She has perfected the art of coming apart, splitting herself from herself.
Night falls and hunger claws her belly from the inside out. Scapulae
shift and willing flesh parts; her wings muscle free. A snap of the wings
and a twist of the waist. She is undone.

Legs left bedside, the better part of her glides through the open
window. Soaring into darkness, seeking those that slumber. She feasts
on hearts ripe with love and rancid with hate; tender lungs gently
scented with breath; the bitterness of livers.

Sino siya? A living woman halved, a magician’s wet dream? Ano siya?
A nightmare? No. A woman tearing herself apart in order to live is
nothing new.

Confessions of an Adjacent Geek

The other day, I was helping my mom pack to move, while watching old Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns in the background, and I asked her whether she considered herself a Star Trek fan. Even though it was she who introduced me to Star Trek in the first place, and I consider myself a second-generation Star Trek fan, I never really thought about whether Star Trek was that much a part of her identity that she considered herself an actual fan of the show, the way she would, say, Law and Order (which she has an encyclopedic knowledge of).

I grew up with her stories about her watching reruns of Star Trek: The Original Series when she was pregnant with me, and memories of watching TOS around the kitchen table during Sunday dinner after church, but even so, my mom is definitely Not Geeky, so I had no clue how she self-identified her own connection to the franchise.

So I asked her:

“Mom… do you consider yourself to be a Star Trek fan?”

A pause.

“Oh, well, I mean I guess I do,” she responded hesitantly. “I mean, up to Deep Space Nine, I hated the one with Janeway, what was that one called?”


“Oh yeah, I hated that one,” and then she proceeded to talk about Avery Brooks and the Borg for 20 minutes.

My conversation with my mom got me thinking a lot about what it means to continue to connect with fandom as identity—or not—at different points in your life. It’s an especially interesting thing to think about during a time when geek culture is deeply entrenched in mainstream pop culture, and participatory fan culture as a lifestyle has become more socially acceptable, even embraced. The performance of fandom identity—and by “performance” I mean how we publicly signify, display, and share our fandom—is often shaped by access and the sociocultural communities you identify with. Having welcoming access to spaces—physical or virtual—where you publicly share and connect with others in a fandom makes all the difference in how, or if, you connect with a fandom as an expression of your identity. For my mom, growing up as a Black woman in the 1950s and 60s, her Star Trek fandom (such that it was) was peripheral in her sense of identity and self. But I do wonder if things would have been different if she had known of spaces or connected with communities that shared her fannish interests.

Maybe, maybe not. My mom had other things in her formative years—her church, her community activism, her kids—to be the focus of her day-to-day sense of identity. But Star Trek, and the universes and possibilities of its stories, was important enough to her to want to share it with someone—namely me and my stepfather—every weekend. We were a fandom micro-community of sorts, and I personally discovered an entry point to geek fandom identity through them that carried me into my own adulthood, even if that wasn’t her intention.

My mom watched a lot of Trek in her early adulthood, but she’s not deeply into SF/F otherwise. She doesn’t read comics. She doesn’t know what a con is, even though I go to at least one every year, and have to re-explain it to her every time I do. But she also has strong opinions about her favorite films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and has tried, with interest, to watch all of the Star Wars films with me (even though she can’t get through them all).

She’s generally “geek adjacent,” which is the kind of baseline knowledge of geek-focused media that most casual followers of pop culture have. By comparison, between the grounding of her Star Trek influence and the language and expressions of geek culture that surrounded me (X-Men comics at the grocery store, Star Wars action figures for Christmas, Robotech on local TV), geek culture was an everyday part of my childhood life and conversation with friends in my largely Black middle-class neighborhood. Even so, geek fandom as a self-identifier for my own identity wasn’t really a concept for me growing up either. I didn’t know about or participate in the more traditional signifiers of contemporary geek fandom: going to cons, participating in on- or offline fan communities, or hanging out in comic book shops, until I went off to college.

But as I settle firmly into middle age, I actually feel pretty geek-adjacent as well, at least by contemporary standards of fan engagement. I’m pretty behind on every single geek franchise out there; when I was younger, I would have been at opening night for every Star Trek, MCU and Star Wars movie premiere, but now I’m very happy to wait a couple of weeks, or even just wait for the movie to go to streaming. A lot of this just might be about the shifting life priorities that invariably happen to everyone over time; sometimes you just lose interest in certain media at some point and you move on to something that engages you more.

But much like sociocultural differences, how fandom is defined and performed in the age of social media means different things than they used to. I’m a young Gen-Xer, old enough to remember a time before social media-focused fan communities and the mainstream popularity of fan gatherings and conventions, but also young enough to be a digital native of Twitter, Tumblr, Ao3, etc. What it means to be a fan “in your off time” is different than what it means to be a fan where there is no off-time, when fandom can be a daily, potentially 24-7, pursuit.

Because of that, I’m surprised at myself, at how often I am apologetic, or even reluctant, to define myself as “geek-adjacent” in certain social circles. Early this year I was on a panel at C2E2 in Chicago and I had mentioned Star Trek: Discovery in passing. Afterwards I was approached by a guy who wanted to have a detailed conversation about plotlines, etc., and I had to pump the brakes on his enthusiasm a bit. “I’m not THAT into it, sorry,” I muttered to him, sheepishly. “I’ve only started watching and I probably won’t get to the rest of the season for a bit, I’m kind of busy these days.”

Making that kind of admission can make anyone feel like a “fake fan,” especially when participatory fan culture and content immersion are part of the expectation of “true” fandom. However, it’s exacerbated by the general feelings of imposter syndrome that can come from being a woman of color in fandom spaces. Geek culture has traditionally centered the experiences and perspectives of a very specific kind of fan: the 18-25-year-old white cisgender middle class American male. It’s this so-called “ideal demographic,” his money, his participation, the lifecycle of his fandom, that is primarily courted and rewarded by media companies. This is the person whose lifelong loyalty is primarily valued; and his entry point and consumption within a fan community is usually analyzed and validated.

There’s an assumed baseline of knowledge or behavior for “geek cred,” whether it’s actively policed or not. And when it is policed, it’s often based around racialized and gendered identities, who gets to be seen as a “real” geek, whose cultural memories and activities are seen as valid. I call it the Ready Player One mindset of fandom, based on the Ernest Cline book and Steven Spielberg film where one obsessively geeky white guy’s pop culture interests are essentially the basis of all cultural memory in the book’s dystopia.

When I think about the current rules of engagement/consumption for fandom and what they’ve evolved into, I do sometimes wonder if there’s a room for the person I am now: a “lightly geeky,” casually interested fan with a history of being more highly engaged. It can feel disingenuous to be a “true-but-casual” fan, the kind of fan that drops in and checks out at one’s leisure, but still makes time to occasionally socialize and be present in public fandom spaces, but it especially stands out in spaces that make assumptions about the validity of your fandom and don’t necessarily make room for people like you in the first place.

When white male fandom gatekeepers who do look down on those whose entry points into geek culture come in ways deemed “unconventional” (Marvel Comics fans who were introduced by the MCU, or fans who get introduced to any mainstream geek franchise from reading and writing fanfiction or sharing memes on Tumblr or Twitter), a lot of those unconventional entry points do fall along the many lines of access and community that I previously mentioned: sociocultural, generational, economic. A person of color/white woman/working class fan who may not have access to or feel welcome in traditional geek fandom space may feel more empowered to connect and participate in non-traditional ones where our presence isn’t challenged or questioned.

For such fans, what it means to be a fan, to do fan participation, often does look different, and that’s fine, and frankly normal, even if some of the traditional “rules of engagement” for fandom tell us otherwise. That’s because those rules are based on very narrow and exclusionary definitions of both fan identity and behavior. There are generations’ worth of marginalized fans whose experiences in fan communities aren’t seen as valid, or acknowledged at all. But fan identity and participation is so much more diverse and complex than the teenaged-white-male-fanboy-at-the-con so prized by mainstream culture. And fandom identity, like identity overall, doesn’t exist in a neat or linear fashion for everyone; for most of us, pastimes, passions, and what grounds our sense of self ebbs, flows, and evolves. Anyone who falls outside of the demographics or behavior that corporations and mainstream culture define as “valuable” fandom have every right to claim the fandom identity that’s important to them, nonetheless.

Even so, it will always be a bit curious to me that the person who introduced me to Star Trek is hesitant to acknowledge her identity as a fan, her adjacent geekness. Her love and passion for the stories and characters of Star Trek inspired me, and my happy childhood memories made enough of an emotional impact on me to embrace geek culture as a formative element of my life and sense of community for many years. But her experience—and mine—are more than valid. My mom can certainly feel justified in calling herself a Star Trek fan even if she still doesn’t know what a con is, but managed to pass on Star Trek knowledge and her admiration of Nyota Uhura to her daughter. And in turn, my “lightly geeky” fandom is real and enduring, even if it takes me another six months to finally finish watching Star Trek: Discovery.

Interview: Jenn Reese

Jenn Reese writes speculative fiction for readers of all ages. Her next book, A Game of Fox & Squirrels, is coming from Henry Holt BYR in 2020. Her short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionFireside MagazineStrange Horizons, and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities, among others. Reese lives in Portland, OR, where she works as a graphic designer, plays video games, and revels in the trees. “A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy” is her first appearance in Uncanny, an uplifting story of identity, superpowers, and girls kissing each other.

Uncanny Magazine: What was the inspiration for this story?

Jenn Reese: The title was gifted to me by author Rachael K. Jones, who said she was hoping for something “super queer.” I did not want to disappoint her. I also knew I wanted something happy, because reading a lot of sad queer stories really gets me down. With those two guidelines but no other plan, I plunged in.

Uncanny Magazine: I love that the story ends on an uplifting note, with the quote “because if evil is a verb, so is hero.” Stories that inspire are so important, especially when the world is dark. What are some of the stories that have inspired you, as a writer or as a person?

Jenn Reese: I almost exclusively read stories with happy or uplifting endings, because I cannot handle anything darker than “bittersweet.” I need to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel before I’ll go anywhere near the tunnel in the first place. Luckily, I read a lot of middle grade novels, which excel at shining lights into darkness. For example, each and every one of Stephanie Burgis’s books gives its reader a better world by the end of the story. Not a simpler world, certainly, but a world with more hope. I also loved Ted Chiang’s latest collection, Exhalation, and particularly the title story. Even when the world is provably ending, the story makes the case for being a good person and reveling in the remaining wonder.

Uncanny Magazine: “A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy” does a lovely job integrating the real-world concerns of fitting in at a new school and finding your identity into a world with superheroes. What was the most challenging part of writing the story? What was the most fun?

Jenn Reese: I love writing in second person, and I had great fun making up the names of superhero classes. The most challenging aspect was keeping this short… I enjoyed the voice so much that I was tempted to turn this into a novel. (And I do not need another novel project right now.) It was very easy to channel the anxiety one feels as an outsider because I’m not sure that ever goes away, at least for me. But at this particular school, it was fun to normalize being queer and keep the feelings of self-doubt related to superpowers.

Uncanny Magazine: If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?

Jenn Reese: Ha, this is an easy one! Ever since I read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King as a kid, I’ve wanted to shapechange into animals. It’s so many superpowers in one: flying, swimming, running far and fast… there’s nothing you can’t do. At its core, though, this power is about freedom, which is a thing I desperately craved growing up.

Uncanny Magazine: In addition to fiction for adults, you also write middle grade—including your forthcoming novel A Game of Fox & Squirrels. What things do you do differently when writing for a middle grade audience? How easy (or difficult) do you find it to switch back and forth?

Jenn Reese: Writing for a different age group is similar to switching genres, in that the readership has a different set of expectations but as a writer, you’re still bringing all the same craft tools to work. One big difference is that I assume younger readers may not be aware of a lot of the tropes older speculative fiction readers have been exposed to for years. Experienced speculative fiction readers usually know what a “generation ship” is, might be able to name some famous dragons, know what a “Groundhog Day” plot looks like. For younger readers, I try not to make any assumptions at all. Your story could contain their first dragon! This has helped me become a better writer for adults as well, especially because so many assumptions about what “everyone knows” are tied to cultural upbringing.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Jenn Reese: More middle grade books! A Game of Fox & Squirrels has been a departure for me—a more contemporary story told with fairy tale underpinnings, rather than the post-collapse far-future of my first trilogy for kids. I’m excited to explore this new space.

Thanks for the great questions, Caroline!

Uncanny Magazine: Thanks for the great answers!

Black Flowers Blossom

I was in the parlour of 427 Cheyne Walk, listening to the occult detective relate his story. I had knowledge of the events of the White Studio—the letter from the artist’s son about his father’s death, the reports of a mysterious pearl-white glow from the studio, and, of course, what happened after—but I wished to hear the full tale from the detective for reasons specific to myself, and thus had adopted the guise of one of the artist’s nephews, eager to hear every detail, naively gasping at every dramatic turn.

I brought a hand up to my mouth in feigned surprise that the village louts, in fact, had nothing to do with the flashes of white light, and the sudden motion made my suit pull uncomfortably against my limbs. I had specifically chosen this suit in order to appear a man of society, but feeling it itch against my skin made me begin, sorely, to regret this farce.

The detective cleared his throat and continued:

“I was determined to cleanse the White Studio of its unwelcome presence that very night. After removing the boards from its windows, I promptly set to work with my hyssop-broom, sweeping a space clear before chalking out a wide circle. Careful to stay within the boundaries of the circle lest I broach my ‘Defense’, I smudged the circle’s exterior with a head of garlic, drew the relevant signs of the Saaamaaa Ritual within it, and fit my Electric Pentacle right around it all.”

“A curious—yet innovative—device,” I said, interrupting before he could describe the Pentacle’s interminable battery-operated vacuum tubes yet again. “Your brilliance must know no bounds, detective.”

He scoffed. “I object to the term ‘brilliance’—I have no pretensions of being a man of intellect, and indeed a man of intellect would not have decided on this particular vocation. Perhaps in another life I might have become an engineer, or somesuch… but I realise you did not travel all the way from Blackburn for such personal digressions. In any case, after that, I settled down to wait for the abominable presence haunting your uncle’s studio. It might have been at three in the morning that I heard the first sound—an uncouth titter that made my back tingle in alarm. I glanced around for the source, and it was at that very instant that a silvery-white figure manifested in the room.

“Most manifestations that I encounter have no fixed features or form, and instead swell and contract as they shift from shape to shape, but it seemed almost as if your uncle’s lifelong obsession with beauty and light had had a palpable effect on the creature. While its lower half stretched and shrank as if it were a piece of silver fabric, its top portion took the form of a pearl-white human face, lips curved into a malevolent grin. The pallid monstrosity slowly drifted back and forth in the room, swaying as it went, a slew of faint giggles accompanying its every movement. It almost appeared as if it was searching for something, if you can understand.

“Despite knowing that I was within the wide barrier of the Pentacle, I felt myself quivering with sheer funk as the manifestation drew closer and closer. Contrary to my initial presumptions, the vacuum tubes had not served to ward the being off, but instead, had become a source of fascination for it. The manifestation coiled its lower half around the very tubes of the Electric Pentacle, and it was then that I understood the full extent of my peril.”

I leaned my form forward slightly. The firelight illuminated the fine hairs on the detective’s cheeks, making them seem almost transparent. His teeth pressed against his lower lip before he continued.

“I had relied on the Pentacle’s spiritual insulation against the Immaterial on many an occasion, particularly after Aster’s fate in the business of the Black Veil. But how was I to deal with a creature that thrived in vacuum, and loved not darkness but the light? And when the rays of dawn came streaming through the window, what would the pale creature do then?”

“My goodness,” I exclaimed, feigning ignorance of the answer. Sanity could be such a fragile thing, after all.

“In any case, the pale creature was momentarily contained by its fascination with the Pentacle, and began shifting its form so it could explore further. Worms and tendrils of atrocious effulgence flared from the vacuum tubes, flashing white as the creature giggled in glee. The Pentacle’s tubes were beginning to crack, and I knew it would not be long before it completely gave way. It had lost all purpose of protection long ago, but if I were to move outside its confines—well. There was no telling where the creature’s attention would turn.

“Deciding to risk it all, I dashed for the back of the studio, frantically scrabbling for the box of charcoals I knew was there. Clutching a stick in hand, I drew a dark black circle around myself, and around the edges I scrawled a combination of Saaamaaa banishment symbols that the Sigsand manuscript had strongly advised against. The charcoal broke and crumbled as I wrote, and I bit my own fingers for blood to deepen the shade. I knew the blood would call out to the Sphere Beyond, but I was in such peril that I had to run that risk.”

He swallowed. I resisted the urge to hurry him along, and instead observed the slight quiver of his throat, the way his hands tightened against the arms of his chair.

“The tubes shattered with a deadly flash, and the light-creature surged outwards from it, its perfect face twisted in incandescent laughter. Despite all my instincts I kept my eyes shut, terrified that the glimmer of their whites might lead the creature straight to me. I stood frozen in the narrow circle, every inch of my body queer and numbish, with no room to move lest I broke the barrier. The air shook with cruel giggling, and behind my closed eyelids I could sense a light getting closer, rivalling the sun in its brightness, making its way to where I stood. I could only pray that I was obliterated in an instant once the creature struck.

“It was then that I felt a quiet air fill the circle I was in, brushing faintly against my goosebumped skin like a soft cloak. The infernal high-pitched laughter heightened into a shriek, the light dimmed, and from beneath me, a dark, deep voice uttered the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual quite matter-of-factly, as if it had been the obvious thing to say all along. The air shook with silent thunder. When I finally gathered up the nerve to open my eyes again, the creature of light had vanished, and then…”

“And then?” I asked, trying not to betray my impatience. The choreography of the situation demanded it. There were limited permutations of the basic possibilities, and all of them ended with a man gibbering in the parlour of his own house once his mind pieced everything together, the very telling of his tale leading him to confront the iniquities of the events that occurred after I had banished the Outer Creature, and how he, insensible and trembling with fear, had offered himself body and soul to an ab-natural being of the Sphere Beyond. There were no surprises in the human realm, only inevitabilities, and I could almost already taste it—the jagged edges of his horror, the sharp flare of panic, all subsumed by the juddering realisation that I had been the one to visit such dread terrors upon his body—and I waited, straining against the bounds of linear time and human skin, for the moment his eyes widened in true fear, for the moment his feeble mortal mind finally cracked—

“The rest of the tale is rather sordid,” he said, neatly tapping out his pipe. “But you were there, were you not? Perhaps you could relate the parts that occurred when I was insensate with pleasure.”

My human mouth was dry. I ran the relevant tongue along my lips. The detective’s clear brown eyes gazed fearlessly at me, through me, almost as if he was seeing beneath my skin to what lay seething beneath its surface, waiting for its moment to invade him again.

“Pleasure?” I managed to force out. “You believed… that was pleasurable?

“I do not offer myself freely to just anyone, even if they did save my life from an Outer Creature,” he said. “And—this might, perhaps, sound foolish—but your very form made me quake with desire from the moment we met.”

My tentacles were leaking out of the suit, squeezing through the seams, and it was only a matter of time before my current form would fail to contain my entirety. I could taste the cloud of lust hanging above him, and his eyes were all pupil as he eyed the tendrils of black seeping through my skin, reaching for him, and perhaps, despite my intentions, this had been the inevitability, all along.

“Shall we adjourn to the bedroom?” he asked. “I’d dearly love to know you better.”

I was accustomed to confronting ab-natural creatures in the course of my vocation, and much less accustomed to taking my leisure with them. Yet I found myself unable to forget our first meeting in the darkness of the studio, my back pressed against the chalk-and-charcoal-dusted floor as they enveloped the room with total and almost palpable blackness, tantalising me with a sinuous flood of serpent darkness that convulsed into my bowels as I writhed in a mix of ecstasy and agony. It maddened me when I dreamt of it, that glimpse of perversions that had me spending myself into my clenched fist when I woke, praying that I would meet them again under the dark mists of some forbidden star.

They had adopted a mostly-male form this time, and my body thrilled to them, their human hands holding me in place like a magnet, their thin black tendrils sweeping across me like the petals of a spider lily in full flower. My clothing lay scattered across the floor, roughly slashed off my body by a clawed, rugose tentacle, and I writhed against them, yearning to be sucked again within that black writhing cloud, to have my vision teem with shapes of joyous delirium that no man on earth had ever seen.

“Could you,” I gasped. “Our first meeting… could you? Again?”

“Yes,” they hissed, their voice clinging to my skin like static. “Yes, I could.”

I spread my legs wide in response, and their hands wavered and dissolved as I was engulfed with tendrils of dark mist, chains of stark pleasure holding me inert as my entire body became a conduit to a black inner world. The convolutions submerged me, pushing me beyond human endurance and bringing me to unknown and incalculable heights, an endless ascent—and I sobbed and gasped, pleading with them to let me find my fulfillment, to let those unnatural lengths further inside me, to maul and twist and shape me into something beyond human recognition.

My toes clenched against the amorphous mist, my lungs filled with black air, and all the while, the creature’s eldritch voice murmured yes yes yes, echoing what ran through my mind. In the heights of timeless pleasure, I opened my eyes fully, eager to gaze into the shifting void, to understand every part of the creature that had such a hold on me, and between the wisps of mist I glimpsed the curved walls of rising obsidian stonework, a river of pitch running through a dead nightmare city, and—

A tendril passed over my eyelids, forcibly lowering them. I did as told and clenched them shut.

The undulations grew greater, passing into and through and beyond me, tearing my pleasure out of me, and I spent myself as they coalesced around me, their human mouth around my spurting prick, dripping with white seed and black ichor as they reached up for a kiss. I parted my lips and obliged them, swallowing down the viscous mix of my fluid and theirs, feeling it slither down my throat. A drop lingered on the corner of their mouth. I licked it away, relishing the taste.

“What should I do,” I said, “to understand what lies within you? To know all of your mysteries?”

“That is an impossibility,” they replied. “The most perceptive of humans would take a lifetime to comprehend a single fraction of a part of me. It would be a foolish thing to even attempt.”

I placed my hand on their shoulder, feeling the way their muscles reacted to my touch, the slow pulse of pitch beneath their skin. “You already know how very foolish I am.”

“Then live as long as you possibly can, detective,” they said, and underneath their deep dark voice I could have sworn I heard an echo of mirth. “And perhaps I will see you in the next life.”

I knew a private eye didn’t need a secretary—a small-time gumshoe like me barely had enough cases to cover the rent. If I’d wanted someone watching my every move like a crotchety schoolmarm, I’d have stayed at the Continental Agency. But when she stepped into my office, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d met her somewhere before. She was a lanky woman dressed in sombre colours, with a bob of black wavy hair, and moved in fits and jerks, like her body was a new car that she hadn’t quite figured out how to steer.

“Blackburn” was obviously a phony name. She was tight-lipped about what had made her look for secretarial work when she could barely even change a typewriter ribbon, but I could guess well enough. I ran the numbers in my head. Paying her was going to be a squeeze, especially after leaving the Continental, but I wasn’t opposed to helping a woman get back on her feet.

I managed to spend a week without asking, but eventually my curiosity—or stupidity—got the better of me.

“So,” I asked. “Who threw you over?”

Her typing paused. “I beg your pardon?”

“One of your enemies touch your place off? Your siblings decide you’re in the way of the inheritance? Your man turn out to be the unfaithful sort?”

“Ah.” She glanced at me. “I suppose there would be no point in changing the subject at this juncture.”

“You could try. I’m as hardheaded as they come.”

“I have no doubt about that. To answer, my… I suppose you could call him ‘my man’, if you were so inclined, perished in an unfortunate incident some time ago. A foolish miscalculation on his part—and mine. Tell me, detective, have you ever seen someone seared in a furnace of white light, slowly burning away to pale ash, and known that it was too late to help them? And known, all the while, that if you had trusted your intuition, they might have survived?” Her deep black eyes were emotionless. She sounded like she was discussing a book she’d read a long time ago. Her fingertips, perched on the typewriter’s keys, quaked a little.

I would have put on my most apologetic face, lied and said that I wouldn’t have asked if I’d known it was going to be such a painful story, but I could tell she didn’t want that from me. She didn’t even want to acknowledge she was feeling anything at all.

The office remained silent, only broken by her slow pecking at the keyboard and the occasional ringing of its margin bell. After a while of that, she gestured to the typewriter. I got up and helped her change its ribbon.

I made a detour before coming into the office the next day, and entered clutching a bouquet. Nothing romantic—I’d picked the darkest-tinted flowers they had in the bargain bin. The florist had reluctantly wrapped it up after trying to convince me that ladies preferred roses, but seeing the whole bundle with all its long red-black petals spidering all over each other reminded me of her somehow.

I placed it on her table, next to the typewriter. Her face remained motionless.

“Not one for flowers?”

“Those flowers will only last a few days before wilting. If it soothes your need to feel like you are appeasing me, anything more practical than this would have sufficed.”

“How about an electric typewriter, then?”

“You are already paying me a significant portion of your meagre earnings,” she said bluntly. “You could not afford such a thing, and I am not fond of electrical appliances.”

“Well, I am. Love the stuff.”

“I suppose someone like you would,” she said with vehement disdain, as if I’d admitted to being fond of bathing in raw sewage. But the corners of her lips lifted a tiny bit, and even if I couldn’t tell what about that conversation had pleased her, I knew we were square for now.

I got up, filled an empty gin bottle with water, and put the cut flowers in it, arranging their spidery petals so they spread out just right. They were going to die no matter what I did. Maybe they were already dead. But it wasn’t like I could go back and tell the florist to un-cut them now—might as well make them last as long as possible.

Blackburn was at the electric typewriter as I walked in. The sound of the keys rattled through the room like a wagon determined to conquer rough terrain. She normally wore grey in addition to her usual black, but today she was dressed like a charcoal sketch on the way to a funeral. A murky shawl clung to her shoulders like mud. My pot of spider lilies sat on the bookshelf next to her, the only point of colour in that corner of the room.

“Who died?” I asked.

“That will depend on the events of today.” She paused to change the typewriter ribbon. “Just to confirm—what is the case you are working?”

“Just a stakeout,” I said. “Warehouse owner’s been complaining of weird noises and flashes of light on his property, wants me to take a look. He thinks it’s crazy cult types, I think it’s amateur photographers. Maybe we’ll split the difference halfway.”

“Be careful, detective.”

“You know me.”

“Hence my concern,” she said, and wrapped her shawl around her shoulders disapprovingly.

Later that night, trapped in a warehouse at gunpoint, I reluctantly admitted that both my secretary and the warehouse owner had been on the right track. I’d counted ten people so far, and the ones who didn’t have .38s trained on me were bustling around and speaking in a language with too many aaaa sounds. They were all in silvery-white silk robes, the filmy kind, something a starlet would wear in their boudoir. I couldn’t tell one apart from the other. Looking at their faces was no good either. All their smiling faces glowed in soft focus like someone had smeared the air with Vaseline, and the flawless features beneath the glow were identical and marble-perfect.

I didn’t know what they were waiting for, and no one seemed particularly inclined on letting me know. Most of them were preoccupied with drawing symbols on the floor in white chalk, sharp-angled glyphs with hooked tails that all seemed to point straight at me. As they continued their playground doodles, the air around them began to burn cold white, as bright as a floodlight. Having nowhere in particular to go, I sat there wondering how they’d managed the glow without batteries, and whether Blackburn would take care of my spider lilies after I turned up dead.

Then everything fell silent. The light dimmed. I looked around—everyone’s lips were moving, and their perfect eyes were wide with panic. They hadn’t stopped talking. The sound in the room had simply vanished like a magician’s coin.

Blackburn was in a corner of the warehouse. She hadn’t materialised in a puff of smoke or anything as flashy as that. It felt like she’d always already been there, and the rest of the world had just taken some time to catch on.

Her voice broke the silence. “You damned idiot. I knew this would happen.”

The cultists wheeled away from me and fired. The shots tore through the air, hitting her chest. She should have been hammered back immediately by the impact, but her heels remained planted firmly on the ground.

She pushed her shawl off her shoulders. Shells cascaded from its folds, plinking on the warehouse floor like heavy rain, and the shawl writhed around her like a monstrous shadow.

“Do not move from where you are, detective,” she said. “And close your eyes.”

I stayed still, but I kept my eyes peeled anyway. I should have been scared. I wasn’t. I’d been scared before she showed up, but everything about this was familiar. It felt like it was a repeat of a case I’d solved before, and things were just smoothly flowing along, sliding into the shape they were always meant to be.

She stretched, and her skin sloughed from her. Her black hair merged with her black clothes to form a solid mass of darkness. Her maw opened to reveal a long slavering tongue, and the rest of her face became a dark tunnel to another world, punctuated with clusters of black drooling fangs. She looked almost as annoyed as the time I’d brought the electric typewriter back to our office.

The warehouse was filled with black air. The soft-focus glow around the cultists had waned, and they bared their flawless teeth at her. At least five guns were pointed her way. It looked like no one on their side dared to make a move.

She struck first. The first two were dead in a splatter of blood, and with that, the slaughter began. The remaining cultists met with long thick tentacles to their legs, coupled with dainty bites that tore away half their perfect faces. Chow-mein strands of black whipped out of her body, deflecting the screaming cultists’ bullets as she dragged them all into the broad expanse of herself, laughing a deep gleeful laugh all the while. I felt a little ache inside my chest, seeing her that happy.

The guns clattered to the floor one by one. As the last one of the cultists vanished into her maw, she jerked convulsively, her form twisting as all of the shadows flowed back into her and her skin shrank to contain it.

I got up, rolled a cigarette, and lit it for her. She took a long grateful puff, and little tendrils of black shook loose from her bob, swaying in the air like vines. I barely resisted the urge to reach my finger out and let them coil around it. The sight of her sated form, glowing darkly with pleasure, only deepened the ache in me. It felt like I was a match slowly edging towards touchpaper, and we were both waiting for the moment where everything caught fire, the moment I asked the question I should have asked long ago.

“So,” I said. “Have we met before?”

A thin wisp of smoke rose from her cigarette. “In another life. You could say we were… intimate then.”

“And what about now?”

She looked at me, her cigarette dangling from her fingers. “What about it?”

Every ounce of my common sense told me to play it off, say something like I don’t see any harm in keeping a good thing going in my deepest voice, grab her and kiss her roughly like a hero straight out of the pictures.

My common sense could go hang.

“I’m saying I like you now. Every single inch of you.”

She arched an eyebrow. I was turning red from cheek to chest, and I felt like bolting from the warehouse and not stopping till I hit coast, but I kept my feet planted and rattled on like a machine gun—how grateful I was that she’d saved me from getting shot, how I felt like we’d known each other for decades, and some nonsense about how swell she was, how I’d liked her from the moment we met, how I even liked the way she glared at my spider lilies and shook my desk with her violent typing, and topped it off with a vehement proclamation about how she could take me on the warehouse floor right now and I’d gladly welcome it.

The tips of my ears felt like they were on fire. I didn’t think I’d been that sincere since Valentine’s in grade school. I didn’t know what I’d do if she said no.

She snorted a little.

“I suppose some desires—and idiocies—are immutable within this sphere,” she said. “I will warn you: you may experience great spiritual and physical pain. Particularly if you wish to make your last suggestion a reality.”

“Nothing new to me,” I said, shucking my coat. I was half-hard already—danger tended to do that to me. “Just don’t make any new holes.”

“I will inform you, should I have the urge to,” she said, and flowed on me like poisoned water, unbuttoning my shirt and pushing my pants down, rocking herself against me as she poured herself into my mouth. I could feel one of her tentacles working slickly into me from behind, filling my hole like a bullet snug in its chamber. I spread my legs so she could get in further, and she enveloped me within herself, touching something deep inside me that made me shudder as my toes curled.

I wanted to close my eyes and surrender to the black mist that clung to me, to drift on the waves of ecstasy, but I knew I couldn’t. I was a detective, and before that, I was a sap—call me sentimental, but I wanted to understand everything about the one who had such a hold on me.

Within the black smoke I saw snatches and glimpses of a sleeping city, one I thought I’d left long ago—the rising spires of Michigan Avenue skyscrapers redone in black, a river as polluted as the South Branch flowing through it all, and at the river’s bend was some kind of mass of teeming shadows, wandering around a—

“Close your eyes, you fool,” she snapped, and a tentacle whipped out to coil itself around my face, sealing my eyelids shut.

Before I could voice any coherent objections, she rewarded me for it, curling those vine-like tentacles around my cock, moving up and down its shaft in an uncanny rhythm that almost seemed to thud through me with every beat of blood, and with a gasp, I found my release.

As I lay on the floor, floating in the afterglow, I could hear her fumbling around with something, and the sound of fabric rustling. She handed me a clumsily-rolled cigarette. Some of its tobacco was falling out, but I appreciated the effort anyway.

She lit it. I took a puff. “What was that city I saw?”

“Part of what lies at the heart of me,” she said. “It does not permit itself to be understood. A mystery founded upon mysteries.”

“Hell.” I blew smoke at the warehouse ceiling. “I’m a detective. Give me time, I’ll have it licked.”

“I sincerely doubt you will,” she said, lazily waving the smoke around with one of her tendrils. “But, nonetheless, I look forward to seeing you try.”

I’d been chasing down those Cult of Light fucks for ages, and the latest informant had agreed to meet me at Orion’s Sword, a way-too-loud club that was way too obsessed with fog generators. They were slow to show, so I busied myself with my personal side project. I was more used to breaking into virtualities than making them, especially since going aug, but it didn’t hurt to know how the other side thought. I pulled up the low-poly preview of darkcity_10_v2_finalFINAL on my inbuilt rig so I could fiddle with the edges and placements. A pitch-tar river slowly coursed through a city of towering onyx skyscrapers, and as I studied it I had the sinking feeling that I needed to add something else at the river’s bend, something moving, I just couldn’t figure out what—

A lanky figure sat down next to me. Their suit looked solid black from a distance. On closer inspection, screaming mouths and drooling fangs formed out of the darkness and sunk back into the fabric, replaced by dripping vines and pulsating organs, before the whole cycle repeated itself with new ero-guro images. The superblack fever dream of a neural net.

They peered at me. “The girl detective, I presume?”

I waved a mechanical hand at them. “Bounty hunter. Ex-detective. And you are?”

“█████████,” they said. My audio sensors crackled black static. “My apologies—it might not render well on some drivers. Would B████████ be better?”

I was about to tell B████████—Blackmore? Blackburn?—to just get on with it, but something about them triggered a feeling I couldn’t quite shake. The question slipped out before I could stop myself. “Have we met before? You seem… familiar. Were you on one of my cases?”

They took a small bag out of their pocket, tipped some sort of powder onto rolling paper, and began to roll a cigarette with practiced motions. “Yes, but I doubt you can remember which. It was quite a while ago.” They sealed their cigarette with a lick of their long tongue, and stuck it behind their ear, where it vanished into their wavy black bob.

I resigned myself to not knowing. I wasn’t about to list every case I’d been on just to find out—they didn’t seem keen to answer that particular question, anyway. “Most people vape nowadays, you know. Or use the .TBG patch.”

“I was never one to keep up with passing trends,” they said, which was rich from someone in that suit. Black fractal cats twined and untwined their tails on the suit’s fabric before vanishing into the darkness. “In any case—there have been reports of students going missing at the nearby university. Mostly hushed up, so perhaps an experienced investigator could help with matters. Try starting with… hmm. Student ID CI-77891 is as good as any.”

“That’s it? Seriously? All you’ve got for me is a number?”

“My sincere apologies,” they said insincerely. “I was under the impression that you were a detective.”

I resisted my urge to throttle them, and broke into the university’s private server just to check if they were feeding me bullshit. Student profile, other students with significant absences reported, classes or extracurriculars in common, social media, activities before vanishing… oh. Huh. Interesting.

“I can’t pay you for this unless you give me more details,” I said, as I probed further into the student clubs that had booked the White Studio for their activities. “The contract I put out was for actionable information only.”

“Oh, that will be quite all right. You have already paid me enough, detective.” They slipped off their stool and sauntered off, twinkling their fingers behind them as they went. Their suit’s pattern coiled itself into tentacles, then fractals, then resolved back into solid black as they headed towards the door.

“I haven’t paid you anything,” I shouted after them, hoping they could hear me over the noise. “And it’s ex-detective!”

I wanted to say that meeting them had ruined my mood for the night, but something about that conversation, all five infuriating minutes of it, had jarred something loose in my brain. I ordered another drink—a Sambuca-coffee shot, this time—and pulled up the preview of the virtuality again. I gave it a once-over, then began adding one black cat after another, configuring their AI’s range so they didn’t stray too far from the river’s bend, twining their tails so close together that they’d seem like a big undulating clump of fur from a distance.

I added an open-air square for them to roam around, a few obsidian benches to top everything off, and then checked the low-poly preview again. It still felt incomplete—it always felt incomplete, no matter how much I worked on it or how much I added—but I saved it to my cloud backup, shunting it out of local storage. I knew I wouldn’t be able to work on it for a while, and I needed to keep the space free, anyway.

I had a case to crack.

I’d focused on mobility rather than firepower when picking my aug loadout, but as I dodged the slew of bullets and returned fire, I regretted not springing for the percussion cannon with those sweet autofire mods. This hideout was crawling with too many cultists for something insignificant, so whatever they were hiding, it had to be good.

The last body crumpled to the floor, their too-perfect holo mask fizzling out in sparks of white light. Scans indicated no incoming thermal signatures, and whatever the cultists had been protecting was behind that door. I brute-forced its lock and bodyslammed it open.

In the centre of the room, lying on a dais, was Blackburn. Their cocoon of black clothing had been stripped away, revealing mottled skin, and their eyelids flickered like they were deep within a nightmare. Their limbs were bound in silver-white translucent fabric that stretched and shrank with their every breath, almost seeming to clip through them. They were enveloped in a blanket of white mist.

Acting on instinct, I switched my ammo and shot a flare straight into the room. The noise and light made the mist coalesce, resolving itself into a ghastly pearlescent face, and the fabric retracted from Blackburn’s limbs, slurping back into itself as the pale creature scrambled for the lit flare.

I tried to haul Blackburn off the dais, but my hands kept sinking into their rippling body, and they were exuding a black ooze from all over, which really didn’t look healthy. The air around them looked to be giving way, and beyond that I could see glimpses of a city, its skyscrapers shining ivory, its streets teeming with cheerful people laughing.

My hand was up to the elbow, and covered in black ooze besides. There was no way I could drag them anywhere without resolving the situation.

Oh, hell, I thought, and plunged in.

It was an architect’s render of a city, all gleaming white marble. It felt like every corporate virtuality I’d ever encountered. Perfect-featured stock-footage people laughed at private jokes as they milled around a city square. The sky was cerulean blue, clear and piercing, with white fluffy clouds floating in the sky, and sitting on a bench in the middle of the square was a single dull spot of black.

I walked over.

“Hello,” they said. “Can you get me out of here? I’d really appreciate it.”

“Sure thing.” I motioned to them. “Come on. Let’s ditch these yuppies.”

They started walking towards me, but their eyes were flat matte black, washed out under the light, and something about them—the way they talked, the way they moved—just seemed… wrong.

“I hope it was okay,” I said. “Me coming here to rescue you, I mean. Some might call it a dumb thing to do.”

“Of course it wasn’t, you’re amazing,” they said guilelessly, and I instinctively put five bullets straight into their skull.

They shrieked in rage, bleeding silver-white light from every pore, and the bystanders ceased milling around the city square and swivelled towards me, their eyes burning cold white. Their shiny shoes clicked menacingly against the cobblestones with every advancing step.

The city’s skin might have changed, but the foundations hadn’t. I knew it was the city I’d dreamt about, the one I’d spent a lifetime—lifetimes—longing to be in, and even if I didn’t know every inch of it I understood its underlying logic enough to run. I turned around to shoot as I ran, as I dashed through the veins and arteries of the city, through crumbling spires and towering skyscrapers and barely-complete arcologies as my pursuers crumpled to the ground in piles of white fabric, until I found a place the light hadn’t reached far enough to warp yet, a damp spot of black earth far beyond the city limits.

My feet hurt. My lungs strained. I was bleeding from a cheek wound. I knew what I had to do.

“Hey,” I panted. “Sorry about this, okay? I’ll put it back after if we both get through this.”

I swiped my thumb onto my cheek, coating it with blood, and began to draw a pattern in the dark dirt. I knew it by heart, even if I hadn’t drawn it in this lifetime. The circle around me, thick and dark, then the glyphs around its edges—curves and whorls and be sure to get the last Saaamaaa symbol right, that one can be tricky for the inexperienced—and then, finally, the wish. The name. The call to something far beyond, the mystery that I might not ever be able to understand, in all my lifetimes.

“Hey, you,” I whispered, my palms pressed to the ground, my blood dripping into the black dirt. “Come on home.”

The dirt cracked open, heaving itself up in chunks, and a mottled hand reached out from it, their torso and head following soon after. They looked like they’d woken up from a very bad dream. I hesitated for a moment, then reached out to brush the dirt off their hair. A tendril coiled itself around my finger like the tail of a friendly cat, then retracted itself.

They held a hand out to me. I took it.

I hurtled into a void of black, and saw everything—we were in the centre of the city, no, we were the centre of the city, the wind shrieking around us, stripping the gleaming pearl-white coating from the buildings to reveal an obsidian layer beneath, the river surrounding it all gurgling pitch, like ink mixed with tar mixed with mud. The gale shredded the pearlescent intruders like paper, the pitch river rising from its banks to swallow them whole, and black cats hissed and spat in unison until the last glints of sparkling white faded from the city’s horizons.

I could feel their every breath, their every pulse, the life flowing within the city’s veins from its absolute origin. They let out a long deep sigh, and I could feel everything exhale with them. The tips of the skyscrapers trembled in the wind, the black river burbled and swelled before receding, and the cats twining around our legs stretched and let out deep yawns. Everything smelled like dust and tobacco and felt like sleepy warmth, and reminded me of somewhere I’d once stayed in, long ago—its ventilation didn’t quite work and it always smelled like cooking, but to me, it was the place I always pictured when I thought of home.

“We should not stay too long here,” they murmured, and in the very next instant, we were back in the room. No time seemed to have passed. The pale creature had almost finished with the flare, and turned a leering face towards both of us, stretching its mouth into a rictus grin.

“My apologies for inconveniencing you,” Blackburn said, placing a tentacle on my shoulder. “Please wait a moment. And do not move from your position if you are enjoying your current lifespan.” They stumbled off the dais, and in a low, deep voice, uttered a single sentence—the last line of the Saaamaaa ritual, I thought to myself.

The unnatural white light of the creature snuffed itself out immediately, and the rest of the electric lights followed. Darkness enveloped the facility. I did a quick scan of our surroundings. “Six approaching, right corridor. Four needleguns in front, and two at the back packing plasma. Should I—”

“Do not worry,” they said, tentacles mantling behind them. “I will make it quick.”

They flowed out of the door, and I soon heard the shrill sound of screaming, accompanied by deep gleeful laughter and vague meaty slurps. Not being that much of an idiot, I stayed in the room and waited for the sounds to fade.

“Is it over?” I asked when they returned to the room.

“Mostly, yes,” they replied, sagging back onto the floor with a thump. “We may leave now.”

I ended up escorting them to my apartment after calling the bounties in. They’d been stumbling about like they’d been on a week-long bender and couldn’t remember how human bodies worked, and I didn’t want to leave them somewhere else. They sat on my bed, their tentacles phasing in and out of my violet comforter.

“Would it be all right,” they said, “if I spent the night here? I am finding it rather difficult to move at this particular moment.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” I replied. “Stay as long as you’d like.”

I was in the bedroom of 472 Chenyuan Terrace, listening to my detective hum tunelessly as she tended to her plants, holographic and otherwise. My form was gradually wearing out, as was hers—her cybernetic augmentations could only extend a single life so far, and every time I explored the non-augmented parts of her body, I could feel the bones becoming more prominent, the creases on her skin deepening. I estimated she had less than two decades left—perhaps much less, if she continued with her feckless method of investigation.

I did not know where or when I would meet my detective again, after this incarnation. Perhaps on the blank plateaus of a newly-formed planet, perhaps amidst the carcasses of dead solar systems… or perhaps simply in the human realm, whenever I felt them beckoning to me yet again.

“Hey, lazy,” she said, pecking me on the cheek as she climbed back into bed. “You’re so hot even when you’re just lying there. Would you mind… you know? You don’t even have to get the tentacles out.”

“My human body is at your disposal,” I said, lying back and letting her do what she wanted to, which was mainly kissing me all over, slowly and lazily.

The movement of her lips reverberated through my core, their gentle vibration travelling through the city within me.

As she ventured to my fingertips, I let out an involuntary moan. She picked up the pace, sucking them into her mouth, and I moved my thumb across her cheek, feeling the creases of her wrinkles. Every motion of hers resonated within me like an earthquake, and I could feel something move within me, far beyond the edges of the dead city.

As she continued, I could feel a stirring both within and without, as if something deeply buried was trying to force its way upwards. As the detective’s tongue made its way to my thighs, I began to lose my grasp on coherence, vocalising my human moans and cries. I was tempted to simply close my eyes, to retreat to my other self, my inner city—

“Look at me,” she said, and I lost sight of everything else as I fixed my eyes on her, taking in the gentle swells of her breasts, the soft folds of her wrinkled skin, the way the deep furrows on her face accentuated her oak-brown eyes, and I surrendered myself to the expanse of her. Her tongue delved into me, my back arched in response to her every action, and I could feel my fists clenching in the blanket as I quaked around her, as I finally found my release.

The river of pitch within me thrummed and sluiced, almost overflowing its banks. The sea of black cats purred in ecstasy, twining their tails around each other, cavorting around the town square in wild abandonment. The peaks and spires of obsidian buildings swayed with each aftershock that ran through my human body, and their gentle vibrations in response to my gasps created a low joyful hum.

And in an empty field within me, far beyond the edges of the dead city, a sea of midnight flowers poked their fragile heads out of the black dirt.

Somewhere in the aftermath, she propped herself up on one mechanical elbow, and asked: “How do the spider lilies look to you? They’re those ones over there. Could you just check the future—not too far—and tell me how they’re doing then?”

She fixed her deep brown eyes on me with a look of concern. As I studied her plants, the field of black flowers shuddered within me, gently loosening their tightly closed buds, unfurling themselves slowly, petal by petal by petal.

“They’re doing well,” I said. “I think they might bloom soon.”

(Editors’ Note: “Black Flowers Blossom” is read by Joy Piedmont and Vina Jie-Min Prasad is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 31B.)

As You Know, Bob…

I’ve never tasted a Twinkie. I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen one in the crumb, but I could perfectly describe to you its mythic longevity, its size and shape, as well as its cloying cream filling. I can do this because of its outsized presence in popular American media, appearing in a multitude of films such as Ghostbusters (1984), Zombieland (2009), and Mortal Engines (2018). It has entrenched itself as part of the mainstream and created a mythology all of its own.

I should probably add that I have never lived in America.

The thing about the mainstream is that it is constantly telling itself about itself. It is how the mainstream maintains itself, how it re-enforces that mythology. The mainstream can be functionally defined as the culture that tells you about itself the most.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that explaining things doesn’t have to be for the benefit of outsiders. Despite commonalities, there is no singular experience of being marginalised. The idea and the expectation that there should be one experience, that it can be reduced to a single, consumable package, is part of how the mainstream commodifies marginalisation. Thus even as certain shared knowledge and cultural touchstones do indeed bind us together, to expect that they be unified and never require explanation due to the monolithic nature of our communities is itself a problematic one. Not all exposition is done to make our marginalised cultures or identities more accessible—more consumable; it can be done to affirm and validate those you who share your culture. It can be done to create the groundwork for further reinvention in fantastical works.

This is not to say there aren’t numerous instances where an offered explanation serves to Other and exoticise. There’s an excellent episode titled “Hold Up! Time For An Explanatory Comma” from the podcast Code Switch that explores how the explanatory comma breaks the flow of a joke or an interview, how it centres the stubbornly ignorant mainstream and can serve to further make those from marginalised backgrounds feel like they aren’t the audience of a piece.

But whilst it is true that knowledge can be assumed when writing about the mainstream in a way it cannot be when writing about marginalised cultures, it is also true that the mainstream is composed of media that exists to reinforce that knowledge. Daily life in the mainstream is replete with that improbable “as you know” exposition we as writers so fear. Repetition is how society creates and maintains norms.

Christmas movies with their fantastical festive flourishes or Doctor Who Christmas specials are not made for the Scrooges of the world to convert them to the cause of winter joy. Nor is their target demographic non-Christian foreigners who have never heard of Christmas before. Christmas media is made for people who already love Christmas and want to be validated by being shown the traditions, to have it explained to them again.

In the same way, weddings contain within them what can only described as lectures on the subject of marriage and monogamy. Every wedding I’ve been to begins with the officiant stating the definition of marriage (usually legal, but I’ve also been to handfastings), and then at each step they explain the tradition of vows and symbolism of rings.

And as you know, dearly beloved, none of this is done with the assumption that the couple or the audience is ignorant of the traditions surrounding marriage.

This defining of marriage and romantic love continues as the wedding speeches often contain advice and anecdotes. Conflicting ideals around marriage may be seen in the way a parent emphasises tax benefits when a best friend teases about children.

As you know, Bob, exposition is one of the trickiest parts of writing.

The most commonly repeated writing advice, “show, don’t tell,” is borrowed from screenwriting and for all its seeming intuitiveness or usefulness to beginners, the act of writing is inevitably going to contain “telling.” The distinction is easy to draw in a script when what is visualised on screen (or on stage) is materially different to dialogue spoken by an actor (or worse yet, scrolling text that needs to be read by the audience). But it can feel fuzzier when dealing with a novel or short story because everything is simply text.

Many have written on how this rule against “telling” enforces the idea that cultures and symbols should all be self-explanatory, that it doesn’t allow space for writers from marginalised cultures and racial backgrounds to provide additional context and history. “Showing” relies on the ability to draw on a pre-existing network of iconography and tropes that have established by other works and broader culture. If the iconography of your culture is unknown to the reader, then there is simply no option to draw upon it.

The blood-drenched woman in a white dress and veil appearing often on film posters such as [Rec]3:Génesis (2012) can be meaningful in a single image because the audience already knows that a big white dress means bride. Despite being set in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones uses this shorthand as Anakin and Padmé marry in a wordless sequence, using her white dress and lace veil as cinematic shorthand for bride.

Childhood picnics on concrete cannot help but feel sad and barren because concrete is already heavy with those meanings. The rose is already potent with symbolism, but most Anglophone readers would probably not know what to make of the peony.

For a more elaborate example, let me tell you about my late grandmother.

To “show” the relationship I have with her, I can write of how my family and I visit her grave every Christmas Day to bring flowers, polish her portrait on the marble gravestone and take turns to bow thrice as relatives gossip. I could describe to you her marble gravestone, engraved in gold with the names of her children and grandchildren (well, the ones from the sons, the ones from the daughters don’t count; but I am listed there) as well as quote from John 11:25 (in Chinese): “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

Very often the act of visiting a grave in mainstream American media (even Hong Kong media) is all about loss and remembrance. The trope is about people who just can’t let go, who have unfinished business with the dead, something they can’t put down. But that’s not really us.

Some might assume all this is textbook ritual, that every family in Hong Kong would do this on Christmas Day, but it also isn’t that. This isn’t a ritual that you can just look up. If you tried, you may even conclude that I didn’t do my research properly because my family are doing it “wrong” because we don’t follow the seemingly singular script found in guides of Chinese culture written for tourists. That is to say, what we do is Hong Kong’s Anglicanism and Chinese ancestor worship filtered through my family’s own idiosyncratic beliefs, something of a compromise between siblings as my missionary grandmother was not exactly successful when it came to converting her own family.

I tell you all this partly because I find a catharsis in explaining it to you. In the documentation and description of this, I feel like I’ve anchored some transient part of myself in a permanent record. That it can be not only witnessed, but understood.

There is a demand for writers from marginalised cultures and identities to perform those marginalisations for the consumption of the mainstream, to proselytise and represent. Goodreads is littered with well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning reviews exclaiming their disappointment at not having “learnt more” about such-and-such a culture, or that the identities felt somehow extraneous or redundant to the story being told. And I cannot stress enough how I am not advocating for that performance. I am not trying to sound like my uncles and aunts earnestly advising me to write a “book with more Chinese culture in it” next.

But what I want to show here is that not all explaining, not all “telling” is for the benefit of the mainstream, however much it can feel that way at times. After all, are not our communities defined by shared pre-existing knowledge? We are bound together by the fact that we’ve done our reading and lived our lives and thus already know all of this. We don’t need to be reminded of what mooncakes are or when Mid-Autumn festival is. We all already know, don’t we?

And the thing is, because we aren’t monoliths, we very much don’t always know. There isn’t a unified handbook that we all read about these things and for many, the most “mainstream” version that is documented isn’t the version that we grew up with. Many second-generation immigrants across different cultures in different countries have described how their parents tried to keep them ignorant of their sourceland culture, wanting them to better integrate with the mainstream. Others have relatives who are reluctant to share painful memories, who need to have that knowledge teased out of them.

We don’t all have the same story, the same traditions, nor the same cultural touchstones, despite sometimes sharing a nominal sourceland. The expectation that the experience of marginalistion itself be singular is a fundamental part of the framework that marginalises us.

For me, that diversity deserves documentation.

There are jokes aplenty about how unrealistic it is that characters need to remind each other of missing parents and treasured childhood memories. But as anyone who pays attention to how people speak knows, most of our daily conversations are indeed full of information the other person already knows.

“Telling” in everyday life exists for more than the simple conveying of new information.

When my friends and I discuss our favourite foods, it isn’t so that a list of them can be compiled. Nor is it so that we can engage in ranking them all in some sort of comparative exercise; that all is just the framework in which we discuss food. It is not simply about a greater understanding of our friends’ preferences in flavours and textures or more specifically why they like the foods that they like; it is more simply pleasure to remembering and re-living culinary experiences by describing them. We can’t eat that bowl of perfect ramen again, but we sure can talk about its warming, slurpy glory, the gooey soft-boiled egg and the pink-in-the-middle seared salmon.

This luxuriating in food can be seen in the delightful slice of life episodes of Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card, as its cast bakes cakes and drinks tea. The minutiae of writing, staging, and performing opera is what gives Mary Gentle’s Black Opera texture and beauty. There are also the extravagant and meticulous descriptions of the characters painting manuscript miniatures in J. V. Jones’ The Barbed Coil, where the frantic and powerful application of pigment is the means through with magic is wielded.

This is not to say that a character’s reminiscing can’t be clunky or awkward-sounding in execution. We phrase things we expect the other person to already know slightly differently to how we would phrase it to strangers. Thoughts and words may scatter and sprawl even as we think we are outlining an argument or planned essay from basics, thinking through emotions and memories we are trying to process.

In many a love letter have I recounted first meetings and how I came to fall in love. Not because I thought my beloved had somehow forgotten these pivotal moments in the intervening years (they were there for most of it, after all), but that there is a pleasure in stringing together those isolated and random events into a narrative, a mythology of us. Shy glances and offhand jokes can become foreshadowing and little coincidences are drawn out to be fateful. In the telling of our story, I create meaning out of life’s chaos.

And all that I do by telling someone a story they already know.

The trope of “As you know, Bob” dialogue comes from science fiction’s golden age, when writers relished at the describing of every detail of their fictitious cultures. There is a desire to namedrop words that allude to the alien and exotic, to detail all the worldbuilding and research that they have done. It is exhausting at times, the feeling that readers are more patient with wholly fictional cultures than with real but marginalised ones.

As a writer of SF/F from a marginalised culture, this is something I have to confront over and over in my own writing. It is very easy to sound awkward when engaging in this sort of exposition, as the example of my family’s Christmas Day tradition aptly shows. And I not only want to witness and record, but also re-mix and re-imagine. I want to build not only fantastical versions of my cultures but fantastical extrapolations and mashups of them. I value not factual, historical accuracy but an emotional resonance. I want to canonise my grandmother’s cooking by making it the Dragon Emperor’s favourite dish, anachronisms be damned.

It is possible to build worlds and evoke things in passing in a way that uses contextual cues to inform the reader, and expect them to simply pick it up. Avatar: The Last Airbender does this with a lot of its cultural imagery. As the audience we are not told the significance of three sticks of incense being burnt together or Zuko and Iroh cutting their hair as they turn their backs on the Fire Nation. The music and framing of these events in the plot cue one into them as important and that is enough meaning for one keep the story rolling. It is also arguably building on the groundwork that has been done by anime, that the target viewership is actually far more familiar with these cultural cues than the “mainstream” would give them credit for.

Still, it remains that the ability to build on already existing groundwork, to evoke the already familiar to the reader is a luxury that a marginalised writer doesn’t always have. Whilst mythical beasts like the unicorn and centaur are commonly understood, marginalised writers are often told their own folklore need that explanatory comma. Such as when Vida Cruz was writing a one-line summary of her story, “Odd and Ugly,” and was told that “kapre” was too obscure a creature to be referenced without explanation.

It isn’t and shouldn’t always be about accuracy, to simply create a facsimile of a real world culture or to share faithfully a memory exactly as it happened. R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is not intended as a historically accurate depiction of Song Dynasty China (even one liberally sprinkled with magic) and to judge it on those terms would be to miss the point completely. By the same token, Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty is not simply a retelling of the Book of Han but with fantastical devices. Science fiction and fantasy has the power to transmute our stories. It can create metaphors, allegories, and parallel worlds, all to better examine and re-examine our histories, our identities, our stories.

And all that relies on being able to not just build on a foundation of shared knowledge but to deviate from the versions of stories people already know and hold to be true.

To tell you things you already know, but a little different.

Peridot and Rain

We never know when the market will come, though it comes twice a year; a stretch of three days, or five, or seven or nine, but never more. Overnight, the sound of wood and nail and turning wheel in the fields that are never plowed, never grazed, where no brambleberries grow, and in the morning the market is there, stalls and stores on well-trod rows, a maze of everything a soul might desire.

Three days, or five, or seven or nine, and then it is gone.

But for those days, it sprawls among us, booths with green-hued rooftops and shutters the color and sheen of peridot. The market might gleam in the sunlight. It might. Perhaps it does, in the far-off places when light filters through feathered clouds, when the sky pales to blue, and the pavement warms underfoot. My fingers itched with the desire to imagine it so, to mix colors that would convey the shimmer and glaze, the rampantly-hued flavors, the rainbow of sounds.

They frown on that, though. No pictures, no drawings. Come to the market and buy what you will, but you may only carry off what you pay for.

Even memories fade, once the market is done. We only keep what we pay for.

Today, the stands are wrapped in fog, water dripping from fringed overhangs, sellers clad in oilskins and rugs to keep the chill from their bones. We are more accustomed to it, only light hoods over our hair, and sheeting over our baskets.

It is the second day; we might have all the time in the world, or none.

My list is short: new chalks, in colors only they sell, and the thread Mother loves, that holds hems and seams better than any we could fashion. If it were only for me, I would be done and gone.

“Look at the fruit!”

My sister tugs at my free hand, all eagerness and excitement. She has her first spending money, this market, and cannot decide where to spend it. I’ve promised to help her choose wisely, but Mother and I both know it is a lost cause. Your first market, you do nothing wisely. That’s half the fun.

And all of the danger.

“All right,” I say, shifting my basket to rest further up my arm. “Let us go look at the fruit.”

I have no interest in fruit; I know that the flavor fades once we leave the market grounds, and it leaves a hunger that local fruit cannot ease. I will remain content with the apples and pears that grow nearby, rather than pine for exotic tastes that do not linger.

Mother calls that wisdom, I think it more common sense. In any case, it is nothing my sister, at eleven, understands.

If I could keep her from the market, I would have.

So why do I return, when they set their tent poles and drape their bunting against our ever-present rain? Not everyone does. Half the town is hard at work today, their backs turned toward the commotion, their heads turned to their chores. But for every soul who turns away, two are here, it seems. Three days or nine, the market will remain, and then they will be gone.

A glittering green drop trembles at the edge of an overhang. It falls, and I raise a hand to catch it. But when it splashes against my skin, the water is colorless once again.

No chalk can catch that shimmer, no memory holds it for long. Nothing in this place shimmers like that once the market is gone. But the chalks the market carries, with those I can at least try.

Try, and fail. Try again.

Uncomfortable, I wipe my palm against my sleeve, looking anywhere but the crystalline haze overhead. The aisle over from the fruit-sellers is filled with heavy-set bodies, muscles flexing under leathers and cloth. The tool-workers must be there. My uncle has a hammer he bought at market one year. Twenty years later it still rings like a chime when it strikes iron, and there’s not a single crack in its surface.

I’ve never seen him use another tool.

He chose wisely. You do better buying something solid in the market, something practical. Something you can hold, and own.

My sister is all wide eyes and excitement, and the vendors eye her with predatory affection. I shadow her, silent, trying hard not to judge.

How can I judge, when it was me, not so long ago.

“Ohhhh…” Her fingers trail in the air over the slick sides of persimmons and clusterfruit, knowing better than to touch anything she was not prepared to buy.

Choose fruit, I urge her silently. Dream the rest of your life of lands you will never see, but knowing the taste will return, if you are only patient and save your coin. Fruit isn’t safe, but it’s wiser.

But her gaze rises, the breadth of the market yet to explore. Glimmering bottles of arrack and ichin rest on beds of chipped ice, drawing her attention briefly before she darts off to look at a display of hanging baskets, cunningly woven to look like swans mid-flight, or dragons curled around nothing but air.

It is good that she has nothing in mind, nothing that controlled her thinking, and yet this much distraction is dangerous in different ways. The market can convince you to make foolish decisions, if you are not wary. Every family has a story of one member who lost their way in the market, and never quite came home again.

It will not happen to her. I have promised myself that.

Her braid bounces along her back as she darts through the crowd, the red ribbons of her collar fluttering as she moves. She is safe here, perfectly safe: no one would harm a child here, no one would dare.

Let her choose something safe. Something that fits. Something she can take home and keep, and be content.


“I’m coming,” I say, lengthening my stride to catch up with her, only to catch my breath when I see where she has stopped.

This is the only aisle where the goods are not laid out in displays, but set back within each stall. You need to enter a seller’s domain to consider their wares.

“Oh. No.”

But I keep it under my breath. You enter the market freely, you shop freely, and she is of age, if only just. I hurry to join her nonetheless, giving a polite nod to the seller who has come to greet her, wanting to warn them away, to grab my sister by the elbow and steer her somewhere, anywhere, else.

She turns to grin at me over her shoulder, then back to the objects of her fascination. “Look at them, Rais!”

I am looking. Straw cages, and ones carved of quartz or fashioned from glass. Containers with lids, and some without, each one with a set of eyes, staring back.

It is not unheard of to buy something living, at market. But I’ve never heard where it was wise. ​

Living things have shapes of their own.

She bends forward to investigate, dismissing one cage and then another, until she stops. Grey-black fur, and eyes the shimmering green of faraway mines.

“Oh.” The seller and I hear it at the same time. Only the seller smiles.

The Wooden Box

I never noticed the zipper
hidden over my chest bone
until after you died.

It’s funny how things like that
go unnoticed, unused
for so long.

Now I grasp the pull,
drag it down,
reach into my chest cavity,

spread the ribs, just a bit,
dig among soft organs,
and pull out a box.

It’s a wooden box,
ornately carved, beautifully
stained a dark mahogany.

It’s dry as I lift it up
and gently slide out the
tongue-and-groove top.

             The first thing that reaches me is the scent—
             that perfect mix of baby powder, sawdust,
             coffee, and laundry soap.

             Then I hear the whisper of an echo
             of your familiar voice
             calling me once again.

              I close my eyes against the tears
             and feel a hug, the best hug in the entire world:
             comfortable and strong.

              Before I can slide the antique lid
              back into its waiting grooves,
              I see your bright, genuine smile flicker before me
                           like a ghost.

(Editors’ Note: “The Wooden Box” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 31B.)

Part of That World: Finding Disabled Mermaids in the Works of Seanan McGuire

I am a mermaid. I have always been a mermaid.

As someone with cerebral palsy, my legs have always been somewhat questionable. On land, they could tire at any moment, prompting me to sit down wherever I happened to be, even if that was the floor of a department store. They could (and did) cause me to trip and fall with alarming regularity. On land, my legs were a liability.

The water was different. The local YMCA had private swimming lessons available at a discount for children with disabilities, and my parents enrolled me in lessons before I even started kindergarten. My body did things in the water that it could never do out of it. I could kick, albeit with reduced strength. I could hop on one foot, a skill my physical therapists never quite succeeded in transferring to land. I even spent a summer learning how to do a backflip in the water. The water supported me in a way no brace ever did. I wasn’t afraid of falling in the water.

I was good at swimming like I wasn’t good at walking. I repeatedly won the gold medal for the 25-meter breaststroke at the Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged. At crip camp, I was one of the precious few campers afforded the privilege of going into the deep end, a handy escape route when the boys were intent on dunking me. Even now, years after I’ve swum in any formal capacity, I go to Aqua Fit class at LA Fitness on Saturday mornings and feel the water welcome me. No matter how long I go without being in the water, I’m still a mermaid.

Mermaids, to me, are fundamentally disabled. Like wheelchairs, crutches, or prosthetics, mermaid tails aid movement and facilitate freedom. In the water, tails allow mermaids to do anything imaginable. But on land, without their tails, mermaids are at a loss, quite literally unsure of their footing. Like many humans, mermaids move through the world in a different way. It is only in an environment that was not built for us that some of our differences become disabling. Whether that environment is steps or dry land doesn’t really matter: disability is disability all the same.

Mermaid mythology has become so entwined with disability that the medical term for “complete or partial fusion of the lower limbs” is sirenomelia—sirens being a synonym in some myths for what we typically think of as mermaids.¹ Similarly, another term, “The Curse of Ondine,” used to label a medical condition—in this case a form of sleep apnea called congenital central hypoventilation syndrome—hails from an early myth that may have been a predecessor to the myth of the mermaid. A water nymph named Ondine punishes her two-timing husband by cursing him to stop breathing the moment he falls asleep.² In the original story of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, the little mermaid must endure pain as punishment for her ambition even before she bargains for a human soul. Her grandmother orders oysters to attach themselves to the mermaid’s tail before she ascends to the surface of the water to observe the human world. When the mermaid complains that the oysters hurt her, her grandmother is unmoved. “Pride must suffer pain,” she tells her granddaughter. Later, the little mermaid pays an even steeper price for her desire: though she is granted human legs, she is cursed to feel pain like “treading upon sharp knives” every time she takes a step (the story makes sure to repeatedly highlight her graceful walk, even as walking causes her pain). With all of these connections between mermaids and disability, it’s no wonder that the late disabled historian Paul Longmore suggested that mermaids could be used to recast prevailing notions of disability in a lens of empowerment.

Modern fantasy media, however, has usually been reluctant to make the explicit connection between mermaids and disability. A spate of movies and TV shows in the last several decades, like H2O and Aquamarine, present mermaids as traditionally beautiful young girls who are just as graceful with legs as they are with tails. In the Disney retelling of The Little Mermaid, Ariel is initially unsure of what to do with her legs, but once she gets the hang of walking, she could pass for any able-bodied woman, with no mention of the pain that cursed her in the original story. Even Ariel’s missing voice is treated as more of a plot device meant to motivate her into a traditional heterosexual romance than a disability. Considering that most modern mermaid images are thin, white, and extraordinarily feminine, I can’t help but wonder if the unwillingness to link mermaids with disability in the popular imagination has partly to do with the fundamental conception of mermaids as sex objects who exist as temptresses to men. Disability, like fatness, queerness, and other marginalizations, is fundamentally incompatible with sexiness in the ableist gaze of Western society.

It wasn’t until I read the incredible works of Seanan McGuire that I felt fantasy had finally acknowledged what I had known for years. Seanan McGuire’s October Daye urban fantasy series features several mermaids as important side characters, most notably Dianda Lorden, the lovably violent ruler of an undersea demesne. When the titular October—Toby—meets Dianda for the first time, they’re both on land. And yet instead of waltzing around on land like she doesn’t usually have fins, Dianda is using a wheelchair with her fins on full display. Dianda says, “Legs are tiring when the water is distant. I need to save my strength.”³ When I first read that, my jaw dropped. Here was explicit confirmation of a truth earlier mermaid stories dared not acknowledge. Throughout the series, Dianda’s wheelchair is often referred to casually as just another part of her. At a kingdom-wide event, an accessible space in the audience is saved for her. Her husband supports her when she has trouble navigating the stairs. Dianda is disabled because she’s a mermaid, and on land, she’s navigating a world not made for her, just like all disabled people do.

McGuire never lets the reality of disability slip past her when discussing mermaids, even across series. Her novella Rolling in the Deep also focuses on murderous mermaids, though much different than Dianda Lorden. The mermaids of Rolling in the Deep and its full-length sequel Into the Drowning Deep are carnivorous, ghastly creatures who focus on death and destruction. The books feel more and more like a bloodbath with every passing page. However, Rolling in the Deep also features a troupe of performing “mermaids” as part of the mockumentary that forms the premise for the book. Two of those mermaids use wheelchairs, and mostly keep their costume fins on, even when not in the water. (As a side note, one of those mermaids is based on Teal Scherer, star of the webseries “My Gimpy Life”). The head of the troupe, Sunnie, explains it this way: “We’ve found… that people talk one way to a woman who doesn’t stand up because she’s a mermaid, and another way to a woman who doesn’t stand up because her legs are not quite up to factory standards… As far as we’re concerned, they’re mermaids.” Once again, mermaids are linked to disability and the complicated realities of ableism.4 As long as people can dismiss those whose legs don’t work well on land as fantastical, fictional creatures, they won’t have to face the ugly truth that disabled people exist. Not only that, but disabled people exist as perfectly ordinary humans who are not special or inspirational, just navigating a world not made for them.

In McGuire’s short story “Each to Each” for Lightspeed Magazine, this encapsulation of the social model of disability within a fantastical premise is the most explicit. In the near future, women are recruited to become “military mermaids,” genetically and surgically altered in steps to resemble sea creatures in order to be most effective in the water. Yet, even as their bodies change, the women are expected to “pass” for typical as long as possible. They stuff their feet into boots even as their feet transform into fins, and are expected to speak verbally even when it is difficult to speak through air instead of water. Those who have fully transformed, who spend their time in the water and cannot even approximate “normal” human ways of moving and interacting, clearly make “drysiders” uncomfortable. But in the water, the women are able to move smoothly and freely, and communicate efficiently with each other without the need for verbal speech. Rather than using metaphor to shy away from tackling the realities of disability and ableism, as so many modern mermaid media does, Seanan McGuire uses metaphor to tell stories about disability. She understands that using fantasy as a vehicle to highlight real-world issues around disability can ultimately lead to increased acceptance, and maybe even social change.

What makes Seanan McGuire so good at filling in the holes of fantasy with the disability stories the genre has been missing? The answer is simple: she’s one of us. Seanan McGuire has spoken at length about her disabilities, including her chronic pain and need to use a motorized scooter at some large cons. She also identifies as neuroatypical. I didn’t find out that Seanan McGuire was disabled until I’d already fallen in love with her writing, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. A disabled author finally gave me the disabled mermaids I’d been yearning for. If we had more disabled authors like Seanan McGuire writing powerfully and authentically about disability, maybe we’d see more representation in fantasy and science fiction. Maybe we wouldn’t feel so much like there’s no place for disabled bodyminds in worlds of magic and technology.

Seanan McGuire is on the frontier of a new revolution in fantasy—a disability revolution. If fantasy authors and creators can conceptualize mermaids (and other forms of mythical creatures) as fundamentally disabled, there’s no end to the potential for great storytelling and social commentary. Perhaps more importantly, children with disabilities can grow up knowing that there is a place for them, even in fictional worlds. Ariel sings, “Legs are required for jumpin’, dancin’.” I have to disagree. I’ve found that you can dance just as well with fins—or a wheelchair—as you can with legs. Somehow, I think Seanan McGuire and her characters would agree.


¹ Kallen, B., et al. “The cyclops and the mermaid: an epidemiological study of two types of rare malformation.” Journal of Medical Genetics (1992), 30-35.

² Skye Alexander. “The Curse of Ondine.” Mermaids: The Myths, The Legends, and Lore (Adams Media, 2012), 20.

³ Seanan McGuire. One Salt Sea (DAW Books, Inc., 2011).

4 Mira Grant. Rolling In the Deep. (Subterranean Press, 2015).

goddess in forced repose

proper speech requires sharp teeth. the trick is to not make the sharpening process lengthier than it needs to be, especially with your condition. lay out your expectations. do you intend to smile while you speak today? put more time into polishing as you sharpen. do you have a couch date with your soul-bonded lover of five ages? neatly round the points. but

some days your body is swollen with fog that settles heavy in the unused chamber of your heart. the tooth-file rests untouched at the bottom of a bathroom drawer.

you write this as a confessional on your blog accompanied by pictures of your blunted new-grown teeth and hope your mortal admirers will understand your absence. ask them if they are conscious of the weight of their bodies, if they ever list to one side and take on water. ask them to remember when you were endangered by a nightmare wherein the sword under your pillow pointed where it wanted. dream you have broken your wrist and wake to find it stiff and clotted with roses. make a note to later deliver bouquets to the devout. sleep again. the third row of teeth sheds fastest. their replacements are gestating pain in the gums.

a pile of enamel at your bedside is proof of how your body leaves itself behind. you wake with your cheek in cooled saliva and a mouthful of sleep sheddings. you spit them out, adding to the pile, and turn over. the memory foam rejects your shape.

The Fifth Day


I feel the morning sun first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the clearing where the clay is soft and red and ready for wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how it talks to me. It says the same thing over and over again, but it is enough: We share blood.

Outside my hut and into the clearing, they carry the bodies on their backs or over their shoulders. Some of them are covered in fur. It drapes them like a carpet, even coming over the tops of their heads to hide their eyes in darkness. The ones in the front carry the without-lifes like sacks of rice and fling them down with just as much carelessness. Each lands with a thud, then the messenger turns and walks back the way they came. Another without-life dropped with a thud, raising a soft cloud of red dust, and then another and another. Some of them make a noise when they land, a trill like tiny mallets striking wood in an ascending pitch, bones singing their brokenness.

Behind the first several rounds of messengers comes another, smaller, slower group. Many of them carry the without-lifes one at a time, held out over both arms. And some of them lay the without-lifes gently on the pile like something precious. The messengers’ faces are untouched pasture, no part of them moves, but these new ones stand for a moment staring at the growing pile of nothing before turning to join the others in the shadows cast by the forest. Some of them have their tails hanging from their front. Some of them have tufts of fur sprouting from their armpits, but the flesh of their stomachs and their breasts is exposed, some of them are a combination of all these things. So there is no telling whether or not the thin ones or the large ones, the tall ones or the small ones, the ones with tails or the ones without, will do this thing where they stare at the without-life in mimicry and then depart. But it is a new thing.

I like new things.

Once the hole is dug, I climb back out on footfalls that the air carves into the ground.

I don’t remember when I began this being, but I feel as though there is learning in my bones. The sun’s arc, the moon’s path. The division of the world into four days. The fact of my work. The fact of its necessity. I grab an extended limb from deep inside the pile, test it with a few pulls, then yank and step out of the way as the without-lifes tumble into the hole I’ve dug. In the beautiful collapse, the air around them pushes and pulls, so that they fall in a spiral, legs crossed, arms flung upward, a dance, a natural beautiful way of falling, and it feels like a right thing. The last time they see the sun is right after they have patterned themselves after the sky and the jewels swimming in it. A few times, the air misbehaves and takes a without-life as its own to make walk and dance above ground or sometimes on the other bodies. The air moves its jaw to mimic speech, pushes itself into and out of the without-life’s lungs, and even though the display washes me in wrongness, what can I do? It is the air and I am me and we share blood. So I let it play but not for too long, because the day must share with the night, and though the sun does not mind looking at these things in this hole, the moon sometimes hides at the sight of them, sometimes peeks out a single crescent eye, growing larger and larger.

By the end I am covered in red dust. The sweat turns some of it into small rivers running down my cheeks. It gloves my hands, and on some days, it feels like the ground will finish swallowing me. It’s hungry, but there is always a meal. And as the sky darkens, the ground hums beneath me. Every day is too long for it to go without feeding, every night’s full stomach too brief. And in that stretching of time before day becomes night, the gloaming, the ground’s almost-agony sinks into my pores.

When I retire at day’s end, the earth will feed. She will pass bone and flesh and muscle and organ, dissolve them, turn them into more of her. Until she has consumed a specific without-life seven times, she will spit that without-life’s instinct back into the air, who will bring it to a messenger before they become a messenger and that instinct will take hold of the new life in a someone’s womb, and the earth will do this seven times, then consume the instinct wholly, and the someone will call that instinct an ancestor. Sometimes, if playfulness and hunger battle in the earth’s belly, she will split the instinct in two or four and spit those pieces of self into the bellies of many someones. And when one of those new someones becomes a without-life, they all become without-lifes, and the earth then has two or four to consume where she before might have had only one.

I walk back into my hut just as the first diamonds are strung around the moon’s neck and light the ground at the threshold to my home, and my home’s walls hug me as the sound of voices descends from the sky, and I hear people talking. The Others.

The air giggles as words writhe through it, as it causes sounds to susurrate, and I hear the word “Dig” over and over before the air, finally, nudges me into my hut where I mix my herbs and drink my tea and lay my head on my mat. It is important, what The Others are saying and how they are saying it, how much like someone familiar they sound, and I am trying to remember why and how I know these things, but the tea washes me into slumber and the day, having completed itself, tells me that not remembering is part of my duty. I agreed to this some time ago. It is my portion not to know.

It is how, the dying sun tells me, I am able to keep being this way.

It is how, it tells me, I am able to keep being.

It is not quite dreaming, never that.

But it is a moving darkness.

Patterns repeat, symbols of light surround me, bathe me in the warmth of the mother sun, who sits in the sky during the day, and then cuts herself in two to allow the moon passage.

The not-sleep feels like a kindness, a different sort of kindness than the one I am granted during the day by the earth’s humming and the sun’s buzzing and the insects’ singing. I feel I am being told things. Taught things. Whatever is speaking to me speaks things that pass like water through my fingers or refuse to be held for very long. They are important things, what I am being told.

I am being taught that the thing I am doing is called duty.

I am being taught that there is another word for the instinct that fills the belly of someones. It is called ogbanje.

The ogbanje brings misfortune, the voice tells me. The ogbanje is not new here, has been here all along. You must find its iyi-uwa and destroy it to be free.

But this work is my duty. The ogbanje brings life, does it not?

Do not trust the sun, the voice tells me. Do not trust the earth. They have trapped you.

When this voice says they have trapped me, I hear they have trapped are trapping will trap me. This has been happening for a long time.

Please remember, the voice tells me.

But remembering would betray the sun and the air and the earth who have loved me for so long.


I feel the morning sun first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the clearing where the clay is soft and red and ready for wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how it talks to me. It says the same thing over and over again, but it is enough: We share blood.

Outside my hut and into the clearing, the messengers wear shawls and carry the without-lifes one at a time. There are only two messengers and a whispering at the back of my mind. A hissing strangeness. Is this new? Cloth frames their faces. Their skin, where it shows, is hairless. Not completely, but the fur is gone. It collects around the face or crowns the head or falls down to the small of the back. Again, that hissing strangeness. But they hold the without-lifes out before them, and there is a look on their faces, and I don’t remember there ever being a look on their faces.

The without-lifes they hold in their arms and then lay gingerly at my feet, are, many of them, faceless. Or rather, their noses and mouths and eyes have been distorted, blown up and misshapen like wet clay in the hands of a nightmare-hounded babe. The limbs, too, are bent oddly, the whole of these shapes disordered.

The earth growls beneath me, and it sounds like hunger but something else too. Refusal. Not this.

The bodies are bloated and unwieldy. I don’t wait until the messengers have left to begin this next portion of my being. I cannot afford to wait. The earth is too hungry. So I pull and push and try to get good angles. A without-life bursts open, releasing a cloud of gas. My lungs seize, and I fall to my knees, and over and over the messengers make their deliveries, heedless of the dying of the light. And I must push and pull the pile of without-lifes with one hand, the other arm covering my nose and mouth, shielding against the gasses the without-lifes have begun to emit. The air shrieks its protest.

Everything is wrong, everything feels wrong. This is different.

So I hurry to the far edge of the pile and push, and when I do, my heel brushes against a footprint left by a messenger, and in my head swim the gasses and the bloating of the someones and the changing faces, the misshaping but also the someones leaking rivers from their eyes and howling and wailing and this is lamentation I don’t know where the word comes from but it is there and right after it is the word plague and I am swimming in it in this sickness this effluence it seeps into that space between my skin and the dust that coats it and the sight of the dying the site of the dying nearly consumes me until suddenly I am in my hut and the moon casts its light and the air’s moaning has lessened, turned to a soft mewling, and my head is on the ground and my throat is wet with herbal tea and peace and order and peace.

It is not quite dreaming, never that.

But it is a moving darkness.

An unveiling occurs. I am witnessing change. Change. Time. I have been here a long time. I am being taught that the thing I am doing is called duty. Then that it is called work. Then that it is called punishment. I am being taught that I am hurt.

It is hurt you have welcomed, the voice like water through my fingers tells me.


More are coming, it says.

Do you hear me? I ask, because I want need to know if hurting is my portion. Can you hear me?

The voice cannot. A voice speaks and does not hear. It says, Not more earth because she is singular and not more air because its character is stabile and everlasting and not more sun because she is one except when she is two, but more governors. Who order the stars and direct the sun and fill the air with their selves. They stand or sit or hover and receive the beseeching and the prayers and all manner of utterances of the someones and sometimes they hear and sometimes they pretend to hear and all of them, I am told, feel love for those they govern, those they rule, but it is a distant love, a love that leaves room for violence.

Gods. That’s what they are. The word arrives from nowhere and everywhere.

And they are coming here.

When I am being taught this, it feels like a warning.


I feel the morning sun first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the clearing where the clay is soft and red and ready for wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how it talks to me. It says the same thing over and over again, but it is enough: We share blood.

Outside my hut and into the clearing, the messengers are waiting for me and their expressions are blank, the skin of their faces, their features, held tight, and I know without knowing how I know that it is a great effort that keeps them this way. They tremble with it as they hold their without-lifes out to me, like an offering.

They lay the without-lifes onto the ground gently. This is new. I don’t know if I like new.

They wear garments to cover their bottom halves. Skirts and pantaloons. And these things are stained, dotted, with blood from the without-lifes that they carry. There is disfigurement, the bodies disordered, but not so graphically as to suggest plague and not so chaos-ridden as to suggest war. There is order to this violence, and when the messengers turn some of these without-lifes over onto their stomachs, I see a design of hurt in the raised scar tissue. The air pushes me toward the without-lifes, now arrayed in neat and ordered rows, and when I come down to one knee and touch a scarred back, images attack my mind and for the first time I see this difference and similarity. I see men with no color on their skin whipping and castrating and snatching life and women with no color on their skin, their godsbreath pulsating and wheezing with hatred and envy and darkness, and I see their victims, and for the first time I consider my own hands, turn them over for the sun to kiss and, peering beneath my coating of red clay, I see that their skin—the flesh of the messengers, the flesh of the without-lifes, smelling of oceanwater they must have crossed to come here—matches mine.

One of the messengers, this one wearing a skirt, compasses the arrangement of without-lifes and holds in her arms a small one. Tiny. Newly born. Though she looks at it with what feels to me like kindness; though, with one free hand, she touches its nose and she bounces it, the without-life does not move. The closer this messenger draws to me, the less she entertains the myth that this without-life is a someone, so that by the time we stand nearly nose to nose, she no longer smiles, no longer touches the without-life’s nose, no longer bounces it in her arms as though to draw from it loving, guileless gurgles.

She looks at the without-life’s face, then hands it to me.

With a shake of my head, I indicate the already organized sequence on the ground before me and behind her, but she refuses to move. I frown and indicate again, but this time, she holds the without-life out to me, insisting.

“P… pl… please.”

Confusion fuses my feet to the ground.

I hear this messenger speak the way I sometimes hear the air speak, but I also hear her the way I hear the sun speak, and compulsion more than thought pushes my arms outward to take the tiny without-life and to lay it down far from the larger hole and near to my hut and to dig a smaller one for it and to look back behind me to see the messenger smiling through the rivers that run down her face and all throughout the gloaming as I lay the without-lifes into the earth’s mouth and complete my duty work punishment being, I hear the roar, the rush, beneath the messenger’s simple word. I hear the “please,” but I also hear the other thing.

I hear her tell me, “We share blood.”

The messenger leaves and is a long time gone before I walk over to where she stood and, with great hesitation, I approach where she stood and turn so that I am facing the mouth I have dug for the earth. And I step backward, first one foot and then the other, fitting into the groove left by her toes and her heels and I am standing where she was standing and the fit is perfect.

Air whispers warning into my muscles, tries to pry me free of this place, but I resist. I refuse.

I need to be here.

The air recoils around me, blasts outward. I smell newness, taste it on my tongue. I do not know what is waiting for me, but I stand and the sun falls lower and lower, preparing to split itself for the moon’s passage, and stars begin to adorn the night sky and voices appear, buffeting an already unsteady air, turning him into wind, and this is new and I like new and I need new.

Then they appear.

The Others.

They emerge—one from the forest behind me, one from the ground before me, one from the air above me. And each has a shovel in their hands and they dig and they move in a circle as they dig, etching a spiral into the undisturbed earth. The Others. The also-me’s.

The also-me’s move their mouths. During the night, time is different and the same. The Now cradles the After, so I know that when I see what they’re saying, that they are saying, “Free me, free me,” I know that they have come from the future to say this thing to me. I am looking at the After. An After.

I feel the night moon first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the sky, below which the ground is hard and black and impervious to wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how I recognize its voice. I remember it has been teaching me, but I don’t remember what it has been teaching me.

The ogbanje brings misfortune. It brings death. The ogbanje is not new here, has been here all along. You must find its iyi-uwa and destroy it to be free.

How, Moon?


And moonlight makes silver the ground outside the entrance to my hut.

The Others look up from their digging and face me. Dig, they say. Dig dig dig dig dig.

I know I need to remember, but I remember that forgetting is part of this order, and I need not to forget and how will I remember to dig dig dig dig dig


I feel the morning sun first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the clearing where the clay is soft and red and ready for wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how it talks to me.

Outside my hut and into the clearing is stillness.

I know there is forest beyond this clearing, but I know this without seeing it, because there is only fog and out of this fog steps me.

It is a me, but it is a me that wavers, whose edges cannot stay still. A half-me. And it is grinning, but fighting against its grin. And me and I have the same sun-tongued skin, but his is made of fog, of wisp, and though its color sings to me, I see through it to the mist beyond. Still, it feels like so much of the force I have felt around me (for how long?) is concentrated in this half-me. It is a darkness and a half-ness at the same time.

“Tell me what you saw, gravedigger.” Half-me’s voice. An aberration fighting against the air rather than a smoothness cutting through it. It is garbled. The air resists it. It sounds like poison. “When the traitor moon held dominion, tell me what you saw.”

And, suddenly, it comes to me: the division of night and day and I am remembering that there are four days and that I was supposed to be asleep for the night and somewhere deep and far away but I was where I am standing now outside my hut with my shovel in hand and I am looking at…

“Tell me what you saw, gravedigger.”

“I do not know,” I say in return because it is the truth.

“It is important that you tell me, because I need your help, gravedigger. You are the only one who can do what I need.”

“But I do not know your name.”

“You do not need to know my name.”

In a flash, I remember the night and I see man-shapes moving in the darkness, their mouths forming around words I can almost hear and each of them is digging and there are three of them and I am supposed to be the fourth and “supposed” covers the entire memory, coats it in duty and order. But something is speaking to me in the memory and I am hearing a word.

“I am…”

“You are ogbanje.”

And the ogbanje grows solid for just a moment before returning to half-ness.

I have spoken its name and its name carries power and this is new and I like new. “Now, ogbanje, what do you want?”

“New gods are coming. They are without color, and they mean to displace us.”


“You do not know, gravedigger? You are not god, but you have god in you. These new gods, they are the color of bone and they are hungry for blood and they devour and devour and devour and they set brother against brother and they tear families asunder and their entire purpose is disorder. They claim they operate out of love for those who pray to them but theirs is a jealous, cruel love. They break what they love, and they rejoice in it. Gravedigger, help me fight them. It is your duty, gravedigger.” The ogbanje looks over his shoulder, and then is gone.

The fog lifts.

A messenger appears carrying a tiny without-life. She is trying to keep the rivers from falling down her face, but she is failing.

There is a mouth in the earth behind me, but I do not remember digging it. And it is filled with without-lifes but I do not remember putting them there. But this child, I am supposed to put it there with the rest, and this messenger holding it out to me wants me to do differently, this I know. So I take the tiny without-life from her hands, gingerly, and set it on a plot near to my hut, and I dig a small hole for it, a more delicate mouth so that the earth will be gentle when consuming this one.

And I know I am doing the correct thing because there is learning in my bones and a message given to me by the moon. The ogbanje brings misfortune. Break its iyi-uwa. Be free.


I feel the morning sun first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the clearing where the clay is soft and red and ready for wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how it talks to me. It says the same thing over and over again, but it is enough: We share blood.

When the messengers appear, some of them wear olive-green military uniforms only a shade or two lighter than the leaves of the forest behind them. Some bare their arms to the sun, others cover their whole bodies. Some of the without-lifes are similarly dressed. But some are dressed otherwise, in loose t-shirts or in dresses or in pants and blouses or in agbadas or in close-fitting dashikis.

There is something I am supposed to know. Deception hangs somewhere in this clearing. There is something someone I am not to trust, whose commands I am not to obey.

I take the without-lifes one by one and deposit them in the earth’s mouth and the air carves steps for me inside the earth’s cheek and eases my walk to the earth’s lips and so I go back and forth back and forth until the earth’s mouth is nearly full and one messenger holds out a tiny without-life, and epiphany is within reach. I know there is a thing I am supposed to know and this child contains it, so I take the tiny without-life and watch the last messenger retreat into the woods and I know that these without-lifes have been touched by war and there is the musk of foreign godsbreath about them, that gods are battling somewhere far away outside the bounds of my universe and the someones who look like me are warring against the someones whose skin is the same color as bone and I know this because I have been doing this work this being for a long time, and I am not startled to realize this.

I lay the child down in a plot near to my hut and dig. And I dig a deep deep hole for the tiny without-life, and suspicion pushes me to continue digging, digging past that moment where the sun begins its splitting to provide passage for the moon, and I am still digging and suddenly air presses hard on my shoulders and kicks the back of my knees and my sweat has turned me into a glowing thing and I can barely move for the tiredness that afflicts me. And my eyelids grow heavy, but I must stay awake I must keep digging I must

Darkness falls. Not complete darkness but almost. And I look up to the sky to see a ring of light around a dark sphere and the moon is telling me you have seven times seven times seven times seven breaths to find it. And the earth roars wrongness, and the air screams, and I know the ogbanje is near because also-me’s sprout from the air and the ground, and a single beam of light swings into the forest.

I run and as I enter the forest, strength returns. The shade. I am protected from the sun, whom I remember I must not trust.

But the beam of light I followed is split into many.

Dig, I am told.

But where?

I leap to the farthest beam and paw at the ground. I am running out of time. The beams are growing thinner, weaker.

Dig, I am told. Dig dig dig dig.

I stop. That voice. That voice that touches my ear and my heart at the same time. I know that voice. It is the sun’s voice. The lying sun’s voice. I have been deceived. The iyi-uwa is elsewhere.

I walk back to the clearing and I walk over the mouth I had earlier dug for the earth and I do not worry it will open back up again and swallow me, and the air buffets me, but I know I am stronger than it because I have god in me and I approach that plot near to my hut where I last buried the tiny without-life, where I have buried many tiny without-lifes. And I take my shovel and I plunge it into the earth, but the earth does not yield and I stab again and again but still, nothing. And the air is screaming and my arms are screaming as I stab and stab, then toss my shovel away and come to my knees and dig with my hands and, to my surprise, the earth yields and still the sun and moon duel and I dig and dig and dig.

“They will win,” the ogbanje says to me.

I look up and see it crouched before me, on the other side of the hole I am digging.

“If you break this cycle, the other gods will win.”

I block my ears.

The ogbanje reaches for me, but its fingers pass through my wrist. “They will win and this world will die. Those you share blood with will be trapped and they will not be born again and they will die forever and is that what you want?”

I dig and dig because I want to be free. I want to exist outside of my duty. I want to be something someone somewhere else. I am tired of seeing those who share my blood broken and bloodied, whose only destiny is to be buried. I want it to stop.

“If you break this cycle, who will watch your people?”

And that’s when I find it. A circle. Fragments of bone strung together by a thread. And a memory strikes me, a memory so deep inside me that only I could have put it there, could have negotiated and navigated the bones and organ and muscle and pieces of self, rounded the corridors and climbed the ladders and crawled over the roofs and dug the tunnels, to put it there. And I touch it and the circle with four bone fragments in it, joined by string, is mine is me is my child. My own child. And the ogbanje howls because I have touched it. I have touched my child. My tiny without-life. And I remember that I buried it because I was promised that if I took these parts of my child and put them here I would see my child again and my child would no longer be gone forever, and it was is a bargain that I made and seemed happy in making because I loved this child I was sun-swallowed with love for this child and wanted nothing more than to see them again and I remember the love and how deep it went and how much it surrounded me how tightly it held me and it is almost enough to push my hand off the iyi-uwa and cover this hole and forget but I grab it and I squeeze and pain and blood dripping and I squeeze even more and then breaking it breaking me breaking everything everything breaking.

It is not quite dreaming, never that.

But it is a moving darkness.

Patterns repeat, symbols of light surround me, and they are explaining things to me. And they are explaining that I was once a someone who made a bargain and enlisted a malevolent spirit to get a thing I was never supposed to have. And they are explaining to me how my want killed villages and murdered cities and cast death down through generations. And they are explaining how the moon took pity on me and sought to rescue me from my punishment. And as they are telling me of my child, I am asking more and more about this child and I am being taught that my child was golden and their hair was curled and their eyes the most beautiful brown and that they giggled cumulus clouds. And I am asking and asking and asking until I realize I am trying to have as much of this child as I can and yet it is still not enough never enough and they are telling me more and more and then I am remembering that the child my child is gone forever and I am broken and I am asking how I can see my child again.

And they are telling me.

(Editors’ Note: “The Fifth Day” is read by Joy Piedmont and Tochi Onyebuchi is interviewed by Haddayr Copley-Woods on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 30B.)