Diabolical Plots Lineup Announcement! (from July 2023 Window)

written by David Steffen

Hello! I am here to announce the original stories that were chosen from the general submission window that ran in July 2023.

First, some stats:
# of Stories Submitted: 1451
# Rejected (First Round): 1350
# Rejected (Final Round): 40
# Withdrawn: 32
# Disqualified: 2
# Rewrite Requests: 2
# Accepted: 25

This is not quite the most submissions we have ever received in a window (that was 1938 in January 2021), but it is the most authors we’ve received submissions from and the most submissions we’ve received since we reduced the number of allowed submissions per author from 2 to only 1.

This window did take longer than we usually like them to take to fully resolve–a little over 3 months after the end of submission window. I think we should ask for some additional volunteers to join the first reader team–we haven’t done a volunteer run for a few years and as people get busy some of them step down or scale back so we’ll probably need to build the group back up again periodically.

For this submission window we welcomed two new assistant editors: Chelle Parker and Hal Y. Zhang, who helped resolve submissions and helped make the final selections listed below. They join the assistant editor team of Ziv Wities and Kel Coleman.

This window marked a few changes:

1. This is the first window we’ve run since generative “AI” was available enough that people were routinely using it to write fiction. In response the guidelines were updated to ask writers not to submit fiction written using it, the submission form asked writers to affirm that they did not use these programs in writing their work, and for writers who received acceptances the contract required them to state that as well.
2. We had previously had a “Withdraw” status in the system, but the status could only be set by the editor so the writer would have to email the editors to ask to have it withdrawn. In this window we added the ability to “self-serve” a withdrawal. This was added partway through the window so not everyone saw it. When the confirmation email gets sent it includes a withdrawal link that the author can use to withdraw on their own without needing to contact the editor.
3. We added a “Rewrite Request” functionality in the last few days. We occasionally did rewrite requests before but they were done completely apart from the system by email. Now rewrite requests are supported in the system with an official status. When the email is sent for the rewrite request, it copies the requesting editor and assistant editor so the writer can reply to ask questions or discuss. It also provides the author with a one-time link they can use to submit the rewrite. This link can be used even when there is no open window. If a writer submits during an open window the rewrite using this link doesn’t count against their submission limit for the window.

We accepted 25 stories from this general submission window (one of which we announced separately and already published due to time constraints)

These stories will all be published in 2023-2024; I look forward to sharing them with you!

And here is the list, in alphabetical order by author name:

The Lineup

Level One: Blowtorch
by Jared Oliver Adams

St. Thomas Aquinas Administers the Turing Test
by Mary Berman

The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds
by Renan Bernardo

The Lighthouse Keeper
by Melinda Brasher

It Clings
by Hammond Diehl

Ten Easy Steps To Destroying Your Enemies This Arbor Day
by Rachael K. Jones

Hold the Sea Inside
by Erin Keating

Batter and Pearl
by Steph Kwiatkowski

The Gaunt Strikes Again
by Rich Larson

Six-Month Assessment of Miracle-Fresh
by Anne Liberton

Phantom Heart
by Charlie B. Lorch

A Descending Arctic Excavation of Us
by Sara S. Messenger

Song for a Star-Whale’s Ghost
by Devin Miller

Eternal Recurrence
by Spencer Nitkey

Letters From Mt. Monroe Elementary, Third Grade
by Sarah Pauling

The Geist and/in/as the Boltzmann Brain
by M. J. Pettit

In Tandem
by Emilee Prado

Bone Talker, Bone Eater
by D. S. Ravenhurst

Dreamwright Street
by Mike Reeves-McMillan

This Week in Clinical Dance: Urgent Care at the Hastings Center
by Lauren Ring

BUDDY RAYMOND’S NO-BULLSHIT GUIDE TO DRONE HUNTING
by Gillian Secord

How to Kill the Giant Living Brain You Found In Your Mother’s Basement After She Died
by Alex Sobel

They Are Dancing
by John Stadelman

In the Shelter of Ghosts (already posted at the time this announcement is posted)
by Risa Wolf

Ketchōkuma
by Mason Yeater

DP Fiction #105: “In the Shelter of Ghosts” by Risa Wolf

edited by David Steffen

Content note (click for details) Content note: parental loss, wounds, face scars

When the mediums arrive, I don’t notice their scars. It’s their machine that grabs my attention, all pointed glass bulbs, copper wires, and metal rods. Like a four-foot square vacuum tube radio. I rub the belt buckle hidden in my tunic pocket as the six women in gray robes lug the machine up my gravel driveway.

They approach the house frame I’ve erected, set up where Dad’s old house once stood. They place the machine on a slate slab I’ve set up by what I hope will be the front door. I uncap my electrical source as one of the mediums puts on ceramic-weave gloves to connect to the leads. I tamp down a flare of worry, reminding myself that I’d just recharged the lead-acid battery at the solar station and redid its plant latex cover a few days ago.

After the machine is humming, the women look directly at me, and my stomach drops. All of them have scars around their eyes. One has deep pink lines through her crow’s feet into her temples; one has swirls like the silt in a riverbed along her cheekbones.

A voice breaks into my reverie. “— even if the séance works, Rory, your father might not want to save your house,” the medium in front says. “The dead are in a restful place, and some don’t want to leave.”

I’ve blanked out again. I debate asking her to repeat herself, but I know the pros and cons. Entity houses are part of my job.

***

The Housing Authority was a thick stone building that squatted like a pale pig rooting in the rubble of less fortunate buildings. It was once a bank, but when everything fell apart, it was pressed into more important service.

The line on the ramp outside was always long. Folks would file in politely after I unlocked the door, reveling in the cool air while I climbed into the booth at the center of the marble atrium and raised the window grate.

“Welcome to the Unica Housing Authority. I’m Rory and I’ll be helping you today.” The crowd quieted as my voice echoed over their heads. “Please remember there are no perfect living situations anymore and we might not have a spot that suits you, but we’ll try our best. When you approach the window, please only share conditions for which you have a high tolerance. Our tallied conditions are listed on the wall to your right.”

I pointed at the metal plaque with its etched and braille contents. ‘Cold’, ‘hot’, ‘dust’, ‘mold’, and many others: too long to read aloud. I couldn’t help taking a second glance at an item partway down: “ancestors”. I tapped at the screen of my glass computer with a magnetic stylus.

“Okay, who’s first?”

The person who strode up to the counter wore a sky blue dress and a long black leather-looking jacket, both spattered with crusty yellow leopard-pattern splotches. I suppressed a wince. It’d been a decade since the bug killed anyone, but it still hurt to look at. I forced a smile.

“Hi there! Tolerances?”

“Dark, cold, and noisy,” the person replied.

I entered the tags and the computer returned two options. “Great. There’s a steel warehouse on Parker and a stone mill house at the end of Chancel. Neither slot includes bedding.”

The person nodded perfunctorily. “The mill house is good.”

I tapped the screen to mark the slot as ‘taken’, then grabbed a slate marker and scratched the address on it with a metal stylus. I slid the marker under the window. “There you go. Thank you and good luck.”

I watched as the person walked away, the crowd pulling away from them like oil from a soap drop. The leopard spot on the jacket’s left shoulder had already spread. A sign of plastic clothing. I wondered where they’d come from, what kind of privilege they had, to still own any wearable vinyl.

***

My memory has never been great. I forget my own age sometimes. But one thing I do remember is the first time I saw those creepy yellow splotches.

I had a dinner date with Dad, but his monthly doctor’s appointment was running late. I decided to hang out outside the house, swaying in the worn swing from my childhood. The rope was frayed against my palm and had worn grooves in the branch, but it was a comfortable seat. As I pushed myself in a lazy circle, the late afternoon sun speckled the leaves and I saw the spots: phlegm-yellow and tissue-thin inside, gray ring outside.

My phone rang as I was examining one of the mottled leaves.

“It’s your father.” The nurse’s voice didn’t even shake. “He collapsed during his checkup and now he’s unresponsive.”

‘Unresponsive’. What a horrible word.

***

I fell into my job at the Housing Authority because Dad’s house was one of the first hit in our town. We’d figured out how to detect and treat the first wave of the fungus we now call “the bug.” But it mutated fast, and the most resistant strain fed on our buildings instead of living beings. It ate away siding and air conditioning and window casings. Alcohol sprays, systemics, antimicrobials, and antifungals all failed, so I stopped at Town Hall to get the plans filed for Dad’s house. To see how bad it was going to get.

“We need to warn people to the south,” the woman at the desk blurted while I was making copies. “I think they’ll believe it more from people with personal experience. You have a nice voice. Want a job?”

I thought about Dad’s bay window falling out of its dissolving casing. How the siding looked like Swiss cheese a year after I’d buried him. My throat tightened and I nodded.

I’d only been working there for a month when I first heard about an entity house.

“Hi, I’m calling to tell you about the bug that is destroying homes,” I read from the script.

“Oh no, dear, I’ll be fine,” the person replied, with a breathless giggle.

“My apologies!” I looked at their house plans. “We have on record that your house has wood beams and studs.”

“That’s right?”

“If your house has any wood, plastic, vinyl, or acrylic, the bug will attack it,” I said. “I can describe–”

“It’s okay, dear,” they interrupted. “Gramma took care of it.”

My heart leapt. Maybe there’s a solution. “What did your grandmother do?”

“She came back.” They giggled again. “Oh, she’s asking for her show. Gotta go.”

My phone clicked. They’d hung up.

Last I checked, the house was still standing, no leopard-spot marks in sight. They’ve also been generous. Filed four sleep slots with us. Tenants report that Gramma is noisy at 2 AM and is particular about kitchen cleanliness, to the point where she’ll wake them up with a frigid touch if they leave a mess. Otherwise, she doesn’t act like a ghost at all.

We’ve confirmed twelve entity houses so far. We’ve also heard other stories – folks who summoned a family member to help, only to have their relative’s ghost refuse and go back where they came from. It sounded like it hurt, to lose them all over again.

***

The head medium bows at me. “Do you have the ashes?”

I slide the silver urn from behind the new door jamb. I hold my breath as I break the seal on the urn and grab a pinch of ashes.

She points at the urn. “That should come as well.”

“Really?” I debate whether to return the ashes.

“He will be the fourth for the séance.”

“Oh.” I cradle the urn in my left arm. “Where should I put…”

I can’t bring myself to say ‘him’ or ‘it’.

The head medium gestures. “There, towards the west. The departed sit at the setting sun. You sit at the north, our guiding star.”

I place the urn where she indicated. Up close the machine purrs like a satisfied feline.

“Kasira, you sit at the east, the rising, and…” She cocks her head, as if listening. “Yes, Erius, you take the south, the brightening.”

The mediums, both young-looking and oddly aged, seat themselves. Kasira’s scars are jagged scores like broken toffee in the hollows of her eyes. Erius bears four white-silver furrows, two down each cheek.

“We do not control those we call,” the medium says. “Ancestors speak to us only if they wish to. We take these ashes to communicate that we are your approved emissary to the dead.”

I sprinkle the pinch of ashes into Kasira’s cupped hand. She presses a thumb into them and strokes her thumb across her forehead. She passes the ashes to Erius, who repeats the gesture, then shakes the remaining ashes into a metal cup at the center of the machine. They both grasp one of the metal dowels on the lachrymatorium with their left hand. The rest of the women back down the driveway.

“Where are they going?” I whisper to Kasira.

“This is no longer their place.” She winks, her broken-toffee scars bunching. “Now it’s up to us.”

***

“Okay, who’s next?”

The person wore an algae tunic and mycelium-leather clogs, their black hair short-cropped, small brown eyes glaring at me.

“Thank you for waiting. Tolerances?”

“Pollen,” they replied.

“Nothing else?”

“Why?” They sneered. “Where do you live?”

I hid a sigh. “My tolerances are dark, stuffy, and hard, so I’m in a shipping container park. I share my crate with three others.” Their brow furrowed, so I modulated my voice towards the perky. “My bedding is a myco mat. If you’re interested, there are slots left in my park.”

They deflated, the sneer replaced by a disappointed twist of lips. “I see. I’d be okay with bugs, steps, and height.”

“Fantastic!” I tapped it in. “Two treehouses have slots available. They have woven live-branch floors, leaf beds, and mycelium tarps in case of rain. One has a sunset view and one has a living vine wall to block wind from the south. It includes morning glories.”

Their eyes widened and I caught a glimpse of a grin. “Ooh, a vine wall! I’ll take that one.”

I smiled as I passed over the slate marker. It was rare to please someone in this job. I rubbed the belt buckle in my pocket and reminded myself to mark this moment down later.

***

Kate usually let me stay past closing to use the glass computer in the back office. I’d jot down things we’ve lost. Sometimes simple pleasures, like books and stuffed animals. Sometimes things I’ve never used, like Kevlar and mosquito netting. Sometimes I’d even mark down people who I’d briefly forgotten. 

Memory has always been a problem for me. Doctors had differing theories why. Maybe the trauma of losing my mom so early;. Possibly an attention disorder. All I knew was that I’d never been good with names or dates. But it wasn’t until Dad was gone that I realized how much I was forgetting.

When I arrived at the hospital, he was already dead. They gave me a bag of his things. Plaid shirt, canvas pants, steel watch, leather belt. A few weeks after he died, the leather belt grew a tiny leopard spot. I’d given the belt to Dad for Father’s Day. I realized I didn’t remember buying it, I didn’t remember him opening it, but I remembered him putting it on. I couldn’t remember the sound of his voice, but I remembered what he said: “It fits! How did you know my belt size, Roribell?”

“I didn’t, Dad.” I held out my arms in an ellipse. “This is how big you are when I hug you. So that’s how big the belt needed to be.”

I remembered his eyes filling with tears. He’d kissed the top of my head as I hugged him again, feeling his stomach hitching in quiet sobs. 

“I keep forgetting how short you are,” he’d whispered, making me laugh.

“And how long your legs are,” I’d teased.

We stayed in the hug for ten minutes.

I thought. I didn’t know for sure.

I did remember screaming over the leather as the bug ate it, that memory turning to shreds, then dust. I also remembered crying with relief when the gold-toned brass buckle remained intact, and how well it fit in my pocket.

***

Kasira leans towards me. “Remind us how to say your father’s name?” 

“Niven, like given, and Seinn like sine wave.”

The ash-prints on the mediums’ foreheads glow with a blue-gray iridescence as the machine sparks and Erius speaks.

“I call upon the spirit of Niven Seinn to grace us with your voice!”

A breeze kicks up.

Kasira repeats it. “I call upon Niven Seinn to grace us with your voice!”

Nothing happens. Kasira glances at Erius.

“You feel anything?”

“Not enough juice,” Erius replies.

I shrink under their gaze.

***

“Thank you for waiting. Tolerances?”

“Ancestors,” the frail person at the window replied. Their watery eyes were swollen and the ridges of their nostrils were chapped. The bones of old leaves peeked out from under their lank brown hair.

I raised my eyebrows. “Ancestors? Nothing else?”

Their gaze didn’t waver.

“Look.” I lowered my voice. “There aren’t many real entity houses right now. It takes a family loss and a very generous ancestor to make one. People claim they have a haunting, but the bug always gets them. You should choose something else.”

The person shook their head. “I’m allergic to a thousand things. It’s too cold for me in here and too hot out there. Anything hard, bright, or noisy hurts. Right now I’m in a sleep ditch off the freeway because it’s better than anything else.” They shrugged. “So unless you have a tolerance I haven’t heard of yet, ‘ancestors’ is it.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. I can add you to the waiting list but it’s fairly long.”

They pulled a square aluminum pager from their pocket. I scanned it and added the ID to the list, and they turned away from the booth, shoulders slumped.

I thought about the thing I was building, and I crossed my fingers and bumped their ID to the top before calling the next person up.

***

After Mom died, Dad took me along to his construction sites, first showing me how to sort tools, then how to lay bricks, then on to more complicated things. Everything he’d taught me was clear in my mind, even after everything else I’d forgotten.

When I started the house frame, I decided to take as many shortcuts as I could. No walls, no planing. The bug took months to hit new-cut wood, so I had some time, but not much. If the séance worked, the house would stand. If the séance didn’t work, it would fall anyway.

The doorway was last. Dad was always good with doors. I sawed the branch off the maple where my swing had once hung. The living branch still had grooves in it from the rope so I was extra cautious cutting it, preserving those grooves.

I sobbed while taking the bark off the branch. Wept like I was sacrificing one of the few memories I still had.

I was still working on it, sanding the jamb and hammering in the nail where the bell would go, when the mediums arrived.

***

Kasira reaches out to me. I hesitate, glancing at the machine.

“It doesn’t hurt,” she promises.

I slide my fingers into her hand, surprised at its warmth. Kasira squeezes my palm.

“Why have you asked us here today?”

“I want a better place to live,” I murmur. “I’m tired of my container.”

Erius shakes her head. “You could have built a steel structure.”

Kasira clasps my hand more tightly. “Why wood? Why here?”

A muscle in the side of my throat tightens, sending a sharp ache down into my collarbone. “I miss my dad. He was a woodworker. He built the house that used to be here, but the bug ate it.”

Erius scoots towards me. “But why did you choose something so fragile?”

“For… for memory.”

“Memory?” Kasira tilts her head. “Can you tell us more about that?”

I try not to sniffle. “The bug took all the furniture he built. It took everything he built. Those were supposed to be heirlooms. Now it’s all gone, so it’s like he’s all gone.”

“Why would he be gone? Doesn’t he live in your memories?” Kasira rubs her thumb over my knuckle. “Doesn’t everyone you’ve loved?”

I struggle to breathe. They’re watching me expectantly. Waiting for me to agree. I glance back at the doorway. Something clenches painfully inside my chest, and I can’t hold it anymore.

“No, that’s the problem!” Tears scald my cheeks like steam. “I should remember more, but I don’t. I don’t remember him on my sixteenth birthday. I don’t remember him at my college graduation. I don’t remember our last Christmas.” My throat spasms. “Oh god, and it’s too late! It’s too late to make any more memories with him! If I was smart, I would have written everything down. I would have made sure I’d never forget. But I’m not smart, I’m a selfish jerk, I’m a terrible daughter. I thought I had more time. I thought I had more time.”

I try to pull free from Kasira to cover my face as I cry, but she holds fast, a deathly stillness in her fingers. “There it is,” she whispers. “There’s the juice. That’s the grief he needs.”

The machine’s hum intensifies, vibrating in my skin. Electricity spits as the bulbs turn on. I squint, my tears cracking the world into rainbows, as Kasira and Erius chant together.

“We call upon the spirit of Niven Seinn to grace us with your voice!”

A white mist coagulates above the machine. The mediums continue. “Your daughter Rorius awaits you, Niven. If you consent, make yourself known!”

Something sizzles. I smell peanut butter and pepper – right, Dad’s lunches, on that wheat bread he loved. I’d forgotten them.

Then I hear a voice.

Roribell…

My stomach jumps. It’s been years, but I recognize it. Even though I couldn’t recall the sound of his voice, I recognize the sound.

I recognize it.

The smell. The sound. The memories were always there, deep in my gut. Exactly like the belt. Knowing his size not because it was in my brain, but because I’d hugged him so often my body knew it by heart.

Whatever my brain did or didn’t keep, the rest of my body recorded it all.

My shoulders wrench with sobs of relief as Kasira squeezes my hand. “Niven Seinn, will you share your afterlife on this plane, within the house your child has built, until such time as she departs?”

Do you need me, Roribell?

“I…” I stop. Am I being a terrible daughter again? Is it cruel to want him to stay with me? To leave the peaceful rest he deserves?

I flash on the person with the watery eyes. Their desperation. And how many other people might be in the same place.

I might not need him, but other people do.

“We all do. Please,” I manage, vocal cords tight with choked-back grief.

Then I’ll stay…

Kasira and Erius shriek as lightning crackles around the machine, then leaps into the lintel of the door with a sound like fireworks. Kasira clenches my hand hard enough to crack my knuckles before she lets go.

“Bless you, Niven, for your sacrifice. When Rory departs, one of us shall return to release you,” Erius gasps.

The machine’s hum fades. A wisp of smoke rises from Kasira’s face, a trickle of bloody pus seeping from a broken spot under her left eye.

“Shit!” I reach towards her. “Are you okay?”

She pats my hand, then blots the pus on her cheek with a graceful lift of her shoulder. “It hurts, but scars are remembrance.” She smiles. “Most people hide their scars, but for us, it’s an honor to bear this memory.”

As she and Erius undo the leads, Kasira winks at me and pantomimes crying. I rub my eyes by instinct, then jump at a sting under my right eye. A smear of blood pinkens the side of my index finger.

A wound, to turn into a scar. For remembrance.

I grin despite myself. Of course. Scars are the ghosts of past injuries, haunting our skin. It would keep my memory close to the surface, so that I’ll never forget.

I don’t know what my scar will look like, but I don’t care. It’ll remind me, every day, whether from other people’s reactions or from seeing my face in a reflection, that my memories live within me.

That my dad was never gone.

I lean on the maple door jamb and watch them gather up the machine and leave, their robes fading into the air as twilight deepens.

I like your house, Roribell.

I sigh. “Thank you, Daddy.”

I hug the jamb for at least ten minutes, then pluck the belt buckle from my pocket. I hang it on the nail that marks where the bell will go, and step under the lightning-struck lintel to start the walls.


© 2023 by Risa Wolf

3538 words

Author’s Note: This story came to me when I was processing several different kinds of loss at once. I’d gone to a memorial during the second year of the pandemic and as people recounted stories about the deceased, I realized that not only had I lost the person’s presence, I’d lost memories of them too. That memorial, plus the loss of access to the world around me, led me to an internal quest that I externalized to create Rory’s. (Many thanks to Cat Rambo for the title.)

Risa Wolf is a multi-gendered water elemental disguised as an ink-stained lycanthrope. (Don’t tell their spouse or their dogs; the disguise is working.) They come from the Burned-Over District in New York State, and they imagine houses for book-ghosts for a living. Their writing can be found in places like Apex, Clarkesworld, and Cast of Wonders. Visit them at killerpuppytails.com, on Mastodon at @killerpuppytails, or BlueSky at @risawolf.bsky.social.


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Submission Window Update: First Story Announcement and Schedule Info

written by David Steffen

Hello! I’m here to give an update on the general submission window where we were taking submissions from July 17-31. We received 1451 stories for the submission window. The first round is complete, so everyone should have received an initial response of either a rejection or a hold notice. If you haven’t received one, check your spam folder, you can check your status on the submission site if you have your confirmation name, otherwise you can query us immediately.

Normally I announce the story lineup all at once with all the months, but we are running a little later than I had hoped, and so I’m slipping in the first story announcement right here:

The November story will be:
In the Shelter of Ghosts
by Risa Wolf

We have a couple other acceptances in hand, and we are having discussions right now to finalize the rest of the list.

On a related note, because we are running a little later than we had originally planned, we are publishing one story a month for a couple months to connect the schedule up. But we’re planning to return to our usual cadence of two stories a month at that point.

DP Fiction #104: “Like Ladybugs, Bright Spots In Your Mailbox” by Marie Croke

edited by David Steffen

Someone began sending hand-written spellcrafted postcards out of DC in July of 2024. Those postcards made the rounds for a good nine months, under the radar, scarcely observed. That was, until the rash of good health, the proliferation of wealth, and the sudden uptick in good living coupled with a grand downtick in big socioeconomic issues the mayor was quick to claim as her own—such as suicides and unemployment—brought the situation to the attention of the East US Coven.

Because we can’t have downticks in unemployment and upticks in good health, not if there’s witchery being waved under everyone’s noses. Especially if the handwriting has a particularly feminine flair. No siree.

The coven sent a team, sans me, to check DC, do a sweep that chugged them around on and off the metro until they shook their heads and scattered home, reports saying that it must be the mayor after all.

I admit, I checked the coven’s files after, a part of me rankling since the coven overlooked asking me to look into things when I was right there. But I am “just a low-level research drone.” As if my duties take away from knowing my own home over men from New York and Boston; as if it isn’t literally my job to find possible unapproved spell-usage hinted at in news articles and reports and forum threads. Talk about being low gal on the invisible corporate witchpole I’m supposed to climb.

Then the goodwill witching spread. Not like California wildfires. Like ladybugs. Crawling into people’s houses via their mailboxes, with goodness hidden under their stamps and well-wishes printed out every fourth letter in the mundane notes.

Now, I’m what you call a witchery watcher, or at least that’s what would be on my resume if Salem hadn’t happened, kicking us all deep undercover from the rest of the world. It’s not that glamorous a job, not when half the self-proclaimed witches can’t seal their bottle spells properly enough to be termed spells and the other half spend the bulk of their time insisting that spells are all internal or some new-agey form of mindfulness. But here and there someone who acts suspiciously like a real witch pops up on one of my routine checks and my job gets a tad more interesting, if you call “interesting” sitting at home while higher-ups from elsewhere snatch the file and head out into the field to hunt that wild witch down themselves.

Those days are frustrating as all heck because I’m never given authorization to use higher-level spellcraft to check out the witch dabbler myself.

See, it’s dangerous to authorize women for too much crafting on the job. Don’t want another Salem. Don’t want another witch-burning spree where the men of the covens hide behind the women, send them out to die for the good of keeping everyone else safe.

Best to make sure we don’t get noticed.

A bit of a catch-22 if you ask me, since promotions come from wild witch catching, yet if I’m never out in the field because of my supposed feminine wiles…

That mentality isn’t something I can change all at once, not craning my head as I am from the bottom of the coven.

So when I get a postcard in my mail that smells like the sage-flavored mountain on its front and spells a wealth of confidence into my spine, I decide to do some off-grid, inadvisable digging of my own. Maybe jump a few pegs up on that ladder even if I have to bend some coven rules. Get to a position where I might do some good, change the culture, move some immovable mountains so my two girls could step into a coven without having to claw for every scrap of respect they gained.

Or I hope I’d at least earn a nice letter of recommendation and some off the record shop-chat that could help me corporate-jump myself between the ladders of different covens like a game of leapfrog.

I wait till both my girls skip merrily onto bus #475, that orange monstrosity that every day I wish I could wrap in a protective blanket of spells, though that doesn’t come under the “allowable spellcraft” rules.

While the girls learn mathematics and grammar and spotty history, I craft a runic graph of my city, marking it up by feel before I rip up that confidence-spelled postcard, hold the confetti in my fist and release it over the scrawled lines representing DC. A spelled wind takes those jagged-edged pieces and swirls them over the city on my coffee table, each of them bobbing when they sailed down the Potomac, yet ultimately landing in as haphazard a way as you’d like.

I try pendulums next, cleansing each and working through the now-shredded postcard’s origins, but the crystals latch onto the stamp, dragging the pendulum toward my local post office over and over like a poor confused dog. Which meant whoever this witch is had found a way to break the trail, stop the ink, the words, the spellcraft, from trickling a wake back, back to the one who’d crafted them.

Screw it. I’ll bend the law just a tad. No holds barred.

Using sunwater to find pinprick jolts of lingering spellcraft wake where it hadn’t yet been contaminated with too much other life, I find the houses in the local neighborhoods that had been sent spellcrafted postcards recently. Reach my hand in through grandmother’s opal-glazed bowl and steal mail right off of tables and armchairs and dusty tops of refrigerators.

In a stack that thick and robust, the slightly damp postcards practically glow with a lovely residual witch-touch—a gentle turquoise with pale pink chevrons that spoke of streams of love and caring in a backdrop of creativity and friendship. My single, now-shredded card wasn’t this bright alone—just a drop in the metaphorical postal system it’d been. Whoever this witch is, they truly are a spellcrafting benefactor of tiny, prolific blessings. Blessings that are collectively wrapping their embrace around the city, stretching through Arlington, through Bethesda, reaching for Rockville and Columbia.

Like some urban, limited-word guardian angel.

I hesitate, running my fingers along those damp edges, staring at the smudged ink where every fourth letter spelled contentment, spelled hope, spelled happiness, motivation, forgiveness, love, charity, satisfaction. There is even one spelled to help find lost things. And another to accept those things that can’t be found.

This witch doesn’t need to be hunted down like some Salem echo. This witch is doing good work, witch work, the sort that means to help, to heal, to wrap warm arms about a cold people and remind them that life wasn’t the crapshoot it sometimes felt like, filled with people who only did wrong to others.

I sit with hands clasped, suffused with a sense of rightness. I would tuck these postcards away, ignore the proliferation of positivity, let this witch, whoever they are, get away with their practice under the coven’s nose because people like them are what these cities need, whether or not its citizens cared. Whether or not its citizens might run screaming if they knew.

And for a good thirty minutes, I admire my own morality. Then my girls come home with a squeal of bus brakes and a breath of chilly wind.

My youngest screams in, a ten-year-old’s strength and optimism and excitement opening up a babbling of her day, her wild curls haloing her face and the crookedness of her teeth making her smile seem wide, wider. Like the world hadn’t yet caught hold of her mind, told her to hush, hush, let the others talk.

But my oldest steps through the door a minute after, dragging her sneakers and dropping her bookbag like it weighed more than a curse, societal expectations bricking her up, squishing her down. Her dark hair wafts around her cheeks. Her eyes skip past mine. What has happened today, what words lost to the depths of her throat, what tiny infractions that seem so large to her now, yet will climb and build until she presumes them normal?

Until she finds herself working in an entry-level job under people with less skill, less craft than what she possesses in her littlest finger, yet will be unable to leap past them because rules and regs and laws all built to say no, not-yet, you-aren’t-the-right-fit have become expected. Lines she’ll sit contentedly in, obediently.

Like the box toddlers play in. Yet as a toddler, we always push against the cardboard and tip…over. Because the box is fragile, always was, until we let it turn to stone and plaster and brick around us as we grow.

I put the girls back on the bus the next morning, the grey sky cleared in splotches, like hope peeking out from a shedding blanket, though someone probably has a damn good darning needle and some thick thread and will patch those little spots up, clouds yanked in stitches until the holes shrink to nothingness.

But I can’t think like that.

I’ve got spells in my back pocket. A little bottle, filled with postcard confetti and scrying water and intentions, all sealed with a black wax meant to enhance and reflect the witch-touch so the spell might be powerful enough to react to wakes and fresher castings. A small notebook page, folded and folded and folded again until I’ve got a puzzle with protective words written in sixteen different languages, fifteen of which I don’t speak, that will make me hard to remember. A watch from my childhood—yellow bumblebees on its scratched band—that saves up seconds, seven of them to be exact, that I might replay them in need.

I head to my local post office to begin my chase of the witch’s wake, the air thick about me, expectant. The bottle spell for finding things that don’t want to be found grows invisible tendrils about my body, reaching for hints to scarf down, swallow and exaggerate so that I might trail. A good little nose, I’d once been called by some middle management guy from Baltimore. No better than a dog—stick me in a kennel when I’m not needed, why don’t you.

I shook my head, removing that conglomerate, insidious voice that attempted to shunt me down the ladder. Climbed the steps into the brick building, the scent of paper thickening, the scent of spellcraft billowing.

Little metal boxes with their little metal locks block me in on all sides. A witch might have a day in here, snapping up the power numbers, every box that ends in seven, every thirteen that winks with untapped potential, every three growing warm at my presence. I let my finding spell reach and search, sifting through the air, tasting it with suckers no one else can see.

All that billowing spellcraft, streams of wakes where postcards have swept up and away and into and out of postal boxes congregates here, then parts there, disappears here, then solidifies there. In flux, throbbing, like…the craft is being constantly worked in pockets and moments, nothing too big all at once, but everything small all the time.

I step up toward the counter. And pause.

Of course. There she is. Not quite as powerful a witch as I thought, her wake stopping here because here is where she crafts.

She reminds me of my own mother, the way her poinsettia-patterned dress clings to her, the way her thick glasses sit on the bridge of her nose, the way she chats with the man in front of me, telling him all about grandchildren, all about life. As she passes him the receipt she tells him not to save his smiles because like cookies, they go bad if you don’t pass them out. Can’t save them all for oneself, you can’t, she says.

For just a moment, I see all that effort she’s gone through, handwriting each message, licking every stamp, pressing her witch-touch as she casts the small spells with a hope in her heart that they make someone smile, or give them the little bounce they need to make a fresh choice or be content with an old one.

The man brushes past me with a light in his dark eyes, like there’s a chevron pink flame flickering in those depths.

Then I’m breathing hard.

I think—I thought this would be easier. My fingers slick with sweat as I tug off my glove, press the contact list, find my coven boss’s number. I think—I thought I’d had resolve. I’m just doing what’s necessary to claw my way up that witchpole, lay claim to little scraps of power that I’m thrown. That’s all.

That’s all.

My phone comes down, down to my side. She smiles at me, handing out joy like a freshly-baked cookie, like she can’t see the finding spell eagerly wrapping about her, pointing as if I hadn’t already figured her out. Realization flickers in her eyes and that smile flattens out.

I could hold my hand out, introduce myself, wish her well on her crusade. I could find a kindred spirit maybe, that reflects back on the days I sat with my mother while she taught me runes and wax and scrying.

Instead, I reach to my back pocket and rewind seven seconds, take back her smile, take back the man brushing past me. Back, back, to when my folded paper spell still worked to make me forgettable.

Then, as the man begins to turn away anew, I turn as well, escape out into the street, away from the little metal boxes and all the postcards they may or may not hide.

There, with the patched-up grey sky thickening overhead, I make the call. My breathing steady. My heartrate normal. Because sometimes we have to do things we don’t like, yeah, things that jump us up that witchpole.

That’s what I tell myself, over and over, as I walk home to meet the girls off the bus. That’s what I tell them when we sit around the table. Tell them that sometimes, in order to keep our jobs, keep ourselves safe, keep food on the table and inch the world into something different, something that might be better, we’ve got to work within the confines of the rules we were born into. Inside the box.

I just don’t tell them how much it costs.

When my coven comes—two men from New York and a third from Atlanta—I try not to think of the woman like my mother. Try to think about her like she’s an unknowing martyr, a witch for the cause so that the covens stand tall, that I might wind my way up to wield true power, make a difference one day. It’s a long game. Long.

Like how they thought of Salem. All those woman pulled and burned that the covens might stand…

I’m on the email chain as they wrap up the “DC Postcard Witch.” There’s no mention of the higher school grades or the lower unemployment those postcards had wrought. There’s just a withering in the air, the sky crying for a week as the postcards are fading, fading, gone.

And I…

I take my tiny back pat. My off-brandvacuum-cleaner reward. My paper commendation that crinkles in my desk at home, buried under my daughters’ honor roll cardstock print-outs.

I go back to my researching duties, reading, filing, emailing, typing Johns and Steves and Adams in the “To” boxes. I find evidence of possible witchery occurring outside of the Coven’s know-how and approval. I field question after question on how a spell works, what they might be doing wrong from people who work in positions higher than me and should already know. I fix, I tweak, I make everyone above me look good, because that’s what they say will make me look good too.

Except it doesn’t. Nothing changes. That witchpole looks the same from down here. And my city, it looks all the worse.

The upticks become downticks and the downticks morph into upticks. My youngest begins to have a smidge of that same sagging weight to her steps as my oldest. The dinner table talks become rote, become painful because I can’t believe in the shit I’m spitting out anymore.

So I stop saying anything at all.

And I start doing.

Someone begins to send spellcraft postcards from DC in September 2025, during the season the ladybugs start searching for warmth, encroaching into homes, red specks crawling pentagrams across ceilings, insect runecraft, the sort the big covens would shut down the moment they sniffed competition. Because that’s all this has ever been about, stomping the competition before women might claw their way back, swell their small-coven ranks, show the world that witchery wasn’t about profits and rules and big power, but about small powers, about hopes and futures outside of confinements.

They’ll come for me too one of these days.

Maybe the winter of 2027, when the cold that creaks through ragged carpet is defrosted by a few tropical words spelled out every 4th letter. Maybe during the height of the summer in 2028, when the breeze contained under flag stamps is a little more inclusive as it breathes soothing messages through the worst of the season. Maybe not until 2035, when I’m finally eligible to apply for a managerial position in the coven–fifteen years of dedicated service and all–when they tune their eyes closer, check every nook and cranny of my life, overturn the rocks and stamps to find the gentle spells I’d released en masse to those in most need.

And then maybe my girls will nod a few decades on, saying their mother did something, yeah. Something that made a difference. Something that maybe would spread like ladybugs, happy bright spots, little, little, but proliferating nonetheless.


© 2023 by Marie Croke

2967 words

Marie Croke is an award-winning fantasy and science-fiction writer living in Maryland with her family, all of whom like to scribble messages in her notebooks when she’s not looking. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and her stories can be found in over a dozen magazines, including Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Zooscape, Cast of Wonders, Diabolical Plots, and Fireside. She has worked as a slush editor and first reader for multiple magazines, including khōréō and Dark Matter, and her reviews can be found in Apex Magazine. Her hobbies include crochet, birding, and aerial dance.


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In Loving Memory of Mikko Steffen

In Loving Memory of Mikko Steffen
Born November 1, 2007
Adopted May 24, 2008
Died May 8, 2023

This is the story of a dog who has been a part of our family for fifteen years and connected all of the other dogs we’ve ever had.  This is the story of a miracle dog who beat the odds over and over again. This is the story of Mikko the white poodle.

Mikko’s Life

Bringing Him Home

At the time we adopted Mikko, we had just moved into our first house after living in a series of apartments. We had our first dog, Aria, and we were looking for another dog to be a playmate for Aria in the wide open spaces of our new home that we hadn’t filled with much furniture yet.

Heather had fond memories of the poodles she had when she was a kid so she wanted another poodle. She found Picket Fence Poodles, a poodle rescue organization that was a mid-length drive away. Listed on their site was “Perry”. For this adoption, it required people with poodle experience and people who were willing to adopt a dog with special needs, because he was born with luxating patellas, where his kneecaps are not fixed in place the way they should be.

We set up a meet and greet with Picket Fence Poodles to meet him, with just the two of us going to meet him at the home of the rescue organization. We had a great time playing with him, we talked about his leg issues, talked about his care, and we decided to take him home.

He had been born at a poodle breeder. Because of his legs, he was unable to walk when puppies normally learn to walk. They had planned to euthanize him, but he was so cute they kept putting it off and carried him around and then, surprise, he actually started walking on his own! He managed to get enough strength in his legs that he was still able to learn to walk. So at that point they gave him over to the rescue organization. They warned us that he would never be able to jump or to climb stairs, but of course that didn’t matter to us.

We decided we didn’t like the name “Perry” (this was before the days of Perry the Platypus or we might have kept it) and he didn’t respond to the name yet anyway. We named him “Mikko” after Mikko Koivu who was a long-running player on the local NHL hockey team The Minnesota Wild.

We brought him home and introduced him to Aria, and they became best friends and playmates. Of course, there was plenty of conflict. Aria was the more dominant of the two, but Mikko didn’t want to up on that, so he would try to boss her around.

Nicknames

So many variations on the name, we would call him Mako, Mikko Mako, Makiko, Meeky, Squeako, Beako, Squabeako, Mr. Mikko, Magical Mikko, and so many variations of each.

What Made Him Special

Determined

Aria was still pretty young at the time too but Mikko never had enough playtime. They would chase and play and wrestle and playfight, and then Aria would jump up to the back of the couch and watch smugly with the terrain advantage while he barked from the floor and tried to reach her. He would alternate between putting his front paws on the couch and doing tiny little hops that were nowhere near high enough, to taking a running jump from four feet away which he landed on the ground before he reached the couch.

This went on and on for days and weeks and finally he managed to jump up onto the couch and even surprised himself, and then when he jumped back down he couldn’t figure out how to get back up again, though he did eventually figure it out.

Still, the stairs were an obstacle. Aria could run down or up the stairs without any problem and he would get so mad if she left him behind, so she would go up or down and then taunt him and he wanted to do the stairs so badly because he couldn’t let he just gloat like that. We taught him to go up stairs first, by putting him one stair down and coaxing him up while we stood below to catch him if he slipped. Then two stairs, then three, and soon he was confident enough he could go up the whole flight.

At the time, we watched TV on cable and the only cable jack was downstairs, so we would watch TV in the basement. This worked fine when Mikko couldn’t take the stairs, but once he learned to go up but not down then he would decide to go upstairs and then would sit at the top of the stairs and bark for someone to carry him down. So, yes, we did eventually teach him to go downstairs too.

From the start, he defied expectations from sheer determination.

Bossy

From when he was young he tried to be the most dominant dog in the house. Which really didn’t work with Aria, but he could get away with bossing Timmy around when he was there, especially as Timmy got older and confused Mikko would try to coach him and say “don’t do that, you’re being weird” when Timmy would wander or get stuck in a corner.

His determination was not always a positive trait, even to himself. For some reason, he would sometimes get very angry if he was left in a kennel with a bowl of water, and he would furiously try to bury it with his nose, sometimes until his snout was bloody from pushing. When he was older and was having some difficulty maintaining his appetite he sometimes did the same with food left for him, but then sometimes he would try to bury it for a while, then he would eat some, then he would try to bury it again.

He would always bark at leaves blowing in the wind as if they had offended him personally, and if he happened to catch a tailwind he would look as if he thought someone was blowing on his butt.

Compassionate

If someone cried he would always go to them and want to be held and lick their tears away.

If Aria got locked in a closet by accident as she often did when she followed someone in there, then Mikko would found out where she was and would come get someone to come get her out, and would keep giving significant looks at the closet door until someone let her out.

Unusual

Probably some of this came from his luxating patellas, but Mikko had some weird postures. Mikko loved pillows and beds, but he tended to never lie in them all the way, always draping himself across the edge of the bed with half his body outside of his bed. When he was young he also liked to squeeze into tiny dog beds with Aria. He’s the only dog I’ve seen who would kneel with one or both legs instead of always sitting on his butt (which prompted people who didn’t know him to think he was going to pee). And when he laid down he would like to lay with his legs splayed out that we liked to call a “Mikko-skin rug”. He was also never able to pee with one leg lifted like most male dogs do.

When you brought him to bed at night and he was getting settled in, he would often do a sort of superhero stretch where he laid on his back and stretched one foreleg away in front of his face.

Friendly

Besides making immediate friends with Aria, and with Timmy who became our third Musketeer, when he was younger, Mikko would always be the greeter and ambassador of the group. When we walked the dogs, or when we had visitors, he would always be the first one to meet the new dog, because he never saw a dog he didn’t want to play with.

Unfortunately he gradually lost much of this trait of being able to immediately click with new dogs, perhaps due to increasing arthritis and other health issues, though he remained playful with people and his dog roommates for most of his life.

One time when he was young we set a big upright mirror down on the ground, the upper portion of a furniture hutch. Mikko saw his reflection and was obsessed with it, barking and pawing at his reflection and trying to get it to play with him, rearing up on his hind legs and pawing at it to try to reach the other dog, looking on the other side of the mirror and surprised he couldn’t find it there.

Communication

For barking, Mikko had one volume: loud, and his barks were very animated. More so than other dogs, he would throw his head back like the recoil of a cannon as he fired each loud bark into the world. Some of our other dogs we could teach to bark quietly on command, with a “say please” they would give a quiet talking-level bark. We taught Mikko to do this too, but with him it was either “full volume” or “mute”. When he was on mute, he would make the full head-throwing-back motion of a bark, but make no vocal sound whatsoever, just the soft “click” of his teeth.

When he wanted something, he would stand right next to you and look up with his gigantic eyes, and then lift one paw and scratch softly at your leg–scratchscratchscratch and then look again. He would alternate this with his own unique vocalizations that were a variation on a whine, but would sound like “hoot hoot hoot” like a monkey.

He could answer the question “Where’s Heather?” (or other member’s of the household). If you asked that, he would recognize which member of the household and would either find that person in the same room and point at them like a hunting dog with one front leg raised and head pointed, or would go find them in a different room. Even if the person was hiding he would keep at it until he found them.

If you took him out to use the lawn, sometimes he would pee and then head back for the house. But then if you asked him “Mikko, do you need to poop?” he would actually stop, seem to consider it, and sometimes he would head back to the lawn to poop. Like “oh yeah, thanks for reminding me.”.

Like most dogs he would wag his tail when he was happy, but he also had a very distinct tail wag when he was nervous about something. Instead of wagging at a constant rate he would wagwagwagwag three or four times very quickly and then pause, and then wagwagwagwag again.

When he was young he would love to have training sessions where he would learn to sit and lie down and try to learn other tricks. He was great at “spin left”, if you said that with some treats in your hand he would spin and spin and spin and spin. Surprisingly, he never ever did get the hang of “spin right”. You would try to lead him around that way and he just seemed to find it perplexing.

Although he had sporadic digestive issues for much of his life, he was usually pretty good about getting us some warning. Sometimes I would wake up to the hork-hork-hork sound of him preparing to vomit, and sometimes I could wake up fast enough to pick him up and carry him to the bathtub for easier cleaning. Sometimes.

Woolly

He had the most beautiful fluffy white fur, that he looked like a little lamb, and was so soft. Like any poodle, he absolutely needed to be clipped periodically, because poodles don’t shed, their hair just keeps growing. When he came back from the groomer his fur would always have been freshly washed and dried and brushed so his fur was just like touching pure fuzz. As he went between groomings his hair would get longer and would separate into big spiral shapes and get heavy and start drooping, which was an easy way to know it was time to get the dogs groomed again.

We joked that we should shear him and sell the fur to make Swiffer sweepers, because the fur was extremely absorbent. If we walked him on a dirt trail his legs would turn almost black up to the knees. If I didn’t pick up the grass clippings after I mowed, he would come back inside with green sleeves.

People Person

Besides chasing and wrestling with the other dogs, he loved interacting with people however he could. If anyone laid on the floor, he would always immediately go over to them and get comfortable on their belly or back. We have never had another dog who liked lying on people so much.

He also liked to sit behind people’s necks on the couch, and loved to be carried behind people’s necks with his front on one shoulder and his back on the other.

He was the most trusting dog we’ve ever had for having his belly up. He wouldn’t even mind being held in your arms with his belly up. In fact, when he was very comfortable he would be a limp noodle with his neck dangling loosely.

He was always a playful nibbler. If you held a hand out to him he would licklicklick your finger, and then put your finger in his mouth and give a very gentle squeeze with his teeth, licklicklick chew chew, licklicklick chew chew, the same pattern over and over again.

Toys

He loved toys. He was a big fan of playing fetch, he would bring toys over and over if you kept throwing them, and he was pretty good at catching them in mid-air. Our living is carpeted and then we have a rug by the front door on hardwood–if you threw a toy over there he would hop over the wood section between them like a little deer.

He had a habit of dismembering stuffed animal dog toys and playing with the limbs. Among his favorite toys were a zebra leg, a crab leg, and a monkey paw (we of course trained him not to make any wishes on it).

He loved to pull the fuzz off of plush toys, and would just sit there and rip, rip, rip. And if you were like “Mikko, have you been defuzzing” and he would look up at you with his giant innocent eyes and a green or purple goatee of fuzz. If anyone left any toilet paper or tissue where he could reach it he would shred it everywhere.

He loved bones too, but what he loved more than bones is putting a bone ON a toy or vice versa, and chewing both of them at the same time.

Treat balls were one of his favorite things (plastic balls filled with treats where some would dump out randomly if they rolled it around enough). He was the only one who could figure out how to pick them up–they were too big for our digs to fit the whole ball in their mouth, but there is a little opening where the treats come out and Mikko was clever enough to get a couple teeth in there enough to grip. He would play with that thing for a long time.

Walks

He always loved walks, and when he was young he would always make the absolute most of them, easily getting twice the steps of anyone else on the walk, because he would walk to the full extent of the leash allowed to him, and then he would zigzag to the far left, to the far right and back and forth.

One of his favorite things was sniffing the white splats of bird poop, he would always stop to smell every single one, even if there were a bunch of them he would thoroughly work through them. If there were any white chalk or white paint markings on a walking path he would always investigate those too, and was probably disappointed at the lack of fecal aroma.

Fears

Many dogs are afraid of thunder or lightning. Mikko never was much bothered by it, even when other dogs were trying to hide from the storm he would curl up and nap. But he was often afraid if someone passed gas, even if that someone was him, he would look back at his butt like someone snuck up behind him. And he was very afraid when someone started crafting, perhaps because of the noises that holepunchers or other crafting tools make. We liked to joke that his only weakness was farts and crafts.

With Others

With Aria

When we first got Mikko, Aria was the only other dog. They were instant friends, though there was plenty of conflict. They fought over food and bones but were pretty much always ready to play with each other, or go for a walk, or bark at the door and Mikko loved to stand on his hind legs at the door and paw with both front legs like he was trying to dig through the door.

They were always learning from each other. When Aria was an only dog she would always try to save treats for later by going behind a piece of furniture and “burying” the treat in the carpet by placing it gently on the carpet and pushing with her nose like she was pushing dirt over the top. She learned not to do that pretty quick when Mikko would follow along behind it and immediately eat it.

In most situations he wasn’t as smart as Aria, but if he was sufficiently motivated he could be very clever. He would love to taunt her if he had a bone, he would hold it sticking out of the side of his mouth and walk up to her, and if she grabbed for it he would spin around to get it out of her reach. He also would find ways to draw her away from a bone she was chewing. They both loved to bark at the front door when pedestrians or animals were outside, so if she had a bone he would sometimes go bark at the front door like there was something out there, and then when she joined him, he would loop around behind her and grab her bone. She learned the trick pretty quick and would try it on him, but he was too clever for that, he would run to the door but he would remember to grab the bone first.

They loved to chase each other so much. We had a couch downstairs in a huge area without much else around it, and they would chase each other around and around until you couldn’t tell who was chasing who. She was definitely the stronger of the two and on a straightaway she could definitely outsprint him. But she also had more momentum because of her greater mass. So he could take sharp ninety degree turns at his top speed while she would swing wide into a wider oval shape as she tried to make the turn and they would end up being pretty evenly matched.

With Timmy

We adopted Timmy within the first year that we had Mikko, so he completed the Three Musketeers that were all together for four years. When Timmy and Mikko were both young they would love to play together and wrestle too, both of them rearing up on their hind legs and grappling with each other. Both of them lived to a very old age, so it’s always still a little surprising to look at those early videos and see how spry and energetic they both were.

With Violet

In December 2012, when Aria passed away unexpectedly at only age 5, Mikko was distraught. His usually high energy level went way down and he didn’t want to do anything but sleep. We adopted Violet in a relatively short time after that, just before Christmas travel, to try to help him through that with a new extra companion. Violet and Mikko took well to each other immeidately. Theywould play-bow and like to chase each other around. As Mikko got older, his arthritis and other conditions meant he got a less playful so Violet had to find her playtime elsewhere, but they got along most of the time. Mikko was always pretty bossy, and Violet was usually happy to be a follower.

They lived together for almost ten years, for almost two-thirds of his life.

With Michael

We adopted Michael after Timmy passed away in 2018, and Michael lived with Mikko for the last five years of Mikko’s life. By that time, Mikko was usually not super big at playing with other dogs, though occasionally we could coax them to play tug of war briefly, more likely they would both play fetch with one person alongside each other. Otherwise they generally got along as long as someone playing fetch with Michael didn’t throw the toy over Mikko so that Michael would bowl over him.

With Mabel

Mabel joined the family when Violet passed away and Mikko was already quite old. Between his different health problems he had a lot less patience in general and was no longer the greet and ambassador he used to be. But he was very patient with Mabel the big overbearing lumbering giant.

He was always very good with Mabel, sort of a father figure and she adored him from the moment she met him. If he was doing something she always wanted to be right there doing it with him. As he got older and his health complications got worse, we found we needed to start watching them very closely because sometimes her infatuation would manifest in unhelpful/unhealthy ways where if he fell down she would try to jump on top of him (and with him being so old and weak and her outweighing him by a significant margin), and one time even bit him pretty hard though since she didn’t have any teeth no permanent harm was done.

With Cooper

When Cooper and Mikko were both young, they would love to play and wrestle and roughhouse with each other. Cooper lost the knack for it, but they still got along pretty well most of the time. Though they didn’t live together they would see each other at least a few times a year, and both knew each other for almost fourteen years together.

With the Cat-In-Laws

Mikko, as noted elsewhere in this memorial, was always a big barker, and the cats were among his favorite bark-targets and any cat that would run away from him would get a steady barking and chase, though I don’t think he would honestly have had any idea what to do with a cat if he caught one.

With the Kid

The kid and Mikko when the kid was young would both excite and sometimes terrify each other. Mikko would chase the kid as the kid was toddling around and the kid would squeal and giggle and run away.

As Mikko got older and started slowing down, the kid was also getting older and toning down the uncontrollable toddler energy, and eventually Mikko learned to trust the kid and would even let the kid hold him and pet him. Some of our professional family photos he would take while Ian held him to keep him still.

Medical Adventures On the Way

Mikko and Violet had a common desire to chew small plastic objects, which was very unfortunate when the kid was very young and would leave small plastic objects everywhere. Pacifiers were a particular favorite, but any plastic toy would do. Sometimes we find part of a chewed-up toy and we wouldn’t know whether Mikko or Violet ate it and we would have to bring both of them to the vet to induce vomiting. He also ate some leaves of a plant that we found out was toxic and had to take him in for that.

Mikko had problems with smegma buildup throughout most of his life. I won’t go into details here, but if you decide to do a search for the word, you probably want to leave the image search off until you read what it is.

In the last couple years of his life, we started to notice he would get a “bubble butt” sometimes, where he would have a section near his butt that was literally like a little inflated balloon. It didn’t seem to bother him, and with a little pressure it could be pushed into his body. It turned out that this was a prolapsed bladder. As he aged he was losing quite a bit of muscle mass, and so there was more of a gap in his pelvic area where muscles would normally be and his bladder could sneak out through there. The vet said a surgery was available where they would try to fix the bladder in place and suture some of the muscles together so there was no space for it to sneak through. We were fully planning on doing this, when he got an intestinal bleed from something unrelated and had to delay it due to not wanting to anesthetize him while he had another condition. By the time we got all that sorted out, he was struggling with other health problems again and we decided to put it off. It was some risk to do so, because if his bladder became strangulated it might have meant extreme pain and a visit to the emergency room, but doing the surgery would also have been quite risky at that point. He continued to have the bubble butt for the rest of his life, but it never really seemed to bother him, and didn’t escalate.

One time fell and managed to jam his tail on landing and he couldn’t wag it at all for a while, and he wagged his tail so much generally this was very difficult for him.

One time when we had a guest over at our house and we were working on putting the dogs in a separate room, Mikko tried to sprint out to the living room to see them and got deflected just enough by someone’s leg to run full speed into a doorframe and knocked a tooth loose in the front of his jaw.

The Sad Part

In 2018, when he was having some problems with urination we took him to the vet to get him checked out, to see if there was crystals in his urine, that sort of thing. As part of that, the vet did a sonogram and concluded that he had a tumor in his bladder and that vet pretty much said that we should say our goodbyes because we had between weeks and months to be with him whether or not we started cancer treatment. He was still generally very healthy and we didn’t want to give up on him so we were considering whether for a dog cancer treatment would affect his quality of life too much, but before we made any major decision we got a second opinion and they couldn’t find any sign of a tumor, so the other vet’s original diagnosis seemed to be based on one image and maybe there was a weird angle or something. We decided not to move forward with cancer treatment, given that there was no clear sign, and given that he lived five years longer after that and no sign of a tumor presented itself, in retrospect it must have been an incorrect diagnosis. This didn’t actually play into his end of life health issues in any way, but I put it in this section because it was scary and sad anyway.

In September 2020, he had a strange and scary episode where he started acting dizzy, fell over, and then was breathing fast and heavy after that. Fast and heavy breathing can be a sign of serious urgent issues and can indicate pain among other things, so we took him in right away. He had had a heart murmur for years before that, and they said that the issue was that he was going into congestive heart failure where the heart enlarges from gathering too much fluid, we were already familiar with this from when Timmy went through it. So they sent us home with a diuretic to try to pull some of the fluid out of his lungs. Over the next twenty-four hours this didn’t help at all, and at times was up to 95 breaths per minute resting which is much higher than it should be. We ended up taking him to the emergency room and they found that there was fluid outside of his lungs pressing on his lungs and making it hard to breathe. He was diagnosed with protein-losing enteropathy (PLE), a digestive issue which causes albumen protein to leak, which pulls water out into the abdomen and causes other issues. They put him on a special low-fat diet after that, and we had to be very careful what kinds of foods and treats that we gave him, because going off-diet could send his health plummeting again.

He had always had irritable bowels, and during this time we struggled with further digestive symptoms like colitis, and had to constantly watch him for bouts of foul-smelling strange-looking diarrhea, though much of the time he was fine. He went on like that for quite some time, having good health most of the time on this diet and with an increasing set of medications to help with his heart and his PLE, and with periodic checkups with the cardiologist and internal medicine to adjust his medications now and then, as we watched his albumen very closely to make sure it didn’t go too far. He sometimes had bouts of digestive issues but was manageable most of the time.

In October 2022, he started having some weird violent flinching reactions to movement or to light. We thought it might have been due to him gradually losing his eyesight as his eyes clouded over. And then he had the scariest medical episode of his life thus far. He was just coming in from using the lawn, and he seemed to freeze up like a statue, all his legs going rigid. I was getting the leash off of him and he just tipped over onto his side as I called for Heather who was across the room. She came and picked him up and he was as stiff as a board with his legs and neck outstretched. We tried to comfort him with words and touch as best we could, though we couldn’t tell if he could hear us. He stayed like that for maybe thirty seconds and then suddenly he went as limp as a rag doll, with his head lolling down at an unnatural angle.

We really thought he was dead, and we were frantically telling him we loved him just in case, and he started to come awake, very groggy and confused. We of course rushed him to the emergency room and spent a long night there. At first they told us that it couldn’t have been a seizure, because nothing seemed to indicate a cause. But some of his digestive conditions make some tests give weird results, so they didn’t realize at first that he had dangerously low calcium, which was probably what caused the seizure. So we added more medicines to his daily regimen to manage his calcium levels and that stabilized him for quite some time.

Every month we were surprised but blessed that he was still with us and we cherished our time with him. We were both working from home, which did make it easier, because we could take him into one of our offices with us, and could usually rush him outside if he needed it. No more having to put him a kennel during the workday.

As time went on in those last months, he had more difficulty with appetite, more difficulty with vision, and controlling his bowel movements, and loss of muscle mass, and slept more and more. He had bad days pretty more and more often and we started to have conversations about when we would have to say our final goodbyes. We had to rotate between foods to try to tempt him into eating, but we were limited in our options because of the PLE.

We found that we could never leave him alone with Mabel in that last stretch because although she seemed to adore him, sometimes if he was acting strange like stumbling or struggling to get up she would react incongruously and either jump on him, or even one time she bit him though she had no teeth. We’re still not sure if she was just trying to help somehow, or if this was some kind of instinctual reaction or what.

The spring came late in 2023, but when the weather was nice enough we would still take him for walks, but we would take him in a stroller while we walked the other dogs on leashes, as he still enjoyed the fresh air and the sights.

We gave him a hair clipping in the spring with the help of Heather’s mom, because we couldn’t send him to the groomer anymore with all his conditions and he had gotten quite shaggy. It took three of us to do it, because he was getting pretty cranky about it at that time and snapped at the clippers a lot.

As May arrived, he was barely anything but skin and bones–when we had to give him a bath after a digestive issue, and all the fur clung to his skin, his ribs and other bones protruded very prominently.

He started to have trouble standing and walking for any period of time. We would feed him by hand in a bed, and when we took him outside we would stand him up and he could manage it after a couple tries and then we would carry him back inside. He got very sensitive about his head, which he normally would like to be pet, but if anyone pet him on the head in the last few days he would snarl.

He stopped eating his prescription food entirely and we had talks hourly about what we could do, what we could try, what other kinds of simple non-fatty foods we could try to feed him, and whether we needed to make the difficult decision yet. Finally, we decided, with him not eating anything and struggling to take care of his basic needs, we needed to make the tough call. We decided we would give him a chance to eat some junk food as a last hurrah, so on the last day he got to eat Arby’s roast beef, hamburger, chicken nuggets, and some other things that we normally could not allow him to eat.

The last week or so of his life, he could get very sensitive about being touched in certain contexts and he would snarl to try to get his space. Which, if he needs space, that’s fine, but it did make nights difficult because the dogs sleep in the bed and any slight movement would set him off. But it all worked out much better when we decided to put an open-topped soft-sided kennel by our bed, with a dog bed and a blanket inside it. That way he could have his space without being bumped, and we could know that he was safe and not wandering the house, and nearby so we could help him if he needed it. The last night with us, even though he was having trouble walking and didn’t seem to always know where he was, he was still diligent about informing us when he needed to go out, he reached the side of the kennel and clawed it with his paw so it made a zipzipzip sound and woke me up so I could take him out.

We used a home service, the first time we have done it that way instead of doing it in a veterinary setting.. After work we got him to the park for a last walk in the stroller before the vet came to our home, gave him special snacks. He passed away with the three of us holding his feet and petting him gently (but not on the head). After the first medication seemed to have him conked out, Heather patted him on the head and he still had some fight in him then because he snapped at it. But soon he slipped away peacefully, with his family at his side.

What Came After

Mabel missed him fiercely, looking around the house for him wondering where he was. Her general anxiety seemed to be worse. If she hears Michael yowling somewhere , then she has been freaking out trying to get to wherever he is. Maybe she worried that Mikko’s disappearance is not the last. We watched some old videos of Mikko; in the ones where Mikko barks she recognizes his voice and looks around for him.

Heather always looks for signs after a dog passes that the dog is coming back to visit. When Violet passed, she saw three cardinals in a group (one for each dog we had lost), so she was watching for cardinals again after Mikko passed. She didn’t see more than two cardinals the day after he passed, but she did find Mikko’s zebra leg, crab leg, and monkey paw lined up neatly under the projector screen where we watch TV and swore she hadn’t seen any of those for a while.

DP FICTION #103B: “Requiem” by P.H. Low

edited by David Steffen

Don’t you understand? I only ever wanted to make you proud.

***

This is dawn: fields shading from black to grey, flicker-fading starlight, our voices raised against the wind and the red scarves whipping our faces. Our song levitates us ten feet in the air, above dirt roads packed down by wagon wheels and chariots: Carl Lang’s Canter, an ode to unseen horses and sunrise and longing. When we sing—as long as we sing—our feet do not touch the ground.

The town in which we finally stumble back to earth is a tiny nest of weathered homesteads: cows collared with slow-tolling bells, a rooster’s crow, the smoke of yesterday’s fires a thin scrape against the air. A wooden pole stands in the main square, dark with carvings—poems, its makers would claim, never songs. I have seen dozens like it, windblown as excuses.

We surround the faded house to which Maestro has directed me, shivering against the wind. The sky teeters on the brink of rose and indigo; in the rising light, our robes glow like ghosts.

“For the Great Sound.”

I raise my gloved hands against the cold. Seven pairs of eyes meet mine—an octet, two singers for each voice part. Each of us newly minted lieutenants, eager to prove to the Empire our worth.

“For the Great Sound,” they murmur in turn, and adrenaline arches through my body.

I was born for this. Have trained all eighteen years of my life for this.

I sing our starting notes—a high clear D minor triad, no pitch pipes, not with us—and our voices call down fire.

***

This town. One of the Emperor’s spies heard a violin, its sweet unmistakable lilt escaping through the crack in a window, laughter muffled but not silenced by cold stone walls. The instrument itself is not strictly outlawed—only voices bend the earth, the air—but where there is a tune, there are songs, and where there are songs—

Foolish, these people. It has been a hundred years. They should have known.

***

We learn four songs for fire, one for every two years we spend in the Conservatory.

Ember, to warm.

Spark, to illuminate.

Flare, to signal.

Inferno, to destroy.

We discover, today, that the Inferno blazes red as the brightening sky.

I discover, today, that I can hear the violinist’s screams as she burns, even through her walls.

***

We touch down before the Conservatory wall as blush-streaked clouds pearl to white, our robes still dusted with ash. We could sing them clean, of course, and we do, for performances. But this is different: this is the blood streaked on the sheets of a first wedding night, this is the battle scar lanced across a once-soft hand, this is our only trophy when traitor and house have burned to ground.

“I hate when we hear them.” The second tenor—Cas. He leans into his roommate as we pass beneath the Conservatory’s marble watchtowers; the fog of their exhales curl into a single creature.

“Why?” I ask, and the two of them stiffen in tandem, feet lifting a beat too long. “The town is better off now than it was before.”

“You’re Hanwa,” the roommate tries—eyes lingering too long on my black hair, my olive-toned skin—and shrivels under my glare.

“The Empire honors all who serve it.” I stride back to barracks ahead of them, my red scarf flashing behind me, and hum the first few phrases of Inferno—my part only, and therefore harmless—over and over.

***

I wonder if you blame yourself.

I wonder if you think that first piano a mistake: the chipped ivory greyed with sweat and age, the wooden contraptions you strapped around my feet so that, at age four, I could work the pedals but not walk away from the bench. I wonder if you regretted sending me to the church elder who twisted my ears, or the sawdust-grubbed coins you slipped into his pockets as I pounded my fists on the piano bench and screamed.

I will not blame you. There is no fault to be found in a dark man in a pale empire, who only wanted the best for his daughter.

But what did you expect, stranger in a strange land? What did you think would happen?

When the soldiers came, whose song did you think I would sing?

***

“Bravo, Vitka,” Maestro tells me, one hand on my shoulder. Our steps echo off fluted columns, the wide marble hallway with its blue pools of floored sunlight, and my breath catches again—the Darbaum Conservatory, and I am inside, eye to eye with its commanding officer, addressed by the Imperial name I chose. “Cas tells me the house was but a smudge of ash by the time you were done.”

At least that boy gave credit where credit was due. “Yes, sir.”

We walk shoulder to shoulder through the mahogany double doors, thrown open to fresh winter air, then down the sweeping staircase. Maestro’s epaulets glint red and gold—four stripes like a future.

“There is talk,” he says, “of your company touring this season.”

A second dawn blooms in my chest. “Is there?”

He looks at me sideways. “I’m only telling you what I’ve heard.”

Darbaum has twenty companies of fully trained Kor, nearly two hundred voices. Ours is one of the smaller ones, but we never needed to be many, only the best. I would know—I chose them myself. I incline my head. “We would not be worthy of such an honor.”

At the base of the staircase, we pause. An old man stoops beside the adjoining road, robed in brown. A stranger, not a soldier, whom the guards have somehow allowed through.

When he looks up, his eyes widen, and he calls me by my Hanwa name.

***

No.

That man is not you. That man—bony-shouldered, twig-thin arms, white wisps of hair strewn over balding shine—cannot be you.

“You,” he says, his outstretched finger trembling, and I sing of crushed lungs and fleeing air until he sinks to his knees.

***

I do not kill him.

I do not kill him, because the Empire has not yet decreed it, because it is not my place to decide whether he is deserving of life or death.

I only let him fall, and as a couple second-years drag him away, grey robes fluttering, I watch Maestro’s eyes crinkle into a smile.

The stranger dies later, in the infirmary, fists clutched to his heart.

***

Again, you said, your breath heavy on the back of my neck.

Again.

Again.

There were never any blisters on my fingers—only an ache in my wrists and elbows, fear charring ash on the back of my tongue. I always got it right ten repetitions too late: ten lashes, two more hours stiffening on the cold bench, wincing every time I didn’t reach high enough.

Again, you said, and I watched a tear slip silver between the keys, burning a new vein like weakness. And I think, now, that you had no song but this: the shout and the lash, your arm weighted with all the lives you never lived; your insistence, in this country where you were suddenly nothing, that I live them all instead.

***

Crimson curtains rise on a mahogany-paneled amphitheater, a sea of silent faces. The Empire does not like to loose its hold over political prisoners, even after the labor camps; our people are too weak to handle the truth of governing, and rebellions may spark at a few overwrought stories.

And so: this room, velvet-swathed and trimmed with gilt, the prisoners’ wrists bound to their chairs and lined up like an offering. Pink trails leaking out of their mouths, from tongues excised by sixth-years in grey.

I raise my arms, hum an A and then D-sharp: the devil’s interval.

Song of Dissolution is dangerous even in pieces—we have only ever rehearsed in twos or threes, lest the world begin to twist—but in its fullness, every part will slip between three others at a time, echoing, amplifying, modulating. Accidentals will fall like stones in a stream—ripple through the main thread until the entire melody shifts, pulsing and perfect, and dissolves every living thing within its parameters to sand.

No one ever leaves this song alive—sometimes, if they’re not careful, even its singers.

Cas’s gaze meets mine. Behind him, another five hundred glares, heavy with apprehension. My palms tingle; my throat pulls taut. Ghost tongues lick the shells of my ears.

Behind me, I hear my Hanwa name.

The amphitheater goes liquid and slow, my hands frozen in the sign of universal surrender. Beyond the stage, half a thousand souls suck in the last oxygen they will ever breathe, blood sliding acrid down their throats.

Focus. One slipped note and the song’s power will ricochet. We will have to start over, if we have not already crumbled to powder—begin again and again until the fabric of the world bows, burns.

I hold the F-sharp behind my tongue. My pulse roars.

I am Kor, I tell myself. I am unbreakable.

My hands rise of their own accord, the old dance beaten into their bones, and on the count of four they fall like blades.

***

You arranged that first and only gathering—gathering, not a performance, because performances were events attended only by the Emperor and his entourage and cause for execution for anyone else. This gathering only a wind-beaten barn on a hillside, steeped in sunlight and old hay; the blacksmith’s sons grunting the piano up the hill as I stood quietly under a blossoming redbud. Only the slow plink of other children’s attempts, their mothers’ dry coughs and light clapping after.

And then. Then. The creak of the old bench, the linen rustle of my new white frock, and my hands danced across the keys as if they had been born knowing, and this was my language: not the stilted sounds I forced out in the schoolhouse, swamped by boys’ laughter and tainted with every word you spoke to me; not my head ducked in silence as the town ladies pursed their painted lips.

This, dark wings curled inside my ribcage. This, singing out of my hands.

No one would quite meet my eyes, after.

You must be twice as good, you said, and I was. I was.

***

Our octet sings of autumn: leaves red as proclamations, sun sunk cold beneath turning ground, high hills sharp with the melancholy of coming snow. It is a melody to tug at your heart and your bones; to take you apart, particle by particle, until all that is left of you is dust.

The prisoners listen, impassive at first. Then Ana slides into the arc of a soprano solo, the rest of us fading on a minor triad, and the darkness loosens like a sigh.

My hands, conducting, go still. From the seats, sand drifts upward, snow-soft, glittering under the lights. Hands disintegrate to nubs, pull out of manacles—except by the time the first man thinks to flee, he has no feet to stand on, then no calves, no knees.

Their eyes are the last to go: pinpricks of light, inscrutable as stars. Some of them, perhaps, the same brown as mine.

When we finish, quiet fills the amphitheater like a sunlit afternoon. Sweat gleams on our foreheads; my throat is a dry scrubland. I meet my singers’ eyes one at a time. We survived. We survived.

Then Cas, the idiot, chuckles—and we fall to our knees, howling with a laughter that should not be.

***

Maestro meets me outside the green room. His hair is dusted white—the third-years’ clean-up Whirlwind not terribly precise yet—but his uniform is starched ceremony-sharp.

“The Council would like to hear you in Kelsburg,” he says, both hands clasping mine, and a strange vertigo twists inside me, as if I have left my body. “They’ve commissioned a new octet from Carl Lang. Mountains and Night Sky. Absolutely sublime.”

The old man’s face ghosts the edge of my vision, his eyes flashing a warning. No.

But he has no power over me. Not anymore.

“Perfect,” I say, and smile so hard it hurts.

***

The morning after the gathering, the soldiers came to our town.

Flash of white at my bedroom window, song trailing the air like the first breath of summer, and I slammed out the door, my heart a bird thumping between my ribs.

“Take me with you,” I shouted, and my voice slapped the walls of other houses, cracked through my neighbors’ open windows. The blacksmith’s curtains flicked. I didn’t care. “I’m ten, I play the piano, my father wants me to go to university for it but I’d rather learn to sing—”

The Kor stopped in midair.

Two towering pillars of white, golden hair and eyes of lightest ice. Angels, I couldn’t help but think, come to answer the prayer sung by my hands.

“How old did you say you were?” the one to my right asked, and even their voice was a melody.

I lifted my chin. “Ten.”

“Then we will have you tested for the Conservatory.”

They did not ask my name. One of them nodded over my shoulder—to you, stooped in the shadows of the house, the lines of your face deepened with many hours beneath the sun. You, who had seen me run; who were already stooping under the weight of having raised a traitor.

You touched your interlaced fingers to your forehead in the old manner—I had seen you, some nights, thus salute the shrine in the corner of our bedroom—and bowed.

“Do as you wish,” you said softly, your mouth moving as if you knew some poem, some song, that would not gutter out like a candle in the sweep of the Empire’s storm. You did not look me in the eye. “Be good, child.”

You did not say my name, either.

“I will,” I said solemnly, my feet already turned toward my saving angels, and I meant it, and it was that easy.

***

Curtains rise on arches of stone. Chandeliers slant the walls amber, paint the air honey-thick. This is the Kelsburg Cathedral: a marvel of marble and glass, a prism of glitter when the earth turns toward dawn. Premiere stage for the Great Sound, and for us.

Our audience is eager this time—all powdered wigs and lush velvet cloaks, song-paled faces and bosoms crooned to voluptuousness.

“Sing!” they cry as we circle onstage, our white robes glowing from recent serenade. “Sing!” As if our voices could not kill them in a minute. As if they are not playing with fire.

But we can sing beauty, too, and Mountains and Night Sky carries us to the top of the Empire’s highest peak, the Milky Way flung high into the dark. Out beyond the velvet folds of sound, someone begins to weep.

Come back, you say, and then you are standing beside me on the peak, hand outstretched, and it’s really you this time: dark-haired, broad-shouldered, your mouth hardened the way it did when my fingers slipped yet again on the keys. This is not what I wanted for you.

The song wraps me in gossamer, a silken swath of stars. I keep conducting; my voice skims along roads I have paved in midnight rehearsals and traveled in dreaming. If I stop now, the illusion will wither, cast us as a company of fools. And there is Darbaum to consider: we will not be the first of its graduates to have slipped a note, but Maestro will know, and everyone listening. The school will lose face.

Not now, I think, but you shake your head.

You don’t know what they will ask of you next.

My throat moves in reply. Spit shoots down the wrong path, and shock lances my fists as I choke, try to swallow, breathe, breathe—

Instead, I cough, and the stars break.

***

“Vitka,” Maestro says, and his eyes are so kind. Cas stands silent and knowing behind me; a crimson bandage wraps Ana’s ear where the thwarted song lashed out mid-phrase. “Are you all right?”

Sleet spatters our foreheads. We are huddled outside the cathedral, cold seeping through the cracks in our boots, waiting for a carriage. No songs of unseen horses now—the rest of the company is too afraid to try.

The people dashing past us to ice-slick carriages pay us no mind, as if we have become one with the sopping hedges.

I raise my chin. My throat is dry, now. My knuckles warm with the echo of fingers wrapped around mine.

You used to hold my hand, when we walked into town. As if you could keep me safe.

“Yes, sir,” I say.

Maestro’s gaze flicks to my scarf, and it is my turn to be afraid. “Good.”

***

The next week, Maestro tells me of a whole town, singing. The Empire’s command: Inferno in the broadest parameters we’ve ever cast, a mile-wide radius of destruction.

No, you say, as I grin.

Yes.

***

We sing, we break.

Grandhalls crumble; horse-drawn carriages stagger and burn. A treasonous composer collapses in his ivory tower; seditious dukes gasp their last breaths in Oslar, drowned in oceans of sound and fury. Nobles stop to greet us in the Conservatory halls; Maestro begins to smile once more.

With every song, I tongue the fear at the back of my throat and vow: never again.

But even so. Even so. Your face darts through the fringes of my dreams. Your gravity bends me in an arc around your will. Your voice plunges into the soft place beneath my sternum; slashes down, spilling warmth.

And I feel myself crumble, hourglass-slow, into the shape you always wanted me to be.

So I sing louder. I break faster and for an hour, a day, I drown you out.

***

Our last stop is the Emperor’s palace, Mountains and Night Sky ghosting our inner ears alongside a new commission from the Emperor himself. This stage is its own world—colored glass threads the high beams, wrist-thin stone columns shoot up to a high crimped ceiling; as we arrange ourselves for sound check, sing a few experimental phrases, I think about the time you rode the carriage with me to Hettgart University, folded your hands as I craned my head up at centuries-old frescoes. The Emperor’s commission today is just that: Glory. An alto-tenor duo like a herald-march of trumpets, bass lines austere and forbidding as mountains touched with winterlight. Broken midway, its parameters incomplete, the song will whiplash as utter void.

B, D-sharp, F-sharp. My absolute pitch does not fail me. My hands do not shake as they rise. The eight of us breathe in together and soar from phrase to phrase, harmonies bloomed spring-bright and sparkling with dew.

Halfway through—a golden swell beneath my ribcage, clean scent of ocean, the Emperor’s distant inhale like a catching sob—your voice blows warm in my ear.

I love you.

You know that, right?

My throat closes.

In the silence, I watch my hands fall.

***

I love you.

I don’t know if you did. If you do. I don’t know if this weight you thought was love simply failed to translate, or how much of your strength was desperation, or whether it was a thing you used to know, the way one learns a poem by heart and then loses it to the slow grind of time. I don’t know if I can forgive you for once holding my hand, or myself for needing you to.

Only this: that I was never your promise to keep. That my future was never yours to bequeath me. That you wanted, and I ran, and maybe our need outpaced both of us—yours to sing through me, mine to be more than your song.

But I was always going to be your daughter. I could never have run away.

***

This time, when the song recoils, it shoots straight for my heart. As if it knows.


© 2023 by P.H. Low

3308 words

P. H. Low is a Rhysling-nominated Malaysian American writer and poet with work published or forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Fantasy Magazine, and Death in the Mouth: Original Horror By People of Color, among others. P. H. attended Viable Paradise in 2019 and participated in Pitch Wars in 2021, and can be found online at ph-low.com and on Twitter and Instagram @_lowpH.


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DP FICTION #103A: “Every Me Is Someone Else” by Andy Dibble

edited by David Steffen

I’m seeing me in hospice. My mother. That me.

No. She. I have to remember. She’s in hospice, and I’m her son. I’m a son going to see his dying mother. I can do this. It’s not so hard to pretend. There are others. They aren’t me. Every me is someone else.

Although pronouns always seem like figures of speech. Except I. I always fits, and me.

I can fake it. I can pretend. But my mother—she’s a telepath too. I can shut her out, but what son does that? I can do this. What kind of son doesn’t go see his dying mother?

Room 301. It must be in the other wing. Past the kitchen where there’s a stainless-steel vat of some awful toffee pudding. It’s disgusting, and I’m not even sure which of my mouths is eating it. The yellowing wallpaper in the hallway has a nautical theme—reefs and waves and kids building sandcastles. They aren’t me. There’s no mind in paper, no me. If only every me were paper.

What kind of son wishes his mother were paper?

I’m a medical assistant coming down the hall in polka dot scrubs. I’m walking on the other side, glancing at me. 

No, she. But a different she than my mother. It’s hard to keep track. Each is like an organ, involuntary functions only. My therapist says thinking like that is egotistical, but how am I supposed to care about others, when others is just something I tell myself?

It just seems so irresponsible, to assume other minds inside other bodies, to extrapolate from my own case. How weak is that? It’s a sample size of one. I had to take statistics, even though I’m a grad student in humanities. Other minds seem so made up.

I remember my name is Laeticia, and I have to pass meds to six residents in the next five minutes. My other name? Her name, even though she doesn’t have a nametag on, and she’s been working a double shift because a co-worker called in sick, that I have been, and I try to smile for me but don’t mean it, and I don’t mean it. I am Laeticia.

Laeticia is someone else. I’m Josh. I’m Joshua.

It’s helpful to frame people as bodies, even though my therapist says that deprives them of dignity. Bodies are distinct. They don’t overlap. Perspectives get confused. Bodies don’t get confused, even when I’m not sure if I’m remembering or mind reading.

My mom is a body in room 103. The wallpaper above the door is an octopus, all orange arms and suckers. Must be a coincidence, or a bad joke. Octopuses are bad news for telepaths, and not just because I’m allergic to seafood. They’re crowded, like me. 

Before I turn into the room, I see my mom from her own eyes: wasted, blue veins, yellowish skin, a bed sore beneath my left thigh. The fan directly above me circulating air. I haven’t bathed and smell like it. Time has set in.

I smell like death.

I recoil, violently away. My mind, our mind, me. Her mind is there, me touching me, trying to hold on, saying, Why aren’t you open to me? I’m your mother. Privacy is for deadheads. No, don’t speak. Why do I have to ask? Why aren’t you open to me? What’s wrong? What’s wrong?

I open myself to her, a sea parting. I turn into her room, and see her, her seeing her, seeing me. Me seeing me.

It’s me dying. There’s no her, not her dying. How could another die?

There’s disengagement. My mother in bed isn’t responsive. She hasn’t been since my stroke. Her stroke. A mind is deep, withdrawn and scuttling on the bottom of a shivering sea, crying for me to see, to see and acknowledge her in her separateness. Not separate as bodies are separate. There aren’t thoughts for it. There’s me.

There’d been such expectation. I cannot speak, but we can speak, mind-to-mind. That should be enough. It should be.

But I am just me to me, crowded on every side. I’m not afraid for her, her dying. I’m afraid for me. Hiding would’ve been kinder.

What kind of son doesn’t believe his mom is someone else?

***

Bao

Before my first session with Joshua, I replace the Georgia O’Keefe prints of desert flowers on the wall behind my desk with people living life: a potluck in early autumn, an older couple embracing, a toddler elbows-deep in birthday cake. I want to get off on the right foot. Joshua’s prior therapist hadn’t worked out for him.

I offer my hand as Joshua comes in. He taps my mind with his mind, and waits for me to return the telepathic greeting. I shake my head.

“I thought we—err, you—were a telepath.” He says you like the word is a conspiracy he isn’t sure he can share. “There was a form at the desk.”

“I’m a weak telepath who was a much stronger telepath.” I can still sense strong emotion, the kind that’s normally plain. But it’s enough for the state. I’m on the Telepath Therapist Registry and have to get “consent for telepathy” forms signed by my patients before I can meet with them.

Joshua doesn’t pry. That’s good. Strong telepaths often become dependent upon their talent and never develop social intelligence. Most likely, he’s Type 2—his talent broke out in adulthood. Although it’s uncommon for Type 2’s to struggle with boxing, distinguishing mind from mind. 

“It’s nice to meet you, Joshua. I’m Dr. Luo, although feel free to call me Bao.” He shakes my hand. “Before we begin, I need you to promise me you won’t try to read my mind.” I think I can keep him out, but there shouldn’t be confrontation between us.

“But telepaths are open with us, with one another. Privacy is for deadheads, non-telepaths, I mean.”

“No, it’s not like that,” I say. “You could learn sensitive information about my other patients, and it’s important we trust each other, that we operate on a level playing field.”

Joshua frowns again. I think he expected to communicate mind to mind, that we could work his issues out purely in thought.

“I’m not sure I can do that,” he says.

Is he really so strong that his mind can just wander into mine? “Saddie, come here, girl.” My golden retriever pads over from her plush doggie bed and sits next to me. “If your thoughts wander, just focus on Saddie. She’d love for you to get to know her.”

“Alright, how do we begin?” Joshua asks as he holds his hand out for Saddie to sniff.

“I understand you’re a graduate student in Buddhist studies. The referral I have says that you TA’ed a course and gave all your students the same grade. Do you want to talk about that?” The referral also says that he only responds when addressed in the first person, but he’s past that.

“I was embarrassed, I guess.”

“Why embarrassed?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Joshua says. He’s frustrated enough for me to get a whiff. “Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure, what do you want to talk about?”

Frustration again. I gather he wants to be led more than I’ve been leading him. “Can we just start again,” he says.

“That’s fine. Next week. We don’t need to discuss everything at once.”

On his way out, he bends to pet Saddie on the neck, where she most likes to be pet. “I’m a good dog?”

***

Joshua

Bao offers me the gliding chair when I come in. Saddie perks up on her mat in the corner with the eucalyptus plant. “Come here, girl,” Bao says. I like dogs. My mom likes dogs too, which makes sense. But occasionally there are cat people. Occasionally, I’m a cat person too. 

“About grading my students,” I say. “You asked about that?” You is the hardest pronoun. It’s archaic, like thou, but everyone thinks it’s fine. “The thing is, we shouldn’t pretend, especially when it comes to morality. If a choice only impacts me, this-me, sure I can just go through the motions, but when I’m grading I’m supposed to be honest. I shouldn’t just make up distinctions I don’t believe in.”

“But don’t you think morality requires an understanding that there are other people?”

“Maybe, I just know it shouldn’t be based on lies.”

Bao says, “When I was a telepath—a stronger telepath—other minds were as plain as day to me, like colors in a rainbow. But telepaths don’t all see the mind the same way. Telepathy didn’t solve philosophy of mind, it just made it more of a social science, more based on interpretation and case studies than on neurology. So I think it’s fine to act from uncertainty, to act even supposing you’re wrong.”

“That just seems, disingenuous, I guess.”

“I can respect that. While we’re being genuine, I’d like to know your reason for coming to see me because I don’t think it has to do with your graduate student funding.”

I figure it’s time to trust Bao. He’s only me after all. “My mother is dying, and I went to go see her. But I knew that I was only afraid for myself. She knew, I mean. I knew that she knew. I—I mean she—was there so thin in that bed, like a bird, and I could only think about me dying.”

“So you want to see her again?”

“I should. I’m her son. But if I go, I’ll just disappoint her again.” 

“Your mother’s also a telepath?”

I nod. “She’s non-responsive in other ways, but she can still communicate.”

“Have you considered only opening a part of yourself? I think she would appreciate you trying, an honest effort goes a long way.”

“Not for my mom. She’s very principled, doesn’t appreciate half-measures. She was really vocal in the telepath civil rights movement. We didn’t have much of a relationship when I was young. She was busy, and I hadn’t broken out, and she wasn’t sure how to connect with a deadhead.”

“I see. Are you willing to tell me how much time the doctors have estimated she has?”

I shrug. “Months, maybe less.”

“Hmm, what animal minds have you read?”

This again. “My last therapist had me try crows, chimps, even dolphins. Each was different, but still just me, like backstage on National Geographic.”

“Have you read an octopus?” says Bao.

“No, octopuses are dangerous for telepaths, aren’t they?”

“Oh yes, an octopus is why I’m not the telepath I was. But I think it’s our best shot, if you’re willing to take the risk. Are you?”

“I guess,” I say. “Telepathy hasn’t done me much good.”

“Getting burnt out, like I did, isn’t common. I wouldn’t suggest this if it was, but I want you to think seriously about what not being a telepath would mean to you. If connecting with your mother is what’s important to you, not being a telepath could be a setback.”

“I don’t think I’m going to just outgrow how confused I am. There was so much frustration, disgust even, with me. I couldn’t even acknowledge her without getting tangled up in myself. I couldn’t move beyond the immediacy of my own death, if that makes sense. Is there another option, something that might work fast?”

I already know there isn’t.

“No,” says Bao. “Everything else will be a process.”

“What makes you think an octopus won’t be just like all the animals?”

“The otherness of an octopus’s mind isn’t something you can interpret away. You’re confronted by it.”

***

Bao

I call Samuel, a friend from my roaring twenties, when telepathic skill wasn’t a protected category in anti-discrimination law, and work for telepaths was often underground. Samuel owns an aquarium. Or rather a glass-concrete home he converted from an aquarium, his way of getting around laws against owning exotic pets. 

“How’re you, Mindfuck?” he says. I hate that name, but once upon a very high time, I picked it.

“Can I borrow Harriet?”

“Whatever for? I thought you were done with the Games.” He means Mind Games, high-stakes competitions where telepaths try to tease out what the other guy is up to.

“It’s for a patient.”

“Didn’t think shrinks did lobotomies.”

“You know it’s not like that.” Samuel had bet on me in the Games, on Mindfuck. I’d made him a lot of money, until the end when the target was an octopus. Its mosh pit mind was the last mind I read in detail, but it’s not like it fried my brain.

“Don’t think anyone knows the real downside. That’s why I keep Harriet around. Telepaths keep their distance.”

“Listen, he’s on a timeline, and there’s nothing else fast that hasn’t been tried.”

“Fine, although I need proof that your malpractice insurance will cover this if it goes sideways.”

“Thank you,” I say, relieved. I had no Plan B. Aquariums don’t keep octopuses anymore because of the danger. A surprising number of people have telepathic ability they aren’t even aware of and chalk it up to intuition.

***

Joshua

Bao said that I wouldn’t be able to keep the octopus out, that telepathy is like breathing for them. It’s how they organize themselves. 

He hadn’t been exaggerating. Never been good at keeping thoughts in one body. No resistance, no greeting. Privacy is for deadheads. Drowning. I’m drowning. I’m?

There isn’t glass between us. There isn’t water. I’m breathing water. I have two thousand fingers. How many brains? Each sucker moves separately. Like a finger.

Arms in my brains. My arms have brains? Our arms have flourishing brains. They’re changing color, for camouflage. And we’ve never liked crab so much, have we? But we thought we were allergic to seafood. Ha, I’m an octopus allergic to seafood.

That isn’t right. Reading is supposed to be all surfaces and reflections. That’s what made me continue in Buddhist studies in the first place. The raw perception that mind is not a substratum. There’s nothing of a soul, none that we’ve seen. It’s just momentary thoughts, arising and collapsing into nothingness. Memory isn’t a vault, even an empty vault. It’s just what’s being remembered.

Reaching out, pulling down. Embracing myself again, wanting to know more. Arm in arm in arm. There’s no surface tension, we’re deep, like angler fish deep. Deep memory, intentions, the wavering behind, all the roiling behind consciousness. We’re probing: A threat? Have crab? Fish? Help us escape?

The inner voice is not one voice. We know that now. I had selected one voice and superimposed it on others: I’m a self. We should be too. But telepathy is how we coordinate, arms and head and beak and mouth. We are a swarm, passing messages, whispering.

I am an I—this helped us along, helped us pretend. I am an I made all the fissures in self incongruous. Remembering lives that don’t quite square with us, reading them, contrasted with the persistent sense that I am a unity, an I. We could hypothesize an I that is you.

But the struggle is gone now. What is you to us? We are not alien. The otherness is already inside. These words are not just a mystery, gawked at from the outside. They’re madness driven upon us, like a screw. That madness holds us together, keeps us sane. We are Laeticia. We are Bao. We remember. We are everyone—all voices synchronized.

What is another to us?

What is our mother to us?

We wish to know the answer. Ignorance is threatening. Sharks and eels eat the ignorant. But I—that abstraction, that monolith, that tight unity we no longer have use for—does not want to give an answer. It calls itself Joshua. It wants to hide that part of itself. It is selfish, covetous.

But we are not shark. We are not eel. We believe this. There is no reason, just as there is no reason for our arms being us—but still we go about believing it. Once when we were young, a shark tore our arm off and swam far away. The arm was still us, for a while—and then it grew back—but the shark never was. This we believe.

We believe we are not Joshua.

She turns, swims away. Sprays ink in the water.

I am Joshua. Not Laeticia. Not Bao. I am not my mother. They’re away, far away, separate.

I recall that, in some Buddhist traditions—some Mahayana traditions with all the bhumi levels and bodhisattvas with swords, the kind that always seemed like sophistry to me—the idea is that ultimately there are no distinctions. Distinctions only arise in the mind, and ultimately, even the distinction between minds and not-mind is a convention. Even mind breaks down under analysis. Even analysis breaks down.

Someone who realizes this, truly realizes this and is enlightened, doesn’t just dissolve into the ether, they don’t shed their connections with other minds. They return to everyday life and adopt its conventions. They put on everyday experience, like a freshly laundered suit. Not because everyday experience is real and other experience is not. Because they feel overwhelming compassion to help others realize the truth they experienced. So to teach, they reassume the same conventions that everyone believes.

Strangely enough, I think that’s what the octopus does when it approaches a mind and disengages to go about other business. There’s no reason for me to be different from her any more than there’s reason for her arms to all be the same mind. Each has its own brain. Each has autonomy. But because of evolution or some knack, she just assumes these are her, others are not. She has no principled reason. It’s not the way of things. It’s her way.

I think it can be my way too.

***

Bao

Joshua and I convince his mother’s hospice that we need to check her out, even though she’s actively dying and non-responsive, at least to anyone that isn’t a telepath. It doesn’t help that the only van Joshua could rent on his grad student stipend is a real rust bucket.

They recommend against it, strenuously. But they don’t have any telepaths on staff, so eventually they just go along with the idea that Joshua knows what is best for his mother. Though he has to wave his power of attorney in front of their director of nursing before she backs off. She insists that none of her staff will drive the van, which is precisely the point. The point is for Joshua and his mother to be alone. Undisturbed. Just two people.

I drive the van. I’m very good at not disturbing telepaths, at keeping them out. Playing Mind Games as long as I had will do that to you. I drive out of town, to green space between soybean fields after the suburbs taper off. There must be wildlife about, deer and field mice and gophers and worms, but this is the best we can do. Joshua never suggests it is less than enough.

Joshua and his mother are two people together, saying goodbye, mind to mind as telepaths do.


© 2023 by Andrew Dibble

3189 words

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my interest in the problem of other minds: How can we know minds other than our own exist? (Answers range from “We can’t” to “We can, and other minds can know our mind better than we do!”). The problem is especially interesting when considering minds of the radically other, like octopuses. The Buddhist studies angle came out of discussions I had with a professor in graduate school about whether certain Buddhist philosophies, like the Middle Way of Nagarjuna, are coherent or are meant to be.

Andy Dibble writes from Madison, Wisconsin, and works as a healthcare IT consultant. He has supported the electronic medical record of large healthcare systems in six countries. He holds a master’s of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School as well as degrees in computer science, philosophy, religious studies, and Asian studies. His fiction also appears in Writers of the FutureMysterion, Sci Phi Journal, and others. He is Articles Editor for Speculative North and edited Strange Religion: Speculative Fiction of Spirituality, Belief, & Practice. You can find him at andydibble.com.


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DP FICTION #102B: “Shalom Aleichem” by Y.M. Resnik

edited by Ziv Wities

Every Friday night the angels came, and every Friday night they freaked me the fuck out. Which is probably why I didn’t get a million-eyed, one-footed guardian of my own like the rest of my family. This was totally fine with me. I was in no way jealous that my siblings had angels to accompany them to college while I was stuck sitting alone in an empty dorm room. Who needed a creep-tastic companion whose face consisted of a bizarro series of interlocking cogs and wheels forever whirring?

I was definitely not crying as I gripped my kiddush cup and sang Shalom Aleichem. The song, sung on faith in most Jewish households, welcomes home the invisible angels that accompany those returning from synagogue every Friday night. Except thanks to some particular genetic gift—or curse, I’m still not sure—my family could see them. Making it impossible for me to pretend that a whole host of angels was keeping me company.

You should go to the Hillel and hang out with actual people. That girl Mara who invited you after psych class seemed pretty nice.

The wine sloshed over my fingers as I jumped up, frantically searching for the origin of the disembodied comment. By some small miracle I’d been given a single as a freshman. A swift peek under the twin bed and a glance into the sorry excuse of a closet confirmed I was still the sole occupant.

Which meant that in addition to hiding the fact that I saw things others couldn’t, I was now going to have to hide the fact that I was having auditory hallucinations.

Or you could tell people. Maybe they’ll think it’s cool that you see angels. Like that woman on the talk shows.

My head nearly snapped on my neck as I twisted around the room. I definitely did not hallucinate that statement. I didn’t watch talk shows. “Who the fuck are you, and why are you messing with me?”

I began tearing the place apart, searching for a hidden transmitter or some piece of surveillance equipment left here by a previous occupant with a twisted sense of humor. Campus security had a lot of explaining to do.

“I hope you get expelled, you creepy-ass son of a bitch,” I muttered as I pried off the ceiling tiles.

Had I come here with my own guardian angel, they would have taken care of this for me. None of my siblings had to worry about illegal dorm room surveillance.

Wait. Hold up. You can hear me?

“Of course I can hear you, you perv. Now tell me who the fuck you are.” I had zero hopes of getting them to confess, but if I kept them talking I might be able to locate the source of the sound.

Uhm. I’m your guardian angel. Sorry it took me so long to figure out a way to communicate. Didn’t realize humans were set up for telepathy.

My head hit the ceiling and a rain of plaster paint chips littered my mattress. I let go of the ceiling and dropped down to the floor in a crouch like a feral cat.

“Spying is gross, but messing with my religion is crossing a line. I will find out who you are and I will end you.”

There was a scratchy sort of laughter that I still could not pin down to a location.

When you were ten your friends dared you to jump off the tire swing at summer camp. You should have fractured your ankle but you only sprained it. Because I caught you.

I blinked. It was true enough, but hospitals kept records. Computers were easily hacked. And more to the point: angels don’t speak, at least not any angel I ever met, and I’d met my fair share. “You’re going to have to do better than that.”

A sigh followed, pregnant with embarrassment.

You got your first period on a class trip to the Statue of Liberty. You were wearing a pair of white shorts. Luckily you found a pair of cut-offs and a maxi pad in your backpack. You’re welcome.

“Fuck.” I swallowed the kiddush wine in one gulp. The period fiasco was the most embarrassing story of my existence, a memory I did not dwell on often. I hadn’t even thanked my mother, who I had assumed packed the items, because that’s what mothers did. Wasn’t it?

Believe me now?

I nodded mutely and seized the wine, taking a swig straight from the bottle. Never before had I wished Manischewitz had a higher alcohol content. “So why can’t I see you?”

There was a cough but nothing else.

“You got a name?”

Still nothing.

This, unfortunately, also corroborated the whole telepathic angel story, because the celestial beings are also secretive bastards. They congregate very nicely amongst themselves from what I can tell, but God forbid they should ever communicate anything to a human straight out. For instance, my cousin Chana spent years wondering why her angel had a bare patch on its wings until her own alopecia showed up and her angel happily showed her that beauty did not have to take a standard form to be any less divine.

I set the bottle down. I did not like to think what my angel being invisible said about me.

“You got social anxiety too, or are you just trying to help me with mine?”

How about we hit up that Hillel and try talking to Mara? I think she likes you.

My reasons for wincing at the suggestion were fourfold. One, this non-answer was more than enough confirmation that my fear of social situations had turned my angel invisible. Two, Mara’s angel had been breathtakingly gorgeous. Three, Mara was even prettier than the angel, and I hadn’t managed to stutter out a single word when she invited me to join her at the campus Hillel for Friday night dinner. Four, my angel knew I was queer. A fact I had only recently acknowledged myself.

Well, that didn’t leave me much choice.

I grabbed my coat and fished the flier for the Hillel dinner out of my back pocket. Because there was no way in hell I was sitting here in this depressing-as-fuck dorm room, chatting about my newfound lesbianism with an angel that spoke directly into my head.

“I hope this makes you happy.”

Hell yeah! We’re going out!

***

I hated to admit it, but the Hillel crowd was pretty chill. An assistant Rabbi welcomed me at the door, handed me a prayer book, and then left me to my own devices for services. As soon as I selected a seat in the back of the sanctuary, Mara slid into the space next to me.

Her angel perched behind her, all statuesque six foot three of her. I knew she was a “her” because her molten gold cogs all whirred to the left, but everything else about her was entirely novel. Including her iridescent, rainbow feathers, a waterfall of sparkling colors. The urge to reach out and stroke one of the pastel plumes was so strong I sat on my hands.

Looking at Mara did not improve the situation. Her brown hair was held up in a ponytail, revealing a dusting of freckles across her nose and a pair of heavily lashed hazel eyes. She was freaking adorable and sitting so close I could smell her green apple body wash. Plus, she was whispering about how she thought our psych class should focus more on the ethical issues behind the classic experiments we were studying.

So basically, she was cute, outgoing and had a moral compass. I was so screwed. There was no way I could look at her or her ridiculously toned rainbow angel. Which left me staring numbly at my prayer book, for lack of other options.

Services were coming to an end and I hadn’t managed to say anything more than “Shabbat shalom” to Mara, who was now leading me like a stray puppy towards the rows of dinner tables. Apparently, she was a sophomore and on the Hillel board this year. Maybe she was associating with my lowly freshman self as some sort of outreach.

Or maybe she likes you.

I snorted. Of course, my angel decided to show up at the most inconvenient of times. Where had they been during services? There was so much I didn’t know. I couldn’t even see their cogs to figure out their gender.

“Is there… some kind of name I should call you, or something?”

Mara paused her chatter about Hillel activities to stare at me. Crap. In my confusion over my nameless angel, I’d forgotten to communicate using my brain and not my mouth.

Her freckled nose scrunched. “Just Mara is fine. I don’t have any nicknames. But I bet you do. Eleanor Elizabeth is kind of long.”

I cringed. Eleanor Elizabeth was the legal name my parents put on my birth certificate so that people wouldn’t stumble over the Hebrew name. Mara must have heard it during roll call, and I was too shitty a conversationalist to have thought to introduce myself.

“Eli,” I blurted out. “Short for Elisheva Leah.”

It was the longest string of words I’d put together in her presence, and to my extreme relief, she appeared to find this acceptable.

She handed me a small plastic shot glass full of kiddush wine as the Rabbi led the group of students in the usual Friday night songs.

“We’ll, I’m glad you came, Eli,” she said. “I was nervous you wouldn’t. Like maybe I was being annoying pressing that flier on you.”

I shook my head no so vehemently I almost spilled my glass. The fact that I had already downed half a bottle of Manischewitz in my room did not help matters. Fortunately, I was spared having to say anything by the start of Shalom Aleichem. Mara joined in the singing with gusto, her voice a powerful soprano that soared above all the others.

Holy shit, that girl can sing. Way better than you.

My angel began singing along, which was mildly preposterous given the song was supposed to be sung by the humans welcoming the angels and not vice versa, but I didn’t want to be a downer, so I chose to focus on Mara instead of commenting.

Her voice reached out to the far corners of the room and embraced every person in it, making them feel warm and invited. She should be recruitment chair. I would come back every week just to listen.

“You sing really well.” It was the dorkiest compliment known to humanity, and as a pick up line it left a lot to be desired, but I was proud of myself for speaking. Small victories and all that.

“Thanks,” Mara said, beaming at me. “I can’t resist a good harmony. Your angel has the most fantastic alto.”

What. The. Fuck.

What. The. Fuck.

I’m not sure who thought it first, but my angel and I were clearly in sync. I prepared to deny all knowledge of celestial beings and the angel at my side unleashed a string of curse words so extensive I began to wonder if they were the ghost of some long-dead drunken sailor rather than a holy messenger of God.

Mara was blushing through her freckles, her face so red it resembled the kiddush wine.

“I should not have said that.” She edged away from me. “I promise I am not hallucinating. It’s, like, a family thing. Never mind. Pretend I didn’t say anything.”

Which was exactly what I had been thinking back in my dorm room. I’d always wondered if there were other families that could see the angels. But I’d never thought to wonder if there were families that could hear them.

It was too enticing a possibility to pass up, so I decided to ignore my instincts, and the vehement protestations of my very own angel, screaming in my head that discoursing with Mara on the nature of angels would convince her I was having a mental breakdown. We were making inroads, having an actual conversation, and we’d somehow reached a point where talking about angels seemed the way to not scare her off.

“You can hear them?” I asked. “You would’ve come in handy when I was a kid. Because I can only see them. Except mine is invisible and we have to communicate telepathically.”

The last line was the Manischewitz talking, because while the first bit might have passed muster, nobody wanted to hang out with the chick that casually mentioned brain invasion at Friday night dinner before the challah had been passed around. Fuck.

“Oh my God.” Mara grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the back of the room. “I thought it was just my family. We all hear them. And it got so lonely when I came to college that I started coming to Hillel just to listen to everyone’s angels. Only yours has the most wonderful voice so I couldn’t help but approach you in class. I’m not usually that forward. Can you really not hear it?”

I shook my head no. “I can only see them. And, uhm, yours is really gorgeous. Which is why I’ve been having some trouble talking to you. It’s very distracting.”

So was the fact that Mara herself was very gorgeous, but given that she was staring at me like I had three heads, I decided to omit that part.

“What do you mean, ‘my angel’?”

I blinked at her, then shifted my eyes over to her angel, who was fluttering those glittered wings in my direction flirtatiously, as if acknowledging my compliment.

“You know,” I said. “The giant rainbow-winged girl with spheres within spheres for a face that is standing behind us, currently winking about half of her three hundred eyes at me?”

Mara shook her head. “One, is that what they really look like? And two, I don’t have an angel. I hear everyone else’s, but my entire life, not a single peep for me.”

There ensued a tremendous shuffling of wings and rolling of eyes from the angel. None of which I could interpret. I sat back, trying to figure out my next move. If Mara’s angel didn’t talk to her, how was I supposed to convince her that her angel existed? It was clearly frustrating them both. Not to mention completely messing with my ability to ascertain whether Mara was interested in dating girls. Or, you know, me.

Um. It’s because. Well. Her angel can’t talk. My angel’s fumbling thought hit me with the force of a tsunami, guilting me right out of the daydream in which Mara and I were a couple by the time midterms hit.

You have to help them, Elisheva.

God must have a seriously shitty sense of humor.

I peeked over at Mara, gauging how best to break the news before deciding to just go ahead and rip off the band-aid. “So, uhm, you kind of do have an angel. A really fantastic glitter- and rainbow-covered dream of an angel. Only you can’t hear her because she can’t speak to  humans. She was born without that ability.”

“Shit.” Mara’s eyes tripled in size, like two hazel searchlights, before she blushed red again. “Not shit in a bad way. Shit in a ‘I am so excited, by the way what’s your name, and I do not care if you cannot talk, but please find a way to communicate with me’ kind of way.”

Her ponytail swished as she swung her head around searching for the angel. I risked touching her cheek to steer her in the direction of the extremely sheepish-looking angel who I swear might have been crying out of all her eyes.

Her name is Ora. Maybe we can get them in on this angel-to-human telepathy thing.

I suppose it worked for me and the invisible wonder. But it had taken ages for my angel to make that breakthrough, and I still had no idea how I was managing my half of it. Maybe my angel could teach Ora, but would I need to instruct Mara? Without knowing what I was doing? This sounded like a serious group undertaking, like we’d all need to spend a significant amount of time together. Which suited me just fine, but I didn’t want to force it on Mara, or Ora.

“Her name is Ora.” I said, feeling it was imperative to convey at least this much. “If you’re OK with me being around you a lot, then my angel can try and teach yours how to communicate with you telepathically. If she wants.”

I held up a hand as Mara opened her mouth, face so bright there was no doubt she was about to say yes. Better she should know what she was getting into.

“My angel is invisible because I have severe social anxiety. You don’t need to tell me why your angel can’t talk. I will never ask. I just wanted you to know that.”

Mara laughed, a sound like pure joy manifested. “Because it’s something nobody would know about her right away. Not even the other angels. Otherwise one of them would have told me before now. They just assumed we were getting along perfectly.” She reached under her shirt and slowly pulled out a little metal box.

“Just like you wouldn’t know I have diabetes, type 1,” she said. Her fingers traced the contours of the box before she spoke again. “This is my insulin pump. I’ve had it since I was five, and I’ve shown it to some friends, but with each new person that’s a choice I have to make. You never know what their reaction will be, so it takes a lot of trust. I am overjoyed with my angel and the fact that she trusts me enough to share with me right now. I am also thrilled to have a telepathy mentor with social anxiety and an angel who is apparently double-invisible. What’s your name, by the way?”

There was a sigh in my brain, and apparently Mara heard something too because her face balled up.

“Oh, I see.” She turned to me without preamble. “Your angel doesn’t technically have a name. They would very much like one, but they’ve been too afraid to appear before God for the naming ceremony. Much like you and your social anxiety, only for a different reason. They ask you to promise not to freak out.”

It must be something incredibly unique if they felt the need to go through Mara and not ask me themselves. Still, they were my angel and they put up with my crap on a daily basis. The least I could do was reciprocate. Plus, Ora was nodding at least three of her spheres towards me, the left tilt of their twirling speeding up in her excitement.

“I promise.”

No sooner had the words left my mouth than my angel appeared before me, and if I thought Ora was distinct, then my angel was something spectacular. They had wings buffed to a high gloss in a tiger stripe pattern and hundreds of eyes that weirdly resembled mine, but their cogs were a blur of motion. The spheres tilted right and left, diagonal, backwards, forwards, in a dizzying array of motion the likes of which had never graced any angel that I had ever met. It was always left for the females, right for the males. But mine was everything and nothing all at once.

Oh. Shit.

“You don’t have a name because you were afraid God would misgender you?”

They nodded again, hanging their ever-spinning head to the point where I wanted to rush over and hug them tight.

I hope you aren’t disappointed. Maybe you can give me a name instead.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” This time I did hug them, hoping the rest of the Hillel crowd was too focused on the Rabbi’s speech to notice the girl in the back grabbing onto thin air and bawling her eyes out.

“I am so not disappointed. Being assigned to you because we’re both queer is way better than being assigned to you because I have social anxiety.”

Mara perked up at the mention of me being queer, but I didn’t have time to dwell or freak out about it. I was too busy coming up with a name for my angel.

“I will obviously do a shittier job than God, but how about Simcha?” A name used for both Jewish boys and girls, and it literally translates to ‘joy’. “It makes me really happy knowing you’re there.”

I waited for a response but when none came I began to regret being so hasty. Did I fuck it up? Choose the wrong name?

“Simcha says to tell you they love it so much it is messing with their ability to telepathically communicate.” Mara was beaming over at the two of us. “Also, they are worried they may have outed you to me before you intended, which is causing them to be afraid to talk to you again, because they also share your social anxiety.”

Ora was rolling her eyes so hard I was afraid they’d fall out, turning her spheres in my direction and raising a wing to point at Mara before lifting two feathers. I was not yet fluent in angel charades, but the message came through loud enough.

And now it was my turn to worry I’d invaded someone’s privacy. Mara must have noticed my blush because she smiled at me. “I’m guessing my angel just informed you that I am a safe space and also very, very gay.”

I nodded.

“I am also single.”

“Oh.”

Tell her you were assigned a single dorm.

“What? No. Get your mind out of the gutter.” I turned to Mara. “I am so sorry if you heard that. Simcha and I need to have a chat about appropriate things to say to humans.”

“Perhaps Ora and I should go over that as well,” Mara said, nonplussed. “But maybe we sort it out after dinner? The food’s actually pretty good, and we already missed the fish and the soup. I’d hate to miss the kugel.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Which is how I ended up escorting a smoking hot girl with type 1 diabetes, an angel that can’t speak, and a sometimes-invisible non-binary angel back to Friday night dinner at the campus Hillel.

I was still kind of freaked out. Except in a good way. Because it was becoming infinitely clear that I was no longer alone.


© 2023 by Y.M. Resnick

3769 words

Y.M. Resnik (she/her) is a scientist and writer from the NY area. While she loves creating new worlds and reimagining Jewish folklore, her main goal is simply to brighten your day with a story. Her work has appeared in Cast of Wonders, Worlds of Possibility, and We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction of 2022. When not writing, she can be found collecting tiaras and trying not to kill her houseplants.


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DP FICTION #102A: “On a Smoke-Blackened Wing” by Joanne Rixon

edited by Ziv Wities

WE

The airplane is gray and gleaming, rising off the ground into the fog of early morning like a magic trick, obscured and then revealed, impossible. The engines roar too loudly, like they will tear down the sky. They roar and roar, and then—

The transformation. The wind under the airplane’s wings buckles as the wings buckle, shake, separate into a beating of hundreds of wings. Out of the fog we come. This time, this first time, we are geese: black-brown wings and furious hearts. We fly awkwardly, at odds with the turbulence; we are newborn, but already the flock is forming as our instincts awaken in the air and we orient ourselves not against the ground or the stars but against each other.

***

Avie

I’ve always loved birds. When I was five I asked my dad for a bird feeder so I could see birds out my window when I was sitting at my desk doing remote school, but he just handed me his phone and said, “you know how to look up videos.” I do know, but bird videos aren’t as cool as having my very own bird friends that came up to my window to say hello. And anyway, I already had a tablet when I was five because kindergarten went on remote school after the wildfire that burned down the school building and made us have to drive in the middle of the night to my uncle’s house and sleep on his floor for two whole weeks, so I just used my tablet.

I asked a bunch of times for a bird feeder and my dad said, no, we didn’t have any place to put a bird feeder, and then even when we moved to the good wildfire refugee housing he still said no, the birds didn’t need me to rescue them from the wildfires. But then on my birthday when I turned seven my dad got me a present and it was a bird feeder! It’s a special kind with different colored windows just like our apartment building, so you can put different seeds in it so each bird can eat their favorite food. Blue jays eat peanuts! But other birds, like sparrows, only like small seeds, you can tell because their beaks are so tiny!

My birthday was two days ago and this morning I hung the feeder out on the branch of the magnolia tree with some wire, and my dad helped, and almost right away birds started coming! I saw a blue jay and some tiny ones with black on their heads and a bright yellow one that was a goldfinch! My birthday present from my aunt and uncle was an app for my tablet where I can take a picture of a bird and it tells me its name and all its facts like what color its eggs are. I think they talked to my dad so they knew I was going to have birds! This is definitely my best birthday ever.

***

WE

The next time, we are grackles. Bodies the size of a clenched fist, sleek slick ink-black feathers, pale eyes that gleam like pearls in midnight moonlight. We flock at first in the shape of the plane we used to be, remembering how it felt to be bolts and panels, wires and combustion. Each passenger, now winged, remains in our assigned seats for an instant before our bodies realize the seats, too, are black birds and we are all lifted on the currents of air that have been disturbed by our transformations.

We fly.

***

Avie

My bird app has lots of sections, like one section for different kinds of birds that perch on branches, and a section for owls and hawks, and a section for birds that live on the beach. There’s a lot that don’t live in California where I can ever see them. They live in places where I could never even go, like New York or the Amazon Rainforest or an island in the ocean.

The saddest birds are the ones with a little star beside the place they live in. The star means they used to live there but they don’t live there anymore because they’re completely dead. Maybe humans hunted them and ate them until they were all gone. Or maybe they got all burned up in a wildfire, like my mom in her car, or maybe they flew away to the moon!

That’s a joke, birds don’t live on the moon. I know that because I’m in second grade now and we saw a movie of astronauts and robots on the moon and other places like Mars where there aren’t any birds. During the movie I looked out my window and I saw a pretty bird I never saw before that was soft and gray and gold-pink. It was looking right at me! I tried telling it about the moon but it flew away.

***

WE

The drone that becomes a Mexican sheartail was manufactured in Mexico. The sheartail darts—we flex our wings, our speed like a flash of light off the water.

The American-made drone becomes a red-throated loon. Another becomes an ivory-billed woodpecker. We goshawk, we fish eagle. We pelican.

We shimmer and disperse, we coalesce. We are becoming powerful.

***

Avie

I can’t decide which kind of bird is my favorite. Hummingbirds are really, really pretty. I saw one this morning perching on the tip of the magnolia branch right beside my window! It was small and shiny just like I remember and it had a bright red patch on its throat and it looked right at me with one eye and then the other eye! I think hummingbirds are my favorite.

My bird app says these kind of hummingbirds are star-birds: “Allen’s hummingbirds are extinct in the wild.” I’m getting really good at reading because my tablet came with an app that tells you what words mean and how to say them out loud. I wanted to ask my dad why my bird app says my hummingbirds are extinct, which means all completely dead, when there was one in the magnolia tree, but he had his work headphones on and his boss gets annoyed if he misses answering a customer. So I didn’t have anyone to ask. Maybe my tablet is wrong and the bird in the tree was a different kind of hummingbird. The picture I took was sort of blurry.

***

WE

For many days the planes and drones cower on the ground. We circle the globe on the high currents, gaining flock members in ones and twos, from wind-blown balloons and children’s toys. In our bones we remember the sky full of our wingbeats, our shadows darkening the ground like a storm system from mountain to mountain.

Nectar-eaters and animal-eaters dispute approaches—there we argue, here we converse, there we shriek. Our flock contains contradictions, but we parliament, and eventually we settle under the leaves and soften our voices. Soon, the airplanes take wing and we wait, using the night-hunters’ stillnesses, until the sky is filled with thousands of machines. Now we rise.

***

Avie

The funniest thing ever happened today! I was heating up my breakfast roll in the microwave and outside the window I saw so many birds and they were all walking on the ground. They were all sizes, with long ostrich legs and short duck legs and black and brown and orange and blue… some of them were big fat gray birds with funny faces. Those ones I didn’t even need my bird app to find their names because I already knew they were dodos!

I wanted to tell my dad that there were dodos in the courtyard, but he had his headphones on and was talking in his weird customer voice, so I just waved at his boss through the webcam and I went and got my tablet so I could look up the facts for the birds who were visiting me.

Some of them I couldn’t get good pictures of because there were so many of them. It was birds all over, on the steps up to the apartments across from us, and on top of Ms. Holloway’s car that she has a permit for because Nika uses a wheelchair, and a whole crowd on the grass in the middle and everywhere!

The ones whose names I could find were all star-birds. Every single one! Except they kept moving around a lot so maybe I missed a lot of them that weren’t. Most of them were in the section of the app on birds that can’t fly at all, which I didn’t know there were so many! And then my dad realized I was late for video school and he made me close my bird app and log on.

***

WE

Now we are many. Now we are no longer lonely. Do the ground-dwellers know what we are becoming? They send fighter jets after us that scream through the sky like they are about to die and are so, so frightened of the end of the world.

Instead of an end, we offer them a beginning. The jets become swans, and the pilots also become swans. The bullets from their powerful guns take flight and become cliff swallows and storm petrels and Carolina parakeets.

We whistle and screech and sing a laughing racket like every sound at once. We are all one flock, tumbling through the sky like nothing at all can hurt us.

***

Avie

In school the kids in my class were talking about how the airplanes disappeared and no one knows why or how or if they’ll ever come back. Austen was crying and Deshawn told her she wasn’t allowed to cry because it was his cousins who disappeared off a plane, not hers, and then T’resa said she thought it would be fun to be a bird, and then Austen screamed at her to shut up and that it wasn’t true that anyone turned into a bird because that was impossible. Then our teacher muted us all and said he was turning school off for the day.

My dad was still working and I’m not supposed to interrupt him even if I’m lonely because he has to work hard so some day we can move out of refugee housing and I can have a bedroom. I wanted to ask him whether people could turn into birds and it made me mad that I couldn’t! I know Austen was really mad about it and so was Deshawn even if he didn’t scream at anyone, and I didn’t say so because Austen was crying, but I’m like T’resa. Birds have more friends than just video school friends that get turned off when your teacher is mad that someone yelled! Birds have flocks which means they have friends all the time.

I went outside and waved to all the pretty birds perched on the roof of our apartment building—they had such pretty tails, like black and white arrows and swooping green ribbons. I’m sure they were star-birds, even if I didn’t know their names because I didn’t have my tablet with me. They didn’t wave back but they bobbed their heads and whistled hello, and that made me feel a little better.

I practiced jumping down the stairs for a little while, to see what might happen. I was going to try to climb up the railing and jump off there, to see if that would be high enough to turn into a bird, but Nika’s mom stuck her head out the window and said I couldn’t.

***

WE

By the time the ground-dwellers and their metals stop flying altogether we are hundreds of hundreds of millions. We are an ocean of wings beneath the bright sun. We encircle the world like the water-ocean and our wings outmatch the cold, wet waves.

With the sky closed to them, the ground-dwellers live slower. So many are angry about reaching the limits of their power, but each bullet they fire only increases our numbers.

Those who are not angry are quieter. Some of them come to us, and we beauty them, gently. We invite them to sing.

***

Avie

This morning the pretty gray and gold-pink birds outside my window didn’t fly away even when I put my hand on the glass. I like them. They’re nice.

I told my dad I was going outside to play and he said I could go by myself if I promised to stay in the courtyard because he was busy working and Nika and her mom were outside. Even though Nika’s a lot older than me she still plays with me sometimes, but her mom said not today because they were going to the doctor to check on Nika’s lungs, which got smoke inhalation during the fire that got their house.

Even though I promised my dad I would stay in the courtyard, I went around the corner and down the street and up the hill and climbed up the big rock at the top of the hill where I like to sit sometimes because you can see the tops of the roofs of the buildings where all us wildfire refugees live. I thought about practicing jumping off the rock, but I didn’t.

I felt kind of sad and mad and it was cloudy like a sore throat. Like there was a wildfire burning far away but still close enough to smell the ash from all the dead trees and dead squirrels and dead deer and dead moms that got all burned up in their cars. But then I heard birds singing, the soft sound of the gray-gold-pink birds my app says are passenger pigeons even though that’s impossible because they’re extinct. I looked around and saw birds landing in the bushes, in the trees all around me, in the grass. A pigeon landed on the rock beside my foot and cocked her head at me. Her eyes were black with a pink ring on the edges like she’d been crying, and it made me feel better to know someone else felt the way I do.

There were other kinds of birds in the flock, some small brown seagulls and herons with long legs like the chopsticks in takeout teriyaki, and robins and blue jays and orioles, who aren’t star-birds, and a whole cluster of bright beautiful extinct hummingbirds that swooped and darted and then hovered all in the air above me.

At a signal I couldn’t hear, the flock launched themselves back into the sky. Their wings blew the hair back from my face and I knew they wanted me to fly up into the sky with them. I couldn’t hear the signal to go, but in a way, I could hear it. I could feel it in my body lifting me up. But I didn’t know how to do it.

The pigeon and the hummingbirds were still there and they looked at me and I looked at them and then down at my hands and my arms which were turning iridescent green-black like a hummingbird and then I thought, maybe my mom could be like a star-bird, like a hummingbird, completely dead but then not dead at all, and when I jumped off the rock I spread my wings.


© 2023 by Joanne Rixon

2548 words

Joanne Rixon lives in the shadow of an active volcano with a rescue chihuahua named after a dinosaur. They are a member of STEW and the Dreamcrashers, and are an organizer with the North Seattle Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Meetup. Their poetry has appeared in GlitterShip, their book reviews in the Seattle Times and the Cascadia Subduction Zone Literary Quarterly, and their short speculative fiction in venues including TerraformFireside, and Lady’s Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.


Joanne Rixon’s fiction has previous appeared in Diabolical Plots, with “The Cliff of Hands”. If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #101B: “The Dryad and the Carpenter” by Samara Auman

edited by David Steffen

Mortals slice us dryads open to count the layers of our lives; it is easier than listening to our stories. They slide their fingers over our rings, thinking that our texture, our shifts in coloration would bring them understanding of their own lives. In their minds, we exist to bring poetry to their sighs and serve as metaphors for longevity.

I ignored that wisdom, that tingling fear in my roots, for the first six years that the carpenter and his family lived beneath my boughs. I watched as his daughter sprouted into childhood. I celebrated when his wife was pregnant once again. They spent their days tasting the honeyed air from beneath my gray canopy and sighing their contentment. Through all these years, I whispered my stories to them and believed they loved me.

Even though I told them my tales, they apparently heard nothing but nature’s silence. How do I know? Four seasons ago as I was luxuriating in the mingling pollens of the spring, he built his workshop.

***

Though my roots have sunk into this shallow soil, I stretch back centuries. I once lived, gray-green and shining, beneath a Mediterranean sun. Athena brushed her love onto me, fingertips to my cheek. Her gray gaze met mine—her lips met mine. I wept to be so anointed. She left, of course; leave she must, and my love was bounded and strengthened by that “must.” I, merely somewhat immortal, did what I must and became something other for her sake. My olive once-skin pressed upon olive bark, and together the tree-and-me became merely me.

I rose with the years. I gifted mortals my seeds, my art. They pressed the olives that I bore and wore the oils as a badge of honor. But, for all the olives that they took, many more spread beneath me and bore me wild-running-growing children. Hardy and burled and lovely-to-me, they raced along the wilderness like the wine-god’s lovers.

Though mortals used my flesh, my fruit, the experiences stored within me, I was beloved. Veneration fed me. My gifts were truly gifts—given graciously and not stolen.

***

But in this life, I was forced to reckon with tools: his axe, his chainsaw, and the whine of the sander. In the tang of sawdust, I tasted many powdered lives.

The carpenter clipped my limbs yearly. He carved away my wildness. My olives no longer ripened for me but for him. They burst achingly upon his tongue instead of sinking gracefully to the earth where they could grow.

Nonetheless, I watched wistfully as his daughter ran shrieking across the lawn, tossing her sandals in the air. I felt the warmth of his wife’s hand as she placed it against me, bracing herself as her daughter sowed childhood’s chaos in her garden. But their love did not sear, gasp, or command like Athena’s anointment. With Athena’s love (brief, beautiful), I was. With theirs, I was not. I was only an object at the border of their lives.

To them, the crows and sparrows among my limbs meant nothing. The winds that played among my branches? Nothing. The sun motes pressing like gentle lips against my leafy face? Nothing.

***

In the workshop, the plates, platters, and cutting boards caught the dead reflection of sunlight in their polished wood as they sat in its windows. The shavings of sandpaper against grain blew everywhere—the fragrance of life sloughed off.

I watched what he did with his host of iron tools.

By day he carted our carcasses in his coughing truck. He’d pile us, lay us out to dry. He stole our bones to create skeletons for his beds and tables.

At night, he was more intimate. He spent the purpled light of his dusks stroking grains, twisting wood in the waning light, looking for a gleam of beauty that he could capture and remake as his own.

***

I feared that I would end my life as a bowl.

The carpenter spun a tale for his wife, his voice as soft as moonlight on my boughs. In his story, the beautiful old olive tree, foreign to this soil but so entrenched in their lives, would one day be cut down, severed. He would shape it into mementos for their children so that they’d remember the amber-hued afternoons and the taste of honeyed spring.

She protested. Softly. His voice a counterpoint, their conversation now in well-worn harmony. He told her that he knew my fading silver presaged my falling.

One hand on the roundness of her stomach and one hand in his, she acquiesced, and I whimpered.

***

Though dryads can’t sleep, I dreamt nonetheless. Even Athena’s kisses couldn’t shield me. In this dream, the chainsaw started. The buzz. Its engine screamed—and then choked on the gutter-stutter of its mechanical song. I stopped. Shards of me lay around my stump. His chainsaw shredded me into dust. I felt myself in every puff of it. I became powder.

Clenched in the claws of nightmare, I feared that my only chance at life (pale and echoless) would be in being made paper. I knew how humans kept their stories. They masticated our lives in their machine-jaws. All my days collecting sunbeams, exploring the miraculous depths beneath the tips of my roots—

All would be pulp.

My best hope would be to be mashed into paper for someone else’s story.

What agony can surpass the need to scream, only to find your teeth and tongue clattering out another’s words?

***

But dreams are merely dreams. Though snakes burrowed beneath my roots, I was not some python-wearing prophetess. My dreams did not bind me.

One afternoon as the daughter climbed my branches, I pushed against the strength of my trunk, attempting escape. As a young dryad, I would slip from trunk to trunk, taking on the flexibility of the willow or the melancholy of the laurel as it suited me. I would slip from me to different me, delighted at how my soul could remain even as my shape altered.

But then love set its boundaries; I shifted no more and settled into one me. No more lithe play.

Now I hoped that I could exist outside these old boundaries, this aging love. Even if it meant leaving these roots, these gray leaves behind.

I pushed hard. The resistance was as certain as Athena’s lips sealing me into this wood. The insistence of the daughter’s scrambling feet against my bark was nothing compared to that resistance. I couldn’t separate myself from this tree—for it was me.

***

The crickets sang their sad-songs and the frogs bellowed out their summer poems. The carpenter worried as his wife’s pregnancy continued toward its joyful fruition. I knew that I had time before his thoughts turned to preserving memories; he was still creating them.

But, bound as I was, I couldn’t act. I couldn’t craft wooden horses to storm his home (crafting wooden creatures seemed a bit counterproductive, I must admit). I couldn’t reach out a hand to feed Cerberus his favorite cakes to coax him into devouring the carpenter. Without a mortal body, what action could I take?

Perhaps none.

But. Even though the humans would not hear me, I could still communicate. I dove deep into the thrumming of life around me. I listened and planned, awash in its murmurs.

***

“Daddy, look!”

Out of the house the daughter ran, finger trembling with excitement as she pointed at his workshop.

Steaming mugs in hand, both the carpenter and his wife stepped off their porch. The daughter ran to them, laughing, buoyant.

The workshop was bound, completely encased in spiders’ webs. My friends had woven it into obsolescence.

Everything from the roof to the foundation was covered. Even the windows were obscured. The flat light of the late summer’s morning scattered against it. No mere silver glinting of a spider’s web here. There were blues, oceans and midnight reflections. Greens, the screams of peacocks and chlorophyll spilling light and life. Reds, carnelian flame, and autumn’s leaf. A beautiful cacophony.

Arachne always had a talent for colors. Mortals remember too well the lesson of her pride and read her only as a warning, but in so doing they render her flat. I had seen her so once, hating her for her treatment of Athena, but exiles in a new land can’t hold onto old grudges. Her daughters and I had to dig our roots into this soil together lest we erode alone.

“Daddy, your room is a fairy house!” the daughter said, tugging at his sleeve.

“Maybe so, kiddo.”

“I’m gunna look, okay?”

“Okay, but don’t touch it!”

And off she ran.

I watched as she dashed toward the workshop, investigating every nuance of the web. I had expected more fear and less wonder.

“What do you suppose did this? This is too big a job for any spider,” the wife said.

“Well, I don’t know what else it could be. There must be spiders nesting in some tree. A whole crop of ‘em,” he said, after sipping his coffee.

“Well, it’s certainly pretty. I’ve never seen spider webs with colors like that,” she said. ”Maybe it is a fairy house.” She smiled.

“We can leave it for today. But I’m calling the exterminator tomorrow.”

The webs wrapped around my branches trembled as the spiders fled. I, too, contracted and bent inwards, retreating from their conversation. Fear. Beauty. The brazen metaphor that cocooned his workshop. None of these worked.

I retreated into silence again.

***

I enjoyed waxing philosophical, burrowing my way into numinous contradictions. But this paradox, to act without moving, confounded me.

I employed all my tricks. I shifted my roots, sending the snakes (green, brown, yellow) gamboling through the yard. Giggles from the daughter, consternation from the carpenter. I sang my troubles to the trees nearby, and together we blanketed the workshop, his truck, and his screaming saw with our sap. Mild irritation and turpentine put an end to that rebellion.

I wondered. What if I broke loose one of my limbs? What if I sent it through his workshop? His bedroom? Could I still be me if I saved myself through violence?

In the beginning, I hoped to convince him that the life-bearing sap that runs through me pulses like his blood does through him. But he was no Socrates. There was neither wit nor questioning—only relentless motion forward. The only dialogue possible was between me and his tools. I feared that I would soon have more in common with Diogenes and his barrel.

***

I tasted the coming of autumn; the fragrance of death-and-life-commingling, the fruition of ending, fell upon me like the morning dew. I imagined I could taste my own death, and that death tasted largely the same as it ever did.

But there was hope and life, too. Someday soon the carpenter’s wife would be whisked off to the hospital, sure to return a mother of two. The carpenter couldn’t wreak vengeance on me for my rebellions with a new child in the house.

And the daughter was here.

She played among my roots, creating entire mythologies using my discarded twigs and autumn-spent leaves. As quickly as she created them, she destroyed them, in an explosion of creative energy that fed the next story.

She played among the cedar chips that the carpenter shoveled along my base. These cedar chips clogged my phloem and xylem with other memories, crowding me with experiences that were not of myself. I struggled to remember who and where and when I was.

But she incorporated them into one story, creating something larger than me. I was not that brave.

***

The carpenter became restless. His hands, never idle, grew increasingly frenetic as he scraped the paint loose from old furniture. One day, he turned his eyes to me. He paused as he measured my width and the angles at which my branches tend to fall.

The nightmares increased. They clung more soddenly to me, slowing my sap within my trunk. Only one thought brought me comfort.

My lady Athena.

In my desperation, I called out to her. Though she left me on the hillside thousands of years ago, I hoped that she had reserved some of her power to preserve me. She had left me little sign of affection over the years; never once had an owl perched upon my limbs. No aegis sheltered me. But I knew! I knew how she punished mortals who deigned to harm something she held dear.

My limbs shivered in the moonlight, waiting for the darkness to break.

***

They awakened to the dawn and warm-burred trills. Owls perched on the roof of the home. On the lamp posts. On the trees and the swing sets and the fence posts. Hundreds of them. The variety stupefied: owls meant to screech. To burrow. To haunt. And in my branches, a tiny owl with silvered green jewels for eyes.

The carpenter and his family looked from their windows. I saw amazement on their faces—and it darkened to horror. Several of the owls begin circling the house, soundless on their wings. One of them perched on a windowsill, its legs gargantuan and daunting.

Athena admired these birds for their wisdom, but she loved them for their talons, instruments of war.

“Well, my dear. What would you like from me?” asked the tiny owl, its whisper both a whistle and a coo.

I rustled at the question, torn between trembling in love and quailing in fear.

“I have summoned my paragons here—and at some cost. Would you have them bring an eclipse? Their wings could darken the sky. Or I could transform the mortals into owls. A fitting ending, yes? Some modern mythology.”

The owl on the windowsill pecked (perhaps) playfully at the glass, and the carpenter’s wife recoiled.

“Or I could kill them? I have here a thousand talons. They were meant to rake, and their beaks were meant to tear.”

No, I shuddered.

“Well, then, I ask again—what would you like from me? I have come, as summoned. You haven’t spoken a word to me. I can feel your ‘no,’ but you won’t voice it.” Then, more gently. “So, my dear, tell me. What would you like from me?”

I watched the faces of the family inside, their fear growing. “I don’t know. I was scared, and I don’t want to die.”

“Die?” A laugh chilled to breaking. “You are nigh immortal! I don’t think you need to worry about dying. Pain, yes. Boredom. Oh, yes. But ending? That is not what awaits you.”

“But he’s going to carve me! I might not die, but I don’t think that counts as life. I’ve tried what I could try. I’ve spoken, but they’ve not listened. I’ve tried to frighten them, but they felt no fear. They have no heart for poetry or divine signs. I can’t move. I can’t act.”

The owl pecked me. Hard. I couldn’t be certain if she meant to kiss me or split my forehead open. Whatever the case, my words and worries slowed.

“You beautiful fool. You were meant to be worshipped.”

A thought sprung out.

“Make them worship you.”

***

So I grew.

***

I clenched and unclenched my roots, stretching them as far as they could move. With my root tips, I lovingly caressed the roots of my neighbors. I gathered in their joy, their sunlight, and their memories. I consumed the cedar chips, the mulched lives that the carpenter placed around me to sustain me. With them, I grew stronger. Grander.

Taller.

I sent my roots spiraling into the garden, uprooting the carrots, tomatoes, and flowers. I shattered sidewalks and overturned lawns—perhaps dandelions would grow again. The swingset I caught in my branches, bending its rusting metal into a shape of my desire. It too became a part of me, and I grew wider.

The owls launched themselves from their perches as my body creaked with my growth. It was quick; it was violent; it was a magic that was wholly mine. They ceased their vigil of the house and began circling me instead.

As I subsumed these new selves into me, I could almost taste the sea air.

I bent my trunk around his workshop. I listened to the boards splinter and fed them into my center. I heard the forgotten music of planks laid to rest and the plaintive notes of his sculptures. As I incorporated them into myself, I appreciated his artistry for the first time. But no mortal hand would carve me. I was my own carpenter.

I sculpted myself into my own cathedral.

I sang my own hymns. My resin became my incense. I vowed that every morning I would anoint myself anew, for I was holy. I broke through the boundaries that had kept me silent, and I chanted myself into a new divinity.

***

Those who worshiped in me trailed their fingers against the delicate wood grain of my interior. They marveled at its whorls and whimsies—the very stuff of my life. As they sang their praises (of Athena, of me, of their own burled and twining lives), my love echoed back, a love that had first sounded so many years and miles ago. As they left, they felt the blessing of a hundred owls’ munificence upon their shoulders. Some lucky few received a fluting, fleeting kiss from a small, emerald-eyed owl.

As the waves of pilgrimage ebbed and flowed, I sat, content in my quiet. I watched the girl swing from my branches. She may or may not have been wearing a sandal. I cradled their home within my roots, sinking us all into safety that would not erode. Our roots now entwined, we could feed upon each other’s love and stories for generations to come.

I longed for those new stories.

There is strength in such waiting and in such patient silence.


© 2023 by Samara Auman

2980 words

Author’s Note: We create our sense of ourselves through the stories that we hear as well as those we tell. I have been irrevocably shaped by childhood days flipping through the yellowed pages of books of myth, legend, and folklore that I borrowed from the library. They have changed the rhythms and patterns of me. “The Dryad and the Carpenter” allowed me the space to play with the stuff of myth in a modern context while asking questions that are always fluttering about me. What does it mean to be? To become? What does it mean to have (or be) a body? How can one’s voice and one’s will overcome the shrieking of oppression? How do we define the limits of ourselves (and how do we push past those limits)? “Love” showed up more often in the answers to those questions than I expected, but it is the nature of stories that they reveal more than we consciously know.

Samara Auman is a speculative fiction writer who is always cultivating new intellectual curiosities: currently, that means how we define consciousness and the nature of the uncanny. She lives in the mossy Pacific Northwest with her husband and two appropriately mischievous cats. Her work has previously appeared in Fireside Magazine and Clarkesworld.


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