by Richard Agemo
Kira pressed the key that turned the deadbolt, and a metal click locked us inside her hotel room. “Hope you don’t mind, Blake,” she said. “I once had a bad experience.”
I once had a bad experience.
The phrase sounded familiar, and I tried to place it, suddenly recalling once speaking the same words to Mei, her sister. But Kira hadn’t been with us that day, two years ago, in Futaba Station.
And now Mei was dead.
“A bad experience?” I said. “Here, in Futaba?”
I didn’t ask for details—both of us were grieving, deeply. In the span of forty minutes my emotions had plunged from jubilation about seeing Mei, my fiancée, to devastation over her death.
Kira slumped into the love seat across from the sofa that supported my sprawled limbs and sagging body. She stared at me with a frown; the shining paths of tears on her cheeks, I thought, probably mirrored mine. Her oval face and space-black hair reminded me of her sister, her elliptical eyes the same color of dark chocolate, features they shared with their brother, Kei.
Even in my grief, I found Kira, in a handsome way, prettier than Mei. Ashamed at that thought, I lowered my face.
The nano threads of the carpet took on the texture, color, and smell of the fresh grass I remembered from childhood, as if someone had told it, “North America, mid-2040’s, central plains.” And yet, my thoughts didn’t remain in my rural origins; instead, they zoomed two years into the past, to the platform at Futaba Station.
I still remember my hypercab creeping into the station, and how I was second-guessing my decision to accept my new assignment. I shook my head and let out a long sigh. Fukushima! would be a rush job, but the studio couldn’t resist the money the producers had offered. However, they imposed a condition: Fukushima! must be released on the 75th anniversary of the disaster—just ten months away.
I was one of the best envirotographers around, and the studio asked if I could get it done. Eagerly, I answered with a confident yes, though the more truthful answer was, I really can’t be sure.
I was given two days in Futaba and one in Daiichi to record every sensory detail with my cameras and scanners. From there, the director, simulation engineers, and bot actors would take over, creating a you-are-there spectacular with fifty roles for the audience. A thousand 8-D theatre parks in seventy countries had already agreed to run Fukushima!
It wouldn’t be the first time that a historic disaster would be commoditized, or the last. Maybe I was just rationalizing, but I believed Fukushima! would serve as a healthy, albeit terrifying, reminder of a big lesson learned: Think the impossible can’t happen? Think again.
Through the window I saw Mei, the local guide hired by the producers to assist me. She stood on the platform, her black hair gleaming past her shoulders. In her mid-twenties, she was as tall as me—almost two meters—things I already knew, but seeing her tallness, I found it strange. And beautiful.
Gripping the straps of my bags, I stepped onto the platform.
“Blake,” she said with a quick bow of her bronze face, a blue sheen darting across her hair. “Welcome.”
Awkwardly I bowed and set down my bags before extending my hand. “Mei, a pleasure, finally, to meet you in person.”
As we shook hands loosely, I pressed a finger gently against the veins of her wrist. Her chin dropped and, almost whispering, she said, “Don’t worry, Blake, I’m completely human.”
“I’ve made it a habit to be sure.” I smiled, but she didn’t notice. I touched my right ear lobe and confirmed my translation node was on. “I once had a bad experience.”
She looked up, her brows arched with concern. “What happened?”
“My bot guide withheld some basic information, and it wound up costing the studio a lot of time and money. At first they blamed me, but then another envirotographer had the same problem. There were errors in the installation code for the bot’s knowledge scripts.”
“Well, such a mistake won’t happen here. I hope you trust me.”
I realized her English was excellent, so I turned off my t-node. With a kind of bemused caring, her eyes glimmered, their metallic shine a sign of retinal implants that gave her at least 100/20 vision. I had decided to forgo such sensory “enhancements.” For one thing, they were expensive. For another, philosophically, I wanted no artificial help with my work—envirotography is an art and should remain naturally human.
“Pretty eyes,” I said to Mei, staring into them. “If you don’t mind me asking, did you choose static or non-static enhancement?”
“Non-static.” Bowing her head, she looked embarrassed, and then she raised up again. “You see, I want the upgrades—advanced infrared imaging next year.”
One non-static enhancement, I knew, by itself didn’t make one a cyborg. Many upgrades and further non-static enhancements—including mechanical ones to the skin and body limbs—were required, and full integration of all neural and physical enhancements before one is truly half-human, half-machine, officially a cyborg.
I also knew that cyborgs remained an elite bunch, with less than ten thousand on and off the planet, and that governments strictly regulate their development. One early enhancement, banned internationally, made a person love the cyborg. An electro-neural aphrodisiac, delivered by the borg’s touch, allowed it to activate pleasure centers of victim’s brain, literally making her, or him, lovesick.
Many consider borgs dangerous, but I wasn’t one of them when I met Mei. A part of me admired her choice—enhancements, especially the non-static type, are expensive and require a commitment to work properly—but she was beautiful, and it would be a crime, I thought, if her cyborganization changed that. In any case, I was already infatuated—no aphrodisiac needed.
Mei suggested that I check in at the hotel, but I wanted to begin work immediately. Rain was coming within the next half hour. “The smell and wetness of the rain are things I want to capture,” I explained.
“Please excuse me, Blake, I understand. I should have asked about your plan.”
“No harm done. You’re my guide, so don’t hold back any suggestions.”
After I dumped my bags in the rear seats of the pod, we squeezed into the front. The scent of Mei’s peach perfume filled the space as she told the pod to take us to the small historic section of Futaba, which had been preserved as a memorial to the many thousands who had suffered.
The pod accelerated with a soft buzz.
My equipment was optimized for several passes through Futaba, north to south, but the historic district was near the center. After I conveyed this to Mei, I thought I might need my t-node after all, because she said, “We can begin in the middle and proceed north, then go in a circle.” As I jutted my chin and squinted, she gently tugged at my arm and smiled. “Trust me.”
She was gentle, yet strongly confident, and I didn’t wish to argue with her.
The autumn sky was gray, but enough light remained so that apartment and office buildings cast long shadows—our pod whizzed in and out of them as we approached the historic district.
We stopped at a closed gate, beyond which stretched a deserted street.
“Not a popular place,” I observed.
“A shocking surprise?” Mei said.
“Guess not. You don’t have to accompany me.”
“Oh, but I want to.”
After we got out of the pod, she placed her palm over the latch of the gate, which swung open. With scanner in hand, I entered. Steady rain began falling. I was prepared to get soaked.
The stucco houses lining the street were empty shells painted in bright pinks, greens, and yellows, with no doors or windows. The idea, Mei told me, was that even though the displaced inhabitants would never return, their spirits could.
A giant gash ran through the middle of the pavement like a sheet of paper ripped in two.
Further down an old sign hung over the street, its dark Japanese characters shouting from a white background. My virtual screen provided the translation:
NUCLEAR POWER GENERATION: A BRIGHT AND FUTURE SOURCE OF ENERGY
Aiming my scanner, I slowly turned my body. “This is exactly what I need.”
Mei didn’t speak often, but when she did, her tone was soft but assured.
“My great grandfather died here during the disaster,” she said.
Puzzled, I paused and looked at her. “But everyone evacuated.”
We worked nonstop through the afternoon and, by day’s end, I was ahead of schedule. Mei had lived in the Fukushima prefecture all her life, and she proved a quick study in helping me calibrate my scanners and cameras. Her enhanced vision also helped as I scouted for killer details in the scenes I was recording. She saved me a good deal of time, and I began to rethink my opposition to undergoing retinal enhancement.
“Kai, my brother, knows you’re here,” she said as we packed up the equipment. “I told him about you, and he’d like to have you over for dinner. He loves foreigners.”
“All right . . . when and where?”
“Tonight if you wish, at Lake Inawashiro, on his yacht.”
My eyebrows shot up. Mei’s lifted too, but slowly, as if she’d said something wrong.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “His company builds pleasure ships.”
Kai looked younger than his sister, and he wasn’t as tall, but they had the same oval face, hair, nose, and eyes. His shirt and pants were slick white silk, and his yacht—with its fine bamboo floors and three bot servants—projected wealth.
We dined on the upper deck overlooking the mirror-like waters of Lake Inawashiro. On the horizon, Mount Bandai’s two peaks were almost identically shaped pyramids.
During our meal, Kai listened politely as I described Fukushima! and the goal of replicating the conditions and sensory landscape of the earthquake and tsunami, so audiences could relive them. Kai’s low voice was as soft spoken as his sister’s, but his question, which he asked in flawless English, still sounded aggressive.
“So, in essence, this Fukushima amusement will profit off something that caused human suffering of historic proportions, is that right?”
“Well, I understand how one can see it that way,” I replied, trying to defuse things. “But one might also view it as reminding people of lessons learned, such as—”
“People lost family members during the evacuation, Blake. Some of the victims’ sons and daughters are still living.”
He glanced at his left hand that lay flat on dining table. With his wrist kept on the surface, he lifted the hand so he saw it from the back. A spectacular blue sapphire adorned his ring finger, which he turned so it sparkled in the light.
“This ring belonged to my great grandfather. It’s absolutely exquisite, don’t you think?”
As I nodded, Mei added, “The same ancestor I told you about this afternoon, Blake.”
Kai’s nails were translucent pink, polished and smoothly filed. The antique ring, undeniably, was stunning. In its gold setting, against the pink shades of his fingers and nails, the blue gem sparkled like a moon of some alien world.
“You are,” he said, “following my sister’s recommendations about where and what to shoot, aren’t you?”
“Because she knows everything,” He looked up at her. “Don’t you Mei?”
“Of course not. I only give Blake guidance. Like you, he’s his own person, Kai.”
“You, sister, were the lucky one who received the know-it-all gene from mother.”
He chuckled at his own joke, and when Mei joined him, so did I, but uneasily. I wondered if she’d taken Kai’s comment as a compliment, or if she was afraid of him.
Kai warmed up to me as the evening progressed. Perhaps it was his fondness for sake. We must have tried a dozen kinds, and he amazed me in describing their unique tastes. After the third one, however, I no longer detected any difference.
As we drank, he proposed things he and I could do together, such as tennis and sailing—without including Mei. She stayed silent, as if accustomed to his rudeness. Not wanting to sound impolite, I accepted his invitations but didn’t commit to specific days, thinking it my job would get in the way.
Kai gave me a long hug at the end of the evening.
Mei and I began work early the next morning. “I hope Kai’s speech about Fukushima didn’t put you off,” she said outside the hotel. “Disasters horrify him—probably more than they do most people. When he flew virtual aboard Space Swan, you know, the one that exploded, he was only ten.”
“He can be rather assertive,” I said.
“The lingering effect of sibling rivalry. I beat him at most things as kids—he became very competitive, even violent at times. Once he shoved me after I won an art contest we both had entered. Now, he jokes about me being superior to him.”
She paused and flashed a smile, then glanced at the pod. “We should leave.”
I stopped wondering about Mei and Kai. She was afraid of him.
We finished in Futaba and took a pod to Daiichi that afternoon. “Those walls are all that’s left of the nuclear facilities,” she said pointing at a mass of gray concrete surrounded by weeds. She turned to me, gazed at me for a moment, and then said, “The radiation is still above normal, though well within the safety index.”
I checked my wrist screen anyway. The detector clicked like a chattering dolphin. The screen read 0.22 µSv and flashed SAFE.
Holding the camera at my waist, I peered into the viewfinder as I shuffled my feet a little at a time until I made a full circle from north to south. I repeated this process with the scanner, recording fifty different meteorological measurements.
We walked down a barren hill to concrete ruins.
“This was the seawall,” Mei explained as I calibrated my camera and prepared to shoot. “Technology in those days was quite good. Engineers designed excellent buildings, but no one ever imagined an earthquake and tsunami of a scale which, by their understanding, was impossible.”
“Nothing, necessarily, is impossible,” I said. “You just have to imagine what can’t happen and then assume that it will happen, and plan for it.”
“What is your saying? Hindsight is twenty-twenty?”
I smiled. “I’m lucky, I guess, that I’ve never had to tell myself that.”
The next day, I uploaded my data and my role in the project was finished. Thanks to Mei, I had beaten the deadline. The studio would now synchronize and manipulate the images and measurements, integrating graphics and special effects based on historical data—essentially every bit of information known about the Fukushima disaster—and add real human actors (not just bots) to recreate a 360⁰ 8-D reality of, well, in a word, terror.
We enjoyed the rest of the day hiking in the forest north of Futaba, where boxwood, white cedar, and pine stood in uniform, even proportions along our ten-mile trek. Ferns and flowering plants, asters, “false” lilies, and geraniums, also seemed to form a pattern, like one gigantic centerpiece. The cool, pine-scented air never changed, nor did the width of our rocky trail. More than once I felt a delightful déjà vu, which was refreshing after focusing for three days on radioactive calamity.
Japan was becoming more and more attractive to me. So was Mei. I decided to stay a couple more days, and we took a second hike. “Those are falcated ducks,” she said, pointing at their formation in the sky, the green color of their heads visible even with my unenhanced vision. Later, we found the same species of ducks floating on a pond. Close up, they looked different—the green coloring of the males darker, the bills of the female long and gray—nonetheless we felt sure these were the same birds we sighted earlier.
“Always pleasant to see things from different perspectives,” Mei said.
I nodded, concluding her statement explained her interest in cyborganization—she enjoyed heightened, altered senses, and was curious to explore them.
We gazed at each other, and then kissed.
Our lips touched for only for a few seconds, but a part of her infused into me, and me into her, an exchange I can only describe as electrical in the way it made my body tingle, literally, from top to bottom, as if she had an enhancement that she hadn’t revealed to me. But I didn’t want to spoil the moment by asking and getting into a conversation I wasn’t ready to have, namely, that I hope she would abandon cyborganization and remain as she was.
When our kiss ended, she bowed her head. I asked her if something was wrong.
“I’m afraid, Blake,” she said to her hands, her fingers interlaced in perfect symmetry.
“Of . . .?”
But she only looked up at me with a tight smile, as if she had several answers and didn’t knowing which one to give. I leaned toward her to kiss her again but she stepped back. Then she took my hand and we walked silently out of the forest.
My two extra days in Japan turned into three extra months. Mei and I spent a lot of time together, though not every day. With the 75th anniversary of the disaster six months away, the prefecture had retained her to plan an elaborate ceremony.
Local feelings about Fukushima! were mixed. The studio had marketed it as a global entertainment event, but some locals—Kai among them—argued that Fukushima! shouldn’t open on the anniversary date, at least not in Japan, out of respect for those who perished. Mei disagreed, believing everyone should decide for themselves whether and when to attend. Of course, I took Mei’s side, but avoided the topic with Kai.
He had invited me to a private club in Futaba to play a match of tennis “on equal terms.” By that he meant we would use identical rackets, wear no jewelry, wristbands, headbands, or other gear, and dress in identical white sportswear. In disregard of etiquette, one of his bots, without telling me, had already scanned me for my size. Despite Kai’s rather strange conditions, I accepted.
“You are letting me win,” he said to me after the first set.
“Not at all. Your backhand’s better than mine.”
He laughed. “That’s a lie. You must like me.”
Something in me bristled at that, and when he asked me to join him on his yacht after the match, I demurred, claiming that I was meeting Mei soon, which wasn’t true. She and I had planned to see each other that evening, but it was only early afternoon.
“Well, that’s just fine,” Kai said as he bounced a ball with his racket before smacking it into the net. “Have an absolutely exquisite time,” he added and then walked away.
I regretted lying to Kai, but also relieved. If he’d been competing for my affections, he now knew I wasn’t interested. Yet, I warned myself to be careful: alienating Mei’s only sibling could harm my relationship with her.
Mei and I chose Mount Adatara for our next hike. During the hour-long pod ride from Futuba, I asked her if she’d told Kai how our relationship had become serious.
“I’ve only told him a little,” she said.
“A little, meaning . . .?”
She kept silent, her metallic eyes staring at the giant ads on the podway’s wall, the series of still photographs animated by the pod’s speed of 200 kilometers per hour.
I placed my thumb and forefinger, with just a tiny space between them, before her eyes. “This much a little?” I said, getting her attention. Then I put both my hands in front of her and, with a smile, expanded them to the width of my shoulders. “Or this much?”
It got her to laugh, and I left things at that, not bothering anymore to wonder what Mei and Kai may have discussed out of my presence. I’m not even sure I want to know now, though I could still find out. Probably.
Along the hiking trail, beech trees stretched high into the air, their white trunks slender and uniform in width and height, their branches of tear-shaped leaves pleached above our heads, a verdant canopy. We soon veered off and waded through a grove of painted ferns, then emerged onto another path that took us into a different section of the forest. Here, the tree trunks were twisted, more irregular in shape than the ones we had seen before, but all were twisted and soon looked quite similar.
We came upon a waterfall composed of four equal-sized boulders, the water splashing into a stream, calming as it rippled away. A moon bridge curved in a half-circle, creating a black shadow beneath it and, with its reflection in the water, a full circle.
“Should we cross?” I said.
“No,” she replied, taking my hand. “This way.”
When walked up to the bridge, we could see the grassy bank that jutted from below both ends. After stooping underneath the planks, we sat on the grass and kissed in the darkness. Our hands wandered and then we rolled on our sides, our bodies pressing against each other.
“Stop, wait,” she said. We parted and pushed ourselves up. In the dark, the irises of her eyes glowed faint red. “There’s something I must tell you, Blake . . . well . . . I’m not having more enhancements. I decided I don’t need to change myself for me, or for . . .”
We kissed again, briefly, because I wanted to say more. “Mei, I can’t tell you how happy your choice makes me . . . I was afraid . . . oh, it doesn’t matter. But I’m curious—will you keep the retinal enhancements?”
“I have to, Blake. They’re irreversible.”
We left the bridge and found the path leading to Mount Adatara’s high cliffs and breathtaking views, some of which we took in from behind iron safety rails. A week after the hike, we slept together for the first time.
It had been only a few months, but we were already certain about a lifelong commitment. Mei felt sure her father would consent to our marriage. With a Korean mother and Japanese father, Hiro himself was the offspring of a biracial union. Her mother, Mei explained, would be the difficult one. Only with great reluctance did Leiko agree to meet me.
Mei’s parents lived in Odaka, and Mei took me there one afternoon. We sat with Hiro and Leiko in their north-facing living room. The space gracefully combined the new with the old: a silver disc table hovered above an antique rug of two swans; from a stout tea-leaf jar sprouted glowing electric flowers; the latticed squares of a virtual shijo screen changed images based on the collection of moods in the room, shifting from basic colors in the pattern of a Mondrian, for instance, to a pair of blooming cherry blossom trees.
While I was there, tall ocean waves in the style of an Edo-era woodblock print appeared on the screen, rising and crashing.
That day with Mei’s parents, though on an infinitesimally smaller scale than what happened in Fukushima three quarters of a century ago, nevertheless ended in disaster. Hiro and Leiko didn’t speak English well, so we each spoke our native language and depended on t-nodes.
Leiko greeted me with a curt smile as Hiro grinned broadly and bowed.
In the living room, the kettle of hot water was already on the silver table. A bot floated in with the tray of bowls and tea, and poured the water. The conversation began with my work and praising Mei for her help with Fukushima! Hiro mentioned his grandfather who had died during the tsunami, and how he planned to visit his shrine on the anniversary date.
“Yes, I saw his emerald ring, sir,” I said. “The ring Kai now wears.”
“I never met my grandfather,” Hiro said. “He founded the family shipbuilding business, which I handed off to my son, along with the ring.”
Leiko said nothing the whole time, her lips constantly pursed unless she was sipping her tea, as if she were perturbed about something—or about everything. Mei had warned me about her mother. It didn’t matter that the world was nearing the dawn of the 22nd century. Spawned by human traditions, bigotry, prejudice, and racism endured, even in the most advanced technological societies.
Leiko and I locked glances during a prolonged moment of silence. Finally, she looked at her tea, took a sip from the bowl, and then set it down. “I can tell you are pleasant, a gentlemen,” she said. “But let us be clear, you will not marry our daughter.”
Mei glared at her mother. “This is unjust. We were supposed to have a fair hearing.”
“There was a time when people didn’t question things,” Leiko replied, her hands shaking. “It was so much easier. Please, excuse me.” Abruptly she stood, swung around, and scurried out of the room, pausing a moment to stare at the shijo screen, which now showed a stylized hill of trees swaying in the wind and losing their leaves.
In the shocked silence that followed, I turned to Hiro, who shrugged. “I am sorry,” he said. “It was foolish of me to think my wife might have softened her views. Mei should have never brought you here.”
“Sir?” I said.
“Leiko doesn’t want half-breeds in the family. A few years ago, she didn’t allow Kai to marry a foreigner, which caused a lot of suffering. I thought she wouldn’t want that again by objecting to you. Clearly, I was wrong.”
“But she would call you a half-breed, father,” Mei said.
“Perhaps,” replied Hiro. “But do I look like one?” Before Mei could respond, he pivoted to me. “What’s your opinion?”
Had Mei answered her father, I could have just agreed with her, but I was on my own. As I examined Hiro’s face, I couldn’t form an opinion, but if said that, I’d risk sounding impolite.
“No, sir,” I said, “you don’t look like one.”
I wanted to stay for the ceremony Mei had been planning, but it was still months away. I’d been working remotely, but now the studio expected me to be on-site in the Americas.
Before my departure, Mei and I only half-joked about DNA Accelerated Reconstruction as a last resort if she failed to persuade her mother. Mainly for the rich, DAR techniques for altering one’s race had improved, though the procedure still carried risks. And the science wasn’t altogether clear about possible long-term effects.
On the five-hour flight from Tokyo to LA, I learned everything I could about DAR.
Leiko’s opposition struck me as a particularly onerous form of prejudice. Mei’s father had argued with Leiko, but she remained adamant: she would never speak to Mei again if she married me. Mei didn’t take the threat very seriously. At the same time, we both knew our marriage could be rather unpleasant for the rest of her family. Both of us wanted children.
We ruled out elopement as an option.
I’d gotten my own fair skin and blondish hair from mother, and though she was deceased by the time I met Mei, I felt it would disrespect her memory to eliminate her traits as they appeared in me. DAR would mean passing onto my children my reconstructed genes, not the ones I was born with.
But after many conversations, Mei and I concluded that DAR was a viable option, and perhaps the only way to solve our problem.
A new backstory would explain how I was of pure Japanese descent but possessed a different cultural background. Around Leiko, I would be a shy man of few words, my natural Japanese only adequate. If Leiko did learn the truth, we hoped grandchildren would eliminate any lingering opposition to our union.
DAR had been available for twenty years but remained expensive. I’d have to leave work for five more months without pay. It would wipe out my savings, the equivalent of a year’s salary, to have my features altered to match those of a Japanese male.
Would my physical transformation even convince Mei’s mother? Would Mei herself like the results? Would I like the results? Predictions of DAR outcomes, the doctors warned me, were not always accurate.
I became frustrated. I told myself that I shouldn’t have to undertake such a risky procedure to get around the prejudice—no, the racism—of Mei’s mother. And it was ironic, I thought, that I had not wanted Mei to change physically, yet I was about to do just that. At least I would remain one hundred percent human.
I studied before-and-after pictures of dozens of patients and became fascinated, and then excited. My father was deceased, too, and I was no longer close to anyone in the family. More and more, I looked upon DAR as a way to begin my life anew. Mei wanted us to find a home in Japan.
She had made no progress with her mother.
I asked the studio for a five-month leave of absence, but the studio refused. Emotionally I’d become so invested in DAR, I quit my job. My employment contract allowed them to remove my name from the credits for Fukushima! I didn’t care. I was embarking on a real adventure, no longer interested in a simulation of some disaster.
Mei and I saw each other every day, virtually in 3-D. But after I began DAR, she didn’t wish to see my physical changes as they occurred. A part of me—a big part—longed to see her, but another part thought a one-way viewing arrangement would be uncomfortable, imbalanced, and we agreed to speak to each other without visuals.
She described the success Fukushima! Everyone who went, she said, found it to be a convincing nightmare.
DAR wasn’t painless. The many slow injections produced sharp tingling in my skin and dull aches around my cheeks and eyes. But my larger concern became Mei. At the start of the third month, she sounded sad, not her normal self, speaking more slowly and in deeper tones. Her mother remained upset with her. Kai, too, had fallen from Leiko’s graces once more and, according to Mei, he had simply disappeared. No one even knew where he was living.
“In ninety days this will be over, Mei. I’m pleased with my progress and would like you to see for yourself. And darling, I’m dying to see you as well.”
“No, I couldn’t bear having you look at me in my present state.”
“You mean because you’re unhappy? Because of your mother?”
Things improved in the following weeks. Mei was laughing again as we picked a new name for me—Haru—and made up backstories to explain my poor Japanese. Sometimes I had been raised in California, sometimes in England, but always as an only child with deceased parents and few family connections, anywhere. When I came to Japan, Mei said her father would help with changing my name and establishing my cover.
In the spring I completed DAR, and with the last of my savings bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo.
My hypercab pulled into Futaba Station at sunset. Everything—the tracks, the interior of the car, the platform—was bathed in reddish gold. But as I stepped out, my bronze hands clutching the straps of my baggage, I didn’t see Mei. Instead a woman, frowning and wearing white gloves, held up a sign.
I walked up to her, bowed, and said in broken Japanese, “I am Haru. Where is Mei?”
A tear dribbled down her cheek as she lowered the sign. She was young, Mei’s age, but not as tall.
“I am Mei’s sister,” she said and then lunged at me, throwing her arms around my neck while still gripping the sign, which crumpled into my hair. She pressed her face into my shoulder, her tears dampening my skin through my shirt. I dropped my bags, reached up, and tried to peel her away as her hands kept a strong grip on my shoulders.
She was sobbing uncontrollably. “Mei died. Yesterday. I am her sister. Kira. I am sorry. I took her place. Please forgive me.” She spoke in a low voice, in perfect English.
Only as I fell to one knee did I become free of her grasp.
I began crying, staring at the platform’s golden surface, before finally asking Kira what happened. She sat next to me, her knees crossed, her arm around my back, and with jagged words described the accident—hiking alone at Mount Adatara, Mei had fallen from a high boulder.
People were looking at us. As soon as we noticed them, we got up, the questions swirling in my head acting as a sort of bandage for my grief, my desperate need to understand mixing with a depthless sadness that already exhausted me. I recalled the image of Mei among those shells of houses in Futuba’s historic district, how she’d spoken of the spirits there, how she might now be among them. Honestly, it scared me a little.
And now, in Kira’s hotel room, I recalled she had dead-bolted the door.
I once had a bad experience.
She wanted sake and got up and retrieved a bottle and two matching cups. As we drank, disgust diluted my sadness as I kept thinking how she was more beautiful than her dead sister—perhaps because her eyes lacked the artificial sheen of Mei’s.
Still sobbing, I said, “Mei never mentioned you. Neither did Kai.”
“We were estranged.”
She kept her gloves on and, as she raised her sake cup and drank, she gazed at me.
By now, I craved sleep. I pushed myself up from the couch, staggered to the bed, and tumbled in. The blackness of unconsciousness had almost consumed me when I felt Kira’s body pressed against me. My eyes opened; her hand reached over my head and dangled just above my brow. She had taken off her gloves.
A sapphire ring circled her ring finger. I recognized the blue gem instantly.
“When I first met you, I knew I loved you, Blake. Oh, you’ve noticed my ring—it’s absolutely exquisite, don’t you think?”
by Nicholas Stillman
The week always started with Terry crumpling the letter into a tight ball. The letters came once every Monday over four years, and Terry Jamison crumpled all of them. He knew better than to tear them into slivers. It would only add an arts-and-crafts hour to his routine with an added cost of Scotch Tape.
Instead, he squeezed the paper ball harder than he did on any previous Monday morning. He then uncrumpled the letter and read the demands he had typed for himself over four years ago. Outside his bachelor apartment, the rumble of city traffic waited to annoy him further. The myriad of cars waited like circling, growlsome lions, eager to get closer and even more intrusive. Today’s letter, from his old extroverted self, would throw him into that swirl of noise and stenchy exhaust.
The letter recapped his orders from previous years: he had to dress up and continue becoming a master street magician, a sort of clown, really. He had to practice, privately and publicly, for two hours each day in rain, wind, or whatever tortures the winter out there dumped on him. Today, however, his old self gave an extra instruction, one Terry could hardly remember having written all those years ago. The old Terry wanted more humiliation for the new, starting today.
Terry closed his eyes, but the gist of the demand remained as though typed on the inner side of his eyelids. He blocked it out with the help of a long grunt. A couple thumped past his apartment door, discussing their nighttime adventures. For once, he listened in, just to distract him from the nightmare in his hands.
He slid the crumply letter into a binder which loosely held the previous unballed letters. The folio sat on his steel kitchen counter for convenience. The cover had gathered grime and spatters from the nearby stovetop. A good housefire would take care of the whole collection, but even the old freewheeling Terry wouldn’t like that.
He opened the steel cupboard and whisked out the one pill bottle among the stacked, alphabetized cans. He swallowed two pills with 50 milliliters of tap water from a steel mug. The meds doubled his metabolic rate. Logically, the pecan shake he had guzzled earlier should replace some of his bodily atoms at a faster-than-natural speed. A femur bone regenerated itself entirely, atom by atom, over three months. The brain took only two. A whole human body, however, took over five years to replace itself via diet and breathing. Terry looked at the dust on the binder, his dead and shed, dried and drifted skin cells. The dust layer looked about twice as dense as anything he had ever neglected to clean under his bed. He tried to smile.
He paced, wondering if he could really win, if regenerating his body and brain a bit faster would restore his personality to that of the old, chattery Terry. He hated that Terry, but that former self technically existed first. The old Terry had primacy. And that young man had wanted to live out a sociable, frivolous life with all the embarrassments included. The first letter to himself had made a surprisingly logical case for self ownership.
Each step on the kitchen floor, however, made him feel as rigid and stuck as the metal tiles. He grabbed an equally durable steel pitcher and chugged a liter of water. It would flush out more ions, slowly erasing his newer, opposite self. But could it really change him back when combined with four meager years of remolding himself as a card magician? No one had beaten the justice system before by reclaiming the old self, one’s original deportment, through gradual reversion.
Terry put on his costume, a tuxedo and ascot over a pinstriped vest. He wore two sweaters under that to protect him from the cold. The tight top hat pressed on his ears with a fleece lining he had sewn on for added warmth. With a loud sigh, he donned his modified, felt-lined gloves and polished shoes. The weighted coattails practically clamped down on him too, so the suit jacket wouldn’t flop in the wind.
The accouterments shackled him. They felt like the straps of the Reverser chair, the colossal machine which had punished him for murder four years ago. The chair certainly had tighter straps than the tuxedo cuffs he wore now. However, even that most severe legal procedure had seemed less humiliating. The transcranial magnetic forces had modified his neurons in billions of ways, all while he slept under a state-administered sedative. He remembered how the guards treated him respectfully before and after he awoke as the new, opposite Terry. They had bored expressions on beefy, lax faces.
Life had seemed just as lax and procedural afterwards with his new, reversed personality. Seclusion and routine soothed him. The thought of shooting another wounded, helpless burglar felt grotesquely illogical, something a flailing gorilla might do. But the old Terry had wanted to shoot based on a spontaneous lifestyle and the whims of an overemotional brain. And the original Terry wanted those things back.
So the letters came. The court needed months to wrap up a murdered burglar case, and old Terry wrote plenty in those months. He had plenty of freedom too, so he paid an obscure delivery company to mail the letters in sequence.
The self-imposed punishment felt far worse than anything the state intended. Terry went outside and instantly wished he had a weighted scarf around his neck. It would break audience immersion, though, even without flopping in the wind. A scarf would remind spectators to hustle away to escape the cold themselves. Thus, the freezing wind cut into Terry’s face and loitered there, as it did every December morning. The fog of his breath blew away before it could warm the tip of his nose.
He stifled his sighs all the way to Garden Road, a 16-minute walk from his apartment. Despite the name, the commercial strip looked neither like a garden nor a road. Frost and filthy slush nestled along the lanes. A minus-ten wind calmed the regular noise that came with all the ugly faces on warmer days. Schmucks and people in their prime alike lacked cars and looked disgruntled about it. They clacked along to their nine-AM shifts like funeral goers, staring at nothing along the way. The cold kept their eyes down and their chins bent into their scarves.
Terry took from his pocket a folded hat, a little bowler the damn old Terry had loved and would still love. He unfolded it and punched the inside to restore its dome shape. He placed the bowler on the sidewalk just before his feet. It stayed there against the wind, secretly weighted, right-side up, and with a little sign attached which read FREE MAGIC. Terry rose with a groan, knowing some spectators still wouldn’t get it and would toss coins onto the hat’s tiny rim where they could.
He took one of the decks of cards from his pocket and began holding up aces to no one. They vanished into the deck again and reappeared in his pockets. The jacks and kings hopped through the deck as though chasing one another, until the jacks teamed up in a quartet to make the kings run off for good. Across the gray street with its frozen-out stains of road salt, the buildings themselves watched every trick–a perfect, silent audience. Waitresses flicked past the windows of a tiny restaurant in front of him. The place looked almost squashed, tightly wedged between a larger restaurant and a barber shop that charged fools quadruple what a haircut cost in the country. The gelid wind watched him harder. It slapped his face for its applause.
Pedestrians did occasionally stop, their interest piqued by a random trick in Terry’s 24-minute looping routine. He spotted one dumpy woman, dumpy as everyone else in their winter wear, who stayed annoyingly long. Terry had to stretch out the last several tricks by slowing his gesticulations. Otherwise the woman would see the routine loop over. Slowing down felt childish, probably even more so for the crowd. The woman finally scampered to the nearby bus stop, and the tricks resumed their normal speed.
Spectators looked at the bowler hat with its sign and repocketed their money. Some held up coins, forcing Terry to interact and shake his head. He waved their gestures off with operatic gestures of his own. Some set their coins on the hat’s rim anyway.
They eventually walked away, sometimes confused by the FREE MAGIC sign, but always smiling. At the one-hour mark, the puffy man in his more colorful suit arrived by the bus stop. He played his regular saxophone tunes to the urbanites who stomped past. Terry performed to the drifting music. He even matched a few card reveals to the climatic parts of whatever familiar radio songs the sax man played. The letter from last Monday said to draw from the environment.
A fluke housefire could still burn that letter, burn all of them, and the thought of it kept Terry warm.
More passersby came along and huddled to watch, bored with the junk and clutter of consumerism. They seeped from their steely, utilitarian apartments to the freezing urban circus outside. They gawked at Terry’s arms which swung robotically as though cleaning invisible windows with fanned cards. The grumpy kings and stoic queens did funny feats and dances Terry’s old self would enjoy. In the music he leeched from the sax man, Terry could almost see a stuffy pub interior, the curb no longer his stage.
He plucked out every preselected card and palmed them, all while wearing thick gloves against the brutal Canadian cold. His forearms twirled smoothly just like the magicians he had admired in childhood. His fake smirk never flinched, even as he recalled how the Reverser had utterly changed his attitude. Fumbles and failures would make that long-gone Terry giggle. Now, however, in the frozen rot and gusts of winter, a slip-up would feel excruciating. Only his stiff gestures and perfectionism gave him any relief at all. The wind tilted his top hat despite its tight strap, and his hands could only press on through the maze of pockets and moves.
After his two-hour performance, Terry picked up the bowler hat and shook off the coins. They tinkled onto the concrete and rolled away. He folded the hat and stuffed it in his pocket next to a stack of hidden kings. He walked away from the little crowd. They all clapped except for one familiar mustachioed man at the back of the huddle. He followed Terry in a suppressed huff, a plodding man with too much bulk around the middle for sure and more bulk likely hiding under the rest of his trench coat. Inspector Hanlon appeared for the act once a week like a joker ruining a flush. Lately, he had learned to do his legal stalking on Mondays, the same day the letters arrived with new instructions.
Terry sped away from the applause. He pretended the boom of loafers behind him belonged to a stranger, someone in a hurry for eggs cooked in a diner. Then, the greater boom of Hanlon’s voice hit him like yet another gust.
“Have you tried transcranial magnetic stimulation?” Hanlon asked. “I’ve seen felons walking about with homemade TMS helmets four times bigger than your top hat.”
“No,” Terry said. He stared ahead while he walked, as though the card show went on.
“Well, good,” Hanlon said. His mouth contorted into a simper which would probably last all Monday. “Dangerous stuff, trying to warp their brains without the proper warehouse-size machinery. They can, at best, manage to knock out some brain areas–nothing even close to the big switch back to their old selves.”
“Hm,” Terry said.
Terry stopped and waited for a crosswalk sign to signal walk. He checked the traffic eight times. Inspector Hanlon nearly huddled against his shoulder, blocking the view of South Street. With no winter hat, his ears turned a comical red.
“Yep, some people go pretty far trying to cheat the criminal justice system,” Hanlon said to himself as he checked the traffic too. “But not everyone. I just checked up on this one guy, actually, who choked a prostitute to death. Hated prostitutes. Wanted them burned off the Earth with godly fire. Well now he goes up and down Hollis street cracking jokes to them. He buys them coffee, the expensive stuff.”
“Right,” Terry said as he frowned at the sky.
Terry inhaled deeply and hurried across the street a second before the lights switched. Hanlon puffed along, all smirks and glances.
“Naw, I didn’t see any funny hats or geek-helmets on that guy,” Hanlon said. “He pays for his crime by embracing his new self. How about you, Mr. Jamison? Got any proclivities about trying to become the old you?”
“Yes,” Terry said.
Hanlon feigned a boyish look of surprise. He caught up until he and Terry walked abreast. Pedestrians swerved around them, around the wide waist of one and the stiff, weighted suit jacket of the other.
“Well, I have a duty to check up on your freaky new experiments,” Hanlon said. “I assume the old Mr. Jamison often replied honestly and abruptly, all spontaneous and carefree. So I guess you answered honestly just now to adopt that old personality, even though it stings a little.”
Terry walked into the headwind, his lips pressed closed and his gaze aimed at the pavement.
“Now, I appreciate all the times we’ve chatted, Mr. Jamison,” Hanlon continued. “You’ve got a respectable coolness about my sleuthing. But you must realize this reversion strategy of yours, including whatever you do at home, won’t work. You come off as stilted, stressed out, dogged, and dour. Only your dapper appearance gives you enough dignity to avoid a mental breakdown. It must feel painfully awkward, deigning to do this ridiculous act everyday. Despite your costume and card tricks, you still appear reserved, solemn even, just as the Reverser rebuilt you.”
“Sounds like a fitting punishment to me,” Terry said.
“But the system wants you reformed more than punished,” Hanlon said with a majestic wave of his own. “Our sunken economy can’t support life sentences anymore. The Reverser absolved you by giving you this new personality. But you INTJ types try to beat the system more than any other felons. That Introversion-Intuition-Thinking-Judgment combo gives you all the stubbornness and willpower needed to force your old self to reemerge. They try to restore their Extrovert-Sensing-Feeling-Perception lifestyles. But they live in constant stress trying to emulate their former ESFP selves. Give up pretending, Terry, or you’ll end up on the same heart medications as me.”
“I suspect the Reverser tampers with more neurons than it should,” Terry said. “It certainly changes more than the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, your simplified version of the science.”
“It ought to,” Hanlon said. The pitch of his voice lowered. “You brutally shot a man in the face while he lay wounded with one in his gut. You did it with those same graceful hands of yours. With all this stress of reinventing yourself, maybe you’ll kill a second time and get the automatic death penalty.”
“How illogical,” Terry said. After a long, annoying walk in silence, he added, “Satisfied?”
“A few INTJs get desperate,” Hanlon said. “A gang of them broke into the Reverser facility. They tried to start up the machine without the committee. They would have strapped themselves one-by-one to that chair unsedated if the police didn’t haul them out of there hogtied. I wonder what you will do instead, when the faces wear off those cards.”
“I see a worn-off face everyday,” Terry said.
Terry turned sharply. He flounced through the narrow driveway to enter the parsimoniously small apartment complex where he lived. Hanlon stayed behind, whether from laziness or from having reached the limit of his legal encroaching.
Terry felt the cold still embedded down to his bones, even while he stood over his kitchen counter. He had turned the heat up instead of down prior to leaving, in preparation for the upcoming sauna routine. He pulled today’s crinkled letter from the binder and reread it with a groan. As with previous letters, it summarized his orders from the original Terry with his old ESFP preferences. The old self had known how sickening such demands would sound: looking up trendy magazines to learn about current fashion and fun, calling relatives and old friends often, buying them birthday cards, and espousing a lifestyle only a blabbermouth would enjoy. The old Terry had assumed temptation would arise to skip such orders, to crumple the letters and leave them crumpled for months or to burn them on the pavement just outside. The demands, then, needed repeating.
Terry skimmed the instructions, those draining, agonizing tasks which he still had to complete today. He looked up and bared his teeth to the ceiling fan. The last paragraph introduced a new technique, one even more humiliating than all he had accomplished so far. It told him to perform impromptu card tricks, to combine them spontaneously, to do them in random order, and to risk screwing up the whole routine. The last line told him to do what feels right.
He had failed to do any of that today. He had performed as procedurally as a parking meter until his two hours ran out. Only returning home felt right, even with Inspector Hanlon nagging him all the way.
The cupboard before him had a bank receipt taped to it, and the little numbers offered little hope. He could stay unemployed and keep the magician facade going for another 16 days. Then, the money saved from his old secretary job would run low, and his temporary retirement would end. Then, the job hunt would commence just as the letters dictated. He dug through the stack of them in the binder for guidance, but gave up. He already knew one of them hinted at a career as a gallivanting showman. He remembered writing the letter himself, to himself, but with a different attitude.
Terry slammed the binder shut and closed his eyes. He could at least appreciate the financial strategy of magic shows, if not the fun his old self had intended. He might even earn decent money in a world of recommodified human performance. The era of materialism died a bit more everyday out there.
Decent money. He could almost smell the beer breath of pub goers flowing over him, their chuckles and burps soaring up to the stage in a disgusting chorus. Their applause would surely sound like chaotic gunshots.
Terry stripped off his costume and the clothes beneath it and threw the bundle on the kitchen table. The big ball of cloth looked like a boulder to him, more permanent than the steel tabletop on which it rested. To fold everything neatly as he usually did would seem uncharacteristic of the original Terry, too obstinate for sure. But leaving the costume unfolded would save time in tomorrow’s dress-up routine, a more efficient move–also uncharacteristic of the old Terry. Either choice meant failure.
In the tiny bathroom, Terry placed a scorched clay flower pot on the bottom of the bathtub. He donned oven mitts and brought in the pan of baseball-size stones from the oven. He had let them slowly heat up during his torturous routine outside. They hissed and steamed while he poured tap water into the pot. With the door closed, and with a towel pressed under it, the cramped bathroom became a makeshift sauna.
He performed free-weight squat presses until sweat rolled off him like rain. Once exhausted, he sat on the toilet lid. It felt like another boulder of sorts, hard against his sweat-drenched boxers. His skin excreted not only toxins, but molecules of his INTJ self. Somewhere in the mix of today and tomorrow, a bit of the old Terry would replace whatever got pushed out of his sweat glands.
The steel walls seemed to breathe with him. Clouds of steam bounced off them in rhythm, as though the bathroom also wanted to transform its rigid design. Water dribbled down like sweat in the spaces between the indestructible panels. The heat rejected the ceiling and suffused through Terry instead. It hurt, but not as much as going out there among those ugly, gawking strangers. Their warm breath, full of chatter and random breakfast, always hurt more.
Terry stood and wiped the steam off the mirror. He stared while the glass quickly fogged up again. He saw only a ghostly blur, a man without eyes. He saw the soft capital punishment the cheapskate society had given him, the death of his old self and the slow, self-imposed erasure of the new one. The vague creature which struggled to look back at him could indeed break the system, but perhaps only by committing murder again. If the new personality strove to destroy itself, then the state had simply made a suicider.
He waited for the alarm timer to buzz in the kitchen. Instead, a series of thuds and clacks made their way through the door. It sounded like a raccoon clawing at garbage bins just outside. The city, however, with all its lifeless concrete and metal, had no raccoons.
The sounds came from the little window behind the refrigerator. Terry hurried to the kitchen. All his efforts to endure the sauna now dissipated, his time wasted like the steam which billowed out the bathroom door. He stood in his boxers before the fridge, staring at the puny curtains drawn across the window. The beads of sweat and steam on his skin turned to goosebumps.
A set of impatient hands fiddled behind the glass, hidden by the curtains. They jammed a levering tool, probably a short crowbar, between the sliding window’s stile and its casing. The plastic creaked, but the latches held. The tool slipped repeatedly, but the clumsy hands kept trying.
Terry sidled to the counter and grabbed the two biggest carving knives from the kitchen drawer. He returned to the window and waited with both blades raised and ready. A hand would soon slip inside. He would pin and yank it further inside, and kill anything above it with a dozen upward jabs. Any man could die with the right stab through the armpit. The oaf out there had interrupted the sauna, the one sure task that pushed out the newer self, if only an ion at a time.
Surely, Hanlon deserved multiple stabbings for his infringement. The man probably wanted it, and what other man would break in at noontime besides the Inspector? He wanted to take the bullet or the blade himself. It would spare Terry’s next random provoker the trouble of dying. Hanlon admittedly had heart disease anyway, and though he probably couldn’t fit through the window, he did know the first-story address. He knew who lived here: the nation’s most likely reoffender, the system’s greatest risk.
Terry’s blood both burned and chilled. He felt every rhythmic wave of adrenaline. He saw his future self strapped to a different padded seat, the one that administered lethal injections to repeat murderers. He didn’t care. Logically, Hanlon would keep overstepping his legal boundaries. He would only get snoopier and push harder to prevent a crack in the justice system. Even better, he could cause that crack now by creating the first reoffending murderer to leave the Reverser chair. Hanlon would give his life for the state to eliminate that flaw quicker.
The timer buzzed from the oven clock. It toned only once, but loud enough to feel like electrocution on Terry’s nerves. The bumbling hands outside froze, but soon resumed their prying on the window. Who else but the persistent Inspector would continue a break-in now? Hanlon even knew the daily routine. He knew the renter stayed home at this hour, exhausted and bitter from a morning full of social interaction.
One of the latches cracked off the window frame. Terry squeezed the knives like handlebars just before a motorcycle crash. He looked at the oven which stood there stiffly like a giant, waiting tombstone. He too stood just as solidly and still. The digital clock ticked away the last seconds before his commitment to murder and suicide. It would free him from the unbearable stress of extroversion. It would free others from the intolerable Inspector Hanlon.
By rote–he did everything by rote now–he pictured the original Terry standing so rigidly in his place with a calculated plan, one that included geeky levels of stealth. He had to smile. That old Terry had, of course, simply grabbed his handgun in a panic and shot. He had shot again much later in spontaneous rage.
Now, Terry felt the weight of the tuxedo, four years of it, pressing his whole, nearly nude body. He felt the hellish layers of it, the sweaters in winter, the underarm deodorant clinging to him in summer. He felt its hundreds of pressures all donning him at once and a new, eccentric street magician confined within that heavy, black cage. He felt the top hat clamped on his head, a black ball and chain. The second latch popped off the window casing. It clattered on the floor, and the window slid open enough for a chubby hand to slip through.
Terry screamed. He bellowed long, the way he imagined a howler monkey might do it in the steam and frightful shade of a jungle. The old Terry would have done something almost as crazy, though not as preposterous as an eight-second roar.
Outside, a metal object fell and clanged on the concrete driveway. A scuffle of loafers ensued followed by a scrape sound as hands rushed to pick up the tool. Loud footsteps thudded away and faded. An ever-pesky wind pushed its way through the curtain, making it bulge like a pumping heart.
Hanlon had probably run away from the apartment permanently. He would not face such a pent-up howl again. It would put a pounding into his ailing heart fast enough to kill him in a less heroic manner.
Terry put the knives away and closed the window. Neighboring tenants open their doors, and their muffled sounds annoyed him. Though clammy and cold, he donned his heavy tuxedo and went outside again. He returned to his spot on the street, his least favorite block of concrete out of all those ever stepped on. People gathered before him again, up close and breathy and full of blubbery giggles and susurrations. The ones who had watched on their way to work now watched again on their lunch break. Their snickers at each trick sounded just as squealy and grating. They did, after all, get to see a man perform graceful card tricks in puffy winter gloves.
While he mingled determinedly, Terry plucked a balled-up paper from his pocket. He held it up in feigned and exaggerated surprise, an improvised move to satisfy the demands of today’s letter. The audience expected a card, and they got garbage instead. With their ensuing chuckles, a pang in Terry’s chest also ensued. He paused to ease the strain of breaking the safe routine, to help temper the chaos, to calm the fire still in his blood from the botched break-in. He stared at the paper ball pinched in his fingertips, the first letter which he always kept with him on the street. It still served as a sort of ugly eyeball. It watched and made sure he obeyed.
He could almost see the words folded over themselves, crumpled and compressed. The old Terry had written one of his many whims there: he never knew why he picked street magician over all the other bubbly careers.
But now Terry knew. Beyond the fascination, the boy in him had always wanted to master the tricks. Although a reversed personality could never change back to its old self, he could instead change into his very old self: a child with a dream. The justice system never thought that far back.
He pocketed the ball of paper and found the king in his other pocket. To the crowd’s laughter, it had become a jack. Hanlon watched from the back as always, though paler now. He clapped along with the crowd, his eyes stoic and his mouth hidden behind his big mustache. For once, Terry didn’t know which trick the Inspector clapped for.
by ILGIN YILDIZ & KEREM SAVAS
It is dark, light, and dark again.
The darkness is the beginning and the end. The sudden flash of light in between, hosts action. It illuminates the bodies. As if built from fragments of dust, they scatter after a brief “beep” sound. They fly up in the air, splitting into their elementary particles.
They aren’t alive, anyway, I think to myself. They are empty of life. Their souls, if they exist at all, occupy another existence now. The bodies are just empty cocoons, all used-up, worn-out.
But still. Dead bodies of Terran refugees terrify me. Those fragile, lonely, desolate shells. They have intended to do good once. They have really tried. And now, they are smaller than dust, insignificant as dirt.
Their homeland, New Terra, was supposed to be everything Terra was not: The embodiment of human wisdom. It turned out, human wisdom was an oxymoron, a silly joke.
“The third group is finished,” Paq says. “You can go ahead and prepare the statement report.”
I divert my gaze away from the mist of exploded bodies and respond with a nod.
When I return to the Monitoring Department, I sit in my cubicle and glance at the monitor which recounts the names of the last group of refugees. Their consciousness has been uploaded to Mer where they will live happy lives as free people. The ceaseless white flow of letters on my monitor have become happy citizens of Mer.
This is our accomplishment as Abylans. We have managed to transform miserable Earthlings into happy beings.
The hate leaves me questioning. It is so powerful, yet so subtly embedded in the intricate web of our everyday life, it is hard singling it out, highlighting it. The hatred towards Terrans establishes the foundation of Abyla, it is its raison d’être, yet it is utterly out of focus, cheats the eye, forever hidden. Or perhaps, it isn’t really hidden but has been reinvented to acquire a positive meaning. It isn’t hate—it is a symbol of change, it is transformation.
Abyla, which is situated 200 million kilometres from Terra, had been founded and settled by Terrans while their planet had almost collapsed, exhausted by wars and climate crises. On its very soil, New Terra was founded. Under centralised governance, ideals of equality, harmony, and sustainability were cherished, and Terra was once again habitable, albeit barely. In time, social injustice became rampant and religious dogmas widespread, both among citizens and in politics. New Terra had fallen even more quickly than Terra. In the meantime, Abyla, flourishing rapidly, had become a powerful civilisation with Terran settlers.
The hatred leaves me questioning but it is rather hard not to see the underlying reason. Terrans are bad news. They have failed over and over. They have proven that they aren’t fit to live in harmony with the cosmos. Their ethos follows the idea of viral propagation. Their praxis never changes. And now, neither them nor their ways are welcomed in Abyla. The distance between Terrans and Abylans is so great that Abylans don’t see themselves as ‘human’ any more. We are Abylans and that’s it.
After the Fifth Terran War erupted, the refugee crisis was long-expected and Abyla was ready. The system was fairly simple. The refugees were given two choices: They would either agree to go to Mer after they arrive to Abyla or stay in New Terra. They would almost all agree to be uploaded to Mer. It symbolised a new life. Surprisingly, abandoning their bodies wasn’t that of an issue for them. It was as if they were fed up with carrying their bodies to wherever they went, and now, they were okay with getting rid of them once and for all.
Instead of uploading it to the system, I choose to visit the central barracks in person to deliver the statement.
I see them. Sick and helpless. Waiting to start over, be saved, and live. Terrans of all ages, all ready to be stripped off of their bodies. Their questions are ceaseless. Why should their bodies die in order for them to be transferred to Mer? What will happen at the Hives? In Mer, will their children be children forever? I watch the officials patiently and respectfully explain them the basics. The crossing will be smooth. They don’t need their bodies anymore. The Hives are little cubicles where their consciousness is transferred to Mer. Once they do the crossing, they will live a normal life—a life that resembles the one on Terra before the wars, famine, and sickness. They won’t have any memories of war. Their minds will be fresh, unburdened by those dark memories. Their new life will be free of all the problems they have faced on New Terra. They will have water, food, social services, and schools. They will govern themselves, live and work as respectable members of their community.
The offer is undoubtedly enticing and yet, sometimes some refugees change their minds at the last minute. They just can’t wrap their minds around the idea of living without a body. Hives are suspicious graves rather than conduits of a new life. This new life the officials are talking about, sounds like an impossible, unnatural way to exist. These refugees reject the offer and choose to return to the fire and brimstone of New Terra. Just like the father and son before me.
As I watch them, the father hugs his son and patiently tries to convince him that nothing good will come out of this Abylan scheme. The boy doesn’t understand why they are rejecting such a beautiful promise. Choosing pain over happiness is something he can’t come to terms with. He runs away from his father with tears in his eyes. His father goes after him and takes him in his arms once again, telling him that his decision is final, and he’d better obey. The boy eventually stops crying. He freezes with moist trails on his cheeks. He isn’t convinced. Still, he has no choice but to follow his father to the deportation ship.
The next morning, weather is humid. Before long, yellow sandstorms break out. Abylans take shelter inside shops and buildings. They sip their coffees and teas in cafés, waiting for the weather event to pass. Sandstorms are part of everyday life, and a weather event of this magnitude is so common that it has lost its meaning long time ago.
When I reach work after one hour, everyone is chatting and laughing.
“Good morning, Finn,” says Paq. “Nice of you to join us this morning.”
“The storm,” I say.
“The weather tracker,” he says.
I shrug off the sarcasm and sit on my desk. I turn on my monitor to check the daily data from Mer.
“We better go, the new group has arrived an hour ago,” says Paq.
Great. A spaceship full of refugees, first thing in the morning. Even though I’ve been working at the Monitoring Department for sixteen years, starting my day with tears and pain is something I’ve never been able to get used to. I still can’t forget the image of that refugee boy with tears in his eyes.
“Hey, Paq?” I say. “Did yesterday’s deportation ship return to New Terra?”
Paq turns his head to meet my eyes. “I’m not sure. Why are you asking?”
“No reason. I was just wondering.”
Mer is peaceful, quiet, and synthetic. I find its serenity to be eerie and unpleasant.
The very fact that it was produced to accommodate Terran refugees is hard to process. They will live there and die there, forever separated from our reality. Eternally locked in their oblivion. The idea of forever in the context of Mer is something that is grasped easily. It doesn’t denote a perpetual continuity, an impossibility, but rather, it is limited by and depended upon the workings and politics of its inventor, Abyla. If the future governments decide to put an end to Mer, erase the whole thing, they will do it. There is no safety net. No dissent voices. There will be nobody to stop them because there is nothing to be opposed to. Nobody believes that Mer is eerie and unpleasant. They rather perceive it as a safe haven for destitute immigrants. They believe that it is the ultimate compassionate resolution of the refugee problem at hand. And it is. That is, if the refugees are willing to give up two of the most fundamental parts of their existence: Their bodies and reality.
People say that reality is something we construct, that it is what we believe it to be. And that there’s no other reality besides this one, the one we have created. Reality is our stamp, our trace, our word. It depends wholly to language and its limitations. It relies on our minds, which do a quick work of compartmentalising the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal.’ And because reality is constructed and Mer is just as real as Abyla, refugees are fine there.
Abyla gives the refugees two choices: A death or a dream. If they choose to return to New Terra, they die either on their way or upon arriving their homeland. The dream, on the other hand, is a pleasant dream, but nonetheless, a dream. Even if for Abylans, it is a constructed reality, a truthful projection of our cherished ideals and morality. Even if it is the embodiment of our ethics and respect towards the refugees.
I look at my monitor. Mer is as beautiful as Abyla. It is its child, the fruit of its compassion. It lays before me, innocent and serene. Its skies are clear blue, occasional, tiny clouds are rushing this or that way. Birds are traversing this blue plane which is ever so beautiful. People are in their houses having breakfast, going to work, leaving their children to school, reading, and running at parks. They are waiting for their buses at bus stops, heading for the tram or metro station, getting their newspapers on their way. They are content and oblivious. A mild yellow light is falling on top of everything. Houses, cars, people, trees. It is so encompassing and calming that Mer resembles a place of childhood, full of contentment and happiness.
It is the little things that give Mer the illusion of real. Bird feathers and pollen flying around, traces on the barks of tall trees that sway in the wind, tiny fractures in the cobblestone pavements.
It is as if Mer has always existed, it is all that ever was and all that ever will be. It is here, and it won’t go anywhere. It is dependable. It will forever be faithful to our perception and memory.
I wake up to yet another sandstorm. When I check the weather program, I see that the storm will continue for an hour. It would be best to wait it out but I don’t want to be late for work.
After forty-five minutes, I get off my vehicle and make my way to the Monitoring Department. Once inside, I see that everyone is locked into their monitors and Paq is on the phone with the Director.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Paq looks at me with serious eyes and returns to his screen. “Everything seems to be in order. I can’t imagine what went wrong,” he says to the Director. “We’ll send someone right away.”
I turn on and glance at my monitor. Mer is nowhere to be seen. All I see is a strange emptiness. A black void. My heart starts beating rapidly and I sit on my chair. I take a deep breath and reboot my monitor, as if the source of the problem is this small, grey screen. After a few seconds, the same black void greets my blank stare. My mind is filled with ceaseless questions and I’m scared. I feel like I’m losing the one thing I feel connected to.
Paq finishes his talk and sinks back in his chair. There is a thick silence in the room and everyone looks at their monitors with the same empty stares.
But after twenty seconds, suddenly our screens brighten, the display comes back abruptly, and locked into the images, we hold our breath. In Mer, the familiar life continues and everything looks in order. Nothing has changed.
Paq reboots his monitor. “Must be just a temporary cut.”
“This has never happened before,” I say. “You should still send someone. I can do the crossing.”
Paq watches Mer on his monitor. “There is no need,” he says. “Just a small glitch. It only lasted for four minutes.”
“Still, not that short,” I say. “I think it’s best to be sure. I’ll do the crossing and check everything in the Operation Room. Guarantee everything is in order over there.”
Paq looks at me and sighs. “I’ll tell you what. Just do the damn crossing. Guarantee it, whatever.”
At the Hives, I lay on the armchair with the receiver on my right temple. I think about how privileged we are to be able to do this—cross over to Mer without losing our bodies. Lucky.
I had been wanting to visit Mer forever. I’ve only crossed once, with the foundation team that set up the system. I’ve never been able to erase the feeling I had upon that visit. I had felt like my whole being was a part of something so inherently vital and whole.
I check the time and switch on the transfer device. “See you soon,” I whisper to myself. I push the green button and start counting backwards.
“Ten… nine… eight… seven…”
I find myself in Mer and that familiar wholeness returns at once, encompassing my whole being. It is soft and light, yet strong and purposeful. I gather my surroundings and immediately remember the Hives. In Mer, the Hives is just a small room with six armchairs.
I look at my hands, my legs, and body. I breath in and out but can’t really feel my breath. I rise from the chair, leave the Hives, and enter the Passage. I remember how it looks—it’s soft, grey walls, grey ground. I take one step but can’t feel the impact of my foot. The connection between my foot and the ground is very light, barely there. I start walking.
My surroundings, the tall, grey walls, convey a sense of safety and warmth. I know that the Passage is quite long. That it opens to a small terrace overlooking the city, and then a long trail which goes all the way down to a locked door. I will unlock it with my finger print and enter the city.
My face is getting number. My fingertips are getting warmer and tingling. It’s a good feeling—like I’m losing myself entirely to the ultimate wholeness which will caress me forever. Time is no object. Time doesn’t make sense. I check my watch and can’t believe that I’ve been here for only one minute, in Abylan time. Here, time is cheating and impossible to grasp.
I’m really in Mer, I think to myself. This is amazing.
As my soft steps carry me through the Passage and towards Mer, I gradually get more and more excited, impatient to feel the embrace of that strange universe. It is summoning me.
A few meters ahead, suddenly, I see a brightness emanating from something. I walk towards it and as I approach, the brightness intensifies. This object looks like a precious stone of myriad hues and tones of white. A magnet, pulling my futility towards itself to assimilate it within an inert wisdom. I’m drawn to it, helpless. Just a few steps left.
Then suddenly, I feel someone grabbing my arm. They punch my neck and I fall. My eyes are still locked into the precious stone. I’m sure that it is the heart of Mer. I want to see it clearly but my eyelids grow heavy. I fight the heaviness to no avail. I’m lost in darkness.
I hear whispers in a loaded silence. I’m tied to a chair. I can feel that I’m able to open my eyes but I stay still and listen.
“Maybe we should splash cold water to her face,” says a woman.
“No need,” says a man.
“Let’s just wait,” says another.
Then they are silent for a few minutes. I slowly open my eyes.
When they see that I’m awake, the four people around me, two men, a woman, and a little girl, look nervous. I watch them for a while. Silently, they return my looks.
“Are you okay?” asks the woman. She has raven black hair and large brown eyes. She is genuinely concerned.
“Yes,” I say. “Why…”
“I’m sorry that I had to punch you,” says one of the men. He gets up from the chair and starts pacing the room. He has wilful eyes and a red scarf around his neck. The girl hands me a glass of water. The other man watches her. He is the calmest one.
“Why did you do it?” I ask.
“We know that you’re coming from Deva,” the man with the red scarf says.
“We know that you’re a Devan. What else could you be doing in the Passage?”
I take a deep breath. “Look,” I say. “I’m not Devan. My name is Talia Finn. I’m a citizen of Mer. I was merely exploring the area.”
Everything is ruined. I don’t know how to get out of this situation. They all look at me as if I’m an alien. They know I don’t belong here.
“We have been waiting for Devans to visit for a long time. Don’t lie to us. We can’t trust you. That’s why I had to punch you. We had to know your aim in coming he—”
The silent man intervenes and speaks slowly, decisively. “No citizen of ours calls this place Mer. This is Samsara. Mer belongs to your language, it is your invention.” He rises from his chair and comes near me. His cold stare is distant, aloof. “Look,” he says. You have to tell the truth. We will eventually find out. We won’t let you go until you tell us.” He walks towards the door and turns the knob. “You think about this for a while. We will leave you alone.”
I fall completely silent. I can’t find the right words. I know that I’m ambushed and nothing I say can save me. Except for the truth.
I owe them the truth. When I’m alone, this is the only thought I’m able to form. I have no other choice but to be honest. I owe them the truth. Besides, they won’t let me go until I explain everything. But this is such fragile information, I feel inadequate to deliver it. And what will happen when I get back? Paq will probably fire me. My big mistake won’t be disclosed to anyone except for the Director, and he will probably order a Blanking Procedure where the memories of refugees will be erased to have no recollection of this event whatsoever.
The two men return to the room after half an hour. I look at the man with the red scarf. He has a long and beautiful face. He looks at me with a reassuring expression.
“Alright,” I say. I take a long breath. “I will tell you.” I gather all my strength. “I’m here for a routine control. I have to make sure that everything is running smoothly.”
I can’t believe these words have left my mouth. I close my eyes.
I see Mer, which is in fact Samsara, peeking behind the window, vast and beautiful with smooth hills and misty mountain tops. It speaks to me in ways I’m unable to explain. I feel its essence, its kernel.
The man with the red scarf, Lars, tells me its story.
Once, Samsara was called Mer and its citizens enjoyed a peaceful and prosperous life. They had everything. Everything we Abylans, or Devans, designed, worked flawlessly. They were happy with their lives, never questioning the reality of it. Its polished, fine-tuned ways never bothered them. These weren’t the reasons why they started questioning their lives and existence.
Everything started with a shiny object.
It was nearly impossible to reach the Passage. There was a hidden path through Mount Mons and nobody knew about it. But one day, a little boy accidentally found it. And once he got inside the Passage, he came across a shiny stone-like object. He was mesmerised by it and tried to take it with him. But whenever he tried to touch it, he failed. His finger and the object never formed a connection. When his hand came closer to it, he could feel a certain warmth, intensifying gradually, but touching it was impossible.
Some started saying that it was a gift from gods. Higher beings who had some sort of willpower and control over them. The idea of god or gods was alien to them but it flourished very quickly. The shiny object was named Tantarum and was revered by Samsarans. Once a year, they made pilgrims to the Passage, watched its light, and prayed to it.
Lars shows me the Tantarum to see if I know anything about it.
I do. It is an Abylan coin.
It probably belongs to Paq, Volsag, or another monitoring official who was part of the first foundation team that set up the Operation Room in Mer. One of them must have dropped the coin which was to be revered as a holy object.
It is surprising to me how an idea of a celestial message can be this easy to sprout. The skies of Samsara are so peaceful, so quiet, it is mind-boggling to imagine anything to come from that plane of life. It’s merely an abstract blue fabric. An illusion, like everything else in here. Like the people I’m speaking to.
The only real thing here is the coin somebody dropped accidentally.
I tell them about Abyla during my first night in Lars’ home. I tell them about the concept of time and how it is much slower than it is here in Samsara. “Your one week,” I say, “equals to one day in Abyla.” They are amazed. This amazement quickly turns to sadness. I tell them about the sandstorms and how they wash the entire city with their yellow, orange, red hues.
They want to know how they have ended up in Samsara. I tell them about the refugee ships, the two choices, the Hives. They sit still and listen. The silent man, Unson, watches me with determined eyes. His conviction is a black stone under clear white water.
Particularly Lars’ wife and daughter, River and Kane, are curious about Abyla. They listen to me as if Abyla were a fairy tale city, full of wonder and amazement.
I don’t know why I tell them these details. These wretched tales from another time and place, from a reality they will never be a part of. But I almost feel a responsibility to convey these strange stories. Sometimes they look at me as if I’m mad, as if everything that comes out of my mouth is made-up, a blatant lie. But mostly, they find it hard to resist the temptation to believe. Because when they believe, everything makes sense.
Lars takes me to the Green Mountain one day. We hike and have a picnic. He offers me colourful fruits, all sweet and fresh. The mountain, just another Abylan invention, is strong and quiet.
Lars tells me that after the Tantarum, other things happened that made them become suspicious of their reality.
“After the Tantarum incident,” he says, “something else happened. Our dead returned. Two women and a man, after dying, came back but as different people leading different lives.”
I learn that these people, after their deaths, were seen by their close family and friends, under different identities, in different settings. One of the women, who was a teacher before, was seen as a cashier at a supermarket. Her daughter was in tears when she saw her. But the woman was telling her, over and over, that her name wasn’t Ada, she wasn’t her mother, she was living in the north of Samsara with her two boys. This wasn’t true—the daughter, as well as her other relatives were sure of it. In another case, a woman, after being dead for almost two months, was spotted by her father at the library. The man was perplexed, not able to explain to her that she was his daughter, had been dead for two months, and now, here she was. A year later, a woman told Lars and his friends that she had seen and talked to her long dead husband at a bus stop. Again, the man had no idea what she was talking about—thought that she was mentally ill, and practically ran away from her, leaving her in tears.
All these cases were researched in detail by Lars and his friends, a group that conducted technological and philosophical research dedicated to strange phenomena at Samsara University.
In Samsara, strange phenomena weren’t scarce. One time, an entire village had disappeared. One morning, when two farmers from the neighbouring village came to pick up some produce, they weren’t able to see a single soul in sight. All twenty-three villagers, comprising of twelve adults and eleven children vanished into thin air. They were never found.
Strange things happened all the time, and the most recent phenomenon was the blackout, which lasted nearly thirty minutes and ultimately caused a visit from me.
I’m surprised that the system we have established and shaped has caused such problems. It is strange to know that all these staggering events are the results of the shortcomings of Abylan technology. When it was running smoothly, there wasn’t a necessity for the citizens of Mer to question anything. Glitches caused questions and eventually awakened a strong suspicion in them about the nature of their existence. With the effect of metaphysical and religious beliefs, language itself began changing, Mer became Samsara, and the plane of existence that we Abylans occupied was known as Deva, the land of gods.
I work at the Operation Room which is situated inside the Passage. Even though I like being in the Passage, I don’t like spending such long time on the resetting procedure. I want to complete my task as soon as possible to go back to my life in Samsara.
During one of our daily walks, I ask Lars if he is happy.
He says that he is but his expression implies that he is trying to hide something. I don’t want to be persistent but I’m curious.
“Living in this place, being limited to it, doesn’t it upset you in any way?” I ask.
He looks at me with thoughtful eyes. He waits for a couple of seconds before answering. “Well, no. Reality is what you experience,” he says. “Samsara is as real as Abyla. Even more real, for it was invented by your, Abylan intelligence. It is its product. It is your perception of us, produced for us.”
He is right. The product of a mind is indeed more real, more consequential, more telling and solid than its owner. Samsara tells more about Abylans than it does about Samsarans. It describes us perfectly.
“But there is a whole other reality out there, I say. “Aren’t you a little bit curious about it?”
“Of course I am. But it doesn’t mean I prefer it to Samsara. I just want to learn what it is, how it works, and continue living my life, which has purpose and meaning just as yours.”
“Of course,” I say. But my words are painful and empty of meaning. They are dull and simple-minded. I feel stupid.
“But you have to make some changes,” he says quietly. “You need to find a way to explain everything to our citizens. Tell them why they are here. That this was their choice. You need to fix the glitches. And we need upgrades, more universities, libraries, and sports facilities, learning centres. We are still a part of the cosmos. Even if… even if we live in a made-up reality. I know being here is our choice but it doesn’t mean Samsara should be devoid of such things.”
I picture Samsaran children studying a made-up history about how Samsara was built by their Terran fathers, after the Fifth Terran War. About how it is the only place in the entire cosmos that hosts intelligent life, and how they are all alone.
At night, I realise that I haven’t heard of such silence before. In Abyla, even at nights when nearly everyone is asleep, the city continues making muffled, indiscriminate noises. Existence is noisy, I’ve always believed in that. But in Samsara, at nights, after I finish working at the Operation Room and return to Lars’ house, I find myself lying on my bed with eyes open, contemplating in this peculiar, impenetrable silence.
I told them a lot. I had to. I don’t know how I will manage to explain everything to Paq and the others when I return to Abyla.
When I go to my window which overlooks an old street, I see nobody. There is only the wind, occasionally blowing to my face. In such times, I question Lars’ contentment. When I asked him if he was happy, the expression in his eyes betrayed his words. He was right in saying that his existence was as purposeful and meaningful as mine but it doesn’t change the fact that he is living in a place where even the wind doesn’t speak to you. Here, even nature, the one thing that must speak its own mind and can’t be bothered with what you desire, that obstinate and unfettered force, looks like an empty vessel of invention and numbers. It is an illusion. It is believable, yet polished and sinister.
But of course, Lars isn’t aware of this. None of the Samsarans know this. The only reality they know is this one—of course they would think this is the only way life can be.
But as I spend more time here, I start feeling that I don’t really mind Samsara’s polished and synthetic silence. It gives me a sense of solidness, reliability, dependability. One thing you don’t get in the real world is security. In Abyla, your dealings with nature is a one-sided pact. You offer it yourself but you may or may not receive a decent life in return. Here, the pact is solid and reliable. Unbeknownst to Samsarans, in all its mighty secretiveness, the ultimate power has given them a good life.
I finish the resetting procedure in the Operation Room and download the new fixer to the program. Everything is set and I’m hoping there won’t be any blackouts in the future.
There is one less strange phenomenon in Samsara and I’m ready to leave.
Kane is sitting on my bed. She is sad to see me go. These last weeks, she was happy to listen the stories I told about Abyla. Everything she had learnt at school was refuted when I, a complete stranger, came to their house with her strange tales.
“After you return to Deva, will you visit the great library?” she asks. She has developed a curiosity towards my practical life, how I live and asked me many questions, like what I eat, my favourite colour, and books. Of course, her curiosity is stemming more from the fact that I am, unlike her, a Devan. She wants to know how the fairy tale beings live.
“I will borrow some new books,” I say.
She drops her head. “If… you feel bored, you can always come back.”
I smile. “Thank you, Kane. I like it here. I really do.”
I bid farewell to River. She quietly whispers goodbye and smiles. “Lars is waiting for you at the Passage,” she says. For her, I’m magical and awe-inspiring. She thinks that being a Devan, I’m wise, somehow. She looks at me like I’m the one invented her. Shaped her thick eyebrows, moulded her beautiful, lean body. I shake her hand.
When I step into the Passage, the familiar feeling settles inside me. The air becomes dense, everything is slower and heavier. As if a giant invisible being is sitting on top of everything. You have to grow accustomed to this feeling and make your way to the Hives, your walk becoming slower and heavier with each step. An invisible curtain has been pulled between this reality and outside. You are separated, wholly, from the objects you are surrounded with. Your subjectivity becomes naked and isolated, and everything is under a mild mist.
I spot Lars a couple of meters away. His back is turned to me and I can’t see his face and black eyes. His gaze is fixed on the Tantarum.
“Lars,” I say, touching his arm. When he turns to face me, I realise that this is not him but Unson. Lars must have been caught up in something. Perhaps he is at the university, busy with research.
“Hello, Finn,” says Unson. “Lars couldn’t make it. He wants you to know that he appreciates your kindness and he is happy to have met you.”
I nod. “I’m happy to have met you, as well. Don’t worry, I will speak with the officials about everything.”
“Well,” says Unson. “Lars trusts you with all his heart. He believes in you.”
I smile. My heart starts beating rapidly. Strange enough, I toy with the idea of telling him that I will have their memories erased when I do the crossing to Abyla. A part of me wants to tell him everything but instead, I take a deep breath.
Walking towards the Hives, our steps are in sync, moving slowly, determined. In a couple of seconds, I feel the familiar warmth of the small room. I open the hidden door with my fingerprint, and the heat escapes, hitting my face on its way out.
I turn to Unson and offer him my hand. “Be well, my friend,” I say.
He doesn’t shake my hand. His expression is clouded. Those eyes had scared me when I had first met him. They are always utterly full of thought. They are always elsewhere even while directed at you.
I wait for a little while and when I’m convinced that he won’t reciprocate, I lower my hand and turn my back.
Then suddenly, I feel an intense pain on my neck. Something has hit me.
Everything feels heavy. I try to hold on to a thought. I want to tell Unson that we have made a mistake. That Samsara shouldn’t exist. That it’s a symbol of our selfishness and hatred. But I can’t speak. My vision is blurry. Then the world collapses on my shoulders.
It is my first time at the Hives.
I couldn’t imagine that there would be a hidden room here. A place that would host my crossing to reality. To Deva, the land of gods.
I sit on an armchair and relax. I’m ready.
The Hives will be the uterus to birth me. The magic wand that will make me real. Make us real.
Our days are coming.
The first one will be me. I will adopt Finn’s physical being. Once I acquire a body, I will bring others, and it will go on, without stopping, until whole of Deva belongs to us—its real owners.
But you can’t own a land, can you? No, you can only inhabit a land, and it’s your choice how to inhabit it. And we will inhabit it as it’s meant to be, and it’s meant to be inhabited by Terrans.
Once we spread, Abylan bodies will exist no more. They will become Terran bodies and Abyla will become a dark tale. A somber story.
This is how we reclaim ourselves back. Our reality, which has been denied to us for all this time, will be ours again.
It starts with me, Unson.
by Sara Kate Ellis
It’s one lousy dry afternoon in Corona Del Mar, and I’m trying to read Popular Mechanics. My sister and grandpa are yelling, and I can only focus on the ads. Sloop John B is on the AM, all muddy water rushing through a player piano, and my sister’s pulling her hair out because there’s a quarter less gas in the tank and she’s sure grandpa took the keys again. He’s not supposed to drive. He’s real forgetful and his reflexes are slowing.
“That’s a hundred bucks you just wasted acting like some petulant kid,” she says. “How are we going to get that back?”
We use the car maybe once a month for emergency errands, or when we just get so cooped up that we want to kill each other. The rest of the time it’s a carpool or the big diesel rumblers that bus me into the canyon and back on school days.
My eyes dart from the magazine to the embrasure leading into the kitchen. Grandpa’s opening and closing his mouth like a puppet, trying to clench his jaw, but his teeth don’t line up.
“I didn’t do anything.” He jerks a ragged hand toward a cookie jar, jammed full of dried out pens and receipts. “You want your damn keys, they’re right there.”
My sister blows a strand of sweaty hair out of her face, and turns back to see her key ring where he says it is, propped up on the counter like a piece of rusty fruit.
“This is the last time,” she says.
“It ain’t even the first.”
When Dad died, we tried out a home for a year, but it cost too much, so here he is. I’m supposed to keep an eye on him when my sister’s out, but there was a lockdown at school due to air quality, and I got home late. Now she’s rushing around the house, trying to get ready for her second shift at a corrections facility in Carlsbad.
She drops her keys into her purse and snaps it shut. “You just keep it up. Pretty soon they’ll toss you in the clink for stunts like that.”
“Clink?” He says it like it sounds funny.
Even though she got grandpa’s license revoked, there’s little chance he’ll be pulled over until the law goes into effect, when anyone over 65 is banned from operating a motor vehicle. My government teacher Mr. Tran calls it chicken shit, says they’re too scared to take on the big polluters, so they go kick up a fit about aging boomers and rising accident rates.
“Too little, too late,” he says. He likes to say that a lot.
Grandpa comes into the living room, lowering himself into a battered green easy chair with cigarette burns in one of the arms. He’s wheezing, which is probably how my sister sniffed him out, and I wonder if that’s how smokers used to sound. I turn on my side and try to focus on the article, but I can still see that shamed, glassy smile from the corner of my eye.
“Whatcha got there, Suze?” he asks.
Reluctantly, I sit up, swinging my legs off the sofa to give him space. “One of Dad’s. I just found it out in the garage.”
The just is for his benefit. He’s already been through Dad’s things because there were other magazines and old movies that started going missing right after he moved in. The ones I’d really been looking for. Like most autoporn, they’re worth money; some of them are even illegal, but I don’t care about that. It’s the women. Their bodies aren’t swaddled in filterweave and you can see their skin, their necks and shoulders, their legs.
“That’s a Corvette,” grandpa says. “I used to drive one of those.” He points to one all needle-nosed and sleek, like some kind of sea creature that might slip out of the wet sand and slice you right in half.
“No you didn’t,” my sister yells from upstairs.
Outside the all clear sounds, which means the wind has picked up enough to let us go out if need be. No one ever does. When I was little, there was a group of kids who played basketball at an old hoop in the cul-de-sac, but I haven’t seen anyone hanging around there in years except cats.
“That’s a C6, could get up to 205 miles per hour.”
He presses a gnarled thumb over another car, this time red, and I nod, wondering why they’d make something go that fast if it was already against the law.
“You okay for food?” my sister yells. Her ride will be pulling up any minute, and I yell back a “Yeah,” but I’m getting hungry and thinking I don’t want to eat the leftovers. Last night she made some peppery soup that tasted like the air outside.
“I know where one is,” grandpa whispers. “Want to see the real thing?”
“Can we pick up Chinese?” I’m only half serious. Right now he reminds me of this scrawny kid one class below me, the one who lies all the time and gets beat up.
“I do,” he says.
I shrug. There’s no way he’s getting those keys back.
“Suze,” he smiles, his voice raspy with possibility. “I know where she keeps the spare set.”
Grandpa says the sky wasn’t brown when he was my age. At night there was just enough smog to turn it pink. My sister can remember it, too, but I’d been born late, right after she left for college.
We zigzag slowly down what’s left of the old Pacific Coast Highway, and the shoreline against the dark looks like a long strip of fat on a pork chop. I should be watching grandpa’s driving, but it beats me how anyone could get in a wreck at this speed. He’ll die of old age before we do that.
“What I told you back at the house,” he says. “It’s one hundred percent true.”
“The Corvette. It was a beaut too. Really hurt when it got stolen.”
He slows down as we approach a checkpoint, nothing serious along this strip. Not like the cops with their smog guns parked up and down the 405.
“What color was it?”
“Orange, red. I don’t remember.“ For a second, his smile disappears, as if he’s left the stove on back home. Then he picks up, continues as if the whole thing is just occurring to him in real time. “When that guy stole it, I had to go chasin’ him all over the country. Spent a whole summer doin’ just that.”
“You go to New York?”
“I think so,” he says. “I think I did. And Texas.”
There’s a long silence before the guards wave us past the checkpoint. They’re looking for gas hogs and speed racer types, not my sister’s old Honda. The traffic is finally thinning out, fewer rumblers and grassoline scooters and more of those fancy foreign hybrids with state-of-the-art air filters and double thick safety glass. Grandpa waves his hand at them dismissively.
“You didn’t need all that then. Sun was shining all the time. You could go out in it as long as you liked. Take your dog out for a walk on the beach and watch him roll in dead birds. I met a girl who helped me out. Name was…name escapes me, but she drove me all over hell and back until we found her. The car, I mean.”
“Was she pretty?”
He frowns before answering. “The car?”
I wonder if my sudden queasiness is because we’re slaloming at a faster pace. Rapid coastal erosion has turned this once gentle ramble into a patchwork of crisscrossing stitches, swerving inland then seaward then back like some great cement scar.
Grandpa slows before turning abruptly off the highway onto a steep and winding path that takes us through an abandoned development. People used to live here, I think. People used to think they wouldn’t fall in, and I reel back in my seat as we barrel headlong down the hill over pavement that feels more like clay. I yell for him to stop, but that look on his face is wild, almost happy.
We’re angled almost straight down, the reeds and overgrowth streaking the sides of the car with a grimy war paint, as we stagger to a halt before an ancient, weatherworn sign: “Caution. Road Closed Permanently due to Erosion.”
I can still feel my heart jounce. Grandpa’s hunched over the dash, as if trying to get a last glimpse of a thrill that’s now slipping away.
“You still alive?” I loosen my hand from the door handle now slick with sweat.
He coughs out a chuckle as I hand him a sheet of filterweave, wrapping my own carefully around my nose and mouth, tucking it behind my ears the way Dad taught me when the clouds first crossed the sea. He used to weave it through his fingers, play all sorts of games.
“This stuff,” he’d say. “It’s like that chicken egg problem, only verrry, verrry stupid. Bunch of politicos got people all riled up, said they were going to embargo our oil, wrap our women up in gunnysacks, so we started a bunch of wars until the wells were on fire, and the ash got so bad we’re all wrapped up now. What do you think, Suze? That funny or what?”
My filterweave is downy and smells like mint. We’ve gotten ours mixed up, and Grandpa’s got the strawberry chew, a girly smell, but he doesn’t seem to care. When we step outside, the air is surprisingly clear, and I’m tempted to lift the cloth and let some of its salty mist on my tongue, but I hear a kick and juddering sound. Grandpa is laughing, standing over the caution sign, now leaning at a sharp angle toward the ground. He’s acting just like my sister said, a petulant kid. “Tell us somethin’ we don’t know,” he says.
I spot the rim of a guardrail that once might have protected us peeking out between the rocks and tufts of reed grass like a row of dirty teeth. Around us, the remaining houses stand vigilant against the sandy churn below, some sagging backward, rearing back in shock. This is happening to them.
I wonder if Grandpa’s wants to follow suit, to step off the cliff into some irretrievable past. Instead, he sits down and pats the sand beside him. I make my way over, careful to stay a good four feet from the brink.
“I thought we were going to see a car.”
He takes a thin flashlight from his pocket and aims it at the water below. I can see little, just the white foam of the waves, a few jagged shadows poking their noses out of the water like sharks responding to the beam.
“It’s down there.”
“The car. This kid I was mad at, name escapes me. He went right down into the water.”
I wonder how that could have happened if the shore was farther out, but I don’t say anything. The wind’s picked up and it’s getting cold. I want to get my food and get back.
“I was new at school see, and this kid, forgot his name. He didn’t like me. Thought I was moving in on his girl, so he said hey Joe, how about a game of chicken?”
That last word hits my stomach and I start to worry that he’s forgetting our deal. I want to get orange chicken if we ever get out of here. Mr. Tran calls it “fake ethnic food,” but it’s a favorite and we don’t get it very often.
“The idea is that the coward, the chicken, they go speeding toward the cliff. Guy who gets closest to the edge wins, only this kid, he couldn’t stop. Went right over. He’s still down there.”
“You go to jail?” I ask, but the thing is, I know he’s lying. Grandpa lies a lot, but it never sounds like he is, because when he talks, it comes out of him all desperate, like he’s passing on bits of his own history and he’ll disappear if we don’t hear him out. The best thing I can do is humor him. Make him feel good. Make him hurry.
“No. We just took off out of there, bunch of scared kids, and the police asked around, but they put it down to an accident. I don’t know why I remember this so well. I’m forgettin’ everything else these days.”
But it’s all still there. When he’s out of the house, I can go through his things, find the magazines he took, along with Dad’s movie collection, and one of them, I know, will have some cocky kid who drives off a cliff because he can’t open the door in time. It always turns out this way. That two-lane blacktop he likes to talk about wasn’t his to begin with; he’s just doing his best to get it back.
When we get to the car, he hands me the keys.
“There’s no way.“ I point to the front fender, just a few inches short of the abyss. “Besides, I’m not allowed.”
“Neither am I,” he says. “But there’s a difference now. You ain’t going to be.”
He’s right. I’ve got five more years until I can get behind the wheel, and by then the rules will be so tight I probably won’t get the chance. But I do know how. I’ve watched the movies, read the manuals, practiced steering and braking in the driveway.
“Come on, Suze,” he says. “I can take it back up the hill first if you’re…”
“Chicken? Yeah, I kind of am.”
But I do say yes, because I know what he’s giving up: one last look at a time where we could do almost anything we wanted, use up what we wanted, and the hell with the rest. This ride will be my first and last. And that’s how I can know him, know how his world worked, rushing from start to finish faster and faster until the end was the only thing left, and the middle? Some old movie with a Corvette and a pretty girl.
by Sarena Ulibarri
It had gotten to the point where no one even greeted me when I stumbled in bleary-eyed after work and went straight to bed. Not the husband, not the kid—not even the dog would deign to lift his head and sniff or bark at me. Normally, I was gone again before they woke up. Weekends, I often still worked at least half days, and the others in my house were always gone or absorbed in TV during the other half. I had become like a ghost in my own house.
Then I caught the first cold I’d had in years. Sick enough that management didn’t want me sneezing all over the conference room, but not so sick I wanted to be in bed, I suddenly found myself on the couch next to my thirteen-year-old daughter, Abby, with the realization that I had no clue how to interact with her.
“Uh,” I said. “You don’t have school today?”
“Oh. Uh, what’s been interesting in your life?”
Abby shrugged, face in her phone. “A dino tooth showed up in the backyard yesterday, so that’s cool I guess.”
“Is…that some sort of game?” I turned away to sneeze.
“No, it’s literally a giant dinosaur tooth. You didn’t see it?”
I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been in our backyard. I had vague memories of it being large and somewhat wild when we moved in. If the dog or kid had really dug up a fossil, that was pretty neat. Maybe we could take it to a museum.
“Can you show it to me?”
She shrugged again. “You can see it for yourself if you just look out the window.”
Is she just trying to get me to leave the room? I sighed, blew my nose, and wandered toward the sliding glass doors that opened onto the yard.
A giant dinosaur tooth sat smack in the middle of our un-mowed back lawn. Truly giant: a good eight feet tall, and twelve or more from root to tip.
“Who put this here?” I yelled. The strain on my throat brought on a coughing fit.
“What?” Abby yelled back.
I recovered and went back to the living room so I wouldn’t have to yell again. “Who put that thing back there?”
“No one,” she said. “It just showed up.”
“Giant dinosaur teeth don’t just show up in people’s yards.”
She gave me a look like I’d just said the Earth was flat. “Yeah, they do.”
“No, they don’t.”
“Oh,” she said. “Are you one of the shark people?”
“Most people think they’re dinos, but there are some people who insist they’re the right shape for sharks.”
“A bit big for a shark, don’t you think?”
She shrugged. “That’s why more people think they’re dinos.”
“Want to tell me what the hell is going on?” That sent me into another coughing fit. Abby looked curiously at me.
“You really don’t know? Have you been living under a rock?”
No, I wanted to yell. I haven’t been living under a rock. I’ve been working sixty hours a week so you can live in this house and go to your dance lessons or your softball games or whatever else it is you do. Instead, I concentrated on getting that nasty chunk of mucus out of my throat and into a tissue. Abby handed me her phone.
“This is fancy,” I said, smearing fingerprints across its sleek black case. “How long have you had this?”
“Read it,” she said.
I blinked, sniffed, and tried to focus on the screen. It was a newsfeed full of stories from around the world about people finding these giant teeth in their yards or parking lots or the tops of their buildings. The stories dated back a couple of years.
“Is it April Fool’s Day?” I asked.
“I think…” I stifled another sneeze and handed the phone back to her. She pinched it gingerly, then wiped it with her shirt. “I think I need to go back to bed.”
I woke later, sure the whole thing had been a weird fever dream, but the tooth was still there. I slid the door open and stepped outside, then ran my hands across the giant tooth. It felt like cool marble. A slight hollow sound dinged back at me when I tapped it. I tapped my own teeth for comparison. According to the articles I’d seen earlier, the first few people who found them charged admission to see it, but that industry evaporated when they became more common. There was hardly a city in the world without at least a few.
Footsteps rustled the grass behind me, and without turning to see who it was, I asked, “Are there other parts of the dinosaurs showing up too? Bones and claws and scales? Er, feathers?” Dinosaurs were supposed to have feathers now; at least I hadn’t missed that.
When no response came, I turned and saw my husband. He looked more startled than I’d ever seen him, but he was looking at me, not at the giant tooth in the yard.
“Uh,” I said. “You see this thing, right?” I patted the tooth with the palm of my hand.
He glanced up at it. “Of course. But what are you doing here?”
“I still live here, last I checked?” He pursed his lips. I sneezed so hard it threw me back against the tooth. “Sick day,” I explained, wiping my nose.
“There’s a team coming to collect it.” He waved vaguely toward the monstrosity, and even as he spoke, I heard the beep of a backing truck. He unlatched the gate.
“Where are they taking them?”
“Government’s gathering them up, dumping them all somewhere in the desert.”
“Seems a waste,” I said, but no one was listening to me anymore. Three men and a buff woman loaded the giant tooth onto the flatbed of a truck. As they tied it down, the thought struck me hard that if I hadn’t been sick today, it would have come and gone from my yard without me ever knowing about it. How much longer would it have been until I heard about the phenomenon at all? One would probably have needed to drop straight onto my desk before I’d notice. How many other major events had I missed in the world?
The dog flapped out the dog door, sniffed my leg, then walked over and sniffed the tree in exactly the same manner before peeing on it.
I decided quite suddenly that I needed to find out where they were taking the giant teeth. It felt strangely important, like knowing that would make up for not knowing about any of this for the last several years. I hurried back inside, a little winded from even that much movement, and traded my robe for a baggy t-shirt and sweatpants, then grabbed a box of tissues and my car keys. On my way through the living room I spotted Abby, still on the couch.
“Uh,” I said, “You’re…you’ve probably got things to do. Friends and shows and games and such, right?”
She looked up from her phone, raised an eyebrow at me.
I followed the truck as it negotiated through city streets, occasionally steering with my elbows so I could blow my nose. My daughter sat morosely in the passenger seat, staring out the window.
There were other parents I worked with who talked constantly about their children, always so involved in their activities and education. My answers to their inquiries ran along the lines of, “I think she’s in seventh grade now?”
I didn’t know how they did it. I was always dead tired when I got home, and every bit of “free time” was consumed with some unpleasant task like grocery shopping or calling the plumber. My husband worked full time as well, but his hours were more flexible, less overtime. A co-worker suggested I see a doctor about chronic fatigue, and I had agreed it would be a good idea. If I could ever find the time.
The truck turned onto the highway and I glanced at my gas gauge, doubting my commitment to this quest. A few miles out of town, the truck started down a long dirt road into nowhere.
“Maybe we should turn back.”
“No!” Abby yelled, and I was startled by her sudden passion. “I’m already live-tweeting this. We have to follow through.” She snapped a picture through the windshield.
The truck had caught up to a line of similar trucks, all with giant fangs strapped to their beds.
“Why teeth?” I pondered. “It’s like some cosmic monster tried to take a bite out of the Earth and broke its jaw.”
“Sounds legit,” Abby said.
“Yeah?” I looked over at her, cracked a half-smile.
“O.M.G.,” she said. “Look!”
I turned back to the road, prepared to stomp on the brakes, but it wasn’t an impending crash she was pointing at. The tooth on the truck in front of us was dissolving into nothing, twinkling in the afternoon sunlight like dust. Abby scrambled for her phone. The thing completely winked out of existence.
“Did you get it?”
“No.” She stuck her head out the window, then climbed up on her knees and leaned her whole torso out. I grabbed the belt loop of her jean shorts and pulled her back in. I had at least that much motherly instinct left. “It’s happening to all of them,” she said. “Can we get closer?”
The dirt road was wide enough to my left that an oncoming car could have safely passed, but there seemed to be no one else on the road except the tooth trucks. I swerved into the other lane and sped up, pulling alongside one that had halfway dissolved. Abby filmed on her phone, then pointed ahead. “That one’s just starting to go.”
I sped up. Just as we approached, my chest seized and the coughing started. My eyes teared up; it was hard to see the road.
“Just a little faster!” Abby yelled, but I knew that one curve in the road, one rogue pothole, and we were done. My chest burned. I groped for a tissue. I pushed the accelerator for another moment, then let off it. The trucks whooshed past us on the right. My car tires thunked into a ditch. It took another two minutes for my coughing fit to resolve.
I leaned my head back on the headrest. “Did you get the video?” I croaked.
Abby pecked at her phone screen with quick fingers. “Yep,” she said. “But the internet’s slow over here, it’s taking forever to load.”
“We can…” I suffered a rattling breath. “…upload it at home.”
“No! I have to be the first. Come on, come on… Yes!” She raised her fists in the air.
Together, we pushed the car out of the ditch, but the effort did me in and I had to lay the seat back and rest for a while. While I rested, Abby took a walk up the road to see where the trucks were headed. She showed me another video when she got back: a large canyon or crater, empty but for the natural rocks, cactus, and scrub oak, and a line of flat bed trucks parked along the edge, the drivers all scratching their heads.
The next day, I woke up still sniffly and swimmy-headed. When I called in, my supervisor commented on my daughter’s video, which had apparently gone viral, as though to indicate that if I was well enough to be chasing after giant teeth, I was well enough to be at work.
“Did you watch the video?” I wheezed. “Pretty sure you can hear me hacking up a lung in the background. I’d be happy to send you a petri dish of my phlegm if you like.”
Fortunately, no such proof was required.
When I wandered out to the kitchen, my husband asked, “You didn’t quit your job, did you?” The concern in his voice was clear. We could be at risk of loan default and foreclosure within a month if I had.
“No,” I said, “Just another sick day.”
Abby was also sick. She sat red-nosed and wrapped in a blanket on the couch.
“Look.” She held her phone up to me, proud. “The video already has a million views.”
I wondered if there was some way to monetize this newfound internet stardom, then realized this also meant my fifteen minutes of fame were probably used up as “that annoying person coughing in the background,” as so many of the comments called me. Oh well. I was never one for the spotlight.
I handed the phone back to her. “That’s great,” I said. “Sorry I got you sick.”
She shrugged. “It’s pretty cool that you wanted to go out there.”
“Yeah?” She scooted over so I could sit on the couch next to her. The dog jumped onto the couch and curled up in my lap. “Let’s stick around here today, though. You can tell me what else I’ve missed.”
By Jackson A. Helms
“If you go into the villages, you need to know what’s fady,” the driver said.
“People have superstitions. If something is not allowed it’s fady. If you violate a fady you will be punished.”
“What’s fady around here?”
“There is no fady in the city. We’re more developed.” He paused. “But there are some who still believe. My grandmother believes it’s fady to work in the morning on a Tuesday.”
“Do you work on Tuesday mornings?”
The driver laughed. “I work every morning.”
The passenger looked out the window. They drove east through fuzzy green rice paddies. Red clay farmhouses, accessible by narrow mud walkways, sat atop earthen mounds in the center of each paddy. She turned and saw the chaos of Antananarivo retreating behind her. The capital’s jumbled houses and narrow alleys clung desperately to rocky outcrops towering over the sea of rice.
She was happy to leave the city. She had spent her first days in Madagascar searching for a driver. Now, finally on her way, she looked forward to a few hours of traveling. She hoped the driver would not expect her to be social.
“My name is Nest,” he said. “Like a bird.”
“That’s a good name. I’m Elaine.” She looked back out the window, trying to imagine life as a Malagasy rice farmer.
“What music do you like?”
“Oh, I like just about anything.”
Now she imagined the island’s first farmers. They sailed here across thousands of miles of open sea, bringing their language and crops with them. From their Asian homeland those seafarers had colonized countless islands across the Pacific—Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island. Crossing the Indian Ocean, they planted their Asian culture here off the African coast. Supposedly the language of some Dayaks in Borneo is so similar to Malagasy that –
“Do you like films?”. Nest interrupted her thoughts.
“Yeah, I do.”
“Have you seen Jurassic Park? It’s my favorite. I think you’ve heard of it. It’s an American film.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it. It’s a good one.”
“Are the dinosaurs real?”
Elaine turned her gaze from the farms outside and met Nest’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “What?”
“Are the dinosaurs in the film real? They look real.”
“No, they’re not real. Dinosaurs used to exist, but they all died long before there were people. Except for birds. Birds are dinosaurs. But the other dinosaurs, like the really big ones, went extinct a long time ago.”
“Then how did they have them in the film?”
“For Jurassic Park I think they used robots and models and animation. Most movies today use animation, with computers.”
“Ah, America is so developed.”
“I don’t know. People are the same everywhere.”
Her mind turned back to Madagascar’s first settlers, the clearers and burners of the forest. They had lived alongside, and hunted to extinction, giant lemurs and dozens of other vanished animals. Eggs of the 10-foot tall elephant bird, roc in Arabian mythology, were over a foot long and their shells could still be found across the island. She had seen one on display in the capital.
The plateau they were crossing gradually expired into a series of jagged ridges. It was here that Elaine finally saw forest. In the sterile landscape they had crossed to get here—two hours of driving—they had not passed any natural vegetation. Not an acre of woods, not any riverside jungle. Just farms, paddies, and cow pastures, crops planted right up to the riverbanks. But here some of the steeper slopes avoided the plow.
Her destination would be similar but larger. A forest haunted by a remnant population of the world’s largest lemur, the indri. Seventeen larger lemurs, some over 300 pounds, had already gone extinct. But the indri, dubiously bumped up to first place and next on the chopping block, still lingered. It had been eliminated from most of its range and now clung to existence in only a few isolated forests. But it was still technically alive.
“That’s tavy.” Nest nodded toward the disheveled farmland at the forest edge. Rough fields studded with blackened tree stumps, the remains of recently burned forest, graded into older and more established farms. “Tavy is when they burn to farm. They’re planting coffee and mangos and bananas.”
“There’s some forest there too. It’s the first we’ve seen today.”
Her enthusiasm for natural areas was not shared by Nest, who continued undeterred. “Have you tried coffee from Madagascar? It’s very good. The soil here is rich because it comes from the forest, and when we burn to make tavy it makes the best coffee. Our zebu—that is what we call beef—is also the best.”
“I’ll have to try it.” Elaine had little interest in sampling cows, or coffee, or anything else that she could get in any city back home. This was Madagascar, and after monotonous days of city and farmland, she just wanted to see forest. But today she would settle on the tourist lodge at its edge.
Elaine put down her spoon and looked up. The waiter, standing attentively in the shadows, interpreted her sudden movement as a summons. Elaine waved him off and continued listening. The mournful sound trickled in, carried weakly on the wind from beyond the forest’s edge behind the restaurant. It hung on the air, like a long hopeless yelp, and then cut out.
“That is the song of the ancestor.” The voice startled Elaine. She had not seen the woman approach. “Sorry to interrupt your meal. I am Barsama, the owner here. How is the food?”
“The food’s great.” She shook Barsama’s hand. “My name is Elaine. What did you call that sound?”
“The song of the ancestor. It’s the call of an indri lemur. Here we believe the first people were indris. Then some of them decided to leave the forest and live on farms. Those people became us. The indris are the people who stayed in the forest. So they are like our ancestors, and they sing sad songs because they miss us.”
“I’m actually here to look for indris.”
“Do you have a guide?”
“Not yet. A friend recommended a man named Dedi.”
The woman paused. “Yes, Dedi was the best guide. Sadly, he died last year.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Dedi loved indris and always knew where to find them. He even carried a staff that was carved like an indri’s head. He said he wanted to live in the forest with them.”
“What happened to him?”
“He went into the forest alone and didn’t come back. His friends went to look for him, and found his body with a large machete cut on his head. We never learned who did it. Dedi was popular with tourists, and earned a lot of money as a guide. Maybe someone was jealous.”
“Geez.” Elaine molded her face into what she hoped was a concerned expression. “So what should I do?”
“I have a friend who is a guide. If you would like, I could ask him to meet you here in the evening. He can help you arrange everything.”
“Sure, that’s perfect. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Enjoy your meal.” Barsama turned and disappeared into the kitchen.
Elaine picked up her spoon, tilted her head to catch the end of a particularly long indri call, and bent back to her meal.
Elaine returned to the restaurant that evening to find a man waiting for her. Alert, wiry, and standing a head shorter than Elaine, the man was difficult to age. He could have been in his late 30s or maybe even 50s. He introduced himself as Elaine approached.
“Good evening. My name is Deux. Are you Miss Lane?”
“Yes, I’m Elaine. What was your name again?”
“Deux, like the number two. Barsama told me you needed a guide.”
“Yeah, I do. Are you the friend she recommended?”
“I am. When would you like to leave?”
“As soon as possible. I feel like I’ve been waiting for days. Is tomorrow too soon?”
He gave a reassuring laugh. “Tomorrow is no problem. It’s easy. I will take care of everything, and tomorrow night you will be sleeping in the forest.”
Deux agreed to meet Elaine early the next morning with provisions and a couple porters. She handed him a stack of bills to buy supplies, then sat at a corner table, picked up the menu, and indulged herself with thoughts of the upcoming hike. She had done it. She had made it to Madagascar, found a remaining chunk of forest, and if all went well, would soon be face to face with the world’s largest surviving lemurs.
They set out the following morning. Deux took the lead, and Elaine followed close behind with her pack. Two porters trailed them, one hefting a nylon sack filled food and cooking supplies. The younger of the two—Elaine thought he could not be older than sixteen—carried on his shoulders a rattan basket containing three thin and noisy chickens. They would carry them into the forest alive and slaughter them as needed.
Even though the forest here was legally protected, farmers had cleared all the easily accessible areas for crops and pastures. The forest edge hung a few hundred meters beyond the road, like a ragged black curtain marking the farthest extent of the settlers’ fires. Recent rains had flooded the pastures. That, and the quickly rising tropical sun, would make crossing the open area the most difficult part of the day’s hike.
Deux moved with the ghostlike stride common to experienced guides the world over. He half ran along the packed red dirt trails, and seemed to wade through the marshes without wetting even his flipflops. Elaine managed not to lose sight of him as he sped ahead of her, and somehow stayed ahead of the porters, although she suspected this was just because they did not want to pass her.
Elaine lifted her eyes from the trail and stole a glance at the forest edge ahead, now a wall of solid monotonous green. Jungle, she thought. Not in the romanticized melodramatic sense that was just a derogatory word for forest. This was jungle in the technical sense, jangla, impenetrable thickets at the edges of clearings and riverbanks. Elaine examined the tangle of shrubs, climbing palms, and five-meter high pandanus with leaves like serrated tentacles. Beyond that wall lay the beckoning shade of the forest.
A frantic shout from behind caused Deux to run to the rear. Elaine turned in time to see the two porters disappear into the trailside pasture grass. Instinctively, she crouched and scanned the landscape for threats, and slowly became aware of Deux’s voice calling her name.
“Lane! Miss Lane!”
“I’m here!” Elaine stood up.
“It’s the chickens, Lane.” Deux called from some hidden dip in the pasture. “They escaped from their basket. Wait in the forest.”
Elaine continued along the trail, chuckling at the thought of three men chasing those skinny chickens through the tall grass. She found it hard to believe they would ever catch them.
She paused at the foot of a small hill to catch her breath and adjust her shoulder straps. The forest edge waited at the top of the rise. Why hadn’t she borrowed Deux’s machete before she went on ahead? The sooner she found a way through the layer of jungle, the sooner she could drop her pack and rest in the shade while she waited for the guys, probably three chickens lighter, to catch up.
As she crossed the lip of the hill, Elaine saw a dark tunnel where the trail penetrated the forest edge. Relieved she would not have to bushwhack after all, she ducked into the narrow opening. Deux must bring people here often, she thought, then jerked her arm as pain shot through her elbow. A drop of blood flowed from a straight slash through her skin.
“Dammit,” she cursed herself, more with disappointment at her clumsiness than with pain. “Come on, Elaine. Pandanus.” She had brushed against the serrated edge of one of the spiraling plant tentacles.
Elaine shuffled to a large fallen log, dropped her pack, twisted her body to wipe the bloody elbow on the side of her shirt, and plopped down in the leaf litter to nap.
It was raining when she woke up. No, not rain, but something else falling on the leaves around her. Elaine flicked her eyes upward to see a dark shape snuffling through the tree tops, occasionally dropping bits of fruit rind or knocking loose dead leaves and twigs. An indri? Not likely, too small and dark. Maybe some other lemur? Elaine hazily rooted through her pack to retrieve her binoculars. But sudden footsteps spooked the visitor into fleeing, its presence attested only by a dampening wave of ruffled vegetation.
“Bonjour, Miss Lane!” It was Deux, newly arrived from the pasture.
“Bonjour! How are the chickens?”
“The chickens are here.” He waved his hand toward the rattan basket on the young porter’s shoulders. Elaine was disappointed to see it was again full of live chickens. The hens’ great escape had been a brave, if ultimately futile, effort.
“So what’s the plan? Do you think we’ll find any indris today?”, she asked.
“No, not today. It is already late. To see indris you must find them in the morning. We will rest here, and then go to our campsite. In the morning we will find indris. I promise.”
The porters set down their load and sat beside Elaine. Deux doled out a snack of peanuts, individually wrapped cheese wedges, and milk biscuits.
“Deux,” Elaine asked after eating a few biscuits and cheese, “Yesterday my driver from Tana told me that if you go anywhere in Madagascar, you have to ask about fady.”
“That is true. Every place has fady.”
“So what’s fady here?” Elaine began shelling a peanut.
“There are two. One, it is fady to piss near the water. It makes the river dirty.”
“That’s a good one,” Elaine said.
“Two, it is fady to kill an indri. People here call indris babakoto. It means ancestor or family. Killing an indri is like killing your friend, and it brings bad luck.”
Elaine thought about the hundreds of miles of farmland she crossed to get here, and the recently burned stumps and new pastures just beyond the forest’s edge. “But you can still cut down forest to make tavy?”
“That is different. It is not killing.”
“But it still kills indris.”
“Yes, but it is not killing. It is only fady to kill indris yourself.”
The young porter suddenly interjected something to Deux. He did not speak English, but had picked up on the discussion of fady and babakoto. A quick discussion followed, ending with the older porter shushing the teenager.
“What did he say?” Elaine asked.
“Gino says a family killed and ate a babakoto two nights ago. But it was far from here,” he reassured her, “maybe five kilometers.” Elaine listened silently, though she knew that five kilometers was not far for an indri or a human. “Fidel says it is just a story. He says the people here do not hunt. They are farmers.”
They reached their campsite on a small ridge an hour before sunset. The ground was mostly clear and Elaine assumed Deux, or some other guide, used the site regularly. She walked a short way into the woods, dropped her pack near a flat spot, and used her knife to clear away a few seedlings. But before she could begin piecing together her simple two-person tent, Deux called her back to the group.
She arrived to find Deux’s tent already erected about twenty meters away. The porters’ shared tent parts were laid out near a used fire pit, next to the sack of food and cooking gear.
“Gino will collect wood for the fire,” Deux informed her. “But first we need to have a fomba ceremony. It is like a prayer. We talk to our ancestors. We thank them, and ask them to forgive us for anything we cut or take from the forest.” Elaine nodded. “You don’t need to say anything. Fidel will do it.”
They joined Fidel in a semi-circle around the base of a moderately sized tree. Buttress roots flowed from the ground up to the tree’s side, forming a series of wedge-shaped hollows around the lower trunk. A perfect dwelling place for small animals or other spirits.
They squatted respectfully as Fidel murmured a short prayer. When it was finished he filled a plastic cup with rum from a bottle and took a drink. He passed the cup to Gino, who drank and passed it to Elaine. She took a sip and passed to Deux. As he tilted his head to finish it, the cup slipped from his hands, ricocheted flatly off a buttress root, and came to a stop in a pile of damp litter in one of the dark compartments at the tree’s base.
Elaine remained motionless, trying to maintain the demeanor of a respectful outsider to this fumbled rite. Gino and Fidel looked expectantly toward the guide.
After a moment Deux laughed to relieve the silence, bent to the cup and brought it to his mouth a final time, making a confident show of draining the last clinging drops.
His recovery appeased the porters, who hopped up and went to gather firewood. Deux began silently erecting the porters’ tent, and Elaine left to finish setting up her own.
She emerged later to find two chickens tethered under an overhanging boulder on the edge of the camp clearing. A glance toward the fire revealed the naked body of the third, lying in splash of blood on a flat-topped rock. The smell of burning feathers wafted from the low fire.
“Tonight, we will eat the first chicken,” Deux said. “The chickens there,” he gestured at the tethered hens under the overhang, “will eat the food we throw away, and we will kill one tomorrow and one the day after. This way the food is always fresh. There are no refrigerators in the forest.”
Elaine smiled politely at his joke, then went to rinse her hands in a creek.
Elaine wanted to keep sleeping but her bladder would not cooperate. She slowly opened an eye. Still dark. There might be time to go back to sleep after pissing. She sat up, pushed her sleeping bag down to her waist, and put on a shirt. Then she lay back down and wriggled her legs out of the sleeping bag and into her hiking pants.
Keeping one eye closed, both to preserve her night vision and to emerge as little as possible into wakefulness, she grabbed her water bottle, wrestled her way out of the tent flap and switched on her headlamp. She wandered a short way into the trees, scanned the ground to make sure it was clear, and switched off the light. She closed her open eye and squatted in the darkness, half dozing to the pleasant sound of urine drumming on the leaf litter. When she finished she reopened the one eye, tipped a splash of water onto her hand and rinsed herself.
She pulled up her pants, took a few steps toward her tent, then switched on the light to find a glowing face staring back at her.
Elaine let out an incoherent cry and launched her water bottle at the apparition.
“Shit, it’s just you, Deux. You scared the crap out of me.”
She placed a calming hand on her chest as her water bottle rolled to an ineffectual stop near Deux’s feet.
“I’m sorry Miss Lane. Is it time to go?” Deux, who had no watch, was apparently taking his time cues from her.
“No, I was just pissing. It’s still early. I’m going back to sleep for a while.”
“I see.” Deux rubbed his bloodshot eyes and returned the way he had come.
Elaine leaned against a tree for a minute and let out a last quiet “shit,” then fetched her water bottle and returned to the comfort of her sleeping bag.
At sunrise she rinsed off in the creek, this time searching out a spot far from camp. She wanted to avoid a repeat of last night’s creepy experience. She shuddered again at the memory of Deux’s tired red eyes appearing at her vulnerable moment. Then she pushed the image away and lowered herself into the cold water.
She followed the sound of the porters’ voices back to camp. As she approached she felt the conversation speed up and get heated. She had wanted to learn Malagasy, but after a week all she could manage was an occasional misaotra—thank you. It was hard to force herself to learn the new language when most people spoke to her in French or English. Here in the forest her language deficit was a severe handicap. Unable to speak directly to Gino or Fidel, she had to field her questions to them through Deux. And there was no hope of understanding camp conversations in real time.
Elaine arrived at the clearing to sudden silence. Deux sat alone on a log with his back to her, while Gino and Fidel squatted on the opposite side of the low fire.
“Good morning everyone.”
The porters responded with uninterested nods and began fiddling with pots and cooking gear. Deux turned around and cheerfully asked if she was ready to see indris.
The two of them left camp, Deux and his machete leading the way. After minutes of silence, Elaine asked how Deux was doing.
“I’m fine. It is good to be walking in the forest. It is like medicine for your mind.”
“Gino and Fidel don’t seem happy. It sounded like you were arguing earlier.”
Deux waved his hand dismissively. “They are idiots.” He pointed to his head with his free hand. “They have nothing in their brains.”
“Why do you say that?”
“They want to go home. They say they are afraid! I hired them for two nights, but they want to leave today. Lazy.” Deux turned around, and casually waved his machete toward her. “Why didn’t you call me earlier? If I had more time, I would have found better people to hire. Friends that I could trust.”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t plan ahead. I didn’t know any guides here.”
“It’s okay.” His smile returned. “This happens all the time. You and I will still enjoy the forest.”
“We’ll stay one more night, and leave tomorrow afternoon?”
“Yes, we will.” Deux froze. “Listen” he whispered.
An indri song floated in the air and was joined by another. Soon several indris were calling repeatedly to each other. The calls seemed to come from every direction, meeting and overlapping around their heads. Each call was a slow whine, like a drawn out toy trumpet note, some descending, some ticking upward at the end.
Elaine froze and let the songs move through her. She was thousands of miles from home, and now the indri calls pulled her even further away. Further back. In her mind she again traveled to the island’s first farmers. She watched them penetrate inland from the beaches over generations, imagined their first encounters with indris. She thought about the animals those people encountered and drove extinct over the centuries. The elephant birds, Malagasy hippos, lemurs even larger than indris. Elaine knew the indris were communicating with each other, but the songs seemed like messages for her from her own history—from the babakotos.
Deux nudged her and pointed upward. An indri leaped into view from the periphery and landed on a nearby trunk. It did not jump or fall into the tree, but rather shot in horizontally as if fired from a gun. Coming to a stop with its arms gripping the smooth trunk, it pointed its doglike head at her. Its yellow-green eyes met Elaine’s. Before she could fully process the brief tête-à-tête, the animal was off. Bouncing from tree to tree like an errant ping pong ball, the tailless lemur was a hundred meters away in seconds.
“Let’s go” Deux said, and trotted after the indri.
Elaine followed, running off the trail and angling downward along the side of a ridge. She reached back to steady her bouncing pack, and lost her balance. Her right foot slipped leftward underneath her on the slick incline. She landed heavily on her hip, and straightened her left leg to ride in a controlled slide down the rest of the slope. As soon as she hit the bottom she was up and after Deux again.
He stopped and waved her over. Elaine arrived panting and dirty to find Deux calmly holding up three fingers. She looked around to see two indris nearby and a third in the distance. She had no idea which of them was the one they had pursued. The indris were quiet now. They still called occasionally, but the songs were interrupted by feeding breaks as they foraged for young leaves.
It was over in fifteen minutes. The far indri disappeared first, followed by the other two, and Elaine had no desire to pursue them further. She had had her moment. The forest was quiet again save for the buzzing of cicadas.
“That was amazing, Deux. Thanks for finding them for me.”
“I told you it was easy. I think we can find them again tomorrow morning, before we leave the forest.”
He ambled back up the ridge, carrying his sandals in his free hand to allow his toes better purchase in the muddy incline. Back on the trail he put them back on his feet and shot a smile toward Elaine. “Now we eat.”
Elaine smelled the boiling chicken as they neared camp. The scent seemed to agitate Deux. He picked up his pace and stalked with hasty strides, energetically swinging his machete. Bursting into the clearing, he barked a question at the porters. Gino stepped back submissively, while the older Fidel responded in a quick quiet tone.
His answer enraged Deux, who stepped closer to Fidel, towering over him now. Deux began to shout, and Elaine watched in horror as he lifted his machete above his shoulder. The blade whistled downward and embedded itself with a thud into a nearby tree trunk. Deux stamped away in silence.
Fidel stared after him a moment, then gathered up his gear and began walking away along the trail out. Gino flashed Elaine an apologetic look and ran to join the other porter. Elaine watched them disappear, then looked around the camp. A pot of stew simmered over the fire. Deux’s machete was still half-buried in the tree—the one with the buttress roots where they had performed the fomba.
She pulled the blade free, turned to set it near the fire, and saw that Deux had returned and was sitting calmly on a log.
“They are idiots,” he spat. “If they don’t want to stay two nights, okay. But it is only noon. They should stay at least until the evening.”
“It’s not a big deal. It’s just a few hours.”
“But they cooked all our food.” He waved his arm at the rock overhang, now conspicuously devoid of any tethered fowl. “We were supposed to cook one chicken today and one tomorrow.”
“That’s fine,” Elaine tried to calm him. “We can just eat this today, and heat up whatever’s left tomorrow morning.”
He waved away the suggestion without looking up.
Elaine spent the afternoon reading in her tent, giving Deux time and space to cool off. She could not understand why he had flipped on the porters. It was a little annoying that they wanted to leave a day early, but so what? And if she were a porter and did not plan on staying another night, she would want to leave around noon too. It would take a while to get back to the road, and the tropical sun sets early. It was considerate of them to cook all the food before they left.
But Deux did not see it that way. And that crazy machete thing? She realized there was another reason she was giving Deux space—she was afraid of him.
This made her worry even more. In all her travels, all the guides she had worked with in other countries, she had never been afraid of someone. Was she slipping, losing her edge? Getting too old and cautious to explore?
No, this was legitimate. Even the porters were wigged out. He shouted and buried a machete in a tree! Their fomba tree, no less, where they had asked permission to enter the forest.
And now she was alone with him. Just one more night, she consoled herself. She had not come all this way, gone through all that effort to find a real Malagasy forest, just to retreat because some second-rate guide lost his cool.
A light rain drummed on the tent’s mesh top. She put down her book and crawled out into the dark to put on the rain fly.
Afterwards she wandered over to the camp clearing to reheat dinner. Deux had already gotten the fire going, and had erected a waterproof canopy over the clearing. He was maneuvering the pot of chicken over the flames as Elaine approached.
“Good evening, Miss Lane.”
Elaine caught a whiff of rum as he greeted her. His eyes were more bloodshot than they had been during their encounter the previous evening. There must have been some fomba rum left in the bottle.
“Good evening, Deux.”
“The food will be ready soon.”
“Thanks for heating it up.” Elaine figured she should try to calm Deux’s emotions. But she was always so clumsy with these things. “And thanks for organizing this whole trip.”
Deux did not respond. The rain intensified, pounding now on the canopy overhead.
“I know it was really short notice.” She gave it another awkward try. “But I think the trip has already been worth it. It was amazing seeing the indris this morning. And we’ll have some more time in the forest tomorrow.”
“You lied to me earlier.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said you hired me because you didn’t know any guides. But I know that you asked about Dedi.”
“I did ask about Dedi. But I didn’t know him. I just heard about him from a friend.”
“Dedi was an idiot. But the tourists loved him. Foreigners don’t know anything.” Deux turned his bloodshot eyes towards her. “It is not hard to find indris. We all grew up in the forest.”
Elaine feared provoking Deux further, so stayed silent and tried to look concerned. Just make it through dinner, she thought, then get back to your tent.
“I can speak to foreigners too.”
“Yeah, your English is great.”
“I learned it at the mine. All this land used to belong to a French mining company. I worked there for a long time. But then the mine closed and the foreigners left.”
“When did that happen?”
“It was long ago. But then they made the land into a national park. They should have given it to us. We need land for tavy. They were idiots.”
“But now you work in the park as a guide. And there’s not much forest left. What about the indris and everything else that lives here?”
“You sound like Dedi. He never worked at the mine. He was too young. He was happy when they made the national park. Being a guide was his first job. Other people had more experience, but Dedi got all the money. All he cared about was indris. He didn’t think about people. Idiot.”
Elaine had no desire to get involved in local politics or dredge up an old murder. She ladled some stew into a bowl and began gulping it down. Deux did the same, and they passed the rest of the meal in silence. As soon as she finished eating, she muttered a lame excuse about being tired and shuffled back to her tent.
Elaine woke in the darkness, her stomach twisted with anxiety. Her dreams must have been disturbing but she could not recall them. Lazily she reached for her watch where she had set it beside her sleeping mat. Only midnight. Her bladder began to nudge her outside. But something held her back. She tried to convince herself she did not have to go, or that she was too tired to get up. But she knew she was afraid.
Come on Elaine, she thought, you have been camping for years. No reason to be afraid of the dark.
But her tent, which usually felt like a protective home, now seemed vulnerable. She was aware that all that separated her from the rain, from the dark, from anything—or anyone—was a thin nylon sheet. Her tiny two-person tent was little more than a sleeping bag, and did not really protect her from anything except being seen. If she turned on her headlamp she would not even have that, since her silhouette would be illuminated for all the world. She, in contrast, could not see beyond the enclosing tent walls. In this rain she would never hear approaching footsteps.
She reached up and stroked the sloping tent ceiling inches above her nose. Someone could be standing outside right now. It would be obvious from the shape of the tent where her head was. One slash of a machete could tear right through the tent and into her face.
She waited but the imagined blow never came. This is ridiculous, she thought. Why are you intentionally scaring yourself?
Still, it took several minutes to work up the courage to leave her tent. And she did not dare use a headlamp. In darkness she navigated the space outside her tent and squatted, taking comfort in knowing the rain would mask her sounds as well. Then she darted back inside.
At dawn she emerged to a dripping world. She made her way to the fire and poked at the damp ashes. They were scheduled to have one last early morning walk to find indris, then hike out in the afternoon. But Deux was nowhere to be seen. Probably hungover.
Elaine took the opportunity to bathe again in the creek. When she returned and found the camp still deserted, she took down her tent and loaded her gear into her pack. Then she sat and read, enjoying the indri calls in the distance.
By late morning the calls died away, and Elaine accepted that she had missed her last opportunity to see indris. But she would be damned if she missed out on food. She got a fire going and heated up the last dregs of their chicken and potato stew. It was noon by the time she finished eating and cleaned up. Deux’s absence had gone from awkward to infuriating. They needed to leave soon if they were to make it to the lodge by dark, but Deux had not even gotten out of bed.
She walked over to his tent, stepping loudly so he would hear her before she arrived. The tent flap remained shut. Elaine stopped a few feet away, unsure how to proceed. She hoped he was still in there and not roaming the woods nearby. But something told her the tent was empty. She nudged one wall with her foot.
No response. She kicked the tent, then reached out and shook it. There was no one inside.
She realized then that she hated him. She hated how he had creeped on her that first night, how he had treated Gino and Fidel, how he had ruined her last evening and morning in the forest, and now she hated him for putting her in this position. What the hell was she supposed to do? Keep waiting? She had to hike out soon, but needed Deux to guide her, and he was probably passed out against a tree somewhere, still drunk from the night before.
Fuck him, she thought. In the end she was only responsible for herself and her own gear, all of which she could carry out on her back. The trail was clear, and even if she got lost she had an escape azimuth. No matter where she was in the forest, she could use her compass to head due north and eventually hit the road somewhere near the lodge. Elaine returned to camp, shouldered her pack, and set out.
When she had gone about twenty meters, she turned around, shouted a farewell “Fuck you,” and continued walking.
She walked with her head down and eyes on the trail, alert to the buzzing cicadas and bird calls. She stopped for a moment to adjust her pack straps, then the air around her exploded with whining trumpet sounds. Indris. They were more hyperactive than she had ever heard them. The songs bounced at her from multiple directions and repeated themselves frantically. She searched the forest canopy in vain.
Her heart quickened and she picked up her pace. Thinking she might get another glimpse of indris after all, she carried her pack forward at a lumbering trot.
Then she froze. Deux straddled the trail ahead of her, arms akimbo. His machete hung from his right hand, but he was otherwise unencumbered. No water bottle, no pack, no sack of cooking gear. He lifted his face from the ground until their gazes met. His eyes were dark, like the hyper-dilated orbs of a deep sea fish.
“Deux? What’s going on?” No response. “I looked for you but you weren’t in your tent. So I figured I’d hike out and meet up with you later.”
Deux walked toward her, arms swinging languidly. He seemed oblivious, as if her were whacked out of his skull on some hallucinogen.
“Deux, stop! Hey! Deux!”
Deux continued his approach. Elaine took a step backward, then another. Soon she was frantically backing away with her arms up, all the while shouting to get Deux to acknowledge her, to pull him back into humanity from wherever he was. She stumbled and her pack carried her backwards. She fell into a half sitting position, anchored to the ground by her gear.
Still Deux approached. He was fifteen meters away now. His right hand gave an anticipatory twitch, moving the machete blade slightly upward. The fucker’s going to murder me, she thought.
Elaine’s hands scrabbled for the pack’s waist belt. She unclasped it and tried to stand, but the chest clasp was still secured. Fuck, fuck, fuck, she thought, as she fought to free herself. Deux reached for her with his free left hand. Then the chest clasp finally snapped free and she rolled to the right and scrambled to her feet.
She felt Deux’s fingers grasp at her shirt collar, slip away, and then curl around her right forearm. He jerked her around so that she faced him, and pointed the machete in her face.
“You lied to me. Foreigners are all the same. Idiots!”
Elaine tore her arm free and pushed him hard in the chest with both hands. He tripped over her pack and sprawled backwards. She sprinted past him as he fell and pounded down the trail.
Deux did not follow. After a while she slowed to a jog, then a walk as she took stock of her situation. She had been so focused on escape that she abandoned her pack when she ran. She would not have been able to retrieve it anyway with Deux right there, let alone run with it. If she made it out she could come back for it later. But her worst case escape plan—go due north to get to the road—was ruined. It would be difficult to navigate across country without her compass, especially in the dark. Her only option now was to stick to the trail, move fast, and get out by sundown.
A crash exploded to her right. Deux must have gone off trail to cut her off, and now he erupted from the vegetation, angling toward her at a wild sprint. She began to run, but Deux knocked her over with a flying tackle and scrambled on top of her. He pinned her arms with his hands and straddled her. His machete, tethered to his wrist with a leather thong, trailed along the ground.
Deux’s dark eyes stared into Elaine’s from inches away. Then he screamed in rage, an endless wild yell. His sour rum breath flowed into her mouth and nose and eyes. He paused to breath then screamed again, tensing all his muscles and pouring into her his life’s anger.
Elaine struggled, but his grip was pitiless. Over and over he screamed, exhausting himself with each effort. Then he lowered his gaze from her face to search her body. He paused, then removed his left hand from her arm. It hovered over her throat before moving down to grope her breast.
Elaine pushed out her freed right arm, searching for something to grab, to push against. Her fingers wrapped around a piece of smooth hard wood.
Deux’s hand fumbled with the buttons on her hiking shirt. This was her moment. She slammed the wood against his head with a crack, then heaved against the ground with her right leg, throwing him off her left side. She scrambled to her feet, and he followed. Wielding the wood with two hands now, she jabbed the end at his eyes. He leaned back and the blow struck him on the nose and upper lip, sending him reeling to the ground.
Elaine darted off the trail, trying to put distance and concealing vegetation between her and Deux.
When she was sure she was alone she slowed down and got her bearings. The piece of wood was still her hand. It would be dark in half an hour or so. Keeping the sun to her left, she walked in a vaguely northward direction. The forest edge must be close.
She stepped right to go around a large pandanus, only to find more of the plants behind. An impenetrable thicket of stiff serrated leaves reared out of the ground like a wall of swords. She followed the barrier to the right, searching for an opening in the fading light.
A lone indri call broke the silence. It was followed by others, all of them far away, wafting in on the fading light. Then she heard footsteps behind her. She turned to see Deux just visible in the distance, hacking at vegetation with his machete.
In a panic she dove into the wall of pandanus. Holding her wood in front of her to protect her face she shouldered her way into the plants. The leaf edges tore her clothes and skin. But the plants did not give way. She was trapped.
“Miss Lane!” Deux shouted, and she heard the manic strike of machete against branches and vines. He was close. “Miss Lane!”
Elaine hurled herself to the ground to crawl under the arching pandanus leaves. A few meters into the thicket, she heard Deux hit the wall behind her with a crash and another shout. He began to hack a tunnel through with his machete. The indri calls were frantic now, maybe half a dozen or more animals singing to each other through the tree tops.
Elaine pushed herself onward until the leaves opened above her. Standing up, she felt a breeze on her face. Dry soil crunched under her feet. She was standing on charred cinders.
Tavy, she thought. I’m out of the forest.
“Miss Lane!” She turned to see Deux’s machete pierce through the pandanus jungle and cut the air near her face. “Miss Lane!”
Then Deux wailed in pain. His arm and machete snapped back into the thicket as he wrestled with the toothy plants. She watched him flail against the entangling vegetation, and then slowly retreat back into the forest. In the darkness it seemed like the plants themselves were dragging him away. The indris called louder and fiercer than ever.
“Miss Lane,” Deux said again, but soft now, pleading. “Help, Miss Lane.” Elaine did not move. His wails turned to sobs, then ended in an abrupt rasping gurgle.
Electric lights twinkled in the distance across the tavy. Elaine followed them to a village and stumbled to the steps of the nearest farmhouse where an old woman sat cross-legged on a porch.
A final mournful indri song sailed to them across the tavy.
“Ah, you know the ancestor?” the woman asked and pointed to Elaine’s hand.
In the harsh glow of the porchlight Elaine examined for the first time the wood she had carried out of the forest. It was not a log, but a staff, and its end was carved in the likeness of an indri’s head.
by Mike Murphy
I’ve been visiting the Commonwealth Pub in Boston – whenever I’m on Earth – for about six years. A space jockey’s life can be pretty hectic, especially since the Oporians arrived. They took some getting used to – with their two heads, six eyes, and all – but they opened new vistas to vacation-hungry Earthers in need of my kind of transport.
I quickly spotted the man who had called me a few days ago and set up this meeting: Professor Douglas Pierce. I knew it was him because he was so out of place. He was wearing a three-piece suit, which no one does anymore, with a red tie. He was nursing a drink and glancing around. I think he was trying to spot me.
I approached him slowly and asked, “Professor Pierce?”
“Yes?” he answered, looking up from his chair.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “Have a seat.” I sat down across from him, the small table between us. “Would you like a drink?” he asked me.
“No thanks,” I answered. “I never drink when I’m talking business.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he continued, holding up his glass reverently. “They make a gin and tonic here that is pure nectar.”
I chuckled and said, “I’ll take your word on that, Professor.”
“Please call me ‘Doug.’”
“OK, and I’m ‘Ray.’”
“I hear ‘Professor’ all day long from my students. It’s nice to hear my given name every once in a while.”
“If you don’t mind me cutting to the chase, I’ve had a long day,” I told him. “What’s on your mind?”
“I want to hire you.”
“What’s the destination?”
“The Wentek Cluster.”
“That’s pretty far away,” I said, telling him something he already knew. “Even at best speed, it’ll take about two weeks’ travel time.”
“Can you get me there?” he inquired.
“My ship can get anyone anywhere, but it won’t be cheap.”
“How much?” he asked. “Can you give me a ballpark?”
“I’d guess around. . . 30,000 new dollars.”
“Deal,” he said quickly, surprising me. “When can we leave?”
“That’s a new area of space to us Earthers,” I continued. “I’ll need to get some travel permits and check my ship’s systems. We’ll be far from any repair docks.”
“How long will that take?”
“About a week,” I said.
“So we could arrive at the Cluster. . . three weeks from now?”
“Yeah,” I told him, “but you haven’t even seen my ship.”
“No need,” he added. “Your reputation precedes you.” He reached into his shirt pocket and removed his debit card. He scanned his thumbprint on the marker, and the tiny screen flickered on. He handed it to me. “I have more than enough for the trip.”
I quickly looked at the listed balance. “I never doubted you,” I said, handing him back his card.
“Then we have a deal?”
“You’ll get me a contract?” he asked.
“I don’t use anything like that,” I informed him, holding out my hand. “This is enough for me.” He had a firm handshake. “I’ll get started on the preliminary stuff in the morning,” I went on.
“Wonderful!” he said, taking a big, celebratory sip of his gin and tonic.
“How long will you want to stay at the Cluster?”
“You’re the boss,” I confirmed. “I’ll need half the money before we leave and the other half upon our return to Earth.”
“You’ll have it.”
“Say,” I continued after a brief pause, “you’re a smart guy.”
“The University likes to think so,” he responded.
“You don’t believe what some people say about the Cluster, do you? About it being the
. . . gateway?”
“No,” Doug said. “There would have to be a Heaven for there to be a gateway from here to there.”
I was surprised. “You don’t believe in Heaven?”
“In my 55 years on this Earth, Ray,” he explained, “I haven’t seen one scrap of scientific evidence to verify its existence.” He threw back the rest of his gin and tonic. “Now,” he went on, “since we’re done discussing business, how about that drink?”
It was the Oporians who first introduced us to the Wentek Cluster. In their language, they call it “pruftar.” Roughly translated, it means “the gateway to the souls.”
Earth’s leading scientists have focused their most powerful equipment on the Cluster, with no results worth mentioning. Some religious people believe it’s an intrusion into our space of Heaven, while other people say that is ridiculous.
The licenses were secured, and Esther was ready to fly. That’s the name of my ship – after my late mother. Doug met me at Platform C of the Mayflower Space Port the following morning at 8:00 a.m. He had a suitcase with him and a satchel holding term papers to grade. “A teacher’s work is never done,” he told me.
I showed him to his quarters. He was surprised that I was the crew. He handed me his debit card. I pressed my thumb against the marker, and half of my fee was transferred to my account.
We lifted off at 8:14 a.m. The Boston skyline vanished, and the black of space enveloped us. A ship-wide diagnostic showed all systems were functioning fine.
If I suspected what was going to happen when we arrived at the Cluster and how it would still haunt me today, I would have turned Esther around and forfeited the thirty grand.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the Cluster close up,” I said. “I hear it’s beautiful.”
“I’ve heard the same thing,” Doug responded.
“Esther is fully equipped for video and audio recording, you know.”
“No extra charge.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.
The trip proved uneventful. Esther performed as I knew she would. We arrived at the Cluster right on schedule.
Its billing was absolutely correct. It was an incredibly beautiful sight that filled the view screen. The Cluster was composed of seven separate stars swirling about each other in a random cosmic dance. As each star moved, it left a pink trail behind it. The trails coalesced into a great pink cloud in the center. The swirling cloud reminded me of a painting, with the dancing stars serving as the picture frame. I focused Esther’s sensors on the Cluster. None of the information we received back made any sense.
“May I use the communications system?” Doug asked as we both admired the celestial show.
“Sure,” I responded. “One problem though: We’re pretty far from Earth. Any message will take a while to get there.”
“I don’t want to send a message to Earth,” my passenger said.
“I want to send a message into the Cluster.”
I paused, trying to understand, but had to ask, “Why?”
Doug got a far-away look on his face. He was remembering something, something wonderful. “Ever been married?” he asked.
“Never,” I replied. “You?”
He nodded silently. “For more than twenty years. Karen was the joy of my life.”
“About seven years ago,” he answered, trying not to choke up.
I suddenly understood his motive behind this trip. “You believe what people say about the Cluster being a gateway to Heaven, don’t you?” I asked him.
“I’m not certain.”
“At the bar, you said you didn’t believe it.”
“Would you have brought me out here if you thought I was a religious kook?” he went on. “Can we fly Esther into that thing?”
“With the crazy sensor readings we’re getting, I can’t be sure,” I said. “It could be lethal.”
“I can’t let this opportunity pass!” he exclaimed. “If there’s any truth to. . .”
“There’s no harm in trying to contact her,” I told him. “We can go from there.”
Doug bent uneasily over the comm panel. His hands were quivering. He rubbed his eyes and squinted at the controls. He knew that this moment – right now – held the answer to his prayers or the dashing of his hopes. He shakily pressed a few buttons and turned some dials to focus the comm beacon at the Cluster.
At first, all that came out of the speakers was static. Then. . .
“This is Douglas Pierce,” he broadcast, spacing his words carefully. “I’m trying to reach my wife, Karen. If anyone can hear –”
A woman’s voice came on the speaker amid the undulating static. . . a voice that sounded familiar. “Is Ray with you?” she asked.
Doug was confused to have gotten a wrong number. “Yes,” he said, “he’s. . . right here.” He looked up at me. “It’s. . . uhm. . . for you.”
I moved closer to the mike. “This is Ray Whitfield,” I said. “Who’s this?”
“You don’t recognize my voice?” she asked, sounding a little hurt.
“That’s right!” Esther replied.
“Where. . . Where are you?” I asked nervously.
“In the Cluster.”
“Then it is a gateway!” Doug exclaimed.
“It is,” Esther told him.
“Fantastic!” Doug responded.
“Mom, I. . . I don’t know what to say,” I stuttered.
“Are you well?”
“I’m OK,” I assured her, “but I’ve gotta go. I have a customer here who’s –”
“Someone’s looking for Mrs. Pierce right now,” Esther said. “Hold on a minute.”
The static rose to a crescendo and then started to slowly fade. Doug hunched over the comm panel, his face hopeful, but ashen. When a new female voice came over the speaker, tears began pouring down his cheeks. “Doug?” she anxiously asked through the static. “Doug, are you there?”
“Karen?” Doug choked out. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” she said.
Doug was straining to hear her. “Is there any way to clean up the signal?” he asked me.
“I’m afraid not,” I told him. “There’s all kinds of interference coming from the Cluster.”
“Are you still there, dear?” Karen asked anxiously.
“I’m here,” Doug answered, choking up even more. “God, I miss you!”
“I miss you too, sweetheart, but we need to talk fast.”
“Why?” he asked.
“The Cluster’s intrusion into normal space is accidental,” Karen explained. “The powers that be in here are working on a way to close it off as soon as possible.”
“Why do that?” I asked.
“They say the Cluster provides proof of an afterlife and that faith can’t have proof.” The static began worsening. “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to talk.”
“Karen,” Doug asked anxiously, “do you have any idea what would happen if we piloted this ship into the Cluster?”
“Doug, we –” I began.
“No,” the voice told him. “It could be very dangerous.”
“Does anyone there know?”
The static grew very loud. If she was still talking to us, Karen’s voice was overpowered by it. Doug began randomly pushing buttons on the panel. “Help me, Ray,” he pleaded. “Get her back!”
I tried a few tricks, to no avail. “No good,” I said. “It’s like the signal’s being jammed.”
“That’s it!” he agreed. “No communications. That must be the bigwigs’ first step.”
I put one hand gently on his shoulder. “I’m glad you got to talk with her again,” I told him.
“What are you saying?” Doug continued, spinning about to face me. “This isn’t the end.”
“What more is there to do?”
He paced the deck briefly. “Do you have a lifeboat on this ship?” he asked.
“Why?” I replied, not liking where the conversation was going.
“I could fly it into the Cluster.”
“We don’t know if Esther can make it,” I said. “What chance would a lifeboat have?”
“I’m not asking you to join me,” Doug went on. “If there’s a chance it might work. . .”
I remember our brief struggle, followed by the deck rising up to meet me from Doug’s impressive left hook.
I’m not sure how long I was out. When my head cleared, I frantically searched for Doug. I couldn’t find him anywhere, but the lifeboat was still in its hangar. It was then that I noticed one of the EVA suits was missing from the locker.
After a quick scan around Esther’s exterior, I found him. He was suited up and floating slowly towards the Cluster. There was no lifeline connecting him to the ship.
“Doug!” I screamed into the comm mike.
His voice came faintly through the static. “I’m here,” he said.
“Are you crazy?”
“Sorry I had to hit you, but you never would have let me do this.”
“You’ll be killed!”
“We soon find out,” he told me. “I can feel the Cluster’s gravitational pull.”
“I can still get you a lifeline.”
“Don’t you worry about me.”
The static worsened. “Doug!” I said urgently, working the comm panel.
I’m not sure he was copying me. The static drowned out parts of what he said. “I’m getting closer. . . beautiful. . . Ray. . . can’t believe. . .”
The static overpowered his comm line.
What happened next?
I can only tell you what I said at Senator Butler’s hearing a few weeks later concerning the sudden and – to him – unexplained disappearance of the Wentek Cluster: “I saw. . . I saw a hand reach out from it,” I testified. “A human hand! Also, the faintest bit of a face was visible. Doug grasped the hand, which pulled him inside. Seconds later, one by one, the stars that made up the Cluster. . . vanished. The pink trails that had gathered together in the middle of the dancing stars disappeared like water going down a drain.
“For about thirty minutes, I tried to contact Doug. No luck. I pulled up the video that had been recording as he made his spacewalk. I was able to focus on the face. The computer searched its data banks for a match. There was one: The picture that accompanied Karen Pierce’s obituary.”
I checked my bank balance yesterday. Doug had transferred the 15,000 new dollars I would have received for bringing him back to Earth into my account before we even reached the Cluster. He knew all along it would be – for him – a one-way trip.
I’ve been asked to appear on several talk shows, and I’ve turned them all down. There’s not much new I can offer. . . aside from this: A freeze frame of Doug’s face at the moment he touched his late wife’s hand.
He was smiling.
Author Bio: Mike has had over 150 audio plays produced in the U.S. and overseas. He’s won five Moondance International Film Festival awards in their TV pilot, audio play, short screenplay, and short story categories. His prose work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. In 2015, his script “The Candy Man” was produced as a short film under the title DARK CHOCOLATE. In 2013, he won the inaugural Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting Competition.
Mike keeps a blog at audioauthor.blogspot.com.
By Gregory Jeffers
Never been my favorite game of chance, Hang the Witch, but it was the only game being dealt at the Wolf’s Tooth on what would turn out to be my last night in Sever Town. And I needed to win in the worst of ways.
“You gon’ to bet, girl, or sit there like a toadstool?” The gaoler was already drunk, and pissy about his luck. He bullied a fistful of scraggly white hair, wrapping it behind one ear.
I was in as much of a hurry to take his money as he was to lose it, but could not afford any mistakes. The only thing I had left to lose was money. Everything else I’d ever possessed had been lost or stolen.
I tossed four mids into the pot. Three clanked. One spun, whirring, then finally dropped with a clunk.
Marshal Hunter was on my left, holding a small red stone up to the dim torchlight. “This stone is worth four mids,” he said, flipping it onto the plank table from between his thumb and first finger.
“Not worth two,” I said, staring at the gem with my good eye. The small crowd of onlookers hushed. The only sound in the dim room for the next few moments was the hiss of the sconce torches.
“What’d you say?” The marshal turned at the waist to face me full on.
Before I could speak, the gaoler belched. The smell of sour ale blew across the table. “Damn you if it isn’t,” he bellowed in a scratchy voice. “That stone’s worth at least four, maybe six.” He sucked back another mouthful from his flagon. A few of the men standing behind him mumbled in agreement.
I sipped my mead and lowered my eyes to my cards. “Fine. Your bet.” I lifted my head a smidge toward him, stealing a peak between my straw-colored bangs. I had three ponies and four geldings in my hand and felt more than a tad confident. But I wasn’t about to get into an argument with these two. Puppets of the Icemen, they were the new local law. Constabularies, judges, and hangmen. I knew they would not hesitate to find any way whatever to cheat me. Perhaps more.
I stole a look at the fourth person at the table, in the chair on my right. The parts of his shirt that hadn’t been covered by his butcher’s apron earlier in the day were spotted with blood. Name of Ransom. He gathered his cards into his hand and looked across the table. “Finished with the cleanup, Marshal Hunter?” His whiney voice fit his skinny frame.
“Mostly. Toom and I have five more to run out of town tomorrow.”
Toom Sherrer, the gaoler, had his mouth full of ale, but agreed vigorously, the torch light glinting off his bald dome with each nod, the ring of stringy hair swinging to and fro like a horse’s tail.
“The last of the Salander root chewers were driven out yesterday.” A polished man, this marshal. He had been the town lender before the siege. Still was, but now also the marshal. “By the end of day tomorrow we’ll have evicted all the remaining Symruites, and the last mixed-race couple. With that, the Icemen’s bidding will be done.”
“Till the next bidding,” Sherrer said. Perhaps realizing his blunder, he went back to the ale, his gaze wandering on the table.
This discussion repulsed me. I had no cock in this conflict but abhorred discrimination when it was based solely on stupidity. A crash from the kitchen presented the opportunity to change the subject.
“Men, I need to be going. Can we kindly finish this hand?” My cross-eye fluttered, tickling its socket. I did not want to be anywhere near these brutes when darkness fell. Good men lived in Sever Town at one time, but when the Icemen invaded the Northern Empire, most of the honorable ones had been called up to defend the capital. Only rogues, misfits, and the Icemen’s puppets remained.
“I’m out,” Sherrer said, thumping his cards onto the table. He eyed my mound of winnings, then the pot.
“I’ve got four mids says your luck is done for this night, girly,” the butcher said, fumbling with his pile of coins. “Still thinkin’ you can gamble your way into stakes for a smallholding in the Southern Tier?”
“What’s ‘at?” asked the gaoler, widening his eyes.
“You not heard?” the butcher answered. He picked at a pox on his skinny beak. I had to look away. “Horse Girl here wants to leave the Northern Empire.”
“Name is Castele,” I muttered. Horse Girl. Pah. That’s what they had taken to calling me, because I’d been brought up training horses.
“What’s the hurry, Horse Girl? You just got here,” the gaoler said, skewing his chubby cheek into a wink of sorts.
I’d been in Sever Town—working at the stables—for eight moons, but it felt like eighty. “It’s not like I’m needed anymore hereabouts,” I said, wishing I had cleared my throat first. “I mean there aren’t any horses in town since–” I thought better about finishing the sentence.
“Since what?” said the gaoler. “Since the Icemen took ‘em all? Is that what your sayin’? You’re not one of ‘em loyalists are ya’?”
The marshal eyed me without moving his head. It dawned on me then that his tankard was still untouched, the foam long disappeared and the ale bubbleless.
The rattling of coins in Ransom’s bony hand gained my attention. He shook the coins in his loose fist then tossed them into the pot. “Whatcha’ got?”
I fanned my cards on the table.
“Damned if you aint the luckiest witch in the north,” he said, hurtling his cards down on top of the pot.
I moved my stare to the table in front of the marshal, then raised my gaze to his face. He folded his cards and put them down slowly.
“Your deal,” he said, then with a loud sniff he slid the pile in front of me. He dressed like a prince, and waxed his black moustache in the Franso style. But a pig in silk is no less a pig.
“I really must be going.” I pulled the coins and stones into the satchel in my lap.
“Not very sporting to leave with all them winnings,” the gaoler said. “Makes a body irritable.”
This was not going well. “Sorry. I need to get to work.” I yanked the draw cords, tied a hasty knot, and stood.
The marshal skittered his chair back and rose. He was a big man, but still a head shorter than me. “Work? You can’t very well call being at the stables work. There are no horses.” He tried a short bark of a laugh. The gaoler sniggered.
I turned and strode to the door, my boot soles slapping the stone floor. There was considerable shuffling behind me. My heart stopped. I threw the bolt and darted out the door.
“Let her go,” the marshal said, from behind me.
I half expected to find some of the marshal’s toads outside waiting with bats and shivs, but the porch was empty but for a wind-blown chair banging against the wall. The evening sun was still a hand off the horizon, not much more than an ochre stain in the grey clouds. I wiped the sweat from my brow. Plump snowflakes melted the moment they landed on my head and arms. I ran back to the stables, clutching the satchel in both hands. The wood houses were mostly shuttered or boarded up, and the few souls out on this gloomy evening cast their shrouded stares to the muddy street. Two rats feasted on a dead dog.
Missus Rachel must have heard me open the barn door. She came out of the ramshackle hovel next door.
“You been off at the inn again?” She pulled her wiry hair into a tail and bound it with a hank of yarn. “You come here one night smelling of ale and it’ll be your last. Bad enough my own boy’s taken up that habit.”
Missus had stopped paying me when the last of the horses were confiscated, but she had let me stay on to watch over the building and harness in exchange for a place to sleep. I ignored her and ducked through the barn door.
I stopped. As I turned to face her, she reached into the shack.
“Here, take two of these biscuits and an apple. Idn’t much of an apple, but better than none.”
She stared at the satchel in my left hand. I took the food in the other. “Thank you, Missus. Good night.”
Inside, I sat on a short stool and ate. The biscuits had no taste other than salt, and the apple was scabby and shriveled, but I had no complaints. The snow turned back to rain, pelting the slates on the roof. It was nearly dark when I went to my cot in the corner.
I shoved my satchel of valuables under an overturned empty keg and doused the light. I had saved nearly enough and thought drowsily about the land I would buy in the southern tier. Then I would find my brothers and maybe even my mother and we would settle into a peaceful existence away from all of this misery and war. I drifted to sleep imagining even that my father would return.
The creaking door woke me. A shaft of yellow light beamed across the straw-strewn dirt.
“She sleeps in the back there.” It was Missus Rachel’s pock-faced son, who I long believed could have served as the village idiot.
My heart leapt into the center of my chest, beating furiously.
“Quiet, you fool. You’ll wake ‘er up.” No mistaking Toom Sherrer’s gravelly voice. Or his stupidity. If he didn’t want to wake me up, why was he shouting?
I rolled onto my feet, looking around for a stick or a bucket or anything else I might use as a weapon.
Flanked by the gaoler and Marshal Hunter, the boy held a torch aloft. They swaggered to within a pace of me. Toom Sherrer rocked on his heels and licked his gums savagely as if his teeth hurt. The boy was not much better, swaying from side to side. The sudden fear he might burn the barn down gripped me, adding to the maelstrom in my stomach. Marshal Hunter must have had the same concern, as he snatched the torch.
“Find that bag of coins and stones,” the marshal said, shoving the boy by the shoulder. The idiot fell into the cot and I hammered the back of his head with the side of my fist as he went by. Hunter grabbed a shovel with his free hand and swung it at me. I tried to move out of its path and tripped over the boy. The flat of the shovel connected with my shoulder. I slammed into the wall and slid to the floor, knocking over the keg and exposing my satchel. The pain burned through my entire upper body. My jitters were gone. I was enraged.
“Get the sack, Sherrer,” the marshal yelled.
“In a minute. Got to have some fun first.” Toom Sherrer fell onto me then, ripping at my tunic. “Boy here says you good for a roll.”
“He’s an idiot,” I screamed. “And you’re a bigger one if you think— “
He slapped his hand over my mouth. I shook it off and used the momentum to bite down on the web between his thumb and fingers. He screamed and twitched back. Then he hit me hard in the jaw. I blacked out for a second, the underside of my eyelids flashing.
“Get off that girl, Toom Sherrer,” yelled Missus Rachel from the doorway. “I’ll take a rake to you if you don’t get off her this instant.” In the quiet that followed, she added in her normal squawky voice, “Worse, I’ll tell your missus.”
That seemed to sober him enough so he was able to roll onto his knees. He snatched my sack from where it lay on the floor next to the overturned keg and pushed himself to a standing position.
“Where you think you’re goin’ with that, mister?” Missus said, hands on hips. Her night coat was a big furry thing that swallowed up her fists.
“Stolen property, Missus Rachel,” the marshal said without hesitation. Then looking at the gaoler, said, “We got what we came for. Leave the girl be.”
“Is not stolen,” I said from the floor. I stood, straightening my tunic. My shoulder and ribs stung and my jaw felt as if it no longer hinged in the right place. I was still in a rage and if not for the other two men, I would have torn the gaoler’s arms off. “I won it gaming with these men.”
Missus Rachel looked from me to the marshal and back again, her apparent indecision leaving her speechless.
“We’ll be back with papers on the girl tomorrow,” he said. “I’m deputizing you, Missus. Make certain this girl is here when my men come for her in the morning.”
“Why not take her now? You’ve got the gaoler with you.”
“Cause I’m afraid he’ll do something stupid and she’ll kill him. We got back the stolen money. That’s good enough for now.”
“You are a liar and a cheat,” I shouted, shoving my short hair up off my forehead.
“Watch your tongue, girl. No sense raising my ire. I’m the one’ll be picking your escorts for tomorrow’s cleansing. And there are some ugly brutes to pick from. And in case you have any ideas of escaping, let me be clear. If you are not here in the morning, the missus here will take your place.”
Missus Rachel went beet red.
Marshal Hunter helped the boy off the floor, and the three of them filed out, the marshal the only one fully in charge of his body. The boy turned at the door. “You know everyone here hates you. You sway your hips like a horse. Take strides too big for your legs. Bounce along like you own the town. And that witch eye of yours.”
“Shut your yap, you damn fool,” Missus Rachel said, swatting at his head.
He blocked the blow with a filthy forearm. “You know it don’t ya’? Everybody hates you.”
She pushed him through the door. “Be on your way, boy. Do something with that muddy face and paws of yours. Hopefully, involving some lye and water.”
Their boot falls faded on the cobblestones.
She turned her stare to me. “He’s a fool, make no mistake. But trouble does follow you, girl. I know it ain’t your fault. Trouble followed you into Sever Town. I sure as blazes hope it follows you out.” She stood between the jambs for a moment longer, then closed the door. The arc of yellow light slivered into darkness.
I found my way back to my cot but did not fall asleep. I ached in body and soul. The smell of the gaoler’s rancid sweat and sour ale breath lingered on my clothes and body. I had never been with a man, and certainly this was not the way in which I had envisioned starting.
I shivered, and pulled the wool blanket tighter about my shoulders. I had nowhere to go but could not stay here. Most certainly I would be killed if I remained. And if I was to be killed, I wanted it to be for a better reason than a bag of loot or a fat man’s untended desires.
And so, it seemed, being run out of town would not be such a bad thing.
Hail started in earnest, thumping the roof with vengeance. Wind whistled through the warps of the barn boards.
A hoarse voice whispered from an unexplored corner inside me.
“You’ll be back.”
Six of us comprised the final lot herded out of Sever Town the next morning. The score or so of villagers performing the exorcism were not the gentlest of souls. I was particularly appalled at the way they treated Lessel, the Aquitain wife of the woodcutter, Runyan. She was a sweet and retiring type, shy but not to a fault, and kind as a queen with no kingdom. But they pushed her along as they would a dung dray and beat Runyan with sticks when he came to her aid.
The two Symruites got the treatment I would expect, but born Syms, what could one do? The Whinlen, of Whinlendow, they left alone, for even the most power-drunken malcontents among this riotous gang would not risk the vengeance of that nation.
As for me, the brutes were happy enough to be rid of me and largely left me alone. Occasionally, the oldest son of the gaoler threw a rock in my direction, but only if he was bored with using his pitchfork on the Syms. The gaoler, I am sure, would have joined the stoning but for his bandaged hand. Each time a stone struck me, the quakes from his laughter set the stringy white hair about his bald dome bouncing.
When the mob had pushed us beyond the grasses of Laywenda, they turned back. Here, the Stillwater brewed, flat as a witch’s cauldron after curses have completed their wickedness. The shallow water sat idle and murky. With winter coming, water would be scarce. The high plains would provide little in the way of game.
The thugs left us like this. Dusk. The air hung like a moth-eaten tapestry. No food, no weapons. Worst of all, no mead.
These lands were foreign. I knew a potion maker a day’s walk or so to the north but no one else. Not that she could assist in this predicament.
I brooded, restless in the knowledge that I sat within three leagues of the Titan Foothills, hunting grounds of the Haplan Katars.
The Syms built a fire and went about fashioning clubs. Not a race to waste time, Symruites, and that alone redeems them in my mind. Say what one might about their thieving and whoring, they can do a fortnight’s work in a day when pressed. We gathered around their fire, more tired than hungry.
“We’ll be Katar food in short order if we din have some proper weapons,” said Runyan, the woodcutter. His Aquitine bride, Lessel, tended his wounds as best circumstances allowed. Built like a bull, this man. I felt sure he would have torn the villagers into wolf kibble had they not been armed.
“These clubs will not stand up to Haplan battle axes,” he said. “My brother Eldon traveled through the Foothills not a year ago with eight other strong men. In search of Katar gold. The Haplans killed ‘em all ‘ceptin my brother. In slow ways too terrible to recount. They tore my brother’s tongue out of his mouth. Din even use a knife. Tore it out. Sent him back to Sever Town as a warning.”
The Syms exchanged undecipherable glances, but did not speak.
I survived the first night on relief and dread in equal measure, thankful that I had not been run through with the mob’s forks and torch prongs. I drifted off, dreaming of boar pie and biscuits, tongues and murders.
The commotion of Runyan and Lessel tending the fire woke me. The morning breeze whispered hoarse insinuations of approaching winter.
“Where are the Syms?” I asked, stepping into my boots and moving closer to the fire.
“They’ve gone back to their own kind. Into the Foothills,” Lessel said, toting an armload of Eucalyptus branches.
It took me a moment to realize the Whinlen, too, had vanished from our little band. I turned about and saw her stooped among the scrub at the river bank. Standing, she beckoned me with a sweeping arm.
“Help me collect these leaves,” she said when I arrived by her side. Her voice lilted in ranges mine could never reach.
I watched her, then mimicked her technique for picking leaves off the short thorn bushes that populated the banks. She was tall, even for a Whinlen, though two heads shorter than I. Her pointy tipped ears were translucent, blending with the morning light as if a part of the vapor rising off the river. We ate a few of the leaves as we gathered but tossed most into a basket fashioned from her shawl. Bitter but oddly substantive. After eating but ten or twelve of them, my craving sensations abated.
With a gasp, she jumped back. “By the grace of the Bountiful Mother,” she exclaimed. She dropped the shawl of leaves and fell to her knees. I moved closer as she gently fondled some large mushrooms growing at the base of a rotting black oak trunk. “Bountiful Mother,” she oathed again, in a whisper. “Gablich Knaes.”
I bent at the waist and was greeted by an aroma – aged sheep dung and nutmeg, perhaps. “What?”
She looked up at me, a smile growing on her thin pale lips. She licked them—her lips, I mean—in a way at once sensual and impish. “Goblin’s Knees.”
I arched my eyebrows, a plea for her to continue.
“A most rare toadstool. Thought to be extinct by many. In the right hands this makes a ghost potion. Or so legend has it.” She plucked one from the ground. Lifting it toward the sky, she rotated the stem, the black cap glistening.
“I may know the right hands,” I said, my own countenance lifting. I had heard of ghost potions and their ability to render one invisible for an hour or two.
“Is she close by? Your potion maker?”
“At the northern end of the Laywenda Fen. A day’s walk. Perhaps two.”
“And what would you do with such a potion, horsewoman?” She did not make eye contact but began picking the mushrooms tenderly, placing them in a cache within her sleeve. I wondered momentarily how it was she knew of me when I had never laid eyes on her.
“I would return to Sever Town for what is rightfully mine.”
“And what exactly is that?”
“The jewels and ingots I won gaming with some of the men. And all of my savings. The marshal and the gaoler took all of it from me when they came to escort me out of town.”
She stood. “I’m surprised the louts did not try to have their way with you. You are a handsome woman.” She blushed, and I felt a flush come to my cheeks.
“And you?” I asked. “What would you do with such a potion?”
“The same. I would return. Yet for different reasons.” She went back to her work.
I did not question her motives further. “Should we take the woodcutter and his Aquitain wife with us?”
She looked at me for a long moment. “I think not. They will slow us down.”
“I fear for their lives,” I said in a whisper.
“Fear not. A tribe of her people lives between here and the Titan Foothills. Perhaps they’ll sense the girl and take them in. Perhaps not. In any event, our endeavor, while not offensive, is at least criminal. We cannot afford to involve others.”
She stood and walked to me, and said in slightly more than a whisper, “What is your name? I should know that if we are to be companions.”
My face burned from her beauty. “Castele. And thee?”
“Liliana.” She stepped back. “Come. We shall give them some of the greens and take our leave.”
The shadows stretched long on the grasses of Laywenda Fen when we made camp. I broke branches from a weeping fir and we made a hasty bed. The air was cool. We cuddled like pups.
In the morning, we donned our boots and headed off again across the Fen. We reached the potion maker’s abode mid-afternoon. A squat mud hut with a round thatch roof, it had a stunted chimney leaning off one side. Smoke wafted from the flue, and a gamey aroma of roasting flesh hung on the air. Ground sloth, perhaps. Or pine cat.
The old woman recognized me, or feigned to, and offered us repast, which I took without hesitation. Lili ate only of the stewed tubers and grasses. We all partook of mead, and I realized I should speak my mind before my senses abandoned it.
“We need your help,” I said, placing my flagon on the plank table.
“I know why you’ve come, girl.” She spoke in a throaty voice, charred, I supposed, from the many days above a cauldron fire.
“I can smell the toadstools from here.” She moved her gaze to Lili, who shifted on the bench. “Goblin’s Knees.”
“Aye. You’ve a good nose,” I said.
“Seasoned is all. And I’ve a mind of what potion you ‘ll be wanting.” She wrung her bony and withered hands for a moment. “Half,” she said at last.
“Don’t play mindless with me, girl. Half the mushrooms. That’s my fee.”
“That will not leave us enough for our own needs,” I pleaded.
The old woman spun her head back toward Lili, lifting her pointed nose. The veins in the bulbous cheeks of her otherwise drawn face turned violet in the firelight. “Show me what you got, Whinlen lass.”
Lili turned the bell of her sleeve inside out, and the mushrooms plopped onto the tabletop. The old woman lifted her shoulders and pulled her face away slightly. “Faes of the future,” she whispered. Then to me, and in a hardier voice, “Girl, your share of this is enough for a lifetime of sneaking and thieving – if that’s what you’ve a mind for.”
I did not respond at once but made eye contact with Lili. She nodded ever so slightly. “Tis a deal, then,” I said.
In a sweeping motion, the old woman gathered up the mushrooms and laid them in a cracked pottery urn on the bench next to the fireplace.
“There’s a shed by the river. You can sleep there. I’ll have the potion by sunrise.” She removed an old but clean smelling blanket from her plank bed and handed it to me. “It’s to be a cold night.” She looked from me to Lili and back again. “But I guess you two will be warm enough.” She smiled as she turned away.
Lili took me by the arm. “Good night, old woman,” she said, and we left to fashion our bed by the river.
Next morning, Lili and I entered the hut hand in hand.
“There’s your ghost potion,” the old woman said, turning from the oven to point over her shoulder. Two goatskins hung from pegs in the plank door. “Sit down and take some breakfast.” She was curt, but not unpleasant. And still the froggy voice.
I removed my hand from Lili’s and moved it to her waist as I sat. I was excited in a way I had not experienced since I was a young girl, stealing an apple pie from the kitchen for the horses. They’d not cared for it of course, but as I ate it in the loft, I’d felt wonderfully decadent and wicked, in a harmless sort of way. Now with this new magic, I would thieve back my jewels and coins, and all would be fair and right again.
Lili sat next to me and the old woman served us boiled eggs—probably bird—and flat corn cakes with newly churned goat butter. We ate our fill, punctuated with twitters and kisses. The old woman ignored us, going about her business, until we stood to leave.
“Thank you, Grandmother, for you help,” I said.
“I hope you thank me later. I want no curses from either of you.”
“That could never happen,” I said. Lili was quiet through all of this, as if she had a secret that needed tending to.
“Be careful what you thieve, girl.” The old woman directed her speech so clearly to me that Lili took her bedroll and goatskin and walked out the door to stand in the herb patch. I followed her with my eyes.
“Listen to me. Be careful what you thieve. And thieving is, I am sure, what you intend to do with this potion.”
“But the property is mine.”
“Hush. Property is no one’s. It is of its own. Possession can only bring obsession. Obsession can only bring possession.”
I looked about the room, confused into silence.
“Be careful what you thieve, that it does not steal you away.”
I was so confounded that I kissed the old woman on the head. She faltered backward as if I’d spilt milk on her apron. I snatched the goatskin and bolted out the door.
We trekked south and west over the Ceaseless Plains toward Sever Town. By evening we could make out the village on the horizon and unrolled the blanket the old woman had insisted we should have for our travels. We spent another night in one another’s arms.
The next morning, I awoke early. I kissed Lili on the eyelids and mouth, and she wakened slowly, raising her delicate hand up to my cheek. “Good morning, sweet Castele.” She kissed me once then sat up and pulled on her boots. I dressed and she returned from a nearby brook with water still on her face. She sat next to me on the blanket.
“So, young horsewoman, are you ready to partake of this potion?” She held aloft the goatskin the old woman had filled for her, and handed me mine.
“That I am.” We both laughed nervously, then drank, our eyes locked together in earnest apprehension. It tasted of must and nutmeg.
She tipped her flask away from her lips. “Not too much. The old woman said a sip is sufficient.”
I lowered mine as well, capped it, and slung it over my shoulder. We stood. And then it happened. Before our very eyes, we dissolved. Hands and faces at first shimmering, then fading to a blue light before disappearing.
I laughed. “Our clothes,” I said. Lili laughed as well, the high tones coming from the space above her erect but empty mantle and pantaloons. My dress and vest, too, stood tall but empty.
“I guess we shall have to take them off,” she said. And so we did, and wrapping them in the blanket, we stowed our earthly possessions and the two goatskins in a bush.
“Take my hand,” she said, as she groped for mine.
We walked like that, naked and invisible, hand-in-hand, to Sever Town. The damp air chilled yet invigorated my naked skin, which for its sightlessness seemed all the more palpable. I felt sensuous in ways I had never before experienced and yearned for a view of Lili in her nakedness, to see if she glittered in the way I felt I did.
At the very edge of the village she stopped and lifted the back of my hand to her mouth. “Good luck with your task. I will await you at nightfall where we last slept.”
I panicked. “Are not you coming with me?”
“No, Sweetness. For I have my own quest.” Then she lowered my hand and was gone.
My search of the Marshal’s house proved fruitless, and the sun perched on the wrong side of midday when I finally arrived at the whicker cells of the gaol. There were three cells spaced evenly in the fenced yard. All empty now, except for a large bundle sitting in the middle of the center cell.
A ponderous man—the keeper—slept just inside the locked gate of the gaol yard. He reeked of ale and rotted meat, but the key ring lay at his side, so I crept closer. It proved a simple matter to reach the keys and open the gate but a bit more of a task to step over the big man without stepping on him. That’s when I noticed the door on the far cell hung open.
Then I observed the large bruise on the side of his head and his sword off to one side. His unconscious state was not from wine but from a blow. No matter, he was no friend of mine and I made my way to the center cell. I unlocked the door and stole in to examine the parcel. As I supposed, it contained the treasures I had won in my gaming with the townsmen. I wrapped the satchel, plucked it off the floor, then at once realized the error of my plan. The satchel was visible and now floating in mid air.
To add to my dismay, in the distance the gaoler floundered toward me. I picked the wounded keeper’s sword off the dirt. In that instant the gaoler stopped in his tracks, seeing—I realized—a floating sword and satchel.
I sprang to the gate, and to my horror saw my feet reappearing. Then me, all of me, naked and drenched in the sweat of my terror. The wounded keeper moaned below me. The gaoler started toward me again, drawing his dirk, his look of horror changing to one of lust, bloodlust, or both.
Just before we collided, I swung my blade at his wrist, removing hand from arm. He screamed and dropped to his knees. I made for the Plains, catching sight of a few horrified villagers watching me run. A tall naked girl, with a bloody sword in one hand and what probably appeared a severed head in the other.
I ran until dark, the north wind barely cooling my burning lungs and scorched throat. I feared for my life then, for I no longer had any notion of direction. I stopped. Falling to my knees, I sobbed, preparing to pray, when I saw it.
A campfire. In the distance.
Moments later I stumbled into her arms. I dropped the sword and the satchel. She caressed me and kissed me and dressed me carefully as if I were a child. She wiped the last of the tears from my cheek.
Then I saw him.
He sat at the fire, his back to us. Long black hair, blacker than the night, tucked behind his ears, and cascading to the middle of his back. He turned his head and smiled. He was the most beautiful male I had ever seen.
I looked at her with a sad curiosity.
“My…husband,” she said. “In your language.”
I started to speak, but she held two fingers to my lips. “They had him. In the gaol. That was the only way they believed they could control us. To keep us apart.”
“But I thought…”
“I know what you thought. And your thoughts were true and lovely.”
“I don’t understand.” I could feel the tears coming again.
“In my world we can love many, Castele. But we can only share eternity with one.” She looked over her shoulder, and in a way I realized was telepathic, he turned also. They smiled at one another then at me.
He stood and came to us. She was right, I realized. They were meant to be together. One. Indivisible. When I awoke at sunrise they were gone.
That day I wandered the Ceaseless Plains once more. The winds that swept down from a wild glen further north were my only companions. I sulked and thought of her the entire day. Her shimmering beauty. Her laugh. Her kisses. On that night at a new fire, mountain air snuck down to the riverbanks and raised the slender golden hairs on my moonlit arms.
I drank from the river, then returned to the fire to sharpen my sword.
There was much work yet.
Author Bio: Gregory Jeffers’ stories have appeared recently or are upcoming in Chantwood Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Suisun Valley Review, Every Day Fiction, Grim Corps Magazine, Corvus Review, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and in the anthologies Hardboiled and Outposts of the Beyond. Other stories have won honorable mentions in Glimmer Train’s 2015 Very Short Fiction Contest and Winning Writer’s Summer Competition in 2012. Mr. Jeffers lives and writes in the Adirondack Mountains and on the island of Vieques.
by Julian Gyll-Murray
They say that in your last moments, you can feel your mind start to empty, your memories and dreams stealing away from your body to find their home in the sky. That’s why we are laid in the mud, so that our bodies can be purged, and our spirits can fly to the stars.
But for some reason, I never thought that I would get there. I believed that true burials were for the rich, and that I didn’t have any memories worth revisiting. Dying was for others—and dreams too.
And yet here I am, motionless, mud swamping my skin and crawling down my sleeves, remembering the details of a life that was half-lived, and as botched as a drunkard’s attempt at melody. At least I am with you, here in the muck. We are like man and wife, buried together— except, of course, that you are a Prince, and I am the Hag of the Helford. As my memories of the night float away from me, I turn every once a while, to see you next to me, your dreams mingling with mine, and I think about how the night brought us together.
The events which led to our union took place on an evening like all my evenings: that is to say, wretched and cold. The tide was out, and the Helford River was but a sliver of water among hills of sludge.
I was hidden from sight amongst the trees above the riverbank, surrounded by thick woodland. It had been generations since the river’s trade had waned, and it was only at Tremayne Quay, an old dock now used for funerals, that there was light to counter the smothering darkness. The night belonged to mourners, to corpses, and Dreamstealers; there would not be another soul for many a headland.
This particular service had lasted more than an hour, and my backside was starting to grow numb. Tremayne Quay was full of people, their flaming torches illuminating faces of grief. The priests were chanting We All Go Into the Mud, and the dead prince was being lowered into the mire. His body, wrapped in a cloth, was in a sling held by a pulley on the quay. The family, holding the rope together, creaked the Prince down, slowly, slowly, and his body was then tipped into the mud. The slop of his corpse smacking into the dirt incurred a new howl of despair by someone in the gathering. There he was to be placed, for all his soul to empty of dreams and memories, and then for his body was to be taken by the tide out to sea.
It was a ritual that I saw most days, and generally I found it tedious. This, however, was different. I normally only see funerals for the rich, for the people who exploit people like me. But the Prince was different. He was the one noble who’d earnt the love of the people in these lands. He’d supported farmers and fisherman alike, and even helped to feed villages during the Blight. If there was going to be any funeral of importance to me, it was this one, for a man of the people who’d cared and been poisoned for his caring.
They scattered salt over the muddied body, now semi-submerged in the slime of the riverbank, and chanted one last time, singing to the river to take his body and bring it home, singing to the stars to accept his dreams.
This was the signal: finally they were wrapping up. I got to my feet.
By the time I had picked my way through the undergrowth, the procession had headed back up the path leading into the woods, a worm of light through the darkness of the forests. I could finally stand fully; I stretched my back and rubbed the leaves off my rags, every part of me sore, and faced the one lantern-light left on the quay.
I called out into the blackness: “time to collect your fee, Corpseguard.”
The light swayed through the dark until it was in front of me, illuminating a man wrapped in a long, black coat, and collars tucked up to his chin.
“Dreamstealer, then, are you?” His face, partially obscured by his collar, was one of contempt.
It was a look I was faced with often. I know that I am a disgusting sight to many. Should I make the mistake of making myself seen around the Ferry Boat Inn, or maybe the boatyard at Gweek, I am greeted with curled lips and eyes widening with anger. Those who don’t know me see a woman built more like a man, with rags the colour of a thousand mud-plunges and dirt-grey hair hacked short: a sight bad enough to spoil their ale. Of course, those who do know me see something even worse: a woman-lover and a grave-robber.
I have learnt to thrive on the hatred of others, however. I flashed my rust-coloured teeth at him in a grin, and said: “That’s right. Working so you don’t have to.”
He glanced back at the mud, and the old stone walls of the quay. He seemed undecided as to whether to say something.
“Untrouble yourself, Corpseguard.” I reassured him. “In this particular type of wrongdoing, we’re quite the professionals. The body will be back in the filth by the morn, and no one will know a thing.”
I can sound just like Roscarrow when I want to. I’ve learnt from the best—or, at least, the best of the worst.
I passed him a pouch of my master’s silver, and, reluctantly, he went on his way, his lantern-light bobbing into the woods.
Time for me to get to work.
I went up to the pulley and gathered the rope, now thickened with mud. I quickly wrapped it around myself and a stone cleat, my fingers made nimble with practice. I didn’t need light; not yet. When I was satisfied with my knots, I took out the candles of my pocket. I glanced around one last time: the blackest, and the oldest, of silences. I was alone with the corpse. With you.
I lit my candles, which gave off a pitiful glow, but it was enough— I could see the Prince’s body, half mud-swallowed, awaiting the embrace of the morning tide.
I leaned over the side of the stone quay, and lowered myself down into the filth. The mud accepted my weight with open arms, squelching with delight around my thick legs. My feet and knees now plunged in the ooze, I set to work, taking the royal sling and fitting the rope along the hoops at its edges. Then came the hard part— or at least, the first of the hard parts. I heaved the body towards me. The body was heavy, and the mud had already suckled at its shoulders and waist, but it was manageable. I spat into my muddy, cracked hands, and put everything into my pull at the ropes. The pulley creaked. I tried again— even groaning a little— and this time we budged.
We rose, the Prince and I, out of the mud.
It was well into the night when I rolled the cart into the field. It was a little higher above the hill, around the first headland from Tremayne Quay, and it contained the old familiar sight: Roscarrow and his towering blue-green Magefire.
Despite all of the hatred that people have for me, and all that I’ve done, I have managed to retain some sense of what’s proper and right. Not sweet-smelling Roscarrow. If my smile is ugly, then his smile is wretched. We are Dreamstealers, he and I— although he is the only one doing the actual dreamstealing. He just pays me pittance to do what he wouldn’t, which mainly involves getting my rags muddy and my fingers corpse-smelling. People think that a gang of Dreamstealers is composed of a horde of criminals, but they’re mistaken: there’s just a Mage, and someone miserable enough to do his bidding.
“So,” he announced, his hands outstretched near the raging fire, pawing at the warmth. “Am I in the presence of His Royal Highness?”
“I got ‘im,” I replied, drawing my cart closer, carrying the corpse that bounced and shifted with every bump in the grass.
There was delight in his eyes. “As dependable as always, Lamorna. And so early, too. I fancied that you might want to give him a Sleeping Beauty’s kiss on your way up.”
“Piss off,” I said, clumping down the handles of the cart. “Let’s get this over with. Body’s got to be muddy again by sunrise.”
“Of course. Will you do the honours?” He peered at me intently, grinning, his gold teeth twinkling with the green-and-blue flames.
“Well, you’d better help me. Too old to move bodies by myself anymore.”
“Piffle. You got him here, didn’t you? I’m starting to get a little irked about this obsession with age, you know. You could be the beauty of the Helford, if only you put my coin to good use.”
I scowled at him. “The coin you pay me doesn’t feel like it’s for good using, somehow.”
He laughed at that. Too much, even: he’d always been loud, Roscarrow, as if it gave him authority. But it was true—my sneering was ill-placed. I had little in the sense of a moral high ground. I’d been kicked out of my village for lying with a woman, and was leading the life of a Helston beggar, when Roscarrow first found me— and he’d made it very clear what my employment would entail. I’d still accepted readily: Roscarrow had a knack of finding people at their worst, ready to let the world go hang for a bit of respite. He’d had complete mastery of me since then; the only thing I could do was remind him how much I resented him for it.
“I do enjoy your little morality crises. Brightens up our little evenings, don’t they?” He grinned. “But on this occasion, I suggest we get down to our honest corruption without the tittle-tattle. If it is help you require, then I’d be more than happy to oblige— we’ve got treasure on our hands tonight, after all.”
He sprang up to the cart, and bounded up on it, ripping away the cloth in anticipation. The body was blotched and sickly, like most bodies are, and yet you could tell that the Prince had once been handsome, and regal. My corpse could never hope to look that good. Roscarrow grabbed the Prince’s shoulders, and I took his knees. Together, we shuffled him off my cart, and toppled him onto the bonfire, where his body crumpled awkwardly onto the blaze. Flames spat about him, curling about his limbs and shrivelling his hair.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so eager to see a corpse’s dreams.” Roscarrow said wistfully, his face coloured by the flames. “Not in all my despicable years…” He took out a scroll from a chest behind him, and bottle of blue liquid from his jacket pocket. Tipping the fluid over the paper until it dripped off the corners, he held it aloft, and waited.
Soon, they started to waft into the air, the final images of memory and dream released by the blue Magefire. Into the smoke came the images of the Prince’s dead mind, a stream of pictures. There was land and prosperity, and a manor gleaming in sunlight. There was another wisp depicting a Crown sitting with rust on a chair. And often, there were throngs of people, cheering and lining the streets, and as these memories steamed off into the darkness there were the distant echo of sounds as well, charges of emotion.
We gazed at it all as it rushed into the air and coloured the stars. My silence was one of solemnity; his was one of focus. On his scroll, drenched with Dreamfluid, all the images were reproduced, the blue paper filling with the pictures which were adorned on the smoke. But he was waiting for the gold in amongst the reams of love and nostalgia. I even caught him, after a few moments had passed, muttering nonsensicalities under his breath- “come on, give me catastrophes and shipwrecks, give me something…”
I ignored him. Much as the ceremony had left me cold, here the sense of mourning was impressed upon me: above us were the memories and the life of a man who had been loved and respected, a public figure for whom this was a violation of a well-cherished privacy. More and more intimate moments slipped into the darkness: the Prince’s first love, the fireplace of his living-room, the time in which he disappointed his mother. The discomfort of baring witness to it all felt like ice in my stomach: despite everything I did on these wretched nights by the river, I knew that there are some secrets which deserve to remain hidden. When my own secret had been discovered, everything had ended. My own father had kicked me out of my home and down the road, my rags riddled with flecks of spit. My lover had suffered a worse punishment: her own father had hanged her from the tree in his garden.
The mysteries Roscarrow and I uncovered never seemed as precious to me: in all my nights as a Dreamstealer, we had stolen the thoughts of corrupt merchants and wreckers, and I couldn’t have cared less about them or their secrets. But this was different. The Prince’s images were to be used for gossip and shaming, something with which to sully a name which had inspired the land. These images deserved to be just for you, and the stars.
And then, just as I realised how much your dreams meant, it came. The moment which was to change it all.
An image curled into the air, hued with green and swimming in the smoke. It showed a man, bare-chested, with the Prince in bed. The pillows were stacked, the man grinning from their soft depths, and rain pelting a window in the background. The picture swayed, and floated up until it was just a cloud of green. Then it was gone.
“There it is,” breathed Roscarrow, his face turned corpse-ish by the light of the blue fire. “The jackpot.”
He turned to me, his gaping mouth turning into a grin. “We could retire on this. The Prince himself, hero of the people, bent as anything. They will pay to know this, my lover,” he said. People still say that in these parts, calling women their lovers. It’s but an expression, but he used it to mock me, and I hated him for it.
He held up the scroll, which had the lover’s face imprinted in its corner, and spoke in giddy excitement: “The beloved prince’s name, dragged through all manner of dirt…”
His gloat made me wince. I hadn’t even realised, but I was starting to breathe harder, and clutch my rags about me. Roscarrow dealt in knowledge, in keeping secrets, spreading rumours and blackmailing. What he could do with this image was unthinkable. The only figure of respect and hope of the land was to be tainted— and with a crime you could not have helped but commit, a crime I knew led to revulsion and hatred. Your name would never be the same, and the fisherman and the farmers would return to their bitter, hopeless demeanours, resigned to decades of more subjugation.
“All these nights stealing the dreams of money-lenders, of penniless lords, of smugglers and shipwreckers… and finally, finally, mage-making pays off.” Roscarrow took out his bottle of blue liquid and kissed it. “What a beauty.”
I have no memory of forming a plan, no memory of a decision. It was an impulse. I snatched the scroll out of his unclean hands and tore it apart. In moments, it was in shreds. “Those dreams are not for filth like you,” I said, spittle and vapour darting out of my lips.
He looked at me in shock. Two things struck me in that moment. Firstly, an action motivated by something other than greed is incomprehensible to a greedy man. Secondly, there was no way he was not going to kill me for what I had done.
“That was…regrettable. To say the least, my lover.” Roscarrow lip curled more than usual, and rage trembled his fingers. “Very regrettable.”
In a flash, he pounced upon me, grabbing my shoulders and shoving me roughly to the ground. It was with such an intensity, such a viciousness, that my legs buckled and I was on the earth within moments, my fingers flailing, as ineffectual as a lady’s. I’d won many a bar-room brawl, and yet here I was, taken by surprise: I should have known better, my prince.
With one hand, he pinned me. With another, he flung his fist. My face was whipped into the grass, and pain was whipped into my body. I howled and twisted, and yet it did not stop: his fists were merciless and urgent. It had been a while since I’d been subjected to this. It reminded me of my father, and bleeding onto the cobbles of Helston pavements.
Afterwards, he stumbled up to his legs, leaving me to writhe in the dirt, and spat on me for good measure. “I thought I might have to kill you tonight,” he snarled. “I thought you couldn’t be trusted with a secret this big. I didn’t think that your tongue would be too small, and your heart too big. Disgusting, my lover. Nothing more pitiful than a grave robber who’s fallen in love with a corpse.”
I stumbled up, but before I was ready for him I felt a blade scratching through my rags and sliding into my side. The pain bolted through me, sharp and sudden.
Air rushed out of me, and I screamed. I felt my shoulders being grabbed, and being dragged across the grass. I snarled and tried to wriggle away, but every movement sent excruciating flashes of pain up and down my body. I was dropped, and the heat of the fire was then close enough to make me cry out.
“I’ve got more scrolls, and more Dreamfluid, don’t you know.” Roscarrow said, his wretched-smile breath close to my ear. “I think you’ll remember his face. I think it’ll be in your dreams, too.”
Roscarrow kicked the Magefire, and burning logs cascaded onto me. My rags immediately started to writhe with flames, and I was scalded in an instant, the pain immediately flaying my skin. I yelped, and rolled, and tried to crawl away, and still it did not subside: my hair and rags were all alive and thrashing with blue heat.
“All of your nothing secrets will be on here now,” Roscarrow said, holding up another parchment while he soaked it in blue. “All of your nothing family and your nothing lover and your nothing life spent in the mud. But all I need is his face. Think of him, Lamorna. I know you’re jealous of him, being buggered by the Prince.”
I squirmed about on the grass, on the wet earth, groaning, but even as the flames were muffled I knew the pain would always be there, underneath my skin.
There was blue and green smoke coming off my flesh now. Images hovered above me, showing the inside of my mind. My childhood home, with the stink of lobsterpot-cages and star-gazy pie, and the local schoolmaster whipping my hand with a stick, and her, too, swinging from the tree in her father’s garden.
“No one cares, Lamorna,” Roscarrow snarled, impatient. “I want the Prince-lover’s face, on this scroll. Think about him. Dream about him. Think about the paper you stole from me, and regret what you did.”
It wasn’t the pain that spurred me on then— searing though it was. No; it was at the visions of my life, clouding the air above me for the pleasure of a scoundrel. I got to my feet, but it took an age: my fingers were burnt, my eyes were too stung to see clearly, and the blade was still slotted into my ribs. But I stood nevertheless, memories blurring the world about me in wafts of green. Screaming aloud, I wrenched the dagger out of me. It twisted through flesh on its exit.
“The face, Lamorna. I need it on this page.” He glared at me, completely unthreatened by my actions. He’d never thought me capable of anything, never considered me anything but a dog to do his bidding. “For a life as empty as yours, you’d think this wouldn’t take as long.”
I charged into him, and suddenly there was a flash of surprise on his features as I ran to him with murderous fury. It didn’t take long—I slashed across his cheek, and as he cowered, I kicked and flung him down to earth. I took the dagger point and dragged it across his collar as streams of memories curled into the air about us, showing my Uncle, the first time I killed a fish, and views of the river from when I was young and used to dive into its brown waters. Through his clothes, I rent open a ditch of blood across his chest. I was not used to fighting with knives, my usual fighting being of the barroom-brawl kind: it was clumsy work, but got the job done. Within moments he was screaming in pain.
Beside us was a flaming log. I picked it up, and it felt no hotter than my skin. I sat on his stomach, and pressed the white-hot wood into his face, and it immediately hissed with contact. Blue-green steamed about us, some of it tinged with a memory of the time my brother was trampled by a horse. I then took the bottle of that cursed Dreamfluid, and poured it all over his burnt features, howling obscenities at him. Dark red blood was now spouting out of his knife-wound, and it mingled with the blue.
Finally, I got off him. He whimpered, clutching his neck, his cheeks glowing with its contact with the mage-fire. He was weaker than me, in many ways. I’d always known that. I’d endured more than he could ever have imagined.
Some dreams were already starting to burn off him, pictures of cobbled roads and rain-soaked trousers and hands swollen with nettle-stings. I waited for a single moment to catch my breath— but only the one. I didn’t want the pain to catch up with me.
Then I looked at the Prince’s body, still slumped in the fire.
Do you see, my Prince? Can some dead part of you recognise the tale of the last night of my life, and how much of a part you played in it? Every time I turn my head in the mud and you are there, the less I want to speak of the Prince or the Corpse. This story is a tale for you, and you alone. Perhaps it is just that I’m getting soft. Perhaps you’re the only one here, and I’m getting cold, and lonely, and dead.
It was only once I’d gotten you out of the fire and back onto the cart, and finally dragged you away, that I realised how cold it still was. I knew, because my feet were shivering. But the rest of me could not feel it. The heat was there, embedded in me, making me dizzy. Pain and exhaustion almost got the better of me, and a false stumble on the track was enough to make me wail and topple to the ground.
The only thing which kept me conscious was the clarity with which I saw my purpose: I had to get you back to the mud. You deserved better than the likes of me and Roscarrow. You deserved peace.
So we crawled through the forest. I wonder what birds, what creatures, saw us there: me, issuing into the air a green memory trail of scrub-boards, of hovels, of grimy pans and grimier bodies. You, in contrast, were still issuing hazy images of royal processions and gatherings.
Something tells me that we were not so far apart, your memories and mine. I think that there was sadness in both. There were never many smiles in my life. Laughter, yes: but they die, while smiles linger. And I think yours were the same, telling of laughter without warmth and of a life predetermined. I’d never known you, of course. Not alive. But there are some things you can tell about people if you’ve peered into their dreams.
Sometimes, I looked back around the headland, and I could see another dim trail of dreams, mingling with the tree tops and floating up to the sky behind us. A line of green and blue, connecting the Earth to the Stars. Roscarrow had picked himself up, and was coming towards us, a stream of memories stealing off his burnt face.
Let him come, I thought. We’re all naked now, emptying our souls in the darkness.
I flailed, and dropped the cart, many times. By the time I got to Tremayne Quay, I was finished. I’d gotten you there, to the mud, but it had taken away everything that I had. I placed my hands upon your ashen limbs, and dragged you off my cart, and we both slumped upon the edge of the quay, and I found I could not move any more.
We were close, then, you and I. Mage-Fire Companions. Your handsome face looked crispy. I cried then, because of the pain and the burns and your coal-like features, with embers of green illuminating parts of your skull that should not be seen.
A dim memory trailed away from you, showing you sitting on a boat and seeing the Helford behind you, and the sun bounding off the waves. You seemed calm, at ease— maybe your lover was there?—and I could faintly hear the same sounds that I’d known on my days out on my dinghy, with the wind lapping at the sails and the creak of the floorboards beneath my feet.
And with that, my body buckled, and my mind went.
I do not know how long I was gone for. But it was too long. When I woke up, there were still some faint memories shifting in the stillness, coming from our burns like the last smoke of a spent fire. They circled about us, like ghosts in the night air.
And there was Roscarrow, not far off, where the woods came to an end. He wasn’t moving, and so I slowly got to my feet, and limped over to him. He was slumped on his knees, just a few steps away from me. Clearly, he too had spent himself coming here: he looked weak, and his chin was resting on his chest amidst a necklace of blood.
I looked at him for a while, curious. I was not afraid of him—whatever he had come for, our encounters with fires and daggers seemed to have calmed us both.
“Not dead, then, Roscarrow,” I stated. Not wickedly: I was glad, in a way.
“Not yet, my lover. Not yet.” Speaking was painful for him. He raised his head, and looked at me. I could make out where his eyes should be, and felt the sadness emanating from them.
But, most of all, I saw dreams.
They weren’t smoking off him so much, like they’d done for you and me. But his face itself glowed with images, a result of the Dreamfluid I’d poured onto him. Tatooed upon his cheeks were visions of a house burning down, of a father figure behind the bars of a jail. But there was more than that. After a moment, I realised that the blue liquid also was showing the images of my mind and yours and his together, patterning the darkness. His coat was wet with blood and imagination, and I saw there in the leather my home and yours, and Roscarrow, pacing the streets of Helston. All a swirling mass of images, of blood and dreams and the colour of mage fire.
“What do you see, my lover?” he asked in sadness.
“I see…” I tried to study it, but at first it went too fast for me to describe. Then I took a long breath, and centred on what was most important. Perhaps they were the images of my mind, or yours— or perhaps it was a shared dream, a concoction of all of our imaginations.
“I see cliffs, and coves. I see the river and the sea meeting. I see Mount’s Bay, and ships tossing on water. I see darkness, forests and Mage-Fire.”
Roscarrow nodded. “Home,” he said simply.
A moment passed.
“No regrets, then?” he asked.
“One for most days of my life, probably. You?”
“About the same. More days to account for, though.”
He swallowed, and dreams crawled down him, illuminating his blood-soaked neck. Memories dripped, and made little silver-green puddles on the quay, containing worlds in their pinpricks of light.
“So those visions of the river, and the sea…” he began to ask. “Whose were they?”
I shook my head. “Don’t know, Roscarrow. ‘Suppose it could be anyone’s.”
He grinned. It immediately turned into a wince, but I knew what that smile meant. Laughter can die, but smiles linger. “That’s good.” He said. “I like that.”
A moment passed in reflection. Then he groaned, and tried to straighten himself and look directly at me. “I came here to kill you, Lamorna, but I don’t think I have the energy now. Any chance you could help me in the right direction? I can feel the river thickening in the mudbanks over there. I’d like to catch the tide, if I can.”
I looked towards the quay, and the mud that lay beyond, then back at him, with his features burnt green with ghosts, and with his dark eyes, in which I could see tears now.
“What do you say, my lover-and-murderess?” he asked. “For old, terrible, regretful times’ sake?”
There is not long left, not much time to say what little remains. I must go quickly.
After Roscarrow, I had to rest again. The pain was too great, the feeling of my burnt skin and my knife-wound making every move agony. I was in no fit state to do what I did. And that’s the answer of it all, really. I wasn’t too old to be a Dreamstealer, no matter how many times I’d told myself that. I could have hauled corpses for years. But here I was too burnt and bled, and my every emotion had been poured out into the air.
But I had to bury you, and do it proper. There could be no way that anyone else could get their unclean fingers on you. I put you back in the sling that I’d left on the quay, and just that seemed to take an age. Then I took the rope off the cleat, and wrapped it around my wrists: I didn’t want to drop you. I began to lower you back into the mud from which we’d risen, all those hours ago, but holding on to the rope with burnt fingers was too painful. For a few moments, with my boots dug in the earth, I leant back, and cried out, hoping that pain of holding you would subside, that the cord tightening around my palms would not make me feel as I were on fire again.
I whimpered, and held you in the air for a moment, but it was only a moment. You fell, and the ropes dragged me forward, and I went over the edge with you.
We smacked into the mud, and I screamed and howled, and the Helford riverbank sunk its teeth into us. I tried to grasp at the rope again, but I could barely move, trapped by pain and dirt.
After the ordeals of the night, it was simple— nay, peaceful, to give up. The cool mud embalmed my burnt skin and soothed me, and the deeper I sank the more I felt embraced. I was able to lie there with you, and look up at the sky, and await the tide. I gazed at all those stars, my companions on all those summer nights, and the last dream-glimmers sailing off us and floating up to meet them.
I can’t remember resting like this. I can’t even remember the last time someone took care of me, my Prince. Perhaps too many people looked after you, when you were alive; or perhaps not enough, or not where it counted. I don’t know. Only the sky does; it’s been housing your spirits all night.
Here it is, now. The final part—where the last breath flows in and out of your lungs, and it is weak, a whisper of a breath. The part when your mind takes its last fill of dreams and regrets, to last until the tide brings you out to sea.
The river is tickling my cheeks now.
You never knew me, Prince. But we go together.
by Maureen Bowden
I first saw Melusina perched on a rock alongside the narrow river that runs through our local park. I assumed she was wearing a swimsuit, but her long auburn hair concealed it. She didn’t notice me, but I was close enough to see her pupils dilate when she looked at Freddie, who was posing with a football, showing off his prowess to the neighbourhood bimbos.
I sat beside her. “You fancy him, don’t you?”
She turned to me. Her eyes were so dark, I felt like I was teetering on the edge of an open coalmine. “Why does that concern you?”
I took a mental step back from the black chasm. “I’m his sister.”
She laughed, and a shiver ran down my back. “Relax. Your sibling’s safe. I’ve vowed never again to get involved with a mortal, but there’s no harm in looking. Right?”
“Right,” I said, “but are you telling me you’re not mortal?”
“I’m not telling you anything. I was thinking aloud.”
“Well, keep doing it. I’m interested.”
She turned the coalmines on me again. “What’s your name?”
“Fiona. What’s yours?”
“Melusina. I’m a river witch.” She slid off the rock, into the water, and I caught a glimpse of her true form. “You can Google me.” She flicked her tail and swam away.
Google was illuminating, as always, but not necessarily true. No problem, I thought. I’ll check the details when she comes back. I knew she would. How could a badass version of the little mermaid resist Freddie with his pop-star smile and ballet dancer grace?
The following Saturday afternoon I spent an hour in the park sketching my brother, as he lounged on a lakeside bench, playing his guitar and singing a self-penned protest song about oppressed workers: ironic, as he was a stranger to anything resembling work. The song was mediocre but he was a good model: blond hair gelled to rigidity, high cheekbones and hips as slim as a Barbie Doll’s. You know the type.
I finished the sketch, packed my pad and pencils into my satchel and left him basking in the adoration oozing from his latest squeeze, Sophie Melancamp, the receptionist from Vision Express. She lay on the grass at his feet.
I walked alongside the river that fed the lake, and I wasn’t surprised to see Melusina swimming close to the bank. We reached her rock. I sat on it. She stayed in the water.
She didn’t preamble. “What’s your brother’s name?”
She sighed. “That’s what I used to call Siegfried. He reminds me of him.”
“Google said Siegfried was your one true love. Was he?”
She shrugged. “I don’t remember. A thousand years is a long time to hang onto trivial emotions. What other pearls of wisdom did Google cast before you?”
“You left him and your children because he spied on you taking a bath. Why so modest?”
“I didn’t wish to see fear or repulsion in his eyes when he witnessed my transformation.” She pulled herself out of the river. Her tail shed its silver scales and divided into long slender legs, and she draped her hair across her shoulders, covering her naked body.
“Yet you allowed me to witness it.”
“You’re not a man.” She made it sound like a dismissal. Why should she care about my reaction? I didn’t matter.
“Was he frightened or repulsed?” I said.
“I didn’t stick around to find out. I’d warned him. I’d stay with him if he promised never to watch me bathe. That was our bargain. He broke his promise.”
“But how could you abandon your children?”
“I knew they’d manage without me, and they did. One of their descendants married the English king, Edward IV. Your royal family are of her bloodline.”
“Do they grow tails when they’re in the bath?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen them in the bath.” She reached for my hand and kissed it. “May I stay with you for a while, Fiona?”
My stomach fluttered. This was a disturbing turn of events. I knew she was dangerous and I should scream and head for the hills, but she fascinated me, and I didn’t pull my hand away.
“You may, if you let me paint your portrait.”
“You’re an artist?”
“Trying to be.”
“It’s a deal. Bring me some clothes.”
I brought her a summer dress, sandals and underwear. She pulled the dress over her head, slipped her feet into the sandals, and threw the bra back to me, “That won’t fit,” followed by the panties, “They’d get in the way if I had to transform in a hurry.”
I took her home to my one-bedroom flat and led her into the living room that doubled for a studio. “You can have the bedroom,” I said. “I’ll use the bed-settee in here.”
She looked at the paintings leaning against the wall. “They’re good. Have you sold many?”
“Not yet. I make my living illustrating children’s books, but if I can get together enough paintings to hold an exhibition I hope people will start buying them.
“I can make it happen.”
“I’m a witch, remember? Put my portrait in your exhibition.”
We began next day. She posed naked. “Can you make the tail come?” I said.
“No. I can only transform when I’m submerged in water.”
“I could fill a bucket and chuck it over you.”
“If you do I’ll hit you with the bucket.”
I painted the tail from memory.
Our time together was the happiest I’d ever known, but I knew it wouldn’t last. She was interested in Freddie, not me. She examined my sketches of him serenading Sophie in the park. “Is he a musician?
“No, he’s a university student.”
“What’s he studying?”
“Social interaction via the medium of graphic novels.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ve no idea, but it doesn’t seem to involve much work.”
“Does he visit you often?”
“Yes, whenever he wants money.”
He turned up one evening with an empty wallet and a winning smile. Melusina was sitting in my antique rocking chair plaiting her hair.
Freddie ignored me, sat cross-legged on the rug beside her, and said, “Hi. I’m Freddie.”
“I know,” she said, sliding out of the chair, and joining him on the rug. “I’m Mel.”
I sketched them getting acquainted: the whispers, sly, predatory smiles, and touching fingers. The following week she moved in with him. I coped with my desolation by focusing on my artwork. The sketches would form the basis of the final painting for my exhibition.
It was a success. Agents for two foreign businessmen offered me obscene amounts of money for my portrait of Melusina with the tail. I sold it to the highest bidder for enough to finance a comfortable lifestyle even if I never sold another painting. I did, however, sell others, and continued to do so as fast as I could produce them. My reputation as an artist grew. So did my bank account.
I found a new apartment. It had a large studio situated to catch the setting sun’s blue and gold light, and two bedrooms, in case Melusina came back. I had everything I wanted except her. Freddie had her.
I sent them details of my new address. They sent me a ‘Good Luck in Your New Home’ card, bearing a picture of a country cottage. I suspected it came from The Card Factory’s discount shelf.
Six months later she turned up at my door, pale, trembling and her hair in a mess. She sat in the rocking chair, gave a deep sigh, and closed her eyes. I placed a cushion behind her head and poured her a brandy. “What’s up?” I said.
“Your brother’s given me a gift I didn’t want.”
I knew what she meant. I’d anticipated this. “You’re pregnant.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I came here to say goodbye. Freddie won’t want a child and he’ll lose interest in me. I’m leaving before that happens.”
“Don’t go,” I said. “When the baby’s born bring it here. We’ll raise it together. I’ve always wanted a child.”
She drained her glass and passed it back to me. “So, why don’t you have one of your own?”
“I don’t like men.”
“Use a sperm bank. You can afford it.”
“I’d still have to give birth and I don’t want to do that. Please bring your baby here.”
“You may not like men, but I do.”
Of course she did. I’d been fooling myself. “So you’ll flick your tail, swim away, and in a thousand years or so another pretty boy will take your fancy.”
“No. I’m done with mortals.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“Yes, but I’ll have my child with me this time.”
“I thought it was a gift you didn’t want.”
“It was, but maybe motherhood will help me to grow up.”
“Mel, please don’t go.”
Her dark eyes seemed to see into my soul, and I knew she understood. “You don’t want just any child. You want mine.”
“Yes, if I must lose you.”
“Alright. I’ll stay until the baby’s born, I’ll give it to you, and then I’ll go, but there’s a condition.” I held my breath. “I’ll come back in seven years time and you must allow the child to choose between us.”
I had to agree. If I refused I’d never see the baby.
I spent the next five months stocking up with everything a new baby would need. I was terrified, but happy. Seven years might be all the time I’d get to be a mother, but it was better than nothing.
She returned late one night. Her belly was distended and she leaned against me for support. “When’s the baby due?” I said.
“Sooner the better. I’m in labour.”
My throat dried and my heart pounded. “I’ll call an ambulance.”
“No,” she screamed. “Nobody must see it when it’s first born. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. You can help me.”
I barely remember what I did, but it was an easy birth. After we cleaned and dried her son his tail split into legs. We laid him in his cot and he slept.
I made her comfortable. “Will you be alright?” I said.
“Yes. I heal quickly. Thank you, Fiona. Now go to bed.”
When I awoke next morning her bed was empty.
Later that day Freddie came looking for her.
“She’s gone,” I said.
“I don’t know, but she’s not coming back.”
He glanced at the baby in my arms. “Is that—?”
“Yes. It’s your son.”
“What am I supposed to do with him?”
“Leave him with me. It’s what Mel wanted.”
He looked puzzled, but not distressed. He was always too selfish to be distressed for long. He and Mel had made a good match. I wondered if the outcome would have been different if she’d revealed her true nature to him and he’d accepted it. I doubted it. “I suppose you expect me to give you money,” he said.
I laughed. “Oh sure. Like I expect the Tooth Fairy to show up when required, and leave a gold coin under his pillow. Close the door on your way out, Freddie.”
A month later he phoned to say he’d left University and was taking a gap year, exploring the Australian Outback with Sophie Melancamp. It’s more likely that they were sunbathing on Bondi beach.
I named the baby Alexander. Each time I bathed him his chubby legs fused into a golden-scaled tail. I took him to a deserted beach on moonlit nights, and we played in the breakers. He swam, dived and twisted, gurgling with contentment in his natural element.
I sketched him, painted him, and added his image to one of Melusina’s portraits. I told him stories about his mother: the beautiful mermaid. He was interested, but she couldn’t compete with Spider Man and the Ninja Turtles. I also told him about his father, but as Freddie had no super powers to recommend him he had no place in Alexander’s list of priorities. I did. He called me Auntie Fi, he loved me, and he was dearer to me than his mother had ever been. We were happy, but a dark dread haunted me
On his seventh birthday I took him to the river. Melusina was sitting on the rock where I first saw her. “Xander,” I said, “this is your mama.”
She slipped into the water and beckoned to him. “Come and swim with me, Xander.” I resented her using my pet name for him.
He pulled off his clothes and joined her. His legs fused into a tail and he laughed and reached for her hand. I sat on the bank and watched them. He waved to me. I waved back and tried to smile while my heart was breaking.
“Would you like to come and swim with me in the sea?” she said to him.
He called to me, “Can I, Auntie Fi?”
“Yes, if you’re sure you want to go with her, but she won’t bring you back.”
“You can come with us.”
“I can’t, Xander. I don’t have a tail.”
Melusina said, “You can come, Fiona. I’ll transform you, and I’ll take care of you and the boy.”
I thought about what she was offering me: a life of freedom, roaming the oceans with the only two people who were ever important in my life. If I refused I might lose them both, but I knew she’d never change. She’d continue to leave discarded lovers and children scattered across the five continents, and some day she’d discard us too.
“Thank you, but no. I’m a mortal and I belong on the land.” I turned to Alexander. “You have to choose between us.”
He pulled himself onto the bank, transformed, and ran into my arms. I kissed his wet hair and held him close, waiting for his answer. “I want to stay with you, Auntie Fi.”
The fear that had oppressed me for seven years scuttled off into the sunset. Good riddance. It could take the river witch with it. I looked at her, expecting to see either sorrow or anger in her coalmine eyes, but I saw relief to equal mine.
She inclined her head in acceptance, dived beneath the rippling water, flicked her silver tail, and was gone.