Month: April 2022

This City of Spilt Marrow and Silence

Lony found the wet, splintered bones with the soles of her feet, when some sound or silence had roused her from her bed. She had always slept barefoot, even in the cold of winter; after that night she never would again.

She screamed, before she really understood what it was she stood in. Then she did understand: that it was not a what, but a whom, and she could not scream any more for want of air. Lony fell amid the wreckage of her baby’s hollow bones and tried to count them, sought order and sense in this most senseless of things. Here in the breathless dark she could not remember how to cry; only the wind sobbed through the smashed door.

In this city of hope, a Wolf did not devour a child every day. But a Wolf might devour a child any day.

Friends and family came to the wake to comfort Lony, as if they didn’t understand that she was already dead.

On the kitchen table, clots of gelatin had formed about the rims of half-empty pans, and the remaining meat rolls wept brine onto their serving platter. Food went cold fast in the city in the winter. Lony focused on those remnants: how she would package them up, where in the icebox they would fit, as her sisters and their husbands and wives offered their condolences.

Lony was lucky, in a sense, the family told her, for sometimes a whole family was eaten up and here Lony still had her eldest, Nis. They pressed her cold hands and wept as they urged Lony to put it behind her, to be reassured. To leave the matter rest, for what good could come of it now? They knelt on the floor in front of her and reminded her: they needed the Wolves to keep the city safe, so all the other little children could sleep soundly in their beds. No other city in the world had such Wolves, and no other city yet survived. Yes, sometimes tragedy struck, for Wolves were still predators, and such things happened. Sometimes they ate the innocent, but mostly they ate the guilty. Surely Lony wouldn’t ask every other mother in the city to sacrifice their little ones’ well-being. Their blood would not bring little Grethe back to her.

Because of the Wolves, they said, there was still a future of hope and freedom from fear, here in the last bastion of light and goodness left to the dark wild world. But Lony did not want to turn her face toward that hopeful beacon, nor could she feel the warmth of goodness in the long cold night.

Attention peeled away from Lony then, toward an old aunt in the corner. To her audience, she recited a litany of poor choices made, of fateful missteps for which Grethe paid the price. If the child had been better taught to fetch her mother before answering the door at night, if Lony were not such a sound sleeper, oh. The family murmured to one another, that they would be wiser, better prepared; that their little ones would stay safe. Lony’s body had gone cold and numb, hardened and preserved in a shell of her own brine.

But while their aunt lectured on, Lony’s youngest sister Moya leaned in close to her ear, and whispered to her. “It was not right that Grethe was taken from you. Not a one of them should dare say otherwise.”

It was Moya, too, that finally ushered the rest of the family out to give Lony and Nis their privacy. They went, anxious and complaining, but they went, in twos and threes out into the quiet streets, and the ice-bitten air ghosted past them into Lony’s house.

As they passed through her freshly-repaired door she felt them leave their burdens behind. They had never plastered over streaks of blood and deep claw-grooves with paint that would never quite match the rest. They did not know the weight of a ruined carcass that had once been a child. Their little ones still woke, and laughed, and ate, and played. This freedom of theirs hung on Lony like rusty chains upon a coffin.

The blood of the city’s children would not bring back Grethe. But when Lony closed her eyes, the city was painted red with it, and the citizens packed the streets to scream and scourge themselves over the price they had gladly paid for false freedom.


There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day.

The rain awakens them, though nobody has been able to explain it physiologically. Once the rain stops, they lie back down, resuming their previous positions. It is probably safe to walk among them during a downpour, but nobody wants to be the first to test the supposition. That is, until today.

I stare across the field, then back to the shelter where I left Ensin and Elena.

Elena is old enough. She can watch Ensin until I return. Cool rags for fevers, soup for food. A fifteen-year-old can manage that.

We had been on the move, looking for the next abandoned store to resupply us, but Ensin went downhill fast and we had to stop in a makeshift shelter. Then the rains came. I thought he would make it until the storms passed, but we used up all our medications during his last infection and after two days of continuous downpour, I had to go or watch Ensin die. I recognize that if I don’t return, I may be dooming them both, but after Eva…

I have trained Elena for years. She can hunt, cook, and avoid the bodies without me.

I did my best to reassure without frightening. Coming right out and saying, “It’s not your fault if Ensin dies,” would not have gone over well with Elena. Or Ensin, if he could understand through the fevers.

One field between me and antibiotics. Ensin is prone to ear infections, but this is worse than usual. He wails at night and during lucid periods, signs that the bones behind his ear hurt. Mastoiditis. If it spreads into his brain, I lose him. Even if I get these antibiotics, I’m not sure I can bring him back.

But I have to try. Standing in my way are a tempest and a field full of emaciated “living” corpses.

Nobody believed until it happened. The past is no place to visit when it means digging up buried plagues. Some we knew. Smallpox in the upper layers of the tundra. There was a vaccine for that and we staved off extinction. But as the climate and thereby the layers warmed, other pestilence emerged. Epidemics so devastating in antiquity they left no survivors to record them. We thought we had it under control, but then it moved into the overpopulated areas. Entire slums a viral conflagration.

You thought the Terracotta Army was funerary art to protect the emperor in the afterlife? Qin Shi Huang was trying to warn us. Don’t gravedig, or a plague army awaits. And here I am among half-living Terracotta homologs. What would Qin Shi Huang say if he could see this? Probably, “I told you so.”

Up close, they look like mummies, recently excavated from a well-preserved dig. Or perhaps the human equivalent of a mammoth dug out of a glacier with a few hunks of meat and hair clinging stubbornly to bone. But in the rain, these dead wriggle like fifty-thousand-year-old worms thawed back to life.

Rain spatters their taut skin and they look almost peaceful, refreshed as they turn their heads skyward to the rejuvenating moisture.

Droplets splash off of parched skin remnants. My breath catches in my chest.

I should be okay with my goggles on and mouth closed. No mucous membrane exposure and I’ll make it.

My own platitudes provide only modest reassurance.

I weave through the undead chasm like a ballet dancer and suddenly, they are behind me, the pharmacy in front.

Inside, it is a standard-built corner drug shop. Checkout up front, aisles of toiletries, knick-knacks, now expired food, pharmacy in the back. Nobody bothered to draw the safety curtain once the virus broke out. I clamber over the counter and rummage through the aisles, finding unrefrigerated (i.e. expired) insulin, cough-suppressants, painkillers, anti-hypertensives, and… antibiotics.

I look through names, recognizing a few. Penicillin sometimes works, but not always. I grab several bottles, but continue searching. Ciprofloxacin? No, that was for my UTI. Cefdinir? Yes, that’s it. As I stuff bottles into the sack, a coughing paroxysm shakes me.

Fuck. I have to hurry.

I fill the bag until the zipper growls at the effort of closure. Anything that might have been antibiotics make- the cut, plus a few painkillers. On the way out, I grab a painting respirator and seal it to my face, hoping I don’t hyperventilate on the way.

The pitter-patter drizzle on the bodies brushes past me like somnambulant whispers. I’m not sure who is more alert. I bump into a few, but they don’t notice. I’ll have to tell Elena.

I hear Ensin before I see him. I’m glad I grabbed painkillers. I’ll give him half a dose, maybe a quarter? He is so little.

Elena startles when I push through the flap. Her alarm is not allayed by the mask.

There is no time to waste.

“Give him this one, once a day for fourteen days.”

Elena nods silently. She knows.

“He can occasionally have a dose of this,” I say, holding up the painkiller, “but don’t give it for more than a couple days or he’ll become dependent.”

Tears well up in her eyes.

She always was a smart girl.

“The rest of these,” I point to the other bottles, “are antibiotics you can try in the future. If you find a library, look them up and make sure.”

Elena looks at Ensin, then at me.

“Can I hug you?”

I shake my head, too choked up to speak. Instead, I sign “I love you.” We all learned sign language for Ensin.

Elena looks away, tears making mud of the dusty floor. I look back and forth between them and Ensin holds up his hand, signing “I love you too.”

Every second I stay puts them at risk, so I blow a kiss through the mask and walk outside. To the chasm. To my new home. Ironic that the water that sentenced me will now be my only respite from an apathetic, otherwise imperturbable fomite existence.

Will he remember me? I hope so.

On The Rails

Tam was just getting to the good part when, behind him, Kaeta said, “Don’t move.”

His eyes unfocused from the page. “What?” he said cautiously.

“You’ve got something…”


“It looks like a bee.”

Something moved on his bare shoulder. Gentle insect feet. He could feel the brush of its fur, the weightless warmth of it.

“Maybe if I…” Kaeta flapped a timid swat of air at him.

“Don’t,” he said. “Let it be. It’s not doing any harm.”

He went back to his book and the blue ocean beyond, strangely pleased about the bee. The story began to gain momentum again, and when Kaeta said, “Ah, it’s gone,” he had to resurface into the physical world to understand what she meant. He hadn’t even felt it leave.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it a plague,” said Tam as the café boy put the glasses down on the table.

“It doesn’t matter what you’d call it,” replied Banur, nodding politely at the boy even as he sized up his cool glass of cider with dark-ringed, famished eyes. “It’s officially a plague.”

“There’s hardly been–cheers–hardly a noticeable increase in-”

“We’ve only caught the very edge of it,” said Banur, who’d obviously explained this many times. “The air pressure pulled it further inland than predicted. If you want to see it in all its glory, hop on the train to Lindolm.”

“Oh?” Tam sipped at his beer and licked the foam from his lips.

“Yes,” said Banur. “I haven’t seen it–they’ve cracked down on leafleters and postcard artists this time–but by all accounts the mountains have just made the whole city into a kind of…” He yawned and gestured vaguely with his long fingers. “Sorry. A kind of bowl.”

“A bowl… filled with bees?”

“That’s what they’re saying.”

Tam raised his eyebrows. “Well, that’s an image and a half.”

“Isn’t it.”

“At least it’s just bees,” said Tam hopefully. “They’re meant to be good, aren’t they? Good omens.”

Banur made a noncommittal sound.

“Not good?” ventured Tam.

“It’s not the bees part, it’s the plague part.” Banur drained half his glass in one. “It could be a plague of kittens and it would still be a problem.”

“All those little badly-socialised claws,” said Tam.

“Quite.” Banur’s smile was tired. “You know this, Tam. You weren’t that bad a student. It’s not the ‘of’. The imbalance is the problem. The, whatsit, the disharmony, if you like.” An ember of wickedness lit his face. “You know, the Ministry mooted changing the name once to avoid the confusion.”

Tam leaned in. “You know I love some Ministry gossip.”

“It was all before my time, so most of it’s been buried in shame, but someone came up with ‘muchness’.”

Tam snorted into his beer. “A muchness of frogs!”

“A muchness of boils, a muchness of twee, grisly death visited on all the second children… In the end they quietly killed the idea.”

“So we’re stuck with plagues then,” said Tam.

Banur grimaced.

“Oh no,” said Tam. “Banur, no. Don’t make that face. When? What will it be this time?”

“We don’t know yet,” said Banur. “And you didn’t hear it from me.”

“Please let it be a plague of rolling stock. Just this once.”

“It’s in the hands of the powers.”

They nibbled on hot spiced nuts for a while in silence, Banur yawning from time to time. They’d come a long way from the ambitious boys studying for the government exams at these tables. Their companionable silence was unbreachable too, Tam barricaded behind his stacks of scrolls and numbers, and Banur all but hidden in the shadows of his Ministry’s secrets.

“So,” said Banur at last. “Rolling stock, is it?”

“Ah,” said Tam. He cleared his throat. “Well, there have been some issues.”

He took a deep draught of beer in the hopes that it would cool the embarrassment in his cheeks. Hours of overtime and drafting statements, massaging numbers and leaking ambiguous words to pamphleteers in pubs paled and shrank from government glamour into something small and grubby.

“What kind of issues?” asked Banur, relentless.

“Well, the, um, the comet shower the other month, sort of…”

“Ah, I remember reading something. It, what was it, disrupted the supply line?”

“You could say that,” said Tam unhappily, and indeed he had written the words himself. “One of our warehouses got flattened.”

Banur made a sympathetic face. “Oof.”

“All brand new rolling stock, built to spec. We were going to send Minister Paro out to sit in one, get some commemorative postcards drawn up.”

“Oh, Tam.”

Tam sighed into his beer. “It was meant to make people forget how horribly over-budget the project is and get them excited for the new line.”

“Tam, stop. I’ll cry.”

“Yes, yes, very funny.”

“What’s funny about it?” protested Banur.

“I know the Transport Ministry is insignificant compared to Interpreting, but-”

Banur was fully indignant now. “Who said that? I never said that!”

“Well it is-”

“People need transport, and they want Ferthian Two.”

Banur held up two fingers to the café boy: same again. He directed a meaningful look at Tam. The café boy did his best but the corner of his mouth twitched in sympathy with Banur as he went to fetch the drinks. Banur loved making him look dramatic in front of the café boys.

Tam felt himself redden further. “Just, with everything at your place…”

“Screw my place,” said Banur. “I like hearing about your work. It’s nice to hear about something normal for once.” He leaned forward. “Have you decided what colour Ferthian Two will be on the maps yet?”

“Not yet.” Tam glanced up at Banur. “Look, all this plague stuff…”

Banur snorted.

“How… how bad is it going to get?”

Banur made that noncommittal sound again. “Oh, who knows?”

“You do,” said Tam flatly.

“And I’d rather not talk about it. Ah, good, here come the drinks. Now. Tell me about the logo designs. They’d better have vetoed Minister Marruth’s execrable idea with the ducks. I know Lady Brira will have had something to say about it, and I want to hear every mordant word of it.”

TCL is Looking For First Readers

The Colored Lens is looking for a First Reader to join our team. All of us at The Colored Lens are volunteers, so this isn’t a paid position. There are significant benefits, though. Working as a First Reader gives you excellent insights into the editorial process as well as what editors look for in the slush pile.

We pride ourselves on our 100% personal responses, and aim to have a 48 hour response time for rejections. To do this, we ask readers to read around ten stories a week and provide short personalized responses that include both positive features and the reasons it’s being rejected.

Stories are typically in the 3000-5000 word range, but we accept stories as long as 20,000 words. First reading is handled on an “as able” basis, meaning that whenever a reader has time, he/she logs into the database and selects the next unread story. If a reader doesn’t have time to read on a particular day, they simply let the rest of the team know and then don’t read.

If you are interested in the position, first send us an email at giving a short overview of your writing experience and attach a writing sample. If you have submitted to us previously, you can simply direct us to your submission instead. We will respond, and the next step is to review the stories on our site and let us know two to three of your favorites and why you liked them, and to write a sample rejection for two to three stories that you don’t like as well.

Trial of the Six

The nuns are drunk; they’ve asked us to bring them the head of Catraz before the sun rises. Lyonn chews off the tip of her thumbnail and spits it to the floor beside Sister Baobosa’s club foot.

“How much?”

“Name your price,” Sister Baobosa says.

Lyonn strokes her chin. My sister was once the greatest warrior in Marrion, but then the wine took her. Now she’s thirty-five and all of eighteen stone, with a belly like a burlap sack ripping at the seams.

“Twelve pieces for me,” she says. “And twelve more for my brother.”

The nuns take in my pubescent moustache and coffee-coloured arms bedecked in jewellery. I expect them to make the sign to acknowledge our mutual faith, but Sister Haerga simply curls a lip. “Why do you need the boy?”

“Prayer,” Lyonn says, delighting in the irony. “Yves is my second, and that’s my offer. Take it or find someone else.”

The nuns confer. The eldest wraps her bony knuckles on the corner table. She gestures in one of the now-defunct finger languages. A few nod in agreement while another belches loudly, as though to settle the matter.

Sister Baobosa stands and drains her flagon, upends it on her head-dress so wine trickles down her cheeks and coif. She approaches, and the stench of her halitosis almost makes me gag.

“How old are you, pretty boy?”

“Seventeen,” I answer.

She extends a crooked finger and traces the yellow nail down my jawline. I stare at her purple teeth and the nuggets of plaque between them.

“You ever killed a woman, Yves?”

I scan the nuns’ faces. “I follow the six,” I say simply, gesturing to my necklaces.

“It was Yves who insisted on bringing you an offering,” Lyonn explains. “He suggested oranges from the orchards of Suiz. I assured him you would prefer the wine.”

Sister Baobosa grins indulgently. “Twelve pieces now, and the rest when you return. Go and sin for us. You have the blessing of the spirits.”

“And don’t forget to bring us the head,” another barks from the back. “We believe only in what we can see.”

They guffaw as Lyonn makes for the door. I linger for one final look at the sisters.

“You forgot to bless it,” I remind them. “The wine.”

Sister Haerga withdraws the flagon from her lips and extends her wine-stained tongue. She makes the sign of the six spirits on her wrinkled forehead, then dredges up a knot of phlegm in her throat and launches it at the floor. It hits the cold stone with a slapping sound, like a slug being catapulted against a wall.


Lyonn beckons me to the door. I follow her out of the Priory with the sisters still cackling into their drinks.