The fuel feeds us,
Keeps us safe
From the monsters.
But our world is shrinking,
Our numbers dying.
Once a thing of the past
We no longer live
Long enough to spawn,
Too many of us
Swept away into the ether.
But our greatest fear
Is when the storm
Is finally gone.
Where will we disperse to?
How will we live,
With millions of leviathans
Waiting for us
In the lower clouds
As they have, since
Before the Red Spot existed.]]>
“My Body, Herself” by Carmen Maria Machado in September/October’s Uncanny begins with death. A woman crushed in a cave collapse finds herself watched over by a woman who wears her body, who is her body somehow, standing beside her, endlessly smoking cigarettes. When her silent body finally speaks, it is to say chase, which the dead narrator also hears as chased and chaste. The cause of her death is revealed through her understanding of these words – a woman is chased because she refuses a man’s advances. Her death is deserved because she was not chaste. Whether she gives in or not, she is damned. The actions of the story are few, confined to a dead woman’s limited field of vision, and the dialogue is sparse, however the story still speaks volumes. The protagonist’s story stands in for the all too-common occurrence of violence against women, showing the impact of indirect violence as well. The woman’s death is a result of daring to say no, because she ran, but what would have happened if she’d stayed? The anger in the piece is quietly delivered, lingering under the surface, like the dead woman and her body. The piece is relatively short; Machado can afford a kind of short hand, which in itself serves to underline the problem of violence against women. It’s so common, we all know how the story goes. However, “My Body, Herself” isn’t a story about the moment of violence, and it isn’t gratuitous. Death is the beginning, and rebirth is the end. It’s a story about dealing with consequences, not brushing them off (like the unexamined rape as a motivating factor trope). The story belongs to the dead woman, but it also belongs to her body, which is no longer her own. The woman who rises isn’t tied to her past, it is of her, but separate. While the story’s actions are few, they mirror its emotional content. Almost everything occurs beneath the surface, with a final breaking through, a refusal to accept the traditional narrative. Anger comes at the end, but it has always been unfolding slowly, waiting to come into the light to claim its own.
“Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left” by Fran Wilde from Shimmer #33 is a story about transformation, and longing, and what happens when the forest – abused for too long – takes back its place in the world. It opens with Arminae Ganit, a graduate student, studying trees. Throughout her life, she’s schooled her mind to the scientific, seeing trees in terms of carbon structures, despite growing up with a father who quoted Ovid at the dinner table, and spun myths of nymphs and gods and magic. As Arminae continues her studies, going on to become Dr. Ganit, all around her, people begin transforming into trees, like something out of her father’s stories. There’s no rhyme or reason to the transformation, people dream and they wake up as trees, still semi-conscious of their former lives. Once they’ve changed, there is no turning back. The change spreads, taking old and young, willing and unwilling. Wilde’s language is beautiful, the images evocative, calling to mind fairy tales and myths, and weaving them effortlessly with scientific inquiry. The life after death in this case is the life of trees, resurrecting themselves from the bodies of humans. It is a ghost story for plants, and Wilde even evokes zombie imagery toward the end of the story, as the trees implacably encroach on a research center, wanting nothing and taking everything. The undercurrent of anger in the story comes from two sources – the trees and Arminae. The trees express their anger not with blunt force, but in the slow way of trees. They overwhelm the world with beauty, the quietest kind of revolution, until they are all that remains. Arminae’s anger is similar to that of the dead woman in Machado’s story, coming from the expectations placed on women, the unwanted attentions they subject to, and the assumptions made about their place in the world.
To not need to crouch to pee while most other students on this research trip stood and marked the leaves; to become impervious to the damp; to not hear colleagues chewing their dinner, grinding meat with their molars. To acquire skin that abraded her classmate’s touch—a hand on a shoulder, nothing meant by it, an accident—or that trapped his fingers in unyielding wood.
Like the trees, Arminae holds her anger close. She doesn’t lash out, but draws into herself. She becomes almost tree-like in her reserve, in her separation from others. These threads of anger, along with Arminae’s longing, and her dual search to understand the trees and herself, form the roots and trunk of this story. They give the story its weight and its power, forming the framework upon which Wilde hangs the leaves of her gorgeous prose.
“Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes” by Vajra Chandrasekera in September’s Strange Horizons, puts a different spin on the life-after-death question. The story unfolds as a conversation between the AI interface of a deceased artist – Satka – and a group of interviewers. Right from the start, the story questions the idea of what makes a person. Satka is an interface, programmed by the artist herself, but she is one of many instances running at any given time, dynamic and responsive in a way that implies a separate, conscious being. Like the body the narrator encounters in Machado’s “My Body, Herself,” the AI both is and isn’t Satka, and seems to delight in playing with this notion throughout the story. Appropriate to a piece structured as an interview, the story raises many questions. What are the ethics of life beyond death? Can AI create true art, or is art the sole provenance of human beings? Perhaps the most important question the story asks, however, is whose voices deserve to be uplifted, remembered, and heard? Here again is a story with anger below the surface. Wrapped up in the question of who deserves to be heard is the question of who is “allowed” to be angry, and whether the anger of those who are not white/cis/het/males will always be filtered through the lens of “other” and judged against a white/cis/het/male default. Without saying so directly, the story subtly points out the way white/cis/het/males are allowed to be individuals, while people outside these parameters are seen representing “their group”. That being the case, their anger can be dismissed as performative, or unjustified, or undignified. They are too angry, or not angry enough, and in the end, there is no right answer. Their emotions are not their own; they are for consumption, to be reacted to – they are a commodity, not a human expression, because the people expressing them are not seen and understood as human. In light of the AI/ human questions posed directly, this subtext adds another layer to the story. The structure requires the reader to dig through footnotes, like the physical act of digging in Machado’s story, but in the opposite direction. The reader must attempt to descend to a truth, rather than a truth pushing up toward the surface.
“With Her Diamond Teeth” by Pear Nuallak from the September issue of The Dark is the story of two sisters – Taphaothong and Taphaokaew. They have an uneasy relationship; they delight in tormenting each other, but they still need each other. As they’re bathing in the river, Taphaothong is taken by a supernaturally large crocodile with diamonds embedded in his teeth. Taphaokaew is offered up as a bride to any hero who can slay the crocodile, and return Taphaothong’s corpse. Of course, no one asks Taphaokaew her opinion of this plan. Women are brides, to be given away, they have no stories of their own. Nuallak uses violent imagery to underlie the quiet rage allowed to women as Taphaokaew channels her energy as she waits to see whether she will be married off.
My hands want only to drive sharp instruments into fabric and flesh. Embroidery and fruit carving, those feminine arts, satisfy my needs. There’s a memory of my sister in each cut and stitch; one night, after she’d stolen my favourite sugar palm cakes, I sewed her toe and heel to the mattress as she drooled into the pillow.
A hero takes up the challenge of killing the crocodile, and unexpectedly returns with Taphaothong. Now both sisters are expected to marry him. Back from the dead, Taphaothong is strange, though no one else seems concerned. When Taphaokaew confronts her, there is a blurring of identity. They are mirror images, twins, even though one is the elder. This underlines the idea of women as interchangeable – brides, obedient daughters, archetypes, not individuals. They fight, and one sister claims the other’s place, returning to the crocodile’s realm to join the crocodile’s other two brides. There is quiet anger in both sisters – one remarks on the other’s hot temper and her own cold plotting of revenge as contrast. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which sister is which, they are mythic, transcending their role in their father’s story and becoming something else. They exist in a realm of wives now, a realm of women and mothers divested of men. They exist in a mirror world under the world they were born in, inverting and subverting the aboveground norms. In addition to the story’s quiet anger, there is a sense of hope. Like Machado’s story, the reader is left with the idea of something rising from the depths, a new world order blurring and erasing the notion of binaries and ushering in an era of fluidity between life and death, self and other, and human and animal.
Nicola Belte’s “Muse” from the September issue of Flash Fiction Online is the story of a man who deliberately infects young girls with consumption in order to paint their portraits as they’re dying. The story is told from the perspective of the ghost of one of his victims, watching the pattern repeat as another young woman is brought to the master’s home. In just a few words, Belte get at the disturbing aspects of the muse trope – a woman who exists solely to inspire a man, and the ideal of a woman being more valuable than the reality of her. The story also touches on the idea of women as art objects for consumption, and the male gaze defining a woman’s existence.
“Consumption. To be consumed, to be eaten up, to have all that is superfluous burned away, in one glorious moment.” The master and his men talk in the parlour as I stand outside. I put my face to their long coats on the hat-stand, choke back the smell of January rain and the suffocating smog of the city. “A woman is most beautiful on the brink of death. It is capturing the apple at its ripest, before it starts to decay. There is beauty in death, and in death there is art.”
Art brings the girls immortality, but at what cost? There is more of a sense of quiet desperation and resignation mixed with the anger in Belte’s story. It is left to the reader to hope that the ghosts will one day organize themselves and rise up against the artist to break the cycle of death and haunting.]]>
He slowed for a feathered corpse in the middle of the road. Up above, the local troop of macaques shrieked at a flock of gene-crafted micro-raptors. He rounded the blind curve and jerked the steering wheel back to avoid a washout from last night’s thunderstorm. The truck bounced across broken asphalt, and the steering wheel twisted out of his hands. From the corner of his eye, he saw a man emerging from the woods. He jammed the brakes and his truck left the road, plowing to a stop into the soft red dirt undercut from the crumbling asphalt.
Not a man, but a shroom. The figure staggered, hands outstretched, and pressed its naked body against the side glass. He could see the delicate snowflake tracery of white rhizome fibers under its skin. The shroom’s eyes glinted clear and blue. Its slack mouth drooled. The creature broke away, leaving a moist trail across the car. Its eyes turned skyward and fixed on a power pole draped with broken electrical lines and wild jasmine. It stepped away towards the pole, cast a look over its shoulder at him, almost as if it was still a person, and climbed.
He took his phone from his pocket and dialed 911.
“Gulf Breeze 911, where is your emergency?
“Yes, this is Major William Jackson, 3rd Florida Infantry, Retired. I need to report a shroom on Soundside Drive.”
“Okay,” said the operator. “Are you sure it’s a shroom?”
“Yes, it’s a shroom. I know what one looks like.”
“Of course, Major. Has it fruited yet?”
“No, not yet. It just started climbing.” The former human, infected with a weaponized version of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, clawed its way up the pole with fierce resolve.
“Can you show it to me?”
“Yes, hold on.” He tabbed on the camera feature of the phone and spun it to face the shroom.
“We have your location. Can you vacate the area?”
“I ran off the road. I thought I was avoiding a person, and my truck is stuck.”
“Do you have personal protective equipment?” Her voice took on a new urgency
“Yes, I do. I think.” He opened up the glove compartment and took out a government-supplied filtered hood. Three of them crowded the glove box.
“Major, we have a hazmat team on the way. We would like you to stay in your car and put on your personal protective gear. I’ve sent out a cellular warning to all citizens in the area. We want you to stay connected and keep us informed of the shroom’s status.”
“I think I can get upwind.”
“Are you sure it’s the only one?”
“No.” It was a good question of the 911 operator to ask. There was rarely just one shroom. Infections typically occurred in clusters.
“Best if you stay in the car.”
“Okay, I can do that.” He leaned forward to get a better view. The shroom had climbed three quarters of the way up the pole. He propped his phone on the dashboard. “Can you still see it?”
“Yes, we can. We don’t want you to worry. The hazmat team will decontaminate your vehicle should the shroom fruit before we get there, but if you have any powered ventilation we would like you to turn it off. Would you like me to pray with you?”
“No, I’ve already prayed, but you could pray for me; I don’t mind listening,” he lied. He behaved with enough piety to not arouse suspicion and used his combat-wounded veteran status to excuse the acts of contempt that he could not hide.
He opened one of the filter hood packages and pulled the battery lanyard. The filter pack hummed. He put it over his head and cinched it down around his neck. The hood fogged around his mouth and nose with every exhalation, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable.
The shroom reached the top of the pole and checked its grip, tightening and loosening its limbs. A mockingbird, unaware of the danger, harried the creature. The shroom shuddered, going through the terminal phase of its design.
Then he remembered his only neighbor, the Dog.
The wind was blowing from the west. If the shroom fruited, its spores would drift over the Dog’s homestead. Even if they didn’t, the decontamination team would fog the area with caustic chemicals.
He stepped out of his truck, abandoning its relative safety, and ran farther up the road. He took off his hood to breathe more easily and turned up the narrow dirt path that led to the Dog’s home. Branches whipped at his face, and twice he ducked under immense dewy spans of banana-spider webs. He broke out into a clearing and slowed to catch his breath. It had been a long time since he had run. The emergency hood hummed in his hand.
He had seen the Dog twice before, and they had acknowledged each other at a careful distance. As veterans, they shared the bond of war, but whereas he had emerged from conflict a respected soldier, she had come out as an illegal gene splice, a piece of dangerous biological equipment.
A neat, wood-shingled house sat in the clearing. The Dog stood up in the midst of her garden with a small hand shovel held like a weapon. Leaf mold flecked the velvet gray fur of her arms.
He felt her fear, surprise, and anger. Dogs were focused telepaths by design and imprinted on their handlers at an intense and intimate level, but an unbonded person in close proximity could still feel strong emotional bleed-over. He imagined the Dog deciding whether to kill him or not. In the CSA, the Christian States of America, she was an abomination and regarded as military property to be neutralized by an ordnance disposal team, but he had known about her presence for almost a year and had not reported her. He hoped that that would work in his favor. He could see her muscles tense as she decided the best course of action.
“Shroom,” he said. “You are in the dispersal range.”
<Immune> he felt. The word filled his head and popped like a soap bubble. Her voice was soft and feminine and un-doglike. Her design was mostly human, so much so that she was inter-fertile with baseline humans, but that held little weight in the CSA. “Still, they’ll decontaminate the whole area. You know what that means.”
<Despair and sadness>, he felt. Hard work had built her hidden homestead in the middle of a blight zone.
“The hazmat team will arrive in a few minutes. Once they secure the scene, they’ll disinfect with an aerial attack.”
She bolted for her house and retrieved a military pack designed for her body. Like a good soldier, she was ready to bug out at a moment’s notice. She surveyed all that she would lose, came to him, and hugged him. Her body, taught and muscular, smelled like warm sun. He could not remember the last time he’d been hugged.
She stepped back.
“Be safe,” he said.
She ran towards the edge of the woods, and, just before reaching it, dropped to all fours and moved with the grace and power of a cheetah, her spine curling and springing open, covering ground in twelve-foot leaps. She vanished into the brush.
He returned to his truck, winded from the exertion and wet with sweat. He put his hood back on. Military vehicles circled the shroom’s pole. Amber strobes flashed, and men in hazmat suits set up decontamination gear. He looked up in time to see the shroom convulse. Ropey pink antlers burst out of its skull. The shroom swung its head, rattling the antlers and releasing a pink mist of spores that caught the wind and drifted. The shroom shuddered again, and more thick antlers erupted from its back, growing and branching with astonishing fungal speed. The yellow-suited hazmat team finished their setup, and a jet of flame erupted from the fire gun’s nozzle to engulf the shroom. The antlers crisped, turned black, and broke away.
“Did you call this in?” asked the supervising officer.
“Good job. Is your hood cinched down tight?”
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Okay, as soon as we clean up the scene we are decontaminating the area. You know what that means.”
The shroom fell from the pole, hitting the ground with a wet, hissing splat. Broken pieces rolled away, and the team hosed it down with more fire until the thing turned into a pile of ash. They worked the surrounding area with chemicals. Leaves dissolved and dripped under the chemical attack.
“Fruiting bodies visible upon arrival,” said the supervising officer into his radio. “High concentration of spore release. Wind speed is light and variable. I’m recommending immediate chemical decontamination.”
“Roger that,” squawked the radio. “Chopper is on the way.”
“This is going to be inconvenient,” said the major to himself.
In the hospital isolation ward, he breathed the acrid chemical mist to purge his lungs of any shroom spores that might have infiltrated his lungs. Ventilation fans whirred for a few minutes. He dried himself as best as he could with the paper towels. The sealed door opened.
“Major,” said a nurse. She handed him a paper hospital smock and watched as he dressed. “Would you follow me?”
He followed her, and she drew back a curtain.
“In here, please,” she said.
He sat at the edge of the examining table. The curtain was pulled aside, and the Sisters of Eternal Grace stepped in to pray over him. One of the crones put her bony, knuckled hand on his forehead and tapped him. They rattled their donation can in front of him when they finished. He looked down at the hospital smock.
“I don’t have any pockets.”
The lead sister frowned at him and rattled the can again.
“I don’t . . .”
Her face twisted into an uncharitable grimace of disgust.
The doctor entered. “Get out, hags.”
The sisters scowled in unison but turned on their heels and left in a whirl of gray skirts and sensible shoes.
“You know they are going to bill you for that prayer. The VA will cover their costs, but you should be nice to them; they’re connected like the mob,” said the doctor. “Are you feeling okay? You look like shit.”
He coughed. “I’m okay. Does that stuff work?”
“The shower washes off any spores on your skin, but the mist? No, it just scorches your lungs. The spores are encysted. The prayer is the best treatment.”
“I’ve got something for you.” He reached into his lab coat pocket and took out a bottle of pills, migraine medicine.
“Where did you get them?”
“There are ways, and then there are ways. People need things, and I can get them. How do you think I can help so many?”
“I can’t pay for them.”
“I still owe you.”
“That debt was paid a long time ago.”
“That debt can never be paid, but let me try. You need to be careful.”
“The sampler found chimera hair and skin cells on your cloths.”
“I was wearing old clothes from the war.”
“Yeah, you can try that excuse, but the sampler is more sophisticated than that. It’s the best piece of equipment we have in this hospital, and it is hotwired to the DOFF. They’ll be watching you. You know how they love rooting out heretics and atheists.”
“Yes, and Zionists and Papists and Colored.” Every society needed an underclass to absorb injustice and excess force.
“Do you need a ride home?”
“No, I’ll walk. I need the exercise.”
“You also need some clothes. It’s a long walk.”
“We’ve walked farther on less.”
“Yes, we have. You’re good to go. I’ll have the nurse bring you some clothes. The reverend-director of the hospital will want to stop by and pad your bill with another prayer or two.”
“Prayer is the best medicine.”
“I thought that was laughter.”
Raindrops pummeled the road. He walked into a nightmare landscape of dripping, gray-green slime that coagulated in puddles and ran across the road in sticky, mucosal sheets. The aerial decontamination spray had turned the surrounding woods into a melted, Dalí-esque landscape. The larger trees resembled wilted saguaro, bent and sagging in graceful, boneless curves. Whip-thin branches of heartwood dripped to the ground. The delicate gray bones of small creatures caught in the dissolving spray littered the sticky ground. His truck remained in the washout. With a jack and boards pulled from the bed of the truck, he managed to extricate it from the ditch and drive home.
Inside his home, he wedged a two-by-four into the cleats to bar the door shut. He showered off the slime of the melted forest. As he dressed, the wind shifted with frontal passage, and the house rocked in another direction. The temperature dropped as the cold front engulfed the house. Bizarre weather typified the new normal. He started a fire in the stone fireplace and hung a battered teakettle over it. Thunder boomed. Hailstones pummeled the roof. The ghosts of his family, trapped and framed above the fireplace, regarded him from a world before the I-War and the Second Civil War.
Another roll of thunder shook the house, and he popped two of the doctor’s pain pills to break up the loci of pain that accreted around his Yankee shrapnel whenever the weather turned bad. After a few moments, the white-hot dots of agony abated. He closed his eyes and listened to the crackle of the wood fire and the hiss of boiling water from his kettle.
Someone knocked on the front door. He roused to awareness and fetched his shotgun. He chambered a shell and peered through the glass peephole.
He unbarred the door and held it open. She was soaking wet, shivered in the unseasonal cold.
<Nowhere to go>
Desperate and intimate and voiceless thoughts flowed through his mind like sound. Her camouflage T-shirt clung to her shoulders. Blood oozed from a hailstone cut above her left eye. She wiped rain from her face, and he caught sight of the razor-sharp dew claw on her forearm. If she wanted the house, she could take it from him. He stepped back, swinging the door wider.
“I’ll get you some dry clothes.” He put the gun down and went into a backroom.
He felt her gratitude and uncertainty follow him.
The Dog knelt in front of the fireplace and held her hands spread-fingered toward the fire. She turned to look over her shoulder. He handed her some old clothes that had belonged to his wife, and a towel. She stripped in front of the fireplace with immodest military efficiency. Soft velvet fur thinned on her breasts and thickened somewhat at the swell of her vulva. She dried herself with the towel and dressed. The remains of her home stained her feet milky green.
“I’m sorry. Are you hungry?’
He opened a packet of dehydrated chicken soup and dumped it into the tea kettle.
“It will take a few minutes”
He added another log to the fire and stirred the soup mix. Ants boiled from the log and stepped into a miniature hell. They crisped in the embers. The Dog sat on the threadbare couch and curled her legs under her and tucked her hands between her thighs. He was not afraid even though there were strong reasons for baseline humans to fear Dogs. They were stronger and smarter, exotic and dangerous, beautiful, and, above all else, different. She was typical of her kind.
<You have mods?> she asked.
“Yes, I was a soldier once.” Most soldiers of the old USA featured some viral-delivered enhancements. He saw pretty well in low-light conditions, couldn’t run to fat even if he wanted to, and healed a bit faster than before. The processes that modified him had created her from scratch.
<Maybe you’re a Dog>
“Maybe you’re a woman.”
She smiled against the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm her. Her canines protruded a bit from her lips. He served the soup.
“You’re safe here.”
She finished the soup and set the bowl down on the end table.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
<M’ling> She slouched down on the couch and closed her eyes to sleep.
He waited for the fire to burn down to a safe level. He pulled down a comforter from the back of the couch and covered her. He curled on the adjacent sofa and fell asleep.
Under M’ling’s ministrations, the backyard bloomed with fruit and vegetable and flower. Low-level agents of the Department of Faith Formation intruded several times, but each time she sensed their presence and vanished. At night, when the air cooled, they talked. She told him how a sniper killed her handler in Venezuela, and how she ripped the sniper’s throat out with her teeth. She told him how she battled back from the psychic shock of his loss, her inability to accept another handler, and her escape from the decommissioning facility. In turn, he told her about fighting in Taiwan during the I-War with China, and later in Virginia, during the Second Civil War. They slept together, at first for companionship, and then for something more. At night he stroked the length of her body, soft velvet over hard muscle.
Stories of handlers that slept with their Dogs were ubiquitous in rocket-shattered Taiwanese cities. Contemplating bestiality with manufactured creatures of ethereal beauty was the least of sins in that brief and violent war. Handlers and their Dogs returning from long-range patrols self-segregated at the firebase, and it only added to the mystery and speculation. Once, on a mission, his fire team found a handler carrying the long, lithe frame of his Dog, not over his shoulder, but in his arms like a bridegroom carrying his bride. The handler, agonized with fatigue, refused to let anyone else touch her. He fell to his knees and then collapsed from exhaustion over her body. They convinced him to bury her. Over the grave, the handler cried and murmured gentle words, and when he had finished he said, “I can’t.”
“I can’t. Do you understand?”
When they looked away the handler shot himself in the head and they dug another grave.
At the time he could not understand the connection, the powerful bond between Dog and handler, each devoted to the other so intimately that the descriptive terms ascribed to the connection were meaningless. It was what made them such a terrifyingly effective weapon system.
Now he thought they worked well together, in a way in which he never expected to do again.
She stood and looked to him. <They’re here again>
He heard a vehicle pull into his drive. He walked to the front door and waited. A man wearing a modified roman collar, a badge, and a sidearm walked towards his porch. Two other men scanned the area. He opened the door before the man knocked.
“Major Jackson, I am Reverend-Inspector Carlyle.”
“In what capacity are you here today?”
The man looked perplexed. “What do you mean?”
“Are you here as a reverend or as an inspector?”
“What can I do for you?”
“I have traces unexplained by your statements. Where is the abomination?”
“On my front step.”
The reverend-inspector grinned with professional malice and indignation.
“Right. Harboring an abomination is a capital offense.”
“Every offense is a capital offense these days.”
“The purest metal comes from the hottest fires.”
The reverend-inspector was the worst kind, a thick layer of true believer over a core of bully, the type to shout damnation on the street corners yet never lift a finger in a poorhouse or soup kitchen.
“May I come in?”
He stepped forward and was pushed back.
He moved his hand to draw his sidearm
“Do you think that you can draw that weapon before I do something about it?”
The reverend-inspector moved his hand away from the weapon. Confusion and genuine fear crossed his face. He was unaccustomed to resistance.
“I have full authority . . .”
“Major. What you want to say is: Major, I have full authority. You will address me by my military rank. I’ve earned it, and you are not coming in my house without a warrant. This isn’t the United States. Are you a Yankee?”
The reverend-inspector’s face darkened at the insult. “Major, your story to my associates was unconvincing. There were no squatters in the woods. And I found these.” He held up silver dog tags that flashed in the sun. “When I come back it will be with a warrant.”
He stepped onto his porch, and the reverend-inspector stumbled backwards down the two steps.
“If you come back, we will duel over any further insult. Do you accept? I’ll register our intent with the county.”
The inspector flushed red, unprepared for the personal challenge. Duels were rare, but permitted between CSA landowners and military officers.
“I, I . . .”
“I thought not. Get off my property.”
The reverend-inspector turned, stalked to his county car, and drove away.
M’ling emerged from the other room and pressed her body against his back. She wrapped her arms around him, and leaned her head on his shoulder.
“He will come back.”
<They always come back>
He locked his desk drawer and stepped into the hangar. The helicopters inherited from the USA were slotted in their spaces but immobile for a lack of spare parts. All the mechanics he supervised had already left for Friday services, a euphemism for drinking moonshine in the back room of the local roadhouse.
He drove past a chain gang of un-saved and un-white conscripts supervised by mirror-shaded, shotgun-toting deputy-deacons. He stopped at the toll bridge and honked his horn for the attendant to lift the reflector-bedazzled log gate that blocked his way. The attendant came out of the booth and walked away from him.
“Hey, I need to get home,” he yelled to the attendant, but the man entered the tollhouse and closed the door.
“Under new management, Major,” said a voice from behind the driver’s window. His door was wrenched open and a gun pressed against his temple.
He reached for his own gun in the glove box.
“No you don’t, Major. No you don’t. Please step out.”
The pressure from the pistol barrel eased and he unfastened his seatbelt. He stepped out and recognized the highwaymen, a former military unit that did the unchristian work it took to enforce a Christian state. The man with the gun to his head pistol-whipped him, and he dropped to his knees. Two more heavy blows pounded on his head. Stars exploded, but he held to consciousness.
Rough hands grabbed him and dragged him into the surrounding woods. Twisted hemp rope secured him face-down over the hood of a car. They were strong and fast and, like him, ex-military.
“Major, what is good?”
He spit blood out of his mouth. Some of his teeth felt loose.
“I said, what is good?”
A fist punched him in the back of his head, bouncing his face against the hood of the car. ’19 Mustang, he thought. The last year they made them.
“I’ll tell you. Good is that which pleases God, and what pleases God is what I have to do. To the matter at hand: There is an abomination in our midst, and it needs to be purged. Fire has to be fought with fire, an abominable act for an abominable act.”
A knife sliced open the back of his pants and eager hands jerked his trousers down. He breathed in fast, fearful pants.
“Where is the abomination?”
He remained silent.
“When we are done you know what you must do.”
When they finished taking turns, they cut him free, and he fell to the ground. They left him alone and walked back to their camp behind the tollhouse. Darkness fell, and he pulled himself up and limped to his truck. Warm blood dressed his legs and back.
He drove home naked and broken.
He did not need to explain.
He radiated humiliation and pain.
She reached for him, but he kept walking through the house to the backyard. He stepped into the small pool converted into a fishpond and sat in the water up to his neck. Carp and brim nibbled at him. In time, he went to bed, and she lay next to him, her hand on his chest. Between them, in the still of the night, thought and feeling ebbed and flowed in a gentle tide.
He awoke alone, his throat raw, his insides dirty. In the bathroom, he looked in the mirror and saw a small snowflake tracery of white on his cheek. He drank tepid water until he gagged. She was not in bed and he went in search. The backdoor to the living room lay open to the night. Dark clouds scudded across the full moon. M’ling stood on the steps in the pool that he sat in earlier. She glowed ghostly in the pre-dawn light, a specter worthy of darkest fear. The water lapped at her ankles. Naked and alien, she washed shadowed blood from her forearms and chest and mouth.
The highwaymen did not know what they had unleashed.
Predatory eyeshine regarded him with love. She stepped from the pool and embraced him. Retractable-clawed hands caressed the fibrous cluster at his cheek. Her dew claw rested across his throat. She would do it if he asked.
“No,” he said. “I want every minute.”
He made arrangements. The doctor visited him and injected him with an expensive antifungal that slowed the progression but could not stop it.
Long ago, the doctor, then a medic, paralyzed with fear over the onslaught of incoming artillery rounds, had curled into an exposed fetal ball in the open battlefield. The major, then a captain, had dragged the doctor into the shelter of the root ball crater of a fallen tree. Anti-personnel shells burst overhead, filling the air with white-hot blades of Yankee metal. They outlasted the fierce barrage and survived the night and spoke no more of it.
The doctor owed him.
“Do this for me and our debt is settled.”
The thirty-foot-long speedboat rolled under the topside weight of three big outboard engines and six fifty-five gallon drums of fuel on the aft deck. Big men dressed in night camouflage unloaded alcohol, pornography, medicine, and other hard-to-find necessities. The run back to Cuba would take twenty hours, but in less than two they would be beyond the decrepit CSA Coast Guard.
By the light of the half moon, the fungal rhizomes luminesced. The fibers spread across his face and neck and reached for the thoughts in his head. The smuggler crew kept their distance. As she embraced him, his hand drifted to the swell of her belly. He pressed, feeling for a kick, but felt none. Maybe it was too soon.
<It’s your daughter>
She kissed him one last time and boarded the boat.
As the boat receded into the night, sadness attenuated. His connection grew weaker and weaker until he could no longer feel her. He dropped to the wet ground, empty and hollow.
By unthinking instinct, he selected a dead pine that offered unobstructed access to the wind. Compulsion drove him to the topmost reaches, and he swayed in the amber morning light, rocking to-and-fro in the breeze. He thought his last thoughts of love and war before bizarre biological processes bundled his memories into microscopic spores that erupted from him in a pink haze to be scattered on the winds.]]>
 Arabic: Unbeliever
 Arabic: Cleaver; a legendary sword in Islam which passed through the hands of caliphs and poets
Amy is not planning to hold an open submissions period for her issue, choosing instead to solicit stories from authors she feels would be a good fit. She is open to hearing your recommendations, so please contact her via her website if there is a Native American/First Nations author you think she should consider for the issue!
Her announcement from her website is below.
I’m delighted to announce that I’ve accepted an invitation to guest edit an issue of Apex Magazine (scheduled for August 2017). I will be soliciting new stories that showcase the rich depth and diversity of science fiction, fantasy, and horror penned by Native American/First Nations authors. Apex Magazine routinely provides 12,000 words of original fiction per issue, but my special issue will deliver 20,000.
My long relationship with Apex dates back to the fourth issue (Winter 2005) of its print-edition days, when it was Apex Digest. It is with the greatest excitement that I look forward to this important project.
If you have questions or recommendations, you are welcome to contact me via my website.]]>
We’ve all heard the phrase “this novel is a love letter to such-and-such,” where the author is using fiction to show how much they love a particular subgenre or style. But what about the phrase “this piece of fiction is a letter”? I’m not talking epistolary fiction, I’m talking character or plot driven stories that function as a letter. Alexandria Baisden’s “The Old Man and the Phoenix” is the perfect example of what I’m talking about. I kept trying to write a letter to my friend who I missed, when I should have been reading a story to him instead. I should have been reading this story. “The Old Man and the Phoenix” helped me process my grief, it made me feel like I wasn’t going through this alone.
Even if this story doesn’t help you process anything, even if you read it for pure entertainment, or from an analytical point of view, there is no escaping how much of an emotional punch Baisden has crammed into such a small word count. If the short story brought tears to your eyes, I’ll warn you now, this interview may as well.
A recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, Alexandria Baisden’s work has been published in the Kamelian, HelloGiggles, Hair Trigger 38, The Lab Review Blog, and 101 Words. Two of her children’s plays have also been produced at Heartland Community Church. She enjoys puns, anime, coffee, and getting distracted by fluffy animals on the internet. She’s currently working on her fantasy novel, and you can learn more about her work at her website alexandriabaisden.wixsite.com, or by following her on twitter @FireShye.
She was kind enough to answer a number of my questions about how this story came about (this is the part where you’ll cry), her experiences helping other young writers, inspirational words, Owl City songs, the influence of J.K. Rowling on her generation, and more.
Apex Magazine: Who better than a phoenix to counsel someone on the ways of death? But even a phoenix cries at the thought of losing a friend forever. What was going through your mind when you wrote this story?
Alexandria Baisden: I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of the ideas were actually drawn from my grandmother’s death. She passed away from pancreas cancer four years ago, but she said she was ready to die because she missed my grandfather. Whenever any of us would cry, she would cup our faces and tell us no tears. I would lie in bed with her, and she’d hold my hand and trust me with the details of her death – how she wanted her ashes mixed with my grandfather’s, and for their urn to be placed in their garden. Near the end, she told my mom she wished she could go with her because she would miss her.
This actually happens to me a lot – I don’t realize how much real life impacts my fiction until after I’ve written it! It wasn’t until I was talking about it with my mom did I realize how similar the old man’s wishes were to my grandmother’s.
A few things were intentional – my grandmother’s name was Jean, so that’s where I drew the name of the old man’s wife. I wanted to make the old man as human as possible, so while I was writing it, I thought back on the emotions my grandmother went through while wrestling with death: bravery, acceptance, fear and then finally, peace. I tried to think of the simple and beautiful things someone might really miss and expand on that.
AM: I know I should feel bad for the old man, but it’s the phoenix I feel worst for. The phoenix loses everyone it gets close to. Us humans all get through our grief in our own way. How does a phoenix get through the grieving process?
AB: Oh, wow, what a great question! I feel worse for the phoenix too. They’re both heartbroken to lose each other, but the phoenix is the one who has to go on.
My grandmother’s death isn’t as raw anymore, but whenever I’m reminded of her, there is a profound ache in my bones. I think it’s the same for the phoenix. The old man is always going to be tucked into its heart, but it’s so hard. It’s so hard because for the old man, he clings to the hope that when he dies, he’s going to see his wife again. The phoenix doesn’t have that. It can’t die; it can’t be with him again. There’s no quick fix for grief, and I imagine the phoenix to be very human in its loss. I think sometimes, memories of the old man scissor through it, and the loss is crippling, and I think other days, it rests knowing its friend is at peace. The old man has left its mark on the phoenix, but phoenixes have always been symbols of perseverance. At least, they have been to me – that’s why they’re my favorite fantasy creature. I don’t imagine the phoenix to run from its pain. I think it faces it, and perhaps surrounds itself with people the old man loved most. It will always have that friendship in its veins, but it keeps going because it must.
AM: “The Old Man and The Phoenix” is a very short and very effective story. Some of your other published stories and articles are also of the flash length. What advice do you have for writers who are looking to get as much emotional effect as possible in such few words?
AB: Thank you! I think if you’re going into it knowing you want to write a flash fiction, then don’t try to force too much into such a small space. When I worked as an Associate Editor at the Publishing Lab at Columbia, part of the job was researching markets and offering ideas for where students could submit their work. We also offered edits and feedback. The advice I would find myself giving to students over and over was to dive straight into the moment. Many people would dump several pages of backstory into such a tiny piece, and it wasn’t needed. When you only have a few pages, you can only focus on so much!
When I’m writing, I ask myself what’s the most important thing I want to get across and expand on that. It’s usually a simple idea with only a few characters, but their emotions are huge and take up the most space.
AM: I was hoping you could tell us more about how this story came to be. How did your earlier drafts and ideas different from the final result? How long did it take you to get from the idea to the finished story?
AB: The funny thing is, I actually wrote this for Tina Jens’s Advanced Fantasy Writing Workshop class! Her poem was just published in Apex last June. Pretty cool, huh?
My original idea was to write in the POV of a phoenix dying and resurrecting. I was thinking about exploring the emotions and struggles of something with that kind of power. I only wrote a few lines, but I already wasn’t enjoying where it was going. It was flat, and I was bored writing it. I took a break from it for a few days.
There’s this song by Owl City called “I Found Love.” When I listened to an interview with Adam Young, he talked about how the song was about him imagining being at the end of it all, surrounded by his friends and family. How he would be so sad to leave everyone behind, but so excited to see what would come next, and that idea really stuck with me. I think that’s when I started wondering about the old man. I realized it would be more heartbreaking if the phoenix had a close friend who it would never see again. (Sorry, I guess I go straight for the feels!)
Anyway, I was planning to use the evening to write my first draft, but I ended up having a competing deadline at the last minute. It really challenged me to work tight under pressure! I wrote “The Old Man in the Phoenix” in the five hours before dawn. When I was done, I took a shower, ordered a peppermint mocha with two extra shots and dragged myself to class.
I was lucky to have an awesome group of talented people look over this story. I had a critique group in class who helped me come up with the title. We also did an exercise, where we taped our stories to the wall and read our first lines out loud. It was intimidating, but it helps you understand how to catch an editor’s attention right away! My first sentence used to be “the heart monitor clicked and sighed” and the class agreed it wasn’t a strong enough opening. So, I went in and switched some sentences around. I actually read two ‘maybe’ first lines to my roommates later, and they were able to answer which one was stronger right away. It’s truly a great exercise, and first sentences are something I’m more aware of now!
My co-workers and I at the Publishing Lab often read each other’s work and offered feedback on our own stories. In the second draft, the phoenix’s name was revealed, but while I was talking it out at the Lab, we decided the story would be stronger without it – and with the addition of the title, it just seemed more fitting to take it out.
The story used to end right after the old man died, and it was too abrupt. Ms. Tina suggested adding in the funeral and how the phoenix might sing there, and I really loved that idea. So, I went in and added the ending and that was it!
AM: You’re a fiction writing tutor at Columbia College in Chicago. How has tutoring others in their writing helped strengthen your own writing? What writing tips do you give to your students?
AB: I actually just graduated, but tutoring was awesome! The thing about Columbia is that the tutors are trained to use Story Workshop Method. It isn’t a traditional setup where a student might come to you for extra help, but Fiction Writing Tutoring is a class they can take.
Story Workshop Method is a lot of oral storytelling. So, instead of bringing in work, they would brainstorm a story while I was there. My tutees would tell their scenes to me as fully as they could. It wasn’t just summarizing an idea – it was talking about the story in full detail, from the quality of light, spatial relationships and emotions, to sounds, smells and gestures. While they’d describe it to me, I’d just follow my natural curiosity about what was being told. How does Miranda feel when she finds her dad reading her diary? What’s her dad’s reaction to getting caught? What happens next? Most of the time, they’d discover new ideas just from me asking questions. There’s a lot more to Story Workshop Method, from word games, to recall, and even teaching a student to slow down and listen to their voice as they read out loud.
After a while, they’d write their scene in a notebook. When their time was up, they’d read it to me and type the rest for our next class.
Being a tutor has helped me spot what’s working in a story and what isn’t. You automatically shy away from weaknesses you see in other people’s stories. You start to ask yourself if you’re expanding enough on a certain part, if the dialog flows … I even use our old exercises on myself. For example, the old man thinks that the dawn would taste like sherbet. That’s from a game I played with my students. You’re supposed to think of words that don’t normally have any taste, smell, or sound and makeup a sensory detail to go along with it. I literally asked myself what a sunrise might taste like, and my first thought was sherbet.
I touched on this in my other answer, but again, I think the biggest tip I gave students was to go straight to the conflict. I’ve seen gems get buried under heaps of unnecessary backstory and realize the true beginning was on page four. Another thing I always stressed was to not worry about getting it perfect the first time. Especially the first time! Freshmen are usually so afraid to write with someone else in the room, and I totally understand because I’ve been there. It can be intimidating to read your work out loud when you haven’t had the time to go back and edit. They could get frustrated because the first draft wasn’t perfect, but a first draft never is. The important thing was they’d have something to expand on later.
I’m not sure why, but a lot of students seemed to think that once you wrote something, it was set in stone, but it doesn’t have to be! I tried to remind them of that when they felt stuck. You can always go back and rewrite – it’s perfectly fine if things change!
Lastly, I always told my students to be willing to try. I heard this quote from Andy Stanley, and I’ve held onto it ever since: “Direction, not intention, determines your destination.” What that means is, you can wish and hope for something all you want, but if you’re not heading in the direction of your hopes and dreams, you’re never going to get there. Harry Potter didn’t destroy Lord Voldemort by twiddling his thumbs in the Gryffindor Tower. He went out, he failed a few times, but he kept getting back up, and he persevered. It’s the same with writing. If you have dreams to become a published writer, but you’re too afraid to submit your work or even write, then it’s not going to happen. You have to start out by stepping in that direction. I know so many people who won’t submit their work because they’re afraid. You’ll get rejected, everyone does, but don’t lean into the storm clouds because of it. Keep pushing forward and doing your best. Life is too short to just wish for things.
AM: What writers (or specific works) have been most influential on you?
AB: I don’t think anyone is going to be able to escape this answer from Millennials, but J.K. Rowling! The Mirror of Erised chapter left a huge impact on me as a little girl. If you don’t know, the mirror reveals your heart’s deepest desire, and for Harry, it shows him surrounded by his family. After I read it, I darted downstairs and asked my mom, “Why does my heart feel funny?” It was the first time I realized words on a page could make a person feel something, and I decided I wanted to do that too.
I also really love Jodi Picoult. She doesn’t write a lot of fantasy, but I admire her skill of getting emotions onto the page. I enjoy writing about family and relationships with fantasy characters, and I’ve always gobbled up the way she plays with time and POV.
Aimee Bender is another one of my favorites. She has such a lyrical style, and her stories are so dark, odd, and gorgeous. Reading her work has made me unafraid to try new things in my writing. Christopher Moore’s books make me laugh out loud, and I’ve been stalking a lot of Caroline M. Yoachim’s stories lately.
I also just finished The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath by Ishbelle Bee. I loved her characters and the artful way she worded everything – my imagination exploded with all of this color when I read it, so I’ll definitely be reading more of her books in the future.
AM: You recently worked on the pg70pit writing contest. What can you tell us about this project and your involvement? Is it something you’d get involved with again?
AB: I would love to get involved with it again if I have the chance!
What drew me to the contest was how unique it was. Lara Willard explained in her blog post that there was no first page, query or pitch – writers only submitted page 70 of their manuscripts. The idea is that page 70 should be far enough into the story for things to be moving along, and it could “be a better snapshot of the entire book’s style than the first page.” The whole thing was based off of the McLuhan Test, but instead of page 70, they used page 69.
The submissions were divided up by age category. There were many different genres – historical, contemporary, sci-fi, mystery, etc. I only slushed for fantasy in YA and Adult. The writers names were stripped from their entries, using song lyrics as a code name. You can find the rest of the submission details here.
The first readers scored submissions on a scale of 1 to 3. 1 meaning it needed work, 3 meaning, you wanted to read more – and then Lara posted the highest scoring entries onto a playlist on Spotify. She really went out of her way to make it fun for everyone involved, and it was! We had Twitter parties throughout the whole week, posted gifs and encouraged each other. I had a blast doing it!
Afterwards, Lara and the judges narrowed down the winners, and agents were able to request more material. I found out later that some agents requested more from a few of my favorite entries, so that was really exciting!
AM: What can you tell us about your current writing projects?
AB: My passion project is a high-fantasy novel about a cursed kingdom and their fight to reclaim their souls. I’m also working on a short story about the Summer Sky in a relationship with a Star Swallower who’s eating all of her stars. That’s been pretty fun to work on, but also a bit challenging. I have two children’s plays that were produced at Heartland Community Church last Christmas, so I would like to look for markets for those soon. I have quite a few other ideas as well, but I’m trying to take them one at a time!
AM: Thanks Alexandria!]]>
The old man stared out the window at the sky streaked with burnt oranges and sizzling yellows. A few white stars winked. Magentas hung suspended in the mist. Sherbet, he thought. I bet the dawn tastes like rainbow sherbet. If the old man had a spoon big enough, he would have scooped it all.
“Sherbet,” he rasped.
The phoenix perked up. It was sitting on a perch in the old man’s bedroom at his bedside. It cocked its head, staring at him with a single, blue eye. The bird shuffled closer, golden claws scraping against the wood. “What was that?”
The old man cleared his throat. “I would like sherbet served at my funeral.”
“Oh.” It ducked its head. The old man knew the phoenix was terrible at saying goodbyes. “Right. Of course. I will tell your brother.”
“Do not forget.”
“I would never.”
There was a pause. The heart monitor clicked and sighed. A cool breeze tumbled in from the open window, twirling and puffing the old man’s blue curtains. The phoenix’s feathers glowed softly in the shadows, redder than the skin of cherries. It nodded its head to the wooden staff in the corner. A sapphire was jammed on top of it, where silver constellations twinkled within. “What of that?”
The old man scraped out a cough. “Bah,” he said, waving his hand. “Whatever you do, do not give it to my brother. He is an idiot.” His forehead wrinkled in thought. “Give it to Tom.”
“Tom? The baker?”
“Yes.” Another cough. This one cleaved his lungs. The old man jackknifed, gasping into his hands. Tears pricked his eyes. Bucking and heaving, he reached for a glass of water on the nightstand. It was hard to drink because of his trembling hands. Water flowed out, trickling into his mouth and splattering his neck. The phoenix’s wings twitched, as though it desperately wished it had thumbs. The old man sputtered and coughed. Sipped again. Finally, he placed the glass down. “Tom,” he said, “bakes the finest croissants in town. Nice boy. Cats, they love Tom. This is a good sign.”
His neck was drenched, and yet, his mouth felt bone dry. The air around the bird seemed to shimmer. It seemed to warm the old man’s skin. He closed his eyes.
“I want my ashes scattered over the daffodil field. At night,” he added, peeking out one, hazel green eye. “So there are fireflies.”
To the old man’s surprise, tears splashed off the tip of the phoenix’s beak. They plopped onto his quilt, near his fingers. The skin on his hands was tissue paper thin, bones and veins pronounced. He stuffed them under the covers. “Be careful. If you heal me, I will never see my Jeanie.”
The phoenix’s head was low. It said nothing. Only a tiny, pathetic chirp.
The green line of the heart monitor blinked into tiny hills. The bird’s eyes glittered. The old man felt his heart give a slight twist. He smiled, just barely. “Now, now, my friend. There will be no tears. Only singing and dancing.”
At this, his friend fluttered off its perch and onto his bed. Claws scratched and tickled as the phoenix crawled across his stomach. The blankets rustled, and the phoenix’s solid, soft body pressed against him. The old man felt his throat swell up. The phoenix tucked its head beneath his chin. Its feathers smelled of childhood and old sun.
For years, the old man had remembered his youth, longing for the days when he was a kaleidoscope of energy. Days when there were bursts of warriors, magic, and gold. Now, he realized, he would miss peace. He would miss tucking into his green frog slippers every morning. He would miss warm cups of coffee pressed into his hand before dawn. He would miss cinnamon croissants with the phoenix on Tuesdays and Tom’s burly, loud laugh, a gong that reverberated over everything. He would miss the daffodil fields, swaying in the breeze. He would miss the phoenix’s songs.
The old man’s cheeks felt wet. He tasted salt. A seed of fear took root and bloomed in his chest, and quite suddenly, he wished that someone could go with him. “My friend,” the old man whispered. “Should I be afraid?”
The phoenix nuzzled closer into his ribs. “Not at all. I have been above the stars many times.”
“What is it like?” The old man flushed. He felt small. Naïve. He blinked at the ceiling. “When it happens, I mean.”
There was a pause. Then, “Like a gasp,” it said. “There is a light. Small, like an ember, at first… But then it splashes into sunlight that flickers, burns, and then cools into rainbows. After that, I don’t know. I’ve never been able to stay.”
The words flattened his chest like an anvil. Soon, the old man would be with his wife again. He would see his parents for the first time in years. But never again would he see the phoenix.
The old man’s shaking hands came around the phoenix’s body. Its feathers felt like silk. He sucked in a shuddering breath. He felt so weak. So tired. “My dear friend,” he wept, “I will miss you the most.”
The phoenix curled as close to the old man as it could get. It rested its head on the old man’s chest until his sobs stopped quivering his body. Together, they stayed this way, listening to the fear flutter from the old man’s heart.
The sun rose and gleamed through the window, splaying bars of refined gold into the room. Peace fell over the old man like a thick quilt. Then, a gasp. The low, steady flat line of the monitor. A warm, brilliant light. A splash of rainbows.
The phoenix never left his side.
At the old man’s funeral, there was sherbet ice cream. There were daffodils and puddles of moonlight. The flowers covered the hills and waved in the breeze. The phoenix perched on top of the old man’s staff. Tom, the baker, clutched it with both hands. His eyes were bright with tears.
“It’s warm out,” he said.
“Yes.” The phoenix agreed. “Just like him.”
Tom wiped his face.
The phoenix wondered what the old man had seen beyond the flickering rainbows. It wondered if Jeanie was the first person he ran to. It wondered if heaven had a bakery.
When the old man’s brother tossed his ashes, they puffed out across the rolling, yellow hills in a large cloud. The fireflies blinked like wishing stars. Crickets chorused softly. Tom’s shoulders trembled, and the heartbreak was not just in the phoenix’s chest, but in every corner of its body. It kicked off into the sky, thinking of the old man’s passion and gentleness, thinking of how he wanted no tears, only song and dance. So, the phoenix streaked across the full moon, its scarlet tail streaming behind it like a banner. It dipped close to the daffodils and then twirled across the night air, singing about the old man’s life. It sang about their friendship in a language only spoken by birds, and yet, somehow, the old man’s brother and the baker seemed to understand every word.
The phoenix sang long after Tom and the brother left the field, and the phoenix wondered, deep down, if it sang loud enough, if the old man could somehow still hear it.]]>
Wings burst from my back when I was ten
years old. It was genetic, passed down through
my father’s heritage. Thick, dark feathers grew
from my shoulder.
My classmates pointed. My teacher told me
I was mythology, said I needed a doctor.
My brother called me Crow, asked me when we’d
fly together. My mother, redeyed, wrapped
my head in cloth, bound my hands and ankles
with duct tape, dragged me to the front yard, and took
a gutknife to my newborn
flesh and feather.
My brother’s body sank into an ice bath,
his sunburned skin beetred, his round eyes
pinched shut. Grandma ran a cardboard
colored washcloth across
his forehead and twisted
it tightly around his neck. The blisters
on his shoulders seeped thick
yellow that pooled on the water’s
surface. She kneeled by the tub
and a blot of sunset from between
the half-closed curtains made haven
on her forearm. When he healed,
we compared the scars on our backs—
his, pale and glossed, and mine, rigid and stitched.