Musigisg ewniaq, the sky is

turning blue:

aurorae humming electric

dreaming among the clouds.


Milamu’gl jugo’tui:

Bring me the different

colors of a murmuration

of strange birds

taking to air when

dawn arrives.


Paqtasultieg, We are shining bright

in the three suns of a

new stratosphere,

watching limb reach

to limb in the arterial

lace of branches,

a boreal exhalation

of tree-lined infinity—


Minijig, they bear fruit,

with frost like silver steel,

a shimmering future free

from clockwork incantation.


(Editors’ Note: “Paqtasultieg” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 40A.)

Babylon 5 and Antifascism

In the annals of science fiction television, plenty of shows stand out as classics. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek and its spinoffs presented an optimistic vision for the future in the 1960s, Ronald D. Moore’s revival of Battlestar Galactica was a gritty, realistic take on the stresses of genocide and war, while ABC’s Lost helped set the stage for the current television renaissance that we’re enjoying today.

Looking back at it nearly 30 years later, J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 remains a curiosity. New viewers might be turned off by its early (but, at the time, revolutionary) use of CGI, some of the extravagant costumes and, at times, silly plot-of-the-week adventures. But if you power through some of the rougher edges and excuse the stylistic and technological advances, you’ll find a series that is profoundly revolutionary in its vision of the future, one that doesn’t just skip ahead to an optimistic endpoint, but one that instead actively shows us how to build a better world for everyone.

Back in January, Warner Bros. brought the remastered series to its new streaming service, HBO Max, and after writing about its new home (and associated visual facelift), I found myself sucked back into the series and world. After a nightmarish four years of scandals, antisemitic dog-whistles, racial animosity and fascist tendencies, watching Babylon 5 felt like both a relevant warning for what was to come, as well as a roadmap for how to make sense of it all.

Kicking off in the year 2257, it’s set in a troublesome time for humanity. A century prior, we’d made first contact with an alien civilization known as the Centauri, and humanity begins to take its first steps into the larger universe, only to stumble into a devastating war against another civilization, the Minbari.

By the time that war ends, humanity and a number of other civilizations decide to build a massive space station as a diplomatic and trading port. “It was the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War,” intones Commander Jeffrey Sinclair in the show’s season 1 opening titles. “The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully.”

That space station becomes the anchor for the series, and over the course of five seasons, Straczynski takes his viewers on a fantastic ride: various species clash in massive, genocidal conflicts, threatening the station’s neutrality, while an ancient interstellar enemy looms at the edges of space, fomenting an existential crisis for the future of the galaxy’s younger civilizations. Looming in the background is trouble back at home as Earth’s government slides into a totalitarian regime threatening the safety and security of everyone under its justification. The series is often described as a “novel for television,” and it’s structured accordingly, with ambitious plotlines stretching from the beginning of the series until the final episode.

Babylon 5 has always felt to me like a bit of a counterargument to Star Trek. Roddenberry’s franchise steers towards an optimistic future, one where technology has brought humanity to the stars and where we’re at the point where we can go out to the rest of the universe to build an intergalactic government to further our curiosity in the name of scientific discovery. It often feels bright and polished, and a place where we can eventually get to if we’re able to overcome some of our more troubling natures. That’s not exclusively the case—see some of the grittiness that’s worked its way into shows like Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Discovery and films like Star Trek Into Darkness—but even those shows are still informed by Roddenberry’s optimism.

By contrast, Straczynski’s series is a grimmer take on where we might be hundreds of years from now. Over the course of the series, he covers a lot of ground, looking at the perils of addiction to terrorism, to the ethics of using newly-discovered alien technology, and quite a bit more. But most pressingly is a constant drumbeat warning of the dangers of racism and fascism and how easy it is to slide from a healthy, vibrant democracy into deadly totalitarianism.

Throughout the series, Straczynski makes a critical argument: the emergence of a fascist government isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a process that’s like the fable of a frog in boiling water: people often don’t recognize incremental dangers until it’s far too late. Early in the show’s first season, Straczynski begins to sprinkle in some early precursors: news reports about a paramilitary group known as Homeguard, which is violently opposed to humanity’s efforts to have diplomatic ties or relations with aliens. In the Season 1 episode “Survivors”, Babylon 5’s security chief Michael Garibaldi is framed by the group after a bombing ahead of a visit from Earth’s president. In “Eyes”, an Earth Alliance Marine Colonel named Ari Ben Zayn is dispatched to the station to administer loyalty tests. He bends EA rules and laws to try and achieve his goals, and prompts strong resistance from the station’s staff, who compare him to Adolf Hitler.

As the series progresses, it becomes clear that Earth is headed for trouble: President Luis Santiago is killed in a bombing at the end of Season 1, and is replaced with President Morgan Clark, who begins steering Earth into more authoritarian territory. The station gets a new commander, John Sheridan, who soon confides in his staff that there is a secret resistance movement forming within EarthGov as its personnel begin to recognize the trouble they’re headed for. A branch of Clark’s government called the Ministry of Peace forms a loyalist organization called Nightwatch for citizens to root out subversive activity, complete with black armbands. At one point, when a uniformed officer is confronted over the trouble that he’s giving a store owner over an anti-Clark poster he’s hung in his stall, he tells Sheridan that “he’s just following orders.” Within Nightwatch, its members trade conspiracy theories about unloyal members of EarthGov who are selling Earth out to alien civilizations.

Eventually, Clark’s government goes on the offensive, instituting martial law and attacking its own colonies, prompting Babylon 5 and some warships to declare their independence from their home, and wage a brutal war against their former friends and colleagues, culminating in a fantastic campaign and some stunning hours of television.

At the core of this fight is Straczynski’s core cast of characters: Sinclair and Sheridan, each a principled military officer, their second-in-command, Commander Susan Ivanova, Garibaldi, Minbari ambassador Delenn, and others, all of whom possess a strong moral compass that often helps guide them and the station through crisis after crisis. They’re clear-eyed about what is right and wrong, which sometimes puts them in conflict with others around the station who don’t recognize some of the warning signs, like security officer Zack Allen, who is recruited into joining Nightwatch.

Babylon 5 was already a little different from its overseers back on Earth: as a trading/diplomatic post, it was home to residents from many worlds and civilizations. It was also culturally and racially diverse: while rewatching, I was impressed that Straczynski utilized an ethnically-diverse cast, ranging from Doctor Franklin (a Black man) to Susan Ivanova (a Russian Jew) to numerous secondary and background characters of varying ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, often in places of authority, ranging from medical staff, security officers, fighter pilots, and more. Babylon 5 created an environment that was an inherent anathema to the budding fascist tendencies taking root on Earth: culturally, spiritually, and ethnically diverse; a firewall to the emboldened racist and xenophobic characters taking over the government back home.

This isn’t limited just to humanity’s struggles: a central plotline in the show follows the rise of the Centauri Republic as they ascend—with the help of an ancient and violent alien civilization known as the Shadows—and undertake a genocidal campaign against a long-time enemy known as the Narns. In the middle of this plotline is Centauri Ambassador Londo Molari and his beleaguered aide, Vir Cotto. While Londo is bent on gaining power and influence, paving the way for his government’s horrific war, Vir recognizes and pushes back against his mentor, but often caves, sighing and doing what Londo asks, even though he knows that what he’s doing is wrong.

Watching Babylon 5 in 2021 helps highlight—more than any other time I’ve watched it—that the most critical weapon in the fight against fascism is for someone to take a principled stand when they recognize injustice, even when it might be sanctioned by their rules, chain of command, or government. Sheridan and Sinclair frequently rail against unjust orders that come their way, and recognize that there’s an imperative for soldiers to interpret those orders against that inner moral code, and to recognize that there will be times when their orders and their morality might diverge. Others follow their example. The Ranger Marcus Cole provides a steadfast moral compass in seasons 3 and 4, ultimately leading to his death, while Starfury pilot Lieutenant Warren Keffer met his end tracking down signs of Shadow vessels, disobeying orders and ultimately sacrificing himself to warn the station of impending danger. Those characters that take a stand are the ones who ultimately change the tide and push against the encroaching fascist tendencies, rather than sit by and let the waves of complicity wash over them.

For Straczynski, this isn’t an abstract argument, which makes watching the series all the more powerful. In 2019, he released Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood, a memoir that detailed his struggles growing up. His grandparents immigrated to the US from what is now Belarus, and his father Charles, along with his sister Theresa returned to Europe just as Nazi Germany began to invade its neighbors. He describes his father in harsh terms: “The truth is that Charles quickly developed a fierce appreciation for all things Nazi. With his mother’s temper, his father’s sense of entitlement, and their mutual inability to take responsibility for their actions, the Nazi philosophy gave him a focus for his anger, and he embraced as a strong anti-Semitic philosophy that would stay with him for the rest of his life.” He recounts how his father kept Nazi memorabilia in the house when he grew up, and even tried to force him to wear the uniform, and later reveals that his father likely took part in a massacre in a town called Vishnevo.

Watching Babylon 5 after reading about Straczynski’s life paints a new picture of his intentions for the series. A notable scene in the Season 1 episode “The Parliament of Dreams” sees the station celebrating each civilization’s “dominant belief system”, which prompts Sinclair to invite a line of religious figures, introducing the various aliens to priests, rabbis, imams, and more, the scene fading out as the camera passes an endless line of people. It’s a powerful scene that highlights Earth’s diversity of religions and belief systems. Rabbis appear frequently in the series as they visit various characters and provide some wisdom at key points in the series.

It’s that sense of righteous morality that is at the heart of Babylon 5—the station and the show. Through both, Straczynski highlights the importance of diversity, of strong principles to guide our behavior, and a willingness to work collaboratively with our neighbors to construct a framework that rejects racism, fascism, and totalitarianism. It’s an argument and a roadmap that is compelling as we move past the Trump administration and its four years of aggressive, hateful rhetoric and actions. It’s a series that highlights the importance of mutual support, of anti-racism, of anti-fascism, and that to forge ahead into a better future, we need to be constantly wary of letting one’s guard down, lest one invites the shadows in.


Interview: José Pablo Iriarte

José Pablo Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer and teacher who lives in Central Florida. Their fiction can be found in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, and others, and has been featured in multiple Year’s Best volumes. José’s novelette, “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births,” was a Nebula Award Finalist for 2018. “Proof by Induction” is their first appearance in Uncanny, a poignant story of mathematics, technology, and a need for parental approval that continues beyond death.

Uncanny Magazine: “Proof by Induction” is a lovely exploration of math, relationships, technology, and grief. What was the initial spark for this story, and how did you bring these different elements together?

José Iriarte: Thanks so much for that kind assessment, Caroline!

For me, the heart of this story is Paulie’s relationship with his father. I wrote a non-math-related story of Paulie interacting with his father repeatedly in the Coda in a white-hot blaze maybe a month or so after the death of my father. It was very much about how nothing I’d done had ever impressed him much, and I’d always hoped the next thing—getting nominated for an award, maybe, or landing a book deal—would be the trick, the proof that I hadn’t wasted my life and potential by pursuing a degree in literature, and later pursuing fiction publication, instead of a professorship in math. And then he died, and I had to reckon with the fact that this just wasn’t going to happen.

This story was way too raw. I never sent it to my usual beta readers, because the parts of it that were me were too close to the surface, too unobscured. I didn’t even give it to my spouse to read, and she is always my first reader. Instead, the story went into the trunk for about three years.

During that time, I came to believe that the main thing the story needed was, well, another story. I tend to mostly focus on what some other people call the “B Story.” My stories tend to be long on emotion but short on plot. I felt that if there were something Paulie could be trying to accomplish, some reason to keep going back into the Coda beside his emotional need, the story would be stronger for it.

Meanwhile, for close to a decade, my friend Pete has been insisting that I should write a story with math at its core, since I (also) have a degree in mathematics and I’m a high school math teacher, and I guess he thought that would make me able to write with a lot of authority on the topic. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Having a bachelors in mathematics makes me knowledgeable enough to know how little I know. It would be easier for me to write about terraforming Mars, or about hacking the simulation that is reality, where I’d know that I was just making everything up and not writing anything remotely “hard,” than to write a math story, where I’d be incredibly conscious of people who know more math than I do reading it and thinking I’m a total fraud!

Still, the thought of writing about math kept calling to me, and at some point I realized that a search to solve a Millennium-Problem-style mystery could give me just the A Story that this story needed. Last summer I finally could dare to look at this story without cringing, and I wrote the math-and-tenure storyline, and reworked the existing Coda scenes to be able to integrate the two storylines together.

Uncanny Magazine: You are both a writer and a teacher—do you find that your writing is influenced by your experiences in the classroom?

José Iriarte: Ordinarily yes, but honestly less in this story than in most of my stories. Most of my stories are about teenagers, and I would say that my experiences as a teacher are a big part of my sense of who teenagers are and what they are experiencing. I would also describe myself, for better and for worse, as young at heart, and spending the bulk of my time around much younger people probably helps keep me that way.

I would say this story was much more heavily influenced by my experience of academia through my parents. Both of my parents were university professors of computer science. I lived through their attempts to gain promotion and tenure, I lurked on the periphery of those academic gatherings, I saw the university politics up close.

(I should also disclose that I immortalized a ton of my math teachers and professors through the peripheral mathematicians mentioned in this story!)

Uncanny Magazine: One of the things I really enjoyed was the depiction of Paulie and his father, and the way their past relationship is revealed through their interactions in the Coda. How much do you know about your characters before you start a story? Do your characters ever surprise you?

José Iriarte: I am a hardcore plotter, and my characters tend to be based on me and on people I know or have known. I don’t tend to fill out character sheets or make lists of physical attributes or details—though when I write novels I will write up prose backgrounds about what motivates side characters and what their goals are. In general, though, I just think of who my characters are inspired by and think, “What would so-and-so do?” So I don’t think I experience the phenomenon of being surprised by my characters as much as some other writers do.

That said, I do get surprised from time to time. In my story, “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births,” I didn’t realize Jamie was crushing on Alicia until Benjamin asked them, and then it was obvious. But the process of writing that wasn’t one where characters had a reality outside of my head, but more that this is exactly what Benjamin would have discerned. In this story, Maddie’s significance, the drive Paulie has to not replicate in her the sense of inadequacy that he has, was not something I was originally conscious of, but something that again seems obvious in hindsight. Also the conceit of the relationships—Paulie’s father, Paulie, and Maddie—mirroring the structure of a proof by induction was literally the last thing that came to me, well after I had completed two drafts.

Uncanny Magazine: How much research did you do for this story? Was there anything you wanted to include but weren’t able to?

José Iriarte: I did more research than usual for this story, but it was a weird kind of research-and-parallel process. I did a lot of digging into stories of mathematical discovery, and “collecting” names of mathematical structures and processes and subfields—into the sketchiest of outlines—and then tweaking those terms into things that do not exist (as far as I know), in order to create a vocabulary that sounded real, sounded authoritative, but where it would be harder to call me out on the fact that I was making stuff up. At one point I had a notepad document of real mathematical terms and their in-story counterparts, but, tragically, I seem to have deleted this!

Then I sought beta reads from a couple of spec fic authors I knew who were also knowledgeable in mathematics, S. L. Huang and Chris Degni, so they could help me find the spots where my mathebabble was too obviously nonsensical—or too close to making sense in a way I didn’t want! Chris, I believe, suggested that my description of tenure and promotion and academic life was also off, so I went and got a second bunch of readers, including authors Eric Schwitzgebel and Allan Dyen-Shapiro, to help me make that part more plausible. (Unfortunately, these reads sometimes contradicted each other, which just speaks to how different the process can be from university to university, I guess.)

Naturally, all infelicities and implausibilities that remain are on me, of course.

Uncanny Magazine: If the Coda technology was available in the real world, would you want to use it?

José Iriarte: I don’t have a lot of extended family. My parents both had much more family left behind in Cuba than in the United States. And my family was really damn dysfunctional. So I don’t have a lot of, like, deceased beloved mentor figures. On the other hand, I have a pathological need to ask questions where I am likely not to like the answers. It’s what keeps me checking my Google alerts and reading my reviews. *grin* So I think I’d feel compelled to use the Coda, whether it was healthy or not.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

José Iriarte: Currently I am signed to a project I don’t have the go-ahead to name, but I think I’m okay to say that it’s a middle grade novel in somebody else’s IP. I miss writing short stories and want to get back to it, but I’m not sure when that’s going to happen.

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

A Love Letter to Libraries

In the same way that lions do not need to be told about the deliciousness of gazelles, nor sandcastle builders about the sea, for bookish people it goes without saying that libraries, our world’s repositories of knowledge and story, are places of tremendous power, as much as fairy mounds and parliaments. One can enter a library, fairy mound, or legislative chamber, spend an uncountable amount of time within, and emerge to a world that is subtly changed. In Diane Duane’s The Book of Night with Moon, the New York Public Library catalog is a wizarding manual. In the TV series Hilda, the library contains libraries, and the innermost library conceals a witches’ school. A hundred more examples are easily found.

For a bookish child, if they are fortunate, a library is also a clean, well-lighted place and a desk or quarter table of one’s own, well before a room of one’s own becomes possible. It is a site of relative peace, where one can work, or loaf, or learn; where a decimal system is the only hierarchy, and even the forbidden Reference books can be thumbed through for a time.

I don’t remember my first library.

At my second library, the children’s librarian taught me to fold origami cranes and weave silver streamers through a yarn-webbed loom.

My third library was a barrel-roofed glass-block affair, airy and light during the day, warmly lit at night, where the loudest sound, community programs aside, was rain crackling on the metal roof. A single railroad track, like a forgotten splinter off the Northeast Corridor, ran straight into a library window before vanishing. Some wit had set a painted plywood train not far from there, among the children’s books.

From the age of twelve, I was a page in that library. I stamped younger children’s summer reading logs, shelved returns, filed holds, and accumulated, over the course of a day, a stack of books that had caught my eye, to be checked out when I left in the evening. The librarians were kind women who did not mind an unattended child among their desks, dialing their landlines, informing people with great seriousness that I was calling from the library and that their books had arrived.

That library, like any library, contained universes. When I wasn’t working, I tucked myself into a chair and read: mystery, history, Terry Pratchett. I haunted specific regions of the Dewey Decimal System: classics and books on writing (the 800s, halfway down the stacks), psychology (100s, farthest shelf), history or travel (900s). I learned how to summon books from other libraries, or how to conjure a new and fascinating book, not yet acquired, into the library catalog. I was powerful there, as I was nowhere else. And I knew precisely where I belonged: ADULT FIC SF, ADULT FIC, ADULT FIC M, YA, 808.1-3.

A few years later, I was rather put out when I discovered that college libraries used the Library of Congress classification system. It took me a year to figure out those strangely lettered spaces. It took me over three years to locate the extraordinary Cotsen Children’s Library nested within the university library, with its multistory ginkgo tree for small readers to hide in and a secret staircase of amusingly titled wooden books. I never did find the death masks of Keats, Wordsworth, etc., that were said to be present in that library. I did find a staircase leading nowhere.

Ellen Klages’ “In the House of the Seven Librarians,” which I first read in a library book, is a fairy tale about a firstborn child left in a book return. I loved the story and forgot about it until, much later and traveling alone, I attended a reading of Ellen’s in Orlando. I all but fell out my chair when I realized what I was hearing, so suddenly and vividly did that fantasy return to me. It was no less true because I had grown up.

I tell people that I was raised by libraries, which is similar to being raised by wolves, except that one winds up with a larger vocabulary. There was much I did not learn because I was busy reading, not least the correct pronunciation of words. Also: sports. Charm. Social graces. But in libraries I learned about good and evil and the infinite shades of gray between; weaponry, armor, costumes, and folktales of millennia past; countries I did not live in and did not think I could ever visit; countries that did not exist; monuments imaginary, vanished, and real; remarkable and unremarkable lives; oysters; trees; stars; the beauty of language; and the quotidian details of the business of writing.

There was never any question of what I would become. Changeling children raised by libraries, by and large, turn into librarians, booksellers, writers, editors, teachers, publishers, book collectors, and dreamers of dreams, even if only in secret. We never stray too far from the fairy mound.

I still do all my research through libraries. I still ask NYPL librarians suspiciously specific questions, like, “What would an oil painting from around 1910 taste like today?” They answer with enchanting gravity and sorcerous amounts of research.

In the present uncertain times, having moved house in the middle of a pandemic, I retrieve brown paper bags of books, like gifts for a brownie or domovoy, left outside a library I’ve never entered. Someday the curse will lift, and I will. I know which shelves I will be visiting, like old friends.

Oddly enough, after a year without libraries, I am learning that the libraries I loved love me back. The collections that sheltered and helped me all my life are now carrying my first novel, even my first library, the one I have no memory of. At the libraries that I grew up in, my firstborn is now being left in book returns, to live for as long as a library book lives in a clean, well-lighted, interdimensional space, shelved among adventures, satires, anthologies, and facts, which is almost as good, I think, as living there myself.



Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.

The Contract

A week before the Season began, as Mrs. Vanessa Saunders held brunch court at the Empire Hotel, a photo appeared on her phone: a large oak door beneath a pale green sign with silver lettering. Impossible, she thought, flipping the infernal device over before Mrs. Lillian Talbott and Mrs. Caroline Rankenfall, her Fête Noire Charity Ball co-chairs, could glimpse it.

But then their screens lit up too.

“The Atelier!” Lilian murmured. “Impossible!” She shifted in her seat, aware the others were watching her. “I just need to run to the ladies’ room.” Her chair screeched backwards, until Vanessa locked the other woman in her gaze, and held her there.

“Unseelie Brothers,” Caroline said, oblivious to the battle of wills. “My mother used to talk about their gowns. Didn’t you have one, Vanessa? I remember the Post called it—”

Vanessa Saunders’ eyelid twitched. “The Gown of Flowers. Wouldn’t part with it for the world.” She signaled the waiter. “Too bad they’re too late for the Season. Only a fool would try to cancel a Dior or Balenciaga order now, especially on a Saturday. My Merielle has had dresses for months.”

“Oh absolutely, us too,” Lilian Talbott said, trying to rise with both grace and speed.

Around them, other phones lit up with the same excitement. The designer who promised the most beautiful gowns, usually delivered them, then disappeared, was back, and seeking a select few who would gain entrance, but only if they could find the shop. The Empire’s rooftop restaurant swelled with the news that Unseelie Brothers Ltd. had been spotted near Lexington and 78th and then vanished. Women began to gather their purses.

Chin up, with a casual glance at her watch, Vanessa rose from her chair. “There’s always quite a cost associated with these things. We’ll meet again next week. Dear Lilian, can you manage the check?”

Trapped, Lilian nodded, chewing her lip as tables emptied, her fork tumbling noisily to the floor. She watched helplessly as Vanessa led the charge to pull children out of Saturday classes and locate the mythical atelier before anyone else.

from The Social Season, plate 6. The Dress of Mists – Worn by Miss Eurydice Louise, née Mumford Von Hiefenlagger, future Duchess of Ladenspiel, to the Women’s Junior League Winter Ball in 1879. Photo by Jeremy Avedon (possible ancestor of Richard Avedon). This event was notable for several reasons, including the young man who went missing (a rumor) and the number of proposals for that evening. Designer: Beauregard Von Unseelie.

from The Social Season, plate 22. The Suit of Swords – Worn by Prince Reza IV of Persia to the Historical Museum Ball and Gala (before it was replaced by the Artisan’s Fête, and other titles) in 1956. Photo courtesy of the former Ambassador to _______. A shining entrée into the rather staid men’s fashions of the time (white tie, tails), the suit was made to be seen. The event was notable for the number of duels (two) it produced, as well as two couples who were never heard from again (confirmed, assumed elopements). Designer: David d’Unseelie.

Sera Sebastian was too uninterested, and too poor, to worry about the Season. “We have new designs due next week, Rie. And our senior projects. We need to think about graduating. Focus,” she reminded her best friend and cousin, Merielle.

Rie, having recently endured months of fittings at her mother’s insistence, groaned and stared over her shoulder at the bulky coat she’d drawn atop a Fashion Institute-approved croquis. “I think I hate fashion.” She held a bolt of sky blue fabric as Sera draped a mannequin in color.

“I think this will work,” Sera murmured around a mouthful of pins as she arranged fabric and fondly ignored her cousin.

“You’re the one with the talent. I wish I could have worn your gown—” Rie began, as an elevator outside their studio dinged, and Sera chewed her lip. Focus. Yes.

The afternoon sun slanted perfectly through the windows across the beginnings of Sera’s latest design as Mrs. Saunders navigated a forest of dress forms, stools, and workbenches. When she was close enough to touch her daughter’s elbow, she shot a look at Sera that forbade protest. “Merielle. You must come,” she urged. “Unseelie Brothers—the shop that made my gown—has returned! You must find it before anyone else.”

“Mother, I have plenty of dresses and Sera needs—” Rie began.

“Sera understands, and will help us, won’t you, sweetheart?” Mrs. Saunders nodded at Sera, who was already folding her work away, unwilling to fight with her aunt. Rie’s mother paid for Sera’s art classes. She’d threatened more than once to stop if Sera crossed her too much.

Sera’s pulse pounded in her ears. Angry, yes. And curious. She’d heard so many stories about this shop. She and Rie had both seen its creations, including their mothers’ gowns in photographs and discussed in fashion classes. She’d even gotten close enough to almost touch one, once, in Mrs. Saunders’ walk-in closet, as she and Rie were having an after-school snack while Rie’s nanny dozed. “Are you certain?” She hesitated.

“You’ll go!” her aunt said, with the same insistence as she’d used when Sera’s jam-sticky fingers had nearly touched those amazing chiffon flowers that seemed almost alive. The dress hung in its own display frame in the closet, lit from above and below, looking as perfect as it must have a decade before, when Mrs. Saunders wore it and a pair of elbow length calfskin gloves to the Winter Charity Ball. The Gown of Flowers had little competition that year, eclipsed only by Sera’s mother’s own dress, The Butterfly Gown. Which, that dress having disappeared long ago, Sera couldn’t touch at all, so she’d wanted to hold the next best thing. There had been a lot of shouting, back then, an abrupt yank away, and a stern talk with Sera’s father. No one crossed Mrs. Saunders. Or her closet.

Now, Rie closed her sketchbook tightly on the croquis. She put her colored pencils in their case. Sera gazed at the draped cloth she’d just begun to imagine as movement and light in human form, and did the same, feeling resigned. She took one small risk, hoping to free herself from this latest task. “Don’t you want to hunt for the shop yourself, Aunt Vanessa?”

At Sera’s question, the older woman paled. “They might not allow me back inside.” She said it quickly, and Sera wondered if she’d misheard, because a moment later, her aunt pulled herself up to her full height and chuckled, “How silly. I’m a paying customer in good standing. We’ll be fine. You’ll locate the shop and you’ll call me. I’ll stop at the bank, as they expect cash from those who can afford their fees. Go!”

She herded the two young women out of studio. Once on the street, Rie glanced occasionally at the image of the door on her phone, while Sera kept her eyes peeled. After only a few blocks, they caught sight of the Talbott twins, weaving their way down Madison Avenue. A cab ride later, they spotted Odelle Rankenfall and her friend Elizabeth Dorchester in the West Village, peering into alleys and checking the map on their phones. They weren’t the only ones on the hunt. Silently, Sera wished them well.

The girls turned left at 68th, near a shuttered chocolate shop, and veered almost too close to their favorite second-hand store. “No, not today.” Sera pulled Rie away from the window, knowing she would be in trouble, not Rie, if they didn’t at least put on a good show of finding the store. They took the subway to 35th, and walked the garment district until their feet ached, without finding the green sign. The sun was sinking into the fangs of the towers when Sera muttered, “Oh, dammit.”

Because there it was. Just as Mrs. Saunders had, over numerous dinners and brunches, described how she’d come by her own spectacular gown for her debut Season. How she’d captured the heart of her very own prince that night—in the form of Mr. Saunders, and in no small part because of her perfect gown. She left out details, of course. Including important ones concerning Sera’s mother.

Sera and Rie stood before the broad oak doors, wound with metal vines for hinges, set beside a narrowly arched, darkened window. Sera remembered those details and shivered. It was all a little bit strange, the way the story changed each time her aunt told it, and to whom: how she and her sister Serena spent all they had on their gowns—The Butterfly Gown and The Gown of Flowers—or that they’d gotten them last minute, at discount, or that they had been surprised with them by a well-off relative—and then how well they’d done at the ball, how lucky Mr. Saunders and Mr. Sebastian had been.

Whatever the story, Sera was quite certain that moments before the shop had not been on 38th street, crammed between an established jeweler and a new shoe store. But there it was, green sign swinging above the window and blank, headless mannequins, peering out at the street. Beyond the muslin models stretched velvet darkness, (pricked by a few tiny lights, Sera thought, but couldn’t be sure).

“It’s closed,” Rie sighed, similarly relieved. The green sign swung in the wind as she texted her mother the news. Her fingers had barely left the screen when the phone rang. Even Sera could hear her aunt’s joy over the speaker, demanding the address.

“Don’t DO anything until I get there. Don’t touch anything! And absolutely do not let it leave!”

The young women stared at each other, unsure of how to accomplish either order, much less both.

A couple pushed past them on the sidewalk, eyes on one another. A woman with a double stroller gave them a wide berth, plowing towards some distant goal. Sera’s stomach growled and she thought impatiently of her design project. Due in two weeks, and still just a bolt of fabric. She wanted to get back to the studio, now that she’d done what Rie’s mother had wanted. Still, she felt a moment of pride. Despite not having the right pedigree for the Season, she’d found the shop that everyone who did was searching for.

Her mother had worn one of these gowns, yes. But her mother was long gone, wasn’t she. And the gown with her, only a few months after Sera was born. When asked, Aunt Vanessa would purse her lips and shake her head, as if implying Sera herself might have had something to do with that. She fled. Such disgrace, such a flighty girl. Not suited for this world.

To avoid her aunt’s reprobation, Sera resolved early not to be curious about the shop, or the Season, though sometimes she couldn’t help it.

The sign, the name—Unseelie Brothers—made Sera wonder who was behind the doors. What magic could they work, what could she learn, given the opportunity?

These gowns had brought everyone in her life together: her aunt and Mr. Saunders. Her mother and her father. But not quite in the same ways. Sam Sebastian had been working the event, not attending, when Serena and Vanessa had appeared at the ball. Serena had become Sera’s father’s muse that very night. And despite everyone’s cautions, they’d married even more quickly, at the courthouse. Sera, born seven months after that, was, according to her aunt’s taut words, a perfect scandal.

But now that Sera had found the store, perhaps her aunt would let up a little on the reprobation. Maybe, Sera thought, I’ll get a peek inside, before getting the heck out of here. But the window was too dark. The door, very much locked.

At least the shop was staying put.

Rie slumped against an oak panel, scrolling her phone. “I don’t want to do the Season, not without you, Sera. I hate the balls. And the stodgy people. I refuse to try on any more gowns. Your dress would have been so much better.”

Sera, having less than no choice in that matter, kept quiet. She’d offered to design a gown for her cousin months ago. Rie had said a delighted yes. Then Mrs. Saunders found out, and then everyone pretended as if that had never happened.

Twenty minutes passed before a yellow cab screeched to a stop beside them. Rie’s mother emerged, ensconced in a green Versace cape and pale gloves, gold and gems glittering among the layers, her makeup perfectly retouched to make her seem even more intimidating. How she’d had time to freshen up and go to the bank, both, baffled Sera.

Mrs. Saunders beamed at her daughter, paid the driver, and, once she’d pulled the rest of her cloak from the cab, stared at the door in disbelief, edged with something like fear. Sera had never seen her aunt look afraid.

“It looks just the same.” Mrs. Saunders reached a gloved hand towards the door. Quickly, she recoiled and shook her fingers as if the handle had stung her. “What now, what now. I need a pen.” She looked left and right, then dug in her handbag, as the Talbott twins rounded the corner at a run.

“Mum!” Rie said, more due to the energy of the hunt and the fact that she found the twins awful and pushy than out of any desire to gain entrance to a closed shop.

Sera offered Mrs. Saunders a plastic sharpie marker—Call 1-800-ArtSupply—and her aunt scribbled a note on the glove, signed her name with a flourish and stuffed it through the door’s mail slot.

They waited, feeling ridiculous, as the Talbott twins edged closer, texting.

No one seemed more surprised than Mrs. Saunders when the lights came on inside the atelier immediately. And no one was more shocked than Sera, when she glimpsed her own long-gone mother’s face in the shadows of the shop.

“Aunt Vanessa—look,” Sera whispered, before the doors swung open, then began to shut again.

“Quickly.” Mrs. Saunders pushed them over the threshold. The doors slammed closed right in front of the Talbott twins, their chiseled GQ smiles tumbling into glares at the window.

“We’ve done it!” Mrs. Saunders clapped her hands—one gloved, one ungloved—together. She peered into the darkness. “Hello?”

Sera heard the rustle of wings.

She realized she could not move. None of them were able to step beyond the row of mannequins, any further into the shop. Mrs. Saunders tried, calling out in dismay. Rie was too entranced by the sparkling ceiling to notice.

Did I really see my mother? Sera started to doubt. The face had been young—her age, not sun-spotted like her aunt’s. Probably just my own reflection.

Then a gust of wind battered them, smelling like it came from deep within the earth.

“Welcome!” A tall young man in a quilted jacket and chiffon skirt beamed at the trio, the curve of his lips a mere tolerance, though his eyes sparkled. His hair was a deep purple and his fingers, when he clasped Sera’s hand, were long and pale. “What have we here?” He moved on to Rie, staring deep into her green eyes. “Ahhh, the Season must be upon us. And this is New York, am I right?”

As if there were any question. As if Rie’s mother wasn’t already messaging her co-chairs to let them know she’d gained entrance first. When the young man approached her, Sera and Rie were stunned to see Mrs. Saunders dip the deepest curtsey possible to him. “Sir. I paid for a gown from your shop, long ago. I wish another for my daughter. Whatever the cost.”

A smile broke across the man’s still face. “Vanessa. How nice to see you again. Please call me Beau. And gowns for both young ladies?”

“Both?” Sera’s aunt blinked, confused. Then she said, “No. For my Merielle. The other’s not mine.”

Sera took a long survey of the shop’s black and white walls, blinking once or twice. But she stayed quiet. She’d be able to leave her aunt’s presence soon, having done her duty. She wondered if she might return and look around the shop again later.

As if he could read her thoughts, the atelier’s owner smiled even more sharply. “Then perhaps she is ours,” he said, under his breath. He turned back to Rie, not looking anywhere but her eyes. “You will do nicely.”

Rie bristled, and Sera did as well. But Mrs. Saunders caught each girl by an arm, her fingers sharp on their sleeves, freezing them both. “Merielle will be delighted, sir.”

At the slightest twitch of the young man’s hand, the three of them moved forward, beyond the row of mannequins. Before them, a broad, velvet-curtained clearing took up the center of the shop, its circumference sparkling with mirrors. Several soft benches, patterned in vines, invited, but Sera didn’t dare sit down.

Shop attendants’ shadows played around the edges of things. One, Sera noticed, had a mouth that glittered with pins.

Beyond the mirrors, Sera saw once more her mother’s face, as young as she’d been in the only photograph Sera’s father had kept. As still as that photograph, in fact. Sera was disappointed to discover more life-sized images displayed around the showroom. Girls and boys, all Rie’s and Sera’s ages, captured in black and white along the walls. Sera’s mother among them. Not real, then. Nor her dress of butterflies.

Rie whispered again, but this time her voice had a tinge of awe. “Loooook.” She pulled Sera towards a sparkling strapless gown, slit up the side, a glittering beaded confection gracing the sheerest fabric Sera had ever seen. She read the label. “The Ice Queen.”

“Absolutely not,” Rie’s mother steered them back to pictures of thousand-button silks and gently draped sleeves in the shop catalogue. Sera tried not to get caught wrinkling her nose. The designs didn’t seem groundbreaking at all. They looked a bit fussy, most of them, except The Ice Queen. That one practically danced by itself.

“Mother.” Now Rie was not whispering.

“We will conspire for something very special,” Beau gestured at someone beyond the mirrors. Moments later, a dress was laid across his arms like a child. Behind him, two assistants carried shoes and necklaces. Mrs. Saunders looked at them hungrily.

“We thought the young lady might be interested in something more.” With a flourish, a muslin dress hung between the mirrors and Rie’s eyes went wide as a projector illuminated it with a design: a flock of white birds circling the waist and bust.

“Oh,” she whispered, entranced.

“The Murmuration,” Beau intoned.

“Perhaps,” Mrs. Saunders said.

Sera, momentarily freed as her cousin became lost in the attention, texted her father where they were. Would you like to have dinner? It would be good to see him. She settled in to wait for Mrs. Saunders to release her completely, occasionally murmuring “That’s lovely,” before turning back to her phone, waiting on his reply. Her stomach growled.

“We are sorry, Miss, no phones allowed in the store, you understand.” A soft voice, right at Sera’s ear.

Sera startled. For one moment, the shopgirl with the mouthful of pins seemed to bristle—cheeks, shoulders, nose, lips—outlined in sharp metal. Then the light shifted, and the girl gazed pale-eyed at Sera, a jewel-pierced eyebrow raised.

“I apologize.” Sera stuffed her phone in her pocket. She picked at the smooth cushion and watched her best friend emerge from the dressing room once more and parade the mirrors in a different muslin, with pale flames lapping the hemline. “The Bonfire.”

“I think not,” Mrs. Saunders said, tersely.

This is going to be a long evening. Sera felt the trap close over her, locking her away from her project. Sera’s unofficial role for as long as she could remember had been acting as a mirror for Rie: encouragement or discouragement, or both. Rie had refused all invitations to the Season’s charity balls, until Mrs. Saunders declared that Sera would be allowed to watch from the galleries. “Maybe she’ll pick up some ideas for her own shop someday. If you agree to go.”

How Sera disliked being used in this way. But Vanessa was her mother’s sister. Her father had said they needed to be patient with her demands. Her mother’s disappearance had been a terrible loss, for all of them. “It makes her try to control everything,” he’d explained, drying Sera’s tears after the incident with the dress. “So that nothing more can disappear.”

Now Mrs. Saunders looked as watchful as a hunter, at Beau, as if the atelier might evaporate at any moment. At the door, as if the Talbotts might burst in. At anything but the photographs on the walls.

“Do not worry, Madame Vanessa. As long as you are here and our fees are paid, no one else may enter,” Beau said, reading her mind. “As a valued client, in good standing, your happiness, and your daughter’s, are our sole focus.”

Mrs. Saunders nodded, relieved. She sat heavily on Sera’s couch, the bulk of her cloak nearly pushing Sera off the edge. Sera rose and drifted towards the rejected gowns to study how they were made. Her fingers grazed the glowing beads of The Ice Queen and its neighbors. The delicate fabric—what did the shop favor? Charmeuse? Velvet? Crepe? Not quite any of those. And the way even the muslin mock-ups were constructed! She could barely see the seams.

By the time she turned back to her cousin, Rie had rejected “Nature Conquers,” which looked like living vines wrapping her from neck to feet. Mrs. Saunders had waved away “Ad Astra” as being far too bright. And no one was interested in “The Warrior,” which, to Sera’s touch, was not made of fabric at all, but the lightest and smallest of chain mail.

Sera’s stomach growled. Dinner. Necessary. Soon, she texted quickly to Rie, trying to not get caught. She saw her father had answered—How dare she take you there? Then Mrs. Saunders’ own phone was an angry bee in her handbag. Mrs. Saunders ignored the noise, her eyes on the atelier.

Come home, Sera’s father texted again. I’ll make pizza.

At a glare from Mrs. Saunders, Sera put her phone away.

A necklace dangled from a nearby hanger, sharp, like Sera’s hunger. She unclasped it and lifted the links towards her neck, hesitating with the clasp.

Long fingers covered her own. “Let me do this for you,” the shop owner said. His voice was soft. “The connection has a trick to it.”

When he’d finished, Sera looked in the mirror and jumped a little. Her mother’s photograph, behind her, appeared in the mirror as well. Serena. Her gown had been made of butterflies. In the photograph, they’d seemed about to fly away.

Standing in front of this image, Sera touched the necklace that wrapped her throat in thorns. She loved it immediately.

“It suits you,” the shopgirl whispered.

“You must have it,” the owner agreed.

“I could never,” Sera replied firmly, though her fingers drifted the cool metal. The way it felt against her skin? As if she was prepared for battle, as if even the worst of her was better than the best of so many others? Oh she wanted it. “I can’t imagine what it costs.”

She began to take it off, but her fingers could not find the clasp.

“It likes you,” the shopgirl whispered, through her mouth filled with pins. “We are looking for afternoon help, if you would like to trade. Only until the Season begins.”

A week’s time. Impossible. She had classes.

“I have nowhere to wear it,” Sera protested, but she knew she was already going to say yes. A job, in fashion.

“But Sera? Our classes!” Rie’s voice from the fitting room, came in quiet, jealous protest. As if her mother would allow her to do such a thing.

Sera nodded once, fast, before they could take the offer back.

The shopgirl winked, a smile spreading wider than Sera thought possible. “I’m Dora. I’m the newest here…or was!” She disappeared, then returned holding a contract still warm from the printer. “All you have to do is sign.”

Sera liked that feeling, of being included, not just dragged along. But then she hesitated. “I haven’t—I need to ask my dad.” He would want to know. He wouldn’t like it.

She gestured to take of the necklace and Dora shook her head. “Enjoy it—we know you’ll be back!” It was a gesture of trust that made Sera want to say yes right there, but she resisted.

Meantime, Rie and her mother had agreed upon a gown—The Murmuration, with some adjustments.

“It is a good, safe, dress,” Mrs. Saunders smiled. “Not too much. But sure to make a lasting impression.”

Rie sighed, the Ice Queen Gown, and, Sera realized, her own designs, almost entirely forgotten. “I think it’s the best one.”

“There will be one more fitting,” the owner boomed. “And when is the event?”

When Mrs. Saunders named the date, Beau’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline. “That soon.”

There was a long, dark pause. Rie turned to her mother, eyes welling with want. She’d shifted to certainty, in love with an impossible gown, in love with the idea of appearing before everyone who mattered, in that gown. So much for everything she’d said about Sera’s work. About the Season itself.

Sera crumbled her fist as if she could squash the designs she’d drawn for Rie, in secret. Her other hand went to her neck, where the necklace was. She would say yes, no matter what her father thought.

Rie’s mother looked nervously between Rie’s expression and the smile Beau aimed at her, possibly remembering her own ball. “We will, of course, pay for the expedience,” Mrs. Saunders said. “I will need time to gather the funds.”

“Then we will see you again, at this time next week.” The young man held out his arms as if he would embrace them all.

When the doors swung wide again, it was as if no time had passed outside. The Talbott twins were waiting with their mother. Both boys peered inside the shop excitedly as Mrs. Saunders swept Rie and Sera past the bare mannequins, and then out the door, very pleased with herself. “Good luck, Lilian!” she called, magnanimously, before hailing a cab.

The Fitting

“A job? No.”

“Dad, please. If I can do it, then I’ll have something amazing on my resume—imagine if you’d gotten a solo show at the Whitney, while still at the institute—please.” Sera hated begging, but she’d never seen him so resolute. It was true that everyone at the atelier had seemed a little sharp-edged, but they knew so many things about fashion that she didn’t. “It’s real world experience.” She didn’t mention the necklace, which she’d hidden with a carefully draped scarf.

“You’re nineteen. If I try to stop you, that will only make things worse.” He barely turned from the charcoal sketch he was working on, a whirl of butterflies, white on a thick, gray sheet of paper. His hand shook.

She let the tears build up at the back of her eyes. She wanted his approval. The silence became unbreathable.

Finally, he filled it. “Your aunt should know better. That shop is unpredictable. What if it disappears again? With you in it?” His entire posture said, No. “Or without paying you? They’ve done it before—left people high and dry for orders, for years, and then suddenly they’re back, gowns delivered to the children of those who ordered them, and a bill to match. It’s appalling. Sera, be reasonable.”

He sounded so much angrier than made sense.

“You don’t understand. You don’t care about fashion.” He was an artist—why didn’t he understand? She knew he paid the bills with marketing work. Their apartment in Queens could have fit inside one of the Saunders’ walk-in closets in their Brooklyn Heights high-rise. Sera loved him, but she wanted something more.

“I’ve seen too much of it up close,” he agreed. “Your mother would know what to do.”

He never mentioned Sera’s mother, unless he was truly sad. He glanced at the photo he kept on his bedside table, in an iron frame: the same image, Sera realized, from the shop.

Sera flinched. She didn’t want to make him sad. “I’m sorry, Dad. It’s okay. I can get another internship this summer through the college.”

And she did mean it. She had no real need for that necklace. She meant it right until he wrapped his arms around her, saying, “You’re so much like her. A mirror image.” Then, before she could tell him about the photograph, he turned back to his painting.

Sera ran her fingers across her scarf, feeling the thorns beneath. The face behind her in the mirror could have been her own, today. She had to return. Sera pulled the employment contract from her bag.

He heard the paper rustle, but never turned around, knowing he couldn’t stop her. “Remember, Sera, just because someone hires you doesn’t mean they can make you do anything they want. Or that you owe them.”

Sera’s art-supply pen hovered above the contract. “I’ll remember.” She signed her name and tucked it in her bag, ready to learn everything Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. could teach her, for the Season, at least.

from The Social Season, plate 76. The Butterfly Gown, worn by a Serena (née)_____(unknown) Sebastian to the Spring Charity Gala of 1998. She attended with her sister Vanessa (née) ______ (unknown) Saunders, and soon after married one of the event’s busboys. Saunders herself married the scion of the Saunders soap fortune. The event was notable in that several young women and men were discovered the following morning, on the roof, wearing bacchanalian-styled greenery and nothing more, by hotel staff at The Pierre. Photo by Mrs. Vanessa Saunders. Designers: Dora Unseelie and Beau Unseelie, Sr.

Sera didn’t see much of the inside of the Fashion Institute studio after that. On Monday, she attended class, then rushed through midtown, trying to find the shop. She arrived late, having found Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. wedged awkwardly between the Museum of Modern Art and a high-end residence next door.

“I’m sorry, I thought you’d planned to be in the East Village today,” she wheezed.

Dora patted her hand. “We’d thought so too, but the light is much better here.” She wrote a number on Sera’s palm. “This is the emergency line, do not share it with anyone. If you cannot find us, call.”

Sera memorized it, and then helped Dora carry bolts of shining fabric to the locked doors of the back room. The front door chimed before Dora could open the locks. “New customers,” Beau sang out, and the shop transformed before Sera’s eyes, the shadows growing thicker, the lights higher. She thought she heard birdsong.

Odelle Rankenfall stood beside the bare mannequins, tapping her foot. Her mother held her coat. When Dora and Sera approached them, Odelle grew outraged. “Where is the atelier himself? Now that we’ve found the place, I don’t want to take my fitting with a shopgirl.” She looked straight past Sera, as if she wasn’t there.

“My regrets, I was detained,” Beau said as he appeared. He ushered them back, snapped his fingers, and Sera gasped as Odelle’s dresses appeared on the mannequins.

“Circus stunt,” Odelle murmured to her mother. “How gauche.”

“You would rather wear your other gowns, madame?” Beau said, his smile taut as ever.

“Of course not,” Odelle said. “I’ll have the best, just like Merielle and the twins. Let’s see it.”

She changed into a muslin and, as Dora was helping her into new shoes, gave the shopgirl the slightest kick. Sera bristled. So did Dora, her hands pricking Odelle.

“Mother, tell them to stop torturing me.”

Sera fumed, but Dora pulled her aside. “Our delight is to help each customer find their ideal. We will help her. They will pay. And we will move on.”

Behind them, beyond the locked doors of the back room, sewing machines whirred—Sera realized that was the birdsong sound—and the cutting room scissors went snick snick. Sera’s blood kept time with it all. “Fine. But she’s horrid.”

When Dora smiled, her teeth seemed honed to sharp pins by the lights. “We like horrid, sometimes.” The shopgirl showed Sera how to drape the mångata fabric Odelle had ordered just so, and how to avoid the girl’s sharp heel. The fabric sat perfectly. When Odelle turned in the mirror, the gown they would call “The Water’s Edge” gleamed like a full moon on the ocean.

Sera had never felt so proud as when Beau nodded approvingly in her direction. She noticed the tendril of water seeping from the gown and stooped to clean it up.

“Let it be,” Dora said, her customer-service smile almost beatific. “Let her get used to it. Who knows, she may drown in that dress come next week.”

“You are terrifying,” Sera whispered.

Dora smiled then, for real. “We are, a little, aren’t we?” And she clasped Sera’s hand.

Sera beamed. “We are.”

By midweek, Sera skipped a class. Just the one. All right, two. She’d be back next week, she swore. Besides, inside the busy atelier, with the lights glittering, she’d begun drawing new designs. So many more than she had in her classes. Her fingers danced over the pages of her sketchbook, arraying the croquis in impossible gowns.

Other shops were furious, she’d heard. But they could never find Unseelie Brothers to complain. Designers from around the city took to social media to shout their grievances. Which made the atelier even more desirable. And the shop even busier.

Now and then, Sera passed the workroom door, and pressed her ear against it. The sewing machines never ceased. When the fabric for The Murmuration arrived, she hoped to see the seamstresses and designers at work. But the bolt was so heavy, and swirled so magnificently, the delivery men lost their grip on it and Sera and Dora had to spend several minutes luring the gown-to-be down from the eaves. Dora’s hair tumbled from her bun as they ran to find the birdseed they kept for emergencies. Once the fabric was contained and had been locked behind the thick doors to the back room, Dora caught Sera trying to peer through the lock, and pulled her gently away.

“Have you lost something?”

Someone, Sera wanted to say, but didn’t. She didn’t want Dora to think poorly of her as well.

In the silence, Dora lifted the sketchbook from Sera’s hand and, without asking, turned the pages.

“These are so good, Sera. You have a talent. Sir, come look,” Dora exclaimed. “You do beautiful work!”

Beau approached and pointed out a few things Sera could adjust on a shoulder, at a hem, as Dora looked on.

Sera, despite herself, glowed at the praise. The idea that these designers thought her work was good enough to comment on astounded her. She ran a finger along a table littered with sequins and seed pearls. She touched her necklace as Dora, still flipping through the sketchbook, found Sera’s favorite design. “Oooooh.”

“It’s just all right,” Sera demurred.

“It’s magnificent,” Dora said.

Beau disagreed. “Let me see.” He held out an imperious hand and studied the gown. Then he winked at her. “I knew you were one of us. Let’s make a mock-up of this one. We will call it The Gown of Thorns.”

Sera’s heart pounded. “I don’t even know what fabric to use.” She reached for the sketchbook. She’d been looking forward to drifting the fabric store aisles. Selecting findings. Figuring out transitions from design, to fabric, to form, on her own.

But Dora’s smile worked at her until she grinned too. The shop could certainly show her how to add drama to the gown. It might make the ideal senior project. “Okay.”

“We have just the fabric!” Dora leapt up and ran to the sewing room door. Her enthusiasm rippled the room in light. Sera was, she realized, blissfully happy surrounded by that light. Dora disappeared into the sewing room and left the door ajar. Sera followed. Inside, the machines—old Singers, new 3-D printers, and everything in between—waited, surrounded by fireflies and shadows. “Let’s get to work. We’ll be a fantastic team.” Dora pulled out a seat for each of them and began showing Sera how the atelier worked its magic on fabric and metal.

Before she knew it, Beau was at the door, announcing customers. Rie, arrived for her fitting. The fireflies disappeared.

“But that is days from now,” Sera protested. She looked for her dress, but it was gone. Her stomach rumbled. She was starving.

“Time is a bit strange back here,” Dora smiled with sharp teeth. She pulled Sera back through the door and shut it tight.

From the doorway, Rie waved at Sera. “I’ve missed you! You haven’t answered my texts!”

Sera looked around the shop, confused. Outside, she could clearly see Madison Avenue. When had the shop moved? Her father’s worries swept over her and disappeared again in the face of more pressing concerns: her aunt. Sera and Dora had been so busy working on Sera’s designs, had anyone finished Merielle’s gown? What would Aunt Vanessa say?

When Rie walked past the bare mannequins that afternoon, the muslin shapes glittered; and suddenly three gowns dazzled, draped over their headless forms. A lightning dress. The dress made of swallows in murmuration. And, impossibly, Sera’s new design. The Gown of Thorns.

Sera couldn’t take her eyes off of it. It was perfect. Her hand went to her throat, where the necklace rested. Yes. She would turn the gown in for her final project. It would be glorious.

Mrs. Saunders waited, her foot tapping on the sofa. She cleared her throat until Dora and Sera brought down The Murmuration Gown. Getting Rie into it gown took extra care—the birds’ tiny beaks were sharp.

But once she saw her reflection in the mirror, Rie shook her head. “It’s not right.” Her eyes went back to the mannequins.

“What do you mean? It’s everything we’ve asked for, Merielle.” Mrs. Saunders glared at the room for a moment, before settling her gaze on Sera as the safest person to blame.

Beau’s smile never faded. “Of course, young lady. We can fit you for something else.” He raised an eyebrow at Mrs. Saunders, who sighed and finally nodded. “Do you see anything you like?”

“That one,” Rie’s fingers pointed towards the dress of thorns. Sera’s dress. Sera fought to stay quiet. She didn’t want Rie to have it. That was hers.

But the customer, it is said, is always right.

Sera watched Rie try on her gown. It fit perfectly. The gown that had, Sera thought, been just a sketch not long ago. And then it had been real. And now it was gone. She felt empty inside.

Sera’s aunt beamed at Beau. “What a marvelous design. I do hope you were paying attention when it was made, Sera.”

Beau said nothing, and neither did Sera. Her cousin left the store with Sera’s gown in her arms, barely waving at Sera. “I’ll see you before the ball!” Then her mother tucked her into a cab.

“That was quite profitable!” Beau said. “You have a grand future here, young lady. If you want it.”

Sera’s fingers went to the necklace, even as her eyes drifted to her mother’s photograph. She remembered her father’s words. “My contract ends with the ball,” she murmured, not wanting to get caught up in the shop. She missed the studio and designing dresses the old-fashioned way.

Dora pouted. “Please reconsider. It has been so inspiring having another designer—not just a shopgirl! —here.” She looked at Beau, as if daring him to speak. “We want to keep you.”

“We will renegotiate,” Beau said. The machines in the back room grew louder. We like your work, the machines said to Sera. You should design more. Drop your classes. Stay with us. We have much to teach you. “Perhaps you would like to hear from your mother?”

“How?” Sera whispered.

And Beau showed her a notice of sale, just listed on a couture consignment site: Original Unseelie Bros, Ltd. Butterfly Gown, worn once. Contact Mrs. Vanessa Saunders for listing price.

from The Social Season, plate 112. The Escort’s Silver Cloak—a bespoke item for Mr. James Elandin III, created as a gift for Mr. Michael Blandheim III, who escorted Mr. Elandin’s sister to the Cloisters and Woodlands Ball of 2012. This ball, while highly successful, did not repeat, as only two attendees can vouch for, or remember it occurring at all. Photograph by the Museum of Modern Art, for its collection. Design by D.B. Von Siolagh.

Sera pounded on her aunt’s apartment door until her hand throbbed. When Rie opened it, shocked, saying “Sera, what in the world?” Sera pushed past her cousin, until she found her aunt in her dressing room.

“Where is it? Did you sell it?” Her voice sounded ragged, like she was a child again.

“You’ve been working too hard,” her aunt said. “You should quit that old shop. Go back to classes.”

“They’ve made me quite an offer,” Sera replied. She held up her new contract.

Mrs. Saunders paled. “Rie,” she called. “Leave us.” When Rie obliged and the dressing room door closed, she reached out and took her niece’s hand. “You cannot sign this, Sera. There’s no end to it.”

“Did you sell my mother’s gown? To pay for Rie’s?”

“No,” her aunt finally said. “I took the ad down. I couldn’t bear to part with it, after all. It’s valuable, Sera. But your mother’s memory? Worth so much more.” She turned to the closet and lifted The Gown of Flowers away from its display frame. Behind it, a panel, when pressed, slid open. In the shadows, a butterfly wing fluttered. Then another.

“That’s not yours,” Sera sputtered. She reached out to touch the delicate wings. “What else are you hiding?”

Vanessa Saunders shook her head sadly. “Never accept a contract without knowing your own worth. Your mother gave up everything for this dress, for time with your father. I shouldn’t have kept it from you.” She stepped aside and let Sera take the dress down from its hooks.

The fabric felt so light, and it rustled.

“Occasionally, there are incidents with the dresses. But you will find her there, what’s left of her,” Beau had said, from the doorway of Unseelie Brothers. “You can free her if you like.” He’d handed Sera a seam ripper, and she’d tucked it into her bag.

With her aunt hovering at her side, Sera looked at the gown closely, and realized that these were real, pale white, butterflies. Their wings had words written on them. The creatures had been living on the dress, in her aunt’s closet, the whole time.

She bit back her anger and began to separate the seams. One white butterfly flew free, then another. As the threads broke beneath the seam ripper, butterflies landed on Sera’s shoulders, and in her hair, whispering. Soft wings brushed her temples.

“Sera, stop!”

But Sera wasn’t listening to her aunt any longer. Instead, she heard her mother’s voice, telling her the real story. How Serena and her sister Vanessa had worked their way out of the sewing room at the Atelier. How Vanessa had stolen them dresses and snuck them into the ball. And how, despite everything, they had both fallen for mortals. One who could pay for a gown like this, and one who could not. Sam Sebastian probably never understood there was such a price.

Sera’s fingers shook, and a few butterflies began to crumble into dust. Those that didn’t flew wider circles around the room. They swooped over Vanessa, who sat down hard on the bed and stared, unable to speak.

Sera knew now: her mother had been a dressmaker. More than that. An Unseelie. A member of the family. Like Dora and Beau. And now she was leaving Sera. Through tears, Sera went to her aunt’s window and opened it.

“No!” Aunt Vanessa found her voice, but the butterflies were already streaming out into the city. Sera clutched the remaining fabric of the dress to her chest and watched them go.

“I thought I could free her,” she cried.

“You did,” Aunt Vanessa said. Her eyes looked haunted. “That dress took more than she could give. Even as she was welcoming you into the world, she knew this. Serena hid what was left of herself in that gown, as a message to us. To you.”

Sera stared at her. “And you kept it from me.”

“Sera, you must understand. The dresses, they sometimes…do things to the dancers. Good things, often, and well worth it. And some not so good things. The Atelier weaves its fingers into everything during the Season, and everyone comes out changed. If they come out. We were hoping to get away from that. We paid for it.”

“Perhaps she will drown in her own dress,” Dora had said, days ago, about Odelle. She’d meant it.

Sera shuddered. Rie’s dress—Sera’s design—was made of thorns. “How could you risk Rie like this?” What was worth that?

“A future of happiness? A lifetime of successes? Those things are worth a price that we few can afford to pay,” Vanessa said.

“But not everyone can.” Sera knelt on the floor of her aunt’s dressing room, studying the remains of her mother’s gown. By morning, she was covered in pale butterfly dust and tiny threads, and the dress was gone. But Sera felt her mother’s energy coursing through her. She would not go to the ball. She would not disappear. And neither would Rie.

“Rie!” Sera called for her cousin, as her aunt quietly left the room. Before the sun was fully up, Sera had adjusted The Gown of Thorns to her particular specifications.

“I don’t understand what you did, but this is much more comfortable now, thank you!” Rie embraced her. Sera found the clasp for her necklace, undid it, and placed the matching jewelry around her cousin’s neck.

When Rie left the room, Sera spread the new contract Beau had pressed upon her out on the carpet. She took out her cheap plastic pen, and went to work on the pages, writing in new terms. For each design of hers they sold, Sera would gain interest in the shop itself. The same for Dora, for believing in her. No more shopgirls, they.

When Sera returned to the atelier, she signed the contract with a flourish. One small white butterfly fluttered in her dark hair. She didn’t brush it away.

Beau, unsettled by the butterfly, only glanced at the additions. He signed with a shaking hand, and went back to the workroom.

Then Sera posted the store’s emergency number to social media.

By the day of the ball, she’d made twenty designs of her own, sold them all, and Beau was so ecstatic, he set even more stars in the Atelier ceiling.

The Murmuration gown—made of tiny white starlings, that swirl just beyond the viewer’s gaze. Worn by Mrs. Mimi, née Mumford Price, 2022, at the Stolen Hearts Hospital Winter Ball. The event is notable in that several dozen attendees were treated at the hospital after a spate of food poisoning that left them all semi-catatonic, and without memory of the evening. Design by Dora Unseelie.

The Ball

Seamstresses do not often go to balls. Instead, Sera and Dora watched, exhausted and triumphant, from the floor of the showroom at the center of Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. as their gowns made the Season’s first gala magical. They sipped champagne while the shop’s mirrors showed them revelers entering, curtseying, and beginning to circle the ballroom at The Empire Hotel, in complicated patterns that moved ever faster. When the orchestra picked up the tempo, the dancers became a blur, and the gowns transformed.

The Lighting Gown shocked a dancer’s escort. The Ocean and Moon Gown seemed to grow heavier on Odelle until she had to sit down. She was found drenched in the restrooms, but alive, much later. Dora’s sharp laughter echoed in the empty store.

Sera watched her aunt, beaming, as Rie danced with her escorts. Sera’s gown swirled protectively around her cousin. The tiny stitches Sera had put in among the thorns turned to blossoms, and Rie didn’t suffer a single scratch, nor did her aunt. Sera understood now, her aunt’s fear, her sorrow and guilt. And she wanted none of it for Rie.

Fireflies wove through the store as Sera and Dora watched more Unseelie gowns transport their wearers. Beau joined them, humming along with the orchestra. “My favorite time of all,” he said. “Look how beautiful they are. And they know it. No matter the cost. Meanwhile, look how powerful we’ve grown with so many new clients.” Across the ballroom, dancers fell in love with each other, and with their own reflections. They became what they were wearing, for a moment. If they were lucky. Or forever, if they were not.

But not Rie. Sera had made sure her cousin was safe.

For others, there was a cost. The Talbott boys grew tails and hooves to go with their custom tuxedos. (They woke up the next day with pounding headaches and began trading stocks like the world was on fire.)

As the music ended, the Unseelie court beyond the sewing room doors laughed itself to sleep: the machines finally quiet, the scissors at rest. Sera’s aunt crossed the ballroom, and stepped through a mirror, into the shop. She wore The Gown of Flowers. “I have come to pay what I owe to my niece.” She curtsied deep, before Beau, Dora, and Sera.

Sera helped her down from the mirror. “You could have told me,” she said. “You could have let me see her.”

“I was terrified,” her aunt said. “I’m not any longer.”

A white butterfly circled the darkness above the Atelier, among the fireflies. Sera smiled.

“Perhaps we are all a little terrifying,” Sera agreed. “Thank you for bringing me home. Tell my father, I’ll see him soon.” She sent Aunt Vanessa back to the Fête Noire, her gown shimmering around her until it bloomed again, with black flowers this time. The next day, Mrs. Vanessa Saunders’ transformational gown made page six, and Lillian Talbott was beside herself with jealousy. Sales at the shop increased again.

A week later, Rie returned to class, music in her ears, and a sharp determination to graduate in her mind. Sera submitted The Gown of Thorns as her senior project, and soon after, they walked commencement together, with their families, mortal and not, watching proudly.

And a few days after that, when Beau tried to move the shop, he found that he could not.

“It won’t budge without our permission,” Sera said.

“We’ve sold enough gowns to take a majority interest,” Dora added. “From now on, we’re a team.”

Her laughter echoed around the room, startling The Murmuration off its mannequin. They managed to capture it before its buyer arrived for her fitting that afternoon.

from The Social Season, plate 123. The Gown of Thorns, worn by Ms. Merielle Saunders, twice so far. First at the Fête Noir Charity Ball in 2022; then at the Defenders’ Ball for Workers’ Justice in 2023. No incidents have been reported at any of these balls or events. Designer: Sera Sebastian Unseelie, Unseelie Family, Ltd.


(Editors’ Note: “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” is read by Erika Ensign on on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 40A.)

The Uncanny Valley

Hugo the Cat is poised at the window, ready to fight the birds, squirrels, and bunnies. Green tulip tips are escaping from the earth. Tree pollen confuses our sinuses into filling up in the most uncomfortable ways. Three days ago, it was 17 degrees out.

Ah, it’s SPRING in Illinois!

A year ago, the Thomases were moving into our new home. The world was locked down, and we had no idea how long the pandemic would rage. Nor did we know if by 2021 the US would have a more competent and less corrupt government leading the response.

It’s been a hard and too often tragic road to this spring, but for the first time in ages, there’s some hope of the world returning to a bit of normalcy. It’s still full of challenges and obstacles, but it finally seems like it’s possible to make things better.

The Thomases are fully vaccinated. We’re still being super careful, but it definitely feels like progress. Caitlin remains healthy after her winter surgeries. And Uncanny Magazine is celebrating FORTY ISSUES!

Didn’t we just launch Issue 1?

Thank you, Space Unicorns, for joining us on this journey of art, kindness, community, and obstinate resistance to the dark. We’ve all done phenomenal work and added to the goodness of this world. Let’s keep it up, because the fascists are terrified of us.

PHENOMENAL news, Space Unicorns! Four Uncanny Magazine stories are finalists for the prestigious Hugo Award! “Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A. T. Greenblatt is a finalist for Best Novelette, “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard is a finalist for Best Novelette, “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson is a finalist for Best Short Story, and “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher is a finalist for Best Short Story! Congratulations to everybody!

Even more wonderful news! Uncanny Magazine (Publishers/Editors-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, Managing Editor Chimedum Ohaegbu, Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson, and Podcast Producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky) is once again a finalist for Best Semiprozine!

Finally, Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson is a finalist for Best Fan Writer! Congratulations, Elsa!

It is an amazing list of Hugo Award finalists, many of whom are Uncanny authors and friends. CONGRATULATIONS TO EVERYBODY!!! Thank you to everyone who nominated these works, and to the hard-working DisCon III staff. We are honored, ecstatic, and overwhelmed.

More outstanding news, Space Unicorns! FOUR Uncanny Magazine stories are finalists for the prestigious Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America! “Where You Linger” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is a finalist for Best Novelette, “Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A. T. Greenblatt is a finalist for Best Novelette, “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson is a finalist for Best Short Story, and finally “My Country Is a Ghost” by Eugenia Triantafyllou is a finalist for Best Short Story!

Also, “Shadow Prisons” by Uncanny Magazine Interviewer Caroline M. Yoachim from The Dystopia Triptych is a finalist for Best Novelette!

Congratulations to Bonnie, A.T., Rae, Eugenia, and Caroline!

It is an amazing list of finalists, many of whom are Uncanny authors and friends. CONGRATULATIONS TO EVERYBODY!!!

From SFWA:

The results of the final ballot will be announced at the 56th Annual Nebula Awards® ceremony during the 2021 Nebula Conference Online, June 4–6, 2021. Open to SFWA members and nonmembers alike, the annual Nebula Conference is taking place entirely online for a second year.

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 40! The gorgeous cover is With Her Familiars on Mars by Galen Dara. Our new fiction includes Fran Wilde’s fashionable fae yarn “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.,” José Pablo Iriarte’s story of death, mathematics, and family bonds “Proof by Induction,” Rachel Swirsky’s quirky magical handbag imaginings “Thirteen of the Secrets in My Purse,” Eugenia Triantafyllou’s tale of loss, defiance, and strength “How the Girls Came Home,” Emma Törzs’s dark exploration of relationships and toxicity “The Hungry Ones,” and Shveta Thakrar’s story of magic, friendship, and self-discovery “Heart Shine.”

Our reprint is “River, Clap Your Hands” by Sheree Renée Thomas, originally published in Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany.

Our provocative and compelling essays this issue include “A Love Letter to Libraries” by E. Lily Yu, “Babylon 5 and Antifascism” by Andrew Liptak, “The Protagonist Problem” by Ada Palmer and Jo Walton, and “More Than Meets the Eye: Transformers as Trans Fantasy” by C. J. Linton. This month also includes a new editorial column by Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson called “Imagining Futures: Imagination, Ltd.” Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “Self Portrait As a Printing Press” by Nnadi Samuel, “Paqtasultieg” by Tiffany Morris, “Mona Lisa’s Abecedarian to Leonardo da Vinci” by Abu Bakr Sadiq, and “Collection” by Vivian Li. Finally, Caroline M. Yoachim interviews José Pablo Iriarte and Shveta Thakrar about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast 40A features “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde, as read by Erika Ensign, “Paqtasultieg” by Tiffany Morris, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Fran Wilde. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast 40B features “How the Girls Came Home” by Eugenia Triantafyllou, as read by Joy Piedmont, “Mona Lisa’s Abecedarian to Leonardo da Vinci” by Abu Bakr Sadiq, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Eugenia Triantafyllou.

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

Thank You, Patreon Supporters!

Uncanny Magazine would like to thank the following people for supporting us on Patreon. This magazine would not be possible without their support.


Space Unicorn Ranger Corps RECRUITS

Jenny Barber, ml cohen, Danielle, a pair of enchanted gloves, Titus Fortner, Mr. Robin White, Andrew Gregg, Nadine Noll, Amit Gupta, Anitra Heiberg Lykke, Andrew S. Fuller, Aleksi Stenberg, Damien Neil, Not_the_brain, james qualters, Maria Schrater, Leetmeister, Max Andrew Dubinsky, Kayti Burt, Amanda J. McGee, Dread Singles, Robin Hill, Liz Argall, S P, Ken Schneyer, Ryan Pennington, Neil Ottenstein, CathiBeaStevenson, Penny Richards, Josh Smift, Jay Lofstead, Sidsel Pedersen, Annaliese Lemmon, fadeaccompli, Ai Lake, David Versace, Andrew and Kate Barton

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps ENSIGNS

Ashley Herzig, Dariam Fernández, Rhian Bowley, Carl Olsen, M.C., Goran Lowie,  Aliénor, Dawn Bonanno, Kelsea Kreuch, Kit, William Hay, Amanda Crowley, Dave McAvoy, Julia Pillard, Nicky Martin, Nicholas Davies, Monique Cuillerier, Thomas Faust, D. M. Baldwin, John Coxon, Kristina Saccone, Fabienne Schwizer, Greg Chapman, Khael, Lael Tucker, Colin, Kate Coe, Jaime McLeod, Katie Rodante, Sofia G, Kathrin, Ross Williams, Andrew McIntosh, Alec Ross, Beth Myers, Karen Young, Simon Hoerder, Melanie Savransky, Ailbhe Leamy, Pete Kirkham, John Atom, Chris Gates, Kim Park, Christine McCullough, Shaun Garvie, Felicia Jordan, Jessica Lee, Tracey Thompson, Ryan V Thummel, Shannon H, Jenn Brissett, Brian J. Sanderson, Lisa Cox, Sonja Pieper, Kelly Quantrill, Kristi Chadwick, Aditya Dubey, Kari Keeling, Taylor Alcantar, Goetz Kruppa, Bonnie, Agnes, Peter Schmitt (Aragos), Douglas Dluzen, Hiu Gregg, Mary Brock, Chawin Narkruksa, Tuomas Pohto, Emily Goldman, Beth Hoffman, Alina Kanaski, Matthew Bennardo, Brad Preslar, Fiona Parker, Alison Gilder, Writer Markus Regius, Natalie Boon, Luke, Caroline Pinder, Vicente JM, Ben Hammerslag, Tina Skupin, Eris Young, Chessa Hickox, machine_person, John Derrick, Charlie Lindahl, Lauren Strenger, Carrie, Beth McMillan, Sarah Jansen, Emily Kvalheim, [email protected], Leanne Kathleen Ingino, Sadie Slater, Andrew Hickey, Julia Struthers-Jobin, Tim Campbell, Michael Jeffries, Melissa Brinks, Nick Mazzuca, Maria Haskins, Craig, Sarah Elkins, Victor Eijkhout, Melissa Martensen, Joe Iriarte, Selim Ulug, Jacqueline Rogoff, Sarah Bea, Amanda B Cook, Ellen Zemlin, David O Mahony, Risa Wolf, John Cetrone, Cynthia Murrell, Gina, Tiffany M., Albert Bowes, Wordsmith Lynn, Leslie Ordal, Maria, Gene Breshears, Ysabet MacFarlane, Erik DeBill, Emily, Laura K, David Demers, Jeffrey, Ondrej Urban, John Klima, Emily Hogan, Paul Weimer, Renae Ensign, Lauren Vega

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps LIEUTENANTS

Sasha H, Victor, Mark Tyler, Christiane Knight, Salvatore Fabbiano, Kalina, Sarah Jackson, John Reynolds, Starr Hoffman, John Tobias, Kenneth Otani, Kyle DeVries, Matthew Montgomery, julianna zdunich, Koa Webster, Sarah Hale, Randall Beeman, Danielle Weaver, Nicola Wanless, Alena Geffner-Mihlsten, LInda Thompson, Ahsan A. Latif, David, Stephanie Novak, Rich Rubel, Sarah Trott, Haley N Cowans, A T-L, Margaret N. Oliver, Joan Combs Durso, Elan Samuel, Sid J, Sarah Berriman, Rosier Cade, devorah hill, Josef D Prall, Sam Gawith, Kirby Li, Jeff Xilon, Declan Meenagh, Christi Clogston, Melissa Stahr, jenn northington, Gareth Morgan, Ravian Ruijs, Bee Buehring, E, David Dagg-Murry, Raphaelle, Emma Osborne, Sarah Biz, Max G, Matt, George Hetrick, Todd Honeycutt, Thomas Marks, Derek Smith, R. Mark Jones, Erin Bright, michael smith, Ariana Dawnhawk, tatere, Adrian, Kaylan McCanna, Elena Gaillard, Lorelei Kelly, medievalpoc, Myz Lilith, Devin & Stephanie Ganger, Phil Margolies, Brandi Blackburn, Cait Greer, Jen Talley, Ian Radford, Brian McNatt, Adam Israel, Aaron Roberts, Jennifer Melchert, John M. Gamble, Sarah L., John Chu, Brooks Moses, Clarissa R., Deborah Levinson, Michael Lee, Adam Leff

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps COMMANDERS

Kelly Lester, Sally Pehrsson, Chip Roland, Camille Knepper, Elizabeth Galliher, Mairin Holmes, William T. McGeachin, Alex Eiser, Katherine Mead-Brewer, Alexander M Henderson, Emily Capettini, Crystal Huff, Kate O’Connor, Marzie Kaifer, Kevin Lyda, Edmund Schweppe, Nicole Fuschetti, Dain Unicorn, Jayme, Bliss Ehrlich, Daniel (a raven)


talkativeprovider, Karen, Roy Ha, SB Divya, Hayley Klug, Will Hindmarch, John Overholt, Marc Beyer

Self Portrait As a Printing Press

Galatians 6:11


see what inkjet I make of my deft paws,

concealing a switchblade—cupid hung,

to serve as restraint when I word overboard with love.

my long breath, drawing the heat for print.


the jammed teeth of wastepaper.


I fill the cartridge that is my guts,

sum all saliva to one thick blot spilt with good stink,

doubling as a period.


thirst brings the fashion to my lip,

thrills me through the rainy font

& lost sizes of glyph molten, as I vent things I learnt by heart, rote

& impulse because everything needs a crimson reminder.


like me, alarming myself in red when I spell incorrect,

or punctuate my wrong thoughts.


I’m an actual clown when you let me,

humoured beyond what I can contain.


answerable to all I crack up,

without fisting the pothole new beside sandpapered hands

polishing the manuscript of mud,

as if a cement for test-run.


the margin weighs more, now.

I untuck my hand,

brand my spine—a brochure of lean possibility

groomed to measure up to your frail love.


the ovation boots the arteries of this poem

& I consider opting out of this blood task,

if all it takes to write you is mold my lever arms

& feed off the mechanical benefits for the time pressure stays.


The Uncanny Valley

The snow swirls outside of Caitlin’s Lurie Children’s Hospital window. From 20 floors up, we watch cars slip and slide, thankful we’re not traveling home in dangerous weather while also wanting to be anywhere but here. Caitlin is back in the hospital tonight after a mostly healthy 2020. The current kidney stone surgery didn’t go as well as we hoped and we’ll need a repeat in about three weeks; she’s battling pain and nausea. Earlier this week, we received the fabulous news that many of the stories we edited in this hospital made the Locus Recommended Reading List. And here we are, editing in a hospital room once again. Tomorrow we’ll be sent home until her next surgery. Hopefully in a few weeks’ time, Caitlin will be back to her normal self.

Otherwise, the world is a much better place than it was a couple of months ago, but the pandemic rages on. Too many people are sick or dead. Fascism and white supremacy are being fought, but aren’t gone by any means. So much damage was done over the last few years—part of a long history of injustices. As we reach out to folks during Caitlin’s current hospitalization—and folks reach out to us—we are reminded that our community is full of kind and thoughtful people. People who come together and help one another. People who fight side by side to make the world a better and more equitable place.

As always, we can’t do it without all of you.

We hope that you will enjoy this issue of Uncanny Magazine. We often feel fairly helpless to fight the darkness of our world, but maybe this gorgeous and provocative art will add something good to the universe. We believe it does. Just like we believe you do, Space Unicorns. You are magnificent. Thank you.

FABULOUS NEWS, SPACE UNICORNS! HAPPIEST OF DAYS!!! TWELVE Uncanny Magazine stories are on the prestigious 2020 Locus Recommended Reading List! WE ARE SO THRILLED! Congratulations to all of the authors!

Best Novelette:

The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard

Burn or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A.T. Greenblatt

Best Short Story:

Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson

Dresses Like White Elephants” by Meg Elison

The Sycamore and the Sybil”  by Alix E. Harrow

50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know”  by Ken Liu

The Ruby of the Summer King”  by Mari Ness

The Nine Scents of Sorrow” by Jordan Taylor

Georgie in the Sun” by Natalia Theodoridou

Juvenilia”  by Lavie Tidhar

High in the Clean Blue Air” by Emma Törzs

My Country Is a Ghost”  by Eugenia Triantafyllou

This means you can vote for these stories in the 2021 Locus Poll and Survey which determines the Locus Awards! Voting is FREE TO ALL! Along with these stories, Uncanny Magazine is also eligible for a Locus Award in the Best Magazine or Fanzine category, and Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas are eligible in the Best Editor – Pro or Fan category! Vote for the things you liked, and you can even write in things that didn’t make the 2020 Locus Recommended Reading List! YOUR VOTE ALWAYS COUNTS!

Space Unicorns! It is time to announce the TOP STORY in our Uncanny Magazine 2020 Favorite Fiction Reader Poll!

It is…*drumroll*

The Salt Witch” by Martha Wells!

Congratulations, Martha! A SNAZZY CERTIFICATE is on the way!

The rest of the Top Five are:

2- “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson

3- Tie!

My Country Is a Ghost” by Eugenia Triantafyllou

The Bottomless Martyr” by John Wiswell

4- Tie!

The Sycamore and the Sybil” by Alix E. Harrow

Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher

5- “Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A. T. Greenblatt

Congratulations to everybody!

Thank you to everybody who voted!

We have some wonderful news, Space Unicorns! We’re adding a Podcast Reader!

Starting with Uncanny Magazine Podcast #38B, the new Podcast Reader will be…

Matt Peters!

Matt Peters is a passionate Chicago-based voice talent. Having amassed hundreds of hours behind the mic through podcasting, Matt trained with Acting Studio Chicago to improve his skill set. Since then, he’s lent his voice to hosting events, ad campaigns, and audiobook narration. Matt is now a proud member of the Uncanny Magazine family and is excited to share some of our favorite stories with you.

You will probably remember Matt as Michi Trota’s co-host on Uncanny TV! Matt will be joining Erika Ensign and Joy Piedmont in our rotation of regular podcast readers. Matt’s debut is already live as he reads “Femme and Sundance” by Christopher Caldwell!

Hugo Award nominations are now open! If you are an eligible member of CoNZealand or DisCon III, you should already have your membership and voting information so you can start nominating online!

This year, Uncanny Magazine is still eligible for the Best Semiprozine Hugo Award. Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas are also still eligible for the Best Editor (Short Form) Hugo Award. (Note: If you are nominating the Thomases in this category, please continue to nominate them together. They are a co-editing team.)

You can see all of the eligible Uncanny Magazine stories and their appropriate categories here!

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 39! The phenomenal cover is Kianga by Paul Lewin. Our new fiction includes Catherynne M. Valente’s cathartic tale of sin and horrors “The Sin of America,” Dominica Phetteplace’s exploration of love, nostalgia, and future immortality “The Perils of a Hologram Heart,” Caroline M. Yoachim’s story of art, identity, and past immortality “Colors of the Immortal Palette,” Carrie Vaughn’s tale of ships and friendships “The Book of the Kraken,” Rati Mehrotra’s epic of war and sacrifice “Eighteen Days of Barbareek,” and Sarah Pinsker’s deep dive into a ballad and its origins “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather.” Our reprint is “They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass” by Alaya Dawn Johnson, originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and also published in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s collection Reconstruction (Small Beer Press).

Our provocative and compelling essays this issue includeDeadly Frocks and Other Tales of Murder Clothes” by Tansy Rayner Roberts, “Seduced by the Ruler’s Gaze: An Indian Perspective on Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade” by Sid Jain, “Protector of Small Steps” by Marieke Nijkamp, and “Please Be Kind to the Singularity” by Jay Edidin. Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “the most humane methods could involve a knife” by Tamara Jerée, “lagahoo culture (Part II)” by Brandon O’Brien, “Future Saints” by Terese Mason Pierre, and “Of Monsters I Loved” by Ali Trotta. Finally, Tina Connolly interviews Caroline M. Yoachim and Caroline M. Yoachim interviews Sarah Pinsker about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast 39A features “The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente, as read by Heath Miller, “lagahoo culture (Part II)” by Brandon O’Brien, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Catherynne M. Valente. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast 39B features “The Book of the Kraken” by Carrie Vaughn, as read by Joy Piedmont, “Of Monsters I Loved” by Ali Trotta, as read by Heath Miller, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Carrie Vaughn.

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



Colors of the Immortal Palette


I will always remember the view of Paris from his window. Snow, pure and untouched, softens the outline of the buildings and covers the grime of the streets. White, the color of beginnings. His canvas is primed and ready to be painted, and stark winter sunlight glows bright on his undead skin.

The studio is cramped, drafty despite the heat radiating from the stove. One corner is clean and lavishly decorated, the rest a cluttered chaos of painting supplies and personal effects. He studies me intently as I take in the room, evaluating me much as he did at the Café Guerbois when I’d first caught his eye.

I wait for him to ask how I came to be in Paris. Artists are so very predictable that way—no trouble at all accepting this pale immortal creature as one of their own, but a woman of my mixed ancestry? Utterly implausible.

“You should hear the stories they tell of you at the café,” he says. “If Émile is to be believed, you arrived here as an ukiyo-e courtesan, nothing more than paper wrapped around a porcelain bowl. A painter—he will not say which of us it was, of course—bought the bowl and the print along with it.”

“And the painter pulled me from the print with the sheer force of his imagination, I’m sure,” I reply, laughing. “Émile is a novelist and can hardly be trusted to give an accurate account. The reality of my conception is vastly more mundane, I assure you…though it does involve a courtesan.”

“A grain of truth makes for the best fiction.” He waves his hand at a worn-looking dressing screen. “Nude, but leave the jewelry and the shoes. I’ll paint you on the chaise. We’ll have three hours in the proper light, and I will pay you four francs.”

“Victorine gets five!” I protest from behind the screen as I get undressed.

“Victorine is a redhead.”

I step out from behind the screen and go to the chaise, running my fingers along the elegant curves of the walnut frame. The cushions are firm and covered in soft green velvet. I arrange myself carefully. Hopefully he will like what he sees. Often what the artists demand is a relaxed-looking pose that is hideously uncomfortable. Like novelists, they require only a grain of truth. The rest is purely of their own creation.

“My name is Mariko, by the way, but everyone calls me Mari.” As if I could pass for a French girl simply by changing my name. Though, particularly with the artists, there is a fascination with all things Japanese. Several of Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji decorate the wall behind me, the ukiyo-e prints crammed together with neoclassical portraits and a few realist landscapes of the Barbizon School.

He remains facing the window, his attention fixed on the snowy landscape.

“I’m on the chaise,” I tell him, and finally he turns.

“Bring your left hip forward. No, not that far. Bend the leg a bit more, yes.” He paces back and forth, frowning. “Turn your head to face the canvas.”

I smile knowingly. “Like a Manet.”

His frown deepens into a scowl.

“Don’t like a model that talks while you work, huh?” I’ve posed for that type before, honestly not my favorite sort of job, there to be seen and not heard. If the artist is talented enough I can still pick up a technique or two watching them work, but—

“I don’t like being compared to other artists.”

I laugh. More of an ego than usual, this one. Though perhaps he’s earned it. If Victorine was to be believed, he’s been painting since the Renaissance. “Then you must paint me so well that I forget about the others.”

“Tilt your head into the light.” His voice is softer now, and he steps forward to cup my chin, shifting the angle of my head ever so slightly to refine the pose. “And look at me intently. Intensely. As though I were the one naked on the chaise.”

His touch sends shivers down my spine. It feels as if he is reaching into me, beyond the surface of my skin. Intimate. I’m not above a dalliance with an artist if he pleases my eye, or if I need the money or a place to stay…but this one is different.

His eyes are as dark as the Seine at night, darker even than my own. I’m laid bare before him in more ways than my mere lack of clothing. The canvas is reflected in the window behind him, and he is painting me in deft strokes of vivid color—as other artists have done before him—but this time the image holds the promise of an understanding. His skill with the paint is breathtaking; his movements simultaneously wild and precise.

It is exhilarating to watch him work.

My back aches and one leg is going numb, but I’m disappointed when he sets down his brush.

“You did better than I would have expected.”

“Oh?” I stretch and, still nude, go to take a closer look at the canvas. Even with the work unfinished, I can see that he is more talented than any of the other artists I’ve known, and his intensity sparks my interest, draws me almost inevitably closer. “There are other poses I could show you, if you like?”

“Hmmm…?” His gaze is fixed on the canvas, studying a streak of bright winter sunlight that cuts across the upper corner.

I’m about to give him up as hopeless when he turns to look at me. I’m lost in the darkness of his eyes, drowning in the intensity of his attention. I can barely breathe, but I repeat my invitation, “I could show you other poses.”

“Yes.” He sweeps me into an embrace that is strong and cold. White. He is snow and I am determined to melt it.

The sex builds slowly, deliberately, like paint layered on a canvas in broad strokes—tentative at first as we find our way to a shared vision, then faster with a furious intensity and passion.

After, when other artists might hold me and drift off to sleep, he dissipates into a white mist that swirls in restless circles around the room, chilling me down to the bones when it touches my skin. His mist seeps into me and pulses through my veins for several heartbeats. I feel energized, an exhilaration more intense than watching him work, a connection closer even than our sex.

He withdraws, and I am diminished. I hadn’t known until this moment what I was lacking, but now I am filled with a keen sense of my incompleteness. I long for him, for the sensation of vastness I felt when we were one.

He does not return to the bed.

I sleep alone and wake to windows white with frost.



The park is vibrant green with budding leaves and delicate spring grass. Birds are singing, the sun is shining, and my lover sets up his canvas on an easel in the shade.

“Must we really have those other girls?” I ask.

“You on your own isn’t enough for a picnic,” he answers.

“I used to be enough, all on my own.” I sound like a sullen child. I’m tempted to tell him that for composition’s sake he should have more models, some of whom should stand to balance out the towering height of the trees, or that the setting he’s chosen bears too strong a resemblance to Monet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which was in turn inspired by Manet’s notorious painting of the same title…but instead I bite my lower lip.

“I’ll let you sit in front,” he says. “And I’ll take you to the Louvre afterwards.”

I sit at the edge of the white picnic blanket, taking great care to crease my skirt at an awkward angle. I open the book that I have brought—Orgueil et Prévention—and I cannot help but marvel at the degree to which Mr. Darcy resembles my immortal artist. I shall have to ask sometime if he’s ever made Austen’s acquaintance, though if I recall correctly from his occasional ramblings on history he’d spent most of the relevant time period in Verona, trying to hide both himself and his paintings from Napoleon’s army. Or was it Venice? I have such difficulty keeping it all straight, I truly do not know how he is able to recall several lifetimes worth of memories.

The three models he’s hired are chattering incessantly about the latest fashions—tassels and bustles, hemlines and hats. The three of them have no opinions of their own and are simply parroting some column from Harper’s Bazar, as if Americans knew anything about fashion beyond having the good sense to look to Paris for guidance. They mock my choice of reading material and attribute the poor taste in literature to my being Portuguese, and I do not bother to correct them. They will shun me as an outsider regardless, and I have no desire to make friends with such insipid tarts.

“Suzette, lean in towards Claire, yes, better.” He paints a few strokes and then strides over to where I am sitting to fix the hem of my dress so it drapes more gracefully. He gives me a pointed look. I return his silent rebuke with a look that is halfway between ‘apologetic’ and ‘fuck you for inviting these other girls’. That might seem like a big range, but as a model I’ve learned to do a lot with my expression.

He laughs, and goes back to his canvas without taking away my book—though my reading it will render my pose too similar to a painting of Morisot’s depicting her sister—and these wretched girls make it hard to focus on the text. One of them complains that there are ants in the grass, and another that being in direct sunlight will burn her glorious fair skin. I try not to grit my teeth. I’m supposed to have a serene smile, as if this was a delightful picnic with friends. Self-absorbed shallow friends that I have never met before and who will not leave off of talking so that I might read my book in peace.

Now the third has joined the first two in their complaining. He is quite clearly not painting their faces right now or he would tell them not to move their mouths, which would be dearly welcome.

“And honestly why wouldn’t you try,” the least irritating of the three is saying. “After all, youth is fleeting if you’re mortal, but if you can get someone like him to turn you—” She waves her hand in the general direction of the canvas.

“Keep your hand on the blanket,” he says, not responding to her words.

“He doesn’t turn models,” one of the other women says. “That one’s been at it for over a year now and if he won’t even turn her—”

“I’m right here, and I have a name,” I say. I turn the slightest fraction in the direction of the irritating woman before I catch myself.

“Don’t move your head,” he tells me.

“Wouldn’t it be glorious to be young forever?” asks the woman who had declared her own fair skin glorious and I wonder if she even knows any other words.

She’s wrong, anyway. Contrary to what everyone assumes, I have never asked him to turn me. Not yet, not yet. I do not want to die into being forever young. If he turns me now, it will be so that I remain a beautiful object to adorn his canvas, and I have grander goals.

“Keep your expression soft,” he says.

Only then do I realize that I am scowling down at my book.

“Wonderful, Suzette,” he adds.

Suzette is younger than I am and has a classic Western beauty. Wonderful, Suzette. Wonderful Suzette. What will happen when I am too old to be his model? He remains forever fascinated with youth, and rarely paints women beyond a certain age.

I do not want to be the art, I want to be the artist. There are women who manage to do both, yet I hear them so often described as models who paint—and this despite the fact that their talent far outstrips the men…who sometimes do appear in each other’s paintings, but never once do you hear them categorized as models. No. They are painters who did each other tribute and documented each other’s lives in masterful works of art.

Think of the time I would have to develop my art if he makes me immortal. So many of my hours are lost holding perfectly still to be immortalized as an object in someone else’s paintings. I want it desperately, the gift of so much time. But when to do it, that is the trick. Eventually he will lose interest and cast me aside, but if I die into immortality now I will be horridly young. Not to mention the question of children, which I do not believe I want, but I am reluctant to give up the option.

Suzette laughs, but I have lost the thread of their conversation so I do not know why.

What if I have missed my moment? If his fancy turns to this woman with her glorious fair skin glowing like a diamond against her emerald green dress, where will that leave me?

By mid-afternoon I am hot and hungry and his attention is fixed only on his work, on capturing the grass and the grapes and the girls. I can smell the fruit practically baking in the afternoon sun, but I am determined not to move or even complain. I do not even turn the pages of my book, reading the same ballroom dance on an endless loop, angrier each time that the Bennet sisters are having a lovely time dancing while I am sitting. in. the. sun. not. moving.

“Take me to dinner when we’re done?” Suzette asks him boldly out of nowhere.

I hold my breath.

“Oh, I’m done with your part now, you can go,” he answers, not looking up from the canvas. “All of you can go, I have what I need from you.”

Suzette flounces off, the other two models following her at a distance, giggling.

I let out a soft sigh of relief when they are gone.

“I’m doing the trees now, and then after that the bowl of fruit, so you can go with them if you like,” he says.

“But what about the Louvre?” I demand.

“Another time,” he says. “I have to finish this before I lose the light.”

His promises are a perpetual first day of spring—like daffodils that remain forever buds.



I have no trouble convincing Louis to take me to the Salon. He is both a painter and a critic, and unlike a certain other artist with whom I have parted ways, he showers me with attention and treats me as a person rather than merely an exotic object to be painted. We are quickly separated in the jostling crowd, for as usual half of Paris has turned out to gawk at the paintings which hang from floor to ceiling.

The immortal artist—and yes, I am sufficiently petty not to name him even now, for his artistic legacy does not need more help from me than I have already given—is here at the Salon, of course, though I am pleased to note that despite him having taken part in perhaps a hundred Salons, the hanging committee has placed his work poorly. Not at the ceiling, quite, but high enough to strain the neck should anyone wish an extended viewing.

“I was quite fond of Naples yellow,” he says, speaking loudly to some potential patron over the general buzz of the crowd. “The paints now are so exuberant, which has its place of course, but there’s a subtlety to the older pigment, and I do sometimes miss the ritual of mixing it myself.”

His words trail off as I approach. Perhaps it is only my imagination, but for a moment his edges blur, as though he is fading into mist. Even the merest suggestion of it makes me ache with longing. He was stealing away my life, but in those moments, in that process of the taking, I felt so complete. And who hasn’t chosen, at one time or another, to do what feels good in the moment, even knowing that they might live longer if they were more virtuous?

“Mari,” he says. Only the name, nothing more.

The painting that hangs behind him is titled Woman, Reclining (Mari). Being familiar with his other works, I know that the reason my name appears in the title (shortened and in parentheses) is not because he believes my name is in any way important to the piece, but merely that he has many other works that bear the title Woman, Reclining.

I study the woman on the chaise, illuminated by the bright winter light streaming in through the window. The painting captures things about me that other artists have missed. There is a wry expression on my face and a bold invitation in my eyes.

He has changed the decor of the room. Gone are the eclectic mix of ukiyo-e prints and neoclassical portraits that would have been the perfect background for a woman of my parentage. Instead he’s created miniature renditions of his own paintings from the past several decades. The entire composition is a collection of his work, and my form is but a piece in this collection.

“What do you think of it?” he asks.

I shrug, knowing full well that his question is a bid for my approval and my indifference will infuriate him.

“I’ve captured you so beautifully, and your response is to shrug?” He knows that I am baiting him, and his voice is light, but he cannot keep his face from falling.

“Yes, I should be so very honored, to appear here in the Salon,” I say, unable to match his lightness. “Naked, no less.”

“Ah, so that is it then,” he says. “You had another painting refused. This is the third time?”

“The fourth.” I’d thought to hide that unpleasant fact from him, but he was, as ever, a keen observer. “My style is not so rigidly traditional as to please the jury. And I—”

“—have a great deal of company.” At some point during our conversation Louis has jostled his way through the crowd to join us. He catches my dismayed expression and hastily adds, “But your work is far better than that of the others who have been refused, of course—”

“This is Louis.” I interrupt him to make the introduction before he can start ranting about the failings of other painters. “He writes for Le Charivari and, as you have heard, he appreciates me for my art and not only for my looks.”


With that one word it is now his indifference that infuriates me.

My latest attempt at pleasing the jury was a harvest scene of two women working in a field, deep in conversation—”

“Which against my advice you signed only as Mari,” Louis interjects. “You should sign with your surname if you want the jury to take you seriously.”

“My father’s name has no place on the art he so thoroughly disapproves of. Besides, it would be too similar to Camille’s signature, and you’ve seen how everyone confuses Manet and Monet.”

Louis opens his mouth to argue, then thinks better of it. Instead he starts ranting about Monet, and neither he nor my immortal artist notices when I leave. Half the reason I had asked Louis here to begin with was to make my immortal artist jealous, and he does not seem to care.

I am invisible, even as my naked form hangs upon the wall. As a model I am a footnote in the story of the artist, and as a painter I cannot win over the Salon jury. What I want most of all is to be remembered, but I cannot even manage to be seen.



“Surely he will change his mind and paint you again?” I’m sitting with Victorine at the Café Guerbois, nursing my coffee as she sips absinthe. It is Thursday, and Manet is here, presiding over his Batignolles group—this is no coincidence, of course, for I am familiar with their usual schedule…and having parted ways with Louis, I could use the work. The smoke-filled air inside the café still holds the day’s heat, and by all appearances the discussion at Manet’s table is similarly heated.

Victorine gives a bit of a shrug. “Perhaps. And what of your vampire friend?”

My eyes widen. “Victorine! You must not call him that. People will think he drinks blood.”

“As you like,” Victorine replies, “but that doesn’t answer my question.”

“I want to be the artist, not the art. Surely you of all people understand.” I take a sip of coffee and try to  hold back my jealousy that she is taking art classes at the Académie Julian.

“You and I,” she says, “do not have the advantages afforded to women of means and social standing. Morisot and Cassatt need not give music lessons or pose nude to pay for paint. Surely you of all people understand that.

I bristle at her tone but the observation is true enough. Worse, a young woman with fine features and a striking green hat has entered the café and captured the attention of the Batignolles group. Renoir in particular seems quite taken with the girl, who looks not a day over fifteen.

“What you need,” Victorine continues, paying little mind to the new arrival, “is to make a connection with an art dealer. You’ve had no success at the Salon, but Paul Durand-Ruel has had some success selling paintings in America, where the tastes are less refined.”

“What a horrid thing to say!”

Unrefined. My paintings? I should stay in hopes of getting work but I cannot bring myself to spend a moment more in her company. I storm out of the café, my mind churning with accumulated insults. Victorine’s barbs, the indifference of the painters I had hoped to charm, the deplorable youth of the woman in the green hat.

The heat rising from the cobblestones makes the world shimmer, as though the air itself is melting. It reminds me of all the times my immortal artist turned to mist and everything around us melted away. I crave the cold white snow of that first winter, the thrill of his embrace.

I am on his street before I have even truly decided to see him, and I knock upon his door quickly, before I lose my courage.

He is there, and Suzette is not, thank God.

“I wanted…” I trail off into silence because I am not entirely sure what I want, and I am even less sure that he is the one who can bestow it. Recognition? Respect? A way to be seen as more than an exotic courtesan who graces the canvas of painters.

“Time,” he says.

He is staring at me, dissecting me not into shapes and angles or light and shadow but deconstructing my ambitions and my dreams, seeing a pattern that I cannot because once, centuries ago, he was not entirely unlike me. A mortal artist, striving for something greater, grasping without knowing what it was he sought.

“Time?” I echo weakly.

“Where were you, before you came here?”

“At the Café Guerbois,” I admit.

“Trying to secure work from Manet and his lackeys, no doubt.” He scowls at the mere thought of Manet, which I find rather heartening, that even he, my immortal artist, is jealous of his rivals.

“I need money for paint,” I tell him.

“Ah, and now we are back to time again,” he says. “Immortality is, obviously, all about time. When you come right down to it, time is the thing that everyone most values, even you mortals who have so little of it. You simply shift it around instead of trading it directly. Three hours of work for five francs, which then can be used to buy paint.

“An art collector is hoarding time. Time spent by the artist applying paint to the canvas, yes. But there is more to it than that. Each successive painting contains something of the time that went into all the previous canvases, not to mention the time spent studying, practicing. And the art holds other time as well—the model that sits for the painting, holding a pose for hours on end. Time that she has devoted, perhaps, to keeping a certain figure, or creating an appealing hairstyle.”

I scowl. “Time spent building the resentment that burns in the model’s eyes as she glares at the painter.”

He tilts his head, thoughtful. “Perhaps.”

“The other girls say you have never turned anyone.” The words slip out before I can stop them, my heart racing, knowing the conversation is in dangerous territory now, territory that I have always scrupulously avoided. “They say that you drain away your models’ lives and leave them with nothing. That all you care about is light and paint.”

“Light and paint. Legacy and time.” He leans in so close that I can feel his breath against my ear as he speaks. “You have a good eye for light, and with time you could master the rest.”

“No one tells Jean that he has not mastered the rest, or Jules. People praise them for work that is nowhere near what I do.” I gesture at his wall, largely covered with the works of his fellow Frenchmen, paintings ranging from brilliant to mediocre. There is a sunspot on the back of my hand, a single dark freckle that I had never noticed before.

“Time,” I whisper.

“I cannot give you everything you want,” he admits. “But I can give you time.”

This. This is why I have always been so careful to avoid this conversation. I have always known that he would offer. And that I would accept.


He dissolves into mist and seeps through my skin. It is different than it always was before. His impressions of the world are mine to take, not mere glimmers at the edge of my perception but a clear vision of his entire being, like slipping into a photograph that holds his centuries of experience, living through a lifetime in an instant. Everything I have thirsted for since our first meeting—knowingly and not—all of it is here in this moment of connection. I am complete as I can only be when he is with me, and I absorb all that I can, drinking from him as deeply as I dare, taking him into myself and pulsing with the sheer power of it.

There are but wisps of white mist remaining when I realize that I must let him go. When he withdraws he does not steal a part of me, as he always has before. Instead he leaves behind what I have taken.

He has given me the gift of time.

Energy courses through me like a vermillion flame. I am no longer a mere model from whom he draws inspiration, but an artist, immortal. Time stretches out before me and I long to take him to bed that both of us might burn hot with passion.

But he has vanished, just as he did that first night, winter white and cold. As he always does when I most crave his presence.

I wait the entire night, but he does not return.



I paint the English Channel at Étretat, shortly after sunrise. The sun is a fiery vermillion and the water shimmers cobalt blue. It is roughly my hundredth impression of a sunrise, spread across the year on whatever days I can gather up the energy to greet the dawn with my easel at the shore.

I have painted skies both cloudy and clear, water in a variety of hues. When the tide permits I paint from the beach and include the white cliffs, and when the tide is high—as it is today—I paint the vast expanse of the channel from atop them. Sometimes the dark silhouettes of ships break the line of the horizon, and sometimes there is fog, a thin white mist that gives me shivers not entirely accounted for by the crisp morning air. Monet set off a movement with his Impression, Sunrise, painted not far south of here. Monet, and before that Manet, changing the world of art forever. Or so the historians like to spin the tale, imposing order onto the chaotic jumble of the past, pulling a single narrative thread from the fabric of time. Providing a focal point, like the bright orange sun that hovers above the water. And their focal point, of course, must always be a man.

“You could have painted a hundred portraits of me, and instead you paint the sunrise.” Victorine has come up the trail behind me, carrying her own easel which she sets up next to mine. Her hair is like the sunrise reflected on the water, vermillion streaked with silver. She arrived here last week, at my invitation.

“Manet painted the definitive portrait of you years ago,” I say, teasing.

“And Monet painted the definitive impressionist sunrise,” Victorine replies, “Yet you seem to have no issue painting those. Besides, I painted the definitive picture of me. They showed it at the Salon. Honestly it is unfair that you should be immortal and I am not. Clearly I am the one with all the talent.”

Her voice takes on an edge of bitterness as she says it, cobalt blue tinged green, like the underside of a wave in the bright light of a midday sun.

“I would turn you if I could.” I hadn’t known how precious the gift was that my immortal artist gave me, or how rare—he had gathered time for all the centuries of his existence, and even so had only barely enough to share his gift with me. The process had nearly destroyed him, leaving him unable to take any form but mist for over a year.

“Then paint me,” she says. “Give me that at least.”

I cannot paint her without stealing precious moments of her time, and I cannot bear to lose my oldest friend. She is already slipping away so fast.

“Please,” she says. “Just this once.”

I let her convince me because in my heart of hearts I long to paint her. I direct her to an outcropping of rock and have her look out over the water, her face glowing in the morning light. Her dress is a pale blue, the perfect contrast for the orange-streaked sky, and, of course, her hair.

The wind has freed a lock of it and when I go to pin it back in place the edges of my hands thin into mist and I can feel her energy, the wildness only barely contained beneath her skin. Where my immortal artist was cold and white, she is a fiery vermillion, and this neatly composed painting is entirely wrong.

“Let your hair loose in the wind, and take off your hat.” I tell her, my fingers still brushing against her face, the tiniest sliver of my hands still within her, our energies pulsing together, her passions tempting me to drink deeper, to take more of what she unknowingly offers. So sweet and heady, this sensation of pulling her out of herself.

I force myself to withdraw and she gasps.

She stares off into the distance and for a moment I am not sure if she heard my request.

“Is that always what it’s like?” she asks. “The thrill and then the loss.”


Victorine removes her hat and takes down her hair, then tousles it—carefully but with a result that looks careless. The hat she lets dangle from her hand. Everything about it is exquisite, and I paint in frantic dabs of color to capture it before we lose the light. Victorine holds her pose flawlessly, and I know from experience how difficult it is to stand so long, especially in the sun. I highlight the graceful curve of her shoulder, the determined set of her jaw.

I have always signed my paintings Mari, but this painting of Victorine captures her with such honesty that on impulse I sign this one with a name I have not used since my mother died—Mariko. In red as a nod to tradition, but spelled out in the French alphabet for I do not trust my ability to write the kanji even for my own name. That, too, is honest—an admission that I am of neither world and of both.

“This is your best work so far,” Victorine says, admiring the painting. “We can go in turns—you shall paint me and I shall paint you. It will be a series of a hundred portraits and historians will speculate about—”

“No, I cannot. Never again.” I know the longing she feels. It was cruel of me to paint her. Cruel of me to invite her here, to ease the loneliness of being fixed in time as the world keeps passing on. And in truth, I hunger for her as much as she does for me, for the taste of her humanity. I can feel my fingertips thinning into mist, reaching out for her…but no. Already her life flits away far too fast, and I will not speed her to her grave for the sake of my art. I will find another way.

“I cannot stay, knowing what I will not have.”

“Take the portrait, if you like.” I turn away from her and look out over the English Channel, pretending that I don’t care what she chooses.

She leaves without another word. She doesn’t take the painting. The water stretches out before me, an endless chasm of blue.



My work is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, thrilling for the venue but disappointing for the exhibit—Cassatt merits an exhibition composed entirely of her own work, but I am tucked away in European and Oriental Art. Still, they have invited me to the opening, and I have done my best to look fashionable though I cannot pull off the yellows that are quite popular this season and the angular lines of flapper dresses are better suited to women who are straight where I am rounded. Never have I paid so much for so very little fabric, though I must admit the beadwork is lovely and the freedom of movement compared to the dresses of my youth is divine.

The exhibit is laid out so that I must walk through the European artists in order to reach my own work, and I am startled to encounter a painting with which I am intimately familiar—Woman, Reclining (Mari). It is, to my surprise, exactly as I remember it from the Salon. By now the varnish should have darkened and the yellows should have shifted brown, for he had favored the cheaper chrome yellow during that period.

“I had them restore it.” He has appeared from nowhere. Like the painting, he is exactly as I remember from our last meeting—only his clothing has changed. “It seemed fitting, given the subject. An unchanging painting of an unchanging model.”

He means it as a compliment, but I am half a human lifetime away from being the woman that graces his canvas, and no longer mortal. To imply that I am static and unchanging simply because I do not physically age…I had thought him more insightful than that.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” he says.

“And I you.” I’m flooded with emotions. Surprise, yes, and also a longing that I thought I’d put behind me, that old familiar yearning to connect with him, to let our energies flow together and feel the pulse of time itself. But I pity him, too, because for all his success as a painter, he is not keeping up with the world, and his popularity is fading. If he cannot come up with something new, he will be swept into the past as a historical footnote, or perhaps be forgotten entirely. “What are the odds that we would finally be in the same exhibit, after all these decades?”

He shakes his head. “What I meant was why Chicago? Why not San Francisco or Seattle? You could blend in there.”

“The handful of Japanese living in Chicago are a curiosity, like kimonos displayed in a department store. People aren’t as hostile to me here as they might be on the West Coast because they do not see me as a threat. I’ve taken up correspondence with a young artist there—Chiura Obata, who is doing some promising work—and he says resentment for the Japanese community there is building. Besides, it isn’t my intention to blend in. I want to be remembered.”

There are three of his paintings in the exhibit, and the other two both feature Suzette. Time has not been kind to these. The thick strokes of paint are cracking, darkened in places with grime, faded in others from light.

“Yes, but you want to be remembered for your art. Being so out of place will only distract people from your paintings—”

“And yet you are also here, some 300 years older than everyone else.” I tire of looking at Suzette, indeed I tire of looking at his paintings at all. I drift deeper into the exhibit as we continue our conversation, searching for my own work. It is quieter here, away from the growing crowd of patrons who have not yet made their way this far in. “Why must I blend in when you do not? Why is your story so much easier for them to accept than mine?

“They can see themselves in me. Envision themselves as immortal. I am what they wish to become. You are the foreigner they fear. The outsider.”

“And a woman besides,” I mutter. “If I don’t carve out space for myself, they will steal whatever inspiration they like from my culture and my art and erase me from the conversation entirely.”

There is only one of my paintings on display, which I had been excited about before I’d known that they had three of his. My sole piece in the exhibition is the painting of Victorine, standing on the rocky shore, surrounded by the cobalt blue of sky and ocean, and seeing it I am filled with sadness.

“Have you seen her lately?” he asks. “Victorine, I mean.”

“Not for many years, though she writes me letters occasionally.”

“She must be very old now, yes?” he says. “She and Monet are the last of your mortal cohort. It is easier to bear after that, the fleeting nature of the lives around us.”

His expression is sad and I wonder about his mortal cohort, the people he had known when he was still alive. He never speaks of them, which I thought was for lack of memory but perhaps he is trying to avoid the pain of his loss. I put a hand on his shoulder, cold against cold. When he does not speak further on the subject, I turn my attention back to the exhibit.

The curators have opted to hang my painting at the transition point, the very edge of the European artists, for though I am French—or was, at the time of the painting—they clearly do not see me as having been truly European. Worse, they have placed my painting alongside two others, not a trio of my own work but with a pair of paintings that share the same model—Victorine’s self-portrait…and Manet’s Olympia, which bears more resemblance to Woman, Reclining (Mari) than it does to Victorine.

“Of the three of you,” my immortal artist says, “Manet has captured her the most realistically.”

Of course he would think so, for he sees the world through the same male gaze that Édouard once did, antiquated and narrow, dismissive of women. To him, Victorine was a model and a prostitute, elevated only by her inclusion in Manet’s painting. And I was similarly unchanging in his view, an object to be painted.

“All three paintings have elements of truth and falsehood,” I argue, “for each artist comes to the canvas with our own artistic vision and personal biases. How we wish for the audience to view the subject, the context in which we are working, the details we choose to include. And what is truth, anyway? We cannot capture the entirety of a person’s life on a flat piece of canvas. No matter how skilled the painter there are only hints—suggestions which the viewer of the painting will fill in with whatever it is that they believe…”

I cannot quite articulate what I want to say, perhaps that there is no underlying truth at all, only a myriad of perceptions, each slightly different from the rest.

“Yes,” he agrees, “that is exactly what you are missing, the ability to draw upon the perspective of the viewer, to give them an experience that is both familiar and new, to evoke in them a shared experience. That is the thing you must learn—to depict the universal truths.”

“Your truths are universal but mine are not.” I say, and he nods as though I am agreeing with him. “I’ve lived in two countries that do not consider me one of their own, and the lesson I’ve learned is that I must adapt, that I must learn to act as other people do. I did it as a young girl in the French countryside, and again when I came here. They will not make allowances for me as they have done for you—I am not permitted your eccentricities. I must behave as they expect, always, flawlessly.”

“You say the right words, but you don’t believe them,” he says. “You are fighting the inevitable, the world is what it is, and you are who you are. It cannot be helped.”

“But the world can change. It has changed. And so have I. You’re the one fighting the inevitable, not me.”

“There’s no audience for what you do, this blend of styles and inspirations and…perspectives,” he says, convinced that he can sway me to his way of thinking if only he can find the right words, the proper argument. “It’s too complicated, muddled—like mixing too many colors, overworking the paint.”

“When other impressionists were influenced by Japanese art there was an audience for that. Monet, even now, is painting a grand mural of his beloved water lilies, in a garden inspired by Japan.”

“Monet’s paintings are relatable.”

Relatable. Monet filters the world through a background that these art patrons understand. European. Male. He is relatable in ways that I will never be. My mere existence requires an explanation—how is it a woman like me came to be in France, why am I in Chicago and not San Francisco? If the story of my life focuses on the art it will be rejected as implausible, but if I pause to explain the truths of my existence the story is no longer universal.

Patrons and donors file past, many of them stopping to stare at Manet’s painting, which is here on loan from the Louvre. It remains provocative even now, though there is less scorn and more admiration in the bits of conversation I catch. They barely glance at Victorine’s self-portrait, or at my own painting.

None of these mortals has ever met Victorine, so the truth of the depiction matters to them very little. They only experience the art, whatever it might convey, and their attention is drawn to a naked form, a confrontational stare, a famous artist’s name.

I don’t need to capture the truth of my subject, I need to capture the attention of a broader audience, convey a deeper underlying truth…and I do not know how.



It’s a cold March afternoon in 1927 when a Western Union courier hands me the small yellow envelope of a telegram. It comes from a woman I’ve never met, though Victorine often mentioned her in letters. It bears sad news that I have known for quite some time was coming.

I had planned to paint the sunset from the shore of Lake Michigan today, so I force myself to go out with my easel, but the colors are wrong. Rosy pastels streak the sky above the water. Some other night I might have found it beautiful, but tonight I cannot think of anything but vermillion, and I let the light fade to the deepest blue without so much as opening a tube of paint.

The world has been a week without her in it, but her death did not become a truth for me until the telegram arrived. She is the last. Even Monet has ceased his endless paintings of water lilies, having passed in December. I’ve not seen either of them for decades, but tonight I feel the loss as keenly as if I’d sat with them yesterday, all of us gathered at the Café Guerbois, Victorine and I engaging the men in passionate discussions on the purpose of art, the role of the model, and whether critical outrage was an attack on the honor of the painter, this last being a topic that always irritated Manet.

They were my cohort—Édouard, Émile, Claude, Paul and Camille, and of course Victorine. I met them not knowing that I would outlive them, and without having the distance that knowledge brings. My immortal artist was right—I don’t get quite so close to mortals now, I no longer see myself as one of them. But I’m accustomed to navigating a world I do not feel a part of, a place where I am unlike all the others. This has always been my truth.

I sit all night beside my canvas, a lonely vigil for the last of my cohort. The sunrise is reflected on the square windows of the city skyline. It’s a fitting tribute. My memories of her life are fragmented as if by steel and concrete, everything but the fiery window-glass moments are lost to the passage of time.

I cannot paint the sunrise. Vermillion is her color and she is gone.

If my immortal artist is to be believed, I will grow accustomed to this. The pain that burns sharp within my chest will fade to a dull ache, not just for Victorine but for all mortals. Their passing will be easier when their lifetimes are but the merest fraction of my own. I will never share the length of history with them that I do with my immortal artist, and by comparison the loss of such shallow relationships will seem trivial. Or so he says. He is an ass, of course, and making excuses for his own inability to connect with those around him.

But the fact that he is an ass doesn’t mean that he is always wrong. Those things he’d said at the Art Institute, what if all of it is true? Maybe my perspective is muddled with too many influences, perhaps I have failed to synthesize such disparate parts into a cohesive whole. Maybe the failing is in my execution.

I have outlived my friends, my colleagues, and for what? All my paintings combined have not garnered the renown of Olympia or Impression, Sunrise. I am best known as the model from Woman, Reclining (Mari), and maybe my lack of success is not—as I have always told myself—because I am a woman and an outsider, but because I am lacking in talent.

Even being immortal, which should be simple enough, is a task that I am failing for I cannot bear the thought of stealing time from mortals whose lives are already so fleeting. I take just enough here and there from models—always with their consent—to maintain a human form, but if I cannot create beauty, cannot leave my mark on the world of art, their time is wasted, and nothing is so precious as time.

I’ve never done a self-portrait, but I am determined to purge these wretched truths. I paint the portrait and quite literally put myself into the work, thinning my fingertips into mist and leaving a sliver of my very being in the darkest shadows of ultramarine. I create the portrait in shades of blue, abstract and dark, shadows overpowering the light. I call the painting Futility, and I do not sign my name because despair is never done, it is unending and can never be complete. Critics will no doubt call it a feeble imitation of Picasso, but I cannot bring myself to care.



I’m still fighting the ultramarine depths of despair some fifteen years later, when I meet Joshua at the Club DeLisa. We get to talking, a fragmented conversation to fill the space between sets. He’s a singer and he used to play trumpet in a swing band, up until he got caught in Chicago by wartime travel restrictions. Little Brother Montgomery and The Red Saunders Band are playing tonight, along with a comedian and some dancers.

“I love the music, but what really brings me here is the energy. It reminds me of the Café Guerbois—in Paris. I used to go there with some artist friends of mine, painters who wanted to push boundaries and create something new.” There’s something about him or the music or the energy of the club tonight that compels me to keep talking. “The way the musicians build on each other, changing the nature of music, it fills me with nostalgia. They have a passion that I’ve been missing for a long time.”

He gives me a strange look. “You’re one of those immortals, like Pops.”

“Yes.” I’d heard him play once, back in the 20s before he moved to New York. I hadn’t realized he was immortal, but that did make sense of all the tall tales and inconsistencies when he talked about his childhood. I can’t help but wonder who turned him.

“You must really be something special then,” Joshua says. “Show me your paintings?”

“Only if you’ll sing for me.” I’m flirting without meaning to, leaning in close as we try to talk over the noise of the club. He has the same vibrancy the performers here have, and I long to taste him, to connect at a deeper level.

We stay late, almost until dawn, drinking beer and discussing everything from the gorgeous poems in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s An Autumn Love Cycle to Archibald Motley’s vibrant paintings of nightlife—both in Paris and here in Bronzeville. Our conversation turns to the war, and he talks about the delicate dance of supporting the war efforts while simultaneously pushing for civil rights for Black folks here at home; the Pittsburgh Courier was calling it “the Double V Campaign.” At some point he mentions the Japanese internment camps, and we both go quiet for a moment.

“Must be hard,” he says, “having family on both sides of the war.”

“Honestly I’ve always felt more French than anything else. But I’m defined by what other people see, not by who I am. I have so little connection to Japan—to me it is courtesans in a ukiyo-e, brightly colored kimonos in Paris shops, faint memories of warabe uta my mother sang for me a long long time ago. And yet I’m still the enemy.”

“Tell me about it,” he says, and both of us drink.

Joshua walks me home, and I invite him to come in. I haven’t had anyone over in ages and there is clutter everywhere. I scoop up fabric scraps from the assorted seamstress jobs I’ve been doing on top of waitressing to make enough money to pay the outlandish rent—so high it’s illegal under rent control but who am I to challenge the landlord? And he knows it, knows just how far he can push and get away with it. Boarding at the Eleanor Club had been cheaper and the shared bathrooms there were cleaner…but I couldn’t bring men home with me. I sigh. There are always tradeoffs. “Sorry about the mess.”

He laughs. “You don’t have to—”

“I do.” Not so much for the mess but because I need to shift my focus away from his delicious energy. He is too much temptation, but I can’t bring myself to ask him to leave.

While I try to tidy up, he studies the art on my wall. The oldest piece is a woodblock print, Night Scene in the Yoshiwara, by Katsushika Ōi, one of the few tangible items I have that belonged to my mother. I wait for him to guess, incorrectly, that it is my work, but he turns his attention to a far more recent piece.

“Is this?” he asks, leaving the question unfinished.

“The Tanforan Assembly Center.” I set down a handful of empty paint tubes. “Chiura Obata sent it with his last letter. Sumi on paper. I’m not sure how he managed to get it past the censors, maybe smuggled it out with one of the couriers that brings him art supplies. He’s starting an art school. I don’t know how he can make art in a place like that.”

“Maybe the art is what saves him, the thing that keeps him from breaking. Besides, if you wait for the world to be perfect, you’ll be waiting forever.”

He’s right, of course. There is always something—a war or a plague, a widespread catastrophe like the Great Depression or the more personal tragedy of a friend’s passing. Being immortal, it is so easy to put off the work, to drift aimlessly because there is no urgency without the ultimate deadline of death. “The frustrating thing is that Chiura can make art when I cannot. That he’s stronger than me even though I’m the immortal one. I’m angry about the camps but I’m not forced to live in one. I have only the most tenuous ties to Japan. My mother died more than a lifetime ago when I was young.”

“After Ma died, back in ‘37, I couldn’t…” Joshua waved his hands as he searched for the right words, “I just couldn’t anything. I’d open my mouth to sing and nothing came. There was too much joy in a cheerful song and too much sorrow in a sad one. Ma sang the blues like nobody’s business, taught me everything I know. She was 43 when she died and I was so angry with the world for taking her.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah. Well it’s not about strength. Music is the thing that saves me, usually, the thing I escape to. But when Ma died, everything I tried to do reminded me of her, and the pain was still too raw.”

“So what did you do?”

He laughs. “Enlisted in the National Guard. Powered through basic combat training. That’s probably not going to work for you, Mariko. But mostly what I needed was time. I found my way back to music again, and you’ll get back to the painting. That’s where your heart is.”

“How do you know, you haven’t even seen my paintings—”

Then I notice what he’s looking at.


I never even tried to sell it, and I haven’t finished a single painting in the decade and a half since I’d poured my depression onto the canvas in blue paint. It’s a painting of my heart, and my heart is broken. The canvas isn’t hung or even framed, it simply leans against the wall in the darkest corner of my apartment.

“This is amazing,” he says. “Powerful.”

As he studies the painting—intensely, intently—I can feel the barest shimmer of a connection, a faint suggestion of how it might feel to take a fragment of his life, and like a shark frenzied by a drop of blood in the water I am suddenly overwhelmed with need.

I draw him close and we kiss, deeply, bodies pressed together. I tremble with desire and with anguish, for I am determined that I will not consume him. “No, this is wrong, I have to stay away from mortals. You burn so bright, so briefly.”

“Are you protecting us, or are you protecting yourself from the pain of losing something so fleeting? How can you paint if you refuse to live?”

“I can’t,” I admit.

“It’s okay,” he whispers, his breath hot as fire against my skin. “I want to know how it feels, how you feel. Live with me. Everything in this one moment.”

I slide out of my dress. “We can have the one without the other. I’ve heard what people say about immortals, about stealing away people’s lives with sex. That’s not how it works.”

“Never?” He unbuttons his shirt.

“Almost never.”

We have sex in broad strokes of fiery vermillion shading into crimson, building to a deep connection, something beyond the raw intensity of our physical passion. I transform into mist at the moment of his climax and bask in his passion, his energy, his health, his life. When I withdraw, I try not to take anything with me, though I’m not sure I entirely succeed.

Unlike my immortal artist, I do not disappear into the night. I return to human form and sleep in Joshua’s arms.

In the morning, I start a new painting. A Black man, talking to a woman who has her back to the viewer, both of them standing under a streetlight in front of the Club DeLisa. The streets are empty save the couple, and I paint the center of the canvas in a realist style reminiscent of Edward Hopper, but as I move out from the light into the shadows, surrealism creeps into the painting–the buildings in the background morph into barbed wire and the full moon hangs crimson in the sky.

I title the painting Night Club and sign it Mariko. It is both bleak and beautiful. Chiura would be proud. At Joshua’s encouragement, I sell it to the Art Institute of Chicago, along with Futility.

Full of life and finally painting again, for three months I am the happiest I can remember being since I became immortal. Then Joshua is called to service with the 370th Infantry Regiment. He goes to a training camp in Arizona. In his last letter before he ships off to Italy, he proposes.

I accept.



When Joshua returns from Italy, he brings me a gift. An enemy parachute, salvaged by a fellow soldier. He’d traded some cigarettes and a pair of wool socks from one of my care packages to get it. There are twenty panels of useable silk in the canopy once I’ve discarded the burnt bits. The material is thin and slippery and difficult to sew, but I manage to make myself a wedding gown. The color is a delicate cream, a beautifully warm tone—zinc white mixed with cadmium yellow and the barest hint of alizarin crimson.

It is a warm August afternoon, and raining, which they say is good luck for weddings. Ours is a quiet Sunday afternoon affair. A few of our musician and artist friends attend, and three soldiers from his company. No family because all of mine passed away before Joshua was born and none of his relatives that live near Chicago approve of our relationship. He wears his uniform and I wear my gorgeous parachute gown. Looking at us, no one would guess that I’m three times the age of my groom.

The cake is a cardboard cutout, but Joshua surprises us all by opening it up to reveal a stash of Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate Bars he’d saved from his rations, enough for each of our guests to have one.

They are not at all what I expected, difficult to chew and far less sweet than what I remembered of the chocolate I’d tasted before the war. I must have made a face because Joshua laughed. “Why do you think I had so many left?” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And these are the new and improved variety.”

We can’t afford a honeymoon but we both manage to get Monday off work and we spend the entire day holed up in our apartment, newlyweds basking in the joy of being together after spending so much time apart.

It isn’t until I leave for work Tuesday morning that I see what has happened, sprawled across the top of the Chicago Tribune at a corner newsstand: ATOMIC BOMB STORY! The news is a stark and chilling white—the flash of the weapon itself, the coldness of a headline that speaks not of the people killed but of the power the American country now wields.

I let the white consume me. I transform into mist and careen through the streets of Chicago, then out over the vast ultramarine depths of Lake Michigan. Yet even here I cannot escape the war, for I find myself sharing the sky with warplanes from the naval air station, pilots training to fly in formation and land on aircraft carriers. Pilots not unlike the one who flew the plane that dropped the bomb.

What right do I have to feel this pain, I, so distantly removed? I feel guilt for being free instead of interred, for being American instead of Japanese, for failing to connect with my mother’s country. Her country, never mine.

And then, Nagasaki. The city where my mother was born.

There are no words to describe the horror. I am only at peace when I transform into mist, mingling with the clouds above the city. It would be so easy to remain this way, to disperse in the atmosphere, to thin into nothingness. I am immortal, yes, but only so long as I choose to endure.

If not for Joshua, I might never have returned to human life. He is my anchor in the endless sea of time, my shelter from the nightmare storm of mushroom clouds. And I, in turn, am his calm harbor when the flashbacks hit, his comfort from the pain. We fight together against our demons from the war, stronger for being able to lean upon each other.

I paint Nagasaki in abstract, a monstrosity of crimson and white. It is passion and anger without form, in a style I have not mastered, and the result is garbage. I destroy canvas after canvas, unable to paint but determined nonetheless to try.

“Would it help to talk about it?” Joshua asks.

I’m painting over a ruined canvas, making it ready for my next attempt. I stop partway through, leaving streaks of color in between the broad stripes of white. “They’re the only ones who start with a blank white page. Their story is the default, invisible, a crisp new canvas. Our stories, our history, our pain—that’s color already on the page and we have to work around that, we have to explain why there’s a burst of crimson seeping through where our people bled, why there’s a vermillion rage underneath the calm surface of white.”

“And then they’ll tell you that they don’t want your explanations because it complicates the story, sullies the art. They’re always erasing the past—that’s how they get that fresh white page they like to start with.”

“Like snow covering the filthy streets of Paris,” I say, remembering the time so long ago when I looked out the window of my immortal artist’s studio. I wonder where he is right now, where he’s hiding from the war, for that has always been his way, to withdraw when the world of mortals was too intense or dangerous. “The memories are harder to visualize now, there are so many of them and they blur together. I suppose I wasn’t meant to remember more than one lifetime.”

“You should write it down,” Joshua says. “Tell your story.”

“I thought they didn’t want my explanations.” I study the canvas, partially repainted.

“Since when do you care what they want?” he replies.

“Never. And always.” I leave the canvas to dry, my previous failed attempt still showing in the gaps. It is better this way, somehow, with white to cover the things too horrible to bear. Pain avoided and erased. There is truth to that, in the things we hide, the things we omit, the things we do not even think to include. Words unwritten.

I title the painting History and sign it white on white, nearly invisible, erasing myself before anyone else can.



For thirty years I live an almost human life. I can’t bear children, but after the war there are so many orphans, and particularly unwanted are the mixed-race children, the children most like me. We adopt Midori when she is four years old and Joshua is forty and I am one hundred and six.

They grow and change and age and I—well, I don’t age but having them as a family alters me forever. I learn more about Japan, my interest spurred not by my past but by Midori’s future. She looks like I did when I was young, and I want her to have the connection to her birth mother’s country that I have always lacked. I try to give her a sense of belonging to both places instead of neither—and it strengthens my own connections as well. Maybe what I needed, all this time, was an excuse to explore a culture that never felt like my own. But it seems fitting, somehow. As a tree grows, so too do its roots.

It trickles into my paintings, as everything always does. Art has a way of absorbing all that I am—in its content and technique, but also more literally, for ever since that ultramarine night of losing Victorine I always leave a fragment of myself in the paint. In one color of each painting, as the emphasis, a focal point. When I paint my family, I am in the crimson, the color of love and passion.

The mortals around me begin to see the truth in my paintings. It is the most miraculous of things, for as I pour myself into the paintings they begin to sustain me, stealing brief moments from the audiences that study them, only the tiniest sliver of time from each but adding up to eternity as my popularity grows.

Three precious decades, vibrant like springtime, warm as summer, beautiful and fiery even in the autumn, when I know that Joshua’s eternal winter is near.

He is laid to rest in Graceland Cemetery. Whatever my immortal artist might say, Joshua is no less for being one lover of many, our marriage no less meaningful to me for being a smaller fraction of my existence than it was of his.

On a sunny spring afternoon, I go to visit Joshua’s grave. I’m sitting in the shade of a cherry tree, reading the latest John le Carré novel—Joshua had developed a fondness for spy stories in his later years and sharing a book seems more fitting than leaving behind a bouquet of wilting flowers—when my immortal artist finds me.

“I tire of the endless cycles,” he says without preamble, “the constant turmoil of the world.”

We’ve exchanged the odd letter here and there over the years, but I haven’t heard his voice since we’d shared an exhibit at the Art Institute, for he travels widely and hides from mortal society for years at a time. He can’t stand such newfangled technology as the telephone or the ever-present cars, never mind flying from one place to another in planes. No, he travels by shifting into mist, he communicates only by post, and hearing him again for the first time in so long I am struck by how thin he sounds, almost hollow. Like an echo of the immortal artist I once knew.

“Hello, old friend.” He hates when I call him old, and I love to tease him. As usual, he doesn’t take the bait.

“There’s an impatience in the mortals now, as they rush through their fleeting little lives, and all I desire is a peaceful time to paint. To retire to a garden, perhaps, as Monet did in his final years.”

“Then find a garden, or make one.” I remember something Joshua once told me. “If you wait for the perfect moment, you will wait forever. Even we immortals paint in stolen bits of time, for the demands of the world expand to fill whatever time there is, no matter how vast. We must fight for it. For art. For time. Even when our lives are endless.”

“I am weary of the fight.”

I realize that I can’t remember the last time he’s exhibited a new painting, and his more recent letters have not mentioned models or even lovers, only his travels. “You’ve stopped painting.”

“You’ve finally won them over to your way of seeing things, your muddled mix of influences, that complex stream of new ideas and techniques.” He stares at a mausoleum in the distance, and I wonder if the pillars remind him of ancient Greek ruins.

“I’m persistent,” I tell him.


“Yes. And I’ve learned to care less what others think.” I run my fingers over Joshua’s headstone, letters and numbers cut deep into the granite, shadowed in ultramarine.

“Is that the man you married?”

“Joshua,” I say. “He died a few years ago. I miss him dearly. But I’m glad he’s here and not in one of those crowded city cemeteries like the ones in Paris with graves practically stacked one atop the next. He loved plants. Trees. Gardening was one of his many attempts to escape from the horrors of war. We had a beautiful garden out behind the house. It looks a mess now because I’ve never been able to create plants from anything but paint.”

“He was also a painter?”

I shake my head. “No. A musician, a composer, a civil rights activist, and, for a time, a soldier. He was the one who suggested I take control of my narrative, preserve my memories in writing. I haven’t quite the knack for prose that Émile did, of course, but I want to have a record of my past.”

“You’ve kept your connection to the mortals,” he says, his voice wistful. “Yours was the last generation that really moved me. The last to draw me in.”

He speaks of my entire generation, but I’m better at seeing the negative spaces now, hearing the words that aren’t said. No one since me has moved him, there is no one but me in his heart after all these years…and I have well and truly moved on.

I can’t help but think how far we’ve diverged. He is tradition, isolation, stagnation—all things I see within myself but which I fight so hard against. It leads me to think about duality, the way we often divide ideas so neatly into opposing pairs. Artist and subject. West and East. Life and death.

When I return to my studio, I paint a canvas on both sides: one a lively picnic in Burnham Park and the other a funeral at Graceland Cemetery. The grass of both is a vibrant green, and instead of placing opposing elements on opposite sides of the canvas I jumble everything together. There are hints of death at the park, and life in the cemetery. Even the style of the painting is a chaotic mix of impressionism and realism, ukiyo-e and abstract expressionism.

I call it Two Worlds, and it is what some consider my greatest masterpiece.



The latest fashion in Paris is voluminous and flowing, with hidden pockets and hooded capes. A decade ago it was sleek minimalist cuts in patterns reminiscent of Rothko. It’s fascinating to watch the way trends disappear and return, the throwbacks and the updates, the new combinations and perspectives.

The city itself follows a similar cycle, though far more slowly since a building is less easily changed than a frock. The arrondissement of my mortal youth is recognizable again, recreated as a historical preserve. They’ve managed to keep something of its underlying character, though the streets are far too clean, and the towering mid-millennium arcologies block the morning sun and make the light all wrong.

The Café Guerbois is a museum—a static recreation of the buzzing artistic scene it once was—but there’s a dive bar around the corner called le Salon des Refusés where artists gather in their various groups and have heated discussions on the nature of art.

I sometimes go on Thursdays.

The new generation isn’t weighed down by centuries of history, the experience of how far we’ve come. Their basis of reference is the time of their childhood, not of mine. They are at once refreshing and infuriating, and they inspire me to push forward—in my paintings and in my life. My once-immortal artist would have liked this bar, for the nostalgia of it if not for the modern conversations. It is strange to think of a world that doesn’t have him in it.

The Musée de l’Orangerie houses the last remaining trace of his existence—Woman, Reclining (Mari). The museum has continued to restore it for centuries, using the best technology and the most skilled conservators.

On the surface, the painting is much as I remember it, faint though the memory is. But he is gone from it, the paint that he himself applied replaced bit by bit like a colorful Ship of Theseus until little of the original remains. His other paintings are lost, and have probably long since crumbled into dust. Poor Suzette. She’d thought herself immortal at least in paint, but that tribute is fleeting. History has forgotten her, even as a footnote. It’s hard to imagine that once upon a time I’d been jealous of the attention he’d paid her, so many lifetimes ago. And jealous of him for being an artist when I was a model. Now his painting is preserved, not because it was painted by him, but because it is the earliest known depiction of me.

Time eats all things in the end. Entropy brings everything back to white—a chaotic jumble of all the colors mixed together, if you paint with light. Now even my once-immortal artist has succumbed to the unending white. An artist must struggle to find meaning, to put order to chaos—and he no longer wished to fight.

He is a mist too thin to ever recohere; the strongest notion of him that remains is the splinter of his being that lives on in me. His model and his student, shining so brightly that I can never again be placed in his shadow.

In honor of his passing I paint Entropy in a palette of colors I mix myself, using formulas from both ancient times and modern, carefully applying the colors so the painting will change as it ages—chrome yellow that darkens to brown, red lake pigments that quickly fade, an ordivant green that will darken through emerald and into a deep blue over the course of several hundred years. I put myself into the titanium white, mist into paint, adding nuance to the crisp bright hue.

It is a self-portrait, though my physical likeness is not in it. It is a historical painting, though it does not depict any recognizable moment in time. Even the signature will shift, as mine has over the centuries—briefly it will read Mari before the rest of my name emerges. Mariko means truth, so this appeals to me conceptually: over time, the truth will be revealed. Then eventually the letters will fade until only the M remains. The details of history, given enough time, are mostly forgotten.

I have the Musée de l’Orangerie display the painting in carefully specified values of light, with strict orders never to move it, repair it, or alter anything about the painting or the room. Its true glory cannot be appreciated within a single human lifetime, but mortals flock to see it nonetheless.

And even now the doubt remains, the lingering fear that I will be forgotten. Perhaps the time has finally come to share my story. I’ve been writing it in dribs and drabs ever since Joshua suggested it, the words accumulating like dabs of color on a canvas. There are moments I choose to describe and moments that I omit, deliberately or otherwise. When you outlive everyone you’ve ever known, there’s no one to remind you of the things you’ve forgotten, and no one to contradict your version of events. I find myself always returning to white. Beginning, again and again.



This is not the end. I’ll leave my mark on the blank page of history, and I’ll paint the world in colors so bold and bright they cannot be ignored.

There is beauty in my truth, and I have so much to share.


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