Willingly and with Joy

Waves smashed into boulders strewn like a giant’s bread crumbs in front of the seawall. Caught by the setting sun, the spray glittered gold as it was cast into the air and fell in drops of citrine. Zeninna laughed and raised her arms to catch the wild energy. Wind tangled her unbound black hair and billowed her clothes. Though the wind tried, the gusts lacked the strength to knock her from her perch on the seawall.

“I did it, you old hags! I got in!”

The roar of wind and angry waves along Landis’ empty seawall gave Zeninna the courage to yell her triumph to the sea. She pealed with laughter, delighted with her success.

She’d sworn she could. Stood up before the Iridescent Court and scoffed at those who mocked her as too young, too wild, too loud. Unruly as the sea in storm, her own mother screeched at her. Zeninna’s supporters begged her to keep her temper leashed. She hadn’t. She couldn’t. The old hags made her too angry. But she won the right to try.

And she’d succeeded. She pressed her hand over her heart and felt the papers stashed inside her coat crinkle. Her acceptance papers. Tomorrow morning, she would enter the Great Library of Cerulea as an Acolyte.

“I did it!” She screamed once more into the wind and waves.

A dark shape popped out of the water between two of the boulders. Zeninna’s heart stopped as a wave crashed over the rocks. Had she just seen…? Ahead of the next wave, her cousin Viridis hopped half out of the water onto a bowl in the rock.

Shock held Zeninna momentarily speechless. She’d spent too long around well-fed, healthy humans. Viridis looked green and positively skeletal.

“Are you crazy?” Zeninna looked wildly up and down the seawall. Relief tempered her outrage. Viridis, not her best friend Perseah. Perseah was safe at home.

“I would hope you wouldn’t be screaming at the top of your lungs if there were humans in the vicinity to hear.”

“That they can’t hear over the wind and waves doesn’t mean they can’t see you from a window.” Zeninna gestured wildly at the town behind her.

Viridis smirked. “Human sight isn’t that good. I’ll take your message to the Court. How long before they should expect you?”

Screaming reminders at herself not to give Viridis reason to suspect anything, Zeninna forced herself to take a deep breath. Her mind rocketed about and found the perfect way to spin the answer. “I’ll know better after Orientation tomorrow.”

“Should I meet you here at dusk then?” Viridis raised her eyebrows.

Zeninna frowned. It wasn’t like Viridis to offer to play messenger. She shook her head. “You can come. I can’t promise I’ll be able to get away.”

Viridis narrowed her eyes. “Don’t forget the importance of your mission.”

Fury propelled Zeninna off the wall. Imbecile! Viridis couldn’t possibly understand the importance of Zeninna’s mission to the Irides! Viridis only knew the Court’s version of the task, not the actual plan. The gall of her brainless cousin to attempt to remind her what was at stake! Whipping back around, Zeninna sneered at Viridis. “I will not forget. Now I must go. I’ll be missed.”

Wouldn’t You Rather

For most of the year, Diner 66 is frequented almost entirely by regulars. It’s in the early fall that the reporter first shows up, the last week of September, just as the leaves begin to turn and the early-bird tourists infiltrate the restaurant on their way north. That’s probably why no one pays him any mind. He seems to float in on the breeze with the others. The out-of-towners don’t know the regulars from the tourists, and the regulars merely assumed he’d leave with the rest of the flock, but he continues to frequent their establishment into late October.

He’s impeccably dressed in his tan trench coat and black leather gloves, the fedora atop his head and the spiral notepad in hand like a journalist from a black-and-white movie of days past. The fifties themed diner seems to swallow him up that way. His outdated dress and odd mannerisms make the locals feel more out of place than he seems to be, despite his anomalous presence.

After most of the through traffic has made its way north and back south again, Clay, like the rest of the locals who frequent Diner 66, can’t help but take notice of him. He spends long hours hopping from table to table, countertop stool to window seat. He always spends money–powdered donuts and vanilla cappuccinos, or bear claws and hot chocolate–and he tips well. Well enough, anyway, for the staff to turn a blind eye to his constantly pestering the customers, though they have a tendency to play along with his often absurd interview questions regardless.

It’s not that Clay has any particular interest in eavesdropping, but it’s hard not to pick up the man’s smooth, unfamiliar voice, like the low hum of a cello cutting through the clanking dishes and quiet laughter of the other patrons’ conversations. Even his stride sets him apart. His movements are fluid and conducted with unusual gaiety as he slides into the burgundy faux-leather booth near the door. There’s something about it that bugs Clay. The man always seems like he’s half-a-second from erupting into emasculating giggles.

“We’ll start with an easy one, shall we?” The reporter asks the woman across from him with a wide smile, pen poised over his notepad. “Would you rather take a trip to the beach, or go skiing?”

“Oh, the beach, definitely,” Cindy Hoffman replies instantly, smoothing her hair back in a way that reminds Clay of a preening bird. “I hate being stuck in the cold all winter.”

He hums sympathetically, his attention undivided as he scribbles detailed notes. When he seems satisfied with the transcription, he turns to Cindy’s husband, his eyes briefly flitting to the uneaten donut on his plate.

“I suppose a more difficult question is in order, then. If you don’t mind, sir?”

“Not at all.” Carl sounds just as pleased to be considered important enough for the article.

“Excellent! Well, then, let’s see here… would you rather save a loved one’s life from cancer, or win the lottery?”

Carl catches Cindy’s look, but he still asks, “Which loved one?”

“I couldn’t say.”

“Oh, no contest, then.” Carl forcefully slaps a meaty palm down on the table, rattling the silverware. “The first one.”

“Interesting. Yes, good choice, I should think…”

Clay, watching discreetly from the breakfast bar, can’t help but roll his eyes. Everyone is completely infatuated with the man. It’s part of the dilemma of living in a small town like this one–everyone’s starved for attention. There’s never been anything or anyone in North Park worth making the papers until he showed up. Now, everyone seems to be of the utmost interest and all too happy to oblige this stranger’s odd solicitations, so much so that his interviewees have yet to ask him what it is, exactly, he’s writing about. Maybe they’re afraid the story won’t be as grand and emotionally compelling as they hoped. Clay thinks they’d probably be right.

When Carl and Cindy stand to leave after pleasantries and handshakes are exchanged, the reporter remains behind, his wrist seizing over the paper below like an inspired artist. Then he puts the pen down on the table, drawing himself up with a deep inhalation. His eyes once again return to the donut left on Carl’s plate. He seems to be considering it until he notices Cindy’s lipstick is smudged on the edge of her Coke glass. The reporter picks it up and holds it to the light as if expecting to find flakes of gold in her cheap make-up. Maybe he does. The pen is back in his grasping fingers in an instant.

“What the hell’s this guy think he is now? A scientist?” Clay mutters, turning back to his coffee. The clatter of the saucer when he sets the cup down belies his frustration.

From his right, Paige laughs under her breath. “What’s so wrong with that? He’s just doing his job.”

“What kind of reporter asks such ridiculous questions?”

She shrugs. “Maybe it’s an editorial.”

Editorial, Clay repeats the word in his head. Editorial my ass, he thinks. What could possibly be so important about whether Collin wants a dog or a cat, or if Ms. McGruder would rather win a new car than the Pulitzer Prize? What’s so important about that? He scowls at the yellow stripes of the countertop. That kind of smart-ass questioning is just how people like that reporter, people that think they’re smarter than everyone else, get their kicks.

“Are you sure you’re not just jealous?” Paige tries not to smile at the grumpy look on his face. “If you want to do an interview, you could just go ask him, you know.”

Clay gives her an impatient sidelong glance. “Why the hell would I want to do that?”

“Sounds like fun to me.”

“Yeah, I bet it does.”

“Oh, sweet love of mine,” Paige sighs theatrically, grabbing the last half of her bagel and dropping a few bills beside her plate. “I love it when you insult me. See you after work?”

Clay gives her an exasperated look, but she still wins a small smile from him, at least.

“Yeah. After work,” he agrees, giving her a chaste kiss. He watches her exit, the little silver bell atop the door announcing her departure, and then returns his attention to the reporter.

He’s eating the donut. The syrupy glaze clings to the fingers of his leather gloves, and when the pastry is gone, he looks down at his hand and blinks confusedly at it, as if he genuinely hadn’t expected the sugar to stick to him. Then he dunks his sticky fingers into Carl’s water glass and wipes it on his coat.

That’s it, Clay thinks, getting up from his seat. He snatches his keys and shoves his EpiPen into his pocket with his wallet. There must be something wrong with this guy, what with his weird mannerisms and strange questions, and if that’s the case, it’s the townspeople’s responsibility to investigate. This stranger’s been here for almost a month and not a single person can even say where he lives. For all he knows, this man might be dangerous.

The Pen

They say success is one part talent, two parts application and three parts luck. Well until that dark November night I had no cause to believe otherwise, and every cause to bemoan my fate. I was a writer with talent in abundance, and a steady determination, but good fortune had at that point been as elusive as snow in summer.

I returned to my rooms late, having spent the evening in a tavern at the end of the road called, ironically, the Shakespeare, a name which was undoubtedly given to mock me. I had been moderately, pleasantly drunk until it became my turn to stand a round, and then, discovering that I had but one farthing to my name, had to suffer the ignominy of being thrown out onto the street by men I believed to be friends.

My attic room was up three flights of stairs and in my drunken state I had quite forgotten the creaking floorboard outside my landlady’s quarters. She must have been waiting for me to return, for she had her speech carefully planned.

“Mr. Humbolt, if I might have a word?”

My landlady was a comely widow not yet into middle age and normally a delight to gaze upon, but that evening I could not bear to face her. “It is very late, Mrs. Prentice.”

“It’s about the rent.”

“Tomorrow. It is far too late now.”

“So is the rent. And you promised it tomorrow three weeks ago.”

She was still talking as I slammed my door and struggled to remove my boots. Her subsequent knock was far from timid.

“When I sell my next story, Mrs. Prentice. Then you will have your rent.”

“Tomorrow, Mr. Humbolt,” she shouted through the thick wood. “Or you will need to find new lodgings.”

My fire had grown cold, grey coals barely glowing. I didn’t bother checking the pail for more. Those were the last. There was barely enough heat in them to light a taper for my candles. I shivered with the realization that these, too, needed to be rationed.

It had not always been that way. When I first came to London to seek out the great Mr. Dickens I felt my fortune was assured. My parents had predicted otherwise but I had not really believed my father when he said ‘come back a raging success or do not come back at all’. But my letters asking for support went unanswered and my fortunes became ever more precarious.

I first saw the great writer in a salon off the Charing Cross Road, giving a public reading of his most recent success, an oversentimental serialized tale called David Copperfield. I was mesmerized, and could barely summon the courage to approach him after his performance. I had hoped he would take me under his wing, but instead as soon as I announced myself a fellow writer his face took on a haunted look and he peered ostentatiously at his pocket watch. But I was dogged in my pursuit and eventually he offered me the crumb of an introduction to his editor, a redoubtable looking fellow by the name of John Forster, before departing hurriedly to his carriage, leaving the grim faced editor behind to respond to my entreaties.

Alas, Forster proved no judge of talent and my work was swiftly rejected. I was not to be deterred, however, and soon sent other work, and found other editors and sent them my stories too.

To no avail. So that chill evening I sat in fading candlelight contemplating eviction and disgrace. There was nothing more I could do.

There was, though, one more action I could take. I had often stood in the middle of Tower Bridge late into the evening looking out over the dirty water of the Thames and listened to the cold, siren cry of the murky eddies entreating the unwary and despairing to join them. Now I, too, was in that sorry state of desolation and hopelessness. My path was clear.

The Quantum Watchmaker

In the summer heat, the clocks ran slow and the very substance of time seemed to drag. All watchmakers knew this, but only the very best–of which M. Guilbert was perhaps the greatest–were clever enough to engineer compensatory mechanisms into their creations. His accuracy was legendary. It was as though time itself was forced to do this watchmaker’s bidding. Some said I was privileged to witness a master at his work, but what did they know of the burdens he forced me to carry?

I served my apprenticeship in unprepossessing circumstances. A kind of perpetual gloom existed inside the watchmaker’s shop, the kind that eventually seeped deep into one’s soul. M. Guilbert worked in a windowless back room, a black velvet curtain always drawn across the doorway. Misshapen stubs of candles erupted like toadstools from every available surface so that he might see to do his work. The air was thick with the smell of burnt tallow.

He would not talk to me of his strange mechanisms, and certainly he taught me nothing of their design. How was an apprentice to learn from a master such as this? I glimpsed intricate components of brass and silver but these bizarre mechanisms grew larger than any mere watch or clock, like rampant weeds sprouting where a delicate flower had once been. And I saw other things too, materials which no ordinary watchmaker had need of.

How could I not help but feel disconsolate? My days were long, fumbling with tiny cogs and fragile movements, clumsily assembling the workmanlike pieces that kept us fed, until my fingers were sore and my eyes ached from the strain. The bustle of the town square glimpsed through the shop’s mullioned windows was as remote as a foreign land. Long days passed with no customers to break the silence or disturb the dust settling thickly on our bare wooden floors. It seemed I had become no more than a ghost trapped in this place, yearning for escape.

In time I learned that none was to be found.


One day, the little bell above the door gave a harsh, muted jangle, protesting its long period of inactivity. The open door threw a sudden, startling beam of sunlight across the plain wooden boards. A bubble of summer warmth wafted in, stirring the dust into swirls.

I straightened from behind the counter, blinking as I removed the jeweler’s eyepiece and set down my tools. The silhouetted stranger advanced. I saw expensive clothes, glimpsed beyond the door a fine carriage, and heard the impatient snort of a waiting mare. The man took a long moment to peruse the timepieces arrayed on the shelves. I tried to follow his gaze, to see where it lingered and gauge his interest. Those would be the pieces M. Guilbert would do well to haggle over. Times were hard and paying customers the rarest of creatures.

For an instant I imagined I saw the watchmaker’s shop through this stranger’s eyes: a gloomy interior, shabby furnishings, an air of genteel neglect. The little silver and gold timepieces: each exquisitely crafted, yet carelessly scattered across every conceivable surface, many lying forgotten on high shelves where they gathered dust–of which there was no shortage. And what of us? The master and his apprentice: equally gloomy, shabby inhabitants of this place.

“Why do none of these mechanisms work?” the stranger inquired, completing his inventory.

“Oh but they do,” I assured him, hurrying out from behind the counter. I glanced towards the inner sanctum of my master’s workshop, willing him to appear and relieve me of the burden of dealing with this self-important stranger. M. Guilbert never closed the door but the thick black curtain was always drawn when he was inside.

“In every other watchmaker’s premises I have ever attended,” the gentleman said, “my ears have been assaulted by the ticking, whirring and chiming of a hundred timepieces. But not so here. Do your mechanisms keep time insufficiently well that you dare not set them running?”

“On the contrary,” I said, with one last futile glance at the drawn curtain. “M. Guilbert makes devices of only the greatest precision. But my master believes it is… disrespectful… to wind a timepiece that does not yet have a purpose. Would you not agree?”

“Indeed. Perhaps.” The gentleman seemed entirely unpersuaded.

“Allow me to show you the truth of it for yourself.”

The stranger fingered the fob watch I proffered with no more than mild curiosity. “I am not the prospective buyer. But M. Guilbert’s reputation has reached the ears of my master.”

Your master?” It seemed unlikely someone dressed in such finery would serve any master.

“The Comte Bachellaix desires to purchase a timepiece. He has heard that M. Guilbert’s skills are second to none.”

“Indeed!” I said, thinking of the sheaf of unpaid bills stuffed into the ledger book.

“A timepiece suitably decorous for a lady, is what the Comte desires. You have such things?” he asked, looking doubtfully at the shelves.

“But of course! M. Guilbert will be greatly honored to equip the Comtess with the finest, most delicate watch ever assembled.”

The man smiled thinly. “Yes. For the purposes of expedience, let us assume this will indeed be a gift for the Comtess.” He paused and in the silence the town hall clock in the square could be clearly heard striking eleven. The gentleman glanced around the silent interior of the shop, frowning. No echoing chimes came from the dozen or so carriage clocks, not a single one. Hurriedly I said, “M. Guilbert will ensure there is a fine selection for the Comte’s perusal. I shall wind them personally.”

The gentleman grunted. He wafted a gloved hand ineffectually at the dust hanging in the air. “See that you are prepared for the Comte’s arrival. He will come at noon tomorrow.”

He left and gloomy silence fell over the shop again. I hesitated by the curtain, knowing better than to draw it back uninvited. As though reading my thoughts, M. Guilbert snatched it aside and pushed past me.

“Damn you, Boy. Why did you not send him away?”

“The Comte is an important man. And we have bills to pay.”

“Bills. Pah.” He rummaged in a drawer beneath the counter, returned brandishing a thin jeweler’s blade which he waved in my face as though I had purposefully hidden it from him. “Why does everyone insist on disturbing my work?”

“Perhaps if you would let me assist you?” I asked without much hope. What use was an apprentice whose master would not put him to good use? Who would not teach all that he knew? Lately I had begun to dream about M. Guilbert’s mechanism that he worked on so furtively. Its little brass parts–the myriad wheels and ratchets and pinions–gleamed with a light brighter than any mere reflection and when the mechanism moved, it purred rather than ticked, like some slumbering creature. Lying in my bedchamber tucked under the shop’s eaves, I would stare into the darkness and feel the irresistible pull of the device, stronger even than the gravity drawing me to my bed. I burned to learn more about it.

“I think not,” M. Guilbert said with a final withering stare. He thrust the curtain back into place behind him.

“These people you so despise are called customers,” I called. There was no answer. The mechanism on the bench was already devouring all his attention.

I sighed. The Comte’s visit could be the making of our fortunes, if we played our cards right. But it had occurred to me that it could be our undoing, too.

The Houses They Became

The house, which had once been Tina’s mother, did not stir even once as she passed. Earlier, a window used to open, or the door creaked, whenever Tina would be in sight—a confirmation that her mother recognized who she was.

Ma was wholly a house now—a house filled with the personality of those who lived there.

Tina never knew what triggered the change. Maybe it was age, or maybe it was being thwarted in love a second time, or maybe it was something else.

Maybe it was the talks of the war and the fear that her son would be called to fight.

Within a week, she became a stone house that had found a safe place on an empty patch of ground in the marketplace. The owner of the land had allowed the house there, in return for his condition.

“We get the house for free.”

Tina knew that she, and her twin brother, Thomas, would become houses too one day, that one day she would wake up and feel the heaviness in her body, the desire to remain still, rooted to the ground. At least, that was what Ma had told them.

“Long ago, it was your Grandma who had first turned into a house. But the house she turned into grew wings, or so they say.”

“Where did she fly?”

“It’s just a saying, Tina. Houses don’t fly. There are many types of houses you can become, depending on who you are. But have you heard of flying houses?”

Tina shook her head. “Maybe it was only Grandma.”

Ma shook her head. “Houses don’t move, dear.”

“Will you take me to the house Papa has become?” she had asked her mother then.

Ma’s hands had tightened a little more around her. “Papa didn’t become a house. He—left.”

“Why?”

“Because when I got pregnant with you and your brother, I told your Papa that I could transform, because the transformation’s always brought about by some major changes in life. He couldn’t face it. Coward.”

“Do you think he would have stayed if we were normal, Thomas?” Tina asked her brother later, the day after Ma had changed.

Thomas smiled and put an arm around her. “We are normal, Tina.”

“Normal people don’t change into houses.”

“They all change into something. It’s not always visible.” Thomas said.

Tina smiled and hugged her brother. Thomas always knew the right thing to say. Ma hadn’t been able to afford school for the two of them, but Thomas had taught himself to read and write from the newspapers he found in dustbins. He’d taught Tina too, and nowadays, whenever they were free, they would read to each other the various events of the day.

“One day I’ll open a library, or a school. Or maybe I’ll become one.” Thomas said, laughter in his eyes. Tina smiled along with him, but in her heart she felt something heavy.

Tina still ran the flower shop her mother used to run. But really, with war approaching, she didn’t see how people would still buy flowers. They’d have to find other ways. Schools were being shut down, turned into shelters for soldiers, and Tina wondered whether she and Thomas could go to people’s houses and teach their children in exchange for a little food. Surely there would still be people who wanted their children to learn things other than gunshots and bombs and yells.

One evening, she returned home and saw Thomas waiting for her with a letter in his hands.

He met her eyes as he spoke.

“They’ve called me to the front. I have to go. Tomorrow.”

Silence followed his words as Tina stared back at him, unable to speak, unable to move.

Thomas was still speaking. “I have to report at the station in the next town, because our town doesn’t have one. And then—”

The next morning, before night had fully vanished, he was gone, a backpack on his shoulder, the imprint of his body still on the bed.

Tina didn’t even say goodbye before he left. She wasn’t able to.

Her brother was gone, along with countless others, to save the country. Who had gone to save them?

That afternoon, when she finally had the courage to get up from bed and face the day, she felt her hands being weighed down by something. She looked down. Her hands were larger than she remembered them being, and their color was not that of skin anymore, but wood.

Her heart sank. Her transformation had begun.

She didn’t have a plot of land she could belong to. Neither did she have any intention of sitting in one place, waiting to fade out in the shadows of the people who would come to live there.

She needed to be there. For Thomas. What if the transformation had started for him too? What if his hands felt heavy and his feet dragged? What if they thought he was useless and killed him? What if he never got a chance to fight, to defend himself, to defend someone he had become close to?

Thomas had always protected her. He was six minutes younger than her, but he had been her savior, the one who got bloody knuckles by fighting off bullies, the one who sat with her and played with dolls when she had no friends, just to see her smile. The one who had gently stood by her when Ma had gone.

It took an eternity for Tina to rub away the tears from her eyes. Her wooden hands left scratches on her cheeks. But it didn’t take long for her to decide.

She was going to meet her brother. She was going to save him.

But her feet dragged. She had become taller now, and she could see past the tops of some trees. In the distance she could see the world, blackened with smoke, meeting the gray sky.

Going through the forest beside her town would be the fastest way to reach the railway tracks. Passing the forests was agony. So much soil for her to sink into, to just remain rooted.

I’m going to be my own sort of house, she told herself as she walked, the soil cool beneath her feet. Her body creaked as she walked, never stopping, though her body became heavier by the second.

Night fell, but still she trudged on. She spoke to herself, in her mind, to remind herself who she was. My own sort of house. My own sort of house.

The wood in her body groaned with fatigue. By the time she reached the end of the forest, another day was dawning, and her eyes had disappeared. But she could still feel the surroundings.

She could follow the railway tracks to wherever her brother had gone. She was changing fast, but she could still feel herself. She was still Tina, her heart nestled in the foundations of the house. Her mind remembered Grandma and her wings. How Grandma had traveled the world in those stories, how she’d housed those who had needed it.

Tina didn’t have wings. But she hoped she would. She was a moving house, and maybe she could house those who needed her, like Grandma had, if only in stories. She’d hold the sick and the wounded close to her, and protect her brother.

The house moved forward, one step at a time, a smile opening the door wide.

Tamoha Sengupta lives in India. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Zetetic: A Record Of Unusual Inquiry and elsewhere. She tweets @sengupta_tamoha.

The Cartographer Gene

Jordan Sofer’s sixteen-year-old daughter appeared in his office crying one rainy Tuesday in March, sparking a chain of events that sent his life’s trajectory hurtling down a long, serpentine fuse toward a powder keg.

Jordan, Helion Engineering’s Director of Cartographic Solutions, sat at his workstation in a San Francisco office tower, correcting a topographic map of Costa Rica’s Arenal volcano. An intern had used 2005 elevation data, which didn’t account for the height added in 2010 when molten rock last spewed from Arenal. “You need a little boost,” Jordan said aloud to the volcano rendered on his display.

As he redrew contour lines, Jordan became aware of muffled sobs behind him. Millie huddled on the floor in the corner, her knees, naked under her short denim skirt, drawn to her chest.

She hadn’t used the door. Whatever made Millie cry had also filled her with the familiar, overpowering urge to draw.

“What happened?” Jordan glanced out the vertical glass panel beside his office door to the hallway, empty except for framed antique maps on the walls. No one had seen Millie materialize. He knelt beside Millie and kissed the top of her black-haired head, pushing the soft curls she inherited through Carole’s Haitian ancestry from her light-skinned forehead, the genetic contribution of Jordan’s Eastern European Jewish heritage. Millie smelled fresh, like honeydew. Her tears dampened Jordan’s blue Oxford shirt, leaving translucent streaks in the cotton.

“Tyler,” she said. “After school, he said if he couldn’t have me, no one could. Ben caught up to us and Tyler started shouting. I ran to tell Mr. Kramer. Then into an empty classroom.” Jordan felt for her index finger, still tacky with blood.

Millie didn’t have to tell Jordan what happened in that empty classroom; he’d have done the same if he feared for his physical safety. He pictured Millie searching for notebook paper, or perhaps cardboard, an index card, a discarded paper bag, anything on which to draw. Then rummaging for a pen, or a pencil, chalk, crayon, anything to mark that surface.

In Millie’s highly agitated state, details poured from her memory with photographic accuracy. She drew, as she could only when desperate–without training, without straight edges, protractors, compasses, CAD programs or reference materials, without erasures or strike-throughs–a professional-quality floor plan of her father’s office. A place she’d been before and felt safe. She’d pricked her skin, closed her eyes, and laid her bloody finger on the map.

Jordan tapped his iPhone. His son, Ben, Millie’s twin, answered on the second ring. “Where are you?” Jordan asked.

“Home,” Ben said, his mouth full.

He’d be in the kitchen of their San Carlos house, on a quiet hillside twenty-five minutes from downtown San Francisco, in front of the open side-by-side refrigerator. Pouring cornflakes into his mouth straight from the box. Washing them down with milk straight from the plastic gallon jug.

Carole would have made Ben get a bowl. After Carole succumbed to breast cancer four years ago, Jordan became lax about minor rules infractions. A single parent had to pick his battles. With Ben, Jordan dumped all his discipline points into one bucket: listening. The kid’s ears, like broken antennae, seemed unable to tune to the frequency of Jordan’s voice.

“Millie’s here,” Jordan said. “You okay?”

“Kramer came out before Tyler could slug me. He’s suspended for three days. It sucks having to stand up to bullies instead of just teleporting the hell out of there, like some people I know.”

Always with the barbs, that kid. The who-cares attitude worn like a flak jacket, envy smoldering underneath. Why did it always have to be fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, one with the ability, one without? Ben was so much like Jordan’s twin sister, Sarah. They both lacked what the family called the “Cartographer Gene” though its origins, whether in biology or something more arcane, were obscure. And they both resented their siblings and parents’ power. Jordan wondered whether all “Cartographer” families–the population’s tiny fraction across all races and ethnicities believed to have this trait —- experienced the same fractured dynamic.

He deflected Ben’s remark, finding it much easier to keep Ben at arm’s length than to engage.

“We’ll be there soon,” Jordan said.

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 www.curiousworlds.blogspot.com.

Fox-Woman

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.

“Please.”

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.