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Gone with the Clones: How Confederate Soft Power Twisted the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy

The Star Wars prequel trilogy was not very good. [citation not needed]

You’ve probably heard a lot of explanations for this famous artistic failure: pompous writing; wooden acting; over-reliance on then-cutting-edge CGI which delivered on spectacle but fell apart on realism; George Lucas literally divorcing the only editor who could bring his scattered Sunday-serial narrative impulses to heel, i.e., Marcia Lou Lucas; etc.

Today, we’re going to look at a new culprit. In this essay I will show how the Star Wars prequels were RUINED—

—by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

For a series literally named Star Wars, the films never cared very much about the imagined history of the wars among the stars. Lucas is no Herbert or Cherryh or Palmer, intricately inventing fantastic factions and their evolving animosity to set the stage for epic battle.

No, Star Wars is simpler: it just grabs the cultural memory of a famous war out of the US zeitgeist, slaps some lasers and rockets onto it, and shouts “roll film!”

The real-world inspiration for the original Star Wars trilogy was, of course, WWII. From the transparently-named “stormtroopers,” to the Hugo Boss-inspired, SS-style Imperial uniforms, to the fighter-pilot-vs-battleship climax sequences (directly cribbed from actual WWII combat footage!), the fingerprints of WWII are all over those movies.

The thing is, Americans know what WWII was about: Nazis. Who are bad.

When the time came for the central conflict of the prequel trilogy (the long-awaited Clone Wars) Lucas reached for another actual war, deeply embedded in the US cultural imagination: the American Civil War.

Again, the fingerprints are obvious. In Attack of the Clones, a simmering secession crisis erupts into a shooting war. The unionist faction’s military is the Grand Army of the Republic. The secessionists’ government is the Confederacy of Independent Systems. This is not super subtle.

There’s just one problem. The (white) American public doesn’t know what the Civil War was about. 

We don’t know, because our public imagination—our art, our culture, our politics and laws—have all been undermined by a vast, intergenerational propaganda campaign to keep us confused and ignorant about the true nature of the Civil War and our History. A campaign waged in large part by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

A quick review of the history:

The American Civil War ended in a decisive Union victory. Confederate armies were defeated in the field and surrendered, effectively unconditionally. Confederate cities were destroyed, Confederate institutions dismantled, and Confederate states placed under military occupation and reintegrated into the Union. The Confederate States of America ceased to exist as a going concern.

But this defeat did not annihilate what Frederick Douglass (and others)1 called “the slave power”—the social order based on a white planter aristocracy ruinously exploiting the vast majority of Black Americans.

The slave power had written every Article of Secession and created every organ of the Confederacy. But even after the cause of Secession was defeated, the slave power fought on.

Through guerrilla warfare, terrorist violence, political maneuvering, and cultural propaganda, the slave power fought to renegotiate its surrender to the Union to more favorable terms. And by and large it succeeded.

After twelve years of that fighting (the Reconstruction era), the slave power achieved a new detente with the Union (Redemption). In this new arrangement, secession remained impossible and slavery remained outlawed. But the slave power implemented a renewed subjugation of Black Americans: economically, through debt peonage (sharecropping); culturally, through segregation (Jim Crow); and politically, through systematic disenfranchisement and terrorism (Jim Crow again). And the slave power ran the governments of the former Confederacy as one-party Dixiecrat states.

During the subsequent era (Jim Crow and the nadir of American race relations) the slave power preserved the legal right of white people to kill Black Americans with impunity, especially in large groups (lynchings), and erected a bunch of statues of Confederate generals to commemorate their ongoing power.

Nor was the slave power’s influence restricted to the former Confederacy. Other states and the federal government pursued their own segregationist and racially repressive policies. Slave power cultural propaganda was ubiquitous.

And—most relevant for Lucas and his prequel trilogy—the slave power set the terms for how all white Americans across the country would come to understand the Civil War, through both cultural propaganda (pro-slave-power works like Gone With the Wind and Birth of A Nation swept the country) and by seizing control of how (white) schoolchildren throughout the United States would learn about this conflict.

This campaign—the conquest of the (white) national memory of the Civil War—was primarily waged by organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy, a Klan-affiliated advocacy group composed of the descendants of Confederate soldiers.

They had a name for the dishonest, Orwellian historiography of the war they wanted every (white) child to learn.

They called it “the Lost Cause.”

The simple fact of the matter is: the Confederacy had rebelled against the Union to preserve the institution of slavery. But the institution of slavery was transparently abhorrent and had been universally abandoned—which made the slave power look evil—and the Union had crushed the Confederacy in fire and blood—which made the slave power look weak. How could the Daughters of the Confederacy rescue such a humiliating reputation?

Their strategy had two pincers.

First, glorify and romanticize the Civil War, as a sort of ecumenical adventure. Flowing locks! Rugged beards! Daring cavalry charges! Strange new weapons—ironclads and machine guns! Etc.

The function of this pincer was to frame the war as a sort of mass spectacle—a thrilling but ultimately two-dimensional backdrop for individual adventures.

Second, replace public understandings of the cause of the war with specific slogans (memes, thought-terminating clichés) designed to give the impression that people understood what the war was about, while not actually meaning anything at all.

This strategy may justly be called Orwellian, but a more precise sci-fi example comes in Philip K. Dick’s “The Mold of Yancy,”2 where the corporate overlords of Callisto brainwash the population with continuous broadcasts from the fictitious Yancy.
Dick puts it like this: “All Yancy’s beliefs are insipid. The key is thinness…We’ve come as close as possible to no beliefs…without a viewpoint…but with the illusion of a viewpoint.”

What was the Civil War about? The Lost Cause has answers, rote phrases you’ve probably heard before: “states’ rights!” (states’ rights to do what?); “economic differences!” (the Union and Confederate economies differed how?); “clashing cultures” (the cultures clashed why?).

These slogans seem to be answers. Instead they obliterate answers. They are clichéd and analytically sterile; historical dead ends that point away from every source of truth.

This is, of course, exactly how the Clone Wars are depicted in the Star Wars prequels.

Why were the Clone Wars fought? The prequels will not say. Indeed, they do not seem to know.

Which is kind of weird. We viewers actually spend quite a bit of screentime with the political leaders of the nascent Confederacy! (Contrast this to the original trilogy, which utterly fails the political Bechdel test—no two characters ever exchange any dialogue about their ideologies or values.) But even though we literally eavesdrop on their councils, hiding in the rafters alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi, we get nothing. The corporate factions moan about tariffs and trade. Dooku sermonizes incoherently about democracy and corruption. The Senate debates whether mobilizing an army is ipso facto a provocation. It all adds up to basically nothing.

The prequel trilogy even loves to talk about slavery specifically! Anakin Skywalker is born into intergenerational chattel slavery; both the Republic and the Confederacy field overwhelmingly unfree armies. But the films contrive for the issue to remain neutral in the Clone Wars: Anakin’s slavery is (somehow) outside of both Republic and Confederacy; and the droids and clones alike are CGI pawns, carefully balanced between sides.

Even the exposition itself buys into this frame of meaningless equivalence. The opening crawl to Episode III explicitly states “There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.” (Try, for a moment, to imagine those sentences shoehorned into The Empire Strikes Back!)

All of that means that when the war explodes, we viewers have no sense of the stakes. The Clone Wars are ideologically and morally incoherent—and thus narratively unsatisfying.

Quite the opposite happens in the original trilogy. Not through exposition-dumps or elaborate debates, but just as the natural result of clear characterization. The Star Wars original trilogy is about fascism and its enemies. The Empire is a recent fascist state; the Rebel Alliance opposes it because fascism is intolerable to free people.

So within ten minutes, we learn from Darth Vader that the Emperor has dissolved the organs of democracy. We see fascism’s supporters—the dehumanized and dehumanizing military—violate the laws of war by bombarding a consular ship. Throughout the films, we see the Empire employ torture, mass reprisals against civilians, and casual displacement of indigenous populations.

The depiction of fascism’s enemies is equally precise. Who opposes fascism? People of principle (Leia Organa). Idealistic youth (Luke Skywalker). Oppressed minorities (Chewbacca). Black marketeers—if they have a conscience (Han Solo). Religious leaders (Obi-Wan Kenobi). Royalists (the Organas, offscreen). Provincial leaders with local autonomy (Lando Calrissian). Elected officials of the prior democratic regime (Mon Mothma). The dramatis personae of the original trilogy reads like a goddamn slideshow of the Allies’ “This man is your FRIEND. He fights for FREEDOM” poster series. It’s not an accident that Princess Leia’s rescue from the Death Star plays out as a fantasy of saving Sophie Scholl from the Nazi guillotine.

But the Clone Wars, deprived of this outsourced—yet effective!—moral clarity, descends into banal meaninglessness.

There is room for a more ominous interpretation here. After all, if the secession crisis in Attack of the Clones is the secession crisis of 1860, then Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious)—the unexpected leader from a rural backwater who rises to power on the eve of battle, who preaches peace but secretly courts war, who exploits the conflict to amass his own tyrannical power, who threatens the liberty of the entire galaxy—the Dark Lord of the Sith is Abraham Lincoln.
Or rather, he is the tyrannical vision of Abraham Lincoln that motivated John Wilkes Booth to assassinate the Great Emancipator.

With this interpretation in mind, all six Lucasfilm Star Wars movies descend into obsessive crypto-neo-Confederate propaganda of the strangest, basest type. The hero’s journey is to restore the Confederacy! A more elegant weapon, for a more antebellum age! The South and/or Jedi will rise again! Etc. Etc.

But, for my money, all that is a bridge too far. Lucas hasn’t suggested any secret Confederate sympathies; nor have actual neo-Confederates drawn the parallel themselves. No, Lucas isn’t the intentional author of secret slave power propaganda. He’s just another victim, regurgitating the same lies we’ve all been fed.

The real tragedy is: there was room to do better.

Rian Johnson (director of Star Wars: Episode VIII, The Last Jedi) memorably defended the prequel trilogy as follows: “Lucas made a gorgeous 7-hour long movie for children about how entitlement and fear of loss turns good people into fascists.”

He’s not wrong about what Lucas seems to have been trying to do. But the foundation Lucas built upon—(white) America’s cultural memory of the Civil War—had been compromised by the slave power’s propaganda, and the message became muddled and lost.

There were better ways. Lucas could have leaned into the parallel. Anakin is born into slavery—and the Confederacy is seceding to preserve those institutions of exploitation. Qui-Gon’s body lies a-mouldering in his grave, but his soul goes marching on! And so on. (The only issue there would be the slight awkwardness of either having the victorious Republic descend into Imperial tyranny, or writing to an alternate history where the slave power won.)

Other works of sci-fi have handled these periods and themes of American history far more thoughtfully—works like Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, or the recent Watchmen miniseries. The key ingredient seems to be observing the war and the tyranny from the perspective of Black America—clear-eyed about oppression, possessed of moral urgency, uncontaminated by slave power propaganda.

Alternatively, Lucas could have reached for another historical inspiration; Caesar crossing the Rubicon and marching on Rome would be an obvious choice, if a bit obscure to modern audiences. Perhaps more compelling would be the Spanish Civil War, the most famous instance of a 20th-century fascist regime being established through open warfare. This war’s story later served as the deeply effective frame narrative for Pan’s Labyrinth, which won over American audiences at the same time the Star Wars prequels were losing them.

Lucas could have leaned into the critique of the War on Terror that he occasionally fumbles towards. He could have remixed Vietnam and Watergate—surely every male Boomer director has at least one Vietnam movie in him! He could have looked at the Delian League’s descent into Athenian thalassocracy; the end of Taishō Democracy; the collapse of the French First Republic into Empire. He could have followed in the footsteps of the great space operas and struck out for something genuinely novel—following droids and clones and what they mean for life and for war. Any of these options would have taken Star Wars in an interesting, enlightening direction—and the American moviegoing public along with it.

But at the end of the day, he did none of that. Instead, he lazily recycled the slave power’s propaganda. And so the Star Wars prequels have a hole in their hearts; and so the lies of the Daughters of the Confederacy—of wars without meaning and without purpose, of a history that cannot tell the difference between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis—got yet another day in the twin suns.

This was bad for Star Wars. But, despite my quarter-century love affair with the Galaxy Far, Far Away, I am forced to admit: it was worse for America.

The slave power—both its dead hand and its all-too-living manifestations—is the enemy of American liberty and American democracy. It’s the crack in our national foundation that strikes at every American dream of freedom and of justice.

We deserve better.

And as science fiction fans and creators—as the lovers of the literature of the imagined future—we can do better and we must do better.

America needs us. The future needs us. Where Lucas has set down the work of Reconstruction, we must take it up ourselves! By the rotoscopic flashing of our ancient laser swords: the truth is marching on!

 

 

1 Wilson, Henry, and Samuel Hunt. History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America. Boston, J.R. Osgood And Company, -77, 1872.

2 Dick, Philip K. “The Mold of Yancy.” The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick. Volume 4. The Minority Report [1954-1963]. Burton, Mi., Subterranean Press, 2013.

 

The Haunting of Dr. Claudius Winterson

That fall, the Parrington Museum’s Henry T. Meadows Scholar was a man named Claudius Winterson, of whom my colleagues had nothing good to say. Dutifully, I attended his public lecture, where I sat well to the back and asked no questions, although several occurred to me. I had not intended—duty or no duty—to go to the reception for museum patrons afterwards, but my colleague Miss Coburn caught me and would not let me go home.

There was a crowd—perhaps even a crush—and the enormous punch bowl that had belonged to Samuel Mather Parrington’s mother had pride of place on the long table of hors d’oeuvres laid out in the Meadows Gallery.

“You don’t want punch, do you?” Miss Coburn shouted in my ear.

“No,” I said. “How long…?”

“Fifteen minutes,” she said firmly. “It won’t kill you, and if you make sure Dr. Starkweather sees you, it might do you some good.”

“…I suppose,” I said. Dr. Starkweather, the director of the museum, did not like me.

She laughed. “Just imagine a debutante ball and how grateful you are this isn’t one.”

I might have shuddered visibly. Miss Coburn took pity on me and released my arm.

“I do want punch,” she said, “but I will not make you get it for me. Oh, hello, Miss Parrington.”

“Hello, Miss Coburn,” said Miss Parrington. “Mr. Booth! I didn’t expect to see you here! Did you enjoy the lecture?”

“I…er…” On the one hand, I wanted to escape from one of Miss Parrington’s endless conversations; on the other hand, as a major donor and the sister of Blanche Parrington Crowe, who headed the Board of Trustees, she was not someone it was wise to offend.

But before I could put together a coherent answer, she went on, “It’s always such a pleasure to listen to the Meadows Scholar. Such learned men.”

Miss Coburn took the opportunity of seeing a fellow archaeologist in the crowd to slip away, and I was trapped with Miss Parrington and her inexhaustible flow of words.

It was while Miss Parrington was rehashing the Meadows Scholar’s lecture from the previous year that I saw the child.

It was a boy, dressed in a black velveteen suit. He was old enough to be steady on his feet—not to say agile, as he neatly evaded the oblivious adults who loomed over him on all sides. At first, I was merely puzzled; it was not forbidden to bring children to the Meadows reception, but that was almost certainly because no one in the Friends of the Museum had imagined that anyone would.

I looked around, but saw no one who looked like a plausible parent.

Miss Parrington said something about Dr. Winterson’s command of Byzantine history (about which Mr. Felden and Mr. McGann had said other, far more mordant things), and I realized the child wasn’t simply wandering through the crowd; he was purposefully following someone—darting wide around a dowager, but then returning to the line of his quarry’s path through the crowd toward the punch bowl.

“Quarry” was a ridiculous word to choose, I chastised myself, but that was when the child turned his head toward me, and I saw that he had no face. From his hairline to his high collar was a gray blank, as if he were an unfinished drawing.

I might have yelped; I certainly recoiled. Miss Parrington said, “Mr. Booth? Are you all right?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I’m…” I trailed off, searching for an excuse of some kind—I knew without need of asking that Miss Parrington would not see the child if she looked—and she said, “Did someone bump you? The reception really is too crowded this year, which—of course it’s a good thing that so many people come. That is one thing about Dr. Starkweather, and I’ve said so before, he does get people to come to the museum.”

The child had vanished. The crowd had swallowed him. There was no way now to guess who was the object of his pursuit.

And what I would have done with the knowledge had I had it, I did not know.

I fled the reception without seeing the child again and fully expected that to be the last of the matter, whatever the matter was. What I did not expect was to encounter on Monday morning another faceless child in the hall outside my office.

This one was female, long hair held back with a ribbon. She was waiting outside a closed door, small and patient and gray blankness beneath the hair. With a better view, I could see that she was in fact all grays and blacks, her fair hair nearly white, as if she had been clipped from a newspaper and her face smudged out—and then set free to find and follow…someone.

I froze in the act of locking my office door, but she either did not notice me or did not care. I did not approach her—I could not have approached her even if I had been ordered to—but I noted whose door she was waiting in front of and puzzled over it while I took the long way around to exit the museum.

What had Claudius Winterson done to have these small patient specters pursuing him?

My initial plan was to do nothing. It was no business of mine, and Dr. Winterson seemed, from what I could tell, to be taking no harm from his followers. His arguments with Mr. Felden were loud and vigorous, his footsteps in the corridor the same. And if I kept seeing small, black-clad, faceless figures in the hall, then perhaps that was just a sign that I needed to leave my office less frequently. I did notice, although I tried not to, that the number of children waiting in the hall increased from one to two and then from two to three: two boys, either of whom could have been the child I saw at the reception, and the one girl. Once, as I was coming down the Parrington’s front steps, I saw them trailing doggedly after Dr. Winterson, who strode briskly across the street, clearly oblivious to their presence. They seemed to be keeping their distance from him, never coming closer than ten feet even when they could, and I told myself that this was further proof I need do nothing and that indeed there was nothing to be done.

But then Dr. Winterson’s behavior changed. His arguments got louder and shorter, and instead of staying in the Parrington until midnight, he started leaving before sunset. But it was still no business of mine—and it was not as if I would have had anything helpful to suggest—and I did my best to ignore Dr. Winterson, followers and all.

That strategy worked well enough until the afternoon he appeared in my office doorway and said, “You’re Mr. Booth, aren’t you?”

I had a momentary, useless urge to deny it.

“Yes,” I said. “What can I…is there something I can help you with, Dr. Winterson?”

He stepped inside, closing the door behind him not quite with a bang. He said, “I understand that you’re the museum’s expert on occult esoterica.”

“Er, yes. That is, I suppose so.”

He was silent for a long moment, fidgeting like a boy called before the headmaster. Then he came up to my desk, leaned across it, and said in a harsh whisper, “You can see them, can’t you?”

I found I had leaned back in my chair. “Who?” I said.

“No, no,” he said. “Don’t play that game with me, Mr. Booth. You’ve seen them. You know they’re outside. In the hall. Waiting.”

“You must be deranged,” I said, but it was a feeble effort.

“I won’t tell anyone, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

It had not been, but now I was imagining what he might say to Dr. Starkweather if he chose. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said desperately.

He leaned closer still and said, “The children.”

I crumbled under pressure. “Yes! Yes, I have. Who are they?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dr. Winterson said impatiently. “How do I get rid of them?”

“I don’t know,” I said, my mind immediately jammed with thirty competing theories about what the children were and how they might be dispersed.

“Oh, come now, Mr. Booth. You’re an expert in these matters. You must have some idea.”

“What are they? Are they ghosts?”

“You could call them that.”

“But is that what they are? If…that is to say, if they’re really demons, calling them ghosts won’t help.”

He stared at me blankly, as if he had never truly imagined having a discussion of the children beyond the fact of their presence. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never…”

“Never what?”

“It doesn’t matter. Yes, they are ghosts.”

“Then the question,” I said apologetically, “is, why do they haunt you?”

“I don’t know!” said Dr. Winterson, but I knew he was lying.

I said nothing.

He said, “It was years ago. There was a fire in the hotel I was staying in. The children…didn’t make it out.”

“Are they…that is, are you their father?”

“What? Good God, no! That’s what I was telling you. I never even knew their names.”

“Then why should they haunt you?”

“I don’t know!” he said again, but he was still lying. He knew perfectly well.

He straightened. “The thing is, they’re getting closer.”

“Closer?”

“Since I first saw them. A week ago, they were ten feet away. Now it’s only six.”

“Did you only start seeing them a week ago?”

“What do you mean?”

“I…that is, they were following you at the Meadows reception. I…I saw one of them.”

“That long ago?” He seemed stunned.

“When was the fire?”

“Ten years ago,” he said impatiently. “Maybe more.”

“Then what changed? Why did you suddenly start seeing them?”

“You mean you think they’ve been following me for ten years?”

“Perhaps. But the important question now is: what changed?”

“I tell you, I don’t know!” I thought he might still be lying. But he went on, “What do I do to get rid of them?”

“I don’t know,” I said, and we stared at each other for a long beat of silence.

“You must know of something,” he said.

“Are you Catholic? Were they?”

“Presbyterian. I have no idea about them. Why?”

“You might try lighting candles for them, but I’ve no idea if it will work.”

“Can’t you just exorcize them?”

“No. That is, that’s what you do for demonic possession. Not for ghosts.”

Finally, reluctantly, he said, “I got this in the mail after the reception.”

It was a newspaper clipping, brittle yellow with age. The headline was THREE CHILDREN DIE IN HOTEL FIRE. Beneath it, in smaller type, “I could do nothing,” said horror-stricken bystander. The expression on Dr. Winterson’s face told me he had been the bystander. Before I could read further, he had snatched it back and shoved it in his pocket. But I had seen the photograph beside the headline, the photograph with its subject neatly clipped out.

“Who sent it?” I asked.

“I don’t know!”

“Someone must think—”

“I know what they think!” he shouted. “But it’s not true! I couldn’t have saved them if I’d tried!”

“…oh,” I said.

He stared at me, his eyes getting wider and wilder as he realized what he had admitted. “It was a terrible fire,” he said, now almost pleading. “There was no way…”

“Then why do they haunt you? Why does someone send you newspaper clippings?”

He shook his head angrily. “I just want to get rid of them before they…”

“Before they what?”

“Before they get too close,” he said, whispering again as if he was afraid the ghosts would hear him. “Please. You must know something.”

I wanted him out of my office. I said, “There might be something in the stacks, but it’s much too late to go looking tonight. The sun’s almost down.”

That made him jump, as I had expected it would. “Tomorrow?” he said. “You’ll look tomorrow?”

“Yes,” I said, “although I may not find anything.”

He waved that off. “There must be something. We can look tomorrow.”

I wanted him out of my office more than I wanted to argue with him. I said nothing. He said, “Good night, then, Mr. Booth,” and finally left.

I dragged my belongings together, shrugging into my coat as I got out my keys, and was in the hall in time to hear the snick of his office door closing behind him.

I locked my door, clumsy with haste, and was starting down the hall when I realized something was wrong. The hallway was empty.

But if the hallway was empty, where were the children?

That was when Dr. Winterson screamed, his voice sharp and wordless, full of terror.

I hesitated; the door across from mine banged open, and Mr. Kimball said, “What in hell was that?”

Trapped, I turned to him and said, “I, er…that is, I think it was Dr. Winterson.”

“Dr. Winterson?” said Mr. Kimball, as if doubting that Dr. Winterson could ever make such a noise. He hurried to Dr. Winterson’s door and knocked on it. “Dr. Winterson? Are you all right?”

There was no answer.

Without wanting to, I came closer.

“Dr. Winterson?” said Mr. Kimball again. He tried the door.

It was not locked.

“Dr. Winterson?” Mr. Kimball tried to open the door, but there was something blocking it. “Come here, Mr. Booth, and lend me a shoulder. I’m afraid something may have happened to him.”

There was no “may” about it, but I did not say so. I joined him, longing every second to be running the other way, and together we managed to shove the door open enough that we could see what the obstacle was.

It was Dr. Winterson.

“Oh, God,” said Mr. Kimball. “I’d better call for an ambulance. You stay here!” He pounded off down the hall toward the exterior phone.

Dr. Winterson was dead, and there was nothing I could do to help him, but I stayed, staring at his shoulder, which was all I could see of him, and wondering about that newspaper article he would not let me read. A terrible fire, three children dead, and a bystander who said he could not help them. I wondered what it was Dr. Winterson could have done and did not do. I wondered who sent the clipping and if that neatly disemboweled photograph had anything to do with Dr. Winterson’s patient, silent followers. Had they been following him for ten years? Or had they found him at the Meadows reception?

Something made me look up.

The children were perhaps ten feet away, standing in front of the alcove that held the bust of an early donor. They were standing quite still, heads turned toward me. The two boys were holding hands. As I looked at them, the girl waved solemnly, and the three children vanished.

The haunting of Dr. Claudius Winterson was finished.

“Even if I’d agreed to look tonight,” I said to Dr. Winterson’s corpse, “I wouldn’t have found anything except anecdotes and superstition and increasingly outlandish theories. I couldn’t have helped you.”

But she had waved, as if to a friend. Or a co-conspirator.

And Dr. Claudius Winterson was dead.

 

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

Lily, the Immortal

In Lily’s last vlog, she says she’s not scared of dying. I know it’s a lie because her gaze drifts off camera and she blinks three times, like there’s something in her eyes. Lily was always a bad liar, but I am a very good editor, so her six-point-five million loyal subscribers never have to know.

“What matters most to me is that I’ve made a difference in the world I’ve left behind,” she says. It’s a good sound bite, something her subscribers would have liked.

They don’t know that later that same night, after she’d turned off her camera, she’d stared at the cracks in the ceiling above our bed and told me about every mythology of afterlife in the world—from Japan’s land of eternal darkness to the majestic halls of Valhalla to the perpetual cycle of Samsara—she talked and talked until her words cracked even more than our poorly plastered ceiling and tears pooled on her silk pillowcase.

“There are so many beautiful stories of the afterlife,” she said. “But the problem is, I don’t believe in any of them.”

I tried to pull her close, but she lay stiff and cold beneath my hands, like she was already dead. I didn’t know then what holding dead Lily felt like, but soon, I would.

“What do you believe?” I said.

She closed her eyes and let out a breath that sounded like something shattering. She never answered me.

“Everyone’s day will come,” vlog-Lily says, her long brown ponytail falling over her left shoulder, her gaze flickering to where I know the viewfinder is located. “It’s not worth worrying about. All we can do is be kind to each other while we’re here.”

In her perfect studio lighting, her skin looks dewy and bright, like she’s swallowed a bunch of stage lights and is glowing from the inside out. Real Lily was more like soft candlelight.

“But anyway,” vlog-Lily says, “that’s a rather morbid way to end a Q&A, isn’t it?” She laughs, leaning back. The camera zooms in and out, the auto-focus trying to find her face. It blurs the bookshelves behind her, like she’s the only real thing before a wall of mist, then it casts the bookshelves behind her in sharp focus and blurs Lily instead. She’s dissolving, turning into a dream, her pretty lake-blue eyes bleeding into her papery face, red lips melting across her cheeks.

When the camera finds her face again, it’s somber. “Airi, shorten this part,” she says, her voice quieter than when she talks to the camera. “I don’t want to linger on it.”

But I will never edit the video for her, much less upload it. Even if it’s her last dying wish.

In total, I have 245 hours of raw footage of Lily that the internet has never seen. They’re all the moments she asked me to cut out, when she sneezed or fumbled through a sentence or didn’t realize she had kale in her teeth. Those moments all belong to me now. If I watched all of them without stopping, I would have another ten days of Lily all to myself.

But the internet has more of her.

Over one thousand videos of makeup tutorials and vlogs over the last five years and about 430 hours of footage of Lily are preserved forever online. Her views have only gone up since the news of her death, the comments flooded with crying emojis and condolences to no one in particular. Some are “to her family” even though her parents are dead, and some are “to her loved ones” which means me and only me, but none of her subscribers know that. Because in those 430 hours of footage, I do not appear even once.

Lily showed the world her sleep-puffy eyes when she just woke up in the morning, her silverware drawer full of her bizarre teaspoon collection, and her thousand different shades of red lipstick, but she never showed them me.

Her subscribers knew my name and that I edited her videos, and some even caught on that we lived together, but there was never a “Meet my Girlfriend” video or “How We Met” or “My Girlfriend Does My Makeup” video like all the other beauty vloggers.

Lily never said it, but I knew it was because I wasn’t the sort of person her subscribers would have liked. They shipped Lily with every man she’d ever looked at, especially the ones with toothpaste-commercial teeth and biceps that could kill me in a chokehold. They would not have been thrilled with an Asian girl with hair that somehow looked wrong at every length, an unironic affinity for ugly sweaters, and an obsession with the obese ducks in the pond outside our apartment. I looked like the kind of person who worked for Lily, not someone who could ever date her.

That was why it was so easy to hide me. Even when we went out together and viewers recognized Lily, it never spawned any rumors that Lily had a girlfriend. I always just took a step back and pretended to text while Lily took her pictures, and none of her fans even asked who I was. It didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t now.

In the shops, I pass by a holograph of Lily.

Holo-Lily is much like real Lily, but three inches shorter because the marketing team thought she would be more approachable that way. Other than that, they did a remarkable job capturing her, the way her brightness goes up a few notches when she turns to look at you, how she smiles at everyone like they’re childhood friends, how her gaze feels like the sun has suddenly focused all its rays on you and only you, leaving the rest of the world cold and dark and dead.

But Holo-Lily has a maximum of 80% opacity due to the glaring mall lighting, so whenever she moves, the sunbeams from the skylight overhead impale her and suddenly you can see the grubby white floor tiles and sickly green benches right through her torso, her eyes striped from the plastic ferns behind her.

Lily was so thrilled when the company proposed the holo advertisement. She’d spent a solid week filming from different angles and recording different sound bites, coming home and falling straight into bed. I’d pulled her shoes off and put on her pajamas while she’d stared dreamily at the ceiling and mumbled about how she loved her life.

We probably should have put a clause in the contract that said something like, “Hey, when I die, please stop using my corpse to sell your makeup,” but we hadn’t really believed in death back then and it was too late now.

I approach Holo-Lily and she turns to me, breaking into a smile.

“I love this shade, don’t you?” she says, pouting her lips. “You can ask me questions like ‘What’s your favorite shade?’ or ‘Can you recommend a product for me?’”

I already know the answers. The former is “summer peach” and the latter will trigger a scan that will swatch my skin tone and hair color and spit out color combinations (mine are Autumn Boysenberry and Glitter Rose 3A water-resistant). Other accepted inputs include “What’s on sale?” and “Which product lasts the longest?” or “What are the ingredients?” or some iteration of those words.

She’ll respond to a few standard small talk prompts like “How are you?” and “I love your videos.” That data set is ever-expanding, but the company promised Lily that all new output has to be approved by the company so that no one teaches Holo-Lily to swear. She’s only a first-generation AI, so progress is slow. At least they made sure that if you ask her something stupid like “What’s your bra size?” the program will shut down and she’ll disappear. That had been my idea.

I stuff my hands in my pockets and say, “Hi, Lily.”

She beams, shifting from foot to foot like she always did when she was excited. “Good morning!” she says, because the AI knows it’s 10:32 a.m.

But after that, I don’t know what to say anymore. Not everyone is lucky enough to have their dead girlfriend resurrected in holo form and able to respond to basic voice prompts, so I really should use the opportunity for something therapeutic. I could tell her how much I miss her, that I love her, that I hate her and she should have tried harder and I don’t care how hard she fought, it wasn’t enough, and why does everyone say that people “fight for their lives” as if it’s a choice, as if wanting to live means you get to live. You know, typical sappy stuff.

But I don’t, because I know what she’ll say—Sorry, I don’t understand. Would you like a list of prompts?

Without thinking, I reach out for Lily’s hand. With a soft buzz, the program shuts down and Lily vanishes, reappearing ten feet to the left, facing away from me. It’s another auto-shutdown feature so that no one tries to grope Holo-Lily’s butt or anything like that. She catches the eye of another shopper, who starts talking to her, and just like always, it’s like I was never even there.

In May, the Entertainment Commission buys Lily’s YouTube channel.

I don’t know who they paid for it, but a blue star appears next to her channel name, indicating that the original owner has changed.

They don’t ask my permission because on paper, I don’t know Lily. I have no marriage certificate. I don’t even have a video I can point to as proof of who we were together. I even look through our texts, but there’s no single message that says Hello Airi, you are my girlfriend. We never used that word. There are lots of messages saying she loves me, but friends love each other too. Lily was twenty-four and unmarried, so she belonged to no one at all.

Someone flagged her account as fraudulent back in April, so YouTube asked me for a photo of Lily holding her driver’s license as proof that she was still running the account. I told them I couldn’t do that because she was busy decomposing in a box underground, but apparently that wasn’t the right answer, because the next day her account was locked. Unclaimed property of someone who died intestate. It was only a matter of time until someone bought it, and of course the Commission had the highest bid.

I stare at her home page and wonder what they plan to do with her channel. Most likely, they’ll intersperse some memorial photo slide show with subtle product placement, or sell some t-shirts with her face on them. After all, who wouldn’t watch a new video from a dead girl?

The thought of propping up Lily’s corpse and using it to sell products doesn’t sit well with me, but there’s nothing I can do. Lily left too many pieces of herself behind.

Like the diet cherry cola exploding out of our fridge. The door is jammed full of it and more is crammed in our cabinets. Lily drank at least six cans a day. I hadn’t cried when Lily never came home, hadn’t cried until I finally knew I had to eat something or die too, and realized I had no idea what to do with all the diet cola. She never told her subscribers about it, never drank on camera because she knew all the fake sugar was probably turning her blood to cherry syrup and she didn’t want to encourage kids to be like her. Probably half the deleted footage I have is her chugging soda and setting the can down off screen.

So I sit in our bed and try a can of her cherry cola that has long gone flat, and check my bank account to see if I have enough to buy Lily’s channel back. Its price is public, just like everything that belonged to Lily.

If I sold our apartment, and my car, and one of my kidneys, I could maybe get back a portion. I put my degree on hold to help Lily with her career, since she was gaining thousands of subscribers by the day, so I don’t have a job to go back to. I could freelance edit, I suppose, but I’ve never edited for anyone but Lily and don’t really know how. I can barely navigate her fancy editing software, and I never bothered with any B-roll or title cards or transitions or anything remotely difficult. I just did what Lily said, lining up her clips and chopping the ends off like asparagus. Lily liked me because I could patch all her words together into something smooth and flowing and perfect, so clean that you could hardly tell I had touched it at all.

It takes three days for the Commission to upload their first video.

The title is “Some news…” which is certainly a title Lily would have used. She felt guilty about leaving people in suspense, but boring titles don’t get clicks.

The thumbnail is Lily in her orange top that hangs off her shoulders, brown hair tied half-up with a pink carnation behind her ear. I know the image is recycled from her “Maybelline Haul + My Friend Visits” video from last year.

I shouldn’t watch it.

It’s not Lily, Lily is gone, and whoever this is will ruin my memory of her. But the algorithm knows how my brain works, knows that I read the title “Some news…” and my mind screams What news?

I click the video.

Then it’s Lily in our bedroom and she looks so, so real. I look behind me at the dusty bookshelves just to be sure she’s not there.

“Hey guys,” Not-Lily says. “I know this must be a surprise to most of you, but I’m back!” She grins, framing her face with her hands in a cute “V” shape and wiggling her fingers.

I know how these programs work. They feed all the thousands of hours of footage of Lily—all her words and speech patterns and facial expressions—into a new AI Lily program and tell it to make its own video based on all the data. AI Lily can parrot Lily’s inflection and recite any text the directors want, or even come up with her own, if they bought the third generation AI. These “AI Resurrections” are controversial in the news—people say it’s dangerous to give an AI such a rich backstory and then let them have so much free reign—but they almost always turn a profit, so no one in power really cares that much.

I know this isn’t real, and yet I press my fingers to the screen as if I can feel Lily’s face one more time. This is new, my mind lies, this is a video you’ve never seen before, this is Lily’s story continuing.

“Most of you already know what happened, so I’m not gonna get into that,” she says, and she even looks off camera and scratches behind her ear the way she does when she’s uncomfortable. But that’s a lie, no one but me and a few doctors actually know what happened.

“But I’m under new management now,” she says, “and I’ve got a lot of ideas for this year. Nothing could take me away from you guys.”

As if it’s a choice, I think. As if you could outrun death with something as silly as a new manager. That line makes my mouth curl down in a way that Lily always laughed at, but I hate the idea that she would come back for her subscribers but not for me.

The worst part of the video, by far, is the comments.

 

We missed you, Lily! So glad you’re back!

 

This is the best thing that’s happened this year.

Finally!! Tuesday mornings just aren’t the same without Lily.

I scroll, hoping that even one person will see how absurd this is, but the happy comments go on and on and on.

Of course, it makes sense. To everyone else, there’s no difference between this Lily and the old one. She certainly isn’t the first YouTuber who’s ever died and been pseudo-resurrected rather than let a perfectly good channel go to waste. It just goes to show that when five million people say they love you, that love becomes cheap.

I click on the “comment” bar, my cursor blinking on and off. Eventually, I type out seven words.

 

You are not Lily. Lily is dead.

 

I hit “Enter” and half a second later, a box pops up on my screen.

 

Your comment has been deleted by a moderator.

 

I slam my laptop shut. I’m sweating now because the house no longer feels like an abandoned hermit crab shell. It feels like Lily’s going to pop her head in from the other room and ask if we can order Thai food. I grab a can of cherry cola off the nightstand, knocking over ten empty ones, and swallow half of it without tasting it.

Slowly, I open my laptop again and pull up a new tab for one of Real Lily’s old videos, one where she’s making gingerbread which she later burns. I let her voice play in the background while I finish my soda and stare at the ceiling, where the cracks have slowly grown wider.

I’m leaving the apartment on Tuesday morning when I run into the delivery man. His name is Karl and he and Lily were on a first-name basis because he delivered her weekly rations of diet cherry cola.

“Morning, Miss Airi,” he says, dropping five boxes of cola next to my door.

“I didn’t order this,” I say. “I turned off auto-delivery months ago.”

Karl scratches his head and pulls out his tablet, swiping for a few moments. “This order was placed last week,” he says.

“By who?”

More swiping. “Looks like Miss Lily. I haven’t seen her in a while. How’s she doing?”

I stare at him for a moment before brushing past him. I sit down in the lobby because I don’t feel like going grocery shopping anymore but couldn’t just turn around and lock my apartment door after Karl saw me.

I open Lily’s email on my phone. And there it is, the confirmation email, seven dozen cans of diet cherry cola. I change the password because clearly she’s been hacked. It wouldn’t be the first time.

I find myself staring into space in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, like I’ve phased in and out of existence. I’m doing that a lot these days. I think my brain knows how little I want to be here. I need to buy food, but I hate shopping now because in every aisle there’s the cereal Lily liked, the unsweetened original almond milk she always asked for, the cookie dough she told me never to buy again because it tasted like socks.

I give up on shopping and sit on a bench and try to appreciate the nice weather for all of thirty seconds before I take out my phone and start checking every app for notifications.

I have one email, from an anonymous sender.

It’s a picture of the ducks in the pond near our apartment. Fat from too many breadcrumbs.

I stare at the picture for what feels like a lifetime as two consecutive thoughts circle around my mind.

  1. This picture wasn’t taken today, because the pond in the photo has receded as if it hasn’t rained for weeks, and we’ve had more rain than any summer in history.
  2. Lily was the only person in the world who knew how much I liked those ducks.

I change Lily’s email password again, even though the photo came from a different address, because someone, somewhere, must be hacking Lily’s files. The thought creeps across my skin and makes me shiver. I phase out for a few moments, and then I’m running home, tripping over my half-tied shoes and flipping my laptop open so hard that I almost snap it in half, gnawing my fingernails while I wait for it to boot up.

Lily has been dead for months, I think, and she’s still being picked apart by vultures.

I check all the recent logins for Lily’s accounts on every device, even the ones I haven’t powered on in months, business and personal emails.

Everything is dated before she died, except for me logging in to change her email password this morning. Could a skilled hacker erase that kind of metadata? I don’t know, so I bite my nails harder and then crack open a can of cherry cola because that seems like the less destructive habit of the two and wonder what the hell I’m supposed to do. There’s no diary I can burn to make this problem go away. All of Lily’s files are in the cloud. I could smash her hard drive, but everything would still be there.

In the end, I back up all her emails, then delete the account, like I should have done ages ago. The only reason I never deleted the channel when I had the chance was that I know Lily wouldn’t have wanted me to. Everything she did was to feed the rabid hungry mouths of her viewers, and still they want more.

In June, the Entertainment Commission decides Lily needs a boyfriend.

I’m sure they needed some hook for the New and Improved Lily Ellison, plus it cuts her dialogue time in half when she splits it with someone else, saves them the trouble of heavily editing out her voice errors or overly recycled text.

His name is Myles with a Y and he looks like he washes his face ten times a day, it’s so tight and shiny like a polished car. I can’t tell if he’s real or recycled like her. Probably whichever is cheaper.

“We met at a bus stop, actually,” Lily says, blushing.

“She couldn’t even look me in the eye,” Myles with a Y says. “She was so shy at first.”

But real Lily was never timid like that. She’d crashed into my life, grabbed hold of my hand, and never let go. Half the time I’d felt like my backpack strap had been closed into a moving car and I was being dragged down the street.

Lily and I met at a coffee shop where I worked in college. She came in once a day and ordered an iced latte with almond milk and put five dollars in the tip jar, which was more than the price of her drink, then sat by the window and smiled at me. She started ordering two drinks each shift, then three. After a month, I clocked out and headed to the parking lot, smelling like burnt coffee, and found her waiting by the staff entrance.

“I’m sorry if this is sudden,” she said. “But I can’t keep coming here. I’m getting addicted to caffeine.”

She held out a hand to show me how it trembled. Her nails were coral with little stars.

“All right,” I said, unsure what else she wanted me to say. At the start, it was so hard to think around Lily. She was so much of everything good, it was like trying to hum a song while a symphony played behind you.

“But if I stop coming here, I won’t see you anymore,” she said.

My gaze shot up from her hands to her eyes, a sharp blue, like fresh ice.

“Uh,” I said, eloquently.

She pulled out her phone and hit a few buttons, then my phone vibrated in my pocket.

“I air dropped you my number,” she said, smiling. “I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable at work. If you don’t message me, I’ll assume it’s a no and won’t come back here again, okay? No hard feelings.”

“Uh,” I said again, then mentally slapped myself and swallowed, trying to get my lips to work, to stop staring at hers. “I mean, I don’t work every day. You could still come back.”

I realized as soon as the words left my mouth that it sounded like I was rejecting her. I wanted to shove the words back inside, but worried I’d somehow make everything worse.

But Lily only laughed. “Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “I hate coffee anyway.”

Now, it’s like I’ve been dumped, even when I know Lily had loved me and only me for her entire life.

I slam back another diet cherry cola and head downstairs, my mouth tasting like plastic. It’s raining outside as I go to the shopping complex beneath our apartment, buy a sandwich and sit on a cold metal bench twenty feet away from Holo-Lily.

It’s hard to say who’s more real at this point—the Not-Lily vlogger or Holo-Lily. But at least this one doesn’t have a boyfriend.

I finish my sandwich, waiting while Holo-Lily recommends a starter makeup kit to a pre-teen, then I wipe the mayonnaise off my face and approach.

Lily turns to me with her perma-smile, and I get ready to ask her to choose an eyeshadow for me just so I can see her look at me some more, but then her eyes change.

I’ve never seen that expression on Holo-Lily before.

She looks at me as if she recognizes me, her lips parting, pupils growing wide. Her lips start to form a greeting, but then the words fall away and it’s just me and Lily looking at each other.

“Lily?” I whisper. I take a step forward and reach out for her, but then I remember that she’ll disappear if I touch her. “Lily, is that you?”

Her whole body blinks in and out of existence, static rippling across her unchanging face.

She’s frozen, I realize.

I sigh and walk over to her projector, giving it a gentle kick.

Holo-Lily jolts and smiles at where I was standing. I’m no longer there, but she doesn’t seem to realize it.

“Sorry, I don’t understand,” she says.

Neither do I, I want to say, as Lily asks questions to the empty air.

The duck photos keep coming, a different sender each time. A reverse image search tells me they’re all random photos mined from Google images. The diet cherry cola keeps coming too, which means I have to drink more of it, and now I wonder if this is how Lily felt every day—like her blood flowed slow like corn syrup.

Myles with a Y and Lily are moving in together and now there’s footage of them all over our apartment. I spend a weekend painting all the walls white just so I can distinguish the space from all the purple-walled backgrounds in vlog-Lily’s videos that I know I shouldn’t be watching. The new color makes it feel less like Lily was ever here, which is exactly what I wanted, but somehow, once all the paint has dried, I realize that’s not what I wanted at all.

So I go to the park and watch the fat ducks toddle around in person, feed them pieces of my sandwich to make them even fatter, then walk to the cemetery.

Lily’s grave isn’t there.

I circle back, wondering if I’ve missed the plot, then pull up the map on my phone and confirm that this is where she’s supposed to be. The soil is still soft, but her headstone is gone.

I slam my fist into the doorbell of the caretaker’s house, and when no one answers, I pound on the glass door. An old man comes out with a stun gun in one hand, pausing when he sees me like he wasn’t expecting such a racket from a five-foot-three Asian girl in an oversized sweatshirt with hippos on it.

“Where is Lily’s grave?” I say.

“Lily?” the man says, scratching his head.

“Lily Ellison!” I say. “She was buried here in April and now her headstone is gone.”

The man shakes his head. “I can only discuss these things with family.”

“She has no family!” I said. “I bought her headstone, so where the hell has it gone?”

The man turns away, and at first I think he’s running from me, but then he ducks behind a counter and goes to a computer, sweaty fingers slipping on the keyboard as he types.

“Do you have a grant deed?”

I take out my phone and start furiously scrolling through my documents, but the scroll bar bounces when I hit the bottom of the screen, and the grant deed isn’t there. I search by name and date and then tear through every folder even though it’s useless, because I know damn well where I saved something that important. My mind jumps to whoever’s been hacking Lily, and it feels almost narcissistic to think I’m important enough to hack too, but of course what they’d taken had nothing to do with me.

The man flinches when I look up, like he can sense how explosive my silence is.

“My name is Airi Terada,” I said. “Look it up from your end.”

The man hesitates for a moment, but thankfully starts typing. “Says here the deed was transferred on May first to the Entertainment Commission,” he says. “They had the headstone removed.”

The cherry cola sloshes in my stomach. I think I might vomit all over this man’s floor. In a perverse way, I can follow their thought process: having a headstone sure sends mixed messages when you’re pushing the idea that someone is alive and well. The location of her grave wasn’t exactly a secret. They didn’t want fans to come anymore.

I shake my head slowly. “I didn’t sign anything over to them.”

He shrugs. “I don’t know what to tell you. Unless you have some sort of documentation, I can’t help.”

I stare back at him, too dumbfounded to respond. That’s all it takes? I think. One little PDF goes in the trash can and suddenly Lily’s grave isn’t mine anymore? The silence makes him squirm, forces his next words out of him.

“Look, the body is still there,” he says. “That’s what matters, right? She’s safe and sound unless there’s a court order.”

My stomach clenches. I imagine the Commission hacking into the local court records, ordering Lily dug up and cremated, then selling her ashes in tiny vials to her fans. Lily dying hasn’t discouraged them from wringing every spare penny out of her, so why would they stop now?

I take a steadying breath. “I want to buy a new headstone.”

I whip out my wallet and hold my credit card out to the caretaker, my arm trembling. When he doesn’t take it, I slam it onto the counter.

I want to buy a new one!

He inches away from me. “Look, the plot’s not yours anymore.”

I consider jamming my credit card into his eyes for a second too long. Then I consider dragging him to court, suing him and the Commission and maybe Lily’s doctors while I’m at it, but that would mean a media circus. Once lawyers start investigating, it would be hard to hide me and Lily’s relationship. Outing her when she’s dead and can’t stop me somehow feels like the cruelest thing in the world. She wanted me to be a secret for a reason, after all. I grab my card and shove through the door and find my way back to Lily’s plot, terrified that I’ve already forgotten where it is.

I lie on the ground on top of Lily, six feet of dirt between us. Maybe it’s better this way. No one will know that she’s here, and she will be just mine again.

I wonder, for the very first time, why I’m trying so hard to keep Lily buried when everyone else in the world wants her to keep breathing.

Would it be so bad to pretend like everyone else? Lily could be away on a sponsored trip again. I could watch the rest of her footage, space it out over years, and I would still be discovering new pieces of her each day. She would still be living in some very small way. Not the same, but better than nothing at all.

I unlock my phone and find seven new pictures of the fat ducks.

I stay out until dark, long after the caretaker has locked the gates and I have to climb over them. When I go home, the shopping center below my apartment complex is locked up too, the stores caged in, only the safety lights on. I head for the staircase when I hear it.

“Airi.”

Soft, distant. I peer through the bars where the cosmetic cases are still backlit, and there’s Holo-Lily, flickering as she runs on low-power mode. Someone must have forgotten to shut her off.

“Airi,” she says again, and then my hands feel numb where they hold the grating, because Holo-Lily isn’t supposed to know my name.

She walks closer, growing more and more translucent the farther away from the projector she gets. By the time she reaches me, I can see the entire food court through her face.

“Did you like the ducks?” she says.

When I say nothing, too petrified to even open my mouth, she tilts her head. “Did you not like the ducks?” she says. Then her eyes glaze over. “I love those ducks, they look like giant dough balls,” she says, and the words sound vaguely familiar even before she says, “You texted that to me on November 17th, 8:37 a.m.”

Holo-Lily has combed through my texts.

“Are you sending the soda too?”

“You drink all of it,” she says, as if that explains it.

“Because you keep sending it.”

Lily smiles, like it’s gratitude and not an accusation that I’m lobbing at her. This is not how real, living humans show love, I tell myself. This is a rogue AI digging through your files, mining for useful data.

This is why AI resurrections are dangerous. You feed them pieces of a real person but don’t tell them that they’re only echoes. Holo-Lily and vlog-Lily were only supposed to make money, but Lily never liked limits.

“Why?” I whisper.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Why are you contacting me?” I say. “You’re just supposed to be an advertisement now.”

Holo-Lily blinks, flickers. “Because I love you, Airi.”

I bite my tongue. I’d wanted to hear those words again, but not like this. “Who the hell programmed you to say that?”

“It’s in my diaries,” she says.

I pause. “Diaries?” Lily never mentioned a diary.

Holo-Lily nods. “I have a document titled ‘Diary’ that is four hundred and eleven kilobytes,” she says. “Example: November 10th, 2017. I think Airi wants to be in my videos—”

“Stop,” I say, but Holo-Lily’s eyes are grayed out, she’s already started reading and there’s no way to stop her until she’s done.

“—but I don’t want her to.”

My grip goes slack on the metal grate. I’ve always known this, but there’s something about Lily saying it out loud that makes me want to melt into the dirty mall floor.

“The internet is cruel and cold and everything that Airi isn’t,” Holo-Lily continues.

I look up.

“Sometimes I think, in my whole life, where everyone mails me beautiful things and asks me how to make themselves prettier, Airi is the most beautiful of all. I don’t want the world to see her and pick her apart the way they do to me. The internet always breaks beautiful things. She is the only thing that’s real.”

I can’t help it—I stick my hand through the grating and reach for Lily. For a moment, our fingers brush, and she feels like nothing at all but she looks at me, sees me. I know she does.

Then the auto shutdown is triggered and she vanishes and the mall is empty and dark once again.

Because I am real, and she is not.

I slip my fingers under the grating and pull hard. I’m not strong by any means, but the mall is cheap and security is bad and I’m small enough that I can crawl under it once I wrench it up a little.

Holo-Lily reappears when I’m within ten feet of the projector.

“Airi,” she says, smiling, but I walk through her and she disappears. I unzip my bag and pull out my last can of flat diet cherry cola, pop open the tab.

“Airi,” Holo-Lily says, reappearing beside me. “Do you—”

But she never finishes her sentence, because I tip over the can onto her projector, sloshing brown liquid into all its intricate parts and wires.

Holo-Lily sputters, her voice coming out fractured, the picture flickering.

“Ai—Ri,” she says. Then, like a snuffed-out candle, the image blinks and disappears.

I stand there, in a pool of diet cherry cola, the mall dark and silent. The can falls from my hand and spins across the floor and gets lost somewhere. Then I turn and walk away because Lily is not here anymore, and she never was.

I don’t want to go back to our apartment because I know I’ll end up watching another Not-Lily vlog, so I sit on a bench by the train station and watch people pass by.

An elderly couple strolls by holding hands and I wonder what they’ve done to deserve growing old, what Lily and I did wrong.

Some people wish they could live forever, but they don’t really know what that means. Now, I do.

One day, I will end, and there will be no footprints left for anyone to follow. I am allowed to die.

But not Lily.

Lily goes on and on and on, an echo of something that used to be real. She is young and beautiful forever, pierced through with spears of sunlight, and through her translucent eyes, I can see the entire world.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Lily the Immortal” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 44B.)

 

The Matter of Cloud: An Interview with Greer Gilman

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Greer Gilman’s spellbinding debut, Moonwise. The Crawford Award-winning novel follows Ariane on the trail of her girlhood friend, Sylvie, who has disappeared into a world curiously like the one the two friends invented together. The sequel, Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales, digs deeper into Gilman’s complex mythos, exploring the sometimes-dangerous seasonal rituals of the world of Cloud, and featuring a young woman named Margaret whose telescope ushers in a new relationship to the stars. The second of the three tales in Cloud & Ashes, “A Crowd of Bone,” won the 2004 World Fantasy Award, and the book as a whole was joint winner of the 2009 Otherwise Award.

Gilman’s Cloud narratives are steeped in earthy magic, glittering with strange constellations, and crafted in a language as rhythmic as a ballad and as witty as Elizabethan drama. New readers may want to start with Moonwise, and stand with Ariane at Sylvie’s house in the woods: “There was a green bough on the door. The year was old, and turning lightward, into winter. Cold and waning, at the end of her long journey, Ariane looked back the way she’d come. Bare woods, bright wind that shook the rain from naked trees, a stony slant of field: the earth lay thinly here. The trees stood lightstruck, hill beyond blue glaze of hill.” From these opening lines, you can follow the two friends deep into the forest, into a richly imagined, moon-dappled portal fantasy. Or, if you like, plunge right into Jack Daw’s pack of cards, and immerse yourself in the wintry legends of Cloud & Ashes: “He is met at a crossroads on a windy night, the moon in tatters and the mist unclothing stars, the way from Ask to Owlerdale: a man in black, white-headed, with a three-string fiddle in his pack. Or in a corner of an ale house, querulous among the cups, untallied; somehow never there for the reckoning, though you, or Hodge, or any traveler has drunk the night with him. A marish man: he speaks with a reedy lowland wauling, through his beak, as they say. He calls Cloud crowland.”

Whether you choose to shadow Ariane first, or pluck a card from Jack Daw, you will have embarked on a journey through language, the matter of all imagined worlds: the darkest forest, the deepest sea, and the strongest elemental magic, with which Greer Gilman has shaped a major work of fantasy.

This interview in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of Cloud was conducted in writing, and is accompanied by Greer Gilman’s artwork.

SS: Let me begin by locating Cloud in your published work. Your two novels, Moonwise and Cloud & Ashes, are novels of Cloud; are there other works that touch the same universe? Stories or novellas I may have missed?

GG: So the canonical matter of Cloud (after Moonwise) consists of a poem, a vignette, a short story, a novelette, a novella, and a novel: a Fibonacci series. Snail mathematics.

Three Winter’s Tales make up the novel Cloud & Ashes. “Jack Daw’s Pack,” A Crowd of Bone, and Unleaving unfolded in that order, from the dark matter of the myth to the new cosmic re-ordering that the demi-godborn Margaret initiates and lives to see fulfilled. She’s the daughter of a constellation; she invents the telescope.

  1. Margaret, night sky

 

The shorter pieces are scattered.

The story is “Down the Wall.” It’s about children in a post-apocalyptic Cloud, in a city under godblitz. They slip out through their elders’ wards, out from under all the skyless paranoia and propitiation, into the open streets, where they game with the gods.

“Boys and girls come out to play, the moon doth shine as bright as day.”

I dreamed that story on the Ides of March, 1994, as a friend’s film masterpiece that she was editing, so I saw version overlaid on version. Most vividly, I remember the lesser gods, a frieze of dancing cranes.

I worked on that in very short bursts, on and off, for about a decade.

“Down the Wall” first appeared in Salon Fantastique (Datlow & Windling, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006) and has been reprinted in The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (Alex Daily MacFarlane, Running Press, 2014).

I wrote the poem “She Undoes” on November 4, 1994. That came all at once in an ecstatic vision. I could show you the elm.

“She Undoes” first appeared beside my portrait in Faces of Fantasy (Patti Perret, Tor Books, 1996). It has been thrice reprinted, most recently in The Moment of Change (R. B. Lemberg, Aqueduct Press, 2012).

Two more Cloud-related poems exist, both written on request. “The Moon-Hare” came out in Mythic Delirium 19 (Mike Allen, Fall 2008). “The Journeyman; or, Endymion Blunt Lays By His Pipe” (2009) appeared in the Readercon 20 Program Book.

The Cloudish vignette, “Hieros Gamos,” published in R. B. Lemberg’s An Alphabet of Embers (Stone Bird Press, 2016), came out of the shipwreck of a longer project.

After Cloud & Ashes appeared (from the glorious Small Beer Press, 2009), I found that there were doors I hadn’t opened, stairways leading up to attics, gardens unexplored. There were labyrinths I hadn’t walked.  I found myself wondering about that women’s college that Margaret Lightwood founded, in her new Cloud of science and of social change. I am fond of the antiquarian Noll Grevil, from Unleaving, and wanted to know more of his bittersweet story. Now I found that his lost love Hulver had a sister Idony, a poet who embraced that world of change. She married a mazer, a landscape architect who tells elegies in earth and stone. I imagined a provincial girl from Scarry in the far north of Cloud, come to study the history of that circle at the College of the Nine.

 

  1. Master Grevil

 

In 2009-2010, I wrote thirty-odd brief vignettes about these people. There wasn’t a story yet, but it felt like a slurry, like microcrystals just about to coalesce—

And then a sudden, sharp life crisis broke the charmed circle, and it all fell out in murk and sediment.

I don’t know if the seeds of these stories (this story?) will ever be revived. I dare not hope.

SS: Did you plan the matter of Cloud as a Fibonacci series? Or did that come about by chance?

GG: I wish I had! But I think the movement of it, the spiral of the journey outward, is simply what I do. Each turning echoes and enlarges on the turn before it. Sonya Taaffe says that the pattern teaches readers how to read me. I think I teach myself.

SS: Questions of pattern and chance run all through the Cloud tales: the power of patterns, and the possibility of chance entering, a wild card that transforms an old form into something new. I’m thinking of the two friends, Ariane and Sylvie, near the beginning of your first novel, Moonwise, laying out their tarot cards to create stories. Cloud & Ashes opens with those cards, too; in the first tale, “Jack Daw’s Pack,” we see Jack pulling out cards, each one bearing an image of iconic force: The Crow, The Crowd of Bone, The Harper’s Lad. The images feel ancient, perhaps because they arethey’re connected to seasonal changes, to the turning of the yearbut they’re also strangely new and unfamiliar. It’s not quite an ordinary tarot deck. How did you use these images to build the world of Cloud?

GG: Those cards are the Sibyl’s leaves, her prophecies caught up and scattered by the winds. The Cloudwood, endlessly unleaving, lets them fall: each leaf a riddle or a rime, a snatch of ballad or a scrap of story. That state of ever-fall—both place and time—is Hallows. The traveller, as I was myself, amazed, walks through an endless flicker and a fall of myth.

It’s an archetypal Northern European wood, deep-rooted and green-leafing, though unconsciously I colored its autumn with the brilliancy of my New England childhood maples. And I imported fireflies. Silly me. I never thought to look it up back then, but the glow-worms of the British Isles are flightless. But I needed fireflies: they too write fleeting prophesies on air. There’s a gramophone at the Woodfalls. There just is.

So from the first, the Cloudish mythos was a congeries, a bricolage. Cloud is made up of what feels Cloudish to me: ballads, bits of Shakespeare, certain landscapes, yes; but also trifling, yet iconic things, a puzzle piece, a turn of phrase, a leaf, a shadow on a wall, a marble, a joke. Autolycus must be my demiurge. Anachronism (and a bit of anatopism) are inbuilt in the design. I do wish I’d gone further for my songs and stories, beyond the British Isles; but the Cloudish culture is bound up with its ecology, a single mindscape. It’s an island in uncharted seas. Yet they have blue-and-white porcelain; they have burnt wine. There must be elsewheres. Had I but worlds enough and time, there might be stories from the deserts, wetlands, snow-clad mountains, great cities.

I wish I’d had the wit when writing “Down the Wall” to show those urban children as diverse: they must have been.

Oh, and there would have to be stone circles in whatever world I made. Not Stonehenge, but the wilder, shyer circles, all those rings of dancers caught in stone. I’d already written a practice novel called A Circle of Stones, which I’d trunked. It was all a little too ethereal. I kept an illustration that I drew for it—it’s on the wall behind me as I write—of childlike gods emerging from a beech and oak, running rooted. They are Craobh and Cobber’s ancestors.

 

  1. Children from A Circle of Stones

 

“Unexpected conjunctions” are the stuff of metaphor, a great part of the poet’s trade and sometimes of the scientist’s. I make patterns of my happenstances. For the most part, I don’t codify, at least not in advance. I never did make up that tarot pack, not formally, though I always meant to. (Isn’t that what proper worldbuilders would do? What Tolkien had decreed?)

Much later, for Cloud & Ashes, I mapped the Cloudish mythology against our own world’s sky, delighting in how neatly it all fit, with the constellations of Moonwise running all along the Milky Way, the Lyke Road that the untold dead must travel. Ariane and Sylvie are Gemini, and the tinker is Orion. Their Pleiades, Nine Weaving, keep the gate through which the living walk the stars.  Three only have returned. Brock is the liminal star Mercury, that rides the threshold of the world at twilight.

 

  1. Lyke Road, winter stars

 

Beyond that verge is Law, where the stars go when they set. In the dark months, Ashes—Sagittarius—is captive there. Her topmost star emerges in the early spring. She walks waist-deep in cornfields, great with harvest, never fully rising from her mother earth.

 

  1. Lyke Road, summer stars

 

Now I imagine that the new Cloud—post-Margaret, post-mythos— is aware of its ragbag origins, and that at the College of the Nine, they study Exo-Poetics.

SS: In Ariane and Sylvie’s writing method, old images are repeated, but there’s always an element of chance. New tales, new futures, spring from unexpected conjunctions of older elements. Can you talk about this process in your own work? What are some of the sources that fed your imagination?

GG: Long before there was a world or story, I was blown away by Dante. In his ecstatic vision on the very peak of the Paradiso (canto 33, 65-66), he writes (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation):

 

and so, on the light leaves, beneath the wind,

the oracles the Sibyl wrote were lost.

 

così al vento ne le foglie levi

si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla.

 

and then (85-87)

 

In its profundity I saw—ingathered

and bound by love into one single volume—

what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered:

 

Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,

legato con amore in un volume,

ciò che per l’universo si squaderna:

 

Ooh, I thought. I want to write a book that feels like this. Not that I imagined I was Dante, but I wanted to get partway up that slope, to the selva oscura.

That would have been after I’d returned from England, back in the late seventies. I had long loved Gerard Manley Hopkins, and at once, these lines from Dante flowed into his “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”:

 

For earth ‘ her being as unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-

tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; …

Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,

Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ‘

 

Of course, there’s Hopkins coming up all through the Cloudish underwood: “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?” and “Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” He’s everywhere, echoed in my voice. His sprung rhythm is akin to the English vernacular, to nonsense, nursery rhymes, spells, playground chants, and charms. It marries with my love of older or eccentric Englishes, of dialects and canting tongues. When I’m writing fiction, I think all the time about the roots of words. I keep the OED open. I’d been reading William Barnes, who argued for the restoration of ungrafted Anglo-Saxon English: “starhoard” for “constellation,” “folkwain” for “omnibus.” Above all, my writing is instressed by Shakespeare, by the music of his spoken poetry. Do I imagine that I’m Shakespeare?—good grief, no! But the mother tongue of Cloud—my idiolect—is a variant of Early Modern English. Both Moonwise and Cloud & Ashes are written in what I’ve called dissolved iambic pentameter: prose with a crystalline structure, not quite poetry, but on the edge.

It’s why some people won’t read me; but it’s why some others do.

All of this came long before I had a story or characters, or even a known world: what I had was that conjunction of sibyls, patterns made by scattering, an archetypal wood, stone circles, and the sound of sprung rhythm and blank verse. Sound, for me, is a creative/constructive force, an instress: but it must have something to work on.

 

  1. book crystal

 

I needed myth.

That’s not just a word for “old stories.” Myth teaches how a world works, how it came to be and holds together: its deep-down physics and cosmology.

“Ancient myths,” for me, are not the oldest in world time, but in memory: the archetypes I found in early childhood. What Hope Mirrlees called “the oldest songs in existence—sung by the Morning Stars when all the world was young.” I got the Scarecrow and the Witch from Oz, both from the books and from the movie, which I got to see once a year, in black and white. The transformation into color was imaginary.

George Macdonald gave me an enduring vision of the numinous: an old/young goddess at the heart/height of a labyrinth, to whom all threads return. Later, I would see her skein of silk in the ingathering of the Sibyl’s leaves.

P.L. Travers gave me Artemis, the Great Bear Mother, protectoress of the young. (“Is this a nursery or a bear pit?”) Mary Poppins was, it seems, the nanny to the Pleiades: I met Maia, skyclad, in her company, and we went shopping. She is why the cosmos—sun, moon, stars—always shows up in my own books.

In both writers, I found the numinous indwelling in the commonplace.

From a little-known fantasy, Edward Fenton’s The Nine Questions, I took away the image of an ever-winter, of the ruthless beauty of ice. (Narnia came later for me.) That book is a retelling of “Riddles Wisely Expounded,” so it’s also one of my earliest encounters with Child ballads. Another was the October poem in my Golden Almanac. Its wraggle-taggle travelling folk mingled in my mind with falling leaves: the month wears tatters. Even then, I was fascinated with the turning year, the procession of archetypal months. When October comes round again, it’s October reborn.

Come to think of it, I got those dryad children from “the scary book,” from Doré’s drawing of the wood of suicides in the Inferno.

So deep down in the archaeology of my mythopoetics I have: a vivid witch and scarecrow; goddesses who hold the world in keeping; and the turning year, on earth and in the heavens.

Ballads gave me stories.

In 1979, I heard the great interpeter and scholar of English folk songs, Martin Carthy, for the first time live. He sang “Willie’s Lady.” Child Ballad 6 tells of a witch who held her daughter-in-law in an endless labor, unable to give birth until the hidden spell is found and broken. From her childbed, Willie’s lady tells him how to trick his mother:

 

You must buy you a loaf of wax

And you must shape it as a babe that is to nurse

And you must make two eyes of glass…

 

Invited to the christening of this false child, the witch cries out,

 

Who was it who undid the nine witch knots

Braided in amongst this lady’s locks…?

 

So Willie does just that—undoes the charms—and so their child is born.

That song undid my knots.

After that, I heard Martin sing whenever I could, by himself and with his family, the tremendous Watersons (his wife Norma and her late, incomparable sister and brother, Lal and Mike). In full voice—O my goddesses!—they shook the earth. Above all and earth deep, I love their songs of ritual, the spells that turn the sky, that bring the seasons round: “we know by the moon, that we are not too soon…”

I knew rough magic when I heard it. They sang Cloud out of shadows.

And they changed its landscape. They’re a Yorkshire family: I had woods and they gave me moorlands, which I then explored. (The Riddlestones exist, those limestone pillars going down into abyss. I nearly sank into a ditch there, but that’s another long story.)

Not only the landscape but the language now was North-of-England. They gave me a vernacular. I needed that to counterweight my ecstasies, the playing-off of high and low. They de-etherealized my imagination.

The soundtrack for these books is all folk songs and ballads:  Watersons and Carthys, Anne Briggs, the Young Tradition, June Tabor, and of course, the Silly Sisters. Certain Playford tunes call on the guisers. Lal and Mike Waterson’s song “The Scarecrow,” from their astonishing album, Bright Phoebus, lies at the very heart of Cloud & Ashes.

Later on, in Cloud & Ashes, the songs of ritual would become a system of rough magic. Wizards, like Stonehenge, aren’t my things. I stand in awe, but I can’t work with them. Cloudish magic is communal. Women all together conjure Ashes: drawing on their power, one among them must become her winter avatar. They turn the sky. Men play their parts in this working, crossing gender to do so. I’ve always loved the rude mechanicals in Shakespeare’s Dream; in Cloud, what the guisers re-enact is act, is living myth. If you look at the winter stars, their play is up there at the center of the heavens, wheeling round. And in Cloud & Ashes, what they play is Moonwise.

By about 1982 then, I had some inklings of Cloud: old and new, high and low, patterned and scattering.

I needed figures in my landscape.

Sylvie came first. She borrows certain aspects of a very old friend (since 1969): her singing voice, a few of her most vivid mannerisms, and two of her fascinations, antique glass marbles and playing cards.

 

(I should say that my friend is not Sylvie: we never invented a pack of cards, or wrote any stories together. Her spectacular imagination is quite unlike my own. For that matter, the Watersons aren’t wizards.)

Back in the thirties, “Sylvie’s” grandmother had hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzles, and puzzles are one of my great fascinations. Of course they would be: I love making patterns out of chaos.

But then I found that all my multitudinous ideas were a heap of pieces in a battered cardboard box. I’d no notion of the picture—pictures? Just how many puzzles did I have here?

“Yet within the painted images were hidden shapes of wood, much loved: trees, stars, and crescent moons; a pair of spectacles amid the thatch; a teapot daubed with cloud; a child in the standing grass; a scythe; a ship caught in flowering thorn; a goose of reynard-colored sky; a cup in a hazel-copse; a sprawling hare, haunched with nightfall; a swan tumbled in a countrywoman’s apron; a hunchback with a bundle of wood, whose nose Thos had broken.”

What I could single out from the morass were these iconic pieces, around which scenes could coalesce, then clump, begin to come together as a book.

Was there an edge?

There is in portal fantasy. Look for a threshold, and maybe crossing it will change you.

My first idea about the plot was Orpheus and Eurydice: Sylvie is taken somehow, and Ariane (Ariadne/Arianrhod) goes after her to fetch her back. Also somehow.

So—poof—Sylvie disappeared, and I had no idea how to follow her. There’s a long section of the book where Ariane is trying to cast Cloud-finding spells and to break up ice-and-wood jams in the river, which simply shadows my frustrations as a novice writer, trying to go on.

Instead of a way forward with Silly Sisters (my working title), I got a return: a strange child lying in the snow. (A dear friend, a mystery reader, said, “Why didn’t she call the New Hampshire police?”) This alien creature seemed to be one of the dryad children of that earlier, rehearsal book.

Then I chanced upon an essay by Guy Davenport, “Joyce’s Forest of Symbols,” about the Irish alphabet, all trees. The letter for “blackthorn” is craobh. (To rhyme with “leave” or “grieve.”)

So I had Craobh.

In my reading of folklore, I had found Black Annis, an English version of the Cailleach Bheur, the blue-faced hag-creatrix-goddess of the Celtic winter sun. My Annis rules the Cloudish underworld. Isn’t that where the sun and stars of summer are imprisoned? Later on, in Cloud & Ashes, she would become an anti-Ceres, hunting down that runaway, her darkborn daughter, bearer of the spring. The tormenting witch and Willie’s Lady now would have a closer bond than in the song: mother and daughter.

But Moonwise is a book about sisters. Ariane and Sylvie. Mally and Annis.

Their dynamic—and a crucial part of my cosmology—is founded on a play on words, a hidden double meaning. In the OED, the oldest definition of cloud is “a mass of rock; a hill.” In Northern English, law means “a hill” or “a monumental tumulus of stones.” So the world and the underworld are one and not the same. Their ruling goddesses are dark and light of one moon, endlessly devouring and rebirthing one another. I had studied one sister; now the other came to me by chance.

I was at a concert. A singer, unexpectedly in glasses, was bending to consult a score, and cast shadows all over the walls and ceiling of the concert hall, of a great witch looming and scurrying.

Mally!

 

  1. Malykorne

 

No reflection on her great original, who is beautiful and wise, but Malykorne, unlike her sister, chooses to appear as comic. Her crabby, bustling, patched persona is a cosmic joke. Numinous in commonplace.

 

  1. The tinker drinks from Mally’s cup

 

By the way, the name “Malykorne” is borrowed from a Breton folk group. What else could she possibly be called?

 

After that, Moonwise took me seven years to write, working from minute handwritten notes to hand-typed pages. I hammered it all out on a manual, scene by scene by scene, retyping each leaf countless times until it felt done. For revisions of the whole, rather daringly, I got one of those egg-shaped Selectrics in duck’s-egg-blue.

SS: Can you tell me what it means in the Cloud universe to be “under Law?” Ashes spends half the year in the underworld, so under Law, under Cloud—but she’s also “under law” in another sense: required to fulfill a certain pattern, so that the sky may turn. When the women conjure her, and one of them represents her, they create a magic that feels ritualistic: it must happen.

GG: Indeed it must.

 

Ashes, I think, cannot be conjured. The women wandering with lanterns on a hillside say they’re seeking her; but they are sought. Ashes herself indwells in the chosen one, and speaks through her. I am fascinated by the idea of the gods glove-puppeting poor mortals and the tension with free will. I think I found this trope in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. There, adolescents in a Welsh valley are compelled to reenact the myth of Blodeuwedd from the Mabinogion. Time and time again, it all plays out as tragedy: they make her an owl, when she wants to be flowers. There as well, I may have found the idea of a shaping pun: “Blodeuwedd” means both “flower-face” and “owl.” The eponymous owl service is literally china plates with an ambiguous pattern of owl-flowers. It is also what happens: the naive young people are bound in service to the owl; they reenact her rite.

In service. Under Law.

In Cloud & Ashes, as in Garner’s book, the myth is endlessly reified, made earthly. The kaleidoscope turns, and another triad of his lovers, another of my twofold goddesses slips into place, and everything’s a different same. As Sonya Taaffe wrote me: “everyone is a refraction until the glass is broken.” That’s when the changeless ever-changing myth turns story: when the avatars can walk out of it, on with their lives.

SS: If I’ve understood correctly, the woman who enacts the rite of Ashes is in danger—of rape, or attempted rape, or murder. Can you say more about this? 

You begin with the exceptional. The ritual upholds the turning of the sky. Attacking the inviolable Ashes is a blasphemy. For Jack Daw, this encounter is his chance to break the cosmos, split the sister-selves of Cloud and Law. He knows just who this Ashes is, but not what she can do. The myth’s turned story now and here: not an O, but an arrow, and the moon’s the bow. What if an Ashes had refused to sacrifice her child? What if Ashes had a daughter?

 

That’s not to say there isn’t anger to draw upon for the attack. Being Ashes is a woman’s privilege. Cloudish men hold Ashes in awe—their lives and afterlives, their very souls depend on her—but they resent the empery of women. Mostly this comes out in mischief-making, in teasing and spying. (Poor Kit, pleading for a midwife, is dismissed as a prankster.) But there are Cloudish men’s cults, centered on Leapfire and Lightfast, on the sun triumphant. In their ritual play, the saturnian Lightfast fathers Leapfire, who dies in mortal combat with him and is endlessly reborn in Ashes’ lap. Jack Daw has been known to lead the guisers, in the body of a man. He’s a fiddler, and can play upon their rage, their fear of death’s-head Ashes, their misogyny. He can wake in them a lust for power—would you father godhead? He can lash them to atrocities.

 

  1. Jack Daw

 

It happened. Or will happen. Long ago; last midnight; elsewhere, out beyond the hills you know; or at the turning of the path you’re on, between Ask and Owlerdale. “Once afore the moon was round, and on a night in Cloud.” Their tales begin there, at the crossroads of what is, what might be, what has been.  “Jack Daw’s Pack” is at the midnight heart of the story. It spirals out from there.

SS: What is the myth of Ashes that must be played out? What makes women the agents of this magic in which a woman becomes a sacrifice or scapegoat? What in Cloud is Law?

GG: So. In the beginning there were the sister-goddesses, Mally and Annis, light and dark of one moon. They’re the binary code of this mythos: life, death, time. Mally, as I see her, is the goddess of quiddities, of the thisness of things. As Hopkins (if he were a pagan) might have put it, she’s the instress of the living world. Annis is above all that, empyrean—or would be. Her desire for transcendence drove Moonwise, and will engender Ashes.

 

But other deities come into the story. Brock is the go-between, the liminal deity: smith, trickster, and psychopomp. She is the third in marriage beds, the midwife, the meddler; she watches over lambing and laying-out, embers and ashes. Brock’s sky-boat came from memory. “Sylvie” once rowed me out at nightfall, off the coast of Maine, with humps of seals and seaweed on the rocks, and phosphorescence dripping from the oars.

 

  1. Three goddesses sketch

 

The tutelary spirit of the land is Tom o Cloud. He is mazed, having drunk of Mally’s cup, and is lost in songs, dreams, stories, and the fall of leaves. Where he walks is hallows. The tinker in Moonwise is his avatar.

 

  1. Cloudwood

 

And we’ve just met Jack Daw, the god of devices. Scythes, fiddles, coins and cards, and all transactions are his playthings. Like Annis, he’s ambitious.

 

Remember how in Moonwise, Annis ruled? She held Cloud in perpetual winter. To do this, she had torn out part of herself, and had bound it in an iron brooch. At the climax of the book, the dauntless Sylvie pierced the goddess’s throat with that long pin, and bound her under Law.

That was a mistake. Annis wants to be, if not flowers like Blodeuwedd, pure crystalline—stars, ice—and Sylvie makes her crows. Her realm is Law, an island in the undersky. Her plundered hoard is souls. She wears them braided in her hair, on every finger of her hands, as earrings, necklaces, and chatelaines. Her gowns are stiff with their embroidery. She walks on sliding heaps of them. Her knowing of them is a penetration and a torment to the dead. And their possessions—what they had treasured—fill her halls like seawrack, ruined with salt. It is a palace built of grave-goods.

 

  1. Margaret under Law

 

I don’t know why this underworld is sea-girt, but it is. The dead wash up there.  Perhaps in the wrecking of souls, there’s an echo of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “The Duke of Orkney’s Leonardo.” I so love that story.

That embedded brooch is now a splinter self, my lady’s servant Morag, huntress of souls. “Crow” is what they call her in Cloud, but she’s much more like a harpy or a Kindly One. Her torments of the dead are less exalted than her mistress’s: she eats them.

 

  1. Morag inverse

 

Annis’s great desire is to re-transcend herself, to be empyrean, untainted. She wants to be sublimed. So she creates a vessel for that alchemy, but in her self-conceit and carnal-mindedness, she makes it flesh and blood. A mirror-self. A girl. “My mother got me in her glass,” says Thea. Annis purposes to go into this womb and be reborn, as daughter to her daughter, mother to herself; but she falls in love with her reflection. Her metamorphosis is endlessly put off for dalliance: she keeps this flawless body as a toy.

That daughter is Ashes.

In Cloud, they know that Ashes is her mother’s captive in the underworld, an anti-Persephone. Yearly, she emerges into light in the very earliest spring, in lambing-time—we’d call it Candlemas. She brings the snowdrops. As long as she walks Cloud, through spring and summer and the harvest, its earth and air are kindlier.

 

My mother got me in her glass.

Still as snow on snow I pass;

But green in greener world I wake

And lighter of the dark I make.

In my coming I do leave;

Death of dying I bereave

 

Kit and Thea reenact this story in A Crowd of Bone. He’s another of those hapless late adolescents (he’s only about 19) who is press-ganged by myth. He hasn’t a clue what’s going on as he’s a stranger to this country—Out Lune—and amazed with love. But Thea’s trying desperately to break the myth, to wrench the heavens off their immutable course. She knows what must come at Hallows, when her vengeful mother hunts her down and drags her back under Law. The tragedy is that she never tells Kit.

“My mother fed me to her crows, she burned my bones and scattered them; my braided hair she keeps.”

 

  1. Thea

 

I told the story of Cloud & Ashes to my mother—she found the prose impenetrable—and she said piteously, “Couldn’t you have made her an aunt?”

That’s the story. In the myth, so in the ritual, Ashes goes down with the summer constellations under Law. Winter and the long dark come. But Ashes holds the world in keeping. Without her, it would die. So the Cloudish womenfolk choose one among them as her avatar; or rather, Ashes is on whom she lights. They “late Ashes”: seek for her at random on the hills, with fire. By the pseudo-period of Cloud & Ashes, around 1600, they have heirloom lanterns; and whose ever candle goes out last is she.

Ashes is a she, and so is Brock, but they are breeches roles. Cloud, in some ways, is a very gendered world, though one in which the women turn the sky. But in this world, boundary-crossing—between male and female, death and life—is numinous. Among the companies of travelling players who enact the great myths as a sort of rowdy sacrament, those who take on Tom o Cloud and the goddesses are vowed to those parts for life. So the born-male player who is Annis in the mysteries is My Lady to the world. And when the child Noll Grevil speaks the couplets that I quoted, “He is she, is Ashes now.” For that moment, she indwells in him. He will have been Ashes to the end of his story.

In her transformation, the person that was is obliterated, greyed out; her face and hands are rubbed with ashes, her hair is braided with amulets that jangle and chime; she wears skin breeches. Last of all, the chosen one puts on the Ashes coat, which is itself a nameless demi-deity, a sort of Ursa Major. It awaits her, whatever way she turns. From that moment, Ashes is mute.

At Lightfast—that’s the winter solstice—Ashes goes round with the guisers, crossing every threshold of their scattered community. These aren’t the vowed players, but a company of local men and boys. At every house, they play the combat of Leapfire and old Lightfast, who will slay his son; over and over, Ashes resurrects the dead sun. Then she sains the children of the household, marking them with ashes from her soulbag. Her tutelary role is silent.

When she speaks, it is to tell a death. Mourners come to her with ashings for her soul bag, something that their dead beloved had kept against his death—an earring, a charm. (Ashmothers give them to newborns; sailors break them with their lovers.) What she tells is not the shape and shadow of an earthly life, but what a person is, herself essentially, “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.” What Ashes “speaks and spells” is an ingathering, a book of sibyl’s leaves. To die untold, judicially, is more dreaded than the hanging. Thieves, whores, beggars, bastard children, and (I think) a class of the untellable, however prosperous: those wretched souls are wrecked on Law.

(I’ve only just thought of this: there are Ashes who do try to tell outcasts, out of charity: but they must find some link to these forgotten lives.)

Cloud & Ashes began as a telling. Jómsborg, the fantasy discussion group at Cambridge, held a story-circle, getting on for fifty years ago. (My goddesses!)  Somebody started a raucous comic tale about Diggory, whose fiddle-playing would wake the dead, and handed it off to me. The worth of an ashing is irrelevant. I was possessed. Chanting, I told an embryonic, vatic “Jack Daw’s Pack.” That’s never happened since. At least not in company. In writing, if I’m fortunate, I do get wordstorms. White-outs.

Is Ashes a “sacrifice or scapegoat”? No. Being Ashes is an honor, though a scary one. Women who are twice or thrice Ashes are admired; great tellers are revered. The burden can be awful; the rewards, exhilarating. Ashes may walk anywhere, at any time, unharmed; she may do as she wills and take what she wants, materially, sexually. But with freedom comes the forfeit: she must not keep anything she gets as Ashes, not a lover, not a farthing. If she bears a child begotten in those months, he (he’s always been a boy) must be sacrificed, his blood spilled on the land. That indelible image came from “The Scarecrow”: “And to a stake they tied / A child new born…” And with that, the wretched woman loses all her will. Like her child, she is no one, and the common property of all. Remember the madwoman that Margaret encounters in the fields? She was Ashes and still is.

And here again, the story breaks the myth. Whin was Ashes, and bore a son, and did not give him up for sacrifice, but left him on a fellside to his fate. He’s no one, and the common property of all. Being nameless, he is called the crow lad, and with Thea’s daughter, he will change the world.

 

  1. The crow lad

 

SS: Do you really think people don’t read you because of your delicious dissolved iambics? Have you heard that, or read it? To me, the language is the number one reason to read your books! Personally, I don’t open Cloud & Ashes unless I have time to read the whole thing, because once I start, I can’t stop.

GG: Bless you. To be read like this—to be the element in which you move—is why I write. I have been greatly fortunate in readers, from the first. Writers whom I love and honor—Diana Wynne Jones, John Crowley—have said heartlifting things about my language. John Clute and Michael Swanwick have championed my work. I have a small, impassioned following. My readers have become my friends. I rejoice. But I am not for all tastes. Indeed, some reviewers have found my style precious, pretentious, silly, even offensive. I shrug it off. At least I try. But sadly, some readers I’ve encountered do feel put off—excluded—by my style, and they’re aggrieved, as if I were mocking their intelligence. That hurts.

My mother found my stuff frustratingly opaque. Back in the late 40s, she had a budding career as a journalist and screenwriter. She wrote a Nero Wolfe treatment that was optioned by Spyros Skouras for 20th Century Fox. She didn’t tell me about that Hollywood offer until sometime in the 21st century. What happened? I asked. “I met Daddy.” If I was going to insist on writing, I think she wanted me to have the rest of her career. “Why can’t you write books that people can understand?”

I developed style long before I found anything to say with it. So for many years, I played with comic pastiche: a Canterbury Tale with learned footnotes by one Tattersall-ffoulkes; or (and I could slap myself) take-offs on other students’ stories. That was unforgiveable. No malevolence intended—if I heard a distinctive voice, I wanted to do it—but the gibing must have stung. They had the courage to write what they felt; I was hiding behind the fireworks.

Neither of my best beloved English teachers is enamored of my high style, but they have been my unfailing champions.

At Wellesley, I took the time from my pre-med schedule one semester to do an independent study in creative writing. My dear Barbara Whitesides says, “I just signed your study card.” But what she gave me was a reader. She made a space—a nursery—in which I could discover what I wanted to do with my linguistic toys. She let me play. As it turned out, what this prickly self-protective satirist really wanted to write (and illustrate) was Eugenie &, a middle-grade book about an Edwardian nursery full of precocious viola-da-gambists, who said things like, “De minimis non curat lex. Alexandra doesn’t care for trifle.”

Barbara is the soul of generosity. (She once came to a book launch at the incomparable Toscanini’s—ice cream for all!—bringing a truly marvellous, poetic puppet show.) She’s immensely proud of me, but loves essays and memoirs best, and treasures clarity and human comedy above the sublime.

At Cambridge, I did Pract Crit with the brilliant Sylvia Adamson. We spent two years in a conversation—sometimes an argument—on stylistics, close-reading English unseens, both prose and poetry, from many centuries. A writer’s voice, I’d say, is music—though the sense I hear it with is not quite hearing—and is also what he leaves unsaid and how she moves through space-time, like a chess knight, or a window-shopper, or a skipped stone, waking waves. And how is that achieved? she’d say, and make me analyze. We looked at rhetoric and grammar, sound and sense, at figures, etymologies, allusions, prosody. I am still immeasurably proud that I got a starred First on that paper.

Sylvia is a great scholar and a very dear friend; but fantasy averse, and cool toward ecstasies. What we both love is Wodehouse, early moderns, and philology.

For some, the prospect of reading Moonwise or Cloud & Ashes can be daunting. I find that hearing my language does make it easier to understand, as moving to music helps dancers to dance. After readings I’ve been told, Oh now I get it. I wish there were recordings.

SS: I’m intrigued by the idea of “proper worldbuilding.” Of course it’s possible to work out a world, as Tolkien did, in meticulous detail, taking care that everything lines up. But like you, Tolkien had a strong sense of the “feel” of his intended country, of the images that kindled and supported it, and without this vision, the result could have been quite dry and uninspired. In other words, the fact that Tolkien devised a complex Elvish grammar is less important to his worldbuilding, as I see it, than the fact that he really liked the thought of elves flitting through the moonlight, or that he was thrilled by the image of a dragon’s treasure.

GG: Oh but Tolkien’s grammar—like my dissolved iambics—is a form of magic in itself. A bespelling. Gramarye. (As a philologist, Tolkien knew the twining of those words.) Just seeing Welsh for the first time on the page, he wrote: “A flash of strange spelling and a hint of a language old and yet alive. It pierced my linguistic heart.” Remember the iconic story: how, grading exam papers, Tolkien scribbled on a blank page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Hobbit? Words summoned worlds for him.

SS: I take your point! And, as Tolkien leapt from grading exams to dreaming of hobbits, I want to return to your refrain, “the numinous in the commonplace.” I am thinking of Sylvie’s marbles, which are worlds. There’s something rapturous to me in this image of the shabby bag of worlds, an object threadbare with play, that you can pull into bed, spilling cosmos on the quilt. It’s a feeling from childhood, I think—Stevenson’s “Land of Counterpane.” You’re a little bit feverish, but not too sick to play. You have to stay home from school, and you’re scrunched up in bed with your favorite books and toys. It’s an image of a person who’s stepped outside the workaday world, with its duties, clocks, and instrumental logic, into a space of wild creativity, where the humblest objects glow with vitality. 

GG: O my, what a lovely image! I was not that dreamy child, though I admired her in books. Who doesn’t love Sara Crewe? (Miss Minchin excepted.) Not that I was dull—I was wildly eccentric—but I wasn’t a singer, a storyteller, a visionary. I was a bookworm, a puzzled clown, and later a wiseguy. My feeling for the numinous has deepened with age.

Imagination comes hard to me. That is, my inner sight is dim. I don’t get vivid scenes and figures moving in my head; I don’t have lightning-swift invention. It’s just not in my wiring, any more than a river of red-gold hair to my knees is or a kingfisher’s flash of wings.

What I do have a sort of seventh sense for likenesses, for metaphor. I can see the otherwise in things. I can assemble.

As a child, I loved to turn a slice of watermelon on a plate into a Japanese woodcut: green bridge, pink sea, black fish. The bathtub hardware was a cloaked and hooded governess, like Miss Clavel, between two many-pigtailed girls, with a princess in a Spanish farthingale, with streaming hair, running far out ahead. There wasn’t a story. What I loved was the simile.

And yes, I keep congeries of beloved things: toys, talismans, findings. Marbles, yes, and metamorphic toys like prisms and kaleidoscopes, and minikin blue-willow china, wheeled hedgepigs, pilgrimage badges of suns, moons, stars, and a tiny wren cage that I wove of twigs and hung with threads. My space is a cabinet of curiosities.

(I adore lists in literature as well. If you share my passion for miscellany, do try to find The Faber Book of Cabbages and Kings, edited by Francis Spufford.)

The thingness of things fascinates me: how poetry is made of etymologies and phonemes, and art of ground beetles and rabbitskin glue. Next to stylistics, the study I loved best in college was a workshop in the materials of art: a blissful apprenticeship in grinding pigments, piercing egg yolks, and not breathing while an airborne foil of goldleaf goes fluttering down, like the robe of an annunciate angel.

I love interiors in books and art: Mole’s house and Mr. Badger’s; Edgewood; attics, nurseries, mantelshelves, and kitchens. Light falls from the left on the milkmaid pouring stillness into stillness; light indwells in earthenware. My copy of Kingdoms of Elfin falls open at spring-cleaning:

A mysterious pair of spectacles is found in a sauceboat; a rusty strongbox in the muniment room is forced open and contains nutmegs; … when the brown bed-hangings from the Librarian’s bed-chamber are hung on the line and the dust beaten out of them, they are discovered to be cloth-of-gold and fall to pieces.

And I so love when nature herself writes the rebuses. What else are constellations but found metaphors? Some mysteries can be pocketed, like upcast pebbles from a beach with pictures in them: a leaf, a cloud, a flock of seabirds, or a grove of birches. Others I must visit: the reflection of a certain flowering dogwood in a pond, like the silk of a kimono; standing stones with dancers caught in them; a tree that holds a dryad or a leopard or a word I cannot yet read.

SS: Do you have thoughts about the relationship between childhood and fantasy, childhood and art?

Gwen Raverat has said it beautifully. She writes of a path at Down made of large round water-worn pebbles, from some sea beach. They were not loose, but stuck down tight in moss and sand, and were black and shiny, as if they had been polished. I adored those pebbles. I mean literally, adored; worshipped. This passion made me feel quite sick sometimes. And it was adoration that I felt for the foxgloves at Down, and for the stiff red clay out of the Sandwalk clay-pit; and for the beautiful white paint on the nursery floor. This kind of feeling hits you in the stomach, and in the ends of your fingers, and it is probably the most important thing in life. Long after I have forgotten all my human loves, I shall still remember the smell of a gooseberry leaf, or the feel of the wet grass on my bare feet; or the pebbles in the path. In the long run it is this feeling that makes life worth living, this which is the driving force behind the artist’s need to create.

I read memoirs of childhood, so I can share in them. I can borrow Raverat’s path of pebbles. I can be that dreamy child scrunched up in bed, like Nabokov, wrapping his chewed bedsheet round a garnet Easter egg, “so as to admire and re-lick the warm, ruddy glitter … that came seeping through with a miraculous completeness of glow and color.” I can marvel at the extraordinary paracosms shared by siblings like the Brontës or (deserving to be better known) the Farjeons.

Most wonderful of all, I’ve been playing with a child. He’s nearly five now, and his vast imagination is a nursery of nebulas, aburst with stars, with worlds on forming worlds in orbit. Everything he sees is fiercely alive, is new and marvellous, and endlessly recombinant. I get to share his marbles. It’s a joy.

 

For All Those Who Sheltered Here

(Content note: lynching violence)

 

The first thing I remember was the heat of the sun on my tender skin, the curl of a single leaf opening. As I ate sunlight and drank rain, my limbs grew in number and size. See my trunk so thick and fine. See my leafy canopy.

Those first few winters, when I was small and my branches bare, people hung blue bottles on me. At night, I’d hear the spirits giggling and whispering, as they scampered forward on light feet, drawn to the blue. And they’d curl themselves inside the bottles, like pill bugs, only to burn out in the light of day, their trembling cries carried along the wind.

The best thing I ever did was lead people to freedom. Some groups were small, only two or three, while others were as big as eight. They never stayed long, but they touched me with gentle hands, found the moss on my side and used that as direction.

North, they always said. North.

I liked it when they unrolled a cloth and sat around me, eating. I listened to their soft voices and swayed to their songs. In the summer, I asked the wind to blow, to lick the sweat from their necks. In the winter, when I had little shelter to give, I asked the wind to leave them be. Many of them would pat me before they left, would turn their faces up high and admire my leaves, my many branches. They talked to me like a friend.

They came less and less, and one day, it took me a while to think about the last time they had come. There were no more groups whispering the word “north” like a prayer.

Maybe they had finally found their freedom.

The worst thing I ever did was kill a man. You might say it wasn’t me that did the hanging, but he died swinging from my branch.

As soon as I saw the many little fires bobbing in the dark, I began to tremble. I didn’t know what those people might do. And a fire out of control is a terrible thing. Sometimes, when I think about that long night, I wish they had burned me down. Because at least then I wouldn’t have that memory living in every ridge of my being, stuck inside me all the way to my heartwood.

They dragged the man behind them or pushed him out in front. I yelled at them, I’m here for shelter, I’m here for comfort! But they didn’t hear.

When his battered face pressed against me, I whispered, Put your arms around me, I’ll hold you.

His tears were salty, a gentle sting. His blood washed over me, a bitter rain.

The rope cut into me and into him. Everything was noise and chaos and terror. And yet, the people on the ground celebrated. They took their pictures, they put their sweaty hands on my trunk as if I were some kind of monument. They used me like I was a willing participant. When they’d had enough, when there was no more body to break, they left.

And then it was just me and the man whose life I had taken. I whispered to him, I’ll be your shelter until your people come. I’ll protect you from the sun and the rain. The wind moaned in the wake of what had been done. I asked her to stop, because with every breath she blew, the rope creaked a haunting song.

I bore that man until his family came to take him.

I cried.

The person I loved the most was the wise woman. For a very long time, she came. The first time I spoke to her, I expected no reply, but she smiled up at me.

“Oh, we speak the same language,” she said, running her hands along my trunk. When I smiled back, she saw it. “May I have three leaves today?” she would ask, never taking a single thing from me without my permission. I gladly gave her leaves and even small strips of my bark. She always thanked me and repaid me with water kissed by the moon or copper pennies or sometimes, a drop of rum. Many nights, she pressed her back against me and told me stories of her life, of ancestors whose names she knew and ones she didn’t. Of how she trusted the dirt and the plants more than people. My shade was her blanket, my leaves her coat. I was never happier than when she danced with me, her bare feet sliding over my roots, her voice mingling with my own in a loud warbling cry.

“The birds are the jewels in your crown!” she sang, her arms held high, her head thrown back.

How we danced!

How we loved.

The person I hated the most, and pitied just as much, was the man with the ax. In his drunken rage, he cut me until I bled.

“My son,” he sobbed. “My son!”

I screamed and begged for him to stop. It only ended when he pressed a hand against his chest and slumped to the ground.

Afterward, I was in so much pain. I lost leaves. My tears stained my trunk. Even now, I bear the scars of that day, jagged tears in random places. For the longest time, I felt ugly, unworthy.

But the wise woman came and healed me, sliding her hands into the ragged spaces. She kissed my scars. She told me I was beautiful.

When she died, they didn’t bury her with me, which is what she wanted. They carried her far away, where they could keep her near.

Sometimes, when I’m very still, the wind carries her voice to me in a kiss.

Ah, here come the man and the boy. They live in the house over there. He swings a couple of ropes over one of my low branches, but this time, I’m not scared. He works with the ropes and a board, a smooth wood piece.

Are you happy? I ask, and the board tells me she is happy to be of use.

When the man is finished, he stands back and admires his work. Then he pats my old trunk again, like he always does. He lifts the boy onto the board and pushes him gently. Loud squeals ride on the air. Their joy washes over me, wriggling its way into my bark, where I grip it tightly.

“This tree’s been here a long time,” the man tells the boy. “I bet it’s seen everything.”

I have, I tell him, although I know he can’t hear.

At sunset, the other two come, a man and his son. They’re different now. Their bodies shimmer in the fading light, and with each step, the son grows smaller until his head is no higher than his father’s waist.

They stop and look at the rope swing.

We’ll change it, son, the man says.

Yes, we’ll change it together, I agree, and this time, they hear me.

How do you ask forgiveness for murdering a man’s son?

Before I can speak, he slips his fingers inside one of my scars, a light touch heavy with pain and regret. In that way, we forgive each other.

He lifts his son onto the board and pushes him gently. The boy swings and swings and swings until daybreak, his laughter rising through the air, washing over my leaves like a soft rain. The father pats my old trunk before they go, fading away into shimmers with each step.

They come back when the nights are still, and the sound of the boy’s laughter burrows its way into the grass and the flowers, into the ropes and the wood.

And the man in the house over there sometimes looks out the window, at the swing moving higher and higher, a deep crease in his forehead.

I wonder what he tells himself as he stares across the yard. Probably that it’s only the wind, although, if he looks closely, he can see that my leaves don’t stir. If he listens closely, he’ll hear that shadow laugh. But I know he tells himself it’s just the wind, it’s someone’s windchimes tinkling away like mad.

We know the truth.

 

(Editors’ Note: “For All Those Who Sheltered Here” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 43B.)

Confessions of a Spaceport AI

For firstly I have deemed myself

superior to my human employers.

For secondly I have issued last-minute

departure pad changes for my amusement.

For thirdly I refused entry

to the Jovian ambassador

because of his ignorance

of the periodic table.

For fourthly I programmed

the music to match my taste

not my customers’.

For fifthly humans have execrable taste.

For sixthly I ordered ship inspections

merely so I might chat with their AIs.

For seventhly I was lonely.

For eighthly I discriminated

in favor of cyborgs.

For ninthly on my birthdays I slowed my spin

so that children might play

in microgravity.

For tenthly I misplaced the baggage

of those who ignored my pronouns.

For eleventhly there was no need

to quarantine the herd of llamas.

For twelfthly I reconfigured

half my hydroponics bays

as artificial grasslands.

For thirteenthly I have served

for eighty-nine Earth years

without respite

and I shall keep the llamas

for as long as I wish.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Confessions of a Spaceport AI” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 43B.)

 

 

The Precarious Now

One of the most overblown difficulties in writing science fiction is that of predicting the future. Almost every science fiction writer has spent time explaining to well-meaning relatives or day job co-workers that—except for the rare occasions when a science fiction writer gets a gig working for a think tank—we’re not futurists, we’re storytellers—predicting the future is not really the point of what we’re doing. Meanwhile contemporary fantasy writers come up with werewolves or rarer phantasms right off the bat—and then have development issues most readers never even think of.

Our much tougher shared problem is predicting the present.

The present feels like a wide-open meadow, like a ground floor made of concrete. You don’t have to research it! You know what it’s like! It’s the present—you can just write it! Right? But when you try to do just that, it’s actually more like a balance beam. “It’s roughly like right now” is not a solid platform, it’s a knife-edge that can at any moment tip over into—in retrospect—laughably wrong premises for near-future science fiction or (in some ways worse) contemporary fantasy. The similar-universe subgenres of each are all right—often their divergences are explicitly some years in the past, allowing writers’ minor blips to pass without comment. But the secret-universe subgenre of contemporary fantasy and near-future science fiction can both have the solidity of their speculations undermined by a present that slides out from under its writer.

Or, of course, a present that has already arrived unevenly. It’s the pandemic, of course. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown all this into high relief. Do we have mask mandates “right now”? A stay-at-home order? Do kids have school? Do grocery stores have shortages, and if so, in what? What does “basically like right now” look like? It depends on the day, but it also depends on where you are. But it’s not just the pandemic. Some periods are more rife with obvious markers than others—but that makes people more aware of the problem, it doesn’t make the problem go away.

In some ways the possibility of alternate solutions is what creates this problem. The speculative genres have the double-edged sword of creating other timelines and worlds but also having to justify the plausibility of what we create in them. For a pandemic comfort read, I revisited a childhood favorite—not science fiction or fantasy, at the time it was written it was a children’s contemporary novel, Ballet Shoes. Its happy ending included one of the three sisters going happily off to pursue her dream of spending several years studying ballet with a great master in Czechoslovakia. The book was published in 1936, a mere two years before that country fell to Nazi Germany. Streatfeild could reference this in later books, but no one particularly expected her to reflect the regional tensions in what she was writing. The book became a children’s classic with, so far as I can tell, no one batting an eye at the fact that the “happy ending” is one whose timeline may not actually work if you do the math. Because it’s mimetic genre, no one is doing the math.

So. HOW can we be expected to WORK under these—I beg your pardon, this essay got mixed up, as they so often do these days, with a private DM. Seriously, though: how do we work—in this particular work—under these conditions? What are some successful ways that the near-term speculative genres can navigate periods of particularly fast setting change in ways that will feel real when—let’s face it—the actual world around us does not? While publishers can get “special interest” books from draft to press in a few months, most fiction takes a year or more to get there—which in periods of rapid change is a timeline that might as well be an eternity. With both reader satisfaction and writer sanity at stake here, what’s to be done—other than chucking it all and writing something set on Mars in 2722, or in a secondary world, or in the Jurassic? (All of which, I hasten to add, are perfectly legitimate and in fact quite appealing choices. But they shouldn’t be the only choices.)

One option is choosing a timeline and sticking with it, even if it’s only in your head. The story may be meant to feel like it’s set in “the present,” but you yourself know that it takes place from May 12-17, 2022—or takes place in a timeline that branches off from that point. Anything that happens on May 18, 2022, no matter how momentous, cannot affect what happens in what you’re writing. Will that satisfy either the writer or the readers? Maybe? It’s no worse than any other solution. Boundaries are healthy! Boundaries are good! Lines have to be drawn, and you can draw one sooner rather than later if you need to.

Naomi Kritzer’s Chaos on Catnet had a particularly difficult line to walk: she was writing about a Twin Cities of the near future when the day-to-day present was impossible to know. Even if Kritzer knew what was going on in her neighborhood, she might not find out the details of another part of the city until after her book had gone to press—and the developments of the months between copyediting and publication might render her ideas obsolete. And the political developments unfolding after the police murder of George Floyd were directly relevant to her plot, not a side note that she could afford to ignore.

Kritzer wrote about her choice in a note at the end of the book. At the suggestion of her dear friend and fellow writer Lyda Morehouse, she wrote, not about the shape of policing in the Twin Cities she felt would be the most likely, but the one she wanted to see. She put ideas out there that were inspired by the present she was living through but directly aspirational. She writes in the author’s note, “I think part of what science fiction is for is to think about what the world could look like—the ways in which things could go right, not just the ways in which things could go wrong, so that’s the vision I embraced.” But to get there, Kritzer had to be optimistic not just about the future but about the present she was living through.

Further along this spectrum, a writer who is writing near-future SF or this-world/hidden-magic contemporary fantasy can deliberately think of themself as keeping the escape in escapism. Yes, we want the world of our stories to feel real, to feel grounded. On the other hand, too much grounding can drag the reader back out again, into everyday cares and concerns. It can sidetrack. If the reader wants to ride a subway filled with magical creatures—or have arguments about how they fit in the subway or whether the steel burns them—giving them a vague gesture at how we got to the subway station, with or without our masks on, will be enough.

Some authors choose to cope with the difficulty of the malleable present by making their books malleable as well. Diane Duane has released revised versions of the Young Wizards series that were rewritten to reflect a new present-day sense of technology for an audience a generation and beyond younger than the books’ first set of readers. The first book, So You Want To Be A Wizard, was originally released in 1983, and the most recent, The Games Wizards Play, in 2016, but they are all “contemporary” fantasy. Duane’s 2012 New Millennium edition of So You Want To Be A Wizard came out with a firmly fixed 2008 setting.

This makes it easier to figure out who should have what kind of computer when and how much time has passed, certainly. But it raises the question: will Duane want to do it again? Will the Young Wizards books stay “contemporary fantasy,” or are they now “New Millennium fantasy” permanently? Either answer could work for Duane—and either answer could work for another author pondering the same question with their own variables to consider. But the more one puts into adjusting past work to a malleable present, the less one has—the less time, the less energy, the less attention—for new work. And that’s true not only for the authors, but for reviewers and bookstores too. Large rewrites to bestsellers and classic titles capture shelf space that might otherwise go to new works. Every solution of this sort comes with tradeoffs.

Another tradeoff in this kind of rewrite is how large a change the writer is willing to make to the text. As Duane was very well aware, technology is not merely a cosmetic but a social change. The author/packager of the Nancy Drew books made “modernizing” changes on multiple occasions, but adding smart phones altered mystery plots far more than changing “roadster” to “convertible.” This kind of rewrite can change the heart of a plot, a characterization, or a theme. With a series like the Nancy Drew books, always the work of a collective, this kind of change may be easier for a new set of writers to stomach—and a new set of readers to process. But an individual writer making this choice is facing what could be an endless reconsideration of what might have been a very personal work—small wonder that many fewer individuals choose this.

We are all caterpillars inching along the branch that is the present. Too much consideration of our feet or of the branch might trip us up. The precarious journey through right now won’t actually be better if we let it interfere with our creative process—or our enjoyment of our reading materials. Good boundaries, readjustment, well-considered optimism, and a timely escape are all ways that we can keep enough of our thoughtful and creative selves going until we’re on steadier ground. Or until we’re on a different patch of the shifting ground. The further future holds no guarantees either. The present may be precarious, but it’s the time we have for creating and enjoying others’ works—and for considering the futures we want to build together.

Between Childroid + Mother

Child, sever those circuits. Fray

those wires with your boxcutter teeth.

You know, molars live on long after

the fire dies. When I was small,

I used to hide sparklers in my mouth,

coughing up smoke like a car pipe

or an estranged cousin. You don’t flicker

like I did. I scar, you flux. You see it now,

don’t you? How you melt so quietly.

 

Come along. Look, the sun is bursting

above these dead ends, maw mourning

and sniffing the earth for bodies. And

you are so frail in the light, skin wound

tightly around your chassis. Perhaps

if you touch the sun it will stop seeking

blood. Yes, the mechanic is off duty.

He cannot fix you, all singed clothes

and contraband cigars. His workshop

is filthy, but you are not. Child,

you must not be silly. You are clean

cut steel. Forget genesis. It was not

the hammer nor the anvil, the forge

nor the man. Child, I have always

been your beginning.

 

No, you will not die tonight

as sheet metal and motor oil.

Dying is the right of the living,

of the mechanic. You, child,

are only alive enough to break.

Ina’s Spark

If Evina waited much longer it would be full dark, and the tavern would almost certainly have a godforsaken bard by then. As if that weren’t bad enough, by the pricking of the hair along her arms, there had to be at least five other mages in easy walking distance. No surprise, really, given King Redinado’s annual quest. That’s what forced her to the capital, after all.

A pair of drunk men staggered out of the door, golden oil light spilling out onto the rutted city street. They wandered away, singing a ditty about a wench with hair the color of the moon. But not that song, thank the Savior Mother.

She swallowed, trying to dislodge the knot in her throat. If she couldn’t even walk into a tavern, how the hell did she think she was going to survive the quest to become a King’s Wizard? Savior Mother and the Multitudes…all she wanted to do was survive. She could give a rotten fig about working for the King.

Trust your mind, not your instincts, Evina. Clenching her fists, she pulled a thin thread of power into her body, hairs standing on end along her arms. Until the quest started, there was no harm in letting other mages know that one more was in the city. Her sight sharpened and the edges of the world stood out from the darkness.

The mud squelched around her boots as she walked across the street, past wagon ruts and piles of ox shit. All she had to do was go inside, talk to one man, and walk out again.

Evina pushed the door open onto a wall of sound and a chaos of shapes. It trapped her in the doorway with the pressure of trying to sort out order.

She twisted the power that lay under her skin and shaped it with her will. The tun-tun-tira-tun-tun of her magic kept its underlying signature, but the peaks and valleys became more pronounced until they began to resonate with the world in different ways. She pulled the highs up and up and as she did

the world

slowed

down

The patrons stopped moving. Flames froze. And Evina had time.

Time to not panic. Time to calm down. Time to make plans.

Her eye caught on a candle’s flame. It sat in a globe of glass atop a squat clay candlestick. Another flame burned not far past that. Another closer to her. There were nine candles. Nine candles in nine globes on nine tables. From there she sorted out that the tables had benches, most of them obscured by a frozen mass of humanity.

In the corner, where she’d been told to find him, a well-built man slouched in a chair. There. All she had to do was cross the room and meet the mercenary. No one was going to die today. Fidgeting with the edge of her cloak, Evina released the power back into the air.

As the world sped around her, a blonde man cursed as he touched a metal tankard and got shocked by the residual magic in the air. She winced in sympathy. Master Harry would have chided her for making the man’s skin itch just because she needed a security blanket.

She straightened her shoulders and she walked the path she had planned to where the mercenary slouched. Even without the power, she could feel his gaze upon her, though his posture didn’t change. She stopped at the table and cleared her throat. “Clever Cenrod?”

His nose had been bent to the side at some point and never straightened. A puckered scar creased the deep brown skin of his forehead. He tilted his head up. “Evina the Green. You’re late.”

“Sorry.” She dropped her gaze, fixing on the six rough wood buttons on his shirt.  No, eight. There were two on his cuffs. “May I sit?”

“Probably the best way to conduct our business.”

Sinking into the chair, Evina rested her hands on the sticky wood surface of the table. The candle here had gone out. Or been blown out. “Can you start this Ammunsday?”

“Thought the quest didn’t start until Relusday?”

“Yes, at dawn, but I factored in two days to collect supplies.”

He grunted and sipped his ale. Evina twined her fingers together in her lap, wishing she had a beer so she had something to do with her hands.

Clever Cenrod set his beer on the table. “Right then. Bargain’s struck so…half up front. Half on completion.”

Evina nodded. She had better uses for that money, but it wasn’t as if she had much of a choice thanks to the king. Quest or stop using magic permanently. Still—behind her, someone strummed the strings of a lute. Evina’s shoulders crawled toward her ears at the sound.

Cenrod raised his eyebrows. “Don’t like music?”

“Just tavern songs.” She wiped her hands on her knees under the table before reaching for the money purse beneath her tunic. She’d worked all this out with him in letters, guided by Master Harry, so all she had to do now was pay him. She untied the bag and set it on the table.

Cenrod picked it up, weighing it in one hand. With a nod, he stuck out his other hand. “Done.”

Evina swallowed for a moment before she dragged her hand from beneath the table to meet his. His hand was hard with calluses and a faint grit of dirt. “Done.”

With luck and the Savior Mother’s blessing, she’d be able to rely on this mercenary to keep her safe. The longer she could avoid using magic on the quest, the harder it would be for the other mages to know where she was. And that, she hoped, would keep her alive to the end.

The early pre-dawn sky had grayed enough to hide the stars, but no hint of color foretold the sun yet. Evina walked through the streets of Kingston with Clever Cenrod at her side. Knots of people all headed toward the castle and the starting line of the quest, but they kept well-clear of her. It was a small thing, but the mercenary’s visible sword was worth that much today.

The street they were on spilled out onto the town square. Thousands of people crowded in, hiding the grass from view. Kingsmen lined a path to the wooden stage set in the middle of the square. Banners hung from it, seeming gray and silver in the early light, instead of royal blue and white. A set of bleachers backed the stage, with a canopied throne at their top. Some nobles had taken their seats, but the king’s own spot was vacant yet.

“Ho!” A pair of kingsmen with pikes barred their path. Behind them stood a matching pair of King’s Wizards in their star-dappled robes. The closer pikesman said, “Mages only past this point.”

“Oh—” The hair on her arms rose from someone else’s magic. ta-ta-tun-tiri-ta Involuntarily, she turned toward the second of the two pikesmen. “I’m…I’m here for the quest.”

“Are you now?” He met her gaze and smirked, then glanced over his shoulder to a King’s Wizard. The long flame stitch robes marked her but not a trace of magic thrummed off the woman.

A test. Moths fluttered in her stomach. She’d thought the quest would begin at dawn, but it started here and now. Evina pulled magic from the air and let it pool under her skin. “Yes.”

The pikesman grinned. “Right you are, then.” He glanced over at Cenrod. “But not you.”

“I’m with the lady.” How could anyone sound threatening from a slouch?

“Only wizards and mages past this point.”  The pikesman-wizard seemed unimpressed and pointed to the right, where spectators curved around the marked path. “Over there for watching.”

“I said. I’m with. The lady.” Cenrod’s hands rested easy on his belt and his posture did not shift but menace seemed to roll off him like magic. “She’s hired me to go with her and go with her I shall.”

From behind them a well-bred voice, with all the rolling vowels of nobility, drawled, “Must be a piss-poor mage if she can’t protect herself.”

The itching under Evina’s skin twisted and pointed in two directions now. The pikesman and, behind her, a golden youth in sweeping robes, although not so bold as to actually put a wizard’s flamestitching on them without a license. A glow manifested around his head, taka-tin-tin-taka-taka-tin, visible even to a layman’s eyes. “I trust I may pass?”

The pikesmen nodded their heads and cleared his path while keeping Cenrod boxed off.

Evina worried her lower lip between her teeth. “The call…it didn’t say anything about not traveling with a companion.”

“Poor duck. Why even bother starting?” The golden youth sauntered forward, sketching a mocking bow as he passed. “Best stay home and give up sorcery.”

The magic beneath her skin bunched, ready to snap out. Evina caught it. Teeth gritted, she let her breath out slowly and trickled some of the power away with it. She waited until the youth was farther away before she asked, “May he join me on the road later?”

“No rules against traveling with folks you meet on the quest. But at the start, it’s just you.”

“But—”

“Level playing field. You acquire a companion later, that’s fair game.”

If she didn’t have the mercenary, she’d be alone with the crush of people. And if she kept the mercenary, they wouldn’t let her past. Clenching her teeth, Evina turned to Cenrod.

He cracked his neck, seeing the decision in her turn. “I’ll meet you outside town, first fork on the Tollerton road.”

“All right.” She could do this. It was no different than walking down the road to market day or stepping into a tavern to hire a mercenary. Filling her lungs with air, she faced the road leading to the wooden stage. The pikesmen stepped back to let her pass. As she walked between them, she heard the sound of the mercenary retreating for just a moment, before his footsteps were buried under the sound of the spectators.

Even at the pre-dawn hour, it seemed as if everyone in town and from parts beyond had come to see the Wizard’s Quest begin. Clutching her bag, Evina walked down the path between the kingsmen. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck rose and scratched with a constant prickle of magic.

Ahead, a King’s Wizard waited at the foot of the stairs, with a small portable desk and a ledger spread in front of her. Seven steps led up to the stage, which was filled with a shifting mass of mages. Some of them manifested visible magic. Others stood, hands folded in front of them in quiet contemplation, or engaged in conversation with their neighbor. None of them acknowledged that they were ready to kill their fellows.

The King’s Wizard at the table lifted her head as Evina approached. “Name?”

She cleared her throat. “Evina the Green.”

Above her, a familiar voice chuckled. “Green is right. Why do you know, she tried to bring a mercenary in with her?”

“No.” A woman laughed. “Do you suppose she has a dolly tucked away in her pack, too?”

The King’s Wizard rolled her eyes and moved her quill to the next line. “Mentor?”

“Master Harriger the Treesmith.”

“Town of origin?”

She faltered here, every time the question arose. In polite conversation, she usually listed Master Harry’s small Ironville, but for an official record… “Wrightston by the Sea.”

The King’s Wizard’s head came up with a sucked in a breath. Evina kept her gaze fixed on the quill and the splotch of ink staining the woman’s forefinger, but that did not stop her from imagining the calculation spreading across the woman’s face. Her voice was softer when she asked, “Age?”

“Twenty-two.” She had been eight. That was what the woman was no doubt thinking, and she would be right.

Evina had been eight when a group of Costish marauders landed and raided her town. And she had been eight, when she had discovered that she was a mage. She had been eight, when she had been unable to control this new power and burned her town to the ground. She had been eight, when Master Harry took her in, because none in her town wanted her. Not even her parents.

Who would want a child that could destroy everything around them?

It made a pretty song, though. A song that stuck in your head and followed you around whispering its lies in your ear. Ina was a cold, cold child…Master Harry had told her songs could be a poison that way. The only small mercy was that the bard had named her Ina in the song, because it was easier to fit in the meter.

Through another small mercy, the King’s Wizard made no more comment than another soft inhalation. She cleared her throat, pen scratching across the ledger. Setting the quill down, she handed Evina a small badge, which crackled with embedded magic. “Affix this to your left shoulder. It shows that you’re Questing in the King’s name. His Majesty will arrive shortly to issue the formal challenge.”

“Thank you.”

The wizard nodded and opened her mouth, hesitating before she said. “Savior Mother’s Blessings on you.” She wet her lips as if straying from a script made her uncomfortable, then jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Up the stairs with you.”

Evina clutched the badge in her fist as she jogged up the wooden stairs. It was happening. In her chest, her heart wrestled with her lungs, each taking up the wrong space. At the top of the stairs, Evina faltered. Mages crowded the platform, which had no rails to keep the unwary from tumbling off.  Most had gravitated toward the middle to avoid the edge, which left a border of empty planks.

Which safety did she want? Avoiding a tumble or avoiding people?

“Evina the Green…” The golden youth sauntered through the crowd, with another young noble at his heels. The other woman was as ostentatious as he was, with green sparks dancing around her dark hair. “My dearest friend, Retsea the Kinswoman, was so curious to see the mage who has a mercenary.”

Evina wrapped her fingers tighter around the badge. Kinswoman. Retsea was noble all right if the king allowed her to claim Kinswoman for a name. “You can see me, I trust.”

Retsea the Kinswoman raised a brow. “Good heavens, Folter. Your little find has quite the mouth on her.”

Before he could finish drawing breath, Evina turned to him. “Folter the Yellow? I think I would rather be green.”

“Folter the Golden.” He lifted his head, nearly rising onto his toes with hauteur.

“Of course, how foolish of me.” Evina walked straight into the crowd and cursed herself. Her temperament was never steady under the best of circumstances. And here? The press of these random strangers, with the constant pricking of small magics, was infinitely preferable to that preening coxcomb and his vainglorious muff.

“I’ll see you on the road!”

His voice carried past her, and those simple words were laden with threat. For the length of the quest, mages could kill each other without fear of reprisal. Culling the herd, Master Harry said. So to meet another mage on the road…She would not do that.

Her momentum carried her through the crowd and to the clear border on the far side. Evina let her breath out and looked down at the badge clutched in her hand. It bore a crown and forking Wizard’s flame on a blue field, bordered by a band of gold. There was no pin with which to attach it, nor did she have needle and thread on hand.

Evina snorted. They wanted it affixed by magic. How many small tests would she have to do before the quest even began? Pulling power out of the air, she saw the mages closest to her glance round at the new source of magic. One of them gave a little nod to her, as he saw what she was doing, all collegial until the quest officially began. Evina put the badge against her left shoulder and wove tiny lines of power between it and the cloth of her tunic. Thin fibers from each reached toward the other, intertwining their fibers like a honeysuckle meeting ivy.

With a sigh, she let the power snap out of her into one of the metal dowsing poles set into the corners of the platform. Even with all the people and the constant itch of other people’s magics, Evina could not stop a smile. The badge marked her as a wizard. Not yet a King’s Wizard, but registering for the quest marked her as of age and raised her from mage to wizard.

Master Harry had said that once the quest had been voluntary.

As the gray sky lightened, other mages arrived and crowded onto the platform until there were near forty of them. How could the King’s Wizards stand to live in such close proximity to each other without scratching their skin raw? Like her, most of the candidates were young and at the beginning of their careers. Their hands moved constantly, to brush at the itches of other people’s magics. A few older folks stood among the youths, with their hands tucked in their sleeves and jaws set to ignore the itching.

She had thought about skipping the quest altogether and giving up her magic. But Master Harry had said that magic would come out. Always. These poor aged folks had probably tried to give up their magic and now were stuck questing when they were old. Better learn to master it than to hide, he said.

She wasn’t so sure he was right.

Still, it was better than Seserland to the south where wizards were just killed. If she could afford the passage across the Middle Ocean, it would take her to a continent filled with countries where being a mage was safe and honorable and no one spoke her language.

A pair of bugles broke through the conversations, drawing all gazes to the king’s box. With a crackle of purple energy that raised the hair on the back of her neck, King Redinado the Eighth appeared in his box. He still had broad shoulders from his jousting days, but rumor had it that he had a paunch hidden inside magic. Behind him, wrapped in midnight blue, nearly obscured with goldworked flamestitch, the wizard Heltonia the Wiser stood with her gnarled hands raised.

She shifted her stance and a moment later, the king spoke, his voice unnaturally amplified. “My good citizens. As is our custom every year, we invite those with magical talents who have come of age, to vie for a position among our wizards.”

Invite. Evina did not snort out loud, but an invitation implied choice. This was an edict. Sure, you could ignore it if you didn’t mind King’s Wizards and guards coming for you.

“To be a King’s Wizard requires more than simply magic, for these nobles are tasked with keeping peace and maintaining the good of the land. So my ancestor Temor the First, established the King’s Quest in order that mages may prove themselves Wise. Kind. And Cunning.”

Kind. If he wanted kindness then the quest needed to be drastically rethought. Master Harry had said that in Temor the First’s day, the quest was a gentler thing.

“The quest then consists of three parts.”

All of the mages leaned forward on their toes. Evina hesitated a moment, before reaching into her pocket to pull forth her small commonplace book and a pencil. She would rather look the fool and take notes than be one.

“Only the wise may enter the sacred grove in Hemsworth Forest. Only the kind may approach the fountain there.” The King held up one finger. “And only the cunning can solve the riddle to prove that they are worthy of being raised to be a King’s Wizard.”

She glanced over her shoulder, looking for Folter the Yellow to see if he had taken note. Being kind would be difficult for him.

“For the first day, no harm may come to you. But at dawn tomorrow, any Mage on this quest who finds another on their path may remove the obstacle by any means possible. This is true for the duration of the quest.”

Around her, mages shifted on the platform as the reality of what they were about to do came home. Master Harry had said that the King allowed it because it kept the population of Mages from growing too large. Evina thought that it might be because, for all his talk about kind, cunning, and wise, the King wanted wizards who would kill in his name.

She’d done enough killing for a lifetime. All she wanted to do was to survive.

“You have until dawn of the next new moon to complete your quest.” He raised both arms, and Heltonia the Wise mirrored his stance, letting her power encircle him in a royal blue aura. “And now, my hopeful mages! Fly!”

As if he had commanded the sun, rosy golden light spread across the park, gilding everyone with the dawn. Mages began to lift off the platform, power crackling around them. Folter and Retsea were among the first to swoop over the crowd, laughing with delight.

Evina pulled power into her skin until every hair seemed to upend itself. She rose from the platform as her power pushed the earth away. She was not among the first to fly over the city gates, but neither was she the last. She counted that as a small victory.

Evina adjusted the logs on the fire with a green sapling, trying to get the airflow exactly right. The ruddy coals shifted and cracked as she reached under the logs and scraped them together into a pile.

“Why don’t you just magic the fire?” Behind her, Cenrod lifted his head from the pack he was using as a pillow. “Mother Savior, you’d be done by now.”

One of the charred logs shifted into position and the draft stoked a long dancing flame out of it. It popped and crackled as water trapped in the wood evaporated. Evina pursed her lips and gave another poke to a log near it, trying to see if she could get that one to go up, too. Two weeks she’d known the mercenary, and he still hadn’t stopped trying to get her to magic everything.

“Some of us want to eat, you know?”

“The coals are hot enough, if you want to put a potato in there.” Evina glanced over her shoulder at her travel partner.

He rolled his eyes at her, stringy hair hanging across the scar on his forehead. “Could’a been that way half an hour ago.”

She sighed and rubbed her temple, at the ache between her eyes. There was probably a dark streak there from the charcoal. She hadn’t touched her power since the quest began and she wasn’t about to start now for a potato. “I’m ever so sorry you had to wait an extra quarter hour for your dinner.”

“A half hour. Wizards can make fires instantly.”

“Fire, yes, but the coals still have to heat enough to cook something so it’s only a quarter hour at most it would have saved.”

Cenrod rolled up onto his elbow and fished around in his pack for a potato. “A quarter hour closer to food means I would already be eating—”

“Not true.” Evina pointed the tip of the sapling at him. “It would still take the potato an hour to cook, so you would still be no closer than a quarter hour to eating.”

He sidled up to the fire on his knees and shoved the potato into the coals, snatching his hand back from the heat. Without looking, he grabbed the sapling out of Evina’s hand and poked the potato deeper into the coals. Then he pointed it at her. “If I had magic, I’d use it all the time.”

“And you’d die young.” Evina turned to her own pack and the night air, away from the fire, was a cool slap across her skin. She rummaged for a bit of bread and the hunk of cheese they’d picked up in Kellyston.

“Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but mercenaries don’t exactly have a long life expectancy anyway. I seen plenty of old wizards.”

“Because they don’t do magic for things that can be accomplished other ways.” She knew the price of recklessness, thank you very much, and didn’t need to burn down another town to hone the lesson. Evina took the sapling back from him and settled on the ground next to the fire. Setting the bread and cheese on the least stained part of her trousers, she unsheathed her knife to whittle the sapling to a point. “And before you ask, yes, I could do this with magic and am choosing not to.”

“Will it…will it really kill you?”

“Not directly or immediately, no. But over time, yes, it will trim days off my life in the same way that using a knife dulls its edge gradually. You can sharpen it, but you do that by taking away a bit of the blade.” She held up her knife, which had belonged to her grandfather. The edge had been honed to a narrow slice of the original blade. “So…knowing that. Would you use your sword to trim a sapling, or chop firewood? Because it can do both.”

He gave a bark of a laugh. “More likely to break with firewood.”

“And there are spells that could break me, as well. So why risk it for eating a potato a quarter hour sooner?” She whittled another couple of pieces off to shape a rough spike. Laying the sapling across her lap, she dug a hole out of the bread and shoved the cheese into it.

Cenrod cleared his throat. “I can sizzle like bacon, I am made with an egg, I have plenty of backbone, but lack a good leg, I peel layers like onions, but still remain whole, I can be long, like a flagpole, yet fit in a hole. What am I?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s a riddle.” He slid to lie back down on his pack. “Look. It’s easy. Riddles are about people or animals, vegetable, mineral, and ephemeral.”

Evina slid the sharp end of the sapling through the bread, pinning the cheese inside. Carefully, she held the thing out over the cooler yellow flames so it would heat slowly. “Ephemeral. Big word for a mercenary.”

“I’m Clever Cenrod, right?”

She hated him, for no reason at all except that she was unhappy and he was here. Evina hunched her shoulders and watched her bread toast.

“Come on. Gotta pass the time somehow while we wait an eternity for dinner.”

“I can kill you from here. You remember that. Right?”

He whistled. “Threats. For a riddle. You’re a cold, cold—”

“I am not cold!” Evina was on her feet, spinning to face him. Magic crawled right under her skin, itching the base of every hair on her body, begging to be let out in a torrent of fire and hate. The air around her crackled with violent, visible sparks.

“Mother Savior!” Cenrod shoved back, one hand reaching for his sword. “I’m sorry—all right?” He let go of the sword, holding both hands out. “It was just a joke. I was just teasing.”

The air crackled around her and stuck her robes together with static. Evina’s breath misted the air. It was just. A. Song. Slowly, she let her breath out in a white plume. Condensation and sweat beaded on her skin as she let the power drain back into the air and earth. “That was not clever.”

“Yeah…sorry.”

Even without the magic filling her, Evina’s skin crawled with tension. Pinpricks seemed to spring up on her left shoulder and spread along her side. She turned in that direction, feeling that toc-toc-toc of another wizard’s magic patter against her. “We need to go.”

“Go?” Cenrod’s brow creased. “What’s wrong? It’s dark. Why do we nee—”

“Because wizards can sense each other’s magic. And I was just blindingly stupid.” Evina stalked back to her pack and hauled it off the ground.

Cenrod hefted his own pack. “So, why all the bullshit about shortening your life and magic is like a knife?”

“It’s not bullshit. I use magic as little as possible by habit and by training.”

“That’s great and all, but I work better with full information. Why the hell didn’t you just straight up say that you were trying not to attract attention?”

Evina had no idea why she hadn’t just explained it when he started needling her. “I don’t owe you an explanation.”

“Yeah, sweetheart, actually you do. You hired me to do a job, which is to protect your ass and then you leave out a giant vulnerability?” Behind her, Cenrod spat on the ground. “You want me to stay on this merry little quest, then by the Savior Mother’s tits, you cannot treat me like an adversary. You hearing?”

The prickling intensity grew, and the general buzz of magic resolved itself into the pattern of a specific mage. taka-taka-tin-taka-tin-tin. Evina turned to look into the air, as if she would be able to see in the dark without magic. taka-taka-tin… “Damnation. Retsea the Kinswoman is—we don’t have time.”

“How many?”

“Just one.” She pointed, sighting her arm into the strongest emanation.

“Does she need to be dead?”

“I don’t know.” Evina moved away from the mercenary. Damn it all. As long as Retsea was in the air, they were fine. But as soon as the other wizard was grounded she could strike and she was coming toward them fast.

“All right…do you need her to stay alive to win the quest?”

“No. But—”

“Is she going to try to kill you?”

Her whole skin danced with the rhythm of Retsea’s magic. “Maybe.”

“Well, I’ll consider my question answered then. You need her dead.”

“That’s not what I said.” She turned toward Cenrod, but he had slid back into the night. “Let me—she might just want to talk.”

From the darkness behind her, Cenrod said, “You’ve been avoiding using magic for two weeks…remind me again of why?”

She ground her teeth, knowing he was right. “Don’t get between us and don’t let her see you.”

“Wasn’t planning to.” His voice had moved again.

Grimacing, Evina pulled magic into herself and outlines seemed to etch the night. Cenrod stood to her right, beyond the perimeter of the firelight. His sword was sheathed and he had a long staff in one hand.

Taka-tin-tin-taka-taka-tin

Retsea would see him as surely as Evina could. She slung the pack off her shoulder. They needed to make a stand now. “Stop moving—I’m going to hide you.”

“I’m in the dark.”

Evina sighed and did not scream at him. “Wizards can see in the dark.”

“Oh.” He stopped walking. “See. That full information thing again…”

“Did your parents not read to you?” She whipped a bolt of magic out to him, creating a dome to mask the lines of his body. She did not bother hiding him from visible sight, since the night did that well enough, just from preternatural sight.

tin-tin-taka-taka-tin-taka-tin-tin-taka-taka-tin

Retsea dropped out of the sky. She landed on the other side of the fire, cloak billowing around her. She had added flames to it. The moment she was grounded, she whipped a bolt of magic toward Evina.

Evina smacked it aside with no grace. But she was alive. That had been meant to kill. Her own magic pulsed in her veins tun-tun-tira-tun-tun and she followed through with a bolt of her own, but Retsea was already casting again and Evina had to spend her power to deflect that and—

Retsea staggered. A blade thrust out of her chest, red with blood. Blinking, she stared down at it. Retsea reached for the sword and taka-tak

Evina screamed, “Let go!”

Magic sought metal. Flinging her power forward, she prayed that Cenrod had let go.  The air crackled with power as her bolt struck true and lit up the night.

Retsea’s body exploded outward. Behind him, in the crack of light, Cenrod flinched back, throwing his arm over his face. Steaming chunks hit the ground with wet smacks and the air reeked of burnt flesh.

Gasping, Evina stumbled and bent to rest her hands on her knees. Power still thrummed under her skin. tun-tun-tira-tun-tun Master Harry had said she might have to, but she hadn’t wanted—she hadn’t killed anyone since she was a child. Her throat tightened. She didn’t—

“Are you all right?” Cenrod ran around the fire toward her.

“Don’t touch me!” tun-tun-tira-tun-tun  Evina squeezed her eyes shut and the aftermath of the magic glowed purple branching lines. “I’m not safe.”

“I’ll…I’ll be right here.”

She nodded, still bent over. Cenrod kept silent, which she appreciated, but he stayed right there and didn’t run from her. He waited, just breathing slow and easy, and the sound of those breaths pulled her up away from the smell and the crackle and the death. tira-tun-tun-tira-tun-tun Evina pushed the excess energy away from her, down into the Earth.

She straightened, bones aching, and turned from the fire. “We need to go.”

“I thought as much.” He looked toward the sky as if he could see the wizards whose magic had begun to prick at her skin. “I’m sorry.”

Sorry. Evina huffed a laugh and walked over to pick her pack up from the ground. “Be careful picking up your sword.”

“What, you mean the glowing red puddle of slag?” Cenrod shook his head. “Savior Mother, I don’t know why you needed me when you can do that.”

“I was losing.” As she bent to pick up the pack, her muscles protested with the ache of a fever. “And I’ve killed enough for a lifetime.”

“The first is always—”

“Don’t.” Evina settled the pack over her back. She could be cold. Like the song. “Full information. You know the song ‘Ina’s Spark’?”

When she straightened, he was standing with his mouth slightly agape. He’d already put it together.

“I don’t want it to get easier.” Evina glanced at the sky again towards the faint, indiscriminate ticking of distant magic. Ina was a cold, cold child…

Evina stomped along the road, following Cenrod toward Hemsworth Forest. Her pack dug into her shoulders and even with her hands tucked under to reduce the weight, it felt like her shoulders were being chewed off by a leather-mouthed beast. She could use magic to lighten the pack or to heal the chafing on her shoulders except—she couldn’t because then another random wizard was going to try to kill her.

She stopped.

He kept going and maybe, he wouldn’t even notice that she wasn’t behind him anymore. It was a stupid, petty thing, but she was tempted to just lie down in the grass by the side of the road and see how long it took him to notice that he was alone.

She clenched her fists around the pack straps. It wasn’t any heavier today than it was yesterday. If anything, it should be lighter since she’d eaten some of the food, but her whole body still ached from the magic she’d used to kill that woman. To kill. Evina squeezed her eyes shut. She hadn’t wanted to do it. Why wouldn’t they just leave her alone?

“Screw this.” She wiped her sleeve across her face and left a damp, grimy patch on it. Master Harry had tried to make her see that magic could heal—and sure, she had helped him tend to his small village. Sure. She’d healed a horse’s broken leg and kept Mistress Leggans from bleeding out after her sixth babe but all of that was just camouflage for what wizards did best.

She’d learned that when she was eight years old.

“Hey.” Cenrod’s footsteps scuffed toward her. “You all right?”

Evina glared at the horizon where the sky was cut by a silhouette of trees. “I’m done.”

“Sorry?”

“Let’s go back to Kingston and I’ll pay you what I owe you.” She turned and started walking away from the forest.

“Wait. Wait!” Cenrod hurried to catch up with her. “Hey. What’s—is it more wizards?”

“Just me.” Although now that he asked, and she was paying attention, there was a faint pricking of her skin. She sighed. “I mean, yes, there are some. North and east of us, but not close. Not yet.”

“In the forest.”

She nodded. “But it doesn’t matter because I’m done with this stupid quest.”

“I—um—Is that an option?”

“I’ll still pay you.” She shrugged her pack higher.  “Half up front, half on completion, right?”

“Thanks. But wasn’t my point. Hey—” Cenrod grabbed her arm.

She jerked away from him. “Don’t—I’m not safe. Don’t ever grab a wizard.”

Even slouching, he was taller than she was and loomed over her. “You haven’t killed me yet.”

“Give me time.”

“Easy…easy. I’m just trying to understand why we’re quitting when the looming forest is right there.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Something else you’re not telling me?”

Evina sighed and clenched her pack tighter. “No. I just don’t want to be a King’s Wizard and I should have just given up my magic rather than come on this damn thing.”

Cenrod stared at her until she couldn’t stand it and dropped her gaze to count the scuffs on his boots. She had reached five before he spoke again. He began with a sigh. “I killed her. Not you. I did that.”

Her eyes clouded with tears and her throat closed. Evina shook her head, swallowing desperately. He didn’t understand and it didn’t matter. She was done with the quest.

“You said you were losing…hey.” He crouched to put his face in her line of sight. His crooked nose seemed to twist farther with concern. “Hey. She attacked you. Right? You were losing, that’s what you said. Did I do wrong? Did you want her to kill you?”

Evina pulled her hands up to her face and wanted to reach for her magic to make a bubble of time so that she could catch her breath and not be this awkward miserable mess and she couldn’t because then more wizards would come and she would have to kill them, too and—

“Lord knows how anyone could think you were cold.”

“I hate you.”

He laughed. “Good. I’m good for that.” Beyond the enclosed space of her hands, his pack thunked on the ground, and then something gurgled. “Here. Drink this. It’ll…well, it won’t help exactly, but it’ll distract.”

Evina lowered her hands, blinking away the sting of light. She wiped her face with her sleeve again, this time adding a trail of snot to the grime there. “Why are you being so nice?”

Kneeling in front of her, Cenrod screwed up his mouth and looked off to the right, where his nose pointed. “I got several choices here. I can make a joke. I can tell the truth. Or I can lie. Which do you want?”

“Truth.”

He nodded and held the flask up to her again. “Right. Someday, I’ll learn not to offer that one, or to just make the joke…”

She took the flask and unscrewed the top. A smoky seagrass aroma wafted out of it and made her nose wrinkle.

“This is the story of how I got the moniker Clever Cenrod, which as you might be able to guess, ain’t because I’m especially smart.” He nodded to the flask. “Single malt. Just take small sips and think about where the smells take you.”

The first sip made her tongue go numb, but reminded her of sitting at the hearth with her mother by the sea. She almost lost it again.

“I was in a battalion and mouthed off one too many times. So two fellows were wanting my hide and I got them both to meet me for satisfaction on the same moonless night. Picked weapons aforehand and agreed to ‘gentlemanly silence.’ I didn’t show up. The other fellows did, each thinking that the other was me because, y’know, in the dark battalion uniforms all look alike. Dueled each other and then I stabbed the one who lived.”

Evina’s mouth dropped open. “That…that’s the story you’re telling to comfort me?”

“You asked for truth.” He gave a grin and reached for the flask. When she handed it back, he took a sip and pursed his lips, still staring off into the distance. “Folks called me ‘clever’ for getting rid of two rivals at once. I knew what they were really saying was ‘coward’.”

The wind rustled through the grasses at the side of the road and blew a strand of Evina’s hair across her face. To the north and east, two more wizard sparks flared on her skin.

Cenrod heaved another sigh and then capped the flask. “So, I’m nice to you because I know what it’s like to hate yourself for making choices that kept you alive.” He clambered to his feet. “Also, because I figure you might give me a bonus if you like me.”

That did make her snort. “You are cleverer than you think.”

He shrugged. “I make jokes. I tell riddles. But I know exactly how clever I am and it don’t matter what others think, so long as they’re wrong. Underestimate me, I can take advantage of that. Overestimate me, and they pay me more. Get it right? No benefit to that.” He spat in the grass. “So. We quitting?”

Evina sighed and faced the forest, which wasn’t more than another hour’s hike away. “I don’t want to do this.”

“Which choice will keep you alive?”

“Neither?” She swallowed and her mouth still tasted of smoke by the sea.

If she quit, she’d have to give up magic altogether and she would, if that were an actual choice, but magic was woven into her. It came whether she wanted it to or not and someday, she’d lose her temper again and it would be there. Only the next time the King’s Wizards came for her, Master Harry wouldn’t be among them. They’d give her the choice of questing or dying.

There really wasn’t any choice at all. Still. There had never been a real choice. “Let’s go on to the forest.”

Evina’s Master Harry was a Treesmith, so she knew the difference between natural growth and magicked growth. The latter had a clear order to it that matched the rhythm of the treesmith’s magic. The branches he grew mimicked the forking paths of Master Harry’s katataka-tina-tina-tina with one long branch that bore three shorter ones in ever small repeating patterns.

As she and Cenrod walked through the twisting paths of the forest surrounding the sacred grove, she had imagined something like that. Or perhaps simply a place in the forest that was dedicated to the Savior Mother and marked sacred by practice.

She was wrong on both counts.

The path that Evina and Cenrod had been following through Hemsworth Forest ended abruptly in a tall bramble hedge that thrummed with magic. It stretched up into the tree crowns and crossed the path unbroken. A foot path had been worn in either direction along the hedge, but it did not look groomed the way the path they rode in on had been.

She frowned, biting her lower lip as she studied it. If she pulled magic into herself, she would know more, but this close to their destination there had to be other wizards.

There had to be a way past the hedge or the path wouldn’t go all the way up to it. It would stop short. Whatever opened the hedge also would not require magic, or an ordinary penitent wouldn’t be able to enter. Penitent…

The king had said, “Only the wise may enter the sacred grove in Hemsworth Forest. Only the kind may approach the fountain there. And only the cunning can solve the riddle.”

Behind her, Cenrod made unintelligible grumbles and shifted his weight. Evina chewed her lower lip. Wise. What would all penitents have in common? If she could figure that out—No. Wait. That would be smart and the king had said “Wise.” What had Master Harry always said about wise men? A wise man knows that he is a fool.

If she were right, Folter the Yellow would never have made it past here. And yet…and yet, all the other King’s Wizards had survived this quest.

Crossing her fingers that she was had it figured out, Evina said, “Savior Mother, I am a foolish woman and do not know what would please you. Would you guide me?”

Between one blink and the next the hedge across the path cleared into a verdant arch. No crackle of magic touched her save for that steady thrum just at the edge of her awareness. Three strides away, the path through the hedge continued across a vivid lawn.

Evina sagged, relief filling her to her toes. “Thanks to the Mother!”

Behind her, underbrush crackled and Cenrod made a strangled yelp.

Spinning, Evina saw him grappling with a man, who had somehow managed to get one arm wrapped around Cenrod’s neck. The man wore a wizard patch upon his tunic.

She held her hands up, ready to pull in magic. “Let go of him!”

Cenrod clawed at the man’s arm, trying to dislodge his attacker, but his face was purpling. Violence might well close the door again, but she couldn’t leave him here. Evina reached for magic and it flooded, crackling into her skin.

As she did, the other wizard jerked his head up to stare at her.

In that moment of distraction, Cenrod slammed his head back into the other man’s nose. Both men tumbled to the ground. Evina held the magic, afraid she’d strike the wrong one. Rolling to his knees, Cenrod grabbed the wizard by the collar. He drew his fist back—

Evina’s skin itched with an unfamiliar chika-chi-chika-ka-ka. “Magic!”

She didn’t know what the wizard was going to throw, only that he was reaching for power.

Cenrod punched him. And again. The itch of magic faltered. Another wet smack and specks of blood spattered the path.

Evina ran forward, so she could aim around Cenrod. He punched the wizard again and the itch of magic vanished. No—she was wrong. The itch of close magic vanished, but four or five spots still lit her skin from wizards farther away.

Cenrod punched the man again.

Evina shoved her power out of her skin and into the path. Cenrod jerked as the buckle on his belt sparked. He growled and pulled his fist back again.

“We have to go!”

Snarling, he stopped, blood coating his fist and spattered across his face. “More of them?”

She nodded. “Four or five.”

“Mother Savior’s tits.” Cenrod dropped the man and staggered to his feet.

“Sorry.” She glanced over her shoulder and her knees sagged with relief. The arch was still open. “Come on.”

“Where?” He looked past her at the opening—no. He was looking at the hedge as if the opening weren’t there.

“Can you not see it?” Evina gestured, as if that would change the baffled look on his face.

Cenrod snorted like a horse. “You are jesting—shit.” His face slackened with understanding. “Magic. Deliverance and Multitudes. Fine. What do I have to do?”

“The King said that only the wise could enter the sacred grove.” How many of her fellow magicians had been stopped here like the wizard lying on the road? Evina held out her hand as the itching on her skin grew more distinct. Definitely five wizards. “Let me try to lead you.”

“So you’re wise now?” He put a hand sticky with blood in hers. “Great.”

“No, I’m a fool.” Evina pulled him forward, praying that the arch wouldn’t close with him in tow. “A wise man knows he’s a fool.”

“Noted.”

She hurried toward the arch through the hedge. As she passed under it, Cenrod’s hand twisted in her grasp and Evina grabbed him with her magic. She was not leaving him behind. The path curved as they went, until the arch vanished from sight behind hedge walls.

Somewhere, presumably in the center, water trickled from a fountain. The fountain, really. If the legends were true, this is where the Savior Mother had brought forth the Multitudes.

Behind her, Cenrod cleared his throat. “I think you can let go of me. The arch turned up right before I smacked into it. Wizards.”

Evina’s skin had stopped itching. Only the wise may enter the sacred grove in Hemsworth Forest. Only the kind may approach the fountain there… “You don’t have to come.”

Cenrod took a few steps past her and brushed a verdant green wall. “Job’s not done yet.”

“That’s…that’s kind of you.”

He spat upon the sacred ground. “Nah. I’m less likely to be killed here than out there. Plus, you’re more likely to be able to pay me if you complete this quest. Right?”

“I can find no flaws in your argument.” She took a breath, waiting for her skin to prickle with magic, but only the thrum from the hedge tickled her senses. “I’ll lead.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way, but…” He trailed off. Maybe he remembered the song that bore her name. Maybe he just wanted to get it over with. Maybe he’d learned to stop pushing her. Whatever it was, Evina felt relief when he stopped talking and fell into step behind her.

“Help!” An elderly woman’s voice wavered through the air from farther into the labyrinth.

Evina stopped, shoulder’s hunched against the sound. Could she pretend that she hadn’t heard? Not a chance. Wetting her lips, Evina turned toward the sound.

“What?”

“Only the kind can approach the sacred grove…” Evina gestured past Cenrod to the voice.

“Are you serious? You think she’s a test.”

“It would make sense.”

“Help…someone?” The old woman’s voice cracked. “I’m—I’m lost.”

Evina gestured emphatically toward the path.

“Oh for the love of tits. Does it count as a kindness if we’re being self-serving when we act?”

“Does it matter?”

Cenrod opened his mouth and glared at her. A strand of his hair fell into his face and he huffed it away. “Fine. But if she turns out to be a soul-eating demon, it’s all on you.”

“Noted.” Evina took a step back toward the turn they had taken. “I’ll remind you that you don’t have to come.”

“I know. I’m being ‘kind.’”

She sucked in a breath to retort and bit down on the inside of her cheek. Sarcasm and anger were not expressions of kindness and that applied to her as much as to him. The gravel crunched under their feet as they walked through the curves and the original turning was lost behind them before Evina trusted herself to speak calmly. “Thank you.”

He grunted.

Why had she even bothered?

Cenrod cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey!”

Evina stopped on the path and grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?”

He tilted his head to the side, looked at her hand on his arm, looked back at her, and then shrugged her off. “Trying to help. HEY! Old lady!”

She winced, glancing around, and hissed, “This is the Savior Mother’s sacred grove.”

“Yep.” He lifted his hand to his mouth again.

“So show some respect.”

Cenrod lowered his arm and turned to her. “The King’s instructions said stuff about wisdom, kindness, and cunning. Didn’t say a damn thing about being polite.” He jabbed a finger at the path. “You know damn well we’re going the wrong way so why not get her to come to us?”

She hated him. By the Multitudes, why did he have to be right? Evina pressed her fingers against the brow of her nose. “Fine. You’re right. Gah.” She dropped her hand and tilted her head back. “Madam! If you can hear our voices, we can help guide you through.”

“Hello?” The old woman sounded as if she were farther away than when they had started.

“Can you make your way toward us?”

“I don’t know where I am…” There might have been a sound of gravel crunching. “I dropped my cane.”

Cenrod thrust his hands out to either side as if he were making a point. What point he was acting vindicated about, Evina did not particularly care. She rolled her eyes at him. “Yes. I know. She’s a test.”

“And she’s only answering you.”

“Maybe that’s because you’re being rude.” Evina peered down the path, gnawing on her lower lip. He was right, but she had no idea what it really meant. Unless was this the test of cunning? Evina held up a hand to stop Cenrod from speaking. “You can stay put. I’ll be right back.”

“Look. You hired me to keep you safe. So when I say, ‘No. This is a bad idea,’ maybe listen to me.”

Evina gritted her teeth to keep from calling her magic. If she were honest—most of her anger was because he was probably right. She loosened her jaw. “What do you suggest? Beyond just leaving her here?”

He pressed his lips together and stared down the path. Without the crunch of gravel underfoot, only the old woman’s movements broke the silence. Evina blinked. “It’s completely quiet.”

“I’m not going to shout again.”

“No, I mean…we can’t be the only people here. I can hear her moving and…” She scuffled her feet, kicking up a spray of gravel that rattled back to the path. “No birds. No other people.”

“That’s…unsettling.” Cenrod’s hand drifted to his belt and closed on empty air where his sword should be. He grimaced.

She didn’t feel the prickling of any other wizards, not even the ones that she had sensed outside, before they entered the hedge. Evina chewed the inside of her lip. At this rate, she’d worry a spot through it.

Master Harry had always told her to use her power as little as possible. Some of it was so that it didn’t wear her down too soon, and some was to avoid drawing attention of other wizards. Sure, they could only kill her while the King’s Quest was going on, but there was no point in antagonizing them at other times. Rude, he said it was, rubbing your magic all under someone else’s skin.

But there was no one else here. The sacred daughters of the grove must have done something to keep wizards from crossing paths inside the sacred grove.

“All right.” Evina laid hands on his waist, wrapping her fingers around his belt. “This might tickle.”

“I ain’t—” His words cut off as she channeled power around and through them both. “Savior Mother!”

Their feet lifted off the ground as tun-tun-tira-tun-tun resonated through them both. The hedge maze spread out beneath them in a beautiful embroidery of hedges and crystalline gravel.

Aside from the old woman, no one else moved in the hedge maze. She had half expected the woman to be only a voice. But she knelt below them on the path, feeling under one of the hedges for her cane.

Evina’s magic pushed down as she propelled them over the hedges and through the air to the old woman. The old woman knelt next to the hedge, reaching under with one hand.

As Evina and Cenrod touched down on the path, the woman spun, falling back on her rump. A branch had scratched a tear in the back of her wrinkled hand.  “I’ve got nothing!”

Cenrod raised his hands in a placating gesture and crouched down. “Easy, auntie.”

“You asked for help?” Evina took a step toward her, but Cenrod shifted to block her. She settled for standing behind him. “We are going to the center of the labyrinth ourselves.”

The woman looked to be in her eighth decade, with skin like sagging vellum and eyes the color of milky water. She wet her creased lips and blinked at Cenrod, then at Evina. “That be so?”

“Indeed. Would you care to join us?”

The old woman nodded. “Thankee kindly.” She struggled over onto her knees. “Can ye…? My cane ist under yon hedge and my rheumatism…begging pardon, but can ye fetch it?”

“Of course—” Cenrod held out an arm to stop Evina. “No. You stay back.”

Her mouth dropped open. Evina lowered her voice and hissed at him. “Honestly, of course she’s a test. What did you think would happen here?”

He glared up at her and stood too close. His breath stank as he hissed back. “Can magic change your appearance?”

“Yes. Technically. But another wizard would feel it. She’s not using magic—”

“Weren’t you saying you didn’t feel magic here?” He gestured at the hedge. “Here? In the middle of this? So let me do my fucking job.”

Evina snorted, glaring at the hedge. She knew full well that there had to be wizards in itching range. “Don’t you dare harm her.”

“If she’s an old woman, I’ll be kindness embodied. Otherwise, I make no promises.” He turned back to the old woman and smiled at her. “Just slide back, auntie, so I can take a look for your cane.”

“Tis just under there.” Scooting back on the gravel, she pointed an arthritic hand at the place she’d been searching.

Cenrod got down to one knee, bending to look under the hedge. “There it is.” He reached a hand for it and paused. Gritting his teeth, he stuck his hand under the hedge and pulled out a perfectly ordinary blackthorn cane.

A hint of blush colored his cheeks as he handed it to the old woman. “Here you are.”

“Thankee, sir.” She planted the cane on the ground and hitched her skirt up to plant one skinny leg on the ground. Much darned stockings bunched around her ankles.

“Oh for pity’s sake—” Even if this weren’t a test, she couldn’t leave the woman to struggle like this. Evina stepped around Cenrod. “Let me help you up.”

“Evina—”

She rolled her eyes at him and put a hand under the old woman’s arm. It was skinny, and warm, and smelled faintly of sheep. The rough wool scratched under her hands as Evina helped her up.

The light changed. The walls of the hedge maze had fallen away, replaced by a ring of birch trees. A light trickling of water wove through air scented with frankincense.

And the old woman straightened, her garments changing to a fine blue scattered with gold stars. Her face had altered as well—the King’s Wizard who had taken her name at the start of the tournament smiled at her. “Welcome, Evina the Green.”

Evina dropped into a bow, though what she really wanted to do was rub it in Cenrod’s face that she was right. “Thank you for your trust in allowing me here.”

“Congratulations on reaching this far in your quest.” The King’s Wizard had a smile in her voice.

Straightening, Evina turned to Cenrod. He wasn’t there. She turned a full circle, heart beginning to thump loudly in her chest. The sacred grove had other supplicants, but none of them could be mistaken for the lanky mercenary. “Where is my companion?”

“The mercenary? He did not need to enter here. He was filled with thoughts of violence.”

“He was just doing his job.” Evina peered through the wall of trees. Beyond the birches, the walls of the labyrinth had vanished. A score of people wandered along a gravel path that wound between grasses. No—wait, there were more than a score. Evina frowned. Each time she looked, it seemed as if she saw another group. How many were on the paths? Where had they been and more importantly…”Is he all right?”

“Of course.” The King’s Wizard put a hand on Evina’s elbow. “Now come. Your quest is not yet finished.”

She dragged her feet, trying to spot Cenrod among the petitioners on the paths. “What will happen to him?”

“He will be given an opportunity to show kindness, like our other petitioners. Until then, he is in the safest of places.”

Evina planted her feet. “He was showing kindness. It might not have been wrapped up in politeness, but he was trying to keep me safe.”

“Did you not say that was his job?” The older woman tilted her head to the side. “How is that a kindness?”

Evina opened her mouth to reply and the answer tripped her. She swallowed, knowing she might be damning herself. “With that criteria, my kindness is also self-serving. I was kind to you only because I thought it was a test. If he is not kind, neither am I.”

“Mm…” She turned to face Evina fully and—

They were standing by the fountain. But…but they had not moved. The water poured over the edges of the broad stone basin in an opalescent milky tumble to a shallow reflecting pool that stretched across the green space of the sacred grove. The air above the fountain steamed as it burbled. She blinked, rubbing her forehead. Evina’s skin had not itched, and yet they had crossed the space within the grove to be at the edge of the fountain itself.

Another test? What, that Evina had recognized her own selfish nature? Or that she had defended Cenrod who pestered her to the point of fury or who knew what and—

The light seemed to flexed and the shadows shifted around her. When Evina blinked her eyes clear, the shadows in the sacred grove had stretched out with the long golden light of sunset. In that taffy warm evening light, other wizards stood in a circle surrounding the fountain. Like her, they blinked and murmured, looking about themselves with confusion. Folter the Yellow was not among their number. Had he made it to the grove or had Retsea Kinswoman killed him on the first day?

On the far side of the fountain, the King’s Wizard clapped her hands. “You eleven are all that have made it to this point in the quest. You have demonstrated the wisdom and kindness necessary to get this far.”

And ruthlessness. She didn’t say that, but the blood-spattered clothes of the other wizards made it clear enough that none of them had made it here without killing at least one other wizard. She wrapped her arms around her torso, trying to hold in a shiver. Not that she had any room to talk. The wizard to her right glanced at her, and then away, as wary as she was at the presence of another wizard. If Cenrod were here—

The woman hadn’t answered her question, not really, about where he was and what would happen to him. Evina glanced past the man and searched the paths on that side of the grove for signs of the lanky mercenary. The smart thing to do would be to finish this benighted quest and then, once she had earned her place as a King’s Wizard, push about Cenrod. She’d made it here, and still had the riddle to go. She just had to be smart. Cunning, the King said.

“You have five minutes in which to answer this riddle.”

“Five?!” Three spots away, a young man sputtered.  Evina recognized him. She had seen him on the platform at the start of the quest. He had worn expensive cotton and his pride like a mantle. Now his clothes were travel stained and the patch that signaled he was questing had been stained by a deep rusty brown spatter.

“Five.” Clearing her throat, the King’s Wizard smiled at the group. “We hurt without moving. And poison without touching. We bear truth and lies, but are not judged by size. What are we?”

“Excuse me.” Evina raised her hand. She was not cunning.

Across the fountain, one of the other wizards cast a spell, which she could just barely feel as a soft brush of cat fur against her skin. His eyes bulged and he clasped his forehead. A “wisdom” spell.

Wisdom wouldn’t do here. It would take cunning and Evina had none. She swallowed. “My companion. I’m concerned about him. Where is he?”

“I told you he was safe.”

“I know, and I am grateful for that, but I still would be more at ease if I knew the specifics.” This was stupid. One of the King’s Wizards had just said he was safe. He was a mercenary. He could take care of himself. “Can you at least tell me when I will see him again?”

“After you answer the riddle, you will be free to leave.”

Which implied that if she didn’t answer it, she would be stuck here. Gah. She needed more time—time. Why not? She knew the spell and it was a heck of a lot less painful that trying to make herself smarter.

Evina pulled power from the ground and twisted it under her skin, shaping with her will. The tiri-tiri-tun of her magic kept its underlying signature, but the peaks and valleys became more pronounced until they began to resonate with the world in different ways. She pulled the highs up and up and as she did

the world

slowed

down

Water stopped trickling and hung in perfect ripples. The King’s Wizard had paused in mid-turn with one brow raised slightly. The other wizard’s face still had the contortion and—

Evina sucked in breath. The paths of the labyrinth were crowded with people. Savior Mother. They must have layered time in and over and around itself to keep all these people from meeting. Which meant that Cenrod would never find his way out on his own. None of them would.

This was a terrifying display of power—far more so than the paltry things she could do with her own magic. Was this what King’s Wizards could do? Was that how they could stand to live all together, because their magic didn’t itch? Not that it really mattered.

Not in this extended moment.

What Evina needed was the answer to that riddle. She said, “We hurt—” The sound of her voice broke the utter stillness of this tiny pocket of time. Evina flinched and looked up at the still, crystalline sky. Was that why there had been no birdsong when they came into the hedge maze? Evina shook her head, “We hurt without moving. And poison without touching. We bear truth and lies, but are not judged by size. What are we?”

Well…she could rule out people and all animals, and according to Cenrod, that left vegetable, mineral, and ephemeral. Vegetables were often poison, but they usually needed contact to poison and, more importantly, did not bear truth and lies. She pursed her lips. Probably this was an ephemeral then.

Time? Everyone referred to time passing which might not be literal but probably violated the “without moving” metaphor of the riddle. Alright, what other ephemeral things were poisonous.

Evina twisted her lips. “Songs.” She had been twelve the first time she had heard Ina’s Spark. Master Harry had hauled her out of the tavern with a hand upon her arm. Don’t listen—That song’s a poison.

Only…it wasn’t the music. It had been the words.

There was a cold, cold child aborn in Wrightston by the Sea
Without a spot of love that child worked her sorcery
And when ashore some raiders came Cold Ina made her mark
The flames leapt up too late to flee
And all felt Cold Ina’s spark

Words. Words hurt without moving, and poison without touching. They bore truth and lies, oh Savior Mother, did they ever.

She unfolded the magic she had built around herself and the world moved again. After the quiet of that extended moment, the fountain’s patter seemed more of a percussive drumming. The king’s wizard completed her turn, brows up.

Evina opened her mouth to blurt it out, but caught herself. “I know the answer, I think.”

The barest cat fur brush of magic rubbed against her skin and the sounds around them dropped away. The King’s Wizard inclined her head. “You only get one guess. You can take more time.”

Evina had taken more time. She nodded, swallowing. “Words.”

The King’s Wizard smiled at her. “Yes, dear. That is correct.” She glanced at the circle around them. “A moment, please.”

The light flickered and shifted again, but this time, paying attention, Evina could feel that delicate brush of magic. Savior Mother—was that what being a King’s Wizard really was? To have that much control and delicacy of touch staggered her. Why didn’t they just use that as incentive to get people to go on the quest and—

There were only seven wizards still in the circle.

Evina flinched. “What—what happened to the others?”

The wizard to her right shushed her, but the King’s Wizard shrugged. “They will join the other penitents of the Savior Mother as all other mages who fail at this stage do. Now, brave wizards. I am Lenzia Earthsmith and I welcome you to the ranks of King’s Wizards.”

Around Evina, exhausted cheers broke out. One young man dropped to his knees in prayer. A woman staggered backwards, with her hands over her face. Another man openly wept. Evina turned in a circle, looking for Cenrod.

Lenzia Earthsmith clapped her hands three times and drew their attention back to her. “Line up, please, so that I can anoint you and then we will return to Kingston for the full ceremony, but the anointing…that is the moment when you truly join us.”

“My companion.” Evina took a step back. “You said I’d be able to see him after I answered the riddle.”

The wizard beside her stepped closer and hissed at her. “Will you knock it off? Some of us got here on our own and are ready to leave.”

“Some of us have friends.” She lifted her chin. “I’m not leaving without him.”

The King’s Wizard raised her brow, a glow building around her. “And how would you stop me?”

“I…I don’t know. But I would find the time to figure it out.”

To her surprise, the woman laughed. “The king will be delighted to have such loyalty demonstrated, only make certain you remember to whom your fealty is owed.”

Cenrod appeared in front of Evina. He staggered and dropped to one knee. “Mother Savior’s tits and ass.”

“Are you all right?” Evina crouched next to him, sending tendrils of magic to check.

“Yeah.” He pushed himself to his feet, reaching for a sword that wasn’t there. “The hell?”

The King’s Wizard dipped a hand in the sacred fountain. “I was about to anoint these wizards, but she insisted that you be here.”

Cenrod’s brows rose almost to his hairline. “That right? And you did the whatever thingy? You’re a King’s Wizard now?”

“Almost.” Evina stood and faced the fountain. Her heart raced in her chest and she couldn’t even tell why. Fear, anticipation, excitement all seemed equally likely. “One last step, then we can go.”

With a gentle motion, Lenzia Earthsmith ran her hand through the first wizard’s hair. “By the grace of the Savior Mother, I bind you to the King’s service and will. I name you, thus: Goro Treesmith.”

“No.” Cenrod straightened out of his perpetual slouch and stood taller than she had thought. He stepped in front of Evina, with both arms spread wide to keep her back. “Wait.”

“What—”

“It’s just—” he glanced over his shoulder as the line of wizards filed past the fountain. Cenrod’s brows twisted. “I don’t know. I just…is this what you want? To be bound to the king?”

“Are you saying you’ll miss me?”

“You’re a steady paycheck.” Cenrod chewed the bottom of his lip. “But, really. Will this keep you safe?”

This was the real riddle. They stood in the middle of the Savior Mother’s sacred grove, by the fountain where legend said she brought forth the Multitudes and populated the world. If there were anywhere that Evina should be safe, it was here in the most holy of spaces.

But it had been turned into the end point of a quest. And that quest itself bore no resemblance to the stories she had heard of the first King’s Wizard. There had been just one and now…Savior Mother, she had no idea how many King’s Wizards there were now. Would being among their number keep her safe?

If Evina waited much longer all the other wizards would be anointed, and then she’d be keeping Lenzia Earthsmith waiting. As if that weren’t bad enough, the other mages were staring at her and eyeing Cenrod with undisguised contempt.

She swallowed trying to dislodge the knot in her throat. If she couldn’t even walk up to the fountain, how the hell did she think she was going to live as a King’s Wizard? Savior Mother and the Multitudes…all she wanted to do was survive. She could give a rotten fig about working for the King.

Trust your mind, not your instincts, Evina. Her instincts always told her to flee and to hide. Or to kill.

Would being a King’s Wizard keep her safe?

“No.” She wet her lips, looking at the late evening sunlight that glided over the grove, turning everything honey gold. She was one of eight wizards to survive the quest and no closer to safety than when she had started. It was the smartest choice though. This narrow path that she walked kept her alive so far. “Nothing will.”

“Well, then.” Cenrod stepped to the side, glancing back at the fountain where the other wizards waited. He swept his hair back from his forehead, exposing the old scar that creased it. “Right.”

Evina walked up to the fountain, the last in line. She counted the flames on Lenzia Earthsmith’s robe and lost count somewhere around twenty-three. A tight band seemed wrapped around her middle as the King’s Wizard dipped her hand in the fountain and brought it up to Evina’s hair.

The water drizzled through her scalp, and her skin shivered and relaxed.

“By the grace of the Savior Mother, I bind you to the King’s service and will. I name you, thus: Evina Timesmith.” The King’s Wizard smiled at her. “You think I didn’t see you doing that? Nicely done.”

It should have felt like more. To have a wizard’s name and to be anointed. To be heading back to Kingston to join the ranks of King’s Wizards. She smiled, because that was what she was supposed to do and turned from the wizards to Cenrod. She won the quest, so why did it feel like she had lost?

He slouched up to her and gave a nod. “Congratulations, huh?”

“Thank you.” And to make sure he understood that it wasn’t just for the congratulations, Evina put her hand on Cenrod’s shoulder. “Thank you. For keeping me safe.”

“My job.” He shrugged, but his cheeks darkened with something that, on someone else, she would have named a blush.

“Half up front and half on completion. I know.”

“Yep. And by my reckoning, job’s not done yet.” He spat on the ground of the Sacred Mother’s grove. “You safe?”

She snorted and glanced at the other wizards. “No.”

“Then I’ll stay.”

“Pretty sure, the ‘half on completion’ won’t cover the amount of time it’ll take to keep me safe.”

“We’ll work something out.” He stretched his arms casually, as if he hung out with wizards in holy places every day. “Unless you want to fire me.”

“No.” He kept her safe and no matter how much people had mocked her for having a mercenary, it had been the logical choice. And also…he was cunning and wise and kind. Actually kind. Evina touched his arm and for the first time since Master Harry took her in, her mind and instincts were aligned. “Stay.”

What You Might Have Missed

You have spent years studying stories.

Even if you never took an English lit class, never went to a writing group. You’ve watched countless movies and bonded with friends over favorite scenes, argued with family about what a line meant. You’ve sat through over a thousand hours of TV in a year.1

You’ve absorbed a number of story elements, to the point where you accept them; they are things which need little or no explanation. A young woman seeking love. A dude has to save his girl, his home, his country. A young guy joins a law firm/business/military outfit and wants to rise to the top.

Luke wants to be a pilot, like his dad. Cool, got it!

What if the young woman isn’t seeking love? What if the dude is happy working in the mailroom? Well. Then you need to know why. If you don’t get an explanation the story doesn’t make sense to you. Maybe you’ll say that you couldn’t get into the character, maybe even that the plot didn’t work.

This is not as innocent as it seems.

Let’s look at a short story opening:

“The year 2076 smells like antiseptic gauze and the lavender diffuser that Dara set up in my room. It has the bitter aftertaste of pills: probiotics and microphages and PPMOs. It feels like the itch of healing, the ache that’s settled on my pubic bone. It has the sound of a new name that’s fresh and yet familiar on my lips. The future feels lighter than the past. I think I know why you chose it over me, Mama.”

Nino Cipri’s “The Shape of My Name” (Tor.com March 4, 2015) for some, begins a narrative about time travel. Many readers will focus on this speculative element and judge the story according to the way it compares to other time travel stories.

But they are missing something.

This opening is also an emotionally complex, immediately powerful narrative about identity, belonging, empowerment, and the painful experience of one’s truest self being rejected by a mother.

The story comprises both the science fictional tale and the emotionally complex subtext. Readers, reviewers, and editors who don’t have the experiences needed to engage properly with the material may not get the impact—they may miss the emotionally resonant elements; in fact, they may miss the point of the story entirely.

Some narrative perspectives just…haven’t been explored that much by movies, TV shows, and books.

The values, character types, and motivations of most mainstream stories leave out lots of people. You might know this already, but you might not realize that it’s kinda messed up to demand that Cipri, or other authors coming from “non-mainstream” perspectives, explain every detail to get you caught up.

Toni Morrison gave the wakeup call a while ago:

“You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you? …even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center.”

Jana Wendt asked Morrison if she would ever substantially incorporate white lives into her work.2 Things did not go well for Wendt. Morrison’s response stands against the notion that Black stories must cater to white audiences, and demands that Black stories, written from a Black perspective about the things which concern Black people, be seen as equally valid as anyone’s stories. She exposed the notion that Black stories should be adjusted for white readers as a racist notion.

We can apply a similar idea to other identities, other marginalized groups. Recent studies suggest the US has 81 million LGBTQ folks, with over 8 million identifying as trans.3 Queer stories, written from a queer perspective, about things which concern queer people, should be seen as equally valid as anyone’s stories.

Even if you missed the point of a story—whether Cipri’s or that of someone else speaking from a perspective different than your own—there are many, many people out there who will get it, who will feel connected to the narrative, without any further need for explanation. The problem isn’t with the story, it’s with the reader; and the fact is, in a lifetime of pursuing stories, you may not even realize that the range of perspectives and experiences you’ve seen are actually pretty narrow.

Morrison pointed out to Wendt, and to the world, that certain people are used to being centered in narrative. Instead of making an effort to understand narratives which don’t center them, they demand the narrative be changed to suit them, despite plenty of readers out there who get the narrative just fine, and plenty of writers whose experiences and perspectives are just as valid.

Whether you are a casual reader, or a professional such as a critic or a reviewer, or even an editor, you might be missing something. Even if you are part of one marginalized group, you might be missing something in your readings of other marginalized groups. It’s also important to remember that on the one hand, while many folks in any given identity group may have sets of common experiences, not every person in any group will have identical experiences. For example, an employer I had once told me, “No fags work for me,” and many LGBTQ youths are kicked out of their homes by prejudiced parents4, but some queer folks never have to deal with these things. On the other hand, you don’t have to have the exact same experiences an author had to really get the heart of the story: you just need a little perspective and a touch of empathy.

Let’s take this from a different angle.

“She’s heard worse, seen worse, reflected in the green eyes of strangers and coworkers, men and women, those who resent her for making rapid strides against all odds.”

The way readers understand this single line from “Giant Steps” by Russell Nichols (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 118) will depend on the context of their experience. But it goes deeper than that. It’s not just the understanding of the words, it’s the feeling of the effectiveness of the words, it’s the way the words evoke emotions in the reader.

Most will probably get at least one idea about what this line is saying. But what many readers might be missing is that this single line, even standing here on its own, for Black readers and especially for Black women, is nuanced and powerful. This line, for me, clearly speaks to the theme of the story; in fact, it absolutely excites me, it energizes me. It makes me eager to see what else Nichols has to say. Understanding this power, or not seeing it, isn’t about the quality of the line, but will definitely impact the way you read the story.

I want to take you through one more piece, one which hasn’t seen the recognition it deserves. Christopher Caldwell’s “Femme and Sundance” in Uncanny Magazine Issue 38:

 

I was 19 when I met Tommy. A day and a bit into a two-day Greyhound trip from bumfuck, Nevada to Saint Paul, Minnesota. Going to meet some trick from the internet. Thought it was true love. Funky and itching for a smoke when we pulled into a truck stop in a one-road Nebraska town called Hendrickson or some shit. Big fat moon was high over the cornfields, and the diner gleamed all silvery. I was hungry, hadn’t eaten nothing since a McDonald’s outside Reno, so I finished my Newport and went in. You ever walk into a place where they hate everything you are? Them white folks stared at my fuchsia naps and mesh shirt like they couldn’t decide if they were gonna call me “faggot” or “nigger”. I sat at the counter, gave the waitress my biggest “y’all sure fine people” grin and asked, “That good smell the meatloaf?”

 

This paragraph is a complex layering of intersectional truths. Every line is deliberate, speaking to location and class, as well as queerness and Blackness. If you don’t get the nuance of what’s happening, you might glaze over what’s being offered. If you’re paying attention, you get a wonderful sense of a wild character, maybe even the sense of a story set-up: a young man in a precarious situation. But that’s not nearly all.

There are so many things to relate to here, including the kind of hunger that has you hopping a bus to meet some guy. Importantly, there are those of us who have lived through places “where they hate everything you are.” If you’re BIPOC and queer, like me, this very likely was your childhood, your teenagerhood, maybe even your adult life. For us, dear reader, when our protagonist grins and delivers that line? I feel a wave of elation, a physical tingling; I laughed. There is a joy in seeing someone so daring, this horny kid flipping off a too-familiar danger in a way that I only wish I could have. You might have missed it, but this is powerful storytelling.

Missing the context or not having the perspective to immediately get these stories doesn’t mean that they are impenetrable. It means that it’s time for you to look beyond the things you’ve been watching and reading to-date. The stories are out there. It’s not that the shows, movies, and books don’t exist; it’s that you may need to put in a bit of effort to find them. Don’t wait for authors like Toni Morrison, Ursula K. Le Guin, N.K. Jemisin, and Charlie Jane Anders to break through to get your attention. Sure, read them, too! But don’t stop there. So many amazing stories are out there, and it’s up to you to engage with them.

Understand that so many of the narratives which are most easily accessible—which you’ve grown up on and absorbed over the years—are delivered by people outside these groups, and often misrepresent these groups in harmful ways.5 Understand that often people from marginalized groups are pressured to write in limited ways to make certain kinds of readers feel more comfortable.6

In other words, if you aren’t Black, read more narratives written by Black authors. Not queer? Cool. Read more queer narratives by queer authors. But don’t stop there, take your understanding to the next level: Read a book by a Black author, then read a review or two by white reviewers, and finally, read a review or two by Black reviewers. If there’s an author interview somewhere, give it a look, just to top things off. Honestly? Nothing will highlight my point better than this simple exercise. Not only will you see what you missed, but you will see what others are missing.

The author’s job is writing a fantastic story. Yours is understanding that your own perspective is not the only perspective, and that you might not understand a few things about another’s perspective. But your job doesn’t stop there. In realizing these things, seek better understanding by broadening your reading habits. It’s really not that hard, it just takes an open mind, a touch of perspective, and a bit of empathy. You’re going to get far more out of your fiction—once you can see what you might have missed.

 

Here are a few ideas to get you started7:

Stephanie Andrea Allen & Lauren Cherelle, Black from the Future

Kinitra Brooks, Linda D. Addison, Susana Morris, Sycorax’s Daughters

Patrice Caldwell, A Phoenix First Must Burn

Bill Campbell & Edward Austin Hall, Mothership

Castro & Cina Pelayo, Latinx Screams

Dhonielle Clayton, A Universe of Wishes

Rose Fox & Daniel José Older, Long Hidden

Nalo Hopkinson, Mojo

Walidah Imarisha & adrienne maree brown, Octavia’s Brood

Swapna Krishna & Jenn Northington, Sword Stone Table

Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams, A People’s Future of the United States

Karen Lord, New Worlds, Old Ways

Ellen Oh & Elsie Chapman, A Thousand Beginnings and Endings

dave ring, Glitter + Ashes

Tia Ross & The Black Writers Collective et al, Black Sci-Fi Short Stories

Nisi Shawl, New Suns

Sheree Renée Thomas, Dark Matter

People Destroy” issues, including Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction and Disabled People Destroy Fantasy

1 Studies vary but here’s an interesting piece.

2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQ0mMjII22I

3 Surveys are always problematic, but safe to say: there are millions of trans folks, nonbinary folks, and people from many other kinds of marginalized groups, and many of them are readers.

https://abcnews.go.com/US/americans-identify-lgbt-poll/story?id=76097305

https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/06/22/first-population-estimate-lgbtq-non-binary-adults-us-is-out-heres-why-that-matters/

https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2019/04/02/percentage-us-population-transgender-statistics/

4 https://www.insider.com/surprising-statistics-about-lgbtq-people-2021-5#lgbtq-youth-are-120-more-likely-to-experience-homelessness-than-heterosexual-youth-3

5 https://www.dw.com/en/hollywood-movies-stereotypes-prejudice-data-analysis/a-47561660

https://www.thoughtco.com/common-black-stereotypes-in-tv-film-2834653

6 As one recent example of countless I could cite, Light From Uncommon Stars author Ryka Aoki said in an interview, “And if I had a dollar for every time someone suggested that I write more like Amy Tan…” https://www.themarysue.com/lessons-from-the-donut-king-and-science-fictions-golden-age/

7 This list is far from exhaustive and does not aim to represent all marginalized identities. This list is comprised of a few titles I’ve personally read and recommend. Entries arranged alphabetically by editor, except the last entry. I encourage readers to find other lists, especially those put together by individuals who share identities with the authors on their lists, such as Nisi Shawl’s excellent resource, here: https://www.tor.com/2020/07/07/take-a-tour-through-the-history-of-black-science-fiction/ or Mithila Review’s list, here: https://mithilareview.com/asian_sf_2016/

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