Suddenly Sci-Fi: When Real Life Turns Unreal

What a year we’ve had.

I realize that is about the most obvious statement I could make at this point in time, but I think it’s worth saying—we need to give space and weight to what we’ve all been through, to a stretch of months that feel as if they occurred within a weird pocket universe wherein time was both puzzlingly elastic and maddeningly stagnant.

So: what a year we’ve had. By the time you read this, it will be more like two years—but I am holding out hope that light will continue to flicker back in as we slowly emerge from our pocket universe of lockdown, quarantine, and staring at the same walls every day to return to the outside world.

I spent most of Pandemic 2020 wrestling with deadlines, dealing with various tragedies, and trying to stave off existential terror. One of the books I was writing was a YA contemporary romance I’d sold at the end of 2019, From Little Tokyo, With Love, which is all about a rage-y half-Japanese girl who is a lot like my teenage self. Her name is Rika, and she doesn’t believe in happily ever after—until she’s swept into her own modern fairy tale.

Little Tokyo was supposed to fit pretty firmly on the “contemporary real world” side of my career—unlike my contemporary fantasy series, Heroine Complex, there are no superpowers, no demons trying to fuck everything up, no supernatural happenings that can only be explained by the fantastical. There is a touch of everyday magic because, despite her overwhelming grouchiness, Rika tends to see the world through a fairy tale sheen of wonder. But this is a story set in our modern world, something that could actually happen.

I was excited to show so much real life in the pages of my manuscript. I wanted to convey the sense of history, community, and heady enchantment of Los Angeles’s wonderful Little Tokyo neighborhood—a place that instantly felt like home to me the moment I first set foot on its vibrant streets. I wanted people to feel the warmth, beauty, and glorious bustle of the Nisei Week Festival, an annual celebration of Japanese and Japanese American heritage and traditions that brings so much of the local Asian American community together. And I really wanted to show readers my adopted home city of Los Angeles in all its dimension and wonder—LA tends to be much maligned in media, and there’s so much more to it than Rodeo Drive and traffic and the glittering HOLLYWOOD sign, enshrouded in smog. I hoped that anyone reading the book would feel immersed in my LA—beautiful nature of all different kinds (beach, mountains, desert!), an endless cavalcade of mouthwatering food, mishmashes of colorful small businesses and offbeat attractions, and eclectic, diverse communities that make me feel like I can be my fullest self, always.

I couldn’t wait for all the real life research I was going to do, especially when summer kicked into high gear. Like Rika, I was going to spend days wandering through the sticky heat and wild graffiti of the abandoned old zoo in Griffith Park, and nights cramming into tiny restaurants with sprawling gaggles of friends, ordering food spicy enough to melt our faces off. I was going to stare contemplatively at the gorgeous chandelier in the LA Public Library rotunda and feel transported to another world. I was going to get swept into the Nisei Week parade and gawk at the brave souls sweating their way through the gyoza-eating contest.

I was going to, I was going to, I was going to… And then the pandemic hit, and everything changed.

Of course fiction is always fiction. I made Rika up, just like I made up the demonic cupcakes and gigantic porcelain unicorn monsters in the Heroine Complex series. Couldn’t I simply imagine her adventures in the same way I might imagine fire shooting out of people’s hands or an attack by a fabulous karaoke-singing demon queen?

Well… sure. But I suppose in the case of the superheroines, I know going in that while their emotional arcs, their friendships, their truths are based in real life and my own experiences… I am most definitely going to have to make up how it feels to have fire shoot out of your hands, or what it’s like the first time you see a gigantic porcelain unicorn rampaging through a bookstore. With Little Tokyo, I had to make things up that had, up until very recently, been 100 percent real.

My realistic contemporary fiction was suddenly science fiction. I was writing about things that had happened so many times in the past, but now couldn’t happen at all. Everything I wrote felt fake, because in a sense, it was.

The live, in-person version of Nisei Week didn’t happen for the first time in decades. The streets of Little Tokyo were quiet, bare—no hint of the bustle and life and community that makes the neighborhood what it is. Cramming into a tiny restaurant with a bunch of people suddenly seemed utterly terrifying.

Like so many, I was also dealing with depression, trauma, anxiety. The rise in anti-Asian violence and hatred crawled under my skin and burrowed there, a constant hum of terror. I’ve spoken a lot about how important it is for me to write stories about Asian Girls Having Fun— to me, depicting women of color experiencing joy and love and hope always feels like one of the most revolutionary things you can do. But as I tried to fake my way through this story that felt so detached from my own reality, so alien… I started to wonder how I could write hope and happiness when those two things were as impossible as sight-seeing in Griffith Park or eating in a restaurant or hugging friends close.

Of all my “real life” concepts that were suddenly science fiction, hope seemed like the most fantastical of all.

I wish I could share a moment of mid-pandemic triumph here, wherein I had some kind of incredible transformative experience that translated into a masterful third act turn, me rising above the rubble infused with that hope I was trying so hard to find and beaming it out to everyone.

But real life is never exactly like fiction, and my life doesn’t always fit into a neat three-act structure that I can narrate for you in a neat three-part essay. There was no Moment, no one thing that pulled me through both the writing of the book and the living of life.

Real life was just this: I kept going.

I did not bake bread, but I did grow those windowsill scallions. I took lots of photos of my Spam slicer, much to the delight of Asian Twitter. I sobbed my way through virtual therapy sessions, the room growing dark as the sun disappeared from my window’s view, because I always forgot to turn on the light. I dealt with the death of a dear friend, fell down endless rabbit holes obsessing over reality shows from five years ago, and cocooned myself in a series of caftans, each one more loudly patterned than the last. I worried about everything and everyone all the time, because how could I not?

And just like Rika, I found strength in community and loved ones. The sprawling, interconnected writing groups who came together for online sprints and check-ins. The fellow junk connoisseurs who agreed to a virtual watch and live chat of the revered film classic Burlesque. The treasured friend who would pop up in my driveway and wave to me from a distance, just because. And so many more.

I started telling myself, “Just do what’s in front of you.” Get out of bed. Slice that Spam. Write that line.

Slowly, all of those lines turned into scenes. And yes, they still felt unreal, fantastical. But as I took Rika on her adventures through my beautiful LA, as I gave her wonderful meals with new friends and stolen

kisses on the beach and messy emotional revelations amidst crowds and the blazing summer sun… well, maybe I did have that Moment after all. Because I remembered what science fiction and fantasy had given me as a kid: the ability to imagine a world bigger and better and brighter than the tiny close-minded town that was my childhood existence.

And as I was swept deeper into the story, that feeling took over. Yes, this story was now SF/F, in that it was a fantastical, unrealistic version of our current contemporary world. But it was also SF/F in one of the best ways possible—it helped me imagine life in the after, when all of the impossible things I was writing about would become real again.

And so I wrote, imagining the day when I could get lost in this Nisei Week parade once more. When I could cram into a minuscule restaurant with an unruly group of people again, clinking glasses and inhaling spicy food and laughing ’til our faces hurt. When the streets of Little Tokyo would bustle with vibrant life, as it had for so many years in the past.

It could all happen again, even if it couldn’t happen now. The LA I loved—the life I loved—was still out there, waiting. If I kept writing about it, if I kept dreaming of it, picturing it, imagining it… perhaps it would become real again.

Perhaps it was something to hope for.

I write this now in the summer of 2021. Life still feels like science fiction, but little bits from the before are finally flickering into the after. I’ve eaten face-melting spicy food in a restaurant, sitting across from beloved friends. I’ve walked the bustling streets of Little Tokyo, the magic of the neighborhood sinking back into my bones. I’ve hugged people tightly, wondering how I took something so simply wonderful for granted.

Real life is starting to feel real again. But I will keep imagining a world bigger and brighter and full of wonderful things that might seem utterly fantastical.

Because my contemporary-turned-SF/F book ultimately became the version of hope I was writing for myself. And I want to remember that even when the possible is impossible, when life is science fiction, when we are existing in a bizarre pocket universe that feels like a made-up story… hope is always real.

Imagining Futures: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

I have been working in genre magazines since roughly 2014. It’s been one hell of a run, and I’m done now.

This is my last issue at Uncanny Magazine, and it feels a bit like the end of an era. I’m not going to be editing short fiction, or short non-fic- tion, anymore. I’ll be writing it, solely. Instead of hunting authors, and giving notes, I’ll be on the receiving end.

Careers in genre are funny things—for years people have made comments about how I have many feathers in my hat, how I do so many things. I was trying to sort out what it was I wanted to do. I edited, I managed a magazine, I wrote books and essays and worked in audio drama and games and here I am, finally figuring out what it is I want to do with myself in this new future.

I fell into writing—to an extent, I fell into genre, too—a place where I could do a job that I loved, a place where I was welcome. I’ve built a career on having opinions, on helping people to shape their own. With this issue I’m making the choice that I’m ready to step fully into the role of Author.

I don’t know what things look like from here. What book I write next is on the table, what stories I want to tell. But the rhythm of magazine life won’t be a part of my schedule anymore. It feels strange, but in a positive way. I think maybe I’ll have more space to breathe and create when I am not beholden to the short-term deadlines that have been with me for over half a decade.

I’m not saying I won’t come back to the magazine life at some point—I don’t know for sure what will happen next. But I do know that for now, the right call is to move forward to focus on the novels and memoirs and non-fiction projects that I feel are what calls to me most.

I have loved working on every essay that I’ve touched at Uncanny (and the ones I edited at Fireside, too). I’ve learned so much from my authors, my co-workers, and my co-conspirators. I’ve helped construct new forms of essays, helped to refine critical work that helped people to think about the genre carefully.

2021 has been a tough year, so it feels like the right time to step away from the chaos and to focus on what is right in front of me for a little bit. I’m so grateful for the opportunities that magazine life has afforded me, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

I realized I didn’t know what to write for my final editorial, because my brain is focusing on the longer form already. Things are shifting for me—positively, certainly, but in a way that means the future is bright but entirely different than it was before.

I look forward to what new stories I tell, what new forms I can practice in, and what possibilities await me beyond this door I’m opening.

I hope you’ll join me in seeing what I do next, because part of the adventure is in having my readers along for the ride.

Thanks for reading, Space Unicorns. I’ll miss you

Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor Is a Space Unicorn (And We’re Going to Miss Her When She’s Gone)

“Jodie’s magnificent, iconic Doctor has exceeded all our high expectations. She’s been the gold standard leading actor, shouldering the responsibility of being the first female Doctor with style, strength, warmth, generosity and humour. She captured the public imagination and continues to inspire adoration around the world, as well as from everyone on the production. I can’t imagine working with a more inspiring Doctor—so I’m not going to!”

Chris Chibnall


Every few years, the news hits: the Doctor is leaving us. While many Doctor Who fans (and even more onlookers from afar) will launch immediately into the merry sport of Guess the Next Doctor, for others it is a time of grieving and processing.

Sure, we’ll love the new one when they get here. But in the meantime, we need a moment, okay?

We brace ourselves for the new, for change (more than any other TV show, loving Doctor Who means embracing change), for everything to be turned upside down and made fresh again. But we’re also bracing ourselves for loss, for losing this specific version of the show, and everything that goes along with it.

A regeneration story is like a wake and a birthday party happening at the same time: so many shiny new presents, so much emotional turmoil at saying goodbye. It’s cathartic and happy, sad and overwhelming and bittersweet. The moment has been prepared for, and even if you think you’re ready, it hits you square in the feels.

I hate to say it, fam, but this time around, it feels like we’re doing it wrong.

So much of the discourse around the Leaving of Jodie has been framed as disappointment. Not disappointment that she’s leaving…disappointment that the show that has starred her for the last two years, and will continue to feature her as lead actor for another season plus three specials, is not quite good enough.

Everywhere I look, the hot takes seem to be all about how obviously Jodie is great, but the writing wasn’t strong enough or funny enough, somehow the show wasn’t quite as magical over the last two years, and isn’t it a shame that the first ever female Doctor failed to live up to our hopes and expectations?

Most of the criticism, it is true, is directed at the current show runner Chris Chibnall (like football fans, Doctor Who fans tend to direct most of their ire and frustration at the chap in charge with a fervour that can’t be matched until the next one comes along). Still, it’s painful to see the legacy of such a brilliant actor’s take on one of the most iconic British TV characters already being defined as ‘wasted potential.’ It’s hard at times to distinguish between the Chibnall-haters and Thirteen-haters, especially when you consider that the complaints about the show’s current tone, writing, creative choices, etc. are as much a product of the much more diverse writing team behind Doctor Who than we’ve ever had before. With so many women and people of colour involved, the fact that so many fans assume Chibnall is the worst thing to ever happen to the show becomes a lot more problematic than just taking aim at the latest white man to be the Doctor Who showrunner.

And, let’s not forget, there are a lot of pure, dyed-in-the-wool, flat out Thirteen-haters in the world right now. They’re not the ones writing all the articles about how Chibnall made the first female Doctor a bit too passive, or that the show is less funny now (cough, now that a woman is delivering the gags). They’re the ones who honestly can’t stand the idea of a woman leading the show at all, ever, under any circumstances. There’s been a massive wave of misogyny poured over Doctor Who ever since Jodie first pushed back her hood, and it’s exhausting to make your way through all that venom to find the critique that’s intended in good faith.

Critique is important. No show is beyond reproach. And everyone gets to enjoy (or not) shows however they want. Right now, in the wake of learning the end-date of the Thirteenth Doctor? Critique of this era of Doctor Who does not bring me joy. And so, as Marie Kondo might advise, I’m thanking it for its service, and kicking it out of my house.

Joy. Let’s take moment to celebrate the joyful aspects of the last couple of years of Doctor Who, and of our Thirteen. She’s a beautiful Space Unicorn, a figure of hope and love and jolly good adventure. She lights up a room.

When Whittaker was first cast, there were fears that this would become the Bras in the TARDIS era, packed with gratuitous gender references and polka-dotted hair-bows. The Thirteenth Doctor eating ice cream on the couch with Wonder Woman and Mrs. Pac-Man, complaining about boyfriends who can’t tidy up after their space bikes, that sort of thing.

Instead, we got a cheeky Northern urchin in comfortable trousers who fell out of the sky, assembled a ‘fam’ of new friends, fell in love with her TARDIS all over again, and rocketed around the universe with eyes full of wonder.

She welds. She gives big speeches. She has a taste for custard creams.

She rocks a tuxedo. Did I mention she welds?

Thirteen is the positive Doctor. Instead of negging the TARDIS with one of the usual takes on the ‘redecorated…I don’t like it’ joke, she notes after a long time apart: “You’ve done yourself up…very nice.” She constantly praises and supports her friends with an infectious warmth and a big grin.

She’s the compassionate Doctorsympathetic, empathetic and considerate, even as she stands slightly apart from humanity, observing them and trying to best to be kind even then they’re not at their best. She doesn’t need her companions to show her how to be a decent personshe’s already there.

She’s the fierce Doctor, facing down aliens and monsters, always standing between the danger and the squishy humans (or human equivalents), and proclaiming she’s not going to let evil win.

She’s the sciencey Doctor, always looking for some way to fix things, reinvent things, or to look at the problem sideways. She gave Tesla and Edison a run for their money, she dragged her companions off to go scavenging on a scrapyard planet for fun, and she built her own sonic screwdriver, mostly out of spoons.

She’s the Doctor, and like any great Doctor, it’s really hard to imagine who could take her place.

When things were especially dark and grim during 2020, during the first few months of Covid hitting the UK hard, Jodie Whittaker herself made us believe in the Doctor, recording a short message of hope on her phone, while sitting in her cupboard. It was glorious. It was needed. It was three minutes long, and showed that like all the actors who have come before, she is the Doctor. She knows what it means. So yes, it’s going to hurt when she leaves us.

You know what? The Thirteenth Doctor is spectacular, but she’s not the only great thing about Series 11 and 12. Looking back over the last couple of years of Doctor Who, I’ve found plenty to celebrate there, as well.

We got planetary vistas that looked incredible (so many location shoots), shiny spaceships and robots, weird eldritch horrors, and historical stories that dug into the problems of the historical period when they were set, rather than mostly using history as a backdrop for alien adventures.

We got male companions who did the emotional heavy lifting, both in their own character development, and in stories like The Tsuranga Continuum, where Graham and Ryan talk a guest character through delivering a baby while the Doctor and Yaz are busy trying to save the ship. (We didn’t get enough Yaz. What we got of her was very promising. More Yaz, please. Time to give her the character arc she deserves.)

We got a commitment to diversity in front of and behind the cameras, with waves of new talent invited into the Doctor Who family. We got more women and people of colour scripting and directing the show than we had seen before. (It’s not a lot, because the bar was so very low in this regard, but it’s still a great improvement.)

We got wonderful guest stars: Vinette Robinson as Rosa Parks, Alan Cumming as James I, Lenny Henry as a villainous CEO, Goran Visnjic as Nikola Tesla, and of course Sacha Dhawan as you-know-who, just to name a few. Not to mention the best and most exciting casting choice of them all: Jo Martin as The Doctor.

We got shocks and surprisesSeries 12 in particular was full of them, with teases and reveals and returning villains and friends (I will never quite recover from that moment of recognising Captain Jack’s voice in Return of the Judoon, in what turned out to be one of the smaller surprises of that particular story.

As if all this wasn’t enough, we got the other Big Reveal, the one that I know many fans are still struggling to wrap their heads around. The Massive Mythology Explosion. The revelation that actually, the 57 years up until that point was a tiny tip of the iceberg of the Doctor’s actual personal journey…and there’s so much more for us to learn about her.

Some hated it, some loved it, some are still processing it more than a year later…but one thing’s for sure, we’re all still talking about Doctor Who. I’m still trying to unpack my emotions about all this. I’ve been a Doctor Who fan for most of my 43 years (I was born into itblame my mother), and while I talked about and imagined the possibility for years,

I didn’t realise how important it was to me that we have a female Doctor until she was here.

And if I learned anything from the one time my country (Australia) elected a female Prime Minister, I know that one isn’t enough.

The first one that’s differentwell, she gets the backlash as well as the storm of expectations. She’s expected to do everything simultaneously better and exactly the same, while also being hated by people who claim she’s ruined everything. There’s too much weight to carry for one person, one character, one leader.

We criticise women differently from how we criticise men. We criticise female characters differently from how we criticise male characters. To make things even more complicated, we criticise men writing female characters differently to how we criticise men writing male characters. The first time a woman steps up into a traditionally male space… well, the critique is going to go off the charts, until you can’t tell what’s legitimate and thoughtful, and what’s just there to drag her down. The critique gets amplified and given greater weight, and the praise and general squeefulness of those people still enjoying the show gets trampled on, over and over, until it’s not fun anymore to express your love for Doctor Who in public.

When every Facebook or Twitter update about a new episode or a great Jodie moment fills up with comments hating on Chibnall, the perceived flaws of the new era of the show, and so on, as if this is a universally agreed-upon opinion, it drags you down until you stop making those public happy comments altogether.

The Thirteenth Doctor has been wrapped up in all of that. Sometimes the negativity is so loud and overwhelming that it’s hard to cut through the noise and just…find joy in her funny one-liners, her wicked smile, her blazing Hard Stare, her excellent flourishy way of pointing a sonic screwdriver (or anything else). Her general Doctorishness.

It’s hard to know how to feel about this particular era of the show until we know what’s coming next. Is the Doctor going to be female again (still) or was this our one shot at something different? Will she finally be played by a person of colour? Is a non-binary performer even remotely possible? Do we get to keep moving forward, or was Thirteen just an anomaly in the long line of white male British actors between the ages of 26 and 55 waving a sonic screwdriver and telling us how clever they are? Is she the exception that proves the rule, or is she the beginning of a whole new book of rules?

Is she, as the sitcom Community suggested years ago with their running gags about Inspector Spacetime, a “Minerva” who will go down in history as the Worst Doctor, not because she’s female, but because [insert justification here, probably with repeated references to Chris Chibnall]?

I feel like I’m about to launch into a Joanna Russ speech. She was the Doctor, but there was only one of her. She was the Doctor, but look what she Doctored about…

The only way a female Doctor can possibly end up representing all the things we want from the Doctor as hero is if we get another after this one, and another after that. (Can you count up to twelve? I can definitely count past twelve.) If we get enough of them on the screen, perhaps we can finally appreciate the Thirteenth Doctor as the trailblazing figure that she was.

Our precious Space Unicorn. The first of many. Pure joy. Ready for


“Something I believe in my faith: love, in all its forms, is the most powerful weapon we have. Because, love is a form of hope, and like hope, love abides, in the face of everything.”—The Thirteenth Doctor.

Mulberry and Owl

Content Note: Death of Children


Year of the Âm Dragon, fifth year of the Peaceful Harmony Empress, Great Mulberry Nebula


Thuỷ stood in her cabin in The Goby in the Well, her bots arrayed on her shoulders and clinging to her wrists, and watched the heart of the nebula.

There was absolutely nothing remarkable about it: the Great Mulberry Nebula was large, sparsely dotted with nascent stars, and so remote that getting there, even via deep spaces, had required a three month journey. On the overlay in Thuỷ’s cabin—a thin sliver like a screen, showing her the merged data of all The Goby in the Well’s sensors—there was very little to see, either: a darkness that seemed to spread absolute from the centre of the overlay, and a corresponding gravity spike for the trapping of the light.

“I’m not going any further, child,” Goby said. The ship projected her avatar into the cabin: a smaller version of herself, the metal of her hull sheening with the characteristic light of deep spaces.

Thuỷ sighed. “I know, elder aunt,” she said. “That was the bargain, wasn’t it? Thank you for carrying me this far.” She fingered one of her bots, feeling the small, fist-sized body, the fragile metal legs spread all around its crown of sensors. It ought to have been comforting, but she was so far beyond comfort.

Getting there had required so much—not just the three months, but research, and stubbornness, and bribing a dozen officials all over the Empire, from the First Planet to the unnumbered stations and orbitals. Chasing a rumour so elusive it was almost a myth.

Thuỷ stared at her hand: faint traceries of light materialised the pass she’d bought from a drunk and demoted former Commissioner of Military Affairs. He’d said it would take her there, right into the heart of the gravitational gradients—and more importantly, get her back out.

“Do you—” Goby paused, for a while “—do you think it’s the right place? Do you think she’s there?” Goby used “enforcer”, a pronoun that carried both awe and fear.

“I don’t know,” Thuỷ said. “Do you want to find out?”

“You can always tell me afterwards.” The ship’s laughter was humourless and brief. “If you survive.”

Darkness, in the centre. A pointless chase leading to another black hole or some other phenomenon—or exactly what she was looking for, what she needed. What Kim Lan desperately needed.

Rehabilitation. Forgiveness.

“If,” Thuỷ said, very deliberately not thinking about it, and dismissed the overlay with a wave of her hands. “I’ll go get ready now.”

Twenty years ago


In the reaches beyond the numbered planets, rebellion against the Dragon Throne wasn’t so much an unspeakable crime as utterly banal—an act of despair, self-preservation, or rage against the unavoidable losses to the empire’s wars—a contagion like a match lighting up paper after paper, daughter following mother, sworn or gut-sibling following sibling.

Thuỷ fell into hers following Kim Lan, as she’d always done.

They were in the teahouse, having a drink and watching the poet in the centre moving through her performance—summoning ethereal overlays with every sweep of her sleeves, brief fragments of sight, sound and smells like other realities—ones in which war, food shortages, or network outages were utterly absent.

I need help, Thuỷ had said, when Kim Lan had asked how it was all going—and the thought of everything Thuỷ had been juggling—all the debts, the food shortages, her salary being worth less and less with every passing month—had all become too much, and she’d almost burst into tears.

Kim Lan had looked at her, thoughtfully. Wait here, she said, and came back with someone in tow.

“Here, lil’sis,” Kim Lan said. “This is my friend Bảo Châu. She can help you with those back taxes.”

Châu was an elderly, forbidding woman, like one of the aunties at the market who’d seen everything: a topknot with hairpins as sharp as daggers, bots the colour of rust and the darkness of space, almost invisible on the stark utilitarian robes she wore. “Thuỷ, is it? You trained for Master of Wind and Water, once.”

Thuỷ flushed. “Yes,” she said. “It was the year of the Dương Ox. When the schools burnt down.” They’d never opened them again after that, merely slashed the number of available slots—and people like Thuỷ had left. Coming from the margins of the empire and with no means to pay the gifts of the void to officials to grease their way through the system, they’d never stood a chance.

“Yes,” Châu said. She smiled, and it was grim. “I can sort things out with the Ministry of Revenue, but you’ll owe us, in return.”

Thuỷ would have asked who “us” was, but even at twenty-five she wasn’t that naive. “What do you want?”

“Nothing you can’t provide,” Châu said. “Expertise. Ships that need to be fixed. Systems that need to be… coaxed.” She said nothing: merely looked at Thuỷ, sipping her tea as if it were the greatest of delicacies in the imperial court on the First Planet.

Thuỷ looked at Kim Lan, who gazed levelly back at her. She raised her hand as if holding an invisible bowl of offerings—that same gesture they’d made in her mother’s compartment, entwining their arms at the elbow and making a binding, peach-garden oath.

Though not born on the same day of the same month in the same year, we hope to die so…

Standing by each other, and they’d always done so—through the years that got leaner and leaner, and the failings of the empire—through the death of Kim Lan’s mother, and Thuỷ’s failed engagement—through feast and famine and days of the war.

The punishment for rebellion was not just the slow death for her, but for nine generations around her. But she was Kim Lan’s oath-sister—and it was the fifth tax notification in as many months, food on the table was scarce, her aged parents getting visibly thinner, more and more of the compartment’s systems and bots failing.

“I’ll do it,” she said, and Kim Lan smiled.

“Welcome, lil’sis.”

Thuỷ had forgotten what it was like, to go out.

She’d been in a shuttle at first, and then, as the gravity increased, she’d had to abandon even that, and put on a shadow-skin to go out in order to avoid damaging the shuttle and incurring one more debt to Goby she wouldn’t be able to repay.

The shadow-skin’s thin and supple fabric was soaked, sticking to her own skin, even before she exited into the void, hands clinging to the small glider that helped her manoeuvre. Around her, light fell in swathes, but ahead of her was only that growing darkness, and her sensor bots reminded her with regular alerts that the gravity was increasing steadily.

As she went deeper in, they plotted her course. Space started distorting—time, too, the sensors making the depths of the distortion, how much slower than Goby she was going and what rate of correction her comms needed to be sent with. The mark on her hand started glowing as she navigated between rock fragments—nothing she could see, but a corridor opened ahead and behind her, a gentle coaxing of the gravitational gradient into a path that wasn’t an impasse.

The glider was impossibly heavy in her hands. The mark stung, and then faded: here, it seemed to say, without words.

Thuỷ hung in the darkness, in the void—weightless and with nothing but the sound of her own heartbeat in her chest and ears, her own breathing.


She’d been wrong: the darkness wasn’t quite that absolute. Distant stars glinted behind her—and ahead, in the shadows, was something—a hulking shape that suddenly loomed far too close, far too large, on the verge of utterly swallowing her in its folds.

It was true. Oh ancestors, everything was true: the pass, the jail.

The prisoner.

The Owl with the Moon’s Tongue. The enforcer of the Empress’s will—the ship that had roamed the borders of the empire, assassinating and executing rebels one after the other—in compartments, in teahouses, in the middle of crowds, sowing the terror necessary to end the rebellion.

Thuỷ thought of Hải’s face, of An’s face, the way they’d stood still for a blink moment after Owl’s scream had kicked in, the sheen trembling in the depths of their eyes, suddenly sweeping free and spreading in mottled patches over their entire skin, the patches sloughing off, bones melting and their entire bodies flopping like a coat suddenly emptied, the crowds on the concourse slowly backing away from the blood staining the metal floors, utter silence and on every face that blunt, inadmissible truth: how lucky they felt that they hadn’t been Owl’s target.

“A visitor. It’s been far too long since I’ve had company.” The voice was female, light and sarcastic; the pronoun used the one for “elder aunt”: an age and status gap between them both, but not such a large one.

“Enforcer.” Thuỷ used the same pronoun Goby had.

Laughter, echoing around her in the dark. “Enforcer? A title I’ve not had for a while. What brings you here, little one?” The pronoun she used wasn’t even “child”, but a subordinate one, of a subject before authority. “Why enter my orbit?”

“You have something I want.”

“Do I?” Something lit up, then: one light, then two, then ten thousand, and abruptly she was hanging, small and weightless and utterly insignificant, in the orbit of a ship that was the size of an entire city. The light was so strong it was blinding: even with her suit immediately moving to darken its visor, she could only catch a glimpse—a mere moment of clarity, of seeing sharp protuberances and the hull bristling with weapons ports—before all she could see was bright, painful light.

Kim Lan, laughing at her after they robbed the Granaries, their vehicles full of rice seedlings and cheap alcohol. Kim Lan, raising her arm in that ghostly toast, a reminder of the oath they’d sworn—downing the tea after they got word that Owl had killed Diễm My, and Vy too—and then that last drink they’d had together, her face flushed as she spoke of the imperial amnesty, how desperate and wan she’d looked.

“I have a friend.”

“Ah.” Owl’s voice was mocking. “Ah. A dead one, I imagine.”

She thought of Hải and An and Châu, and of the years on the run—being picked out one by one, killed one by one. “You killed them,” she said, her fists clenching. She used the plural pronoun.

“Oh, several friends, then. A little rebel, are you?”

“Once.” A long time ago, in another lifetime. The Mother Abbess would say that Thuỷ needed to let go—to stand unmoored from the troubles of her former life. The Mother Abbess meant well, but she didn’t understand. “It’s not relevant anymore.”

“Is it not?” Her laughter filled the space around Thuỷ. “Irrelevance. How quaint. I killed your friends then, and I enjoyed it. Every moment of it, from the imperial decree to their deaths, to tracking them down—to finally finding them—that long slow rise of power in the targeting system until it could finally fire—until I could feel them, torn apart and boneless—until I saw them finally collapse and it was all over. Tell me: is that all irrelevant?”

There was a reason why Owl was there, and it wasn’t just that the empire was at peace, it wasn’t just that there was a new Empress, one who was trying to knit the torn fabric of their society back together, to make former rebels inhabit the same stations and planets as loyal officials. Owl was there because she was a monster. Because there might be a time and place for a ruthless enforcer, but one that delighted in slaughter and pain…that one was best put away—made harmless and imprisoned, at least until she was needed again.

“Stop,” Thuỷ said.


No, because that was never going to make her stop, was it?

“Because that’s not what I’m here for. You didn’t kill my friend.”

“Oh.” A silence, but she could tell Owl’s curiosity was piqued.

“You’re a witness.”

“Am I?”

Thuỷ forced herself to breathe. “She took the amnesty. You have her statement.”

“I was never much of a person for taking statements,” Owl said. “Is that what you’re here for? Go to the magistrate.”

“The magistrate is dead.” Incinerated in the same riots that had killed Kim Lan—but the archive she’d uploaded to Owl would still be in the ship’s memory. “There are no records.”

“And so you’ve come all the way here for mine?” Again, laughter, but it didn’t quite have that same edge. “What is it that you want?”

Thuỷ swallowed, tasted bitterness on her tongue. What was it that she wanted? Forgiveness. Atonement. A dead woman’s smile; a lie that everything would be all right again, a touch and a toast. Dead things, dead memories, dead feelings. “She died a rebel. Her entire family is still under an extermination order.” They’d fled, of course—outside the reach of the Empire, into the uncertain places, the isolated stations and orbitals, the small asteroid mining centres where people didn’t ask too many questions so long as you did the work. “I want it lifted.”

A silence. The ship in front of Thuỷ—large, massive, blinding and uncompromising—didn’t move. She didn’t have to: she was slowly drawing Thuỷ to herself, towards an inexorable orbiting of each other, an endless embrace. “I assume you didn’t come all the way here just to try and talk me into this.”

Thuỷ swallowed. “No,” she said.

“The keys to my freedom?” Owl’s voice was curious. “You won’t have that, will you.”

Thuỷ had a pass, and she had half-expected it not to work. It certainly would not let out the ship the prison had been built for. “No,” she said.

“I’m not interested in money.”

“I don’t have that.” Not anymore—not after coming back, bribing too many people, finding a mindship willing to bear her that far.

“And clearly you won’t give me your life, as it won’t help your friend if you’re dead. Not that it’s of much value, is it.”

That hurt. It was that life Thuỷ had run away to save—putting it above everything else, even ties of sworn-sisterhood—and to have it so casually dismissed was as if Owl were slowly, casually pushing down on old wounds until they split open.

“What is it you have that you think I desperately want?”

Thuỷ swallowed. “I can repair your weapons system.”

Owl’s laughter tore Thuỷ apart—as if her weapons system were still operational, as if she could still scream and make Thuỷ collapse the way all the others had collapsed. “My weapons. And leave me here? Why do you think I would even be interested in that?”

Thuỷ had had three months in deep spaces to think on it—and before that, in the monastery, when she’d first found out that Owl was still alive—that there might be a chance to clear Kim Lan’s memory. “They called that your scream. The weapons systems.”

Silence, from the ship.

“When they arrested you for the war crimes, they took it apart. It was too dangerous. Even in a jail. Even in the middle of nowhere.”

“Are you done telling me things I already know?”

Thuỷ plunged on. There was little choice left. “But that’s not what is it to you, is it? A scream is a voice. They took away part of your voice.”

“And you think I could use that part for something else besides killing?” Owl’s voice was light and ironic.

“I think you want it back. Even if you’re jailed. Even if it’s of no practical use. I think you want it back because it was always part of you.”

“Part of me.” A silence, but that one was barbed. “You haven’t answered my question, have you.”

“No,” Thuỷ said. “Does it matter? Who are you going to kill out there?”

The unspoken answer hung in the air: of course Thuỷ was the only living target. “I assume you’ll want some assurances that you’ll survive.”

“No,” Thuỷ said. She kept her voice light, inconsequential—but inwardly she saw An’s face, Châu’s face, heard the crumple of dead bodies on the floors. That was what everything that would happen to her, if Owl decided she wasn’t worth sparing. And when had an imperial enforcer and mass murderer ever decided former rebels were worth sparing? “I want to see my friend’s statement to make sure you do have it, but I don’t need your assurances. I came with a mindship.”

“I know. They’re much too far away to save you.”

Thuỷ smiled, beneath the shadow-skin. “You don’t understand. If I don’t come back, they’ll know you’ve killed me, and they’ll take the evidence to the Numbered Planets. Your jailers will know I fixed your weapons. How long do you think you’ll get to keep them?”

A silence. She could feel the gravity pulse around her, tightening—like a slow rising of anger. “Clever,” Owl said, and it sounded like nothing so much as a threat. Something shimmered within Thuỷ’s field of vision: not a file with its authentication, but a mere image of it. I, Phạm Thị Kim Lan, accept that I have erred, and that the Peaceful Harmony Empress has chosen to extend her infinite mercy the way she extends her grace, like a cloth covering us all with all the stars in the sky…

At the bottom, beneath the vermillion seal, was Kim Lan’s familiar and forceful signature, authenticated by her personal seal.

The statement. It was real. Owl had it. Thuỷ could—she could finally make amends for what she’d done.

Something changed, in the mass of light in front of Thuỷ: a slight adjustment, but suddenly she could see the ship—the bulk of the hull, the sharp, sleek shape with bots scuttling over every surface, the thin, ribbed actuator fins near the ion drives at the back—the paintings on her hull, which she’d half-expected to be blood spatters but which were apricot flowers, and calligraphed poems, and a long wending river of stars in the shadow of mountains, a breathtakingly delicate and utterly unexpected work of art. Something moved: a ponderous shift of the bots, drawing Thuỷ’s eyes towards a patch of darkness at the centre of the painting, between two mountains.

“Come in, then, clever child. Let’s see what you can do.”

Fifteen years ago


On the night after they broke Châu and An’s children out of imperial jail, they celebrated.

An and Khiêm were in the hideout—an empty compartment on the Apricot Đỗ habitat they’d hastily hidden beneath an overlay of a busy teahouse. Nothing that would stand up to close imperial scrutiny—but in the empty, desolate spaces of a half-destroyed habitat most of the inhabitants had evacuated, it would serve.

Châu and An got drunk, and made elaborate overlays as they did: seas of stars, ghostly dragons, spaceships slowly growing to fill the space—and An’s children laughed and danced and declaimed drunk poetry, their bots’ legs clicking on the floor.

Thuỷ ought to have felt relief they’d succeeded, but as the night went on—as she thought of the skirmishes on the numbered planets, of the litany of lost ships—not theirs, their little organisation barely had enough to have a few shuttles, but there were other splinters of rebellion elsewhere—as she thought of the Imperial Fleet—the tightness in her chest grew and grew, until the compartment felt too small, too cramped, and she went out for air, cradling the cold porcelain of her teacup.

Outside, the corridor was deserted, and it was silent—not just the usual silence of the habitats, with only the faint background hiss of the air filters and sometimes, the clicking of a bot’s legs on the floor as they scurried from one maintenance to another. This was a silence that sounded like a prelude to the end. The overlays were minimal: flickering displays of the vital statistics from oxygen to temperature, but no news, no vids of songs, no adornments from the other compartments: just fatigued metal that felt as bare as Thuỷ did.

“You look glum.” Kim Lan effortlessly slid in the space between them. “Here.” She had a basket of dumplings, which her bots handed to Thuỷ.

Thuỷ didn’t speak for a while. “Did you hear? There’s a rumour The Owl with the Moon’s Tongue is coming our way.”

“Mmm.” Kim Lan sat down, nibbling on a steamed bun. Her hair rested against a broken duct—it creaked, and her bots gently pushed it out of the way. “She is.”

“And you’re not afraid?”

Now it was Kim Lan’s turn to say nothing.

“We’re losing, aren’t we? We saved Châu and the children, but we’re never going to win. We’re never going to overthrow the empress.” Or even change the empire—or if they did, it was change that would bring about their destruction, and the extermination of everyone onboard the habitats in the belt.

“You assume this was about winning,” Kim Lan said.

“What was it about then?”

Kim Lan’s face was hard. “Survival.”

“How are we going to survive against Owl?” She’d heard the rumours. She’d watched the vids. She’d seen that it didn’t matter where the victims where—so long as the weapons system locked on them, they would die, as if a long finger of death were pointing their way from Owl’s orbit.

Them. It would be them dying, taken apart as examples for anyone who dared to rebel.

“I don’t know,” Kim Lan said. She sighed. “Do you think you could have survived a sixth tax notification? Do you think your parents could have?”

She had food for them. Alcohol and stolen meals. And the tax collectors and the officials had fled the system in the wake of their activities. And whatever her other faults were, she’d never been less than honest with herself. “No,” Thuỷ said.

“There you go.”

“How do you think any of that is going to protect us against Owl? How?”

“You don’t understand.” Kim Lan’s voice was soft. “The choices we made were we’d get there. One thing at a time.” She reached out, held Thuỷ’s hand for a bare moment. “I know you’re scared. That’s all right. I’m here. I’ll always be here.”

And for a moment they were both back in that kitchen compartment, flush with drink and youth, their paths now inextricably entwined by choice.

Thuỷ held her cup, staring at the exposed wires of the habitat. Bots scuttled, sad and lonely, as if ashamed of what it had come to. She heard the words of the oath of sworn sisterhood echoing in her thoughts. Though not born on the same day of the same month in the same year, we hope to die so…  “We hope to die so.” A peach-garden oath, now and forever. “Except the goal isn’t to die.”

Kim Lan smiled. “Exactly. We got this far. We’ll get further, you’ll see. There’s always a way out. Now come back inside, will you? They’re waiting for you before the next round of poetry holos.”

Year of the Âm Dragon, fifth year of the Peaceful Harmony Empress, Great Mulberry Nebula


Thuỷ had expected—actually, she didn’t know what she’d expected when she’d enter Owl—some kind of fanciful lair of blood-encrusted corridors and bones stacked in coffins, which made no sense, because why would Owl have any of that onboard?

Instead, there was a corridor much like the one in the habitats—rundown, with too few bots, exposed bits of wiring and gaping holes where panels had fallen off, except the gravity wasn’t strong enough for her to be upright. It felt a little bit like the mining asteroids: a very faint sensation of weight in her bones, but nothing that prevented her from floating. Thuỷ held on to her glider as she moved through it.

As she did, the lights came on.

They were blue and red and gold, slowly cycling through the colours of some impossibly far away festival—weak and flickering, and the overlays in their wake were not opaque enough to mask the ruin beneath. But it had been beautiful once: those paintings of starscapes and temples on the First Planet, those holos of beautiful statues and teapots and jade figures, those faint, broken harmonics of a now unrecognizable music.

“This way,” Owl said, a scuttling of bots guiding Thuỷ onboard.

More corridors, more emptiness: gaping cabins with no adornments, looking like the looted compartments after the civil war—larger places that must have been like pavilions but now lay empty, with scuffed floors and floating debris. And a door, opening like magic in a wall like any other, behind a translucent painting of a dragon amidst the stars.

Inside, darkness, and then in the centre of a gradually widening circle of light, something that looked like a tree with sharp branches—and draped over it, a large and pulsating mass of flesh and electronics.

The ship. The Mind that drove the body, connected to every sensor, every room, every overlay onboard.

“Your weapons system is in your heartroom?” The ship’s most vulnerable place—like the brain to a human—and she’d just given Thuỷ casual access?

No, not that casual.

Because the bots—the ones missing all over the ship—were there. All there, a sea of gleaming metal between her and the Mind, legs bristling—a sharpness, a heaving multitude just waiting for a signal to swallow her whole. “Try anything,” Owl said, lightly and conversationally, “And I’ll choke you.”

Thuỷ tried to breathe, failed—all she could see was the bots, the way they’d rise, the way they’d swarm over her, slithering into her suit and breaking her visor, leaving her wide open to the drowning vacuum.

For Kim Lan. She was doing this for Kim Lan. For what she’d failed to do in another lifetime. “I want the proof,” she said. “The statement.”

“Before you fix me? I think not.”

“You’ll give me nothing afterwards.”

“Will I? Do you not trust me?”

“You’re a murderer. No.”

“I’m not the one who abandoned her friend.” Owl’s voice was malicious. “What worth are your promises?”

Though not born on the same day of the same month in the same year, we hope to die so…

The words burnt her. “I did not,” Thuỷ said, far too fast and far too painfully. “I did not!”

“As you say.” Owl’s voice was mocking. “Nevertheless…I’m not giving you anything until you’ve fixed it.”

And there was no way Thuỷ was going to fix it without any guarantees. She weighed options—negotiating tactics—and came up with little of interest. “Then I guess we’re at an impasse, because I’m not starting.” There was a hole in a wall, near the bots—and something glimmering within. When she came closer, she saw what was in the overlay: an illusion of what had once been there. Behind it, though…

Her intuition had been right: the jailers had been lazy. It was the end of the war, and they were in a hurry to put Owl where they didn’t have to worry about her. They’d just torn connectors and made a mess of control panels, but they hadn’t actually destroyed the system itself. They’d known they might need it again, in less peaceful days. “It was there, wasn’t it?”

Owl didn’t speak, but she could feel the temperature in the room shift. Approval.

Thuỷ let go of her glider, using its magnetised surface to stick it to the wall, and turned out the proximity nudgers on her suit. She flipped open the glider, opening its storage space, revealing row after row of spare parts and electronics—everything that had been on the schematics the military commissioner had sold her. The commissioner had thought it was only curiosity, secure in the knowledge Thuỷ wouldn’t dare do anything with these. The commissioner had been wrong.

Another shift of temperature: interest, tension. She knelt, peering at the inside. “It’s going to take me six hours to fix. Maybe eight.”

Silence, from around her. The Mind pulsed on her throne. The bots watched her, and she was at the centre of the attention of an entire ship, feeling the weight of it on her like lead.

Thuỷ considered, for a while. Owl didn’t really care about Kim Lan’s statement, one way or another: she just wanted to be fixed. She wanted the weapons back as part of herself, of her power. The main issue there wasn’t unwillingness: it was lack of trust, and Owl’s natural tendency to needle and inflict pain on others.

“Tell you what,” Thuỷ said, forcing herself to sound casual. “We could create a safehold. A place to hold my friend’s statement—and it would only send it out if the system got fixed.”

“I could stop that anytime, couldn’t I?”

Thuỷ shook her head. “A safehold where we both withdraw our access privileges in an irrevocable fashion. I can’t affect it, and neither can you. But it won’t send until this comes back online, so you get the system taken care of, and I only get paid, so to speak, if I successfully finish.”

“I’ve heard of such things,” Owl said. More silence. She was tempted, Thuỷ knew.

“Let me show you,” Thuỷ said, floating closer to the alcove and starting to put together the connections to create the safehold—and as the ship’s whole attention turned her way, she knew she had her.

Eight years ago


Thuỷ jerked awake. Someone was knocking insistently on the door of the safe house.

The imperials. They’d found them. They’d take them away and make them face Owl—or arrest them and publicly execute them, giving them the slow death that had haunted Thuỷ’s nightmares for the past few months on the run—the same death they’d given An’s children, bots slicing off one piece of flesh at a time, the smell of blood and the screams broadcast to the entire habitats…

Calm down. She got up, her bots arranging themselves on her shoulders, their sensors struggling to come online. They hadn’t been fixed in a long while.

The knocking had stopped. Thuỷ stepped over the others, who were sleeping huddled on the floor and barely starting to wake: Ánh Lệ was rubbing her eyes, Vy was struggling to rise, and it seemed as though nothing could really wake up Diễm My, who was merely mumbling and going back to sleep as if nothing had happened. The luck of youth.

“I’ve got it,” Thuỷ said to Ánh Lệ and Vy—with far more confidence than she felt.

She took a deep breath, bracing herself, and opened the door.

It was Kim Lan, wan, her bots pressing a bloodied cloth to her side.


“It’s all right.” Kim Lan made a gesture with her hands, but she was shaking. “No one followed me. Can I come in?”

“Of course.” Thuỷ ushered her in, closing and bolting the door. The patches they’d made on the network and its surveillance cameras were still in place—she double- and triple-checked them as Kim Lan sat cross-legged in front of a low table, breathing hard. Her bots were peeling off the cloth; Thuỷ sent her own bots to fetch bandages from their meagre supplies.

“What happened?”

Kim Lan grimaced. “Had a skirmish with some of the militia a few days ago.” Up close, her skin was a network of small, red pinpricks. Burst veins. She didn’t look good. “They think me dead. I did have to plunge into space without a shadow-skin for a few blinks.”

Kim Lan sat in silence, sipping her tea. Ánh Lệ and Vy had joined her, and even Diễm My was groaning as her bots poked her into wakefulness.

“How long do we have?” Thuỷ said. The empire would find them. They would end them as they had ended all the others.

“We can still go to another one of the other habitats,” Vy said. Her voice was shaking. “Or leave the Belt, go into the Outside Territories or the Twin Streams.”

Kim Lan said, finally, “I didn’t come here to make you flee elsewhere. I came here because there’s news.”


“You won’t have heard. The Calm Strength Empress is dead. Her heir will ascend to the throne as soon as the ceremonies have been completed. She’s offering an amnesty.”

“An amnesty?” Thuỷ turned the words over and over again. They made no sense.

Vy said, “They hounded us. They killed us one by one. Why would they—”

“They can’t keep fighting half their population,” Kim Lan said. Her voice was gentle. “Civil war is tearing the empire apart. They could kill us all. It’d be a lot of work. Hence the amnesty.”

“Never,” Vy said.

Kim Lan set her cup on the table. “I’ve told this to Thuỷ already. We’re not fighting to win. We’re fighting to survive. The new empress says she wants to make reforms. Make the empire a better place.”

“And you believe that?” After all this, after all the years they’d gone through…

“Maybe. Maybe not. I do know there’s fewer and fewer of us. We’re getting picked off one by one. I’d rather take the way out, before we all die. If we survive, we can always fight another day.”

“You want to take the amnesty.”

“Yes,” Kim Lan said. “It’s my choice. I won’t be selling anyone out.” Her eyes were hard. She was expecting a fight—but everyone around the table was tired, and scared, and drained—the light had gone out of them such a long time ago.

How could she—how could she believe them—how could she believe the people who’d starved them into rebellion, who had killed Châu and Hải and An and An’s children as casual acts of intimidation?

“They’ll kill us,” Thuỷ said. “An amnesty is just a way of letting us come to them. Owl is still in the system. Why would you leave your enforcer there if you’re going to let everyone live?”

Kim Lan said nothing.

“You can’t trust them!”

But she’d made her decision, hadn’t she. Thuỷ took a deep breath. “I need some space,” she said—there was no space in the safe house, it was so small, but she did manage to put together a few privacy filters that gave her the illusion of being alone: the sound from the others’ discussion muffled, and everything made to feel more distant visually.

How could she? How she could do this, how could she expect Thuỷ to follow, how could she–

“Lil’sis.” It was Kim Lan, gently asking to be let in.


“You’re scared. I know you are. It’s all right to be scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Thuỷ said, dropping the privacy filters a fraction so Kim Lan could be included in them. They were having a semi-private conversation now, one that the others wouldn’t be overhearing unless they made a concerted effort. “I think you’re being thoughtless and imprudent.”

“And endangering you all?”

No, that wasn’t it. “I don’t want to lose you,” Thuỷ said, and it hurt to say it out loud.

“You asked me once if we were losing. We are.” Kim Lan’s voice was gentle. “I said it was about survival. And now it is. There is no survival in running from safe house to safe house, losing more people with every passing day.”

“I—” Thuỷ tried to speak, and found only the truth. “I can’t. I just can’t do it. I can’t follow you. I can’t walk into the possibility of wholesale slaughter.”

“You’re scared.”

“I’m rational!”

“And I’m not?”

“You—you keep setting the terms and expecting me to keep up.”

“Because of the oath?” Kim Lan laughed, and it was sad. “I release you from the oath. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

“It—it doesn’t work like that!” Thuỷ had done things—so many things, raided so many places, gone so far against the will of the empire, and throughout it all, she’d had the comfort of knowing she wasn’t alone. That Kim Lan was there. That they were here for each other. But now that had become shackles: a gravitational well that drew her in regardless of whether she wanted to, just because Kim Lan had gone ahead of her. “I can’t just break that oath!”

“Of course you can.” Kim Lan scratched her bandages between the swam of bots, and then got up. “As I said: you do what you want.” But she sounded angry and disappointed.

Thuỷ sat down, trying to be kind. Trying to follow Kim Lan as she’d always meant to.

But everyone was dead, because the empire had killed them. Owl was prowling the habitats, waiting for a chance to find their signatures and target them; the militia was on the lookout, and the execution racks had been readied in every tribunal of the belt. The amnesty was never going to happen, and even if did, they’d get killed by some overzealous militia person before they ever got a chance to accept it.

She’d sworn an oath, with Kim Lan.

I’m here. I’ll always be here.

We got this far. We’ll get further, you’ll see.

And Thuỷ knew, then—sitting small and scared and angry in that safe house that was no longer one—she knew that she couldn’t go any further.

Year of the Âm Dragon, fifth year of the Peaceful Harmony Empress, Great Mulberry Nebula


Fixing the systems was slow and painstaking: taking out connectors, finding new, compatible ones, taking care of the exposed wiring.

“You said I didn’t kill your friend.” Owl’s voice swam out of the morass of her thoughts. “How did she die?”

Thoughtlessly. Carelessly. “There was a skirmish in the Lotus Vũ habitat. One of the militia got scared and killed her.” Thuỷ had learnt of this only afterwards—after she’d left in the dead of night, after she’d joined the monastery and severed all her familial ties, to make sure the Empire couldn’t find her or hold her family responsible for her acts anymore. After she’d changed her name and laid low for years, and thinking Kim Lan’s silence was due to anger—never realising she was dead and her family in hiding.

“Ah. The riots. The same ones that destroyed the tribunal. War is never kind.” It sounded almost companionable.

Thuỷ slotted a cylindrical piece into place, her bots swarming over it to check the connections. “Did you lose anyone during the war?”

A silence. Owl laughed. “My freedom.”

“You must have a family,” Thuỷ said. It felt…wrong to say that, as if to acknowledge that monsters were people was to grant them forgiveness.

The lights pulsed, softly, as Thuỷ added another connector to the rack in front of her. “I’m old enough to have lost them all. Not that it matters.”

“It should,” Thuỷ said.

Laughter, bitter and wounding. “Feeling pity?”

“I don’t know if I would call it that,” Thuỷ said. “It doesn’t change what you are, or what you did. Or that you enjoyed all of it.”

“Pity but not forgiveness, then.” The lights flickered on in Owl’s heartroom, and those same sickly, diminutive overlays came on, but this time they were people: a sea of faces and bodies walking and talking and laughing. Thuỷ wasn’t sure who they were at first, and then she saw An’s face, Hải’s face, Châu’s face. All of the people Owl had killed. Some kind of mocking memorials, surely—except the overall impression was one of profound loss. “As I said: not that it matters.”

“They keep you company,” Thuỷ said, finally. She wasn’t sure whether to feel anger or sadness.

“Alone in the dark and in the silence.” Owl laughed, but her voice was tinged with old hurt. “I guess they do.”

One last piece: not a connector but one Thuỷ had had made based on the schematics. It was long and sinuous, and it went from the capacitors to the targeting system—and once she’d put it in and checked the connections, it would be fixed, and Owl would be operational again, alone in the darkness. It felt both incredibly portentous and anticlimactic.

She put it in, checked the connections—breathing in, trying to steady her nerves. “Here,” she said.

The lights came on. Not weak, not sickly, not translucent, but strong and unwavering. There were vibrations, like these of a motor accelerating—or a heartbeat—so strong that Thuỷ could feel them through the suit. The safehold released Kim Lan’s statement, automatically transmitting it to Thuỷ, and from Thuỷ to Goby.


It was done. She had all the evidence she needed to exonerate Kim Lan, to restore her name, her family’s name. “Here,” she said, again—and reached for the glider, to head back to Goby and the world that waited for her. “I’m done.”

She felt light-headed, and limp, and the future was uncertain.

I’m done.

More than done, wasn’t it? She’d set up the safehold, the transmission back to Goby. She’d made the arrangements for Goby to pass the statement on, to deal with the magistrate who would restore Kim Lan’s name. She’d made herself unnecessary to the whole process.

The lights blinked, on the restored weapons system, and somehow she was not surprised when Owl laughed. “Yes, it’s finished, isn’t it?”

There was a low buzzing within the shadow-suit, an impossible whistling that ramped up in intensity—the same vibrations she’d felt before except these burrowed into her until the bones in her body vibrated in sympathy, a red-hot rhythm that caught hold of her and was playing itself on her ribs, on her pelvis, on her skin—louder and louder until everything hurt, and still it didn’t stop…

The Owl’s scream. The punishment for rebels, for the disloyal to the empire. For those who had abandoned their friends.

Thuỷ had chased atonement all the way into that nebula, and on some level she’d known, she’d always known, that she didn’t expect to come out after fixing Owl. “I am,” she said. “Do you think it’s worth it? They’ll just dismantle it, after I’m dead.”

“Oh, child. You’re the one who saw so much, and so little. It’s my voice. It’s part of me. I’d rather scream once more in all my glory rather than leave it forever unused. It will be worth it. All of it.”

You saw much, and so little.

But on some deep, primal level, she’d seen all of it already.

The pressure was building up and up within her. Her bots popped apart, one by one, like fireworks going off—there was nothing in her ears now but that never ending whistling, that vibration that kept going and going, her bones full to bursting, her eyes and nose and mouth ceaselessly hurting, leaking fluid—and her lungs were shaking too, and it was hard to breathe, and even the liquid that filled her mouth, the blood, salt-tinged one, felt like it was vibrating too—and all of it was as it should be—

Thuỷ laughed, bitterly. “I saw so little? I chose to come here. I knew.”

“Ha. All your own choices, then. Always leading back here, to atonement and death.” Owl’s voice was mocking. Thuỷ could barely see the heartroom or the Mind: everything was receding impossibly far away. She was curled up on herself, struggling to keep herself together—to not give in to the quivering, because the moment she did everything would fly apart and all her bones would pop like her bots had, one by one until nothing was left… “The final appeasement for your friend’s soul. Justice.” It was a word that seemed to tear through her.

All her own choices. All her own life.

And yet…

I release you from the oath.

You keep setting the terms and expecting me to keep up.

It had been Kim Lan’s own choices, too.

You assume this is about winning. This is about survival.

She’d always followed Kim Lan, and yet it didn’t have to go that way. It could have been different. Kim Lan could have asked before accepting the amnesty. They could have discussed; come to a joint agreement. They could have done anything that didn’t involve Kim Lan’s pulling at the oath-bond until Thuỷ couldn’t take the consequences anymore. They had an oath of sisterhood, not obedience—and she wasn’t the only one who had broken it.

“She could have asked,” she whispered, through the red haze.

“You said something? Hush, child. It’s almost over.”

She could have asked.

Thuỷ had come here to atone for a death she’d caused, but the truth was—Kim Lan, too, carried the responsibility of what had happened. Of her own death.

The truth was—Thuỷ deserved to live, too.

“It is not over,” she said, slowly—and when that elicited no response, “It is not over!” screaming it through wrung lungs and burst ribs.

The thing holding her—Owl’s scream—paused, for a bare fraction. Interest, again. “Why?”

She deserved to live, and there was only one way she would survive, if it worked at all.

“Because—” Thuỷ forced herself to breathe, swallowing up bile and blood, “That would be too easy.”

A silence. She was held in that embrace of collapsing bones and organs, struggling to move—and said, “You enjoyed it. Killing them. Causing pain. Suffering.”

“Always.” Owl’s voice was malicious.

“Then tell me. Is my guilt or my death easier?”

Silence, again. The embrace flickered, but did not vanish.

“You want to release me, go ahead. Death is cheap.”

“You wanted to die,” Owl said, and she could feel the frustration. The pondering on how most to inflict hurt.

“I did. I do,” Thuỷ said, and it wasn’t quite a lie; just an uncertainty. She thought of the row of faces in the heartroom—not a memorial but an inadequate shield against loneliness. “You should know how much of a punishment solitude is.” She said nothing more, waited.

The room distorted and buckled, and the pressure in Thuỷ’s bones spiked, wringing a scream of pure pain out of her as everything felt about to shatter. Then it was all gone, and she was curled up in the vacuum, gasping and struggling to come together.

“The weight of guilt,” Owl said. Her voice was vicious. “Go. Since you’ve been so good at making your life a living hell.”

Thuỷ uncoiled, muscle after muscle—reached for her glider, shaking, the taste of blood and salt in her mouth—powered it in silence, going through the cloud of debris from her burst bots.


Death is cheap.


Thuỷ clung to her glider as she passed out of Owl, out of reach of all the faces of the dead in the heartroom—with Kim Lan’s face in painful but fading memory—and headed towards Goby and the long trip home, to give meaning to the rest of her life.


(EditorsNote: Mulberry and Owlis read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 42A.)

Interview: Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared in over 90 publications such as Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Lightspeed, and LeVar Burton Reads, as well as in six languages. By night, she has been a finalist for the Nebula Award. By day, she works as a Narrative Designer writing romance games for the mobile app Chapters. She lives in Texas with her partner and a mysterious number of cats. “Onward” is Stufflebeam’s third piece of fiction to appear in Uncanny, a wonderful exploration of relationships and careers, set against the backdrop of a whimsical fantasy world.


Uncanny Magazine: I love the fantasy elements in “Onward”—the cloud, the healing waters in the queen’s country, the equits, Root. What sources of inspiration did you draw from in creating the world?

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: The original seed of this story was planted on a trip to a hot springs a couple of years ago out in Colorado. I wanted to write a fantasy story that included a similar history of naturopathic healing springs as our own world. I was also inspired by my own experience with autonomy, particularly as it’s discussed in polyamorous circles. I wanted to explore autonomy of relationships and then take those same concepts and apply them to other aspects of the same fantasy world. I’m a long-time vegetarian, so exploring the element of choice in the lives of a fantastical creatures, in this case the equits and also Root, felt like a natural evolution of the idea.

Uncanny Magazine:Onward” is a beautiful exploration of relationships and careers, and also how to bridge the gap between two worlds, on both a personal level and a societal level. What drew you to these themes?

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: Most everyone exists in multiple worlds, multiple selves. We’re different people when we speak to our parents, or our lovers, or our friends than we are when we’re at work or in a new country. And all those different selves are woven together to form our identity. As someone who has worked in a dozen different fields, but then always written alongside those other obligations, I feel keenly the career-oriented concept of living in and bridging gaps between different worlds.

I feel the same way about my younger self, the one who lived with parents, versus the person I am now. My childhood home was an alcoholic one, and it shaped my core. Then, moving into the world of adulthood, I’ve had to contend with how to bridge gaps between those two distinct places and unwind much of what that original world gave me to be healthy.

Uncanny Magazine: The ending, where Iris loads the carriage onto her own back after having freed the equits, is a powerful image. What elements do you think make for a powerful ending? Do you tend to gravitate more to endings that are ambiguous/open or endings that tie everything together?

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: I love an ambiguous ending, but I’ve written plenty that tie things up, too. It depends on what the story requires. When writing endings, I try to make them feel both inevitable and surprising. I pay close attention to my character arcs, as for me, some of the most powerful endings stop at the moment of true change—or, in a tragedy, at the moment one realizes that true change isn’t going to happen. I like to think of endings, too, as the knotting of several threads or themes throughout, as even in an ambiguous ending, there’s a coming together of story elements that makes it feel satisfying. When writing an ending, I also try to push beyond the space where one might easily conclude and see if I can push myself into a deeper, unexplored territory.

Uncanny Magazine: If you were one of the characters in this story, who would you be and why?

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: I would be Ximena, as she’s already come to the edge of her struggle with mental illness and has found a career and a life for herself that satisfies. She isn’t a jealous woman, and she’s so comfortable in herself that she knows what she wants and asks for it.

Uncanny Magazine: One focus of “Onward” is tradition—both clinging to it and pushing against it. As a writer, what literary traditions do you tend to embrace? What is something you try to push against?

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: I pay a lot of attention to character arc; I’m fairly traditional in my focus on that aspect of writing, but I do try to avoid easy answers and archetypes, which are of course a well-utilized feature of some forms. I like to acknowledge a complexity in relationships and characters that sometimes means I end up with convoluted drafts that need a lot of editing. I love sparse writing, and I love lush prose—and my favorite thing is to marry the two styles, to marry different genres, and to feature experimental elements if it fits the story.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: I just finished a horror novel, which is now with my agent for edits. I’m working on a short story for a particular market, something monster-y with some queer and also classic vibes. Then, maybe a novel in a whole new genre, just to play around and see how I like it. We’ll see!

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

The Uncanny Valley

Outside is moist. Miserable and moist. The Uncanny Thomases love many things about Central Illinois, but humid August with its heat and storms is not one of them. As we huddle in the A/C with Hugo the Cat, the world continues to be frightening. The pandemic rages on. Global news is discouraging. We have plans, but all of them are layered with caution and care.

But inside THE INTERNET, things are feeling a bit better! As all of you most certainly know, we’ve been running the Uncanny Magazine Year 8: Fly to the Future, Space Unicorns Kickstarter. It will be over when you read this, but we achieved funding for Year 8 in 34 hours, and probably reached all of our stretch goals, which included adding a flash fiction story to every issue and another novella at the end of the year. Thank you, Space Unicorns!

This issue is the final issue of Uncanny Magazine Year 7. Though in some ways this was a better year for us personally than Year 6, it was another tremendously challenging year for everyone. We want to thank our phenomenal staff and every generous member of the Space Unicorn Ranger Corps who made all of this possible. We hope you enjoyed all of the gorgeous stories, poems, essays, interviews, podcasts, and art. This issue contains the bonus novella for Year 7, and we think you will greatly enjoy it along with everything else in the issue. YOU ARE THE VERY BEST, YOU MAGNIFICENT SPACE UNICORNS!!

Bittersweet news, Space Unicorns. As you may remember, Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson decided to move on from her Uncanny editorial duties at the end of Uncanny Magazine Year 7. This is Elsa’s final issue. We can’t overstate how important Elsa has been to Uncanny. Elsa started with us as the guest Co-Editor-in-Chief (with Dominik Parisien) and Nonfiction Editor of our Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction special issue. For her work on that issue, Elsa received numerous awards. She returned later to become our full-time Nonfiction Editor with Uncanny Magazine #32. We really can’t say enough great things about Elsa and what she did to make Uncanny what it is today. We know Elsa is going to do more fabulous things in the future. (Check out Elsa Sjunneson’s upcoming memoir Being Seen! It will be released on October 5, 2021!) As we write this, we are interviewing candidates to become the new Nonfiction Editor. Please check our blog and social media for more information.

More bittersweet news, Space Unicorns. Uncanny Magazine Podcast reader Joy Piedmont is moving on after podcast episode #42B. Joy has been with us since Episode #29A and has done a spectacular job. We know she will continue to do brilliant things, and will be greatly missed.

Excellent award news, Space Unicorns!

The World Fantasy Award finalists have been announced! “The Nine Scents of Sorrow” by Jordan Taylor and “My Country Is a Ghost” by Eugenia Triantafyllou are finalists for the Best Short Fiction World Fantasy Award! Also, Editors-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas are finalists for the Special Award–Non-Professional World Fantasy Award for their Uncanny Magazine work! We are thrilled and honored! Congratulations to Jordan, Eugenia, and all of the finalists!

Fabulous news, Space Unicorns! Ken Liu’s “50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know” is a Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist! Congratulations to Ken and all of the finalists!

From the press release below:

This year’s finalists for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the best short science fiction story have been selected, announced Christopher McKitterick, Director of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. The winner of the award will be announced online later this summer.

The Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award recognizes the best science fiction short story of each year. It was established in 1987 by James Gunn, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at KU, and the heirs of Theodore Sturgeon, including his partner Jayne Engelhart Tannehill and Sturgeon’s children, as an appropriate memorial to one of the great short-story writers in a field distinguished by its short fiction.

Stupendous news, Space Unicorns! “The Sycamore and the Sybil” by Alix E. Harrow is a 2021 Eugie Award Finalist! Congratulations to Alix and to all of the finalists!

From their website:

The Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction (or Eugie Award) celebrates the best in innovative fiction. This annual award is presented at Dragon Con, the nation’s largest fan-run convention. Starting with the 2020, we will add a video presentation of the award online, along with a reading of a section of each finalist.

The Eugie Award honors stories that are irreplaceable, that inspire, enlighten, and entertain. We will be looking for stories that are beautiful, thoughtful, and passionate, and change us and the field. The recipient is a story that is unique and will become essential to speculative fiction readers.

Wonderful news, Space Unicorns! “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher is a 2021 WSFA Small Press Award Finalist! Congratulations to Ursula and to all of the finalists!

From their website:

The award honors the efforts of small press publishers in providing a critical venue for short fiction in the area of speculative fiction. The award showcases the best original short fiction published by small presses in the previous year (2020). An unusual feature of the selection process is that all voting is done with the identity of the author (and publisher) hidden so that the final choice is based solely on the quality of the story. The winner is chosen by the members of the Washington Science Fiction Association ( and will be presented at their annual convention, Capclave (, held on October 1-3, 2021 at the Rockville Hilton, Rockville, MD.

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 42! The spectacular cover is The Sun Temple by Julie Dillon. Our new fiction includes Aliette de Bodard’s epic tale of loss and vows “Mulberry and Owl,” Betsy Aoki’s story of art and pain “On a Branch Floating Down the River, a Wren Is Singing,” Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s exploration of illness and loves “Onward,” P. Djèlí Clark’s tale of magic and discovery “If the Martians Have Magic,” Kristiana Willsey’s story of betrayal and vengeance “Down in the Aspen Hollow,” Rachael K. Jones’s yarn of friendship and aging “Six Fictions About Unicorns,” and finally Eugenia Triantafyllou’s mystery novella of family and discovery “The Giants of the Violet Sea.”

Our provocative and compelling essays this month include “Suddenly Sci-Fi: When Real Life Turns Unreal” by Sarah Kuhn, “Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor Is a Space Unicorn (And We’re Going to Miss Her When She’s Gone)” by Tansy Rayner Roberts, “Expanding Our Empathy Sphere Using F&SF, a History” by Ada Palmer, and “Humour, Genre & the One True Quest for a Missing Pillar” by Shiv Ramdas. This month also includes a final editorial column by Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson called “Imagining Futures: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” by Elsa Sjunneson. Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “amorous advice for the ocean-oriented” by Chiara Situmorang, “The Captain Flies” by Avi Silver, “Áhàméfùla” by Uche Ogbuji, and “Map- Making” by Kristian Macaron. Finally, Caroline M. Yoachim interviews Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam and Eugenia Triantafyllou about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #42A features “Mulberry and Owl” by Aliette de Bodard, as read by Joy Piedmont, “The Captain Flies” by Avi Silver, as read by Erika Ensign, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Aliette de Bodard. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #42B features “If the Martians Have Magic” by P. Djèlí Clark, as read by Matt Peters, “Map- Making” by Kristian Macaron, as read by Erika Ensign, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing P. Djèlí Clark.

As always, we are deeply grateful for your support of Uncanny Magazine. Shine on, Space Unicorns!

The Captain Flies

Tell me true, friends: how often have you thought of Captain Hook as a disabled man?

-Amanda Leduc


in the sea-tilt sway of my bed, i exhale, starbound.

with a fistful of childhood i witness

in technicolor, the performance of

the boy

the ship

the hook

the tick





Neck to shoulder, shoulder to neck—

Head turns down, fist curls inward

Nerve sparks sharp, an iron point.


in some old never place, the sound of children’s laughter:

my memory, the absence

my body, the joke.

a figurehead abandoned in waters becalmed,

i am aged and embittered by the violence of youth.


Neck to shoulder, shoulder to neck—

Socket to ear, to ear

Wrist grinds to a pop.


i hold no animosity toward the crocodile.

(what in this world doesn’t hunger? what in this life doesn’t need?)

and still i cower grief into cruel ambition

sail circles around the thief above,

grit golden teeth against the tick




tic         tic        tic

tic         tic        tic


Neck to shoulder, shoulder to neck—

Forearm to bicep, to bicep

Muscle groans under pressure.


traitor is the neck tilted skywards;

holy is the hand which rots within the beast.

there is a boy who hollers down to me

the things of mine he’s stolen.

there is a ship that i have loved

a home where i can only lose.

there is a hook that makes him tremble

makes him trouble, makes him taunt—

makes me wail in thrashing fury against the tic








Neck to shoulder, shoulder to neck—

Ulnar throb, radial pressure

Fingers twist toward one furious arch.


a happy thought disrupts the motions:

tender on gut strings, a hook.

sweeping mauve on sturdy canvas, a hook.

carving life from cedar plank, a hook.


a man soars upwards in all his years,

(a villain and a coward),

and a boy cannot remember the end of his joke.

in his hand

   a hook.

in his eye

   a hook.

in his heart

    a hook.


a hook, a hook.


(Editors’ Note: “The Captain Flies” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 42A.)

amorous advice for the ocean-oriented

do not fall in love.


i apologize for the straightforward

directive but it

must be said.


when you arrive

there will be a woman, waiting,

skin patched and cross-hatched, salt piles

dissolving / becoming / sublimating into

being. she will be beautiful / monstrous /

material. hair tangles of seaweed,

living / writhing / unwilling to sit

straight on her head, knots shifting /

sailing with every movement on

untenable sea. wait for the abyss

to open / swallow / echo; sign of life.

danger and hope entwine here like

tongues of fire dancing on pitch water, like

forbidden lovers dancing on the edge of knives, like

throats dancing with shards of flower petals.


she will sing, voice glinting and refracting

off mirrored waves. she is lonely but that

is not the point. she is servant incarnate but

that is not the point.


do not wear green if

you like your fate free. above all,

do not / do not / do not / let her in.

death has eyes the color of the eclipse;

spellbait for the unsuspecting—


i will not be yours, again.

leave me with whatever remains

of life i hold.

is not once


siren, have



This poem is based on the Javanese legend of Nyi Roro Kidul, the Goddess of the Southern Sea. She has claimed many men who come to her beaches wearing her colour, green. Remember that when you come to visit.

The Wishing Pool

Joy nearly got lost on the root-knotted red dirt path off of Highway 99, losing sight of the gaps between the live oaks and Spanish moss that fanned across her hood and windows like fingertips. Driving back to her family’s cabin twenty years later reminded her that the woods had rarely been restful for her. Once, Dad had made her play outside instead of sitting on the couch with her Virginia Hamilton books, and she’d stepped in an anthill up to her shin. She howled so loudly from the vicious stinging that Dad and Mom heard her all the way from the lake, and when they reached her they expected to find her half dead. She’d never forgotten that wild, frightened look in their eyes. No, Joy did not like the woods.

If she’d started her trip closer to dark, she would have had to turn around and wait out the night at the overpriced Hampton Inn off of I-10. (Like her father, she didn’t want to sleep alone at her parents’ main house in the ashes of her childhood ten miles back toward civilization.) But her father’s old Bronco finally appeared in the glare of orange dusk light fighting through the treetops, parked in front of the cabin.

And the cabin looked so, so small—much smaller than she remembered. The trees and wildly growing ferns dwarfed it, with no obvious path to the door from the red-brown dirt driveway. She’d imagined that she and her brother might fix the cabin up as a rental one day, but in real life it was puny and weather-beaten and sad, more relic than residence. Their great-grandfather built this cabin in the 1920s to hide from lynch mobs roused by their envy that a Negro businessman could afford a shiny new Ford Model T.

Every inch of the cabin was sagging a hundred years later, weary of standing. The slanted roof had collected a thick blanket of dead leaves at the heart of the L shape that separated the cabin’s main room from its single bedroom. The bathroom her parents had added in the rear in the ’90s wasn’t in great shape, Jesse had warned, but it was better than the outhouse she still saw a few yards beyond the cabin, its wood blackened with age.

How had Dad been living there alone for two months? Maybe longer, if her brother’s theory was true: that he’d moved into the cabin soon after Mom’s funeral a year ago. Almost to the day.

“How?” she said aloud.

Gaps between walls’ wooden slats gaped like missing teeth, so the cabin probably had no insulation just when the weather was getting cold. Joy was wearing a jacket and it wasn’t dark yet. North Florida wasn’t New York, where she lived now, but it wasn’t South Florida either. The temperature was dipping to the forties at night. Jesse had warned her to bring extra blankets to supplement the coal stove, which was still the main heating source.

The cabin looked abandoned. But dim light bled through the threadbare curtains she recognized in the window, the ones with patterns of fish Mom had found at a garage sale with Joy a million years ago. Or yesterday. Time was a mystery and a lie since Mom had died.

Joy was glad that Dad wasn’t waiting outside, since she might have forgotten to prepare herself to see him look smaller too. Thinner. More frail. Grayer. Jesse had warned her what to expect after his visit a week ago—the reason she was here—but she might have forgotten if the cabin had looked anything like she remembered it.

Joy checked her cell phone: NO SIGNAL. Shit. No wonder Dad never picked up his cell phone. Jesse said he’d made an appointment to install a land line, but the technician couldn’t come for another thirty days. She wished she could call Jesse now; she was a year older, but he was a better fit for this job. He’d been deployed in Afghanistan most of Mom’s last year with cancer, so Joy was the one who had cleaned and fed her and raged at negligent nurses. They both knew it was Jesse’s turn now. She could not have faced another round of nursing home applications and medical assessments on her own, not so soon. Jesse had already taken Dad to a neurologist in Jacksonville to confirm the dementia they already suspected before Mom died.

But Jesse’s last visit had worried him so much that he’d promised Joy he would drive from Jacksonville to stay with Dad in the cabin every weekend. He just wanted to be sure she didn’t think Dad needed more than that. All he’d asked from Joy was one weekend.

“Stay there in the cabin with him a couple nights,” he’d said. “Observe his life. Let’s compare notes on what we think we should do.”

Then Jesse had held her forearm and stared her in the eye. “But he loves it out there, Joy. He really wants to be in that cabin. That’s the only thing that makes him happy.”

If she’d realized what Jesse really meant, she would not have come alone.

Joy heard her father’s terrible cough before she reached the door.

For a couple of years, Joy had a friend during their family visits to the cabin. It turned out that a white family lived in a lake house only a quarter mile away, an easy walk if you knew where to look. The two kids were miraculously close to their ages: a daughter, Natalie, who was ten like Joy, and a son, Nate, who was only a year older than Jesse. For two summers and two winters, Joy and Natalie had tried every way they knew to entertain themselves in the woods. Collecting tadpoles. Tracking butterflies. Kicking over ant mounds in vengeance. Whittling figures from fat twigs. Smoking cigarettes Natalie stole from her mother. Anything that wasn’t fishing.

Natalie was the one who told her about the Wishing Pool, which was midway between their properties, nestled between two ancient live oaks that bent toward each other as if to hug. It was more like a puddle than a pool, Joy had always thought, maybe six feet across, so shallow that the green-brown water only reached their knees—although Natalie cautioned against ever touching the water.

“It’s for wishes,” Natalie said. “Touching the water ruins them.”

For their first wish, they kept it simple. They wished for a dog.

They didn’t think it through, exactly. They didn’t live together or even see each other outside of short visits, so they didn’t have a clear picture of what that joint dog ownership would look like. But the next morning, when Joy was arguing with her brother over who had to wash the dishes piled in the cabin’s tiny sink, she heard a happy bark outside. She rushed to the window and saw Natalie with a grin that filled her face. A black and white dog, coat a bit muddied (as if, just maybe, it had crawled out of the Wishing Pool), was running in circles around Natalie. Just like that, they had their dog.

Dad said it looked like a terrier mix of some kind, one hundred percent pure mutt, and filthy at that, but they were ecstatic. No collar identified an owner who might be looking for him, so the dog was theirs. They named their dog Lucky because—well, the obvious. Lucky fetched sticks no matter how far they threw them, helped them sniff out rabbit holes, barked protectively at any strange rustlings, and generally made everything they did ten times more fun. They washed, combed, and groomed him until he looked like he belonged on TV.

They worked out a joint custody arrangement with their parents: Natalie would keep Lucky until the Christmas visit to the cabin, and then Joy could take him until summer.

But none of that happened. The day Joy was scheduled to go home, Natalie knocked on the cabin door teary-eyed and said Lucky had crawled out of her house and wouldn’t come when she called. From the first time she heard, Joy knew the dog was gone. She wasn’t surprised to learn, on her next visit, that Natalie had never seen Lucky again. She decided their wish had not been specific enough: they should have said they wanted a dog to keep.

Natalie had changed in the six months Joy had been away, a bit thinner, not smiling as much, bored with tadpoles and butterflies. The Wishing Pool had shrunk too, only half its previous size, the water more brown than green. Joy assumed they would wish to bring Lucky back, but Natalie just shrugged and said she didn’t want a dog anymore.

“My wish is for my parents to get a divorce,” Natalie said.

That wish was unimaginable to Joy, but Natalie said her parents fought so much that she’d rather they split up and get separate houses. She’d mapped it all out: two Christmases, two summer vacations, guilt presents. So Natalie threw the shiny penny in the pool, closed her eyes, and said, “Please let my parents split up.” Joy was both scandalized and thrilled. The secret felt better than smoking. But the wish didn’t come true. At least not right away.

The next summer, when Joy knocked on Natalie’s door, a tenant answered and said they had sold the house after the owner was killed by a drunk driver. “Natalie?” Joy had said, hardly able to speak. The tenant soothed her: “No, honey, the little girl and her mom are fine. They lost the daddy, though.”

Please let my parents split up, Natalie had said.

As an adult, Joy told the story often with a breezy air, never confessing how she’d walked far out of her way to avoid the Wishing Pool ever since. How maybe it was the Wishing Pool, not the boredom of fishing, that had soured her on visiting the cabin with her parents after she graduated from high school.  How the Wishing Pool had ended her childhood.

“Joya!” Dad said, the nickname he’d made up for her. He grinned, his teeth unchanged, stripping thirty years from his face. That would be her happiest memory of this visit: his eyes bright with surprise and delight when he called her by the name that belonged to him alone.

Then another cough came, terrible, swaying him until he steadied himself against the door frame. He sounded winded despite the canula in his nostrils, tubes snaking to rest heavy in a pocket of his robe. He was wearing piss-stained long underwear and a threadbare robe.

Joy wanted to burst into tears. Somehow, she didn’t, leaning in for a casual hug. She was relieved that the nape of his neck smelled the same. She clung to every grace.

“Surprise, Dad!” She hadn’t realized how good an actress she was.

Jesse hadn’t told her the most important thing: Dad was dying. Maybe Jesse was hiding it from himself.  She’d seen plenty of death up close with Mom, so she knew it when she saw it. The shriveled frame. The dark shadows beneath his eyes. That cough. How could Jesse have left Dad like this even for a day?

If she’d had a phone, she would have called for an ambulance already.

“Well, why the heck didn’t you call when you got to town?” Dad said. “I’m a mess. I would’ve…” —he surveyed himself“…done better, pumpkin.” He coughed a river of phlegm.

She took his arm—so thin!—and led him back inside, nudging the door closed with her heel so no heat would escape. The coal stove glowed golden orange through the grate, but it must be burning embers. The front room was cold, so his bedroom must be frigid. She wanted to take out a notebook and start making a list of the urgent things he needed.




Chronicling it in her head dispassionately kept her lip from trembling.

“I’ll help you put a few clothes in your bag. Then I need to take you to a doctor.”

Dad waved an impatient hand over his shoulder before he opened the stove’s door and stirred the dying coals. “I’m not gonna talk about that.” Joy’s silence finally wore him down. They had always had a kind of telepathy, weathering Mom and Jesse’s emotional storms with telling glances. “I’ve already seen the doctors, Joya. There’s nothing I can do. It just has to play out. That’s that. Ask your brother. We’re not gonna’ talk about it.”

So Jesse did know more, probably had heard a diagnosis. She’d fought so hard not to be irritated at Jesse, but now she was furious. Jesse was doing it again. He was hiding behind her.

Dad’s hands had been waving above the coal bin so long that she realized he had forgotten his task. “Let me light that,” Joy said. “It’s freezing in here, Dad.”

She’d sounded scolding, like Mom would have. They both heard it.  The enormity of Mom’s absence rocked through them.

Dad looked down at the coal, hiding misty eyes, and shrugged. “Not cold to me. But do what you want. Jesse was always cold too. Jesse was just here, you know. Few days ago.”

“He told me.” That was almost all he’d told her.

“Anything you want to know, ask him. Jesse’s got it…under control.” He coughed with a mighty struggle for breath.

“Dad, don’t talk. You’re wearing yourself out.” She helped him sit down in the wobbly wooden chair at the table, cupping his elbow. The ritual evoked a vivid image of helping Mom sit down to eat her last meal before they took her to the hospital she never came home from.

Joy’s hands shook less when she dug into the coal bin and savored the rough texture of the coal, which was running low. The puzzle of finding the matches. The miracle of flame.

A thought made her nearly gasp with hope. “Is the phone hooked up?”

Dad reached into the pocket of his robe to pull out his cell phone, as shiny as new.

“Not your cell, Dad. Jesse said he called the phone company.”

“Don’t know… anything about that,” Dad wheezed.

“I’m sorry—don’t try to talk.”

She checked his cell anyway, but it was dead. She wondered when he’d last charged it and decided it was probably ages ago—because her father had dementia. Hope, once spent, had exhausted her. Her situation flared into harsh focus again.

“Okay,” she said in a down-to-business tone that made her own ears prick, eager to hear the plan. “First we need to warm it up in here. Then I’m gonna’ bring in my bag.” Dad had a stack of newspapers piled on one end of the sofa, but she could clear it to sleep. She’d forgotten to bring extra blankets, but she could probably find some. If she meditated, she might be able to sleep. Eventually.

“You’re staying?”

“Tonight, yes.”

That was the simplest thing. His coughing had stopped, so it might not be the emergency she’d feared. The cabin was cold, but not frigid. The gaps in the planks had been patched with drywall; Jesse’s work, she guessed. A kettle and saucepan were on the stove and she saw a stack of soup cans in the cabinet, ordered by type with military precision. Jesse again. She always traveled with a bag of protein bars, so she had plenty for breakfast and lunch, enough to share. Maybe Jesse really did have it under control.

The idea of a night’s sleep, putting off tomorrow, elated her.

Then she saw the tears shining in her father’s brown eyes. “Dad? What’s wrong?”

He shook his head, staring at the bright orange glow of the stove. She waited, so he finally said, “I’m forgetting her. Your mother.”

“You’ll never forget Mom,” she said before she could think, and the look he gave her was a lashing, as if she had betrayed his honesty with lies. “Some part of you will always—”

“Horseshit,” he said. “I can’t remember a thing. If I took my meds. If I ate.” He spoke the final word painfully. “Have I bathed? I could take all of that, but… now it’s Patricia I’m forgetting. I can’t remember your mother’s middle name.” The confession wrenched him.

“Jesse probably doesn’t know it either.”

“That’s different,” he said. “He didn’t know her since she was sixteen. He didn’t grow up down the street from her. He’s not one of the only ones left who should know.”

Dad was so upset that he was shaking. His trembling loosed a coughing fit that made her doubt her plan to let him stay the night. His cough sounded like it needed a hospital.

“Her middle name is Rose,” Joy said—is, not was—and Dad closed his eyes like the name was a devotion. She rubbed his back—his bones felt so frail!—and his coughing eventually stopped. She was glad to see that the tiny kitchen’s faucet still worked. The well water tasted fresh when she tested a sip before handing him the glass.

“Yes, Rose,” he wheezed when he could speak. “Patricia. Rose. Bryant.” Mom’s name before she got married. He repeated it several times. He found a pad on his table and wrote with the pen tied to it with a rubber band: Patricia Rose Bryant in jittery script. She saw other words and phrases he’d written: Jaden and Jordan, Jesse’s children. 10-2-32, his birthdate.

She flipped the page and saw he’d filled the other side with his reminders. And the next page. He was harvesting his memories, collecting them one by one. Catching them while he could. Had he filled the entire notebook?

“Dad,” Joy said gently, “do you know that sometimes people die of a broken heart?  It’s bad enough that we lost her, but you can’t do this to yourself every time you can’t think of something right away. Can you let yourself heal a little bit?”

“Heal.” He spat the word.

“You’re torturing yourself,” she said. “You can’t live like this. You’ve turned Mom into a kind of ghost haunting you. She wouldn’t want that. It’s all right to let some of it go.”

“Sometimes,” Dad said, “I can’t remember her smile, Joya.”

Then he buried his face in his arms on the tabletop and sobbed.  Which led to a spate of coughing so severe that she was ready to carry him to her car if she had to. But then it stopped, and Dad went to his bed to sleep propped up on a mound of pillows, sitting up. But he slept.

Her cell phone told her it wasn’t even seven o’clock. The sky had not darkened yet.

Joy remembered the Wishing Pool.  

She found herself looking for the trail with the powerful flashlight she kept in her emergency pack in the trunk of her car. Much of the woods were overgrown and unrecognizable years later, but she knew to veer right after the outhouse, so she waded through the underbrush and tried to find any hints of the trail.

She never did. But she did see the twin live oaks, still standing, eerily unchanged, their trunks colored bright gold in the waning daylight. A beacon calling to her, almost.

When she reached the trees, she was sure the Wishing Pool would have dried up. But it hadn’t. It barely looked like a puddle anymore, covered in leaves, but dark brown water still peeked through in that spot and only that spot. Joy wanted to test its depth with her foot, but she remembered what Natalie had about tainting it with touch. So she didn’t.

Thinking about Natalie was almost enough to change her mind. But not quite.

Joy reached into her back pocket for the change she’d shoved there after she broke a twenty at a McDonald’s on the road. A shiny penny gleamed in her flashlight beam. She pressed it between her fingertips until the copper was warm, her heart speeding up.

The last time she had stood in this spot, Mom had been alive, back in the cabin with Dad. How could this physical place still exist when the life it was tied to was gone?

“Please,” she said aloud to the night woods, “just let my father be healthy and happy.”

She tossed her penny into the murky water just beyond the edge of a drowned leaf and watched until it sank out of sight.  She waited for the surge of certainty she’d felt as a child that magic was humming around her. Instead, while crickets whirred in a fever, she could only remember Natalie’s dead father and his salt-and-pepper beard. She wondered if Natalie had blamed herself for his death and felt certain she had. Joy wanted to plunge her hand into the puddle and retrieve her penny, but she told herself she was being silly, since wishes weren’t real.

Or she might ruin her wish if she touched the water.

Or both.

The short walk to the cabin was harrowing because it got dark so fast, but Joy was grateful to return a warming room and the sound of her father snoring safely in his bed. No coughing. She touched his forehead. No fever. Could the wish that couldn’t possibly work be working already? She didn’t believe it—but wanting to believe made her smile at herself.

Smiling made everything easier. She cleared off the sofa, found fresh blankets in the cedar-scented trunk at the foot of Dad’s bed (beside two large oxygen tanks she tried not to notice) and chanced upon a package of Almond M&M’s she didn’t know she had in her purse. She was asleep as soon as she rested her head. The cold room only made her sleep harder, and she dreamed a kaleidoscope of her childhood: lively meals and talent shows and beach days. She woke up in the daylight feeling better rested than she had in weeks, swaddled under a mound of blankets.

The first thing she heard was the silence. No snoring. No coughing. No sound at all.

She kicked off her blankets and jumped up to look into the bedroom’s open doorway. Dad’s bed was empty, his blankets on the floor. She barely squeezed out the thought Where the hell is

And then she heard a chopping sound outside, an axe splitting wood. She’d forgotten how Dad used to chop piles of wood, more than they needed since coal burned long. He said swinging his axe made him feel like John Henry. But now?

Joy ran outside barefoot, ignoring her cold toes and the prickling and poking against her bare soles. A pinecone stabbed her foot so sharply that she was sure it drew blood. She hopped the rest of the distance to find Dad in the shadow of the outhouse, the axe raised high above his head, his back turned. He arced his swing and cleaved the wood chunk in half.

Then he laughed. Not his polite chuckle he forced out to put her at ease—a deep belly laugh she was sure would make him cough. But it didn’t. He heaved in a breath before he swung the axe again, and his lungs sounded strong and clear. Healthy. He laughed again. Happy.

Adrenaline tingled Joy’s skin.

“Be careful!” she said. “Should you be exerting yourself like that?”

Dad whirled around, startled. His smile withered when he saw her.  He stared, eyes flat.

“Help you?” he said.

“Very funny.”

But his eyes stayed flat. His smile stayed gone. Joy’s stomach cramped.

“It’s… Joy. Joya.”

When he heard his nickname for her, Joya, recognition flared in his eyes, but oh-so-tepid. He studied her features the way he would a painting in a museum. Mildly curious.

“Joya,” he said. He nodded. He took one step closer to her. Another. He spoke directly into her eyes. “Pleased to meet you. You remind me of someone.”

His smile returned, perhaps the one he’d flashed for her mother when he spotted her raking leaves in her yard that day he passed on his bicycle when they were both sixteen and he had just moved to her street. Or, perhaps it was the smile he’d worn the first day he held Joy in his arms, still slick from Mom’s womb. Soon, Joy couldn’t see his smile for her tears.

She only heard the sharp CHOP of the wood and her father’s strong huff of breath as his laughter and liberation rang in the treetops.


(Editors’ Note: “The Wishing Pool” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 41A.)

The Graveyard

This story was told to me by the curator of a historical site in Iceland. I won’t name the site, because the curator might not want the publicity. She was a solid-looking, middle-aged woman with excellent English and an honest appearance. I don’t think she was lying to me, though I can’t be sure. The Icelanders have a strange sense of humor.

I was in Iceland to visit my great-grandparents’ home district and the farm they had left when they came to North America. While there, I visited the historical site: a group of 19th century sod farm houses. I wanted to see the kind of dark, small buildings my ancestors had lived in, before they escaped to North America.

The curator was friendly and not busy. We chatted for a while and ended up talking about Icelandic beliefs. Did Icelanders actually believe in elves and ghosts, as the stories in American news media said, or was that made up to entertain tourists?

“The answer is yes and no,” the curator replied. “It would be best to say that many of us neither believe nor disbelieve in such things. We suspend judgement.” Then she told the story.

A local farmer came to her. He was a man in his 30s, ordinary looking, though somewhat shorter than is usual in Iceland and with darker coloring than most Icelanders had, his hair black and his suntanned skin brown. His eyes were so dark that they seemed black rather than brown. Maybe some of his ancestors had been fisherman from France or Spain. The great North Atlantic fishing ground was off Iceland’s shore, and men from other countries had stopped for visits in the past or been washed up after wrecks.

“I don’t mention this because it matters, but because it’s something I noticed,” the curator said. “We are all made of individual traits, which may or may not be important.”

“You know I don’t believe in ghosts,” the farmer said to her.

“I knew this was true,” the curator told me. “Atli is a practical man, with no patience for the supernatural. His life is made of tangible, real things—mostly sheep and horses.”

In spite of his disbelief, Atli said, he was having a ghost problem. There was an ancient graveyard near his home, the graves marked with nothing except a few rough stones and low places in the sod where the graves had fallen in. It had been there for centuries, causing no trouble, until a prosperous Icelandic-American discovered the graveyard while on a four-wheel drive trip through rural Iceland.

This demands some background. When Icelanders came to North America, they were too few to establish their own churches. So they looked around for denominations that seemed like their church at home. Some became Unitarians, because that seemed closest to the Icelandic Lutheran Church. Other Icelanders joined the local Lutheran churches, which were Norwegian or German; and they learned a version of Lutheranism that was far different from the faith in Iceland.

The Icelanders at home had converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism because the Danish government insisted on it, just as they had converted from paganism to Catholicism because the Norwegian king insisted on it. It was possible to argue about how serious they were in any belief. There are people who say they were better pagans than they are—or ever have been—Christians.

The Icelandic-American in this story was named Magnus Thorvaldsson, a successful businessman and a pious New World Lutheran. He was horrified by the idea of corpses in a graveyard marked only by sunken earth and a few chunks of lava. When he got home, he contacted a contractor in Iceland and ordered a fine iron fence for the graveyard and an iron cross to stand in the middle.

The fence was built. The cross was erected. Then the trouble began, as Atli told the curator. The bodies in the graveyard belonged to pagans, who had rested comfortably for a thousand years. But now they had an iron fence around them and an iron cross in their midst. This woke them up and made them furious.

Atli didn’t own the land the graveyard was on, but his farmhouse was the nearest building. The ghosts flocked to it and stood around it at night, screaming and complaining. Atli could get no sleep.

It made no difference that he didn’t believe in the ghosts. They still ruined his rest. So he came to the curator of the historical site. She knew the nation’s history, the way it had been converted, and plenty of stories about ghosts. Maybe she could suggest a solution.

She thought for a while, then said, “The graveyard is remote, on a farm that’s been abandoned. No one is likely to notice if you take down the cross. That might make the ghosts happy.”

Atli thanked her and went home. Soon after the cross vanished from the graveyard. Atli did not feel comfortable using it for scrap metal, so he put it in a shed on his farm. It could rust there, for all he cared.

For a week or two the ghosts were silent. Then they came back, not screaming, but grumbling and moaning. They didn’t like the iron fence.

“A little iron is fine,” they told Atli. “Some of us are buried with swords or knives. But this fence feels to us like a ring of enemies standing around us with swords and spears. We can’t rest while it remains.”

Atli went back to the curator and described his new problem.

“The obvious next step is to remove the fence,” the curator said.

“That’s what I think,” Atli replied. “But I wanted you to know, in case anyone ever notices the missing fence and accuses me of being a thief. I plan to leave it in my shed next to the cross, until I can decide what to do with it. It isn’t mine, so I can’t sell it or use the iron. But I’m not sure I want to keep it my entire life.”

“If that happens, I will speak in your defense,” the curator said. “But I don’t think anyone will notice.”

Atli took his four-wheel drive pickup to the graveyard and pulled out the fencing, section by section. The day was overcast and gloomy. But as each section of fence came up, his heart felt lighter. He couldn’t hear the ghosts in daylight, but he could feel their cheer. He went home, the pickup bed full of fence. It went into his shed next to the iron cross. The ghosts were quiet for a while, and he told the curator that the problem seemed to be solved. He could get back to what interested him: sheep and horses.

Once the dead have woken up, it’s hard to get them settled down again. After several weeks, the ghosts reappeared around Atli’s farmhouse. This time they did not scream or moan, but they did complain.

“We didn’t like the fence, but it kept your sheep out. Now they are back and grazing on our graves. We’d like a new fence, made of stone and turf, to mark our graveyard and keep the sheep away.”

“These are Icelandic sheep,” Atli told him. “There’s a good chance they will be able to climb right over the fence.”

“Nonetheless, we want a new fence made of stone and turf.”

Atli groaned as loudly as any ghost and told them he would think about it.

‘We know how to shriek,” the ghosts said in ominous tones.

Atli went back to the curator and told her the ghosts’ latest demands. At this point, she was beginning to wonder about him. He was unmarried and living alone, except for a cat and two farm dogs. Granted, he had a girlfriend in a nearby town, but mostly he was alone.

He liked to read old books: the novels of the great Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic family sagas, and Jon Arnason’s collection of Icelandic folktales. This may have made him more vulnerable to strange experiences. A person living alone can become overly imaginative; and after a person reads enough of Jon Arnason’s stories, many things seem possible, especially ghosts and trolls.

But he seemed as down-to-earth as always, except for his story about the complaining ghosts. Instead of advising him to see a doctor, the curator suggested that he consider building the fence. What harm could it do? If it made the ghosts quiet down, then Atli would be saved the trouble of driving to Reykjavik and seeing a psychologist, who might think he was crazy.

“I think you are right,” Atli told the curator. After that, he built the fence, working carefully, taking stones out of a nearby river, and plugging the crevices with turf. As he worked, his heart grew light. It was the ghosts, approving.

Finally, he was done. The watching sheep came over and nosed the stones, but did not seem inclined to climb them.

A few nights after he finished, the ghosts came back and said, “This is well done. Thank you.”

Now, for several months, all through the summer, Atli lived in peace. By day he worked in his fields, baling hay against the approaching winter. At night, he cruised the Internet, with his cat on his lap and his two dogs at his feet. If he grew tired of the 21st century, he settled down with Halldor Laxness or a saga. Occasionally he read a Nordic murder mystery, though not many of these. The detectives were too depressed. Life was difficult, but not that difficult. If a man didn’t like being a police inspector, he should find another line of work; and if his family life was a mess, he should fix it. The people in Laxness had real problems, but they managed to keep going. Surely modern people could do as well.

The mysteries set in Iceland irritated him. There were not enough murders in Iceland to justify a series.

Finally Magnus Thorvaldsson, the Icelandic-American businessman, returned. Fall had come and winter was coming close, the days growing darker. He was on another visit to Iceland and wanted to see the graveyard before winter darkness hid everything. Of course he was horrified. What had happened to his iron cross and fence? Why had his lovely Lutheran graveyard turned into a plot of uncut grass surrounded by stone? He asked around, and people directed him to Atli. They might not know what had happened to the graveyard, but they knew that Atli was the nearest farmer, and they may have suspected he was responsible. It’s hard to hide anything in Iceland. The country is too small, and the people too few. Because of this, the curator’s advice to Atli had not been entirely good. Maybe she thought the American would not come back.

One day Magnus drove up to Atli’s farmhouse in his big SUV and climbed out, looking angry. The two farm dogs began barking, and Atli came out of the house.

“What is it?” he asked.

“What happened to my graveyard?” Magnus asked angrily. He spoke English, because his Icelandic was bad.

Atli’s English was good. “It’s not your graveyard,” he said. “It belongs to the people buried there. They didn’t like the cross or the fence.”

“How do you know that?” Magnus asked.

Atli stood, thinking. The two farm dogs sat at his feet, making soft growling sounds. They didn’t like the look of Magnus, and they didn’t like his tone.

The situation would be difficult to explain in words, Atli decided. He could tell the story, but why should the man believe him? If Magnus could experience the ghosts—“Help me put the cross back,” he said finally. “Then come and spend the night with me in my farmhouse.”

“Why?” asked Magnus.

“To show you why I know what the dead are thinking.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Magnus said firmly.

“Neither do I, in general. But they believe in me and have forced themselves on me. If they aren’t real, you will see and hear nothing and have lost nothing except one night.”

Magnus frowned. He was a big, beefy man with blond hair and a red beard, who looked like a Viking, but was something in information technology. “Very well. But if I don’t hear from the dead, I expect you to put the cross and fence back.”

Atli considered and said, “Yes.”

The two men carried the cross out of the shed and put it in Atli’s pickup truck, then drove to the graveyard. They lifted the cross over the stone fence and set it up in the graveyard’s center in the hole that still remained where it had been before. Atli thought he could feel the ghosts stirring. Icy air moved against the back of his neck. His skin prickled, and Magnus sneezed.

“It’s cold out here,” the American said.

That was the anger of the ghosts, Atli thought. He took a shovel and filled in dirt around the cross. It would hold for a day or so, but he’d have to do a better job, if Magnus was not convinced.

They drove back to the farmhouse. Atli made dinner: cod, along with potatoes and a salad of greenhouse tomatoes and iceberg lettuce.

“The salads in Iceland are terrible,” Magnus said.

“We don’t have a place like California here,” Atli replied. “And you won’t have California much longer, the way it’s drying out.”

“That may be,” Magnus said. “But couldn’t you grow romaine or arugula in your greenhouses?”

“You will have to ask someone who has a greenhouse.”

After dinner, Atli broke out the brennivin. They drank shots and talked about life. Magnus had a lot to say about his IT business in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was doing well. Atli kept quiet and listened. He had been to Florida once on vacation. He hadn’t liked it. America seemed hot and humid and full of large bugs. He had never gone back.

Night came. The ghosts arrived, shrieking around the house.

“What the hell is that?” Magnus asked.

Atli turned off the lights and opened a curtain. Fortunately for him there was a full moon. It shone brightly on the dead in front of the window. They were dressed in the clothing of Viking times. Some of the clothes looked ordinary and clean. Other garments were splotched with black stains. Most likely this was blood, shed when the ghosts received their death wounds. Some of the women held newborn babies, the tiny bodies coated with dark blood. These must be children who had died with their mothers in childbirth. A few of the ghosts were in rags that barely covered their lean bodies. Beggars, Atli decided. For the most part the faces were in shadow, but sometimes a head would turn, and moonlight would gleam off dead eyes.

“Jesus Christ,” Magnus said.

“This has nothing to do with Christ,” Atli said. “These folk belong to the days before Christ, and they do not want to be bothered by your religion.”

“Why didn’t someone have the decency to bury them in clean clothing?” Magnus asked.

“This is the way they died,” Atli said. “Maybe this is what they remember, rather than the clothes they were buried in. Some of them—the men who died in battle and the women who died in childbirth—should have been carried off to join the old gods in Valhalla. I have no idea why this didn’t happen. But here they all are, and they don’t like your cross.”

“Close the curtain,” Magnus said.

Atli did. But the ghosts kept complaining, giving their names and ancestry, telling Atli and Magnus how they had died, saying they did not want the cross in their midst. The old gods might have betrayed them, but they would remain loyal or at least neutral. They wanted no part of the White Christ.

“This is why I took out the cross,” Atli said, after pouring more brennivin. “I can’t sleep with all this noise going on.”

Magnus drank his brennivin straight down and held the glass out for more. Atli filled it.

“As I said, I have never believed in ghosts,” Atli continued. “But I know what everyone knows about them. They can’t cross water. They especially dislike salt water. This is why our ancestors left their dead behind in Norway when they came here. It means these folk can’t follow you back to America. But they can travel over land.

“If you don’t agree to remove the cross, I will tell the ghosts you are the person to blame. It’s my belief that they will able to go wherever you are in Iceland and scream at you.”

Magnus looked troubled by this idea.

“You have three choices,” Atli said. “You can insist on keeping the cross in place and leave Iceland forever. Or you can agree to give the dead what they want.”

“What is the third choice?” Magnus asked.

“To endure their screaming and complaining, their genealogies and their descriptions of the ways they died.”

“I am Thordis the daughter of Thorolf,” a ghost cried. “I bled to death in childbirth when I was nineteen.”

“I am Halfdan Gudmundsson,” another called. “I got a bad cough when I was twenty-three and coughed until I brought up blood and died.”

“I am Olaf Ketilsson, cut down by a malicious neighbor at the age of fifty-nine,” another voice added.

“I was a beggar and died of starvation at forty, after struggling to get by my entire life,” called a fourth. “My name doesn’t matter. My father is unknown.”

Atli sipped his drink. The alcohol warmed his mouth and throat. “Wouldn’t it be better to take down the cross and leave these folk in peace?”

“My minister in Minneapolis won’t like it. I told him about fencing in the graveyard, and he congratulated me.”

“Don’t tell him about the cross and fence coming down.”

“But these people—” Magnus waved at the ghosts moaning outside “—aren’t saved. Shouldn’t I make an effort to help them?”

“These folk are past salvation, unless the gods they believed in finally take them up to Valhalla. I’m not waiting for that to happen.”

“I found the owner of the land in Reykjavik. She agreed to the fence and the cross,” Magnus said. “I have the legal right.”

“‘The land is built on law,’” Atli quoted. “‘And through lawlessness it is brought down.’ That’s very well, but the ghosts died long before that line was written down in the Njals saga. I don’t think they would understand. Right now, they blame me. But if they knew you were the one responsible—”

Magnus finished his brennivin. Atli refilled the glass.

“All right,” Magnus said, his voice blurry. “I will agree. Take down the cross. I won’t bother the people in that graveyard any longer. I’ll be glad to be back in Minnesota, where things like this don’t happen.”

Soon after that, they both went to sleep, Atli in his bed and Magnus on the couch in the living room. They both woke with hangovers in the morning. Atli made coffee. After they had drunk that, Magnus left.

“I’d like your permission to sell the fence and cross,” Atli said before the American went. “I’ll send you a check for the money.”

“Don’t bother,” Magnus replied. “Keep the money for your trouble and your hospitality. I expect I’ll decide this was all a dream, once I get home to Minneapolis.” He shook Atli’s hand. “In any case, I will take your advice and not tell my minister. If you are ever in the Twin Cities, look me up.”

Then he heaved his bulky body into the driver’s seat and drove away.

Atli spent most of the day at home, too hungover for work. In the late afternoon, he went back to the graveyard and took down the cross. It was harder without help and with an aching head, but he managed. He got the cross back into his shed and went to bed, not bothering with dinner.

In the middle of the night, the ghosts woke him.

“Thank you,” they said. “We can rest peacefully now.”

“Aren’t you angry that you weren’t taken up to Valhalla?” Atli asked.

“That was long ago. Now we want rest.”

Just before they left Atli, one of the ghosts quoted a famous old verse from the Viking era.

“‘Cattle die. Kinfolk die.

We ourselves die.

There is one thing that does not die.

The fame of the dead.’”

But the ghosts were not famous, Atli thought. They were ordinary folk who had died before Iceland became Christian. Their names might survive in genealogies, but nowhere else. Did it matter? They were satisfied now. If they could take comfort in an old verse, good enough. He would take comfort in a good night’s sleep.

Later, when the ghosts did not return, he went back to the historical site and told the curator the rest of the story.

“Your original question was, do we in Iceland believe in ghosts?” the curator said to me. “Atli told me that he believes in the ghosts from the graveyard. ‘You cannot quarrel with experience,’ he told me. He was less certain about other ghosts, since he had not met them. As for me,” the curator went on, “I never saw or heard the ghosts. I didn’t see Magnus Thorvaldsson after he spent a night with Atli. So I never got his version of the night he spent with Atli.

“I have no proof that Atli’s story is true. But he seems as he always did: a solid, practical man, not someone to play a prank or lie to his neighbors. I believe that he was honest to the best of his ability.

“Did he imagine the ghosts? That doesn’t seem likely, if Magnus also heard them.” The curator paused, obviously thinking. “Magnus thought he could impose his ideas on the past, because he’s an American. They either ignore the past or try to remake and improve it.

“The land is built on law, as Atli said when he was quoting Njals saga – the greatest of all our sagas, as you ought to know. The land is also built on history. You can change how you understand the past. But you can’t change the past itself. You cannot turn the dead into something they were not. They are set in their ways.

“As for the rest, I am reserving judgment.”


(Editors’ Note: Eleanor Arnason is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)