Speculative Fiction Magazine
Autumn 2011 – Issue #1
Featuring works by Elise R. Hopkins, Shawn Rubenfeld,
S.J.Hirons, Erin Stocks, Gerri Leen, Margaret Taylor, Gary Cuba, and
Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Published by Light Spring LLC
Fort Worth, Texas
© Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved
Letter From The Editor
When the editorial team here at The Colored Lens sat down and started thinking through the myriad of decisions involved in putting together a magazine, I confess I had my doubts and fears. I worried that our theme of shifting perspectives on the world would be either too limiting or too conversely too generic. I worried that we wouldn’t get very many quality submissions. I worried that we wouldn’t find a reader base. I even worried that we might blow up over creative disagreements among the editorial staff.
Now, as we debut our first official issue, I find my concerns to have been so far from the reality that I can only laugh. There have been no blow-ups, or even real disagreements. We’ve got the start of a reader base. We’ve had a plethora of great submissions. And we’ve put together an excellent handful of stories that do, indeed, help us see the world just a bit differently than when we started the story.
In Margaret Taylor’s "Ravensdaughter’s Tale," we see the magic that can come from friendships, even in the least expected of ways. Gerri Leen’s, "Cinema Verite" shows us the value of memories, and the cost they can carry. Erin E. Stocks’ "The Bringing Moon" offers a different kind of cost for the things we hope for. Shawn Rubenfeld’s "Martha in the Manuscript" shows us how difficult escaping the past can be. S.J. Hirons’ "You’ve got to Tell Your own Tale" reminds us of how magical a world can be, and how differently it can be interpreted. Elise R. Hopkins’ "The Heroics of Interior Design" reminds us what it’s like to be on the fringes of society. And the first half of Gary Cuba’s novella "Songs of Eridani" introduces us to a world that leaves us questioning what the true dangers are.
We’re excited to present the first issue of The Colored Lens, and hope you enjoy reading it as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to you.
Table of Contents
- The Heroics of Interior Design by Elise R. Hopkins
- Ravensdaughter’s Tale by Margaret Taylor
- Cinema Verite by Gerri Leen
- The Bringing Moon by Erin Stocks
- Martha in the Manuscript by Shawn Rubenfeld
- You’ve Got To Tell Your Own Tale by S.J. Hirons
- The Songs of Eridani – Part 1 by Gary Cuba
The Heroics of Interior Design
by Elise R. Hopkins
I can’t fly faster than a speeding bullet. I can’t lift a car. I can’t climb slick surfaces with my bare hands or breathe underwater or stop time. All I can do is change blue things to yellow. I didn’t bother to buy a cape or a spandex suit like the others. I just bought a blouse and some slacks and went into interior design.
I don’t get much business anymore. All the people in this town who liked yellow but moved into the houses of people who liked blue have pretty much hit me up. Blue is a more popular color than yellow anyway. I wish I could change yellow to blue instead. I’ve started doing odd jobs in my off hours. Sometimes I set up a folding table in front of my shop. While the real gifted fly over my building and punt criminals off of rooftops with their shiny boots, I do magic tricks for quarters, blue crayons to yellow, changing the color of children’s snow cones, that sort of thing. No matter how yellow I turn them, they taste like blue raspberry. Last week I did a quick paint job on a car for a few grand. I think it was for a getaway driver. I haven’t told my husband about that one, but I did take him out for a steak dinner.
Tyrone isn’t one of the gifted. He can’t even change things from blue to yellow. He can design skyscrapers though, and he’s good at it, too. He makes a hell of a lot more money than I do, anyway. After Dr. Detriment blew out all the windows on tower number one, he started incorporating sonic resistant glass into his plans. Now all the businesses want him to design their new offices. He just got a big contract with Triumva Corp South. They don’t want their offices to be yellow–I asked. Although, I suppose if they did want yellow, they wouldn’t bother to paint them blue first.
My parents were outraged when I brought Tyrone home and announced I’d be marrying outside of the gifted. They told me if I went through with it, I’d be diluting our genetics and that I wouldn’t be welcome in their home any more. They told me all this right in Tyrone’s face and he just sat silent in the yellow chair, tapping his foot on the yellow carpet because my Dad’s seven foot three and my mom can shoot lasers out of her eyes.
“Maybe I’m stuck changing the colors of paint swatches because all you gifted are a bunch of inbred hicks!” I shouted. I took Tyrone’s hand and marched toward the door. Then Dad teleported all of my things into the yard and Mom burned my face out of the family photo on the coffee table with her laser vision. We haven’t spoken since.
I don’t speak to many people, anymore. My office is empty most of the day, and I sit alone at the bistros where I eat lunch. A few weeks ago, I sat by another woman sitting alone just to see what would happen. We ended up chatting about our jobs and my peculiar powers came up. I ended up spilling my heart to her about Tyrone and my family, how hard it was to have some yellow-loving newlyweds in my office looking up to me like I was a hero then walk to the grocery store like everybody else.
“I feel like I’m a part of two worlds,” I told her, “and I suck at both of them.”
She patted my hand, and when we parted, she gave me a hug.
“I’ve never talked to one of the gifted face to face before,” she told me.
I saw her in the window of that bistro when I was passing by on the street the other day. I waved at her and she looked at me like she didn’t recognize me.
It’s a relief to come home to Tyrone, even if our four bedroom house does feel a little empty with just the two of us. We talk about our days, watch sitcoms on TV, joke about old times, how you really didn’t want to be there when my mom gave you the look. We used to watch the news, but it just made me depressed to see the gifted saving the day again and again, to see starry-eyed mothers shoving babies in their faces. We used to talk about babies too, but we don’t any more. We had this plan that when we conceived, we wouldn’t find out the sex of the baby until it was born because we could just shop for it as if it were a boy, and if it turned out to be a girl, I could turn all the blue things yellow, which was the new pink, after all. We don’t have that plan any more. I’ve been to the doctor and I can’t conceive. I guess I’m an inbred hick, too.
Tyrone’s parents are good people, but I don’t think they’ve ever really felt comfortable around me. They rarely talk to me directly. They used to ask me how my business was going, but since it hasn’t drawn a profit in five years, they’ve decided it’s more tactful not to. They accept my Christmas gifts with smiles every year and beam when I tell them “I made it myself,” but last year I overheard his mother confess to his aunt that she hates yellow. I guess it’s mall shopping for me this year.
The getaway drivers came back yesterday. Their boss was pleased with my work. It turns out if it hadn’t been for my quick paint job, that van would have never made it to its destination.
“You mean it would have been caught by the law,” I said.
The man laughed. “You’re an in intelligent woman, Ms. Ward. That’s why my boss is so keen to work with you in the future.” He handed me a roll of Benjamins and told me to wait under the East Wilhelm bridge after work that night.
“Half now, half later,” he said, and drove away. I waited, and I painted the van that came through with its lights off at eight fifteen. At nine, a woman in a dark cloak came by and slipped an envelope into my hand.
“Can you do any other colors?” she said.
I shook my head. I knew I wouldn’t be getting another contract.
When I got home that night, Tyrone was watching the news without me.
“Thank god you’re okay, baby,” he said. He jumped to my side and hugged me. “For a little bit there I thought you might be caught up in all this mess.”
The newscaster on the TV was talking fast about a major break in at the bank in the old Triumva Corp South building, the one that wasn’t fitted with Tyrone’s sonic proof windows. There was footage of civilians lying twisted on the floor covered in broken glass. The hair rose on my arms.
“Traffic was terrible,” I said.
“Officials believe the infamous Dr. Detriment may be behind this,” said the newscaster. “Civilians are instructed to notify police or the nearest gifted if they have any information on a navy blue cargo van last seen leaving the Triumva Corp building at ten after eight.”
I went to the bathroom and opened the envelope. It was a stack of hundreds, crisp, fresh. I took a quick breath and hid the envelope under the package of pads in the drawer on my side of the counter.
The event was all over the news today. I watched it on the computer in my office so Tyrone wouldn’t get suspicious. My name never came up, but it’s a thrill to be a part of something, to have reached out and touched the world.
I called my mom at lunch, but she didn’t answer. I called Tyrone after that, but I couldn’t tell him what I’d done.
“What are you having for lunch?” I asked him.
“A Hamburger at Steve’s,” he said. I could hear the clatter of plates, laughter, conversation, someone saying Tyrone’s name. We hung up and I sat in the eerie quiet of my office. The woman from the bistro walked by my window. I’d told her where I worked, but she didn’t look up.
A few hours later, Tyrone showed up at my door.
“You sounded down on the phone, baby. Is something wrong?”
I shook my head. “Just lonely. Business is slow.”
“Then let’s take the afternoon off,” he said. “I already have.”
We went to the art museum before it closed. One of the gifted–I make it a point not to remember their names–was hovering outside the doors, swooping down every three seconds to sign some kid’s autograph. I rolled my eyes and pulled Tyrone inside. The museum didn’t help. Beside every painting we stared at, there was a little placard with the artist’s biography on it. …changed the way we look at art. …would go on to become one of the great. …made great contributions to the utopian movement. Apparently all of these bastards were better than me, and they weren’t even gifted. We got to a canvas that was just painted solid blue. No designs. No shading. Nothing but blue. Here I was, trying my hardest to make it in this world, and I didn’t even have a kid who might just remember me for a few years after I was gone. Here was a guy who was going to be remembered forever for dipping some canvas in paint. I glared at the painting. I glared at the placard. I turned the painting yellow.
Tyrone stepped back and blinked his eyes. He slowly turned to me. “Put it back.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“Do you have any idea…” he started, but I wasn’t listening. I danced around the exhibit, pausing in front of each of the paintings. I turned a woman’s eyes yellow. I turned a pond yellow. I turned a bluebird yellow. I hurried outside. The security guards were after me by now, and Tyrone was, too.
“Baby, have you lost your mind?”
I kept running until I was outside under the sky, and I turned it yellow, too. It hung there over everything like maybe the sun was setting after a rainy day but it wasn’t or maybe like it was about to hail, but it didn’t.
Now I’m running, and I’m not sure why, because that gifted’s going to notice me in a second and stop signing autographs for long enough to kick my ass, but I’m turning as many things yellow as I can for now–that street sign, those flowers, that woman’s dress–because maybe they’ll remember me now.
“What’s wrong with the sky?” someone is shouting.
I turn a city bus yellow. I can’t turn it back.
Elise R. Hopkins was born in Fort Worth, Texas. She received her BFA in creative writing from Stephen F. Austin State University, and her work has appeared in HUMID and The Horror Zine.
The Colored Lens is a quarterly publication featuring short stories and serialized novellas in genres ranging from fantasy, to science fiction, to slipstream or magical realism. By considering what could be, we gain a better understanding of what is. Through our publication, we hope to help readers see the world just a bit differently than before.
If you’ve enjoyed this excerpt from the Autumn 2011 issue of The Colored Lens, you can read the publication in its entirety by downloading it for only $0.99 in e-book format for Kindle, or you can read a free sample of this issue in your Google Chrome or Safari web browser by clicking here.
by Margaret Taylor
Ravensdaughter liked Novembers best. That was when the rains came and slicked the leaves down into a tar on the rooftops and made the whole world smell like wet. She’d get trapped in her dry spot in the bell tower days at a time, wrapped up in the blanket the miller had left out for her, but when it was over, those were the best days. Like today.
Ravensdaughter held her arms out like a scarecrow as she balance-walked along the backbone of the roof between the keep and the kitchens. The cold was only just enough to pierce her dress and make her fingers sting yet, but it was winter enough that the sky was cold and gray as the castle stones. The sound of one of the kitchen boys tending to the pigs drifted up from the courtyard. She laughed. The slates on the roof were still wet from last night’s rain, but she never missed a step.
She knew the castle roofs better than the humans ever would. She’d named every gargoyle. In the summers she’d climbed the rafters of the bell tower and watched the cuckoos come and lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. She knew how you couldn’t trust the gatehouse, since its roof was rotten with moss and about to fall in, but the roof over the kitchens was a good place. There was a good shot there for throwing bits of slate at the kitchen boys when they went out. They’d put their hands over their heads and beg her not to hex them, so naturally she’d dance back and forth and yell ooga-booga until they screamed and ran back inside. The humans all smelled funny, anyway.
Ravensdaughter knelt on the slates and ducked her head under the kitchen eaves. Down on the windowsill there was an offering: a bundle wrapped up in cloth on top of a plate. The kitchen lady was trying to get her to leave the boys alone again. Just in case, the shutters were locked up tight with an iron horseshoe to keep Ravensdaughter out.
Ravensdaughter grinned, then swung her legs over the gutter and dropped down to the sill. She hoped it was a saucer of milk in there. Or a bit of fish, raw, the way she liked it. Or even bread. Her fingers were stiff with the cold, but she managed to undo the knots in the bundle.
A dolly? Like the little human girls played with? Why? She crouched there holding the dolly by the neck, brow furrowed. It wasn’t even a very good one. The stitching was all lumpy.
There’d been a dolly in the little house in the village.
Burnt porridge and Bible sermons. That sour human stink everywhere. Fake brothers and sisters and her fake parents all crammed into one wooden room. That was before her ears had grown in pointy and Fake Mother had run her out of the house with a broomstick. Ravensdaughter picked at the dolly’s frayed-yarn hair. Back when everybody thought she was a little human girl.
Changeling, people whispered. Wild girl. Look at those ears.
She threw the dolly down and leapt back onto the roof.
The castle folk all left food out for her because they were afraid of her, but taking things from Dr. Beadle was tricky. Somehow he always seemed to know her favorites. Rose petals when they were in season, sometimes even spiders. He’d leave the plate out on the balcony outside his workroom, then he’d go inside and pretend he wasn’t looking. If she got too close, he’d try and do things like teach her how to read. So it wasn’t really her fault when she got caught.
She’d climbed down to the balcony to see what he’d left for her this time, and there was Doctor-Man. With a jar of honey. She grabbed for it, but he swiped it away and the next thing she knew he’d jammed a sweater down over her head. She shrieked and twisted but he was stronger than her and forced her head and arms into the right holes. He was touching her! It wasn’t allowed!
Once her head was clear she could see well enough to kick him in the shins. He grunted and she headed for the railing.
“Ravensdaughter!” Doctor-man looked sort of sad as he reached for her, but she’d already gotten a foothold on the rails. A grab for the gutter and she was up and out of there.
She fumed as she hauled herself onto the roof over Doctor-Man’s room. She’d thought she kind of liked him because he left spiders out for her. But he’d touched her. It wasn’t allowed.
She’d show all of them. Someday her magic would come to her, and then the fairies would come and take her away to the hollow hill where she was born. There’d be midnight revels and dewdrop cups instead of all these stupid people who couldn’t tell a toad from a toadstool.
“I hate you!” she leaned over the gutter and yelled.
But the sweater did keep out the chill. Fine, then, she’d wear it. But that didn’t mean she had to like it.
She was going to go and play with the gargoyles.
Ravensdaughter knew she was the only one who knew the gargoyles’ secret. They looked like they were just statues. Statues of gnarled things, goats with snakes’ heads and birds with cloven feet, frozen on every rooftop from the chapel to the west tower. Some of them held up claws or fins to shield their eyes from something unseen. Every single one of them had a look of terror on its face. To Ravensdaughter, the reason was obvious. They were alive. Sometime long ago, a basilisk or a gargoyle slayer had come here and frozen the poor things into stone. When she got her magic, she was going to free them.
Ravensdaughter gathered herself together, then dashed up to the ridge and balanced along it with her arms out. She was headed south, towards the bell tower. November days were good for walking among the gargoyles. She’d peel away the bits of leaves that had gotten caught in the crevices, rub their poor frosted paws to warm them. And she’d tell them their names so they wouldn’t forget. Green Man and Two-Face, Haberdasher and Horned Toad. But of all of them, Sir Scott of the bell tower was her favorite.
She ran a little further, then grabbed one of Two-Face’s horns and pulled herself up onto his back. She jumped when something made a soft noise behind her.
Somehow a drab little human girl had gotten up onto her roof and was standing there in the middle of it. She looked almost the exact same age as Ravensdaughter, but she had brown hair instead of Ravensdaughter’s black, and brown homespun clothes instead of Ravensdaughter’s red tatters. Most important, the girl’s ears were rounded — human ears.
“You’re not supposed to be here!” Ravensdaughter cried. It was the first thing that popped into her head.
The girl stepped forward. She held her hand out a little, as if she wasn’t quite sure whether she wanted to offer it or not. “I’m Beth.”
“I don’t care what your name is. Didn’t anybody tell you this is my roof and these are my gargoyles? I’m the changeling! Arr!” She stretched her arms over her head and stood on her tiptoes, but Beth still didn’t run away.
“I’m not afraid of you.”
Well, fine. Maybe the girl was halfwitted. Ravensdaughter folded her arms. “If you won’t go away, you can go play over there and I’ll play over here. You smell like human.”
She pointed. Beth looked hurt, but she went over to the far end of the roof and sat down. Then she folded her hands and watched her. Ravensdaughter gritted her teeth. Didn’t she have something else she was supposed to be doing, like looking after the pigs or playing with dollies like all the other children did?
“Is your name really Ravensdaughter?” Beth said.
Ravensdaughter pointedly ignored her. “Pah! The girl doesn’t get it,” she said into Two-Face’s ear. “I picked the name out for myself. It’s a fairy name. My real parents are fairies, and as soon as my magic grows in they’re going to take me away from this place that’s full of iron and stinks. We should hex her to make her go away, shouldn’t we, Two-Face?” She leaned in closer, but made sure Beth could still hear. “Oh, yes, if only I had my magic, I’d hex ice down her shirt and make her hear mice chasing her everywhere she went. She wouldn’t like that, would she? Then she’d leave me alone.”
Ravensdaughter looked up to check the effect. Beth was rapt. “I want to see a hex!”
Ravensdaughter scratched her head.
“Please, won’t you turn me into a frog and then turn me back? I want to see magic!”
Somehow the ooga booga dance she gave to the kitchen boys wasn’t going to be enough. Ravensdaughter suddenly felt trapped.
“I can’t actually do anything yet!” she blurted, and fled.
Quick as a squirrel she found all the footholds in the stone and the vines and scurried up to her dry spot in the bell tower. First the dolly and the sweater and now this — it was turning out to be a bad day. She needed to sit and think. She squatted down and leaned her head against Sir Scott’s foreleg. There was a storm coming in. From way up here she could see clouds pass in and out over the sun, casting moving shadows over the roofs of the village.
And then there was that infernal voice again.
“Why do you talk to gargoyles?” Beth shouted.
Ravensdaughter scooted to the end of her ledge and looked down. There was Beth on the roof below this one, rumpled but happy. She waved.
What was she supposed to do to make Beth go away? The girl headed for the bell tower stairs and Ravensdaughter rubbed her head. There was a magic spell that kept her separate like the gargoyles. Alone. She had to stay fey so the fairies could find her when the time was come. If she got too close to the humans, she might turn into one of them.
She glared up at Sir Scott. “Why don’t you do something about it?” Of course, he didn’t answer.
When Beth got to the top of the stairs, Ravensdaughter backed off to the far end of the ledge so the tower’s bells were between them. Keep away, she thought. Don’t let her touch you. Don’t even talk to her. But ultimately the need to show off got the better of her.
“They’re not really gargoyles,” she said. “They’re people. Something froze them a long time ago to keep back the magic.”
Beth nodded gravely, as if she understood. “How do you undo it?”
Ravensdaughter expected Beth not to believe her, or at least to be surprised. This was … odd.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Nobody knows. It’s been hundreds of years, and nobody’s figured it out.” Since she was supposed to be the expert, she needed to say something more. “I think we have to find their hearts.”
Beth came forward and dropped her ear to Sir Scott’s side. Ravensdaughter bared her teeth, and Beth backed away quickly.
“We’ve got to break the spell, Ravensdaughter.”
Ravensdaughter thought about this. “Okay, you can touch him, but be careful. He’s my gargoyle.”
Beth pressed her hands against Sir Scott’s flank and listened. Ravensdaughter watched for a little while, then she leaned in to listen, too. After all, she was the gargoyle expert. She shut her eyes tight and tried to feel every vein and flake in the stone.
“Sir Scott, you’ve got to wake up now. We know you’ve been in there a long time, but it’s time to come out. You can do it. Can you hear us? Wake up!”
And then something in the world shifted. The bell tower and the castle and the village, they were all still out there, as far as she could tell, but they weren’t real somehow. The stone under Ravensdaughter’s hands was alive. She could see into it, and there was something in there that didn’t belong in a statue. There was no sound, no color, no texture to it, just the sense of a sleeping man. When her mind touched him, he mumbled and rolled over.
Ravensdaughter gasped and opened her eyes. Her heart pounded like she’d just run all the way from the east tower to the gatehouse. From the look on Beth’s face, the other girl had felt the same thing.
“Let’s hold hands for more power,” Beth said.
“No!” Ravensdaughter yanked her hand away from her.
Beth looked hurt. Ravensdaughter glared back, but Beth wouldn’t back down. Red rags standing off against drab homespun. Beth wasn’t going away, and they still had to wake the gargoyle, so Ravensdaughter was going to have to think of something.
“We have to get higher,” Ravensdaughter said. “Then if we yell loud enough, all the gargoyles can hear us.”
She pointed upward and Beth nodded. The bell tower roof was a tricky place. It was domed so there wasn’t much to grip onto, not even ivy, and the wet tiles tended to slip away underfoot without warning. Ravensdaughter pulled herself up over the gutter and scrambled to the top pretty surely, but even for her it was hard. She waited while Beth struggled, but she didn’t dare give her a hand up. She had to keep separate. Instead she called down and told her where all the good handholds were. Finally the human girl made it.
There was no shelter at all here, so the wind from the coming storm whipped Ravensdaughter’s hair into her eyes. She and Beth squatted down, set their hands on the roof’s stone peak, and tried to reach the gargoyles. They’d touched the edges of Sir Scott already. The spell was halfway broken. Now they were going to have to feel into the stone, feel the whole castle, and yell loud enough for every single one of them to hear and wake up. Ravensdaughter thought she could feel herself slipping again into that other place where the world went mute. As she sank in, she was just aware of Beth shifting position to get a better grip.
It all happened very fast. There was a tile sliding, a shriek, then Beth disappeared. Ravensdaughter jolted out of the other place. She rushed over to where Beth had just been and found her clinging to the edge of the roof with a bad grip. Beth’s hands and one leg were on the rain gutter, but she was doing it wrong, she didn’t even know to swing herself up and out of it.
Run and get Doctor-Man, Ravensdaughter thought. But even as she thought it she realized there wasn’t enough time for that. Beth was just too bad at climbing to hang on for that long.
So Ravensdaughter did the only thing she could do. She leaned down and hauled on Beth’s arms, gave her just enough momentum to swing her other leg up and scramble back onto the roof. They clung together there over the gutter a long time, both of them waiting for the terror to fade.
Then came the sound of beating wings. At first Ravensdaughter couldn’t understand what was happening. It was too big to be pigeons. And then Sir Scott rose into view, alive! She thought he would turn back into something else when he woke up, but no, stone was his true form. Living, moving stone. The hair of his mane blew in the wind, even though it was stone, and stone muscles moved under his skin as he beat the air with magnificent wings. He was beautiful.
Ravensdaughter looked over at Beth. The funny human girl was beaming.
Sir Scott passed low over their heads to say thanks, so close Ravensdaughter thought if she put her hand up she could almost brush the stone of his belly. All around the castle the gargoyles’ bodies groaned as they stretched and looked around them, confused. Sir Scott rose, and the gargoyles galloped or swam or slithered out of the places they’d been trapped, whatever way was best for them. The rumbling of all that stone made it sound like the castle was coming apart. They’d done it! They’d broken the spell!
Then it hit her like a piece of roof collapsing under her feet. The fairies were only going to give her one chance when her magic grew in. This was it.
“Wait!” Ravensdaughter pulled away from Beth and scrambled back up the dome of the tower. She was throwing tiles loose with every step but she didn’t care. “Wait! Sir Scott!”
“Ravensdaughter, be careful!”
What if they couldn’t hear her? By now the gargoyles were only specks in the sky. What if they were already too far away and they couldn’t hear her?
“Sir Scott!” she yelled until she was hoarse, tears pricking in her eyes.
“Ravensdaughter!” Beth cried.
Was one of the specks getting bigger? No. Yes! Ravensdaughter’s heart leapt. She clutched the roof slates as Sir Scott dropped out of the sky. He came to hover in front of her, big, dark wings beating the air.
She held her arms out. “Take me with you! I want to be a fairy!”
But Sir Scott didn’t answer and Ravensdaughter felt the first prick of doubt.
“But … the pointy ears…” she began.
Sir Scott shook his head.
Ravensdaughter lowered her arms, then she sat down, and then she put her head in her hands. It wasn’t fair. There was magic and gargoyles, why not fairies? Or maybe there even were fairies. But not her. She’d broken the spell. She couldn’t help it, she started to sob. She was going to be a human girl with pointy ears forever. And … with a little bit of magic, she thought, looking at her hands. But the spell was broken.
Then there was something warm and heavy on her back. It felt strange, not quite like anything she’d felt before. She looked up. Sir Scott was gone, but Beth had come and put an arm around her shoulders.
“You got anybody who looks after you, Ravensdaughter?”
Ravensdaughter swallowed. “Just … Doctor-man,” she managed. “And the kitchen lady, sort of.”
“I think we ought to go and find them. And then we ought to find my parents, and we can go somewhere warm and have — what is it that you eat? Flowers?”
Ravensdaughter nodded, still too choked up to speak. Everything was all horrible, but it was oddly comforting to feel that somebody cared what happened to her. And, well, Doctor-man had given her that sweater, hadn’t he? Maybe she could forgive him for making her wear it after all.
Beth slipped an arm around Ravensdaughter’s waist and gently brought her to her feet. Each supporting the other, they climbed down off of the roof, and then they took the bell tower stairs that would get them to the ground.
Margaret Taylor is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Her previous works include two podcast novels, Grizelda, and The Confederacy of Heaven. She is currently at work on a third novel.
The Colored Lens is a quarterly publication featuring short stories and serialized novellas in genres ranging from fantasy, to science fiction, to slipstream or magical realism. By considering what could be, we gain a better understanding of what is. Through our publication, we hope to help readers see the world just a bit differently than before.
If you’ve enjoyed this excerpt from the Autumn 2011 issue of The Colored Lens, you can read the publication in its entirety by downloading it for only $0.99 in e-book format for Kindle or Nook, or you can read a free sample of this issue in your Google Chrome or Safari web browser by clicking here.
by Gerri Leen
Kara slowed her pace through the east hall of the nursing home, checking to make sure Nurse Dearn wasn’t around before rolling her book cart into Mister Jackson’s room. “We don’t have much time, Jackie. Dearn’s on my case.”
“In my day, we’d have called her a harpy.”
“I’d say what my generation calls her, but I don’t want to make you blush.”
Jackie laughed, then waved her closer. “How much did we make this time?”
She handed over a deposit slip. “You’re set for the next five months.”
“It’s strange,” he said, as he pushed the slip into his bedside drawer. “I know I sold something, but I can’t remember what it was.” Biting his lip, he looked up at her. “What was it?”
“I can’t tell you. Those are the rules.”
“I know–I remember that. But…there are holes. It’s disturbing.”
“We can stop whenever you want.”
He shook his head, his lips tightening as he said, “My son was in to see me today. He lost another job. Can’t afford this place anymore. After all I’ve done for him…”
“I don’t like living here, but it beats sharing a urine-scented double with some drooling idiot down at the county assisted-living center–assisted dying is more like it.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to sell your memories. You’re under no obligation to do this.”
“And my boy is apparently under no obligation to me. Hook me up. See what you find. Tell me what it’s worth.”
“How much of it?”
“Whatever you want to take, hon’. My Alice left me after fifty years of marriage. I’m stuck with this lowlife son while my stockbroker daughter who could buy this place, much less pay my rent, writes me off. Why the hell do I want to remember any of it?”
“Okay. Calm down.” She dug out a pair of small goggles and slipped them over his eyes, fastening the strap, then attaching the wires that linked them to another pair of goggles that she put on.
Jackie moaned as the goggles started to hum. “I hate this part–why can’t you make me forget this, too?”
“I don’t know.” She didn’t understand the tech that went into the goggles. But then, she didn’t have to. Her role was creative–Boris said she made the best memflicks he’d ever seen.
Up to now, she’d been selective, just taking little pieces of Jackie’s memory, but chunks–big, meaty ones–sold so much better. If she did it right, he could be set for life.
She sat down in the chair next to him, immersed in his memories, tapping on the goggles when she wanted to tag a part, using her eyes to set the crop area.
“I’ll love you forever, Alice. I can wait for the wedding night if you’re not ready.”
“I’m coming home, darlin’! We can get married.”
“We’re pregnant? Oh my God, we’re pregnant?”
“We can try again. Sweetheart, we can try again.”
“It’s a boy. I have a son!”
“Take a cigar–pink this time, my friend.”
“What do you mean you’re dropping out of college? Did you get kicked out of this one, too?”
“Why doesn’t she ever call? It’s like I embarrass her.”
“Who is he? Who is he, damn it? No one just leaves. There’s always someone else!”
“Well?” Jackie asked, and he sounded like he was crying.
“It’s good. It’s very good.” There was a big market for this kind of “slice of everyday American life,” a yearning for what was–even if it turned ugly at the end. “I can make you rich, Jackie.” She reached out, found his hand, and squeezed it. “But I’ve told you before: who we are–our personality–it’s a sum of our memories. Once they’re gone, your life will be gone. too.”
“What life? Being an old man, lying here all day?”
“Lying here all day knowing who you are.”
“Not sure that makes it any easier, Kara. Just do it.”
“Leave everything before Alice.” He squeezed her hand. “I had a nice childhood. I had great parents, fun times. And Alice wasn’t my first–I can remember sex before her without any guilt.” He winked at her. “And I’ll still have you, right?”
“Well, if I take it all, you won’t remember me the next time you see me, but we’ll get reacquainted. And I’ll make sure you’re okay.”
“You always have, sweetheart. I’d have been out on my keister a long time ago if you hadn’t come along. You might like the younger me a whole lot better.”
“I doubt that.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek, then whispered in his ear, “I can still just take bits.”
“No. I don’t want to know I’m forgetting things. Just take it all and let me remember my life when it was simpler.” He laid his hand against her cheek. “Did I ever tell you that you look like my first girlfriend?”
“No, you never did.”
“Well, you do.” He let go of her. “Now. Let’s get started. We’re burning daylight–isn’t that what filmmakers used to say?”
“Yeah. Only I think moonlight’s more fitting in our case.”
“Well, we’re burning something. Get to it, kiddo.”
She got to it.
Nurse Dearn saw Kara rolling her book cart out of Mister Jackson’s room–looking calm, not furtive and excited like she had the other night when she’d thought Dearn was off shift–and motioned her over. “What are you doing?”
“Visiting an old friend.” Kara’s attitude needed some adjusting, as always. And her ‘tude wasn’t the only thing: her skirt was too short, makeup too heavy, smile too wide.
“He’s getting worse–living in the past. Doesn’t need any of these.” Dearn poked through the reading material Kara distributed. “Won’t remember a damn bit of it.”
“He remembers when he was young. He told me I looked like his first girlfriend.”
“Well maybe he’ll be fine, then.” Dearn crossed her arms and stood a little straighter. “The north wing’s waiting for their gossip rags. Chop chop, Miss Rollins.”
Kara’s face tightened, but she got a move on. Dearn waited until she was gone, then headed into Mister Jackson’s room.
“Hello, Nurse,” he said, trying to get up. “Why the hell can’t I get out of this bed?”
“Because you’re really, really old.” Dearn smiled at him in a way they didn’t teach in nursing school. “How much did she pay you?”
“Never mind. She thinks she’s helping when she does this for you all. But really, she’s helping me.” She sat down, studied Mister Jackson. “I bet you’re bored, stuck in that old body. Confined to bed when inside you’re only–what? Twenty?”
“I turned nineteen last week.”
“‘Fraid not.” She reached into her pocket, pulled out a VR-i. “This is the end to your boredom. It’s what those in the business call immersive film. I think you’ll find it very stimulating. Maybe get a little deja vu every now and then.”
She turned it on, smiled as his expression changed.
“Are those my parents? And Jillie Ann?”
“That’s your life, sir. Watch and learn.”
She tapped her finger on the arm of the chair as he watched his life pass before his eyes. Or at least his twentieth year. Leaving his girlfriend when he met Alice, falling in love, and then…cut.
“What is this?” He tore the device away from his eyes. “Where’s the rest?”
“First taste is free. If you want more, it’s going to cost you.” She didn’t tell him most of it hadn’t hit the streets yet; this was just the trailer and his memory was still safely in the possession of Kara, but eventually Dearn would track it down. “It’s your life and you sold it, and now you have lots of money. And if you want any of it back, you’re going to share that lovely money with me.”
“I don’t…I don’t understand.” But he was eying the VR-i almost longingly. “This is wrong.”
“Tell that to your precious Kara. You know: the little blonde who looks like your first girlfriend? She’s the one who did this to you. And if you want any of it back, you’ll say nothing to her or you’ll spend the rest of your days with no recollection of your memory. She can’t put back what she took, but at least I can offer a view of it.” She patted the VR-i before stuffing it back in her pocket. “Think about it, Mister Jackson. I’ll let you get some rest.”
Dearn sauntered out to where Kara was reshelving books in the reading room. “Mister Jackson seems a little better. Remembered something about his wife.”
Kara stiffened. “Really? That’s great.”
Dearn wanted to congratulate her on a stupendous retrospective–it was going to be a real moneymaker. But she didn’t want to give too much away; it wouldn’t do for Kara to know Dearn had been making money off her work.
So she settled for pushing in one of the books Kara had just reshelved so its spine was even with the others. “You know, it doesn’t take any longer to do a job right, dear.”
Kara’s look was almost as priceless as her little side business.
Gerri has over fifty stories and poems published in various print and e-markets. She is also editing an anthology for Hadley Rille Books. More information on any of her works can be found at her website, GerriLeen.com.
The Colored Lens is a quarterly publication featuring short stories and serialized novellas in genres ranging from fantasy, to science fiction, to slipstream or magical realism. By considering what could be, we gain a better understanding of what is. Through our publication, we hope to help readers see the world just a bit differently than before.
If you’ve enjoyed this excerpt from the Autumn 2011 issue of The Colored Lens, you can read the publication in its entirety by downloading it for only $0.99 in e-book format for Kindle or Nook, or you can read a free sample of this issue in your Google Chrome or Safari web browser by clicking here.
The Bringing Moon
by Erin Stocks
Margot fiddled with the eyepieces of the binoculars. If she squinted, she could see the moon, round and white and far away in the darkening sky. She turned the knob backwards, and the moon grew until it filled the lenses. She imagined astronauts in puffy white spacesuits and bubble helmets, driving a flagpole with the United States flag into the spotted moon rock. There had been pictures like that in her history book.
“The moon doesn’t have a face, Lilly.”
“Over here.” Her sister Lilly’s hand blurred through the lens, guiding Margot’s head to the left. “Do you see it now?”
A bright yellow spot appeared in Margot’s vision. She blinked several times until her eyes focused on a grinning face, thick red lips smiling over a wide mouth of white teeth. A black line curved upwards in a swirling motion for its nose, with two crooked angles fixed for eyebrows. She turned the adjusting knob, moving the face farther away until it took the shape of a large yellow blimp floating above the stadium.
“Arturo’s Tacos,” she read. “That’s tacos. Not the moon’s face.” She set the binoculars down on the table.
“Then who brought me the bike?” Lilly puckered her lips and pressed Berry Blast lip gloss kisses on the glass.
“You don’t have a bike.”
“I asked the moon for a bike like Sarah’s, and when I woke up this morning, it’d brought me one with pink streamers. Go look.”
Margot jumped up and ran down the hallway, making sure to tiptoe when she passed Momma’s door. She pulled on her snowboots and threw open the front door of the trailer to see a small pink bike leaning against the railing. Pink and gold streamers flowed from the bike’s handlebars, and lightning bolts curved along the middle and front bars.
“Isn’t it pretty?” Lilly’s teeth chattered together.
Margot had never seen such a beautiful bike. She grabbed the streamers, and the icy wind whipped them out her hand. Glitter sparkled on her fingers. “Where did it come from?”
“I told you! The bringing moon brought it. And look what else it brought me.” Lilly held out her left hand.
“I don’t see anything.”
“I’m left-handed! Just like Sarah Henrichs. Look what I can do!” Lilly snapped her fingers in rapid succession.
If Margot had a free wish, she’d never have asked for something so stupid as being left-handed. She’d have asked for her own bike, too, and maybe a horse.
Margot stomped inside and kicked her snowboots off, and one of them hit the washing machine. The sound was louder than she’d expected, and she stopped, waiting for the creak of Momma’s door, and Momma’s angry voice asking why her nap had been interrupted, or why they’d gone outside without coats on.
Lilly tugged on her arm. “Do you want to play unicorns?”
Margot didn’t even like playing unicorns; she liked horses better. She wanted a bike, too. Why did Lilly always get whatever she wanted?
“Leave me alone.” Margot snuck past Momma’s door to her own bedroom and closed the door behind her. Outside the bedroom window, the few remaining leaves on the elm trembled then let go, and Margot unlocked the window latch and shoved the glass up until she could see the white button moon glowing behind the tree. The cold went straight through her nightgown.
Lilly was three whole years younger than Margot. If anyone needed a bike, it was Margot.
She clasped her hands together, and looked up at the moon.
“If you really bring things, I want a bike, too.” The wind whistled in response, and stung her face with flakes of snow. She peeled a long curl of paint off the window ledge and dropped it to join the other peelings half-submerged in snow. Her fingers looked like shriveled sausages. “Momma talks about how we need to be treated fairly, and this is only fair. And if you could make it a bigger bike, that would be good because I’m bigger than Lilly.”
Maybe God had brought the bike. Momma used to say God lived in the moon, but Margot hadn’t heard her say that since the ulcers came. Back then, Momma laughed a lot more, too. Like when Daddy was still alive, and he brought home funny presents like pencil sharpeners shaped like ears and rubber hearts with all kinds of colored tubes sticking out of them.
But if Lilly was right, and the moon really brought stuff, Margot had a whole list of things to ask for.
The next morning, she bounced awake, freezing cold from the open window. She pulled her snow boots up over her pajamas and ran outside.
Next to Lilly’s bike stood a gleaming purple bike with silver tassels and white rubber wheels. Margot squatted down and trailed her fingers along the metallic lightning bolt on the middle bar. The snow soaked into her nightgown until her butt got cold, but she hardly noticed. The bike was bigger than Lilly’s, just like she’d asked for. It was even more beautiful than Lilly’s. It was perfect.
“Margot!” Lilly stepped out barefoot onto the porch, her hair tousled around her head, her eyes wide. “You got a bike, too! A big one!”
“Because I’m older.” Margot steered the bike into the snow. “I’m going to ride it.
“You know how?”
“Of course I do.” She didn’t, really, but everybody else on her street rode bikes, so it couldn’t be that hard. Plus, Mrs. Stalling at school said Margot was smart, and a quick learner. She could probably teach herself.
“Hey!” An arm snaked through the hole in the wooden fence and slid aside several wooden boards. Sarah Henrichs, the neighbor girl, stuck her head through. “Where you’d get those bikes?”
Margot didn’t like Sarah. She was whiny, and a tattle-tale.
“Don’t tell her about the moon,” Margot whispered, and Lilly nodded.
Margot stepped out into the snow and faced Sarah. “These are our new bikes.”
Sarah Henrichs frowned. “That purple one looks like mine!”
“It’s not,” Lilly said.
“Well, where’d you get it?”
“None of your beeswax,” Margot said.
“Yeah!” Lilly added, as Margot wheeled her bike inside. Snow dripped off the handlebars onto the carpet. Margot straightened the tassels, and stroked the lightning bolt. She felt so happy she could burst.
“Where did you get those bikes?” Momma walked down the hallway. Her hair hung lank over her forehead, her robe loose around her stooped shoulders, and she clutched her tummy like it was hurting real bad. “Why are you bringing them in the house? They’re getting snow all over.”
Margot knew they couldn’t tell Momma about the moon. Momma would only get mad and say they were lying. But before she could think of something, Lilly ran up to Momma and threw her arms around her.
“It’s a bringing moon!” she crowed.
Momma took out cereal from the cupboard. Her hands trembled, and Cheerios spilled over the countertop. “Where’d you get that bike, Margot? Did you take it from the neighbor girl?”
Margot thought fast. “No, Momma, I didn’t. The-the school brought it. One for Lilly, too. I gave you a paper about it last week, but you threw it out.”
“It was the bringing moon!” Lilly protested.
“Girls, nothing comes for free.” Momma kicked the white plastic garbage can over, and several empty bottles rolled out. She leaned against the counter, and the thin cotton of her robe stretched against her ribs, making Margot think of the dogs and cats on the television with mean owners who starved them until their ribs poked through their fur. “Now the school will ask me for money, a donation or something, which I can’t afford.”
Lilly jumped up and down. “Momma, I asked for…”
“Be quiet,” Momma said sharply. “There’s always a price, and it’s usually too much.” She picked up a wine bottle, and headed out of the kitchen. “Margot, fix up your sister’s cereal. You’re making my ulcers act up.”
Margot drooped. Why was she the one that made Momma’s ulcers bad? Lilly was the one that brought up the moon. Lilly always got her in trouble, all the time.
“You lied about the bikes,” Lilly whispered. “Now Momma’s going to give them away.”
Margot suddenly got the best idea in the world. “No, she won’t.”
“How do you know?”
“Because Momma’s not going to remember the bikes. She’s going to be happy, instead.”
The next morning she jumped out of bed and ran into Momma’s room, even though she wasn’t supposed to go in there without Momma’s permission. Light leaked through the closed blinds, drifting over piles of clothes. The room smelled like sweat. Margot wrinkled her nose and sat carefully on the edge of the bed.
“Momma? she whispered. “Are you awake yet?”
Momma groaned and rolled over. “Is that you, baby?”
“Oh.” Momma’s face was a glossy red. Her tank top had twisted around, and one breast hung out of an armhole. She struggled into her robe, and glanced in the full-length mirror on the back of the closet door. The shadows under her eyes had lightened, making her look as young as she had when Daddy was alive. “The pain’s less this morning, Margot.” She pinched her cheek, and pursed her lips at the mirror. “Maybe we can go out for pancakes. Wake Lilly up.” She jerked her head at the lump under the covers, and Margot felt a pang of jealousy. Lilly got all Momma’s attention, just because she was small.
But it didn’t matter anymore, because Margot was the one who prayed Momma better. She pushed at the blankets.
“Get up, Lilly! Momma’s going to take us for pancakes.” She pulled the covers back.
Lilly opened slitted cat eyes. “I don’t feel good.”
Momma leaned over the bed. She had already put lipstick on, and her lips were as red as a strawberry against her teeth. “Lilly? What’s wrong?”
“Momma, I prayed for the moon to make you better,” Lilly said.
“No, I did,” Margot protested. “I did it, Momma! I prayed last night.”
Lilly started to cry, and Momma stroked Lilly’s hair. “You don’t need to cry, baby. Momma’s feeling better. Thank you for your prayers.”
“But they were my prayers! I prayed to the moon!”
“Stop it, Margot. You’re old enough to know better.” Momma’s voice was irritated. “The moon can’t bring you anything. It’s like a planet.”
Tears filled Margot’s eyes. She wanted to yell that Momma was wrong, but then Lilly made a gagging sound like the white cat from next door when it licked its fur for a long time.
Margot ran to the window to look for the moon, but it was already gone.
At the hospital, two men in white shirts put Lilly on a metal bed that made squeaking sounds as they rolled her away. Momma rushed alongside, leaving Margot in the waiting room, and so Margot watched the news on the television, reading the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen. One of the nurses gave her a can of soda pop and turned the television to Cartoon Network. Another gave her a Snickers candy bar, which was Lilly’s favorite kind, so Margot only ate half and wrapped up the rest for Lilly.
Margot didn’t even see Momma until she sank in the chair next to her. Margot grabbed Momma’s hand. “Look, it’s a new show! And I saved this for when Lilly comes back!”
Momma’s eyes were big and red, and there were black streaks on her face. “Lilly’s not coming back,” she said in a dull voice. She leaned so far over that her head was lower than her knees. “I don’t understand why this is happening. I can’t go through this.”
Margot stared at the floor, where there were dark stains like grease on the carpet. She didn’t understand either. She had only asked the moon to make Momma better. Dead was like the gerbil in school last year, and the fish that swam in the aquarium. Daddy was dead, and Margot hadn’t seen him in a really long time. She couldn’t even remember what he looked like.
She held out the candy to Momma, who slapped it away. “I don’t want that!” The candy fell on the floor, right in the middle of another stain. Margot’s fingers were sticky with chocolate.
Momma jumped up. “I have to get out of here.” She grabbed her purse and ran through the sliding doors. Margot waited for her to come back, but when Mama didn’t, Margot finally went after her.
It was raining outside, sheets of rain that drilled into Margot’s head and soaked her clothes to her skin. Mama was sitting in the car, starting straight ahead, so Margot climbed into the car, shivering from the rain. Momma put the key into the ignition, and drove out of the hospital like nothing had happened.
Margot kept very quiet all the way home, not wanting to upset Momma. When they got inside, Momma set her keys down in the little table next to the door, and turned to look at Margot, as if just realizing she was there.
“You didn’t get any pancakes.”
Before Margot could say she wasn’t hungry, Momma said, “You need to eat. Grilled cheese?”
Margot nodded, just to make Momma happy.
Momma made only one sandwich, which she gave to Margot. The cheese wasn’t quite melted, and the bread was stale, but Margot ate the whole sandwich and wiped her mouth with her napkin, then folded her hands in her lap.
“I think I killed Lilly,” she said.
Momma uncorked a wine bottle. “What are you talking about?”
“I asked the moon to get you better, but then it made Lilly sick instead of you.”
Momma said nothing for a moment, and Margot didn’t know what would happen next. But when Momma finished pouring the glass of wine, her hand was shaking. She drank the whole glass, and looked up at Margot.
“Why do you think that, Margot?”
“Because I asked for a bike, and then Sarah’s got stolen. And you said nothing comes without a price.”
A funny look appeared in Momma’s eyes. “This is how your bringing moon works? It brings you what you ask for, but takes something else away?”
“Yes,” whispered Margot.
“Then we’re going to ask for my baby back.” Momma grabbed her arm and dragged her down the hall to the bedroom. She pushed Margot up to the window.
“Pray right now. Pray for Lilly to come back.”
Margot clasped her hands together and looked up. The moon had shrunk since the night before, and the night air was mean and cold on her cheeks. It would be nice to have Lilly back & without her, Margot wouldn’t have anyone to play with. But if the moon brought Lilly home, then Momma would give Lilly all her love again, and there’d be none left for Margot. She just wanted Momma to love her the way as much. And she wanted a chance to be Momma’s baby, just for a little while. When she’d had enough, she’d pray for Lilly to come back, and everything would be like it used to be.
She pulled her head back inside. “The moon is done bringing anything until next month. It won’t listen to me.”
“You’re a liar.” Momma hit Margot. “You’ve been lying all this time, haven’t you? There is no bringing moon.” And then she hit Margot again, and again.
When Margot woke up, she had bruises on her arms and chest. There were lots of visits from doctors and nurses and people that Margot didn’t know or care about, and two days later, Momma made Margot put on her black dress and they went to church in the afternoon. There were lots of people there, who looked at a framed school picture of Lilly. People said nice things while Momma cried under her black wide-brimmed hat, and then they went home. Momma hit Margot that night, too, and she said it was because Margot didn’t cry at the funeral.
Then Momma went to the doctor again. When she came home, she told Margot that her ulcers were gone, and she was going to be in a magazine about how vitamins and exercise had cured her. The magazine would give her five thousand dollars for the interview.
There were visits from more people. A nice woman in a red suit came several times and talked to Margot about Momma and Lilly, but Margot didn’t answer all her questions & she knew she’d be in trouble if she told the nice woman about the bruises.
She wished Lilly was there. It wasn’t the same without her.
The night of the full moon, Momma came into her room and sat down on Margot’s bed. Her cheeks were flushed, and her breath smelled like sour grapes. She hiccuped, and made a funny-sounding laugh. “Ready to try your moon again, Margot? It’s been a month. How does this work?”
Margot pushed the window open and knelt beside her. “I fold my hands like this.”
“Oh, and here.” Momma pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket and unfolded it. “This is very important. I want you to ask your moon for all these things. Go slowly so everything is clear, okay?”
Margot took the list like it was a lighted firecracker. She couldn’t pronounce all of the words, although there were some things that looked nice, like a canopy bed, and a swimming pool. She prayed through the list as best she could, added a request of her own, and then handed Momma back the piece of paper.
“What do we do now?” Momma asked.
Margot wasn’t sure, but she tried to sound like she knew. “We wait until morning.”
“Then we’ll wait.” Momma held up the comforter and Margot climbed beneath it. She kissed Margot’s forehead. “Goodnight.”
Margot lay in bed, and tried not to worry. What if the moon didn’t bring these things? What if Momma thought Margot hadn’t asked for everything on the list, and hit her more?
Then it was morning, and light spilled through windows framed in frothy pink curtains. A lace canopy stretched over Margot’s head and joined with four silver columns at each corner of the bed. The walls were painted with grazing unicorns, shining coats and pearl horns glinting in the sunlight.
Lilly would love them.
“Lilly!” Margot shouted, before she remembered that Lilly wasn’t there anymore.
She climbed out of the canopy bed. Instead of her pajamas, she wore a frilly pink nightdress threaded with pink and silver ribbons that scratched her skin. Matching slippers with sparkly jewels waited next to the bed. She would have liked the slippers better if they were purple. Pink was Lilly’s favorite color, not hers.
Thick fluffy rugs padded the hallway outside her room. The staircase at the end spiraled down into a larger room with mirrors on the walls, and Lilly’s bike, pink and glossy, leaned against the staircase. At least it looked like Lilly’s bike, with the pink and gold streamers and the black lightning bolts, but there was something strange about it, like it was bigger. Like it used to be her purple bike.
“Is that you, baby?”
It was Momma’s voice. Margot walked down the hall into a large kitchen to see a beautiful woman that looked like Momma, but different. She wore tailored pants and a white silk blouse, her chignoned hair sleek and shiny, and her smile was wider and whiter than before. Her heels made a clicking sound on the floor like the shoes of the principal at Margot’s school. She slid manicured fingers into an oven mitt and withdrew a pan of small cakes from the oven.
“I did some praying, too.” Momma’s face glowed. “And we’re having cupcakes for breakfast!” She picked up a cupcake and swirled frothy layers of frosting on top.
Margot climbed up on one of the stools next to a counter of gray marble. Above her head, pots and pans with bronze handles hung from the ceiling. A heaping bowl of red grapes sat on the counter. Grapes were Lilly’s favorite fruit. Margot wished Lilly could see how large these grapes were, like plums.
“Do you understand, baby? Do you understand what’s happened?” Momma held out her arms.
Margot nodded. She understood that she had to play along, so Momma wouldn’t ask the moon for a new daughter. Maybe if she acted more like Lilly, Momma wouldn’t hit her again, or pray her away.
Margot buried her face in Momma’s waist. Momma smelled like frosting, and her hands were soft and gentle.
“Ready for cupcakes, then? I made them with yellow cake because it’s your favorite.”
Yellow cake was Lilly’s favorite. Margot liked chocolate better.
“Try one, baby.” Momma held out the frosted one, and Margot took a bite. It was the best yellow cake she’d ever had.
Erin Stocks is an Assistant Editor with Lightspeed Magazine. Her fiction can be found in the upcoming anthology Anywhere but Earth by Coeur de Lion publishers, Flash Fiction Online, the Absent Willow Review, and the Hadley Rille anthology Destination: Future.
Martha in the Manuscript
by Shawn Rubenfeld
Saugerties is a pleasant place; beyond the coffee shops and fruit markets are rows of tall, colorful houses lined along endless concave streets like stretches of rainbows. But it also has the river—the same river. So even though I’m sitting on a bench that’s more than a hundred miles away from the city, except for the lighthouse, the water across from me is no different.
The lighthouse is tall with a rounded black terrace and a point on top. I watch the people linger around it. Some are inside, their backs against the windows. Others walk across a wooden dock. No one steps onto the terrace.
The bench also has me in perfect firing range of a breeze that I imagine tumbling down the mountain like little rocks, blowing against the lighthouse so the chimes hanging on the wooden dock whistle along with the rippling water. It hits often, not like the breeze in the city, which only found me between the spread of buildings.
Suddenly there’s a sound to my left. I turn and see something else that usually doesn’t find me: a tall, attractive woman, brown hair splitting at her forehead. I don’t think she’ll stop, but she does.
“You got a smoke?”
I dig my hand into my pocket, nod, and move over so she can sit.
“I gotta run,” she says, and looks at the space I made. “But I could really use a smoke.”
“Don’t you have a minute?”
She considers me carefully. “You’re new in town, right?”
“You’re not crazy are you?”
She takes the cigarette and sits, leaning in for me to light it. She smells like wine. “Depends?” she repeats, “what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s not Tuesday,” I say. “So you’re in luck. I’m only crazy on Tuesday.”
She takes a drag of the cigarette. “That so? All right then, crazy man, what’s a guy like you doing out here alone?”
“I’d tell you, but I don’t want to give the secret away.”
“Makes sense,” she says. “Crazy people keep secrets.”
“How about this,” I begin. I realize I’m still holding the lighter so I put it away. “You tell me why you’re in such a rush, and then I’ll tell you something about me.”
She looks at her watch. I think about what I should start with. “It sounds like a fair deal, and I’d like to, but I really don’t have the time right now.”
“Probably because you’ve got secrets too.”
She seems taller the second time she stands. I want to stand too, to see if I’m taller than she is, but I decide to stay sitting. “I’ll leave that up to you, crazy man,” she says. “Thanks for the smoke. I’m sure I’ll see you again.”
Considering five minutes ago I was thinking of leaving, I’m satisfied being quiet and watching her body shrink into the distance. I take a deep breath and turn to the river. I knew there was something about this place—that proved it. A boat stops at the lighthouse. It’s the fourth of the day. Then I see someone looking at me from the terrace. I know who it is, but I can’t believe it. I stand to get a better view, but she turns and walks back into the building, and I know I won’t be able to see her again.
The chair creaks and I sit up, spreading three pieces of paper on top of the desk. I use a ruler to make sure all are the same distance apart and write “Martha” onto the first. I stare at the letters for a while. The pen pulses against my skin, but nothing happens. She’s not coming back, I tell myself. She’s not coming back.
I need a reminder, so I walk to the empty bookshelf. It was offered as a throw-in with the house, since the previous owner figured that of all people I’d have the most use for it. The shelf was here, so he tried convincing me the office would be ready as soon as I moved in. It was one of two selling points he kept reverting to—flawed for two reasons. The first was that the office wasn’t ready, since I still had to set up a desk and lay out a rug; the second was that I didn’t want a shelf. But I’m glad I have it now. It’s a good way to relax—a good reminder, which is just what I need. I hum as my fingers glide across it. The wood is nice and quiet. Just like Martha.
Then I walk to the window to see the other selling point: the creek. The sun is bright against it. The water lets off a strong, yellow hue. It’s not as mystical as he claimed it would be, but it does make for an interesting anomaly. If anything it’s like a long wheat field. I try to imagine what it tastes like, but I start to feel dizzy, so I head to the bathroom and wipe wet towels against my face. It doesn’t make much difference. When all is done, I go to bed.
A knock wakes me up, but I stay beneath the covers until it stops. It’s still early. It can be anyone. I wait a few minutes, and instead of going back to sleep, I bring a glass of water to my desk. There’s only one person I want to see anyway, and though I hit a small bump, I shouldn’t worry because it’s still working. I take out what I have and look over the proof. Small bumps, small feeling, small Martha, it doesn’t mean a thing. That wasn’t her at the lighthouse. I say it out loud and believe it. And so I say it again and again until I’m ready to continue. It wasn’t her. I’m here and she’s not. It wasn’t her. After years of trying and years of Martha, I’m exactly where I need to be. She’s not coming back. That’s relief not worry. She’s not coming back. It’s relief. Of course it’s relief. It’s not worry. Not coming back. Not back not worry. Relief.
A mist passes in front of me. The lighthouse is quiet. I try not to watch it, but I can’t help myself. My feet are tapping against the grass, speeding up and slowing down like the breeze. The sky is clear today. For some reason it makes me feel exposed.
I hear footsteps approaching, so I point my eyes at the grass and don’t move. The sound gets louder. I can feel someone staring at me. I wait until the sound passes and don’t look until it’s far enough away. An old man. Black hat. Crooked back. Probably looking to say hi or talk about the weather. It’s a nice day, but I’m happy I didn’t look. I don’t like talking about nice days.
More steps and I’m studying the grass again. This time really studying—the petals are thin; I can make out bits of movement between them. When I sit up, I realize there’s no point in putting my head down. I might miss the very reason I’m here.
Then a sound from behind me. “Hey there, crazy man.”
I follow the familiar voice to the familiar face. She motions for me to move over. Her blouse is cut pretty short, and I’m thinking of how it will look when she bends to sit. I’m not disappointed. “No rush today?” I ask.
“You tell me.”
I offer a cigarette and watch her slip it into her mouth. She notices, turns to face me and says: “So where exactly are you from?”
“The city,” I tell her. “Upper West Side.”
“And let me guess—you came here to get away.” She laughs quietly, but sees me look at her teeth and then stops. “Or is that one of your secrets?”
“Sounds like you already know my secrets.”
“Just that you aren’t from here,” she says.
“And why I came.”
“Then it sounds like I’m more intuitive than you thought.”
“Actually, I wouldn’t get carried away,” I say, taking it back. “It’s not very hard to spot the new guy, and I’m sure it’s even easier to figure out why he’s here.”
“You sure, crazy man? I’m the new guy too, and you didn’t spot me.” She takes a long drag of the cigarette. The smoke suspends in front of her.
The wind blows it to her face. She doesn’t cough. “Girl, actually. The new girl.”
“I didn’t realize,” I say. “I missed it.”
“Bad start backing yourself up. But you can recover. Go ahead, crazy man, why am I here?”
“If I had to guess,” I say. “I’d bet you’re running from something. Probably a guy.”
“Wrong again, crazy man.” She shakes her head with a slight smile. “Any more guesses?”
I shake my head too.
“Well, actually,” she says, “I was looking for a good place to meet somebody.”
“How did you decide on Saugerties?”
“Because it’s pretty and pretty people usually live in pretty places.”
I give her time for an addendum, but when she doesn’t take it, I ask: “Isn’t there more to it than being in a pretty place?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then what about being pretty?”
“Nope. It’s all you need.”
I hear a crash from the water. There’s a boat mounting at the lighthouse. Two men climb out of it. One of them says something that I can’t hear. No one’s at the terrace.
“So I guess it’s fine to assume that you came here alone?”
“Is that your way of asking if I’m single?”
“Maybe,” I say.
“You can do better than that, crazy man. What do you think?”
“I think if you weren’t single then you wouldn’t be hitting on me.”
She laughs and her head moves with it. The hair falls into her eyes. “Forget what I said before. You were right. There is more to it than being pretty.”
“You need to be aggressive too.”
“Aggressive,” I repeat. “Interesting. I would have thought it’d be intelligent, funny, something like that.”
“Nope,” she says. “Those are nice. But you can’t get anywhere if you’re not aggressive.”
“Aggressive,” I say again. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Don’t just keep it in mind. Keep showing you’ve got it.”
“You think I’ve got it?”
“I know you do.”
“Well, maybe, but there is a problem—”
She leans forward. “Sounds like I might hear another secret.”
“Not at all,” I tell her. “It’s hard enough being aggressive with someone when you don’t know their name.”
“You shouldn’t be worrying about names anyway,” she says. “Names are too important to be rushed.”
“Names are the first thing we get,” I remind her.
“Not true, crazy man. When the name comes we’ve already got everything else. The name comes last.”
“Then what comes first?
“Whatever we want to,” she says. A bird lands on the grass and looks at us. “A movie’s someone else’s, so how about that? We can see what’s playing tonight. Do you have plans?”
“You’re asking me? I thought I was supposed to be the aggressive one?”
“I can be aggressive too, crazy man. Do you have plans or not?”
“No, but—shouldn’t we wait?”
“Stop thinking so hard,” she says and then stands. “You’re acting like you’re new to this.”
“Just out of practice,” I say.
“Then get back into it,” she says. “Show off a little.”
“I’m trying. It’s just that I hardly know you.”
“And unless you want it to stay that way then stand. Otherwise you really are crazy.”
And so I do—though something doesn’t feel right. The good news is that I am taller than her.
She starts walking to Main Street, and I follow slowly. She turns back to me twice. As we turn the corner, she grabs my hand. Hers is cold. Then I see someone following us from across the street. It’s Martha. I walk faster, but so does Martha. She mirrors us on the other side until things start to blur, to shake, soon I can’t see anything. Then I hear a voice, and everything is still.
I walk to the window, look at the creek, and shut the blinds. I pushed my luck. I know I did. But I’ve been here before; if I wait a day or two it’ll come back. I can’t let it go to shit again. Not after all I’ve done. I’ll just take the rest of the day off, and then I’ll have nothing to worry about. I’m still in control. It’s me. Not her. Me. Not her.
The next thing I know I’m in bed with my eyes closed, and entire worlds are starting from three directions in front of me. On one side there are dizzying mountains—hardly salient through a storm. On another there are wide corn fields bouncing off the ground into small hills. On a third there are quiet lakes with red and yellow trees hanging over them like long arms. I can’t believe all this is surrounding me. I start walking closer to the lakes, but then the trees start to shake, and a swarm of macaws emerge. One of them lands on my shoulder. We look at each other, but it takes off. When I look ahead again, the lakes aren’t there. Nothing is. Everything starts to go black. I run to each side but discover I’m trapped. The walls are wet. Water drips onto my head. I scream for help but there isn’t an answer. Then I see a streak of light and walk over to it. It’s blocked by rocks, and despite heaving my entire body against them, they don’t move. I’m too tired to scream. I’m too tired to stop my body from sinking to the floor. Then the ground shakes, and a faint light starts to slide across the black like water. Finally, I’m able to look up. A person stands against the light. I realize its Martha. She disappears into the brightness. I stand and follow, but the light goes away again.
I wake up, take a cold shower, and somehow find myself right where I left off.
“Did you want to eat first?” I suggest.
“Are you hungry?”
“If you are.”
I look across the street again. Everything is still. I take a few short breaths and grab her hand. “We’ll eat,” I say. “Know anything good around here?”
“I’m not the person to ask,” she says.
I nod when I remember. “We’ll find something. Are you up for exploring?”
“Now you’re getting it, crazy man,” she says. “Keep the ideas coming.”
We turn a few corners, but everything we pass is closed. Then I see a little boy walking over. At first I figure he’s heading to someone behind us, his parents, probably—filling obligations with Mom to see Grandma or to go with Dad to the store because the basement light is broken—not the way a little boy wants to spend his day. I feel for him. He walks like the day is dead. I’m ready to meet his eyes when he passes, but when we reach each other, he stops.
“Excuse me,” he says in a quiet voice. “We’re selling lemonade. Twenty five cents for one cup or two cups for fifty cents.”
The boy points to a table at the corner of the sidewalk. There are two girls standing behind it. There are a pile of cups and a pitcher on top of it. One of the girls points to the pitcher.
“Would you like some?” the boy says again. “It’s for a good cause.”
“What’s the cause?” I ask.
“We’re raising money for the library.”
I feel the pressure. “A cup for each of us.”
My hand is free now, so the boy grabs it and leads me over. I drop my change into a little jar, and one of the girls places two cups onto the table. The other fills them with lemonade. It doesn’t taste right.
“Only fifty cents for another two,” the bigger one says.
My head starts to spin, but I nod. The boy smiles at the girls. I put more change into the jar, and she fills the cups again. I can feel the lemonade drop into my stomach. When I put the cup down, I turn back to my date and see Martha instead.
I try to smile at the kids. There’s a voice, but I can’t make it out. I turn my head. The woman is back.
“Are you all right?” she asks.
I nod. “I’m sorry. I thought you were—”
“Thought I was what?”
“Nothing,” I say. “Sorry. Did you want to keep looking for food?”
“Of course. Lemonade isn’t enough for this girl.”
We start walking again. The street is bright. Shadows lay against the sidewalk.
“What about this place?” I ask.
There isn’t an answer. When I turn again, Martha’s there. I quickly look to the floor, close my eyes, and start counting. My eyes open. The woman is back.
“What is it?” she says.
“Nothing,” I say again. “It’s nothing.”
“You can’t tell me that it’s nothing.”
“It is, really it is. But can we skip the food and go straight to the movie, please? I’m not hungry anymore.”
She’s quiet when we start walking. I take her hand and hold it tight. Aggression. A good thing. Aggression. Then I feel it. I know it’s going to be a short night.
There’s a light coming in from the window. The sun has been out for a while. It shines against the creek so the water’s yellow again. I follow it outside.
My hands are cold when I touch the water, and I think of my first night with Martha. I saw the power I had then. I saw what I could do. I saw what she could do. But it still didn’t stop me. And now it doesn’t matter how far I go or how much I write, because she’ll always be there. It’s all the same. She’ll always get in the way. She’ll always come back.
I take a long shower and breathe in short spurts. The water gets into my mouth, but I don’t care. It makes me tired enough to lie in bed, but it’s all like Martha. Martha in the bed. Martha on the floor. Martha at the creek.
A crash causes me to sit up. I run to the window and see someone walking at the far end of the water. A woman. Her back is to me, so I can’t make out the face. Twice she dips her feet into the water.
Even though I’m not dressed, I run to the door and kick it open.
“I know you’re here,” I scream, moving to each side of the yard. I leap over the water and push through the maze of trees. I know what’s coming. A dog starts to bark, but when I stop, and when it stops, everything is silent.
I shuffle inside and go to my desk. I don’t deserve this. Not after all I did. For me. For Martha. I look at the paper. It never comes out like I want it to.
I don’t hear footsteps, so the voice takes me by surprise.
“Long time no see. Where have you been?”
As soon as I see her, I don’t want to tell her. A part of me still thinks it can work.
“I was sick,” I lie. “Caught a bad cold.”
“Still got city nostrils,” she says. “You’ll get over that.”
She sits. I don’t speak. She turns away. She doesn’t smell like anything today.
“We can try it again, you know. I know that it’s hard.”
“Your secret. Getting over someone. I know what it’s like. I mean, I’ve never really experienced it. But I understand.”
“I’m not getting over anyone,” I say.
“Do you still love her?”
“It’s not like that,” I tell her. “That’s not it.”
“Then what is it, crazy man. Is it me? Not exciting enough for you? No story here? Is it the—”
I try to say no, but I know better by now. I just put my head down until it’s quiet.
There’s a light breeze behind me, rolling down the mountain like little rocks. The sun lies against the river—the same river. So even though I’m more than a hundred miles away from the city, the water across from me is no different. The Hudson followed me, working its way up the valley like I did. I can’t get away from it.
Then a sound to my left and I see something else that I can’t get away from: Martha. She walks to the bench, sees the space next to me and sits.
“You got a smoke?” she says.
I dig my hand into my pocket and nod, handing it over.
“Just like we used to,” she says. She leans in for a light. “Don’t you love that it turns out like this?”
There’s a shadow across the desk. It’s just like I remember it. I rub my finger against it until it moves. Then I feel her head against my shoulder. “Just promise me a happy ending this time. Please?”
Shawn Rubenfeld was a finalist for the 2011 SUNY Thayer Fellowship for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, and for the Patricia Kerr Ross Award. He received the 2010 Vincent Tomaselli Award in Creative Writing and performed archival work on the Ernest Hemingway manuscripts in Boston. He is currently an MFA Fiction student and teaching assistant at the University of Idaho.
You’ve Got To Tell Your Own Tale
by S.J. Hirons
I only remember bits and pieces of my first night at Whitestone Wall, looking over into Lios Iridion. The crinkling fires. Tussocks of grass and hard earth underfoot. Hot dogs from a briny tin: plump and pale marshmallows on sticks. My father lifted me up to look over, and I braced myself by putting my feet against the blanched stones of the ancient wall.
On the other side it wasn’t night.
On the other side it’s never night.
Other men from the town had brought their sons, too. They sat in communal circles on foldout chairs around their own campfires, or stood at the wall themselves, holding up their boys: each and every one of them hopeful that his son was special somehow; each and every one of them hopeful that, tonight, there might be a sign.
On our side the night was a glassy black, the tree-lined ridge between us and town obscuring the stars. The shafts of many-coloured light that make up Lios Iridion took up the whole of the other horizon, tinting all faces with garish hues.
My father put his lips to my ear:
“I think I see something in there!” He whispered, his moustache scratching against my earlobe. Then, after glancing along the lines of arrayed men and boys either side of us:
“A Way Through The Trees” by Christopher Woods
I don’t know when my father’s troubles with drink began. Maybe they were always there. I know it was around about the same time he first took me to look over Whitestone Wall that his troubles spilled over the glass and into the house, though ‘cause the heating bill didn’t get paid that winter. In the mornings, before he roused and fed the stove with pages torn from my mother’s old pattern books, our breath would be on the air. He had me sleep by the stove that season. I remember that. And I remember asking him how he’d keep warm:
“I’ll be chasing beaver all night long,” he answered, with a dusty laugh. He still had some of his handsome left back then, but when he looked to see if I got the joke he saw only the pain I was feeling to see Ma’s things being destroyed.
“She wouldn’t’ve wanted us to go cold,” he muttered and reached out to me with his powdery, mason’s fingers. I pulled my blankets tight around me and his hand went back, to his mouth, covering up whatever was going to coil out of that as his eyes hardened, putting a rime of white on his black moustache, his stubble, his greying skin.
The curtains were open over the sink. Through the greasy quarters of the window one of his abandoned statues loomed, an abstract mass of dull metal and wire and flags of dishcloth. He called such things his ‘true work’, as though saying so negated the fact that by day he made veneer tiles at the quarry, tiles that the big trains took away to the city to never be seen again. Occasionally he’d do the odd bit of repair work on the dry-stone walls of outlying farms, repairing the places weather or livestock had undermined. His skill was acknowledged enough that it was he who maintained the cairn of stones around the Mancer’s Block by Whitestone Wall, too. I think he even received a stipend from the aldermen for that duty. He never told me much about his work – no techniques, and no trade secrets, either – so I can’t say for sure. He didn’t want stone to be it for me, that’s all I know. He wanted my destiny to waltz up to me from the other side of Whitestone Wall.
But what father in town didn’t want that for his lad?
What father in any town so close to the wall?
A boy with the gift to see remarkable things in the lights might join the rhapsodomancers of the cities, after all.
That first night he lowered me back to the land, out of the warm fug of his boozy breath and silly talk, and back to the crisp and fresh cold that seemed to me to be rising from the rough ground. He gestured with one hand towards our fire and our blankets and bedrolls, and with the other gave me an urgent shove.
“Go to sleep now,” he said. “I’ll be just here.”
He took his flask from the deep front pocket of his jacket and turned back to look into the glowing colours of Lios Iridion.
Fionn would have been about 16: a black-haired boy, rangy and with a bony face. I think he lived just with his mother, somewhere near to our house, for I’d seen the two of them walk past our little place from time to time: sometimes just the one of them, sometimes just the other. Always stopping to stare. People often did. My father’s twisted sculptures, a tangled forest of pale stone that defied explanation, fascinated and appalled people equally.
“You’ve got to tell your own tale,” he’d muttered to me, once, when I asked him what he thought he was making. He didn’t look around at me at first, but then, sensing I still lingered, he lifted his eyes from their concentration upon what his hands were doing with chisel and mallet:
“You don’t get it, do you?” he said.
“I do. Sort of,” I said, squinting up at the sculpture. He’d carved what looked like a tree with all of its branches snapped off. A denuded thing, with a serpent twining around its trunk. The smell of rain was in the air, a change in the weather.
Later – maybe it was the evening of that same day (though that may be a trick of convenient memory) – I went at twilight to Whitestone Wall. I associate the two incidents because I know I was thinking about what my father had said to me about his true work when I went there that dusk, as though his words were a spur. He was gone for the night, as usual, out somewhere wetting his whistle.
I didn’t go to the spot he’d taken me to when I was just a kid, the place everybody seemed to think was where visions were most likely to come. I walked north through the woods, in the direction the trains went when they were going up to the cities. There was a spot by a stream there where Whitestone Wall wended a little to the west.
When I got there I saw Fionn was there, too. He turned, hearing me coming out of the trees and through the bobbing bracken, and looked at me for a moment.
“You’re his son,” he said. “The mason’s, I mean.”
“Yes,” I said.
I went past him to the wall and propped myself up on the irregular top stones, the upright ones my father called the ‘teeth-bits’. The rain began to fall then, a drizzle. It felt to me that I’d been holding my breath. Behind me Fionn was quiet, still. Eventually he came and stood alongside me and I breathed again. Fionn leant, cross-armed on the stones, too. Between Whitestone Wall and Lios Iridion, on the hundred yards or so of sedge grass that is that realm’s own natural border, there was no rain, only the rainbow. The eternal rainbow’s end.
“It’s been fifty years since anyone from town saw anything over there,” Fionn said. “Yet still we come and look, don’t we?”
“What did they see?” I asked him.
“There’s nothing over there to see,” he said and his voice was bitter.
“The Rainbow People are long gone. There’s nothing beyond the lights.”
“Why do you come here if you think that?” I wondered.
His smile was a twist. “There isn’t anywhere else I can be just now,” he said.
I don’t know how much later it was that I was woken one morning by the telephone. Spring had come by then, but the mornings were still cold. I stirred in my hard bed. That year I’d fallen into the strange habit of flinging my arms above my head when I slept and my legs out from under the covers so that I woke up with numb limbs. The telephone kept ringing. I shuddered up and stumbled through the house to the hallway and picked it up. It was my father:
“Go to Whitestone Wall,” he said, without preamble. “Fionn has seen something.”
But he’d already hung up. I wondered where he was. Flopped out with some drinking buddy, I supposed. Then what he’d said reached my brain: something had been seen. I rubbed my sore, bare arms and went hurriedly to dress.
Out on the streets people were rushing in the direction of the wall. I heard many saying that a rhapsodomancer was coming, that the Mancer’s Block was glowing for the first time in decades.
I got there just a little ahead of everyone else – I’d run, unashamed, where they had mostly taken on a brisk clip in order to save their dignity – and so I was one of the few who saw the rhapsodomancer appear. There was still a thrum in the air when I looked behind me, my eyes wide and wanting to share the wonderment of what had just happened with someone, anyone, and I saw my father staggering along the shale road that ran under the ridge, his hair in crazy corkscrews and his shirt-tail flapping out from under his coat. There was a woman moving ahead of him with more urgency. Her hair was unbound and she wore just a grey shawl over her nightdress: Fionn’s mother.
My father glimpsed me at the front of the crowd and gave a slapdash wave, a signal I should look around and pay attention.
The rhapsodomancer wore white robes. His hair was white too, but his face was youthful.
Fionn stepped forward from the crowd.
“You saw something?”
Fionn inclined his head. “Yes.”
The boy smiled that twisting smile I’d seen, his eyes sidling to the crowd. “Should I say aloud? In front of these?”
The rhapsodomancer’s own lips twitched with sour amusement. “You can say a little, I think.”
“It was beautiful,” Fionn said, his lips twisting.
The rhapsodomancer nodded knowingly. He held out his left hand. “Come with me, then,” he said. He pulled back his robe. On the rope belt wound around the toga underneath there hung a sickle.
“Fionn!” The boy’s mother gave a desperate cry as her son reached out and took the rhapsodomancer’s hand in his.
They were gone in a blink.
Behind the place where they’d been Lios Iridion came back into focus for me. I saw something moving between the bright shafts. Just then my father’s hand fell on my shoulder and I jumped. Fionn’s mother gave an anguished cry, the crowd parting around her. She fell to her knees on the grass. My father’s hand tightened sharply.
“How did you know Fionn’s name?” I asked him.
Still catching his breath from his haste to be here, he snatched his eyes from the grieving mother to me. “What?”
“Never mind,” I muttered. His eyes went back to her, Fionn’s wailing mother, and his grip on me tightened again, a pain, a buckling weight on my shoulder.
I looked back over Whitestone Wall.
It wasn’t beautiful, what was moving in the light over there.
It looked at me, and then moved on.
We never saw Fionn again.
I started dating Siofra out of spite: I suspected my father was diddling her mother, the art critic on the town’s newspaper, and wanted to complicate things for him. I was 19 then, an apprentice in the mosaic workshops, Siofra in her last year of school. I had money. Money is a good thing to have when you’re dating a girl of 17; only women with more experience of life and disappointment can forgive a man its scarcity.
Things had changed in town over the years. The soul of the place, I mean. My generation was filling out, beginning to pass out of the age when seeing things over Whitestone Wall was possible for us. Now we were having to face up to the fact that, whatever we were, that’s what we were always going to be. I made tiny tiles, mixed grout and helped the old mosaicists with any heavy lifting. Nights I’d sit on the veranda at Siofra’s place, drinking, smoking and nuzzling. Around about that time my father had been making noises about putting on an exhibition of his best sculptures. Siofra made excuses for her mother’s absences, saying there was a big project she was working on, something about the cultural history of the town, the impact of Whitestone Wall on local art. I forget now what her father did, or why he was away so much her mother sought comfort in a man like my father.
Does it matter?
It didn’t matter then.
I taught Siofra how to roll cigarettes. How to avoid hangovers. How to function in school the next day if that cure didn’t take.
It was a hot summer, headache weather, the time of year when fathers took their sons to Whitestone Wall most often, at cloudless twilights fragmented by glimpses of lightning far-off to the south and beyond the plains. Siofra would lift her hair off her neck lazily on such nights, her arms going up and pulling her body taut, standing before me. A reach down and then a new bottle of beer from the ice-box – pressed to her forehead, then to her lips.
“If you don’t wanna see what’s shaking at the wall we could go to the woods. Some of the guys are having a camp-out.”
I knew she liked to show me off and I was in an indulgent mood.
We went into town and I bought more beer. The sky was an iron griddle above us, the night a refuge for twitching things; insects and night-birds. We walked up the sloping meadows. The path into the trees was soused with the colours of distant Iridion. Ahead of us music and voices commingled somewhere in the gloom. The sound of a beer can being opened, the flare of a match. Some skinny kid was sat on a log, playing a guitar. Riona, the girl I’d dated the summer before, was there, in a long skirt and a sleeveless top. The fashion for wearing black was on us once more. In the dark Riona’s limbs were long and white, unattached to a visible body: dancing, drunk.
Siofra took my hand. We sat and we drank too; and we talked nonsense and everybody was loose and languid in the way a hot night can make you. And then, at some point, I decided I needed to relieve myself, but that I wasn’t going to do it too close to where we were. I disentangled myself from Siofra’s sprawling legs, lifting her hand from my belly, and I wandered into the trees a fair way.
I could hear a stream now I was away from the others, a plosive burbling over rocks. When I came to it I decided that that was as good a place as any for me to do my business. As I stood there the night resolved itself and I saw how close I was to Whitestone Wall, to that place where it bends just so, where Fionn and I had once stood, waiting it out as our parents rutted.
As I peed I looked at the wall, thinking of what my father had said about the craftsmanship that had gone into making it in the first place, about how weird it was that no moss grew on those stones; how strange that no creature dared make a home in any of its nooks and crannies. How the rhapsodomancers had bound the Rainbow Folk within its boundary.
But these were mysteries I was ready to leave to others.
As I gave myself a little shake and began to zip up my fly a voice called out:
On the other side of Whitestone Wall there stood a gentleman.
I really don’t know how else to put it.
It was not a word I had had recourse to use ever before. He wore a fine violet coat with trimmings of red lace. His hair was a purplish hue. Yellow breeches and long blue socks led down to shoes with orange uppers. In his left hand he was dangling a glistening, indigo handkerchief. Behind him the shafts of Lios Iridion were still there, but they were lessened somehow. Through them I could see a city now, a place of high columns and mighty arches.
“Hello?” I responded, tentatively.
The gentleman, whose face was quite florid, smiled, showing two rows of needle-sharp teeth. His eyes were a merry colour I have no name for.
“Yes, that’s right,” he said. “You. I am talking to you. I’ve seen you before, I think.”
I put my hands in my pockets and stepped over the stream.
“I don’t think so, sir,” I said. “I’d surely remember that.”
The gentleman laughed and came all the way up to Whitestone Wall, beckoning me closer to chat, as neighbours might. I ambled down the undulation of the land towards him.
“What a night!” He exclaimed. “Quite enchanting, don’t you agree?”
I nodded and his smile widened.
I didn’t like those teeth.
Not at all.
“I thought to myself that this was just the right kind of night to go for a stroll,” he went on, “the kind of night when one might encounter something or someone interesting. And here you are! What a good boy! It’s enough to make me think I should invite you over. I think you’d like Lios Iridion.” He gestured to the city behind him with a flap of his handkerchief. “All sorts of wonders await a delightful lad like you in that city!”
I glanced over his shoulder. Now I was at the wall I could see the place better. There were things gyring in the air above it and I began to entertain the notion that those buildings were not marble at all, but bone: the bones of great creatures, beached on shores of bright dreams, that a being such as this gentleman thought it no big deal to fillet.
“Shall I summon my carriage?” He asked, airily.
“No,” I said. “That’s alright.”
His fey eyes narrowed. “No?” He breathed softly. His angular nostrils flared. “No?”
I shrugged. Behind the gentleman the lights of Lios Iridion brightened, obscuring the city once more. The gentleman’s mouth widened yet further, splitting his cheekbones. The colour of his eyes was like bile now. Fish eyes in a fishy face. I walked back into the woods before I had to see anymore.
The air thrummed as I neared the stream. A man appeared on the other side: the rhapsodomancer who had come for Fionn, returned alone and without fanfare.
“You saw something.”
“Nothing I’d tell you about.”
The rhapsodomancer laughed. “Those who lie to my kind always meet a sharp end. That was a lesson worth learning, I think.” He pulled back his robe. On the rope belt wound around the white toga underneath there hung a feather, striated with blacks and greys and whites. He plucked it and held it out to me, over the tumbling water but I shook my head. He shrugged. The air tensed and then he was gone. I stepped over the stream and began to work my way back to the others through the gloom. A few steps along the way I saw long, white limbs floating in the dark: Riona.
“I got lost,” she lied.
I put one hand on the back of her head, the other to her hip where her black top pulled away from that long skirt and I pulled her close to kiss her. She smelled like her dancing: sweaty and heady.
“What about Siofra?” She asked, a minute later.
“She doesn’t make me happy,” I said.
One lie deserves another.
Not getting his exhibition that year lessened my father. Not getting anything we want lessens all of us, of course. Setting aside something, though… Some call it cowardice and some call it courage. But we each of us have to tell our own tale – most often blindly and with no idea of how it ends.
Tonight Siofra, who went on to open a gallery in town, called me and asked me to put a show on there later this year. A retrospective of my abstract work, she said. A little later, Riona came and said our boy had asked to be taken to Whitestone Wall soon. He’s five. It’s about the right time, whether I like it or not: people will think it’s funny if I don’t.
I came in here after they both went to sleep.
Had myself a little drink.
Something my father said to me came back to me just now. It was right before the end, I think, on one of those days when he’d just turn up unannounced at my workshop. He stood, swaying, looking at the things I’d made and had started daring to call ‘art’, his face flaccid, his hair hoary with chalk: already a ghost in the making. I suppose we all are. I looked at him looking. He put a hand to his mouth and then took it away, like he was wiping his lips dry.
“Art,” he said: “It’s dropping a stone into water and trying to catch something of the ripples before they’re gone.”
“It’s looking for the gold at the end of a rainbow,” I said, idly, as I reached for my wallet.
“Don’t give me anything if you think I’ll only spend it on booze,” my father had said then, lifting his eyes from my trays and my tiles.
It didn’t make any difference to me what he did with the money I gave him, but I didn’t say so. I just handed him a few coins. There was something white in his hair – a bit of tissue I thought, or a clump of dust. I plucked at it with my quick fingers and studied it for a moment. A fluffy trace from a black and white feather. Where had he picked that up?
I wondered then if I should have taken the feather I was offered all those years ago; accepted it and pared it into a quill and written my life’s tale with that.
I showed my father what I’d taken from him, but he was only smiling – wearily, beautifully – and looking again at the abstract piece I was working on.
“I think I see something in there,” he said.
I shook the feathery tuft from my fingers.
“Shhh… ” I said.
S.J.Hirons has previously been published in Clockwork Phoenix 3 (Norilana Books), Subtle Edens: An Anthology of Slipstream Fiction (Elastic Press), Daily Science Fiction, SFX magazine’s Pulp Idol 2006 anthology, 52 Stitches (Strange Publications), Title Goes Here magazine (Issue #1, Fall 2009)., A Fly In Amber, Farrago’s Wainscot, Pantechnicon Online and The Absent Willow Review and has upcoming stories in The Red Penny Papers as well as at faepublishing.com.
The Songs of Eridani – Part 1
by Gary Cuba
Things grew large on epsilon Eridani III, but it was the smallest of creatures that brought us down. We were barely two days into the unexplored jungle that lay to the north of S’uval, the riverside port
village that marked the farthest reach of human colonization on the planet.
I lay prostrate and sweating on the bedroll inside my tent,
hallucinating in the throes of my fever. I was dimly aware of T’aylang,
our native guide, bending over me; his massive, cylindrical head filled
my blurry vision. In my delirium, the rainbow of colors refracting off
his eye-hoop mutated into a medieval painting, one that depicted a
terrifying, insane vision of damned souls in hell.
“I’m dying,” I said weakly.
“Death without redemption is a terrible thing to contemplate, Mr.
Bishop,” T’aylang replied.
“The databulb. Make sure it gets to Kline.” I struggled to withdraw
the bulb from underneath my sweat-drenched shirt, where it hung on a
lanyard around my neck. Somehow it seemed imperative that I not take it
into hell with me. Perhaps my own redemption depended on it.
T’aylang reached down and stilled my fumbling hand. “Best to take
it to him yourself. You will survive, as will your colleagues. Eridani
insinuates herself into your flesh as we speak. She is harsh, but not
always deadly. It is only the first step of your true journey.”
There had been no word from Dr. Manfred Kline for nearly a year,
and his Church sponsors had grown anxious.
I figured they’d known at the outset how risky it would be to send
a missionary into the unexplored regions of Eridani III. Their
apprehensions were well-justified. It was the most dangerous planet
mankind had ever attempted to colonize.
The six directors of the Church of the Holy Psychological
Redemption sat across from me at an expansive mahogany conference table
in an inner sanctum of their main temple on Earth. Even the youngest of
them had to be at least twice my age, and my casual field dress clashed
dissonantly with their formal business attire. The Chairman, who I
judged by the depth and profusion of his wrinkles to be the eldest,
cleared his throat.
“Mr. Bishop, it’s not often that we resort to asking for outside
help. As you can imagine, we are somewhat . . . out of our league, here,
so to say.”
As I’d learned in the project brief, Kline himself had proposed the
dangerous posting, and had convinced the directors to send him there
over their objections. It was the Church’s first foray into off-world
proselytizing. I let a derisive snort escape me as I reflected on that
fact now: Ultimately, you just couldn’t resist sending your own pompous
brand of human enlightenment into the dark, heathen universe around you,
I took a moment to compose myself before I replied to the elder.
“Out of your league, to be sure. You’re also a bit desperate, if I
understand your situation correctly. But if it’s any consolation, I
think you’re making the right move by bringing somebody like me into the
Somebody like me: an experienced mantracker who wasn’t afraid to
get his hands dirty. I looked down at the delicate bone china cup that
rested on the table to my right; the eye of its tiny handle was way too
small to accept the insertion of any but a delicate woman’s finger. I
wrapped my large, calloused hand around its body instead and hoisted it
inelegantly to my lips. Weak, lukewarm tea. Needless to say, it wasn’t
my preferred afternoon beverage. A sigh left my lips as I clanked the
cup back down in its saucer.
“Gentlemen, I sympathize with your plight,” I said, reflexively
running my palm over the top of my close-shaved head. “But I’m a
pragmatic man, and–beside my other talents–a minor student of history.
As I read them, the chronicles of mankind are littered with tales of
missionaries being slaughtered by capricious natives or dangerous
predators, succumbing to horrible diseases, poisonous vermin, what have
you. So far as I’m concerned, those folks all had a bit of the
death-wish in them. I’m curious: What makes you think that Kline, if
he’s still alive, even wants to be found? Why not just chalk him up as a
martyr to your cause and be done with it? You know how hugely expensive
my services will be. Is it really worth it to you?”
I saw the subordinate directors drop their heads, but the Chairman
leaned forward and focused his rheumy, gray eyes on me.
“We can’t share Dr. Kline’s Church communications with you, owing
to their confidentiality. But I can tell you this: We know from his last
messages that he was excited at the progress he was making. His tone was
not that of a man with a death-wish, Mr. Bishop. Kline discovered
something important about the psychology of the indigenous natives he
was working with. We need to find him and bring him home safely. Or–God
forbid–if he’s no longer alive, at least obtain proof of his demise,
and retrieve whatever records he left behind. It’s of extreme importance
to the Church that we do this.”
“Well, it’s your money. If you insist on spreading some of it my
way, perhaps I shouldn’t protest so strenuously.” Judging from the
opulence of the room and its furnishings, it was obvious that money was
not in short supply in this Church. Of course, I knew that its
parishioners paid dearly for their spiritual services. I removed a
penknife from my pocket and began to clean my fingernails with it.
“Dr. Manfred Klein is a great man, Mr. Bishop,” the Chairman said.
“A fine psychiatrist, and a true witness to our faith. We simply can’t
forsake him now in the hour of his greatest need–nor can we afford to
lose the fruits of his recent labors.”
Using the stubborn will that only comes to those who are near to
the end of all things corporeal, the ancient man slowly pushed himself
up from his chair with the aid of a cane. A curled topographic map of
Eridani’s main continent sprawled on the table between us. He bent over
it and jabbed a crooked, arthritic finger on the center of an unexplored
area. “He’s in there somewhere, and we mean to bring him out. Will you,
or will you not help us do that?”
There was little doubt as to my final decision. Beyond the
pre-negotiated fee to be paid by the Church, my agent had already
secured a tasty cash advance from one of the major network content
providers, and he had optioned an audio/video specialist and a producer
to document my journey. I would retain half of the media take after
production expenses, with an even better deal on future off-world
syndication rights. Sure, it would be a dangerous mission. But big
rewards always flow to big risk-takers. And I’d already had plenty of
experience traversing the type of terrain we’d be encountering–albeit,
not on Eridani itself.
“I just had to be sure how committed you are to this venture, and
how far you’ll go to pursue it,” I said. I pocketed the penknife and
leaned forward. “I’ll deliver your precious Dr. Kline and his records to
you, gentlemen. Whether or not I present him kicking and screaming in
the living flesh, or stinking inside a body bag–that’s the only thing
undetermined at this point.”
The Director reached into one of his vest pockets and withdrew a
tiny encrypted databulb. “If you find him alive, make sure you deliver
this to him. He’ll be more than willing to return here after he reads
the message on it.” He handed it across the table to me while making a
unique hand gesture, a physical sigil that represented their Church’s
identity. “God go with you.”
I rose and strode to the exit of the conference room, turned, and
looked up at the magnificent glass chandelier that hung over the group
of doddering old men. “I’ll present your grand Church of the Holy
Psychological Redemption with either a living saint or a dead martyr.
Either way, I’m sure you’ll come out ahead.”
As I left the room, I couldn’t help feeling that something stank
about this deal–and it wasn’t the specter of Kline’s rotting corpse. It
was worse than that. It was the kind of smell that clings to insincere
people who are hiding something.
I teamed up with my assigned A/V man, Pete Horvack, along with
Laura Denning, my field producer, a couple of days later. The three of
us boarded the shuttle to the Lagrange-2 wormhole support complex, where
we’d catch the next scheduled skip-ship run to Eridani.
The next morning after our arrival, we stripped and submitted
ourselves to the bio-static immersion process that would protect us
during the skip, and hoped that our hangovers from the night before
wouldn’t follow us to the other side of the Eridani wormhole. Foolish
us. At least I should have known better, since I’d already made a few
off-world skips on other assignments.
“Kill me, Bishop,” Pete Horvack said. He pulled his slightly
overweight body out of the stasis chamber next to mine, his long,
dirty-blonde hair splashing over his shoulders. “Make it quick, so I
don’t have to suffer any more.”
The cameraman sat down on the lip of the tank, holding his head. He
stared mournfully at his toes, which had begun to revert from the
purplish tone that characterized the bio-stasis condition to their
normal pink color.
“You’re cursed with having to live yet another day, Pete,” I said.
“Buck up, man. It’ll soon get worse.” This had been Pete’s first
experience passing through the looking glass.
I suffered a series of racking coughs, then turned and watched the
naked form of Laura Denning, our young producer, slowly make its way out
of her chamber. She retched, brushed a few wet locks of short black hair
away from her cheeks, and puked stringy phlegm onto the floor. Following
this noisy bit of purging, she looked over at me with pouting,
still-blue lips; she had a blanched, pleading expression on her face
that would have melted the heart of any man who didn’t know her.
But I did know her, so my own heart stayed quite solid. Laura was
young, pretty and ambitious. On the last count, overly so; she used any
advantage at her disposal to get ahead in the business. I had to hand it
to her, though: She didn’t mind paying her dues–as evidenced by this
“Was it everything you’d hoped it would be, darling?” I asked her,
In response, she scowled, bent her head down and dry-retched some more.
A cheery skip-ship attendant reached us, passing out clean
bathrobes, towels and plastic sandals, and we walked unsteadily to the
lavatory area to clean up and become human again. We showered, dressed
and moved through the ship’s disembarkation sphincter, out into the
interglobal terminal at M’bassa, the main port of entry into Eridani III.
It was not a large spaceport by any means, and was quaintly rustic
in its construction. A cloyingly sweet aroma of local orchids wafted
through the terminal from open veranda doors. Arching structural timbers
supported the building; they were crafted from a dark local wood, carved
in a meandering, exotic style. The floors were covered with wood parquet
tiles. I remembered having had a similar impression when I passed
through the international airport on Tahiti once. That place had smelled
like the mother of all funeral homes; this one had to be the grandmother.
Customs procedures here were perfunctory, at best. I knew that
Eridani’s biosphere had an effective way of protecting itself from
foreign organisms: it either killed them outright, or quickly rendered
them innocuous. There was little danger of contaminating this planet
with non-indigenous, opportunistic flora or fauna; the natural selection
process here was simply too complex, too unforgiving. The number of
biological niches on Eridani was easily ten times greater than what
existed on Earth, and every one of them was occupied by an organism set
on defending its claim to the death by whatever nasty means it had at
its disposal–tooth or claw, strangling vine, beak or painful stinger.
This made the place particularly interesting to both scientists and
tourists alike–that is, those who could tolerate the myriad
inoculations requisite to obtaining an entry visa. A significant
proportion of the tourist category was comprised of filthy-rich big-game
hunters. It seemed that almost everything on the planet grew big. It had
something to do with the high oxygen content of the atmosphere.
To my mind, that made for a fairer game here. True, I was also a
hunter, so I should have appreciated the challenge. The difference was,
I always tried to bring my prey back alive.
Tourism was a big draw, but certain basic industries were also
being developed. A number of open-pit mines and ore processing
facilities had been established on the planet, and that industrial
sector was rapidly expanding; the lack of any colonial environmental
control regulations made mining and smelting a very profitable
commercial enterprise here. Earth still needed its heavy metals–lots of
them–and this was a place to get them without bearing the burden of
further environmental repercussions. Human civilizations had always been
adept at exporting their seamier problems that way.
“Where are the natives?” I asked the Customs agent while he
transacted my entry visa. “I don’t see any of them in the terminal area.”
The man sniggered as I withdrew my left wrist with its ID embed
from under his scanner. “The donnies? They don’t come here. Pretty much
keep to themselves. An unresponsive lot, generally. Useless as workers.
Not much good for anything. You’ll find that out for yourself, soon enough.”
I had looked forward to seeing the Eridanis firsthand. I knew it’d
be in our best interests to find a native guide to lead us to our
destination. And a few paid porters wouldn’t hurt, either. Laura was in
pretty good physical shape, but I worried about Pete. It was obvious to
me that he didn’t spend much time in the gym–if any at all. We would be
carrying all our provisions with us on our trek, since most of the local
food was poisonous to humans; what wasn’t poisonous hadn’t been
completely sorted out yet by the biologists. The ecology of Eridani was
complex enough that it would take another few decades before that happened.
The customs agent waved me on. While I waited for my colleagues to
pass through, I authorized the release of a few entangled electrons from
my wrist embed. Using a series of finger movements, I kinesthetically
induced their consecutive spin values to code an instantaneous text
message in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen quantum trap back at the temple
of the Church of Psychological Redemption: “Arrival at Eridani
confirmed.” The EPR technology was good for simple text messages, but
way too expensive for broadband signals. Nonetheless, it provided the
ultimate in data security: only the electron pair-mates retained at the
receiving location could reflect the instantaneously resolved spin
values of their distant brothers.
We were ten and a half light-years from Earth, and our journey had
“We have to get some local color in the can today, Bishop.” Laura
lifted a piece of a pink omelet from her breakfast plate and daintily
placed it between her lips.
What sort of egg it had come from, I didn’t care to know–but I’d
already shoveled most of the one on my plate into my own pie-hole. It
tasted close enough to Terran eggs, I thought.
“Local bazaars,” she continued. “Eridani buildings, unique
architecture. Colorful crafts. Natives moving around, talking, relating
to you as a foreign visitor. Elders drinking tea around tables and
pontificating upon pontificatious things. Dancers and musicians blowing
on their flutes, or whatever it is they blow on here. That sort of thing.”
To this point, we’d not seen a single native, ensconced as we were
in the main resort enclave. None of the hotel employees were Eridani,
nor did any natives lurk outside, begging or hawking wares, offering
taxi rides to off-the-beaten-track places, or soliciting trysts with
young virgin daughters. It seemed. . . unnatural. Foreign to my normal
foreign experience–even including the other three colonized worlds I’d
worked on before.
“I so agree,” I said. “Let’s go find ’em. You fully plugged, Pete?”
He tapped his A/V headset, connected to a socket surgically
implanted in the back of his skull. “Does the Pope shit in the woods?”
We finished our breakfast and marched out of the front hotel
entrance, toward the gate that marked the enclave’s perimeter. A hotel
employee decked out thematically in full British colonial regalia, down
to the white pith helmet, saluted and handed each of us a four-color
brochure, a tourist’s map of the town and surrounding area. I knew that
we’d be seeing a lot more of that intentionally wrought Victorian
colonial ambiance during our time on Eridani. The tourists loved it.
“Have a great day in M’bassa,” he said. “Be sure not to miss
visiting the Roman Catholic cathedral in the main square. And don’t
mistreat the donnies, please.”
He said this like we were carrying whips and chains with us. We’d
already assimilated all the available data on Eridani. From my research,
I knew everything mankind knew about this place and its inhabitants. The
natives were obviously sentient, judging from the known, tangible
evidence of their simple civilization. But they seemed indifferent to
our encroachment into their world. They mostly reacted as though we
didn’t exist. There had been no resistance, no response to our
colonization. The Eridanis had simply sidled aside and gone about their
business as if humans had never arrived three decades ago. They’d react
to direct physical contact, but rarely acknowledged any attempts at
communication. It was as if they thought: If we ignore you long enough,
maybe you’ll just go away.
And so I appreciated, all the more, the challenge of Dr. Kline’s
ministry. The Church of the Holy Psychological Redemption figured that a
person had to absolve himself for his sins, before being absolved by
God. Dr. Kline had adopted traditional Jungian psychoanalytical methods
toward this end, but his Church wasn’t hung up about the precise mode of
perfecting the spirit. It considered any psychiatric method that
unlocked the suppressed layers of the mind to be appropriate for its
purposes–anything short of the use of psychotropic drugs or nanoagents.
These, in their book, were anathema–unholy in the extreme.
I wondered why Kline would have chosen this world, these people, to
proselytize his religion. To me, it seemed a fool’s choice; the Eridanis
were too uncommunicative, too enigmatic, too closed to understanding.
And what kind of sins could they possibly harbor? Judging by the
rudimentary artifacts of their culture and their dull natures, they
seemed scarcely more intelligent than socialized sloths. They were
perfectly adapted and attuned to their environment, and obviously stood
at the apex of the evolutionary tree here–but they were sloths
nonetheless. Surely sin is reserved for human beings, I thought–thanks
to that damnable serpent back in the Garden of Eden.
We walked through the resort’s gate, and the smooth asphalt drive
became a dusty dirt road. Dense green vegetation towered on both sides
of us. I noticed blood-red silken webs strung here and there between the
trees, each dominated by a single spider-like creature with a bunch of
long legs and a body bigger than my fist; the pseudoarachnids pulsed
their webs in and out menacingly as we passed by them. Sharp little eyes
they had, I thought.
We continued walking and came upon something that had the proximate
appearance of a very large guinea fowl, pecking at the ground along the
edge of the lane. It looked like a turkey raised on massive doses of
steroids–except for its longer, birefringent tail feathers and
prominent sharp teeth. Pete, who was walking on that side, caught sight
of it, uttered an expletive, and swerved over to the opposite edge of
It was only early morning, and already it was hot.
“I have to tell you something, Laura,” I said while we walked. “I
never would’ve expected you to take on another assignment with me.”
Laura laughed in a way that hinted more at disdain than humor. She
pulled up short, turned and glared at me. “Bangkok happened a long time
ago, Bishop. Thanks not very much for reminding me about that
experience, but since you did, we might as well get it out of the way. I
really didn’t know what I wanted out of life back then. However, I can
thank you for setting me straight on that.”
“It was innocent enough. An exotic assignment, two young people in
the middle of it, a thrilling moment in time. It was never anything
real. Surely you knew that.”
“Real. Of course. None of what we do is real; it’s all for the
show, for the entertainment. I came to grips with that, in the end. It’s
what we are, it’s what we do. Whores to the slavering masses, providing
their media fix. No apologies necessary, Bishop. I’m a true professional
now–and this project can be my ticket to bigger and better things.”
“Glad you see it that way. I’d hate to think of all that messy
background stuff regurgitating itself at the wrong moment.”
Pete was dutifully capturing all this. He could never know whether
or not it was part of the show. Nor was it his job to decide.
We soon came upon mud brick buildings on the outskirts of M’bassa,
and saw our first Eridani in the flesh–leathery as it was. The native
kneeled in the dirt outside the entrance to one of the crude structures,
pounding a blunt wooden mallet onto some kind of plant material that lay
on a stone metate.
The word “kneeled” was a simplification; the multiple joints of the
Eridani’s bipedal legs were way too complicated to describe that
configuration in one word–the subtleties of their intricate bending
surfaces and folding planes would have driven a mathematical topologist
insane. Fully erect and unfolded, the adult female would have stood well
over seven feet tall.
The tough skin of the Eridani had a deep copper hue, highlighted by
lighter verdigris tones at the edges of its many wrinkles and folds.
Perhaps that color change was merely a trick of the light. To me, it
made her look ancient–like a cast metal sculpture that had weathered
for centuries, then had magically come to life for my aesthetic
I knew this one was a female by the twin rows of dugs that depended
from her chest. That, and the tiny infant that was affixed to one of
them, suckling. From the guidebooks we’d studied, we knew that the
donnies rarely wore any clothing other than a simple loincloth; in this
oppressive heat, I could well understand why. The native used two of her
four upper appendages to wield the mallet, and the other pair to
occasionally scoop out the mashed material from the metate, put it into
a terracotta bowl, and pluck fresh plants from a large woven basket that
sat next to her. She didn’t react in any noticeable way to us standing
there, gawking at her and her child.
It would have been hard to know if she had even registered our
presence, since the eyes of the Eridanis were not discretely focusing,
movable organs. Rather, a thick band of fixed tissue containing
light-sensitive cells encircled their cylindrical heads. According to
the exo-anatomy texts I had researched, I knew that the basal cells of
their eye bands aligned themselves in tightly adjacent vertical columns.
That caused the organ to act like diffraction grating, refracting
incoming light and reflecting it back out in every color of the visible
spectrum. We’d all seen videos of this, of course, but it was still
fascinating to watch the ever-changing waves of color roll across the
arc of the Eridani’s eye-hoop, varying according to the angle of the
ambient light and the viewing aspect of the onlooker. Every color of the
rainbow was represented there–as well as other colors and wavelengths
on either side of the visible spectrum.
Pete approached the woman to get a closer shot. “‘Scuse me, mama,”
he said. “Comin’ in on ya, here. Cute little tyke you got there. Hey
kid, you wanna get your fifteen minutes of fame?”
The Eridani continued to pound, unperturbed. Her child continued to
“Very heartwarming,” Laura said. “But world-class material, it is
not. We can use ten seconds of it, tops. This kind of crap is jejune by
now. Let’s push on.”
Pete got too close and brushed one of the woman’s rising and
falling arms. She suddenly went rock solid, frozen in mid-motion.
“Oops,” he said. “My bad.”
“Pete, we need to motor,” I said.
“Okay, Bishop,” he replied. “So long, cutie-pie.” He reached over
to stroke the infant.
The mother issued a tone, a single long, keening note. Pete’s
fingers stopped an inch away from her infant, and he got a puzzled
expression on his face.
“C’mon, Pete, let’s go. Sometime this century.”
He retracted his hand and backed away from the Eridani.
“Odd,” he said.
“Yes, you certainly are,” Laura countered. She strode off toward
“We can certainly outfit you, sir. No problem with that. But as far
as native guides and porters . . . that’s going to be somewhat of a
problem.” Mr. Percy, the safari stationmaster, looked nervously at me,
then over at Laura and Pete. “And so far as I know, all available human
contract laborers are already out in the field, previously committed.”
I pounded the replica antique desk in frustration and stared at my
“Slipshod planning. This is not starting off well at all. Hadn’t
this all been pre-arranged?”
“But of course,” the agent said. “All the supplies and equipment
for your excursion have been dutifully reserved and are sitting now in
the warehouse. But arranging porterage is the customer’s responsibility,
I sighed in resignation. “Never mind. No sense beating you to a
bloody pulp over it.”
I waved to my colleagues and we turned to leave.
“Hold onto the stuff, Percy,” I told the agent. “We’ll figure
We exited the station and stood on the covered wooden porch outside
it, staring at each other.
“Balls,” I said.
“If I had ’em, I’d be king,” Laura replied.
“Maybe we can just go bowling,” Pete suggested.
I chuckled at that, and stared out at the dirt road. A tall Eridani
ambled past, moving with uncanny grace for his size, as if he was
stalking some sort of prey just beyond the reach of my vision. The
donnie stopped, turned to us, and made a subtle hand gesture that I
vaguely remembered from my meeting with the Church directors.
“Might not be a bad idea, Pete,” I said. “Let’s find out what these
critters like to do for diversion. That’ll probably be the best place to
solicit some help.”
We followed the donnie, walking further down the road into the main
part of town, passing the garishly ornate but slowly decomposing Roman
Catholic mission cathedral in the central square. A few human-run gift
shops constructed in a colonial style were interposed with indigenous
structures. The Eridani ahead of us finally paused at a native mud brick
establishment that was larger than any we’d previously seen. Several
other adult Eridanis loitered outside its entrance.
We entered the building, leaving the bright Eridani sun, leaving
our comfortable human world behind.
The relative darkness inside the building plunged me into momentary
perceptual confusion. At first, all I could see were the refracted,
multicolored sparkles from several dozen Eridani eye-hoops, lining
either side of the long axis of the room. They stretched like perfectly
aligned landing lights alongside an airport runway. As my eyes adapted,
I resolved the bodies of the donnies they belonged to, lying prostrate
on individual woven mats facing a central aisle like huge grasshoppers
sitting on leaves. In front of each one was a flat, fibrous board, about
a foot square, with a small clay cup to one side of it and a pile of
pebbles to the other. A juvenile Eridani moved down the long ranks,
topping up the cups from a large pitcher it carried.
At the end of the aisle, at the head of the room, a single Eridani
knelt, facing us. We watched as he reached into a bowl on his right
side, lifted something out of it and held it in front of his eye-hoop,
then issued a noise that sounded to me like something between a cough
and a dog’s bark. From somewhere in the depths of the room, I heard an
“Christ, we’ve stumbled into a fucking Eridani Bingo Parlor,” Laura
Pete’s reactive laughter echoed through the hall. The juvenile
donnie strode to the front of the room, plucked some sort of small
terracotta object from a pile, and carried it over to, presumably, the
winner’s mat. In a distinctly higher tone, it issued a series of noises
as it cleared the board there, pebble by pebble. We heard a general
chittering sound from the crowd assembled in the room.
None of the Eridanis seemed to notice our presence in their gaming
house. I walked forward toward the head of the room and the gaming
master who knelt there.
“Greetings to you, sir,” I said. “Perhaps you can help us. We’re
looking for a guide and some porters. We’ll pay very well.”
There was no reaction from him. The donnie moved the retracted
number tokens back into the bowl to his right side and shook them in
preparation for the next round. I found myself wondering how in the hell
this race of beings could have possibly survived on the planet, as
passive and unresponsive as they were. On Earth, they’d be gobbled up in
no time at all. And here, on Eridani, with its even more aggressive
ecology–it made little sense to me how they were even able to exist,
much less become the most evolved species on the planet.
“We’re searching for a lost human, a man named Dr. Kline.”
The background chittering stopped, and the gaming master froze.
The sudden silence in the room produced a feeling of total
exposure, and I sensed the hairs on the back of my neck rise in
response. I knew that the eye-hoop of an Eridani simply refracted the
available ambient light, but I could have sworn that the master’s hoop
blazed forth with some sort of internal energy.
“Kline,” the donnie uttered.
“Yes. Dr. Kline. We want to find him. Can you help us do that?”
The gamemaster slowly unfolded himself and stood aright. His form
towered over me.
“You are his . . . associates?” he asked in near-perfect English,
his mandibles contorting in complicated shapes to annunciate the words
“Yes! Yes, we’re friends of his. We wish to visit him. But we need
a guide to lead us there. And some help to carry our things.”
The donnie raised both pairs of his arms and held them
outstretched. “Kline recently proclaimed that new humans would come
seeking him, and they would be carrying the weight of their world with
them. He said the Eridani must help them in their quest. It is meet that
we do so.”
He barked out some rough consonants and a half dozen of the Eridani
players rose from their mats and assembled behind us. One of them strode
forward and stood next to me.
“Call me T’aylang,” he said. “I will lead. Those behind me will
help carry your burdens.”
From their command of our language, it became apparent to me that
the Eridanis hadn’t been completely ignoring our intrusion into their
world for the last thirty years. I wasn’t sure if shaking hands was the
proper protocol, but I held my hand out anyway. The donnie looked down
at it for a long moment, then took it in one of his leathery,
four-fingered appendages and gave it a light wag.
“T’aylang. Right. I’m Bishop. To the stationhouse, then.” I smiled
back at Pete and Laura. “That went pretty well, don’t you think?”
We all turned to leave the gaming house.
“Heck,” Pete said. “I wanted to stick around at least long enough
to play a card or two.”
Laura rolled her eyes and shook her head as she trudged along the
aisle to the front door.
The stationmaster’s eyeballs threatened to exit his skull when the
line of donnies marched into his office.
“Mr. Bishop!” he sputtered. “I . . . I’m at a loss for words, sir.
Totally unprecedented, this.”
I smiled, probably a bit too smugly. “Show ’em to our supplies in
the back, Percy. Time is money. Chop, chop, man.”
The portly man waddled into the rear warehouse, followed by the
five Eridani porters. T’aylang stayed with us in the front office. He
leaned his head back slightly and appeared to study the ceiling fan that
rotated slowly overhead.
“Human tech seems a bit mystifying to you, eh, Big Fella?” I said.
The donnie’s mandibles moved without sound. Finally, he lowered his
head and said, “The device seems . . . in some way poignant to me.
Churning time, to no end purpose. Most of your machines seem to do the
I laughed. “We make do. We humans did manage to find enough purpose
to travel here, after all.”
“Your purposes matter little to us,” T’aylang said. “They are not
well-aligned to the primary axis of life. Dr. Kline recognized this.”
T’aylang folded his arms tightly over his chest in a series of
complex geometrical transformations, the multiple joints blending
sequentially and inexorably into a least-energy configuration. Their
final state represented, in unmistakable graphical terms, the end of his
side of the conversation.
Dense morning fog shrouded the river, and the droning chug of the
boat’s ancient diesel engine made it hard for us to stay awake. Our six
donnies sat quietly on benches lining the canvas-sheltered foredeck.
Occasionally, one or the other of them leaned over the railing and
disgorged a vile-looking, ropy liquid into the water, followed by an
interminable round of mandible grooming.
Their normally deep copper tones had paled significantly since
getting onboard the craft. I felt sorry for them. When or if we ever
figured out what tangible things the Eridani valued, I’d make sure to
pay them well for their discomfort.
I rose and went into the enclosed pilothouse.
“Things seem pretty calm on this part of the river, Cap,” I said.
“Does it stay this wide and smooth all the way to S’uval?”
The ship’s owner and pilot, a grizzled man named Moynahan, grunted
and shifted his chew to the other side of his jaw. “Smooth enough,
although it gets tight aways ahead. We’ll have to watch close for
sandbars. And, of course, the pseudohippos.”
“Those critters dangerous?”
The Captain turned his head and spat towards a bucket in the
corner, missing it wide right. The wiry, gray beard surrounding his
mouth was stained an unappetizing shade of yellowish brown. “Everything’s dangerous out here, Mr. Bishop. But I keep sufficient firepower on hand, if it comes to that.” He jerked his head backwards, toward a gun rack on the wall behind him. Two rifles hung there, one a carbine and the other a more robust automatic assault weapon. Both were military issue–but neither was of recent vintage.
“We do appreciate the charter, you know. I’m glad you were available.”
“Well, I have to tell ya: I didn’t feature carryin’ them locusts
along with. Bad for business–and except for the premium, I’d not have
agreed to it.” The old man looked at me with narrowed eyes. “Just keep
your eye on ’em so long as they’re on my boat, ya hear? Just keep ’em
outa my way.” He reached into a pocket, pulled out a worn tin flask,
uncapped it and took a long swig from it.
I nodded to Moynahan and went back out on deck.
“Everyone peachy?” I asked.
Pete slapped his neck. “Son of a–this damned bug repellent stuff
isn’t doing squat.” His face and neck were considerably lumpier than
they’d been the day before.
“They like you, Pete,” Laura said. “Maybe it’s got something to do
with your rotten breath. They don’t seem to be bothering our help over
there.” She nodded at the donnies.
“Skin’s probably too tough for the bugs to get through it,” I said.
“Hey, this is really not any worse than summertime in the Yukon. That
wasn’t a pleasant assignment. You should have been there, Pete. It would
have put things into perspective.”
“How about you perspect this, Bishop.” Pete shot me a rude gesture
and reached into his bag for more repellent gunk.
Morning turned into afternoon, and we all dozed fitfully. I was
roused by the sound of the boat’s engine revving, simultaneous with the
loud clank of transmission gears below deck. I lifted my head and saw a
group of huge animals bobbing in the water dead ahead of our bow.
Except for their considerably larger size, scaly hides and multiple
rows of teeth, they might well have passed for Earth hippopotamuses.
They blocked our passage around a sandbar that extruded from the shore
on our port side. The donnies chittered and swiveled their frames toward
the front of the boat. Their reaction made me think that the
light-sensitive cells located on the front side of their eye-hoops were
more discriminating than those on the other radial sections.
Moynahan, carrying the carbine, exited the pilothouse and strode
forward to the bow. He aimed the weapon down at the nearest pseudohippo.
A donnie next to him raised one of his upper appendages and knocked the
muzzle of the gun upwards just as Moynahan pulled the trigger, sending
the round into the air.
“Bastard!” the boatman said. He rammed the stock of the carbine
hard into the side of the donnie’s head.
I lurched forward to Moynahan and grabbed his shoulder. “Hold on,
Cap. Take it easy. Let’s have a minute to sort things out.”
“Only thing to sort out is yer lousy locust trash, Bishop,” he
snapped. “I told ya to keep ’em away from me.”
The injured donnie lay prostrate on the deck, several of his mates
ministering to him. A thick greenish fluid oozed from the wound on the
side of his head. It appeared that Moynahan had caught him squarely in
the eye-hoop with the butt end of the stock.
T’aylang suddenly appeared at my side. “It will not be necessary to
destroy these animals to obtain passage through this section, Captain.
Please permit us to deal with them. You may return to your cabin to
prepare the vessel to move forward again.”
Moynahan spat over the side of the railing. “And what’re you gonna
do, plughead? Ask ’em pretty please-like to move aside?” He snorted and
glared down at the wounded Eridani.
“Precisely.” T’aylang moved to the bow and began to chant, a sound
that reminded me slightly of the polyphonous singing I had once heard
Buddhist monks do in Tibet. Except that there seemed to be more than two
voices sounding; each note of the song sounded like a fuller chord, rich
in overtones. I watched T’aylang’s mandibles quiver as he effected the
audial progression of the strange canticle.
In front of us, the pseudohippos reacted, parted and cleared a path
for the boat.
“Well, I’ll be dipped in shit,” Moynahan said, lowering his
carbine. He made for the pilothouse, got the boat back into gear and
moved it slowly ahead, through the gap the herd of beasts had made for us.
Behind me, I heard Laura’s breathy voice ask Pete, “Did you get all
“Is a bear Catholic?” Pete replied.
I turned to T’aylang. “Will he be okay?” I asked, nodding toward
the stricken donnie.
“His physical agony will soon pass, and the wound will heal. A
portion of his sight may be lost. But the memory of the Captain’s
harmful intention will remain ever painful to him.” T’aylang swiveled
his huge form to face me. “We Eridani cannot always react quickly enough
to protect ourselves from aggression when it comes without forethought,
as Moynahan’s did. It is a thing about you humans that we . . . cannot
“T’aylang, I won’t try to make a global apology for the behavior of
my species. It’s what we are. But in future: Let me be the one to
intercede with any humans. Do you understand? Make sure your people know
The Eridani nodded–or, I convinced myself, made a gesture near
enough to that. I sat back down on the bench, trying to parse the
meaning behind the donnie’s words.
A week passed before we reached S’uval, a small port perched at the
farthest navigable point on the river. The unexplored territory
stretched on for several hundred kilometers to the north of us, beyond
the river’s fall line. The rest of our journey would be by land.
Beyond a stationhouse, a modest lodge, and a scattering of mud
brick structures, there was little else to describe the place. We tied
up to a rickety wooden pier, and one of the Eridani porters scrambled up
to the roof of the pilothouse where our baggage had been tied. He began
to pass the parcels down to his donnie colleagues, who formed a
well-ordered brigade to receive them and shuttle them onto the dock.
“I’ll make the run again six weeks from today, Bishop,” the boatman
said. “Be ready. I won’t wait for you.”
“We’ll be here, Moynahan,” I said. “And hopefully, we’ll have an
extra passenger to carry back to M’bassa with us.”
I waved to him perfunctorily and stepped out onto the pier, hearing
the boat’s noisy engine start up behind me. We gathered up our supplies
and headed in a line toward the stationhouse at the end of the pier to
check in with the S’uval agent there. Young Eridanis had gathered by the
edge of the river to watch us; it seemed obvious that the arrival of
visitors was a rare event here. No adults had joined them, I noticed.
The agent greeted us at the door to the stationhouse.
“Welcome, Mr. Bishop! Miss Denning, Mr. Horvack, good day to you
all. We’ve been expecting you since the EPR message from M’bassa station
came through. My name is Percy. Come in, come in! Uh . . . donnies will
stay outside, please.”
I looked back to T’aylang, and then nodded at the covered porch
outside the station. He nodded back.
“I thought your features looked familiar, Mr. Percy,” I said,
entering the large front room of the stationhouse. “Related to the Percy
back in M’bassa, I gather?”
“Yes,” the man said. “Younger brother, am I. Edgar Percy.
Mortimer’s got the M’bassa posting. We had a rather large family, and
all of us ended up in civil service. Curious thing, is it not? Have a
seat here.” He laughed heartily and went to a cupboard behind his desk,
retrieved some dusty glasses from it, and carried them over to a table
near the front door.
“Iced tea, or something stronger, perhaps?” he asked. “I have some
fairly wicked distilled spirits, a local product. You might like it.
Tastes a bit like absinthe . . . although, with not as many green
fairies in it.” He roared at his own joke.
Pete held up his hand. “I’ll take a fairy or two.”
Laura said, “My rule is to never to drink the water in places like
this. Make mine the same.”
“Three’s a charm, Percy,” I said.
The agent grinned and pulled a half-full bottle of green liquor out
of the bottom drawer of his desk, sat down at the table, and poured a
few fingers into each of our glasses. He included his own in the bargain.
“You must know where we’re headed, Mr. Percy. North, to try to
locate Dr. Manfred Kline. Do you know of him?”
The agent, himself almost as portly as his older brother back in
M’bassa, leaned back in his chair and stroked his muttonchop whiskers.
“Oh, yes. Kline came through here three years ago, alone. No one travels
in this territory alone, and I tried to talk him out of heading into the
unexplored region. But he was committed; one o’ them missionary types.
I’ve seen ’em before. To be more precise, I’ve mostly seen ’em going
out–not coming back. And the few who do come back . . . well, I doubt
they stay on the planet. Not judging from the terrified look in their
eyes when they stumble back out of the jungle.”
“Did you have any further contact with him?” I asked.
“Not directly. But an Eridani native came in about a year ago,
asking for some particular articles on behalf of Dr. Kline. Very
unusual, that, for a donnie to communicate directly to a human. The
donnie paid in cold cash, and I ordered the goods from M’bassa. Isn’t
“What did Kline order?”
“Well, that was the strange part. Not survival stuff. Books. Quite
a number of them. Books on biology, virology, genetics, zoology. Nothing
on psychology, though. He was a psychologist, right?”
“A psychologist, and a psychiatrist,” I answered.
“Right. But here’s the thing: He didn’t want downloaded versions on
a databulb. He wanted old-fashioned, printed-out paper books. But if the
power sources for his EPR terminal had failed, or if his stock of
entanglements had run dry, why didn’t he just order more of those? It
didn’t make any sense. He could’ve had the book files sent by EPR link
from his sponsors, directly to him in the field.”
“His Church hasn’t heard from him in almost a year. We have the
rough coordinates of his last known position. Hard to say what’s going
on with him out there. We mean to find out, though.”
“I expect you’re getting paid pretty well for this, Mr. Bishop.” He
looked over at Laura and Pete, and he seemed to study Pete’s A/V headset
I nodded my head.
“Hope you can live long enough to spend it, sir.” Percy raised his
glass to me, drained it, and poured himself another. “Mrs. Percy up at
the lodge will have your rooms ready. I hope you enjoy your short stay.
And I hope I see you again, Mr. Bishop. I sincerely do.”
We checked into the lodge, and Edgar Percy’s wife, Martha, fussed
over us as if we had been long-lost relatives. Two smaller Percys,
likely more civil servants in the making, helped carry our personal bags
to our rooms. T’aylang and the other Eridanis secured lodging in the
neighboring village; it had been made clear to us that donnies were not
welcome inside the human lodge. I doubted that they would have wanted to
join us there, anyway.
Dinner was a treat after days of eating pouched field meals onboard
the boat: fresh trout analog that, we were proudly informed, had been
harvested that morning in the aquafarm pools above the rapids. It was
served alongside a small cut of tender, grilled meat that, while
somewhat gamy, tasted a little like beef. A large communal dish of
purplish plantlike material supported the meal in an obtrusive fashion;
it reminded me of broccoli. We all took some, but mostly toyed with it
on our plates. Dessert consisted of a whipped custard dish, sweet and
A touch more of the absinthe-like liquor after dinner made
everything settle nicely. We pushed our sluggish bodies away from the
table, thanked Mrs. Percy effusively for the chance to gorge ourselves
one last time, and waddled off to a small lounge, where one of the Percy
boys plucked spiritedly at a banjo for our entertainment.
Later, after transmitting a status message to the Church, I lay
back in my featherbed and slept, full of vivid dreams.
Gary Cuba’s stories have appeared in Jim Baen’s Universe, Flash Fiction Online, Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways and more than two dozen other speculative fiction publications. He lives in South Carolina with his wife and way too many cats and dogs.