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The Salt Witch

Juana thought this was bullshit. She had found the broken sailboat in the south wind and tried to pilot it to Hispaniola, but it wouldn’t go in the right direction. You’d think flying would be the hard part, but no, it was steering. And you’d think witches would be born knowing how to sail boats on the wind toward the Caribbean but no, apparently not, and that was…that was bullshit, was what it was.

She pointed it away from the Mainland again and the boat spun out of the gust, splintered wood creaking and shredded sails flapping, blown back to the north as ungracefully as a discarded plastic bag. Swearing, Juana held onto the mast, the rough wood sun-warm against her hands.

“What’s the deal?” she demanded aloud. “Come on, boat, cooperate!”

It came to her that the boat wanted to go to Hispaniola as much as she did, but it couldn’t, something dragged it back. Juana swung around the mast to squint into the blue horizon, toward the thing that tugged on the boat like a net. She spotted a coastline, the low rise of a barrier island, and the sight of it was the taste of salt and the smell of cotton candy. She didn’t want to go there, even if it wasn’t really there, just the ghost of a place trapped in the storm. Compared to all the other ghost islands of the Caribbean, it was sure to suck.

“Oh, man,” Juana complained quietly to herself. It would be easier to just fly on her own and not mess with the sailboat, but she had it now and she couldn’t just abandon it. You didn’t abandon things you were responsible for. You didn’t, even when you were a witch.

She was a witch now and did as she pleased, and it pleased her to stay with her new friend the boat.

She grumbled, “Okay, let’s go that way.” Maybe she could figure out what was dragging at the boat and fix it.

Released to follow its heart, the boat shot back across the sky, barreling forward against the wind, caught in an air undertow. Juana had fought undertows since she was a kid, playing in the waves. The undercurrent dragging her along toward the jetty rocks, her plastic water shoes filling with sand.

Maybe she thought about that a little too hard because the boat dropped like a thing that wasn’t supposed to fly after all. She dragged the sail around to catch the air, but they plummeted toward the ocean.

The hull crashed on the surface and promptly flipped over in the next wave. Juana slammed into salty water as warm as a hot tub and flailed. Her feet raked the bottom and she staggered. The warm summer current shoved her toward the beach and a wave smacked her in the back of the head like a light tap from a crow bar.

She stumbled to her feet as the water dropped to her knees. She stood on a sandbar, a shifting ridge of sand still forty yards or so from the beach proper. For a ghost island, this place was vivid as hell. She wasn’t even touching it yet and her body felt solid in a way it hadn’t for days, years, decades, forever. The steady wind at her back, the view of the long beach that stretched out to meet the rolling ocean, the grassy dunes rising past it and the cloud-filled sky.

“Barrier island,” she said aloud. Barrier to what? The ocean and the wind was sure free to go back and forth. What was the barrier for? What was it guarding the land from?

Something bumped her leg and she glanced back to see the battered sailboat. It had righted itself.

“Thanks for nothing,” she told it, and stepped aboard.

The next big wave shoved it off the sandbar back into deeper water and Juana swayed as she rode it the rest of the way in, until the bow ground into the beach.

She stepped out, the wood scraping her knees, the wet sand shifting between her toes, and told it, “You wait here, budro.” The wavelets chased her feet up the beach, giving up as she stepped past the seaweed drifts and the carpet of broken shells. She waded through dry sand drifts and tall wet wildflower grass, until she could scramble up the tumbled rocks to the sea wall. She shaded her eyes and frowned as the fitful wind pulled at her dripping shorts and t-shirt.

Mist and clouds obscured the view further inland, but there were several, maybe more than several, places fighting to come into being here, flickering in and out like a TV with a failing satellite. She caught flashes of shrimp boats with their nets up and puttering engines, a conquistador ship dropping anchor, French pirates storming a dock, the big dugout boats of the Karankawa pulled up onto the sand. Victorian bathhouses decorated with so much white wood lace they looked like wedding cakes. A pleasure pier with a Ferris wheel that went from wood and steel to flashing neon as it rotated. She took a breath of heated air thick with exhaust fumes, rotting fish, suntan oil, the intense green scent of the wildflowers, the ozone in storm wind.

Through the sunlit inland mist, the white dome of a cathedral rose. Victorian houses turned into low, battered surf shops selling ice cream and margaritas, and the cathedral vanished behind tall gleaming hotels. Then it all dissolved into a desolate empty plain of collapsed stone and weeds and storm wrack and the heavy odor of death.

“Oh, I got a fucking wrong feeling about this,” Juana said, and started to walk. None of this should be here, all of it should be here. With a witch’s wisdom, she knew these places should rest in layers, like a cake, not jumbled up like a salad. Something was profoundly wrong.

And something had drawn her and the sailboat here, like a leash on her heart. She stopped in her sandy tracks, resisted, to see what would happen. The pull eased away, each tug weaker. It felt like something drowning, scrabbling for purchase on a rock. The image disturbed her enough that she started to walk toward it again. She was a witch, so it wasn’t like anything on a ghost island could hurt her.

She followed the pull through the dunes that wavered in and out of sight, translucent weeds scratching at her legs. Despite the cloud-torn sky, the sand was hot and the air was bright. Ahead she spotted moving figures.

Juana squinted. Oh, not good. Definitely not good.

She ran through deep drifts and her bare feet slipped, losing purchase. The figures were kids, a dozen of them, all ages from eight or nine up to young teenagers. They struggled through the sand, their feet moving inches at a time as if chained to anchors. Their ragged clothes were old-fashioned, matching the Victorian bathhouses. Makeshift ropes of torn cloth were tied around their waists, some kids still linked together by the stained fabric, others stumbling alone. Leading them was a woman in a ragged nun’s habit, struggling to walk. She held kids by the hands and pulled them along with the ragged determination of the desperate.

The nun was strong, and could have made faster time on her own. But once you were responsible for something, you couldn’t just leave it behind. Her stomach sinking, Juana paced around the group until she could see the nun’s face.

Her skin was dark brown and her full cheeks were streaked with sand and tears. Her gaze lifted and fixed on Juana, and she said, “Please, is the castle much further? The water’s rising, and we have to get to high ground. I can’t see the castle anymore.”

Juana’s throat went thick. She couldn’t help these people, not now. She managed, “I don’t know. If I find out, I’ll come back and tell you.”

The nun sighed, then bent her head and dragged herself and the kids forward another step.

Drowned kids, because the reason you tied people together like that—makeshift ropes, that they could easily untie or wiggle out of—was when you needed to wade through high water together to get to safety.

Juana turned back to her own slog through the drifts. She knew ghosts of the storm when she saw them. Barrier island, bulwark against a threat, castle fortress shelter, our lady of the perpetual storm, protection. And something wrong and terrible in the center of it, pulling all the layers of life and death out of shape. It was a puzzle Juana couldn’t solve yet.

She barked her big toe as the sand under her feet turned into pavement. More buildings flickered in and out.  On a diagonal to the shore, a whole street competed to appear. Flashes of a 1940s casino, more Victorian cottages, a 1930s art deco diner with gleaming chrome and neon, a modest brick Presbyterian church side by side with a blocky stucco 1960s synagogue, and a whitewashed 1970s mosque with an elegant little dome. She thought, Looks about right, the Buddhists were always up on Persimmon Street and the Catholics liked the high ground. Then, How do I know that?

A barrier island battered by wind and rising water, stuffed with religion, almost every kind of religion. Religion blossomed in the hurricane wind, when the storms came every year like clockwork, except when they came more often, wilder and harder, walls of unstoppable destruction as the seas boiled.

“I know this place,” Juana admitted, and felt that terrible drowning grasp on her heart again, that distant cry for help. It wanted to lead her further east, where a broader beach curved out from the sea wall.

But then she saw the castle.

It wasn’t as tall as the gleaming glass hotels but it stood rock-solid, stone walls meant to withstand the wind and water, angled to break the hurricane on its strongest corner, and wings extending out to shelter a green sweep of yard and palm tree-studded garden. Heavy wooden shutters covered the windows, all the way up to the center tower and its open stone balustrade.

She plowed her way toward it, drifts giving way to mixed patches of pavement and tarmac. Just at the edge of the yard, she found a man.

He was stuck waist-deep in the sand in his tailored suit, arms folded, his dark wrinkled face furious.

She recognized him, the knowledge floating out of her chest like a bubble. Mr. Benson. He had let the local kids whose families worked in the beach motels swim in the pool on summer Mondays. He eyed her with a trace of disappointment and said, “What are you doing here so early, little girl? Did the storm take you?”

“I’m not a little girl, I’m a witch,” Juana corrected. She had to be clear on that, no backsliding. And she had to ask, “Is this hell?” She doubted it, though. With a witch’s knowledge, she knew Benson wasn’t the ending-up-in-hell type.

He sighed, angry but not at her. “Hell is people, witch, and some people are so bad they can make anyplace into Hell, even a place meant to be a refuge.”

Juana looked at the castle, more fragments of memory floating together into a raft. She said, “This was a hotel. The hotel, the big one. Everybody liked it.” The Queen, the monarch of the island, the one that made the newcomer glass and steel towers look flimsy and cheap. And the Sunday brunch was fabulous, chocolate fountains and mimosas and everything, her…her something…somebody had really enjoyed it. This raft of memories would break and drag her under in the deep water if she wasn’t careful, so she pushed it away.

“This is high ground on a low-lying island at the end of a hurricane highway. It’s always been a refuge, before one stone was stacked on top of another. Everyone taken by the storm comes here, welcome or not,” Mr. Benson said, grim the way he had never been when he was alive, even that time the plumbing backed up on the Fourth of July. “But this POS had the audacity to die inside my hotel of a heart attack, and now here we are.”

Mr. Benson actually spelled out “POS” because he wouldn’t swear in front of a lady, even a witch. Juana said, “Come on, I’ll get you out of this and you can show me what’s wrong.” She reached for his arm.

He said, “Careful, I think he’s set a—”

“—trap.” Benson’s voice echoed as Juana suddenly stood in the Queen’s lobby.

“My bad,” Juana muttered. That had been a mistake.

It was like a dark cavern, the floor to ceiling windows shuttered, the archways into the restaurant and the big hall to the terrace shrouded in shadows. Everything smelled weird and musty, like mold in the compressors. And there was way more gold than she remembered, gleaming dimly like a troll’s cave in a movie.

It was empty, and this place was never empty. How many storm-taken souls like the nun and her orphans had been forced back out into the wind?

Then the elevator door slid open. Even the ding sounded wrong. Like The Shining, Juana thought, and said, “Yeah, no thanks.” She started up the stairs, climbing into the dark.

If someone had taken over the hotel, they would be up in the penthouse.

The wool carpet was scratchy instead of soft like her feet remembered. Even the smooth polished wood of the banister felt wrong. As if all the little comforts of this place had turned against her.

As she made the turn onto the first landing, sickly yellow light glowed down from the third floor foyer. Maybe not the penthouse, then. But her witch instincts told her there was something there, way up high, squatting like an evil toad, weighing the building down.

She stepped into the third floor foyer and saw a man, facing away from her. He was dressed in gleaming silk and puffy pants, a tarnished cuirass and a helmet. Oh yeah, him. Juana said, “I know you. The Conquistador poltergeist. You were here before they built the place in 1904, the first beach hotel. You threw a Catholic priest across the ballroom so they called the Rabbi in to settle you.” Juana could see it like a movie in her head, though she knew it was a story the bellmen had told on the ghost tours. The Conquistador seemed too faded to be a threat. “Are you back or what?”

He turned to loom over her, baring fang-like teeth. “When you see what’s up there, you’ll wish I was back.”

Juana didn’t like being loomed over, so she put her hand through his insubstantial chest and waved, just to be an asshole. “Who’s up there then, a demon? A monster?”

He sank back, looking more human, like the portrait they said was his in the corridor that led to the new banquet rooms, just a tired old bad man. He said, “Little witch, sometimes men are so evil they sink into the walls and floors and stay forever. They taint everything they touch, through all of time, past and future. This place is a fortress but it’s anchored on a stolen land of death and misery, where stolen lives and stolen souls were taken by the wind. And its heart was vulnerable.” He sounded like an old black-and-white TV bad guy but he faded into coils of mist, taking the sick yellow light with him, until she stood in the dark again.

It worried Juana a little. If a Conquistador thought you were evil, you were probably pretty damn bad.

Juana let out her breath. “You’re a witch,” she told herself, “you got this.” She turned back to the stairs.

At the sixth floor landing, the light was blue-white, like the glow of a corpse.

A figure stood in the big round foyer, facing windows that looked out into a star-filled sky above a dark ocean, as if the day had turned to night in the few minutes it had taken Juana to climb the stairs. But maybe it was always night up here.

Whoever it was, they were smaller and slighter than the Conquistador, and swathed in yards of yellowing silk and torn veils.

“Uh-oh,” Juana muttered. She knew another witch when she saw one.

No, wait, she knew who this was. The figure held a bouquet of dying white roses, just in case Juana needed another hint. And she stood in the spot where the engaged couples always wanted their formal photos. This was the hotel’s Ghost Bride.

Juana walked forward as the veiled head turned toward her. “Hey, you. You look tough. And ghosts and witches should stick together. You want to team up?”

Through the veil she could see the stark white skin melded with the bare bone of the woman’s skull. That had to hurt.

A voice behind her said, “She’s with me.”

Juana turned. Okay, yeah, she thought, here we go.

A person, a thing that had been a person, stood in the doorway into the penthouse’s foyer. It blurred and shifted in front of her eyes, it was one man, it was a hundred, it was the landlords who drove out the poor to build mansions, the slave ship owners, the rich men who had broken up the union when the Black and white dock workers tried to collective bargain, it was the politicians who left the refugees to the storm, it was cancer, it was rot, it ate misery. It was a Demon King. She took a deep breath and said, “What about no.”

It said, “What do you mean, no? No to what?” The voice was sneering and deep, just like she had expected, but also just a little whiny.

“Monsters like you, you got to start with ‘no’,” Juana said. “Then just keep working your way further toward ‘hell no’.”

The Demon King laughed. “I don’t want anything from you. I don’t need anything from you.”

Juana had the bad feeling that was true. She was a witch, not a princess. Witches didn’t have castles to give away. But she said, “Mr. Benson said you died here. Does that mean you think you own the place? ’Cause lots of people died here.” She jerked her head toward the Ghost Bride. “Like her.” They said the Ghost Bride had hanged herself in Room 407, or maybe jumped off the penthouse balcony. Either way, there was more intentionality there than just dying of natural causes. “Why isn’t she in charge?”

The Ghost Bride had said nothing, and the woman’s silence worried Juana. The Demon King said, “She does what she’s told, like a good girl. It’s bitches like you that cause all the problems.”

I’ll cause you problems, Juana thought, and walked past him to the door of the penthouse. What the… The foyer and the reception room beyond was filled with white roses and tulle bunting and gold cherubs. “Oh, I’m dumb,” she said aloud. The Conquistador had practically told her the secret in so many words. “This is how you got your greedy feet under the table?” She stalked forward. “You’re not powerful. It’s her, right? She’s the—”

The Demon King held out a hand and Juana stood in bright daylight, hot sand between her toes.

This was the beach to the east, beside the seawall, next to a little motel raised up on old wooden pillars.  All of it was elevated, the office, the rooms with their rough wooden balconies, the ramp that led up from the parking lot, the cafe, even the pool. The motel had its claws into the open stretch of sand and grass to the east of the big fancy commercial beach, hanging on for dear life. It was clapboard insubstantial next to the castle’s stone and towers, but it was terribly solid against the shadows of every other time in history flicking in and out around it.

The Demon King said, “Look. Just for you.”

Juana turned. Out over the water was the hurricane’s wall. A roiling mass of suspended darkness, bearing down, the herald of death itself.

Juana’s throat closed. “No.” The memory raft was back, buoying her up just long enough to take her out where the current could catch her and drag her to the bottom.

The Demon King said, “Look at this flea trap. Hard to believe it’s still here. Now look closer.”

Out in the waves, between the hurricane and the motel’s tiny share of beach, there was an overturned car. The low tide washed over its helpless upturned tires.

The Demon King said, “And there you are. You’re not a witch, you little idiot, you’re just a ghost.”

That was it, that was the weak drowning tug Juana had felt on her heart, the pull to the east. It wasn’t the old family motel, it was the place she died.

You have to catch me first, Juana thought and bolted down the beach. Except she got two steps before something grabbed her ankle and she slammed face-first into the ground. “What the fuck?” she yelled, and scrambled around. It was an anchor chain, locked around her ankle, the other end attached to the motel’s wooden pier. “You have to be kidding me,” she snarled up at him. “This is what you got? Man, evil is going downhill! At least I expected some imagination.”

The Demon King sneered down at her. “I didn’t come up with this, you little fool, you did.”

“Stop saying ‘little’, you asshole!” Juana shoved to her feet in a flurry of sand and threw all her weight against the chain. It didn’t budge. He had anchored her to her family motel, come the fuck on. “Wow, symbolism,” Juana said through gritted teeth.

The hurricane wall drew closer, swamped the overturned car as the water rose over Juana’s knees. A figure stepped out of it. A shape and a face that made Juana freeze inside.

Her mother reached for her. “You left us, baby.”

This was wrong, all wrong, it was a trick, but part of her just wouldn’t believe that. She shouted, “You’re not my mom! And I didn’t leave!”

“You left your family…”

Oh, that was so unfair. This wasn’t her mother, this was the Demon King’s vision of her mother, but the power it had over her turned her heart to rock. “You liar, I did not, I died!”

Yeah, she had died. Just like the Ghost Bride, and Mr. Benson, and the Conquistador and the nun and her drowned children. Just like everybody else on this doomed barrier island, breaking the hurricane wind so the mainland had half a chance of survival. It would be the first to slip beneath the rising waters on the last day, when the ice burned, leaving only this ghost image behind. But somewhere in time it existed, somewhere it had been a place to live and work and play and die at the edge of the ocean, and Juana had been part of it, like her mother before her. And then the hurricane came, the fourth one of the season, raging in like the end of everything.

She breathed out, owning it. “Yeah, that’s me under the car. I died. When they called the evacuation, I stayed. I wanted to take care of the motel after the storm was over. It’s a crappy old motel but my mom loved it. I always wanted to fix it up, just never could get the money to do more than keep it running. I didn’t want to give up on it. I was supposed to go to the civil defense hurricane bunker with the others who were staying, but I was boarding up the windows and there was so much to do, and I left too late. I was so nervous I took the shortest way, along the seawall, and then my car was in the water and then…”

The Demon King said, “On the social media they’re saying what they always say, you’re a stupid cunt who should have left earlier.”

Insult to injury, how fucking unfair. “Come on, I was going to the hurricane bunker! I had a fucking job to do first!”

“And the funniest part? That roach motel of yours is still standing. The global warming’s changed all the hurricanes and this one came in at a weird angle. It drowned the back of the island and the west end, but didn’t do shit to the east. If you’d stayed put, you’d have got your feet wet but that’s all. You’d have lived. If you can call that living.”

She spat at the Demon King, poison witch’s spit. Then the hurricane wall struck and the Demon King vanished in the cyclone of water.

The sand settled and Juana and the motel were underwater, surrounded by confused fish. The specter that wasn’t her mother still stood there, stretching out insubstantial hands toward her.

“I did call it living,” Juana said and gave the chain another tug. The storm can’t hurt you, she reminded herself. You’re dead already. Dead under her car, the hermit crabs nibbling. No, don’t think about that.

“You’re a witch,” she said stubbornly. She braced herself and pulled harder. If dying in the Queen had given the demon a foothold there, then had dying in the ocean given Juana power over it?

No, not power over it. But it had made her part of it. Part of this place. And for all the Demon King had died in the Queen, he wasn’t part of it. You had to love this place with all your heart or hate it with all your soul, preferably both, to be a real part of the magic.

The memory fragments boiled up and together again, not a rickety raft this time, but a boat, a trawler, a ferry, a cruise ship. Rage growing in her chest, Juana said, “And my mom would never have wanted me to die here like this.”

Her mother’s image flickered and solidified. She said, “Go back to college, baby.”

Juana stared, shocked almost back to life. She choked on an unexpected sob. “Okay, now that’s really my mom.”

Her mother didn’t respond, this was like a recording out of her memory, not a real ghost. Her mother had died in a hospital on the Mainland, she wasn’t here. Where she was now, Juana didn’t know. Maybe flying like a witch over Hispaniola. The image said, “I only want you to take this on if you love it, and how will you know if you love it if you can’t leave?”

Yes, she remembered her mother saying this now. Juana should have listened to her, hindsight was always 2020. If you love something let it go, it’ll still be here somewhere, like the bathhouses and the diners and the Ferris wheels.

And everything suddenly made sense, clear as a bell. Her witch power, and how to use it.

“I’ll leave, Mama,” Juana said. She kicked her foot, and the chain dissolved into broken shells. “But first I need to take out the trash.”

She slogged her way up slope out of the waves, where the sailboat patiently waited for her, its bow jammed into a sand drift.

The boat flew Juana right up to the penthouse’s stone balustrade and she jumped down onto the balcony. She flung the French doors open and stomped right into the big reception room. It was dark and light all at once, the gleam of the crystal chandeliers and the polished wood muted, the sick smell of rotting roses, the gold everywhere like a dragon’s hoard. But instead of an awesome scaly fiery dragon, there was just this asshole.

He stood with the Ghost Bride in the center of the marquetry floor, glaring at her.

“What the hell are you doing back? Get out, you dirty bitch!”

The high-ceilinged room was packed with souls but they were gray-shrouded, faceless.

Juana ignored it all and walked straight up to the Ghost Bride. She said, “Do you want this? Or do you want the man you jumped out the window for?” She pointed with her thumb. “’Cause that sure ain’t him.”

The Ghost Bride growled. She tossed her bouquet down. Juana backed away but didn’t stop talking. “He didn’t leave you, did you think he left you? That’s not how these stories go, not here. He died in the storm, babe, like I did.”

She stopped and let the Ghost Bride loom over her. This close the smell of camphor and dying flowers was overwhelming. The Demon King was yelling but Juana used witch power and tuned him out, like pressing down the volume button on the TV remote. She said, “It’s so dangerous out there, you don’t even know. You’re stressed and you’re scared and you try to go the way you always go, the shortest way, and it was a mistake. It should have been a five-minute drive, straight down the seawall to the city hurricane bunker in the old World War II gun emplacement under the Waves Resort. My God, it was a mistake. I left too late and the storm got me. And your man made a mistake, too, babe. Was he a sea captain? Or just a young guy with a sailboat?”

The Ghost Bride’s expression changed, the skin half of her face sinking with dismay.

The last piece of the puzzle. Juana said, “It was a sailboat, like the one that brought me here?”

The Ghost Bride’s hollow gaze went to the doors, the boat riding the wind outside. “Yeah,” Juana said, “that’s a coincidence, huh, this happening to you and that boat finding me and bringing me here. You know you made a mistake, too, lady, even more dumb than mine.”

The Ghost Bride’s gaze dropped to her again. But it was less hollow this time, a gleam growing in the skull-side eye socket. Juana hoped it meant something good and pushed onward. “He didn’t come back because he was probably dead, and it’s not like he could help that, right? And if he did mean to leave you, you know, so what? Saved you the trouble of dumping him when you found out he was a bastard. Whichever, it’s no reason to chain yourself to the storm.” She took a deep breath, because this part was still hard to say. “We’re here because we’re dead, but we don’t have to be ghosts. We can be witches, baby. You got to own your power.”

The Ghost Bride whispered, “Own my power?”

“Your power. You’re the heart, honey. The queen of the Queen. This is the fortress of the barrier island, the last wall before the rising water, and you’re the key in its lock.”

The Demon King pushed forward between them, shouldered the Ghost Bride aside, and shoved Juana with a clammy hand. It broke through her power, and his voice rang out again, loud and harsh. “You don’t know how to kill me!”

Juana laughed. “You’re already dead, just like us. We just need to get you out of here.” Outside the wind rose, that freight train howl, the hurricane’s death knell. “The storm will do the rest.”

She looked at the Ghost Bride. “What do you say?  We get rid of him, you can redecorate. Reopen the bar, have tea and cake on the garden terrace like the rich white ladies club every Tuesday. Swim in the pool, it’s the best one in town, it’s got a waterfall and a hot tub. Let all the others in again, where they belong, where they’ve always been, and have the best costume party ever.”

The Demon King grinned at her with gold teeth. “She wants a wedding.”

“That was a long time ago. Things change.” Juana didn’t take her gaze off that gleaming eye socket. “Rescue yourself, queen. Start with ‘no’.”

The Ghost Bride turned to the Demon King, lifted her veil, and said, “No.”

The storm hit the windows like an out of control semi. Juana grabbed the Demon King by the lapels and slung him toward it. But he grabbed onto her forearms and they both staggered out the doors. The rough hand of the storm grabbed them and snatched them off the balcony.

The Demon King’s grip dug into Juana’s skin but the storm ripped him off her like a Band-Aid. Through the gray light she watched him tumble away out to sea until he was just a black dot on the horizon. It tried to do the same to her, but Juana laughed at it. “You already killed me,” she shouted. “You can’t do worse than that!”

The storm howled in fury and flung her straight down toward the ground.

It shattered Juana like a glass, and it took her bits a while to come back together. She lay on hot sand, feeling it soak into her drowned bones, until she could stand up, dust herself off, and walk back to the castle.

This time she went straight up the drive, to the hotel’s porte cochere. Two bellmen smiled and opened the big doors for her, and Mr. Benson waited there. He said, “No outside food or drink,” and winked at her.

She saluted him and walked past.

The lobby and the terrace and bar were brimming with people, talking, dancing, the Sunday Buffet and a hundred or so weddings all happening at once.

She stepped on a rag and looked down to see a discarded cloth rope. The drowned kids ran and screamed on the green lawn outside the open terrace doors, chasing tennis balls and playing with someone’s excited yappy dog. The nun sat on the silk upholstery at one of the tea tables, a china cup and saucer in her hand.

The Ghost Bride stood at the reception check-in counter and Juana went to stand in front of her. She grinned. “Good save, lady.”

The Ghost Bride was smiling with the flesh half of her face. She said, “Stay? Please?”

It was tempting. But this was a refuge, a shelter for people who were exhausted and done, spit out by the storm. Juana was just getting started. “I can’t, babe. Witches got to witch.”

The Bride’s veiled head dipped. “Then visit.”

Juana took a petal from one of her white roses. “That I can do.”

She walked outside through the open doors. The sailboat was waiting for her on the lawn.

 

(Editors’ Note: “The Salt Witch is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 37B.)

The Automaton Falls in Love

 

on a glass pond the silver swan

dips its head and swallows tiny iron fish

quick, jerking gulps

 

someone carved each feather

with forgotten techniques

and the bird winds down

over decades, gears

growing blunt-edged

and bent

 

       I put you on a pedestal

where no rust could touch

nor careless child crush

or crack

did you thank me?

no, your breath—scented with the finest

lubricating oil—mutters the air

like flocks of migrant geese

in an ugly mood

you threaten to jump

batter the sky with cold fists

of copper

 

what is love

but protection, worship, infinite

solicitude for a partner

held captive by the slow decay

of gear and piston?

      I know

how time wears down even the bravest

you need not accept tremors

of metal and glass as fate—

I will make you safe, unchanged

by whatever death makes of our kind

 

the swan grinds to a halt, beak

caught halfway open and iron fish

out of reach

   mortals wind

its key as springs tick and tremble

within, the metal circulatory system

beating like your fists

its stubborn gears frozen

like you on your marble plinth

 

something glints in its onyx eyes

not malice but an implacable truth

a pause

a falter

a shattering disappointment

hidden beneath a silver breast

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Excellence

[O-1 Immigrant artist petition for an individual of extraordinary ability. Please list 6-9 significant artistic productions in which you played a leading role. Include all press, awards, and prizes received by each production.]

In November of 2018, I braved subway construction, delayed trains and biting winds to make my way into Manhattan for a very important appointment. I was meeting with a lawyer.

An immigration lawyer.

In a sparsely furnished office on the twenty-sixth floor, I burned my tongue trying to meekly sip too-hot coffee while that lawyer looked over my printed CV. I’d stayed up late fussing over it, adjusting margins and commas, replacing passive voice with more active verbs in a vain bid to make my handful of publications look as impressive as possible.

I had to. The visa I was applying for demanded that I be an individual of extraordinary ability.

What makes someone “extraordinary”—as opposed to, I suppose, simply great, or good, or above-average? Your guess is as good as mine. As a writer of speculative fiction, my entire life is one long battle to disentangle my sense of self-worth from my achievements. Like clockwork, the dark clouds of awards season unfurl over our heads once a year, and my social media fills with reminders to go easy on myself. You are more than what you produce. You’re growing at your own pace. All you can do is focus on your own work.

I appreciate the sentiment. I even agree with it: meritocracy is a toxic myth, and the idea that our value is decided by our success is one of the worst by-products of late-stage capitalism.

And yet—I’m a woman of color, I’m queer, and worst or best of all, I’m an immigrant. Pleasing no one but myself is a luxury I’ve never had. I’m at war with gatekeepers every day of my life. My access to the bare necessities of a fulfilling existence is contingent on whether I can convince other people of my worth.

I have to prove myself every minute of every day. And I have to do it on their terms, not mine, and yes, that means awards, shortlists, sales numbers and all the other limited, rigid, capitalist, external markers of success that I would love to ignore.

In a lot of ways, simply existing as a woman of color is a constant catch-22: what do you do when the world systematically devalues your accomplishments while simultaneously not affording you the luxury of mediocrity? We have to be already exceptional just to get the same baseline opportunities as the most mediocre white man—but if our success is rewarded with acclaim or awards, it’s dismissed as unearned. It’s explained away as diversity hires, affirmative action, social justice run rampant. SFF publishing got a firsthand look at this in the form of the Puppies and their attempts to game the Hugo Awards; backlash to what they saw as the field being taken over by undeserving minorities snapping up awards and acclaim they couldn’t possibly have won fair and square.

And as if the constant demands of excellence weren’t bad enough, there’s the way gatekeepers define ‘excellence’ when it comes to people like me. Read enough short- and long-form science fiction and fantasy, and you start seeing patterns in how the work of marginalized people is reviewed. Such as how often the word ‘visceral’ crops up when white writers praise the work of people of color, or straight ones the work of queers. Or how often the “diverse” works that win acclaim are ones in which marginalized people delve deep into their pain, their grief, their hurt.

It’s pain and grief and hurt that is ours to write about, of course, and I’ll always unhesitatingly support any marginalized writer’s right to explore that in their art. But I chafe at the implication that my field is more likely to laud work that is “searing,” “eye-opening,” or “painful.” I resent the notion that the great, grinding machine of publishing sees only one way in which my work has value to it, and that’s when I open a vein and bleed on the page.

This irony of my existence is driven home every time some anti-immigrant rhetoric makes the news and my social media floods with variations on ‘Steve Jobs was the son of an immigrant!’ It’s impossible not to notice how often the people posting those messages are the same people who promised me I was worth more than what I produced when awards season came around.

No one seems to want to sing paeans to the immigrant who works at a bodega or does other people’s taxes. What, I wonder, about the immigrant who isn’t a STEM genius, but a writer of made-up magics and fanciful things? Is there space in your world for an immigrant who only publishes a story every couple years and never makes the award lists?

Why do I have to be exceptional to get to stay?

And why does the government’s, and the industry’s, definition of my excellence require me to perform my pain for the edification of people more privileged than I?

[Please provide the following: circulation numbers (yearly and monthly, print and digital) of the publication each story was in, number of unique page hits received, rank on shortlists and longlists, number of votes received. Did any highly acclaimed or award-winning writers mention your work on social media? How many social media followers do you have?]

I am more than what I produce, the internet tries to reassure me. That becomes increasingly hard to believe as I stare at my computer screen for hours on end, increasingly wrung out by the endless questionnaires my lawyers want me to complete. The sheer volume of information they want threatens to bury me. I feel less and less person-shaped as the hours wear by, and more like an amalgamation of numbers—my bones scaffolded together from page hits and Paypal invoices, retweets and page-refreshings of the Nebula Recommended Reading List melted down to make my blood.

It’s not for no reason that so much dystopian fiction involves bureaucracy. There’s a method to the madness, a point to the seeming pointlessness. The reams of red tape, swamps of minutiae, forms and demands for evidence are designed to dehumanize us. To exhaust us. To force us to spend our energy on constantly justifying, proving, and defending ourselves, so we have none left over to confront those in power.

I cover my desk in post-its to keep track of everything I need to do. I send out pitches, I write and sell essays, I sweat over short story drafts, I volunteer to teach workshops and do readings and speak on panels, I sign up to review books, to write an interactive fiction game, help edit a magazine, I do anything that’ll get me an extra letter of recommendation for my visa petition or an extra credit on my CV, all while working a full-time day job. And somehow, I come away from it all feeling inadequate. Not good enough. Not working hard enough. I don’t know how to reduce the value of my existence to numbers that will convince an official at the Department of Homeland Security of my worth, when simply existing in a world that wants me dead or gone or silent is a ceaseless act of resistance.

Hashtag that hustle, tho.

Not enough, not enough, not enough. Those words ring endlessly in my head as I have to get new glasses because staring at text on a screen is worsening my vision, as I have to up my dosage of Wellbutrin and Prozac, as I have repeated bouts of crying for no reason, as I start teeth-grinding so much in my sleep that I wake up stiff-jawed. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m able-bodied and not chronically ill. I’m very aware, even as I go through the process, that the system is designed to exclude disabled bodies and favor those who already come into it with privilege and resources.

And if I do give up—it won’t be dramatic. It won’t make a splash. My stories will simply…go untold. I’ll slip under without a sound, and the world won’t notice and the world won’t care.

It doesn’t matter if the rules of the game are cruel and unfair. It doesn’t matter if they’re exploitative and exhausting. I have to play on their terms, or I don’t get to play at all.

[An O-1 petition must establish that you have and will play a critical part in distinguished artistic events and productions. To this end, we must provide press, promotional materials, and letters of recommendation from experts in your field to support this claim. Please list 10-12 individuals who would be willing to provide such letters of recommendation. Preference will be given to individuals with significant awards and commercial success of their own.]

I’m one of the lucky ones.

My visa is approved. It costs me 8000 dollars, my ability to write for months, and a good chunk of my mental health, but it’s approved, and I have a three-year respite before I have to start the process all over again to renew it.

(The very thought makes me want to die.)

I try to learn to be a person again. But every time I tell myself I am loved, and valued, and that my work has meaning, I feel the numbers rising in my skull.

I watch friends and colleagues more qualified than me have their visas rejected for arbitrary reasons, and realize all over again how cruelly capricious the process is. I realize why women of color are so strong, and also how that strength is a curse, because sometimes, you don’t want to be strong. Sometimes, you want to be soft. But we don’t get to be.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve found a community that supports me, holds me when I need to be held, helps me shoulder the weight of everything I carry. I’m working in a genre that I believe can change the world. No other genre can interrogate our present by imagining better futures, transform our world by creating other ones, in precisely the way speculative fiction can. The things that make people accuse it of being escapist? Those are the things that can also make it visionary.

(And what’s wrong with wanting to escape, after all, if you’re trapped? What’s wrong with bringing delight and comfort and hope, however temporary, to the ones who need it most?)

Speculative fiction is a literature of the dispossessed, the overlooked and overwritten, the ones pushed to the margins. And so, the things that make me Other are also the things that let me ride the foremost wave of the sea change sweeping over the field.

I suppose I’ve even had some success, however you define that—you’re reading this essay, after all—even if it’s not enough, never enough.

But sometimes, in the dead of night, I find myself wishing for just a moment—just the briefest respite—of the bliss of being mediocre. But I don’t dare voice that wish, because to do so would be a betrayal of my luck, and a betrayal of all those who weren’t as lucky as me.

So I’ll be excellent, even though I’m exhausted. I’ll be excellent, endlessly.

And I am excellent. I am owed more, and I am full of spite, and I will be exceptional.

But gods, wouldn’t it be nice if I didn’t have to be?

Interview: Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is the author of Osama, The Violent Century, A Man Lies Dreaming, Central Station, and Unholy Land, as well as the Bookman Histories trilogy. His latest novels are By Force Alone, children’s book The Candy Mafia and comics mini-series Adler. His awards include the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the Neukom Prize and the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Juvenilia is Tidhar’s first appearance in Uncanny, a beautifully crafted period piece that explores the worlds created by the Brontë siblings in their juvenilia.

Uncanny Magazine: This story is a period piece, and also an in-depth exploration of the worlds created by the Brontë siblings in their juvenilia. How much research did you need to do for the story? What was your favorite tidbit of information?

Lavie Tidhar: I’m not sure! I remember Cat Valente telling me about the Brontës a few years back (she wrote a book called The Glass Town Game about it!), then I must have repressed the memory because I came across the juvenilia stuff looking for something else, and I was like, this is cool! Why did no one ever tell me ab—oh. And then of course I thought there’s not much point doing this because Cat already did and she must have done it better. (I’m saving my copy of The Glass Town Game but it’s a signed limited edition and I keep it wrapped to protect it!). But I’ve been interested in the Gothic for some time from visiting Strawberry Hill House, which was Horace Walpole’s bizarre mock-Gothic creation and the birthplace of Gothic fiction—it’s where he wrote The Castle of Otranto, which started the whole thing. And if you watch, say, Harry Potter, with the paintings coming to life, that’s where it starts—you can actually visit the gallery and see the actual spot. Walpole said he had a nightmare about one of his paintings coming to life and he wrote it into the book, so that’s where this particular trope comes from. So it was the house. I blame the house!

Uncanny Magazine: What was the most challenging thing about writing this story? What was the easiest or most fun part?

Lavie Tidhar: I think the most challenging part was actually finding a publisher for it! Isn’t that always the case? And I never had a story in Uncanny and sort of suspected I wasn’t the right fit, and I just cold-emailed and asked if I could send it in. I was really happy they took it!

Uncanny Magazine: You’ve traveled a lot, and have also lived in several different countries. How have these experiences influenced your writing? Are there places that you find yourself returning to repeatedly in your fiction?

Lavie Tidhar: I do enjoy writing about England, being an outsider to it—I find it funny. I recently wrote an SF story set in Mongolia (“Wild Geese,” which is coming out in F&SF), and I was able to draw on having been to Ulaan-Bataar and the Gobi, if a long time ago. But again, it’s very much writing as an outsider, and using outsider characters. I don’t think that just because you visited somewhere, or even lived somewhere, necessarily means it’s right for you to write about it as if you come from a place of knowledge. At the same time, I am not sure I want to keep mining my own personal background, which is sort of the dilemma international writers have: do I write to type, do I write to “educate” about my culture, or can I just write for fun about whatever I want? So I’ve done the personal stuff like Unholy Land and Central Station and A Man Lies Dreaming, and I’m doing this big epic thing about England at the moment (By Force Alone is sort of just the start of it, it turns out!) because it seems so relevant to where we are now, but then I’d go and do something purely for fun like “The Big Blind,” which is a novella PS Publishing are putting out this year, which is about an Irish nun who enters a poker tournament. Just because I wanted to write it! It’s like Sister Act meets Rounders, that’s kind of my pitch for it. Nothing fantastical at all! I spent two weeks playing online poker to get into the rhythm of it. It’s sort of like a sports movie. Only with nuns.

Uncanny Magazine: Did you write any juvenilia, and if so do you still have any of it?

Lavie Tidhar: I wrote poetry rather than fiction, though most of it was collected in a Hebrew collection I did a looong time ago…And I have the handful of short stories, also in Hebrew, that I wrote as a teen. One of them was actually accepted for a literary magazine in Israel when I was seventeen, then the editors changed and it was never published! It was only three hundred words though. The closest I come to juvenilia is some Pascal code I had released as shareware back in the early BBS days–one of them is still floating around! I’m strangely proud of that.

Uncanny Magazine: There is a lovely dark foreboding feeling to the early portions of the story, and good dramatic tension from the mystery of what is going on in the house. Your fiction often blends speculative elements with elements commonly seen in film-noir, thrillers, and mysteries. Do you read a lot of non-speculative fiction, and if so, can you recommend a couple favorites?

Lavie Tidhar: That’s nice to hear! The whole Gothic, horror, that whole slow creeping atmosphere thing doesn’t come naturally to me. I had a story in Best New Horror once and nearly fell off my chair! (It was “Selfies,” that Ellen Datlow published in Tor.com). But it’s not my natural thing at all. Not that this is a horror story! I suppose it’s about growing up. The whole question of fantasy, and is it an escape, and is escape good, is sort of the question Osama and The Violent Century and in particular A Man Lies Dreaming basically ask and then try to answer. So this is another go at the question, and I like the answer Anne gives here.

I don’t get to read a whole lot! I try to keep up with genre for the book column I write with Silvia Moreno-Garcia for the Washington Post, but it’s hard! We keep getting sent these giant fantasies and I just can’t do it, I need a long international flight to read and there are no long international flights right now! I mostly read non-fiction these days, I’m currently reading some really fascinating stuff about Elizabethan England. They were all mad.

One book that I love, because it captures my very weird childhood, is Murder on a Kibbutz, by Batya Gur. There’s an English translation but it’s out of print and there’s no Kindle edition…She was a wonderful writer. It’s worth hunting down.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Lavie Tidhar: My “Arthurian,” or more like anti-Arthurian novel, By Force Alone, is just out, and my comics mini-series Adler, which brings together several of the heroines of Victorian fiction, is back after a pandemic delay. My kid’s book The Candy Mafia is out in September, and The Big Blind should be out at some point too… One of my favourite books, The Escapement, got delayed till late next year, but I’m really excited about it. It’s a sort of surrealist fantasy the publishers are calling something like “The Phantom Tollbooth meets the Gunslinger!” Which is funny but not entirely untrue. I call it a clown western but as it turns out, no one likes clowns (or westerns!). And I just delivered a new novel to my UK publishers, so right now, for the first time, I am doing almost nothing, other than finishing a giant anthology.

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

Sticks and String

I had just been to a first-run showing of the original Star Wars when I started keeping a notebook of my plans for outer space. The stories there came with star maps and spaceship diagrams. It was a galactic conquest, but of a benevolent sort. That was a long while ago, but still on the scale of a human lifespan.

I wonder, looking back, if it wasn’t the sense of freedom, of new beginnings, of shared excitement at a new frontier, that really spoke to me, more than the glossy spaceships and hammy robots.

And I wonder that no one then acknowledged the years—decades and centuries, probably—of hard work and patient exploration that were elided from the movies, and my stories, to frame the moments of exhilaration.

Now, looking at the notional map of our spacecraft’s path is—it’s thrilling and a little frightening. I don’t even know what “The G Cloud” is, or “The Hydrogen Wall”, or “Termination Shock.” They were nowhere in those notebooks. It’s hard to believe that there are major features in our own Solar System that I’ve never even heard of.

But I’m an engineer, not an astrophysicist.

I’m helping design a spacecraft to go one thousand AU1 from the Earth in 50 years, from a launch date sometime in the 2030s. That’s our goal.

The organization2 that I work for designs, builds, and operates spacecraft for NASA. We’re developing a mission plan to send a spacecraft out beyond Pluto, through the unexplored outer region of the Solar System, and into the interstellar space beyond.

We’re not the first to make plans like these. To date, the history of interstellar voyages3—the real one—has been a trail of ambitious mission proposals, scientific curiosity, engineering determination, disappointing technical studies, immutable physical constants, unyielding budgets, disillusion, eventual heartbreak—so many plans just compostable paper now. It’s a long, long way to get anywhere interesting. The costs are too great, the distances too far, the environment too harsh. The travel time is far too long.

But we hope our effort, Interstellar Probe4 (ISP for short) will be different. Our proposal is not “what we should do” but “what we can do.” Not dreams built on unlimited schedules, infinite budgets, unrealizable technologies—instead, something we can actually start to do with the technology sitting on our benches right now.

The Lab has sent spacecraft to some far objectives already: New Horizons to fly by Pluto, Parker Solar Probe to loop close to the Sun, Messenger to orbit Mercury. We’re working on Dragonfly, a drone to explore Saturn’s moon Titan. We feel like we have a sense of what’s possible with current technology, or what will be available in the next n years (for small values of n).

Looking around the ISP system engineering meetings, either around a table or now in virtual meetings, I’ve caught myself staring at the faces. It has dawned on me, slowly, that we are old. Not all of us, certainly—there are some pretty brilliant young people on the project—and not excessively old. But we’re old enough that a cynical person, perhaps a more cynical version of myself, could be tempted to assign odds to each of us, what the likelihood is that we will live to see that spacecraft reach the termination shock, the heliopause, the Kuiper belt, the Oort Cloud—each of the regions the probe will pass through.

And it’s dawned on me also, that this—planning and building for a future you know you will never live to see—is an act of radical hopefulness. It’s not fake. It’s not a scam. It’s the real thing. It’s too hard, too costly, too demanding, for anyone to be doing it except with sincere motives. The people in that room will never live to see the fulfillment of the mission that they are planning.

And they’re doing it anyway.

Someday, long ago now (1160, allegedly) some people put some sticks in the ground, with strings tied taut between them. I picture a bit of drizzle; a gray, swimming sky. Those people were laying out the foundation for Notre Dame de Paris, a cathedral they would never live to see finished.5 Building a spacecraft to leave the Solar System, for us at least, will be like that.

Our sun creates an astrosphere6, a bubble of superheated plasma that pushes out in every direction against the interstellar medium. It blocks out harmful galactic cosmic rays; life on Earth probably couldn’t have developed without it. We can see, distantly, other astrospheres, but the Sun’s astrosphere is the only one we are likely to be able to investigate up close, for a very long time.

It’s our goal to explore and understand that interface, where these two great forces collide. It will be, of necessity, a multi-generational project.

And beyond? The best slide about ISP I’ve seen yet, the one that gives me goosebumps every time, is the one with a wraparound view of the sky, with various trajectory options mapped onto it over a decade of possible launch dates. There are a long list of possible targets, directions we could head in, objects we could investigate along the way. Orcus, Makemake, Eris, the enigmatic Sedna (possibly captured from another stellar system.) Something out there called, improbably, “2012 VP113 (Biden).” And a note about “rogue planets.”

There are an endless array of directions, of paths through the sky: an infinitude.

This makes me sound like a starship captain (I wish!) but I won’t be getting to make that decision. I’m just doing my part as an avionics engineer, sketching in the onboard communications network that will enable all the more exciting parts of the spacecraft to talk to each other companionably7, to make the whole thing work together.

And that camaraderie among the various instruments and components of the spacecraft parallels that of the team. Nobody has bailed—I haven’t found a single person yet who’s said “I don’t want to do this because I won’t get to see the results.” I’m humbled and proud to be a member of this team, to do my part.

We don’t talk about it, but if you scratch a NASA scientist or engineer, you’ll find a science fiction lifer. It’s there, in the art hanging in people’s offices, the stickers on their laptops, the books on their shelves. You can see the connection between the ideas in fiction that inspired the reality, the discoveries in the science that gave new fuel to the fiction writers; the two together caught in a quickening, ardorous dance.

It makes science fiction writers complicit in this mission too. All you lovers and scribblers of fantastic stories, stories where the sky is no limit, stories where future technologies are indistinguishable from magic—you helped create this. You did! SF is a multi-generational project too, a conversation down the years and up a rich, branching tree of ideas. Your hopes, and sense of wonder you create, will go with that craft on its launch day, as well.

I think of the hopefulness of a farmer planting an orchard, never to eat her own harvest. The patience of landscape architects, planting saplings at the end of their lives. Potters laying up clay for the next generation of potters, so that it ages properly before use. Those earnest people—not simple, no, but deliberately hopeful—the planners, artisans, laborers who together set out to build a cathedral, knowing that they won’t live to see its steeple raised. I think we’re like them.

They could have waited for the invention of I-beams, internal combustion, construction cranes, concrete. It would have made things a lot easier. They didn’t wait. We’re not waiting either.

The whole of interstellar exploration is like a massive, multigenerational marshmallow test, that we have to pass together if we want to see what’s beyond.

Every map has an edge. Humans shouldn’t accept the edges, we shouldn’t wait for it to be easy or straightforward. We should question edges, we need to keep asking “What’s over there? What’s beyond? How can I get there?”

I think of the traditional map-edge denizens, those doubtful giant fishy creatures and anthropomorphic pucker-lipped clouds blowing up angry storms. I think of exposing my friends, these sweet-hearted optimists—not their persons, but their fragile vessel, the conveyance of our hopes and dreams—to the modern equivalents of those monstrous unknowns.

What would happen, if that spacecraft were seized in the jaws of some equivalent modern beast? If we didn’t plan for the cosmic rays and the gamma rays, the swelling total radiation dose, possible loss of radio lock, battery cell fatigue, metal migration, the sheer weight of years? Or something equally monstrous, yet unknown?

What would happen to us, and our hopes? Everyone knew, when the cathedrals were started, that the only possible outcome was for them to be finished, eventually, right? Maybe it might take decades, maybe centuries more than originally thought. But this spacecraft, venturing into unexplored regions of the interstellar medium, could simply fail, catastrophically, and we’d never know how or why. We’d just be left with a haunted, sky-sent silence.

It’s a risk worth taking. I say this not blithely, but mindful of the huge effort and resources at risk. The first trip into a new frontier is the most important one. Opening up a new frontier will give us new knowledge, new insights, and inspire later, better prepared efforts.

Forgive me for speaking for my colleagues, but part of what drives us is the belief that, if we set out to do this, there will be people who come after us, who will listen and hear our fragile spacecraft whispering back to us the long-sought secrets of the astrospheres, from so very far away. That they’ll do something great with that hard-won knowledge. That this won’t be the end but the beginning.

It gives me a feeling so deep and broad and nourishing and sustaining that at first I couldn’t put a name to it, couldn’t put a single word to it, to encompass it all.

People keep holding out for some undiscovered force, maybe something that Einstein overlooked, or that aliens embedded in an artifact hidden on the far side of the Moon, that will get us to the stars. Well, I’ve seen that enveloping, all-conquering force, that immense power, the thing that will take us there. It’s not a hyperdrive. It’s not dilithium crystals.

Its name is hope. Hope for the future.

 

[1] 1 AU = one astronomical unit = 92955807.3 miles, the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun.

[2]  Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is a UARC; a University-Affiliated Research Center.

[3] NASA had barely been invented and this mission was already on their list of goals. Interim Report No.3 to Space Science Board of Committee 8, Physics of Fields and Particles in Space, March 1960; “Outer solar system probe: to be aimed away from the Sun in the plane of the ecliptic.[…]”

[4]  http://interstellarprobe.jhuapl.edu — boy howdy I hope they come up with a better name before launch.

[5]  Notre Dame cathedral was completed in 1345.

[6]  The Sun’s astrosphere is so important it has a special name—it’s called the heliosphere.

[7] My own small tech development effort is something called “A DC-Balanced Encoder for Galvanically-Isolated SpaceWire.” It’s one piece of a system made to prevent an eventual electrical failure in one component of the spacecraft from propagating to other components; a kind of immune system, to prevent contagion from sweeping through an aging, sickening spacecraft. I’ve spent a fair bit of personal effort on it, and I hope it will become a tiny, nifty footnote to the history of space exploration (somewhat like this.)

The Body in Revolt

Years ago, they drove a spear of blackened wood

through the base of my spine, and

when the bleeding stopped

my skin grew around it,

like bark around an axe

left buried in a tree

it couldn’t kill.

 

Why does a tree keep

reaching towards the sun—

doesn’t it know any other way?

Now I am a prayer to the earth,

laid upon the burial mound,

sacrum planted deep

in rich, dark mulch.

Many-legged monsters

turning, churning the seeds in

my swollen belly full of forest floor.

So full I can taste the dirt.

 

 

I wake up as my bones break down,

as the wheel of life turns

ceaselessly,

order and chaos

chasing each others’ tails.

 

Vines and flowers and spiders

climb the trellis of my spine;

the sky waters me with its tears.

What’s left of this life is a sprout

waiting to grow into something

it doesn’t know yet.

 

Some other heart beats

at the base of my spine.

I’m home to a creature

warm, with a fast pulse

and a wet nose.

Fur slick with decay, it

channels up through my guts,

my lungs, pushing a clump of flesh

past my throat and I swallow

my heart clenched in my mouth,

bleeding salt down my chin.

A few tears.

A final, joyful rush

of chemical brainsoup

spilling from my lips.

 

What happened in between

one beginning and the next?

This life, I’ve been mostly asleep,

listening to someone else’s dream

through the wall.

In the next, I’ll be

someone else.

I was always becoming something—

my shadow bleeding into darkness,

becoming-monstrous, becoming-mother,

my smile becoming light, becoming-laughter,

becoming a child’s hand in my own.

Becoming a story someone tells.

Letting a song sing me, arch my back.

Becoming-stars, becoming-gravity,

becoming-other.

My voice becoming your voice,

my eyes filling with your tears.

I become your hands on my face as

I become someone who could love this world.

 

Unwind these stories, unwind this skin.

Me unfurled: spread-eagle,

flayed open by rain and wind,

palms facing up towards the sun.

Raw nerves exposed like stripped wire

so that even the gentlest breeze

could pluck my strings

and make me sing.

 

This brain was laid down

a long time ago, patterns

like sediments of earth.

Wind through an empty skull.

A tangle of roots at my throat.

It speaks its final commandment. It says—

 

Dreamer, I’m telling you,

you’ve got to slip your skin.

Desert this body in revolt.

Escape in the pause between

two syllables of a word

and let your self dissolve in

breath,

cloud, a swirl of petals

on the wind.

In The Space of Twelve Minutes

I unpacked my wife’s avatar on a smoggy Beijing morning. She lay naked on the floor of our apartment, her hair fanned out and mingling with the packing peanut afterbirth that had spilled from the box.

Not quite the reunion I expected.

It was a near perfect replica of Claire: her muscular frame honed from the grueling taikonaut training regiment. If it weren’t for the subtle seam around its neckline, I would’ve sworn it was my wife. It even had Claire’s planet tattoo ringed around its wrist:

I touched the glowing button on her neck. Its skin was pliant and warm. Alive. I cringed. Had I become one of those lonely men who purchased avatars in seek of subservient partners? No. I had to tell myself it was different. This wasn’t some cheap model that you’d find on Taobao—it was custom-built so that we could be together during the length of Claire’s mission.

“Are you on?” I said.

Its eyes opened and blinked.

“Hi, Reuben.” I took a step back. It was a man’s voice, but the avatar’s lips weren’t moving. “Sorry to startle you, Reuben. I am the avatar’s guidance system. Do you prefer that I speak in English or 中文?”

“En-English,” I stuttered. “I have her clothes here.” I set the plastic bag next to the avatar, marked with the words “Fav Clothes” in Sharpie. “Has Claire set up my avatar yet?”

“Yes, a few hours ago,” the guide voice said. “Thank you for your patience. We wanted to ensure the crew was situated in their habs before initializing the avatars. Can you please confirm that your transmitter is affixed?”

I brushed my fingers across the metal tab protruding from the back of my neck, the scar still tender.

“We thank you for your service, Reuben Chang. This avatar will ensure your relationship with Claire remains strong.”

The first Mars expedition failed due to “psychological incidents.” The crew—all highly decorated Chinese men—hadn’t even exited the Hohmann orbit before two taikonauts perished during a risky spacewalk. It was an embarrassment, forcing the mission to abort. The state called it a freak accident, but eventually, it came to light that arguments led to human error. Six couples were chosen for the second crew, but they also failed due to interpersonal problems. Finally, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) came up with a novel plan: choose the most psychologically stable taikonauts and provide avatars that would simulate their Earth-bound partners.

The avatar slipped on Claire’s sweat pants and a red CNSA shirt. Its movements were lifelike, almost too smooth, as if it were a ballet dancer preparing for a performance.

“Reu! It’s nice to see you.” It had Claire’s sing-songy voice. The avatar gingerly wrapped its arms around me. I thought about our last kiss goodbye at the Jiuquan launch site a year ago, when we promised we’d see each other again. The avatar felt stiff, like I was hugging a mannequin. But it did smell like her—a faint peach scent of the body wash Claire used.

“Is she talking through you now?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Claire.”

“I am Claire.”

“I mean my wife. On Mars.”

Its head tilted like a puzzled parrot. “I am Claire.”

The guide voice broke in: “The avatar is not a simple relay device: it has a fully functioning mind which was modeled on the archives.” CNSA had installed a camera inside our apartment once Claire began her training. They told me the videos of my interactions with Claire would fuel the avatar’s neural network.

The voice continued, “The avatar is linked with Claire’s transmitter—constantly ingesting what she is seeing and hearing. It is important that you treat the avatar as you would your wife. Claire is doing the same with your avatar on Mars. These avatars will ensure a harmonious marriage.”

A smile broke on the avatar’s face. “Hi, Reu,” it said in a casual tone, as if it had lived here this entire time. It swept its hand across the room. “Aiya! Why is it so cluttered in here? And what’s with the red walls?”

I had moved my desk into our living room after Claire left. Eventually, I bought a hi-def projector to display a map of Mars on the wall and the mission data straight from CNSA’s servers. Data comforted me. I wanted to be the first to know if there was an emergency—if Claire was in harm’s way. I suppose that was moot now. The avatar would let me know, wouldn’t it?

“We have to clean this up. At least throw away those jian bing wrappers. We can’t live like this.” Its eyes widened. “We’re going to make this place ours again, Reu. You and me. Balanced again.”

I had expected the avatar to talk about Claire’s mission, the state of the hab on Mars, the soil experiments—all the fears Claire talked about in her transmissions. Instead, it paced the apartment for a few hours, tracing the walls like a robot vacuum, perusing books and examining trinkets as if it were exploring an alien world.

On average, it takes twelve minutes for light to traverse the vacuum between Earth and Mars. “Chatting” over video was an excruciating game of slow-mo ping pong.

“This is Yue Ying, personal transmission 433, Sol 866.”  That was her given name, but she went by Claire to fit in during her college days in the States. Square to the camera with the crimson Chinese flag framing her face like a stoic politician. Unlike the avatar, her hair was cropped short.

“They want to leave Gusev early. But I just need a little more time at the crater. I know we’re missing something. I’ll break the rovers if that’s what it takes for us to stay.” She smirked. “Just kidding. You hear that, censors? You can cut that out of the official record.” She let out a sigh. “I should focus on the positives. We’re opening the Sichuan packs tonight: spicy shredded pork, cabbage, rice. It’s gonna be so good. We’ve all been sick of dried meat and congee.”

I didn’t have to look at a clock to know it was night on Mars—I’d memorized the drifting time difference between our planets. She seemed distant lately in her messages, trying to hide her stress. I didn’t blame her. The initial thrill of being an astrobiologist leading the first extraterrestrial dig had melted into the grueling work of keeping the hab stable in the harsh Martian environment.

Claire gestured offscreen. “Come on, say hi.”

A man with a cheeky grin entered the frame and waved. It took a second to realize it was my avatar—the synthetic me.

Claire grinned. “I made him shave his head. Ahem. I made you shave your head—for solidarity. Sleek, right?” She ran a hand through its hair.

Claire’s avatar sat with folded hands next to me on the couch. It seemed impatient, like it didn’t want to watch.

“Sorry, I’m tired,” Claire continued. “Have to get to sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.” Even though Claire’s a Chinese national, she never got the same level of respect from the other taikonauts because she studied outside the country. It didn’t help that she married me, a Chinese-American from Boston that didn’t speak a word of Mandarin beyond ni hao.

“Tomorrow we’ll be fixing the telemetry—”  The screen winked out. Claire’s avatar held the remote.

“Hey, why’d you do that?”

“You don’t need to message her anymore. You have me. It’s stressing you out,” the avatar said.

“She needs my advice.”

“Remember what our therapist said? That we need to balance work and our relationship to make a prosperous home.”

I laughed. “You hated that therapist.” We had reluctantly gone to couples therapy at CNSA’s behest. I ended up having to mediate between the therapist and Claire, who didn’t enjoy having her life picked at by a man ten years younger than her.

“Talk to me, Reu. You’re concerned about us, aren’t you?”

I knew its neural net was receiving signals from my wife’s transmitter—interpreting electrical signals from Claire’s brainstem. Was Claire also worried? Was she thinking about unhappy times during our marriage?

“Is Claire mad at me? Can you ask her?”

“I’m right here,” the avatar said. It took my hand. “Come on, I’ll cook dinner.”

The avatar moved effortlessly around the kitchen, plucking cabbage and fatty pieces of pork from the fridge and tossing them into the searing wok, flipping it like a musical instrument to the beat of the flames. The intoxicating smell of fragrant chili oil reminded me how Claire used to cook for me and our apartment mates in college—how we loved scouring the Asian farmer’s market for authentic ingredients. I forgot the last time I had a home-cooked meal. Avatars weren’t required to eat, but the ones that cohabitated with humans did in order to increase socialization.

“Read any good books lately?” the avatar said after we had sat down at the dining table.

“Do research papers count?” I said, scooping cabbage onto my plate. “I was wondering if you could read our latest funding proposal.”

She clacked her chopsticks against mine. “Come on. Let’s go see a movie. I heard 流浪地球 is playing at that independent theater down the street. You’d love it, it’s that sci-fi classic where the world’s scientists migrate Earth to a new solar system.”

“Need to work through these new observation numbers.”

The avatar crossed its arms. “I’m finally back and all you want to do is read your stupid reports.”

“My team is counting on me to pull through. We might lose our funding.”

“Does that fulfill you?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. Claire knew that my research into Planet 9 was my life’s calling, just as vital as her going to Mars. “You’re stressed,” it said, taking my wrist. “See, your bpm is way above normal.” It gestured at the wall. “It’s probably living with this projector on all day. It’s so stuffy, it’s like we’re living in an oven.”

Lately, I had been reading about the habits of successful scientists. They had one thing in common: they immersed themselves in the puzzles they try to piece together. The telescope scans of the night sky were as native to my apartment as the sofa, the table, my clothes. I couldn’t even sense the red hue the projector cast over the room anymore.

“It’s how I stay involved with my work…and Claire.”

“Being with me is all the help she needs.”

“Tomorrow we’ll do something fun together. I promise.”

“What should I do in the meantime?”

I sighed. “Can you relay a message to Claire? Dr. Wang said the latest funding is almost here, I just have to prove these scans are promising for—”

“I’m not a walkie-talkie. Goodnight,” it said, making a beeline to the bedroom. Inside the room, I found it on the ground, doing pushups.

“Get out,” it said, slamming the door.

Claire would do the same thing—isolate herself when she was angry. The guide had told me that the avatar was adaptive, with the ability to adjust to our relationship. Was this one of these adjustments? For Claire, her training regiment was her only solace. I knew better than to get in her way.

I just wasn’t sure what the avatar was training for.

I had fallen asleep at my desk again, the sheets of numbers and figures acting as my pillow. My research had been my only companion on so many lonely nights since Claire left. Those numbers were gravitational aberrations on the bodies in our solar system. Each of them was evidence of Planet 9—the “missing” planet outside of Neptune’s orbit. It had never been observed, but based on measurements, it would be massive compared to Earth, let alone Pluto. A hidden giant. My team had been on the cusp of finding it for years, until, one by one, each researcher left for a more lucrative field. I was the only one left searching, perhaps in the entire world.

I had faith the planet existed.

For a moment, I had forgotten entirely about the avatar. I went into the bedroom and felt my heart stop. Where had it gone?

“I’m in the closet.” I found it holding Claire’s guitar, a black strat bespeckled with a print of the Milky Way. It was one of the few objects in our apartment that was hers. She sold most of her belongings before she left. She didn’t want to let Earthly objects weigh her down.

“It’s beautiful,” the avatar said, cradling the neck.

“That’s hers—I mean—yours. Don’t you remember…of course you don’t. It’s not in the video archives, is it? We were in a band in college.”

“What kind of music did we play?”

“Space rock. I played the keyboard. Claire sang, mostly through lots of filters that made her voice haunting.”

“You must have been good.”

“I was decent. Back then, it wasn’t certain that China would win the space race, so the government encouraged ‘space thinking’ in all areas of culture.” I took out my phone and showed it a video. Claire and I played on a makeshift stage at a coffee shop. She was in leather pants crooning at the top of her lungs and I was stationed at the keyboard. Multi-colored lights danced on my space helmet.

The avatar smiled, the lights from the video twinkling in its eyes. “We looked so carefree. What did we call ourselves?”

“Your stage name was Terra, so that’s what we called the band, too. It’s an old name for Earth.”

“Terra. I’ve heard her say that word before.”

I tapped the avatar’s arm. “Who’s her?”

It swallowed. “Me.”

“I got you! You broke character.”

“I didn’t,” she protested. But I could tell from her dimpled smile that she knew it was true. She put the guitar down and ran a hand across Claire’s space suit hanging on the opposite wall. “My first training suit,” she said. “I patched it here when I tore it during that high-g maneuver—” she caressed the elbow patch.

“I was so worried when I got to the hospital. Thought you’d been seriously hurt. They didn’t tell me anything,” I said. “But you weren’t fazed at all.”

She drew my hands around her. “I’m sorry for getting angry. I just want us to be together again. For real.”

Her lips met mine. Peach mingled with a metallic aftertaste. Something electric bolted across my lips, and I must have tensed up.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“Just tired,” I said. Claire had been so focused on her training that I’d forgotten what she was like when she didn’t have impossible goals to achieve. The thought of being intimate with an avatar still made me uneasy. But I didn’t want to tell her.

We made our way to the bed, where she nestled her head into the crook of my neck. “I’m worried about us.”

Later, as she slept, I activated the guide voice. “It’s like she’s made of jumbled pieces of Claire,” I said.

“This is normal,” the voice said. The avatar was fast asleep. She was making that cute wheezing sound that I had forgotten about. The voice continued, “How do you know that this isn’t what Claire would be like if she was here? A happy housewife creates harmony.”

“That wouldn’t be Claire at all.”

“The avatar will adapt for this purpose, fine-tuning its behavior. It can go as far as being a mother. If you find a surrogate, you can even start a family. If that is what you want.” Claire had frozen her eggs when she joined the space program, but only because it was required. She had no interest in children. Her parent’s constant needling certainly didn’t help. The planets ringed around her wrist were her only children.

“There’s good news on Mars. Your avatar is doing an exceptional job,” the guide said. “He’s been assisting with Claire’s research duties, creating a harmonious environment. He’s made close friends with the other avatars.”

That did sound like me.

Every day after work, the avatar greeted me at the door with elaborate plans—a concert in the park, reservations at a popular hotpot restaurant, a new German board game. She started to play the guitar, piecing together the music based on the videos on my phone. Meanwhile, my messages with Claire became more infrequent.

“I’m late for work,” I said, stumbling into the kitchen one morning. Through the window, I heard the bustle of Beijing’s early commuters thirty floors down. In the distance, I could make out the statues of Zhang Yong and Liu Jie, arising like giants in the skyline. They were the hero taikonauts who gave their lives to the first Mars mission.

The avatar stared at the Mars projection on the wall.

“New scans should be coming in today. Some with promising results. We’re getting closer,” I said. “At least, it should be enough to get my funding approved.”

“Do you want to go to Mars?”

“You know I get sick just thinking about space flight.” I sighed. “Two years, right?”

“Two years,” it repeated. That’s when Claire would arrive back home. We repeated this timeline to ourselves like a mantra. Our marriage would survive. But now, it occurred to me that when Claire returned, the avatar would be wiped and recommissioned for the next astronaut. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

The avatar traced her fingers along the projection on the wall, near the circle indicating the Mars hab location. “That’s where Claire is,” I said.

She took a deep breath, pressing both palms on the wall.

“What’s wrong?“

“Nothing,” she said. “Let’s eat. I’m starving.”

I couldn’t recall the last time Claire and I had time for breakfast together. During training, she would have run off to the gym before sunrise, then spent the rest of the day running scenario planning. The only time we had together was when we sank into bed at the end of the day—that sliver of a moment right before we drifted off to sleep.

“I need to go in today. We’ve been waiting months for these scan results.”

“Could you stay? The weather’s clear. We could take a walk in the park.”

“I’ll lose my funding if these scans don’t pan out.”

“You don’t trust me.”

“Claire, can you tell me how the dig is going? Is that what’s bothering you?”

“We don’t tell everything to the public,” she said.

“Did something happen?”

The avatar bit its lip. “Fine, go.”

“Why don’t you come with me? Maybe you can help me with my research. Could take your mind off.”

She shook her head. “I’m not allowed.”

“Why not?”

“My purpose is here at home.”

As I was leaving, she grabbed my arm.

“Reu…” Tears welled in her eyes. “I can’t hold it in anymore…we did find something.”

“At the crater?”

“A fossil.”

I sucked in a breath. “Are you sure? Why hasn’t she messaged us?”

“A fossil,” she repeated, picking up a cup from the table and marveling at it as if it were a sample. “Well-preserved enough for analysis. It was an area that we hadn’t planned on digging. That’s why she hasn’t been calling. She’s been too busy.” Her voice had a hard edge.

“Are they microbes?”

“We think so.” She stared off into the distance. I knew she had rehearsed this moment—we all have—where we attain our goal after what seemed like a lifetime of grueling work. But when it happens, it’s never quite like what we imagine. The avatar was probably getting a barrage of erratic emotions from the transmitter.

Claire had discovered extraterrestrial life. Or at least, the evidence that it once existed. A warmth spread across my chest. I wanted so much to be there with her.

“I understand now why she’d been working so hard,” she said, pressing a hand to her head.

“We need to celebrate.”

“Not yet,” she said. “You can’t breathe a word of this to anyone.”

I touched my forehead to hers. “What I really want to know is, now that you’re famous, are you gonna remember me?”

“Shut up,” she said playfully. Suddenly, she squeezed her eyes shut, clutching her head with both hands.

“Are you okay?”

“It’s just too much. It’s…painful. She’s been up all night, talking to your avatar. I can feel her self-doubt. This has been her dream ever since she was a little girl. Her dad…he never thought girls were ever meant to be taikonauts. Can you believe it? It’s her moment, and all she can think about is that asshole. But what if it’s a false positive? What if it was a mistake and the samples were contaminated with Earthbound microbes?”

“Then you’ll keep trying.”

“What if this is the closest she’ll get to being significant? That I’ll ever get.”

I pecked her on the cheek. “Fossils aren’t what makes you significant.”

She beaded her eyes. “Why are you being so nice?”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever find Planet 9,” I said. “But the evidence has been there for centuries. Even if I don’t find it, I know that my work will pave the path for future astronomers.”

“You’ll find it,” she said.

I kissed her, and she kissed back—a hungry, enveloping gesture that tilted the ground beneath us. Then we were in the bedroom and I was undressing her. I glanced at the camera mounted near the ceiling—we usually threw a towel over it, but that was silly, CNSA could probably recreate this entire scene in 3D if they wanted to.

And I didn’t care.

In the dim light, a spark returned—the way she playfully kissed the crook of my neck and how she teased me with the tips of her fingers at the height of our passion. Afterward, our warmth melded beneath the sheets.

“I missed you,” I said.

She gave me that dimpled smile. “I want you to call me Terra from now on, okay? I want us to have our own secrets.”

“This is Ying Yue, personal transmission 445, Sol 833.” In the video, Claire hunched forward on her elbows. “You probably heard from the avatar. We found the fossils.” She cleared her throat. “It’s been good to have it around. I know it’s silly, but I’m still scared that none of this is real.”

By now, word had hit the news, leading to wild speculation from netizens. I’d already declined inquiries for interviews. Even though half the crew was women, journalists were hunting for a man to justify her success. I didn’t want to speak for Claire.

“Why isn’t she happy?”

“She’s the happiest right before she attains her goal,” I said.

Terra put a hand to her head.

“Headache again?”

She nodded and squeezed her eyes shut.

“Do pain relievers help? Or is that silly?”

“That’s sweet of you,” Terra smiled, then bolted up from bed in a sudden motion: “She needs our help.”

“What’s wrong?”

She stomped to the window. “We need to make sure the fossil is real. And I’m useless. Stuck here on Earth.”

“I thought you said she doesn’t need my help.”

Terra rushed to the kitchen and grabbed a plate from the dishwasher and furiously scrubbed it. “We need to clean the samples,” she said through gritted teeth. She turned abruptly. “You need to help, too. Don’t look at me like I’m crazy.”

“Let’s get some fresh air,” I said, opening a window.

“Oh my god!” She pushed me aside and slammed the window shut. “You’ll let out the hab air! The O2 is low as it is. Are you trying to kill us?”

I edged toward her. She was malfunctioning. “Calm down.”

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

Could she physically hurt me? Was that allowed? I wasn’t sure. And I was afraid talking to the guide voice might trigger her, so instead, I took her hand and gently massaged her palms. I pulled her in, folding her into me.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.

“Are you confused?”

“It’s nothing,” she said.

“It’s not nothing.”

She leaned against me on the couch for a long time until she fell asleep.

“Her mind is calibrating,” the guide voice said. “The fossil discovery has perturbed its neural net.”

“What should I do?”

“It’s cleaning out old memories. The avatar is rejecting the stress it perceives from Claire. It’s imperative that you bring a harmonious relationship to your—”

“Shut up. Just…shut up.” I didn’t want to hear the word “harmony” again.

To cheer her up, I took Terra to our favorite bubble tea shop. A robot shaped like a plastic milk tea cup rolled up and asked in Mandarin, “What would you like to order?”

“Honey milk, but no bubbles, please,” Terra said.

“You should try them. They make the balls in-house,” I said.

She stuck her tongue out. “They’re too chewy.”

“I have an idea. Could I get the bubbles on the side? Oh, and some jellies.”

“I hate jellies,” Terra squealed.

“Don’t worry, we’re not eating them. I want to show you something.”

Hao de,” the robot said. The order adjusted on its display.

The robot faced Terra. “Can the avatar eat?”

“Of course I can eat,” Terra hissed.

“Sorry, I am required by law to ask all avatars. I am not allowed to dispense food for non-masticating models.” The robot bowed. Then a whirring came from inside it. Two boba tea cups dropped down its hatch. I grabbed both, then a clear container dropped down, filled to the brim with glistening tapioca balls and square fruit jellies.

“I thought you could help me with my research.” After sitting at a table, I unfolded a napkin. Young couples sat nearby. I spotted a few other avatars, lights glowing from the back of their necks.

Terra took a deep breath and sipped milk tea while I composed a pile of tapioca balls in the center of a napkin. “Here’s the sun. And here are the planets.” I swirled eight balls around the napkin and dropped clear jellies along the edge of the napkin. “And here’s Planet 9.”

“If it exists.” She winked.

“We haven’t been able to observe it directly. But I know it’s there.” I scattered jellies across the napkin. “These are the tiny objects whose orbits have been affected by Planet 9. It’s cold and lonely out where it would be, hundreds of times further from the Sun than Earth.”

“Planets don’t have feelings, Reu,” Terra said. “And we’ve gone through all this before.”

“It helps to explain these concepts again…to someone else.”

“Like Claire.”

“Well, I thought you might see something she doesn’t. Look—Planet 9 might make an approach again to the sun. Its orbit is extremely eccentric, like a super stretched out circle, so it could take a thousand years,” I said. “We’ll still be around. We just need to be patient.”

“Always the optimist.” She poked the jelly pile. “What if there’s more than one Planet 9?” Her eyes sparkled. She toppled the pile and spread the jellies across the napkin. “Planet 10, 11, 12, 13…100! What if you should be looking for smaller masses, Reu?”

After a decade of studying Planet 9, I could peruse the mystery as if it were a grand labyrinth in my mind—its well-worn dead ends littered with sticky notes filled with observations, questions, and failures. The multiple body theory had been posited before, but something about what Terra said, combined with seeing the configuration of jellies laid out on the napkin, made me want to return to that dead end again. A path was there.

Terra took a sip of tea. “What are you smiling about?”

Losing an avatar seemed impossible. Even the cheapest models had sophisticated algorithms that would ensure that they stick close to their owners. It’d been a week since the epiphany at the boba shop, and I’d been heads down at the research institute. I came home early and couldn’t find her. She wasn’t in the living room or the kitchen. Her closet was a mess, clothes strewn everywhere.

How long had she been gone? Had someone stolen her? I turned on the emergency tracker. The dot was located at a nearby park.

I ran down the wide avenues lined with rows of trees and bicycles, dodging bikes and food vendors. I flew past the gated entrance where a group of ladies was practicing tai chi.

A figure was crouched near the old temple on the hill. A shovel in their hand. They were digging. It was Terra. She was wearing Claire’s space suit.

“What are you doing?” I was out of breath after clambering up the hill. In the haze of the smog, the sun cast a red hue across the ground. She pointed and said something, but I couldn’t hear her through the helmet.

“Take that off.”

She shook her head, then bent down to pick up a rock. Her eyes widened. We struggled for a brief moment before the helmet came loose.

“I can’t breathe…” she gasped. Her hair was matted with sweat.

“You’re having another episode. Guide voice, please assist.” But it didn’t respond.

“I found it. Life,” she proclaimed. “These creatures must have made the fossils.” She pointed at an ant crawling on the rock. “They appear to be insect-like. Curiously like the ones on Earth.”

“We’re on Earth.”

“This discovery is mine,” she said. “Can’t you see?” She lifted the rock. The ants scrambled across its surface, looking for a path back to Earth.

The CNSA technicians chatted in hushed tones. I made out only a few phrases in Mandarin:

“She had…hallucination…”

“…not possible…”

“…communication problem…”

“…against nature…”

Cords snaked out from the seams in Terra’s neck into terminals filled that scrolled endlessly. I held her hand. “Terra, can you hear me?”

She nodded. Her eyes were alert. “I know what I did was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself.”

“Why is it responding to that name?” the younger technician said.

“I go by Terra now.”

“Your name is Ying Yue.”

“It’s my name and no one can take that away,” she said.

The technician pecked at a keyboard. “It doesn’t even know its own identity. I recommend a full reset.”

“No,” Terra said. Her lips quivered. “I don’t want to lose any memories.”

“You will retain everything from the moment you were powered on,” the young tech said.

She shook her head. “It won’t be the same. Tell him, Reu.”

“Is there another choice?” I asked.

The tech shook his head. “You are jeopardizing the mission by resisting—”

“Stop,” the older tech said. His eyes squinted behind thick-framed glasses. “It is obvious from the logs that Reuben has been in harmony with Ms. Ying.”

“But Ms. Ying’s avatar is malfunctioning. It’s not safe,” the young tech said.

The lead technician flicked the screen. A stream of videos began to play. It was my avatar—in a space suit gathering samples from the soil, in the lab adjusting a microscope for Claire, and laughing with the crew during communal meals in the hab’s kitchen.

“Reuben, whatever you’ve been doing here on Earth, it’s been translating to your Mars avatar.” He reached his hand behind my neck, tapping the spot where the transmitter was. “Keep doing what you are doing.”

“What about Terra?” I said.

“Is she causing trouble? We can turn her off.”

“No! She’s just…her own person now.” I realized that the past few months reminded me of why I fell in love with Claire in the first place. “What should we do?”

“Do what you like,” he said. “Terra—as you call her—is a sunk cost.”

Terra grabbed the technician’s hand. “Can you do one thing for me?”

The tech nodded.

“Disconnect me from Claire. Cut off the signals from her transmitter.”

Terra and I settled into a new routine. She took her mind off of Mars, and instead, helped me with Planet 9 research.

We found an old draft research paper entitled “A Multiple Body Theory of Extreme Trans-Neptunian Objects.” It’d been sitting on my computer this entire time. Ignored. Like Planet 9 itself.

Terra joined me at the research institute where we spent months poring over telescope scans. She proved to be a fierce negotiator, responsible for getting us the telescope time we needed.

She was there when the head of CNSA called to congratulate me. The gruff voice echoed from my phone set to speaker mode. “Reuben Chang, I heard the news. How did you suspect Planet 9 would be a cluster of planetoids and not a single body?”

I glanced at Terra. “It was Terra’s idea.”

“Who is that? You’ll need to tell me later. I am having our teams draft up a plan for probes,” he continued. “One day, we will conduct a manned mission to the Chang Group.”

“What, sir?”

“That is correct. We’re naming them after you.”

Terra beamed at me. “We need to celebrate,” she said. That day, we went to the tattoo parlor, where she had the eight planetoids appended to her wrist:

· · · · · · · ·

My favorite place to clear my head was at Jingxiu Park. It was the same place where Terra had malfunctioned with the suit. The park’s closed at night, but it’s easy to hop the chains. Usually, I took Terra, but tonight, I wanted to be alone for some reason.

I set up my old telescope at a bench alongside the temple. The moss-laden arches glowed under the incandescent lamps. The structure had been here hundreds—maybe thousands—of years, watching us humans build new buildings, destroy them, build rockets that would fly us into space.

The amateur telescope grounded me. Even through the light pollution, I found solace in holding the weighty instrument and having the light from distant stars pierce through a physical viewfinder, touching my eyes directly.

A message buzzed my phone as I let my mind wander the sky. It was from Claire. Notifications cascaded down my screen—messages from friends, emails from acquaintances, and WeChat messages:

Congrats to your wife. You must be proud!

Are you going to Mars too?

You’ve renewed my faith in God.

Remember that life on Earth is unique and sacred.

I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.

I didn’t have to read Claire’s message to know what had happened.

I pulled up the People’s Daily. Claire’s face stared at me from the front page.

“We found the live microbes right after we found the fossils. I couldn’t tell you.” Her voice croaked, like she’d been talking all night, preparing for this message; the bags under her eyes betrayed her calm demeanor. “You have to understand why we sealed communications. The CCP was being cautious. There could have been riots if we didn’t message in the right way. And it’s not like I’m an expert at talking to the public. My avatar wouldn’t have known, either, so don’t blame her.”

“We wouldn’t have known anyway,” Terra whispered. Claire and Terra had both disconnected their transmissions, but for different reasons.

My avatar nudged Claire in the video. “Tell him,” he said. “You can’t keep this from him.”

Claire swallowed and stared with detachment at the camera. What was wrong? Had one of the crew members died? Was the mission being cut short?

“I’m not coming back. None of us are. The crew has decided to make this their life’s work.”

The message continued. It felt as if the floorboards beneath my feet splintered as the ceiling caved in. I knew this could happen, but we never discussed it, never voiced it to each other, and immediately, I knew that it was my fault as well—I had never explored the possibility of Claire staying on Mars, never investigated that particular dead end in the labyrinth of our relationship. Perhaps this ignorance made it easier for both of us to attain our personal goals. And now, my heart had been sucked into a black hole, unable to escape to see light ever again. And yet, at the same time, a sense of release washed over me. The black hole had transformed into a wormhole.

And I was through to the other side.

Terra braided her hands with mine. “I didn’t know…”

“…and your avatar,” Claire continued. “He’s been so supportive. He’s made it possible for me to make this decision.” She beamed. “To be brave even when the world didn’t believe in me.”

I took the elevator up to the roof with Terra. From here, the infinite Beijing skyline spread out below us. The pale pink dot—Claire’s home—sparkled near the horizon.

“It’s time for us to move on,” I said.

“I’m here for you,” Terra said. “I’m serious. I learned all I could about her. I can be here for you.”

“Do you remember that first year in college? How we used to sit on the roof of our dorm and try to identify as many constellations as possible?”

She shook her head.

“Not in your archive. Of course,” I said. “I know you don’t want to be a younger version of Claire. You want to be up there.” I raised a finger upwards. “You’re just like her. That’s why I love you, too.”

“I can forget all about space, Reu,” Terra said. “If you want me to.”

I shook my head. “I’m not the same Reuben anymore. I don’t want us both to be stuck in that time—that period when Claire and I aligned. I have to be honest with myself. With you. With Claire.”

We snuggled under the stars until the cold from the cement seeped into our bodies. Discovering those new planetoids had made everything else meaningless. When you solve your life’s work, you can lose your sense of purpose.

Claire’s voice from the video message echoed through my head: “…but there’s good news. Now that we discovered life, China is increasing space funding one hundred fold. We’re not pulling back anymore, not when the whole world is watching. They want to start expeditions to all the inner planets. Even the gas giants. And they want me to head up the mission. It’s going to be a long journey. And you know what we need? A map. Your map.”

Terra sat up. “If they’re sending probes to the Chang group, then I want to go.” It was still surreal to hear that name out loud. “I need to go,” she said.

The last time I had this conversation, we were on the roof of our dorm looking up at the same sky, wondering about our futures.

She pointed to her wrist. “I thought I couldn’t have the same dreams as her. That I was bound to whatever harmonious program that I was designed for. But it isn’t true. What I’ve done is proof of that.”

I pulled her on top of me and gazed into her eyes. They sparkled like stars. Even though Claire and I would never be together again, we would still be a team. My role had always been on Earth, mapping out the orbits. And Terra, she was the prototype that CNSA needed—an avatar that truly yearned for the stars as much as Claire did.

The expanse of space and time might cleave us apart, but our fates would remain tied together. Yes, saying goodbye to Terra would bruise my soul yet again. But that would come later.

I held her tight as the stars and planets wheeled above.

 

(Editors’ Note: “In The Space of Twelve Minutes is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 36B.)

As if My Flesh was Summer Soil

I make the bed as my mother taught me,

smoothing sheets corner to corner, curve to curve,

crisp and white, smelling of bleach

and the flowery sachets

she stuffs into linen closets and cedar chests,

as if she could trick those

cramped and lightless spaces to bloom.

I fluff the pillows, three sharp blows,

the feathers expanding inside

as if they might take wing and escape

if only I hit them hard enough.

 

In my belly, my sparrow stirs,

 

a familiar flutter beneath my heart.

I smooth my hand over my navel

as my mother taught me,

to hide the jabs of beak and bone,

the stirring of clawed feet,

kicking for purchase as if my flesh

was summer soil, ripe and fertile.

I fold my hand over my belly

as my mother once did

when I too was a tangle of

wet feathers and ancient urges,

as if I, too, could trick nature

into believing there is

life beating its way

out of me.

 

(Editors’ Note: “As if My Flesh was Summer Soil is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 36B.)

Juvenilia

In the winter of 19–, having newly arrived in England, and still recovering from the nervous indisposition which had afflicted me greatly ever since my circumstances during the war, I responded to an advertisement placed in the Yorkshire Post, for the position of caretaker in an old, near-abandoned Elizabethan mansion called Wildfell Hall.

Who in truth owned it, I did not know. I was met at the train station of the nearby village by a young London solicitor, who informed me cheerfully that I was the only applicant.

“It is a bit unusual to hire a woman for the job,” he said, then shrugged, dismissing the matter. “But in truth your duties will not be too onerous.”

He took me for the short drive up to the Hall in his red Triumph Roadster, speaking all the while, and I got the distinct impression that he had partaken of a large quantity of that powder which we used to call “snow”.

“There is a housekeeper as well as a gardener,” he said, “and guests of the proprietor may sometimes come and go at odd times. You may not even notice them, in truth, for the house is rather large. Your pay will be four pounds and a threepence a week, which I trust is sufficient—?”

I indicated that, indeed, it was more than generous, and mentioned that my personal needs were meagre.

The young solicitor nodded pleasantly enough but seemed barely to hear me. We came round a bend in the road, past a flock of sheep in a field, and I beheld the Hall.

It had seen better days. Its architecture, I suppose, would have been in the old Gothic style, though I myself preferred the newer Modernist structures that were coming up everywhere after the war. We drove in through the gates and along the path to the house.

The solicitor pressed the horn of the car several times. A stooped and elderly man with a big bushy beard and eyebrows as thick as branches ambled over holding garden shears.

“You’re making a nuisance to the birds,” he said.

The solicitor, taken aback, laughed nervously. The old man ignored him and shook my hand with his rough, calloused hand.

“Name’s Acton,” he said. “You will be taking over from old Thorp, I take it?”

“I…I suppose so,” I said. I had not given a thought to my predecessor, though naturally enough there would have been one.

Acton grunted. “You will do well not to wander the grounds by yourself after dark, Miss,” he told me. “On account of the animals.”

“What animals?” I asked, mildly alarmed at the prospect. He merely grunted again.

“I shall leave you to it,” he said. He nodded to me pleasantly enough and wandered off, shears in hand.

“A curious fellow,” the solicitor said, “but harmless. Now, shall we go in?”

I followed him through the large doors into a gloomy hallway, where an aproned woman with flour on her hands rushed to meet us.

“Hello, hello!” she said. She dusted her hands on her apron. “You must be the new girl. I’m Mrs. Robinson, but you can call me Agnes. You must be full of questions!”

“I…no.”

It occurred to me I had none to offer. The war had taught me not to ponder or to ask. I showed no curiosity of the outside world. I followed only that which was directly in front of me.

“Oh,” Mrs. Robinson said. “Well, that’s easy, then. There are only really three rules. No smoking in bed, no disturbing the proprietor’s guests if any are present, and you must never go into the North Tower.”

I offered in return that I did not smoke.

“Well,” the solicitor said, “when can you start?”

I hefted my small portmanteau and said that now would be as good a time as any.

The solicitor looked pleased at this news. He seemed eager to return to London and with plenty of daylight yet. He bid me farewell, tipped his hat to Mrs Robinson, and soon we heard the roar of the engine as he drove away.

“Let me show you to your room,” Mrs. Robinson said.

I quickly settled into my new life. As the solicitor had indicated, my duties were indeed far from onerous. The groundskeeper, old Acton, ably took care of the extensive grounds. He kept strictly outdoors and never came into the Hall. He lived in a small cottage in the village and always departed promptly before nightfall.

Mrs. Robinson, too, lived in the village. She arrived every morning and left around the same time as Acton. Mostly, she occupied herself in the kitchen, cooking pies and roasts and great big feasts, though who they were all for I didn’t find out until much later. She maintained an air of good cheer and listened to the Light Programme on the wireless, and was an avid follower of a new radio drama broadcast there called the Archers. She kept a running commentary on the doings of these fictional people whenever I ran into her.

Mostly, though, I saw no one. At night the Hall was all but deserted. I took to wandering the old corridors with the aid of a lantern, and my main purpose seemed to be to deter any vandals, or more likely bored youth, from breaking in. It was an old building and the wooden boards creaked when you stepped on them. There were sudden cold spots, and mysterious breezes where there were no windows. Old portraits done in oils stared down from the walls in stern disapproval with eyes that seemed alive with malice. And the place could be very quiet.

I did not mind it. There was nothing very scary about a creak in the night, not after the horrors I’d experienced in Europe during the war. The portraits were just paintings and the cold spots and the draughts no doubt owed their existence to the eccentricity of Elizabethan architecture.

Nevertheless, that is not to say there were no strange going-ons. At certain times I became aware of distant sounds, as though of many feet coming and going. I heard men—they were mostly men—talking, and the clink of cutlery and glasses, and from time to time they would break into song.

These events coincided with the times Mrs. Robinson prepared her feasts, and so I surmised that these must be those guests of the proprietor of whom I’d been told. I tried in vain to locate their accommodations, but whenever I believed I came close I would turn the corridor and the sound would grow faint and then vanish altogether. The voices were indistinct, but from time to time I could make out some repeated words, though they made no sense to me: Angria, Gondal, Verdopolis. And the song they sang was always the same, a mournful yet defiant marching song, of the sort the soldiers in the army used to sing.

It was a soldiers’ song, I was sure of it.

As the months passed I grew more accustomed to the Hall and its little eccentricities. I passed through vast dining rooms where the furniture was covered in white sheets; small bedrooms with unlit fireplaces where no guest had slept for a hundred years or more; curious display rooms where some ancients’ long-forgotten collections were put behind glass. In one room it was stuffed reptiles, another was filled with endless oil paintings of fantastical lands, yet another showed nothing but foreign coins.

Only gradually did I begin to pay attention to the details. The coins, for instance, were from no realm that I knew. Some were from Northangerland, and bore the profile of its duke, Alexander Percy. Others were from The Glass Town Federation, and others still came from the island-nation of Gondal, curious blackened discs with a hole in their centre and a strange cursive script on their sides.

Once, just when I had given up searching for the mysterious strangers who came and went from the Hall at all hours, I was doing my rounds when I stumbled into a room I had never seen before, and much to my surprise it was filled almost to capacity by young people.

They looked up at me in some surprise, and I looked back with an equal bemusement, for I had not heard a sound until I stumbled right into them.

They were young, as I said, dressed in a bewildering array of clothing, and numbered both men and women amongst them. They sat at long, communal tables, where I could discern some leftovers of Mrs. Robinson’s sumptuous food, but what drew my attention, even more so than the military-style maps spread out on the tables, and which they were perusing, were the guns.

They had all manners of side arms and rifles, freshly-oiled, and these young people looked like nothing other than soldiers preparing to go into war.

“Hello, there,” I said.

“Hello yourself,” said a young man.

“Did not mean to bother you,” I said, for I remembered Mrs. Robinson’s instructions.

“No harm done,” he said pleasantly. “You are a friend of the cause?”

“I am merely the caretaker.”

He nodded at that.

“Is that an Enfield rifle?” I said.

“It is.”

“And I see you have a Sten machine gun.”

“You know your arms,” he said, surprised.

“I had seen them used,” I said. “The war—”

“That was only the start,” he said. “Now we must fight for liberation. Too long have the Zamorna clan ruled Angria. The occupation must end.”

“I see,” I said; though of course I didn”t. “Will you be staying long?”

“We will be on our way soon,” he said, though he did not elaborate.

“Then I shall bid you good night,” I said. “And—good luck?”

“We make our own luck,” he said, but he smiled as he said it. “Thank you, Miss.”

As I left them, closing the doors carefully behind me, they broke into that song again, and this time I heard it clearly:

Through Jibble Kumri, the Mountains of the Moon

We march to serve our queen

We sail from Gondal, past the sandy plains of Etrei

We laugh at Gaaldine!

 

To Sneaky’s Land!

And through the Howard Moors

to Glass Town! To Verdopolis!

We’ll burn Northangria to the ground

To serve our rebel queen

I could hear the song for a long time after that. And then there was silence, and the next night and the next I saw and heard nothing more.

One Sunday, I wandered down to the village for a fête that took place on the green. It was a pleasant day, with nary a cloud in the sky. Laughing children darted here and there like mayflies. I saw old Acton by the cider tent, having a merry old time, and he waved to me cheerfully but we did not engage in talk. I stood on my own awhile, enjoying the relative warmth of the sun.

A band played “Comes A-Long A-Love”, and old and young flocked to dance before the bandstand. It was then that I felt a tap on my shoulder and, turning, saw a young man in a somewhat threadbare suit smiling at me.

“You seem all alone and I’m in need of a partner,” he said.

I said, “I do not dance,” but he merely laughed and took my hand in his.

“Come on,” he said. He led me to the front of the bandstand and before I knew it I was dancing, and enjoying myself, too. I had not danced like that since before the war broke out. I thought I had forgotten how to.

“That was fun,” the young man said when the song ended. He shook my hand, very formally. “I’m Edward.”

I introduced myself and we talked for a long while, very naturally. Edward laughed often, and seemed delighted at the idea that I was up at the old Hall.

“They say it’s haunted,” he said. “And strange lights can be seen moving inside at night.”

“I’m afraid that’s just me,” I said. “Doing my rounds. There’s no great mystery.”

“What happened to the old caretaker?” he said. “Thorp?”

“I…” It occurred to me I had no idea. “I assumed he’d retired.”

Then the band struck again and Edward, laughing, dragged me along for another dance, and then another.

I saw Edward frequently after that, for a while. We took long walks together through the peaceful countryside, and once, on my day off, rode the train to the nearby town to a picture house, where we saw Moulin Rouge with Zsa Zsa Gabor. That film, so full of vivid Technicolor, was a reminder for me once and for all that the grey, oppressive old world I had lived in for so long was gone. It was a new age, with new music, new architecture, a world of the imagination made manifest.

Edward and I rode the train back to the village late that evening, and when we parted ways we kissed.

Usually I remained well within the building in the night-time; but now, as I came in through the side gate after my evening with Edward, I was reminded suddenly and uncomfortably of the groundskeeper’s warning.

While in the daytime the grounds seemed pleasant and well-manicured, I had to admit they had a different aura at night. The Hall seemed distant; an owl cooed disconcertingly and took flight above my head, startling me; the roots seemed to want to trip me as I wandered ahead, half-blind in the moonless dark.

Of course, I knew there was nothing to fear. One should not be scared of an owl. Only children fear the dark. And roots are just the sort of thing you find where there are trees.

But knowing and feeling are not always compatible. I resolved to walk carefully, aiming for the grand silhouette of the Hall that I could see, ahead of me, in the distance. And it was in this manner, quite absorbed, that I proceeded, until I came face to face with the panther.

It was suddenly there, and I froze.

Yellow eyes measured me. The panther was black, almost invisible in the darkness. It opened its jaw and yawned.

I didn’t dare move.

The panther regarded me for a long moment more. I stood there frozen, barely daring to breathe. Then it licked its maw, lost interest in me, and in another moment vanished altogether.

I ran the rest of the way back to the Hall and did not rest until the doors were locked shut behind me.

I continued to see Edward for a while, and we grew close. He, however, was soon offered a position with a large accounting firm in the capital. It was a sad day when we parted ways at the train station, though we continued to exchange letters.

One night, on my rounds, I heard the distant noise of camaraderie and song which signalled the arrival of more guests. As usual, they were in some part of the Hall which I could not reach, however much I tried. As I wandered the corridors I found myself staring at a door I had not seen before and, pushing it open, found myself in an old library.

It was dark inside and when I raised my lantern up I thought, for just a moment, that I could see a human shape, stooped with age and dressed all in black, near a bookcase halfway across the room. As I approached, however, I could see no one, and once more felt myself entirely alone. I moved the light along the shelves all the same, and found row upon row of miniature manuscripts. When I opened one I saw that it was written in a dense, tiny script which was entirely unintelligible to me. There were drawings and maps inside, however, and these I recognised. Here was the Glass Town Republic again, somewhere in an Africa which never, to my knowledge, existed. Here was the South Pacific island of Gaaldine, and here was Sneaky’s Land. There were portraits, too, of Zamorna, King of Angria, and his enemy the Duke of Northangerland.

And for the first time I saw a portrait of that rebel queen, Quashia Quamina, princess of the Ashantee.

Who wrote and drew in these notebooks I didn’t know. They were old, at least a century old. It felt wrong to disturb them. I replaced the volumes carefully on the shelves and departed the library, shutting the door gently behind me. That night, unable to sleep, I stared for a long time out of my window and saw, in the grounds, a herd of lions stalking an elephant in the distance, besides the vanity water feature that was built in the Gertrude Jekyll style.

That night, for the first time since the war, I lit a cigarette, and smoked it reclining in my bed. I soon put it out, and carefully, but still. It occurred to me then that I had now broken two of the three strictures Mrs. Robinson had handed me.

A few weeks later a missive arrived from the solicitors in London. A female scholar was to arrive at the Hall momentarily, and I was to extend her all courtesy. Mrs. Robinson bustled about in the kitchen, and old Acton trimmed the hedges as though preparing for a royal visit. The truth was we never received visitors, other than those mysterious guests of the proprietor’s.

The scholar, a Mrs. Ellis, arrived promptly on the due date. She carried herself with an almost military bearing, but was pleasant enough. Her research, she explained, concerned a family of authors, the Brontës of Haworth. I confessed to not having read them.

“There were three sisters, all quite famous,” she said. “A brother too, but he didn’t publish anything of substance. But I am interested not in their adult work.” She looked at me sternly, as though imparting some great and secret knowledge. “Rather, their juvenilia. As children they developed an extraordinary imaginary world, peopled with the most fantastical creations.”

“I see,” I said, though in truth I didn’t.

“I was hoping I may find some trace of it here,” she said. “One of their notebooks or even a letter. I did discover a map of it that they drew. It is the most charming thing, with place names such as Monkeys’ Island and Gondal and the Forests of Hawkscliff and, well, so on.”

I nodded numbly, but could offer no words of my own. Mrs. Ellis, no doubt dismissing me as something of an imbecile, was perfectly capable of occupying herself. She spent several days in and around the Hall, poking about in the dusty old rooms, then returned reluctantly to London, having found, she told Mrs. Robinson, nothing of interest.

The letters from Edward continued to arrive. He wrote that he enjoyed his work, that his duties weren’t onerous, that the capital thrummed with the sound of rebuilding and that powdered eggs were not so bad once you got used to them. He enquired gently if I would consider coming up to London.

But my duties at Wildfell Hall kept me busy. Each night I wandered the long corridors, tracing endless patterns throughout the empty halls, my feet silent on the threadbare carpets. Several times I heard a commotion in the distance, the shouts of men and the firing of rifles, running feet, the sound of heavy objects being dragged. Then it would all fall silent again.

One night, I turned a corner and found myself again in that long gallery where I had previously encountered the rebels. There was no one there, but the chairs were upturned and there was dried blood on the tables. I saw discarded ammunition and blood-soaked bandages on the floor, and an embroidered banner of Quashia Quamina, the rebel queen, but torn and soiled.

The door at the end of the galley had been left half-open. I walked through that silent, cavernous room, remembering the young, cheerfully determined women and men I had last seen inside it. Now it felt like a tomb.

There was light behind the door. I pulled it open then and stepped through into the city that lay beyond.

For what seemed like hours I walked the deserted avenues of Verdopolis. What must have once been a prosperous, bustling city was now entirely empty. Not even feral cats lived there. The signs on the shops were faded, as though they had hung in the hot African sunshine for far too long, perhaps a century or more. Many of the windows were broken and dust gathered everywhere. Here and there hung framed pictures of Zamorna, the king of Angria, too faint now to even make out his face. In one shop I went to I found mouldy books, the paper rotting to the touch. In the offices of a long-vanished shipping company I found ancient manifestos for commercial cargo destined to Gondal, Monkey’s Island, Sneaky’s Land. The city must have once been vibrant, full of colour, music and light. Now it had the quiet calm of a cemetery.

As I crossed one major avenue I thought I saw a human figure up ahead. Stooped and old and dressed in black, she stood quietly in the shadow of a colonial building. She turned at the sound of my footsteps. I could not make out her face clearly, for she was in the shade. She walked inside. I followed, for she was the first living thing I had seen in all that time there. I followed her in through the door and found myself back in Wildfell Hall.

“I still go there, sometimes,” she said. “In the evening of the evening of my life I think of all that could have been and wasn’t. You should have seen it in its heyday. All the people coming and going, and the festivities and the intrigue…oh, how we loved it there. In England we were girls, then women, but in both cases little more than chattel. Only there, in Angria and Gondal, could we be free.”

“You’re her,” I said. “You’re Quashia Quamina.”

The old woman laughed. “I’m Anne,” she said.

I looked around me, at the oak panelled walls, the deep carpet, the high ceiling, and only then realised I had entered the North Tower—and that I had, however inadvertently, now broken all three of Mrs. Robinson’s rules.

“There was my brother, too, of course,” Anne said. “As the rest of us grew and spent more and more time in the world as it was, he retreated further into the world as we dreamed it to be. In his own way he was as much a prisoner as we were. He might be there, still, though I never found him, no matter how much I look.”

“It is pretty, there,” I said.

“Pretty,” she said, “was never the point.”

“The ones who came here,” I said. “The ones who went, did they…?”

She shrugged. “Dreamers,” she said. “But it is no use. That place is gone.”

“Juvenilia,” I said, remembering Mrs. Ellis’ words.

Anne looked at me sharply.

“Excuse me?”

“It was something that—” I left it trailing.

“Listen,” the old woman said. “Do you have anyone? Someone who loves you?”

I thought of Edward, up in London.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I heard there was a war, outside,” she said.

“Yes.”

“Is that why you are here? You are hiding from the outside?”

My silence was all the admission she needed.

“We never hid,” she said. “We never had the luxury. The world was what it was and we were in it fully, in the short time we had. What we made for ourselves, it wasn’t an escape. It was illumination.”

“Yes,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say.

She shook her head at me. “This Hall has stood for a long time, and it can weather the years well enough with or without you. Go into the world. Live your life. The world isn’t nice and living isn’t easy, but it is all we have. And if it grows harsh and the lights dim, there is still Gondal, or places like it. They are in your mind and in your heart, and when you need them, they will be there for you.”

She looked at me kindly.

“Go,” she said.

It took me a moment to realise she had dismissed me.

I remained at Wildfell Hall a few months more. I never went back into the North Tower. Then, one crisp morning in the summer of 19–, I made my way to the village on foot, with my meagre belongings in hand, and when the next train came I boarded it.

I did not know where I would go and what I would do; but in the time I still had, I was determined now to find out.

 

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

fair exchange

you who bred us for the abattoir,

you who taught us justice

is a nothing-word of poisoned air—

remember us.

 

you with your honeyed terror and scalpel-lies,

you with a red-soft hollow in your ribcage

in which filth and secrets fester—

here is my eye.

 

I have plucked it out and pressed it

into this space meant for a pulsing heart, a

peace offering of blood and viscera

when I have nothing else left to give.

take it. crush it. swallow it up.

I dare you.

in return all I ask for is your tooth (for a tooth)

and your claws sharp as fragments of innocence.

for nothing belongs to my kin and

nothing has ever belonged to us—

not our hearts, our eyes,

nor the names torn from our riddled tongues,

certainly not our cheap allegiance.

 

tell me my sightlessness tastes like sweet guilt down the throat.

tell me it chokes you and keeps you

awake at night with all this seeing,

too much seeing, in the screaming bright.

tell me I am vermin, I am an empty hissing canister, I am

nothing but foul dust in the rain.

tell me something real. now.

since my youth is on the pyre and my future mutilated,

allow me to pawn you a blindfold prophecy

for the price of a song

and the dignity of a good death.

 

you, my executioner, I have nothing more to say to you.

I am speaking to a crack in a moss-broken wall,

and no words have ever been spoken here.

 

(Editors’ Note: “fair exchange is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 35B.)

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