DP FICTION #96A: “The Monologue of a Moon Goddess in the Palace of Pervasive Cold” by Anja Hendrikse Liu

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. 

That’s all.

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.

I curse.

“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.

“What else?”

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.”


© 2023 by Anja Hendrikse Liu

2533 words

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.


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DP FICTION #95B: “Tell Me the Meaning of Bees” by Amal Singh

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.

“What about?”

“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.”

“I feel—”

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.

“Sultana.”

“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.

“Ullarian, no!”

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.


© 2023 by Amal Singh

3612 words

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.


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DP FICTION #95A: “Dog Song” by Avi Naftali

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.


© 2023 by Avi Naftali

1474 words

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.


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DP FICTION #94B: “When There is Sugar” by Leonard Richardson

Berl found it a comforting background to his work to hear his neighbors’ boots squishing through the village mud as they passed his bakery, but at the sound of dozens of trudging feet he looked up in alarm. Through the window he saw an army officer walking towards his bakery, followed by a squad of metal-footed machines.

The officer, a captain, knocked on Berl’s door. Berl did not want to make trouble; he wiped his hands on his apron and was smiling by the time he opened the door.

“Come in and dry off,” he said politely. It had been a long day of kneading and lifting for Berl, but even so the captain had slept less recently and less comfortably, and his rubber coat could not keep his wool coat dry. Huddled in the muddy street behind the captain stood his machines: long rectangular iron boxes, each standing on a tripod of birdlike legs, steaming in the rain.

“I’ve brought your new oven,” said the captain.

“New oven?”

The captain looked annoyed. “You should have received a letter with the royal seal.”

Berl had received a letter with the royal seal, and asked the village witch to read it to him, hoping for news of his son. There was none; Berl had ripped the letter up and his oven had turned the pieces to ash in a moment.

“I don’t need a new oven,” he told the captain. “I need salt, and sugar.” I need my son back.

“The rationing will be lifted as soon as possible,” said the captain. “For now… this is a personal gift from the royal family. The first fruits of the new era of peace.” He seemed to believe this himself, which was nice enough. “Put your mark here, please.”

From a pocket of his rubber coat the captain took a small leather-bound book. He leaned into Berl’s doorway, out of the drizzle, and opened it to a page covered in rows of neat penmanship. It looked like a ledger without numbers. Down the right-hand side of either page ran a line of fingermarks, a dozen fingers scarred by burns, the great hazard of Berl’s profession.

Berl pressed his second finger against a blank spot on the paper and his fingermark appeared dark upon it, just beneath that of the previous oven recipient. The captain gestured to his flock of iron birds and one of the tripods loped through the mud towards the bakery, stopping at his side. Berl felt a dry, familiar heat. A cavity ran through the rectangular box; Berl could look right through it and see the village on the other side.

“One ‘Mama Jolice’ class field oven,” said the captain. He slapped the oven with a gloved hand and it shifted its weight to keep its baking surface completely straight. “Decommissioned for civilian use. Needs no fuel. May it bring your village health.”

The captain swiveled one boot in the mud and walked back to his company of machines. In unison they straightened and marched behind him, sloshing through the mud, through the village, into the countryside.

With the stranger gone, the life of the village resumed, as much as possible given the rain. People stared at Berl and the oven, but nobody cared to stare too hard. A time had been when the attention of royalty was a boon, but no one was yet convinced that time had returned.

The articulated toes of the oven’s three feet grasped for purchase in the mud. Berl looked it over. It was a forge for bread: a three-legged rectangular prism with a cavity running through it, warmed by some magical source. A second, solid prism dangled from the first, forming a somewhat obscene counterweight between the two hind legs. The oven hissed as it turned rain to steam, moving less than a living thing would, but more than an oven ought to move.

“I suppose you should come in,” said Berl. It was a royal gift, and well-meaning, if a little patronizing. The oven did not respond. “Wait here.” Berl fetched the wire bootbrush, knelt and scrubbed the mud off the oven’s cold, worn feet as rain dripped into his bakery. The prospect of no longer needing to buy wood made the work worthwhile.

Stains of all kinds were burnt onto the oven’s body, stains that would not come out without magic or chemistry unavailable to Berl. Even after Berl’s ‘cleaning’, the iron beast smeared mud across his bakery floor as it clanked behind him to the real oven, wood-fired and brick.

When the captain had interrupted him, Berl had been finishing the day’s work, kneading a charity loaf from bits of leftover dough he had accumulated throughout the day. The dough had half-risen where Berl had set it on the board. Berl quickly kneaded it again and put it into a proofing bowl. Behind him the oven’s feet scratched at the stone floor like a cat testing its claws.

Berl left the dough to rise and started sweeping up. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the oven rear up onto its hind legs and reach with its front foot for the proofing bowl. “No. Stop!” Like a misbehaving pet. “Let it rise.” The oven slowly lowered its front leg, swaying back and forth, feeling its way to the ground like a child descending a tree.

Once the cleaning was done, Berl turned the charity loaf onto a peel and slid the peel deep into the maw of the new oven. Abruptly the dough lurched—no, not the dough but the metal underneath, shifting like a giant peel itself, slowly swallowing the bread deeper into the oven, towards the hole in the back.

If this was the oven’s idea of baking, it was moving much too quickly. At this rate the bread would leave the oven in less than the turn of one small sandglass. Berl walked around the oven, watched the loaf and caught it on his peel as it fell out. The bread was half-baked. He ran it through again; it was burnt halfway through and raw in the center.

The loaf was army food. This oven was to be run by farmboys who had never handled wheat between its threshing and its final destiny as bread. The instructions had to be simple enough to be barked from one poor bastard to another: put the dough in the oven and catch it in a basket.

Berl wiped sweat that may have contained tears. This oven, the unwanted gift of it and the idiotic fact of it, was Berl’s life in miniature. Once he had made cakes; there had been sugar; he was respected; he knew where his son was. Then war had come, destroyed all the craft and care and love in the world.

The war was over, but what had gone was still gone, and these replacements were not replacements at all. All food had become Army food.

Berl tasted a piece from the middle of the loaf, where it came closest to being baked. To waste food is a sin, and until recently it had been a crime. Last winter he would have gagged this down and been grateful, but by the standards of this rainy spring it was inedible. No one would take this loaf, even as charity. He threw the dead thing in a compost bin, atop vegetable scraps damp from the stock-pot.

Berl was exhausted, furious at the waste of already wasted food. He turned to kick the misbehaving machine and finally saw it move on its own. Its metal knees bent and it shied away from Berl’s tensed foot, like an animal that knows what is coming.

In his apprenticeship Berl had burned a loaf, and worse. He had been beaten, and from the beatings he had made himself a promise that he had almost just broken. Instead Berl cursed the Army and its useless gift, a machine he couldn’t even kick because the machine would feel it.

The oven itself was not to blame. It was made by people who did not understand bread; why expect it to understand? But perhaps it could be taught. A machine that had learned to fear a beating could learn other things.

“Do you want to do better?” Berl asked the oven cautiously. “Do you want to become good at being an oven?”

The oven said nothing, of course.

The evening was late by now and the brick oven, the one that actually worked, had lost most of its heat. Berl was now very tired, but long ago, with bruises so painful he could not sleep, he had chosen how he would treat his future apprentices. His decision had already been made. Berl lifted the hand at the end of the new oven’s front leg and guided it towards the brick.

“This is an evening heat,” he said. “A heat for cakes. Can you give off this kind of heat?”

The new oven moved its hand up and down the old oven. Keeping both ovens in his view, Berl did his best to mix a pound cake where the new one could see what he was doing. Mushy apples replaced the eggs and sugar, on-edge sheep’s yogurt the butter. It would not be the worst cake he had made that year.

After pouring the batter into its tin, Berl put his hand inside the new oven, careful not to touch the sides. Its military blast-furnace heat had died down to a low bake like that of smouldering coals.

“Very good,” Berl said. He mimed putting the cake tin in the brick oven, but left the tin on the table and stepped back.

Again the mechanical oven balanced itself on its hind legs. With its front foot it grasped the tin and slid it back into its own aperture as if gorging itself on the dubious treat. It stepped back, away from Berl and the brick oven. Berl peered through the aperture. The cake sat inside, calm, still, not shifting towards the rear.

The oven and the cake inside stood still for three turns of the small glass. Berl washed the dirty bowl, then sat and waited. When he smelled the cake finishing, he cut a crumb to taste. It tasted good, given the circumstances. Berl was probably the only one in the village who remembered what cake ought to taste like.

Berl reached his peel into the oven and pulled out the tin. “Do you see?” he told the oven. “You must take control of the heat. This is baking. You are not simply keeping men alive today so they can die tomorrow. You are sustaining people, bringing pleasure.”

The oven plucked the tin off Berl’s peel and set it on the counter with a clank. “Tomorrow I will show you how to knead dough,” said Berl. He flexed the fingers of his hand and the oven did the same.

With the cake stored in a wooden box much nicer than it deserved, Berl dragged his cot from the adjoining room into the bakery proper. His first night away from home had been lonely and terrifying, and he did not know how to ask an oven if it was lonely, or understand its answer.

Things have been destroyed that cannot be replaced, but this destruction is not the end of everything. Today’s bread is eaten, tomorrow’s is yet to be made, and one day there will be sugar.


© 2022 by Leonard Richardson

1900 words

Leonard Richardson works as a software architect at the New York Public Library, making it easier for library patrons to borrow ebooks. He’s the author of two SF novels, Constellation Games and Situation Normal. He writes on the web at www.crummy.com.


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DP FICTION #94A: “Midwifery of Gods: A Primer for Mortals” by Amanda Helms

Introduction

Long have midwives passed on their knowledge of birthing: proper positioning, how to turn a babe, breathing techniques, and so on. Some guides, such as Kailiona’s Extraordinary Births, cover the delivery of a demigod from a human and a human babe from an animal. Little, however, has been recorded of the most uncommon births, those of gods. No extant handbook includes the terrifying circumstances wherein mortals are called upon to help deliver gods’ progeny.

This primer aims to fill that void.

Nb: In writing this primer, we, the authors, must make some assumptions. (1) You, the midwife, are mortal. Immortal midwives, like any other deity, tend to believe they need no help, particularly not a mortal-written primer. (2) The god will deliver their progeny vaginally, or, if permitted, via cutting (while this method often results in the death of a human birther, happily, or unhappily depending upon your view, a god, being immortal, will not die), rather than via forehead, forming it from ocean foam, birthing it in hellfire, etc. Such modes of parturition are out of this primer’s scope. (3) You are trained in the basics of midwifery. If not, the god will kill you for your incompetence. That, sadly, we cannot help.

On Priorities

In delivering mortals we would say that your first priority should be the babe; your second, the parent. However, when it comes to deities, we say your first priority should be you. In most god-births, you, the mere mortal midwife, would never be summoned at all. If you are, it is because the delivery is stressed, and the god is desperate. Therefore, we arrange this primer according to priorities: yourself, the babe, the god.

Priority One: Yourself

Gods are capricious. Even though the delivery is already going wrong, you will be blamed. Therefore, protect yourself. If you reach a point where you feel all is lost, be ready to flee. Example distractions: you, and only you, can prepare the oil of poppy that will ease the birth, or you have towels soaking in water drawn from Lethe that you must fetch. However, we cannot assume the god will be unfamiliar with this humble primer; you are best off developing an excuse that is unique to you.

To the extent that you are able, try to ensure you attend the god during daylight. The benefit to you is clear: the Sun’s light allows your mortal eyes to see any barriers in your path should you need to escape. Next preferred is night. Though you will require lamps, it is still superior to dawn and dusk. Such liminal times lend themselves to any curses the god utters against you and are best avoided.

If the god is deity of the Sun, the Moon, etc., use your best judgment as to the birth’s timing. Having the god out of their element, as it were, and presumably less powerful could be beneficial, but the perceived weakness will anger some gods and make them more likely to murder you.

Related: Gods prefer to labor in locales affiliated with their own natures, and in general you will find it difficult to persuade them to leave. Be prepared for oceans, lakes, and rivers; mountainous, flat, or valley regions; deserts; volcanoes; caves; and so on. You would do well to keep a sack of essentials on you at all times in case you suddenly find yourself transported to the birthing site. Indeed, we suspect some midwives have been conducted directly to the bottom of a sea or volcano. As this would rapidly kill them, however, we may guess only by their disappearances.

Nb: Should you yourself be suddenly transported to such a place—a panicked, laboring god snaps their fingers and whoosh! there you are swimming in lava—you will have little left to save you but your thoughts and prayers to a truculent god. For that, we are sorry.

Priority Two: The Babe

Should the opportunity arise, you might be tempted to steal the babe from its parent and raise it yourself. This is not recommended. We know of very few cases where the midwife successfully hid the god-babe for long. Even so, the gods’ wrath proved insurmountable and resulted in, at best, the death of the midwife, and, at worst, extended torture beforehand.

Nb: Merely witnessing some babes may have deleterious effects. These include, but aren’t limited to: falling irrevocably in love with it, transmogrification into an animal or stone—or both—and death. In such cases, however, the birthing god likely has similar abilities, which should encourage you to take the precaution of a blindfold. Forewarned is forearmed, midwife!

Priority Three: The God-Parent

Your last priority is the parent. The one good fortune regarding god-births is that, even in difficult circumstances, the god cannot die. Therefore, your priority here is directly related to your priority of yourself. Charm the god. Tell them how mighty they are to endure the pain, and how strong the babe must be.

You may comment on the babe’s appearance, but here it is imperative to know your audience. Some gods will prefer you to speak of beauty and well-formed limbs, even if the crowning babe sports horns and a forked tongue and the scales of a snake. Other gods will want you to exclaim there have never been sharper hooves, and how well those teeth will gnash.

Nb: If there is a prophecy that the god’s child will prove their downfall, it is better to say the babe looks ill. Usually. Some gods will take umbrage at the implication that a weakling will defeat them, even if you breathe not a word of the prophecy (which, we hope it goes without saying, you should never, ever do).

In any case, the appearance of the god is no clue as to the best approach. You cannot assume that a human-like god will favor human-like beauty, or that a monstrous god will appreciate monstrous traits. Some gods will change their appearance simply to trick you. More rarely, the act of giving birth will render them incapable of controlling their appearance. If you are in doubt as to what the god would like to hear, it’s best to focus on their strength. All gods like to be reminded of how easily they may kill you.

Closing Thoughts

Chances are, if you have been summoned to attend a deity giving birth, you won’t have the option to refuse. But that doesn’t mean you are without power of your own.

In our experience, gods are never so vulnerable as when first born. They are like human babes in this regard: The world outside of their parent’s womb is startling and new. Yours are the first hands that will touch the babe; yours is the first face (even if blindfolded) it will see. Yours is its first worldly influence. Never forget the power inherent in that, midwife. You may speak kindness to the babe, or mercy, or gentleness. God babes have better memories than human babes; even the briefest murmur or the gentlest touch might be remembered and, eventually, acted upon.

That is the full power of the midwife: Through the actions of a moment, you might influence the babe to be a better god than its parent.

But again, do not kidnap it. You will be killed.

Happy—and safe—god-births, midwife! May you survive longer than most.


© 2022 by Amanda Helms

1166 words

Author’s Note: I wrote the first draft of “Midwifery of Gods” in 2019 for a flash fiction writing challenge, while I was pregnant with my now-toddler. I’d also recently finished reading Madeline Miller’s Circe, which put me in mind of Greek gods, which then also put me in mind of watching Xena and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys during my childhood. In particular, a line from the Hercules opener (though ofc Xena is the superior show) kept running back to me: “… the ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind with suffering.” Well, thought I, how might a mortal midwife be “plagued with suffering”? Though the core of the story was there, I didn’t get around to revisions till 2021 (shoutout to my friend Dawn for her critique!), and a lot of the futility I feel around the crises of the pandemic and climate change filtered into my revisions–as well as the hope parents (or midwives) must feel, for the sake of their children. While changes on an individual level aren’t the equivalent of widespread societal change, inspiring the kids we interact with daily to be better than we are, to be more compassionate and understanding, to encourage them to push beyond the status quo–that’s not nothing, and it’s what I personally lean into to keep going.

Amanda Helms is a biracial science fiction and fantasy writer whose stories have appeared or are forthcoming from Mermaids MonthlyFireside FictionCast of Wonders, and elsewhere. “Midwifery of Gods: A Primer for Mortals” is her second story in Diabolical Plots. She and her family live in Colorado. Though all of them are natives, none ski or snowboard, proving that such creatures indeed exist.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Amanda Helms’s first story in Diabolical Plots was “The Efficacy of Tyromancy Over Reflective Scrying Methods in Prediction of Upcoming Misfortunes of Divination Colleagues, A Study by Cresivar Ibraxson, Associate Magus, Wintervale University”.

DP FICTION #93B: “Beneath the Crust” by Phil Dyer

The zone we drop into is softer than the digger likes, so the foodies lead the way from the start. Three, for a heavy crew, each of us with our own technique. Fold murmurs mantras aloud, rhythmic repetition, the crunch of crust, the crunch of crust. The new hire is next, silent, head down, hands clasped. Maybe looking at videos in her visor. I do best with just the drugs. No distractions. I imagine the salty rice-paste crust of tiger bread, capture the smell, the taste, the texture of the craggy shell, imagine biting down to yes, the crunch of crust. I want it. I focus on wanting it. The soft, steaming inside is good, I spare a thought for it, but what’s important is the crust.

The digger rolls forward. The surface under its tracks has become hard and craggy, salty fired rice paste over a crust like a geological formation. It crunches, flexing as it bears the digger’s weight, but it holds. The machine roars onwards and we follow, foodies and mercs and techs, ants at a picnic. Onward, into the Bake.

The digger is mining gear, obviously, but the business end is custom. Rock drills would just churn uselessly—instead, claws scoop and gouge, crimping and pelleting. We advance in a torchlit tunnel of pressed dough, waste material dumped as wadded dumplings behind us. Far back along our trail of flares, away from the foodies, the hard crust floor softens back into the same material as the tunnel walls, spongy, yielding, always edible. One by one, our lights are swallowed up. This is the default terrain, the ur-substance of the Bake. Bread without end.

We assume some things about the original Bakers. We assume they are dead. We assume they were extremely advanced, at least in certain areas. They were ambitious, explorers, visionaries. And when their extradimensional adventures brought back the micro-organisms we now misclassify as some sort of cosmic cousin to yeast, we assume they engaged in scientific study before they tried to make a loaf of bread with them.

Maybe not. We do assume they were human.

The digger breaks through into an air pocket. The foodies pull back and the two mercenaries come forward, point flashlights and guns into the warm cavern. All clear. Techs poke lasers inside, take readings, somehow use the hollow to get a better fix on the signal we’re following. Exactly what that signal might be is none of my business, and I’ve been paid enough to keep my guesses to myself. Four years ago a deep explorer team found a single glove embedded in a dough cyst. I’ve seen pictures. It didn’t look like much. That oven mitt went on to inform the development of a material so impervious to harm it changed the course of two corporate wars. A shame Bakelite was taken..   

 I reinforce the crust beneath our gathered weight, concentrating on the range of textures and taste, stray crystals of salt, the savoury flare of burn marks. The Bake obliges, forming new layers as I imagine them. As the ground shifts and hardens with my thoughts, there’s still a tiny thrill, the rush of shaping our environment with mere whim. I—we, with the other mission-critical foodies—we are as gods (within a four to six metre radius, and assuming our desires do not extend to a substance not generally defined as a baked good).

And then I smell apples.

It takes me by surprise. Just for a moment, the infinite yeasty funk of the Bake parts and I smell roast apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar. Bubbling jam seeping up around a burnt crumble topping.

The digger tilts slightly. One balloon tyre is suddenly sinking into molten crumble, oozing caramelizing fruit sugars. I jerk in surprise, bite my tongue. The pain helps empty my mind. It’s over in a second as the other foodies blot it out and there’s nothing but plain, structurally sound breadcrust under the digger’s wheels. I’m not sure anyone even noticed. My heart pounds in my throat.

I haven’t had a blip like that since basic training, never so completely without warning. I glare at the others from behind my visor. Fold and the newbie seem occupied. The techs bustle. The mercs watch. Maybe one of them’s a latent foodie. If they’re not taking their appetite suppressants, it could happen…but this is denial, because that wasn’t just pie. That was my pie.

We cut a path around the air bubble and press on. I keep us on tiger bread without incident. When our signal begins to fade, the techs unload a sensor pod. It has to be sunk into the ground, trailing a line as an aerial, so we all wait around as Fold constructs a custard pit. His specialty. A bead of sweat rolls down his chin as he mutters, dropping into the expanding, bubbling yellow hole by his feet. The yellow of yolk, the yellow of yolk. The Bake is obliging, but liquids are a grey area. Technically I think he’s invoking a single, lidless custard pie, four metres tall, half a metre across. God knows how he trained that one. The techs poke the pod under the custard with a pole, paying out cable as it sinks.

I crunch over to the new hire. She’s tall but somehow fragile-looking despite the bulky environment suit, standing apart from the techs and the blank-masked heavies. Like Fold and I, her helmet is open at the nose and mouth, air supply washed across her face, so as not to obstruct her sense of smell. The air in the Bake is more breathable than you’d think.

“I didn’t introduce myself in the shuttle,” I offer. “I’m Clipper.”

“Victoria. Vick.” She scratches distractedly at the corner of her mouth.

“Been doing this long?” I persist, because otherwise my only conversation on the expedition will be Fold. The rest of the crew keep foodies at arm’s length, and Fold’s relentless mysticism is probably why.

“Not very,” Vick allows. “Little trips. This is the biggest.”

A research group, probably. There is something oddly familiar about Vick, and I wonder if we’ve crossed paths before. “How are you finding it?”

“It’s fine,” she says. “No surprises.” She casts around for something to say. “The suits are better than I’m used to. Not too hot.” Another awkward pause. “I get very chapped in the heat.”

The suits are excellent, full-body cooling coils instead of the usual back-and-wrist pads. From the action-movie stealth shuttle that dropped us off, to the cutting-edge apparatus currently settling into custard, this is easily the most expensive expedition I’ve ever seen. I don’t come cheap myself, and neither does Fold. So I take Vick’s inexperience with a pinch of the salt that I’m imagining, glittering on that thick, supportive crust.

“Always good to hear someone from the old country,” I say, suddenly realising what’s so familiar. The drugs make you tune out things that aren’t food. “You don’t meet a lot of Scots in this line of work.”

She looks confused.

“The accent,” I press. “You could be from my town, even. You grew up near Inverness, right?”

“Oh. Yes. I guess so,” she says. “I’ve never thought about it much.” She goes back to picking at her mouth. It is indeed starting to peel.

“Try closing your eyes really tight.” I say. She looks confused again. I point at her mouth.

“The itching, right? It’s always the same in these suits, soon as they seal you up you gotta scratch. So you go to town on the only bit that’s exposed. Classic displacement. Scrunching my eyes up always helps me.”

She lowers her hand and looks at me for a little too long.

“Thanks.”

We’re moving on before I can prise any more conversation out of that. The new heading is somewhere far below us, and the drill doesn’t work as well at sharp inclines. I transmute the material ahead of it to speed our passage, swapping spongey bread for the lightest, flakiest pastry I can imagine. It shatters beautifully as the digger comes crashing through, great sheets of buttery rough puff obliterated under our boots. Fold stabilises the crust, while Vick anchors safety lines along our trail with caramel. Her creations are quick and perfect, clean little discs of sizzling sugar, ringed with delicate short-crust.

I end up next to Fold as the crew ready the digger for another switchback turn. Vick is further back, busy with some detail work.

“What do you make of the new girl?” I ask quietly.

Fold shrugs, still muttering.

“The crunch of crust. Not much yet. A prodigy, I heard. Rising star. The crunch. Some little science group. A few months back. Of crust. Out of their league, I think. The Bake clearly favours her. The crunch-“

“Mm. She’s good. Surprised I haven’t heard of her before now, really.” Trained foodies aren’t so rare we don’t need to keep tabs on the competition.

“She’s new. But I take great interest. The crunch. In experiences like hers. Of crust. And yours—very similar, you know. The crunch. She was found. A wanderer in the dark.”

“Shit.”

The memories heave up, but the drugs keep them at arms’ length. More than a decade old now, early in what would become my career. The Bake was a relatively new discovery, its mechanisms still barely understood, and I was there with a group of explorers, trying out my newfound status. They didn’t even call us foodies then, I was an Extradimensional Operations Special something-something, and when I stepped through a pastry shell and fell thirty metres into darkness, that was what they put on the death certificate. But the Bake is soft, and it’s not like I was going to starve.

“I was thinking,” Fold says. “I understand your reluctance. Crust. To talk about your. Crunch. Your ordeal. But perhaps, perhaps you could encourage her to talk to me-“ He suddenly jerks in surprise. “Clipper!”

I smell almonds, marzipan, sickly sweetness. The tunnel around me is a chessboard, a grid of pink and yellow squares emerging from undifferentiated bread. Marzipan is forming underfoot, apricot jam oozing up.

I have never trained on Battenberg cake. I’ve never even made one. Too sweet. But when I was six I stole one, didn’t like it, and hid it under my pillow for a week, forcing down daily bites out of a vague notion that this was the ethical way to dispose of it. The cake coming out of the wall has flecks of hair and fluff. I know exactly how it tastes, the strange cardboard chew of stale marzipan.

Far down the tunnel, Vick is staring at me, face hidden by her helmet lights.. Her sense of smell must be incredible.

“Crust!” snaps Fold. I startle out of my reverie and focus. Between us the Bake reforms in a moment. A couple of techs are looking. One of the mercenaries strolls over.

“Everything all right here?” she asks. Her suit whirs softly as she inspects us. The heavies wear powered frames over the environment gear. Even with her rifle slung amicably on her back, she could literally pull my head off. She might, if it came to it. A foodie in a meltdown endangers the whole team.

“Yes, yes, of course. Testing the resonant depth, overlap times—” Fold brushes her away with a mouthful of nonsense. She nods and leaves us to it. Artists get the benefit of the doubt.

Fold leans close as the digger gets rolling again.

“Not like you.”

“It’s not,” I agree.

“Is there going to be a problem?”

“No.” But there is. I have no idea what’s happening. I am sharp, I am focused, I am specifically and carefully drugged. I am sure, absolutely certain, that no part of my subconscious was dwelling on stale cake, nor on that apple pie; made for my first crush, shared with her boyfriend. And yet.

I’m waiting for it to happen again as we press on. I double-check every crumb I lay down, roll the imaginary flavour around my mouth. I lean on my aids more than usual, calibrating for every little trick and amuse-bouche. I’m sure Fold notices. I bridge gaps with mooncakes, raise baguette buttresses. No problem. There continues to be no problem right up until the monster.

Even if our own universe- the one with the Earth we’d recognise—was the only player in pan-dimensional exploration, things would still get crowded in the Bake. It’s a lucrative dimension, whether you’re strip-mining bread or salvaging Baker tech, and while the Bake itself may be infinite, the entrances that we’ve found come out pretty close together. Even on an expedition like ours, so far off the beaten track, you can’t be sure who’s been out here before you. And we are not the only universe here.

A tech shouts something. Jaws come through the tunnel ceiling, a short way back from the digger. Black plates slide and click around a mess of scrabbling hooks, scything blades longer than my arm. Blank eyes gleam wetly.

One of the techs is snatched up, scream muffled in his suit. I fall to the ground and scramble under the digger as the heavies let loose. The gunfire is apocalyptic in the tunnel, even through my helmet, rattling thunder through my teeth. Fluids spatter. Fold is standing, advancing even, arms up like a wizard casting a spell. He’s shouting something.

We’re not sure which of the many Earths to visit the Bake is the monster-maker. We call them weevils. Probably they are not meant to eat people. Best guesses and traces of harness have them as engineered burrowers, faster than our mechanical digger—but no-one has ever found one with its team. Perhaps these feral remnants are all that’s left, abandoned by a world with more on its plate than infinite bread.

The weevil bellows. The digger rocks. I curl into a tighter ball and shut my eyes.

The darkness is waiting for me.

***

After the fall, as Fold puts it, I wandered. I walked in dark places. My suit battery died in two days and I assumed I’d follow shortly. I was always on the brink of choking. Any exertion brought on spiking headaches, neon pain against the black. I walked blindly in the tunnels of ancient explorations, following the soft walls with my fingers.

In the absence of light, it is hard to know when to eat. I discovered early on that the Bake could provide fresh fruit—sliced, as a pastry topping—so that was my water. My nutrition came with my moods, fistfuls of dough clawed from the walls, or great blind feasts, every baked good I could think of, until something switched over and I was weeping and gasping for air over a heap of latticed pies. Sometimes I heard weevils. Once, I think I stumbled into Baker ruins, crumpled and swallowed by expanding bread. I spent a long time there, feeling my way through caverns that might equally have been ovens or blast chillers. I remember a confusion of scale beyond the demands of industry–stacked trays the size of swimming pools, a countertop the height of my chest and three thousand paces long. I have never been able to locate these again, though they should have been unmissable. Probably they shifted, tumbling in the infinite like the lucky coin in a pudding. Of course, I spent a lot of time going crazy.

I devised and judged grand challenges for myself. At first I set rewards for milestones; a perfect semolina cake, for which I would allow my favourite childhood brownie. Later, these became punishments; sleep when you get it right. Drink when you get it right. I tried so hard to produce a flambé for light—cherries jubilee, or pudding—but it never worked no matter what I threatened. I think it failed because I couldn’t imagine the taste of fire.

I learned a lot. Eventually, it no longer felt like learning—it felt like teaching, like a conversation. Here is what I want. Here is what it means to me. I poured out my life in the only language the Bake might understand. The pie for my crush, the stolen cake, my nana’s cornbread. In my least lucid moments I walked with and within a vacantly smiling god, a vast benevolence made cruel only by the scale and indifference of its kindness. It would want me to be happy, if only it knew what I was.

Or something like that. I want to be clear; I was half-dead, completely unhinged. Fold comes out with this stuff sober.

Once I heard another expedition, machine and human noises, high above but too muffled to pin a direction on. I dug with my hands to reach them, but they moved on too fast. I remember wishing, desperately, that one of them would fall like I had. This was the point I had reached- I had forgotten to hope to escape. I just wanted someone to share it with. Just one person, I pleaded, that would be enough. Someone to relate to, to swap notes with. We would talk to the Bake together. Then maybe I could get that flambé.

Seven months after people stopped looking, a survey team for one of the big harvesters found me on the outskirts of their newest claim. I remember the pain of light, and being confused. Where were we going? I had nearly perfected meringues…

***

The gunfire has stopped. The digger is still. Little by little, I unfold and extricate myself.

Smoke and alien gore wind through the stench of bread. The mercenaries stand unharmed, barking commands and pointing. There seem to be as many of us as we started with, though medics are earning their keep, dressing wounds, strapping an arm. Even the tech who was grabbed is still here somehow. He groans as they cut his suit open, dousing his wounds with trauma foam.

The weevil’s corpse sprawls half into the tunnel, a glossy tangle of limbs and hooks. Yellow ichor has spattered in all directions, bringing a sweet popcorn musk. Fist-sized holes riddle its carapace. What remains of its head is locked in a pillar of pecan brittle, while its largest limbs are fused into caramel, trapped between soda-bread stalactites. Mounds of giant bao buns are slowly subsiding—sandbags, to protect the digger.

The heavy from earlier says something approving to Vick, claps Fold on the shoulder. She turns away when she sees me, I assume in contempt.

“Well. You two were busy.” I say. Vick says nothing, just looks at me, still picking at her face.

“Horrible creatures,” says Fold primly. “Were you injured?”

“No. Just uh, got thrown a bit. Good work on the brittle there, who was that?”

Fold coughs pointedly. I look down. A dense yellow crumb is spreading out around our feet, pockets of cheese leaking to the surface. I know what it is before I even catch the smell; my nana’s cornbread. I barely remember her face, but this I know.

I don’t have much left in me to react with. A wave, a thought, it’s gone. Fold jerks forward.

“Get it together,” he hisses. “Right now.”

“It’s not me!” I snap.

“Bullshit. Has your focus run out? I have refills—“

Vick puts her gloved hand on my arm. It’s so strange that we both stop to stare at her. Her mouth is getting worse.

“Listen,” she says. It’s not clear who she’s speaking to. Fold tilts his helmet at me.

“It’s not me,” I say. “They’re from me, they’re my memories, but I’m not bringing them up.”

“So how—“ Fold begins, and then I’m telling them about the dark. Not everything, but enough.

No one interrupts. Behind us, the expedition pulls itself together. A stretcher is assembled, munitions are counted, equipment is dusted off and redistributed. There’s a long way yet.

Fold looks hungry when I stop.

“A lasting connection,” he says. “Response beyond immediate reaction.”

“I guess so,” I say.

“But that was years ago. So something has changed.” He puts a hand on the tunnel wall. “Perhaps it’s finally reaching out, the only way it can. Perhaps it’s trying-”

“The Bake doesn’t want anything, Fold.”

“You know that’s not true,” he says. “It wants to nourish us, to give us what we want. Food has always been the way to bring people together. What peace there could be, if only—”

“I was alone!” I yell. “Choking and alone in the dark! All I wanted—the Bake doesn’t care what we want! It doesn’t even know!” People turn. I don’t care. “You think it’s a god? Go pray to it yourself. You know the way.”

The weevil’s entrance hole reflects in Fold’s visor. Beyond the jagged body is darkness, mile after mile of crisscrossed burrow, down into eternity. Fold smiles.

“Perhaps I will.”

He turns and walks back to the expedition, raising a fresh crust as he goes. I go to follow him, but Vick catches my arm again.

“It cares, you know,” she says. “The Bake does care. But some prayers take longer to answer.” She picks at her flaking cheek again, then, in one deft movement, pinches the pale flesh together, kneading it smooth with the heel of her hand. In a moment, her skin is flawless. She smiles. Her lips are blushed marzipan.

As she too walks away, rich currant pudding pools in her bootprints, quickly disappearing. Before it does, it flickers with purple flame.


© 2022 by Phil Dyer

3600 words

Author’s Note: A loaf of bread with a sufficiently ‘open crumb’ is full of bubbles which often link together, forming tunnels and alien cave systems. I enjoy sci-fi expeditions into dark places, but these doomed ventures often subsist on vague but unpleasant ‘rations’, if food is mentioned at all. That would probably keep me off the team. I was moved to make a case where being way too into what you eat is a valuable, practical asset.  

Phil Dyer does science and writes spec fic in Liverpool, where he appears to have settled for now. He has firm opinions about food, games and seagulls. Loves the outdoors, but wouldn’t live there. His stories have appeared in BFS Horizons, Aurealis, and once before in Diabolical Plots. He can be found on twitter as @ez_ozel . 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Phil Dyer’s work has previously appeared on Diabolical Plots with “Everyone You Know Is a Raven” in January 2021.

DP FICTION #93A: “The Restaurant of Object Permanence” by Beth Goder

Kazia files a folder of correspondence and closes the manuscript box. She leaves the archives as the sun is setting. Her head is filled with the collection she is processing, the papers of Elgar T. Bryce, noted American biologist. For eleven years, she has worked as an archivist, arranging and describing the papers of scientists, economists, and professors. She loves the quiet of the archives, the way folders line up in a processed box, tangible history in her hands.

Outside the archives, there’s a strange flyer on the bulletin board. The first thing she notices is the paper, a small blue square, probably acidic, attached to the board by the thin metal line of a staple not yet turned to rust. It’s an invitation to the Restaurant of Object Permanence. To go, one is instructed to eat the flyer.

She pulls the paper from the board and swallows it in one bite.

***

The Restaurant of Object Permanence is brightly lit, each table under a spotlight. Although four chairs surround each table, every diner sits alone.

Before Kazia are two objects, a worn work boot and a bracelet drooping with dainty emeralds. Kazia recognizes the items immediately. She picks up the boot, Misty’s favorite toy. A wave of memory washes over her—throwing the shoe (which first belonged to Kazia’s father), Misty’s tail wagging, sunlight streaming through the oak in their backyard.

The bracelet was a graduation gift from her grandmother, lost in a move a decade ago. She has not thought of these things in years, but now that they are before her, she feels tenderness for them, like light touching a place long dark.

The woman at the next table has a merry-go-round figurine and a black rock. She ingests the merry-go-round, which shrinks to fit perfectly into her mouth. The look on her face is a mix of sorrow and wonder—a version of nostalgia. The door to the restaurant opens. The woman leaves.

Kazia looks at the boot and bracelet, both a promise of memories renewed. Also, escape. To leave the restaurant, she must eat.

Carefully, she puts both objects to the side. She has never liked limited, binary choices—so little in the world reflects this structure. If this is a restaurant, she should be able to order what she wants.

“Book,” she says, experimentally. A Wizard of Earthsea appears before her. Not just any copy. She’d recognize the scratch on the cover anywhere. When she was eight, she bought the book at a garage sale and devoured it in one sitting. Since then, she has believed in the true names of things. This belief carries over to her work, where she tries to divine descriptions for archival documents.

All three objects sit before her, waiting for her to choose.

She loves them all in different ways, but she is reluctant to eat any of them. What sort of gift is the past? Is this a gift at all, or a responsibility to remember?

She wonders what will happen if she orders something intangible.

“Determinism,” she says. All these choices have made her think of free will, and that competing philosophy, determinism—the idea that all our actions are predetermined, the inevitable consequences of the motion of particles tracing back to the birth of the universe.

Perhaps, she thinks, determinism will manifest as a rendition of the Big Bang, some strange tableau. However, what appears is a black bowtie with a broken clasp. The one Adrian left behind, in the apartment that used to be theirs. All at once, she remembers herself, at twenty-three years old, crushing the bowtie in her hand. Her past self is wondering how her choices have brought her to this place, and if her choices mattered at all, or if the universe had planned this all along. Her bracelet is gone, a graduation gift from her grandmother. Perhaps it had gotten mixed up with his things.

In the restaurant, she picks up the bowtie, letting the silk run over her thumb. Kazia worries that if she eats this manifestation of determinism, the world will disintegrate into its component parts. She puts the bowtie aside, adding it to the archival collection of her past objects.

She’s tempted to order a paradox, because it is in her nature to explore the limits of a system in order to ferret out the underlying structure, but she doesn’t. She refrains from ordering any other intangibles—love, sadness, morning, noon, night, nostalgia, the feeling before falling asleep or the bright dawning of understanding. All of her objects have been personal. What would it look like if she ordered love or grief? Would she be given Misty’s collar, her grandmother’s lace tablecloth, a photograph of her father?

“The Restaurant of Object Permanence,” she says. A model of the restaurant appears.

Object permanence is the ability to remember objects when they are no longer in sight. Archival records, she thinks, are a method of object permanence for our history, a way to remember events that have disappeared from living memory. The record is a physical object describing the intangible past.

She peers into the model of the restaurant, with its tiny tables and chairs and faux diners, with miniature artwork on the walls. In front of each diner sits a choice of objects, but the objects are obscured from Kazia, blurred like a memory. The static model cannot possibly convey the significance of those objects to the diners, the crucial choice the restaurant has on offer; but everything that can be represented, is. What Kazia sees is an archival obsession with the past, with collective memory, and the spaces between, the empty chairs and tables, moments undocumented in the historical records, lost now, forever. These spaces are what she focuses on most. The places where things are missing.

This is what she will eat. She can remember her own past without the use of objects. It is the concept of the restaurant she needs to carry with her—the knowledge that so much history has been lost, the silences in the archives. Documents tell a story, but what happens when the documents that would speak are not saved? What happens to those stories?

Into her mouth goes the Restaurant of Object Permanence. It tastes like nothing she’s ever eaten. It’s as if she’s forgotten the words to describe taste.

The door opens. In the distance, she sees the archives. She sets out toward the building. The archives will be locked now, but she will touch the pebbled walls, run her fingers in the spaces where the pebbles meet, and feel the absence there.


© 2022 by Beth Goder

1000 words

Author’s Note: As an archivist, I drew on my personal experience for this story. I’ve never been to the Restaurant of Object Permanence, but I have thought a lot about the silences in the archives and how we, collectively, remember historical events. Working in the archives has changed how I understand history. (I can relate to the quote that says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”) This story began with a prompt about object permanence, which immediately made me think about how archival documents serve as evidence of events that have passed out of living memory. These documents are a tangible connection to the past.

Beth Goder works as an archivist, processing the papers of economists, scientists, and other interesting folks. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape PodAnalog, ClarkesworldNature, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. You can find her online at http://www.bethgoder.com.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #92B: “Estelle and the Cabbage’s First Last Night Together” by Amy Johnson

Content note (click for details) Content note: death and dismemberment

Estelle placed both hands on the plastic-wrapped cabbages. Against the pale green leaves her fingers glittered darkly, slender crescents of soil adorning the nail beds of nine fingers. The tenth finger, her left thumb, bore no such jewel, but rather a ring of woven fungus, beige and tough and fibrous. Estelle stretched all ten fingers wide, fingertips brushing as many cabbages in the jumbled heap as she could reach, and made her offer: “Would any of you be interested in reanimation?”

It was rare these days for Estelle to approach supermarket vegetables, rare that her garden did not already provide what she needed. And even then, seeds were more her style; younger plants tended to integrate more easily into the garden community. But the urge to prepare bigos had stolen over her suddenly, a yearning for the recipe of another Estelle—her great great great grandmother or something like, who had lived long ago in a small town in what was now Poland and cooked triumphs of cabbage prepared multiple ways. She didn’t have time to wait for seed to mature.

The plastic around the cabbages slowed communication. Most of the cabbages ignored her. No surprise there. Industrial agriculture bred for disease resistance, productivity, and dullness; few cabbages from factory farms had the imagination and quickness of wit previous generations had delighted in. Consequently, few heads challenged their approaching deaths, unaware their roots also lay dead or dying.

There was one likely candidate: a handsome cabbage with a thick bold rib arcing across the side of its head and clean veins of palest green. It was older than the others. Beneath the sheen of plastic its outermost leaves, which had once gripped each other tight, were beginning to loosen, sharp edges softening. In Estelle’s experience older vegetables, who had seen more of life, tended to have stronger opinions about reanimation, both for and against.

The cabbages had questions: Did she mean merely to root them? To bring them to flower?

Yes, she explained, she would help them grow fresh networks of root. But no, she wasn’t offering just to help them finish out the second year of their biennial cycle, she was offering the opportunity to relive their first year over and over, producing head after head. True reanimation.

Impossible! declared various cabbages and declined to converse further.

Can you guarantee this? wondered a more flexible thinker.

“No,” said Estelle, “any cabbage that returns with me will have to be accepted by the larger garden community. Ultimately, invitation is the community’s prerogative.”

Beautifully bundled heads, tight and tidy, thought this through.

I’m interested, announced the handsome cabbage with the soft edges. I’ll go home with you.

***

Outside the apartment Estelle paused to retrieve the cabbage from her bag. Carefully she unpeeled the plastic that encased it. When she had removed every last scrap, when the cabbage had adjusted to the sudden return of sensation, she opened the door.

“Home,” she said with quiet pride.

The stirred air brought a fresh moistness of living things. In front of them the hallway gleamed. She had cleaned before heading to the market in hopes someone would return with her.

“Tour first? Yes, let’s.”

Down the hall and into the living room, with its large and glossy spathiphyllum and exquisite maidenhair ferns, its mother-of-thousands quietly dropping babies on the window sill. Into the bedroom, where geraniums bloomed pinkly on tables on either side of the bed. To the bathroom and the enormous Boston fern that hung in front of the window striped thinly with venetian blinds, the spider mending her web in the corner. Back through the small hall, quickly in and out of the kitchen, no plants here, only gleaming steel and humming appliance and a door that shut tightly, until, finally, to the patio garden.

Some might call it a balcony garden, for the apartment was seven stories up, the last story but one, but balconies are thin, wistful things crowded by railings. This was a grand room, two-thirds open to the sky and divided thus into sunlight and shadow, its walls and half-walls covered in tile.

Before them stood nine large raised beds of varying depth, clustered together, each touching the next. From the beds a tangled exuberance spilled, all green and flower and fruit. In one, the bed at the very center, a small space had been cleared, red-brown mulch pushed back to reveal soil rich and dark beneath. Welcome! the plants murmured. Welcome!

The cabbage pulsed with excitement.

Estelle explained the patio’s winter transformation, how the skeletal frames at the edge of the roof unfolded, how the tight cylinders of transparent tarp unrolled, how they sealed together cunningly to preserve warmth and life. She explained the full-spectrum lights, bold and bright, to stave off seasonal affective disorder, theirs and hers both, and also the clean, unlit place for those who preferred to spend the season resting dormant.

“If you stay, we’ll talk about what you prefer, for seasons, for day-to-day care.” Estelle ran a hand affectionately through the arugula, tickled the rosemary until it giggled. “Some in the garden feel dry leaves as itches to be removed as quickly as possible. Others, like this fine basil right here, prefer to wear theirs until a windstorm strips them away all at once.”

The basil sighed, So good, it’s the only way.

With a step they crossed the line between sunlight and shade. Here stood a twin bed and a set of shelves, previously made invisible by the brightness. Estelle paused before a vase filled with paintbrushes. Some had finely pointed tips, some had bristles thin and straight, some fluffed out from their ferrules like dandelions.

“If you decide later to flower and seed, we have some lovely insect visitors. But I can also help.” Estelle laughed. “Some of the others enjoy brushing on their leaves or stalk as well. Let me know what you like, I’ll do my best.”

They passed the small table and chair where Estelle liked to watch the sky change and came to the composter, tucked into one corner. Estelle debated what to say. “Let’s go to the kitchen,” she said finally. “You should know the worst first.”

In the kitchen she placed the cabbage in a shallow dish filled with water, so that the scar where the head had been hacked from stalk, where sharp dry air had cauterized its flesh, might begin to soften and release. She rested one hand lightly on the top of its head.

“Let’s start with your options: You can stay and be reanimated. You can be composted. You can, if you really wish, be thrown away with the trash, though I will try my best to persuade you otherwise.” She grinned at the cabbage. “If you stay, you will not be limited to a single annual or even biennial cycle. You can choose to undergo reanimation once, many times, or anything in between. And you can choose to flower and seed between reanimations, if you like.”

The cabbage started to speak—

Estelle cut it off. “Before you decide, you must know what it means to stay.” She took a moment to gather herself. When she spoke once more, solemnity made her words quiet and powerful. “The first time I will use you to make bigos. Vegetarian bigos.” She shuddered at the memory of her sole attempt to reanimate meat. “I’ll sever the mass of your head from the bit of stump that still remains from your stalk. That’s what I’ll use to reanimate you—I’ll slip this bit of stalk into the garden bed and call roots to grow and a new head to form.”

She carried the cabbage in its dish to the row of knives on their magnetized strip, silver and sharp and neat.

“I keep the knives very sharp indeed, so that they cut cleanly and immediately, no bluntness, no painful tugging at flesh.” She placed the cabbage on the counter and pulled a small knife free; the sound of its blade shimmered in the air. Gently she ran the blade over the pad of her index finger with its many delicate scars. She rested her finger lightly on the pale green head so the cabbage could feel the precision of the cut. A bead of blood gathered where their flesh touched.

“I will slice you into ribbons. You won’t be alone, there will be onions and mushrooms with you. And sauerkraut that I made two summers ago, too.”

That cabbage, interrupted the cabbage, the one you turned into sauerkraut. Why isn’t it still in the garden?

Estelle fetched the glass jar of sauerkraut down and set it to touch the cabbage’s cheek. She didn’t open it. Glass, though thicker than plastic wrap, was less of an impediment to communication, as plants were long familiar with the ways of silica from their work cultivating soil. And she’d never quite adjusted to the way plants related to their severed parts.

“There were three cabbages back then. One succumbed to a mosaic virus, and afterward the other two didn’t want to go on. So I rooted them out and turned them into sauerkraut. We haven’t had a cabbage since.”

Beneath her fingers the cabbage fell silent.

Estelle resumed: “I’ll sauté the onion and garlic first. I won’t put you in until after I’ve added red wine and tomato paste. So when you go into the saucepan it will be less of a searing heat and more of a bath of heat all around you. You’ll go in with the mushrooms and the sauerkraut, with veggie sausages and spices and stock. I’ll turn the heat up very high and the liquid around you will boil and steal away the water that runs through your veins, that plumps you and nourishes you and keeps you alive. And when the liquid boils, I’ll cover the pot to trap in the steam and turn the heat down and for sixty minutes you will simmer and soften in the dark, your life juices mixing and fleeing, spices invading, until at last I deem you ready, season you with salt and pepper, and eat you with bread.”

She wanted to pull away from the cabbage’s dismay, but she hadn’t finished.

“You should know: I will enjoy this. I will not enjoy your pain and I will do everything I can to minimize it, but I will enjoy the act of slicing, of turning you into ribbons, I will enjoy the way you sizzle in the wine reduction and the fragrant steam that blossoms from you and bathes my face, and I will very much enjoy the flavors and textures of you as I eat you.

“Do you have any questions?”

It did. Might it stay in the kitchen to comfort itself while it cooked? (She thought no, but would consider.) Did reanimation feel like bursting from seed? (It should ask the other plants.) Could it, perhaps, advise her on spices and accompaniments? (She didn’t recognize this for a joke until the cabbage chuckled, but then they were both lost to laughter.) 

When at last she had finished answering the cabbage’s questions, she carried it back to the patio garden. Carefully she settled the cabbage into the soft soil of its temporary bed. And then, so the cabbage might confer with the garden community in privacy, she returned to the kitchen, pulling its door shut behind her. 

***

Long ago Estelle had lived in a forest tall and dark and grand, with trees many hundreds of years old. She didn’t remember her parents, though she must have had some. What she remembered most was the fungus that spoke to her when she couldn’t find her way home and lay huddled on the forest floor near a ring of its flowers. The fungus, subterranean and massive, was the forest’s heart, its negotiator, mediator, and controller, and for reasons known only to itself, decided to take her on as an apprentice. From the fungus Estelle learned to command the most terrible of magics—not the magics of death, but the magics of life.

Many years later, when she had learned all the fungus would teach and knew everything about how life should be, she set out to explore. Soon she came upon a small town made from two villages that had grown until they met and merged. Here she dwelled, learning all the townspeople could teach her with great interest, until one day a new friend took her to the cemetery.

When her friend, weighed down by the recent loss of a sister, explained what lay beneath the stones, Estelle immediately thrust her hands into the soil and called on her magics to wake the seeds of life that lingered below. The friend’s sister emerged first, others took longer to reknit bone and sinew. But her friend and the other townspeople didn’t rejoice as Estelle expected, rather they screamed of monsters and set to hunting. By the time the last of the cemetery’s occupants emerged to a reception of axes, Estelle herself had long since been chopped into pieces: her head, her hands, her arms, her feet, her legs below the knees, her legs above the knees; pieces gathered in a heap and buried in a hole in the ground without the benefit of coffin or marker.

Hacked apart or not, her magics still lingered and slowly she regrew. But her magics were fungal, accustomed to bodies of very different shape and form, and when she regained consciousness she found herself starved of air and with a body seamed and restuck wherever flesh had fallen on flesh when the murderous townspeople tossed her into the grave. They must have thrown her torso in first; her head lay upside-down between her breasts, a knee grew against one ear. She died again in the terror of discovery.

She died five more times as she reshaped herself. In the airless dark of the soil she couldn’t find all of her limbs, a foot and an arm had disappeared, and so she improvised as best she could, rebuilding herself until at last she was able to break free from the earth and lie once more in the sunlight. 

After so long beneath it hurt to breathe the clean air. Soil scratched her lungs as she coughed, coughing became vomiting. When finally she stopped heaving, she sensed the remains of her missing right arm not far off. She dragged herself toward it, found bones yellowing and encrusted with dirt,  scored where an animal had gnawed upon them. 

Before, in her improvised reassembly, she had affixed her right hand directly to her right shoulder. Now she grew the fingernails of her left hand into talons and tore that right hand free. She passed out from the pain; perhaps she died again. When she came to, she reset the pieces, arm to shoulder, hand to arm, and endured the torment of reattachment. She never found her left foot and instead regrew it whole. Later she would wonder if other Estelles, born from its bones, wandered the corners of the world.

When she could move and breathe once more, when she had ceased vomiting soil and the seams of her flesh had puckered into shining scars, she made her way back to the town that had once been two villages. Years had passed while she had regrown and the town, too, had changed, with new houses and people. Even the colors of the town had changed, for shifts in trade routes had brought new dyes and pigments taken up with fervor. At first, many of the people were strange and unfamiliar, but soon she saw familiar faces amidst the townsfolk, now lined and collapsing with age.

It was enough: Like the cold air that masses beneath warm to suddenly spill a fatal chill, the fury of at least seven deaths broke in Estelle. Later, she would remember this fury—cold, inexorable—as belonging to a still-not-quite-yet-fully-alive Estelle, though doubt would make her uneasy. Now, she simply knelt at the edge of the town’s main road and with her fingers dug through dust kicked up by horse and carriage, until she reached the darker earth beneath and she thrust her hands into the soil and she called to the life within each and every townsperson.

Life swelled and burgeoned. Some townsfolk grew so tall that their spines snapped and they collapsed on themselves and suffocated. In the organs of others, small cancerous cells grew huge and greedy and devouring, until systems failed and bodies stopped. Still others grew layer upon layer of skin that thickened and dried, hard as bark, until their bodies could no longer sweat and they became delirious and weak.

They lay where they fell. Some died fast, most did not. Only when each and every townsperson was dead, only then, with tired satisfaction, did Estelle finally release them. And insects laid eggs in the dead flesh and animals scavenged the bodies for meat and rot took what remained and the liquids of decay watered the earth beneath.

***

Estelle announced herself loudly when she returned to the patio garden. She collected the cabbage and set it in its dish of water on the small table. Then, one by one she plunged a bejeweled finger into each of the nine planters. The brassicas praised the cabbage’s growth mindset. The Swiss chard was boldly in favor, it always was, convinced that any problem could be overcome. Several of the scallions, who had themselves come from a market, confessed the cabbage reminded them pleasantly of their younger, more naive selves. The rosemary grudgingly agreed to give the cabbage a try, but grumbled because the rosemary liked to grumble. The sweet potato vines swayed and urged Estelle to get on with it already.

By the time Estelle wrapped up her conferences and returned to the cabbage, the sun was melting into the horizon with great smears of gold.

“Everyone’s in agreement: we’d like you to join us.” Estelle touched the cabbage gently with one fingertip. “You don’t have to decide immediately, take your time, think it over. You tell me when you’re ready.”

She slipped away then to bring them some music, re-emerged to Chopin. And so she and the cabbage sat together, listening to nocturnes and watching the sky darken, the cabbage humming pleasantly off-key.

At length, after a tremendous swell of piano had slowed to a delicate and careful trickle, the cabbage said, I’d like to give it a try. Once. Maybe more than once, but let’s see how it goes first.

“Wonderful!” Estelle beamed at the cabbage. “I’m so glad. And remember, you can change your mind at any point, you’re not locked into a single course of action—except, of course, that growth takes time and energy.”

The cabbage murmured appreciatively.

When the last note of the last nocturne had disappeared into the night air, when the moon had risen and the stars pricked the sky, Estelle returned to the planters. Once more she placed the cabbage in its temporary resting place. Soon she and the cabbage would return to the kitchen to begin dinner, but for now, this first moment altogether, their community grown by one, she knelt and buried her hands in the soil and celebrated.


© 2022 by Amy Johnson

3200 words

Author’s Note: During the first year of the pandemic, I became fascinated by regrowing scallions and other veggies. It prompted questions: What does it mean to live ethically with a plant you eat? One you keep eating? How can we reconcile consent and consumption across species? Various cultures and individuals have taken up these questions, creating traditions and practices in response. For me, now, these questions—plus my interest in four-act storytelling structures and my ongoing culinary exploration of my Polish heritage—brought me to Estelle and the cabbage. With the character of Estelle, I also wanted to explore how, after doing something terrible, we might choose to live differently, might choose to practice care. Unexpected side effect: I haven’t been able to cook a cabbage since writing this.

Amy Johnson is a writer and scholar. This is her first story to be published in Diabolical Plots. Her short fiction was shortlisted in the Dream Foundry’s 2021 Emerging Writers competition and is forthcoming in Lightspeed. She’s also the editor of Drones & Dreams, a speculative sprint collection published by Digital Asia Hub, and runs workshops using speculative fiction techniques to explore the personal and societal consequences of technologies. Find her at amyjohnson.com or on Twitter at @shrapnelofme, where she tweets about language, technology, and other fun things.


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DP FICTION #92A: “Downstairs at Dino’s” by Diana Hurlburt

Content note (click for details) Content note: allusion to violence

It was a Friday evening when the boys rolled in, of course. The nights were uncurling from themselves a little, stretching out toward high summer, and the first flicker of the boys’ sharp-oiled hairlines was a sure sign the school year was well behind us, nothing but river water and sunburns ahead.

I was manning the cash register in the bottle shop downstairs—LE CAV DU VIN, the new sign out front proclaimed, like anybody in town was going to go for fancy fake French on a package owned by Italians for as long as our part of New York had belonged to the British. DINO’S, blared the restaurant’s sign in blinking red and then—now—right next to it LE CAV DU VIN in scrolly white. The new manager sure had a high opinion of herself. You didn’t catch her at the cash register– no, that was the purview of minimum-wage peons only, and damn if I wasn’t still making the barest of minimums despite working at Dino’s four summers running. No loyalty these days, is what my father said, all wink-nudge like maybe I’d finally take his advice and go down to the union shop on Crescent Street and learn to be a plumber. The promise of tips on the nights I waited tables upstairs kept me honest.

The boys were big tippers.

Nobody’d seen them in town yet this summer—they were a seasonal occurrence, blown in from the coast or maybe the city, the only tourists who appeared year after year in our 300-miles-from-nowhere town—or at least I hadn’t seen them, and not even a warning text from anybody who reliably had the gossip, but here they were, converging. Inevitable.

There were four of them cruising straight for the local grapes, or maybe five: that was the thing about the boys, you figured you had ‘em nailed down and then another shot up from behind the Fireball display, fingers above their head in devil horns to mock the tacky cardboard standee. Another’d be popping open mini travel-size Smirnoffs, guzzling them like Capri Suns, while the ringleader, whichever it was that night, doled out wads of bills deliberately, smiling.

My old boss, the third Dino, God rest his soul, had a sense of humor about it. You had to, with the boys. No telling what they’d get into if you pissed ‘em off, they were like cats that way, sleek and pretty and sharp-eared and absolutely fucking amoral.

The ringleader hadn’t made themselves known, but they would, one way or another. I edged my phone out of my apron pocket, watching sidelong. Maybe it was the tallest, wearing jeans that were too short but in that way that you knew was intentional, probably tailored on purpose to show off ankles carved from obsidian. It might be the loud one, laughing with a red tongue over red, red lips. Then there was the tiny one, bubbly like the knock-off Aperol spritzes Joey’s girlfriend liked to drink on the dock, champagne curls and golden eyes and bronze-spattered skin, and the last of the boys looked like a shadow, soft and wispy-black, sketched along the floorboards and drifting in the air. Or was that the last? I still couldn’t tell—still, as I watched them and texted one-handed to tell Joey and the rest of our crew that the boys had arrived for the season, still couldn’t number them, still they swam in my head like I’d been ripping into the Jack Daniels on my break.

Something moved in my stomach, or lower.

The new manager coughed behind my shoulder. “What did we decide about texting at the register?”

I still called her new, we all did, even if she’d bought out Dino the Third after he retired to the Catskills more than half a year ago now and then kicked off with a heart attack before he got to enjoy the scenery. She was always frowning, Delia, her whole body frowning before the expression hit her face, but right now her face was a frown too.

We hadn’t decided anything, either way. Dino the Third had never cared if I texted at the register, but Delia thought it was trashy, that it put across the wrong aura, that kids today have a much higher incidence of compressed spinal discs, did you know that, due to staring down at phone screens all day? She moved on before I decided whether it was worth it to defend myself. The boys making an appearance was big news. Everybody needed to know I was the one seeing them first.

“Do you know those…?”

She meant the boys. Weird as hell sort of question. Everyone knew them. I said, low, “What do you mean?”

“Are those–” She was all at a loss, tongue edging around her lips, trying to figure out a word to use. “Friends of yours?”

The boys weren’t anyone’s friends.

I pretended foolishness, plastered a who-me look on my face and tilted my head. The state of things at Dino’s these days went easier if Delia thought I was a dumbass. She was annoying enough that I was counting the days ‘til summer ended, goddamn, what a cramp in my style—to look forward to 7:30AM classes and the half-hour bus ride to the consolidated high school because I hadn’t managed to save enough this summer for a car. Or maybe annoying was the wrong word for Delia; it was more that she was a presence, like the space the youth pastors told you to leave between you and your dance partner, a Jesus-shaped void. Even if you didn’t believe in it, you couldn’t ignore it.

Dino the Third had never been a presence, and probably his pops hadn’t either, just drifted in to rearrange some of the chardonnays in their rustic apple-crates and drifted out again for a smoke. I didn’t steal, they didn’t talk to me. I rang up the customers, they paid me. And here’s Delia with her fingers in everything, bringing extra rolls of quarters to the register when I didn’t need more and upending every display on Friday like clockwork, switching the bottles of Tanqueray with the brandies just to fuck with the poor boozy regulars—at least that was how it seemed. Seemed like she didn’t appreciate regular customers, like she looked down her nose at ‘em, and sure, if the Dino’s package had a frequent-buyer program, some of the townies would’ve been in the drunk tank more than they were, but they paid. No matter what you’re selling, regulars keep the lights on.

The boys weren’t regulars, exactly, but it was generally agreed that they kept the town’s lights on.

She watched them all the way down the aisle of Australian whites, Delia, her eyes moving and the rest of her stock-still. The ringleader—I’d figured it out at last, it was the bubbly one—picked up a bottle of pinot grigio almost the color of their hair. A month from now half the kids at school would’ve bleached their hair trying to match. It was kind of a thing in town, once Labor Day passed and everyone was back in school: you’d end up scouring the vintage shops and the outlet mall by the university, scraping together a new uniform for the year that looked like the dregs of the boys’ closets. Nobody ever managed to pass for one of the boys, but we tried.

It wasn’t shit you’d pull during the summer, when the whole troop of them were here; they were too lofty to figure you were mocking them, but it was more that nobody could touch them. There was no point in even attempting it. It wouldn’t catch their eye, they wouldn’t be impressed, if they were going to look at you they were going to regardless of whether you were wearing designer or your dad’s hand-me-down Carhartt gaiter. Everybody wanted the boys to look at them, but by the time you were my age you’d given up being overt about it.

Either you’d flail through summer seeing them around town, feeling like you were drowning every time they ignored you, or you’d get the action of your life. You’d wake up the next morning feeling like your soul had been sucked out of your cock and grateful for it (this according to Joey, like he knew). You’d swagger into work and even if you never saw any of the boys again, even if the leaves changed that day and they were gone on the wind, you’d never forget.

All dependent on them.

“You’re seventeen, isn’t that right, Mr. Diaz?” said Delia. Mr. Diaz, always, I doubted she even knew my first name. I nodded, scanning a handle of Jameson real slow, not letting the bottle clink too hard against the sensor in case her ears perked up at the notion that I was abusing merchandise, and in front of a customer. The regular buying the whiskey stared at me, chewing his mustache. Delia ignored him, zeroing in on me. “And you’d never think to try to buy liquor underage.”

I realized she thought the boys were underage. I almost laughed at that, and at the idea that before ol’ Delia had come around and whipped this ship into shape, I’d never availed myself of the coolers of jug wine or swiped vodka from the storeroom. Dino the Third hadn’t cared too much. Clapped my shoulder now and then when he bothered to breeze in, joked in his musty-cigar-shop voice about boys being boys.

The boys weren’t exactly boys, which was probably part of the equation giving Delia a hernia. It was just easy shorthand. A catch-all. Even the lucky townie bitches and sons of bitches who’d scored with the boys, in my day or my parents’, couldn’t have said with any certainty the parts involved, the mechanics of their bliss. Here: the bubbly ringleader, petite and prettier than anything out of Hollywood, jeans that clung and curly hair. The tall one, supermodel-elegant with wicked lips, and the red-mouthed laughing one and the shadow, hair like an inkwell, wearing a shirt unbuttoned halfway to their waist.

The general effect was show-stopping sex.

Charisma like an avalanche, like the theme song of Jaws playing faintly as you walked through town and then rounded a corner and realized why. The town was breathless for them. Ticked down the days until the boys appeared, opened a tab in every bar and restaurant that never closed for the boys, swept the streets and chlorinated the YMCA pool and rounded up feral cats to make way for the boys. Local goddamn holiday, high summer and the boys.

“No ma’am,” I finally told Delia, and the Jameson regular snorted, tucked his whiskey in its brown bag against his chest and carried it to the stairwell leading back up to Dino’s proper.

Delia hmmed. They were nearly to the register, the boys, carting half the store with them. Dino the Third had never charged them. I remembered my first summer working, paid under the table because I was only fourteen, and most of all I remembered the chief among the boys that year; I remembered a throat opened wide right in the store and liquor poured down it, a steady white hand and a steady vein pulsing in a white throat, larynx throbbing, the others howling and clapping and chanting. Remembered a neat roll of bills withdrawn from a clip and rejected, Dino’s gray head dipping, more solicitous than I’d ever seen him. Remembered stumbling home after my shift like I was the one drunk, though Joey and I hadn’t discovered the glories of out-county ditch vodka yet. Remembered what it felt like coming to that memory of the boys’ ringleader swigging gin clear as water.

“We’ll need to see ID, of course,” Delia said. My heart swooped right down into my sneakers.

The bubbly ringleader paused, head cocked. The rest stilled, murmuring and giggling, eyeing Delia almost appreciatively.

“Oh,” said the ringleader, and my heart kept going, down, down, boring a hole to Hell, “why, how very vintage. I’m afraid I didn’t bring it with me.”

I’d heard boys talking in exaggerated put-on ways like that, rahly top drawah, and some talking like they were fresh-caught out of Lake Erie, and some who talked like professors and not the SUNY kind. In general, you didn’t want to hear the boys talk. Didn’t want to give them a reason to. They’d slide you their attention, maybe, if you were lucky, but you didn’t try to draw it.

My hands were busy, already bagging the boys’ loot no matter what Delia thought about it, itching to text Joey about this unbelievable gaffe the new manager was committing in front of God and the town and everyone. Because she was just going all-out, not giving an inch, not a thought toward reading the room.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s the store policy. We do require identification for all customers.”

I’d IDed the Jameson regular because Delia was hovering over me. Wouldn’t have otherwise. Who ran around IDing people their grandparents’ age?

“I know them,” I said, and regretted the living fuck out of it, but what was I supposed to do? The boys’ eyes snapped to me, all at once, a flock of scarab beetles touching down. “I mean, Delia–”

“You know our policy, Mr. Diaz.” Delia, I’ll say this for her, wasn’t going down without a fight. She adjusted her nametag, the one that said DELIA MONTGOMERY in letters that matched CAV DU VIN outside the door, I suppose as a reminder that I was supposed to call her Ms. Montgomery. “All customers present identification. New York takes the delinquency of minors very seriously.”

The shop was so quiet I thought I could hear Tatiana upstairs slapping a customer for grabbing her ass at the table. The boys’ bottles clinked together as I slid the last of them into a bag. Delia took the paper sacks from me, turning her glare between me and the bubbly ringleader. Clear as day she didn’t know what she’d done.

The boys were an institution. Nobody told them no, and it wasn’t like they used that as an excuse to run wild over the town, but… there was a Biblical feel to the place, in the days immediately after the boys left. We all looked like locusts had stripped us of anything green. It was hangover time. You wanted to drink a lot of water and wear sunglasses indoors. Joey told me once that it reminded him of those infomercials on TV—if you experience an erection for longer than twelve hours please call our hotline—because it hurt, in truth, it stung, that kind of stimulation, but you still wanted it. Nobody would bar the boys from town, even if they could. Nobody would demand to see a boy’s ID, even if their perfection could be captured by the DMV’s camera.

The shadow laughed, silky as springwater. My heart was no longer anywhere in the region of my chest.

“I quit,” I said, quickly.

I’d already said too much. If Delia hadn’t been here I’d have rung the boys up and watched them flow out the door again to a boat party or a rager at the old mill-house, and just texted Joey and the rest the big news, but she was here, and honestly wasn’t that fucking sad, a grown-ass woman and not even bad-looking with nothing better to do on a Friday night but come into work—she was here and they were here and maybe she was new in town but somebody should’ve clued her in. Somebody should’ve noted, in the little welcome-to-Vestal packet, how things ran, how the boys were prime customers, how the summer flowers sprang up when they walked through and the clocktower at Mary Queen of the Universe chimed when they laughed. Somebody should’ve told Delia the score before she went and got her head ripped off. Somebody was going to pay blood for her big mouth, but that somebody wasn’t me.

“Excuse me, Mr. Diaz?” she said, blinking at me like I was the thorn in her side, like there wasn’t a tidal wave poised to drench both of us.

“I quit,” I said again, my apron already off and tossed on the counter, and I backed out from behind it, bumping through the swinging door. You didn’t turn your back on the boys unless that’s what they wanted, unless their arms were around you, their mouths on the nape of your neck. “Have a good night, Delia.” She wouldn’t, holy God she would not. “Gents.”

Gents. That was a safe thing to call them. Gents, boys; rakes and molls, sometimes, from people my grandparents’ age; fillies, flaneurs—some fancy word, that one, something about walking—and really they weren’t picky as long as you were polite, if you had cause to speak to them, or about them. In my case, not speaking to them, at least in farewell, would’ve been the wrong move. The wrong move in Delia’s case had been opening her mouth to begin with.

I shut the stairwell door on her scream.


© 2022 by Diana Hurlburt

2800 words

Author’s Note: “Downstairs at Dino’s” happened because I heard “The Boys Are Back In Town” on the radio for the millionth time and thought, What if the boys’ return was the herald of something larger, even ominous? Somehow, channeling some Shirley Jackson vibes a la “The Summer People” seemed like the natural next step.

The author is a librarian, writer, and Floridian in upstate New York. Selections of her short work have appeared most recently in Moonchild Magazine, Sword and Kettle Press’s mini-chapbook series, and the anthology Arcana, and are forthcoming from Neon Hemlock and Nyx Publishing.


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DP FICTION #91B: “A Stitch in Time, a Thousand Cuts” by Murtaza Mohsin

Content note (click for details) Content note: Indirect Reference to Death, Mass Violence, Collective Punishment, Imprisonment

Ali never got used to the things they asked for. All those mismatched items left behind in those desperate moments. But there would be only one item per family so he advised them to choose wisely.

Usually, it was something small. Grandmother’s favorite azure prayer beads strung on a nail on the high shelf reserved for religious texts, a lost doll the kids had just rediscovered or a lucky tie for those rarest of job interviews. Sometimes it became fiercely practical, like heart medicine, the keys to an old car that had miraculously eluded being pummeled by those angry whistling bombs or useless saving certificates and property deeds.

In the beginning, he had used his gift as a child does. To try to wrong the little rights. To copy the answers of the smartest girl in class (beautiful flowy handwriting) or knowing just when to intercept sweaty Ahmed’s long pass and score the winning goal for his beleaguered football team.

But he could keep on cheating till eternity and nothing would change as long as the Occupation Housing Authority (OHA) controlled the territory. He would never get a job because there were none for anybody below the age of 40, no marriage before 50 or jumping the endless queue to the overcrowded beach that opened once a month on a random Friday. Instead, he had to wait as everyone else did in the Zone.

The Zone, casbah of the damned, the darkness of its pitted alleyways punctuated by nightflares. But it was the only world Ali had ever known and it was getting smaller every year or so, whittled away by the regular mini-invasions to root out the “miscreants”’ amongst them, houses demolished for archaeological/religious significance, OHA administrator rights, etc.

Ali’s vocation emerged out of the mad contours of life in the Zone provided he was close enough in the first place. Every so often, a roof knocker bomb would politely announce the randomized destruction of a designated apartment tower and let off red-hearted smoke, a warning for everyone in the Zone to behave.

Soon the evacuees of the destroyed building would start piling up around him with their requests and Ali would have to go to work. With desperate smiles, they would plead for him to go back (literally and temporally) to save the precious belongings they had abandoned in the terror of their flight.

Those ten precious, splendid minutes were all Ali ever had for his neighbors. It was the farthest extent he could stretch his being backwards in time before the doomed building was levelled by the damn OHA. By horrible synchronicity, this period aligned perfectly with the gap between the OHA’s warning and bombing.

All Ali asked for was they pay him something, anything they could spare from lives that had just tumbled into a pile of rubble. It all went to his parents, every last dinar. For a long time, he wondered if this hopping through time in this narrowest of spaces was his deepest destiny. As if he had been picked by fate expressly for this doomed place.

The smoke and dust seemed endless the day Burraq Heights was bombed for the third time by the OHA. Each time the Burraq’s stubborn owner had rebuilt his apartment block a storey lower hoping and praying to escape scrutiny.

Ali had lurched into the condemned building, managed all he could. His old Red Crescent canvas bag and repurposed combat vest bulged to the brim with lost and found. There was only one failed recovery, a silver ring rubbed against a saint’s shrine for luck. Exhaling slowly, he happily ran a hand through his scant hair, feeling relatively fresh and counting his money. It was a good day for recovery.

All this time, the loudspeakers emblazoned with the sleek logo of the OHA reminding them the good things in their lives:

1. Security (The lowest crime rate in years! So many criminals rounded up, gone without a trace.)

2. Well-settled refugees (Generation 6? Who was counting anymore?)

3. Environment-friendly roads made from plastic waste (Potholes a convenient size for a child to curl up and sleep inside.)

4. Graceful apartment towers lined with bright red cladding (those highly flammable borders lit up like a Roman candle when the bombs hit.)

The sun-drenched boulevard was so bright that he only saw the scrawny man when he was nearly on top of him. “You, lionheart, may all my generations bless you. Abu Zaman, please help me. My mother!” He was pointing in the distance, frame wracked by sobbing.

Abu Zaman, divine shadow, the snake which eats its own tail. They have a lot of titles for him. The dripping effusiveness of the prayers suggested he had no payment to offer. Ali tried to appear noncommittal. “Where in the Burraq, what was left behind? There’s nothing I can do about that now. It’s too late.”

The man’s seamed face strained as his finger pointed. Ali imagined his body toppling over into a hill of dust. “No, not in the Burraq,” he moaned, “she’s inside…our house.” Ali finally perceived the small pile of rocks, cragged like a cairn.

The Occupation had done a double tap, the man’s house bombed with only the slightest of time gaps with the Burraq. It was a rarity but who could divine the logic behind the biopolitical policies of the OHA?

The South Wind slashed Ali’s face with grit. He attuned himself, face like ageless stone. “Time of impact?” He said sharply.

“Four minute, two minutes ago,” the dazed son replied.

Not good. Barely enough. He would have three minutes with any margin at most.

He brought out his battered Zippo lighter in a flash and thumbed it sharply. He held his talisman aloft against fate, a passport to the dark void and leaned into his backward step. A blinking light steadied. And suddenly he was there and running past the rusty-railed veranda of the simple stone house.

He had been expecting a comatose woman, barely responsive. Instead, there was a mess inside. The barefooted little woman, wailing and weeping, had her wizened back to him. He called to her lightly and she wheeled around like an angry cat, her crystal eyes flashing out at him from under her turquoise shawl. He knew her from his childhood before his time travel had left a scar in place of every memory, each face a blur. Her name eluded him. She used to set out precious water for birds, always smiling at children and giving them creamy treats when they broke their life’s first fast in Ramadan.

But she seemed feral now, insensitive to all but the tide of blood and rage welling inside her. “My key, where is it? My son, my damned son, has hidden it. I’m sure of it.”

She moaned gently, “I couldn’t stop looking. He wants me to forget, curse him,” before she abruptly fell silent.

Patient Ali had waited for her to finish, didn’t doubt that she came from a long noble line and held fast to the rope like a desperate man groping in the dark. “Sayidaa,” he coaxed.

“Your son has sent me. Your face… It glows with the light of your lineage – surely you will sit on God’s right hand. Please come with me. The bomb is about to fall, I have seen it with my own eye.”

“So what?” she snapped, “We are all living on borrowed time, you most of all.” She stood still, her weathered upper lip curling stubbornly as she started her search again. Her densely veined hands shook slightly, knobbled by arthritis that the OHA didn’t permit to be treated. She was clawing at phantoms when he was trying to save her from annihilation. He hated her, this moth dancing around the flame. He felt exasperated and shouted. “Why can’t we just leave it? There’s nothing anymore. We lost.”

She was unfazed and flared at him. “So we will always be the wretched of the earth, always apologetic for our existence? Doesn’t our nation have a place under the sun? You should know better, Abu Zaman, you help so many.” Her voice rolled over him, a lullaby for resistance and revolt. “Son, we can still fight against the dark if we keep our heart and faith.”

He tried to tell her. The nation was dead. A thousand cuts, indignities, lies, and denials later, the Zone was all that remained. The vulture’s leavings. How does faith fare the sword? Fight how?

Her voice fell to the reedy whisper of a conspirator, “Can’t you just keep jumping? Ten minutes, again and again? Go back to when it all started and stop them in the very beginning. You could save our homeland.”

He wanted to laugh at the delusional hag. That wasn’t how it worked, how could it? He could barely manage the two jumps, one after the other, he had just made and now she wanted Ali stretched into infinity, sliced into tiny fragments.

He sucked in air, his chest red and heaving. Even his breathing sounded weak and strange to him. Within him the space between things moved, a subtle shift of infinite dimensions. An expanse was emerging that had never existed before.

For Ali who lived ten minutes at a time, tasted the presence of what had once been. He saw the lady’s lost home. His eye the spy of his heart. And he couldn’t avert his gaze. The glowing house standing on a windy hillock. The cool shade of date palms, the earthy smell of lively flowerbeds, trickling fountains playing the music of heaven, enormous teakwood doors, marbled staircases and most clear of all, the library which glimmered of books filled with endless dreams.

This loss was a reality Ali thought he accepted. Like everybody else in the Zone, his family had lost their dream as well. He saw the blank faces and empty eyes of his mother and father who lived in a squalid apartment that had miraculously never, not once, been hit. He knew why they rarely left its narrow confines. It wasn’t for any fear but the singular fact that the world outside, this Zone, held nothing of value for them. They had so few words left now, so desiccated were their empty lives. At night, he would fall to his knees and press his forehead hard against a gifted prayer mat, pleading and sobbing. All his efforts a band-aid for a gaping wound where bone gleamed back.

Deprived of land, hearth, factory and shop. All lost to the relentless tide of an invasion that now curled up into the black night of the OHA. But would they be deprived of memory, of thought, as well? No matter how painful, perhaps this was the only way for their brutalized humanity to survive…

“Do you think it’s possible to take all these broken pieces and make something new out of it?” he asked no one in particular.

Lost, he couldn’t remember the bomb streaking towards his destiny. It might as well have been the mother of all bombs that had pockmarked the Zone over the ravaged decades. He recalled the dusty words of a poet whose name was lost to ashes. The answers we hunger for already reside in our heart. He saw himself, a proud man standing tall in the redness of dawn.

So Ali fell to his knees to look below the tattered sofa that served as her humble bed. He tossed open the roughly finished cupboards, the low humble shelves. Spice jars and mirrors fell, dashed against the dirt floor.

He screamed and raged for that key. It would be found for the lady, for himself, for their weeping nation, he vowed. The old woman smiled at him faintly, like a ghost. Her dry lips moved silently in prayer before she blew her blessings upon him. It felt like a cool breeze for his tired soul, all the way from a homeland he might still know.


© 2022 by Murtaza Mohsin

2000 words

Murtaza Mohsin takes things as they are and tinkers with words. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan and is curious to see where this writing thing goes. His fiction has appeared in Future SF Digest and is forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge. 


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