Stayed up late last night finishing edits on two stories, which I wanted to submit to two different anthologies both due the same day. Thanks to the feline ballet that started as soon as I got in bed, I got about four hours of sleep, but there was a very nice sense of accomplishment in getting those stories done and submitted. Of course, I received a very flippant rejection note only a few hours after sending one in, but at least it gave me the opportunity to slide the story under the wire for another submission call due today.
Back to work now on THE VOID AND THE RAVEN, my ongoing fantasy epic that was meant to be a single novel and is now looking at at least six parts. Two volumes are done. I could submit them for publication, but I’d rather get to the end and edit the whole series together for the sake of cohesion. I’ve been working on this story in different incarnations since about 2010, and I’m about three years into this particular try. I’m guessing at least another three to five years until the whole series is completed. (Of course, if someone wants to give me several hundred thousand dollars, I can stop doing other paid work and start writing full-time, which should speed up the process immensely.)
It snowed off and on all day today, which felt like a bit of a joke with all the flowers blooming. The Easter Market is set up in our square, and all the trees are covered in blossoms. I had a fairly busy day, but the kids weren’t too rambunctious, and Fran and Donut and I had a nice walk in the evening.
I’ve had the very pleasant problem of a thousand different projects to work on. I’ve been hard at work hammering out two different stories, both of which are due for submission on Thursday. These are open calls, so it’s a wait-and-see game once they’re turned in, but I’m pretty happy with both of them. The one I’m still drafting is a nautical fairy tale based on a sea shanty, and the other deals with ominous snowflakes.
Meanwhile, I’m still plotting the next scene of VOID, which has been startlingly complicated to manage: it’s essentially a long complication between two characters, but it’s unfolded some questions about the magical system that I never took the time to answer before, and I’ve spend weeks already just mulling them over in my head. I think I’ve got the answers more or less settled now, but chapter is still in the planning stage, and every turn of the planned conversation is surprising me. I’ve been working with these characters for more than three years (or thirteen, depending on how you count), and it’s lovely to settle into the world again after spending lots of time on other projects.
Fran and I have been watching Parks and Rec, and I’m trying to channel April and Andy just a bit more in my approach to life. It’s great to be a Leslie if you’re passionate about something, but devoting 100% of your energy to everything you do (and losing sleep in the process) is a quick way to make yourself sick. Taking more time for fun, couple time, and sleep is making me feel a lot better, and after I spent a few days trying to complete a “must-do checklist” of writing projects, I realized that if I tried to maintain a full-time writing schedule on top of all the other work I do I would never have time for anything else. And when you’re well rested, it’s much easier to work quickly and with full energy, so it’s a win-win situation in the end.
For a sample of what I’ve been working on, here’s a short clip from the sea-ballad story I’m writing:
“Have you ever thought of going to sea?” I said. “I’m first mate on the Golden Vanity—that lovely galleon there—and we’re leaving for Constantinople in the morning. We need a cabin boy, and you look like a likely fellow. What do you think of signing on with us?”
He tipped his head again, and for a moment there was no sound but the grind and squeak of his auger and the patter of shavings to the ground. I could see him measuring the Vanity with his gleaming gray eyes, judging and weighing it somehow, and in a way he looked much older than a child. Then, finally, he nodded.
It took me aback how easily he’d accepted, and I wasn’t sure he’d understood. “Better think carefully,” I said, “for it’ll be a long time before you see your home again. It’s possible you won’t come back at all. But there’s good pay, and plenty of room for advancement if you do your work well.”
He nodded again, almost impatiently, and beckoned, as if I were the servant and he the master. Well, I thought, I’ll teach him more deference than that if he signs articles. But I was curious, and I had a bit of time before I needed to see about the cargo, so I followed.
Hope you’re all well! Let me know what you’ve been up to in the comments. ❤
This was another story written for my Seoul writers’ group (this one in February 2019). We used to use a random word app to generate a three-word prompt. The prompt for this one was “countryside, coast, autopsy.” It’s extremely weird and never got much attention, but I’ve always been fond of it.
Following the direction ping on her phone, Teresa turned off the highway onto a rutted lane that ran toward the cliffs. The van bumped and stumbled over gullies drawn by floodwater in last week’s heavy rain. The fields were deeply green, the sky rain-soaked. Most deaths requiring a medical examiner’s opinion happened on the highways or in the confines of lonely homes–nowhere this scenic.
After a mile, Teresa pulled up beside a pair of empty police cars and parked. Wind curled around her ears as she stepped out of the van, balmy air full of pine and clinging sea salt. Waves soughed below the cliff. There was no other sound but the soft tromping of Teresa’s bootie-clad feet on the muddy turf.
She murmured a greeting to the cops, and nodded to the coroner’s assistant. Hilbert was leaning against his own van, doing something on his phone. Teresa opened her mouth to greet him–then stopped, gaping, as she saw the body.
One of the cops grinned. “Fucked up, huh?”
The body was nude, male, and a bit round around the middle. It was also completely hairless, lacking even eyebrows. The face was calm, eyes closed. Every inch of skin was a deep, bright violet.
Teresa tried to process what she was seeing. “Is it… human?” she said. “It looks like a mannequin. Or something.”
“Nope, it’s human.” Hilbert crouched, pinching up a fold of skin on the corpse’s arm, showing its elasticity. “Just… something happened to it. Don’t know what. Out of my expertise.”
Teresa looked up from the rock-studded meadow and out over the sea. The horizon was dim, smudged in the distance with storm clouds. The crashing of surf below the cliff was louder here. “Are there any clothes? Any… artifacts, or anything?”
“Nothing. Looks like a body dump. A hiker found him this morning. Not many people come out this way, so who knows how long he’s actually been here. He doesn’t smell, but…” Hilbert nudged the body with the tip of his bootie-covered shoe. “He’s… solid.”
Teresa frowned. “Don’t do that.”
Hilbert withdrew his foot, looking amused. “Think it’s going to bother him?”
Teresa leaned down–then coughed, covering her nose with one gloved hand. A haze of perfume hung over the body, so strong it made her eyes water. “He does smell.” She moved back into clearer air. “Like someone dumped perfume all over him.”
Hilbert blinked. “Huh. I didn’t notice. Guess that’s why they pay you the big bucks. Ready to take him away?” He beckoned to his assistant, who came forward with a collapsed gurney. The three of them lifted the body onto the lowered frame. It was tremendously heavy, and oddly rigid.
“Where’s Albert?” Hilbert said, grunting with exertion as they ratcheted the cart back up. “Could really use his help.”
Teresa sighed. ”He retired last month. They haven’t okayed a replacement yet.”
Hilbert frowned. ”So you’re working without a diener?”
“For the moment, yeah.” Teresa stepped back, wiping her brow. “So please try to discourage anyone else from dying in mysterious circumstances till we get one.”
Hilbert hesitated. “Do you need help? I’m not really trained for it, but…”
“It’s all right,” she said. “I should be able to manage. I’ll let you know what turns up.”
As she wheeled the overloaded gurney back to the autopsy room in her tiny office, Teresa felt the roof closing over her. The tang of disinfectant pervaded the chilly air, and the echo of her footsteps and the gurney’s squeaky wheels quickly overshadowed the memory of her brief escape. Maybe it was time for a vacation. She thought wistfully of the windy green hills she’d left behind.
As Teresa unzipped the bag, a cloud of perfume rose up, making her choke. It was a woody odor, more reminiscent of incense than cologne. Quickly, she put on a mask, remembering the Gloria Ramirez case in the 1990s, where toxic fumes from a body had put several people in the hospital. Teresa had never heard of toxic fumes that smelled like perfume, but whatever this was, it probably wasn’t healthy.
She stepped back and surveyed the body. She couldn’t get over the color. It was pure, vibrant purple all over–an even tone, not the dull settling of livor mortis or the pale blue splodge of cyanosis. She thought briefly of argyria, remembering the effect of colloidal silver. But this wasn’t that blueberry shade, or the light tinge called “blue” or “purple” in other conditions. This was the color of boiled red cabbage.
She couldn’t lift the body by herself, and had to soap the examining table, heaving and sliding the rigid cadaver out of the bag and off the gurney. Each part of it crashed onto the steel table like a box of bricks. Teresa thought grimly that she ought to send Albert a fruit basket. She’d never appreciated the value of an autopsy tech as much as she did now that she had to do everything herself. This was going to take her all evening.
She measured the corpse, then heaved the wheeled cart over to the floor scale. She was stunned to see that the man, who wasn’t much taller than she was, weighed in at 400 pounds. At five-foot-eight, even as round as he was, he should have weighed closer to 200. Teresa checked the scale, wondering if she’d forgotten to zero it, but it seemed to be working fine. Where had the extra weight come from?
She dragged the cart back off the scale and over to the light. Routinely, she took fingerprints, and clipped a skin sample for DNA testing. She tried to open the eyes to check their color, but the eyelids were stuck shut–she’d have to cut them open later, or leave that part of the report blank.
She looked the corpse over more thoroughly. There was no sign of external injuries–no scratches or bruises that she could see, though bruises might not be noticeable under the purple. Beyond the color, and the lack of eyebrows, the face seemed undistorted. If someone came to identify this guy, they should be able to recognize him easily.
She set up her workspace and started the autopsy. She tried to get a block under the cadaver, but had to give up. Anyway, the body was so stiff that it probably wouldn’t have helped. Leaving him flat, Teresa took up her scalpel.
As she began the Y-incision, the cadaver’s odor got much stronger: woody, sweet, with a slight overtone of licorice. In that smell was not a trace of decay; were she not cutting through what was surely skin, Teresa would doubt that this was a human body at all. Only a trickle of thin, winelike blood ran from the incision, tinged purple like the skin. She swabbed up a sample and kept going.
The scalpel met resistance just beneath the epidermis–blade’s tip dragging across a surface hard as bone, causing the skin to slither disconcertingly. Teresa pulled back a flap from the incision. The lab lights gleamed on livid fuchsia tissues, barely touched with that dark blood. Tentatively, she knocked with gloved knuckles on the hardened dermis. It sounded hollow.
She put the scalpel down, not wanting to snap the blade. She tried again with the long knife, but the serrated blade snagged on the resin. Frowning, Teresa put on safety goggles and turned on the bone saw. Its whine was loud in the closed room. To Teresa’s relief, it cut smoothly through the petrified tissues.
When the incision was made, she used the hook of her hammer to pry open the edges. They parted with a dull crack like a split coconut. A spiky, lemony odor, like furniture polish, rose from the gap. Wrinkling her nose, Teresa set down her hammer and looked at what lay beneath the skin.
Everything in the thoracic cage was yellow: intercostals bright as turmeric stretched across golden ribs, with amber abdominals underneath. What must have been subcutaneous fat trailed over the muscles in smooth white clouds, hard and resinous as the rest. Running her fingertip across the intercostals, Teresa thought of the resin-soaked bandages of ancient mummies. Maybe this, too, was some form of mummification–an embalming experiment? She took time to photograph the strange landscape of the thoracic wall. Then, regretfully, she picked up her loppers and began to cut open the chestplate.
The ribs gave more resistance than they should have. The loppers creaked alarmingly with each cut. Teresa wondered if she should stop–bring someone to help, in case she hurt herself–but curiosity, and a sense of strange urgency, drove her on. In the end, the loppers survived, and she lifted out the chest plate, exposing heart and lungs.
The lungs were pale pink, with a tinge of lavender. The heart was brilliant red–veins, arteries and pericardium all one crimson mass. The pericardial sac seemed to have fused with the muscle; it didn’t shift at all when she touched it. Teresa cut open the pulmonary artery to check for obstructions, but found it dry, completely empty of blood. The opening stank of leather and roses.
She took a few more pictures, and then picked up her saw again. The abdominals were as rigid as the dermis, but she had the knack of cutting through this stuff now, and the incision was much faster. She pulled apart the severed muscles, and found a rainbow underneath.
There was no blood, no other fluids–just smooth forms nestled together among pearly clouds of petrified fat, like a life-size children’s anatomy model. The liver was emerald, the gallbladder lime-green, the spleen and pancreas different shades of orange. The large and small intestine were two shades of blue, and the stomach was a cheerful carnation pink. The perfumes that rose from the cavity were so strong that Teresa had to turn up the ventilation. She thought again of embalming–but what process could make this?
There was no point in tying off the empty arteries, so Teresa began removing the organ block. She freed the larynx and trachea first–delicate structures wrought in violet, not too different from their original forms. A soft whistle rose from the larynx as it passed through the air. Teresa shivered, thinking of flutes. She detached the diaphragm–its pale yellow ripples reminding her oddly of a cartoon jellyfish–and cut the organ block free.
She tried to lift it–then dropped it, gasping as it crashed back into place. The organs were heavy–the block weighed two or three times what it should have. Albert, who’d thrown around 200-pound cadavers like they were teddy bears, had always teased Teresa about her needing to exercise more. She wished she’d taken his advice. She’d have to remove the organs one by one.
The lungs actually weren’t that heavy–they felt brittle and porous, like the dried coral her mother kept on her dresser. When Teresa tried to take a sample, the tissue crumbled like dry earth under her saw, releasing a choking wave of cedar-balsam. Coughing, she turned up the ventilation again, hoping the fumes weren’t toxic. She packed the lungs away quickly, breathing through her mouth as she picked up the crumbling fragments.
The heart was as heavy as a cinnabar sculpture. It thunked loudlyon the dissection table. When Teresa tried to open it, she found no chambers, just a mass of deep red resin. The aorta and the other great blood vessels were hollow, though, and crumbled like the lungs had under Teresa’s saw. Not wanting to damage them further, she packed the heart away.
She decided to leave the larynx and trachea for later, not wanting to damage them. She packed them up gently, and moved on to the liver. The deep-green form came loose easily. It had a pleasant, almost piney scent, and weighed over four kilograms. Teresa shaved off a sample and dropped it in the save jar, watched the green lump bob in the formalin. She added a fragment of the crumbled lung, and a small wedge she’d taken from the heart. A sliver of gallbladder was next. It had a strong medicinal smell, and she put it away quickly. Then she moved on to the gut.
Here was a problem. The intestines were petrified, inflexible in their coils. Hosing them out would be almost impossible. Resolving to do her best, Teresa carefully cut the intestines free. They were immensely heavy, and she thought she’d have to get a cart to move them to the sink. Then she looked into the large intestine, and saw there was no need: the gut was as clean as the arteries.
She shined a penlight into the deep blue opening, but there was nothing to be seen. She had held her breath reflexively–the odors of “running the gut” would be stamped on her brain until she died–but the intestines had only a slight earthy scent, not even unpleasant. Disbelieving, she lugged them over to the scale. They weighed more than twelve kilograms together–over three times what they should have. She sealed them in her largest specimen tub and moved on to the stomach.
Unlike the other organs, the stomach was not unnaturally heavy. It weighed almost exactly two kilograms, which suggested it was mostly empty. Methodically, Teresa tipped it over a bin, but nothing came out–it, too, must be dry inside. But she thought she heard a faint rustle.
She set the stomach back on the table and ran her saw delicately around the outer edge. It felt strangely like cracking open a geode. At last, very carefully, she opened it.
Out of the stomach rose a puff of honey-scented air, which glowed rosy-gold for a second before dissipating. In the stomach, atop a nest of golden down, sat a bird.
Teresa put down her saw and stared. The bird was blue, and sparrow-sized–a fledgling, it looked like. Its black eyes glittered under the lamp. Cocking its head, it watched her.
Enchanted, she leaned closer. The bird’s throat swelled. After a second, it began to sing.
It began with a soft chirp, sweet as a flute. Then it rose, and rang like crystal in the empty room, rang in Teresa’s bones. It shifted to a run of smaller notes, tripping across a scale both alien and familiar.
Teresa suddenly remembered herself, an undergrad, sitting in a dim auditorium, watching a girl she loved rehearse a Vivaldi flute concerto. The melody still ran through her dreams. Closing her eyes, she let it wash over her. The song went on for a very long time.
At last the music stopped, leaving only Teresa’s breathing to fill the silence. For a long time she stood with her eyes closed. Her heartbeat slowed, grew stable. The tension she’d carried for many years–maybe her entire life–evaporated. The world had reoriented itself. Suddenly everything made sense.
When she opened her eyes, the bird was watching her again. “Do you want to come home with me?” Teresa said.
The bird tilted its head, but made no protest as Teresa carefully slid her fingers under its body. Its warm, downy weight settled trustingly into the curve of her hands as she lifted it from its nest. She cradled it to her heart, and looked for a way to take it home.
She needed something soft. Shifting the bird to one hand, she eyed the golden fluff that it had nested in. She took up a bit of the stuff and found it soft and formless, taking and losing shape like fiberglass or cotton candy. She collected it all into a little cardboard box that had once held test tubes, and then lowered the bird into the makeshift nest. On impulse, she took the two halves of the stomach to the sink and rinsed them out, wiping them dry to leave them as clean as the gut and arteries. Then she put all the organs in the fridge, and wrestled the half-dissected body into a drawer. Finally, she tucked the precious cardboard box into her tote bag, very conscious that she was now committing a federal crime.
In the lobby, she waved goodbye to the receptionist, murmuring excuses about a migraine. When she turned towards the door, Jeremy Hilbert stood in front of her.
“Dr. Bowen, there you are! Taking off for the day?” said Hilbert.
Teresa nodded, trying not to think too much about the box in her bag. “Yeah, I’m not feeling well. Think it might be the fumes. I’ll finish the autopsy tomorrow–it should be all right until then.”
Hilbert frowned. “Should we call an ambulance?”
“No,” said Teresa, “just need some fresh air. The body’s in drawer three if you need to see it.”
“How far did you get?” Hilbert said. “Anything concrete?”
Something about his tone made Teresa uncomfortable. “Um… got him mostly dissected,” she said. “Haven’t opened the cranium yet. Whatever has him looking like that should keep him pretty well preserved till I get back to him. We haven’t run the DNA, obviously, but the samples and prints are ready for pickup.”
Hilbert watched her for a long moment. She tried to look back steadily. Finally the coroner nodded. “I hope you feel better.”
She forced a smile. “Thanks. See you soon.” She hurried from the building, and felt his gaze on her back.
She tried to walk evenly across the parking lot. She didn’t know what the relevant laws were–she’d never before been tempted to break them–but leaving with autopsy specimens would at least get her fined, maybe fired. Maybe she would end up in jail.
But who would know? Why would anyone expect that a corpse’s stomach contained anything worth stealing? There were no security cameras in the autopsy room. As long as Teresa stayed calm, she should be fine.
A little thrill of triumph buoyed her to her car and out of the parking lot. After that, she was free.
She woke to dawn light and the soughing of a breeze–and the prick of tiny clawed feet on her shoulder.
Teresa opened her eyes. Somehow the bird had left the box on her nightstand and made it over to her bed. When it saw her watching, it chirped, and cocked its head expectantly.
Of course–it needed food. Though she hadn’t been able to identify it last night, her research had shown that at this age it should be eating about once an hour while the sun was up. Last night she’d stopped at a pet store and, after some rapid Googling, gotten a tub of mealworms and a bag of soft puppy chow. The bird had eaten both cheerfully, but had fallen asleep right afterwards. It must be starving by now. Teresa wondered how it had eaten in its nest of golden light, buried in its bizarre womb–but was quickly distracted when she looked around the room.
The air was cool, because a window was open. This should have been alarming–it had definitely been closed last night–but the screen was still in place. The sheer curtain undulated in the wind, the only motion in the quiet room.
Shivering, Teresa sat up, waiting for the bird to adjust its stance on her shoulder. The covers slid over her lap a little too smoothly. The blanket felt different–the dove-gray color was unchanged, but the fabric was richer and softer. Frowning, she flipped it back. The sheets crinkled, cool and crisp, a higher thread count than she could ever justify paying for. She ran her hands over and over them. “What the hell?”
At last she pushed back the covers and stood up, looking around in growing bewilderment. The carpet under her feet was deeper and softer than before. There were new slippers by the door, velvet mules with thick fleece lining. Teresa put them on and slipped on her robe–still her own, thankfully, the old purple terrycloth one she’d had since college. She resettled the bird on her shoulder and went out.
The mute shuffle of her feet on the thick hallway carpet was overlaid by soft music, though its source was unclear. The air was chilly out here. There must be other windows open, other cool breezes fluttering through other curtains. For some reason the thought didn’t bother Teresa much. She felt quite safe.
The living room smelled good–incense and potpourri, and a hint of the honey perfume from the bird’s strange nest. In a corner, a cut-glass vase that had always stood empty was full of long-stemmed roses. Teresa touched one, and found it damp with dew.
Other beautiful things lay scattered through the room: a woven silk throw on the back of the sofa, a crystal music box on the sideboard. A tiny bronze unicorn stood on top of the piano. Teresa picked it up and traced its contours with her finger: the age-brown metal, the whorled nostrils and neat-cut eyes, the perfect spiral of its dainty horn. She’d never seen it before.
She set the unicorn down with a soft clink. Half-dreaming, she walked to the kitchen–barely looking around, though more treasures filled the corners of her vision. She held her breath, not wanting to wake up.
She kicked her slippers off at the kitchen doorway, and walked barefoot across the red tile floor. She hadn’t swept in a while, but the tiles were clean. Here, too, were gifts from nowhere. The red cloth on the table looked hand-woven. On the windowsill stood a row of bright glass bottles–vinegars, she thought, infused with herbs and fruit. On the counter stood a plain brown bag of coffee. Opening it, Teresa found much better beans than she’d ever bought, with deep notes of fruit and chocolate.
In the refrigerator, Teresa’s aging vegetables had been replaced with new ones that looked fresh from the farmers’ market. The door held a row of interesting-looking microbrews. The dairy drawer was filled with fancy cheeses. Next to the milk stood a glass jug of what looked like fresh-squeezed orange juice.
She closed the door slowly. Deep in her head was a running list of everything that was wrong with this picture. Teresa ignored it. Whatever benevolent magic was at work here, she would enjoy it for as long as she could.
A chirp on her shoulder reminded her that the bird was hungry. “All right,” she said, “just let me find you something.” She looked around for the kibble, but the bird was already hopping down her arm towards the counter, beelining towards a bowl newly filled with fruit. Teresa supposed it knew what it was doing. She let it hop to the counter and began opening cupboards, setting out other things for it to try.
In one cupboard was a loaf of good bread. She scraped a few seeds from its crust onto a saucer (cobalt blue, exquisite). The bird pounced, devouring the seeds. Teresa added a few sesame seeds from the spice rack. Then she took a round green pear from the fruit bowl, cutting a sliver for the bird before slicing the rest for herself.
The fruit was as sweet and cold as the wind that blew in through the windows. The bird cooed as it ate, beak slicing neatly through crisp white flesh. Periodically it glanced at Teresa, and warbled, puffing its throat, as if pleased they were eating together.
When they finished eating, Teresa found her phone and called in sick to work. Then she found more groceries she hadn’t bought and made a real breakfast: toast, tomatoes, scrambled eggs. The coffee smelled even better brewing, wafting warm vapor through the house. Teresa started to pour a glass of orange juice–then, feeling extravagant, she took down a bottle of sparkling wine she’d been saving and made a mimosa instead.
It turned out the fledgling would eat almost anything. Throughout the day, it cheerfully accepted whatever Teresa gave it: bits of egg, fruit, wild bird seed from a bag she’d remembered in the garage. It even ate meat from her lunch and dinner. When it wasn’t eating, it followed Teresa, hopping and fluttering around the house. It looked almost ready to fly.
Late that afternoon, someone knocked on the door.
Teresa felt a stab of fear. She tiptoed to the window, keeping carefully out of sight, and peered through a gap in the curtains. Hilbert, the coroner, stood on the front stoop.
Teresa stayed frozen. She couldn’t imagine what Hilbert must have gathered from her notes, from the half-dissected body and the petrified organs. She didn’t want to talk to him. She had an irrational suspicion that he’d come to take the bird away.
She waited there a long time. Finally, Hilbert left.
She called out sick again the next day. Then, hesitating only briefly, she emailed a formal request for a full week of leave, citing a personal emergency. The resin man’s autopsy could wait. In this beautiful house, with company for once, Teresa found she had no interest in returning to the autopsy room–taking its permanent stink up her nose, immersing herself again in the problems of the dead. She hadn’t taken a vacation in years–she had plenty of time saved up. And the strange corpse seemed unlikely to decompose. If Hilbert wanted results faster, he’d just have to send the body to another lab.
The house grew more beautiful every day. Breezes blew through sunlit windows over vases of fresh flowers and dried herbs. The music remained, always just at the threshold of Teresa’s hearing. Most of the time she didn’t notice it, but it was always there when she listened. At every turn, she found more treasures: paintings and tapestries of unknown flowers and fairytale landscapes; shawls, figurines, china, new sheet music for the piano. There was a new rug on the living room floor, with a subtle pattern and aged patina suggesting it was handmade. All in all, it was the kind of house Teresa might have made for herself if she’d had many years to collect the artifacts. She felt sometimes as if she were invading another person’s house, or standing in the waiting room of Heaven.
She rarely went outside, irrationally fearing to leave the house unguarded. She hadn’t needed to buy groceries yet; she never seemed to run out of anything, and every day there were new delicacies in the kitchen. She slipped out occasionally, though, to catch crickets for the bird. On the internet’s advice, she fed them in a bin for a few days, then froze them and fed them to her charge. The bird ate them rapturously, downing each in a few greedy gulps.
It grew until it was the size of a robin. After that, it got heavier, more solid, taking on strength and density. Its song became more resonant. More real. Teresa kept trying to identify it, but no pictures matched. It definitely wasn’t a bluebird. It might resemble an indigo bunting, but with a black corvid beak like a jay’s. Teresa thought of taking it somewhere–a university? a wildlife center?–but didn’t like to take it from the house. In the end, she stayed home.
The bird often rode on her shoulder, a solid presence in the corner of her eye. She was used to the mutter of its chirping now, the soft scent of its feathers. When she wasn’t carrying it, it hopped along the counter, investigated the curtains, fluttered in a crystal dish of water. The thump and rustle of its movements became part of the background music of her life.
Even so, the house was too quiet. To keep herself company, she began talking to the bird–about herself, her work, the mysterious resin man. After a few days, she had moved to other subjects: her loneliness; the years it would take to pay off all her loans; how she still wasn’t sure she’d devoted her life to the right career.
The bird seemed to listen, black eyes glinting. At length, it began to talk back.
It started as a whisper, soft as the ambient music. At first she didn’t realize what she was hearing. Then the whisper grew louder, and Teresa began to hear the words.
Bread, she heard, in the kitchen one morning. Just a suggestion, something she might have thought of herself.
She uncovered the loaf, broke off a little corner, and gave it to the bird. “No more,” she said, as if the fledgling had really spoken. “I looked it up. Bread’s bad for birds. You can have a cricket, or some fruit, or I think there are some peppers in the fridge.”
The bird huffed, devouring the bread. When the morsel was gone, it cocked its head. Cricket.
The voice was clear this time. Shaken, Teresa took a tub of frozen crickets out of the freezer and laid one on a saucer to thaw. The bird watched it for a minute, then gulped it down.
Teresa held out her finger for the bird to jump up. “Are you talking?” she said slowly.
It cocked its head again. To you. Talking.
“You are.” She exhaled shakily. “All right. How?”
The bird ruffled its feathers. Talking. Apparently that was all the answer she was going to get.
She didn’t ask anything else for a while, not sure how she’d process the answer. Finally, sitting that night with a book in the light of a soft new lamp, she said, “How did you get here? Where did you come from?”
Summoned, said the bird on her shoulder. I was summoned.
Teresa remembered the field beside the cliffs, the resin man’s organs like carven ritual vessels. She shivered, and didn’t ask more.
Hilbert came by three more times. Each time he stayed longer, shuffling on the stoop, trying more and more obviously to look through the windows. Teresa knew hiding from him was childish, but something in her rebelled against letting him in. She didn’t want to hear his questions about the unfinished autopsy, the hastily stowed specimens, the empty stomach. She wondered if he’d sent the body on yet.
She kept thinking of how the body had been found–how lonely the site had been. A body dump, Hilbert had said–but who had dumped it? How had the man died? Without finishing the autopsy, there was no way to know. Perhaps Teresa should feel ashamed for abandoning her job, but for now she just wanted to hide in this nest, thinking of nothing.
Whatever happened, she could never reveal what she’d found in the resin man’s stomach. If anyone learned about the bird, Teresa would have to hand it over. That was impossible–the thought of losing her bird made her desperate. She couldn’t imagine living without the fledgling now. And she knew instinctively that, if she lost the bird, the spell would break. She didn’t know if she could take living in the real world again.
On the fifth day, Hilbert’s tone changed. “Teresa,” he yelled through the door. “I need to talk to you. Let me in.”
They have him now, whispered the bird from her shoulder
Teresa jumped. “What?” she hissed, easing back from the window.
They who summoned me. He is theirs. Wants to know what you know. What you took.
“You,” said Teresa. “I took you.”
The bird nuzzled her cheek. Good.
Hilbert pounded on the door. Wincing, Teresa hoped none of the neighbors were watching. “Let me in, Dr. Bowen!” Hilbert shouted. “This isn’t funny.”
Teresa thought of the phone she had ignored all week. Maybe she should get it, in case she needed to call the police. She started to move.
Be still, said the bird.Teresa froze.
Outside, Hilbert shuffled. Teresa sank to the floor and leaned her head against the wall, listening to the coroner pace around her porch. He stayed for almost an hour. Finally, after a long silence, he left.
Teresa was left with a feeling of deep foreboding. She remembered how Hilbert had stood above the resin man, playing with his phone. She wondered who the coroner might have been talking to. “Who was he?” she said, watching Hilbert drive off. “The… man. Where I found you.”
A murderer, said the bird. Don’t worry. Not for him. Deserved it.
“Deserved what?” Teresa said, queasy.
Transformation. The fledgling nuzzled her cheek. To create happiness. He became an egg.
Teresa shivered. There was something about this she shouldn’t condone–a darker and more frightening aspect to her new joy than she’d thought possible. But she still slept with the bird’s nest by her pillow each night, and each morning she woke to find the fledgling cuddled against her cheek.
On the seventh day, she woke to a whisper: They are outside.
“What?” She sat up, veins chilling. “Who?”
They who want me. We must go.
Teresa rolled out of bed and went to kneel beside the window. Through the gauze curtain she saw them, a long line of sleek black-clad figures, all heavily armed, standing in bushes or leaning against house walls. She craned her neck to see further out the window, picking them out one by one. They were ranged down both sides of the street, as far as she could see in both directions. They didn’t look like police or soldiers–they were too relaxed, too patient, as if they did this every day.
They were waiting for her to come outside, she realized suddenly. This was a siege.
She slumped to the floor, shaking. “Shit,” she whispered. “What am I going to do?
Go, said the bird. Or they will kill you, and take me. Go, and save us both.
But she couldn’t leave. They were surrounded. Heart pounding, she looked outside again, trying to count the dark figures. More appeared the longer she looked, a legion of shadows, armed and ready. She imagined the sound they must make–boots shuffling, shoulders shifting–ranks and ranks of half-seen soldiers, one more waiting for every one she could see. It would be impossible to get past them. There was no way out.
She was breathing too fast. She forced herself to calm down, stroking the bird’s feathers with shaking fingers.
Across the street, Hilbert stood in a neighbor’s driveway, glancing at the black-clad figures as if asking for instructions. All of them ignored him. At last, he strode across the street and stood in Teresa’s yard. When he spoke, his voice carried clearly through the window. “Dr. Bowen,” he said, rather pompously, “we know what you took. Bring it outside, or these people are going to have to come in and shoot you. You have twenty minutes.”
Teresa’s heart skipped. Not a siege, then. She hadn’t imagined, somehow, that they would come into her house. The walls of her sanctuary, last night so impenetrable, seemed to melt away. Would she be found dead tomorrow in a pool of blood–the bird gone, her home destroyed? She imagined someone else performing her autopsy tomorrow.
“How can I get out?” she whispered to the fledgling, barely managing to keep from hyperventilating. “They’ll catch me if I go out. I’m stuck.”
Go up, it said.
“On the roof?” Teresa said, confused. “I can’t. There’s no way up from the attic–no windows.”
Go up, the bird said again.
Not knowing what else to do, Teresa obeyed.
The attic smelled of old wood and the remnants of many summers’ rain. She never came up here–hadn’t collected enough possessions to make it more than a refuge for spiders. She turned on the light and scanned the empty plywood corners, trying not to despair.
Then she noticed the ventilation fan.
Her shoulders straightened. It would be hard, but maybe just possible. Running back downstairs, she found what tools she could in the kitchen drawers, and brought them and a stepstool back up to the attic. With a lot of cursing, and a bit of blood, she unscrewed the fan and dragged it from its moorings. It tumbled free with a loud shriek, and bruised her face and shoulders as it fell. She dropped it with a crash that must have been audible outside.
At that, she froze. “Won’t they know we’re up here?” she whispered to the bird, lifting it off of the beam where it was perching. “They’ll see us on the roof. How can we get down?”
Trust, said the bird. You have cared for me. Now trust.
Standing on the chair again, Teresa lifted the fledgling out through the gaping hole she’d made in the roof. Then she began to pull herself up.
It was the hardest thing she’d ever done, and it took a very long time. Her shoulders trembled–her arms spasmed–her core muscles tensed, shuddered, and failed, again and again. Time after time she let herself fall, thinking each time that this was it–she wouldn’t make it. But the bird was outside by itself, and it had never flown yet–if she didn’t protect it, it could easily be caught–and so each time she lifted herself up again and kept trying. Finally, remembering a movie she’d seen, Teresa began to swing her legs, building momentum with every swing. Eventually she managed to hook one elbow out through the hole, and then the other, dragging herself up and out until at last she collapsed across the roof.
For a long time she clung to the warm shingles, breathing raggedly, absorbing the sun’s heat from above and below. She didn’t know when she’d be able to move again. If they came after her now, she’d be helpless.
When she opened her eyes, the bird was staring at her.
Stand up, it said.
Teresa couldn’t. But she did. Heaving herself to her knees, she lifted the bird onto her shoulder. Then she struggled to her feet, careful of her footing on the steep plane of the roof.
The sky was a deep, flawless blue. The sunshine dazzled her. Blinking, Teresa looked around at the nearby rooftops, the neat patchwork gardens tended by neighbors she’d never met. She regretted that, but it faded. There was no point being sad now.
Below her, the shadows waited, still in the silence of her neighborhood. She felt their gazes in her bones. At first she wondered why they didn’t shoot. Then she realized they wouldn’t risk hitting the bird. Whatever they needed it for was important enough to let Teresa stand free a little longer.
She closed her eyes and stood quietly for a long time, breathing in the summer wind and the soft fragrance of her charge’s feathers. A deep quiet came over her. She found that she was entirely calm. Finally, opening her eyes, she turned to look at the fledgling, and stroked its belly gently with her fingertip. “Shall we go?”
Go, said the bird. It began to flap its wings.
A great wind rose. It came from everywhere at once, rippling through the trees and bushes, catching her clothes, whipping her hair. It smelled heavily of balsam. The smell didn’t sicken her now. She breathed it in, giddy, until it seemed to fill all of her, as if she were a balloon about to rise.
She seemed to be much higher than before. A pleasant vertigo made her sway as she looked at the people far below her. Sunlight glinted on the guns’ black barrels–irrelevant, like details in the backdrop of a play. They were nothing to do with her, nothing to worry about.
The wind grew, billowing, enveloping her body and buoying her upward. Her bare feet lifted from the roof. She grew lighter and lighter, until the wind caught her like a scrap of paper and whipped her into the sky. Alarmed shouts rang out below. She heard gunshots, but didn’t look. She was done with all that now.
She rose into a cloudless sky, so clear and blue she had to close her eyes against its perfection. The bird on her shoulder was singing, a deeper, brighter song than before. They rose up through cold, through ice, through something that sizzled like lightning. And then the air grew warm, and they entered a veil of perfume. Rose-tinged sunlight beat against Teresa’s eyelids. She heard bells chiming, and opened her eyes to a vision of gold.
This was one of my first sales. I suddenly realized it was way past its exclusivity period and I could publish it here.
When I was eighteen or twenty, I had a very vivid dream one night about a woman on a beach at night sculpting an angel from the falling snow. I tried three or four times to write a story about it, and never quite captured it, but this was pretty close.
An angel’s gaze can stir armies to war. For Ori, Sara would have fought wars alone.
When she first found him, on the beach below her house, she thought him dead. He lay on the sand. She thought he was a sailor, drowned and tossed up on the shore. It wasn’t till she stepped closer, peering at him through the fading afternoon light, that she knew him as one of Heaven’s bright children, somehow fallen down to Earth.
She knew no more about angels than anyone. She’d often seen them from a distance, arcing across the sky on missions from the Queen of Heaven, but they had little to do with anyone on the Isle of Gulls. No one in living memory had seen one–not up close. They were said to visit the mainland sometimes, demanding tribute or information, but this island was too poor for them to bother, too isolated to concern them. Now, faced with one, Sara didn’t know what to do.
She was afraid to touch him–but then he opened his green eyes, and she saw he was alive. She padded softly across the sand. “My lord,” she said.
He groaned. He was wounded–a slash across his chest, parting his robes and skin from hip to shoulder. His blood splashed startling red across the sand. In legends, angels bled gold.
His eyes were like trap wires–predator’s eyes. He was taller than any man Sara had met (though she hadn’t met so many). Each of his hands could have circled both her wrists. His face was long and mournful.
She shivered. “My lord, if I can assist you…”
The angel’s eyes narrowed. He studied her. She imagined how she must look to him: small, rough-haired, clad in her father’s old jacket and boots. Not worth talking to, for him.
At last, he cleared his throat. “What isle is this?” His voice was low, softer than she’d expected.
Sara curtsied awkwardly, tugging at her trousers. “The Isle of Gulls, my lord. In the North Sea.”
He groaned. “I fell so far…”
“My lord, you’re wounded,” Sara ventured. “Should we… call your people?” She didn’t know how they could do that, but perhaps he knew.
The angel shook his head. “No matter. If this body dies, she’ll call me back.” Then he groaned, pressing a hand to his wound. “But if you’d sew me up, I’d much appreciate it.”
“Oh.” Sara faltered. She should take him to the village, but she knew the people there would be afraid to touch him. “I… suppose I can. But I’ll have to go and get some things, my lord.”
“Take your time.” He turned and looked out at the ocean. In moments, he seemed to forget that she was there.
Pulling a needle through his flesh was very different from sewing canvas. Fortunately, the angel didn’t bleed much. His skin was stronger, and more resilient, than a man’s, with a satiny texture like fine-grained wood. He smelled like silk. He lay still as she worked, though the stitches must have been agony. Soon her waxed thread had left a neat seam on his chest. She covered him with a blanket, and wondered how to get him up the cliff.
Eventually, she loaded him into a handcart. It was easier than she expected. Legend said that angels’ bones were made from balsa wood. Sara didn’t think so, but this one was as light as if he had been. An odd picture they must have made–his vast wings jutting from the cart as she pushed and puffed him up the cliff like the old woman in the story. Light though he was, she stopped many times to rest.
They spoke little, at first. Each time Sara stopped, the angel closed his eyes, seeming to fall into a trance. Above them, deep in the sky, Heaven’s Eye watched the sea. As daylight faded, the blaze of sunlight on the great bronze was replaced by the light of a thousand thousand torches. Sara wondered if the sentinels there could see their fallen warrior. Perhaps she should light a fire.
“Will they send for you soon?” she said at last. Surely Heaven wouldn’t leave its fallen soldier long. Someone must come for him, unless the battle had gone very badly.
He sighed, like a gust of wind across the moor. “It may take a while. Many of us fell last night. No doubt they think me dead.”
“Who were you fighting?” They heard little here of the Sovereigns’ battles–only brief dispatches, months out of date, embellished by mainland scribes.
“The Demons of the Western Shore,” he said. “We’ve faced them dozens of times now–I should never have caught this wound.” The angel smiled ruefully. “I must be getting careless.”
Sara nodded, as if this meant anything to her. The Queen of Heaven seemed always to be fighting some new enemy, but from what Sara could see there was no real effect. Life on the Isle of Gulls, at least, remained the same.
Seeing her incomprehension, he took pity. “Shall I tell you about it? I’m feeling better now.”
“If it pleases you, my lord,” said Sara, surprised.
He coughed, and then began to speak in a low, singsong voice. “At the crest of morning, our heralds called out word of new attacks on our western strongholds, beneath the great watchtowers of Choir Mountain…”
Sara listened, enthralled, as he told of places she would never see–the silver cities of the Western Isles, their green mountains, their deep lagoons–and over them all, the angels massed in glittering ranks across the sky. He spoke till they came to the top of the cliff. Then his voice trailed off.
Moonlight fell over them, and a wind of wildflowers swept over the moor. Looking down, Sara saw the angel’s eyes had closed. The long planes of his great mournful face were painted bright with moonlight.
She’d stolen him, she realized suddenly. She should have taken him down into the village, where someone could light a signal fire or send a message to the mainland. It should have occurred to her to do that.
She told herself that it would be all right. He could rest here tonight. Then, when they came for him, he’d go back home. Hopefully Heaven wouldn’t be angry. Sara would take the best care of him she could.
She steered them gently to the house, raising her face under the starlight.
Her highborn guest seemed happy in her little house. She’d installed him in the bedroom, and he slept and rested there; but he often came out to speak with her, peering around him, as if everything in human life was fascinating. Often he interrupted her with questions–asked about pumps, woodstoves, wells, things Sara would never have thought to explain.
For her part, she couldn’t stop watching him. Every few seconds she averted her eyes so he wouldn’t catch her staring. Besides his beauty, his strangeness, and his great size, he was the most company Sara had ever had these last ten years.
“What is all this?” he said one day, gesturing at the sculptures and pottery that covered her front room. “Is it an art collection?”
“In a way,” said Sara. “I’m a sculptor. And… a potter, a wood-carver–any kind of handicraft, I’ll do, really, but I mostly work with clay.”
He looked impressed. “There are sculptors here?”
Sara realized, then, how poor her work must be beside what he had seen. “Not as you have them, my lord. But we do our best,” she said.
The angel studied a series of sculptures of Sara’s old dog Brown, whom she missed almost as much as she did her father. “And this is all your work?” he said.
“Yes, my lord,” she said, self-consciously. “Though it must be nothing next to what you’ve seen.” She’d studied as much as she could–ordered books from the mainland at great expense, treasured the library her father and grandfather had collected, refined her craft as well as she could alone. With no other artists around, though, and no teacher but her father, who’d died when Sara was eighteen, her education had been sadly limited.
“No,” he said. “I like it.” He picked up a small carving of a gull, held it to the light. “It’s simple, but lively. I’d like to see these cast in bronze.” Setting down the gull, he picked up a clay bust of Sara’s grandfather–sculpted from her vaguest childhood memories, with help from a drawing her father had made, which still hung in the studio. The angel stared into the statue’s eyes. Then he set it down, and turned, giving Sara a strange look. “Don’t call me ‘my lord,’” he said. “My name is Ori.”
Sara started. “I should… call you by your name, sir?”
“Of course,” he said dismissively. “Why not?”
“Isn’t it… a bit disrespectful, sir?”
He shook his head. “It’s a name. Just like any other. More disrespectful for you, I think, to call me titles that mean nothing to you.”
She tried to see his logic. “All right. Ah… Ori.”
He nodded. “Good.” Then he waited. When Sara didn’t speak, he prompted, “And your name, my good host?”
“Oh. Ah… Sara, sir.”
He smiled, and bowed slightly. “Thank you, Sara, for bringing me into your home.”
“It was my honor, sir,” she said. “And my duty, of course.”
“But I appreciate it.” The angel looked around. He frowned. “Why do you live alone? Most mortals live in groups, I think–but I’ve seen no one since you brought me here.“
“It’s only me,” said Sara, shrugging. “I’ve been alone since my father died. I have no other family.”
“You support yourself?”
She nodded. “I throw pots, bake tiles, whatever the village needs. I do repairs sometimes, but they don’t need it much. Anyway, I earn enough for what I need. That plus fishing, gardening, gathering–food’s not a problem. And you couldn’t ask for a better view.” She gestured to the moor above the cliffs, its windswept cottongrass stained golden by the sun.
He followed her gaze. “It seems… pleasant,” he said uncertainly. “But wouldn’t you rather have companions?”
She shrugged again. “We can’t have all we want. You’ve got to do the best you can, be satisfied with what you have–or so I’m told. Could be worse, anyway.” There were places where Sovereigns were more demanding. The Queen of Heaven had little to do with mortals–even on the mainland, her people were left alone to scrape their way as they always had. In other places, though, the Heavenly Legions fought their battles over open land, and mortals burned in rains of fire–the angels’ weapons did not always fly true. It was said that in some places,whole populations worked their lives away in mines, bringing up ores to forge the Legions’ weapons. Luckily, the Isle of Gulls had nothing more than chalk, and not enough of that to quarry.
Ori soon dropped the subject, but after that he stayed much closer to her. He helped in the garden and about the house, fetching and carrying, making conversation, till Sara could hardly remember life without him. She knew she shouldn’t get too used to him–but no one had come yet to reclaim him. Heaven seemed almost to have forgotten their lost soldier.
Walking the cliff’s edge with Ori at sunset, one cool evening late in fall, Sara was struck suddenly by the angel’s perfect grace. No mortal man was so perfectly in tune. Every element of Ori’s body was quietly efficient–his gestures elegant, his posture like a deer’s. No artist could conceive such perfect beauty.
“How are you… as you are?” she said, unthinking.
He turned his eyes from the dusk horizon. “I am as I was made,” he said. His curious smile forbade closer inquiry.
Sara blushed, but asked a different question. “Are other angels… like you?”
“All of us are different.” Ori seemed suddenly weary of the subject, though Sara had never brought it up before. “We are all unique, like the waves of the ocean. But there are… similarities.”
Sara tried to imagine other angels. She’d seen paintings–stained glass windows in the church–one treasured statue in the vicar’s house. But all of them looked like humans, just with wings, and lacked the wild power that made Ori so compelling. She couldn’t imagine any other being could be as lovely as he was.
“What would they think,” she said, “if they knew that you were with me–that you didn’t die in battle?”
His face grew distant. “Some might envy me,” he said. “Others would resent it. And… my Lady…” He grimaced. “She will not approve.”
“Even though it’s not your fault?” said Sara. “Even though you can’t get back?”
“Even so,” said Ori evasively.
Then Sara realized Ori had… recovered. He’d shown no sign of pain in weeks–she’d forgotten, in fact, that he was ever injured. She’d never seen him fly, but suspected that he could–might even have the power to go back home, if he so chose. But he had not–and Sara, certainly, would not send him away.
One day, two months into his convalescence, Ori came into Sara’s studio. “I’ve noticed,” he said, almost diffidently, “that there’s only one bed, in this house.”
Sara smiled. “I have a couch.” She pointed at her ancient leather sofa. “We used to have two beds, but I sold one when Dad died.”
Her angel frowned. “Then I should sleep in here.”
Sara suppressed a laugh. She’d kept the larger bed, but Ori barely fit it; he’d never fit his whole self on the couch. “It’s all right,” she said. “I’m quite comfortable. Half the time I sleep here, anyway.”
He fidgeted. “I still don’t think it’s right.”
“Well, you’re not fitting on the couch, my lord,” said Sara briskly, “and I won’t have you on the floor, so there’s no other way.” She grinned. “Unless you want to share the bed.”
It was a joke–but possibility suddenly stretched between them. They eyed each other. “Is that,” he said carefully, “an invitation?”
Meeting his eyes, she nodded.
They shared the bed, from then on.
Sara was soon besotted.
Ori was sunlight in a life of clouds. She basked in him, soaked him in, filled herself to the brim with desperate love. Often she was overswept with jealous adoration, imagining she’d do anything to keep him–petition the Queen herself, in her hallowed hall with the angels all around her, for Ori to be set free. If denied, she felt she could take on Heaven itself, and fight–or die–to win him.
Then sense returned, and Sara knew she had no hope. When they came for Ori, she’d have to let him go.
She tried to record him–furtively at first; then, when she saw he didn’t mind, she studied him more openly. She made clay sculptures, shaping with her hands the curves and contours her fingers followed each night. Then she made wood carvings, watercolors–scrabbling for at part of him to keep, something to hold onto.
One night, after a long day’s work, she came out to the moor and found him seated in the grass, looking up into the dark, starred reaches of late-autumn sky. The great curves of his wings cast his face in deep shadow, though the backs of them blazed moonlight.
Though it was cold, Sara sat beside him and leaned against his shoulder. He tucked one wing around her, and they watched the stars in silence. At last, Sara nudged him gently. “Do the stars look different when you’re up there?”
“A little,” he said. “They’re colder, but clearer. You see the colors better–reds and blues.” His gaze fell to the largest star–not a star at all. Grimly, he stared at Heaven’s Eye. “We have an excellent watchtower,” he said. “My lady is ever-watchful, after all.”
Sara shivered. “She hasn’t sent for you,” she felt compelled to say.
“No.” Ori looked pensive. “Caught up in other things, perhaps. But she’ll gather us soon. She loves a winter campaign.” He laughed bitterly. “I’m sure she’ll have much to say to me for dallying so long here.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Sara.
“It was,” he said. “ But it doesn’t matter. I’d rather not think about it.” Smiling, he kissed her, covering them with his wings.
Sara let the kiss linger. When it ended, she squeezed his hand. “Could you stay?” she said. “What would happen if you did?”
He shook his head. ”She’s bound us, body and soul. If she calls me, I must go. We all must go and fight again, till we’ve conquered all the world… or are destroyed.”
Sara shivered. After a pause, she ventured, “Were you different? Before she bound you?”
Ori considered. “Lighter,” he said finally. “Happier, I think.” He shrugged. “But everything changes. You’ve changed, surely, since you were younger. What does it matter what I was like before?”
She bit her lip. “How did she bind you?”
“She called me by name–she conjured me. She’s a powerful sorceress–I could only obey.”
“A sorceress?” said Sara, startled. “You mean…”
He snorted. “Not a god. No. Human–or human once. Immortal now–as far above humans as…” He paused.
“As you are,” Sara finished.
Ori looked away.
“How did she call you?” Sara persisted. It seemed important she should know.
He hesitated a long time. Then, at last, he said, “‘Ori. Shining one. Child of light, spirit of air, come and enter this body I’ve made for you.’”
She let the echoes wash over her, memorizing the summons. When the sound faded, she said, “And you had to go?”
Ori nodded. “I’m a spirit, after all. Any strong sorcerer can conjure and bind us. The Heavens are full of them–our Queen, all the others. Which is why,” he said dryly, “we are always at war.”
The wars had gone on since before there were angels. More Sovereigns had risen and fallen than Sara could have named. “Do you think,” she said, “that the wars will ever stop?”
He watched the sky. “No… I don’t suppose they will.”
“I’m sorry.” She held his hand. There were no more words to say.
Ori stared at the stars as if into a void. “I’ve slain so many. Been slain so many times–and raised up, and sent to fight again.” Looking at Sara, he sighed. “I’m so very, very tired.”
She did not know how to comfort him.
Late one night, the two of them sat ensconced in golden light, warm against the darkness of the icy moor outside. Sara had drawn the drapes, but Ori kept opening them and looking out. She wondered what he was looking for.
Over the months, they’d learned each other’s moods, and now their silence was perfectly companionable. Sara had set up a table by the woodstove. By lamplight and candlelight, she worked on a small articulated model of an angel’s wing. She was using all her best materials: resin, copper wire, steel gears, downy feathers. She’d told Ori she needed the model for reference–but it was an art piece, a tribute to her life’s light and center.
Now Ori passed behind her, leaning close. His silk-scented skin made his presence unmistakable, though his footsteps were soft as snow. She shivered, as always, as his cool breath brushed her cheek. The motion of his wings sent kaleidoscope shadows dancing around the room.
“Making good progress?” he murmured. His voice was teasing.
Extending the wing, Sara showed the model’s motion. “I’m doing my best,” she said. “You’re not as like a bird as I thought. I’ve modeled birds’ wings before, but your anatomy is different. I think you angels are a form apart.”
He laughed. “It’s worse: we’re all totally unique. If you met Korban, or Gemara, you’d find their wings completely different–and Ruah has no wings at all. You’ll never model us all, my dear.”
She sighed in mock frustration. “At least I can blame my failure on something besides my own poor skills.”
Ori stole her screwdriver and kissed her. “Your skills are rich and varied,” he said against her mouth. “I appreciate them deeply.”
She laughed, and batted him away. “Angling for another nude study, are you? I’ve done enough… but I suppose I could be persuaded to do one more.” She wrapped her arms around him. For a while, they did not speak.
At last, Ori withdrew. He looked at the model again, and his face sobered. “Keep that hidden,” he said, easing Sara back onto her chair. “If anyone knew you’d modeled it from life… things could go badly for you.”
Sara snorted. “If they knew that, they’d know more–and then things would go badly for us both, I think.” She stroked his feathers, and grinned as he shivered. “Sculpting your lovely wings, darling, is the least of my sins by now.”
He still looked troubled. Setting the screwdriver down, he paced to the window, staring out onto the moonlit moor.
He was restless tonight, thought Sara, uneasy. He’d been like this since afternoon, pacing and fretting as the shadows deepened and the moon rose. His movements were stiff today, almost rheumatic, though she didn’t think angels suffered from such ailments. She couldn’t imagine Ori growing old, aging and dying as mortals did on Earth’s corrupted soil. Soon he must rally, and rise to the sky, whole and perfect and ready to fight once more.
The thought sent thrills of panic down her spine. “Come away from the window,” she said, standing. “Heaven’s Eye is too bright tonight. They’ll see you if they’re looking.”
Ori smiled wearily. “They won’t need to. If she calls me, they won’t have to look at all.”
They made love with desperate thoroughness that night. For hours afterward, they clung together in the darkness of Sara’s quiet room.
“Will you really leave me?” Sara said. “Can Heaven really miss just one soldier?”
“They will.” Ori sighed. “She always finds us, in the end. I think I’m only free because she’s been busy.”
“You’ve died a thousand times,” said Sara, growing angry. “You deserve rest–and she has other soldiers.”
He shook his head. “She wants us all. A mother knows if her children are missing–and we are, in a way, her children.”
“Her children?” said Sara. “or her slaves?”
Ori shushed her, glancing at the curtained window. “Don’t be unwise, my dear. There’s nothing to be done about it. When the Queen calls her fallen–I must go.”
They both fell silent.
Below the cliffs, surf pounded shore, and the world went round as it always had. Inside, they seemed to rest in their own world, a tiny island in an angry sea.
“Do you miss it?” Sara said abruptly. “I’ve heard it’s… beautiful.”
In stories, Heaven’s Eye was known as the loveliest city ever made, its marble halls and crystal windows draped with gold and bronze and silver. Fountains glittered in all the courtyards, sweetening the air. There were hanging gardens, libraries, menageries, galleries that shamed humanity’s best efforts. The citizens were mighty angels–proud and stern, lovely as stars, clad in garments Sara couldn’t buy with a hundred years’ work. And over it all, the Queen of Heaven presided: star-crowned, radiant, her voice a trumpet, her eyes all-seeing. Heaven’s bright Sovereign–Queen of the Western Seas… she must be wondering where her soldier was.
Ori hesitated. At last, he shook his head. “I’m only a soldier there–a servant. The beauty of the place can’t change that. I’m much happier here beside my love.” He kissed the top of Sara’s head.
Sara smiled weakly. “Would she ever let you leave?” She huddled closer, wrapping herself around him. “If we begged her, would she ever let you stay?”
She knew it was a fantasy. If the Queen of Heaven knew what they had done, Sara would be lucky to live, much less see Ori. She should reconcile herself to losing him while she still had time to get used to the idea.
But with him so close–his skin so fragrant–the shadow of his wings so warm–it seemed impossible that he should ever go.
Ori stroked her hair. “My lady is a jealous mistress. She’d be furious to know that you’ve ensnared me with your charms.”
Sara laughed. “Poor charms, beside an angel.”
He took her hands. His voice grew serious. “You’re more precious to me, Sara, than are all the realms of Heaven. Life with you is always paradise. I’d stay here forever if I could.”
His eyes were strangely urgent. Sara’s smile fell. “Is everything all right?” she said.
“I need you to know this,” Ori said tightly. “If you forget all else, Sara, remember I love you. If I were free, I’d never leave. Remember.”
“I will,” she said.
He kissed her, long and gentle. Then, wrapping his wings around her, he pulled the blankets close. “Sleep, darling. It’s getting cold outside.”
The words made no sense, but Sara soon slept.
When she woke, the room was dark and cold. Gray light filtered in, casting blue shadows on the floor. The bed beside her was empty.
Sara rose, wrapping in a blanket. The house was silent, the moor bare of silhouettes. An icy wind was rising beneath a clouding sky. She felt a snowstorm coming.
Fighting dread, Sara dressed, pulling on coat and boots. She went out again and scanned the sky, wondering if she’d see him flying, but saw only the clouds that swept across the moon–and Heaven’s Eye, gleamed balefully below them. Sara stared at it, wondering if they could see her–if they saw her out looking for their lost soldier. It was said they saw everything that happened on Earth, when they wanted to. She wondered what they’d thought of these last months.
Instinct took over. She started down the frozen trail, heading to the beach. Though she’d come this way a thousand times, the landscape seemed suddenly more lonely, as if some vital part of life had left it. She’d lived here all her life–would never leave. The thought had never depressed her, but now it struck Sara with deep melancholy–as if every good thing had been taken from the world and she’d never find another.
Strange how a place could change from day to night.
At the bottom of the cliff, she stopped. She stood a long time, breathing quietly. Then, bracing herself, she stepped onto the beach.
Ori lay as before, stretched out across the sand–his body still, limbs spread like a drowned man’s.
This time, he was dead
She edged closer, choking back nausea. Ori was rotting. His body had shrunk in on itself. Cavities had opened in his skin, showing delicate bones beneath. He was a wreck–a worm-eaten ruin–a remnant.
His feathers were scattered around him like foam, fallen from loosened wings. Sara remembered their paper touch, their softness.
There were gaps in his cheeks. His eyes were empty sockets. She hoped they’d just disintegrated–returned to ether. The thought of scavengers touching Ori’s bones made her want to scream–to dissolve into a bloody mist, like the mermaid in the story.
Heaven’s Eye flashed in the snow-clouded sky. He’d said he must return someday.
But she’d thought he meant duty. She’d imagined a tearful goodbye, a last embrace on the doorstep–Ori winging heavenward, herself sinking back into meaningless life. In the worst case, she’d imagined him in chains–great winged soldiers dragging him off disgraced. Maybe she would have fought, then. Maybe they would have killed her. She’d known her life could end from this–that she might not live beyond Ori. Certainly she’d rather die than live without him, now that she knew what having him was like.
It had never once occurred to her that he could die.
And just hours ago she’d held him. He must have left so that Sara wouldn’t see his death–retreated here alone to die quietly as Sara slept peacefully in her house above the cliff. Not wanting to taint her house, perhaps, with the memories of his death.
His body was rotting quickly–his face almost a skull. If Sara hadn’t found him, he’d have fallen to dust here–she’d never have known what happened. Maybe Ori had wanted it that way.
It made sense, in retrospect. Why would Heaven take back an Earth-corrupted body, when it could so easily provide a new one? They said the Queen of Heaven built all her soldiers just like clockwork, putting them together from whatever was at hand. Ori had been silk, wood, emeralds, blaze-white feathers, precious metals. Maybe other angels had other elements. Did they all fall to pieces when they died? Maybe Earth’s beaches were littered with the dust of angels who’d rotted before they could be found.
She moved closer. His body had no smell–it might have been driftwood. Kneeling, she reached to touch his face–but couldn’t. How could this dead, dusty thing be her love, whose eyes had been so deep and kind, whose face so keen?
Sara tried to be dispassionate. There was nothing of Ori left in this husk–it was only a form, nothing to do with the spirit who’d held it. A shell, rotting on the beach.
She realized, now, that she’d let herself hope they might get away with it somehow–carve out a bit of happiness for themselves, and live forgotten in the margins of time and place. Heaven had so many soldiers. It could have spared this one.
By the time she realized snow was falling, it was thick in the air–a veil across the landscape. It fell on what remained of Ori’s skin, and into the great cavities of his body–hiding his ruined face, filling his emptiness, burying the wings that had been like snow themselves. When it melted, he would be gone–there would be no trace of him.
Absently, Sara started scooping drifts together. She’d never seen snow drift so quickly. Her hands shaped it without much thought. The cold of it was bracing.
On the mound she’d gathered, she began to draw a face: two simple eyes in a soft white plane. The eyes became Ori’s. She drew a mouth next; that was his, too. It took so little to invoke him. He was wind and starlight, lovely as the moon–his voice a lover’s heartbeat, his breath the songs of a thousand lost nations. Angels, it was said, remembered all that came before–all the long history of humankind. Sara wondered if Ori would remember her, when he awoke again.
And suddenly, she could not let him leave her.
Working with purpose now, she began a new sculpture: head and face more definitely his, with eyes closed and mouth serene. Her hands knew his features perfectly, shaped them quickly. His body–she knew that better than anyone. She traced his chest and shoulders, arms and legs, down and down in more detail, making a perfect replica of him. She ignored the other body now. It was nothing–just a container that once held something valuable. Ori’s eternal essence was… elsewhere.
Still the snow fell. It seemed almost to leap into the places where she wanted it, forming the outlines almost without asking. The sculpture was almost finished.
She made her model perfect, made it real. She couldn’t match a Sovereign’s handiwork–but Sara was an artist, too, and she loved her subject better than Heaven ever could.
She saved the wings for last, not sure how best to make them. Gathering feathers from his corpse seemed wrong–but there were no others on the beach, and she didn’t dare risk fetching more. Finally, she realized Ori didn’t need wings. A spirit of air, he was light as snow already. She simply sketched vague outlines in the snow, gesturing feathers with her fingertips.
Then she looked up, and scanned the heavens… and saw him.
A spark of light rose slowly towards the great distant beacon of Heaven’s Eye. It might have been a fallen star, called somehow back out of the sea. It burned steadfastly, and Sara knew it as she knew herself.
She fixed her eyes on it. “Come back, Ori.” She willed him to hear her. If he were as distant as the stars themselves, she knew he’d hear her. “Don’t go back to her. Come back. Come to me.”
She felt her voice go out to him across the snow-filled sky. Over the sea, the rising star came slowly to a halt. It hung suspended, as if trapped between two worlds.
Breathing deep, Sara finished. “Ori,” she said. “Shining one. Child of light–soldier of Heaven–love and anchor of my soul–come and enter the body I’ve made for you.”
The star fell.
It fell like a comet, gathering speed till she almost heard its motion. Inside her head, something was singing–a homecoming song, loving and joyful. Sara opened her arms, and the star passed through her, setting her soul ablaze.
And then he was there. Invisible, he filled the beach, waiting for his rebirth. Potential hung like lightning in the air. Slowly, it gathered–condensed itself, so small and bright that Sara could hardly bear the tension. She closed her eyes, and felt it pass–and felt it born.
Beneath her, the snow drew breath.
She opened her eyes, and found him watching her, looking up with white eyes–snow on snow, but shaped like his, expressive as his were.His. His bloodless, perfect lips began to smile. His body shivered, as beneath a wind, and then sat upright. Behind him hovered a mere suggestion of wings–dancing snow-flurries that cast kaleidoscope shadows on the sand.
He held out his arms, and Sara crept into them.
Ice embraced her. Ori kissed her. His lips, though cold, were smooth and supple.
Sara’s cheeks were wet. She turned so her tears wouldn’t wound his soft new skin. “Ori,” she whispered.
“Sara,” he said. His voice was soft as snow, but in the quiet she heard it. “Sara. I’m here. Don’t cry anymore.”
“I thought you were gone,” she said. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
Ori gazed up at Heaven’s Eye, dimmed by the tumbling snow. “I was…” He frowned. “I think… But I was going back. You stopped…” His white eyes widened. “Sara! You brought me back!” He looked down at his hands, his stark white body, and smiled again. “It’s beautiful. How did you do it?”
“I called you,” she said. “The words she said to you–I said them, too.” Then she froze, horrified by sudden realization. “Ori… I bound you.” She clutched his icy hand. “I bound you like she did. Ori–”
“Shh.” His icy fingers on her cheek brought Sara back to herself. “You did right. If I’d even known it was possible…” He sighed. “But… darling… I can only say goodbye. I have to leave soon–this body won’t last long, and she–”
As if in answer, a lurid beacon swept across the sea, red and yellow flashing on the waves. An eerie blast of trumpets split the sky–the Queen of Heaven calling for her lost soldier, angry at his absence. Soon, the Legions would come down looking for him.
Fury traced Ori’s features. He stared up at the golden satellite, his face hardening in rebellion and resolve. “I’ll get away somehow. She’s bound me long enough.” He clutched Sara’s hands with freezing fingers. “And when I escape, I’ll find you..”
Hope thrilled in Sara’s heart. “You’ll come away?”
“I’ll find some way,” he said. “Somehow, I’m going to escape again. I won’t give you up again–not after this. I’ll come away, no matter how she binds me.”
“And I’ll wait for you,” said Sara, breathless. “I’ll make better bodies–make them last longer…” She stroked his snow-sculpted face, which even now was beginning to crumble. “With better materials, we’ll find one that works. I’ll get started right away.”
“And I’ll seek allies,” Ori said. “There must be others who must crave freedom as I do. I’ll find them, bring them in…”
Sara shivered. This was pure rebellion–not only against their Queen, but against all the other Sovereigns of Heaven. There would be no safety for them in the world once this started.
She thought of her warm house above the cliff–its bedroom and kitchen and kiln, her workshop and tools, her work and her treasures. A very easy target, once she was noticed. “I may have to run,” she said. “Now, or someday. But I’ll call you when I’m safe.”
“And I’ll answer,” Ori said. “Wherever you are, I’ll come to you. It might take years, but someday I will be there.”
Above them, the trumpets blared again. “Go,” said Sara. “Don’t make her suspicious–not now.”
He caressed her face. His icy touch reassured her: even the winter winds, she remembered, seemed to be on their side. “I’ll come back soon,” he said. “I love you.” “I love you,” she said. She couldn’t say goodbye, and so she only waved, watching Ori rise into the sky. She saw his body scatter into snow. Then that faded, and only a spark remained. She watched it rise until it met Heaven’s Eye and disappeared there, merging with all the light and power of the Queen of Heaven.
This is one of the ones that never got much attention. It’s a quiet story, and most of the action is internal, but it meant a lot to me when I was writing it. I think the ending is a little ambiguous, so I’d be interested to know what you think will happen.
The shutters in the hearth room were already drawn. A bright fire had been laid, filling the round room with shadows and chinaberry smoke.
Bas stood by the hearth, chewing on a grass stalk. He looked up when Amir came in, then back at the fire. His face shone with sweat; he’d been out running, or pacing.
Amir crossed to the sofa and sank into the joint of its two halves. He leaned his face against the cool, cracked leather. “I’m nervous,” he said, surprising himself with the admission. A tight knot had grown in his stomach for days. He’d barely eaten anything at supper, though it had only been herbs and lentils—a simple meal meant for contemplation. Traditional on century nights.
His cousin laughed. “Don’t worry. You’re very clever; I’m sure great things are ahead of you.”
“Lots of people are clever,” said Amir glumly. “Mother’s brother was clever. A horse kicked him, and he lost half his wits. One-Eyed Ahmad was clever, and he was a muck-hauler. What if I’m a muck-hauler?” His breath was speeding up, but he couldn’t slow it. “We don’t know what any of us will see.”
Bas inhaled sharply. Before Amir could try to reorder his words into something more positive, his cousin stalked from the room.
He thought of following, but didn’t. Bas would be unapproachable until this was over. In the unlikely event that the fruit didn’t send him after Isra, he’d leave tomorrow anyway. He’d only stayed this long because he hoped that the century fruit would give him a direction to start in.
He stood and walked, running his hands over the old furniture, the hangings, the pottery. Here and there were crude objects made by generations of the family’s children. A clay figurine of an old traveler with a bird on his pack had been Amir’s gift to Grandmother three years before. Beside it was a lopsided coil-pot Aunt Gili had made when she was five or six, painted with wobbly olive branches under its cracked glaze. Other things were so old no one knew their stories. How many people had left this house over the centuries and never returned?
The adults still lingered over their tea in the kitchen. The mint was a cool thread under the tang of woodsmoke. He could hear Mother’s voice, quick and strident, rising over the rest. Again she said that this was all too sudden, too breathtaking. She’d wanted to put off cutting the fruit, at least till tomorrow, but Aunt Gili had gently reminded her that it would rot after just a day off the tree. Bas had found it this morning. If they didn’t eat it tonight, they might go another century without guidance.
He sat back down, inhaled again the familiar scent of old leather. It seemed harsh, almost crude, for all of them to eat the fruit where they could see each other’s faces. Kinder if they could take their visions in their rooms, their private spaces. He thought of the fig tree outside the kitchen, where he could sit in fragrant breezes as the sun set over the desert. He’d rather process his fate alone.
Was it fate that they would see? Mother insisted they could ignore the visions if they didn’t like them. Father said she wanted them all to stay within calling distance, but Amir was sure Adi, at least, would go farther.
He slouched down in his seat. He wasn’t sure he wanted to try the fruit at all. His family probably wouldn’t push if he refused, though they’d be disappointed. Twelve was young. But though a full century didn’t always pass between one fruit and the next—once it had supposedly only taken 20 years—he probably wouldn’t see another in his lifetime.
His muscles were tensing up. He eased them deliberately, though his heart still raced. Which would be worse: to see a vision, and have to leave the farm—or pass it up, and stay here forever?
Hani stomped in then from the kitchen, scowling. Amir straightened. “Hey, little. What’s wrong?”
His brother climbed up next to him, sliding down on his first attempt. “I’m angry,” he announced, glaring at the fire. His face looked sticky from the honey pear he’d had for dessert. At five, Hani had nothing to contemplate.
Amir smiled, but lacked the energy he usually had to entertain his brother. “Because you don’t get to try the fruit?”
Hani kicked his heels back against the sofa, nodding. His lip trembled.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Amir after a moment. “Tomorrow, when our chores are done, we can go for a long walk. All the way to the west field, if you like. Maybe we’ll find some flowers for Mother.” The adults generally preferred that the children not wander to the west end of the farm, as it bordered the desert and was mostly unguarded, but they would probably make an exception.
Hani looked marginally cheered by that idea, but his face soon clouded again. “Why do you get to eat it?” he said, kicking his heels again.
I don’t know. Amir drew his knees up to his chest. It was a lot of pressure for someone who’d never been farther than the city—to know that in a few years he would either leave forever, maybe for someplace he’d never heard of, or settle in for the rest of his life.
Then Shani and Shai came arm in arm through the curtain to the back wing, trailing a cool cloud of perfume. Shani was whispering, Shai giggling. Fais followed, smiling. Amir shifted to make space for him, but Fais followed his sisters to the bench by the hearth, and sat closer to them than he usually would.
They might be gone tomorrow, Amir realized suddenly. Both his girl cousins were seventeen. The visions were said to fade quickly, and it was best to start as soon as possible if your path lay elsewhere, especially if details were unclear. Amir might wait three or four years, until he was better prepared, but even that was risky.
And Adi… His sister appeared then, a silhouetted against the warm light of the kitchen doorway. It was still startling to see the abbreviated outline of her hair. All the other women in the family kept theirs long, but Adi had seen something in a magazine that made her chop hers off at chin level.
She was wearing the new outfit Father had brought her from the city. To Amir, she looked very sophisticated—shoulders bare under the cropped blouse Mother hated, full silk trousers swishing as she walked. He had expected Mother to scold her for wearing something so frivolous tonight, but Mother had only sighed, and looked at Adi with a sort of desperate fondness.
Adi, too, would probably waste no time in leaving.
What would that be like? They’d never been particularly close, but Amir supposed they loved each other as much as siblings usually did. He would miss her if she left. He thought she would miss him, too, at least when she remembered to.
The adults filed in from the kitchen: Father, Mother, Grandmother, Aunt Dar, Aunt Gili, Uncle Rabi. Lutfi and Siva came hand-in-hand, whispering. They sat in the shadows a little apart from Lutfi’s sisters.
Grandfather came last of all. In his hands was the covered silver dish he’d brought out and polished that afternoon.
As the adults all sat on the couches, Bas slouched back in. He leaned against the wall by the doorway, not looking at anyone, as far from everyone else as he could stand without leaving the room.
Everyone stared at the dish Grandfather had balanced on his knees. He was running his hands along its edges, uncharacteristically hesitant.
Father cleared his throat and clapped Grandfather on the shoulder. “Here we all are.” He’d dressed especially well tonight—formal silk, beard neatly trimmed. He seemed to expect good news.
“Here we are.” Grandfather glanced at Father. Father removed his hand.
Hani slid from the sofa and ran to Grandfather’s knee. “May I open it, please?”
Grandfather hesitated, and then held the dish out so Hani could reach it. “Go ahead,” he said.
Hani’s fingers smudged the silver as he groped for the handle. At last he got hold and opened it.
The fruit might never have fallen at all, especially from a tree as high as a century tree. Its burnt-golden skin was flawless. It had a flattened spherical base with a little dome on top where the stem was. Strange. As it ripened, it had been a fig-sized green lump, high in the branches. Now his hands wouldn’t have circled it.
Hani reached for the fruit, but Grandfather shook his head. “You’ve helped enough, dear. Go sit with your brother.” Hani obviously wanted to protest, but even he wouldn’t argue with Grandfather.
Grandfather’s wrinkled hand sagged under the fruit’s weight as he lifted it from the dish. He offered it to Grandmother. “Well, my dove.” He cleared his throat. “Why don’t you cut it?”
Grandmother had laid out a plate, a fruit knife, and a pewter saucer on a tray. She took the fruit and looked around, moving her lips as she did when she counted. “Fifteen, then,” she muttered. Setting the fruit on the plate, she picked up the knife and began to cut.
Mother shifted. Always calm and reasonable, she’d been unusually agitated about all this. Father watched her, but didn’t move or speak. They hadn’t spoken much lately, and today they’d hardly looked at each other. Father, uncharacteristically quiet, had mostly sat alone in his courtyard, writing materials untouched beside him.
Bas fidgeted, shuffling and tugging at his clothes. He was sweating again.
Everyone else was rapt and quiet. Adi watched the fruit as if it were the only thing in the world. Aunt Gili and Uncle Rabi held hands.
Grandmother cut precisely, methodically. The sound was shht, shht, shht, shht, like eastern pears when you cut them. Drops of juice flew out from the blade as it sawed. Some landed on her spotted knuckles, but she ignored them.
A strong perfume floated out: apple, honey, something floral. Pears, too? He couldn’t tell.
The knife reached the bottom. Grandmother began another cut. Shht, shht, shht, shht.
The first segment finally fell away. The flesh was brilliantly white: whiter than apples with their green overlays, or pears with their brown shadows. Would it be tart like apples? Sweet like pears? Grandmother sliced away the core, coaxed out the black seeds with the point of her knife, dropped them into the saucer. Plink, plink. She offered the section to Grandfather.
He shook his head. “Cut the rest, dear, and we’ll all eat together,” he said. “I think it’s best, don’t you?”
Grandmother set the section on the plate and began cutting again. She worked so slowly, pausing each time to cut away the core, to drop the seeds into the saucer. Plink, plink…
Amir’s mind wandered. What would he see? The city? He’d been there once. It was interesting, but smelly— manure and smoke and bodies, all familiar but too concentrated. Too much dirt, too much traffic, even at night—no quiet time when the ground could rest. He didn’t think he could stay there for long.
Maybe a distant village. Even another country—Masra? The fruit was supposed to keep the family from entrenching too deeply in any one place. They had to send out their own seeds, find new soil in other places. It was said that they had kin in every village, every city—even across the border in Ardunh, and in other countries, too. Wherever he was sent, some of those scattered kinsfolk might be there.
But after so long, it was unlikely they’d recognize him. He certainly wouldn’t recognize them. Long ago it was said that the family had carried tokens to identify each other, but those were long gone; only the trees, and tradition, remained.
Maybe he would be told to stay on the farm. It was a good place. He’d always been happy heree, and his family loved him. Of course, many of them might be gone tomorrow, but… some would surely stay.
In the stories, someone always stayed. Grandfather, of course, was from a branch that had. The century grove by the western fields was said to be 800 years old. Someone had to tend it. It wouldn’t be so bad, to be that person. It was an important duty.
Grandmother stopped. After a moment, Amir realized she’d finished. She offered the plate to Grandfather, and this time he took a slice.
The plate went around the room. No one spoke. Amir turned to make sure that Hani wouldn’t take a slice after all. Incredibly, his brother was asleep.
He studied the little boy’s round face, long eyelashes, grubby hands. Hani didn’t realize, yet, that Amir might be leaving home soon. To a five-year-old, “three or four years” is the same as “forever.” But even if he stayed awhile, Amir thought knowing he was to leave must somehow alter their relationship. Who would take care of Hani, if he left? If Adi and Bas left? If all the other cousins left, and only Hani remained?
He brushed a few curls from Hani’s face, and reached to gather him up, carry him to their room as he’d done so many times—but now the plate was beside him.
It was Father who held it. He smiled nervously at Amir, as if seeking reassurance. Amir smiled weakly back, took one of the two remaining sections of fruit, and gave the plate back to Grandmother. She took the last piece, set the plate down, and nodded to Grandfather.
Grandfather closed his eyes. “May we all be blessed, whatever our futures hold. Let us partake.”
Amir lifted the fruit to his mouth. He still couldn’t trace the fragrance. Had he imagined that it was like an apple’s? It was more delicate, like a cucumber or a winter melon, like nothing in particular. Then it came back, strong as honey. Like honey—and then a tang of citrus, and then an amber scent. Then those went away, and he smelled apples again.
Everyone was waiting, eyes darting to each other’s faces. No one wanted to do this all together—everyone wanted to see their fortunes alone. The juice was sticky on his fingers. He wanted to throw the fruit away, bury it, give his share to someone else.
But he was a son of this house. As he had been privileged to grow up here, now he was bound to face his future bravely. He put the fruit into his mouth.
Juice pooled in his mouth as he bit down. The fruit was crisp, grainy, sweet and tart. He closed his eyes.
He didn’t know at first that the vision had started. He began to feel hot, firelight scorching his face, though he was far from the hearth. There was an odd mix of smells—tar, salt, rotting fish, something frying nearby.
He opened his eyes. A broad stretch of white sand… leading… to the sea.
It had to be. He’d never a lake so vast, so alive. Blue-green, rolling in white foam onto the shore.
A few ships rocked in the shallows, lazy in the sunlight. Men were loading them with crates and bags.
His shoulder ached under the weight of a heavy sack. His clothes were light and crisp. He felt full, happy. Spiced milk lingered on his tongue.
Men called to him from the nearest ship.
Blinking, Amir saw the fire, smelled chinaberry smoke, heard his family’s hushed breaths. Shutters creaked as the wind swept the desert. He could still taste the fruit, but he must have swallowed it; his mouth was empty, drawn by the tartness of the juice.
Could that have been it? Everyone else was blinking, shifting. Had they waited a century for so little?
Details were already fading. He tried to fix them in his head. White sand, blue-green sea—the shape of the shore, the brief line of ships. Smells… spiced milk… a blue sky, a punishing sun. Men shouting. He’d been a little taller, though not a man. There had been the sense that everything he owned had been in the bag he held on this shoulder.
How could he base his life on… that? Search without stopping, until he saw that scene exactly? It was said that some looked for years, even decades.
He’d never heard of anyone failing entirely. But he only knew of his ancestors, who had succeeded—who had, at least, planted their seeds, started a farm. The remains of the old farmhouse were still by the grove. The skeleton was almost full of sand, but you could see it. Eight hundred years ago, they’d come. And it was a good place.
Probably others had died before finding anything. Or—
“I’m going abroad!” Adi crowed.
Everyone looked annoyed. He knew he did, too. Couldn’t she have kept still a few seconds longer?
But the spell was fading, so he listened.
“I think so, at least,” she said. “I’m almost sure. It was night. We were in someone’s house. There was a big fire, and we were eating some sort of sweet on little plates. There were glasses of… I don’t know, it was gold, and full of bubbles. Everyone was wearing these beautiful clothes, like in a magazine. I didn’t know the language we were speaking, but it did sound familiar. My flute was in my lap, like I was going to play, or had played already. And I had this gorgeous dress…” She rubbed at her trousers.
Amir turned to see how his parents were taking this. Mother was looking at her hands, mouth tightly closed. Father smiled, but it looked forced. “Well… ah, that’s wonderful. I…” His smile faded. He looked at his own hands, then raised his eyes to Amir. “And what about you, Amir?”
Amir’s mind went blank. “Ah… what about you?” He was sure Grandfather would scold him for impudence, but Grandfather didn’t seem to have heard.
Father’s forced smile returned. “I’ll be here, of course. Playing the fool as usual. Here, forever.”
Amir wondered what Father had expected to see. Though it wasn’t respectful, he’d always thought of his father as… unfinished, somehow. Childlike. It was sad to think of him sitting in his courtyard forever, writing his rare poems, entertaining his friends with pipes and backgammon. He’d never been as close to Father as he was to Mother, but he loved him. If he left, he might not see Father again for… ever.
Now Shani said, “Shai and I are going to the city! Right, Shai?”
“Right.” Shai’s smile, strangely, was a bit sad. “It looked like a shop. I don’t know if we worked there, or…“
“Oh, you saw the shop, too?” Shani squeezed her sister’s hand. “Maybe we’ll own it. And we’ll be close enough to visit…“
“And I’ll be there, too!” Fais broke in, grabbing his sisters by the shoulders. “Isn’t it great? Probably I’ll come later—I was grown up. I think I was a student.” He turned to Mother. “Maybe I’ll be at the University, Aunt Mor. You’ll tell me about it, right?”
Mother nodded, but didn’t look up.
Abruptly, Bas straightened, crossed the room, and knelt by Grandmother. He whispered something in her ear. She murmured, and touched his forehead.
Bas bowed his head, took Grandmother’s hands, and kissed them. Then he took a seed from the pewter saucer and left the room.
The first seed. Bas would plant it, someday, if he reached his destination. He’d probably leave tomorrow.
And he hadn’t looked at Aunt Dar, or at Grandfather.
“Well.” Aunt Dar’s voice was bitter. She stared after Bas with a look of angry satisfaction, as if she’d seen exactly what she’d expected. “There goes my son. I’ll be lucky to see him again.”
Mother looked up suddenly. Amir thought she would snap at Dar—but her face was stricken, almost gray. Her eyes darted around the room—landed first on Adi, then on Hani, then on him. They looked so tortured he lost his breath. She lowered her face again before he caught it.
“Elder sister,” said Aunt Gili, formally. “You knew from the beginning that this could happen—“
“And who are you to speak?” snapped Aunt Dar. “You’ll barely be separated from your children—the city is only two days’ ride from here. I may never see my son again.”
And whose fault would that be? Amir couldn’t help thinking. Aunt Dar had disapproved violently of Isra, had been just as active as Grandfather in blocking the marriage. She and Bas had rarely spoken since.
But maybe having Bas not there to not-speak-to would be different. It already hurt Amir to think about losing his cousin. If he thought about it much more, he’d probably cry.
“Let’s try to think more positively,” said Aunt Gili, more gently. “What did you see, elder sister?”
Aunt Dar hesitated. “Lahm. I’ve been considering…” She looked around as if she felt the need to explain herself. Her voice took on an appealing tone. “My friend’s husband died. She has a farm, and… I can be useful there.” She turned to Grandmother and Grandfather. “Mother, Father,” she said earnestly, “I would never disrespect the memory of my dear husband— I will miss him until I die— but—“
Grandfather roused from his trance to smile vaguely at Aunt Dar. “You honor his memory. I am sure our son smiles on you from Heaven. And now, since you have had a vision, you must go. We will bless your path as you travel.”
Aunt Dar bowed, but then looked away, as if unnerved. There was an odd blankness in Grandfather’s expression that had not been there before he’d eaten the fruit. Grandmother looked at him, and they shared a long glance, in the way they did that seemed more intimate than holding hands.
Amir remembered suddenly that the century fruit also gave visions of death.
Aunt Gili cleared her throat. “Ah… Lutfi…” She turned to her eldest son. “I don’t want to pry, but…”
Lutfi and Siva had been smiling blissfully at each other all this time. Now they turned their smiles on Aunt Gili.
“We’re staying.” Lutfi said. “Just a few miles out, not even to the edge of the farm. The mountains were the same. And…” He looked at his wife.
“We’ll be parents.” Siva laid a hand over her stomach, as if the vision had somehow placed a child there already. “A girl. And others, too—two or three, at least.”
Lutfi’s parents were beside them in seconds, pressing their hands and patting their cheeks. Aunt Gili seemed already to be giving them advice. Uncle Rabi just smiled, though his eyes were strangely melancholy.
In the wake of all this, Amir stood, and went to look down at the saucer on Grandmother’s tray. Grandmother watched him.
Eight seeds remained: black-brown, glistening. He could take one and go, or kneel and ask for a blessing as Bas had done—or he could sit down again, and pretend he’d never stood.
Father watched him, eyes wide. Amir’s hand hovered above the saucer.
Amir looked at Mother.
She sat hunched over, arms wrapped around herself, head bowed. A hank of her long hair covered one cheek. Her eyes were tightly closed, but there were tears in her eyelashes.
Amir bit his lip. Still his hand hovered over the seeds. When everyone who was leaving had taken one, however many remained would be planted in the century grove. No matter how many trees grew, there was never more than one fruit at a time. One tree, more or less, wouldn’t make any difference.
Mother would be all right. She had to have known, marrying Father, that this might happen. She must have known her children might leave.
He reached for a seed.
Hani shifted in his sleep.
Amir’s heart stuttered. Could he leave, never to see his little brother grow—maybe never to see him again?
With Bas gone, Lutfi would probably inherit the farm; Hani was too young. But Grandfather had considered Amir, too, especially after falling out with Bas. To live here, run things, marry and have children like Lutfi—that wouldn’t be so bad.
He thought of the sea, the rocking ships, the sailors’ voices.
Mother’s shoulders were shaking.
Amir let his hand drop. Swallowing, he smiled at Grandmother. “I’m staying here.”
Grandmother blinked, but nodded. Impossible to know what she was thinking. Amir hoped she hadn’t guessed what he’d just done.
Grandfather didn’t seem to have heard. He was looking around the room, as if seeing it for the first time, with something like fear or wonder in his face.
Shivering, Amir looked at Mother, who hadn’t responded. He thought she hadn’t heard, but finally she lifted her head, and gave him a strange, cloudy smile. “That’s good, Amir. It’ll be a good home for you, all your life.”
All your life. It wasn’t the response he’d expected. He looked around. He would be as old as Grandfather one day, might never travel as far as the sea—might never go beyond the city. He would live in this house all his life. Become an old man, and die here.
All his life.
Father was watching them with a mix of alarm and disappointment. Though Mother was smiling, it was obvious from the quality of her smile that she wasn’t the least bit happy.
Amir knew that he had miscalculated somehow. “I’m going to bed,” he said, at a loss for what to do. “Good night, everyone.”
He heard Mother stand, but didn’t turn as he left. He didn’t want to hear what she might have to say.
Bas stood outside the door, watching Amir with obvious disgust.
“What?” Amir muttered, though he suspected Bas knew exactly what he’d done.
Before Bas could speak, there was a gasp in the room behind them. Whirling, Amir saw his mother standing in the center of the room, fists clenched. Father was behind her, one arm outstretched, as if he’d tried and failed to catch her.
Mother saw Amir watching, and gave him that strange smile again. She turned one hand over, and opened her slender scholar’s fingers. In her palm lay a century seed.
I try to write a Halloween story when I can. Someday I’d like to do regular holiday pieces and put out more of my own story collections. This story is ten years old, so it’s not representative of my current style, but I still like it. I wrote it while I was living with my mother and stepfather in their house in the woods in central North Carolina. It’s quiet there at night and gets a bit spooky if you’re the only one awake. I don’t think the story itself is that spooky, though it is a bit bittersweet. Let me know what you think.
Sabrina couldn’t sleep with the moonlight shining in her eyes.
Her friends were having no such trouble. Jenny and Mark were sound asleep, cuddled up in their zipped-together sleeping bags. Brian had been snoring for half an hour. But Sabrina, pressed against him, was as alert as ever.
She’d tried snuggling closer to Brian, and moving farther away. She’d unzipped the bag for a breath of air, and zipped it back up when she’d gotten too cold. She’d rolled over, covered her eyes, counted sheep, and tried to meditate. But wherever she turned, the halogen light of the full white moon shone through her eyelids, keeping her wide awake.
At last she couldn’t take it any more. She eased herself out of the doubled sleeping bag she shared with Brian, patting his shoulder when he whimpered in his sleep. Shoving her feet into her old yellow Crocs, she walked to the edge of the woods.
The air was cold tonight. Shivering, she rubbed her arms and stomped her feet. She’d put on sweats over her flannel pajamas, and the socks she wore were the fluffy SpongeBob ones her sister had given her for Christmas, but the wind cut through everything like scissors through gauze. Strange that it should be so cold: usually it didn’t get below fifty this time of year.
She supposed she could go into the house. It would be warmer. But the door was probably locked,and she didn’t want to wake Jenny for the key. Anyway, what if she encountered Jenny’s parents? They seemed like nice people, but she hardly knew them, and she didn’t feel like making small talk. Better to stay out here.
She could stir up the coals and roast some marshmallows, but she’d already brushed her teeth. She hadn’t even brought a book.
Frustrated, Sabrina stared into the forest. The moonlight fell in broad beams through the leafless trees, chasing the shadows from the underbrush. Far below, at the bottom of the hill, the Little River glittered like tinsel. They had walked along the shore this afternoon, before sunset, but the place looked very different at night–fairy-haunted; forbidden.
She paced restlessly around the edge of the campsite, peering through the trees for a better look at the water. Every few steps she saw a flash of moon-bleached sand, a twinkle of water. Then, suddenly, a path came into focus.
She didn’t know how she had missed it. It was a wide, straight track between the trees, leading right down to the water. It looked much more passable than the glorified deer-trail they’d followed that afternoon. She could probably make it in her Crocs without twisting an ankle. And it wasn’t that far: the murmur of the water carried clearly over the chilly night air.
She could go down now, have a little walk, and come back without waking anyone. It would only take a few minutes. She might even be tired enough to sleep when she got back. Still, it seemed wrong to go off and leave her friends without saying anything.
Sabrina turned to wake them–let Jenny or Brian, at least, know where she was going. But they were all sleeping so peacefully–and she knew they’d tell her not to go. It wasn’t safe to wander by herself at night.
Making a quick decision, Sabrina shoved her hands in her pockets and started down the trail.
On the shore of the river stood the most beautiful man she’d ever seen.
He was a little older than she was, tall and broad shouldered, with a swimmer’s body–clearly visible, as he wore nothing but a pair of soaking-wet jeans. The moonlight was generous, highlighting muscles that might not have been visible by day. Half mesmerized by his abs and deltoids, Sabrina stepped closer.
His face would have been at home on a Grecian urn. His nose was aquiline, his complexion umber, his mouth sensuous and a little cruel. He had a satyr’s beard, and his thick dark curls shadowed his face like little horns. As she approached, he pushed his hair back, and his sharp black eyes nearly stopped her in her tracks.
“Hey.” His voice was deep and lazy.“What’s up?”
She couldn’t speak. She felt as she were being studied, as if he were assessing her fitness for some unknown purpose. She groped around for words, and finally came out with, “Aren’t you cold?”
His laugh rippled through her skin. “I’m used to it. Where’d you come from?”
“Up the hill.” She pointed toward Jenny’s house, though she couldn’t see the path anymore. “We’re having a campout. You know. For Halloween.”
“Very nice,” he drawled, sounding entirely uninterested. “What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Sabrina. I’m Cyrus.” He held out his hand. “Well met by moonlight, et cetera, et cetera.”
Sabrina took his hand, found it warm and dry and strong. “You live around here?”
He laughed. “Sure. Over the river. We’re having a party, too.” He pointed at a spot far upstream, where the opposite shore was mostly obscured by a clump of deep, dark forest.
Sabrina couldn’t see anything over there that looked like a party. She moved closer to the water, and a wavelet swamped her shoes, soaking through her socks in seconds.
Cyrus laughed as she cursed and staggered backward. “Don’t get wet.”
“Thanks.” She kicked off her shoes and peeled off her socks, rubbing her feet on the sand to try and dry them. She felt like she’d been frostbitten, and knew she should probably go back to camp. “How’d you get here, anyway? I didn’t see a bridge.”
He shrugged. “Walked. Ain’t that deep. I’m about to go back…” He looked her up and down thoughtfully. “Want to come with?”
She should say no, of course, but found herself stammering. “Uh… I… I don’t know.” She dropped her shoes and socks on the sand. “What kind of party is it?”
“Oh, you know. Just a small gathering–food, beverages, entertainment. Kind of a yearly tradition.”
Sabrina glanced back towards the house again. Would her friends wake up, if she went with this stranger? Would they find her gone, panic, and call the cops to search the river? “I probably shouldn’t. Didn’t tell anyone I was c–”
Cyrus grinned, and she stopped speaking abruptly, realizing that she should have kept that information to herself.
But he only turned away, and said, “You’re probably right. Best to go on home. Could be dangerous over there–you might meet strangers.” He patted her arm. Her whole body tingled. “So long…”
He shook his head. “You probably wouldn’t like it. I mean, you’re already scared…”
“Scared?” She looked down at herself, as if that accusation might be visible on her shirt. “I’m not scared. I just…”
But was she? A chill was running through her veins–but she didn’t think she was frightened. Excited, maybe. Intrigued. “I’m not dressed for a party,” she hedged.
Cyrus laughed. “You look fine. No one over there’s going to care what you’re wearing.”
Sabrina stared across the water. The moonlight was so bright that in places the surface of the river looked almost opaque. It rippled so smoothly she knew it had to be deep. “Isn’t it dangerous?”
“Not if you’re with me. I can carry you over.”
He probably could, she thought, looking him up and down. He was as tall as Brian, and looked stronger, though Brian had been a football player before his injury. Cyrus looked like he’d never been injured in his life.
She turned away, wondering if he could see her blush by moonlight. “What are you, the ferryman?”
He laughed again. “If you like.”
Well, he was a cocksure bastard of the first degree, but she had to admit he was oddly alluring. Unconsciously, she moved a little closer. “How do I know you won’t drop me in the river?”
“You don’t.” He held up two fingers, a Scout’s-honor gesture. “But I swear I’ll do my best to keep you dry.” Then he lowered his hand and leaned quite close, so his breath ghosted over her face. “I’ll keep you dry,” he murmured, “as long as you pay the toll.”
She breathed in, then exhaled, distracted by the smell of his hair: moss, dry leaves, and something animal. “Wh-what kind of toll?”
“Well, what have you got?” His lips curled into a teasing smile. His face was nearly touching hers. “I can’t work for free.”
Sabrina shivered, but stepped back, trying to conceal her disappointment. “I guess that settles it, then.” She tried, and failed, to smile. “Don’t have any money.”
“Oh, it doesn’t have to be money. Could be anything. A silver coin. A loaf of bread.” He pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Even a kiss.”
Even as her whole body came alive with interest, she thought guiltily of Brian, sleeping by himself at the campsite up the hill. She should walk away now–shouldn’t even consider the offer. But the moonlight made the river seem like a different world, and Brian had no part in it. “All right,” she said, surprising herself.
Smiling, Cyrus opened his arms.
He was hot, and strong, and his warm lips tasted like river water. It was the best kiss she’d ever had.
Without taking his lips from hers, Cyrus gathered her into his arms. Despite his heat, a chill ran through Sabrina’s body. She realized, very faintly, that he was walking–wading into the water, his feet sinking into the sandy riverbed. Her heels dipped into the river, and cold water soaked the hems of her sweatpants, but she didn’t open her eyes.
Finally, when Sabrina was quite breathless, the kiss ended. They were on the opposite shore, and Cyrus was setting her down on the hard-packed sand. The cold ground was like an electric shock on her bare feet. She staggered, clutching his arms for balance, and opened her eyes.
While they’d been crossing, the moon had passed behind a cloud. The shore was entirely dark, and very quiet. Thick bushes crowded them like thugs. A strange bird cried in a nearby tree. Even the river sounded odd–its voice a sullen murmur, as if heard through a layer of ice.
She hadn’t realized, from the other side, just how wide the river was. It had looked small, and passable–an inconvenience, but not really an obstacle. From this shore, though, it looked wide, and deep, and dangerous.
She turned back to Cyrus, suddenly unnerved. He was wet from the ribs down, and the muscles of his abdomen gleamed like oil. Unconsciously, she reached out to touch them.
He pushed her away, almost gently. “That’s enough now.”
Embarrassed, Sabrina pulled away, confused by the distance that had come into his face and voice. “What’s going on?” Her voice, in her ears, was childish. “Where are we?”
“The other side. Come on, now.” He turned away, and started upstream without waiting for her to follow.
Sabrina was suddenly, overwhelmingly conscious of the dangerous situation she’d walked into. She opened her mouth, about to ask him to take her back, but he was far away by then. His strides were swift, unfaltering: he seemed to have forgotten she was there. When she called to him, he barely slowed.
As they walked, she started hearing voice, laughter and conversation and even song echoing out of the darkness. Far ahead, faint golden light reflected off the river. “Is that the party?”
Then they came around a bend, and there it was.
The shore had broadened, and the air was warm, fragrant with woodsmoke. Tiki torches had been set out in a large square across the side. Inside were dozens–perhaps hundreds–of people, sitting around bonfires and under striped pavilions.
She rubbed her eyes, but the picture just got clearer. How could they all have gotten here? This was parkland–she was pretty sure no roads led in or out. Had they come by boat? A few were tied up on the shore, but not nearly enough to have brought so many people. And the sound should have carried–why hadn’t she and her friends heard the party from their campsite? And who were these people, anyway?
They looked, at first, like a historical reenactment society with a very relaxed dress code. Their clothes spanned the last two or three centuries, and seemed to have come from a number of cultures and walks of life. Most of the guests were dressed as farmers–in shirts and homespun trousers, calico dresses, or T-shirts and overalls. A few, however, wore hoop skirts and frock coats. Some of the black people wore old cotton clothing, and had a beaten-down look that made Sabrina think of slaves. A number of the guests looked like full-blooded Native Americans, and wore beaded shirts and dresses with feather-topped hats for the men. There were soldiers, flappers, hippies, businessmen, and even a few people who might have come from Sabrina’s own street.
Then there were… others. Firelight flickered off of faces and bodies that weren’t entirely human. There were small, nude people with bald heads and jagged teeth; there were enormous men with branches that looked like clubs. A woman in the corner had three or four arms, all pouring drinks for the crowd around her. There were even people who seemed to have animal heads: dogs, cats, birds, foxes. Sabrina thought they were masks, until she saw one blink.
She turned to Cyrus, meaning to ask she-knew-not-what, but he was already gone. A moment later she spotted him across the campsite, accepting a mug of something from the woman with too many arms. Even he looked wilder here–the curls that had shaded his face like horns now looked like horns indeed. She waved to him, but he didn’t even look at her.
Despondent, Sabrina crossed the line of torches. Friendly face surrounded her immediately.
“Hello, dear,” said a little round woman, whose skin was wrinkled like tree bark. “Is this your first time?”
“Of course it is,” said the person beside her, a Native American man in a beaded blue shirt. “Look, she doesn’t even know where she is yet. Bet the riverman brought her.”
He beckoned to a young Black woman who was pouring herself a drink. She approached, handed him the pitcher, and gave Sabrina a curious smile. Beneath her calico kerchief, her eyes were large and sad.
“What is this place?” said Sabrina, helpless.
The wrinkled brown woman had produced a mug from somewhere. She held it while the man in blue poured. “It’s a party, dear,” she said, quite kindly. Her voice creaked like ancient branches. “Haven’t you ever seen one?”
Not knowing what to say, Sabrina took the mug and stared at it. It was very simple, and looked handmade–plain red clay with a clear glaze that gleamed in the firelight. Its sides were cool, and wet with condensation.
“Take a sip,” the old woman urged her. Sabrina obeyed.
It wasn’t beer–she wasn’t sure what it was. It had a strange, spicy flavor she couldn’t quite place. Was it mead? Some kind of cider? She took another sip. “I’m Sabrina.” It seemed suddenly important that they should know that.
The three strangers nodded. “We don’t use names much here,” said the girl, “but I’m pleased to meet you, Sabrina. I was Hannah.”
“I was Tom.” The man smiled.
The old woman smiled, too, but didn’t give her name.
A few feet away, a girl with red curls paused to give Sabrina a filthy look. She was very pretty, and wore a tight sweater that showed off an excellent figure.
“Who was that?” Sabrina said, when the girl had moved on.
The other sighed. “That was Kelly,” said Hannah. “The riverman brought her last year.”
“Sour grapes,” said Tom, smiling again.
The old brown woman just shook her head, and filled Sabrina’s cup.
Sabrina took another drink.
Time passed in a pleasant haze. Whatever was in the mug proved mildly intoxicating, and she didn’t get sleepy no matter how much she drank. From time to time she thought to look for Cyrus, but he was never nearby. He moved from fire to fire, greeting friends and smiling mysteriously at everyone. Once she saw him pat Kelly on the shoulder and kiss her cheek. Another time he seemed to be exchanging secrets with a beautiful dark woman in an old-fashioned dress. Not once did he look at Sabrina.
She soon forgot her disappointment, because it turned out her new friends were excellent company. They constantly asked questions about her life, and seemed fascinated by every answer, even things as simple as “I go to State,” or “I have three sisters.” Soon others joined them, and greeted Sabrina like one of their own. They all plied her with drink, and with food in little clay bowls: deviled eggs, cornbread, muffins, brownies. Everything was perfect, and she never felt full.
Before long she was in the middle of a large crowd of people, roasting homemade marshmallows over the largest bonfire. Its heat scorched her face, and the air was rich with smoke and sugar. Someone had remembered an old drinking song, and was teaching it to the others amid waves of laughter. “‘Twas on the good ship Venus–by Christ, you should’ve seen us…’”
Halfway through the song, Sabrina noticed that the crowd was getting a bit thin. Several of the more flamboyant partygoers were nowhere to be found, and most of the fires and pavilions had been abandoned.
As she watched, two Native women who looked like sisters embraced, sighed, and disappeared altogether. Before she could move, a little blond boy ran into the shadows and didn’t come back. Then a person in a long white cloak, whose face she’d never seen, bowed once to the crowd and vanished.
One by one, the guests disappeared. Some of them just left, walking from the torchlight into the darkness. Others faded slowly from sight, waving sadly to their friends. Others still were there one minute, then gone the next time she looked for them.
She knew, in whatever part of her brain was still active, that this was not right, but she couldn’t make herself move. The disappearing guests seemed like someone else’s problem–an unfortunate fact of nature that no one could really change. Framing a comment along those lines, she turned to Hannah–and gasped.
In the last few minutes, Hannah’s lovely oval face had shriveled like a month-old apple. Her dress hung from her body like a tablecloth, and she smelled of sweat and illness. She seemed to be dying of some wasting disease.
“What happened?” Sabrina said.
Hannah smiled faintly. “You know, I almost made it,” she whispered. “I got as far as the river–then I broke my leg. So…” With a sigh, Hannah disappeared.
Tom, next in line, was covered in blood. It poured from a fist-sized wound in the center of his chest, which must have taken out at least one vital organ. “Bastards were waiting at the river.” Blood flowed through his teeth as he spoke. “We–” Then his eyes widened, and he too faded away.
Desperate, Sabrina turned to the old round woman, who was watching her sympathetically. “What’s going on? Why–”
“Don’t worry, dear.” The woman patted her hand with broad, soft fingers. “They’ll all come back next year, you know. You will, too.”
“I…” Her brain was spinning. She shook her head, but couldn’t clear it. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just the one night, you know–before the winter starts. When the veils are thin.” She yawned, smiled apologetically, and stood. “But I’d probably better go, too–I’m getting sleepy. Lovely to meet you…”
“Wait,” Sabrina said, reaching for her hand. “Please–”
But the old woman was already strolling towards the torches, nodding goodbye to the few remaining guests. Her wide back swayed, and her brown skirts rustled across the ground like leaves. Before Sabrina could stand, the woman had left the campground, and vanished into the darkness of the woods.
In a few minutes, all the other guests had left–fading like mirages, or simply walking away. Sabrina could only watch, pinned in place by shock or confusion or whatever she’d been drinking. Finally, as the sky began to lighten, she was alone, still sitting on her log beside the abandoned fire.
Or almost alone. There was Cyrus, standing at the edge of the campground, surveying the site with satisfaction.
As if a spell had broken, Sabrina finally stood. “Cyrus! What happened?” She ran over to him, tripping on feet gone suddenly numb.
He smiled distantly. “Hello, Sabrina. How’d you like the party?”
“It–where is everybody?”
“Oh, they all went home. Back to where they died, you know. It’s almost sunrise.”
“To where…” Her voice guttered like a candle.
Cyrus laughed. “Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you didn’t guess?”
“You mean they were…”
“Sure.” He gave her a pitying look. “You already knew there was no one over here–no one human, anyway. Where’d you think they all came from?”
Sabrina shook her head, sure there must have been something in the drink. “But… How do I get home?”
“Oh, you don’t.”
“You are home, now.” Cyrus gestured around him at the abandoned campground. “You paid the toll, remember? Drank the brew, ate the food? It’s a one-way trip–you’re one of them now. If I were you, I’d just get used to being dead.”
“I… but…” Dead. The word echoed in her mind like a church bell. “But… you didn’t… I didn’t… why did you bring me here?”
“Because you wanted to come,” he said, smiling. He leaned close, and pressed a chaste kiss against her cheek. “I’m an equal-opportunity ferryman–I’ll take anyone over, as long as the toll gets paid.” He patted her cheek, then stepped away. “And it was a good party. But it’s over, now.”
Her mouth opened. The words fell out of her head, and she just stuttered. “I–but–we–”
“It’s not so bad, being dead–from what I hear, anyway. And you picked a good place. The river’s lovely, and you might even find some company if you look. If all else fails, you’ll see them all at the next party.” Then he yawned, stretching his exquisite muscles like a sleepy cat. “Afraid I’ve got to go. Got a drowning to take care of tomorrow–today, that is–and then a suicide after that. No rest for the ferryman.” He grinned. “Later, Sabrina.”
She reached for his hand, but he was already gone.
It was getting lighter, and fog was rising from the dawn-touched river. Sabrina watched the moon set behind the trees, and listened to the calls of awakening birds. The torches went out one by one, and the embers of the bonfires slowly turned to ashes.
Our anthology ‘Once Upon a Wicked Heart’ is launching today! Join us at https://www.facebook.com/groups/clcannon for our launch party. You’ll get some sneak-peaks at the book and a chance to win some fairy-tale swag and other prizes.
When I was little, I spent a lot of time reading the books my mother had kept from her childhood. One of them was an abridged version of Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book illustrated by Grace Dallas Clarke.
The book was illustrated in a colorful 1950s style (I don’t have a copy now, but you can see some illustrations here.) I read the book multiple times, but my favorite stories in it were “Felicia and the Pot of Pinks,” “The Princess on the Glass Hill,” and “Diamonds and Toads.”
For some reason I have a strong memory of reading this book on an airplane, though I would have been young and I’m not sure where we would have been going. Anyway, I had lots of time to pore over the illustrations. “Diamonds and Toads” particularly stuck with me. I can see the glitter of the falling diamonds from one sister’s mouth, the other sister’s sassy expression, her hands on her hips. Later, cursed for her rudeness, she looks bewildered and ashamed, turning away defensively as snakes and toads fall from her mouth.
“Diamonds and Toads” is a “good sister/bad sister” story, a motif so common in world literature that you could fill a decent-sized book just with versions of Cinderella. Lately I’m starting to think more about the bad sisters in these stories than the good ones. Some of them are cruel, but their cardinal sins are usually greed, laziness, rudeness, and pride. In return, they’re often maimed or killed. Cinderellas’ stepsisters lose their eyes in some versions of the story, and “The Two Caskets” ends with the stepsister (along with her mother) being burned alive. Sure, she was rude and lazy, but isn’t that a bit harsh?
“Diamonds and Toads” is a classic example of this story. There are two sisters–one pretty and good, one ugly and bad–and their mother, who is also ugly and bad and thus favors the girl who resembles her. She and her daughter are cruel to the pretty sister, making her do all the work and fetch the water every day at the well. (I made the sister a little more sympathetic in my story, but I hope I still captured the spirit of the original.) At the well, the good girl meets and is nice to a fairy, and is rewarded with a shower of diamonds and flowers falling from her mouth whenever she speaks. The bad sister is rude to the fairy, so she’s punished: for the rest of her life, toads and snakes will fall from her mouth whenever she speaks. Eventually “even the widow was sickened by her older daughter, and drove her out, and she died alone and miserable in the woods.”
When my friend Sonya Lano told me that Fiction-Atlas Press was calling for submissions for an anthology about fairy-tale villains getting their own happily-ever-after, my mind immediately went to “Diamonds and Toads.” I can get a bit gloomy, but I’m not a dark fantasy writer: I wasn’t sure I could write a romance about a child-murdering witch or any other serious villain. But everyone’s said something they regretted, and something about this story has always spoken to me. Plus, snakes are cool. So I decided to try it out.
Next, I needed to find a romance for my protagonist. My first idea was to have her meet up with the girl from “The Two Caskets”–terribly scarred from the fire, but still alive–and have them hit it off. But that seemed a bit too complicated for a short story or novelette, so I needed something simpler. Fortunately, Sonya suggested another possibility that was right up my alley, and I got really interested in the project. But in order for this fairy tale to work, I’d need to get my heroine on a more equal footing with her love interest, and that’s what this story is about.
“Serpents” is a novelette of about 10,700 words that follows Fan’s adventures after she’s kicked out of her family home. (The original character’s name is Fanchon, short for Francoise, so Fanny would be a more natural translation, but for obvious reasons I decided not to go with that. Frannie is my partner’s name, which would have been weird, and Fancy and Frances didn’t seem quite the vibe, so Fan it was.) Once I had the idea straight in my mind, the writing process was pretty straightforward because I was happy with the story and how it played out. I’m still happy with it, and I had a lot of fun with it, so I hope you’ll feel the same
Once Upon a Wicked Heart is a collaborative anthology from Fiction-Atlas Press. There are twelve total stories in the book, most quite a bit darker than mine from what I’ve heard but a few with happy endings. Sonya has a story there, too–a dark (less dark? haha) retelling of “The Juniper Tree”–and all the others look really interesting. There’s a universal buy page here where you can check it out, or you can look us up on Goodreads. We’re doing a pre-release sale price of 99 cents (the full price will be $2.99), so it’s a good idea to preorder if you’re interested. You can also visit us online at the anthology release party on November 19 (that’s this Saturday) on the group’s Facebook page. Sonya and I will be posting from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST that day, so drop by and see us.
There are lots of other fairy tales I’d like to explore in more depth, so I hope to do more projects like this later. Is there any story that really stuck with you?
Fran and I often have trouble choosing what to watch. She’s seen almost everything, for one thing, and I hate making her rewatch things. The overlap in our tastes also isn’t that wide, so it can be difficult finding something we both enjoy. Last week I randomly picked Midnight Mass, though, and it turned out to be a very good choice.
To make it clear: we are not horror fans. I walked out of IT about ten minutes in, and my attempt at watching Ju-On ended after ten seconds. We’ve both been curious about The Haunting of Hill House, also by Mike Flanagan, but we weren’t together when it came out and neither of us wanted to watch it alone. (Maybe now we’ll try.) Jump scares are the real issue, at least for me. I feel them like a physical assault, and that’s not a feeling I want in my entertainment media. Fortunately, Midnight Mass doesn’t have too many,, and the ones it has are for dramatic effect, so I didn’t mind them too much. Overall, it’s a beautiful series, with great acting, wonderful music, and gorgeous cinematography.
SPOILERS below, for obvious reasons.
We start with Riley Flynn. While driving drunk, he causes an accident that kills a teenage girl and is sent to prison for four years. The story begins when he comes home to the dying fishing community of Crockett Island. At the same time, Erin Greene, Riley’s childhood friend and sweetheart, has come home pregnant from a bad marriage. She’s settling into life as a single mom-to-be, taking her own mother’s place as the island’s only teacher. At the same time, Sheriff Hassan, one of two Muslims on the island and a recent transfer from New York City, is trying to build a meaningful life in a small, hostile town where there’s nothing much to do. His son resents him for bringing him here, and both are generally made to feel like outsiders. Meanwhile, the island’s few teenagers do their best to keep themselves sane in a place where nothing interesting has happened in years.
Then something does happen: to the shock of everyone in the congregation of St. Patrick’s, the local Catholic church, a new priest has come to fill in for the old priest, Monsignor Pruitt, who supposedly fell ill on his return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The new priest, Father Paul, is very good at his job: kind, charismatic, and a talented preacher. Everyone seems to like him, and attendance at mass is going up. Good things are happening, relationships are forming, upswing, and the community as a whole seems to be on an upswing.
At the same time, though, some pretty nasty things are happening, too. (Content warning, if you’re thinking of watching this show: there are lots of animal deaths, including one very graphic one that’s extremely awful.) Father Paul seems to know more than he should, and in general there seem to be lots of secrets for an island with 127 people on it.
Then a genuine miracle happens at St. Patrick’s, and suddenly the mood changes.
I won’t completely spoil the rest, but I will say we were just a hair disappointed by the revelation of what’s actually happening in town: the truth wasn’t quite as mysterious and strange as the first episodes suggested. But it was a really neat twist on the trope.
The priest (played by Hamish Linklater) was a cool character: earnest, devoted, well-meaning, and tragically misguided. The congregation was also mostly devoted and well-meaning (though, critically, not all of them were) and I thought the director did a good job showing the positives and negatives of deep religious faith. Mike Flanagan apparently grew up Catholic and is now atheist, and you can definitely see that in this series. The incorporation of religious music is very effective, and it’s neat how key moments of the story are set at key points during Holy Week, building up to a catastrophic midnight mass on the eve of Easter Sunday where everything finally goes down.
The final scene of the show is really beautiful, and it’s a great callback/final summation of all those religious themes, with what felt like a reenactment of some of the earliest days of Christianity. It was clearly very deeply thought through, and really effective. Addiction, the show’s other main theme, was really well dealt with, treating the subject with both honesty and compassion. The series also has things to say about life in a small, traditional, dying community. The depiction was really strong, but if it had been possible, I would have liked to see just a tiny bit more of Crockett Island before everything went to pieces. I’m not even sure what state it’s supposed to be–Maine, maybe? It’s not important, I guess, but it would have been nice to know a little more about some of the extras who died horrifically during the course of the show.
One of the strongest points of the series was Bev Keane, played by Samantha Sloyan. She was a fantastic villain in that I absolutely hated her from moment one. Well done. She’s a kind of person who feels very familiar, though I can’t think of specific examples: a judgmental zealot who resents all the sinners around her for having a good time, and who can’t understand why everyone seems to be happier than her when she’s following all the rules and they’re not. There was some interesting little-girl imagery her portrayal (hair in a single braid down her back, Peter Pan collars, a high-necked white dress for mass, and a general air of “malicious tattletale” attitude”) that shows you she’s always been like this. Having never matured emotionally past “teacher’s pet,” she has no real depth of soul and isn’t able to understand genuine human relationships. There’s a brief moment at the end where she seems to have gained a hint of maturity, but (spoiler) it doesn’t last. It was a really compelling performance and added a lot to the show.
Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) was another strong performance, though I would have liked to see just a little more of him throughout the series. I loved his relationship with his son and the way the show dealt with the issue of religious conversion and intergenerational culture gaps, plus the irony of Hassan bringing his son to Crockett Island for safety in the context of what actually happened. I would have liked to have gotten a bit more backstory earlier in the series, because I felt like his big monologue (episode 6, I think?) tried to push too much info into too little space, but Kohli is a great actor and did an excellent job.
Riley (Zach Gilford) was probably my favorite performance. I absolutely loved him. Remorse shone through every moment, every gesture, and every word he said, and the dream images of Tara Beth were incredibly vivid and effective. I absolutely understood what he had gone through, where he was coming from emotionally, and why–after being gutted by the guilt of accidentally killing an innocent human being–he would make the choice he did rather than live through that again. The AA meetings between him and Father Paul were some of my favorite scenes. Another of my favorite characters was Joe Collie, a distorted reflection of Riley, who was also incredibly well acted (I would like to see more of Robert Longstreet).
Erin Greene, probably the main female character, was not my favorite. She was… fine… but her line delivery was a little too theatrical for me, and her big final monologue went on for WAY too long. But the actress, Kate Siegel, is apparently the director’s wife, so I guess I should get used to her if I’m going to keep watching Flanagan shows. I did love the relationship between Erin and Riley, though (from the beginning to the end). Another strong note was how Riley and his parents kept trying and and half-succeeding at reconnecting with each other throughout the story after the physical and emotional rift caused by what Riley did.
The show did have a few downsides. My main pet peeve was the lighting: though the show was set during early spring, the constant darkness and general color palette kept making me think it was October. There really is a difference between spring and autumn light, and in a series where so much of the action happens outdoors, I think that should have been taken into account. (Just looked it up and apparently it was filmed in fall because of COVID, which is understandable but unfortunate. I think it would have been better to wait a few more months.) I also felt that the last two episodes of the show were weaker than the first five (possibly because of who was missing). Overall, though, it was a really good series and I definitely recommend it.
I’d like to watch other shows and films by Mike Flanagan, but I’m worried they’ll be too scary. The Haunting of Hill House is one of my favorite books (I reread it almost every autumn), so I’m definitely interested in that adaptation. I’d also like to see The Fall of the House of Usher when it comes out, since we read that story in high school. I’d like to read The Turn of the Screw before I tackle The Haunting of Bly Manor (which is based on that book), so I’ll put that one off for a while. What spooky, creepy, pretty, and not-too-scary horror shows and movies would you recommend?
Hi, kids! Having another quiet night. Tomorrow I’m taking the day off from writers’ group to spend time with Fran and her mom, so I’m hoping to get some work done today. Very quiet with just me and the cats; I’m used to sharing Friday nights with someone else now.
Recently I’ve gotten a decent amount of work done. I finished a short dark piece on a fictional species of invasive fish, and have begun several other new projects.(Yeah, I know…). Actually, I’ve just noticed that there are many more open markets for horror than for fantasy, so I’m trying my hand at a few more short horror stories. Lots of anthologies coming out that I’m excited to submit to.
I’m feeling a bit better about the craft in general now. I got a couple of really nice rejection emails last week–you wouldn’t think a rejection would make you happier, but these were really complimentary. Sometimes all you need is for a professional to tell you you’re not a hack. So I’ve started confidently attempting projects that are rather out of my usual wheelhouse. I also have a couple of stories I wrote before developing the new prose style (technique?) that I use now. I’ll probably put them up here, rather than rework them, because I’ve already got plenty on my to-do list, and reworking an old story is just as hard as writing a new one. You’ll see them soon.
Still working slowly through A Suitable Boy, but I’ll probably take another break and read something different. Also still flipping through The Haunting of Hill House, which I reread every couple of years. It still holds up for me. Sometimes you look back at a story that helped to shape your adolescence (and your creative aesthetic) and realize it has fundamental structural flaws that might actually be influencing the way you put your own work together. I guess in a way that’s nice: if XYZ Book has major flaws, but still won several prizes and lingers in the fond memories of many, there’s probably hope for me. I think I’ll try The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton next; it seems like a good choice for the season.
We’re getting into the early-autumn weeks where witchy, spooky things linger at the fringes of daylight and I am very susceptible to Spook. I want real-life ghost stories and dark harvest aesthetic. I bought ribbon to redecorate my front door wreath, and might get to that tonight. Ooh, I could also bring down the glass Jack-o-lantern I bought last year. I’m getting more and more into this kind of light-vintage, 70s-80s domestic aesthetic of deathless wooden furniture, lace and florals, etc. etc. I want a La-Z-Boy chair and an indomitable couch, a wooden chest for blankets, a basket of scarves in the closet. I want lighting with the warm tinge of the old incandescent bulbs, and the kind of quiet you’d hear on a summer night at my grandparents’ old farm. (But I don’t want to leave the city–haha, oh no–and moving apartments with old-fashioned furniture is a bit of an endeavor.)
I think this kind of feeling is pretty common now, at least judging by the popularity of the whole “cottagecore” trend. I guess we’re still trying to imagine there are still insects buzzing outside, that the natural world is still proceeding in ordered seasons the way it’s supposed to. I think everyone wants to rewind the clock on nature (see rewilding efforts, which I’m a big fan of). I’m not sure how successful it can really be, but there’s something comforting in the idea. Maybe aesthetics like cottagecore are also a harmless way to connect to cultural traditions marred by outdated social mores (not to speak of horrific historical atrocities). I think also that, being 37 and likely to remain childless, I might be thinking nostalgically about the continuity of family. I’ve gotten into perfumes lately, and two scents I’m really fond of are one my mother used to wear and one that reminds me of my grandmother. I do think it’s easier to feel that old-timey vibe here in Central Europe, where the landscape seems to change much more slowly than in the places I’ve lived before. And of course, given everything, I haven’t seen my actual family in more than two years.
Anyway. Take care, everyone, and have a good weekend. Let’s move on one day at a time.