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Tag: fiction

The Cat at the Gate

There was a cat at the gate. He was no ordinary cat. He was a mackerel tabby with a blaze of white across his nose and two horns of stiffened hairs spiraling up from the top of his head. When the wind blew from the south his words reached human ears.

“I’m making up for time not yet lost,” he said.

And I understood.

We walked together into the garden. The trees lifted their limbs in a wave of emerald and turquoise, and the grass sighed beneath our feet, and the puzzled shadows of dawn made faces as they retreated. The distant cry of a hunting horn rose on the air and I lifted my nose, but smelt only the perfume of lilacs and oranges. We were alone.

My companion matched my long-legged pace, his striped tail held high, until we reached the glimmering depths of a pool. He curled his tail around his toes and looked down at his reflection, an imperfect image of shimmering white that spread like spilled milk. “This is where she’ll walk,” he said. “On a summer day. In the rain, with lilies between her fingers.”

I took a breath, filling my mouth with air that tasted of sprung sap and overturned earth. I nodded.

We walked on, over the rounded backs of pebbles and the brittle remains of last year’s leaves, under the bridge made by twin trees felled by their own embrace, and up a steep bank littered with the empty shells of mollusks. I pulled myself up by way of a gnarled root. The cat leapt the distance in one smooth arc, his horns thrust forward like the rack of a stag.

He paused to drag his tongue over his back, a flash of pink in the murky gloom of the wood. I waited. We had left the garden and I no longer knew the way.

I followed the cat as he slunk between ferny plumes crisscrossed by the glistening trails of slugs. His shoulder blades lifted and fell beneath his fur. His ears swiveled behind his horns. When he halted, I halted too.

I heard nothing beyond the distant whisper of falling water. The trees had grown thicker, each one slouching amid a carpet of its own progeny, each one marred by boles and broken limbs and weeping sores infested with beetle larvae. Sawdust lodged like blown snow inside their craggy hides. Below lay piles of larvae plucked from the wood by birds who couldn’t resist their fattened bodies but couldn’t abide their bitter taste.

A second trumpet blew from the hunting horn, closer this time. My heart constricted. “They’ll find us,” I said, though I hadn’t meant to speak aloud. “We have so little time.”

The wind was from the east, and so my companion made no reply. He walked on, his back low, his padded feet silent on the mossy undergrowth. I lost sight of him as he crept through the tangled remains of a holly bush, its branches still showing white wounds, the earth torn in short furrows of three.

I climbed over and found him on the other side, his gaze fixed with a cat’s indifference on the empty hollow left behind by the shrub’s uprooting. “This is where she’ll be brought to bay,” he said. “On a winter’s night, with the moon as her witness.”

“Ah,” I said, an exhalation of grief sharpened by revelation. I hadn’t known and wouldn’t now forget. “She will die here.”


I looked down at the cat, but he had resumed his grooming, his head bent to his splayed toes, his eyes half-lidded. “Then where?” I said. I couldn’t keep the weight of my heart from my words, so I didn’t try. “You must take me there.”

“It’s not a place for those such as you.”

“It’s not for her either,” I said. I held my breath, listening for the horn. But I heard only the gurgle of water I couldn’t see. “She was once mortal.” And could be again, I didn’t add.

He met my gaze as if he’d heard. His alien eyes held neither pity nor compassion. He stretched his pliant limbs and trotted into the underbrush. His pace was quicker this time, his back low, his ears flattened behind his horns. I kept up only at the cost of snapping twigs and whispering leaves, but he didn’t slow, and above the ruckus of my own passage the horn blasted its strident call a third time, so close it crept like an unwanted caress against my skin.

Down once more, into a gully. I slid and stumbled where the cat ran and leapt. I fell once, twice, my knees bruised by unyielding rock, my hands scratched by the sharp edges of torn grass. Shapes had been pressed into the sandy mud, the shallow impress of a human hand — larger than my own — the deeper gouge of a hoof. Crushed leaves still wept, strung with crystal droplets. A tuft of coarse hair, layered from white to gray to black, had caught on a splintered branch, only to float away a moment later, lifted into the air by a sudden gust of wind.

“Hurry.” The cat’s voice rang out like a bell. He looked back at me, his eyes wide. He turned away, his hindquarters bunched, and he sprang up into the arching branches of a willow.

I hesitated. She couldn’t have–


I grabbed a branch and pulled myself up into its shelter. I couldn’t see beyond the drooping curtain of leaves and only followed the cat as he climbed higher and higher, his claws leaving marks in the trunk, my soft hands and feet searching ineffectually for handholds and footholds. “Wait,” I said. “Please, wait.”

His shape hovered above me, a black shadow, his horns growing and retreating as he lifted and lowered his head. “We’re almost there.”

I caught up with him at the crown, a lofty break in the foliage. I sighed as the sky opened above me in pearlescent hues, laced with clouds, gilded by the watery light of two suns. It was a sky I didn’t know, but remembered. “This is where she was born,” I said. I swallowed. I wouldn’t weep.

“Look.” The cat’s voice drifted, drawn into a deep whisper by the errant wind. “There.”

I followed his gaze. Down, down below us, in a spiraling haze of smoke, an orange flame licked white branches, and once more the peal of the hunting horn rang out, a triumphant note, satisfied, merciless. My throat opened in a wild cry. “I can’t reach her.” I clutched at my eyes. “I can’t help her.”

“That was never in your power.” The cat had stretched himself along a heavy branch, anchored by his claws. “You would only have been destroyed.”

I lunged at him, but he sprang away. I slipped, landed hard on my shins, and caught myself before I could fall. “I hate you.” I wanted to let go. I could let go. “You’re unkind. You’re cruel.”

The cat blinked, slowly. Unmoved. He canted his head to one side in an unfeline gesture. “I don’t hate you,” he said, as if he’d mistaken my meaning. “It was an act of love.”

“What do you know of love.” I leaned back against the bulwark of the tree. I wrapped my arms around my ankles, no longer caring if I fell. “Everything she ever was, everything she could ever be, ends here.”

“She made her choice.” His lifted his eyes to the sky. The blaze on his nose picked up a brilliant highlight in the dual glow of the suns. “You still need to make yours.”

“What choice?” He hadn’t lied to me. They cannot lie.

“Let her go.”

“No.” I breathed around the knot in my chest. “I can’t.”

“You can.”

I closed my eyes. “I could just let go,” I said. “I’d fall for a long time before the end came.”

“You could.”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“That’s up to you.”

Tears burned from beneath my lids. “She was never mine,” I said. “So I cannot hold her.”

A sigh shivered up from the leaves below, a susurration like a watery breath. When the wind shifted from east to south, the sigh was echoed in the voice of the cat. “She was much loved,” he said. “So I shall go in your stead.”

I squinted against the dazzle of the suns. My companion sat with his head bowed, his horns lowered, his figure indistinct, suffused with a clouded brilliance. I lifted a hand, though I couldn’t reach him. “Who are you?”

He laughed, a tinkling as of tiny bells, like falling water. The wind shifted, taking his words, and he leapt in one smooth motion, to land on his feet at the end of the branch. “Will you find me?”

“I will.” I didn’t know where, but I knew I would, in time.

“Then I will be content.” He tilted his head once more, in that uncatlike gesture — and leapt. Down. Down. His voice came on the wind. “Find me.”

And I did.

July 20, 2016

They Have Nothing

There are spirits in the world that have nothing and give everything. They’re the caretakers of the fallen, the lost, the wanderers that don’t inhabit their lives, but only haunt them. They’re doors that open inward, arms that lift to embrace.

They have names. Signposts on the pathways of want. But we don’t remember them. They live on only in the eye that doesn’t turn away.

I met one such many years ago. I didn’t recognize them, and only thought how lucky I was that I’d slipped through a hole in the fabric of the universe and missed hell by the width of a lifted finger.

That was how she summoned me. In the rain, the smell of sulfur, the rippling heat of a city paved in light, the thoughts of a thousand passers-by cascading like liquid fire through my veins. “Come,” she had said (and didn’t say). “I’m here.”

I went. I followed the shimmering edge of her presence as it drifted over wet streets, through banks of cellular fog, into and out of illuminated passageways bound by gates of darkness. I couldn’t see her. I only knew she was there by a tremulous rhythm that described all sensation in one moment. Fear. Anticipation. Regret. Satisfaction. Enlightenment. Grief.

I sank down when she sank down, into the murky fastness that elevates all great places by being beneath them. Down into desire, hunger, meanness. A narrow, compressed place. I lost her then and couldn’t turn back. I found no trail, no sign that I’d ever been. I closed my eyes. The world constricted, like a heart that would never beat again.

I took a breath — and let go. I yielded to the end of time, to the end of the future, to the end of myself. I didn’t exist in that place. I became that place. I held nothing and could not be held. I became every moment lost and forgotten, all the moments that would never be. All futures. All possibilities. All that diverged only to reunite in a final moment of dissolution.

And that’s where I found her. As if it were she who’d been seeking me. As if it were I who had led her to where she’d always wanted to be, a singular moment of salvation, an eclipse of the self that remade the whole world in a new image.

She and I. I and she.

We were one, as all things become one. And in that instance of release, I left behind what had once defined me and passed through the flesh and was born anew. In fire. In pain. In an obliteration of grief that left stains and scars and whole new planes of thought in its wake, striations that can be read like a language, a message to the imprisoned soul from the liberated future.

“Come,” it says (and doesn’t say). “I’m here.”

July 26, 2015


Humans evolved to reproduce, not to be happy. Only with the advent of consciousness did we decide we needed to be happy. Consciousness, therefore, may have been a mistake.

Pilar Arreba, Ph.D.

I got into the program at the age of thirty-two. I’d been on and off public assistance, had just lost my job (again), and needed a way to pay my rent. I met the criteria: I’d never taken prescription drugs and I was officially, medically, definitely depressed. The doctor said so. I was in her pristine white exam room when she said so, with those pristine white teeth, like the pristine white porcelain of a freshly bleached toilet bowl.

I didn’t hate her though. I hated myself. Or is that too much of a cliché? Depressives can be as sentimental as anyone. Maybe more so. I hated myself. I didn’t want to die though. I was too lazy for that. I just didn’t want the one thing I feared more than death: living with my mother.

The program let me avoid that. The only problem was, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing there. I ate. (When I could.) I slept. (When I could.) I kept a diary, but only because one of the therapists suggested it, for my own use. They weren’t even going to look at it. This is what I wrote on my first night:

“Sometimes it feels like I’m dying. Not from an illness, not physically. Just dissolving. From the outside in. Fading away. I wouldn’t be surprised if my hand passed through a wall one day. I have become insubstantial. I affect nothing. I drift.”

Sentimental, like I said. Depressives are a ridiculous lot. Or maybe we’re prophets, or a diverse collection of Cassandras. Except we don’t speak the truth, just the truth as we know it.

They didn’t give us any drugs. There was no TV. I could get a signal on my phone, but I didn’t have anyone to call. I mean, except my mother, but I didn’t. She knew I was there. She didn’t need to know anything else. It was a sort of sleep-away camp for depressives. Except we didn’t stay, or not all of us. Not the whole time. We disappeared, one by one. When you fell too deep, you’d get removed. Moved into the second phase of the program. There were thirty-eight of us to start. A week in we were down to thirty. Three weeks it was twenty-five. Six weeks it was just me and my roommate.

I didn’t know if that was a coincidence. Maybe depressives are better at holding onto one another, using each other as flotation devices. Six weeks and two days and my roommate went down. Her name was Pearl — yeah, it’s that old fashioned. She said she was German and Chinese, but all I knew was that she had too much hair and never rinsed out the sink after she brushed her teeth.

I’d been talking to her for three hours, or really just listening. Or sitting there. I never knew what to say to other depressives. She told me she was in the hole, and what can I say to that? I’ve been there. I know what it looks like, down to the color of the walls, the shape of the furniture. But I still couldn’t look at her as the nurse took her pulse and tapped a handheld. It was as if Pearl were confessing to the enemy.

I didn’t have to go with her, but I did. I didn’t want to admit that I was scared, so I didn’t.

The place was in a basement. They called it a sub-floor, as if that made a difference. It was 11:30 at night and everything smelled like steel. I didn’t even know steel had a smell. Floodlights picked out a lozenge-shaped pool, like a big white trough, covered by an oily film. Tubes on jointed arms hung over it and a purple light blinked on and off, so slowly I was never sure if any of the machines were actually working.

There were no doctors, only a pair of nurses and three technicians wearing shorts underneath their lab coats, as if they’d been called away from a tennis match. One of them rubbed his fingers together in a familiar gesture, over and over, the way my mother always did. He was probably dying for a cigarette.

No one said a word to me. Not even Pearl, though one of the nurses tried to get her to answer a few questions. Are you in pain, he’d asked, and I wanted to laugh. I think sometimes if I punctured my wrist, the blood would bleed out black, like tar. I didn’t know Pearl very well, but I’d guess it was the same for her.

She didn’t even struggle as they lowered her into the vat. I want to say I would have, but I can’t. The tubes moved on their jointed arms, connecting one by one to hidden valves, and the steel smell got worse and the whole room seemed to drop ten degrees. I shivered and sweated at the same time. I could hardly see her now, between the hips and shoulders of the technicians and nurses. Just her feet, sticking up like some absurd fruit above the silvery sheen of the liquid.

I looked away when the lid went on. It slid into place over the top of the trough and sealed without a noise, without even the hiss of air to reassure me she could still breathe. The purple light went off and on like it always did, but it was joined now by a whole row of lights I hadn’t seen before, coming to life one by one. I stayed until a nurse told me Pearl was okay, that she was in a deep sleep. Induced coma. The product of technological progress, the hibernation state that would cure depression.

I left the next morning. Not into the basement, into a taxi. I went home. I packed my things and had my mom pick me up. I won’t repeat what she said. My old room was still intact, save for the sewing machine and the exercise bike and a half-dozen baskets of folded laundry.

I heard from Pearl six months later. She sent me a text. She was doing great, she said. She was going back to school. She’d never felt better in her life, and she wanted to meet up, was I free?

I was working part-time at a hotel. I was still living with my mother. I had good days and bad days, though mostly bad. I was still mostly invisible. I couldn’t think of a way to say no.

So I didn’t say anything at all.

July 11, 2015


I’d never traveled the Underworld alone. To do so now, with omen-songs riding the wind and every tongue heavy with rumors of a broken seal, would’ve been foolhardy — but to take a soul-reaver with me? That wasn’t my choice. I shared my rations with one who didn’t eat only because the city could afford no better, neither hireling nor sanctioned priest, just myself — a debt-ridden old mercenary — and this creature molded from human flesh into death’s handmaiden.

Her name was Makes Shadows Shift, so I called her Makeshift. She was eight feet tall and as emaciated as a weeks old cadaver, and so unnaturally still I began to doubt she breathed at all. She never sat. Never slept. Never spoke. She’d been trained at the Sanctum Dolor for purposes unknown, and lent to me freely, without terms, for their coffers were deep and influence had never come so cheaply. She’d taken vows in two worlds to become what they’d made her. I didn’t yet know what that was.

We walked on foot, as no mount would bear her, and passed the Sphinx Gate in six days, crossing the boundaries of inhabited land and following the river as it snaked its way through the marshy heath. Tonight we’d reach the ruined temple that breached the Underworld. I’d hoped to enter it by the grace of daylight, a boon to mortal travelers, but a storm-laden wind had been against us — a warning or a last chance to turn back I didn’t know — and we were delayed. Night had come to this forlorn stretch of wild lands, and from within it blew the hot breath of the fane, an exhalation like the sigh of a lost soul.

The temple’s rocky crest rose on the black horizon, limned in gold by the sharp crescent of the waxing moon. I hadn’t thought to look for good omens, and took the one that was proferred, sending a whispered prayer to Omela Ahma of the Waters for even so slight a lamp in the darkness. Makeshift didn’t pray. She kept walking, her stride modulated to match my own until my breath came faster, unwilling as I was to slow down, to reveal any weakness, though she wouldn’t have noticed.

I didn’t halt until we’d reached the shattered outer wall of the fane. It had once been a monastery dedicated to a god so old it had forgotten its own name. It had been overrun a hundred years ago, first by reformists who had slaughtered the monks, and then by thieves who had slaughtered the reformists, and finally by the teeth and claws of nature. Home now only to beasts of the field and lubas and gulagar and other malformed things escaped from backwater cultists, it stood like a gap in the night, a blasted place that had never felt the touch of a blessed hand. I’d been here before, a dozen times, and each time I swore I wouldn’t return.

Makeshift stood with her back to the moon, either oblivious to its presence, or so much an atheist as to be beyond caring. Her arms hung limply from her shoulders, her back slightly curved, her legs splayed at the knees. Her hair stood out in whorled knots, an adornment I hadn’t expected when we were introduced, and her reaver’s robes — a diaphanous silver cloud that blurred if looked at directly — shifted about her bare feet as if with a will of its own. Her face was turned away, and in profile, had a noble cast, the empty eyes sunken over an aquiline nose, the chin at once stubborn and over-long, every aspect of her body stretched as if by long use of the arts that made her both feared and pitied.

The urge to speak rose in my throat. An oblate’s instinct, I suppose, though I’d been many years breached of my vows, to manifest resistance with the power of ancient words, to make true every thought by repeating it aloud. But I only took a breath. Makeshift wouldn’t have cared what was said, and the gods already knew what was in my heart: I didn’t want to be here, but I’d do what I’d come to do — or die in the attempt. It was in my nature more so even than that of the Reaver.

I stepped through a gap in the wall, desiccated leaves crunching underfoot. Makeshift followed behind, the rasp of her claws against the stonework strangely reassuring. I caught a glimpse of a ghostly tendril extruded from within the sleeve of her robe, her peculiar gift for hunting down anomalies in both worlds at once.

Nothing moved within the great pile. A breeze blew cool with the draught of coming night as it hissed through the remains of a broken tower to funnel into the open bailey. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me even with the glad assistance of the maiden moon, and kept a hand lightly on the rapier at my side. It wouldn’t do to draw prematurely. Some of what called the ruins home might dismiss us if we proved no threat.

Makeshift moved silently, the grass bending only briefly as she seemed to float over the dusty cobblestones. The illusion unnerved me. I glanced at her and caught a warning tremor in her face, the skin drawing tight over her cheekbones as she lifted one cadaverous hand.

I dropped to my knees. I drew my dagger, the long rapier useless in close quarters, and a breath of air touched my cheek like a whisper as Makeshift’s hand passed in front of me. Her long fingers curled as if to swipe at my face and I lurched backwards, my teeth bared in fury — until I saw the glimmer caged by the reaver’s pale hand: a glyph ward, cast in the shape of a dart.

Makeshift dropped her arm to her side. The moon painted an outline of the creatures that surrounded us. Six or eight, or ten, I couldn’t count them by their eyes, as they had so many. One was a luba — humanoid, as tall as Makeshift, its multitude of arms as flat as tentacles and each one bearing a phosphorescent glyph. The rest were a mix of wild and constructed, once-human and never animal. Some rose up on two legs, others hunched over on four, all of them seething with a hunger that pinched my mind, an urge to yield without the futile waste of resistance.

I whispered a glyph ward of my own, six words to reseat the soul — “I am foretold of the light” — and to my surprise, Makeshift echoed them, a double blessing, her voice like the rush of a wind-drawn flame. The luba’s glyphs faded to a lifeless gray, but the creatures didn’t falter. Only steps from the breach in the world, they would have risked far more for such fresh prey. A mouth swelled with teeth. One creature paced back and forth on human hands. The others shifted, uttering plaintive moans, until at last they surged forward as one and the luba leapt in a graceful arc, sighing as if in anticipation of the downward plunge into the crunch of bone.

This time I moved before Makeshift. I drew my rapier and swung, cutting the luba in two. Bloodless, it fell with a screeching wail as I ran my blade through a second, and then a third, the whole mass moving now — angry, fearful, and most of all, hungry — until, dismembered and oozing a foul ichor, the survivors crawled away. Mewling piteously, they rejoined those that were still whole and slithered together into the darkness, and down into the gaping maw that opened into the Underworld.

I took a steadying breath, my rapier hanging limply at my side. I drove the blade deep into the earth, speaking aloud a heartfelt prayer to Oma Oman of the Blood that she might cleanse it of the stain of the unshriven. And she did, tugging on the blade with an added benediction before I could free it, clean and unblemished.

Makeshift stood as stoically as before, unmoved by the attack. Her robe clung to her narrow chest, as still as the dead, though for the first time I detected the tiniest throb of a pulse in her throat.

“Remat a atta,” I said in the old language, the one taught at the Sanctum Dolor. When she didn’t react, I spoke again, in the coarser tongue of the new people. “I am yours.”

This time she did respond, and for a long time after I wouldn’t understand what it meant. She swung her head in a broad motion, as if she lacked the fine control required for a simple negation. “No,” she said. “Not yet.”

Puzzled, not knowing how to reply, I sheathed my rapier. The gap to the Underworld awaited, and I had no time for riddles. Six days from now, I’d either stand triumphant over the enemies of the living, or I’d be one of them. I resisted the urge to look back at Makeshift, to reassure myself that I didn’t travel alone — for what kind of company was a reaver of souls?

Without another thought, either of prayer or regret, I stepped into the breach.

July 17, 2016

Miscreant’s Feast

It was a miscreant’s feast that day in the harbor, the guts of the ruptured galley spilling over the sand like a defeated army. Boxes of wax slabs, sheets of tin, coiled wire; a hundred sopping yards of Aqualest wool; glittering shards of glass daubed with precious drops of perfume, solvent, dye, tinctures, spirits. A single unbroken flask of tanner’s eyebright. Seventeen splay-ribbed barrels that had yielded their fermented nectar to the sea at the behest of the rocky shore, and another two dozen kegs stinking of spoilt beer.

It wasn’t the wreckers who took the first prizes. They’d had no hand in the ship’s demise, and were in fact sleeping the deep sleep of the sated only two days after they’d brought down their last victim. It wasn’t the fishers either, who ordinarily would have seen the foundering ship long before the ship could see the shore, for they’d been away already a fortnight on the great herringers in a distant northern sea. And it wasn’t the lonely children hunting for a meal, or escaping from the too freely given blows of their elders, though they would be released from the pinioning gaze of their schoolmaster in time to be the second to plunge eager hands into the ship’s generous gifts.

No, the first was myself, of course. It’s the only reason for my telling this story, and I do have a purpose — bear with me — in telling it the way I have. I’m not a miscreant, or at least not the usual kind. I’m not a thief, or at least not always. I’m a vagrant, a wanderer, an itinerant fortune teller.

I saw the ship that morning from my sandy bed upon the heath. A solitary scrap of sail fluttered like a disconsolate hand from the very top of the broken mast. I knew nothing of ships, but a cold chill echoed through my heart. No mortal could have survived whatever force had taken apart that construction of wood and iron. It heeled one way and then another as it approached the shore, as if in its final moments it agonized over which stretch of yellow sand would make the softest bier to rest upon. I watched, the way one watches the dysrythmic fluttering of a dying bird, fascinated by the movement toward flight and continuity that starts and starts over, but never finds its place and must start again.


I didn’t walk down to the beach until the outgoing tide threw up the contents of the ship, one wet-shiny piece at a time. The corner of a sand-swamped box, a sliver of glass reflecting the sun like a tiny beacon, a muddy wad of wool, the lucky bauble of tanner’s eyebright — and the only article among that sorry mass of lost and found wealth that intrigued me enough to draw my bare feet across the stinging heath and into the icy water.

It was a book. A glyph book. I recognized its metal clasp even from across the distance of the waste, as the contorted shape stamped into its unblemished brass seemed to rise above it, dancing like a smoky flame. I recognized it. I’d seen it once before, many years ago. It had been possessed by a rag man, a wanderer, a man very like myself — or perhaps it had possessed him. He told me it held a secret no man wanted to know: the circumstances of his own death.

I hadn’t believed him. I’d still been a young man then, and death had seemed like a foreign thing, a word divorced from ordinary language. Glyph books were of this world, and served only their true masters, and death couldn’t touch so harmless an art. Better tell your tale to the bone-casters and the skin-lifters, the white-eyed devotees of a truth revealed only after a lifetime of oaths and sacrifices. Glyph readers were a new order, a simpler order, and we’d have no truck with any mixing of the two. I’d sent him away.

And now here it was. Thirty years later, and me half a world away from where I’d been, and barren of book and craft and home and my next meal. I can’t tell the story now of my fall from grace, but only that I couldn’t — even had the home and meal been proffered in exchange — refuse the lure of that twisting glyph, that abomination of language, a fusion of the words “yield” and “conquer.”

I walked down to the beach. The book was trapped beneath the remains of the crate in which it had been housed, an iron-bound thing wrenched from its moorings and overflowing with saturated straw. I worried it with a trembling hand, dislodging a splintered board that pierced my skin and let my blood mix with the sea, drop by drop, until I’d freed my prize.

I sat where I was, in the wet sand, with the tide sucking at my bare ankles, and ran my fingers over the battered green leather of the book. It wasn’t oxhide as I’d assumed all those years ago, it was something thinner and yet more resilient, its discolorations only temporary blemishes. I could wipe them away with my hands, and I did, its surface smooth, untorn. Whole. Even after its disaster at sea, it felt after a few moments of care, as if I’d just lifted it from the hallowed shelves of that great underground library.

I walked away, leaving behind the recoverable Aqualest wool, a yard of which would have fed and housed me for a month, and the tanner’s eyebright that wouldn’t have fooled a half-penny shill but would have served a fishwyfe in exchange for a suit of clothes and a pair of shoes, and the tin and the wax, and the coiled wire, the former salvageable for an extravagant price in the inland towns, though the latter’s value had already been greatly diminished by the salt sea. I walked away, back through the heath even as the sharp voices of children echoed up from the gap that separated the coastal village from the shore, as the first of the wreckers woke from dismal sleep, and the herringer fleet turned back toward home with holds near to bursting with their harvest.

The contours of the glyph brushed across my hand like thread, or fine hair. They drew with them lines of fate that clung to them, weighed them down, thickened them into tendrils, vines. I couldn’t turn away from the story they told. The children all, sickened by the dye that had leaked into the sand, would perish that night in their mothers’ arms. The wreckers would trade their unlooked-for boon to a betrayer who would sell them to the lord’s warden, and every man and woman among them would be hanged. The herringers, already bearing for home, would fall afoul of an embargo, and disease and starvation would claim them in a long embrace.

Only one miscreant who had scavenged from the emptied belly of the doomed ship would survive long enough to tell the tale. Myself, of course.

For I am Skyborn, and this is my story.

July 7, 2016

Spider Silk

Her name was Spider Silk.

I never met her myself, of course. She was a ghost, one of those transient spirits who alights for only a moment in the mortal realm — or at least the platform known as Mortis. Eleven-hundred colonists, devotees of an abstemious lifestyle, with a negative birth rate and a predilection for going to bed early. It wasn’t really called Mortis, of course. It never really had a name, just a registration number, one that was forgotten after we lost contact with the overworlds.

But we never forgot Spider Silk.

She came with a growth wave, an influx of outsiders looking for work or enlightenment, or both. We didn’t have sisters and brothers then, only task-mates and task-masters, and Spider Silk had so many she knew no strangers until she reached Mortis. “These are your new people,” one of them said to her. But she saw only raw faces, unsheltered by familiar expressions, and turned away. She wouldn’t work with them and spent her leisure hours alone. Even those who’d known her before now found her strange.

Spider Silk retreated. She went into that twilight place of the mind and soul that knows no solace — also the outer scaffolding of the platform. She nested there, it’s said. She brought with her what a solitary person might need to survive and drew around herself what scraps and flotsam she’d gathered along the way, from her long-ago home and the detritus of the orbiting platform. She lived there alone and cast adrift what she called her ‘messages of the heart,’ tiny orbs of light that flickered in the darkness of space, following the invisible trail of the platform, only to wink out again in a day or two. They signified nothing, as her life signified nothing, and so she paid them no mind.

But they didn’t go unnoticed. For in the overworlds, which were then still the fruit and bloom of our people, there were watchers, and they picked up her colored lights on their instruments. Much was made of them: interpretations, extrapolations, diagrammatical mathematical algorithms, and a brilliant new philosophy that waxed and waned in a matter of hours. Ships were launched, robotic investigative probes, long-range first-contact transmission repeaters. “We’ve found them,” they said. “Those whom we have so long loved and too soon lost.” They mourned and celebrated, and told each other stories, and found and lost hope, until at last a signal was returned.

“We do not know you,” Spider Silk said. “You are lost to us.”

And so Mortis was forgotten. And generations rose and fell, and Spider Silk perished as all mortals perish, and we live on in the echo of a connection never made. The overworlds fell silent. We know this, all of this, only by the absence of a message. Words that never came. For if they had, we would have found joy and a reunion of souls across the galaxy.

This is the story we tell. It’s the only one we know.

July 22, 2015


I met a woman on the bus. It was a Tuesday in the middle of May. The bus was hot, the air-conditioning off and the windows open. It was crowded, people standing. I sat next to her when a man got up to leave. Her hair was dark with auburn highlights. She had a lunch bag in her lap. She was on her way to work at the sales office on the 36th floor of the big square building I’d taken pictures of the summer I came as a tourist, before I moved here. It was always too cool in the building, she’d say. She was glad the bus was hot, that she could sit by the open window and feel the warm spring breeze.

We’d have lunch together at the little park by the square building. We’d eat at the Thai food cart and discover that we both liked our coffee black, that we liked it later in the day, never in the morning. We’d meet again at the library and share our love of tea cozy mysteries and British detectives. She’d encourage me to write, and three years later she’d be the first to see my acceptance letter and the check that came with it. We’d celebrate at a bistro we’d never eaten at before, where neither of us liked the food, but we’d laugh and buy chocolate on the way back to the bus stop.

Five years later I’d sell my first novel. I’d dedicate the book to her and she’d show it to all her friends. I’d have changed jobs by then, moved to a nearby city. We wouldn’t see each other as often, though we’d always spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together. I’d bring my dog, she’d bring her collection of Miss Marple DVDs. She’d have retired by then. We’d text each other every afternoon, me to share my secret doubts, and she to talk about the birds she fed from her kitchen window. I’d take pictures of the birds. She’d tell me that everyone had doubts, that everyone was afraid sometimes, and that it only meant I was human, and that I should keep writing.

I’d meet someone and fall in love, only to have my heart broken, and resign myself to being alone. She’d be diagnosed with cancer, and move in with me. She’d teach me how to knit, and I’d show her how to write. I’d never make anything more complicated than a hot mitt, and she’d never write anything more moving than a few lines about birdseed, but we’d make a home together. I wouldn’t remember when I’d started calling her Mom. She’d die ten years later, at the age of eighty-six.

That day I saw her on the bus, I sat down next to her. I glanced at her, sidelong. She looked so motherly, like someone I’d want to know. I was shy. I said hello. She didn’t hear me. She didn’t see me. She stood up.

It was her stop. She got off the bus.

November 27, 2014

Sigmund Jho

“Doc,” Jho said to his therapist. “I have an appetite problem.”

“What’s the problem?”

“The problem is that I have one.”

“I see.”

Jho shifted on the couch. It was a new couch. He’d eaten the last one on his previous visit. This one wasn’t nearly as comfortable and smelled vaguely of Bitter Apple. “I can’t stop myself.”

“Why would you want to?”

“You don’t understand.” Jho swung his narrow head toward the doc. Ropes of drool swung back and forth. “I want to eat everything. Birds, small children. Bricks.”

“Well, why don’t you?”

“Sometimes I do.” Jho wanted to rub his chin or do something else to indicate deep thought. But his Tyrannosaurus arms were too short, and besides, he never really thought very deeply. “The problem is those hunters.”

“The ones with bowguns and longswords?”

Jho nodded. “They always bring meat and I can’t help but eat it — every single time.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s tainted meat!”

The doc tapped her chin with a ball-point pen. “I see.”

Jho was jealous of the chin tapping. Also, the pen. “It paralyzes me and then they beat the crap out of me. Pierce ammo is even worse.”

“Have you tried not eating the meat?”

“Of course.” Jho glared at the doc, but his eyes were too tiny for anyone to notice. Usually he just roared when he got pissed off. “But it’s like trying not to breathe. Sometimes I start going for the meat before they even put it on the ground.”

“I see.” The doc wrote a note on her memo pad. It was a real memo pad, made from 98% post-consumer waste, but Jho knew the note was fake: he’d peeked one day, and all she ever did was draw cartoons — of him. “I think I have a solution.”

“So do I.” Jho rolled off the couch. His drool darkened the carpet. “I’m hungry.”

The doc glanced up at him, then back down at her memo pad. She was probably making his dumb, bulbous jaw look even dumber and more bulbous. “Have you considered going on a diet?”

“I’m on a diet right now.” Jho took a long breath and roared. “And you’re my RDA of human flesh!”

The doc didn’t even look up. “I’m sure,” she said. “But let’s not forget I have a bowgun.”

Jho laughed, spewing saliva on the walls. “I ate all your pierce ammo!”

This time the doc did look up. “Oh, really?” She reached into a drawer. “Then how about dessert?” She pulled out a bright blue slab of aptonoth meat.

“No!” Jho drooled. “Don’t!”

The doc dropped the meat onto the carpet. “Help yourself.”

“Shit.” Jho slurped up the meat. So tasty! He took one woozy step backwards and keeled over with a thump. He snored like a train engine.

The doc pressed a button on her office phone. “Henry, make a new appointment for Mr. Deviljho,” she said. “Oh, and bring me a couple of L+ bombs while you’re at it.”

June 21, 2015

She Might Know


James and The Giant Avocado

Fruit has never been my forte. “Is an avocado a fruit?” I hadn’t asked the question with any seriousness. My mother ignored me.

“Ask that young man,” she said. She hefted an avocado, her thin lips puckering on one side. “He might know.”

“Might know if an avocado is a fruit?”

My mother flicked a glance at me. “Ask him where the organic avocados are.”

The young man in question had his back to us, his blue uniform shirt twisting as he refilled a basket of garlic from a box on a metal cart. Produce employees weren’t my forte either, but tally-ho and all that. I’d just taken a half-step forward when the young man turned in profile and I recognized my mother’s mistake.

Well, my mistake too. “That’s not a young man,” I said sotto voce.

My mother clucked her tongue.

I ignored her. I closed the gap between myself and the blue-clad woman. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m looking for organic avocados.”

She looked up. Her name-tag said “Bea,” not even a full name. Beneath the jocular baseball cap and its supermarket logo, her green eyes had that same half-lidded look of resignation I’d seen so many times in the mirror — the mark of middle age. But whatever trials had left those fine lines around her lips, her smile was warm and genuine. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We’re out of organic avocados.”

“Ah,” I said, not caring particularly. I didn’t even eat avocados. “Do you have any idea when they’ll be back in stock?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. She folded the flaps of the garlic box together, though they didn’t fit. The knuckles of her hands were split with tiny cuts. “There’s a quality issue.”

“They were bad, huh?”

“Yeah.” She glanced up. She only smiled again after she dropped her gaze. “I put my thumb straight through one.”


“Seriously.” She laughed. The same smile, only softer. Her eyes stayed on the garlic box. “I can ask my manager when we’re likely to get a shipment.”

“Oh, no that’s fine.” I worked retail too. I knew from the way she’d said it that she was tired, that she didn’t want to drop what she was doing to track down her manager even though that’s probably what she was expected to do. All I wanted her to do was look up, just one more time. “Thank you,” I said.

“You’re welcome.” The smile was tight. Her eyes darted to my face for only a second. Her cheeks bore the diffuse stain of a blush.

I stood for a moment as she wheeled her cart away.

“Well?” My mother’s wizened face appeared at my elbow.

“Bad news,” I said. “We’ll have to use conventional avocados in the dip.”

My mother blew out a flabby sigh. She tossed an avocado into her cart. “What’s the world coming to?”


To Bea or Not To Bea

Malls have always been one of my racial enemies. Mauls. They were like monuments to the death of culture. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood because my stupid phone broke. First week at a brand-new job, haven’t even been paid yet, and I’m going to have to blow three digits on a new phone.

Be positive! My cheerful internal voice. Okay, at least I can afford to buy a new phone and I’ll also, finally, be off my mother’s plan. Yay for fully-fledged independence at forty-six. Christ, was I that old? Be positive. Be positive.

“Can I help you?”

The service center was crowded. I didn’t realize at first that the salesman was speaking to me. I turned around belatedly. “Sure,” I said. I probably sounded as resigned as I felt. Why couldn’t I just be more positive? “I need a new phone.”

“Certainly,” he said. He gestured to a kiosk. “We can take care of that. Do you have a particular model in mind?”

“Not really.” I answered without thinking. I couldn’t care less about phones. I was more interested in the fact that he was tall and there was something familiar about his gait or his body type… or his shoes? “I just want something cheap.”

“Ah,” he said. His eyes were on a console, his frame bent slightly as he paged through a touchscreen. I took advantage of his distraction to get a better look at his face, not so much to see if I recognized him — which was a legitimate excuse — but to indulge myself. He was handsome af. In another world I might have asked if I could snap a picture, use his likeness as inspiration for a character in a story. But in this one I had to drop my eyes before he looked up, had to bite my lips in a bland cliché because I will seriously smile like an idiot if I don’t.

“I can show you a few models,” he said. “If you’ll wait here.”

“Of course.” The words were mild, his and mine. He was a salesman. He was busy. I didn’t care. I had to take my pleasure where I could get it, and if a long glance at a face like his was my compensation for an annoying trip to the mall, well I’d take it. “Not a problem.”

I don’t even think he heard me. A second employee had arrived, asked him a question. I was idly looking for somewhere to sit when he gestured toward me and spoke: “After I’ve finished assisting this young lady…”

Irritation pricked me. “I’m forty-six.” I gave him a generic smile. “I’m not a young lady.”

One or the other apologized. I knew they were trained to say things like that but I have a hard time playing along with stupid marketing games. Age doesn’t have a lot of privileges, but that’s one I’m going to assume I have.

I returned to my search for a chair and sank down onto a vinyl cushion. No one was at the kiosk now. Places like this always depressed me. Cows in a feedlot. Everyone’s eyes on their little glowing screens. I knew I was being hyper-critical because I didn’t want to be here, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I was also ambivalent about my new job, suffering residual over-stimulation from an exhausting week navigating social hurdles. Meeting new people, taking a new bus line, wearing new shoes.

His shoes. That was it, wasn’t it? I’d noticed them that night at the store. They were stylish, a sort of dressy boot, taller than typical shoes. I remember thinking ‘When I get a better job, I want a pair of shoes like that.’ He was wearing them now, with dress pants, looking like sexy on a stick.

“I’m sorry again.”

I looked up. He met my eyes, I think for the first time. I couldn’t keep them. I looked away and got awkwardly to my feet feeling like a bag-lady with my canvas tote because I had to have water with me on such a long bus trip and hadn’t yet found a man-bag that didn’t make me look like I was wearing a purse even though, as a female, I was expected to have one.

Not that I was nervous.

“It’s not a problem,” I said, knowing I’d already said that. “It’s part of your job.”

“Not my favorite part,” he said. His eyes were on the console again. “But you really do look very young.”

“I don’t,” I said. Then, because I thought maybe I sounded cross, “At least not in the mirror first thing in the morning.”

He smiled. “I don’t even look anymore.”

I raised my brows. “You?” Dude, I’d look at that face every morning for the rest of my life and die happy. “You’re joking.”

“I’m not.” He laughed, just a bit of a snort, a breath. But I heard in it some faint trace of disappointment, or maybe that came from the tiny pucker in one corner of his mouth. “Life leaves its mark.”

“It does.” More than one. I decided to say it out loud. “More than one.”

He met my eyes again. It was the second time, but the first time he seemed to really look at me. “Are you still out of organic avocados?”

I laughed, the words taking me by surprise. “I knew I recognized you,” I said. “They were fully stocked the last time I was there.”

He pulled open an OEM box and set a phone on the table. “You still work there?”

“No, I had to quit,” I said. The disappointment in my voice was genuine. “After I got a full-time job I did weekends for a while, but then it got to be too much.” I was rambling, or felt like I was rambling.

“You like it?”

“The phone?”

His brow creased. “The new job.” He smiled. “Or both.”

“Ha.” I picked up the phone. “I don’t know about the job yet.” Was I talking too much? Why would a stranger care if I liked my new job? “I’m indifferent about phones. I mean, I just don’t care about technology unless it’s useful.”

“Phones aren’t useful?”

“A phone as a phone is useful,” I said. I watched him unbox a second one. “A phone as a replacement for a PC, a camera, a watch, and a dishwasher is not.”

His smile showed off a dimple. “I still wear a watch.”

“So do I.” I pulled my necklace up, revealing my little analog watch.

He unbuttoned a sleeve. “You’ve got me beat,” he said. “Mine’s digital.”

I laughed. My eyes lingered on the hair that curled over the gold band. I dropped my gaze, not knowing what else to say. I picked up the phones again, one at a time. He mentioned a few features but I honestly didn’t care. I checked myself as I reached for my old phone, chagrined to realize I’d wanted to research the various models before I bought one. Christ.

“This one’s the cheapest,” he said. “It has a $30 mail-in rebate.”

“I don’t do mail-in rebates.” I smiled that same tight smile, hating to be that customer.

“You know what I’m going to do…” His eyes flicked up and down the touchscreen as his hand moved over it — a hand with no ring on its ring finger. “I’m just going to give you the $30 off.”

“You can do that?”

He smiled without looking up. “I can do that,” he said. “Give me five minutes and I promise I won’t call you ‘young lady.'”

I laughed at the unexpected joke.

Ten minutes later I had my new phone in my hand. I flicked through the apps, already contemplating which ones it would let me delete and which ones I’d have to tuck away in a nondescript folder. “I’ve got text data on this plan, right?”

“Yup.” He came around to the other side of the kiosk. “Do you want to test it?”

“Yeah, sure.” I kept my eyes glued to my little glowing screen, aware of how close he was even though it wasn’t any closer than was strictly polite. There it was, the little bleep — I’d have to change the default noise, of course — and there was the message: ‘Have you any Grey Poupon?’

I burst out laughing — and clapped a hand over my mouth. I can be obnoxious sometimes. I tapped at the virtual keyboard, ‘*rolls down window* Why of course.’

He smiled over his phone. The crinkles in the corners of his eyes struck me with an unexpected flash of tenderness. I wished… Well, there was no sense wishing. The phone blooped again. It was a GIF: A car window slowly descending to reveal Deadpool — who then offered up a jar of Grey Poupon.

I barked another laugh. This time I didn’t care. “Where did you even find that?”

“You mean, you don’t have a collection of Deadpool GIFs on your phone?”

“If I did, I’d never get anything done,” I said. I caught another smile from him. This time I tried to hold his gaze. “Can we test the voice data?”

“Sure.” He tapped at his phone.

“Pretend it’s not me,” I said. “Like you’re just making a call.”

He glanced up — and winked. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment.”

“Of course,” I said. “No problem.”

Unknown caller. He turned his back.

I flicked the touchscreen.

“Yeah, so how do you like the new phone?” His voice sounded different, of course. Everyone’s voice sounds different over the phone. I recognized it now from the supermarket, without the distraction of his physical presence.

“It’s not bad,” I said. “There’s just one flaw: not enough Deadpool GIFs.”

He laughed. I heard it twice, once from somewhere on my left, picked out from the ocean of background chatter, and again like a distant whisper in my ear. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” he said. “I’ll throw in a dozen or so, gratis.”

I hesitated for a fraction of a second. “Digital download or hand delivered?” That was awkward. Or at least more awkward than I’d intended.

“Oh, I can accommodate both. What did you have in mind?”

A thrill tickled me straight up through my collarbone. “How about a beer?” What the hell day was it? It was Friday. “Sometime this weekend?” Oh, how wishy-washy. Be confident! “Tomorrow night?”

“How about coffee tomorrow morning?”

“I’d love it,” I said. Confident, confident, confident. “How about ‘Back to the Grind’ on Cassidy?” The only café I could get to on the bus that wasn’t a Starbucks.

“Ten o’clock?”

“Nine-thirty and it’s a deal.”


“And don’t forget the GIFs.”

“I won’t forget the GIFs.”

I turned toward his voice.

He was smiling, something soft in his eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

“Yeah.” I stood there for one awkward moment. “You know, I still have to pay for the phone.”


Did I Say This Was A Love Story?

It took me forty-five minutes to choose a pair of socks. That’s a new record: it usually takes me an hour. I was wearing my brogues anyway, so she wouldn’t even see them, but as I looked for a table by the window I was rehearsing an excuse to show them off. I’d arrived a half-hour early, suspecting she might do the same — and I was right. Just as I dropped into an overstuffed couch, she walked in the door.

She hadn’t seen me yet. I should have gotten up and gone to meet her, but I didn’t. I pretended I hadn’t seen her, took off my trench coat, looked out the window, all the while feeling vaguely guilty as I kept her in my peripheral vision. What the hell was wrong with me? I got up.

She smiled. She was wearing those skinny black denim jeans again, the ones I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off of as I was making a fool of myself over a phone. I doubt she spent forty-five minutes picking out socks.

“Hey.” I met her half-way. “I kind of figured you’d be early.”

“Am I that obvious?”

“I wouldn’t say obvious,” I said. “More like reliable.” Oh, now that’s sexy talk.

She dropped her gaze, still smiling. Her cheeks were flushed with pink but they’d been like that since she’d walked in, either from nerves or the autumn wind, I couldn’t tell. “Did you order yet?”

“I can get them,” I said. “Any preference? Foam height? Flavor enhancements? Organic free-range beans?”

She laughed. “Just coffee,” she said. “And I’ll get it myself. I’m not a young lady, remember?”

I was disappointed, at least a little. I liked to do things for people, treat people. Although maybe I did that too much. “Sure,” I said. “Do you come here often?”

“Isn’t that a cliché?”

“Of course,” I said. We joined the line at the counter. “I’m all about clichés.”

“Like paying for a woman’s coffee?”

“It’s two bucks.” Why should it bother me this much? “I don’t mind.”

“I do.” She wasn’t looking at me. “No real freedom can exist on any foundation save that of pecuniary independence.” She smiled that same tight smile I’d seen before. “Susan B. Anthony.”

Active listening, active listening. “So you’re saying it’s important to you?”

“More important than anything.” She looked like she wanted to say more, but the line cleared and she ordered her coffee.

Neither of us spoke as we sat down. It had started to rain, the window smeary with slanting drops. The awkwardness between us had sunk into silence. She hadn’t even sipped her coffee yet.

I tried to rally with a smile. “So, you read Susan B. Anthony?”

“No.” She glanced at me. She rubbed her hands together. “I just… I had to rebuild my life a few years ago and I found her words inspiring.”

“About independence?”

“Yeah.” She sipped her coffee, her eyes on the window. “It feels good to pay for my own stuff.” She laughed, just a soft sound, a breath. “Not that I minded the $30 discount.”

I smiled. I felt the re-connection between us like a warm wave. “It was my pleasure,” I said. “And I know what you mean about rebuilding your life.”

“You do?”

“Yeah,” I said. I couldn’t look at her. No matter how many times I did this, I still hated it. “I’m a recovering alcoholic.” I pulled out my key-chain. “Three years sober.”

Her eyes widened. “Can I see that?”


She traced the date with her fingers, smirked at the ‘Sober AF’ engraved on the other side. “That takes a lot of courage,” she said. “To do it and to be honest about it.”

“Not really.” I responded too quickly, heard the bitterness in my voice. “I mean, yeah, you’re right. I just don’t always see it that way.”

She handed the key-chain back. “It’s hard to give ourselves a break sometimes.”

“We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all deserve a second chance.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t still be here.”

“Me either.”

The silence fell again, but the warmth was still there. “So,” I said. “I’m guessing you’re into craft beer.”

She smiled. “I am,” she said. “But I love coffee too.”

“And Deadpool.”

“And Deadpool.” She grinned. “Who doesn’t love Deadpool?”

“Voted ‘Most Lovable Superhero’ no times in a row.”

She laughed. “Deadpool memes are best memes.”

I hiked my boot onto a chair and revealed my bobblehead Deadpool socks.

She burst into a full-hearted laugh, her face transformed. “Were you wearing those the day I saw you at the supermarket?”

“No, I had my Daredevil socks on,” I said. “I remember debating between those and The Thing.”

“So, you’re into comic books?”

“If you mean, do I have an entire room full of collectibles, including thirty-four pairs of superhero, manga, and anime socks? Why yes, I do.”

“Most of my socks have cats on them.” She pulled up the cuff of her jeans: cats dancing under a disco ball. “These are my favorite.”

“You wore your favorite socks to have coffee with me?”

She shrugged. “It was either these or cats pooping rainbows.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “I don’t know if I should be flattered or not.”

“I just didn’t want you to think I was too weird,” she said. “But now that I know about the thirty-four pairs of anime socks…” She grinned.

“Hey now, it’s only fifteen pairs of anime socks,” I said. “The rest are superheroes, Gundam, Final Fantasy, and Zelda.”

“Oh, you play games too? Which ones?”

“Let’s see…”

An hour-and-a-half later we stood together outside the door. The rain had stopped, leaving behind the dull glow of a cloud obscured sun and patches of clear blue. Bea had pulled on her jacket, a short, buckled affair in the same brown as her flat cap and hiking boots, looking tall and slim and boyish in the muted light.

She glanced up at me. “It’s been a fantastic morning,” she said. “I wish I didn’t have to get going.”


She laughed. “No, game development meeting.”

“You make video games?”

She shrugged. “It’s just a hobby.”

“That’s a pretty impressive hobby.”

She looked down at her shoes. I recognized the struggle, could almost hear her internal voice. “Thank you,” she said. “It’s what I love best in the world.”

“More than craft beer?”

“More than craft beer.”

I hesitated. “I have two questions, before you go.”

“I may have two answers,” she said. “Shoot.”

“First, would you have lunch with me tomorrow? I know a great place in Beverly that serves vegan and vegetarian food.” I’d paid attention: she’d ordered almond milk with her coffee.

“After my laundry is done, yes.” She grinned. “I’m kidding. What time?”


“Perfect. Second question?”

“Can I give you a hug?”

Her smile faltered. “Sure,” she said. “But there may be consequences.”

“Like what?”

“Like, I might not let you go.”

I took her into my arms. She felt so fragile, like a bird, like she had hollow bones. I rubbed her back and she sighed with a catch like a sob. I held her until she pulled away. I pretended not to notice as she wiped her eyes.

She cleared her throat. “Wow,” she said. “I just came for the GIFs, you know.”

I laughed. “It was the socks, wasn’t it?”

“It was the socks.” She smiled. She took my hand.

The touch was brief, electric. Warmth radiated over my face and down my chest. “I’m so glad you were out of organic avocados.”

She laughed. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” I watched her walk away. I waved when she looked back, and stood with a stupid smile on my face long after I lost sight of her. I caressed the date embossed on my key-chain, already debating which pair of socks to wear to lunch tomorrow.



Moita dwells in the waste. Her mother calls it a place without value, where no soul finds rest, where the gods never walk. Moita walks there and does not believe, in her child’s heart, that the gods would forsake so rich a land. She has seen fish in the muddy springs and wolf tracks in the sere featherlands. Her we’ma tells her that the wolves no longer live there, that they fed so well on the northern children that they sank from their weight into the earth. Moita does not believe this. She believes the wolves stay hidden, like the fish in the mud, and that when the tracks of the wood hens are no longer seen there, they will rise once more to feast.

Moita brings home the fruit of her labors. Smooth pebbles and twisted branches, shards of coal, and desert flowers. Her mother has no names for these things. She says their people have not long dwelt there and so do not know what the gods might have called them. Moita tells her mother that she has named a thing, a purple spike of leaves, and calls it ‘the bruised hand.’ Her mother says it is a good name. The words sink deeply into Moita. She returns to the waste, and though the gods no longer walk there, she has found their call inside her and will name everything she sees.

The creek bed is eggshell blue and becomes ‘the sky underfoot.’ The rock that casts a shadow over the stunted trees is ‘the place never lost.’ The trees are bristle tongue, black leaf, four fingers, yellow wanderer, sleeping child. She names them all, and brings the knowledge of each one back to the ears of her mother and her we’ma, though they never set foot into the waste. If the gods cannot come to the world, she thinks, she will bring the knowledge of the world to the gods.

One day a man came. He was not a god, but a southerner. The ones her ma and we’ma called ‘too goods,’ with greased hair and a pinched nose. Moita had seen them before, across the marketplace, but never at her house. He did not kneel upon the hearth rug, as her neighbors did, and he did not whisper the name of the undergod before he spoke. His words were thin, like birdsong, and she could not understand him. Her mother didn’t speak, only her we’ma, and both stood with arms folded over their stomachs, a rude gesture Moita had been warned many times not to make. Moita wanted to offer him a slice of mutton, but her we’ma lifted a hand to stall her, just two fingers, and the man did not notice.

They left the waste behind soon after. Before the harvest, before the rains, before their neighbor had her baby. Moita did not want to leave. She wanted to stay, to see the fish emerge from their long sleep, to see the wolves return. Her we’ma told her that this was not their land, that it had never been their land. Her mother said nothing. She took the rug and the fire tools, but left behind the shaved wood and the boiling pot, and the boards that made up their bed. We shall leave them for the next family, her we’ma said, we shall leave them to the gods.

Moita left too her weaving stand, and some of her carving stones. We should be generous, her we’ma said, and Moita was generous. But she went into the waste one last time. She went into the wood and through the blue-shelled course of the stream bed, and to the sounding rock, and the place where the purple leaves grew. And she took with her their names.


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