymore, but I still have to look at the ceiling to keep my eyes dry. “She thought I was too expensive to keep fixing. And paying. I’m not useful anymore, not the way you are,” I whisper. I can barely hear myself say it. I clear my throat. “You got anything to drink?”

Avne pulls a bottle of something clear and colorless off the shelf above the fireplace and opens it.

I take a long pull that burns my throat in a way some would consider less than pleasant. I put it down on the table maybe a bit harder than I should, and it sloshes up the sides not unlike my innards probably did earlier. “You know how we’d used to talk about it sometimes, when we were still...” I try again. “You know how we’d talk about it when we were younger? Which one of us would still be working?”

“That’s not really what was happening, and you know it,” says Avne, looking at the bottle for a second before deciding against it, instead shoving the cork back inside. “I told you you couldn’t keep it up for long. That’s what I meant.”

This is an old argument, a well-worn one that fits between us nice and snug, but it’s deeper this time.

“It was fine, back then,” I say, more to my hands in my lap to her. “She couldn’t have been more than twenty, that’s what really fucks with me, and she’s got nothing of the art of it in her. Just muscle, y’know?”

Avne gives me a sad smile. She opens her mouth to say something, closes it again, and answers, “There’s an art to being a mercenary?”

“There’s efficiency, and then there’s just throwing your weight around hoping it lands somewhere.” I’m not crying, I swear I’m not crying, but my voice catches like I might and it disgusts me.

“So what are you going to do about it?” She sounds completely calm, collected, nothing like I’ve ever been.

“Can I—”

Avne stands so quickly it makes my head spin. “Don’t ask.”

That’s when I start crying. “Why not?”

“What do you think it’s like for me, when you ask to come back?” she returns, folding her arms around herself like she’s holding herself together by the force of it. “You say every time that it’s the last, that you’ll either stop breaking yourself for money or just stop coming back, and then you just leave in the mornings like nothing happened, and what am I supposed to do with that?”

There’s no point defending yourself when you know it’s only going to get you hurt worse. I learned that today, if nothing else, so I say nothing. We sit like that, and I drink, not enough. She only looks at me like she wants a response that I don’t know how to give.

“I get it,” I finally say, “but I’m outta work now. Craiden was the only one paying for someone my age.”

“There’s a difference between understanding and not having a choice.”

“That’s fair,” I say, because it is.

“I won’t get very far with you tonight, will I?”

I would agree, but that implies too much of a future for me to want to risk it by responding.

Avne replaces the bottle on top of the mantlepiece. “I’m not letting you back out there until you’ve slept,” she says, glancing at the door. “Leave at dawn, or don’t, but do it when you’re not on your last legs. I don’t need to put you back together twice in as many nights. Take the bed.”

“But—”

“Jansse. Take the bed. You’re a terrible liar, and even worse when you try to fake humility.”

This, too, is old territory, streets we’ve packed dustless with our footsteps. “Thanks,” I say.

“If you stay, we’re talking,” she calls after me as I make my way to her bedroom. “In the morning, when you’re functional, we’re talking.”

I drop myself on top of her covers and regret it—my insides were always slower to pull themselves back together than the rest of me—and watch her through the open door. She’s gone up in the world—the last time I was here, it was a curtain.

Outside, things creak and slosh and rustle as she gets rid of the evidence that I was ever any less than whole. I just lie on my side and blink. She moves, sometimes, into the narrow field of vision afforded me by the door. She lets her hair down. The gray makes it even more beautiful, I decide. It means she’s been around long enough to get it in the first place.

“Avne,” I ask, but it doesn’t feel like a question. “Y’know what?” My jaw feels heavier the more I try to talk, the comfortable exhaustion of the freshly stamped.

“What?” she returns, tone neutral in that careful way of hers that she uses when she doesn’t want to take any more of my shit. The light of the fire dims, is squeezed out to a sliver as she closes the curtain most of the way. All that’s left is the faint light cast by the better parts of town, but that’s far away too, so the room looks like dusk. I keep myself awake with little pinches to the back of my thigh, where she won’t see. I never manage to stay awake this long, and I want this time to be different.

“I never got you burned off of me,” I say. It slurs out of me. I let it.

Avne pauses. Something rustles, and her dim outline moves like she’s pulling her clothes off. “I know,” she says. “I’ve seen you shirtless more times than I can count.”

She doesn’t face me when she lays down on the spare folding cot set up against the wall.

There’s something on her back, something whole and beautiful and not quite discernible in the barely-light on her skin. I pinch myself again, I want to see it right before I can sleep it out of my memory.

It’s the curves of my name-letters, less intricate than hers, but still dark, the scar still raised against her skin, uninterrupted by the char of removal.

When the light works its way through my eyes, she’s not there—she’s already awake, from the sound and smell of it. Her cooking’s always been good, and at the scent of it my stomach pulls me upright and commands my legs to swing over the side of the bed.

The memory of last night almost forces me back down for a moment before deciding that out the window would be better, and I have the shutters open before I can even think about it.

I pull my hand back.

Names hurt going on and feel all kinds of ways after, but in the few seconds after the rod leaves your skin, it’s better than anything, even that soft wholeness you get after your insides have been stamped back together by someone who knows what they’re doing. That’s what makes me go to the door instead, and open it.

“Good morning,” I say.

Avne looks over her shoulder, her hair catching the light. Her smile is small, but it’s there. I want to keep it there forever.

 

END


 

“Daddy Death” is © Copyright Jeana Jorgensen 2018.

“Stories My Body Can Tell” is © Copyright Alina Sichevaya 2018.

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

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes. You can also support us by picking up a free audio book by going to www.audibletrial.com/glittership or buying your own copy of the Spring 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of "Gravedigging" by Sarah Goldman.