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Midnight Mass Talks Too Much but Still Manages to Compel

One thing I’ve learned over the years is the importance of judging works for what they are rather than what they aren’t. As a writer, it can be tempting to break a work open, re-contextualize it, and imagine it as something more fulfilling for myself than what it really was. Midnight Mass carried me down that path many times after I watched it. Does the series ask the big questions and examine their answers, or does it engage in a sort of faux-deep fuzzy-headed dorm room philosophy?

Midnight Mass is the latest horror limited series produced by Mike Flanagan for Netflix. The series is eight episodes long and the first of Flanagan’s series that is not purely a ghost story. The show has been extremely popular, sparking a great deal of discussion since its release. Because viewers return to it over and over, and examine its turns, tropes, and philosophy, it’s worth a closer examination. I, personally, am a born sucker for Horror that is about more than itself, so I’d say I’m inclined to forgive a lot of mistakes and focus more on what a story does right than what it does wrong.

One thing critics mention over and over in their discussion of Midnight Mass is its lengthy monologues about the mechanisms of faith, the afterlife, and existing as an Other—either because of one’s poor choices, or because one has entered a community as an outsider, or both. While I understand and even appreciate Flanagan’s decisions to pursue these ideas, in many cases there were better ways to explore these issues and states of being. “Show don’t tell” is cliché for a reason. What Midnight Mass shows us are arresting images that stick in the mind, and some of its telling works, too.

For instance, after a conversation between the central characters, Riley Finn (Zach Gilford) mentions to his childhood love Erin Greene (Kate Siegel) that his mother never bothers to ask him about his day since he has returned home from prison. Erin asks, and he explains how he trudges through a life darkened by grief and regret. This exchange helps illuminate Finn’s character, mindset, and emotional state. But the problem remains that we are watching a television show in which a man describes his day and it is only indirectly related to the plot of the story.

Though typical of the problem with Midnight Mass, that particular exchange is one of the less egregious monologues exploring ideas and emotions that are not as deep as the series seems to think. If it sounds like I am basically opposed to that sort of character expression, I’m not. Most of the monologues could be improved through ruthless cuts and interspersed action. For instance, at the end of the story, as Erin lies dying, she imagines herself in an earlier conversation with Riley, explaining her idea of the afterlife now that her perspective has been altered by her experiences in the story. Her monologue as the curtain draws down on the story comes across as painfully long. I’m not necessarily asking the show to dive beneath the surface of top-of-mind thinking about life, death, faith, and the nature of evil—though that would be nice—but I am asking it to make these expressions pop. Make them compelling. Make them interesting to watch rather than rocky outcroppings that run the story aground like a dinghy in shallow water.

There are also major story issues in Midnight Mass that can’t stand the light of serious consideration. The fact that Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) was so shaken by the racism he encountered as an NYPD detective after 9/11 and the death of his wife that his solution was to uproot his young son and move to a remote island where they would be surrounded by Massachusetts Catholics instead of the Muslim community of New York City is…honestly, it’s absurd. Back in New York City, even as a single parent, he would have had the support of his entire extended family, his masjid, and many healthy examples of Muslim manhood to serve as models for his son and help him forge a positive path to adulthood. Is it that the writers’ room wasn’t up to the task, or that the story left no room to explore Hassan’s circumstance and decisions? Sherriff Hassan is one of the most interesting characters in the series, but instead of examining his circumstance beyond his unwillingness to carry a gun or investigate the island’s citizens too closely, we’re forced to listen to Riley and Erin describe the mundane events of their daily lives.

It’s not just Sherriff Hassan who gets done dirty by the show’s lack of focus. One of the major plot points of the series is that Erin Greene’s pregnancy gets cruelly erased because she unknowingly ingests vampire blood. The show seems to touch on this idea because it relates to the Catholic stance on contraception and abortion, but all we get is Erin, gobsmacked, when a mainland doctor explains that there is no evidence she was ever pregnant. The island’s Dr. Gunning briefly explains that the vampiric infection must have driven Erin’s body to eliminate the fetus as a parasitic presence. The idea of a pregnancy being erased in this manner is enough to build an entire series around, but instead we have a few minutes of tears and shouting until Erin simply relaxes about the whole thing.

Midnight Mass has some great things about it—Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) preaches, chews scenery, and is simply magnetic to watch as the mysterious priest who arrives in Crockett Mass after the island’s spiritual leader, Monsignor Pruitt, falls ill during a trip to the Holy Land. Of course, it is revealed that Father Paul is Monsignor Pruitt, his youth and mind restored by a vampire he, in his senility, mistook for an angel. The show seems to take into account the horrific Old Testament descriptions of angels—nominally, at least. Honestly, the angel/vampire in Midnight Mass is far, far less frightening than an abstract being composed of interlocked wheels of fire, each bearing scores and scores of eyes. The show’s heart exists in Father Paul’s misguided crusade and the way a well-meaning pastor spreads a spiritual contagion that destroys the community and family he so dearly loves.

Flanagan has made some missteps before—the ending of The Haunting of Hill House undermined a darkly brilliant ghost story with a ridiculously sappy ending, for instance. Midnight Mass suffers from his worst excesses, and yet…and yet, there is something compelling here. There is something that glued me to the series the first and even the second time I watched it, enjoying the story’s major turns. It’s only after I stepped back and thought more deeply about the story and its issues that the messy seams began to show. For that reason, Father Paul’s misidentification and tragic trust speaks clearly to me.

The series also boasts several sequences of overwhelming horror. The scenes of Monsignor Pruitt, his mind failing from dementia, wandering into the Israeli desert and meeting something awful, the moment Father Paul gives into his terrible hunger, the orgy of blood and violence at the island’s Easter service—those scenes worked like gangbusters for me because they fasten on tropes that have appeared countless times in horror and dark fantasy fiction, and find a way to apply a fresh spin to them. The horror comes from the emotional core of these scenes—normal people finding themselves overtaken by new and powerful urges, the meeting of the monstrous and the mundane. The fear of the Other not just in our communities, but in ourselves. Flanagan’s refusal to use the word “vampire” at any point in the story shows that he was at least trying to take these ideas seriously and re-examine them on an existential level.

If Flanagan could have stepped back from his ideas and more accurately weighed what serves the story and what doesn’t, he would have created something truly beautiful, compelling, and terrifying. Midnight Mass wasn’t quite the triumph I had hoped for, but in it, I see the seeds for better, more effective horror from him.

If you’re looking for a dark fantasy series that puts the effort in, even if it falls short of the mark, this one is for you. You might not be satisfied by the ending—I wasn’t—but in my view, the series treats its subject matter with respect. Flanagan and the rest of the congregation aren’t evil because they’re Catholic. They have a range of approaches to faith, and what makes the story so sad, and so terrifying, is that the things they value—community, solidarity, and care for their loved ones—are truly good things. It’s when an honest value, an ideal, is inverted that the rot sets in and it becomes poisonous. These are the qualities that convince me that once Flanagan gets out of his own way, he’ll be unstoppable.

The Future in the Flesh: Why Cyberpunk Can’t Forget the Body

Cyberpunk is dead. It’s been 37 years since Neuromancer was published, making the genre officially a geriatric millennial. Its aesthetics are used up. Its critique tired. Its literary power petering out like a fritzing cybernetic arm tossed in the automated dumpster beneath a blinking neon hologram.

At least that’s what people say. But I’d like to argue cyberpunk can be salvaged. There’s juice left in its veins and wires. Indeed, it might be the genre best equipped to jack into and tackle our current and upcoming crises.

Cyberpunk was born in the 1980s when conservatives were dismantling government services, corporate power was consolidating, wealth inequality was widening, and the existential threat of nuclear war hung over everything. But if we replace “nuclear war” with “climate change” then we might as well be describing today. If the worlds of cyberpunk feel played out, that’s in part because we live in a cyberpunk reality. One in which billionaires have so much money they race each other into space in cowboy hats while the poor can’t afford basic medical treatments. In which governments debase themselves for the “opportunity” to pay for an Amazon headquarters and people whip out their pocket computers to trade cryptocurrencies that are helping destroy the planet.

Everyone has their own definitions of genres, but to me the essence of cyberpunk is not tied to the 1980s visual trappings that have defined it in video games and film. Cyberpunk isn’t merely neon signs or street toughs with high-tech leather jackets (or its problematic “Japan panic” legacy.) For me, the core of cyberpunk is first as science fiction that fundamentally recoils at the growing power of corporations and unchecked capitalism. That, as Fredric Jameson once said, cyberpunk is the “supreme literary expression…of late capitalism itself.” Secondly, that it is a genre that understands that technology is not clean. Technology is never implemented in smooth and even ways—it is always messy, always unequally accessed. Always (in our world) in service of power and systems.

These traits are at least as relevant today as they were in the 1980s, and perhaps far more so. Still, all genres must adapt and evolve. Not to survive exactly—sameness tends to do well in the marketplace—but to stay relevant. To keep up with the times, cyberpunk might need to shift the focus of its bionic eyes to a realm it’s tended to overlook: the body.

 

Cyberpunk’s Escape from the Meatspace

 

When I first started writing my novel The Body Scout, I had a simple motivating concept: write a cyberpunk novel where the “cyber” has been replaced with flesh. I wanted to write a novel that kept what felt vital to me from cyberpunk—the clash of high tech and lowlife, the critique of corporate capitalism, an excited yet skeptical eye toward the implementation of new technology—but use it to investigate the emerging technologies of the body. CRISPR gene editing. Designer drugs. Experimental treatments. The body feels to me like the next big realm of scientific manipulation and corporate power, for both the better and the worse. How will these impact our minds and bodies? How will different ideologies and individuals react?

(Sidenote: I’m of course aware of the term “biopunk” as well as “solarpunk” and “steampunk” and a million others. Are stories about AI-powered utensils “cutlerlypunk” now? Fighting the proliferation of punk suffixes in science fiction is a lost battle, but “cyberpunk” still conjures the anti-corporate, fuck-the-system feeling of punk in way the others don’t. And aren’t all technologies inextricable from “cyber” these days? It is algorithms, robotics, and computers that shape and implement biotech, gene mapping, and the rest.)

I also have a confession: I’m bored of the virtual. Like many, I’m a Very Online person who wastes most of his day on social media apps only to go to bed with strained eyes and aching wrists. (All technology hits us in the body in some way or another.) Yet the idea of plugging my brain into virtual reality for social gatherings or uploading my consciousness into the singularity feels increasingly…silly. Haven’t you seen the consciousnesses that are on Twitter and YouTube comments sections? Are those the ones you want to mingle freely with in the singularity? Seeing that, I wanted to write entirely about how technology is warping the body. What benefits and risks we face as our physical forms are ever-more mingled with technology…especially when that mingling is unequal and for profit.

Of course, thinking about the effects of technology on the human form is not new to cyberpunk. All genres have tendrils of influences and precedents that stretch back in time, but it seems fair to pick William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer as ground zero. Gibson’s novel towers over the genre as surely as the Mount Doom of Tolkien rises above the realm of epic fantasy. And Gibson didn’t forget the body. From the first page of Neuromancer we are in a world where flesh and machine are in tension. We begin in a crowded bar filled with addicts and a bartender with a “prosthetic arm jerking monotonously…his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay.” Our hero, Case, is suffering pain from his damaged nervous system. He has fallen “into the prison of his own flesh” without being able to access the matrix of cyberspace. Cyberspace is how Case escapes from the world of flesh. The meatspace.

Other ’80s works like Akira, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Donna Haraway’s classic “A Cyborg Manifesto” were even more concerned with the mingling of the human form with technology. But by the 1990s it seems the genre—in the US and UK at least—focused ever more on the virtual realm, often in a giddy way. In the ’90s, the web was the “information superhighway” where anyone could be what they wanted unrelated to the real world. Later cyberpunk novels like Neal Stephenson’s satirical Snow Crash built on this idea of escaping into cyberspace, imagining a cyberspace that is a fantasy video game world. Escapism within escapism. Even the virtual representations of bodies were incorporeal. (In Stephenson’s Metaverse, avatars can do almost anything and turn “ghostly and translucent” so you can see through them.) This helped spawn a million cyberpunk videogames that aimed to create the feeling of being inside the imagined virtual realms.

The Matrix recreated this videogame feeling in film, sealing bodies in battery pods so we can focus on superheroics in a simulated world. While The Matrix remains a stellar action film—the fight scenes still far more thrilling than today’s MCU fare—its cyberpunk critique is muted. Who wouldn’t agree that evil robots enslaving humanity would be bad? (That is unless we read the movie as a trans metaphor, as the directors suggest. The film becomes more than just action fun when we return it to the body.)

Cyberpunk is typically thought of as a dystopian genre. But what had begun as a cautionary tale became a celebration. Isn’t all of this really damn cool? Wouldn’t you like nothing more than to be a hacker god swinging swords and dodging bullets free from your corporeal form?! As cyberpunk went further down this path, the body disappeared more and more. At the same time, the fundamental critique seemed to evaporate. Dystopian elements were still tacked on, but in the background like neon holograms. For visual style, not warning. Meanwhile real-world dystopian tech companies and right-wing movements felt free to pluck cyberpunk language (“red pill,” “metaverse,” etc.) for themselves. The end of this cyberpunk path is Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where the most exciting thing in the universe is to play a video game populated with corporate trademarks.

 

The Case of the Missing Body in Fiction

 

Earlier this week, I was having dinner with a fellow creative writing professor who—unprompted—brought up a complaint about student work. “There are no bodies in their stories,” they said. “The characters don’t have sex or chronic pain or eat. It’s like they don’t have bodies at all.”

The disappearance of the body in fiction is hardly limited to cyberpunk. Increasingly it feels like while we (rightfully!) expect more diversity of characters in our fiction, too often the actual physicality of these characters is ignored. The author Brandon Taylor coined the term “character vapor” to describe this phenomenon. Formless characters who float through scenes like mist spouting witticisms or thinking sad thoughts. Perhaps they are described smiling at one point or picking up a glass of water. But there’s little feeling of the body. No sense at how our forms exist and move in the world. How actions and technologies and systems impact them.

I’m not sure what has caused the shift in the general literary landscape. Maybe readers are just squeamish these days. Science fiction has always had a tendency toward bodily erasure though. As a genre of big ideas, it is maybe understandable that the focus is often concepts more than characters.  Reading many SF classics like, say, Asimov’s Foundation and you encounter characters no more corporeal than computer code. But it isn’t just a focus on ideas over characters, it is also that one of the animating ideas of classic science fiction was the transcendence of the body. Food transformed into pills. Medical problems erased with a magic wand. The mind divorced from the body, able to be swapped into androids, fresh clones, and computer systems without ever worrying about the problems of flesh.

This is by no means universal. Unsurprisingly it is more often marginalized authors whose bodies are subject to the daily scrutiny of society—POC authors, trans authors, fat authors, disabled authors, etc.—whose work best interrogates the body. No can tell me that Octavia Butler forgets the corporeal in masterpieces like Wild Seed and Kindred. But compare the fleshiness of Samuel Delany’s proto-cyberpunk Nova or the brilliant Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand to the sterility of Ready Player One. The former is the work of someone who has thought deeply about how human forms move, ache, fuck, and generally exist in the universe. The latter seems like it understands the body only through the cartoons and video game avatars the characters idolize.

Science fiction—and especially cyberpunk—loses something essential when the flesh fades away in the pixels. Because cyberpunk is the genre that can examine what emerging technologies are doing to us. How they will impact and change humanity. How technology is deployed in the service of ableism, racism, transphobia, and other systems of oppression. And what it means when these technologies are controlled by different interests and unequally distributed.

The most haunting bit of science fiction I’ve read this year is the opening chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, in which the effects of a climate change-fueled heat wave on human bodies is wrought viscerally on the page. “It was getting hotter,” the novel opens. People drenched in sweat fight over access to A/C units. There’s no escape from the heat, no virtual world to disappear into. The main character, Frank, seeks refuge in the lake that’s already “hot as bath water” with “heads dott[ing] the surface everywhere.” By morning Frank “had been poached, slow-boiled, he was a cooked thing.” Around him are endless dead bodies.

By rendering of the physical realities of climate change on the body, Robinson makes it feel more real than charts and stats. This is what science fiction can do so brilliantly when it remembers to focus on our real human forms. And this feels like what cyberpunk must do in a world in which corporate power and new technology increasingly plays out in, on, and around our bodies.

 

We’re All in the Cyber-Meat Space Now

 

The internet exists in the world of my novel, but it is something banal. In the background. (For an excellent cyberpunkish novel where the internet does disappear, read Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan.) As someone born the same year as the original Blade Runner, I’ve spent my entire conscious life in a world shaped by computers. I’ve seen the waves of changes and the narrowing of the internet from an “information superhighway” of possibilities to a mirror of the real world where a few corporations control power, wealth, and information. The idea of a wildly exciting Metaverse in Snow Crash has given way to the drearily office cubicle x Playmobil aesthetics of Facebook’s “metaverse.”

Mostly, it seems hard to think of cyberspace as anything separate. As a “space” at all. In 2021, cyberspace and meatspace are linked together though a million veins, wires, arteries, and cords. The fluids intermingle. The interesting and horrifying parts of the internet are increasingly those that play out in the real world. When I log onto the internet today, what I see is not people zapping around virtual reality bars with samurai swords. Instead, I see friends posting GoFundMe campaigns to pay for their dental work or insulin shots. Or pictures of cities obscured by wildfire smog. Or viral clips of police brutality that send more bodies into the streets to march.

There is no Metaverse or OASIS into which we may escape. Only rabbit holes of disinformation and levers of power that affect the bodies of the real world. In anti-vaxxers who die in hospital beds, their bodies unable to deny the diseases the feeds said didn’t exist. Meanwhile, the worlds’ poor beg corporations for access to the very same vaccines.

Climate change is perhaps the most pressing issue we face, and it too is a question of the body. It is real human bodies that are being uprooted by climate change, their homes burned by wildfires or sunk into the rising seas. Human bodies that get sick and die with new pandemics made more frequent and more deadly by the global marketplace, deforestation, and ever-warmer air. And, as always, it is systems of power that determine which bodies get access to the “solutions” to climate change that we devise.

This late stage of late capitalism is inextricable from the crisis of healthcare, the destruction of physical living spaces from climate change, and increasing medical inequality. We are living in a world in which we are all cyborgs, our bodies constantly connected to machines and adaptive technologies of all kinds. Each day, new technologies and medicines are being invented that will manipulate our bodies (for better or worse) and merge us more with machines. Biotech, genetic manipulation, cybernetic enhancements. These too are likely to become common as commonplace in the near future as the internet is today.

In the introduction to the 1986 anthology Mirrorshades, Bruce Sterling said that unlike other science fiction, in cyberpunk “technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin…” This is what cyberpunk can do so well when it remembers the body. It’s what Neuromancer did and what recent works by authors like Nalo Hopkinson and Annalee Newitz have done. Cyberpunk can remind us that technology is visceral. We feel it (quite literally) in our skin and guts.

In the 1980s, both punk rock and cyberpunk offered a needed counterweight to the excess consumerism and trickle-down conformity. In 2021, our corporate overlords’ profits depend on erasing our physicality to sell us VR office meetings, filtered and photoshopped beauty standards, and surveillance marketing that reduces us to data points. Meanwhile our politicians do nothing as the planet burns and inequality deepens in both bank accounts and bodies. Those in power want us to believe that we will slide seamlessly and inevitably into the world of their making. It’s the right time for literature that reminds us that these emerging technologies are fraught and unequal, that the path we’re on will play out across real bodies suffering in the real world, and that the future is far from inevitable.

The Uncanny Valley

Welcome to the first Uncanny Magazine issue of 2022!

It’s a blustery day in Central Illinois. Lynne is having Zoom meetings in the Doctor Who room, Caitlin is listening to her audio book, and Hugo the Cat is buried in a comforter and hoping for a mild winter. It’s hard to believe that as we write this, 2021 is ending. It’s difficult to encapsulate 2021 in a few sentences. So many things remain terrible and terrifying, but there were plenty of things that gave us hope, too. We will miss all who we lost this year, and hope that 2022 becomes a kinder year than the last two.

As always, we appreciate all that you did, Space Unicorns. You worked hard to make the world a better place. You matter, and what you do matters. You are the BEST, Space Unicorns.

Along with it being a new year, we’re thrilled that this is also Meg Elison’s first issue as Uncanny Magazine Nonfiction Editor! We’re very excited about the staff going forward into Uncanny Magazine’s eighth year. We know they will all do fantastic things, and this is going to be one of the best years ever for Uncanny Magazine!

Fabulous news, Space Unicorns! “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher won the 2021 Best Short Story Hugo Award! Congratulations to Ursula and to all of the finalists!

Once again, congratulations to the other three Uncanny Magazine stories that were finalists: “Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A. T. Greenblatt for Best Novelette, “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard for Best Novelette, and “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson for Best Short Story!

Uncanny Magazine didn’t win the Best Semiprozine Hugo Award. A huge congratulations to the winner, FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction!

Congratulations to all the Hugo Awards winners and finalists– especially former Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson, who won the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award!

Wonderful news, Space Unicorns!  “You Perfect, Broken Thing” by C.L. Clark  is the 2021 Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards Best Short Story Winner! Congratulations to C.L. Clark and to all of the finalists!

From the nerds of a feather website:

Over the past almost-year, a top-secret group of bloggers and fans has been plotting the most nefarious of plots: to decide, subjectively upon the best genre works of 2020, and then throw rocks at them. By “throw” we mean “lovingly post”, and the rocks all have a nice message painted on them, and it’s…an award? We suppose?

It’s the time of year when people post their year-in-reviews to remind voters for the different SF/F awards what’s out there that they might have missed, and in which categories those stories are eligible. The year 2021 was the seventh full year of Uncanny Magazine (Issues 38 through 43). We are extremely proud of the year we had.

The stories listed in our “Uncanny Magazine 2021 Award Eligibility” blog post are eligible in either the short story, novelette, or novella categories of the SF/F awards. If you are a SFWA member nominating for the Nebula Awards, you can find eBook copies of these stories in the SFWA Forums.

Please also note that essays are eligible for the Best Related Work Hugo Award, and poetry is eligible for the Rhysling Award. As Uncanny is a semiprozine, all of the essays and original art also contribute towards creators’ Best Fan Writer and Best Fan Artist Hugo Award eligibility.

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 44! The fabulous cover is Shuffling The Cards by Galen Dara.  Our new fiction includes Leah Cypess’s tale of dancing princesses and hard choices “The Night Dance,” Christopher Caldwell’s story of faith and truth “The Calcified Heart of Saint Ignace Battiste,” Natalia Theodoridou’s exploration of identity and war “Ribbons,” Sarah Monette’s next creepy installment in her Kyle Murchison Booth series “The Haunting of Dr. Claudius Winterson,” Kylie Lee Baker’s story of grief and technology “Lily, the Immortal,” Wen-yi Lee’s look at family and reconciliation “Hundred-Handed One,” and Tina Connolly’s flash story of returning home “How to Safely Store Your Magical Artifacts After Saving the World.” Our reprint is Caroline M. Yoachim’s “The Clockwork Penguin Dreamed of Stars” which originally appeared in Mechanical Animals: Tales at the Crux of Creatures and Tech in 2018.

Our provocative and compelling essays this month include “Midnight Mass Talks Too Much but Still Manages to Compel” by Alex Jennings, “The Future in the Flesh: Why Cyberpunk Can’t Forget the Body” by Lincoln Michel, “Even After Death: An Essay in Questions” by Shingai Njeri Kagunda, and “Gone with the Clones: How Confederate Soft Power Twisted the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy” by Louis Evans. Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “Crustacean on Land” by Mehnaz Sahibzada, “The House Snakes” by Sonya Taaffe, “a sinkhole invites a street to consider its future” by Dominik Parisien, and “Weaver Girl Dream” by Lisabelle Tay. Finally, Caroline M. Yoachim interviews Christopher Caldwell and Sarah Monette about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #44A features “The Night Dance” by Leah Cypess, as read by Erika Ensign, “The House Snakes” by Sonya Taaffe, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Leah Cypess. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #44B features “Lily, the Immortal” by Kylie Lee Baker, as read by Matt Peters, “Weaver Girl Dream” by Lisabelle Tay, as read by Erika Ensign, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Kylie Lee Baker.

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

The One Body Problem

“I am not an intellectual, I write with my body.” —Clarice Lispector

 

In all the fiction and nonfiction that I read, I am searching for the body. In fiction, I want to know how a character feels; how they churn and bleed, how they laugh from deep in the belly or cry their crocodile tears, how they plunge their hands into dry beans for the pure sensual joy of the act, or crush a half-rotten orange beneath a chunky heel just for the pleasure of decayed destruction in the gutter. Each of these actions of the body tells me something about the character and something else about the world. It is as important as dialogue and as plot, and it is the inescapable fact of the meat that carries our consciousness. But often I find myself the detective in the story: I know there’s a body here somewhere, but I cannot locate the scene of the crime.

In nonfiction, I carry the same hunger. With memoir I practically thirst for blood, turning the pages like blades hoping to peel the author’s skin back and see what lies beneath, wanting more exposure and more viscera than perhaps is deserved or warranted. In essay, I always hope to find the author willing to be vulnerable, connecting or pining to connect with the idea they’re peddling and proving in prose. This is trickier, because for many writers and readers alike, nonfiction is the place they come when they want to pretend we are something more logical and changeless than meat. We come to nonfiction for fact and formal argumentation. We come here to forget our feelings and reach past them to what is real, to connect to something solid in a nebulous universe where we are preyed upon by time and capricious fate. We try to put a pin in the truth and hammer it home, to settle an argument once and for all with what we have discovered and count it as progress for the whole human race, never to be questioned again.

None of that works, of course. We have the same arguments on a cycle of minutes, years, centuries. We do this because we are meat; our desires are endless and our intellects are vast, our art is timeless and our ambition is boundless, our souls are unstoppable and our bodies do nothing but stop. We stop writing, stop speaking, stop breathing, and everything we’ve ever said is forgotten. That pin we hammered into the truth inevitably comes loose so that someone in another century can step on its rusted point with the pink sole of their undefended foot of flesh and discover the argument anew, unaware that meat has had this thought before.

This search for the body is political. When I read a story or an essay wherein the body is invisible, illusory, or subjugated beyond the hearing of its demands, I know what kind of world I’m reading in. A world in which bodies do not grow old, feel sick, get injured, get hungry, get dirty, or get railed is an antiseptic one. It’s a world where the reader can pretend that none of those things ever needs to happen because the body is irrelevant. Worlds and works that hold the body as irrelevant make me wonder whether the author knows they have a body. It makes me assume this story is not a safe place to be queer or trans or fat or disabled. It makes me think the author has an assumed baseline of what a body should be and do in order to be above notice; that there is a right way to have a body and certainly no one here is having theirs wrong.

These antiseptic works contribute to a literary landscape where all sex is taboo, but some sex is more taboo than other kinds. When we leave the body out of our work, we accept submission guidelines that say things like “no erotic content, obviously” or “all queer content must be relevant to the story.” We accept qualifying statements in a review of an anthology like Kink, edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell, that say something coy like “well yes it is erotica, but of an extremely high literary caliber,” as if that were not to be expected. We endure challenges to works like Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, because we must always think of the children who may be listening to a story that is too queer to be proper. We learn to expect that genre fiction will contain no explicit on-page sex scenes between consenting adults, but will commonly portray rape and assault in graphic detail because it’s relevant to the plot and it helps us understand the world.

How people have sex is relevant to the plot. It is relevant to character. It helps build the world, the meaning of beauty, the economy, the society, and everything. Sex belongs in genre fiction.

The body is relevant to the plot. It makes up a significant part of any character who is not a ghost or an incorporeal spirit. The body belongs in genre fiction.

The authors who bring the meat to their stories are doing daring and important work. “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” by Nalo Hopkinson was published in the 1990s and pulls off a sci-fi body swap that opens up a delicious discussion of what it would be like to switch bodies while copulating, and it shouldn’t read like a subversive revolution to a 2021 audience, but it does. Charlie Jane Anders’s “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” mercilessly drowns the reader in the leaking vulnerability of a body at the mercy of the system and state, and it never lets up in its sense of objectified misery and the total oppression of the delicate meat of humanity. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente solves the intractable problem of hurling human meat through space by letting us drink space whale milk, while Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion brings a brutality and suspension of humanity to the same question of how we meat bags are to survive the endless reaches between the stars.

We have always lived in this castle—the greatest writers of genre wrote straight from the body, unafraid. Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr., Vernor Vinge, and Samuel R. Delany, even Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, wrote from the body, biased though their point of view always was. (Meat is made of bias; meat is never neutral.) Outside the castle, a cold wind is blowing. It’s banning books from libraries for being too queer, too trans, too visibly angry in their demands for justice. There are cracks in the walls of our castle, and this cold wind is getting in. It gets in every time an editor wonders if this space opera really needs a sex scene. It slips past a poorly sealed window every time someone argues against the queering or racebending of a classic text. It drips through the cracks when a publishing house says they’ve already got their unruly body story for next year. It rushes in the door every time the SF/F community demands moral perfection and identarian purity from an author when they write from the body, to the body, and of the body.

No castle is forever, and we spend too much time tearing it down from inside to blame the wind for very long. The bodies doing this work today will cease their meat occupation and the next generation will have to decide whether these walls are worth patching, reinforcing, and defending. I work, as an author and as an editor, to make sure they have countless examples of the body, the one powerful and precious body given to each writer and each reader, so that they know that they, too, can make art the way only meat can.

The body is not the problem, and it is not the obstacle to art. It is where all art, good and bad, begins. Honor your meat. Write it with your hands of meat and let your meat heart sing it out, as brave as that braying traitor can be. Let our eyes and ears of meat read it in our faltering, decaying glory, let our meat brains misunderstand and connect and forget for a moment that the lifespan of meat is the wet blink of an expiring eye. Do not forget for a second that this is what we all are.

Read and write until we rot.

Thank You, Patreon Supporters!

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

 

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps RECRUITS

Katie Sinkoski, Jennifer Hisrich, Jenny Barber, ml cohen, Danielle, Mr. Robin White, Andrew Gregg, Amit Gupta, Anitra Heiberg Lykke, Andrew S. Fuller, Aleksi Stenberg, Damien Neil, Not_the_brain, james qualters, Maria Schrater, Leetmeister, Max Andrew Dubinsky, Kayti Burt, Wordsmith Lynn, Robin Hill, Liz Argall, S P, Ken Schneyer, Ryan Pennington, Neil Ottenstein, CathiBeaStevenson, Penny Richards, Josh Smift, Jay Lofstead, Sidsel Pedersen, Annaliese Lemmon, fadeaccompli, Clarissa R., Ai Lake, David Versace, Kate Barton

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps ENSIGNS

Jim DeVona, Sean Pruitt, Haven Spec, coffee n’ cats, samuel lightcap, Alysha MacDonald, Crystal Hill, Dominique Martel, Valya, Carla B. Estruch, Jordan, Adrienne Joy, Duke Kimball, Maritza Sanchez, Alina, Wesley Lee, itay parasol, Emilie De Saint Martin, Zanele Ndaba, John Carr, Riikka, Tatyana, James Castles, Surya H, Callum Williams, Dilly, Howard Cornett, Kellen Harkins, Fábián Tamás, Ashley Herzig, Rhian Bowley, Carl Olsen, Goran Lowie, Aliénor, Dawn Bonanno, William Hay, Amanda Crowley, Dave McAvoy, Julia Pillard, Nicky Martin, Nicholas Davies, Monique Cuillerier, Thomas Faust, D. M. Baldwin, John Coxon, Kristina Saccone, Fabienne Schwizer, Greg Chapman, Kael, Lael Tucker, Colin, Jaime McLeod, Katie Rodante, Sofia G, Kathrin, Ross Williams, Andrew McIntosh, Alec Ross, Karen Young, Simon Hoerder, Melanie Savransky, Ailbhe Leamy, Pete Kirkham, John Atom, Chris Gates, Kim Park, Christine McCullough, Felicia Jordan, Jes, Tracey Thompson, Ryan V Thummel, Shannon H, Jenn Brissett, Brian, Sonja Pieper, Kelly Quantrill, Kristi Chadwick, Aditya Dubey, Kari Keeling, Taylor Alcantar, Goetz Kruppa, Bonnie, Agnes, Peter Schmitt (Aragos), Douglas Dluzen, Hiu Gregg, Mary Brock, Chawin Narkruksa, Tuomas Pohto, Emily Goldman, Beth Hoffman, Alina Kanaski, Matthew Bennardo, Brad Preslar, Fiona Parker, Alison Gilder, Markus Regius, Natalie Boon, Luke, Caroline Pinder, Vicente JM, Ben Hammerslag, Tina Skupin, Eris Young, Chessa Hickox, machine_person, John Derrick, Charlie Lindahl, Lauren Strenger, Carrie, Beth McMillan, Sarah Jansen, Emily Kvalheim, [email protected], Leanne Kathleen Ingino, Sadie Slater, Andrew Hickey, Julia Struthers-Jobin, Tim Campbell, Melissa Brinks, Nick Mazzuca, Maria Haskins, Sarah Elkins, Victor Eijkhout, Melissa Martensen, Joe Iriarte, Jacqueline Rogoff, Sarah Bea, Amanda B Cook, Ellen Zemlin, David O Mahony, Risa Wolf, John Cetrone, Cynthia Murrell, Gina, Emily Capettini, Tiffany M., Albert Bowes, Amanda J. McGee, Crystal Huff, Leslie Ordal, Maria, Gene Breshears, Ysabet MacFarlane, Erik DeBill, Emily Finke, Paul Weymouth, Laura K, Philip Woodley, David Demers, Jeffrey, Ondrej Urban, Emily Hogan, Paul Weimer, Lauren Vega

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps LIEUTENANTS

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

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps COMMANDERS

Kelly Lester, Chip Roland, Camille Knepper, Elizabeth Galliher, Mairin Holmes, William T. McGeachin, Alex Eiser, K.C. Mead-Brewer, Alexander M Henderson, Kate O’Connor, Marzie Kaifer, Edmund Schweppe, Nicole Fuschetti, Dain Unicorn, Jayme, Bliss Ehrlich, Daniel (a raven)

ADDITIONAL SUPPORTERS

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

Interview: Christopher Caldwell

Christopher Caldwell is a queer Black American living in Glasgow, Scotland with his partner Alice. He was the 2007 recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship to Clarion West. His work has appeared in FIYAH, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Strange Horizons. “The Calcified Heart of Saint Ignace Battiste” is his fourth story in Uncanny, an exploration of faith and truth, set in a richly developed world.

 

Uncanny Magazine: “The Calcified Heart of Saint Ignace Battiste” is a story that examines faith and truth, vengeance and love. What drew you to these themes?

Christopher Caldwell: I come from a family where faith and its accompanying symbols are very important. One side of the family is very Catholic; I can remember my great-grandmother’s enormous backyard with a consecrated grotto that had life-sized statues of the Holy Family and prie-dieu where she could kneel to take Holy Communion. My maternal grandmother was very active in the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church, and it really was her social nexus. I was raised Catholic, but I went to Vacation Bible School, family picnics, etc. For her church and community were essentially the same, and I think a lot about what it might have meant to her if she had lost that.

In my teens I was very religiously devout; I attended teen ministry, went to a Catholic High School, I was a confirmation sponsor, and considered joining Holy Orders for a while. I think being a queer person means sometimes having a difficult time reconciling what the life of faith says it offers and how people of that faith actually treat you, and the tension between those two states is something that has always fascinated me even if it also caused me cognitive dissonance!

I think one of the things that a strong pull to religious faith engenders in you is a dislike of injustice, and really it’s very easy to move from a hatred of injustice to feelings of vengeance; there’s so much wrong in our world, and when I create an imaginary world, I sometimes feel the need to reflect that. One of the elements in this story is how people actually complicit in Saint Ignace’s destruction have twisted the story to make it theirs, and that’s definitely influenced by how, for example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s work fighting for racial and economic justice has been twisted and perverted by people who don’t really stand for those things, and how they distill his message down to a single line from a single speech without even any examination of the context of that line within the speech.

And whenever I examine human relationships through fiction, even adversarial ones, the first thing I think about is what those humans want; I don’t think you can do that and not explore love or one of its permutations.

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

Christopher Caldwell: Usually writing for me is something like riding a bicycle up a hill. It’s hard to get started, but if I get a good feel for it, I can go at a steady pace. It requires a lot of concentration and control, and if I’m honest I’m pretty tired at the end of drafting a scene. This felt more like riding a wave. There were periods where I felt like I wasn’t in control and I was just being swept along by something more powerful than I was, and that was a thrilling experience. One night I was sitting in a windowsill in a pool of moonlight trying my damnedest to get down everything as it occurred to me, and I felt like a heroine from a gothic novel or some sort Byronic hero.

I wrote the majority of this story in the hospital. In August 2021, I was hospitalized because of a life-threatening level of calcium in my blood, probably caused by a combination of a chronic condition I have, sarcoidosis, and an over-prescription of Vitamin D supplements. The core of the story came to me when I was moved from an intensive ward to a less restrictive one with a view of Glasgow’s gothic cathedral and glimpses of its hilly Victorian necropolis. And I started to write on my smartphone. I hate typing on my phone! I barely use it to text if I can avoid it, but I composed the first draft of this story with my thumbs while I was recuperating in the hospital because it felt like something I had to get out of me.

Uncanny Magazine: I love the elements you’ve combined to build the religion in this story: the yellow-throated swallows, the watch, the calcified heart. Did you have all of these elements in mind when you started the story, or did you discover them as you went along?

Christopher Caldwell: The world in which this story takes place existed before the story; another story published in Uncanny, “If Salt Lose Its Savor,” takes place contemporaneously, although in a distant locale with an entirely distinct culture. I think I’ve always had dim concepts about the various religious practices, and cultures throughout this world, but the ones particular to this story were certainly expanded on and newly solidified for me.

I’ve lived in Glasgow, Scotland for the past ten years. The coat of arms of the city of Glasgow and its ancient university both feature images of a bird, a bell, a fish, and a tree. There’s an accompanying rhyme:

 

Here is the bird that never flew,

Here is the tree that never grew.

Here is the bell that never rang,

Here is the fish that never swam.

 

Glasgow was at one time a cathedral city, centered around a gothic cathedral and the university that sprang up around it. The rhyme and images on the coats of arms are associated with Saint Mungo—who is also called Saint Kentigern—a 6th century missionary who is Glasgow’s founder and patron saint. Each of those items is associated with a miracle performed through Mungo. My favorite, the fish, involves the Queen of Strathclyde being falsely accused of infidelity by her jealous husband. Her wedding ring had vanished, and she was in danger of being executed for her unfaithfulness, even though in reality, the king had stolen her ring and thrown it into the river Clyde. The queen asked Mungo for aid, and Mungo told a messenger to go to the river and catch a fish. When the fish was cut open, the ring shone forth from its guts, allowing her to refute the accusations through divine providence.

The thing that interested me though, is that the rhyme doesn’t actually make sense! The bird, for example, was killed and then brought back to life miraculously—it not only flew, but presumably flew after it should not have been able to! The tree certainly grew before it was turned into firewood, the fish swam, and I’d guess the bell probably rang. Even if we take for granted the miracles happened—and the ring story is similar enough to a number of folk stories and legends that it might be considered its own motif—there’s a layer of falsehood baked into the whole thing that is just sort of taken for granted.

When I was creating my saint, I could see Mungo’s cathedral from my hospital room, and Glasgow’s coat of arms worked into lampposts. I wanted something similar for my religious order, and decided to use symbols that meant something to me. I spent the majority of my childhood in southern California, and a thing I used to look forward to was the swallows returning to the mission in San Juan Capistrano every year; in my youth those birds epitomized faithfulness and loyalty. The watch was partially inspired by a beautiful bronze mechanical watch that my spouse gave me for our anniversary—I wore it in the hospital until my wrist swelled up, and then kept it next to me the entire time—but it also represented to me the concept of how we mark time itself, especially the time we spend together, which is why I used it as a symbol of commitment for the imaginary people of the world (their watches are pocket watches, and much larger than my wristwatch, of course).

The heart was inspired by Mary Shelley. Her husband, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned young and was cremated, but during the cremation process his heart did not burn. Mary Shelley kept the heart and reputedly carried it around for the rest of her life. There was a kind of serendipity when I discovered later on in the writing process that the reason that Percy Shelley’s heart didn’t burn was probably because of calcification due to tuberculosis, a disease which causes granulomatous formations similar enough to the ones caused by my condition, sarcoidosis, that it’s one of the things they need to rule out when symptoms first appear.

Uncanny Magazine: Who are some of your literary influences?

Christopher Caldwell: For this story, I was influenced by the rhythms of Shakespeare, the visionary, ecstatic terror of William Blake, and the sort of delirious feel of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe stories, where something secret is revealed. There is a kind of lonely melancholy to one of my favorite pieces of writing, Bodas de Sangre by Federico García Lorca that I tried to emulate a little. But also very much Virginia Hamilton’s book The People Could Fly, which is a collection of folk tales and stories from the African diaspora all re-told with a distinctive authorial voice. Also on my mind was Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which charts the Great Migration—a period where Black Americans left the American South for the north and west in the early to mid-twentieth century—and how it relates to my own family history.

Uncanny Magazine: The acolyte discovers the truth about the Mother of Mákhesthaines, but decides to hide that truth out of love for the city and its citizens. Is there a city you love enough to lie for?

Christopher Caldwell: One of my favorite cities in the world is New Orleans, but this love is certainly not absent a high degree of ambivalence. All four of my grandparents were born in south Louisiana and so in varying degrees within the larger sphere of New Orleans’s influence; none of them lived anywhere near the city during my lifetime. All of them were part of the Great Migration. Despite being shaped by and also shaping the culture there, there’s a legacy of pain and a history of betrayal that goes very deep.

Whenever I visit New Orleans, I inevitably run into someone who looks a little like me, and it may turn out they’re a lost cousin. I can eat food that tastes like things my grandmothers make. But there’s also the knowledge that this is a place where some of my ancestors had their names, and their families, their entire histories stripped from them. There’s the knowledge that this is the closest thing I have to an ancestral city, because beyond that is the terrible Middle Passage and the unknowable.

I’ve never lived in New Orleans. When I visit, I think of it as “going back,” but I don’t know if that’s a lie I tell myself to soften the sting of feeling rootless.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Christopher Caldwell: I am working on a novel set in the larger world visited in another Uncanny story, “Femme and Sundance.” The protagonist is someone who has abandoned the use of magic because he decided it was unhealthy for him, only to be drawn back into some very destructive patterns by grief. I think it’s about how we escape self-destructive practices when larger structural forces compel us towards complicity in oppressive systems, but we’ll see how it shakes out.

The other thing I am working on is a novella set in the world of this story and “If Salt Lose Its Savor.” It’s about two rival poisoners employed by feuding noble houses, and feels to me sort of like if Paris is Burning met Dangerous Liaisons.

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

Crustacean on Land

I am haunted by her neoprene

   suit, the swell

of undulations

   while the ocean kelps.

 

In New Mexico I balked

   at white sun,

my fleshy calves

  trembling when the

 

puppeteer said, It’s either me

             or the seven

seas. I crashed

like a breaking wave.

 

My dwarfed heart could not be

 trusted, and my mind

kept saying, No ultimatums—swim.

 Now when I am

 

washing dishes or tweezing

  brows or grading

essays, I can sense

 the wetsuit grip my flesh.

 

My shadow says, You were once

             wrapped in rubber

skin, collecting shells. Then I

 remember that pale gray

 

night the schemer lured

  me into a pueblo

in Santa Fe, and how my

 parched mouth craved water.

 

Beneath a dark New Mexican

 moon, my scorched

heart gave in, but my

 head knew that a woman

 

with a mind like a lobster

  thrives in coarse

saltwater. She could spill her

   coins on the beaches of

 

Santa Barbara, inhaling seaweed.

 But my runtish red ticker

chose land, and now

 the water-ghost clutches

 

my wrists with her claws.

    My heart has grown wider, I say,

but her eyes are black glass.

    She pulls at my skirt

 

with the zeal of an abandoned

   friend. Sometimes

she seems ready to pull me under.

Watch me swim, I tell her,

 

gasping for breath, she who wants

to neoprene me back,

who points at the tides

   & says, Drown that house.

POST MASSACRE PSYCHE EVALUATION

I know what I’ve seen of blood & death—what the night forgets

to cover in its shadows; what part of paradise a bullet

undresses before the body‚ before stealing light from its eyes.

 

What was asked is, are you healing or still hurting?

 

I don’t know what you’re looking for in me

but in my sleep, I keep talking to dead bodies.

They speak back with a tongue the government hates;

with their mouthfuls of hurt—black holes, dying to swallow

the country that tossed their souls to heaven.

 

How much did they pay for your silence?

 

Should the head be cut off from the body,

out of fear of what this city of smoke & blood has to tell it?

I don’t have all the answers. I know nothing of standing

for what’s right. I’m scared of telling the truth.

There are shooters outside my window.

 

Why is this scar on your chin shaped like your country?

 

The dead wish we could hear what they say.

I can no longer speak of my needs on the street.

How do you translate this kind of silence?

There’s a lot I cannot tell you. Nobody knows

the price of silence but all my friends are

traumatized or waiting for the sun to name

a part of them dwindling into oblivion.

 

On a scale of zero to God, please do something, how much hope have you lost in life since the

massacre?

 

I watch the police hose down the face of a man

with bullets. I watch the man fall like a dry leaf

in autumn. I watch the ground catch his blood

like raindrops. I watch his body slip into stillness.

Into God’s silence. Into my sleep. Into my dreams.

I look up to the sky to watch God watching us in silence.

 

Do you feel tachyarrhythmia, shortness of breath, pressure in the chest, tremors and hand

sweating when you’re stopped by the police?

 

My sisters are afraid another man will be shot

for walking with his head up. I’m afraid I’ll be buried

without my voice. My voice, my voice.

Did anyone hear my voice ask the government to end police

brutality? My God, my God, please do something before they come for me.

 

(Editors’ Note: “POST MASSACRE PSYCH EVALUATION” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 43A.)

That Story Isn’t the Story

Everything Anton owns goes in one black trash bag. His ratty yellow sketchpad, which he bought to draw the other familiars when he moved here, and only ever used three pages of. The few shirts and khakis that he paid for with his own money, before Mr. Bird took control of his finances. A broken pocket watch he’d found dangling from the side of the Queensboro Bridge, on the first day he really considered ending himself, and had instead rescued the watch with the intent of one day learning how to fix it.

Anton never did fix that watch. But it is leaving with him.

He heads for the stairs that will lead him out of the townhouse. It’ll be the first time he’s gone outside in so long it feels like he’s never been outside. Time outside the gothic damask flock wallpaper and blacked out windows still doesn’t seem real.

“Where are you going?”

The voice comes from the rear room, the one next to Mr. Bird’s, where the twins sleep. Liquor and jasmine incense waft forth as one of the teenagers emerges. Both Pavla and Yoana look and sound so similar, with their gossamer hair and legs as thin as their arms.

This one is Pavla, recognizable because she always wears red arm warmers, because her elbows are where Mr. Bird bites her.

He bites Anton in more intimate places.

“Aren’t you supposed to be getting his Manets out of storage?” As Pavla asks, she touches the inside of her arm through the arm warmer, as though to protect it from a thought. “He’s going to flip his shit if you don’t have them hanging when he gets back.”

Anton lies, “I’m on my way.”

She rubs her eyes and looks at his garbage bag. “What have you got there?”

“Nothing important.”

The sleepiness drops off her tone and for a moment her voice is thin and hard, like Mr. Bird’s. “What are you doing?”

A car horn blares from the street outside the townhouse. He needs to hurry up. Grigorii is outside and probably as scared as Anton is. He has to be out of here before Mr. Bird returns.

So Anton hugs his garbage bag and goes for the stairs. The thick oak front door of the townhouse is ajar, letting orange sunlight spill over the coat rack and end tables of their parlor. It leaks up the stairs, and Anton pauses on the last step above it.

Instinctively he checks the windows, with their blackout curtains nailed in place. The rest of the townhouse is dim. Mr. Bird has banished the sun from this place, cloaking it in a peaceful, suffocating dark where Anton and Pavla don’t have to think.

The sun is intruding because of Anton’s doing.

Pavla says, “Don’t do it. You’ll burn.”

Anton tells himself, “It’s not true.”

It’s not true, not that a fact helps a feeling. Anton urges himself. Mr. Bird goes outside. Walter, the senior familiar, often goes with him. They survive.

A bulky white man steps into the light, and Anton’s chest seizes.

Anton says, “Mr. Bird? No, you’re early.”

It isn’t him. It’s Grigorii, tall and chunky in odd directions. He moves like he doesn’t care; Grigorii has an ugly charisma. His face is splattered with risen moles, acne scars, and asymmetrical dimples. He is comfortable with his face and his faded One Piece hoodie and running shoes that he wears to every occasion.

“I’m double parked, dude. Let’s hit the road.”

Anton says, “I’m sorry. You should go home. It was a mistake to call you.”

Pavla sneaks closer to the stairs, still shy of where the sunlight falls. She demands, “Who the hell is he?”

Grigorii eyes her. From his tone, he has no idea who he’s talking to. “I’m a friend of Anton’s since high school, and I’m a reason you should step away from him.”

Anton says, “Seriously. You need to get out of here. Before he…before the owner gets home.”

“To quote the Bible, ‘No fucking way,’” Grigorii says, and lumbers inside. He makes the terrible mistake of entering this place. Mr. Bird has probably seen everything. He’s probably furious.

“Seriously, man,” Grigorii says, “I am not going anywhere without you. If I get a ticket, that’s on you.”

“He’ll be home any minute.”

“And if he comes for you, he comes for me. Let’s go.”

“You don’t understand.”

Grigorii stretches out one of those lumpy arms with palm extended, to touch Anton. It’s an offer of touch. Such an unusual thing, for touch to be an offer in this house. Anton forgot it could be an offer.

Anton grabs his hand and they run, leaving Pavla swearing upstairs. She doesn’t follow them into the light.

Their escape is a dented currant Kia Rio with a broken front bumper and a trash bag covering one broken side window. Anton goes for that door and tosses his own trash bag of belongings inside.

Grigorii asks, “You still like the Electric Six?”

They are not the first words he thought he’d hear upon escaping. The question is so alien it feels like being struck in the face by a hammer, or like an invasive bite. Briefly, Anton wonders if he’s bleeding already. That will happen.

A black town car trails up the street toward them. Sleek and black, with that short club of a man Walter at the wheel. Mr. Bird’s senior familiar. Anton knows who sits in the tinted windows and the shadows of the rear seats.

From inside the Kia, Grigorii pops the passenger door open. “Come on, man.”

Is blood spotting in Anton’s jeans? He gropes at his thighs, unsure if the moisture is sweat on his palms or if he’s bleeding. The car is getting closer. Mr. Bird definitely sees him.

Anton sinks into the car. He clutches his seatbelt until they are doing forty in a twenty mile zone. He’s too worried to turn around, and too afraid not to fixate on the rearview mirror.

The black car stops in the middle of the street. A rear door opens, and a dark thing peers out. There is no seeing any detail of that figure—no detail except for his mouth. It is open and sharp. Distance doesn’t change how clearly Anton sees the teeth.

They drive to one of the thousand little towns that keeps the city fed. Grigorii’s place is tucked behind a salt barn, near a depot where the district parks its vehicles and keeps supplies for winter storms. Grigorii’s place itself looks like the mutant child of a double-wide and a single-story kit house, made from faded white aluminum with a slanted roof like the building is tipping its hat to them. The colorful light of a TV flickers through the murky windows, which look like they haven’t seen a sponge in their entire lives.

Grigorii says, “Welcome to my estate. You’ll have the east wing to yourself.”

Anton hugs his trash bag and follows Grigorii. The house is even smaller on the inside, more a living room/kitchen combo with a few doors that must lead to cramped spaces. It’s a house of unpainted white walls with the occasional brown or greasy scuff. A Hispanic kid sits on a couch cushion on the floor, playing retro videogames on the TV. There are four couch cushions and no couch to be seen.

The kid twists around on his pillow to face them. He has lopsided ears, the right almost two thirds bigger than the left, and his black hair is raked to the left. He gestures at Anton with the game controller.

“Hey, is this the new guy?”

Grigorii says, “Yup. In the flesh.”

The kid rolls backward, getting his shoulders to the floor, then springs up to his feet with his arms outstretched as through awaiting applause. The controller is still in his left hand. “Hey. I’m Luis.”

Suddenly Anton feels too tall. Luis is the same height as him, and Anton still wishes to be smaller. He doesn’t deserve to take up as much as space as that poise and swagger.

He says, “I’m Anton. Pleased to meet you.”

“So formal,” Luis says. “You got any stuff? I can help bring it in.”

“I packed light.”

“That’s cool. I didn’t have anything when my uncle kicked me out, either. So you lived with some fucked up people?”

Anton remembers feeling the sun on his skin and thinking he’d die on contact. He remembers it so intensely that he might still be standing in the stairs of Mr. Bird’s townhouse.

Escaping was an illusion.

This is all a lie he’s telling himself.

He says, “Sort of.”

“What were they like? Did they make you do fucked up shit?”

Yes, this definitely isn’t happening.

Anton is somewhere in the townhouse. He’s in the archives, finding the right paintings for Mr. Bird. It was stupid of him to think he could get away. He feels the slickness on his thighs—the sign that Mr. Bird is here and mad at him.

Grigorii steps in. “That’s not the story we’re telling today.”

Grigorii is so close that his hot breath falls on Anton’s shoulder, cutting through his shirt. It grounds him in the moment. The crappy little house tucked behind a salt barn is tangible, and so is the meaning of the people inside it. His friend extends an arm like he wants to touch Anton to reassure him, and he does not take the touch. It is another offer of touch. That intent is more reassuring than touch could be.

Anton tries to focus on the intent, despite dreading that shadows and teeth are nearby and that his pants are full of blood.

Grigorii says, “Anton’s an old friend. His family was there for me when I needed something. My house is going to be here for him, just like it is for you. We don’t have much room, so we give each other space of ideas. Right?”

Luis nods ruefully and sets the game controller aside. He says, “My bad. Sorry. You sure there isn’t anything I can carry for you?”

The bleeding feels real. Anton asks, “Actually, do you have a bathroom?”

Anton means to check himself in the bathroom mirror.

There is no bathroom mirror.  There are three small white shelves holding supplements and amber pill bottles like the inside of a bathroom mirror. The mirror itself has been removed, leaving empty hinges behind.

Subconsciously he listens for Grigorii and Luis’s footfalls to trail away from the bathroom door, like they might hear his guilt. It’s a genuine fear that sticks to his ribs. Pavla and Walter would’ve mocked him for it.

He sits on the toilet and spreads his thighs to check himself. There are many holes in his skin, most like the shapes of melted Tic-Tacs. The holes form the circular shapes of three bite marks—two on his right thigh, and the newer one on the left.

They are not healing. The two oldest bites are maybe eleven months old and have never sported a scab. He’d hoped they might close up after he fled. They are not closing.

At least they are bloodless tonight. That is all the relief Anton gets.

Mr. Bird’s bites only bleed when Mr. Bird is near and upset with his familiar.

This means Mr. Bird isn’t nearby. Not nearby yet.

Anton runs a fingertip over the holes in his skin, worrying them. He dreads that they will start bleeding at any moment. He stares so intently that he doesn’t know he’s panicking until someone knocks on the bathroom door.

“You okay in there, man?”

He spends hours apologizing for the noise he makes next.

He is not up to chatter. The couple times Luis asks him about superhero movies leave him in tears. The raw thought required is too much. Should he pretend to have seen a movie they consider essential? Will liking Captain America more than Batman upset one of his hosts? When he actually does care about something, is he effusive enough to hold up his part of the talk?

Grigorii drops the yellow sketch pad in Anton’s lap along with a few colored pencils. “Literally had these leftover for ten years. Can you believe it? They waited for you.”

Gripping them feels familiar and nostalgic. Anton had these pencils in high school. A third of them are merely nubs of pencils. Grigorii kept his nubs.

They sit on the stray sofa cushions, all arranged around the TV. The guys play Terraria, a videogame that seems to be about digging a tunnel to Hell so that you can build a house. It’s in the retro style of graphics that were old before Anton was born.

Luis offers him the controller. “You want to play?”

“No thank you.”

Grigorii says, “Anton’s a gamer. He used to be a beast at Smash Bros.”

Luis says, “This game is more chill than Smash.”

It’s a multiplayer game, but they don’t own any other devices to play it on. Rather they take turns with their one controller. Grigorii likes to build ladders up to the clouds to face harpies for treasure underground. Luis is more into mining for metals and building traps. Digging one single block in front of a door means no monster can get in. Instead they fall in and are stuck in the shallow hole.

The door of their actual house has no pit in front of it. Anton watches through the window, looking in the creeping shadows of dusk. Any of them could be Mr. Bird.

Grigorii says, “How am I supposed to fight the Eye of Cthulhu with all the NPCs living on the top floor?”

It’s another of those sentences that feels like it belongs in another plane of existence from Anton. He scrutinizes the fort they’re building in the game. Luis has disco balls and fire places in every room. The place has no symmetry, and too few ways to get between the chambers. It’s boxy, with patches of wood and gray stone for walls and ceiling. It’s a mess of pixelated good intentions.

Anton has the nub of gray and brown pencils. He sketches a sleek revision to the fort, with a ladder up the center of all the floors, like an elevator. It can lead down into all of Luis’s tunnels. Everywhere, there will be a torch. Then they’ll be safe.

He nudges Grigorii with the sketch pad and gets a nod of approval. The three of them start redesigning the fort.

“And a door there,” Anton gestures to the wall of the top floor. “To throw bombs down when monsters come.”

Luis drops the controller to put both his hands to his scalp. “You mad genius.”

The quickened pulse. The rapid flight of his eyes between pad and people and game. It’s been so long since excitement wasn’t coupled with fear. When they slay a giant flying eyeball with fangs, all three of them grab each other and shake wildly. It’s terrifying and Anton doesn’t want it to stop.

Grigorii has four jobs altogether. From 7 AM to noon he’s the cook at a gastro diner called Breakfast For Breakfast. Anton thought they’d be eating gourmet pancakes every day, but Grigorii can’t stand breakfast food.

“Not after making it this much. I’d rather eat my hand than a waffle.”

For the rest of his week, Grigorii mows the grass around the town hall and the cemetery, and separates papers from plastics at the town dump, and almost ironically he drives a ride share.

Luis has two jobs—he works at the dump as well, and bags groceries part-time.

These are the things that just barely keep food on their table. Not that they have a table. They eat off old plastic egg crates. He starts to draw again, trying to get the holes in the egg crates right, so eventually he can draw the holes in himself.

During this whole time, no question is asked. Grigorii lets him coast without a nudge. Anton could hide in the house and draw and play Terraria for weeks.

But doing their dishes and laundry and scrubbing the windows is simply not enough. It’ll be Luis who asks when Anton is going to pitch in, and when the answers are vague, the resentment will grow. The advice helplines he calls tell him not to rush himself. They do not understand what it is to bleed when you disappoint someone.

“Calm down,” Grigorii says. “You’re making that buzzing sound again.”

“I need to work. If one of you gets hurt, we’ve got nothing.”

“Well, lucky you. This town’s getting gentrified to fuck.”

“How does that help?”

“Where there are rich people, there is work they don’t want to do.”

Manual labor is a gift. Lugging jugs of weed killer and spreading soil is not so different than building pixelated homes in Terraria. They are both distractions. Much as he doesn’t think about his own existence when he plays the game, he ceases to exist when he hauls and aches and works. It’s a peaceful oblivion that pays bills.

There are so many showy second homes, and Grigorii knows some of the owners. The nearest properties are an eight mile walk, which Anton can abide. After a week, he’s pulling fourteen hour days without a complaint.

The homeowner is a white lady, Mrs. Walsh. She sips limeade and tequila with a generous smile, the generosity of which is that she is smiling for him at all. He knows the dynamic. He knows to show gratitude.

“Kids today don’t have a work ethic,” she says, shooing Anton to the road. “You’re different.”

Without thinking about it, Anton knows he doesn’t have a work ethic. The helplines have taught him better. He has a habituated trauma that requires him to do something or face consequences he’s too afraid to think about. If anything, it’s a relief that Mrs. Walsh’s kids aren’t like him.

He is thinking again. He needs to stop that.

He says, “Thanks, Mrs. Walsh. It’s a beautiful property. I’ll have the slope finished soon, and then we can start on that garden.”

The eight mile walk home will be easier in a week, when Grigorii frees up and joins him. They’ll drive together. That’ll mean more sleep, too.

Fifty yards into those eight miles, he recognizes a town car parked along the wrong side of the road. Its black hood has a grainy polish so that it lacks any luster, in moonlight or daylight. Its windows are tinted so deeply that pedestrians couldn’t see what was done to passengers inside.

His pants are wet. The cloying warmth seeps out of his bites, soaking through the fabric. It brings with it the anticipation that a blow is coming. He cringes in expectation.

The other familiars are here. They’ve been waiting for him. The twins, Pavla and Yoana, are on either side of the senior familiar, Walter. They wear sharp satin suits over starched linen shirts. They wear the kind of uncomfortable, thick rings that left indentations on Anton’s fingers to this day.

Pavla says, “Get in the car and come back with us and I’ll try to smooth it over with…”

Walter raises a hand with one finger and Pavla stops talking. Her eyes go from his finger, to the car, to her shoes. A little stream of blood trickles down her left cuff and across the heel of her hand. That means her bites are bleeding, too.

She and her sister have to leave Mr. Bird, too. Anton should argue with her and convince her that leaving is possible.

Not that she’d dare listen to him now.

Walter is a gangly man, barely out of his teens, younger than Anton, and broader. His limbs are thin enough that it’s easy to miss how wide his shoulders are, and how long his reach is. His teeth have started to sharpen, although his are nothing close to Mr. Bird’s.

He has been Mr. Bird’s familiar the longest. Mr. Bird is frequently unhappy with him. He’d wanted Anton to take over, allegedly since Anton was more decisive. The idea of becoming Mr. Bird’s right hand is what finally made Anton run. It’s something he’s worked hard not to think about.

Walter says, “You took something of his.”

Anton shifts on the side of the road. The crumbling asphalt tilts under his footing. “I didn’t. I swear.”

Walter points at Anton’s chest. “You. Your time is his time. You made the same deal we all did.”

Anton pushes the soles of his feet against the asphalt, letting it break. “You can’t make me come back.”

“You are going to make yourself come back,” Walter says, with the edge that Mr. Bird usually speaks in. “It’s for your own good. None of us could live without him.”

“I’m alive. I’m fine.”

“You’re shaking. You were shaking the day he and I found you, too.”

Is he shaking?

He clutches his right arm. Yes, he is.

Was he shaking before Walter said he was?

He’s not sure.

Walter says, “He’s not doing this to hurt you. You were nothing before. We were all nothing. Are we not good enough for you? Where’s your loyalty?”

That word. ‘Loyalty.’ It makes him think of Grigorii’s ugly face, and the one time he and Anton went on a date and how bad it went, and how they were still friends the next week, and how years later Grigorii came and double parked to save him.

Walter asks, “What made you think you could survive without him?”

“That story is not the story I’m telling today.”

The blood flowing on his thighs slows, as though it’s clotting. It’s still forming dark circles in his pants that are visible in the waning daylight.

He refuses to relent. He thinks of his new home, and the sketch pad and game night waiting for him. The linoleum floor of Grigorii’s place is more welcoming than Mr. Bird’s memory foam bed. If his brain is going to lock up, it is going to lock on those feelings.

Walter says, “If you don’t come with us, there will be consequences. We know where you’re nesting now.”

The mental image of that linoleum floor now floods Anton with cold dread. What could be happening in their home right now? Is that house on fire? Is Mr. Bird waiting in the town car, or is he across town ravaging Grigorii and Luis? Is there any life left eight miles away?

No. His bites are bleeding. That means Mr. Bird must be here, not there.

A speck of red wells in the white linen of Walter’s shirt. It peeks out behind beneath his suit jacket.

Anton often wondered where Mr. Bird bit Walter. Now he knows.

This means Mr. Bird is furious at them all. He must still want to replace Walter.

Pavla and Yoana move to the rear door of the car. They open it and stand, waiting for Anton to submit. To come to the place no one should call home.

Anton says, “I have work in the morning.”

Pavla and Yoana watch him leave, walking to a different home.

There is no sleeping tonight. Anton lies on the floor and pretends to rest while he watches the window. There are noises in the night, deeper animal sounds than any raccoons. There’s a warbling buzz, like a flock of nocturnal crows are clearing their throats.

He doesn’t dare go outside. Not in all that dark. They could be anywhere out there.

First thing at sun-up he inspects the front door in case any carnage or omens have been left there. There’s nothing there except garbage and the pair of beat-up lawn mowers they need to tear open and fix.

This doesn’t make sense.

Anton pulls weeds the next day. His neck feels made of fraying rope from all the times he checks behind himself. As best as he can tell, the car and the familiars don’t show up.

Monday morning is the same, if harder to get through because of the brain fog. Anton needs to sleep or he’ll never survive this life. He cuts the shit out of his hands working, and that is a sign that he needs to focus on what really matters.

Everything will be fine.

It’s not until Tuesday that they come for Luis.

Anton moves slowly. He creeps through the front door, physically feeling like whatever happened to Luis will ooze out and suffocate him. It is a tangible panic he has to fight to walk through.

Luis sits against the wall, using one of the sofa cushions as a back rest, watching Captain America: Winter Soldier for the hundredth time. He turns his attention from Steve Rogers to Anton. The motion makes the wadded bandage on the side of his neck crinkle.

Anton asks, “What happened?”

“Random accident,” Luis says, muting the TV. The heroes keep fighting wordlessly. “I was working near the highway. Clearing brush and crap. I paused to catch my breath and somebody bumped into me. Car almost wiped my shit.”

“Somebody hit you?”

Anton can see it happening. Scrawny Luis rubbing his eyes, and a shadow lunging out of the trees to toss him in front of traffic. Walter had warned that there were going to be consequences.

“The driver said he saw a white girl. Neither of us was exactly looking at her, you know? She ran off. Wouldn’t be the first meth head running around out here.” He shrugs, then winces and touches the bandage. “I’m just getting my mind off it. Want to play Terraria?”

It was a woman, then. Pavla and Yoana could have done it. Mr. Bird has his familiars do everything for him. They are his hands.

So he’s showing Anton. Showing him how a familiar is supposed to behave.

Anton asks, “She pushed you into traffic?”

Luis says, “Nah, man. If somebody wanted to yeet my ass into traffic, I would’ve known. This was, like, I would’ve thought I tripped if the driver didn’t tell me she was there. And I dodged the car with my super reflexes. Chill.”

Too much doesn’t make sense. Anton leans against the frame of the front door, mulling the attack. Why did Mr. Bird order Luis to almost die? He is the sort to burn down this house with all of them inside it. The only reason Anton isn’t dead already is that Mr. Bird wants him back.

Luis scratches at the adhesive of the bandage on his neck.

Before he knows it, Anton is approaching him. The bandage is a sanitary white rectangle. There’s no seeing what is underneath. Judging its size, Anton feels his own mouth, for the size of his teeth.

Anton asks, “Did you get cut in the fall?”

“Yeah, cut myself up. I don’t know what I fell on. My luck.”

“A scrape?”

“Nah, it got me deep.” Luis mimes stabbing himself in the throat with a sword, with a comical expression. “Must’ve been a rock.”

That expression and that mental image tell Anton that he has to go back to Mr. Bird. He has to go trade himself to protect Luis and Grigorii from what may have already happened.

Anton kneels over Luis, looking for any blood spotting through the bandage. None is visible.

He asks, “Could you show it to me?”

Luis says, “What?”

Anton is crouching over Luis now, trying not to look manic, trying not to look like someone whose heart is about to rupture out of their chest. “I need to…you know, can I make sure…”

“Grigorii already looked at it. I’m good.”

“Did it feel like something bit you?”

Luis looks aside without turning his body. “I’m trying to watch a movie here. You mind?”

Anton isn’t thinking. The thoughts are too heavy to lift. Action is easier, and he has to do something. It’s for Luis’s safety.

Luis reaches for the remote, and Anton reaches for the bandage.

“Man, quit it.”

“I’ll go back to him. He can’t take you. I promise, I promise, I promise.”

“Dude! Fuck off of me!”

One of Anton’s hands nests in Luis’s t-shirt, and the other goes for the bandage. He yanks at both, and Luis shoves him in the chest. Anton rocks backward, then surges forward again. All he can see is the loose bandage and the infected pink flesh of the cut underneath. He can’t see the size or shape of the injury.

He needs to see it closer. He needs to be sure that he didn’t get this boy cursed.

Thick arms circle Anton’s belly and he is in the air, a flying feeling that reminds him of when Mr. Bird used to hit him. His throat buzzes, and he promises that he’ll go back if they don’t take Luis.

No one is hitting him. Grigorii is here, dragging him away from the house. Anton tries to explain, and he can’t. Not through the hysterical shrieking that overtakes his mouth.

The two of them go for a drive. Anton is terrified that Grigorii is taking them to the city and will dump him at that dark townhouse. It would be right. He’s a problem that needs to go back where he came from.

And he needs to go back. His pain can plug the hole his escape made. He should’ve taken the ride with Walter; then nobody would have attacked Luis.

They don’t visit the city. They roll a few miles into the pines, to the view of a trail that is half hiking path and half knotty tree roots that serve as natural stairs. The entrance is decorated with used Solo cups and cigarette butts. Grigorii stays in the car, taking a long drink from his old water bottle that he refills from the tap every morning. Its label is long gone.

There are so many shadows under the pines. Any of them could be Mr. Bird.

Grigorii says, “You need therapy. I know you do, and I wish I could afford it for you. It’s a shithole country.”

“You don’t owe me anything. I’ll be fine.”

“Man, you’re clearly scared. I can see the fear when you’re happy. Does my place make you feel unsafe?”

Anton whips his head back and forth. “No. No, no.”

“Did I do something to make you scared?” Grigorii sets the water bottle aside. “Because I don’t think Luis did anything. He’s a sweet boy. I’m not entitled to know all your shit. But I need to know what’s setting you off like that. That can’t happen again.”

“I wouldn’t hurt him.”

“You were hurting him. I need to know what caused that.”

Anton owes him so much. Even if Grigorii doesn’t believe him, he deserves to hear what he wants to hear. How can he shape it so that he’ll understand?

“There’s a man. I mean, he’s not a man. He’s sort of…”

Anton trails off immediately. There is no way to describe the shadows with a mouth that controlled his life for three years.

Grigorii asks, “If he’s not a man, what is he?”

“Let’s say he’s a man.”

“Okay. This is the guy that ran the little cult you lived in?”

“He preys on certain kinds of people. Immigrants. People without families. I think his oldest member was a drug addict.”

“Well I’m glad you’re out of there.”

“I think I should go back.”

Grigorii rests a broad palm against the backrest of Anton’s seat. His fingers sink into the cushion. “Buddy. That is not happening.”

“I don’t know.”

“When you called me, you said you were going to die if you stayed.”

He had phrased it like that. It had felt too much to confess that he’d kill himself if he stayed.

Now Anton wonders if killing himself is the answer. It would give Mr. Bird no satisfaction. No returned slave. And it will give them no reason to keep harassing Luis and Grigorii.

“Anton,” Grigorii says. “Speak to me, man.”

The car is real. His friend is real. The conversation is real.

Anton speaks. “The three others tracked me down. They caught me on my way home a few nights ago.”

“Holy shit. They came out here? You should’ve said. I’ve got a baseball bat they can meet.”

“They said I had to come back or there would be consequences.”

“They said you had to do what they said or they’d attack Luis?”

“Not exactly.”

Grigorii worms his tall body around the driver seat so he can face Anton dead-on. There’s no escaping his warm, overworked eyes.

The man says, “Look. I’m not attacking you. I put you up in my place. I got you out of that cult. I’m listening to you now. So come with me, okay?”

Anton breathes. “Okay.”

“What did these people say? Exactly?”

The exact phrasing is murky. A series of panics has mashed it up like a bad remix in his head. He knows a few things about it, though.

“It was short. They didn’t have to say much.”

“Was it specific?”

Anton thinks. No, it wasn’t.

Anton speaks. “No. It wasn’t.”

“Did they say they’d push somebody into traffic?”

“No.”

“Did they say they’d attack one of us at work?”

“They didn’t have to say that. People make vague threats all the time.”

Grigorii falls into his seat. “Yeah they do. Do you remember my mom?”

Mrs. Caravaggio is an ancient story. Anton has to search into the dusty archives of his mind for a vague image of that woman with the constant smell of menthols and the beautiful black hair. The last time Anton saw her was middle school. When Anton’s family had sheltered Grigorii, they didn’t see her all that year, or ever again. She disappeared into the chasm that was her life.

Anton says, “Yeah, I remember her.”

“She was the master of vague threats.”

“She was?”

“Whatever happened, she said she planned it. One time she said if I didn’t scrub the basement floor, she’d have to punish me. Two days later our power got cut because she spent all our money doing whatever else, not that I knew. She said that was my punishment for not scrubbing hard enough. It worked, too. I begged her to bring the power back.”

Anton squeezes his hands together into one messy fist, and looks between his fingers, in the miniscule gaps, as though he’ll find himself inside.

“The threats meant that when there wasn’t food, it was my fault. When Dad didn’t come for his weekend, it was my fault. It made me paranoid.”

How many times has he begged Mr. Bird for forgiveness for things he didn’t do? For things he didn’t do wrong?

The answer is not in the miniscule gaps between his fingers.

He asks his friend, “What happened to your mom? Do you ever see her?”

“That story is not the story I’m telling today, man.”

Anton breathes. “Right. I’m sorry.”

“I’m telling you what I did for me. What you’ve got to do for you. She doesn’t matter to the story of how I survived.”

“I just don’t see how you survived. If she controlled everything in your life, what did you do?”

Grigorii holds out his palm, with all its calluses and grime. It’s another offer of touch. “You know that part. I came and lived with your family.”

“They don’t want me anymore.”

“Yeah, but I do.”

The drizzle makes working on the Flemings’ new shed futile. It’s an unusually chilly precipitation, and so Anton quits early. His body is beat anyway, sluggish like it has the brain fog instead of his head for once. At least he can use some of the plastic tarp as a poncho for the long walk home. If he’s lucky, Grigorii will leave the cemetery early and drive along this road on the way.

Around the first bend, still in sight of the Flemings’ property, Walter waits under a black crocodile skin umbrella.

The car is parked on the shoulder of the road. The rear left window is open a sliver. A gloom festers inside. Anton strains to see the mouth, to see the white of the teeth that long for his flesh. Already his jeans are damp with warmer things than the rain.

Walter’s acid voice splashes him. “You’re coming with us. Now.”

At first Anton licks his lips and averts his eyes to the ground. The old habits of weakness.

It’s a smaller ‘us’ than before. Walter stands alone on the road, and perhaps with Mr. Bird in the car. Anton has to wonder where the twins are. Is Luis safe? Is this a distraction to keep him away until they’ve attacked?

Anton says, “I have to get home.”

“This isn’t an offer. This is what’s going to happen.”

Anton tells his feet to get moving. A puddle grows underneath him.

Walter says, “You’re going to help us find wherever Pavla and Yoana ran off to. Your leaving made them think they could leave, and you’re going to show them you made mistakes. That none of us can live without Mr. Bird.”

It’s too much in too few words. The twins can’t have left Mr. Bird, and they can’t be utterly missing. Mr. Bird knows everything about them. He has to know where they are. He made them try to kill Luis.

Unless being forced to attack Luis was too much. Unless that is why they ran.

Anton mumbles, “I’m going home and taking a hot shower.”

He imagines the warm beads hitting and streaking over his face. It will be the opposite of this rain. He thinks on it, refusing to let his mind cave to the panic or stillness. If he focuses, he can feel the warm water on his legs.

Walter says, “You’re going to make them come back or there are going to be consequences.”

The young man shifts as he threatens Anton, revealing how badly he’s bleeding. Four ugly circles of gore leak through his undershirts, streaking down the fabric like little red ties.

Despite the coverage of the plastic tarp, Anton’s trousers are soaked. It’s especially wet along his inner thighs. Warmth trickles from the old bites, streaking down to tickle the backs of his knees.

So Mr. Bird is furious with them both.

“Get in the car,” Walter says, “or there will be consequences.”

“More consequences?” Anton asks. He can’t get Grigorii’s mother out of his head, that vague memory of a woman who used vagueness to seem omnipotent. He looks for her face in the partially rolled down window of the car. All that lurks there are shadows. He says, “I don’t believe in your consequences. I believe in a shower.”

Walter says, “If you don’t come with us right now, we are taking Grigorii Caravaggio.”

Anton digs his heels into the road. “What?”

“You won’t know when Mr. Bird will come for him.”

“You can’t.”

“You won’t know if it’s when you’re together and you’ll have to watch, or when you’re apart and there will be no one to hear him weeping. Mr. Bird will sink his teeth into Grigorii’s flesh and make him a familiar in your place.”

Anton’s arms drop, and the plastic lowers to his hips. The cold drizzle blots at his hair and face. This is too much.

He says, “You won’t. Grigorii’s not weak like us. He won’t break.”

Walter sneers with crooked teeth. “It won’t be hard to take away the things he relies on. He’ll be weaker than you in no time. And it will be your fault.”

Can Anton run away?

No.

He’s unsure if he can walk. He’s unsure of everything because anxiety cuts through everything, feelings chewing ideas and dragging them into the mire. He so badly wants his mind to shut off, to kill those awful visions of where Mr. Bird will bite Grigorii. He wants to finish building the Flemings’ shed, and build a dozen more, and play Terraria and watch a movie on constant loop so that he doesn’t have to think anything.

Walter says, “You’re not better than me.”

Blood is streaming from the bites on Anton’s thighs, coating his calves and pooling in his socks. He doesn’t know if he can bleed out and die standing here.

As badly as he wants the apathy of not thinking, apathy is not an option.

Walter says, “You’re not more deserving than me.”

That scorn sounds pathetic. Anton hears it, and sees Walter condescending at him, and can only imagine himself and Walter spewing the same scorn at Pavla and Yoana. They’re supposed to be the hands of a monster. They’re supposed to do a shadow’s work.

Anton says, “I never said I was better than you.”

The wind shifts rainfall, and a pair of drops slant under the umbrella, spattering against Walter’s chin. He says, “You people think you can walk away and live a better life, and you’ve got dirt under your fingernails to show for it. Right now you’re standing in line, in the cold, hoping for another day of backbreaking labor. You think it makes you better than me?”

His teeth are more crooked than Anton remembers. And they’re duller.

Anton asks, “Is that what Mr. Bird beats into you?  Is that what he says when he leaves new teeth marks on your heart?”

Walter is bleeding so badly under his suit jacket that it looks like he’s wearing a red shirt with white bleached spots. That is the cherished place where Mr. Bird wanted Anton to be standing. He could have the honor of chief among sufferers.

Anton says, “I had to leave. I didn’t want to do what you do.”

“Get in the car.”

“I thought he’d kept it secret from you. But you know it, don’t you? Did he tell you that he wanted me to take your place, or did you figure it out on your own?”

Walter throws the crocodile umbrella into the road. It rolls in a minor wind. “I’ve run his household since I was fourteen years old. You think you could do what I do?”

Anton pulls his cheap plastic sheeting over his head again, making a cloak that crinkles. His hair is slick enough with rainwater; he refuses to get any wetter. “I don’t want to scream at people, and drive that shadow everywhere, and pretend I don’t care when he does what he does. How does it feel to stalk and scare gay boys into coming back to work so they can replace you, Walter? Does it make you think anything is going to hurt you less?”

The rumble of the car’s engine is joined by a buzzing. An awful panoply of chirping sounds swirl from inside the tinted windows, inhuman and ravenous. They flow from every dark part of a drizzling world.

Smothered in that noise, the two familiars bleed together. Anton refuses to look around for wherever Mr. Bird’s shadow may be, or where his mouth is cursing them. He focuses on the young man in front of him.

“I’m not better than you, Walter. Me, and Pavla and Yoana, we’re not one ounce better. And we all walked away. That means you’re capable of leaving, too.”

“What made you think you could leave?”

“That’s not the story I’m telling today.”

The drizzle soaks Anton’s pants so thoroughly that moisture drips off his shoes. It’s a mixture of water and worse, leaving reddish brown tints in the puddles behind his feet. It marks where he’s been after he leaves.

Of course he apologizes. But apologies are not enough.

For most of two weeks, Anton never lets himself be alone in the house with Luis. If Luis is home, then Anton waits outside for Grigorii. He never forces the boy to be alone with him. He will not become that kind of specter.

With some favors, he gets work with Grigorii. Every second he has eyes on him is a relief. It means that if something will happen, it isn’t happening now. The present tense is a sort of refuge.

Together they flush out and clean gutters. He learns how to prune different kinds of bushes, and how to cover his mistakes in ways that look artistic enough for affluent people to praise.

Near the end of the two-week period, when he’s saved up enough money, he stands in the doorway of the house. He faces Luis, like he needs to be invited inside. A different invitation happens.

Anton says, “You want to hit the bar with me and Grigorii on Friday? All you can drink on me.”

“I could do that.”

“There will be plenty of people there. Thought it might be fun.”

He doesn’t say what will be fun about it. He shifts, letting more daylight into the doorway.

Luis pretends to keep watching Winter Soldier, but he’s clearly following Anton out of the corner of his eye.

That’s fine. Anton goes outside to sit in the sun, on the rough-hewn tree stump that scrapes his legs. He has a sketch pad and an active mind. He fills these hours by summoning old hours, drawing himself walking out of that dark townhouse, and Grigorii’s clunker driving them away from New York City, and himself digging other people’s gardens. There are parts of the story he wants to draw, wants to draw as badly as a kid wants to breathe when he’s made a dare to stay underwater, but every time he tries to draw his thighs he gets the scars wrong. It’s been so long since he’s had the nerve to actually look at his bare thighs.

But he has his sketch pad, and the nubs of pencils, and time.

He also has an aluminum bat resting next to the tree stump. Just in case.

Friday is St. Patrick’s Day, which is Luis’s favorite holiday. He glibly explains that the Irish got potatoes from South America to every patron in the bar—and explains it more than once to some patient women. Anton and Grigorii linger nearby to make sure he doesn’t get in over his head, and so hear half a dozen increasingly dramatic versions of the story of how he got the scar on his neck.

Anton tries to give Grigorii space. The man wants to chat basketball and gripe about work with other locals. What matters is that he can see Grigorii being safe, and that Grigorii sits in a well-lit part of the bar. No shadows will encroach.

With that amount of security, Anton goes and does foolish things. Foolish things like flirting.

In the shoulder-to-shoulder cramp of this St. Patrick’s Day, there is Julian. Julian is a big man with glasses and a fine navy pinstripe suit, like a Puerto Rican Clark Kent. His soft voice carries in the booming crowd. He’s adorable from the moment he accepts his drink by waving both hands excitedly, as though accepting a newborn into his arms.

Thanks to all his exposure to Luis, Anton is able to converse casually about Marvel movies. That takes them to art, and Anton makes himself talk about his pencil sketches. He tries to show Julian the nicer pieces, the ones that don’t require him to tell a hard story.

As he thumbs from sketch to sketch, Julian leans in exquisitely close such that Anton finds himself hoping. Upon seeing Anton’s sketch of his Terraria base, Julian goes all high-pitched. They argue about whether Terraria or Minecraft is better until the bar closes.

The truth is that he’s still too hurt inside to be sure if anyone can be attracted to him.

That’s why it helps to have friends.

Luis slaps him on the shoulder. “Getting after it, son. When are you two getting married?”

It’s so bewildering and so exciting that he doesn’t think about how long the shadows were in the parking lot. Not until the next morning.

Julian lives in Brooklyn. He knows eight thousand better places to eat than the diner and two fast food places near Grigorii’s.

“The big guy can come too,” Julian says. “I’ve got a coworker that is starving for a man.”

Julian takes them to a burrito joint that is basically a closet, but where the food tastes like God. They go for tapas in this place with a view of the river.

Their third date is at a Turkish restaurant that is spacious and so dark that a Goth would complain. The dark doesn’t bother Anton. Not at first.

They watch as a waiter wipes down what will be their table when the app on Julian’s phone buzzes. The waiter has an equally chic and shaggy haircut that looks familiar from behind. Then the waiter turns around.

It’s Walter.

Anton is falling into the intense dark of the restaurant. He clutches at anything, one hand snagging Grigorii’s sleeve, the other catching Julian’s. They get him by the elbows and raise him. He’s sure his pants are full of blood.

Walter hasn’t seen him yet. He is busy setting out cloth napkins and silverware.

He’s different. It’s like looking at an earlier draft of a person. His eyes are more sunken and carry greater distance. Simultaneously, his whole body is thinner, such that his button down shirt and vest are baggy on him. Every exposed inch of his flesh is coated in a thick, unhealthy perspiration. Like he’s sweating something out of his system.

Julian asks, “Are you okay?”

Anton stands free of their support. He brushes the thighs of his pants, which are surprisingly dry. He takes a couple steps into the restaurant, until Walter glances at him—and then another two seconds, until Walter sees him seeing him.

Walter’s head snaps at him in a wicked double take. He looks ashamed, and frustrated, jaw setting like words are trying to force their way out.

“I need some air,” Anton says, bumping into Julian’s side. “Can we go somewhere else? You said there’s a good Vietnamese place?”

Grigorii smiles mirthfully, even though he moves to stand between Anton and the waiters. “I always wanted to try Vietnamese.”

They roll home after 2:00 AM. Getting up for work tomorrow morning is going to suck.

Luis is passed out on the cushions with Terraria running. His character gets eaten by zombies, dies, respawns, and is eaten again, over and over. From Luis’s snoring, he doesn’t mind.

The one thing Anton needs before bed is a piss. Through blurry eyes he unzips and pushes his pants lower than he meant to. It’s probably the inebriation that makes him look at his bare legs for so long.

He pushes an index finger at the bites on his thighs. His fingertip doesn’t fit inside them anymore. It’s been so long that he took their ugliness for granted and hasn’t checked them. They have shrunken and closed, and turned a pale pink of old scar tissue. They don’t look like they’ve bled in an eon.

Is this a cosmic prank?

His phone buzzes and he hits his head on the wall. A needle-stick puncture of anxiety hits him. This is Mr. Bird. This is the revenge.

His thighs still aren’t bleeding.

It’s Julian’s number.

“I had a great time tonight,” turns into, “We should see more of each other,” which turns into, “I know this sounds sudden…”

Anton rubs wetness from his eyes and asks, “What’s sudden?”

“It started in college. Every spring, my best friends get together in a cramped cottage in the Carolinas. A nice part of the Carolinas. The food is grotesquely expensive, but I can cover you, and besides, Latisha brought her boyfriend last year, so why can’t I bring mine? Will you think about it?”

Thinking used to be dreadful. It used to be.

“It’ll only be a weekend,” Anton explains. “I’ll come home.”

Grigorii is so chunkily proportioned, with such expansive arms, that he gives unbelievable hugs. He holds Anton to his chest and says, “You go wherever you want, buddy.”

It will be a road trip. Hour after hour of Gipsy Kings and Alejandra Guzman; pricey satellite radio and Julian only wants two bands. They’ll make a short detour in Delaware to pick up Latisha and her guy.

Anton takes half a deep breath and asks, “Can we make a second detour?”

He shows Julian the route. Julian’s eyes bug out. He says, “Further into the city? At midday? We’ll literally die.”

But Julian is willing to risk death for a kiss.

The detour takes them through a pristine borough that Anton has not missed.

Anton says, “Take this left.”

Five blocks after that left is the townhouse.

On the upper floor, the blackout curtains sag from two windows. One has come loose entirely from its fixtures, exposing a triangle of the interior to the scourge of sunlight. Sunlight does kill some things.

The front door is shut firmly. Its blue paint is chipped and flecking away, like the lines of roads on a state map. In fact the whole townhouse’s exterior paint job has faded from walnut brown to a sandy color with the same veiny cracks. The building has never looked so dry.

The shadows of the townhouse are shorter than any other. All the townhouses on this street are a uniform height.

Anton studies the shadows, sketching them in pencil in his thoughts.

It begins with a meager sound, like a heartbeat under the building. The blackout curtains crumble, and the glass panes tip inward. The front door yawns and melts from its hinges, lapping the parlor like a tongue. Julian is looking the wrong way, and so he misses the entire townhouse collapsing into a plume of unruly dust.

Julian startles in the driver’s seat. “What the hell was that?”

Anton fishes out a fresh sketch pad, settles it on his thighs, and opens to a clean page. He takes a pencil and says, “Let me tell you a story.”

 

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

Scenes from the Apocalypse

(Content Note: Racial Slurs and Racist Violence)

 

March 2020. Chicago is three days into lockdown and while my Facebook feed is busy baking bread, I’m testing software, researching business models, trying to figure out how to translate intimate circus cabaret shows and celebrations of geek culture into a livestream format that can give my cast (and myself) some income.

I’m the founder and director of Raks Geek, a small bellydance, circus, and fire performance company, and all of our work and plans for the future have just evaporated.

I worry about artists around me, many of whom live on the financial edge in the best of times.

Internally, I’m kicking and screaming—I love live performance and never wanted to be a Youtuber, and I wonder if the entire arts industry is going to collapse—but I’ve been keeping tabs on COVID-19 around the world and it’s clear we’re not going to be done with this in two weeks. My estimate, watching China’s robust pandemic response, is about three months before things start to go back to normal.

As we all know, this proves to be optimistic.

May 2020. Hate crimes and harassment against Asian Americans are on the rise. Most Americans think Chinese folks from China and Asian Americans in the diaspora are the same, and, encouraged by politicians, they blame us—all of us—for COVID. My social media feeds are full of stories of elders being beaten, women with acid thrown in their faces, racist insults, and shunning.

Meanwhile, much of the country cites the Model Minority Myth and is skeptical that we ever face racism at all, in spite of a history ranging from the Chinese Exclusion Act to anti-miscegenation laws. In spite of Iron Fist and Firefly and Doctor Strange.

Most of Raks Geek’s performers are Asian American. I myself am Chinese by way of Singapore, an immigrant and naturalized American who grew up a mile from Detroit.

This is personal.

The fifth livestream show I produce features an all-Asian cast from around the country (it turns out that the online format has certain advantages). We represent Hmong people who grew up in the Midwest, Korean adoptees, South Asians, and more, with firespinning, aerials, contortion, and fusion bellydance.

We donate proceeds for the entire show to Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

June 2020. Black Lives Matter protests have swept the country, and my white friends swear that this time it’s different, white people comprehend racism now to a level they never have before. Within the arts, there are calls for more diverse casts, more diverse material, more diverse leadership—more BIPOC, more LGBTQIA.

Raks Geek has been doing this work for years. Most of us are Asian, but most of our cast and crew are also LGBTQIA. One of the reasons we love science fiction and fantasy is that we can imagine different worlds. More equitable worlds. And through this genre, we can help others envision a reality where we’re judged for who we are, not what we look like or who we love.

For a month or two, other producers are more conscientious with their lineups. The momentum fades, as it as often does, and most organizations go back to business as usual.

Our business as usual is conscious representation. Justice. Equality. Care for each other. Some of our performers with day jobs quietly donate their pay to performers without. I slip some of our cast money for groceries, help fellow artists navigate PPP loans, grants, unemployment insurance, and mutual aid.

Making the art you want to see is a hard path—in a reality where historically underrepresented groups systemically get fewer resources and support, working twice as hard to do half as well is not just an adage. For WOC especially, it’s a fact.

But. We make it through with each other.

March-May 2021. Vaccines! Rehearsals are back. Small, in-person gigs are back. After a year of stoppages, getting in front of an audience is nerve-wrecking, exciting, and a relief. Slowly, we get back to doing the thing we were put on this earth to do.

Half the country immediately tries to pretend the last year never happened. The other half echoes Sam and Frodo returning, indelibly changed, to a Shire that is not the same.

While the pandemic shut everyone down at roughly the same time, returning comes in trickles.

Mentally, emotionally, we’re exhausted. Some of our colleagues have left art entirely. Major organizations, venues, pillars of local and national scenes, have permanently shut down. Many of those that did survive are on the brink and won’t be on secure footing for a long time. But it feels like hope exists again.

We get back to training, to doing the thing we’re called to do.

June 2021. A woman spits on me and calls me a chink while I walk down the street. In my neighborhood. In broad daylight.

A couple weeks before, a friend is nearly run over by a man in a truck yelling “f— Asians” —the man hops the curb and drives into their Saturday afternoon picnic. Everyone tries to dive out of the way, but one woman is pinned underneath the truck. Two people end up in the hospital.

The racists are getting bolder, no longer content to go after elders in the dark. They’re attacking younger, more Americanized Asians, less easy targets, in the middle of the day.

A white friend posts a joke on Facebook: What if Thanos had snapped his fingers and stopped Chinese people from eating bats and causing COVID?

I unfriend him, but he’s far from the only one making those jokes on the internet.

July 2021. Raks Geek does our first full-length theatre production in 16 months. Wow, does it feel good. We require proof of vaccination at the door, limit the audience to half capacity, under 60 people. We open windows and filter the air. We enforce stricter protocols than the city requires.

I book dates on the theatre calendar for the rest of the year even though I don’t know if we’ll get to do them. I doubt we’ll go under lockdown again, but even knowing our venue may not survive another shutdown, we’d rather voluntarily cancel shows rather than risk our health or that of our community.

It surprises people, but I plan to keep our livestream shows too. We’ve spent a year and a half building a community of nerds from all over the country, not just Chicago, and they’ve helped us survive. I think we’ve helped them survive too.

In spite of extreme fatigue and the trauma of the last year, we’re happier than we’ve been in months.

But it all feels fragile.

 

 

Raks Geek will be headlining Discon III’s closing ceremonies on December 19 in Washington, DC. For details on their upcoming virtual circus cabaret and in-person Chicago performances, visit RaksGeek.com.

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