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Humour, Genre & the One True Quest for a Missing Pillar

This is a game essay story test quest.

You stand where few have dared to tread. You are looking up and before you, in the distance, on the other side of the tunnel you are about to enter, you see the famed Pillars of Genre, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror.1 And just behind them, an empty space.

That empty space is what has brought you here. To answer an age-old question: you are about to do what few have ever dared to attempt. For as long as Genre has existed, many have wondered, asked,  claimed, screamed about how Humor is an essential Pillar of Genre, how it doesn’t get its rightful place with the others. Does Genre have a Missing Pillar?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this:

To do what few have dared to do, and fewer have dared confess to doing. You will undertake the perilous journey into the beating heart of story itself, and make your way to the fabled Pillars of Genre, where once and for all, you will find the answers to the questions haunting the very foundations of what we love. Is Humor a part of genre? What part? Is it a Pillar? Is it really ignored? Why? What makes it special to genre? These puzzles seem difficult, impossible even.  As does the journey that lies ahead. How you proceed is up to you (occasionally). You will find there is no one path to the answers you seek. But there is one quest—the truth. Stay this course,2 and you shall be rewarded.

It is time to begin.

Make your way down the walkway to the massive iron door. As you do, think about how it is one of those fascinating ironies of literary analysis that so few essays on humour are funny, just as so few essays on horror are frightening1,3which illustrates why magicians don’t explain how the trick was done, or validation of the theory that the surest way to suck the fun out of something is to attempt to study it. It seems important to mention this, not because this essay promises to be any different, but because history has shown that front-loading the whataboutery is usually the most effective means of evading responsibility.

Slam the knocker against the huge iron door, protect your eardrums from the thundering crash as they seal shut behind you.

There is no turning back now4.

It turns out evasiveness is a wholly appropriate starting point for the quest to discover the position humour occupies within SFFH—one that is in many ways a simulacrum of the even more fundamental question of what humour itself is. Both lead to a seemingly infinite number of answers, all of which are correct depending on whom you ask. It is only when it’s too late that you realize the truth—your innocent and seemingly-innocuous query has led you well past the point of no return, into a dizzying Labyrinth of definitions, breakdowns, explanations, andclassifications, some of which seem scarcely discernible from science fiction themselves. This is further complicated by the fact it appears even science fiction writers cannot agree on what science fiction is, which is why each of them appears to have their own private definition. As you might have noticed already, it can get rather late for a nosy explorer rather quickly in these depths. Where once you were someone who vehemently denied having any connection to ailments like GTVH to your friends while quickly making an emergency appointment to get tested for it, now you find yourself saying things like Benign Violation5 with a straight face. Soon you find yourself completely lost, running ingrowing panic through long, narrow and serpentine passageways with incomprehensible names like The Phenomenological Function of Humor that are even more meandering and pointlessly extended for no good reason than this sentence. It’s not long before there’s no trace of who you once were, all that is left is a Being mercilessly using phrases likescript based semanticsandontic-epistemic to describe jokes to dead-eyed groups of strangers and students, talking over their feeble moans as you expertly place yourself between them and the nearest exit. You are now completely lost to the Labyrinth.

Or worst of all, the sort of monster who sneaks the whole collection of jargon into essays that posture as opposing the practice.

You now find yourself faced with two choices.

You could Take this Slide back down to where you just came from and keep spending more and more time within the Labyrinth, until you eventually become the Labyrinth itself, and finish up as a writer of jargon-filled books that are somehow all about humour without being funny.

Or you could claw yourself back out of the labyrinth through sheer will and spite, towards sunlight, salvation and a better, happier way. Since you have some time to kill while you make your way back to us, you might as well spend it on making sure you don’t end up back in there. A good start would be figuring out a definition of humour that doesn’t make your brain cry and your eyes bleed6. One easy fix might be to simply draw from a rather different investigation and declare that humour, too, falls under the category of things best recognized via encounters in the wild., or to wit, if it makes you laugh, it’s funny, and if it’s funny, it’s humour, as the poet said.7

Working all this out must have taken longer than you realise, because you can now feel a sudden warmth on your face, and as you look up, you can see the light. You’re almost there!

In a few moments you’ll be free, out of that cursed chasm of things that everyone sort of knows already but has to hear about in extra detail they never asked for8.

Pull yourself up over the edge, catch your breath, dust yourself off9 

And you find yourself standing before the grandest sight in all of genre.9 A series of cliff faces, encircling the Pillars that hold up all we hold dear as they keep imprisoned within their power vortex the terrifying Black Hole of Boredom.

As you take it all in, you’ll notice the floor below you feels soft. Not to overwhelm you right now, but do note you’re actually standing on the biggest feather you’ve ever seen.

Which leads us to next steps, which are always important in a quest. There is a Giant Door directly to Genre in front of you, but you cannot use it, because the Gatekeepers of Genre bar your way10 and you might as well just throw yourself into the Black Hole, less painful that way. If a trip to the Annals of Genre, where you can do things the old-fashioned way and research the history of humour in genre is something you fancy, Take the Teleporter.

If you’re in the mood for something much more bizarre and unconventional, you could try to find your way to the very top, to where the massive feather came from. The one way to view all of Genre, is of course while sitting atop the Big Word Nerd Bird11 up there. If that’s your jam, Step in the Pentacle to your right.

If you’re feeling particularly foolish adventurous, Jump Down That Big Hole Over There And See Where You End Up.

And if you’re the REALLY old school sort and want to do every bit of this step by step, well, there is a Rope Ladder there that will let you climb all the way to the Annals. You’re sure now? Ok, start climbing. That’s the way12 (literally), so keep going, you’ll get there sooner than you realise, you’re still fresh.

 

Yes, this soon. It’s genre, nobody has time to watch you keep climbing unless there’s some other plot value in the scene. Now focus, please, because you’ve climbed all the way up here, to where there’s a door marked Annals12.  As you approach, it dilates.13 Step through.

The first thing you see, and probably should steer clear of, is a Teleporter.

The annals are not the sort of old-fashioned library they sound like, this is a state-of-the-art digital setup. Rows upon innumerable rows of memory crystals are stacked against the walls—or are they the walls themselves? Touch one, it’ll play in the centre of the room, find a corner to watch from.

You now realise that you appear to have levelled up14, because all of a sudden it’s like being Neo in the Matrix. You can see humour all over SFFH. Lines, scenes, even entire books, filmsand more. You can see example after example, it shouldn’t even be possible to get through this many examples of humour in genre this quickly, but that’s what supertechnology15 does. If you ever wondered where humour was in genre, here’s your answer. Everywhere.

If your head’s reeling enough already, make your way out the door on the far side. It takes you to another room, only this one is empty except for a window, and a door on the far side. There’s also a really creepy looking old looking-glass of some sort. Yeah that’s it. Basic.

If the question of the societal and greater literary merit of funny genre books is occupying your thoughts, head to your left and Take the Teleporter. If you find the draw of the eerie looking-glass too hard to resist, you can walk over to the corner and Touch The Mirror. If neither of these fit your current vibe, whenever you’re tired of standing around here doing nothing, you can just do it the old-fashioned way and swing yourself onto the rope ladder on the right. Or don’t break stride at all, just keep walking all the way to the door at the far end. Go through.

 

On the other side of the door you find yourself in a small room with no other doors or windows. On one side, identical to the one in the adjoining room, is another Teleporter. THAT’s all it does?? What a waste of energy. Typical bureaucratic error16.  On the other side of the room is a chair and in the chair is a robot in a silk gown and feathered hat.

“You seek the Oracle?” asks the robot. “No, don’t answer that, I’m an Oracle, I know already. Also there’s nothing else here. Ask your question.17

So you ask away, about whether the question of the literary merit of funny genre fiction had ever been answered.

In response, the Oracle keels over, dead.

Well, there’s no time to panic about it, look around. You still have a quest to finish. There’ll be time for sentiment later. For now, focus on the table the Oracle was sitting at. You’ll see a smart tablet there. It doesn’t even ask you for a password. Look at what’s on the screen. As you do, it zooms in18 to this very moment on this very page, with you reading this very line. “Click here to get one stop lesson in both terrible economics and great writing of the highest literary and societal quality. Then click here to have a person with lots of degrees explain the same thing again. Well, go on, click. Don’t keep the supercomputer waiting.

 

If you’re reading this it hopefully means you did the right thing and clicked, and you’re now back, wiser and richer for the time spent with one of the great writers of this or any era in the English language. Say goodbye to the Oracle, who it appears will now be spending some time with Mort.

 

Now you get to make a choice again.

If you like the whole atoms reforming all over again feeling, take the teleporter back to the next room.

Or just walk through the door again.

Once you’re back, if you want what might or might not be the speedy way, Touch the Mirror.

If you want what’s definitely the steady19 option, take the rope ladder.

If you’re still here, it looks like you chose to climb. Your hamstrings, not mine.

As you climb you might reflect on a particular distinction between humour and horror in terms of reader expectation. The natural human tendency to want to laugh gives the humorist a natural advantage in terms of the generosity contract, which is the snappy way to describe the demonstrated willingness of the reader to work with you towards your mutual goal of their enjoyment vs how much harder earning a similar level of trust might be in other genres.20

 

Getting to this sentence means you’ve climbed like few have ever climbed and have reached the top of the cliff face. Congratulations! When you’re ready to proceed, take the door in the cliff-face in front of you.

You step through the door to find yourself in a wholly surreal scene. Below you is a smooth white landscape, covered with giant black markings. As you approach, you realise they are words, made of soot. You can hear crying and unhappy English people everywhere21.

 

And then it hits you where you are and the peril you’re in. Something has gone wrong, very wrong. Because this is not where you’re supposed to be, you’ve somehow ended up outside the very realms of genre, and humour too.

In fact, you are where humour comes to die.

You are standing in the opening pages of David Copperfield22, at a point when David has not yet been born.23 This however, does not prevent him from describing both his birth and the events preceding it in painstaking24 detail, up to the line “It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously25”. Of this Richard Armour has written that “This did not mean that the clock struck David, but it does set the tone for the rest of the book, where someone is always getting struck or crying; although people frequently cry without being struck”. If we allow the monster we thought we had left behind in the labyrinth to control us again for a moment and deconstruct the humour in this sentence, it’s quickly apparent that there is nothing remotely funny about Baby David or anyone else being struck, although there might be a few chuckles to be derived out of a bunch of usually-stoic British people crying at each other for no reason—and by extension, at the novel itself. But what really reeled us in was the wholly ridiculous image of a clock running around striking blows.

And if you were in the market for a story about a short-tempered rogue clock? Genre would be about the best place to start looking.

Flee the sooty words and sad British people (who were still happier than everyone else who encountered them at this time) and make your way all the way across the pagey landscape to a door like the first. Go through and you’ll find you’re now on the other side of the cliff face. On the ground in front of you is another Pentacle. Aha! Step out, stretch out, your essence will thank you for it.

Now, if you been enjoying this arcane mode of travel, here’s another chance. Step back into the Pentacle

Or if you’re a one step then the next sorta person, keep going and grab the rope ladder.

You get to climb some more, yaaay. Hope you’re happy.

While you do, think about how if you were to take the specific definition of science fiction as being a story from which you cannot remove the science and keep the plot/story with any fealty, and apply it to the other 3 branches of genre (including humour) they form 2 pairs. On the one hand you have the “what” branches, namely SF and F, genres where the very setting and milieu—basic plot elements, the “content” of the stories determines if they belong. On the other hand, you have the “tone” genres, horror and humour, where how the story is told informs the genre even more than what the story is about. The very same plot could be humor or horror, whereas the same level of interchangeability does not exist for the content branches, for reasons already stated.

These thoughts are compelling, but at this point you should probably draw your attention to the slimy feeling under your hand. Some kind of ooze. The whole ladder is coated in it, it’s been soaking into your skin all this while26. I’d hurry up and get off this ladder as soon as I could, but hey, it’s your skin.

If you haven’t fallen off the ladder in shock yet, the good news is you’re almost at the top. You made it! Finally! You can see the bird now, like a gargantuan feathered cloud, close enough to touch.

Here’s where you clamber onto the bird. Yaaay! But careful, watch your step, for instance, you probably want to avoid stepping in—that. I mean, what kind of weirdo chooses the back of a giant bird as the spot to put his Pentacle? OMG, yes, bird!!! Congratulations, you’re atop the Big Word Nerd Bird! Not so bad, is it? A lot like being atop a Roc.27 And from here, you can put things into perspective. Except with it comes the sudden, sinking realization that your task is much more enormous, difficult than you ever imagined, Genre stretches as far as the mind does, it’s much more complicated and messier than those four (5?) neat little letters make it sound. You set out to find the missing Humour Pillar, but from your feathered perch in the clouds, where you look down upon all of genre,28 you can now see the shadows of so many more, merging and twisting into the others. Humor. Romance. Mystery. YA. They stretch on and on, as far as the eye can see, it’s enough to make your head spin, which when sitting up in the sky, is usually a sign that it is now time to exit the giant bird.

As the bird veers closer to the pillars, you notice something almost hidden in the shadows, at the very top of the Romance Pillar. A window. The smell of flowers, chocolate and happiness waft out towards you. The Rare Room of Romance.  And you’re close enough to get in.  With some luck and a whole lot of effort.

If you’re interested in a little side quest on how romance (and by extension other pillars) might fit into all this and if they actually even stay here all the time or not, now’s the time to jump.

If you did jump, this is where you land. It’s only once you get into the room that you realise that this one—indeed the whole pillar it’s on—is shaped a little differently.

It turns out that Romance in fact is not quite the perfect bedfellow into the SFFH mould that it seems at first sight, or indeed that horror is, in part because romance comes with its own specific demands and requirements that, unlike horror’s, don’t always quite match the colour of SFFH’s curtains. For instance, Romance stories often come with an expectation of a Happily-Ever-After, which is certainly not always true for SFFH. There is of course much more depth to this, and if a magic carpet ride towards a greater understanding of the HEA rule and its corollaries—and the overlap zone between Romance and SFFH is your thing, you’re in luck because we have such a carpet available. Walk over to that open window, no that other one, and hop onto the magic carpet here.

 

 

Or just take the door at the end of the room and you’ll find yourself in a stone corridor, so long you can’t see to the end. There don’t seem to be any doors or windows, but there is a glimmer in the distance. Make your way towards it.

 

As you walk down the corridor, you notice how it bends away just before the end. And when you get there, you realise that the glimmer is coming from a wall sized antique Mirror.  You’re now standing in front of the mirror. How you’re not sure. You may have seen another like it somewhere. Not sure of this either. Squinting in the glare, you see an opening to your right where the corridor continues. As you glance in the mirror while turning to leave you see something, something that can’t be true, there’s no possible, logical way this could be happening! Except that it is. And as the blood drains from your face and you feel the cold chill of pure terror, your reflection29 steps completely out of the mirror. And starts towards you. It’s following you30

 

You’re going faster. Faster.  And so are the footsteps. Gaining on you. Louder. Louder. Closer. You want to glance around but you’re too scared. You keep running. Then, suddenly, you see it! A large, ornate door, covered in symbols. As you approach, the door smiles at you. Then it dilates as you rush in, reforming just in time to stand between you and your evil31 reflection, which is now screaming in bloodcurdling fashion, hurling itself at the door, trying to get at you.

 

“Give that door an award”, you want to say, except that someone already has. Lots of awards. Every kind of award. The whole room is filled with them. Nebulas. Hugo Awards. The Locus. More Awards. If you were wondering about how wrong it was that funny stories didn’t win genre awards, well, turns they’ve won plenty. Maybe they don’t get discussed quite the same way, or win with the same frequency, and maybe more published funny fiction would help tick all the boxes32, but rest assured, genre has shown humour plenty of respect on the awards ballots, even if one can always use a bit more of a good thing.  Even if the Great Terry Pratchett Problem33 will probably remain forever,

As you emerge onto the walkway back out into real life, you take one last glimpse at the magiscienorrific room. As you do, the symbols on the door knot into words, a fitting goodbye from the Archmage of Merriment himself.

 

“Just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it’s not serious.”

And finally, we’ve come full circle, because we started this quest to answer a question and now we find it was actually a quest that’s led us to question our question. No wonder so few people get all the way here, talk about a tongue-twister.

But seeing that you have, here’s what we’re left to think about—if funny genre’s always been around and been published all this much and won all these awards, why do so many of us think there isn’t? Is it just a question of quantity, or have we, the supporters of humorous genre, been making the exact mistake we are trying to correct, and not seeing enough genre? Are all of us? What is it about funny genre that makes us all miss it?

And as lost in thought, you slowly amble down the Walkway To Normality, held up as always by the Pillars of SFF & H, yet still perfectly balanced, the truth suddenly hits you.

 

Humour truly is a tone, it’s an enchantment, something applies to others—and itself. An invisibility enchantment.   The Fourth Pillar of Genre has never been missing. Sometimes a typo in a title is an invisible pillar.

Like Humour, genre’s invisible pillar. It’s the pillar, you don’t always notice it because the h is silent34. But it’s there all right, it just has the power to not be noticed till it really wants to be.

Humour seems to like it that way.

And it doesn’t get more genre than that.

 


 

1 Horror is indeed a part of genre and those who disagree are empirically incorrect. This essay however wishes to disassociate itself from the growing call to rename those pushing against horror’s inclusion the “control group”.

2 Tread carefully, though. Discourse on genre has broken many people already.

3 Editor’s Note: We feel obligated to mention that an early draft of this essay was accidentally leaked online by the author and this magazine was besieged with amused emails from copy editors and proof readers rejecting these claims

4 You could close the webpage, but that would be seriously weak.

5 A combination of words that it has now been confirmed, was invented by someone who was unfamiliar with several other words, like “oxymoron” and “Dude, Why??”

6 Thereby establishing that things are already working the wrong way around, although ideally do try not to make your brain bleed at all if you can avoid it.

7 No poet actually said this.

8 Academia, like magic, has rules that are both inscrutable and inviolable. Unless you’re good at maths, in which case you might be able to understand the magic.

9 This suggestion was reviewed and retracted as ridiculous. Being dusty is usually a default state for protagonists in genre.

10 Usually with all sorts of pointless knowledge tests that aren’t even that hard, just annoying and REALLY time-consuming.

11 No, we are not currently accepting feedback on the name of our bird.  When you get a giantass bird with feathers bigger than whales that can hover above all of genre and look cool while doing it you can name it what you like.

12 This is what is called Foreshadowing Hint Door.

13 Like a pupil, but with way less interest in homework.

14 It’s the definition, it was like finding a artifact passcode. The actual code is “Dungeons Swipe Back”, FYI.

15 One of the things. It also blows up planets and stuff, but we’re trying to focus on the positives during this presentation.

16 Or choice—over the years, bureaucrats have made some doozies.

17 Don’t point out he should know that too, been tried, didn’t go well, trust your tour guide.

18 For the technically minded, it does so by using the well-known super-duper advanced polarity quantum atom computer thingamaguffiny.

19 A rope ladder was just called steady, this really happened.

20 You might also reflect that this is a lot of time to reflect on something so basic, but it’s a really long climb, time is one thing you have plenty of. You’ll also notice “choices” did not appear on the list of things you currently have plenty of. See, you should have taken the mirror. Happy reflecting. See you at the top.

21 Much like after every major international football/soccer tournament since 1966.

22 The book, not the illusionist, although people often seem to leave looking happy after spending some time with the latter, which rarely seems to be the case with those who do the same with the book. The claims that the two are in fact the same David Copperfield at different times in a long and artificially extended life have been examined in a separate in-depth essay that this publication uncharitably refused to carry even after being offered it for free.

23 Thereby establishing himself as one of the most powerful wizards in all of genre before ever being born, which is very impressive you must admit.

24 With a rather heavy emphasis on the “pain” bit. Critics now believe this was done in order to emotionally prepare the reader for the rest of the book, where there is even less staking to look forward to.

25 Thus concluding the first example of livetweeting ever recorded, as we can surmise from how the sentences get dramatically longer from this point as the 240 character limit ceased to apply.  Or perhaps now having an actual larynx had something to do with it. If it was livetweeting, it was long before Twitter was invented, but as we have seen from his birth having only just occurred, this sort of circumstance did not deter David and considering his career thus far, should be classified as impressive rather than improbable.

26 This explains a lot of the musings that have happened on this ladder

27 Other than the fact that’s it’s soft. A Roc’s feathers are made of stone, seriously, you think the name is an accident? Trust us, our bird is way better. And not extinct, which is what really matters when the point is to hover. Fossils suck at hovering. Follow the science.

28 Literally, we mean. If you look down on genre figuratively you suck and we will now attempt to charge you rental money for using our bird.

29 Either that or it is your inner editor coming to kill their darling. This means you. This is good news because darling is a compliment and compliments matter. It is also bad news because it means they do however, also want to kill you. You should probably start running now.

30 Ok, seriously, START RUNNING RIGHT NOW.

31 It might just be over-friendly, but considering where we are and all, evil seems a safer bet. In every way.

32 This is a hint, get cracking.

33 The one concerning his historical unfortunate lack of Hugo nominations, not the one about our current unfortunate lack of Terry Pratchetts, although that one is felt even more strongly.

34 Although it could be argued that if it’s the invisible pillar then it should be spelled as “    ” instead of “humor”.

 

Map-Making

In the pre-apocalypse, my sister finds herself driving her car across the country alone with the tornadoes and I can hear the wind from here. She is fine, but I am—helpless—adding roads to her map and water-bodies, sometimes towers which hide wizards, and portals in which we all come undone, those are for later, mostly, after the world ends. You are not helping she says. Your roads are lined with brambles and monsters are crawling from the lakes. Can you do anything that is not a fairy tale? I only meant to help and she says, she knows, but we both know that I’m not the girl who expects the easy happy ending. The skies are getting darker, I say, and we both know what will happen if you aren’t here by nightfall. I hear her car hit a rainstorm with the slow-climbing melody of drops crashing and the wash of wheels on a wet road. Don’t tell me that you’ve set loose the vampires.    I haven’t, I confess, but I’ve reached the edge of the map. I don’t tell her that I’ve left a portal there, just in case she needs it. It is quiet as her car moves from Indiana into nothing, then she says, It’s green here; I’m still ten hours from home.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Map-Making” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 42B.)

If the Martians Have Magic

“The first Martian War was won not by man, but microbes. The second we fought with Martian weapons that nearly broke the world. The third invasion we stopped by our own hands, using magic.”

—Wei-Yin Sun, Imperial Historian in the Court of the Empress Dowager, Restoration Period.

 

Marrakesh’s streets were a dizzying affair at any time. But at midday they were unbearable, a churning morass that moved to their own rhyme and reason. And though Minette called the city a second home, navigating its roads was a feat of skill, luck and perhaps, she was willing to admit, sheer stupidity. She dodged a rider on a high-wheeled electric velocipede and rounded about a diesel trolley—only to be brought up short by a young woman who stood in the middle of the busy thoroughfare, beseeching a stubborn goat to follow. Yet no matter how hard she pulled the taut leash, it would not move. The girl yelled, then begged. But the goat only bleated its obstinacy, having decided to start its revolution here and now. Minette slowed to watch, momentarily lost in the goat’s stubborn cries—and was nearly runover by a rickshaw. A tall dromedary pulling the two-wheeled hooded vehicle of gilded iron pulled up short, jostling its two occupants. Both gasped, their sculpted eyebrows rising above long overlapping rose-colored veils. But it was the camel that turned an irritated glare Minette’s way.

“Mind where you’re going!” it brayed, making a gesture with its split upper lip she knew for a curse. Minette frowned at the discourteous display, and with a suck of her teeth shot back a curse in Kreyòl. The camel’s eyes widened at the unfamiliar words and it might have said something in return, but she had already moved on.

Of all the creatures gifted sentience with the return of magic, the good God Bondye alone knew why those rude beasts were chosen. But that was the way of magic, unpredictable in its movements, its choices and ceaseless permutations. That’s what all of this was about—why she’d canceled morning classes and now rushed to a meeting to which she wasn’t invited. Because someone had to speak for the unknowable in magic, the non-linear, the indefinable.

Someone had to save her Martians.

She stopped out of breath, just across from the Flying Citadel. The stone fortification sat atop a jagged rock that floated like an unmoored mountain peak high in Marrakesh’s skyline. Its ivory walls and gold domes looked stolen out of time—or perhaps beyond it—spreading a shadow on the streets below where hawkers sold magic rope and enchanted rugs to gullible tourists along with more useful thaumaturgical devices. A fleet of lavish vehicles were parked nearby: wheeled automobiles driven by golden metal men; air balloons of giant puffer fish that pulled at their anchors; and gilded carriages drawn by fantastic beasts. One of them, a spotted ocelot large as a horse, lapped a blue tongue against its fur and held up a snow-white wing like a canopy beneath Marrakesh’s glaring sun. The vehicles bore insignia from over a dozen nations, evidence that the Council was indeed meeting.

Minette swore. Looking around she caught sight of a few taxis, ferrying tourists up to the citadel by way of flying carpets. Absurd. Fortunately, she had other methods. Closing her eyes, she composed a quick prayer.

The loa could be persuaded to answer the call of a Mambo in need—as drawn up in the new understandings (they bristled at mention of the word contract) that now administered interactions with their priests. All part of bringing them more devotees in this modern world, where spirits and gods walked unbidden, ever competing for the attention of mortals. Of course, the loa acted in their peculiar time, and followed their own interests—new understandings or no.

After two attempts, she was set to call again when the image of a man in a broad brimmed hat flashed across her thoughts. He held a mahogany smoking pipe precariously between pursed lips and his leisurely gait resembled a dance. Legba, the Keeper of Roads, opening the Door. A flaming ram followed. Bade’s sign, who she truly wanted. His presence stirred against her with the weight of a feather and the pressure of a mountain all at once. She hashed out a quick agreement—some offerings to perform, a drapo to commission—and was fast swept up in gusts of air. An accompanying rumble of thunder startled those below. Bade’s twin, Sobo. The two were inseparable and you didn’t get one without the other.

Bade kept to the pact, sending Minette soaring up to the Flying Citadel. Looking down she saw the winged ocelot had paused its cleaning, and now stared up at her with four red sapphire eyes. She shook her head. The powerful and their toys. On a draft of wind accompanied by peals of thunder like drums she rose higher still, above rounded minarets, to reach the citadel’s upper levels.

Her feet struck stone and she stumbled once before breaking into a run along a lengthy parapet, holding the ends of her white dress up so as not to trip. She moved into a passageway, easily slipping through a set of wards meant to deter interlopers. Aziz’s work, and predictable as always. Well wasn’t he in for a surprise. She stopped at reaching a red door inscribed with repeating calligraphy. Taking a breath to collect herself—it did no good to look hurried—she tightened the white cloth that wrapped her hair, adjusted her spectacles, and (remembering to release the grip on her dress) stepped inside.

The Council on Magical Equilibrium was a rare gathering. And, as it was, featured an impressive who’s who, and what’s what, from across the world. Some faces Minette recognized. Some she couldn’t see, and others she didn’t know at all. Each however turned from where they were seated about a curving table to stare at her entrance. Aziz, who sat at its center, broke off his words entirely.

“Minette?” His call came too familiar for colleagues. He must have realized as much because he coughed into a waxed moustache before starting again. “Please excuse the interruption. May I introduce Professor Francis. She teaches here at the Academy and comes to us from Port-au-Prince—”

“Port-au-Prince!” a small slender woman in a crimson gown repeated in a throaty slur. A veil of swirling gray mist obscured her face, all but her eyes—black on black pools, deep as a fathomless sea. “Aziz, you did not tell us the Academy held a Mambo in residence. I see no distinct loa hovering about you. One of the Unbound then?” She craned her neck and inhaled deeply. “Oh! But the magic in you is no less for that.” Those black eyes narrowed hungrily, and Minette fought the urge to step back. It was unwise to show weakness to their kind. They remembered that.

“Professor Francis is one of our most valued researchers,” Aziz interjected, seeming to sense the danger. “She has done wonders with Martian-human interactions. She was the one who first made the—ah—discovery.”

Minette raised an eyebrow. Were they so afraid to just come out and say it?

Another woman at the table gave a derisive snort. She looked older than Minette by a decade or more. But the body beneath her burgundy military uniform was solid, and the dark hands folded before her thick and scarred. If the number of medals decorating her breast was anything to go by, she knew how to use those hands too. She pinned Minette with the one eye not covered by a black patch—an owl examining a mouse—and flared her generous nostrils.

“And,” Aziz went on, “though the professor is one of our finest faculty, I don’t recall her being summoned to this meeting.” That last part was said with an unspoken, and you should leave now. But Minette hadn’t come this far to be scolded. She tried to ignore the gazes of the two women and stepped forward.

“Apologies, Director Aziz. And to this Council,” she began, reciting what she’d hastily rehearsed on the run here. “I only learned you were meeting this morning and thought my expertise might be valuable. I’m certain my absence was an oversight.” She met Aziz’s gaze squarely at that. It was petty of him not to invite her. But rather than taking up the challenge, his eyes creased with concern. That only annoyed her further.

“Well, she certainly is direct,” the mist-faced woman slurred. “I for one would like to hear what the Mambo has to share. I say she stays. Any objections?” None around the table gave a reply—though the one-eyed woman shrugged indifferently. Aziz put on a resigned look, beckoning Minette to sit.

“Come, Mambo, whose scent of magic is sweet enough to taste,” the mist-faced woman purred. “You may sit near me.” She patted an empty chair with a long-fingered hand, pale as alabaster. Those depthless eyes looked even hungrier.

Minette politely declined the offer three times (any less was just inviting trouble) and took a chair several seats down—feeling peculiarly conscious of her smallness between a broad giant in a blue turban and a fiery djinn encased inside a towering body of translucent glass.

“We were discussing,” Aziz began anew, “what we are to do with the three entities following the recent revelations.”

Minette’s heart drummed. There it was. “There’s only one,” she spoke up. Heads—and other things much like heads—swiveled back to regard her. “You’re calling Them three, but there’s actually only the One.”

Aziz blinked but then nodded at the correction. “Yes, of course. Professor Francis is referring to how the Martians see themselves. Three are required to form their collective consciousness, and then They become One. The professor is one of the few non-Martians to successfully join a triumvirate.”

“Join?” It was the one-eyed woman. She now glared incredulous. “So you allow the beasties into your head?”

Minette paused, trying to place that English accent. “They aren’t beasts,” she replied. “They’re sentient beings, like us.”

The one-eyed woman’s laugh was brusque. “So you say, Professor. But I’ve grappled with them face-to-face, not all tame like in your lab.” She tapped a finger at her missing eye. “And they’re damn beasts if I ever seen one.”

Aziz coughed again. “Professor Francis, this is General Koorang. She’s here representing the Nations League Defense Forces.”

Minette’s eyes widened. The General Koorang? Who had broken the Martians at Kathmandu? So, that accent was Australian then. No wonder the woman was so hardline.

“In my time in the triumvirate,” she tried diplomatically, “I’ve found Them to be capable of many emotions. They have been kind, even gentle.”

General Koorang sputtered. “Kind? Gentle? Is that why they set about invading us three times?”

“Not every Martian was a soldier,” Minette reminded, speaking as much to the others gathered. “The One I joined with were worker drones. They never even saw fighting. That’s why it was so easy for the Central Intellect to abandon Them in the retreat.”

“And what did they work on?” the general asked, unmoved. “Was it their stalking dreadnoughts? Their infernal weapons what almost blew us to hell? Come visit the Archipelago sometime, Professor, and I’ll show you Martian gentleness.”

Minette bit her lip to keep from replying. That was unfair. The Archipelago was all that was left of what used to be Australia. The waters of the South Sea were mostly off-limits now: teeming with monsters that wandered in through torn rifts between worlds That it was humans playing with Martian weapons who had brought on the disaster seemed to matter little to the general.

“Perhaps we should get back to the heart of the matter,” Aziz suggested, breaking the tense silence. “We must decide what is to be done with the entities, um, Them, in light of Professor Francis’s discovery.”

Minette felt a flurry of annoyance. Were they going to dance around this all morning? “By discovery, you mean that Martians can perform magic,” she blurted out. Her words sent up murmurs through the Council. Aziz gave her an exasperated look. The general cursed. And the mist-faced woman’s eyes creased with a hidden smile.

Minette took the moment to press on. “What we should do with them is clear. They are a conscious soul, protected within the Nations League Charter on Magical Practitioners drawn up over a decade ago in 1919. They should be encouraged to develop those talents.”

“Outrageous!” General Koorang roared, her face a thunderhead. “The Charter wasn’t made to protect bloody Martians!”

“But it does not exclude them,” the mist-faced woman interjected. “The Charter was made quite broad in its application—as evidenced by the makeup of this very Council.”

“Precisely,” Minette said, seizing on the opportunity. “We already accept a diverse world of spirits, gods, and no end of magical beings. The previous head of this Council was a minotaur, and she served with distinction. How is this any different?”

“A point of clarification,” a squat shaman at the far end of the table called, raising a hand that rattled with ivory bracelets. “The Charter the professor references was created to protect unique magical abilities in their nascency. Have these Martians exhibited some magical talent indigenous to their…kind?”

“Not yet,” Minette admitted. “But I believe it’s only a matter of time,” she followed quickly. “The triumvirate I share, They claim Mars once had magic. But it’s been lost, much as humanity lost it once, too concerned with our factories and industry. Through the rituals to the loa, they’ve shown that they can understand and practice magic—something we once thought impossible. They’re on the verge of self-discovery. We should allow them that right.”

“Martians don’t have any rights as citizens,” General Koorang countered. “They’re not even from this world. Just because the Academy lets you keep a few as pets, doesn’t change the fact that these creatures are prisoners of war.”

Minette clenched her fists to keep calm. “We aren’t at war, general.”

The older woman leaned forward, imposing in her size. “Oh? Did we sign some peace treaty that I’m unaware of? Is there a Martian consulate? A Martian ambassador?”

Minette pressed on, counting in her head to keep calm and trying to forget she was arguing with a living legend. “The Martians invaded three times, precisely three years apart, on the exact same day. The last war was in 1903. It’s been more than thirty years, and we’ve seen no sign of another invasion.”

The general smacked the table heavily and Minette was proud that she didn’t jump. “Damn right! Because we beat the hell out of them last time! And we did it with magic. That’s our greatest defense, the one thing their calculating overgrown minds can’t understand. And you just go ahead and give it to them.” She shook her head, that single eye glowering. “I expected more, from a Haitian.”

Minette felt her face flush at the insult. The houngan Papa Christophe had been the first to use magic in the Third War, halting the Martian dreadnoughts and sending their armies into disarray. The rout at Cap-Haïtien set an example for the world. She was fiercely proud of that fact and didn’t need reminding—not like this.

“I didn’t give them magic,” she said tersely. “They were drawn to the loa and the loa to them. None of us have the right to stop this development.” She turned her appeal to the wider Council, moderating her tone. “I’m not just being an idle academic here. I’m not insensitive to all of your concerns. I understand the suffering the Martians caused this world. But I believe there’s a practical side to all of this.”

The general folded her arms and struck the posture of someone politely suffering a fool, but Minette continued. “The rediscovery of Martian magic could be a new step for all of us. A new magic system built on Martian ingenuity. Think of all the possibilities! The Martians here on Earth could become valued citizens, sharing what they know. If Mars invades again, as the general believes, we would have a valuable Fifth Column ready to come to our defense. What if this curtails their appetite for conquest? What if it helps them find themselves again, the way we have? We should seize this opportunity to integrate them into society, not shun it.”

“Or we should be frightened,” General Koorang grumbled. She spared a glance for Minette before turning to the Council. “The professor’s determined, I’ll give her that. But let’s say she’s right, and there’s some old Martian magic waiting to be tapped. What happens when they rediscover it? Can we trust they won’t give it up to protect their own kind? The last three invasions decimated the old powers of this world. Europe’s a blasted-out hellhole that might never recover. We’re barely managing that refugee crisis as it is. I for one have seen enough of Martian ingenuity. When the fourth invasion comes—and it will come—do we want to look up to see new Martian dreadnoughts powered by magic marching across Cairo, New Èkó or Delhi?” She let her one eye latch onto every gaze before continuing. “I’m a soldier, not a diplomat. Thinking about peace isn’t my job, and I’ll admit I’m no good at it. But I know how to keep us safe. First rule of military defense: deny your enemy any chance of mounting a challenge. The professor’s admitted these Martians haven’t found their lost magic yet. She says we should give them time. Well I say we use that time to stop this threat in its tracks. Now—before it goes any further. Because allowing these Martians to have magic is a risk we can’t afford.”

Minette felt the weight of those words, settling down with the force of a hammer. So, it seemed, did the rest of the Council. Fear, it turned out, was a potent weapon of its own. And General Koorang was as skilled in persuasion as she was on the battlefield. When the motion was made to declare the prospect of Martian magic “a threat to global security and magical equilibrium,” not one voice rose in dissent.

The beat of drums guided Minette’s movements. About the room, the loa that had been invited into the Hounfour danced along. Others like Papa Loko only sat watching. The First Houngan had been convinced by his wife to accept the Rada rites of this new world. Now he kept strict governance to see they were properly followed. He was especially taken with the Martians.

With their bulbous heads, it was easy to at first mistake them for giant octopuses. But where an octopus was reduced to flimsy sacks of flesh out of water, Martian bodies were quite sturdy. Their skin was pale verging on a dull violet that extended the length of sixteen thick tentacles, the latter of which were remarkably malleable. At the moment, they intertwined like roots to form the semblance of a man beneath each head—with arms, legs and even a torso.

Two of the triumvirate moved gracefully to the song, swaying in hypnotic undulations. A third used myriad tentacles to beat a steady rhythm on a batterie of conical drums, matching the rattling shells of Minette’s asson. On the ground, Papa Damballah’s veve lay etched in white. He sat as a white serpent, coiled about his shrine and the feast prepared for him: an egg on a mound of flour, bordered by white candles, white flowers, and white rice. His red eyes watched the writhing limbs of the Martians and swayed with them. A current filled the room, and it felt as if they were no longer within this plane, but some other realm of existence where every star in the cosmos danced.

Then it was done, and she was back in the room at the Academy she’d transformed into her own Hounfour. She let herself fall, weakened after housing the loa. Martian arms caught her, strong but gentle, leading her to sit. They sat in turn about her, keeping their semi-human forms and regarding her with round, silver eyes that never blinked. A tentacle extended to wrap warm and sinuous about her wrist: an invitation to join the triumvirate. Still flush from the loa, she accepted.

“That was…nice,” came the harmonious voices in her head. They layered each other: the three that were One.

“Wi,” she answered back, also in her head. The Martians had mouths, sharp beaks like birds. But their speech was beyond human ears. This was much easier.

“Nou danse kont danse nou,” They remarked, switching between English and Kreyòl much as she did. “I am very fond of Papa Damballah.”

Minette didn’t find that surprising. Damballah was the Great Creator of all life, peace and harmony. He was also the protector of those who were different. It made sense that the Martians would be drawn to him, and he to Them.

“You are quiet,” the voices noted. “Sa ou genyen?”

“Mwen regret sa,” she apologized. “My mind is elsewhere.”

“On your meeting with the Council.”

Minette frowned at her lapse, building up her mental guards. In the triumvirate, your mind was an open book if you weren’t careful.

“Aziz was there,” They said, catching a stray thought. “Was it difficult seeing him again? Much time has passed since the two of you last coupled. But your feelings for him remain disordered. Perhaps the two of you should couple again?”

Minette flushed, absently pulling her dress more tightly about her. An open book indeed. “Non. I won’t be coup—intimate, with Aziz again. I explained before, nou te mal. We let things get out of hand.” He was married for one. And they’d collected too many gray hairs between them to be getting on like schoolchildren.

“I have made you uncomfortable,” They said contritely. “Mwen regret sa. I am not always aware.”

“It’s not your fault. I just….” She sighed. There was no easy way to say this. So instead she let down her guards. Her memories of the past morning flowed to the triumvirate at the speed of thought. The Council meeting. The debate. The final decision. They examined each recollection and in the silence that followed, Minette waited.

“Your Council is frightened,” the voices said finally.

“Wi,” she replied in frustration. “It’s disappointing they give in to their fears.”

“Their reasoning is not unsound.”

Minette’s alarm reflected back to her in six silver eyes. “How can you say that? It’s pre-emptive nonsense. They’re punishing you for something you might do—not what you’ve done. It’s wrong!”

There was a pause as three heads cocked as one, considering her statement. “I do not say I welcome their verdict. But the fear is understandable. My people have not been kind to your world. Even you were frightened of my kind once.”

Minette’s memories intruded without invitation. She had been a girl of thirteen during the Third Martian War. She remembered hiding in the shelters of Gonaïves with Grann Louise, who whispered assurances that Papa Toussaint and Papa Dessalines would not allow the island to be invaded again. She had grown up with all the fears about Martians, until attending university and becoming fascinated with courses on them. She’d jumped at the chance to study with the three housed here at the Academy, even if in faraway Marrakesh. It had taken her a while to see them as more than “specimens,” and even longer to see them as less than monsters. But it was difficult to convince others to understand Them as she did.

“You’ve read my thoughts,” she said. “You know what they plan to do.”

“Separation,” the voices whispered.

The word struck Minette as hard as the first time she’d heard it. General Koorang had called for euthanasia. But the Council balked. What they proposed, however, was little different, and perhaps crueler. Martians abhorred individualism. Separated, They would lose their single consciousness: effectively cease to be. Like cutting a human brain into three separate parts. It was a murder of the soul, if not the flesh.

Her guilt pulsed through the bond. “If I hadn’t introduced you to the loa none of this might have happened. Li se fòt mwen.”

“Non!” The sharpness of the voices startled her. “This isn’t your fault. You have given my time in captivity meaning. I would not undo this, even at the rescue of my life.” There was a pause. “I have something to show you. Es’ke ou ta vle promnen?”

Minette frowned at the question. Go for a walk? But she gave a tentative mental nod of acceptance. She barely had time to brace herself before their combined consciousness enveloped her whole. The world broke apart, shattered, then reduced to a pinpoint of light before expanding everywhere at once—taking her with it. When she found her bearings again, she stood on the edge of a calm moss green sea. Strange plants tall as trees rooted in the russet soil, with wide blue petals opened to a sky blanketed by clouds.

“Do you like it?” They asked. The three that were One stood about her, their human forms abandoned, and tentacles gliding freely just atop a field of mustard colored grass. The air here was thick, almost viscous, so that she could feel it hugging her skin. Above them, a flock of featherless creatures soared on broad flat wings that looked more like flippers.

“Se bèl!” she breathed. “What is this place?”

“Home,” They answered, with longing in their voices.

Minette gaped. Mars? But how? They had shown her their world in similar mental visions before, taken her to the sprawling subterranean mechanical cities, to the magma fields beneath the birthing catacombs and to the hanging megaliths that housed the technocratic Central Intellect. But the surface of that Mars was lifeless, scoured sterile by the relentless march of Martian industry.

“This is how it was before,” They explained, hearing her unspoken thoughts. “The memory lay within me, passed on by forebears millions of years dead, for no consciousness truly dies. The loa awakened it again. And awakened this.”

There was a wave of tentacles, and from them flowed a ripple through the air.

Minette gasped. They were symbols and patterns of a multihued cascade, with dimensions that defied description. She reached to touch one with a finger, and the sound of hundreds of chimes trembled the world. In a rush, it all vanished and she was back at the Academy.

“Was that…?” She couldn’t even finish.

“The magic of my people,” They replied.

“You’ve recovered it?”

“That is difficult to say,” They answered. “I have been trying. But it is not easy working with something from which I have been so long separated. It is alien to me and will take time to understand.”

Minette sighed wearily. But there was no time. Once the Council moved to separate the Three, the possibility of Martian magic would die before it even had a chance to begin. “Do what you can,” she told Them. “And if there’s a way I can help, you must let me know.” She was set to say more when a tremor shook her. She turned with the triumvirate to look to the door, sharing their preternatural senses.

“Someone has come to see you,” They said.

Minette withdrew from the One, returning to her singular consciousness and feeling suddenly very alone—her mind still ringing with what had just been uncovered. She was prepared to tell whoever it was to go away. Between housing the loa and joining the triumvirate, her body was weakened almost to the point of exhaustion. But it was rare they received visitors. Fear lanced through her. Was this the Council? Had they come for her Martians already? Gripped with trepidation, she forced herself up on wobbly legs and made her way from the room through the hallway. Reaching a door, she paused to lean against it for strength before pulling it open to reveal a stone courtyard where the Martians were allowed access once a day—and found an unexpected sight.

It was six-wheeled white carriage, pulled by a giant winged ocelot—the very same she had seen beneath the Flying Citadel. The door to the conveyance opened and the haughty beast turned to regard her with four sets of expectant sapphire eyes. Hesitant, Minette stepped forward and climbed inside. Naturally, the carriage was larger within than without, revealing a room lit by flickering tallow candles. At the far end of a long black lacquered dining table sat a familiar figure in a high backed red chair.

“Greetings, Mambo,” the mist-faced woman slurred. “Please, you will sit?”

Minette remained standing. Such offers had to be thought through.

“You may put away any fears, Mambo. True enough, your delectable magic is like sugar to me. It is why I have placed such distance between us—to avoid temptation.”

Minette weighed that. She could walk out now. But curiosity gnawed. What was a councilmember doing here? “I accept that and no more,” she said sitting.

“And no more,” the small woman agreed.

“Your visit is unexpected.”

“Of course. That is why it is a secret visit.” She placed a shushing finger to the place where her lips might have been. “I have come to save your Martians.”

Minette sat stunned. “But you voted with the others.”

The woman waved dismissively. “That cause was lost before it began Mambo. General Koorang will have her way. But perhaps you can have yours. My sisters would like to take in you and your Martians. We would offer them sanctuary, away from the prying eyes of the Nations League.”

For a moment, Minette only stared. Sanctuary? “Where?” she finally managed.

The woman wagged a scolding finger. “A secret, scrumptious scented Mambo, would be less so if I told you. But I am willing to provide passage to this place.”

A hundred hopes flared in Minette before she smothered them with doubt, remembering who (and what) this creature was. “Why? Why do you care about Them?”

“Why, for the magic,” the mist-faced woman admitted openly. “My sisters and I make no pretenses to our desires. We devour magic, savor its many essences. The possibility of Martian magic is most appealing! So exotic and untried. How we would like to taste it!”

Minette grimaced. There was always a price. “So you just want to eat them—drain them of magic.”

The woman sighed. “Our kind are too maligned in your fairytales, Mambo. Contrary to those stories, we are not like the boy with the goose and the eggs of gold. We would not deplete something so precious as to not see its like again. Think of this as an exchange. We offer sanctuary. In turn, we take only small bits at a time—as one would any delicacy.”

Minette’s stomach turned. Bon mache koute chè, she thought darkly. Like soucouyant she’d known back home, these vampiresses couldn’t be trusted. That was certain. But a secret place, where her Martians could be together, and They could explore their newfound magic. That couldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Her mind worked anxiously. There had to be a way. She had negotiated agreements with loa and demigods. She could handle this.

“You will promise by heart, head, and soul that no lasting harm will come to either myself or the Martians in your care,” she stated. “We will hash out a binding compact with a fair exchange between us and your sisters, where any offer of their magic is willingly given. Any breach of our agreement and I will have each of your names.”

Those black eyes above the misty veil narrowed to slits, and Minette thought she heard a low hiss. A minor gale picked up, bending the flames on the candles. To demand the names of their kind was as good as asking them to offer up their cold barren souls. The mention alone was offensive. Minette held fast, however, a few choice charms at the ready in case she needed to make a hasty exit. But the gale fast subsided and the woman slurred pleasantly, if also a bit tight: “Heart, head and soul. Or our names be given.” Her eyes creased into a smile. And Minette had the distinct feeling that beneath that misty veil awaited a mouth of grinning fangs. “Now, crafty little Mambo, let us see to that agreement.”

It was two days later that Minette walked Marrakesh’s night market. The Souq was held beneath a full moon and spread out between alleyways and courtyards covered by colorful tents. Hawkers competed for customers, crying out their wares. Behind her followed three figures, two men and one woman. Some might have noted their odd gait: a glide just above the stone streets more than a walk. But in a city brimming with magic this was hardly worth a second glance. Not that a third or fourth glance would be able to penetrate the glamour now enveloping the three Martians.

They seemed to relish their freedom, casting human eyes in every direction. At the moment, they were taken by a guild of harpy artists whose talons inked henna that bled and slithered across the skin. Under other circumstance Minette might have been sympathetic to their gawping. But as it was, she simply wanted them to move faster.

The mist-faced woman had offered passage and sanctuary, but escaping the university was left to her. There was a dirigible waiting at the dockyards waiting to ferry them off. Minette just had to get them there. So far, that had been a success. Concocting a medsin that left the guards who watched over the Martians standing in an awake-sleeping state was simple. Now they only needed to reach their destination before the ruse was discovered.

As the four stepped from beneath a canopy, the dockyards became visible. And Minette dared to believe they just might make it. Until someone called her name.

“Minette?”

She went still as stone, heart pounding at the familiar voice. Turning, she found herself looking at Aziz. He was striding towards her hurriedly, four Academy guards at his heels. Beside him was another recognizable figure. She cursed. General Koorang.

Panic blossomed in Minette. She thought to shout for her charges to run. She would somehow allow their escape. But as she saw the rifles in the hands of the guards, she faltered. The second the Martians ran they would be cut down. Uncertain of her next move, she resolved to stand her ground as the group reached them.

“Didn’t I tell you?” General Koorang declared boldly. “Didn’t I say she’d try something like this? Your professor’s spent too much time in her Martian’s heads. Can’t find her way out again. Good thing we had them watched.”

Minette glared at Aziz. “You had me watched?”

“And for good reason it seems,” he retorted. “Do you know how much trouble you’re in?” He ran a hand over his mouth, the way he did when thinking hard, then leaned in close. “We can still fix this. We can say the Martians coerced you, did something to your head. Just get them to return. I’ll talk to the general. Maybe your post can be salvaged—”

“I wasn’t coerced,” she said tightly. The nerve of him to think she was simply the dupe of someone else’s machinations. He damn well knew her better than that. “I planned this, Aziz.” The disappointment on his face only made her want to punch it.

“Enough for me,” the general rumbled. She looked over the Martians still cloaked in their glamour. “Arrest her. Then take these creatures back to their cages. If they give trouble, use whatever force is necessary.”

The four guards advanced. Minette glanced back to the dirigible meant for them, wanting to scream in exasperation at the nearness of freedom. So close! So infuriatingly close! Something slender and warm curled about her hand. She turned to one of the Martians, the unspoken request writ plain on that human mask. She consented, joining the triumvirate. The sound of drums flowed through their bond, the rattle of an asson, falling white petals, and the call to the loa of the batterie.

“Open the Door for me,” the voices came.

“There’s no time for this!” Minette said.

“Open the Door,” the voices asked again.

She shook her head. “Now? I don’t understand!”

“You asked how you could help. I think I know. The magic. I have been trying to make it work as a Martian. But I’m not a Martian anymore, am I? My magic was born of two worlds. It is that two-ness, I must embrace. Open the Door. Be our Mambo. And I will show you.”

Minette looked into those unblinking human eyes, that seemed to plead, and did as they asked. Her spirit moved in time to the music. And though she had no tobacco or fine things to give the doorman, she sang:

Papa Legba ouvre baye pou mwen, Ago eh!

Papa Legba Ouvre baye pou mwen,

Ouvre baye pou mwen, Papa

Pou mwen passe, Le’m tounnen map remesi Lwa yo!

Papa Legba came as called. There was a look in his eyes beneath that wide-brimmed hat that Minette had never seen before. He thumbed his pipe and instead of going his usual way, settled down to watch. In the bond, a mix of Kreyòl and Martian tongues sent a current flowing through Minette. One that she’d only recently felt before. Martian magic, both alien and exhilarating. It blended with the song, played along with the batterie and asson, merging her voice and spirit with the three Martians until all became One.

On the ground a symbol appeared all around them, drawn in ghostly white. Damballah’s veve: serpents winding along a pole. The flows of Martian magic superimposed themselves upon it, creating multiple dimensions that folded and bent one on the other, calling on the loa who was their protector.

Papa Damballah appeared. But not like Minette had ever seen.

This Damballah was a being made up of tentacles of light, intertwined to form the body of a great white serpent. And she suddenly understood what she was seeing. The loa met the needs of their children. Papa Damballah had left Africa’s shores and changed in the bowels of slave ships. He changed under the harsh toil of sugar and coffee plantations. And when his children wielded machetes and fire to win freedom, he changed then too. Now to protect his newest children, born of two worlds, he changed once again.

Minette opened up to the loa and Martian magic coursed through her, erupting from her fingertips. The guards, General Koorang and Aziz drew back, as the great tentacles of Papa Damballah grew up from her, rising above the market tents as a towering white serpent: a leviathan that burned bright against the night. For a moment brief as a heartbeat—or as long as the burning heart of a star—it seemed to Minette she saw through the loa’s eyes. The cosmos danced about her. It trembled and heaved and moved.

And then Damballah was gone.

Minette staggered, so weakened she almost fell.

Once again Martian hands caught her, lifted her, supporting their Mambo. She caught a glimpse of Legba and her thoughts reached out to him. Had she seen another face of Papa Damballah? Or was this the birth of a loa? Something old, yet new and different? But the Keeper of Roads didn’t answer. He only smiled—as if to a child asking at the color of the sky. With a flick to the brim of his hat, he vanished.

Minette returned fully to the world to find Aziz staring. His face was rapt, gazing over both her and the Martians—and every now and again glancing skyward. He had seen Damballah. She looked about. All through the Souq, tongues had quieted as eyes watched both she and the Martians—gaping at the phantom glow in the night sky left in the loa’s wake. They had all seen.

“Nice show you’ve put on,” General Koorang growled. “Doesn’t change anything.” Her voice was brusque as usual. But something of it was less sure than before. Oh, she’d seen too. But this woman was too tough—too stubborn—to be quelled by even a passing god.

“Actually, this does change things.” Minette turned in surprise to see it was Aziz. His voice tremored but he turned to address the general. “The Martians have shown that they can create their own magic. You saw it. Felt it. Everyone did.” He gestured to the gathered crowd. “That at the least allows them protection under the Nations League Charter.”

General Koorang’s jaw went tight. To his credit, Aziz didn’t back down—though Minette was certain the woman could go through him if need be. The guards at her side looked on nervous and uncertain. Finally, something about the woman eased: an owl deciding perhaps there were too many mice to snare at once. She spared a withering glare for Aziz before eyeing Minette. “Do what you want with your Martians professor, for now. Just you remember though, laws can be changed.” Then turning on her heels she stalked off, shouldering her way through the crowd.

“She’s right,” Aziz said, releasing a relieved breath. “Things could be different by morning. The world will be different by morning.” He nodded towards the waiting dirigible. “Wherever you were going, you should get there. At least until we can sort all this out.” There was a pause. “I should have backed you.”

“Yes,” she told him “You should have.” And then, “Thank you.” She thought she even meant it.

Not waiting for things to get awkward, she allowed herself to be helped by the Martians to the dirigible. Once inside, she slumped into a seat just as the craft lurched off the ground and watched their slow ascent into Marrakesh’s night and down to where Aziz still stood. He grew smaller as the pulled away, melding into the city. Turning, she looked to the Martians that sat nearby. No longer wrapped in the glamour They regarded their mambo with silver eyes. Expectant eyes. There was more to show her.

When a tentacle extended in invitation, she gladly, eagerly, accepted.

And the Four became One.

 

(Editors’ Note: “If the Martians Have Magic” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 42B.)

Interview: Eugenia Triantafyllou

Eugenia Triantafyllou is a Greek author and artist with a flair for dark things. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Ignyte, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, and she is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can find her stories in Uncanny, Apex, Strange Horizons, and other venues. She currently lives in Athens with a boy and a dog. “The Giants of the Violet Sea” is Triantafyllou’s third appearance in Uncanny, a beautifully crafted science fiction mystery set on a hostile alien world.

 

Uncanny Magazine: I love the worldbuilding in this novella—what were some of your inspirations in creating the fantasy elements? Did you draw on any real-world locations for the setting?

Eugenia Triantafyllou: Being Greek I can say a lot the fantasy elements were extrapolated from Greek culture (past and contemporary) and the country’s landscape.

For example the Eternal Fisherman is a combination of the Orthodox Christian figure of Saint Peter (fisherman, holds the keys to heaven) and a minor sea god from Greek mythology called Phorcys.

The map of this world is in general a reproduction of the Mediterranean Sea, and the Greek coastline with the many small islands. We have the 11th longest coastline in the world, which is quite impressive for such a small country.

The island of Alimnia is modeled on Santorini, which is one of my favorite islands to write about, mostly because it looks so otherworldly.

Uncanny Magazine: What was your favorite part of writing this story? What was the most difficult thing?

Eugenia Triantafyllou: My favorite part was the scene before the funeral procession, when mother and daughter sit on the porch and have a moment of connection and share some truths and stories between them. It just felt very real and very true to write this scene and I was glad to finally be able to give them this small moment of repose. I am very fond of this scene to this day.

On the other hand, the moments of confrontation were my least favorite. I always find confrontation awkward and, to be honest, unpleasant to write, but in this story, it was required in some scenes. But confrontation can also reveal a lot about what makes a character themselves. Part of our character are the things we don’t like and the things we resist or get angry at. In that regard it has helped me level up my characterization skills.

Uncanny Magazine: The depiction of the mother-daughter relationship is beautifully done. Did you know the arc of their relationship when you started writing, or did it develop through their interactions as you were writing?

Eugenia Triantafyllou: As a writer I am a pantser so I rarely, if ever, have things mapped out or planned. That said the novella began as a flash piece from a Codex contest a few years back. The only thing in that flash, was the daughter’s homecoming (the start of the novella) and her very brief reconciliation with her mother. But it felt unsatisfying as a flash, like this relationship and this world had more to give. After the contest was over I kept only the beginning and started writing their exchange, letting the story take me where it felt like going. That’s when the dead brother appeared at the end of the scene.

I ended up writing around 15k words like this and then I stopped for a couple of years because I lost steam in the middle. I had a vague idea of their reconciliation but no clue how it would happen. Then I saw the Uncanny call for novellas and this gave me a deadline to write the rest of the story. I wrote the other half in ten days, which is a huge feat for a slow writer like me, so maybe the story was already finished in my subconscious and was just waiting for me to open the word document.

So one could say that the relationship arc developed naturally through their every day interactions and the challenges that my subconscious threw at them in each scene.

Uncanny Magazine: If you lived in this world, would you want to be a tamer, a tattoo artist, or neither?

Eugenia Triantafyllou: Probably not a tattoo artist because I wouldn’t be able to handle the dead bodies, even though I write horror and especially body horror quite often.

It would be interesting to become a tamer but judging by my character, I would probably get as involved as Melas and would neglect every human relationship I had.

I think the healthiest choice for me would be to own the tavern by the beach where Themis and Clem meet up. It would give me a chance to be close to the venedolphins but also keep a healthy distance.

Uncanny Magazine:The Giants of the Violet Sea” is a wonderful blend of mystery and science fiction genres. Do you like to read mysteries? Do you have a favorite?

Eugenia Triantafyllou: I do like to read mysteries! I didn’t know I could write one though, until the premise came to me. I enjoy reading Sarah Pinsker’s stories when it comes to mysteries with a speculative element. They always make me work hard to figure out what’s going to happen next. I hope I managed to do something similar with this story.

My favorite non-spec author of mysteries is Andrea Camilleri and his protagonist Inspector Salvo Montalbano. The series of books take place in an imaginary city in Sicily and the landscape is quite similar to the one in my novella: sea, islands, rocks. There are also a lot of different dishes. Greece has a very similar landscape and gastronomy, which might be why I feel so engaged by the Montalbano stories.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Eugenia Triantafyllou: I am daydreaming about a gothic horror novel and getting excited about it! I hope to move to the next stage of realizing the book in autumn.

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

 

Áhàméfùla

I realize now that our experiment was great water

Into which I was to dissolve, my cells’ unlocked membranes

Giving me the lie as I grasp at old bonds of matter,

As movement boils from my stretched meat, as thought boils from my brains.

 

Unbearable brightness of the other falling debris

Closer to event horizon marks the singular poles;

I know this truest darkness, my pupils slowly failing me.

Sing me slow soul from vinyl groove, spin spiral of black holes.

 

Sing me again at the last my own name, Áhàméfùla,

My name shall not be lost—Áhàméfùla, again my name;

I hear it again, Áhàméfùla, cold crystal knowledge

Printing with forever ink on general relative same.

 

Names make no mistakes, nor did our fatal experiment.

Call me Áhàméfùla, worm of a universe’s birth event.

 

Note: ÁhàméfùlaÁhà m efùó la. Igbo name and motto literally meaning “my name shall not be lost”

Expanding Our Empathy Sphere Using F&SF, a History

(with thanks to Jo Walton for innumerable examples)

 

One metric of human progress, which fantasy and science fiction have done much to advance, is the expansion over time of our empathy sphere. By this I mean the range of beings that we consider coequally a person with ourselves, deserving of the same rights, dignities, and protections. We are all familiar with the legal expansion of rights over time, the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to marry; this is a parallel expansion of attitudes, what beings fall inside or outside our sphere of empathy, a change most visible in, and often advanced by, literature, especially science fiction and fantasy.

Many genre readers have had the experience of reading older fiction, perhaps More’s Utopia, and his description of the ideal state is chugging along, but then he mentions slavery, or details about the role of women, and it stops feeling utopian even if you yourself are not in the categories being subjugated. Utopia felt utopian and radical to Thomas More’s readers in 1520, as did Robert Graves’s Seven Days In New Crete (US title Watch the North Wind Rise) in 1949, though we cringe seeing his attempt at a matriarchal utopia define ‘free love’ as requiring all women to be sexually available to all men. In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey aimed to present a positive future, but when exclusively male astronauts make video calls to their housewives on Earth, it stops feeling positive to us. Nothing can feel like a utopia to us if beings we consider coequally people with ourselves are being oppressed or treated as second-class members of society, and the number of beings in that category increases over time. When we watch 1950s American TV, it is a mark of progress that so many people now feel uncomfortable seeing scenes with Black women cast repeatedly as maid characters, whose scripted parts reinforce stereotypes and subjugation; in this we feel how America’s empathy sphere has moved. If, when we watch The Jetsons (1962-3), we feel similar discomfort seeing Rosey the Robot in the same maid role, we experience how science fiction has expanded our empathy sphere to AIs even though they do not yet exist.

This development was shaped by thousands of genre fiction stories, many responding to and critiquing each other. As trailblazing works took More’s Utopia head on—such as Samuel R. Delany’s Empire Star (1966) which examines slavery’s legacy through a grand space future is built on the grief of the enslaved alien Lll, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: an Ambiguous Utopia (1974) which asks if utopia can be utopia if even a single being suffers—the questions they advanced transformed living-room conversations about Star Wars films and Jetson’s reruns in ways which, year-by-year, expanded empathy by raising audiences’ standards for how many and what kinds of beings must be free and happy for us to call a world or future ‘good’. Today, no imaginary world or future can feel unambiguously utopian if it depicts the oppression of person-like AIs, aliens, or artificial or magical beings, and a long tradition, from today’s powerful own-voices authors like Ken Liu and N. K. Jemisin back to eighteenth- and nineteenth- century political radicals like Voltaire, Mary Shelley, and Jules Verne’s social satires, have tapped the power of such empathy-expanding conversations to tackle real-world issues of prejudice and exclusion.

One of science fiction’s oldest tools for expanding empathy is its exploration of alternate forms of intelligent life: robots, AIs, androids, aliens, clones, artificial or genetically engineered organisms, etc. Robot rights and personhood have been explored by authors like Asimov (Bicentennial Man, 1976), Sarah Zettel (Fool’s War 1997), Ken MacLeod (Corporation Wars, 2016-17), and early-on at great length by Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy 1951-2) whose comics, films, and novels used robots and aliens to address the roles racism and xenophobia had played in WWII in the post-war decades when censorship in Japan prevented direct discussions. Science fiction has been so effective at crystalizing AI rights as an issue that we now have think tanks and policy seminars dedicated to real-world AI rights, much like those which study gender equality or racial and environmental justice, even though we still don’t have any actual science fiction-level artificial intelligences. Even if we never do have them, we still have empathy for their possibility, and are thoughtfully considering their rights and our potential relationship with them. Cloning too was raised by SF as a civil rights issue long before it became real. It appeared as an object of discomfort and strangeness as early as Brave New World (1931), but over time the consensus tipped steadily toward clones being fully human and deserving of rights, as we see in the contrast between Kate Willhelm’s 1976 Hugo-winning Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang which depicts cloning resulting in imperfect, cognitively-degraded sub-humans incapable of continuing human civilization, and C. J. Cherryh’s 1988 Hugo-winning Cyteen which depicts clones as full people capable of emotion, creativity, and citizenship, and uses them to explore issues of consent and slavery. The numerous moments in iterations of Star Trek that address race and rights via aliens, androids, hybrids, even holodeck characters, reflect how early active engagement with the empathy sphere became and remained an expected signature of science fiction.

Counter-intuitively, the fact that aliens, AIs, clones etc. also appear as monsters or objects of fear in science fiction has often advanced, not weakened, this expansion of empathy. Science fiction’s most influential founding text, Frankenstein, had issues of inclusion and prejudice at its heart, and every SF author since has understood the narrative power of the moment when a being which has been an object of horror in a story is suddenly made sympathetic. Every story which repeats that narrative arc reinforces versions of Shelly’s lesson that we should look deeper at.

Every time a Frankenstein arc from horror to sympathy repeats, it leaves a reader/viewer more prepared to question the monstrousness of the next science fiction creature we see. It is not the case that science fiction never depicts monstrous aliens or evil robots today, but the burden of proof is now on the writer to establish that said beings do not have personhood, or the reader/viewer will sympathize with robots, clones, and aliens by default. Just as modern directors of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, or authors of Wars of the Roses fiction, know to deal carefully with the famous moment when the Kingmaker Warwick kills his own horse before a battle to prove he will not flee, an act which makes modern audiences repelled not impressed; similarly contemporary SF readers and viewers will sympathize with and mourn the death of a robot, clone, or alien by default unless work is done to establish their sinisterness or non-personhood. Writers today have to work hard to keep readers from sympathizing with non-human species right away, as Yusuke Kishi did in his novel From the New World (2008) giving his Queerats a grotesque mole-rat-like appearance and off-putting reproductive politics in order to postpone empathy and achieve the slow-burn of his reverse-Frankenstein narrative. The average reader’s empathy sphere has so thoroughly absorbed aliens, robots, and other inhuman species that we now require them to be firmly established as ‘bad’ for their deaths to be acceptable.anything presented as inhuman or subhuman. Inhuman threats especially in movies like The Mechanical Man (L’uomo meccanico, 1921), The War of the Worlds (1953, from H.G. Wells’s 1887 novel), or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, from Finney’s 1954 novel) enormously increase the power of narratives which reverse them, such as Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956) whose transition from servant through that of monster to that of self-sacrificial hero so impressed audiences because his personhood contrasted the un-person-like SF threats 1950s audiences were familiar with. The reversal of horror and empathy from The Terminator (1984) to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) in which the same robot which was monster in the first becomes sacrificial hero in the second, Godzilla (started 1954) transitioning from threat to defender, even the Alien franchise (started 1979), which aimed to make the most monstrous aliens ever depicted, moved in its sequels to gradually depict moments of empathy and even hybridity between humans and aliens— these stories are powerful precisely because of the monstrousness of the original. The many iterations of Star Wars (started 1977) are inconsistent over time about the disposability and person-ness of clones and droids, partly because the popularity of R2-D2 and C-3PO helped increase the personhood of robots in the popular imagination, and science fiction over these decades moved heavily away from clone disposability toward clone personhood, eventually pushing Star Wars to humanize both clones and storm troopers.

One major tool for expanding empathy lies in changing or reversing point of view (POV). The personhood of computer simulated consciousnesses was not explored as early as that of robots or aliens, and remains less resolved. Prominent treatments include the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, and the Star Trek the Next Generation Moriarty episodes “Elementary, Dear Data” (1988) and “Ship in a Bottle” (1993) the latter responding to fans’ debates over whether switching off a sentient computer being counts as murder. Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1994) begins in the point of view of such a being, a copy of a person running on a computer, and that beginning immediately takes away any doubt on the reader’s part about the personhood of computer copies within that story world. The question of consciousness, and what differentiates the human from a biological machine, has been explored similarly, from La Mettrie’s explosively radical Machine Man (1747), to the ethics of implanting beliefs explored in Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest, to Project Itoh’s Harmony (2008), one of the most influential Japanese SF novels of the 21st century, which asks whether all members of the human species suddenly losing self-awareness, but continuing the same activities without consciousness, is or is not the end of the world. Ageism is also common in fiction, with agency even in adult fiction usually resting in the hands of teens or younger adults, but genre fiction’s speculations about cognition can put the spotlight on the very old or very young, as in Theodore Sturgeon’s baby and child POVs in his collection A Touch of Strange (1958), the old and young figures in Katsuhiro Otomu’s acclaimed Domu: A Child’s Dream (1980-1), the reality-bending old-age dementia in Jo Walton’s My Real Children (2014), and the examinations of growing up influenced by science fiction’s promised futures in Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys (1999-2006) manga and Brian Fies’s graphic novel Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? (2009). All fiction can use POV to make a reader feel close to a character, increasing empathy, but genre fiction can take it father, whether through Hoffmann making a toy soldier into a romantic character in The Nutcracker (1816) or Ann Leckie putting the story in the mouth of a rock in The Raven Tower (2018).

Science fiction also lets us experience the POV of imagined aliens, which can push the limits of personhood even further. In Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (1972) one core section gives us the point of view of triple-gendered aliens who, after they have reproduced, their three parts merge to become one much more intelligent consciousness. Cherryh’s Pride of Chanur (1981) and Cuckoo’s Egg (1985) tell stories in which a human is present but uses alien POVs, immersing us in alien culture and expectations and making the aliens our lens for seeing humanity, very much in the tradition of Montesquieu’s groundbreaking Persian Letters (1721), one of the texts which kicked off the Enlightenment, using an imagined Persian narrator’s perspective on Europe to voice criticisms and calls for change. Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) plunges us into the POV of Tines, aliens whose consciousness exists in multiple bodies at once, and whose collective selfhood will survive losing a body and replacing it with another. Tiptree’s “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (1973) even makes us sympathize with insectoid aliens that eat their mates—a very horror-y type of alien—by using their POV. Hybridity, species mixing, and the possibility of friendship across species are also frequently explored. As early as Ray Bradbury’s “Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed” (1949) Bradbury used the POV of humans transforming slowly into Martians but makes that experience positive, attacking and rejecting common ideas of racial purity which in the 1940s would usually have presented a transformation into something inhuman as negative if not horrific (as in Argentinian genre writer Julio Cortázar’s 1956 POV horror short “Axolotl”). Engagement with hybridity increased over the decades, from the various Star Trek stories which engage with Spock’s hybridity, to twenty-first century own-voices treatments of becoming or befriending the other in works like Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novellas (2015-18), Niky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods (2017), R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War (2019), and N. K. Jemison’s use of Hoa’s POV in her Broken Earth trilogy (2015-17). Hybrid and monstrous POV has also long been a tool in horror writing around the world, used in works like Amos Tutola’s Yoruba-influenced weird tales (earliest 1952), Premendra Mitra’s Bengali fairy tales and SF, Jamaica Kinkaid’s weird horror tales like “My Mother” (1978), and Andrea Hairston’s Will Do Magic for Small Change (2016), all of which use myth and folklore elements to touch or transform POV bodies and challenge ideas of purity and the contamination of the self. Thanks to the rise of film and manga clubs in the 1950s-80s, Japanese horror was one of the earliest non-western genre traditions frequently translated into English, exposing western F&SF to genre works shaped by the early hybrid POVs of Shigeru Mizuki’s Graveyard Kitaro (1960-69) and Kazuo Umezu’s Cat-Eyed Boy (1967-9), via later international successes like the film adaptations of Junji Ito’s Tomie (1997-2000), Q Hayashida’s subtly radical-feminist Dorohedoro (2000-2014), and the stunning POV change in vols. 33-34 of Kentaro Miura’s Berserk (1990-2020, vols. 33-34 2008-9), an acclaimed deconstruction of the tentacle-horror genre examining sexual assault and survivor empowerment. Much of the work that gets us from the pure horror of the first Alien film (1979) to Ripley weeping for the hybrid in Alien Resurrection (1997) and beyond happened via POV, much of it in dialog between SFF and horror, as ever-iterating Frankenstein narratives push more and more challenging imagined beings into our POV experience and empathy sphere.

An even earlier development in empathy beyond our species came with animal points of view, popular in fantastical stories and especially children’s literature in the decades around 1900. The sympathetic point of view of a horse in Anna Sewell’s 1877 Black Beauty led in turn to anthropomorphic animals in works such as Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), which paved the way for more complex animal POVs such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), Richard Adams’s Watership Down (1972), Brian Jacques’s Redwall (1986), and even actively progressive projects such as Jan Needle’s The Wild Wood (1982) which inverts the POV of The Wind & the Willows to challenge class prejudices. In addition to offering tools for allegorizing human experience, as aliens and robots do, fantasy with thinking animals engages with what we may call the fringe of the empathy sphere, i.e. beings we feel deserve some protections due to being near personhood, for example dogs or dolphins. When we look at how mainstream it is today to debate the ethics of factory farming, it is easy to forget that a recently as the 1700s recreational torture of cats and dogs was considered a normal form of children’s play (see Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre), and figures like Descartes and Bentham debated whether animals experience pain at all. That we have moved so quickly from that to organized animal shelters, farm ethics certification, and a population so uncomfortable with animal pain that we created www.DoesTheDogDie.com to let one look up whether films show harm to animals, is testament to how far and how fast the literary path from Black Beauty and The Wind in the Willows to All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) and Finding Nemo (2003) have expanded our empathy sphere to include more and more kinds of animals.

Fantasy has also done much to expand empathy, using POV and other tools. Tolkien triggered a major expansion by giving deep interiority to elves, dwarves, hobbits, and even orcs, something which had been extremely rare in earlier fantastic fiction which tended to present elves and other non-human beings as eerie and othered, objects of wonder or fear not empathy, as in Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) and Hope Mirrlees’s Lud in the Mist (1926). In an older but familiar example, modern audiences of Shakespeare’s Tempest are fascinated by the interiority of Caliban and Ariel, but the text gives them much less internal development than the human characters, and no resolution, without even giving Ariel a single final line to tell us how he feels about his liberation or his (now-former) master at the end—directors of post-Tolkien Tempest productions find audiences are unsatisfied unless supplementary non-verbal development is added to meet this appetite for the interiority of magical creatures. While there were a few pre-Tolkien examples which dove deeper into the interiority of fantasy races, it was in the wake of The Lord of the Rings (complete 1949) that fantasy writers took Tolkien’s deeply-worked inhuman characters like Thorin and Elrond and ran with them, much as SF writers did with robots and aliens. Tolkien’s depictions of magical races certainly reflect his prejudices, but by examining the interiority of fantastic creatures he opened up the road to many radical empathy expansions, including stories responding to the problematic parts of his, such as Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story (Finnish 2000, English 2003), Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path (2011), Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor (2014), as well as to Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban (2016) and many other modern versions of The Tempest on page, stage, and screen.

Another of fantasy’s big tools for empathy expansion, especially popular among female authors, is unexpected changes and reversals of POV in familiar tales. Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) uses the point of view of a dog to interrogate Lovecraft, while Ruthanna Emrys’s Innsmouth Legacy series (2014-18) goes further, using the POV of the Deep Ones to explore antisemitism and the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. Reversing POV in fantasy exploded into mega-popularity in 2003 the with the Broadway musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire and Douglas Smith’s 1995 Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a trend which escalated to the current Disney villain films, but already had a long tradition, in works such as Rumer Godden’s A Breath of Fresh Air (1951 Caliban-POV Tempest looking at the Philippines & colonialism), John Gardner’s Grendel (1971), Susan Palwick’s “Ever After” (1987), Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” (1994), many of the stories in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s fairy tale anthology series starting with Snow White, Blood Red (1993), and Jo Walton’s “On the Wall” (2001) which expands empathy even to an inanimate object via the POV of the magic mirror. Reversing POV in fairytales, myths, and other popular narratives, especially to create feminist or otherwise re-empowering deconstructions, is also a major tool of filk music (folk music produced within the SFF community) used by artists such as Mary Crowell (“Pomegranate Tango” 2006, “Galatea (and Pygmalion)” 2003), Heather Dale (“Mordred’s Lullaby” 1999, “Sedna” 2004, Queens of Avalon collaboration with S. J. Tucker 2016), Leslie Hudson (“Carving Knife” & “Sisters & Sinners” 2016), Seanan McGuire (“Wicked Girls” 2008), and Kari Maaren “Being Watson” (2013).

These are only a few of numerous ways fantasy and science fiction have helped push audiences to question the boundaries of our idea of who is or is not a person coequal with ourselves, aiding the rapid expansion of our empathy sphere in recent decades which makes Robert Graves’s 1950s utopia feel almost as uncomfortable as Thomas More’s 1520s one. When we revisit older works we often find content which now makes us uncomfortable, (the Racism, Sexism or Homophobia Fairies have visited works which tried to be progressive at the time like Heinlein’s “Delilah and the Space Riggers” (1949), Tezuka’s MW (1976-8) or Alabaster (1970-1), and indeed Tolkien) that discomfort is proof that our own personal empathy sphere has moved, often thanks to the very works that bother us now. H. Beam Piper’s positively-intended space empire future Little Fuzzy (1962) was progressive for the sixties by writing about a struggle to protect indigenous aliens from human mining (comparable to Osamu Tezuka’s 1961 Captain Ken, whose US-dominated Mars colony setting also treated diaspora and the cultural assimilation pressures affecting Asian Americans). If we are made very uncomfortable by Little Fuzzy’s supposedly-happy ending being, not independence, the institution of a human-run paternalistic colonial government effectively treating the alien Fuzzies as pets, our ability to see the problems with Piper’s ending and instantly propose a better one depends on SF having explored the assimilation theme repeatedly, the clumsy tales enabling better ones. Little Fuzzy and its imperfections—partly by pushing other writers to want to do better—were part of the genre conversation which advanced through the space opened by Bradbury in 1949 by addressing the US genocide of indigenous people in “Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed,” which, expanded by Delany and Le Guin and many more, helped the genre move via works like Octavia Butler’s Survivor (1978) and Sheri Tepper’s Grass (1989) toward Rebecca Roanhorse’s brilliant and nuanced “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (2017).

In 1979 audiences were stunned by the horrificness achieved in the first Alien film, but by 2014 the Doctor Who holiday special “Last Christmas” had the Doctor declare, “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive!” Sometimes the empathy sphere expands slowly, and sometimes it moves by leaps and bounds, as it has in recent years with the explosion of diversity and own-voices fiction, bringing us so suddenly to a moment when the brilliant disability representation in William Alexander’s “A House on the Moon” (2018) is not even unusual. By extending personhood to so many kinds of beings—to frogs and robots, elves and goblins, clones and mirrors, cyberspace duplicates and tri-gendered aliens—science fiction and fantasy have helped keep the edges of our empathy sphere in a state of constant and rapid expansion for over a century, and never faster than today. Let’s keep it up!

Down in the Aspen Hollow

Content Note: Assault/Intimate Partner Violence

 

We are reborn into light. We push towards it from the darkness, out of the wet winter earth. We are the smallest of our sisters, bone white and thin as a finger. Our roots spread wide, drink deep of the mineral blood of Appalachia. We are ourselves, but also our sisters: a colony of aspens, individual and identical. Spring comes, and summer and autumn. We shake our heads of golden coins.

Annie comes every day to fetch water from the brook. She brings us strange offerings: stones and nuts and robin’s eggshells, scraps of ribbons too short to use, a quill pen cut poorly and discarded. Pretty, unwanted little things, like Annie herself. She secrets them in a woodpecker bore in our oldest sister and speaks lisping nonsense over them, a blessing or a prayer. Our sisters watch her with black eyes of split bark, pleased with her gifts. We are sapling-thin still, hardly taller than Annie. So we are young together, and take her yellow head for one of our own.

Annie is barefoot, always. In the summer her feet are brown and bitten raw by the red mites that tickle in the grass; in the winter they are a bruised bluish white. Her pinafore is grubby from drying dishes. Sometimes, less often, Liza comes with her. Liza is tender as a green shoot, tended like a garden. Annie’s hair is sunlight, Liza’s is moonlight. They have the same noses, the same wide-set brown eyes, but they are children still, and children do look much the same.

Before they wade in the brook, Liza takes off her stockings, her stays, her straw bonnet with its immortal pink silk flowers. Her mother sometimes calls her from the fine house just beyond our sisters, telling her not to spoil her clothes. Liza’s mother loves her little girl like herself; she hardly knows the difference between them.

“What if, in the water, it’s Rawhead-and-Bloodybones.” Liza tucks up her white skirts above her knees, but stays on the bank. “What if it’s an old dead skull with no skin, and long greasy hair, and he pulls me into the water with his horrible yellow teeth and I never go home. My mother said he would get me if I played in the brook.”

“Then only be nice,” Annie says, and wades into the green water up to her waist. “Say, ‘Of course Mr. Rawhead-and-Bloodybones. What a generous monster you are. ‘I’ll wash you and dry you and lay you down easy.’” She chants this, a haunting windy sound. “Then he’ll send you home with gold and jewels.”

Liza shudders. “I could never.”

The days are long and hot and the air is thick with the haze of burning leaves. All that red autumn, they skip stones, play ninepins with fir cones, catch fireflies in Liza’s straw bonnet. Annie likes to pretend that they are sisters, and Liza plays along.

Winters come, and springs and summers, one after another like birds flying south. Liza grows up slim and tall and graceful; she bends with every breeze. Annie is short and sturdy, strong as a fisher cat. Liza’s feet are petals, her hands are doves. Annie’s hands are red and chapped from lye soap, her feet are tough as tanned hide. Still, the girls resemble one another strangely, like a reflection in moving water. They are not as alike as our sisters, but anyone who looks at their faces together might wonder at the relationship.

They are never together now. Liza, who loves her mother as herself, who hardly knows the difference between them, will not have her mother shamed this way. When she sees Annie, she leaves the room. Annie is good enough for fetching water, for lighting the fire or scrubbing dirty linens, but she is a runaway housemaid’s by-blow, not a friend, and certainly not a sister. Liza’s father has only one daughter.

Annie comes to us alone now, sometimes to fetch water, and sometimes only to beat her fists against the earth, to run her devils out, to stand in the center of our sisters and scream herself hollow. She is a talking child, and having no one else, she talks to us.

“I want someone to love me so much, they hardly know the difference between us. I want to love someone so much I disappear.”

She brings red-cheeked, straw-haired boys to the dim, still spaces between us, and they lay their heads on our sisters’ knees. Annie wraps herself around the boys like a choking vine, drinks them down like water; she wants to lose track of whose heart she hears beating. She gives so freely of herself that she frightens them.

Every time they stop coming back, Annie goes deep into the close green company of our sisters and cries very hard for a day. She has a strangling kind of love, she tells us, a drowning kind of love. She wants too much, too quickly. Then she dries her eyes, goes home, and falls in love again.

There is always water to be drawn and carried—water for the coffee in the morning, for the washing on Saturday, for family baths on Sunday. Water for the Colonel’s horses and Cook’s chickens, and to dampen the red clay dust so it does not touch Liza’s skirts.

That’s how the stranger finds our Annie, fetching water, on the path she’s worn with her bare feet. She hears his horse whicker, a false note among the birdsong, and steps off to make way for him. The light casts lacy green shadows across his face.

“Spare a drop for a thirsty man?” the stranger asks her. She dips a tin cup into a pail, lifts it up to him. Their fingers meet around it.

He does not look dangerous. He is a young man, not handsome, with a patchy moss of beard clinging to his narrow face. Annie only cares that he looks at her with both eyes.

“That’s a heavy burden for a little thing like you,” he tells her, though Annie has been walking this path, carrying this water, all her life without him.

“It is,” she agrees, lifting her chin to meet his gaze square on. “What will you do about it?” So he slides down from his bay mare and takes the yoke from her shoulders. His neck is reedy, his hands soft and white and ink-stained. He spills more water than Annie would, but she doesn’t mind.

“Jonathan Burke,” he introduces himself.

“Annie Wise.” She lets her mouth fall open when she smiles, bares her small pearl teeth.

“You have the look of the Allens,” he says. “Are you related to the family?”

Annie shakes her head, then smiles, shrugs. She is not good at keeping secrets.

The fifth or sixth time that they meet again by the brook, by arrangement, Annie lays her head in John’s lap and they play the staring game: her eyes hold his eyes hold her eyes. The game makes the storm-heavy sky and the birdsong and the murmur of green water darken and dim, makes Annie feel larger and the world smaller, until she cannot tell whose eyes are whose, whose heart she hears beating. Sometimes John blinks first, sometimes Annie gets impatient and pulls him down to her, pressing kisses to the rough stubble of his neck.

“What would you do if I didn’t love you,” she asks him. “How would you make me?” He demonstrates, and she pushes him. “No,” she says. “I mean, what would you give me? Would you give me jewels and fine clothes? Would you die for me? Would you kill for me?”

“Guess I’m lucky you already love me,” John says.

The summer is hot, and they take off the rest of their clothes and wade into the lively brook. Annie wears John’s hat, to make him laugh.

While he still bathes, she takes his jacket from the pile of clothing, breathes in the warm animal smell of him, and goes through his pockets. His handkerchief is a finer weave than the rough cotton of his shirt—a gift, perhaps. She takes a fingernail of tobacco from his leather pouch and tries to brush it against the inside of her cheek, as she has seen John do. His pocket watch is silver, his father’s name picked out in black tarnish and the filigree worn smooth with time. She takes that too, to see if he will notice. She has given him everything she has, and expects his everything in turn—what is the unfairness in that?

“Will the Colonel acknowledge you?” John asks from time to time. Annie lets him think he might. And might he not? Perhaps a daughter married to a clerk, with prospects, would make her acceptable to Colonel Allen, who she never dares to think of as her father.

Annie is not good at keeping secrets. She smiles too much, she daydreams, she puts her hand on her trunk and waits to feel a minnow-tickle inside her. She has felt this before, but it did not live. She wants it to be a girl, to love so much she hardly knows the difference between them. She goes to fetch water, but instead lies in the shifting green light beneath our sisters and says names like spells: Laura. Delia. Pearl. Rose. She comes home hours late, in the dark, and lies to Cook about seeing a bear.

Liza finds her the next morning on her hands and knees outside the chicken coop, heaving up her morning toast.

“Were you drinking the Colonel’s port wine again?” Liza sniffs. Her face is Annie’s face, but cleaner and crueler.

“No—I’m saving that for my wedding.” Annie can cross any word from her sister.

“Who would marry you?”

“That would be telling,” Annie smirks, pleased to have something Liza wants.

For a few days after, she feels Liza’s eyes on her as she lights the fire, as she clears the plates and feeds the hens. She does not mind being a problem to solve; love is only notice, beauty is whatever draws attention. But Liza is good at putting her sister from her mind. When she stops seeing Annie again, it’s like the sun going behind the clouds.

When Annie is lonely, she rescues little things for her collection. She comes out into the forest with her treasure tight in her fist. Annie moves lightly among our sisters, takes one branch in her hand, then the next. We pass her each to each like a country dance. Liza watches the stirring of our silver-green crowns, and follows behind her.

Liza wears shoes of stiffened silk, pretty and costly, hardly better than being barefoot. The damp ground soaks through the soles and mud limns the embroidery flowers. She finds Annie hiding something in her old place: the woodpecker bore of our oldest sister.

Liza seizes Annie by the elbow then, yanks her back a step. She tries to pry her fingers apart, and they whirl around hand in hand, like a game they played as children. Something silver flashes in the grass and Liza pounces.

“You’re a sly one! Is that my hairpin?”

Annie shrugs sullenly. Why shouldn’t she have one little hairpin, when Liza has a father? Why shouldn’t she have any poor thing she can grasp? Liza reaches into the opening, and we feel her clumsy, probing fingers drawing it out piece by piece: Annie’s trove of saved and stolen coins. Thimbles and salt spoons and keys that leave rust smudges on Liza’s white hand. A faded pink silk flower. A heavy silver watch with “Burke” etched on the casing. Liza pauses at that.

“Where did you get this?”

“It was a present. John gave it to me. Because he didn’t have a ring yet.”

“Why would John Burke give you a ring?”

“We’re getting married—any day now he’ll ask me. He’ll have to ask me.” She lifts her chin, lays her hand against the bud in her belly. She has something Liza does not, she thinks. She feels no shame in it.

Liza’s brown eyes cloud over in thought. The Burkes are poor, but respectable. If Annie marries John Burke, she will not be a servant. Annie will stand beside her, at the milliner’s perhaps, at church dinners and recitals. Liza’s mother will see Annie in shoes and stockings, her face washed, her hair dressed. Everyone would see the resemblance.

This could not be borne. Annie must not marry him.

It is a long summer this year, like summers when they were children. Liza teases her mother into having a picnic. There will be hampers of cold chicken, cucumbers, pigeon pie, a white cake loaded with strawberries and cream. Liza and a dozen other young people of good families tramp into the forest, and Annie stands in the garden and watches them go. John Burke goes with them, and he never looks at Annie.

In the cool green privacy of our sisters, they are noisier than young foxes; they flirt and squabble and sing. The boys twist off our thin branches to switch each other with; their heavy shoes bite into the mossy path. Liza leads them to Annie’s secret place, and they sprawl on the ground and eat cold chicken with their fingers. One of the girls sneaks sherry into the lemonade, and they play at having drunk more than they have.

There are games—“Pig in the Parlor,” “Sugar and Tea,” and “Needle’s Eye”—excuses for the boys to grab the girls around the waist, and for the girls to let them. They make a ring, girls on the outside and boys on the inside, singing, “Skip-em-a-loo” while Liza, the odd girl out, laughingly breaks up the partners. There is no fiddle, so it isn’t really dancing.

The afternoon light cools and thickens to amber, gathering in the white shoulders of our sisters. Liza makes a show of seeing something shining in the trees.

“What’s this?” She draws it out theatrically. “John, this watch has your name on it.”

“I thought I lost that swimming,” John says, reaching for it. Liza smiles silkily, her suspicion confirmed.

“Perhaps a squirrel took it,” one of the girls suggests. Liza drops the watch through John’s outstretched fingers, and a bit of folded paper falls from the worn silver case.

One of the boys snatches it. “Some squirrel! ‘Missus Jon Burke,’” he reads aloud in a high, flowery voice. “‘Missus Any Burke. Anny Wise Burke.’” Annie’s childish scrawl is blotted and uncertain, she has traced the letters of John’s name from the watchcase.

“Not a squirrel—a pack rat!” Liza says archly, pulling out Annie’s treasures, her bits of frayed ribbon and bright eggshells. She has rubbed the pennies nearly smooth, as if she valued the shine of them more than what they could buy.

“Just like your father wants, Burke! Marrying money!” All the boys laugh at that, and John’s neck turns red. He crumples the bit of paper in his fist.

The others tire of the game soon; they pack up the remains of the picnic and kick Annie’s treasures under the roots of our sisters. John reaches for the watch, and Liza stops him with a gentle hand on his arm.

“Have a care for Annie Wise,” she tells him in a sour milk voice. “Last Spring, she told Paul Toller he had to marry her, had to, you understand. And of course he said no—it could be anyone’s. Every boy in Greenbriar County could be—well, the end of the year came around, and what do you think happened? Nothing. She said she lost it. Convenient. She’ll do it again, see if she doesn’t.”

He takes this in wordlessly, but his face darkens in rage, his hands clench in his pockets. Liza picks up the watch and runs a finger over the blackened filigree. “The Burkes were one of the first families of Greenbriar County. I don’t like to see the name tarnished.” She presses the watch into his palm then, lets her fingertips linger on the inside of John’s wrist. She is the Colonel’s acknowledged daughter, and she is smiling at him through her lashes.

It’s an ordinary evening. They make no unusual plans. They lie in the laps of our sisters, in the deepening shadows by the brook. John takes out the watch, drops it on Annie’s chest.

“What’s this?” she asks artlessly, blinking up at him.

“You know what it is. Why did you take it?”

“You gave it to me,” she insists.

“Like Hell I did! My father’s watch?”

“But when we’re married, we’ll share everything.” Annie wraps her fingers around the watch. It hasn’t been wound, doesn’t tick.

“Don’t be stupid, Annie. I have to marry someone with money. You know how my family is.”

“But we could be family,” she says eagerly. “We will be family.” She takes his hand and presses it to her belly. He snaps it back, quick as a curse.

“How do I know that’s mine?”

“It’s yours.”

“Well I won’t marry you, so you can just get rid of it like you did the last one.”

She slaps him across the face. They stare at one another for a moment, breathing quickly. He seizes her wrist in a crushing grip, and before he can take it back she flings the pocket watch out into the dark water. It barely makes a sound before it sinks.

He takes her face between his hands then, as if to kiss her, and she leans into him instinctively. He slides his hands down and digs his thumbs into the soft pulse of her neck.

Her breath rises and falls frantically, helplessly; the scream is trapped in her throat like a fish in a net. Her hands clutch at his forearms, she tries to pull him away but his arms are dead wood. Her nails bite into his wrists, she swings free to claw at his face, and he pushes her down, pins her arms between them. She thrashes, throws all her weight against him, but he lays heavily across her legs and torso, presses her into the dirt with his body. They play the staring game, while the world darkens and dims around Annie, while the blood beating in her ears drowns out the shrill of cicadas and the shush of moving water and the dry mournful clamor of our sisters, shaking our golden heads in a high wind.

In the deepest part of the river, the green murk holds Annie like a lover, dances her limbs in the current. Her mouth is a slack O in her blackened face, and the water moves through her like wind through the washing. She expands, contracts, a parody of breath.  Minnows weave through her algae-slick hair and nibble at the waxy flesh of her nose and ears. Her brown eyes have long since been eaten away; there is no light in them. The sodden white bark of her comes away in sheets, settles in the black earth of the river’s bottom. Her dress has rotted, she sheds her yellow leaves, she is whittled thin and bare as our sisters in winter.

Our roots drink the blood of Appalachia.

Our sisters along the river’s edge bury our fingers in the clay and draw her into us. We absorb the rich, loamy decay of her. We swallow her like we swallowed her thimbles and salt spoons and stolen keys; she has hidden her wasted heart in us, and it reaches out to her now. Annie becomes larger, the world smaller. She is consumed, transformed, sublimated into the airy reach and rambling sprawl of an aspen grove.

We awaken with our heads in the sky. We are various, expansive, we see from one hill to the next. The air is purer, the sun brighter. We remember being a girl the way we remember winters—a single short, cold day. We remember her joys and her fears, her hollow rages, her desperate hunger, her thwarted love. We remember Liza’s spite, and we remember John’s hands around our neck.

“She’s run away, that’s all,” Liza tells her mother. “With one of her fellows. It’s better this way, isn’t it?”

With Annie gone, the Colonel’s wife doesn’t know who will fetch the water for the coffee, for the chickens, for the Sunday baths. They hire a girl from Spooner, but she doesn’t live in, so sometimes Liza must walk to the brook to fetch water on a chill morning or a moonless early evening.

We watch Liza with scarred bark eyes. Our branches are dry claws, corpse-bare. The wind grinds our bones together. Wordless, we speak.

Sister, he killed me. Sister, you killed me.

John walks Liza home from church. She has him now, so that we would not, and what will she do with him? She never meant to keep him. He is always touching her, his hand on her back to guide her through doorways, to help her down from carriages, brushing imaginary smuts from her hair or her cheek. She ignores him, and he likes it. Nothing that can be easily had is worth having, he says. Anything given freely can be denied as freely, and so is not really yours.

A poor grub of a man, he seems to us now—a dumb, hungry creature that finds a wound and gorges till it bursts. He talks more to Liza than he did to us, because she does not want him. Surely she is safe from him, a girl of means, of good family. But he is always nearby, watching her, smiling his toothless predatory smile. He never mentions Annie. Liza does once, and he looks at her blankly. He is no actor—he has forgotten my name.

Sister, he killed me. Sister, you killed me.

She hears it as if we press our lipless mouth to her ear—our voice on the river, in the shivering branches, in the keen of the wind. She hears us as if we stand beside her, and don’t we, aren’t we always beside her, in the trees that cast long shadows across the garden, that grow ever closer to the fine house at the edge of the wood?

Sister, he killed me. Sister, you killed me.

She sleeps with wax in her ears, but we are not whispering in her ears. Liza grows thin with exhaustion, bruises around her brown eyes.

She knows what he’s done. She has to know. She goes to the brook. She does not know what she is looking for. Liza gathers up her dress, crosses carefully from stone to stone.

A snag parts the brook; the water breaks white around something sharp and strange. It catches on her skirts, and she trips and falls flat into the shallow brown water. Liza cries out, staggers up, drags herself toward the muddy bank. Up from behind her she pulls Annie’s drowned bones in a rush of murky water. Annie’s fleshless head rolls to the side, Liza’s skirt caught between its mossy teeth.

Liza screams, a shrill childish sound.

“John Burke! It was John Burke!” Liza can say nothing else. It is hard for her to tell her own voice from ours, so she speaks as little as she can now. She starts when she’s spoken to, cringes when touched, chokes on her own breath. She will never stop hearing us, sister to sister, a babble of dry windy voices knowing things she should not know, no matter she crosses a sea, builds herself a brick house, uproots every green thing that finds her. She hears us whispering in her blood, the kinship she never owned, the only kin she will ever have. The Allens are cut down year by year; Liza alone lives a long life, in a forest of voices she will not answer.

The bailiff brings John to the river. The townspeople follow like flies to meat, morbidly curious. The pile of Annie’s bones is pitifully small, and John’s eyes are flat and indifferent. He looks at them like a rotted tooth he has pulled, like a cat he has drowned. Too bad, too bad, but what else could be done?

“I didn’t know an Annie Wise,” he says, when the bailiff asks. “Wasn’t she the Allens’ maid?  Likely she got herself in trouble, you know, and did it to herself.” No one finds it odd, that he should know this—it is a common story, after all. The Burkes are an old family, people say. John Burke is a fine boy, a young man with prospects. They dig a grave five feet long and five feet deep. She will be buried in the Quaker meeting place, because no churchyard will take a woman pregnant and unmarried.

But when they take what is left of Annie to be buried, everyone can hear it, a musical rattle from the bones. They find it wedged inside her ribcage—a silver pocket watch, rusted shut, with “Burke” scratched into the surface. For months she has laid atop it in the soft muck of the riverbed.

They come among us with axes then, and we feel the shuddering bite of metal, the ache of saw-toothed blades. We have grown as tall as we ever will, Annie and our self, her age-mate, her yellow-headed sister. We are wrenched from the earth then, and they tie us alone to a wagon.

The town of Spooner is a muddy scar on the mountain. We have been here before, as a girl, but the colors and the light are wrong. There is nothing here we want anymore. The air is acrid with wood smoke and ripe with many human bodies living close together. We have never been so far from our sisters, in this glaring-bright place that is all path, where green things have been flattened by horses and carriages and many busy feet.

They carve us into a gibbet so raw it weeps sap. We can feel the world—the light and color and air of it—only numbly, and at a distance. We can feel ourselves desiccating, stiffening. We are ghosts together now: a girl that became a forest, a forest that became a girl.

John is taken to the scaffold, the hemp noose dropped over his head. The rope is a tether between us. The crowd hums with the high hungry energy of a wasp’s nest—there has not been a hanging in Spooner for too long. Liza is not permitted to attend, but the Colonel loves a just execution, the hypocrite. His face is hard with proprietary anger for the man who stole his maid, the property of his house. John’s beard has grown up his cheekbones, his nails are black and bitten. He looks more monstrous to the people now than he did when he looked at my drowned bones and denied me. Dead, Annie has become a good girl again, their virtuous darling, their unloved green maid. In the songs, John is the only villain.

The ground drops out from beneath him, and his head jerks back.

We play the staring game: John’s eyes look through us to the hammered steel sky overhead, his feet swim in the empty air. His breath rasps and the blood ruptures in his eyes, and we do not look away, not while the sound of the crowd fades to a thin vibration, not while the air clots in his throat, not while the world narrows and stills and vanishes with us.

We are reborn into light. The earth is noisy around us, full of searching roots, living water, the small industries of insects. We are the youngest of our sisters, but we know what the eldest knows. Our sisters nourish us, speak to us, love us like themselves. Summer comes, and autumn and winter. We mature and multiply, we are the size of a hillside, of a mountaintop. We spread like a story. Every spring, we bloom with catkins like foam on water. We dip the downy seedheads into the brook where we died.

Presque vue

People often spoke about hearing voices: commands, cajoling, or observations made by a chorus of individuals, a collective. But for Sam, it was always just one voice. It had sounded vaguely like her mother’s, and as she fought her way through girlhood and found the certainty and wholeness of identity waiting for her in womanhood, the voice sounded more and more like her own. It wasn’t the voice that had changed, but her. Still, it was as much a part of her life experience as the toes she stuffed into Converse All-Stars, then heels, then flats; or the fingers that cramped over crayons, then cramped over medium .7 mm Sharpie three-color pens, then cramped over PC and MacBook keyboards.

Dad called it her Conscience, but he was wrong. And Mom called it her Intuition, which felt closer to the truth but still wrong. It told her when to unclench her fists, and it uncurled the innards of a math proof, all in the same timbre. It was silent for her first kiss like it was paying witness, and the same happened at her wedding a decade later. Mom and Dad, beaming, while the voice sat oddly silent.

It seemed loudest whenever numbers had been put in front of her. Well, not loudest, but clearest. In high school, it gave her the answer to trigonometry problems far too quickly, too quickly in fact for her to show her work. And it showed her where holes could be poked in the arguments of her classmates at university.

For a period of time, she tried experiments of her own on the voice, trying to pinpoint its frequency, trying to plot its occurrences on the graph of her life, testing for which situations should belong in the control group. If the voice was silent at her wedding, but loud and clanging when she punched Brandon in the nose in third grade, did it have something against boys? If the voice had hurried her through school problems in middle school but had seemed to become more…patient…as soon as high school was in her rear view, what did this say about the nature, the character, of the voice?

But then it seemed the voice only got better at hiding itself. Where words might be or where she might have felt pushed in one direction or another, toward confrontation or away from it, there was instead an image or a burst of color or some other synesthetic gust. Almost like the voice’s bearer was running away from her.

A thesis adviser once took her into her office and asked her about it, asked her how she managed to work as swiftly as she had. But she cautioned Sam against doing what she was doing, filling the time freed up by working efficiently with more and more work. “The body is keeping track of all of this, Samantha. You’re more than just a mind on fire.”

Is that what this is? Sam wanted to ask her. Had so much of her life been the simple product of a brain fever, a prolonged hyperobject of a manic state? Those moments when it truly did feel as though the space behind her eyes were overheating, was that not the voice announcing itself? Was it as simple as a dice-throw gene-quirk of her brain chemistry?

In that thesis adviser’s office, her mind’s fingers grasped for an answer, collected puzzle pieces—this voice or other presence, the furious pace at which she worked, the ways her problem-solving skills seemed to defy social convention—and alighted on neurodivergence. “I feel like I’m on borrowed time,” she told her thesis adviser, which was all she could think to say. But it was the first time she attached to her Difference a terminal diagnosis. She’d never heard of this symptom of brain cancer, and it didn’t feel like any side-effect of early onset dementia. Nights spent on WebMD, afternoons with a therapist, phone calls with Mom who seemed the closest to naming the thing, all of it produced wrong answers. Or, rather, answers that felt wrong. Sam’s experience, her life, expressed in an equation, and she’d spent so much of it searching for X, trying to assign a numerical, intelligible, value to that unnamable quantity, that singular voice in her head.

On the eve of her dissertation defense, she saw the look in her thesis adviser’s eyes, like Sam were some animal with a broken wing she’d tried to heal, like Sam were in need of aid or at least consolation, the type given to those nearing their end, and it had only deepened the notion in Sam’s mind that what ran through her was not necessarily poison but rather some electric current that would eventually fry her beyond functioning. She’d been gifted with an outsized amount of experience points, but the price had been her health. “Traditionally, with auditory hallucinations,” the psychiatrist at her intake told her, “the voice or voices narrate one’s thoughts and/or actions.”

“There’s only one of her,” Sam replied, and it was the first time that Sam felt the thing as separate. Venom that spoke of a cosmic snakebite it could be sucked back through.

So she took to arguing with the voice in her quieter moments, seeking the solitude of a lab or a study in a barren condo, hoping to cast the thing out. No scientific breakthrough was worth the bruises on her brain. No longer her almost-conscience or almost-intuition, no longer her guide. Now, an intruder. Fermented fruit she was unable to expel. Neither drink nor drug, neither prescribed nor purloined pill, none of it worked to excise the thing from her. Each new method only served to strip her of control. Therapy ended. Angela left. The voice persisted.

Sam’s mother saw her suffering, and Sam saw her mother seeing her suffer and was grateful, in the moment, that she had no children of her own, because she couldn’t imagine watching your issue endure hurt you couldn’t do a thing about, watching and wanting nothing more in the world than to trade places with them.

“I’m okay” and “It’s not your fault” didn’t feel like lies so much as not the whole truth, the same way Conscience and Intuition weren’t false monikers for the voice so much as describing only a sleeve of the whole outfit. But it was what Sam told her mother, even as her mother grew ill, and when she lost her voice, she would look at her daughter and she would look at her husband, and Sam would wait for the question to pop up in her eyes. Would wait for this old woman to get to the point where she had forgotten her family, and maybe she had but every time she saw either of them in her hospital room, she smiled and hugged them and Sam knew that somehow her mother knew that she loved her, even if she had forgotten that Sam was her daughter.

Sam’s former partner would call on occasion but more often text, and Sam no longer waited for the voice to tell her whether or not to answer. The voice was what had driven Angela away. So sometimes, undecided, Sam would refuse to answer the call or wait before responding to the text and sometimes, undecided, uncoached, she would pick up on the first ring.

And one day, the phone rang at the same wavelength as Sam’s hurt, still raw from the news of her mother’s passing, and Sam picked up and they talked and talked and talked, and if Sam had taken just a second to pause, she might have noticed something driving her, directing her through the forest of words, guiding her toward reconciliation. She might have heard a voice.

On the cusp of reunion, that bone-setting, that reunion of broken parts, which is what a high school math teacher had told her algebra meant, she asked her father if it was the right thing to do. And she told him, “I need your voice, Daddy” because the voice in her head, always directing her, always giving her the answer, had exhausted her. And she had expected him to say something like “Listen to your heart” or “What does your gut tell you” like everyone else or maybe he would tell her about how special she always was, how different, how brightly she burned, and that it would be that other person’s honor to be a part of her life.

“I used to think that tip of the tongue,” he said, “and that feeling of knowing were two different things. Tip of the tongue, well, that’s lexical access, shows it happens in stages. You remember syllabic stress or maybe a homonym. You know the word you’re looking for starts with the letter b and ends with r. And, finding that word eventually, you go on this journey from anguish to relief. Could take you two seconds, could take you twenty years. Then, feeling of knowing, that’s something else entirely, right? You feel like you know something, you know you know something, you just can’t quite find it in your head. But one thing your mother taught me was that sometimes to find the thing you’re looking for, you have to look around. You have to look away. And maybe the thing in your head is that thing just out the corner of your eye. That thing you can only catch by glancing at it sideways. You almost see it. And the whole time, it feels like something you’re trying to reach, but sometimes, it’s the thing that’s trying to reach you.”

He talked like that more and more, like a proof missing some of its connective tissue, his sentences stars dotting the sky with no lines drawn between them to articulate constellations. So Sam let the paragraph her father had murmured to her on his front porch sit in her head for years and years and years and had forgotten it even as she gave birth to her and Angela’s child, a beautiful, brown bundle of fire. And Sam’s father’s words lay dormant in Sam throughout the girl’s adolescence and even as she declared her major in college, then later into her career as a particle physicist, and one day Sam was sitting in her father’s chair on her father’s front porch with Angela and their daughter had come to visit and Sam was listening to their daughter talk about time and the future and the past and scientific breakthroughs and new modes of communication and how some day it would be possible to communicate directly with one’s ancestors, to peer into their minds, to witness them, that, even within the bounds of the Novikov self-consistency principle, human agency, human life was possible.

Sam listened to the rhythm of the words, catching only a few concrete thoughts here and there, smiling at the sound of a familiar. Something almost heard, a sound just out the corner of her eye, and she wondered, as she closed her eyes to the sun, if maybe this is what her granddaughter might one day sound like.

Radioactivity

Data is not an element that has ever been bloodless.

 

Ranunculus aquatilis and radium.

One has petals that are pale in vases and reflect moonlight

the other walks in empty spaces, and footprints glow behind it.

 

Marie Curie was poisoned by her blood.

She kept radium in her pocket

it bit her with bright teeth,

with bright thin needle teeth

and experimental years.

 

(I wonder if her hair fell out.

I’ve never thought to check.

 

I don’t suppose it matters.

She did it to herself:

decay and dignity were isotopic together.

 

Ignorance, or implicit permission?)

 

Marie’s shoes have flowers in them:

water buttercups, from one of the last days she spent with Pierre,

gathering flowers in the country.

Then he died in the street

the buttercups still fresh in their vase.

To keep them, Marie pressed the petals between books

but there they were hidden in covers, out of sight

and not nearly painful enough.

 

She pressed them in shoes instead,

her whole weight come down upon them, lightly

translucent.

 

This is loss, she thinks: the feel of cellulose,

imbued with the slow, warm itch of laboratory,

the particles she transfers from element to flesh to funeral flowers.

 

(Her cookbook is kept in a lined box now.

It’s too radioactive to live outside of lead, so they say—

but when the covers open up, buttercups sprout from the round

radioactive prints of fingertips. The petals catch in the book’s spine

and fill the box with the scent of watery stems.)

 

The shoes she wrapped up and stuffed in the back of wardrobe,

because flowers following behind made her feel too much a sacrament.

There’s nothing sacred about grief. It’s revolting. A mess in the streets,

blood in the gutter, bones shifting uneasily and broken under skin.

He was run over, the husband who brought her buttercups,

run down in the street, and all she has of him are shoes stained with radium

 

(everything she touches becomes half a life, half alive)

 

and water flowers, wild flowers, that come alive in footprints.

 

 

(Editors’ Note: “Radioactivity” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 41B.)

 

After The Tower Falls, Death Gives Advice

You tuck the past into your bones,

a kindling of ruin and rain,

a hollow that rings

in the ocean of your heart,

fear skipping

up your spine, punctuated

by the ghost

of every broken promise—

you say,

some things break,

and how could brokenness 

be beautiful?

 

But here is the lesson

of stained glass,

and trialed hearts,

and bridges

built between souls:

there’s a wild song

still singing in your blood,

listen,

listen to the howl of it,

the keening truth

made of unlocked hearts,

the way the wreckage

unfurls into a promise,

light hitting slant

through what caged you

in the dark—

a spark of something

burning bright

of its own accord,

unhurried

by night-ache,

untroubled

by grief-hollow

and hopes

that snapped like bones—

that was then

and this is now,

so why can’t it be

beautiful?

 

Burn the candles, one by one,

until they are clear-flamed,

until the wax runs

a new river, one that worships

the earth and sky

in equal measure, a balance

between new and old, held aloft

by what might be—

imagine it for three heartbeats,

ask yourself,

what if?

 

Then reach for mortar and pestle,

lay despair gently on the altar,

this burden of weathered heart-songs,

this scorched history

of once-rung bells

and a stumbling dark,

a gift of graceless execution,

soul-arson

and all its smoke trappings,

set down that ruinous tithe—

grind all of it to dust,

scatter it in handfuls to the stars,

and let the wreckage return

to the universe:

you’re worth more than just surviving,

you don’t have to sleep

in the remains

of what shattered you

from yourself—

your imperfect,

wrecked and reckless

heart

is still divine.

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