These are our lands—the hills and the valleys, the corn fields and streams. We know these paths as a man knows his own body. People think they kick us out of their towns with their ugly stares, but honestly there’s no place we feel more at home. There’s dust in our throats, grass at our backs, and a warm fire always within reach. I’ve never been happier than with the caravan, watching alongside my family as the stars come out.
But there has always been one thing in Skadi that has drawn me away.
I sit on the edge of the carriage as it trundles up the hill, reaching along the familiar paths into the air and plucking a blossoming star out of the dimming sky. Once it’s milled down, I pinch a bit of stardust from the bowl of my mortar and rub it between my fingers. The dust is cool and soft, but beneath that there’s an energy like liquid lightning as it turns my skin from the heather of my people to the pale white of the mud walkers. I hate having to do this, but I know that it’s worth it.
By the time I finish, the hillside is alive with music. The wagons have been pulled into a circle, the cook fires glow in the center while the people sit and play their lutes and tell their stories. Each old story is fresh, never the same from one telling to the next, and it fills my heart with a secret thrum. The old, weathered voices travel a familiar road into my being where they will live in my bones until I’m little more than dust in the sky, long gone.
Two of my family are sitting by the bridge that crosses into Skadi. One of them has tied a string to a stick and is trying to fish in the river while the other picks at a lute that he hasn’t yet mastered the trick of.
“Orri!” the fisher says, turning so the pale moonlight washes over his face, flashing his eyes both green and gold when he laughs. He runs a thumb across his cheek. “Almost didn’t recognize you like that. Sneaking into town again? You know what will happen if the mud walkers find you.”
“Hakon! Ah, let them throw their stones, it’s worth it.” I clap him on the shoulder and lean across the gorge, peering down into the water below. The night sky twinkles in the slow waters. “No luck today?”
“’Fraid not, the fish don’t want to come out.” Hakon frowns, furrowing his brow and twitching the stick. He thumbs back across his shoulder to the lute player. “I brought Petur out to help me call to them, but…”
“Say no more. I think your lute needs an adjustment is all.” I squint up at the sky, counting the stars that halo the moon.
“It’s not the lute, I just need more—” Petur begins but soon stops, gasping.
“Here, try this.” I fish my hand through the black sky and call down two stars. They alight on the tips of my fingers, sending shrill and cold rushes across my skin and making my hair prickle. My breath is held in my chest when I touch my fingers to the lute and only releases when I feel their power leave, humming sweetly through the maple wood and fine strings. “The fish will come to your call now, surely.”
“Orri, you can’t use magic to solve all of your problems,” Hakon says but he’s laughing and I can see him licking his lips already as he adjusts his fishing pole.
“At least for tonight it won’t hurt.” I wink at Petur, who is already testing his fingers on the new strings. The sound is as quick as lightning and as sweet as a flower. The fish jump in the water below, adding a tinkling melody just beneath.
I’m already halfway across the bridge before they notice I’m gone and start shouting their thanks. I look back to see the glistening shape of a fish on the line. Hearing the laughter trill across the way is enough to make me smile.
After introductions were made all around, I was invited to step outside. The military “grownups” needed to talk.
There was another bench along the front of the office. I sat there, away from the scraggly bearded man in uniform.
I watched the glowing lake below. In the late afternoon sun, it glittered like green fire.
“You want to kill the ass hats?” the bearded man asked.
He grinned. His two front teeth were missing. “I know how to kill the ass hats. Seen it happen. The commander doesn’t let me kill ’em here, but I know how. You wanna know how?”
My instinct for fact finding stopped at methods of homicide. “No thanks.”
I felt him watching me. I considered taking a walk, but I was exhausted. Skippy the Butthead stood across the street. He posed like a tree, his head thrown back. I noticed that the bearded man watched Skippy, his eyes burning with ferocious loathing.
That night, Kate and I stayed in an officer’s cabin. She and I were given bed rolls and an empty room. She lay on her side, facing away.
“I know you’re angry,” I said.
“Not just angry,” she said. “Furious. I didn’t want to believe it when my men told me they saw you at the Butthead compound and that you wandered this way. You could have been killed.”
“The yellow shrubs—they work very well.”
“But you didn’t know that for sure. And why wouldn’t you tell me you knew about this settlement?”
I didn’t answer.
“I’ll tell you why.” She rolled over to glare at me. “You wouldn’t tell me because you’re a reporter, because you have to be the first one on the scene, so you can get the scoop on everyone else. Your journalist’s instinct is one thing, but you could at least mention it to your wife.”
“You know what the worst thing is? You didn’t tell me, not because you didn’t want me to worry, but because you thought I’d go straight to Scargal. You think I’m military first and wife second.”
Her eyes narrowed. I squirmed.
“What I am is Captain Kate Yancey. The ‘Captain’ is for the military. The ‘Yancey’ is for you. And in the middle, there’s someone who I’d like to think is intelligent and trustworthy enough to know how to balance options and make choices for the greater good. You could at least trust me to think for myself.”
She rolled over again.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated.
The soldiers called it Lake Exile. It sparkled below me like a field of glittering emeralds in the sunlight. The green mountain that loomed over us was Warden Peak, and although this planet was known on star charts as Manasseh, the soldiers called it New Alcatraz.
They could call it what they wanted. I called it paradise. Ensign West found me on the veranda gazing down at the verdant lake under the churning pea-green sky. The raptors in the trees around our so-called prison camp may have been startling to look at, but their song was melodious and rhythmically hypnotic. I was caught up in the spell, content to absorb the natural symphony of sight and sound forever.
“Mr. Yancey,” West said.
I tore my eyes away from the lake and turned.
“The admiral would like to speak with you.”
Kate had told me to expect this—a debriefing. I stood and followed Ensign West into the heart of our camp.
As prison camps go, I’d give it five stars. Cobblestone paths, a wide common area surrounded by copper-shelled cabins. Soldiers sat at picnic tables and talked. Some kicked a soccer ball around. Others played Frisbee. I passed a few men and women tossing pennies against a cabin wall.
In one corner of the common area, shunned by everyone, sat one of the Buttheads. Its head hung low, its red-rimmed eyes stared at the ground, its forehead a fleshy, bulbous protrusion that hung over its eyes like a visor. The forehead was what earned our alien hosts their dubious nicknames. More shocking than the forehead, however, was the Butthead’s mouth—a wound-like gash that stretched to the sides of its head at its widest point. Its willowy arms hung listlessly at its sides.
I hesitated as West led me past the bench on which the Butthead sat. I was still unaccustomed to seeing the aliens up close.
The alien stood, startling me backwards a pace. Its eyes closed, it threw its large head back, and in a beautiful vibrato tenor, it began to sing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
My mouth hung open. West had to pull on my sleeve to get me moving.
“Do they always sing like that?” I asked.
“Only that one. We call him Opera Man.”
“So it’s a male…uh…Butthead?”
West shook his head. “Who cares?”
Jupiter passes Orion,
and comes into conjunction with Mars.
Saturn is weaving through infinite space
to its preordained place in the stars.
And I gaze at the planets in wonder,
at the trouble and time they expend,
all to warn me to be careful
in dealings involving a friend.
-Flanders & Swan (British comedy duo)
If you were to suggest to anyone with a typical modern education that a date of birth has any bearing on personality, there’s a strong likelihood they will laugh at you for this – perhaps not so you can hear, but they will laugh nonetheless. Why is this so? Is this because they are intelligent individuals with sensible beliefs based in scientific fact? Or are they simply mindlessly repeating a populist “skeptical” point of view without examining the evidence for themselves?
It is commonly accepted among educated peoples that astrology is ignorant nonsense. Seemingly unrelated, yet also commonly accepted among those same educated peoples is that an expecting mother should take nutritional supplements such as folic acid, iron, calcium, vitamins D and C and often many other things to ensure the bodily health of the child.
When Western astrology was first developed, it was in a radically different world to the one we now inhabit. The modern Zodiac is based on a system created in 600-400BC, which developed out of the 1,600 year older Babylonian tradition. However, the oldest known human cities show understandings based on observations of the visible planets, these ruins date back as far as 4,000BC, a time when humans were just beginning to transition from living as hunter-gatherers to living in agricultural societies. Until then, we had relied on animals and our relationships with them to survive. Our fate depended on theirs. We had worshiped the beasts and the hunt, imitating them in simple rituals as a child might imitate a pet. The mirror neuron functions of our brain made us empathic towards the spirits of our game animals, even as we ate them. As we settled down into farming communities, even the most casual observation showed that we had become reliant on the seasons. A good summer meant the crops grew and we ate well, a harsh winter meant crops failed and we froze to death in our huts. As our fate had once depended on the fate of the animals, now our fate depended on the fate of the sky. Our systems of belief shifted from worshiping animal spirits to worshiping the spirits of the stars. We connected with and anthropomorphized them, as we had once done for the animals – our leaders took off their animal masks, and instead donned the costumes of celestial bodies. Society itself was modeled to reflect the heavens in the mathematical synchronicity they observed, with monarchs gaining or leaving their thrones according to season and the movements of the stars. The observed cycles of the heavens can be seen as reflected in beliefs such as that of the Ages of Man, the cosmogonic order of the Chinese Tao or the Hindi Dharmic duty to fulfill a role in an outwardly similar order. Even today the crowned heads of Europe wear silver crowns to represent the moon and gold crowns to represent the sun. As it was above, so it became below.
Becca climbed out her bedroom window, grabbed a shovel, and ran to the graveyard. Becca’s mother had ordered her grandma buried in Becca’s favorite pair of shoes, and homecoming was approaching fast.
Becca figured she’d take the jewelry, too, while she was there. Her grandmother would have wanted her to have it. She didn’t let herself hope for anything more.
The full moon illuminated the graveyard well enough for her to dig without any other light. The soil was loose, but she still worked up a sweat in the heavy late-summer air. She’d never done much digging before. Her arms burned and her back ached. She wished she’d thought to borrow a backhoe. She wished she knew how to use a backhoe. She wished that her mother wasn’t so horrible, and that her grandmother was still alive.
After what felt like an eternity, her shovel thunked into the hardwood casket. She removed enough dirt to clear the top half of the lid, then she jerked it open. A thin stream of dirt cascaded down the side of her hole, onto her grandmother’s waxy face.
The stink hit Becca like a bag of hammers, and her stomach lurched. She managed to turn enough to throw up on her own shoes instead of on her dead grandmother’s carefully arranged gray curls.
She scowled down at her already-filthy canvas sneakers. They were going to be a total loss. But the shoes might have been a lost cause anyway, and it would have been wrong to throw up on her grandmother. Aside from the puffiness, she looked almost normal. And Becca had loved her grandmother.
That, more than homecoming, was why she wanted the shoes back.
She covered her mouth with her shirt and took a few slow breaths. She could do this. She reached in for the necklace, and her fingers brushed her grandmother’s neck. The flesh was the same cool temperature as the dirt and too soft–like a foam mattress.
Her grandmother’s eyes snapped open, she grabbed Becca’s wrist. Her swollen fingers felt like refrigerated sausages. Becca yelped and tried to step back, but her feet slipped, and she fell to her knees. “What are you doing, Rebecca?” Her grandmother’s voice was wet and distorted, but recognizable.
Becca’s terror eased. Her grandmother wasn’t mindless–she remembered who she was. The hope that Becca hadn’t let herself feel spread in her chest, and she grinned. Even dead, her grandmother wouldn’t hurt her.
“I’m here for the shoes,” Becca said. “It’s nice to hear your voice again, too.”
Her grandmother blinked at her. “Which shoes?”
“The red pumps.”
“I gave those to you,” her grandmother said. “Why would I be buried in them?”
Becca shrugged. “Mom decided. I don’t think she wanted me to have them. She always hates–hated it when you gave me things.”
Her grandmother sniffed. “I raised her better than that.” She released Becca’s wrist and started wriggling around. She placed one red pump, then a second, on top of the casket. “Since you’re here, you should take the jewelry, too.”
She tried to pull off her rings, but they were trapped on her swollen fingers. She couldn’t work the necklace clasp, either. “This whole dead thing is quite frustrating,” she said.
Becca reached in and unfastened the necklace. The smell hardly bothered her at all now. “I can imagine.” Becca put the necklace on and picked up the shoes. “Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked.
Her grandmother shrugged. “I can’t think of anything. I don’t really need much. I’m dead, after all.”
Becca blinked back her tears. She’d already cried for her grandmother. “Okay. I love you.”
“I love you, too, dear. It would be nice if you’d come and visit.”
“And don’t worry too much about your mother. Things will get better. Eventually.”
“I–I’ll try not to let it get to me.”
Becca reached for the lid. “Grandma?”
“What’s it like?” Becca asked.
“What’s what like?”
“It’s not bad. But it’s not great either. It’s certainly not something you should rush into.”
“Right. Thanks Grandma. I’ll remember.”
“You do that.”
Becca closed the lid. It took less time to fill the hole back in. She left her vomit-covered shoes next to the headstone and walked home in the red pumps.
Her mother noticed when she wore the shoes to homecoming, but neither of them mentioned it.
Jamie Lackey has attended James Gunn’s Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Living Dead 2 and Stories from the Heart: Heartwarming Tales of Appalachia. Another of her stories is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction. Jamie Lacky is also a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.
The station hummed with life, people arriving and departing, coming together and splitting apart like nervous little animals come to size each other up before going about their business. A thousand conversations hung above the people like a cloud. Harried mothers struggled to keep their broods and their bags within sight while shooting wary glances at the huge clock that hung suspended from the forty-foot ceiling. Travelers, the weary ones just off a dirigible and the fresh faced ones looking to meet their conveyances, milled about in the confusion of the crowd, looking like toys that children had set in motion independently of each other, oblivious to the actions of their playmates.
I sat on a hard wooden bench and watched it all. The energy of the place made me think of a spring wound too tight. The tension in the station–the tension of departure and return–made me uneasy, as though one little problem with the dirigibles or the timetables, with luggage or tickets would throw everything out of balance; even something as simple as the discovery of a pickpocket would wind the spring one tick tighter and the whole place would pop into pandemonium. I felt it could happen. I always felt it could happen on days like this, and I did not want to be there.
All the more reason to get it over with, I thought. Just one more quarter and I would have enough to earn my night’s rest.
I’d been sizing up marks since the big clock had read 2:16. No one had struck me right. Now the clock read 4:02, and its ticking high above the rows of benches was just one more thing to worry about. If I didn’t find someone by 5:00, I would have a problem. There aren’t many places lonelier than a dirigible station on a Sunday evening once the majority of flights have left and most of the travelers have gone. The five o’clock chimes would signal the shift, the winding down of the springs, the beginning of the change from hectic to languid. I wouldn’t be entirely alone, not for a few more hours, but the crowds would thin to the point that it would be hard for me to move about unnoticed.
For now, I could, though. In all of this bustle, no one paid attention to a little boy who walked with purpose through the station. It was plain enough to see I was on my way to or from my parents, that I needed no help, made no demands. I could slip in and out of large and small parties, picking up bits of blustery greetings and tearful goodbyes as I looked for the right person. I was picky, had been taught to be, and it had always worked. I’d never failed, never been hauled up to one of the station police with their big coats and little eyes and ugly nightsticks.
Two benches away, someone’s aunt admonished her niece to be careful, not to talk to strange men on the flight, to go straight to her hotel when she reached San Francisco, to wire for money if she needed anything, and to come home right away if she felt the least bit unsafe. Her shrill voice cut through the hum of the station, and once I started listening to that voice, it would not be drowned out. I glanced back to see the pair. The aunt was gray and pinched. The niece was young and blonde but not a girl any more, and she smiled politely, surely having heard it all before, and probably having dealt already with more real dangers in life than the aunt would even let herself imagine. Neither one would make a decent mark–the aunt too cautious, the niece too eager.
I had only just dismissed them as possibilities when a more promising figure entered my line of sight. A man had sat down on the bench not far from me. He had a single, small valise at his feet, and he sat stiffly for a moment, pulling out a pocket watch and checking it against the clock above him. With a satisfied grin below his Clark Gable mustache, he let himself rest against the bench. He looked moneyed but not overly so–the kind of man who would want to hold on to what he had and who would look for opportunities to get more. His clothes were nice but not new. He had no wedding ring. All things I’d been trained to look for.
I stood, casually patted my jacket pocket to feel the bug even though I knew it was there, and walked toward the man. I didn’t look at him, didn’t even glance his way. Nothing to make him notice me. But as I passed him, I started counting my steps until I reached the end of the bench. Then I turned away from the waiting area and toward the platform.
Large marble pillars separated the waiting area from the loading platform, and I ducked behind one, glancing first at the mark I had chosen to make sure he was making no preparations to move. The clock read 4:06 now. The San Francisco flight would depart at 4:40 and would start boarding any moment. The trick was to get him just moments before he needed to start gathering his things for the trip. That way, if he was suspicious, his decision making process would be addled by the demands of the timetable, the cost of his ticket, and the importance of his destination. People make poor decisions when they have too many things to consider, like a machine running with too many parts rather than not enough.
The woman in the diner’s backroom sat in a chair–but no, she wasn’t just sitting. She had become the chair, or the chair was eating her, consuming her like a wicker tumor. Half her teeth were gone and white willow strands had forced through the empty spots in her gums. Wicker strips curved from her hands instead of fingernails. Beneath her faded peony-pattered skirt, curls of wicker cleaved to her legs instead of varicose veins.
“Girl.” The Wicker Woman reached out a veined hand, tried to stroke Maddy’s face, and her wicker fingernails clattered against Maddy’s cheek.
“How long have you been here? What are you–do you need to go to a hospital?” said Maddy.
“Not the hospital. The camp.”
The woman nodded at a dusty book at her feet, a withered piece of newsprint sticking out the top. The book was called Strange but True: Mystical Phenomena of the American Southwest. Maddy pulled the newsprint out of the water-warped pages.
A picture of a beaming man, his hair curled in a 1940s pompadour, his face superimposed over a palm tree. The Desert Cold Oasis and Spa, Offering Electroshock, Hypnosis and the Occasional Healing Boat Ride. Exit 6 off I-15.
“You get healed there,” said the woman, lisping around the wicker protruding from her mouth. “I want to go.”
Maddy stared at the soft newsprint in her hand and imagined this spa, sand blowing through its deserted buildings, or a chain restaurant erected where it had once stood. But then she saw the Wicker Woman looking at her with brows knitted over cloudy eyes.
“I can take you,” said Maddy. “I’ll take you with me.”
Maddy dragged the chair through the gloaming of the diner, past the turquoise Formica counter and the tintype of a boy holding a glass Coke bottle. She banged out the broken screen door and pulled the chair over the sparse grass between the diner and the pitted road.
Maddy threw open her U-Haul truck, which overflowed with furniture, books, lamps and an old mannequin Maddy had bought at Goodwill freshman year.
“There’s no room,” said the Wicker Woman. “Are you going to leave me here?”
“Leave some of these things, girlie. You don’t need them. What’re you going to do with that thing?” She gestured at the mannequin.
Maddy hesitated, but she shook her head, hauled out her aqua desk chair and plunked it by the side of the road. Dust eddys jumped around the chair wheels.
One less thing to move in when I get to Los Angeles, thought Maddy. And truly, she liked the look of her chair on the grass, about to pass from Maddy’s concern, about to be far behind her on the road.
I’d already saved Laurence Saunders a number of times over the years, small insignificant salvations. On December nineteenth, I managed to save him twice.
That last day, Laurence slipped unnoticed from his home sometime between noon and three p.m., the three hour space between the meals-on-wheels delivery by Mrs. Heflin and the arrival of the nurse’s aide. Despite the tragic circumstances, no blame was ever cast on either woman. After all, Mr. Saunders had been found wandering numerous times before.
No one considered my involvement, not even once: not the police officer who coordinated the search and rescue, not the other neighbors on our street, not even the dogs they eventually brought in from the mainland, though, perhaps, they would have if they’d bothered to check my boots.
Laurence was my closest neighbor, his front porch no more than forty feet from mine. Five years ago I’d watched his wife’s coffin carried down the steps of that front porch after the wake. Later I’d watched him sit on that same porch for hours, alone, day after day, only the fraying of his bathrobe marking the passage of time.
With his wife, Suzie, gone, I was his only companion. Laurence and I were separated by forty feet, two walls, and a growing silence that neither of us could shake. For me, the silence shouldn’t have felt any different from when Suzie was alive. But it did.
I had never been one of the Saunders’ flock of visitors. The August barbeques with the overflow of pick-up trucks and coolers full of beer had always seemed like just so much unnecessary noise. Since Suzie’s death, that kind of noise had gradually ceased. Laurence started losing people’s names about three years ago. Started losing other words about a year after that. Now that the silence had infected his house, few visited anymore.
I watched, I listened, and, at night when Laurence fell asleep in front of his flickering TV, I slipped in and turned out the lights. It felt good to be needed.
Ten years ago I’d left my husband, Peter and his three basset hounds back in Portland and moved across the bay to China Island and Aunt Eveline’s old clapboard house. The twin occurrences of Aunt Eveline’s death and the demise of my marriage felt somehow linked. My true path finally revealed.
“Good luck, Sarah,” My ex-husband had said on that last day, shaking my hand as we stood outside the courthouse. He seemed almost relieved to see me go.
Eveline’s death offered me a new beginning. Between the house and an old savings account, she’d left me enough to almost squeak by. And somehow or other the island always provided.
Then December nineteenth arrived and Laurence Saunders wandered into the woods.
The world is water.
From horizon to horizon, water. Trade winds go from west to east, and carry weather and fish with them. Wind and weather bring us news of the world, in the form of all manner of things that float. A string of islands are our own, we and the cousins. Fifteen islands, from tiny Ike to the largest, Yuhime. Ours is the northernmost, Liipil, an island that catches the winds, the volcano beneath dead as our ancestors. As you go south, the land becomes more active, and the cousins become more numerous.
The world is water, and we are at its center.
The youngling who had been assigned to the northern heights plummeted into the village, calling shrilly. “Wings! Wings! The ikei are returning!”
“From where?” I asked, straightening from my crouched position over the morning’s treasures.
The youngling pointed with one wing. West by north. “Did you see which they were?”
“Sun behind them.” That would be no, then.
“Find Lilleloi, tell her,” I told the youngling. “She’s in the fields.” Without further comment, it crouched and leaped upward, beating wings frantically upward. I watched the youngling’s attenuated body and great wings catch the breeze and soar upward, sun glinting off of waxy leaf-scales. I wrapped up the day’s gather into a large leaf and carried it in one arm, using the other to help me climb up to the platform where I stored the sea-treasure I had not yet completely studied.
After putting my work away, I swung down, landing heavily at the base of the great starflower tree that the platform was built in. “I’m getting too old to do this,” I muttered. I was going to have to start climbing down rather than swinging, soon. I had years yet before I would be too heavy to use the platforms altogether, when I would have to have those younger than I fetch and carry from the platforms.
Not too old yet to run, though. I trotted through the village, joined by younglings and adults, down to the landing field. We’d fired it less than a month ago, before the winter rains had made it far too damp to burn. It was a good and welcoming landing place for the ikei, our pelagics who spent most of their time at sea, circling the world with the trade winds, following the great sea-herds of whales and fish. It was better than we had managed some years, when the summer had been far too wet for the burn and we’d had to settle for clearing the field by hand.
Kii and Liiloka had brought food with them, voyage-fruit and sweet tik-tik, and we settled down to eat and wait. A flock of younglings arrived, swirling down to land lightly, grabbing and squabbling over tik-tik. A few stretched out, settling to turn the leaf-scales on their backs to the sun.
Kii stumped over to me, her massive body and her fronds of lichen making her seem like a particularly mobile boulder. She held a quarter of a voyage-fruit out to me, and I accepted with a murmur. “Anxious?” she asked, her voice low as distant surf.
“Every year,” I said. “Every year I think is going to be the year that Thiol does not return.”
The elder snorted. “Foolish to get attached. I try new ones every year.”
“He makes fine eggs,” I told her. “I haven’t had one be fallow since he became my favorite.”
The chorus of “Happily ever after” roused me from my stupor. Even from the living room I could hear the bored edge in Elise’s voice; it was as predictable as Kari’s enthusiasm or Allan’s singsongy tone, and as strained.
Storytime was finished. I headed to Kari’s room to say goodnight, but paused outside the door when I heard her speak. “Daddy,” she said, “is that how it was for you and mommy?”
I held my breath, sincerely wondering how Allan would answer. But it was Elise who answered: “Of course not. Mom’s not a princess.”
Kari laughed, but Allan didn’t miss a beat. “She is to me,” he said.
I crept away as quietly as I could, unsure whether the sound I suppressed was a sob or something more like bitter laughter.