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Wormhole

after Sinead Overbye

 

the way the days are peeling away now

is the same way they did before we got here.

yesterday, i bumped into a drone at a festival.

its face, a telegram from my great grandfather.

& because there’s a synchronous touch to events,

the moments come to us unseparated.

in this one, as his mother’s only son

my great grandfather is still being born

in the same hospital my father would later meet

my mother in. at the same time, my mother

has just given birth to me. she takes a picture

with her phone & sends it to my father,

who is worlds away from home.

& somewhere still,

the invention of the first mobile phone

is being debated upon. time dissolves

& we are a billion light years deep

into the future. i speak & my voice travels

faster than light. i speak & a drone floats

on the spine of my words. through time travel,

we wrap memories around our fingertips. in one,

i am sitting on a bench, watching my father

kneel to propose to my mother in the same garden

she would later die in. & at the same time,

i am waving my grandfather goodbye

at the shore of the mediterranean sea. at the same

time, we never get to the shore

because the ship never arrives. time telescopes

& my mother is still alive, taking a flying car

to harvest water from clouds. & at the same time,

we feed the sky to climate change. time telescopes,

the future mirrors the past. the present, a gold

rotting in our palms. & at the same time,

i am riding a fire-breathing unicorn to my sister’s

700th birthday party. we pour dragon milk

into paper cups & toast to the uselessness

of time. excuse me. i’m sorry. i think i missed

something. i mean, Bhabi, what year is it again?

The Coward Who Stole God’s Name

Who is the most beloved person alive? Is it one of those actors who plays superheroes? Is it a political leader? Maybe you’re a galaxy brain and say Beyoncé? No matter who you pick, you know you’re wrong. There’s always that better person who we love so unquestioningly that we forget they’re there. Sometimes, we forget why.

“Gavin Davenport?” I repeat into my phone. “You’re kidding me. He wants me?”

On the other end of the line, my editor York is practically squealing. “Apparently he reads your stuff. He mentioned The Redacted Man by name.”

I grab at my ribcage. Gavin Davenport read The Redacted Man? I’ve been reporting for twenty years but this is a chilling shock. I feel like I’m a teenager and my parents just found my browser history. The Redacted Man was so negative. I regret every phrase in it that could’ve been sharper.

I ask, “Is this a prank?”

York says, “I’ve checked with everyone. Davenport wants you to write about him. Sam, this is titanic. We’ve never done anything this big.”

My brain flails trying to contextualize the invitation. Years of absence broken—and by me? This is like being asked to write an extra chapter for the Bible. Nobody talks to Gavin Davenport. He’s barely let himself be photographed since the shootings.

I ask, “When do I go?”

“Today. You’ve got three hours.”

I grab for my keys. “Three hours?”

“Don’t be late. Remember the last person who disappointed him?”

One thing that strikes you about Davenport’s estate is that it has no walls. It’s a vast lawn with a few tiger lily gardens between the street and his many houses. Anyone could stray onto his property, though nobody ever has. Nobody would. It’s difficult to imagine trespassing against Davenport’s property.

That impression looms as I approach along the polished quartz walkway. Am I violating some unwritten law by entering his domain? I’ve been invited and still I feel unworthy.

There’s no security. No one buzzes me in. I expect his front door to be a checkpoint, but when I ring the bell, Gavin Davenport himself opens it. He wears brown pajama pants and a green Polo. He’s a peculiar height, and his gaze at once makes me feel the same size as him and makes me feel like we are both giants.

He says, “Samuel? Welcome.”

In one hand he holds an old Smith & Wesson Model 500. For my whole life I’ve detested firearms, but this one, in his hand, changes my mind. It’s a romantic object in his grip. How does he do that to everything he touches?

He laughs when I look at the weapon. “Don’t worry, man. I won’t make you shoot yourself until tomorrow.”

I say, “It’s a pleasure, Mr. Davenport.”

He says, “For the next hour, call me Gavin.”

I ask, “What should I call you after?”

He laughs at me. I think I should smile.

We take a quick jog through his labyrinths. The halls that connect everything under Washington D.C. are less complicated, each of them possessing a certain warmth as Gavin passes through them. There are few adornments. The original Starry Night, hanging askew. A framed photo of him and the president, after Gavin turned down the nomination. The painting Banksy did celebrating him.

“I loved your piece about the tech asshole,” he says. “The Redacted Guy? You really nailed him.”

I fall back on the typical icebreaker about that story, “I was surprised how much ugliness he showed given how deep he let me inside the company. It was all on the record. Even what he was doing to his staff.”

“I’m glad you got him pushed out. He was a typical narcissist. You should’ve seen what he was like to secretaries before I had a word with him.”

I should be surprised. I’m not. For the story, I ask, “You met him?”

“I wanted people to stop posting photos of me on his site. Too much idolatry and people ruin your image curation, you know?”

Did you know it’s against the policy of every social media company to share images of Gavin Davenport? It feels like being reminded it’s illegal to drive headlong into oncoming cars. You’d never do that.

We come upon what I can best describe as a small indoor zoo. It’s all one contained concrete and steel room, larger than a high school gymnasium. Five glass cages house independent environments, each with trees and wood chip floors. The smallest is bigger than my apartment. Briefly, I fantasize he’ll ask me to live in one.

Long, shaggy arms slam into the glass of the nearest cage. It’s a ginger orangutan, with a flattened gray face. Her lips shrink from rotting teeth as she howls and slaps her cage’s walls. The walls must be soundproof, as I don’t hear a thing. I step in front of Gavin, shielding him from the idea of harm.

Gavin waves at the orangutan with his pistol. “I’m heinously allergic to these. You know it’s not their hair? It’s their proteins. The saliva and flakes of skin that coat their hair. I can barely breathe if I get a whiff of these things. Terrible creatures, don’t you think?”

I want to agree, but he wants me to interview him. “Why do you keep them?”

“We’ll get to that,” he says, balancing the pistol between two pinkies. One pinkie is on the hammer, the other plugging the barrel. There’s a radiance in his expression as he surveys the old weapon. It makes me wish I was a gun. “I think it’s best we start with this.”

I fumble for the appropriate question. “How is the weapon important to you?”

“I was six years old and something big happened near my driveway. A riot or something, that doesn’t matter. So many harsh voices in one place. There was this one cop on the sidewalk, clearly itching to hurt somebody. He was waiting for the opportunity.”

I think of all Gavin’s philanthropy and community activism. This must be where it started. “Did you talk him out of it? Make the cops stand down?”

“Nah. I thought his desire looked so, I don’t know, interesting? I pushed through the crowd to get to him. I asked for his gun. He handed it over, obviously. He offered to show me how to use it. I told him to get lost.” He hums to himself. “I don’t think he was ever found.”

I ask, “The gun is a memento of when someone was kind to you?”

Gavin takes a long look into the orangutan cage, like a pull from a cigarette. There’s something in his gaze. The orangutan runs behind a tree to hide. “People have always been kind to me. They don’t have a choice.”

I wasn’t prepared for this level of modesty. Of course people could be unkind to Gavin Davenport; they just never think to do so. Why would you choose to be unkind to such an impressive human being? He does such good in the world, like…like…

He turns away from myself and the cage. “I don’t blame you for not following. When I was born, the entire hospital turned out. Nurses and patients filled my room to see me. To get near me. A pair of cardiac surgeons left a patient to die on the operating table to come see me cry. It was in the local paper. You can look it up.”

As though I could doubt him? His words are impossible, but there’s no greater impossibility than that he would lie.

I say, “You can’t blame yourself for that.”

“Who said anything about blame?” He goes to an open bar stationed at the edge of the colossal zoo installation. He drops the pistol on a stool and pours us two cobra whiskeys. “I was a teenager before I realized this was unusual. You grow up thinking however it is for you, it must be for everyone.”

I didn’t grow up that way. Marginalized people around the world know it’s unfair early. Gavin is wrong in an elegant way that I can’t articulate. It crystallizes the rest of existence, such that I love his untruth better than truth. Isn’t it things like that which keep us alive?

He says, “Take you. Nobody likes you just because you’re who you are. You worked your way through Northwestern with little support from anyone. It took you an unusually long time to go from a freelancer to a staff writer. You still haven’t won the awards you deserve—deserved before The Redacted Man. You get shit-talked for every article you publish, about your liberal biases, your typos, and your anonymous sources. Tell me I’m wrong.”

The tips of my ears blaze. “You know all that? You care about me?”

“That’s the way life is. From strangers pushing for a parking space to heads of state drone striking weddings, everybody has bullshit. It’s unfair that I’ve never gotten to experience that unkindness.”

It’s a new kind of profound. This poor man cannot experience life like us. The common is uncommon here. I wonder how I can help.

He says, “I’ve had MIT on it for years. What’s funny is this trait of mine? It doesn’t work on many other primates.”

I ask, “They’re immune?”

The orangutan is back, biting at the glass in our direction. Her black teeth crack. Gavin watches a moment, then splashes his drink at the glass.

“Worse,” he says. “They seem to hate me.”

Reflexively, I throw my drink too. I pity most caged animals, but my sympathy for Gavin is far stronger. No creature should be crass to this poor man.

Gavin says, “As far as research has taken us, it seems whatever causes my allergy to them also causes them to be extremely intolerant of my effects. Primitive limbic systems and all that. But humans are elevated above other species. Your thoughts are more evolved. Richer.”

Those words will haunt me for the rest of my days. That one word in particular: “Your.”

Your thoughts are more evolved.

As though this planet is the seven billion of us, and him.

Gavin takes my glass and says, “Sam. You’re going to help me.”

I don’t argue. Who would argue with helping him? My heart beats like I’m walking into Prom with the high school quarterback. It takes me a moment to ask, “How?”

“I’m going to lift it from you. That thing that I’ve felt all my life—that everyone alive has felt. I’m giving you a taste of freedom. Just to see how it feels.”

“Why wouldn’t I want to love you?”

“How it feels for me, dipshit. I’ve never had the privilege of someone’s indifference. I deserve this much.”

This is the last article I should ever write. If I lack the basic empathy Gavin deserves, I don’t deserve my career. Of course I’ll help him.

His fingernails scrape my hairline as he places his hands on my forehead.

Gavin asks, “Are you ready?”

Despite myself I whisper, “No.”

“Here we go.”

It’s the worst work of my life. I spend the entire trip home banging out empty paragraphs. I splice anecdotes and research into pauses in our conversation. No sentence of it has energy. There’s no revelry about the great man, and there are so many revelations that they crowd each other. The verve is missing. Every time I reach for feeling, I find emptiness. Have you ever tried to feel, and failed?

I can’t think about Gavin Davenport correctly. It doesn’t make sense. You don’t walk out of your house one day and suddenly no longer love your mother. You don’t just sneeze and lose a religion.

Gavin Davenport is a man who was born to a family of metal workers in Idaho, and I don’t care.

Gavin Davenport is a philanthropist who has raised barely any money for any causes and I don’t see why we think he’s generous.

Gavin Davenport is a man with a history of friendships ending in others self-harming, often using the Smith & Wesson 500 he showed me today. There are videos of him laughing at the funerals. How has nobody ever said anything about the pattern?

It’s like someone turned off gravity inside my heart.

I don’t write an article. I write a betrayal that doesn’t feel wrong.

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

York never swears. He didn’t swear when the Twin Towers fell. He didn’t swear when he had a stroke in an elevator that one New Year’s Eve. I rode in the ambulance with him and he was even-tempered the whole time.

“Slow down,” I say. “What is the problem with the story?”

“What isn’t the problem? I sent you for an interview and you gave me a conspiracy theory.”

“It’s a lot to take in. But it makes sense when you think about it.”

It had made weird sense before Gavin switched me off. Now the logic festers. I need Gavin to see this article published so he’ll switch me back on. I haven’t eaten in a day. I need my mind back. I don’t want to know what I’ll be like tomorrow.

York says, “You think Gavin Davenport is telepathically manipulating the entire planet?”

I tried to think like I had when I felt right. “If he said it to you, wouldn’t you believe him?”

“We have climate change. We have pandemics. The world is begging for hope. There is maybe one person, one person in the world, that brings light to everybody. You’re deciding to try to take him away?”

I shake my head at my phone. “I’m not taking him from anyone. I’m giving him to you.”

“Bringing down chemical companies wasn’t big enough for you? The Redacted Man wasn’t big enough for you?”

“Hold on. You loved The Redacted Man.”

York is so loud it makes the connection crackle. “What does your ego need to be fucking satisfied?”

“He told me to write this,” I say, letting myself yell back. “What you read is what he wanted.”

“He invited you into his home. He invited you to a conversation, not an assassination. I’m not publishing this.”

“Come on, York. This is the biggest story of the century.”

“Not in this magazine it isn’t. And if you try to sell it somewhere else, you will never write again. This is over.”

Every drink I take tastes like that cobra whiskey should have. I’ve never had it. I wasted my first shot of it to demean an ape in the cage of a god. I know the whiskey wouldn’t taste like a snake’s actual venom. Part of me feels it would taste like an approval I don’t have.

As I drink, I send out feelers. Editors nibble when they don’t know more than that it’s an interview with our generation’s icon. After they read a sample, multiple decade-long contacts block me.

I need to get this out there. Gavin wanted this. The only way to get back in his good graces—the only way to stop feeling like I can’t feel the right thing—is to write his story.

The last draft is angrier than I expected. There are so many details about his life—the favors from the powerful, the inhumanities he could’ve stopped with a phone call—that prick into my flesh. I pose them as questions readers should consider.

What if nobody will publish this?

Well, I have a blog. I can do this and get the apathy over with overnight. Tomorrow morning I’ll earn my sanity back.

It’s like a landslide falls out of my laptop.

The article is down. My entire web domain is missing—the hosting service has either crashed or pulled support. I open my email to find out, but my inbox has never been such a disaster. There is a deluge of outraged subject lines, calling me every name I know and worse. The spam filter has given up.

Twitter is worse. Every time I try to scroll, it hiccups under the onslaught of new outraged comments that want to load. I am a backstabber. I have dishonored my country. People now believe I made up the worst of The Redacted Man and demand that guy be reinstated.

No logic unifies this. I am a liar, and an exposer of people’s privacies, and I want attention, and I am a coward to hide, and I want to destroy great people. Photoshopping my face to look like the Joker becomes a meme. There’s no way to argue. It’s like putting your hands against a tide; more pissed off randos spill around wherever you hold up a defense.

My voicemail is full of bile. The phone keeps buzzing with calls from numbers I don’t recognize. I’m still processing the social media barrages when I realize that somebody doxxed me.

My number is out there. My age, dating history, and apartment history is out there.

A voice from my phone’s tinny speaker says, “Wild, isn’t it?”

It’s Gavin Davenport’s voice. I didn’t pick up any call.

He says, “You’re awake, right?”

I lift my phone. A speaker icon takes up the screen.

I say, “What? Did you call me?”

“No,” he laughs. “I hung out with some devs a few years ago. Really sharp people. They built me a universal backdoor. They insisted I have it.”

Briefly, I consider dropping my phone in the trash bin. There’s something about dropping the source of Gavin’s words into garbage that appeals.

Gavin goes on, “Decent article, by the way. Not as punchy as your best work. Lacked focus, but it covered a lot. And you were right about my exes. I was a little mean to them. I have to do better. I’m going to work on it.”

I imagine him reading what I wrote, over whiskeys, overlooking furious apes. The pain I felt last night drips through my thoughts. I’ve written about some of the most corrupt people in the world and did it fairly. I’ve never hated a subject. Now, I wonder: do I want to hurt this person I barely know?

Gavin says, “Fascinating feedback to the article, yeah?”

I say, “You have to call these people off.”

This time he laughs like he’s heard a child’s knock-knock joke. “I already released a statement saying it’s all true and I consented. What more do you want me to do? You wrote this thing.”

I rest my head against the cool glass of my window. I say, “Turn it off. I did what you wanted. Let me feel it again.”

He says, “We can’t stop now. I want to see where this goes.”

On the sidewalk below my window, three people are yelling into each other’s faces. Two of them gesticulate up at my building. I wonder if they’re talking about me. I wonder if I’ve locked my door.

I need to call my family, or my ex-boyfriend, or my ex-editor. Somebody who can center me here.

I swipe on my screen. It doesn’t respond; Gavin’s speaker icon remains, immovable.

Gavin asks, “Sam. Sam, have you seen what they’re saying about you on Insta?”

I ask, “How do I hang up?”

“You can’t. That’s the point.”

I’ve never looked into the eye of a drone before. It’s like a crow’s eye, but full of plastic darkness. First one drone hovers in front of my window; soon, two more join it. Strangers are filming my laundry hamper.

In lowering the blinds, I discover many more people on the streets below my apartment. Traffic can’t get through. They wield signs about my evils, most of them misspelling my last name. Everyone is yelling—chanting things I can’t make out. I’ve become a cause worthy of protest.

A bang rings from the street, like a firework. More follow, and glass crashes downstairs. I don’t dare look outside.

Gavin is in my phone again. He says, “You better move it.”

I want to slap his voice—to reach through the phone and grab hold of his bottom lip.

He asks, “You there, Sam? Because if you saw what I’m seeing on TV, you’d be gone.”

I think just enough to get my keys. I head to the hall, and to the main stairs. Opening the staircase door reveals several men walking up it. One carries a length of PVC pipe.

I take the other stairs, the ones that go to the rear exit of the apartment building. I hear my neighbors yelling that I’m fleeing the scene, and below their voices, Gavin’s voice on my phone. “Go, man! I’m rooting for you!”

The last time I was here, I thought Gavin’s estate didn’t have walls. Seeing the vacant sidewalk and streets, I recognize there is a wall. All his privacy, all the lawn care and tree maintenance and pest control he gets for free, and the eighteen houses connected by tunnels he didn’t dig himself, are all part of a wall of privilege.

The thing about privilege is it’s simultaneously harder than diamond and softer than air. Last week, I would’ve had an easier time chewing through a brick wall than trespassing on his lawn.

Today, I walk right in.

That walk becomes a run as the street buzzes behind me. Trucks and sedans are on my tail—an army afraid for the safety of the world’s harmless friend. Bullets whizz up the street. Getting near Gavin’s houses is the only way I’m not shot. They can’t risk a bullet passing through a wall and harming him.

I break a window and they swarm behind me with crowbars and misspelled signs. I head for the underground tunnels, hoping they’ll get lost.

He’s not in the living room. Not near his dusty art collections. I can’t find Gavin anywhere. With his hubris, he might be in one spot.

The air in the zoo is clammy. In one cage, two rhesus monkeys sit idly in a tire swing, grooming each other. The orangutan I once threw a drink at crouches near her wall-mounted water bottle, smelling her feet. These primates are the only people in the world indifferent to me.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” I say to the orangutan as I scavenge behind the open bar. There are bottles of good stuff, and mixing equipment. Nothing too heavy or helpful.

On a stool, atop the green pleather cushion, rests that Smith & Wesson 500.

The mob is coming, so I pick it up. Stomping feet and furious faces take up the entire tunnel leading to the zoo. All of humanity is here in the estate, ready to hold me accountable for Gavin’s actions.

At their head is Gavin Davenport himself. They won’t walk faster than him—won’t bump into him. The masses obey their loved one. Gavin raises his arms to slow them further, and so they won’t tear me apart yet. With his arms splayed, he probably thinks he looks Christ-like.

He’s forgetting that Christ wasn’t popular in his own time.

I raise the pistol, and feel.

It’s atrocious to raise it in his direction. The guilt makes me turn it inward, instantly. I look at the orangutan and point the muzzle at my own heart. What are we doing? Why are we so horrible to Gavin? Abruptly, I love him more than anything.

“Don’t be hasty,” Gavin says, into his phone, and it comes out of my phone. He’s still on his hijacking app. That brilliant tool hackers gave him so he could speak to anyone anywhere. How I wish he’d called me sooner. “The experiment’s not over, Sam. I’ve got plans for you.”

Goosebumps race up my legs. He wants me again. Isn’t being wanted all that I’ve wanted? I was delusional. I was drunk and deserved a hangover. Gavin’s kindly smile convinces me, a smile that would be a sneer on any other face.

I wipe at my blurry eyes and say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Of course you are. How couldn’t you be? That’s why you’re going to make up for what you’ve done.”

There’s nothing I want more than to bask in his graciousness. I can’t bring myself to look at him. My insides are freezing solid from the guilt.

Instead I look at the pistol, and at the orangutan. She’s being ugly again, raking her nails against the glass and howling mutely at the best person in our world. Why can’t she see what’s wrong with what she’s doing?

Gavin says, “Whoa, man. That gun’s for you.”

It’s a gift. It’s redemption with a trigger. I’ll shoot myself if he wants, but is that enough?

It’s not close to enough.

I need to show him I care. That we despise the same things. I remember how we threw our drinks at this awful primate, and I raise the pistol. The orangutan’s glass walls won’t protect her.

Gavin yells, “Sam!”

The gunshots cut off the rest of his words—the zoo is too small and the noise is too great to be contained. My ears ring from the reports. I don’t hear the glass fall. It shatters, though, tumbling inward, towards the fleeing orangutan. I’ve never fired a gun before. I missed her.

The crowd tackles me before I can fire again. The impact against the ground jars my body, and I rise up needing that weapon. I need it for Gavin Davenport. That son of a bitch is doing this to all of us. The love fell with the glass, and I know this is my last chance to turn and get him.

Gavin sits on his knees, clutching at his throat and lips. He looks like a dumpy fish in a polo. He’s breathing the orangutan’s air. The stench is real—and so is all that dander. An allergy to hatred that makes Gavin shrink away, into a crowded tunnel.

The mob can beat me to death now and feed me to the monkeys. I don’t care because I’m full of feeling. I brim with a good anger. If only the others felt it.

The mob drops me like they forget I’m here. They stand up and look at their hands as though remembering everything those hands have ever touched. Those strangers waver on their feet like they are trees helpless in a storm breeze. So many eyes that are abruptly frantic and empty, unsure of what was supposed to fill them.

The only reply is the shrill howl of the orangutan, now audible to us all.

As one, the world turns to look at Gavin Davenport.

For the first time, they see him.

 

(Editors’ Note: “The Coward Who Stole God’s Name” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 46B.)

Interview: S.B. Divya

S.B. Divya (she/any) is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She is the Hugo and Nebula nominated author of Meru (2023), Machinehood, Runtime, and Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and she was the co-editor of Escape Pod from 2017–2022. Divya holds degrees in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing. “Two Hands, Wrapped in Gold” is her second appearance in Uncanny, a poignant reimagining of a classic fairy tale.

 

Uncanny Magazine: This is a beautiful retelling of the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. What drew you to this particular fairy tale?

S.B. Divya: A few years back, I was reading fairy tales to my child, and after reading Rumpelstiltskin, I started to wonder what his motivations were. There’s no explanation given in any of the versions I’ve seen. Dreaming up my own answers eventually led to this story. I was partly inspired to write a more realistic retelling by one of my favorite movies in the genre, Ever After.

Uncanny Magazine: What research did you do for this novelette? Were there any particularly interesting tidbits that didn’t make it into the final version?

S.B. Divya: I mostly looked into what everyday life was life in the 900–1000 CE era, especially in the regions from South India to Bavaria. I read a bunch about the Rajputs and the Chola Empire that didn’t end up making it into the story in detail, but I tried to drop hints for all the really interesting tidbits. For example, I learned that South India had hospitals—as in places that sick people went to stay and be treated by doctors—which is something that Medieval Europe lacked.

Uncanny Magazine: “Two Hands, Wrapped in Gold” does a beautiful job creating well-developed characters and depicting the relationships between them. What sources do you draw from in creating your characters? Do they ever do things you don’t expect?

S.B. Divya: My sources are all around me—people I know and people I read about in the news. My characters are often pastiches—they have pieces of real people in them. They don’t often surprise me, but in this story, Trudy’s character ended up being quite different from my initial concept, which was more of a mean girl sister to Ilsebill. As I wrote out the story, that personality just didn’t fit. She’s more of a meek and slightly tragic person, emblematic of the fear that Ram is ultimately able to free himself from.

Uncanny Magazine: Rampalalakshmicharan has a gift that comes with a heavy price. Given a choice, would you want that kind of gift?

S.B. Divya: I think superpowers (like any power) are a heavy burden and ripe with the potential for abuse. The right people can do amazing things in positions of power, but I find that kind of responsibility very stressful. The closest I’ve gotten is my co-editor position at Escape Pod, and that has definitely weighed on me. I don’t think I’d want Ram’s ability, not unless it came to me later in life.

Uncanny Magazine: “Two Hands, Wrapped in Gold” centers on someone who has traveled far away from home and must navigate balancing the culture he grew up in with a second, very different, culture. Is this a theme that you return to often? What other themes are common in your fiction?

S.B. Divya: As an immigrant child, this was a huge piece of myself in the story. I came to the US in the early 1980s, and the way people would mangle my name (first and last)…well, let’s just say it left a strong impression. Immigration and cross-cultural conflicts are definitely themes in many of my stories, as are family ties, class differences, and bridging technological (or in this case, magical) divides.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

S.B. Divya: I’m almost done with a far-future novel involving directed evolution, post-humans, space adventure, and romance. It’s called Meru, and it will be published in 2023. It’s not a retelling, but it is broadly inspired by a famous story from the Mahabharata called “Nala and Damayanti.”

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

Gracias, Orlando: A Genre Film and a Queer Body Awakening

(Content Note: child abuse, religious abuse)

 

“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” —Richard Lovelace

 

It is 1993 and I am 19 years old, working at a business that makes sense in today’s systems but was innovative at the time: delivering VHS movies and snacks for subscribers. The business has a fleet of Yamaha bikes and overeager drivers to make it happen. I am not on a bike. I help one of the locations fulfilling orders. Rows and rows of movies, ready to be put in bags and driven away. I remember a particular anxiety dream of not having enough copies of The Fugitive, when we received 200 a day before.

One of the benefits of the job was we could take any movie we wanted to watch at home. I took advantage of that all the time. Before the internet, it could be a crapshoot. I remember taking both La Femme Nikita and Point of No Return the same night, only to find out the latter was a remake of the former. I still watched both.

At first sight, the box art for Orlando (1992) seems very straightforward: the portrait of a man in British regalia. I can’t remember the VHS’s description. Sally Potter was mentioned but I didn’t know who she was then. Auteur cinema was not something I gravitated during those years. I was merely a kid watching new movies, some fun, some odd, some unique.

By the end, my heart felt raw.

There was something that felt fable-like to me from the start. The costumes. The bucolic and privileged life Orlando has; akin to both the empty piece of paper and the doubt of using it. Queen Elizabeth I, played by Quentin Crisp, bestows on the young Orlando property as well as a command. “But on one condition. Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.”

Orlando’s life goes on, breaking the fourth wall, the voice of the poet who needs to tell us more about who this person is at the time. He gets into an arranged marriage, but the heart wants what it wants. When a Russian delegation visits during a brutal winter, the young poet falls head over ice skates for Sasha, the daughter of a delegate. She is in many ways an ideal for Orlando: someone who shares his passions and seems to have her heart into these. Alas, the young lover sees her leave, forever. This leads to the first one of many slumbers, where his body rests between eras, sleeping away, still young. From meeting his lyrical inspiration and discovering the reality to meeting his heroes, to serving the crown in far lands, Orlando changes in how the world is perceived. A lesson and a long drowse.

Then, the phrase.

“Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex.” —Orlando

This sequence, this awakening, was something unlike anything else I had seen. Orlando rises up from the bed, still bearing the clothes from the night before. A wig is left behind for the morning ritual refreshing the face with water. Dust motes fly around the screen, disturbed by the protagonist’s actions, like snowflakes dancing around, witnessing a miracle. Orlando perceives something is different, now facing to the distance. Beauty like this was meant for a large screen but still felt terrifyingly beautiful on my old TV. Orlando then says those words, directly to the audience. This character had changed, and my brain was processing it. I didn’t question it. It was Orlando’s life.

I want to point out the version of the film available in México didn’t have the scene with Orlando looking at her body. It took me a few years to get the uncensored DVD and notice what was edited out due to Mexican prudishness. I think my heart broke a bit due to what I missed the first time around.

Even without Tilda Swinton’s naked body, what I saw was disruption. I felt connected to Orlando. A new seed of doubt was fertilized in my heart. I didn’t know at the time if Tilda was a man or a woman. A piece of my heart had fallen for Orlando. An invisible chisel was put into my hands. From the start of the movie. I had a crush on a man. It wasn’t my first one.

Catholic nuns were a big part of my life while growing up in México. I saw them as the ambassadors of God’s love, teaching us catechism and preparing us for the sacraments of confirmation and the first communion. I’d seen their positive depictions in the media, mainly La Novicia Voladora (The Flying Nun), and was expecting their comforting care.

Part of Catholic catechism is training children on how to behave according to the Bible. Before my first communion, we had to practice how to confess our sins. We had a private conversation with one of the nuns, sharing the sins they told us we had. I shared how I envied the attention my younger sibling commanded from my mother, my desire to steal comics I couldn’t afford, how I wasn’t dedicating my life to my parents as I was supposed to be.

“Do you like anyone?” the nun asked. I didn’t know what she meant. “Like, to kiss,” she tried to explain. There was another boy at the class. We were friends. I liked him. I said his name.

Red pain burned my cheek. The nun swung at me and started berating me. She told me how, if I didn’t change, my family would suffer as I would go to hell. I started to cry but another slap shut me down. She was very clear about how I was sinning. She made it clear also whenever she reached me with the belt and laughed. God’s plan, amirite?

I have gynecomastia. Other kids made fun of my breasts and how I looked. I felt abnormal. I also have wide hips, which besides framing my noticeable butt, made me feel self-conscious. I wasn’t aggressive like the other boys in school. I enjoyed reading and imagining things I found different or clever. I enjoyed bonding with my mother over telenovelas while we both knitted. I often wondered if I was a woman and something got mixed in the uterus. Body dysmorphia wasn’t in my vocabulary back then, but it is very clear to me now.

Orlando, by itself, is a story about changes: in time, in attire, in perspectives. It is also a story about how the character adapts to the new realities faced after every slumber. Orlando follows the command given: Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old. She is vibrant in every life embodied. The corpus may look frozen in time but she experiences tastes, sounds, touches, ideas, dreams. Orlando is forever young in her heart, where it matters the most for the character.

I’ve never craved Orlando’s immortality, but I felt a tinge of jealousy at one moment reared its nasty head. It was after I saw an uncensored version of the movie. How the character sees herself for the first time, in her body, gorgeously framed by that mirror. A full-frontal statement of acceptance of who she now is. I wished I knew who I truly was in my gender. But the same piece of art can evoke different reactions by the same person across time. Like Orlando’s sleeps, every view has given me a new life, a new understanding, a more developed personal purpose. I accepted my bisexuality, I saw myself as a non-binary being, and reclaimed my creative voice.

Virginia Woolf wrote the novel Orlando: A Biography in 1928, inspired by a longtime romance with Vita Sackville-West, a member of her writing group. The novel told the story of how a person escaped the concept of birth gender and had a happy ending. Orlando experienced romance in different ways, fully falling, and entirely whole, with a heart that seeks others, even while broken, still giving and thriving. When a world seems heartbreaking, Woolf’s optimistic vision is there to comfort us.

Orlando opened the doors to question who I was. The movie created a new concept, one that would grow. That windowless gender room that I was told I belonged to by the nuns, my parents, and society, was chiseled away, one small queer thought at a time, leaving behind a heart full of hammering energy. As a stealthy queer genre novel, Orlando gave me a new language, a new technology, one that I continue developing, at every step while I try to accept who I am, demolishing the walls of Catholic dogma.

The existence of queer narratives helps us feel, besides seen, understood. Orlando gave me the initial tools to see beyond what I was taught. Every new story or narrative that helps us question our nature, expand our concept of being. Creativity can open new doors, create new concepts. It is a technology. Whenever we add to our languages a new concept, it resonates with others, letting us feel identified with the new lingo. Our stories open new paths for others to traverse, if they feel welcomed by the worlds we construct. These new concepts can help us better grasp a reality we have not yet confronted. It gives us the language and understanding to better express ourselves and build better futures, demolishing the invisible windowless rooms we never knew had trapped us.

Spirituals

We found our way by braiding constellations,

 

using our hair to map the stars as sung by those mournful voices

carried across field winds. “Canaan,” they cried.

 

And though we could not know the way for certain, we hoped

    for angels

      for chariots

         for swift water

  for that fabled train

 

         to deliver us.

 

With swift fingers we whispered words to shield

weaving magic between us until we glowed—but not too bright!

so when the time came and Lady Night

had shaken her hair out to dim the Earth

we stepped to her shadows and hand in hand

into her arms

we fled

 

(Editors’ Note: “Spirituals” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 46B.)

 

No Astra without Aspera

I grew up reading a lot of hard science fiction, particularly the vintages from the 1970s and 80s, which probably isn’t too surprising given my current occupation (astrobiologist). I liked how the books would challenge my imagination but kept me grounded within physical reality (give or take a few conceits as necessary).

What I found most intriguing was depictions of interstellar flight. It was one thing to just handwave the vast distances away with some sort of hyperdrive or other faster-than-light gimmick, but to see a writer lay out a truly plausible way that humanity could reach the stars was awe-inspiring. Whether it was Larry Niven’s ramjets or the small and sleek antimatter-powered craft from the works of Charles Pellegrino, the fact that people had sat down and worked out, at least approximately, what was required to reach nearby star systems enraptured me.

So, it was with great delight that I discovered the Breakthrough Starshot initiative—a project, funded by a few tech billionaires, to build a proof-of-concept interstellar probe and send it to Alpha Centauri. We, as a species, were finally getting real about exploring the stars!

Then I read the technical specs.

Based on my science fiction reading, I had always imagined that the biggest challenge to interstellar spacecraft would be simply generating enough power to propel them. For example, Pellegrino’s antimatter starships required covering a large swathe of the Moon with solar-powered particle accelerators to produce the requisite fuel, and Niven’s ramjets need both well-understood fusion propulsion and enormous superconducting magnetic scoops. In the case of Starshot, however, the technology involved for propulsion is actually quite well-known: as a light sail, it will be lofted into the stars with a phased laser array. While the array would have to be built on an unprecedented scale, spanning kilometers in size, the basic principles behind it require no new theoretical breakthroughs, unlike fusion or antimatter.

As it turns out, however, the tricky part isn’t the propulsion—it’s the actual spacecraft itself. Starshot’s design calls for a “gram-scale” probe, something that would make your average smartphone look like a gargantuan hulk. While we’ve certainly come a long way in miniaturizing electronics, designing a high-resolution imaging system with the same mass as a paperclip—and which will remain functional over the hundred-plus year span of the mission—almost defies reason.

Breakthrough Starshot arose, in part, from the 100 Year Starship project, a DARPA-led effort to try to tackle some of the technical hurdles posed by interstellar travel. From 2011 to 2015, the project awarded small-scale grants to relevant research and hosted an annual symposium. While some of the science featured was relatively pedestrian—investigations into preventing the loss of bone density and muscle mass due to prolonged microgravity conditions, for example—many of the involved researchers were focused on developing radical new forms of propulsion. Physicists proposed possible warp drives or wormholes that could make interstellar travel vastly faster and easier. The only problem was that, much like Breakthrough Starshot’s nanoprobes, no one actually has any idea how to practically build any of these technologies yet.

I would later discover I wasn’t the only one who was underwhelmed by these efforts. Author Kim Stanley Robinson was present at one of the 100 Year Starship symposia, and by all accounts, was dismayed by what he saw. In particular, he was discouraged by the idea that rather than taking care of our own planet we should just move to a new one. To be honest, I think this is a bit of a straw man—I’ve never encountered anyone who has seriously suggested that kind of planetary migration as a solution to our ecological woes—but, nonetheless, it motivated him to write a novel, 2015’s Aurora.

Aurora is the counterpoint to the interstellar dreams of the hard science fiction of my youth. The titular starship, filled with people hoping to colonize a new world, represents a massive economic undertaking—and one that proves doomed to failure. In Robinson’s universe, planets either already have their own indigenous life (which inevitably proves lethally pathogenic to humans) or are completely uninhabitable. To make things worse, when the would-be settlers give up and head back to Earth, the ecosystem of their generation ship breaks down, and only an unexpected technological fix saves them.

I will admit, as an astrobiologist who studies exoplanets, I find Robinson’s view on the subject unrealistically pessimistic. First off, given how fine-tuned life tends to be to its environment and biochemistry, it’s unlikely that an alien microbe would be able to adapt well to the very foreign environment of the human body. However, even if indigenous microflora did eventually develop a tolerance for human physiological conditions, we would still be far from defenseless. The human immune system is incredibly adaptive—I even remember my Intro to Immunology professor, way back, in the day, explicitly saying that we’d be able to deal with alien microbes. While we’d still undoubtedly face significant—and perhaps insurmountable—challenges into integrating into an extraterrestrial ecosystem, disease itself isn’t likely to be a showstopper.

Furthermore, as we’ve gotten better at modeling the evolution of planets, we’ve discovered there may be many worlds where interactions between water vapor in the atmosphere and ultraviolet light from the host star have yielded an abundance of oxygen—all in the complete absence of life. While this has been bad news for exoplanet scientists such as myself, as we now have a very real risk of false positives in our search for life beyond Earth, it’s good news for interstellar colonization. These worlds would be quite hospitable to us, but have no native biosphere to compete with us. However, in the long term, we’d still need to import our ecosystems in order to survive, which is no mean feat.

In fact, creating functional ecosystems is probably the biggest obstacle towards crewed interstellar travel, and one that I was very glad to see Robinson recognize. As a species, we still haven’t successfully constructed small-scale closed-looped ecosystems; the most well-known attempt, Biosphere 2, rather famously proved to be a failure when oxygen uptake by soil microbes present proved to be much higher than predicted. While that specific issue is much better understood today, it demonstrates the fragility of ecology at such small scales. When your margins are that tight, a single crop failure, unexpected algal bloom, or miscalculated rate of erosion can doom your whole population. If we are to take the slow route to other worlds—never mind setting up whole planetary biospheres from scratch—we must become vastly more familiar with the ecological processes that keep us alive on this one.

One possible solution to the delicateness of small-scale ecology is to simply make your ecosystem-in-a-bottle as large as possible. To do this, however, requires bringing an inordinate amount of mass with you. Ironically, the starship design perhaps best suited to this task is one of the oldest.

Starting in the mid 1950s, the US government initiated Project Orion, a study into the use of nuclear explosions to propel spacecraft. The project, led by physicist Freeman Dyson, not only found that such a concept was workable, but that it actually became more efficient as the spacecraft was scaled up in mass. Due to a quirk of nuclear weapons design, the same amount of enriched uranium is required to launch a 2,000-ton Orion vessel as was required for an 8,000,000-ton craft. The latter design, nearly half a kilometer in length and nicknamed “super Orion,” was explicitly envisioned as a self-contained city and “interstellar ark.” While small by the standards of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama or Gene Wolfe’s Whorl, it would still give the Vanguard of Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky a run for its money. With a maximum speed a little over ten percent the speed of light, an Orion starship could make it to Alpha Centauri well within a human lifetime. There are even faster versions, making use of antimatter, but unlike the vanilla version of Orion, those remain beyond our current technology.

Of course, Orion has a major drawback: getting it up into orbit requires detonating dozens of nuclear weapons, and would violate several treaties in the process. One built in high orbit, away from the vulnerable Earth, may be more achievable in the future, but for now, that remains purely speculative. And it’s possible that size alone will not be enough—without further research, it’s hard to say if a larger closed-loop ecosystem would be sustainable, or simply delay the inevitable. Even a fleet of worldlets, like that seen in Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion, may still eventually break down over time.

Interstellar travel—whether it be in the form of robotic probes or crewed starships—would undoubtedly represent the single greatest effort ever undertaken by our species. Perhaps it’s just as well that we’re reminded of the enormity of what would be required of us to achieve such a dream. While it may very well happen someday—perhaps after some unforeseen technical breakthrough greatly reduces the mass and energy required—the current obstacles stagger the imagination. I wish Breakthrough Starshot all the best, but can’t help but think that they’re working in a realm perhaps best left to hard science fiction authors for the time being. Authors, in the meantime, can keep up with the current science (personally, I just check and see what’s on arXiv.org periodically), as this often provides a bountiful treasure of new ideas for stories. As Carl Sagan put it so eloquently in his last work, Pale Blue Dot, like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

Spirit Folks

Content Note: Child Abuse

My fingers danced in the air as the embers faded. Only the tell-tale scent lingered which was why I chose to partake outside in the first place. The ledge framing my bedroom window was little more than a concrete slab, but it was wide enough to sit on, to escape the confines of the house.

“Are you still there, silly?” J’s disembodied voice echoed from my phone. She was my best friend. I missed her, a lot.

“Yeah, I was almost done. Got a little distracted.” I studied the night sky as if I could tell the difference between the Ghanaian array of stars and the ones back home. No, this was my home now.

“Don’t get too distracted. I don’t want you falling off your roof.”

“I’m careful. I’m always careful,” I said.

“Good. You know how I worry.”

“You should talk. You’re the one who…”

My bedroom door slammed open, banging into the wall, sending reverberations through my back.

“Where are you? I know you’re around here,” Momma screamed.

My heart squeezed in my chest like it was too scared to beat. I swatted the air as if that could chase away the cloying aroma of incense better than the night air. Climbing inside my window, I raised my hands as if the police had burst in with a warrant.

“What is this?” She held up a bottle of Malibu. I had been drinking from it to get me in the right head space. And to dull the vague hurt that always seemed to darken my spirit, my emi. I thought in moving here—to a new country, getting a fresh start—all the pain would be left behind. Now I suspected that pain followed me because that was my life, that was what I deserved. A destiny I could never escape.

I slowly lowered my arms to shut my window and to slip my phone into my pocket before she noticed it.

“Don’t try to be slick,” she said. “I know what you’re up to.”

“Momma, let me explain…”

“I don’t want to hear your explanations.” She made air quotes around the last word. “I don’t want to hear your lies. Your words are…dangerous. You’re too young to be partaking in magic.”

And there it was. Out in the open. I practiced the science of Aje.

“Momma, it’s not that big a deal. I’m almost eighteen.”

Silence yawned between us.

The air conditioner units thrummed in a brittle wheeze, the only concession to the effects of climate re-shaping, but at least it wasn’t the staccato cough of the air purifier units back home designed to filter the air from the excessive pollution.

My fingers itched, anxious to attempt to carve out another spell. I was still working things out for myself. The alcohol, the incense, they were all experiments, really; but my mother was having none of it. We’d had this argument before. How magic was immoral, sometimes illegal, but the issue cut deeper for her. As if the very idea of me partaking hurt her. But she was different tonight. She was on one, practically tweaking. A thin line of sweat ringed her forehead, her hair a damp matte along it. Her light complexion deepened, I don’t know how else to describe it. It was like a shadow came over her, her face contorting into something dark and anxious. And hungry.

“You will never amount to anything.” The words were nearly inaudible. Momma’s hands smooth and strong—her wedding ring wore a weary groove into her finger—slowly slipped her belt loose from her pants. “You are something I hadn’t bothered to scrape from the bottom of my shoe.”

As if I caught the scent of a nearby predator, I froze. My mother never spoke like that. She had a temper and definitely could talk her share of shit. But she was never…cruel. Her face told another story. Ancient and angry.

“Momma, what are you doing?”

“What I should’ve done long ago. Teach you respect. Remind you of your place.”

The first lash of the belt slapped the bed. My arms flailed trying to stop her attack. Momma moved in herky-jerky movements, a terrifying frenzy I hadn’t seen before, as if she struggled with herself. Her arms whirred. The belt slashed the air, came at me from cutting off my escape routes as I scrambled across the bed. Herding me only irritated her more. She grunted as she crawled after me. The next blow narrowly missed my head but sent the lamp toppling off the bedside table. It shattered along the floor. My mother studied the broken shards before turning her hateful gaze back to me. Her eyes full of fury. Blaming me. She lunged after me again. The bedsheet tangled my foot, tripping me, causing the belt to slap where I had just been.

“Momma! It’s me!” I cried out.

Hot tears streaked my face. No recognition in her eyes, she grabbed for anything within reach. A book. My artist wood set. A cup. Caught in her maternal maelstrom, she hurled them. I ran for my closet. Ducking inside, I pulled the door shut, praying the sigils etched into the frame would hold.

“Momma, please!” I pleaded.

Her words collapsed into inarticulate curses. She scratched at the door, occasionally throwing her full body against it. The wood cracked but didn’t buckle. I held onto the handle hoping for the strength to weather her temper. Soon, her assault began to ebb until her footfalls stomped out of the room. But I held onto the door handle, my weight clung to it until I fell asleep crying.

The closet door eased opened. The rays of morning light smacked me across my face. I visored my hand over my eyes to make out the figure looming over me. Momma. I scrambled to the back of the closet.

“Get dressed. We’re leaving in ten.” Turning, she closed my bedroom door behind her.

Feeling every bit numb to the world, I began to pack a bag. We’d been here before. Last time was because I tried to…hurt myself. Life had become too loud. Too painful. Overwhelming. I’d lost so much. I thought I saw things. My parents checked me into a hospital. After last night’s episode, I figured I was due to visit Ghana’s version of a mental wellness facility. Hesitating before I committed to trapping myself in the car with her, I studied her face carefully. Whatever was in her last night had passed, though I knew it still lurked in her somewhere. She refused to heal because she refused to admit that she was hurt. Her pain revealed itself in her anger, each outburst a cry for help, but it shouldn’t have been on me to recognize. Nor should her misery be weaponized against me. Still, I knew better than to expect an apology.

“What hospital are you sending me off to this time?” I closed the car door, not hard enough to be considered a slam. I didn’t want to set Momma off again. Crossing my arms, I stared out the window while she drove.

“Look, you can save your words. You’re not going to guilt me. I made, I always make, the best decisions I can under the circumstances. Going to a hospital is a waste of time. I thought it’d be good to spend some time together.” She reached over to sweep the hair from the side of my face.

I flinched at her touch.

She withdrew her hands opting to keep them to herself. Her phone rang. Her face twisted up like she smelled spoiled fruit, but answered it anyway. “Your daughter has been at it again.”

Like a perfect wind-up toy, he sprang, so loud she didn’t need to put him on speaker. “She has no business partaking. Especially at her age.”

Parents believed it was possible to keep secrets in a family, but children always knew more than they thought. Like how he was younger than me when he first partook. The practice was almost a family tradition. My mentor once told me that our people brought the old ways with us from when our people first left the Alkebulan shores as part of the holocaust known as the Maafa. Hiding our traditions in plain sight, even co-opting the master’s religion to do so. Handed down, parent to child. Occasionally grandmother to granddaughter, skipping a generation. Leaving the passed over feeling some sort of way. Unloved. Unchosen. Resentful. I pitied Momma.

“I’m right here,” I said.

“I’m so disappointed in you,” my father said. “We try to put safeguards around you. Raise you with opportunities we never had. And you keep finding new ways to let us down. I’m almost glad you no longer visit me.

Momma had an excuse. My father, not so much. Our homecoming to Ghana was meant to bring the family closer. My sisters had long moved out, but my eldest one—Selamault, who never reaches out, like she’s tried to scrub her history—studied here as a part of the Thmei Institute. And J left. All I have are her occasional phone calls. It hurt too much for anyone to talk about. My father moved out not too long after we moved to Ghana. The change in scenery was not enough to keep them together. Back home, he hid his practice, accepting the stigma attached to it by his steeped-in-church family. He never could escape that sense of shame. He carried his pet demons with him like his favorite security blanket. I refused to let his words hurt me.

Tears trailed down my cheeks anyway.

Memory, like time, wasn’t bound. The next moment I remember began as I held my phone out like I was taking a selfie to give J different angles so she could get the full effect of my outfit. “What do you think?”

“I know you spent a solid hour getting ready,” J said.

“Beauty comes at a cost.” I smiled, unable to remember the last time I did that. J always brought that out of me. “I wish I could see you.”

My back to my bed, I gathered everything I’d need for the ritual. I hated the way J went away and they now only had the phone. This model wasn’t manufactured anymore. These days people simply linked. I don’t even know how to charge it.

“You’re missing out. I need to get this phone fixed. I’m doing good to talk to you on this old thing.” J’s voice grew distant, thick with regret. “I hate that I left you.”

“I’ve gotten used to being left to find my own way. Alone.”

“Never alone.”

“I wish you were here.”

“Me, too, silly.”

J leaving, my parents’ marriage, the move, my mentor entering and then abandoning me, my life here getting so complicated, change so quickly, and I had so little control.

“You going to stay on the line?” I hoped my voice didn’t crack sounding too needy.

“I hate that I can’t be there with you, silly.”

“I know.”

Sliding my window open, I shrugged my backpack higher over my shoulder and slipped out of my room.

The walk took over an hour. Few were allowed near the ruins of the Castelo de Sao Jorge da Mina. Elmina Castle. One of the original slave forts, it was the last glimpse our people took with them before they were shipped around the world. Learning about it was part of my orientation to Ghana. Receiving a scholarship from the Pan-African Coordination Committee, to come study in Alkebulan, I followed in the footsteps of my eldest sister, Selamault. She was long out the house by the time I was born. By the time I neared the age of ascent, J was moving out. I’d been encouraged to pursue my passions. Partaking was it.

The woods took on a sinister aspect at night. By day I wandered their paths often enough, whenever I needed to get away. They called to me; some unseen tether drew me to them. My ears perked to alertness at every sound. The night brought out their own predators.

“You there?” I double-checked, cradling my phone close to me.

“Yeah, I’m here. I thought you needed me to be quiet. I didn’t want to distract you.”

“I appreciate that. I do need to keep focused. Make sure nothing sneaks up on me.” I found a clearing in the shadow of the prison fort. I laid out the items I brought with me for the ritual.

“Why here?” J asked.

“This place has power. I can feel it in my bones.”

Honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a mentor, the Ban mu Kyidomhene, but I was determined to figure things out on my own. She walked with me for a time, but one day informed me that the next leg of my journey I had to walk alone. To go down the timeline of my hurts to find healing. That translated to me being alone, which was fine. That was how it always was. People only let me down. Or left me. A gray parrot fluttered overhead, landing on a nearby branch startling me before it took off, again. We had been studying them and other animals of the area. It was the least of the creatures I worried about. But the Aje called.

Lighting my incense, I laid my phone in front of me, crossed my legs, and closed my eyes. Some practitioners could partake as easily as breathing or sleeping. I operated on instinct, by what felt natural for me to do. It was like I was aware that there was this—I’m not sure how to describe it—stream all around us. And I had to figure out how to be carried along by it. Tap into it.

“This reminds me of a story, well more of a legend, of a creature called an abiku. Some parents believe that they were sent, born into a family to terrorize them. Supposedly, these spirit children would choose a rich family who would squander their fortune tending to those children’s needs.”

My fingers itched, more anxious to hold J’s hand again rather than perform a ritual. But that was what I wanted to do more than anything, have her back with me. “If my parents think that about me, someone needs to send a memo reminding them that we aren’t rich.”

“Depends on how you view wealth. Dreams, hopes, possible futures are all invaluable.”

“Whatever. Is there such a thing as abiku parents?” I set out an old box and opened it.

When we were at our old home, before we came to Ghana, J and I found the box of photographs one day in the back of Momma’s closet. A small box, forgotten, buried under clothes. Random dusty pictures and a broken Bible, its pages detached, no longer bound. Like someone cleaned out a room, erasing their past. We spent an afternoon sifting through them. There was a forbidden thrill, to handling the old pictures. Granny-ma so young and beautiful, caught in mid-laugh, finding hints of me in her face. Her beaded evening gown shimmered as she danced. Grandpa so confident, despite his poor choice in facial hair (the too thick mustache clearly a mistake of the times). A red scarf draped over his black suit. A hat perched low on his head, shading a mischievous smile. Both of them so elegant and dapper, ready to take on the world. There was an intimate shot of our parents smoking chiba, lost in a moment. Just the two of them totally absorbed in the other. No room for anything, or anyone, else. Me and J sat on the edge of the bed, lost in our giggles, studying our parents, seeing them as people we knew so little about. This became a regular ritual for us, sneaking into our parents’ room, exploring the past and learning who they used to be.

After what was left of our family moved to Ghana, after my father left, I found the box again and brought it into my room.

I opened my emi to the voices of my ancestors, those I had lost, imagining a link from them, the past, to my present. And I tied that link to one that ran from my head to my heart to something deeper. The language of my soul, my sabhu.

A tendril slithered along my heart.

Chancing a peek, I cracked open my eyes. A thin green line hung in the air, an illuminated scar in reality. A groan rumbled from within it, as if from across a distant chasm. The edges of the line blurred. My mind could only picture steam escaping from a broken lid. The seam bulged, the way fabric might if something pushed on it from the other side. It continued to etch the space in front of me. I couldn’t stop its growth.

“Is everything okay?” J asked.

“I don’t…think so.” Stammering, I strained though I didn’t know what I fought against. The crack in space had its own gravity and I was caught in its grip. Inexorable. Inevitable. It threatened to draw me in. “I…can’t stop it.”

A parrot rustled the branches overhead. A woman strode into the clearing. Red tail feathers had been woven into her hair. The sides of her head shorn low as if that would stop the spread of gray. Despite her long hair being a ghostly brownish-gray, I’d have guessed her age as early thirties. Gold elekes ringed her neck, bright against the deep-set sepia of her skin.  The dangling sleeves of her dust-covered, black robe formed a draping curtain when her arms met. She reminded me of the Ban mu Kyidomhene, except somehow both older and younger. I couldn’t help think of her as some sort of retired hippy. She circled the light once, her head cocked in curiosity. Large, brown eyes bore into me as if absorbing everything about me in a glance. Her high cheekbones gave her face a regal quality. She licked her fingers and ran them along the seam in the air, snuffing out the light the way someone might extinguish a candle. I hurried to collect my talismans and incense, though there was no hiding their heavy scent. I hadn’t decided whether or not to be afraid.

“Who are you?”

“Nehanda is the name I have chosen.”

“Okay. I’m…”

She held her hand up, cutting me off. “You do not know who you are yet. You are still figuring that out.”

She strode around the edges of my clearing. The parrot flew over to land on her shoulder as if assuming its duty as rear guard.

“What…are you?”

“You know what I am. Some people refer to my kind as the Owners of the Sacred Birds. The Eleye.” The woman locked her gaze with me. Her eyes were kind. I saw echoes of myself in them, the person I wanted to be. “Some call us the Elders of the Night.”

She was of the order of the Iyami Aje. A title of respect for a woman considered to be Aje, one who wields the sacred power. I didn’t know if I was supposed to bow, kneel, or genuflect. Mild paralysis would have to do.

“Why did you come to Ghana?” she asked with an edge to her tone like she already knew the answer and only waited for me to admit it.

“To start over.”

“Is that all?”

“No. I mean part of it was the invitation of the Homecoming.”

“But you and your family didn’t have to come. Not everyone chose to accept Ghana’s offer of citizenship.”

“I don’t know. It was like this…call I felt the need to answer. Like there was part of me, part of our family, missing and it could only be found here. Like we had this connection we carried with us wherever we went, but it needed to be…”

“Renewed?” Nehanda arched a knowing eyebrow.

“Yeah, renewed. Does that make sense?”
“Perfect. Without knowing your ancestors, you are lost. The land holds the power of the people. The ability to heal souls. When you reach out to your ancestors, you begin the journey back to wholeness.”

“My mother thinks that I’m too young to be practicing magic.”

“You are awfully young to be pursue Aje.”

“Whatever.” I dampened my tone to take the edge off any hint of disrespect. I would not want to speak out of turn, especially not to a sacred mother. Magic made me feel included. Part of something bigger. And older. I searched for the kind of sisterhood I should have had with my own kin. My brain did too much, my anxiety prowled about with an insatiable appetite. Life, relationships, current events, it was all so much and I had so little power. Whenever I practiced, it lightened my mood. Relaxed me, like I dove into a seething pool. Things slowed down. I grew fascinated by magic, its history, how it worked. But I didn’t know how to explain any of that.

“It’s a mother’s job to be over-protective. To shield her child from things.”

“Momma doesn’t get it. I don’t care about the risk.”

“After all she’s lost, that idea probably terrifies her. She’s got thirty more years of experiences, hurts, and tragedies she’s seen and wants to spare you from. Show her a measure of grace.”

“Momma’s not scared of anything. She does the scaring.” I tried to make a joke of my words, but her attack was still too fresh in my mind and my smile faltered.

Nehanda leveled her eyes at me. “You are not responsible for the emotional well-being of another adult. Kindness, yes. Empathy, yes.”

“Do you have children?”

The look of hurt, longing, and regret on Nehanda’s face made me feel bad for asking. “I know of strained relationships. I have one with my eldest sister. I also know that when you have a bar of soap and you’re afraid it’s going to slip away from you, what does your instinct tell you to do?”

“Grip it harder.”

“And what does it do?”

“Slip out. Faster.”

“Such is the way of parents and their children.” Nehanda examined the ground. Kneeling, her robes puddled beneath her, she scooped up my phone. I hadn’t realized it was still there. She turned it over in her hands, lost in some distant memory, before handing it to me. “But that’s no excuse for how she came at you. She’s a grown ass woman responsible for her own feelings, dealing with her own pain, and using her words.”

I began to tell J that I’d call her back, but the line had gone dead.

Nehanda ran her thumb along my forehead then across it. “You are in a critical part of your journey to become a healer. The phase we call the ukuhlanya. The madness.”

“It feels like I’m going crazy. Like I don’t know what to hold onto. What’s real.”

“That’s the way of walking through your past and sifting through the history of traumas and hurts.”

“Can’t I…quit?”

“That’s always your choice. One your mother would certainly prefer. Not everyone has the discipline or the moral aptitude to walk the path. There are those who are corrupt. Who want power or wealth. Or revenge. Now which are you?”

“I just want whatever haunts my family to go away.” It was like something preyed on my mother’s pain and history of hurts. I recalled her tortured face as she came at me, as if she fought against some part of herself.

“That will require healing.” Nehanda locked her eyes on mine. “I see your potential, too. You are a conduit. Untrained in the ways of who you are and what you can do. I’d be honored to walk alongside you.”

“Are you asking me? My permission?”

One glance in Nehanda’s eyes and I knew I was understood. She was a real teacher, making deep things accessible and keeping it real. It made me pay greater attention in a different way. She respected me, my boundaries, and treated me like my own person. She saw me. In her eyes, I wasn’t just a disobedient child.

“First, your body is an altar. You deserve reverence,” she answered. “You are your power. You are sacred. No one comes to the sacred without their permission.”

A tree branch snapped behind me. Fearing that my parents had found me, I spun around and scooped up my things in the same movement. But the treeline was still and silent. When I turned back, Nehanda had disappeared.

It was easier to avoid being home, especially when no one noticed anyway. My home itself stirred my anxiety, the thought of being trapped within its walls with nowhere to run. Or hide. They kept a room with all of J’s things. Nearly a recreation of her old room. A shrine to pain and loss. My bedroom seemed too large, or maybe that was me attempting to wish myself out of existence, making myself as small as people made me feel. Sitting on the corner of my bed, I stared at my phone, willing for J to reach out.

Even the sunlight seemed to barely penetrate the window, not quite strong enough to brighten my room beyond looming shadows. The same sort of impenetrable distance, the familiar loneliness, I felt from my friends back at my old school before we moved to Ghana. They’d grown distant, started pulling away as if they had sensed something different, something alien, about me. Unclear about what had happened, how the rift started, I worried about how much of it was in my head; teenage drama made manifest. Whenever I called one of them to get into some of our usual “Friday night shenanigans,” no one answered. Only to find out the following week that they had been hanging out. Without me. If I did manage to catch one of them to make plans, I was blown off or forgotten.

Then J stepped up.

I never asked what made her suddenly became nice to me, like she’d just noticed me for the first time. All I cared about was that she’d come back into my life. My best friend. A funny way to think about an older sibling. Both of mine occupied a different space, fell into a wholly different orbit than me, but J had come back around.

That seemed so long ago.

Sliding off the bed, I dropped to my knees to retrieve the box under my bed. Like a worn deck of cards, I flipped through the photos. One photo drew my attention. I’d seen it before, Granny-ma with her daughters in a clearing. The set up was familiar to me: they partook. But Momma was nowhere to be seen. Another image had my father burning his ceremonial implements like its own ritual. Momma looked on, pleased.

“What are you doing?” The light of the hallway haloed Momma, reducing her form to half shadows as if the dark bled away her body.

Dropping the photo, I kicked the box under my bed as I stood up. “Nothing. Just thinking.”

“Sulking is more like it.” She baited me.

“Sorry, Momma.” I apologized out of reflex, used to having done something wrong in her eyes, having disappointed her somehow. Lowering my gaze, I felt trapped by my mom’s vision for me. To become a traditional member of the community, a scientist or artist, someone she’d be proud to show off to neighbors.

“You can’t just do whatever you want. Can’t just come and go as you please.” The wan light wasn’t from the hallway. The corridor was a series of staggered doors. The first was my room, right off the stairs. The furthest room down was my parents’ room. In between was J’s. The light emanated from J’s opened bedroom. “I want you at home where it’s safe.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Anything I said would have been taken wrong. All her rules sprang from her need to control me. To not lose me. But I refused to negotiate with terrorists.

“She won’t be happy until you are locked away, where she can keep you to herself. That’s why Selamault left,” J’s voice whispered from the phone. “That’s what you’ve always believed.”

J was the smart one. She was the one meant to be successful. She was the one my parents poured their hopes into. She was the one they wanted. I was nobody. I was just an ordinary girl. I wrote awful poetry, stayed out too late. I hung out with the wrong people, barely studied, and never performing to my full potential in school. But I loved my parents. I never understood who the two people who once roamed these halls were, but I was bound to them.

Momma took on the aspect of a black and white or sepia tinged photo, a moving portrait of a person locked in pain. Her lips parted, a movie star ready for her close up, as if wanting to take a long drag from a cigarette. “Look at yourself. What’s wrong with you? You are so selfish.”

The evening air smelled of loam and sea breeze, of ancient land and doors of no return. I thought how furious Momma looked. All her life Momma was surrounded by people who partook, yet she claimed I was wrong for choosing to do so. Because Aje locked her out. Kept her from a closeness with Granny-ma. Threatened to steal my father from her, but when she beat Aje, forced him to give it up, he left anyway.

The pain opened a crack in her.

“I sacrificed so much for you. I gave you everything. I can only dream about what I could have achieved if…” Her eyes red, almost as if she’d been drinking. Or crying. Again. Her face damp as if caught in a fever.

“If what?” My throat tightened. My stomach wrenched in a sudden knot. A cascading dread crept down from my neck along my spine, filling my insides as it went. The answer to the question already known, but I dared her to fill the pause with more hurt. I braced myself against the floor, both steeling myself and preparing to dodge whatever came next.

“This is not how it was meant to be.” J’s voice changed. Deepening and aging with each syllable until by the end of the sentence, she sounded like Nehanda. She appeared in all white, though translucent. “There is no divide between the spiritual and the material world. Find your inner balance.

Opening my emi—with a breath, as easy as falling into a stream—I sensed an unfamiliar spirit shadowing Momma. It fed on her grief, her loss, her fear.

Focus on the activity at hand. Be fully present, drawn into the moment through meditation and mindfulness. Begin with a ritual cleansing of the space. Introduce yourself to your ancestors. Make an appeal for good things for their descendants. Speaking their names out loud.

Placing the old photographs out as if setting up a game of solitaire, the pictures formed branches, a series of descending limbs leading to me. Traumatic events written into and passed down in DNA, connecting us through time to one another. I flipped the picture of Momma smoking, her reckless youth, experimenting and figuring herself out. I placed a picture of J next to mine. My insides ached, having been forgotten or not even thought of as they couldn’t escape the event horizon of their own grief.

Hear the ceremonial drums. Let the dance into your heart.

I imagined large, sonorous drums covered with goat skin heads. My heart fluttered, a bird’s wing taking flight, learning a new dance step. Others joined in step with me, emboldening me to face the memories.

I called J on a Friday night because I got off work at 9pm and wondered if she wanted to get into the usual Friday night shenanigans. She didn’t pick up her phone. I called again, but gave up, assuming she might be at work and not wanting to intrude on her securing her bag. I thought about how much closer we’d grown. How she risked showing me her sweet side, that vulnerable side sisters often hid from each other. And how much I appreciated her.

The next time I called, the police answered. They told us about her car accident. Momma collapsed into my father’s arms. He was barely able to hold her up through his own grief, as if they had lost their only child. Or at least the only one that mattered to them. I stood there, uncomforted and alone.

The anger chipped away at me, eroding like relentless water. I couldn’t keep the hurt in. I could keep trying to stuff it down and pretend it wasn’t there. The moment pressed in. It threatened to poison me as it had my parents. It needed to be let out. I refused to be dragged into the gravity well of Momma’s hurts, her anguish. She stalked the room, the photographs like a barrier keeping her at bay. The anger spread about her, filling each step, wild and escalating. She breathed heavy.

Footfalls echoed down the hall, quickly approaching. My father burst into the room as if he’d been summoned from wherever he laid his head these days. With a mad snarl, his head canted toward me at an odd angle, no recognition in his eyes. Flecks of spit flew out as his head whipped back and forth. The muscles in his face rippled and contorted, his loose flesh caught in a wind blast.

“You have the nerve to cast spells in our house?” Their voices joined in unison.

I raised my hands, crossing my arms in instinct. My fingers gesturing, as if signing in a language older than the human tongue for an unseen guest. The scent of sage cut through the air. My eyes locked with Momma’s, determined and defiant. I spoke to the spirit that slithered within her spirit, which had already all but consumed my father. “Bitch, I am the spell.”

First listen. Now do.

My hands went numb. Momma threw her head back as an inchoate cry of pain released. She screamed and threw herself to the ground, dispelling the demon of grief. Her face cracked, her demeanor buckled under the strain of weight. My father thrashed about beside her before he collapsed, a marionette with his strings cut, landing next to her.

A tear trailed down my face.

The light from J’s room faded.

“It smells like sage in here.” Momma didn’t fly off the handle in an eruption of rage. Her hair gray. Her body hunched over, she seemed so small. She scrubbed her hands, working an itch beneath her skin.

“I burned some in a cleansing ceremony.”

“Just do it safely.” Nodding, she respected my boundaries. More like she acknowledged my magic use without blowing up about it.

“Yes, Momma.”

“What? You look like you want me to say something.”

“I’m sorry,” was not enough. My tongue felt bloated. A pressure built in my throat but I was unable to form any more words. It would have to do…

“…We carry these scars. We carry these songs.” The Ban mu Kyidomhene’s voice became a tether drawing me back to her. “Meld into a communion of love, the vibration of the Universe. To be and become unconditional love. Without fear. Without judgment. To share that love with all that you touch.”

“Is it over?” I asked.

“You tell me, Nehanda. Part of enduring the ukuhlanya well is having a vision of things to come. To walk through your pain and learn what it means to harness your own power and determine your own future. Walking through our story, with its traumas and hurts. To heal, one must find healing.” The Ban mu Kyidomhene allowed the silence to sit between us like a welcome companion until I spoke again.

A tear trailed down my face. “Aje is a stream…and I am water.”

The Path of Water

After I came in from the thorns and the princess wept sight back into my scarred eyes, we were married. The chapel was full of people but I cared only for the doves that coasted from rafter to rafter, and as we approached the altar and the organ music faded, my eyes—unused to seeing—drifted closed, and the sound of the birds’ flapping wings flooded my mouth with saliva. Later, as my memories returned, I would understand why. In my centuries of wandering lost and blind, I had eaten only songbirds.

At the wedding feast, we sat side by side at the head of a vast table. The princess was wearing a gown of light blue silk and it rustled like feathers when she leaned over to me. She whispered, “Your name. I can’t remember it.”

I cleared my throat. I wet my lips. “Oscine,” I said.

“No,” she said, after a moment. “That’s my name.”

I did not care. I was hungry. The table was laden with food, venison and trout and bread and cheese, but all I could think about were the birds that had flocked to the sound of the princess’s voice as she sang down to me, how they’d perched still and tame amongst the sterile branches that had encircled the base of her tower. They’d been my fruit, each one a soft living heart thumping in my hands.

Then, with the taste of blood, I remembered. “Cedl,” I said.

“Prince Cedl,” said Oscine, “will you open your eyes and look at me?”

I’d closed them without noticing. I said, “I’m used to the darkness.”

“And I am used to singing,” said Oscine. “I’d rather scream, but we rule this kingdom now and I can’t do either.”

Then I did look at her. She was as beautiful as when I’d first found her singing in a forest glen, cloaked, hooded, kneeling by a rushing stream. She had seemed so small and gentle until I’d dismounted from my horse; then I’d seen her for what she was. Tall and strong. Holding a sword.

Was this a memory?

I said, “What happened to me?”

“To us,” she corrected. She was staring at me, intent. Her eyes were very blue and bright. “They say it’s been a thousand years,” she said.

“What happened to us?” I said again.

“It was a spell,” the princess said. “An enchantment.”

“But how did we fall under?”

“Someone cast it.”

“Who?” I said. “Why?”

“I do not know,” said Oscine.

Over the next weeks, our faculties returned by slow degrees. After seven days of wakefulness I could keep my eyes open mostly of their own accord, and my experience of time felt linear once again. But our memories were slow to return, sluggish and trickling like snowmelt. Oscine remembered even less than I: not any family, nor feelings, nor that day by the stream.

“A sword?” she said, when I told her of my recollection, and looked down at her little flowerlike hands, clearly doubting they could wield a weapon; though I thought I saw the flicker of a smile on her face, as if she could warm to the idea.

“There is nothing of swords in the manuscripts,” the palace librarian said, overhearing.

“And so?” Oscine returned. “All accounts mention roses, but I remember only the thorns. They were in Cedl’s eyes. I took them out.”

It was some days or weeks after our wedding and we were together in the library, at either end of the long, polished wooden table, manuscripts piled between us. I was there because Oscine wished to remember, and I wished to please her, this woman everybody said I loved. But I did not feel the same pull towards the past as she did. I felt grateful for the present-day, for our large castle, our skilled servants, our healthy land. The past was behind us—and I could feel it slinking there, the way a cat slinks behind a mouse, mouth open, throat dark. I preferred to keep a safe distance from it. Oscine did not share my preference. She had sent for historians and mythologists, who in turn sent for these hundreds of manuscripts, each one relating a different version of our myth, variably called The Thorn-Eyed Prince or The Singing Princess, variably tragic or treacly. There was always a witch, a curse, a kiss, an ever-after. Not a one made note of birds.

The library had a single large window set high in the stone wall. From it the late afternoon sun shone down thick as honey, carving my wife in half. In the light Oscine’s hair was fiery gold, her pale skin glowing like a fresh egg; but in the shadows, her coloring was fungal.

“Maybe,” I suggested, “we are dead.”

“I’d like to know how we died, then,” Oscine said, undisturbed. To the librarian she said, “Take these away and go see if the surveyors have finished the map yet.”

The librarian, whose green hood could not fully conceal her great shining plumes of chestnut hair, removed the manuscripts and bowed herself out of the room.

When she had gone, Oscine came up the table to sit in the chair beside my own. She was smaller than I remembered from the stream but as beautiful as all the legends claimed, yet I found her loveliest when I closed my eyes. She always smelled as if she’d flown a long way on a fresh breeze, and every time she moved I heard the gentle grasp of claws on a branch.

“Cedl,” she said. “Please regard me.”

I opened my eyes again. Her gaze was clever and blue and rested heavy on me. When I looked at myself in the mirror I saw a young man with a strong jaw, tanned cheek, dark hair, and a filigreed trace of scars around his green eyes. Handsome like a painting and with a painting’s fixed expression, eyebrows always raised in mild surprise, because every time I looked I was startled by my reflection. I don’t know what I expected, but it was never myself. What did Oscine see, when she looked upon me?

“Have you any new memories?” she asked.

“I have not,” I said. Her fresh-air scent made me long to be outside, although I’d only just come back in from my daily ride. Each morning I went into the woods, gave my horse to my manservant, closed my eyes, and went walking in the sweet, leafy darkness, listening to the birds warbling. In the forest my constant hunger was almost agreeable, an ache that started in my belly and spread outward like poured water. I could feel it always on my lips and tongue and even in my teeth. Whenever I spoke, the hunger spoke with me.

“Not a one?” Oscine asked.

My hunger and I said, “Not a one.”

Oscine’s long eyelashes swept across her cheek, soft as down. I could imagine what they’d feel like on my own cheek, a sensation so clear it was like a memory, though it could not be. We had slept in bed together on our first night as King and Queen but had not moved a hand to one another, only lain side-by-side. Our tongues were still too unused to speech to converse and so we had not even spoken, only breathed silently into the comforting darkness. Since then we had kept to our own chambers.

“Well,” said Oscine. “I remembered something.”

“Did you?” I sat up straighter, intrigued. “From your life?”

“No,” she said. “Only from the tower, still.” Her lips twisted in a rueful smile. “Perhaps that’s all I ever knew.”

Privately I agreed it was curious that she should remember our moment of waking but nothing before. Meanwhile I recalled my mother’s face, my favorite horse, a green shirt I had loved, the feel of feathers between my teeth, the salty wholesome taste of blood; yet of the tower I remembered not a thing.

“Regarding the thorns,” Oscine went on, gesturing to my eyes. “When I took them from your sockets…I did not remove them with my fingers.” She glanced over her shoulder as footsteps approached. Very quietly she said, “I think I took them with my mouth.”

“Your mouth?

“Yes. But it wasn’t a mouth. It was hard and pointed—like a tooth—or a—” She shifted her attention to the waiting librarian, who held a huge map of our kingdom, the paper nailed to wood, the ink still glistening slightly. “Ah!” Oscine said. “It’s finished!”

We stood to allow the librarian to lay the map on the table.

“It isn’t quite dry yet,” the librarian cautioned. Her dark hair rustled and gleamed as if it would take flight from her head. “Careful lest you smudge it. Your majesty.”

It was fine work for such short notice, our kingdom drawn in miniature; a birds-eye view.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“The stream,” said Oscine.

“It has been a thousand years,” I said. “The path of water is not constant.”

Oscine glanced to our librarian, who cleared her throat.

“With all due respect, my queen,” the librarian said, “the course of a river is dependent on the speed of the water, the amount of rainfall, the shifting of the earth—many factors that time may play with. Water follows the easiest way. The easiest way changes.”

Oscine let out a small breath, somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. She leaned farther over the map, tracing the path of the blue river with her slim finger, careful not to touch the ink-damp paper itself. Even her hands were exquisite. I looked at my own fingers, my own palms. Elegant, strong. Beautiful. In all these myths and stories, our beauty had been the basis for our love; and then, for our curse. We were both still beautiful. Were we to love one another again?

“There are other methods,” the librarian said, and we both turned to her. “To bring back memories, I mean.”

“Do tell,” Oscine said dryly.

The librarian tipped her head and her face came into better view. I was surprised to notice for the first time that she was young and very lovely.

“One may wait for nightfall to darken a room,” she said. “And seat oneself before a mirror, with a candle lit just here beneath one’s face. Then one drinks a draught of particular herbs, and one speaks a phrase of particular words—and staring into the mirror, staring into one’s own eyes, one waits.”

“We have tried mesmerism,” Oscine said.

“This is not that.”

“Is it magic, then?” I asked.

The librarian inclined her pretty head. “Of a sort. Low and rough. Hedge-magic, one might call it.”

“Do you know the herbs, and the phrase?” Oscine said.

“Yes, your majesty. I can write them out for you, if it pleases.”

“It pleases,” Oscine said, with no hesitation. “We will try what we can, won’t we, King Cedl?”

I did not know how to refuse her.

That evening, Oscine and I met in my dark chambers, attended by the librarian. My man had taken the mirrors from our walls, arranged them side-by-side on my dressing table, and set up candles before them. The librarian had agreed to mix the draught of herbs. All was ready, save for me.

“Come now, King Cedl,” Oscine said, all whispering silk and scent of wind. “It is an experiment, nothing more.”

“We were cursed by magic,” I said. “I mislike employing it now.”

“This is simple village magic,” Oscine said. “Nothing like the spell that put us under. It will last no more than ten minutes, isn’t that right?”

“Perhaps less, your majesty,” the librarian said.

“Regardless,” I said, and faltered. In fact, I did not understand the source of my own misgivings. I only knew that the sight of the flickering candles and the glistening mirrors had put me ill at ease. I tried again. “We are not cursed anymore,” I said. “Is that not the most important truth?”

“The truth is that we were cursed,” Oscine said, frustration clear in her voice. “All our freedom now cannot erase that fact.”

“Well, what of happiness?” I said. “The stories tell us we have found it. Perhaps we ought to heed them and accept it.”

Oscine gave me a brief, searching look, then turned to the librarian. “Wait outside and guard our door.”

The librarian curtseyed, left the room, and we were alone.

Oscine said to me, “I am not happy.”

Her voice was quiet and the room was warm and dark. I smelled hot wax, brewed herbs, the sky. My hunger shifted in my belly, mouth opening as if it had an answer for her, but neither of us spoke. After a moment, Oscine turned back towards the dressing table, towards the mirrors, and defeated, I did the same. The flames guttered and swayed at our movements. The librarian had prepared two bowls of hot murky liquid that smelled of mulch, and we held them to our lips.

“To your health,” Oscine said. Unhesitating, she drank it all and set the bowl down with a gasp of distaste, then looked to me. Reluctantly I followed. It was sour and scalded my tongue and throat.

“We must speak the words together now,” Oscine said, and with our burned tongues, we did.

Illumed by small flame, my face glowed and shifted in the glass, highlighting now the bridge of my straight nose, now my chin, shadowing my cheekbones, the hollows of my scarred eyes. I wanted to turn from my own reflection and lean over to watch Oscine watch herself but I found my gaze fixed on my face, unblinking. My eyes glinted back at me from the shadows of my sockets.

Then suddenly they didn’t. Suddenly, where eyes had been shining, there was now only darkness, a pool of shifting black beneath my brows. It roiled and twisted like a stormcloud, alive, alert, and I felt an answering twist in my belly, the pull of deep and desperate hunger. I opened my mouth and saw that my teeth were no longer straight and white but jagged, yellowed, serrated like a knife, and when I moved my tongue I cut myself against them and swallowed down the hot salt of blood. The hunger arched its back in pleasure at the taste and my empty eyes seethed.

Beside me, Oscine began to sing.

It was not the voice of a woman that came from her throat, but something else, warbling and repetitive, the same few notes over and over, shrill and fluting and so delicious I nearly gagged from the desire that screamed into my mouth. My bloodied tongue lolled from my lips and my fingers dug into my thighs, puncturing the flesh as if they were tipped with daggers. Oscine trilled on. I wanted to lick the song from her lips. I wanted to eat her voice from the cage of her breast. I wanted—I wanted—

With a cry, I wrenched my gaze from my terrible hungering face and swept out a frantic arm, catching the mirror, the candle, the empty bowl. The sound of shattering glass filled the room and suddenly everything was brighter; the candle had set the carpet aflame.

“Cedl!” Oscine cried, but I was already fleeing, slamming through the door, past the wide bright eyes of the librarian, through the claustrophobic tunnel of our hallways, and out, out into the moonless night.

Outside the sky was huge and shallow with stars. I did not pause to take my horse from the stables, only stumbled past ranks of confused guards who called out but did not move after me, for I was the King and none could bid me halt. Across the moat I went, across the fields, towards the forest. The farther I ran from our brightly lit castle, the darker the world became, and in relief I allowed my eyes to close and let my other senses flare to life. I could smell the faint, woody damp of the forest somewhere before me, and the fresh crush of grass beneath my boots, and above, wheeling through the summer night, I heard the drone of a thousand different nighttime creatures intently sating their appetites on one another.

Eventually the air changed, became cooler, and when I put out a hand I touched the muscled trunk of a tree. I was in the woods. Immediately my body began to slow and calm, my breath evening out, my pulse thudding down from its frantic pace. The roar of my body quieted, quieted. There were no thorns here to prick or hurt me, there were only the leaves and bushes and branches—and the sound of a tiny heart, thrumming from somewhere near.

I could do this in my sleep. I had, for a thousand years.

Quietly, so quietly, I wove my hand through a dense tangle of shrubbery and took a small bird in my fist. It awoke as I snatched it, soft and light and warm and helpless, trying in vain to beat the wings I held down. Its beak was sharp against my tongue but its skull cracked easily beneath my teeth, a nut full of rich meat, and its blood tasted sweet as spring rain. The breast, the loins, the talons, the tail, even the feathers, with every bite I groaned my relief. I sank to my knees as I finished, licking my fingers, catching the last droplets of blood running down my wrist, and then I bent and put my forehead to the cool, loamy soil. I stayed like that, curled forward on the ground, trembling in satisfaction and horror, until I fell asleep.

The next morning I found my room scrubbed and aired-out, though the smell of charred rug was still redolent in the air. A different carpet lay on the stone floor, now, a hunting scene; a man with a spear chasing a boar. The glass had been swept from the floor and a new mirror had been hung in the place of the one I’d shattered. In it I saw the cracked hints of dried blood at the corners of my mouth, the darkness down the front of my doublet. I undressed and redressed myself and rinsed my face in a basin of water, working a feather loose from my back teeth. Then I went to look for Oscine. What had she seen last night? Had she seen my teeth, my empty sockets, had she felt my hunger?

I found her in her own chambers, perched in her open window, knees drawn to her chest as she gazed out. Her hair was let down and shone molten in the sun, falling across her narrow shoulders like a set of golden wings, and her feet were shockingly bare. When I came in she did not seem startled, only looked long at me. I let the silence stretch but she said nothing.

At last I said, “I did not like what I saw in the mirror.”

“So I gathered.”

I shifted from foot to foot, looking around. This was my first time in her bedchamber and I was surprised to find it looked much like mine, although with lighter colors. “The librarian ought to be punished,” I said.

“She was quite contrite. And anyway it isn’t her fault our memories were less than pleasant.”

“What did you see?” I asked, unable to help my curiosity, although I myself did not wish to answer the question.

Oscine gazed out the window into the flawless blue of the morning sky, the same color as her eyes. For a moment I did not think she would reply, but then she said, “This.”

I waited, not understanding. She beckoned me closer and I came to stand beside her. She swept a hand through the window frame and into the air. I looked down upon our grounds, the gem-bright grass, the distant gold of wheat, the dark edges of the forest, all of it far below and far away. I was leaning over her now, my chest lightly against her back. I could feel the fine ridge of her shoulder blade, her fresh-air scent indistinguishable from the scent of the fresh air.

“Imagine it, all of it, covered with brambles,” she said. “Brown, ungrowing, unliving, undying. Leagues of tangled branches spiked with thorns, and the sun coming and going, the moon rising and falling…”

“I remember,” I said. “I was there.”

“Do you remember my voice?” she said.

I hesitated on the verge of a lie, then told the truth. “No,” I said. “I remember only birdsong.”

“Yes,” she said, and sighed. With the rise and fall of her breath I was suddenly conscious again of her back against my chest, the warmth of her body, the softness of her hair. My hunger, so recently sated, stirred but did not rouse. This was not a power that could wake it. “What did you see, King Cedl?” Oscine asked.

I could not tell her. “Thorns in my eyes. As you said.”

She angled her body towards me so she could look me full in the face. We were so close I could see myself in her pupils. It was hard not to notice that if I gave her even the gentlest of pushes, she would fall backwards to her death. That thought did not wake the hunger either.

“We’re missing something,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “A thousand years’ worth of memories.”

“Something else.”

“What, then?”

She stood suddenly and I fell back. My brief memory of our first meeting still insisted she was tall and I was again, always, surprised by how small she truly was, how slight. “Meet me in the armory in an hour.”

“What? Why?”

She was already on her way out the door but she paused and looked back at me, skirts whirling, loose hair tumbling. “So you can see me with a sword,” she said. “Perhaps it will jog your memory.” Then she was gone.

I went to the library. It was bright, fusty, calming. The librarian was high on a ladder in a corner, dusting a row of bound manuscripts. She smiled when she looked down and saw me standing with my arms folded across my chest.

“Your majesty,” she said, managing a bow even from her great height. “I beg your forgiveness. I could not know you would have such a reaction to the spell.”

She did not, I noticed, make to descend.

“Are you from the village?” I asked her. “Our village?”

She looked down on me. “Yes, your majesty.”

“So you have always known this castle,” I said.

“Yes, though from a distance. By sight I knew only the highest tower, coming out from the landscape of thorns.” Finally, rung by rung, she began to come to the ground. “As a girl I used to think it was the finger of god, pointing to heaven.”

“And now? What do you think of us now?”

She reached the stone library floor and turned to me, shaking her skirts so that dust rose around her in a glittering cloud. This close her face was clearly visible even in the shadow of her hood. She was striking, her eyes dark and finely lashed, her face well-carved. She was as tall as I.

“I think nothing,” she said. “I am merely a servant of the crown.”

“You have seen the same manuscripts we’ve seen,” I said. “You know what the written stories say. But what of the spoken tales? Do they differ?”

“They are very like the ones in books,” she said, and I began to turn from her in frustration. “Very like,” she repeated, “except for one.”

I paused. “Will you tell it?”

She acquiesced with a curtsy, sending new dust motes shimmering. “It begins much the same,” she said. “The enchantress, the princess, the jealousy, the curse. The brambles and tower. But unlike the other stories, this one continues.” Her voice was clear and rhythmic. “There are no magical roses. There is no true love’s kiss to end the spell. There is no end at all. The prince wanders through the brambles forever, for so long that he becomes a part of them, a creature of thorns, their monster.”

I felt a shiver run down my spine. The place where the bird’s beak had torn my tongue was still tender, throbbing.

“And the princess?” I said.

“She sings for so many thousands of years that she becomes nothing but an instrument of song. She becomes the song itself. Thus they live in harmony, the monster and the music, forever.”

“So it is a tragedy,” I said.

The librarian moved a shoulder. “By some definition, perhaps.”

Something she had said was sticking in my mind, insinuating itself as an idea that, however farfetched, needed immediate attention. I nodded to her distractedly. “My thanks. I will not keep you longer from your work.”

“You are my work,” she said, curtsying again.

Our armory was in the south corner, by the garrison. It was a huge stone room, filled with light from the many square windows that marched along its perimeter, and baked thus in the summer sun it felt several degrees warmer than the halls I’d just quit. Oscine was there already, lovely in a dress of pale linen much different than her normal brightly colored silks, the skirt falling straight from hips to ankle. It made her look like the strong neck of a swan. She stood by a wall of swords that were mounted and shining. There was no one else in the armory with her.

“I sent them all away,” she said, seeing me look about.

“Do you love me?” I asked her.

She blinked at me with those sky-filled eyes. “What?”

“We are married,” I said. “Man and wife, yet you did not kiss me in the tower, after you took the thorns from my eyes. We did not kiss even at our wedding.”

“We are scarcely acquainted,” she said, and took a step towards me.

“The stories say we loved one another at first glance,” I said. “So look now upon me. Does the sight of me strike any feeling in your breast?”

Oscine, who had been drifting ever closer, stopped and shrugged. “I have been a thousand years away from love. Would I even recognize the sensation should it come?”

“I do not believe the spell has ended,” I told her.

She regarded me. A ray of sun pierced down and gilded her long hair, and on the wall behind her, the hanging swords gleamed with the same sharp light that was in her eyes. I could see her thinking, could see her following my words and reaching a conclusion. My wife was clever.

“True love’s kiss,” she said. “It’s in all the stories.”

I nodded. “Except the one we’re living.”

“But you aren’t blinded by thorns,” she said. “I’m not singing. We’re awake.”

“Are we?” I said.

At these words she put a hand lightly to her mouth. For a moment all was quiet. “Kiss me then,” she said. “What can it hurt?”

When I did not move, she stepped forward and wound her arms around my neck, pulling me against her, her breasts sliding up my chest as she stood on her toes. I settled my hands on her waist, curved and warm beneath my fingers. I waited for the pull of my hunger, but it did not come. Perhaps that single bird, raw and thrumming, had sated it forever.

But at the thought of the bird, there it was, tossing warningly in its sleep. With effort I put the bird from my mind, I focused again on Oscine.

“Kiss me,” she said again. Her breath was warm, her face was close, she smelled like a wide bright sky. I kissed her.

Nothing happened.

“Try again,” she said.

We kissed again. We kissed more deeply, her lips parting beneath mine, her hand on my cheek, then the back of my neck, and it was good to be close to someone, good to be held, good to feel my body responding naturally to her presence, but there was nothing more to it until I tried to weave my fingers in her hair and found that I was touching feathers.

I gasped against her mouth and she let out a high, clear note of song.

The hunger screamed up in me so violently I fell to my knees, and Oscine fell with me—but she was not falling, no, she was shrinking, her body collapsing into itself with a sound like strong wind, the golden feathers of her hair whirling around her, all the while singing; the warble, the trill, the birdsong, it was more real and more delicious than anything I’d heard in this waking life. It put the forest birds to shame and it made tasteless the memory of last night’s meal, as if I’d eaten tree bark and mistook it for steak. I panted with hunger. My tongue hung dripping and the sharp razor of my teeth sliced its underside, blood welling in my mouth, a savory caress of flavor that obliterated nearly all other thoughts. I swallowed the hot salt of it down with eager thirst, licking it from my teeth, and turned to Oscine.

She was not human any longer, if she ever had been. She was a small golden bird with shining black eyes, shining black claws, a shining black beak, perched on the stone floor and staring up at me.

In a second, I had her in my fist.

I raised her to my lips, feeling her heartbeat thrum through her body, my own body trembling with ravenous anticipation; with anticipation, and with my last helpless effort to hold back from the wild joy of it. The golden bird shook in my hand, shook, shook. Tenderly I licked her tiny golden head, dragging my bloodied tongue across feathers that tasted like sunshine. I put my teeth around her ruffled neck. I closed my eyes. Oscine. My wife. She struggled against my fingers, twisting in my grasp, her muscles bunching and her bones so brittle, her head moving against my tongue as my lips shut around her. I would do her one last kindness. I would make this painless. I closed my eyes.

I tipped back my head and swallowed her whole.

She was still fighting as I swallowed, her claws dragging down my throat, her beak sharp as a fishbone, and my whole body was alight with the taste of her, like being caught by the wind and riding it under a joyful, honeyed sun, all the way to a glittering sea. She landed in my belly and my hunger screamed with ecstatic satisfaction, a roiling blaze of perfect satiation—

Then, as abruptly as it had come, it vanished. I dropped to the floor and curled over myself, sobbing with relief and regret.

“King Cedl!”

The name, my name, shouted in that clear, ringing voice, halted something in me. I opened my streaming eyes, crouched there on the stone floor with Oscine’s feathers on my lips. The librarian was framed in the doorway of the armory and now she was moving towards me, the green cloth of her cloak rippling as she walked. My stomach roiled with Oscine’s body, pain twisting through me. She took a broadsword from the wall and held it easily, throwing back her hood as she did so, her beautiful face fierce. She was tall and strong. I smelled fast water.

“You,” I rasped.

The woman from my memory. The woman by the stream.

“Lie back,” she said gently. Around us the armory was blurring, as if seen through a rippling lake. Dry, thorny branches cracked its stone walls and snaked upwards.

“Was it you?” I said. “Did you do this to us?”

“This time,” she said.

I could not make sense of that. I could not make sense of anything. My stomach churned and I bent double as a cramp took me.

“Lie back,” the librarian said again.

“What is happening?” I whispered. My eyes were throbbing where phantom brambles had once been. I smelled roses. My stomach was a torment. I lay back.

The librarian did not hesitate. She took her sword and dragged it across my belly, cutting through silk and skin and muscle. The pain was so searing that I could not even scream, only stretch my mouth in a silent rictus as she drew a line of agony across my body, the sound like wet cloth ripping. A second later, the golden bird burst forth in a flurry of viscera and wings, soaring upwards and spinning in frenzied circles, then diving down to light on the librarian’s outstretched hand. My blood seeped across the floor. The pain was gone but I could not move.

The librarian went to her knees beside me. She set the bird on the ground and I heard the howl of wind as its body began to shimmer and swell, its black talons pinkening to fingers, its feathers separating into strands of hair, and then Oscine herself was kneeling there, her eyes huge and blue and fathomless.

“You ate me,” Oscine said.

I could make no reply.

“Well,” the librarian said to me. “You have been the monster. Which will you choose next time?”

I licked my lips. When I found my voice, it was hoarse and weak. “We must do it again?” I said.

“Yes,” said the librarian. “And over and over, until we break the spell.”

Oscine touched my cold hand. “So what is your next choice?” she said. “Will you be the monster, the princess, or the witch?”

I looked up at the ceiling, which was now half-crumbled away, showing a slice of perfect blue sky, framed by thick dark ropes of brambles.

“You both knew?” I said.

“Not at first,” the librarian said. “But then I remembered.”

Oscine nodded in agreement. “Only the monster never knows.”

I still did not know; I was still the monster.

I stared at the sky. I had done everything all wrong. I should have taken myself from the castle and gone to live in the forest, hunting birds, giving in. Or I should have told Oscine the truth of myself, showed her my teeth, asked for her help. I should have gone into the village seeking advice from a hedge witch. I should not have eaten Oscine. I should have done so much better. I should have done it right.

Next time.

“The monster,” I said.

Oscine and the librarian exchanged glances. “Again?” Oscine said.

Across that blue fragment of sky, a bird darted, followed by another, then another. I felt the hunger twitch its eyes in the wound of my belly.

“Again,” I said. “Again, again, again.”

 

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

A Wreckful Planting of Small Pockets of Thirst

I run out of ways to keep you urgent in my mouth,

stomach your shouting relic.

so, when grief comes for an unburial unearthing you into the forgotten,

I stuff you under my tongue.

 

how I’ve learnt to carry you across borders,

across turnpikes & racial diss.

across the panting roadblocks,

where we exist loudly as exclamations below a cop’s knee,

or viscous ransack that gets close but doesn’t claim my throat.

 

the near miss—a hurt we alone can voice.

 

I scale you across walls, unpronounced.

pawn all my sound rates at eager cost, to house your absence.

the mold of your breath: a memory of all the things we run out of.

till I approach the wild reserve of oxygen & grim soil yawning to mouth you

whose hunger surrounds a place, kill its aura

knowing an opening isn’t reception.

 

you go by the names of every fattened contraband,

nurtured by my silence,

plump with a knowing of all I’ve held back.

 

I genuflect, teeth heavy into dust

to sow your person in a sullied language.

I drown your absence deep in the carnivorous mud:

a wreckful planting of small pockets of thirst.

 

the sky—grief hefty.

wrathful cherubs, laced in giant heaps of puffed cloud.

each turn, a weeping threat.

 

I howl into wetness till the ground goes soft,

loamy with my passing breath & the trail of your absence I indent with shrubs.

each thicket, a bleed and scything remark scribbled in furious red

across the tiny mouths of the world

 

as I hold you urgent, behind clenched lips.

a sharp susurration tilling its underbrush.

 

how likely we assume dust,

by which I mean—slit our tongue into sones & decibels.

a throbbing loudness seething from within:

an hour of sobbing gold.

 

(Editors’ Note: “A Wreckful Planting of Small Pockets of Thirst” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 45B.)

 

Wax Sealed With a Kiss

“For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”

―C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

 

“I love you, and I love you, and I want to find out what that means together.”

―Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War

 

A letter is a time capsule. A physical doorway to a single moment in time. It is memory personified.

In a past life (only a decade ago) I was a full-time historian. I spent hours sifting through the correspondence of people long dead, and understood their lives through these small glimpses into their shared realities. I would observe through aging paper what it was like to care for one another during wars, during jail sentences, during long distance relationships. John and Abigail Adams wrote one another enough letters to be collected in literal volumes. So did Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Correspondence to a loved one is an art form that we had lost, I thought.
Until 2020, and the worldwide pandemic, when I was reminded that the art of the love letter was not lost at all, it was merely a device which was best used in times of longing.

The first letter he ever wrote to me was addressed to “Elsa, sword wielder.” I know this because I’ve kept every letter he sent me, tucked in a letter holder on my desk, and because that memory is photographic, as though my mind knew it was important.

The letter itself came in a cream envelope, addressed in bright green ink which made me think of Virginia Woolf. Even though I’d never seen his handwriting before, I knew the letter had to be from him. Not just because of the form of address (though that made me smile) but because the form of address was so clearly from someone who was fond of me.

He wrote in tiny script that I had to crack out the magnifying glass for, on the back of a card printed from a photo he took of the Writers Rock on Iona. That card is tacked up on my bulletin board, but from time to time I take it down and read the text. It’s not a love letter, but it was so clearly written by someone who understood the references that I would get and found them charming rather than annoying. He understood where I was coming from, which allowed me to unfurl.

In epistolary stories like This is How You Lose the Time War, Sorcery & Cecelia, The Moonstone, and The Screwtape Letters, the audience is left with introspection and the unpacking of experiences by the “writer” to understand the story. Each narrative piece unfurls the motion of the lives that we follow, and we can see that in real lives too.

On December 1st, 2019 my marriage ended. My ex-husband informed me of this fact. I know this because we both made Facebook posts on the same day. Mine was a grownup post, a request for privacy and a version of the story that was for public consumption.

His was a joke about a horse walking into a bar.

Like an epistolary novel, I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions about what that means.

The divorce had been coming for a long time—and like in a story told in letters, the time dilation is intense. I can only rely upon my journals, selfies, and chat records with friends to chart my unhappiness and to understand the context of my memory.

In The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, we get to see into a world that we otherwise wouldn’t get a glimpse of: because of course humans aren’t supposed to know how demons are meant to tempt us. In this Christian text, we are given a view of one human’s path in life, and one demon’s failure to bring him to Hell.

It is very easy to observe failure in epistolary narratives because we have the view of the outsider. As Wormwood fails, the audience knows why because they are in on the ultimate joke: The audience desired his failure (well, a Christian audience anyway, I sort of root for demons generally…)

Letters are confidences. They are private and intimate discourse between individuals, and they are tools for authors (and for people looking at their own lives) to remember and to share truths.

Like how the letters from Barrett Browning betray her chronic illness, or Abigail Adams’s demonstrate the needs of women during the revolution, my own marginalia show the things I tried to hide with the text. My own subtext shows how difficult things had become.

But there are other forms of epistolary narrative. They are harder to pull off in some ways, because when the audience is rooting for failure, they can find it on every page. But when you want us to cheer for the characters in question, when the narrative is less predictable (because what is less predictable than love?) well…the stakes for the writer, reader, and subject change.

“Will you share your life with me for the next ten minutes?” asks the male lead in The Last Five Years during the only duet of the entire musical. Ten minutes can feel very short or very long, depending on who you spend them with. Ten minutes in a doctor’s waiting room? An eternity. Ten minutes sitting quietly with someone you love? The blink of an eye.  Ten minutes as yourself? Priceless.

When you ask someone to share ten minutes with you, it’s an easy ask, it’s the following ten-minute increments that begin to matter.

Shared time becomes an act of choice when viewed through this lens, it’s a gift. Not in the way that you think, we do many things in ten-minute increments through inertia, but this is the deliberate choice to spend time with someone you care about, or spend that time on them that matters.

Ten minutes can be squeezed in after Rosh Hashanah services during the children’s naptime, or for a quick hug between meetings on a day when my divorce negotiations became unbearable. Ten minutes can be found.

Dating in your thirties is an exercise in understanding that every ten minutes that you spend could be spent doing something else. Maybe that seems like an obvious thing to mention, but I think for many people they go about their days not thinking about how time functions for them—as a historian I know that time is different now in the 21st century than it was even a hundred years ago. There is an immediacy to our culture that has taken a blow since the advent of COVID-19.

I have to pick how I spend each of my ten minutes very carefully. I’m a Deafblind woman, I manage my health conditions, a full-time freelance job, and this year I was also managing a divorce. I’m dating a father of two who lives half a city away, with a full-time job and his own writing practice. Plus, it’s 2020. We’ve been living in a world that feels like every five minutes there’s a new crisis, and every ten they’ve multiplied by degrees.

Falling in love through ten minutes, through forty-minute walks after dark in parks, through snatched weeknight dates after the children are in bed, it would all be relatively normal (I suspect) in the Before Times, when busyness was a commonality.

But it was when we started snatching ten-minute increments at our writing desks, lifting fountain pens to stationary paper and sending our thoughts to one another that I think things shifted.

We had been dating for six months when the first letter arrived. Four of those months were in the first lockdown, ten minutes on a park bench watching the stars on a cold April night, twenty minutes in that same park watching surveillance helicopters, a series of flirtations via text message between Zoom calls.

But that first letter reminded me how very much I liked him. It landed in my mailbox on a bright June day in Seattle, while protests raged a few blocks away. Through the summer and into fall and winter the letters continued. Quick paced (though not always quick to arrive, as we both watched our mailboxes, hoping a decaying postal service would come through), both of us using deliberately chosen stationary, theming our ink colors, and finding new forms of address that confused the postal service and felt like a form of flirtation all their own.  Elsa Death Bredon Wimsey, Dame Elsa, Mr. H. Vane, Poirot, Rupert Giles, we borrowed from fiction, from television, from each other’s personal quirks. These letters are precious to me, because they are one of the ways we fell in love.  They gave us extra minutes to share who we were—and sometimes it was almost easier to write down what I felt than to speak to him. I’m a writer, and my best foot is forward with a pen in my hand.

With each letter a little bit more of myself came back, with each literary reference I was able to show my cards, and each time he responded with a reference just as obscure as my own, I felt safe enough to be myself. To be the person I am, and who I had been before my marriage had made me hide inside of a different persona.

With that first letter he inspired me to go rooting through my storage unit to find the stationary I had packed in a box six months earlier in New Jersey, when I was a woman remembering what her own soul felt like again. I hadn’t written a letter in months, I’d barely even cracked my fancy pens out for my bullet journal. The divorce had been hard on me, harder than I’d expected. But even before the divorce I had been made to feel embarrassed by who I was. A woman who loved the feel of a good pen in her hand (why did I need a fancy pen, he would always ask, usually laughing.)

I felt like an Austen heroine, like Lizzie Bennett getting another letter (he even sent me one with her name on it.)

That first letter tripped something over in my mind, I found myself giddy with the idea that I had met an equal. Someone who could trade not just literary references, but snark in equal measure. Who could flirt with gifs until I was put in check mate (a rare occurrence). Who took joy in finding words I did not know, purely because he loved the written word as much as I did.

Like Jonathan and Mina Harker, we were able to close the distance that the pandemic imposed upon us through the written word. Even if we were only a few miles apart, rather than hundreds of miles and countries, the sustenance that our love fed on was the written word.

It’s old fashioned to write love letters, most people in my generation laugh when I say that we’re writing to one another. But letters and communication through distance is not as old fashioned as all that: we see video communication through The Martian, and when I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, I couldn’t help but see us in the encrypted interstellar love letters written by Elma and Nathan.

Yes, we’re in old fashioned times. A first date these days might be going out walking together, keeping an appropriate distance. A curtsy is a more appropriate greeting than a handshake, or a hug. We are in a time of longing. Letters from the past show that people often had to spend time apart, remembering each other through the process of a letter. And every time a new letter with his spidery handwriting appears in my mailbox a smile lights up my face, my heart skips a beat or two, and my pace quickens back to my desk so I can carefully open the letter and see what he had to say this time.

They aren’t always love letters, though there is love in each of them, the careful crafting of each missive written in the snatches of time that we have to spend at our respective writing desks. He has children, I have a busy freelance career that often makes for long days spent thinking. But each time a letter comes, I carry it to my desk and I take a minute to read, even if I won’t be able to reply until much later in the day.

More ten-minute increments spent at our writing desks, more shared moments, though they be asynchronous: a letter read between job interviews, or written between line edit chapters is still a letter, a shared moment.

I carve out ten minutes, then twenty, then 114 ten-minute increments, then 228…we find days, we find hours, we find time.

Those letters are ways to share our time when we can’t be present in each others’ lives in the same way.

Readers access the emotions of characters through letter writing, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, or the love letters of Griffin & Sabine. The intimacy of the letter allows characters to be more direct with their emotions, because a letter is only meant for one reader.

Any person writing a letter today is coping with the reality that the world is forever changed, that the affection they share with someone is built on a foundation of a time that has changed them permanently. That moving forward in a relationship built in 2020 is one that is built out of hardy material. (Not my idea, but his. Shared here because the truth feels important to note.)

Each letter is a piece of time, an archival document of affection at a time when the world feels changed. It is a piece of a person’s soul, or a character’s. It is a plot point—a way to tell the story.

The last letter I wrote him in 2020 will not be the end of our correspondence. If I’m honest, I could see myself writing him letters for the rest of my life. I can see myself picking up a pen and sending him a letter in a year, a year after that, five years after that. I can see myself carefully selecting inks and stationery in ten years.

The letters are a promise of sorts, they’re a space where for a moment we are only thinking of one another in the space of our excessively busy lives.

A letter is timeless. Like Lewis himself says, it touches eternity. It is that moment, that emotion, that feeling, captured by paper and ink and left indelibly in the hands of time.

In fact, letters let us travel through time and through emotion.

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