In July, we opened a special submission window, for Diabolical Thoughts — our upcoming telepathy-themed issue, edited by me, Ziv Wities.
We’re extremely pleased to announce the stories we selected! Here’s the complete lineup:
“Rattenkönig,” by Jenova Edenson, takes us on a road trip with three teens who, without anybody else to lean on, are drawn and bound to each other.
“The Hivemind’s Royal Jelly,” by Josh Pearce, offers a wondrously weird take on what a “hivemind” might be.
“The Desert’s Voice Is Sweet to Hear,” by Carolina Valentine, is full of desperate telepathic duels in the depths of a desert that wants you dead.
“A Girl with a Planet in Her Eye,” by Ruth Joffre, introduces a whole world full of voices, all whispering, we’re here. We exist.
In addition, we’ve also purchased “Shalom Aleichem,” by Y.M. Resnick, a queer Jewish story about the angels who visit every Friday night, which we’ll also be publishing in the magazine in 2023!
We got such a wonderful, exciting variety of stories in the submission window; thank you so much to every single author who sent in a story, and to all our wonderful readers! We cannot wait to share these stories with all of you.
The zone we drop into is softer than the digger likes, so the foodies lead the way from the start. Three, for a heavy crew, each of us with our own technique. Fold murmurs mantras aloud, rhythmic repetition, the crunch of crust, the crunch of crust. The new hire is next, silent, head down, hands clasped. Maybe looking at videos in her visor. I do best with just the drugs. No distractions. I imagine the salty rice-paste crust of tiger bread, capture the smell, the taste, the texture of the craggy shell, imagine biting down to yes, the crunch of crust. I want it. I focus on wanting it. The soft, steaming inside is good, I spare a thought for it, but what’s important is the crust.
The digger rolls forward. The surface under its tracks has become hard and craggy, salty fired rice paste over a crust like a geological formation. It crunches, flexing as it bears the digger’s weight, but it holds. The machine roars onwards and we follow, foodies and mercs and techs, ants at a picnic. Onward, into the Bake.
The digger is mining gear, obviously, but the business end is custom. Rock drills would just churn uselessly—instead, claws scoop and gouge, crimping and pelleting. We advance in a torchlit tunnel of pressed dough, waste material dumped as wadded dumplings behind us. Far back along our trail of flares, away from the foodies, the hard crust floor softens back into the same material as the tunnel walls, spongy, yielding, always edible. One by one, our lights are swallowed up. This is the default terrain, the ur-substance of the Bake. Bread without end.
We assume some things about the original Bakers. We assume they are dead. We assume they were extremely advanced, at least in certain areas. They were ambitious, explorers, visionaries. And when their extradimensional adventures brought back the micro-organisms we now misclassify as some sort of cosmic cousin to yeast, we assume they engaged in scientific study before they tried to make a loaf of bread with them.
Maybe not. We do assume they were human.
The digger breaks through into an air pocket. The foodies pull back and the two mercenaries come forward, point flashlights and guns into the warm cavern. All clear. Techs poke lasers inside, take readings, somehow use the hollow to get a better fix on the signal we’re following. Exactly what that signal might be is none of my business, and I’ve been paid enough to keep my guesses to myself. Four years ago a deep explorer team found a single glove embedded in a dough cyst. I’ve seen pictures. It didn’t look like much. That oven mitt went on to inform the development of a material so impervious to harm it changed the course of two corporate wars. A shame Bakelite was taken..
I reinforce the crust beneath our gathered weight, concentrating on the range of textures and taste, stray crystals of salt, the savoury flare of burn marks. The Bake obliges, forming new layers as I imagine them. As the ground shifts and hardens with my thoughts, there’s still a tiny thrill, the rush of shaping our environment with mere whim. I—we, with the other mission-critical foodies—we are as gods (within a four to six metre radius, and assuming our desires do not extend to a substance not generally defined as a baked good).
And then I smell apples.
It takes me by surprise. Just for a moment, the infinite yeasty funk of the Bake parts and I smell roast apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar. Bubbling jam seeping up around a burnt crumble topping.
The digger tilts slightly. One balloon tyre is suddenly sinking into molten crumble, oozing caramelizing fruit sugars. I jerk in surprise, bite my tongue. The pain helps empty my mind. It’s over in a second as the other foodies blot it out and there’s nothing but plain, structurally sound breadcrust under the digger’s wheels. I’m not sure anyone even noticed. My heart pounds in my throat.
I haven’t had a blip like that since basic training, never so completely without warning. I glare at the others from behind my visor. Fold and the newbie seem occupied. The techs bustle. The mercs watch. Maybe one of them’s a latent foodie. If they’re not taking their appetite suppressants, it could happen…but this is denial, because that wasn’t just pie. That was my pie.
We cut a path around the air bubble and press on. I keep us on tiger bread without incident. When our signal begins to fade, the techs unload a sensor pod. It has to be sunk into the ground, trailing a line as an aerial, so we all wait around as Fold constructs a custard pit. His specialty. A bead of sweat rolls down his chin as he mutters, dropping into the expanding, bubbling yellow hole by his feet. The yellow of yolk, the yellow of yolk. The Bake is obliging, but liquids are a grey area. Technically I think he’s invoking a single, lidless custard pie, four metres tall, half a metre across. God knows how he trained that one. The techs poke the pod under the custard with a pole, paying out cable as it sinks.
I crunch over to the new hire. She’s tall but somehow fragile-looking despite the bulky environment suit, standing apart from the techs and the blank-masked heavies. Like Fold and I, her helmet is open at the nose and mouth, air supply washed across her face, so as not to obstruct her sense of smell. The air in the Bake is more breathable than you’d think.
“I didn’t introduce myself in the shuttle,” I offer. “I’m Clipper.”
“Victoria. Vick.” She scratches distractedly at the corner of her mouth.
“Been doing this long?” I persist, because otherwise my only conversation on the expedition will be Fold. The rest of the crew keep foodies at arm’s length, and Fold’s relentless mysticism is probably why.
“Not very,” Vick allows. “Little trips. This is the biggest.”
A research group, probably. There is something oddly familiar about Vick, and I wonder if we’ve crossed paths before. “How are you finding it?”
“It’s fine,” she says. “No surprises.” She casts around for something to say. “The suits are better than I’m used to. Not too hot.” Another awkward pause. “I get very chapped in the heat.”
The suits are excellent, full-body cooling coils instead of the usual back-and-wrist pads. From the action-movie stealth shuttle that dropped us off, to the cutting-edge apparatus currently settling into custard, this is easily the most expensive expedition I’ve ever seen. I don’t come cheap myself, and neither does Fold. So I take Vick’s inexperience with a pinch of the salt that I’m imagining, glittering on that thick, supportive crust.
“Always good to hear someone from the old country,” I say, suddenly realising what’s so familiar. The drugs make you tune out things that aren’t food. “You don’t meet a lot of Scots in this line of work.”
She looks confused.
“The accent,” I press. “You could be from my town, even. You grew up near Inverness, right?”
“Oh. Yes. I guess so,” she says. “I’ve never thought about it much.” She goes back to picking at her mouth. It is indeed starting to peel.
“Try closing your eyes really tight.” I say. She looks confused again. I point at her mouth.
“The itching, right? It’s always the same in these suits, soon as they seal you up you gotta scratch. So you go to town on the only bit that’s exposed. Classic displacement. Scrunching my eyes up always helps me.”
She lowers her hand and looks at me for a little too long.
We’re moving on before I can prise any more conversation out of that. The new heading is somewhere far below us, and the drill doesn’t work as well at sharp inclines. I transmute the material ahead of it to speed our passage, swapping spongey bread for the lightest, flakiest pastry I can imagine. It shatters beautifully as the digger comes crashing through, great sheets of buttery rough puff obliterated under our boots. Fold stabilises the crust, while Vick anchors safety lines along our trail with caramel. Her creations are quick and perfect, clean little discs of sizzling sugar, ringed with delicate short-crust.
I end up next to Fold as the crew ready the digger for another switchback turn. Vick is further back, busy with some detail work.
“What do you make of the new girl?” I ask quietly.
Fold shrugs, still muttering.
“The crunch of crust. Not much yet. A prodigy, I heard. Rising star. The crunch. Some little science group. A few months back. Of crust. Out of their league, I think. The Bake clearly favours her. The crunch-“
“Mm. She’s good. Surprised I haven’t heard of her before now, really.” Trained foodies aren’t so rare we don’t need to keep tabs on the competition.
“She’s new. But I take great interest. The crunch. In experiences like hers. Of crust. And yours—very similar, you know. The crunch. She was found. A wanderer in the dark.”
The memories heave up, but the drugs keep them at arms’ length. More than a decade old now, early in what would become my career. The Bake was a relatively new discovery, its mechanisms still barely understood, and I was there with a group of explorers, trying out my newfound status. They didn’t even call us foodies then, I was an Extradimensional Operations Special something-something, and when I stepped through a pastry shell and fell thirty metres into darkness, that was what they put on the death certificate. But the Bake is soft, and it’s not like I was going to starve.
“I was thinking,” Fold says. “I understand your reluctance. Crust. To talk about your. Crunch. Your ordeal. But perhaps, perhaps you could encourage her to talk to me-“ He suddenly jerks in surprise. “Clipper!”
I smell almonds, marzipan, sickly sweetness. The tunnel around me is a chessboard, a grid of pink and yellow squares emerging from undifferentiated bread. Marzipan is forming underfoot, apricot jam oozing up.
I have never trained on Battenberg cake. I’ve never even made one. Too sweet. But when I was six I stole one, didn’t like it, and hid it under my pillow for a week, forcing down daily bites out of a vague notion that this was the ethical way to dispose of it. The cake coming out of the wall has flecks of hair and fluff. I know exactly how it tastes, the strange cardboard chew of stale marzipan.
Far down the tunnel, Vick is staring at me, face hidden by her helmet lights.. Her sense of smell must be incredible.
“Crust!” snaps Fold. I startle out of my reverie and focus. Between us the Bake reforms in a moment. A couple of techs are looking. One of the mercenaries strolls over.
“Everything all right here?” she asks. Her suit whirs softly as she inspects us. The heavies wear powered frames over the environment gear. Even with her rifle slung amicably on her back, she could literally pull my head off. She might, if it came to it. A foodie in a meltdown endangers the whole team.
“Yes, yes, of course. Testing the resonant depth, overlap times—” Fold brushes her away with a mouthful of nonsense. She nods and leaves us to it. Artists get the benefit of the doubt.
Fold leans close as the digger gets rolling again.
“Not like you.”
“It’s not,” I agree.
“Is there going to be a problem?”
“No.” But there is. I have no idea what’s happening. I am sharp, I am focused, I am specifically and carefully drugged. I am sure, absolutely certain, that no part of my subconscious was dwelling on stale cake, nor on that apple pie; made for my first crush, shared with her boyfriend. And yet.
I’m waiting for it to happen again as we press on. I double-check every crumb I lay down, roll the imaginary flavour around my mouth. I lean on my aids more than usual, calibrating for every little trick and amuse-bouche. I’m sure Fold notices. I bridge gaps with mooncakes, raise baguette buttresses. No problem. There continues to be no problem right up until the monster.
Even if our own universe- the one with the Earth we’d recognise—was the only player in pan-dimensional exploration, things would still get crowded in the Bake. It’s a lucrative dimension, whether you’re strip-mining bread or salvaging Baker tech, and while the Bake itself may be infinite, the entrances that we’ve found come out pretty close together. Even on an expedition like ours, so far off the beaten track, you can’t be sure who’s been out here before you. And we are not the only universe here.
A tech shouts something. Jaws come through the tunnel ceiling, a short way back from the digger. Black plates slide and click around a mess of scrabbling hooks, scything blades longer than my arm. Blank eyes gleam wetly.
One of the techs is snatched up, scream muffled in his suit. I fall to the ground and scramble under the digger as the heavies let loose. The gunfire is apocalyptic in the tunnel, even through my helmet, rattling thunder through my teeth. Fluids spatter. Fold is standing, advancing even, arms up like a wizard casting a spell. He’s shouting something.
We’re not sure which of the many Earths to visit the Bake is the monster-maker. We call them weevils. Probably they are not meant to eat people. Best guesses and traces of harness have them as engineered burrowers, faster than our mechanical digger—but no-one has ever found one with its team. Perhaps these feral remnants are all that’s left, abandoned by a world with more on its plate than infinite bread.
The weevil bellows. The digger rocks. I curl into a tighter ball and shut my eyes.
The darkness is waiting for me.
After the fall, as Fold puts it, I wandered. I walked in dark places. My suit battery died in two days and I assumed I’d follow shortly. I was always on the brink of choking. Any exertion brought on spiking headaches, neon pain against the black. I walked blindly in the tunnels of ancient explorations, following the soft walls with my fingers.
In the absence of light, it is hard to know when to eat. I discovered early on that the Bake could provide fresh fruit—sliced, as a pastry topping—so that was my water. My nutrition came with my moods, fistfuls of dough clawed from the walls, or great blind feasts, every baked good I could think of, until something switched over and I was weeping and gasping for air over a heap of latticed pies. Sometimes I heard weevils. Once, I think I stumbled into Baker ruins, crumpled and swallowed by expanding bread. I spent a long time there, feeling my way through caverns that might equally have been ovens or blast chillers. I remember a confusion of scale beyond the demands of industry–stacked trays the size of swimming pools, a countertop the height of my chest and three thousand paces long. I have never been able to locate these again, though they should have been unmissable. Probably they shifted, tumbling in the infinite like the lucky coin in a pudding. Of course, I spent a lot of time going crazy.
I devised and judged grand challenges for myself. At first I set rewards for milestones; a perfect semolina cake, for which I would allow my favourite childhood brownie. Later, these became punishments; sleep when you get it right. Drink when you get it right. I tried so hard to produce a flambé for light—cherries jubilee, or pudding—but it never worked no matter what I threatened. I think it failed because I couldn’t imagine the taste of fire.
I learned a lot. Eventually, it no longer felt like learning—it felt like teaching, like a conversation. Here is what I want. Here is what it means to me. I poured out my life in the only language the Bake might understand. The pie for my crush, the stolen cake, my nana’s cornbread. In my least lucid moments I walked with and within a vacantly smiling god, a vast benevolence made cruel only by the scale and indifference of its kindness. It would want me to be happy, if only it knew what I was.
Or something like that. I want to be clear; I was half-dead, completely unhinged. Fold comes out with this stuff sober.
Once I heard another expedition, machine and human noises, high above but too muffled to pin a direction on. I dug with my hands to reach them, but they moved on too fast. I remember wishing, desperately, that one of them would fall like I had. This was the point I had reached- I had forgotten to hope to escape. I just wanted someone to share it with. Just one person, I pleaded, that would be enough. Someone to relate to, to swap notes with. We would talk to the Bake together. Then maybe I could get that flambé.
Seven months after people stopped looking, a survey team for one of the big harvesters found me on the outskirts of their newest claim. I remember the pain of light, and being confused. Where were we going? I had nearly perfected meringues…
The gunfire has stopped. The digger is still. Little by little, I unfold and extricate myself.
Smoke and alien gore wind through the stench of bread. The mercenaries stand unharmed, barking commands and pointing. There seem to be as many of us as we started with, though medics are earning their keep, dressing wounds, strapping an arm. Even the tech who was grabbed is still here somehow. He groans as they cut his suit open, dousing his wounds with trauma foam.
The weevil’s corpse sprawls half into the tunnel, a glossy tangle of limbs and hooks. Yellow ichor has spattered in all directions, bringing a sweet popcorn musk. Fist-sized holes riddle its carapace. What remains of its head is locked in a pillar of pecan brittle, while its largest limbs are fused into caramel, trapped between soda-bread stalactites. Mounds of giant bao buns are slowly subsiding—sandbags, to protect the digger.
The heavy from earlier says something approving to Vick, claps Fold on the shoulder. She turns away when she sees me, I assume in contempt.
“Well. You two were busy.” I say. Vick says nothing, just looks at me, still picking at her face.
“Horrible creatures,” says Fold primly. “Were you injured?”
“No. Just uh, got thrown a bit. Good work on the brittle there, who was that?”
Fold coughs pointedly. I look down. A dense yellow crumb is spreading out around our feet, pockets of cheese leaking to the surface. I know what it is before I even catch the smell; my nana’s cornbread. I barely remember her face, but this I know.
I don’t have much left in me to react with. A wave, a thought, it’s gone. Fold jerks forward.
“Get it together,” he hisses. “Right now.”
“It’s not me!” I snap.
“Bullshit. Has your focus run out? I have refills—“
Vick puts her gloved hand on my arm. It’s so strange that we both stop to stare at her. Her mouth is getting worse.
“Listen,” she says. It’s not clear who she’s speaking to. Fold tilts his helmet at me.
“It’s not me,” I say. “They’re from me, they’re my memories, but I’m not bringing them up.”
“So how—“ Fold begins, and then I’m telling them about the dark. Not everything, but enough.
No one interrupts. Behind us, the expedition pulls itself together. A stretcher is assembled, munitions are counted, equipment is dusted off and redistributed. There’s a long way yet.
Fold looks hungry when I stop.
“A lasting connection,” he says. “Response beyond immediate reaction.”
“I guess so,” I say.
“But that was years ago. So something has changed.” He puts a hand on the tunnel wall. “Perhaps it’s finally reaching out, the only way it can. Perhaps it’s trying-”
“The Bake doesn’t want anything, Fold.”
“You know that’s not true,” he says. “It wants to nourish us, to give us what we want. Food has always been the way to bring people together. What peace there could be, if only—”
“I was alone!” I yell. “Choking and alone in the dark! All I wanted—the Bake doesn’t care what we want! It doesn’t even know!” People turn. I don’t care. “You think it’s a god? Go pray to it yourself. You know the way.”
The weevil’s entrance hole reflects in Fold’s visor. Beyond the jagged body is darkness, mile after mile of crisscrossed burrow, down into eternity. Fold smiles.
“Perhaps I will.”
He turns and walks back to the expedition, raising a fresh crust as he goes. I go to follow him, but Vick catches my arm again.
“It cares, you know,” she says. “The Bake does care. But some prayers take longer to answer.” She picks at her flaking cheek again, then, in one deft movement, pinches the pale flesh together, kneading it smooth with the heel of her hand. In a moment, her skin is flawless. She smiles. Her lips are blushed marzipan.
As she too walks away, rich currant pudding pools in her bootprints, quickly disappearing. Before it does, it flickers with purple flame.
Author’s Note: A loaf of bread with a sufficiently ‘open crumb’ is full of bubbles which often link together, forming tunnels and alien cave systems. I enjoy sci-fi expeditions into dark places, but these doomed ventures often subsist on vague but unpleasant ‘rations’, if food is mentioned at all. That would probably keep me off the team. I was moved to make a case where being way too into what you eat is a valuable, practical asset.
Phil Dyer does science and writes spec fic in Liverpool, where he appears to have settled for now. He has firm opinions about food, games and seagulls. Loves the outdoors, but wouldn’t live there. His stories have appeared in BFS Horizons, Aurealis, and once before in Diabolical Plots. He can be found on twitter as @ez_ozel .
Kazia files a folder of correspondence and closes the manuscript box. She leaves the archives as the sun is setting. Her head is filled with the collection she is processing, the papers of Elgar T. Bryce, noted American biologist. For eleven years, she has worked as an archivist, arranging and describing the papers of scientists, economists, and professors. She loves the quiet of the archives, the way folders line up in a processed box, tangible history in her hands.
Outside the archives, there’s a strange flyer on the bulletin board. The first thing she notices is the paper, a small blue square, probably acidic, attached to the board by the thin metal line of a staple not yet turned to rust. It’s an invitation to the Restaurant of Object Permanence. To go, one is instructed to eat the flyer.
She pulls the paper from the board and swallows it in one bite.
The Restaurant of Object Permanence is brightly lit, each table under a spotlight. Although four chairs surround each table, every diner sits alone.
Before Kazia are two objects, a worn work boot and a bracelet drooping with dainty emeralds. Kazia recognizes the items immediately. She picks up the boot, Misty’s favorite toy. A wave of memory washes over her—throwing the shoe (which first belonged to Kazia’s father), Misty’s tail wagging, sunlight streaming through the oak in their backyard.
The bracelet was a graduation gift from her grandmother, lost in a move a decade ago. She has not thought of these things in years, but now that they are before her, she feels tenderness for them, like light touching a place long dark.
The woman at the next table has a merry-go-round figurine and a black rock. She ingests the merry-go-round, which shrinks to fit perfectly into her mouth. The look on her face is a mix of sorrow and wonder—a version of nostalgia. The door to the restaurant opens. The woman leaves.
Kazia looks at the boot and bracelet, both a promise of memories renewed. Also, escape. To leave the restaurant, she must eat.
Carefully, she puts both objects to the side. She has never liked limited, binary choices—so little in the world reflects this structure. If this is a restaurant, she should be able to order what she wants.
“Book,” she says, experimentally. A Wizard of Earthsea appears before her. Not just any copy. She’d recognize the scratch on the cover anywhere. When she was eight, she bought the book at a garage sale and devoured it in one sitting. Since then, she has believed in the true names of things. This belief carries over to her work, where she tries to divine descriptions for archival documents.
All three objects sit before her, waiting for her to choose.
She loves them all in different ways, but she is reluctant to eat any of them. What sort of gift is the past? Is this a gift at all, or a responsibility to remember?
She wonders what will happen if she orders something intangible.
“Determinism,” she says. All these choices have made her think of free will, and that competing philosophy, determinism—the idea that all our actions are predetermined, the inevitable consequences of the motion of particles tracing back to the birth of the universe.
Perhaps, she thinks, determinism will manifest as a rendition of the Big Bang, some strange tableau. However, what appears is a black bowtie with a broken clasp. The one Adrian left behind, in the apartment that used to be theirs. All at once, she remembers herself, at twenty-three years old, crushing the bowtie in her hand. Her past self is wondering how her choices have brought her to this place, and if her choices mattered at all, or if the universe had planned this all along. Her bracelet is gone, a graduation gift from her grandmother. Perhaps it had gotten mixed up with his things.
In the restaurant, she picks up the bowtie, letting the silk run over her thumb. Kazia worries that if she eats this manifestation of determinism, the world will disintegrate into its component parts. She puts the bowtie aside, adding it to the archival collection of her past objects.
She’s tempted to order a paradox, because it is in her nature to explore the limits of a system in order to ferret out the underlying structure, but she doesn’t. She refrains from ordering any other intangibles—love, sadness, morning, noon, night, nostalgia, the feeling before falling asleep or the bright dawning of understanding. All of her objects have been personal. What would it look like if she ordered love or grief? Would she be given Misty’s collar, her grandmother’s lace tablecloth, a photograph of her father?
“The Restaurant of Object Permanence,” she says. A model of the restaurant appears.
Object permanence is the ability to remember objects when they are no longer in sight. Archival records, she thinks, are a method of object permanence for our history, a way to remember events that have disappeared from living memory. The record is a physical object describing the intangible past.
She peers into the model of the restaurant, with its tiny tables and chairs and faux diners, with miniature artwork on the walls. In front of each diner sits a choice of objects, but the objects are obscured from Kazia, blurred like a memory. The static model cannot possibly convey the significance of those objects to the diners, the crucial choice the restaurant has on offer; but everything that can be represented, is. What Kazia sees is an archival obsession with the past, with collective memory, and the spaces between, the empty chairs and tables, moments undocumented in the historical records, lost now, forever. These spaces are what she focuses on most. The places where things are missing.
This is what she will eat. She can remember her own past without the use of objects. It is the concept of the restaurant she needs to carry with her—the knowledge that so much history has been lost, the silences in the archives. Documents tell a story, but what happens when the documents that would speak are not saved? What happens to those stories?
Into her mouth goes the Restaurant of Object Permanence. It tastes like nothing she’s ever eaten. It’s as if she’s forgotten the words to describe taste.
The door opens. In the distance, she sees the archives. She sets out toward the building. The archives will be locked now, but she will touch the pebbled walls, run her fingers in the spaces where the pebbles meet, and feel the absence there.
Author’s Note: As an archivist, I drew on my personal experience for this story. I’ve never been to the Restaurant of Object Permanence, but I have thought a lot about the silences in the archives and how we, collectively, remember historical events. Working in the archives has changed how I understand history. (I can relate to the quote that says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”) This story began with a prompt about object permanence, which immediately made me think about how archival documents serve as evidence of events that have passed out of living memory. These documents are a tangible connection to the past.
Beth Goder works as an archivist, processing the papers of economists, scientists, and other interesting folks. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape Pod, Analog, Clarkesworld, Nature, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. You can find her online at http://www.bethgoder.com.
Encanto has been very popular since it was released by Disney in November 2021, for its catchy toe-tapping songs, interesting characters, and its themes revolving around immigrant families.
Everyone seems to think of Mirabel as the protagonist of the story, and that makes sense according to most classical conventions, but the more I’ve thought about it, I think there is someone else. Someone whose fate is tied to every major plot point in the story, from the origins of this segment of the Madrigal family, to the climax of the movie, and the denouement.
Is Casita an artificial intelligence? Casita is built and is able to make decisions and take actions, and appears to operate by certain implicit directives to protect the family, participate in family activities (such decorating for Antonio’s door ceremony), as well as maintaining the structure of the house and rebuilding sections as per the family’s needs.
Let’s say that Casita is an AI. The cause of Casita’s birth is a little murky. The inciting incident certainly seems to have young Abuelo’s death and Abuela’s despair at witnessing this and fearing for herself and triplets, but how exactly that resulted in the miracle of the candle and the creation of Casita is left to interpretation. The implication seems to be that it was a miracle from God. But, though the movie does not suggest this, it could have come from some other source that somehow provided this guardian AI: an extradimensional force that saw fit to intervene to save a group of refugees from imminent violence (hey, I have certainly seen much weirder things in comic books), reaching across the void to bestow a gift, a dedicated protector.
Whatever the source, the wish in Abuela’s heart in that moment seems to have become Casita’s primary objective: KEEP US SAFE, which has since determined all of Casita’s actions. How would the rest of it all work if Casita is an AI? Everything beyond that can be explained with something like nanotechnology guided by Casita’s objective.
Casita’s technology is used to isolate and enhance the enclave. You can think of it sort of like a generation ship AI that doesn’t happen to travel anywhere, meant to help this community not only persist, but thrive in complete isolation from the rest of the world. The Madrigal family are in a sense the officers of the ship, meant to be authority figures and inspiration for everyone around them, who consider service to the community part of their leadership. Casita’s door ceremonies happen when Casita forms a symbiosis with one of the family as they come of age, infusing nanotech into their body with a specific module designed by Casita to serve Casita’s overall goal to KEEP US SAFE.
The door ceremonies are held at an age where a child has learned to speak and learn some self-control, but when they are still young enough that they have a great deal of physical and mental development left, when they still have the extreme brain plasticity of youth. Abuela is the exception to this, of course, having been joined by Casita as an adult, but note that she also does not seem to have the same kind of active control of her ability as the others, perhaps due to her being older when she formed the symbiosis with Casita. The door ceremony transforms the person into an avatar of Casita, extending Casita’s influence and abilities accordingly. Although the person still has conscious control of their bodies and abilities, Casita’s touch is always with them from then on and Casita learns from it. Each of their private rooms behind their doors could be seen as sort of a training holodeck tuned to their specific powers.
In terms of archetypes that Casita fulfills, I feel like most people think of Casita mostly as a domestic helper who is auxilliary to the main story, sort of a Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons. But I think there’s reason to consider that Casita may be more like the mentor and guide who guides the party on their journey and acts as a protecting force and prepares them for the inevitable dangers. More on that later.
Apart from Casita’s symbiosis with each Madrigal, Casita’s abilities seem to be limited to moving parts of the house itself. We never see the house moved from its customary location, nor extend itself. So it appears that Casita’s ability to KEEP US SAFE, apart from direct actions possible by house parts within the boundaries of the house, is largely dependent on Casita’s symbiosis with each of the Madrigals.
Abuela’s abilities are immediately visible upon Casita’s birth, in the immediate repulsion of the attacking soldiers, and in the raising of the mountains. I admit that raising mountains might seem like a stretch for nanotech, but perhaps they only have the appearance of mountains and are perhaps a thinner (yet extremely durable) barrier. I doubt a regular mountain would deter determined humans anyway, so it stands to reason it’s more like a force field with a mountain veneer on it. A sensible choice for the first symbiosis powers, to push away the immediate violent threat.
When the triplets come of age, their abilities all expand to meet the immediate survival needs of the community, especially since they need to survive without contact with the outside world; they can’t depend on trade with other cities for supplies or skilled trades.
Julieta’s healing protects the community from injury and illness, clear utility there. Short-lived but powerful repair swarms contained in the food.
Pepa’s weather control protects from deadly weather (imperfectly, perhaps, but despite the unpredictability we do not hear of anyone dying of weather), and also helps protect from famine–a major factor of survival in a town like this would be the ability to farm their own food. Probably one of the harder ones to implement, with cloud-seeding and humidity control.
Bruno’s predictions make an excellent way to anticipate problems that would otherwise not be foreseen. So, two avatars who can help keep the community healthy right now, and a third to try to anticipate coming dangers. Advanced behavior modeling and prediction based on Casita’s larger body of collected data.
What about the grandkid avatars? Consider them by approximate age as Casita progresses in the mission to KEEP US SAFE.
Luisa’s strength is of clear utility: we see her helping the community in many ways: gathering donkeys, moving churches, she could reroute rivers, easily snap trees for lumber, flattening land to build structures. She could serve as a warrior in time a time of dire need, though Casita would want to prevent that if at all possible. Nanobots could implement this by altering the structure of her muscles, could replace the muscle fibers with carbon fibers, local toughening of skin to avoid injury.
Isabella can grow plants at will, which is an accelerated improvement on food control after Pepa’s more indirect one. The fact that we don’t see Isabella widely using her gift to produce food for the village suggests that the village is prospering well enough that this is not necessary. And Isabella also is well-beloved in the community, sort of a poster child for the Madrigals, perhaps in part because of her gift of bringing beauty to the town. Are the plants real plants or are they nanobot constructs? Do we see anyone eating them at any point?
Dolores is Casita’s remote sensing avatar, extending Casita’s senses far beyond the boundaries of the house. Useful for all kinds of things: conflict resolution, matchmaking which can be used to improve the morale of the town, sensing approaching danger long before it becomes dangerous. This ability also may synergize with Bruno’s predictions, because Casita would have a much much more complete body of data about the townspeople, knowing details about their private lives. After Bruno’s disappearance, it also allows Casita some ability to sense into Bruno’s abandoned tower room that Casita has no direct control over (as Dolores “associates him with the sound of falling sand”). As the years went on and Abuela’s treatment of family members to try to keep them safe contribute to alienation, Casita would predict the future where Casita crumbles as the family dynamic falls with it. But, as many AIs, Casita struggles to fully understand human psychology and human behavior (if this stationary generation ship has Abuela is Captain Picard, there is no Counselor Troi!), and so Casita’s greatest challenge is to understand humans well enough to try to prevent or fix the problem that stems from human psychology. Gather more data about humanbehavior is a sensible way to approach the problem. Dolores’s hearing could be implemented by alteration of Dolores’s eardrums, as well as farther-reaching methods more like sensor-seeding across the whole town as her hearing seems to reach farther than soundwaves could plausibly travel.
Camilo, now Camilo is a tougher one to pinpoint the utility of his gift to the central mission to KEEP US SAFE. While, yes, Camilo’s shapeshifting could have some utility in hostile situations (ala Mystique from X-Men). Again, as with Dolores, Casita is struggling to understand and solve the problem of the growing psychological problems in the Madrigal family. Casita is purely rational, but humans are not, and it is difficult for Casita to understand thinking but only-sometimes-rational beings. Casita’s ability to communicate is very limited–apart from taking direct necessary action, Casita sometimes communicates by some gestures that one might liken to emoji, but Casita is not capable of taking steps that we might do if we wanted to understand someone–by asking them questions that lead to other questions. Camilo seems to have few limits on his ability to imitate, and when guests arrive for Antonio’s door ceremony, he uses his ability readily by mimicking each guest as he greets them, which the guests seem to find great joy in. This brings to mind the behavior of “mirror neurons” which are a biological basis for empathy–allowing an observer to feel the same way when we see someone perform an action as when we perform the action ourselves. So, although Camilo’s ability doesn’t seem to have a direct usage in the survival of the community (apart from morale, as people do seem to enjoy his antics!), Casita learns from Camilo’s mimicry of the townspeople to better learn and understand about each person–Camilo could not imitate them so effectively if he didn’t understand them , so Casita grows in empathy from connecting with him. And through Camilo, Casita comes to understand that some of the rifts in the family come from people viewing the Madrigals primarily by their abilities (what makes them artificial) instead of what makes them human. Camilo’s abilities may be the most challenging of the Madrigal’s to produce on a practical level, his entire body changing in an instant. It’s possible that some of these changes are illusions, merely visible facades, when a physical change is not necessary, but given that height changes have an actual physical effect that can’t be all of it. It’s possible that Camilo’s entire body has been replaced with a plastic nanobot swarm, or everything except certain organs such as his digestive system and brain which shift around inside the rapidly changing body.
As Mirabel approaches the date of her door ceremony, Casita ponders what sort of symbiosis to form with her. To bring the family together, Casita needs someone with empathy. Mirabel shows potential for that, but how best to enhance it? Yet, in the times to come, Casita is grimly aware that Casita may be destroyed, and with Casita’s destruction the avatars’ abilities will disappear. Casita needs to plan for this as well. She needs someone who can bring the family together even without an avatar’s powers, because in the worst case those might disappear. So, Mirabel becomes the only Madrigal to pass the door ceremony age without becoming an avatar. It’s clear that Casita still cares for her as much as anyone else, Casita maintains a friendly rapport with Mirabel, and the feeling is mutual.
When Abuela asks Bruno to try to use his future-telling ability to find out why Mirabel didn’t get a door and a power, Casita is able to finally convey to him Casita’s greatest fear: the death of Casita. And in doing so, Casita is able to guide Bruno in his self-exile to live in the walls. Casita is depending on Mirabel to heal the rifts in the family and keep Casita together, but Mirabel is way too young at that point to be able to take on that kind of responsibility. So, Casita has to hold it together and Casita can’t do that without help, so Bruno serves a vital role in bridging that gap making his own spackle as he lives in the walls. (I imagine Bruno as Scotty of the generation ship, except that instead of messaging the bridge to say “I can’t hold it together much longer” instead he spends years applying emergency spackle and talking to the shipboard rats)
When Antonio comes of age, Casita knows that the time of the potential collapse is approaching, between Luisa’s growing anxiety pushing her to the breaking point and Isabella’s upcoming wedding of unrequited love. There is not very much time to make a difference with Antonio’s power, but some choice has to be made, and Casita can still try to make some small difference. One of Luisa’s jobs has been to help gather loose donkeys, and we get the impression this is not an uncommon task, especially considering how chill the donkeys are about being stacked. So, Antonio’s ability to speak to animals is an attempt by Casita to lighten Luisa’s load in at least some way–they may be able to send Antonio to go talk the donkeys back (whether donkeys could be convinced by Antonio remains to be seen!), a job which Antonio will be able to do with less effort than Luisa as he can bribe or otherwise convince animals to do what he asks. Casita might have considered giving Antonio strength like Luisa’s to help her more directly, but given that she is struggling with feeling her worth already, making her feel like she is being replaced would not have helped her self-doubt, which Casita would have realized after learning empathy from Camilo.
Casita predicted that on the day of Antonio’s door ceremony, Mirabel would step out of Antonio’s room to process this, finally giving a rare opportunity for Casita to communicate with Mirabel with no one else in the main part of the house. Casita doesn’t want to show the decay of the house’s structure to the family as a whole, for this will lead to panic, cause Luisa to spiral in anxiety, or Abuela to come down hard on family members. So Casita tries to communicate to Mirabel privately by relaxing control on the structure enough to let the decay show (like relaxing a muscle you have become accustomed to clenching at all times). Then when Mirabel goes to get the family, Casita pulls the structure together again as well as possible, knowing that Mirabel has the mystery to solve and with the hopes that Mirabel’s empathy will be enough to carry her through the rest.
One thing I admire about Casita is that, even when Casita’s collapse began, Casita still puts forth best efforts to the end to protect everyone, directing the collapse to provide aid, such as the railing-become-ladder when Mirabel was trying to reach the candle, and the makeshift triangle shelter of debris in the end that saved Mirabel’s life. It would have been a nightmare for Casita to know that the collapse of Casita’s body was itself the cause of Mirabel’s death, and Mirabel’s death would also have doomed Casita to not be rebuilt and reborn, meaning the failure of the mission to KEEP US SAFE.
In the end the AI is revived through the doorknob the avatars construct that Mirabel uses to transition that residual spark of life from the avatars to the body of the house, reviving Casita with a freshly built body, with a mind that may not be the mind of the original Casita but is a construct made of the avatar’s memories of Casita. And in that rebirth, we see the success of Casita plan to mend the breaks in the Madrigal family and continue to pursue the prime directive KEEP US SAFE.
Content note (click for details)Content note: death and dismemberment
Estelle placed both hands on the plastic-wrapped cabbages. Against the pale green leaves her fingers glittered darkly, slender crescents of soil adorning the nail beds of nine fingers. The tenth finger, her left thumb, bore no such jewel, but rather a ring of woven fungus, beige and tough and fibrous. Estelle stretched all ten fingers wide, fingertips brushing as many cabbages in the jumbled heap as she could reach, and made her offer: “Would any of you be interested in reanimation?”
It was rare these days for Estelle to approach supermarket vegetables, rare that her garden did not already provide what she needed. And even then, seeds were more her style; younger plants tended to integrate more easily into the garden community. But the urge to prepare bigos had stolen over her suddenly, a yearning for the recipe of another Estelle—her great great great grandmother or something like, who had lived long ago in a small town in what was now Poland and cooked triumphs of cabbage prepared multiple ways. She didn’t have time to wait for seed to mature.
The plastic around the cabbages slowed communication. Most of the cabbages ignored her. No surprise there. Industrial agriculture bred for disease resistance, productivity, and dullness; few cabbages from factory farms had the imagination and quickness of wit previous generations had delighted in. Consequently, few heads challenged their approaching deaths, unaware their roots also lay dead or dying.
There was one likely candidate: a handsome cabbage with a thick bold rib arcing across the side of its head and clean veins of palest green. It was older than the others. Beneath the sheen of plastic its outermost leaves, which had once gripped each other tight, were beginning to loosen, sharp edges softening. In Estelle’s experience older vegetables, who had seen more of life, tended to have stronger opinions about reanimation, both for and against.
The cabbages had questions: Did she mean merely to root them? To bring them to flower?
Yes, she explained, she would help them grow fresh networks of root. But no, she wasn’t offering just to help them finish out the second year of their biennial cycle, she was offering the opportunity to relive their first year over and over, producing head after head. True reanimation.
Impossible! declared various cabbages and declined to converse further.
Can you guarantee this? wondered a more flexible thinker.
“No,” said Estelle, “any cabbage that returns with me will have to be accepted by the larger garden community. Ultimately, invitation is the community’s prerogative.”
Beautifully bundled heads, tight and tidy, thought this through.
I’m interested, announced the handsome cabbage with the soft edges. I’ll go home with you.
Outside the apartment Estelle paused to retrieve the cabbage from her bag. Carefully she unpeeled the plastic that encased it. When she had removed every last scrap, when the cabbage had adjusted to the sudden return of sensation, she opened the door.
“Home,” she said with quiet pride.
The stirred air brought a fresh moistness of living things. In front of them the hallway gleamed. She had cleaned before heading to the market in hopes someone would return with her.
“Tour first? Yes, let’s.”
Down the hall and into the living room, with its large and glossy spathiphyllum and exquisite maidenhair ferns, its mother-of-thousands quietly dropping babies on the window sill. Into the bedroom, where geraniums bloomed pinkly on tables on either side of the bed. To the bathroom and the enormous Boston fern that hung in front of the window striped thinly with venetian blinds, the spider mending her web in the corner. Back through the small hall, quickly in and out of the kitchen, no plants here, only gleaming steel and humming appliance and a door that shut tightly, until, finally, to the patio garden.
Some might call it a balcony garden, for the apartment was seven stories up, the last story but one, but balconies are thin, wistful things crowded by railings. This was a grand room, two-thirds open to the sky and divided thus into sunlight and shadow, its walls and half-walls covered in tile.
Before them stood nine large raised beds of varying depth, clustered together, each touching the next. From the beds a tangled exuberance spilled, all green and flower and fruit. In one, the bed at the very center, a small space had been cleared, red-brown mulch pushed back to reveal soil rich and dark beneath. Welcome! the plants murmured. Welcome!
The cabbage pulsed with excitement.
Estelle explained the patio’s winter transformation, how the skeletal frames at the edge of the roof unfolded, how the tight cylinders of transparent tarp unrolled, how they sealed together cunningly to preserve warmth and life. She explained the full-spectrum lights, bold and bright, to stave off seasonal affective disorder, theirs and hers both, and also the clean, unlit place for those who preferred to spend the season resting dormant.
“If you stay, we’ll talk about what you prefer, for seasons, for day-to-day care.” Estelle ran a hand affectionately through the arugula, tickled the rosemary until it giggled. “Some in the garden feel dry leaves as itches to be removed as quickly as possible. Others, like this fine basil right here, prefer to wear theirs until a windstorm strips them away all at once.”
The basil sighed, So good, it’s the only way.
With a step they crossed the line between sunlight and shade. Here stood a twin bed and a set of shelves, previously made invisible by the brightness. Estelle paused before a vase filled with paintbrushes. Some had finely pointed tips, some had bristles thin and straight, some fluffed out from their ferrules like dandelions.
“If you decide later to flower and seed, we have some lovely insect visitors. But I can also help.” Estelle laughed. “Some of the others enjoy brushing on their leaves or stalk as well. Let me know what you like, I’ll do my best.”
They passed the small table and chair where Estelle liked to watch the sky change and came to the composter, tucked into one corner. Estelle debated what to say. “Let’s go to the kitchen,” she said finally. “You should know the worst first.”
In the kitchen she placed the cabbage in a shallow dish filled with water, so that the scar where the head had been hacked from stalk, where sharp dry air had cauterized its flesh, might begin to soften and release. She rested one hand lightly on the top of its head.
“Let’s start with your options: You can stay and be reanimated. You can be composted. You can, if you really wish, be thrown away with the trash, though I will try my best to persuade you otherwise.” She grinned at the cabbage. “If you stay, you will not be limited to a single annual or even biennial cycle. You can choose to undergo reanimation once, many times, or anything in between. And you can choose to flower and seed between reanimations, if you like.”
The cabbage started to speak—
Estelle cut it off. “Before you decide, you must know what it means to stay.” She took a moment to gather herself. When she spoke once more, solemnity made her words quiet and powerful. “The first time I will use you to make bigos. Vegetarian bigos.” She shuddered at the memory of her sole attempt to reanimate meat. “I’ll sever the mass of your head from the bit of stump that still remains from your stalk. That’s what I’ll use to reanimate you—I’ll slip this bit of stalk into the garden bed and call roots to grow and a new head to form.”
She carried the cabbage in its dish to the row of knives on their magnetized strip, silver and sharp and neat.
“I keep the knives very sharp indeed, so that they cut cleanly and immediately, no bluntness, no painful tugging at flesh.” She placed the cabbage on the counter and pulled a small knife free; the sound of its blade shimmered in the air. Gently she ran the blade over the pad of her index finger with its many delicate scars. She rested her finger lightly on the pale green head so the cabbage could feel the precision of the cut. A bead of blood gathered where their flesh touched.
“I will slice you into ribbons. You won’t be alone, there will be onions and mushrooms with you. And sauerkraut that I made two summers ago, too.”
That cabbage, interrupted the cabbage, the one you turned into sauerkraut. Why isn’t it still in the garden?
Estelle fetched the glass jar of sauerkraut down and set it to touch the cabbage’s cheek. She didn’t open it. Glass, though thicker than plastic wrap, was less of an impediment to communication, as plants were long familiar with the ways of silica from their work cultivating soil. And she’d never quite adjusted to the way plants related to their severed parts.
“There were three cabbages back then. One succumbed to a mosaic virus, and afterward the other two didn’t want to go on. So I rooted them out and turned them into sauerkraut. We haven’t had a cabbage since.”
Beneath her fingers the cabbage fell silent.
Estelle resumed: “I’ll sauté the onion and garlic first. I won’t put you in until after I’ve added red wine and tomato paste. So when you go into the saucepan it will be less of a searing heat and more of a bath of heat all around you. You’ll go in with the mushrooms and the sauerkraut, with veggie sausages and spices and stock. I’ll turn the heat up very high and the liquid around you will boil and steal away the water that runs through your veins, that plumps you and nourishes you and keeps you alive. And when the liquid boils, I’ll cover the pot to trap in the steam and turn the heat down and for sixty minutes you will simmer and soften in the dark, your life juices mixing and fleeing, spices invading, until at last I deem you ready, season you with salt and pepper, and eat you with bread.”
She wanted to pull away from the cabbage’s dismay, but she hadn’t finished.
“You should know: I will enjoy this. I will not enjoy your pain and I will do everything I can to minimize it, but I will enjoy the act of slicing, of turning you into ribbons, I will enjoy the way you sizzle in the wine reduction and the fragrant steam that blossoms from you and bathes my face, and I will very much enjoy the flavors and textures of you as I eat you.
“Do you have any questions?”
It did. Might it stay in the kitchen to comfort itself while it cooked? (She thought no, but would consider.) Did reanimation feel like bursting from seed? (It should ask the other plants.) Could it, perhaps, advise her on spices and accompaniments? (She didn’t recognize this for a joke until the cabbage chuckled, but then they were both lost to laughter.)
When at last she had finished answering the cabbage’s questions, she carried it back to the patio garden. Carefully she settled the cabbage into the soft soil of its temporary bed. And then, so the cabbage might confer with the garden community in privacy, she returned to the kitchen, pulling its door shut behind her.
Long ago Estelle had lived in a forest tall and dark and grand, with trees many hundreds of years old. She didn’t remember her parents, though she must have had some. What she remembered most was the fungus that spoke to her when she couldn’t find her way home and lay huddled on the forest floor near a ring of its flowers. The fungus, subterranean and massive, was the forest’s heart, its negotiator, mediator, and controller, and for reasons known only to itself, decided to take her on as an apprentice. From the fungus Estelle learned to command the most terrible of magics—not the magics of death, but the magics of life.
Many years later, when she had learned all the fungus would teach and knew everything about how life should be, she set out to explore. Soon she came upon a small town made from two villages that had grown until they met and merged. Here she dwelled, learning all the townspeople could teach her with great interest, until one day a new friend took her to the cemetery.
When her friend, weighed down by the recent loss of a sister, explained what lay beneath the stones, Estelle immediately thrust her hands into the soil and called on her magics to wake the seeds of life that lingered below. The friend’s sister emerged first, others took longer to reknit bone and sinew. But her friend and the other townspeople didn’t rejoice as Estelle expected, rather they screamed of monsters and set to hunting. By the time the last of the cemetery’s occupants emerged to a reception of axes, Estelle herself had long since been chopped into pieces: her head, her hands, her arms, her feet, her legs below the knees, her legs above the knees; pieces gathered in a heap and buried in a hole in the ground without the benefit of coffin or marker.
Hacked apart or not, her magics still lingered and slowly she regrew. But her magics were fungal, accustomed to bodies of very different shape and form, and when she regained consciousness she found herself starved of air and with a body seamed and restuck wherever flesh had fallen on flesh when the murderous townspeople tossed her into the grave. They must have thrown her torso in first; her head lay upside-down between her breasts, a knee grew against one ear. She died again in the terror of discovery.
She died five more times as she reshaped herself. In the airless dark of the soil she couldn’t find all of her limbs, a foot and an arm had disappeared, and so she improvised as best she could, rebuilding herself until at last she was able to break free from the earth and lie once more in the sunlight.
After so long beneath it hurt to breathe the clean air. Soil scratched her lungs as she coughed, coughing became vomiting. When finally she stopped heaving, she sensed the remains of her missing right arm not far off. She dragged herself toward it, found bones yellowing and encrusted with dirt, scored where an animal had gnawed upon them.
Before, in her improvised reassembly, she had affixed her right hand directly to her right shoulder. Now she grew the fingernails of her left hand into talons and tore that right hand free. She passed out from the pain; perhaps she died again. When she came to, she reset the pieces, arm to shoulder, hand to arm, and endured the torment of reattachment. She never found her left foot and instead regrew it whole. Later she would wonder if other Estelles, born from its bones, wandered the corners of the world.
When she could move and breathe once more, when she had ceased vomiting soil and the seams of her flesh had puckered into shining scars, she made her way back to the town that had once been two villages. Years had passed while she had regrown and the town, too, had changed, with new houses and people. Even the colors of the town had changed, for shifts in trade routes had brought new dyes and pigments taken up with fervor. At first, many of the people were strange and unfamiliar, but soon she saw familiar faces amidst the townsfolk, now lined and collapsing with age.
It was enough: Like the cold air that masses beneath warm to suddenly spill a fatal chill, the fury of at least seven deaths broke in Estelle. Later, she would remember this fury—cold, inexorable—as belonging to a still-not-quite-yet-fully-alive Estelle, though doubt would make her uneasy. Now, she simply knelt at the edge of the town’s main road and with her fingers dug through dust kicked up by horse and carriage, until she reached the darker earth beneath and she thrust her hands into the soil and she called to the life within each and every townsperson.
Life swelled and burgeoned. Some townsfolk grew so tall that their spines snapped and they collapsed on themselves and suffocated. In the organs of others, small cancerous cells grew huge and greedy and devouring, until systems failed and bodies stopped. Still others grew layer upon layer of skin that thickened and dried, hard as bark, until their bodies could no longer sweat and they became delirious and weak.
They lay where they fell. Some died fast, most did not. Only when each and every townsperson was dead, only then, with tired satisfaction, did Estelle finally release them. And insects laid eggs in the dead flesh and animals scavenged the bodies for meat and rot took what remained and the liquids of decay watered the earth beneath.
Estelle announced herself loudly when she returned to the patio garden. She collected the cabbage and set it in its dish of water on the small table. Then, one by one she plunged a bejeweled finger into each of the nine planters. The brassicas praised the cabbage’s growth mindset. The Swiss chard was boldly in favor, it always was, convinced that any problem could be overcome. Several of the scallions, who had themselves come from a market, confessed the cabbage reminded them pleasantly of their younger, more naive selves. The rosemary grudgingly agreed to give the cabbage a try, but grumbled because the rosemary liked to grumble. The sweet potato vines swayed and urged Estelle to get on with it already.
By the time Estelle wrapped up her conferences and returned to the cabbage, the sun was melting into the horizon with great smears of gold.
“Everyone’s in agreement: we’d like you to join us.” Estelle touched the cabbage gently with one fingertip. “You don’t have to decide immediately, take your time, think it over. You tell me when you’re ready.”
She slipped away then to bring them some music, re-emerged to Chopin. And so she and the cabbage sat together, listening to nocturnes and watching the sky darken, the cabbage humming pleasantly off-key.
At length, after a tremendous swell of piano had slowed to a delicate and careful trickle, the cabbage said, I’d like to give it a try. Once. Maybe more than once, but let’s see how it goes first.
“Wonderful!” Estelle beamed at the cabbage. “I’m so glad. And remember, you can change your mind at any point, you’re not locked into a single course of action—except, of course, that growth takes time and energy.”
The cabbage murmured appreciatively.
When the last note of the last nocturne had disappeared into the night air, when the moon had risen and the stars pricked the sky, Estelle returned to the planters. Once more she placed the cabbage in its temporary resting place. Soon she and the cabbage would return to the kitchen to begin dinner, but for now, this first moment altogether, their community grown by one, she knelt and buried her hands in the soil and celebrated.
Author’s Note: During the first year of the pandemic, I became fascinated by regrowing scallions and other veggies. It prompted questions: What does it mean to live ethically with a plant you eat? One you keep eating? How can we reconcile consent and consumption across species? Various cultures and individuals have taken up these questions, creating traditions and practices in response. For me, now, these questions—plus my interest in four-act storytelling structures and my ongoing culinary exploration of my Polish heritage—brought me to Estelle and the cabbage. With the character of Estelle, I also wanted to explore how, after doing something terrible, we might choose to live differently, might choose to practice care. Unexpected side effect: I haven’t been able to cook a cabbage since writing this.
Amy Johnson is a writer and scholar. This is her first story to be published in Diabolical Plots. Her short fiction was shortlisted in the Dream Foundry’s 2021 Emerging Writers competition and is forthcoming in Lightspeed. She’s also the editor of Drones & Dreams, a speculative sprint collection published by Digital Asia Hub, and runs workshops using speculative fiction techniques to explore the personal and societal consequences of technologies. Find her at amyjohnson.com or on Twitter at @shrapnelofme, where she tweets about language, technology, and other fun things.
The fundraiser for The Long List Anthology Volume 8 ends on Monday! It is most of the way to the base goal, but it would be nice to get to that all-or-nothing goal and try to work on some of the stretch goals after that while there are still some days left.
Besides the usual rewards for ebooks and print books (and you can add-on for any of the ebooks you’ve missed in the past), there is also a limited quantity reward for Submission Grinder promo (subject to content approval and schedule availability), as well as one where I will draw you a cryptid based on prompts you provide.
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Content note (click for details)Content note: allusion to violence
It was a Friday evening when the boys rolled in, of course. The nights were uncurling from themselves a little, stretching out toward high summer, and the first flicker of the boys’ sharp-oiled hairlines was a sure sign the school year was well behind us, nothing but river water and sunburns ahead.
I was manning the cash register in the bottle shop downstairs—LE CAV DU VIN, the new sign out front proclaimed, like anybody in town was going to go for fancy fake French on a package owned by Italians for as long as our part of New York had belonged to the British. DINO’S, blared the restaurant’s sign in blinking red and then—now—right next to it LE CAV DU VIN in scrolly white. The new manager sure had a high opinion of herself. You didn’t catch her at the cash register– no, that was the purview of minimum-wage peons only, and damn if I wasn’t still making the barest of minimums despite working at Dino’s four summers running. No loyalty these days, is what my father said, all wink-nudge like maybe I’d finally take his advice and go down to the union shop on Crescent Street and learn to be a plumber. The promise of tips on the nights I waited tables upstairs kept me honest.
The boys were big tippers.
Nobody’d seen them in town yet this summer—they were a seasonal occurrence, blown in from the coast or maybe the city, the only tourists who appeared year after year in our 300-miles-from-nowhere town—or at least I hadn’t seen them, and not even a warning text from anybody who reliably had the gossip, but here they were, converging. Inevitable.
There were four of them cruising straight for the local grapes, or maybe five: that was the thing about the boys, you figured you had ‘em nailed down and then another shot up from behind the Fireball display, fingers above their head in devil horns to mock the tacky cardboard standee. Another’d be popping open mini travel-size Smirnoffs, guzzling them like Capri Suns, while the ringleader, whichever it was that night, doled out wads of bills deliberately, smiling.
My old boss, the third Dino, God rest his soul, had a sense of humor about it. You had to, with the boys. No telling what they’d get into if you pissed ‘em off, they were like cats that way, sleek and pretty and sharp-eared and absolutely fucking amoral.
The ringleader hadn’t made themselves known, but they would, one way or another. I edged my phone out of my apron pocket, watching sidelong. Maybe it was the tallest, wearing jeans that were too short but in that way that you knew was intentional, probably tailored on purpose to show off ankles carved from obsidian. It might be the loud one, laughing with a red tongue over red, red lips. Then there was the tiny one, bubbly like the knock-off Aperol spritzes Joey’s girlfriend liked to drink on the dock, champagne curls and golden eyes and bronze-spattered skin, and the last of the boys looked like a shadow, soft and wispy-black, sketched along the floorboards and drifting in the air. Or was that the last? I still couldn’t tell—still, as I watched them and texted one-handed to tell Joey and the rest of our crew that the boys had arrived for the season, still couldn’t number them, still they swam in my head like I’d been ripping into the Jack Daniels on my break.
Something moved in my stomach, or lower.
The new manager coughed behind my shoulder. “What did we decide about texting at the register?”
I still called her new, we all did, even if she’d bought out Dino the Third after he retired to the Catskills more than half a year ago now and then kicked off with a heart attack before he got to enjoy the scenery. She was always frowning, Delia, her whole body frowning before the expression hit her face, but right now her face was a frown too.
We hadn’t decided anything, either way. Dino the Third had never cared if I texted at the register, but Delia thought it was trashy, that it put across the wrong aura, that kids today have a much higher incidence of compressed spinal discs, did you know that, due to staring down at phone screens all day? She moved on before I decided whether it was worth it to defend myself. The boys making an appearance was big news. Everybody needed to know I was the one seeing them first.
“Do you know those…?”
She meant the boys. Weird as hell sort of question. Everyone knew them. I said, low, “What do you mean?”
“Are those–” She was all at a loss, tongue edging around her lips, trying to figure out a word to use. “Friends of yours?”
The boys weren’t anyone’s friends.
I pretended foolishness, plastered a who-me look on my face and tilted my head. The state of things at Dino’s these days went easier if Delia thought I was a dumbass. She was annoying enough that I was counting the days ‘til summer ended, goddamn, what a cramp in my style—to look forward to 7:30AM classes and the half-hour bus ride to the consolidated high school because I hadn’t managed to save enough this summer for a car. Or maybe annoying was the wrong word for Delia; it was more that she was a presence, like the space the youth pastors told you to leave between you and your dance partner, a Jesus-shaped void. Even if you didn’t believe in it, you couldn’t ignore it.
Dino the Third had never been a presence, and probably his pops hadn’t either, just drifted in to rearrange some of the chardonnays in their rustic apple-crates and drifted out again for a smoke. I didn’t steal, they didn’t talk to me. I rang up the customers, they paid me. And here’s Delia with her fingers in everything, bringing extra rolls of quarters to the register when I didn’t need more and upending every display on Friday like clockwork, switching the bottles of Tanqueray with the brandies just to fuck with the poor boozy regulars—at least that was how it seemed. Seemed like she didn’t appreciate regular customers, like she looked down her nose at ‘em, and sure, if the Dino’s package had a frequent-buyer program, some of the townies would’ve been in the drunk tank more than they were, but they paid. No matter what you’re selling, regulars keep the lights on.
The boys weren’t regulars, exactly, but it was generally agreed that they kept the town’s lights on.
She watched them all the way down the aisle of Australian whites, Delia, her eyes moving and the rest of her stock-still. The ringleader—I’d figured it out at last, it was the bubbly one—picked up a bottle of pinot grigio almost the color of their hair. A month from now half the kids at school would’ve bleached their hair trying to match. It was kind of a thing in town, once Labor Day passed and everyone was back in school: you’d end up scouring the vintage shops and the outlet mall by the university, scraping together a new uniform for the year that looked like the dregs of the boys’ closets. Nobody ever managed to pass for one of the boys, but we tried.
It wasn’t shit you’d pull during the summer, when the whole troop of them were here; they were too lofty to figure you were mocking them, but it was more that nobody could touch them. There was no point in even attempting it. It wouldn’t catch their eye, they wouldn’t be impressed, if they were going to look at you they were going to regardless of whether you were wearing designer or your dad’s hand-me-down Carhartt gaiter. Everybody wanted the boys to look at them, but by the time you were my age you’d given up being overt about it.
Either you’d flail through summer seeing them around town, feeling like you were drowning every time they ignored you, or you’d get the action of your life. You’d wake up the next morning feeling like your soul had been sucked out of your cock and grateful for it (this according to Joey, like he knew). You’d swagger into work and even if you never saw any of the boys again, even if the leaves changed that day and they were gone on the wind, you’d never forget.
All dependent on them.
“You’re seventeen, isn’t that right, Mr. Diaz?” said Delia. Mr. Diaz, always, I doubted she even knew my first name. I nodded, scanning a handle of Jameson real slow, not letting the bottle clink too hard against the sensor in case her ears perked up at the notion that I was abusing merchandise, and in front of a customer. The regular buying the whiskey stared at me, chewing his mustache. Delia ignored him, zeroing in on me. “And you’d never think to try to buy liquor underage.”
I realized she thought the boys were underage. I almost laughed at that, and at the idea that before ol’ Delia had come around and whipped this ship into shape, I’d never availed myself of the coolers of jug wine or swiped vodka from the storeroom. Dino the Third hadn’t cared too much. Clapped my shoulder now and then when he bothered to breeze in, joked in his musty-cigar-shop voice about boys being boys.
The boys weren’t exactly boys, which was probably part of the equation giving Delia a hernia. It was just easy shorthand. A catch-all. Even the lucky townie bitches and sons of bitches who’d scored with the boys, in my day or my parents’, couldn’t have said with any certainty the parts involved, the mechanics of their bliss. Here: the bubbly ringleader, petite and prettier than anything out of Hollywood, jeans that clung and curly hair. The tall one, supermodel-elegant with wicked lips, and the red-mouthed laughing one and the shadow, hair like an inkwell, wearing a shirt unbuttoned halfway to their waist.
The general effect was show-stopping sex.
Charisma like an avalanche, like the theme song of Jaws playing faintly as you walked through town and then rounded a corner and realized why. The town was breathless for them. Ticked down the days until the boys appeared, opened a tab in every bar and restaurant that never closed for the boys, swept the streets and chlorinated the YMCA pool and rounded up feral cats to make way for the boys. Local goddamn holiday, high summer and the boys.
“No ma’am,” I finally told Delia, and the Jameson regular snorted, tucked his whiskey in its brown bag against his chest and carried it to the stairwell leading back up to Dino’s proper.
Delia hmmed. They were nearly to the register, the boys, carting half the store with them. Dino the Third had never charged them. I remembered my first summer working, paid under the table because I was only fourteen, and most of all I remembered the chief among the boys that year; I remembered a throat opened wide right in the store and liquor poured down it, a steady white hand and a steady vein pulsing in a white throat, larynx throbbing, the others howling and clapping and chanting. Remembered a neat roll of bills withdrawn from a clip and rejected, Dino’s gray head dipping, more solicitous than I’d ever seen him. Remembered stumbling home after my shift like I was the one drunk, though Joey and I hadn’t discovered the glories of out-county ditch vodka yet. Remembered what it felt like coming to that memory of the boys’ ringleader swigging gin clear as water.
“We’ll need to see ID, of course,” Delia said. My heart swooped right down into my sneakers.
The bubbly ringleader paused, head cocked. The rest stilled, murmuring and giggling, eyeing Delia almost appreciatively.
“Oh,” said the ringleader, and my heart kept going, down, down, boring a hole to Hell, “why, how very vintage. I’m afraid I didn’t bring it with me.”
I’d heard boys talking in exaggerated put-on ways like that, rahly top drawah, and some talking like they were fresh-caught out of Lake Erie, and some who talked like professors and not the SUNY kind. In general, you didn’t want to hear the boys talk. Didn’t want to give them a reason to. They’d slide you their attention, maybe, if you were lucky, but you didn’t try to draw it.
My hands were busy, already bagging the boys’ loot no matter what Delia thought about it, itching to text Joey about this unbelievable gaffe the new manager was committing in front of God and the town and everyone. Because she was just going all-out, not giving an inch, not a thought toward reading the room.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s the store policy. We do require identification for all customers.”
I’d IDed the Jameson regular because Delia was hovering over me. Wouldn’t have otherwise. Who ran around IDing people their grandparents’ age?
“I know them,” I said, and regretted the living fuck out of it, but what was I supposed to do? The boys’ eyes snapped to me, all at once, a flock of scarab beetles touching down. “I mean, Delia–”
“You know our policy, Mr. Diaz.” Delia, I’ll say this for her, wasn’t going down without a fight. She adjusted her nametag, the one that said DELIA MONTGOMERY in letters that matched CAV DU VIN outside the door, I suppose as a reminder that I was supposed to call her Ms. Montgomery. “All customers present identification. New York takes the delinquency of minors very seriously.”
The shop was so quiet I thought I could hear Tatiana upstairs slapping a customer for grabbing her ass at the table. The boys’ bottles clinked together as I slid the last of them into a bag. Delia took the paper sacks from me, turning her glare between me and the bubbly ringleader. Clear as day she didn’t know what she’d done.
The boys were an institution. Nobody told them no, and it wasn’t like they used that as an excuse to run wild over the town, but… there was a Biblical feel to the place, in the days immediately after the boys left. We all looked like locusts had stripped us of anything green. It was hangover time. You wanted to drink a lot of water and wear sunglasses indoors. Joey told me once that it reminded him of those infomercials on TV—if you experience an erection for longer than twelve hours please call our hotline—because it hurt, in truth, it stung, that kind of stimulation, but you still wanted it. Nobody would bar the boys from town, even if they could. Nobody would demand to see a boy’s ID, even if their perfection could be captured by the DMV’s camera.
The shadow laughed, silky as springwater. My heart was no longer anywhere in the region of my chest.
“I quit,” I said, quickly.
I’d already said too much. If Delia hadn’t been here I’d have rung the boys up and watched them flow out the door again to a boat party or a rager at the old mill-house, and just texted Joey and the rest the big news, but she was here, and honestly wasn’t that fucking sad, a grown-ass woman and not even bad-looking with nothing better to do on a Friday night but come into work—she was here and they were here and maybe she was new in town but somebody should’ve clued her in. Somebody should’ve noted, in the little welcome-to-Vestal packet, how things ran, how the boys were prime customers, how the summer flowers sprang up when they walked through and the clocktower at Mary Queen of the Universe chimed when they laughed. Somebody should’ve told Delia the score before she went and got her head ripped off. Somebody was going to pay blood for her big mouth, but that somebody wasn’t me.
“Excuse me, Mr. Diaz?” she said, blinking at me like I was the thorn in her side, like there wasn’t a tidal wave poised to drench both of us.
“I quit,” I said again, my apron already off and tossed on the counter, and I backed out from behind it, bumping through the swinging door. You didn’t turn your back on the boys unless that’s what they wanted, unless their arms were around you, their mouths on the nape of your neck. “Have a good night, Delia.” She wouldn’t, holy God she would not. “Gents.”
Gents. That was a safe thing to call them. Gents, boys; rakes and molls, sometimes, from people my grandparents’ age; fillies, flaneurs—some fancy word, that one, something about walking—and really they weren’t picky as long as you were polite, if you had cause to speak to them, or about them. In my case, not speaking to them, at least in farewell, would’ve been the wrong move. The wrong move in Delia’s case had been opening her mouth to begin with.
Author’s Note: “Downstairs at Dino’s” happened because I heard “The Boys Are Back In Town” on the radio for the millionth time and thought, What if the boys’ return was the herald of something larger, even ominous? Somehow, channeling some Shirley Jackson vibes a la “The Summer People” seemed like the natural next step.
The author is a librarian, writer, and Floridian in upstate New York. Selections of her short work have appeared most recently in Moonchild Magazine, Sword and Kettle Press’s mini-chapbook series, and the anthology Arcana, and are forthcoming from Neon Hemlock and Nyx Publishing.
The Submission Grinder won an Ignyte Award in the category Community Award for Outstanding Efforts in Service of Inclusion and Equitable Practice in Genre. If you haven’t heard about the Ignyte Award, they are run by FIYAH magazine with the mission “The Ignytes seek to celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of the current and future landscapes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror by recognizing incredible feats in storytelling and outstanding efforts toward inclusivity of the genre.”
The full Ignyte Award ceremony is posted on YouTube here, go check it out–the ceremony is very short and to the point, a little over an hour. I also wanted to share the acceptance speech, as follows:
When the first Ignyte Awards were announced they included this statement: “In the tradition of FIYAH, when we see a need going unfulfilled, we correct it. To that effect, we are thrilled to announce the creation of the Ignyte Awards series…”
Those words spoke to me because they felt familiar. With The Submission Grinder, with The Long List Anthology, they both started with a similar idea. People were saying “Someone should do something.” And I said “Maybe that someone could be me.” I wrote an email to Anthony W. Sullivan and said “This might be something we could do together.” He replied and said “I’ve already started.” It was only about 3 weeks later that we officially launched.
I am humbled to be here accepting this Community award from the fine folks that run the Ignyte Award and Fiyah who have made a huge impact in the field in just a few years. I never expected to be nominated for any award, let alone to win one.
I’m no one special. There happened to be an ideal time for this kind of project to start, and I was available at that time. I recognize that my availability was in part due to the level of my personal privilege, so I wanted to try to use that to help people if I could. It could have failed. From the beginning we stated that we would not require payment to use the site. A required subscription would mean that writers with tight budgets would have to make hard choices. A writer needs to be able to easily find publishers to submit their work, or they are at a huge disadvantage to their peers. Their voices are no less important to the world because of their level of income. So, Maybe no one would donate to the site. Maybe we would get too busy. Maybe Maybe Maybe. There are always so many Maybes.
We had early naysayers who said “it won’t last”. We didn’t waste our time arguing with them. What would the point be? Only longevity can prove longevity and now the site has been running for almost 10 years.
I do know that I wouldn’t have been able to do it by myself. Thank you to my family. Thank you to everyone who has been involved in the project. Anthony W. Sullivan, who was on the same wavelength at the same time. Andrew Rucker Jones, who had been volunteering as a Market Checker, now documenting and revising our policies and editing market listings directly. Our volunteer Market Checkers and everyone who has sent in a market suggestion or other note. All the cool people at Codex, and the Dire Turtles Writing Group, and on Twitter. We do pretty much zero advertising, so word of mouth is everything.
And also to the amazing Diabolical Plots crew who help everything over there run smoothly.
For anyone who looks out at the world and sees all the problems everywhere it is hard not to feel overwhelmed and say “I can’t make everything better”. No you can’t. But you can make something better. Maybe you think it’s too small to matter. But that helps build a community, one block at a time. And you might be surprised at how your efforts can snowball, as other people see what you’re doing, and volunteer to help. Let them help!
I would encourage all of you out there, when you see an unfulfilled need to ask yourself “Is this something I could help with?” Maybe it won’t work out. But Maybe it will.
Thank you to everyone who runs the award, and everyone who voted. We are deeply grateful.
Content note (click for details)Content note: Indirect Reference to Death, Mass Violence, Collective Punishment, Imprisonment
Ali never got used to the things they asked for. All those mismatched items left behind in those desperate moments. But there would be only one item per family so he advised them to choose wisely.
Usually, it was something small. Grandmother’s favorite azure prayer beads strung on a nail on the high shelf reserved for religious texts, a lost doll the kids had just rediscovered or a lucky tie for those rarest of job interviews. Sometimes it became fiercely practical, like heart medicine, the keys to an old car that had miraculously eluded being pummeled by those angry whistling bombs or useless saving certificates and property deeds.
In the beginning, he had used his gift as a child does. To try to wrong the little rights. To copy the answers of the smartest girl in class (beautiful flowy handwriting) or knowing just when to intercept sweaty Ahmed’s long pass and score the winning goal for his beleaguered football team.
But he could keep on cheating till eternity and nothing would change as long as the Occupation Housing Authority (OHA) controlled the territory. He would never get a job because there were none for anybody below the age of 40, no marriage before 50 or jumping the endless queue to the overcrowded beach that opened once a month on a random Friday. Instead, he had to wait as everyone else did in the Zone.
The Zone, casbah of the damned, the darkness of its pitted alleyways punctuated by nightflares. But it was the only world Ali had ever known and it was getting smaller every year or so, whittled away by the regular mini-invasions to root out the “miscreants”’ amongst them, houses demolished for archaeological/religious significance, OHA administrator rights, etc.
Ali’s vocation emerged out of the mad contours of life in the Zone provided he was close enough in the first place. Every so often, a roof knocker bomb would politely announce the randomized destruction of a designated apartment tower and let off red-hearted smoke, a warning for everyone in the Zone to behave.
Soon the evacuees of the destroyed building would start piling up around him with their requests and Ali would have to go to work. With desperate smiles, they would plead for him to go back (literally and temporally) to save the precious belongings they had abandoned in the terror of their flight.
Those ten precious, splendid minutes were all Ali ever had for his neighbors. It was the farthest extent he could stretch his being backwards in time before the doomed building was levelled by the damn OHA. By horrible synchronicity, this period aligned perfectly with the gap between the OHA’s warning and bombing.
All Ali asked for was they pay him something, anything they could spare from lives that had just tumbled into a pile of rubble. It all went to his parents, every last dinar. For a long time, he wondered if this hopping through time in this narrowest of spaces was his deepest destiny. As if he had been picked by fate expressly for this doomed place.
The smoke and dust seemed endless the day Burraq Heights was bombed for the third time by the OHA. Each time the Burraq’s stubborn owner had rebuilt his apartment block a storey lower hoping and praying to escape scrutiny.
Ali had lurched into the condemned building, managed all he could. His old Red Crescent canvas bag and repurposed combat vest bulged to the brim with lost and found. There was only one failed recovery, a silver ring rubbed against a saint’s shrine for luck. Exhaling slowly, he happily ran a hand through his scant hair, feeling relatively fresh and counting his money. It was a good day for recovery.
All this time, the loudspeakers emblazoned with the sleek logo of the OHA reminding them the good things in their lives:
1. Security (The lowest crime rate in years! So many criminals rounded up, gone without a trace.)
2. Well-settled refugees (Generation 6? Who was counting anymore?)
3. Environment-friendly roads made from plastic waste (Potholes a convenient size for a child to curl up and sleep inside.)
4. Graceful apartment towers lined with bright red cladding (those highly flammable borders lit up like a Roman candle when the bombs hit.)
The sun-drenched boulevard was so bright that he only saw the scrawny man when he was nearly on top of him. “You, lionheart, may all my generations bless you. Abu Zaman, please help me. My mother!” He was pointing in the distance, frame wracked by sobbing.
Abu Zaman, divine shadow, the snake which eats its own tail. They have a lot of titles for him. The dripping effusiveness of the prayers suggested he had no payment to offer. Ali tried to appear noncommittal. “Where in the Burraq, what was left behind? There’s nothing I can do about that now. It’s too late.”
The man’s seamed face strained as his finger pointed. Ali imagined his body toppling over into a hill of dust. “No, not in the Burraq,” he moaned, “she’s inside…our house.” Ali finally perceived the small pile of rocks, cragged like a cairn.
The Occupation had done a double tap, the man’s house bombed with only the slightest of time gaps with the Burraq. It was a rarity but who could divine the logic behind the biopolitical policies of the OHA?
The South Wind slashed Ali’s face with grit. He attuned himself, face like ageless stone. “Time of impact?” He said sharply.
“Four minute, two minutes ago,” the dazed son replied.
Not good. Barely enough. He would have three minutes with any margin at most.
He brought out his battered Zippo lighter in a flash and thumbed it sharply. He held his talisman aloft against fate, a passport to the dark void and leaned into his backward step. A blinking light steadied. And suddenly he was there and running past the rusty-railed veranda of the simple stone house.
He had been expecting a comatose woman, barely responsive. Instead, there was a mess inside. The barefooted little woman, wailing and weeping, had her wizened back to him. He called to her lightly and she wheeled around like an angry cat, her crystal eyes flashing out at him from under her turquoise shawl. He knew her from his childhood before his time travel had left a scar in place of every memory, each face a blur. Her name eluded him. She used to set out precious water for birds, always smiling at children and giving them creamy treats when they broke their life’s first fast in Ramadan.
But she seemed feral now, insensitive to all but the tide of blood and rage welling inside her. “My key, where is it? My son, my damned son, has hidden it. I’m sure of it.”
She moaned gently, “I couldn’t stop looking. He wants me to forget, curse him,” before she abruptly fell silent.
Patient Ali had waited for her to finish, didn’t doubt that she came from a long noble line and held fast to the rope like a desperate man groping in the dark. “Sayidaa,” he coaxed.
“Your son has sent me. Your face… It glows with the light of your lineage – surely you will sit on God’s right hand. Please come with me. The bomb is about to fall, I have seen it with my own eye.”
“So what?” she snapped, “We are all living on borrowed time, you most of all.” She stood still, her weathered upper lip curling stubbornly as she started her search again. Her densely veined hands shook slightly, knobbled by arthritis that the OHA didn’t permit to be treated. She was clawing at phantoms when he was trying to save her from annihilation. He hated her, this moth dancing around the flame. He felt exasperated and shouted. “Why can’t we just leave it? There’s nothing anymore. We lost.”
She was unfazed and flared at him. “So we will always be the wretched of the earth, always apologetic for our existence? Doesn’t our nation have a place under the sun? You should know better, Abu Zaman, you help so many.” Her voice rolled over him, a lullaby for resistance and revolt. “Son, we can still fight against the dark if we keep our heart and faith.”
He tried to tell her. The nation was dead. A thousand cuts, indignities, lies, and denials later, the Zone was all that remained. The vulture’s leavings. How does faith fare the sword? Fight how?
Her voice fell to the reedy whisper of a conspirator, “Can’t you just keep jumping? Ten minutes, again and again? Go back to when it all started and stop them in the very beginning. You could save our homeland.”
He wanted to laugh at the delusional hag. That wasn’t how it worked, how could it? He could barely manage the two jumps, one after the other, he had just made and now she wanted Ali stretched into infinity, sliced into tiny fragments.
He sucked in air, his chest red and heaving. Even his breathing sounded weak and strange to him. Within him the space between things moved, a subtle shift of infinite dimensions. An expanse was emerging that had never existed before.
For Ali who lived ten minutes at a time, tasted the presence of what had once been. He saw the lady’s lost home. His eye the spy of his heart. And he couldn’t avert his gaze. The glowing house standing on a windy hillock. The cool shade of date palms, the earthy smell of lively flowerbeds, trickling fountains playing the music of heaven, enormous teakwood doors, marbled staircases and most clear of all, the library which glimmered of books filled with endless dreams.
This loss was a reality Ali thought he accepted. Like everybody else in the Zone, his family had lost their dream as well. He saw the blank faces and empty eyes of his mother and father who lived in a squalid apartment that had miraculously never, not once, been hit. He knew why they rarely left its narrow confines. It wasn’t for any fear but the singular fact that the world outside, this Zone, held nothing of value for them. They had so few words left now, so desiccated were their empty lives. At night, he would fall to his knees and press his forehead hard against a gifted prayer mat, pleading and sobbing. All his efforts a band-aid for a gaping wound where bone gleamed back.
Deprived of land, hearth, factory and shop. All lost to the relentless tide of an invasion that now curled up into the black night of the OHA. But would they be deprived of memory, of thought, as well? No matter how painful, perhaps this was the only way for their brutalized humanity to survive…
“Do you think it’s possible to take all these broken pieces and make something new out of it?” he asked no one in particular.
Lost, he couldn’t remember the bomb streaking towards his destiny. It might as well have been the mother of all bombs that had pockmarked the Zone over the ravaged decades. He recalled the dusty words of a poet whose name was lost to ashes. The answers we hunger for already reside in our heart. He saw himself, a proud man standing tall in the redness of dawn.
So Ali fell to his knees to look below the tattered sofa that served as her humble bed. He tossed open the roughly finished cupboards, the low humble shelves. Spice jars and mirrors fell, dashed against the dirt floor.
He screamed and raged for that key. It would be found for the lady, for himself, for their weeping nation, he vowed. The old woman smiled at him faintly, like a ghost. Her dry lips moved silently in prayer before she blew her blessings upon him. It felt like a cool breeze for his tired soul, all the way from a homeland he might still know.
Murtaza Mohsin takes things as they are and tinkers with words. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan and is curious to see where this writing thing goes. His fiction has appeared in Future SF Digest and is forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge.