Issue No. 13, Summer 2015

Awake to Follow
Roberta Feins

1.

A day to wander. So pale white
her face, Eurydice, “she of wide power”
not petting pretty, not shrinking fleeing rodents.
Bacchante, rampaging over hills, lamenting,

tearing wildly. Lips smeared
red. Eclipsed by shadow, asp
slid angry toward her heavy stamp.
Killed while fleeing (Apollo, as usual)…

The lyre player’s body-mirror, Eurydice,
emerged half-mad, half-mud,
staring inward, climbing
soul ladder from Egyptian tomb,

bucket, pulled from deep well.
Notes clung to plucked rungs.
Her steps, rhythmic pulse and drag
of injured foot: a drum he’s never heard.

She would not mount the last…
Orpheus, do not turn away from all you sense
to merely see.
Turned to bark sharp orders.
No longer at his heels: disobeyed, dragging, drifted.

Did you really want her back?

2.

Ancient gods: Izanagi of the seven divine generations.
Izanami, mother of islands. Twinned, spoused.
White her face, shielded with sleeves

cascading from her twelve-layered robes.
Dragonflies sang over her corpse
one hundred and eighty-three days.

Behind him he heard her layered robes
of heavy winter silk shiver
and pull across chill stone.

When he turned, (why try to see her face?)
she dropped the veils of sleeves she held across her cheeks.
Hellish winds whirled — he saw

her haggard cheeks of chalk,
demons snarling behind her black-dyed teeth
In her great shame, she would no longer follow,

but cursed humans with death. He births two
for her every one – frail gasp of life
to death’s slow purge. Twin’s Eternal Duel.

She’s more fully arrived in mortality than he in restlessness.

3.

Village wife of prosperous river wandered
dry chaparral. Digging iris corms, transfix-
ed by brilliant flutter-by. Soot-black, Shasta Blue.
She followed the pattern of his breechcloth

(eye’s silent mouth gaping open)
beaded headband on his wings.
Lost the trail home; she followed
to the land of his people, silent butterfly

dancing ahead. Despite his beauty,
a greedy mouth, pulsing abdomen.
She watches the flirt and veer of other wings.
Greedy, lustful reaches for other brilliants:

Aphrodite Fritillary, Amethyst Hairstreak,
Cattleheart. Lost the path he’d traced.
Found herself, pale alone in charred hills,
where manzanita re-sprouts from root-crown.

Mother could never speak his name without crying.

4.

Mourned for his dead wife and would not give up mourning.
Fetch across bounded worlds, seeking
her where the dead dance without bone or blemish,
without caper or dark shadow.

The dancing dead smell like flowers underwater, winter cold;
the living stink of fire and bear fat. Vine and charred deer
creep thru braided channels of the body.
It’s the curve of her back he misses most.

How could she ever thirst again for his mouth,
spring of water in shaded canyon.
Moment of exquisite temptation, more
than (living) he can resist.

That night his hunger dreamed of giving birth,
turned to reach for her body
with single flesh-eye, poor blind frog.
Waking, his lips touched the shadow of her shade.

No dance is human once hunger’s been appeased.


Roberta Feins received her MFA in poetry in 2007 from New England College. Her poems have been published in Five AM, Antioch Review, The Cortland Review and The Gettysburg Review. Her first chapbook, Something Like a River, was published by Moon Path Press in 2013. Roberta edits the e-zine Switched On Gutenberg (http://www.switched-ongutenberg.org/).

Issue No. 13, Summer 2015

Dream of Cold Steel
Sue Howell

Fathers and teachers, what is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering
of being unable to love.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dream of a knife in an open drawer
waiting to be drawn, to cut the meat

or the finger, or drawn from a boot
in the Athens market, all stamped

with the word Wehrmacht, boots
made for marching on the Night

of the Long Knives, though knights
don’t use the knife to kill, a sword

will do the job, or even a flattering
word. The knife is still the kindest cut.


Sue Howell is a former teacher with degrees from Tulane University and Southern Illinois University who started writing poetry seriously when she left the classroom. Since then she’s published poems in passager, Southern Indiana Review, and various regional journals. She’s won some local contests, and she was a finalist in the River Styx International Poetry Contest and the 2012 Tennessee Williams Literary Festival contest.

Feature: Issue No. 13, Summer 2015

The path taken by my grandmother’s piano thrown at the moon

then unknots itself on the swing wetted behind the tree. Distance is the process by which light splits on your teeth as you stand on your tiptoes. Morning begs a confrontation with your eyelids, but you let its pastoral be. You allow your hair to take back what death gives. If the moon wants to paint an undifferentiated gash or a cuticle, understand that it will never hiss to warn the birds about their madness. There is a limit to how we shuffle, because the name strained bed sheets always thickens with words from the skin gathered in the morning. You cook eggs, stuff them with the sky’s interruptions. I never complain about their taste. The mist still rises around the apples.


Shinjini Bhattacharjee’s poems have been published, or are forthcoming in Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Gone Lawn, Crack the Spine, wherewithal, Red Paint Hills Poetry, Literary Orphans and elsewhere. She is also the founding editor of Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal.

Feature: Issue No. 13, Summer 2015

How to construct a room with wet hands

Let us hold the room, one by one. Let it breathe between our elbows, watch it fall with the ache of the real axed on glass. Here we are, stripping identities like candy wrappers. The edges of the room whirl into postcards of Sabbath, fragile as the warm hibernation between two rapid emotions. Stretch them till they stitch themselves to the fields of the spiders’ shadows. The lamp is wet, dripping with the motion of red-wheat centuries away from its origin. Dresser to the left, bed to the right, words in between. Words, they dangle in air reel like seaweed crust, skin like the one that smears itself on the forgotten scarf. Blanch them. Stew them. Make them inedible.


Shinjini Bhattacharjee’s poems have been published, or are forthcoming in Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Gone Lawn, Crack the Spine, wherewithal, Red Paint Hills Poetry, Literary Orphans and elsewhere. She is also the founding editor of Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal.

Issue No. 13, Summer 2015

Dark-side Dreaming
Christina Im

new moon

Allin knew midwinter nights better than the stars did.

He’d seen the fading scars on his mother’s hands from where a shadow had shaken itself loose from her grasp, years ago, and seeped minnow-quick into her skin. Allin’s family had once climbed the sky, but that had been before the stars dimmed to pinpricks in the distance. Now not even the best of them could hear the constellations calling their names or catch a handhold before the dark crumpled under their feet.

And yet, as he turned a rusty climbing hook over in his hands, he thought he might do it, and bring back a sliver of the moon in time for the lunar festival.

He fitted the hook to a crevice in front of him. It looped through the night easily enough, but when he ran his fingers over the blackness, it was slippery. He adjusted his footing on the hill and gave the hook’s rope a tug.

Was it too much to hope that he wouldn’t fall like the others?

There was nothing for it; Allin had hoisted himself up onto the back of a breeze before his better judgment could say stop. The moon was still dark at this time of month, but now – now he could imagine it round and plump. He could imagine his fingers knocking against it and coming away changed – glowing, perhaps. Every time he slid his foot into a new cranny in the sky, his breath quickened. The air grew thin, and he took mouthful after mouthful of it. Around him, the snow-wrapped wind ripped through bits of cloud.

I should have brought a coat, Allin thought, but still he reached for the next velvet fold above him.

His hand grasped at nothing.

Of all places, his stomach felt it first, the stone-drop towards earth. Get a hold on something, Allin – and he tried, falling faster all the while. He brushed against a stray night-thread, and he almost grabbed it, though his breath stopped short in his throat.

That couldn’t possibly be hair.

It was gone in a blink, but no matter, because climbers’ eyes were honest. Allin tried to gather a pocket of air beneath him, to try and cushion his fall at the very least, but he couldn’t prevent the oof! that cartwheeled off his tongue when he landed.

Ach. He knew he hadn’t gotten the worst of it – the grass underneath him had been crushed – but his back disagreed.

“What did I tell you?” Allin’s heart wilted faster than a wildflower after the first snow. “Always take something sharp when you go climbing.”

His mother had crested the hill, lips pursed, and he remembered it with a pang: the night had to be cut. Even the softest skies had to be tamed.

“Let’s get you inside,” his mother said. There was a jaggedness to her voice that he couldn’t place, an edge that shouted just a boy, Allin and stung him. No better than the rest. As Allin’s mother herded him towards their cottage on the hill’s far side, he shot a last glance upwards. A piece of him dislodged, suddenly, and yearned for the sigh of a thousand wishes that, like him, had to rise to meet the moon.

 

waxing crescent

Prynne, teller of tales, sent her son out to the stargazing hill a few days later with a knife and a promise: don’t climb too far. She knew that he wouldn’t be kept from his real homeland any longer, even if he was destined to slip off of it.

She only hoped that he didn’t break too many of his bones learning that.

Allin couldn’t stop fingering the worn blade, remembering his mother’s eyes. They had seen too many lunar cycles and explored too few of them. It was thoughtless of him, he realized, not to have noticed before.

Farther off, the air was thick with the chill and the anticipation of joy. The village’s yearly festival approached, and already merchants from every nook of the kingdom were bottling up the town roads.

Allin hesitated, just for a moment, when he felt the first shadows shift in his hands. As he came to the top of the hill, he started to pull the air towards him, feeling where it was rough. In old tales about the sky-scalers, they had always spoken the same language as the moon and stars.

He wondered what that might sound like, the endless weave of light that he’d reach when he got high enough. And what of the black hair he’d held briefly the last time he’d ventured upwards?

The winter so far had been gracious, and only a light coating of snow dusted the ground. Thankfully, he’d had the presence of mind to bring his coat. The moon winked shyly overhead – from here, Allin could just glimpse it.

“Well,” he muttered, “at this rate, it’ll be spring before I’ve started.” Tonight the air was as firm as a wooden post when he most needed it, for the very beginning. He slid the knife into a sheath and left it in his coat pocket. One foot up. Then the other. He cautioned himself, knowing that he’d gotten higher than this last time, but already the bracing cold was getting the better of him, pulling his mouth into its inevitable grin.

Eleven winters, maybe twelve – this was all the time Allin had had to grow. But no matter, because climbing required nothing more than a certain hardiness of the heart, and this he had in spades, handed to him by generations of stubborn blood. Before long, the frosted hill was growing toy-like below him, and he whooped into the sky.

And someone called in return.

Though his mind screamed don’t, Allin’s limbs stiffened. The voice was girlish, perhaps his age. She – he decided that it was a she – shouted again. He could make out the end to a question.

“What?” he tried, but the wind was stealing his words at this altitude. Was this another climber, as reckless and hopeful as himself? Or – and he had to chuckle in disbelief at it – was she the source of the lock of hair that had caused his fall before?

More importantly, where was she?

Allin strained to hear the girl’s words. There were no directions in the sky, but he thought she might be somewhere in the path of his outstretched left hand; perhaps a few stars over, and a little farther –

His eyes slid onto the moon.

When he’d planned on getting a piece of it home, he hadn’t stopped to ask if someone might be on it. Ridiculous, he told himself. Impossible, surely.

But his heart clamped shut and told him no; Allin had been raised on the idea that impossibility itself was impossible. Besides, the clenching in his chest wasn’t for naught.

He could have sworn the girl on the moon was shouting help.

Panic seared over his vision. There were no more handholds, no more steps he could take towards her. His mother had taught him that in the sky, people saved each other, because one good turn meant everything here. Allin let his fingers sift the air one last time, but there was still this relentless nothing, save for a faint tickle on his palm.

This is the hair from before; I’m sure of it, he thought. It had to be.

Whoever was on the other end of this, he hoped they didn’t mind him pulling.

When Allin wrapped his hand around a few strands, they held unbroken. They were surprisingly supple, certainly well cared for. And black, ink-stained, like the best kind of night. In fact, if he wasn’t looking hard enough, they all but disappeared.

He would twist them into a rope, he decided, and climb without help from the air. A leaden weight inside him assured his mind that he would be led to the moon. Ma taught you how to braid, Allin. A long time ago when she still wished you were a girl. Three locks of hair, over and under each other.

Inching up on the coiled braid was easier than he’d imagined, and much less work than reading air currents. His back and arms ached, but the repetition was comforting. And his knife was still tucked securely into his coat – no need for it tonight. He hadn’t loved the notion of using it, anyhow.

Before long the moon filled his sight, luminous and gloriously cut. Only a sliver of it was visible under its customary shadow, but if he squinted just so, he could see even the dark side catch the light, tenuous as a dream.

Did it normally do that?

And the silhouette on the far side, faint, like someone sitting – that was the girl who’d been calling help at the stars. He didn’t even have to tell himself.

He ventured a “hello, there” and watched her go rigid from behind. She whirled, with eyes that showed she had evidently been spooked by his voice. Something about her was odd, even more so than her mere presence, sitting calmly as if she owned the moon. He scrutinized her features, confounded. Whyever did she look so much like someone he knew?

Oh.

He and this moon-girl could have been twins.

She seemed to realize it in the same instant, and her mouth, small like his, opened in surprise. They had the same eyes and delicate cheekbones and stubborn jaws – but Allin had gotten these from his mother, he reasoned, so this was undoubtedly a mistake. But it seemed like anything but – there was nothing except their hair that was markedly different: hers an unforgiving black, his a sandy brown.

“You were pulling at my hair, weren’t you?” she asked, brow knitting in confusion. “Are you standing in for Irina?”

“Who on earth – or, on moon, I suppose – is Irina? And who or what are you?” It wasn’t until he’d blurted it out that he reflected the questions were rather rude.

Understandably, she was indignant. “What, don’t they have girls where you come from?” She huffed before adding, “And if you’re asking for specifics, I am a Lorelei, thank you very much. Irina is my mother. What, then, might you be? I’ll assume you’re one of those ‘boys’ Irina speaks of so often, though you’re the first one I’ve seen.”

“Never seen a boy? So you’ll have me believe you were born on the moon?” Though that thought was worrying, he was secretly relieved. If Irina was Lorelei’s mother, then the resemblance between them was merely a disturbing coincidence.

She faltered a little and said, more quietly, “The moon’s all I remember. So I’ll have at least a name off of you, if you please.”

“Allin,” he replied, and suddenly, pressed by conscience, he brought out a superhuman amount of manners and extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

He half-expected her to not know she had to shake it, but she did. Her grip was firm for the size of her hands, but somehow reassuring. He took the opportunity now to clamber onto the moon, the smooth, cool surface of the moon, and his mind reeled with the enormity of what he’d just done. Climbed to the moon, he thought, giddy. Ma will kill me.

“If you’re from land,” Lorelei started, “how did you reach me?”

“Mostly the wind helped at first, but then I used that.” He pointed at her hair, spilled around them like a merchant’s rug. ” I ought to thank you.”

“You got up the same way Irina does, then.”

“It’s awfully nice for climbing,” he conceded. “But then – your mother’s from land, too? Have you got a father?”

Lorelei lowered her eyes. “Wish I did,” she murmured.

“It’s perfectly fine. I don’t have one either,” he admitted. “My ma’s name is Prynne, and she does well all on her own.”

“Irina’s different. She leaves me alone for long stretches and is downright horrid at times. I’ve always wanted to see land, but she won’t let me, and I haven’t the faintest idea how to get down from here. I don’t think she’s from land.”

“Rubbish. She doesn’t sound like a mother – she sounds more like a witch. And getting down’s easy.” That wasn’t altogether true, since the only ‘getting down’ he’d ever done from the sky had been falling.

“I think she is a witch,” Lorelei explained. “But a real one with sparks in her fingers.”

As she spoke, a glow crept over the rim of the night, blushing and dressed like dawn.

Drat,” Allin said furiously. “I’m in for it now. I’ve whiled away the whole night up here.”

Lorelei nodded in understanding, noticing the receding dark. “Come back soon, all right?” she said earnestly, tying him a rope of hair. “Tell me all about where you live. Just whistle and I’ll let down my hair.”

“Agreed.” He flashed a grin. “I’ve just made friends with the girl who lives on the moon.”

“That you have.” Lorelei smiled in return. “Now hurry up.”

Allin jumped off the moon with nothing but a handful of braid to steady him. Luckily, getting down was as easy as he’d assumed, but breathless – plummeting and clinging to Lorelei’s hair for dear life. Within a matter of moments he’d landed, but on his feet this time, which earned him a shot of pain up both legs and a rush of satisfaction.

He ran home just as the few birds left for the winter began to sing. When he opened the door carefully so it didn’t creak, he was greeted by the sight of his mother Prynne, sleeping facedown on their main table. She must have waited for me, he thought with a pang, and he looked about the kitchen.

He managed to gather a decent breakfast for her that morning, in time for them both to catch the last of the night sweeping itself away.

 

first quarter

A few days later, Lorelei was shocked to receive Irina’s arrival an hour late.

“What happened?” she asked, but Irina waved her off disgustedly.

“Land-dwellers,” she muttered darkly to herself. “Meddling as always.”

Land-dwellers, Lorelei thought, and Allin sprang to mind, unbidden and grinning.

She matched their faces to each other: Irina, Lorelei, Allin. Curious indeed. Maybe her eyesight was going soft, but she could’ve sworn that for a heartbeat, all three of them looked almost related. No, no. Irina’s got those awful stone-gray eyes, and her hair’s almost white. Allin and I have green eyes. When had she noticed that? And our hair’s different.

“Is it better down there?” She shrank back as Irina turned, eyes narrowed. The pale looseness of her mother’s form, how part of it always seemed to be far away, never ceased to unsettle her. Perturbed, she thought, We really look nothing like each other.

Irina’s answering sigh was more like a winter wind than any human sound. She put a careful hand on Lorelei’s bony shoulder. “No, my pet,” she said, but the endearment was a whip on her spell-hardened tongue. “Too many hungry mouths and falsehoods. That’s why I brought you here. No one can touch you.”

Lorelei couldn’t keep herself from feeling the lingering cold of Irina’s hand through the threadbare fabric of her outgrown dress; it spoke of betrayal and other things that left angry wounds. She resisted the urge to shake it off – but just barely. Just barely.

 

waxing gibbous

Allin was a stupid boy, which meant, of course, that he returned to the moon far too quickly for his own good. As soon as he’d handed Lorelei an offhand greeting, he set to work scraping at the ground with a short knife.

“You won’t get anywhere,” she said. “What do you want with it?”

“The midwinter festival’s soon,” he responded. “I need something to prove to everyone that I really did get up here.” He sifted through a smattering of dust obtained from all the grinding. “This is no good.”

“A festival?” Her interest was piqued. “What’s it like?”

“Oh, it’s grand. There’s snow on the soil and people gather about selling tidbits and trinkets from all around the country. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a fire-eater or something. The midwinter festival is the only time anyone really comes around these parts.”

“Why only then?”

“We’re famous for our moon in the winter,” he said, shrugging. “It has this blue crown, nothing short of breathtaking. People bow to the moon this time of year, write poetry about it. They’d be even more astounded if they knew you were here. They’d love you.”

Love. The foreign thrill of the word sang up Lorelei’s spine.

“So, is the moon really worth seeing from land?”

“Oh, it’s something. It swells and burns blue. I mean, I don’t know if you’d like it, seeing as you live on it. You must think the moon is boring by now.”

No, Lorelei thought. Never. She wanted to see it – this marvel she’d been living on, this moon that had built most of her memories.

“Could I come to the festival?” She shivered with yearning – she could feel it, papery and insistent like an unsent letter in her throat.

Allin fixed her with a delighted look. “Don’t see why not.” Then he sobered. “Though Irina might not like it.”

Lorelei gulped as inconspicuously as she could. There was nothing she hated as much as showing that she was frightened. When she spoke again, her voice was firmer than she’d ever made it. “She’ll never find out.”

 

full moon

Lorelei knew it was a foolish fear because she lived in the sky, but here it was: heights made her heart seize. Allin was already a long way down, nimbly picking a path through knots of her hair and stray air drafts.

“Changed your mind?” he called lightly.

“No.” She leapt forward before the sensible vein in her could drag her feet down. One, two, three, four. A snake of vertigo coiled inside her, gnawed at her. Thrum-thrum-thrum. She held her breath. I have wings. I have wings, she thought. Her heart skittered. Her breath wobbled.

All you have to do is convince yourself that you can’t fall.

She bit her lip and tried to ignore the lurch she felt with every step. In the meantime, Allin had crept back up to where she was and was eyeing her doubtfully. Without a word, he let her take his hand, and he guided her down to the hill without a hint of malice. A blustery breath blew out of her as soon as her feet were planted on the ground.

“I’ll pay you back for that,” she managed. “Thanks.”

He shook his head. “It was nothing. Now, when we get there, it’ll be loud, and -”

A sudden rattling echoed above them. The stars shook, and something like oil seemed to fall.

“My hair,” Lorelei whispered. Allin could only gape.

“Well, there’s a spectacle,” he said finally. “And there’ll only be more in the festival up ahead. Come on. We’re lagging.”

They ran towards what looked like paper lamps bobbing in a faint breeze. Trilling giggles and shouts wafted into their ears, and they both beamed. Soon they were close enough to hear the folk tunes and pipes of countless dances. They made it to the festival’s boundaries just in time to hear someone cry, “The moon!” Everyone whirled to gawk at it, and Allin and Lorelei were no exception.

The moon had really outdone itself.

A blue wreath encircled its rim, and in its center it was pearly, mesmerizing. I have been living on the back of a queen, Lorelei thought reverently. It was easy to believe that this was the sphere that pulled tides and commanded wolves. This was a bringer of miracles and doom. Allin, too, was spellbound. He was reciting something softly – a poem, perhaps, or a prayer.

It was there for a moment, nothing more, and then everyone returned to the festivities. Lorelei and Allin were stone-still for a time. It was Lorelei who finally broke the quiet.

“So,” she said, casting her gaze over the waiting wonders, “shall we go?” Allin threw back his head and whooped.

“Please,” he replied, a smile cracking his face in half.

Later, neither of them would remember much about the night. They would reminisce about the jovial merchants who gave away sweets and the traveling troupe of jugglers, but they would never be able to pin faces on any of them. Everything was just too star-dusted and glowing to be caught by ordinary minds.

When first light began to intrude on the horizon, Allin rubbed his eyes and declared that he would take Lorelei home. He helped her up the steeper parts of the climb, which was much simpler now that Lorelei’s hair wasn’t spilling through every spare bit of space. Their eyelids were leaden and their heartbeats ragged, but all that mattered was their smiles – fixed even as the morning materialized.

 

waning gibbous

“Should I have expected this?”

Lorelei tensed and felt a truth in her bones: she’d been caught. And worse, Allin had been caught with her.

“No, Irina,” she said, hanging her head. She felt the woman’s claw-like grip close around her arm.

“And this boy has the stench of grass in his blood,” Irina observed disdainfully. She was livid beneath her thin facade of sweetness. “Land scum.”

Allin raised his eyebrows – brave and dense in equal proportions. “I don’t smell,” he retorted, “and my Ma will hack you to pieces if you touch Lorelei or me.”

His declaration was received by Irina’s hiss of amusement, which was terrifying, followed by her even more terrifying hiss of shock. Lorelei’s guess was that she’d finally realized the resemblance that she and Allin shared. “How quaint,” said Irina coolly. The air around her pulsed faintly, and Lorelei knew she wasn’t the only one smelling the spark in it. Allin winced visibly. “But you won’t ever get close enough to my darling girl to harm her. I’ve protected her for years and there is nothing you can do to her. I did her mother a favor, bringing her here.”

Darling girl? Lorelei thought, blinking fast. No phrase had ever curled in her stomach so wrongly. Protected me? Did my mother a favor?

“You admit you aren’t her mother?”

Lorelei’s mind snapped.

Weeping and weeping, a sharp herb-fragrance, a promise to keep. The word “no”, over and over. Irina. Reaching for a mother. Mother, not Irina. Starlight and tears and so much distance.

It had all the heaviness of a memory.

“I don’t want to be protected anymore,” she said. Irina fell silent. That was what it was like: unspoken words falling, falling, falling.

Then there was crashing pain blooming into her skin like a thousand needles, and someone was crying. It was Allin, she realized, and this weight sinking into the pit of her mind was an apology. I’m sorry, so sorry. But the rest of her thoughts were a shrieking smear. Not this, Irina. Never this.

When it was over – and how long had it been? – Allin had buried his face in his hands. Lorelei stood up and laboriously walked to him, refusing to allow Irina to see her crawl. Her legs were splitting. Her soul was splitting.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, trembling. He was still. She looked closer.

So it was possible for a sky-climber to really and truly weep.

Irina’s face was immovable, and she lifted Allin’s limp body carelessly.

He said, “I’m blind.”

And Irina cast him down.

 

third quarter

All Lorelei knew was that Allin hadn’t visited her in days, and that left a bad taste in her mouth. It wasn’t like him to keep from climbing for so long – no, that was a grievous understatement. Had he really been blinded? Was he recovering from the fall that Irina had dealt him?

Night fell gracelessly and cruelly, not at all like the wonder-filled world it had been with Allin in it. What must it be like, Lorelei wondered, not being able to see the stars? Even the thought of it filled her with a terrible grief. Already she was mustering strength.

She’d spent too long waiting for Allin to come to her. It was time to trust in her own self – and, she reflected wryly, finally repay him for the festival. She didn’t like the idea of being a girl who constantly had to be saved and helped.

Obviously she didn’t have the ancestry for making the sky her own. That was Allin’s domain. She would have to borrow a path.

The scramble to the ground was a blur, with Lorelei’s heart halfway out of her chest. When she landed, she wasted no time, recalling that Allin had pointed towards his cottage on the festival night. Run.

She barged in moments later, heaving in exertion. Allin was slumped over at a wooden table, and his mother – had he said her name was Prynne? – was fussing over him. When Lorelei came in, Prynne spun and stared daggers at the young girl, face tight with worry.

“Is he… all right?” Lorelei asked.

Prynne squinted at her. “Who are you?” Lorelei pointed towards the sky, and Prynne nodded in understanding. His mother used to climb, Lorelei confirmed to herself. This is unfair.

Allin, unseeing. That was a tragedy. “Who’s there?” he asked.

Lorelei sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Lorelei.” And before she knew what she was doing, she rushed to him and wrapped him in a hug. Her tears were everywhere, streaking down her cheeks and wetting his as well. Stunned, he hugged her back.

Something shattered, quietly at first, but it grew louder. Lorelei felt as if she would burst.

“I can see,” Allin said. He looked once at Prynne, and they were both stared in amazement: Allin at his suddenly visible hands, and his mother straight at Lorelei herself.

 

waning crescent

“Kenna?” Prynne’s eyes were lanterns so hopeful that it hurt Allin to see them. I can see, he thought gratefully, and then: Kenna? Who’s that? The girl shook her head.

“Lorelei,” she said gently. “And I’m told that you’re Prynne.”

Allin and Lorelei both saw her face fold in on itself like a runaway wave.

“That I am.” She seemed to flicker like a candle flame disturbed by a careless sigh. “Kenna’s hair was as black as yours, dear. I must have gotten confused.”

Allin frowned. “Ma, who’s Kenna?”

This time, Prynne let out a sigh that rolled ocean-like in its depth. “She was your twin, and she was… she was taken away by my sister.”

“What was your sister’s name?” Lorelei asked intently, at the same moment that Allin butted in with an incredulous “I have an aunt?”

“Irina. That’s all.”

Irina?” Allin and Lorelei echoed together. A slow smile burned over their faces like hot sugar, but Prynne continued, oblivious.

“When I was carrying you and Kenna,” she said, speaking to Allin, “I craved an herb that only grew in my sister’s garden. She’d gotten the blood-thread of our grandmother, a witch. But she guarded the herb, and your father eventually had to steal it for me. But Irina is a hawk if I ever saw one, and she caught him and made him promise that my firstborn child would be hers in return for the herb.” Her voice was resigned, but it crackled with regret underneath its softness. When she opened her mouth again, she was hardly audible. “Kenna was born before you. I haven’t seen her or Irina since then. Kenna would never forgive me.”

“Your sister” – Lorelei cleared her throat before going on, mouth dry with dusty hope – “did she have a face like yours, only with gray eyes and white-blonde hair?” She didn’t dare see Prynne’s expression, not now when things seemed so improbable.

Allin informed her, “It appears so,” and Lorelei finally looked up.

Prynne’s thunderstruck expression rivaled that of someone who’d just been told they were royalty. “Yes,” she breathed.

Lorelei felt a swelling within her, something that made her as grand and lovely as the moon itself.

“In that case,” she said, trying out the words, “I forgive you, Ma. I forgive you.”

There was nothing left in the air around them but a resounding thank you.

 

full moon (years later)

In a country long gone, a grassy knoll stood, just a heartbeat or two away from the sky. It still held the memory of a young boy’s feet and bright, bright eyes.

The boy was older now, and a father and husband. A brother to a princess of the night.

Every midwinter was the same.

The children would race outside, no matter how old they were, and the then-boy would follow just behind them. Their laughs would be like firelight, jumping to embrace the air. The boy’s wife, along with his mother, would march up the stargazing hill with a blanket for them to lie on, but it would soon be abandoned.

The moon would rise, blue circlet blazing. The boy’s sister would be there, as she always was, sitting cross-legged on its bright face. She’d decided to stay on the moon after meeting her family, too in love with the night sky to really ground herself. Stars would be tangled in her hair by the dozens.

The children would bring out their climbing hooks. Though their father’s joints creaked, he would join them. The moon-girl would brush out her tresses and toss stars at them. The shower of comets never failed to lift a gasp from the whole village, where the midwinter festival and snow already blanketed every home. The children’s gleeful shouts would be the loudest, and the moon-girl would hear them.

Each of them would make a wish.

And for a moment, all the world would be right.


Christina Im is a wordsmith and an admirer of whimsy and rawness. She was a National Gold Medalist and National Silver Medalist in the 2014 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her work either has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including Canvas Literary Journal, YARN, -Ology Journal, and GREYstone. You can find her online at christinaim.flavors.me.

Issue No. 13, Summer 2015

Black Feathers, Beady Eyes
Caryn Studham Sutorus

Erin left her students sprawled on the edges of the green, watching the men of the village play bocce. The chaperones waved her away, and she was grateful for the opportunity to explore the perched city on her own. Choosing a well-worn path into the labyrinth of shops and restaurants, she lingered to admire the jewelry, scarves, and paintings at the tiny shops. French, English, and Arabic words bounced back and forth between the other tourists and shopkeepers who jockeyed for her attention in the narrow streets. Erin brushed them off, catching sight of a bronze plaque that marked the alley across the way. She ran her fingers over the lettering, smoothed down from centuries of curious visitors.

I really should have learned more Latin, Erin thought, making out the words closest to French but little else. She stepped into the alley, refreshed by the shadows that flitted around her sunburned ankles and the scent of the lavender fields that draped the hillside town. Silence enveloped her, its cool fingers soothing her fatigue as the chaos of the tourist town melted away.

The alley meandered through the heart of the shopping district, its buildings close, almost within arms length in some places. Lines of laundry flapped in the breeze two stories above, emerging from open windows adorned with colorful flower boxes and clay pots filled with herbs. Around the next corner an aluminum sign, white with black letters painted beneath a Star of David, hung from rusty nails on a stone wall. This plaque was printed in French, and she translated as she traced the words.

“On August 19, 1944, nineteen Jewish men, women and children were evicted from Bagnolle to be sent to Drancy, and from there deported to Nazi concentration camps. Instead of facing this indignity, the families chose to end their own lives, here in the ancient path of the moon.” Erin stopped reading and looked around. “Ancient path of the moon?”

The narrow way ended in a semicircle, its walls meeting in an abrupt dead end. A fixture of mottled stones jutted up from the cobblestone path, flat at the top, crumbling at the sides. She crouched down to get a closer look. Brown splotches darkened the middle. Blood stains? She twitched her nose at the rusty smell that overpowered the lavender.

A breeze ripped through the passage, lifting the edge of her linen skirt and raising goose bumps on her legs. Erin shivered, rubbing her arms, and pulled the scarf down from her neck to warm her shoulders.

The pattering of feet interrupted Erin’s solitude. A dozen school children, dressed in identical navy uniforms, chattered in French as they convened around the slab of rocks, banging on the smoothed-down stones. They called it “l’autel,” the altar. Their voices echoed through the narrow way, driving Erin back.

A flock of crows descended on a third floor balcony, flapping and cawing at each other as they jostled a window box perched on the iron railing. Turning back to the sign, she re-read the memorial, until the children’s chattering turned to shouts of fear.

Frantic faces stared up, pointing at the birds above. Too late Erin realized what they were saying. Her instincts took over, and she ducked, her arms bent over her head in protection.

Time stood still as she froze, wind whistling around the window box as it pitched over the side of the balcony and sped toward the group below. The crunch of bones and smashing of wood echoed through the alley, followed by gasps and screams. Erin elbowed to the front of the group, crying out when she saw the blood pooling between the stones of the altar and dripping down its sides. Tears flooded her eyes as she reached out her hand to feel for signs of life in the tiny, mangled figure sprawled across.

Erin brushed aside blood-soaked hair, starting back as a jolt of electricity ran from her fingers, up her arm and lifted her off her feet. Wind blew around her face, and the world faded to gray as she began to spin. She screamed, but the wind swallowed the sound. Blurred shapes whizzed by as she spun faster and faster. Ebony wings flapped around her head and beady crow eyes glowed in the whirling dust. Spinning and falling, she watched, immobile, as the alley closed in around her, pulling her beneath its cobblestones. Flashes of buildings appeared between the whirling dust and lunging crows. A bright light shone from underneath, its warmth inviting her down. She wanted to reach for it, but as the conscious thought formed, a dirt path rushed up at her and she landed with a hard thud, no longer in the alley.

Erin remained on the ground, curled in fetal position. The bright sunlight burned her eyes. She shook her head to clear her vision and sat up, bracing her sore body on shaky arms. All around her, the same schoolchildren from the alleyway approached, chanting with blank faces, staring above her head.

“Save our lives that you might live.” They spoke in clear English. “Save our lives that you might live.”

Erin unfolded her body and stood on trembling legs, holding her arms out to the side for balance.

“Save our lives that you might live,”  they repeated.

“What do you mean?” she whispered. As she spoke to the children, their faces turned to meet hers, and a swirl of wind and dirt flew up from the ground, enveloping them in its cloud. She saw only their eyes — blue, green, and all shades of brown —as they faded, one by one. The call of a crow drew her eyes up to the burning sun. A black spot in its golden midst grew larger and larger, undulating and breaking through its own edges, until it burst into a flock of crows speeding toward the earth. Erin ducked, covering her head as they zoomed around the hillside, trapping her in a tornado of flapping wings and sharp claws.

And then the world was spinning again, though her eyes remained fixed on one point on the hillside. As the dust and feathers swirled around her, she watched a pile of stones turn into an altar, unseen hands stacking, chipping, and carving it into elaborate relief that showed phases of the moon, interwoven with grotesque canine and avian faces. She couldn’t avert her eyes from the vision of a priestess, veiled in crimson, holding up a dagger that glinted in the silver moonlight and brought forth rivers of blood to drench the stones. Like magic, carts rolled through the scene, unloading stones and wood. Buildings flew up, cobblestones flew down and time raced over the hillside, building a world around the moon altar. The priestess raised her arms to the moon, chanting through smoky incense that burned Erin’s eyes and throat. Crows swooped in and out, drinking from the rivers of blood that soaked into the ancient stones, flowing as people of all ages and classes lost their lives on the altar.

Erin cried out, her mind screaming from the carnage, exhausted by the volume of change speeding through her line of vision, until darkness fell again. The flapping of feathered wings around her head dizzied her, and then numbness settled over her body and the wind whistling around her ears slowed and stopped.

# # #

Disoriented, Erin rested her chin on smooth cobblestones, her nose inches away from the now-crumbling altar. Men’s voices and the sound of shoes scuffling all around brought her to her knees. Her stockinged legs scraped against the uneven stones, and she turned her head, recognizing the alley. She was back, but the plaque on the wall was missing. Old men, women and children piled out of the houses, crowding into the alley and lining up against the walls. Navy-uniformed gendarmerie prodded them, yelling out orders in French.

The old women wore scarves over their heads, faces drawn and eyes sad. The men who weren’t police limped or leaned on canes and family members, passive expressions as they followed the orders, waving their children against the walls.

How did I get here?

Erin cringed at the beat of a stick against her back and looked up into the dark eyes of a policeman. A shiny, navy blue cap swallowed his head, leaving only a thin, cold face.

“Line up with your family,” he barked at her.

She scrambled to her feet, brushing the dust off her wool skirt and tucking in a white cotton blouse. The policeman grabbed at a pendant around her neck, eyeing the gold locket before pulling it, chafing the back of her neck as it broke.

“You won’t be needing this.” He snarled at her as he shoved her toward the wall.

A young boy looked up at her with wide, brown eyes. He reached for her hand as she settled into the line, nudging the child on her other side, a small girl wrapped in a colorful shawl that hung to her knees. The children’s faces were gaunt, their cheekbones protruding underneath dark circles and sunken eyes. “What’s going on?” Erin asked.

The girl shook her head and stared at the ground, but the little boy looked up at her and leaned in. “Papa said they want to send us away to work, but I don’t want to go.”

“Shh.” The man on the other side shot the boy a weary look.

He whispered again. “Are you a Jew too?”

“I don’t think so,” she said, looking around at the crowd. She began to count the men, women and children. When she made it to nineteen her heart sank. The words of the schoolchildren danced through her mind. Am I supposed to save these people? Is that why I’m here?

Her mind spun as she tried to pull up details of history, stories that she had read countless times to her students over the years. If it’s August 1944, then Paris will be liberated soon, she thought. Even if they are sent to Drancy, they could be freed before they get to Auschwitz. Right? But exact dates eluded her. She needed exact dates. She looked around at a dozen gendarmes, tears filling her eyes.

She pushed down the rising panic and took a breath, studying the actions of the gendarmes. One policeman stood near each doorway and counted the family members. Then he marked the number beside the doorframe in chalk. The officer with the booming voice spoke to the gathered families.

“Be out here tomorrow morning at sunrise. One small bag per person, that’s all.”

He turned and strode around the corner of the alley, followed by his policemen. A collective sigh of relief spread through the alleyway, as children pulled away from the walls and mothers and grandmothers slunk back inside their houses. The five men remained outside, circling together, their voices quiet as they began a fevered discussion.

Erin hesitated. Surely, they know I don’t belong? And yet no one questions my presence?

She moved forward to the men’s circle and scanned their faces. The looks of defeat had transformed into defiance, and fervor shone in their eyes. Erin listened as they stoked one another’s fire of rebellion — the only rebellion they could achieve.

Erin held up a hand.

“Please, may I speak?” she asked. The men spun around, studying her with surprised eyes.

“I think you should know that this war won’t last forever,” she said. The men stayed silent, wary and watchful.

“Germany will lose.” She stepped into the center of the circle, leaning in to each of the men as she spoke these words in a low voice.

The men exchanged glances. One with a gray beard spoke up. “How can you know this? Are you Resistance?”
Erin shook her head. “I know that Paris will be liberated any day now.”

“So it’s true?” asked a man with wire-rimmed glasses. “The English and Americans have invaded?”

Gray Beard waved a dismissive hand in her face. “So, this is not news. Anyone traveling from the north would know this.”

“How does an invasion of Paris help us?” asked the man with the glasses.

Erin threw up her hands, shaking her head as her mind raced to think of something, anything to get their attention. “I am here to save you and your families from suicide,” she blurted out.

Behind his glasses, the man’s eyes widened. “How can you know of this?”

“Does it matter?” she asked. “What matters is that you might be able to give your children a future after this war. But not if their lives end here. Give them time.”

Anger filled the faces of the leaders, while shame and questions filled the others.

“My children might still have a life one day,” another man said. “Can I take that away from them?”

“But they will face indignity in a Nazi camp. Have you heard of anyone who returns from the work camps?” came the answer.

“You say you are sent to save us,” Gray Beard said, walking closer to Erin and searching into her eyes. “But what about tomorrow? Will you save us from the Nazis?”

Erin’s stomach twisted and she shook her head. “I don’t know. I really don’t.”

“Who sent you here?”

Erin shrugged. “Again, I don’t know. Children? I was surrounded by schoolchildren, and…” she walked over to the ancient altar and ran her fingers across the bumpy stone. “If I save your children, maybe I save myself?” Do I even believe that?

She dropped her voice to a whisper. “I’m not saying it won’t be Hell, but if just one or two of them survive and live a full life, can you take that away from them?”

Silence met her question. One of the men wiped tears from behind his glasses, and Erin hoped their hearts had been won. The leaders eyed each other, shaking their heads.

“Just talk about it,” Erin said, backing away. “Think about the future.”

“It’s all or nothing,” the leader said. “We must be in agreement.”

The three that Erin won over exchanged looks of support, nodding at one another. The one with glasses spoke. “We will not agree to suicide, not when there is a shred of hope.”

They’ll survive the night, Erin thought to herself, but what about tomorrow? She hurried down the alleyway, following the twists and turns as twilight set in. Excitement built in her mind, tingling throughout her body as she formulated a plan. She would find the soldiers’ vehicles and sabotage them. I can do that. I can slash the tires or pull out some wires from the engine. She hurried her steps, relieved to see the end of the alleyway ahead.

When she stepped onto the street her foot met a barrier. She reached out with her hands, feeling for something solid. A jolt of electricity slammed through her body, as she flung her arms into whatever was holding her back.

“I’m trapped in this alley,” she whispered, shaking her head. She stepped back. Nothing visible prevented her passing. She ran, headlong into the intersection, only to slam against the invisible wall. She reeled back then kicked at it, grunting in frustration as she slid to the ground.

Then why am I still here? If all I can do is prevent the suicide, why am I still here? I did it.

A crow landed at her side and stared up at her. Shadows lengthened in the alley as the sun dropped down over the village. Two more crows screeched down from above, wings flapping as they danced around her legs. The clatter of silverware and the hum of voices rang through the alley as its inhabitants gathered for their evening meals.

Curious, she wandered back toward the dead end. Standing over the crumbling altar, she looked up at the moon. “Now what?”

The pleasant hum of dinnertime buzzed around her ears, until a new sound took over. Choking. Frightened voices hushing one another. Erin shot up and sprinted into the nearest house, horrified as the inhabitants slumped from their seats onto the floor. She threw her hands over her mouth as she caught the eye of the mother, who stood with tears streaming down her face as she lifted a bowl of soup to her lips. She lowered her bowl and stared back, defiant.

“No,” Erin whispered. “It was the women?” She leaned up against the doorway and cried as the woman drank of her bowl, careless of the soup that spilled over the edge onto her blouse and onto the floor. The woman dropped the bowl onto the table, and it clattered onto its side. Falling to her knees, she gathered her dead son in her arms and collapsed.

“No!” Erin called out, but the wall behind her head disappeared, sending her spinning into the abyss once again. Colors whizzed by — the yellow buildings, the blue clothes, the eyes of green, blue, and brown watching her, reprimanding her as she spun. Her ears filled with the sounds of screams until the wind whipped over them, obscuring all but its own whistling thunder. The buildings disappeared around her, whirling into nothingness.

When Erin slammed to the ground, her body screamed with pain. A baton slammed against her back — the prelude to a harsh directive to line up. The little boy next to her filled Erin in on the situation, and she looked over at an empty space on the opposite wall, remembering, the plaque. There’s where the plaque will be hung to commemorate the suicides here. She counted the families gathered and felt sick to her stomach as she studied each face, marking the sunken eyes, and bright eyes, faces dust-streaked and meticulously cleaned. Real people, she thought. These are real people. I cannot let them die here today.

When the gendarmes tromped off, leaving uneasy silence in their wake, she followed the council of men gathering around the ruined altar to debate the fate of their families. She recited her impassioned plea, relieved when their faces changed from desolate to hopeful. As they dispersed to their houses, she stood silent over the altar, waiting for the world to spin.

Wait a minute, she thought. There was something else. What was it?

Erin frowned, running her fingers over the mottled stones. It was very important that she remember. Her life, or death, or something in between, depended on it. “Oh,” she cried aloud. I was going to sabotage the army trucks! Smiling, she rushed to the end of the alley.

The jolt of electricity that coursed through her body sent her reeling back. She collapsed in a heap on the cobblestones, looking up in confusion at the end of the alley. Brushing off her arms, she stood up on wobbly legs and stretched out her arm. An invisible wall blocked the path, trapping her in the alley. She cried out in frustration, kicking at the unseen force that held her in.

“This is insane,” she said, panic rising in her stomach. She threw up her hands in surrender and wandered back to the end of the alley, listening to the sounds of dinner being served. A memory flashed through her mind.

“No!” She ran into the nearest house and dove onto the table, knocking over steaming bowls of soup. “Don’t eat it,” she yelled. The little boy sprang up from his seat, screaming as the hot soup soaked his shirt. His sister and father jumped back, frightened faces staring at her. The mother stood, motionless, watching Erin with large eyes.

“What have you done?” the mother whispered.

Erin eased herself off the table, holding out her arms in a motion of peace. As she turned to the door, she heard the sounds of death echoing across the alleyway.

“Damn it.”

She raced outside to the next house, just in time to see the mother topple over, joining her family members sprawled on the ground. The scene was the same in the next house. Erin rushed out into the alley, scattering a noisy flock of crows, and collapsed against the ancient altar.

“I can’t do this.”

The crows rose high in the sky, and then descended into her line of vision, cawing and crashing into one another as they careened down to the earth. She covered her head, cringing at the air from their beating wings and the brush of their feathers. The ground slid under her feet, whirling her around in a tornado that dragged her under the earth, its gusts filled with stones, walls, the faces of children, and the cawing of crows.

A wall of light danced in front of her as she spun around, until she finally dropped in a heap on the stones. The shimmering wall faded away, leaving Erin leaning up against the invisible barrier. She took in her surroundings. The alley seemed unchanged from the World War II scene, but she remembered it this time, all of it.

Excitement coursed through her veins, and she jumped up, hurrying through the curving alleyway. She flattened herself against the wall when a contingent of police moved out, holding their chalk. They paid her no mind as they melted right through the invisible wall. When Erin turned the corner into the dead end, the families were just breaking up and heading their separate ways. The fathers began to congregate.

Erin rushed over. “No, wait,” she said, holding up her arms and turning around to address all of the families. “Not just the men today. Can we please have a meeting with all of the adults?”

Silence met her words. The people of the alley exchanged uncomfortable glances until one woman bent over to pat her daughter on the back. “Go now, Rosalyn. Watch your brothers for me.” The other families followed suit, sending children into the houses as the grown ups gathered near the crumbling altar. They stared at Erin expectantly, shifting from foot to foot and brushing invisible dirt from their clothes as she waited for everyone to gather.

“I know that you are planning to end your lives,” she said, then waited for the shocked cries to dissipate. “The reason I know this is because it is considered a great tragedy, one of those moments in history where one thinks ‘if only they had known.’”

“If only they had known what?” a woman asked.

“Who are you?” Gray Beard asked, red-faced and angry.

Erin held up her hand. “It is not as important who I am as what I know. I know that the war in Europe ends in eight months. I know that the Allies will defeat Germany and Italy, and France will rebuild.”

Half of the crowd watched her in awe, their faces filled with hope, but derisive laughter clouded the conversation. “This is ridiculous. How can you possibly know that?”

“How can I know that there is cyanide in each of your kitchens right now? Ready to drop into the soup that you will feed your families tonight?”

One woman shook her head, tears in her eyes. “But it’s the right thing to do.”

“I cannot argue morality with you,” said Erin. “I can only say that your children have survived five years of warfare. Who’s to say they cannot make it through eight more months?”

“She’s right,” a man with glasses said. “Call it off.” Indignant responses met his words.

“Are you an angel?” asked a woman with dark hair. She approached Erin with wonder in her eyes.

“No. I just need to save these children.”

The angry bearded man spoke up. “And then what? Who is going to save them from the Nazis?”

Erin shook her head. “I am so sorry that I cannot do anything further.” She remembered her history, remembering how the work camps turned to death camps as the war came to a close, Germans desperate to exterminate as many Jews as possible in the last years. She looked around at their hopeful faces. They could all be dead in a week anyway. I can’t do anything to help them.

An old woman approached Erin, patting her on the back. “Death brings peace,” she whispered.

Erin turned back and held the woman’s gaze, wondering at her meaning. She shook her head. “No. It does not bring peace. Not as far as I know.”

Conversation rose up around her, the men and women debating their futures. The tide was turning, Erin could feel it. She sat down on the edge of the altar, listening as the passionate debate raged around her. Finally, stoic faces turned to her, hope glinting in their eyes.

“We will give our children the opportunity to survive the next eight months.” The words came from an old man brandishing a wooden cane. He waved it around as he sounded the decision. “Now, let’s eat our supper.”

The crowd disappeared into the doorways around her. The clinking of silverware and stoneware punctuated the murmurings of the supper table. She remained seated, waiting until the noises changed to scraping chairs and stacking dishes before she looked up at the glowing moon.

“Now what?” she whispered. “I am done. I am finished, right?”

From the center of the white moon, a black dot grew, bulging and breaking into the silhouettes of crows, swooping down to earth. Erin kept her eyes on the chattering flock as it rained down on her, surrounding her with cawing sounds, the flapping of wings and burning of beady eyes as the crows flew in a close circle around the altar, trapping her on its stone platform. They whirled around her, blowing her hair into her face and mouth, wings beating on her arms as she refused to cover her head. A glimpse of crimson peeked in and out of the crows, until the vision of the veiled priestess, her arms held high above her head, solidified next to the altar. Her voice thundered across the chaos. Erin screamed, but the sound was lost in the cacophony.

And then they disappeared. The wind died and the alley was peaceful, a gray tomb of uneasy silence. Erin looked down, gasping at the sight of her linen skirt and colorful scarf draped over a navy tank top. She reached down and felt her bare arms, squeezing them to make sure they were real. When she jumped down from the altar, she noticed that the historical plaque was gone. She ran over to the wall and ran her hands over the blank spot. I changed history, she thought.

When she lifted her hands, dark red streaks remained behind on the wall. She turned over her hands, shaking when she saw the blood that covered them. She looked up at the moon altar, puzzled by the pair of feet that blocked her vision. Women’s feet, freshly pedicured in Hawaiian Orchid, wearing black leather walking sandals, size 8. Her eyes traveled up the legs, over the tan linen skirt and navy tank top to her own face, looking down at the altar.

Erin’s heart stopped, and she leaned against the wall, mesmerized by the specter of herself. Or am I the specter? Is she real? A flurry of footsteps interrupted her thoughts. A dozen schoolchildren burst around the corner, chattering in French. Erin watched as her double turned around and sighed at the intrusion on her solitude. The children gathered at her left, stepping between Erin and her double, oohing and aahing at the altar and running their hands over the bumpy stones. Erin’s double stepped back, looking up, startled by the sounds of fighting birds three stories above. The children noticed too, pointing and screaming as a large planter toppled off its iron railing.

My opportunity to save myself.

Erin had only a moment to decide.

With all of her strength, she lunged at the schoolchildren, tackling them away from the altar. The planter crashed down, and she turned her head just enough to see the crushed body of her double, arms splayed out over the slick stones, eyes unseeing under wet, matted hair.

The screaming intensified as the children opened their eyes to the sight of blood-splattered cobblestones. Erin stood up, reaching out her hands to help the children to their feet, but they didn’t see her. They jostled around her, crying and hugging, unaware of her presence.

A murder of crows ascended, their silhouettes shrinking as they disappeared into the light. The alley began to glow around Erin. She turned around in a circle, reaching out her arms that now shimmered and passed through the children’s bodies like air. She could no longer feel the chafe of her sandals or the bumps of the cobblestone under her feet. Her bones weighed nothing and the lightness freed her. One last time her eyes were drawn to the crushed figure of herself draped over the ancient altar. She felt a stab of regret, a brief sadness for a life ended too soon, until a sense of peace drove the sadness away.

Bright light shone up through the cobblestones below, a powerful glow that eclipsed the solid forms around her. The children’s cries faded away with the buildings and stones. Then there was only white light that embraced her in its warmth. She closed her eyes.


Caryn Studham Sutorus writes historical and contemporary fiction for young adults and grown ups. Her short stories include tales of Viking villages, medieval saints, and modern day horror, and have been finalists for the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, Writer’s Workshop Fiction Contest, Stonethread Publishing’s SpecFic III contest, and Grey Wolfe Publishing’s American Short Story Contest. Her publishing credits include short stories published in The Grotesquerie: an Anthology of Horror, Darkhouse Books’ And All Our Yesterdays, and the Ni Bona Na Coroin anthology of American stories. As an active member of the North Carolina Writer’s Network and Charlotte Writers, she enjoys creating, editing, and discussing both fiction and nonfiction. In the professional world she writes freelance communication materials for financial companies.

Issue No. 13, Summer 2015

Bloom
Sera Flynn

It were Ramsey Reardon who found her. Weren’t but his first season on the ice, right? He was a bit nervous ‘bout the whole thing, too. Didn’t like the way the seals screamed, or the dark shocks of blood on the ice. Said it turned his stomach. Still, his missus put her foot down, said if he thought he were lying ‘round the house on unemployment all winter, he’d another thing coming. Think Cap took him on out of pity. Nar one of us who hadn’t felt the sharp side of Fancy Reardon’s tongue one time or the other.  So we helped him along, let him take the slow ones. Showed him how to do it painless, shot to the head, then skin them quick and easy, roll up the skin right neat and tip the meat over the edge of the floe into the water.

Later, when he told us the story, most didn’t believe him. We’d lost the tales of selkies ‘round these ports. Few old boys tried to pull one over, tell ‘bout how they’d been visited by the gals themselves, sometimes while on the boats, how their skin was as white as snow and so soft beneath the fingertips it were like stroking velvet. We scoffed, bought ‘em another drink. Were a pretty thought: sealskins left on the rocks, pretty lasses tripping up the path and into our beds. Just a thought.

Until Ramsey told us, that is. He found a seal at the edge of the pack, wide brown eyes. The eyes – that’s what they gibber about on those debates they have on the television. Anyway, was her eyes made him pause, Ramsey said. Raised his gun, but in his heart of hearts, he just thought “this is one too many,” and then, all of a sudden, Fancy’s voice in his head telling him he better damn well pull that trigger if he expected dinner on the table when he came home. So he closed his eyes and done it. Kneeled, started skinning. Weren’t real clear, in his telling, when he figured out something were different ‘bout this one, but regardless, when he got the skin all peeled away, there was a girl. A woman, I guess, more than a girl. Beautiful, she was, he said. Described her for us. We was leaning in and proper drooling. Lonely days out on them sealers, I tell ya right?

Beautiful, milky white skin. Hair dark as night. Curled up like a rosebud on the ice she were, he said. And suddenly he felt like the heavens were judging him, telling him “Ramsey, you are a no-good for nothing…” but at that part of the tale, he stopped. Put his hand over his eyes and all of us, open-mouthed, just stared at him as he pulled himself together.

We were all able to understand. Most of us found it a bit difficult, pushing those skinned seals into the water, watching them float down through the slushed water, but to watch a beauty like that fall away from you? Hard to imagine, wha’?

“You got the skin?” Terrance shouted from across the galley.

Ramsey slowly nodded. “Aye,” he said. “I kept it apart from the rest.”

“Well be sure,” Terrance laughed, “to tell the buyers it’s a genuine selkie sealskin, fresh from the waters off the coast of Newfoundland. Fetch you a pretty price thataway!”

And we all laughed.

Sealskin prices were high that year. Fetched us a real good price on the pelts. I figured that Ramsey Reardon must have finally gotten that screeching wife of his to stop her nagging with a payday like that. It weren’t until I popped into the convenience store to pick up a fifth of whiskey to while away the winter nights and saw Geoff McIntosh that I heard, “Ramsey Reardon, that sonofabitch, didn’t he go and tell his wife he saw a selkie?”

“What?” exclaimed Kent Fillier, who was leaning casually over the counter, pouring his coffee trying to get an eyeful of the clerk’s legs under the belt of a skirt she wore. “He ain’t still telling that story, is he?”

Geoff nodded. “Aye, and better yet, his wife believes him!”

We all knew Fancy Reardon, or Fergus as she once was known; used to tease her about her name in school, saying how she caught all our fancies, and nothing could be more true. She was a magical thing, were Fancy Fergus; all long tangled hair and petal lips. Tough as nails, try to get something over on her on a date and she’d have your fingers razed to the bone faster than you could say hallelujah. Carried a knife, she did, a wee little pocket blade and no compunction at all about using it. Still, she were a thing of myth. A real beauty, and bound for things far beyond the harbour, so we supposed.

When she took up with Ramsey, not a soul thought t’would last. He, with nothing to his name, a Reardon with a mind for poetics, not work, and no intention of having it nar other way. Nah. “Not a chance,” we said. When the baby came along six months after the wedding, it seemed like Fancy had allowed herself to be caught just like other girls. “Real shame,” we said behind her back and “beautiful lass,” as she beamed, thrusting the girl-child into our arms. Not a one of us forgettin’ that she had a knife in her pocket she weren’t afraid to use should we wish to comment publicly on the whole affair.

And the poor wee thing’s funeral? We was there, to a man. Shuffled in, sat in the last row and avoided the priest’s eyes – good ol’ Father Hannigan had been trying to hook most of us for years, he had – and paid our respects, like. Ramsey, sitting ramrod straight in the first pew with Fancy, all deflated, beside him. She became something sharp, after that. Always harping at him, she was. “Ramsey, pay the account,” and “Ramsey, ye stink of whiskey,” and “Ramsey, yer good for naught.” Her mouth shriveled into frost.

So, when Geoff told us she’d insisted on having the selkie’s pelt made into a coat for herself, we warn’t surprised. ‘Of course she did,’ we thought, nodding away. Keep her warm at night, melt all that cold in her veins. Probably weren’t just one of us who imagined lithe, lovely Fancy Fergus all wrapped up in that sealskin coat and nothing else, her little red mouth forming our names. Geoff rummaged in the back – he were a fine man, himself, for the stitching – and brought it out, showed us the thread he’d used, nice and neat, and the patterns on the fur, blossoms of dark against white. If anyone else thought they looked like blood on the ice, t’weren’t one of us willing to say so.

It were a good winter, that one, fer sealing. Made a pocketful. After season were over, there was another freeze, kept the fishing boats from breaching the harbour mouth. Everyone went a little stir crazy, I tell ya; Kent Fillier ended up running stark naked down the streets at 3 in the morning and Terrance Ropson had to coax his mother down off the roof by promising her he’d take her to the city soon’s the roads was passable. The winter, it gets under the skin sometimes, ya know? Does things to the blood.

So, when I saw Ramsey down on the wharf that May, sitting on an overturned bucket smoking a ciggie between his smile, I were a bit surprised, y’see. Ramsey was not a smiling kinda man, nervous as he were. ‘Specially since poor old Fancy’d sliced the poetry outta him. “How’s it going, Ramsey?” I called. “Lookin’ like yer having a good one, eh?”

“Aye, Garl,” he said, right soft and happy like, “not so bad, not so bad. Quite pretty, isn’t it, the way the sun’s shining off them chunks o’ ice out there in the water, eh? Big ol’ diamonds, they look like. Reckon it’ll be all gone before long and a good thing, that. Enough to dazzle a man, I figures.”

Now, ya can see why I were a bit taken aback to hear words like that outta Ramsey’s mouth. Weren’t until I asked Geoff that it all made sense, like. Turns out, Fancy took to wearing that sealskin pelt everywhere. Wore it over her housedress, and when she went to church of a Sunday. Ignored the Father’s sermon on pride and greed, she did, sitting up straight and lovely in her pew with her mouth quirked all up like a bud. Started forgetting to make the suppers, whiling away her days up on the paths by the graveyard that overlook the harbour. She took to eating over the sink, scooping pickled herring into her mouth. Ramsey said even sleeping next to her became difficult, her dark watery dreams overlapping his own.

Then one morning Ramsey came out of the house to shovel the path and found her standing on the front steps staring out across the sea. “It’s almost gone,” she said, or at least that’s what Ramsey told Geoff who told me, you see. “Ice’s almost gone and then there’s no way out past the harbour.”

Ramsey figured she were talking about the turbot boats going out, so he tells her the ice breaker is scheduled for the week coming, but she just looks at him, eyes all wide and dark, and says, “Too late. That will be too late.” And just like that, bare feet and everything, off she goes. Walks down the path, across the road, taking long strides like she’s in a hurry for something, and steps out onto the ice. Not long before it give way beneath her weight, as slight as she were. She just let the sea take her. Ice closed over her head. By the time poor old Ramsey got over his shock and went after her, all he found was a blossom of blood on the ice where she must have cracked her head going through.

Mighty queer thing, that, I tell you. Mighty queer. Rumors traveled around the ports for a few days, how maybe Ramsey’d finally decided he’d had enough of Fancy’s griping and set upon her. But I reckon not. I knew Fancy Fergus, see. Knew her since I were a boy. I reckon wrapped up in that selkie’s pelt, she felt things inside of her melting, coming to Spring; roses finally unfurling their petals, and knew if she stayed where she was to, the ice would harvest it all.


Sera Flynn is a star-catcher who lives at the edge of the world with two savage beasties and an untamed husband. She likes to write at midnight and she collects folklore.

Issue No. 13, Summer 2015

The Making of Mermaids
Ken Poyner

Standing at water’s edge, ankle deep into the serpentine sea, I soon cannot feel the bleary pulse of my toes.  I know it is still there, but the crisp of the water hides it deep within its own locket and I lose my specifics in its glimmer.  The waves, of gentle period and gentle rise, are perniciously gentle today.  Even with the water’s crooning temperature, I can make it far enough out that coming back will not be a concern.  I will be a spot on the waves a moment, arms and legs lazily windmilling the water, and then I will lapse recompensed beneath.  I will transform.

Feet to fin, lungs to gills, skin to scale, commitment to capture.

It has been months since my husband was taken to sea by the mermaid.  I do not think I will see him when I join the clan.  By now, he has gone around the tip of our lands and to foreign coasts; or out into the deeper water where he can pride in the dark and slip caustically through the pressure made of the weight shouldered by an unattached ocean.  His mermaid captor no doubt will be with him, a trail of unwanted oxygen, a sensuous fan of seaweed, an offer of crustacean delights.

Or he is drowned.  And she has gone to another.

I do not think poorly of her.  He would fish, suspended in the dull mechanism of his life, and tell me of what he had seen at only the edge of the eye, obscured as the sun dropped to drive the fishermen in.  A presence; perhaps a protection.  Later, he began to hear the song:  the wail lifted barely at wave top, a rhythm that melded with his net, that melded with the oars, that melded at last with the unconscious patter of his salting heart.

He did not grow cold to me.  I was his wife, the love he had when he was balanced, when he did not have to lean into ocean swell.  I was four walls, the process of making his fish commercial, the everyday exasperation of respiration and unbroken gravity.  I kept him while he was the automaton of his own upkeep.

But he had been raised a fisherman.  The ocean would hold him.  His catch was a gift of the sea.  Into his existence there was placed the magical.

I was the practical end of his magical day.   When I held the strength of his desires, there would always be the binary of the waves, the churning of the shallow.  I would come up for air too often, and look to the dry as though it were a superior condition.

He believed in me less each day, and I could feel the hard edges of him growing briny.

When he finally saw the full license of her, he came to me to describe his opulent mermaid.  Others believed, in silence; but he wanted to share, and he could only share his discovery with someone herself becoming a mythical woman.  I was waxing, even then a commitment of the shadows.  He talked of how at first there was but the back of her, driving the body down, racing below the waves and away from any man’s sight.  And then, once, there was the fluke.   An emblem:  the mark of claiming separateness.   Soon the dive became slower.  He stopped trying to call to attention the other fishermen, and instead luxuriated alone in the sight.  And one day she dove no more, but propped herself in the water and gazed over the whole of the boat, over all the men engaged in dragging sustenance from the sea – but fixed on him:  he at the back of the boat, his fingers stilled in their working the greedy magic of the nets.

He began to see her nearly every trip, and nights he would describe her to me, listing her boldness and her features and the baitfish moves she could expose, as his fingers drew incautious circles on the flat of my stomach, or looped unthinking in my hair.  He moved his hands as though his fingers hid webbing. His lovemaking, always smelling just short of the shore, now reeked more of deep oceans, of the devilfish and the kraken:  a thing of coiling and liquefaction and drifting as the antidote to drift.   I could not fear his beak, but neither could I understand it.  I was drawn in to where the monsters of the deep break human bone and join worlds together.

And then he was gone.  The crew of the boat heard nothing, saw nothing, perceived no distress.  There was no noticeable man-weight dragging in the net, tipping the boat; no army of arms and legs thrashing; no cry of imbalance.  The sailors looked back to see him in his useful work, and he was gone.  Where his feet should be already the water had erased his presence from the bottom of the boat.

Gone.  No more.  An absence at the back of the fishing craft; an emptiness in the process of needed work; something more for another to do.  A clumsiness of air drawn crossly into lungs no longer.  A history drawn to the end of its paragraph, with a seraph of oars and nets and fish heads.  A story better in construction than in conclusion.  A wife unhusbanded.

There is magic in this water.  A calling.  If I were to wade out until I could walk no further, then swim until I could swim no further, then sing into the waves until my singing were the sound of a net scraping stone, I could then perhaps become like my sister:  a legend better in the telling than in the doing, a desire better in the sight than in the holding.  I could lure men to my possibilities, their imaginations filled with completing what they do not have the rudder for; with knowing what they do not have the imaginations for; with wanting what they would no longer want upon breathing the understanding of it.

With practice and guile and the learning of my new school, I could bring, like netted market fish, working men to me.   Any man who would be long with the sea.  I could take them willingly down to their dear drowning, their embrace of the cold heart of water, their final kiss of nothing beyond their own reflected desires.   I could leave ever growing legions of others like me unhusbanded:  for a while their unapologetic hands would form the rounds of husbands, the explorations of men, the edges of being unfilled.  They would learn slowly the terms of their abandonment.

I can make of many women sinful shells to be filled with the sea.  I can be the agent of being no longer alone.   Come with me.  I breech and skim and dive and create whirlpools of emotion.  Men fall in feral love with me for no other reason than I am imagined.  Men fall in love with me for no purpose beyond proving they might have a special sight and a special need.  I feel myself a history of the fluke, of the scale.  Fill your emptiness with the craft of making.  Come.  Breathe the cleansing waters of longing.  Be sisters.


Ken Poyner has lately been seen in Analog, Café Irreal, Cream City Review, The Journal of Microliterature, Blue Collar Review, and many wonderful places. His latest book of short fiction, Constant Animals, is available from his website, kenpoyner.com, and from Amazon. He is married to Karen Poyner, one of the world’s premier power lifters, and holder of more than a dozen current world power lifting records. They are the parents of four rescue cats, and an energetic fish.

Issue No. 13, Summer 2015

Frigg Mourns
Ani King

Grief is a knife, sharp edge turned in, lying on a folded napkin. The plate is an empty plateau I cannot bear to climb. There will be no celebration. Do you remember, my love, when you fed me plump cloudberries from your scarred hand? You caught the juice that ran down my chin with your tongue.

Or soon after: “Here, Wife,” from under the marble arch. “Here is my victory. It is yours.” You knelt in front of me, while I straddled your throne. “My throne is yours,” you said, and sweat from your damp hair spilled on my thighs.

And now, what of our sons, All-father? Do you seek them in the holy empty space with your holy empty eye? What of Baldr? I loved him first, while he swam in my womb. I loved him even more than Hodr. I shouldn’t say so, but Hodr’s blindness frightened me at times. And was I wrong? He was so easily tricked into flinging the mistletoe, that tender enemy, into his brother’s heart?

A child is a sucking chest wound that never heals, pressed upon to cause pain. They grow older, call us Mother, and forget us. We become an afterthought: the wound seeps and bleeds. Our sons, they drift away to orbit around other suns, other women whose breasts provide different nourishment.

I blame Hodr, but I am at fault. Loki tricked me first.

“No, Wife”, you say, “How could you have known?” But I, mother of all mothers, how could I not consider every small thing? That’s the way of mortal mothers: feed, bathe, clothe, love, but leave the pot boiling or the door unlocked. Remember the monsters, but forget the unlatched gate. Mistletoe has become my swinging gate.

When Loki in robes, Loki with a maiden’s mouth, asked why Baldr could withstand spears, arrows, and the mighty blows of his brothers’ fists, I should not have answered. Oh, I should not have been so proud of my beautiful boy.

“All but the mistletoe, but it is too young for oaths, and what damage could it do?” I said, and poured more wine.

Now I weep and you stare out the window, unblinking. You weep and I stare at you. Your darkest freckles are an unnamed constellation on your marred cheek.

Are you thinking of your other sons, perhaps? Or Thor’s mother? Jord, giantess, who smells of loam and seed and wheat.

“I only think of you and our son,” you say, but the lie is obvious in the way you do not even turn to me or take my hands.

I cannot stand to think of others at this time.

I do not despise the weight of your heavy head at my breast, but the scent of blood makes me weary. I cannot bear it tonight. Poor Hanna flung herself on the pyre with Baldr. Perhaps I should have done the same. Your brothers, Vili and Ve, offer flesh for comfort. What fools you all are. You turn the words in my mouth to ash.

***

I cannot bear to pace these empty stone halls alone. I can hear Baldr and Hodr rounding corners too quickly, I can hear them squabbling, and laughing. This is a place for ghosts, not gods. Why do you not come for me?

“Please,” I cry. “Please, who will help me?” But who answers the pleas and prayers of a god? Certainly not you, dear husband.

Only Hermod, yet another marching in your parade of sons, comes to me. “Great Mother,” he calls me. I want to slap his slender face. I am no one’s mother now. Even as all those hopeful women pray to me, send their pleas worming into my brain, I ignore them. I do not wish to grant children and comfort to anyone right now. Perhaps never again.

“Great Mother, what can I do? I will ride Sleipner to the halls of Hel herself if you wish,” he proclaims, on his knees.

Your boys are always throwing themselves on the ground and begging for danger. This time, I don’t mind.

So I send Hermod to Hel, because I have nothing left to lose. Perhaps Loki’s fearsome daughter will release my son to me.

I cannot rest while I wait for news. I pace and worry at the edges of things – hems, curtains, memories. Baldr at three, golden, his small fingers yanking your beard. Baldr, a bit older, peering into the abyss of your eye socket. Baldr and Hodr arm in arm, laughing- the sun and the moon, together. All those pretty blonde women flashing around them like stars.

Hermod returns so delighted with himself that he resembles Baldr in his bearing, despite his weaker chin and thinner hair.

“Tell me of him, did you see my son?” It is I who begs from stiff knees this time.

“He is seated in a place of honor, Great Mother. Hel feeds him fish and berries from her own hands.”

“And Hel, what has she said? Will she not return my boy to me?”

“She bade me give you this message, ‘Great Mother, my ransom is this: if Baldr is truly so loved and missed, let all living pay the price of his return in tears. Let all weep, and I will return him. If even a single creature does not bear the loss, then he will remain with me.’”

That half-faced girl toys with me.

“Her father’s daughter,” you murmur, and I wonder, All-father, if you’ve had her as well.

All weep, save Tokk, that stubborn giantess bitch. The ground is salt-brined with sorrow. The mistletoe cries out the loudest. But Tokk will not save my son for me. Not even a sniffle. I beg. Tear at my hair and breast. I send her great baskets of fruit, casks of wine, all manner of beast and bird, dressed in their own rich juices. I offer your victories and my own. The sun itself. And still, Tokk will not bend.

Could you not ply her as you have so many other giants? Stroke Tokk’s hair, suckle her breasts. Even take her across our throne, legs splayed wide, grunting under your fingers. I suppose that would be too much to ask. You will not drop your trousers to save our Baldr? Pin your hopes on Thor then, that brass-hammered cretin.

Give my son or give me justice. Do not sit there and demand that I be reasonable.

I spit on you all. “My love,” you protest, but you drift off without expending the effort an argument would require.

***

“It is done,” you say, and order a feast such as none have ever seen. It’s a foolish request; one buckling table is the same as the next, much like one drunken guest resembles any other. I do as you ask, though. I am too weary to argue.

You stare out the window, and I stare at you. The plates are full, the feast begins. Your pale gaze rests further out, perhaps on the edge of time itself. The earth trembles, the glasses shake, and oddly enough I see you smile.

All-father, you look almost happy, reveling in your tale. Your laugh rumbles through the hall like thunder as our guests mock Loki, pinioned and bound by his own son’s grey, ropy entrails, angry serpent overhead. “When venom drops on his skin he writhes and screams. He fathers earthquakes rather than children now.”

But there is also Sigyn, Loki’s poor wife, stuck holding such a small bowl. How frequently she must turn away to empty it on the floor! As if it were her fault, as if she played a part.

I forget how alike you and Loki can be, with your games, and your constant need for victory. I wonder if sometimes you love your losses as sons; they are an excuse for yet another battle. As long as that battle has no true purpose. Where was your sword when I needed it most?

No matter what devices are employed to torment the monster, they will not bring my Baldr back. Still, I must admit, when the ground shudders, I feel a little more like myself again.


Ani King is an oddly reliable whisky drinker located in Lansing, Michigan.

Issue No. 13, Summer 2015

Scander and the Red Briar Prince
Sean Robinson

Once upon a long ago, two cities vied to be the Heart of the World.

Rigel was the elder, perched on the desert sands. Its heart was a great shifting dune upon which the tent-masters pitched their homes. It was the oasis of caravans, where they sat out the rainy seasons of the west, and the winter storms from the north. Rigel was a proper city with a Unicorn and Phoenix and king. It wanted for nothing, but to beat its desert heart down the trade roads.

Gilead was the younger, and it nestled against the western edge of a great sea. Though it dreamed gentle dreams, it grew great towers of limestone and marble. Its parks curled around cobblestone markets. It was a proper city too, if young and untried. Its Unicorn was a small-hoofed mare, its Phoenix a new-fledged tiercel who had not yet learned to love the lullaby of the surf. Gilead’s queen though, was a creature of great intent and purpose. She lusted for her city to be the Heart of the World.

It is the way of things that wars cannot be fought between cities. The laws that govern such things as the purposing of a place are mapped and choreographed like a great dance. Cities do not war, people do. They war with great armies, they war with songs and feats of malice, they war in children’s hearts. And as both Gilead and Rigel sought to be the Heart of the World, they called to the Storykeeper of Cities, who presided over such happenings.

“The world must have a heart of fire,” Rigel said in the language of cities. It whispered to Storyteller’s ears in the wheels of the caravans. “It must burn like magic, a heart must change with the seasons. It must be empty and barren, lush and overgrown.”

Gilead spoke in the voice of heroes on their quests: “The Heart of the World must be fearless in all ways. It must love and hold nothing back. It must hate and leave no thing unscoured.”

“The Heart must be old,” Rigel argued in a voice of coins changing hands. “Only if the Heart is old, can it guide the world.”

But Gilead spoke in the dying breath of a woman girdled with iron mail, “The Heart must be young. It must be willing to find new ways to live.”

On and on the cities fought. The Storykeeper listened as a good mother does when her children squabble over the last persimmon in a basket, or the last vial of attar’s scent the eve of a party.

“Enough,” she said to them at last.

“Who shall it be then?” Gilead demanded.

Rigel though itself the sure-win. “Yes, tell us.”

The Storykeeper, though, was a creature of wiles.

She said, “Let there be a contest. You shall each choose your champion, born of gentle park and high tower, born of billowing tent and trade call. Let them face eachother and the winner of that testing return in victory to the Heart of the World.”

“But I have no champion,” Rigel said.

“Then grow one, for I have mine picked just fine!” Gilead cried.

The Storykeeper of Cities merely smiled, settled back in silence and waited the waiting of knowing mothers.

***

In Gilead, the Queen had ruled for many years. Vast was her will, her power, her name and she had borne two sons. The first, Gilead loved like an eagless loves their first-hatched chick. Vast had no capacity for love, but she raised the boy to be a king for when the throne no longer gave her pleasure. The second, she looked down upon as a squalling baby and said, “I have no use for you.”

It was this second boy, Scander, that Gilead took to hero. As he grew, fed by the gentle dreams of the city and the harsh whims of the queen, his dark hair and amethyst eyes marked him out for a purpose greater than his mother’s whipping boy. He would change the world.

To Scander, Gilead gave a special gift. Like all cities, it breathed a spark of magic into him. For its hero though, the city gave a special power—memory. While others burnt faith, or blood, or dreams to fuel the fires of their magic, Gilead’s hero burnt memory. He would be, the city thought, like a heart: to remember and forget in equal measure.

The city took the business of raising Scander very seriously. It made sure his feet carried him where he belonged, no matter how much he tried to hide from his lessons and teachers and punishments. But, too, Gilead grew tranquil havens for the boy—to go about the business of learning his magic and his learning. The city went so far as to make sure that no suitors arrived to court its hero.

Scander, Gilead thought, would do best growing into manhood never knowing requited love. Instead, he learned the lessons of heroes—to fight and persevere and to dream with longing. The city thought itself quite clever and well championed.

Across the world, Rigel faced a predicament. It was a trade city, hot and changing. It had never had—or needed—a hero before. The King was an old man who had no children. Rigel thought for a long time, drawing into the shifting dunes that were its heart. It listened longer still, to the voices of traders at their campsites, to the wagons that rolled across the world.

Rigel was an old city, one of the firstborn in the world. When it had waited, and thought, and listened enough, it called down the roads. It is as simple to a city as breathing is to a coin maker. Rigel called for what it needed, and in the way of things, what the city needed came.

The first was a seed, blown on the trade winds across the desert. The second was water from the aqueduct of a far-off city. Rigel took both into its heart. It was not simple to still the winds and the shifting sands. But the city let the seed grow and did its best to suffer the ache of roots digging through its private spaces.

So intent was Rigel on the making of a hero, it did not hear the fear of the populous that rose when grey-stalked brambles rose from the sand. They ripped the silk-sided tents of the caravan masters, choked the streets with stunted green leaves and sharp points, broke the axels of the wintered caravans.

Rigel’s king came to the heart of the city, where the brambles grew into a sharp-thorned wall. The king had never known fear, and he walked into the tangle, though it clawed his arms and tore his flesh. In the very heart of the heart of the Rigel, was a single red flower, as tall as the King, with petals the crimson of crushed carmine. The king touched the unopened bud with a bloody finger. Of all the things Rigel had heard went into the crafting of a child, blood was the chief among ingredients. It let the flower bloom to reveal a boy with hair the color of poppies and eyes the color of pollen.

The king had never wanted a son, but he took the boy anyway, to raise as best he could. Rigel was satisfied, and went back to the business of cities, confident in the knowledge that its champion was the best that could be bred.

The boy was named Briar.

***

“My champion has come of age,” Rigel caroled down the trade roads. “He is swift-witted, quick to anger, fast to love. He burns knowing that the world is his if he can take it. I am the Heart of the World.”

But Gilead disagreed. “No, my champion has been tempered through adversity. He loves though he has never tasted it on his tongue, or felt it on his face. He has known loss and deprivation. He knows the value of things.

“My boy has known nothing but the finest things. He can taste the vintage of wine from the lees of a cup. He may set the cups and plates for dinner in any city. He has lacked for nothing in all his days. He whims and it is answered,” Rigel said.

“Then he will make a poor hero, indeed,” Gilead sneered.

“Your boy will wither at the first hot breath of a storm,” Rigel said.

The Storykeeper of Cities had enjoyed the years of quiet and did not appreciate the renewal of bickering. Privately, she thought that neither deserved the honor, but no other city had risen to the challenge or staked claim in the altercation to come.

“What will the challenge be then?” the cities demanded. They were eager as children are, but they had forgotten that the Storykeeper had once been their wet nurse and confidant. She knew them better than they knew themselves.

“Let your heroes face the world,” she said. “Let them test themselves against the cities and the roads and you will leave them to it. One of you has bred your hero like a gardener growing a single red rose. The other has plucked the finest fruit from their trees and let fate do what it would. Let them go and trouble me no more.”

Red Briar left Rigel with the caravans and all the pomp the city could muster. He rode a destrier the color of old silver. A cortege followed behind him, to meet his every whim. He did not look back as he trooped down the road. The people cheered him and Rigel smiled smugly to itself.

Scander stole a sword from the armory of his mother’s palace. It was a serviceable piece of metal, and he knew that anything finer would be missed. He took the sturdiest set of boots from his room and snuck out along the quiet canals, down sleeping streets and out onto the road that lead off into the distance. He did not look back. Scander offered a quiet prayer to the City that no one would miss him until he was too far down the road to matter.

To be fair, both men had their share of adventures. But to be equally fair, the beloved of cities are rarely beloved of roads. Red Briar’s cortege did not last long before wagon wheels broke, mighty mounts fell to wasting sickness, and the servants that had made up the young prince’s bed with cloth-of-gold since found nicer appointments.

Scander had never known the privilege of his station, and did not miss them, but he found the spaces between cities to be lonely. There was no one to talk to as the stars wheeled overhead, or share the strangeness of new places, new foods.

Red Briar dispatched raiders who attacked the city of Foy. He stood before the city’s great bridge, sword in hand. He sweat yellow pollen and the ground around him erupted in roses and poppy. The vines writhed and the pollen flew and when the battle had ended, Foy’s queen tended the prince’s wounds with her own hands.

Scander found Ellyson, with its sheep herds and weavers. Its lord and lady, Warp and Weft, supped him at their table.  When morning came and Weft had been abducted from her bedchamber, it was Scander who went out into the dawn and brought her home. He was quiet in his power and skill, he merely returned her and spoke nothing of what it had cost him. He did not remember being supped at Ellyson’s table. He left in the night. His was a lonely road.

On and on, the two paralleled each other across the world. On and on Rigel and Gilead waited for their two champions to settle which city would become the Heart of the World. Red Briar’s horse died, Scander’s boots wore through. But they moved ever closer, the roads winding like a great gyre until they met.

***

Red Briar was not as beautiful as he had been. His red hair did not shine, his armor was lost along the road. But the pollen-yellow of his eyes was bright and clear. He held his head high as he came, at last from the east, to Marad Tir. Scander came by a different road, from the west. But it was time and past time.

The princes had never seen a city like Marad Tir. Its outer wall was a series of arches of pale blue stone, chased through with veins of silver. Stranger still, was that as each walked beneath the walls and into the clear light of the city, there were no people. Marad Tir was a silent city. Once, there might have been people who crowded its thoroughfares, but the only sound either could hear was the gentle fall of water in the distance.

Both were tense, the city was strange and the air was heavy with foreboding. It wasn’t until each reached the center of the city, with a wide plaza and a deep reflecting pool that they each realized they were not alone. They saw each other first, coming from separate directions. Each slowed and took in the other. Each was travel-worn and weary. Both were armed with swords that knew the taste of blood.

But sitting at the edge of the reflecting pool was a woman neither knew. She wore a cape that pooled on the ground beside her. She trailed the tips of her fingers in the water behind her.

“Who are you?” Red Briar asked as he approached.

She smiled. “Who are you?”

“I am the Prince of Rigel and I have asked you the same question,” he replied. In his travels, Red Briar had never been treated with less than the utmost respect. Few places or peoples were willing to cross the child of the caravan city. Trade was too important.

“You’re also rude,” Scander said. “Do you always introduce yourself by lording who you are at people you meet? That doesn’t seem very princely to me. I’m Scander, by the way—”

Red Briar stopped short, surprised. “You should know how to talk to your betters.”

Scander smiled and turned to the woman. Her skin was pale, like alabaster, but when Gilead’s prince tried to meet her eyes, he couldn’t. Not because she was particularly beautiful, or particularly ugly. No, the woman in the cloak had no eyes, only skin where they should have been.

“How can I help you?” Scander asked.

He did not expect the other man to push him aside. But Red Briar, who had never, in all his life, been made to wait his turn, pushed Scander aside. The two went about pushing each other for some time, until both were bloody and dirt-stained. The woman though, merely waited as she had for the coming of Rigel’s Prince and Gilead’s prince. She did not think the two men who tussled like puppies were the best champions for two cities hoping to become the Heart of the World.

But she was duty-bound.

***

“There is a monster,” she said. “It hides in this pool and because of it, there are no people left in this place.”

The Red Briar prince had no interest in killing a monster. Scander looked at the water thoughtfully. Something did not quite sit right about things for him. It was too unlikely that he would stumble upon an abandoned city, with only a woman and a pool and a monster, and a prince.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

The woman only smiled. “Who so ever can destroy what lurks in the pool will win themselves a great prize. A greater prize still will go to the cities that birthed you.”

Both Scander and Red Briar took the measure of the other. Scander judged the man’s ripped finery, the places where his pale skin met the deep red of his hair. He noted the smoothness of his hands, and the jutting point of his chin. Red Briar saw that Scander wore uninteresting leather and that his hands were criss-crossed with scars. Red Briar did not care for someone so obviously low-born and nodded toward the woman.

“I will dispatch the beast,” he said and without a flourish placed his boot on the lip of the pool and stepped onto the water. Only, the pool was not the thin reflecting place Red Briar believed, and with an equal lack of flourish, he sank beneath the surface, barely disturbing the gentle ripples.

“Will you let him take the prize?” she asked Scander. “If he does, I do not think you’ll enjoy the world that follows. Will you dive in too?”

Scander did not want to. He did not like the stillness of the city. He did not like the taste of fate and story on his tongue. But he knew, as the children of Gilead always know, that his duty was to find whatever lurked beneath the water. Find it, face it, slay it.

“What can you tell me about what hides in the water?”

The Storykeeper of Cities smiled.

“That your young friend has the advantage of looking upon it with fresh eyes. For you, it will be an old enemy.”

He nodded to her and stepped onto the lip of the stonework. The sound that filled the quiet was softer than it should have been and it faded back into silence. The Storykeeper of Cities waited a while longer, and tilted her face toward the sun.

Red Briar expected the wet and the cold, but he did not expect that it would be so quickly followed by air and light and the sound of birds. He exploded from the water. He did not have time to gather himself before he heard the water erupt a second time and Scander followed.

The monster did not appear at first, but instead watched the two. It had lived a long time, and had grown fat in the silence of Marad Tir. It moved quietly, unseen, tasting the air as the men found their footing, pushed the water from their eyes, and drew the swords from their scabbards.

It struck the crimson one first, because he smelled of warmth and heat.

Red Briar did not realize that when the world shimmered that the battle had begun. He found himself in Rigel’s square. The air was hot and he had a moment to remember the scent of sand on the wind before pain flashed through him. Vines erupted from the ground and lashed his wrists together. Red Briar was alone, and he had never been alone before.

He screamed.

Scander was a breath faster, moving away from the monster, but not fast enough. It struck Gilead’s prince and Scander felt the memory well up from him. He was on his knees beneath the stained glass windows of his mother’s palace. He had been caught trying to sneak away from his lessons.

Fear pooled inside his chest. Scander didn’t want to be beaten again.

Though he could see his mother’s embroidered slippers, no lash fell. If he focused, Scander could feel a sword in his hand, fingers wrapped around a leather grip. He swung backward and up, letting the inside edge of his sword bite deep into something he could not see.

Red Briar was not so lucky. The vines of his memory pulled at him, tore at him. He could not remember ever being in such pain before, he couldn’t remember his father breathing so much as an unkind word.

He clung to that, and the monster’s hold faded and he was kneeling on the cobblestones on the other side of a fountain, in a city he’d never been to before. He lay there for only a moment though, because his rival was fast attacking something that bent the sunlight.

Scander fought the monster, striking against it, though he could not make out scales or flesh or teeth. Every time his sword bit, he was thrust into another memory: his brother’s hand across his face, the ache in his stomach when he’d been two days without food.

Red Briar tried to fight as well. His blade cut nights staring at the stars, the chill of winds without hearth fires, and the ache of being alone. He saw the faces of the people who had walked away from him and he couldn’t fight anymore.

Scander though, brushed it aside and as the monster began to bleed, he saw thick shoulders and a long neck. He saw teeth and a blunt nosed face and when the monster fought him no longer, he stopped. Gilead’s prince was sore and his skin sang with cuts.

Red Briar watched as the monster struggled. He rallied himself and picked the sword from the ground and closed the distance as hate grew in his heart. Before Scander could speak or move, Rigel’s prince finished the monster.

As the sword found flesh the world faded and both princes were near-drowned by water. Only when they pulled themselves from the pool, the old woman faced them.

“Why did you do that?” Scander demanded as he pushed the water from his eyes. “The beast was beaten. All it was, was memory. What business did you have to slay it?”

“It hurt me,” Red Briar said. “It hurt you. I was sent to dispatch it and that is what I have done.”

Red Briar did not know to be careful, or to still his tongue. He did not know that as he walked to the woman, his fate had been sealed. He did not know how to hear Rigel’s voice down the trade roads.

“I would like my reward now,” he said.

The Storykeeper of Cities was, above all things, fair.

“So be it,” she said.

Red Briar did not expect her hands to come up, or for the push when they met his shoulders. He did not realize how close he’d been to the edge of the reflecting pool or what it meant when he was submerged in the water again. He did not know anything more for a very long time, until memory grew on him thick like scales and he lurked as a monster in a forgotten city.

Scander was quiet for a long time.

“I didn’t expect him to do it,” he said. “I wasn’t fast enough to stop him.”

“Would you have stopped him?” the old woman asked.

“It was only memory, how can memory hurt us if we don’t let it?”

She nodded. “That is why you succeeded and he failed. The Red Briar Prince had never faced himself and been found wanting.”

Gilead did not cheer, it did not seem right as Rigel mourned.

“What boon would you have of me?” she asked the prince, who had tears forming in his purple eyes.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?”

He thought a hard moment. “Love.”

She smiled and took Scander by the hand. They left Marad Tir to the silence of its arches and the stillness of its pool. Scander, to the road and the journey he had wished for, and the Storykeeper to her duties and the quiet of satisfied mothers.

And that is how Gilead became the City at the Heart of the World.


Sean Robinson’s work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Betwixt, and is forthcoming from Apex Magazine.