The House That Jessica Built by Nadia Bulkin, published in October’s The Dark is a haunted house story on the surface, full of unsettling and eerie imagery. Below the surface, it’s a story about family, loss, and the terrible contortions girls often put themselves through trying to fit in. Rue lives with her father, and her little brother. After the death of her mother, her father moves them to a new house, one Rue claims is haunted. No one believes her, and her father calls in a therapist. At first this makes Rue glamorous to her classmates, but eventually it isolates her as she continues to insist on a ghost no one else can see. Rue’s father begins calling the ghost Jessica, the name on Rue’s birth certificate. Eventually, Rue comes to think of Jessica as a dark twin, all the ugly parts of herself, and the line between them blurs. The girls in Rue’s class who harm themselves with bulimia are beautifully tragic, and ultimately disposable. Rue, who insists on her version of reality, inflicting it on her family and friends in the form of haunting is inconvenient at best, and dangerous at worse. She is not what girls are supposed to be, but is Jessica? Bulkin continues to draw parallels between Rue and her ghost, even as Rue discovers Jessica’s true identity. A girl named Esther died in the house years ago, so desperate for love and acceptance that she allowed herself to be caught up by a murderer, helping him to prey on and murder other girls, until he ultimately murdered her. The story is grim and terrifying, playing with the idea of the monstrous feminine, but there’s hope as well. Rue learns to reconcile conflicting parts of herself – the darkness and the light – and carve a place for herself in the world, even if it doesn’t fit the mold of what others think she should be.
Terpsichore by Teresa P. Mira Echeverría (translated by Lawrence Schimel) published at Strange Horizons in October, tells the story of a lone woman on ship designed to pierce the veil between realities. Her sole companion is Piotr, a zombie of sorts, animated by the ship’s AI.
The boy was a kind of Schrödinger’s cat who would always remain animate so long as he never left the undifferentiated space of the ship. Within the Terpsichore, he would be alive and dead at the same time, and it was in that state that he had been possessed by the ship’s AIs almost half a century ago. A state that could be prolonged eternally.
Piotr’s role is ensure that Captain Levitanova, Stephana, remembers herself and comes back from the journey with knowledge gained by meeting other possible versions of herself from other branching realities. From the outset, there’s an uncanniness to Piotr that makes his stated purpose seem suspect. However, Stephana continues with the mission, allowing him to guide her to a meeting with multiple versions of herself, the result of diverging events and choices in their past. Each version of Stephana carries a code name, Salmon, Wolf, Panther, Swan, and so on. Some are war-like, some manipulative, some submissive, some seductive. Stephana, Salmon, the one who returns home, struggles with the other versions of herself. How can they be so different, and yet also literally her? What separates them from her? Is she capable of their violence, their cunning? In the end, Piotr opens up a world of larger possibilities for her, giving her a choice – who is she, and who does she want to be? The imagery throughout the story is striking, giving the narrative a dream-like quality. There’s a sense of the mythic, and the cosmic. Where does the line between self and other lie, the possible and the impossible? Perhaps they aren’t so impermeable after all.
In Skills to Keep the Devil in His Place by Lia Swope Mitchell in November’s Shimmer, Rachel sees the devil as a literal manifestation in her life. She hears him whispering, feels him crawling inside her and making her say terrible things to her friends and family. Julie, a straight A student, seems to be haunted by the devil as well, but has no trouble resisting him. Even though they’ve never really been friends, Julie and Rachel form an alliance, and Julie reveals her secret. She shows Rachel how to build an altar in her closet, to call the devil, and let him feed off her so it will leave everyone else alone. Part of the horror in this story is the banality of evil. Rather than tempting Rachel to huge and destructive acts, the devil primarily tempts her to petty acts of jealousy and bitterness, talking back, and being disrespectful. The story also highlights everyday cruelty, showing how Julie’s former classmates bullied her relentlessly at the slightest hint of difference. Like Bulkin’s story, “Skills to Keep the Devil at Bay” can be read as a metaphor for growing up, and trying to fit in. Are the devil’s temptations really just a young girl not fitting in with the perception of ladylike behavior? Since no one else sees the devil except Julie and Rachel, is it their imagination, a coping mechanism to deal with the darkness in themselves and others? Like Bulkin’s story, it is also laced with hope. Ultimately, whether the devil is real or not, Rachel and Julie forge a friendship, learn how to fight, and come out stronger within themselves on the other side.
Migration by Tananarive Due from November’s Nightmare Magazine begins with Jaz waking in the middle of the night, suddenly disgusted by her fiancé. She is sickened by the scent of him, everything about him, and it moves her to violence. She hefts a table lamp, ready to smash his skull, pausing only to admire the inhumanity of her shadow.
The shadow looked so right, like seeing her true reflection for the first time. She reveled in herself—the lamp a misshapen extension of her arm, her braids like Medusa’s crawling on the wall; she, a grand snapshot of poised violence.
This pause is just long enough for Cal to wake and flee. Jaz flees as well, waking the next day on a beach, her clothes stained with someone else’s blood, her head full of half-formed memories. As a child and again as a young woman, Jaz’s grandmother performed exorcisms on her, believing she was haunted by a demon. Jaz is uncertain what she believes. Dogs fear her, but her town was superstitious and maybe her “demon” is just anger which her parents sought to control and explain away. There are social and racial elements underlying the anger in this story, providing a different angle on the idea of “fitting in”. Cal went to an elite school, he speaks differently to Jaz than he does anyone else, he trusts cops, and he’s never been a target of violence.
The boo did it—his faux vernacular, like That’s so dope, which he said to no one but her, as if he hadn’t spent his teenage years at a lily white prep school and done his undergrad in biology at Stanford—trying to find a common language with his scrappy country girl from the Florida bog.
At times, this infuriates Jaz, at others, she struggles to find common ground. As the story progresses, Jaz’s rage continues to simmer. She remembers killing a boy after chasing Cal away, and when she flees him a second time, she hits and old woman with her car. But is it real? Her mother calls immediately afterwards, throwing Jaz’s monstrous nature into question. Her mother is soothing, telling Jaz to come home, implying there is nothing wrong with her after all. She is of a certain place, and Gracetown, with its history of violence, made her. She belongs with those who love and accept her, not in the big city. As with the other stories, truth and reality are questionable here, and the story can be read in many ways – a story of literal evil, or a story about very human rage and our capacity for violence.
Perfectly Not Normal by Alexis A. Hunter from November’s Flash Fiction Online offers a different take on the idea hidden fear and insecurity manifesting in monstrous ways. The protagonist of the story knows there is something different about her baby, even in the womb. The ultrasound appears normal, everyone keeps telling her Ani is normal, but she feels too many limbs. Once the baby is born, she continues to see hidden dimensions to her child no one else sees.
You can’t cradle Ani to your chest without her stabbing you with numerous invisible spikes, or lashing you with what feels like a heavy, corded tail. Still, you let her hurt you as she shifts her edges, both of you helpless to the uncontrollable muscle spasms of infancy.
The disconnect between the apparent truth and a mother’s instinct carry through this short and effective story. Unlike the first four stories discussed, it is not as much about the struggle with the self, but the struggle with the other who is of the self, which lies at the heart of the story. “Perfectly Not Normal” can be read as a parent’s anxiety manifesting in the illusion of something monstrous. Perhaps Ani is a perfectly normal child, but her mother cannot perceive her that way. Her fears make the child something other, but she is determined to love her regardless. No parent can control what their child becomes, they can only do the best for them, and hope. Similar to the other stories, “Perfectly Not Normal” is about finding balance, about accepting perceived darkness and moving past it to find the best possible outcome in the face of disbelief and fear for the future.]]>
The regret sets in when they hit Iowa.
“We shouldn’t have left,” she says. Knees drawn up to her chin, lower lip trembling. “It was a mistake.”
He can’t disagree. He pulls the rental car into a gas station, the front bumper only barely scraping the back of an idling truck. The truck driver, a red-faced, big-bearded man, exits the cab. His massive slab of a hand buries itself in the driver’s-side window. The shattered window looks like the stars that used to sparkle above the spires of the Solved City, except not really as nice.
“A big mistake,” she says.
He frowns at her. She is his beloved, but right now she’s not helping anything.
After a few moments, the truck driver turns and leaves, though not before launching a projectile of spit on the destroyed window. He waits until the large ruddy man is long gone, then goes into the station.
Hot dogs with cheese. It sounds hearty enough. He fishes the crumpled slips of paper money he’d received from the town alders from his pocket and lays them out on the clerk’s counter.
Her eyes widen. “Mister, you’d better put that away.”
He squints at the bills, does the math. “Is it not enough?” The hot dogs with cheese carry no price tag.
The clerk rolls her eyes and slides three of the bills back to him. She pockets the rest. With a burning shame, he realizes what he’s done, but it’s too late to correct it now. He slides the bills back into his pack.
He hands one of the hot dogs with cheese to his beloved, and takes the other for himself. The unfamiliar food roils in their stomachs, and they both spatter the interior of the car with bits of fatty pork and too-sweet soda.
They sleep in the car.
That was the first day.
The first thing you lose when you leave the Solved City is the name of the city itself. Its location, its coordinates, are cut from your mind like a tumor and replaced with some of the things necessary to survive in the world beyond its gates.
The second thing taken is your name. You can get another one, but it won’t be the same. Out of the Solved City, your true name becomes unpronounceable.
“I’m Blank,” says the nameless woman. She’s finally stopped crying, four days after they left those gates behind forever, though her stomach still hasn’t settled from the alien food.
“I’m Cipher,” says the nameless man.
What you take isn’t worth nearly as much as what you lose, and everyone knows it.
With the rest of the bills, they rent an apartment in a tumbledown building where rats run through the halls every night. There were no rats in the Solved City.
Lots of peacocks, though. And golden horses with manes that glowed like the sun, and chittering bats that ate right out of your hands.
Blank takes a job at a titty bar down by the harbor, dancing for drunk men who ogle her soft brown skin. Sometimes she comes home with beer sloshed on her ankles, soaking through her socks. She goes through a lot of socks.
Cipher slings sandwiches at a food cart in the local park, under the watchful eye of a gruff man whose drawling accent Cipher can barely understand. Cipher teaches himself not to gag at the barrels of pickled meat crusted with pink slime, and the wafts of odiferous sweat that drip from the gruff man’s armpits.
Only once does the gruff man attempt conversation. “Where you from, kid?” He knows Cipher isn’t from here. The man from the Solved City has no credit, no government identification, and must be paid from the till instead of through a seamless, paperless online exchange.
“I don’t know.”
After that, the conversations stop, though Cipher still gets his fistful of cash every week.
The dirt path that leads from the Solved City is worn with the footsteps of hundreds of reverse pilgrims. Thousands, maybe. Almost half the footsteps appear to halt at a point perhaps fifty feet from the gilded gates, where they circle back toward the city where they belong. But there’s no getting back once you’ve left.
There are more corpses on the path than you’d expect there to be, desiccated by the heat of the sun. Empty eye sockets baking, worms in some of them. Mouths outstretched toward the cruel outdoors.
The Solved City is temperate, but the land around it is not.
“Maybe it’s in Arizona,” Blank says, looking at a map spread out on the pockmarked floor of their apartment. “New Mexico?”
“No,” Cipher says, shaking his head. He’s seen photographs of those desert lands, and they are nothing like the land that surrounds the Solved City.
“But it has to be somewhere!” she cries out. The map is pimpled with likely locations marked out in pink and yellow highlighter. “It exists.”
“Of course it exists. We were there. We were born there.” He outlines a highway in yellow. “We’re so close.”
She hates the children because they remind her of the child.
They crowd the outside of Blank and Cipher’s apartment building, the children, squatting amid the discarded condoms and half-rotted rat corpses. He’s learned to give them small trinkets: a scrap of food, a bit of lint, pennies that have been through the dryer. They snatch the offerings from his hand like greedy birds, and in return, don’t bother him too much when he comes back to the apartment from another long shift.
She, however, isn’t as charitable.
“Look at those things,” she says, peering down at the street through a slit in the blinds. The abandoned playground across the street is full of spindly children, who cavort on the rusted equipment until the drug dealers drive them out around dusk. “Little animals. They barely even know where they are.”
“They’re not animals.” But he knows, he knows, that she’s not talking about these children. She’s talking about the child.
The child doesn’t know where it is. It has no idea that it lives in a vault five stories below the central plaza of the Solved City. It is a milk-white little bug, left so long in the vault that its eyes have mostly ceased to work. It knows only a few phrases, like “fuck you” and “nasty thing” and “you little shit.” Sometimes it repeats the words and the city alders wash its mouth out with soap.
It has no gender, because that would increase its humanity, and decrease the potency of the violence-magic.
It has no name, because then it might be a person.
It has no wants, no interests, no friends and no family.
It’s what keeps the Solved City afloat, and it’s the reason they left.
When you turn seventeen in the Solved City, the alders show you the child. It’s an event, like your first period, or the first time you climb by yourself onto the back of one of the golden stallions that roam the streets.
The alders take you into City Hall. You’ve been there before, on countless school trips. They lead you to a perfectly normal steel door with no markings on it. Its lack of markings is a marking.
You are led downwards. All the way downwards. You’ve never been so far underground. As you descend you start to hear voices. You feel cold in a way you’ve never felt before. Just inside the edges of your vision you see a movement, as if from an animal.
Inside, on a pad of filthy burlap, sits a child of perhaps seven. Its skin is the color of new paper. One of its arms has been ripped off at the elbow, leaving a rotted stump. When it sees the group of visitors, it soils itself, audibly.
“Look at the child,” the alderman says. “He suffers so you can live.”
The teenager who will grow up to be Cipher feels his lunch of roasted pheasant and heirloom tomatoes rise in his throat. He forces it back down, and makes himself look at the child. Around him he can hear his classmates shifting uncomfortably.
“Your lives are pleasant. You know that out there,” the alderman continues, not having to qualify the out there, “there are things worse than this. Sweatshops. Gangs. Mass murder. We only have this child. And we take care of it, in our own way. That’s more than they’d do out there.” He pats the child on its head, mussing its sparse, limp hair.
Cipher looks around, his breath catching. He wants to run up there, tear the shirt from his back, and wrap the child inside, carrying it away from this horrible place. But something he can’t identify holds him back.
Most of his classmates are nodding. He keeps his head still, his mouth closed.
An alderwoman enters the ill-lit basement. She’s someone Cipher has seen before, a kindly fair-haired merchant who never has a harsh word for anyone. He likes her. But now her eyes have a different cast to them. She takes a switchblade from the depths of her robe.
“You fucking piece of shit!” screams the alderwoman in an unearthly tone as she deftly slices one of the child’s fingers off, producing a gush of sickly, pinkish blood. Cipher’s stomach lurches and he moans, earning him a sharp look from the alderwoman.
The boy at Cipher’s side faints, his head coming down hard on Cipher’s shin.
“This is for you!” the alderwoman says. She picks the child up from its burlap mat and shakes it until its teeth rattle. Suddenly, she drops it and becomes calm, slipping into a choreographed speech she’s recited to countless parades of adolescents. “Paradise always comes at a price. Here in the Solved City, we torture not the many, only the one. We have concentrated the suffering to a single point, so that all of you may live in peace. There is no other way, do you see? Somebody must suffer, and this child knows nothing else.”
“We give it purpose,” the alderman says. He removes a small medical kit from his pocket and dresses the child’s wound. “The child needs us. Truly, it’s no worse off at our hands.”
No, Cipher thinks. No, it’s wrong. I have to help it! But what can he do? They won’t let him snatch the child and spirit it away, and he can’t bring himself to attack either of the alders. He pushes the unconscious boy from him with a toe.
Suddenly, the alderwoman drops her blood-spattered knife and stares at the teenager who will be Cipher. “Are you going to take its place?” She points at Cipher, jabbing her finger into his chest until he stumbles backwards. “Just come up here right now, kid.” She flicks her wrist at the filthy corner where the child lays.
Cipher’s face burns with shame, and he shrinks at her touch. He starts to choke out a reply, but by the time he can speak, she’s already halfway down the line of onlookers, asking them the same question. It’s just another part of the routine.
The alderman claps his hands, calling them all back to attention. “We have a gift here in the Solved City, a precious resource. See it. Know it exists. Remember it. Are there any questions?”
There are, but nobody says a word.
The child picks up its severed finger and pops it into its own toothless maw.
Blank’s out of the house tonight. She’s often out of the house anymore.
Cipher eases himself into the recliner they pulled from a Dumpster. It smells like hot dogs with cheese. His body hurts right down to the bone. He pops the top off a beer, which is far inferior to the elixirs they had in the Solved City, but it will do.
The maps remain on the coffee table. They haven’t looked at the maps in weeks.
He dozes, awakening at some indistinct point when Blank comes through the door. Her hair is wet and matted from the rain.
“Where were you?” he asks, though he doesn’t really care. Blank’s life is her own to live.
Is that guilt he senses in her lovely, sylph-like face? What could Blank possibly be guilty of? He shrugs it off. “I didn’t make anything for dinner.”
“That’s all right. I’m not hungry.” In fact, she looks radiant. Or at least better than Cipher, anyway.
“I am.” He heaves himself from the recliner and goes to the kitchen. He opens a can of ravioli laced with unpronounceable chemicals. Cipher gags as he eats; even after six months away, he’s still not used to the food here.
She drops her purse on the coffee table, right over the marked-up maps. He frowns a little at this.
After she leaves the next morning, there’s a red spot in the middle of Wyoming. He stares at this spot for a long time.
When you leave the pleasant order of the Solved City for the sun-blasted world beyond, you are not the only one who is changed. The minds of the ones you leave behind are similarly erased.
Cipher thinks about this. He knows that there are people he went to school with who suddenly didn’t exist, but he doesn’t recall their faces. He doesn’t recall their voices or their names or mannerisms. There is a lack there, soon to be filled up, like a hole in sand before the tide rolls in.
It doesn’t make you sad, this lack. It’s just there.
Cipher is glad that his parents don’t remember him. The Solved City wouldn’t be much of a paradise if parents longed for their lost children, if lovers were separated because one of them could stand the existence of the child and the other one couldn’t.
Cipher, of course, remembers everything.
Once, when they were still living in the Solved City, Blank asked Cipher if the child’s mother remembered it, if she thought about it at all. That should have been the first sign that there was something wrong with Blank.
On a day when they’re both free from work, Cipher convinces Blank to sit down in front of the maps and keep searching. They spend a few hours drawing lines across the crumpled gas station map when Blank starts screaming and upends the table.
“It wasn’t worth it! Do you want to know what I saw today? A dead kid, frozen in the alley. She’d been there for days, Cipher. The rats had eaten her nose.”
Cipher blinks. He doesn’t know what to believe. “Did you call the police?”
“Like they’d give a shit.” She starts to pace, running her hands through her black hair. “Ten people were killed last week, all across the city. Gangs, drugs, beatings. There was nothing like this where we came from. Nothing.”
“No. There was something worse.”
She laughs, darkly. “Was there? At least we kept it contained. At least we … harnessed it somehow. The child, it suffered for us. What do these people suffer for?”
Cipher tries to think of an answer that won’t stoke Blank’s anger. “Freedom?”
“Yes, the freedom to live in a shithole.” She wheels around and slams the door to their bedroom.
Cipher waits a few beats, and then rummages through Blank’s purse. He needs money for takeout. It’s not just free here.
Inside he finds money and also a nose wrapped in clear plastic. He pockets it, leaving the cash.
It’s not that the gentle folk of the Solved City don’t think about the child. In fact, they think about the child a lot. They think about the child every time they take the solar-powered tram to the central square. They think about the child every time they brush their golden stallions.
The child shows up in their dreams. Sometimes it appears whole and happy. Sometimes it appears as it is, mangled and full of one-way hate.
What the people of the Solved City don’t do, what they have never done, is talk about the child. Once you leave the child’s oubliette, the existence of the child becomes a conversation you hold with yourself alone. You live well for the child. Because its life is terrible beyond the comprehension of any person in the Solved City (though not beyond the comprehension of those outside), your life must be wonderful. To make the child’s suffering worth anything at all, you must live. And you do.
This is the violence-magic. This is the city’s, and the child’s, gift to you.
Anyone can visit the child, assuming they don’t try to go outside of the normal city hall business hours. You can just walk right on inside. But why would you want to?
The day after their argument, Cipher follows Blank down to the harbor. The titty bar where she works is lit up with Christmas lights half burned out and flickering.
He doesn’t go inside. He doesn’t want to see Blank like she is at work, her creamy skin sloshed with beer and engulfed with cigarette smoke. He doesn’t even want to be here at all, but he has to know.
When she leaves, he follows her, through the streets of this new shithole that is now their home. She doesn’t go to the bus stop. She slips into a warehouse.
Cipher waits five beats and goes inside.
It’s black as pitch in there, black as Blank’s hair. He used to love burying his face in that hair, breathing in the essence of her. Blank won’t let him touch her any more.
“Honey?” he says. He takes his cell phone out of his pocket and turns on the flashlight app. The warehouse is like so many warehouses outside of the Solved City. It hasn’t held actual products in at least twenty years, and is now home to rats, mice, spiders, termites, stray cats, and occasionally, people.
No people here now, though. That’s good. Cipher continues to plumb the warehouse’s depths, swinging the flashlight before him like a beacon.
“Blank?” he says, calling out her false name a little louder.
Down one of the narrow corridors, there is a cry. A cat? Does Blank have a stray cat down there? It’s his only lead, so Cipher follows it where it goes.
It leads to an unmarked door frosted with rust. Cipher pushes all his weight against the door. Blank is there, a bat in her hands. A cage is also there. So is a child.
During their long ride from the Solved City, at a flea-infested Motel 6 in Moline, Illinois, Cipher laid awake. Beside him, Blank was locked in an uneasy slumber, her regret causing her limbs to seize and twitch.
Had leaving been his decision? Or hers? Or both of theirs, together? Certainly, she had been more immediately contemptuous of the violence-magic that held the Solved City together. She hadn’t wanted to leave at first. She wanted to tear the whole system down.
He can’t imagine his life without her. But if he’d stayed behind, surely he’d have still been happy. Surely, the lack that appeared after the disappearance of other emigrants would have showed up for her too until eventually, she’d be a shadow of a memory, and maybe not even that. He’d have found another lover, a woman or man who managed to live happy despite the violence-magic, or if the science was true, because of it.
She’s worth it, he thought on a cold night as arguments echoed across the motel’s parking lot, isn’t she?
She is. She has to be.
He swings the door shut and vomits all the contents of his stomach across the concrete floor. She doesn’t come out to see if he’s all right.
When he feels able to face it again, he pushes the door back open and she’s still there, above the iron cage, the metal bat in her hands.
“What are you doing?!” Cipher finds some reserve of strength hidden like lint in the bottom of a pocket. He lurches forward and wrests the bat away from Blank. There’s hair on it. “What are you fucking doing?!”
Her mouth gapes open. She doesn’t have a response.
“I’m … I’m gonna have to tell someone about this.” But how can he? When he knows what they’ll do to her in prison, this naïve woman of the Solved City, not to mention that she makes four-fifths of their combined rent?
“I’m making people happy!” She spits at the mostly dead child in the cage and stalks out, slipping only slightly on the upchucked sandwich fixings at the door’s threshold.
Cipher looks down at the mess in the cage. Whereas the child beneath city hall radiated a bouquet of emotions, from fear to hate to perplexity, this child shows only terror. Terror of Blank. Terror of him.
It won’t survive long, so he does the merciful thing.
When he returns to their apartment, most of her belongings — not that there were ever many — are gone. So is she.
Before long, so is he.
He rents a house with two guys from Craigslist who seem to tolerate him okay. They don’t ask him many questions. He doesn’t ask them any questions at all.
He takes a normal name like Tom or Mitch. Maybe that was his real name back in the Solved City. It’s definitely his real name now.
He doesn’t look for the city, though he thinks about it every moment of his life for the rest of his life. He doesn’t look for Blank. He thinks about Blank less often than he thinks about the Solved City, though still too much. That wound doesn’t glaze over and there is no lack.
He grows old. He moves to a different city, one less pockmarked by violence and ruin, but when you come from the Solved City, any violence is too much. Any violence except that visited upon the child, the child that makes the magic happen.
Ten years later, after he has his own child with a woman he met in the elevator at his new job in his new city, he walks out into the desert and lets the sand erase his path.
Unofficially, they made them anyway,
fleshing cast-offs with fistfuls of straw,
stalks poxing the backs of hands, wrists.
Either gouging out their eyes with peeler, scissor,
or scoring their face on sack-cloth, pillow-case.
Back-boned them on garden rakes,
belted their waists round avenue trees.
In detached streets
they appeared in net-curtained windows, waving.
Stood in the post office queue and it did not dwindle.
In The Landlord’s Daughter, pint pots glooming,
no one serving the no one drinking.
In a stalled tractor, in a quiet lane,
one found slumped over the wheel,
thick of its head torn,
protest of orange pulp on the screen.
In class they sat in rows and stared
at yesterday’s blackboard,
oozing through the backs of wooden chairs
made for children. Hay fever came late this year
and Mrs McIver missed her first day —
lying in a sweat in a dream
where their autumn breath filled the room,
sweet and near spoiling,
others crowding the window, looking in.
And in The Wyndham, the amateur dramatics theatre,
the scarecrows took their seats,
rustled their applause
as the stage described the scarecrow players;
the more clamorous hands thinning
from the Circle to the Stalls.
Nothing hit them yet, no smell
of orchards burning, of summer failing,
as tiny flame from the footlights
sniffed out the nearest actors,
the bundles of their ankles,
then fed upward, inside,
in their clothes, moving.
The fire ran
for the grinning rows,
like a whisper through string
between two tin cans.
Through dark country fields,
passing one left over
like a mast in a storm,
they entered the village and found
cars and houses stalled,
no one in the pub or school.
In the cemetery, in the rows,
heads in the mud, heads in a hole,
they splintered the first box and saw,
where the body should have been,
only a broken hat, black slumps of clothes.
Or answers, as it will be, since we are holding an open submission session for Maurice Broaddus’s guest edited issue, and are reopening both to poetry and short fiction submissions.
If you have ever wanted to work with the talented author and editor Maurice Broaddus, you are in luck. He will be holding a short submission period for unsolicited stories for the issue he is guest editing. From December 1st through December 16th, you can submit original short fiction up to 7,500 words through our online submissions system to be considered by Maurice.
We have been closed to poetry submissions for more than a year, but having finally worked our way through accepted poems, poetry editor Bianca Spriggs is ready to reopen. Poetry submissions will reopen on December 1st. You will be able to submit up to 5 poems at one time through our online submissions system. Each poem should be submitted separately.
Original short fiction submissions to be considered by Editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore will reopen on January 15th.
All of these submissions will go through our online submission system. I will posting a link to that page on our submission guidelines page once we reopen. Any stories or poems sent while we are closed to submissions will be deleted unread.
Just as a reminder, it is always a good idea to make sure you are familiar with a publication’s submission guidelines before submitting.
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I met a man with no shadow today.
He crossed into the village limits near dusk, furtive in movements but resolute in expression. He wanted to find the Mamman. He did not understand my description of the route, partly because he spoke gutter Yoruba learnt from leather traders and partly because I have a stutter.
I decided to take him there because I thought it was a very sad thing losing one’s shadow. He was grateful, but fell silent after our initial conversation. I told him to wait while I checked my traps, for I am a hunter.
I had caught one bush rat and the leg of an antelope who had chewed his limb off in order to escape my pot. I reset the traps under the studious gaze of the man with no shadow.
The sun hid beneath the horizon, and even my shadow did not survive. We crossed the brook of tears without getting our feet wet and waved greeting to the three drinkers at the palm wine bar, men with whom I had been circumcised, but whose features had been blunted by ogogoro, their bodies the harvest of a misspent youth.
We walked past my house and I handed my puzzled wife my belt of charms. I did not kiss her or show affection in front of the stranger. I kept the rifle slung over my shoulder. The Mamman had magic, but gunpowder and lead would work on anything that had a heart, shadowed or not.
‘Your shadow is born when you are,’ said the Mamman, ‘but it outlives you. You should cast a shadow until your body rots.’
She was fat, with massive swinging breasts which held intricate tattoos and she had a sensual carelessness about her near-nakedness.
‘You may go,’ she said to me.
I shook my head. ‘I want to hear what he has to say.’
‘Very well.’ To the man she said: ‘What have you brought for me?’
The man unwrapped a small package and laid a dried, blackened object at the Mamman’s side. ‘This is the trigger finger of the greatest warrior my village has ever known.’
‘Did you kill him?’ she asked.
‘No, but it is mine to give away.’ He offered no further explanation.
The Mamman put it away and licked her lips, sat back down. ‘I’ve known two others who lost their shadows in my time.’
‘I did not lose it,’ said the man. ‘I drove it away.’
‘Explain, outlander. I get bored easily and when I’m bored I amuse myself by sucking the brains out of the eyeballs of mouthy customers.’
It was a story of war.
The man’s village had been outnumbered by invaders from the north. Fair-skinned, heavily-clothed warriors with curved swords and strange customs. They outnumbered the indigenous people two to one and had mounted cavalry and bows and arrows.
‘The witch doctor had a solution. He would bring alive our shadows, in the process doubling the army strength, but we had to win the battle before sundown because he could only hold the spell from dawn till dusk of one day. We also had to fight alongside our counterparts so that they could find their way back to merge just before sundown. As it turned out the invaders were so afraid of the dark warriors that they fled, but the shadow-selves were more…dishonourable.’
There was a massacre, with the slaughter and sodomization of unarmed men in the process of surrendering.
‘Most of my villagers allowed this, encouraged it even, but I objected. My shadow wished to continue, but I tried to prevent it. It turned on me, but I fought it off. It hissed and sputtered, and slinked away and I did not see it again before sundown. I have not cast a shadow since. It made my wife and family so uncomfortable that they rejected me. I had heard of the subtle skill of the Mamman here. I loaded provisions, left my kinsmen, and here I am.’
The Mamman was silent for a long time, and she scratched herself absently. Our shadows flickered in the candlelight, with an eerie gap where the stranger’s should have been.
‘It’s not such a bad thing to lack a shadow self,’ she said.
‘Then give me yours,’ said the man.
The Mamman laughed. It sounded like many jackals at once, and spittle sprayed around. I dared not wipe it off my chin. The woman stood and breadcrumbs dropped to the floor. ‘There are two ways of solving this problem. We can find your errant shadow or take one from a recently-deceased person. The latter will not look like you and may not move at exactly the same moment as you, but nobody will notice who doesn’t observe closely. Chose wisely.’
This is how I came to be a resurrectionist, digging into the grave of one Saliu Ogunrombi, who died in the last wave of Yellow Fever.
While we dug, he told me the story of their clan’s greatest warrior, Gani. One of the invaders struck him on the head with a war hammer, and Gani had lost his senses ever since. Became a different man, clumsy, and a falling boulder crushed his arm. The man without a shadow took Gani’s hand after the warrior died. He had two of the petrified fingers left. He gave me one.
There was no moon. There was the rhythmic digging of myself and the man with no shadow. The Mamman sat on a stool waiting, smoking.
The ritual itself was undramatic, and consisted of holding Saliu upright and lighting torches behind him. The Mamman said something to the resultant shadow in old language, and it detached from Saliu. It bobbed over to the stranger and fused with his feet.
We reinterred Saliu. His former shadow leaned towards the grave instead of away from light.
At dawn I settled at my wife’s side, freshly showered and with no intention of doing the day’s hunting. Her hand drifted between my legs, but grave digging is tiring work and there was no oak tree for her to climb, just a willow. She muttered something about me spending too much time with the three palm wine drunks.
Before I fell asleep I remembered the last words the Mamman said to me as the man walked away with his new shadow.
‘In a year he will return to us. To me. He will tell me to release him from this shadow.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘He will say his wife has left him again, and the people of his village shun him. He will say the new shadow self has changed his behaviour and he cannot control himself.’
I said nothing.
‘And he will be right.’
‘What is a shadow, Ma?’ I asked. I did not stutter when with her.
‘Sometimes, it is what lurks underneath your face, ready to emerge when you are angry or afraid. Sometimes, a blow from an enemy hammer can release it.’
She shrugged, and walked into the twilight. Presently, I went home.
I looked at the walls of my bedroom, at the shadows receding with the rising sun, and the rise and fall of my wife’s chest.
I’m at the Integrity Bank job for forty minutes before the anxieties kick in. It’s how I usually start my day. This time it’s because of a wedding and a final exam. Not my wedding, not my exam. In my seat by the window I can see, but not hear, the city. This high above Rosewater everything seems orderly. Blocks, roads, streets, traffic curving sluggishly around the dome. I can see the cathedral from here. The window is to my left, and I’m on one end of an oval table with four other contractors. We are on the fifteenth floor, the top. A skylight is open above us, three-foot square, a security grid being the only thing between us and the morning sky. Blue, with flecks of white cloud. No blazing sun yet, but that will come later. The climate in the room is controlled despite the open skylight, a waste of energy for which Integrity Bank is fined weekly. They are willing to take the expense.
Next to me on the right side Bola yawns. She is pregnant and gets very tired these days. She also eats a lot, but I suppose that’s to be expected. I’ve known her two years and she has been pregnant in each of them. I do not fully understand pregnancy. I am an only child and I never grew up around pets or livestock. My education was peripatetic; biology was never a strong interest. Except for microbiology, which I had to master later.
I try to relax and concentrate on the bank customers. The wedding anxiety comes again.
Rising from the centre of the table is a holographic teleprompter. It consists of random swirls of light right now, but within a few minutes it will come alive with text. There is a room adjacent to ours in which the night shift is winding down.
‘I hear they read Dumas last night,’ says Bola.
She’s just making conversation. It is irrelevant what the other shift reads. I smile and say nothing.
The wedding I sense is due in three months. The bride has put on a few pounds and does not know if she should alter the dress or get liposuction. In my opinion, women have two beauties. The outward appearance that everyone sees and the inner, secret beauty that is true and that women show only to the one they love.
Bola is prettier when she is pregnant.
‘Sixty seconds,’ says a voice on the tannoy.
I take a sip of water from the tumbler on the table. The other contractors are new. They don’t dress formally like Bola and I. They wear tank tops and t-shirts and metal in their hair. They have phone implants.
I hate implants of all kinds. I have one. Standard locator with no add-ons. Boring, really, but my employer demands it.
The exam anxiety dies down before I can isolate and explore the source. Fine by me.
The bits of metal these young ones have in their hair come from plane crashes. Lagos, Abuja, Jos, Kano, and all points in between, there have been downed aircraft on every domestic route in Nigeria since the early 2000s. They wear bits of fuselage as protective charms.
There are those among us who are shining ones. We know them on sight-we are caught in a vortex and drawn to them as are everyone else. Bola is one of these. I often catch myself staring at her without knowing why. She often catches me staring at her and winks. Now she unwraps her snack, a few wraps of moin-moin.
‘Go,’ says the tannoy.
The text of Plato’s The Republic scrolls slowly and steadily in ghostly, holographic figures on the cylindrical display. I start to read, as do the others, some silently, others out loud. We enter the xenosphere and set up the bank’s firewall.
Every day about five hundred customers carry out financial transactions at these premises. Wild sensitives probe and push, trying to pick personal data out of the air. I’m talking about dates-of-birth, PINs, mothers’ maiden names, past transactions, all of them lying docile in each customer’s forebrain, in the working memory, waiting to be plucked out by the hungry, untrained, and freebooting sensitives.
Contractors like myself, Bola Martinez, and the metalheads are trained to repel these. And we do. We read classics to flood the xenosphere with irrelevant words and thoughts, a firewall of knowledge that even makes its way to the subconscious of the customer. A professor did a study of it once. He found a correlation between the material used for firewalling and the activities of the customer for the rest of the year. A person who had never read Shakespeare would suddenly find snatches of King Lear coming to mind for no apparent reason.
We can trace the intrusions if we want, but Integrity isn’t interested. It’s difficult and expensive to prosecute crimes perpetuated in the xenosphere.
The queues for cash machines, so many people, so many cares and wants and passions. I am tired of filtering the lives of others through my mind.
I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess; and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing. I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants; but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful. When we had finished our prayers and viewed the spectacle, we turned in the direction of the city …
On entering the xenosphere there is a projected self-image. The untrained, wild sensitives project themselves, but professionals like me are trained to create a controlled, chosen self-image. Mine is a gryphon.
The wild ones have self-images that are not accurate, that do not map to their current selves. It is not deliberate. It takes time for a mental image to correspond to the actual person, although it varies with individuals. A bald man may have a more hirsute self-image for years.
My first attack of the day comes from a middle-aged man from a town house in Yola. He looks reedy and very dark-skinned. I warn him and he backs off. A teenager takes his place so quickly that I think they are in the same physical location as part of a hack farm. Criminal cabals sometimes round up sensitives, yoke them together in a ‘Mumbai-combo’-a call-centre model with serial blackhats.
Either way, I’ve seen it all before. I am already bored.
During the lunch break one of the metalheads comes in and sits by me. He starts to talk shop, telling me of a near-miss intrusion. He looks to be in his twenties, still excited about being a sensitive, finding everything new and fresh and interesting, the opposite of cynical, the opposite of me.
He must be in love. His self-image shows propinquity. He is good enough to mask the other person, but not good enough to mask the fact of his closeness. I see the shadow, the ghost beside him. I don’t mention this out of respect.
The metal he carries is twisted into crucifixes and attached to a single braid on otherwise short hair. This leaves his head on the left temple and coils around his neck, disappearing into the collar of his shirt.
‘I’m Clement,’ he says. ‘I notice you don’t use my name.’
This is true. I was introduced to him by an executive two weeks back, but I forgot his name instantly and have been using pronouns ever since.
‘My name …’
‘You’re Kaaro. I know. Everybody knows you. Excuse me for this, but I have to ask. Is it true that you’ve been inside Utopicity?’
‘That’s a rumour,’ I say.
‘Yes, but is the rumour true?’ asks Clement.
Outside the window the sun is far too slow in its journey across the sky. Why am I here? What am I doing?
‘I’d rather not discuss it.’
‘Are you going tonight?’ he asks.
I know what night it is. I have no interest in going.
‘Perhaps,’ I say. ‘I might be busy.’
This boy is rather nosy. I had hoped for a brief, polite exchange, but now I find myself having to concentrate on him, on my answers. He is smiling, being friendly, sociable. I should reciprocate.
‘I’m going with my family,’ says Clement. ‘Why don’t you come with us? I’m sending my number to your phone. All of Rosewater will be there.’
That is the part that bothers me, but I say nothing to Clement. I accept his phone number, and send mine out of politeness, but I do not commit.
Before the end of the working day I get four other invitations to the Opening. I decline most of them, but Bola is not a person I can refuse.
‘My husband has rented a flat for the evening,’ she says, handing me a slip of paper with the address. Her look of disdain tells me if I had the proper implant we would not need to kill trees. ‘Don’t eat. I’ll cook.’
By eighteen hundred hours the last customer has left and we’re all typing at terminals, logging the intrusion attempts, cross-referencing to see if there are any hits, and too tired to joke. We never get feedback on the incident reports. There’s no pattern analysis or trend graph. This data is sucked into a bureaucratic black hole. It’s just getting dark, and we’re all in our own heads now, but passively connected to the xenosphere. I’m vaguely aware that a chess game is going on, but I don’t care between whom. I don’t play so I don’t understand the progress.
‘Hello, Gryphon,’ someone says.
I focus, but it’s gone. She’s gone. Definitely female. I get a wispy impression of a flower in bloom, something blue, but that’s it. I’m too tired or lazy to follow it up, so I punch in my documentation and fill out the electronic time sheet.
I ride the elevator to street level. I have never seen much of the bank. The contractors have access to the express elevator. It’s unmarked and operated by a security guard who sees us, even though we do not see him or his camera. This may as well be magic. The elevator seems like a rather elegant wooden box. There are no buttons and it is unwise to have confidential conversations in there. This time as I leave the operator says, ‘Happy Opening.’ I nod, unsure of which direction to respond in.
The lobby is empty, dark. Columns stand like Victorian dead posed for pictures. The place is usually manned when I go home, but I expect the staff have been allowed to leave early for the Opening.
It’s full night now. The glow from Utopicity’s dome is omnipresent, though not bright enough to read by. The skyline around me blocks direct view, but the light frames every high rise to my left like a rising sun, and is reflected off the ones to my right. This is the reason there are no street lights in Rosewater. I make for Alaba Station, the clockwise platform. The streets are empty save the constable who walks past, swinging her baton. I am wearing a suit so she does not care to harass me. A mosquito whines past my ear, but does not appear to be interested in tasting my blood. By the time I reach the concourse there is a patch of light sweat in each of my armpits. It’s a warm night. I text my flat to reduce internal temperature one degree lower than external.
Alaba Station is crowded with commercial district workers and the queues snake out to the streets, but they are almost all going anticlockwise to Kehinde Station which is closest to the Opening. I hesitate briefly before I buy my ticket. I plan to go home and change, but I wonder if it will be difficult to meet up with Bola and her husband. I have a brief involuntary connection to the xenosphere and a hot, moist surge of anger from a cuckolded husband lances through me. I disconnect and breathe deeply.
I go home. Even though I have a window seat and the dome is visible, I do not look at Utopicity. When I notice the reflected light on the faces of other passengers I close my eyes, though this does not keep out the savoury smell of akara or the sound of their trivial conversation. There’s a saying that everybody in Rosewater dreams of Utopicity at least once every night, however briefly. I know this is not true because I have never dreamed of the place.
That I have somewhere to sit on this train is evidence of the draw of the Opening. The carriages are usually full to bursting and hot, not from heaters, but from body heat and exhalations and despair.
I come off at Atewo after a delay of twenty-five minutes due to a power failure from the north ganglion. I look around for Yaro, but he’s nowhere to be found. Yaro’s a friendly stray dog who sometimes follows me home and whom I feed scraps. I walk from the station to my block, which takes ten minutes. When I get signal again my phone has four messages. Three of them are jobs. The forth is from my employer.
‘Call now. And get a phone implant. This is prehistoric.’
I do not call her. She can wait.
I live in a two-bed, partially automated flat. I could get a better place if I wanted. I have the funds, but not the inclination. I strip, leaving my clothes where they lie, and pick out something casual. I stare at my gun holster, undecided. I cross the room to the wall safe which appears in response to signals from my ID implant. I open it and consider taking my gun. There are two clips of ammo beside it along with a bronze mask and a clear cylinder. The fluid in the cylinder is at rest. I pick it up and shake it, but the liquid is too viscous and it stays in place. I put it back and decide against a weapon.
I shower briefly and head out to the Opening.
How to talk about the Opening?
It is the formation of a pore in the biodome that covers Utopicity. Rosewater is a doughnut-shaped conurbation that surrounds Utopicity. In the early days we actually called it The Doughnut. I was there. I saw it grow from a frontier town of tents and clots of sick people huddling together for warmth into a kind of shanty town of hopefuls and from there into an actual municipality. In its eleven years of existence Utopicity has not taken in a single outsider. I was the last person to traverse the biodome and there will not be another. Rosewater, on the other hand, is the same age, and grows constantly.
Every year, though, the biodome opens for twenty or thirty minutes in the south, in the Kehinde area. All the people in the vicinity of the opening are cured of all physical and some mental ailments. It is also well-known and documented that the outcome is not always good, even if diseases are abolished. There are reconstructions that go wrong, as if the blueprints are warped. Nobody knows why this happens, but there are also people who deliberately injure themselves for the sole purpose of getting “reconstructive surgery.”
Trains are out of the question on a night like this. I take a taxi which drives in the opposite direction first, then describes a wide, southbound arc, taking a circuitous route through the back roads and against the flow of traffic. This works until it doesn’t. Too many cars and motorbikes and bicycles, too many people walking, too many street performers and preachers and out-of-towners. I pay the driver and walk the rest of the way to Bola’s temporary address. This is easy as my path is perpendicular to the crush of pilgrims.
Oshodi Street is far enough from the biodome that the people are not so dense as to impede my progress. Number fifty-one is a tall, narrow four-storey building. The first door is propped open with an empty wooden beer crate. I walk into a hallway that leads to two flats and an elevator. On the top floor, I knock, and Bola lets me in.
One thing hits me immediately: the aroma and heat blast of food which triggers immediate salivation and the drums of hunger in my stomach. Bola hands me field glasses and leads me into the living room. There is a similar pair dangling on a strap around her neck. She wears a shirt with the lower buttons open so that her bare gravid belly pokes out. Her heavy breasts push against the two buttons keeping them in check and I wonder how long the laws of physics will allow this. Two children, male and female, about eight or nine, run around, frenetic, giggling, happy.
‘Wait,’ says Bola. She makes me wait in the middle of the room and returns with a paper plate filled with akara, dodo, and dundu. She leads me by the free hand to the veranda where there are four deck chairs facing the dome. Her husband, Dele, is in one, the next is empty, the third is occupied by a woman I don’t know, and the fourth is for me. Dele Martinez is rotund, jolly, but quiet. I’ve met him many times before and we get along well. Bola introduces the woman as Aminat, a sister, although the way she emphasises the word, this could mean an old friend who is as close as family, not a biological sibling. She’s pleasant enough, smiles with her eyes, has her hair drawn back into a bun of sorts, and is casually dressed in jeans, but is perhaps my age or younger. Bola knows I am single and has made it her mission to find me a mate. I don’t like this because … well, when people match-make they introduce people to you whom they think are sufficiently like you. Each person they bring is a commentary on how they see you. If I’ve never liked anyone Bola has introduced me to does that mean she doesn’t know me well enough or that she does know me, but I hate myself?
I sit down and avoid talking by eating. I avoid eye-contact by using the binoculars.
The crowd is contained in Sanni Square, usually a wide-open space framed by exploitative shops and travel agents, behind which Oshodi Street lurks. A firework goes off, premature, a mistake. Most leave the celebrations till afterwards. Oshodi Street is a good spot. It’s bright from the dome and we are all covered in that creamy blue electric light. Utopicity’s shield is not dazzling, and up close you can see a fluid that ebbs and flows just beneath the surface of the barrier.
The glasses are high-end with infra-red sensitivity and a kind of optional implant hack that brings up individual detail about whoever I focus on, tag information travelling by laser dot and information downloading from satellite. It is a bit like being in the xenosphere; I turn it off because it reminds me of work.
Music wafts up, carried in the night, but unpleasant and cacophonic because it comes from competing religious factions, bombastic individuals and the dome tourists. It is mostly percussion-accompanied chanting.
There are, by my estimate, thousands of people. They are of all colours and creeds: black Nigerians, Arabs, Japanese, Pakistani, Persians, white Europeans, and a mix-mash of others. All hope to be healed or changed in some specific way. They sing and pray to facilitate the opening. The dome is, as always, indifferent to their reverence or sacrilege.
Some hold a rapt, religious awe on their faces and cannot bring themselves to talk, while others shout in a continuous, sustained manner. An Imam has suspended himself from a roof in a harness that looks homemade, and is preaching through a bullhorn. His words are lost in the din which swallows meaning and nuance and shits out a homogenous roar. Fights break out but are quashed in seconds because nobody knows if you have to be “good” to deserve the blessings from Utopicity.
A barricade blocks access to the dome and armed constables form up in front of it. The first civilians are one hundred metres away from Utopicity’s dome, held back by an invisible stanchion. The officers look like they will shoot to kill. This is something they have done in the past, the latest incident being three years back when the crowd showed unprecedented rowdiness. Seventeen dead, although the victims rose during that year’s Opening. They were … destroyed two weeks later as they clearly were not themselves anymore. This happens. Utopicity can restore the body, but not the soul. The god told me that back in ‘55.
I cough from the peppery heat of the akara. The fit drives my vision to the sky briefly and I see a waning gibbous, battling bravely against the light pollution.
I see the press, filming, correspondents talking into microphones. Here and there are lay-scientists with big scanners pointed finger-like towards Utopicity. Skeptics, true believers, in-between, all represented.
I feel a gentle tap on my left shoulder and emerge from the vision. Aminat is looking at me. Bola and her husband have shifted out of earshot.
‘What do you see?’ she asks. She is smiling as if she is in on some joke but unsure if it’s at my expense.
‘People desperate for healing,’ I say. ‘What do you see?’
‘Poverty,’ says Aminat. ‘Spiritual poverty.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing. Maybe humankind was meant to be sick from time to time. Maybe there is something to be learned from illness.’
‘Are you politically inclined against Utopicity?’
‘No, hardly. I don’t have politics. I just like to examine all angles of an issue. Do you care?’
I shake my head. I don’t want to be here, and if not for Bola’s invitation I would be home contemplating my cholesterol levels. I am intrigued by Aminat, but not enough to want to access her thoughts. She is trying to make conversation, but I don’t like talking about Utopicity. Why then do I live in Rosewater? I should move to Lagos, Abuja, Accra, anywhere but here.
‘I don’t want to be here either,’ says Aminat.
I wonder for a moment if she has read my thoughts, if Bola matched us because she is also a sensitive. That would be irritating.
‘Let’s just go through the motions to keep Bola happy. We can exchange numbers at the end of the evening and never call each other again. I will tell her tomorrow, when she asks, that you were interesting and attentive, but there was no chemistry. And you will say …?’
‘That I enjoyed my evening, and I like you, but we didn’t quite click.’
‘You will also say that I had wonderful shoes and magnificent breasts.’
‘Er … okay.’
‘Good. We have a deal. Shake on it?’
Except, we cannot shake hands because there is oil on mine from the akara, but we touch the back of our hands together, co-conspirators. I find myself smiling at her.
A horn blows and we see a dim spot on the dome, the first sign. The dark spot grows into a patch. I have not seen this as often as I should. I saw it the first few times but stopped bothering after five years.
The patch is roughly circular, with a diameter of six or seven feet. Black as night, as charcoal, as pitch. It looks like those dark bits on the surface of the sun. This is the boring part. It will take half an hour for the first healing to manifest. Right now all is invisible. Microbes flying into the air. The scientists are frenzied now. They take air samples and will try to grow cultures on blood agar. Futile. The xenoforms do not grow on artificial media.
In the balcony everyone except me takes a deep breath, trying to get as much inside their lungs as possible. Aminat breaks her gaze from the dome, twists in her seat and kisses me on the lips. It lasts seconds and nobody else sees it, intent as they are upon the patch. After a while I am not sure it happened at all. I don’t even know what to make of it. I can read minds but I still don’t understand women.
Down below it begins, the first cries of rapture. It is impossible to confirm or know what ailments are taken care of at first. If there is no obvious deformity or stigmata like jaundice, pallor, or a broken bone, there is no visible change except the emotional state of the healed. Already, down at front, younger pilgrims are doing cartwheels and crying with gratitude.
A man brought in on a stretcher gets up. He is wobbly at first, but then walks confidently. Even from this distance I can see the wideness and wildness of his eyes and the rapid flapping of his lips. Newcomers experience disbelief.
This continues in spurts and sometimes ripples that flow through the gathered people. The trivial and the titanic are equally healed.
The patch is shrinking now. At first the scientists and I are the only ones to notice. Their activities become more agitated. One of them shouts at the others, though I cannot tell why.
I hear a tinkle of laughter from beside me. Aminat is laughing with delight, her hands held half an inch from her face and both cheeks moist. She is sniffing. That’s when it occurs to me that she is here to be healed as well.
I get a text at that moment. I look at my palm to read the message off the flexible subcutaneous polymer. My boss again.
Call right now, Kaaro. I am not kidding.
It’s the middle of the night when I arrive at Ubar. I come off the last train and there’s a car waiting for me. Ubar is an area between the North Ganglion and the widest part of the River Yemoja. We drive along the banks before turning away into empty roads and dark buildings. The driver stops in front of imposing iron gates and waits for me to get out, then drives off.
I walk into a facility that belongs to the Ministry of Agriculture. From the outside it is a simple, two-storey building with ordinary signage showing the Nigeria Coat-of-Arms covered in dust. Inside there’s a reception and an open plan office. There are framed photographs of the president on one wall and Rosewater’s mayor Jack Jacques on the other. Mundane. I’m buzzed through all of this without delay and my RFID is logged sure as cancer.
I go straight to the elevator down to the sub-levels. These are used and controlled by Section Forty-five, or S45. Most have never heard of this obscure branch of government. I have only heard of them because I work for them. Before that I was a finder and a thief.
Part of my job with S45 is interrogation. I hate interrogations.
It is 0300 hours and we are in a dim meeting room. There are two agents in black suits standing on either side of a prisoner who is naked and tied to a chair. The prisoner is blindfolded. The agents don’t speak and I do not know what information they need. I don’t bother trying to read them because the organisation would not have sent them if they knew anything. This is part of some bureaucrat’s idea of keeping the subject’s mind uncontaminated with expectations. What they want is for me to copy all the information from the subject’s mind, like making a backup of a hard drive. This is ridiculous and not possible, but no matter how many times I’ve written memos to the powers that be, this continues to be the manner in which they request interrogation.
Data does not spool into or out of the brain like a recording.
The man in front of me is black, unbruised, breathing in ragged hitches, and muscular. From time to time he says ‘please’ in Kanuri or Hausa. He tries Igbo and Yoruba sometimes, but I am not convinced he speaks any of the languages fluently. I am uncomfortable and stay two feet away from him. I connect to the xenosphere. I first establish that he is not a sensitive. His self-image is the same as the man in the chair. That’s good — it means I will not be here all night.
There is violence in this man’s head. I see two men beating a third in what looks like a backyard. The two men alternate kicks and punches between them while their victim tries to stay upright, using his forearms to shield himself as best as can be managed. The victim is bruised, dirty, and bleeding from the mouth and nose. He does not seem afraid. If anything, he appears to be mocking his tormentors. His attackers are uniformed, dark-skinned, with berets and sunglasses designed to make them seem identical. They do not look like the Nigerian police or Army, at least not by the uniform. Looking closer, the uniforms seem homemade, like from one of the militia. They have no weapons holsters, but one has a pistol stuck in a belt at the small of his back.
Something else that is odd: I cannot smell the yard or taste the dust that the three men kick up. I have neither the taste of blood in my mouth as the victim should, nor the pain of impact on my knuckles as the perpetuators should. Instead, this image is associated with the taste of food and drink, specifically kuli-kuli and beer. I also keep getting snatches of music from a cheap keyboard.
I briefly emerge from the xenosphere and inspect the prisoner. I walk around behind him and check his bound hands. His knuckles are dark, callused. You get this from knuckle push-ups and punching a hard surface like a wall or Wooden Man in order to remove sensation from the area, to make you a better fighter. I know this because I have done it. I check this because none of the participants in the prisoner’s memory seemed trained in hand-to-hand. He is not one of them.
Did he order the beating? Where did he witness it from?
Then it hits me.
‘Oh, you clever bastard,’ I say.
I re-enter the xenosphere. The ‘memory’ is staged. The prisoner watched it in a movie on repeat and was probably eating and drinking at the same time. He probably found a lesser known Nollywood film, which accounts for the cheesy music and the poor production values. He is not a sensitive, but he knows we exist and that he might be exposed to one on arrest. What it means to me is that he does have something to hide. I probe at the edges of the memory, which is like trying to peel off the adhesive label on a packet. I need to find purchase. I fix not on the image or sound, but on the other senses. Touch, smell, taste.
It’s the same woman as earlier in the night while I was at the bank, playful, curious, ephemeral. The interruption breaks my concentration and I see the beating looping around and around. I search for a linked self-image but all I can find is the noise of the general xenosphere. Random mentations. Useless. I am irritated, but my training kicks in and I focus my will on the matter at hand.
The sensation associated with the beating is gentle pressure on the buttocks and food, which tells me he was seated in some living room watching the scene on a wide-screen TV or a hologram. I discover the smell of cigarette smoke. The scene shifts, wobbles, dissipates and I’m in a smoke-filled room with five other men, all of whom are intent on the screen. Nobody speaks, but they drink beer, they smoke, and they chew the snacks laid out on a tray.
I don’t like interrogations, but I’m good at them. I feel proud of myself when I solve a puzzle, and then I feel disgust. I try to think of myself as a lawyer, operating within certain parameters that do not include morality. Focus on the task.
I pull out and say to the agents, ‘I need a forensic sketch artist. Now.’
I am debriefed by my boss, Femi Alaagomeji. Videoconference, of course. Nobody in the security services would ever knowingly be in the same room with a sensitive. I know for a fact that they are not even allowed to form relationships with sensitives and are required to report the occurrence of sensitives in their families. The last time I breathed the same air as Femi was six years ago, but before that was eleven years ago, when she shoved me into S45, just before my training, when Utopicity was new and Rosewater was nascent.
Femi is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is physically perfect in so many ways it hurts. In a sterile room, with a secure link, I videoconference with her. Today she wears burgundy lipstick. I happen to know she has a burgundy convertible Mercedes Benz. She must have driven it to work today.
‘Kaaro,’ she says.
‘Femi,’ I say.
‘Call me Mrs Alaagomeji.’
This is an old dance that we dance. She is not really irritated and I am not really impudent. We play the roles all the same.
‘Who is the prisoner, Femi?’
‘Classified, need-to-know, all that good shit. What do you have for me?’
‘Faces. Five of them. The artist did well and is running them through the system right now. She’s also looking at the location, the brand of the electronics, everything. That’s all for today. I’m tired and it’s almost time for my day job.’
‘It’s not a job. You contract. This is your job.’
‘Fine. My other job.’
‘How long will it take?’
‘I do not know. If you told me his name —’
‘— or what he’s done —’
‘Then we do it the hard way, inch by inch. I discover information, I stop, I let the artist know, we start again.’
‘So be it.’
‘Can I go home now?’
‘In a minute. How are you, Kaaro?’
‘I am alone, not lonely. It’s solitude, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’m keeping up with my reading. I’m going to learn to play the oboe.’
‘What are you reading?’
‘All right. Are you really learning the oboe?’
‘I don’t know why I bother asking. Go home.’
I’m barely able to keep my eyes open by the time the S45 car drops me at home. The night has lost the battle with the day and soon Rosewater will rise and go to work. The city wakes up in layers. Food comes first. Long haul drivers bring in crops from Oyo, Ogbomosho, Ilorin, and Abeokuta. Cassava, corn, yam flour, millet, rice from Thailand. Not a lot sourced locally anymore. These are delivered to the many categories of Bukka, the Mama Put, the Food-is-ready. Cheap, local, and essential for the unskilled workers who need a hearty carbohydrate bomb before tackling their less-than-minimum wage jobs where they go to use their biceps, triceps, and spinal columns to lift, hew, saw, join, shave, slaughter, and clean. They cook. The aroma draws out the first tier of office worker, clerks, secretaries, juniors. Over a two-hour period the middle-class professionals of Rosewater will arrive at their offices, surgeries, law chambers, accounting firms, and of course banks.
I will be joining them, but I need a shower and breakfast, perhaps strong coffee. I live in the middle floor of a three-storey in Atewo. An eight-digit code opens my flat, but there is an override key.
A series of phone messages come through as if the signal just became strong enough. I seriously consider skipping the bank, pretending to be sick and sleeping all day. I want to find out who is trying to reach me across the xenosphere. I strip and walk naked into the shower. I try that trick of using warm, then cold, then scalding hot water, but it does not refresh me. In the mirror my eyes look bloodshot and baggy like they’re from a pervert’s mug shot.
‘You look like an idiot,’ I say to my reflection. ‘You are an idiot. Your life is meaningless.’
I put on boxers and pad into the living room without getting fully dry.
‘Miles Davis, “So What,”’ I say to the sensors and the base plucks out on the speakers.
I sit. I close my eyes. I listen.
My accountant wants to discuss my taxes.
The National Research Laboratory calls. They want three days of my time. They will pay. I will ignore them. I have worked for them before and I don’t want to anymore. They’re in Lagos and they want to know about sensitives. I hate going to Lagos and the NRL scientists stare at me as if they want to open my brain while I’m still alive.
A message from Aminat, her speech like musical chairs. ‘Hello, Kaaro. I know, I know, we were only going through the motions. But I find myself thinking of you and I wonder what … (laughter) Oh, God, this is so … Okay, call back. Or not. I’m not as needy as I sound.’
She has me smiling.
A television producer who has been hounding me for two years offers me money and fame if I will appear on Nigeria is Talented.
I first think the person has left me a message on my phone but that’s not it. I open my eyes and a shoal of mackerel, oku eko, fly past my face. Miles still plays the horn, but it sounds distant. I am in a place of shifting colours and shadows. I look down at my hands and they are gone. Instead, there are feathers.
This shit hasn’t happened to me in a long time. I am in the xenosphere-asleep and in the xenosphere. It’s easy to see how. Warm bath, sleep deprivation.
‘Who are you?’ I ask, against all of my training.
‘I like your plumage,’ she says. ‘Can you fly?’
‘Anybody can fly here. Who are you?’
The fish are beginning to bother me. The air has the consistency of water. I hear an underhum of voices and thoughts of others at low signal. I cannot see this woman although I hear her clearly. No self-image?
‘I am an individual,’ she says. ‘I am a one.’
‘Yes, but what’s your name? Ki l’oruko e?’
‘Must I have one?’
She is silent for a time. I try to scratch my face, but I tickle myself with feathers instead. I stretch my wings and it feels better.
‘My name is Molara,’ she says.
I snap up one of the mackerels in my beak and break its back, then drop it to the floor between my forepaws. It twitches and lies still.
‘Show yourself,’ I say.
‘I don’t know how,’ said Molara.
Definitely a wild strain. I speak, echoing the words of my instructor.
‘Think of something you love, something you hate, something you fear, something disgusting or beautiful. Something you find impressive.’
Fire trucks of all sizes and descriptions stream past, none of their lights flashing. Some of them are toys. Behind each one a red masquerade runs, tiny Lilliputians for the toys, giants for the full-sized.
A butterfly flowers in front of my face. It unfolds lengthwise with a fourteen-foot wingspan. It is black and blue and its wings move in a majestic slow beat.
Then I wake, jarred out of the xenosphere at the same time by the phone. I am confused for a moment. The phone stops, then starts again.
‘Yes?’ I say.
‘You’re meant to be here,’ says Bola. ‘You sound hung-over. Are you hung-over?’
I am monstrously late.
My grooming is sloppy, but better than the metalheads’ so I’m fine. The customers surround the bank like ants feeding on a child’s dropped lollypop. The day after the Opening is always extra busy because people want to see their doctors and get laboratory tests to confirm their healing. The Rosewater medical community is not very robust and comes alive only at this time of year. One would think they would be out of practice.
The firewall is up without me. They are reading pages of Tolstoy. I sit in the break room and rub ketoconazole cream on my exposed skin to keep me out of the xenosphere. It’s the busiest banking day of the year and I do not want to fatigue myself further. I drink horrendous instant coffee by the cupful to keep myself awake, a benched striker.
INTERLUDE: MISSION ONE
It is unbearably hot, but still I wait. I feel rivulets of sweat dripping down my back, in between my butt cheeks. I can just about breathe, but the close, oxygen poor air threatens to make me black out. There are moth balls here waxing aromatic in my nose and mind, whispering fact and fiction about my wife. I can barely keep still. The clothes in the closet caress my back. Down around my feet there are shoes crowding, jostling for space. A dangling belt tinkles with my movements, made loud by the silence. My left hand rests against the warm wood of the door, my right by my side, weighed down by the knife.
Any moment now.
I hear a door slam from elsewhere in the house. I hear the beep as the door autolocks, and giggling that makes me see red. Literally, red flashes across my eyes in the darkness, like a surge of blood, just for a second. I can feel my heart driving the blood through my body, demanding that I move. I wait.
There are bumps and mistakes as two people wind their way through my house, through our house. The door to the room swings open. I imagine them standing there kissing. I hear the sucking sound of their lips. My fist tightens on the handle of the blade.
‘Stop,’ says my wife, but she is laughing.
‘Okay. No means no,’ says the man, mock seriousness.
Her perfume reaches me now. I hear the adulterous rustle of her clothes falling to the carpet.
‘Really?’ says my wife.
Now the blood sings in my ears. My head feels larger and my mouth is completely dry. I feel my scrotum constrict.
Lydia, Lydia, Lydia.
I do not know if I am thinking this or if her lover is repeating her name over, but her first gasp of pleasure is my cue.
I break out of the closet. The first few seconds are free because they do not hear me in their passion. I am at the bed. She is naked, supine, legs apart. He is between those legs, his hand buried in her sex, his neck beginning to turn.
I cut him first, side of the neck, surgical. The blood spurts, but I ignore it and shove him by the right arm. Lydia screams. Her eyes are rather comical circles, the whites larger than I have ever seen. For spite I drive the knife into her left eye, withdraw it, then stab her throat. I look at the man who is holding his neck and wetting the carpet with his blood. His shirt is soaked. His movements lack direction and he will die soon. I turn back to Lydia who is gurgling now.
I take my time to —
I fall to all fours and spew yellow-green slime. ‘Oh, fuck. He did it,’ I say.
‘Are you sure?’ asks Femi. ‘No hair, no DNA, no physical evidence.’
I cough. ‘Holy fucking shit, Femi, if I say he did it, he did it. He did it, okay? I fucking did it.’
‘Kaaro, calm down.’ She places a hand on my back, but I shrug it off.
‘I did it. I bought a Gene-grub and let it feed on me, then I let it loose in the room after I killed them both. An elegant drone hack removed traces of me from surveillance cameras. I paid the staff of the hotel for their blindness. I drowned them in a river of foreign currency. They will go to their deathbeds denying that they ever set eyes on me.’
I dry heave.
‘Kaaro, you mean him, right?’
Oh fuck, the revulsion. Oh, fuck. Ori mi. Help! Lydia! Lydia!
Why the fuck does it feel like … Why am I guilty?
‘Help me,’ I say. ‘Help me.’
I crawl into a corner. I cannot stop shaking; I cannot stop seeing my arm rise and fall, the wide eyes, the gurgling …
‘Over-identification,’ says the doctor. I forget his name, I do not like him.
Three months since the assignment. I am sequestered, back in from the cold, as they say. They stick me in a mental joint, for field agents who go over the edge, and I most definitely went over the edge.
He continues. ‘You identified too strongly with your subject. Ego boundaries blurred and you lost the integrity of your self. You thought you were him.’
‘I know that here,’ I say, pointing to my head, ‘but not in my heart.’
He laughs. ‘That’s an improvement over when you first arrived. If it’s in your head, your heart will follow.’
I am not so sure. I am not so sure who I am. I mean, I know I am Kaaro, and I work for S45 and I was trained by Professor Ileri and Rosewater is my home and … but … but I remember how Lydia sighs after fucking just before she demands that I get her a glass of water. I remember sliding the ring on her finger the day we get married. The biodome is a mixture of cerulean and vanilla in the background of our wedding photos. I remember her cooking. I remember opening a sauce pan to see the stew bubbling, gurgling, like the froth from her neck when I …
I feel the tear roll down my cheek. ‘Doc, I miss her,’ I say. ‘If I never met her, why do I miss her so much? Why do I feel guilty?’
‘Maybe you feel guilty because there is someone you, Kaaro, have an unconscious desire to kill. The murder of Lydia fulfilled that desire. Down under the surface of our mind lie the demons and gremlins of our base instincts, struggling for expression.’ He checks the screen in front of him and asks, ‘Have you been taking the meds?’
No. ‘Yes.’ No. They make me impotent.
‘This is the third antidepressant we’ve tried. I’ve never seen such a strong reaction. Ileri thinks it’s because your ability is more acute than any other.’
‘My wife is dead. I should be sad, right?’ I ask.
‘Kaaro, you have never been married. You never even met Lydia. You spent time in her homicidal husband’s mind. The experience was so intense that you can’t disconnect. The pills aren’t working. I’d like to try something else.’
He slides over consent forms for shock treatment.
I walk out of the building.
I really want a cigarette, even though I have not smoked for a long time. I just feel like I should be smoking.
Nine months. I have lost enough time to have a baby.
A drone descends to read my identity, then flies off.
I get a phone call. It’s Femi, so I ignore it. Great service to your country blah blah put the man in jail for life blah blah sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice, blah blah.
I cannot remember everything that happened, gaps in my memory. A part of me thinks perhaps there is a reason for the gaps and that I really do not want to know.
There’s a sorrow in me, though. I do not know why, but I feel it.
Whatever they pay me is not enough.
I look for a taxi.
Rosewater by Tade Thompson is available now from Apex Book Company and most fine vendors.
Where this story begins is not where it ends. The ending is neither a natural conclusion to the events leading up to it, nor a product of necessity. If you see things in the beginning that you feel foreshadow the ending, if you catch yourself saying “I knew it!” or “Well, it was obvious from the start that she would end up that way,” then know you found these narrative threads within yourself. Predestination and retrojection are not necessarily two different things.
I, for one, remain cynical.
A FEW THINGS SHE LEARNED ABOUT THE WORLD
My attic has no windows. Its wooden walls are the outer crust of my body. I open my arms and hug me. I place my cheek on the wood and it scratches my skin. I listen to the nightsounds. The heavy breathing of the people of the city. Miles away. The trees. The birds. The beaches. The midnight train. The sound of an expanding universe. The whoosh of the stars as they move farther and farther away at the speed of light — the world is running away and the earth is left behind, swimming lonelier and lonelier in the darkness in between. The Earth will someday be all alone in a dark universe. You’ll see.
I have a clock on the wall, standing still. The time, it says, is 2:45.
I have a mattress on the floor and a blue sheet. I have a box of photographs. I have a lamp emitting yellow light. Some nights I switch her on and look into her eyes; her metallic arms catch fire, my optic nerve is on fire too and then I’m gushing light, but my attic is windowless, my light unseen.
I have nothing more. To say.
I have a child. In the daytime I have a child. Miles away, across the sea.
My ova speak from inside my womb. They are all girls. They are all girls and they do not want to be born.
The birds speak. I thought their stories would be about journeys to distant lands, beautiful passersby and happy princes. I was wrong. They talk about their wings, the wind, the worms. People, to birds, mean nothing.
Beaches are my favourite places in the whole world. Vast, empty beaches. With powdery sand and quiet waters. If it’s not too much to ask.
Some nights my attic borders a great beach. I walk along its edge. The child too. Miles away.
I lie on the sand and forget where I end and where the sea begins. I am vast as an island.
He is never on the beach. The child and I run across the shore. The child looks like me, a mirror. The waves chase our steps. We leave no trace. The child is water, foam on the sand. He can’t find us.
The beach is boundless. And the sound. Boundless.
He has a bandaged knee. She’s wearing a dress that leaves her shoulder bare. You can almost make out her left breast.
They look happy. They are on an island. There is a hill with a small tower in the background.
What happened to these people?
I knew them, once.
Next to the photographs, the box holds the little teeth of the child. I take them out from time to time, place them on my open palms and study them. I say they are pearls, rare jewels from a distant ocean bed. Which pearl fisher recovered them, my treasure?
The floor of my attic is covered with canvas. The canvas is brown with red diamond shapes. I sit counting them — three, five, seven — my optic nerve blazing and my pores tiny windows with a view to the universe — twenty, thirty, a hundred — until I get dizzy and fall back into a blue sea.
When I emerge, I find grains of sand scattered on the floor.
The ceiling is askew. The ceiling breathes. Very slowly. One breath can take more than twenty-four hours.
Tonight, the ceiling is breathing in. I can feel it coming closer. In a little while it will be so low it will push against my chest. I don’t know if I will be able to breathe. Anymore.
It rains all the time these days. I hear the water drum on the roof, the walls. It rains so much that the water is flooding all my thoughts, my memories. All of a sudden it rains in all the childhood parties I can remember, on birthday cakes and bowls of crisps, in the living rooms, on summer beaches and inside the church where I was yoked, at the cemetery (it always rains there, of course) — on the bus the passengers are soaking wet, at uni the students hold umbrellas inside the auditorium, at the supermarket it’s pouring and all the sugar melts and flows in the corridors, and I’m pushing my cart through syrup. Happy.
In my attic, the time has been 2:45 for a long while.
I wonder what one is to do if her watch is unwound and she doesn’t have another. How does she find time again? If her life is unwound and she doesn’t have another? How does she find herself again? (2:45. Day or night? Day? Or Night?) What do you do when your body is unwound and you have no other? How do you find your voice again? My voice is unheard except on the inside / My mind a waterfall of unwound syllables: ne, oi, sa, se, Se, She — Noisenoisenoisenoisenoise —
gather up speed and nail your mind to the wall —
Behind the door there is the child. I can smell his salty skin through the cracks. I kneel and press my cheek to the canvas. I think the child behind the door does the same. He is the mirrorchild. I think tonight he might speak to me.
“Can you hear me, child?”
“Are you my mum?”
“Are you a monster?”
Am I? Am I?
“You shouldn’t be talking to me at this hour,” the child echoes in the man’s voice.
“I know. Go to bed, he’ll hear you.”
“Okay. Are you sure you’re my mum?”
Pause. Is he still there?
“I love you, child.”
He doesn’t reply.
Years later, we flee.
It’s one night when the child hits him on the head with a frying pan and lets his monstrous nightmother out of the attic. We board the man’s little boat and sail away, leaving my vast beach behind before dawn breaks the sky. I imagine I am a floating island, drifting away into the sea.
Now, the voice changes. This is narrative. It is the undercurrent of the story, where anything can happen:
HOW SHE BECAME AN ISLAND
When the storm subsides, she looks for the child in the water. She looks and looks but the child is not there; only her face looking back at her from the surface of the sea. A mirror. She falls back onto the boat and hugs her torso. She imagines the child falling over the side of the boat, herself clutching the rim. She screams when the child’s body dissolves in the water, as if he were never there.
The surface of the sea shivers in the breeze, and she would swear she hears it whisper in the voice of the child. She straightens her body and dips her hands in the water. She starts paddling away, towards the rising sun.
Days pass. She calls to the child until her voice cracks. Her body stiffens. She keeps reminding herself who she is, for fear that she might turn into something lifeless and stony if she didn’t. She remains still until night falls, heavy and dark but for the faraway stars.
Drop by drop, her boat slips through the ocean. She watches the passing lights travel on the sky’s hunched back. She imagines that the child is in the boat with her; she takes his hand and points his little fingers at the sky: “There,” she says, “these are the North Stars, the seven sisters who, chased by a monster, found a rope leading to the sky and climbed it.” She tells the child about the youngest one sitting in the corner, with her half-eaten foot peering through the folds of her skirt. And there, on the left, the little drum — “If I strike it,” she says, “will you hear it, child? If I dance to its rhythm, will you dance along? Mirrorchild, mirrorchild?”
She closes her empty hand into a fist. She tries to open it again, but can’t; it’s stiff as a stone.
Months pass. Her body grows cold and hard over time. One night, as she stands immobile in the saline breeze, her clothes turning into a pillar of salt, she hears the splash of giant steps in the water. An enormous shadow in the shape of a man is wading in the ocean. His feet are the sea, his head is the sky. He reaches out and grabs a star. One by one, he swallows the seven sisters. He eats up the drum and the mighty hunter. The eagle and the hound. And as she watches, she loses her grasp on definitions. What is sky and what is sea? she wonders. Where is earth and where is stars? Have I always been this cold? Have I always been this hard?
Her hardness takes over the boat, becomes one with it, and then her body keeps growing, solid with rock and earth, with salt, and stone. Immense, indefinable, she floats away on an ocean of black ink.
Few are the seamen who can claim to have seen her, and fewer yet those who have trodden on her shores. But they all know the story of the mother who is an island, drifting in the sea until the tide brings her child back to her shores, so he can lie on her sand and watch the starless sky above.
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