Month: May 2017

An Accounting of the Sky

Before they called me witch, they called me healer.

The elders find me in my garden at sunrise, three hale and healthy old men with bright fear burning in their eyes. The Inquisitor motions to his guards, but I wave them off. “I can walk,” I snap, taking a firm grip on my cane and shuffling past my slouching hut. My dignity, and stiff joints, require a stately pace. I will not endorse their plans for me with argument or struggle. Out on the road to the village, pride keeps me from looking back at the garden where a small congregation of sparrows still chatter over the seeds I’d just thrown them.

Over the years, desperate young mothers and fathers arrived at my door holding fevered infants too weak to cry. Breathless children were sent to fetch me, bouncing on the balls of their feet while I made a show of selecting herbs from the garden before following them to the house of an ailing relative. The road blurs and I blink the tears from my eyes. My garden. It was for show. A ruse. Of course, I can brew teas with an analgesic or soporific effect, make a poultice to draw out infection, but this is not my gift.
It is my touch.

When my fingers were tangled in the damp hair of a fevered woman’s head as I helped her drink some concoction, or by laying my hand on a child’s burning brow, this is the means by which I draw their affliction into me. For years I have done this and more. Village boys, returning from the Crusades as haunted soldiers, came to me tormented by memories of the unspeakable things they’d witnessed, or committed. I would lay my hands on them and take those memories.

After each visit, I would crawl into my bed thrashing in the damp sheets, bound by nightmares, battling all the maladies of their bodies and their souls. As soon as I was strong enough, I would limp out to my weedy garden, sit in the sun and smell the green aroma of the leaves, watch the insects’ busy industry – but most of all I would listen to the birds. The sparrows, the starlings and the hawks who, each in their own tongue, would give an accounting of the sky. I have come to prefer the company of these creatures who care not at all for pains and worries of those of us bound to the earth.

The road turns toward the center of the village, and there they all are gathering wood for my bonfire. I straighten up as much as my back will allow and try to swallow the hard feelings that sit like a stone my throat. The Inquisitor’s guards move to flank me.

I’ve claimed the suffering and bad memories they could not bear, carrying all of it with me like a pack animal. For what I take, I must keep. I was a beauty once, now I am a crone with pitted skin, a twisted back, and hairs sprouting from my wobbling chin. What do they see when they look at me? Shadows of the dark and frightening things that were once inside them. Did they realize they wanted me gone before the Inquisitor arrived? Or am I simply an expedient offering? A bribe so that the Inquisitor will leave this village in peace.

A cure that may not last, I’m afraid.

The village has prospered. There are so many of them, straight and strong and healthy. Beautiful, even now. They’ve flourished under my touch. They crowd in as I pass, hushed. None of them will look at me – except for one. Mary. The baker’s daughter, she would come to my door with her mortar and pestle and a thousand questions about how to use the herbs in my garden to heal people. I taught her what I knew, which wasn’t much. I cannot give her the touch. She will be able to provide only what relief the plants can offer. That will have to be enough. Her eyes are wide with grief and terror and locked on mine. I glare back at her. If the Inquisitor sees her cry, he might raise his price. Despite her fear, she reaches out under the cover of the jostling crowd and clasps my hand. A misguided gesture of solidarity? Of Love? Thanks? She is so very frightened.

Quick as a flash, I pull the terror from her, but I cannot hold all of my heartbreak in. She lets out a howl as I pass. The Inquisitor will think it is meant to shame me, but I know it is the articulation of my own betrayal. The other villagers join in, screaming abuse. I stumble then. The fear and despair I took from her bats around inside my rib cage like a trapped bird.

The guards drag me over the wood and lash me to the stake. Below me, the villagers busy themselves with flint and tinder. Smoke stings my eyes, but the fire is already burning away the miasma of disease and hopelessness that I’ve carried across these many years. The heat cauterizes my fear.

I look up as a flock of starlings soar across the clear blue sky.

By day, Rebecca Schwarz is a mild-mannered editorial assistant for a scientific journal, by night she writes science fiction and fantasy stories. Her work has appeared in Interzone, PodCastle, Bourbon Penn, and Daily Science Fiction. She is currently writing her first novel. You can read about her writing life at


Akina pushed her long hair back so her father’s visitors would be able to glimpse her pointed ears and golden eyes. Her father wanted them to see that she was the daughter of a kitsune–no other man alive had a daughter who was half fox, and Lord Kisho knew how to display his unique acquisitions.

Akina posed beneath a sakura tree in her father’s garden. Delicate pink petals floated around her. They settled in her black hair and in the folds of her pale blue kimono.

She tried to enjoy the sunshine, cool spring breeze, and her momentary privacy. She wasn’t hidden inside behind screens like her sisters. She reminded herself that there were good things about being less-than-human.

A flash of movement caught Akina’s eye. A three-tailed silver fox jumped onto a rock in the reflecting pool. It winked at her and bowed.

Lord Kisho had Akina’s mother stuffed and kept her on display, but Akina had never seen a live fox before. She couldn’t take her eyes off of it. It was larger than her mother, and its pelt glistened like thick winter ice. It jumped from the rock and trotted up to Akina. “Hello, Akina.”

“You shouldn’t be here!” she whispered. She imagined him stuffed, on display next to her mother. “If my father catches you, he’ll kill you!”

The fox sat down by her feet. “We have a few minutes. I am here to rescue you.”

“Rescue me?”

“Yes. Don’t you long to escape?”

“It’s impossible. My father has guards and hunters and the walls are too high to climb.” Akina imagined a life free of her father, free of the constant fear that if she didn’t please him, he’d stuff her just as he had her mother.

“And yet here I am.”

“You shouldn’t be!” Akina heard footsteps approaching. “They’re coming! Run! Hide yourself!”

The fox stood and bowed to her again. “My name is Yukio. You will see me again.”

“I have found a man who wants to marry you,” Akina’s father announced as he strode into Akina’s small room. “Come to my garden once you are presentable.”

Akina nodded numbly and let a maid dress her like a doll. She wondered if Yukio would follow to her new husband’s home. She wondered what sort of man wanted a wife who was not fully human.

Her throat tightened. She swallowed and patted a tear off of her cheek, careful not to smudge her face, then went to her father’s garden.

The man standing beside Lord Kisho took Akina’s breath away. He was tall and slender, with hair the color of midnight and eyes like storm clouds over the mountain.

This was the man who wanted her?

The servant behind him glanced up at her, and she glimpsed gold in his eyes as he winked at her.

Yukio? Could he have arranged for this man to take her away from her father?

“Daughter, this is Lord Botan.”

Akina smiled at the stranger without meeting his eyes.

“She is everything that you promised, Lord Kisho.” Lord Botan’s soft tenor sent shivers up Akina’s spine. Was it fear or desire? How could she not know the difference?

Akina stood awkwardly, unsure how to proceed. She’d never been trained in proper etiquette–her father had wanted her mannerisms to be quaint. The silence stretched, and when Akina couldn’t stand another moment, she blurted, “I’m glad that you find me pleasing, my lord.”

Lord Botan’s left cheek dimpled as he smiled.

“You are dismissed, Akina, my fox-child.” Lord Kisho said, his voice soft and tender in a way that Akina had never heard before. She wondered what he had received in trade for her hand. “Go and pack your things. You will be leaving at dawn tomorrow.”

Someone had already packed Akina’s few possessions. She threw herself down on her futon and buried her face in her pillow, unsure whether she wanted to laugh or cry. She fell asleep before she could decide.

To Dust

Five days ago they’d stood in their bedchamber and argued, and Baleel had tried to convince Isfet to flee with him before the armies from the north broke down the city gates.

And she had asked him, “Where will we go? What else is there?”

“Other lands,” he’d said. “Other cities. A life together.”

“Other lands where they force people with skin like ours into slavery. Or prostitution. This is my home, Baleel.”

And then he’d wiped a tear from her eye, and drew his sword.

They marched together to the city gates, and there they spilled blood, gallons of it, enough to drown in. But it wasn’t enough.

And when Isfet fell, Baleel fell down beside her, and he never stopped falling.

Baleel spread his tools out onto the table next to Isfet’s body. A sandstorm raged outside, one that had lasted for days and showed no signs of stopping. Baleel made the space as clean as he could in the short time he had to prepare, but the storm sent the curtains into a frenzy and sharp blasts of sand tore at his skin. The torch fixed into the wall over his head flickered unsteadily, threatening total darkness. The sky was black, the sun just a pale shadow hidden behind a veil of storm clouds.

And though he couldn’t see the fires in the distance, Baleel could smell the scent of smoke on the wind, and with it the scent of death.

Baleel washed Isfet’s hair with sacred oils, and rubbed them into her skin. There’d been no time to let her body dry; nor would there be.

He reached for his ceremonial knife, a slender silver blade with a carved ivory handle, and he sliced into Isfet’s left side, letting her organs spill into a basin at the foot of the table. Some organs he retrieved, placed into jars and sealed. Others were cast into the fire. Once empty, he washed the body cavity and then rubbed a mixture of sand and natron inside, taking care to be as thorough as time would allow.

Baleel worked from memory, recalling similar tasks from his time as an apprentice in the temples, before war had called him to faraway lands. Though he’d never preserved a body himself, he’d been witness to the procedure countless times.

He would’ve gone to a priest now, were they all not lying eviscerated in the streets. He would’ve consulted the holy scriptures, if the libraries and churches had not been reduced smoldering ash.

Baleel sewed up the gash in Isfet’s side, and carefully parted her eyelids. And then, as he gazed into his beloved’s eyes, he paused for a moment. He leaned back into the wall and used it to brace himself against a wave of dizziness. He sat for several minutes in this way, running his fingers across his blistered scalp and shaking his head. He screamed prayers and curses at every god he had a name for.
The sand, indifferent to his plight, continued to beat against the outer walls, determined to wear the stone down to nothing. Even if it took forever.

Baleel looked away as he removed Isfet’s eyes, and he didn’t dare glance back at her corpse until the eyes were sealed away, covered with cloth so that he would never have to look upon them again. He used bits of the same linen cloth to stuff the empty sockets.

The sinuses were penetrated with a bamboo stick, and Baleel emptied the head cavity, tossing the bits of gray flesh that came loose into the fire. Then, finally, he rubbed Isfet’s skin with sand, and wrapped her body with linen strips.

Finished, he carried her outside to the hole he’d prepared, one deep enough to keep the dogs from digging her up, but not so deep he couldn’t get her back out.

There was only one thing left to find, and his work would be complete, a vessel for her soul.

Dark Passage

I pulled up at the Wells’ house and ripped on the handbrake, eager to stretch my legs after the long drive. I opened the car door and was met with a blast of dry, hot air. Squawks from bickering galas carried across the countryside.

The Wells’ house must have been a small, hardwood cottage once, but it had since sprouted fibro tumors and been encircled with a veranda in a vain attempt to add symmetry. The white monstrosity rose from a sea of neatly mown lawn, which was surrounded by parched paddocks, sparsely inhabited with sheep. The place smelled of shit and dirt.

I followed a cement path towards the veranda and found the Wells’ sitting at a table on the deck. They both stood as I approached. Mr. Wells was a squat man with grey hair. His glasses magnified his eyes so they appeared unnaturally large. Mrs. Wells was a tall, blonde woman. She had probably been pretty once, but age had marred her.

“Dana, thanks for coming,” said Mr. Wells, as I stepped onto the deck. “I’m Martin and this is Heather.”

“Pleased to meet you both.”

Martin extended his right hand. I placed mine in his and tried not to wince as he squeezed it painfully.

“Please, take a seat.”

A rustic table supported a teapot and a plate of homemade cakes.

“Tea, Dana?” Heather asked.


Martin sat at the head of the table and motioned for me to sit to his left while Heather poured tea. Once she was finished, she sat across from me.

The scene seemed well-rehearsed, like they did this every afternoon. Yet there was tension — something unspoken in the air. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Something about the way Heather focused on her tea, never Martin.

Heather broke the silence.

“So how do we begin? I spoke to a Morris on the phone –“

“My boss, yes. Morris gave me a rundown of your situation, but I would find it useful if you could explain it to me in your own words.”

Martin sipped his tea loudly. Heather smiled a sad smile and nodded. A magpie warbled from nearby.

“Ok. It’s our little girl, Molly. We’ve been worried about her for some time. At first we were convinced she was seeing things, but — “

Heather paused. I watched her search for the right words.

“Molly tends to fixate on things. She’s been obsessed with puzzles, and then Peppa Pig. So when she became fascinated by her wardrobe, we initially dismissed it as a new, if slightly odd, obsession. That was until she told us what she was seeing. It frightened us, so we took her to a doctor.

“We’ve seen two psychiatrists and both have told us she is a normal girl with an active imagination.”

“And what makes you think this isn’t her imagination?”

Heather paused. She opened her mouth, then closed it. Finally she spoke.

“Since then I’ve found … well … I now see the tunnel too.”

Heather averted her gaze, so I turned to Martin who was staring at his tea. He shook his head. I sensed he was not completely at ease with my presence.

Martin cleared his throat and then looked at me with those large eyes.

“Something’s wrong, Dana. Something we can’t explain. If we let her, Molly would stare at her wardrobe all day. Heather’s seeing things. None of this is normal. I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to believe and I don’t know what to make of your company, but we’re desperate. And, well, I guess I’ll try anything if it helps things return to normal.”

He seemed genuinely concerned about his daughter and yet, I didn’t get the sense he completely believed her or his wife. So why was I here? To prove it was all in their heads? I suppose it wouldn’t be the first time I’d done that.

“And Molly, is she here today?” I asked.

“Yes, she’s playing out back.”

“Would it be possible to have her show me the wardrobe?”

Heather looked to Martin, who nodded.

Loyal Things, All

I went into the old resale shop to escape a dreadful December. Cold, bleak, it was made all the worse by the fact that I found myself at thirty-two with no wife, parents dead, and my younger brother, Joe, gone this past March from the polio outbreak. At first, I had sought a warm place to take the chill off my bones and perhaps warm my hands by a coal stove, but I was immediately seized with the promise and mystery of so many cast-off treasures. At home, my apartment’s sole window had a small tree in it, decorated with what could be found, but it was a lonely thing. I resolved to find myself a gift, along with a box, a bit of paper, and a bow, so there would be something under the tree for me on Christmas Day. No sooner had I decided this than I saw, hanging from a dusty, old coatrack in the corner, a beautiful gray- and red-striped scarf.

I snatched it up without hesitation and took it to the gentleman manning the counter.

“Perfect. Absolutely perfect,” I said. Just the touch of the thing warmed me. Better, the loneliness at being swallowed by Manhattan with no family to huddle with was starting to erode, as well. Could it be, then, that the simple act of giving myself a gift was stealing away my woes?

The old man behind the counter was bald on top of his head, with a fringe of shaggy, graying hair. He was stooped, blocky in shape, with his shoulders perpetually drawn up around his ears. When I handed him the scarf, his face darkened in consternation.

“Hmm. Don’t remember buying this at all,” he said, inspecting the scarf with a thick bottom lip jutting in concentration.

“But it was there,” I replied, pointing beyond a shelf thick with worn-out typewriters to the corner with the coatrack. “Maybe someone left it here by mistake?”

The shopkeeper shook his head. “No, no. This is very nice. Feel that? That’s hand-knitted, not done on some machine. No, I’d have remembered someone coming in here, wearing such a nice scarf. And as for buying it, no, to that, too. I don’t normally deal in wearable goods. Trinkets, and such, yes. Decorations. Hmm.”

“Typewriters,” I suggested, indicating the shelves just over my shoulder. I smiled. “I’m a journalist, you see. Tools of the trade tend to draw my eye.”

He grunted and gave a nod.

The shopkeeper still held out the scarf for me to inspect, but I didn’t need to. I knew I wanted it without further consideration.

“How much?”

“It’s not mine to sell,” he insisted.

“It’s here, and I don’t want to be called a thief,” I said, “but I want this scarf. You should be recompensed for having held it, and if you like, I’ll leave my name and address. Should its original owner return for it, have him contact me. Otherwise, I’ll assume the scarf is mine for keeping.”

He quoted me a price, adding, “I can think of nothing fairer.”

I agreed and paid him.

It was the perfect gift. No one in my family, had they been alive, could have found something better if they had spent years searching. I knew my editor was sending me to Washington in March to cover Wilson’s second inaugural celebration. Though the event was coming close to spring, I expected the weather to be cold. To wear such a scarf to the occasion would be splendid, indeed.

“Very fair,” I said, taking the package.

New York at such a time of year is paradoxically depressing, as the festive air and excitement of its pedestrians scurrying through the frost and snow to do their Christmas shopping was, to me, miserable. But now, with my new scarf wrapped in parcel beneath my arm, it was as if I was sensing for the first time the passions felt by my fellow New Yorkers as the season grew brighter and stronger in their chests. Could it be that I had been the fool all these years, loathing the holidays when the truth was that they were every bit the gay and bright days that everyone around purported? Such thoughts seemed so strange, coming from a cynic such as myself, yet I could not deny my feelings.

Dinner was at the supper club two blocks from my home, and I ate with gusto. I had a bachelor’s apartment near Central Park. It was my only real extravagance, purchased when my brother died and the bulk of the inheritance bequeathed by our industrialist father passed to me, his sole heir. The money, and the business which went with it, had never interested me, and I preferred instead to live on the modest amount I made working for the newspaper. But the promise of a home in such easy walking distance of the park was too much, and I’d snatched it up when the opportunity arose.

Back home I burst through the door, as excited and happy as I’d ever been. It was like a beam of warm sunlight from God’s own garden was falling down upon me, following me wherever I went. I was giddy with it, and, after wrapping my present, I tossed it under the tree before grabbing a book off my shelf and dropping sideways into my favorite reading chair for the evening.

The moment I sat down, however, some of that giddiness began to wear off. The book became difficult, but not impossible, and my feelings were lessened, not fallen off to the point of melancholy, but definitely decreased. I could explain none of it, and this feeling remained constant until Christmas Day, when I finally opened the scarf and could wear it again. The figurative shaft of light returned, and everything was glorious.