Welcome to our first issue of 2010, and the launch of an upgraded, updated Ideomancer!
We’ve, let’s say, been busy.
It’s been a long time coming and a lot of sweat, but we’ve rebuilt, redesigned, and relaunched the website: as well as the usual fiction, poetry, and non-fiction offerings, there’s now easy access to our Twitter feed and Facebook page, a shoutbox and comments function to let you, the reader, talk back, and a tidier, modernized build. The design credit goes to Erin Hoffman, Associate Editor and our new webmaster, who donated her considerable skill to build us something beautiful. Tip yer hats, folks!
We’re also launching a new feature on the Ideomancer Livejournal Community: Associate Editor Alena McNamara will curate the Ideomancer Atlas of Imagination, a collection of links, bobs, flotsam, and cool stuff we’ve found washed up on the Internet that illumines the geography of the imagination. The Atlas of Imagination will turn a page every Monday and Saturday.
Thanks to the hard design and research work of our poetry editor, Jaime Lee Moyer, we’ve also set up a swag shop at Skreened, which, aside from making tee-shirts, tote bags, mugs, and hoodies, sources from ethical companies, uses green manufacturing processes, and supports projects around the world through Kiva microloans. So: a portion of every purchase from the new Ideomancer Swag Shop finances projects around the world. Another portion helps feed Ideomancer’s authors and poets.
There’s more to come: we have, as they say, Plans (TM) for the next year. But on to the issue!
March’s fiction and poetry explores loss and regrets across time, space, and genre, and in some unexpected ways. LaShawn M. Wanak returns for a second appearance in our pages with “Future Perfect,” a decidedly different take on the question of doing it over again; Nicole J. LeBoeuf’s “The Day the Sidewalks Melted” offers a vivid look at personal apocalypses; and Autumn Christian’s “Sunshine, Sunshine” explores the edges of the things we never even admit are missing in lush, Gothic prose.
Our poets this month — Nebula nominee Rachel Swirsky, Chris Flowers, Liz Bourke, and Shef Reynolds — throw in their own riffs on the questions of loss and regret.
Vol. 9 Issue 1
“Future Perfect” – LaShawn M. Wanak
“Sunshine, Sunshine” – Autumn Christian
“The Day the Sidewalks Melted” – Nicole J. LeBoeuf
“Mundane” – Rachel Swirsky
“Voyager 2, Upon Arrival” – Chris Flowers
“Autocannibalism: Not a Love Poem” – Liz Bourke
“Lunar Parable” – Shef Reynolds
Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld – Elizabeth Bear
Parsec Ink’s Triangulation: Dark Glass – Erin Hoffman
I saw you at a party once. You stood by the bookshelf, reading a tattered volume on Proust. You wore an orange and yellow XTC shirt beneath brown flannel. I bumped your elbow by accident and you looked up, your eyes startling green.
I smiled and said, “Hi. I’m Nina.”
I trailed behind you for the rest of the party. You introduced me to your friends and I laughed at their jokes. Twice, our sleeves brushed against each other.
Around two in the morning, you left with your friends. An hour later, I also left. I crossed the empty campus, humming under my breath, wondering if I’d ever see you again.
The watch on my arm beeped.
“This experiment will measure how small changes occurring before a certain event affect its outcome positively and negatively.”
The chair is her creation. She bought the frame on impulse at a medical supply shop. The conical helmet, perforated with slender tubes, fits on top. Whenever she maneuvers her head beneath it, she thinks of the hair dryers at her mother’s beauty salon. All those bulky astronaut bonnets lined in perfect rows, vibrating air molecules to a feverish pitch. She likes this scientific homage to her mother extracting time from thin air.
“Recording of the control event complete. Setting a change in a condition set slightly in the past. The goal of this first jump is to see if this will change the outcome of the event to a more positive circumstance.”
She types on the laptop built into the armrest, then glances at the elaborate flowchart tacked upon the far wall of the laboratory. Written in her own hand, neat and precise, equations and sums branch and connect like a roadmap of a probability highway.
She wonders which formula will have his lips pressing against hers.
“Test #1. Begin.”
I saw you at a party once. You stood next to Muriel, hair rumpled, clothes wrinkled. I had my hair permed that morning so it hung straight over my eyes. I wore tight-fitting jeans and a blue top with spaghetti straps.
I didn’t speak to you, just hung out with a couple of my girlfriends. When “Atomic Dog” came on the stereo, I shimmied to the bookcase, shaking my hips and wiggling my butt. Only then I noticed you, you and your startling green eyes. You smiled and said, “Hi, there.” Muriel looked over and pulled you from the room.
Later, while getting punch, I looked out the window and saw you and Muriel standing on the sidewalk below. She cupped your face, pulling it down to meet hers. I thought, Shame. He had nice eyes.
Then someone stepped on my foot and I swore, loudly. As the guy next to me apologized, the watch on my arm beeped.
You went on to have three children with Muriel. It took several years until I said yes to Brenton.
She rises from the chair, pulling the sensors from her body. She takes a sip of lukewarm coffee and frowns at the chart on the wall.
The outcome remained the same, but that was to be expected. With so many variables, it will take time to narrow down the finite set of outcomes, both positive and negative. She isn’t worried; after all, only two possible outcomes can come from this event.
She picks up a black magic marker and crosses off a number with an ‘X’.
We came to the party together, your arm slung around my shoulders. You and I had met several weeks before. Within a week, we were dating. Within six weeks, we were an ‘item’.
Muriel was there as well, dancing alone by the bookshelves. Though my hand was buried in your back pocket, you couldn’t tear your eyes from her. I distracted you by pulling you over to introduce my friends. You nodded, laughed at someone’s joke and glanced towards the corner.
Brenton asked if the punchbowl needed to be filled. I went to check it out, but when I came back, you were gone. I looked around the room, but you had vanished along with Muriel. With a sinking feeling, I walked over to the window.
The two of you stood together on the sidewalk, she cupping your face to bring it down to hers. You didn’t hear me banging on the window or crying out your name. As I leaned my head against the glass, my watch beeped.
You broke up with me without saying goodbye. Three weeks after that, you left Muriel for someone else.
“Professor, look at this.”
She sets the petri dish under the microscope and observes the professor as he peers through the eyepiece. She already knows what he’s seeing: crystalline branches, splitting off in different directions, growing like a snowflake created in God’s palm.
“What is it, Nina?”
“It is a memory that I never had. A choice I’ve never taken.”
He looks up at her. “You’re using this to predict the future?”
“Not ‘the’ future. ‘A’ future.” She lays her hand on the helmet. “The chair allows me to see non-linear time. I can study the branches leading up to a single event and set variables accordingly. In a few brief moments, I can experience several different lifetimes based on that single change.”
The professor frowns at her, then at the chart on the wall, speckled here and there with tiny ‘X’ pinpricks. “So you can watch the outcomes of a choice without suffering the consequences.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it that.” She runs her hand fondly along plastic and chrome. “It simply turns wishful thinking into reality.”
I’ve known you all my life.
We grew up in the same neighborhood. Our mothers put us in the same playgroup. We went to the same public school. You had a hard time with math, so I tutored you. At first, you didn’t like it; you thought it was stupid for a girl to tutor you. I said for each answer right, you got a kiss. After that, you showed up every week.
We hung out a lot in high school. By then, I was tutoring other guys. You played our kissing game with other girls, but you still considered me your best friend.
In college, I fell in love with a guy named Brenton. Our mutual friend, Muriel, wouldn’t give you the time of day.
One night, you called me from a party, your words emotional, slurred. Muriel had left with some other guy. I was in a middle of an argument with Brenton. I walked out on him and went to join you at the party. We laughed and danced with each other by the bookshelves.
Later, we stumbled out into the cool night air and collapsed against a wall. Your fingers fumbled on my blouse; your breath hot upon my neck, smelling of punch and beer. I dug my fingers in your silken hair, gasping, glancing up at the silent moon. As I fumbled with your zipper, the watch on my arm beeped.
Afterwards, you walked me home, both of us suddenly sober and quiet. Brenton and I made up, but I never told him what we’d done. You and I drifted apart, too embarrassed to remain in contact. Years later, I got a letter from you. I ripped it up without opening it.
The professor turns from the chart. “But what about ego preservation?”
“What do you mean?”
“If the essence of who you are is based on your own experiences and memories, wouldn’t viewing these alternate choices also alter you?”
She laughs. “That won’t happen.”
“How do you know?”
She raises her arm, the one with the watch, “This keeps me grounded. It pulls me back before anything permanent–”
A soft crack makes them both turn. The petri dish has burst, spreading a lattice-work of thin frostlike threads down the microscope base and across the table. Grabbing a spray bottle, she quickly spritzes a solution over the engulfing crystal. The fragile structure dissipates into an alcohol-laced mist.
The professor flaps his hand in front of his face. “And what, Nina, do you call that?”
She turns her head, hiding her grimace. “It only shows that I need a stronger dish.”
We went to separate grammar schools, but attended the same high school. At college, we shared one class: Economics. I sat in the front, you in the back. You dropped out after three weeks.
We saw each other at a party; you showed up with a red-head, I was on the way out with Brenton. Our arms brushed as we passed each other. You turned to say hello, but Brenton pulled me away before I could say anything back.
I graduated with honors with a Ph.D. in Mathematics. I didn’t know what happened to you.
One day, I went with a group of physicists to a lecture. We were discussing the butterfly effect when I looked out the car window and saw you–in a wheelchair, clothes filthy, beard and hair matted. On top of your amputated legs, you held a cardboard sign: “HELP THE HOMELESS”. You stared at me with those startling green eyes.
“Stop,” I said, “Stop the car.” My watch beeped as I reached for the door. The car moved on and soon you were lost.
Five years later, I accepted the Nobel Prize for my contributions to Quantum Physics. I used my knowledge to search for you in timelines, but I never, ever found you again.
Using the party as a control event isn’t working.
She stares at her chart, tapping the magic marker against her lips. She thought that by now she would have seen two realities–one negative, one positive–branch from the single event. A couple of times, it comes close, very close, but each time reverts to a negative outcome.
That last one was interesting. She takes out a highlighter, traces the formula in fluorescent yellow. She’ll have to come back to that possibility.
But then, she thinks of his eyes, piercing through her other personas, pinning her true self upon the chair.
“Perhaps I’m going about this the wrong way.”
She rips off another large sheet of paper and tacks it up on the remaining empty space in her lab. She scribbles her formulas, several loosely-scrawled numbers escaping onto the bumpy surface of the wall. Satisfied, she doffs her lab coat and applies the sensors to her naked body: head, neck, shoulders, underarms, between her breasts, right hip, around her left toe. She types in the modified conditions, then makes adjustments to her watch.
“All right, then. Test #353. Begin.”
We never met in college. We met at Mr. Gee’s Grocery Store. You were in Aisle 6, looking for Pampers. I told you that the store brand was much cheaper. We laughed for a little bit, then you asked me out for coffee. You were a father working part-time from home. I was a stay-at-home mother.
Neither of our spouses knew about us.
One warm spring day, while our children played outside, you and I twisted on bedsheets: your mouth moist and hot upon my neck, shoulders, underarms, between my breasts, right hip. You sucked on my left toe as David pulled into the driveway. We didn’t hear him open the front door, nor did we hear him mount the staircase. As my watch beeped on my nightstand, he pulled the gun from his holster.
In court, he swore that the safety was on. I divorced him and endured a nasty custody battle. You remained in a coma for six months. I couldn’t visit you due to the restraining order from your wife.
“Are you all right?”
His name is Gary. He’s good looking, in that young, fresh-from-the-dormitory sort of way. He’s supposed to be her intern, but nowadays she doesn’t want anyone in the lab with her. She looks up from her hands and says, “What makes you ask that?”
“It’s just that you don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine.” She goes back to staring at her hands spread upon the cafeteria table. He sighs and takes the seat across from her, spreading out several sheets of paper.
“I’m having a hard time with these calculations you’ve given me. I don’t know why, but each time I check the results, the equations seem different. It’s like they’re mutating.”
“That’s impossible. They should stay the same.” She lightly traces the raised blood vessels running beneath the brown skin of her right hand, imagines them bursting out from her fingertips, lines of red and blue capillaries branching out in all directions…
“I know. I’ve checked and rechecked. It’s weird.” He looks at her carefully. “Are you sure you don’t wanna go out and get some coffee or something? Go get some fresh air?”
She’s faintly amused that he’s trying to ask her out. But those wide, earnest eyes are baby blues, cheerful as a sunny sky. Innocent. Unappealing.
I never went to college. Ran away from home at twelve. Got pregnant at fourteen. Had an abortion. Pregnant again at seventeen. Got another abortion.
You saw me on the corner at 16th and Park, hiking my miniskirt up. I peered at you through the car window, “Hey, wanna have some fun tonight?”
You stepped out of the car, flashing a cop’s badge. Our arms brushed briefly as you handcuffed me.
You pulled into the headquarters’ parking lot. I tried to act nonchalant, holding your gaze in the rearview mirror. Minutes later, my watch beeped, but I couldn’t silence it. My hands were still locked behind my back as my head bobbed between your legs.
I was back on the streets by Sunday. Dead from crack overdose on Monday. Weeks later, you started a different beat, having already forgotten me.
The entire lab is wallpapered with formulas: on paper, on the walls, the linoleum floor, the ceiling. There are calculations drawn on top of calculations, Magic Eye illusions only she can decode. The one formula she highlighted, the timeline with the Nobel Prize, has already been written over six times, hints of yellow showing through black scribble.
She has given up on using paper. It’s too limiting, too confining for her work.
For every ten formulas, there’s a thick, black ‘X’ through them, solid, forbidding, accusing. She uses white chalk to write over the ‘X’s, expanding her writing space one a layer at a time.
She stands in front of the latest calculation, the magic marker twitching in her hand. Just one positive result. That’s all she is looking for. She watches the calculations spread, mutating right before her eyes. Every choice, another branch. She turns her head, another world forms. All she can do is change the variables, trying to get to the outcome she wants, continue the process of elimination.
She viciously slashes the wall with the marker.
I saw you at a concert. Either Pearl Jam or Oasis–I don’t know. All I remember is moving close to you, brushing my arm lightly against yours. You smiled down at me, draped your arm across my shoulders.
“What’s your name?” you shouted above the music.
“Nina,” I shouted back.
You held me close for several more numbers, then began kissing me on my neck, my lips, my shoulders. You steered me out of the crowd and towards the parking lot, towards your van. My heart thumped in excitement, until two other men pulled open the door. As you pushed me inside, my watch beeped frantically.
The police found my corpse in a cornfield. By then, you were long gone.
“I have reviewed your research and feel that extensive revision is required.”
“May I ask why?”
“You are straying from your original thesis. Before, you were just observing different possibilities, but looking at your latest research, it seems that you are trying to force a specific result–”
“All I need is a little more time, please–”
“Nina, you told me that these jumps aren’t affecting you, but they are. You’re losing your scientific objectivity; you’re growing obsessed–Nina, are you even listening?”
You and I dated briefly in college. We hooked up again a year later. You proposed to me on a Sunday morning. I accepted, and we eloped that night.
The first two years were absolute bliss.
Then, when I became pregnant with twins, you wanted me to stay at home. I tried to study for my Master’s online, but I couldn’t handle the pressure and had to drop the courses.
My life became filled with diapers and drool.
I began to resent you, the freedom to move about, holding adult conversations on business trips that took you across the globe. I drank in the afternoons so I could cope with the nonchanging days. I also begin to watch you closely. You seemed too happy, too cheerful in your job.
One night, going through your Caller ID, I ran across several numbers from a woman named Muriel. You told me I was seeing things–maybe I needed to see a doctor. I threw your phone out the window.
You rushed out of the house. I flung through the window everything I could lay my hands on. Shoes. Plants. Books. My beeping watch. You yelled at me to stop, bent over to pick up the watch. The square glass candleholder–the one with the buttercream vanilla candle inside–smashed on top of your head.
I got convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Days later, I committed suicide in my cell.
In this world, she only saw him once, at a party, years ago. She always thought she would never see him again.
Passing a restaurant, she glances inside and there he is, sitting at a booth. It catches her off guard; his hair is thinner, he’s put on a little weight. But without a doubt, it’s him.
He sits across from another woman; their fingers intertwined on the table. They wear matching gold bands upon their fingers. The woman’s hair is short, just like how she used to wear her hair. She appears to have the same build, the wide hips, the full lips. Even the woman’s coffee skin is the same shade as hers.
Outside, she lifts a finger, gently taps on the glass. She uses two fingers. Three fingers. Slaps at the window with the palm of her hand. Everyone in the restaurant looks up, including the man and the woman. She can’t stop herself, her curled fist making the window shiver with her blows.
“What’s wrong with me?!” She screams, tears running down her cheeks. “Why not me? Why can’t we be happy together? Why? Why?!”
The restaurant staff rushes out to pull her away. She howls, struggling to keep sight of him, watching him frown, those startling green eyes turning towards his wife, his mouth shaping the words, “Do I know her?”
I suffocate you while you lie in a drunken sleep.
You die in a car accident a week before our wedding.
I cheat on you with your brother’s wife.
You steal my identity after a one-night stand.
Everywhere I look, our relationship ends in disaster.
My entire laboratory is coated in black.
“As of today, your dissertation is terminated. You are no longer permitted on these premises. You will need to meet with your advisor…”
She sets down the notice, rattles the knob to her lab one more time. Already they have changed the locks. Turning, she slides down, pulls her legs up, rocks herself gently, head tapping lightly against the door.
They think they can stop the experiment by locking up her equipment. Bastards. Taking away the chair and laboratory won’t hinder her at all. They don’t know that all her calculations, all her formulas, had been fixed into her mind. She can just close her eyes and they spring up before her, stretching out in all directions.
Let them keep the chair. She doesn’t need it anymore.
The sudden freedom of it bubbles in her chest, rises up in her throat, escapes in a laugh. She pushes herself to her feet, already planning the next jump…
Then she hears a tiny beep. She looks at her watch.
It’s a graduation gift from her mother, a Precision Quartz timepiece, accurate down to the nearest millisecond. She stares at it, then unhooks it, letting it drop to the floor. She brings her foot down on it, hard, feeling the crystal faceplate crack, then shatter beneath her shoe.
In some alternate universe, you and I are happy.
Somewhere, you and I are married, having children, raising a family. Somewhere, we are laughing together, holding hands, growing older, deep in love.
I just have to keep looking until I find it.
LaShawn M. Wanak lives with her husband, son and a bunch of gophers in Madison, WI. She has had a previous story published in Ideomancer called “CrownTree”. She also had her first professional sale with “She’s All Light”, published at Daybreak Magazine. You can find links to her works at her blog: The Café in the Woods. She says:
Long ago, I fell in love with a boy. I consoled myself with his disinterest by saying that somewhere in an alternate universe somewhere, we were happily married. What was disinterest was in reality shyness. We’ve been married now for eleven years.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said, “in these corridors you’re an angel.”
Mom and Dad were stiff as crinoline. My sisters were paper eggshells, Russian dolls that never took off their layers. We existed in separate worlds that only touched occasionally, such as when Mimi told me I looked like a butterfly standing out there on the edge of the garden, hesitant and shy and unwilling to spread beautiful, beautiful wings, or when Dad took me out hunting once and he let me look at the diluted universe through the crosshairs of his rifle. He shot a fox inside that universe with a little, invisible iron ball that tore its neck apart. I broke out in a run toward the fox as Dad called toward me to stop. I fell to my knees and tried to keep it breathing and stop that gaping wound from bleeding as the fox snapped and growled. It choked on arterial blood and died between my sticky red fingers. Dad carried me home in my ruined gray pinafore. The fox bit my hand, a curve of a bite like half a coffee ring – Dad had to put its mangled body in plastic and take it to the vet to test for rabies.
He never took me hunting again.
My three sisters agreed I was the wild one, like Mimi was the bookish muse, the poet, Jordan the one who carried feminine anger visible even clothed in pink patterned church dresses, or Angela, the twelve-year old sieve, running memories out between her fingers, those thoughts that belonged to her darker than we ever really comprehended. And if I was not a butterfly, I was a monkey clinging to the dark-rooted Louisiana god trees in the swamp, chasing away the fear of alligator eyes, messengers in green, but always on the lookout for the sunshine man.
Angela told the story to me. The sunshine man lived in a dilapidated, two-story house hidden in the swamp. You would know the house by its blackness like faux-Halloween face paint, windows blacked out furiously like children’s scribbles, wooden slats rotting, roof sagging, the whole thing either about to collapse or burst. The sunshine man resembled his house in the way that old people resemble their pets, dressed in a black coat, boots, a velvety fedora hat, the kind of man who if he opened his coat you expected to find either blades or bats.
“Why is he called the sunshine man?” I asked.
“It’s like why they call it Greenland when it’s covered in ice,” Angela said, “It doesn’t have to make sense.”
She told me the sunshine man walked the swamps at night; searching for women so he could bury his hands into their hair, make love to them not with skin but with needles and blood finger-painting, transform them with wounds and later dissect them upon his tables. He collected these women like butterflies beautifully pressed between pins, and his sunshine house hid a labyrinthine cellar maze underneath full of freezers and tubes and monsters that lived in family portraits. He killed delicately, spread out bones and skin like wings, preserving them in ice and serum, stored inside locker rooms that he visited sometimes like favorite poems, counting off delicate, torn paper haloes. Freckles and indigo eyes were his favorite lines, and he gently touched the places he drained of blood, sensual but not exactly sexual, like the smell that lingers after rain.
“You’re just trying to scare me,” I said, but after that I always watched out for the sunshine man. He visited my dreams, faceless as a shadow, always wearing his fedora hat and an old-fashioned coat with heavy, brass buttons. He let me touch them. Afterwards he kissed me and broke my spine.
And the four of us grew older in our separate universes and barely let our feet touch the ground. Mimi still called me butterfly even when I became awkward and chunky in adolescence, when I stopped climbing trees and started to hang out with my boyfriend after school so we could smoke cigarettes behind abandoned gas pumps and spray paint our names in visceral red underneath bridges. I learned most people might as well be faceless shadows, that forgetting is sometimes more healthy than learning, that sex felt nothing like rain. When I turned eighteen I broke up with my boyfriend, said goodbye to my parents, my sisters, and took off to Texas in a broken down jalopy that barely made it across the border. I got a job as a waitress in a diner that would have been best suited to an appearance on daytime television than in real life. I met an older man so shy he had to write Will you go out with me? on a napkin after he finished his coffee and sausage. He wasn’t beautiful, but he was charming in a subdued way, and four years after our first date we married in a rundown local chapel. He wore his father’s suit eaten away by moths, and I saved for months to buy a yellowing, vintage wedding dress – after I tucked it away in its box in a dresser drawer I had nightmares of it decaying, decaying, decaying, the lace turning black, roach-like insects crawling over the collar.
And though I never admitted it, I still dreamed of him, the sunshine man, holding up the moon and stars between candy spoons, smiling without quite smiling, whispering seductive things.
We divorced after seven years. He packed a suitcase of clothes and left in the middle of the night, leaving me alone to ruminate through the ashes without a phoenix to rise up and claim me, or perhaps, devour me. I picked up smoking again. I remembered that old boyfriend once telling me, “You must have been an injun in a past life. What you trying to do, see gods in the smoke?” I went through so many packs of Marlboro I thought I would drown. Mimi’s butterfly girl grew thin and sick and eventually forgot she had wings. I stopped making house payments. My house went up for foreclosure.
I lay in an empty living room floor, contemplating just how many pockmarked dots there were on the ceiling, when I got a call from Jordan.
Angela was dead.
In an hour I packed a few clothes, got in my car, and went back to the Louisiana swamp I had not visited in nearly fifteen years.
A funeral is much like a wedding in its frosted extravagance. Even in the presence of death we were so many parasites feeding off the silver cakes and white lilies and each other. Jordan and Mimi wore blue dresses, an awkward juxtaposition to my large and ill-fitting black suit. They were thinner and smaller than I remembered, their kisses like sandpaper, their ghostly touches reaching right through me. We said little. None of us cried. Crying would pull us out of our separate universes, our barriers, and allow us to crash and burn on another’s shore like dying stars or sirens drying to the bone.
“What happened?” I asked Mom. She hadn’t changed. Forever a luminous faery, a numinous scar.
“Cancer,” she said. And I thought, it’s always cancer, that black and white animal disease.
“It couldn’t be helped, Butterfly,” Mimi said.
I watched the funeral procession like a voyeur. Angela was dressed in white, her face thin and waxy, her lips red like too-ripe cherries. I was afraid to afraid to touch her as I passed by her body. I couldn’t speak because all the words I wanted to say were hollowed out of me after years and years and years by separation, deadbeat boyfriends, divorce, disappointment. We were all hollow here, walking dead. We sharpened our teeth on the backs of our knuckles, fought each other like insects, and consumed skin that would never satisfy us. I knew if I opened Angela’s mouth and pulled out her secret universe it would dissolve like a sugar ribbon in my hand. All of this amounted to nothing if we were all alone.
Halfway through the funeral I excused myself to go to the restroom and never came back.
I went to the swamp.
The Louisiana god trees never looked taller as they hung in the early morning mists with dormant birds in their branches. I remembered the paths I used to walk like the ache people sometimes get in broken bones that have long since healed. That’s what this swamp was – a deep ache, and as I walked little pieces of me, memories, skin tissue, faery dust, peeled away until nothing remained. I found my skin hanging on a tree branch waiting for me, a little child’s skin marked the wild one, dressed up in a bloody pinafore. I took it down carefully and put it on, then kept on walking until the vines were so thick in the center of the forest they roped off the light from the sun. A cool calmness descended. I lay down in the moss underneath the tree behemoths, protected from sunshine, and waited for him.
His footsteps were softer than I imagined.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
He spoke. “I’ve been here.”
“I didn’t think you were real.”
“No,” he said, “You did.”
He knelt over me, his breath cool, his face a shadow underneath his black fedora hat. When he opened his mouth into a rictus it expanded wide, a black gap full of frozen teeth. I slipped under darkness like ether. He bent low and breathed into my ear.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” I said.
“Is it like when they call it Greenland when it’s covered in ice?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
I couldn’t see his eyes. “Why they call you the sunshine man. Is it like that?”
“No,” he said, “It’s really nothing like that at all.”
He bit into my neck with his razorfish teeth and I clung to him, desperate, puerile, just like the bloody girl that once clung to a dying fox because for just a moment she saw death’s gray trajectory and the gray loneliness like death that lived inside her. I spilled out on the sunshine man’s shoes and drank him close. The gods I never found were in his hair, clinging to the inside of his hat, gods like smoke, gods of somewhere else than this gray world.
After I was dead he took me in his arms and away from the swamp, down stairwells that reached the gutted out bottom of the world, past lockers of frozen women pinned up like butterflies. Their bones glittered in blue and red and monarch melanin scales and their eyes filled with dry crystal sugar. He laid me on an operating table in the dark. The only light came from the one he unraveled from my organs, a dully glowing bezoar, and I watched as he slit his skin apart with a fingernail and tucked it inside his ribcage cavity.
He found my wings I thought lost. He reached underneath me and spread them out from my shoulder blades, tattered and cold on the operating table, pressed my skin against needles until it stopped hurting. He turned me into a monster with his breath, his coat enveloping my face, his touch sterile, dry, clean, nothing like smoke in velvet blackness, the blood drying between my fingers, a crumbling tongue.
“Let me be close to someone,” I said, reaching for my bezoar as it glowed inside of him, “anyone. Let me be close to you,” and then once more, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
He pressed his finger against my lips and whispered gently, “shh… I know, Butterfly,” he said, “I know.”
The sunshine man took my hand and I sat up and he helped me off the operating table. He pulled me into his embrace and I pressed my hand against his chest, and he was warm. I felt the pulse of that bezoar shudder against his skin.
“Dance with me, Butterfly,” he said. He kissed my forehead.
I danced with him underneath the earth, underneath the cooling wires, warm and empty, and he gently pressed his fingers into my hair.
Autumn Christian lives in the dark woods of the southern United States with poisonous blue flowers in her backyard and a set of polished cow skulls on her mantel. She is an egalitarian, a humanist, and a garage philosopher. She can be found at autumnchristian.blogspot.com. She says:
Sunshine, Sunshine was my response to what I perceived to be an impersonal, isolated universe. I thought if I could not find the love and understanding I wanted through the acceptable means , which had failed for me so far, that I would search for love and understanding in the labyrinthine pathways of my head and the darkest recesses of humanity.
Pressed blind by black fathoms of space|
our ship, like a deep sea fish, creeps
sluggish from the last known port.
Like crippled feet, our rockets shudder—
we yearn to rush like fluid light from star to star,
but physical law forbids us.
Through portholes, we watch silence
There is no life but us
but it is impossible.
Our exploration limps, inert
In addition to Ideomancer, Rachel Swirsky’s poetry has appeared in markets including Lone Star Stories, Goblin Fruit, and Mothering Magazine.
| “We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”
—U.S. President Jimmy Carter (part of a message included with both Voyager spacecrafts)
In forty thousand years, you will encounter
a star in the Andromeda constellation.
Gray planet—you slice meager atmosphere,
wound sewn with fiery stitches in your wake.
Currency is invented; research is funded.
They meditate on your words,
Debates are held.
After untold generations,
bobbing in pale blue starlight.
Survive clicking on forked tongues.
Chris Flowers teaches composition at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. His poetry has recently appeared in Convergence and Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression. He says:
After learning about the Golden Records that were developed by Carl Sagan and his colleagues for the Voyager spacecraft in the late 1970s, I became fascinated with the idea that a “message in a bottle” from humanity, had, in fact, entered interstellar space. I also found it virtually impossible not to consider the consequences of such an endeavor.