THE TRUE ALCHEMIST
by Sonya Taaffe
for Mat Joiner
Whatever they left in the garden, Seth, I don’t think it wants to stay there.
The man and the woman who came about the gas meter yesterday, or maybe it was the water bill? I had a deadline, I barely noticed them except for the noises they made, the crunch of shoes on stiff grass, scrapes and clangs as if they were wrestling the dustbins back against the garage door, a sudden snap of bracken that startled me until I remembered the rose-canes you’d pulled down in great, dry-cracking armfuls, their petals the soft and blotted brown of foxed paper, dead as the end of Sleeping Beauty——I forgot to call the city to take them away, brambling like baling wire beside the shed...
A full transcript appears under the cut:
Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode two for April 9th, 2015. I’m your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing these stories with you.
My intro is going to be much shorter than it ought to be this week. Um, it turns out I was sick all of last week and that it was pneumonia. Of all things. I know. Seriously, what are the chances.
Although, speaking of chances, I want to thank everyone who took the chance and pledged money toward the GlitterShip Kickstarter campaign. We successfully funded on April 8th and our final tally was $5,015!
This means that not only is GlitterShip funded through the first year, but I’ll also be able to bring on other readers for many of the stories going forward, and there will be four episodes a month instead of two, and one story a month will never have been published anywhere ever before!
I’m still working on the logistics regarding the submissions period for original fiction, but as soon as I know, I will make an announcement and update the submissions guidelines.
This week, I have three very short stories for you by three awesome authors.
I’m starting with “The True Alchemist” by Sonya Taaffe.
Sonya Taaffe's short fiction and poetry can be found in the collections Ghost Signs (Aqueduct Press), A Mayse-Bikhl (Papaveria Press), Postcards from the Province of Hyphens (Prime Books), and Singing Innocence and Experience (Prime Books), and in anthologies including Aliens: Recent Encounters, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction, The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Alchemy of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase, and The Best of Not One of Us. She is currently senior poetry editor at Strange Horizons; she holds master’s degrees in Classics from Brandeis and Yale and once named a Kuiper belt object. She lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats. She maintains a livejournal at Myth Happens.
THE TRUE ALCHEMIST
by Sonya Taaffe
for Mat Joiner
Whatever they left in the garden, Seth, I don’t think it wants to stay there.
The man and the woman who came about the gas meter yesterday, or maybe it was the water bill? I had a deadline, I barely noticed them except for the noises they made, the crunch of shoes on stiff grass, scrapes and clangs as if they were wrestling the dustbins back against the garage door, a sudden snap of bracken that startled me until I remembered the rose-canes you’d pulled down in great, dry-cracking armfuls, their petals the soft and blotted brown of foxed paper, dead as the end of Sleeping Beauty—I forgot to call the city to take them away, brambling like baling wire beside the shed. Two of the city’s representatives banging around in our back garden and I didn't think to ask them, crouched over my computer with a legion of tea mugs cluttering up among the books and less than sixteen hours before Nora was going to run out of excuses to make to the publisher on my sorry, late-arsed behalf, I didn't even mark the color of their eyes or the length of their hair. They were white as winter sunshine, dressed in coveralls as if for dirtier work than reading a meter. You won’t have any more trouble, sir, the woman said on her way out, or maybe it was the man; I was nearly throwing them out at that point, giving that rattled manic grin that is supposed to pass for comradely homeownership, presumably to soften the slam of door in face—I knew I should have pretended to be sick, or in the shower, or just not at home. I’m a bad liar when I don’t have time to think. I’m too good at it when I do. Seth, the garden’s fucked. Call me tonight or come home. Or both.
Seth, I know the conference isn't over till Sunday, but could you just tell them it’s an emergency—the cat’s on fire, the kitchen blew up, your husband is having a baby? I got the article sent off on time and I haven’t slept since. Or I can’t tell if I’m sleeping, rolling over and over through dreams of the same cold, entangling sheets, vacant and huge around one person in this bed that’s a jigsaw puzzle for two, the same little sounds rustling up the back stairs, fanning underneath the windowframe with the icy slip of the air. It sounds like footsteps moving unhurriedly on frost-brittle grass, the squeal and judder of metal dragged over asphalt chips; it sounds like a trampling of dead branches, each as sharp and sick as a bone-break, the knuckle-pop crackling of twigs wrung like a neck. So fast. I think murder instead of horticulture, intruders instead of rats or the cats that hunt them. The swimming cathedral light before dawn looks like the underside of water to a long-drowned man. I made a point of shaving, combing my hair, putting on a different sweater. I haven’t been out all day. I've taken all my pills, including the ones I try to ration; Nora knows I'm feeling skittish—it’s not like she can pretend not to when I turn in a page and a half of self-recrimination with the other twenty-five about Philoktetes and the poisons and cures of language. I'll call Dr. Linsey if it gets much weirder.
I won’t call anyone. I’m crap at self-care. I’ll just sit here drinking our ever-diminishing hoard of tea and typing run-on sentences, knowing it’s not like New York is three days away by transatlantic steamer anymore and it doesn't matter. Our neighbors are right there on the other side of the kitchen window—washing dishes, in fact, side by side with soapy plates and dishrag in some urban equivalent of a tranquil, pastoral scene—and it doesn't matter. I might as well be on the far side of the moon. If the moon were haunted by the smell of oil and leaf-mold, slick as a slug’s track or petrol-spill. Seth, this is bad. I hate that fucking mobile, I wouldn't check my e-mail on it to win a bet, but I've started carrying it like a locket, as if it really contained something of you. I’d check the gas meter if I could go outside. Or the water.
I went outside. I want to stress that very carefully. I unlocked the back door and I went down and I stood in the garden, freezing, hugging myself over the sweater I hadn't thought to supplement with a jacket or even a scarf, breathing out sharp quick clouds that hurt as much to draw breath for as it did to stand there with the no-colored sun in my eyes, the sky pressing down on my hair and my shoulders and the backs of my hands, seeing me. The neighbors with their curtainless windows, locked in newlywed oblivion: two mirrors gazing into each other endlessly. Passing cars, passers-by, graffiti hanging over the wall. The air.
Our garden, Seth. It doesn't move after all. It might be a machine, if machines were pinned and carved from rose-thorns and rain-torn petals and withered cuttings, blown dandelions and willowherb wreathed in seed-silk like a questioning cigarette; it might have grown there, if rails of brick-spiked iron and clagged tin could throw out runners, coil delicately to follow the sun. There was a ragged round of copper crept in green from the edges, turning like a suncatcher as the verdigris crawled. There was a spiderweb beaded from one prong of fused glass to a tarnished silver spike of lamb’s ear, glittering cleanly in the morning chill. It saw me.
That was when I went upstairs, and I left a message at your hotel, and I did not take any more of my pills than I was supposed to, and I went to bed. It was cold and bright and the sounds came up through the walls, from nothing moving around where the neighbors, or me, or anything at all could see. After a while it started to sound familiar. After that I really couldn't sleep.
I dreamed anyway. There was a door.
How is this supposed to end, Seth? You’d drop everything if I checked myself in, but I don’t want to be that hungry ghost when I don’t need to, Eurydike-reeling myself in and out of the dark to see if you’ll brave it one more time for me; I don’t want you to find me with an empty bottle or emptier wrists, curled in the rime-blackened ruins of our garden like a child on a cold hill’s side. You've got epidemics to talk about and I've got my contagion here at home, allowed passage like every good haunting—any more trouble, but then maybe I don’t. It smells very strongly like burning now, acrid as antifreeze, sweet as spiced woods, and I think of an engine turning over, cogs and pistons and sap and steam. I think of pavement cracking like a caddis-husk, ice-starred earth rumbling like a drum. If it doesn't want to stay here, Seth, I won’t stop it: I’ll hold the gate for it just as I let it in, or I’ll sit here and drink the last of the black ginger tea, typing sentences that don’t stop as usual; we’ll get more when you’re home. The cat’s not on fire. The garden’s fucked, but aren't we all? Maybe it will tell me when it goes, knowing we feel the same way about an audience. I’m truthful when I need to be, too.
Our next story is “Ulder” by Vajra Chandrasekera.
Vajra lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Black Static, and Shimmer, among others. You can find more work by him at vajra.me.
by Vajra Chandrasekera
“Ulder,” said the man in the hat, leaning in, lips barely moving. His eyes darted, as if anyone else on the train would hear him through their prophylactic earplugs. We were the only two with ears open.
"What?" I said, too loud. The man in the hat leaned away, mouth tight, beard bristling. He didn't look at me again.
At the station, guardsmen took the man in the hat away. I watched them go out of the corner of my eye; they'd knocked his hat off when they took him down, and his hair was tousled from the scuffle. I couldn't see the hat anywhere, but there were so many people on the platform. I imagined it, briefly, crushed and stepped on somewhere in the press.
I mentioned the word to Kirill in bed that night, and he stiffened, asked me where I'd heard it.
"He didn't tell you what it meant?" Kirill asked when I'd told him the story.
"What does it mean? Do you know?"
Kirill hesitated so long that I prodded him to see if he'd fallen asleep. "You know I hate it when you keep secrets," I said.
"Don't be melodramatic," Kirill said.
And then he told me what the word meant.
It was several days before I thought to ask him how he had known the word. I spent those days in a haze, raw and newborn. The wind seemed colder. I started letting my beard grow. The long bones in my shins felt weak, as if from fever. And the word, it reverberated in me, growing echoes like fungi in the dark.
Ulder, I said to myself at my desk, working and writing. But only inside, so that the other people in my office wouldn't hear me. I needn't have worried; they all wore prophylactics anyway.
Ulder, I said to myself when I saw uniforms on the street, guardsmen arresting someone.
("Disappearing," Kirill had once said, early in our acquaintance. "Not arresting, disappearing them." And I only thought, this man is free and beautiful. But if I had known the word then I would not have thought ulder, because Kirill was never that.)
Ulder, I whispered when they broadcast the prayer-anthems, tinny from loudspeakers, in the evening as I walked to the railway station. I used to mumble along to the prayers out of habit, never seeing what was in front of me.
Ulder, ulder, ulder.
I said it out loud the next time Kirill and I slept together. It had been almost a week, because we couldn't afford to be seen together too often. Kirill flinched as soon as I said it. He rolled out of bed, lighting one of his contraband cigarettes.
"Now who's being melodramatic?" I said.
The cigarettes were very Kirill. That was both the extent and the nature of his rebellion; slick, sly, sweet-smelling, carcinogenic.
"I was afraid you'd react to it this way," Kirill said. "Some are immune to memetically transmitted disease. But you--"
"MTDs don't exist," I said. "I've told you, it's just state propaganda against disapproved ideologies. Ulder--"
"Don't say it to me," Kirill said, laughing his bitter tar laugh and coughing. "What do you know about it? I was the one who told--"
I don't want to talk about the fight. That's not the way I want to remember him. But we shouted a lot, and I think someone must have heard.
A few more days went by, and I wanted to make it up to him. So I went to see him at the teahouse where we usually met after work. But even as I got there, I knew from the commotion that something was wrong. I didn't recognize Kirill's walk at first, pressed between the guardsmen as they marched him out of the building and into the waiting van. I only realized it was him when he laughed, bitter like tar.
Not knowing what else to do, I took the train home. It was crowded, as always, and I hung from the strap like a drowning man. And when the young woman, the only other person in the carriage without earplugs in, caught my eye, I didn't have a choice.
I knew what would happen, that it wouldn't go unremarked, that you'd be waiting for me on the platform with your batons.
But in her eyes I saw a moment of openness, that fragile and fractured thing I had always seen in the mirror and never recognized until I heard the word, and though I knew she wouldn't understand and I couldn't explain, I leaned in and said “Ulder”, the word naked and bright like fever in my mouth.
Our next story is "The Sewell Home for the Temporally Displaced" by Sarah Pinsker.
Sarah Pinsker is the author of the novelette, "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind," Sturgeon Award winner 2014 and Nebula finalist 2013. Her fiction has been published in magazines including Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Cartography, Fireside, Stupefying Stories, and PULP Literature, and in anthologies including Long Hidden, Fierce Family, and The Future Embodied.
She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums on various independent labels (the third with her rock band, the Stalking Horses) and a fourth forthcoming. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland and can be found online at sarahpinsker.com and twitter.com/sarahpinsker.
THE SEWELL HOME FOR THE TEMPORALLY DISPLACED
by Sarah Pinsker
Judy says, "It's snowing."
I look out the window. The sky is the same dirty grey as the snow left from last week's storm. I stand up to look closer, to find a backdrop against which I might see what she sees. The radiator is warm against my knees.
"You don't mean now." It's not really a question, but she shakes her head. She looks through me, through another window, at other weather. She smiles. Whenever she is, it must be beautiful.
"Describe it for me," I say.
"Big, fluffy snow. The kind that doesn't melt when it lands on your gloves. Big enough to see the shapes of individual flakes."
"Do you know when you are?"
She strains to catch a different view. "1890s, maybe? The building across the street hasn't been built yet. I wish I could see down to the street, Marguerite."
Judy isn't supposed to leave her bed, but I help her into her yellow slippers, help her to her feet. I try to make myself strong enough for her to lean on. We shuffle to the window. She looks down.
"There's a Brougham* waiting at the front door. The horse is black, and he must have been driven hard, because the snow that's collecting elsewhere is just melting when it hits him. There's steam coming off him."
I don't say anything. I can't see it, but I can picture it.
"Somebody came out of the building. He's helping a woman out of the carriage," she says. "Her clothes don't match the era or the season. She's wearing jeans and a T-shirt."
"A Distillers T-shirt," I say.
"Yes! Can you see her too?"
"No," I say. "That was me, the first time I came here. I didn't stay long, that first time."
I hear the creak of the door. It's Zia, my least favorite of the nurses. She treats us like children. "Judy, what are we doing up? We could get hurt if we have an episode."
She turns to me. "And you, Marguerite. We should know better to encourage her."
"Your pronouns are very confusing," I tell her.
She ignores me. "Well, let's get down to lunch, since we're both up and about."
Zia puts Judy in a wheelchair. I follow them down to the dining room, slow and steady. She pushes Judy up to the first available space, at a table with only one vacancy. I'm forced to sit across the room. I don't like being so far away from her. I would make a fuss, but I try to tell myself we can stand to be apart for one meal. I keep an eye on her anyway.
Judy isn't fully back yet. She doesn't touch her food. Mr. Kahn and Michael Lim and Grace de Villiers are all talking across her. Mr. Kahn is floating his spoon, demonstrating the finer points of the physics of his first time machine, as he always does.
"Meatloaf again," mutters Emily Arnold, to my left. "I can't wait until vat protein is invented."
"It tastes good enough, Emily. The food here is really pretty decent for an industrial kitchen in this time period." We've all had worse.
We eat our meatloaf. Somebody at the far end of the room has a major episode and we're all asked to leave before we get our jello. I can't quite see who it is, but she's brandishing her butter knife like a cutlass, her legs braced against a pitching deck. The best kind of episode, where you're fully then again. We all look forward to those. It's funny that the staff act like it might be contagious.
I wait in Judy's room for her to return. Zia wheels her in and lifts her into the bed. She's light as a bird, my Judy. Zia frowns when she sees me. I think she'd shoo me out more often if either of us had family that could lodge a complaint. Michael and Grace are allowed to eat together but not to visit each other's rooms. Grace's children think she shouldn't have a relationship now that she lives in so many times at once. Too confusing, they say, though Grace doesn't know whether they mean for them or for her.
"How was your dinner?" I ask Judy.
"I can't remember," she says. "But I saw you come in for the first time. You said 'How is this place real?' and young Mr. Kahn said 'Because someday all of us will build it.'"
"And then I asked 'When can I get started?' and he said 'You already did.'"
I can see it now. The dining room was formal, then. Everyone stared when I came in, but most of the smiles were knowing ones. They understood the hazards of timesling. They had been there, or they were there, or they were going to be.
Judy takes my hand. I lean over to kiss her.
"It's snowing," I say. "I can't wait to meet you."
*Brougham was changed to "carriage" for the audio version.
“The True Alchemist” was first published in Not One of Us #51 in April 2014.
“Ulder” was first published in Daily Science Fiction in July 2014.
“The Sewell Home for the Temporally Displaced” was first published in the Women Destroy Science Fiction edition of Lightspeed Magazine in June 2014.
This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you again on April 9th with a selection of three flash fiction stories.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.