“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.”


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.


© Copyright 2008 Alex Dally MacFarlane & Senses Five Press

Dinner with Lauren McLaughlin

Dinner with Lauren McLaughlin

Interview by Devin Poore
to the sound of “Haitian Fight Song” by Charles Mingus…

As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 5

Lauren McLaughlin is one of the new breed of authors who delve into the realms of Young Adult fiction. Young Adult has become a hot commodity recently with the obvious success of J.K. Rowling, Phillip Pullman, and many other authors who choose those of adolescent years for their subject matter and audience.

Lauren is a survivor of the film industry, a former Sybil’s Garage editor and contributor, and a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. Her short fiction has appeared in Sybil’s Garage, Interzone and Salon.com. She has recently completed her first novel, Cycler, which will be published by Random House in the fall of 2008. She is currently working on the sequel, Cycler-2, and the screenplay for Cycler.

My “significant other,” choreographer Kristen Mangione, and I had dinner with Lauren and her husband, photographer Andrew Woffinden, and discussed… well, everything. It was a table full of artists, after all. Afterwards Lauren and I collaborated to boil-down the writer-related topics, which I’ve compiled here. —Devin Poore

You started out writing screenplays and then moved onto fiction. Did you start with novels or short fiction first? And if short fiction, why?

I started with writing a novel, but found I had to “unlearn” most of what I had learned while writing screenplays. I then tried short fiction as a way to get my name out there, and fell in love with the form. Quickly my ideas became unmanageable in that form, though, as I could not resolve them in the word limitations of the medium. My last short story was twelve-thousand words long, and there is no market for a story that length.

You fared fairly well with your short stories, though, selling a couple of them to large markets like Salon.com and Interzone. In the end do you believe that helped with getting your novel picked up and securing an agent?

I think my small successes in short fiction were useful in attracting editors to my novels. One editor, in particular, approached me after my story, “The Perfect Man” appeared in Salon. But not a single one of those editors ever acted. By that, I mean they neither rejected nor made an offer. In fact, they don’t even return my emails. So, in sum, I’d have to say that writing short fiction had absolutely no impact on selling my novel. To be honest, I became quite disenchanted with the novel submission process until I met my current agent, Jill Grinberg.

As for the usefulness of short stories to a writer’s career, I think it has to be artistic rather than opportunistic. You should write short stories because you love them. They have their own merit. There are things you can only do in a short story. Sadly, they do not reach the size of audience that a novel can reach, but I think they do impact their readership very strongly. People who love short stories, really love short stories.

From a bystander’s point of view, it seems you went from writing short stories, to having a novel ready, to picking up an agent, to getting a major book deal quickly. Seemingly within a matter of weeks. What was that like?

I quit my movie job in January of 2001 to begin writing fiction. I sold my novel Cycler in February of 2007. In the intervening six years I wrote two other novels and twenty or so short stories only three of which ever sold. So it definitely doesn’t feel like an overnight success to me. It feels like a long overdue break. But then, I’m impatient like that.

You mentioned that during the writing process it’s good to have a community of peers, like your former writers group Altered Fluid, or your new contemporaries in the YA field.

As a member of Altered Fluid it wasn’t merely the critiques, which were extremely helpful, and the writing tempo that really is above and beyond what almost all other writing groups have, but the shared experiences of colleagues that are going through the same things in the industry with submitting, editing, seeking out representation, etc. The community aspect is most valuable.

Talk about the process of writing. Do you enjoy longhand, typing, or other means of getting the words on the page/screen?

I had visions of writing Cycler by walking about Southstreet Seaport and dictating it into a tape recorder. At the end of the day I’d play that tape into a computer which would use voice recognition to put it all in a file, and then I would manually do line edits. The technology simply isn’t there, though.

Long hand writing and edits do indeed slow down the entire process and give your mind time to think of aspects that simply would not occur with the speed of editing on a computer.

Do you outline at all?

Initially I outline, I find that it helps to organize my thoughts, but once I start writing the outline goes to pot. I planned out Cycler-2, but the characters just refuse to follow the outline. After I begin writing, an outline is just a vain attempt to impose an order that just won’t hold.

How has the fact of a paid deadline altered any of your writing processes?

Other than the nagging sense of doom and failure, it’s had almost no impact. I basically try to forget about the deadline and just write. Thankfully, I’m writing faster and faster all the time, averaging about 3500 words a day. My deadlines, so far, have all been quite manageable. I’ve met writers who have to churn out whole novels in three months and that gives me the hives. I don’t think I could ever do that.

Cycler by Lauren McLaughlinYou have said that you are all about symmetry; you like to switch your mouse from left to right hand. You don’t like to play softball anymore because you’re limited to throwing with one hand. How does your need for symmetry translate into your writing?

There’s an inherent symmetry between the protagonist and antagonist, or at least there should be. A writer should love their antagonist as much as their protagonist so that both sides are well represented. I don’t believe in good and evil, but in misguided intention. As a writer, I take the main idea, the “good intentions” of the protagonist and develop a fully realized argument for the “bad intentions” of the antagonist. Only when both sides of the story are fully realized does the reader have the ability to make a conscious decision as to their loyalties to the characters.

Cycler deals with opposing ideas in that way, does it not, regarding gender?

Cycler has strong ideas of gender; how it can be a prison where we are all forced by society to choose sides. In context of the fully developed antagonist, I had to have a character that sees gender as only black and white, male and female, right and wrong. I came to really love the character even though I despise what she stands for because by putting my beliefs up against hers the entire argument of gender in the book was better developed. I was then able to explore gender, how it could be both male and female and neither male or female, and figure out a way to exist in a black and white, opposing, world.

Was the duality of your character(s) in Cycler a problem for you at all? There are those who would say that a man can not convincingly write about a woman’s experiences, and conversely a woman can not know what a man goes through enough to write of it. Am I correct in guessing those notions are entirely too simplistic and had no bearing on the writing of the book?

It takes a bit more than male anatomy and psychology to scare me away. I’ve written from the point of view of aliens, of sentient software programs, of religious fanatics, of anthropomorphized cultural entities, all of whom were vastly more different from me than a man. But I’d be lying if I said that writing from a male point of view is identical to writing from a female point of view. Especially in Cycler, which is very much about gender, I am exploring what it feels like to be male and female. And I had so much fun doing that. What I’ve always tried to shy away from is any notion of an essentialized maleness or femaleness. That’s one of the challenges of Cycler, exploring gender without bogging down in boring dualities.

Was the idea initially to write a YA novel due to the popularity of the subject matter, or was it the best way to deal with your subject of gender roles — to set it in the young adult life when we are becoming aware of “how we should act” based on our gender?

I never knew the category of YA existed until I started meeting science fiction writers who were suddenly being shelved in the YA section. I’m not an expert in publishing, but my sense is that it’s a new category. My original idea for Cycler dealt with the main characters at age twenty-five. But as soon as I started writing it I realized all the juicy identity stuff was being shoved into the backstory, so I simply backed up and wrote it from the teenagers’ points of view. In the movie version, I’ve backed it up even further to show the first day that the cycling began.

From what you have said it sounds as if simply telling a story is not enough for you.

Storytelling is the foundation of any good novel and I think it’s actually a very rare talent. Plenty of writers get by on killer premises and witty style. But effective storytelling is all about structure. It’s very mechanical, almost architectural. When you can marry that structure to a framework of ideas, then the novel can transcend pure entertainment. The trick, in my opinion, is to weave these ideas invisibly into the story so that they are discovered, unraveled by the reader. My goal is to seduce my reader into a compelling narrative that whittles away at some preconceived idea and leaves them with an uncomfortable but somehow intriguing gap in their sense of the world. I want them to close the book and have a head full of questions. I’m not interested in merely diverting them for a while or helping them fall asleep. Nor do I want that from the books I read. I want to be unsettled, challenged. I want to close a book and say “I never thought of that before.”

What else do you have planned beyond Cycler and its sequel? More YA books? Will you delve more into gender, or are there other themes you wish to explore?

I always have a backlog of projects itching to be realized. First in the queue is a novel called Steal the Future, which is about teens and surveillance. I’ve written the first draft, but it needs to be put through its paces. Next in line is my long-festering science fiction musical, Upload/Download, for which I’ve written about ten songs but have yet to bang out a script. I’m also toying with the idea of fleshing out my short story, “The Perfect Man,” into a screenplay. And I’ve just begun making notes for a post-apocalyptic teen adventure set in Brooklyn. The thing is, by the time, I’ve moved on to my next project, I’ll have hatched several more potential projects. Most of them never make it out of the larval stage. My hard drive is clogged with larvae.

And finally, what is the one question I did not ask you that I should have, that you thought “Wow, he really missed the point and should have asked this!”? (and of course, what’s your answer?)

I think you asked some great questions. The one question people always ask me that you omitted is: “Why did you quit the film business?” And my answer would be because it’s boring, trite, and nobody makes good movies any more.

For more information about Lauren & Cycler, visit:

Other interviews by Devin Poore:
A Conversation With Stephen Segal, Creative Director of Wildside Press

Devin Poore’s website:

© Copyright 2008 Senses Five Press

“Palimpsest” by Catherynne M. Valente


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:

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

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.

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

© Copyright 2007 Catherynne M. Valente & Senses Five Press

Interview with Stephen H. Segal

Interview with Stephen H. Segal

by Devin Poore
to the sound of “Greet Death” by Explosions in the Sky…

As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 4

Stephen Segal serves as creative director for the Wildside Press magazine group, including Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, and H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror. I first met him at ReaderCon in 2005 where he was pitching a new magazine concept titled Earthling. After that, we continued to run into each other at conventions, conferences and readings. Our conversations always revolved around speculative fiction and media, how to get it out to a wider audience, why we would even want to try.

From our first meeting, I realized that someone should be writing down what Stephen had to say. Last year, prior to one of the fall KGB Fantastic Fiction readings in Manhattan, Stephen and I sat down to put this to paper. Incidentally, at the same time, Crispin Glover was being interviewed on a door stoop across the street. Stephen and I have yet to decide if that was a good or bad omen.

To start off on a less than serious note, an employee under the Wildside banner wanted me to ask you why you decided to give up the motion picture martial arts career. Along those lines, do you have many OFFICE SPACE, Michael Bolton-type moments with your name, even though you do pronounce your last name differently?

It’s funny — the bad jokes had finally tapered off a few years ago, and then, inexplicably, they came back worse than ever, despite the fact that Steven (spelled differently) Seagal (spelled differently) hasn’t actually been making any new movies. Yes, it’s a rare week when some bank teller, checkout clerk, or peruser of my business card isn’t moved to laughter by my name. I’ve long since grown past being irritated by it, though — hey, if something as simple as that can brighten someone’s day, far be it from me to rain on their parade.

I should point out that there’s also a Steven T. Seagle who writes some terrific comic books, and I’m occasionally asked more seriously if that’s me. Nope! I am Stephen Harry Segal, the Atlantic City kid turned Pittsburgh journalist turned speculative-arts creative director.

First real question: you started out as an Arts and Entertainment editor in Pittsburgh, which is a far cry from working at Wildside Press as manager and creative director. Or is it? While in Pittsburgh, how much of your job dealt with entertainment of a speculative nature? And if the job itself did not deal with it, were you able to turn it in that direction at all? And how much of that experience with the “regular” entertainment scene can you bring into play with your new position at Wildside?

I’ve thought about this a lot, because I’ve noticed how many of the most interesting sf authors today are current or former journalists: Gaiman, Doctorow, Scalzi, Sterling…

On the broadest level, basic reporting experience can be a great education. Your job is to meet lots of interesting people of all kinds and talk to themabout their lives. How cool is that? Is there any quicker way to come to appreciate, first-hand, such an incredibly broad cross-section of society? In seven years writing and editing for Pittsburgh’s alternative newsweekly and city magazine, I got to know artificial-heart scientists and 80-year-old blues musicians, millionaires and shit-poor kids itching for a better life, sleazy artists and open-minded ministers and honest politicians. And it’s hard to immerse yourself in getting to know real people without being forced to throw away lots of preconceptions about “these” people and “those” people. You come to understand that it’s a lot more helpful to approach the world with questions than with assertions — and that, to me, is the heart of all speculative fiction: the question, the “What if?”

To answer a different part of the question: As a lifelong science fiction and fantasy reader, I always felt that the field got short shrift in the mainstream media. So when I became part of the media, I tried to do my part to cover our unique art form just as seriously as I would cover music or theatre or filmmaking. I had the most fun doing it at the alternative newsweekly, because obviously s.f. has been an “alternative arts-based culture” every bit as important as, say, punk rock or hip-hop — and yet I found it was rarely talked about in that way. So that’s what I’d do. The week Samuel Delany was coming to town to give a university lecture, for instance, we ran a cover story about the close thematic links between science fiction and surrealist art. More importantly, I’d try to make sure that as frequently as possible, every issue included some casual, passing reference to a touchstone of s.f., just as another pop-cultural reference carrying the unstated implication that hey reader, you maybe oughtta know what we’re talking about.

Today at Wildside? The main area of overlap is that I’m working with our editors and contributors to introduce more nonfiction into magazines that identify themselves as fiction magazines first. It’s a simple matter of audience awareness — people today are far more accustomed to reading nonfiction magazines than fiction magazines, and giving potential new readers a whiff of comfortable familiarity makes it a lot easier to lure them in to be captured by the far-out weirdness of our fantastic universe.

The other aspect is that, as art director, I’m willing and eager to look waaaaaay outside the narrowly defined field of “fantasy art” for artists of all kinds who are doing awesome, mind-bending work that’s as unexpected, unsettling, and exciting in their own way today as Kelly Freas or Margaret Brundage were 50 or 60 years ago.

I’m often surprised by the unwillingness of people to deal with speculative entertainment because of what I can only broadly label as the “geek culture” associated with it. I was speaking with a neighbor last weekend about Cormac McCarthy’s fantastic book THE ROAD and when I told her the premise she said “I don’t read sci-fi” with the same speed and distaste as someone might say “I don’t watch porn”.

Yeah, it seems to me that that sort of vehement, visceral reaction usually comes from one of two places:

(1) As you say, some people are turned off by the fanaticism of geek culture — usually because they think of themselves as smart people but desperately fear being associated with the classic nerd stereotype, a key component of which is being laughed at by other people. See Exhibit A, “Urkel.”

(2) They pride themselves on being realists, and so they sneer at the “silliness” they perceive on the surface of any kind of fairy story, whether the fairies in question are elves or aliens (or angels, depending on whether they’re semi-honest atheists or hypocritically religious “realists”).

The former person is simply tragically insecure, too worried about being mocked to stand up and enjoy what they ought on their own terms. The latter person is missing the point — failing to understand that mythic narrative and imagery can be wielded with equal force in the service of either escapism or societal engagement.

(Or both. I’ve been saying ever since September 11 to anyone who’ll listen: I wish Berkley would release a new anniversary edition of DUNE onto the general fiction shelves, with a grand, full-scale marketing push but not one word about “science fiction classic” anywhere on the package. Instead, the cover would read something like: “The most important novel of our time — DUNE — a prescient tale of desert warfare, religious terrorism, and ecological catastrophe.”)

But now we are seeing the success of SPIDER-MAN and other superhero movies, acclaim for shows such as HEROES, LOST and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, with more and more speculative books showing up on the “What’s New” shelf at Barnes and Noble. Is this a sign of the genre making itself more general and middle-of-the-road, palatable, or is the audience at large now simply more willing to accept what has always been there?

A bit of both — with the note that it’s not because the genre is making itself more “middle-of-the-road” or “palatable” in terms of content, but in terms of presentation. As far as the book world goes, I suspect a lot of credit is due to the success of the approach taken with Gregory Maguire’s books. WICKED wasn’t aimed at the fantasy market, despite the fact that it’s not only pure genre fantasy through and through, it’s Fanfic, for Pete’s sake. But Harper Collins recognized that it was a wonderfully written story with the potential to push the primal mythic button in the brains of a huge audience — and they gave it the sort of crossover marketing support it deserved. As a result, fairytales won back some of the adult cache they’d lost over the past century.

Similar story with SPIDER-MAN. The movie was, for all intents and purposes, utterly faithful to the comic-book source material — which was hugely popular to a general audience in 1965 but considered a primitive, juvenile medium by the average adult American in 1995. Our culture just had to wait for visual-effects technology to catch up with the fantastical requirements of the story, so that the appealing tale could once again stand up to the suspension of disbelief.

Speaking of visual updates, we have noticed some changes in design and presentation of some of the Wildside magazine titles, specifically WEIRD TALES, since your arrival. Is there more of that to come, and what are the specific reasons for those changes and updates?

It’s the first rule of magazine publishing: Have an identity. There are way, way too many magazines of all kinds out there on the bookstore shelves for a publisher to be able to get away for long with producing a magazine that isn’t uniquely appealing. So we sat down and looked at the Wildside magazines after I arrived, and we decided that their looks weren’t quite evoking their distinct editorial missions — and we needed to address that.

FANTASY MAGAZINE was the easiest, because its mission is very straightforward: It’s the magazine incarnation of our Prime Books imprint, dedicated to highly literary, intellectual, myth-driven fantasy, and propelled by the great talents of emerging next-generation writers who may not be familiar names yet — but will be soon. Our editor, Sean Wallace, had a very clean, modern, elegant look in mind when he first launched the magazine, and we’ve simply tried to streamline and develop that, making it a bit more typographically sophisticated so the visual style matches the literary style. The look works well for FANTASY, I think — it’s much more visual than the digest-sized F&SF, and much more fiction-centric than the glossy REALMS OF FANTASY.

With HP LOVECRAFT’S MAGAZINE OF HORROR, we decided that the original logo was coming across as too psychedelic — and even though that was one valid interpretation of the Lovecraft aesthetic, we thought the horror motif would resonate better with readers if we found a look that was simultaneously grittier and classier. So we went with the blown-up metal-type look for the logo and the headlines — and then we redesigned the interior pages around the concept of vertical lines and centered symmetry, which gives a very understated, subliminal sort of ancient-stone-tablet vibe that I think is even more appropriate to Lovecraft. The final result, hopefully, is a magazine that exudes moody, Lovecraftian darkness while standing out as very different from all the movie-horror mags that clutter up the newsstand.

WEIRD TALES has been the big, exciting challenge, because the original incarnation from the 1920s through the 1950s was so incredibly influential, launching not only Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard but Ray Bradbury and even, for Pete’s sake, Tennessee Williams. And the current incarnation, which is now almost 20 years old itself — while it’s published hundreds of outstanding stories by great writers like Ligotti, Campbell, and Lee, as well as oodles of terrific artwork by the likes of Barr, Fabian, and Rowena — has suffered over the years from the difficult realities of small-press publishing, changing ownership several times and never quite getting a handle on the modern demands of circulation and marketing. So we wanted to put together not just a new look, but a whole new vision for WEIRD TALES that incorporates all the best aspects of the recent run that our subscribers enjoy, while more consciously evoking the groundbreaking, subversive, counter-cultural mission of the original 1920s magazine, and simultaneously reaching out from the newsstand to fresh, young, new readers in the 21st century who may not yet self-identify as “fantasy readers” or “sf fans” per se. Goth kids, punk kids — they would love WEIRD TALES just as much as the devotees do if they noticed it and picked it up, but until now they haven’t. We want to fix that.

How to do that? Well, obviously, the fiction is still the heart and soul of the magazine. We’re bringing in Ann Kennedy VanderMeer as our new fiction editor, starting with the October 2007 issue. Ann is not only an incredibly cool person and a terrific editor, but she straddles both the traditional and the avant-garde sides of the genre. The surrealist-fiction magazine she founded and ran in the ‘90s, THE SILVER WEB, published several of the same authors and artists that WEIRD TALES was featuring — and at the same time, also reached far outside the sf establishment to find creative people who were producing works of speculative literature and art from very different perspectives. We don’t want to replicate THE SILVER WEB, but we do want Ann to mix up fresh and unexpected brews of strangeness, building upon the context of the Weird Tales tradition.

We’re restructuring the nonfiction content, too, in a way that I think old and new readers alike are really going to enjoy. First off, we’ve taken senior contributing editor Darrell Schweitzer out of his old duck blind hiding behind the editorial “we” so we can spotlight his insightful musings about fantasy in a first-person-singular bylined column, dubbed “The Cryptic.” The actual editorial, “The Eyrie,” will now run much shorter — just a page or so — so we can add a new, rotating guest essay titled “Weirdism,” devoted to the weirdness of real life. The debut installment is a piece by Caitlin R. Kiernan, marking her first WEIRD TALES appearance. We’ll be refocusing anew on conducting interviews with fantastic creators of all kinds, we’ll be including nifty historical notes on a page titled “Old Weird, New Weird,” and we’ll be launching a couple of art-centric series that I won’t spoil just yet, except to say that I don’t mean writings about art.

How much of your work towards luring new readers to the medium is focused at the existing adult demographic, and now much is focused towards grabbing the attention of young readers, where it seems that the affinity with the speculative is most likely to take hold? You once told me “You build new audiences NOT by initiating them into the existing arcane rituals and clubs, but by simply entertaining them and winning them over”. Isn’t that most prevalent when looking towards young readers?

It sure is. Just think about your own journey into sfdom for a minute, and you’ll realize that the organized structure of Fandom-with-a-capital-F is almost certainly the last thing you discovered, and thus the least important. Taking me as an example — and forgive me, these are approximations — I fell in love with DOCTOR WHO and STAR WARS and SUPERMAN when I was 5, D’AULAIRE’S BOOK OF GREEK MYTHS when I was 7, Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis and STAR BLAZERS when I was 9, Asimov and Tolkien and Marvel Comics and giant Japanese robots when I was 11. At that point, I leapt into my father’s bookshelf full of Heinlein, Clarke, Norton, Varley, Doc Smith, spent junior high devouring them all — and I was confirmed as a lifelong lover of the fantastic. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered STAR TREK conventions, and not until after college that I entered the world of organized literary fandom.

So what does that suggest? To me, it suggests a couple things. First, that us grown-up literary sf fans damn well better embrace the onscreen “sci-fi,” of all flavors, that first grabs the attention of children with its glorious imagery. Whether that’s FLASH GORDON or STAR WARS or TRANSFORMERS or AVATAR, it’s a starting point from which the connections to increasingly mature works can be nurtured, and we shouldn’t mock it just because we’re perversely embarrassed that we used to have kid tastes when we were kids.

From a publisher’s perspective, it reminds us that, as an industry, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that every generation has their own material to enjoy as they grow through those stages. On the one hand, that means making sure the truly timeless classics don’t appear stale (e.g., in the 1950s Asimov’s robots may have been illustrated somewhat fancifully by Freas’ generation, in the 1980s they were illustrated photo-realistically by artists like Michael Whelan, and in the 2010s they probably ought to show a lot more anime influence). On the other hand, it means that we’ve got to remember not to only publish sf for ourselves. For me, that’s been one of the most exciting challenges with repositioning our Wildside magazine titles, particularly WEIRD TALES: working to ensure that it’s not just appealing to people who already know the cultural history of WEIRD TALES, but to an entirely new generation who ought to be able to discover the magazine for the first time and fall in love with it fresh, just like so many teenagers did in the 1930s.

You mentioned that DUNE is relevant to the state of the world today. In the past many have argued that the Cold War and the uncertainty it bred was responsible for the rise of Science Fiction and Horror in ‘50s and ‘60s. How much of the current social, real-world climate do you look to highlight in your book and magazine content. Do you seek it out, or does it just naturally bubble up out of the community?

Well… I think the best social commentary in art is the stuff that puts itself there through the artistic requirements of the work, rather than overt political propagandizing. But these days, I’m just a creative director, not an editor. Come back and ask me that question again after I launch EARTHLING, and I’ll have a much, much longer and more interesting answer.

You come across as one of those people who is never satisfied with “good enough”. Let’s say it is the year 2012: where do you see the Wildside magazines?

Hmmm — prognostication is dangerous. But I can tell you where I think the Wildside magazines ought to be in five years with a bit of luck. WEIRD TALES should have at least doubled its current circulation, by reaching out to new and younger audiences through new distribution channels — and that doesn’t just mean more retail stores, but also a truly awesome Web presence that takes online sf into currently-undreamed-of places. FANTASY MAGAZINE should be a well-established market where writers working in serious, sophisticated fantasy can know that they’ll find an enthusiastic audience. And H.P. LOVECRAFTS MAGAZINE OF HORROR should not only be wowing horror fans as the niftiest literary-horror magazine in print, but also as the online starting point for anyone who’s making any sort of foray into the Lovecraft Mythos.

For the field in general, where do you see speculative fiction, and entertainment in general, in the year 2012? Will advances in technology, especially the web, allow the medium to reach those that have no inkling of what exactly is available?

By the year 2012, I expect that narrative storytelling will undergo a convergence of all media, and will hitherto be composed by intelligence-enhanced cyborg monkeys and transmitted through touchpad sensors in our socks. At least, I hope so.

© Copyright 2007 Senses Five Press

Website of Devin Poore.
Website of Stephen H. Segal.