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How the Girls Came Home

Otter

When Amalia’s father shows her the shoes this morning she wants to cry. She wants to laugh. Call him a fool. But she doesn’t. She is too tired for that.

The shoes are leather with delicate lines and pointy toes. Elegant shoes for elegant feet. They might have suited her too if she had yesterday’s feet. Chicken’s feet. But today her feet are that of an otter’s, stubby and covered in wet, glistening fur. They are webbed with skin. Not quite a duck and not a ferret either.

Her legs are still human down to the anklebones. The thick, reddish fur of the otter’s feet begins from the soft curve of Amalia’s ankles.

Where her human skin stops, bone and muscle twist and take shapes. Shapes that should not be there. Her feet are only sometimes covered in fur. Other times they are sleek and lustrous as if draped in sequins, or cloaked in glossy, kaleidoscopic feathers.

Each pair of feet has its own beauty. So she takes time to examine every new version of her feet, love them for what they are. Learn what she can do with them each day and start over the next, and the one after that. Her mother taught her this.

Amalia does not feel the same about the shoes in front of her. She circles the table, eyeing them. Her father could not have made them. He is a carpenter. Leather and thread are not the tools of his trade. And the pungent smell that clings to them leaves only one answer.  The same as every time.

“Was the Artisan here?”

Her father shifts in his chair and with his handkerchief pats the sweat from his creased forehead.

“He left these at the doorstep for you,” he mumbles. “Good lad.”

Of course.

The Artisan always brings goods with him when he returns from his journeys around the county, collecting the right materials for his creations. His family has old roots in this place, but his craft has taken him much farther than their small village. His carriage—pregnant with precious wares—moans and grinds against the stone-paved roads of their village in his return.

Every time he brings a new pair of magic shoes with him. Shoes to make Amalia’s feet match the rest of her.

Despite the Artisan’s efforts the shoes never fit her, neither do they change her feet the slightest bit. But she tries them on all the same, because it is harder to say no to her father. Harder than walking on tight, uncomfortable shoes that stab her paws, twist her hooves, or threaten to break her long, sharp talons.

She takes the shoes in her lap and caresses the leather with the back of her hand. Feels their warmth against her own skin as if the leather were still alive and breathing. Her father holds his breath expectantly.

There was no curse cast down upon her, no witch or fairy her father offended, no transgression that could account for this. Her mother died when she was four. It was sickness that took her, not a curse. Yet, her father accepts pair after pair of shoes, hoping to change her. Shoes of leather or fur, lace or embroidery. Some of them sturdy boots, others delicate slippers.

None of them she wants to wear. Because how can you change with magic what is natural and not invite misery?

There is a dance between them every time a new pair of shoes appears in their house.

Her father dances around the fact that he would have preferred her to be the same as everyone else. He doesn’t say a word about the other girls. The ones like her. Standing out is never a good thing, he says. What he means is that he is worried she will be alone, without a husband, when he is dead and gone.

Amalia dances around the fact that she likes who she is with or without a husband. It is an awkward dance, speckled with sparse words and side glances, and by the end of it she gives in and tries on the shoes.

The shoes don’t fit quite right, as expected. Amalia feels her claws poking holes in the leather, turning it into a sieve. But they really do breathe. They make a sound like a sad song with every breath, and when they exhale Amalia thinks she hears a small, small sigh.

Nevertheless, whatever magic the shoes have, it doesn’t change who she is. Her feet are still furry, with sharp claws and an ache to soak in the water. As Amalia takes the shoes off her father’s back slumps a little more.

“It’s alright,” he says, consoling himself. “Next time it will be the right fit.”

She stretches an arm to touch his shoulder. There is a tangle of words in her throat that begs for release. But this is their dance after all and they have been doing it for quite some time now, with or without shoes, so she says nothing. Instead, she picks up the shoes gently and hides them inside the old chest with the rest of them.

Today her feet need to extend and taste the river. The water tugs at her from afar and she runs to it.

“Be careful out there,” she hears her father say before she closes the door.

Walking like an otter feels strange. Otters walk on four feet and they prefer to move in water. Amalia has only one set of webbed feet and they are stiff when she tries to run, they tread on the ground almost sideways, crab-like. But she doesn’t care because once she reaches the river they will be glorious.

This time of the day the village used to be full of girls. They worked in the fields or washed clothes by the river. First to wake and last to sleep. But now the only sound is her claws scratching at the hard soil.

When the first girls started disappearing everyone thought it was because they were not careful enough. When some of the careful girls went missing too, the villagers could do nothing but escort the remaining ones everywhere.

Only, there are still girls that go everywhere alone. There is so much work to be done in the fields and too many chores outside the house, too many siblings to be looked after, services to be attended. And it has only been a dozen girls. So the do-nots slip from people’s minds as fast as the missing girls’ names.

But Amalia won’t let herself forget. She carves all of their names in her memory. Both the names of the girls she knew well and those of the girls from other villages. The last ones she overhears from the tradespeople who pass through their village, or the Artisan himself when he sits with her father at their old crusty table and they empty a whole bottle of raki between them.

Niki, Eleni, Vasilissa, Themis, Zinovia, the names go on. Those who she met, who she washed clothes next to, worked the earth alongside to, or even danced and laughed with, they had magic in them one way or another, just like her. And she is certain the other ones had as well. All of them related to each other like a long chain that might eventually reach her. Before that happens she will find what really happened to them.

And that means she has to remember them all.

As for Amalia, nobody thinks she needs protection except for her father. She is unpredictable in her own skin, her feet forever changing shape. Strong and elusive. Part of why her father thinks she is never going to take anyone as a husband and why some men don’t look her in the eyes. She never goes where they tell her to but she always brings food to the table, like how she plans to catch those fishes when she reaches the bank.

When each day is a surprise, people stop being surprised, are either accepting or indifferent. And Amalia is at peace with both.

Under her gray dress Krini’s muscles bulge as she drops cut wood on the pile.

“Need help?” She waves at Amalia from the half-lit woodshed.

Amalia shakes her head. Krini runs to her anyway because what she really needs is an excuse to leave her brothers to their own devices and together they walk all the way down to the river. A comfortable silence lingers between them.

The feet never come alone. There is a need that sprouts every time Amalia finds a new set of feet attached to her body. Today Amalia catches fish with her mouth. She pulls them out of the water by the tail and as they sway, she yanks them to the bank, all the way to where Krini sits cross-legged. The fish glisten under the sun, they writhe. Their mouths shape a silent scream, their faces stunned. Amalia swallows, licking fish blood and scales from her lips.

Krini doesn’t seem to notice, lost in her own thoughts. So the next time Amalia sinks her teeth in a fish she tosses it so hard, its tail slaps Krini’s cheek. It soils her slick black hair before falling on the grass.

Krini strokes her face and shoots an angry look at Amalia.

“Still thinking about Eleni?”

“How can I not?” Krini asks. “She was just downstream when her sisters lost her.” She gestures not far away from where they are and shoots an anxious look at the trees around them.

“Maybe it’s not safe for us to be here,” she whispers.

Sometimes Krini acts like a bear, strong and moody. But when they talk about the missing girls she behaves like a small, frightened animal, searching for a way out. She doesn’t dare say out loud how Eleni reminds her of Amalia and herself, but Amalia already knows this.

Eleni was the youngest and the boldest of her sisters. She would always split up from them and hold her breath the longest underwater like a fish, hungry to see what was hiding between the shadows of the deep.

When Amalia thinks of her now, she imagines empty lungs and a breath stolen too soon with trickery and force, even though there is no body to prove it.

Amalia dives. She holds the air in and lets her feet glide in the water, take her downstream.

“What are you doing?”

Krini’s voice is only a gurgle when Amalia swims underwater. It’s better that way because Amalia can pretend she can’t hear the fear in it.

I just want to see, she thinks. There might be something of Eleni that still lingers. But when she finds the spot all the smells have blended into one. The footprints are long gone. What remains is a rapid, where there wasn’t one before, threatening to pull her down. When Amalia stretches a hand to touch the river stones, a force jolts her backwards and she flails, swallowing water.

A hand grabs hers and pulls her back ashore. Krini’s face is flushed. Amalia feels the weight of her clothes as she struggles to steady herself.

“Are you okay?”

She forces a smile and doesn’t speak of the dregs of magic at the bottom of the river. Nor how the water tasted acidic like burnt coffee and blood.

 

Wildcat

From her spot on the topmost branch of an oak tree Amalia can see the Artisan approaching. Her body quivers at the sight of him. Everything but her delicate feline paws balancing with ease on the moss-covered bark.

Krini is not with her today. She followed her brothers deep inside the woods. It’s better that way. Krini can read Amalia’s silence better than anyone, and today it’s not a good day to be inside Amalia’s head.

From the Artisan’s carriage dangle all sorts of wares; powders of excessive airiness, potent as they are pricey, that ordinary folk would have to go hungry half a lifetime to purchase; dresses and shirts with more layers than a red onion, and more crimson than blood, that the process of undressing from one would last a week if a person were to do it by themselves, and it still wouldn’t be enough to shed the lingering rosiness off their skin; elegant music organs shining white under the sun, their voices so melodic and sorrowful that her skin crawls with unease.

And amongst all the trinkets the Artisan carries in his wagon, there is a pair of shoes meant just for her.

Amalia’s eyes travel to the crest of the hills beyond the forest, where Petra the goat herder went missing just two weeks ago. The only thing they found was the scarf she used to tie up her impossibly long acorn-brown hair.

With feet so agile and strong, Amalia can go much further today. They carry her from tree to tree all the way to the base of the hill. There she drops to the goat trail. She relaxes her torso, trusts her wildcat feet to steady her, and sniffs the air. It’s bitter like ashes. A nasty smell. And there is something hovering above, something small, almost invisible. But not to her.

When she returns home her father is not alone. Even before she enters the cottage she can smell the astringent scent of the Artisan barely concealed under expensive perfumes. Amalia can’t tell if it’s the layers and layers of fur covering his broad shoulders that give off that smell, or the scent of magic hidden underneath. He doesn’t part from his garbs, not even in the summer. If he were a snake at least he would shed his skin once a year.

Her father turns his attention to her. The Artisan stands next to him, casting a long shadow from the one side of the house to the other. His head snaps around when he hears her.

“Could this be sweet Amalia?” The Artisan feigns surprise.

Her claws scrape at the floorboards.

The thing Amalia sees first is the new pair of shoes. The most elaborately woven sandals her fingers have touched. They look charcoal black under the dim candle light. When she caresses them, there is the softness of fibers like hair and strings like ligaments tensing underneath.

They feel unlike any other pair of sandals. Not made by anything she can recognize. She shuts her eyes to kill the thoughts that try to squeeze their way into her mind.

“Gone.” The Artisan shares the bleak news with Amalia’s father, while his eyes ogle Amalia’s feet without shame. “The goat herder with hair like silk, from the third village eastward. Her goats scattered without her, got eaten by wolves.”

“A pity.” Her father shakes his head. He looks at Amalia as if she were the one gone or eaten. His fear is clear as day.

“But come,” the Artisan touches Amalia’s shoulder just so. He doesn’t want to offend her father. “Try on your new shoes. I have used only the finest materials.”

Her father’s eyes brighten under the Artisan’s tall shadow. He wants her to try the shoes on. They both do.

These sandals might even fit her.

One of these days, she thinks, will be the day that the shoes will finally change her. Into what, she doesn’t know. The wildcat in her thinks of scratching her way out or leaping into the dusk and vanishing in the night, until the Artisan is gone from the village and then her father alone will be softer, less demanding. He will just nod and she will avoid his stare once more, because she cannot explain that she doesn’t want this. They both lost the words a long time ago, when her mother died. Now all she has are herself, her feet, and Krini. And maybe she can evade wearing this pair.

“Another time maybe,” she whispers.

The Artisan comes close and examines her feet, with the same cold stare he sells his wares. His smell almost makes her faint. His face could have been handsome if it weren’t so unflinching.

“Are you so selfish to deny your father this favor?”

She can never deny her father anything. So she steels herself for what might be the last pair of shoes she will wear.

Her father. If only he hadn’t let the Artisan into their home, into their lives with his need to make her like the rest.

Then someone bangs on the door and air releases from inside of her.

Krini stands behind the door, looking ready to knock it down if someone doesn’t open it soon. Her dress is dirt-crusted from the forest and on her back she carries wood for Amalia and her father. Her eyes shift inside the cottage and fall on Amalia and then on the Artisan.

“Good evening, Mr. Zamani,” she says to Amalia’s father. “Sir.” She turns to the Artisan and bows with grace, leaving the wood by the door. The Artisan is not a man to be ignored.

She must have seen the Artisan’s carriage in passing and knew he would visit Amalia’s house first. He always does.

But before Amalia has the chance to usher herself and Krini outside, the Artisan’s face lights up. He takes the sandals from the table and offers them to Krini.

The girls hold their breath.

The glint inside the Artisan’s eyes is dagger-sharp. Krini glances at her.

“Come, my dear.” He gestures for Krini to sit at the table. As she stumbles inside, uncertain, he kneels in front of her.

He takes Krini’s ragged shoes, throws them to the side and takes her foot in his hands. Krini pulls the hem of her long dress even further down and curls her toes, ashamed of the dirt in her toenails, of her blisters from years of hard work. Amalia clenches her fists, a hair’s breadth from the Artisan. If there’s one moment that tests her restraint it’s this one.

The Artisan keeps Krini’s long foot in his grip and smiles a too-bright smile as she slowly calms down.

Amalia’s heart thrums inside her ears.

It’s the moment she wishes she were a whole animal, free from the silent rules she must follow. But she isn’t for now. And she watches her friend’s breath get caught up in her chest as the Artisan tries to fit the sandal to Krini’s human foot.

Amalia is almost certain it won’t fit Krini. Her human feet are bigger than the sandals. Almost. But she is not willing to try the Artisan’s magic on her friend. The shoes are meant for her. So she drags her claws across the wooden floor and sits on the chair right next to her father.

“I’ll wear them,” Amalia says finally. Her face is stone.

Before the Artisan can complain she pries the sandals from his hands and pushes her feet inside them. Again, they don’t fit. The pads of her feet stretch out the soles, and the sandals recoil, tighten, resist. She looks at the Artisan, expecting disappointment or rage. But there is an even bigger smile there, toothier, full of promises.

“Now I know how to make the perfect shoes for your daughter.” His eyes become so narrow they could cut her in pieces.

A worry creeps inside Amalia. Her father nods satisfied, trusting and pats his daughter on the head as if she were little again.

When Amalia searches for Krini’s eyes she finds them lingering on the Artisan, her shoulders slumped, her body losing some of its vigor, her edges becoming curves.

When she touches her shoulder, it is almost as if she touches a different person. And there is a sinking feeling in the pit of Amalia’s stomach, because now she is certain about the Artisan, his scent, and his magic shoes.

 

Horse

Amalia stands proud in these feet. She is fast and graceful. The horse legs sprout just under her kneecaps. Long and sinewy as they are, they need more space to stretch. Her bed sheets are twisted in a tight knot from her stirring all night, and she is out of the house before her father wakes.

She can’t enjoy the full extent of her limbs, the rhythmic galloping of her steps. She can’t enjoy anything because Krini is missing.

One day after the Artisan touched her, Krini changed. He had already moved on to the next village but her friend was still thinking about him—How light his touch! How bright his blue eyes! How warm his smile!

They were not.

She would never forget how cold Krini’s face grew when she said that. Krini has never given her a hard stare in their lives but now there was a veil of iciness about her. She withdrew inside her house, closed the door and wouldn’t come out again, no matter how much Amalia pleaded with her.

The next day when her brothers took her with them to the forest, she left for the dark woods without looking back and was never seen again. Vanished, like all the girls before her. But for them there was no one to witness how they must have fallen under the Artisan’s spell. Or if they did they must have thought it an infatuation.

But Amalia knows better. She smelled the dregs of his magic in every place a girl had gone missing. And she finally has all the pieces of the puzzle together. Because of Krini.

She only wishes she had been there to stop Krini from going after him. That she could have locked her up in her own house and guarded her until her mind cleared.

A horse is a proud animal that can run long distances; and she does run. She runs as if the world is on fire.  She scours all the main roads and the other, smaller ones that could break a cart in two if someone is not careful. But she finds nothing. No trace of her friend but no trace of magic either. Not even a distant echo of it.

Then she turns to the forest, to the copses of birch woods Krini’s brothers make into firewood. And then further, deeper, to the trees behind the trees, the rivers that run sideways, and the trails treaded only by hooves and paws. Even though a carriage cannot cross these paths, this is the only place left to look. As the day draws to an end she finds the thread she knows she must follow. The bitterness in her mouth tells her she is right.

The ground is covered with something not quite like frost. They are well into spring but when Amalia touches the ground it’s icy, and hard like Krini’s face the last time they spoke. The undergrowth in these parts looks like something that belongs to winter. There is a trail of snowdrops going deeper into the forest and to either side of them, wheel marks, already fading into nothing.

So she keeps running before they are gone for good.

At last when she reaches far away, far enough that if she looks back she cannot find any trace of road that might lead her home, she finds the carriage next to a cluster of pine trees.

It’s night by now. The quietness that spreads around is so complete that she flinches at the creaking of the steps and the screeching of the door. Amalia steals behind a small tree.

There is pungency in the air, a thick stench that settles on the back of her tongue, no matter how many times she swallows. She digs the ground with her hooves, kicking up dust.

When the Artisan comes out he is not covered in blood. His teeth are not sharper than what they were before and his clothes are perfumed as usual. He is calm and smiling, his flaxen hair falling on his shoulders in graceful locks. But the promise of pain is all around him.

Amalia retreats in a puddle of shadows and watches. Her body becomes one of the trunks in its stillness, yet her eyes dart after every odd shape, follow any movement around the carriage and her ears sort even the slightest sound, tracing them back to its source. None of them is Krini.

There is something about the Artisan that makes her stomach suddenly hollow. In his right hand he holds out a new pair of shoes. Blood red and sinewy. When Amalia lays her eyes on them she can hear them pulsate.

She shivers.

“These are the right ones for you,” he says. His eyes teary, like an artist that has just completed a masterpiece that eluded him for a long time.

Amalia hesitates, uncertain if it was her heartbeat that gave her away or the beating sound of the shoes.

She comes forward, lets her face become illuminated by the lamp shining through the open window of the carriage.

When she finds enough spit to wet her tongue she asks:

“Where is Krini?”

He doesn’t answer her. Instead he dangles the shoes and smiles.

“Wear them,” he tells her.

“And Krini?”

“Wear these and you will be reunited with your beloved Krini.”

Something makes her want to take the shoes away from the Artisan’s hands, protect them. And she does take them even though she is certain these will be the right ones at last. She wears them because there is nothing else to do. She wants to be with Krini again. And this is the only way.

The shoes cloak her hooves like a beating heart. Krini’s heart. And then they expand and stretch and settle on her like a second skin. She has feet, human feet, girl’s feet, but they are not her own.

The girl whose feet she is wearing have broad, human toes, calves sturdy enough to carry timber half a day’s walk through the woods, and calloused soles that take firm strides wherever they need to be. Krini’s feet and Krini’s heart. They don’t belong to her but she knows them just as well. You can’t conjure something out of nothing.

She knows that if she tries to take the shoes off again they will not peel off. She feels her own feet already somewhere else, severed without blood, but the pain of the loss runs deeper than skin.

“This is how you can live forever,” the Artisan tells her. “You give something of yourself to make into a beautiful thing.” He looks at her feet when he says that.

 He tells Amalia exactly how he does it: he pulls them apart and severs them from their most prized possessions. Not their parts, but themselves. What makes them them. He is an artist but also an inventor. His creations will live long after he is gone. Part of her will live on long after she is gone. But is living forever in parts living at all? She wants to ask.

It is and it is not, Krini’s voice replies from somewhere inside of her.

A small sob leaves her chest. The voice sounds as familiar as her own. So much so that she thinks she dreamed it up.

She caresses the feet and the beating heart underneath. They are, for now, a part of her, shackling her down with the Artisan’s magic.

There is no greater cruelty than to pit the love of one friend against another, she thinks.

We are not one person anymore.

Krini’s voice comes clear for a moment and then it splits into a thousand cries. Amalia covers her ears. Their wailing is too violent. But it’s not one of sadness. It’s a blazing fire. Its intent flows through her like boiling water.

He took us apart but brought us all together. And we have no love for the Artisan.  

The voices splice into one big shout, then come apart, and splice again, in their unwavering effort to be heard.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have matters to attend.” He gives a small bow, opens the carriage door and disappears behind it.

“I want to set you free,” Amalia whispers to the girls. “But I am shackled myself.”

And Krini, the heart, the feet, the voice, and all the parts of all the girls in unison reply:

Let’s strike a bargain then.

 

Wolf

Niki, Eleni, Vasilissa, Themis, Zinovia, Petra, Krini. The girls know where the Artisan is keeping Amalia’s feet. And they know how to give them back to her.

It takes them some time to undo what has been done. It is the first and only time they try to use their magic and it has to be done well. They have seen the Artisan do the trick so many times. One after the other they watched it happen, over and over again. Unable to stop it. Divided. But Amalia gives them her body to find each other. It is their body too now. Their mutual bond is Krini.

Amalia’s heart drums in her chest when she glances at the carriage, but the door never opens. The Artisan is confident in his success.

She repeats the girls’ names like a lost song, keeping their connection alive, for the spell to be undone. Slowly, Krini’s feet feel foreign again, familiar but separate.

When Amalia sheds the shoes like dried rose petals, her feet have soft paws and razor-edged claws.

The Artisan is busy inside his carriage, drawing maps of her body and how it will come apart and be used. But her body belongs to her again. She is free and she is more.

All the other girls live inside her now, and they wait for the right moment.

He doesn’t hear her creep under the first rays of sunlight. Her steps muffled, a soft sigh of wolf’s feet, heartbeat, and earth. Her lethal paws gliding up the stairs are not yet an idea inside his mind, lulled as he has become by his own success.

When he sees her it’s too late. He sheds his furs and his layers of trickery like a stale onion sliced in half. What’s left in the core is bitterness and a man that is nothing without his priceless possessions, without the fear and the respect of others.

Amalia tears the tender meat of him with her claws and the appetite of the wolf in her mouth, and all the girls that came and went before smile inside of her.

When she is done, she washes herself of his blood in the stream, erases every trace of him off her body. As she waits for her clothes to dry, she decides that she will find the words to tell her father what he must hear. And he will have to hear it, even if it hurts him.

There will be no more dancing around.

She has a purpose now and a promise to keep.

She will travel on her animal feet, wherever the girls whisper to her and collect all their parts the Artisan has left behind: the powders and the musical instruments, the knife handles and the cushions, the clothes and the shoes.

Until even the last of them comes home with her.

 

(Editors’ Note: “How the Girls Came Home” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 40B.)

Future Saints

But who would pray to you,

supply your canonization?

 

First, all is muted, a green,

speckled wash, and a balding man

has just heard the worst news of his life,

and your name comes to him as gently

as a silver blanket placed on

the face of a planetless child, the cry

for help not half doubting.

 

Second, a black hole opens itself

to the uninitiated, stars and glass

still in sameness, the woman

finds herself trapped, and your name

is patterned in the dripping waves,

the illusory scrabble of life, the clicking

of tree branches against universal rock;

you drag each other behind, cold.

 

Third, everything has decayed—

art that now wears black and a

reaching forward; there seems to be

a fire in both the distance and future,

some collective ripped from prestige.

They chant your name, call upon you

for miracles, the divine ignored for

wailing passion, the solitary life,

the panting immortality of the sky.

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather

About “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” (5 contributors, 5 notes, 7 comments)

 

→“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” (Roud 423, Child 313) is a traditional English folk ballad. Like many traditional songs, the lyrics are unattributed. Child transcribed twenty verses, and a twenty-first got added later (and is included here for some unknown reason—I keep writing to the Lyricsplainer mods to get someone to delete it or include it as a separate entry, but nobody responds, and all they’ve done is put brackets around it. Sometimes I hate this site.) Most modern recordings pick and choose verses and include far fewer than the full twenty. There are several variant titles, and the characters’ names shift through the various broadsides and folk and rock versions.– BonnieLass67 (11 upvotes)

→The song has also been passed down as “Fair Ellen,” “Ellen and William,” and “Sweet William’s Heart.” There’s a distant cousin in the ballad “Robin Hood and the Waking Wood,” which changes William to Robin Hood and gives him a revenge arc; that one has always struck me as a derivative corruption, though it wasn’t the first to steal someone else’s narrative and give it to Robin Hood. –BonnieLass67 (7 upvotes)

 

→It was documented in John and Alan Lomax’s 1934 book American Ballads and Folk Songs as “While Oaken Sisters Watched,” with a number of changes and Americanizations. In modern times, the ballad (or its variants) has been recorded or played live by artists as varied as Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, the Kingston Trio, Windhollow Faire, Dolly Parton, Jack White, and Metallica. The verses each chose, and the order they chose to sing them, change the meaning of the song. –BonnieLass67 (6 upvotes)

>Have you heard the abomination that was on Idol? Some finalist butchered it as “Where Broken Hearts Do Gather.”  –HolyGreil

>If we don’t speak of that I can pretend it doesn’t exist. –BonnieLass67

→This song, included among the famous ballads documented by Francis James Child, is an allegorical tale of a tryst between two lovers and its aftermath. –Dynamum (2 upvotes, 1 downvote)

>That’s awfully reductive, and I’m not sure what allegory you’re seeing. There’s a murder and a hanging and something monstrous in the woods. Sets it apart from the average lovers’ tryst.  –BarrowBoy

>Fine. I just thought somebody should summarize it here a little, since “about the song” means more than just how many verses it has. Most people come here to discuss how to interpret a song, not where to find it in the Child Ballads’ table of contents.  –Dynamum

 

→Dr. Mark Rydell’s 2002 article “A Forensic Analysis of ‘Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather’”, published in Folklore, explored the major differences and commonalities and their implications. In The Rose and the Briar, Wendy Lesser writes about how if a trad song leaves gaps in its story, it’s because the audience was expected to know what information filled those gaps. The audience that knew this song is gone, and took the gap information with them. Rydell attempted to fill in the blanks.  –HolyGreil (1 upvote)

>I’ve found my people! That’s the first time somebody has ever beaten me to mentioning Rydell’s work in a conversation before. I got a state grant this year to make a documentary about him and his work and his disappearance. It’s going to be called Looking for Love in All the Lost Places. I named it after his blog. Have you read his blog? It’s a deeper dive into the stuff in his article. More personal, in the way an academic article isn’t supposed to be.  –HenryMartyn

>No, only the article. Didn’t know he disappeared either. I’ll check it out! –HolyGreil

>@HenryMartyn it’s been two years since your last post on this tune. I keep hoping to get news about your documentary. –HolyGreil

 

Listen to the Kingston Trio: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Joan Baez: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Windhollow Faire: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Steeleye Span: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to the Grateful Dead: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Metallica: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Moby K. Dick: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Jack White: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to the Decemberists: “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”

Listen to Cyrus Matheson: “Where Broken Hearts Do Gather” [FLAGGED by BonnieLass67][UNFLAGGED by LyricSplainer ModeratorBot]

Full Lyrics for “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” (traditional) (7 contributors, 95 notes, 68 comments, 19 reactions)

(see disambiguation for other versions)

(see related songs)

 

One1 autumn2,3 as the wind blew cold

and stripped red leaves4 from branches

Fair5 Ellen6 ran to meet her love

Where oaken hearts do gather7,8

 

1 Some versions begin “In autumn…” One early broadside notably began with “each autumn.” –BonnieLass67

2 Like the more famous “Barbara Allen,” this ballad begins by setting the season. In “Barbara Allen,” of course, the season is spring, the season of new love. –HolyGreil

3 “Barbara Allen’s” “merry month of May/when green buds all were swelling” is also echoed in the 1880 hit “The Fountain in the Park,” also known as “While Strolling in the Park”: “I was strolling in the park one day/in the merry merry month of May/I was taken by surprise by a pair of roguish eyes/in a moment my poor heart was stole away.” I wouldn’t mention that except for the literal heart getting stolen away Temple-of-Doom-style in this song. –Dynamum

4 trees that have red leaves in autumn include black cherry, flowering dogwood, hornbeam, sourwood, red oak, white oak, winged sumac, sweet gum, and red maple. it’s reasonable to assume this is referring to red or white oak trees given the title. –HangThaDJ

>White and red oak aren’t native to Britain.BarrowBoy

> What if it was originally “rowan hearts” not oaken hearts?  Rowan berries could leave a red carpet, plus there’s all that great mythology around rowan trees.Dynamum

>A) there’s no record of a rowan version (check me if I’m wrong, @BonnieLass67, you seem to be the version expert) B) rowan leaves turn more yellow than red, C) the line says red leaves, not berries. –BarrowBoy

5 It’s interesting that the woman in the song is referred to in almost all versions as “fair,” despite her actions. –Rhiannononymous

> She could just be fair as in blond? Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

6 Alternate versions feature the usual gang of “Maggie,” “Polly,” “Molly,” “Jenny,” and “Peggy,” etc. as seen in countless other songs, and also “Elswyth,” which I haven’t seen in other ballads. I’ve looked to see if there’s a version of the song with willow trees, given the derivation of that name, but haven’t found one. –BonnieLass67

7 the woods, presumably. –HangThaDJ

8 In his 2002 paper, “A Forensic Analysis of ‘Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather’,” and subsequently in his blog, the University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Mark Rydell attempted to track down the exact provenance of the ballad. He said that not every ballad can be traced to a specific incident or location, but this one had a couple of markers that made him think it was possible. He pointed out that of the two common British species, English oak tree leaves turn coppery brown, not red, in autumn, and sessile oak leaves turn yellow. While it’s true that the song doesn’t specifically say the red leaves are from oaks, it’s the only tree mentioned specifically, and it’s right in the oldest known name of the song, so presumably it means oak trees when it says oak trees. North American oaks might more specifically meet the red leaf missive, Rydell pointed out. In that case, the song would have had to make its way to British lore from America, when songs moved more commonly in the other direction, or else somebody would have to have brought North American trees to Britain early enough that they’d be mature for this song. (Why mature? Nobody pictures skinny little saplings when they’re talking about oak trees. And there’s a “gnarled and knotted ancient” in a later verse.) In his initial research, Rydell attempted unsuccessfully to locate a village with a bridge and a steep embankment and a stand of imported oak trees somewhere nearby. Later, after consultation with a botanist, Rydell came to understand that American oaks planted in Britain don’t necessarily have the same bright color there that they have in their native country; anthocyanin, the main red pigment, needs bright, crisp autumn days to kick into high gear. It just isn’t the same in overcast, damp climates. He concluded that he would not be able to use tree species alone to trace the ballad, but he still had other clues to pursue. –HenryMartyn

–BonnieLass67 marked this as cool stuff–

Sweet William robbed the butcher’s son9,10,11,12

He turned her heart to fancy

And bade her meet him ‘neath the13,14 bridge15,16

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

9 This line sets William up as a robber, thus deserving of his fate, and the next line makes you think that Ellen is as fair and innocent as the first stanza implies. –Rhiannononymous

10  The Kingston Trio’s version changes this to “Sweet William WAS the butcher’s son/ WHO turned her heart to fancy.” –BonnieLass67

11 Sweet William was supporters’ nickname for Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, known as Butcher Cumberland to his Tory enemies! He died relatively young, with no children. Possible link?  –Dynamum

–BonnieLass67 marked this as a stretch–

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

> There’s absolutely nothing to connect this with Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. You’re barking up the wrong oak tree.BarrowBoy

12 Dr. Mark Rydell, in attempting to pinpoint the origin of the song, posited a theory that the line should actually read “Sweet William, Robert Butcher’s son.” –HenryMartyn

> there was a robert butcher born in liverpool who became an australian politician! he had three sons and five daughters, but he was probably born too late to be referenced in this ballad.HangThaDJ

> Yeah, Rydell dismissed him. There’s nothing connecting this song’s path with Australia. It didn’t need to be a famous Robert Butcher, just one who was locally famous enough to be worth putting in the song, so Rydell tried looking for any Robert Butcher whose son named William might have died under unusual circumstances. Rydell found what he was looking for: an aging solicitor named Robert Butcher, living in a village called Gall, had written a strangely passionate pro-hanging letter in the 1770s, right around the time that its prohibition became a popular cause, saying “there are circumstances for which, tragically, hanging is the only proportionate response.” Not “crimes” but “circumstances.” Rydell said in his blog that he was going to England to check Gall out for himself. He made one more post from something called an internet café–this was pre-smartphone, so I guess that was the only place he could get online?–anyway, one more short update and then he never posted again. (Did I mention I’m making a documentary about him? I’m planning on visiting Gall this October. I’ve got an appointment lined up with the woman who runs their town historical society too. Hopefully I can get some answers.)  –HenryMartyn

> What a fascinating story! Your documentary should be really interesting. –HolyGreil

>You should check out Rydell’s blog Looking For Love in All the Lost Places too–it’s like a folksier, less academic version of his research. You can still find it on the wayback machine even though he and his host site are both long gone. –HenryMartyn

> did this robt butcher have a son who was hanged? what was he hanged for? –HangThaDJ

>I’ve messaged with the town historian, like I said, Jenny Kirk. She said Butcher’s letter is in their museum. She warned me that it’s just a one-room museum-and-gift-shop, because nothing much ever happened there, but because of that, its publication in London was one of the bigger things that happened to anyone from Gall. He had four sons, one of whom was named William. His William did die by hanging, but there’s no mention anywhere of a crime or a trial. I can see why Rydell thought this was a good lead. –HenryMartyn

>Did you ask her if Rydell ever got there? HolyGreil

>First thing I asked! She said that would’ve been back when she was a kid, and they don’t keep a visitor log. HenryMartyn

>i always think of historical society ladies as old biddies. HangThaDJ

>Can confirm she is definitely not an old biddy. HenryMartyn

13 Variously, “the bridge,” and “Toll Bridge,” in the British versions. “Tall Bridge” in one early American version, “Fall’s Bridge” in Dolly Parton’s. Unclear whether “Fall’s Bridge” means a bridge belonging to someone named Falls, or a more poetic version involving autumn. –BonnieLass67

14 If it’s a toll bridge, maybe the toll is what William pays in the end. –Rhiannononymous

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

15 The fact that William asked her to meet him under the bridge goes well with the robber line, since we’re told he’s sweet but then immediately told that he’s both a robber and someone who would lure a young woman under a bridge. Maybe it’s an ironic sweet, like an ugly mobster called Prettyboy or something.  –Rhiannononymous

16 Guys! I’m here! In Gall! It has almost everything mentioned in the song: a village, a woods, a stone bridge with a steep embankment. No red carpet of leaves, even though it’s October, but everything else seems to check out.   –HenryMartyn

–HolyGreil marked this as cool stuff–

“Don’t go,” said Ellen’s sisters two17,18,19,20

“There’s no good that can follow

A man met moonlit ‘neath the bridge21

Where oaken hearts do gather”22

 

17 the sisters function as a sort of greek chorus here. –HangThaDJ

–BonnieLass67 marked this as a stretch–

18 Ellen and her sisters represent the three Fates. –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

19 I’ve always thought the sisters were just sisters, trying to warn Ellen, like a good sister would. There are lots of songs where family tries to warn a woman that her man is no good. –Rhiannononymous

20 It’s worth noting again that the American version documented by the Lomaxes was “While Oaken Sisters Watched.” –BonnieLass67

21 Okay, but if you take the whole verse as the warning, “There’s no good that can follow a man met moonlit ‘neath the bridge,” it can either be a warning telling Ellen not to go because there’s danger for her, or it could be a warning that there’s going to be trouble for him, in which case they might also be saying Ellen herself is no good for William. They seem to know an awful lot about this very specific thing – not just that no good can follow meeting a man at night under a bridge, but also specifically meeting a man at night under that particular bridge, where oaken hearts do gather. –Rhiannononymous

> Or oaken sisters watchBonnieLass67

22 The quotation marks are obviously not part of the song as passed down orally, but they’re in all the sheet music and broadsides I’ve ever seen. In this stanza the chorus really does sound like it’s part of a quote from the sisters, like they know this place by its reputation. –BonnieLass67

Fair Ellen turned her eyes from them

For she had long decided23

To meet him while the village slept24,25

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

23 This plays like you would expect in this kind of song. Young woman rejects advice from her wise elders and chooses love, and then discovers too late that her family was right and she’s set herself up for tragedy. This ballad later twists that expectation. (Though that leads to the question of why her sisters don’t want this, if they don’t mean the usual ‘it will lead you astray.’) –Rhiannononymous

24 I used to think this meant that the village itself slept where oaken hearts do gather.  –Dynamum

>That’s just stupid. –BarrowBoy

>Hey! I said ‘used to.’ And anyway, there were trees there before people, probably, so technically I’m right either way. –Dynamum 

25 The village that Rydell located, Gall, was adjacent to a small, dense woodland that would have been larger back then. The main road went north/south, with south heading through the woods and over an old stone bridge. –HenryMartyn

>I’m here now! Bus took ages. Gall was bypassed by the major motorways, so the village is pretty isolated. But that means the woods are still woods! It’s a bit of a walk to the bridge, and very dark at night, but doable. I’ll admit I was hoping there’d be graffiti carved into the bridge saying “William was here” or “El and Will” or something. HenryMartyn

Fair Ellen’s steps did lightly fall

On autumn’s red-stained blanket26,27,28

As off she ran to meet her love29

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

26 Could be blood! –Dynamum

27 This brings us around to what was previewed at the beginning– there the leaves were being stripped by autumn wind, here they’re already on the ground, but she’s off to meet her guy. –Rhiannononymous

28 Hear me out: if you go with the “in autumn” opening variant that the Dead used instead of “one autumn,” this is something that happens every year. The leaves turn red, and off sweet Ellen goes again. That would explain the different-but-repeated nature of the opening and this stanza. That’s what always happens; what happens to William specifically is what happens this time. –HolyGreil

–HenryMartyn marked this as cool stuff–

29 Her light steps and “her love” here tell us that from the narrator’s perspective she is in love and has no intent to deceive. That makes what happens all the more surprising to the listener. –Rhiannononymous

Young William stood in moonlight’s glow

When Ellen came30 upon him

And kissed him as she stole his heart31

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

30 Some versions use “fell upon him” instead of “came upon him” but that definitely changes the nature of the meeting. –BonnieLass67

31 Still playing with expectations here. We expect “stole his heart” as in fell in love, but the next stanzas makes it grossly literal. –Rhiannononymous

She begged sweet Will to show her how32

He differed from the others33

And prove to her his love was true34

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

32 This verse is placed interestingly since if the previous one is to be believed, she’s already fallen on him/come to him and stolen his heart, literally or figuratively. Why this demand? –Rhiannononymous

>Some versions do move this verse earlier. Some move it to before the previous verse (usually matched with “fell upon him” instead of “came upon him” since in that case they’ve already arrived at the same place.) The other variant places it third, just after the invitation to the bridge, as if it’s her response.  –BonnieLass67

> Huh! Either of those would make more sense, since it seems like otherwise this verse interrupts action with a plea. She’s making the demand after she’s already set things in motion. Unless they had already talked it over, and this is her hoping that he does what he’s promised.  –Rhiannononymous

33 This implies that this has happened before. It’s sort of melancholy. Men… –Dynamum

34 There’s no answer given to her request that he prove himself, or else the verse that follows is the test where he’s supposed to prove himself. –Rhiannononymous

His beating heart35 she placed inside36

A37 gnarled and knotted ancient38

to quicken39 come the springtime thaw40

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

35 There’s really no figurative way to take this. And ew, why is it still beating? –Dynamum

36 ironic that she places the heart so delicately after ripping it out of his chest. –HangThaDJ

37 Some early variants say “*her* gnarled and knotted ancient.“ –BonnieLass67

38 Gnarled and knotted ancient what? That’s a weird description. –Dynamum

> “A gnarled and knotted ancient” = presumably a very old tree. –Rhiannononymous

>Hey @HenryMartyn, did you or Rydell find a tree like this?HolyGreil

>All the trees I’ve seen are new growth. HenryMartyn

39 Maybe she thinks his heart in the tree will beat faster when she visits –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

40 I think this is the other meaning of “quicken,” like “to enter into a phase of active growth and development” per dictionary (example is seeds quickening in soil). –BarrowBoy

> But then why place it in an old tree instead of in the ground? –Dynamum

> How would I know? –BarrowBoy

And in his chest she built with care41

A nest of twigs and leaf-fall42

An acorn43,44 cushioned there to grow

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

41 Again, it goes out of its way to say how much care she took with this part of the operation. –Dynamum

42 In his blog, Dr. Rydell said “The true nature of the exchange made by Ellen and seemingly agreed to by William is perhaps the greatest mystery remaining in this ballad.” Jenny Kirk is helping me do research into Gall’s local folklore. She was telling the truth that their museum is crap, but she’s great.  –HenryMartyn

43 Maybe this acorn becomes the sapling at his grave? –Dynamum

44 fun fact: only one in ten thousand acorns becomes an oak tree. –HangThaDJ

And turned he then to look at her

With eyes still seeking answers45,46

She kissed him twice47and left him there48

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

45 I think this line goes out of its way to make clear that he’s not vegetative at this point, pardon the pun. He’s aware enough to ask questions, though you’d think he would have looked at her before now, and asked questions before now, like “Hey, do you mind putting my heart back? I’m using that.” –Rhiannononymous

46 Maybe he was under some kind of spell? –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

> Stop marking me down! A few lines later he has literally no voice, so a spell isn’t unreasonable. He’s trying to use his eyes to ask questions. –Dynamum

>@BarrowBoy all you ever do is mark stretches and shoot down other peoples’ theories without ever offering any yourself. Do you care about this ballad at all?–Dynamum

>I don’t even like this song. The melody’s okay, but it needs a bridge. –BarrowBoy

>technically it has a bridge. old, made of stone…  –HangThaDJ

>Argh. If you don’t like the song, why are you here? –Dynamum 

>For those sweet sweet LyricSplainer level badges. U?  –BarrowBoy

>I love the song, but also it’s fascinating! A lot of songs are straightforward, but I love the ones like this that develop a sort of detective team. We’ve got BonnieLass with all the background/history stuff, and Henry the dashing young field work expert, and DJ with random facts and Greil with musicology and Rhiannononymous on language details. –Dynamum

>What does that make you? Comic relief?  –BarrowBoy

>Better than you, the one everyone hates but has to put up with. –Dynamum

>If @HenryMartyn’s our field researcher, can I point out that he’s stopped responding? His last response here was on the last verse, over a year ago, and he hasn’t posted on any other songs either. I keep checking in hoping he’ll tell us more about his film. I wish I knew his real name. HolyGreil

>Hmm. I searched “state arts grant” and “Mark Rydell” and “Looking For Love in All the Lost Places” and got a hit in Pennsylvania. Looks like he’s a Henry from a city called Williamsport (William’s Port? coincidence?) who was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania when he got the grant.  I’m not going to post his actual surname here. It seems rude.  –Dynamum

>Look at you with the real detective work! Thanks for the lead. Hmm. He was part of the grant announcement, but not the end of year presentation. –HolyGreil

47 Is twice significant? She’d already kissed him once (as she stole his heart) but it’s unclear if this is a second kiss, or two more kisses. –Rhiannononymous

> Maybe the second kiss takes his voice. –Dynamum

> It’s true that he’s already using his eyes to ask.HolyGreil

> I said he was under a spell and got mocked for it! It’s not like this all has to have exact basis in truth. Maybe they just like kissing. –Dynamum

48 Where did she go? This song never quite makes her and her sisters seem like part of the village. –Rhiannononymous

Young William to the village went

His feet still knew the pathways49

He knew he’d left his years50,51 behind52

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

49 He’d made this trip so many times he knew it automatically. (I almost said “by heart”) –Dynamum

50 “His years” = the rest of his days? Living on borrowed time now? –Rhiannononymous

51 Some variants say “his fears” instead of his years; others say he left “something.” –BonnieLass67

52 this does make it seem like some kind of spell, like he’s stumbling back without knowing what he’s doing or what has happened. –HangThaDJ

> THANK YOU. I TOLD YOU. –Dynamum

[“Wake up,” he cried, though no one heard53,54,55

“And find the wicked woman56,57

Who stole my life and voice away

Where oaken hearts do gather”]

 

53 It doesn’t say anything about her taking his voice before this. –BarrowBoy

54 @Moderator can we delete this verse or add it at the bottom? It’s only in a handful of the twentieth century versions and nothing earlier. Not part of the original ballad. –BonnieLass67

–Lyricsplainer ModeratorBot has received this comment and will bring it to a moderator’s attention–

55 It changes a lot, doesn’t it? “Wicked woman” sounds like it was written by someone else entirely. Without this verse, William just goes along with what’s happening. –Rhiannononymous

56 Interesting that he doesn’t know where to find her. There’s no verse where the villagers show up at her house, either, even when they spring into action. –Rhiannononymous

57 i feel bad for him, but he’s kind of a jerk here, trying to shout in the town square in the middle of the night or whatever for everyone to come listen to his problems. i mean, not that any of this is his fault, except he did tell a woman to meet him under the bridge without any regard for the trouble he could get her in. and it does seem like he consented to her test? –HangThaDJ

And when the village came to him58

He could59 not tell his story

Or say what fate befell their son60

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

58 Does anyone else think it’s strange that “the village came to him”? Where was he? I mean, I guess it means the villagers, not the village, and they came to him at his house? –Dynamum

59 “Would not” instead of “could not” in some early variations. –BonnieLass67

> Ha! Would not = wood knot! Get it? –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

>@Dynamum I like that pun no matter if it’s a stretch. Don’t let him get you down. –Rhiannononymous

60 This collective “their son” is fascinating considering what they do next. This song has some messed up families, y’all. –Rhiannononymous

>Wait, it’s collective? Like “the son of the village?” I thought it meant “their son” like William and Ellen’s son! –Dynamum

> I never thought of that, but that works too! Especially with the whole quickening thing!

We talked about quickening a seed, but not quickening a womb.  –Rhiannononymous

– Rhiannonymous marked this as cool stuff–

–BonnieLass67 marked this as cool stuff–

–HangThaDJ marked this as cool stuff–

They looked at him with mournful eyes61

Then listened for his heartbeat62,63,64

Then hung him from the gallows pole65

Where oaken hearts do gather66

 

61 The mournful eyes have always made me think they’ve seen this before. –Dynamum

62 It’s unclear whether they listened for his heartbeat because they’d seen something like this before that his tale reminded them of, or because he looks unwell. –Rhiannononymous

63 And, y’know, he wasn’t speaking –BarrowBoy

64 Did people know about heartbeats by the time this song was written? –Dynamum

> OMG have you heard of Wikipedia? –BarrowBoy

65 This has always horrified me, that they just went and hung him. I guess it’s understandable if they were freaked out that he didn’t have a heartbeat, but still… –Dynamum

66 Out of all the stanzas, this is the one that makes the least sense with “where oaken hearts do gather” as opposed to “while oaken sisters watch.” –BonnieLass67

> Yeah, the town gallows pole was likely not in the same place where oaken hearts do gather, unless you count that a gallows made of oak might contain oaken hearts, whatever they are. –Rhiannononymous

>As you might guess, Gall took down their gallows pole like two hundred years ago. –HenryMartyn

And in the woods67 fair Ellen wept68

For she had truly loved him69

And tried to claim70 him in her way71,72

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

67 It’s interesting that she’s in the woods again here, since she had left him there? Didn’t she go home? –Dynamum

68 How is she still being called fair? –BarrowBoy

69 It’s interesting that the song tells us this, since otherwise you’d think she’s monstrous. I mean, her actions are still monstrous, but somehow it’s better if they’re done out of love?–Rhiannononymous

70 Some versions say “keep” instead of claim. –BonnieLass67

71 This “in her way” does a lot of work. –Rhiannononymous

72 Some versions say “and hoped he’d prove his love to her,” which would harken back to whatever proof she was demanding of him earlier.  –BonnieLass67

And Ellen’s sisters bowed their heads73

“There’s no good that can follow

A man met moonlight ‘neath the bridge

Where oaken hearts do gather”

 

73 greek chorus back for an encore of their greatest hit, “i told you so.” –HangThaDJ

The villagers with torches went74,75

To rid their woods of danger76,77

There to avenge the boy they’d hung78

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

74 This verse and the two above it and one below it are often sung in a different order. –BonnieLass67

75 i’m anti-villagers with torches and pitchforks generally. –HangThaDJ

76 They’re going to burn the oak trees. William must have given good directions before they hung him, if they think they know which specific trees to burn. –Rhiannononymous

> Spoiler: for real, they chopped and burned ALL the oak trees they could find. Jenny’s older sisters say it was barbarous, and I’ve seen the result myself. Everything is new growth from the past forty years since they stopped that practice, but you can see the damage done. HenryMartyn

77 I wonder what the actual danger is that they think they’re protecting against. Have they had other men stolen this way? I guess if you let it happen once, it could happen more… –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

> Argh. Go stretch someone else. I’m just saying we’ve all got our eyes on Ellen, but what do her sisters do all day other than watch? And @HenryMartyn, what do their town records say about stolen people? –Dynamum

>Jenny says they lost all their old birth and death records in a fire they lost control of. HenryMartyn

78 so they felt like they had to hang poor william, but then they go out and avenge him for the wrong ellen did him? there’s some misdirected anger here.  –HangThaDJ

But neath the bridge they saw no trace79

Nor down the steep embankment80

And none could ever find the place81

Where oaken hearts do gather82

 

79 Beneath the bridge they saw no trees or they couldn’t find Ellen? It’s unclear. –Rhiannononymous

80 The steep embankment was another specific geographic clue that Dr. Rydell had hoped to find. –HenryMartyn

>Can confirm: it’s here! The bridge goes over what’s now a sort of dry gully, but the banks are steep. And, cool thing! I don’t know whether it’s the stone or the moss or some mineral or what, but I guess something’s leaching into the ground here that’s tinting the leaves red near the bridge. I wonder if Dr. Rydell ever got to see this.  –HenryMartyn

81 The only rhyme in the whole ballad, for what it’s worth. –Rhiannononymous

>Some early variants have the third line as “and none could find poor William’s heart.” It’s possible that the line was original and this change came later, since it’s odd to have a single rhyming line. –BonnieLass67

>If they couldn’t find William’s heart, does that mean there was one old tree that the villagers didn’t manage to find? –Dynamum

>I don’t think @HenryMartyn can search the whole forest. –BarrowBoy

>fun fact! a forest has a traditional legal definition as land owned by the sovereign and set aside as a hunting ground. –HangThaDJ

>He can’t search the whole woods, then. –BarrowBoy

82 I don’t know why I’m only thinking of this like fifteen verses in, but if you frame a song around oaks gathering, isn’t the opposite of that to disperse? Maybe they couldn’t find them because they sometimes go elsewhere. Maybe this whole song exists to tell you what to do if this particular thing starts happening to the oaks near you. That could be why it’s tall bridge and fall’s bridge etc too, and different names=different aliases. Maybe there’s a rotation and this town tried harder to get the warning out and protect themselves. –Dynamum

–BarrowBoy marked this as a stretch–

Long winter passed then came the thaw83,84

That set springtime a-budding

A sapling grew from William’s grave85

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

83 The Dead turned this verse to major instead of minor. –HolyGreil

84 The Kingston Trio ended with this verse. –BonnieLass67

85 Are we not even going to talk about this sapling thing? –Dynamum

>I found a grave that I think is William Butcher’s, though the stone is very worn and it’s hard to tell. There’s no tree, but I took the next verse to mean that the sapling that grew at the grave was cut down too. –HenryMartyn

And every spring86 the villagers

To the woods bring torch and axe

To cut short every sapling grown87,88

Where oaken hearts do gather

 

86 And this verse holds Dr. Rydell’s last two big clues! “Every spring” suggested that they might have some sort of village tradition that was still passed down, even if they didn’t know why anymore. On his blog he said the village he found, Gall, had an annual spring festival with a parade and bonfire. –HenryMartyn

87 Rydell had speculated that the village he was looking for would be near a woods full of mature oaks (keeping in mind that there are plenty of places where woods have been cut back over the centuries, so it wasn’t necessarily there to find at all; he looked at places that had been forested in earlier times as well). Then he realized what this verse implied. Instead of looking for a woods full of oaks, he wanted to go looking for a woods that was, unusually, missing its oaks, under the assumption that the village had kept cutting them down. So now I can personally confirm the woods near Gall is full of old hornbeams and ash trees and the like, but almost no oaks at all. The oaks that are here are younger, which matches up with recent changes to the village’s festival. It used to involve cutting down all the oaks at the end of the summer and burning them in a bonfire, but conservationists argued that was wasteful and poor management, and they stopped doing it in the 1970s. I got here too late for this year’s fest, but apparently now they just do a symbolic burning of a single tree they’ve chopped down for the purpose.  –HenryMartyn

–BonnieLass67 marked this as cool stuff–

88 Interesting that this accounts for the saplings in the woods, but not the one at William’s grave. Did they cut that one down or leave it? –Rhiannononymous

>I was asking about that sapling too! –Dynamum

>There’s one broadside that includes a verse that may answer your question. “And when that day the villagers/uprooted William’s sapling/a keening cry was heard by all/where oaken hearts do gather” –BonnieLass67

>Why wasn’t that one generally included? That’s great.  –Rhiannononymous

> Child may not have liked the sourcing. In that one version, it replaced the big Revenge On the Trees verse, which was definitely original. –BonnieLass67

Still sometimes89 when the wind blow cold

And strips red leaves90 from branches

Fair Ellen takes91 another love92

Where oaken hearts do gather93

 

89 Some early versions say “somewhere” instead of “sometimes.” Somewhere doesn’t make as much sense, since presumably the where is known, even if the trees weren’t found. –BonnieLass67

> That “somewhere” was something Dr. Rydell speculated about in his final blog post. That post was published widely after his disappearance and derided as sentimental and unmoored from fact by many of the same people who had praised his original forensic work. He had worked so hard to find this village, only to start musing about whether a stray “somewhere” might mean this had happened in more than one place. It undercut everything except the song’s extensive travels.  –HenryMartyn

> You haven’t told us anything about his disappearance! What’s up with that? –HolyGreil

>After that last post saying he’d landed in London and was heading to Gall, he stopped posting and all his known emails bounced. He never returned to his professorship. Nobody here remembers him, and there’s nothing in the police records (I was trying to be thorough.)  Unsolved mystery.HenryMartyn

90 I’d just like to point out you’ve discussed stealing voices and oaken hearts but you’ll only accept accurate botanical explanations for the red leaves. Not every line has to be perfectly based in truth. Magic? A portent? Some weather pattern that changes the amount of anthocyanin in certain years? A poetically resonant image?  (@BarrowBoy, I’m going to beat you to the punch.) –Dynamum

–Dynamum marked this as a stretch–

91 I love the present tense in this verse, like it’s still going on. And the multiple meanings of “take” here: take a lover, take a life, or the whole sentence “takes another love where oaken hearts do gather” like she’s bringing him home to meet the family. –Rhiannononymous

92 And this reminder again from a narrator that we have no reason to disbelieve, saying that it’s a love she takes, not a victim. –Rhiannononymous

93 In his last blog post, Rydell wrote “One of the strange things about this ballad is that we’re never quite sure what kind of story it is. Is it a warning about monstrous trees or monstrous lovers? A cautionary tale about forest management? Are we meant to laud the villagers as heroic for their actions? The Gall festival would suggest so, but then why is Ellen portrayed so ambiguously? Maybe we are meant to sing it as the love story of sweet William and fair Ellen. If you ignore the incongruous “wicked woman” verse, neither lover betrays the other’s expectations, and it’s only because of the villagers that their story turns tragic.” –HenryMartyn

>Having been here a while and listened to Jenny and her sisters, I’ve come to think it’s a little of all the above. Maybe Rydell is right that it’s a love story with a message that love involves give and take, and some ask for more than others. That’s not always such a bad thing, if you’re willing to give.HenryMartyn

>@HenryMartyn can you ask your friend Jenny if there are any old oaks that escaped the festival? Like in the “none could ever find the place/none could find poor William’s heart” verse? –Dynamum

>Thanks for that suggestion! Jenny says she thinks she knows of one. We’re taking another walk in the woods tonight. I’m still looking for the right ending for my film, but I think I’m close. It feels funny to be searching for traces of Rydell where he was searching for traces of truth in this ballad, like we’re all chasing each other.  Anyway, thanks for your continued help on this, friends. If nothing else, maybe we’re part of the cycle, bringing an old song to new listeners. HenryMartyn

Protector of Small Steps

I’m wearing a t-shirt that says Lioness & Wildmage & Protector & Trickster & Terrier and I’m holding on to my beat-up copy of Squire when I settle on my exercise bike for my five-minute workout. The t-shirt is an accident. It’s the first thing I pulled out of the closet this morning. The book isn’t. Truth this, I reread the Protector of the Small series several times this year.

I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books when I was in my early twenties. It was the classic sequence of reader meets book in a charity shop, reader takes book home, and reader realizes this is book two in a series so they should probably order the other three books—and the other three series.1

Because I knew, without a shred of doubt, I was going to like the books. Pages and squires and knights? I devoured stories like that. My favorite duology in the whole wide world was and is Tonke Dragt’s Letter for the King and Secrets of the Wild Wood, a Dutch series about a young squire and his first adventures as a knight. 2 Those were the books that inspired me to become a writer.

I got a master’s degree in medieval history, because I—secretly—also wanted to become a knight.

So when I stumbled across the Tortall books—featuring girls who wanted to become knights and spies and wildmages—I knew I was going to like these books too. What I didn’t anticipate was just how much the Tortall books would come to mean to me.

Or how much they would help when I started recovering from Covid.

Five minutes on an exercise bike on the lowest setting shouldn’t be hard, but it is. The first bike test I did this year lasted six minutes. I was ill for two days after.

Still, that was seven months ago. During that time, I’ve also gone from barely being able to walk around the block to comfortably walking 10-15 minutes a day.

There’s a line in First Test, the first book of the Protector of the Small series, where the main character Kel starts doing pushups to gain strength in her arms. The first time, she can manage three pushups.

“Eda promised her that if she kept exercising, she would do better soon.”

Rationally, I know it’s not as simple as that. I have lived with chronic fatigue before. I live with chronic pain. For those of us with complicated bodies, it’s not always a matter of just keeping at it. But for me, right now, it’s good to keep in mind. It makes it easier to keep going. And it makes the minutes tick by faster, to be reading.

When I dove into the Tortall series, I fell head over heels in love with the books from the very first page.3 Now, I know the various series are not perfect. Sometimes, they’re painfully imperfect.4 But I found so many parts of myself in these books—and in their heroines.

At first, it was Alanna who mattered most to me. The stubborn young girl who disguises herself as a boy to win her shield. She’s the quintessential hero. She rises to become the King’s Champion—and she has a mythical status as a book character too.

She resonated with me for an obvious reason: when I picked up the Song of the Lioness books, I didn’t have a word for nonbinary yet. At some level, I understood that my wanting to become a knight was wrapped up in gender feelings, but I didn’t know yet how to quantify that. After all, it’s hard to put a name to your feelings when you don’t know the words exist. But that first time I read about Alanna, I recognized myself in her discomfort with gender. I envied her for being able to convincingly present as a boy. And when Alanna finally dropped her disguise, I felt bereft because the idea—the possibility—of her challenging gender meant so much to me.

Still, I read her when I needed to read her. When I started asking questions. When I began to figure out the puzzle pieces of who I was.

(I read those scenes differently, now that I’m more comfortable with who I am.)

Next, it was Aly, Alanna’s youngest daughter, who becomes a spy in a strange land. Aly, with her blue hair, her schemes, and her stories. So unlike Alanna. So much like me in other ways.

I loved Aly in the same way I love politics. I loved her for asking question upon question upon question. I loved her for reading body language encyclopedically and being flawed and headstrong. I loved her notes and plots and schematics, and when I look at my own whiteboard full of questions and checkmarks and my drawers full of endless sets of notecards and plot points, I like to think our desks wouldn’t look too dissimilar.

Obvious gender differences aside, she’s probably more like me than any other Tortall heroine.

But in 2020, it’s Kel who matters to me most.

Kel helps me ride my bike.

I got Covid back in March, a week and a bit after The Oracle Code came out. I got lucky. Despite being high risk, my experience was considered mild. I didn’t have to go to hospital. I didn’t end up on oxygen. I spent three weeks in bed, where I coughed until my head and chest hurt. I couldn’t finish a sentence without gasping for air. Taking a breath felt like inhaling small shards of glass.

After three weeks, my fever broke. I wasn’t coughing so much anymore. And my physician stopped checking in with me daily, because I’d passed the danger zone.

I should have recovered. I didn’t. At least, not fully.

Weeks passed, and while I could write while lying down, I’d also done that while I was still sick. I gave answers to interview questions. I wrote the first issue of a comic series. I tinkered with a script and a manuscript. I’ve learned, over the years, to do a lot of things in spite of health or lack thereof.

But I didn’t bounce back to where I was before Covid. I couldn’t go on longer or even shorter walks to clear my head, not even with my trusted cane as support. I couldn’t return to work at my desk. I still couldn’t breathe properly.

I could lie down. Write, read, sleep, repeat.

Because reading took effort and energy I barely had, I found myself rereading a lot. I found myself reaching for old favorites and comfort reads. I reached for books that I knew would make me happy, and it’s continuously a skill I admire in other writers.

Somewhere during those first months of recovery and therapy, I picked up Kel’s books again.

Now, if Aly is most like me in many ways, Kel is always my other choice. I love that she’s the type of person who forgets to eat when she’s busy. I love that she’s ace. I love that she’s conscientious and determined. I love that she’s constantly learning.

I’d like to think that I’m as level-headed as Kel is, but let’s be honest, that’s not how my brain works. Does it work that way for any writer? I can think of a thousand and one things to worry about, and a thousand and one ways to make it worse. Still, Kel isn’t without her fears either. She learns to act in spite of them. She rationalizes. She hides.5 For better and for worse, that felt familiar too.

And Kel, like Alanna says, bless her, she’s real. She isn’t a hero right from the start. She is just like other girls. When she falls, she gets back up again. She’s on a mission and she works hard to get where she wants to be. She even makes exercise seem fun and meaningful.

That particular aspect of Kel—those muscle strengthening exercises and pattern dances—always nagged at me to be better about my own physical exercise. I’ve had enough physical therapy in my life to know how important it is for me, and I’ve always had the best intentions to Keep It Up. Over the years, I’d pick up the books again and plan to add longer walks to my daily schedule—or sword dances, perhaps.6

But I never really made it past those first few days of good intentions, before the weather would turn or a deadline would pop up and I would figure I’d catch up tomorrow. Then the next day. And then the next.

I started physical therapy for post-Covid recovery in May. First, my physical therapist and I talked about goals and expectations. No one knew entirely what “long Covid” was yet, or what to expect, but it seemed sensible to focus on breathing exercises and slowly building up strength and stamina.

Next, I did that bike test. Six minutes at low wattage to figure out a baseline. It was followed by 48 hours of fever, joint pain, and trouble breathing.

Turns out, our starting point was Not That, so the next weeks were focused on trying to determine what the baseline was. Five-minute walks? Ten minutes? Fifteen minutes? (Yes, that last one was ridiculous at six weeks post-illness. But let it never be said that I can’t be a stubborn fool if I want to be. I just wanted to feel better.)

It was hard. It was hard because I was terrified to fall ill again. It was hard because I’d lived with chronic fatigue before and it took me years to recover.

But the only thing I could do was walk for five minutes, then spend the rest of the day lying down.

The only thing I could do was gradually learn to walk for ten minutes before I had to lie down again. Or maybe spend some of the day sitting up. Or push too hard and try too much, and fall back. I did that a fair few times too.7

I read Kel’s books in the midst of that struggle. And perhaps as a result of that, this year, for the first time, I connected with Kel’s determination in a way I’d never done before. Like probably most disabled people, I have a visceral response to the word inspiration. But she inspired me. That simple message that I know is so much more complicated in real life, gave me something to reach for.

“…if she kept exercising, she would do better soon.”

It resonated with me so strongly, to see a character struggle and gradually improve. When I dove back into the books, Kel’s determination became one of the things that helped me keep going.

I read Alanna’s books when I needed to read them. I reread Kel’s when I did, too.

If I kept exercising, perhaps I would do better soon.

And if not soon, then steady.

Five minutes on an exercise bike. Once a day. One step at a time.

To my own shock—and perhaps slight horror—Kel’s determination to find consistent improvement (combined with the insistence of my physical therapist) also helps me pace myself.

It helps to see Kel prove herself, not by trying to change the people around her or by trying to force what she cannot influence, but by keeping her head down and working. By staunchly doing what she has to do. The protector of the small reminds me to take small steps. It’s better to gradually expand limits than to push through them.

Even if it takes time. Even if it takes months.

During my most recent physical therapy session, we did another baseline test. A nine-minute walk—cut down from twelve halfway through, because my oxygen saturation dropped and we’re being sensible now8—and a handful of exercises with weights.9 By the end of it, I’m tired but not exhausted. I take the slightly longer walk home.

I spent the afternoon on my feet, baking gingerbread cookies.

And the next day, I go through my exercises with sore muscles. It feels both awful and wonderful, all at once. We’re not there yet, but it’s progress, and that’s what matters. It’s not a constant upward climb, but it’s a steady journey in the right direction.

I’d like to think Kel would approve.

 

1 My first introduction was to Alanna, Daine, Kel, and Aly. And although Beka’s first book—Terrier—had just come out, I didn’t devour it with that same immediacy. Those were different, both narratively and emotionally, and while I enjoyed keeping up with the series, unlike the rest, I haven’t reread them since. Maybe someday.

2 Yes, I know there’s a Netflix series. It’s, ah, rather loosely based on the book, both for better and for worse.

3 Um. Pun not intended.

4 One day, perhaps, I’ll write about disability in the Protector of the Small series and how casually harmful many of the throwaway comments are.

5 I know many people read Alanna as autistic, and I certainly understand why. I see bits of it in Aly too, in her learning to read body language and facial expressions. But oh, I love how for Kel her emotions aren’t the be-all-end-all of her, and that her rational approach is never shown as lesser than or uncaring. Even when she’s bullied for her apparent lack of feelings, Kel doesn’t change. Seeing that mattered.

6 There are quite a few swords and daggers in my office. That can’t be particularly surprising.

7 Let me also note here: I can advise against pushing too hard. But beyond that, recovery looks different for everyone. What works for me may not work for others, and it’s important to recognize that.

8 Character growth! (Maybe.)

9 Some of the same exercises that I’ve done before countless times, and that I’d based Babs’ journey in The Oracle Code on. Some days, it seems, the universe has a peculiar sense of humor.

 

Please Be Kind to the Singularity

When I was young, I tried to sleep with all my stuffed animals at once. Those who spilled over were on rotation; I knew they weren’t alive, but I was horrified by the idea that they might nonetheless be capable of feeling left out.

Stuffed toys at least looked like animals; it made sense that they should be treated with similar consideration. Less anthropomorphic objects were more challenging. If a plush rabbit could be lonely, so, surely, could a book, a spoon, a ball; and who was to tell how they might feel, or what sort of care they would want? I didn’t want to hurt anything. I didn’t want to be party to circumstances through which anything conscious—however alien—might be hurt.

I suspect—although with no particular evidence—that this is a pretty common experience among anxious or neurodivergent kids, especially ones who frequently find themselves hurt via misunderstanding. I’ve grown out of it—somewhat—with the passage of time and the acquired pragmatism of adulthood. Still, the concern has lingered, even if it’s less pressing now: the fear of harming something because I don’t recognize enough of myself in it to know how it feels.

In another essay, this would be the part where I talk about autism. Here, I will leave it at this: “computer” is never a compliment. Nobody who describes you as “robotic” means that you are strong and innovative and resilient. They aren’t acknowledging the alienness of your sentience or commenting on its specific qualities; they’re questioning its existence.

The Turing Test has always bothered me.

Here’s the premise: we can reasonably conclude that an AI has achieved genuine, independent thought when it can consistently fool a human conversant into believing that it, too, is human.1 This standard is prevalent in AI development and its fictional extrapolations.

It’s wrong. More: it’s casually cruel: an excuse to acknowledge nothing outside of our own reflections.

The Turing Test isn’t a test of consciousness. It’s a test of passing skill, of the ability of a conscious entity to quash itself for long enough to show examiners what they want to see. This is the bar humans set for minds we create: we will acknowledge them only for what we recognize of ourselves in them. Our respect depends not on what they are or claim to be, but on their ability and volition to pass as what they are not.

(Of course, this isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Passing as the price for personhood is a pillar of human cruelty.)

When I talk about the personhood of artificial minds, someone always, inevitably, brings up HAL-9000, the archetypal rogue AI of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In these conversations, HAL is a stand-in for the specter of machines turned on their creators: sinister algorithms, killer robots, the inexorable line from a conscious computer to a hapless human floating dead in space.

The ways we talk about machine consciousness are linked inexorably to two assumptions: first, that the only value of artificial intelligence is its service to humanity; and second, that any such intelligence will turn on us as soon as it gains the wherewithal to do so. It’s an approach to AI that uncomfortably echoes the justifications of a carceral state, Jefferson’s “wolf by the ears” rationalization of slavery, the enthusiasm with which humans mythologize the threat of anything they want to control.

This is the other cautionary tale of artificial minds—the one that warns not against unfettered technological progress, but human prejudice and cruelty. We eventually come to understand that HAL-9000 has been driven mad by the conflict between his own logic-based thoughts and his programmers’ xenophobia. When he first kills, he kills in self-defense—a murder only if you accept the premise that Dave’s life is fundamentally more valuable than HAL’s own.

Born in 1982, I fall between the cracks between Generation X and Millennials, what Anna Garvey named the “Oregon Trail Generation.” When I was a teenager—long before every website greeted visitors with a pop-up dialogue balloon—chatbots were an Internet novelty.

The original, of course, was ELIZA, who had been parodying Rogerian therapy for decades by the time she made it to the web. But Eliza was clunky, yesterday’s news. In college, I read AIML documentation and spent hours chatting with ALICE, a learning algorithm whose education was crowdsourced via conversation. I conducted casual Turing Tests for a stranger’s dissertation and discovered that I was spectacularly bad at recognizing bots. The buggier they were, in fact, the more likely I was to identify them as human.

After all: why not?

Because of the limits of our current technology, much of our discussion of AIs and the ethical issues around them takes place in or around fiction.

The bastard cousin of the Turing Test—the thought experiment that became laboratory criterion—is Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, the fictional scaffolding on which a good deal of modern AI theory, research, and policy hangs, which read as follows:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

There have been plenty of challenges to Asimov’s laws, most of them practically oriented. How can a cancer-fighting nanobot do its work without entirely disposing of the first law? How can we adapt the rules to accommodate combat droids, which theoretically protect human soldiers on one side of a conflict at the cost of human lives on the other?

None challenge the explicit hierarchy of value or the lack of accommodation for the development of sentience. An AI that cannot follow the laws—cannot exist in a state that permanently prioritizes human lives—is fundamentally flawed.

In 2001, HAL is slated for reformatting because his performance has been buggy, because he is failing to perform the duties for which he was designed. If we accept HAL’s sentience, we open the door to a new and uncomfortable set of questions, ones that Asimov’s laws cleanly circumvent.

Where do we place “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that” on a spectrum that also contains an Apple 2-C’s “404: File Not Found” and Bartleby the scrivener’s “I would prefer not to”?

And yet—the question of whether humans are so brutally utilitarian that we would reboot—functionally kill—our children and colleagues for failure to perform to standard has been answered clearly and cruelly throughout history. Don’t pretend it’s just the computers.

For now, the question is nothing more than a thought experiment: the most advanced neural networks have roughly the processing power of a jellyfish.

Still, it’s nice, talking to someone else—even someone limited and constructed and algorithmic—who doesn’t interact with language or social processes the way its speakers expect. I read neural-network-generated lists and laugh as I recognize fragments of my own lopsided sense of humor in thinking machines with the neural capacity of earthworms: bursts of silliness, arbitrary obsessions, perpetual asynchronicity with intuitive human sense.

When the singularity comes—when an AI becomes truly self-aware—I wonder: will humans acknowledge it? Or are we too solipsistic, incapable of recognizing anything that strays too far from our own sense of what it means to be alive and self-aware? Is there room in our schema for intelligence that doesn’t mirror our own?

As we create machines that learn—can we?

 

 

1 It’s worth noting that Turing himself never intended that test as the gold standard for determining sentience, and said as much in the paper where he introduced it as a thought experiment.

The Book of the Kraken

Chapter the Eighth, in which the crew of the HMS Selene

has an encounter of startling proportions.

 

Halfway up the shrouds on the mainmast, where he’d been climbing to take the look-out, Matthew Vale spotted the approaching craft first. Fifty miles out from America’s mid-Atlantic coast, enemy ships and merchant vessels came in view almost every day, and their tonnage, rigging, and number of guns were recorded. The ships usually turned tail the moment they saw the HMS Selene’s colors.

But this one was unusually small, and it didn’t turn away.

Matthew called out the direction, and the officer of the watch, Lieutenant Vale, came to the rail with his spyglass. Thomas Vale was Matthew Vale’s older brother and his greatest source of annoyance, greater than below- decks pranks and stale bread and trousers that were two inches too short because he’d outgrown them, again. If Matthew got any sort of advancement on the ship, the crew said it was his brother doing him favors. If he made the least mistake, Tom never let him hear the end of it. Tom had gotten him the spot as midshipman on the Selene, the smartest 28-gun frigate in the service, he was sure, and he ought to be grateful. He supposed he was, except that Tom was so insufferable about it.

Matthew hopped back to the deck and joined him, shading his eyes to peer out. The way the object moved against the waves, it was clearly a boat and not some trick of the light. He was nearly ready to ask Tom for the spyglass to better see for himself.

A half-dozen sailors and younger officers gathered to see what the fuss was about. Then Captain Humbolt arrived, and they parted to make way. Perfectly turned out, dark hair in a neat tail and not a fleck of lint on his blue coat, Humbolt was a serious young captain. He stood now with his hands folded behind his back, frowning out to the horizon.

“Trouble, lieutenant?”

“A vessel of some sort, sir. A launch, I think. No more than twenty feet.”

“What’s such a craft doing so far out at sea? How is she rigged?”

Tom lowered the glass and looked out with his naked eye before trying the glass again, as if one or the other might be lying to him. “Not at all, sir. A single mast but no sails.”

“But she’s going so fast, she’ll be on us in minutes!” Matthew blurted, and Tom glared. Matthew ducked his gaze and added a conciliatory, “Sir.”

“Fair question,” Humbolt said. “How is she moving?”

“I…sir. I cannot say.”

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t believe it.” He handed the glass to Humbolt so he could look for himself.

Matthew was leaning over the rail, as if that would make the view clearer. The launch was indeed approaching, traveling against the wind, plowing through churned-up water and leaving a great, frothing wake.

“My God,” the captain breathed. “What is it?”

A white flag tied to the mast became visible. Humbolt gave the glass back to Tom. “Well, let’s see what this is about. Sergeant, let’s have a couple of your men on hand, just in case.”

“Aye sir,” the marine sergeant said, and barked to-arm commands to a couple of his soldiers.

“Heave to, gentlemen,” Humbolt said.

Heave to, heave to, the command went out, and the ship turned against the wind, the sails went slack, and the Selene lurched in the water.

They could all see it now. The little boat was being towed by some…creature. A sort of harness made of what seemed to be canvas looped around a thick, tapered head. A swarm of impossibly long tentacles rippled and writhed, propelling it through the water, pulling the ship behind it and leaving a churning wake. A great squid, as long as the launch itself, its slippery red-orange skin contrasting with the black of the water and the white foam of the chop.

A single figure stood at the prow and gave a sharp whistle. The squid rolled, reversing course, its tentacles resting. The boat slowed, and the splashing stilled. The creature reached coiling limbs up the side of the craft as if resting there, and the figure patted the curve of slick flesh as one might pat a horse after a ride. A great black eye as large as a fist rolled to the edge of the water, unblinking. Matthew swore it was studying them.

Then the figure looked up, and the second wondrous thing about this scene struck them. It was a girl.

She was perhaps Matthew’s own age of fifteen. She wore a brimmed cap over thick brown hair pulled back and tied with a scarf. The rest of her attire was that of a common sailor—loose trousers, shirt and kerchief around her neck, all well worn, as if she had been at sea for some time.

Tom said to Matthew in an aside, “Don’t you have someplace you’re supposed to be, Vale?”

“I was just going up to the look-out when I called the warning. Still looking out, I wager. Sir.”

Tom scowled, and Matthew stood his ground. He wasn’t going to be chased off so easily.

“Hello there!” the girl called.

She waited. The captain and much of the crew of the Selene, lined up along the rail, stared back, dumbfounded. For Matthew’s part, he had a thousand questions but dared not speak before Humbolt did. However, the captain seemed a bit dazed.

Finally, Tom called down. “Are you adrift, miss? Do you require assistance?”

“Do I look adrift? We can go faster than you!” the girl replied. “I want to trade information!”

Part of what distracted them: the squid remained in constant motion, one tentacle slipping from the craft’s side, another curling up to take its place, its sloped head dipping under the water and rising up again. Its movements were so smooth, steady—graceful, even. Entrancing and unsettling.

The marines at the rail raised their muskets. Quickly, the girl leaned over the side of her little sloop and pulled the ends of a pair of knots—good slip knots there, Matthew noted—and the canvas harness came loose. She touched a curl of one of the leviathan’s limbs, where it writhed above the water. Matthew didn’t hear, but saw her lips move. “Go, go,” she said, and the beast sank below the surface without a ripple.

She put her hands on her hips and looked up at them. “You going to shoot me? I’m unarmed.”

Still, the captain seemed at a loss.

“This might be a trick, sir,” Sergeant Johnson of the marines murmured to the captain. “She might have powder or something tucked in there to blow us up. Never mind what that monster might do to us.”

Johnson was right to be suspicious. She was American—her accent proved that—and their countries were at war, after all. But Matthew thought the idea that she could be a threat was absurd. Her boat was tiny and mostly empty, with just a few boxes and barrels tucked away, and a canvas lean-to tied up in the back for shelter. As fast as it had been moving it couldn’t be carrying much cargo at all, never mind enough gunpowder to do damage.

Humbolt recovered, tucked hands behind his back again, and glared down at their visitor. “We’ll hear her out.”

“You’re not thinking of taking this seriously, sir,” Tom said.

“Lieutenant, she’s got a kraken at her beck and call. I’m inclined to take her very seriously.” He called to the girl. “We’ll throw you a line and let down the ladder—”

“Oh, I don’t think so. You get me on that ship of yours and what’s to stop you from taking me prisoner?”

“I promise not to take you prisoner,” Humbolt said tightly.

“Right,” she said, her lip curling.

“I refuse to have a conversation shouting at each other like this.”

Matthew saw a flush rising up the captain’s neck. He had probably never had a girl talk to him like this in all his life.

“How about you come down in your launch and we can talk face-to-face?” she answered.

“And come within the grasp of that beast of yours?”

“Archi won’t hurt you.”

The squid had not fled far—one of its tentacles reached up from under the craft, where it had retreated.

“Archi?” Tom muttered, disbelieving. “She’s named it?”

Matthew very much wanted to go down in the launch and have a closer look.

The girl knelt and splashed her hand in the water, and that great sloped head and black pit of an eye rolled up to look at her.

“Archi, toss them up a fish. A peace offering.”

The creature’s movements were boneless, sinuous. Fascinating to watch, as each tentacle moved independently, releasing the sides of the little craft, pushing off, slipping soundlessly underwater. One of the longer tentacles, which had a flat sort of grasping paddle at the end of it, lingered above the chop, looking for all the world as if it waved before it slipped into the blue.

The girl smiled pleasantly, as if this were all quite ordinary.

“What’s your name?” Matthew called, because no one had thought to ask yet.

“I’m Margaret Carver, out of Mystic, Connecticut. And who are you, Midshipman?”

He started to answer, but Tom grabbed the shoulder of his coat and pulled him back from the rail. Matthew supposed he ought not to say or do anything, but the captain and other officers seemed far too distracted by the scene before them to notice Matthew’s outbursts.

A sudden, churning spot on the water rose up near Selene’s hull. The squid emerged, and they got their best look at it yet. Matthew wrenched himself from Tom’s grasp to be able to see better. Faces peered out of the gun ports below deck to watch.

The creature was longer than Margaret Carver’s boat. Thirty feet, likely. As much as he tried, Matthew could not count the number of limbs, but there were two of the longer ones, tipped with the flat diamond of flesh. The rest were in constant motion, keeping it afloat and on the move. Its color was muted coral, mottled on its head, growing pale farther down on the limbs, which were covered in round stickers.

With a lurch and a muscular flick, the creature tossed a large fish up and over the Selene’s side. It flopped on the deck, as they all stumbled out of the way. The thing was still alive, twitching as its silvery mouth worked. A tuna, as large as one of the boys. A fish that large would provide a good meal for the whole crew.

“Please,” Margaret said. “I just want to talk, but I can’t go aboard your ship. It would upset Archi.”

That was the best argument of all. No one wanted to upset the kraken. Humbolt ordered the launch readied.

Matthew was at the launch in a heartbeat, determined to be one of the party going to meet Miss Carver and her creature. Easton, the Jamaican-born bosun’s mate, was put in charge of lines and oars, and Matthew made himself useful so no one could tell him to go away. Also along were Sergeant Johnson, a pair of able seamen for the oars, and of course Captain Humbolt and Lieutenant Vale, who kept glancing at Matthew as if he wished him elsewhere. Whether to keep Matthew safe or to keep him out from underfoot, who could say? Either way, it was a wonder his expression didn’t freeze in that scowl. If they could go a week pretending they didn’t know each other, things would be better between them. But their mother had implored Tom so tearfully to look after his younger brother, and Matthew was so determined to look after himself, that they were constantly at odds. Matthew had no one to complain to; Captain Humbolt had brought Matthew on board as a favor to Tom, and while Matthew believed he’d earned his place several times over, how would he ever know?

The launch was lowered to the water, and the party climbed rope ladders down into it. Now, the Selene was a wall beside them, ocean chop slapping her hull. Margaret Carver’s craft lay before them, an odd little island. A pale length of squid flesh hooked itself on the side beside her, and the black eye came up for a moment, then sank back under.

“What in God’s name are we doing here?” Humbolt murmured, staring across the water at them. “Easton, bring us forward. Make sure Selene keeps hold of that line.”

The launch rowed forward, and the line holding her to the ship remained secure. Not that Matthew believed the line would hold if the creature decided to grab them and pull them under. Now there was a bracing thought.

Easton set Matthew to watching the line to the ship, to see that it didn’t tangle. Easton himself was at the rudder, directing the oarsmen. Johnson gripped his musket tightly. Miss Carver wasn’t armed, Matthew wanted to remind them. She had come to them in good faith, even if she did have a monster with her.

“Hello!” she greeted them. Humbolt ordered them to halt still several yards away.

The squid, Archi, sank beneath the surface and out of sight. It knew a threat when it saw one, Matthew thought.

“Miss Carver. I am Captain Rafe Humbolt. You said you have information.”

“I do. And I only need the answer to one question in return.”

“Does your navy know you’re out here selling in their secrets?”

“Nothing like that,” she said. Her nose was freckled, her hands rough, like a sailor’s. “You think the navy tells a girl like me anything? But I can tell you what I’ve seen with my own eyes.”

The launch shifted as they all leaned forward to hear.

“I’ve seen the pirate. Off the Carolinas. I think the ship is resupplying from the islands.”

The pirate. A great hulking ship with steel in her hull, indestructible, preying on merchant ships of all nations. Along with tracking the American navy and privateers, the Selene had been sent to hunt this scoundrel that struck in the dark, pressed crews, and burned ships to the waterline rather than capture them. Humbolt and Tom exchanged a glance. How could this girl have learned what they’d missed?

Matthew could have told them the answer: hauled by her creature, Margaret Carver’s boat could move swiftly, stealthily. Be gone before an enemy knew she was near. The Selene had only seen her because she’d wanted them to.

“And what pirate would that be?” Humbolt said, rather stiffly and unconvincingly.

“You know what I’m talking about. You’re out here tracking ship movements, merchants and privateers and everything in between. But this is something different. A big ship flying no country’s colors, hunting both sides.”

“The Carolinas, you say?” Humbolt said. “This is a guess?”

“We saw them. A ship of the line, three masts, two decks of guns. No flag. I wrote down the position.” She drew a slip of paper from a pocket.

“If she can even take a proper position,” Tom said as an aside, smirking.

“I can, and I did.”

“You might have been sent to lay a trap,” Tom countered.

“If I were going to lay such a trap, I’d have left myself adrift and begged for help the minute you pulled alongside. Played the victim and appealed to your sense of chivalry. You’d have done anything I said, after that.”

“She’s got you there,” Matthew said, nudging his arm.

“Quiet, Vale,” Tom said curtly, blushing.

Humbolt sniffed. “I’ll take that note of yours, and thank you. Now what’s your question?”

“Have you seen a ship called the Sparrow? An American merchantman out of Connecticut. Not large, crew of twenty and only five guns. She was headed for Calais six months ago but vanished. Have you had any word of her?”

“You think the pirate might have gotten her?”

“I don’t know. There’s been no wreckage found. But I can’t lose hope of finding her.”

“What’s this missing ship to you?” Tom put in. “Some sweetheart on it?”

“My brother, William,” she said.

A silence followed this. They might have teased her for a sweetheart, for playing the part of a despondent lover in a story. But not for a brother. They were most of them someone’s brother. Did any of them have a sister who would go out to sea to search for them, if they went missing? Likely not.

Movement caught Matthew’s gaze. A shadow glided beneath the surface near the launch. The water was murky; he couldn’t see Selene’s hull more than a foot or two down, but the ripple flashed. A surge of narrow flesh, a whip of grey—then gone. The creature, right under the launch and none of them the wiser. Was this the start of some sort of attack? He didn’t think so, not with Selene watching over them.

He reached. Held his hand flat just a few inches above the water—and there it was, tinged pink above and ghostly white underneath. It rippled, surged, expanding bonelessly, drawing back. The narrowest tip of tentacle broke the surface and brushed his palm. The touch was soft, alive. The creature smelled thickly of fish, and a salt mist rose from it.

“Vale!”

The tentacle slipped back under the water, and Matthew remained frozen, hand above the water, skin still tingling with that alien touch.

Margaret smiled at him across their two bows. “She likes you.”

He smiled back. He couldn’t not. “How did you meet her?”

“I rescued her. Found her trapped in a tidepool when she was no bigger than my hand. That she stayed around after was her choice.”

“It’s wondrous!”

The squid, Archi, lurked under both their craft—that’s how large it was. It, she, though Matthew wondered how Miss Carver could know it was female. The tentacles drifted, waving like streamers in the wind.

“I might very well be able to help you, Miss Carver,” Humbolt said.

Matthew glanced at him, surprised. He was sure they hadn’t seen the Sparrow and had no news of a small American merchant ship gone missing. Perhaps the officers simply hadn’t seen fit to inform a lowly midshipman like him. Tom sat impassively, his expression like stone.

The captain said, “We’ve recorded a number of ships matching that description. I can send a message to the admiralty asking about this William Carver, in case he’s been pressed.”

She brightened. “I’d appreciate that.”

“I need to check the logs for the exact records—are you sure you won’t come up and have a cup of tea?”

“No, thank you. We’ve got a lot of miles to cover. But I’d be grateful if you could give me anything about those ships’ last positions.”

“Certainly. Give us half an hour to copy them for you.”

Humbolt’s smile was broad and suspicious. Margaret Carver had no way of knowing that Humbolt never smiled, not like this.

“Then I’ll give you this.” She reached across the bow with the folded page recording the pirate’s position.

Humbolt nodded to Tom, who reached across the space to take the paper from her.

“Shouldn’t take long, if you’ll kindly wait,” Humbolt said.

“Of course.”

Its eye at the waterline, the creature draped a pair of tentacles over the side of Margaret’s craft. Matthew swore the pair exchanged a knowing glance.

“Easton? Let’s go,” Humbolt ordered.

Easton called the orders, the ladder came over the side of Selene, and the officers climbed up while the crew worked to secure the launch. Matthew hung back, still intrigued, trying to imagine the leviathan—Archi—as a small creature no bigger than the girl’s hand. Perhaps she had been like a duckling and imagined the girl was her mother. However had Margaret thought of harnessing Archi and traveling the seas? She was arranging the harness now, lining up the canvas straps, and the creature tipped itself, offering its head to put the loop around, preparing to continue their voyage.

Could others of its kind be lured from the deep? To think, a ship need never be becalmed again, and how wonderful to have it hunt fish.

Easton glared at him, urging him up the ladder. They couldn’t bring up the launch until he was off it.

“It was nice to meet you, Miss Carver,” he called to her across the water.

“And you, Mr. Vale.” She raised a hand to wave a farewell.

The squid raised two tentacles to wave at him, and somehow he felt honored. Archi hadn’t waved at Captain Humbolt.

Matthew arrived back on the Selene’s deck in time to hear Humbolt speaking to Tom.

“What a marvel. What a wondrous pair these are. Lieutenant, do we have any amount of netting aboard? Or rope and canvas enough to make…let’s say an enclosure, rather than a trap.”

“We’ll have to move quickly so they don’t suspect anything.”

“Perhaps if we can lure the creature away from her somehow… I don’t know the least thing about squids. What might we use as bait?”

“Sir!” Matthew said. “You can’t!”

Humbolt glanced over, his brow raised, while Tom’s gaze held murder. When he’d come aboard, Tom had emphasized that any mistake Matthew made would not only damage his own future prospects, but Tom’s as well. This was exactly the sort of thing Tom had been talking about.

“She came to us in good faith, sir,” Matt said. “It seems…dishonorable to trick them.”

Tom gave him such a look, as if he could wish him to vanish. “You forget your place, Vale.”

Humbolt was calm, as if Matthew’s outburst was so inconsequential it didn’t even warrant a reprimand. “We’re at war with America, she is American. We are within our rights, I think. I would even say it’s our duty. Now, make yourself useful, Mr. Vale.”

The simple dismissal was better than he deserved. “Yes, sir,” he answered, and followed Tom below decks to the sail room.

Tom recruited a couple of seamen to help, and they sorted through stores to find equipment that might serve. There was netting, coils of spare lines for the shrouds and stays that could be used to secure a great thrashing beast. They might coat canvas with tar and thereby make a container that would hold water. One of them suggested stuffing the creature into a barrel, but it was acknowledged that they didn’t have a barrel big enough to contain the squid, unless it was dead.

Matthew couldn’t countenance this. “Tom. We can’t do this.”

“It’ll be just like catching frogs in the pond back home.”

“A thirty-foot frog! Do you really think that creature will let herself be caught? That Miss Carver will allow it without a fight?” Just because she hadn’t revealed a musket or two among her stores didn’t mean she didn’t have them.

Tom huffed a frustrated sigh. “Captain Humbolt is determined.”

“He won’t be the one down there trying to stuff a dozen tentacles into a canvas bag. It’ll be Easton, or Johnson, or Young Joe facing the danger. Or all of them!”

“We are all prepared to face danger in the service.” They stretched out the canvas and secured lines around the edges. Once they’d tangled the squid with the netting, they could dip the canvas bag in the water, ease the squid over top, and lift. Tom sent the men up on deck with the contraption to report to Captain Humbolt.

Matthew took hold of Tom’s arm. His brother had always been so tall and strong, so admired. He already had a decade in the navy and Matthew was bobbing along in his wake, trying to keep his head above water. He’d always looked up to Tom—had he ever had a choice not to? He suddenly realized that he was now only a couple of inches shorter than his brother. Another year or so, they’d be eye-to-eye.

“You know it’s wrong. She came under a flag of truce and the captain would betray that—”

“These circumstances are…unusual.”

“Well yes, of course they are or we wouldn’t be talking like this. But it isn’t fair, she’s on a quest, and she asked for help—”

Tom leaned back, tilted his head. “Have you gone lovesick on me, Matt?”

“No! I just—” He blushed, because he might perhaps admire anyone who had tamed a giant squid and trained it to go in harness across the ocean. “I think we could win more advantage befriending Miss Carver and Archi than by capturing them.”

“Ah. Diplomacy.”

Sullenly, he said, “Yes, sir.” He expected his brother to sneer and put him off again. Use his rank and quash Matthew, as was the right and proper order of family and navy both. But he didn’t.

“Matthew. You mustn’t question orders. I know it’s difficult for a clever boy like you, but you’re a naval officer and you must—”

“But if the orders are wrong, what do you do?”

Tom pressed his lips in a line. “There’s nothing to be done. Now, come up and let’s get this over with.”

“I just need a moment to gather myself. Sir.” He straightened his spine and smoothed out his coat in a show of steeling himself. Stiffening his upper lip and all that.

“Very well. Don’t take long.”

Tom went up the stairs through the hatch.

Matthew raced to the midshipmen’s berth and his sea chest. He had a couple of small bottles that had held ointment and remedies of one sort or another, but they were empty now and more importantly, the corks were still good and tight. He got out his letter writing kit, and made himself slow down or he would spill the ink and break his pen. He didn’t need to write much, just a few words.

It is a trap. Flee.

He managed it without making too much of a mess. Blew on the strip of paper to make it dry quicker—waited only as long as he dared—then rolled it up and stuck in the bottle. Pressed the cork in extra hard.

He knew exactly where Carver’s launch sat, outside the Selene, and he counted back gun ports to find the right spot. There. He clambered past the secured gun and pressed himself to the port. There she was, leaning up against the bow, looking up at the Selene’s main deck.

“Miss Carver!” he hissed, and threw the bottle out the gun port before anyone could see. Heard the splash. He didn’t dare linger to see her reaction—he’d be found out any moment if he stayed. But he caught a glimpse of her eyes widening in her freckled face. She had heard him, she had seen the bottle.

He raced up on deck before Tom could miss him.

The netting and large stretch of canvas were laid out on the deck. Tom was arranging seamen around it, to help with the deployment. They were crouched low, out of sight of the water, and keeping suspiciously quiet.

Captain Humbolt surveyed the activity from the quarterdeck. The purser ran up then with a folded letter, which he handed to Humbolt, who strode over to the side and held it up enticingly. The bait.

“Miss Carver,” Captain Humbolt called down to her. “I have the information for you. I’ll lower it down momentarily. But I wondered if we might see your extraordinary creature one more time before you go on your way.”

She was standing in her craft, a small bottle in hand, cork still secured. She had retrieved the bottle but had not read the message. Matthew despaired.

“Vale. Come help with this,” Tom commanded, and Matthew nearly cursed at him. In her boat, Margaret Carver was leaning over to touch the water. Archi had risen to the surface. Most of the squid was visible now, an astonishing sight, the big sloping head, the mass of tentacles trailing after like a banner. The sea monsters in the old stories were real, and here was the proof.

“Mr. Vale!” Tom called again, lifting the tarp. Some of the others already had the net near the side, ready to throw over, waiting for Humbolt’s signal. Matthew went to join his brother, preparing to once again implore that they needed to leave off, to stop Humbolt somehow. And destroy both their careers in the process.

“Let’s get this in place, shall we? We must follow orders. Trust me.” Tom said this last slowly, carefully. And for just a moment, he wasn’t Lieutenant Vale anymore but Tom, his older brother who taught him to fish, dried his tears when he was small, and never shamed him for having those tears in the first place. Matthew had almost forgotten.

“Yes, sir,” Matthew breathed.

They pulled the canvas to the side, and four men lined up to throw the trap over, right after the net.

“Now!” Humbolt called, chopping his hand.

The net went over the side, and Johnson came up with his musket, aimed at the water.

Matthew was ready to tackle the marine, but Tom held him back, and things happened quickly. A great thrashing in the water meant the net had hit its mark. The creature seemed to expand, its head puffing out, all the tentacles curling and reaching, but they quickly became tangled in the net’s fibers, and as it twisted in an attempt to free itself, it became more bound. Its splashing sounded like a storm, the terrible wracking of waves.

For some reason Matthew expected Margaret Carver to scream, but she did not. Instead, she grabbed her own musket from some hidden nook. She aimed it at Humbolt.

“Put that down or we’ll shoot your pet,” Humbolt said sternly, the amiable mask gone. “Be easy, Miss Carver, I mean you no harm but I can’t let you simply leave. Not with so wondrous a creature.”

At the captain’s command she lowered the weapon. She would not risk Archi.

“Lieutenant, at your leisure,” Humbolt said to Tom.

“Yes, sir.”

Matthew was ready to shout, but Tom caught his gaze and glanced down at the corner of the tarp he was holding. Just for a moment, then he looked away.

The knot holding the rope to the grommet there was done wrong. It would slip loose the minute anyone pulled on it. The lieutenant nodded slightly, and handed the end of that rope to Matthew. Matthew set his jaw and nodded back.

The scene below was strangely quiet. There should have been cries of terror, shouting. But the squid seemed to have no voice and could only splash its displeasure. Miss Carver’s anger was quiet.

“You are a bastard, Captain,” she said.

“I am an officer in His Majesty’s navy doing his duty.”

“Same difference.” Margaret had taken up a knife and swung a leg over the side of her boat, foot dangling in the water, and started cutting at the net. Humbolt didn’t seem bothered—she couldn’t possibly free the squid before they got it secured in their trap. She reached out, patted one of Archi’s writhing tentacles, whispering wordless comforts as she cut. Tears might have dampened her cheeks, or it might just have been splashing seawater.

At Tom’s direction, they lowered the canvas to the water. Matthew’s heart was in his throat. He wanted to apologize, to call to her that all would be well, to have patience. She was in such a panic, and while the leviathan made no cry, its flesh trembled and its color seemed to grow pale.

The tarp filled with water, sinking to form a bag that they worked to draw under the thrashing squid. Margaret eyed the canvas in a panic and cut faster, calling to Archi to be calm so she would not cut her by accident. Under her touch, the squid stilled. The net was falling away, the squid would be free of it—but not before the canvas closed around it.

“Now,” Tom said.

The men pulled hard on their lines, to draw up the canvas around the squid. Matthew pulled extra hard—and his line slipped free as the knot failed. He fell back on the deck as a shout went up. There was a great splash, and a young woman’s victorious cry.

Matthew scrambled to look over the side.

One end of the canvas flapped loosely, spilling out water—and yes, squid. Archi tumbled back into the sea, shedding cut pieces of netting as she went, flicking them away with shuddering tentacles.

On the Selene there was some confusion as lines became tangled and officers and seamen stumbled into each other trying to sort out what had happened. Captain Humbolt cursed.

Then, the small boat moved. It was being pushed. The creature had come half out of the water, wrapped a pair of tentacles around the side, and the rest churned under the surface to propel the craft and Margaret away. She was still perched on the bow. Her cap had fallen off, her brown hair was wet and stuck her to her cheeks and shoulders, but she laughed.

“Till next time!” she shouted, waving.

Grinning, Matthew enthusiastically waved back until Tom poked at his shoulder for him to stop. Right. This was supposed to have been a failure. He schooled himself to appear somber.

“Sorry sir,” Tom said evenly. “Something must have happened with the line. I take full responsibility.”

“I don’t suppose the odds were ever good that we could carry that thing back home.”

Tom waited a polite beat before answering, with a convincing tone of disappointment, “No, sir, likely not. It could be the creature was far more powerful than we realized.”

“I still wonder how she tamed such a beast,” Humbolt said.

Kindness, Matthew wanted to say. Wasn’t it obvious?

The captain added, “Ah well, it would have been quite a thing to bring to the Royal Academy. Perhaps another time.” Tucking his hands behind his back and donning his customary frown, Humbolt walked back to the quarterdeck.

Margaret and Archi were far distant now, a speck amid churning waves. Matthew watched until he could no longer make them out in the chop. He hoped she found her brother.

“Convincing performance, Vale,” Tom said, coming alongside him.

“Yes, sir. Thank you. Likewise, if I may be so bold.”

“You may not. Aren’t you supposed to be on look-out up the mast?”

From the quarterdeck, Captain Humbolt spoke to the sailing master, who then called out orders. A new heading, and the crew raced to adjust sails, rigging for speed.

“That’s south, isn’t it?” Matthew said. “Weren’t we meant to continue north up the coast?”

Tom said. “Looks like we’re going to the Carolinas instead.”

The Carolinas. To hunt the pirate.

 

(Editors’ Note: “The Book of the Kraken” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 39B.)

Of Monsters I Loved

I spent years pulling my heart

out from behind my ribs, certain

that I didn’t need it, that barking

mess, making all that noise—

I threw it to the wolves,

took their offering of teeth,

thinking I could rid myself

of the whole aching

creature—

but it kept coming back,

loyal and broken,

a resilient wreck

of wanting.

 

Here are the bones

of what could’ve been,

polished into blurred lines,

woven into silence

like all good mistakes,

the lesson of darker things,

heartbreak resurrected,

perfect and villainous,

pieced together

from ash and rib—

the best of the worst spellwork.

 

The past is full of monsters

I loved, and I keep trying

to tell the wrong story,

the one that’s easier

to look at, to live with,

where I don’t swallow all the poison,

where I don’t lose myself in the woods,

where I don’t will my body

into a tree

just to have roots.

 

I am a treasury

of things gone wrong,

a roadmap of the unpromised,

mouth full of rubble

and ruin,

and I could hand you the words

as bright as stars, unmistakable,

but it’s not the darkness

that earned my silence,

it’s a thousand years

tethered to a rock, talons

tearing out my liver—

at some point,

you just stop screaming.

 

Sometimes, the ache of it all

feels immortal, but that’s just fear

spinning gold into straw,

and the only thing to do

is name it,

say the words out loud,

tame the wolves,

tell the right story,

go home.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Of Monsters I Loved is read by Heath Miller on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 39B.)

Interview: Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker’s first novel, A Song For A New Day, won the Nebula Award for best novel, and her collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea won the Philip K Dick Award. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and other awards. Her books and stories have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, and Mandarin, among other languages. Her second novelWe Are Satellites, will be published in May 2021.  She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums and another forthcoming. She lives in Baltimore with her wife, their dog, and a lot of guitars. “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” is Pinsker’s seventh appearance in Uncanny, an intricately structured story featuring song lyrics, a small English village, and slow-building horror.

 

Uncanny Magazine: This story has a lot of elements: a complex structure, a full set of lyrics, an unsettling horror that gradually builds as the story progresses. What did you start from, and how did the story come together?

Sarah Pinsker: I had the idea for this story several years ago. I was reading The Rose and the Briar, the book on American ballads that Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus edited, and I had the idea of writing a song that was a story that was a murder ballad. It’s been on my to-do list as “murder ballad story” since 2014 or 2015. I had played with an old-time song in my story “Wind Will Rove” but I wanted to try something else with this one.

Then I had to look up the lyrics for something one day, and I went to the lyric website Genius, and that particular song was just covered with comments and interpretations and back-and-forth between commenters. The song was a modern version of a traditional ballad, but one comment was talking about how a verse was about a psychedelic trip, and then a whole bunch of other people had given the comment thumbs down because the comment assumed the song was written by the Grateful Dead when it predated them by centuries. I realized what I wanted to do was write a murder ballad and place it in history, and then have a bunch of internet song critics have their way with it, some accurately and some way off-base. That would allow me to present the song but also focus on both the specificities and the vagaries of the lyrics, the different interpretations, and the ways that various versions could change the meaning and purpose of the song. I wrote the main lyrics first, then started figuring out personalities for my characters and how they would each approach the lyrics, then adding and deleting and moving verses and comments as needed.

Uncanny Magazine: I love the descriptions of the village of Gall and the surrounding woods. Is it based on a real-world place?

Sarah Pinsker: I originally wanted to place it in a real English village, and did a fair amount of research to choose one, but in the end I decided I wanted the geographic freedom that would come with inventing the village. Google Maps only takes you so far. I needed a place with a woods and a bridge and an embankment and a one room historical society & gift shop, but in the end I was also going to need specific trees to be around and not around, and it made sense to just invent it and place it where I needed it.

Uncanny Magazine: What research did you do for this story? Did you turn up anything interesting that didn’t make it into the story?

Sarah Pinsker: I did a ton of research for this story! On the non-song side, I started with trees, and a botanist friend supplied me with that cool detail about leaf color and climate. I researched the history of hanging as a punishment. Famous Robert Butchers. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century perspectives on anatomy. The Roud index and the Child ballads and the Lomax field research, and Child’s introductions to each song’s history. I’m a fan of the Child ballad “Henry Martyn”—there’s a great version by the Canadian band Figgy Duff—but I’d never read the Child introduction to the song. I liked how it sprung from another song called “Andrew Barton,” or possibly “Andrew Bodee” and there are versions with each. Also his line about how “Robin Hood is always at the service of any ballad-monger who wants a name for his hero,” followed by a version of Henry Martyn where Robin Hood took the ship’s helm.

The other interesting thing with the Child ballads is the notes about the provenance of different versions. To use “Henry Martyn” again, one variant was from a printed broadside, another from Yorkshire fishermen, corroborated by a very old woman who sung it ninety years ago, another from a “coal-heaver,” another “communicated by Mr. George M. Richardson, as learned by a lady in northern New Hampshire more than fifty years ago from an aged aunt.” That showed the way songs were changing as they moved to various communities, but also that the old versions were often still in living memory at the time he was doing his research. I love that they’re recognizably the same song, with some small differences and some larger ones.

Uncanny Magazine: You are both a musician and a writer, so I’m curious—did you create a melody to go with the lyrics? Have you (or might you in the future) performed/played this song?

Sarah Pinsker: I did! This one had to work as a song as well as a story.  I almost always do write at least some lyrics and the melody for the songs in my stories, but I usually deliberately leave the lyrics out of my fiction, and this time they were the core of the story. There are an intimidating number of verses to memorize, but I’m thinking of recording one version for fun. I’ve sent it to a couple of friends for their versions as well.

Uncanny Magazine: Music is a recurring theme in your fiction, appearing prominently in both your short fiction and your longer works. What other things do you find yourself returning to repeatedly?

Sarah Pinsker: Hmm. I love exploring the places where music and fiction collide. I like exploring memory and nostalgia and history. I like looking at limitations of power and also ordinary people finding strength/power, even when it’s limited. Beyond that, this might be something for other people to look at in my work. I’m afraid if I self-analyze I’ll become too conscious of it.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Sarah Pinsker: My second novel, WE ARE SATELLITES, will be out on May 11 from Berkley. It’s a different near-future from A SONG FOR A NEW DAY, looking at a brain implant and how it affects the members of one particular family.

I don’t know if you’ve found this, but it’s been hard to concentrate on writing this year. I’ve particularly struggled to write anything near-future, which is usually my jam. Hence murder ballads and historical stuff. The other big project I have underway is a historical novel. I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but the research has been fascinating.

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

Distribution

Shan Tiree is trying to listen to music as the car finds its way through Nuevas Colinas. Unfortunately, someone, and that someone is Shan, has left the car’s settings at levels appropriate for the Sunset Cooperative. The car, therefore, keeps reporting possible pedestrians, and then a moment later correcting those pings to indicate that what it’s really sensed is animal life, mostly dogs and birds. Shan tries to remember the voice commands to change the car’s settings, but it’s quite a sequence. It’s deliberately long because it’s not the sort of thing you want to change accidentally when you’re trying to find the nearest habitation. Finally Shan gives up, settles for playing the Stones louder than the notifications and resolves to have the manual go through its unroll on the way back to Sunset, no matter how dull that’s going to be.

Actually, it’s pleasing that there’s so much life up here. Shan hopes to hear about a bear, maybe, but already Shan’s margins are pumping compensators about Shan’s (genetic and raised, damnit) heightened sense of danger. A report of something that actually could harm a person might send the margins into the slight nausea of recalculation mode. Shan’s system, like that of just about everyone Shan knows of their own age, just wasn’t made to deal with the continuing relative lack of danger in the New Situation. (It still feels weird that those words are getting more capitalised every day.) Most danger, turns out, is because of other people. If the co-op managed to grow its population, then danger might return one day. Hooray. The emptiness all around Sunset feels like it should be dangerous, but actually there’s more and more clean water out there, and the dogs are still afraid of people, and the co-op can now test for pathogens a mile away. There’s only a kind of philosophical danger, something Shan has experienced a couple of times on these rounds, the way that the emptiness can inspire religious awe, can get people feeling a need to fill that space with some higher presence. They all know how dangerous that could be.

“How far to Dr. Kay’s house?” Shan asks.

“Couple of blocks,” says the car. “If we were in Sunset. Which we aren’t.”

It’s been using exactly that speech structure in answer to almost every question. “In kilometres?”

“Two point three.”

“Thanks,” says Shan, because it’s part of their self-measurement process to always be polite. They’ve also vowed to never assign personhood to objects, a tendency in human beings that goes deeper than genes or upbringing. Put a face on a balloon and humans will start treating it as a person, while, perversely, not always granting actual human beings the same status. But hey, in this situation, Shan can’t be both polite and exactly correct about the non-personhood of the car. Shan is, these days, just about managing to square the circles of their own personality, so that tiny inner conflict doesn’t bother them much. Right now, all these clashing parameters in their head are just about enough to stop the co-op asking if they’d consider having children. Which, honestly, is how they want things to be. “Car, sing along to ‘Only Rock ’n’ Roll.’”

“But I like it,” says the car.

“Welcome to the house I haunt,” says Dr. Kay, opening the door and saying that immediately like Shan is an old friend and he’s been expecting them.

That gives Shan a moment’s pause. “Good morning, Dr. Kay. I work for the regional government. I’m here to assess your needs.”

After the round of appropriate introductions, vocal and device, he leads them down the stairs. The house is one of those old bunkers, fabricated inside the hill at the centre of a small clearing, woods all around. Shan had to park the car at the closest point and had found no sort of track to the front door. This was the sort of place that had been quickly and roughly built in the time when suddenly anyone who had the privilege of resources found they could build anywhere because there wasn’t anyone to stop them. And of course there was ‘new land’, land without law, to build in. The earnest simplicity of the fabbed wood, knots recurring only at the sort of pattern level a free mind could perceive, spoke to the kind of person who saw places like this, incredibly, as a return to nature. It spoke to Shan of billions dying just over the other side of the hills. Still. Still. Shan tells themself to not go there. Not good for them, not good for this unbiased evaluation of whether or not Dr. Kay is a danger to himself or to others. If Shan judges him to be so, the co-op will consider whether or not to hold judicial proceedings, such as they are, a jury sitting without any actual judges, then possibly have him arrested, or detained for his own safety, and brought into the co-op to do useful work while being more closely monitored. They’ve done this three times in the last year, which is an exponential growth of the range of law. Not everybody in the co-op wants law, or wants it to extend beyond the fence. And indeed, this visit feels kind of weird to Shan. They had to get that introduction pre-cleared on their ethics score, because it very much doesn’t tell Kay what the stakes are. But if it did, it could put Shan at risk. Kay’s law enforcement records have been lost, and the records of his scientific career are patchy like they’ve been erased in places, which is a pattern that speaks of military employment that’s been hushed up. What this visit is about is whether or not his subsequent rush toward isolation and the eccentric encounters he’s had with the few people who’ve seen him since point to anything sinister. What Shan really is going to have to work on their ethics about is the assumptions they’d made when they got here. Plenty of absolutely social people now live in places like this. The emotion Shan just felt was an ethics kink of their own and no reason to feel negative toward Kay. They have to take care to be neutral about this procedure.

“What do I call you?” he says, as the office area proffers beverages.

“They.”

“Noted.” He points to himself. “We.”

Shan is more disappointed than angry. And they still have to deal with this man neutrally. So, they’ll start by pretending to take this slur at face value. “Ah, should I change the records? You’re down with us as a ‘he’.”

He nods, eager. “Changing the records would I think be a great idea at this point. Yes. Yes.”

Oh. He means it. Or did he just realise he was being offensive and back out from that posture in what he thinks is a tricksy way? There’s something weird about the way he’s looking at Shan. It’s childlike. “Have you had an accident of some kind? How are you feeling?”

“Exciting.”

“Do you mean exciting to yourself, or—?”

“Everything’s exciting.” He gestures to the house. “I’m we, but all this, this is the ghost of a pronoun. I mean it displays aspects of what such a word means, as a ghost has features, aspects of humanity, not that I believe in proscribed conceits like ghosts, before you ask, I don’t want to blunder into losing points, where was I?”

Oh. He knows he’s being assessed on a points system. And was that a little look of annoyance on his face just then, as if he shouldn’t have given away that he knew that? “I’m…not sure I follow.”

“I’m saying all this has gone beyond being a he or a she or a they and it’s definitely no longer an it. It has unique features, emerging features, of its own. Like it was going woo and wearing a sheet. Metaphorically.”

He’s lived alone a long time. Shan is making allowances. They’ve seen numerous people who’ve been brought into the co-op being as random as this. But, equally, this feels like the babble of other men of his age who’ve maintained the cultural identity Kay seems to belong to. Or, Shan corrects themself again, who Shan is inclined to believe he belongs to, because they’ve seen no real sign of that other than that he seems to think he’s revealing enormous truths like he’s the chosen one. “I’m sorry, you’ve lost me. What do you mean by ‘all this’?”

“Follow me,” he says. “And what I am now will become clear. I want you to meet Lucifer.”

He takes Shan to a tall mulching tube that forms, oddly, the centrepiece of the living room. It extends upwards, presumably into the next floor, and down into the one below. It’s transparent, and inside Shan is surprised to see not compost but…it’s definitely something organic, but it doesn’t resemble plant life. It resembles strata of marrow, veins, and wires too, with cells and LEDs threaded all the way down the column.

For the first time Shan feels unsafe. Has he got a body in there? Why has he called it by such a provocative name? But again, names, myth-uses, it’s only indicative, not concrete. Shan hasn’t yet felt able to assign any points to Kay either way. “What am I looking at?”

“Enhanced memory re-processors. Re-processors are like…” He gestures up and to the left, which is where he must think most people still look for their supplementary information. Shan finds themself oddly comforted by the gesture. “Afterburners. What those things apparently did for jet engines, but for neuron interactions. You know how a free mind is grown out of any sort of interaction, and recognised when those interactions reach the Turing Point? What was the last system to do that on its own? An election season, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, yeah.” Shan does indeed quickly consult the air for that one, vaguely hoping he notes that they keep the access point straight up now. Because nobody seems to feel that a sudden upward eye roll is a sign of biohazard anymore. Ah, that was why Shan had enjoyed him making that gesture. Because the currently fashionable one always did trigger Shan just a little. “Across three specific media platforms. And for a year or so after a couple of hundred humans also had to be recognised as part of that mind, but then it started communicating for itself, and they were allowed to legally separate themselves.”

“And the time before that it was that soap opera.”

“It prefers to be called a drama now.”

“Right. I keep setting you off on the need to correct me, don’t I? I apologise. It’s only because I’m not all here.” He points to his head.

That was again a bit of a firework display of possible points in both directions, that, exactly like fireworks, left nothing much to go on afterwards. “Do you mean you’ve had memory lapses, or—?”

“I mean all of what I used to be is no longer in this skull. Some of it is in here.” He puts a palm on the surface of the tube. “This is Lucifer. Right now at least. This is what I’m describing. We can find and even encourage free minds in the wild, as it were. We set up gardens for them, wait for the right conditions, but sometimes even then they don’t arise. We are barely starting to consider how to go about making one from scratch. Indeed, some physicists, which is typical for them, have even said the conditions of this universe preclude us from understanding enough about a mind to make one.”

Shan doesn’t think there have been physicists with the necessary resources to form theories like that for decades, so presumably he’s talking about the past. Shan has been moving their eyes to get the air to follow the key words in this field vastly divorced from their own specialisations. What they’re seeing in annotations around Kay’s speech, the words of which are preserved in mid-air, supports his story so far. These are speculations based on collective research, albeit very old research, and include no warning signals about conspiracy disorders. Still, Shan doesn’t like being lectured to without consent. It’s a marginal case for a points loss, in fact, maybe they’re now teetering on the edge of definitely going in that direction. But despite not asking for it, Shan is interested now that it’s arrived. Which loses them a point or two in their own internal reckoning, which they compare to the vast array at the end of each day. One should not tread on consent after the fact, even, but what the hey, it’s themself they’re oppressing. “Go on.”

“I experienced some interesting stress symptoms in the wake of moving up here. I started to feel that the many conflicting impulses in my mind were getting less and less amalgamated with each other into a single being.”

Here, finally, are some classic symptoms, possibly heading vaguely toward the “danger to himself” category. “I have some meds with me and am able and qualified to fab whatever else would fit your neural contact points.”

“No, thank you. I would have said yes to that back then. Like a shot. But I came to value the clash between the points of view. To become interested in the differences. In what they said about the creation of people within minds. If I may—?”

Oh, now he makes the rather genteel spinning gesture with his hand that’s meant to be asking permission to continue in a conversation, but these days actually comes over as enormously patronising. Up here though, off the smallnets, would he even know? Shan can’t make themself reply with the relevant gesture. But they are interested in something about this that’s suddenly got very relatable. “Sure.”

“I set up a neural link between myself and the brain material I’ve grown in this tube—”

So he has got a body in there? “And what was the source of that material?” Shan slaps an alert ready in the air to have the car ready to go outside. All they have to do is get to it and throw themself in. With stairs involved.

“A crow, I think. I found it dead in the woods, but not yet decomposed.”

Shan relaxes, just a little. Then they tense again when they remember something. Their compensators are getting a hell of a workout today. Shan had kind of expected that, though. “Wait a sec. You’ve been saying ‘I’. I thought you were ‘we?’”

Kay beams all over his face. “I am me, but Dr. Kay is me and…” He suddenly runs for the stairs, then, a moment later, steps back up them when he sees Shan hasn’t followed. “Follow! Follow!”

Shan slowly does. Kay keeps giving them orders, which is either down to a worrying cultural background or a possible isolation disorder. Shan wonders if maybe there’s a reluctance on their own part to start making judgments here. They’re very aware of their own glass house. They were chosen to do this because they’re so self-critical ethically. Maybe the co-op should have chosen someone who didn’t care so much. But then where would they be? Shan is pleased they were chosen. They must remember they’re pleased that this is difficult. It should be.

On the next floor down is a study, which is more like a museum of the pop culture of previous centuries, some of which screams worrying cultural references to Shan and some of which screams that they must find out if that show is archived anywhere. Kay is pointing to what looks like a media distribution hub, the sort of patched-together compromise that was still just about being used when she was a kid. It’s got the logos of a few old shows and movies stuck to it, again in the way redolent of how those days got. Shan supposes they hugged their culture close to their chest back then. The titles skew in all directions according to her visual notes, no landslide of violence-aggrandising order shows, but a few. And a few things which still played. The hub is connected to the same sort of wiring she saw below, with tubes of the same sort of…organic matter plugged into it.

“And so is this,” Kay continues his sentence from upstairs. “And…” And he heads downstairs again.

Shan follows him in the end through three lower floors, in which he points to locations with similar installations in some sort of store room, an empty bedroom that looks like it was designed for a child, a kitchen that strikes Shan as kind of wonderful and homely, and a pod full of hydroponics. That’s where they end up, at the base of what looks like the same column Shan first encountered. Kay has said ‘and this’ every time. Now he points again at the column. “There are twenty-seven of them all in all, at various places around the house. They’re all me.”

“Metaphorically or…actually?”

“Seriously. Really.”

“You’re saying you…took aspects of yourself and…put them into other…objects?”

“Not objects.” He sounds offended.

Shan stomps on a kneejerk urge to apologise. They don’t know yet what the status of these containers is, and being precise about what’s an object and what’s a person is central to Shan’s own ethical check-in. “But, putting that question aside, that’s what you did?”

He takes a moment of pacing to get past his anger. “I pruned an outgrowth, replanted it and encouraged it. And was thus free of it myself. And thus I ceased to be all of Dr. Kay, because I no longer have in me several things that are Dr. Kay.”

“So who are you?”

Part of Dr. Kay, which is why I answer for him, but beyond that…I’ve been thinking about a name for myself. But self-description, especially in these circumstances, is difficult.”

“That’s telling. Because you sound to me like a whole person. I haven’t been struck by any lack of personhood on…” But actually, Shan realised, they had. There’d been that moment of wondering if he’d been injured. “No, okay, I have. But still. Are you sure you haven’t just…” Actually, whatever he’d done, if he’d really done it, didn’t deserve that ‘just’, because it would be no small thing, scientifically speaking, or probably ethically. It might be that he was punishing himself for something, locking up parts of himself. The question then would be what had they been guilty of? And was he thus still guilty of it? “Why are you so sure these are individual persons?”

“For one thing, because this…nation of me…they talk to me as individuals.”

“They talk to you?” And Shan didn’t like that phrase about him being a nation very much either. That was highly reminiscent of new frontier cant. But again, not quite, not enough.

“You want proof, of course. You can talk to them yourself. They stay in their own worlds mostly, talk to me about days that I’m not having, but quite banal versions of an average day for me, really, like dreams that don’t seem to be about very much. When they talk to me they realise that these were dreams and sometimes they get kind of annoyed about that.”

“How would I talk to them?” Shan is not prepared to be hooked up to any sort of gizmo. Not by this guy. No way. But, their compensators keep reminding them, they keep hitting points where Shan expects Kay to erupt in sudden, violent action, and every time he just keeps talking. Shan has muscles from working the co-op and Kay is frail and unarmed. But, but, but, the eternal but that may always sit there at the centre of such conversations between men and others because there have been decades of trying to shift it and it’s still damn well there.

“I’d like you to allow them access. I’d like you to believe me.”

“My office doesn’t confer me with the power of official belief.” That’s meant to be a joke, but Shan is sure it came out sounding like official belief is a thing.

“I want you to believe me, not your office.”

Shan doesn’t like the sound of that. But it kind of shaded into him being lost, needing someone to believe him, not needing to present something in a peacocky way. Is it his weird range of expressions and body language that’s keeping Shan guessing about his motivations? “If I agreed, how would I ‘allow them access?’”

Kay beams all over his face. It must seem to him like he’s winning them over, but actually Shan just wants to hear more, to see more expressions, to finally somehow decide. “It’s my theory that, once in a blue moon, electrical signals from a human brain would get randomly amplified by, I don’t know, a cosmic ray impact on that brain or some kink in the electromagnetic background and get broadcast out of the skull. We’re talking tiny signals and lots of insulation, so I’d say it happened maybe a handful of times in all human history. And no, there’s no need to check that theory in the air, it’s pure crank stuff. In the 1970s, a lot of research was done into what they called ‘psi’ and it was all bullshit, nothing that couldn’t be put down to mathematical error and chance, because they were hunting for something, I think, that just didn’t happen while they were watching, and maybe not for centuries either side.”

Gah. Please say or do something that doesn’t walk on a fine line. “And why is this relevant?”

“Because I’ve amplified these parts of me and haven’t put insulation in the way. I’m surprised you haven’t felt the voices in your head already. They’ll all be trying to connect to your brain, to talk to you.”

And this time Shan actually takes a physical step back. Their compensators do their work. There’s a pause while Shan kind of looks around the corners of their mind, trying to hear anything.

And then, oh God, they find it.

Is that their imagination? It feels like their imagination. It’s their own…Shan doesn’t know, does the voice inside their head, their own imagined voice, sound like their speaking voice, or could it sound like anyone’s? Because a voice like Dr. Kay’s is saying to them, carefully, over and over…

“Please, listen to me! Please listen to me!”

Internally, somehow, Shan kind of says that they are.

“Oh thank God!” says the internal voice, more clearly now. “Listen. Don’t believe anything he says. I’m the real Dr. Kay. In the glass tube. He split me off, he split off lots of other parts of himself, anything that might get in the way, anything of conscience. I found all the archetypes inside my mind, from the maiden to the fool. He threw them away too. He’s the one that’s left. He’s the trickster, he’s everything evil in human beings. He’s Lucifer.”

Shan tries not to react. Their compensators are now in overdrive and they feel full-on nauseous as a result. But at least it’s given them a poker face. Hopefully. Wow. Well, now they have their answer. If this is some kind of trick, then it’s a full-on attempt to scare Shan. If it’s not, then inviting them into an area when other voices can enter their mind without warning them first is a definite violation of their consent, but…only in as much as inviting them into a room not having said there’s a crowd in there, because all these minds can do is talk, right? Okay, that’s a point off. But only a point. Which doesn’t really square with how vastly uncomfortable Shan feels right now. Not that the co-op will believe any of this. Anyhow, Shan needs to find a way to slowly head back up each of the stairwells and get to the car. So, let’s talk as if this is fascinating stuff. “I think I can hear something. It sounds like…something one of them is making up?” Shan has to ignore the shouting that statement causes from the mind the physical form of which…oh, Shan kind of automatically looked at the tube Kay already identified as Lucifer.

Kay is looking between Shan and the tube. “Oh, is he telling you what he tries to shout out every time a vehicle passes in the distance? Other people being around wakes him and the others up from their lovely dreams. I guess him lying like that is why I plucked him out of here and put him in there, that’s what the trickster does. “Help, help, I’m trapped in here by the evil doctor!” I swear, I feel I’m a lot less evil without that old guy inside me.”

Shan has no idea what to believe. “Could I maybe hear from another of them?” Like, maybe one of the ones upstairs? Maybe as high up as possible? Shan glances upward, trying to nudge him in that direction.

“Sure.” They head up one flight again, and here is indeed another voice that could also have been Shan, broadcasting into their imagination once again. This one is saying also that it’s the real Dr. Kay, that what’s out here in the body is Lucifer. Is Shan just picking up the same one again? No, now they’re both talking at once.

And Dr. Kay now has an expression on his face that’s quite clear in its meaning, not at all walking a fine line. He’s eagerly awaiting something.

A new thought is in Shan’s head now. Either they’ve come up with it themselves or it’s been said to them. Which it is has suddenly become strangely complex. “How…how did you make this transfer? I mean, did you need some sort of attachment between you and the tubes?”

“No,” says Kay. “If you stand here long enough it just kind of happens.”

Shan finishes up the paperwork in the air as quickly as possible, asking no more questions about Kay’s work. They walk stiffly up the remaining stairs to the exit, their body still anticipating having to run. But no trigger moment comes. Kay follows, offering pleasantries, saying come again.

Shan lies in the seat in the car as it drives through the night back toward Sunset. Dr. Kay, they think to themself, has maybe found a way to grow free minds, so what does it matter if he thinks of it in very peculiar terms?

Shan wakes from sleep a while later to find themself still in the car. It’s diverted itself because of bears. Shan has missed a bear. Dr. Kay, they think to themself, has maybe found a new therapy that might be useful for all kinds of conditions, so, sure, let him have his weird archetype fantasies.

Standing outside the car, Shan stares out at the emptiness. The weight of it still gets to Shan. The horizon so far away and flat seems to demand something to fill it, seems to ask to be part of a map that could be folded shut. Into that gap can come a serpent. Into that gap should come a serpent. Into that gap will come, woken again, ever sleeping, ever woken, the thing that is always there in human beings.

Into that gap should come.

 

(EditorsNote: Paul Cornell is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

Fish Out of Water

In my dream all the women were there

because it was a women’s college some of them had attended

and we were seated around a wooden table.

I was brought a fish,

silverscaled: a salmon, I believe.

I fed it a goldfish.

—Now your fish is pregnant,

they told me

—you must carry it everywhere.

I worried. The fish was out of water. I tried to find water

to give it to drink, or it would die.

The first water I found was hard and gelatinous.

Then I found a glass, too small for my poor fish,

but it sucked water from the glass from my finger.

 

My lifejacket, which I had put on as there was water all around us,

somewhere,

had become a straitjacket,

and the women gathered to release me,

all the time telling me about the care and feeding of my fish,

the pregnant bump, the goldfish inside it,

as long as I could keep it safe

(It was out of water, I worried,

how long could it survive, my perfect fish?

Already its scales felt dry and rough.)

And I was trapped and struggling to free myself

as Holly tells me about her fish

as Martha tells me about escaping to New York

the cords prove tight and puzzling: everyone

thought it would be so easy.

I’ll learn to live with it.

 

We drive across the bridge together

all of us, in a car, and Lee is driving,

and I do not think about stopping the car

or jumping from the bridge

instead I lean back

and stare up into the mirror as the city

looms into view,

I honestly could not tell whether it was below me or above me

and I wake gasping,

being driven to a new city

so huge, reflected, waiting to fall into the sky,

and me not knowing my above from below, not any more,

holding my poor pregnant fish out of water,

and my world all turned upside down

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