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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

All would be pulp.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Perhaps none.

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

***

“Daddy, look!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe so, kiddo.”

“I’m gunna look, okay?”

“Okay, but don’t touch it!”

And off she ran.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I retreated into silence again.

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

And the daughter was here.

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

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

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

***

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

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

My lady Athena.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I shuddered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A thought sprung out.

“Make them worship you.”

***

So I grew.

***

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

Taller.

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

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

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

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

I sculpted myself into my own cathedral.

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

***

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

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

I longed for those new stories.

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


© 2023 by Samara Auman

2980 words

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

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


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DP FICTION #100A: “They Were Wonderful, Once” by Lily Watson

Content note (click for details) Content note: body horror

Even by the third hot, sticky day into our road trip, the humans in the back of the transportation trucks remain fascinating. Theoretically, we know where our blood comes from. But this is different, seeing the little bits of them, poking through the slots on the sides of their container, pressed against the grates for lack of room.

“They didn’t used to be like that, you know,” our grandma shouts at us over the wind of the open windows for the third time in ten minutes, as another truck passes by. “They used to rule the world, back in the day. They were wonderful, I think.”

In the middle of the country, it seems that there’s nothing but trucks. There’s not even humans in the vast fields they pass, just dead grass and the occasional wild pig. They’re kept inside, but none of us can guess where.

Grandma is losing it, Mandy speaks into our minds from the front seat. Max is behind grandma, knees pressed to the fabric of the seat in front of them, to accommodate grandma’s long legs. None of us got this trait from her. The car is tiny, solar-powered, rented from a shop in Colorado Springs, where we started our journey.

Our grandma is getting more restless by the second, making us three restless along with her. There was no stopping our grandma from going on this trip, despite all of us knowing it would be bad for her. We’ve seen the pictures in school, the ones that she’s apparently avoided, of the Statue of Liberty, the surrounding water at her navel. And yet, grandma had the mindset of someone that would go back to the exact same city, livable, superb, bustling with humans, filled to the brim with life of all kinds.

And then we arrived. Suitcases in hand, grandma wearing a sunhat bought from a yard sale from Ohio on her hand. We found the city destroyed, in tatters from a hurricane, most of it underwater, the only tourist attraction a boat tour of the city that ran through the streets. We could look down from our spot on the dock where we drove up to the cars at the bottom, stalled on the road a hundred feet below, rusted and warped by the brown water.

Our grandma’s expression was so desolate it scared us, and we all piled back into a car, without a word said.

We don’t understand our grandma, exactly, as much as we would like. We’ve spent lots of our lives fantasizing about what it must be like to be an old vampire, as few and far between as they are. The kind that stopped popping up around a hundred years ago to make way for the new kinds of vampires, the ones that we are.  Grandma’s type can go into the sun without an enormous amount of fanfare, where we cast light like prisms. Where grandma can speak clearly aloud, we talk into minds, finding it difficult to make our mouths form words. Grandma has always walked and danced with grace, where every time we try to dance, our limbs hurt from twisting and we feel so self-conscious we could die, even if it’s just around each other.

Grandma is fascinating and worldly, and everything she says could be either very true or completely made up. We’ll never know, and that’s the best part of her stories. She can’t hear us speaking into each other’s minds and, though we can talk, it takes an incredible amount of energy, and makes us almost as self-conscious as dancing. We can’t hope to make those captivating facial expressions that grandma can make, eyes widening when she’s shocked, or wants us to be, nose scrunching when she’s disgusted, taking big deep breaths to throw her head back and laugh.

Our grandma requires every single window in the car rolled down so she can “get some fresh air, finally,” but we’re pretty certain she’s claustrophobic in the car with us. We’re the best company she has, and always say yes to spending time with her, but we’re silent and still and casting rainbows all around the tiny car, our dark skin refracting the sunlight. We never think much of it but our grandma, whose skin is lighter than ours and altogether different in texture and strength, is shocked every time she sees it. In the sun, her skin only glows a little bit, as if a candle is lighting her from the inside.

We never think about how we look more than when we’re with our grandma. She’s lighter than us, her skin a warm brown rather than an inky near-black. And our skin has little texture, smooth as glass, where grandma has a scar on her left temple, freckles on her nose. But what really sets us apart, if grandma’s reaction is an indication, is the intensity of the way our skin reflects the light. In the sun, her skin only glows slightly, as if a candle is lighting her from the inside.

To talk to us, our grandma shouts over the noise of the wind rushing in via the open windows, pushing her dark sunglasses back up her nose, as close to her face as possible, so that the light we cast won’t impair her ability to see the road.

We pass another truck, and the four of us ease our bodies to the right, trying to peek in to see the humans being transported. All we can see are dimpled thighs, matted golden or red or brown hair, the occasional freckled elbow. Our grandma, who slows the car down to specifically let us see into the back of the truck, speeds up once more, and we relax back into our seats.

“Why were they wonderful?” Mandy asks quietly. Our grandma jumps in her seat at the sound of another being speaking, whipping her head around. She smiles brightly then, and we’re reminded that everyone she would’ve been able to talk to, the vampires she went to Broadway shows with, had since died, too bored or anxious or depressed to continue.

Our grandma rolls all the windows up so she doesn’t have to shout. We all lean forward in eager anticipation, happy to see our grandma in such high spirits for the first time since we left New York.

“They moved, girls. They all had knives to their throats, they had expiration dates, so they moved. They innovated and they dreamed and they…made things.”

“They dreamed?” Max asks, slowly enunciating every letter. “You dream.”

We nod, remembering all the times grandma tells us about her dreams. Only old vampires like our grandma could dream or sleep at all. Only old vampires could put their minds at rest for hours on end, could do somewhere else while they were laying down. Oftentimes we watch over grandma when she sleeps, peeking in every once in a while to put our finger under her nose, leaving only when her soft breaths cooled the skin there, to make sure she was still alive.

She wants to continue speaking as another truck comes into view and, again, she slows down as we pass, lingering so we can all have a look. We see long, elegant fingers with dirt caked underneath the cracked nails, hairy shins, the sides of breasts. The car is silent while we look through the fist-sized holes on the transportation container, until grandma speeds up again. The truck gets ever smaller in the rearview mirror until we can’t see it at all. Grandma pushes the car to just over one-twenty.

“The dreaming I do is minute in comparison, barely even worth mentioning. I dream moments, they dreamed worlds.” She pauses, taking a sip from the bottle  of blood in the cupholder, shuddering at its “god-awful flavor” that she claims is much worse than the blood of the old humans that she would get “straight from the tap.” Farming them, she tells us constantly, makes them taste like chemicals, like bleach. The rainbows we emit blink out as we pass under a cloud, blocking the sun completely for a few moments before it reappears.

We mentally nudge each other, trying to figure out what to say to her, knowing that her mood has fallen again. Grandma accelerates, faster than we thought the car could go, and we come across another transportation truck. We see bellies, the dips of lower backsides and…an eye. A green one, looking directly at the three of us. It’s squinting at the sun on our skin, but not looking away. Its plump fingers rise to grip the edges of one of the holes.

“And they were all so loud! The world was loud back then, the streets filled with music and conversation. I was never bored, not one time. Now it’s like…to be alive is to be bored. You’re bored or you’re dead.”

I roll my window down, and lean my torso outside of the car, and grandma drifts towards the truck seamlessly, knowing exactly what I want without having to say so. I extend my hand, rainbows arching through the air as I move, and everyone in the car watches as the soft hand of the human, so dull and pink, stretches towards mine. Grandma gets a hair closer, and then closer, until finally my fingertip gently presses against the human’s.

The violent honk startles us, and I quickly retract, pulling my body back into the car as the truck veers off the road, flinging up dust before careening onto its side. Grandma slams her foot on the brake as the truck lands, our tires screeching on the pavement. We’re out before it stops all the way, running over to the truck. Before we can get there, we see the back door pop open, and we freeze.

After a few moments, a head of long, red hair peeks up over the side of the truck The human’s face dripped with blood its lungs inflating and deflating so rapidly that we can see them move under its flesh. One by one, other humans peek out, disoriented and wobbly on their legs as they walk on hot pavement for the first time. We watch, transfixed, as the humans begin, one-by-one, to run hard in the opposite direction, not looking back, sprinting into the cyan blue of the methane in the sky.


© 2023 by Lily Watson

1730 words

Author’s Note: This story started as an assignment for a class I took senior year of college — Eating Animals — when I was deep into my vampire phase (still am). It was inspired by my road trip from Washington to Connecticut, and how many trucks I saw transporting cows to slaughterhouses, particularly as I’ve been vegan for my whole adult life. 

Lily Watson is a writer based in Seattle. Her work has been published in the Baffler, the Longleaf Review, and Fiyah Litmag. She graduated with a degree in Sociology in 2019 from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She is beautiful and kind. Everyone loves her. 


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DP FICTION #98B: “Bottled Words” by Carol Scheina

When Dad sent me into the kitchen for a container—any lidded vessel at all—to bottle Grandma’s voice, all I could find were lonely lids.

That wasn’t unexpected. When Dad cooked, he turned the bottom of pans into crusts of blackened rice, resistant to any amount of scrubbing, eventually slipping them into the darkness of a closed trash bag. He somehow managed to explode our ovenproof casserole dishes when baking. Thus our pots and dishes had vanished, though he’d kept the lids, vowing to find a match at the thrift store. He never did.

I spread lids over the white kitchen tile like a buffet of metal and ceramic, these orphans of failed dinners. Wondering what would work best to capture a sound.

Not knowing what would work best for, in truth, I’d never actually heard a bottled voice. I didn’t want to risk it. Not with hearing aids.

Unbottle a voice and it would vibrate through air, giving you one—just one—chance for your brain to turn those waves into recognizable words. But for me, it’s not like I could stop a bottled voice and ask, “Can you say that again?” There was no listening over and over, trying to see if I could recognize a new word here or there. There was no telling a disembodied voice that yes, I could hear it with hearing aids, but no, the sound wasn’t clear enough, or my brain wasn’t able to piece the sounds into words, or that I’d much prefer to read its voice on paper.

Dad wanted to bottle Grandma’s voice while she stayed with us, these three summery-melty days before her room at the memory care facility opened. Three days of feeling sunshine through windows and trying to catch a glimpse of warmth in Grandma’s eyes. It had been so long since I’d seen that warmth.

Three days to bottle words I’d never risk listening to.

I couldn’t tell Dad that, though. People can keep words bottled up too.

When I finally dashed upstairs, I carried a cereal bowl with a yellowish Corningware casserole glass top sliding around like an oversized hat. But I was too late. Grandma’s words had vanished into silence.

Silence never really bothered me much, since all it took was a little click-off of my aids and I’d be in silence again.

Except with Grandma, the silence from her was also in the way she sat, the way she looked and didn’t see you.

Dad’s sigh was too soft for my hearing aids, but I could see it, the way his shoulders sagged like one of those droopy thrift store sweaters you see slipping off the hanger. “I wasn’t expecting Grandma to be lucid, but she came back to me for a bit.” He looked at the cereal bowl and casserole lid. “I’ll see if I can find some secondhand pots at the thrift store tonight. We’ll be ready next time.”

I watched Dad’s mouth as I listened. I’d been watching that mouth since birth, connecting the sounds I picked up along with mouth movements in some strange dance that formed words in my mind. Even if I didn’t always get every sound, I could always nod like I understood everything.

I nodded.

Grandma shifted in her chair, the one that had given Dad that wide, excited grin when he’d brought it home from a yard sale. It was exactly like the chair Grandma used to have in her house, but this one was too stiff. Grandma’s chair had rings from the stains that had been washed out, a few threads pulled here and there, but it had always smelled like clean lemons and molded around your butt like a soft hug.

Grandma used to be hugs and smiles, and now we were all shifting around uncomfortably like we were in stiff chairs of our own.

Grandma didn’t look up when I popped a kiss on her cheek and stepped out of the room.

Dad tapped my shoulder to draw my eyes. “We’ve got time. I want to make sure her voice is there with all our family voices. We’ve got a lot of bottles. A lot of family history waiting for you.”

I nodded.

“Your mom’s waiting too.”

I don’t exactly hear when a voice cracks, but I can see it. The cracks were there in Dad’s eyes, blinking a faster-than-usual rhythm. They were there in his clenched jaw. The little ways a body can crack and show the sorrow under the surface.

I couldn’t do a simple nod-response to those cracks, so I muttered, “Soon.” I’d been muttering that since I hit twelve and Dad thought I was finally old enough to be able to remember the voices. To remember Mom’s voice.

More cracks in Dad’s face.

I slipped into my room with an echo of “soon” around me. I didn’t want to hear that. That was a lie. I turned the aids off, the abrupt silence ringing in my ears until that faded.

I sat on my bed and felt like a lid in our kitchen. Unable to hold any sound.

***

I lived in a house with a never-ending game of Telephone keeping the family stories alive.

Nearly every free wall had vintage bookshelves that Dad purchased from online yard sales, estate sales, antique shops. They all veered toward shades of dark brown, shiny with oils and age, with scents of dust and cigar smoke and bitter wood settled in like a house guest you’d never be able to evict.

Those bookshelves held our ancestor’s bottled voices. The oldest containers were rusty tin cans, the lids held on with yellowed string that Dad had reinforced with duct tape. A family member whose name has long blurred to forgetfulness in my mind (Dad remembered them all) had been organized and put voices in clear mason jars topped with round lids and a square of plaid fabric. I liked to trace the swirly glass patterns with my eyes and imagine what a voice looked like.

Oh, people wrote stories down, of course, but as Dad always reminded me, with that eye-sparkle he got, “It’s powerful when you hear a bottled voice. You get the feel of their breath in your ear. The smell of oranges or spaghetti sauce or whatever they’d last eaten. Bottling a voice is more than just words on paper, or a video or tape recording. You can hear more, feel more. You get to sit down with someone in the past.”

Seems like a lot of stuff wasn’t the same unless it came straight from the voice, but I wouldn’t know about that.

The family rule was when you heard a voice, you remembered the story and told it again in a new container. One day, I was supposed to bottle my own voice—probably into a pot with a mismatched lid.

Our family stories would literally speak-and breathe—for generations to come.

Except Grandma had stories she still hadn’t bottled. Dad had found Grandma’s records and knew there were stories that were missing. Stories he wanted to save, stories for me.

***

On Grandma’s second day at our house, the sky grumped gray clouds at us, matching Dad’s mood. Grandma stayed silent.

Come evening, the three of us sat at the dinner table—one of those vintage white Formica tables with aluminum legs. All our chairs were different shades and shapes of wood, as Dad hadn’t found matching chairs just yet at his weekly thrift store visits.

While Grandma ate, she kept her eyes aimed at her plate, fork moving up and down with the regularity of a machine.

Dad pulled up old videos to watch on the computer. He watched videos most every night—old family tapes converted to digital, YouTube videos on ancient wars, past methods of food preparation—you name it.

A lot of stuff wasn’t professionally captioned, and the auto-captioning was just cringe-worthy. I used to get angry over the lack of words on the screen, but … no, to be honest, I still get angry. A whole online world that shut me out simply because I couldn’t hear well enough. But I didn’t like feeling angry all the time, or making Dad feel guilty about enjoying his videos. It wasn’t his fault the captions sucked. So as Dad watched his videos, I turned my hearing aids off and opened a book.

Slipping into a book was like slipping into Grandma’s old, familiar chair. It hugged my brain.

Until Dad tapped the table to get my attention.

I looked up. His mouth moved. I nodded, but he knew I wasn’t listening, his fingers pointing at my ears. Sometimes, I couldn’t bluff at hearing. I turned both aids on.

Dad waited for my thumbs up confirmation. Sound had been activated.

“I burned another pot.”

“Oh, Dad.”

He grinned. “Saved the lid! I’ll try to find a new pot next time I go shopping. But hey, scoot your chair closer to Grandma. I’ve got a video I want us to watch together.”

“Is it captioned?” I stepped into that question carefully.

“I’ve got this new captioning plug-in that should work. Besides, it’s good practice for you to hear her voice. You’ve been doing great with the hearing aids.” Dad fiddled with the computer. “I remember when you were born, doctors thought you wouldn’t be able to hear at all, and now look at you.” Pride in his voice.

What could I say to that? I nodded.

The video on the computer screen showed Grandma with fewer lines in her face, more blinks in her eyes. There were no stumbles in her voice. I could hear the rhythm, the surety as she spoke. Yet Grandma’s voice was a pattern of rising and lowering pitches that my brain couldn’t fit into words. Puzzle pieces that couldn’t be pounded into place.

I shifted over to the captioning to help: “Prince esterable knowing five anna into the sea.”

How I despised auto-captioning.

Dad rarely noticed the words onscreen. I don’t think he’d notice if a tornado screamed next to our kitchen, to be honest, so lost he became when it came to history. I didn’t want to break the mood and bug him once more about the indecipherable words on the screen.

Instead, I watched Grandma’s face as she watched her younger self on the screen—the way she leaned forward on that stiff chair, lips moving as though reciting the story along with herself. She’d grown softer in just a few moments of video.

Dad had an aluminum pot ready when the video ended.

“Do you remember that story? Can you tell it to me?”

But Grandma had gone stiff again.

Dad slumped back into his chair. “I want to at least get one of Grandma’s voice to put up there. So many voices up there for you to hear. See that ugly tin up there? That one’s from the 1890s. Not sure why no one’s opened that yet. I’ve always wanted to be the first, but figured I’d wait for my kid so there’d be another generation to hear it.”

I gave a quick smile and nod.

Dad didn’t let up, though. “At some point, I bet you’ll be ready to hear your mom.”

“At some point. Soon.” I pushed my chair back from the table.

Dad looked at the shelves. I didn’t want to look at him.

Grandma looked at her food. Her eyes didn’t move as I kissed her cheek.

In my room, my eyes slipped back into my book. People talked on pages, but you didn’t have to hear them. I never had to worry if a hearing aid battery died mid-sentence, or if I didn’t hear the sentence properly. I never had to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that.”

I never had to smile and nod and pretend.

***

On Grandma’s last full day with us, Dad’s mouth had gotten all tight and pinched at the ends.

Dad was convinced that even though we’d still visit her at the memory care center, it wouldn’t be the same. If she was ever going to open up again, it would be here, surrounded by family.

He settled into a chair beside her, videos of Young Grandma speaking. Several times, he started the opening of a story and waited for her to continue.

I could feel the pressure building like one of Dad’s casseroles in the oven, his voice bearing down on Grandma’s thin shoulders.

No wonder she never spoke. Stories should be comfortable places to slip into.

Dad called me in close to dinnertime. “I need a break. Can you watch her while I make dinner? Call me if she starts to talk?”

I nodded.

Grandma’s eyes focused on a book, thin and tall, the cover’s bright colors rubbed to pastels. It looked like one of Dad’s thrift store finds.

Book in hand, I sat into the seat opposite Grandma, and we settled into our worlds.

Silence nestled around us like a warm blanket. She looked comfortable in her chair, for once.

***

Dad tapped the table that evening before I could start eating. “Are you plugged in?!” Not shouting, but his lips over-enunciated every syllable.

“My aids are on. Sound’s activated.”

“I noticed you two were reading earlier. She say anything about that?”

“No. Maybe she just doesn’t want to talk. Maybe she just wants to read her book.”

Grandma’s fork moved up and down.

Dad’s eyes sparkled. “Our family stories aren’t like anything you’ll ever find in a book. I got to hear an account of our ancestors during the 1700s, told by my grandmother, who’d heard it from hers. I listened after my grandmother had died, and hearing her voice again, feeling the breath against my cheek, the smell of her rose perfume… It was powerful.”

I nodded.

His eyes shifted to the shelves of Our Family History. “Time goes by so quickly. Things change, a jar accidentally breaks, and the opportunity is lost. Look at your grandmother. Her stories are gone, and I wonder if we’re ever going to get them back.”

I mumbled, “It’s okay.”

“What?”

Voice a bit louder. “It should be okay if Grandma doesn’t talk. We don’t have to bottle everything.”

Silence, and this one stretched an oily film of discomfort over the table. “Those bottles are our connection with the past. People we’ve lost. Your mother’s voice is up there waiting for you.”

“I know. I’ll listen soon.”

“When is that going to be?” Cracks in his face.

“When I’m ready.”

“Why don’t we listen to something tonight. If you practice more at listening, you’ll get better.”

My knuckles turned white gripping the fork. “Practice is not going to magically restore my hearing.”

“Your hearing aids…”

But I’d tipped a ball down a mountainside, and I couldn’t stop it from rolling. “I can’t even understand videos without captioning. I don’t catch every word that’s said. I don’t hear like you!”

Grandma looked up, fork frozen.

Dad’s eyes shifted to the bottled voices, then back to me. I wonder if he was thinking the same thing I was: I would never be a part of the family history.

Who could swallow dinner after swallowing that truth? My chair scraped back as I scrambled from the vintage table, past the vintage shelves. Past a history that would never be mine.

Into my room. Onto my bed, the bedspread soft and welcoming, a book with words I could dive into and always follow.

I read. I understood every word.

Like Dad didn’t understand me. Like I’d never understand Mom.

I couldn’t read any more; not with a face full of wet.

***

When my face dried off, I realized Dad had slipped in and out without me hearing him. The only way I knew that was because of the note on my bed. My eyes still felt blurry, and I had rub them a bit to make out his sloppy word shapes.

Your mom liked to make up silly songs. Like Grandma. These are the words your mom bottled for you:

Little baby, sweet as ice cream

You are why I’m craving ice cream

Gonna send your dad to pick some up for me

Chocolate chip or cookies and cream

Having you is such a dream

Little baby, you’ll be my sweetest ice cream

All these years, he’d asked if I was ready to hear Mom’s voice. Had he unbottled Mom’s container now?

Why did that hit me so hard?

I didn’t want to open it anyway.

I wouldn’t hear it properly.

But I’d never have the opportunity now.

That hit like every one of our vintage bookshelves were pressing down on my chest.

I threw off the soft bedcovers.

Dad sat at the Formica table alone, forehead resting on a green jar with a neat gold lid. He heard me coming in. Of course he did.

He spoke first: “I never told you which container held your mother’s voice. I just realized you’ve never asked.”

“Did you open it?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I listened to every single other voice she bottled. I went through them all in a few weeks. But this is your jar. She made it just for you. I was there. Three days after she bottled this, she went into early labor and …”

I knew this story. Dad didn’t have to tell me any more. I’d been born too early, with ears that didn’t work right. The birth hadn’t gone right, and her story ended shortly after mine began.

Dad’s voice sounded full of lumps. It took all my lipreading to make the rest of his words out: “I’ve been trying to remember her voice all this time. The past, it just … slips away, no matter how hard I try. It’s so hard to find things to bring it back.”

Silence can be knowing there’s a river between two people and wondering how to build a bridge across it.

Into that quiet, Grandma walked in, the thin rubbed-cover book in her hand. She placed it on the white tabletop and looked at me with a hug behind her eyes. Let’s read together.

So much can be said without words. Grandma was proof.

And sometimes, you need those silences to form words that can’t be kept inside.

I let the silence linger before taking a deep breath. “Dad, even with aids, I still don’t pick up everything you do. That’s why I like reading. Captions, books, anything. It’s my way of understanding things. Not through sound. That’s why I’ve never asked which bottle was Mom’s. I’d never hear it right.”

Dad’s turn to step into the silence. “I always liked to think you couldn’t bluff me. That I’d know if you weren’t listening or just pretending to understand. You bluffed better than I knew.”

He gave a lopsided grin before growing serious again. “When I found out you couldn’t hear, someone recommended I use sign language with you. Maybe it’s time to look into that.”

Sign language. What would stories be like through that? I knew about sign, but my world had always been voices, lipreading, hearing aids. What if I could be a new pot, ready to be filled with new words and stories and … signs?

A future tickled at my thoughts, but first—

“Can we open Mom’s jar?”

Dad’s lips tightened. “I don’t want to pressure you. You don’t have to listen.”

“I’m going to read. You’re going to listen.”

Did people feel all fluttery when they uncorked genies in bottles?

When the gold lid came off, Dad, Grandma and I sat around the kitchen table. I squeezed Grandma’s hand. She squeezed back as sound vibrated through the air. Dad listened with soft lips, eyes closed, holding my other hand.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t hear every word. Family surrounded me.

I read my father’s words, eyes tracing every letter of Mom’s song.

I felt my mother’s breath.

Vanilla ice cream. She smelled of ice cream.


© 2023 by Carol Scheina

3324 words

Author’s Note: The overwhelming majority of deaf children (around 90 percent in the United States) are born to hearing parents. A large number of those parents do not learn to sign to their children. I fall into that statistic, as I grew up a deaf child in a non-signing family. Many families – mine included – have traditions and songs from generations past. Those traditions are a beautiful thing. But for me, with a 90-100 decibel hearing loss in both ears, I struggled with words to religious ceremonies and lyrics to songs. I struggled to explain that hearing aids didn’t fully restore my hearing. Those experiences formed the basis of this story.

Carol Scheina is a deaf speculative fiction author who hails from the
Northern Virginia region. Her stories have appeared in publications
such as Escape Pod, Cossmass Infinities, Daily Science Fiction, and
more. You can follow her work at carolscheina.wordpress.com.


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In Loving Memory of Violet Steffen

by David Steffen

In Loving Memory of Violet Steffen
Born November 24, 2007
Adopted December 20, 2012
Died April 26, 2022

This is the story of a gentle loving dog who lived a long happy life with her family.  This is the story of Violet the lavender merle Pomeranian.

Violet’s Life

Bringing Her Home

Our papillon Aria passed away in December 2012 (see Aria’s memorial here), while Heather was pregnant with the kid. We wanted to adopt another dog pretty soon after that because we wanted to give a new dog a little time to get used to everything before the kid was born. I attended some local adoption events to see if any particular dog caught my eye. One of the events I attended was a small dog adoption event run by Underdog Rescue. They had big exercise pens full of small dogs. I strolled among the kennels, full of many cute and friendly small dogs. One dog in particular kept catching my eye, though, in part because she was ignoring every other person there and staring directly at me, up on her hind legs against the exercise pen and begging me to pick her up. Also, in some ways she looked similar to Aria, even though they were different breeds and different colors. So I picked her up, and played with her there and got to know her a bit.

Underdog listed her on their site as “Aubrey”. Her official paperwork called her “Chloe Lovelace”. We found out that her coloring was very unusual, called a “lavender merle” which is sort of a faded brown that’s sort of a faded almost-purple. And we decided to call her Violet because of the coloring. She also had really unusual and interesting eye coloration. One eye was brown with a little splotch of blue, the other eye was brown and blue split along a diagonal line across the middle.

We applied, did a followup meet and greet with Mikko and Timmy, and of course ended up adopting her. She needed a little bit of medical TLC, including keeping an eye on her stitches after spay surgery and some eardrops to deal with some ear issues, but overall didn’t have any major health concerns. Which is good because we travelled with her only a couple days after the adoption. Her hair when we first adopted her was very stiff in the undercoat, even prickly–this was probably due to poor diet. After some time for her coat to grow out on a new diet, it grew in much softer.

Violet was very wary of Heather at first–Heather thinks that it’s because she was pregnant at the time. While Heather was pregnant, Violet didn’t like to let her close, and would sometimes growl if she approached. Violet was also very wary of women in general; we think she might have been abused by a woman earlier in her life. Before we adopted her she had spent her whole life in a puppy mill giving birth to puppies for pet stores, and maybe there was a woman there who had treated her poorly.

In the first few weeks that we had her, Violet slipped out the front door when Heather went out and I was at the office. Heather, pregnant at the time and not at her most mobile, chased Violet for a bit and Violet had a grand old time (certainly much more of a grand time than Heather had!). Heather, recognizing that Violet was playing a game, headed home and Violet headed home right after. (Luckily this was a very unusual circumstance, she was not one with a tendency to run)

She was very difficult to potty train. The puppy mill she lived in was in Arkansas, then she went to auction in Missouri, so when she arrived in Minnesota just before the winter solstice she was not excited about going outside in colder temperatures than she had ever experienced. She refused to go potty in the cold. We tried keeping her in a small space in an exercise pen but she quickly figured out how to scale the exercise pen.

When Heather and I went to the hospital for the kid to be born, when Heather’s mom watched the dogs while we were gone, Heather’s pajamas were folded up on her side of the bed and Violet slept on the pajamas every night. Violet was less wary of Heather after that, and in the long-term they became very close as well.

For most of her life, Violet was still wary around other women until she got to know them very well. We would always let Violet have a little extra space if we knew we were going to have a woman houseguest. If she was woken up abruptly, she would also sometimes wake up in a bit of a panic (another side effect of past abuse perhaps), so we always tried to wake her up gently.

Nicknames

Our dogs always have a variety of nicknames. Violet was sometimes: Violet Wiolet, Viletta, Violetta, Viderletta, Wiletta Biletta, Vilosh, Darling, and Peaches.

What Made Her Special

Sensitive

Although she would bark at the door with the best of them, she liked it much quieter than other dogs did. If everyone was else in the living room watching TV she would find a quiet room and go find a cozy spot in a corner.

More than any of the other dogs we’ve had, Violet had a weather sense for storms. Before the sky darkened, she would start acting nervous and we would know there was a storm coming. We think it might’ve been pressure changes that she was able to sense. When there was a thunderstorm, she would always try to find a cozy sheltered place like behind the toilet. She was never a big cuddler, but for some years when I took Timmy downstairs to his storm safe spot on the couch, I would take Violet along too and the three of us would cozy up under a blanket.

She continued to be sensitive to the cold, so that in the dead of winter after her meals we would put booties on her feet or she would have trouble standing long enough to do her business. If you left the booties off she would circle and circle looking for the perfect spot. She would lift one leg and hobble around. She would lift two legs and balance precariously. She would lift three legs and of course would then tip over because she is a dog not a flamingo.

Anticipating Her Needs

More than any other dog we have had, she could anticipate her needs at night and wake us up with enough time to handle it. She did this pretty much throughout her life with us, and even in some rough times near the end she was always very consistent about it. When Violet stood by your head, you knew it meant she needed something, usually to be taken outside for an urgent need, so you needed to take her out right away. Her diligence in anticipating and warning us was much appreciated.

Silly

Violet would always be very excited when Heather laid down on the floor because Violet would immediately roll in Heather’s long hair and root around in it with obvious joy. We never knew why that was so exciting for her.

She wouldn’t play with toys. Not really, anyway. But sometimes, when you came home and she was especially excited to see you, she would pick up a squeaky toy and go walk over to you. But if you reached for the toy, she would immediately drop it and would not interact with it again, like “Oh, you want it? Okay, there you go.”

When she was in a goofy playful mood she would sprint around the house in circles with a weird little scooty-butt gallop.

When it was time for bed, she would always want belly rubs, so she would roll over and wait for it. If you rubbed her belly and then stopped, she would wave her paws in the air. The more vigorous the belly rub, the more vigorous the paw-waving.

Gentle

She had a gentle soul. Other dogs sometimes play-bite where they will nibble on your fingers without hurting you during playtime, but she never put her teeth on people like that. Once, when playing with her in a playful mood and she was pawing frantically in the air and snapping her mouth in the air like she was silently barking, and while we were playing with her someone’s finger accidentally ended up in her mouth (still no actual bite) and she stopped playing immediately and seemed very concerned that someone had been hurt.

Weather Sense

She was always aware of the weather before it rolled in.  With a clear sky, if she started to look to people for comfort or to hide in nooks by the couch or behind the toilet, you could be sure there was a thunderstorm coming through in a few hours.

Other Stories

Violet really never jumped on the bed, which is pretty far off the ground. For years and years and years she didn’t, and we assumed she couldn’t. And then our friend Becky came over for a visit, and we all happened to walk in our bedroom and randomly Violet made the jump up there to get closer to Becky and didn’t seem to realize what she’d done. She never repeated the performance.

In some ways, Violet reminded us of Aria who came before her. Aria’s head always smelled like strawberries; Violet’s smelled sweet too, but it was more like grape. (Both of their feet smelled like Frito’s corn chips).

With the other dogs she never pushed for dominance. If another dog wanted to be bossy she was content to be a follower, unless another dog tried to take a bone she was chewing on, then she would stand her ground. If another dog was chewing a bone she would sometimes wait until they left it (to bark at a squirrel or something) and then she would grab the sticky gummy bone and go chew it somewhere quiet.

With Others

With Mikko

In Mikko’s younger days, they played quite a bit. Violet and Mikko would play-bow and like to chase each other around. As Mikko got older, his arthritis and other conditions meant he got a less playful so Violet had to find her playtime elsewhere, but they got along most of the time. Mikko was always pretty bossy, and Violet was usually happy to be a follower. If Mikko barked at something she was always happy to join in.

With Timmy (click to read Timmy’s memorial)

Timmy and Violet always got along well. Neither of them were much for picking fights, most of the time they would just happily coexist with each other, or might share a sunbeam or a dog bed. They traveled very well together, often cuddling up in a dog bed together or in a dog car seat together while Mikko had his own space.

With Michael

Michael didn’t join the family until Violet was already on the older side, so she wasn’t quite as rambunctious as in her younger days with Mikko, but she would still be good for a roughhouse with Michael when the mood hit her just right, and the two of them would play-bow and then spar, rearing up on their hind legs and grappling with each other. Michael, being such an endlessly energetic young’un would generally come out on top (especially with his signature “hip-check” maneuver, where he would look a dog right in the eye and somehow his butt would swing around and bonk the other dog right in the head without him breaking eye contact), but a good time was had by all.

With Cooper

Cooper and Mabel would play sometimes, especially when they were younger. Cooper would try to mount her pretty frequently, and she would stand her ground and not accept that, would scoot away and maybe start sparring with him.

With the Cat-In-Laws

She bothered with the cats less than the other dogs (like Mikko or Michael). She generally left them alone and they left her alone. She was always a little wary, but she wasn’t really scared and didn’t feel the need to hide.

With the Kid

When we came back from the hospital with the kid after being born, we set the car seat carrier on the floor which had the blankets the kid had been covered in. She was very interested in that carrier, and she pulled the blankets from the carrier one by one and laid them out next to each other on the floor.

Because she was always wary of loud noises and intimidating situations, she would take the opportunity to find a quiet place if it got too noisy.

As the kid got older, she was always attuned to wake up time. When the kid woke up and came out for breakfast she would bark and follow him; something she wouldn’t do any other time. If we called the kid’s name she would always bark in the same rhythm: bark-bark, bark, bark.

Medical Adventures On the Way

A few years before the end, she had an… interesting… medical issue when we were on a road trip. Partway through the trip the car filled with a foul fishy odor, despite none of the dogs appearing to have taken the posture to use the bathroom. At first we thought that she had had a poop accident, which would have been very unusual and weird since she hadn’t taken the posture. But after we cleaned her up quick with the supplies we had at hand, it looked like she had an extra orifice on her back end from usual. It turned out that her anal gland had burst, which can happen from time to time. So we learned more than we wanted to learn about dog anatomy at that time.

We fostered a stray cat we named Whiskers for a few weeks while we were waiting for a cat rescue spot to open up. Whiskers generally didn’t have a lot of conflict with the dogs during those few weeks, minding her own business and not provoking the dogs. One day, though, Whiskers and Violet came face to face as they both turned a corner and had a quick and loud squabble. Violet was just trying to get away. We checked over them both and they both seemed to be okay… but then a day or two later one of us touched Violet’s back and she just started oozing all over. Whiskers had bitten her right in the back and left a perfect four-shot of bite marks that we had had trouble finding in her thick hair. By the time the vet was done with her, they had shaved a big rectangle of hair on her back to treat the wounds. It took quite a while to grow back, and while it was gone it look like she was a robot with a maintenance panel left open. After Whiskers moved to a cat adoption agency, whenever someone said the name “Whiskers” Violet would look around in panic.

In her younger years she was a voracious chewer. Of bones, if available. If not, well, many other things would do. She was a rough combination with a toddler in the house. She ate a plastic lemon, a plastic spoon, a plastic shovel handle, many pacifiers (which are extra fun because they are such soft plastic they don’t show up in x-rays), and the worst of which a CD case which broke into terrible jagged shards. Many trips to the ER to sort those out!

The Sad Part

Over most of her life she didn’t have major health problems. Most of the concerning vet visits we had by volume were a direct result of her eating something inappropriate, though thankfully all of those were resolved without having to do any kind of surgery.

Her health problems all started to happen last year. We normally haven’t had to supervise the dogs super closely when they eat, because they all dive into their own food bowls and stay there til their food is gone, if one dog tries to get at another dog’s food we will hear about it quickly. But we abruptly realized that she wasn’t finishing her meals, and that the other dogs were mopping up her bowl before she was done.

She had diarrhea that seemed to happen on a 6 week cycle, sometimes at the same time as our other Pomeranian, Michael, but never with our poodle Mikko–which is odd in itself because Mikko has a more sensitive digestive system generally. When she had one of these episodes, she was fine all day, most of the time, but then would have frequent bouts of it all night sometimes, sometimes needing to go out nearly every forty-five minutes. Thankfully she was very good about anticipating her need, and about waking us up promptly enough that we could have time to grab a coat and get her outside.

We took her to the vet quite a few times over several months, trying to figure out if was parasites, bacteria, some kind of foreign body. Took several rounds, and then she took a really sudden drop in October, where they determined that she was going into acute kidney failure at that part, which resulted in permanent kidney damage. Our regular vet suggested we just say our goodbyes and let her pass, but we managed to get into an internal medicine department at the U of MN vet clinic who helped us make treatment plan. With some fluid treatment, special diet, and a new set of medicines, we were able to get her leveled out.

The next month she had another very bad episode with all-night diarrhea again where her creatinine was up to 4 initially and we got her in for treatment and it got as bad as 6.1, and we thought we were going to have say goodbye to her then. But it evened out again, honestly to the surprise of the vet. Fluid therapy made a big difference with subcutaneous fluids. We even learned to administer it to her ourselves, though her even temperament made that a lot easier.

Throughout all of this, experimenting with different medicines, different fluid frequencies, followup appointments, nutrition consults and even tried some kidney food for cats to try to keep her numbers where we wanted her, and handfeeding her pate for every meal because she wouldn’t eat any other way. She had a bad tooth at this point, but because her kidneys were in such rough shape dental surgery was not an option because she would not be likely to handle the anesthesia.

We were calling her vets on pretty much a daily basis at that point trying to figure out if there was anything else we could try because it was getting harder and harder to get her to eat.

One night she had a particularly rough night where she was very restless. I brought her out to the couch to see if she would settle down out there like she sometimes would. I could sometimes get her to settle down, especially if she was cuddled up in a blanket, and she might settle down for ten minutes, but then she would suddenly startle awake and it would take a long time to get her to settle down again. We decided to try to get her into the vet ER… and they were not taking new patients at the time; one of their vets had been bitten by a cat and so the ER was understaffed.

Heather watched her for the rest of the night, and when we got to our normal wakeup time, the ER was accepting patients again, so I took her in. She was still feeling pretty rough, looking like she was having a real rough time of it. They took her back and immediately found that her body temperature was lower than it should be, and noted some cognitive symptoms, sort of seemed like she was dazed.

They ran some different diagnostic tests and found that her kidneys were fine. But her liver suddenly had some very high enzymes. They tried to put her on some medicine to help manage that, but they also found that ammonia levels in her body were also very high. They said she was experiencing more neurological symptoms, like “head pressing”, where an animal presses their head against some surface and just leaves it there. All this time we hadn’t been able to see her all because of lack of staff to facilitate it.

Heather and the kid were able to join us at the vet, and they were able to let us see Violet, and though they had told us she was having some neurological symptoms, we hadn’t realized how bad she was doing until we saw her in person. She was almost completely unresponsive. The most response she would have was to blink sometimes if something moved near her face, but otherwise nothing. Apart from sometimes blinking from motion she wasn’t even blinking and they were putting lubricating drops in her eyes to keep them moist so they wouldn’t dry out.

We had to go to go to a cub scout meeting, and she seemed to be in a fairly stable (if not good) condition, so we went to the meeting and came back afterward. We were planning to take her home, and figuring that we would give the ammonia-reducing medicine a little more time to work, and decide if we needed to schedule a home visit for euthanasia. But when we came and saw her again, she had gotten even worse if that was possible, and we decided we had to make the difficult choice to let her go. We sat with her there in a private comfortable room for a little while, holding her and talking to her and sharing our favorite memories of her. Finally the time came and we had to say goodbye to our brown- and blue-eyed girl.

We were heartbroken to see her go, but it was her time.

What Came After

The very next day after she passed, Heather noticed that there were several cardinals outside as she was looking at the adoption profile for Mabel (who we ended up adopting and who has mixed-color eyes that are like the reverse of Violet’s). We had not seen any cardinals yet this year when the spring was late in coming, and we rarely see two cardinals together, and had never seen three together. Throughout that whole day, we saw the three cardinals together, chirping and hanging around the house. Some say that cardinals are the spirits of those who have passed away coming to visit you. If you believe in signs, we have had to say goodbye to three dogs together: Aria, Timmy, and Violet, and maybe Violet met up with her the other two and brought them back for a visit.

DP FICTION #89B: “Heart of a Plesiosaur” by Andrew K Hoe

Content note (click for details) Content note: death of close family, grief

I suppose being orphans made Jannah and I excel at animating. I think the ability blooms fiercest in children who’ve experienced loss.

As brother and sister, we’d been assigned to the Ming-Lelanges. That first day with them, they took us to the topiaries, where elephant and giraffe shrubberies guarded the lawns. Some relief from the city’s smokestacks, trains, and dirigibles. There, industrial pollutants had made keeping live animals impossible. But here, families strolled on the grass, among stone anima frozen in whatever poses they’d been left in—not real animals, but close enough.

Jannah sucked her thumb, watching children stare at stone puppies and kittens. The resultant living anima fetched balls. It was our first time seeing animation in practice, something that had gotten more popular as advancements in steam-engines drove animals further inland.

The Ming-Lelanges explained that moving anima wasn’t just about seeing and remembering an animal’s movement. Animating involved memory, but it was really about grasping the animal’s essence: you had to comprehend a puppy’s tail-wagging—its sniffing curiosity, its joyous face-licking—to move something puppy-shaped.

“Your memories of the animal, your understanding of its spirit,” Steffer Ming-Lelange said. “You push that into the stone. Watch!” He frowned at a monkey-animus; it shifted, ambling stiffly across the grass. 

Jannah shrieked with delight. “Like when we went to the zoo! With Mom and Dad!” 

We’d been sad for so long over our parents’ deaths. I thought I’d never see Jannah smile again.

Steffer strained at the monkey, but like other adults, his talent had faded. His husband Marle couldn’t animate at all. The monkey ground to a standstill.

Suddenly, it somersaulted. Steffer turned to Marle. “That wasn’t me.”

They saw me squinting at it. Mom had wanted to see the birds at the zoo’s aviary. I’d whined it was too far, and Dad agreed. Mom had looked a little sad–birds being so rare those days–but smiled it away. She stifled a cough.  We saw the monkeys instead.

We’ll see birds next time, Mommy! Jannah had said, tugging Mom’s hand. 

She’d laughed. Next time, kids! Promise with a kiss!

Together, Jannah and I blew her one. MMM-wah!

My eyes got wet from the pit forming in my chest. I set my jaw and stared harder. The stone monkey cupped a hand to its mouth, and tossed it out, something I’d seen the zoo monkeys do. A kiss for Mom–too late. We never got a chance to see the birds. We never got to see Mom’s face light up at the wings fluttering in smogless air.

Steffer clapped. “Well done!”

I smiled, making the monkey eat imaginary bananas.

“Where’s Jannah?” Marle asked. The monkey froze mid-bite as I whirled around to look. The accident that had taken our parents was sudden. One moment we were together, the next… Jannah was all I had left.

A commotion from the topiaries.

The shrubs were trained with wicker-wire—framework evoking enough animal-shape for Jannah to aim her hopeful intent at.

“That won’t work, dear,” an attendant said. “Only the stone anima can—”

The attendant gaped as, under Jannah’s stare, an elephant shrubbery tore loose.

Yes, during that zoo trip, we’d seen elephants, too. Raising its trunk, the elephant trumpeted. It sounded offended. Upset. Nobody’s ever explained how she did that. It was greenery, nothing that could actually make noise.

Afterwards, whenever anyone asked, Jannah only smiled.

As more attendants approached, Steffer and Marle winced at the damage, even as they laughed.

That night, Jannah came to my room. “I felt the elephant’s spirit!”

I knew where she was going with that. As older brother, I had to explain the nature of death. I considered my words carefully.

“Elephants get angry, Jannah. They stampede and trample. But your shrubbery didn’t do those things, because that wasn’t an elephant’s soul you pushed into that shrubbery. It was what you remembered. Your understanding of elephants in general. It was a… recording. An impression.”

Jannah went quiet. “I don’t remember any angry elephants that day at the zoo.”

“When people die,” I pressed, “nothing but bodies remain.”

“But something was there for me to pull that shrub. So… maybe Mom’s spirit is still around. Or Dad’s. We have to remember them!”

I shrugged. “We’re Ming-Lelanges now. That’s not a bad thing. They’re kind.”

“Mom and Dad’s spirits are still around.”

Her argument was tempting. And after she left, something nagged me. She was right. When we saw elephants at the zoo, none of them were angry. None of them trumpeted.

But animating made Jannah happy. Her nightmares stopped, though sometimes I’d hear crying from her room.

*

And I? 

I’d have dreams of taking Mom’s hand–she’d be wearing one of those dresses she couldn’t help staring at as we’d pass the fancy store windows–not in her workboots and hairnet. She wouldn’t be coughing for once, and I’d drag her to the aviary. 

She’d turn and say, but what do you want to see, my darling son? 

And I’d say, Mommy, as if I were a toddler, but in the dream, I wouldn’t care–Mommy, look at all the birds you like.

And she’d frown to argue, but a bluebird would streak by and she’d gasp and forget she was dead.

And I’d say, Mommy? I miss you

But she’d be so enthralled by the birds she wouldn’t turn immediately.

And I’d wake, and I’d be crying, too. 

Not a memory. It wasn’t even something I could properly lose.

*

Our fathers took us to a dinosaur museum, which was odd, because by then we’d gotten into trouble animating things we weren’t supposed to. Jannah didn’t suck her thumb anymore, but manipulated the vaguest animal-shaped objects. These saurian bones were very tempting.

Jannah grabbed my hand. From ceiling strings hung a four-winged beast of long, swooping neck.

“Plesiosaur,” Steffer announced, reading from his brochure. “A swimming dinosaur; those wings are fins.”

Jannah’s gaze intensified, and Marle warned, “No animating!”

Her eyes refocused, and she frowned. “I can’t… It’s not a lizard….”

I stared at the skeletal fins fanning the air. “Don’t—!” Steffer yelped as I thought hard of fish.

But I felt only blankness against Plesiosaur’s remains. “I can’t either! What gives?”

Steffer’s panicked expression was gone. Our fathers laughed, knowing all along we couldn’t animate anything there.

“Nobody’s seen a living dinosaur,” Steffer explained. “There aren’t any memories to pull, so nobody understands their essence. Nothing remains of them. Except those bones, of course.”

“Nothing, nothing, truly nothing!” Marle sang.

Still, Jannah and I looked to Plesiosaur, neither lizard nor fish, something out of place as it dove with hollowed eyes and spiny teeth. Something broken. Pieced together. Lacking the spirit of the original whole.

*

Jannah and I attended competitions. Toymakers wheeled new anima designs on-stage, snatching off veils with flourishes for teams to animate. Once, SynerObjects unveiled a tarantula-animus, a delicate collaboration of woven straw. It baffled the other competitors, the entire auditorium. Nobody could elicit a tick of movement.

But I’d seen one! Jannah had been a toddler, but we’d gone to an insectarium. I’d told Jannah about that day. Our parents were always so busy. They worked the factories, coming home tired, cheeks smudged, coughing from the soot. But they always took us to see animals. 

I pushed my intent into the straw: the tarantula shuddered forth. The audience cheered—then gasped.

My tarantula’s jerky movements melted into sudden fluidity. The tarantula’s hairs bristled; it waved forelegs, mandibles twitching. Jannah was staring at it.

She remembered…

Or maybe I’d described the memory so well she could picture it…

We gained some fame after that. A journalist arrived in this sputtering contraption—an automobile, yet another smog-producing device popular in the cities—to interview Jannah about the trumpeting topiary-elephant. It had become a local legend, though she couldn’t reproduce the trick. The journalist muttered into his notes. “A verum-animalis.”

Supposedly, talented animators could capture an animal’s essence so perfectly, it was like the real thing.

“Have any other verum-animalis made noise?” I asked.

The journalist shrugged, finished scribbling. He had his explanation. We coughed as he drove his automobile away in a cloud reeking of burning rubber.

*

Randomly shaped objects couldn’t be animated. Toymakers produced effigies—the more lifelike, the easier it was for children to animate. Otherwise, you carved your own.

As practice for our competitions, I started carving clumsy wooden anima. I was far better at carving gears and cogs, good for moving contraptions–but useless for animating. Toymakers created anima so lifelike, children readily evoked their animal spirits. But Jannah  saw rabbits within my misshapen lumps, made them hop and nose-twitch. We visited zoos again. Jannah sketched a capybara once, detailing the fuzzy gopher head, the four-legged gait. Then I carved, and she animated.

I tried making dinosaurs, but our fathers were right. Nobody understood dinosaurs, so animating anything dinosaur-shaped was impossible. Jannah and I could move elephant- and monkey-anima only because we’d seen them. Heaven forbid, if people forgot those animals, their essences passing into oblivion, effigies frozen forever…

How had Plesiosaur swum its long-lost oceans?

*

Steffer said animation faded with age—like how languages came easier to children than adults. Therefore, adults couldn’t make oxen-anima plow. The smog from the cities and their machines was getting unbearable. People had tried making children move work-anima, but even Jannah couldn’t animate more than a few minutes. Steam, coal, and cold steel were how larger objects moved.

Then JambaToys debuted their self-moving anima. Jamba-puppies chased balls autonomously. If you looked away, they didn’t freeze. They remembered and could be trained. It begged the exciting question: what else could move autonomously?

This was when Jannah’s illness struck, so I ignored all that. From her bed, Jannah smiled weakly at me. I’d improved at carving, made effigies of our parents. Nothing serious, of course. The Dad-figure had his forehead scar–an old work injury; the Mom-figure had enough of her dimples to evoke our memories. “Jannah, do you remember what you said, that first night after the topiaries? If we remember Mom and Dad…”

She sat up, eyes sparkling. “Let’s try!”

But the carvings wouldn’t move. I didn’t know that others had tried moving statues of people. Of course they had. What were statues but noble failures at capturing human essence? I’d forgotten: nothing remained after death. Nothing, nothing. Truly nothing.

Jannah wilted beneath her covers. “I remember them! I… do…”

When she slept, I went outside and stomped my carvings into the ground.

That neither made the world a fairer place, nor made her better.

*

She worsened. She couldn’t animate anymore.

Before I’d carved those parent-effigies, Jannah believed something of our parents remained. But when nothing happened that night, her hope withered. I saw it in her eyes.

Going through our old sketches and carvings, I paused over my dinosaurs.

Plesiosaur fascinated us because if we evoked its long-lost essence, that meant Jannah was right. That our parents’ spirits—who weren’t so long-lost—might also remain.

So… if I made a plesiosaur-animus move? Would that restore Jannah’s smile?

Steffer and Marle wept when I asked, but they procured the puppy-sized Jamba-lizard I requested. Something to cheer Jannah up. I studied the curious switch along its underside, toothed gears and cogs inside, connecting eyes and claws. Very clever.

But the ley-stone nestled within—this was what the journalists were writing about. JambaToys had devised a method to transcribe animal-essences—memories, impressions, recordings, whatever essences really were—into these stones, which moved the cogs and gears. The argument was that work-anima were possible now. The particulates in the air made keeping live oxen in the cities untenable, yet carved versions could pull, if someone would just invent ley-stones big enough to move a workable model.

I stared at the ley-stone.

This one contained a lizard. Not Plesiosaur. Nobody could pull Plesiosaur’s essence into a ley-stone, because nobody remembered it. It had passed beyond earth’s memory, and could never be recalled again.

I frowned over its pebble-like surface until my eyes watered.

I just wanted to see her smile again.

Why couldn’t I have that?

*

“How’d you make the elephant trumpet?” I whispered after the nurse left.

Jannah’s tired gaze touched mine. She couldn’t talk anymore.

“I think you filled that shrub so full of elephant-spirit it forgot it was a shrub.” I placed my carved Plesiosaur onto her bed. My best work yet. “Make this forget it’s wood.”

She blinked tiredly, but I knew what she meant. What’s the use?

“Try,” I pleaded.

She sighed, but her hazy gaze intensified. 

I bent forward, moving slowly. “Remember how much Mom loved birds,” I whispered. “Remember how badly she wanted to see birds that day at the zoo! Remember her smile–that you have. Remember Dad’s funny faces. Remember how he always let us win arguments if we whined long enough. All the food they cooked for us. Not even Steffer and Marle could ever cook like that. Remember, Jannah! Remember, remember–”

My voice! I was choking up. Her eyes were filling up with the remembering–mine too. I clicked the switch under the carving’s belly.

Plesiosaur dove onto her sheets. Jannah sat up as it searched her blankets for fish, swooping neck and fins to and fro. She knew she wasn’t animating it; we heard the gears within. Now that it moved, the Plesiosaur showed mechanized joints.

Still, she smiled at me. I love you.

No magical transference of long-lost spirits. No verum-animalis. Just a jerry-rigged lizard-stone, repurposed cogs and gears. The memory of our parents’ unending love, a force that would never leave this earth, even if their spirits had gone. A mundane trick, really. 

But I’d gotten that smile, hadn’t I?

*

I have children of my own now.

They’ll ask what happens after death. I’ll explain how people say we leave this world forever. How it’s said when people depart, nothing remains—nothing, nothing, truly nothing. As long as we’ve been good people, that is fine.

I’ll tell them how dire our world once was, where the animals and trees almost died out in our quest for industry and production. 

I’ll take their hands, lead them through my company’s workshops, past easels of penciled designs, past historic prototypes of larger ley-stones hooked to voltaic piles. I’ll open the drawers of my schematics showing combined ley-stones moving separate parts, a horse-stone moving a cog-butler’s legs, a monkey-stone moving the fingers. These strange objects that have allowed birds and bees and plants to return. 

I’ll pause here, because this part will hurt.

When I’m ready, I’ll tell my darlings that before self-moving ornithopters, steam-horses, and cog-butlers, there lived a girl who made an elephant shrubbery uproot itself and trumpet. A girl who loved zoos and animals and smiling, whom I loved as much as I love each of them. I’ll tell them that in the age of smog, there lived a girl who had the heart of a dinosaur, something untetherable to this world, something too great for earth’s deep fossil memory to anchor within coal or bones. Like her beloved parents before her, this girl is gone, and nothing, nothing—truly nothing—remains.

Then I’ll show them Plesiosaur.

I’ll let it swim along the floor, searching, searching for something long-lost. It’ll stop eventually. It always stops. I’ll open my very first self-moving animus, let my children gasp at its primitive workings, its aged switch. I’ll close Plesiosaur, set it back down.

“Wait,” I’ll say. “Let’s reconsider.”

For if nothing remains—nothing, nothing, truly nothing—then why, when I stare at Plesiosaur and remember Jannah, will it move again, lizard-stone darkened, gears cracked, and my talent long vanished?


© 2022 by Andrew K Hoe

2580 words

Author’s Note: This story was based on sibling-love. In real life, I disagree with my siblings at times. I doubt my family is the only one that struggles to connect. Despite the anger and miscommunication, I think a lot of familial love is ever-present–like a star we cannot see, radiating violent energy, stubbornly pressing light into the darkness. It doesn’t disappear. Somehow, I got plesiosaur into it, and the idea of children being able to do a sort of magic that fades as they mature. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think I wrote this fading magical ability to represent how sibling relationships can be so effortless as children, yet the older we grow, the greater the chance we drift apart. Then the environmental themes with smog and steam entered the mix. An earlier draft of this story was rejected at another venue with promising comments, though the first readers there rightly told me I needed to work out exactly how animating worked. They also thought it was perhaps confusing to mix magic with steampunk. Was this a fantasy story, or a science fiction one? These comments echoed what a writing group I attended at the time told me: this story was genre-confused. I almost gave up on this tale, but I’m thankful I kept trying and that Diabolical Plots accepted this fantasy-ish, steampunk-ish tale. 

Andrew K Hoe is an Assistant Editor at Cast of Wonders and a college professor. He is thrilled to have a second story published at Diabolical Plots. His stories also appear at Cast of WondersHighlights for ChildrenYoung Explorer’s Adventure Guide, and other venues. He has three siblings who sadly cannot animate animal-shaped objects, but will live for many years yet. He has a nephew who loves dinosaurs and a niece who has an adorable smile. They will both live for many, many years yet.


The previous story by Andrew K Hoe that appeared in Diabolical Plots was “Finding the Center” in August 2020. If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #87D: “Mochi, With Teeth” by Sara S. Messenger

Editor’s Note: This is just one of the items in the Diabolical Pots special issue.
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June leans against her kitchen counter and stares at the little package in her hands. It’s encased in clear plastic that crinkles at her touch and boasts kanji she can’t read: 餅菓子. Under those, and a picture of small pillowy circles resting on a bamboo mat, are English words, looking suspiciously like Times New Roman: RICE CAKE with BEAN JAM. Then, smaller: (Mochi).

She bought it from the nearest Asian supermarket in south Georgia, an hour’s drive away. Beneath the cellophane rest eight flour-powdered green mochi, shaded in the center with red bean filling.

Her mom’s not here to tell her what the kanji mean. June could text and ask, but that seems troublesome. June lives on her own now, working as an underpaid web designer to make rent on an apartment with old, clinical tiling. Plus, her mom would ask why she had visited the Asian supermarket when she usually doesn’t, and then June would have to mention, offhandedly, the battered Japanese spellbook she’d rescued from her local thrift store.

She had pulled it from the shelf to examine it. On the front cover was more kanji she couldn’t read, but her fingers had tingled when she traced the characters, and she’d caught the passing scent of her mother’s hair. The owner, a white woman, had commented at the register that June was so lucky to be able to read Japanese, wasn’t it such an interesting culture? Is that where you’re really from? Sad to see this little thing go, no one was ever interested in it.

June felt lucky to have escaped whole.

So now the spellbook is spread on the kitchen table. It’s slim, written in all Japanese; some entries were translated in small text on the bottom margin, but even these feel arcane. When June first read the book, or the parts she could read, she’d gotten the impression that it taught less about how to cast magic as how to think about casting magic.

June glances from the spellbook to the package in her hands. Then she opens the cellophane, slides out the plastic tray of mochi, and pinches one between her fingers. It’s cloud-soft, but firm.

There is only one trick she wants to do. She doesn’t have her grandmother’s magic, and by doesn’t have, she means she never learned it. Her mother had stopped practicing when she came to America thirty years ago, and they’d last visited Japan when June was nine. When June was born across the sea, magic was lost in translation.

June knows lacking magic doesn’t make her less Japanese. But she craves it anyway — more now that she’s an adult, growing disillusioned with American culture, painfully aware that her grandparents are getting older while she still can’t speak their language or conjure their ability.

She sighs. She’ll look into online courses for Japanese, once she has more money. The magic is less straightforward, but it feels more immediate and urgent: an access that could chase away her shame. A validation, that even though she was far removed, she could still cast. She could still do this.

But fear, breathing hot down her neck: what if she couldn’t do it at all?

Her grandmother could do many things, June remembers, like set the tomato vines into bloom with a touch, or spin flames into pleasing shapes when she burned the stinging centipedes. These were all too daunting to try — all but one, the smallest one, the one that had most delighted June.

Her grandmother, knees stained from weeding the garden, would present her a piece of mochi. Then, her grandmother would bite into it, and crouch down so June could watch.

From the bite mark, the mochi would sprout blunt little teeth.

It reminded young June of the piranha plants from Mario Kart. It would try to bite anyone who wasn’t the spellcaster, so her grandmother never let her get too close, but it was still so cool — and when her grandmother hummed to it, it even hummed back. Her grandmother would feed the mochi little bits of homegrown tomato, weaving a tune of repetition between them, then, when the spell wore off and the teeth disappeared, she would feed it to June. The tomato added tiny umami bursts.

June picks up the spellbook and flips through it, to the footnote that had felt the most helpful on her first read. A good intention is important to creating and cannot be grown without ripe ground. A good intention. As in, a convincing one? A moral one? Who decided that? And was the ripe ground a metaphor for an open mind, or a receptive environment?

Well, she needs to try to find out.

June lifts the mochi to her mouth and bites. Soft dough yields against her teeth, and she pulls against a slight stretch. She chews. The red bean is sweet and earthy. As she chews, she concentrates on her intention: little teeth, just like her grandmother had done. They can even be molars, if it wants. Then she sets it on the counter.

Five seconds pass. Then fifteen. Then a minute. The mochi, dark bean paste exposed in a crescent, stays unchanged.

June rubs the flour between her fingers and exhales, disappointed. She can’t help feeling like the mochi has delivered a verdict, or seen her as lacking in some way, even though she knows that’s preposterous. She isn’t sure if she can take another bite — she only saw her grandmother do it with the first bite, but for functional or aesthetic reasons, she does not know. This is a question she can’t ask — she can’t read or write Japanese, won’t know the right words when she only speaks simple household terms, and besides, her grandparents only keep a landline. Nor are they big on calling.

So she picks out a new piece of mochi.

She flips to a different page of the spellbook. The strings that tie objects together are in the air, invisible, and can be tugged by a forth-willing mind.

This, too, is mysterious, approaching spellcasting from the side. Did it mean she should touch something that channels that connection, like a souvenir from Japan? Probably not. Or, is it that she has to feel that connection from Japan to herself, to her surroundings? This connection feels frayed to June, stretched across a language and a generation and an ocean.

A flash of fear, then doubt. But she closes her eyes, plants her feet on ripe ground, and digs down.

In her mind, June casts around, softly, without urgency, and a thread surfaces: her grandmother’s house. It’s hard to grasp, but she holds the taste of red bean on her tongue and tugs. Memories come slowly, then quicker, until she’s apace with them, then grasping them, then folding in:

Lush ferns sprouting from the mountain’s moss-darkened retaining wall, rice fields feeding into small gutters, with tadpoles floating down into brisk streams, the bright blue of the afternoon sky before it clouds gray — then, the sweeping humidity, barn swallows flitting across the front yard, sharp dark shapes in the dimming light before the storm.

Inside, the whistling of the kettle, the smell of fish frying on the nearby stove, the flickering light from an old lamp swaying above the kitchen table. Young June sets her plate in front of her seat, self-conscious in her grandmother’s presence, and sits down.

At the stove, her grandmother shakes the skillet and turns the fire off. June picks up her pair of chopsticks and clicks them together experimentally. The tatami creaks as her grandmother turns to look. Their eyes meet, and June almost looks away.

Then her grandmother smiles.

Her cheeks pull into apples, deep wrinkles frame her mouth, and crow’s feet crinkle the corners of her eyes. She looks at June with nothing but love.

The warmth of it sweeps June away. How could young June have not understood this? How could she have forgotten how it looked? Now, as an adult, the recognition rises in June’s chest, spreads to her fingertips, slackens her shoulders and unknots her stomach. The catharsis brings tears behind her eyes. I see you, that smile says. You are exactly where you need to be, and you are always, always enough.

June’s eyes fly open. She is back in her kitchen, standing alone on the cold tile.

“Grandma?” she whispers. Her voice cracks.

Then she crouches down.

Then she begins to cry.

Big, heaving sobs wrack her shoulders. Tears run down her nose, her chin. Her lips taste like salt, and she can hardly see the tile through the hot, watery blur. Grandma. Grandma, I miss you. And I’m enough. I’m enough.

June realizes she’s still clutching the mochi in her fist.

She squeezes her eyes shut, raises it to her lips, and bites.

She focuses on the mochi’s soft weight resting in her palm, on the sweet dough against her tongue. Fear curls hot in her stomach. Every breath is a shudder. What if it doesn’t work? What if she opens her eyes and there’s no change at all?

She can’t bring herself to look.

So, carefully, haltingly, June hums.

Silence stretches for a beat.

Her heart starts to sink–

Little teeth nibble her thumb.

And the mochi hums back.


© 2022 by Sara S. Messenger

1550 words

Sara S. Messenger is an SFF writer and poet residing in Florida. When she’s not playing fetch with her cat, she reads poetry collections in the sun. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, and her poetry has been published in Strange Horizons. If you enjoyed this work, her full portfolio and other musings can be found online at sarasmessenger.com. This is her first short fiction publication.


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DP FICTION #87B: “Vegetable Mommy” by Patrick Barb

Editor’s Note: This is just one of the items in the Diabolical Pots special issue.
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Content note (click for details) Content note: loss of loved one, implied abuse, trauma, child abandonment

After the sky got sick, I made a new Mommy from the vegetables in our fridge. Now, the sky’s always yellow like dried mustard stains, whenever I wipe dust away from our downstairs windows and look outside. I used to see people out there, everyone shaking and shaking. 

Vegetable Mommy had tomato cheeks. Big and red, like the ones we were supposed to have on our pizza. A crawling thing from the walls bit Vegetable Mommy’s tomato cheeks. Yellow seeds slid down her lumpy, white cauliflower face.

I look in the bathroom mirror. It’s what I do when I need someone to talk to. I tell myself I heard those seeds falling into the bathtub water. Plip. Plip. Plip. Like Disney princess tears. Vegetable Mommy’s shriveled black olive eyes are behind me, always watching from the bathtub where I made her. The water kept her fresh for a while.

“Stay here. Don’t go outside. Don’t open the door.”

That was the last thing my real Mommy said, before leaving. No one came, though. Phone and computer don’t work. There’s just me.

Though one time I did dream about Daddy’s face hanging above me like he was the Man in the Moon. His breath still smelled sour and rotten.

Mommy promised we’d never see him again. I don’t want to call her a liar. But…

Vegetable Mommy doesn’t say anything to me.

The corn silks of her dress peel back, showing shriveled-up kernels like the mummy’s skin in that movie I snuck out of bed to watch with Mommy.

“Close your eyes and sleep, baby boy.”

She never knew I opened my eyes a teeny-tiny bit and saw everything.

I used to put on my bathing suit, even when my legs got too skinny and I couldn’t pull the drawstring tight enough to hold it up, and get in the tub with Vegetable Mommy. The water comes up to my tummy and reminds me of how I’d stick my fingers in soup Mommy made to see if it was ready to eat. She’d put ice cubes in to cool it down. In the tub with Vegetable Mommy, I’d bring Mommy’s pink and purple razor to shave white growths from her sweet potato arms and legs.

Until I pulled too hard and cut into my thumb. The split skin hurt real bad, like it’d never heal. I rubbed blood across Vegetable Mommy’s face, trying to make it look the way Mommy’s lips did when she smiled at me.

Black spots cover Vegetable Mommy’s smile now and I don’t have any way to fix her. The vegetable drawer’s been empty since I made her. All the snacks we got from the grocer, chip bags, cookie sleeves, any cans I could break open, everything’s gone. Lights and machines don’t work anymore. So, the fridge food’s bad. Makes me sick to even smell it.

The creeping and crawling things inside the walls took everything else.

Vegetable Mommy’s lettuce hair droops down. No longer green, but a mud brown. Still, there’s enough crunch when I take a bite. Not slimy, not like how I thought she’d be.

Mommy was right. I do like these vegetables once I finally try them.

I go slow, hoping I remember to say good-bye this time.

Baby carrot fingers pat my cheeks and I wonder if my real Mommy’s still out there. I wonder if she tried to make another me. What did she use? And how long did she wait before she gobbled me up?


© 2022 by Patrick Barb

530 words

Author’s Note: This story was originally written for a weekly writing assignment in Richard Thomas’s Contemporary Dark Fiction class, where the prompt required creating a story intended to make the reader cry. Things…got a little weird along the way.

Patrick Barb is a freelance writer from the southern United States, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His short fiction appears in Humans are the Problem, the Tales to Terrify podcast, and Boneyard Soup Magazine, among other publications. In addition, he is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.


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DP FICTION #73B: “The Void and the Voice” by Jeff Soesbe

I turned my father off again.

I needed a break. I needed silence. I needed to hear the sound of my own thoughts. Not the endless monologue of shuttle systems status, mixed with memories and declarations, all emitting from Father’s broken mind and body.

In our little space cruiser, it is still but not quiet. Father’s labored breathing, punctuated by coughs and chokes, surrounds me as he struggles to stay alive without the cruiser’s medical emergency program helping him. My heart pounds in my chest, shakes me with every beat. My breathing is quiet and slow, a whisper in the cold thin air.

Reaching out to Father, I place my hand on his chest. Even through his spacesuit I can feel his heart, fluttering but persistent. Still alive. Still working.

Our helmets are off. Our breath collects in fog in the space between us.

Just go on like this, I think. Go on until his heart stops. Without him running the shuttle, I will succumb to the cold and lack of oxygen and surrender to the star-filled void around us.

I consider it, again. I have considered it every time I have disconnected Father. And I reach the answer I have reached every time I have considered it.

No. Not yet. Keep hoping for a rescue. Keep living.

I switch the medical system back on. Alarms sound as it realizes Father’s condition and injects drugs through the dermal patches.

Father gasps, audibly, as his body is slammed back to stability.

After I reattach the careful tangle of wires connecting the shuttle’s control system to the interface cap fitted to his head, his voice echoes through the shuttle’s speakers.

“Son. Son. You should not disconnect me. I have told you this before.” He is scolding me, but he is also afraid.

“Yes, Father. I know. I am sorry.”

“Checking system status.”

The litany begins, his voice droning like prayers.

“Internal temperature 4.17 degrees. Rerouting ambient reactor heat to cabin.

“Oxygen concentration 11.64 percent. Scrubbers operational, 37.94 percent efficiency. Estimate normal mix in 8.05 hours.

“Eight point zero five.

“Five.”

He slowly sighs. His mind has found an unexpected road and is running down it in pursuit of a memory.

“You were five. We still lived on Earth, but had decided to leave for a mining homestead in the asteroid belt. There was nothing left for us on Earth, in our cardboard shack in the South San Francisco favela.

“We wanted to have one special moment. We splurged and took you to the little Golden Star Amusement Park in the Sunset. You always wanted to go there. You were enchanted by the Dragon rollercoaster. You rode it over and over, until you were sick to your stomach. Even then, you cried when we left for home.

“Home.

“Home is mining asteroid (142823) 2026-MC13. Estimate distance to home 1.8598 million kilometers. Estimate distance to Ceres 1.8528 million kilometers. Estimate velocity normal to solar system 24.931 thousand kilometers per hour. Time since accident 42.190 hours. Estimate probability of distress signal reaching Ceres Station 3.14 percent.”

Father’s monologue of shuttle status and random memory continues, but the summary is always the same. Our shuttle is damaged. My father is damaged. My father, through the interface cap and the rewiring to the shuttle components that still work, keeps life support barely running. The emergency medical system keeps my father barely alive. We are above the plane of the solar system, on a constant vector away from both home and from Ceres, with no way to change that fact.

We are adrift in the void, with my father’s voice as a constant reminder of the darkness of our situation.

#

A simple trip. A shuttle run back to Ceres headquarters. Printer stocks, hydroponics supplies, reactor fuel, necessary in-person meetings with the corporation.

When I was young, I loved the Ceres trips. Not just because I could see, in person, friends who I only knew through my virtual classrooms. Not just because at Ceres in the open habitat we could walk and run and play without pressure suits constraining our movement.

I loved the trips because they were joyous times with my family, together, without my parents working hard at the mining operations or me buried fourteen hours a day in schoolwork and lessons and mandatory exercise. On the shuttle, we sang songs, listened to music, played games, laughed. Mother told me stories about the stars, myths and legends from her childhood. I listened in wonder and joy. We were a real family, like the ones I read about on the chat boards or saw on the video streams.

Mother died in an accident when I was fourteen.

Life was never the same. Quiet melancholy replaced chaotic joy. Father and I buried ourselves in our work. I took on mining responsibilities along with my schoolwork. Father and I communicated only in data points – status, machines, daily production, shipments, coursework. On the Ceres trips, we traveled in silence. Prayer music played non-stop on the journey. Father controlled the shuttle with the interface headset, eyes gazing into a virtual display of shuttle information, status and control that I could not see.

On these trips, our only conversations were arguments.

“Father, you should add me to the shuttle control interface so I can learn to fly the shuttle and manage the systems. I can help with the burden.”

“You are too young.” His voice, which he routed through the speakers while controlling the shuttle, was always too loud.

My anger came easily. “I’m seventeen! I have top marks in my coursework. I maintain the mining robots. I can run a shuttle.”

“You are not ready.”

“Then let me go to university on Ceres, in person, so I can get my next degrees.”

“You can not leave for university on Ceres!” His anger took longer than mine, but it always arrived, in an explosion that blew static through the speakers.

After that, silence again, staring out the small portholes at the stars until we arrived at Ceres and went our separate ways.

We had already done our arguing when the first meteorite swarm hit. Small enough it didn’t register on the long range sensors, but still large enough to badly damage the shuttle. It didn’t help that our shuttle was old, second-hand, and in need of more repair than we could afford. Mining life is perching on the perpetual edge of disaster, grinding out as much profit as possible for the corporation to which we were indebted.

Father was outside assessing the damage when the second, larger, swarm hit. His screams echoed through the communications link, followed by gasps and whimpering mixed with the pattering of meteorites on the hull.

Somehow, I dragged him through the airlock and inside.

Somehow, I hooked him up to the emergency medical system, followed the prompts and gave him drugs to keep his heart beating and his lungs moving.

Somehow, he survived.

“Son. Are you?” His voice was soft, and weak.

“I’m alive, Father. You are too.”

“Barely. Ship?”

“Still intact, obviously. But there was a power overload. It burned out the main computers, stellar navigation, the engines, everything. We’re on minimal backup on all systems.” I had checked everything I could check, without command access. It was all ruined.

“Saw communications array. Ruined.”

“We are doomed, Father.”

“No.” The force in his voice surprised me. “We can live. We can rewire the shuttle. I can control basic life support systems. I will give you instructions. You will do the work.”

That was the first day. Father giving instructions or suggestions, me breaking and making connections throughout the shuttle. By the end of the day we had the headset interface wired into basic life support: heat, oxygen, water reclamation. We had enough to keep us alive for perhaps a week. We had a chance.

But we were also adrift. Based on the last sensor readings, and celestial sightings, I calculated we were now pointing away from the plane of the solar system. The final burst of the dying engines had sent us off course. We were moving away from anyone that could save us, farther and farther every minute.

Father, injured physically and mentally, monitored all the critical systems. By the end of the first day he was already reciting shuttle status and making connections with whatever memories were welling in his fractured mind.

“Oxygen scrubbing at 61.34 percent efficiency.

“Estimate 1.1838 million kilometers from Ceres, based on position of reference stars.

“Stars.

“Stars in the sky, above home.

“The first day we arrived at the asteroid, you were angry because we had left Ceres. We took you outside to the surface and showed you the stars. We told you their names, traced their constellations, recited their myths. For hours we did that. You loved it.”

“Yes, Father. I still do.” When I was angry, or frustrated, I would go stand on the surface of our asteroid and get lost in the stars and the stories.

Now they were a threat. They scared me.

“I’m sorry, Son. I’m sorry we are in this situation. I’m sorry I kept you at home. I’m sorry for everything.”

#

“Three days, fourteen hours, fifteen minutes since the accident,” my father recites.

“Estimate 3.1983 million kilometers from Ceres.

“Water purity 78.11 percent. Supply tank 7.32 percent.

“Water. Flowing in a river.

“When your mother and I were young and courting, we took a camping trip to the Red River to see the Silver Falls. From high above us, glistening water fell over a cliff, through the sky, pounded into the earth below, and flowed away into the river. So much power in water. On the asteroid I dream of that much water, cascading across our small rock.

“We don’t have enough water, Son. We will not survive.”

Father is sad. Depressed. Each hour he seems to sink further and faster into a vast dark place, like the vast dark void around us.

“Hold on, Father.” I try to say this with hope. “There is still a chance someone will find us.”

“There is no chance. We are dying. You are dying. It is my fault. All my fault.” He cries. Tears pool against his face, sobs echo from the speakers. Not even when Mother died was he this emotional. This despondent. This lost.

I am anxious, jittery. I don’t know how to comfort him. I don’t want to turn him off any more. But I can’t sit here. I need to move.

“Father, I am going outside. I will walk the shuttle.”

No answer, just more tears and sobs that batter at me as I make my way through the airlock and to the outside.

Outside I turn off my communications link, engage the magnetics in my shoes, and stand on the shuttle’s skin. The stars are infinite in their numbers all around me. I pick out the constellations. The Hunter. The Judge. The Wanderer. They stand, silent. I ask for answers but get none.

I walk the shuttle’s hull. My breathing falls in time with the force of my steps, echoing inside my suit. Sol burns before me as I round the shuttle. Beckoning. Taunting. Smaller and smaller with every second.

We are doomed. We have no thrust towards Ceres. We have no communications. We are running out of clean atmosphere and clean water. Our food is gone. The magnetic couplings on my boots are the only thing keeping me from floating away.

I could release the couplings, disconnect from the umbilical, push off from the shuttle, and drift away. Become one with the stars and the myths.

Push hard enough from the correct location and the shuttle might be directed, so very slightly, towards the solar system. Father might be found. He might even stay alive.

I could do it.

But in those moments, before the end came, Father would be alone. I can’t leave him alone. I am all he has. He is all I have.

I must find a solution.

Walking brings me to the communications array. A tangled nest of wires and equipment, shot through with holes from the meteorites, burned in places from the power overload. Could something useful be left? There was so much work to keep Father alive, to reorganize the shuttle to keep us alive, I hadn’t thought of the possibility.

I poke and sort through the tangle, find enough of the transmission antenna to send a signal. We would need a way to direct and focus the signal, to push it towards Ceres. A reflector. But the meteors tore off the reflector.

Panels from the shuttle’s hull could make a reflector. Without the need to heat and oxygenate the shuttle’s interior, just our suits, we’d have more power to boost the strength of the signal. Vent the atmosphere before removing the panels and we could even get a slight push towards Ceres.

This is a dangerous idea. We would be exposed to the frigid dark of open space. We could die.

If we do nothing, we will die anyway.

I turn on my communications link, to the sound of Father, panicked, crying.

“Son, please respond. Son, please respond. Son, please respond.”

“I’m here, Father.”

“Son, I was worried, I was afraid. I was alone.”

“You are not alone, Father. I am here.” I make sure to sound confident, raise his spirits somehow. “Father, I have an idea.”

#

Father’s space suit is too far damaged to provide any resistance against outer space. Over his objections, he will take my suit and I will wear the backup suit. Carefully, I trade suits. Bruises, dried blood and sweat coat his body so I take some time to clean him off. I try not to hurt him any further as I dress him in my suit.

Briefly, I must disconnect him from the shuttle controls. During this time I work as fast as possible to keep him from getting too cold.

When I get him fully in his suit and the interface headset reconnected, his voice nearly bursts from the speakers.

“Son! It was so dark. Are you ready?”

“Yes, Father.” The backup suit is a tight fit but it will work for our purposes.

“Preparing systems for the signal burst. Diverting ambient reactor heat to the suit umbilicals. Cutting air recycling to only the suit umbilicals. Atmosphere mix at 10.11 percent oxygen. Begin reconstruction of the communications reflector using shuttle panels.”

Outside, our last air hisses out as I drill holes in the hull on the opposite side of where we think Ceres is. I hope it helps.

The work to build a signal reflector is slow and tedious. I only have two charged batteries, and a handful of tools. I use them as little as possible, and do anything I can by hand. It is difficult work. Sweat gathers inside my suit faster than the dehumidifier can pull it out. Pools of water collect on my face and I have to shake my head to try to move them away. My muscles ache and I am tired.

Father talks to me throughout. Status, memories, an endless loop.

In the last four days, he has said more to me than in the preceding three years. Even though it is a monologue more than a conversation, I somehow find it comforting. A connection.

Finally, we have a crude antenna and a signal reflector. The reflector is pointed in the direction of Ceres, our last hope against the vast void of space.

Back inside, I strap into my seat. Father is a small man in a small spacesuit. The moisture in the shuttle air has frozen onto everything including his face panel. I brush ice and dust off the face panel. I’m not sure if he can see me, but I smile.

“Father, we are ready.”

“Beginning power diversion to transmitter. Transmitting distress signal burst. Cycle one.

“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle two.”

Now that I am not working, the cold invades my suit and I am chilled. I am tired, and ache from the effort of the work. The suits will keep us warm. How long, we don’t know.

“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle eleven.”

Pieces of a constellation of stars appear in the gaps in the shuttle’s hull. The Dragon, twisting, flying, burning those that threaten its home.

“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle twenty-seven.”

I am so tired. It is so cold.

The void calls me with stories and dreams, and I go to it.

#

A light in my face. The dull sensation of someone poking my chest.

A woman’s voice. “Hey, hey. Wake up now.”

Breathing deep, my lungs burn and I cough. There are tubes in my nose, gusts of warm air tickle my throat. I smell antiseptic, sterilizer, and behind it the hint of rusted metal, dirty oil, people.

I’m on a spaceship. In a medical bay.

I am covered in metallic blankets. My arms and legs are stiff and barely move.

“Stay still there,” the woman says. “I’m still running a warming cycle on you. We just got you back.”

Cracking my eyes open, I see a small black woman with short grey hair.

“Where,” I say in a croaking voice. My lips and throat are dry and rough.

“Naval cargo cruiser Morning Glory. Your distress signal was received and we were closest.”

“Father?”

“Your father is dead. The meteorite damage. The cold. He didn’t make it.” She lays a soft hand on my forehead. “I’m sorry.”

I shake as the reality of his death washes over me. I knew it was likely. It still hurts. The empty place that was my father’s presence in my life joins inside with the hole my mother left. I try to cry, but I am so tired and sore I am reduced to slow, simple, whimpering.

I want to know where he is. “Shuttle?”

“Your shuttle is in a cargo hold. Your father is there, too. The crew made a coffin for him, from a cold storage container.”

“See him.”

“Later. Right now, you need to rest. We’re mid-run right now, but we’ll be at Ceres in two days.”

Warm liquid crawls up my arm. By the time it reaches my chest I am very sleepy. The medical bay is quiet. The click of machines, the doctor humming a tune I don’t know. There is no voice, no status, no constant presentation of statistics and danger and possibilities and concern.

I miss it.

#

When I awaken I am stronger and can move. I demand to be taken to our shuttle. Officers take my statement as they guide me to the cargo hold. They confirm what was stored in the shuttle’s logs and compliment our ingenuity, our bravery, and my father’s sacrifice.

They leave me at the shuttle. Broken and tattered by the meteorites and by our disassembly, it looks small and helpless in the large hold of the cruiser. It is a wonder we survived.

Next to the shuttle is a small metal box, military logos on both sides. My father’s coffin.

I want to see him.

I crack open the coffin. Cold gas escapes and condenses in a fog.

I wave it away until I can see Father. His expression is peaceful, even serene.

I place my hand on his chest. It is frigid. I don’t care.

“I am alive, Father. The signal was received.”

I don’t know what to say. I know he will not respond, but I keep waiting for him to talk, to tell me the atmosphere status, the water recycler status, an ancient memory. Anything.

Nothing. Because he is gone, isn’t he?

Tears come freely and I sink into a hard calm place that is sadness.

Like a bell in my mind, his words about the stars, his first memory after the accident, call to me. I close my eyes and my own memory comes back, crisp and clear.

“I remember that night, Father, the first time you showed me the stars from the surface of the asteroid. Space was so big. The stars were infinite and uncountable. I was so small. But I knew that as long as you held my shoulders I would be safe.”

More memories come, a cascade of moments with him and with Mother.

“The first Ceres run, after Mother died, we rode in silence. I stared out the window at the stars, remembering Mother’s stories. We both grieved, in our way. Our only conversation was when you offered me the rest of your meal and I took it. I remember that moment, that one connection. I treasure that memory.”

I talk to my father for hours, in the large hold of a large cargo cruiser. I tell my father stories of him and Mother and me and our life, during the entire journey back to Ceres Station.


© 2021 by Jeff Soesbe

3500 words

Author’s Note: I was doing some free writing to a prompt of “ghosts on drugs”, and when I typed “I’m trapped with the ghost of my dying father on a dying spaceship whose drugs are the only thing keeping him alive” the story just took off from there. I “hit a pocket”, as I like to say, and ended up with a story that had special meaning to me. 

When Jeff Soesbe isn’t writing stories, he writes software and simulations for subsea robots in Northern California. Jeff’s stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex (upcoming), Factor Four, Andromeda Spaceways, and Flash Fiction Online. Jeff is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop (Elevensies!). This is Jeff’s first professional sale (woohoo!)


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DP FICTION #64A: “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell

133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. There is an estate at 35 Silver Street that annihilated a family back in the 1800s and its roof has never sprung a leak since. In 2007 it still had the power to trap a bickering couple in an endless hedge maze that was physically only three hundred square feet. 35 Silver Street is a show-off.

133 Poisonwood only ever had one person ever die under its roof. Back in 1989, Dorottya Blasko had refused hospice, and spent two and a half months enjoying the sound of the wind on 133 Poisonwood’s shingles. 133 Poisonwood played its heart out for her every day.

The house misses 1989. It has spent so much of the time since vacant. 

Today it is going to change that. It is on its best behavior as the realtor, Mrs. Weiss, sweeps up. She puts out trays of store-bought cookies and hides scent dispensers, while 133 Poisonwood summons a gentle breeze and uses its aura to spook any groundhogs off the property. Both the realtor and the real estate need this open house to work.

Stragglers trickle in. They are bored people more interested in snacks than the restored plumbing. The house straightens its aching floorboards, like a human sucking in their belly. Stragglers track mud everywhere. The house would love nothing more than any of them to spend the rest of their lives tracking mud into it.

A heavyset man with sagging shoulders lets himself in. He has a bit of brownie smudged against the back of his parakeet green hoodie, and doesn’t seem aware of it. Mrs. Weiss gives him a little wave while continuing to hold up a ten-minute conversation with an affluent couple. The couple made the mistake of saying they were “thinking of thinking of conceiving,” and Mrs. Weiss wields statistics about the school district like a cowboy wields a lasso. The couple’s shoes likely cost more than a down payment on the house, but from how often they check their phones, they clearly are headed back to their Mercedes.

The man with the brownie-stained hoodie prowls through 133 Poisonwood’s halls, and it pulls its floorboards so straight that its foundations tremble.

The man doesn’t look at 133 Poisonwood’s floor. He looks at the couple of ripples in the green floral wallpaper, with the expression of someone looking at his own armpit.

The house feels ashamed of the loose wallpaper. It’s vintage painted silk, which Mrs. Weiss says could be a big value-add. Now the house ponders if it can haunt its own glue and help strip the wallpaper away to please him. It’s especially important since he is spending more time here than anyone has yet without Mrs. Weiss wrangling them. It’s like he doesn’t feel the vibes other visitors do, or he doesn’t care about them.

From his behavior, what he cares about is wallpaper, the natural lighting through the windows in the master bedroom and the kitchen.

A child stomps in through the front door, her frizzy hair in three oblong pigtails she probably did herself. A silver keepsake locket clashes with her bright green Incredible Hulk t-shirt. Her elbows are tucked into her chest, hands out like claws, stained with brownie bits.

Every step she takes is deliberate and channels all her tiny body weight to be as heavy as possible. If the house had to guess, the girl is probably pretending to be a dinosaur on the hunt.

The man in the brownie-stained hoodie glances at her. He asks, “Ana. Where’s your coat?”

Ana bellows, “I hate clothes!”

Ana apparently hates clothes so much she immediately grabs the bottom of her Hulk t-shirt and yanks it up over her head. She is careful to keep her locket in place, but chucks the shirt at the man. He grabs for her, and she ducks between his arms, bolting past Mrs. Weiss and the affluent couple, pigtails and locket bouncing.

In their chase, they leave the front door open. The house knows heating oil is expensive. It summons a spectral breeze to shut it for them.

The sound makes Ana pinwheel around, and she points at the door. She says, “Daddy! It’s ghosts!”

Daddy says, “Ana, we talked about this. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

“You didn’t look.”

“You don’t have to look for things that aren’t there.”

Ana looks at her locket and huffs. “What if it’s Mommy’s ghost?”

Daddy closes his eyes for a moment. “Please just put your shirt back on.”

Ana immediately attacks her own pants. “Clothes are for the weak!”

“Put it on or we are leaving, Ana,” he says, trying to wrestle clothing onto his daughter. She pushes at him, leaving more brownie residue on his hoodie. As they battle, the affluent couple slips out the front door without closing it.

The house closes it for them. Heating oil isn’t cheap.

*

The triangular roof means the second floor only has the space for one bedroom. Mrs. Weiss reads the expression on Daddy’s face, and she attacks with, “The basement is very spacious with generous lighting. It’s cool in the summer, and toasty in the winter.”

Ana says, “Heights are bad luck anyway.”

The four-year-old scarcely looks at the bedroom before backing out. She holds the handrail with both hands as she climbs down the stairs on quivering legs. On the third stair, she freezes entirely.

Daddy is in the middle of surveying the room and misses Ana quivering in place.

Some houses give their residents visions of slaughters or trauma. 133 Poisonwood gives Daddy a swift vision of his daughter’s vertigo. He doesn’t know it’s anyone else’s insight, and wouldn’t believe it, but he’s at the stairs in seconds. Ana holds onto his pants leg until she feels safe.

All 133 Poisonwood has is a light touch, but it knows how to use it. Haunting is an art.

The basement is only half-underground, so the windows are level with the freshly mowed front lawn. Ana spends a moment giggling at the view. Then she whizzes around the basement, from the combination furnace and laundry room, to a storage closet, and to a pair of vacant rooms. They would make a perfect child’s bedroom and playroom.

Ana goes to the west room, announcing, “Daddy. You can keep all the ghosts you bust in here.”

Mrs. Weiss offers, “One of these could be a home office. You said you telecommute? Google Fiber is coming to the area next year.”

Daddy says, “I want to work from home more. I’m a software engineer, and I host a skeptic podcast. You might have heard us.”

The house isn’t offended. It doesn’t believe in ghosts either.

Ana hops back and forth between the two rooms, scrutinizing over and over as though they’ll grow. That is a trick the house doesn’t have.

Daddy says, “We could sleep next door to each other. What do you think?”

Ana says, “But I want a big dino room.”

“You’re getting to be a big dinosaur. How about the room on the top floor?”

Ana’s bottom lip shoots upward like she’s going to run. She clearly won’t settle for the room on the top floor, and there’s only a master bedroom on the first floor. A tantrum is close, and it could ruin everything.

So 133 Poisonwood plays its ace. Every decent haunted house has at least one secret room. Dorottya Blasko used to sew down here when she didn’t want to be pestered, in a room her family couldn’t find. It would be a perfect place for Ana to grow up in. Perhaps she’ll learn to sew.

With the sound of an affectionate kitten, the door opens. Shock hits the adults, who definitely don’t remember there being a room there. Ana doesn’t care, and runs to explore it.

“Uh, we aren’t showing that room,” Mrs. Weiss says, scrambling to cover for herself. She’s panicking, imagining hazards and lawsuits.

She doesn’t understand. 133 Poisonwood is going to clinch the sale for them.

The room runs deep, with an expansive window that hasn’t been seen from the outside in over twenty years. A sewing box with a scarlet and royal blue quilted exterior sits next to a rocking chair, and beneath the window is a broad spinning wheel that still smells like hobbies. Many great dresses were supposed to come out of this room. There are a few cracks on the concrete floor. Nothing a loving father can’t fill in to perfect his daughter’s big dino room.

“Ana,” Daddy calls. “Stay near me.”

Ana ignores the call and runs straight up to the spinning wheel. Her little hands grab onto spokes in the drive wheel, and she turns to the door. “It’s like Mommy’s.”

Daddy says, “Careful, that’s not ours—”

Ana yanks the wheel around to show it off to the adults. She pulls before the house can resist, and the entire device creaks and wobbles. It topples straight down on top of Ana, throwing her to the floor.

Daddy grabs her shoulders and pulls her from between the cracked wheel and treadle. Ana’s too distracted bawling to feel her necklace snag the spindle. The thin chain snaps, and the locket slips from her neck and down a crack in the floor. Without intending to, the house sucks the chain down like a strand of spaghetti. The house tries to spit it out.

Daddy squeezes Ana to his chest so hard she could pop, and keeps repeating, “Are you alright? Are you alright?”

Mrs. Weiss gestures and says, “Her hand.”

“Are you alright?”

Ana says, “Let me fix it!” She stretches her hands to the broken spinning wheel. One of her hands is bleeding and she still wants to use them to clean up her mess. She says, “Daddy, let go, I’ll fix it. Don’t make the ghosts sad.”

That breaks Daddy’s concerned trance, and he lifts her under one arm, ignoring the kicking of her feet. He marches for the stairs. “No. I warned you, and we are leaving.”

“Daddy, no!”

“No more. Say goodbye. You see the ghosts aren’t saying goodbye? Do you know why?”

An urge falls over the house to slam the door shut and trap them all inside. Daddy, Ana, and even Mrs. Weiss, force them all to spend eternity in its hidden room, where they can make dresses, and stay cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. It will shelter them from all the hurricanes the world can create. It needs them.

The phantom door’s hinges and knob tremble as 133 Poisonwood fights itself. In that moment it knows what makes other homes go evil. The killer houses can’t bear to be alone.

133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. But it isn’t one.

It leaves its rooms open as Daddy carries his bawling daughter out of the basement, her incoherent sounds resonating through the house’s crawl spaces. He carries her up the stairs and out the front door without a backward glance. This time, he remembers to close the door.

*

133 Poisonwood leaves the secret room open in the hopes that someone will come back. It squeezes the cracks in its floor closed, popping the locket out without scratching it. Inside is the picture of a woman with a thick nose and proud eyes. She would have made an excellent ghost. The house would take a phantom for an inhabitant at this point.

The afternoon is sluggish. There are four more visitors, none of whom stay long enough to check the basement for treasure. The hours chug by, and Mrs. Weiss spends most of the time on her phone.

With half an hour of daylight left, a red sedan pulls up. The driver lingers outside for two minutes before knocking. It’s Daddy.

Mrs. Weiss answers and forces a smile, “Ulisses. Is Ana okay?”

Daddy says, “It was a scratch. Thanks for being understanding before.”

She says, “I’m so sorry about that. I told the team this place was supposed to be empty.”

He says, “Have you seen a locket? Ana wears it everywhere and it’s gone missing.”

Mrs. Weiss holds the door open for him, “We can check around. What does it look like?”

“It has a picture of Ana’s mother inside. It’s one of few gifts she still has from her.”

“She was your wife?”

“She was going to be,” he says, and looks around the master bedroom with an expression even emptier than the space. “There was an accident on our apartment’s fire escape. She had a fall.”

“Oh, that’s terrible.”

“Right now, Ana needs all the comfort she can get. So if we can find that locket, it’d save our lives.”

They look around, the man so tired every step looks heavy. It’s amazing he could stagger into a motel bed, let alone go hunting for a locket. The house hasn’t seen someone as in need of a home in years.

Mrs. Weiss says, “I had something like that after my father passed away. Makes her feel like her mother’s spirit is still with her?”

“Superstitions aren’t comforting to me,” he says, fatigue giving way to scorn, as though daring the house’s walls to do something. “And Ana’s mother was an atheist.”

The house is tempted to give Daddy the shock of his life and toss the locket to him. Give him back the image of his lover and proof of its power.

But he doesn’t need to believe in hauntings. With his slumped shoulders, and his clothes stained with his daughter’s food, and the pieces of their lives he is trying to put together?

What he needs is a win.

So the house uses what little strength it has to levitate the locket onto the top basement stair. It twists it so the light catches it, and shines into the upstairs living room.

Daddy finds the precious locket on his own. He bends over it, brushing a thumb over his lover’s image. He heaves a sigh through his nose like he wishes he could fit inside the locket.

The house lets him be proud of himself. It will hold onto this memory for the cold years ahead until it is bulldozed.

Daddy stands up without the locket, leaving it behind. The house tries to send him a vision warning that he’s forgotten what he came here for.

The mental image doesn’t change what he’s doing.

He goes right outside, to his sedan where Ana sits, rubbing at her puffy eyes and runny nose. Daddy says, “It might be here. Do you want to help me look?”

The house cannot cry. There is just a little air in its pipes.

Ana flops out of the car and trudges into 133 Poisonwood. She spends too long poking around the kitchen, a room she was barely in earlier. Daddy plays an even worse sleuth, deliberately checking around empty hallways that give him a view of when Ana finally checks the basement door.

“Mommy!” she cheers. She sits right down on the stair and hugs the locket to her throat, voice trembling with emotions too big for her body. “Mommy came back!”

Daddy asks, “So you found it?”

“I told you she’d be here. Mommy wanted me to find it.”

“Your mother didn’t do that, Ana.”

She scrunches her nose and mimics his voice to say, “You don’t know that.”

Daddy puts a hand over the locket. “You found this. Not anybody else. You don’t need ghosts,” and he taps her on the temple, “because you have the best parts of your mother inside you.”

Ana gazes up at her father with glossy eyes.

133 Poisonwood has never so understood what it wants to do for people as when it watches this parent. It tries to hold onto the vibrations of his voice in its walls.

Then Ana says, “Nah. The ghosts left it here.”

She hauls off to the living room, hopping in late afternoon sunbeams, and holding the locket in the light.

Reason is defeated for the moment. Daddy doesn’t fight her on it. He rests against the wall, against the wallpaper he hates, taking the house for granted. The house plays a tune on its shingles, the same one that calmed Dorottya Blasko in 1989.

Daddy calls, “Mrs. Weiss?”

“Please, call me Carol,” she says. She’s been pretending she wasn’t lurking ten feet away this whole time. “You’re very sweet with Ana. You can just tell some people were born with the knack.”

“Three rooms in the basement. This is a lot of house for the money, isn’t it?”

“It’s just a family short of a home.”

133 Poisonwood would be more charmed by the line if it hadn’t heard her say that eight other times today.

Daddy says, “I like the space this place has for her. There’s plenty of room to run. And she loves to run. Going to be a track and field star.”

“I said to myself that this place looks happier when you’re in it. It suits you.”

The house can tell he wants to say he doesn’t believe that.

He says, “What we need is somewhere to start fresh.”

Mrs. Weiss offers him a folio of data on the house and gestures to the basement. “Care for another look around?”

“Yeah. Thank you.” He takes the folio. “While Ana is playing upstairs, can we check how insulated from sound that sewing room is? It’s funny, but I thought it might make a good podcast studio.”

If houses could laugh. He sounds so unguarded and sincere.

This tired skeptic doesn’t need to know that his podcast room doesn’t technically exist. If he finds the blueprints for 133 Poisonwood, he’ll shave away what he doesn’t understand with Occam’s razor. The house doesn’t need him to believe in anything but himself and his daughter. It isn’t here for the gratitude. It can try to support him as well as he supports Ana. If anything is as patient as a parent, it’s a haunting.


© 2020 by John Wiswell

Editor’s Note: The original posting of this story included a terminology error where a spindle was confused with a spinning wheel. This has been corrected. Thank you to “Janice in GA” who first pointed out the error.

Author’s Note: At the World Fantasy Convention in 2018, I went to dinner with some lovely people who let me babble about Horror. I read, watch, and play Horror every week, but I barely ever write it. Instead I tend to put Horror-y things back out as humorous stories or heartwarming stories. Off the top of my head I gave them the example that if I wrote a haunted house story, it wouldn’t be like Haunting of Hill House – it would be about a haunted house that was lonely and desperately wanted someone to live in it. One of my fellow authors reached across the table, grabbed me by the hand, and said, “Please write this.” On the train ride home, I did. So this story is dedicated to Natalia Theodoridou, who demanded I help 133 Poisonwood find its family and its audience – all of you.

John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. John’s fiction has previous appeared here in Diabolical Plots with “Tank!” in June 2018. John’s story “For Lack of a Bed” was published here as well in April 2021.

DP FICTION #59A: “This Is What the Boogeyman Looks Like” by T.J. Berg

This is what the boogeyman looks like.

It has white eyes with no pupils and no irises. Just white all the way through. But it can see you. So I must not fall asleep as I wait outside this closet door in an empty room, in an empty house with a derelict For Sale sign in front of it, everything smaller than I remember, baseball bat gripped in my hands.

*

This is what the boogeyman sounds like.

Short, huffing breaths, almost snorts, like your boss calling you into his office for a chat, because you got yet another email by accident that was supposed go to the CEO, who shares your name. “And you understand,” huff huff huff, “that you obviously didn’t get the whole story with just that one email,” huff huff huff, “and the engineers are definitely going to address that problem before the product goes to market.” Huff. “We understand each other, right?” And you’re too scared of losing your job to do anything but understand.

*

This is how the boogeyman gets you.

It has six arms. The first set has hands, much like yours. The second set ends in razor-tipped claws. The third set have some kind of suction on the ends. They take your soul. Like your ex-wife when she crossed her arms and said, “I can’t be with you if you’re too scared to even have kids.” When she said, her eyes pinched with that sympathy face, “I know you blame yourself for your brother.”

*

This is what the boogeyman looks like. Eyes white, all the way through. But he can see you. When he lifts up the blankets to peer under the bed. When those wide, wide nostrils in that too-small nose flare and breath you in. When he reaches his razor-clawed hands under the bed and sinks their points into your screaming little brother’s arms. This is what he looks like.

He looks like your ex-wife sitting on the bed with her hands in her lap, stretching a hair tie over and over again, saying, “This could have worked, it still could, if you weren’t so damned scared of everything. Too scared to ride a bus. Too scared to climb a tall hill. Too scared to ask for a raise, too scared to ask for a promotion, too scared to have kids, too scared to even have a bedroom with a closet. I can’t live like this.”

The boogeyman has a flat voice, like your wife giving up on you. Like when it’s dragging your little brother from under the bed, telling him he’ll do nicely. When you’re screaming, “Nate!” and he’s screaming, “Aiden!” And you scramble out after him. It is hunching toward the open closet, pincered arms bent backward, holding your little brother pinned to its back. The closet is pure darkness. A bad place. It is taking him there, where the boogeyman comes from. You dash. You dash right across and jump, thinking, you don’t know what, thinking you’ll grab its feet, hold it here. Your fingers out, wrap around a boot, but it kicks you away as it leaps into the darkness of the closet, Nate’s screams cutting off as if someone hung up the phone on him.

It was, finally, my wife’s leaving that sent me to the psychiatrist. The one that tells me, “The boogeyman is a classic symbol of fear, one you’ve put in the place of the man who took your brother, since neither of them were ever found.” I listened, but was also looking at the door behind his desk, wondering if it was a closet door. “In twenty-six years you’ve never once slept in a room with a closet?”

A shake of the head, eyes on the door.

“You need to confront this. The best way would be to go back to that house, the very house it happened in. If that’s possible. And face that closet. Barring that, try any closet for that matter. You’ll see. There’s no boogeyman. Just your fear.”

“And if the boogeyman is there? If he does come?”

He shook his head. “If it would make you feel better, bring a weapon.”

“What, like a gun?”

“That’s a terrible idea. No. A baseball bat. That’s what I keep by my bed.”

I wondered what his boogeyman looked like.

*

My boogeyman, just now, looks like a closet door in an empty room, in an empty house with a derelict “For Sale” sign in front of it, everything smaller than I remember. It’s chilly and the floor is hard and the baseball bat is clutched tight in my hands and my heart empties and fills with every tiny noise. A creak. A crack. A loud cricket. A tiny groan. Will he come? Is he still there? Still in that closet? Would he face an adult? Do I stand a chance?

What if he doesn’t come? What if he isn’t real?

A scratch. A soft thump. The cricket again. Shadows across the moon. Phantom movement in corners, across bare floors. The damned cricket, even noisier. And every time, the booming heart. The sense that my body empties and refills in an instant of stopped breath and terror. Will he come? What will I do if he does? What will I do if he doesn’t?

The closet door swings open. The darkness lies behind it. I raise my bat. The boogeyman steps out. I swing.

*

This is what the boogeyman looks like.

He is short. He wears goggles and a tattered wide brimmed hat. Something cloaks his lower face. His clothes fit like someone wearing a glove on their foot. Bits are tied up with string. He rolls over. Springs up. Ready to fight, hands in the air in front of him.

“Aiden?” he says.

He doesn’t huff. He lifts off his goggles, pulls the mask from the bottom half of his face. And he has blue eyes, eyes like mine. “Aiden?” he says again, questing voice. A little rough at the edges.

I raise my bat.

“Is it you?” he asks. “Is it? I was sure . . .”

I shake my head, but I say, “Yes.”

“It’s . . . Aiden, it’s me. Nate.” He coughs.

“Nate?”

“Nately mately hate me lately?” The silly rhyme we once made.

“Nate?”

His hand goes to his chest. He looks afraid. “I can’t stay.” Voice getting hoarser. Breathing heavy. Looking disappointed. “The air here, it’s hard to breath.”

“How? How are you here?”

“I escaped. And I remembered you, my brother, how brave you were.” Cough. Huff. “So as I got older, living there, in that place . . . I started to hunt them. The boogeymen.” Huff.

“You’re the boogeyman . . .”

“To the boogeymen.”

We are silent a while. Behind him the darkness in the closet remains opaque.

“Mom and dad?” he asks.

“Dead.” I can’t tell him how. Dad’s suicide. Mom’s fading away.

“I could feel you,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever found my way back here.” Huff huff. “But I don’t think I can stay. I think I’ve breathed the air there too long.”

His eyes are blue, but very pale. Watery. The skin pale and pink where the goggles clung. Nostrils flare with each labored breath.

“You hunt them?” I ask. “The boogeymen?”

He grins, sheepish, a little proud. “Try to be brave, like my big brother.” He looks like he wants a hug.

I want to hit him with the bat again.

I want to shove him through the door and out of my life. I want to close the door and keep him here and watch him suffocate and die.

“I need to go back,” he says. “Will you come again? Please? I’ve been so lonely, there.” His breathing is desperate now. His back is to the blackness. “I don’t know why I’ve never sensed you before.”

Because I wouldn’t sleep in that room. Because I was too scared to go near a closet, ever again. Because this, this is what the boogeyman looks like. He looks like your little brother. He looks like you nodding a promise you’ll never keep, as your little brother steps back into the darkness.

 


© 2019 by T.J. Berg

 

Author’s Note: I was convinced of the existence of the boogeyman as a child, and closets still creep me out as a result.  I think this story was just carrying that fear into reality.

 

T.J. Berg is a molecular and cellular biologist working and writing in Sweden.  She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and was a member of the Glasgow SF Writer’s Circle.  When she isn’t writing or doing science, she can be found stravaigin the world, cooking, eating, or playing dinosaurs, princesses, and super heroes, sometimes with her son.  She (and pointers to her other stories) can be found on the web atwww.infinity-press.com.

 

 

 


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