For the first thirteen years of her life, the planet was silent. No birdsong. No construction. Only the gentle sway of an ocean pushing and pulling against the aqueous humors of her left eye. Late at night, while her parents slept, she often lay awake and listened to the dense water solidify itself, the salts forming crystals, the crystals becoming pillars in a great, cavernous hall populated at first by no one, and then: music. A pure, high note so sudden it woke her from her slumber and conjured the image of a miniature flautist performing deep in the canal of her ear. Only the sound was part of her, she realized—the first beat in a rhythm she had been unknowingly teaching these crystals as they coalesced in the spaces between words and breaths. Her body was their language. Her heartbeats, her sneezes. Her haphazard attempts to mirror her mother’s Spanish. The crystals absorbed it all and played her life back to her to say: We’re here. We exist.
If she closed her eyes and listened, she could hear them communicate with each other. Mi nombre es Adagio. I’m Sharp. I’m Grave. I should eat. I must. I am. They fed on light through her pupil, synthesizing crystalline energies. Sunlight was best, then moonshine, then fluorescent, incandescent, and halogen. Only when starving would they eat the light from her phone, that pale ethereal glow providing no nutrients, no sustenance—just a desperate act of survival. Go outside, the crystals would shout when she stared at the screen too long, and once outside she would have to stay there an hour, maybe two, to feed them. Hungry crystals clamoring in the dark.
She hated to hear them shatter. All the little pieces lodging in the planet’s crust.
Her eye was becoming a graveyard.
Her crystals were outgrowing their castles. No one would say it out loud, but she knew. It was painfully obvious in the way their bodies hummed at night, that sullen way they poked at the crumbling pillars in the great halls, the way kids kick at pine cones, knowing how much potential for life they once held.
After so many years, she knew what they were thinking: More light.
I have to get out of here.
She didn’t know any ophthalmologists, nor any crystallographers, and when she thought of looking for one, the crystal bodies vibrated with panic, broken prisms in a microscopic lattice. No photographs, their humming said. No petri dishes, no tuning forks, no experiments. Through her, they had seen too many movies about encounters with extraterrestrial life; they knew that their sentience would be a death sentence. That in the absence of predators to keep it in line humanity viewed all other intelligence as an existential threat to its self-image. She could not allow scientists to poke and prod and strike a tuning fork to determine the exact frequency necessary to shatter the crystals from within and eliminate the enemy.
No, she would have to extract the planet on her own.
It should be simple enough. According to the internet, ophthalmologists routinely poked holes under patient eyelids to drain the eye of excess fluid and, thus, relieve the pressure that caused glaucoma. She could do much the same with only a hypodermic needle and the eye patch from last Halloween’s costume, which would help speed recovery.
While taping open her eyelids, she soothed the crystals with simple chatter. Did you know the human eye heals faster than almost any other part of the human body? An anatomical marvel produced by millions of years of evolution. Imagine the injuries my ancestors must have had and healed from; imagine their wonder in looking up into the mouth of a saber tooth tiger. The blood! The carnage! Just a little pinch. She slid the needle in so easily it frightened her. She thought the process would be more painful, the planet more difficult to extract from the universe of her body, but it just slipped out of her like a tear, all that salt whispering away before she could think to say wait.
How will I know if you survive this?
She felt the loss like a gulf opening between them. A great silence where once was music.
Is this death? She could not know. All she could do was inject the aqueous fluid from her eye into the tiny glass snow globe she had drained and refilled with saline. If the planet settled (if without the benefit of her gravity it careened through the snow globe, ricocheting off the walls as inertia drew it inexorably to the floor), she could not say. Its new container was still and quiet, no humming, no vibration. Just a pinprick, a miniscule glint of light, like a rainbow before it decides to form. Give it time, she told herself. Her planet might have survived and her crystals might well be growing in the happy medium of saline. She hoped so.
She set the snow globe down gently. Tucked it behind a potted plant on the windowsill so it would always get enough light.
And then she waited, dreaming of the day the crystals were big enough to say hi.
Author’s Note: To be perfectly honest, the title of the story comes from something my girlfriend said while we were cuddling: that a reflection in my glasses made it look like there was a planet in my eye. Obviously, I had to turn that phrase into a story! What would life be like for a girl with a planet in her eye? The story went through a couple false starts—a Star Trek: The Next Generation-inspired crystalline entity, a scary foray into the world of surveillance biometrics—before I landed on this more intimate, personal approach. Often, when we write about something growing inside us, it turns into a story of illness as invasion or pregnancy as body horror (see also: Alien). In this story, I wanted to counter that trend with something both haunting and fulfilling. Something, ultimately, hopeful.
Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Pleiades, khōréō, The Florida Review Online, Wigleaf, Baffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 & 2022, Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She co-organized the performance series Fight for Our Lives and served as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. In 2023, she will be a visiting writer at University of Washington Bothell.
The desert had been trying to kill her for two days. Gently. Lovingly.
Come drink. The water is cool and sweet. The desert’s voice sounded deep in her mind, deeper than the ocean.
Zazy tugged her hood forward to get a sliver more shade. Not today, my friend, she replied. She spotted the bonecrawler nest the desert wanted to convince her was a bubbling spring. Heat fatigue washed through her. For a moment, her eyes unfocused and the trickle of insects did resemble running water. Zazy closed her eyes. No, thank you.
Always be courteous to the desert, Grandmother had said, for it is very old. You had to deflect its entreaties softly, with just a puff of mental energy. A harsh response earned the desert’s rage. Instead of suggesting she scoop up the venomous insects, it would force her over there, and she’d waste energy resisting.
She didn’t have any energy to waste, not since the bandits shot her hat off. The bone-studded band had kept her safe, blocking the desert’s voice nicely. So nicely. Almost like being back home. But home was many miles and years away…
You are home, Izazyl.
Zazy started awake. Her head whacked the boulder she’d slumped against, and she nearly clunked her skull again with the pistol she’d drawn. Around her shimmered a mirage—a blue tiled courtyard, a golden door. Zazy focused on her mental shield, which was far too thin. It’d been strong, once. A glistening sphere around her mind, iridescent, blue and pink and violet and orange, the color of a desert sky at sunset. But it had worn away, losing its luster. And with her hat gone, she’d had it up constantly, and it had waned further. Now it was translucent, gray, and thin, thin, thin. She slid the deep voice out of her mind. You are my home, desert. She had nothing else, no one else.
The bandits had caught up with them two days ago at twilight. One of them had been a strong duelist. He’d gotten her own mind to throw her body off her longscale mount—and into a ravine. It’d taken her all night to climb out. She shouldn’t be traveling during the day’s heat, but she wasn’t leaving her mount in their hands.
“I’m coming, Khoko,” she croaked.
Lurching forward, she crawled over baked white earth until she reached the lip of the gorge where the bandits were waiting out the day. Zazy dropped to her stomach and peered over the edge.
The gorge was deep. Bands of color striped the walls: indigo, violet, vermillion. Proof the desert had once been an ocean, its coral now buried.
From the shadowed depths, a legion of eyes stared upward. The bandits had put up their tents, emblazoned with wide eyes on a red background. These were the Bloody Eye Bandits. Twelve men with the light- or golden-brown skin of those native to the desert. No one with Zazy’s pale skin or pink hair, inherited from her foreign ancestors.
Khoko wasn’t among the bandits’ mounts. No flash of bright blue among the scaled backs and thick tails.
You’ll never lose track of him, Grandmother had chuckled. She’d given Khoko to her in a lush courtyard tiled in gold and pink. Grandmother had cooled her brown feet in the water channels while Zazy delighted in her new friend. And you’ll have to think of a name before his crest bone can be painted.
Khoko, Khoko, Khoko. The only one she had left.
Below, only one tent was big enough to hide a fully grown longscale. At the far end of the gorge. It bore golden-rimmed eyes. The leader’s tent.
She hit the bottom of the gorge and clapped a hand over her mouth to smother a shout. Pain flashed bright. She’d crawled along the edge of the gorge and begun the climb down, which had been going great until a bandit yelled at someone for being late for a perimeter scan. In an instant, they’d be searching for nearby minds. Without her hat, she’d had no choice but to drop and hope she landed inside the bandits’ protections.
Panting, Zazy craned her neck. Her breaths stirred the fabric of a tent—gold-rimmed eyes on red. And dangling from metal wire strung across the gorge were bare white rib bones. Zazy had fallen inside of the bone perimeter. Safe.
The bones of some desert creatures shielded their brains from telepathy. The bone perimeter kept any minds from reaching across it. No outside minds could affect anyone in the camp. It also meant the sentry had to step beyond the perimeter to scan their surroundings. Zazy’s mind was as shielded as the bandits’.
Stifling a groan, Zazy dug out her knife. It was a battered thing scavenged off a corpse, but it pierced the tent fabric. A peek revealed joyously blue scales—and no bandits. Her aches sang as she sawed a bigger gap.
Khoko’s tail began thumping on the blanket floor before she’d shimmied her hips in. He’d curled his lean, twelve-foot-long body tight around his strong, scaly legs and heavy paws, tipped in curved claws. His great square head lifted as she cupped his snout and kissed his scales, his nose, his boney brow ridge.
Then a glint of dark blue blood caught her eye.
“Oh no.” Zazy laid Khoko’s head down. A ring of blood encircled one of the bone knobs that ran under his jaw and down his deep chest. More blood rivered down his scales. The bandits had tried to cut out his crest bone, the biggest knob, permanently inked with his name and Zazy’s sigil. It was normally hidden by a saddle strap.
“I’m so sorry, Khoko.” Zazy kissed his brave face. She should’ve painted over the sigil. It didn’t mean anything anymore. “We’ll clean it later.” Who knew when the tent’s resident would return. Luckily, Khoko’s saddle lay in one corner, and there was water in leather bags.
But she didn’t see her hat, and the manacles on Khoko’s legs and neck were locked. Zazy searched the tent. No key. She knelt to wrap Khoko’s injury before saddling him. Could she go look for the key? It could be right outside.
Before she could decide, footsteps scuffed nearby.
Zazy drew her pistol as the flaps parted. A tall man strode in, dark hair in a short tail, head brushing the tent ceiling.
He didn’t seem surprised to see her. Maybe he’d sensed her mind. Maybe he’d expected her to come. Either way, he regarded her—and her pistol—with nothing more than a quirked brow. Gold glittered in that brow. Three gold studs. He was a skilled telepath, then, though not the duelist who’d bested her yesterday.
Zazy heightened her mental senses. A shimmering sphere surrounded his mind, his mental shield. But he hadn’t reached out to his companions. He wasn’t calling for help. He didn’t think she had strong telepathy, or any. The pink hair. It signaled foreigner. Even if her brows were just as thick as his own, her nose just as arched.
“Where did you find a royal longscale?” he asked, conversational. He gestured to the crest bone, now covered, and its sigil. The sigil of the Emprash, which named Izazyl, fifteenth generation of the royal line, as Khoko’s rider.
“He’s mine,” Zazy replied, stalling. If he thought she had no abilities, then maybe… She uncoiled a thread of mental energy. Her training had been interrupted by the coup. She knew the basics of telepathy, and then some tricks.
The bandit chuckled and bent to retrieve a fruit from his saddlebags. “He was yours,” he agreed. “But where did you steal him from? The palace?” His smile flashed bright as his knife as it cut into the fruit. A prickle pear.
“I got him at the palace.”
As she’d hoped, that made the bandit chuckle again. And he didn’t notice the brush against his shield. A little turn of it, not enough to make anything happen. Yet.
“From the Emprash herself, right?” The bandit chewed and grinned.
“That’s right.” This time, Zazy spun his shield, a full revolution of the sphere, smooth and undetected by his distracted mind.
“Then you’d be Izazyl, no?”
“That’s what it says.” Another easy spin. .
“People will pay a hefty sum for any piece of the Emprash, you know.”
“I know.” Spin.
“Well, then.” The bandit sketched a bow and stumbled. He had to catch himself on a tent pole. “Apologies for not recognizing you, Highness.”
“The Emprash did marry a foreign prince.” Spin.
The bandit nodded, wavering on his feet. Pear forgotten, he touched a hand to his forehead, closed his eyes.
Zazy clubbed him in the temple with her pistol. He thudded to the floor. Aunt Taza could have dealt the final blow telepathically, but she wasn’t here, and Zazy hadn’t gotten that far in training.
Heart pounding, Zazy rifled through the man’s pockets, found the keys, and freed Khoko. She snagged all the water she could find before leading Khoko deeper into the gorge. If she remembered right, there had been a fortress nearby, built to watch the mountains. It would have protection bones in its walls. Maybe they could reach it.
Zazy’s throat ached, thick and swollen. The water had not lasted. The blazing sun sapped her strength, heavied her limbs. She alternated between riding Khoko and trudging alongside him. She stumbled when she didn’t remember to pick up her feet.
Zazy squinted at the hazy mountains. They seemed to undulate like the ancient sea creature legend said had died when the ocean dried up. Its bones supposedly formed the spine of the mountains. Some said the desert’s voice came from it. With the white ground shimmering, Zazy couldn’t estimate how far off the mountains were. Was there a fortress? A pale smudge wavering at their base?
She needed a sanctuary, somewhere with protection bones, like the bandit camp. Her mental shield was flickering as she walked. The desert’s voice slipped in and out of her mind, deep and soothing. Sit down, Izazyl. A pricker bush morphed into a chair. The desert wasn’t supposed to know your name, but her shields had been failing for years, wearing thinner and thinner. She didn’t know why. And without her hat…
Lie down and rest. Zazy spotted the snake burrows before the desert unrolled a beautiful woven carpet, stacked with plush pillows. Still, her legs wobbled. Only her hand on Khoko’s saddle kept her upright.
Have a drink at least, the desert said, and a pool appeared, clear as aquamarines. Zazy crashed to her knees and lifted a scoop to her lips before Khoko’s tail walloped her back. Zazy spilled forward, sprawling in hot sand. It coated her lips and soaked up valuable moisture.
She was going to die today. The thought flitted through her mind, too fast to stop. Only a nudge from a heavy nose got her back on her feet.
Zazy mounted Khoko. He carried her onward while the air began to sing. The merry splish-splash of a fountain met her ears. Zazy forced herself not to look for it, the fountain from her childhood, the one in the palace’s grandest courtyard. How many hours had she spent chasing the flashing golden fish? Zazy clapped her hot, swollen hands over her ears. It didn’t help. The splashing was in her mind.
Yellow flower petals twirled through the air at her side. Grandmother had tended her flowers so lovingly. She’d watered them by hand and gathered the fallen petals to toss over her children and grandchildren. Blessings upon blessings. Bless you, Izazyl. The petals twirled toward her, as if tossed by gentle hands.
Zazy threw herself off Khoko. She wouldn’t let those petals touch her. They weren’t real. None of this was real. Her family was gone and could not help her. Climbing to her feet, Zazy waved off a concerned Khoko and scanned the thrumming horizon. A pale protrusion rose from the ground. She could almost pick out walls and roofs. That had to be the fortress.
She took a step. Her foot landed on blue tiles, shiny and smooth. A golden door gleamed before her. It swung open to reveal that familiar violet-lacquered table, scarred from generations of family meals. A dozen people gathered around it, passing bowls and papers and books. Familiar jewels glinted on foreheads and throats.
Zazy spun on her heel. She would not go in there. It wasn’t real. That was not her Aunt Taza, her pink eyebrows studded with gold all the way across. And that was not her mother, dark haired and graceful, dodging around her father to reach the prickle pears. And that was not Grandmother, tossing petals at her cousins.
Zazy made it a few steps before a nudge came at her stomach, turning her around, pushing her toward that violet table. She distantly recognized Khoko’s bulk, but she was focused on covering her eyes, her ears. She didn’t want to see their faces, hear their voices. They called to her, as if she’d just woken for breakfast. Good morning, Zazy. Come have something to eat. How did you sleep?
I had terrible dreams, she wanted to say. One long nightmare. You were gone. You were all gone. They murdered you on the front steps. They cracked your skulls and let your blood run and run.
That sounds awful, her mother said. Come have some tea. Your favorite today.
Zazy shook her head. This wasn’t real. Her family couldn’t help her. She broke into a run. She flew by the violet table, shrugging off reaching hands. She burst onto the gold-columned terrace, ran down the steps, splashed through a shallow pool. Palace halls flashed by until she reached the grand front doors. She ran through them like they were made of mist, and there were the front steps, right where they were murdered. Her foot slipped.
But the ground that hit her was sloped and rough. She tumbled down a hill, dust flying. When she finally stopped, her vision was swimming. Even so, she could make out the smooth stone walls of a building. A square archway. Weathered doors hanging askew. The fortress.
She craned her neck, looking toward the insets beside the doors. Where long femur bones should have been, to protect any minds inside.
The insets were empty. The fortress had been pillaged. The protection bones had been stolen.
Zazy shut her eyes. Khoko’s padding footsteps caught up to her. His nose nudged her ribs, rocking her dry, empty body. No bones here. No protection.
In the distance, a longscale howl pierced the air. The bandits were coming for her as the day slipped toward twilight. She had to keep moving.
With effort, Zazy rolled to her front. A last burst of willpower got her to her knees. But no more. She was empty. She slumped forward, forehead resting on the hard ground, and felt the last tatters of her shield wink out.
Eventually, movement flickered in front of her. She didn’t lift her head. Khoko, probably. Or the first bandit. It didn’t matter. If the bandits didn’t kill her, the desert would.
Look at me, Izazyl. The voice sounded like Grandmother’s. Zazy’s eyes stung at the endearment humming through the words, like Grandmother was still here to love her, to find humor in Zazy’s plight, serious to Zazy but solvable to Grandmother.
This was what happened when you didn’t have good shields. The desert plundered your mind, your memories.
It does indeed, Grandmother said. But the desert is not why your shields are failing.
This was new. The desert never referenced itself. And it did not offer telepathy tips. Zazy mustered the strength to roll her head, gravel biting into her skin, so she could see the mirage. Grandmother knelt with her hands in her lap, the sun gleaming off her steel gray hair. Every strand of hair, every line in her face, the downward slope of her shoulders—it was just how Zazy remembered her.
Grandmother pressed her hands to Zazy’s forehead. Zazy gasped. Those hands were warm and dry and real. Zazy came to a kneeling position at the urging of those familiar hands. What is this?
Grandmother’s eyes twinkled. Your shields are failing because you haven’t taken care of your mind. You’ve let it unravel into despair because you think you have nothing.
It’s true. Zazy lifted a limp hand. I have Khoko but no home, no family. You’re all gone.
Grandmother tapped Zazy’s forehead, and the tap echoed in her mind, on the memories Zazy kept locked away. Not in here.
That’s not real.
Grandmother laughed. Not with that attitude.
This was no trick of the desert’s. If anything, it was one of Grandmother’s.
Real is a matter of perspective, Granddaughter. I may not be real enough for anyone else, but I can be real to you. As long as you’re not keeping me out with those shields of yours.
The gentle reprimand had Zazy opening her mouth to protest, but Grandmother continued,You weren’t old enough to understand back then, but listen: all telepathy springs from one principle—your mind determines its own reality. Your mind perceives the world only through the signals it creates. If the world seems bleak, it is because your mind has told itself so. Grandmother brushed her thumbs over Zazy’s brows. Your thoughts have been bleak for too long, Izazyl.
Zazy shook her head, dislodging Grandmother’s hands. My thoughts are bleak because things are bleak. I can’t control the world.
Grandmother smiled, understanding. Of course not. There are limits to a mind’s power. The desert exploits them—it convinces your mind that a rock is a pear, but it cannot make the rock into a pear.
But much of your life has no connection to the physical world. If a duelist convinces your mind that it’s flinging your body into a ravine, it is. If your mind thinks it has nothing, it does. And it will become nothing.
Was that true? Her own thoughts were eroding her shields?
We’re still with you, Izazyl, Grandmother said. We still love you just the same. We’re only a little farther away. Yellow flower petals appeared in her cupped hands. You haven’t lost us.
She tossed the petals, which whispered softly against her skin. Tears squeezed out of her eyes, and Zazy closed them. When they opened, Grandmother was gone.
Or was she?
In the distance, paws thundered and men shouted. They’d spotted her.
Zazy looked inward, to the memories she never touched. Her mother, her father, aunts, uncles, cousins. Smiling and arguing and loving her as they breathed. Passing her fruit without looking, pouring her favorite tea without asking. Her cousin tossing her on Khoko while her father held off attackers with his worn blue pistol. Aunt Taza slamming the fighters marching through the gates with telepathic blows so Khoko could race by. Her mother watching from the palace walls, distracting any minds who noticed Zazy.
A hand grabbed her arm, yanked her up. Zazy’s eyes flashed open.
The Bloody Eyes had arrived. They watched from their longscales, arranged in a semicircle, trapping her and Khoko against the fortress. The man holding her was the one from the tent. The leader.
Khoko lunged for him, but Zazy wrapped her free arm around his neck, holding him tight.
“Hello again, Highness.” The man’s mental shield radiated strong and firm—she wouldn’t be spinning it again. “Out of tricks?”
Zazy smiled, lips cracking. “Not quite.”
Reaching into her memories, she imagined Aunt Taza standing next to her. She manifested every detail, from her sunset pink hair to her fourteen gold studs to her uneven collarbones. The effort felt good, like the rush of using a healthy muscle.
She remembered how Aunt Taza’s lips twitched before she struck a blow. She remembered how the mental plane rippled, how her opponent’s shield would warp and buckle. She remembered.
Next to her, Aunt Taza’s lips twitched. A tremendous force struck the bandit’s shields. The man reeled backward, releasing Zazy before he keeled over. Blood dribbled from his nostrils.
Zazy turned to the rest of the bandits, who shifted on their longscales. She hadn’t displayed this kind of telepathy last time.
The duelist dismounted, his brows completely studded. He launched his first attack before his boots hit the ground. It glanced off her shield, off the memories Zazy had pulled into a golden wall around her mind. The duelist’s brows rose.
Zazy’s smile widened. She remembered her family members, standing in line with her. Her mother appeared next to Aunt Taza, her father on Zazy’s other side. Cousins and aunts and uncles appeared beside them. She remembered them so well. She remembered their telepathy, too.
Mental attacks rained down on the bandits. Aunt Taza crashed through shields. Zazy’s mother slipped mirages into minds, causing men to duck low or topple over. Uncle Raro sent strikes zinging with so much energy that shields shook themselves apart. Zazy thought back to all the times she’d seen her family practice their telepathy, the moves and countermoves, the lightning-like exchanges. The bandits shouted as they struggled to defend themselves, as they began to fall.
The duelist fought hardest to maintain his mental protections. He sent back blows that could’ve had Zazy throwing herself into the fortress’s walls. But Zazy remembered how Kila would shrug off such attacks. Her cousin stepped forward now, and Zazy heard the echo of her voice as Kila had led her patiently through the motions. Reach forward, hook the blow, and twirl to the side. The duelist’s strikes spun off course and hit other bandits.
Now to return the favor. A twitch of her lips, and Aunt Taza landed a hit so brutal the duelist stumbled. He grunted with the effort of keeping the shield together, but a crack appeared. Zazy pushed her own mind into the crack, bringing the duelist into her reality.
His eyes widened at the sight of the royal family. Zazy grinned and looked to her father. The duelist followed her gaze in time to see her father raise his blue pistol–and fire. The bullet wasn’t a physical one, but the duelist’s mind perceived it nonetheless. He flew backward into his longscale, and his mind blinked out. Not dead, but unconscious, convinced his heart had been pierced.
When all the bandits’ shields had cracked, Zazy remembered her grandmother, and she coalesced beside her, that twinkle in her eye. Gently, Zazy thought. Grandmother had always done things gently. With a flower-petal touch, Grandmother reached into the minds of the Bloody Eyes and pulled out any memory of Zazy. Gather your wounded and go. Do not look back.
The bandits did as ordered, slinging unconscious men over longscale saddles before riding off into the deepening dusk.
Zazy slumped against Khoko, steady at her side. She had not expended that much mental energy in a long while. Yet her shield buzzed stronger than ever, her mind lush with memories of love. Thank you, she said to her family. I’ll see you later.As she let the projections fade, she plodded with Khoko into the abandoned fortress. Sweet dreams, desert.
Author’s Note: “The Desert’s Voice Is Sweet to Hear” has many things that I love to write about: close-knit family dynamics, beloved animal companions, and lush, colorful settings, to name a few. With this story in particular, I wanted to lure readers into a story about a desert that had more to it than hot sun and burning sand. Zazy’s desert boasts vibrant colors, an oceanic history, and creatures that have cleverly adapted to living in a place haunted by an ancient sea monster. If you had the proper tools, Zazy’s desert would be a gorgeous and thrilling place to live. (Please let me know if I succeeded as a tour guide!) My other goal with this story was to cheer myself up. At the time of its writing, I was living away from my family, and I missed them dearly. I wanted to write about the balance between the ache of missing your people and the fierce gladness that comes with having people to miss that much in the first place. To help illustrate that, I borrowed a few techniques from the “Once Upon a December” scene in Anastasia (1997). It’s one of my favorite scenes in any story, with the shimmering ghosts and the transformation of the shabby ballroom back to its former golden glory. I loved doing something similar with the hallucinations of Zazy’s family and their palace. Thank you for reading!
Carolina Valentine has never been lured to her death by any desert. In fact, she’s quite fond of the Arizona desert, with its tangerine-pink sunsets and coyotes who lounge in the yard like bunnies; she has only had to pull cactus prickers out of herself a few times. Carolina writes speculative fiction, usually when she’s supposed to be doing something else. Her work has also appeared in Strange Horizons. Find her on Instagram @valentine.deplume and on Twitter @carolinawrites.
The figure seated on the other side of the plain metal table has a blank look on its face, like its creator gave up halfway through forming its features. It is dressed in an orange jumpsuit, white socks, black slippers. The handcuff that secures it to the table cuts deeply into the waxy pale skin of its wrist.
You’ve handled plenty of robots and AIs, even species whose very existence Deep Thought has classified Top Secret, but a wax man is a first. Still, that’s why you’ve got protocol. You flip open the file. “We have you at the scene of the crime, we found the murder weapon. All we need from you is the names of your co-conspirators.”
The suspect lifts its hands, every movement deliberate and fluid, blood slower than honey. Its left hand jerks to a stop on the end of the handcuff chain and more waxy skin flakes drift onto the table. “You saw somebody who looked like us, perhaps. You have a murder weapon that certainly doesn’t have our fingerprints on it. And we have never conspired with anyone.” When it speaks, a breath of hot air washes over you. You start to sweat. “Also, no one is dead.”
It takes some gall to say that right when you’re laying out the autopsy pictures. The cross-section of the skull is mesmerizing—it’s filled with hexagonal honeycomb cells, some of which are the same pale empty color as its skin, others darkened with the husks of bees that had crawled in and died. With a red pen, you circle the darkest spot on the honeycomb.
“This was the point of death. It’s a hive, isn’t it? And here, at this point, a killer bee got inside, and caused a catastrophic cascade failure of the mind.”
The figure leans forward slightly and looks at the photo with polite interest. It leans back and looks at you. Something with very small, quick wings buzzes past behind its eyes.
Continuing, you say, “That killer bee was fired from this weapon.” Photo of a fat-barrelled pistol. “Just tell me why you did it. Who ordered you? Who hired you?” This is what you need to get out of it. It’s the first time Deep Thought has one of the wax men in custody. They have almost no identifying marks, no fingerprints, and they’ve been linked to four different contract killings. “And why have you murdered one of your own kind?”
“We are not murderers. We are messengers.” A honeybee crawls out of its ear, flits around the room, and lands on its cheek. Crawls back in through its nose. “Our brains are biological cellular automata. Our thoughts are encoded in a three-dimensional binary lattice according to whether or not the honeycomb cell is filled. Thoughts fly from our minds into the heads of our hive-siblings where they dance out their message and affect the inner workings of the recipient’s brain.”
You pause for a minute to absorb the implication. “All right, messengers. So you’ve got to have some kind of a dispatcher. Who is your leader? Who is the queen of the hivemind?”
“There is no leader. We are decentralized. Information spreads equally between us, though at different rates of speed, so we are not always entirely in sync. When one of us acts… out of character… correction is needed. If that one does not respond to the dances—” It indicates the picture of the gun.
“You kill it.”
“We merely destroy the container. We each contribute drones and other thoughts to the restructure. They eat the old waxwork and create a new one. Only the original queen survives, starts to build a new hive within it. That is how we reproduce. In fact,” its eyes defocus, “I’ve just had a new thought. It is almost ready to break free and find its own place to nest.” The persistent sound of buzzing that this whole time you’d thought was the noise of the overhead light increases sharply, and only now can you tell that it’s coming from the creature sitting in front of you.
“But then why kill species that aren’t part of your hive? What happens when….” Suddenly, you have a new thought. A frightening one. “…when you share your thoughts with a human?”
Bees fly from all its orifices and cover your face. You feel them poking at your nostrils and ears. You freeze in your seat, afraid of provoking them to sting you, but that’s not the real threat. They probe deeper and deeper until one of them breaks through the earwax barrier and fills your head with royal jelly dreams.
You have a fat-barrelled gun—the Deep Thought police gave it to you with your badge. The bullet inside it buzzes. You’re standing in the commissioner’s office, and he’s looking up at you from behind his desk with a puzzled look. He chairs the board that drafts all laws governing semi-sentients. He says, “Was there something you wanted?”
You want to share with him the new thought you’d had. All you have to do is release it from its six-chambered cell, and you can change his mind.
Author’s Note: This flash piece came from a combination of: the Biblical story of Samson finding a beehive in a lion’s corpse; the bee-firing rifle from Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles; adipocere (also known as corpse wax, or grave wax); cellular automata; and the idea that if there are laws of robotics, then there must also be law enforcers. This story ties in loosely with another of my flash fictions, “Further Laws of Robotics” in Nature, which introduced the Deep Thought Police.
Josh Pearce has stories and poetry in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Clarkesworld, IGMS, and Nature, and he frequently reviews films for Locus Magazine. Find more of his writing at fictionaljosh.com. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
You left town two months before graduation. It was just before the week of spring break when Kim got the bright idea to go on a road trip. “Everyone else is going to Cabo or Malibu or something! Let’s do something cool!” he had said, vibrating with excitement. “Something we’ll remember when we’re thirty!”
Kim was always having bright ideas. In sophomore year, he’d bought an honest to God stink bomb from the Internet and set it off in the math class hallway. A girl had an asthma attack, and Mr. Allen had to call an ambulance. You brought this up when Kim suggested driving up to Canada from San Diego and back in the span of a week. Kim laughed, and kissed your cheek. He told you that you didn’t need to worry so much about stuff that had happened so long ago. Besides, Evelyn had come back from the hospital with a brand new rescue inhaler.
Of course, once Simon got wind of it a couple days later, he invited himself along. He’d suggested he’d be the “designated driver”, as the only legal adult among you. Secretly, you had been relieved. Simon was a real adult now—he lived in his own dorm and paid his own car payments. He would keep Kim on rails. And it would be nice to see him again. He was always online, but you hadn’t seen him since he graduated. No one had.
You told your mother you were going to drive up to Lake Tahoe that Saturday. You didn’t like lying to your mother; but she always asked so many questions. It was easier to tell her something that wouldn’t make her worry. You’d be back before the week was up, anyway—that was how Kim had put it.
“I wish you wouldn’t spend so much time with him, Natasha,” she had said when you told her where you were going. She had been cleaning the oven grates, and her hand had frozen on the rag with a weary sigh. “He’s going to get you in trouble one of these days.”
You expected that from her. At least she used the right pronouns for Kim and never forgot his name. Kim’s dad wasn’t like that—it was all shes and hers, all cruel comments about his height and his high voice. Your mother hadn’t tried to stop you from leaving, but she cared that you were going. Kim’s dad barely noticed if he didn’t go to school.
The day you left was one of the very last nice days of spring. It had rained the day before, and hazy gray clouds still blanketed the sky. Rain stayed stuck in the air, despite the whipping sea breeze. This was the weather you were born to be in, and you smiled when you got out of bed that morning and packed your backpack with the essentials—kale chips, chickpea puffs, medication, and a week’s worth of clothes. You cracked open the window to get a good whiff of petrichor, only to smell something like distant fireworks and barbecue. It was a little early in the year for that. And there was Simon’s tan Cutlass, creeping up the street.
You tried to channel Kim’s boundless optimism as you swept out of your room, kissing your mother on the cheek as you passed. Your mother was worrying a thumbnail, tearing a pale crescent from it as she watched you. “You’ll call me if you get in trouble. Okay, Natasha?”
“I promise, mom. But I’m not going to get in trouble.” You opened the front door. Kim poked his whole torso out the passenger’s side window and waved to you from the sidewalk. You could see Simon’s profile; his dark hair reaching his shoulders. Up until this moment, you hadn’t been sure. Now, though, so close to them – your heart swells. Just a few feet from freedom!
“Okay. But just in case. I won’t be mad. I promise.”
You didn’t know about that. She usually did get mad. “Okay.”
She leaned forward, awkwardly raising her arms around you before you could turn to leave. “I love you, bubalah. You know that, don’t you?”
You patted her back, nonplussed. “I love you too, mom. Don’t worry, okay?”
Then, she let you go.
“This is gonna be so great, Nat—we’re never gonna forget this as long as we live!” Kim was spilling out of the car, waving to you like a little kid who saw his teacher at the supermarket. He always got like this before a caper.
You never came back to that house.
By Sunday, you know that you should have turned back.
The three of you spend the night in Simon’s ancient Cutlass. None of you have enough money for a hotel. You hadn’t realized when you’d agreed to go with them. Simon rolls down the seats so that you all have room to lay down, but it’s still a cramped midsize shared by three people. Kim and Simon sleep—or seem to sleep—through the night. You lay between them, your arms pinned awkwardly to your sides, staring up at the car’s ceiling. A thick, meaty smell lingers that you can’t place; like some long forgotten ancient school lunch. You don’t sleep. You stare at the cabin light, your legs numb.
You’re a bad sleeper even at home. Everything has to be exactly right, or you won’t sleep. It isn’t optional. On your nightstand you’ve got a desk fan always blowing on you, even in winter. You surround yourself with pillows. You love Kim and Simon—but pillows they’re not.
So you stare at the cabin light, and you wait for the sun to rise.
Why are you there? What are you trying to prove? Why don’t you call your mother?
When Kim finally stirs beside you, you bite your tongue. You have the urge to pour all your questions out on him, make him give you answers. What are we trying to prove?
Kim yawns and rubs his eyes. “Mm. Nat?”
“I dreamed about you.”
He can always fluster you, without even trying. “Oh. Y-yeah? Was it nice?”
“Weird… déjà vu kinda dream. I dreamed you were upset with me. You’re not upset, right? Everything’s okay?”
Your stomach lurches. “Yeah. Everything’s okay, baby. I love you.”
His eyes are still closed, but his face splits into a wide, sleepy smile. “That’s good. I love you too. It was just a dream. S’not real.” He says it like a command.
You leave two little crescents on your bottom lip. “Let’s wake up Simon and get breakfast.”
Kim’s eyes opened. “About that?”
“I’m sorta… short on money for food.”
You sit up. Simon mutters a protest beside you, and rolls over onto his side. “How much money do you have?” you ask, slowly. What you’ve got might stretch, but not far. Not for a whole other person.
Kim ducks down, smiling. You’ve seen him make that smile at teachers hundreds of times. It’d been cute then. “Twenty bucks?”
Twenty dollars to feed him between there and Canada. You stare at him. “We have to go back.”
“No!” He lunged forward, grabbing your arms. “No! We’re not going back. Not until we’ve had a good time. Okay? It’s gonna be fine, okay? I’ve got snacks in my bag. You’ve got snacks in your bag. It’ll all work itself out.”
His grip on your arms hurts.
“It’s just gonna… work itself out?” you repeat.
“It always does!” Like an afterthought, he notices you wincing, and his grip loosens. “You trust me, right? This is what we gotta do.”
Turn back. Turn back.
“We can’t turn back.”
You were never good at saying no to Kim.
You’re at a gas station on Route 66 when it happens the next day.
Simon is gassing up the car. Kim is up front getting the three of you a discount. It isn’t going well. He’s already arguing with the cashier. You’re trying to be careful what you buy. Everything on the shelves looks repellent to you. Plastic within plastic. Neon orange powders. Ancient frosting like a cracked, dry riverbed.
Unbidden, you remember that thing you saw on TikTok that suggested that every human on earth consumes a tablespoon of microplastics in a year. That they don’t just pass through you, but lodge within. They sink into your tissue. They pass the blood-brain barrier. How much plastic is stuck in the meat of your braincase?
Your hand snaps back from the Nature Valley display. You don’t want to even touch these. You’d rather chew off your own leg. You take a deep, deep breath. There’s an acrid stink that makes you think of a rat in a trap, its leg gnawed off and blood oozing from the stump. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. You hold it for four seconds. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Repeat. Repeat. Staying alive will kill you. Repea—
There’s a shattering sound. Glass explodes out, shredding the air, everywhere, shredding you like the microplastics shredding your brain. You’re exploding. One, two, three, four—you register the yells, the man keening in pain. You’re going to die. This is when it happens. You hit the ground; your breath staccato. You knew it was coming. You’ve fucked up this time. You see the gun flash in your mind.
It’s only seconds later that someone has grasped your wrist. At first you push them away, rat brain engaged. But they grab you again, and pull you down the aisle. It’s Kim—Kim is getting you out. Your frazzled senses register, dimly, the missing glass window of the convenience store. All that’s left is ragged glass edges, and a pile of shards on the floor. It looks like it exploded.
The dead rat smell follows you all the way to the car. When you reach it he tosses you inside, then bundles and bundles of bright colors from the crook of his left arm. It’s all things from the convenience store; mountains and mountains of junk food.
“Whoa, whoa! What the hell’s going on?” You can hear Simon’s voice outside.
“Drive! Fucking drive!”
They both hop in, and you’re speeding off down Route 66.
You push the Cheetos off you, and they tumble to the floor. “What just happened?”
Kim slumps forward. “I grabbed some stuff. He wasn’t gonna let me have it all. ‘Cause I didn’t have enough money. He wasn’t listening to me.”
“So— what, you— you shattered the window?” Simon asks.
“NO!” Kim shouts, and you recoil. “I didn’t fucking do anything! It broke on its own! I just— took advantage, okay? Just fucking focus on the road. We needed the food, and he wasn’t gonna give it to us. We’ll never come back here again. It doesn’t matter.”
Nothing Kim says puts you at ease. If anything, your stomach lurches. You wonder if you’re going to throw up. “What if they called the cops?”
“And tell them what? Their window randomly exploded, and some teenagers ran off with a bunch of Pop Tarts? Don’t act stupid, Nat. That’s not a crime. That’s an opportunity. It’s their fault. Shouldn’t have let their window explode!” He barks with laughter, suddenly. “And now we have food!”
And now, you have food. The car goes silent. All that you can hear is the engine. The dead rat smell clings.
Out loud, you begin to speak. “Before it exploded… I thought I smelled this…”
“God, can you just drop it already? Nothing even happened,” Kim snaps.
You sink backwards, falling silent.
He’s angry. But not just that—he’s scared. He’s sick with fear that maybe he made a mistake. But he can’t go back. There’s no “back” to go back to. They have to drive, and never, ever stop. There’s a whole world out there, and he won’t ever see it if they ever go south again.
It feels so normal, to know what Kim knows.
After you’ve driven to the next town over, the three of you make the executive decision to spend money on a hotel room for the night. Simon is exhausted, and all three of you are tense and raw from your flight from the gas station. You’re forced to use the credit card your mother gave you—the one she told you, over and over, was for emergencies only. You think of the line that will pop up on her bill in a month, telling her where you’ve been.
Kim quietly munches on a bag of Cheetos while Simon checks in. You don’t want to touch the food; it’s disgusting, and it’s stolen. So you just sit there, and you wait.
Half an hour slips by. Should this be taking so long?
Kim seems to know what you’re thinking. “Um. Maybe go check on him?”
“Yeah.” You have a feeling you know what happened.
You’re proven right when you see him in the vestibule, standing in the corner, his hands vibrating with anxiety he can’t shake off. You touch your hand to his shoulder, and you feel the anxiety melt off in rivulets. You shouldn’t have made him do this alone.
The price the concierge gives makes your eyes water, but you’d rather sleep in a bed tonight. The next day, you’ll convince Kim the three of you need to turn around. After all, he hasn’t factored in how long it’s going to drive back. That’s what you’ll tell him. If you turn back now, you’ll get home without much fuss. You’ll be able to laugh it all off.
Kim, uncharacteristically, banishes the two of you to the pool after you’ve unloaded what little belongings you have. Arguing seems pointless—and you’d rather leave him be. So that leaves you with Simon, at the pool.
You aren’t usually alone with Simon. He draws his index finger through the water, spawning ripples in the disgusting water.
You remember freshman year, when Simon was a sophomore and when the two of you had pre-calc together. There had been a substitute one day. Simon had a panic attack, and had to stand in the corner of the classroom to get his breathing under control.
The substitute got mad; the other kids laughed. Only you had tried to bring him back to Earth.
Your first panic attack happened when you were seven years old. It had been just a few months after your dad’s funeral, you think. You convinced yourself that you really did need to avoid every crack in the sidewalk; that if you didn’t, your mother’s spine would snap like a piece of balsa wood.
Inevitably, you failed. You didn’t like to think about it. What followed was months of therapy, years of medication and IEPs and daily affirmations that everything was going to be okay that day. When you saw Simon go to pieces, you had wanted to put him back together again—if only to prove to yourself it was possible.
Kim hadn’t been in the same class. He wasn’t especially good at math.
“I wish…” Simon starts.
“… they understood?” you finish, as if his thought was your own. And maybe it is.
“… Yeah. But they never will. It’s why I left school,” he murmurs. “My parents don’t know yet. I just… I can’t. I can’t do it. I feel so alone there.”
“You’re not alone. You have me. And Kim, too. And we’ve got you. And that’s all we need, right?” You don’t know. You don’t know what to say. You want it to be true. Your hands clench into fists. Your nails dig into your palms. It’s all you need.
You imagine kissing him, just then—not just imagine, but vividly conjure it in your mind. You don’t do it, of course. But despite that, Simon spins around and stares at you, like a slapped puppy.
Does he know?
The silence stretches on, filling the space between you and expanding like ballast. Simon stares ahead at the surface of the pool. Minutes drag on. He gets to his feet, and looks away from you. “I’m gonna go back. Check on Kim.”
“I’ll be up in a minute,” you hear yourself saying. “Leave the door unlocked, okay?”
“Okay.” And he’s gone. You stare at the water.
God, how are you going to face him again? How are you going to face Kim, after imagining that? What’s wrong with you? Did you lose your mind?
You take a deep, deep breath—seven in, hold for four, ten out, repeat. Simon wouldn’t say anything to Kim. He’s not like that. You and he will forget it ever happened, and the three of you will continue on. It’ll be okay.
The anxiety leaves your body, inch by inch. Warmth builds inside you—hope? You shift your weight back on your hand, and get to your feet. You can’t forget that tomorrow, you have to explain to Kim that it’s time to go home.
The night is getting hotter as you approach the hotel room. It’s a good thing you’re going inside—you’re ready to strip off your clothes and take an ice-cold shower, and then crawl into bed and forget this whole horrible trip ever happened.
You open the door, and you see it before you see it. You stare at Kim and Simon, their limbs tangled together. You take a step back.
You turn, and you walk away.
All the blood in your body is rushing in your ears, in your throat, in your eyes. You stagger down the wrought iron stairs. Far away, you can hear Kim crying out for you to stop, slow down. You don’t.
You keep walking, toward the road. You stick your thumb out. This time of night, the road is quiet. What few cars are on the road zoom past without noticing you. You can barely make them out through the tears. They’re just blurry red spots, trailing into the night without you.
You scream, and you stomp your feet. You’ve never screamed this loud and this long before. You scream and you scream until the sound shreds your throat on the way out. You scream at every car that passes you by without picking you up. You scream at the empty road ahead of you. You scream at Kim and Simon for putting you on this roadside. You scream until the scream is out of you.
You sink down into the dirt. Seven in, hold for four, ten out. You can’t do it. You keep hiccupping.
You don’t know how long you sit there, in the dirt. Eventually, you hear footsteps behind you, and feel the body flop down behind you. You don’t turn to look. You would know Kim’s steps anywhere.
“Get away from me,” you croak, wiping your nose on your sleeve.
He doesn’t. He sinks down behind you, encircling your waist with his arms. He used to always do that during lunch—tethering you to him, his buoy in the waves.
“I thought you wanted that,” Kim murmurs into your shoulder. “I thought… I felt you wanting it. I don’t know. It was like this… urge that came over me. Like you climbed inside me and started workin’ the controls. Does that make sense?”
Oh, you want so badly to be angry. But it does. You sniff, hard. “I… w-wanted to kiss him. But I’m with you. You’re with me.”
“He’s with us too, Nat. We’re all together. You feel it too, don’t you?”
You stare at the hard dirt. You turn around. “Tell me why we can’t go home. Now.”
Before he can, you see it.
You see Kim standing in his bedroom—your bedroom? You feel the heavy, cool metal in your hand. Is that smell here, too? It’s like fireworks and a fog machine, sickly sweet mixed with ozone. You walk down the hall, backpack on your back. It doesn’t matter. You’re leaving. You’ll never smell this smell again. It’s someone else’s problem, now. The sweet smell overwhelms the kitchen. You approach the lump of meat on the floor, and tuck the pistol into its left hand. You give its side a good, sharp kick. You turn your back, open the front door. You slip outside, making sure to lock it behind you. By the time they find him, you’ll be long gone. They’ll never see you again.
You reel back as you come back to yourself. Your stomach heaves, and suddenly you throw up on the ground ahead of you. Nothing but bile comes up, bitter and burning, the consequences of not eating for two days in a row. Even after, you keep retching. Kim shakes, his shoulders slumping. He lets out a sob. You’re back to now—back to the sand and the heat and the dim stars above. You take him into your arms, and he melts into you.
You know what you have to do. “We’re gonna keep driving.”
The three of you keep driving.
Money disappears fast. Gas isn’t cheap. You have to do things you aren’t proud of.
But together, you can accomplish anything.
This turns out to be more than you thought “anything” could be.
Weeks stretch into months. You start to forget what your childhood bedroom looked like—if it was really yours, or if it was Kim’s, or perhaps Simon’s old dorm. Simon brings you a newspaper one day at some shithole diner with bad coffee and worse eggs. Your faces are in it. The three of you laugh and laugh.
You can see through each other’s eyes sometimes, when you really focus. Finally, you have room to put all those awful feelings that always seemed to be spilling out of you.
At night, the three of you sleep in one bed, limbs tangled together. It’s as close as you can come. This is how the police find you, when they finally catch up to you.
You look up at the police’s flashlight, your six eyes shining in the darkness.
Jenova Edenson is a speculative fiction writer and video game designer in Phoenix, Arizona. She once knew a girl in high school who wanted to go on a road trip across the country during spring break, and she was once a girl in high school with high school friends. She has two cats and zero husbands.
For one thing, it doesn’t work very well. Most of us pretty much get by, but it’s hard to really rely on a human brain, isn’t it? You’re always liable to stumble into some unexpected issue, a difficulty, an “undocumented feature.” Maybe your brain nudges you into unconscious habits, or traps you in strange, interminable loops. There’s no telling what you’ll get, with a human brain.
But the other thing is, interoperability is just terrible.
Whoever designed these things clearly didn’t have communication in mind. Didn’t trouble to put in some sort of sensible protocol for brain-to-brain messaging, or at least transmitting internal state, no. Instead, the best we can manage is for our semi-functional brain to try and translate its semi-functional internal workings into wholly inadequate representations as words and sounds. And then other brains, themselves with all their own issues and idiosyncrasies and incidentally each running on an entirely different operating system, need to translate all that back and try and make some sense out of it.
Honestly, I feel maybe the original plan was to only have one brain, anywhere, ever. Having more than one just wasn’t in the spec; came as a bit of a surprise. Communication? Collaboration? Maintaining some kind of consistency or shared agreement between different brains? Oh, we didn’t plan for any of that. There was only supposed to be one of ‘em.
So what we actually got is that every human brain is like a vast, uncharted jungle. Well, some are jungles; others might be spaceships, or coral reefs, or warehouses. There’s no telling what you’ll get, with a human brain. Most of them have just the one native resident—the one who’s lived there forever, and at least gotten to know the lay of the land. And they can talk to each other, sure, but only by carrier pigeon.
Every person is a kind of pocket universe. Communication is a kind of impossibility. Being understood—being seen—is a kind of miracle.
* * *
Fiction is a form of telepathy, too.
It’s one of the workarounds we’ve found. A way to let somebody inside your head. Or to get inside of somebody else’s.
Our mind to your mind; our thoughts to your thoughts.
Here are four stories imagining those barriers being bent, or broken, or reshaped into something entirely new.
We’re reaching out across the void, all of us. Let’s see where we touch.
The demon and I had been crocheting for hours, in what appeared to be a sliver of space it’d created between Here and There. Around a plush couch floated pale, winter fog that obscured anything more than a few feet past the limits of the cushions.
I’d only ever heard of devils challenging people to chess, or the fiddle, or riddles, maybe. I think this demon had only ever done those things, too, so when I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind, well, we were both kind of stuck, weren’t we?
I pulled the blue thread around my hook and tucked it under the previous row of the blanket, forming another triple-crochet shell.
“You’ll mess up eventually,” the demon said. I had to admit, I was impressed it could do anything with those enormous claws. It laughed. “Or, rather, you won’t. You’re too much of a perfectionist to intentionally include a mistake in the thread.” It rummaged in its carpet bag for a change of colour.
“One mistake is all I need,” I said, muffled, biting my tongue to keep the tension right. A bead of sweat dripped down my hairline. “The knots only trap me if it’s perfect.”
“Exactly,” the demon said. It smiled, and a trickle of smoke escaped its teeth. “Since when have you allowed yourself anything less?”
My grandmother told me about the trap when she was first teaching me to crochet. She’d taken me aside one October after a panic attack in school. I still remember, her old hands smelling of the garden, holding my blindingly-hot pink yarn.
“Life is imperfect, hun. You and me are no different,” she’d said. “Always leave just one mistake. Or the lace… it’ll slowly draw out a bit of you — just a bit — with every stitch. Not that different from the rest of life, really.” She’d held my hands to correct the tension, hers trembling slightly. “There we go.”
“That’s not real though, Memere,” I said, my thumb already twitching from overuse. “Magic isn’t real.” I thought bitterly of dragons and unicorns.
“Do you believe your soul is real?” she asked.
“Do you notice, when you pick up your crochet again after a day or two, you can remember exactly what you were feeling, and what you were doing the last time you held the yarn?”
I gasped. “Yeah, I do… that’s…?”
She nodded, and all the air seemed to be sucked out of the room.
“Be careful, honey. Always leave one small mistake. Nobody who doesn’t crochet will notice, and nobody who does will say a word. It’s an art, but it requires control. You have to protect yourself.”
In the present, I met the demon’s eyes. They smouldered a dusty white, like hot coals.
“You want a stitch counter?” it asked, nudging the box of supplies with its tail.
As a kid, I’d won awards for crochet. Lace collars, sweaters, skirts… I’d wait till the week before the due date to start my project, and the pressure bled me dry, but winning gave me such a high. My grandmother always hugged me and told me how proud she was, beaming like a cut gem, which meant even more than the ribbon did. But when no one else was listening, she’d whisper, “You left one?” And I’d grip her hands and nod, and she’d smile.
But I lied.
The guilt sat inside me like a stone. And then my Memere passed away and… I couldn’t crochet anymore. I can’t say I made lots of friends… but by the end of senior year in college, no one was surprised I was valedictorian, and everyone knew I was the one to beat at table quizzes. Even if, as I sometimes wondered, they didn’t necessarily want me there in the first place.
A few years after graduation, one of my few friends invited me over for drinks, dancing, and tarot card readings. At first I’d said I couldn’t go. I had a review at work the next day; I had a stomach ache; I didn’t really care for candy corn. In reality, every October I thought about what my grandmother said — and I’d wonder, if just for the 31st, if what she’d said was true.
It scared the shit out of me.
But, inevitably, I went. 1) I have an honest to goodness FOMO problem and 2) Spooky Sara Yoo, in addition to being a legit witch, was also super pretty, and wielded eyeliner so slick and sharp you could cut yourself on it, and even though she had a girlfriend, I couldn’t help myself.
I arrived fashionably late.
“Lucie!” Esther Ngugi, Sara’s girlfriend, greeted me at the door. Her “this is fine” meme costume was on point, but in all honesty, I admit I was searching the crowd behind her for Sara. “Come on in, the snacks are over there, drinks are in the kitchen — great costume!”
Internally, I felt some tension release. I’d seen Beetlejuice only once but had spent the entire day driving from thrift store to thrift store until I found the absolute perfect pieces for the look. My makeup, admittedly, had taken the longest. I let Esther take my coat and stepped over to the snack table—
Perhaps if I’d gotten there on time, and not listened to my own poisonous voice that kept insisting the “eyebrows were wrong”, and everyone would laugh unless I redid them again, perhaps I wouldn’t have entered the party when it was so dark, when cups had already been emptied and forgotten, when bits of candy wrappers had drifted to the ground like autumn snow—
I searched the crowd. Where was Sara? God, everyone’s costumes are amazing— and suddenly felt my center of gravity slip up and back and slam—
I skidded into a table leg and landed on my ass. Pain shot up my hip, and I wondered if this was one of those dumb injuries that’d haunt me forever. Then—
—the mirror propped on the table tipped and shattered on the floor.
Everyone stopped dancing — a crowd of masked faces stared at me, in the dark, in silence. Sara broke through, her necromancer costume billowing around her like a hurricane. The stone was in my stomach again, pinning me to the floor.
“Oh my god, are you okay?” Esther asked, running to me. She reached down to help me up; I peeled back the half-melted Butterfinger from the bottom of my shoe.
“I’m sorry!” I managed. Sara was staring at me. “I’m so sorry!”
“You broke the mirror!” Sara whispered. She stood, frozen. Her knuckles showed white where her hands clenched.
“It’s okay, babe,” Esther said, reaching for Sara’s hand. “I’ll take care of it.”
Sara finally pulled her eyes from me and the shattered mirror to look at Esther.
“Sage,” she whispered, nodding to herself, and fled from the room as quickly as she’d come.
The DJ, a boy named Takeshi that I only kind of knew, called out, “We got some witchcraft goin’ on in the house tonight!”
The crowd cheered, broken from the spell, and started dancing again, migrating drunkenly away from the glass. I could feel myself sweating beneath the thick cheap makeup. Esther ran for a broom.
“I can clean it up,” I said. Heat ached behind my eyes. “I’m sorry, Esther, I didn’t see—”
“It’s not your fault,” she shook her head, and let me take a trash bag. “So long as you’re okay, no harm, no foul.”
“But Sara looked so upset—” I held it open while Esther dumped in fragments of glass.
“She’ll be okay,” Esther said, and tried to smile. Even in the half-light, though, I could see the tightness of her expression. “It’s not great luck to break a mirror, and on Halloween, you know, I think it spooked her a bit… but then, ‘tis the season, right?”
Sara appeared just as we were finishing up, blowing out the spark she’d started at the tip of the dried sage bundle, and trailing a long snake of white smoke behind her. She wove it over the table, over me, over Esther, the broken glass, and even across the doorway. Then she stopped, hand on her hip, and nodded.
“That’ll have to do,” she said. Then she looked up at me. “Gosh, Lucie, d’you want a drink or something?”
“You know,” the demon was saying. We hadn’t spoken for an hour or more, engrossed in our task. “I have to say, this is harder than it looks. I think I like it, though.” It held up its end of our blanket, inspecting.
“Your tension’s definitely getting better.” I wiggled a finger through a hole between shells where it’d started, too slack and a little unsure. “Be careful you don’t go too far the other way, though — I’ve made that mistake. See, here,” I pointed to a place in the row it had just finished, where the shells clustered claustrophobically tight.
“Hm.” The demon nodded. “You’re right. You think I need to take it out?”
“Of cour—” I bit my tongue. The demon laughed, a sound like falling bells. In one liquid movement, it extended its arm and pulled. Wriggling like worms in a sped-up film, the entire row undid itself.
“No half measures,” it said, and picked up its hook again.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” my boyfriend Eduardo was saying as I fought the urge to rip my iPad in half. Four years after the disastrous Halloween party, we were working on a fundraiser for our work, and like always I’d left the design till the last minute.
“It’s just this eye!” I howled. “This banner is supposed to have a whimsical-slash-creepy cat monster and I—I can’t get it right—”
“So it’s an eye,” Eduardo said. We were the only two left in the office, and we’d missed our anniversary dinner reservations by an hour. He’d been patiently sitting with his bag slung over his shoulder for thirty minutes. And I knew that. But.
“If this isn’t perfect, that’s my reputation. Gone.”
“Hun, it’s a banner across a temporary page on the website. Who’ll notice?”
I gripped my digital stylus so hard I thought the plastic would snap.
“I didn’t even want to do this in the first place because I knew it would be shit!” I shouted. “Jason will realize he never should’ve hired me, and it’s all because you convinced me to—”
“No,” Eduardo was on his feet now, his face like stone. “No, you don’t get to blame me for this.”
“You never even try unless it’s perfect—”
“I am a designer, if I churn out shit work, I don’t get hired—”
“I knew this relationship would be tough ‘cause I knew you were like this, but I tried anyway—”
My mouth dropped. I looked at him.
“Every anniversary and holiday for two and a half years, Lucie.” He worked the muscles in his jaw and shook his head. “I wish you cared as much about us as you do about the goddamn ad.”
I watched him go, his steps echoing through the empty office. My stomach twisted. I knew I needed to chase him, needed to run after him through the darkened cubicles, catch him before the elevator doors closed, and tell him I was sorry.
“Angels, man,” the demon was shaking its head. “They always go on about meditation, the rosary, inner peace, blah blah,” it nodded over its half-moon glasses. “But this is kind of meditative, you know? I kind of get what they were on about. Not that I wanna do it, you know, long term.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, finishing another star stitch. A thought crossed my mind, and I switched my legs on the ethereal couch cushion.
“Do demons ever worry about failure?”
“Whoa there tiger, we did not agree to Philosophy 101 as part of this little tête-à-tête—”
“But, you must have quotas.” I pushed up my glasses. “KPIs. Weekly targets. Something.”
The demon adjusted the hook in its claws. Its form dwarfed it so much that the hook appeared more like a toothpick. “Well, of course. I mean, Hell would be chaos otherwise. Pandemonium.” It giggled, a sound like churning rocks. “That’s a joke.”
“But what does that look like?” I asked. “I can’t imagine eternal damnation as just some big office building.”
“Plenty of people would disagree with you,” the demon muttered as it finished some lovely Irish rose lace. “I mean, there’s a soul quota, for sure. Time is a flat disk so it’s not really like you’re imagining, but we still have to hit our targets. ‘Keep the temperature high, let the souls cry’, that’s the motto. And we get audited sometimes.”
I took out my stitch counter. “Do you ever get anxious about it?”
“Pfft. Anxious? No. Why would I?”
“Well, I dunno. Sounds like a lot of pressure.”
The demon’s shoulders had slowly started to hunch around its ears. “It is, but it’s fine. It’s not enough pressure that it ever gets to me. I’m not human,” it spat, working at a sudden knot in the middle of its stitch.
The day the demon appeared, I’d been cleaning house. I was changing jobs, changing cities, and had a week to move out. Most things had been boxed and bagged, all that was left was my bedroom.
Reaching under the bed, expecting to unearth dusty paperwork, I’d instead pulled out a plastic container filled with soft bouncing riotous colour. Ocean blue. Fuzzy green. Hot pink. And the soft twinkling sound of loose hooks rolling.
How long had it been? I reached, like a ghost discovering its body, towards the half-folded blanket beneath the skeins. Soft with age, the cheap acrylic draped over my hands in mismatched shades. Everything we’d been able to scrounge at the Woonsocket Salvation Army, “Sally’s Boutique” as my grandmother called it, had been poured into this. My first big project.
The first row was so tightly laced that the blanket edge had warped and curled. Tie-dyed cerulean, turquoise, and white yarn melted into larger and larger stitches, Memere’s shells that she loved so much. The final row had lost a few, just from being jostled around over the years, but the stitching was good and clean. A practised hand.
Waiting to be finished.
I’d given it up once I’d gotten good enough. My heart prickled with the pain of half-healed cuts, remembering how I’d abandoned it. I could run my fingertips over the stitches and pick out every one my grandmother had done for me, to show me. She was woven through this as deeply as I was.
The new apartment would be small. With two parents long-gone and no siblings, it’s not as though I could foist this on someone else’s closet. I had plenty of other things Memere’d made, exquisite pieces of art that I’d never part with—
I ran my hands over the blanket again. It drooped like a tamed wave.
You have to protect yourself.
I wavered over two boxes. One marked “Donation”, the other, “Bedroom” in scrawling marker.
You left just one, didn’t you?
My face felt warm—
The blanket seemed heavy—
Would she be disappointed? Did Memere know?
I dropped the blanket. As it tumbled into the busted cardboard, a booming, creaking sound unfolded behind me, like a heavy door cracking open. Shadows ribboned out from beneath my bed, spilling — knotted, tangled, and unlovely — into the room. A figure stretched and yawned, an ashen demon with horns that scraped the ceiling. Smoke clouded its claws as they dug into the carpet.
I fell to my knees—
“I hear breaking a mirror is seven years’ bad luck,” it said with a voice like banked flame. “Misconception about the rules there, I’m afraid.”
“Hope the last seven were perfect.”
The demon had finished its end of the blanket long ago, and sat watching me, its head in one of its pale hands.
“You missed a loop,” it said, pointing.
“Shut up,” I said. Under my arms and beneath my chest and all down my back were drowned in sweat. “Shut up.”
“You’ve really left it to the last row,” it said. It sighed, producing a small bone and picking its teeth. “Honestly, just wrap it up so we can both go home. I’m not supposed to accrue overtime if I can help it.”
“By ‘home’, you mean—”
“Eternal damnation in the nine hells, yes,” it said, nodding. “Well, I suppose one of the nine hells. Did you make your First Communion? Limbo’s pretty boring, I feel like you’d make it to at least, I dunno, the Sixth or Seventh level. I could pull some strings—”
The yarn, the same patterned blue-tourquoise-white that was so familiar to me, seemed slippery between my fingers. While the demon wondered if my sins “counted as Sorcery, ‘cause then the Eighth would be more your jam—”, I carefully counted the loops I had left.
Eight. Eight loops, enough for two shells. I hadn’t been working shells in this row, all the rest were part of a complicated popcorn stitch. But somehow I knew that I needed two of these old-fashioned stitches there. Abstractly I also knew that if this blanket were not tied up with my immortal soul, the final row of the afghan would be a simple single crochet, or a slip stitch, all the way around to strengthen the ends—
But my life wouldn’t be decided by a simple slip stitch.
I wiped my palms on my jeans.
“You don’t have to be nervous, I’ll show you round,” the demon was already packing up, tucking its hooks into a crochet wallet with loving care. “There’s this gelato shop just outside the Ninth ring—”
In my mind, I saw myself standing in my room, again, hovering over those two boxes.
“—blueberry mochi on top—”
I saw myself from the side, like a film reel played back. A muscle in my forearm flickered beneath the blanket; my gaze scattered back and forth.
“…are you even listening?”
Which box did I put the blanket in?
“Lucie, we both know what you’re doing. Let’s go, there’s only so many trains this time of neverwhere—”
I watched myself in my memory, where I’d stood by the bed, undecided—
Which box did I put the blanket in?! “Donation”, or “Bedroom”… I knew which one I hoped I chose, the one with so little inside—
My stomach ached. I squeezed my eyes tight where I sat, so tight I saw stars like white fireworks shatter across the velvet black.
A lifetime of guilt—
The missed chances.
Lies to people I’d loved. I’d wanted so badly to be accepted, but in the end, what had I done?
My grandmother’s face flickered.
Without opening my eyes, I hooked the last stitches onto the blanket and broke the thread.
“There, that’s better,” the demon sighed. Somehow it had fit a green trilby hat between its horns. It reached down to the blanket we’d made, worked from either end, and gently began to fold it into its carpet bag. “I have to thank you, this has actually been quite enjoyable—”
My face flushed, and heat began to slice my cheeks.
“Ah, don’t cry,” the demon paused. “It’s not all bad.” It reached a claw around my shoulders and squeezed. “I admit, I’m pretty grateful. I don’t think I’ve got the hang of that granite stitch yet—”
Then a jolt of electricity sparked across my shoulders, sending us leaping away from one another, energy singing the air.
“What!” Maw open, confusion, hurt — then rage boiled from the demon’s eyes. Its cutlass tail thrashed, and the handle of the carpet bag snapped in its fist, tumbling our blanket to the ground. Gone was the personable pencil-pusher — what stood in its place was the blue flame of a welding torch; the combustion heat of a star. “WHAT DID YOU DO—”
I shook my head, eyes wide—
Out of the top of the abandoned bag hung my corner of the blanket. And even from this distance I could see the corner of the last shell… two long treble stitches, where there should have been three.
Life is imperfect, Memere’s voice whispered, and we are too.
Intoxicated relief burst from my mouth. The scent of my grandmother’s perfume caught me, filling my lungs with what felt like pure oxygen, and my head swam.
“No!” the demon roared. “I’ve beaten seventeen chess champions and a goddamn Grammy nominee, this is not how it happens!” Its voice took on the poisonous tinge of my own, heard too often, in the soft moments when I needed comfort, and instead doled out cruelty to myself, again and again.
The forever space we’d inhabited began to pucker at the edges, and a seam was forming in the air. A white, icing-sugar smoke was seeping through, grasping the demon’s arms and legs and throat. It fought them off, wrath and spittle flying. “You’re incapable, you’re self-obsessed, you drive everyone away—”
“I’m not perfect,” I said, shaking. “And I have to learn to be okay with that…
“I’m not. And neither are you.”
The demon leapt, claws out, the scream of a steam train on its lips—
Author’s Note: My academic background is Irish mythology, and my personal background has involved crochet since I was 9 years old. Like the girl in the story, my Memere Florence taught me, and as we’ve both grown older (she’s 98!), it’s become more and more something we bond over. Last year, I came across an old tweet about crochet in Irish folklore. While it proved unfounded, it got the mythology and fiber craft parts of my brain working. What if someone did have their soul on the line, Seventh Seal-style, with nothing but their handy crochet hook and a bit of yarn? That was the first spark of what eventually became this story. As a side note – the turquoise blue blanket is real: it was my first big project Memere taught me. This story is for her.
Julie Le Blanc (she/her) is a Rhode Islander currently living in Galway, Ireland. She once wrote 100k words about the Irish goddess of war, the Morrígain, and got a PhD for it. Her fiction has been published by Paper Lanterns Literary Journal, Channel Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. When she’s not writing or crocheting, she’s studying Italian and Irish and going for rainy walks along the beach in Salthill.
I used to think that the Mid-Autumn Festival was simply a pain in the ass. Embodying the popular conception of idealized heterosexual womanhood—even for one night—is an arduous challenge.
That’s still true, of course. But lately it’s been overshadowed by a larger problem: The offerings are dwindling. Two centuries ago, I would’ve built thrones made of mooncakes in every room of my silent palace, would’ve filled hot tubs with the fruit sent up on festival night. Nowadays, storing and preserving and pickling feels like a losing race, like if I let even one persimmon spoil in the cold moon air, there won’t be enough to sustain me and Jade Rabbit for the year.
That worry sits at the top of my mind as I consider my checklist for the festival.
Beauty. Gentleness. Elegance. Quietness. Kindness. Self-sacrifice. Intelligence is in there somewhere, though I’m always exhausted by the time I reach it.
And the intangible qualities are just the start of it. Being the real moon goddess requires a great deal of clothing and makeup. The real moon goddess must be elaborate, delicate, draped in folds of silk. The real moon goddess must be radiant. In other words, the real moon goddess must be utterly unlike the real moon, which is content in its quiet, rocky existence—cold and gray, gray and cold, just gray dirt and darker gray shadows in the shallow craters, all the way to the horizon where the gray edge meets the black sky.
The single parallel that redeems the comparison? Both the moon and I glow. From afar.
And so it’s the version of me in a full face and silk hanfu—bright, ethereal—that people believe is the real moon goddess. They probably also believe that I eat a few mooncakes one night a year, then subsist on mysterious moon mists the rest of the time.
Jade Rabbit helps with my hair and face, bless him, mumbling about skin serums and retinoids as he applies my eyelashes. “Not that you’re aging, obviously,” he says.
Obviously. I’m a goddess.
But I am fading. Every year, it takes a thicker layer of makeup to paint on my celestial visage. I would’ve given it all up a long time ago, except that I’m under eternal contractual obligation.
The most ridiculous part? By the time Jade Rabbit finishes my makeup, I’m wishing there were one more layer of blush to apply, one more eyebrow hair to pluck. But the makeup has already taken longer than it should. I can’t put off the last step. At my nod, Jade Rabbit unwraps the veil of elegance, quietness, self-sacrifice, and all the rest.
At this point every year, I tell him, “You should be the moon goddess instead of me.” He’s a true embodiment of all those traits, plus he has naturally thick eyelashes.
At this point every year, he just lifts up the veil and settles it over my head. His arms are the size of little shrimps, but he carries it as if it’s a sheet of silk, not a crushing shroud.
My neck cramps immediately under the weight. It feels heavier every year, no matter how much cross-training I do. Jade Rabbit pokes his paw into my cheek, turning my face to the mirror. The reflection is my own and not my own: eyes drawn large and dark, lips tinted into rosebud perfection, round cheeks washed out to sepulchral white.
“You look so sad,” Jade Rabbit says. “What’s wrong? Not just your usual festival grumpiness?”
I hold the veil of elegance, quietness, self-sacrifice, and all the rest away from my face. It takes all my strength. “Every year, it’s getting worse. Soon we won’t even have enough to live on.”
Jade Rabbit nods, tapping away on his iPad. When he holds it out, I see a graph that looks like a playground slide. “If the trend holds, that’ll be in twenty-three years.”
“How are you so cheerful about it?” My arms shake so badly that I have to let go of the veil. It drops over me with a whump. My voice echoes inside it as I add, “Is it because you think I’ll starve myself so you can have enough to eat? You’re cute, but you’re not that cute.”
It’s a lie. I would absolutely starve myself if it meant Jade Rabbit could live, and he knows it.
He’s nice enough not to rub it in. The iPad goes away, and he reaches through the veil as if it’s only fog, tucking a strand of my hair into place. “I’m not cheerful,” he says. “What happens, happens. At least we’ll have each other.”
“Is it a problem with me?” I don’t really mean to say the words, but the veil of elegance, quietness, self-sacrifice, and all the rest has a way of making me say things I don’t really think, and believe things I know aren’t true. “Would they give more offerings if I were more elegant? Quiet? Self-sacrificing?”
Jade Rabbit only shakes his head.
I know the moment of moonrise because the LED light fixtures power up, brighter, whiter, more ethereal than the moon’s natural light. I step out onto the balcony of the Palace. Like me, it’s been made up for the festival, with silk screens to hide the LEDs, the atmospheric wind machines, and the freezers where we store the offerings.
For an instant, looking out at the mid-autumn evening, I forget the weight of the veil and the empty freezers behind the screens. I tilt my head ever so slowly (it’s the only way I can move without snapping my neck), and look down on the earth. In my arms, Jade Rabbit whispers something warm and gentle. This is how festival nights used to feel.
A forest of red candles glows in the dark, the lights diffuse and haloed, like reflections in a still lake. Laughter carries up to the moon, twined together with the scent of incense, and countless faces gaze upward, families seated together in yards and on roofs. Every face opens in wonder as I step onto the balcony. If I had any doubt that the old contract stands firm, that moment of wonder dispels it. To the people below, both the moon and its goddess appear close enough to touch.
Among the glowing faces, a child holds tight to a mooncake with one hand and a parent’s arm with the other. That wide-eyed girl, along with all the other people looking up tonight, will dream of me: a vision with a kind, distant, lovely face, my hair and my silks billowing gently in the breeze of a hidden fan.
As my eyes adjust to the lights, though, the candles resolve into discrete points, and I see that the forest has thinned again since last year. Between the upturned faces are the napes of endless necks and the backs of countless bowed heads. The offering tables are even fewer, sparsely provisioned with persimmons and grapefruits and carved watermelons among the mooncakes. The child doesn’t offer up her cake, instead holding it tighter. Once, the parents would’ve scolded her; now, they don’t notice.
I want to curse, but the veil keeps my face fixed in a peaceful smile. If only I could go back to the days when the Mid-Autumn Festival was just a pain in the ass.
The offerings come to me, as I’m entitled by my contract, and Jade Rabbit logs them all on his iPad as they arrive. I stand on display for hours, until the red candles wink out and our grand LED moonlight dims. Down below, the families return indoors to enjoy each other’s company or to fall into bed.
The time is a blur, but finally, I’m back inside. Jade Rabbit lifts the veil of elegance, quietness, self-sacrifice, and all the rest. Air rushes into my lungs and I collapse onto a couch. “Thank Heaven. I thought my face was going to get stuck that way.”
“You say that every year. Get up so I can rescue your hanfu.”
I oblige him, grabbing a pear from among the offerings. I’m vindictively happy to see my lipstick smear a pink mark when I bite into it. I wipe off the rest of the makeup, and Jade Rabbit lets down my hair. Only when I’m back in my sweats do I feel strong enough to ask, “So? How bad is it?”
“I’m doing the math.” He doesn’t provide details.
I lie on the couch and watch him for a few minutes as he plans how to store and preserve the offerings. I can feel my body relaxing back into its comfortable shape, my shoulders a little slumped and my lips tilted down instead of up. Jade Rabbit is chomping on his ear as he enters numbers into his spreadsheet, so I give him a mooncake to chew on instead, and then take one for myself, one of the trendy ones stuffed with ice cream. I pick up a bottle of wine to go with it, and head out to the balcony.
Things look different without the festival spotlights. Only a pale film of light remains, illuminating the walls and grounds of my Palace of Pervasive Cold. Despite our efforts to keep it clean, it looks old and gray and a little grubby, like the moonsoil. Earth seems much more distant.
I dangle my legs over the balcony edge and open the wine. Far below me, a child slips out through a window and sits the same way: legs dangling over the side of a tiny metal balcony. In her hand, she holds a slightly crushed mooncake.
I recognize her. She’s the same child who clung to her parent’s arm during the festival.
As if sensing my attention, her head snaps up. For a few moments, she wears the same expression of awe from earlier in the evening. Then her mouth softens and her eyebrows tip upward, and I realize I was wrong. Her previous expression was not awe, but anxiety. Only in its absence do I recognize it.
I’m so busy trying to figure out what this new expression means that I forget where I am, what I look like—and the fact that no one should be able to see me now that the festival is over. But the girl clearly sees something. One of her hands uncurls into a minuscule wave.
My stomach drops. If I stay still—
“Hello?” the girl says.
“You’re the moon goddess,” she breathes.
“How are you talking to me?” I shove my bottle of wine behind me. I haven’t spoken to a human in… centuries. They don’t talk anymore. They just stare.
The girl tips her head to the side. “You are the moon goddess, aren’t you? I’ve been wondering where you were, but Ma and Ba won’t tell me. They kept saying the goddess was that lady who came out before. Who was she, anyway?”
I’m out of practice with making conversation. I can’t think of a single thing to say.
She continues, with the seriousness unique to childhood, “It’s all right if you don’t want to talk. I know you’re the real goddess. The other lady was like, if someone imagined what a goddess would look like without ever meeting one.”
That other lady was me, I try to say. Maybe if I were wearing the veil, the words would’ve come out, but I’m not, and so they stay unspoken.
The girl rests her chin on the bars of the balcony. If she’d been wearing the veil, the weight of it might’ve snapped her head right off at that angle, but she isn’t. She sighs, not a sad sigh.
We stare at each other for what feels like a long time, each on our own balcony, legs dangling, mirroring gazes and postures. The only light left is the moon glow, behind me, and I’m sure I must look like little more than a shadow in sweats, not like a goddess at all. So my heart flips strangely when the girl holds out her hand. In it is the slightly crushed mooncake, with a bite visible on one side.
“I can give this to you because you’re really Chang’e,” she confides. “Don’t let that other lady take it. She’s already stolen all your offerings.” She hesitates, then breaks off the bitten part of the cake and places the other piece on the railing. “I’ll leave it here for you, okay?”
I don’t say anything. The girl’s eyes lose focus. I don’t think she can see me anymore. I don’t know why we even got these few stolen moments of closeness.
I sit on the balcony. The LEDs have switched off, to lie dormant for another year. The natural moonlight makes me feel more like myself: I don’t have to worry about the way the LEDs glare at every dip of my body and every empty corner of the Palace.
It makes me feel like I used to, when the Mid-Autumn Festival was…
When it was more than a pain in the ass. When it wasn’t a pain. Because, once, very long ago, it wasn’t.
Then, I would look down to the earth, and girls would look back, and speak to me, and understand that the face of the moon goddess was my face, not an imposter’s. Then, I didn’t think about the offerings.
In the centuries since, I’ve forgotten how not to think about the offerings, just as I’ve forgotten what the festival feels like without the pain.
When I head inside, Jade Rabbit looks up from his iPad. “Just in time. We should pack away the mooncakes, and then we’ll need to spend the afternoon pickling. With a little planning—which I’ve already done—we’ll be all right for this year.”
I manage a smile and pick him up in my arms. Half of a slightly squashed mooncake perches at the top of the pile of offerings.
Impulsively, unsure if I’m even speaking aloud, I say, “What would happen if I didn’t do the whole makeup-and-veil thing next year? What if I just went out there in my sweats?”
“You’d be in breach of contract,” Jade Rabbit says, not particularly disapproving.
He wriggles in my arms until he can reach his iPad. A moment later, he flips the screen around to reveal an updated graph: the same downward slope of offerings that he showed me before, and then a new line that drops in a much steeper cliff next year.
I expect my heart to drop with it. Instead, I find myself thinking about the way the girl looked at me as she perched her treasured mooncake on the balcony railing. I think of the veil, stored away in a cedar chest to keep off the moon moths. I think of how the air brushed my real face, my fading face, as I looked down at the earth and spoke to a human for the first time in centuries.
I’ve barely touched the mooncakes this year, but I feel full, and warm, with Jade Rabbit nestled in my arms.
“You know,” I say, “I think you’re right. I think we’ll be okay.”
Author’s Note: Growing up, I often came across the story of the moon goddess Chang’e: told by my Chinese teachers, in textbooks and storybooks, in translation and in Chinese. In some versions, she is purely greedy; in some, purely loyal; sometimes a cautionary tale, sometimes a noble martyr, often an object of desire, and on and on… but she’s never quite a fully fleshed-out person. So this story came about as I wondered who Chang’e might be in her private life, and how a mortal-turned-deity might react to the slow realization that even goddesses are not forever. Also, Jade Rabbit (who’s one of my favorite parts of the story) gets short shrift in many versions of the myth — but given that he is Chang’e’s only companion on the moon, I thought their relationship deserved much more than a footnote.
Anja Hendrikse Liu (she/they) is a creator and devourer of fantasy and sci-fi who wishes she had time and words for all of her dreams. Her short fiction has been published by Fusion Fragment, Air and Nothingness Press, and others. Anja works at an educational technology nonprofit, and in her free time, she loves exploring the world — literally, and also from her home in California via baked goods and mythology.
On a sunless morning, in the city of Astor, the word ‘caulk’ vanished.
The word didn’t announce its vanishing with trumpets or a booming clarion call. It faded away slowly in the middle of the night, like the last lyrics of a difficult song. The ones who didn’t use the word ‘caulk’ could not even tell what had gone wrong—the non-engineers, the artists and intellectuals—because for all intents and purposes, they would have spent their entire lifetimes not caulking anything.
Yes, the city of Astor simply woke up to unsealed joints in their stone buildings and leaking drainage pipes. The city woke up to a quiet mayhem.
Because with the word, the idea of caulking vanished too. And hence, near the harbours, the ships that had docked in the middle of the night, spewing sailors on the streets for a day of boastful extravagance, found themselves sinking, their wood coming apart at the edges. The groaning of the wood like a monster waking from slumber, the silent creaking like the hips of a man with an ill-timed squat, all these sounds fell silent as ‘caulk’ disappeared in a watery grave.
It took most of the day for the men and the women to unearth the caulk-shaped absence in their mind. Because just near the absence lay meaning, and meaning led to understanding. Understanding led to realisation that thankfully, only the word was gone, but not what it meant, not entirely.
With ‘caulk’ gone, ‘seal’ was used temporarily. But ‘seal’ was also used for other things, and lest the four letter word be burdened by too much meaning, a new word was thought of by the aging Keepers who sat in a dimly-lit alehouse drinking cheap rum, and thanking the heavens the idea of rum and the word still existed.
The word they came up with, a moustached man and an aunty who knitted sweaters, was ‘merk’.
“Merk?” asked a sailor, slamming a mug of beer on the table, froth spilling over and finding a new home amid niches carved in the wood.
“Merk,” said the aunty, admiring the pattern she’d made, as the ball of wool unspooled from her lap and hit the floor. “You can use it from now on. Tomorrow, someone from the Tapestry Collective will come and make the necessary additions.”
“Merk, instead of the word we lost. Now, I don’t remember what exactly that word sounded like, but it sure wasn’t ‘merk’. Merk doesn’t sound like it could fix all the joints in Astor.”
“It’s the best we could do,” said the man, swallowing his third shot of rum. “It was a well-used word, whatever it was, and disappeared with no warning. It takes a long time for us to come up with acceptable words.”
The old man’s answer was deemed acceptable. And so it came to pass, that merk took the place of the word everyone had forgotten.
But merk could hardly bear the weight of all the meaning the old word carried. There was no heft to ‘merk’. ‘Merk’ was a hasty concoction, a parody of a word, ironically meant to ‘caulk’ the joints between remembrance and essence, memory and context. The ships and the walls and the leaky sewage pipes learned soon, but it was never the same as before.
The man who’d come up with the new word was named Ullarian. And every morning, as he undid the blinds of his cottage-home snuggled at the edge of the forest, he would wonder if someone had forgotten the ‘sun’. Because Astor had never seen the sun, and while Ullarian knew that a sun existed in the sky, nobody in the entire city had ever mentioned the sun, or why a dull, perpetual brightness existed in the sky without the presence of a source.
When all the noise about merk had subsided, and the word found itself settling in the vocabulary of Astor, albeit uncomfortably, the old aunty from the bar visited Ullarian and gave him a sweater she had knitted, a bright crimson ‘U’ on the chest against a lime yellow backdrop. Ullarian accepted the gift with a warm smile and made spiced tea for the woman, whom he called Sultana, though in fact her name was something else, something even she had forgotten, but she accepted her new name, which dripped from Ullarian’s mouth like a waterfall, a name she liked.
Ullarian’s cottage was all wood, which made uncouth sounds all day long. But when Sultana sat with him near the window that overlooked the meadows, even the house consented to maintain an odd silence, respecting her presence.
“I am troubled,” said Sultana, stirring her tea, looking out the window. Ullarian was looking at the wrinkles on Sultana’s face, and how despite them, she looked ageless.
“There’s going to be another forgetting, and it will be bigger than what merk replaced. It could cause real havoc.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I don’t know, but these forgettings have been random and nonsensical. It will get worse. Small forgettings are always a precursor to big vanishings.”
“Then we’ll replace that,” said Ullarian. “Don’t you worry. That’s what we’ve always done. That’s what we did for brocken and semidifier and levertanum.”
“The ideas behind those words you just spoke, they were easy ideas. Easy ideas are harder to remove, because they contain multitudes of meaning. But what if we forgot tea? Would you wake up the next morning without the precise idea of brewing leaves in water?”
“Nobody wants that,” said Ullarian, taking a sip, and savouring it for a moment too long. “What do you suggest we do?”
“I want to visit the Tapestry,” said Sultana, her voice heavy.
“The Tapestry, on a hunch? Trust me, you don’t want to do that,” said Ullarian, sipping his tea. “Why don’t we wait for the Forgetting and see what we can do then, as we have always done?”
“You’ve grown complacent, Ullarian.”
“Not complacent,” said the man. “I just want to live the rest of my life in peace.”
Sultana sighed. And then said words which stung Ullarian.
“How are your bees?”
He knew what she was implying. Behind his cottage, he had constructed a small apiary. It was a small hobby he had acquired after Astor had lost the word for honey, and subsequently the substance itself. It was the only time in the history of Forgetting that Ullarian and Sultana hadn’t come up with a word. Instead, Ullarian had taken up beekeeping. Stacks upon stacks of brood frames lay in his backyard, where bees and their queen hatched from larvae and grew and grew and flew towards orchards to pollinate plants. When those bees created honey, slowly the meaning of the word found its way back in the folds of Astor’s brains, and when meaning came back, so did the word.
Even now, Ullarian could hear their silent hatchings. He shuddered to think of a world without bees. He winced. A shadow fell over Sultana’s face. She seemed to understand that she had taken it too far to prove a point.
Sultana finished her tea and left.
For five days, Ullarian did not visit the town. For five days, he lived cooped inside his cottage, thinking of what Sultana had told him, thinking of the meaning he had given to so many words before. Brocken, the word for a cuboidal piece of hardware that was used to store food-items, had come to him in a post-rum haze, when suddenly the town was plagued with food and liquid spilling all over the place with nothing to contain them. When that word was lost, suddenly its entire meaning was gone too. When the word was lost, a popular fight-sport vanished without a trace, with athletes suddenly finding themselves with bruised fists and muscular arms, and having no memory of how they got them.
Something had told Ullarian that the word started with the letter ‘B’, and the replacement would have to be something very close too, and not too far off.
For five days, Ullarian thought what word he might give to the bees, should they be forgotten. When he couldn’t come up with any, he packed his belongings, and made his way towards Sultana’s home.
Sultana lived on a cramped street where the road ascended towards a busier market area. The buildings were made of cement and stone and iron, and some of them were threatening to crumble because of merk not doing its job properly. When he reached the street, he felt disoriented. He looked up at the road as it disappeared in a flock of pedestrians eager to grab their morning coffee from cafes, their newspapers, and their chicken salami rolls. Ullarian felt an absence, but he couldn’t place it.
Sultana stepped out of her own blocky apartment, her keys jangling by a cord on her waist. She looked ready for a long trip, with one suitcase which threatened to rip at the seams, and one handbag, which was painted with all colours except one. When she looked at him, she smiled.
“I knew you’d come,” she said. “Always the light traveller.”
Ullarian looked at his own measly packings and wondered if he should have included his two sweaters and his three pairs of socks. The Tapestry sat at the top of a hill, and it could get cold that far up. But he shrugged off the thought as soon as he’d entertained it.
“Let’s go,” said Ullarian. “Before we forget the meaning of travel.”
Ullarian and Sultana began their journey on foot. First they crossed bright green meadows, rolls upon rolls of them, with silent footfalls and hushed conversation. They wanted to preserve their energy for the trip and the task ahead, and so as much as Ullarian wanted to talk and joke with Sultana, he kept his words locked inside him.
When the border of Astor became a memory on grass, they took a road paved on both sides with rocks and forgotten dung pellets. The road was smeared with muddy tyre tracks, which they followed until the asphalt became smooth again, and the surrounding meadows gave way to a rocky expanse, ending at the base of crooked peaks.
Ahead, the road ended where the edge of another city began, a city bigger than Astor, a city which housed the Ladder to the Tapestry. Instead of a gate, the city boasted a giant golden crescent, the higher tip of which rose fifty feet from the ground. When the crescent stood tall, its tip high above, the city was closed off to visitors. When it rotated, like a scythe pendulum, slashing the air with its brightness, it revealed the tall spires and interconnected buildings and most importantly, the Ladder it stood sentinel to.
Much to their chagrin, the city of Messan was closed. Despite it, however, they could see the gleam of the Ladder’s tip, thousands of feet in the air, where it met the pyramid which housed the Tapestry of Words.
“Is it happening?” asked Ullarian.
“Not yet,” said Sultana. “When it happens, you’ll know it.”
“Sultana, I’m scared. What if I forget my own name? What if the word ‘name’ itself vanishes?”
Sultana took Ullarian’s hand in hers. “I have the same fear. But at least we’ll be together in that forgetting.”
“I won’t recognize you,” he said. “I won’t even recognize myself. How are you certain it will be all right?”
“I am not,” said Sultana, calmly. Ullarian believed her. For the first time in her life, Sultana was unsure, and yet it didn’t seem to bother her. Had she, somewhere deep inside, accepted that the upcoming forgetting signalled the end of things?
He looked at the slate sky. No sign of the sun, and no clouds too. Both those elements, gone from the memory of Astor. Yet somehow, the city persisted. Maybe forgetting wasn’t everything.
Ullarian exhaled, and fog came out of his mouth. Messan was a cold city. They were a long way from Astor.
“Let’s go,” he said.
When they reached the Crescent Door, they met two tall guards, one dressed in silver, the other in gold.
“We are the Keepers from Astor,” declared Sultana. “We require passage to the Tapestry.”
“Why are you here?” The silver guard’s voice was mild mannered, but annoyed. “The Collective hasn’t yet made a decision whether they want to visit your city or not.”
“We are not here about the merk-seal,” said Sultana. “My Keeper partner has forgotten his name. This looked like an unscheduled event. That shouldn’t happen with Keepers. And I want to check.”
Sultana was lying through her teeth, and Ullarian felt proud of her at that moment.
“I think it started with a T,” he said, sounding aptly befuddled. “Or a U. But what kind of an idiot has a name that starts with a U, am I right?”
“My grandfather was named Umar,” said the guard in gold.
“He didn’t mean any disrespect,” said Sultana. “Forgetting one’s own name comes with forgetting morals and a misplaced sense of rights and wrongs. It’s very severe, which is why—”
“All right, all right,” said the guard in silver. “But before entering you have to answer his question.” The guard pointed towards his partner.
“What succeeds war but precedes peace?”
“That’s an unusual question to ask, because peace is neither the opposite of war, nor an absence, but a calm persevering of it,” said Ullarian. The guard in gold stood in silence for a full minute, before nodding at his partner. The crescent door shifted with a groaning noise first, and then a sharp slashing of the air.
Ullarian and Sultana walked inside the city of Messan.
Later, as they stood at the base of the Ladder, looking up at the pyramid which housed the Tapestry, Ullarian asked Sultana if she would consider living with him for the rest of their lives. He would make tea for her, in the morning and at night. She would knit him sweaters, and they would take care of the bees.
Sultana didn’t say anything, but took the first step on the Ladder. Ullarian followed her. Sixty steps later they arrived on a landing, which overlooked the great expanse of the Messan city and, in the distance, the small needle-like spire of the Astor lighthouse, and the blue beyond of the sea.
Two thousand steps remained, and only then would they reach the point where the Golden Elevator started. Reaching the Tapestry was a test of patience and endurance, and meant for the young. Ullarian and Sultana were the only Keepers in the world in the sixth decade of their lives.
Sultana lay down on the platform, her breath coming in shallow gasps. Ullarian’s heart was fluttering like a bee. He sat down beside Sultana, looking at the city.
“Is it worth it?” asked Ullarian. “Two thousand more steps, Sultana. Is it really worth losing our bodies in the process? The last time we came to the Tapestry together was two decades ago.”
“When all this is over, we will live together. But we need to do this.”
“I know better than to argue with you,” said Ullarian, with a smile on his face. “Rest for a while, we have a long way to go.”
Sultana stopped, her next words dangling at the cusp of her tongue. Her lips were patchy, cobwebbed, and her skin was dry. She was moving her mouth and yet her eyes flitted around madly.
“I feel I need—”
She massaged her throat, and yet couldn’t tell what she felt, what she needed.
“My throat feels like it’s clotted with sand. Something…”
Ullarian felt what she felt, but he couldn’t mouth what he needed to make the feeling of dryness subside. The idea of cooling down his throat felt like a dark vapour, vanishing.
Ullarian looked up. Beyond the Astor lighthouse, the blueness was evaporating slowly.
“You stay here,” he said, in panic. “I’ll go up.”
“No… if it has started, we have to stop it together.”
Then, they both began their long ascent, without knowing why their throats felt parched, or the method for making the feeling go away.
The Tapestry was not one tapestry, but many tapestries, hanging low, their borders ornate, studded with jewels, sapphire, ruby, onyx, emerald, their dull beige fabric littered with jet black ant-like scrawls. To an untrained eye, those would look like haphazard letterings of a child.
But a Keeper could tell each stroke, each scrawl, each cursive letter, thin or bold, that mingled into other letters to form words on the Tapestry. The Tapestry nearest to Ullarian was filled with semaphore, trolley, underpants, ill, will, yowl, havoc, wanton, pulverise, caution, quixotic, ubiquitous, poison, gamble, elation. He looked up and saw ration, toil, kaftan, pashmina, evening, haphazard, drama, camphor, and to his utter relief, sky. Higher and higher up the tapestry went, until it touched nothingness. The top of the pyramid was gleaming like a jewel from the inside.
To Ullarian’s side stood Sultana, dazed out of her mind, breathing heavily. For many long minutes, they had been standing like this, looking at the sprawl of the Tapestries, their eyes eager to find the absence they knew not the meaning of.
Ullarian finally took a step, then three, then five, until he reached the center of the giant room. He felt the sharp fabric of two tapestries against his skin, as the words written on them danced in front of his eyes.
Then he saw it.
A child crawled on a tapestry, clutching its fabric with a practised grip, like he had done this a thousand times before. No more than eleven, he was doing the impossible — crawling across the fluttering surface of the Tapestry, a brush in his hand, unwriting and rewriting words. On the ground, a massive glass container was overflowing with blue ink, dripping on the shining marble floor.
After removing a word right in front of Ullarian, the child began a silent crawl down to the ink bottle. He saw what the child had just unmade. ‘W’ and ‘A’ were left, and the rest of the remaining letters of a once-five-letter-word looked like ink-ghosts.
“Wa.. te… —” Ullarian tried to mouth it, complete it, but it did not make any sense. This was different from merk-seal. The idea of the word was simple, just as Sultana had predicted, yet it was all-encompassing; life itself hinged upon it. There was no room for ambiguity here, and they couldn’t replace the word with hasty substitutes.
Yet, water was proving hard to erase.
“Who are you?” Ullarian asked the child. The child did not answer. Instead, he dipped his brush in the ink, and climbed back upwards, up and up and up, to write over what he had erased, doing some form of Keeper’s work, intent on replacing the vanished tapestry word with his own.
“Stop!” Ullarian screamed. The child paid him no heed. Ullarian dashed towards the tapestry, grabbed the fabric, his right palm over ‘ululate’, his left eclipsing the t of ‘turmoil’, and yanked it. The tapestry was heavier than the world, the weight of so much meaning upon its surface, but it relented, because Ullarian was a Keeper, and had provided meaning to more words than one Tapestry could handle.
Sultana’s cry echoed across the pyramid and got lost in the folds of the tapestry as it came crashing down, its overstretched cloth smeared by the blue ink, which spread inexorably across its surface, drowning out hovel, yearning, tears, lark, ergo, quest, charm, pedal, sort, karma, mist, end, black.
On a —less — in Astor, — woke up to the sound of buzzing.
— walked around in his —, straining his —,, but he couldn’t place where the sound was coming from. —, who wore a sweater with the letter ‘U’ on it, tried to remember the —, the previous —, and all the —s that had preceded, the events as they had happened, but his mind drew a blank.
He walked towards the sound, his steps unhurried, because his mind didn’t know the meaning of hurry, or anxiousness, or eagerness. He walked towards the back — of his —, which was ever so slightly ajar. Dust motes hung in the air, streaming through the gap. He flicked them, and they shivered and then danced.
A smile came on his face, even though he didn’t know what it meant. He opened the — and went outside. A woman stood ten feet away, holding a —. Hundreds of dots swirled around her head, attracted towards the — the woman was holding.
The woman’s name existed at the far edges of his memory, ever threatening to slip into chasms where even memory couldn’t reach. He held on to the first letter of her name. It started with S. The rest of the pulling he can do. He knew.
She looked at him. He looked at her.
“Good morning,” she said. “This is an apiary. These are bees.”
He asked her about the —, and how the — had scribbled across the fluttering —, and what the absence of — meant, and about other absences, in as many words he could —.
“Words will come to you, slowly,” she said. “The folds of the Tapestry are being ironed, as we speak. Every stitch, every seam, back to the way it was.”
A smile flickered on his face. He knew ‘smile’ and what it meant. But he didn’t know himself, and she must have read the blank page that his face was, because she took his hands in hers, and said, “You are Ullarian. And I am —”
He completed her sentence, saying her name, the word tumbling out of his mouth like a —fall.
Author’s Note: I’ve always been fascinated by the nature of memory. One of the first short stories I remember reading which tackled memory was Neil Gaiman’s “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”, and ever since then I’ve wanted to do something like that in my own fiction. The first line of my story is something I wrote very casually on a google doc, one day, and realised that I had it, finally. The rest of the details, the strange world of Astor, revealed itself gradually.
Amal Singh is an author and an editor from Mumbai, India. His short fiction has appeared in venues such as F&SF, Clarkesworld, Apex, Fantasy among others, and has been long-listed for the BSFA award. He also co-edits Tasavvur, a short fiction magazine dedicated to South Asian Speculative Fiction.
So you want to determine whether dogs still exist.
First, our association of dogs with obedience. Is obedience dog-like? Or is it to do with horses now, or children, or hamsters. “Hamster-like obedience.” Dogs have retreated into the bodies of hamsters, maybe. They have a real knack for learning, we’re told, and for evolving themselves. There’s no reason they couldn’t take this extra step. Or maybe they don’t exist, dogs have never existed.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Consider our association with the meow. Do we think of the phrase “meow” and picture a dog? Or is it some animal now, possibly a clam, or a variety of bird, or a noisy sort of vegetable. “Meowing like a celery stalk.” If the phrase “meowing like a dog” has vanished from common vocabulary and been replaced with something else, then have dogs been replaced as well? It is hard to be certain. There are other symptoms; diagnose at least six before taking confidence in your conclusion.
A third test is the nature of ears. When you are leaping around the hill in excitement and your ear flips inside out, do you think, “how dog-like of me to have an ear that has flipped inside out from excitement!” Or do you think, “strange, I do not have a single species to compare this phenomenon to,” and thus conclude that an ear flipped inside out is a human institution? It is human ears that flip inside out, you suppose. Not dog ears, because dogs do not exist anymore in our current reality. They’ve never manned the buses, or ran the companies, or built the airships, or colonized the planet’s space stations. The dogs have packed their suitcases and taken their technology with them.
The fourth test is a question of hieroglyphics. Do dog-headed hieroglyphics exist? Then perhaps dogs still exist in your universe. Is the sphinx still a woman with the body of a dog? Has she been displaced? Has her voice and her infamous dogsong been muted? Have her riddles ceased to afflict the commuters on the public transport, or do they still read the franchise-distributed newspapers and work to ignore the dog-riddles coded into the news stories? (Answers are available in the back, in upside-down print.)
The fifth is the cold wet nose. Perhaps there is a memory of hiding in the tornado shelter, and your mother presses her cold wet nose to your shoulder to reassure you. Certainly no other animal has that cold wet nose, most human of noses, which fluff will keep sticking to and keep needing to be licked clean. Or: in your memory, her nose is dry. It is not a tornado shelter, and she presses her cheek, not her nose. The cold wet nose is a dog-nose, because dogs exist. The tornado shelter is not a tornado shelter, because it is not needed for tornados. The distant airships wreathe the buildings on the skyline in a flickering green.
The sixth is burial. How do you bury your dead? A bone dug up: is this a dog-like behavior? The mounds of earth could be from the laying of a sewage pipe, or maybe an archeological excavation. Soil has not been restricted to dog territory. When the dead happen, they can be slid into the earth, secure that their bodies will not be co-opted, because dogs do not exist. There is no reason to quarantine the dead and burn them. Their ashes are not encased in salt and sealed into the trunks of baobab trees. Instead, if ashed, you can scatter your dead on the wind. There are no airships to intercept them. If desired, you can even put your uncle’s ashes into the earth, along with building foundations, and pirate treasure, along with bodies. Burial remains a human institution, a very humanoid endeavor.
The seventh is opposable thumbs. Who has thumbs these days? Have you shaken hands with your pet while telling it, “Good boy, Rex, have a biscuit,” and noted how it clasped your palm with all seven of its opposable thumbs? Have your own thumbs been feeling lively? Have they been whining softly at night, when they think you cannot hear them. Do they ache when you bring them near a flank steak, or whenever you think a disloyal thought. Or, perhaps thumbs are something for humans to enjoy alone. The opposable thumb: what a people-person thing, you think. You might say to yourself, I sure do enjoy holding these bottles and unscrewing these jam jars and thinking whatever thoughts I want! What a Homo sapiens thing it is, to have opposable thumbs!
The eighth is unexpected gifts. Did you open your mailbox this morning and wonder at the rose-patterned box you found inside? Possibly you brought it to your kitchen table, anticipating its contents. “Another thrall-cap!” you might say. “They keep sending me more, and I already have so many!” Or you told the postman, “My apologies, clearly this strange hat was delivered to the wrong address, since I don’t know the sender or even what a thrall-cap is.” There are no dogs to send you overnight post. There’s no reason to be alarmed, perhaps, by the families wearing beeping hats who are marching single-file out of their homes toward the airships in the distance; they are simply pursuing some healthy form of exercise.
The ninth is the flensing of divinity. When the dogs, pouring from their airships, swarmed that titanic body and brought its flayed corpse tumbling from the clouds, did you say, my goodness, who are those four-legged creatures nipping at god’s heels? Or was it no mystery, because dogs exist. As they spread the softening cadaver across the continent, did you think: what is that sound I hear when I mean to be sleeping? Or did you say, there goes that dogsong again, and close the curtains against the afterimage permanently burned into the evening sky, of a flensed corpse tumbling down.
The tenth is the hieronymic engine. They’ve been building it for ages, and now you can see its rays at night like a lighthouse. Your brother begins to pant in the heat. You watch him struggle with holding items, his thumbs not quite operational. Gagging on bread, on all fours. You may note a bristled stubble on his arms, which he’s tried shaving into nonexistence. He fights the engine’s influence; it is not his fault that some are involuntarily susceptible. His speech will choke him till he swallows it, till the tail uncurls from his spine and he throws himself out the screen door, bounding over the hill, straight to the species that has assigned him new loyalties.
Have dogs been banished? Have they been expunged? The anxiety, that you might take your morning coffee and look out the window and see those airships again. Then you will remember, the dogs were no story. There is a migraine-like aura which they bring with them and you recognize it unwillingly. Your grandfather used to tell you about it. He’d say: fighting for what’s right can be hard but you must stick to it like a barnacle. He’d talked about this before. You were certain your generation had evaded these necessities but they’ve followed, universe across, and you begin to understand something your grandfather would not:
A barnacle glues itself to familiar rock from chemical instinct.
Pry it free and who knows what other life it can live. Why cling to familiar humanity? Do dogs exist? Could you yourself demonstrate the answer to that question?
You tell your children, it’s not that you’re selling out. You’re just tired, and you can read the signs of what comes next. You remember your grandfather’s stories. Soon things will not be very pretty, and to be human among dogs will mean pain and dying. It’s an unappealing concept. You have the choice, before it happens, to change your body into the shape of those with power. Why not? Many have done it already, when given the option. Your neighbors howl now. You find yourself amenable to joining them. Let the human race shrink by one more. Your still-human neighbors may fight back, they may resist. They may turn soldier in some war to reclaim their world for humanity. You’ll try not to be impatient with them for it. Certainly your approach to a shifting climate is the more convenient option. In which case: conceal this reference sheet, conceal this guide to diagnosis. Ensure it can be found later, by another person who may need it more than you did. Human survival is not individual. It relies on dependable transmittal of information across the species.
We’ve been here before. Your story is not the only story. What you’re embracing now to maintain a serene existence is not the end of the striving human; not for someone else.
Avi Naftali’s fiction has previously appeared online in Shimmer Magazine. Avi grew up in Los Angeles, and he currently works a nine-to-five in New York, where he shares an apartment with his husband and a very affectionate cat who is currently throwing a tantrum because Avi is late in feeding him his dinner.