My Father’s Withered Hands

The strings of my father’s oud were broken. Unchanged for five cycles, the gutted strings snapped in the humidity like the arthritic sinews in his hands. Soon, mine was the only music left.

I sat by my father’s sandaled feet, the heavy bowl of my instrument resting between my legs. My left ring finger cramped as the final note resonated and hummed a gentle vibrato with the hot wind.

Children and their watchful parents lined the tent, listening with feigned indifference. My note rang. Surrounding brush and the heavy fibers of their tattered robes absorbed its final sigh.

When the venom took father’s hands, it damned him and rendered him feeble, unable to perform. There was no cure, the Crones said. Its cause was unknown. I refused to play without him until ghastly visions of my mother guided my unwilling hand.

A child sneezed like thunder claps and broke the lingering silence. My father tapped his foot, and the onlookers retreated. His yellow toes wiggled in the dirt that filled his shoe.

“Why that song, daughter?” He asked.

“Because you said it was her favorite.”

“It was.” Memories of her struck him. Deep wells around his black eyes filled. Tiny droplets ran down the dry canyons of his scarred cheeks, concealed themselves in the ruts of his face, and vanished. “And do you know who wrote it?”

“You did, Baba.”

“Yes.” He wiped his face on his sleeve and straightened his back. He wrote it for her during her final weeks. This was before the Crones’ assurances that her health would outlast his wandering the wasted lands for a remedy. In her moments of lucidity, she would happily hum the melody through her cracked lips. When he returned from the wastes, she was gone, and his limbs were ruined.

He stopped playing after that.

“So tell me what you did wrong,” he said.

“I’m slow. And the notes move too fast for me,” I said.

“This is all true, yes. But you’re forgetting something. It’s the most important part,” he hinted.

“My oud was out of tune?”

He shook his head. The white cloth around his neck unraveled. “Feeling. You must feel the notes. This only comes through possessing a true understanding of your subject.” He gestured for my oud. “Here, I will show you.”

I obliged, supporting the oud with both hands as I gave it to him, ashamed of my apprehension that his hands, which children mocked, would not be able to hold the instrument as they once could. But father clutched it in spite of the indelicate claws that had consumed him. There was pride in his eyes and poison in his limbs. He settled into a familiar position and smiled.

A smile like rain to end ancient droughts.

He watched the strings vibrate in anticipation. He brushed them with his knuckle to relieve them of their burden.

Father searched for notes with his fretting hand. His plagued fingers, which spent the recent months making crescents in his palms, refused to obey. Shadows of rage touched his face as he looked twice at his ailing hands. The strings whinnied under his touch, then brayed like horses. I strained to hear past fumbled notes, to focus on his intentions and the meaning behind his clumsy movements. But the sweat on his brow was distracting.

Donor Rules

The ripeness of female expectation swelled through the subterranean Great Hall. Jostling waves fanned out through the assembled women, two hundred or more, and deepened as Mayor Noa, a tall woman with waist-length steel-coloured hair, stepped onto the creaking wooden stage at the front. Extra-ordinary meetings like this one meant only one of two things, and everyone had seen the wooden ballot box already present on stage.

“Settle, please,” said the mayor.

The cavernous, earth-muffled space emptied of sound as if a giant wave had swamped the hall and back-swelled, dragging the noise away with its monstrous suction. The two groups of women, those who were eligible for the ballot and those who were not, were conspicuous by their stance: the first could have been magnetised by the forward pull on their bodies; the second, far larger group, stood keen, erect and interested but apart. Shades of grey and white formed the colour palate of the second.

But for any observer who had witnessed the ballot before – and there had already been several since Harvest – there was an extra frisson to the air above the crowded women: a rumour had tumbled from mouth to mouth and there was a shudder of something unusual this time.

“If I can have your attention.” Every eye was already trained on her striking figure. “We are pleased to announce the arrival of the fifth donor we have welcomed this year. All of you who are eligible have now been date-checked and those within the window have been entered into the ballot. You have until sunset tomorrow night to have your names removed should you wish to withdraw for whatever reason, without prejudice. We will reconvene tomorrow evening at sunset for the draw. Thank you.”

The tall woman left the stage to a pattering of applause and the swelling buzz of the rumour circulating the hall, refusing to be squashed.

Like the Grains of Sand

I sit quietly on my log beside the fire as Rena gathers the ingredients for our breakfast. Normally I’m the one to do this–crack and roast the snails, wash the sea greens, brew the coffee. Normally, she can’t be bothered. Not unless it’s sewing she’s asked to do, and even then she shuts herself into her room and takes twice the time she should. But today, Rena insisted it was her turn to prepare the food.

“Sit down and relax, Gram,” she said. “Let me do it for once.”

Took me by surprise, that did. Even though Rena never knew her mam, she’d been like her since birth. Taunting the lighthouse ghosts with the boys who ain’t learned fishing yet, sleeping in the woods just to prove she didn’t need the sea, disappearing for days at a time. But looking into her black eyes, her mam’s eyes, I still see heart.

Not that Rena’d ever admit it. She’s also got her mam’s way of not wanting to seem weak, of not wanting to care about anything at all.

As Rena rinses the sea greens in a bowl of fresh water, I push my toes into the warm sand and start the telling.

No Other God Before Me

Darkness does not come gently to Chongjin. It doesn’t creep over the purpling hills and into the cracks, like back in Mexico City. It’s not Novosibirsk, where night falls like a cheap blanket, and you end up shivering even in the jaws of summer. There is no golden hour here, no photogenic streamers of twilight curling up through the flaking tenements, no calls of mothers to their children to find their way home. None of that, no. Over here, night is a sudden lead pipe to the back of the head. Breathe in while I’m turning a corner in one of the container crate shanty- towns ringing the city, still squinting into the desiccating crush of grimed daylight. Breathe out and everything goes black, a basement door slammed shut and nailed into place, right when I’d just managed to pick up the scent again. I try to relax, to give my senses some space to adjust, hoping the scattered doorframes of coal fires would be enough to illuminate the squeezing alleys with an ashen glow. But when my eyes keep drifting towards the poorly synched LED boards flickering to life, diffusing the maze of sheet metal and plywood into a limbo of dimly reflected Korean celebrities, I know it’s time to let the bike go before I smash myself into a wall. That’d be some future archaeologists wet dream, wouldn’t it? What’s this here stuffed between the rat skeletons, the packing peanuts and the inch-thick layer of feces? An Irishman having relations with a rental scooter? Surely there’s a prize for that.

I should have a plan to hide the bike away for later, but realistically, what were the chances it or I would be here again? So I hand the keys to an anonymous pair of outstretched hands and bowl the helmet down a septic drain. Without the wind and the visor I can really suck in a good bit of the world. The world immediately obliges back, crawling down my throat and up my nose before nesting in my paranasal attic. I take a few half-steps one way, then backwards again, spin half a clock. Calm down, try again. At least it’s not Nampo, no rusting helicopters constantly tumbling overhead, no roving bands of masked gunmen picking through the abandoned resorts for underprepared chaos-touristas. It’s actually still long enough for me to sort out the distinctive chemical trail from the sifting clouds of cooking oil, rotting garbage, drifts of methane. I lean west, there, closer, I can just about tongue the slot, when a trio of kids on ATVs scream past, each one carting a trailer piled high with corroded car batteries. The acid snaps at my membranes and immediately wipes the trail away. Well then. Fuck. Time to resign myself to an old fashioned hunt-and-peck.

Head down, micro-fiber scarf wrapped around my face, I barrel into the human smog of the open market. I get some strange looks, some defensive tugging at waistbands for a weapon, a phone, who cares. I’m not worried. Sometimes I believe I’m protected by the lingering halo of several decades of oppressive propriety, a shepherd still faintly recognized by the sheep. Or maybe I’m just another pale white asshole in a long line going back to the first sails that pricked their horizon. Either way, no one has the energy to bother with a foreigner sniffing around their blackened chickens and cisterns of baby formula.

It’s in the third row of makeshift tents, among a jungle of antiquated three-prong power cords, that I get another taste of it. I tug at my scarf. Barely there, just a few dozen molecules. Difficult to describe. Something like a pop of color, or a memory trapped in the back of your mouth. Just a hint, but more than enough to start pushing me back towards what I am. If you ask my employers, they’ll insist on labeling me a warrior, a samurai, their blessed servant of honor and virtue. Watch their faces and you’ll know it’s bullshit even as they say it, because what I really am is their dog, a bloodhound or a beagle, something low to the ground. That’s what they pay me to be, in cash and in life. Besides, from the scraps of history I’ve read on the subject, real samurai weren’t really known for their shoving through crowds and inconspicuously smelling the backs of stranger’s necks. And I’ve yet to find a museum with a woodcut of a samurai passed out in a filthy hotel room, bruised prostitutes weeping at his feet.

Soon I’ve caught another scent ribbon, purer this time, a solid synesthetic burst of lemon yellow. I ducked under the rubber tarp and there she is, a shriveled old woman peeking out from behind a stack of Batman t-shirts. Gentle cataracts, skin like onion paper. In the right light, she could have been one of my parishioners, back two lifetimes ago. Except … she stinks of it, packed into every wrinkle on her ancient face, balled up in her tear ducts, matted into her tightly knit hair. My anus clenches at the smell.

I stand in her cramped stall, filling what little space she had with my presence, my palms open between us as if to receive the rain. I withdraw the crucifix from the folds of my jacket and ask her one simple question, one of the few Korean phrases I’ve bothered to memorize, other than How Much and Like That and Get The Fuck Out Of My Face. But this one I know the best. I can say it in over a hundred different languages and dialects. It’s critical that I get it right every time, because this is how the Procedure starts.

“Do you believe?”

Back at the seminary, people always asked why the phrasing is so important. Why those exact words? The monk patiently explains the simulations, the models, the millions of A-B tests run against every personality type. He tells us, even if it seems too obvious, we know this is the right question, that it will open the door to grace almost every time. Then some cocky smart-ass, usually an American, invariably a Texan, inevitably raises his hands and says what about the times it don’t?

The monk sagely taps the Procedure and drags his finger to the bottom of the scroll.

Then, my child, you have permission to skip to the end.

The old woman doesn’t budge and I started to wonder if this was going to be one of those rare skips, but then her eyes suddenly widen as if I had just appeared out of thin air. A creaky grin sprouts from the wrinkles on her chin and she nods and the blue veins on her neck throb with life. I dangled the crucifix again in front of her face. No reaction. I make sure no one else can see us and with a magician flip of the wrist replace the crucifix with a porcelain cameo of Kim-Il Sung. She blinks at it, her thoughts stuttering again, then with a little sigh she shakes her head and disappears under the counter. My muscles instinctively tense, but all she dredges out is an ancient, dinged-up laptop. The hard drive lights flutter and photos start fading in and out of each other, tinted in false sepia. I don’t have to understand her words to know what she’s saying. This is my grandmother. This is our family farm. This is great-uncle whoever. This little girl, this is me, and I realize that she can’t be any more than thirty years old. This country ages its people with a rare furiousness. When I first crossed the abandoned border into the former DPRK, it was like walking into the pages of a dim fairy tale, and everyone I met was a ghost or a gnome.

She rubs her hands together and repeats the same invocation over and over again. Her fingers brush gently against a ceremonial bottle of wine and a bowl of steaming white rice. Ancestor worship. Not uncommon around these longitudes, just another variety of the sectarian froth that bubbled over the peninsula after the bloody pop of their totalitarian cork. Not that the particular flavor of faith makes a difference, not to me, certainly not to the Procedure. The only thing that matters is that it is unearned.

I break out my most benevolent smile and wave my hand in a circle, shrug my shoulders, point to her laptop. I show her my crucifix again, still warm. I pat my heart and in my best, mealy-mouthed translation, wonder aloud: Where Can I Get Some? She rewards me with a silly look, as if I was asking for directions to Neptune, and I’m already mentally preparing for another week in this shithole, sleeping in the corner of an abandoned shipping crate. Then she raises her finger and points over my head, out of the market, to the crystalline glow of the illuminated cranes clustered along the port. I raise my eyebrows, More Details Please? She taps the wine bottle, looks eastward again. I quickly duck under the tarp and make a tentative sniff towards the scab of supply warehouses and truck depots between us and the water. Nothing. Wait. On a feather of sea-wind, the hint of a memory. A glass of gin with a twist of lemon.

I thank her and bow deeply. She bows back, smiling, nearly giddy to have helped a fellow believer. The lines on her face melt away and I catch an idea of the girl she could have been. We appraise each other quietly. I’m counting the seconds in my head. The Procedure notes that the next step can be taken up to a minute later. I always wait that entire minute. I never start early.

Forty seconds. More ATVs roar by, accompanied by the jeers of youthful exuberance.

Fifty-two seconds. The woman gazes at the images on her laptop. I hear the rattle of her phlegm-drowning lungs. I smell the flush of sweat down her back. Love fills her body.

Sixty seconds.

The hilt is out of my pocket and in my hand. In a microsecond, a needle pricks my thumb, scans my blood, and the Word scalds the air between us in milky light. She raises a single finger, as if to shush me. Then her finger is gone, her arm is gone, her guts spill out onto the ground and then those are gone as well. I step into the space where she just was and cross myself, an old habit, before smashing her laptop under my boot. The digital spirits of her family tree flicker away in a crackle of plastic and silicon.

At two-hundred seconds, when the explosives go off, I’m already making my way towards the blue-haloed lights of the port, trying to ignore the sudden caress of thermabaric heat, carrying maroon notes of smoldering rubber, charred meat. Ashes to ashes, yes, I know.

Citali’s Song

Eleuia examined the tracks that led into the cloud forest and gripped her father’s macuahuitl. Sharp obsidian blades glinted in the morning light, and the heavy wooden handle was comforting in her hand.

She could use all the comfort she could find. None of the warriors who’d seen the beast that took Citali would venture after it. Most were curled under piles of blankets, crying. A few stared blankly and giggled at nothing, and one had fallen into a stupor. Any rescue was up to Eleuia.

“You can’t go,” Eleuia’s mother said. She clutched at Eleuia’s shoulders. “You’ll die, then who’ll be left to take care of me?”

The weapon’s weight kept Eleuia’s hand from shaking, and she was grateful for that, too.

“Someone has to go.”

“If you come back, you’ll be mad or broken, and no man will ever want you.”

Eleuia shrugged her hands away and strode into the cloud forest. She’d been looking for ways to avoid marriage for years.

The creature’s tracks were unlike any Eleuia had seen before. Each footprint had four thick toes, but they protruded at angles that made her head ache when she looked at them directly. The creature had also left behind a strange, rotting-cacao smell that made Eleuia dizzy.

Eleuia thought of Citali’s smile, of her deep brown eyes, of the warmth of her fingers. Of their friendship, and the deeper feelings that they never spoke of. Citali was the only person who could make Eleuia smile. She gritted her teeth and followed the tracks into the jungle.

Gateway to Knara

When the portal dumped us in a trash-filled alleyway, I knew this world was worse than the last.

I collapsed against the closest wall, stomach retching from more than the stench of rotting meat. The violent passage through the contraband portal had racked every cell of my body. With a few slow breaths, I managed to calm my nerves and settle what little food sat in my stomach.

Darkness shrouded the alleyway. I ran a hand through my hair, pushing short brown locks from my eyes, and looked up to survey the night sky above. I’d hoped the constellations would disclose where the portal had discarded us, but only a pair of moons peeked between the rooftops of the alley, offering little hint of our location. Though the nausea still washed over me in cool, prickling waves, I pushed myself off the wall and obeyed the voice within.

Keep moving.

The words repeated in my mind on an endless loop, like a mantra. A mission statement.

I forced myself onward and stumbled through the shadows, plastic wrappers crunching under step. The Armed Guard was still searching for Adrianna. They wouldn’t stop until I got her somewhere safe.

I found her on the alley floor, hair swept across her face. I knelt beside her and brushed aside her strands of flaxen waves to reveal closed eyes and parted lips. My breath caught as I stared down at her lifeless expression, and I felt for a pulse until one twitched against my fingertips. Relief flooded my body as I realized the jump had only knocked her out, though the satisfaction was short-lived. Peering down at her, she looked so tiny next to my large frame, but more than just her size had carved my perception of her frailty. Together with her pallid skin and hollow cheeks, it triggered the question that ravaged my mind after every portal we crossed.

How many more could she survive?

As I lifted her from the ground, wondering how I’d drag her unconscious through the streets without notice, her eyes fluttered open and met mine. She smiled. Through the darkness and stench of the alleyway, Adrianna found a way to smile. She always did. Despite the softening sensation in my heart, I didn’t return the expression.

“We can’t rest here. Can you walk?”

She nodded.

The hood of her cloak lay flaccid around her shoulders. I pulled it up, tucking the chin-length waves of her hair inside. Once the shadows of the hood masked her face, I took Adrianna under my arm and led her through the city’s maze of backstreets and alleyways.

Let’s Go Find Karl

Melinda Koi flexed her right hand, enjoying the new freedom the tune-up gave. The thumb still felt a little gummy, but it was better than it had been in months. Someday, she thought, she was going to get the whole prosthesis replaced. Mercedes were making some nice parts these days, but that would take a lottery win.

It made her think of Karl. She had to remind herself that it was okay to be not in love with him because he wasn’t really Karl anymore anyway. Her hand was a constant reminder.

“Earth to Mel,” Damon said.

“Sorry,” she said. She came away from the apartment’s balcony. Beyond, out over the bay, a gull called, looking for somewhere to settle for the night.

Inside Damon lay stretched out on the lie-low, staring up at her curve.

It hung over him, bowed and floating like a jellyfish.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Like I was trying to tell you. Messages from Karl. He wants us to bring out his lobotomy fragment.”

Melinda flexed her hand again. “Bring it where?” She glanced over at the icebox, glad that she’d been able to give the disgusting thing back to Damon. She had a tiny inkling that Damon had only shifted apartments so that he didn’t have to have it around. It had seemed like a favor, but four weeks with a piece of Karl’s brain in her refrigerator was a month too long.

“He says the DeCataur brothers want their money.”

Melinda sat on the velour squab next to the lie-low. Pulling up the side of the curve, she looked in at the display. Her thumb twitched.
The curve twisted a little, the display daughtering across and reformatting to her view. It showed her a news ticker. The DeCataur company facing more litigation and class-actions over the state of the Delaware Bay.

“Here.” Damon sat up. The curve flowed away, settling on the vertical, looking less like a sea creature and more like a television. The weather appeared as if it was going to rain once more. Damon spread his hands and the news ticker and weather faded into thin, faint strips around the edge with the ads for Coke and Hyundai. His mailbox filled the main part of the display. “Here,” he said, pointing at one of the messages.

Fourteen million. Can you get that through today?

“Fourteen!” Melinda said.

“Keep reading. It’s not that bad.”

The Furred Devil’s Apology

These chains are not necessary, sir. I admit, the opera house is in tatters. My claws never were a meet companion for chenille and gobelin tapestry. There are rows of cushioned seats that will want replacing. Yet no one was injured.

And I am myself again.

Much better. You are more than gracious. Ah, and tea served. One remarks the gentleman in you, Detective. Let us proceed to detail, that I might repay your kindness.

I will not soften off the matter. You will have perceived my antiquity. The bears with which you mingle in this vast city of ours are not so furred as I and their frame much diminished. Why that fit that came upon me? – it was the battle scene. The jabbing and parrying of those smooth-faced actors, so very choreographed, that bland depiction of slaughter. A groan, the actor sinks to his knees and the rapier through the middle is redrawn and flourished, clean and brilliant. War is not so, sir – I have seen – Forgive me.

I am perhaps the last living witness to that war between bears and humans now called the Only War, and be you willing I will tell you of it. Mayhap in the history you will find a morsel of our entwined past not known to you before and that will move you to forgive my rampage.

River God

The river-god turned over in his sleep. He’d worked hard for countless millions of years, guiding his river down to the sea, and he needed rest. Voices came and went, but this was more insistent and beat on the gates of his slumber.

“Awake, O great god.” The voice slipped into a dream that wasn’t quite a dream. “Your people call on you in their need.”

His bed was less comfortable than usual: hard, jagged stones, instead of gentle water to rock him. The dream from within slowly merged with the world outside, and the voice was saying, “You shall have whatever offering you wish, great god. We beg you to awake.”

The river-god sat up, rubbing his eyes, and looked about. So that was why his bed felt so uncomfortable. The course down which his water should pour was empty, exposing its stony bottom.

How could this be? His waters never dried up–he prided himself on it–and he didn’t believe for a moment the forces of nature were responsible. Who had done this to him?

A mortal stood on the bank, her arms raised. As far as he could make out, she was what mortals called old. There were lines all over her creased face, and wispy grey hair blew in the fresh breeze. She felt too wholesome to be the culprit, with the river’s rhythms suffusing her soul, but who could tell with mortals?

“Who are you?” he demanded.

The woman staggered back a few steps; she looked terrified, but her eyes remained fixed on him. “Lord, I’m Durka, your priestess. For forty years, I’ve led the rituals that honour you, and I’ve blessed the offerings that the tribe cast into the water.”

Offerings? So that was it. The mortals who lived near this part of the river had a habit of throwing objects into the water from time to time. He cared nothing for the things themselves, only for the reverence that clothed them. It had never occurred to him that the mortals were giving him gifts.

“Last winter,” said Durka, “the tribe cast twenty-seven hunting spears into your waters as a special offering. We couldn’t afford to lose them, but your waters had been falling. Are you angry with us?”

Why should he be angry with mortals who honoured the river? It was a strange idea, but he didn’t want this priestess–whatever that was–to be upset. Her aura showed her love for the river, even more than the rest of the tribe.

“I wasn’t angry, little mortal. I was asleep. Where has the river gone?”

Her face grew more distressed. “We sent scouts to find out. Another tribe, two days’ journey upstream, have built a great dam across it. They harvest the waters and allow none to come down the river-course. Our land withers, and all the beasts of the forest are dying of thirst. And so are the tribe. We beg for your help, great god.”

His fury swelled as she spoke. Who were these people who had dared to steal his river? When she finished, he let out a great roar. The priestess screamed and staggered back, falling over.

Immediately, the river-god was sorry. This mortal, Durka, wasn’t to blame–indeed, she had done him a service by wakening him. Reaching out, he picked her up in one hand, setting her on her feet, and stroked her hair with a fingertip.

“Don’t be afraid. Only the thieves need to fear me. I shall search for the river.”

He closed his eyes, sending his thoughts upstream until he found the captive waters, penned against a vast wall. He examined the barrier, afraid it might be part of the earth and would need thousands of years to wear down, but it was a feeble thing of sand, mud and gravel bound together with water that was now gone.

Very well: if water had made it, water could unmake it. The river-god reached out to the imprisoned, urging it to attack the weaknesses he’d found, but it didn’t seem to hear.

Returning his mind to the place where he’d slept, the river-god looked around and understood. “The river’s imprisoned,” he told Durka, frustration seething like rapids, “but I can’t reach it with no water in between. The connection is broken.”

She frowned, fear and concern on her face. “What would you do,” she asked after a moment, “if you could reach?”

“I’d tell it where to attack the dam. But it can’t hear me. Someone will need to take a message, but I shall have to fill them with my power, so that they can speak to the water. That would be deadly for a mortal.”

“I’ll do it,” said Durka. “I’ve had a good life, and if I must die to save the river and the tribe, so be it.”

The river-god hesitated. He didn’t want to put such a reverent mortal in danger, but what other choice was there? Leaning forward, he breathed a little of himself into her soul and found himself seeing through her eyes. The vast figure in front of her looked old, too.

It took Durka two days to reach the dam, and the river-god was with her all the way. He sustained her, so that she didn’t tire, or hunger, or thirst, but her body was crumbling against the force of divinity it contained. Would she survive long enough to speak to the water?

When she came in sight of the place, the river-god felt fury sweeping up again at the sight of the soulless prison, but he contained the anger. It could damage Durka. There was a long climb down the bank to reach the water, and he felt pain racking her at every step and slide, but she pushed herself forward, stumbling and falling in places. Each time, she climbed to her feet, and she reached the waterside at last. Kneeling with her hands immersed, she spoke to the river, telling them with the god’s voice how it could get free.

Directed to the weaknesses he’d identified in the structure, the imprisoned water attacked again and again. Cracks formed, and it flowed inside, gnawing away at the monstrosity until the cracks went all the way through.

Mortals in strange clothes were running and slithering down the bank towards Durka, shouting something about “damned natives”. One raised a stick, and lighting flared from it, followed a moment later by the report of the thunder. The river-god felt agony sear through Durka.

The old woman reared up with her last strength and dived into the water. Letting it bear her up, she urged the river against its enemy again and again.

With a roar like a slow avalanche, the dam collapsed before the assault of the water it held captive. Running and plunging in the ecstasy of its freedom, the river careered down its course faster than the plunge of a waterfall, and the god met it, rushing upstream to where Durka was carried on its crest.

Durka’s life-force was weak, from the wound and the water inside her, as well as from carrying the god’s power, but she smiled faintly as he caught her up in his arms. Holding her tightly, the river-god swam down to his sleeping-place and laid her carefully on the bank.

“You’ve done me a great service,” he said, “and I shall guard and protect your people for as long as they live here, even if it takes twenty ice-ages.”

Durka smiled again, and her soul slipped out of her body. He caught it before it drifted away and set it gently in the river, which greeted the soul joyously. Durka’s soul, no longer old and weak, played with the water she’d rescued, as she’d play for as long as it ran.

The river-god settled down, to guard and guide the water that was his charge. He didn’t sleep.

Nyki Blatchley is a British author and poet who graduated from Keele University in English and Greek and now lives just outside London. He has had about forty stories published, mostly fantasy or horror, in various magazines, webzines and anthologies, including Penumbra, Lore, Wily Writers and The Thirteenth Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories. His novel At An Uncertain Hour was published by StoneGarden in April 2009, and he’s had novellas out from Musa Publishing and Darwin’s Evolutions. He’s currently working on a fantasy trilogy called The Winter Legend.

Frozen Wings

There was a time when Barbara had believed in mystery. When she slushed through the gray grit of old winter snow, looking out at the huddled, prosaic buildings, she saw not a sleepy North Dakota town but a hushed facade of ordinariness hiding an astonishing beauty. Every day she waited for a breathless moment, a miracle.

But now, at forty, she had lived in Antler her whole life and married gentle Bob, who smiled shyly and brought her coffee and said little. She waitressed at Maggie’s Diner, two blocks from her white clapboard house. She surveyed the horizon of grey downy clouds blanketing the thick mattress of snow, and realized that she was not the princess in the fairy tale, but the pea. Though lately, she wondered if she had not flattened and greyed so much that she was just another fiber in the endless stack of bedding. Barb’s particular despair was that she was comfortable and unsurprised.

Until the day of the wings.

The wings appeared quite suddenly overnight behind Maggie’s Diner, next to the dumpsters. They were grotesquely huge, glossy brown with white-tipped feathers. The bones that would have attached them to the body of the unfortunate bird now anchored them as firmly to the frozen ground as teeth to a jawbone.

A hammy man’s bristly neck was bent over them. Barbara could see the puffs of his labored breath when she arrived at work, but kept her distance. Grunting, he pulled on the wings as if they were stubborn weeds.

It was her boss, Patrick Chud. She could almost taste his thick onion smell. Every morning, Fat Pat ate an onion the way most people would eat an apple, glancing with enjoyment at the gouges his teeth made in the layers of pearly flesh. It was ironic he would eat anything from the onion family, since he was a laughter vampire. Fat Pat sucked out vials of his employees’ laughter to feed his ravenous ego. Chud loved clowning and doing impressions of customers, and expected laughs in return. Employees who did not at least giggle or chortle could expect merciless nitpicking about their work, threats of losing their jobs. Not laughing was a sign of disrespect.

Barb hated herself for laughing, hated him for making her. Just a few weeks ago, a man had creaked into the diner on prosthetic legs. Nobody had ever seen him before; strangers did not often come to Antler. When she took his order, she heard the accent of the deaf: the flat, indistinct sound of the wind speaking. She liked the deep brown puddles of his eyes that seemed to absorb every detail of the place and make it new.

But later, she saw Chud mocking him: he stiffened his knees and teeter-tottered across the room like a fat flamingo, imitating the stranger’s voice when he ordered:

“Gimme some ‘take and fies’, Barbie! Extra-rare take, and extra-French fies!”

The waitresses bleated their laughter; it even trickled out of Barbara, a false and ugly thing. She had avoided the manager ever since, though she hadn’t seen the legless man again. But now Fat Pat spotted her watching him.

“Barbie! Go grab the salt. These things are just frozen solid. Who’s gonna want the turkey and dressing special if they see Big Bird here?”

Obediently she fetched the salt that they used to de-ice the walkway, and poured it around the wings.

“We’ll just let that set. Should be easy to pull up once the ice is melted.”

But he was wrong. Two hours later, the wings stuck just as ferociously. Weeks passed, and then a month. Fat Pat tried to dig them out with a shovel and hack them to bits with a cleaver. His cousin Joey brought a jackhammer. Yet the wings were impervious to any effort, breaking the cleaver and denting the jackhammer. The North Dakota Gazetteer featured a picture of them in a fluffy article, and soon flocks of bundled North Dakotans came to gawk at the scene near the dumpsters at Maggie’s.

Barbara watched the crowds with wry amusement. Fat Pat had finally put Maggie’s on the map with some amputated bird parts. Every day he grew fatter with authority as he greeted the spectators and answered their questions. She couldn’t complain. The tips were good. She had just grabbed her coat and stepped out of the back door, noting how many had come out today, when she saw him.

Slowly, awkwardly, the legless stranger she had encountered months before stilted his way to the knot of onlookers. He appeared to be in a trance, for he paid no attention to the crowd but lasered his eyes to the spot where the wings must be. Barbara approached him. She had to redeem herself in some way for her unwitting cruelty toward him. But when she tapped him on the shoulder, he paid no attention. He had seen the wings.

A cry escaped him, and he fell face-first into the thick snow. Barbara thought to help him up until she noticed he was sobbing, his whole back shaking. The crowd murmured uncomfortably around him, a few picking their way discreetly back to their cars. After several uncertain minutes, he carefully pushed himself up with his hands, and Barbara helped him plank himself into a standing position. His whole snowy, runny face radiated his joy. He unzipped his heavy coat, then removed sweater after sweater, and finally his woolen undershirt.

He bent over the wings and plucked them up like flowers. Then he snapped them easily next to his shoulder blades, as though they were magnets. His wingspan was glorious, but he stayed hovering above the ground until, with a final shout, he detached the dead metal legs and threw them into the snow.