Fiction

The Ruritanian Duke of Kunlun

Winslow North suspected a diplomatic incident afoot from the moment Arthur Armitage invited him to take tea at the finest club in Ruritania’s capital. Five minutes into his first cucumber sandwich, Winslow, who subscribed to – not pessimism, surely, but a certain bracing realism – found his prediction rewarded.

“Oh, Your Grace,” sighed Arthur, looking distressed indeed, with his face pulled long beneath his strawberry-blond curls. “I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for your friendship, and how wretched I feel for calling on its services in so gauche a manner. Nevertheless” – here, he heaved another gusty sigh – “the trouble cannot be otherwise helped. I feel a damnable fool, in truth. Do you think me a very great fool?”

Winslow, over the rim of his teacup, said rather dryly, “I find I cannot make a proper assessment of a man’s foolishness, great or small, without first knowing its cause.”

“The trouble began with my school,” said Arthur, stirring his tea with a melancholic air. “Poor school! How it suffers on my account.”

Winslow frowned. “School?”

“You know the one, Your Grace –”

“Winslow, please,” said Winslow, for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. He’d lost count, in truth, of how many times he’d corrected Arthur on matters of address. Winslow massaged his temples. “I am only properly a duke in the Kingdom of Kunlun. Dukes in my grandparents’ country hardly deign to run companies, or take tea with Western businessmen, as I do here in Ruritania. They consider the handling of money and the willful fraternization with foreigners uncouth, and never quite forgave my father for adopting an English surname for our business purposes. My family in Kunlun would hardly approve of our friendship, Arthur. Which,” Winslow added, to forestall any perception of insult, “I of course hold in the highest esteem, regardless of any elderly great-aunt’s antiquated misgivings.”

Arthur beamed. “I do so admire your humility, Your Gra – ah, Winslow. Indeed, it is a quality I most admire in Kunlunese people like yourself. That is why I started the school, you see,” he added earnestly. “Surely, you’ve heard about the Armitage School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. I teach the martial arts course for gentlemen myself. My father was terribly proud.”

“Indeed,” said Winslow, taking care to curb the wryness of his tone. He had no doubt regarding Armitage Senior’s satisfaction in such an enterprise. The Armitages were businessmen, and trade deals recently struck between the young Western government of Ruritania and the forward-thinking, great-aunt-scandalizing Crown Prince of Kunlun had made all things Eastern abruptly fashionable in the West. Kunlunese magic – and its accompanying martial traditions – had won particular favor with Western gentlemen of a certain class and sensibility.

“The school has been quite the success, as I’m sure you know,” Arthur went on. “I have the grand tour I took across the Asian continent in my boyhood, not to mention my month-long education in Chinese sorcery fundamentals, to thank for that.” He winked. “I do, unlike most Western Ruritaneans, know my Kunlunese enchantments and martial practices.”

“Surely any obstacle at your School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments could be overcome by a full month’s worth of Chinese magic instruction,” replied Winslow.

“But that is just the problem!” exclaimed Arthur. “Some – perhaps misunderstanding my history, and indeed, the nobility of my intentions – do not approve of my school.”

Winslow sat up a little over his cooling tea. “Really.” Now, this was interesting. Not many in Ruritania dared quarrel with the Armitages, even over something silly enough to be called the School of Exotic Eastern Enchantments. Winslow frowned. “Perhaps they disapprove of an institution of Asian sorcery.” Ruritania, for all its young government’s earnest talk of peace and progressivism, also gave home to those who misliked the growing repute of Asian and African Ruritanians. A certain cosmopolitan aesthetic which sampled the occasional Persian chemise pattern or Vietnamese soup course was all very well, but Western nations, with their notoriously delicate constitutions, could only stomach so much of the strange and exotic.

“Oh, it is not a matter of intolerance,” said Arthur, drooping further still, “which is a shame, really. To snub the intolerant is quite fashionable in respectable Ruritanian circles now. Unfortunately, the critic I speak of is herself a Kunlunese. One Miss Mabel Lee, though she went by a properly native name in Kunlun, Ming-ling or Mu-lan, or some such thing.”

Winslow’s eyebrows climbed. “She?”

“Indeed.” Arthur leaned across the table with enthusiasm. Subtly, Winslow rescued the tray of miniature fruit tarts from Arthur’s flailing elbow. “A female magician – and a martial practitioner, at that!”

Winslow felt his eyebrows climb higher still. Women martial-magicians, sworn to the code of Jianghu, were rarer than their male counterparts, and according to the old sages of Kunlun, rarely as strong. Still, such women were not unheard of. “What seems to be the young lady’s complaint?”

“It is the most unconscionable thing!” replied Arthur. “She came to the school – for lessons, I thought – but no, the heartless creature wanted merely to pillory me. Going on about how my teachings lack authenticity. Mine! I, who spent a full year traversing the Asian continent.”

“It contains a good many countries,” said Winslow, comfortingly. “Pray, do not spill your tea over such a trifle. One disgruntled young lady, Jianghu disciple or not, should not provoke such emotional excesses.”

Arthur sniffed, curls flopping over his forehead, where they clashed unfortunately with his reddening face. “Perhaps my honor and reputation are a trifle to you, but I expect you should care rather more about the honor of your royal family.”

“Ruritania has no royal family,” said Winslow, puzzled. “I’m given to understand the young government is quite proud of its democratic achievements –”

“Don’t be daft, man! I speak of the Kingdom of Kunlun, of course.” Arthur’s gaze darted about the club, a bit nervously, as he adjusted his cravat. “In truth, I had not wanted to spread such gauche gossip about your homeland –”

“I was born in Ruritania, Arthur. And all gossip is, by definition, quite gauche, otherwise it would not be worth gossiping about.”

“– but I am privy to certain rumors. My father’s business associates, you know, they do go on. It seems the young upstart who impugned my teachings has also impugned the reputation of the Crown Prince himself. It is a scandal, of quite literally royal proportions!” Arthur looked triumphant. “Is the Prince not your own flesh and blood?”

“Prince Tai?” Winslow frowned. “I am a cousin of his, yes. However, save our blood, there is precious little in common between a rising head of state in a remote mountain kingdom, and a displaced duke who runs a Ruritanian company and takes tea with Western gentlemen.”

“But the thickness of that shared blood must stir even your wretched heart!” exclaimed Arthur. “I must say, I do so admire the Kunlunese devotion to family. I am sure your noble cousin would agree that the Lee girl is a cross-continental menace, and must be stopped.”

“Now, Arthur, you cannot simply class every woman who wields a sharp tongue as a menace, or the men of Ruritania would have none left to wed. Besides,” added Winslow, a bit impish-grinned, “I daresay I would not fare any better with such women than you do at your father’s Winter Ball.”

Arthur’s color deepened further. “I am being serious, Winslow. And it is not for nothing. Speak to your cousin. A conversation between family is not such a difficult thing.”

Winslow thought, wryly, that Arthur clearly had little experience of Kunlunese house-matrons during his year-long tour of the Asian continent, but refrained from saying so.

“I shall make it worth your while,” Arthur continued. “If you do this small thing for our friendship, I will entreat my father to stop nipping at the heels of the North Enterprise, as it were.”

Winslow froze, staring at Arthur. “How do you know about that?”

“I know some may think me an empty-handed dandy,” said Arthur, heaving his grandest sigh yet, “but I have ears. As I said, I am privy to certain rumors. My father has been attempting to snap up your family’s company since spring.”

“And I have expressed, time and again, my refusal. What does the Armitage trading empire need with a quaint little research company? We fund minor magical inventions and spell-work experimentation, not trading routes.”

Arthur shrugged. “Kunlunese magic is in fashion. My father is a businessman.”

Winslow’s fingers tightened, almost imperceptibly, on his teacup. “If I speak to my cousin of this Miss Lee of yours, you will ensure that your father puts a stop to this nonsense about an acquisition?”

“I shall speak most firmly to him,” promised Arthur. His curls bounced up and down when he nodded. “You have my word.”

Winslow leaned back in his plushly-cushioned seat, and cast a long-suffering glance toward the tea room’s finely-painted ceiling, a delicate imitation of Moroccan tile. “It will be good for my constitution to exercise my scrying mirrors, I suppose.”

My Grandmother’s Garden

My grandmother was a witch.

By saying this I do not mean she was cold-hearted, or evil, or even that she treated me poorly. She was a wonderfully sweet woman, with a mild temper and an adoration for all children; especially me. But, she was a witch. An honest-to-goodness, black cauldron stirring, incantation reciting, spell casting witch.

I did not know this growing up. I heard rumors, and my parents occasionally made comments about her when they thought I wasn’t listening, but I never understood the significance of what they were saying. To me she was just Grandma. Even when I would go visit – which was quite often – she never said or did anything I would consider out of the ordinary. She did typical Grandma stuff. She baked cookies, took me out to movies, and bought me gifts for no reason other than that I was her favorite grandson. To be absolutely honest, I was her only grandson, but that distinction is meaningless to a child. The long and short of it was I loved her, and she spoiled me rotten.

When I stayed with her I always had the most amazing time, and she would let me do just about anything I wanted, short of injuring myself or burning down the house. I went to bed late, got up at noon, ate junk food all day long, and did all the things I could never get away with at home. There were almost no rules to follow. In fact, there were only two rules that mattered. First, I was not permitted to go into the basement. Second, and most importantly, I must never touch my grandmother’s garden.

I thought this a bit odd in the beginning, particularly the fact I could not go into her garden, since she spent a great deal of her time there. But neither of these restrictions were too onerous and, after my initial pangs of curiosity had ebbed, I soon shut both places completely out of my mind. With so many other bits of mischief for me to get into, I could leave the basement and the garden alone if that made her happy and kept me in her good graces.

The first time I truly understood what my grandmother was, and what she could do, was when I was thirteen years old. That year, my parents sent me away to live with my grandmother for the summer. I had never before been away from home for so long, but my mom and dad were in the middle of a personal crisis and needed some time alone to deal with their own problems.

My mom sat me down to talk to me before I left. With a straight face she told me they were having “marital difficulties,” like I hadn’t guessed that already from the constant yelling and arguing, and the fact that dad slept in the living room on the couch more often than he slept in the bedroom with mom. She said that a counselor had recommended they spend some time apart, but they didn’t want me to get caught in the middle or feel like I had to choose sides, so they were sending me to Grandma’s. I guess they figured it would be too hard on my fragile, underdeveloped psyche to see them separated. That, or else having a teenage boy underfoot was an added stress they were not prepared to handle on top of the other issues with which they were wrestling.

I know they had the best of intentions for me, but as much as I normally enjoyed spending time with my grandmother it still felt like I was being banished. So, without any say in the matter, I went to live with Grandma.

The first week away from home passed slowly. My grandmother did everything she could think of to keep me entertained. She cooked my favorite foods, bought me a new MP3 player so I could listen to music, and tried to include me as much as possible in her everyday routine. She even offered to teach me to drive, but all I wanted to do was sulk. I sat around the house for hours watching TV and obsessing over how my parents wanted nothing to do with me. I imagined they must have hated me quite a lot to send me away for the entire summer. It wasn’t true, and deep down I knew that their problems had nothing to do with me, but that did not change how I felt at the time. I continued to mope and ignore every effort my grandmother made to cheer me up.

One morning during the second week of my stay, my grandmother sat down next to me on the couch. She pretended to watch TV with me while she absently stroked the wrinkles out of the hand-crocheted covers draped across the back and arms of the sofa.

“You know, Jason,” she said after a few silent minutes had passed between us, “I need to do some yard work out in the garden today. I know you’re very busy in here, but I was wondering if, perhaps, you would like to give me a hand.”

Well, now this was interesting. I had never before been permitted to go anywhere near her garden. Despite my best efforts to remain depressed and sullen, I was immediately intrigued. I tried to sound nonchalant as I answered. No thirteen-year old wants to admit that he is actually excited about something an adult suggested. “I suppose I could. If you want me to.” My heart beat faster, and I know she heard the excitement in my voice, but she did not let on. She merely stood up and held her hand out to me.

“Thank you. I really could use the help today. I have let the poor thing go much too long without the proper care.”

That was a lie and we both knew it. She had the most perfectly tended garden I had ever seen. I am sure she would sooner have allowed the house to collapse around her than to permit the slightest neglect or harm to come to her plants and flowers. But just as she pretended not to notice my own growing eagerness, I could ignore her little white lie for the sake of kindness. I stood up, took her hand and let her lead me into the back yard.

Though I had seen her garden many times before, it still amazed me anew each time I gazed upon the perfect, unspoiled beauty of it. It covered over three thousand square feet of ground, taking up a large part of her yard. Six fruit trees bordered the north edge, lined up along her property at the furthest point away from the house. There were two orange trees, one lemon, one pear and two apple. Currently, the branches of the pear tree hung heavy with almost ripe fruit. The other trees also were heavy laden, but their fruit was still small and green and would not be ready to eat until late into the fall or early winter.

To the east, several dense rows of corn flourished, several feet high already, but not yet topped by the shimmering gold tassels that decorated fully mature plants. Shorter bushes and stalks of various plants such as tomatoes, peas, bell peppers, bush beans, and a dozen others filled out most of the rest of the available space. There were a few bare patches of ground as well that I knew from past experience would soon hold sprawling vines of various winter squash that my grandmother harvested and stored in her root cellar to consume and share with the neighbors throughout the cold months of the year. There would be spaghetti squash, butternut squash, acorn squash, and even a few pumpkin vines, planted to produce their huge orange gourds just in time for Halloween.

Every row of plants had their own wood or plastic markers identifying what grew there, and the entire expanse was interlaced with watering hoses that ran to innumerable sprinkler heads and drip lines. It seemed impossible that one person could maintain such an immense and flawless yard, yet my grandmother was the only person I had ever known to so much as touch a single plant growing in this protected space.

Until now.

I paused outside the tiny, wooden picket fence that surrounded the garden, savoring the moment. The fence was only three feet high, and the gate was never locked. The fact that no one ever entered the garden was testimony to the respect people had for my grandmother rather than any security protocols she had put into effect. I flipped up the latch on the gate and, with a last glance at my grandmother to make certain she had not changed her mind, I stepped through onto the dark fertile soil.

As excited as I was to finally be in the garden, I was equally nervous. I felt like a child in a shop full of delicate glass figurines. I slipped my hands in my pockets for fear I might touch something I shouldn’t. Staying close to the fence, I stepped out of the way of the gate so my grandmother could follow me in.

“What do I do first?” I asked her. “What does the garden need today?”

“Today, we are pulling weeds. They are starting to grow a bit thick around my artichoke bushes and I don’t want them choking the roots.”

I opened my mouth to protest. I had never seen a weed growing in her garden. I figured that just as my grandmother had never allowed people inside her fence, weeds were equally forbidden. And no weed would dare intrude against my grandmother’s wishes. But I didn’t say anything. I closed my mouth, the words unspoken, and followed her to a raised planting bed on the east side, next to the orderly rows of corn stalks. In the bed were three artichoke plants, each about two feet tall and just as wide. And to my great surprise, surrounding those plants was a carpet of Bermuda grass and flowering weeds.

“Do you know the difference between a weed and an artichoke?” my grandmother asked.

“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding.

“Good. Then get to work.” With that, she knelt down beside the planter box and began to pull at the stubborn grasses that had invaded her yard. After a moment, I dropped onto my knees and joined her.

It was hard work, but I did not shirk my responsibility. I still felt the honor of having been allowed inside the boundaries of the garden fence and I did not want to give my grandmother any excuse to rescind the privilege. I kept my head down and my hands busy.

An hour passed in this manner. When we were done, my grandmother stood up, placing her hands to her back and stretching to work the kinks out. I followed her example. I was sweating, and my back had grown fatigued from the hunched over position we had maintained during our labors. In addition, my hands and fingers had grown cramped and sluggish from the tedious work of grabbing each individual weed and ripping it from the ground, roots and all.

“I think that is enough for today,” my grandmother told me, admiring our handiwork. With all the weeds eradicated, the planter box now looked as immaculate as the rest of the garden. “The goal is just do a little bit every day, that way you never fall behind.”

I silently agreed with her. Not necessarily the little bit every day part, but certainly the ‘enough for today’ part. “What are we doing tomorrow?” I asked her. “In the garden, I mean.”

“I think it’s time for the squash to go in,” she told me.

The Science of Alchemy

“Math doesn’t lie,” I insisted.

“Well then, maybe you mistranslated it,” Haley replied.

“No. I’ve found a second way to conceptualize the world.”

I’d driven up the western coast of Michigan with my girlfriend. We both deserved a break from twelve-hour days of research for our fellowships at Harvard.

Hundreds of walkers streamed by us. Once a year on Labor Day, they open the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge over the straights between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to pedestrians. Folks probably assumed we had stopped to admire the unobstructed view, but I was in a different world. I held a scribbled page of equations up in the wind. “Look at how beautiful this is. All three of these variables cancel, leaving a second entropic local minimum–call it EM-2. There must be a set of simple real-life physical concepts behind it.”

Haley pulled away the strands of auburn hair the crosswind had blown across her face. “Okay, Martin, now you’re talking crazy. Since when was your handwriting beautiful?”

“Smartass,” I said and pointed to the top of the paper. “Look. This is Boltzmann’s Law. It equates the entropy in a system with the randomness in a system’s microstates.

I moved my finger down an inch. “Boltzmann’s law is promiscuous–it applies to any physical property–but it’s normally used for pressure and temperature like this.”

I moved my finger down again. “But here I have an orthogonal set of concepts. These equations play together so nicely with Boltzmann’s Law that it has to mean something. A second local minimum implies there is a second way of conceptualizing the world.”

“You sound like the Ojibwa medicine man who gave me the Petoskey stone. White men run so fast they have forgotten they can fly.”

“No this is science, not superstition.”

“And when he called you a great winged warrior of grandmother Earth, that was superstition too?”

“Of course. That jumble of words could mean anything. I’m talking about a mathematical truth. Though I admit, I’m in the stage Einstein was before he understood the implications of his equations of space-time. But eventually, he came up with things like mass increasing with acceleration and gravitational lensing. And it all began with a simple set of beautiful, formal equations like these.”

“So now you’re comparing yourself to Einstein?” Haley said.

“That’s not the point. New laws of science mean new technology. New technology means new inventions for the benefit of everyone.”

Haley waved me aside. “Chill out. I can see this is important to you, but can we start walking again? My headache is coming back. Maybe we shouldn’t have left the Petoskey at the motel after all.”

“See,” I said. “That’s how superstitions spread. Now you think you have evidence for the Petoskey stone curing your headaches. But if you hadn’t gotten a headache, you wouldn’t have counted that as evidence the stone didn’t work.”

When we got back to the motel, Haley’s chronic headache went away. We changed clothes and went out for dinner, leaving the stone behind. Her headache came back. We retired for the evening. Her headache went away again. Haley was excited, but I knew better. Coincidence. Random noise. These things happen.

The next morning, I set up a double-blind experiment to prove that the stone did not possess magical healing powers. I got two identical boxes from the McDonalds next door and, out of Haley’s sight, put the Petoskey stone in one and another equally sized rock in the other. Then out of my sight, Haley put a sticker on one box, so I didn’t know which was which. I used a coin toss to pick which box to bring close to Haley’s head first, behind a blanket, so she didn’t know which box it was.

After ten trials, the score was Petoskey 10, other rock 0. I couldn’t believe it. I got two different boxes and made her do ten more, then ten more after that. The stone really did cure headaches.

We hurried to the town plaza where we’d met the Ojibwa, but he was nowhere in sight. We asked around, but nobody knew who he was. The owner of a local bookstore said he’d noticed the medicine man hanging around yesterday, but had never seen him before that. We browsed in the bookstore while we waited for the medicine man to come back. He never did, but we found some interesting books.

In the antique books section, Haley found an illustrated Hamlet. She opened it to a picture of some men talking while a ghost lurked nearby. “How appropriate, don’t you think?” she said. “‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'”

“Alchemy,” I said.

“What?”

I had opened a fat tome titled “The Science of Alchemy.” I read a passage from the introduction. “You must become as a child and encounter the world for the first time, for that which is fundamental to alchemy is not in the ordinary way men perceive the world.”

I leafed through the book. How to select the right plants and minerals. How to distill concentrated solutions. Recipes I didn’t understand.

“Alchemy is the answer,” I said. “Alchemy had a well-developed, empirical, alternative way of conceptualizing the world before science came along and displaced it. Alchemy will help me develop EM-2 theory.”

Sedate and Transport

Another stupid dryad was loose in the park.

Of course it had to be a day that I was working, right in the middle of my shift. Of course. I was always the worst at these types of emergencies. Nymphs were quick to say the least, and I’d always been lacking when it came to athleticism. It was only natural that one spontaneously decided it was going to have a lark on that day.

We’d previously gotten a pretty good hold on keeping the local dryad population away from us, after a long struggle that began with the park’s inception in the area. They’d all but successfully migrated to an empty forest a good few miles from the park, but they’d continue to occasionally slip past our gates and onto the property, seemingly wanting to at least attempt to reclaim their old stomping grounds.

Normally, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem. We got all kinds of creatures coming in and out of the place. Harpies would rest in the trees some days. We caught water nymphs slithering around in the lake all the time. That was just life in the park.

The vital difference was that other creatures usually did their thing and got out before closing. The tree nymphs still thought they owned the place, running around and disturbing the other guests.

“Look, just catch it and take it back to the forest,” Chief Condor had said before sending me off equipped with nothing but the usual dart gun. “You know the protocol by now. Sedate and transport.”

Yeah, they were easy instructions when you were the one who got to sit behind the desk.

I visualized my two weeks’ notice with particularly imaginative detail as I headed off into the depths of the property. The day I dropped that on Chief Condor’s desk seemed infinitely far away, relying entirely on my acceptance into my postgraduate program. Then I could look at dirt under microscopes instead of performing wild goose chases and giving directions in it.

I’d become tired of my part-time job long before that day. I always remained low in rank, given a title that sounded more powerful than it was. It was like being an overworked waitress with a different backdrop.

The fantasy of working in the nature that I so loved to study had lost any novelty that it might have previously had, and had been morphed into nothing more than a sign that I wasn’t moving forward with my life. Nymph wrangling was just a particularly annoying reminder nestled within it.

I was stalking through an especially wooded section of the park when I first caught a glimpse of her, skipping through between the trees in a way that let me know catching her would take more than the bare minimum in terms of effort. She glanced in my direction for a sliver of a second before darting out of sight.

“There it goes.”

I turned around and grimaced at the voice I, unfortunately, was able to recognize. Cora, who had apparently showed up behind me sometime in the past few minutes, was smiling quite proudly at me when I did. This day really couldn’t stop improving.

“Did you have to be so loud?” I asked. “You probably just scared her off for me, so thanks.”

She smirked, looking to be having far more fun with this than I ever could. “Please. She ran away before I said anything, Heather. As if you’d have been able to get her, anyway. It was practically playing hopscotch and you just gawked at it.”

I stomped down one of my boots with indignation, ignoring how childish it made me feel to do so. The tiny bit of catharsis was worth it.

“You try catching it then!” I said. “I’m tired of playing zookeeper.” When I’d applied to work at the park, I’d hoped it would give me the biology-adjacent experience I needed for my studies. Within weeks, I’d come to realize that ranger duty around here didn’t give much to my brain besides migraines.

“Chief didn’t tell me to go after the thing,” she argued, walking a bit closer. “I just came here to watch the fun. I’m on ‘general patrol duty,’ anyway, so I can technically be here.”

I groaned and briefly wondered if I ought to report her to the front office. Surely this counted as slacking off, regardless of her loopholes. The more I thought about it, though, it didn’t feel worth it. They never took me seriously up front. If anything, I’d get scolded for Avoiding a Highly Important Duty, Ranger Kim.

Maybe I could use a sidekick, anyway.

“If you’re gonna watch, then you better help,” I said, knowing that she probably wouldn’t. Cora didn’t seem any better equipped than I was for this, so the only benefit I could really hope to glean was company.

I headed off further into the trees without bothering to see if she’d follow.

Drop Serene

Prologue

I didn’t read it for a long time. Really, I wasn’t aware of it for a long time. Those were busy times for the infernal horde, what with all the dime store necromancers queueing up to mortgage their souls. Western society’s emergence from the darkness spawned enough bad ideas to keep us all hopping for a couple centuries. That kind of overwork doesn’t really leave anybody in the mood to curl up with a long, challenging epic poem.

By the time I read it, the Blind Poet was long dead. By the time I read it, Frankenstein’s creature had already read it, and all the daffodil sniffers had embraced it to a degree that was embarrassing to witness. By then, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

It was a little bit of a shock to recognize our story. That was nothing compared to the shock that followed.

At first, I was confused and a little miffed. It seemed like the poet mentioned everybody in Hell except me. I read through that whole tremendous list, and the only one missing was me. I’m not suggesting that I’m a particularly big deal in the grand scheme of Perdition, but one hates to be left off the cast list if one is in the show.

Then the real shock followed.

It was the perspective that gave it all away. It wasn’t just scenes where I was present – It was scenes shown from my point of view. It slowly dawned on me that the Blind Poet didn’t leave me out of the narrative because he didn’t like me, or because he thought I wasn’t important enough. He left me out because he was seeing the whole thing through my eyes. Somebody gave him access to the whole story by giving him access to everything I saw.

Now who would be able to do that?

As I read on, it became clear that while the Blind Poet had total access to what I saw, he only sometimes had the soundtrack to go with it. At these times, he just took his best guesses at what was being said and why. Really, he did a pretty good job of the guess work, all things considered. Sure, he got some things totally dead wrong, but he did it in ways that made for a good poem.

I’m not writing to refute what the Blind Poet wrote. For as few of the facts as he got right, he ultimately captured the truth. I’m also not writing this because I got left out of the Blind Poet’s work. I’ve long since read the Italian Pilgrim’s poem, and I’ve got a real juicy part in that. Juicy enough to more than make up for my absence in the Blind Poet’s epic. Really, I just want to set down my thoughts about my dearest friend. I want to let you know about my pal Lucifer.

Happily Never After

Some things about being a “late-bloomer” pop star kinda suck. Like being twenty-three and on a mall tour. I’m supposed to muster up false enthusiasm about shopping and fun, but the college interns who concocted this plan have clearly never listened to my music. My songs are about being the odd girl out, the one who isn’t like her peers.

And that’s me, in a nutshell. I’m not like other girls. Granted, being from Cobalt City and being “not like other girls” means something different. I’m not a super hero, I just have a voice that doesn’t require a mic. I use one to keep up appearances. And I can be weirdly persuasive. Which is probably why I’m five years into a pop career in an industry that takes pretty young things, chews them up, and spits them out. Too bad my voice couldn’t get me out of this mall tour.

We’re in Cerulean City, California, and the mall is right on the beach, so I can watch the ocean when we’re not doing sound check, or going over my set list, or the million other demands on my attention. The new intern, Ruby, doesn’t think I should open with “Happily Never After”–too much of a downer, she says–despite this being the Happily Never After Tour. I don’t care about the song order. I’m too busy watching the waves.

Being near the ocean always relaxes me. My dad always said it was like the water was my true home. The water near Cobalt City is way too cold for most people to swim in. I don’t mind it, at least in the summer. I can practically feel the water here, warm and gritty with salt and sand.

There’s a bar down by the water, hastily thrown up right at the edge of the surf, probably moved each day depending on the tides. The tables are set so your feet get washed over every once in a while. It looks divine.

“I’m going to go get a drink,” I say, extracting myself from my low-slung hammocky chair.

Clive, one of the interns, shakes his head, eyes wide. “You can’t, Miss Sweet. We’d need to send security with you, and the paparazzi are crawling this place today. What kind of drink would you like? We’ve got runners who can get you something.”

I sink back into my chair. Another reason being a late-bloomer pop star sucks? Most of your fans are underage and have this weird assumption that you must be their age too. The tabloids have a field day if you go out drinking, calling you a bad role model or hinting at rehab on the horizon.

My gaze stays fixed on the ocean, even when one of the interns presses a drink into my hands. Whiskey with lemon and honey. The drink science says is best for my vocal cords. Whatever.

Something incongruous in my field of vision gives me pause. There’s someone dressed all in black standing at the edge of the water, and I can feel their gaze on me, even at this distance.

It’s 90-something degrees out there, even with the breeze off the ocean. They’ve got to be roasting. I get back out of my chair, walk over to the window, and press one hand to the glass in a sort of static wave of acknowledgement.

They raise their hand in a similar salute.

Somehow it doesn’t make me feel any less alone.


Fifteen minutes to show time, and everything is a rush around me. I try to stay out of their way, but they need to check my makeup, my hair, my mic, my shoes. They want me in sandals, but it’s been hard for them to find any that don’t showcase my webbed toes. Yeah, literally webbed toes. It’s not as rare as you might think, or so the doctors tell me.

I stand like the eye of the storm and just let everyone poke and prod me until one minute to show time. Then I break away, plaster on my trademark Cassidy Sweet smile, and wait for the emcee to say my name.

Ruby won out on the song selection, and we’re starting with “Summer, Sand, and Surf.” Fitting, I guess. I glance over the set list in between verses, and “Happily Never After” is still there, so that’s fine.

The hairs on the back of my neck go up unexpectedly when we hit the chorus the third time, and I scan the crowd.

It’s the guy from the beach–I can tell it’s a guy now–motionless, staring at me. I raise my hand again, and he follows suit.

All around him, the crowd is dancing and singing along, but he doesn’t move. Now I’m weirded out. I’ve had my fair share of stalkers and other creepy “admirers.” This guy hasn’t done anything compared to most. Yet.

Between songs, I switch my mic over to our internal channel. “Possible creeper at the back of the crowd, one o’clock. All in black.”

“On it.” Tito, the head of my tour security, is like an over-protective uncle or big brother. I wouldn’t know. I don’t have either, as far as I know. Dad didn’t have any family that he spoke of, and he said even less about Mom’s family. But I like Tito. He’s always been good to me.

Still, I feel a twinge of guilt at siccing Tito on some random guy all in black. “Just … watch him, for now, Tito.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

And then we’re jumping into my cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” made extra creepy by the fact that this guy is still staring at me, not even blinking, as far as I can tell. It’s starting to break through my cool. This isn’t something I’m used to. My head is starting to pound.

No.

Something’s knocking in my head.

I drift back during the solo, let the dancers take center stage. In the wings, Ruby is dancing along with them. I’m surprised she didn’t muscle her way into getting to be out there with them, after she choreographed their routine. Maybe I’ll suggest that to her later, get her out of my hair for a while.

For now, I’ve got enough in my hair. I cautiously think an answer toward the knocking. “Yes?”

“You’re in danger.” The voice is barely a whisper, but it’s loud enough in my head to drown out the band.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“Call me J.J. You’ve got to stop the show and get everyone out of here. Please.” His voice is earnest.

I’m from Cobalt City. When someone gets a warning like this, they know better than to take the risk. “Then pull the fire alarm.” I glance out into the crowd and spot Tito en route to intercept the guy in black, who might be J.J. “Move now if you’re gonna do it.”

I run back to the front of the stage and resume singing. The guy in black is gone, and Tito looks confused. I’ll have to sort that out later. Whatever this is about, it better be good. I might hate this mall tour, but I also hate disappointing my fans.

The Pull of the Waves

The first letter came in a bottle, bobbing in with the tide. My older sister and I had gone out before sunrise to stand with our toes in the ocean. It was so big, so loud, so strong. I was already overwhelmed when the bottle tapped against my calf.

The glass was turquoise–my favorite color–and it was shaped like an old-fashioned coke bottle, long-necked and elegant. I picked it up without thinking and hugged it to my chest.

Denise laughed and danced across the wet sand. Her hair billowed in the wind and shone in the early morning light. I stood and hugged the bottle and shuddered at the feeling of the ocean pulling at my feet.


I didn’t notice the letter until after breakfast. Everyone else was excited to go swimming, but I stayed in the cottage, searching for pliers to pull out the cork.

The letter was folded in half, then curled tight. A pale purple flower was pressed flat inside it.

It took another moment to realize that the letter was actually addressed to me.

“Dearest Lindy,” it read, “You don’t know me yet, but I wanted to send you a token of my regard. I know that the upcoming months will be difficult for you, but know that I care deeply for you already. If you ever have need of me, simply stand in the water and call. I will come. Yours forever, Elzin.”

“Elzin,” I whispered. It wasn’t a name I’d ever heard before. I left the flower in the letter, put it back into the bottle, and tucked it into my suitcase. I was young enough to not question, to just believe in this tiny magical moment, but old enough to know that it wasn’t something to mention to anyone else.

I sat on the porch and read my book till Denise came and dragged me down to the ocean for our picnic lunch.


Denise’s cough started soon after we got home from vacation, and she faded quickly. The doctors did what they could, but it wasn’t enough.

When there was nothing more to do, they sent her home. I sat next to her in her dark room, holding her hand as it grew thinner, day by day. I read to her, using a single strip of sunlight that fell through the curtains to see the letters. Books about the ocean always made her smile. I tried not to remember the fear I’d felt looking out at its vastness, and smile at the bits of trivia that my sister loved.

After the funeral, I found a wooden box on my bed with a seashell nestled inside. When I held it to my ear, I could hear my sister’s laughter.

Stranger and Stranger

“The rig, it was right here,” I panicked, to Heinz. “Where the hell could it have gone?” We stared at the empty patch of snow, beside the long hose and the discarded boots and cylinders, and wondered about the spacewoman.

He looked at me with typical, big-brother derision. Twin jets of irritation streamed from his nostrils. “Sure it was, Ingo. Sure it was. I’ll bet she blasted into space, right here, from this very spot. And now she’s probably on her way to some nearby star.” He shivered audibly, then cinched his red-and-white, eagle-embroidered scarf up to the curly hairs growing from his ears. “It’s cold. I’m going back.”

Finally, I thought I’d had him. Just once, Heinz would appreciate just how exceptional his little brother’s life could be. But then, after dragging him all the way into the Alps, and then out into this frozen meadow on this frozen morning, all I had to show was a whole bunch of freshly packed snow.

I was mired in disbelief when he started back to the farmhouse. He was laboring to stay on top of the thin crisp of ice, rather than sink into knee-deep powder, when he heard the loud, rippling sound. He looked into the sky, pondered, looked some more, and then began to exclaim.


Heinz Baumgartner had been my older brother for as long as I can remember. And for that entire time I’d basked in his radiance, mostly unnoticed, a rocky exoplanet beside a main-sequence star. As the firstborn, his every milestone had been recorded and every success had earned him praise. And in the narrow, self-centered universe that emerged he always had a better story to tell–whether he did or whether he didn’t.

But the thing about rocky exoplanets, they’re often more interesting than their main-sequence stars.

For more than thirty years my brother and I had spent the first Friday of October at his vineyard in Carinthia, down where Austria kisses Slovenia just beyond Hungary’s view. These were mostly one-sided affairs, during which I’d hear the latest retread of last year’s stories. If I was lucky I’d slip in a wholly unappreciated reference to myself somewhere along the way.

But this year was going to be different, he would see, and midway through our second bottle of Weissburgunder I began my amazing tale. “Heinz, I have a spaceman living in my attic.”

His stare was blank and flummoxed. I’d been too abrupt, I never did transition well. I tried again.

“I said, a spaceman. Though she’s more of a spacewoman I suppose.”

“Ingo, what in the hell are you talking about?” He spoke that sing-song, rollicking German native to the outer reaches of Austria.

“She arrived a few weeks ago, out of the blue. She was covered from head to toe in this red and white robe, like a burqa, and all I could see were her eyes. They were strangely dark, almost hollow. She talks funny, can’t weigh more than 20 kilos, and smells, well, somewhere between ozone and engine oil.”

“Ingo,” he said gravely, “turn around.” He gestured with full glass at the young man sitting on a backless bench at the rear of his Weingarten. He wasn’t drinking, nor doing much of anything besides looking bored and conspicuous. “See him?”

I nodded.

“He’s been bunking with my farmhands. His name is … oh hell, I forget. Let’s call him Sepp.”

“Sepp?”

“Yea, Sepp. He arrived with a whole pack of ‘em, a few weeks back, on the 14:30 from Zagreb. The rest continued onward to Munich, thank God. But not him, he hung around. Speaks English to me, but I get most of it. Says there’s some war back home and he’s looking for a new start. Says he’s got a family and he’s making a way for them.” Heinz took a long sip then exhaled from the back of his throat. “I’m not so sure.”

I looked at Sepp, who was now looking at us, uncomfortable with the attention. “It could be true,” I said.

Heinz’ unshaven faced scrunched up like a raisin, as often happens when I have something to say.

“Really,” I continued. “There’s been quite a few like him recently. A lot of them are from Syria, and, yes, there’s a civil war.”

“Anyway,” he pivoted, “for a bed and something to eat he offered to help with the harvest. The frosts were coming early, so I played along. Talk about smelling funny. Kind of like old figs in need of a good rain. I have no idea what he’ll do in the winter. But for sure it’s gonna cost me.”

“Maria,” I said, reclaiming the floor.

“Come again?”

“She wouldn’t tell me her name, so I started calling her Maria.”

“Who?”

“The spacewoman.”

“Right.” Heinz took the Lodenhut from his head and scratched the tangled, snow-white nest beneath. “Well, what does she want?” he asked, his downward inflection revealing disinterest.

“Water, mostly.”

“Water.”

“Yes. Wherever she came from, it must be very dry. I offered her food, and clothing, but all she wanted was water. Clean water. That’s all she could talk about. I showed her the faucet in the bath and she was thrilled.”

“Must have been awful thirsty.”

“I’m not so sure. The thing is, she never actually drank any. At least, not that I saw. She seemed more into saving it for later. I gave her some Tupperware.” I glanced at Sepp, who glanced away. “Strangest woman I’ve ever seen. She just has to be from another world.”

“A spacewoman.”

“Yes, a spacewoman.” I drew out that last word for maximum impact.

A deep orange sunset appeared above the nearest hillock, where Heinz’ trellises stood out like the stubble on his chin. He gazed slowly at the brilliance, savored the features of his fatherland, then turned toward me earnestly.

“Ingo?” he asked.

I leaned forward.

“The buffet’s gonna close. You hungry?”

Nina Marinovic Does Not Exist

In the end, she ate the paper, its shiny, slightly furry surface sticking to the roof of her mouth and making her gag. Her husband laughed when he found out, but it was something she had to do. She didn’t trust the power it had over her, and the only way to break that power was to break it up with her teeth. It sat in her stomach, making her queasy, but through the dizziness and chills that followed she was content. She had finally finished it.


Nina wished she had worn more clothes at the border point. Her children resembled giant balls, their puffed-up coats bulging around them. She was shivering through her jeans, and her scarf offered little comfort. Her husband David’s face was set like concrete, but she could see him shaking in his leather jacket.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said, for lack of anything to do but complain. “I remember when they’d let you in with just a passport.”

“At least they’re letting us through.” She took out the envelope containing her documents and thumbed through it for the fifth time. She ran through all the explanations she could possibly give if the guard questioned those papers: excuses for everything from incorrect orthography to the variation in color between her and her husband’s work permits.

“Next!” The guard’s order rattled through the loudspeaker, and David jumped. He took Lara and Petra in hand and walked, with only a little hesitation, up to the booth. They’d registered the children on his papers, and so he was the one who had to explain the situation to the guards. At the time, he’d insisted on it–he was the one who’d travelled through this very checkpoint several times, back in better days. Now, Nina was frantic with anxiety, and she squinted towards her family and their conversation with an unimpressed officer. After a couple of minutes, the officer gave them all back their passports and other papers, and they set off towards the exit.

It was her turn, and she stepped forward feeling the crescendo of blood in her body, rising in fear. When she reached the booth, she saw that the officer’s eyes were a jaundiced yellow, though the rest of his face was pale and papery. She placed all her papers on the wooden surface, and he took them from her. She watched his eyes flicking through her passport, work pass, and entry permit.

He collected her papers together, stamped her passport, and handed them back to her, along with the card that proclaimed her to be a temporary resident with the right to work.

“Thank you,” she whispered. The officer ignored her as she stuffed her papers into her handbag and walked towards the rest of her family.


For a little while, nothing strange happened. Then Nina tried to go to work.

She had obtained a job before they had come, at Saint Anthony of Padua Gymnasium. She would replace the school’s former French teacher, who had disappeared one day in mysterious circumstances, according to the student who shown her to the principal’s office. Nina asked what these circumstances might be, and was told that the most popular theories were elopement, involvement in a cult, and selling her soul to the devil. She felt rather less enthused about her new job, but kept on walking, her shoes clattering on the polished floor.

When she entered the office, the principal–Dr. Lisa Amstutz, the plaque on her desk said–shook her hand, and Nina introduced herself, tripping a little over a language she knew more as an intellectual exercise than a living thing.

“Of course, since you are a foreigner, I need to see your residency card,” Dr. Amstutz said. Nina pulled her card out of her purse and handed it over. It was the first time she had needed to use it.

Dr. Amstutz frowned, and stared at the card for too long to be reading it.

“What is wrong?” Nina started forward in her seat.

“This says you’re not Nina Marinovic.” She handed it back, and Nina saw that the name printed in black ink was NIKA MARINOVIC. She closed her eyes and opened them in the hope that the letters would change while she wasn’t looking, but they remained as before.

“There must have been a mistake,” she said. “I really am Nina Marinovic–this card just has an error—”

“I’m sorry.” Dr. Amstutz rose from her chair and gestured towards the door. “We can’t have someone teaching here if they’re not who their documents say they are.”

“I have a passport from my country–won’t that do?”

“Not if you don’t have the right to work.”

“If you give me time, maybe I can get new papers. It’s a mistake.”

“I don’t have time.” Over the top of her glasses, Dr. Amstutz regarded her the way one regarded a criminal’s photo in the newspaper.

Nina felt hot and embarrassed, and gave up the fight in favor of scuttling away. “I’m sorry,” she said before closing the door.

The Garden of Esther

See that sun up there? It’s just painted on. The real sun is a raisin with all the juice sucked out of it. I know ‘cause I saw it. But before that, I lay in my own garden beneath another fake sky.

I knew the shape of every rock and leaf, the buzz of every insect, the whistle of every bird. I smelled every flower, climbed every tree… but I stayed out of the woods. Mother said I should never go in there and I was a good girl. Plus also I didn’t have the key to the gate.

I let out a sigh. “There’s nothing to do.”

Puggle opened his eyes and peered up at me, his hedgehog spines tickling my belly. “We could play hide and seek.”

I had on my bright yellow dress, my second favorite after the frilly lavender one. Mother said I shouldn’t climb trees in a dress if I ever wanted to wear it again, so now I wore this one and yellow’s not a hidey color. I shook my head. “You cheat at that game ‘cause you’re not yellow.”

Puggle flicked his long tongue at me.

Bzzzz-whaa-whaa-wa-wa. A cicada buzzed angry not ten feet from me. A meadowlark stabbed at it with her needlely bill. I kicked a slipper at that bird. “Shoo! Leave that bug alone.”

“She’s just trying to feed her babies,” Puggle said.

That’s all the world needs, more babies. The meadowlark hopped a step away, one beady eye on me, the other on the wiggly bug. “Go away bird, I’m the top of the food chain.”

Puggle made his eyes squinty at me. “What do you know about food chains?”

“Mr. Professor told me about them.”

Puggle shook his head and looked sad at me. “He needs an upgrade then. They’re called food webs and they don’t have tops.”

I stuck my tongue at that hedgehog. ‘Cause he’s not so smart, that’s why. Everything has a top. Mama Meadowlark flew away with the no longer wiggly cicada silent in her beak.

From inside the cottage a wail burst out. Emily, my baby sister, ‘cept I never even asked for a baby sister. Well, maybe once but that was before I knew better and I shouldn’t have to be punished for that.

Puggle rolled off my belly. His ears flicked toward the woods and his eyes got squinty then he turned toward the cottage. “We should go see if Lady Ella needs any help.”

I scrunched my nose at what it would smell like in there. I bet I was never that stinky unless you count that time I found a dead frog and forgot it in my pocket for two days. “Puggle, what was I like when I was a baby?”

Puggle stopped his waddle and looked curious at me. “Well, you weren’t much bigger than I am–”

“Did you love me?”

He nuzzled my face and whispered, “I’m here to love you.”

I smiled where Puggle couldn’t see it. “Let’s not go inside then.” I stood and started walking.

Puggle scampered to keep up. “Wait! Where are you going then?”

“Mother’s busy, so I’m going to see the woods.” ‘Cept I didn’t say it out loud ‘cause Puggle gets nervous around broken rules.

The stone path narrowed into mossy stairs near the back of the garden. The flowers and shrub-shapes grew taller as we went until they ended at a hedge three times my height circling the entire garden. Beyond that, oaks and maples waved and whispered. Esther… Esther… Esther…

Puggle wheezed up the last stair. “You’re not allowed back there.” He rolled into a ball, just his eyes and pointy nose stick out of his spikes.

“Oh, and you are Mr. Pricklypants?” I learned that from watching stories on my room’s wall. You put “pants” on a name to make it mean funny.

Puggle rolled himself so tight I couldn’t even see his nose. “We should go. You can’t get through the gate without the key anyway.”

The gate was twisty black bars and as tall as the hedge. I pressed my face against the cool metal then blinked and squinted but couldn’t see anything but fuzzy bleary dark.

The gate lurched. There was a screech.

I think the gate screeched too and maybe Puggle. My bottom dragged the stones as I crab-walked backwards. Puggle crouched before me, spines flared and teeth bared. From the blackness something slithered out, a green triangle head with mean eyes followed by a long scaly body, dragonfly wings, stubby legs and a snakey tail. It flicked its forked tongue at Puggle then rose onto its hind legs and waved one claw. “Hello, Esther. Name’s Foster.”

“You’re not supposed to be this side of the gate.” Puggle was shaking at that lizard like an emptying balloon and making those noises too. I worried about that hedgehog ‘cause he might be a lergic. Mr. Professor said lergics react to particular things… like maybe green winged lizards.

I stepped between Puggle and that lizard and clenched my fists. “You leave Puggle alone. You’ll be sorry if he goes into Anna Galactic Shock mode.”

Foster cocked his head and blinked his eyes in a weird lizardy way then he flicked his tongue at Puggle. “Things are getting worse out there. It’s time to show Esther–”

Puggle launched himself at Foster’s face. I’d never seen Anna Galactic Shock mode before. ‘pparently it involves a lot claws and screaming. Poor Foster had spines stuck all over him. I did warn him though.

That wail sliced through the commotion. Baby Emily, and she was getting closer. I covered my ears and even Puggle paused, mid-shock mode.

Foster took the ‘tunity to slip behind the gate. Just his forked tongue poked from the darkness. “Get the key and meet me here tomorrow. You need to see something,” he hissed, then the gate clunked closed and he was gone.

“Esther! I told you to stay where I could see you.” Mother had been running. She’d hiked her dress above her knees with one hand and in the other held Emily who was raising a ruckus. As usual. Emily crying that is, not Mother running. She almost never runs.

That’s not what drew my ‘ttention though. It was Mother’s eyes open so wide and wild as her hair. My tummy knotted itself. “Mother, are you a lergic too?”