Our latest issue delivers insights on perspective and states of being. Karen M. Roberts shifts us into sly metafiction with “Vu,” while Becca De La Rosa keeps us off balance with a woman drowning in tattoos in “Nine Lives.” January Mortimer draws an unsettling future for consciousness in “Disjointed.”
Poets for this quarter develop the theme: John Borneman’s “A Micro Meteor’s Effect on Love” gives us a final glimpse of a lover. Danny Adams combines Quipu knots with quantum braiding, and Helena Bell offers love, regret, and a vanished clone.
Meanwhile, Sean Melican, our Ideo reviewer, catches us up on his latest reads and makes me, and possibly you, wonder if he doesn’t have anything else to do but read! Lucky.
Please enjoy this quarter’s issue!
Vol. 5 Issue 4
“Vu” – Karen M. Roberts
“Nine Lives” – Becca de la Rosa
“Disjointed” – January Mortimer
“A Micro Meteor’s Effect on Love” – John Borneman
“Braiding the World Lines” – Danny Adams
“Apple Picking” – Helena Bell
Miscellaneous Reviews – Sean Melican
I don’t know anything about brains. I mean, hey, I love my brain—it’s great—but I know shit about it.
So I studied the scans shimmering on the screenie, hemispheres pulsing blue and lightning-gold with thoughts and breath and biological tickings-over. Two different sparkly brains: one normal, one not.
One of them was Stan’s.
And yeah, even I could see which one was fucked.
The doctor droned about comparisons and sub-normal activity, waving a laser pointer as if it were an old school Nintendo Wii baton and he was in the final level of Zelda IV. He needed to shut up, ’cause if he didn’t, I was gonna have to punch him. Or tear my hair out. Or cry.
Stan sat on the hospital bed wearing a stupid paper gown that was too small and too thin. He stared at the blank walls like a kid watching a Disney flick.
Hell, I thought, why settle for one? Punch the doctor, cry, and tear your hair out.
“So, what’re the options?” I said.
The doctor shut up. Click-clickty-click, went the pointer. On-Off-On.
It settled on Off and stayed that way.
The doctor said, “There aren’t any.”
So the beginning.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was “lol”.
We laughed—the old, immature Crazy + People = Funny equation—and joked and didn’t give a damn. Hardcore MMTs were going cuckoo? Cool. Wear-your-pants-on-your-head and reverse-down-the-highway style cuckoo? Even better.
The stories were secondhand and far from home.
Then they got closer.
“You heard MonkeyTog’s gone off the deep end?” I said.
We stood on our apartment balcony, Stan and I, leaning on the rail and sipping sparkling lemonade from champagne flutes. Below, traffic scrambled and dodged through the junction, the drivers hooting and swearing.
Stan held his glass by the rim, tipping it back and forth so the afternoon light danced with the bubbles and reflected coruscant point of light onto my shirt. He smiled, teasing, flirty. “Poor guy,” he said. “Nice, but a lightweight.”
I agreed. Monkey struggled with a dozen live avatars… and that was playing bit-cameo roles in a small Russian channel I never bothered with. Not a lot of brain power required.
On a bad day, hungover and flu-y, me and Stan could spin up 20+, no sweat required.
“Poor guy,” I echoed. “Just wasn’t up for it, I guess.”
Stan’s eyes twinkled with a light that wasn’t merely mirth; behind those baby blues, his system sparkled and calculated, showing him a world I couldn’t see. He was ON, even at the end of the day, in us-time, as he flirted on the balcony with me.
But then again, so was I.
In an alien hive, I carted a gun, standing sentinel at midnight. I taught shamanistic magic on a volcanic peak, led adventurers through grue-dark dungeons, faced an oncoming raider charge, outnumbered and about to die….
On a virtual Rhine’s green and pleasant bank, Stan and I drank caffeine spritzers and watched the ships float by.
Why only live once?
“To MonkeyTog.” I raised my glasses.
“Hmm.” Balcony-Stan agreed.
“Oh, Jessie,” Rhine-Stan purred.
But he didn’t drink. Away his concentration slipped, into the electronic ether, and though I followed, it was like chasing leaves, falling. There. Then gone.
I denied it all. Wouldn’t see it. Wouldn’t say it.
So, the brain. Back to the brain; that’s what everything comes down to.
Stan and me used ours for all they were worth. Massive Multi-Tasking. Professionals. Employees of half the bastard grandkids of World of Warcraft, spinning lives, a hundred avatars on a dozen channels. We were the Demon Lord bosses that the cheater’s scripts couldn’t defeat, the game cameos pre-programming couldn’t handle, the enemy spaceship armadas, each ship controlled by a fragment of our soul.
Massive Multi-Tasking. Not everyone can do it. No screenies or plugins: just your brain and you and an adaptor. Sink or swim. What techies have dreamed of since forever….
We met at the first Battle of Jimmyfell. He was an Archangel with a fiery sword. I thought he was gorgeous; at the moderators’ meeting—before heaven and hell broke loose—he ignored me completely.
One week before our eight anniversary, Stan’s friend Borroway sent a message.
I swayed through a nightclub full of off-duty soldiers, all hips and bosom and coy, red smile. The Stabilo Coalition anticipated victory—the end of the war—and the soldiers caroused and cheered. Servers away, a bearded sharpshooter-Jessie lurked on a rain-drenched rooftop, eye to the gunsight. A technical consultant-Jessie drowsed in a company stockholder committee, wondering how non-techies could be so stupid: the company was going down, hard.
Fingers tugged on femme-fatale-me’s sleeve. “For you,” the courier-script said. It handed me a slip of paper and then, mission accomplished, spun out.
“Meet me in Purgatory,” the message whispered. “There are things that need saying. Yours, Borroway.”
“All right, doll?” A Stabilo General beamed at me, avarice in his gaze. In-the-flesh male or female, it didn’t matter: this one was a lover of women and a loser. An easy take down.
The Server Admin didn’t think Stablio-Payra war should end too soon. That would be bad for business. That’s why I was there.
“Oh, I’m swell, thanks, now that you’re here….”
I tugged him down for a kiss, and doing so, I split my conscious another way, spinning up another life into the grey emptiness of Purgatory.
There is nothing in Purgatory. So much nothing that the mind rebels, painting half-seen, half-heard somethings to fill the emptiness.
I see forests. Stan sees a billion rainbows in the air.
I dunno what Borroway sees; some things are too intimate to ask.
Borroway was waiting, an alien merchant from one of the newer space sagas. Think Regency lord, floating lace, stiff upper-lip, done in shades of green. Borroway was a champion of ON romances—beautiful company for a price—and business was good. Gems sparkled in its hair, each worth a half-k in OFF-dollars.
Prostitution: it pays well, but the hours are crap.
I said, “Borrow! Amigo! e-Buddy! How goes it?”
It waved the question away with thin, green fingers. “Make sacrifices if you would,” Borroway said.
Translation: “Pay attention.” MMT slows you down, makes you drunk on too much life. It’s easy to forget that.
Sharpshooter-Jessie died in a rain of bullets. Tech-consultant-me walked out of the board room.
“That’s an eleven-hour job down the crapper,” I said, mildly. “What the fuck is so important?”
Purgatory shadows flitted and flickered. Illusion-ghost trees sighed, just out of sight.
“Well?” I said, impatient. I had just died. It hurt.
“Wait,” Borroway said.
Purgatory hummed. Avatars spun up: monsters, angels, aliens and beasts. Unfamiliar faces controlled by old friends.
Pau!o has logged on. Samatha has logged on, my system announced. And Teacup, Ygi-Ygi, Waverunn and more. They murmured too-casual hellos as the channel struggled with the traffic.
Freaked? Me? Oh you better F-ing believe it. I said, “What is this? Some kind of intervention?” I searched Borroway’s face.
It gazed back, impassive way only someone hired for love can be. “Yes,” it said.
Samatha, spritely and naked in a pixie body said, “It’s about Standardyear, darling. Your Stan.”
They spoke. And most of me listened.
The other part, the real world, Jessie-in-the-apartment, stumbled to a sofa. The rough hide of a cushion scratched my face, wet, drowned, a life-raft in a bottomless sea.
“You’ve noticed it, darling.” Samatha touched my cheek and I almost felt his hand.
“Dude, it’s bad. Worser daily,” Pau!o said. “The lights are on, the party’s happening, but nobody ain’t home.”
“Stan?” The apartment hummed like an overloaded channel: fridge sounds and road traffic. Passing headlights peered in through the curtains, scanned the night-shadowed room, and vanished.
Stan washed dishes at the kitchen sink, elbow deep in soapy water. He scrubbed each plate three times, rinsed, and dumped it on the draining board. And he stood there, the firefly lights of his system twinkling, humming tunelessly as he washed… and he did not answer.
Hummed like the fridge, like the traffic. Like an overloaded channel.
“Face it,” Borroway said. “He is disjointed.”
Our doctor, an old bloke that the e-revolution had left behind, referred us to the hospital. The hospital referred us to a specialist.
The specialist was a fucktard with a laser pointer and a smarmy attitude. He interrogated us—me—in a white barn of an examining room. Stark fluorescent light blazed down, and I felt small; a speck in the eye of god. Stan just sat, a statue with blue-blue eyes.
The specialist said, “When was your last extended verbal exchange?”
I gave him my best wtf? expression.
He gave me a pretty good talking-to-an-idiot voice. “Conversations? Dialogue? Talking?”
An hour ago, I wanted to say. We met in Paris. Stan was a blond Amazon warrior and I was a 20th Century Spitfire pilot. She thought the weather was beautiful.
“It was… I dunno.” I shrugged. “It was about taxes.”
“More or less than a week ago?”
I shrugged. More. I didn’t say it.
The specialist left the room without bothering with “goodbye”.
“Jessie?” Stan said.
I held his hand, my mouth as dry as the Sahara. “I’m here. You okay?”
Wires and scans and hours happened.
“Estimated to the nearest hour-per-day, how long does your partner engage in MMT activities?” the specialist asked.
I shook my head. “I dunno.” Too many to count.
I found him deep in the Lowdown Cavern Puzzle where water dripped from the cathedral ceilings, each drop a thunderclap, a tumbling echo. Dead avatars husks sprawled among the rocks—Orcs and Elves lying together, intertwined—fading slowly to nothing.
You are approaching a Level Guardian, the Game-scrip said.
And there he was, coiled around stalagmites, giant and terrible and glorious, like that Archangel, eight years ago. He shone in the dark, catching the thin light and turning it gold with a Midas touch.
The Dragon arched a serpentine neck. “Rrriddle me, Morrtal. It iss lighterr than a featherr. Can not be held for long. You releasse it, you rrequire it, and without it you sssurely die!”
Smoke curled from his jaws.
I said, “Hello, lover. Will you sacrifice and talk to me?”
Cave water dripped on to the Dragon’s back, running across emerald scales in rivulets. I waited, silent and hopeful.
The dragon smiled like a chainsaw. “Jessie! Hey, wanna hear another riddle?” No lisping snarl now: he had turned off the synth-voice.
“The doctor says you’re disjointed.”
“What is all dreams and all days, sings sweet; survives, and kills with equal breath?”
I had worked as the Dragon, too. I knew the answers.
One of them was “love”.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“The human brain adapts,” the specialist said. “It can rewire itself even after grave injury.”
The inpatient hospital room—new and foreign and full of the stench of bleach—breathed with Stan. Jagged lines danced upon wall screenies, jumping in time to his heart-beat, breath and neurological function. The tests were over; the diagnosis confirmed.
The Specialist continued, “Unfortunately, extreme exploitation of its MMT capacity can trigger a change—a rewiring—too. To handle the increased information input—”
I crumpled a tissue into a tight, white wad. “There really aren’t any options?” I said. “What happens now?”
“Everything!” the Dragon said.
“No. I’m sorry. You can only disconnect him and hope for the best.“
I brushed Stan’s hair from his eyes. He smiled, a vague smile, no chainsaw fierceness.
“Stan?” I said. “Lover? Do you think you’re disjointed?”
The Dragon sighed. He rested his head at my feet. “Does it matter?” Stan said.
I took Stan home. It wasn’t what the specialist wanted. Home didn’t include more tests, more time, more-assessing-his-condition-
Fuck that, I told him. Here’s your money; get lost.
Actually, I just paid and left. God, I was burned out.
Stan wandered the apartment in his idle way. I wondered how many channels—how many lives—he was living in.
The bastard child of autism and multiple personality disorder, the specialist called it. Disjointment. “Disconnect him. Take him OFF as soon as you can. He might improve, given time.”
By which he meant, “in a few years, you might be able to hold a semi-decent, in-the-flesh conversation.”
He called that recovery.
In the apartment across from ours, three kids played ON games, dancing around a screenie and waving mice-batons above their heads. No adaptors for them—16+ with parental permission—but they hadn’t too many years to wait. I leaned on the balcony and watched the fevered way they played. Would they become Disjointed?
“We need new curtains,” Stan said. He looked at me, made eye-contact, and was gone.
That night, cuddled against him, I fell asleep, ON. My system tucked me in—put my lives on hold—but data seeped into my dreams, coloring them purple and binary-green.
“Jessie!” Stan called. The grey trees of Purgatory loomed at his back, their branches hung with airy rainbows. “Come on!” He ran into the forest, and though I followed, the trees swallowed him up, leaving me behind, alone in shadows. Nothing of him remained, just a path and the rainbows.
I rolled over in bed blearily awake; it wasn’t Stan calling, it was the system. Someone persistent was knocking on my virtual door.
I met her in an old hang out: a Triple Life bar, paying partons only, no sightseers or media allowed. She waited in a booth, a brash, older matron in 1950s get up, complete with primped grey curls. Red-rouge blushed her cheeks, and I wondered who she was. Really was, I mean, in-the-flesh. Old? Young? Male? Female? Did she wonder the same about me?
Did it matter?
“Darling, I heard about Standardyear,” she said. “It must be rough for you.”
“Rougher for him.”
A crew of dwarfs yabbered at the barman, ordering expensive virtual liquors (lifeforce + whatever) in thick Australian accents.
“I dunno, darling. Seems to me that you’re the one in the rough. Standard’s living! Jeeze, some of the work he’s doing. Classy stuff. Three companies’re offering tenure. I’m envious.”
I stopped, brain and body frozen for so long my system queried. “What,” I said. “The. Fuck. Do you mean by that? What the fuck is there to be envious about! Hey, guys, I’ve got a fucked-up mental disorder! I’m way more hardcore than you! Is that what this is? Huh?”
The dwarfs cheered; nothing they like better than a drama for some cheap entertainment.
The matron scowled. “Darling, you need to do three things. Deep breath. Calm down. And for [censored] sake, stop cussing; we’re on a moderated channel!”
A dwarf shouted, “You tell ’em mate!”
Samatha caught the barman’s eye. “Mary! Do us a favor, there’s a good chap.” Mary-the-barman nodded; Dwarfs vanished in a puff of smoke, booted OFF.
Mary swung a thick, hairy finger at me. “Keep your voice down or you’re next.” He used a voice like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind.
I wrapped arms and sullen anger around myself.
“Disjointment is a state of being! A different one,” Samatha said. “I’m headed there myself.”
In the real world, I punched a pillow flat.
“I will. And, darling, before you pass judgement—before you turn Stan OFF and really break him—ask yourself—”
But I wasn’t listening. “Sure. Whatever.”
Samatha sighed. She looks like Stan did, I thought. Like the pied piper were playing her tune and all she wanted was to follow.
“See you around, darling,” Samatha said.
The avatar spun out.
On Monday, I took a day OFF. Nothing happened in my head except the dull thoughts of Jessie-in-the-flesh, who was bored and unhappy and had nothing to do.
It felt like I had cut off half my soul and wrapped the remnants in cotton wool.
The Natural State of Man, I thought. Suck it up.
Later, I watched the evening news on a screenie, missing the stadium where we ON-lookers could gather, heckling the day and the newsreaders like it was the Rocky Horror show.
Earthquakes had rattled San Francisco. A union wanted to strike. MMT debated: boon or curse.
Guess which headline I watched.
A Senator from some backassward state thought MMT-gaming was infantile, a health and safety issue, a “debilitating risk to mental health,” and a danger “to our children”. Senator Fuckwit pledged to regulate ON workers and ON working hours, set Massive Multi-Tasking limits, increase e-taxes….
Fucked up, right?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
In a black rage, I called up a sub screenie and an airboard, and beat out a letter to the good sir, informing him exactly what I thought of his scheme, where he could put said scheme, and the brand of surgical tongs he could later use to remove it. Black letters hammered themselves across the senator’s smirking face.
“Regulation, my ass!” I said. Let Senator Fuckwit read it and die choking, secure in the knowledge that the midterm elections were going to screw him sideways.
“Send?” the system asked.
Outside, on the apartment complex’s thin stretch of lawn, Stan sat under an oak tree. He leaned against the trunk, face turned up to the sky.
Through the distance and gathering dusk, I could see the twinkling of his system, bright behind his eyes.
A debilitating risk to mental health.
“Do the right thing,” the specialist had said. “Here’s my card.”
The system queried again. “Send? Delete?”
I went outside without answering.
The rain-damp grass held Stan’s footprints in beaten-down green. Grass-clippings stuck to my hands and clothes when I eased down beside him.
Stan smiled, his gaze fixed up,up,up somewhere in the sky. A fat, solitary raindrop splattered in my hair. I called up a weather report: rain, more rain, metric fuck-tons of rain.
“How’s it going?” I said.
And then he spoke.
“God!” he said. “Jessie, look at the sky!”
The sky: unrelenting, lightless grey.
“No, Jessie! Look at the sky!”
I ran a finder-locator scrip, logged ON to a hundred servers, spun a hundred avatars out of binary and nothing.
On the Atlantic channels, the sun was setting, tumbling out of make-believe heavens in make-believe worlds trailing storms of red and gold.
On the Pacific channels, it was rising.
I stood/sat/lay next to Stan as male female and alien-other, and watched the sky burning.
Stans turned to me and smiled. “Do you see it? Do you see the sky?”
“Yeah,” I said. Raindrops shone on his face; I brushed them away. “I see it.”
January was born on a Thursday some years ago. At present, she lives in London with her goldfish and a frightening number of house plants. Her work appears in various places, including Aoife’s Kiss and Fantasy Magazine.
“Disjointed” was inspired by the feeling one gets after too many hours online, the gang of gamers at the local café, and the flatmate who got lost on her way home from the Internet and didn’t make it back until morning.
Map of Dreams, M. Rickert. Golden Gryphon Press, 2006. ISBN: 1-930846-44-4
Polyphony 6, Deborah Layne and Jay Lake, eds. Wheatland Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-9755903-4-0
Rabid Transit: Long Voyages, Great Lies, Christopher Barzak, Alan DeNiro and Kristin Livdahl, eds. Velocity Press, 2006. ISBN: not available
The Year’s Best Fantasy 6, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, eds. Tachyon Publications, 2006. ISBN: 1-892391-37-6.
Fast Forward 1 Lou Anders, ed. Pyr, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-59102-486-6
The Steam Magnate, Dana Copithorne. Aio Publishing Company, 2006. ISBN: 1-933083-08-5
The Good Fairies of New York, Martin Millar. Soft Skull Press, 2006. ISBN: 978-1-933368-36-8
Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, Chris Roberson. Pyr, 2006. ISBN: 1-59102-444-7
Reviewed by Sean Melican.
Whether you are familiar with the amazing M. Rickert or not, Golden Gryphon’s forty-eight collection Map of Dreams is worth reading and sharing with your friends. Not simply a collection, the stories are given an added weight and depth from the structure. The title story is a long, previously unpublished story whose first person narrator, Annie Merchant, having lost her daughter to a sniper shooting, becomes convinced that it is possible to see her daughter in the flesh. Her marriage falls apart and she seeks out a reclusive man in Australia whom she believes can offer her a means of time travel through aboriginal Dreamtime, and save her daughter. But what would that mean for her daughter? For herself? Can the past be changed? The story invokes numerous time-travel cliches, yet manages to avoid the pitfalls for the most part. The mysterious intervening woman is too obvious, but the intensely personal answers and the haunting evocations of aboriginal history are worth reading.
Following “Map of Dreams” is an introduction by Annie Merchant and then short segments—”Dreams,” “Nightmares,” “Waking,” Rising”—describing story/creation. Each segment is followed by stories which are either dreams, nightmares, et cetera. We are supposed (I think) to take it that these stories are Annie Merchant’s map of dreams, stories through which she comes to terms with her daughter’s death. The last story, “The Chambered Fruit,” deals specifically with another mother very much like Annie who has lost her daughter through her own error.
Nearly all of the stories deal with loss: loss of a child, loss of innocence, loss of faith, loss of humanity, and most importantly, loss of identity. The husband of “Leda” loses his wife and perhaps her sanity—after all, she says she was raped by a swan—but what happens when the egg hatches? “Bread and Bombs” speaks of children losing their innocent view of the world to one where there is an us and a them (invoking/discussing/attacking the current political/social/religious climate of the United States), and when the line is clearly demarked, what happens to a child’s soul when he or she crosses that line? My personal favorite, “Peace on Suburbia,” is a daring story: first for using second person and second for taking faith seriously rather than dismissively as so much fiction does.
In his afterword, Mr. Van Gelder says Ms. Rickert is “… an American who was obviously influenced by Garcia Marquez.” What I suspect he means is that in Ms. Rickert’s stories magic intrudes in everyday life without the separate and distinct contextual/textual/narrative markers that are part and parcel of current fantastic literature. For me, I find strong similarities to Flannery O’Conner’s emphasis on ordinary people: not scientists, magicians, geniuses, savants, detectives, or outlaws, except of the accidental sort. Ordinarily, I don’t like the ‘recipe’ method of review: the sort that reads, “M. Rickert is two parts Garcia Marquez blended with one part Flannery O’Conner with a dash of…” But Flannery O’Conner, despite a relatively small body of work, is a critical component of American fiction, partly because she illuminates the forgotten, ordinary corners of America; M. Rickert falls into the same category. It isn’t the hallowed halls of academia or mystical caverns or lands just beyond or overlapping. It is as much a map of America as it is a map of dreams.
If Ms. Rickert is a true magic realist then Polyphony is perhaps the most consistent advocate and publisher of slipstream. The Leviathan and Rabid Transit (review below) series are also excellent locations, or points of departure from the ordinary of the fantastic. I don’t have room to review every story, so I’ll note highlights.
Following the overlay elaborate metaphor above, Josh Rountree’s “Chasing America” is an appropriate segue. Paul Bunyan escapes Albion, running from the Jacks who want to kill him, to come to America. A giant, he makes his mark on the frontier, but slowly assumes ordinary proportions. He finds himself at critical junctions in American history—including the much-overused JFK assassination, though within the Jack theme, this time it works—until he comes to a surprising and terribly sad conclusion. As an example of slipstream (and story),it works: it takes the impossible/mythical, inserts it into critical but surprising moments (who’d have thought Woody Guthrie?) and most importantly, uses the impossible/mythical and critical to be critical, to illuminate the shadowed realms of the American fictional landscape.
Forrest Aguirre’s “Keys I Don’t Remember” is a collection of vignettes each revolving around a, well, key. Each vignette, though only a page, is one of those very rare gifts: a flash fiction story which works. There are political stories (“The Last Key in Sodom,” which may be the most heart-wrenching) and stories which evoke/reflect on various writers, including Kafka and Borges (“The Schloss Key” and “The Key to the Labyrinths”). Some are historical and all are philosophical. The cumulative effect/meaning is both beautiful and powerful.
Darin C. Bradley’s “The Heresy Box” tells a story in reverse time: a neat trick, and well-executed, though the story itself is well-tread. Nick Mamatas’ “The Uncanny Valley” is a nifty blending of post-human society, psychology, and murder mystery.
But the most potent stories are those which really have no speculative fiction elements, though they reflect concerns and experiences of speculative readers. Richard Waldhom’s “Orange Groves Out to the Horizon” (my favorite) is a lyrical story beginning and culminating with the launching of a pet rat in a model rocket (a common enough experience/love of speculative fiction readers), which fades into a metaphor for lost childhoods and fathers. When the father discovers the son and his friends, the disconnect/distance between them is heartbreaking.
And Pamela Sargent’s “The Drowned Father” tells the tale of a wannabe writer meeting the estranged daughter of his favorite writer. A simple, almost trite scenario, it becomes a meditation on the conflict between those who practice art and those whose lives they touch, whether for good or ill.
The fifth installment of Rabid Transit, Long Voyages, Great Lies is much shorter than Polyphony, but well worth your time and money. Like Polyphony, Rabid Transit delights in slipstream-y material.
“The Mom Walk: A Story in Five Stories” by Alice Kim begins, “There were two girls. One was Wanda, the other was Wendy. They lived in different universes. In time, they would come to discover that they had the same theoretical mother problems.” There intersecting lives involve aliens, bras and Denny’s. I can’t tell explain it any better.
My favorite is David J. Schwartz’ “Shackles” which is told entirely in the dark and revolves around the lives of various political prisoners, including the Auto-Revolutionary, an indescribable machine that is a thorn in the king’s propagandist’s sides. This is the dark side of all of those autocratic fantasy novels you all like. Dark, disturbing, beautiful.
F. Brett Cox’s “My Whole World Lies Waiting” is a tale of a door to another universe, and Heather Shaw’s lovely “Mountain, Man” is the story of a socially maladjusted man who discovers a woman who is something else altogether. Meghan McCarron’s “The Ghost Line” is a love (sort of, maybe)/quest story in a post-apocalyptic future, and Geoffery H. Goodwin’s “Release the Bats” is, like “Shackles”, the dark side of a common trope, in this case that of having a family when the father seeks magical power.
If slipstream, New Weird (or whatever), or magical realism don’t appeal to you, how ’bout something more traditional? It is the usual practice for reviewers to cover all the year’s best in a single column, but for various reasons, I’ll discuss only one (for others, read Strange Horizons and LOCUS), because it is a counterpoint to the above three books: David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best Fantasy 6.
Obviously, editing a ‘best of’ anthology is fairly subjective. But I think there are some objective qualities: a best story could be an excellent example of traditional fare (“The Imago Sequence,” for example), a genre story that uses the themes and structures to comment on or critique itself, a powerful emotional, political, or social statement, unusual narrative choices (second person, reverse time, historical imitation). Editors still bring biases to the table, and in the case of Mr. Hartwell and Ms. Cramer, it is a quite strong bias toward traditional fantasy. More frustrating, it is not apparent that they have read a wide variety from the year since they’ve taken stories only from F&SF, Strange Horizons, Asimov’s and a handful of others, including three from Tesseracts Nine. (Knowing Mr. Hartwell’s and to a less extent Ms. Cramer’s reputations, I can’t believe that, but still.) They lean heavily on F&SF, which is one of the strongest venues for fantasy, but without an Honorable Mentions section (found in other best-of-the-year anthologies) we can judge only from the twenty-three stories presented.
First, outrage: it is difficult to take seriously the notion that these are the best fantasy stories when it does not contain Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners”, which earned the BSFA and the Nebula, was nominated for the Hugo, and even TIME magazine named the collection one of the best five books of the year. Sure, it’s long and space in this particular anthology is at a premium, but is Connie Willis’ inferior (compared to “Magic for Beginners” and several of Ms. Willis’ other stories) “Inside Job,” which is equally long, more deserving? Ms. Link is present with “Monsters” which is a neat twist on monster-in-the-woods-at-camp stories, but arguably one of her weaker stories. (Don’t get me wrong: I would crawl across broken, salted glass to retrieve a Kelly Link manuscript from fire, battery acid, rabid dogs, or ignorant, witch-hunting, book-burning PTA members.)
So. Good stuff? Sure.
Gavin J. Grant’s “Heads Down, Thumbs Up” is inarguably one of the best stories of the year. Taking the idea that language and culture change with changing boundaries, the story is about a world in which boundaries move and people stay still (rather than the more usual, other way ’round) and when it shifts, so does their language, culture, jokes, behavior, et cetera. Where can freedom be found? Why, with the witch, of course. Like the very best of literature, it is impossible to deconstruct and reassemble (oh, the witch is a metaphor for… and the boundary shift is analogous to…) but is something (like sex, war and childbirth) that must be experienced. For further praise, read Jeff Vandermeer’s appreciation.
Laird Barron’s “The Imago Sequence” is a perfectly executed horror story mined from the Lovecraftian vein but utilizing hard science for rationalization. Aside from Mr. Grant’s story, my favorite is Jonathon Sullivan’s “Neils Bohr and the Sleeping Dane” which follows the escape of Neils Bohr from the Nazis; but what is most fascinating (and similar to Ms. Rickert’s “Peace on Suburbia”) is Mr. Sullivan’s willingness to write about religion and faith—in this case, Judaism—as if it were important, valuable, and not to be dismissed. (Which it is.) Instead of representing science as superior, they are complementary. The ending weakens this somewhat by relying on literal magic employed by the stereotype of rabbi-as-magician, but it is still a superior story.
Yoon Ha Lee’s “Eating Hearts” is a beautiful and non-European love story, and Garth Nix’s “Read It in the Headlines!” is a fun story told through, well, headlines. Bruce Sterling’s “The Denial,” while hardly original or ground-breaking, is a solid story of love and death. Esther M. Friesner’s “The Fraud” is again, not ground-breaking, but is a wonderful imitation of Victorian story-telling.
And now for the criticism: some of the stories are too weak to be considered the best of the year. Heather Shaw’s “Single White Farmhouse,” is a simple what-if: what if houses could, through the internet, meet and mate? While amusing, it says nothing of consequence about love or architecture. If you don’t know that meeting someone through email and IM and all that rot is fraught with deception and heartbreak, then maybe it has value beyond its simple humor. Patrick Samphire’s “Crab Apple” has an ending that is too obvious and far too clichéd to be believed. Neil Gaiman’s “The Sunbird” is, like Ms. Shaw’s story, funny but too slight and familiar. (I would save a Neil Gaiman manuscript as I would a Kelly Link.) I’ve no intention to denigrate the authors or their stories; none of them is particularly weak, but neither do they have qualities that merit inclusion as best of the year.
While Asimov’s and Analog have been solid science fiction magazine—Analog hearkening back to the good ol’ days and Asimov’s focusing on post-human or literate or humanist stories—fantasy and slipstream have come to dominate the genre landscape. There have been several one-shot science fiction anthologies, but other than the aforementioned magazines, there hasn’t been a regular source of science fiction short stories. But Lou Anders, the editorial director of Pyr and anthologist of note, has produced a new, unthemed, refreshingly skiffy anthology that is to become a regular series: Fast Forward 1.
While you won’t find any new writers or novel ideas here, you’ll find several solid stories by excellent writers, a few that are little more than vehicles for an idea (which is itself old-fashioned) and one notably silly story.
Ender’s Game was not the first of its kind, but it set a very high bar for children-commanding-war-machines stories. (For an interesting refutation of/antidote to the hero-worship heaped on Orson Scott Card and Ender Wiggin, read John Kessel’s excellent essay, “Creating the Innocent Killer”.) Not one but two such stories appear here. The first is from Ian McDonald’s heavily mined but still solid near-future India. “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” is a subtle, emotional contrast of the haves and have-nots. The robotwallahs still live with their parents and command platoons of war machines (think Battle Mech) via telepresence in a filthy go-down. Sanjeev loves robots (hey, who doesn’t?) and works for his father’s restaurant in overcrowded India after his idyllic, pastoral home is destroyed by war machines. Befriended by several robotwallahs , Sanjeev discovers the contrast between the shiny, sexy robots and the reality of the exploited child soldiers. The beauty and power of the story comes from its willingness to neither sanctify nor demonize its protagonists, but portray them as people in a world not of their making, in a world where limited employment choices limit moral choices, and where the glamour of our heroes—robotwallahs, rock and rap musicians, actors, athletes—is really just a shoddy facade.
Contrast this to Kage Baker’s “Plotters and Shooters.” On an orbital station, children serve either as plotters, those who find asteroids destined to destroy earth, or shooters, those who shoot the asteroids down. The shooters are the bullies and jocks; the plotters are the geeks abused by the shooters. The story makes no sense scientifically (I hate bad science) and doesn’t rise above the level of cliché. While there are occasional threatening asteroids, there are not so many that an entire platoon of adults, much less children, is needed. Nor is there any reason that plotters cannot be shooters—it’s a simply computation for even this PC on which I’m writing—other than as a plot contrivance. And the conflict between the jocks and nerds is one of the worst clichés in modern times.
But one bad story does not a bad anthology make. Ken MacLeod’s excellent “Jesus Christ, Reanimator,” is a Second Coming story. But is Jesus really Jesus—sure, he can heal wounds, bring back the dead—but is he perhaps an alien, and if he’s an alien, what does that mean for the fundamentalists? And what does it mean for the rest of us? Some Doubting Thomases cannot be convinced even in the face of overwhelming evidence—think evolution and global warming, for example.
Paul Di Filippo’s amusing “Wikiworld” is reminiscent of Cory Doctorow, particularly “Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers,” and Charles Stross’ Accelerando sequence, but with a lighter touch. It is also an effort to bridge the gap between those for whom wiki is an important part of the everyday, and those for whom science fiction serves the same purpose. When discussing the graying of the science fiction readership, one method that may bring the not-so-gray into the fold is to not pretend that the phenomena which matter to younger readers doesn’t exist.
Not quite as successful at merging the two, but laudable for the effort, is Elizabeth Bear’s “The Something-Dreaming Game,” which merges the high of personal asphyxiation (these sections read as if Ms. Bear did extensive but distant research divorced from actual teenagers, the sort of teenage viewpoints presented in newspapers) with the good old dying-civilization-contacts-humans-to-remember-their-race. Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Small Offerings” is a brutal science fiction and horror story in the style of Margaret Atwood. A.M Dellamonica’s “Time of the Snake” is a vicious examination of politics and terrorism.
Curiously, romance, love, marriage—which were largely absent from those old-fashioned stories of so long ago—are strongly represented: from Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper’s “The Terror Bard” to Louise Marley’s wonderful time travel story “p dolce,” (a counterpoint to “Mozart in Mirrorshades”) to John Meaney’s heartbreaking science fiction/gothic “Sideways from Now.”
This anthology is proof hard science fiction is still a vibrant, worthwhile endeavor for any writer; here’s hoping this anthology series has a long, healthy life.
On its website, Aio Publishing says it wants to publish complex stories focusing on the human aspect rather than technology, and thus far has done just an amazing job. Dana Copithorne’s The Steam Magnate is no exception. Like The Summer Isles and particularly like Nocturne, it demands careful reading and rewards the reader after the book is finished. I’m writing this a few months after reading the book, and going over my notes, I’ve made numerous notes on what appear to be technological inconsistencies: there are simulacra, holograms, fiber optic cables, levitation platforms; and yet one of the characters wonders if a recording device could be built. It isn’t until after reading the novel I realized (this may be an indication of my density) the world Ms. Copithorne writes of is in the far distant future, where characters use but don’t comprehend technology from their past. And power generation comes from underground steam, solar, wind, and tidal power stations.
The story is a rather loose amalgam of characters and motivations. After being caught in a compromising position, Kyra is sent by her benefactor to infiltrate Eson’s (the steam magnate) home and recover a certain document. Eson has ink and paper which, when signed, can can form an unbreakable master and servant bond between him and another person. Through these, he has many documents which allow him to control economic and political figures. Almost incidentally, he also owns the steam which provides power to several cities. Jado is a young man with a gift for building machines. Eson and Kyra meet under false pretenses, become lovers and later partners; and later still, one will betray the other. Jado meets Kyra and later Eson, and will become Eson’s financial and criminal partner.
But strongest and most inventive is the ghetto in which Jado and his people, live, a distinct ethnic minority reminiscent of Jews in early twentieth century Europe, various physical structures which have numerous meanings, for example:
Sunlight Appears Only At Dusk was at first a ghost tale, a place where one must be fearful of his soul when walking past. Later, Jado learned it was a place where some of his past relatives had been arrested and taken away on false grounds a hundred years earlier.
Most impressive is the walls of Glass Spells a Name, a long wall made of bits of glass spelling out the names of saints, but also a wall along which troubled men and women walk seeking answers in the patterns of glass. While neither the Western Wall nor the Vietnam memorial, it has the logic and solidity of both and yet remains a distinct invention of Ms. Copithorne, not merely a pale copy.
Also of note are the lovely sketches Ms. Copithorne has drawn of various locales in the city.
The writing is lyrical, the characters and world (the world especially) well-drawn, but it is not without minor flaws. Most first novels have them, and should be judged accordingly. The ending is a bit flat, particularly when Eson and Jado leave the Broken Glass City for reasons that, when compared to Eson’s wealth, seem remarkably trivial. And there is one exchange between Jado and Kyra that is facile and unnatural in the flow of the narrative, beginning with, “Do you think future technologies will save us from the world, or destroy it?”
But while there are weaknesses, Aio continues to publish quality speculative fiction like The Steam Magnate that is a refreshing change from the usual fare. Here’s hoping there are more stories from the Broken Glass City.
I’m always wary of small presses I’ve never heard of who ask if we’ll review something. This isn’t to denigrate small presses—there are many which produce wonderful artifacts: Small Beer, Tachyon, Pyr, Aio to name but a few—but when Soft Skull told us Neil Gaiman (see statements above) had written an introduction, not just a blurb, an introduction!, to Martin Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York, well, I just had to read it.
It turns out there are fairies in New York. (Insert joke and/or derogatory comment here.) But the Chinese fairies don’t mingle with the Italian fairies and so on. There are also fairies in the Celtic isles, but these are being turned from carefree, frolicking-in-the-meadows and other f-ing-in-the-meadows fairies (and do they ever f-!) into miserable cogs in mass production factories.
Morag and Heather are two fairies from this last, who are, for want of a better word, punk fairies. (Insert second joke.) They’ve just flown into Dinnie’s apartment and puked on his carpet. Dinnie is an overweight and terrible violinist. His neighbor, Kerry, has Crohn’s disease. She’s making a flower alphabet for an arts festival to get back at her ex-boyfriend whose producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream for said festival.
Hijinks ensue: the most important flower to the flower alphabet is lost and recovered in the grand tradition of high comedy, and must be made of steel to remain intact through its rough life. Fairies rumble in the streets of New York. (Third joke.) Two girl phone sex will be important for the climax. (Fourth joke.) Heather and Morag help Dinnie and Kerry for impossibly complex reasons involving sneezes, tartans, and violins. Somehow, the ghost of Johnny Thunders is involved.
Everything will sort itself out in the end, never you fear: love and goodness will triumph and everything will be happily ever after; except, well, it doesn’t and isn’t. That may be true for fairies and their tales, but not for us mere mortals. For all the hilarity—and it is laugh out loud hilarious—Mr. Millar never loses sight of the humanity and weaknesses (emotional and physical) of his protagonists.
This is every bit the book that Mr. Gaiman says it is. And now I’ve said so too.
The press materials for Paragaea sets lofty goals for the novel:
In the tradition of the planetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett, Paragaea is in fact a ‘hard’ science fiction adventure, grounded in the latest thinking in the fields of theoretical physics, artificial intelligence, genetics, and more. There is a rigorously rational explanation behind all of the unearthly elements…
Oh boy! I said and rubbed my hands together. What a fantastic idea!
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t live up to the hype. As a planetary romance, it is a fine book, full of curiosities, plenty of swordplay, friendship, grand adventures, great vistas, weird and forgotten realms, a little sex (fairies do it a lot more than people, it seems).
Leena is a Soviet cosmonaut who accidentally travels to Paragaea (para- meaning beyond or similar to, and Gaea meaning earth). The launching of her ship is far too drawn out and fails to deliver on the visceral thrill of rocket launches. She is saved by Heironymous Bonadventure (Hero to his friends), a fellow traveler from earth but this time a sailor from the Napoleonic era, and his meta-man companion, Balam, an ousted prince of the jaguar-like Sinaa empire. Meta-men, a staple of planetary romances, are explained as genetic experiments between humans and animals: jaguars, fish, and the like. Which is all well and good, but the rational for the experimenters doesn’t rise above the usual they-could-so-they-did. I would have like to have discovered (and there is a means of doing so: Benu, who we’ll meet in a moment) that gave a deeper, more rigorously logical, rational; for example, perhaps the experimenters saw that the climate of the world was changing in such a way that Homo sapiens would not survive, but a blend of human and animal would, and to decrease the risk of total annihilation, a variety of blends are made should one variant fail. Hero’s map of Paragaea suggests that it is a far future earth.
Like Dorothy and her companions, they travel Paragaea in search of a way home for Leena, whose relentless single-minded need to return and report to the Soviets is an irritant to the reader. Yes, the Soviets were rigid and promoted loyalty to the state above all else, but in a world of wonders, how long before wonder overwhelms loyalty? Like Dorothy and her companions, they meet an android of sorts, Benu, a creation of the posthumans whose purpose is to record the changes of Paragaea and its cultures. Every millennia Benu’s body degrades and he must move his identity to a new body. And this is where the promise of the novel is most fulfilled: in an earlier such transfer, an accident occurs and the new body awakens without Benu’s identity. Forging its own identity, and without any moral compass, it becomes/rationalizes the Ming the Merciless archetype.
Like Dorothy and her companions, they come to the posthumans’ hideout and, well, it ain’t exactly ruby slippers and a balloon, but you get the idea.
If the scientific improbabilities of Burroughs and Brackett are explained, the novel falls short in examining the motivations of characters. Like the planetary romances of old, Hero and Balam are roving souls who have no substantial ties and can and will risk life and limb for the hell of it. Hero says:
“And where would be the fun if it were easy? If we have to storm the walls of the Diamond Citadel of Atla, if we have to scale the fire mountains of Ignis itself, well… isn’t that better than hanging around here till death takes us in our sleep?”
Honestly, if a writer is going to tackle the scientific absurdities of planetary romance, couldn’t he also tackle the motivational absurdities? Quick, on your fingers, name the number of people you know who can, at the drop of a hat, not only leave their lives for a grand adventure but actually have the skills necessary to survive? There’s nothing wrong with such fantasy per se, but I’d like to have seen a more realistic approach to motivation. (I thought of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Short Sun, where Horn has to make a similar journey, but he has to have a damned good reason to leave his home, his wife and children, his livelihood; even then, he’s reluctant.)
Also, a shout out to a wonderful bookstore if you live in or are near the Trenton/Princeton area. Dedicated to children’s books, Alphabet Soup Books has thousands of books not available in chain bookstores, divided into region. For example, I picked up a wonderful book on Burmese folk tales, but you can also find similar books, as well as historical and pictorial books for various Asian, African and European regions. Just a wonderful place to find all sorts of beautiful and wonderful books for children. And yourself, while you’rethere.
Alphabet Soup Books
Lawrenceville Shopping Center
2495 Route 1
The last time I met Lenore she was all blue. There were oceans everywhere over her, even where there shouldn’t be oceans, and her fingers were fingers of sea, long and blue. Lenore’s smile was like a summer sky that had grown teeth. Lenore had continents, but they were shrinking.
We met on the last train from the city. We were late. That’s how it always used to be with me and Lenore, the empty train and the black line of tracks, but I hadn’t seen her since the last time, when we had the argument that rattled the whole train line like a teacup in a saucer. “Jamie?” Lenore said. She sounded startled. “What are you doing here?”
I stretched out in my seat, very casually, so she wouldn’t know I had been riding trains up and down in the dark to see her like this. Casually, I said, “This is public transport, Lenore,” but it didn’t sound as clever as I thought it might.
She left her seat to sit beside me. Her long black jacket smelled of seaweed and rain. There was blue even in the parting of her hair, an ocean no one had discovered or named, probably all ice. There was so much I wanted. I wanted to know whether her skin had grown hard as an eggshell or cold and dry as snakeskin. I wanted to know if she was still blue and green all over. But it would have been rude to ask, so I smiled my friendliest smile and waited for her to speak.
When we first met Lenore looked nothing like this. She had skin-colored skin, lip-colored lips, and brown hair in two braids. Back then I was the stranger one. I wore leather gloves in summer and wrapped my head up in red bandanas and wool hats. Anyone would know just by looking at me that I had something to hide. We met on an empty train, and when a man threw himself down on the tracks to die and everything ground to a halt, Lenore and I sat side by side to make up eulogies. The train slept for hours between stations. Ambulance sirens howled in through the windows, and outside was a girl, screaming help him. “Is this how you would want to end your life?” Lenore asked. “It wouldn’t matter much to me,” I said carelessly, “I have nine of them.” Lenore was supposed to be impressed. She just looked disappointed.
Now, there like a rain cloud, like an atlas of all the places I’d never been, she settled back in her seat and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not sorry,” she said.
“I meant it, Jamie.”
“So did I,” I said, but wasn’t really sure.
When she sat this close I could see the land of Europe on her cheeks and mouth. When she blinked I saw Finland. Europe didn’t know it, but the Mediterranean Sea was creeping up her shoulders, hungry for a second Flood. Europe ought to be warned. I just didn’t think I was the man for the job.
“Anyway. How are you?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said.
I should have said that when my mother died for the last time I made a house underneath a train seat where it was warm and dry. All day long I counted shoes, coming and going. At night the train and I slept together in the station. My house grew around me like a seashell. I decorated it with shiny silver gum wrappers and made a bed of daily newspapers, and I never had to pay for a ticket. I should have said, I am not well, but I take care of myself.
After the first time I saw her we met again and again on the last train out of the city. Lenore always wore black wool dresses and heavy black shoes. “Remember when you said you had nine lives?” she asked, the second time we met. “Why did you say that?” I shrugged and looked out the window. The wind ribboning in through the open window had grown teeth and nails. “Because I was thinking about it,” she said. “And what does it even mean to have nine lives? Does it mean that you’re reborn nine times, in the same life, or does it mean you get to be someone else? Or that you get nine times to die and come back to life?” She leaned in towards me and I could smell wet wool and flowery shampoo. “And when you die,” she said, “nine times, are there nine ghosts of you all over the place, waiting for the last part of you to die? So if you have nine lives, does it mean that every time you are getting a little bit smaller? Is it a little bit more like death every time?” she asked. I said, “I don’t know.”
But the third time we met she put her hand on my shoulder, and I took off my leather gloves to show her my fingers. She examined them carefully. “How strange,” she said, sounding doubtful. I shook my hair out of the bandana so that it rattled around my shoulders. Lenore pulled one strand tight. “What does it mean?” she asked. I could have answered that, too, but I didn’t.
After I had known Lenore for a few weeks the Baltic Sea grew between her nose and her left eye. It looked like a small blue teardrop. Lenore seemed sadder than usual. When I leaned in close to her face, I saw that the teardrop was ringed with little green dots and labelled neatly, THE BALTIC SEA. I touched it, but it felt like skin. “What—” I began. Lenore pushed my hand away. “It’s a tattoo,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, Jamie, but it’s a tattoo.” I asked her if it had hurt. “Not any more than I thought it would,” she said.
The world grew over Lenore’s skin. The North Sea came next, and Europe down her face and neck. Russia marched slowly across her right breast and arm, meeting the side of the United States on her shoulder blade. Africa and Australia on her legs. South America on the back of her left thigh. Antarctica came last. She showed me when it was finished, kicking off her shoes to rest her feet in my lap, still red from the needle, but white as if she’d walked in flour. “What next?” I asked. She said ocean.
The last time I saw Lenore we sat together without talking for a long time. I asked her how she was doing. “Fine,” she said, like an echo. I thought maybe she was drowning. “How is your husband?” I asked, very politely.
“He’s doing well,” she said. “Is your mother better?”
“I’m sorry,” Lenore whispered.
These platitudes were code. I thought they might be code for I have ridden the train up and down like you have, or maybe just I missed you. Lenore folded her hands very neatly and I tried not to stare at their color, the Atlantic and Pacific of them tangled up like tide.
Lenore had a husband. She told me about him after I had known her for a while. She said he had hand-shaped hands and hair-shaped hair, and what he lacked in imagination he made up for in loyalty. I thought I could be loyal, but I didn’t say anything. Lenore said her husband worked in an office with his name in brass plate over the door. He had a big black dog named Siobhan, and made omelettes with portobello mushrooms on Sunday mornings, and once, when he was drunk, he broke her arm. “Let me see,” I had said when I heard that. Lenore had smiled, as if she felt sorry for me, and said, “You can’t see it, Jamie. It’s not broken anymore,” but of course I’d understood that, I just wanted to make sure she was better.
Lenore is older than I am but not old. I am not young. She is not old enough to be my mother, and I’m not young enough to be her son. Her history is longer, but I have a history too. This is it. A long time ago my great-grandfather married a cat named Mahogany. She was a very fine cat, and our family has her eyes and her solitary nature. My great-grandfather met Mahogany in a lending library: she was curled up asleep on a copy of The Tempest, which he wanted to read. He asked her to move, very politely. As a rule our family is very polite. Mahogany opened one eye, looked unimpressed, and slashed him across the face. In all the daguerreotypes of him my great-grandfather has that scar, like a neat seam over his cheek and under his eye. It is really very dashing. That was how they met; and my great-grandfather and Mahogany were married in Sicily, and he wore his army uniform with all its decorations, and she wore her own black fur. My great-grandparents were very happy together. They had seven children. All of their children were violins as well as boys and girls. When Mahogany died, my great-grandfather died three days later, of a broken heart.
“What are you going to do with your nine lives?” Lenore asked me once. I said, quite grandly, “Everything.” This is not true. It doesn’t work that way. Having nine lives doesn’t mean having all the best days of your life, but more of them. It means too much time alone with your thoughts. It means getting tired of the things you love much more quickly. To be honest, I am not glad my great-grandfather married a cat.
Once I asked Lenore if she was a ghost. Lenore raised her eyebrows at me. Her eyebrows were two black islands, floating up there in the Arctic Ocean. “Jamie—” she began. I said, “I’ve never seen you outside of a train. I’ve never seen you in the daytime. The first time we met, someone died. You could be a ghost. It’s perfectly possible.” Lenore opened her mouth, and from the look on her face I thought she was going to say something like you have to be kidding me or are you drunk? but she only took off one of my gloves. Her fingers slid through mine, blue as air. “Oh, Jamie,” she said. That was all she said.
Tree branches scraped up against the train window. I wondered if she ever did that to her husband, if she ever took off his glove or his tie while she said his name that way, and I hoped she did. He should be happy. He should know what he had when he had it. I wondered if blue ocean and land covered up the bruises his hands left on her. Her husband had his name in a big brass plate but I bet he wouldn’t make a home for her on a train, with newspaper for bedding and curtains of old umbrellas and a decorative glass sculpture made from empty vodka bottles. I thought that maybe Lenore should have someone who would do those things for her. I never once asked her to leave her husband, or to run away with me, never once. That was why we argued. Because I didn’t ask.
I saw her one time before we argued, and she was drunk. She had a bottle of cheap brown rum with pirates on the label. I said, “What the hell, Lenore?”
Lenore shook her head, smiling her blue smile. “My name is not Lenore,” she said, very gravely, “no. That’s not my name. My name is everything, but you can call me Jamie if you like.”
“What happened to you?” I asked. As the train chased along the tracks, the rum in her bottle splashed out over her hands, and she set it between her knees to hold tight. She had blood or dirt trapped underneath her fingernails. If there were bruises on her skin, I couldn’t see them.
“Nothing, nothing happened,” she snapped. “I’m just tired. God,” she said, almost in a whimper. “I’m so tired.” She dropped her head on my arm. The Pacific Ocean had swollen, reached over her shoulder, nibbled a little bit of Russia away. I was suddenly afraid. I was afraid of being with her when oceans ate the world, when the land we sat on went under without putting up a fight. “I’m sorry,” Lenore said, over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m so embarrassed.” It was all right, I told her.
Our whole family hates water. It’s what comes of being part cat and part soldier. My mother died twice in a lake, the same lake; some people might say this was silly of her, but I say it was destiny. If you happen to be afraid of water there is not much you can do about it. I collected newspapers left on trains, looking for news of flooding, and carried a raincoat in my bag, and two red umbrellas. I had that argument with Lenore. It was not much of a battle plan, but it was the best I had.
The last time I saw her Lenore opened the window to let night in. Both of us were very considerate. We sat close, but not close enough to touch. We talked about work and holidays and how long winter was stretching on this year. Before my stop, before I could get up, Lenore stuck her hand in my hand. “Wait,” she said, “Jamie, wait. Don’t go just yet.”
I didn’t go. She rested her head on my shoulder. Even her ears were blue, inside and out, little whirlpools. I would have to walk home now in the wind.
“I could learn to play the violin,” Lenore said.
I said, “I wouldn’t know what to do with you.”
That wasn’t what I meant. It was the water. I wouldn’t know what to do when it swallowed her whole. I wondered if Lenore’s body might be a prophecy waiting to come true, the whole world drowned. I wondered if even she knew what she was drowning in.
“Listen,” I said.
I carefully pushed her head away from my shoulder. I flexed my fingers, untied the bandana from around my head. My hair is hard as wire and my fingers are thin and very straight. I stretched my hair across my mouth, curled tight in my fist. I drew one finger across one strand of hair. The sound was high and sweet.
When my mother died for the last time we all played together. That is another thing my great-grandmother passed down to us: big families with a tendency to leave home early and never come back. My brothers and sisters and I played for a long time in the hospital room where my mother died. I remembered her saying, I’m so tired. My brothers and sisters left. I didn’t ask where they went. They didn’t ask me where I was going. I know they are still alive somewhere, at least. That’s one of the good things about having nine lives.
The notes buzzed around my mouth like honeybees, echoing down my throat, and the vibrations made me dizzy but the song was very beautiful. I thought it might be a song about levees, or maybe just about drowning. Lenore dropped her head in my lap. I could feel her crying. On the back of her neck, Greenland sank like Atlantis.
Becca De La Rosa has had fiction published in Strange Horizons and LCRW, among other places. She is currently studying English at an art college in Ireland.
I had the idea for this story while waiting for the train in winter. It combines a few of my favourite obsessions: secret identities, failed relationships, tattoos, safe places, and trains.
A thin skin is all the wall|
between me and she.
She is angelic.
illuminated by galley lights,
I must look demonic.
Her tears flow.
and air hisses
that a thin skin is all the wall
John Borneman hits the poetry muse when he is not “wrangling statistics” during his day job. He has been published in magazines such as Star*Line, Flashquake, and The Magazine of Speculative Poetry. His work has been nominated for the SFPA Rhysling Award, and accepted by the Arts Council of Indianapolis for their “Shared Spaces/Shared Voices” contest. Visit his website.
This poem grew from the phrase, “a thin skin is all the wall between she and me.” That phrase and its implication of the mirror images of two people, one inside and secure, one outside and dying, was the basis of this poem.