Since Mother’s death, a changeling was all I could be. Father said so before he himself passed, “A real child, a real daughter, our daughter, would never cause death, would never bring death upon this family.”

Mother named me Yangguang—sunlight. But Father changed it to Yinying—shadow—for robbing his love of her light. But she told me I only brought her light since I was born. Who was lying? Perhaps I was misremembering. Mother passed when I turned three.

This was the last day I would spend at the house before the foster parents came to pick me up. In Father’s will, he left the house and all of his and Mother’s belongings to an aunt back in China I never met. She had a son who didn’t cause deaths. Not that we knew of, anyhow. Not that we knew anything about them in the first place. Not that Father cared. As long as it wasn’t me.

He even stayed behind to make sure I left.

I entered Father’s room, left vacant since his car accident last week and his rushed funeral two days ago. His ghost appeared the night they unplugged his life support, and it changed, misshaped, merged with the house when they lowered his coffin, threw dirt over the mahogany, left him to the silence beneath the soil.

The curtains curl in the face of Father with a gaping mouth that wouldn’t close—a scream stalled in time. But the white tendrils of sliced fabric that made up the unruly hair fluttered both towards me and out the window—a desire for freedom, but an inability to escape.

The ghost moved from Father’s room to mine and appeared each night when the clock struck midnight. A wake-up call while much of the world was asleep. A reaper’s whisper from the lips of a loved one.

But what frightened me most was not that the curtain ghost had the face of my father, but how it captured the tamed moustache he used to groom three times a day, the wild eyebrows that he would leave untouched, the hairs that came out of his ears, making him look more beast than man. What was the most terrifying of all was the voice that sounded so gentle, the one my father had used in his kindest moments in life—which were few and far in between, and when he forgot, for a moment, that he believed Mother’s death was traded for my birth—whispering to me in the dark with immobile lips: Die.

For two nights I hid under my covers with fingers in my ears, eyes squeezed so tight I could see white stars, until the stars took over the darkness, until it was looked as though my closed eyes were seeing yangguang rather than yinying.

But that night, rather than cowering under my blankets, I ripped them off me, and with thundering steps headed towards Father, floorboards creaking the entire way. My hands balled into fists, and I thrusted my right hand into the mouth, a swirling black hole of twisted fabric, looking for a tongue that wasn’t there, wanting nothing more than to sever it from the dark void.


I wasn’t meant to live, and my mother wasn’t meant to die. The doctors said it was a miracle that I didn’t pass with how long my heart paused before I was flung back to life, whereas Mother’s health dawdled after my arrival. Yet, even with both Mother and Father gone, this second chance was not one I was willing to part with, even if it meant that my father would continue to haunt and could never reunite with Mother’s ghost, who had long since moved on.


My fingers found the ghost’s tongue when my arm sunk elbow-deep into the void, catching Father by surprise. I pulled, and pulled, and pulled, until a single black tendril laced with pink freed itself from the curtain’s fabric. Taking the edge of the curtain that billowed like Mother’s hair on Father’s head, I tied the tip of the tongue to the white cotton, triple knotting for good measures. And as I was doing so, Father’s beast-like roars bounced across the room as he thrashed, strained, against me with futile efforts. Chained, he could no longer leave the house to find Mother. And he could no longer whisper vicious words in my ears. And he could no longer rob me of the life I deserved—not the cage of neglect he held me within since birth, insisting that I repent for the sins out of my control, but the life I knew Mother would want me to live, outside of my father’s suffocating clutches. Mother, too, was a victim. On her face was always a smile that quivered, flinched, before it steadied, even at the end.

In the morning, a knock on the door woke me, and I found myself asleep by the window with the sunlight warming my face, tangled in the white curtains that had ripped from the metal rods. Father was nowhere in sight. The curtains fell from my body like broken chains pooling by my ankles.

A click. The door opened.

“Are you ready?” I turned to see my foster father, a man who looked much like Father, holding out his hand.

I nodded. “Yes.”

Perhaps Father was the real changeling after all.

Perhaps in Understanding

Yilien likes the masks. She likes that her meaning cannot be misconstrued, that when she dons Politeness no one can accuse her of overcaution or indecisiveness, the way her parents did in her childhood. When she has the right mask, she doesn’t have to speak.

When Mirnai shows up in her walled garden half an hour late, Yilien thanks goodness that she has bright blue Welcome to usher her in with and Pleasure to hide her nerves. Yilien makes Pleasure her base and grabs Welcome by the handle, holding it over her nose and forehead while she opens the door for her friend.

Mirnai is already layering Apology and Gratitude, notching the former over the latter.  Her curly black hair is flattened to her head by the rain.

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” she says.

Yilien shrugs and puts Welcome back in her rotator. “It’s no trouble.” The painted wooden Pleasure on her face reflects the genuine pleasure blooming in her chest, soft and bright like a poppy. It was good of Mirnai to come.

“I’m glad you came,” Yilien says. “My exhibition is in a month and I have no idea how to arrange everything. Please, help me. I’ll get you some tea while you look.”

She prefers to give viewers a few moments with the paintings alone, hates to watch them watch her when they should be looking at the work. Even worse is when they do look at the paintings, when they tap their lips with their forefingers and shift their weight to one foot, settling in. When they do that, Yilien has to guess what they’re thinking. It’s rude to make judgements based on someone’s mouth, on what can be seen beneath the protective layer of the masks, but Yilien can never stop herself from guessing.

So instead she makes a whole new pot of tea with the water from the stove even though there’s more than enough left in the old pot, and she makes it slowly.

When she comes back, Mirnai is standing in front of the painting of the field of grain. Yilien put that one in the least comfortable corner, where the wall comes in to meet the side of the house and the rocks are hard underfoot. In the painting, the field is golden and uniform, rolling up a hill in serene waves. But twining within the stalks are pink and green vines, which poke up here and there among the rest of the grain and meet together in the soil, knotting and tangling until they blend into the shadows at the bottom of the hill. Mirnai is leaning against the rough column looking at it, her face bare of anything but the thin base mask over her forehead, nose, and cheeks, her store of masks spinning uselessly on the rotator on her upper arm.

If Yilien were the girl her father wanted her to be, the perfect future court artist, she wouldn’t pause for a moment, a cup of tea in each hand, and stare at the smooth line of Mirnai’s nose, at the corner of her mouth and the curve of her cheek where she’s smiling at the painting, perhaps in understanding.

Yilien is not the girl her father wanted her to be, but she coughs after a long moment, and raises dove grey Politeness to her face before the other girl turns around.

“It makes me glad,” Mirnai says simply.

Yilien hands her a cup. “Oh?”

“Glad that your exhibition will be before my ship leaves.” Mirnai is still gazing at the painting out of the corner of her eye. “I would hate to miss it.”

“A ship? Are you visiting family?”


Something small and smooth seems to sink through Yilien’s chest. “You’re leaving.”

Mirnai nods. “It’s time to settle down.” She pauses, thinks for a moment. “I would find it difficult to settle down in the city, I think.”

Yilien hasn’t thought about settling down in the city. A painter’s life does not include settling down; she is meant to soar and never touch the ground.

“Whe—” the roof of her mouth has gone suddenly dry. “When are you leaving?”

“Two days after your exhibition.”

Yilien lets the silence hang in the air.

“I’m sorry,” Mirnai says quietly. “It’ll be better for my business. It’s hard, here, to move beyond the expectations people have of you.” She gestures at her clothing, the blue and tan of a delivery worker. “In other places, there is more flexibility. The number of masks on your arm and the name of your family isn’t everything there.”

Yilien touches the rotator on her left arm, the weight of it suddenly unsettling. “I understand,” she says. “I hope you’ll be successful.”

Mirnai laughs, says “I hope so too,” and Yilien tries to rummage beneath her mask for happiness for her friend.

Yilien’s mother comes over the next afternoon, uninvited as always. Yilien puts away her painting as soon as she arrives because no matter what her mother says, this is not a routine visit. Her suspicions are realized when her mother tells her to pour a third cup of tea because she invited Princess Alisa, and it would be rude not to prepare for her, just in case.

Alisa is one of the twenty or so princesses who flit around the palace, preparing to travel or make good marriages or good art or sometimes all three. Of them, she is nearly the eldest and indubitably the most interesting. She’s responsible for the new trend for embroidered hems and collars, and also for the way everybody laughs at those with bad handwriting, having publicly displayed a sloppy note from a former friend.

Alisa arrives ten minutes after Yilien has poured the tea, Graceful Apology quickly replaced by Humor when she jokes about her tardiness.

Alisa is a lively and practiced conversationalist; she compliments Yilien on her taste in wallpaper and asks about her father’s health. When she reaches past Yilien for another sticky bun, she touches Yilien’s forearm and doesn’t apologize. She talks about her own taste in art, her interest in sculpting, the party she wants to throw in a few weeks. She’s tall and thin and impeccably dressed; the thickly embroidered sleeves of her tunic are cut fashionably short to reveal her delicate, bony wrists. The names of the colorful masks on her double rotator are written in ornate gold lettering, one of the distinctions of a royal. Alisa gestures as she talks, and Yilien watches her wrists and her thin soft fingers and wonders when her mother will make an excuse to leave.

“These are your paintings?” Alisa asks eventually, looking around.

Yilien nods.

“I like them,” Alisa says. “Your mother tells me you have a show coming up.”

“If I can puzzle out how to organize all of this into a coherent exhibition.”

Alisa puts on Wry Humor. “I can sympathize. I’m a lot better at disorganizing things than organizing them.” She gives the studio a long, sweeping glance. “But I do like these. However you choose to organize them, I think my friends will want to see these.”

Yilien fumbles for Gratitude, the only mask she can possibly respond with—“You are too kind”—but for some reason, fear rushes through her.

This is what’s expected of her, isn’t it? A wild love affair with a princess, her career as a court artist solidified before it’s even begun. She needs to make connections, and with Mirnai leaving she could use new friends.

They will expect her to paint Alisa after this. Perhaps in long, longing views of the cliffs by the palace, the princess almost blurring into the background. Or maybe she will paint Alisa by the stairs to the tower where her uncle lives, the dark curtains drawn around her.

And then they’ll fight. They’ll take their masks off and scream at each other in private. Put them on and snip at each other in public. They’ll run the gossip cycle for a few months. Yilien will paint storms and broken ships, rip her canvases at the edges and refuse to appear in public for a year. Alisa will find some young new calligrapher rising into fame and start it all over. Yilien will do the same, over and over and over again.

The next morning Yilien wakes up early and paints the city. She paints the palace in its corner, the tall tower where the king and queen live and do not leave, then the sprawling outbuildings, and the market square. She mixes browns and greenish greys for the stone of the city walls, makes the ships in the harbor dark outlines. The sky she leaves blank.

Yilien adds an octopus in the water, large and purple and happy, if octopuses are happy. She can paint over it later.

She stares at the painting and does not know what to feel. It could be a good final piece for the exhibition, she thinks, if it comes together. Yilien gets her rotator from the table and pretends she is in a gallery, staring at someone else’s painting. She flicks Knowing over Interest and wonders how expensive Recognition is. In her more cynical moments, Yilien sometimes wonders if all her work as a painter isn’t just to give the wealthiest people reasons to buy more and more elaborate masks.

In the remote villages the local maskmaker or, if they lack that, even furniture maker can provide only the basic five masks—Politeness, Joy, Anger, Melancholy, and Caring—without the necessity of even a basic rotator. In such villages, as she understands, the people get on with just these few masks for their entire lives, layering Joy and Caring at weddings for lack of access to Devotion and Harmony, which are traditionally required.

Perhaps the villagers do not feel the lack. Perhaps they have made up new languages of expression all their own.

Yilien and Mirnai meet at a chocolate house near the center square at Mirnai’s invitation, both a few minutes early. Yilien’s rotator is crammed full of the widest variety of masks she has.

They sit in a tiny round booth in the back with high backs and velvet arms. A waiter hands them menus in paper gone soft at the edges, and Yilien can’t decide if she should look at hers or at Mirnai or at the smooth, round edge of the table.

She adjusts her masks—Politeness and Pleasure layered on delicate hooks—and looks up. Mirnai wears only Pleasure.

“Did you have any trouble getting here?” Mirnai asks.

“No,” she says. “It was a very convenient walk.” Mirnai must know this. The chocolate shop is fashionable and expensive, close to Yilien’s apartment and far from her own. Mirnai will insist on paying, Yilien knows, though she should not.

The chocolate shop smells like chocolate, of course, the deep, seeped in, baseline smell, but it also smells like mint and oranges, a strange, bitter combination. Yilien focuses on the edge of the table, the worn corner of her menu, her head trying to spin loose from her shoulders.

Mirnai puts her menu down. “Do you know what you want?”

“No,” Yilien says, helpless. A second too late, she grabs Humor and hooks it onto her base mask, trying to make it a joke.

Mirnai flips to Humor as well. “That’s okay,” she says. “You have time.”

They look at each other for a moment, their matching green masks trying to make the moment something it isn’t. The joke, if it is a joke, drops like a stone.

After their chocolate comes, dark for Yilien, middling with cream and sprinkles for Mirnai, they poke at the silence. Mostly Yilien lets Mirnai talk, asking questions to draw her out when she begins to quiet. At Yilien’s insistence, Mirnai tells her about the mountains she’s going home to. Her whole family lives in a village, building additions to their compound as more people trickle in. They eat big dinners in the long hall in the winter and the courtyard in the summer, and they supply wood to most of the major maskmakers in a nearby city.

Though Mirnai speaks mostly with Politeness and Interest, Yilien can hear that she’s excited about this, about building the business, organizing a tiny world of her own around wood distribution. Mirnai has always known what she wanted, has always been driven toward it. More than the business, though, Mirnai looks forward to the apartment in the city she’ll live in during the week, to going home to her family on the weekends, playing with her cousins and joking with her siblings.

Yilien takes a sip of the last bitter dregs of her chocolate. Mirnai is tapping her fingers on the table, a quick-paced dut-dut-dut. Yilien hates this. It’s never been hard to talk to Mirnai before, nor to understand what she’s thinking. Since the day Mirnai left a note under the garden wall of the academy saying she liked Yilien’s painting five years ago, they’ve always understood each other.

Mirnai has always been driven, has always pursued what she wants. Yilien has known, more or less since they met, that she is the only thing Mirnai has wanted and not chased.

Yilien returns to the painting of the city one morning soon after. She fills in the ships and the shadows on the tower, touches up the bright highlights of tin roofs on the edge of the city. Somehow, she can’t bring herself to paint the sky yet, and she’s still undecided about the octopus. Just as she’s decided to stop and eat, the door opens, and the princess walks in.

Yilien grabs at her cloth base and puts Surprise on, fumbling for it on her rotator, missing hooks with shaking hands. Her cheeks burn. Alisa didn’t even knock.

“I apologize for coming in unannounced,” Alisa says, flashing Apology almost as an afterthought. “I was hoping to catch you at work.”

Yilien beckons for her to sit and picks up her sketch pad. “I was just finishing this,” she says. “Perhaps you’d like to sit with me while I work on something new?” She sits down on the stool next to Alisa’s and reaches for a pencil.

While Yilien is very aware that she said “sit,” and not “talk,” the distinction is less clear to the princess. She asks Yilien what she thinks of the new fashion for dried flowers in one’s hair and affixed to collars. Yilien sketches a few sharp lines, not knowing what she draws. She thinks the new fashion is beautiful but wasteful.

And what about the king’s new plan for moving certain favored artists into the lower courtyards of the palace? Yilien gives up on paying attention to what she is sketching, though she continues absentmindedly. She thinks it’s an interesting idea, though she wonders if it’s not just so that the court doesn’t have to travel to come to exhibitions and galleries to show off their exquisite new emotions.

Perhaps that comes off a little sharper than she meant it. Alisa leans closer. Her mask is Interest, bold gold letters on a red background, but it might as well say Flirtation. “You might like the palace,” she says. “It’s so convenient.”

Yilien chuckles, layers Gratitude over Modesty. “I think you mentioned that it was an arrangement for the most accomplished artists, which I hardly am.”

Alisa tilts her head, flips to Disbelief, and leans closer. “You are what you make of yourself.”

And Yilien doesn’t even begin to have a way of telling her how deeply untrue that is, how they’re all trapped in different stratospheres of wooden masks and foolish paths, that Alisa is at the top, her expressions nearly unlimited, but there’s a whole universe below her. Something like amusement bubbles in Yilien’s chest; she probably doesn’t have the mask for it. And she knows that there’s a whole universe below her too, as much as she’d like to ignore it.

There’s a knock at the door. Yilien stiffens, but Alisa just says, “Come in!”

Mirnai opens the door, her bag over her shoulder. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she says, “I didn’t realize you had company.” She turns to close the door, bringing the rotator on her arm down for a moment as it jostles against the bag.

Alisa judges quickly, donning Grace and Condescension in swinging layers. “Do you have a delivery?”

Yilien freezes in horror. Mirnai is wearing her delivery uniform, a dark blue robe and loose tan pants. It’s an easy assumption to make.

“Ah,” Yilien starts, watching as Mirnai flips through her rotator, settling eventually on Gratitude and Politeness. She clearly hasn’t brought Deference—nor should she, to visit Yilien.

“An installation,” Mirnai says, after she bows to Alisa. “My colleagues are on their way with the stove.”

The threat of more workers has the desired effect on Alisa. The princess makes a show of taking a strand of Yilien’s pale hair and weaving it back into the loose braid at the back of Yilien’s head. Yilien watches Mirnai watch Alisa touch her with Politeness and Gratitude still stiff on her face and wishes she were an octopus.

“I—” she starts, but Alisa pats her hand.

“Don’t worry, I have to go anyway. I’ll see you soon,” Alisa says, and lets Mirnai hold the door open for her.

Yilien slumps over as soon as the door closes, scrambling for three masks at once—Apology, Embarrassment, Confusion. They clack as they hit each other, a chaos of meaningless wood.

“She’s not—she doesn’t—” Yilien starts, “—she doesn’t know me that well. She doesn’t know we’re friends.”

Mirnai comes in and sits on a cushion on the floor, switches to bare Politeness. “I could have gone. Would have, if you’d wanted me to.” The question is clear.

“No,” Yilien says. She adds Sincerity to the masks on her face, in her hands. “I didn’t invite her. I invited you.”

Mirnai looks down. “Thank you.”

Yilien gestures at Mirnai’s bag. “Unpack. I’ll make tea. You brought work with you?”

Mirnai flashes Humor. “Shipping schematics. Riveting, as you can imagine.”

Yilien has known her long enough to know that Mirnai does find them riveting, but she doesn’t say anything. Mirnai settles on a cushion on the floor, spreading documents in front of her and propping her chin on her hands.

Yilien waits for the water to finish heating and sets up her easel with the city painting, the sky’s background dried enough to add another layer. She’s decided she’s just going to put in the thick clouds, the dark drama of the sky, that the painting requires. But now she finds herself staring blankly at the canvas, still worried about Alisa, Mirnai, the parts of her life that aren’t supposed to intersect.

Mirnai turns a page, bending closer to read a diagram. She jots down a note on a pad of paper. She’s kept Politeness on, the other masks on her rotator lying quietly in their places. Yilien wonders if she has Fellowship, and realizes, with a faint jolt, that she’s never noticed Mirnai’s relative scarcity of masks before, though surely it was obvious. She’s always felt that she understands the other woman.

Yilien puts her paintbrush down.

After Mirnai has gone, Yilien goes back to the page of her sketchbook she was doodling on when Alisa talked at her. There’s a mountain, tall and proud, thick trees—or at least charcoal blurs indicating them—growing up the sides.

She prepares a new canvas.

Yilien visits Alisa twice, both times at the princess’s request.

The first time, Alisa asks about Yilien’s exhibition, and Yilien’s worries jump out. She sketches out a diagram and explains the organization of the gallery, the way she has it all planned: vertical landscapes on one wall, horizontal on the other, arranged by color and subject: the academy, the harbor, the view of the gray, rocky hills on one edge of the city, the fields outside the city walls. The painting of the city, if she can finish the sky, will be in the middle, to tie it all together.

“That’s very neat,” Alisa says, Amused. “But why don’t you paint people?”

Her fingertips are on Yilien’s shoulder as she bends over the outline.

Yilien shrugs. “I learned how, but…I don’t know. Landscapes always felt more peaceful.” She knows what Alisa wants, though, what she knows better than to ask for directly. “I could paint you, if you wanted.”

The second time Yilien visits Alisa, they walk around the royal gardens. There are roses all around them, carefully maintained in the greenhouse throughout the seasons, and Alisa presses her long fingers to the mask on Yilien’s cheeks and kisses her. Her mouth tastes like mint salve, and the air is filled with the sweet, obedient scent of roses, and Yilien leans into the kiss and thinks, well, this isn’t so bad.

Yilien can’t finish the painting of the city. The sky is blank, and the tower is too tall or too dark. Instead, she paints more mountains—mountains that were doodles, mountains with forests, light filtering through leaves in a thousand shades of green. And when she gets to the gallery the day before the exhibition, she has five paintings of forested mountains and no idea where they belong in her painstakingly organized system.

First, she tries to replace the painting of the city with the five mountains on the far wall, everything else unchanged. It doesn’t work. Instead of connecting everything together, the mountains stand out for their difference, and everything falls apart around them. Suddenly, the stone walls of the academy clash against the ships in the harbor, and the golden fields and rocky hills seem ill-suited to each other.

Yilien waits until the gallery owner leaves to start hyperventilating. She detaches her rotator and mask and paces between the sections, trying to find a new thread, a connection tying everything together, however basic. There must be something.

At the academy, it was etched above the doorways: An artist’s talent extends only so far as their understanding.

And Yilien doesn’t understand anything. She wanders over to the paintings she made of the academy, mostly from memory and old sketches. It broke her and all her classmates and built them back up again.

She leaves the paintings of the academy in one corner.

She finds, as she paces, that they all have something a little off hiding in their corners and shadows. Yilien has always painted like this; it’s seen as a charming, identifying idiosyncrasy. But in the paintings of the mountains and the forests on them, the unnatural is bright and bold, impossible flowers, feathery mushrooms growing from boulders, tree roots turning to serpents, all in unmissable color. These she places in the other corner, the end of a long cycle. In between the academy and the mountains, she places regions in roughly chronological order. The fields she and her classmates picnicked in, the harbor where she and Mirnai walked, the hills she stares at when she doesn’t want to paint, the tower Alisa comes from.

It will have to do.

Everyone Yilien expected comes. Alisa arrives in a bright blue dress with a sheer jacket and kisses her on the temple in front of everyone. Yilien can practically hear her mother vibrate with joy. People wind through the paintings in order, flip through their rotators to express increasingly abstract reactions. Yilien stands in the middle of the room and accepts their compliments and critiques and tries not to feel faint.

As the evening winds down, a core set of people remain, clustered in small groups for conversation. Yilien watches Alisa chat with a few of Yilien’s friends from school, the whole group flipping masks so fast they must be talking about her. Her mother is speaking to a family friend, Smug as anything. The night has gone well. Her path spreads out before her, open and inviting.

Mirnai approaches, wearing her best robe, smooth green silk that must have cost a fortune, and Yilien’s chest clenches. Mirnai is leaving in days, and there’s not enough time. There’s never enough time.

“Have you ever been to my city?” Mirnai asks. “Or the mountains?” She is Polite, Curious.

“No,” Yilien says, “unfortunately I’ve never had that pleasure.”

Mirnai flips to Humor. “You’ve imagined the area well.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The mountains at the end. They’re my mountains, only you’ve completely made them up.” Mirnai hesitates. “You should visit me, see them for yourself.”

“Oh,” Yilien says, says it like a long sigh. She lets the realization wash over her slowly, thinks about clouds parting and the clarity of mountain air. It seems that she’s arranged everything chronologically after all. The mountains are the future. The one she wants.

Yilien looks at the room around her again, a little more closely this time. Her parents, proud of what she’s accomplished but not, really, of her. The princess who’s chosen her for the moment, as is expected of her. The paintings that make her wince a little when she looks at them, filled with some kind of foreboding. But, arranged as they are, they are an arrow pointing to a new path.

Yilien always did take a while to know her own mind.

She beckons Mirnai to follow and slips behind a curtain and out the back exit into an alley. There’s a single streetlight here, and the air is cold and wet.

“What is it?” Mirnai asks. She is curious and impatient, Yilien can tell, though she can’t remember what mask Mirnai’s even wearing. It doesn’t matter.

“Don’t you know? Haven’t you always known?” Yilien asks. She’s bad at talking, always has been. She’s always wanted the paintings and the masks to speak for her, but she’ll have to get this out herself. “If I went to your room, would I not find Devotion and Harmony in a box somewhere just in case?”

Mirnai puts a hand on the stone wall of the gallery. “Maybe so.”

“I’m miserable here,” Yilien says. If she were paying attention to her masks, she’d flip to Decision or Sincerity. “I want to leave. I want to paint the mountains. I want you to tell me you’ve bought an extra ticket, just in case, and that your little apartment will hold me, at least for visits, and that we’ll squabble and leave our masks in drawers until someone else visits.”

Yilien watches her friend as closely as she can in the dim light. Mirnai touches a hand to her own face and unhooks her mask, then reaches for the cloth base. She takes it off her face—her soft, unfamiliar face—and blinks up at Yilien slowly, smiling.

Flower, Daughter, Soil, Seed

There isn’t a more resilient thing than a small flower. 

Your great-great-grandmother was a yellow daffodil. Where she was born people called her narcissus. Her many heads blossomed from a loamy opening in the forest on a particularly chill spring day. They rose hungrily, searching for a few precious rays of sunlight. Her stems pushed against each other and against the cold wind. 

Flowers don’t have memory. Not in the way humans do. They don’t know where they come from or why they are. They only care about flower-things. But they know when they love a place with their whole being. Because each forest has a different kind of smell, color, and feel to it, like a human body. And the soil is its skin. That shadowy spot in the forest was home for the daffodil.

Until it wasn’t. 

Your great-great-grandmother woke up on a summer day—when the sun was high and the heat relentless—sensing her end was near. The end was a fire that was still too far away to be seen by anyone. Flowers don’t have memory. But they have a keen awareness of their short-lived nature. And when they feel that they are about to die they are almost always right. The daffodil didn’t have legs to run like the animals, or a voice to scream like the little children who picked her many heads while singing songs, but she had her senses, and a smell, and something other flowers didn’t: a desire that a part of her would live on. Where she got this intention from, I don’t know. Sometimes creatures decide they will survive despite everything.

There was a young buck nosing around her clearing and the daffodil smelled and swayed her way into the deer’s perception, and then into his mouth, and then deeper still, in his stomach. The forest burned not long after, and your great-great-grandmother died with it. But the seed she hid inside the deer’s belly made it to a faraway pond where the buck stopped to drink water and, well, die. Maybe it was the wounds the fire had dug in the buck’s flesh, maybe it was the daffodil itself growing poisonous inside his stomach. Whatever the reason, the buck lay by the pond, his knees buckled, and he drew his last breath among watermint and sweetflag.

Now sit still my love. We have a long way tomorrow and you need to hear all of this. 

The seed floated through the ribs of the decaying animal when the water lapped at its corpse, and it sank at the bottom of the pond. That’s how your great-grandmother was born. Under the glassy stare of toads and the squawking of grey herons. She was beautiful, oh yes, she was, twice as lovely for the delicate line of her mouth and her long violet arms. You see, your great-grandmother emerged from the water as a tiny human girl from the waist up—in the image of that one gentle girl, who picked the daffodil’s heads—and a waterlily flower from the waist down. She had adapted but she had kept the memory of the daffodil. The dream of her lost forest. Her eye shape had something of the buck she had lived in as a seed, and her little voice made toads and herons alike flock around her, enchanted. The same voice made a little boy run to her one afternoon. He had escaped his mother’s watchful stare and stretched his little arm trying to pick the waterlily girl from the pond’s surface. His face was flushed from the effort. He frowned and came a little closer and tried again. 

“Come here so I can pick you!” he demanded. He had been born into a rich family and demands came to him naturally.

The waterlily girl did not want to be picked, so she steered herself to the center of the pond, away from him. The little boy huffed and took one step into the pond and then another. But unlike her he did not float. His mother was heartbroken and his father, the lord of that land, ordered his people to drain the pond and find the fay that stole his firstborn’s life. 

When the men arrived at the lake, your great-grandmother knew they were coming for her, just like the daffodil knew there was a fire approaching. In the pond, there was no buck, but the waterlily girl was not about to go without a fight. With her song she called her favorite grey heron. When the bird swooped down at the pond, between the men’s shoulders, she reached her soft, petal arms and wrapped them tightly around its long neck. Together they flew above the pond that was her home and her cradle, and soon they had left the lord’s land and many others behind. 

The waterlily girl loved to fly. She finally understood what her mother, the daffodil, had felt all those years ago. The desire to keep going, to be a part of something bigger, something with memory. But no matter how strong her intention, the waterlily girl had been cut at the stem by the heron’s force and she was dying. She was thankful to the heron for saving her, but as they flew over more and more lands, it was clear that she would soon let go of her friend. When she did, they were passing over a mountain range. As the waterlily fell in the white, soft snow, she chirped to the heron, Thank you and goodbye. It was in a rocky cranny that the waterlily girl faded and finally slept her deep sleep, only for her daughter to be born from her seeds with the first spring rain.

When the goat herder and his wife found your grandmother, she was curled up like a baby-sized seed between primroses and drenched in meltwater. Her skin was primrose, white with a pink streak cutting down the middle of her. What did it matter that she was buck-eyed and had the long neck of a heron? That her face had the roundness of a drowned boy and between her curled toes grew primroses? She was beautiful like every child is, and if you live long enough on the mountains with goats as your main company, strange things become a little less strange. And this couple had lived on the mountains their whole lives. They loved the girl the moment they picked her up and thanked the mountain Gods for their gift (and every other God and minor deity they could think of, just to be on the safe side) and took her to their home in a small village wedged at the foothills of the mountain. They named her Primrose. 

Primrose grew up to be a patchwork of goodness and strength, and of the memories of the yellow daffodil and the waterlily girl. She could walk the steepest trails without fear. Better than the goats themselves—who she would occasionally rescue and carry back to the herd, sometimes letting them eat the flowers that sprouted between her toes. When asked how she was so good at climbing she’d say that the wildflowers held her by the ankles so that she wouldn’t fall. 

As much as she was loved by her parents, she was equally loved by a young milkman who later became her husband and my father. And that’s the part of the story where I come in, my little one. But not just yet. You see, you can run from forest fires and vengeful lords, but trouble will always come, no matter how far you travel. This time the trouble was much bigger than the ones the daffodil and the waterlily girl had faced. But Primrose in turn was bigger than both her ancestors and carried their wisdom. 

There was a war raging at the border on the other side of the very mountain she lived. This time there was no passing animal that could have swept away your grandmother. And if there were one, it was taken away by the soldiers who took her family’s goats, and then their chickens, and most of their milk and cheese, and eventually their loyal hound. The villagers shook their heads every time she climbed the steepest cliffs to gaze into the distance, towards the border, but she had her plans. If only she could walk along the mountain range, get past the blue forest and the dead river, cross the desert, and reach the coast, she and her husband could be free again. They could start anew. Primrose tried to wait out the war with her husband at first, rationing all the food they had left. She didn’t need much to survive and meltwater seemed to give her strength. But my father needed more than meltwater and greens. He was getting weaker and soon it would be impossible for him to travel. The old intention that lived inside my mother had grown roots and thick branches and Primrose got up one day, before the sun peered through the windows, and packed all the food she could find. 

“We are leaving,” she told her husband. “I will do this with or without you, but I would rather you came with me.” She took his thinning hand in hers and kissed it with affection, and he nodded a tired nod. 

Both of her adopted parents had died by then, so she had nobody to say goodbye to but the cabin itself. She hoped that perhaps, if peace came, they could return safely. But you and me both know that didn’t happen. 

The mountain was hard to climb and hard to walk for her husband, even during springtime, but Primrose was in her element, and there were days when she alone would carry him and the sack with all their possessions. She let him have most of their food and she melted fresh snow for him to drink. That got them all the way to the forest where food would be easier to find. My mother had never been there before. It wasn’t the daffodil’s forest. The smell and the color of the soil were different, there were tall trees covered by thick blue moss and plants my mother did not recognize. But all the forests are distant cousins. Just like all the mountains and all the ponds. And as cousins they share secrets that my mother knew. They ate the right kind of berries and mushrooms, and they even managed to catch a rabbit or two. My father was looking better. The dead river came next and that wasn’t hard for my father to cross, but without enough water my mother slowly started to wither. She didn’t notice at first, as she often drank from the flasks they had filled from a stream. But one cold night, as they huddled around the fire and she took off her worn out shoes to rub her feet, she saw that the flowers around her toes were dying.

My father stared at the dried flowers, dumbfounded. Her flowers had always been fresh and smelled sweetly. 

“What does this mean?” he asked. My mother could hear the rising panic in his voice.

Primrose knew very well what it meant. She had lived it through her memories time and time again. She was dying. Wasn’t this always the way? But the intention was there, and they had walked all this way. They were at the cusp of the long desert. It would be suicide to turn back now. So my mother chose to focus only on the positives: my father would be free and there was a baby on the way. Well, not exactly on the way. But there would be a baby. That she knew. And the baby would be a strong desert baby and she would make it out alive. And my mother would live through her daughter’s memories. She would make sure that they were happy ones. 

She turned to my father. “Nothing to worry about, dear. Just need some watering.” She smiled and took a sip from the flask. And my father believed her. 

They walked in the desert that was hot by day and freezing by night. They passed salt flats and lagoons where they refilled their flasks, but also places without a trace of plant or animal. My mother fiercely held on to her life until they reached a part of the desert where the shrubs gave way to milkweed and prickly pear. 

“Let’s rest here for the day,” she said to my father. She laid a goatskin on a cold stone slab. She didn’t say, This is where I’ll die tonight. Please hold my hand until I sleep. My father’s expression was grim, because deep down he knew. He held her hand anyway. 

When he woke up the next morning the stone slab was scalding hot, and my mother was nowhere to be found. But next to the prickly pear, inside her now-empty linen dress, slept a baby girl. Me. I was heron thin; my skin was the color of the desert at high noon and my lips were the shape and the color of the pear cactus flower. My father could hardly hold me because my body was covered in prickles, fine and small like a baby’s peach fuzz, but he clung to me like the last precious thing left in the world and let out a small, small sigh. 

Opuntia, he called me, for the pear cactus. Something of my mother’s intention must have seeped into him. He wrapped me in her dress tightly, and together we crossed what was left of the desert. He fed me the sap of milkweeds and I suckled at the stems like a mother’s breast. He fed himself the fruit and the pads of the pear cacti that grew all around, and somewhere along the way we found a group of alpaca herders. They didn’t question what a man with a newborn was doing crossing the desert. Only gave my father thyme tea to regain his strength and guided us to the city by the coast. By then I was one month old. 

We stayed in the city until I was old enough to talk and then to walk, and before any of us knew it, I was a grown child, and my prickles had thickened into spines. My father had turned to carpentry and forgotten all about the goats and the milk and the little cabin on the mountains. But in my memories, I carried all the places my ancestors had been, and I knew this wasn’t the place my mother wanted us to settle. No, the place we were meant to go lay beyond the sea, eastward. Every day I ran away from school, and he would find me at the port, looking longingly at the ships leaving.

“Why do you still want to travel?” he’d ask me. “Haven’t we travelled enough for ten lives the two of us?” 

But the intention had set its roots inside me.

It was many years before I finally managed to bend his will. Reluctantly, he packed our few precious possessions—my mother’s linen dress was first—and we headed to the port where one of his sailor friends had found some space for us below deck, on a merchant ship that carried cereal and wheat towards the east, in exchange for labor. My father repaired every single thing that begged for a carpenter’s touch, and I helped him. On every port he would turn and ask me, Is this the place? And I would shake my head that, no, it wasn’t. Not yet.

Until one day we stopped at Cotani. Our island. It was the biggest one in the Great Mild Sea and the ship made stops at each of the three major ports. South, East and Northwest. I wasn’t meant for the sea and seasickness was making me more miserable with each passing day. I preferred to spend my free time staring at the ceiling from my hammock below the deck. But something made me get off the ship when we reached the northwestern port and go for a walk. Stretch my limbs and stretch my spikes. The port was like any other. The people as well. The crowd steered clear of my spines but never gave me a strange look. People who live in ports don’t bat an eye at a girl with spines. They have witnessed much greater wonders. No, it’s only the inland people who do that. 

The island was rocky, but I could make out patches where forests spread inland, and fields that were full of olive trees and grape vines. I walked on the cobblestoned streets, already feeling better, and studied the small terracotta houses with the low roofs, the white and magenta bougainvillea twisting and trailing over every crack on the walls. In the pots that were left on the bleached white windowsills there was hyacinth and there was daffodil. I approached them almost hypnotized. The daffodils greeted me like old family. I had seen daffodils before, but there was something about these ones that felt achingly familiar. Flowers recognize their own.

“This is it,” I said to myself, my knuckles brushing over petals the color of runny yolk. “This is the place.”

I ran back to the ship and dragged my father outside. He didn’t need much convincing. Weeks on the ship tending to all that needed repair, along with the seasickness that plagued both of us, were enough to make him the most complacent man in the world; not that he had been a difficult man to begin with. I wish you could have met him yourself.

He crouched on his knees and held me carefully by the arms to not disturb my spikes, trying to extract a promise. 

“Are you sure, Opuntia? Is this where we stop forever? No more leaving?”

I nodded—though there is no such thing as forever. I knew that this was where we were meant to be, and my father’s feet longed to walk on steady ground for more than a day. 

“Yes,” I replied as he pierced me with his sunken eyes, smiling at the words that came next. “This is our new home.”

We did not stray too far from the port the first year. We rented a room over a bakery; the whole house belonged to the baker, a lovely woman with four children. My father got a job at the shipyard and was thankful for every single day that he did not spend out in the open seas. I spent time with our landlady and learned all the secrets of yeast and flour and heat. Poppy seed bread and pastries were my favorite. I knew the poppy flower well. I admired its beauty and respected its power. 

One day—did it count as day? I used to get up so early the roosters were still sleeping—as I was kneading chickpea and wheat flour into a soft dough, I noticed that our poppyseed supply was dwindling and asked our landlady for more. 

“You’ll have to talk to the gardener for that,” she said, her back was turned to me, twisting dough braids for the tsoureki more deftly than her daughters’ hair. “Just take the main path inland. When you see a small house with the biggest garden in town, you’ll have found her.”

I took my basket and did as she said, and soon I was in front of the biggest and tidiest garden I’d ever seen. Everything seemed to serve a purpose and have a natural flow. Not one petal was misplaced. Whoever had created this, I thought, knew plants from the inside out. And I wasn’t wrong. It has only gotten bigger while you were growing up, but the oldest plants are still here growing stronger, like you, my flower.  

At a corner of the garden I saw the gardener, your mother, poring over a patch of hyacinths, and the basket fell from my hands because I knew I had made it home. My sweet girl, flowers don’t have memories, but I do, because your great-great-grandmother wanted it so. And I remembered our forest, our first home. The gardener’s skin had the exact shade of its stones when the sun was peeking over the oak trees. When she turned to face me, her eyes were the color of its cypresses when the moon was round and bright. She was part of my forest. She was the forest. She smelled like it too. I wasn’t sure if she knew. If she remembered. I didn’t know how memory worked in her family line. But I knew her ancestors had come from the same place as mine. They were made of soil and stone and tree bark, but also of human flesh and moments in time like I was. 

Oh, you can imagine my joy when I found out she did remember. Drys said my eyes were the exact green of the daffodil stems on early summer, and my voice had the lilt of the stream passing through the oak trees. I had changed a lot along the way. Her ancestors had not gone as far as mine, so her changes were small, delicate. The forest where the daffodil had been born was on this very island. It had slowly been reborn into itself and was now almost as big as it had been when the daffodil first sprouted her heads out of the soil. 

When your mother touched my hand, my spikes made way for her. They bent, soft like hairs. Not long after I moved into that small house with the big garden and helped her make it bigger. I begged your grandfather to come and live with us, but he just kissed the spot between my eyes and smiled at me and Drys and said, “No more leaving now. This is it.” And I remembered my promise and respected it. The baker took a liking to him, and they ended up spending their lives together. I came to visit him every week, and later when he was at his weakest, every other day. 

But as it had always been with my family, a different kind of intention soon found me. I wanted to have a child. But I only knew one way. The way of my mother, and grandmother, and all the flowers before her. And trouble had not found me here, not yet. I wasn’t dying and nor had I wanted to. Our lives were sturdy as tall trees and sweet as black grapes. So how could I have a child? It would be like having it all.

“You know,” Drys told me one day, when she saw me frowning over a baby oak tree. “Cacti can propagate by stem cutting.” She hugged me then and gently led me into the house, where there were tea and pastries waiting for me.

I knew that of course, but I didn’t believe it would work. Dying and being reborn was part of my ancestors’ life. Part of my life. But I had Drys and I had time, and no hint of trouble on the horizon. So I took a sharp pair of hedge shears and cut off my waist-long curly hair to the shoulder. I left that part of me to the quietest place of our garden, where the heat was right and the shadows short, and before the month was over my hair grew roots and my heart was about to burst under my linen dress. 

I took you inside and kept you in my bosom during the day while I stirred the pot and kneaded bread and shoveled dirt. Drys had you during the night. She slept with you on her pillow, right next to her sweet face. You belonged to both of us, and you should have something of us both. You grew fast and, in a year, what looked like a tiny human girl, much like the waterlily, cooed in my arms. There was a drowned boy in your frown and a deer in your eyes, your hair was oak bark brown, and behind your ears two hyacinths grew, as blue as the sea I had crossed with my father. How funny, I thought then, to have another flower with poison in our lineage and a name not unlike narcissus—the yellow daffodil—after all this time.

 The years went by, and you grew older, and I know you have all these memories in your little head right now that don’t make much sense. That you don’t know what to do with. I promise that they will clear as soon as you grow up a little more, and then you will be able to tell this story that I am telling you—and perhaps I will be in there as a memory or perhaps I won’t. But tomorrow is a big day, my Hyacinth, and I had to tell you why. The forest we are going to visit is not just any forest—although they are all distant cousins, never forget that, it might save your life—it’s the forest of your ancestors and when we are there, we’ll be visiting them. So sleep well and dream without trouble, my love, but if trouble happens to come I know that you will be ready, because you will remember what to do. 


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

Waystation City

I was finishing the last of my nightly coffee when the nineteen-seventies twins approached my table and asked me to bear witness to their disappearance.

This was not an unusual request at Cafe Liminalité, being the locale of patrons that dreamed too much and ate too little. I, being its longest and oldest customer, had heard—and witnessed—this request many times.

“Pardon me,” the taller twin said. “Are you Mme. Hexler?”

Her voice was soft, but her gaze was direct. Beside her, her brother, a head shorter and shorter still by his slouched posture, placed his hands in his pockets. They both had lovely ebony skin and black, cloudlike hair that surrounded their head in a halo. Her shirt was a cheerful yellow knit, and there was a bright kerchief tied around her neck. His was white and synthetic with a wide, deep collar, edged with red. They wore tight fitting pants of blue denim that flared at the bottom. I am told these are called jeans.

 They were unlikely twins, but their mannerism, the way they shared a space, betrayed a closeness. Later, I would learn their names: Daphne and Claude.

“I am,” I said.

The twins exchanged a look. Claude inhaled deeply and said: “Ma’am, we’d like to make a request. We’re going to leave the city.”

One of the beautiful things about Cafe Liminalité was that it was always alive, no matter the hour. There were forever patrons in the armchairs and on the barstools arguing, drinking, and complaining. The air perpetually smelled of sweet flavored tobacco and harsh, cheap cigarettes; all the whispers of smoke exhaled.

Even in those rare moments where there was but one customer, Anton, the proprietor, busied himself with some task, loudly, to keep the silence at bay.

In silence, we begin to doubt ourselves.

Claude had not been speaking loudly, but when he voiced, “We’re going to leave the city,” the cheerful din of the cafe seemed to grow distant and cold, like a wind that rips through a window curtain revealing a dark and unknowable world. Some of the patrons turned to stare at the twins. Some patrons turned and stared at anything but my little corner table and the people gathered around it.

In the raw hushness, the twins exchanged another look, a nervous one.

I began to answer, but Anton appeared at my elbow then, refilling my cup with fresh coffee.

“Running low, I see,” he said.

“Never,” I replied and Anton smiled.

“Are you certain you want to leave?” Anton asked the twins. “Is the city so bad?”

“The city is lovely,” Daphne said. “We just don’t fit in anymore.”

Anton raised an eyebrow. Aside from the likeliness in mood and mindset, the patrons of the cafe were as varied as the timelines they came from. From the vantage point of the corner table, we could see customers from nineteen-twenties New York, early two-thousands Tokyo, nineteen-forties Mexico City, and a dozen others with a mix of different clothes and hairstyles from many different times and places. When each specimen was unique, it was not possible to stand out in Cafe Liminalité.

“Well,” Daphne amended, “Waystation City doesn’t feel like home anymore.”

“We’re changing,” Claude added, softly.

“Ah,” Anton said. “And what if disappearing is worse than changing?”

Daphne raised her head and met his eyes directly. “And what if fear is the only reason we stay?”

Anton shrugged.

“They say your accounts are truthful,” she continued, turning to me and nodding at the notebook before me, craning her neck slightly to make out the words.

I closed it. “Yes,” I said.

“Will you record us?”



“If there’s something interesting to record,” I said. The twins relaxed some and did not consider, perhaps, how many stories are not worth telling.

“Can you take us there?” Claude asked.

“I can show you the way. But that’s not the same thing.”

“It’s dangerous to go into the lower city,” Anton interjected. “Foolish even. Would you rather not stay? Have some coffee or wine. Perhaps something stronger? On the house.”

Steadily, the cafe had grown noisy once again. The twins barely considered before saying, “No, thank you,” in near unison.

Anton sighed. Drinkers were calling him from the barstools.

“Don’t endanger my favorite customer,” he said, giving my shoulder a small squeeze. In my ear, he leaned down and whispered, “I’ll let Michela know,” before hurrying to the bar, scolding the drinkers, making them laugh.

“We can pay you,” said Daphne.

“I don’t need it,” I said, standing. “Though you might, depending on where you end up.” The twins fidgeted, they wanted to argue. “But you can settle my tab with Anton.”

Daphne nodded and strode over to the bar. Claude helped me with my jacket. I drained my coffee in one swallow. Nights of disappearances were always cold and long.

“Pardon me for being direct,” Claude said. “But if you don’t want money, what do you want?”

I tucked my notebook and pen into my coat pocket, alongside the envelope that was already there. “Answers.”

It was nearly midnight when we left Cafe Liminalité and the city was wearing its best nightgown. Under the eaves of shops and on the corners there were small gatherings of people talking or laughing, their conversation weaving in and out of five different languages, their clothes and hair a mishmash of sarongs and button downs, overalls and sarees, bobs and long, intricate braids. True Waystation citizens.

The stone paved roads glistened after a sudden shower and the soft electric street lamps illuminated the ground, but only hinted at the buildings on either side: short and tall, wooden, or stone, or bamboo in construction. As eclectic and mismatched as the people. As we moved towards the main boulevard, the smell of rain and the flowers blooming in the terraces above the shops, haunted our steps.

Waystation City was lovely always, but it was this late night beauty I loved best.

The twins and I walked to the nearest tram stop and waited. On the nearby street light, hung a poster that read: “Avoid the lower city. It is not worth the risk. WAIT.”

Claude read it quickly and turned away. Daphne ignored it, pointedly staring up the tracks. In the cool, damp night, the twins stood out, with their bright shirts and bell-bottom jeans, looking like fresh arrivals to the city, ones still searching for answers. Which was true, though the question tonight would be the last they would ask of this place.

“Tell me your story,” I said. The twins looked startled as if they forgot I was beside them.

“Why?” Daphne asked.

“You can’t understand an ending without knowing the beginning.”

“Jesus, Daph,” said Claude. “Haven’t you read her articles?”

Daphne flushed. “Tram’s here.”

The tramcar approached, bright blue, lit up merrily with strings of lights, announcing its arrival with a tingling of bells. We boarded. Daphne held out City-minted coins for three tickets. “End of the line, please,” she said to the conductor.

The conductor hesitated. There was only one reason travelers took a late night tram to the edge of the city. He studied the twins with some trepidation, taking them in. Daphne’s determined stance, Claude’s gaze that was fixed on some spot near the ceiling. When he turned to me, there was recognition in his eyes. For a moment, I thought the conductor was going to refuse us passage.

Instead, he gave me a small nod and accepted Daphne’s money. I knew then, that one day soon, he would ask me to witness his disappearance too.

That is, if I was still in Waystation City.

The tram’s bell rang and its engine thrummed as it shifted gears.

“Wait!” A voice cried out. The voice was followed quickly by a tall, lanky figure springing onto the tram. The late comer wore a bespoke suit and a trilby, with short-cropped hair and polished shoes. With one smooth motion they handed their fare to the conductor and took a seat next to me.

“Good to see you too, Gerty,” they said, after a moment of silence. That was when I realized the late comer was Micheala.

“You cut your hair,” I said.

“You got new clothes,” she replied. I was wearing a pair of trousers in a feminine cut, which felt strange after a lifetime of skirts. But also thrilling. One of a million little changes I had adopted since coming to the city, many of which would have horrified my younger self.

 “You wear them well,” she observed.

“Not as well as you,” I said. Micheala beamed.

“Ah. New victims, Gerty?” she said, turning to the twins.

“They were just about to tell me their story,” I said and then, to the wide-eyed twins explained: “Please excuse, Micheala. She’s an old friend and knows the lower city better than anyone.”

“Oh, I didn’t miss the good part!” exclaimed Micheala, taking off her hat and stretching out her long legs, settling in.

The twins stared at us from across the tram. Their hands instinctively found one another’s.

“What do you want to know?” Claude asked, hesitantly.

“Everything,” I said.

The soft click-clack-clack of the tram was a steady heartbeat as the twins relayed their story. Claude began and Daphne took up the tale when he faltered, trading it back when she ran out of words.

Micheala listened, with her hat on her stomach and her olive skinned hands folded neatly over it.

I opened my notebook and began to transcribe. Tonight, I would witness the twins’ story, whatever the ending, and if it was worth telling, I would send it to my editor at the paper in the morning. Despite the signs and warnings, it seemed everyone in this peculiar city was hungry for stories of the disappeared I provided.

“We don’t know how we came to Waystation City,” began Claude. “Not exactly, at least.”

It had been a late night when the nineteen-seventies twins arrived in the city. They began the evening with reggae at the Four Ace Club, before a friend suggested checking out the Marquee. It was June 5th, 1977 and a Irish punk band was playing, The Boomtown Rats, lanky, untried, captivating, and full of rage. The twins didn’t drink much that night, didn’t have more than one or two pulls on a joint. They didn’t have the luxury of being less than sharp and aware, violence and hatred against immigrants being rampant. After the show, they took the tube home, surrounded by friends, talking and laughing, and lingering close, keeping an eye on other passengers too.

One by one, their friends got off at other stops until they were the last in an empty car. They noticed nothing strange, in this last part of the trip, even in hindsight. And yet, when they emerged from the tube station, they did not find themselves in Brixton a few streets from the flat they shared with a mother and two other siblings.

The city they found themselves in was not the one they began in and it was nearly dawn. Later, they learned its name: The Waystation.

The air was cold as the twins rose from the street and dread settled within them. It had been a mild, summer night when they entered the cab. Now, there were snowflakes floating around them, clinging to their eyelashes. They cast about, panicked as they realized the strangeness of their surroundings. The streets were lined with buildings from a dozen different centuries, all looking impossibly new. There were flowers blooming in the terraces amidst the coldness of winter.

They learned quickly that Waystation City was full of good Samaritans. That the woman who helped them off the street and to the city’s resource centre, had also arrived under mysterious circumstances. That all the city’s citizens came from a different place and a different time, unexpectedly. The woman, the workers at the resource centre, everyone they met in the years that followed, told them they were lucky to have each other, to be siblings in this unexpected limbo. Usually new citizens arrived alone.

The twins were given housing—a spacious apartment, not too far from the city’s parks. They were given jobs—Daphne working with distribution of shipments coming from the river ferries (she was always quick with numbers) and Claude with a tailor’s shop (he always had a good eye for fabrics and was clever with his hands). They were welcome and accepted.

They were grateful, but homesick for their friends and family, worried about the rising fascism in Britain and the state of the anti-racist protests they were part of.  They begged for directions home, but their caseworker shook his head sadly and told them to wait. That one day, they would find a ticket or a letter or a map with instructions on how to leave the city and return to their own time and place. Everyone in Waystation City did. Eventually.

(“We gave patience a good go,” Daphne said, defensively. “Really we did.”)

For two years, they worked, they tried out new clothes that were from more than one decade and place, and went out in the evening, making friends with other lost people, exchanging gossip, debating the influence of music across genres and equality late into the night. They smoked cigarettes and ate whatever was on the menu, picked up a little French, German, and Mandarin. They watched as one or two of those friends got their promised directions back to their timelines. Or simply disappeared.

They waited.

But always the nineteen seventies called them home and they held onto every piece they could.

They hummed songs from that last concert they attended, talked about the growing Rock Against Racism movement, their endless fight against fascism, sexism, and racism like a talisman, reminding themselves of the things that fuelled them in their lives before. They could not stop dreaming of where they came from, terrible as it was.

(“We were helping to organize protests,” Claude said.

“We were at the grassroots, the center of change,” added Daphne. “We were doing something.”)

They were going to be patient for their ticket, their map, really, but then one morning a week ago, Daphne woke up and couldn’t remember any of the lyrics or riffs she loved. Claude couldn’t remember the faces of his mates or the street names around their home. They could no longer recall the fury and dreams that compelled them to go to rallies in the London streets.

Their life before Waystation City felt like a worn and faded dream.

“We’re losing ourselves here,” Claude said, putting his head in his hands.

“We can’t stay,” said Daphne, fiercely. “We were fighting for something at home and here…here…”

“We’re just waiting,” Claude finished.

Beside me, Michaela sighed, running a hand through her black, shorn hair. I closed my notebook and did not argue.

We did not get off at the end of the line. Rather we disembarked at the second to last stop and walked the last quarter mile to the stairway.

The entrance to the stairs was mercifully empty of any good Waystation Samaritan trying to discourage those who wanted to disappear. There was another sign on the railing that said: “Please, just wait. Your time will come.”

Daphne scowled at the message and without breaking stride, headed down the long stairway. Claude read it and bit his lip, but only for a moment, before following his sister. Michaela followed next. I followed them all.

The stairway was badly illuminated and the stairs were slick. On our right was a rough stone wall and on our left, there was open air and darkness that promised a long, unpleasant fall.

We proceeded slowly, sinking down into the belly of Waystation City where the trees grew tall and the stone arches were broad and shrouded. The stink of the river came on strong and camouflaged behind the wind, were the sounds of stone grinding on stone, of something rusted and ill-used creaking open. Of something heavy and final snapping shut.

The twins moved silently and with caution, afraid of slipping, perhaps or perhaps nervous of what they might find tonight in the dark, shifting places of the lower city.

Michaela broke the silence first.

“I’m assuming you’ve read Gerty’s accounts of other disappearances, yes?” she said.

“All of them,” Claude replied.

“We know what to do,” Daphne said.

“Of course. Of course,” said Michaela, airily. Of our party, she seemed most at ease, unperturbed by the ominous sounds and the creeping apprehensiveness that grew stronger as we descended. “So you know the dangers?”

Daphne turned quickly to glare at Michaela and did not see the transformation. The stone stair she was about to step onto blurred for a moment and solidified with a soft grinding sound and a thin sheet of ice upon it. Daphne’s foot slipped and for an agonizing heartbeat she lingered in air, hovering before the fall.

Then, Claude caught her shoulder and steadied her.

Damn,” she breathed, clutching her brother’s elbow. “That wasn’t there before, was it?” she asked, glowering at the icy step.

“No,” I said. “The shifting will only get worse from here.”

The twins looked at each other, hesitating. The groans and grating of the lower city reshaping itself was louder now, but not yet in the forefront.

“Shall we turn back?” Michaela suggested.

“Stop trying to change our minds!” snapped Daphne.

“Perhaps I’m your voice of reason,” Michaela replied, cheerfully.

“There’s no reason here,” said Claude. He peered over the side of the steps into the canopy below. The darkness was not enough to obscure how the leaves on the foliage were changing shape, color, and species at random, how the foundations of the stairway were stone one moment and glass or cork the next.

“True,” said Michaela, sighing. “Docks are this way.”

We continued, more cautious than before, as the stairs beneath our feet became treacherous and unknowable. Michaela led and she would often pause an instance before a step would turn into water or silt, having developed a bit of foresight for the moods of the under city over the years. Once, after one particular late evening in Cafe Liminalité, Michaela confessed to me that sometimes she came to the lower city simply to watch one thing transform into another.

The twins almost collapsed in relief when we reached the final stair.

“Oh no, not yet,” said Michaela and she hurried us to where the walls became arches and then became caverns. Soon we found ourselves navigating the narrow pathway between the sloping stones floors and the rivulets of water running down them.

The caverns were timeless, unchanging, but the groans and cracks of the lower city shifting echoed through this space. Perhaps that was why the twins did not notice the words on the wall at first.

“Wait,” Claude said and approaching a wall. Sprawled across it were messages of the disappeared in thick white paint. Simple statements such as “If nothing else, I was here” and “We’ll meet again” to long poems or confessions that were too intimate to copy down.

“There’s so many,” he breathed. “It’s beautiful.”

Daphne came up beside him. “We should add our own.”

At the base of the cavern wall sat a handful of cans of paint and brushes.

“How about here?” Claude asked, pointing to a bare spot between a farewell and a hymn.

“Perfect.” Daphne reached down and readied a brush. In a steady hand she wrote: “We want to stay what we are.”

Michaela sighed, accepting defeat gracefully.

“The docks,” I said, pointing ahead. “Be as quiet as you can.”

The twins became somber at this, and nodded. They followed my lead.

When we reached the river docks, we could just barely make out the ferry drivers.

They moved with cold efficiency, stacking crates of food and materials on the docks. They were figures of soft edges and blurred lines. It was impossible to distinguish gender or coloring or the cut of their clothes. Why they provided for the city and where they came from was a mystery. They answered no questions and accepted no passengers. Any direct encounter with the ferry drivers and Waystation City citizens ended badly.

My first newspaper article as a fresh citizen here followed a man who thought he could reason with the ferry drivers. But when he entered their line of vision, he simply dissolved before my eyes. One moment he was a whole, the next he was a puddle of water, a mound of graphite, and calcium flakes.

It has been years, but that moment still revisited me in dreams. His story, however, made me Waystation City’s most infamous journalist.

At first glimpse of the ferry drivers, the twins threw themselves behind the last of the arches. Michaela and I joined them.

Beyond the docks, the ferries were coming in and departing, dozens of them of various sizes, hues, and builds.

Beyond the ferries were the holes in the fabric of the world.

The twins gasped almost in unison.

Witnessing the holes was always a sight of wonder and terror. Wonder, because some of the holes showed lush gardens and bustling cityscapes. Terror, because others showed polluted oceans and desolated towns. The holes appeared without warning with a clap, lingered for a few minutes while the ferries crossed through, and snapped close with a sharp thud.

To reach the holes, one had to swim.

“If you are to do this, choose carefully,” I whispered to the twins. “Your timing must be exact.”

“You don’t want to end up on an island in the middle of the Pacific,” Michaela added.

“Or in the middle of a war.”

“Or in the ferry drivers’ sights,” said Michaela, and I shivered. I checked to ensure my notebook, pen, and the envelope were still in my pocket. They were.

Daphne nodded and Claude reached for her hand. They studied the holes beyond the docks with a fixed intensity.

The twins did not choose rashly. Instead, we crouched in our hiding places for almost an hour, watching the ferries come and leave, the holes appearing and disappearing. They waited.

A hole appeared a few hundred yards from shore and Daphne’s breath caught. “That one!” she whispered and rushed forward.

“Daph, wait,” Claude said, but she was already running. The hole showed a town by the coast and judging by the cars, the powerlines, and lights, it was sometime in the 1970s. Daylight streamed through it with the smell of the ocean and the cry of gulls.

“Daph,” cried Claude racing after her. The docks were changing and transforming under their feet as the twins ran. Wood slats became metal, then linen, then bamboo, before reverting back to wood. The cacophony of noise from the change was overwhelming. It was the only reason why the ferry drivers did not notice the twins immediately.

Daphne was the first to dive into the black, rippling river and she swam with strong strokes to the hole. “Claude, come on!” she called.

But on the dock, the wooden slats became marble as Claude slipped, and fell into the water with a large splash.

Nearby, the ferry drivers looked up from their work.

“Hurry!” I shouted. “Go!”

Daphne spotted the ferry drivers turning toward her. “Hurry, Claude!” she cried, and threw herself through the hole. She disappeared.

“Wait!” Claude was desperately swimming towards the hole. He was almost there.

Then, the hole snapped closed with a thud.

I was too far to see the despair on his face, but I felt it.

The ferry drivers were alert now and scanning the water, only missing Claude because a new hole opened up with a clap a dozen feet from him and the ferry emerging from it shielded him from their view.

The new hole showed a field of wheat. It could have been anywhere. In any time.

“Claude,” Michaela yelled. “Swim back.”

He did not. He did not even hesitate. “Write this down!” he called. “Don’t let me vanish completely!”

“Come back!” I shouted.

In the distance, he shook his head once. Then, he disappeared.

“Well, that was exciting,” Michaela said as we climbed carefully up the stairs.

“I wish Claude stayed and waited,” I said.

“Me too. Will their story be in tomorrow’s paper?”

“Day after,” I said. “I’m too tired tonight.” It was nearly dawn.

The citizens of the city craved stories about the disappeared. They wanted reports of the dangerous, shifting landscape of the lower city, for glimpses into other worlds and possibilities. While the disappeared wanted to be remembered, to go down on record before they embarked into the unknown, to be more than the messages they left on the walls.

“If only I could’ve convinced them that changing isn’t so bad,” Michaela said with a sigh as we reached the top of the stairs.

“They were happy with who they were,” I said. She offered me a cigarette and I accepted. “They were stuck here, while at home, the fight for change probably marched on without them. I don’t blame them, Micheala.”

Michaela exhaled and nodded. “You’ve decided then.”

I pulled out the envelope from my pocket. Inside was a ticket with my name, the city I came from and the year I left behind. It was my passage home.

I stared at it for a long moment. Then, I reached out and dropped the ticket over the edge of the stairs. It disappeared into the lower city. “That’s my answer.”

Michaela breathed a sigh of relief.

“Could you imagine me going back to 1904 to write solely about ladies’ etiquette again?” I said, gesturing to my new pants, and Michaela laughed.

“God, no. It’s like me going back to skinned tight dresses and coiffed hair,” she replied grinning, but then grew serious. Softly, she added: “I’m thinking of changing my name to Michael.”

I studied my friend. In profile, she did look like a man. Or rather, more like himself. Before I came to Waystation City, such a declaration would have shocked me, such a change would have been beyond my imagination. But why does a city like this exist if not for the unimaginable and unlikely?

“It suits you,” I said and Michael smiled.

“We want to remain what we are too, I suppose,” he said.

“Yes,” I agreed, snubbing my cigarette. “Now, let’s go home. I’m cold.”

    There were those in Waystation City who waited and there were those who disappeared. And then there were those of us who changed, who were changing still and we were the ones living in the spaces in between.


(Author Note: This story will also appear in anthology marking the occasion of Luxcon/Eurocon 2022 at some point in the future.)


“It was like this behind the Iron Curtain.” The woman in the grocery line was wearing a cowboy hat and had the leathery skin of someone who’d spent their entire life in the sun. Smoker skin, Payne’s mother had called it. She always loved finding ways to blame people for their misfortunes.

Payne thought about ignoring the woman, pretending not to hear. Instead, she tapped her headset, shutting off her podcast. “Pardon?”

“In school, studying communism. Hours of lineups to buy bread and butter. Hear the teachers tell it, you’d get to the front of the line just as they ran out. Wasn’t supposed to happen in the so-called free world.”

“In the free world, your shelves are fully stocked and having to wait for a cashier is a violation of human rights.” Payne’s lips were numb. Hadn’t Butch said this, last night?

Smoker Skin tipped her hat. “You know during Stalin, every house over there was haunted?” 

Yeah. This was why she didn’t talk to the living anymore.

Fortunately, the grocery store guy finally came by to screen them. Put up a hand if you’ve experienced hallucinations recently, ladies. Ladies. Put up a hand if anyone close to you has passed away. Put up a hand if you’ve had cause to be out after dark in the past three weeks?

Payne kept her hand down. She didn’t owe this Mono minion the truth.

Instead, she made herself chat with Smoker Skin. Buzz, the happiness guru from the queer podcast network, swore that a key to keeping your mood up was to have frequent, shallow chats with your neighbours. Your butcher, baker, barista…and the cowgirl in the grocery line.

Anything to keep the mood up.

Inside, there was plenty of bread and milk, all watched by dull-eyed attendants in Mono Foods vests, droning: “Limit of one per customer, limit of one, ma’am.” Even the generic breakfast cereal. Even the sanitary napkins for Hester: limit of one, ladies.

The produce section was unlimited, or so they claimed. Payne’s conscience flayed her over longing for avocados from Mexico and cherries from Chile. The late-harvest Ontario apples and sacks of rose hips packaged in burlap, the latter with home-printed labels explaining how to make a tea rich in vitamin C, were just depressing.

Ghosts. Behind the Iron Curtain.

She’d have sworn she’d heard that phrase last night, when she’d surfaced from sleep into the edge of wakefulness.

But that should be impossible. Payne slept to the same six episodes of the same six podcasts every night. Nothing on her A-list was about communist history as it was taught, correctly or otherwise, to Canadian Gen Xers in the ‘80s.

The encounter left her feeling disconnected and jangly. No hint of that mood lift Buzz promised. She tapped her headset all the same, relaxing fractionally at the podcaster’s enthusiastic greeting: “It’s so great to have you all here today on Happiness in Hard Times! I am Buzz Cutt.”

“Hey, Buzz,” Payne said, “Hit me with something upbeat.”

“Okay! Let’s talk about meditation techniques for people who find meditation stressful,” he enthused. “I’ll also have an update on my turtle, Inka. Remember, a pet can really make a difference on a bad day!”

Buzz had always been good company, and the episode—already downloaded, and thus immune to the vicissitudes of the increasingly fallible cellular networks—was one she’d only heard once. It brightened the walk back to River Drive, even if she did have to stop three times to clear leaves off the sidewalk for the sake of her grocery cart’s wheels before giving up and walking in the road. 

She was almost feeling normal by the time she crested the peak of her neighborhood hill and spotted two cops lounging against her gate.

Payne stopped short, barking her cart on the hilltop pothole in the process, snapping off one of its front rear wheels.

“Remember, talk to the people in your neighbourhood!” chirped Buzz.

Payne tipped the cart so it would still roll. In addition to her own groceries she had scored cereal, powdered milk and a box of pads for Hester. These cops would see her if she dropped it in the usual place.

Maybe these guys just want me to mow Angie’s lawn.

Payne tapped her headset before Buzz could say anything else, instead focusing on seeming law-abiding, privileged and unconcerned as she strolled up to her front door: “Morning, guys.”

“Morning.” Their uniforms bore the brand of the company that was buying up houses in the neighbourhood, supplying spotty internet and cable service to the people they hadn’t yet managed to drive out, and screwing Payne over about a rebate for Angie’s fancy wheelchair.

Now apparently, they’d taken over for the city police.

She fought a surge of fury. 

Get a grip! Mono Health didn’t kill Angie.

The taller and whiter of the pair of rent-a-cops, clearly the designated hard ass, held out his hand. Payne thought about playing dumb and shaking it. But why antagonize? She passed over her ID.

“This is your house?” HardAss asked.

“I rent it.” Angie’s parents had asked her to stay on, allegedly lest developers bulldoze the place without permits or paying. They knew she couldn’t go home.

“We’re here about your front window,” HardAss said.

“It’s over two meters off the ground.”

“Minimum height requirement is now three and a half.” He flashed her a QR code. 

Payne obediently scanned it, bringing up a public health notice. “You want me to put bars on the outside?”

“Full obstruction.” HardAss sounded annoyed. “Boarded up. As it says.”

“My plants’ll die.”

“You can get a retracting metal barricade,” said the other guy. The softer touch.

“Government’s going to pay for that, I suppose.” Payne regretted the sarcasm the minute the words escaped her lips. “Sorry. It’s just…”

She gestured at the river view.

“Homeowner can apply to Monolith for reimbursement, but you have to contract the job from one of our designated suppliers,” said HardAss. “Why don’t you invite us in? We can pull up the specs on one of your screens.”

“I’ll figure it out,” Payne said, trying not to make it sound like a refusal.

His eye fell on the box of pads. “What do you do for a living, Mr. Payne?”

Asshole. The voice in her head came from another of the podcasters who kept her company, Jamal from Scavenger Fridge. It was so heartfelt it sounded like the perpetually angry chef was alive and well and standing right there behind her shoulder, radiating outrage over the not-so-micro aggression.

“I’m a palliative care nurse.”

A hyena gleam came into the cop’s gaze. “You work with dead people?”

“Dying people, yes.”

“Do you have a night pass? We’ve had reports of people breaking curfew around here.”

She swallowed—her throat felt sandy. “I’m not currently using my pass.” 

“What was the last one?”

“Last one what?”

HardAss bristled.

“The last death you attended,” put in the partner. SoftTouch, she decided, though his nametag read Ballaro.

“Oh. Six months ago.” 

“Where is that patient now?”

Law abiding, privileged, unconcerned. Law abiding, privileged, unconcerned…

Payne’s lie, when it came, sounded casual. “Angie’s parents took her ashes back to Nova Scotia. I’m sure they turned them in.” Some other mega corporation would be devouring—excuse me, saving—the Maritimes, and it would take them months to fact-check her. If they bothered. People so rarely did.

SoftTouch shifted, responding to an alert from his phone. He nudged HardAss. “All hands call. Some guy on horseback is throwing spears in the town square.”

HardAss held Payne’s gaze. “We’ll be back in three days to check that window. Sir.”

Living the cliche, said Jamal’s imagined voice. What exactly do they all get out of being bullying dicks?

“No problem,” Payne said brightly. “Bye, officers!”

She made a show of scrutinizing the window as they hustled away. After their car crested the hill—bouncing with a pleasing crunch in the pothole—she scurried across the street and dropped the bag of breakfast cereal, powdered milk, menstrual supplies, and some random cans of fish in its usual spot, just past the fence of one of the boarded-up houses.

As if summoned by the thought of him, Jamal came up in her podcast rotation. “Welcome to my show, fellow queers and other humans! Today we’re going to learn how to make rose hip jelly.”

“Rose hips my smooth pink—” Payne dragged the broken grocery cart up Angie’s steps and into the house with its prohibited front window and the screamingly expensive wheelchair she was still trying to return. 

Not to mention the three highly contraband boxes of human ash, tucked into the guest room closet.

Human remains weren’t the problem. Nobody was sure what the problem was, exactly, but Payne wasn’t about to consign Mom or Angie or even her awful roommate JoJo to corporate custody just because someone on the tatters of the Internet thought the bodies of the dead were causing hallucinations. Half the world still thought the last pandemic had been caused by people eating pigeons. Or proximity to dandelions. 

Was someone actively investigating her? Payne had been kicking up a fuss over the wheelchair, the fucking Mono Health chair that cost more than a car. The chair they’d made Angie wait eight months for, only to have it break down the first time she ran it down the ramp in the garage and tried to drive over a shallow slick of rain-moistened sand on the river path.

Payne walked out of the kitchen and found one of Angie’s boy bands on the big screen TV, facing said chair. Seven impossibly handsome men worked their way through intricate synchronized choreography, smiling as they lip-synced one of their hits in Korean. Bad sound quality—the vid was a rehearsal.

“Soft porn vibes today, huh?” Payne asked. The video was mirrored on the chair’s control tablet, a small screen affixed to one of the handsets.

Angie’d always preferred visual media. Payne left her streaming media feed on, playing softly on the TV, most of the time. Letting the algorithm sift up the content Angie had consumed relentlessly as her body failed made the house feel more lived in.

It was also as good a way as any to tell if the ever-dodgy Internet was up and running. Payne downloaded her podcasts so they didn’t hang as she listened; she could go hours without noticing she’d lost service.

As she watched, the dancers gave way to a vlog post by one of Angie’s real world friends, a knobby-boned Sikh from Waterloo university who used to bring fresh flowers to the house every Thursday.

“Hey, Doctor Khan,” Payne said, fingering the rose hips. Why did she keep buying them?

“Good morning—I hope you’re safe, well and busy.”

“Apparently I’m boarding up windows. That’ll fill a day.” Payne bit her lip. Losing the view meant she wouldn’t see if the cops made a move on the shoreline path. 

Does it matter, if I can’t do anything to help Hester and the others?

If she cleaned the hoarder’s paradise of art supplies out of Angie’s garage, it might sleep five or six people.

“This week I interviewed six paranormal investigators and a pair of folklorists,” Doctor Khan said. “I’m also chasing down sightings of a mounted rider in armour, calling himself The Fifth, in downtown Scarborough just before a deadly nine-car pile-up.”

“Fifth on horseback,” Payne said. The casualties in Scarborough last week had included a limo full of pharmaceutical magnates, men who’d been all but proved guilty of price gouging during the third pandemic.

“One of the folklorists told me that when you’re alive, you have something they called life energy. When you die, it transforms to fuel for the journey to…” Khan waved their hands, indicating an afterlife they’d probably always declined to believe in. “When ghosts manifest…I’m sorry, but that’s the word they both used, manifest. And who am I to dispute anything at this point?”

“Oh,” Payne said. “You’re getting depressed, aren’t you?”

“Sorry.” Kahn looked straight into the camera, meeting her eyes, and seemed to force themself to go on. “They allege that ghosts are powered by death energy that hasn’t quite dissipated. Where it gets interesting is when you have lots of deaths and energy builds up. Usually minor spirit manifestations can become disruptive. Maybe even self-sustaining.”

It was as neat an explanation as any for the recent contagion of murder sprees and fatal accidents: runaway apartment fires, construction cranes collapsing onto sidewalks, highway carnage. Hallucination epidemics, sightings of headless cavalrymen, and waves of suicides. Crimson letters, sprayed in a thousand alleys across the continent, in old fashioned cursive: We the dead know.

“It’s like any real-world catastrophe—a flood or a wildfire, say, or so they argue,” said Khan. “But if there is currently a surge of thanatic energy, it might be easier than usual to find evidence of it.”

“Find it, measure it, suddenly prove the supernatural exists?” Payne said. “People have been trying forever.”

“It does seem a little pointless—” The video cut off, in favour of another dance practice. Angie’s content filters were set to skip ahead to the next vid if things got downbeat.

Anything to keep the mood up, right?

That night Payne lounged in Angie’s fancy wheelchair in the darkened living room, enjoying the gel cushion as it conformed to the curves of her butt, and listening to History Butch—one of the few queer network podcasters still making new content—as she defiantly enjoyed one last night of having a river view.

The neighbourhood had become prone to what her mother called dust devils, baby tornadoes with just enough power to spin leaves around on the ground. Payne had always thought you needed sunshine to make a dust devil—warm ground and updrafts—but lately the trees by the river spent their nights undulating in circles, like dancers.

“People love quoting stats about the plague killing half of Europe,” said the Butch. “But today’s guest is a bioarcheologist who’s going to talk about who died, and how marginalization played into your survival chances. Not that this has any modern relevance, you understand…”

“Oh, Butch. I love your little sardonic giggle so much.”

The trees whirled. She finished her second glass of wine and fought the temptation to make it three. 

As she was coming back from the kitchen after rinsing the glass, Payne saw something moving in the trees down by the river path. Big shadow, whipping through the undulating foliage… She would’ve sworn it was a horse at full gallop. 

She could almost hear the hooves.

“I miss your laugh too,” History Butch said, presumably to her guest archaeologist, but even so, Payne gave a little bow. 

“I promise to laugh if anything’s ever funny again,” she said.

Angie’s video stream promptly switched to one of her favourite comedians. 

This was happening more and more lately—her mind was sliding in ways that made the passive ingestion of the podcasts seem like interaction. The effect of solitude, making her read patterns into coincidence.

Payne settled back into the chair, using the armrest tablet to surf hardware stores, checking if anyone besides Monolith would deliver window boards to the house. 

Mono didn’t kill Angie.

“…half of everyone who’s left dies off, that’s 3 billion packets of thanatic energy. Lotta spiritual horsepower, if you get my drift…” 

Payne jerked awake, looking for the source of the voice. Her glitchy podcast app had shut itself off, and Angie’s ever-scrolling video feed had switched to ocean waves on a tropical beach. 

“Hey, Housebot, skip current video,” she said, testing the network. 

The view hopped to old footage of Angie painting a portrait on a big chunk of particle board, picture of two Canadian anti-masking activists from the first pandemic, done up as conjoined scythe-wielding death goddesses. She had charmed local dentists into donating extracted wisdom teeth to the project; these were embedded in the board, so the curling roots of the teeth poked outward from the painted mouths.

Payne shut off the TV for the first time in weeks, heading to sleep in her actual bed. For company, she turned on a former yoga instructor, Catman Bendy, who always posted slow, murmuring, suspense-free stories about exciting topics like goldfish or kneading bread dough.

“…thinking about putting the babies down, just so I can stop worrying for ten minutes about what they’ll go through if anything happens to me…”

She surfaced muzzily into morning, checking her phone. Had she even heard that? Bleak wasn’t Catman’s thing and she definitely wouldn’t have kept something like that in her archive of downloaded content. But Bendy had shut himself off after knocking her out.

A dream, then.

“Note to my subconscious,” Payne groaned. “Please fucking fuck the fuck off.”

A little rough, as morning prayers went, but it was all she had.

She headed into the kitchen. Glowered at the rose hips. The video feed on the chair had rebooted and was playing a crowdfunding pitch from one of Angie’s favourite charities, an elephant retirement home. The sun was sparkling on the river, and she had eggs.

“Hey, Housebot, find me a video about building shutters for a big window.”

Angie’d made all kinds of art. Giant snow globes and miniature carousels. Quilts and cross stitches and model airplanes, Dutch master style paintings of fast food industry workers. Subtly graded color palettes that unfurled like red carpets, stretching thirty meters. Fanciful birdbaths and intricate sculptures. Her overstuffed garage had plenty of tools and materials. There would be a way to batch together something that looked like a barrier, one Payne could maybe remove from the window during the daytime.

Getting to the tools and ladder was something of an excavation. She ended up carting a two-part polyresin statue—the front and back ends of bus drivers wearing a two-person horse costume—to the lawn, all in service of emptying out another of Angie’s many carts. This she pushed down the wheelchair ramp in the garage to the street, then up the hill, past the pothole, and over to the nearest hardware store, eventually coming back with a bunch of laminated floorboards—hey, they looked like solid wood. 

History Butch came on to keep her company as she tried to figure out how to assemble a flap, to put a hinge on the top of the window, so that instead of creating an actual barrier, she’d have something she could raise and lower.

She was failing and frustrated when the softer of the two corporate cops came by.

“That’s not gonna pass muster,” he said. “It’s not meant to be a blackout curtain. It’s a physical barrier.”

“Barrier against what?”

“I don’t make the rules, ma’am.”

He probably thought coming on his own was a sort of favour. Just swinging by with a warning: Be good or when daddy HardAss comes back, you’re gonna be so very spanked.

Payne wasn’t in the mood for ethically compromised kindnesses. She’d been up a ladder for three hours now, trying to install hinges. “You act like you think there are zombies out here.”

“I’m not a doctor. Not here to argue about masking or vaccinations or curfew or burning incense or drinking filtered water or reporting hallucinations or wearing magnets or trespassing in cemeteries—”

“We can’t go in cemeteries now?”

“—or the public health case for sequestering human remains.” 

“We don’t have public health in this community anymore. Just corporate subsidiaries.”

He gave her a look that made her want to punch him in the face. “When was the last time you talked to a real person?”

“Don’t you pass for one?”

“A friend, I mean.”

“All my friends are parasocial.” 

“You should get a pet.”

Anything to keep the mood up.

Out on the river path, she heard what sounded like hooves, ringing on paving stones.

She climbed down to the overgrown lawn, dusting her hands. “I’m fine, Officer. Stressed out, but who isn’t? I’ll get the window sorted—”

“We’ll be stepping up patrols on River Road,” he interrupted. “There’s a concern it isn’t safe to live near this much water.”

“More wisdom from the boardroom. Are you going to step up patrols near the big houses on the other side of Cauldron Lake?”

“There haven’t been any problems on the north side,” he said. “Ma’am, Mono Health runs a home care service. If you’re really looking for a nursing gig—”

Payne interrupted: “Did you not pick up on the hostility to Mother Corporation in my tone just now?”

He stared at the back end of Angie’s statue, the brightly coloured palomino ass, with a uniformed city bus driver protruding, centaur-like, from its waist. Their arms were extended, reaching for the front half of the costume, over by the garage. “Times like this, you gotta be part of an ecosystem that works.”

“You and I have vastly different definitions of works.”

He nodded, seeming to acknowledge this. “Don’t suppose I could come in and use your bathroom?”

“Piss yourself,” she said, whirling to mount the ladder again, climbing to the top and unhooking her fake barrier with its fake boards, dropping them between Angie’s statue with noisy slaps of wood, and ignoring SoftTouch until he finally took the hint and drove off in his Monomobile.

“Get a pet. Talk to a friend. Fucker, fucker, fucker!” 

Mono didn’t kill Angie, she reminded herself. 

She stomped inside and grabbed that glass of wine she hadn’t drunk yesterday. Paced, fumed, tried to calm down. 

When was the last time you talked to a friend? 


With a sigh, she checked to see if her phone had service.

She hadn’t expected Doctor Khan to be free, or interested in chatting, but the professor had listened to the story of Payne’s wheelchair refund wars and the bylaw-mandated window blockage with, at least, a good pretense of interest and concern.

“It’s possible they want a poke around Angie’s house,” they finally said. “If there’s anything out of compliance, you could be relocated for your own safety.”

“So it’s just a soft push to empty out River Road and the south shore of Cauldron Lake?”

“They can’t do much if you’re in compliance. And it’s better that they’re corporate cops, in a way. No real government authority—and no guns.”

“I don’t know why they’ve latched onto me all of a sudden.”

“They’re overcompensating, I think. There’s been controversy over the mounted city police detachment—I think we’re building up to some kind of moral panic over horses, of all things. Someone’s claiming to have seen a rider yesterday just before an elevator unstrung itself downtown and took out a handful of hockey club owners and TV executives.”

“There’s a loss to humanity. But what does it have to do with me?”

“Payne, let ‘em snoop around the house and find it clean. Which they will. Because it is.”

From the emphasis, Angie wondered if Khan thought someone was listening in on their call. Wasn’t that paranoid?

“Yes it is,” she agreed brightly. “Absolutely clean.”

After getting off the phone, she put on an archived episode of her favourite advice podcast, Frankly Speaking, and regrouped. It wasn’t that Angie didn’t have wood in the garage. All her paintings, pretty much, were on particleboard. 

She gave up on the window flap. Like cherries from Chile, she just didn’t get to have a view anymore.

She hauled out a quartet of Angie’s abandoned paintings in progress, including the conjoined scythe women, and mounted them on the outer sills of the front window. Nailing, clamping and even gluing—Angie’s parents, in faraway Halifax, wouldn’t care if she did a little property damage. Anything to keep the compliance up.

“If you can get everything on a given list done within four hours, then you’re not behind,” Frankly said, responding to a listener question about work-life balance.

“I’d give my left kidney to worry about something as petty as work-life balance,” Payne growled as she yanked on the extension cord powering the drill.

“It’s common to feel overwhelmed,” Frankly continued. “And unhealthy to routinely force yourself to carry out tasks you’re averse to. But sometimes clearing the decks can give you a sense of renewed control—”

“Everything’s under awesome control.” Payne leaned against the horse statue’s ass end, taking in her handiwork. The front of the house was now, by default, an Angie art show.

She went inside, found the government regs on boarding up windows, and printed the page. She checked all the boxes on the handy government checklist, ran the resulting poster through Angie’s laminator, and stuck the whole plasticated page on a clear spot at eye level. 

“Here. I did your thing, I followed the rules, stop hinting that you want to search the goddamned house.”

“Hey,” Frankly said. “Don’t kill the messenger.”

I gotta stop half-listening to these shows.

Clear the decks. She got the cart she’d used for the hardware store haul, and started loading. JoJo’s ashes, her mother’s ashes, Angie’s ashes, bagged in totes with handles and then wrapped again in a blanket. Then, atop that, a picnic—sandwiches assembled from a Fridge Scavenger. Plus, for Hester and the river folk, all the weird unperishable foods people had given Angie in gift baskets after her diagnosis. Crackers and pate and pickles. 

Sorry you’re dying; try this compote from the Mono Foods deli!

“Stop, stop, Mono didn’t kill Angie.” She mumbled it as she made a thermos full of hot tea, packed two bottles of wine, gathered up some magazines that Angie should be even now be tearing up for one of her creepy ass collages. She searched up one of those long lighters for igniting barbecues and grabbed a three-pronged garden rake for good measure.

“That’s it. Go on a tear,” Frankly said. “Throw yourself at that to-do list until something breaks.”

“And if that doesn’t work, get a pet.” She booted up the screamingly expensive Mono Health wheelchair, ran it down the ramp in the garage and parked it in the tiny space she’d reclaimed from Angie’s art supplies, and plugged in the charger. Then she rearranged the living room, putting Angie’s lone armchair in front of the big screen TV.

Her last task was finding the donated teeth among the bins and bins and endless bins of art supplies, so it could go on the now-burgeoning pile within the cart.

“Let’s move on to another question from our listeners,” said Frankly.

Payne’s stomach growled. “Dear Frankly. Can you get hangry if you’re already perpetually enraged?”

“Here’s a good one!”

She hit the garage door opener and dragged the laden cart down the driveway, across the street. Heading downhill, for once. She slid onto a dirt-strewn path bordered by a neighbour’s fence on one side and a slick of peaty moisture and cattails on the other. The only pause was when she left the sack of pate and crackers, along with one bottle of wine, in the usual spot for Hester inside the fence before dragging her load onto the river trail.

Reaching Cauldron Lake took longer than expected. The cart was heavy, the trail covered in wet leaves—good thing she brought the rake—and the occasional smush of a silt deposit. At some point, the precariously balanced basket of teeth slid off the pile and dropped into the bush. Didn’t matter necessarily, she supposed. The teeth weren’t technically human remains. She’d only brought them because she didn’t trust HardAss to know that.

She arrived perhaps an hour before sunset. 

People talked a good game about the history of Cauldron Lake. Ancient legacy this, potent Indigenous spiritual power that. All garbage, according to Angie: a previous plague of developers dammed up the local stream to create the fancy part of town, back in the eighties. 

Cauldron was, in other words, wholly artificial. Its gracious trees had been selected by city arborists, the trout and bass within stocked by Parks and Wildlife. All to bolster property value for the houses rising up to the north, proper mansions on a proper hill, looking down on greensward, a view bounded by a screen of poplars to hide the more modest homes on the other side of the water.

Constructed or natural, Angie had wanted to be scattered there, near the trees she’d climbed as a kid, near the manmade waterfall where she’d had her first kiss.

Payne’s mother, meanwhile, had just specified dumping her remains in water. Anything but a government vault. 

As for Jojo…well, her irascible roommate had lost any say after he hanged himself with a power cable, effectively rendering her homeless.

Security was circling the park as Payne arrived, making sure they could tell their bosses they’d checked it before sundown. She ducked out of sight, settling under Angie’s favourite climbing tree, and tucked into the picnic.

The patrol passed within a couple meters. Payne gave them the finger from under her blankets, cheered on by a podcaster who went by the name of Minor Ducats Dude as he gave her tips for consuming ethically while living within her means.

“The trick might be to eat first and then see how you feel.”

Frankly’s words jerked Payne out of a doze. The advice podcast from this afternoon must’ve restarted. The moon was high above Cauldron Lake, three quarters waning and the yellow of an old bruise, smeared to a blur by a scrim of cloud. The trees were shadows, turning slowly in a corkscrew, as if caught by dust devils.

Payne muttered a low curse before getting to her feet and trying to shake out a thousand sore spots. She was alone with the swirling wind and the lapping waves.

She left the cart where it was, lugging two of the boxes of ash in a tote that wasn’t really sized for them, while tucking Angie under her arm. 

The walk to the dock cleared her head. She stepped onto the planks, almost slipped—the wood was almost always a little damp—and spent a second accustoming herself to the shift and bounce of waves lapping beneath her.

Then she strode to the end of the dock, where she and Angie had sat as undergraduates, new friends warmed by the heat of a massive mutual intellectual crush. Alive and present and in person. Legs dangling over the water as they talked art and science and Canadian politics and occasionally boys.

Payne sat in the memories until she was well marinaded and morose before turning to the task.

Mom’s box of ashes was the oldest. Its surface was textured, stamped with a honeycomb pattern that was meant to make the cardboard feel… what? Upscale? Pricey? 

As she opened it, Payne imagined she felt someone stepping onto the dock, heavy vibrations coming up through the cold damp boards under her butt.

She refused to look: if someone caught her dumping ashes now, there was nowhere to run and nothing to deny.

Water dripped off the pier, sounding like horses—clip clop, clip clop.

Lifting out the plastic bag containing Mom, she picked the knot. Tipped her, streaming ash between her knees.

A surge of grief caught her hard as a punch.

Should’ve expected this, should’ve expected it should’ve expected this… Her mind looped and scrolled uselessly, distress rising as she tried to catch her breath, failing. She smacked her headset:

Poor Catman Bendy’s soothing baritone rolled over her. “Just breathe, just breathe, relax, you’ve done enough…”

She whooped, sucking air. Pushed out, finally, a feeble, “Bye, Mom.”

Water slapping the dock floats was her only reply. Payne’s vision blurred. “I suddenly wish I’d memorized that poem you like. But…you know. Insert poem here. And thanks, you know. For everything. Sorry this took so long.”

She slid the emptied box back into the tote.

A sense of mass, behind her.

Not looking, not looking… She groped for the next one, ghosting a finger over it until fingernail met box tape, and picking the edges of it to get to Jojo. Cheerlessly, she bit her lips and tried to think. Finally, she just quoted History Butch, since he’d been the one to introduce them—to introduce her to that podcast, she meant: “Every era sucks in its own unique way.”

As she tipped up the bag, the weight within shifted. The ash glopped down all at once, plunging underwater as if it was one piece, a lump of mud or clay. 

She felt a burst of resentment as backsplash—cold water, so cold!—hit her ankles. At least Mom had lived and aged and died in a world where the electricity was steady and your car could always get gas and if something was on the grocery shelf last week, it would be there next week too. In a world where the television steadily got better and even a bad government could be trusted to call an election every four or five years.

But Jojo—well, her old roomie was the flip side of that coin. He couldn’t deal with being on the downward slide, seeing their hard-fought civil rights going away and the seasons transforming from spring-summer-winter-fall to flood-famine-quarantine-typhoon.

“You were good to live with for awhile,” she finally said.

Forcing a shaky laugh, she fumbled the third box, still in its silk bag. Cold and dry-eyed, she pulled out the box, slid it open, and felt for the knot at the end of the plastic sack. It was too tight to untie.

A bump of something warm against her shoulder made her whirl.

Nobody there, of course. 

Unnerved, she tapped her headset. One of Angie’s boy band tracks began to play softly. Up-tempo music for a secret funeral.

The clouds peeled away and the lake silvered. Something dark arrowed into the trees on the far shore—an owl perhaps? Her imagination supplied the startled shriek of its kill. 

What would I give to see all those fancy houses burn?

Something bubbled to the surface of the water—air trapped in Jojo’s ashes. Black sludge roiled below her dangling feet, bubbling like witch’s brew, before sinking.

Payne dug her nails into the plastic encasing Angie, pulling until it tore. Ash spilled onto her knees before she got the bag upright and flipped it, pouring from the irregular gap, whose torn edges created a messy stream.

Before she could end up covered, wind gusted from nowhere, slapping the plastic like a sail, sending Angie out across the lake in a long stream, like a black finger over the water, pointing at the rising hill and the mansions Payne had just been mentally immolating.

She scrambled to her feet. The bag rattled in her hand, snapping in the wind. She shook it to emptiness as air slammed her and the deck bucked underfoot.

She staggered, arms pinwheeling. “Cut it out!”

Boom. Wind gone. She slapped her headset button by accident as she flapped and then steadied herself on the slippery boards. 

Frankly Speaking kicked in, mid-sentence. “…tackled all those tasks you’ve been avoiding? Remember to celebrate!

“Hurrah.” She crumpled the bag, dusted the ash off her calves, and picked up the cardboard boxes. Lucky they hadn’t toppled into the water. The idea of having to wade into the ashy soup of the lake to chase them…

Oops. Gross. Crying now.

She made her way to one of the park department barbecue grills. Inside the tote were old magazines and the long barbecue lighter. She got the paper burning and then started breaking down the boxes, sobbing as she fed them in pieces, labels first, through the hamburger grill. 

“Wouldn’t do to have empty boxes of cremains lying around, not if I’m really going to let those rent-a-cops poke around your old house,” she sniffed. “And I can’t just leave them in an area trash bin for HardAss to find. That’s incompetent crimery, right? How could you ever respect me again? We’re burning the evidence, like proper murderers.”

The park remained deathly quiet as the boxes surrendered to the flames. 

She walked back to Angie’s tree to claim the cart, and found Hester sitting in it, wrapped in the blanket. 

“Still surviving?” Payne asked.

“Most days I pass for alive, yeah.”

Hester was maybe thirty years old, pale, with a blue-dyed buzz cut that had started to grow out. She dug a dollop of antipasto out of a glass jar with a water cracker, extending it in offering. “How’ve you been doing, neighbour?” 

She shrugged, took the cracker and choked it down.

Hester rummaged in a rucksack, coming up with a sealed mini-pack of tissue. Payne took them gratefully, blowing her nose and wiping her face.

“I—” she said. “Those Monocops seem like they might be bent on pushing everyone out of the neighbourhood soon. You guys could be in danger.”

“We’re past that now,” Hester said.

“Are we? Since when?”

“Three two one…” Hester got to her feet, grasped the wagon’s handle, and gave it a little twist, trying out the wheels. She waved at thin air, syncing the move with the circling trees, and Payne realized she could hear sirens wailing, all over town. A lot of sirens. 

“We should head back.” Hester handed her the garden rake.

They walked in silence, lake at their backs, the chorus of a dozen emergencies wailing ever less distantly as they neared home.

“I was thinking. If you—if you all needed a place to stay. For as long as I’m around, anyway. I’ve got a bit of—” Payne faltered. Was she really going to offer Angie’s garage, while living in the comfort of her two-bedroom house? “—space.”

“I’d take this cart and blanket,” Hester said. “And my girlfriend would probably love to use your shower now and then. But at this point, we’re better off outside.”

“Ah.” She felt a complicated, guilt-laced burst of relief.

“We’ll never be rich, so we might as well throw in with the dead, am I right? Anyway, this is my place,” Hester said, as if they were at any corner, or standing in front of the lobby of an apartment building, instead of a thin path on uncut grass.

The clouds shifted, and moonlight briefly revealed a small tent down by the water, next to a camp stove and stack of water bottles. A line of something pink and granular encircled the tiny clearing.

“Road salt,” Hester said, seeing her notice. “You should get some for your place, if you’re not already haunted.”

“I’m already—” This was why she didn’t talk to the living anymore. “I could bring you some more, sometime. Salt.”

“Yeah? And aspirin, too, if you can get it.”

“Okay.” Now what? Did she say goodbye? Return the rest of the tissue? Wave to the person moving, within the tent? “Well. You know where to find me. Don’t stay out here and freeze or anything.”

Hester wrapped her arms around her, just for a second, a tight and fierce embrace that smelled a little of red wine and a lot of unwashed human. Payne felt the shock of it—human contact, after so long—as powerfully as a blow. 

She fought not to cry again as Hester stepped back, over the border of her pink road salt circle, and scooped a few grains from the bag to draw the line afresh.

If you’re not already haunted.

She took the trail back up to the lake road, empty handed now but for her phone and the rake, slipping between the fences leading to the river path, following the sound of siren.

HardAss was up there, screaming at Angie’s front windows. 

Two of the four paintings blocking the glass were flickering, garish and weird in the flashing police car light. Maybe Angie had treated the teeth embedded in the anti-maskers’ portrait, with something phosphorescent? 

He was absolutely baying at the painting, bent with both hands on his knees, next to the back half of the horse statue. Letting out a howl with every exhalation, and almost keeping time with the wailing siren. 

Let’s see a circle of salt touch that!

Payne looked around for SoftTouch and found the Monomobile wrapped around a poplar tree. Something under its hood was smoking, and bits of tattered crash bag swirled in the wind. The car siren and flashers were screeching, going full tilt.

Do something!

Payne tapped her headset, praying to the gods of glitchy podcast apps.

“Good evening, everyone. This is the History Butch.”

Relief flooded her. “Hi, Sue.”

“I want to start by saying how all y’all mean to me. Have meant, ever since things started going sideways—”

“Whenever that was.” Fortified by the illusion of company, Payne forced herself to stride toward the cop car. SoftTouch was slumped in the driver’s seat, face wrapped in airbag plastic.

“I know how much everyone values my weekly check-ins,” Butch went on, “My little tours of the olden days, when life was simple and easy—”

“Yeah, easy. Right.”

“Just kidding.” Butch let out one of her endearing, sardonic giggles. “I did start work on a rollicking laugh riot of a series on the US war in Vietnam but…I don’t know. I found a thing there about ghosts roaming free in 1968, in this one village, after it had been all but obliterated. I did my Master’s thesis on Vietnam, and I never heard this story. And now…folks, it’s everywhere. Even in books I bought in, like, old library sales. It’s like a ghost history baked out of the pages. And it’s not just one. There’s story after story of mass deaths and hallucination plagues and bowmen riding giant snakes through the jungle.”

“Which is just my way of saying…not to be overly real with you guys, but there’ve been some mental health setbacks here in Butchtown lately.”

SoftTouch—Ballaro, Payne insisted, mentally—didn’t seem to be breathing. She made herself grope for the rent-a-cop’s neck. His skin was clammy. Was that a pulse or just wishful thinking?

She fumbled the phone, dialing 911.

Deadened voice: “State the nature of your emergency.”

“I need an ambulance.”


“For an injured police officer,” she added.

“Just one police officer?”

Limit of one, ladies. Limit of—

Payne’s mouth dropped open. “Uhhhh. Two?”

“Well, we’re way off script now, aren’t we?” said the Butch. She sounded like she was crying. Payne frowned. Usually the podcast app shut off when she used her phone.

“What if it’s one officer injured, and one…very upset?” Payne didn’t mention they weren’t real cops, or that she thought Ballaro might be dead.

“Could you transport them to a hospital yourself? City View Emergency’s probably best.”

“What did you say? Me? Drive them?”

“I’m sorry,” Butch broke in. “I don’t mean to make a big play for sympathy. It’s just that when all this started, the first time, the government told us what to do and they said it would be okay. We did the things, we stayed home, we wore the gear they said to wear. We tried to help each other, right? Anything to—”

“You want me to drive the police to Emerge?” Payne demanded.

“See? The asks get weirder and weirder. We each basically have to invent our own way to keep safe. Public health guidelines are practically superstition and my history books really have changed, y’all, here I am looking at this 1968 story about a whole village near Duong Lam getting overrun by things riding mongol horses, after a mass funeral… I’m worried, friends, I’m legit freaking concerned…”

“I understand your concerns.” The 911 operator’s voice was frosty. “But it’s either get the injured to a clinic yourself—”

“—the better to arrest me for breaking curfew?” 

“—or secure shelter for the night and call in the morning. There might be ambulances by…ten or eleven?”

“I don’t think this officer’s in a state where he can wait.”

“Morning,” repeated the operator. “Unless you know someone at Monolith. They might have a private service.”

The line went dead.  

“I’m just not sure there’s anything to be done anymore,” Butch said. “I dunno if I’m doing any good.”

Payne added the local 911 office to her growing list of things to burn down.

“I’m sorry you’ve been having a rough time,” she said, instead.

“I know, I know. This is self-indulgent,” said Butch. “Everyone’s so ruined right now.” 

Ballaro made a little belching noise.

“Fuck,” Payne said, trying for his pulse again.

“I know my thing’s always been to say hey, things were shit in the past too, and we’ve made it through. Right now, our queer little podcast network’s getting bought out by a big media company and I’m—I’m having a crisis of faith, friends.”

With that, Butch cut out. The network couldn’t currently handle downloading new content. That, or the pessimism algorithm finally caught her.

Morose company was better than no company. Payne hit the button on her headset to play something from her archive as she said: “Hey, Housebot—open the garage door, will you?”

The house let out a clunk as the door unlatched.

HardAss shrieked. He straightened, threw himself across the front half of the horse statue, and began firing at the garage. 

Payne dropped to the ground, heart pounding. “Why does he have a gun?”

Ballaro, naturally, didn’t answer.

Boom bang boom boom boom bang boom!


Terrified, she peeked between her fingers in time to see HardAss drop the pistol into the grass.

Payne swallowed. Gathered her last shattered nerve. “Hey, Housebot, can you ask Angie’s chair to home in on my location?”

A beep of affirmation. Tiny headlights flashed on and illuminated the driveway. There was a whirr and the chair came down the drive, past HardAss, and across the road. The power cable connected to the charger caught for a moment, then snapped free. The chair eased up to her and Ballaro, stopping just the right distance from the open car door.

“Here’s hoping you don’t have a spinal injury, friend,” Payne said, easing Ballaro out of the car. Half lift, and then a twist to drop his bottom onto the seat; muscles she hadn’t used in months, but years of nursing got her through it, got him seated more or less right on Angie’s butt-conforming gel pad. 

Had he helped a little, supporting his own weight when his feet were on the ground? She couldn’t tell. She’d thought he was dead, but every time she felt sure, there’d be some flicker within, some hint of energy or life…

She clicked the safety belt into place, pulled up the headrest so his head was at least a bit immobilized. Checked HardAss, who was still draped in a crying mess over Angie’s statue.

She grabbed up the rake again, just in case, before approaching him.

“Hey!” She called. “Hey, you should probably come with us.”

He moaned and didn’t move.

Fine. “Hey, Housebot, can you ask the chair to follow me?”

She headed uphill, straight up the yellow line where there were no leaves or puddles. Was her headset on? She thumbed the button.


Time for a prayer.

“Butch,” she said fiercely. “Listen. I’ve never reached out to you before, to any of you. This is a big deal for me, and I’ve got plenty on my plate, so you better listen.”

Dammit, now she was crying again. 

“This better not buh-be a suicide broadcast. I don’t care how morbid you get about Vietnam, and it’s okay if your research isn’t exhaustive. I don’t know what to say about your history books rewriting themselves, that’s really weird and scary, but…”

It must be colder than she thought; her tears were hissing when they hit the ground.

“I guess, please…just, can you not quit right now?”

The siren on the Monomobile, behind her, suddenly cut off. The flashers, which had been lighting her way, went dark.

They were almost at the crest of the hill.

A trembling breath came through her headset.

Please, please, please.

History Butch said: “Okay. I’m all right, I’m all right now. Y’all talked me down. Thanks.”

Payne covered her mouth with a shaking hand. 

The chair balked.

She turned, scanning the road, looking for a fall of leaves or an obstruction. 

The dead know who killed us.  

Big letters, scraped into the road. Reddish and seeping, like scratches in flesh. The chair had stopped just shy of falling into the hilltop pothole, which formed the O in who so perfectly it might have always been that way.  

She licked her lips. Reached for the chair’s joystick. 

The screen on the smart chair lit up. Seven impossibly beautiful dancing boys in hoodies and sweatpants beamed up at her from within its frame.

“Sorry,” she said to Ballaro. “It does this.”

“Harry grabbed the wheel.”

His mouth hadn’t moved. Had the words come from the touchscreen? Her headset?

Payne felt for Ballaro’s pulse again. Nothing. He felt stiff. Long gone. 

We know who killed us.  

Monolith hadn’t killed Angie. ALS killed Angie. She’d been dead even before she picked up a mysterious limp that everyone thought was a knee injury. She’d been dead when she was getting tests and demanding answers from specialists. She’d been a big ticking countdown clock brimming with death from the moment they finally got the diagnosis. 


But Monolith picked the day, by sending a slack-ass incompetent dickhead to fix the customized wheelchair.

Payne had left Angie in front of her streaming videos and run out to the grocery while the tech was there. She could leave her alone, but she didn’t like to. So, she ran out, braved the line, and bought rose hips and mango juice and powdered milk and pads for Hester, getting back just as the tech was leaving.

Everything’s fine, he’d told her. Chair just needed a tune up and a reboot. He’d left instructions so she could do it herself next time.

Payne had been grateful—absurdly, stupidly grateful. Tiny things could still restore her faith in real people, six months ago.

Except. Dude didn’t bother mentioning that he’d knocked over and busted Angie’s CPAP breathing machine, leaving it in pieces on the bedroom floor.

So, no, Mono Health didn’t kill Angie. They just broke a crucial piece of medical equipment and then refused to send anyone out to fix it.

Her thoughts felt hot and oily, a deep fryer crisping the last of her self-restraint. She imagined returning the chair personally, now she had it mostly up the fucking hill anyway. Just driving across to the north shore of Cauldron, and up to the Mono CEO’s mansion. Crashing it through the foyer, maybe, with a note demanding Angie’s rebate. She could pin it to poor Ballaro’s cold dead chest.

She hit Forward on the chair’s manual drive, slewing around the pothole. The chair surged over the word killed, picking up tar or blood with its tires, leaving tracks running down from the text.

Then, as she finally crested the hill, the chair broke into ash. Just collapsed under her, blew itself into a dustdevil and…

Is it a crisis of faith if you never really believed before now?

…and turned into a horse.

The mare’s spots were the colour of the bruised yellow moon, on a coat that was all the other colours of contusion: green, red brown, and purple. Palomino painted in the colours of a badly beaten woman. Its saddle was butt-conforming comfort gel, aglow with sprinkles of colour-changing LED lights. The steaming asphalt under its hooves smelled of tar, and its eyes and teeth glowed like phone screens. The gaily carved beads woven into its mane looked like discarded wisdom teeth. A bottle of Angie’s favourite sherry protruded from one of its saddlebags. 

Ballaro, shrouded in a blanket, was strapped behind the saddle.

Seven boys danced out of Payne’s phone, spinning up from the dust in the road, body rolling with sinuous delight. 

The horse stamped. Emoji—question marks—lit up both its eyes. 

What was it her neighbour, Hester, had said? Something about choosing between the rich and the dead?

Payne tapped her headset. 

“Welcome to Happiness in Hard Times! I am your host, Buzz Cutt.”

“Is this going to make me happier, Buzz?”

“I think that’s a question for Frankly, Payne.” He rumbled affectionately. “Besides, you already know what we’re going to say.”

“Whatever it takes to get the mood up?”

History Butch let out a coo. “See? You do still have a sense of humour.”

It was time to visit the north side of the lake. 

Payne tucked her phone away and picked up the three-pronged rake lying at her feet. She hopped, skipped, and then sprang into the midst of the dancing boys, giving them her very best attempt at an exuberant twirl.

Breath steaming, doubts gone, she made straight for her mount as the voices in her headset broke into shouts of joy.

The Other Side of Mictlān


Soul of development, reason, warmth; inhabits the skull.


To cross the threshold that splits the living world and enter the City of the Dead, we must first pay the Tlamatini. Nine pesos wrapped gently in a bundle of maize husks is what I hand him. The pesos are the real kind, stamped in gold with a gleaming silver trim, the way they don’t make them anymore. Taken from the black box Mom kept in the back of her closet, behind her coats, and Dad’s old folded up wheelchair, and other useless things. The pesos she made us promise as kids to never ever use unless it was for the most severe emergencies.

“Because there are so few of these left in our family anymore,” she’d said. Fewer now.

But here in the Tlamatini’s apartment, on this back Mexico City street, where the evening light hangs lethargically and the furniture smells like incense and leather and burnt bones, he gathers his items: bone splinters, owl feathers, delicate spider legs plucked from a glass vial. A tooth plucked from a coyote skull. He drops them into his oil lantern, the flames wafting the smell of orange marigolds already curling within the glass—what we’ve purchased. I know these scents, I recognize the black bars outside the window, same as the ones from Mamá Cuca’s home where, once Dad was gone, we’d visited for the first time. And where Mom and Mamá Cuca had whispered their incantations and shown us how to flow out Tonalli from our fingertips and flex shadows like all the brujas before us had.

Each of us drop totems we’ve brought in anticipation for this into the lantern. Mine’s the pestle of the molcajete Mom gifted me the day I moved out—so full of mine and her Tonalli that through my grip it hums a mariachi tune. I drop it into the lantern, which blazes full of my bit of soul. Because the soul doesn’t just stop at your skin and bones. Your soul is trisected into your Ihíyotl, Teyolía, and Tonalli. Tonalli is the soul that flows into you, out of you. It travels realms while you sleep and promises to make it home each morning. This is your essence, and your essence sticks to others, and places, and domestic objects too.

Mom always made sure we knew that part. Domestic objects.

Quint’s object is Dad’s Éric Gagné Dodgers jersey—his fingers lock into the white fabric sainted beige. He stands with his arms crossed as if he’s the tough guy here, says, “This is a waste of fucking time,” when the Tlamatini clips a corner off the sleeve.

Emiliano’s been behind all of us, saying nothing as always. He’s got those lost puppy eyes I want to slap dry. I translate the Tlamatini’s Nahuatl, telling him to give up his object: a photograph of the five us when there had been five of us. He drops the whole thing in, and the candle flame laps it up. Then the city’s orchestra outside stops.

And the streets are dead.

And it’s night.

And the dog splattered against the harsh sidewalk edge outside the window—I’d ignored it on our way in here while Emiliano couldn’t look away—laying under the halo of a streetlamp jerks. Flinches. Lurches itself upright, leaving its intestines as knots behind it, and rattles towards the apartment in loose skin and bones. Its paws tik-tik-taping up the steps outside the paint-peeled door. The Tlamatini lets the dog in and in the lantern’s glow etches the raw, exposed bone of its face.

“Xoloitzcuintle will show you the way,” the Tlamatini says. He blows out the flame, rolls the ash into a joint and holds it between cracked lips. “You’ll have until the sunrises, lest you never find your way back. ¿Están listos?”

I think of the note I found in Mom’s apartment:

He came for me, now He’s taking me home. I love you all.


I think of summers when broken people would line up outside the pueblo and whisper “buenos días” to us as they waited for Mamá Cuca and her potions.

I think of Mom ripping out the stars in the Los Angeles skyline the night she told us Dad was sick, and I’d thought it was a joke and laughed.

I think of hospital beeps.

I tell the Tlamatini, “Sí.” He blows the ash in our faces, and we’re blown away with the gust of ash. Away from the room and its smells—Mom’s smells—and the ash carries us into blackness.


“I’m having dreams of her,” Mom had said to me over dinner one night. Just the two of us, because I was the only one who made the time to visit. “In this dream Mamá Cuca is in her courtyard, and she’s looking at me with those tired eyes of hers. It’s funny. When I think about her, she’s still who she was before I left home. But this time she was little, and old. She said she was looking for me. Wondering why I wasn’t home.” From across the sea of an empty table, I wondered if Mom would look just as brittle to me in a few years. “When I moved here with your father, I always promised I’d go back home. It was never a goodbye, you know? Just a see-you-later. I didn’t mean to stay.”


There are nine realms in the underworld that you journey through when you die. Mom had told us this years ago and I’d etched it into memory with the rest of our history. Kept it alive in me, because without it, what would I be?

Cross the Apanohuaya—you’ll find your spirit guide.

Skirt through the ravine of two rival mountains—hope that they won’t argue, then stir, then crush you in another of their spats.

Climb the obsidian mountain—you will get cut.

Through the icy winds—if the shards did not cut you before, the wind will now.

Through the place of flags—you’ll leave yours here, whatever symbol you bare.

Between the crossfire of arrows—if you’re at peace they will not hurt.

Pass the Alebrijes, who lurk in the dark, who crave your human heart.

Cross the last narrow path of this city of dead—the last threshold

And when you’re stripped down to the core of you, you’ll stare down the Lord of Mictlān himself, the Scatterer of Ashes, the Lord, and He will give you rest.


The ash drops us into a river that grabs and won’t let go. It’s liquid—not water—the Tonalli of every had-lived being tugs the strands of my being, wanting to rip me apart. It rushes down my throat, swelling my lungs. Voices crowd my ear whispering Hold on, and Join our eternal oneness, and I think I’m going to die. I scream for Emiliano, for Quint. For Mom—I remember the first time I’d siphoned Tonalli from a marigold. How I’d wrung out its color to snap a flame in the palm of my hand. Never mind that my fingers were bruised raw from snapping all through the night and exhaustion hung from my eyes, the flame was there. Flicking alive.

“Why now?” I’d asked Mom when she found me there in the morning, the fire still cradled in my hands. It had come so naturally for Quint. “I don’t know what I did different.”

She touched my forehead, sticky and hot. “Brujería is not forced, mijo. It’s a natural feeling, a letting go.”

Right. Let go.

I stop my gulping—Tonalli need not breath. I stop my thrashing. I let the current of cosmic energy rushing all around me, carry me instead. I bend with it. Twist it. Then flow with it as the moon grabs water until I’m not drowning, or falling—I’m rising. The Tonalli lifts me up and out until I’m high above the red river where I find Quint at the lip. The river spits him out, and drops me beside him, breathless and gasping, but alive. Finally arrived in the Land of the Dead.


There is no true ground in the Land of the Dead. Just more layers of city stacked over the next with Mexica pyramids or modern skyscrapers. The Xoloitzcuintle from the living world leads the way. Her face still a ragged skull, but now links of femurs and hooked ribs armor her body. The space where her guts had been is full again, and across her throat blooms a necklace of fat and glowing marigolds.

I’d spotted other Xolo dogs like her at the river. They ferried across the liquid small boats with weeping figures, or bargainers—those who think they deserve more of life than everyone else. Some of the passengers sat quietly with peaceful resolve. Our Xolo had found Quint and I bickering—Quint about how he didn’t need my help getting out of the river, me saying that next time I’ll let him drown. The Xolo’s bark was what shut us up. She said, “Can you see you’re missing one of you?”

Fuck!—the river had taken Emiliano. Because of course, this would happen to him. Always stumbling or lagging behind—complicating what should have been a simple journey. Quint was already heading down the river shouting for Emiliano, but Xolo barked at him. “You’re still living souls,” she said, “with so much Tonalli flashing like a beacon for the Alebrijes that must now be following our scents to eat you whole. We can make it, but we must hurry before sunrise.”

She scampered up the slope and waits in the mouth of an alley between two pyramids, the residents of which are watching us like confused little Día de los Muertos skulls. I followed but Quint hesitated, his jaw knotted, eyes fixed on the river. I was ready to leave him too when a roar split the clouds.

“There’s no time!” Xolo barked. “We must leave now.”

Another roar.

Quint followed, saying nothing for a long while as we’d hurried after Xolo, deeper, deeper into the city’s maw.

Now the streets of Mictlān bow above and below us, the sidewalks carpeted with flower petals red, yellow, purple, blue. We follow Xolo like the candles that orbit her, bending around corners, and skirting down dense city streets, our foot falls dropping, lifting, making no sound on the cobblestone. I never look up for more than a glance; too long and my human eyes would crisscross until there was no up or down, and near and nigh would cease. Some blocks are dense concrete buildings, others wide open prairies with plazas and pueblos—we pass through one where the skeletons that live there hang out their mortal memories to dry. Xolo tells us not to touch them, or we could get stuck within them and forget that we ever were our ourselves.

Sometimes we pass skeletons sitting on porches of empty homes while others dance together through the night. Their hollow grins telling me that they’re waiting for something still. I wonder if that’s how I looked on bus rides back home, hollow eyes and all. Never moving out of LA, because I couldn’t abandon Mom—couldn’t just drop off my family’s history behind, because then what would I be?

Stars bend across the sky, the night shifts from black to heavy purple. Quint bitches about how much time we have left, and I snip, “How about you leave it to me and the dog and just chime in when we need help, okay?”

He clenches his fists. All these years later and still the oaf can only feel through them, lest any other sign of emotion be deemed Pussy Shit, echoing Luis, Dad’s father, like a kid in an adult’s jacket.

Of course, I was the idiot who thought I could rely on my brothers now, even when I never could before. I was the one who proofread Mom’s emails, who helped with her taxes. Who moved, but not far, far away like them. The only one who can do what needs to be done.

“She’s in the ninth realm with all the other souls,” I tell him.

Quint laughs. “And what makes you so sure? Lemme guess, you read about it in a book?”

Funny. For once I don’t need to be smarter than him to know; it’s just a gut feeling.

He came for me, now He’s taking me home. I love you all.

There was no home in Mexico to go back to. Mamá Cuca’s house crumbled with no one to tend it. I’d thought of her dreams and knew the Lord of the Dead took her. Why would He bother with the route of mortal souls? No, she’s in the city’s heart.

“I just know,” I tell Quint. To Xolo I ask, “We’re almost there, right?”

She nods but Quint’s still going. “And the journey back? Or did you forget about Emiliano?”

I haven’t. But he’s going to think his way is right, still trying to squeeze into that void that Dad left to be the Oldest Brother. Never minding that he calls himself American first and Mexican second, that Quint fits more comfortably over his bones than Cuetlachtli. I could tell as soon as we got here that he does not belong. Then the realization slaps me. “You swam to the edge of the river,” I say. “The river didn’t try take your Tonalli.” I thought we were at least still family. “But you don’t have any Tonalli to take, do you? You closed yourself off.”

No, that’s what stings—he is still family.

I clench my jaw. “Oh, you fucking bastard.”

That’s what starts it—our clash of verbal blows all over again. Lacerations so familiar they might as well be artifacts. My stronger brujería; his accusations of Mom favoring me; my hate of his tokenization of us, his immaturity, his shame of us.

Our shouting catches the curiosity of the ever-bored skeletons on their balconies until a roar breaks us apart again—the Alebrije. An amalgam monster with eagle feet and eyeballs blinking in its wings. It crashes down between the buildings—claws at us with talons. Xolo barks and we follow her, weaving through the narrow streets of the dead around corners and archways, the walls pressing in. We vault over steps and carts, the Alebrije’s teeth scraping the gaps of air behind our heels until Xolo kicks open a door to a house that maybe looks like Mamá Cuca’s before it crumbled to dust, and we spill inside, shut the door. Hold it there while the beast pounds-pounds-pounds on the other end.

“What the hell are you doing?” a woman calls from the dining table across the room.

“You know, hell is a rather a poor choice of words,” I huff.

“Always a smart ass,” she says and immediately I know that voice. Still holding the door shut as the beast rages outside, I look across the living room to the table in the kitchen where she sits with a mug in her hands.




Soul of passion, knowledge, community; inhabits the heart. 


When Camilo had called me last week to tell me the Lord of the Underworld had taken Mom, I was drunk. Drunk and sticky at a queer bar, so far gone that I couldn’t feel the buzz-buzz-buzzing in my back pocket, let alone hear my thoughts; the brujería pounding against my skull. Mom, Camilo, or Quint never saw me like that, knees scrapped and drenched in glorious glitter. Not when our family dinners had been only full of jokes or chastising, none of us opening up or exposing our feelings the way we could a corpse’s ribcage with our magic.

We didn’t talk about these things. If I’d started it, then all their eyes would be on me. Drinking me in.

It wasn’t until Camilo’s fifth call that I finally peeled myself away from my friends—the first I’d ever had, who were all some flavor of queer too, and understood how in a normal setting with voices talking over me, how small I shrank—I answered the call outside in the night air that smelled like fresh rain. I told Camilo I couldn’t help him, I couldn’t even fucking speak Spanish, but he’d insisted. “We’ll need all our Tonalli, Emiliano. Together.

Now I’m alone. Small again. Walking in darkness, desperately dragging a jagged, chewed up fingernail along my wrist, again and again until my skin splits and warmness trickles out. I suck it up, swallow the bitter metal flavored Tonalli and with its power snap a spark between my fingers. Gone in a flash.


I drag my nail again—again! Arm throbbing, and wetness dripping off my fingertips. I tell myself: Ignore the dark. Swallow your fear. Never mind that you still sleep with the night light on because even in your dorm room with another person there, you’re still afraid of being alone. I make my way through snap-shot glimpses of whatever temple the river spat me out in. Azteca ruins, tiled paths and narrow walls. I make a deeper cut this time, muscle screams and the snap blazes out! It roars through the ancient tunnels, I yelp, and the flame puffs away again.

Damn it!

I kick the wall and the whole temple rattles. Shudders and spits its laugher back at me: They left you. Forgot you. Useless you. Always in the back and ignored, Emiliano.

“Shut up!” I shout into the dark.

The echoing stops. But it’s right though, I shouldn’t have come. Not when my magic is weaker than Quint’s or Camilo’s and they just brushed me off the whole way over here anyway with Yeah, yeah, Emiliano, we know, if they even said that at all. I should have stayed away.

In the silence someone else’s sniffles reach me from the dark.

“Hello?” I mutter, then louder, “Are you okay?”

More weeping, a loneliness I know deep in my bones. I snap my fingers again for a spark of the narrow alleyway, and head towards the cries.

I find her among ruins and starlight. Her soaked white dress and long stringy hair. The weeping woman crooks up at me from across the emptiness and watches me with wet eyes.

“Ol’ Broken Face said I’d find you here.”

I ask her what she is, and she smiles with blood stained teeth. “Someone who’s ripped apart real men much braver than you.”

That should have terrified me, but I’d heard her sadness. I say, “You’re lost. Like me.” When she blinks, I tell her I’m looking for my Mom, my brothers.

She howls, “AAAAYYYEEEEEEE MIS HIJOSSSSSSSSSSS” so loud the sky quakes. Her voice tears open her throat, and between her sobs, she stares me down. “I lost my children once.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. She’s no older than I am. I close the space between us, close enough to touch damp flesh. “Maybe I can help you look for your kids while I look for my mom.”

Fingers inches from shoulder bone, she growls, “I won’t play no brujo tricks.”

I pull back, hands up like I have no gun at all, and truth is I don’t. Wouldn’t dream of it. “No tricks,” I say. I try and force a smile, “or treats. I’m not a real witch anyways.” I never was. I don’t share my family’s memories of Dad before he was sick, or Mamá Cuca in her twilight. I came too late and too young. Raised too American to understand the foreign brujería buzzing on my fingertips. Always on the outside of them looking in.

“You don’t want to go where they’ll be,” the Weeping Woman says, quietly with a softness in the glint of her eyes. An understanding. Or regret. “He wants you all there when the time comes. But you can still find your way back to the living while you can.”

I consider it. Then I think of all the fights between Mom and Quint, or Mom and Camilo, or Camilo and Quint, or any of them with me. How I just know we would all say “I’m sorry” if that phrase was as easy to conjure as spells and tricks.

“No,” I say, stepping back. “Show me my way to them, please.”

Tears dribble from grieving eyes. She points towards a dark and far away temple that scratches the sky. “That way. I’m so sorry.”



Soul of instinct, reaction, will; inhabits the liver.


Cigarette smoke had hissed through the cracks in his teeth, and his eyes watched me from the recesses of his skull, all his seventy-three years of life hanging off him in loose skin.

“Your mother will be drinking out a mug you’ll all think is champurrado.” His voice was breathless, rasping, like obsidian slicing stone. Luis. My Grandfather. I was broad shouldered, larger than most people with a gut Mom would poke, and lonjas she’d pinch always with her, “Ya necesitas hacer mas ejercicio.” But Luis was an arrow point of a man, standing taller than me. Skeleton-thin in his black suit, hat, shoes.

“I’m getting old, mijo. You gotta get that mug for me, your old man. Porque tu eres mi nieto.” He squeezed my hands tight with care when he said it—no hugs, no useless words, a solid squeeze.

My brothers didn’t get that about Luis. He was a man from a different time, a veteran, and with calloused hands. He never gave a shit about Latine or Latinx the way my brothers insist on, not when Luis was busy providing for his family. Sucking up his dreams. Becoming a man.

And Luis saw the man of the house I was working to be.

I’d told Luis where I was heading when he asked why I need to borrow money for a flight. Money was tight, and I’d be damned to ask Camilo for a loan. Camilo would peck at me until he so smugly got what was owed to him. And Mom owed Grandpa something big.

“When she married your father, her magic was to be shared with my half of the family,” Luis said, his cigarette stink curling up my nose. “But Mamá Cuca was a jealous woman. Jealous of the roles de hombres. But this is how. Things. Are. Brujas always try to keep from us the power that by blood right should be ours. She turned your mother against me, and when my son passed, she convinced your mom to hoard all that magic for herself and you three and drove you all away from me. But in the underworld, what’s left of her magic will be served in her champurrado. Bring it back, son. To me. And together we can help your magic grow strong again too.” His smoke hugged me, his trust, his pride.

“I won’t let you down.”


I’m watching the tazita on the table now, where Mom set it down. Camilo’s already on his feet beside her, urging her to get up now and go-go while more and more beasts claw at the walls from outside. But Mom’s not budging. She’s sitting with skeletons that must be Papá Ernesto with his bomber jacket, and Mamá Cuca in her black and red huipil flowing off her bone shoulders to bone toes. She’s between them, dark skinned still with night-colored hair, she’s there waiting for me. For a second, I think Dad. I search the room for any other skeleton but he’s not here. It’s only them.

The Alebrijes outside slam harder. The whole pueblo trembles. The tazita is still there, small and brown with little orange stones pressed into the clay. Steam rises from within, all that raging and powerful magic of my mother’s and abuela’s and so on, all right there in that little cup.

Take it.

Camilo tries hauling Mom from her chair, shouting and swearing while tears slick his eyes. “We came all this way,” and “Mom, I’m not fucking around, let’s go.” But Mom half laughs, half cries, and says to us, “Mijos, I can’t go back.”

Take it and run as fast as you can! Back the way we came with the Xolo dog and fuck Camilo for dragging me down here. He’ll end up fine anyway, he always does. And maybe I’ll find Emiliano too and he’ll forgive me and I’ll give the tazita to Grandpa, let him drink Mom’s magic so that I won’t lose him either, and then we’ll rebuild the pieces of us together. Without the ties to the sentimental or soft or domestic. Camilo be damned. He never bothered to call once I moved out, and Mom’s already here. All those years of her telling me to lose weight, to be more diligent like Camilo, to stop it with the country music, the podcasts she called “basura,” my line of work she thinks is traitorous. I just have to take. That. Cup.

My fingers brush the pores of its clay handle when Mom finally shouts over Camilo, “Don’t you get it, mijo, I chose to stay here!”

For once Camilo has nothing to say. Then again, neither do I. And if I did, it doesn’t matter. The Alebrijes rip open the walls and pull down the floor. The whole house, with all those family ghosts, and memory portraits of my brothers and me as kids, Mom and her sisters as kids, Mamá Cuca as a kid and so on—the ones I’m just noticing now—all of it crumbles and falls.

And falls.

And we all plummet down, darkness swallowing us whole.




The voice scratches through the darkness. I think it’s Luis at first.


I open my eyes and find the strength to stand among the pueblo’s rubble, I look up and meet His: stars twinkling far away in the black hollows of His skull. His face a grin, tobacco smoke curling out between bleached teeth. I know who He is. Even when the Xolo dog bows and calls him Señor, I know the Lord of Mictlān. I’ve always known him. We all have. He watched us grow, He Who Bows His Head, the Scatterer of Ashes.


We stand before him in the belly of His massive throne room. The Lord of the Underworld leaned forward in his throne, a lazy hand resting on his charcoal thigh, his headdress shifting slow and heavy with him. Owl feathers dragging against the stars. The symbol of the dead is sculpted into the crown’s center disk, each jewel gleaming around it heavy, large enough to squash us whole—us who’re so small in the shadow of True Essence.

Camilo is on his feet, helping Mom up. He shouts at the Teotl, “We came to bring her back.”

Mictlāntēcuhtli points one dagger finger to the sun burning far, far away at the ceiling of His temple. IT IS ALMOST DAY LIGHT, he says. ONCE THIS SUN LEAVES, YOU WILL BE MINE TO CLAIM. ALL FOR A MORTAL WHO CAME HERE WILLINGLY?

Camilo and I turn to Mom, and I realize how much taller I am than her. That down here in the darkness and bones she looks more like Mamá Cuca than the scared twenty-five-year-old who I imagined held me in her arms while another child was growing inside her. With a husband who chose to love her even after his father told him not to marry some immigrant girl. I see how tired Mom is.

And I’m disgusted with myself for having swiped the tazita into my jacket. I hand it back to Mom when I ask her, “What does He mean?”


Rootedness; the lived truth of self, extending through Tonalli, to community, cosmos. It is felt, and lived, and understood. This is love.

What to say to them? Your sons.

Like when they were babes and they’d ask you why the sky was blue—you didn’t know. Something about light refraction? You’d said it was because blue was the color Quetzalcoatl chose to paint it. Or like the time Cuetlachtli asked how it felt to be in love the day he confided with you about a crush—you thought you didn’t know. How could you have explained to him then what it was like to meet his dad? A man who was kind with his words but sharp with his wit. Who even after you showed him how you could fold the stars and sea still joked that you were full of trickery. Who reminded you of all the ways you thought men couldn’t be—gentle. Sea-shell coarse to finger touches then soft when your fingers pressed in. Sentimental for plants, and soil, and the pictures he took.

Gone before you knew what Love Forever truly meant.

How you’d wanted to die that night and journey yourself with your soul slung heavy on your shoulders down the mountains of grief here to the City of Bones. You, little Orpheus to find your Euridice. To look down the Teotl Lord of Death Himself, as you do now, and demand he give your lover back.

But you knew dead was dead. And you had your lifetime gift of him. And had three more lifetimes still, each with big brown eyes and soft baby fingers jittering with magic twine all looking up at you asking, “What are we going to do?”

You stayed. You trisected your soul into threes and loved each one. You brought them to your home you’d grown up in, to help them harness that gift you’d passed to them as your mother had to you. A gift of brujería—a power from the soul—and the soul is more than the self; it’s a pouring out, a pulling in. This is what their grandfather never understood—why he’d never look in to find what’s already there, waiting to be harnessed even if you’d aimed him to see it—that the soul is so much more than one body, one self, one life.

How do you explain all that to them? When they’re still so young?

Even though Cuetlachtli’s older than your love when you married him, and Camilo’s still trying so hard to be strong. How do you tell them that they grew up, and as they did, you’d cut away training wheels little by little without them asking, or noticing, because that was how to best teach someone to ride a bike on their own? Even if you didn’t always do it right. And they felt your cuts as lacerations now laid bloody and raw before the Lord. But you continued trisecting your life until you were splintered shards. You didn’t even notice the hollowness until Camilo visited your empty apartment like he always did and asked, “What would you do with yourself now that we’re all moved out.”

You let the question hang between you.

“You could open a restaurant,” he’d added. “Or finally go to Machu Pichu, or Europe.” All the things you were too old, too tired to do alone. And brujas cannot survive alone.

So you gathered your owl heart, bat skull, spider legs. You burned the masa and incense and whispered the Word to cast your spell and summon Him. He took up all your sight, from corner to corner of your Los Angeles apartment and you told the Lord of Death, “Allow me to become an Alebrije to find my love and my brujería is yours.”


You’d shaken that cold, bone hand.

How do you tell your children that? That you’re still on your quest searching for their father, your lover, somewhere in this sprawling other side of Mictlān, and that they cannot join you, not yet, because their lives are not yet lived?

You don’t. The Lord does for you and when He asks if He’s correct, you nod—gutting Camilo, his Tonalli which burns full of rage and passion. Fury he’s had since childhood. How do you tell him that he’s enough? How do you tell Cuetlachtli you’re sorry? Or Emiliano, wherever he is, that he’s the best of you. Speaking these feelings was never you, when handholds, hugs, cooking with fresh chiles and herbs said it better than you could. This time you tell him, “You have to go on your own, mijo.”

To the Lord above you, you look up and stare him down as you had the day he took you, and the day your husband died, and say, “Let them return home.”

Mictlāntēcuhtli laughs. EH-HE-HE-HE-HE-HE-AH escaping smokey teeth. His jaws snap open. THOSE WHO COME WILLING RISK TO STAY. THE STARS MUST RETURN TO ME, AND THE SUN TO BEGIN ITS DAY.


“Because I’ll wager you!”

His voice echoes across the empty hall. By the whisp of it, the fear quivering under his volume, you know who it is. How long has he been here? Emiliano staggers forward from the dark. Standing tall as if he too could take up as much room as the Lord of Death himself.

WHAT DO YOU PROPOSE? The Lord asks with curious eyes.

Emiliano askes the Lord about the mug in your hands—what’s left of your brujería the Lord let you keep, that keeps you from becoming bones like the rest of the spirits here—and says the game is simple: one of your sons gets to drink from the tazita. “On three, we’ll choose who get some of our mom’s purest magic. If you guess who we’ll chose, they stay. Here with you. But if you guess wrong, then you don’t really know us at all, and the three of us leave. Together.”

Camilo’s smiling, catching on. Cuetlachtli looking weary. The Lord shifts forward, folds himself knees to chest to get down low enough, his feather crown swallowing you all.


Emiliano stands firm. “I suppose I do.”

The Lord rises. Stands far and wide and drags up the macuahuitl resting against his throne. Long and heavy, He raises it above his head, the weapon’s edges glistening with hungry obsidian teeth.


You fight against every fiber in your body to shield your child when the Lord chops the sky—brings the macuahuitl down—crashing down at the base of your son. Not over him. He’s trembling, eyes shut with his breath sucked in, but he’s still there.

The Lord laughs again with a wicked grin. ALRIGHT, YES. I’LL PLAY YOUR GAME.

Your Lord taps a finger to your chest, sending his answer reverberating into your bones: Emiliano.

And so you watch the game; your three halves spreading away from each other over the rubble of your home, until they’re a perfect Mexican standoff with their hands at their sides, ready to point—to choose who’ll get your magic at the feet of the Lord of Death. Camilo who can’t seem to let him just be himself, who won’t let Cuetlachtli have it. Cuetlachtli who can’t look past himself. Emiliano who they’ll chose. You want to step in. You want to tell them STOP IT! Can’t bear to see him stuck here with you, but this is not your fight—all you can do is watch them shoot off their choices at the count of three—


Cuetlachtli points to Emiliano. Emiliano to Cuetlachtli. And Camilo—also picks Cuetlachtli.

You all sigh with relief—no. Not relief. With breath. Life.

Mictlāntēcuhtli laughs laughs laughs with his toothy grin. A LOVELY GAME! He declares, before giving Cuetlachtli the tazita and snapping his jaws open once more to swallow the stars.


With a final look with those burning eyes, far way inside the darkness, He smiles and says, LEAVE. AND I’LL REMEMBER YOU THREE WHEN WE MEET AGAIN. IN DUE TIME.

Whiteness erupts from the room, swallowing the Lord, His throne, pillars, the rubble too, and slowly your sons. All of them turn to you. “Mom…” they say. But there’s no chance for a hug. No goodbyes either. They have the other side, and you have your quest, so you smile, and you wave, and you tell them, “See you later.”

A lifetime from now.

To Walk the River of Stars

Listen. There’s a rite of passage all Yineng girls go through when it’s time for us to become women. Here’s how it goes.

On the first full moon after you turn fourteen, you will need to go to the nearest river. For me, it was the stream that cuts through the ditch behind Aldean Textiles, but for you, that should be Mill Creek on the other side of the levee. Leave your cell phone at home, and don’t bring a flashlight with you, either. It’s important that you have no other source of light on you, but you shouldn’t need one, anyways. The moon will be bright enough to help you down the levee, no matter how steep the sides, no matter how clouded the night.

Once you’re down there, wade in up to your ankles and start walking upstream. It will be cold. Your feet will chill, you will lose all feeling in your toes. But eventually, the water will transform.

The river will turn into a ribbon of light underfoot, a river of stars. It will shake free of its earthen banks and rise up into the sky, aiming straight into the night. Take this path.  The world will fall away as you climb. You will go up past the clouds, up beyond the edge of the sky, higher and higher until you are standing in front of the moon itself.

There will be a door. It will look impenetrable and forbidding, but as soon as you reach for it, it will swing open, inviting you in.

When you walk through the door, you will find yourself in the palace of Mazulim, the Yineng goddess of the moon. Mazulim herself will be sitting on her throne at the far end of the hall. By all accounts she is the most beautiful person you will ever have encountered, and the kindest, and possessed of the most sarcastic sense of humor possible.

Go to her. She’s a goddess, after all, she won’t come to you. Your legs will probably ache by now, and it will take everything you have to cross those last few meters. But if you make it to her and kneel down and press your forehead to the tops of her feet, she’ll grant you a gift of power unlike any that’s ever been seen in the world before and that will be granted to no one else ever again. Don’t tell anyone what she gave to you, not even your own mother, or your future spouse. Whatever Mazulim grants you is a mystery for you, and you alone, with which to change the world.

Or so I hear, anyways.

Your grandmother was the one who learned about the river of stars. She was working as a janitor in the Museum of Culture and Arts decades ago when they hosted an exhibition of ancient pottery. At the time, Yineng were forbidden from learning how to read, but your grandmother knew enough to recognize the word “Yineng” on a plaque next to a display of decorative urns. Every night when she was cleaning in that hall, she would memorize the shape of the letters and copy them down when she got home. It took her a month to copy down the entire contents of the plaque. But she never learned what they said, not until decades later, when the laws changed enough that she could send me to primary school.

Imagine how terrified I was that night down at the river, and how hopeful. I would be the first of our family to walk the river of stars since Integration. It was just barely spring that night, and all I wanted was to knock on that door on the moon, step inside, and see what my great-great-grandmother, and all the women of my family before her, must have seen.

It didn’t happen like that. I walked until I was near dead with frostbite, but the river never transformed, the stars never rose beneath my feet, the moon stayed nothing but a lump of rock hung in the sky. I got nothing for my efforts but a citation for trespassing and a night in a holding cell trying to rub the feeling back into my dead toes. My feet have never been the same since.

But times have changed. Things will be different for you. There are bestselling Yineng novelists and hot new Yineng restaurants, and every film festival now opens with an acknowledgement of native Yineng rights to the land. Yineng culture and history is being resurrected from its pauper’s grave and given new life in university courses and TV shows and online opinion pieces.  The world is changing. Threads once snipped short are being sewn together again.

So listen, child. One day soon enough, you will go down to the river. You will walk in the dark and the cold. And so will your own daughter, and her daughter, and hers. On and on down the line of generations, until Mazulim paves the way to the moon and we can climb up and kneel at her feet and claim the power that should never have been lost to us in the first place.

One day, one of us will understand what it means to walk the river of stars.

Girl, Cat, Wolf, Moon

Content Note: Child Abuse and Assault


Lila found the cat market when she was seven. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say the cat market found her.

It was the night of the Harvest Moon, and the maize and the soybean were almost in. The villagers had gathered around a crackling fire, the men drinking arrack, the women singing folk songs, the children dancing. The beats of a dholak clashed with the twanging of a sarangi. It had been a good year, an excellent monsoon season. Nobody had died.

Lila gorged on peanut brittle, popcorn, and sesame candy until her mother told her not to be a pig. Sulkily, she retreated from the fire to a cool spot on the grass further away. Her two older sisters laughed and whispered to each other. Lila watched them, feeling left out.

The moonlight stroked her skin, its touch like silk. Such a lovely moon tonight, fat and silver. But one end was bitten off, like a monster was nibbling the edge, swallowing it in slow motion.

Before she had time to get worried about this, a large black cat materialized in front of her, making her jump. Delighted, she reached out a tentative hand to pet it. Cats were a rare sight in the village of Rampur, which was overrun by a pack of pye-dogs.

But the cat shrank back from her, its topaz eyes gleaming with disdain.

Lila stuck her hand in her pocket and came up with a few crumbs of popcorn. “Here, kitty,” she said hopefully, holding out the crumbs.

The cat shot her a scornful look and stalked away, tail held high in the air like a pennant.

Lila followed, of course. It was a cat that was meant to be followed. She rounded a bush, caught sight of the proud tail behind a sheaf of maize, and picked up speed. The sounds of music and laughter faded away. She arrived in the fields bordered by the forest, and a frisson went through her. Why was it so dark? She glanced up at the sky and froze.

The moon was nearly half-gone. Hadn’t she heard stories about nights like this, stories of monsters with bloodshot eyes, knife-like teeth, and excessively long claws?

The cat gave a sharp meow. Hurry up, it seemed to be saying.

Lila’s feet propelled her forward, quite independently of her brain. Stop, she scolded herself. Turn around. Ma will be looking for you.

But that was a blatant lie, and her feet refused to listen. Lila followed the cat across the shadowy field, over the irrigation ditch, and round the massive banyan tree that marked the end of the cultivated plots and the beginning of the forest.

A tunnel of arched trees stretched before her, glimmering with fireflies. As the cat trotted into the tunnel, the fireflies settled on its fur, making it glow.

Stop, warned the prudent part of her brain. This isn’t what the forest normally looks like.

But—the fireflies! gushed the imprudent part.

It was an unequal fight; prudence had never been her strong point. Lila walked into the tunnel, goosebumps prickling her skin as the fireflies alighted on her. The fragrance of jasmine permeated the air. She sniffed deeply, wishing she could bottle it up and take it home.

Abruptly, the scent of jasmine was replaced by a strong aroma of fried fish. An explosion of light and noise and color hit Lila. She lurched to a halt and blinked.

The tunnel had vanished. Instead of trees, lamplit stalls and vendors’ carts clustered before her. Cats of every size and type strolled before the stalls, perched on the awnings, and crowded the shop counters. Black, white, ginger, tabby, calico, even tortoiseshell cats—dozens and dozens of them—argued, talked, bargained, sang, and snarled at each other. Not a single human was in sight. Even the shops were manned—catted?—by cats.

I’m dreaming. I fell asleep beside the fire, and Ma will shake me awake any second, and all these beautiful cats will be gone.

But no one shook her awake. The cats, if anything, increased in number. The smell of fried fish was quite overpowering. Could you dream smells? Lila edged closer to the stalls and stared, her eyes nearly popping out of their sockets.

Iridescent birds sang in painted cages, mounds of strange fruit glistened on creaky old carts, ancient books teetered in unsteady towers, whimsical clocks ticked on wooden peg tables, golden masks glared down from walls, and clockwork mice ran hither and thither, chased by delighted kittens.

“Rat got your tongue?” came a smooth, indisputably masculine voice.

Lila started. The black cat sat beside her, washing his paws. “You spoke!” she squeaked.

“You heard,” he remarked in acid tones.

“Who are you? Where am I? Is this a dream?” The questions tumbled out of her, the words running into each other.

“Figure it out,” said the cat. He stretched and yawned, revealing sharp white teeth in a pink mouth. “Come on.” He sauntered into the midst of the stalls, and Lila hurried after. Cats parted before them like a river. She could have sworn she saw some of them bowing. She bowed back, but they took no notice of her.

A tough, muscular-looking tabby stalked up to them and meowed. The black cat hissed. The tabby hissed back. The conversation seemed to be mostly the black cat growling, “Mine, mine!” and the tabby going, “Oh yeah? Oh yeah?” Eventually the tabby spat, “Not my problem,” and backed away.

“What was that about?” asked Lila.

“Never you mind,” said the black cat.

“Why did you bring me here?” she tried.

The cat bristled. “I didn’t bring you. You practically chased me. But if you must know, the spot where you were sitting was unsafe.”


“No more questions,” said the black cat crossly.

“At least tell me your name.”

The cat threw her a reproachful look. “We’ve barely met, and you’re already asking my name? How rude.”

“Sorry,” said Lila, bewildered. “I didn’t realize it was rude to ask a cat their name. It’s quite normal among humans.”

Humans,” said the cat, in the tone in which one might say turds. “Rule number one of the cat market: do not ask anyone their name. There are cats who would have clawed your eyes out for this insult.”

Cat market, thought Lila in delight. Aloud she said, “I’ll remember.”

“Don’t tell anyone your name,” he continued. “Don’t eat or drink or steal anything. Leave between moonset and sunrise—unless you never want to go home.” The cat tilted his head and regarded her out of half-shut eyes. “Think you can manage all that?”

She nodded, her gaze straying to a cart groaning under the weight of hundreds of wooden toys and mechanical contraptions.

“Try not to get into trouble.” The cat turned away.

“Don’t leave me!” she cried in a panic.

He made a huffing sound that could have been a laugh. “I’ll be back soon.” He vanished into the crowd before she could say anything else.

For a moment, she was petrified. Then the proprietor of the cart with the wooden toys—an elderly Siamese—began to demonstrate his clockwork mice to a pair of white kittens, and she forgot her terror.

His mice could not only crawl, run, and hop, they could also sing in squeaky voices and dance the Kathak. And they were edible. The Siamese demonstrated by popping one wriggling mouse into his mouth. “No, no, mercy!” shrieked the mouse while Lila and the kittens watched in morbid fascination.

The next stall had bottles full of miniature huts and fields in its display counter. Lila bent down to peer at them. Why, this one was just like her village. And those tiny people—were they not replicas of her own family? One of the figures turned and waved at her, and she got the most dreadful shock. That was her.

She snapped upright and glared at the stall owner—a handsome, blue-eyed Persian. “That’s me in there!”

The Persian tut-tutted. “Don’t be silly. My models are one inch tall, and you are such a great big girl.”

“But it looks like me,” she insisted, bending down to stare at herself again. The tiny Lila gave her another cheeky wave.

“Are you buying?” asked the Persian with asperity. “No? Then please leave. You are blocking customers. Paying ones.”

Lila withdrew reluctantly. The next several shops were all stocked with various delectable food items. Fish of every kind sizzled on pans, leaped haplessly in reed baskets, and lay in glassy-eyed stupor on the counters. Chickens turned on spits, and sweet white kheer bubbled in iron pots. And the laddus! Lila had never seen so many different kinds, not even during festivals. They rose in tier after tier of golden glory, making her mouth water.

“See something you like?” came a honeyed voice next to her ear.

The speaker was the tough-looking tabby who had argued with the black cat earlier.

“Um, it’s all very nice,” she said.

“Choose something,” said the tabby. “Go on.”

Lila shook her head, although she was dying to taste one of the laddus on display. “The black cat told me not to eat or drink anything.”

The tabby grinned. “He’s in enough trouble without you eating anything. But I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“Why is he in trouble?” she asked.

“He shouldn’t have brought you here,” said the tabby. “Humans are not allowed.”

Was she supposed to be talking to him? Lila scanned the market, wondering where her black cat was.

“Looking for Prince?” The tabby’s tail swished from side to side. “He’s been summoned by the council.”

“You know his name!”

The tabby looked at her askance. “Not his real name. He might be my colleague, but we don’t have that kind of relationship. What do you take me for?”

“Sorry,” she said, abashed.

“Absurd alias, if you ask me,” said the tabby. “There are five brothers between him and the throne. Now me, my unreal name is Veeru.” He paused expectantly.

“Oh, er, mine’s Dolly,” said Lila, giving the name of her eldest sister. “What do you mean, there are five brothers between him and the throne? He’s a real prince?”

“Barely,” said Veeru. “He’s the youngest of six and the queen’s least favorite. She’ll disown him before the night’s out. She knows why he broke the rules, but that won’t help him. It only happens once in several years, thank Shashthi.”

“What happens once in several years?” asked Lila.

“The Harvest Moon passes into the shadow of the earth, and the doors between our worlds thin,” came a cold voice. “Why are you doing this, Veeru?”

Prince stood behind them, his fur erect, his hackles raised.

“You’re the one who kidnapped her,” said Veeru. “I am merely making conversation.”

“I’m the one who saved her,” snapped Prince. “Go away.”

“The queen will have your tail for this.” Veeru nodded to Lila and strolled away.

“Let us walk,” said Prince.

Lila fell into step beside the black cat, staring at the stalls they passed, each more eye-popping than the last. “Are humans really forbidden here?”

“There are exceptions,” said Prince. “Tonight is an exception.”

He stopped in front of a shop full of mirrors: little heart-shaped mirrors framed by metal roses, gilt-edged rectangular mirrors as big as doors, round mirrors framed by ornately carved wood, mirrors in pairs, mirrors in trios, mirrors which threw Lila’s reflection back at her a thousand times until it seemed there was an infinity of her trapped within their cold walls.

In front of the shop, leaning against the counter, was an oblong mirror framed by old black wood. Lila peered into it, expecting to see herself and Prince, but it was obscured by clouds and shadows.

The clouds parted, and a red moon peeped out, illuminating a massive, snarling, crimson-eyed creature.

Lila reeled. The moon darkened, and the mirror was opaque once more. “What—what was that?” Like a hyena, with its thick, misshapen head and stripy skin, only much more terrifying.

“Corocotta,” said Prince. “Did I not say the doors are thin tonight? You have a narrow window between moonset and sunrise to leave the cat market and return safely home.”

Corocotta. The word sent a shiver through her, as if the act of naming had brought to life all the monsters that had existed so far only in stories heard around the fire.

She looked back the way she had come, at the arch of trees which led to her world. The tunnel seemed ghostly somehow, less real than the market itself. Her home seemed ghostly too, far away and unimportant. She had a family; she knew that. Two older sisters, both prettier than her. A mother who hadn’t wanted her. A father to whom she was just one more mouth to feed.

But the knowing did not bring hurt. It was as if she was remembering someone else, a stranger who inhabited her life in that other world.

“What would I find if I were to go now?” she asked.

“The creature you saw in the mirror is one possibility,” said Prince. “I suggest you do not go now, unless you wish to be eaten.”

She shuddered at the memory of its dripping fangs. “Such creatures should not exist.”

“The corocotta have as much right to exist as you and I. There are things which are even worse. Don’t worry,” he added, “I’ll tell you when it’s time to go, wake you up if you fall asleep.”

“I won’t sleep.” How was it possible to sleep when she was having the most amazing night of her life?

They continued their promenade down the market. It had become even more crowded and clamorous. She stepped on a calico’s tail and apologized profusely. A brown kitten hopped down from an awning onto her shoulder, thrust its cold nose into her ear, then leaped down and trotted away.

“Rudeness,” commented Prince with a sniff. “I apologize on behalf of my youngest cousin.”

“That was your cousin?” Lila craned her neck, but the kitten had vanished into the throng.

As they walked deeper into the market, the offerings became stranger: a spell to immobilize a thief, a whistle to trap a dog, a song to milk a cow, a brush to change appearance, a drink to become larger or smaller, a dream to float above the trees, another to take root in the earth, and—most delightful—wings to fly.

Lila halted in front of the wings shop. There were all kinds: white with black tips, black with white tips, sweeping and elegant, soft and feathery, rough and wild. Her heart gave a swoop of longing.

“No,” said Prince, his voice implacable.

“I didn’t say anything,” she protested as he chivvied her away.

“You didn’t have to,” he said drily. “Your thoughts were as loud as a scream. It hurt my ears.”

She tried to yearn more quietly after that.

A little later, they arrived at what Prince told her was the heart of the cat market. A large space had been cleared in the middle, and cat musicians were playing the dholak, the sarangi, the flute, the iktara, the dilruba, and many other instruments she had never seen before and could not name. Several cats swayed and danced in a large circle around the musicians. The music was fast and lively, and Lila tapped her feet, wishing she could join them.

To her enormous surprise, Prince stood up on two feet and whirled her away into the crowd of dancers.

It should not have been possible to dance with a cat, but she did. Either she had shrunk or the cats had grown, for there no longer seemed much difference between her and them. Standing on two feet, Prince was as tall as her, and a most elegant dancing partner. She laughed and said breathlessly, “Prince, you are the handsomest cat in the world.”

He bent his beautiful head to her ear and whispered, “My name is Prince-Tranquil-Light-In-The-Endless-Dark.”

He’d told her his real name! And how impressive-sounding it was. “Mine’s Lila,” she whispered back, wishing there were more than four letters to her name.

“Lovely,” said Prince with perfect seriousness, twirling her.

Lila wanted the dance never to end, but after a while her head felt heavy, and her eyes began to close. When she collided with the cat playing the sarangi, Prince led her away from the dancers’ circle and into a quieter area of the market, toward a cart draped with silk scarfs. He had a word with the cat selling the scarfs, and a bright gold coin changed paws. She curled up on the grass beneath the cart, tucked her hand beneath her head, and fell fast asleep.

She dreamed bright, lucid dreams filled with the shapes and sounds of the market. But the cats themselves stayed away. Why was she not dreaming of the cats? It seemed unjust.

A paw shook her awake. She sat up blearily, bumping her head on the cart. Prince crouched before her, his whiskers quivering, his fur standing on end. “Time to go.”

She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. “Why didn’t I dream of you?”

“Cats do not dream each other,” said Prince, which didn’t make any sense.

She crawled out from under the cart. It was very early in the morning, barely dawn yet. Most of the shops and stalls were gone; cats were busy dismantling the rest, loading them onto caravans pulled by strange animals that looked like a hybrid of a donkey and an ostrich.

“Where are they going?” she asked, a sense of loss welling up inside her.

“Not for you to know.” Prince poked her with a paw. “Get up.”

There was such urgency in his voice that she scrambled to her feet, although she was a bit fuzzy about where she ought to be going and why.

Prince pointed toward the arch of trees. “Run. And do not try to return.”

His words hurt, but his anxiety was a flare that ignited her own. She ran toward the arch of trees, nearly tripping in her haste. When she reached the tunnel, she turned for a last look behind.

There was nothing but forest, dark and impenetrable. The cat market was gone. Gone.

“Prince?” she shouted, but no one answered. A wind rustled through the trees, whispering go go go.

No. No, I don’t want to.

You must.

Lila ran back to the forest. Perhaps Prince had hidden behind one of the trees? She called his name as she stumbled through the underbrush, trying not to cry. Branches whipped her face, thorns pricked her arms, and tree roots poked her bare feet.

At last, she gave up and turned around. Home. A place where she was expected, even if not wanted. She walked through the tunnel of trees, her heart heavy. Not even the fireflies had remained to keep her company. She emerged into the familiar landscape of denuded fields just as the sun peeped into the sky. Would she ever see Prince again? Would anyone believe what had happened to her? Could she even tell anyone what had happened to her? The events of the night blurred like a dream. Had it been real?

Yes. Realer than anything in the world. Fiercely, she clung to her memories, went over them one by one. She recited Prince’s true name in her mind, again and again, like a talisman. She would not forget him. She would not forget any of it.

No one was working in the fields yet—not surprising, considering the late night revelry. But no one was drawing water at the well either, or washing clothes by the pond, and that was unusual. The cows were lowing in their sheds, sounding like a rebellion. They hadn’t been milked. What was going on?

As she neared her family’s hut, a keening sound rent the air, making the hair on her neck stand on end. She pushed open the door and tiptoed in. Her mother and sisters were gathered in a circle on the straw mat in the middle of the room. The keening sound was coming from her mother.

Her mother took one look at her and screamed, “Lila!” She leaped up and grabbed the bewildered Lila by the shoulders. “Where were you? What happened to you?” She shook Lila until her teeth rattled.

“I was with the cats.” The words tumbled out of Lila’s mouth.

“Cats?” Her mother glared at her, the tears drying on her cheeks. “What cats?”

“In the forest,” said Lila, although a voice inside warned her to be quiet, “there were many, many cats.”

The slap came from nowhere, like a lightning strike. Lila stumbled back, her cheek stinging.

“Liar,” said her mother, massaging her hand.

“Do you know how worried we were?” It was Dolly’s turn to shout. “We thought you were dead.”

Lila didn’t dare ask why. She kept her eyes lowered and her mouth shut, and after a while, they lost interest in her. She slunk to the kitchen and helped herself to a glass of water from an earthen pot. Her throat was parched, her stomach a hard, empty knot. She wished she was back in the cat market.

“There goes any chance of compensation,” said her mother.

“At least she’s alive and well,” said Dolly.

Her mother grunted. “Shilpi, go find the men. Tell your father she’s come home. No need to waste time searching for her body, at least.”

There was a current of disappointment in her voice, as if she’d been cheated out of her rightful share of the money.

Lila got the story piece by piece over the next few days, some from gossip she overheard, some from the constable who questioned her—and whom she managed to fob off by acting vacant and dull—and some from shadowing the district policemen as they combed the village and surrounding fields.

Two men and two women had disappeared on the night of the Harvest Moon. Vikram, the son of the village priest, was taken while he was sleeping with his parents in a charpoy outside their hut. Dhiraj, a toddy-tapper, was grabbed while he and his wife Arunima were returning from harvest celebrations the next village over. Deepti, the wife of a local farmhand, vanished when she went to the outhouse in the middle of the night. And Hasina, the tailor’s daughter, disappeared a short distance away from the fire—right where Lila had been sitting. Out of all the possible witnesses, only Arunima got a glimpse of the attacker, and she was too shocked to give a coherent account of what she saw.

Lila heard rumors of a huge animal with a misshapen head, striped like a hyena, with teeth as long as a man’s forearm. Another rumor said the victims had been taken as sacrifice by tantriks who had disguised themselves as wolves. The only thing everyone agreed on was that this had happened before. Twenty-three years ago, five people had vanished. That night, too, had been Harvest Moon.

The police found large paw prints at the crime scenes, which supported the wild animal theory, but no drag marks, which supported the human theory. Lila, trailing the police at a discreet distance, knew they were both wrong. The creature she had glimpsed in the cat market mirror was neither a wild animal nor a human. It was its own monstrous thing. It defied classification, because it was not of this world. What had Prince called it? Corocotta.

The police summoned the elite Corps of Detectives and a dog squad. The dogs found a torn bit of sari—Deepti’s—and a finger—Vikram’s. The scent led them to a cave on a hill two hours away from the village. Inside the cave was a skull that was too old to belong to any of the recent missing people. It was sent to a lab in the state capital for analysis, but Lila knew what they would find: that it belonged to one of the people who had vanished twenty-three years ago.

A detective noticed Lila following them and called her over. She came forward unwillingly, wishing she had hidden herself better.

The detective crouched in front of her. “Why aren’t you in school?”

No one had ever asked her that before. The village had an elementary school, but attendance was desultory and the schoolmaster often absent or drunk. Besides, only boys got sent to the secondary school in the district capital. Lila hung her head and said nothing, the best policy to adopt when confronted by uniformed authority of any kind.

“Did you know the missing people?” he asked.

Lila nodded. Everyone knew everyone in Rampur, population two hundred and fifty-six. No, two hundred and fifty-two now.

“Where were you the night they disappeared?”

She debated whether to lie, but if he’d singled her out, he likely recognized her as the girl who’d been reported missing and then turned up alive. “I followed a cat into the fields,” she said. “And then I fell asleep on the grass.” That was all she’d admitted to the constable.

“Did you notice anything out of ordinary at all?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No, except the moon was being eaten, and the fields were dark.”

He regarded her with disappointment. “The moon was not being eaten. It was a lunar eclipse. It’s when the earth’s shadow blocks the sun’s light from falling on the moon. See, this is why you need to be in school. Cat, you said? You’re sure it was not something…bigger?”

“It was a cat,” she said firmly. “I followed a cat and then I fell asleep and when I woke it was morning so I returned home.”

A huge black police dog snuffled her neck, and she shrieked. The detective laughed and rose, and the dog’s handler pulled it back.

“Sultan says he would like to see where the cat took you,” said the detective.

Sultan—the dog? Several excuses rose in Lila’s mind. She could pretend to faint, she could say she forgot, or she could simply run away. But the dog would probably catch her, and the detective would think—would know—she had something to hide.

Lila led the detectives and their dogs out of the village, across the fields, and toward the banyan tree. Midway through, the dogs got hold of a scent that excited them, and they dragged their handlers toward the forest. Lila watched them, heart in her mouth. Suppose Prince was still around, hiding in the trees? Those dogs would tear him to pieces.

But the dogs did not find Prince. They found an arm, bitten off at the shoulder. The detectives speculated on the identity of its owner, and Lila quietly vomited behind a bush.

The detectives left a week later, case unsolved. For a while, the villagers were afraid. Mothers kept their children close, and people slept indoors. It’s okay, Lila wanted to tell them. The corocotta are gone. For now.

Every full moon night, she slipped out of her hut to scout the village and check if the moon was being eaten by the earth’s shadow. Once, she thought she saw a piece bitten off, and a thrill ran through her. Would she find the cat market again? Would Prince be waiting for her? Or would the corocotta find her first?

But the bitten piece soon regrew, and the moon shone whole again. Hollow with disappointment, she returned home.

But she didn’t give up. She grew better at moving unseen, catlike. As long as people didn’t notice her, she could slip away, pretend to be somewhere else, someone else. She could run across the fields, imagining monsters behind her and fireflies ahead.

When ten full moons had come and gone, her eldest sister Dolly was married off to the son of a moneylender from the next village. It was a good match and a lavish wedding. For her dowry, Dolly got thick gold bangles, richly embroidered sarees, fine clothes for her new in-laws, a scooter for the groom, a full set of cooking utensils, and two hundred thousand rupees. The in-laws had wanted more, but Lila’s parents managed to negotiate more reasonable terms. Dolly was attractive, after all, and the moneylender’s son liked her. Still, Lila’s father had to take a loan to meet the wedding expenses.

“It’ll take three years to pay off, if the crops do well,” he told them when the wedding was over and the food was eaten and the guests were gone. He gazed at Shilpi and Lila with bitterness. “And then it’ll be your turn. Why didn’t God give me sons?”

“You could pretend we’re sons,” said Lila, staring at the floor, her face hot. “You could send us to the district school, and we could get jobs when we graduate.”

“Foolish girl,” said her father after a moment of shocked silence. “We don’t have money to waste sending you to the district school. What’s the point? You’ll have to be married in a few years anyway.”

“If we can find someone to marry her,” said her mother. “Such a plain, dark face. Not like her sisters.”

Lila tuned her out and thought of Prince. Did cats marry? Were their weddings grand affairs with lots to eat and drink? Did they have dowries?

Surely not. If cats gave each other gifts, it was because they wanted to, not because they’d been presented with a list, like an ultimatum. And dark-colored cats were just as pretty as wheat-colored ones.

The night of the Harvest Moon arrived. It was a subdued affair. The events of last year were still too fresh in the villagers’ minds.

But they’ll forget, thought Lila, watching them play mournful tunes around the fire. In five years time, or ten, or twenty, when the doors are thin again, they’ll forget.

She crept away from the fire, out of the village, and across the harvested fields. The moon shone bright in the sky, not a shred of darkness marring its silver face. Still, it was the night of the Harvest Moon. Perhaps the doors were slightly thinner tonight?

She arrived at the venerable old banyan. No arch of trees was in evidence. An owl hooted, and leaves rustled. She walked into the forest, pushing branches away from her face, taking care not to trip on exposed roots.

“Prince?” she called, but no one answered. Had she really expected him to? The trees were only trees, bereft of cats or fireflies.

She trudged home, unable to form words for what she was feeling. Could you be homesick for a place you’d only visited once?

Do not try to return, he’d said.

She should never have left.

It was hard to say when Lila lost faith. Perhaps it was the night of the midsummer moon three years later when it fell into the earth’s shadow. She ran across the fields as the moon turned blood-red, heart beating with excitement. She’d never seen the moon look like that before, except in the cat market mirror. It was a night for magic if ever there was one.

But when she arrived at the banyan tree, there was nothing of note except a small deer, crashing through the undergrowth. She sat below the tree and cried, but the forest remained unmoved, and no voices whispered in her ear.

Or perhaps it was the day Shilpi was married off to a farmer’s son in the next district. It wasn’t as good a match as Dolly’s, but it wasn’t bad either. The groom was the eldest son and would inherit his father’s land, as well as half his father-in-law’s. That was the deal they’d struck. There was no money for a dowry or expensive gifts, but land was forever. Except when you mortgaged it for a daughter’s wedding. Lila’s father still hadn’t paid off his debts, and the interest kept piling up. Shilpi was not happy about the wedding, which was less splendid than her sister’s, or the groom, who was a dour, unremarkable young man.

“Let’s run away,” said Lila, the night before the wedding.

“Silly, there’s nowhere to run to,” said Shilpi.

“We could go to the capital,” said Lila. “I could work as a maid.”

Shilpi laughed, a thin, ragged sound. “We wouldn’t last two days.”

Or perhaps it was later still, when Lila’s usual catlike reflexes failed her, and she was caught wandering in the fields by the village leader’s son and his friends. They tied Lila to a peepal tree, pawed her and pulled her hair and ripped her clothes and said, later, they’d only been teasing, and why had the freak been out so late at night anyway. Which was exactly what her mother screamed while slapping Lila until her head spun and her jaw ached.

That was when Lila stopped going out on full moon nights to look for the cat market. It had been a decade, after all. She was no longer a child, and magic had not saved her.

A few months after the tree-tying incident, Lila’s mother told her they had arranged her marriage to a forty-five-year-old widower with two grown sons who lived in the same village as her sister Dolly.

“He owns a shop and is a respectable, well-known man in the community,” said her mother. “You should be grateful to your sister for arranging this match. He doesn’t even want much dowry.”

Lila listened, too numb to respond. A few days later, the prospective groom himself visited with a box of sweets, accompanied by his sisters and his eldest son. Lila, decked in a red sari, sat with her head bowed while the women chattered and the men sat in judgmental silence. Just before they left, she peeked at her husband-to-be.

He was a tall, hefty man with thinning hair and small blackbird eyes that promised violence. His mouth smiled, and she stared at the ground, clenching and unclenching her hands.

The date for the wedding was set for the Harvest Moon. “The most auspicious time for the girl to start a new life,” announced the village astrologer, pouring over star charts.

Harvest Moon, thought Lila. New life. Because hope was a treacherous flower that would bloom even in the mud of her darkest despair.

On the night of her wedding, just before her sisters and cousins were to lead her outside to the mandap, Lila asked for a minute alone so she could pray for strength. They gave her strange looks, because she wasn’t the praying sort, but a girl got married only once after all. They filed out of the hut, giggling and gossiping among themselves.

Lila kicked off her beaded sandals (borrowed), tore off the heavy wedding dress and imitation jewelry (rented), and slipped on her faded gray salwar kameez. She donned her canvas slippers and climbed out of the window at the rear of the hut just as her mother was coming in the front door.

“Lila!” screamed her mother.

Lila dropped out of the window and ran. She ran like she had never run before, not even when she was trying to escape the village leader’s son and his friends.

“Lila, come back!” roared an uncle in hot pursuit.

Of course, they couldn’t let her get away. Better a dead girl than one who brought dishonor to her family, her village. What would they do if they caught her?

No, better not to think of that. She redoubled her efforts and left the village behind. The fields were empty; the harvest was almost in, and everyone was at the wedding, expecting a feast. A double celebration: the marriage of the village freak and the Harvest Moon festival. The disappearances eleven years ago had been forgotten.

A furious voice shouted, “There she is.” Was that her would-be-groom?

Lila flew across the fields, her chest burning, her hair falling out of its tight bun. She couldn’t let them catch her, she couldn’t, she couldn’t.

And what will you do in the forest, love? The voice of the wind, heard after so long, was an icy whisper in her ear.

I’ll live in the trees. I’ll eat berries and mudapples.

There was a breathy laugh. But there are things here that would eat you.

The field darkened. As the men chasing her drew closer, she risked a quick glance up at the sky.

One edge of the moon was smudged, as if someone was trying to rub it out. Was it an eclipse? Would it last? Would it be enough, this time?

An anonymous hand made a grab for her shoulder. She slipped out of its grasp, putting in an extra burst of speed.

The quality of the air changed, becoming thinner, sharper. Far ahead, the trees arched into a dark tunnel, spangled with pinpricks of light. Fireflies.

There was a terrible scream behind her, abruptly choked off. Lila kept running, willing herself not to look behind.

A second scream, and a third. Please oh please, thought Lila in desperation.

The sounds of pursuit died.

Run faster, the voice whispered. And don’t look back.

Of course, Lila couldn’t help herself. She looked back.

In the dim red light of the eclipsed moon, she saw a hulking beast looming over one of the bodies strewn on the field. Corocotta. It seized the head of the corpse in its powerful jaws and tore it off. Blood fountained out of severed arteries, drenching its muzzle.

The gorge rose in Lila’s throat. She swallowed it down and shut her eyes.

A growl thrummed the air, setting her teeth on edge. Once again, she was running, her legs aching, her breath coming in short gasps. The field was endless. Space had stretched; the tunnel of arched trees with the beckoning fireflies appeared no closer than before.

A blast of hot, fetid air enveloped her. Behind her, the growl became louder, savage, and triumphant. Something sharp and heavy hit her between the shoulder blades, and she stumbled. Knifelike claws ripped her back open, and she bit back a scream.

Ah, said the voice, sounding regretful. Only death can save you now.

No. She hadn’t waited all these years for a Harvest Moon eclipse only to die. She kept running, sobbing with pain, her eyes on the arch of trees ahead.

 Huge paws knocked her to the ground. She scrabbled to get up, tasting dirt in her mouth, crying at the unfairness of it. She was close, so close. Jaws of steel clamped over her arm and shattered it.

She screamed in agony. And from the depths of her agony, something twisted, something small, sleek, and sinuous. It wriggled out of her bleeding, broken body just as the jaws snapped around her neck and crushed it.

Lila leaped out of her ruined skin and sped across the moonlit field. Behind her, the corocotta howled in frustration and sprang after her.

But Lila was fast now, faster than the monster, faster than the wind. She raced into the arch of trees, leaving her fear and pain behind. The fireflies settled on her fur, curious, delicate, welcoming.

Well done, the voice whispered. Oh, well done.

A babble of feline voices rose in the air, arguing, laughing, bargaining, singing. Lila burst out of the tunnel and into the noise and color of the cat market.

Shops, everywhere. Cats, everywhere, some turning to look at her askance, some leaning forward to sniff the air, as if at a dubious new treat. Lila threw herself on the ground and trembled, dazed and exhausted.

“Move along folks,” came a familiar, beloved voice. “Nothing to see here.”

Cats turned their bewhiskered faces away, back to the business of the market.

Prince stood above her, his topaz eyes warm and bright. “Lila-Soul-Of-Cat, welcome home.”

Lila shook and cried. Prince laid a calming paw on her back. “Cats are usually not so emotional. But today, it is allowed.”

“I died,” she said, remembering the jaws around her neck. “I died.”

“Yes,” he said. “You have to die to be reborn.”

Shakily, she got to her feet. Her four feet. “How…how do I look?”

Prince gave her a knowing grin. “Would you like to see yourself before we meet the queen?”

She swallowed. “Will she allow me to stay?”

“Of course. You belong here now.”

“Why did you tell me not to return?” she asked.

“Because it was dangerous. I saved you once. The second time, you had to save yourself.” He nudged her with his nose. “Shall we?”

The market was even bigger and grander than Lila remembered. Fireworks exploded in the sky, and a toy train full of excited kittens trundled past, nearly treading on her paws.

At the mirror shop, she saw reflected back at her a pretty black cat with a white snout, amber eyes, and a bottle brush tail. She laid a paw on the mirror, afraid the illusion would break and she’d find herself plunged into the human world once more. “Is that me? Really and truly?”

“It has always been you,” said Prince.

She thought with a pang of the poor, broken body she’d left behind. “And the girl?”

“Is also you. Do you think you need the skin to make you what you are?” He strolled away. “Come. The queen awaits. And then we will fly.”

She trotted after him, giddy with anticipation. As they walked, the moon slid out from the earth’s shadow. It rose over the many worlds, and it saw terrible things. But in the cat market, a small black cat with a bottle brush tail danced to the tune of a different song.


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


The 207th Time I Went Back to March 9, 1980

This is my 207th time returning to March 9, 1980, but the 35th time I have broken into my childhood home. Before I started using my homemade time machine, I had never been one to defy rules. Back at age seven, I stole a candy bar from a grocery store. Anvil-heavy guilt compelled me to confess everything to my mom before I’d taken a single bite.

“Thank you for coming to me. You did the right thing,” she’d said, smiling. “You’ll remember this lesson forever.”

Nothing is forever about memory.

I enter through the unlocked back door. I immediately deploy the dozen mini drones stored within my duffle bag. Each is the size of a fist with jointed legs like spiders. They whir off to attend their assignments, some absorbing different textures, others lifting objects to take in their heft. I stand in the living room with its wood-paneled walls and green shag carpet, fighting back tears.

This will be my last time here. I must urgently compile the data I’ve acquired from the past.

Our old cat Carter purrs as I scratch his chin. He has another three years of life. His death will crush me more than anything else in my early childhood. I pet him, and the sobs come.

I’ve explored my hometown and home with an intimacy I never knew as a kid. I can’t deploy my drones in public, so I’ve adorned myself with monitors and walked everywhere. At the market a block away, I resisted the urge to gasp at the ridiculously low prices and the odd product packaging. John’s Hamburger Drive-On-In deserved particular attention, though I didn’t dare order anything. I stroked hardtop tables with sensor-sheathed fingertips and breathed in fumes fragrant of oil and seared beef.

I’m there right now—child-me, a mere toddler, along with my older brother and parents. We kids just romped at a nearby playground for over an hour while my parents sat and talked, enjoying a brisk, sunny afternoon that my dad had off of work.

My mom considers this the best day of her entire life.

Up until six months ago, she remembered everything about it with clarity that I have proven to be astonishingly accurate. To her, me and my brother were at a perfect age. We were all happy. My dad wasn’t burnt out at his job yet, or started the cough that would hint of the cancer to come.

My hands ball into fists as I pass the ashtray kept beside his favorite recliner. I’m not here to try to save him, though his death in twelve years will be horrible. Science’s failure to keep him alive inspired me to go into the field. Neither can I take away my mom’s second marriage. Miguel loved her, loved us all. We lost him last year.

The drones begin to buzz back to my duffel bag. A strange metallic wrenching sound rings out from the kitchen. I run into the room. Carter has a drone pinned to the linoleum. He bats at its propellers with a white paw. He’s been placid during all of my other visits—why’s he playing the attack cat, now?! In that instant, I imagine my entire known future destroyed because something happens to Carter, my mom’s perfect day becoming one of her worst.

I rush to extract the drone. It rises and buzzes away. I pry open Carter’s mouth to check for choking hazards or cuts. I palpate his neck, his face, his paws. His tail lashes in annoyance, and I soothe him with quick strokes. He looks okay. My warning timer dings. I have to go.

I can only hope he truly is okay.

My heart is still pounding as I return to the time machine. The drones begin uploading their data the instant we land in my lab, a mere second after we initially departed. I take comfort in that my house is still here and everything appears as it should, but unease continues to pulse through me hours later as I go to see Mom at the Memory Center. I carry the virtual reality headset I created.

We greet each other as I sit at her bedside. “Please tell me about March 9th, 1980,” I say.

Her face clouds for an instant, and then, to my relief, brightens. “The park and burgers day with Reggie and my little ones! My perfect day!”

“That’s right.” I squeeze her hand.

She looks me up and down. “You keep visiting me, don’t you? What’s your name again?”

Pain needles me, soul-deep. I squeeze her hand again, unable to speak. I can’t help her remember the here and now, and maybe that’s for the best. Miguel’s death almost broke her last year; the one mercy of rapid onset of Alzheimer’s is that she’s dwelled more often in the far-distant past, though it, too, has begun to fuzz.

I will help her to truly dwell there.

“I have special glasses for you to try out. Would you like to see your old house on 14th Avenue?”

“Can I?” She sounds intrigued.

I slip the unit over her head and initiate the VR prototype. She gasps.

“I am in my old house! Oh! And that—that’s my Carter! Hello, pumpkin!”

“I have the whole house mapped out, Mom, and most of town. Give me a few more weeks, and you’ll be able to pet Carter and feel him, too.”

She’s dreamily smiling. She’s lost in the past, and I’m grateful with that. March 9, 1980, her happiest day, can be the one that lasts forever for her.


At the Lighthouse Out by the Othersea

Outside the big window, the Othersea danced.

Its swirling clouds piled about one another, forming and reforming, the bubbles that boiled out around them outlined in the glittering energy released in the collision of regular space and otherspace. I looked down at my hands against the dark warm earth of the food garden, and for a moment my skin glittered too, the green feathery carrot tops frothing around my fingers.

The outer proximity alarm went off, and I blinked, dispelling the imagined shimmer. The ship would be a few hours yet, then. No hurry. I rarely hurry, here at the Lighthouse.

I took the carrots up to the kitchen, washed my hands, and went to the top floor control post. The ship was, as I’d expected, the Fair Stars, due sometime this week. Interstellar travel isn’t an exact science; you can never be sure quite how long it’ll take you to get through otherspace. Currents are unpredictable; exits shift.

I brought up the comms interface.

“Come in Fair Stars. This is the Lighthouse.”

Fair Stars here. What is it?” There was an anxious note in the skipper’s mid-range voice.

“Just checking in. You’re about three hours, at your current speed, off the edge of the Othersea. Your nav should lock onto the Lighthouse soon.”

“I’ve a slot booked.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “You’re on my list. You need to dock here first, check in with me. Like it says in the booking information.”

Before I took over here, ships could go straight into the Sea, but I insisted on giving them a chance to back out. Even if it meant I had to make dinner for, and conversation with, someone who might never return from the Sea.

Maybe because of that.

“Right,” the Fair Skies’ skipper said, uncertainly.

“So you need to send me your docking chit,” I prompted, “and I’ll see you in three hours or so.”

The docking chit pinged onto the screen, and I pulled up the booking list to compare it. Fair Skies, correct ship ID, single skipper—they always are—but the list had Ines Silva, she, and the docking chit had Peres Silva, ze. Different citizen ID too; not just a name change. At the bottom of the chit was a Bureau note attached to it, authorising Peres Silva to take over Ines Silva’s slot sailing the Othersea.

Huh. I scratched at my beard. That was—unusual.

In general, otherspace stays where it belongs, on the inside of wormholes, where ships can sail themselves through it and back into regular space. Here, at the Othersea, is the only place (that we’ve found so far) where otherspace leaks into regular space. The Lighthouse was built here to warn people away. I’m the lighthouse keeper, three years into a five-year stint. It’s a solitary, peaceful job, which is why I applied. And the Sea is beautiful. To live by it, to see it every day, is a privilege.

Humans being humans, there are always people attracted to the beautiful, and to the dangerous, and especially to that which is both. And the Lighthouse has to be funded somehow. So four times a year, someone wins the (very expensive) opportunity to come here and surf the edges of the Sea. Those glittering energy releases propel them across the boundary and back out again, skipping between here and there. They tell me, afterwards, still caught in the exhilaration of that repeated transition, their eyes gleaming with passion, how glorious it is, how intoxicating; they tell of seeing things impossible to describe in human language, colours that don’t exist anywhere else.

At least, the three out of four who make it back tell me that.

As I listened to the hums and clanks of the airlock, I tried not to wonder which category Peres Silva would be in. The airlock hissed open, and Peres ducked under its low lintel. Ze had broad shoulders and a stocky build, with dark hair braided back from zir face, and zir blue-grey eyes were sombre in the same way zir docking-chit holo had been.

“Hello,” ze said. “Peres Silva, of the Fair Skies. Ze.”

“Hi Peres, and welcome to the Lighthouse. I’m Felix. He.”

I gave zem my best smile, and a tiny return smile appeared on zir lips before it disappeared again. I beckoned zem to follow me along the corridor and into the living area.

The huge window looking onto the Sea is right opposite the entrance to the living area. People see it and stop in their tracks. The Sea is glorious and captivating. I spend half my time here just watching it. I’ve seen sailors cry at their first glimpse.

Peres took one brief look and turned zir head away.

I caught zir brief expression of surprise at the rest of the room. Maybe ze had expected something more station-like. But I live here, all the time; it’s not a public place. I have soft rugs, and a couch for a home, rather than for being hosed down weekly. I keep the place tidy (makes a nice change after years of living with a large family and always feeling behindhand even when everyone was pulling their weight), but it’s visibly lived-in. It’s visibly my home.

I have art up across the room from the Sea. Paintings, with their extra layer of meaning, can hold their own against it in a way that pics, even holos, can’t. One of my paintings shows the blue-green tangled vegetation of Gliese, my adult home; the other, the rocky red mountains outside the Martian domes where I grew up.

Peres stared at the Gliese painting for a bit, then wandered around the room, looking at things, zir back always to the Sea. Ze came to a small carving made by my partner Narith, and I nodded permission to touch. Ze turned it over in zir fingers, then glanced back at the painting.

“Yes, the wood’s from there,” I told zem. “Good eye. It’s Gliese. My partner and kids live there.”

Peres’s eyebrows twitched, but ze still didn’t speak. Ze put the carving down gently, and went over to the couch. My kid Leah brought the knitted blanket folded over its back with her last time she visited. We used to curl up under something similar and read together, when she was little.

“Everyone who comes to sail the Sea stays here?” Peres asked. Ze was looking down at the blanket, stroking it, and I couldn’t quite see zir expression. It feels good, that blanket. Soft, and warm.

“There’s not that many of them. Of you,” I said. “But yes. I can show you the guest room now, if you want. Or I was about to make tea if you’d like some?”

It was odd Peres had asked. The sailors who come here know a lot about the Sea, and the Lighthouse. They’re experienced pilots, with years of wormhole sailing behind them. They’ve read the accounts of those who’ve sailed it. They know as much as you can about what happens here without having done it themselves. Otherwise it wouldn’t be risky to do this, it would be suicidal.

If Peres wasn’t part of that community, if ze hadn’t nursed that desire for years, did ze truly know what ze was getting into?

But then, Peres had authorisation. Ze must have the skill. It wasn’t my job to make this decision. That wasn’t quite enough to dismiss the worm of worry at the back of my brain.

“I just want to check,” I said, as I put the kettle on in the kitchen corner. “Rules, you understand.” Not true; the Bureau handled all that side of things. I just didn’t want to admit my concern. “I expected your ship around now, right enough, but my list had Ines Silva, not Peres.”

“My sister.” For the first time, Peres looked over at the Sea, then zir eyes skipped away again. “She died. Six months ago. She’d always wanted to do this. She was—so delighted, when her name came up.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.

Peres didn’t respond.

“So you’re doing it…for her?” Well, that was a bloody terrible idea.

“They let me take the slot. I want…” Ze looked back at the Sea. “As a memorial,” ze said, distantly.

Doing something with a twenty-five percent fatality rate didn’t sound like the ideal memorial to me. But was it my place to say so? Let everyone go to hell in their own way.

But I’ve never believed in absolute individualism. People’s decisions are their own; but at the same time, looking out for others is, surely, part of being a decent person.

The thing was, Peres was the thirteenth sailor I’d seen come through. The others had been nervous, sure, but they’d had fire in their eyes. Excitement. They’d all wanted to do it, wholly and desperately. I didn’t see that desire in Peres, and it bothered me.

But hell, maybe I was wrong.

“You’ve read all the information?” I asked, feeling my way. “Your sister would have, on application, but I don’t know how they manage it in a situation like this.”

“You mean the fatality rate,” Peres said, flatly. “Yes. It’s exactly the sort of thing Ines loved.”

Which didn’t answer the question I wanted to ask: that’s as may be, but is it the sort of thing you love?

“Could you show me the guest room?” ze asked, taking a step backwards.

I’d pushed too hard.

“Of course,” I said. “I’ll have dinner ready later. Unless you’d prefer something from the dispenser in your room.” It’s nice to eat with other people, when they’re here, but only if they want to.

“Uh,” Peres said, startled. “Yes. Dinner would—that would be lovely.”

Maybe I’d have another chance later. Or maybe I’d have talked myself out of interfering.

When Peres came back into the living area, ze had changed into a flowing shirt in a bright blue that reminded me of the oceans back home, and a long soft-looking split-sided skirt in deep purple. Ze’d brushed out some of zir braids, and tied the rest back with silver cords. It struck me how much more comfortable ze looked in this than in grey ship-canvas. Ze must be a decent pilot to have brought the Fair Stars here at all, but ze just didn’t seem like the home-is-where-the-gravity-isn’t adrenaline-junkie starfarers I’d seen come through here before.

This time, ze looked straight at the Sea.

“It’s beautiful,” ze said, softly. “I’ve read about it and I’ve seen holos, but the real thing…” Ze walked over to the window and rested zir hand on the frame, still gazing out. “Ines and I used to talk about it, when we were kids.” Did ze know ze was speaking aloud? “I wanted to know why, and what, and how. Ines always said that wasn’t the point. She said it was beautiful because it was unknown.”

If Peres had been talking about this since childhood, maybe I was worrying for nothing.

Ze turned around and smiled at me. “Sorry. I’m getting distracted. Can I help, at all?”

I shook my head. “It’s nearly ready. Please, sit down.”

There were only a couple of dishes left to bring through from the kitchen. I like making food. I enjoy the physical feel of chopping and stirring, and creating something nourishing. I enjoy it when it’s just me—which is just as well—but it’s good, too, to share it with someone.

By the time I put down the last dishes on the low table by the couch, Peres had sat down and was petting Leah’s blanket again. I smiled.

“A gift from one of my kids.” I handed Peres a mug, and sat at the other end of the couch. “You can put it over your lap, if you want. If you’re cold.”

“I wouldn’t want to spill on it.” Peres tilted zir head slightly to one side, looking over at me. “You have kids?”

“My kids are why I came out here,” I said cheerfully. “Which sounds terrible, but they think it’s funny. I spent twenty-five years at home raising and educating and minding and clearing up after my kids. I was about ready for a while all by myself, and some quiet.”

“Uh.” Peres shifted in zir seat. “I can go to my room, like you said…”

“Oh, not at all,” I reassured zem. “I get visitors maybe six or seven times a year. Two supply drops, one family visit, and the four sailing slots. I’m fine for solitude, believe me. It’s nice to have a chat once in a while.” I gestured at the table. “Please. Help yourself. Ask me if you want to know what anything is. It’s all grown here.”

I picked up my own bowl and started to fill it, hoping to encourage Peres.

“You’re self-sustaining?” ze asked. “I noticed how quiet it is. Quieter than the ship.”

“I grow my own food, but the supply ships bring tech and metals and so on, and a few trace minerals. The plants downstairs can handle one person’s oxygen, and the air’s moved by convection. It’s static, not like a ship. Low energy needs.”

“It’s nice,” Peres said, almost shyly, and reached for a dish of stir-fried carrots with ginger.

We ate in silence for a little. Peres seemed to agree I’d done a good job with the food. Eventually ze sat back and stared out at the Sea again, zir fork idle in zir hand.

“Ines would—Ines always wanted to see this.” Zir tone changed. “See it; and fly it.”

“Are you looking forward to it?” I asked.

“For Ines.” Zir chin went up. “Yes.”

“She was an experienced pilot, then?”

“As am I,” Peres said sharply. Zir shoulders stiffened. Ugh. So much for subtlety.

“Do you ever get researchers out here?” ze asked.

“Not while I’ve been here,” I said, glad for the change of subject. “No one’s working on it now, as far as I know. There was a big flurry straight after it was discovered.” I’d read a fair few of the papers myself, over the three years I’d been here. “But I think people have given up.”

“It’s a shame. I did my doctorate on wormhole theory, you know. I always hoped to work on this.” Ze gestured at the Sea, zir eyes wistful. “It’s so different from the rest of otherspace. Being able to see the interaction, there’s so much potential data there.” Ze pulled a face. “It’s frustrating. People think because we can use it, because we can get ships through it and out again at roughly the right place, that’s enough.”

“You disagree?” I asked, as I wrapped flatbread round a spoonful of ful medames.

Peres made an exasperated gesture. “I don’t understand how people don’t want to know. But once the basic problems were solved, the funding dried up. My supervisor’s group was the only one still working on it, and then she died. No one else had the experience to take over, so the university shut the group down. Sorry. I’m going on, aren’t I?” Ze made an apologetic gesture and smiled at me, leaning forwards to take some of the steamed greens.

“It’s all right to have desires,” I said, gently.

“As a child I always dreamt of discovering something groundbreaking, something wholly new about otherspace.” Ze half-laughed, glancing out again at the Othersea. “I was young, I suppose. It just hasn’t happened.”

Yet, I wanted to say. It hasn’t happened yet. Instead, we talked of Gliese and Mars and the station where Peres grew up, and I didn’t ask any of the questions I badly wanted to.

Peres was a grown adult. Ze wasn’t my responsibility, and discovering if ze truly wanted to do this, if chasing zir sister’s dream would make zem happy; that wasn’t my job.

Later that evening, once Peres had gone to zir room and I’d gone to mine, the cold, lurking fingers of self-doubt began to grip the pit of my stomach. That gnawing, lurching, familiar feeling that I’d done something wrong, said something wrong, that I was just, somehow, and for no reason I could specify, wrong. Maybe it was asking about Ines being a pilot; but we’d had a perfectly pleasant conversation after. Or. Maybe.

It could have been anything, or nothing, and I wouldn’t know. That was precisely the problem.

When I first thought of coming out here, Narith and I talked over a great many things. But what he worried about most was that being away from people for this long would screw with my social anxiety. Which wasn’t, isn’t, an active problem any more. I’ve dealt with it my whole life, and I have strategies. It’s just something that comes up every so often, and then I handle it. Narith thought the sheer volume of social interactions, when we were in the throes of raising kids, meant I got inured to it, and with less practice, those skills might atrophy. Myself, I didn’t think I would suddenly forget everything I’ve learnt. I argued that fewer opportunities to freak out would mean less freaking out.

It turns out we were both right. Statistically, I am more likely to get anxious in any given interaction out here than back at home, possibly because it’s always higher-impact. No casual conversations down the shops out here. When it does happen, my strategies still work.

On the other hand: there is a great relief in never having to consider anyone else’s comfort, or their wellbeing, or whether they’re around and what their plans are. In not needing a facial expression. In never having to explain myself to anyone. Not that I had to explain myself, exactly, to my family; but here, there’s no one else even to tell. And, yes, then visitors come, and having to remember all those things can be overwhelming, but I cope.

This was something different. There’s a thing that happens, where you think you’ve got a handle on something and then you haven’t, and you forget all your coping strategies and then you wonder why you aren’t coping.

That. That had just hit me like a rock.

My best coping strategy is honesty. I tell whoever it is that I’m worrying I’ve been weird. I say I get anxious, sometimes, around other people; that I enjoyed talking to them; and that I find it helps me, when I’m anxious, to check in with people. Turns out, somewhat to my initial surprise back in the day, most people react pretty well. But I could hardly wake Peres up in the middle of the night for reassurance. So I did other things instead. I talked myself through the likelihood this was baseless. I reminded myself Peres had seemed to enjoy our conversation. I spent twenty minutes meditating. And finally, I got to sleep.

The sleep didn’t get rid of the anxiety. So when Peres showed up for breakfast, looking like ze too hadn’t slept well, I got straight to the point.

“I’ve been worrying, this morning,” I said, “that I overstepped the mark yesterday. Your decisions are your own, and I shouldn’t question them, even by implication.”

Peres blinked, a small frown appearing on zir face. “I—no. Not at all. This is your responsibility, here. It must be odd, seeing people come through here, and not, always.” Ze paused. “Not always coming back. I understand you wanting to ask.”

Zir tone still sounded flat, the way it hadn’t any more by the end of the previous evening, but I didn’t press further. The other part of dealing with this is not second-guessing what people say. Or there’d be no damn point in asking in the first place. Instead, I started making pancakes, putting my anxious energy into beating the mixture and achieving the perfect brown-and-gold lace. I’d transferred a stack to the table before Peres spoke again.

“Do I have to go today?”

I blinked. “Of course not. Not today, and not at all. It’s not obligatory.”

“But it’s all arranged.”

I shrugged. “That’s never a good reason to do something.”

Peres didn’t look convinced. I carried on. “You have five days at most here, that’s your only limit.” The Bureau doesn’t like other people being around the Lighthouse, or the Sea. “I have things to do, but you’re welcome to do whatever you’d like around the Lighthouse. I could show you the control room later? Or you could come down to the garden?”

“I’ll just stay in here, I think. If that’s all right.” Peres transferred a pancake to zir plate.

“Certainly. Help yourself to a book, or food.”

I smiled at zem, but ze was looking down at zir plate, face solemn, and I felt awkward again. I ate a couple of pancakes as quickly as I decently could, muttered something about chores, and left zem to it.

I checked over the seedlings and the indicators on the composter, and tried not to think about Peres’s decision; because it wasn’t my damn decision. Grief has its own logic. Perhaps doing this for Ines was the right thing for Peres to do. Perhaps it wasn’t. But the last thing ze needed was someone else with an opinion.

The people who fly out to the Sea make their choice, just like I choose to come out here. All I wanted for Peres was for zem to choose for zir own reasons, not for anyone else’s. Not even mine.

When I came back from the gardens, Peres was on the couch. A handful of sheets of paper, scribbled over with equations, lay on the table in front of zem, and a tablet was balanced on the arm of the couch. Ze was staring out at the Sea, turning a pen over and over in zir fingers. Ze turned to me, and I saw tears on zir cheek.

“Ines was always the golden one, you know.” Ze sounded like the thought had been there for a while, waiting for someone to say it to. “The one to look up to. She thought she needed to protect me. And she did need to, sometimes. She was my sister, that was how we were. Sometimes.”

Cautiously, I sat down on the other end of the couch, not wanting zem to stop talking.

“But to everyone else, it was always. Ines always in the front. Our parents—Ines met all their expectations, overflew them, every time. And I, I.” Zir throat moved as ze swallowed. “I didn’t. I was never what they wanted. I swear, I could see my mother thinking, at the funeral—why her and not Peres?”

My heart contracted at the thought of any of my own children thinking I, or Narith, felt such a thing. I wanted to do something; but the best thing I could do right now was to listen.

Peres was still talking. “I thought, this thing, this one thing, I could prove something. I don’t know what. Something. But I’m not her, am I? I’m not her.”

I bit my lip. I had no idea what to say. “You don’t have to be her,” I said, in the end.

“Ines wouldn’t even have wanted it.” Peres’s voice cracked. “She always just told me to be myself. That was what she was protecting, that was why—she always said, do what you want, be what you want, and I’ll handle the bullies.” Tears slipped down zir face as ze spoke. “That’s all that matters, she said. Me being myself. It’s just the same if the bullies are family, isn’t it? Or if they’re just in my head. I’m still me, and not Ines. I don’t have to be Ines.”

All I could do was nod.

“Like you,” Peres added, and I blinked, surprised. “You’re right here, being yourself.”

“Haven’t always been,” I said, honestly. “It’s taken a while.”

“You asked. You asked. Only a little bit, but no one else even tried. No one else challenged me. Ines would have challenged me. Ines would have asked whether I really wanted this. Ines would have said, there’s no need to be, to do, what anyone else wants.”

“Ines,” I said, “sounds like a sensible person.”

We both stared out at the Sea, its fractal shaded edges swirling and bubbling and glittering, always different, always moving.

“It’s beautiful,” Peres said. “It’s so beautiful. Ines would have loved it. She would be out there already.”

“She would.” I didn’t look over. “But what do you want?”

Peres didn’t say anything for a while. I resisted the urge to prompt. Or to look down at that pile of paper.

“You don’t have to know,” I said, instead. “Or if you do know, you don’t have to tell me.”

We were both silent.

“I was sitting here,” Peres said, eventually. “Sitting, and looking.” Ze gestured at the papers. “I don’t have all the references here, and it’s been a while, but I want to understand it. The way those edges interact, I can feel there’s something there. I haven’t quite grasped it yet, but I can feel it.” Zir voice steadied, became more certain. “That’s what I want. I don’t want to sail it. I want to discover it. To know more about the Sea. It’s the key to otherspace, I’m certain of it. We shouldn’t be satisfied with piloting through it on guesswork. We should find out.” Ze turned to look at me. “When you look at it, don’t you want to know more?”

“I’m not a researcher, myself,” I said, carefully. “I just—admire it. The Sea.”

“Ines admired it. She thought that meant it had to remain mysterious.”

“It’s not that. There is beauty in understanding, and in seeking to understand. But that isn’t me. Not here and now. If I did that,” I paused, looking for words. “I would begin to expect something of myself, in relation to the Sea. That’s not what I want from being here.”

“Flying the Othersea was what Ines expected of herself,” Peres said.

“You get to choose your own expectations,” I said. “Or none at all.”

“I want to know more,” Peres said; and now, at last, I could see desire in zem, fire in zir eyes.

I opened my hands to zem, and to the Sea, gesturing invitation. Peres sighed, and it sounded like hope.

Silently, we watched the Sea break against its invisible shore. I let my breath fall into sync with it; let my mind rest.

When, finally, I looked round again, Peres had fallen asleep. I got up, and gently covered zem with Leah’s blanket. Ze didn’t stir.

Peres had four more days to embrace zir search for understanding, before ze would have to leave the Sea, and the Lighthouse, to be once again mine alone. For a while, at least; ze would be back, I was sure of that.

For now, I could share the Sea’s peace; and in that sharing find my own peace too.