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Interview: Vivian Shaw

Vivian Shaw wears way too many earrings and likes edged weapons and expensive ink. She was born in Kenya and has lived in Cardiff, Oxford, Maryland, and New Mexico. She has a BA in art history, an MFA in creative writing and publishing arts, and currently works as a professional freelance editor and proofreader. She writes about monsters, both in and out of classic horror literature; machines, extant and fantastical; disasters and their causes; and found family. She is the author of the Dr. Greta Helsing contemporary fantasy trilogy, Strange Practice, Dreadful Company, and Grave Importance. She reviews for the Washington Post Book World and her short fiction has appeared in Uncanny and PseudoPod. She lives in Santa Fe with her wife, Hugo- and Locus-award-winning author Arkady Martine. “Transference” is Shaw’s second appearance in Uncanny, an ominous story about the lingering effects of a disturbing piece of art.

 

Uncanny Magazine: “Transference” deftly combines a lot of elements—art, nightmares, monsters that haunt us. Are these themes or topics that often recur in your fiction? What other elements are you often drawn to?

Vivian Shaw: Absolutely. Until the past few years, I had never written short fiction, which meant that a lot of the clearer themes in my stories were less obvious at first, but the more I write short form the more evident those themes become. Mostly it’s a riff on the idea of you thought you knew how the world worked but it turns out there’s this impossible other set of rules that have been there all along, and how that realization affects the characters. For me, compelling and interesting stories generally need to have that kind of contrast between elements—setting and characters, characters and events, etcetera—which makes the story unpredictable and therefore more dynamic. In “Transference” the narrator never expected his ordinary yuppie life to be subsumed into this desperate effort to be free from a supernatural influence, and he’s not great at dealing.

Uncanny Magazine: Was the artwork in this story inspired by a real-world painting and/or artist? What is the most memorable painting you’ve ever seen?

Vivian Shaw: Definitely. The painting it’s inspired by doesn’t have a name (it’s literally called Untitled) but once you’ve seen it you will not forget it, like the rest of Zdzisław Beksiński’s works. Beksiński’s paintings look like fever-dreams, awful and compelling and familiar-distant all at once; he even said it himself, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams.” He did; he absolutely did, and I knew I wanted to do something to convey how much this particular piece affected me. And I’d also been watching a lot of TV featuring tattoo artists and tattoo styles and application, and the whole idea just clicked.

I think the most memorable painting I’ve ever seen is a Jean-Léon Gérôme work called Duel After the Masquerade. I love Gérôme, he’s one of my favorite painters (I did a degree in art history long, long ago) and Duel is one of the most atmospheric pieces you’ll ever see: it’s a snow-covered meadow at night, surrounded by trees, the sky lit up with the dim orange glow of a city beyond the forest. The successful duelist is being led away by his second while the fallen man’s friends cluster around him in despair, all still in costume, and you can smell the acid electric sharpness of the snow, almost feel it touching your face. Beksiński is that vivid; the difference is that you don’t want Beksiński’s paintings anywhere near your skin.

Uncanny Magazine: What was your favorite thing about writing this story? What was the most challenging part?

Vivian Shaw: “Transference” is the second story I’ve written that basically gave birth to itself in one go, instead of lurking around as a vague idea in the back of my mind until I could find a way in to tell it properly. Like “The Utmost Bound” (also in Uncanny, issue 20), “Transference” was the result of two ideas that fascinated me and came together in an unexpected but powerful gestalt. Once I had the idea of someone wanting a tattoo, not because they liked the design or thought it would look cool or wanted to memorialize something or someone, but because they wanted to put it on the outside of them instead of on the inside—to transfer the image, like a stencil, moving it without removing it—I then thought about why. And then I thought about nightmares, and inexplicable, unforgettable horror, and the dreamlike painting of the burning city came to me all at once. Tattoo-as-transference; painting of dream: story.

Uncanny Magazine: The line that begins “I’ve deleted my search history so many times since this began…” is something many writers can relate to—what interesting or ominous things have you searched for as story research?

Vivian Shaw: There are so many. So many. When I was writing the first three Greta Helsing books I was researching everything from clandestine sewer exploration (with pictures!) to 1940s electrical infrastructure to abandoned Parisian subterranean gypsum mines to extremely specific Metropolitan Museum of Art display rooms and the sightlines therein; for my short fiction, there’s a lot of very detailed search strings regarding air crash investigation and aviation in general, lost cosmonauts, and the effects of Venus’s atmosphere on titanium alloy; and just at the moment I’m doing a deep dive into several aspects of Alaskan king crab fishery. I love doing research and I’m somewhat passionate about it—I’m old enough to remember when research was actively effortful, involving card catalogs and interlibrary loans and legwork instead of a couple of lines typed into Google, and the fact that we now have so much information so easily available makes it that much more irritating when people don’t bother to do the work. I don’t write about something unless I’m confident enough in my understanding of the subject to not get it hilariously wrong, and if I’m not that confident I will either put it aside until I can improve my own understanding or get someone to explain it to me. This isn’t to say I don’t make mistakes, far from it—but I try quite hard to catch them before the thing goes out into the world.

Uncanny Magazine: “Transference” does a wonderful job creating the sense of dark foreboding that is key to horror stories. What are some of your favorite horror stories or novels? Who are some of your literary influences, either in the horror genre or more generally?

Vivian Shaw: Stephen King, of course—he and Pratchett and Gaiman and to a broader extent Robin McKinley and Dorothy Dunnett are probably the most obvious influences on my work. King nails the ordinary/extraordinary contrast thing I mentioned above; he’s a master of the normal guy finding unspeakable horror lurking in an otherwise normal world, which is what I also apparently tend to gravitate toward: the stomach-dropping shock of finding out that everything you thought was absolutely true is not and never has been. There’s a passage in It where he explains this from the point of view of hyper-rational Stan Uris that has always stuck with me: the existence of the dead boys in the Standpipe is not just frightening, it is offensive. Stan thinks he can live with fear, but maybe not with offense:

 

…because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are live things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down in that dark, and after awhile you think maybe there’s a whole other universe down there, a universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some of them have five raised to the fifth power of sides.

 

That’s the aspect of horror I can’t get enough of, that sensation of wrongness and the vertiginous shock that comes with not knowing which way is supposed to be up. I didn’t write short fiction at all until fairly recently, and while I don’t deliberately try to come up with ideas that rely on that as their general theme, it’s becoming more and more evident that this is what I like writing in short form. (It’s fascinating to see yourself developing as a writer, almost from the outside.) But if you’re talking about the single horror author who has legitimately scared me enough to keep the lights on, it’s absolutely M.R. James. His horrors are unexpected and unforgettable, and I hope that his fans who’ve read my novels will take my inclusion of various species of monster inspired by his work as an homage. If you haven’t yet read him, may I point you toward “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” in particular?

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Vivian Shaw: More stories! And some longer work. I have two novellas that will be coming out in the next couple of years, one of them with Lethe Press (The Helios Syndrome) and the other with Orbit (Bitter Waters) as well as the final novel in the Greta Helsing series, Strange New World (also Orbit). I’m also focusing more on expanding my freelance editing business: I offer developmental, structural, and line editing along with standard copyediting and proofreading services. It feels good to be back in the game after a couple of fallow years!

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

Transference

It’s working.

With every buzzing, burning line Rae traces on my back—the needle feels like a red-hot knifepoint drawn across the skin—it’s working.

I was terrified when we began, not of the pain but of the uncertainty: would this do anything at all, would there be any difference whatsoever in the dream I’ve been trapped in every single night since I first saw that painting? That first night when I fell asleep with fresh ink on my back and found myself in the awful black-and-scarlet burning city again, I truly did think I’d go mad, until I noticed there was a difference, subtle but present. The light-pole in the middle distance was gone, and the black square from the top of the frame simply was not there.

The creature hadn’t changed, though. That’s going to be the last to go, if this does work all the way. I’ll take anything to be rid of this—anything at all—but Rae and I both knew the process couldn’t start with the creature. Scribing that thing on my back wouldn’t take it from the dream. It might simply draw its attention, and possibly the only thing that’s kept me sane this long is that in the dream the creature does not seem to have noticed me; that its awful eyeless bandaged head turns to and fro as it creeps along without peering in my direction.

I don’t know what it is, or why it’s there, or why it’s on all fours, only that it is terrible, and will be more terrible if I see it any closer up.

In the beginning, once it was clear I was not going to stop having the dream, I thought with increasing hysteria of ways to kill myself, and it is only blind luck that I’m too much of a coward to have actually done the deed before realizing something unspeakable: at least at the moment I have my days, my waking life, free of the thing. If I walked into traffic or washed down a handful of Vicodin with vodka, there is every fucking chance I’d find myself back in the burning city—with no way to wake up from it. The thought of being trapped permanently in that place was enough to make me do two things: one, be scrupulously careful with myself, and two, start looking in earnest for someone who could take on a project like this one and understand what it meant.

I’d spent two weeks going from tattoo shop to tattoo shop, increasingly desperate, and in the end I only found Rae through the purple neon in the window rather than the phone book. Purple neon means psychic shit, and the violet moon and stars in the corner of this particular tattoo-shop window hit me like a physical smack, jarring me out of my glaze of misery as I trudged along. I’d tried two places already that afternoon and realized I’d forgotten my fucking umbrella at the first one too late to go back and fetch it, and I was soaked to the skin and utterly convinced the thing was hopeless, and bam, purple neon, out of the corner of my eye, and I stopped.

Inside, Rae looked at me for a long moment without saying anything, their eyes bright clear grey, the purple neon in the corner of their window seeming to throw a weird edgeless tint over everything in the studio. I don’t think everyone sees Rae’s place. I think for a lot—maybe most—of the people passing by, this shopfront is vacant, or just doesn’t exist at all. That it chooses the people it wants to be able to see it. I try not to think about that too much because I can’t actually imagine what the hell made it show itself to me, what could have motivated such desperately needed kindness, if kindness is the right word; I can only think it found me interesting, the way a doctor might be interested in a particularly esoteric disease. Whatever the reason, I will be paying off this fucking backpiece for at least two years, and I don’t care in the slightest: I would pay anything to be free of this, anything, anything at all.

(I know that payment isn’t going to start and end with money, I know that very well, and it still absolutely doesn’t matter what currency I’ll have to use.)

I still can’t believe how it started. I didn’t even know how to pronounce the artist’s name, had seen maybe one or two of his paintings as internet memes, oh, that guy who does the cobwebs and knuckles, freaky shit, nothing more than that. It was my friends’ idea to go to the exhibit, and I have tried so damn hard not to blame them for this, and failed. It was supposed to be a weird-fun afternoon followed by drinks and dinner at our favorite place in Soho, and right up until I turned the corner and came face-to-face with that fucking painting, I was having a ball.

You know how sometimes seeing an image of something you’re phobic about can hit you with an instant, awful flare of fight-or-flight panic and nausea? I have that with holes. Seeing pictures of those horrible lotus pod things people put in potpourri is like a physical shock. This was not like that. This was like—eye contact. Like the painting looked back at me, one face in a crowd, and saw me; saw me very well, just for a second.

It was a weird aberrant moment, and by the time we got out of the exhibit and started arguing over whether Rise or Collie’s served the best dirty martini in Soho, I’d totally forgotten it. I forgot it, in fact, all the way right up to when I woke up in a sick shaking sweat at four in the morning, convinced that the bed was the dream, that I was really back there in that godawful burning city with that thing creeping its way over the uneven bone-strewn ground.

Okay, I’d thought, all the way back at the beginning, sure, that painting was creepy as fuck and maybe it got under your skin more than you thought, it’s not unusual to have that kind of thing show up in your dreams, and I sounded reasonable and convincing inside my own head.

And then it happened again the next night. Exactly the same. And the next, and the next, and the next, and I tried melatonin and I tried Nytol and I tried whiskey and I tried reading about the goddamn artist and why he did the things he did, and I still found myself in the city every time I dipped into REM sleep no matter what.

I’ve deleted my search history so many times since this began, and I still don’t want to know what the FBI would make of this many variants on how to exorcise a painting and haunted by a painting and going insane because of dreams. There are other things, too: remember how that tower block in London burned down back in 2017, and the video of flames billowing from every single goddamn window was everywhere on the news? The first time I saw that video after the art exhibition I nearly threw up from the shock of recognition: it was the burning city in the painting, in the dream. Exactly the same: red-orange on black, windows no longer windows but holes into hell. The hunger of the fire. Its endless greed.

(I went back and watched that video over and over, like you might poke at a tooth-socket with your tongue, setting off the pain-fireworks deliberately, testing how much it hurt, if anything had changed. I read a lot of eyewitness accounts of the fire, late at night, trying to stay awake. I tried to stay awake, in the beginning, and that didn’t work either.)

I don’t remember exactly when I started to think about tattoos. I think to begin with I had some confused idea of exorcising the painting by reproducing it myself, drawing each line onto paper, and then burning the whole fucking thing, sending it up the chimney in a billow of sparks —and then realizing that would just free it again as the paper disintegrated. The problem wasn’t just that I couldn’t draw; the problem was that I couldn’t get rid of it, that it had sunk into me, that it would be inside me for the rest of my life, inside my blood and bone. I think that was when I started to wonder about putting it on the outside of me. Putting it behind me, on my back.

Transference, Rae said, that first afternoon, their pupils slitted like a cat’s in the rainlight. It’s deep in your mind now; you can’t get rid of it, not now, but you can put it somewhere else. It was exactly what I’d been hoping to hear ever since I’d begun searching for an artist who could do the job, and been met with blank expression after blank expression. A couple of them had said they could do the painting for me, but it was obvious they didn’t understand why I needed it done —and I couldn’t very well explain that it was inside my mind and needed to be exorcised. Rae was different. From the moment I walked into their shop they knew exactly why I wanted it done, even before I mentioned the dreams. I’m pretty sure they would have understood without me saying a single goddamn word out loud, that they could have plucked it directly out of my mind without bothering to listen. Purple neon in the corner of the window, in the rain.

Will it work? I asked.

It’ll cost you.

I don’t care, I said. Anything. I’ll—fuck, I’ll sell my car, I’ll take out loans, I’ll do anything, pay anything, just make it go away.

It’ll cost more than money.

I wasn’t surprised, to be honest, but at that point I would have agreed to pretty much any terms they offered: I’ll pay.

They nodded, and it wasn’t until they were actually stenciling the thing on my back that I thought to ask wait, is doing this going to be safe for you? Is looking at it going to make it jump into your mind now?

Rae laughed, and told me to hold still, and not to sweat the small stuff, and soon afterwards that buzzing bright pain began.

By that time I’d lost all my friends and was on pretty shaky ground at my job; sleep deprivation fucks with your productivity, even when it’s not combined with existential horror, and I couldn’t look at my goddamn best friends without a vicious stab of memory: the lighthearted oh hey let’s check out this exhibition, freaky paintings, c’mon, it’ll be fun that had started this entire nightmare in the first place, months ago. I didn’t have anything better to do with my spare time than lie on Rae’s table and try not to mind how much it hurt—and how long I had to wait between sessions for my skin to heal. How much I wanted to do it all in one night, get it over with, put an end to this bullshit, and how much I knew that even if I could have dealt with that much pain for that many hours it wouldn’t work. It has to be gradual, or the thing will notice.

We’re five sessions in now, and Rae says it’ll be another four before it’s done. They’re not doing the linework and then the color afterward; they’re drawing it from the outside in, gradually irising closer and closer to the center of the painting. The creature will be the last thing to go, and that will have to be done completely in one session, lines and color and shading all at once, multiple tattoo machines loaded and ready to go, because if we pause even for a few minutes the element of surprise will be lost: the thing would find a way to escape from Rae’s needles and take up residence somewhere else in my mind, and we’d lose the only way to capture it.

I was only a little afraid of the pain to begin with—desperation will do that to you—and I’ve actually kind of grown to like it, by now: every single line means we’re closer to my freedom. I’m pretty sure that even if the nightmare is gone I’ll hear that buzzing in my dreams, in my bones, for the rest of my life, and I’m okay with that. In the mirrors, the painting on my back looks as if it’s rising out of the skin, as if Rae’s tattoo machines are not so much applying ink as removing blank skin that’s been hiding the image all along, bit by bit: a hellish red sky behind a burning cityscape, awful and desolate, every window lit up with orange flame. I don’t know why the city is burning, what cataclysm set it on fire to begin with; it doesn’t matter. In the dream the air is baking-hot, thick with smoke, vicious to breathe and stinking; the flames roar like thunder, like an oncoming freight train, and from my vantage point in a slightly sheltered portico the creature comes creeping along the bone-scattered ground on its horribly thin hands and feet, skin stretched tight over scrabbly knuckles, its bandaged head turning to and fro as if seeking something it particularly wants. I don’t know if the red stain on the front of that non-face is blood, or whose it might be, and I don’t want to know.

Rae has left that foreground blank, and our last appointment will fill it in. With each successive session the dream has faded: not vanished altogether, but gone out of focus, the roaring sound of the flames muted bit by bit, the red sky less intense, the city disappearing gradually as the ink draws it out of the dream and anchors it into my skin.

Rae says it most likely won’t hurt other people, when it’s done. That I can let someone see it without being afraid that it will jump the gap to someone else’s mind, an awful charge seeking ground. I want to believe that, I really do, but in the bottom of my mind I don’t want to take the chance. Wearing a shirt to the pool or the beach or to bed for the rest of my life is—well, I can deal with that. The thought that I might actually find myself in a situation where someone else might want to look at me without a shirt on is still so strange, after the months of viciously enforced solitude. That I might have friends again, after this is over. That this could be over.

(There’s a line in Tale of Two Cities that’s always stuck with me: you know you are recalled to life? I think I might be. I hope I might.)

Rae hasn’t told me what the non-monetary part of payment will be, and won’t tell me until after the thing is done; that’s part of this, like all the tales, you make the desperate deal with the cat-eyed creature, and only once the bargain is sealed do you find out what you really owe. Be careful what you wish for—but for me, it really doesn’t matter; anything would be preferable to the burning city. If it means a decade off my life, fine. If it means my firstborn child, ever assuming I have such a thing—fine. If it means I’m Rae’s property, that after some specific stretch of time I will have to return to that there-and-not-there little shop with the purple neon in the window and surrender myself to their custody, then I’ll do it. Something I’ve learned over the past months is that you can pretty much always do what you must do, even if it seems impossible.

(The rest of that line from Dickens: you can bear a little more light? I must bear it, if you let it in.)

The thing I will wonder for the rest of my life, no matter what the price I pay, is: why did this happen? Did the artist paint it back in 1973 to rip a nightmare out of his own mind and prison it in oil-paints on canvas—did he know what it would do, did he create it deliberately to transfer the nightmare to someone else’s eyes and mind, or was something working through him, using him as its medium as he used the paint?

Because it’s very definitely not the only painting the artist completed. There are whole books, catalogues full of them, fever-dreams in cobwebs and dry desiccated finger-joints, dim distant cathedrals made of bone, things with empty eye-sockets that follow the viewer around the room. Do they all do what the painting of the burning city does, crawl into someone’s mind and stay there like bone-seeking radionuclides, sending out their silent poison influence? Is the city real, somewhere, and is the painting—are all his paintings—nothing but windows into that other, worser universe? Because if so, there have to be other people who’ve been trapped in them. I don’t know why it got me, but I cannot possibly be the only person whose eyes it slid inside, out of all the eyes that must have passed over it in the years since it was painted.

Rae had known what to do about it. Rae had known precisely what to do about it, so I can’t be the only one who’s needed transference. So how many others have there been?

If I’d followed my first instinct and stepped off a building, would I have woken up trapped in the burning city alone, or with other people who had tried the same thing, and would they still be identifiable as people at all, or terrible creeping things with red stains on their faceless bandaged heads? Would there really be any difference?

But the worst thing—the worst thing because it’s a thought that cannot be unthought, a stone dropped into the deep water of my lowest and most miserable imagination, setting up ripples that just spread and spread and spread, whether or not I want them to—the worst thing is that I don’t know if this is the only one of the artist’s paintings that does this. And because I don’t know the answer, I will never be able to stop thinking of the question, and that means inevitably, eventually, helplessly, I will have to look at the others, in order to find out. All of them. Whether or not I want to. Whatever made me vulnerable to this in the first place will find a way to put me face to face with the others, with or without my active consent. It’s—beyond my control.

I don’t know how many of them I have room for, on my body.

I have a horrible feeling that I’m going to have to find out.

 

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

The Uncanny Valley

We’re writing this editorial in room 2139 at Lurie Children’s hospital. This is day 50 of our daughter Caitlin’s current hospitalization (day 60 since July 27). She was supposed to be discharged last week. It didn’t happen. Yet another major and heartbreaking setback occurred about an hour before we were supposed to get on the road. We’ve had far too many scares during this hospitalization, and have no idea when she will be able to go home. We’re exhausted and terrified, as the doctors gave us the absolute worst news for Caitlin.

We planned on being with our friends at Chicon, celebrating all that is wonderful in the SF/F community. Caitlin and Lynne had spectacular dresses for the Hugo Awards. Instead, we watched on our laptop from here in the hospital.

The one positive of the last few months has been the outpouring of love and support for Caitlin and us during this hospitalization. The well wishes, cards, balloons, donations, and kind words have meant so much to us. We are deeply, deeply grateful.

We very much hope this is the last editorial written at this hospital.

Thank you, Space Unicorns. We love you all. Your kindness remains bigger than galaxies.

And now, happier news!

PHENOMENAL news, Space Unicorns! “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story! Congratulations to Sarah!

Even more wonderful news! Uncanny Magazine (Publishers/Editors-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, Poetry/Managing Editor Chimedum Ohaegbu, Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson, and Podcast Producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky) won the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine! THANK YOU, SPACE UNICORNS!!!

Once again, congratulations to the other five Uncanny Magazine  stories that were finalists: “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim for Best Novelette, “That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell for Best Novelette, “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde for Best Novelette, “The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente for Best Short Story, and “Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte for Best Short Story! Congratulations to everybody!

It was an amazing list of Hugo Award winners and 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 Chicon 8 staff. We are honored, ecstatic, and overwhelmed.

You can read our acceptance speeches on the Uncanny Magazine website!   

And here comes the bittersweet part of our editorial. As all of you have known since May, after four years, Managing and Poetry Editor Chimedum Ohaegbu has decided to move on from her Uncanny editorial duties after this issue. We can’t overstate how important Chimie has been to Uncanny. She started with us as an intern in 2018, became an Assistant Editor later that year, took over as Managing Editor in late 2019, and became Poetry Editor in 2020. She made everything look slick and professional, always had a strong voice in the poetry, stepped up to every challenge, and has been exemplary in every way. We really can’t say enough great things about Chimie and what she did to make Uncanny what it is today. We know that Chimie is going to do more fabulous things in the future. We wish her so much joy in the next step of her journey. 

Along with Chimie, Uncanny Magazine Senior Assistant Editor Naomi Day is also moving on after Issue 49. Naomi has been with us since Issue 37, and has done a fabulous job. We know Naomi will continue to do brilliant things, and we will greatly miss her.

Along with the bittersweet news, though, we have some fabulous news. This issue is the first issue for new Managing Editor Monte Lin! Monte started as an Uncanny Magazine Assistant Editor in 2021. He has done a phenomenal job, and we expect more tremendous things from him. He is working closely with Chimie, so we know this will be a fabulous transition. Monte is a rising superstar writer and editor, and it is such a joy to work with him. We are very excited about this!

And that’s not all! This issue is the first issue for our new Assistant Editor Tania Chen! Tania brings a lot of enthusiasm to the position, and is already doing a stupendous job!

Excellent news, Space Unicorns! Sarah Pinsker’s “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” won the Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction! Congratulations to Sarah!!!

Congratulations also to Caroline M. Yoachim, whose “Colors of the Immortal Palette” was also a finalist!

And congratulations to all of the other wonderful finalists!

Fabulous news, Space Unicorns! “If the Martians Have Magic” by P. Djèlí Clark won the Best Short Story Ignyte Award, and “POST MASSACRE PSYCHE EVALUATION” by Abu Bakr Sadiq won the Best in Speculative Poetry Ignyte Award! Congratulations to them both!

Once again, congratulations to the other Uncanny Magazine pieces that were finalists: “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim for a Best Novelette Ignyte Award, “The Necessity of Slavery Stories” by Troy L. Wiggins for a Best in Creative Nonfiction Ignyte Award, and “What You Might Have Missed” by Arley Sorg for a Best in Creative Nonfiction Ignyte Award, plus Uncanny Magazine Assistant Editor Monte Lin’s essay “Where Will You Place us When We Are Dead?” for a Best in Creative Nonfiction Ignyte Award! Congratulations to everybody!

It was a fabulous ballot! Congratulations to all of the Ignyte Award Winners and finalists!

Wonderful news, Space Unicorns! Uncanny Magazine is the Spotlight Guest of Honor at Norwescon 45Uncanny Magazine Editors-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas will be representing Uncanny (along with Caitlin!). Norwescon 45 will be held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Seattle Airport, located in SeaTac, WA, from April 6-9, 2023. EXPECT SHENANIGANS!

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 49! The fabulous cover is The Light Between the Sea by Maxine Vee. Our new fiction includes Samantha Mills’s timely tale of pregnancies and abortion “Rabbit Test,” Vivian Shaw’s dark story of art and tattoos “Transference,” Matthew Olivas’s exploration of family and magic “The Other Side of Mictlān,” Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s travelogue of an alien world “Travelers’ Unrest,” Iori Kusano’s story of fast food, identity, and longing “can i offer you a nice egg in this trying time,” Anya Ow’s story of family bonds and self-reliance “Earth Dragon, Turning,” and Emily Y. Teng’s exploration of possibilities “To Walk the River of Stars.” Our reprint is “A Fall Counts Anywhere” by Catherynne M. Valente, which appeared in Robots vs. Fairies in 2018.

Our provocative and compelling essays this month include “The Necessity of Trans Joy” by Izzy Wasserstein, “For Your Re-Consideration” by Jennifer Marie Brissett, “Across the Afterverse: A Conversation with Afropunk SF/F Author Alex Smith” by Alex Jennings, “What Do the Dying Know?” by Karen Heuler, and Nonfiction Editor Meg Elison’s editorial “The Horny Body Problem.” Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “A Dead, Divine Thing” by Eshqin Ahmad, “Crossing” by Ewen Ma, “Sang Kancil at the Protest” by May Chong, “A Testament of Bloom” by Taiwo Hassan, and “I Am a Little Hotel” by Ai Jiang. Finally, Caroline M. Yoachim interviews Vivian Shaw and Iori Kusano about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 49A features “Rabbit Test” by Samantha Mills, as read by Erika Ensign, “Crossing” by Ewen Ma, as read by Erika Ensign, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Samantha Mills. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 49B features “Travelers’ Unrest” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, as read by Matt Peters, “A Testament of Bloom” by Taiwo Hassan, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

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

Rabbit Test

Content Note: Sexual Assault, abuse, traumatic miscarriage, psych ward treatment, and suicide.

 

It is 2091, and Grace is staring at the rabbit in the corner of her visual overlay. It is an Angora rabbit, fluffy and white, and when Grace picked the icon out, she did not realize how much she would come to dread the sight of it. She moves, and the overlay moves with her. A reminder. A threat.

There are three other authorized users with access to her rabbit test: her mother, her father, and the family doctor who installed it at their request shortly after her first menses.

In two months, Grace will turn 18 and at that point she can maintain or disable the app as she sees fit. But she doesn’t have two months. Her period is six days late, and tomorrow her tracker will automatically administer a pregnancy test.

Grace pulls up the profile of her best friend, Sal, and sends their usual emergency alert: Coffee??

It is 1931, and Maurice Friedman and Maxwell Edward Lapham have just published “A Simple, Rapid Procedure for the Laboratory Diagnosis of Early Pregnancies” in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, volume 21. This simple (very), rapid (by some standards) procedure involves one urine sample and one very unlucky rabbit.

(It is 1927, and Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek have just introduced the test first, actually, and theirs involves five-packs of mice. But the doctors, both Jewish, will soon flee Nazi Germany, and except for the occasional lab that prefers breeding mice over rabbits, it is the Friedman test that will catch on instead.)

Step One: Inject the urine sample into the veins of a live, juvenile female rabbit. Wait several days.

Step Two: Dissect the unlucky bunny. Inspect its ovaries. If they have enlarged and turned yellow, then congratulations or our condolences, this follicular maturation indicates a noticeable presence of hCG. You’re pregnant.

Contrary to the parlance of the time, it is not the death of the rabbit that indicates a positive test. The rabbit always dies.

It is 2091, and the fine folks at Rabbit Test LMC do not have a laboratory farm. There are no animal casualties in the work they do. A very small minority of their users even understand the reference that inspired the company’s name—it is a bit of trivia. Ancient history. An office joke.

Grace doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, and certainly isn’t laughing. She waits for Sal at the coffee shop, and every sip of spark makes her stomach roil with nerves.

When Sal gets there—lovely Sal with her long brown hair and her nails painted like dragon scales—Grace can barely wait till they’re in the parking lot to blurt it out.

“How?” Sal cries. “Didn’t you map it, like I said?”

She had, she had, that was the thing. Grace had watched her cycle tracker like a surveillance drone over a labor march, and even though her parents disabled the setting that indicated her most fertile days (“Don’t get any ideas,” they’d said), she’d done the math on paper to map out her most unfertile days. At least, that’s what she thought.

Now Sal is chewing anxiously on one of her nails (she’ll ruin them that way, always does). “Did you tell Mac? Do you think he’ll stick around? Will your parents—”

“I need a blackout,” Grace interrupts. “Please, Sal. I know you’ve got some.”

It’s a glitch they’ve used before. An errant bit of update code that will block their apps for a day or two. Sal uses them to disable her blood alcohol test whenever her parents are out of town. They download patches every time, but she’s a whiz at writing new ones, and that’s all that Grace needs, just a day or two to corrupt the rabbit test. Under cover of the blackout, she can pull up the profile of one of those old ladies who sells pill packs out of their closets, hoarded up from before the ban.

She tries not to think about Mac, or that night spent fumbling in a sleeping bag in his dad’s backyard. He’s leaving for a deep-sea fishing gig in two weeks. He isn’t even waiting for graduation, it’s the old birthday-and-bounce, and everyone knows how few of those boys come back.

Sal is looking panicked—this is leagues beyond getting shitfaced on a Saturday night—but they’re best friends, weekend witches, twins from different sins.

She whispers, “I’ll do it.”

It is 1940, and bioassays are already shifting away from mice and rabbits and on to frogs: Xenopus laevis, to be exact. It’s a brilliant substitution, inspired by the research of Lancelot Hogben in the 1930s.

(The zoologist: British. His place of study: South Africa. Until he became disillusioned by the racism of the region, at which point he left the country behind and took a colony of frogs with him.)

Here is the genius of the development: within twelve hours of injecting the young frog with hormone-laden urine: poof, she lays eggs. Miles quicker than rabbit death row, and check this out: you can use the frog again!

There are obstacles in place (a doctor must decide that early diagnosis is warranted), but even so, tens of thousands of frogs will be exported from southern Africa each year to fill demand.

It is 1839, and there are no mice or rabbits or frogs in sight, but Catherine knows she is pregnant (she is all-too familiar with the signs), and she knows she cannot manage a fifth child on seamstress work.

She finds an ad in the New York Sun:

 

TO MARRIED WOMEN.—Is it not but too well known that the families of the married often increase beyond what the happiness of those who give them birth would dictate?…Is it moral for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control? The advertiser, feeling the importance of this subject, and estimating the vast benefit resulting to thousands by the adoption of means prescribed by her, has opened an office, where married females can obtain the desired information.

 

The advertiser in question calls herself Madame Restell, and she takes clients at her Greenwich Street office between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Catherine’s grandmother swore by pennyroyal or tansy tea, but she also had more than one friend felled by a toxic dose. These are modern times, and Catherine would prefer something measured with more exactitude. In addition to the simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy Madame Restell offers for people in situations such as Catherine’s, she also sells Preventative Powder (five dollars per package) and Female Monthly Pills (one dollar apiece). Catherine isn’t sure she can fit that into the family budget, but it would surely be a blessing if she could.

(It is 1839, and for enslaved women laboring against their will below the Mason-Dixon line there are no advertisements in the paper, there are no accessible offices on public streets, there is no quiet recovery in the privacy of their own homes, for they own nothing but their wits. For these women, forced to birth more children into the system that enslaves them, there is cotton root bark if they have the supply and the knowledge to use it, a remedy shared in whispers, a remedy that will bring down the foulest of punishments upon their heads if they are caught—but still they try.)

Catherine has no cause to know any of that, and if she did it would make her uneasy at best. She is not the sort of woman who attends abolitionist meetings or subscribes to their publications. She is a woman who scarcely has a moment free to tend her own problems, hence her need to tend this problem. Immediately.

She is lucky that someone has the means, the interest, and the entrepreneurial spirit to help her out.

It is 2091, and Grace is praying that someone might have the means, the interest, and the entrepreneurial spirit to help her out.

Within hours of installing Sal’s blackout code, Grace feels her rabbit test commence. It’s the barest prickle in her arm, the telltale tick of her med chip taking a blood sample. The scan goes straight to her tracker, and the animation of a laughing baby about stops her heart. But Sal’s code holds true—her data is stored locally, and Grace deletes it with a desperate swipe before it can transmit to anyone else.

Grace sobs into her pillow for a good long while, convinced her plan has failed before it’s even begun, because she can’t do this, she can’t do this, how did she think she could do this? She’ll die and go straight to hell.

But her tears subside and she spends the rest of the afternoon scouring protest sites, seeking the ever-changing link to a link to a link that will land her on a temporary profile with the latest bot-evading slang for terminating pregnancy. She uses her bedroom ceiling for the projection, rapidly filling it with open pages, skimming one after another, trying to parse the euphemisms.

(It is 1840, and assorted Victorians are scanning the newspaper for female regulators, cathartic pills, anything that might solve private difficulties by removing obstructions. In 2091 there are no paper ads, but private difficulties remain.)

There. On a university black market page, buried among requests for machine-generated history papers and cafeteria access chips, Grace finds what she is looking for: cheat sheets for rabbit tests.

At least, she thinks this is what she’s looking for. It could mean another blackout—or maybe it’s just for birth control? Grace is vague on how the latter works.

The post is signed with the initials A.M.E. Grace rewrites her message a thousand times before settling on a hesitant, What if I’ve already taken the test?

Thirty excruciating minutes later, a reply pops up. Give me your audio line.

It makes sense not to have this conversation by text, blackout or no, but Grace’s entire body begins to shake as soon as she sends her number. There is no way that she can talk to a stranger about this, there is no way she can make her confession to a possible-troll at best and a possible-cop at worst. When the call comes through her voice cracks on hello.

“You sound a mess,” A.M.E. says, not without sympathy. “Tell me what you’re looking for, babe.”

It all spills out.

Over the next twenty minutes, Grace has one preconception challenged after another. For one thing, she had assumed all of the hoarders were old ladies, but A.M.E.—“Call me Ambrose”—laughs and assures her that he isn’t that old, and he isn’t a lady. Women aren’t the only people worried about their uteruses, and Ambrose saw the writing on the wall long before the 2084 ban passed.

“I had the ol’ womb exhume in the ’70s,” he says, “but I ordered as many pill packs as I could from overseas before the mail cracked down.” He warns her that the pills have been expired for a year, but the worst-case scenario is they don’t work, and she’s already facing that.

He’s charging four hundred dollars—he wants to help but hey, times are tough—and that’s doable, barely, Grace can scrape that together between leftover birthday money and selling old toys on her market page. If anyone asks what the money was for, she’ll say she took Sal out for dinner and a show.

And then he starts asking her questions that nobody has ever asked her before. What does she know about birth control? (“No, babe, taking it won’t make you sterile for life. If only.”) What are her plans after this? Not today, not next week, her real plans. Her life.

As Grace talks, she feels the decision taking hold. That’s the gift Ambrose is giving her with this conversation, when he could have simply stated a price and a pickup location and left it at that. He isn’t pressing her. He’s giving her a moment to think it through, to own what she is about to do. It’s her body.

“So,” Ambrose says. “What’s it gonna be?”

She’s choked silent for a moment by a mudslide rush of fear and guilt. Grace can barely think the word in her own head (abortion) because it is so fraught, made dirty by her parents’ strident warnings.

Her mother was there in 2084, you know, marching for stricter regulation of uterine care. People were killing their babies left and right before that, she said. It was easy. Untraceable. Rabbit tests were private, no requirement to inform a medical office; pills were on auto-order, so you’d scarcely notice the late date before a drone dropped a discreet package down the bathroom chute. And that was only the people who weren’t hacking their natural biology, popping in gestational blocks like getting their ears pierced, as though the country wasn’t in a population freefall, as though they weren’t in dire need of sturdy white babies to survive the coming storms—(her mother’s diatribes took many turns).

Grace still remembers hiding behind her mother’s legs at that march, age nine and terrified of the crowd. She remembers the moment that her mother pulled her into the spotlight, and cried, “My miracle child! This is my miracle child!” And she told the entire story over amplification: how her prenatal pills had been swapped for baby killers (how could such a switch happen on accident? Grace would not question this until she was much older) and the doctor told her the chances of her child surviving were slim, even with immediate intervention, but she had prayed and prayed and prayed, and she’d saved Grace’s life.

So yes, there is guilt. Mountains of it. Vast oceans, roiling with the rising temperature. Guilt the size of a rich man’s space station.

But Grace is also exhilarated. She’ll finish school. She’ll be more careful. What are her plans after this? She doesn’t know yet, but she desperately wants the time to figure them out.

“Tell me where to go,” she says, and she means it.

It is 1978, and Alice is looking at an advertisement for the first FDA-approved home pregnancy test, now on shelves at pharmacies all over the country. It takes nine steps, two hours, an angled mirror, and a vial of sheep’s blood, but for ten dollars you can investigate your own body in the privacy of your own home, and if the test comes up negative you can be eighty percent sure that it’s correct.

It isn’t merely the test that has taken Alice’s breath away, but the coverage in Mademoiselle. For decades it has billed itself as the quality magazine for smart young women—those fashionable, sophisticated, career-minded girls of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s—and alongside the fashion editorials and the beauty tips it has boasted writers and editors such as Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson and James Baldwin, Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath.

But this is different.

 

The e.p.t In-Home Early Pregnancy Test is a private little revolution any woman can easily buy at her drugstore…Now its high accuracy rate has been verified here in America by doctors…That means you can confidently do this easy pregnancy test yourself—privately—right at home without waiting for appointments or delays…At last early knowledge of pregnancy belongs easily and accurately to us all.

 

The ad is remarkable enough, but it is the commentary on page 86 that has Alice close to tears. It is beautiful in its candor, its practicality—its honesty, baldly stating that the benefits of private and rapid results are that they give you a chance, if pregnant, “to start taking care of yourself…or to consider the possibility of early abortion.”

To see those words printed openly in a national magazine?

She scarcely thought she’d see the day, because—

Because it is 1971, and Alice can’t imagine how close she is to a future in which abortion is suggested with matter-of-fact sophistication in Mademoiselle and the rest of Condé Nast’s women’s magazine lineup.

Alice is a married woman with two children in school, and every afternoon she calls a list of complete strangers who have left messages for Jane. They are in dire need of help.

Jane does not exist.

Or rather, Jane is several women, and they provide a very specific service to the greater Chicago area. They call themselves the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, but for the purposes of discretion, women in need can call the phone number on their flyer and leave a message for Jane, and Jane will get back to them soon.

(They are not the first group to think of this. There are Clergy Consultation Services in several states already—networks of pastors and ministers and rabbis lobbying for legalized abortion and referring women to legal clinics if they can afford to travel, and to discreet local contacts if they cannot.)

Once a week the whole crew meets up to assign phone numbers to the counselors for a callback. Alice is one of only a few Black members in the group. The rest are white. White housewives, white working women, white activists looking to do something tangible, something now. And they’re helping thousands of people, there’s no doubt about that, but the fact remains that as their service spreads through the South and West Side neighborhoods of Chicago, their clientele increasingly doesn’t match their membership. Alice’s goal is to provide these folks a reassuring and familiar face.

She joined as a counselor, driver, and sometimes-assistant after accompanying a friend to an appointment. Call this number, her friend’s doctor had said. They only charge what you can afford. And sure as shit, Alice helped scrape fifty dollars together and fifty dollars is what it cost. She looked around that living-room-turned-waiting-room, full of frightened teenagers and weary moms-of-three, and she knew she wanted to help.

Abortion hadn’t always been the purview of psych wards and hospital review boards; it hadn’t always been a begrudging concession on one’s deathbed or a desperate gamble in a germ-ridden hotel room.

It used to be the work of midwives and healers, friends and neighbors, those with wombs learning the workings of their own bodies.

Which is why the members of Jane are learning to perform the procedure themselves.

It is 2091, and Grace has no idea how a womb works, but somebody does, and she’s heading his way.

Even with the blackout, she is too paranoid to hire a driver—everything leaves a trail, everything—and so she takes her little brother’s electric scooter from the garage. Ambrose asked that she convert her money into gift cards rather than transfer it directly to him, and she’s shaken by how many potential pitfalls she hadn’t even considered.

Grace’s destination—a parking lot with many exits, behind a hydroponic garden that used to be a mall—is fifteen miles from her home.

She leaves before dawn. Every streetlight is a searchlight, every passing face a spy. She’s on that stage with her mother again, the bullhorn blaring MIRACLE CHILD! MY MIRACLE CHILD! And she’s in her high school health class being told to abstain, make good decisions, have the integrity to wait, do not lift the veil of her body to an unworthy partner, and certainly do not lift it before being wed. She’s failed her parents and her God and her teachers and her boyfriend and herself, but none of them need to know. She’s going to hell, but not today.

Grace doesn’t make it five miles before there’s a horn blaring and her father shouting out the window and her mother sobbing in the passenger seat. Her father’s wristband is flashing at the proximity—the scooter has an old geolocator tag that Grace had completely forgotten about.

Later she’ll learn the details (Sal panicked and told her mother), but at the moment all she knows is that her parents are here, they’ve caught her, the door has slammed shut.

It is 2083, and Grace’s mother is a single spear in a vanguard. Half the world is burning or flooding and the other half is arguing bitterly over who should take in refugees, if at all. (They’d postponed this future, a hard push in the ’30s and ’40s, a desperate revival of green initiatives, wholly reactive and far too late—but it was only a stall, in the end.)

Amelia is marching because she fears being outnumbered. She’s marching because she believes it’s her duty to save babies and place them in homes with good Christian values, because the scientific establishment is out of control, a cabal of demons on Earth locking an entire generation out of salvation.

She doesn’t know or understand all of the terminology, but she’s equally scathing toward every problem facing America today. Invasions at the border and children making up genders and godlessness in schools and lesbians in every sitcom and the greatest problem of all looming over the rest: the intrusion of technology into natural-born bodies. An entire economy of soulless elites enabling—encouraging!—people to tailor their hormones and alter their organs, to implant med chips and tracking devices, monsters who are giving their tech cute names like rabbit test when it isn’t cute at all, it’s a means to leap at the first sign of conception and take control of a natural process that ought to be left to God’s will alone. (The hypocrisy of installing that same test in Grace will never occur to her; the right people have taken over monitoring it.)

The long and short of it is: her daughter will be raised better.

It is 2092, and Grace is a disappointment to her mother.

Breathe,” says the nurse.

Grace is breathing. She’s also crying. She read what she could find about childbirth but nothing prepared her for the reality. At one point she is struck by the desperate, irrational desire to call Ambrose—at least he would tell her honestly what’s about to happen. But that temporary profile is long gone; his number long disconnected.

Breathe,” says the nurse.

Grace is gasping. Her mother is at her side, but they are hardly speaking at this point. There are drugs, but she is in terrible pain. When the anesthesiologist ups the dose and half of Grace’s body immobilizes, she has a panic attack.

The anesthesiologist’s voice penetrates the haze. “…something for the anxiety?”

Grace’s mother says yes. The drugs trickle in, and Grace can’t remember most of what happens next.

It is 2092 and there is only so much comfort modern medicine can provide. Even if Grace’s mother had hired a doula (“You don’t need one,” she had declared. “You have me.”)—even if she had, what could a doula have said to make Grace feel any better? The deed is done.

A nurse holds up the infant, which is squalling in even more terror than its mother.

Barring any gender revelations to come: it’s a girl.

It is 1817, and Asenath Smith is in love with an Episcopal preacher.

His name is Ammi Rogers, and he’s been banned from the ministry in Connecticut for promoting separation of church and state. He works instead on the lucrative traveling preacher circuit, where he’s grown exceedingly popular—particularly amongst the ladies.

Asenath, twenty-one years of age and grown up in a family of independent-minded women, met the controversial figure when he was giving comfort at the bedside of her dying grandmother, God rest her soul. She was smitten. She was smote.

When Asenath realizes she is pregnant, she goes straight to Rogers, secure in the fact of their upcoming marriage. They’ll only have to hasten the date.

But Rogers won’t marry her unless she ends the pregnancy. Most people ignore it when babies are born less than nine months from the wedding, but that courtesy will not be extended to him. His reputation is already under attack.

He gives her medication, but it doesn’t take.

He attempts to use a tool, but that doesn’t seem to work either, so he flees town. Several terrible, pain-ridden days later, Asenath gives birth: a stillborn.

The ensuing scandal is intense—the attempts at prosecution even more so. There is no seduction law in Connecticut, no statute banning abortion. He is arrested nonetheless.

The first trial fails when Rogers abducts Asenath and her sister, locking them up until they agree to withdraw their testimony. They keep their promise and refuse to cooperate at the second trial, but their former statements are presented anyway. In lieu of any charge more accurate, Rogers is convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to two years in prison.

The firestorm rages on. The coercion of Asenath Smith is central to the debate, but the debate does not include ways to ensure that women like Asenath can escape coercion. The General Assembly instead takes aim at medicinal abortion, eager to push midwives and grandmothers (many of them immigrants or formerly enslaved) out of the business—the first antiabortion legislation in the nation. Abortions approved and performed by doctors will remain protected for some time longer, putting these delicate bodily decisions into more authoritative hands.

This conclusion misses the point.

It is 2107, and Grace’s daughter is fifteen years old. They’ve been living on their own for five of those years, finally out of Grace’s childhood home and into a one-bedroom apartment in a downtrodden part of town. Most of Grace’s neighbors are from India, and it’s a relief to escape the constant scrutiny of her former neighbors, a relief to no longer be ducking her head in shame.

It isn’t Olivia that Grace is ashamed of, even though that is what everyone expected of her. (She loves her daughter, despite it all.) Rather, she’s ashamed of how long it took her to get out of that house. A decade of minimum wage shift work and listening to her mother’s remonstrations about her character and the burdens of babysitting and social embarrassment, as if she hadn’t kept Grace under strict supervision for eight months to ensure it would happen—

But it’s over. These past five years have been peaceful. They’ve been revelatory. Her own life is under her own control (to the extent that working fifty-plus hours per week to afford pasta and imitation butter feels like control). Grace has cut ties to her church and only answers her mother’s calls one third of the time. Life isn’t what she hoped for, but she’s learned to live with her life.

And then May comes.

In May, Olivia goes to a party after school and comes home sick. She can’t remember a thing, but she’s aching, she’s distressed, she has nightmares that move like shadows in candlelight. They run a blood workup but whatever was in her system is gone without a trace.

Three weeks later she falls onto Grace’s shoulder, panic-stricken, in disbelief, and in that second before the words tumble out of her mouth, Grace already knows. It’s her rabbit test.

(It wasn’t installed at Grace’s request, or with either of their consent. Med chips are mandatory from age 6, the rabbit test from age 10. It’s been a statewide law since 2102, and Grace can’t afford to leave the state. The protesters who were so quick to condemn its use in private decision-making had no qualms about using it for surveillance.)

“What do I do?” Olivia cries. Over and over. “What do I do?”

Grace’s mouth is dry. The words come out faintly. “I can fix this,” she says. “If that’s what you want.”

“How?” Olivia whispers.

They stay up late that night, discussing the options. Grace tries not to reveal how badly she is shaking. She talks Olivia through the risks of trying to fake a miscarriage versus the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. She tries to give her the information she wishes she’d had, building the conversation without a blueprint.

“Have you run a search?” Grace asks abruptly.

“No, I came straight to you.” Olivia reaches out hesitantly, as if to pull up a screen. “Should I…?”

“No!” Grace claps a hand over hers. “Don’t search. Don’t breathe a word to anyone, not even your best friend, do you understand?”

At the moment, the law only condemns the procurer. Olivia is a minor. Her body belongs to Grace in the eyes of the law, and therefore Grace is responsible for what comes next.

She does everything she can to cover her tracks. An anonymous account from a throwaway device, an exchange location in a terrifying part of town where the network is always down, an even more terrifying night spent rubbing her daughter’s back, coaching her through the cramps and nausea, making note of the size of her blood clots and rehearsing the story they’ll tell the doctor the next morning—

It isn’t enough.

All it takes is one suspicious nurse to flag Olivia’s paperwork. Why didn’t they make an appointment when her rabbit test came up positive? Why didn’t they go to the E.R. at the first sight of blood?

Grace’s background is scrutinized, her location data inspected for mysterious gaps, witnesses contacted in regards to her character. And then, evidence where she didn’t even know to destroy it: a drug test performed on their household wastewater line.

She is arrested for murder, but the public defender tells her they can get it knocked down to voluntary manslaughter if she attests that she was out of her mind, in a heat of passion triggered by the memory of her own thwarted abortion and the lack of a man’s support. Grace doesn’t want to be cast as a madwoman who shoved pills down her daughter’s throat in a fit of old-fashioned hysteria, but it takes the sentence down from twenty years without parole to twelve.

She’ll go away, and Olivia will be remanded into the custody of Grace’s own mother.

And all Grace can think of as she’s led out of the courtroom is: I had five years of my own. I had five years.

It is 1993, and she wants this baby so much, they have been trying and trying; there’s a heartbeat, she can hear it, but there isn’t a brain. Her body won’t let it go, and the doctor says I am very sorry, but I will have to remove it myself.

It is 2015, and she has to sneak in on a Tuesday because her youth group is protesting the clinic on Saturday, and she needs a couple of days to recover or they’ll wonder why she isn’t there. She’ll weep in the recovery room and call the nurse a murderer.

It is 1965, and she has to convince a hospital review board that she’s suicidal, clutching letters from two separate psychiatrists, all for the privilege of spending two nights in a psych ward and having all her bits shaved for no clear reason, but it works, it’s humiliating but it works, and she knows she’s one of the lucky ones for finding a way.

It is 1150, and Hildegard von Bingen, the Sybil of the Rhine, is settling into life as the abbess of a monastery built in her honor. She is preparing to write the medical tomes Physica and Causae et Curae, in which, among many other remedies, she will list her most tried-and-true abortifacients. Officially, the Church considers the practice a sin, but it is not murder until the quickening, that moment four or five months along when the soul enters the body, and so a nun providing this care to her community is not remarkable, but merely practical.

The Romans have their silphium and the Chinese have achyranthes root. The Shoshone have stoneseed, the Lakota have sagewort, the Hawaiians have elixirs of hau, noni, ‘awa, and young kī leaves. The Victorians have their tansy tea and savin, their ergot of rye, their black draught and mallow and motherwort. Millennials have got mifepristone and misoprostol, and the climate generation has gestational blocks and yellow pills droned straight to the bathroom chute.

It is 1750—seventeen fucking fifty—and Mary is consulting a dog-eared copy of The American Instructor, the greatly popular household textbook. It is not an arithmetic lesson that occupies her today—though math will come in useful—but an entry in the medical section at the back.

Mary is reading instructions on how to cure that most common of complaints among unmarry’d Women: the SUPPRESSION of the COURSES. Mary’s courses are suppressed, all right, have been for weeks, and as a widow of certain means and a disinclination to marry again, it isn’t the first time she’s had to consult this home remedy. To cure her Misfortune, she’s got to purge with Belly-ach Root and then drink Pennyroyal Water with Spirits of Harts-horn twice a day for nine days, then take three days rest, then go on again for nine more days. It’s a pain, but better than the alternative.

(It is 1750, and across the vast tracts of North America there are dozens of Indigenous tribes with more than a hundred alternatives, but Mary has just got this book.)

She emits a light, “Fah,” at the warnings and preventative measures listed at the end of the passage, as she always does. They conclude with a prim exhortation not to long for pretty Fellows, or any other Trash whatsoever. Her current fellow is not trash—he is really rather respectable—but Mary has no desire to shackle her person or her estate to another master, no matter how pretty. She watched her mother die on the birthing bed at age 42. She watched her sisters fade to shadows under the demands of overfull houses.

The death of her first husband has given Mary the freedom to move about as she wishes; to run her own household and control her own fate.

She isn’t going to give that up lightly.

It is 2119, and Grace hasn’t given up, but the years have been painful and slow.

Today, she is getting out of prison.

She’s not the same woman she was. She’s angrier. She’s hurting. She has a permanent cough from the last virus to run rampant through the prison population. But after twelve years, she’s just as scared of reentering the world outside as she is of never seeing it again.

Olivia is waiting in the parking lot. They stare at each other for a moment that burns like a California wildfire and then they fall into one another’s arms.

There’s a child in the backseat of Olivia’s car, four years old and squashed nose-first against the glass. He’s named Raley, after the activist who made the marriage of his mothers possible after so many decades in which it was not. The tide is turning on bodily autonomy again. One generation’s fight to choose their partners is fueling the fight to choose the size of their families—a reversal of the historic civil rights progression that will inspire dissertation topics for years to come.

“I missed you,” Olivia says.

“I missed everything.” Grace has held herself together for so long, she refuses to break down in the parking lot ten feet from the damn gate—but she comes close.

And then Olivia says, “I’m speaking at the decision next week. Will you come?”

Grace flinches. It’s too much, too soon. Her world has been reduced to a handful of walls and familiar faces for years, and now Olivia is asking her to stand up in front of one hundred thousand people?

Please,” Olivia says.

Grace shuts her eyes.

The world continued to burn while she was gone. The last decade has seen ever more flooding and fire, hurricanes and heat waves, collapsing coastlines and viruses named for every letter of the alphabet. Some of these disasters hit the prison, in the form of power outages and spoiled food and illness and neglect, but others were only items in the news, dire glimpses of the life waiting for them outside. Grace has missed riots and assassinations. She’s missed a national strike and no small number of election day bombings. But there are strides being made, small victories being won, and Olivia truly believes that a big one is coming next week.

It’s happening. The final vote. Congress is on the verge of overturning the ban and returning some measure of bodily autonomy to more than half the population. There isn’t a supply chain in place for abortion medication anymore; there aren’t many doctors trained in the scant emergency procedures they are occasionally allowed to perform, and they certainly won’t be welcoming any black-market midwives into their fold to make up the deficit. But they have a president waiting to sign. They have businesses eager to flood the market. They have a multi-million-dollar video campaign ready to roll out, complete with celebrity cameos.

If it passes. If.

If it doesn’t, then things are going to get ugliest exactly where Olivia is asking her to be. There will be violence. Tear gas deployed by drone and skirmishes with National Guard robotics. There will be arrests in the thousands.

Grace imagines that chaos and suddenly she’s nine years old again, being dragged into the spotlight as a poster child for uterine regulation. She’s hearing her fate screamed through a bullhorn, she is stepping up to the mic and agreeing my mother saved my life and your mother saved yours, she is two months shy of turning eighteen and nursing the sting of a slap on her face, she is locked in her room except for mealtimes and exercise, she is locked in her cell except for mealtimes and exercise, she is watching her entire life pass by and wondering who she would have been if she’d been allowed to make up her own mind.

Her mother helped break this world. Her daughter is trying to fix it.

She looks at little Raley, his face still pressed to the car window, watching her, wondering what kind of person this prison grandmother of his is, and she’s wondering the same thing. She says, “I’ll go.”

It is 2119, and Olivia is standing on stage with a dozen people behind her and a hundred thousand in front. Her wife is at her side, their marriage barely two years legal. Her son is wedged between them, dazzled by the lights.

The Senate steps are filled with shoulder-to-shoulder policing units, blue lights blinking on their boxy chests. The air is full of cameras—military surveillance and media coverage and endless proxies from supporters who could not make it in person.

It is Olivia’s turn to speak. She is here to represent the grassroots group she joined the day she ran away from her grandmother’s house, living couch to couch and paycheck to paycheck. She is here to represent everyone else who has struggled to build a life on an obstacle course.

She shouts, “There is no justification for obeying an immoral law!” and the roar from the crowd is deafening. She pulls Raley tight to her side, a child she chose, and she speaks of the past and the present and the future.

“At every turn, we’ve sought to know more about our bodies,” she says. “And at every turn, that knowledge has been used to rope us in tighter, to set the deadline shorter, to put private decisions in the hands of public officials, as if we can’t be trusted to choose for ourselves.”

Olivia flings her other arm wide. She says, “We only want to control our own destinies! We want to decide the course of our lives, and not see every scientific advance weaponized against us. It is 2119, and I would not have this child if I’d been forced to term before I was ready, before I had a home worth sharing. And—”

It is 1350 BCE, and she is urinating on bags of wheat and barley seeds, waiting to see how quickly they will sprout. It works more often than you’d think.

She just wants to know, so she can plan, either way. And—

It is 1021, and she is watching the shah’s physician pour sulfur over her urine, looking for the worms he believes will spring from the mix. It doesn’t work any better than you’d think.

She just wants to know, so she can plan, either way. And—

It is 1658, and she is waiting at the home of the local piss prophet. He holds the matula up to the light, peering through the glass to assess the color of the liquid within.

She just wants to know, so she can plan either way. And—

It is 1998, and Lee Berger just identified the fungus causing a decades’ long decline in Australian frog species. It was carried on the skin of our old friend Xenopus laevis, exported by the tens of thousands for urine-injection-pregnancy tests, and now it is threatening extinction to thirty percent of the world’s amphibians.

It’s unfortunate as hell for the frogs, but all of those people just wanted to know, so they could plan either way. Because—

—because she is still ten thousand dollars in debt from her last time giving birth.

—because if she stops taking her medication, she will die.

—because the thought makes him vomit, makes him faint, he wouldn’t survive it.

—because if they don’t finish school, they’ll be raising this baby in their parent’s basement.

—because she simply doesn’t want to, she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t need to be on her deathbed or underage or running from a monster, her doctor said she couldn’t get her tubes tied unless she had three children already, but where’s the logic in giving birth to three children for the permission to have none?

It is 2084 and she is crying, “Our grandmothers fought so hard for this.”

It is 2206 and she is crying, “Our grandmothers fought so hard for this.”

It is 1878 and Madame Restell is bleeding to death in her bathtub rather than submit to another trial. It is 1821 and Asenath Smith is fleeing town in disgrace. It is 1972 and seven of the women of Jane have just been arrested in a raid. It is 2086 and Grace’s medical record has been officially upgraded to that most precarious of categories: potential to become pregnant.

It is 2022 and it isn’t over.

It is 2022 and it is never over.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Rabbit Test” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 49A.)

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

David, Glenn Carruthers, Emily Crossen, Catharine Roseberry, Katie Sinkoski, Jennifer Hisrich, Jenny Barber, Danielle, Mr. Robin White, Andrew Gregg, Anitra Heiberg Lykke, Andrew S. Fuller, Damien Neil, Not_the_brain, james qualters, Maria Schrater, Leetmeister, Max Andrew Dubinsky, Robin Hill, Liz Argall, S P, Ken Schneyer, Neil Ottenstein, Penny Richards, Josh Smift, Jay Lofstead, Annaliese Lemmon, fadeaccompli, Clarissa R., Ai Lake, David Versace, Kate Barton

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps ENSIGNS 

Maya Berger, Alexa, Emily, Uwe Kolley, Lee Stanford, Lori Petrie, Caryn , Brian Collins, HK11, Caroline Cormack, Arun Welch, Divyansha S, Dr. Jobo, Yamagi, Patrick Burke, Ksenia, Emmett Walsh, Justin Yost, Penny Lee, Marie K, Kuks, Hailey Myers, Brit Graham, John Wedoff, Shannon Nelson, Anja, Cheryl Martin, rick kintigh, Brian, Petri Wessman, Em, Emily Robbins, Rick Floyd, Tomb, Susan Yount, James Antill, Kora Bongen, Mark A Dispenza, K. A. T., Zhenya, Cait Coy, Alex Cross, Rachel Green, Jim DeVona, Sean Pruitt, Haven Spec, coffee n’ cats, samuel lightcap, Alysha MacDonald, Dominique Martel, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Maritza Sanchez, John Carr, Riikka, Surya H, Callum Williams, Dilly, Howard Cornett, Fábián Tamás, Ashley Herzig, Carl Olsen, Goran Lowie, Aliénor, Dawn Bonanno, William Hay, Dave McAvoy, Julia Pillard, Nicholas Davies, Monique Cuillerier, Thomas Faust, D. M. Baldwin, John Coxon, Fabienne Schwizer, Greg Chapman, Kael, Colin, Jaime McLeod, Katie Rodante, Kathrin, Ross Williams, Andrew McIntosh, Alec Ross, Karen Young, Simon Hoerder, Melanie Savransky, Ailbhe Leamy, Pete Kirkham, John Atom, Chris Gates, Felicia Jordan, Jes, Tracey Thompson, Ryan V Thummel, Shannon H, Jenn Brissett, Brian, Sonja Pieper, Kelly, Aditya Dubey, Kari Keeling, Taylor Alcantar, Goetz Kruppa, Bonnie, Agnes, Peter Schmitt (Aragos), Douglas Dluzen, Mary Brock, Chawin Narkruksa, Tuomas Pohto, Emily Goldman, Beth Hoffman, Alina Kanaski, Matthew Bennardo, Brad Preslar, Fiona Parker, Alison Gilder, Markus Regius, Natalie Boon, Caroline Pinder, Vicente JM, Ben Hammerslag, Tina Skupin, Eris Young, Chessa Hickox, machine_person, John Derrick, Carrie, Sarah Jansen, Emily Kvalheim, [email protected], Sadie Slater, Andrew Hickey, Julia Struthers-Jobin, Tim Campbell, Melissa Brinks, Nick Mazzuca, Maria Haskins, Sarah Elkins, Victor Eijkhout, Melissa Martensen, Joe Iriarte, Jacqueline Rogoff, Bea, Amanda B Cook, Ellen Zemlin, David O Mahony, Risa Wolf, John Cetrone, Cynthia Murrell, Gina, Tiffany M., Albert Bowes, Amanda J. McGee, Crystal Huff, Leslie Ordal, Gene Breshears, Ysabet MacFarlane, Erik DeBill, Emily Finke, Paul Weymouth, Laura K, Philip Woodley, David Demers, Jeffrey, Ondrej Urban, Emily Hogan, Paul Weimer, Lauren Vega

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps LIEUTENANTS

Dudley Kyle Lawhorn, Amanda Bishop, Claire Argent, Joe Pickering, Dennis Smith, Dale Vaughn, Rachel Donahue, Cass Wilkinson Saldaña, Kate Nussrainer, Samantha Baugus, shapeoflobster, Wichael Tellez, Anthony Agbay, Simone Cooper, Vikki, Parlei Riviere, Shelby Niehaus, Pat Hayes, Tracey Abla, Wendy, Sarah Storm, Brian Withers, Stephen, Will Hamilton, Sean Eric Fagan, smokestack, Heather Holmquist, Ian Sweedler, Kelsea Kreuch, Sasha H, Mark Tyler, Christiane Knight, Sarah Jackson, John Reynolds, Starr Hoffman, John Tobias, Kyle DeVries, Matthew Montgomery, julianna zdunich, Koa Webster, Sarah Hale, Randall Beeman, Danielle Weaver, Alena Geffner-Mihlsten, LInda Thompson, Ahsan A. Latif, Lisa Cox, Stephanie Novak, Rich Rubel, Margaret N. Oliver, Joan Combs Durso, Nancy Palmer, Elan Samuel, Sid J, Sarah Berriman, RMD Cade, devorah hill, Josef D Prall, Sam Gawith, Kirby Bullock, Declan Meenagh, Christi Clogston, jenn northington, Gareth Morgan, Ravian Ruijs, E, David Dagg-Murry, Raphaelle, Emma Osborne, Max G, Matt, Thomas Marks, Derek Smith, 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, Adam Israel, Aaron Roberts, Jennifer Slaugh, John M. Gamble, John Chu, Brooks Moses, Deborah Levinson, Didi Chanoch, Michael Lee, Adam Leff

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps COMMANDERS 

Jaime Taht, Culture Fuk’d, Cody Duncan, Peter Jones, Kate Boyes, Emily K Miller, Kuang-Yu Liu, Kelly Lester, Camille Knepper, Elizabeth Galliher, Mairin Holmes, Alex Eiser, K.C. Mead-Brewer, Alexander M Henderson, Kate O’Connor, Marzie Kaifer, Edmund Schweppe, Nicole Fuschetti, Dain Unicorn, Jayme, Bliss Ehrlich, Daniel (a raven)

ADDITIONAL SUPPORTERS

Jacob Aldrich, Karen, Roy Ha, SB Divya, Hayley Klug, Will Hindmarch, John Overholt, Martha Hood, Marc Beyer

The Necessity of Trans Joy

I. A Note About Audience

I think often about Charlie Jane Anders’s magnificent and heartbreaking story “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue.” As I read it, one of the story’s goals is to help cis people (that is, people whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth) understand something essential about trans experiences. It explores the horrors of being forced into a body that isn’t yours and makes an abstraction (“trans people often feel like they’ve been born in the wrong body”) into something emotionally real, something vivid.

The work of making trans experiences legible to cis people is essential. But there’s other essential work that is less frequently discussed. Often, trans folks are writing for ourselves, or to each other. In those stories, cis readers are being invited to listen in on a conversation: it’s an invitation that shows respect. In return, it asks one to sit with discomfort and recognize that trans people need to be able to make art whose primary audience isn’t cis people.

 

That’s what I’m asking of cis readers as I write to my fellow trans folks.

 

II. Seeking Trans Joy

My dear fellow trans writers, I’m not here to tell you what to write, read, or think. Rather, I want to share with you what’s helped me through these bleak times, and see if it resonates with you. I crave stories of trans joy.[1]

I want stories like Susan Jane Bigelow’s “The Heart’s Cartography,” which breaks and rebuilds me every time I read it. Jade, a trans girl who is isolated and lacking support, meets a time-traveler whose friendship offers a glimpse into the future. In another author’s hands this tale might be straightforward escapism, but in Bigelow’s it becomes something much more. “We survive,” Jade writes in her diary, a realization that is simple, heartbreaking, and deeply joyful. Like Jade, we—survivors, every one of us—get to decide what to make of that survival.

I want stories like R. B. Lemberg’s novella The Four Profound Weaves, a multiple award nominee. It’s the tale of two trans elders, each of whom have spent their lives feeling trapped by external forces, who find in themselves and in each other precisely what they need to face down an authoritarian threat. As the story unfolds, it shows us that no one is too old to transition or to find meaning in their life. Lemberg’s novella further insists on two truths: we rely on each other, and each of us is essential.

I want stories like Emma Osborne’s “Don’t Pack Hope,” where the horror of a zombie apocalypse mirrors the trauma of the transmasculine protagonist’s past. While that sounds like a depressing tale, it unfurls into something gorgeous and hopeful. It vividly reveals that not only can we survive apocalypses, we can thrive in spite of them. When we consider what we’ve already endured, the apocalypse feels manageable.

I want stories like Xander M. Odell’s “Ink,” which follows a trans tattoo artist who magically helps ease the transitions of other trans folks in ways he was never able to experience. It’s a story that knows both the joy of transition and the weight previous generations of trans people have borne to hold space for us. It tells us that the work of trans liberation has been done by many who came before us, and will be done by those who come after us. Our task is not to finish the work, but to continue it.

As Laura Jane Grace sang, “we can be the bands we want to hear,” and since I want to read about trans joy, I’m also writing about it. No one would mistake my work for being overly cheery, but I believe we can find trans joy even in the midst of terrible circumstances. It’s a subject I return to often in my fiction, such as in my story “Five Reasons for the Sign Above Her Door, One of Them Unspoken,” where a metaphorical trans community finds space for mutual protection and support in the face of bigotry and violence.

 

III. We Need Not Look Away

In calling for stories of trans joy, I’m not asking that we be naive or ignore the horrors we’re facing. (If you’re cis and you don’t know what I mean, I implore you to read more trans authors and listen to more trans voices, because things are pretty terrible right now for trans folks.) One thing I love about the stories I’ve mentioned is that they are stories in which characters find joy despite terrible circumstances, despite pain, loss, and trauma.

These are tales that insist on facing the horrors of the world and finding joy despite them. I come back to them, and to stories like them, to remind me of a truth: despite everything, despite the fascists and the transphobes and the cis “allies” who ignore or turn on us when we needed them, despite all that and more, our lives are brimming with joy. We find it by being our true selves, in trans communities, in love, and in art.

 

IV. We Can Thrive

The world remains deeply hostile to trans people. As I write this, a hospital is under a bomb threat made because it has dared to provide gender-affirming health care to trans folks. Our suffering is real and worth writing about, but it is not, and must not be, the only story we tell. The narrative of unalloyed trans pain may be comfortable for many cis readers, since it often invokes pity while still framing us as desperate, doomed characters in other people’s stories.

Allow me to say, with all the tact I can muster, fuck that. We deserve stories as rich and varied as the stories about cis people. We need stories like “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue,” and stories of joy. When we write trans tragedies, they’ll be the tragedies we need to tell, ones that center us, that help us make meaning of this transphobic world. And we won’t limit ourselves. We’ll write comedies, romances, erotica, weird tales, thrilling space adventures, and stories of triumph.

Even in our worst times, we will find joy. We’ve always found ways to have it and we’ll keep doing so. And when those joys seem impossibly far away, fiction can help us hold on.

 

1 Not all the authors I mention here identify as trans. I mention these stories as personal touchstones.

Breaking Out of Capitalist Realism

Science fiction and fantasy are uniquely positioned to give readers (whether deliberately or accidentally) a vision of possible alternative futures; an imagination of what could be, good, bad, or more complex. But inevitably those stories are also a reflection of the now: writers in conversation with what’s around them, growing ideas in the substrate around our rooted feet. If we as writers want to envisage, to create, an anti-capitalist, socially just future, how do we get there from here, and just how limited are we by where we are now?

Reading recent SF/F, it has seemed to me that while there are plenty of extrapolations from our present into future dystopias, and a fair few stories about mutual aid carve-outs within a current-or-future dystopia, there’s less in the way of true alternatives, compared to the writings of people like Le Guin or Delany in the ’70s and ’80s. If SF/F is a reflection of the now, how do we imagine a different future? If SF/F is an imagination of the future, should we let it be constrained by the now? Is it even possible to escape where we are right now, and what does that mean for the futures we are able to imagine?1

The political philosopher Mark Fisher, in 2009, called this the impact of Capitalist Realism—the way in which modern (post-Soviet Union) capitalism has created a narrative that there is no alternative, that capitalism is the only “reality,” the unchallengeable basis of our existence. Fisher referred to “a pervasive atmosphere” which makes its way into art and literature, then permeates our thoughts and imaginations, obliging us to operate within capitalist imperatives and structures.

Writers are, of course, free to choose what they want to write—but is that choice (is any choice) wholly free? What’s the distinction between the futures we choose to imagine, and the futures we are able to imagine? The choice to write extrapolations of what we see around us, or something wholly different, can be constrained in practice by the difficulty of stepping outside our conceptual boundaries.

It seems we’re better at envisaging (certain forms of) social change—societies in which you don’t get grief for being queer, where people’s gender is malleable and no one’s business but their own, where disabilities are a normal part of human existence and acceptance is in-built, where racism isn’t a source of prejudice and damage…It’s just that a lot of those worlds are underpinned by a form of capitalism; and even, that trying to write our way into social change runs head-on into the capitalist challenge of “but, really…can we afford it?” (Perhaps we can’t afford not to. Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask.)

Some writers take the option of writing their way around late-stage patriarchal capitalism, rather than writing it out altogether: imagining themselves into the edges, trying to find ways to escape within it. They create a world of small-scale mutual support networks existing within an oppressive larger system, rather than reimagining that larger system wholesale. It totally makes sense: it feels far more doable. It’s easier to imagine the mini queer commune, or even a string of them, supporting us to make our way through the hellscape; it’s easier to write our band of rag-tag misfits scrabbling on the edges of society. And it’s wish-fulfilment: it feels good to write and it feels good to read, because many of us don’t have that sort of support in person. For many queer folks, for example, our queer community—our wonderful, important, supportive queer community—lives in our phones. That’s valuable, and it’s a hell of a lot better than not having it at all, but the community in your phone can’t share childcare or cooking or the general physical burden of living. For that you need in person; and we’ve all had, right, the Queer Commune Millionaire Fantasy? Absent winning the lottery, we can write it, instead.

From this angle, it begins to feel like a reflection of desperation and learned helplessness; except that “learned helplessness” in the literature conjures up visions of dogs who don’t know the floor’s no longer electrified. Our floor’s still electrified. We’ve tried to convince politicians to act against climate change, and—well, I won’t say “nothing’s changed,” but it’s not changing fast enough, and it’s bloody easy to fall into despair. If nothing works, why bother? If there’s no escape from where we are now, how can you imagine one? Alternatives are a pipe dream.

Which is precisely Fisher’s point: that’s the lie capitalism tells us, that there is no alternative. It even co-opts anti-capitalism in its own support: no longer targeting the end of capitalism, but trying to mitigate it. (As above: rag-tag bands of misfits providing mutual aid and surviving around the edges of a dysfunctional system.) Food banks get people fed, which is straight up a Good Thing; but they don’t solve structural poverty, and running them takes up time and energy during which people aren’t trying to imagine a system where food banks aren’t considered “just how things are,” in a Western country with more than enough money to feed its people.

If you’ve just stifled a groan at reading “just how things are,” I’m with you. It’s a critique that most activists of a socialist, anarchist, or anti-capitalist bent are familiar with, in that or its other form, the claim that “human nature” prevents any realisation of an alternative future which doesn’t revolve around endless growth, individualism, and the profit motive. This almost invariably translates as “this feels weird TO ME”—or to the assumption that “human nature” = “what humans in my current society are like.” People will claim with utter conviction that people just aren’t like that, even when there is both historical and current evidence that at least some people have, in fact, been like that. Humans co-operate, humans are kind, the state of brute nature is a (racist) myth. Further, sometimes it’s not even about how real humans behave, but about how people think, incorrectly, they behave—as Rebecca Solnit points out in her book about disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell. (Spoilers: Solnit found that most people in a disaster are kind and generous to one another. Except the rich, who are not.)

How, then, do writers get away from that? Can writers get away from that? At some point obviously I have to quote Le Guin: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” So, whether or not we can entirely escape the sea we’re swimming in, we can sure as hell try.

Write what the hell you like, obviously. No one’s obliged to do anything in particular with their writing or their reading; it’s a big old genre and there’s room for all of us. But. If it feels too hard—too scary, too depressing—to propel ourselves into a truly alternative future, why is that? And can we resist that pressure to shrug and give up, accept that this is as good as it gets, if we want to?

The mini-commune on the edges of society, that feels like it might be within range, maybe, if you got really lucky. It’s a good dream: it’s a dream, but it’s imaginable. The bigger dreams are far more beautiful and thus far more dangerous. What happens if we step into that fear? How can we as writers escape our programming? Because I refuse to believe that we can’t. How do we balance the rejection of destructive capitalism with the reality of the structural factors making it very difficult to break out? Shouldn’t SF/F be showing the way here? Did we all convince ourselves too hard that utopia-means-no-place, that this can’t be done? I mean; it can’t, no, there’s no perfect world. But. There’s better.

Authors do manage, have managed this, to more or less successful extent.2

Le Guin in The Dispossessed carefully imagined what an alternative might look like and how it might interact with something more like present day society; the trade-offs are fully realised and highlighted. In a different vein, I love the patchwork nature of her far future Always Coming Home, the endeavour to reimagine everything, including myths and stories and coming-of-age narratives. And that it’s written in a way that challenges traditional Western narratives (although we should remember that Indigenous critics challenged Le Guin’s co-opting of Indigenous narratives and beliefs).

Becky Chambers in the Monk And Robot series is clearly trying to envisage an alternative society; one of the things I love about Psalm For The Wild-Built is how the differently realised society is the underlying fabric to a story that’s about finding one’s own way and what one wants; the society is set up for that to be available, and set up to be both sustainable and sustaining for individuals, but you still have to work at it.

Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless series is arguably dystopic in that it’s a post-crash society, making its way around the skeletal remnants of our former society, after some level of ecological collapse. The main driver of the society in Bannerless is the control over having children—you have to earn the right to have and raise a child—and that strong focus on living sustainably with the land and deliberately limiting human numbers in order to do so. And, again, the trade-offs and costs are examined. Maybe that needs to be part of any successful alternative envisaging; the acknowledgement that we can’t have it all. Marge Piercy talks about similar trade-offs in the future society in Woman on The Edge of Time. In Bannerless it’s clear that this is not the only approach that exists; it’s just one fairly small society. (In a similar area to where it’s suggested the Kesh in Le Guin’s Always Coming Home live. Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing is also set in California with a fairly small sustainable society in conflict with a dystopian one; it has a somewhat clunkier feel than Bannerless or Always Coming Home.)

I like Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway for looking at how we might get there from here; and also thinking about the possibility of mainstream society (or those who run mainstream society) hitting back. It shares an approach with Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future in that it doesn’t skip over the interim; it shows us some ideas about how we might get there from here. Ruthanna Emrys’ A Half-Built Garden, which uses some similar tech ideas to Walkaway, does jump past that process but does sketch in the backstory that established its more sustainable watersheds community. Humans have begun to be successful in rescuing the planet, but it’s a provisional success and the watersheds exist in some tension (albeit not the open conflict of The Fifth Sacred Thing) with other systems and structures. Perhaps, again, those limitations are part of why it feels more achievable, more touchable from where we are right now, than some other alternative visions.

Writers, then, can do it. Can readers accept it? What about that acquired internal belief system that tells us that human nature just isn’t like that? Reading Always Coming Home, or Psalm for the Wild-Built, even I have to do a certain amount of squashing my own inner cynic, and I’m way along the optimistic end of the scale. (Anarres, interestingly, had its own cynics built-in; beautifully not-capitalist realism.) Kim Stanley Robinson tries to map from here to there in The Ministry for the Future, but that, whilst a sterling effort, is absolutely about manipulating capitalist structures into doing something that doesn’t totally suck. Arguably, the fact that it is depressing and deeply pragmatic—albeit with gleams of hope showing through—may make it more convincing to cynics.

“But people aren’t like that”—people react to their settings and to the expectations around them. The complaint of “but human nature” reveals a real misunderstanding about how actual humans behave. (Projection? I couldn’t possibly comment.) Are some people shit-heads? Sure. But not as many as is fondly imagined.

So how do we as readers challenge/escape our programming? Here’s a good starting rule: if you find yourself thinking “but surely…” about human beings, you’re probably wrong. Back to that Le Guin quote: we are all limited by our surroundings, and we are all told what we should treat as the basis, the bedrock. Let’s not. Let’s move the ground. Let’s believe six impossible things before breakfast. (Maybe choose your impossible things carefully.) And in any case, and this is not a new point: if you’re willing to read about dragons, spaceships, magic, and FTL travel, then you should think hard before criticising the “realism” of imaginary communities based on how you imagine the world “must” be. Look around you. People are doing things differently, in small ways; they are breaking out of capitalist structures, even if only for a little while. Individualism is not the only way, and indeed hasn’t been the only way for many different human cultures.

Let’s look at what Becky Chambers or Ruthanna Emrys are writing for something to aim at; at Kim Stanley Robinson’s efforts to imagine the steps away from here that might begin to take us there; let’s take the attitude-to-others of hopepunk and the structural changes implied by solarpunk. Let’s consider the trade-offs that Carrie Vaughn’s books look at, and if we don’t like those, find another way to manage the sustainability and carrying-capacity problems that Vaughn’s societies identify. Let’s write a new Always Coming Home, taking Le Guin’s work further into a future that’s rooted here and now, and bridging the gap between now and then. Let’s keep imagining what we could be, if we let go of those voices telling us this is it, this is all we get.

 

 

1  A note about cultural specificity: what it is, exactly, that surrounds you, and what you’re in conversation with, will vary between cultures, backgrounds, and sub-cultures; but the larger problem of awareness-of-the-sea-you’re-swimming-in remains, even if those seas may differ between different people.

2 Obviously I’ve missed people. I do my best, but a couple of hundred books a year isn’t enough to keep up with the conversation. I am extremely open to suggestions of things to read. I did ask some people for recommendations while writing this essay, and got fewer than I’d hoped for.

 

Identity

“Okay but what’s Sami?”

Sometimes I take a breath,

Make myself say the word Lapp—

Then half the time they still don’t know.

I’ve said it for nothing.

Sometimes I find

A way to say, in the far north.

So they understand (but don’t care).

Once I told a small child,

“The reindeer people, sweetheart,”

And I saw in his widening eyes

His sudden, fervent belief

In Arctic shapeshifters.

Yes, that’s us.

The antlers are the hardest to manage

At first, but after two full moons,

Maybe three,

We learn to spring unafraid

Over starlit fields, slip into

Snowy forests,

Browse a neighbor’s garden, then disappear.

For decades my grandmother hid this from me

But now I know

My own velvety snout, my sturdy hooves:

I changed shape in an instant.

 

The Fat Body Problem

“I do play all the characters, when I write them, one after another. If they actually had to film me, the only one I could play would be Samwell Tarly or Hot Pie.” — George R. R. Martin

 

“It was funny, she thought, that people treated her flesh like a public resource, a reservoir for all their insecurities and emotional dysfunction, when it was she who had their insides at her fingertips.” ― Gretchen Felker-Martin, Manhunt

 

Has there ever been a richer time to be fat? We live in a time when there is mainstream discourse about body neutrality and fat acceptance. We’re not at the point where it’s widely accepted or adopted, but at least it’s talked about. I was a fat child during the Obesity Epidemic years; it is a major improvement to not always be referred to as a disease. This discourse is shifted, little by little, by visible fat public figures like Lizzo and Jonah Hill glorying in their bodies or simply declining to speak about it with press and strangers. It’s reshaped, little by little, by the inclusion of diverse body types in previously narrow passages like the cover of Sports Illustrated and in major fashion shows. Now is a glorious time to be fat.

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been narrow passages for fat bodies, too. I have a copy of an anthology most people have never seen: 1983’s The Science Fiction Weight-Loss Book,  coedited by Isaac Asimov and a young George R. R. Martin. It’s a fascinating mix of work from that time: a diet-crazed Asimov writes in his introduction that he himself struggled in the “battle of the bulge” and looks forward to a time when science might solve this problem: the fat body problem. There are shorts within from Orson Scott Card and Robert Silverberg about self-loathing and food deprivation that encourage the reader to sympathy for the authors, if not everyone who struggles with the endless hunger of self-denial and suffering in the name of thinness. Other stories, like Jack Vance’s “Abercrombie Station,” put a toe into the pool of warm water that will one day be the acceptance and even celebration of fat bodies. But the collection closes with Stephen King’s 1978 short “Quitter’s Inc,” in which cigarette smoking and weight gain are equivocated and both punished through literal torture. 1983 was a harder time to glorify obesity.

The quote up top from GRRM encapsulates the problem perfectly: Martin is fat, like a lot of creators and fans in our communities. He literally writes these characters and these roles; he created Samwell Tarly and Jon Snow for his series, A Song of Ice and Fire. But he cannot imagine a body like his cast in the physical role of hero. He sees himself as Samwell, who (it must be said) is a fabulous character. Samwell studies and uncovers; he helps turn the great wheel of the story. He says clever things, overcomes family trauma, and he fucks right there on the page, showing us his “fat pink mast” and then putting it to work. Martin can do it; but I don’t think he knows he can do it in the spotlight. We are in the golden age for the Samwell Tarlys of the speculative fiction world.

This might be news to Martin, who came up in the wake of writers like Asimov and Herbert and Moorcock, all of whom wrote fat characters as slovenly, avaricious, cruel, stupid, slow, and sexless. This might still look like too narrow a gate for him to pass through. But a lot of other writers have been dynamiting the door to open it up to ADA standards and beyond. Ooh baby baby, it’s a wide world. It has to be; so many cool fat characters are pushing through.

The first time I read a description of Archie, the fat French con woman in Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth, I thought I’d died and gone to my personal heaven where everyone but me is a tailor. She’s fat on the page, but also quick in of hammer-swinging action. She works her way into disguises that allow her to express gender fluidly. She’s charming and picks pockets and hits absolutely zero of the stereotypes associated with fatness in fiction. Gailey knows what fat people are actually like, and they write a splendid example of what’s possible.

The quote above from Gretchen Felker-Martin is drawn from the kind of example that a fat author can imbue into a fat character. In her novel, Manhunt, Indira is a fat brown fertility doctor who wields incredible intelligence and power, while also being subject to the cruelty and projection of thin white people. The way that Felker-Martin shows us Indira as aware of her own sexuality (explicitly, exquisitely, expositioned with her thighs on either side of someone’s face) as well as aware of how other people deposit their insecurity into the image of her body is nothing less than masterful. Felker-Martin is a decadent, gutsy writer, and never better than when she’s cradling the decadent gut of one of her fat characters.

Not everyone is into that vibe, and I get it. Every golden age comes at the expense of a lot of iron and soot that came before. Some readers just want a character who happens to be fat. Derry, the main character of A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell is simply fat. She isn’t punished or hated for it, and it’s not part of what happens to her amid the magic and disappearances of this lovely, haunting debut novel. Hollowell writes the kind of incandescent power-flexing that many of us fat kids dreamt of: not a bench press but a beauty press, far from the body and evoking the delicacy of night-blooming flowers.

Brawler Adoulla from Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is similarly incidental. Ahmed writes violent action and emotional intimacy with the same kind of breathless devotion; he’s like a boxer who sags in his opponent’s arms after victory, weeping for the brotherhood of their mingled blood. Adoulla’s body is aging and softening; he endures the projected opinions of men and boys upon it. But the power remains in his body, his arms, his armor. He is unaffected by his fatness, and he moves with the same grace and grim determination as ever. Ahmed does not run from the body, but sags and snaps with it. He is weeping, he is weeping, but the fighter still remains.

Nalo Hopkinson’s Gilla, the girl from the story “The Smile on the Face” in the collection Falling in Love with Hominids, carries a body that is more than just incidental. Hopkinson puts Gilla at the cruel intersection of race, color, fatness, and desirability and then turns loose the rush hour traffic of adolescence on that intersection. The result is a girl degraded and derided for her body, and those who don’t harm her physically both blab and believe rumors about her that are powered by her body and its unruly differences. Gilla gets one of the best revenge arcs I have seen, becoming a literal fire-spitting dragon when a girl’s invective is simply not enough.

Books where fat bodies bear stigma and suffer the stock insults of the petty terrorists who never have anything new to say certainly have their place. But I’m most heartened when fat protagonists get to do their thing and live a life that is authentically fat. Marianne Kirby’s Dust Bowl zombie duology, Feral Seasons, features a teenage hero pitted against the walking dead and conspiracy, but also the realest struggle of a fat girl in a tough situation: chub rub.

Like Martin, I grew up reading those authors who make the fat body a problem: a portal for horror, an anachronism for science to solve, or a reason a person can’t be a knight. Like Felker-Martin, I’m determined that the body I live in should be a part of the worlds that I experience and create. Like every author on this list, I’m putting my whole fat self on the page, in the worlds that I want to see, in the struggles I know to be real by the ache between my thighs, in the heroics and beauties I know we can achieve because I see and feel them every day.

Fat kids today will grow up with fat vampire slayer Guillermo de la Cruz and fat superhero Faith. They’ll go on adventures with Cora from Beneath the Sugar Sky and come home with Nina from Six of CrowsThey’ll write their own stories, seeing themselves as the hero and the love interest and the conman and the cinnamon roll. Maybe they’ll never see a thin actor don a fat suit to play a character that a fat actor should have portrayed. They’ll see their work adapted into movies and television and when someone asks them who they might actually play on screen, they’ll shrug and say they could play anyone.

Because in that future, the fat body is not a problem.

The Prince of Salt and the Ocean’s Bargain

There’s a story that sounds completely fantastic and yet is true. It happened here and in the neighboring lands. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, there was an ocean, deep and cold. And in the ocean there was salt.

For a long time, salt did not know itself to exist. But then, beneath a wave, under a dark and bitter brew of the sea, it stirred. Why, it hardly knew; yet, for the first time, salt found itself wanting. It had no body, this watery want, no arms and legs, no spine nor skull, no eyes or mouth, but it knew it wanted, and what it wanted was to live.

And so, in a rare still moment of the sea, salt reached out. It found a single drop of water inside all the vast unbearable water, and it said: I want.

And then the ocean, which was in that drop just as it is in all of the water, granted salt’s wish. The ocean said there was a price, and that one day that price would have to be paid.

“Did salt understand what that meant?” the young thing asks, interrupting me.

“Hush, child. Stories are fragile things. They break so easily.”

So, salt, then. His body was vast, first, and then narrow and marrowed and enclosed in lean muscle and tender skin. He lay on dry sand—a shore, his new mind informed him in its new language. Foam lapped at his bare feet. He possessed hair, now, and arms to take with and touch with, and eyes, and ears, and a tongue and mouth, and a hunger to live, and a heart to do it with. Above, an expanse yawned inconceivable, mind-shattering—the sky. In it, the sun.

He knew the sun.

His stomach rumbled and his throat prickled and his limbs screamed with exhaustion, but these were all things he knew not how to appease, or that he could, so he simply assumed them to be the facts that proved salt was, for now, alive.

Salt remained on that beach for hours, his skin baking under the sun until sunset, then growing cold in the night, then baking again in the morning until the sun dipped below the horizon once more. His skin cooled in the ocean breeze and stung in the night air.

His third day, he discovered movement. He wiggled his toes, stretched his shoulders, and counted the fingers on his hand. Then he ran his palm across the length of his skin. He discovered waves and grooves, creases and caves, bone ridges and hooks that reminded him of the depths of the ocean.

This is how the girl Marietta found him, naked and touching himself in the way of babies, not men, and that was enough for her to get over whatever sense of shame rouged her cheeks for a moment—and it was a brief, brief moment, because Marietta was no stranger to the joys of bodies, and had little patience for the parched teachings of religious men who paid so much coin to paint their visions of hell on the whitewashed walls of their churches when people starved on the streets just beyond. Her curiosity won this time as it always won, and it was never much of a fight either, truth be told.

She nudged the man with her foot first, to make sure he didn’t bite, then spoke to him in the soft voice she used with feral children and dogs. “Do you need help, mister?” She thought he must be shipwrecked, shaken free of the sea by the storm that had raged over them the night before. But then again that wouldn’t explain why he was so very naked. Perhaps he’d been mistreated somehow, then—and the thought made Marietta simultaneously want to punch whoever hurt him and have this man wrapped in the softest cloth she could find. His skin was burnished by the sun but otherwise unblemished.

She nudged the man again, having run out of ways to make sense of the situation. “Can you speak?”

The man looked at her and laughed, but she didn’t feel mocked; for it was the laughter of a creature that had suddenly discovered it can be pleased, and that the world is a place of great joy. “You are beautiful,” he said. His words sounded strange—unaffected and new. “What are you?”

Marietta straightened, stood, and faced the man with the orange-colored sky behind her. She tilted her head just so, to keep the sun from blinding him, but also to let the light halo her black hair as on the stained windows in the house of God. “I am a woman,” she said. “I am Marietta.”

Of course she took him home. She would never have left him there on the beach; it didn’t matter if he were but a drunkard who lost his clothes in a bad gamble and passed out by the surf—though she was certain that’s not at all who he was. She wrapped him with her overcoat and he followed her in silence, watching her through wide eyes, the corners of his mouth turned up the slightest. He did have a kind of beauty to him, Marietta found, though he seemed somehow unfinished: his skin too smooth, like marble before the artist’s chisel has made its mark. His hair was thick but his face had no beard, nor had he any other hair on his body. No, his beauty had little to do with the features of his face or the angles of his bones, and more with the way he walked as if he were liquid, the way his fingers moved as if perpetually underwater, and his eyes showed, if you looked at them under the right light, the strange reflections of the ocean.

The sun was setting when they reached her cottage.

At the door, he stopped.

Her home was a small shack on the outskirts of the town, barely a roof and a door and a window and a bed with a mattress filled with straw, but it might as well have been a palace; that’s how fascinated the man was. The neighbors were poor, some worse off than Marietta herself, others a notch better, but none of them ever bat an eye at newcomers, no matter how out of place they looked.

She didn’t have much to give him, but everything she had she did. She had only the clothes she wore herself and that most men wouldn’t dare put on, but he did not seem to mind at all. So she clothed him in her best—her single satin dress, its blue frightening to him at first, but the texture of it on his skin so pleasant he quickly recovered. She fed him stale bread and butter that he stuffed into his mouth and moaned so hard she had to muzzle him for fear of the neighbors getting the wrong idea—or maybe the right one, though it was still early for that. She gave him her sweetest wine, which was not very sweet at all, and yet he downed it with big, desperate gulps and said: “More.”

He hid nothing from her. He told her of his birth, which was no birth at all, and of before. He told her about the ocean, the cold, sheer vastness of it, how it never ended and there was no containing it. He told her how he was dissolved in everything, separate but also not, how he swelled with water, how the pressure and the deep currents felt to his non-body, how he spoke a certain language of the deep but had no tongue, no throat. And how, when he said “I,” it was not quite right.

She listened intently, her eyes sparkling and wide. She seemed to him at once like the creatures he knew all too well before becoming what he now was—simple and round and open, with a beating heart and a thirst for love and living—but also different, more complicated, for all her folds of skin, her bones and hair. He reached out to touch her and she let him, palms open. He studied the lines there for a long time, and then he carried on talking. She wanted to understand it all. She was silent when he needed silence and asked questions when he needed words.

He also told her of the first time he felt anything, and how that feeling was one he had no word for.

“Was it a wanting?” she tried. “A curiosity? A need?”

But no word fit perfectly, so he told her instead of the way in which time had no meaning until he had breath.

He told her, finally, of his bargain. His debt to the ocean, the lover’s heart, the limited time it bought him.

Marietta clutched her own heart, then, but whether she truly believed him no one will ever know, because she couldn’t quite decide herself.

The sun had long since set when they finished talking, and they lay together on the straw mattress, his skin pressed against hers, still cold, but with an unfamiliar warmth to it now. She ran her fingers through his hair and he sighed, his face pressed into her neck, his arm around her waist. He kept his eyes open, watching, even as sleep crept in.

“Did he dream?” the young thing asks.

Does salt dream? Does sand dream of the stone it once was? Does the ocean remember all the lovers lost at sea?

“He did,” I say. “But I don’t know of what.”

“We must give you a name,” Marietta declared in the morning.

And so they called him Salt, because that’s what he was, but also Thelo, because he always yearned, and always hungered, without cease.

Marietta took him to her bed for more than sleeping, of course. She showed him what it was that humans could do with their bodies and each other’s, and he turned out to be a better lover than any she’d had before. A patient one, too, because, despite his newfound love for breathing, his grasp of time was tentative at best. For days he could lie there rapt and shook by the feeling of a fly’s legs brushing his skin, the fuzzy taste of a peach, or the shape of the dimples on Marietta’s back.

He wanted to experience everything, even as he wondered about the price each of these treasures would demand of him, one day. Marietta took him out to dance and drink and eat and meet her friends and lovers, some of whom they brought back home with them. On such nights, Salt seemed more interested in the feeling of his own body than the bodies of others, but he would shut his eyes and listen to their sighs and moans and words. He kissed their eyelids and their stomachs and their mouths. It was the closest he’d felt to what he was before. He found them all beautiful, the most beautiful: their crooked backs, their perfect noses and shining eyes, their silky hair, their scarred faces, their skinny legs and sharp bones, their curves of fat—he loved them all. It was too much for him, sometimes, but he never dreamed of stopping, of stepping back, of loving less.

In turn, the friends and lovers never responded to him as if he were a curiosity. They embraced him, devoured him, wanted to know him so deeply he felt as if he’d run out, as if his answers could never satisfy them because he didn’t know how to make words contain the things he was, the things he’d been. One woman he spent a night with, her chest like a buoy under his head and her voice deep like the rumble of waves, asked him where he was from. And he said, everywhere, everywhere.

Marietta watched him thrive, and it filled her with a mixture of joy and envy, at his freshness, his ability to experience the world for the first time, but never possessiveness. Others teased her for being so willing to share him, but their words made little sense to her. “Isn’t more love and joy better than less?” she asked. And Thelo always asked for more—more textures, more tastes, more colors, more bodies—until Marietta shook the last of her gold out of her small purse and told Thelo he needed to get a job.

He did so, gladly and eagerly.

Thelo’s first job was shucking oysters for an oyster peddler at the pier, where he sometimes got to watch the boats come and go, ghostly white sails under a blue sky, the smell of seaweed heavy in the air and the gulls cawing overhead. Stooped over buckets of icy water to keep the oysters fresh, the briny smell familiar and all-encompassing, he was a magician with the oyster knife. He slipped his blade through the tight oyster lips and twisted it just right, unlocking the shells as if with a key. There were others who worked alongside him, but they never lasted long, defeated by their wounded hands and burned skin and aching backs. Salt relished the work—physical labor suited him, and he took a not insignificant amount of pleasure in the pain and discomfort his body was capable of.

Lots of people in town were taken with the strange oyster man at the pier, with his open face and untroubled eyes, but didn’t know what to make of a man with no past. They were at once drawn and repulsed by him, and they turned away afraid and doubtful, only to miss out on his sweetest smile, on the way he kissed like he was tasting the air. He didn’t mind them, just as he didn’t mind the hard work. And he was the hardest worker of all: always there before the sun was up in the sky and sometimes even after it had set. The oyster peddler took his work ethic in stride; she was the kind of woman who was impressed by little, satisfied by nothing at all. She knew Marietta somewhat—they were the same age and had been friendly once, long ago; perhaps that’s the reason she gave Thelo the job in the first place, though she’d never confess such favoritism. Still, Thelo could see the pleased little nods of the head when she inspected his work, and that made him proud.

One day, Thelo almost lost a finger. It happened so fast; he was shucking an oyster, the knife slipped, and he felt a terrible pressure in his right hand. He looked down at the knife and saw it poke through the soft tissue between his fingers. The oyster peddler took him to a doctor who sewed the skin back together and bundled his hand with swaths of gauze. He could hardly feel his fingers. He lifted his hand and showed it to the woman: “What now?” he asked.

“God gave you two hands,” she said with a shrug. “I don’t see what the problem is.”

The oyster peddler kept most of the money for herself, unmoved even by Thelo’s accident, but she gave him enough to satisfy his needs most days, and Marietta’s too. Enough, even, for small extravagances: a satin dress for Marietta; a small, round cake baked with honey and figs that melted on Thelo’s tongue and was so sweet it burned; a hat with a bright green feather in its band that he and Marietta took turns wearing those times they went prancing down the market on Sundays, when the sun was out and everything felt possible.

He could have carried on like this forever, he thought, or for as long, at least, as his body and his bargain allowed. Until one day a woman came up to the peddler and paid not with money but, to Thelo’s astonishment, a small sachet of salt. When he asked whether one could buy things with salt, the peddler laughed and said: “Why yes, boy, salt is the most precious thing there is.”

And Thelo, then, knew what he had to do.

He saved his money for an entire, precious year. Frugality did not suit him, but he was starting to grasp the human notion of investment: to postpone gratification under the irrational belief one’s life would never end, despite one’s certainty that it would. Marietta told him he was insane, but contributed her income—the source of which shall be left obscure—nonetheless. It was in this way that, by the end of the year, Thelo could afford a marshy shard of land near the coast; too saline to cultivate, too muddy to build on—in other words, just right.

The day he bought the land, he stood on the shore, feeling the earth pulse beneath his feet. He took a deep breath of salt-soaked air. Marietta was there with him, struggling to see what he saw. What good was this land? How might land that could support no building and feed neither plant nor animal be any good at all?

He promised to show her.

He didn’t tell Marietta what he intended to do, but he was dewy-eyed with excitement as he turned his body to the shore every day. His skin was as salt-soaked as the air, his mind full of the sea and its bounty. He waded into the lukewarm water, plunged his hands deep into the muck until they were sticky with mud, the smell of the marsh strong in his nose. He played, but not like a child. He played like a woman painting her lips red. He played like a person sharpening their knife to the point of perfection. He played like a singer humming low in her throat, like a dancer turning circles on his toes.

When he was done, the land was divided into separate ponds of various depths through which water was pumped and evaporated. Each pond was saltier than the previous one, until the last ones were so thick with salt you could pickle fish in them. The water yielded to Thelo’s will with an uncanny ease that made him many friends and even more enemies. The friends were charmed by his way with the sea water, and the enemies feared and envied his talents, but both groups had a thing in common: they were drawn to him, wanted a piece of him, as if his mere presence in their lives would make them tastier and worthier of living.

With the money he made from selling his sea salt, he bought the adjacent land, and then more land next to it, until he owned almost the entire length of the coast, and his salt was the purest and most plentiful in the country. Its only purpose, of course, was to give him access to more of what marvels life had to offer—the brevity and impermanence of that life merely making the marvels sweeter. This was a kingless land, but the people, whom he plied with his salt money in return for both finery and affection, called him the Prince of Salt—though only Marietta knew how well the name fit.

The Kings and Queens of neighboring lands mocked him at first—what Prince was he, after all, with no kingdom of his own? Then, they tried to destroy his salterns by poisoning the water and obstructing the canals that connected the ponds, and Thelo answered with perseverance, talent, and hard work. Next, they threatened Thelo’s workers, to which he responded by paying double and hiring guards to keep watch while the workers toiled in the ponds. Until, finally, threats were made against Thelo’s very life, and Marietta’s, too. The threats were discreet at first: someone would accost them at the market and whisper a violent word into their ears; a figure made of sticks and dressed in fine cloth would be found hanging from the door of their new, lavish house. But, eventually, the threats became so explicit they could no longer be dismissed: letters stained with blood, delivered in the dead of night by a dozen men wielding daggers and swords.

So the two of them decided to appeal to the neighboring armies’ purse and buy them, to pay every single soldier their weight in salt. They did so in person, speaking to each soldier in private, in ways as sweet or as rough as they thought each one needed, or desired, or craved.

Their plan was a success. The neighboring kingdoms yielded to Thelo’s newfound power one after the other. And so it was that Salt became a real Prince—or King, to be pedantic about it, though he much preferred his original obliquely earned title. He even built himself a palace that Marietta decorated with the pointless wonders of the world, the silvers and the velvets and the mother-of-pearls. They celebrated their success with a feast in the new palace. They invited their friends and their friends’ friends and their enemies and their enemies’ enemies—everyone, in fact, who wanted to celebrate the end of the salt wars that ended before they began. Someone had the good sense to bring a flutist, and someone else a poet who recited a poem that made Thelo’s heart beat fast. The poet had a low voice filled with gravel, a land voice, and yet she spoke of the ocean: a vast cold, things simple and round and open, moons dipping into the water and emerging dripping with salt.

Life went on quietly for a while after that. Marietta enjoyed politics and keeping the books of Thelo’s endeavors. She and her girlfriends spent hours reclining on spreads of fur, discussing export strategies and gorging themselves on black grapes.

The lands whose armies were too proud or foolish to be bought decided to embargo the Prince’s salt. But the salt continued to be produced in greater and greater quantities, until mountains of it had to be carted away and stored in giant halls built for the purpose, as well as in barns and caves and every room in the palace deemed inessential to pleasure. Marietta liked to go into these rooms sometimes, to open the doors and close them behind her and just stand there gazing at the mountains of white crystals and wonder at a body made of such a thing, that could dissolve but never disappear.

Even with these unsold quantities of salt, it would be a while before the Prince’s fortune started to dwindle, and, if that happened, there would be plenty for Marietta to sell off and ensure a delicious existence for them, without ever even taxing the people, which the Prince was loath to do. And so, princehood opened up new experiences for them both: trips to cities made of iron, to islands whose inhabitants dove to harvest sponges from the sea’s bottom with only a stone tied to their waist, the way others did to end their lives. The best, however, was yet to come. And then come it did, stepped right up to the palace gate and requested an audience. He had pitch-black hair and eyes both dark as the night and bright as the stars, and, when he burst into the throne room, he looked Thelo up and down and licked his lips. “I’ll buy your salt,” he said in a steady voice. He had a gap between his front teeth that made Thelo’s chest hurt. “Because it is the best in the world, and only that will do for me.”

Thelo recognized something of himself in the young man—the keen way with which he carried his shoulders, perhaps, or the peculiar curve of his lip. “What should I call you?” Thelo asked.

“My name is Gustavo the Merchant, but you, Prince, can call me whatever you wish.”

Salt’s heart sighed at that, for he was not above flattery. “Dine with me tonight,” he said, and so the next chapter of his life began, and the only word in it was: Gustavo.

“That’s not what you said last time,” the young thing says. It uncrosses and recrosses its legs on the cushion and trains its eyes on me, cold and familiar.

The air around us has grown stale. Heavy-limbed, I leave my seat to crack the window open. “What are you talking about?” I ask.

“Gustavo’s eyes,” the child says. “The last time you told this story, Gustavo’s eyes were blue.”

“Is that right? Oh.”

The child dips its chin. “I remember it well.”

“Then, I must have made a mistake.”

“Were you mistaken then? Or are you mistaken now?”

Marietta liked the dark-eyed man, too. She braided seashells in her hair for the dinner, and put on her favorite yellow dress with a dagger in its sheath pressed against her waist. Gustavo wore his dark hair in tight coils and his lips stained maroon. They sat at Thelo’s long table to feast on fish baked in a crust of salt, pickled cucumbers, and a frothy dessert laced with salted caramel and briny cocoa. They broke the crust of the fish with a hammer—such violence followed by such tenderness, such melting in the mouth. The salty food only increased their thirst a thousandfold, but the wine was pink and easy and the conversation equally so. When Marietta asked Gustavo what he wanted out of life he said: “To find out what makes men tick.”

She smiled and asked, “Men only?” to which she got as a response the most brilliant smile she had ever seen.

Then, they played a game of candle, trying to pass a lit candlestick to each other using only their mouths, their hands clasped together behind their backs. Marietta was an expert at this—she was, in fact, the one who taught Thelo the game—and managed to pass her candle to Gustavo without the slightest touch of skin. She clapped for her own victory and downed her wine, then toasted them and urged them both to give it their best.

Gustavo approached Thelo with the lit candle in his mouth, its flame turning his eyes to live coals, wax dripping to the floor. Come on, he signaled with his hands, and Thelo came closer, his mouth half-open. Marietta watched, rapt, as their lips met around the stick. The flame singed one of Gustavo’s stray curls, but he didn’t step back. Instead, he grasped Thelo’s shoulders and steadied him, nudging the candle with his tongue. When the candlestick was firmly in Thelo’s mouth, Gustavo licked his lips. “You taste so salty, Prince,” he said, and Thelo could see that he was pleased.

Dawn found the three of them crumpled together on Thelo’s silk-clad bed, talking about their favorite things: the moment a stranger’s face becomes familiar, the shapes the flight of birds makes in the sky, the smell of leather-bound books, the burn of salt on one’s tongue.

They spoke, too, of their fears.

“I fear nothing,” Marietta lied.

“Finding out it’s all in vain,” Gustavo said. “Every terrible thing one does.”

“Dissolving,” Thelo said. “Forgetting I ever existed at all.”

Gustavo did as he promised. He bought all of Thelo’s salt and sold it far, far away, and the Prince’s land prospered again. He visited often. He always arrived at dawn and the three of them spent their days in each other’s company and the nights together in the silk-clad bed. They were the greatest of allies and the best of friends. Gustavo felt drunk first, their love a new thing that made him feel like he was walking on the ground with his shoes off, and then scared when he realized he could no longer imagine life without them.

Marietta continued enjoying her games of strategy and investment, and she spent many nights poring over Gustavo’s ledgers, stopping only when one or more of her lovers tore her away from her desk with a kiss or a seeking palm. Thelo devoted himself to sharing with Gustavo all the wonderful things he had experienced in his short life, and Gustavo discovered that, for all the Prince’s love of pleasure, what made Thelo tick was pleasing his lovers. And so, Gustavo allowed himself to be pleased.

Months passed this way, and Gustavo waited for that familiar blow, the knife slipped into you by those you let close when you least expect it and which he’d learned always to expect and always to guard himself against it. But it never came. Thelo pampered him beyond measure, while Marietta teased him—and only hurt him when he asked her to.

Gustavo had moved into the palace now, and that warmed the Prince’s heart. But Thelo grew more and more pensive as time flew by. When he stood on his balcony, overlooking his city of gold and pearl, he could no longer deny there was something in the air, something that reeked of blood and ash and bile.

What it was became clear before the year was out, when one of the Kings whose armies Thelo had stolen was now rising against him, with a new, fearless—and, presumably, incorruptible—army leading his war. The city held strong, but the rest of the country fell, village after village, town after town.

“I’ll fight for you,” Gustavo declared. “I’ll lay down my life for you.”

Thelo forbade it, first, and when that failed he sank to his knees and begged Gustavo not to go. “You are no soldier,” he told him. “You are no use to me dead.”

“The best soldier is the one who loves you,” Gustavo replied.

Gustavo was not much of a warrior, Thelo had been right about that. The field of battle was no place for him; he gazed upon the carnage and the torn bodies of the fallen with a terrible sort of wonder, like a child who’s been told horrific stories it is too young to understand. He’d seen war before, of course—for another lover’s sake no less. He remembered those days: a battlefield identical to this, the same carnage, the same torn bodies. The blonde soldier’s mouth against his that made him keep going. Most of all, though, he remembered the lessons he learned back then: the soldier’s face when he turned his back and left Gustavo, wounded, in that field.

Yet he kept looking, now, kept thinking of the lovers he could have had, and the ones he did. The most recent one was a soldier that invited him to his tent one night early on in the war. The man was soft in most places but hard in all the right ones, with hair like straw and a face so pale it was as if it always reflected the light, like a moon. Gustavo let him do as he pleased, but his thoughts kept flying back to Thelo and Marietta. And that’s when he knew that he’d been mistaken, that all his guarding had been in vain, because their knife was well and truly in him already, and more deeply burrowed than it’d ever been before.

His heart trembled every time he swung his sword after that. Love makes weapons of some men, and of others it makes ashes and willows and lakes.

But the war turned out to be brief. What Gustavo lacked in physical strength, he made up in courage, and passion, and, even, in villainy. It was his idea to burn the crops and salt the earth that fed the King’s people, to defeat him not with the ravaged bodies of soldiers but with the wasting away of children and the desperation of the meek. Many of his own fellow warriors recoiled from such tactics, thought him wretched, evil, questioned his manliness, which they thought meant questioning his honor. He didn’t mind. He stood firm, his fingers curled around that secret blade, and, in the end, he won them over just as he won the war; because that’s another lesson that first battlefield had taught him: the victors win at everything, not just the battle.

He did receive a wound to his abdomen—a stabbing, indeed—which came as no surprise to him; he always knew love would cut him one way or another, after all. If only he’d seen the escaped prisoner who wielded it just as clearly.

He believed he’d die, then. In his feverish nights, he saw visions of urns filled with salt, of ills that could only be cured by Thelo’s mouth, of Marietta draping the entire ocean in mourning black cloth. In his few moments of clarity, he thought his comrades would abandon him. But they didn’t. They shouldered his body and held his hand and bandaged his wounds. He was returned to Thelo alive on a stretcher, his skin pallid, his cheekbones and clavicles pronounced as never before.

Thelo fell on him and wept as if his lover were already dead, but Gustavo wiped away his tears and informed him that the war had been won, as if his Prince’s weeping had been but a misunderstanding. “We won,” he said again, kissing his lover’s eyes, his hair, his chin, “stop it, we won.”

“You almost gave up your life for me” was all Thelo said back. “Please, never do that again.”

In wartime, Marietta denounced the pleasures of her body. In a bout of magical thinking that was very unlike her, she’d given them all up in exchange for Gustavo’s safe return to them; a bargain struck with no one at all, its rewards, she realized later, only a matter of chance. When Gustavo did come back on that stretcher, half-dead already, she sat vigil by his side, convinced that death was lurking just outside their door, and that it would only take an insouciant breath for it to slip inside and devour everything that was hers. Marietta sent away all her lovers, even the ones that had been with her for years, as if to deprive death of boons to claim as his own. Most days, she wouldn’t touch food, either, and only drank water in which she squeezed a few drops of bitter orange.

Thelo paced the rooms of the palace like a waif, refusing to sleep lest he miss Gustavo’s last breath. He realized the victory Gustavo’s sacrifice had won him meant very little to him. Many mornings found him on the shore, screaming for the ocean to take him back if it meant Gustavo could be spared.

The ocean never responded, but Gustavo slowly healed. Color returned to his face, and his eyes shone once again. Marietta didn’t sleep for weeks after the doctor said the danger had passed, the weight of Gustavo’s prone body pushing her down into the mattress where she half-drowned in her own sweat. Eventually, her worry subsided, but it turned out the price was steeper than Marietta had anticipated, and much higher than she’d bargained for: the joy of it all never returned.

In the time of peace, she grew distant and tired; everything felt lesser, incomplete, or like a forgery of some other feeling, something better, more intense, that she no longer had access to. She invited her lovers back, and most of them came, but they, too, seemed mere likenesses of their former selves.

She spent less and less time with the men and more time with women who taught her how to create wax casts of things—apples and rabbits and her own hands and feet. She’d leave these objects strewn around the palace, like echoes or ghosts of herself and of the world as she saw it now: lifeless and unoriginal and only a butter knife away from ruin.

This is how Marietta became an artist.

Thelo and Gustavo themselves found peace to be a lovely, fragile thing. They spent their nights by the fire, dreaming of growing old together, and they developed a habit of taking in stray dogs that they washed and fed and tended to as if they were kings. The palace became a haven for homeless and lonely beasts. Gustavo told Thelo stories about the war, about the fields of fallen soldiers and lovers left for dead, and Thelo hushed him every time. He didn’t want to listen to sad stories anymore. He never told Gustavo about his bargain either—his lover had almost paid for it once already, and he never wanted to risk losing him again. He only wanted to savor the warmth of fire on his skin, the soft snoring of the animals, the feel of Gustavo’s curls that were slowly turning silky again. The dogs slept in their bed and lay by their feet, licking their hands and fingers with their soft, sluggish tongues.

It didn’t last.

Two summers, another winter, and then the salt that used to be the best ever known to the world turned bitter. The ponds filled with long, pale worms; what little salt the workers managed to salvage took on a sickly, grey tint. And Thelo, he developed a fear of water; he avoided bathing, instead having his body scrubbed with rough sponges plucked from the bottom of the sea and left to dry in the sun for a fortnight, and he would spend entire weeks barricaded in his bedroom when the weather was wet. Gustavo and Marietta put up with it, trying to coax him and bribe him, mostly unsuccessfully. The people, who had for so many years loved Thelo and prospered on his coin, said the Prince had gone mad. They made songs about the Thirsty Prince who never laughed, never cried, never walked in the rain anymore. They said the palace gardens were taken over by beetles, that the gulls now reined over the kingdom.

When Thelo’s fear grew so that he refused drinking water as well, going so far as to destroy and seal every well in the area around the palace, Marietta had had enough. She didn’t know what to do, and so she did the only thing she could think of: go back where it all began. Gustavo didn’t have the heart to do it himself, but he watched as men grabbed Thelo and dragged him away. Marietta took him to the shore. He fought and screamed until, eventually, he tired of resisting and gave into his fate, this ending at the hands of his lovers. When his feet walked on sand, he shuddered, he felt light, his joints loose, and he thought, this is it. And when he looked back upon the life he’d been given, he thought, it was good, wasn’t it? It was exquisite, as long and short as it was.

Marietta stood tall, ignoring the Prince’s pitiful flailing. “Touch the water,” she ordered him.

He shook his head. “I won’t.”

“Touch the water,” she said again. Her face was like a mask, or like one of those wax things she liked to fashion, as if she’d sculpted her own features into wax and then put that visage on to cover the one below.

Thelo took a step back. “Why are you doing this?” he cried. He fell to his knees. “Why are you betraying me like this?”

And then, to her surprise and his, Thelo shook himself loose from the men’s hold and crawled to the place where the sea foamed against the earth, and lay there, lengthwise, letting the water lap at his form, his fingers slowly being buried into the wet sand. He was ready for the end: to dissolve, like he always knew he would.

But he didn’t dissolve.

When he opened his eyes, Marietta was standing over him, her head haloed by the sun, like that very first time when they met and she showed him what it meant to be alive. Then she knelt next to him and picked him up, cradled his head against her chest, her tears streaming hot down his cheeks. “You see?” she asked, again and again. “I love you, you see?”

When they returned to the palace, Marietta made him tell Gustavo everything: about his bargain, the period of grace, the sacrifice it required. Gustavo knelt before him and took his Prince’s thin—so thin! he thought. When did they get this thin?—hands in his own. He talked to him in the way Marietta had long ago used with him, the talk of children and dogs. So Thelo started speaking, and Gustavo did not stop kissing his hands the whole time, not stopping for a single moment; not when Salt told him about the days before breath, about his wish, about its granting and about its price: the heart of a lover, given to the ocean willingly, so that Salt might continue to live.

Only a heart, then? Gustavo wondered. Was that all? A bargain, truly, if he’d ever heard of one.

“I’ll give it,” he said, out of breath. “I’ll give it willingly.”

It was the second time in Thelo’s life that he found himself forbidding something, but this time he knew better than the first. He ordered his guards to take Gustavo away and lock him up in the palace’s deepest dungeon and stand at all times outside his door. He furnished that dungeon with the finest furniture his remaining salt could buy and dressed it in the most expensive silks, and then made sure none of his lover’s desires would go unmet, except the one for freedom: no drink too difficult to find, no food too difficult to cook up, no entertainment impossible to procure.

He had forgotten, however, that his lover’s talent was one for finding what made men tick, and find he did, and the guards did tick.

So Gustavo left secretly, in the night.

“But did no one try to stop him?” the young thing interrupts. “Didn’t Marietta or Thelo try to talk him out of it? Catch him, tie him down, restrain him in some way!” The young thing seems quite animated by the questions, and by the lovers’ failures to stop Gustavo.

Yet the questions give me pause.

Did they try? Truly?

My chest feels heavy, my legs sore from sitting for so long.

“I’m tired, child,” I say. “Let’s continue tomorrow.”

The child frowns but does not object.

The room is so cold around us, I think I won’t be able to sleep. And yet, I do, deeply and restfully.

I dream of tangles of flesh, of arms and legs, hands and feet and torsos, of muscles and bones and skin. And then I dream of the sea, a great salty flood that comes and swallows it all.

When I rise in the morning, the child is already awake, and so I take my seat and resume my narration.

So Gustavo left secretly, in the night. Only Marietta saw him flee the palace, his hand pressed against his heart. She knew right away what he was up to, and wanted to tell him that love, perhaps, should not hurt this much, that love’s price need not be pain, that, perhaps, the most precious things in life can be had without needing to be earned or bargained for—but in the time it took her to come up with the words, to weigh them against her own heart and force them out her mouth, Gustavo had already slipped away.

His legs were weak—from what, he didn’t quite know. Was it excitement or fear? Was it his days of incarceration, or the weakness of his heart that made him shake so? And if his heart were really that weak, would it even make a sacrifice worthy of Salt’s life?

There were many questions in his head, and perhaps that was for the best because, preoccupied in that manner, he managed to make his way to the remotest part of the shore he could think of. Then, realizing he didn’t know how one goes about finding the ocean and making a bargain with it, or indeed about giving it his heart, he walked into the sea wearing only his skin and a stone tied to his waist. He walked and walked, and then swam and swam, until every limb screamed with exhaustion and his throat prickled with thirst.

He grew weaker and weaker and, when he could swim no more, his stone pulled him down into the depths. Before he sank, he marveled: how deep, the ocean! How vast and cold!

He was woken by a voice that seemed to come from somewhere below him—perhaps, the pit of his own throat.

You are Gustavo the Merchant, the voice said. What do you seek?

He opened his mouth but found it filled with water and salt. His lungs were crushed, so he spoke with his mind instead: I am Salt’s lover, here to offer my heart so that Salt may live.

And do you come willingly?

Yes. Yes. He locked me up in a dungeon so I wouldn’t come. He doesn’t even know I’m here.

He? the ocean asked after a pause. You call salt a he?

Gustavo felt faint and a little delirious. Was he speaking to the ocean, or were these the dying visions of a drowning man? That’s what I know him to be, he replied, regardless.

I see, the ocean said.

Gustavo waited for a long while, but nothing happened. Was the ocean considering whether his offering was worthy? Or had it already been rejected? Or maybe it was Marietta’s heart that should have been offered instead—though the fact that it wasn’t should, perhaps, be answer enough.

Gustavo refused to be defeated this easily. He clawed at his chest, trying to get to his heart. Here, he pleaded with the ocean. Here, take it.

He waited for the knife—did the ocean have knives? Should he have brought his own? But no, he thought, so many shipwrecks must have made the sea the most knifeful place there is, and the ocean a connoisseur of blades! He closed his eyes and waited some more, for the rip, the tug, the brief, brief burn, but he felt none of that. Instead, he was buoyed, pushed up by a stream of tiny bubbles until his head broke the surface of the sea and the air rushed into his lungs with a searing pain that made him wonder if his heart was being torn from his body, after all.

It hadn’t.

Gustavo palmed the area above his heart. He was alive, his chest intact. Breath still in his lungs. Even the stone was gone.

“No,” he cried. “You cannot have him. Let me make good on his bargain!”

You have, the ocean replied, its voice cool and calm as the water was cool and calm.

It was never the giving that I wanted. It was only the willing I was curious about.

And then, Gustavo was pushed by a gentle current that returned him to shore exhausted, yes, but safe and whole.

He found his discarded clothing and, slowly, made his way back to the palace, to Salt’s embrace, to Marietta’s waxy moltings, to dogs, to fire, to velvet, to pearls, to food and wine and games, to pain and love, to the terrible things one does, the curious things, to life, to life, to life.

“So it was a favor, then, not a bargain,” the young thing says, catching me by surprise. I realize my own story had so absorbed me I lost track of time. And there’s little as intoxicating—arrogant, too, perhaps—as being taken with your own words.

Outside, the sun has climbed to its highest. Soon, it will start setting again.

“Do you think so?” I ask.

The child tilts its head, then frowns. “And anyway, I don’t believe this story,” it says.

“Oh? Why not?”

“I’ve heard nothing of a Salt Prince. If it’s the way you said, I would have surely heard of him.”

I study the child’s mouth. It’s perfect and smooth, and unfinished. A child’s mouth, and yet not.

“And, besides, I don’t believe life works like that.”

“And what do you know of life, salt child?” I ask, only a little bit unkindly. I don’t know why these objections irk me so, but they do. “Would you prefer a sadder story, then, one in which Gustavo sacrificed himself so that Salt may live, in which he and Marietta went on to live steeped in mourning and a grief so great that one day Salt walked back to the shore and melted into the hungry sea? Would that have been a better story—or at least one you could believe?”

The young thing considers this. Then, asks: “But what of Marietta?”

“What of her? I told you, she became an artist.”

The child nods politely, acknowledging that I had, indeed, established that fact. “But did she get what she wanted?”

Oh. That. I did make the story out to be about desire, didn’t I?

I should have known it would come to this.

“What do you think she wanted?” I ask, mildly now.

The child purses its lips thoughtfully. When it speaks, it’s with a voice that has too much sharpness in it, too much understanding, too much age. And I catch myself wondering: How old is salt? Not a young thing at all.

“Something to love that wouldn’t leave her,” the child says. “Something that would outlive her—isn’t that what all those casts were for?” The young thing glances at my shelves—the wax hands, the wax hare standing on her hind legs. Of course it’s noticed. I didn’t hide them. I could have. Why didn’t I?

All right.

All right.

Let’s try this again.

After the war, Marietta found her belly grew and grew. She felt many things at once: elated, desperate, confused. She never thought Thelo could father a child, and, in a way, she was right: when her water broke and the time came for her to give birth, the baby never arrived. There was no baby at all. Only more water kept flowing out of her, wave after wave, briny and thick with the scent of the sea.

Devastated, she left the palace. She went to the shore where she’d first met Salt and dug a tiny grave in the sand. She had nothing to fill it with, except a small wax figure of a child that she’d cast herself.

Then, she left the country. She was alone again, exactly as she had been before, except this time she knew what she wanted, and the price she was willing to pay.

Marietta walked and walked until she found an island where she found a hut where she found a witch who told her she knew how Marietta could make a bargain of her own.

I pause, and in that pause the child is looking at me a little fearfully, a little expectantly. Hoping, perhaps, that I’ll tell a different story. Any other story than this.

So Marietta waded into the ocean, I say, with her clothes sticking to her skin and her expensive shawl that Thelo’s salt had bought her swirling around her like so many eels. The water was cold, and the sand between her toes was hard and gritty, and the salt burned her throat when she swallowed, but she didn’t stop.

And then she heard that thing, that heartbeat that was also a voice and which Gustavo once heard, and Thelo before him, and who knows how many more before him. She thought of the small wax figure, frozen in its sandy tomb, and she spoke her wish: to forget.

To forget? the ocean echoed.

Marietta nodded, and then, because she wasn’t sure if the ocean could see her, she said: “Yes.”

And what is it you want to forget, lover of Salt?

Marietta cried, then. Salt would always be in her, she knew, in her tears, in her food, in every country whose shores were touched by a sea. “Everything,” she said.

And the ocean—the kind, the awful, the beautiful—considered her request.

And then, the ocean agreed.

“What is the price?” Marietta asked.

And the ocean told her that, if she could only recount her story correctly, as it truly happened, just once, she would forget. But, the voice reasoned, every story needs an audience, and narrating means narrating to someone. So the ocean fashioned for her an interlocutor and said: When you manage to tell the entire story to this salt creature, and tell it as it really happened, your mind will be free of it, and the pain it has caused you will no longer have a hold on you.

“What will happen to the salt creature?” Marietta asked.

She felt the ocean shrug. It will return to me with your story, so I may listen to it whenever I please, and be pleased by it or saddened by it in accordance with the current mood.

The young thing shifts in its cushion. It’s staring at its hands. Its smooth, lineless palms.

Its cheeks are wet.

“Don’t cry, child,” I say. “Your tears will wash your skin away.”

The young thing wipes its tears with those palms, careful not to erode the salt plane of its face.

“Do you still think my first story was not true? Do you still wish the ocean were not as generous as it was in that first telling?”

The child does not say yes, but it doesn’t say no, either. It is silent for a long time. Around us, the air grows warm and thick with the scent of melting wax.

Then, the child asks: “Was the story you told me just a lie, then? Was any of it true?”

I think about it before I respond, because I want to be as truthful with this child I have created—or caused to be created, which is really the same thing—as I can possibly be. “Sometimes, truths that are hard to believe are better than truths that are simpler.”

The child nods as if it understands. But how could it, when I don’t?

My eyelids sting. They grate my eyes like sand.

“I’m ready to listen to the ending now,” the young thing says.

I shake my head. “No, child. Let’s go to bed early tonight.”

“Are you going to try again tomorrow?”

I’m not sure anymore which version of the story I’m supposed to be telling, or if the story can ever be told to the ocean’s liking. And the more I remember it and tell it, perhaps, the more I forget it already, because I remember the words instead, the thing itself replaced by the memory of my remembering.

I say so, to this child.

I look around the room and the child’s gaze follows my own. It has looked longingly at my casts since the beginning. “Why these?” it asks, pointing at the sculptures.

“There are many ways of telling stories and many ways of remembering,” I say, because that much I know is true. “More than words.” I consider the casts myself as if I haven’t considered them in a long time. The child said what I really wanted was love that would outlive me, and isn’t that what our story was? Is?

There’s so much love in it, and so much joy among all the pain. Can I really let all that go? The more love the better, after all. Isn’t that right?

The more love the better.

I am reminded of those rooms of salt, overfull, brimming. The world was never enough to accommodate us. It would never be enough. So we’d just have to make the world bigger.

“What would you do,” I ask, “if you didn’t have to go back to the ocean?”

The child frowns. “But I do have to, don’t I? As soon as you tell your story correctly.”

“Is there really such a thing?”

The child is silent, so I try again. “But what if you didn’t have to go back for a long time? A long, long time?”

The child brings a finger to its lips in that thoughtful way it has of going about most things.

“I would have time to do what I want.”

“And what is it that you want?”

“I want to experience everything,” the child says then, and in that moment it reminds me of both of them: Thelo’s hunger for every little thing the world had to offer, Gustavo’s burning dark eyes. It reminds me of them both so much I think, perhaps, the ocean grew curious again in its dealings with me as it had grown curious in its dealings with Salt. That, perhaps, my bargain was but another trick; a ruse for the ocean to see what people are willing to let go of when they find out what they think they’ve lost is never truly lost to them.

And, if that’s true, well.

If that’s true, then, what bargain?

“Perhaps tomorrow I’ll show you how to make one of these,” I tell the child, pointing at the casts.

The child’s eyes widen and sparkle. “Really?” it asks.

“Yes. Would you like that?”

A pause. “What do I have to give in return?” There’s suspicion in the child’s features that hurts me, just a little.

“I’ll make you a bargain, if that’s what you want, but I want nothing in return.”

“Nothing?” the child echoes, its mouth slack around that novel concept.

“Nothing you haven’t already given me,” I reply.

The child looks at me, puzzled. “That’s not a bargain either,” it says, and I nod, because the young thing is right, it’s not. It’s no bargain at all.

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