“Wombat Fishbone” by Jason Erik Lundberg

Wombat Fishbone

by Jason Erik Lundberg
to the sound of “A Heap of Trouble” by Steve Sullivan…

As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 5


The flyers and placards sprout from a multitude of locations all over town, all displaying the same graphic (the iconic walking man featured on Walk/Don’t Walk traffic lights and signs), although the text is different, unique, in each instance: “J. Juniper Jellyfish walks tomorrow,” “J. Lemon Stegosaurus walks tomorrow,” “J. Wombat Fishbone walks tomorrow,” always that same pattern of nonsense words preceded by the initial J. No one knows who plasters the notices on lamp posts, bulletin boards, tree trunks, brick walls, flag poles, shop windows, mailboxes, front doors, and errant animals too slow to avoid coverage, so fast are the scouts, the ahead-runners, quick and silent and invisible, like ninjas.

There have been stories and rumors from other towns, other counties, other states, but it doesn’t feel quite real until your own town is visited, snuck into, invaded. For the flyers are merely the first wave, the warning of things to come: the arrival of the Walkers. All that day, the day before, the cold air runs tense through the town, oozing through the leafless winter branches, sliding down shirt collars. The skies turn grey, as if responding to the news, rendering a flatness to the light and an ominous foreboding to the streets. You may laugh it off; it’s just a fraternity prank, or an activist stunt, or a harmless cult, but you hurry home nonetheless, that prickly feeling at the base of your skull urging you to safety, convincing you that there they are, right behind you, conjuring phantoms from the reptilian section of your brain.

The mayor goes on the local station that night, cheeks pinked by the cold, uncomfortable in his new toupee, suit more rumpled than usual, and he reassures you, all of you, that this is nothing to be afraid of, that we can’t let these strangers come into our fair town and terrorize us, though you see a note of fear in his shivering hazel eyes, in the way that beads of sweat drip down the sides of his face. He does not speak long, wanting to be home himself, and it is with some relief when the station returns to prime time sitcom reruns, or reality-based competition programs, or game shows encased in dazzling lights and ecstatic audiences, your regular nighttime showcase of entertaining falseness, full of all the beautiful people.

Your dreams are filled with images in monochrome: a concrete house in disrepair, spotted and stained with gray splotches, surrounded by maple and elm, shed of leaves, extending their skeletal fingers into a sky populated by the skrawks and caws of crows, circling lazily a ghostly form clothed in the robes of an ascetic and surrounded by the crackling blackness of unholy energy, and then the figure stands along the darkened path to the house, more substantial — you can perceive even the rough weave of his garments — and his hands reach up to pull back his hood and reveal his face, to tell you his true name: J. Something Something, but your dream-self recoils, and you scratch and claw your way through an infinite number of oneiric layers until you awaken, breathless, damp, in your own bed. It is an almost involuntary reflex to laugh, to banish the strange dream, to take away its gripping power.

The next morning, the skies still ashen, the colors bleached out of everything by the harsh light that suffuses the streets, you make your way slowly to your office, looking behind you every ten steps or so, passing store after store displaying Closed signs, and only a handful of brave souls wander the sidewalks, chatting and humming to banish the fear and anticipation, as if walking through a cemetery. You unlock the door to your travel agency and slip inside, letting out a breath now that a layer of glass and wood separates you from the outside, from whatever is coming. The work keeps your mind occupied through the morning, arranging flights over the phone, booking package deals with airlines and hotels as far away as Indonesia, filing receipts and reports since your assistant has decided to call in sick, and so the sound creeps up on you, background noise at first, but soon clear and distinct, emerging from the west side of town, and it is the unmistakable sound of more than a dozen men singing.

Naked, we are strong!

You want to march along!

Manly men, come join your kin

And listen to our song!

It is intoxicating, this simple chant, growing closer and louder, progressing ever more near as it approaches eastward, sailing the main street through the town, toward you. The words infect your ears, your bones, your skin, and abruptly your office has become too warm, too stifling, and your clothes too rough and confining. You long to be rid of them, to strip down to your essence, and that is exactly what you do. Off come the tie, jacket, shirt, pants, underwear, hurriedly shedding your second skin, the chant pulsing in your chest as you find the words emerging from your own mouth, and you run outside to join your brethren just now passing by, men of middle age: bankers, office managers, computer scientists, engineers, salesmen, high school sports coaches, now accompanied by others, your townsfolk: an accountant, a dealership owner, a bicycle repairman, an ice cream salesman, a pharmacist, a university professor, a gas station attendant, and yes, a travel agent, all marching and chanting and reveling in your maleness, in the communal bond with your fellow men, untouched by the cold winter wind.

You know that it all looks preposterous, absurd, twenty or so men all parading down Main Street in nothing but their shoes and socks, paunched and hairy and out of shape, far from the manufactured airbrushed magazine advert image of what a man should look like — glossy, coifed, tanned, muscular — as you step in joyful cadence down the lined asphalt, and although you spy horrified looks from behind the window curtains of the people you interact with every day, your voice grows louder, and stronger, and you truly don’t care how it all appears, because for this one all-too-brief moment you experience a near-nirvanic sensation of communion with something higher, of interconnectedness, of being in the world and of the world, tears in your eyes, loving every single man and woman on the planet, vowing to do all you can to deliver this feeling to others, this sense of being liberated, unconstrained, free.

<End>

© Copyright 2008 Jason Erik Lundberg & Senses Five Press

“Tattoos of the Sky, Tattoos of the Days” by Alex Dally MacFarlane

Tattoos of the Sky, Tattoos of the Days

by Alex Dally MacFarlane
to the sound of “The Stars” by Patrick Wolf…

As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 5


She talks to mePalm to the door — glass cold underskin, flakes of paint sloughed from the frame, and the sensations are sweetly familiar — push it open and hear the bell’s high chime of Welcome.


The night is a blackbird and it lives on Gemma’s arm. When it is still, its tail feathers brush her elbow and its beak sits below the curve of her shoulder, pointing behind her. When it moves, which is most of the time, it can be anywhere within the confines of her left arm.

Stars string its wings, shining brightly amid the black. They wink when the sun turns its back and whisper rude taunts. Gemma sits in the park, surrounded by the branch-walls and leaf-ceiling of her house, and listens to them. Sometimes she giggles — stars are no different to men, she thinks, with their obsession about size — but sometimes she wants to block them out, their bickering that reminds her too much of other arguments, and she sits in the dirt with her fingers in her ears.

The floor lumpy underfoot, the receptionist’s smile, the buzz from around back — she smiles, breathes in and sighs out, and walks to the desk.

“I was thinking, maybe I could have New Year’s Day on my right ankle.”

Leah, who wields ink and needles with the same ease as the stars wield insults, smiles and says, “Sure you can. And what kind of bird is New Year’s Day?”

“Once a year it burns so bright,” says Gemma, “and all the people can’t do a thing but stop and stare at it. And then the days pass and the people look elsewhere and it fades and fades, until in the quick turning of seasons it’s turned to nothing but ash in the wind. But the seasons keep turning in their circles and it returns, reformed, burning so bright again.”

Still smiling in her guarded, unsure way, Leah readies the ink and needles for the tattoo of the day.

Gemma watches the artist’s long sleeves, waiting to find out if she imagined it last time. But no, there it is when she reaches for the pot of gold ink: a stray feather of day on the soft underside of Leah’s arm, yellow and blue, hiding an old scar.

I have an appointment and What time is it? and Five o’clock and Okay, Gemma, just take a seat, Leah will be with you soon.

In the morning Gemma wipes sleep and twigs from her eyes, carefully packs her clothes and blanket into her tattered bag, and leaves the park.

She wanders into the town, whistling bird-songs to the big toe that pokes through her left shoe. Standing in the centre of the shopping square is the fountain — a pair of nymphs tangled narrow-limbed around each other, spilling water from their upturned mouths — and Gemma goes there to wash her birds. The blackbird has a streak of dirt along its neck; it holds very still while Gemma wipes it away. When she is done, it ruffles its feathers and begins cawing to the pigeons sitting on the nearby stone. They coo back, comparing lifestyles and trading secrets. The stars are quiet.

Later in the morning, when Gemma has finished washing her birds and the town centre is full of people, Leah and her husband sit at a café on the other side of the square. They are too far away for Gemma to hear their words, but she sees the gist of it written on their bodies and faces.

Back and forth, bicker bicker, stars against the sun, husband and wife.

Gemma whispers, “You need a bird with two heads that change with the winds.”

The blackbird is still cawing to the pigeons, boasting that I am night whereas you are just a lump of flesh. The robin on her right wrist joins the conversation a few times, but mostly it stays quiet. It wears a calendar around its neck and as the hands turn their circles the robin flickers, changing. The differences are slight — its beak becomes fractionally shorter, its feet change their shade of yellowy-orange to orangey-yellow — but Gemma catalogues them, storing the memories carefully.

Ink — stillborn birds — on her fingertips, fair hair wispy around her face, shirt long-sleeved despite the warmth: Leah.

“Christmas changes, you see,” says Gemma while the needles work at her wrist. “No one really watches it when it’s not winter. It’s not like New Year’s Day, fading into ash. It stays in people’s minds but because they’re not really looking, it changes. And over a long, long time, it becomes something completely different.”

“Like how it changed from a pagan festival to the anniversary of a god?”

“Exactly!” Gemma grins. “I’m going to watch it change.”

When Leah pauses in her work to bat a curl of fair hair from her face, her sleeve slides back far enough to reveal the feather of day again — with two more, clustered like three-for-a-wedding on Leah’s forearm, bright yellow and blue, a scrap of day quickly covered once more by sleeve.

“Where do you live?” asks Leah.

Only a moment of hesitation hovers over Gemma’s tongue. “With leaves and branches and soil.”

“Is it very cold?”

“The stars argue too loudly for me to notice the cold.”

“Mmm.”

One day: black outline, framing the bird in neat lines and careful swirls.

Another day, or maybe the same day — Gemma finds it difficult to keep track of the days that aren’t on her skin — Leah’s husband comes to the tattoo parlour. At first they talk quietly in the store-room, laughing once or twice, but then the wind changes or the sun goes behind a cloud or something equally insignificant occurs and they are arguing again.

Angry voices shout accusations and Gemma sits on the table, silent, remembering too clearly the last time she overheard those words hurled between husband and wife.

He leaves after a while, promising that We will discuss this when I return from Moscow. Leah returns to the table, shaking only a little. A feather of the day covers her cheek like an elegant fan, hand-sized. “So, Gemma,” she says, shaking out her stress in a forced smile and false enthusiasm, “what would you like today?”

“Draw whatever you want.” In a touch more timid voice, she adds, “Whatever will make you smile.”

A nod and, faintly, a hint of a real smile, and Leah spends several minutes in thought. “A bird of paradise,” she decides. “A bird like the plant named after it: bright orange and purple feathers, long and thin.”

Gemma lifts her jumper and t-shirt over her head, revealing the near-flat canvas of her chest.

Buzzing fills the room — birdsong to Gemma’s ears. She lies still, un-flinching as the needles etch their pattern into her pale skin.

When she is finished, Leah puts away her tools and, running her fingers over the black outline unfurled across Gemma’s chest, says, “Will you come home with me tonight, after I’ve finished work?”

One day: colour, filling the spaces like in a child’s colouring book.

The day is a canary and it lives on Leah’s back.

Leah unbuttons her shirt and lets it slide down, revealing the day’s avian dance upon her skin. Its playground is a vast backscape of shed feathers from neck to coccyx, dazzling at first glance — yellow like the sun, bleeding white into blue-tinged ends. Gemma caresses it, feeling feather and skin and bruise under her hands.

Turning, Leah takes Gemma’s hands in hers and brushes her lips feather-soft over Gemma’s knuckles. The stars are struck into silence at the sun’s proximity, prompting a small smile from Gemma at their childish behaviour.

Then the blackbird chirps, reminding, and Gemma grudgingly says, “Night and day are opposites. One rises when the other passes below.”

“Then we shall meet at sunrise and sunset, and we shall be orange and pink.” Leah’s raised eyebrow invites further doubts. Gemma does not give them.

Wings stretching, feathers splayed, beak open and the bird of paradise sings its fallen song — a song of reaching a place not perfect, but better.

<End>

© Copyright 2008 Alex Dally MacFarlane & Senses Five Press

“Palimpsest” by Catherynne M. Valente

Palimpsest

by Catherynne M. Valente

This story appears in:
Paper Cities, An Anthology of Urban Fantasy
published by Senses Five Press with permission.

Purchase a copy of the book at Amazon.com or directly from Senses Five Press


16th and Hieratica

A fortune-teller’s shop: palm-fronds cross before the door. Inside are four red chairs with four lustral basins before them, filled with ink, swirling and black. A woman lumbers in, wrapped in ragged fox-fur. Her head amid heaps of scarves is that of a frog, mottled green and bulbous-eyed, and a licking pink tongue keeps its place in her wide mouth. She does not see individual clients. Thus it is that four strangers sit in the red chairs, strip off their socks, plunge their feet into the ink-baths, and hold hands under an amphibian stare. This is the first act of anyone entering Palimpsest: Orlande will take your coats, sit you down, and make you family. She will fold you four together like quartos. She will draw you each a card—look, for you it is the Broken Ship reversed, which signifies perversion, a long journey without enlightenment, gout—and tie your hands together with red yarn. Wherever you go in Palimpsest, you are bound to these strangers who happened onto Orlande’s salon just when you did, and you will go nowhere, eat no capon or dormouse, drink no oversweet port that they do not also taste, and they will visit no whore that you do not also feel beneath you, and until that ink washes from your feet—which, given that Orlande is a creature of the marsh and no stranger to mud, will be some time—you cannot breathe but that they breathe also.

The other side of the street: a factory. Its thin spires are green, and spit long loops of white flame into the night. Casimira owns this place, as did her father and her grandmother and probably her most distant progenitor, curling and uncurling their proboscis-fingers against machines of stick and bone. There has always been a Casimira, except when, occasionally, there is a Casimir. Workers carry their lunches in clamshells. They wear extraordinary uniforms: white and green scales laid one over the other, clinging obscenely to the skin, glittering in the spirelight. They wear nothing else; every wrinkle and curve is visible. They dance into the factory, their serpentine bodies writhing a shift-change, undulating under the punch-clock with its cheerful metronomic chime. Their eyes are piscine, third eyelid half-drawn in drowsy pleasure as they side-step and gambol and spin to the rhythm of the machines.

And what do they make in this factory? Why, the vermin of Palimpest. There is a machine for stamping cockroaches with glistening green carapaces, their maker’s mark hidden cleverly under the left wing. There is a machine for shaping and pounding rats, soft grey fur stiff and shining when they are first released. There is another mold for squirrels, one for chipmunks and one for plain mice. There is a centrifuge for spiders, a lizard-pour, a delicate and ancient machine which turns out flies and mosquitoes by turn, so exquisite, so perfect that they seem to be made of nothing but copper wire, spun sugar, and light. There is a printing press for graffiti which spits out effervescent letters in scarlet, black, angry yellows, and the trademark green of Casimira. They fly from the high windows and flatten themselves against walls, trestles, train cars.

When the shift-horn sounds at the factory, the long antler-trumpet passed down to Casimira by the one uncle in her line who defied tradition and became a humble hunter, setting the whole clan to a vociferous but well-fed consternation, a wave of life wafts from the service exit: moles and beetles and starlings and bats, ants and worms and moths and mantises. Each gleaming with its last coat of sealant, each quivering with near-invisible devices which whisper into their atavistic minds that their mistress loves them, that she thinks of them always, and longs to hold them to her breast.

In her office, Casimira closes her eyes and listens to the teeming masses as they whisper back to their mother. At the end of each day they tell her all they have learned of living.

It is necessary work. No family has been so often formally thanked by the city as hers.

###

The first time I saw it was in the pit of a woman’s elbow. The orange and violet lights of the raucous dancefloor played over her skin, made her look like a decadent leopardess at my table. I asked her about it; she pulled her sleeve over her arm self-consciously, like a clam pulling its stomach in.

“It’s not cancer,” she said loudly, over the droning, repetitive music, “I had it checked out. It was just there one day, popping up out of me like fucking track marks. I have to wear long sleeves to work all the time now, even in summer. But it’s nothing—well, not nothing, but if it’s something it’s benign, just some kind of late-arriving birthmark.”

I took her home. Not because of it, but because her hair was very red, in that obviously dyed way— and I like that way. Some shades of red genetics will never produce, but she sat in the blinking green and blue lights haloed in defiant scarlet.

She tasted like new bread and lemon-water.

As she drifted to sleep, one arm thrown over her eyes, the other lying open and soft on my sheets, I stroked her elbow gently, the mark there like a tattoo: a spidery network of blue-black lines, intersecting each other, intersecting her pores, turning at sharp angles, rounding out into clear and unbroken skin just outside the hollow of her joint. It looked like her veins had darkened and hardened, organized themselves into something more than veins, and determined to escape the borders of their mistress’s flesh. She murmured my name in her sleep: Lucia.

“It looks like a streetmap,” I whispered sleepily, brushing her hair from a flushed ear.

I dreamed against her breast of the four black pools in Orlande’s house. I stared straight ahead into her pink and grey-speckled mouth, and the red thread swept tight against my wrist. On my leather-skirted lap the Flayed Horse was lain, signifying sacrifice in vain, loveless pursuit, an empty larder. A man sat beside me with an old-fashioned felt hat askance on his bald head, his lips deeply rosy and full, as though he had been kissing someone a moment before. We laced our hands together as she lashed us—he had an extra finger, and I tried not to recoil. Before me were two women: one with a green scarf wrapping thin golden hair, a silver mantis-pendant dangling between her breasts, and another, Turkish, or Armenian, perhaps, her eyes heavily made-up, streaked in black like an Egyptian icon.

The frog-woman showed me a small card, red words printed neatly on yellowed paper:

You have been quartered.

The knots slackened. I walked out, across the frond-threshold, into the night which smelled of sassafras and rum, and onto Hieratica Street. The others scattered, like ashes. The road stretched before and beyond, lit by streetlamps like swollen pumpkins, and the gutters ran with rain.

###

212th, Vituperation, Seraphim, and Alphabet

In the center of the roundabout: the Cast-Iron Memorial. It is tall and thin, a baroque spire sheltering a single black figure—a gagged child with the corded, elastic legs of an ostrich, fashioned from linked hoops of iron—through the gaps in her knees you can see the weeds with their flame-tipped flowers. She is seated in the grass, her arms thrown out in supplication. Bronze and titanium chariots click by in endless circles, drawn on runners in the street, ticking as they pass like shining clocks. Between her knock-knees is a plaque of white stone:

IN MEMORIAM:
The sons and daughters of Palimpsest
who fought and fell in the Silent War.

752-759
Silent still
are the fields
in which they are planted.

Once, though the tourists could not know of it, on this spot a thousand died without a gasp. Legions were volunteered to have their limbs replaced with better articles, fleeter and wiser and stronger and newer. These soldiers also had their larynxes cut out, so they could not give away their positions with an unfortunate cry, or tell tales of what they had done in the desert, by the sea, in the city which then was new and toddling. Whole armies altered thus wrangled without screams, without sound. In the center of the roundabout, the ostrich-girl died unweeping while her giraffe-father had his long, spotted neck slashed with an ivory bayonet.

Down the mahogany alleys of Seraphim Street, clothes shops line the spotless, polished road. In the window of one is a dress in the latest style: startlingly blue, sweeping up to the shoulders of a golden mannequin. It cuts away to reveal a glittering belly; the belt is fastened with tiny cerulean eyes which blink lazily, in succession. The whites are diamonds, the pupils ebony. The skirt winds down in deep, hard creases which tumble out of the window in a carefully arranged train, hemmed in crow feathers. The shopkeeper, Aloysius, keeps a pale green Casimira grasshopper on a beaded leash. It rubs its legs together while he works in a heap of black quills, sewing an identical trio of gowns like the one in the window for triplet girls who demanded them in violet, not blue.

At night, he ties the leash to his bedpost and the little thing lies next to his broad, lined face, clicking a binary lullaby into the old man’s beard. He dreams of endless bodies, unclothed and beautiful.

###

I can be forgiven, I think, for not noticing it for days afterward. I caught a glimpse in my mirror as I turned to catch a loose thread in my skirt—behind my knee, a dark network of lines and angles, and, I thought I could see, tiny words scrawled above them, names and numbers, snaking over the grid.

After that, I began to look for them.

I found the second in a sushi restaurant with black tablecloths—he was sitting two tables over, but when he gripped his chopsticks, I could see the map pulsing on his palm. I joined him—he did not object. We ate eels and cucumbers thinner than vellum and drank enough clear, steaming sake that I did not have to lean over to kiss him in the taxi. He smashed his lips against mine and I dug my nails into his neck—when we parted I seized his hand and licked the web of avenues that criss-crossed so: heart and fate lines.

In his lonely apartment I kissed his stomach. In his lonely apartment, on a bed without a frame which lay wretched between milk crates and cinder blocks, the moon shone through broken blinds and slashed my back into a tiger’s long stripes.

In his lonely apartment, on a pillow pounded thin by dozens of night-fists, I dreamed. Perhaps he dreamed, too. I thought I saw him wandering down a street filled with balloons and leering gazelles—but I did not follow. I stood on a boulevard paved with prim orange poppies, and suddenly I tasted brandy rolling down my throat, and pale smoke filling up my lungs. My green-scarved quarter was savoring her snifter and her opium somewhere far from me. I saw the ostrich-child that night. I smelled the Seraphim sidewalks, rich and red, and traded, with only some hesitation, my long brown hair for the dress. Aloysius cut it with crystal scissors, and I walked over wood, under sulfurous stars, trailing dark feathers behind me. The wind was warm on my bare neck. My fingers were warm, too—my bald quarter was stroking a woman with skin like a snake’s.

There were others. A man with a silver tooth—a depth-chart crawled over his toes. With him I dreamed I walked the tenements, raised on stilts over a blue river, and ate goulash with a veteran whose head was a snarling lion, tearing his meat with fangs savage and yellow. He had a kind of sign language, but I could only guess correctly the gestures for mother, southeast, and sleep.

There was a woman with two children and a mole on her left thigh—between her shoulder blades severe turns and old closes poked on an arrondissement-wheel. With her I dreamed I worked a night’s shift in a restaurant that served but one dish: broiled elephant liver, soaked in lavender honey and jeweled with pomegranate seeds. The staff wore tunics sewn from peacock feathers, and were not allowed to look the patrons in the eye. When I set a shimmering plate before a man with long, grey fingers, I felt my black-eyed quarter pick up her golden fork and bite into a snail dipped in rum.

There was a sweet boy with a thin little beard—his thumb was nearly black with gridlock and unplanned alleys, as though he had been fingerprinted in an unnamable jail. He fell asleep in my arms, and we dreamed together, like mating dragonflies flying in unison. With him, I saw the foundries throwing fire into the sky. With him I danced in pearlescent scales, and pressed into being exactly fifty-seven wild hares, each one marked on its left ear with Casimira’s green seal.

Lucia! They all cry out when they lie over me. Lucia! Where will I find you?

Yet in those shadow-stitched streets I am always alone.

I sought out the dream-city on all those skins. What were plain, yellow-lined streets next to Seraphim? What was my time-clock stamping out its inane days next to the jeweled factory of Casimira? How could any touch equal the seizures of feeling in my dreams, in which each gesture was a quartet? I would touch no one who didn’t carry the map. Only once that year, after the snow, did I make an exception, for a young woman with cedar-colored breasts and a nose ring like a bull’s, or a minotaur’s. She wore bindi on her face like a splatter of blood. Her body was without blemish or mark, so alien and strange to me by then, so blank and empty. But she was beautiful, and her voice was a glass-cutting soprano, and I am weak. I begged her to sing to me after we made love, and when we dreamed, I found her dancing with a jackal-tailed man in the lantern-light of a bar that served butterfly-liquor in a hundred colors. I separated them; he wilted and slunk away, and I took her to the sea, its foam shattering into glass on the beach, and we walked along a strand of shards, glittering and wet.

When I woke, the grid brachiated out from her navel, its angles dark and bright. I smiled. Before she stirred, I kissed the striated lines, and left her house without coffee or farewells.

###

Quiescent and Rapine

There are two churches in Palimpsest, and they are identical in every way. They stand together, wrapping the street-corner like a hinge. Seven white columns each, wound around with black characters which are not Cyrillic, but to the idle glance might seem so. Two peaked roofs of red lacquer and two stone horses with the heads of fork-tongued lizards stand guard on either side of each door. They were made with stones from the same quarry, on the far southern border of the city, pale green and dusty, each round and perfect as a ball. There is more mortar in the edifices than stones, mortar crushed from Casimira dragonflies donated by the vat, tufa dust, and mackerel tails. The pews are scrubbed and polished with lime-oil, and each Thursday, parishioners share a communion of slivers of whale meat and cinnamon wine. The only difference between the two is in the basement—two great mausoleums with alabaster coffins lining the walls, calligraphied with infinite care and delicacy in the blood of the departed beloved contained within. In the far north corner is a raised platform covered in offerings of cornskin, chocolate, tobacco. In one church, the coffin contains a blind man. In the other, it contains a deaf woman. Both have narwhal’s horns extending from their foreheads; both died young. The faithful visit these basement-saints and leave what they can at the feet of the one they love best. Giustizia has been a devotee of the Unhearing since she was a girl—her yellow veil and turquoise-ringed thumbs are familiar to all in the Left-Hand Church, and it is she who brings the cornskins, regular as sunrise. When she dies, they will bury her here, in a coffin of her own.

She will plug your ears with wax when you enter, and demand silence. You may notice the long rattlesnake tail peeking from under her skirt and clattering on the mosaic floor, but it is not polite to mention it–when she says silence, you listen. It is the worst word she knows.

The suburbs of Palimpsest spread out from the edges of the city proper like ladies’ fans. First the houses, uniformly red, in even lines like veins, branching off into lanes and courts and cul-de-sacs. There are parks full of grass that smells like oranges and little creeks filled with floating roses, blue and black. Children scratch pictures of antelope-footed girls and sparrow-winged boys on the pavement, hop from one to the other. Their laughter spills from their mouths and turns to orange leaves, drifting lazily onto wide lawns. Eventually the houses fade into fields: amaranth, spinach, strawberries. Shaggy cows graze; black-faced sheep bleat. Palimpsest is ever-hungry.

But these too fade as they extend out, fade into the empty land not yet colonized by the city, not yet peopled, not yet known. The empty meadows stretch to the horizon, pale and dark, rich and soft.

A wind picks up, blowing hot and dusty and salt-scented, and gooseflesh rises over miles and miles of barren skin.

###

I saw her in November. It was raining—her scarf was soaked and plastered against her head. She passed by me and I knew her smell, I knew the shape of her wrist. In the holiday crowds, she disappeared quickly, and I ran after her, without a name to call out.

“Wait!” I cried.

She stopped and turned towards me, her square jaw and huge brown eyes familiar as a pillow. We stood together in the rainy street, beside a makeshift watch-stand.

“It’s you,” I whispered.

And I showed my knee. She pursed her lips for a moment, her green scarf blown against her neck like a wet leaf. Then she extended her tongue, and I saw it there, splashed with raindrops, the map of Palimpsest, blazing blue-bright. She closed her mouth, and I put my arm around her waist.

“I felt you, the pipe of bone, the white smoke,” I said.

“I felt the dress on your shoulders,” she answered, and her voice was thick and low, grating, like a gate opening.

“Come to my house. There is brandy there, if you want it.”

She cocked her head, thin golden hair snaking sodden over her coat. “What would happen, do you think?”

I smiled. “Maybe our feet would come clean.”

She stroked my cheek, put her long fingers into my hair. We kissed, and the watches gleamed beside us, gold and silver.

###

125th and Peregrine

On the south corner: the lit globes, covered with thick wrought- iron serpents which break the light, of a subway entrance. The trains barrel along at the bottom of the stairs every fifteen minutes. On the glass platform stands Adalgiso, playing his viola with six fingers on each hand. He is bald, with a felt hat that does not sit quite right on his head. Beside him is Assia, singing tenor, her smoke-throated voice pressing against his strings like kisses. Her eyes are heavily made-up, like a pharaoh’s portrait, her hair long and coarse and black. His playing is so quick and lovely that the trains stop to listen, inclining on the rails and opening their doors to catch the glissandos spilling from him. His instrument case lies open at his feet, and each passenger who takes the Marginalia Line brings his fee—single pearls, dropped one by one into the leather case until it overflows like a pitcher of milk. In the corners of the station, cockroaches with fiber optic wings scrape the tiles with their feet, and their scraping keeps the beat for the player and his singer.

On the north corner: a cartographer’s studio. There are pots of ink in every crevice, parchment spread out over dozens of tables. A Casimira pigeon perches in a baleen cage and trills out the hours faithfully. Its droppings are pure squid-ink, and they are collected in a little tin trough. Lucia and Paola have run this place for as long as anyone can remember—Lucia with her silver compass draws the maps, her exactitude radiant and unerring, while Paola illuminates them with exquisite miniatures, dancing in the spaces between streets. They each wear dozens of watches on their forearms. This is the second stop, after the amphibian-salon, of Palimpsest’s visitors, and especially of her immigrants, for whom the two women are especial patrons. Everyone needs a map, and Lucia supplies them: subway maps and street-maps and historical maps and topographical maps, false maps and correct-to-the-minute maps and maps of cities far and far from this one. Look—for you she has made a folding pamphlet that shows the famous sights: the factory, the churches, the salon, the memorial. Follow it, and you will be safe.

Each morning, Lucia places her latest map on the windowsill like a fresh pie. Slowly, as it cools, it opens along its own creases, its corners like wings, and takes halting flight, flapping over the city with susurring strokes. It folds itself, origami-exact, in mid-air: it has papery eyes, inky feathers, vellum claws.

It stares down the long avenues, searching for mice.
<End>

This story appears in: Paper Cities, An Anthology of Urban Fantasy.


© Copyright 2007 Catherynne M. Valente & Senses Five Press

“Jetsam” by Livia Llewellyn

Jetsam

by Livia Llewellyn
to the sound of “The Last Secret” and “Land of Lyss” by John Serrie…

As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 4


Jetsam, \jet-səm\, noun: The part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is cast overboard to lighten the load in time of distress and that sinks or is washed ashore.”

I‘m writing this down because I’m starting to forget. I may need to remember someday. The chemical air is already kissing my mind, biting my memory away. Something terrible happened at work today. Beyond imagining….

Jay stops reading the worn fragment of paper, and looks up. “I don’t remember writing this. Where did you find this, again?” She speaks to the young man behind the counter, who’s examining the creases of a jacket flap. His glasses slide down his nose as he stops to pull a book out of the thick stack on the counter.

“It was stuck in this one.” The man holds up a worn copy of a short story anthology. It is one of about 20 books Jay has lugged into the used bookstore to sell.

“Oh. I though I searched all of them.” Jay takes the book from him. It is old, as thick as a tombstone. Her hand trembles from the weight. “Wait. This book doesn’t look familiar—are you sure it’s mine?”

“It was in the box with the others. The paper was stuck behind the jacket flap. That’s why I like to go through everything before you leave the store. Thought you might want it back.”

“Thanks,” says Jay, and walks away from the counter. She sits down on a worn upholstered chair and turns the paper over in her fingers. One side is crammed with writing, and the other is affixed with a single nametag, a sticker with a smeared red mark on it. She recognizes her writing. But she doesn’t recall writing the words.

It was so still after all the previous commotion, as if the traffic and people had bled off the edges of the city. Emptiness, everywhere. Only the smoke plumes in the sky, coiling like worms.

What day was this? What date? Nothing on the paper gives it away. Annoyed, Jay lets it drop to her lap. At the top of the torn edge, the name of the old publishing company she worked for stands out in crisp block letters. It’s surely the thought of her former job that sends little shivers of distress sparking up her spine, and nothing else. That’s what she tells herself.

“A lot of books from the same company,” the man calls out. He is still methodically examining her offerings. “You’re in publishing, right? I can usually tell.”

“Not anymore,” Jay says. “I work in finance now. Better pay.”

Jay runs her finger along the jagged edge of the paper. She’s really only told part of the truth. She didn’t leave the company. The company left her.

“Didn’t like the job, eh?”

“Didn’t have a choice. They left the city,” she replies. “The attacks. Some people jumped ship. You know.”

The man is respectfully silent.

Everyone was in their offices, all cramming things into boxes, or staring numbly out the windows into space. Like I was.

The company did more than jump ship. It vanished. Jay and a few employees—the ones who hadn’t been warned—traveled into the city one morning to find the building as empty of life as the smoldering ruins on the tip of the island. Whispers on the street said they’d fled to another country, leaving behind the detritus of their long history: piles of old books, unread manuscripts, and discarded employees. Just as devastating, in its own way.

“I have your total.” The man holds another slip of paper, the credit for the books. “This is how much we’ll give you in books, or you can take half that amount in cash. You can use it now or later—just don’t lose it.”

Jay takes the cash. Not much, as always, but it doesn’t matter. Relief is the only payment she needs—relief that there is a little less crowding around her, a little less intrusion on her life. She needs to know that at home, at night, she has some space to think and breathe.

“Thanks. I’ll come back next Saturday with the last load.” Jay grabs her metal shopping cart and heads for the door. As she picks her way through dusty stacks, she shoves the receipt into her pocket. She stares at the fragment one more time, then slides it in as well.

From my office, I watched the apartment building across the street. Some windows were lit up in the rainy gloom like soft yellow candles, others were dark and tomb-like. Most had pale curtains drawn across the glass.

As she walks back home, Jay sees herself reflected over and over again in dark storefront windows. In one tall pane of glass, a ghostly woman walks beside her whose face still flirts with middle age while her body has fully embraced it. In another she is thin and chic, a woman of the City, proudly urban in her clothing and demeanor. In a third pane, she’s little more than a wraith. But her face remains the same in all those reflections: there’s a furrow nestling between her eyes, a deep line of fear bisecting her brow. The sight of it shocks Jay. She hasn’t seen that look on her face for almost five years.

That’s how long ago her old life ended, how long she’s kept herself from dwelling on her past. No reason to remember, Jay tells herself. It’s over. But even now, part of her still wonders why the company left without a trace, while another part secretly rejoices that she escaped something worse than what had been intended for her. What had been intended…?

As she rounds the corner, her apartment building slides into view. It is thick and solid, comfortably utilitarian. From across the street her living room window is just one of many black rectangles, indistinguishable from the others. It doesn’t have a view of the city skyline—she blocked it off years ago. She has no desire to see where she’s been.

To the left of the building a massive clock tower rose like a cream-colored phallus, laced with delicate scaffolding from base to tip.

The clock, the time—it was the last day she’d gone to work in the City, that was it. She’d been late. Only a week since the attack, and smoke still billowed in toxic sheets over the lower part of the island. Chemicals and flesh—the dead settled in their mouths and lungs. Jay hadn’t wanted to step outside. But bills had to be paid. So she’d reluctantly crept down into the subway, taking her place within the throng of silent commuters. And when she emerged from the underground, when she saw the company’s triangular building, saw the dun of the sky—

No. She does not want to remember. To her right sits a battered trashcan. Through the iron mesh, magazine covers press against thick seeping paper bags, sodden bricks of newspapers, strange dribblings of food. The fragment is a tight ball in her hand. It’s only trash. But her fingers can’t release it. She stares at the crumpled paper as it unfolds, an image blossoming in her mind…

Broken things pressing against each other, faces and bricks all jumbled into one terrible mass… And a word—no. A single letter. Everywhere she had turned that morning long ago, she had seen that strange mark.

Jay crosses the street in quick steps. She pushes the shopping cart into the building courtyard, past the molding statue and stunted trees, toward her entrance. She stops to take out her keys, and the ball in her hand flattens out suddenly as her fingers work the paper open. It’s a compulsion she cannot control.

Between the buildings two inky smears of clouds slowly passed. They lingered briefly in the space before drifting toward the open square, as if surveying and cataloging the sodden masses below. If only I’d known—

She saw something that day. Not clouds, not smoke, not the ashes of her friends. Something moved….

Jay stands at the edge of the entrance, her body rigid. Her eyes slide up to the tops of the building and beyond, looking for the edges of the City, reassuring herself that she cannot see it. That it cannot see her. She runs her tongue around her mouth. It tastes as if something foul has just moved through her. There is more than the memory of ash in her mouth. She tastes marked.

The door swings out behind her.

“Could you—” says the janitor, and Jay grabs the door as he wheels his cart out. He gestures to the gaping mouth of plastic.

“Trash?”

Jay looks down at the fragment. “No. Thanks.” She shoves it into her pocket.

“No books today? That’s a first.” The man smiles pleasantly at her. Jay sidles past him into the empty hallway.

“Not today. I’ve read enough already.” She drags her cart up to the seventh floor.

Giant bins of trash surrounded the building—the last remnants of the publishing company. Just twenty minutes ago, men were walking from bin to bin, red paintbrushes in their hands, marking them for removal.

Jay presses her back against the bolted door. The solid slab of painted metal makes her feel safe. Before her a cool and empty living room sits in silence. The lack of furniture and decoration comforts her profoundly. Owning nothing means nothing can be taken or thrown away, nothing can be forgotten.

She examines the sticker more closely. “*MY NAME IS*” borders the top in thick letters. The white space below is stained red, smeared and slightly cracked. Jay cocks her head slightly as she tries to interpret it. The original mark is lost to her. All that’s left is on the paper.

Dropping her coat to the floor, Jay walks to a large, empty bookcase and pulls it aside with a groan. Behind the case, a grimy window looks out on the quiet street, the buildings, the sky. Breathing hard, Jay presses a finger to the glass, then, as if writing a secret language, slowly traces the tops of the buildings as they sprawl across the horizon.

The creeping skyline of this city both fascinates and repels her. No matter where she looks, the sky seems to stop at the rooftops—and there is a space, a thin crack where reality does not quite knit together. She imagines something pulsating at the edge, watching and waiting. Waiting for a sign, a mark.

Workers clustered in small groups, whispering fearful gossip back and forth. During the night a thousand companies fled. We had been abandoned.

“If I get rid of this, there won’t be anything left of that day. Not even my memories. But you can’t take things I don’t have,” Jay whispers. Her hand curls around the paper, crushing it neatly. “You can’t take nothing.”

A woman with a clipboard was shouting. “Proceed to your floor and pack your belongings—”

Her hand uncurls. It’s no use. She still has the fragment. And now: trickles of memory, staining her soul like drops of blood in water. Still marked, she tells her reflection in the glass.

—nothing will be left behind!

###

The sky looms overhead like a bowl of metal riveted to the edges of the earth.

Jay stands in the middle of an empty street, before her old employer’s building. Beyond it, the island stretches out in one festering sweep of land. In five years, the corruption of the attack has spread outward and up the blocks. Now only smoldering piles of metal dot the landscape. Nothing whole remains, except the strangely triangulated building before her—a stone ship caught in a scoria sea.

A low boom catches her attention: in the distance a colossal wall, one hundred stories high, slices the island in half like a surgical scar. Rooftops of still-healthy buildings are visible over the top, while, at the base, tiny figures scurry back and forth in the thunder and wake of ponderous machines. Below, subways gag on hardening concrete. Jay had to bribe a man at the borough docks to ferry her across the water to the island. There was no other way in.

“Why not you?” Jay asks her old building. It cannot be coincidence that it alone remains. Rows of windows grin at her like blackened teeth, revealing nothing. Pink stains the worn stone. Some brighter color once ran down its sides, then faded with time. Jay’s fingers grasp the wrinkled paper.

The woman slapped a nametag on my coat while a man shoved an empty cardboard box into my arms. “You have fifteen minutes to get to your floor,” he said. “Put your personal items in this, and wait in your office to be escorted out.” As I made my way through the lobby, my fingers slid over the tag. They came away red.

She picks her way past the rounded tip of the building and tries the lobby door. After a few pulls on the handle, it swings open. The landscape behind her reflects as wavering ribbons in the thick glass and brass. Jay looks back over her shoulder.

Two dark grey clouds float along the eastern shore. They creep over the rubble as if they are snuffling and rooting their way inland. Jay slips into the building and pulls the door firmly shut, then presses her face against the glass. One cloud rises slowly, thinning out as it catches the sluggish wind. The other pulses slightly—the ruins beneath it shift.

Jay backs into the lobby until darkness envelops her. More drops of memory trickle through her. Outside, the grey mass of air spreads itself farther out and up, until it is beyond her vision.

At the far end of the lobby, beyond the elevator banks, there is an open door to a brown stairwell. Jay hesitates, listening for any sound. After a moment of silence, she begins to climb. Her footfalls sound distant, as though her body is walking somewhere she can’t yet see. She knows something terrible happened that day, to everyone who entered the building. Somehow, she escaped so thoroughly that she even escaped the remembering of it. Her bones remember, though.

My floor was a wreck. I picked my way through broken furniture, crushed bookcases. Dust choked the air. And everywhere, papers and books crammed in boxes, all marked with the same red paint. The same letter.

The water fountain is dry. Jay clenches her jaw, and air shoots out of her nostrils in tortured bursts. Fourteen floors—twenty-eight small flights of steps. A quick glance to the glass doors of the old office space: the glass doors are open slightly, one large crack running down the right side. Beyond lies empty office space.

Jay walks through the doors into the reception area. The silence is profound. As she makes her way down the narrow hall, Jay marvels at how stripped and spare it all is. No boxes or books anywhere, no furniture, no light fixtures. She moves through bands of muted light and shadow—even the blinds were removed. As she passes each office, she glances at the sky.

At the thinnest end of the building is her little nook. It’s not really an office, just a space made out of bookcases and file cabinets. Jay stops before the opening. Her desk is gone, but two thick indentations mark the carpet where it once rested. She steps in and runs the toe of her shoe along the groove, then turns to the bookcase, placing her back to the window.

I packed my box in minutes, then sat on the desk and pulled the nametag off. It stuck to my fingers as I held it to the light. What did this red mark mean? As I lowered it, a movement caught my eye. I glanced out the window.

She swivels around and stares at out the window. Five years ago, clouds had reflected off glass buildings, cold and clean.

The sun shifted, and light threw red reflections across the glass. I watched the color intensify in waves—red sunset in midday. And then…

“I saw,” Jay says, although the words mean nothing. She still can’t remember. “I saw.”

That’s when I realized what it was. What I had become.

Jay imagines herself five years ago, suspended in cold air, mouth open and slack, eyes huge with the sleepy pull of the clouds as they drift from left to right. She imagines pulling the layer of past over the present, moving one grey sky onto another, matching the clouds one by one…

I saw
I don’t remember the name
remember remember

But she cannot, and there is nothing more on the paper to help. The last sentence ends in an illegible scrawl of repeated pencil marks, smudged beyond recognition. She squints at the last word, larger than the rest, in the darkening light, then frowns. The letters are barely distinguishable, but still. It looks like her name.

Jay rubs her eyes. She has no idea what happened that last afternoon. But does it really matter? Will it change anything? She came here for an epiphany, for understanding and resolution. There is none. She has a new life now. Everything else is trash. It will only drag her down if she clings to it. She crumples the fragment into a ball and throws it against the window with a papery ping. Her eyes continue up to the top of the frame.

A wet red line oozes down the glass.

Everything fades and falls away, except for the line, suspended between her and the sky. It grows thicker as it descends, as if an invisible hand is marking where she stands. Another line joins it, and a third. The buzz of blood and fear nips at the back of her neck and down her spine, until her body flushes it out in a thin stream of urine. Behind the red line, the horizon grins wide, hiccups, then splits.

“I knew,” Jay says. “I knew.”

Where the sky has stopped short at the edges of the horizon, hundreds of cloud-like creatures blossom and spill forth like sea anemones expanding to catch the currents. One cloud darts forward shockingly fast. The blunt end expands. Ropey spirals of wet flesh unfurl and catch the rotting ruins, suckling them up.

“Were you waiting for me?” The words barely pass her lips. Jay sees giant chunks of buildings work their way through the tubes into churning pockets. Sides bulge outward; bodies expand and adjust. They fan out across the island. The largest stretches leisurely and shoots out toward the building.

“Yes,” Jay says to the floating beast, “I think you were.”

Red explodes across the glass. Jay leaps back into the hall. Moving in slow strides toward her are figures in white biohazard suits. She backs up into the final office, all the way to its very end, to the prow of the building; she’s trapped. The window is painted shut. Below she sees more men in suits move an undulating hose back and forth. Red bursts forth from it like fire, dancing intricately around the coils, forming the mark they once had five years ago.

“Stop! I’m still in here!” She pounds on the window, but they can’t hear. Above, the creature pulses, and tiny veins of lightning run down its sides. Something slides around inside the mass, bending the grey flesh without breaking: the tip of the old clock tower. She punches the glass, ignoring the blood and pain.

“Turn her around!”

Figures grab her from both sides and pin her arms against the walls, while a third holds up a clipboard. An electric voice pours out of a black faceplate.

“Is this you?” He thrusts the clipboard into her face. One thick finger points at a word on the page.

“No.” Her voice is firm over the rising wind, with only a tinge of panic. They will listen to reason, she tells herself—they have to. “That’s not my name, there’s been a mistake. Please get me out of here.”

“I didn’t ask if this was your name. You don’t have one! This is you, right?”

“No! That isn’t me. I told you. I have a name!”

“What are you, then?” The man raises his voice. “Come on! I don’t got all day—tell me what you are! What’s your ‘name’?

Jay’s face hardens.

“My name is—my name—”

I’m writing this down because I’m starting to forget, I may need to remember someday.

Her name. She cannot remember her name.

“My name is Jay?” she asks.

“Hey, wadda ya know? That’s what this says.” Even with the creature growling outside, she hears their laughter float through the room.

“She’s the last of the trash, boys—let’s do it.”

Someone steps forward with a small machine and presses it against her right arm. Shafts of metal tear through the bone and flesh, impaling her to the stone wall. Her head snaps back against the glass, and the window finally breaks. Too late.

Gloved hands rip open her blouse, and another machine appears. Thin lines of light embroider her skin, searing through the flesh. Someone is screaming—is it her?

“Yeah, she won’t escape this time.” More laughter.

The entire building shudders. Everyone falls silent and looks up at the ceiling. From above, there is a crackling, then a thunderous roar of ripping stone and metal.

“It’s started—everyone out!” The figures grab their equipment, jostling with each other to be the first from the room.

“Why?” Her howl bounces off their backs. “Why are you doing this? What’s happening?”

From above a second wave of destruction pounds down through the building. The man with the clipboard looks back at her but doesn’t stop moving for the door.

“Nothing personal, lady. I’m just the garbage man.”

He turns and runs.

Vibrations burrow deep in her bones—they travel up from the stone and through the metal pins. Bits of ceiling break away. With a waterfall of sound, everything around her rises. Something smashes against her side, then rips away. Jay no longer feels her right arm. She no longer feels. She stares up into the sky. There is no sky, only the pulsing grey. Membrane and ridges curl back to reveal a mouth as wide and long as her blood-stained eyes can see.

“This isn’t my name.” She wants to point to the mark but cannot move. “I’m Jay. I’m Jay—” She lets out a small sob, almost a laugh, as the weight of her name drags it downward. It seeps through the skin, nestles into her soul.

Jay is a letter. It is the mark. It is not her name.

The grey sky inhales, and she rises.

Jay is a traveler now, squeezed through tubes and shunted from one contraction to the next. Shapes flood her eyes and graze her skin: bones, granite faces, bits of carved railing and brass fixtures. Trash.

Flashes of light ripple across her vision—the grey membranes holding her become translucent as they rise. Below, she sees another creature move in to finish the job. It spreads great sails of skin and strands of flesh as it rides an unseen current. Jay would sigh at the terrible beauty of it if she were able to breathe.

Now they skim in silence over the top of the massive wall. The rest of the City appears, healthy and alive. Jay’s severed right arm lies slightly below her—spires of steel sift between the fingers. She sees the City, a slow-moving river of rooftop gardens and secret alcoves, silver windows and neon smears, resting like the body of a lover, safe in sleep. For now. One calm moment of beauty, worth the price of Jay’s pain.

The creature tilts. Trash rumbles about her as Jay is thrust forward through hooked membranes. Mucus uncoils from her throat. Everything shifts. Jay plummets into darkness like a blood-tipped comet, the remnants of the building her silky-stoned tail.

Nothing is left behind.

###

My name-

“What are you looking for?”

Jay looks up at the sound of the boy’s voice. She is unaccustomed to being spoken to, unaccustomed to anything other than the sound of her hand sifting, sorting, pushing aside, and breaking. She pulls a cardboard box to her side, and opens her mouth. But the words fail her, as always. If she could just find the fragment, she might remember what to say….

The boy steps back and watches as Jay shoves her hair back from her face and stares into the valley. Jumbles of skyscrapers fill deep pockets in the land, separated only by occasional trickles of rivers and accidental bridges. Up where they are, blind horses cantor down cracked streets with deformed dogs nipping at their sides. Here, potters fields and wooden shanties cling despondently to each other, and the people do the same. Perhaps they are afraid if they let go, they will drift away. From where she stands, she sees no difference between the brown of earth or sky. There is no up or down in the universe’s midden.

Jay and the boy both crouch as a wind rises. Heaps of trash stir and hitch around them, great stinking piles of garbage—old toys and dishes, broken lamps, bits of magazines, clothes. It is their history. It is everything they ever jettisoned in life, before life jettisoned them. Her box is full of paper. She reaches inside with long, dirty fingers. They curl around like dark worms. Papers crumble. If she could only find a fragment, a piece, a certain word… She doesn’t remember. She only remembers the wind and the search, and that sometimes the sky will open up and vomit more broken memories across the land.

“What’s your name?”

My name—

The boy is speaking again. She tries, tries to mold the feelings up out of that festering sore in her chest, to trick it from the darkness in her mind. Her fingers creep, searching for inky triggers. But they find nothing, and the only word that comes out is the only word she knows. It cracks open her mouth and hovers before them, then floats away in the filthy wind, nothing more than what it is—which is everything around it, everything she has ever been.

Jetsam.”

<End>

© Copyright 2007 Livia Llewellyn & Senses Five Press

“Seas of the World” by Ekaterina Sedia

Seas of the World

by Ekaterina Sedia
to the sound of Tom Waits’ “The Briar and the Rose” …

As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 4


Jillian sits on the windowsill, and looks outside, where the first snowflakes flutter in the pale glow of streetlights. It is cold; her breath leaves a white patina of fog on the black plastic of the phone receiver. She imagines the phone ringing in Rick’s dark apartment. The answering machine does not come on — he never had one — and she counts the rings. Seven. Eight. Anything to keep her mind from wandering. She can spend all night listening to the receiver. Fourteen. She imagines Rick’s bare feet padding across the cold ceramic tiles of the kitchen floor, his hand tugging up the pajama bottoms riding low on his waist. Last she saw him, he looked like he’d lost weight.

“Hello?” His voice breaks through the twenty-first ring, hoarse. “Jill?”

“Yeah. Did I wake you?” It’s a stupid question — it’s 4 am, of course he was sleeping soundly in this dead hour. She feels a small pang of guilt at denying him oblivion.

“Yes.” He never lies, not even in the small reflexive way when he’s woken up. “Are you all right?”

“I guess,” she says. And then she is crying, weeping into the receiver, a part of her mind worrying if it’s possible to cause a short by crying into an electrical appliance.

“I’ll come over.”

“No need to… I’m all right.”

“I’d like to come over. If you don’t mind.”

“I don’t.”

The phone is silent again, and she sits on the windowsill, trying to keep her mind away from the horribly missing piece of her existence. She thinks of the ways Rick annoys her.

###

She thinks of their meeting in court. The divorce proceedings were over with, and there was just the question of custody. Jillian bit her lip all the way to the courthouse, and spilled her coffee down the front of her white shirt as soon as she got there. She despised herself for this, especially once she saw Rick in his immaculate suit. Not an expensive one, but the man made any clothes look good. He owned them, while she couldn’t reach a truce with hers. Her clothes betrayed her by getting dirty or twisted, just like her hair tended to get in her face, and her makeup smeared itself at inopportune moments. How she hated Rick then, how she feared him! Any judge in his right mind would take one look at them and decide that she was a pitiful mess, while Rick was together, a fit parent. Able to provide good care to a child. Reliable.

She mopped up the coffee stain the best she could, and stood before the judge brimming with desperation. She stammered out her reasons why Derryl should stay with her – she loved him so much! – and fell quiet, turning an uneasy gaze to Rick. He didn’t look back, the pale clarity of his eyes for the judge only. He didn’t argue that Jillian should have custody, he just wanted visitations and vacation time. She hated him for being more generous than she.

###

The dead receiver in her hand comes to life. “If you require assistance from the operator…” She puts it back on the cradle, startled, upset that the delicate silence of the night and the snow was spoiled by this mechanical voice. She cringes and thinks of Rick, willfully, like it is some sort of an exercise. Thinking of Rick keeps her together until the doorbell rings.

She hugs him as he comes in, and cringes at how prominent his ribs are, how gaunt his face looks. He didn’t get a chance to shave, but even the scruff looks proper on him. Like he meant it.

“I missed you,” he says, studying her face, searching for clues. Always searching for an indication of how she feels.

“I missed you too,” she says, and forces a smile. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask for sex.”

He breathes relief and adds, “I didn’t say you are.”

“But you thought it.”

He doesn’t deny this.

“Want anything? Coffee, tea?”

“Coffee,” he says. “Please.” He sits at the kitchen table, his large pale hands lying passively palms-down on either side of his empty cup. She hugs her shoulders and waits for the coffee to percolate.

“I’m sorry I woke you,” she says.

“It’s all right.” He looks at his hands. “I’m the one who’s sorry. It was my fault that—”

“No,” she interrupts. “I don’t want to talk about that.” It’s enough to know that he’s feeling what she’s feeling.

He takes the cue. “How’s work?”

“I haven’t been in for a while.” She looks at the snowflakes dancing outside the window. It will get light soon. “Don’t go tomorrow… I mean, today. Stay here. Call in sick.”

“Okay,” he says, always obedient.

###

When they first met, his obedience shocked her. She found him on the beach ten summers back. It was late, and the beach was deserted; she enjoyed her solitary walks, almost dissolving in the darkness and the relentless pounding of the surf. She screamed when she stepped on something that seemed alive; it turned out to be the hand of a man lying in the sand.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

She squinted as he sat up. In the pale moonlight, he seemed lost.

“It’s okay,” she said. It was difficult to tell what he looked like in that light. “I must be going.”

He followed her. She should’ve been scared, but she wasn’t. He followed her not like a prowler but like a lost puppy. He spoke quietly, and she strained to hear his words above the surf. “Caspian,” he said.

“Is it your name?” she asked. “Caspian?”

“Yes,” he said, his eyes wide and dark.

They reached the boardwalk and strolled along the fronts of rickety wooden shops.

“What’s your first name?” she said, just to say something.

His gaze cast about wildly. “Rick,” he finally said. She followed the direction of his gaze to the sign of the Rick’s Bait and Surfing Supplies. She pretended not to notice.

###

He sips his coffee, his face turning pink in the hot steam. He whispers under his breath, and she strains to hear. He takes a deep breath. “Aral,” he whispers. “Azov, Black, Red, Arabian, Laccidive, Andaman, Yellow, Dead.”

“Dead,” she repeats, and starts crying again.

“It’s my fault,” he says. “I shouldn’t have told him.”

She cries too hard to answer, to react, and he resumes his litany. A nervous habit he has, naming all the seas in the world.

“Philippine, Sulu, Koro, Java, Halmahera, Mindanao, Savu, Sunda, Arafura, Celebs, Molucca, Bismark, Coral, Solomon, Tasman, Bohol, Visayan, Camotes, Bali, Sibuyan, Flores, Timor, Banda, Ceram.”

It calms her a bit, like it calms him. “It’s not your fault,” she says. “It’s nobody’s fault.”

“I shouldn’t have told him.”

“Told him what?”

He swallows hard. “About me. About him. The way we are.”

She stares at him. She thinks he might be finally cracking, feeling the loss more than he shows. She feels selfish for forcing him to always be reliable, to make her feel better. “You want to tell me?” she says.

“Caribbean, North, Irish, Hebrides, Celtic, Baltic, Bothian, Scotia, Labrador, Sargasso, Balearic, Ligurian, Tyrrhenian, Ionian, Adriatic, Aegean, Marmara, Thracian…” His eyes are distant, glazed over. Dark. “These are my seas. His seas.”

###

It is always like this. Ice and water, jagged black cracks like stationary lightnings running across the floes. The taste of fish, tightly clenched nostrils, lungs expanded like bellows. The shadows of other seals, floating in a graceful arc, their flippers trailing behind them like twin tales of a comet.

Rick does not know if it’s a dream or a memory; neither does he care. He tells Derryl of the slow falls and rapid ascends, of the green depth of water. Of the migration routes, of the ecstasy he felt as the water turned from icy to balmy, with every mile south. Of the coral reefs where water ran clear as tears, of the fishes as bright as they were poisonous, of the quick darting of dolphins overhead, of their staccato laughter superimposed over the short, sharp barks of the seals.

Derryl listens, wide-eyed, as the two of them walk on the beach. “How did you become a person?” he asks when Rick stops talking.

Rick shrugs. “I just stopped being a seal.” He talks about the Sargasso Sea and its streaming grasses, undulating underwater like mermaid’s hair, and of the fat eels that come to this sea from all over the world. He talks about following the stream of eels from the Black Sea all the way to Sargasso, of the Aegian and Marmara, Ionian and Adriatic, of Greeks and Scythians, the deeds of men forever branded into the ancestral memory of the seals.

Derryl looks at him with his warm brown eyes. “I want to be a seal too,” he says.

Rick is listening to the surf. “Then you’d have to stop being a person,” he says, distracted.

###

It is light outside when Jillian looks out of the window again. The world is dressed in a shroud, a shroud her son never had. A shroud for a boy who did not want to be a person.

“It was an accident,” she says.

He shakes his head, vehement now that he has found the courage to tell her.

She sighs. “It doesn’t matter, Rick. It doesn’t matter why or how.” She makes more coffee and they drink it, silently, as the snow falls outside.

Jillian thinks of the Arctic seas and the ice — so thick — that opens suddenly wide to reveal black water underneath. She thinks of the smooth seals turning cartwheels in the black depths, oblivious to cold and wind whipping the land half to death.

“Laptev,” Rick whispers, “White, Barents, Beaufort, Chuckchi, Lincoln, Kara.”

Jillian thinks of the black seals perched atop white floes, of their sharp barks that tear the frozen air like tissue paper. She wonders, beyond hope, if Derryl got his wish.

Rick calls work, telling them that he won’t be in. Then he settles by the table again, his hands palms down on the stained surface.

“Tell me about the seals,” Jillian says.

<END>

© Copyright 2007 Ekaterina Sedia & Senses Five Press