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The Yearning Body Problem

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.”

― Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

The ongoing pandemic has weathered its own internal seasons; microclimates and trends that could only have happened under the bizarre circumstances of a slow-moving apocalypse. At no other time could everyone else have been trapped in the shadow of Tiger King or decided that baking sourdough was the best place to focus our manual fidgeting and jaw-clenching chew. So, too, have we endured seasons in reading. We have swelled, en masse, toward cozies and romances when it was all too much, toward plague apocalypse fiction when we needed to remember that it might be worse, toward portal fantasies and second-world escapes when even happily ever after wasn’t enough. As we careen toward endemic with no end in sight, I find that the only thing that resonates for me is open, naked, vulnerable yearning.

Weren’t all those things just clothing the nakedness of our longing, anyhow? We can settle in and let Netflix work on us like anesthesia, we can fill ourselves with bread so that the heart cracks softly above the pillow of a stuffed belly. We can dream ourselves to the castle, to outer space, to anywhere but here. All those things are only cover for the feeling we cannot cope with, our constant gnawing companion through all this: yearning.

We are social apes and Zoom does not feed the beast. We crave each other, specifically and in the flesh, and nothing else will do. We have suffered through two grueling years of hopes-dashed holidays and turned-down trysts, telling ourselves there will be respite if we are good. If we get our shots, if we isolate and test and trust. There is no balm in Gilead, only a fresh variant and another season of weddings washed away and dates dashed. And so now all I want to read about is yearning.

All I want to do is fall into Miles Vorkosigan’s unrequited love for Elena Bothari, never to be assuaged, only to shift to Rian Degtiar without changing tenor or intensity. Bujold shows me the hole in her heart and I feel it open up in my own; a pair of best friends getting piercings at the mall before summer vacation tears us apart. I cry out across a colonized universe, and the Aegean Sea answers back with the longing of Achilles for Patroclus. How Madeline Miller made a story three centuries older than the invention of soap feel new again is beyond me, but it’s also curled up inside me, hollowing me out like the grave of the beloved. Song of Achilles was sold to me by countless friends on the strength of its prose (superb!) and the way it brings the ancient world to life (I can taste the blood of Troy in my mouth!) but I didn’t realize it would fill me with longing the way a giant horse is packed with secret soldiers. I can feel them bunked up together in the undercarriage of my heart, holding each other and dreaming of a cigarette, dreading the dawn.

As if I didn’t already loathe the footprints on the ground urging me to keep my social distance, as if I wasn’t already waking from feverish dreams wherein strange women in sequins kiss me on the street, Last Night at the Telegraph Club reminded me of the frenetic fragility of queer spaces. How I crave the brash bawdiness of a drag brunch, the clandestine coyness of a lesbian bar even in America’s queerest city. Malinda Lo wove together the Red Scare and the Lavender Menace into such a comely cord that it drew me neatly down the street to Passing Strange, Ellen Klages’s own speculative speakeasy novella. Both are set in San Francisco, both in the era of WWII, both among women who love women and the unique dangers the world dreams up for us. Both reminded me how yearning is a component of queer art; that we are almost never truly free to reach for one another if the lights are on, if people are looking. Both drew me into the deep water between words, made me gasp for air when I could surface and remember across the folds of time and space that my own yearning is the same.

Not so different to yearn for a nemesis as for a lover. The intensity of feeling is the same, only inverted as mountains and canyons are both too far to climb without contemplating death. I sought out depictions of yearning for one’s opposite number, of unions that can never be because the heights and depths are simply too great to safely cross. Good Omens, both book and television show, came to me at the right moment to show angel and demon fated and bound and seeking one another out, again and again, despite various ends of sundry worlds. Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War blew everybody away, but specifically during the pandemic I felt that Red and Blue took turns jerking me around by my lapels, asking me to tell the other that her days were numbered, but never speaking directly to one another. Instead, that book was a series of letters stuffed into my right and left ear to be yanked out the opposite side by the intended recipient. My brain was flossed with longing. Is there—is there balm in Gilead? Sometimes. What relief, what primal joy to see She-Ra and Catra finally (spoiler!) kiss (go find it!) and kiss (you need it!) and bring some completion to the incomplete; finish the arch for half an arch will not stand. We cannot stand. We must still sit and wait.

What are we waiting for? The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is the kind of book only an established novelist with a record like V.E. Schwab will get to write. It unfolds itself as slowly as a life in which there are no parties, not even at New Year’s Eve, and it expresses nothing as much as yearning. Addie lives a beautiful life with loves and adventures, admirers and artworks, but no one can remember her. She cannot leave her mark on anything, and no one who knows her story will remember it. As the months fell from the calendar and the clocks melted all around us, who among us did not worry that we might be forgotten? Which of us does not fret that the constellations of our freckles were fading from somebody’s sky forever, untouchable and thus from the flesh drive of the brain? Addie LaRue was the sweetness to contrast the bizarre sours of Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Nabokov’s late-career novel, and perhaps his strangest. This slyly speculative (blink and you’ll miss the brief mention of alternate history where Russia settled the U.S., the banning of electricity) sinslide of a book is steeped in illicit lust between siblings who spend all their time longing for one another, trying to recreate their earliest memories in marginal arguments over a mumbletext of half-remembered summer sensualities. Did it disgust me? Nabokov always does. Did I go back for more like a kid who has thrown up brownie batter made with bad eggs and has learned not a thing? My fellow yearners: you know I went back to licking the bowl.

But my longing is like a fever, longing still for that which further nurseth the disease. I find a new flavor or yearning to lick down and sick up every time I touch my Kindle. Time Was, Ian McDonald’s novella of two nearly immortal men writing letters to one another in a used book swapped and sold across time, fills the void left by Nicky and Joe in The Old Guard (who get only a single scene to explain that their love has carried them since the crusades and no mortal bigot could possibly understand the tide of yearning that has shaped their shared shores). Time Was combines the desperation that only an epistolary can scratch on the walls; the wartime urgency of a love that must be spoken before the bomb goes off, and the inimitable torch-passing between queer generations that takes the place of a more traditional form of reproduction. And the combination of queerness, queer parenthood, and that traditional reproduction dance swirls together in that sultry masterpiece of longing, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. These were pleasure and play to my younger brain that wanted only kink and intrigue and loved the racy tattoo on the pretty lady on the cover. Now, an intellectual saddled with decades of variegated longings and a Greek chorus of affairs spread out over Telegram, Signal, iMessage, Gmail, and borne on the decaying backs of the U.S. Postal Service, I feel the ache in Delaunay’s slaughtered prince like never before. I nurse Joscelin’s piety and surrender to the anguish of love where I used to get high on contempt. I sail morosely on the ink-dark waters of every love denied to Phèdre, drown in her desire as it transcends the flesh and propels her into a yearning that is only assuaged by stuffing her mouth with the secret name of God (I am not exaggerating. If your yearning is as extra as mine, I promise this one comes in your size.)

There is no cure for yearning. There is no projected period to this pandemic, no end in sight. Take, then, these vaccines and booster shots to lessen the effects of your suffering. Inject yourself with a microscopic dose of the virus and let your immune system gain a memory of its shape and taste, let your cells embrace it and destroy it in a few cubic centimeters of fictional disease in the hopes that you may survive and live to yearn again. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that satisfaction will cure your yearning for good; we will close the gap of six feet and strip off our masks one day, clasp and kiss and cough again. And still we will yearn, for yearning is what the body does until it reaches the end of desire.

Don’t worry. There are books about that part, too.

 

 

The Uncanny Valley

Hello, Space Unicorns! This month, the fabulous Liz Argall created a special comic for the editorial, featuring Hugo the Cat!

FABULOUS NEWS, SPACE UNICORNS! HAPPIEST OF DAYS!!! FIFTEEN Uncanny Magazine stories are on the prestigious 2021 Locus Recommended Reading List! WE ARE SO THRILLED! Congratulations to all of the authors!

Best Novella:
The Giants of the Violet Sea” by Eugenia Triantafyllou

Best Novelette:
Mulberry and Owl” by Aliette de Bodard
Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde
That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell
Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim

Best Short Story:
If the Martians Have Magic” by P. Djèlí Clark
The Wishing Pool” by Tananarive Due
Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte
Immortal Coil” by Ellen Kushner
Presque vue” by Tochi Onyebuchi
A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard
Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker
Thirteen of the Secrets in My Purse” by Rachel Swirsky
How the Girls Came Home” by Eugenia Triantafyllou
The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente

ALSO! Congratulations to Uncanny Magazine Managing Editor/Poetry Editor Chimedum Ohaegbu! Her novelette “And for My Next Trick, I Have Disappeared” is on the list! PLUS! Congratulations to Uncanny Magazine Nonfiction Editor Meg Elison! Her short stories “The Pizza Boy” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Served With Fries” are on the list!

This means you can vote for these stories in the 2022 Locus Poll and Survey which determines the Locus Awards! Voting is FREE TO ALL! Along with these stories, Uncanny Magazine is also eligible for a Locus Award in the Best Magazine or Fanzine category, and Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas are eligible in the Best Editor—Pro or Fan category! Vote for the things you liked, and you can even write in things that didn’t make the 2021 Locus Recommended Reading List! YOUR VOTE ALWAYS COUNTS!

Space Unicorns! It is time to announce the TOP STORY in our Uncanny Magazine 2021 Favorite Fiction Reader Poll!
It is…. *drumroll*

A TIE!!!

The TOP SHORT STORIES are:

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker

The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente

Congratulations, Sarah Pinsker and Catherynne M. Valente! SNAZZY CERTIFICATES will soon be on the way!

The rest of the Top Five are:

2- IS ALSO A TIE!!!

The novelette “That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell

The novelette “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde

3- The short story “Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte

4- The novelette “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim

5- The novelette “Mulberry and Owl” by Aliette de Bodard

Congratulations to John Wiswell, Fran Wilde, José Pablo Iriarte, Caroline M. Yoachim, and Aliette de Bodard!

Thank you to everybody who voted!

Hugo Award nominations are now open! If you are an eligible member of DisCon III or Chicon 8, you should already have your membership and voting information so you can start nominating online!

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

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

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 45! The phenomenal cover is Habitation by Paul Lewin. Our new fiction includes Maureen McHugh’s pandemic tale of survival “The Goldfish Man,” Miyuki Jane Pinckard’s exploration of grief and very good dogs “Boundless,” Shaoni C. White’s dreamlike coming-of-age story “The Kaleidoscopic Visitor,” Carlos Hernandez’s journey to the undiscovered country “I Will Have This Diamond for a Heart,” “The Path of Water” Emma Törzs’s fairy tale of roles and memory, Stephen Graham Jones’s story of mystery during a hike “Flowerkicker,” and Margaret Dunlap’s examination of toys and childhood “Requiem for a Dollface.” Our reprint is Richard Butner’s “Under Green” which originally appeared in The Adventurists (Small Beer Press) in 2022.

Our provocative and compelling essays this month include the “Ask a Unicorn” column sponsored by our Kickstarter Year 8 backers, “Acknowledging Taiwanese-American Vampire Foodies” by Jo Wu, “Resisting the Monolith: Collecting As Counter Narrative” by Rebecca Romney, “Wax Sealed With a Kiss” by Elsa Sjunneson, and “An Invitation to the Weary” by Sarah Gailey, and Nonfiction Editor Meg Elison’s editorial “The Yearning Body Problem.” Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “Irreconcilable Differences” by Lalini Shanela Ranaraja, “Omonhinmin” by Praise Osawaru, “Jingwei Tries to Fill Up the Sea” by Mary Soon Lee, and “A Wreckful Planting of small Pockets of Thirst” by Nnadi Samuel. Finally, Caroline M. Yoachim interviews Miyuki Jane Pinckard and Emma Törzs about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #45A features “The Goldfish Man” by Maureen McHugh, as read by Erika Ensign, “Irreconcilable Differences” by Lalini Shanela Ranaraja, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Maureen McHugh. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #45B features “I Will Have This Diamond for a Heart” by Carlos Hernandez, as read by Matt Peters, “Requiem for a Dollface” by Margaret Dunlap, as read by Erika Ensign, “A Wreckful Planting of small Pockets of Thirst” by Nnadi Samuel, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Carlos Hernandez.

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

Interview: Miyuki Jane Pinckard

Miyuki Jane Pinckard is a writer, game designer, educator, and the co-founder of Story Kitchen Studio, a community for exploring writing techniques. Her fiction can be found in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction Online, and the anthology, If There’s Anyone Left, Vol. 1. She was born in Tokyo, Japan and now lives in Venice, California, with her partner and a little dog. She likes wine and mystery novels and karaoke. “Boundless” is her second appearance in Uncanny, a powerful story of love, grief, and hope.

 

Uncanny Magazine: “Boundless” is a poignant tale of a grieving spouse; a story that looks at ambition and love, and explores the challenge of finding balance between careers and relationships. What was your starting point or inspiration for the story?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: This story actually started with the dogs! I was thinking about how dogs, in their inexhaustible love and faith, deny death, in a way. To a dog, their beloved human is always alive. They’ll believe that person is coming home to them until the end. I wanted to capture that feeling with this story—that inexpressibly heartbreaking poignancy of a dog that never gives up hope.

Uncanny Magazine: The love story in “Boundless” happens mostly off the page—we don’t see Anna and Terumi together, but instead get glimpses of their past relationship from Terumi’s perspective. Why did you choose to structure the story this way?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: It was a bit of an experiment in timelines, first, and also in shaping their love story around this hole that exists for Terumi now that Anna is gone. I’m definitely asking the reader to infer A LOT about Anna and Terumi, to fill in a lot of the pieces that aren’t there. To me that’s a little like the work that we do when we try to remember someone we’ve lost. It gets harder and harder to fill in the pieces because our memory is so fragile, in many ways, and so unreliable. So we end up inferring a lot to fill in the gaps, and it’s hard to do and leaves you feeling a little unsatisfied, like the memory is just out of reach. I hope it added to that feeling instead of creating frustration for the reader!

Uncanny Magazine: This story evokes a sense of loneliness and isolation, but the sadness of the story is balanced by the comforting presence of the dogs and Terumi’s hope for the future. What are some of the things that bring you comfort and hope right now?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: I don’t often make new year’s resolutions, but for 2022, I resolved to be more intentional about nurturing my friendships. As you get older, you witness more tragic events that happen to you and your family and your friends, and that’s accelerated now during the pandemic. So it’s all the more important to me to consciously contact friends and family and stay in touch and really not let those bonds wither away. For example, I began writing letters by hand to people this year, and it’s brought me a lot of comfort and joy. Honestly, all we have is each other, in the end.

Uncanny Magazine: If you had the opportunity to do a six-year mission to Mars, would you want to go?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: Oh god no. That sounds terrifying. Also I couldn’t face the idea that my 11-year-old Chihuahua-terrier mix would be gone by the time I get back! But I admire the courage and drive of the voyagers who’d choose to go!

Uncanny Magazine: One common thread I’ve seen in your fiction is the importance of interpersonal connections and community. This focus is reflected in your work in the SFF community as well—can you tell us about some of the community-building projects you’ve been working on?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: Oh that makes me so happy to hear you say that! I think that’s true, and especially with grief. The burden of grief when you’re alone is so overwhelming and the only way to get through it, in my experience, is to share with your community. I also just love collaborating in general, both on creative projects as well as on policy and social change projects. At the moment I’m on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee in SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). My friend Maureen McHugh and I have started a project called Story Kitchen [https://storykitchenpodcast.com/], because we’d spend so many hours talking about writing between ourselves and we wanted to invite others to join us at the metaphorical kitchen table!

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Miyuki Jane Pinckard: I have a gothic dark academia novella I’m in the middle of revising! It’s set in New England in 1908, and it’s got queer romance vibes and, of course, creepy ghosts. I love gothic romance and horror and I kind of can’t believe I haven’t written one before! I’m enjoying the process so much.

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

 

 

Ask a Unicorn

Questions for this advice column were provided by Kickstarter Backers who selected the Ask A Unicorn reward during our 2021 Kickstarter campaign.

 

How did you know you were a Unicorn?

First I was myself, and myself only, wild and alone. The wind was in my nostrils and mud on my hide. Then the human world, with its love for chains, boxes, cages, and walls, caught and wrought me: this is what we say you are. Here is how we see you.

How do I keep my heart full of love, rainbows, sparkles, and glitter towards people whose actions seem to be founded in ignorance and hate, who through their choices put other delightful humans in peril and danger?

A heart full of rainbows, sparkles, and glitter does not sound like a human heart doing its best to drive blood through the rivers and rivulets of one’s body. It sounds like a glass jar of trinkets: appealing and lifeless.

What if your heart didn’t have to be pretty, pleasant, and marketable? What if storms could scour it, and wildfires, and a cleansing rain?

Go deep, dig like a badger, until you find the vast mystery within you. Learn the wildness of the world and of your own heart, and know too that there has always been evil in the world. Let your heart fill with rage, grief, sorrow, brokenness, and surrender, each in its turn, until everything flows out, and peace remains.

Then when you meet evil and foolishness in your daily walk, you will know whether to speak, fight, love, or run. Move wisely to counter evil, and you will have achieved more than princes and emperors.

Your heart will roar.

Acknowledging Taiwanese-American Vampire Foodies

No matter the culture, the one defining trait that is agreed upon for the nefarious vampire is drinking blood. Vampires in modern literature are romanticized outcasts, beautiful and untouchable…as long as they fit Eurocentric ideals of beauty. More often than not, this means fair skin, noble Eurocentric features, colored eyes that aren’t brown, and a variety of hair colors that are not limited to just black. Exotic and daring enough to tickle the reader’s fantasies of creatures of the night, but not so far-out that it is deemed too foreign and repulsive. It is not too different from the concept of food, which, much like the concept of attractiveness in visual media, needs to be fit for consumption. Westerners, when feeling the need to “spice” up their plates, will seek something that they deem exotic enough, but not too exotic to be considered barbaric and monstrous to their palates. When a Westerner eats “exotic” food, they are deemed and revered as “daring, bold, and adventurous,” even if it’s from an establishment that has been whitewashed to fit their palates, such as the chains Panda Express and P.F. Chang’s (it is worth noting that Philip Chiang, one of the founders of the latter franchise, had his surname simplified to Chang for branding purposes, the easier to pronounce and remember for anglophones). A non-Westerner, on the other hand, is ridiculed as “barbaric, disgusting, and uncivilized” when they feast upon their native cuisine. Like food, in the realm of speculative fiction, particularly stories featuring vampires, there is nothing more exotic and yet commonplace than blood.

Case in point: Whenever I visit Taiwan, where my family immigrated from, one of my all-time favorite street snacks is 豬血糕, or zhū xiě gāo for pinyin readers. It literally translates to “pig’s blood cake” in English. Yes, it is literally pig’s blood boiled and mixed with rice, and rolled in peanut flour and topped with cilantro. Usually it is eaten off a stick like a popsicle or a corn dog. I absolutely love it as a savory snack. Since it is not readily available in its freshest form in the United States, where I was born and raised, I will buy as many of these as I can from street food vendors and eat my fill of it when I’m visiting Taiwan. But whenever I describe it to friends, or try to show them harmless mahogany cubes of congealed blood that innocently jiggle like jello upon plates at hotpot restaurants, they are repulsed and look at it as if it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Pig’s blood as food is not unique to Taiwan. It’s not even unique to Asian cuisine. There are variations of blood as food all across Europe: the United Kingdom has black pudding, Sweden has the blood soup svartsoppa, France has sanquette, Italy has the sweet sanguinaccio dolce, and Finland has blood pancakes. Yet, Taiwan’s and China’s blood cakes, Korea’s sundae blood sausages, India’s stir-fried lamb blood, Vietnam’s spicy blood noodle soup, and many other Asian dishes with blood as an ingredient are vilified.

I have seen this vilification and othering of food growing up as the Asian kid with the “weird” lunches. You would think rice, pork buns, and noodles would be considered normal alongside sandwiches and pasta, but my food was regarded as disgusting and strange. I have a distinct memory of being ten years old, sitting at a lunch table populated with white girls, eating my homemade rice rolls stuffed with pork floss and wrapped in nori seaweed. They gawked at my lunchbox, at the fluffy texture of brown pork floss, which resembles threads of cotton candy, only more salty and savory, and hued like milk chocolate rather than pink-dyed sugar. I offered a piece to one of my classmates, and she didn’t hide her disgust and shudder as she claimed, “Oh no, I’m…I’m full!” as she continued to gawk at my food in disgust. Growing up with kids who made fun of my food extends to the experience of being othered and vilified for our cuisine. This ties into seeing Asian characters in stories, where they are more often than not archetypes cut from stereotypical cloths, or serving as the background token Asian propping up a white protagonist’s story, even in the realm of speculative fiction and vampiric casts. A personal google search of “Asian vampires in fiction” fails to return results in any Western media. There’s plenty of famous vampire fiction in Japanese media, including Vampire Hunter D, Hellsing, and Blood: The Last Vampire, but none that is representative of voices and perspectives from a global diaspora. In more recent media, with the American Netflix adaptation of the Japanese video game Castlevania, the Japanese vampiress Cho had zero lines written for her character, and served as a voiceless prop despite being one of Dracula’s generals. My goal as a writer is to bring nuanced visibility and voice to characters of my background.

This experience informs me when writing speculative fiction. Food shows up often in my writing as a source of joy, comfort, and satiation for my characters when the world opposes and fights against them. Although vampires have fallen out of vogue with commercial fiction, growing up as the goth Asian girl you would call ugly in middle school, when I write of vampires, I see them through my Taiwanese-American immigrant lens of being othered, of growing up in a culture that does not accept you, that constantly others you and marks you as a perpetual foreigner, no matter how much you erase your identity and whitewash your palate to reject the food that comes from your ancestral country. Funnily, I’ve also been nicknamed “Vampire” all my life, from the kids in middle school who made fun of me for wanting to dress in black and stay out of the sun, to the manager I had at work who endearingly nicknamed me that because of my preference for a desk away from sunlight. I grew up fascinated by vampires, by their otherness, and by the fear that surrounded them. When reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the godfather of modern vampire lore, I see it written through the lens of xenophobia. Jonathan Harker certainly sets the tone for the novel by writing in his diary in the opening pages, “It seems to me that the further East you go the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they to be in China?” Interactions with Dracula reveals his dedication to learning English, as his library in Transylvania “holds a vast number of English books, whole shelves full of them, and bound volumes of magazines and newspapers.” Even as he expresses interest in buying up property in London, he confesses his wish to blend in with Englishmen, knowing that no matter how well he speaks English, his accent, mannerisms, and appearance would give him away as “a stranger.” The novel is emblematic of invasion literature, as it continues with ill-written depictions of Eastern Europe, and culminates with the hunt and murder of Dracula. I daresay it draws plenty of parallels with growing up Asian in the Western world. American history has records of Chinese communities massacred, and Asians redlined from buying property. Even in the 21st century, the collective Asian experience shares common threads of being othered for your identity and culture, always grappling with the fact that society harbors this underlying fear of yellow peril and being a threat to Western powers. And for a bit of levity, “Asian don’t raisin,” so, like vampires, we don’t age. Even bats, a symbol of vampires and bloodthirsty terror in Western culture, are actually auspicious animals revered and loved in Chinese folklore and art.

When vampires drink blood, there is the fear element of their consumption of blood because they attack fellow humans. While my family, my fellow Asian community, and myself certainly don’t endorse cannibalism or consuming human blood, there’s always this fear surrounding Asian food and where the food is sourced from, how it’s prepared, and served with a smorgasbord of accusations that Asians will eat anything including dogs and bats, and use this wrongful accusation of eating habits to spark fear-mongering of Asians. Just look at the past couple of years of Anti-Asian hate in this historic era humanity is currently living through, with wet markets fueling Sinophobia related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In my search for escapism, I eat for joy. I write for joy. Between eating blood, reading blood, and writing about blood as I gnash my enthusiastic fangs, I write to do my best to convey my experiences through a speculative lens. Food connects me to cultures, especially my own so that I can keep whitewashing at bay and celebrate the dishes that make me and my family unique. Food and dining with family and friends nurtures relationships, the cornerstone of living a fulfilling life. Not only does food fill bellies, it nourishes muscles, bridges connections, and nurtures souls. Writing takes my experiences, which also encompasses my love for food, and arranges the colored shards fragmented from different pieces of my life onto paper (or a word processor in our digital realm) to project connections. Writing mirrors these shards into the stories to mirror back the reflection of my vampiric energy, defying the Western lore that vampires have no reflection. As an Asian-American writer proud to list pig’s blood cake among my top list of all-time favorite foods, that’s one Western piece of folklore that I will happily kick off the cliff, for I choose to write speculative fiction that reflects back the world we live in, to consume and savor all the sour disappointments, salty sadness, bitter reflections, umami growth, and sweet joy.

The Goldfish Man

I live in my car.

It’s both worse and better than you’d expect. It’s an old Subaru hatchback so I can put the back seat down and sleep. I have all my stuff in the back but I have a space where I can lay.

The place where I park is, like, the unofficial place for homeless people. If you cross the main drag, Venice, you’re in Culver City and the cops there are death on homeless. They move you along, threaten to take your stuff. But this side of Venice is Los Angeles proper and apparently the cops have decided to ignore us for now. It’s a side street beside a grocery store and there are some people in tents and these three people, a shaved-headed Latino guy and his wife, and the guy’s brother, who have a camper. They repair bicycles.

Besides the bike repair crew, there are three tents on the sidewalk with a couple of folding chairs where people can sit like it’s their front porch or something—Oswaldo and Gloria are in their sixties and sit out in the evenings, usually drinking beer.

There are five cars, including mine. I don’t like the shaved-headed guy because he takes some drug and it makes him get angry easy. Meth? I don’t know. His brother sleeps in the driver’s seat of the RV. I assume he sleeps in the back with his wife. I thought about telling the brother about my tent trick, but then I decided it wasn’t rocket science, and I really don’t want to draw attention.

There’s this one guy, I think his name is Lane. If you saw him you’d never think he was homeless. I don’t really think of myself as homeless, more like my home is also my car. I am aware that’s pathetic. I don’t want to hear about it. Lane’s shelter is a cardboard box, sleeping bag, tarp for if it rains kind of guy which crosses some line in my head for really homeless. He’s white-ish, got dark hair and he wears Henleys and his jeans never have that filthy-at-the-hem look. You know? Street people have dirty ankles.

He talks to the tent people and sits with them and he buys stuff—I don’t know where he gets money but he runs into the grocery store and gets iced tea. He buys people coffee from the Starbucks. He also sometimes just stands there and he does this thing with his mouth, making an “o” and opening and closing it. It looks like a goldfish, you know how they do that thing. Pah pah pah, with their mouth? It’s like that. He’ll do it for a long time, just standing there.

Being homeless can mean you have a lot of time on your hands. But most people don’t spend a lot of it just standing there.

I watch him, sometimes. Today, he was doing it, and it was like he realized it because he closed his mouth like, pop, very decisive, and frowned at himself.

I’m a ceramicist, a potter. I used to teach classes at a place called Great Earth but in this year of the plague, the studio can’t offer classes. I had a great sublet from a woman who is a post doc doing geology and was in Utah for a year. She told me that she had a place there and she didn’t know when she would come back and as long as I covered the rent on the studio apartment I could stay there, but then they shut down whatever it was she was doing, and she had to come back.

I had a little bit saved up. But I had no income, and I burned through it in an Airbnb where I rented a bedroom from a gay guy in Silver Lake. And then the car.

I sell pottery on Etsy. Linda, the woman who owns Great Earth, lets me throw whenever I want. She says no one else is using the space, so I might as well. Charity. I am soooooo not proud.

I let myself into Great Earth. The room smells of clay and paint. Linda is there and I stop. I’m wearing my pandemic mask, but she didn’t know I was coming so she’s not. I should have called. I’ve surprised her.

“Sima!” she says. “I didn’t expect you!”

“Sorry!” I say. “You want me to come back later?” I’m just going to throw some dog treat cookie jars. They aren’t very inspiring, art wise. But right now, they still sell, which is something.

“No, no, let me get my mask,” she says. “What are you making today?”

“A couple of commissions,” I say. A dachshund and a Samoyed cookie jar. I have pictures of the dogs on my phone and I’m thinking about making the dachshund so it’s sitting up.

“I’m just doing paperwork but I wanted to get out of the house, you know?” she says, and then realizes that I don’t have a house. “Oh, God, that’s—I’m sorry.”

I shrug. “It’s okay, I wanted to get out of my car.”

“You let me know when you want a night on my couch,” she says.

“I will, but so far, it’s not bad,” I say. I plug in my phone and my phone battery to charge. Linda is trying to help me. She lives in a place? House? with her husband, her nine-year-old son, and her 84-year-old mother. There’s no way I’m going to take my homeless, possibly plague-ridden ass into her house. She’s let me use the studio to work, to have a place to go inside, to use the bathroom—which is a toilet and sink but it’s running water—so I can at least sponge bathe. What if I gave this to her mother? What if I killed her mother? It’s not worth it. Although there have been times when it was really tempting. My feet get so cold at night.

They’re talking about a vaccine. Maybe if I can get vaccinated, I’ll say yes.

Before everything went to hell I was making double vases. That means I throw a pot and then throw another pot around them. I was carving shapes into the inner and outer pots, making them like ceramic lace—well thicker, because wet clay would collapse if it was too thin. When I put a candle in them, they would throw shadows and light on a wall and I had been experimenting with that. The shadows they made were angry, or frantic, jagged and arching up the wall onto the ceiling. I had started making big ones, 24 to 36 inches and when they cracked in the kiln it was hours and hours of work gone, but the ones that came out were, well, strong. They were art. I wanted to get a portfolio together and see if I could find a gallery that was interested.

So much for that.

I kneaded my clay at my end of the studio, slapped it onto the wheel and centered it. I may have been making something cheesy but there is something so centering about throwing a jar.

“When do you want to fire?” Linda asked. She had put on her mask.

“I want to get six. I’m going to make a couple of labs, those sell eventually. No sense in firing up the kiln until we’ve got a load.”

Linda’s husband is still employed. She’s been throwing bowls and tea pots. I’ve got a golden retriever teapot on Etsy. The dog’s ears make the handle and the spout. I’ve got it listed for $60 but it hasn’t sold so maybe I’ll lower the price. The things that are selling are mostly minimal, artsy looking things.

I want a drink. I haven’t had one in eight years. I think about it at night when I’m under my tarp in my car cave, how if I had vodka I could sleep. I want to go to an AA meeting but I can’t quite bring myself to do an online meeting. It just feels—I don’t know. I didn’t think of my sobriety as delicate, but now I think it is. I’m broke, homeless, and terrified all the time. It would be nice to give in, to let go and say “fuck it” and get drunk and not feel anything for awhile.

So far I haven’t.

I have a terrible weakness for McDonalds. Big Macs. I get a meal at the drive thru, and park my car back in my spot. I have to leave my engine running because my phone, as always, is almost out of charge but I’ve been thinking about buying a pint. Just a pint. Of bourbon. When I was in my twenties, I used to dab a bit of bourbon behind my ears like perfume because I thought it smelled so good. Sad, I know.

The meeting is on Zoom which is so tiny on my little phone, but when we recite the Serenity prayer, I feel a sense of relief. I dig out my Big Mac while someone reads from the Big Book. “Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help.” I have an uneasy relationship with my higher power. In my first group, one woman’s higher power was her black Lab, who she said lived in the world without expectation and with joy.

I was doing really well before the plague. I didn’t feel as if I needed meetings much. Now I’m right back in the mire of trying to figure things out, day by day. Back to trying to figure out how to trust in a universe where I don’t believe in a god.

But the rhythms of the meeting help. The meeting is about Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. People are sharing how lonely they are even though they are locked down with a partner 24/7. How angry they are at people who deny that the disease is serious.

When I take the first couple of bites of my burger, that’s when it usually tastes the best. About halfway through I usually remember why I don’t eat McDonalds very often. I’m listening, and really, my burger doesn’t have much taste. The car is stuffy and listening to people talk about how tired they are, I just want to take a nap. I close the app.

Am I sick?

I’m not sick. I mean, the meeting is about being tired. Everyone is worn down. I crawl into the back of my car. Lane is standing on the sidewalk across the street. He waves at me and I give a kind of half wave, then pull the tarp over.

I wake up later and I can’t pretend anymore. I’ve got chills and a nasty headache. Fuck a duck, I can’t deal with this so I carefully turn over in my little crawlspace and try to go back to sleep.

My crawl space is narrower than my pillow so my pillow gets a little wadded up. I can’t get comfortable on it—where it’s flat it feels too hard and where it’s uneven it presses against my forehead and my temple and my head hurts. I twist, and drift…those moments when you’re falling asleep and your thoughts are going in weird directions. I try to think about the potting wheel, about centering the clay and the way that my finger and knuckle hurts when I’m pulling up a big shouldered jug. About the weight of the clay. I think about the pattern of light through bare branches and the guy at the gallery that was interested in my portfolio. About the Friday art walk in downtown LA and the white walls and clean floors of the galleries. About the way the guy had me bring in some pots, and we talked about the way light moves through transparent glazes. I went to dinner with him and he put his hand in the small of my back and steered me to our table and I knew that he felt no compunction about owning me. He was Albanian and he asked me to call him cowboy. I thought about having sex with him anyway. I wanted a break so bad.

I think about how he told me that the gallery had decided to move in a different direction, how ceramics were a secondary art. I went out with him knowing I wasn’t really interested in him, because I wanted him to show my work. I did that and he probably never intended to. I sold out and it makes me sick with shame. I wake with my fist clenched against my chest and my head pounding.

My head hurts so much.

Someone is calling. “Hey! Hey! Are you okay?”

I push aside the tarp so I can see.

It’s Lane. He’s standing on the sidewalk beside my car holding a half-grown stray cat. The pain is in the front and sides of my head and the daylight hurts. My eyes water.

“Hey, are you all right?” Lane asks again. The cat has yellow crude crusted at the edge of one eye.

“I’m sick,” I say.

“What?” he asks.

I almost tell him to go away but my stomach is roiling and I pop open the hatch because I don’t want to throw up where I sleep and I hurl McDonalds into the gutter.

“Wow,” Lane says. “Are you sick?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“I’m gonna get you water,” he says and puts the cat down next to me. I don’t want the cat. But now I have to pet the cat so it doesn’t take off while he’s getting me water.

I take the water. “You should go away,” I say. “Take your cat.”

“I’m immune,” he says.

“You’ve already had it?” I ask.

“I’m not from here.”

First of all, no one is from here. It’s Los Angeles. I mean, people are from here but it feels like everyone I meet is from somewhere else. Second of all, that doesn’t make him immune. I flop back and the cat jumps down but I’ve had enough. “Thanks for the water,” I say.

It’s cold in LA, at least by Los Angeles standards. The first night on the street—well, in my car on the street—was weird. I drove around my block until I found a spot near but not under a streetlight because I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep with that much light. I crawled into the back and made a space between boxes and garbage bags, like a nest, but there were cars going by. I kept hearing people walking. I would close my eyes and I’d think I heard something and I’d have to sit up and check that someone wasn’t scoping out my car.

There’s a learning curve to living rough. I drove around for a while trying to figure out what the best place was. Industrial areas didn’t have much traffic but I felt like I was too obvious, a car parked in an empty row of parking spots. I think it’s a little easier for guys, maybe. I was sleeping in a neighborhood for a couple of weeks, but I had to move every day because people notice if you park outside their house. Or at least I would. I have a dream location which is, like, somewhere in the canyons on a dead end road where I can pull my car off into the bushes or something but I drove Laurel Canyon once and then kind of gave up.

Now I sleep wrapped in a blanket and my comforter, and I make a tent of one of those plastic ground sheets that I used for painting my old apartment. I have my clothes in two boxes, and a bunch of kitchen stuff, and then on the other side I have my other boxes with my food and my toothbrush and towels and, you know, the stuff for everyday life. I put my bedding down between them and then cover it with the plastic over the boxes and it makes a kind of tunnel. No one can see me and it blocks the light.

It’s darker than my bedroom, so I could sleep late if I could sleep. (I don’t ever sleep late because I sleep for shit.) It’s narrow. I have to kind of wake up to turn over. But it’s really not that uncomfortable. I’m thinking that when I can I’ll buy some of that foam that campers use. But honestly, it’s not that bad.

It’s awful. I’ve had the flu and honestly that was pretty bad, but this is so much worse. I wake up at night and I can feel the headache throbbing with my heartbeat. Ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum. Everything hurts, and I have chills and my teeth chatter. I realize one night that I’m going to die. I pee my blankets. I don’t care.

Lane checks on me. I should make him keep his distance but I’m too sick to care. He shows up with a couple of blankets and some wet wipes. Wet wipes are impossible to find these days. He makes me get out of the car and then he hauls some pieces of cardboard over to make a dressing room and makes me take off my peed-in clothes and wipe myself down. I dig out clothes and take the blankets and crawl back in.

There’s a laundry at the corner of Venice and Robertson, a couple of blocks east. He tells me about how he does his laundry there when he brings back my blankets and sheets. “I’ll give you money,” I say. “You should get away from me. I’m contagious.”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “I brought you soup. I told them you were sick at the grocery and they said chicken broth was the best so I brought you organic chicken broth. You should drink it.”

It’s a carton of chicken broth. I drink it and it stays down. It helps that I can’t really taste anything.

“Where’s the cat,” I say.

He shrugs. “I dunno. Wherever she wants to be, I guess.”

“She needs a vet to clear that eye infection.”

He shrugs again. Not his problem. Unlike me.

“You’re going to get sick,” I tell him.

“I can’t,” he says.

“Did you have it already?”

“I’m not from here,” he says.

“The virus doesn’t care where you’re from,” I say. He has an American accent, like Midwest.

“Yeah, but I’m not a human,” he says.

“What are you?” I ask.

He shrugs. “I don’t know how to explain it to you.”

My life is dependent on a crazy guy.

I wake at night and the brother of the bicycle repair guy is in the front seat of my car. Maybe he doesn’t know I’m here. I want him out of my car, but I’m so sick I don’t have the energy to do anything. Maybe he’s tired of his brother and his brother’s wife having sex in the camper while he sleeps in the driver’s seat. Maybe he thought I died and he came here for the privacy. I should be scared but I’m too sick to care.

He’s driving and I can feel the rumble of the wheels on roads. We take curves and my nausea rises and falls, rises and falls, and finally I say, “I’m going to be sick,” and push back the tarp. The car is parked where it always is but it still feels like it’s moving. There’s no one in the front seat. There was never anyone in the front seat. I wonder what my delirium says about me. I throw up water and chicken broth on the sidewalk and feel vaguely guilty.

I get better after a couple of weeks.

I email my eBay customers with apologies. One wants a refund. The other three are nice and one of them buys a little $40 raku piece off my website and sends a note saying, “Glad you’re okay!” I go into the studio to get things ready for the biscuit fire. I’ve texted Linda and she’s waiting for me, sitting at her desk, awkward.

I am shaky and walking from my parked car to the studio has worn me out. I don’t know how I’m going to do any work.

“Oh, honey,” Linda says. She’s wearing her mask.

“I’m not contagious anymore,” I say. I’m wearing my mask even though I don’t think I need to. “I got tested and I’m negative.”

“Oh, of course,” she says. Then she hugs me. Linda is huggy and I don’t mind but this time it feels so good. Linda is soft and squishy, but her arms and hands are strong from throwing. She’s warm and I’m cold all the time. I tear up.

“You should have told me,” Linda says. “I can’t believe you were all alone.”

“This guy from the encampment brought me soup and water. He even did laundry for me.”

“Sit down,” she says. “I brought you lunch.” Linda makes the best hot and sour soup. I can sort of smell it. I’ve been looking on line to see how long it takes for people to get their sense of taste back and of course, it varies. Some people haven’t gotten it back at all. “I know you love spice, but I thought you needed something mild.” It’s something Chinese, vegetables and meat over rice. The texture of cooked meat is weird when I can’t taste it. It is weirdly dry. I’m really aware of it. The vinegar from the hot and sour soup is a spark of smell and flavor. “Oh, Linda, thank you!”

She watches me eat, smiling. The sunlight pours in through the window. I’m so lucky that Lane was there, so lucky for Linda. This will be over, eventually, and I can start teaching again. I’ve been doing ceramics forever, teaching classes, getting by, waiting for my break to really be able to make a living at it. This whole ordeal has been a life lesson. I think it’s time to grow up, to get a job. I can still teach ceramics on the side. I’ll get an apartment, maybe over in Echo Park which is getting really nice. I’ll meet someone, maybe. I don’t want kids, I’ve never wanted them, but it feels as if I’ve been living like a twenty-something for far too long. I’m thirty-six. I can be practical.

Linda makes me sit while she loads the kiln for the first fire of my pieces. She’s got pieces from other people. There are people who throw but use her kiln. It’s a big, beautiful professional kiln. Linda has a knack for firing. Every time you fire something, you place your life in the hands of the kiln gods. You don’t know what can happen. Things crack, break, sometimes explode. On the other hand, sometimes you fire a glaze and what comes out is something unexpected and beautiful.

“Sima,” Linda says. “I have to tell you something.”

There is something to fear in her voice.

“I’m selling the studio,” she says.

I don’t understand here for a moment. But of course. The studio has been closed for almost nine months. She’s still paying rent, utilities. It’s never been super profitable, but it made enough money for her to keep doing it because she loved it.

She’s saying something about talking to Kathy Wilson who will let me use her studio. About moving to Michigan where Rich, her husband, has family.

I am trying to think about what to do. I can do delivery, Uber Eats or Grubhub or something. I haven’t wanted to because my car is seven years old and you put a lot of miles on a car doing delivery. I don’t know what I would do if my car died. Live in a tent next to the grocery?

I’m a marginal person, relying on the kindness of strangers.

“What does that mean?” Lane asks.

I know Lane is mentally ill. He thinks he’s a vampire or something. Not a vampire. I don’t know what he thinks he is. He always just shrugs. He’s odd. Like when he asks me what it means he is looking at me. He doesn’t take his eyes off of me. I couldn’t figure out at first what made me a little uncomfortable around him but that’s it. When you talk to people, they look at you, they glance away, they look thoughtful, or they laugh.

One time I tried just maintaining eye contact with him for as long as he would. It turns out he will maintain eye contact for forever and I started feeling as if I was in a staring contest. There was a study (I read it in Wikipedia) where a psychology researcher had people look at other people in elevators and it turned out to be really stressful. Lane is like that.

“It means that I’m going to have to drive to West Hollywood to use a studio, and I don’t know Kathy that well, although she says she wants me to teach when the pandemic is over.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Lane says.

“Linda is my closest friend,” I say. I feel goddamn tears welling up. “I’ve been sick and I don’t even know if I can throw and now Linda is going to move and,” I do that hiccough thing of a sob. What am I doing? “And I’m homeless and I hate it.”

“It sucks,” Lane says, agreeing. He pets me on the head and that makes me cry more.

“My dad’s dead, my mother is a narcissist and she threw me out and, and, and, I don’t have anyone,” I cry. Waterworks. I can’t stop and pretty soon I can’t talk and I shake and cry forever. Lane sits listening as if this is just part of the conversation.

I cry a long time. There’s a big hole full of cry in me and it takes awhile to empty it out. Afterwards I am spent and I take a nap.

My hips ache and my back aches when I wake up. Since my personal bout of plague I have a lot of aches. When I crawl out of my car cave, I don’t see Lane, so I go to the grocery and buy something to eat.

Lane shows up around dusk. “Hi Sima.”

I pop the hatch and we sit in the back with our feet in the street. I can lean up against a box. My car smells like someone lives in it. I hate that smell, like a bedroom smell. I’m so tired of living in the car, of everything being hard. I want a shower. I want to have a decent place to go to the bathroom without slinking through CVS to their bathrooms. To stop thinking about it, I tell Lane about how when I was feverish I thought that the bicycle repairman’s brother was driving my car.

“Pancho’s okay,” Lane says. “Chuck does meth and Pancho is on parole so he doesn’t. But he’s afraid he’ll get in trouble because of Chuck.”

“Which one is Pancho?” I ask.

“The one you thought was driving your car.”

“I think I’m going to live like this for the rest of my life,” I say, because you can say anything to Lane.

“I like it,” Lane says, “but there’s this place I’ve wanted to see and I couldn’t go but now I can.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I’m going to head there next week.”

“You’re leaving?” I ask. I think, I can’t take this. Linda and Lane? I’d be dead or something if it wasn’t for the two of them and now they’re leaving? “Where are you going? Most places won’t even accept Americans.”

“Oh, no,” he says, “I’m leaving the planet. I mean, it’s cool, really, really cool. I like it because it’s so off the beaten track, you know? Unspoiled. But there’s this place that is incredible. And I know someone who’s heading that way and they can take me.”

“Oh,” I say, because honestly, what else do you say. “I thought you were a vampire or something.”

He laughs. “I don’t think there are vampires.”

“I don’t think there are aliens,” I say. I mean, it’s rude.

“Lots,” he says.

It’s such a weird conversation. “Your English is really good,” I say, to make up for the not believing in aliens.

“Thanks, but I didn’t learn it naturally,” he says. “I cheated.”

I imagine what it would be like if what he was saying was true. That I could pick up and take off. In AA we call that the geographic cure. You think you can solve your problems by going someplace new. I’ve certainly done it. But the problem is, anywhere you go, there you are, and you’re the problem.

But leaving humanity. That’s different.

“Do all aliens look human?” I ask. I don’t know if you’re supposed to agree with whatever delusional beliefs a crazy person has.

“None of them,” Lane says.

“Except you?” I ask.

“I don’t look human,” Lane says serenely.

“You do to me,” I say.

He shrugs. “I know.”

“How come you look human to me?”

“It’s really complicated,” he says. “You know, you see light. But you don’t see, uh, x-rays, or microwave, or gamma waves. I, well, I guess you’d calling it seeing, I see a different set of wavelengths than you do. I don’t even know how to tell you what I look like because it’s like describing colors you don’t see.”

“But why do I see you as human?”

He sighs. “Because we only see a little bit of things, because reality isn’t very useful. They do something to reality so you perceive me as human.”

“They?” I like this. It sounds fun and smart.

“I don’t…you could say I’m not a very technical person. I mean, do you know how your phone works?”

I haven’t a clue how my phone works.

“Could I go with you?” I ask.

He looks surprised. “Ah…no. No. That’s a bad idea.”

“How come? Because I’m primitive?”

He shakes his head. “No, it’s just, it doesn’t work out well. A lot of the time. You belong here, and there are all these things like, I don’t know, protein structure you need and shit. I don’t know how to explain it.”

“Could you take the cat?” I ask.

“What? No. It’s the same thing.”

“So, no pets traveling the galaxy.”

He nods. “Yeah, that’s a good way to think of it.”

I don’t expect Lane to leave. I expect he’ll just say that something happened and the other alien couldn’t or that he changed his mind. I’ve pretty much forgotten about it when Randy shows up. Randy is a big white guy with a beard and lots of red hair. He looks like he could be a wrestler or something. When I first see him, he’s in the parking lot of the grocery store talking to Lane and Lane is practically levitating.

Lane is so…even. But now he’s on his tiptoes, gesturing above his head as he talks. He looks bizarre with his arms waving around. Randy has his head tilted way back, staring at the sky.

“Sima!” Lane calls. He introduces me to Randy. “Randy is giving me a lift!” he says.

“Who are you?” Randy asks.

“I’m Lane’s pet,” I say. “Like a cat.”

Lane smiles. I realize he doesn’t really laugh.

“I wish I could go with you.”

“It’s a bad idea,” Lane says.

“You want some In-N-Out before you take off for other dimensions?” I ask Randy. In-N-Out is a cult in California. Like, people are insane about the burgers.

“It’s not another dimension,” Randy says. “They’re all curled.”

I have absolutely no idea what he means.

We get In-N-Out. I haven’t had a burger since I threw up my McDonalds and I’m a philistine who prefers McDonalds to In-N-Out, blasphemy in LA. (In-N-Out has limp fries.) But In-N-Out has the best milkshakes. I tell Randy about the secret menu. He’s never had In-N-Out. He’s a big guy so I suggest a 3 x 3 which is just a hamburger with three patties. We eat at the picnic table by the grocery. It’s under a big overhang so it’s in the shade.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“It’s hard to explain,” he says. He stares up almost the entire time except when he eats. What is with these guys.

“I’m worried about you,” Lane says. “What’s going to happen to you?”

I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve been up to talk to Kathy Wilson and she’s not ready to give me a key to her studio, of course. So if I want to work, I have to let her know and make arrangements. It’s not as nice as Linda’s. It’s a store front in a strip mall so it’s dark .

I still get short of breath when I do stuff. I tried throwing a bowl and got worn out fast. Kathy says she’ll let me know when she’s doing a kiln firing, but Linda and I used to plan that together.

It seems like things are closing off.

I tell myself that in a year, they’ll have a vaccine and this will all be over and I’ll be back to life like before, but I’m thirty-six and I have no health care. Who would even hire me?

I shrug, just like Lane does when he asks me a question.

He looks mournful.

“This guy,” Randy says, staring at the ceiling. “He always tells the locals. I never say anything.”

“I don’t like to pretend,” Lane says.

“How many places have you been to? Have you been to —–?”

Randy said something but I couldn’t tell you what he said. I mean, it was like there was space for a word but there wasn’t really a word. But there was something like a word.

“Yeah,” Lane says.

“I’ve always wanted to go there.”

“It’s okay. Over-hyped.”

I shudder. A goose walked over your grave, I think. It’s a saying for when you get that weird feeling.

Randy stares at the ceiling and Lane looks a little sad. Lane does that thing he does with his mouth, the goldfish thing. I realize I haven’t seen him do that in awhile.

He sees me staring, “Yes?”

I mimic him, doing the goldfish thing with my mouth.

Lane looks embarrassed. “I try not to do that.”

“It’s okay,” I say.

“It’s a presentation artifact,” he says. “It’s because of something we do naturally. I try not to do it.”

“Are you a fish?” I’m hanging on to my understanding of things. Lane is mentally disturbed. Randy is his weird mentally disturbed friend.

“Sort of,” Randy says. “Not really. He kind of swims in gravitational waves.”

Lane looks at Randy.

“You told her that you’re an alien,” Randy says.

“That’s not true, what you said. I’m not a fish.”

Randy, god damn him, shrugs.

Lane digs out his wallet. “Here.” He gives me seven twenties and a bunch of smaller bills.

“You’ll need this,” I say.

He shakes his head. “Not anymore.”

“But while you’re driving to the spaceport or whatever.” I am still clinging to the notion that they are going to get in Randy’s car and, I dunno, drive to Vegas or something and Lane will be homeless there. Maybe he’ll come back in a few weeks.

He pushes the money at me.

Randy stares up.

After a moment I take the money. Maybe I can stay the night in a hotel. Take a shower.

God I want a drink. Get into a clean bed, drink bourbon, watch television. It sounds like heaven. My eyes well up. Since I’ve been sick it’s like a dam broke and I cry at the drop of a hat.

“You shouldn’t have pets,” Randy says to Lane.

“We just break your heart,” I say.

“You want to take her, I don’t care,” Randy says.

“What would I do with her?” Lane asks.

Randy shrugs.

We finish our milkshakes and I walk with Lane and Randy to Randy’s car. It’s just a normal car, a silver Honda. “Is it a spaceship?” I ask.

“It’s an Accord,” Randy says.

“How do you leave?” I ask.

Lane looks at me, shrugs, and opens his mouth but I cut him off.

“Don’t tell me, it’s hard to explain.”

I hug Lane and it’s the first time I’ve done anything like that. He feels like a normal person. Skin and muscle and bone. Warm, normal.

“Come back and get me if you change your mind,” I tell him. “What do you want to do with your stuff?”

“I gave it to Lois,” he says.

Lois is a tent person.

Leaving is always awkward, right? Randy and Lane get in and I wave and they drive off. I remind myself that people who are mentally ill are more likely to be homeless because safety net, stigma, yadda yadda. I watch the car sitting to turn onto Venice Blvd. It’s going to turn right and head towards the ocean.

The car does a U-Turn and comes back.

“Sima?” Lane calls. “Get in.” He reaches back and opens the back door.

It’s just a car.

Part of me is pretty sure I’ll be sleeping in my own car again tonight. A tiny part of me is worried that I’m going to end up in the Pacific Ocean. But there is something that says to me this is true. This is a moment.

I get into the car.

What happens next is impossible to explain.

 

(Editors’ Note: “The Goldfish Man” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 45A.)

Boundless

“T, wake up.”

Anna? Terumi reaches across the empty bed seeking Anna’s warm presence.

The voice again, unmistakably clear. “I’m sorry I’m missing our anniversary. It is our anniversary, right?”

Baxter the terrier, nestled against her legs, jerks to alertness. The old basset hound Ringo pushes the bedroom door open with his nose. Both dogs catapult down the stairs.

Terumi switches on the bedside lamp. But this is impossible, she thinks, it must be a dream. Her late wife’s photo smiles at her from the dresser, framed by two unlit candles.

“T, you can hear me, right?” Anna’s voice is still clear, but fading now, like the volume on a headset being turned down. “It’s the weirdest thing, I—” The rest of the sentence fades into silence.

“Anna?” Terumi follows the dogs downstairs, where they race from room to room, searching for their human. The house is empty. “Is it really you?” She opens the front door. The dogs fling themselves into the front yard. Baxter whines at the gate.

There’s nothing.

She can’t go back to bed. She brews a cup of green tea. She lights the candles and a stick of incense and stares at the photo of Anna. She pulls a chair to the window, wraps herself in a blanket, and gazes out into the starless night.

Ringo lies at her feet, and Baxter jumps into her lap. She strokes his silky ears as he snores against her belly.

The call came eight months ago, the one all astronauts’ spouses dread. There’s an informal confederacy among those who are left behind. Everyone knows someone who’s had the call.

In Terumi’s case, the director herself broke the news. She’d been fond of Anna, too. “I’m so sorry, Terumi. The team lost contact with her seventy-two hours ago.”

Terumi’s voice was lost inside the hollowness of her chest.

“She left the habitat on a routine patrol. The vehicle was found empty, her tracker stopped transmitting. She’s missing.” The director sighed. “The team’s done what they can, but they can’t expend the resources to keep searching. I’m sorry.”

Terumi didn’t say, you knew for seventy-two hours and you didn’t tell me?

She didn’t say, she can’t be gone. She promised she’d be back. I promised to wait for her. What am I supposed to do now?

She said, “Thank you.” She listened to the expressions of grief. She hung up and took the dogs out for a walk that lasted three hours. The dogs’ tongues were lolling with exhaustion when they finally came home.

Terumi sits at the kitchen table the morning after she heard Anna’s voice the first time. The tulips she’d bought yesterday nodded at her. She doesn’t care for tulips but Anna loved them. Loves them? “Happy anniversary,” she says. The words bounce around in the house aimlessly.

Baxter pads up and scrambles into her lap. He’s a sensitive dog. When she and Anna used to fight, he’d hide in his kennel, cowering from their raised voices. Anna deflected arguments by pointing it out: “We’re scaring Baxter, baby. Let’s stop.”

Baxter sighs gently, reminding her that he needs to be petted. She scratches behind his ears and kisses his nose. “Do you think it was her?”

His eyes are wide and curious.

“You heard it too,” she says, scratching his head, although she’s not sure she believes it. “I know you did. Good boy.”

“Can you pick up the dogs from day care tomorrow?” Terumi asked one evening, months before Anna’s mission started.

Anna was scrubbing out the stock pot. “Can’t Harley do it?” Harley, the dog-sitter.

“Harley’s out of town.” As I told you last week, she almost added, but decided not to.

“Well, I don’t know when I can leave work.”

Terumi paused. “I hardly ever ask you to get the dogs. Can you get them just this once? I was going to see a movie with Cass.”

“Leave them overnight, then.”

It was a logical suggestion, but the casual tone of it threw her. Leave Baxter and Ringo overnight at doggy day care? Because Anna couldn’t be bothered to get there before eight? Terumi banged the forks into the dishwasher harder than necessary.

“Hey,” Anna said playfully. “Talk to me instead of taking it out on the cutlery.”

She wasn’t in the mood to let Anna diffuse her resentment. “We both wanted the dogs, but it feels like I’m the only one who looks after them.”

Baxter crawled into his kennel. Ringo merely sighed from his spot under the table.

“It’s just one night. They don’t mind it there, and we can afford it, right?”

“That’s not the point. You avoid the responsibilities of this life, this life I thought we’d both chosen, having dogs and a house and a wife. You’d rather be out there, out in space. Or in the training room. Or at the gym. You’d rather be anywhere than here at home with me and the dogs.” Terumi was crying now, big fat tears rolling down her face, her cheeks heated with rage and sadness and helplessness.

“Aw, babe, I’m sorry. It’s just this week, I swear.” Anna reached out for Terumi. Terumi turned away.

Anna sighed. “This isn’t about choosing between you and the dogs on one hand, and space on the other.”

Isn’t it? Terumi wanted to say. She gripped the dishtowel in helpless despair. “Don’t make promises you know you’ll have to break, then.”

“I’m sleeping on the couch tonight,” Anna muttered.

The dogs, after pacing with anxiety, elected to sleep with Terumi although around midnight Baxter got up and went downstairs. Terumi lay on her back. She wanted to follow Baxter downstairs and fling herself on Anna. I love you, let’s not fight, I love you, stay with me. Maybe Anna couldn’t sleep, either. She must want her to come down. She was waiting for her.

Terumi got up. Ringo snorted and shifted his bulk. She leaned over the bannister. Anna breathed easily, deeply. Terumi hesitated.

Anna’s voice reached her through the darkness. “T? Hey, babe.”

Liquid warmth rippled through her limbs, relief and love and regret. “Please come back to bed.”

Anna did, and held her. “I can’t help it,” she murmured against Terumi’s hair. “I have to go.”

Terumi turned her head to kiss Anna’s ears and cheekbones.

Her sister calls her on Saturday morning, as usual. “Why don’t you take time off? Come out to Boulder and stay with us. The kids would love to see you. Bring the dogs.”

“I heard her voice.” Terumi leans her elbows on the kitchen table. The tulips are dying, their yellowing heads hanging from rotting stalks.

“That happens. You’re grieving.”

“The dogs heard it, too.”

There’s a short silence. She can imagine Reiko running a hand through her hair, wondering what to say. “Should I come out there? Scott can manage without me for a week.”

“What if it’s true? What if she’s still alive? What should I do?”

“T, it’s not possible.”

Do we know that for sure? Terumi wanted to say. “Thanks for calling, Rei. I’ve got to go.”

When Anna was offered a place on the mission, Terumi had been shocked and furious that Anna was planning to accept it.

“But it’s six years,” Terumi said, putting down her fork. “I’ll be forty-eight when you return. You’ll be fifty. Ringo will be dead by then.”

Ringo heard his name and twitched an ear but didn’t get up from the floor.

Anna poured more wine into both glasses. “It’s an unprecedented opportunity, Terumi. You understand—you’re an explorer too.”

“We both retired from active service. That was the deal.”

“I know, baby.” Anna’s hand held hers, warm and solid. “But this mission will be the first attempt the build a habitat on Mars! It’s what we’ve both dreamed about.”

“I can’t believe you’re considering this.” Her voice cracked. “We made a promise. We both agreed to retire from field missions.”

“Baby, we’re building a new world on another planet. I have to go. Can you understand that? Please.” Anna’s face was open, loving, pleading. Asking her to give her permission.

Terumi trembled from the effort to contain her tears. Anna would rather hurtle into the unknown than wake up next to her wife in a warm bed, surrounded by their loving dogs. “We don’t know what happens to the human body in space for so long,” Terumi said. This was her expertise, after all– a very narrow field of medical data, an emerging science: what happens to the human body in non-terrestrial environments. “You could be permanently changed.”

“It’ll be okay, I promise. I’m coming back to you, safe and sound.”

You can’t promise that! Terumi thought, but she was too choked up to form words.

“T,” Anna said, pointing. Baxter had retreated into the depths of his kennel, back hunched, ears pressed against his skull, his wide eyes darting back and forth between their faces.

“If you go,” Terumi said, “I might not be here when you come back.”

Anna looked at her with such tenderness, such faith. They both knew Terumi was lying.

Terumi gets ready for bed. She lights incense in front of the photo. She doesn’t know how to pray, but she can talk to Anna. “I miss you. I don’t know what to do.”

She gets into bed, and the dogs nestle against her. Ringo’s heavy head presses on her shoulder; Baxter is under the covers, his back legs stretched out to the pillow, his snout snugged against her ribs. They don’t know what’s wrong but they sense, with their gentle canine intuition, that she needs them close.

Ringo lifts his head and snuffs the air. Out on the street, a car drives past and slows in front of the house. Baxter leaps out of the covers, vibrating with attention, staring at the window. He does this every time he hears what he thinks is Anna’s car.

“The dogs believe you’re coming back,” she says. “I don’t know if I do.” She closes her eyes as if she can conjure Anna, standing in the room. But no, that’s wrong; Anna never stood still. Anna would be moving, getting ready for bed: closing the curtains and putting away the clothes draped on the dresser, planning a weekend trip to the lake, playfully jumping on the bed to kiss and nuzzle her. It’s so vivid Terumi can almost smell her, the scent of her hair fragrant with the coconut oil pomade she used, the rose oil body lotion, the deodorant. “I’m here, I’ll always be here. I love you.”

Anna’s voice, suddenly out of the dark, as if she’s materialized right beside the bed: “I know, T. I love you, too.”

Baxter’s ears spring up like a rabbit’s, two parallel lines pointing at the sky. Ringo barks and clambers to his feet on the bed, tail waving uncertainly.

Terumi sits up. “Are you alive?”

“Sort of.” Her voice seems to come from the walls. From inside the room, from outside, from the stars, from everywhere. “The theory of the consciousness of the universe—” The voice ends as if it’s abruptly switched off, like a recording.

“Anna! Where are you?”

Just as suddenly, it’s back: “—so T, listen, you can’t come look for me, all right? Promise me—” Pause.

“What should I do?”

“—look after the house, the dogs, I’ll—”

Silence.

She flings open the windows and screams into the night. “Anna! Anna!”

Terumi met Anna during the spaceflight training program. Terumi, freshly armed with her bioinformatics PhD, was dazzled by the sexy pilot who’d logged over 1200 flight hours in the Navy. She had swagger and style, her hair cropped short to show off the perfect planes of her face. Terumi was shocked and ecstatic when Anna asked her to lunch.

Anna had a wicked sense of humor and an optimism that overcame Terumi’s uncertainty. “We’ll figure it out” was her confident phrase. Terumi soon adopted it, applying that to every problem she encountered. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll find a way.”

They served together on the historic first crewed mission to Mars. Two years in space—the longest any human had ever been off Earth. They survived because they had each other. When they returned home heroes, Anna proposed, and they married six months later in the spring, with tulips and anemones in full bloom.

“I do,” they said to each other. Which meant, “I promise.”

Another anniversary. Terumi brings home a bouquet of tulips mixed with anemones. She makes tea and eats her lunch at the table facing the glorious explosion of spring blooms. Anna’s voice has never reached her as clearly as that night a year ago, although Terumi hears whispers sometimes, and once, a distant voice singing Anna’s favorite song.

“Am I supposed to just sit here?” she says. Her soup has lost its savor. Baxter whines. “Anna, am I supposed to just wait for you?”

She’s been studying. Reading up on the fringe theories of quantum mechanics, of multiverses, of the idea that the universe has a consciousness. She’s reviewed all the data she’d collected from her past missions, reread all her own research papers, searching for clues. She’s explored esoteric Taoist and Buddhist practices of sending one’s spirit out, astral projection. She’s even tried it herself, although nothing’s happened. Yet.

“I have to do something,” she says. She jumps to her feet. Baxter, alarmed, circles around her legs.

The next day she’s in the director’s office, listening, again, to the same hollow explanation: how they’d failed to find any sign of Anna. She’d gone out on a routine patrol. The team lost contact with her. When they went to go look for her, the vehicle was empty. The cameras revealed nothing. She was just gone.

The director looks at her with such compassion that Terumi can’t stand it.

“She has to be somewhere. You never found her body.”

“Space is a big place.”

Terumi snaps at her. “Don’t patronize me. I went through the same program you did. There are multiple possibilities. Multiverse theory. Or panpsychism. The universe has a consciousness.” She takes a breath. “I heard her voice. We had a conversation.”

“There’s no evidence,” the director says gently. “Even if I believed you.”

“What if quantum mechanics can actually explain that consciousness is everywhere, and we can learn to traverse it to communicate?” She lays out her theory, the one she’s been working on for a year. “I need to be out there to continue my research.”

“It’s not rational. I know how hard it is to lose someone. We don’t want to let go.”

“I’m putting in a formal request to reactivate my status. The next mission leaves in two years, right?” She’s checked.

“You’re not psychologically equipped. I can’t let you risk your life when you’re—”

“You let Anna risk hers, though.”

The director says nothing.

Terumi says, “I have two years to train. I’ll pass every test you give me.”

“You’ll have to be in peak physical and psychological condition.”

“I’ll be ready.” She’s stunned. “You need me. No one else has as much experience as I do in extraterrestrial medicine.” She hadn’t anticipated capitulation. She lets nothing show on her face but determination.

Anna blazed through the night sky, a comet. The evenstar. The voyager, sailing forth to seek and find. Anna had always been an explorer, down to her bones. Terumi loved that about her.

Several months later, Reiko calls.  “How are you holding up? Are you seeing friends?”

“I don’t have time.”

“It’s been nearly three years, T. You have to accept that she’s gone.”

How to tell her? It’s best, she decides, to just lay it out. “I’m going on the next Mars mission.”

A long pause. “What the hell, T.”

“It’s what I was trained for.”

“But not at your age. Isn’t it dangerous? You didn’t want Anna to go for the same reason!”

“Could you take the dogs?”

“Jesus. For how long?”

“Six years.”

Reiko says many things, nothing that Terumi hasn’t already told herself. Then her voice gets quiet as if she’s exhausted herself. “You have other people who love you, you know.” Terumi can tell that Reiko’s about to cry. “You have your nephews. Me. Cass. Ringo and Baxter! They won’t understand why you left them. They won’t know you’re coming back.”

Somehow that’s the most heartbreaking thing of all, that the dogs might think she’d abandoned them. But she has to trust in their unconditional hope. “They’re dogs. They’ll adapt.”

Her sister draws in a long breath. “Of course I’ll take care of them. Damn it, T. Are you sure you want to do this?”

No. Yes. What else could she do? “Thanks, Rei. I love you.”

Long before she met Anna, before she was even aware of it, she’d made a promise to herself. She would be the kind of person other people could count on. She would be dependable. The person who’d always return a call, get the job done, finish the project.

It seemed clear at the time, what it meant to be that person.

She passes all her physicals. To her astonishment, she passes her psychological tests too. The director takes her aside, assuring her she can still drop out if she wanted, that they have alternates trained and ready.

The director means well, and Terumi thanks her.

She’s made her will, leaving everything to Reiko, just in case. She’s packed up the house, found renters. Cass, who lives nearby, agreed to manage the property. Harley will come by later to dogsit until Reiko arrives to take the dogs to Boulder. Terumi has left money in a bank account to cover vet bills, food, and the like. It’s upsetting, the burden left behind on people who loved her, but she knows the dogs will be happy with Reiko and the kids and the big back yard with hiking trails nearby.

She makes coffee, and takes them out at dawn for one last run. They jog along the beach. Ringo is thirteen now, ancient for a basset hound. His stride is ragged and he breathes in gasps.

They stop at a water fountain and Terumi lets the water run so Ringo and Baxter can drink. “Reiko’s coming,” she says. “She’ll take you to Colorado. You’ll like it there.”

Ringo slurps noisily. When he dies, will his soul race across the sky, through the stars, straight to Anna? The dead aren’t bound by physics, time, or space. She kneels and whispers into his floppy ears. “Good-bye, Ringo. When you see her, tell her I’m coming. I’ll bring her home.”

Baxter whines, his eyes fixed on hers. What’s wrong, he seems to ask. What’s happening? She opens her arms, and he jumps into her lap, kissing her tear-streaked face, leaving sandy paw prints on her legs. “I love you.” She presses her nose into his warm, solid skull. He still smells like a puppy. “I’ll be back, I promise. Wait for me.” He wags his tail. “I’m counting on you, buddy.”

She stands, brushing the sand off her leggings, and looks out to the ocean. The shimmer of blue on azure stretched into an infinite morning.

 

(Editors’ Note: Miyuki Jane Pinckard is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

The House Snakes

for Nyani Martin

 

You knew our strength,

we were the maze’s clew

coiling in your goddess’ fists,

the sidewinding horns of the bull

tossing dancers through copper-blue infinity.

Son of serpent-footed kings,

he should have twined his wrists

with yours, not left them

for the wild grape and the ivy

to lasso into immortality,

however better-starred

than the black sails of his father

or the red reins of his son.

Let him try the earth again,

we will be waiting

in the cracks of palace walls,

the roots of dry olives.

When your crown dips to meet

his sire’s ocean,

under it our earth will always shake,

our restless scales unfurling to enfold

your arms of wine-dark honey as you come home.

 

(Editors’ Note: “The House Snakes” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 44A.)

The Night Dance

They told us we were princesses, and we believed them.

At least, I believed them. I think most of the others did, too. Except Kenna, perhaps; she had her suspicions. But Kenna was suspicious of everything, always. It made her tiring to talk to.

To be fair, we did live in a castle. And we had servant women who attended to us, and fine gowns made of luxurious fabrics, and we ate goose and mutton pie on a long table arrayed with silver plates. We used to gather on the eastern battlements to look down at the brown, busy village and revel in the fact that we had escaped from it.

None of us really knew what our lives in the village would have been like. But it was fair to say that prosperous people with sufficient food probably didn’t leave their babies on castle doorsteps.

We were glad to have been left. We had easy days and magical nights, plentiful food and garments of silk. And we had each other.

The only rigor in our lives was our daily dancing lesson. We were taught by one of the old women who served us, a bone-thin taskmaster whose wrinkles creased her face like the furrows of the sea. But her arms and legs were strong, and she taught us well. Though it was only natural, I suppose, that she lavished her greatest attention on those of us who showed talent: Beatrice, who floated across the ballroom floor like a dream, and Gittel, who could leap so high she seemed suspended in mid-air.

I never managed either grace or power. All those years of daily lessons gave me only basic competency, and barely that. But that only mattered during lessons, when the sun streamed in through the high narrow windows and tried to warm the wooden ballroom floor. At night, under the stars, I didn’t care about the position of my feet or about moving my arms in sync with everyone else’s. I cared only about the ecstasy of the dance.

Our partners didn’t care, either. They danced across from us, all grace and beauty, never breaking formation even when the wild swell of the music made it impossible for me and my sisters to restrain ourselves. They rarely smiled, and when one did, it was thrilling and terrifying. We could never tell what made them smile.

“It was that double leap Amelie did, for certain,” one of us would say, as the boats brought us back to the castle’s shore. Or, “It was Gittel’s new dress, the way the layers fluttered out and looked like waves.” Or, “It was when you turned too fast, Mira, and almost bumped into Fiona. Come on, you have to admit it was funny!”

I did not have to admit any such thing. I pressed my lips together and watched the stone walls of the castle get closer, the water parting silkily before my boat.

I can hear us now, the giggles that floated across the black water, obscuring the dying strains of music from the island. As we approached the castle, we dropped our worn-out shoes overboard, and somehow, the sight of them plopping into the dark water was hilarious. By the time we filed up the castle stairs and collapsed into our high, pillow-strewn beds, our heads ached from laughter as much as our feet hurt from dancing.

We never spoke of the dances the next morning. Maybe we were too tired. Maybe we were wary of being overheard—we honestly thought it was our secret.

Or maybe we were simply afraid that if we brought the dances into the light, they would go away. That the next night we would descend the narrow stairway and find no boats waiting for us, no island in the distance, no music and no partners and no dancing at all.

He told us he was a prince, but none of us believed that.

He arrived dressed like a commoner—for disguise while traveling, he claimed. We watched from the battlements as he approached, not particularly curious. It happened from time to time, a man coming to save us.

We called him Your Highness, to be polite, and invited him in for dinner. The servant women sat him next to me, which was a surprise. Usually it was Amelie’s job to flirt with our rescuers and make sure they didn’t notice the sleep dust we sprinkled into their wine. Amelie was the most beautiful of us, so it was her burden.

But tonight Amelie was seated all the way at one end of the table, and the prince and I were placed all the way at the other.

He had changed into finer clothes, silk and velvet, and he cut a fine figure in them; but he was not as suave as the rescuers usually were. He was, in fact, visibly nervous, which was probably why he had been put near me. Amelie would have intimidated him so much that he likely wouldn’t have managed to eat—or, more importantly, drink—anything.

I was nervous too, but determined to put on a good show. If I didn’t, my sisters would never let me hear the end of it. So I fluttered my eyelashes as I dipped my spoon into my soup. “What brings you to our castle, Your Highness?” I said.

Deirdra snickered. I shot her a glare and went on. “We do not get many visitors, being as out of the way as we are. And it is nice to have the company of a fine man like yourself.”

Our rescuer flushed and took another drink of his wine. Which was all that mattered, really.

“No, it’s not all that matters,” Estelle said that evening as we tied on our dancing shoes. “Don’t you think there’s some value in not embarrassing yourself?”

“In front of whom?” I snorted. “A supposed prince who’s probably a—a shoemaker’s apprentice or something? I’d be embarrassed to actually care about his opinion.”

“Enough,” Amelie said. She had been irritable all evening, her mouth set in a scowl so deep that fine lines radiated from it. “We’re late. Let’s go.”

We filed out of our room and down the stairs to the back entrance of the castle. There, on a small rocky outcropping, twelve boats bobbed on the sea. The music from the island was already audible, a faint, melodic whisper on the wind. We were late.

Our boats glided over the water, and the music grew louder as we got closer, thrumming under our skin and coiling through our blood. When we reached the island, we leapt out of the boats. Iona tripped on the hem of her gown, and I took her hand and tugged her to her feet.

The trails were familiar to us, well-trodden by the soft soles of our dancing shoes. The trees glittered around and above us, the branches hanging low and heavy with the weight of their diamond leaves. The music called us, and we didn’t stop running until we emerged from the woods into a large marble clearing lit by starlight. We leapt onto the floor where our fae partners awaited us, and without stopping to catch our breaths, we began to dance.

We danced and we danced. The moon rose and arced across the black sky, and the night air grew cooler against our flushed, sweaty skin. The marble floor was vast and spacious, the music came from everywhere and nowhere, and the air smelled like snow even though it was early summer. There was only us and our partners, with their inhuman beauty and stark, angular faces, their pointed ears and amber eyes. They never spoke, but their gazes and their movements and the music told us that we were young and beautiful and would be forever.

We danced until dawn stained the sky pink and the music began to fade. Then, reluctantly, we filed back down the trails between trees that glittered less sharply in the growing daylight. The way back was always longer and harder, as the music ebbed from our blood and left weariness behind. Fiona, as always, fell asleep in her boat, and we had to haul her out by her armpits and dump her into bed still dressed in her ball gown.

The rest of us barely managed to strip off our fancy clothes before collapsing into our beds, to sleep away as much of the day as we would be allowed to.

Normally we were allowed to sleep away most of it. We usually started our day with a late midday meal, then our dancing lesson. After that, we embroidered if we felt like it, or played games if we didn’t…cards or chess or ball, anything to while away the hours before we could eat dinner and pretend to go to bed.

What we were really doing was waiting, time creeping heavy and sluggish around us, slowing our heartbeats and dulling our thoughts. The only thing that made the waiting bearable was the same thing that made it torture: our yearning for what the night would bring.

But the presence of a rescuer meant we had to wake at a decent hour and spend the day pretending to be ordinary, industrious princesses: embroidering and studying and such. In this case it meant I had to spend the day entertaining him, even though I was tired and irritable and in no mood to talk to anyone.

Though by the time Amelie finished instructing me on how to talk to him, which mainly involved criticizing all the things she was already sure I would do wrong, I rather thought spending time with a pretend prince would be an improvement.

“What’s put you in such a foul mood, anyhow?” I snapped. Amelie and I had always been close; she had, until now, reserved her sharp tongue for the others. I hadn’t realized how deeply it sliced. “You claim to hate dealing with our rescuers. Are you really out of sorts because this one won’t look at you all moon-eyed?”

“You’re so stupid, Mira!” She brushed her black curls away from her face. “Don’t you understand? Why do you think he was given to you and not to me?” Her face twisted, and I realized she was trying not to cry. My anger drained away in an instant. “It’s because they’re training you! They’re training you to take over once I’m gone!”

She turned and rushed through the door. On the way, she nearly collided with one of our serving women, who had come to bring me lotion for my hair. Amelie made a strangled sound and tried to push past her, but the woman grabbed my sister’s wrist and held her.

A shock went through me. Nobody held us still. Nobody.

The woman twisted Amelie’s wrist and bent to examine the back of her hand. She looked up at my sister’s face, eyes sharp and black, almost hidden in the wrinkled folds of her skin.

Amelie pulled free, so violently that she staggered back into the doorpost.

“It’s nothing,” she said fiercely. “My skin is dry. That’s all.”

The serving woman smiled, toothlessly and sadly.

“It comes suddenly,” she said, “when it comes. When they’re done with you. That’s how it was for all of us.”

Amelie whirled and ran, and the serving woman turned and went after her, taking my hair-lotion with her.

So I went to meet him without anything to smooth down my hair, which escaped from my braids in wiry, scraggly bits. I took a roundabout route to the dining hall to avoid my sisters. I didn’t really care what our rescuer thought of my hair, but I was in no mood to endure their teasing.

He was already done dining, and I was too tired to be hungry. I searched for him a short while before finding him in the ballroom where we had our dancing lessons. He stood leaning against one of the wide white pillars, his feet turned out as if he was about to glide across the scratched wooden floor.

When he turned to greet me, something about the way he moved made me catch my breath. I half-expected to see inhuman eyes, wide and amber, and ears stretched into points. But it was only an ordinary human face, brown eyes and tanned skin and a square-ish jaw.

“Princess Mira,” he said. “Do you dance?”

I laughed. “Come now…” It took me a moment to remember his name… “Prince Peren. You know the answer to that. You’ve heard stories about us, surely.”

The startled look on his face delighted me. If I had truly been as bold as I was pretending, I would have stepped closer to him. Instead I stood where I was, enjoying the sharpness of his gaze. “Which of the tales brought you here?”

He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “They told me you were cursed.”

“Do you believe that?”

He regarded me for a moment, then stepped back and held out his hand.

“Shall we?” he said.

It took me a second to realize what he meant. Then I smiled back, and held my smile when he kissed the back of my hand before letting it go.

He began to dance.

He danced with a fluid, powerful grace that far surpassed anything any of us had ever achieved. I didn’t mind—I was used to dancing opposite a superior partner—and we stepped around and past each other, graceful and light. It was a new, heady feeling to dance with someone who watched my face as we moved, who followed my cues, who smiled back at me with delight.

But there was also something muted about this dance, something missing. As if we were aping joy rather than truly feeling it.

Peren didn’t notice—or maybe he was just better at pretense than I was. When we finally came to a stop, he bowed to me, and I saw that he hadn’t even broken a sweat.

“How is it,” I said, “that you know how to dance so well?”

“I used to be one of the king’s dancers. You have heard of us?”

“I’m afraid not,” I said. “We are far from the capital.”

He slid backward and stepped sideways, an achingly graceful motion. Even Beatrice, the best dancer of us all, could not move like that.

Used to be,” I repeated. “Are you not one of the king’s dancers anymore?”

He looked away. “I was injured. The dances we perform for the king are strenuous; the court requires spectacle. The older we get…” He lifted his shoulders… “The harder it becomes for our bones and muscles to knit back together. I am perfectly healthy by most standards, but too old and too damaged to dance for the king.”

I thought of what it would feel like to have my own dancing taken from me—to be told that my body was no longer acceptable.

“Do you miss it?” I asked.

He answered in a voice scraped raw. “I miss it more than anything.”

A sharp, confused panic welled up in me.

“I am sorry,” I murmured. And then, ignoring all of Amelie’s coaching, I turned and fled.

There had been a time—just a day ago, in fact—when my first instinct would have been to tell my sisters everything. But Amelie was still in a foul temper that evening, and chose to release her bad mood by criticizing my behavior at dinner. I should not have leaned so close to him. I should not have laughed at his jests. I should not have blushed when he complimented me.

“It only encourages him,” she snapped, “and it will be longer before we’re rid of him.” She was peering at one of our mirrors, not even looking at me, busy plucking stray hairs from her hairline. “Though perhaps that’s what you want?”

My cheeks flamed. “I’m sorry for not being as practiced at this as you are. I haven’t already led dozens of men to their deaths.”

The room was suddenly and absolutely silent. Amelie’s skin was too dark to blush, but her eyes narrowed, and everyone else looked away.

No one ever told us what happened to the men who tried and failed to rescue us. We never asked, so they had no need to lie to us—or to tell us the truth. The rescuers came, they slept a drugged sleep for two or three nights, and then one day they and their intrusive questions and their uncomfortable presence were gone.

It was possible, if we didn’t think about it too hard, to assume they had just given up and gone home. So my accusation was merely a guess, until I saw Amelie’s reaction to it.

“We shouldn’t,” I said. My voice was very small. “Not with this one. There’s something different about him.” I hesitated, on the verge of telling them what I had learned.

“Of course there is,” Amelie said. “It’s that he’s talking to you.”

My sisters all tittered. Then Deirdra turned impatiently to the steps, and Hattie went after her, and all twelve of us flew down to the waiting water without another word passing between us.

During that night’s dance, Amelie stumbled.

She righted herself immediately, twirling to the music and clapping to the beat. But her face, in that moment, looked as if she had fallen over the side of a cliff.

She danced flawlessly for the rest of the night, and the joy coiling around us made the dance whole and perfect again, as if nothing untoward had happened. But when we wound our way down the trail, her face was grim and set, all her joy left behind on the marble dance floor.

And when she got into her boat, it refused to move.

The rest of us were already floating away, gliding along the pink and golden path that the rising sun cut through the sea. We turned and stared at her in horror. The boats had no oars; we didn’t know how to move them on our own. Or how to stop them.

“Amelie!” I cried, and heard my sisters’ wails echoing me, fragmented by the wind and the ripples: Amelie! Amelie!

I scrambled to the back of my boat to get closer to her. The boat rocked from side to side so wildly that I feared it would capsize.

“Fine!” Amelie cried. Her carefully constructed braids had come loose, and dark curls hung about her face, shiny with sweat. “Have them back!”

She flung out her hand, and a dozen diamond leaves clattered onto the rocky beach.

Once her boat began moving, it caught up swiftly with the rest, and we all pulled up to the castle together. Amelie sat ramrod stiff, her hands clenched tightly in her lap.

Deirdra watched her with troubled eyes, and Gittel’s chin trembled. But no one said a word.

I waited with Amelie while the others stumbled up the stairs. I was a little scared of her in that moment, but I made myself speak. “Why did you try to steal the diamonds? What were you going to do with them?”

She was silent for so long that I thought she wasn’t going to answer me. Then she said, “Leave.”

I stared. “Leave…leave us?”

“I don’t want to. But I’m getting too old for the dance, Mira. I need to leave before it’s too late. And I can’t make my way in the world without money.”

I wanted to say it wasn’t true. I wanted to believe it wasn’t true. Instead I said, “Then why don’t you go with one of the men? Let one rescue you. Let Peren rescue you.”

She shook her head bitterly, then stepped carefully over the edge of her boat and dragged herself up the stairs after the rest of my sisters.

The next morning I woke early and went to find Peren, though my limbs ached and my head felt sluggish. When I found him standing on the castle battlements, I walked over to him and said without preamble, “I want you to take Amelie away from here.”

He turned, his eyebrows arced downward. “Amelie?” Behind him, the sea melted into the sky. There was no sign of our island. That was not unusual; we never saw it except from the boats.

“You should marry her,” I said. “She’ll make you happy. She’s witty and patient and kind.” Except when she was in a bad temper. But everyone had their flaws. “You’ll fall in love with her, once you get to know her. She’ll be wonderful with children—”

“Children?” He shook his head. “She’s too old for that, Mira.”

I snorted. “She’s barely older than me. Certainly no older than you.”

He looked at me like I had gone mad. “She’s old enough to be my mother.”

“I—” I stopped. When was the last time I had really looked at Amelie?

In my mind she was young and lithe and blooming with beauty, the obvious choice to ensnare our would-be rescuers. But suddenly I put together the fine lines around her mouth, the slowness of her steps, the white hairs she had been plucking from her brow.

But the last rescuer had been here just a few months ago, and he had been smitten by her. I remembered her hand reaching behind his shoulder to drop the sleep dust into his wine, her face smiling up at him, holding his attention so he wouldn’t notice. Her smooth unlined skin, her bright eyes, her wealth of black hair.

It comes suddenly, when it comes.

The air was no longer pleasantly cool. I felt like I was wrapped in ice.

“You’re shivering.” Peren removed his cloak and wrapped it around me. “Were I to take someone from this place, Mira, I would rather it be you.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them. “You would be better off with my sister. She is the eldest of us princesses. If you marry her, then you would be—”

I stopped. He was not laughing at me—not quite—but I could see on his face that he was carefully not laughing at me.

“We are princesses.” I meant to snap it defiantly. But it came out as a question, and a rhetorical one at that.

“In the tales,” Peren said, his tone conciliatory, “they do say you are princesses. But the minstrels turn all girls into princesses.”

I was afraid that if I spoke, I would cry.

“Did your guardians claim that you were special? That the twelve of you are the only ones the fae ever chose?” His voice was still gentle, but there was a barb in it somewhere. “This is the same bargain the fae always make: youth in exchange for joy. They find mortals willing to trade in countless villages and many cities and often deep in forests—only occasionally in castles. It’s all the same to them, and when they’re done—or discovered, or threatened—they move on. They will eventually move on from this place, too, and find new mortals to tempt.”

Was this a threat? An offer? I couldn’t meet his eyes, so I had no way to judge. I looked at my hands, smooth and slim and young, like Amelie’s had been a few months ago.

“Save my sister,” I said, “and I’ll come with you, too. I promise.”

I wasn’t sure if I meant it. I could tell he wasn’t sure, either. He tilted his head and said, “So you admit you need saving?”

“Does it matter?”

His jaw tightened. “I want to see what I’m saving you from.”

Of course he did. What he needed from us was a story of magic and heroism, a tale to win back the favor of those who had deemed him too old and broken to be shown at court. A princess on his arm, freed by his courage.

Heroes did not skulk out of castles. They did not flee gnarled old women and slim young girls. They did not run away, not unless they were running from something no human being could fight.

I drew in a breath and said, “I’ll show you.”

That evening, surrounded by my sisters, I was sickened by what I had done. I almost hoped that my betrayal would destroy the spell and the boats wouldn’t come tonight. I even wished my sisters would spot Peren, realize what I had done, and turn on me in justified outrage before throwing him into the sea.

But it went seamlessly. Peren was curled up in the bottom of my boat by the time we descended the stairs, and no one noticed that I sat sideways to avoid kicking him. My boat lagged behind, gliding lower in the water than the others, but no one noticed that, either. Fiona waited on shore until my boat caught up, an effort that must have cost her dearly—come, come dance, the music called—but she asked no questions, merely took my hand and raced with me up the trail.

By the time we reached the dance floor, I had almost forgotten Peren. I had never quite grasped the power of the night music until I tried to set myself against it. Even ordinary music can get into your blood, make it flow faster, infuse it with energy you didn’t know you were capable of. The fae music made that power as sharp and pure as a weapon. My thoughts and plans and fears crumpled, tossed about and shattered. There was only music and movement, beauty and abandon, there was only now now now and now stretched on forever.

Until Peren stepped out of the woods and onto the dance floor with us.

The music didn’t falter, so neither did our steps. But our heads turned, and my sisters and I stared at him as we danced. Twelve princesses, twelve fae princes, and one trained mortal dancer.

He was better than any of us. His leaps were powerful as well as elegant, his turns as tight as they were wild, his every movement precise and controlled. Yet somehow, that deliberateness and precision transformed his dance into something with more abandon and more beauty than it had any right to possess.

Dread coiled up within me as I realized: I had been deceived. He had not come here to see our curse. He had not come here to save us from it.

He had come here to join us.

Or to replace us.

I miss it more than anything.

I watched Peren dance, and I watched my sisters watching him, and that, finally, was when I realized: there were, as there always had been, only twenty-four figures dancing beneath the stars.

Amelie had no partner.

Stopping was the hardest thing I had ever done—though I had not, to be fair, done many hard things in my life. I shut my eyes and clapped my hands over my ears and threw myself to my knees. They hit the marble floor hard, and I cried out.

Everything stopped. The music. The fae. My sisters went through a few more dance steps before they, too, froze. Fiona went on dancing the longest, until she finally noticed mid-pirouette that something was wrong. She slowed and stilled and blinked around.

“You can’t,” I said fiercely. I glared at Peren, the pain still quivering up my legs, helping me focus. “You can’t take Amelie’s place.”

He had not stopped. He did a quick series of turns, and even in the absence of the music, the beauty of his motions took my breath away. “Why not?”

“Because…” I looked at our fae partners. Their faces, now that we weren’t dancing, were inhuman in their stillness. Beautiful and crystalline and cruel. “Because they’re not going to give you your youth and your strength back. Don’t you understand? They’re going to take it, until there’s nothing left in you!”

Gittel flinched. Fiona wrapped her arms around herself.

“But until then,” Peren said, “I will dance.”

“For how long?” I chose my next words deliberately. He had tricked me, he had used me, and it wasn’t difficult to be harsh. “You’re already old. You won’t dance for long.”

“For as long as I get,” Peren said, “it will be worth it.”

And there it was on his face: the grim desperation I had seen earlier that day.

“Isn’t that why you’re all here?” he said. “You know it’s better to dance briefly and brightly, to be truly alive for a short time, than to trudge through a long empty lifetime like most mortals do.” He turned a bit more, so he was looking directly at Amelie. “Isn’t it worth it?”

Amelie stood apart from us, her mouth drawing tight lines across the lower half of her face. Was it starlight making her hair look gray?

“Not once it’s over,” she said.

Fiona’s indrawn breath was small and sharp.

Peren laughed. “It ends eventually no matter what. If you’d traded this for more years as a mortal, more days to drag yourself through until you die at the end anyhow, do you think that would have been worth the price?”

Amelie looked away.

“When they’re done with me,” he said, “I will end as all the men who come here do. I will fling myself into the sea. But I will taste immortality first.” He held his hand out. “Come dance.”

He was talking to me.

The music started up again, and our fae partners took our hands. But no one took mine, and when I looked around, I saw that two of the fae princes were dancing with each other and Peren was still waiting for me.

The music rose all around us and slid under my skin, into my blood. The clearing was beautiful and magical and sparkling, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Amelie stumble to the head of the trail. She looked over her shoulder at us, her face bright with hunger. In the light of the diamonds, I could clearly see the tiny wrinkles radiating from her eyes.

I couldn’t stop myself from dancing. But I whirled away from Peren, danced to Amelie, and grabbed her hand. Her fingers were thin and bony, knuckles jutting from papery skin.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Diamonds fell around us as we fled down the trail, pattering and pinging through the trees, bouncing when they hit the hard-packed dirt and popping in all directions before coming to rest on the ground. One hit me in the cheek, another on my shoulder, and the pain was once again helpful. I focused on it, and not on the music that was calling me back, back, back.

By the time we reached the shore, the dark earth was covered with diamonds. Every tree and shrub and broken branch glittered in the moonlight. Amelie had the presence of mind to reach down and scoop up a handful. She held them in her skirt as we ran, and they jangled musically against each other.

We burst through the trees onto the short stretch of sandy beach. Across the sea, our castle rose black and solid against the softer sky. A single boat rested on the sand, the water smashing against its side in a moonlit froth.

One boat. For Amelie.

“We can both fit in,” she said, and there was a note of pleading in her voice. “Escape while you’re still young, Mira. I wish I had.”

I looked back. The trail was littered with diamonds, and the music coiled over them, its strains latching into my heart. I performed a quick twirl, and found that it had taken me backward, away from the boat and into the shadow of the woods. I didn’t actually remember letting go of Amelie’s hand.

My sister’s mouth twisted. She walked over to the boat and sat. I heard some diamonds clatter to its bottom.

But this time the diamonds didn’t hold her there, perhaps because she hadn’t ripped them off the trees this time, or maybe the island was just ready to let her go. The boat scraped across the sand, and the dark water grabbed it and held it and began to carry it away.

I closed my eyes and heard Amelie’s stifled sob, a moment before the music swelled so loudly it drowned out all sound and all thought and all choice. I turned toward it, caught helplessly in the moment, the future a distant and toothless thing. I would be old someday, but I was not old yet.

I opened my eyes just in time to see Deirdra come racing down the trail. Her face was red, her hair undone. Behind her stumbled Fiona, and then Gittel.

The music was demanding and angry, but my sisters’ footsteps were closer and louder.

“Come on,” Fiona cried, and grabbed my hand.

It was a tight fit, five of us in one boat. The craft sank lower than it ever had before, and I caught my breath in fear.

But the boat skimmed straight and true across the rippled water. The five of us sat in silence, clutching hands but not looking at each other. Deirdra glanced back and gasped.

The moon rose over the sea, its reflection a shimmering golden path that stretched from shore to sky, uninterrupted by anything but water. There was no island between us and the horizon.

That was when I realized I could no longer hear the music.

Deirdra, Fiona, and Gittel leapt out of the boat as soon as we reached the shore. I remained behind and helped Amelie gather up the fallen diamonds. We found the last one wedged in the very back of the boat, a tiny leaf-shaped sparkle that we could live on for years.

We had to think of such things now, and there was no music drifting across the roiling water, and I didn’t want to get out of the boat. I trailed my fingers across its smooth wooden side one last time.

My shoes were not worn out. They were as good as new. So I kept them on as we went up the stairs, and only removed them right before I threw myself onto my bed.

But when I woke the next morning, they were gone.

We told ourselves we were free, and I suppose it’s true.

But sometimes, at night, we still slip away. Not all of us at once; often it will be Amelie with me, or Deirdra—or Gittel, when she comes back to visit. Sometimes it will just be me. It hardly matters, because we don’t speak. We creep down the stairs in silence, so as not to wake the servant women or any visitors. No one would stop us from doing as we please—not as long as we still have that stash of diamonds—but old habits die hard. We step out of the castle onto the rocky outcropping where no boats are waiting, and we stare across the empty expanse of white-flecked sea.

We stand in silence, and we listen hard, but I, at least, never hear anything.

When dawn stains the sky pink and I slip back into bed, my husband turns on his side and slips an arm around me, his only indication that he knows I was gone. I curl against his heavy, human warmth and feel the strength of his love, more solid and more real than the enchantment that drew me from this bed. A better exchange for my youth and freedom. I tell myself that even if I did hear the music, even if those boats were waiting, I would have come back to him. I tell myself that I am happier now than I ever was, because my happiness is real and lasting and not based on lies.

And then I close my eyes and drift off to sleep, and in my dreams, I dance again.

 

(Editors’ Note: “The Night Dance” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 44A.)

The Calcified Heart of Saint Ignace Battiste

On a Thursday night in Harvestmonth, when the moon rises round and bronze as a new betrothal promise watch, is the warlike thrice-veiled Mother of Mákhesthaines, crowned in her black silk mantles embroidered with skulls, permitted across the Holy Square and into the Grand Cathedral of Saint Ignace Battiste.

All other times is she anathema.

The conjunction of astrological events makes this moonlit night a rare event. Even so, it is often enough that a grandhomme in xher dotage can witness the most dedicated foe of our faith—the murderers’ patron, the undying vengeance, the very adversary herself—cross the gates of the Lightcarrier’s second holiest city and enter the Promised-and-Faithful’s most hallowed space a handful of times in one life before xher celestial watch can no longer be wound.

The terms of the covenant between the Mother of Mákhesthaines—who slakes her thirst with souls—and the ancient Parents of the Faith remain unrecorded in sacred texts. But the results of these accords, forged in time immemorial, have been seen by denizens of the city enough that their rituals and circumstance are well-known to all.

The Mother arrives on foot. She is small and slight, and hidden beneath her veils, mantles, and gowns of black byssus—the art of their construction lost when fabled Seabride was swallowed by the sea. Her step is light, and though her trains drag behind her, the city’s accreted dust does not stir in her wake.

She is ever accompanied by her two brides. La’acroix, with long black hair bound up in a tignon of red satin and jade. She wears a gown of tulle and organza and emerald brocade. An easy smile, swaying hips, and a gilded dagger on her throat. Her skin is oiled and gleams in the bronze moonlight. And bare-breasted Kravat. Tall. Red hair in plaits. Arms corded with muscle and shoulders broad enough to yoke. She wears hempen trousers dyed with woad, and a thin-hammered makhaira on her hips. If she smiles, it is a thing as sharp as her blade. The dreaded three then proceed to the Holy Square, which is at this time empty of all but those who have accepted Lightcarrier oaths.

The doors of the city basilica stand open before her stalwart enemies. Cathedral linkboys escort them in solemn silence down through the shadowed recesses and vaults of the cathedral to a chapel with an oakblood door. The Mother kneels and enters. Her brides stand beyond the threshold with heads bowed. From a purse beaded with faience, the Mother pulls a key and draws from a monstrance of rose quartz and gold the calcified heart of the blessed city’s martyr, Saint Ignace Battiste. In procession as before, they ascend from the cathedral flanked by linkboys. They pass through the funeral arch and cross the bridge of sorrows, where to them the gilded gates of Necropolis are unbarred, and they proceed alone. What happens beyond was unknown.

Until I broke the covenant.

On that strange and sorrowful night when the beaten bronze of the moon broke through the clouds and its terrible aspect cast shadows of the city’s spires like the fingers of a skeleton all across the sacred square, I was in attendance, an acolyte. The second cathedral linkboy of two given the duty to escort the mournful Mother to the ebon gates of Necropolis.

After the gates were barred, we were to return to lone cells—the only decoration the symbols of our order: the watch, the swallow, and unburnt heart engraved on bare stone floor—and await in solemn contemplation of our vows until the moon begins its descent. A silent sibling stood sentinel outside our bare cell doors, xher watchful gaze just beyond to remind us of our duty should we falter and attempt egress before the appointed time. But the smallest flaw in this well-appointed, wise reminder to duty is that in our sacred contemplations, we lowly acolytes were tasked to observe the moon’s descent. For this purpose were we given a slender arrow slit to gaze upon the sky.

I, a slim and callow youth, given more to curiosity than calm contemplation, stripped off my vestments and silver thread soutane. And sky-clad, slipped through narrow window-slit into the starless night.

Every child in the city and the parishes beyond knows the story of Saint Ignace, martyr-patron of the burned but unharmed heart. How the wretched Mother smote him, spitting venom from her lips! How the wicked brides assailed him with blade, and teeth, and claw! And he alone stood steadfast against them until the coming of the dawn! Undefeated as morn’s first rays crested high Necropolis’s hill, the wretched Mother’s machinations brought to ruin by his undaunted heart. And how she, in her vexation at the city’s uncorrupted state, through some infernal power, set noble Ignace all aflame! His tortured cries rose up to heaven. In silence, was she gone. And the city criators, though unworthy, found his ashes where he fell. His body burnt.

But then the golden throated swallows in their millions did descend, and with swift unfaltering wingbeats whirled those ashes in the air to reveal his unburnt heart and his bronzed watch as well! As untarnished as the morning that now spilled over weeping city criators. His promise, then. To still defend us against the evils and our perils. Thus the symbols of our order, the steadfast watch, the heart, the bird.

Think you then what terrors I envisioned, what depredations the sacred relic would endure at the vengeful Mother’s hands, as I secretly ascended Necropolis’s high hill through its ancient wood.

My eyes were sharp. And long before the order called me to take my vows and serve, I lived a slipthief life, slinking now and then across the city’s slate and tiled roofs to do some mischief, when heavy cloud veiled the firmament. I needed no light. But to my astonishment as I crept forward low over root and underbrush, the trees were now illuminated by dancing lights all lapis-colored, no bigger than a pinprick. The source? Docile worms suspended aloft and tied to the tree branches by webs of their own devising, on which dewdrops like glassy pendants caught their mournful light and scattered it across the grounds, casting shadows that shifted as if the trees themselves were set a-sway to the merest breath of wind. And the branches of those trees creaked under the weight of birds! Not only the yellow-throated swallows that long have made their nests in high Necropolis, but resting flush in pairs, uncountable starlings, whose breast plumage was lit with scattering of blue as the lights washed over them, in imitation of the whirling heavens above, concealed from us by clouds. Thus astonished, though sure-foot, I found myself entangled in a sly knot of root and fell forward, my left foot slipping into a place where the rains had collected at the base of a damson plum tree. The dense smell of the earth rose around me, as if it prepared itself for planting. The birds stirred, and then settled. Ahead the trees thinned, and I could see the winding path to the height where the cemetery rotunda stood. Near to the ground, I followed, slipping now and then behind a crypt, a tangle of brambles full to bursting with blackberries, or cracked tombstone. The three continued their accession undeterred: doe-eyed La’acroix first, swaying to music known only to her, grim Kravat at the rear, hand resting on the hilt of her blade. Between them, the Mother of Mákhesthaines, carrying Saint Ignace’s stonelike heart on a cushion of cloth-of-gold next to her bosom where no heart could beat. They passed near enough to me that I could hear the whisper of the Mother’s byssus-gowns. Their scents, attar of roses, sweat, and ancient spices mingled into one.

They came then to the heights of Necropolis, where stood the cemetery rotunda. There rest the bones and remnants of all the city criators, and the lesser saints and martyrs. On its dome stands a statue of Saint Ignace Battiste struck in bronze by Clerval Grandeure himself. Arm outstretched with steadfast watch and his own heart carried in one hand just beneath the place that heart should sit. His features sweet. Serene. And for three hundred paces all around the rotunda’s prominence the grounds were cleared of trees and underbrush. This space was bare of all else excepting other smaller monuments, sweet grass, and heavy flagstones. Among these monuments I made my way behind the devilish three to uncover for myself what cruel, unnatural torments they planned for that noble sacred heart.

They ventured not to the rotunda. An unadorned plinth, chest-height to me—even at that youthful age—stood weathered and alone at the top, shadowed over by rotunda. And the Mother made her way to this. Her brides removed all her mantles with reverence and laid them down on the flagstones beneath. With ceremony and care, La’acroix and Kravat moved as one and took from the Mother of Mákhesthaines’s gloved hands the sacred heart resting on its golden cushion. Their movements were deft, and they carried the heart to sit atop the plinth as if it would shatter from the merest bump. The mother shrugged out of the first of her byssus-gowns. She wore on her bosom an ancient bronze promise watch fastened to her by chains of gold, which her brides then unwrapped. The moon caught her then, and from behind a marble bust of Saint Calave I saw her face: youthful, large eyes, a strange color that northerners sometimes have, like the winter sea. Her lips were full, and her brow unlined. A black curl of hair tumbled down from her pinned locks and nestled against her cheek. The adversary herself looked barely more than a girl. Unchained from the watch she cradled—whose burnished bronze and uncracked enamel made it the very replica of the great relic of our order—she placed it with all solemnity on the plinth, next to the stony heart of slain Saint Ignace. Her brides turned their backs to her and lowered their heads.

For a moment all was in perfect silence. The moon cast away the shadow of the rotunda and limned the Mother, the brides, and the plinth in its light. I scarce dared breathe. And then? Saint Ignace’s heart began to beat! Not some trick of the light! In the quiet I could hear it echo across the bald apex of Necropolis’s high hill. In perfect time with the Mother’s own promise watch. From behind me and all around came the cry of the yellow-throated swallows, and the starlings rose up in murmuration, black against white cloud. The swallows themselves flew low over the hill—I felt the beat of their wings as they passed—and wreathed the beating heart, the watch, and the plinth. Sometime do birds aflight take the semblance of strange things, but these clustered ever tighter and gave the figure of a man. I saw sinew then, and fingers, not passing suggestions from a moment’s angle in a far-off living smoke. Then feathers rained down before the Mother, and the figure was a man. Naked, sat upon the plinth, a face carved on effigy and coin, only now rendered mortal. No more beautiful than mine. It was the blessed saint, I was sure of it. His hair as kinked and coiled as my own. His nose broad, and forehead creased by worry, not the placid beaming icon, nor the open-handed martyr of mosaic scenes. A man, handsome, but no more remarkable than any dark-skinned crafter from the city’s artificieries. He had a glazier’s scar upon his shoulder. He looked only at the Mother, and the scorn and worry fell away to something tender.

She took his chin in her hand. “And you return to me once more?”

The moon vanished behind a cloud, and yet, I could see tears upon his cheek. “Nothing can keep me from it. I will return to you always. Always. Always.”

Her brides clothed him in her own mantles. The Mother’s voice was soft, and though the night still and I three arm’s lengths away, I did not hear her reply.

The saint spoke in a firmer timbre. “You should have razed all their works. And left the ground scoured of life.” His mouth was firm.

The Mother of Mákhesthaines said, “No. For vengeance sake, I could bathe in all their blood and remain dry. But whilst their enchantment persists, we can be together for a night when the moon renews our promise.”

“It is fleeting for you,” said the saint.

“And one night is how one begins a life. I will have my lifetime of them.”

A taste, both sweet and foul, rose from my throat to my lips. I spit in the crook of my arm. These things we believed true: the violation, the sacrifice serene, the city’s salvation— the very bedrock of our faith—were all false. I had sworn myself over to invention as false as my own oath.

Did you think I gasped at the discovery? Or, in momentary shock, stepped backwards onto a wayward twig, drawing the ire of the blessed saint down upon me? Or that I scrabbled nude down the hillside on all fours chased by limbless horrors conjured by the Mother of Mákhesthaines’s poisoned breath? No, those are such tales a parrain frightens his goodchildren to obedience with around the hearth. I wiped my sick on the bark of a tree, wincing a little at its roughness and crept away unobserved by Mother, brides, and saint. I left their tender ministrations undisturbed. I returned to my cell to await the dawn with little more than a scratch and a muddy left foot.

But the next morning, I and my fellow watcher linkboy were tasked with inspecting all the relics from nave to altar. From Saint Calave’s reliquary to Saint Ignace’s untarnished watch that betrothed used to keep their time and pilgrims pray towards for healing light. I followed close behind the prioress, who unveiled the great relic, the Faithful-and-Promised watch. It has run without winding since before the cathedral’s first-placed arch and remained untarnished as the day the fires brought it from beneath Saint Ignace’s robes into the dawn. Its time was true. But as I brushed and oiled its surface, just there, beneath the crown was a single spot of verdigris. As if from above a single salty tear fell on that peerless device. The prioress pulled a clean cloth from beneath her soutane and wiped the spot until it shone again. Almost new.

Did I think to leave the Order? Declaim to Light-Seated Ductrix all its lies? What would happen to the city then, its pieties all undone? Would the charms that ever preserved us founder with the truth? The city that was all my world and whose streets and citizens I loved as much as vengeful witch ever loved wronged saint, could I bear to bring its doom? And I had witnessed miracles, and when you have witnessed miracles the taste for heresy is cold. In short: I was a coward, and turned myself more devoutly to my oaths, even knowing their mettle was ridden with rot and decay. I served, and rose through the ranks.

A score of years passed until the confluence of the heavens led again to the rising of that bronze and awful moon. I was by then chapel monsignor and blessed the new-chose linkboys, who knelt beneath the watch to pray, unveiled for that sacred purpose. It shone as if burnished. I, alone, watched its face. The count of its smallest hand was slow, and for that briefest moment, so was my own heart. But the Mother came as always, and night passed to morning as it must.

Another three-and-twenty years. I had occasion to inspect the oakblood door and prepare the vault beyond for cleansing. Beneath its monstrance, was that dust or signs the heart itself had at long last, began to crumble under the impossible weight it carried? But at the dawn returned the Mother with her brides still in tow.

The Grand Abbot perished from consumption after thirteen years’ long fight. And in the waning years remaining me, I attend the Archlamplighter herself. Tonight, again, rises that moon! Three days prior an envoy from the far-off Spiral Senate has arrived, his Beaucourt close at hand, reeking of foul magics. And the Queendom has withdrawn its protecting armies from its outward marches, where the city still remains. The sorcerers of the Chant Real in gleaming Sarraclay have failed their glamour-casting, and the queen is ill-at-ease. The air smells of smoke and of blood. I think now on the saint, and the adversary’s reply whilst their enchantment persists. Does that high-esteemed watch tarnish still? Does that heart’s stone remain as hard? Will the Mother and the brides stand atop high Necropolis’s hill and reunite once more? Does he come? I search the darkening heavens for swallows and their golden throats, else the starling numbers descending down like feathered smoke. But my eyes are old. And does he come? What means always to the dead?

 

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

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