And we’re back, with our first issue of 2013, a double handful of emotional stories and poems for the dark beginnings of spring. Our March issues always fall, without plans for it, into a travelling theme; here are some tales for the road.
Gabriel Murray’s “Swan-Brother” takes us into an alternate historical world for a story that’s infinitely close to home; Leah Thomas’s “Rubbernecking” gauges the distance between us and the house next door, and how near or far it can really be; and Sunny Moraine’s “The Horse Latitudes” combs two blood-soaked pasts and turns its bearings toward a new way.
Poetry from Megan Arkenberg, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Alexandra Seidel, and Michele Bannister travels through crossroads and orbits alike, into the space between where we are and what we desire – and as always, our book reviewers bring you their thoughts on the latest releases.
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue, and if so, please consider dropping something into our tip jar. Ideomancer relies on reader donations to pay its contributors for their excellent fiction and poetry, and even five dollars makes a big difference.
Enjoy the issue, Happy New Year, and we’ll see you in the springtime!
Vol. 12 Issue 1
“Swan-Brother” – Gabriel Murray
“Rubbernecking” – Leah Thomas
“The Horse Latitudes” – Sunny Moraine
“Songs at a Crossroads” – Megan Arkenberg
“The High Tree on the Hill” – David C. Kopaska-Merkel
“Uncertainty Principle” – Alexandra Seidel
“Orpheus in Orbit” – Michele Bannister
M.C. Planck’s The Kassa Gambit – Liz Bourke
Felix Gilman’s The Rise of Ransom City – Liz Bourke
Melanie Rawn’s Touchstone – Liz Bourke
We need not wait for God
The animals do judge
– Madeleine L’Engle
Once upon a time there were two worlds. There was the world of a quiet bedroom, love and sleep. And there was the world of the smoke and the flies on dead eyes, a foreman fucking a prostitute in a dirty bunkhouse.
Once upon a time there were two worlds. There was the world of open sea, fair winds, waves and joyful movement. And there was the world of stillness, thirst, the endless screams of drowning horses.
The two worlds were married. The marriage was not a happy one.
On deck men slump under the sun.
The sun pushes down and crushes, beams unbroken by a breeze. The sails hang limp like the men on the filthy deck, hanging heads and hands listlessly tossing dice, chewing their cracked lips and betting on nothing. No purpose in it. Ships get purpose from movement. Ships get life from purpose.
Now both are gone.
In the beginning there might have been hope, there might have been optimistic prayers offered to the still sky and only a slight tightening of rations. Then voices falling silent, prayers muttered as though they’re shameful things. Everything begins to pull toward the center; the extraneous is sacrificed when it can no longer be supported.
The deck shakes, the men look up, and the horses begin to scream.
Across miles and centuries a woman is screaming in the street.
Her screams are alien things in a humid afternoon. They cause Sebastian to awaken, to swipe at his face with sticky fingers. In Buenaventura’s summer afternoons the air is like an old towel soaked in sweat, smelling of mildew and garbage. Sometimes there’s blood on the concrete, steaming. Has Sebastian been dreaming of blood? Behind his closed eyes everything is red. He presses his naked body against Jaime’s; sweat is glue and they stick. He sinks back into the folds of the afternoon. The unbalanced ceiling fan thumps the rhythm of the slow, lazy fucking that they’re too tired and too hot to do.
Nights are for working. Days are for this. He’s dreaming again, plastered along Jaime’s broad back.
Horses aren’t foolish creatures. They can see their deaths coming. One of them – black and glossy in spite of the weeks of low rations – rears up, and her hoof barely misses the forehead of the man reaching for her bridle. Another man falls to his knees, lifts a copper medal in trembling fingers – beseeching the Saint, God, the Blessed Virgin and the horse all at once.
None of them listen. The mare hurls back her head and screams, her white eyes rolling. The still sea bears them up like a dead hand. The men would say this is the worst part, but for the fact that none of them have ever been here before, and none of them have ever spoken to anyone who was. Some ships return from the state of Becalmed but to speak of such things is to invite them in.
Many of the men have already turned away. Water must be saved and for this other things must be sacrificed. But it’s easier to do such things when one does not have to watch them done.
In the receding tide of his sleep, Sebastian dreams the sun beating down on the coca plants, the smell of the burning forest mixing with the smell of damp soil, stinging his eyes and nose and making both run.
They did not always burn the trees – Sebastian is fairly sure of this. But his dreams are myopic, tightly focused on this one detail. He would like to dream of other things – of the foreman’s boy who had been his first fumbling, salty kiss, of bathing in well-water that tasted of hard minerals and cold. He wakes up into the evening, Jaime stirring beside him. The coca fields were long-ago-and-far-away, south in the mountains, and now he lives by the sea. The burning wood, the smoke – these things are like bright threads that run across time’s thick and fibrous cord, but Buenaventura is not the plantation.
He has to go to work. There are kilos to move. He turns, pushes Jaime gently aside, and rises, Jaime’s sleep-heavy fingers trailing over his lower back as he gets to his feet. As he looks for a semi-clean shirt in the rumpled piles of their clothing, he thinks about the smoke, the coca, and he wonders about many things.
On the street, Jaime moves like a dancer. He turns elegantly in Sebastian’s path and presses a tamale into Sebastian’s hand – fiercely spiced, but Sebastian barely tastes it. His mind is on his work, picking at it like a troublesome knot. People surge around him in waves of colored cloth, faces precariously lit in the flicker of neon. They pass tin-roofed shops, goods displayed through sheets of plastic: tiny LED-flickering cell phones, racks of bootleg blu-ray with compressed jpeg covers, knock-off clothes with distressed hems, mounds of food. The street mercado – now all the streets are mercados, and this market touches all markets.
Even his market. And this is a problem. Because the rich norteamericanos are still buying perica – la cocaina, but there are fewer of the rich norteamericanos these days. Meth is domestically produced and cheap, and there’s something from Russia called cocodrilo. It rots the flesh off your bones, but it’s cheaper than perica or even the jagged white nuggets of basuco, so they say that it makes you feel disgusting but you shoot your veins full of it anyway. Addicts. Such is the way of things. But tonight one deal has already fallen through, and things are hard for a middle man caught in the middle. No one is willing to organize a push north and across the border for all that cash in slippery norteamericano fingers.
Women stand in doorways, hips swaying. They are beautiful in the way that shadows and neon make everyone beautiful. Sebastian pulls Jaime against him with fingers greasy from the tamale, frames his face with his hands and kisses him until Jaime laughs against his mouth. The women laugh too, cat-call. No one else notices them.
In his dream, Sebastian is small and running up to the bunkhouse with a toad in his hand, its eyes huge and gold and lovely. He runs with it held out in his hands like he means to make a gift of it, but when he bursts through the door of the women’s dormitory, his mother is bent over her bed with her skirt hiked up and the foreman jerking his hips against her. The foreman is breathing in panting snorts like one of the old horses ridden hard. Sebastian can’t see his mother’s face.
He must have seen it before. But this is the first memory of it. The first fire, the first spill of blood in the dirt, the first crash of the charred fragments of a tree down through still-living branches while the horses rear and scream.
Sebastian drops the toad onto the floor.
When he has the foreman’s boy up against the cinderblock, tongue slipping into his smoky mouth and hands making their crawling spider-way up under his shirt, it’s years later, and he won’t think that one thing has anything at all to do with the other. But in his dream they come one after the other, and there are things that are hard to miss, even when one tries.
There was no school on the plantation, but Sebastian paid close attention to everything. He learned about use. He learned about using.
“I’m sorry, my friend. It cannot be done.”
Sebastian wants to throw the glass in his hand, watch the tequila run down the wall. He feels Jaime’s arm on his elbow, restraining.
“Paolo, I have three sellers breathing down my neck, looking to move product. There’s no one who can take this stuff north?”
Paolo is an Italian ex-pat, mountainous and solid, and in the cantina’s dimness he looks even more so. His dark brows lower – he may be attempting apology but the effect is unsettling, as if he might drop his head and charge. “I can’t move what I can’t sell, and I can’t sell what no one will buy. It’s difficult everywhere. You know this.”
“In difficult times we should help one another.” Jaime’s fingers roll his cigarette between them. “Favors for favors. We’ve always done it that way.”
“Times change. The world is smaller now.” Paolo shrugs, lifts a hand to summon the man behind the bar. “I can buy you a drink. More… not today. Try me again next week.”
“Next week,” Jaime murmurs when Paolo is gone. “Do we have until next week? We have to eat.”
Sebastian is quiet, staring at the shifting lights. He is not worried about whether or not they will eat next week. Breathing seems like a more pressing issue.
No one ever explained it to Sebastian, but at ten years of age he could draw his own conclusions. A deal gone bad. The guerillas offended somehow. Or another drug lord, perhaps a rival, sending a message.
He heard the voices first, low and tense. Then he heard the buzz of flies, and then he smelled it. He was small; he could wriggle between the legs of the adults circled in the burned clearing and see.
A row of horses’ heads on stakes, their decapitated bodies in a heap behind. The horses’ eyes were open and staring at him, reproachful. Flies were landing on their glazed surfaces, crawling, taking off again in little clouds. Like smoke, he thought at the time. Like living smoke that ate where it descended.
His first big dead things. He had never seen a dead man.
The first horse is at the edge of the deck now, faltering. She hasn’t had a full ration of water in days. She hangs her head, panting as the sun presses a heavy hand down on her back. The air cracks. The men huddled against the rail think of lightning. Crossing themselves and crucifix-kissing, they watch as the first mate, a giant of a man with arms like tree branches, cracks the whip against the horse’s flank.
The horse rears. A horrible shriek rises from her great throat. And she leaps out over the water in a graceful arc. Silence descends as she goes, her final scream echoing in the air, falling as she falls.
Here is another thing that Sebastian learned on the plantation: decisions are not made all at once. It’s a process. So that last night, his legs dangling off the back of the truck as it bumped down the unpaved road, the lights of the gate receding in the distance, he did not wonder at his own choice. It had taken him a long time to make it. And it had been made for a long time.
Years later, a mule told him that everyone was murdered and it burned to the ground and the forest swallowed up the ashes and bones. He never bothered to verify the story. Perhaps it was better to leave all possibilities open. Perhaps Sebastian has never been very good at looking back.
“Word is that you’re leaving town.”
Sebastian whirls. He knows the man, though he’s momentarily lost for the name – Argentinean, a small-time dealer who keeps his ear close to the ground. All details more important than a name in a tight place. But this place is not tight. They’re standing in a wide square, the street mercado already beginning to unfurl itself like flowers at dusk. If there is safety, it might be here.
“Perhaps. Why do you care?”
He doesn’t need to ask. The street trades in information, an invisible market as real and as powerful as any global high finance.
“Another word… some people are less than thrilled with this. People to whom you owe money.”
Sebastian feels his stomach sink down into the cracked pavement. There are always debts. But some of them are old, and where will he get money to pay them if narcotrafico is no longer profitable?
His lips twist. “Thank you for your concern.”
The man slides closer. Sebastian moves instinctively backward. “Go quickly, if you want to go. Someone will come for you soon, you and that pretty boy of yours. If you go sooner… And I can forget I saw you at all.”
Sebastian turns and pushes his way through the crowd. He should have seen this coming. The man’s proposal of amnesia is probably a lie, but there’s nothing to be done about that. If information is one trade, favors are another. One must diversify.
Things happen out on the still water that seem, later, like memories of a dream. There’s a series of cracks, the sound of splintering wood, and a herd of horses breaks loose from their stalls and rushes across the deck. The first mate stands and watches mutely. There is the thunder of those hooves, and in the final moments of their lives – whether those moments come in a few days or decades – everyone there will hear that thunder again.
The air, like the sea, is still and hot, and now it is reeking with the smell of dung and rotting hay and death. Men clutch their talismans, their rosaries and their crucifixes, but they do so with less conviction, as though these last resorts of hope have lost their potency and cannot now be trusted. The horses are drowning.
They are not doing it quietly.
Dios te salve, María. Whispered on a breath of air, halted in place and looping in a refrain. Dios te salve.
They go at dawn.
It will be hot traveling on the bus with its utter lack of air conditioning and then on the train north to the coast. But in the heat Sebastian figures they’re less likely to be followed. Jaime is casting glances like dice as he packs clothes into a duffel bag and hunts through the chaos of their apartment for their last usable credit cards.
Do you trust me?
Forever and always.
The bus terminal is less than a mile away. They are walking hand in hand like children in a fairytale, leaving no scatter of breadcrumbs to mark their passage. If they are lucky, they’ll simply vanish into the woods of the world and be gone.
They are less than twenty yards from the bus terminal when the earth begins to shake.
At first Sebastian wonders if it might be only a hallucination born of his own fear. But Jaime grips his hand more tightly, looks around with eyes gone wide. In the buildings around them, hybrids of adobe and corrugated tin and aluminum, he feels a wave of shifting bodies and indrawn breath, people rising out of sleep in confusion. Buenaventura stirring in a dream.
The ground jerks.
Jaime stumbles; their hands slip apart. Sebastian sees things in a succession of still images, lit in the gold shimmer of the early morning. Jaime in midair as though he’s dancing, only the terror on his lovely face an indication otherwise. A flowerpot frozen at the moment of shattering against the pavement, the withered twig of the pot’s occupant suspended in a cloud of ruin. A shower of broken glass, a hundred thousand tiny mirrors. Then sun.
There is a woman screaming in the street. Her voice is many voices, an uneven and fractured chorus, and Sebastian realizes, still trying to claw his way up from the darkness in his head, that it’s many women. Many screams. His eyelids come painfully unstuck; he turns onto his back, lifts a hand to his face, and his fingers come away smeared with blood.
He drags his knees under him, levers himself off the broken ground. He looks up and sees the pale globe of the sun, high through billowing plumes of smoke.
Sebastian lurches forward. One arm swings loose at his side. Flames are licking the darkness. The running shapes twist into cavorting demons. The smoke stings his eyes; that must be why tears are running down his cheeks.
His hands settle on a figure hunched in the rubble. He knows the angle of these shoulder blades – they heave under his hands and Jaime turns, reaching for him, crying out something that extends itself past words.
Buenaventura is burning.
Buenaventura. Good fortune. A city named in a flush of hysterical hope. The naming of things is a very important matter. Adam named the animals before he slaughtered them.
In times of crisis the most fundamental instinct is to move. Movement is life, is purpose. Stillness and death are co-morbid. Sebastian and Jaime move without knowing why, without knowing where – leaning against each other, they stumble away from the collapsed bus terminal. Driven by instinct, they are heading away from the sea, winding up through the broken streets. Until they notice more shapes moving around them, letting out frightened cries. When they hear it, it comes to them like the terrified murmur of the city itself – not one voice but thousands, carried up on heated winds.
Then they find their purpose and it carries them higher.
On the day the earth shakes, the horses come out of the sea.
They come with the sea. They come of the sea. At first people think that it is the sea, surging up over walls and beaches, cars and shacks, tin and adobe and concrete – buoying up the rubble, carrying it like a gift. Some of the older ones have seen this before.
But no. They have never seen this.
The horses are running when they come, hooves softened by centuries in the salty water. They shake their dripping manes, seaweed clinging. Their flesh is gray, uneven, bloated in some places and gone in others; there is a gleam of exposed bone in the light of the fires. Their eyes are milky and staring and dead.
People are driven before them, clinging together, hands in hands, babies held against chests, professions of love, of hate, the final instincts of lethal fear. In the seconds before the hooves pull them down and crush them they try to understand.
At the crest of a hill Sebastian stops again, Jaime stops with him and they turn.
It’s a mourning process done at high speed and in the midst of utter confusion, because how can any sense be made of this? But there is sense. Sebastian feels it like the hidden shape in a picture puzzle as he watches the water surging into the city.
All at once Jaime is dragged away from him. There is the flash of a blade. Sebastian stares stupidly at it, at the wild-eyed man holding the machete to Jaime’s throat. Jaime is staring back at him, hands limp at his sides – his surprise and the resulting lack of a struggle may be what, for the moment, has saved him.
“Heard you were running.” The man presses the blade into Jaime’s throat and there’s a corresponding trickle of blood. Jaime does not cry out and Sebastian feels a strange flush of pride. “You can’t just run. Not with that kind of plata tangled up with your ankles.”
Sebastian holds out his hands. His gaze flicks from Jaime’s face, abnormally pale in the red light, to the shattered road that continues up the hill. He hears thunder behind him. “Please…”
“Yes, say please. Plead with me. Make it so much sweeter when I cut this little cacorro’s head off.”
His eyes meet Jaime’s again; there is nothing he can say because fear makes men crazy. And in the last minutes of both of their lives, with all their good fortune burning and drowning below them, he is not going to abase himself. He feels every muscle coiled, ready to spring.
He never does. A rearing horse, white-eyed, rotten hooves crashing into the side of the man’s head in a spray of blood and pinkish brain matter. The man doesn’t have time to scream. Jaime, as he drops to the ground, does not scream either.
But the horse does. And then there are more, surging around them, thundering, reeking. Sebastian has fallen to one knee. Jaime is motionless. The horse stands over him, nostrils flaring. Its eyes are white, but not without expression. Lost rage. Hatred. Sebastian has seen it before. At that flash of familiarity all the fear vanishes and he understands: it’s about using. It’s about being used. And cast aside when one is used up.
He reaches up in supplication, his head bowed. He is thinking of the flies on the eyes of the dead horses, how he had wished then that someone had closed their eyes while they were sticking their heads on the stakes, because it had seemed like such a final insult.
“Lo siento,” he whispers. “Perdoname. Por favor. Forgive us all.”
The horse stares at him for a long moment. White-eyed gaze, drowned in hate. More horses around them, more white eyes. Ring upon ring of them, staring, surging. Going still. Sebastian drops his arms.
And then, one by one, the horses go.
It doesn’t feel like forgiveness. It feels like blood for blood.
Buenaventura lies burned and drowned, and the parts of it that have not perished in water continue to do so in fire. There is still screaming but it sounds weary and thin. The last of the dead down in the city, a chorus of silent eyes arrayed in the hills. What now?
There has never been an answer.
Sebastian pulls Jaime into his arms. One shallow breath. Another. Sebastian tilts his head back and looks up. The sun is gone. There is a tear in the clouds. Through it – for only a moment, for the first time in many years – he can see the stars.
Sunny Moraine is a humanoid creature of average height, luminosity and inertial mass. They’re also a doctoral student in Sociology and a writer-like object who has published fiction in a variety of places, including Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld and Shimmer. They spend most of their days using fiction to distract from academics, except for the occasions on which the two collide. Their first novel Line and Orbit is available from Samhain Publishing. They say:
This piece actually began with the title and what it evoked: The screams of the becalmed ship’s horses as they were thrown overboard (which appears to be apocryphal, but isn’t it an amazing image?). From there I started thinking about nature itself, how the relationship between humans and the natural world so often comes down to the use of one by the other, to the point of devastation, and also how humans use each other in the same way. And what might it be like if the ghosts of nature struck back?
Illustration by Walter Crane is Neptuns Pferde (1893) and is in the public domain.
Traveler, your only choice is what to lose;
This path will take your soul, this one your pride.
The choice is yours. I will not help you choose.
That snowy northern path–who could refuse
That southern trail in fiery autumn hues
And east, a dragon’s shadow makes a bruise
if you continue west beneath the yews
North flies the gryphon, east rolls the foam,
East brings glory, south gives treasure,
into the future that dangles before you,
The names of all beasts? The speech of dragons?
Was he handsome? Was he plain?
Who is it sleeps in unhallowed ground?
Whom does the gallows-widow mourn?
Whose company does your shadow keep?
Mountain or meadow, field or cave,
Megan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin, pursuing a degree in Strange Reading Habits and the Accumulation of Library Fines. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna. She says:
This poem sequence began as a companion to two of my pieces in Scherezade’s Bequest, “Song at a Cottage Door” and “Song Before a Quest.” But the crossroads presented too many possible images and stories for just one song, and as I tried to fit them in, I began to experiment with different forms and voices. The resulting bramble-patch took a lot of snipping and cutting and rearranging to shape it into the serviceable sequence you see before you!
Illustration is by Lothaire de Seebach (depicting la rue de l’hôpital à Strasbourg) and is in the public domain.
The – woman – took snuff. “Good morning, Captain,” she said, Capitaine in her accent. “This is a colder day than I imagined.” She looked out over the swells, her mannish periwig bobbing as she tilted her head up to regard the horizon. “Do you know, I hardly expected to see it.”
Gregory Everett clasped his hands behind his back. “Your Captain did the correct thing,” he said.
He had. Galatea’s American captain had struck colours almost as soon as the Indefatigable beat to quarters. If he hadn’t Gregory would have sent him to the bottom of the sea. Gregory had no way of knowing that the privateer Galatea carried but one petty sorceress, not one of Bonaparte’s magi that could kill him and his men with an incantation and a splinter of Indefatigable’s hull. He’d have sunk her.
Wisely, Galatea had struck her colours. The sorceress tucked her snuffbox back into her pocket and went about the fastidious business of dusting off her fingers.
“Well, I’m happy that he did,” she said. “As here I am. And here you are. Thank you for your hospitality, Captain.”
He inclined his head without looking at her and went back to studying the water’s hue.
“Does a Navyman really face a court-martial for every time he strikes his colours?” the Québécoise mused with a dusty little sniff. “What a curious custom.”
“It deters cowardice,” said Gregory, of no mood to humour her.
“Have you ever struck your colours, Captain Everett?”
In truth, at eight-and-twenty he’d not seen enough action for that. Even happening on Galatea had been by accident. “I’ve not been in that position,” he said. “I beg your pardon, have you been to breakfast?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve no fortitude when it comes to eggs.” She smiled at her own charmless joke. “Captain, I’m afraid I haven’t come up to make small-talk. I have a proposition.”
He glanced up at the grey-cast sky. “Have you, then?”
“It’s very fortunate that you’ve picked me up, after a certain fashion,” she went on. “You see, I do have an appointment in London.”
“How interesting.” Gregory looked down at her again. “You are my prisoner. You’re welcome to go wherever you please after the Admiralty sorts you out in Spain.”
“My hearing could take place in England,” she pointed out.
The sorceress sighed, found a cherry-wood pipe in another pocket. “You strike me as the sort of man who dislikes a bribe,” she said. “All the same. Is there nothing I might offer you as a gentlewoman magician?”
He was ready to set her down sharply. When he turned to do so, however, she was looking at him slant. “You’re a soldier. Is there nothing you want back,” she said, “that you’ve lost?”
Something about the wig brought him over. It was out of style. He was given to trusting people of little personal charm. His first lieutenant, Masters, was charmless; he was charmless himself, of course, no natural leader of men; but Masters was shrewder than Shylock, and Gregory Everett had a level head that had managed to remain on his shoulders. The French war sat in the hands of men in unfashionable periwigs.
Gregory tilted his tricorne down and lowered his voice in confidence to say: “Speak to me when we land. If you’ll excuse me, madam.”
When Gregory played soldiers as a boy, he’d pretend they were dolls. He wanted a baby. He wasn’t supposed to, he was aware. He wasn’t supposed to not want them. He was supposed to want victory, a ship-of-the-line, and to see the edges of the Earth, like Father. He wanted those too, of course, but mostly he wanted a baby.
Gregory Everett still wanted a baby. His fiancée, his cousin Clare, was back in Dover; he wrote her daily, which his first captain had praised, and sometimes he pictured her pretty freckled face in a bonnet. But then he would picture his own face and then imagine how their son would look. Soon when the war was done and he’d go back home to Dover and start his family, finally, finally.
He wanted a child like his brother. Young Richard, nine or so, was perfect: tall and strapping already, but also sweet-faced and pretty like Mama, and unlike other boys his age he loved to learn his letters. He sang his French alphabet back to his governess in his boy soprano and made all the women clap their hands in delight. In his head at night Gregory preserved that Richard alive. That Richard came in for supper. That Richard always ran to show Gregory his watercolours first. That Richard begged to go all the way to Portsmouth with Gregory when he left for his first commission, at fourteen, and sobbed into Gregory’s blue coat.
“You’re going to die,” he cried with horrible ten-year-old candour while Father looked on in embarrassment; “you’re going to die and I won’t have a brother anymore.”
“You’re being silly,” had said Gregory, mortified and on the verge of tears himself. He put his chin on the top of Richard’s sandy head and gave his shoulder a rough squeeze. “Hush. I’m not going to die. You’re making a scene.”
To his surprise, the Québécoise sorceress took a drink with him at the officers’ pub when they put in. She daubed at the edges of her mouth with her handkerchief. “The Spanish do not understand beer,” she said with diffidence. “Let’s walk, Captain.”
The idea of offering his arm to someone in a waistcoat struck Gregory as too peculiar. Instead, he offered her his coat as they ducked out of the smoke and into the dusk.
She shrugged it on over her square shoulders. “Oh, do bring a rifle,” she said, lighting her pipe. “And bayonet.”
Gregory’s eyebrows nearly met his hairline, but he agreed to go back for one.
They must have made a curious sight, the two of them. It put him at a discomfort even after they strolled to the river, far from curious eyes. Gregory knew how he looked at men who walked out onto the shore with women after dark. On his back he could feel the weight of his own contemptuous stare.
He shouldered his rifle into a more comfortable position on his back. “I want you,” he said, low, in French, “to bring my brother Richard back to me.”
The sorceress’s eyelashes twitched as she glanced at him sideways. Her pipe glowed; he could smell the bitterness of her tobacco.
“He’s my brother,” he said. “I want him back. Deliver him to me and I will take you to England.”
“I’m afraid it’s not going to occur in that order,” she said with a chuckle. Her Québécoise accent was even thicker in French.
He gave her a look that indicated what he thought of her levity. She waved her hand. “All right. Come. Walk further with me,” she said, extending an arm he couldn’t refuse.
She led him to a bend in the river where birds paddled sedately, three swans and an array of ducks that huddled together at their approach. The white shapes of the swans were still. Asleep, surely. Swans were headstrong and irascible animals. He looked to her for direction.
“Take one,” she said in English again. “You’ve got to do this part yourself, I’m afraid.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am serious, Captain,” she said. “Returning what’s been lost is a bloody affair, and not easy, I’m afraid. And – frowned upon. Nevertheless, I’ve an appointment in London. I’ll do it. But you’ll be needing one of those birds.”
Gregory hesitated, then unslung his rifle and loaded it up without a word. He shouldered the stock and closed an eye. He was English. There was something crude to him in killing a swan.
“Alive,” she added.
“Alive?” He frowned. “Is wounding it acceptable?”
“Provided it’ll live a few minutes at least,” she allowed.
He squinted through the sight again. “It’ll be loud,” he muttered, already thinking of his advantage there. He trained the barrel up to the sky and pulled the trigger. At the shot’s crack, the sorceress flinched and the birds took wing in a startled flurry.
This bit was facile. All gentlemen learned to hunt. Gregory eyed the greatest white shape as he re-loaded and aimed above the breast, at an outstretched wing, and fired again.
Blood was stark on a swan. The downed animal thrashed about calling on the ground, splintering its wing further, no doubt. He turned up his nose and set off towards it while the Québécoise sorceress followed behind, rummaging in her bag for a few odd objects: a flint, a candle, a crumpled-up paper. “Do hold it in place,” she was saying; he held his nose and seized the wretch by the neck.
Even weakened it struggled, like Proteus. He glanced up at her. She was fussing with the paper. “Muzzle the damned thing, if you’d be so kind,” he snapped and glared at her until she undid her belt and bound it gingerly around the bird’s beak. It was little effort to hold it down after that. Sweat still beaded on his forehead and rolled through his hair.
Her wig was askew. She straightened it before crouching down next to him and the hissing bird. “Right, then,” she said. “You’ll be needing to skin it.”
“Skin it,” he repeated at the bottom of his voice.
“Alive,” she said again, screwing up her nose at the necessary distastefulness of a magician’s work. She also found what she was looking for in her bag: a tanner’s knife. “It’s not squeamishness stops me doing it, in this case.” He must’ve looked doubtful, for she huffed and went on, “You’re not asking me for a parlour-trick, Captain Everett. This is exceptionally personal. Do you want Lieutenant Everett returned to you or don’t you?”
It was the damned animal that was biting his temper down to the quick, having to hold the damned animal down. He said what he shouldn’t have. “More than anything,” he ground out. “More than anyone. If you trick me – ”
She sniffed, not deigning to his insult, and handed him the knife. He shifted his grip on the wounded swan, which was thrashing less and less, and tried to recall what he knew of skinning.
It died not long into the process, but not as shortly as he might have liked. When he was finished he had a useless, gory coat of feathers, a steaming carcass, and a soiled uniform. He grimaced. “Do your spell,” he said. “It’s growing late.”
“I already have,” replied the sorceress, and when he looked up at her, she indeed had her items packed away into her bag again, all but the sticky knife. She looked the same, if a bit blanched, with soot around her fingers.
She brushed that off; she’d burnt the paper, he remembered, and said words. “Keep the skin. Keep the skin and don’t destroy it. Those are the only conditions.” She coughed and reached for something in her pocket – snuff. Of course. “Pardon me. The number who can’t manage that much, well, you’d be surprised.”
Gregory Everett held up the malodorous pelt with the tips of his fingers like a house-proud woman with a mangled mouse. “I’ll have it tanned,” he said under his breath, “Dear God.”
“No.” The force in her voice came from some wellspring he hadn’t seen in her before; he looked up at the flinty black eyes of a magician. “That wouldn’t work. Only like that. You’ll keep it in its original form, or you won’t keep him.”
He glared, but buried his fingernails in the swan’s pelt. Satisfied that he understood, she took her snuff. “You’ve nothing to worry about,” she said with that same fussy self-assurance that’d convinced him in the first place. “Hold a man’s skin and your claim is first, Captain, over God’s, Death’s, and his own. It’s done. I am a sorceress in the employ of Emperor Napoleon the First,” she said with another chuckle. “My soul is spoken for. God help yours.”
Gregory ignored everything that she said. His tired mind had drifted to something else. “Where did you learn my brother’s rank?” he asked after a moment’s silence.
“You have his cameo in your great cabin,” was her affable response. She snapped her snuffbox shut. “At least I presume that’s him. He looks like you.”
He came home for the winter holidays. So did Richard. The crusted swanskin was bundled up in their father’s cellar, gathering flies and putrefying. Gregory was sitting by the fire hand in hand with Clare when Richard strolled through the sitting-room door with his rifleman’s coat all buttoned up and dropped into an armchair. “Of course you’ve already taken the warm seats,” he complained with a theatrical slouch, kicking out his long legs. “Et tu, sister? A woman’s heart is a cold and cruel thing, you know. Cold and cruel.”
Richard held this dramatic expression for a moment or two longer before he looked sidelong at Gregory and Clare and grinned. Clare, for her part, still had her mouth hanging open. So did Gregory.
She remembered herself first. “Happy Michaelmas, Richard,” she said with a pretty smile, smoothing her pinafore. “I hadn’t thought that –” She caught herself, always polite, looked at Gregory, was reassured by his nod and his grip on her hand. Clare smiled again and went on, “I hadn’t thought that Lord Wellington could spare you.”
“Nor I. Good tidings all around this Advent,” Richard said, yawning. His voice was as lively and clear as it had ever been, though his soprano days were long finished. He looked tidy and tired. His cheeks were rosy like a Botticelli. “You too, Greg.”
“You’re late again,” was all Gregory could think to say.
Richard sighed with a whoof. “You’re always on about that,” he said. “Dear Father: I saw Greg today after four years’ time. ‘You’re late again,’ he said.”
Gregory smiled in spite of himself as an unnerved shiver scuttled up his spine and down each of his arms. He felt Clare’s soft hand still resting on his, relying on his strength. “Well,” he said, “you’re not as late as usual.”
It was true: Richard wasn’t. Clare giggled.
Richard laughed and kicked him in the foot. His hair was a little unruly, even tied back; little bits and pieces of Richard were always escaping any efforts at civilisation, no matter how one tried. He was always sunny, even when he was unhappy in truth, but hadn’t been this cheerful since he was ten, not that Greg could recall. Not to Greg. “You horrible man,” he said. “You’re always the same. You make General Soult look like our Granny.”
Mother cried when she saw Richard. She’d always loved him best. Losing him had snapped her heart like an icicle into ten irreparable parts, and now she just cried into his shoulder. Gregory didn’t begrudge her feelings, watching them from the doorway with his hand on the frame: who wouldn’t love Richard best? He was a clever, charming, beautiful boy. Girls fell all over that rakish half-smile – Clare was practically the only one who hadn’t, and thank God for that. Gregory wasn’t jealous of Mother’s sentiment: if anything he envied her easier way with Richard, the way she could just wrap her arms around him and he’d accept her embrace. Trying to hold Richard was like holding a changing naiad in your arms; how did she do it, even for a moment?
He supposed he’d never tried. He put his arm around Richard when they were walking away down the hall and said stiffly, “I’m glad that you’re well.”
He waited for his brother to raise an eyebrow and say something ironical, or laugh and shrug him off, but Richard just put his head on Gregory’s shoulder for a moment. Richard was taller, now, and lanky. Richard had been right about one thing, Gregory had to admit. He really would have been eternally hitting his head on things in the Navy.
“I’m glad that I’m in Dover,” Richard said. The same peace-making smile that had carried him through Father’s absences and Mother’s sadnesses was on his face, but his voice was a little doleful. By paternal or maternal instinct, Gregory pulled him aside in the hallway and into a hug, putting both his arms around his shoulders like Richard had skinned his knee. This was awkwarder now that Richard had inches of height on him. Gregory didn’t care. He held Richard tightly, as painfully tight as he’d squeezed him that day in Portsmouth.
“I’m sorry, Greg,” Richard was saying into the air next to his head. “I really am sorry.” He sounded like he was apologising for being late to supper on Michaelmas.
“It’s all right,” Gregory said into Richard’s hair. “Mother’s happy to have you back. She doesn’t care anymore.” They didn’t speak of Father; Father was away.
Richard bought Clare pink ribbons on the boardwalk while Gregory sat with his mother. Clare blushed in a rare moment of delight at her future brother-in-law – they hadn’t got on, usually, she was a demure young woman – and even laughed high when he bound one up in her hair. She was only twenty-one, after all. Standing together they were a pretty sight. Gregory admired it like a landowner. His wife-to-be with his brother, the future godfather of his child. Next spring he’d be wed to Clare, too, God willing, and he would have that child for Richard to christen, and he’d have everything. And surely Father would understand by then.
The skin on the back of his arm itched. He scratched it behind his back, through his Navy coat, and took his mother for a turn about the cobbled square.
When he had a minute alone with Richard he chanced to bring up what he’d been intending. Gregory hesitated even so, even in Richard’s good humour and gratitude at being with his family this holiday, even then. He remembered Richard’s first reactions to the subject. Lord, they’d been upsetting. Gregory nearly reddened recalling that supper with his parents and Richard even now. It was dreadful. Everything was spoilt. Richard had spoilt everything. Sometimes he was still that boy, that horrible willful boy.
But: he was older now. Gregory would chance it. “Irene,” he said. “I’m sure that she’d still have you if you’d still have her. She does care for you.”
Richard frowned and put his head on one side. Irene was their cousin too, once more removed than Clare. She was perfect for Richard, Gregory was certain of it, so spirited and bookish. He’d always been utterly certain of it. Gregory was happy with the match. He could’ve chosen it himself. Everything would be perfect if Richard married Irene. They’d have the loveliest children.
Even so, Gregory braced himself for what he might say, even if he said it gently. But he did not say that, not even gently: Richard said, “Do you think so?”
Gregory crossed his arms behind his back and smiled uneasily.
Among Father’s pinot grigiers and his chardonnays, in the cellar no one touched when Father was away, Gregory rummaged in one of the casks on his hands and knees. This was absurd. He felt like he was playing sardines.
The skin was easy to find, at any rate. It smelled slightly less than before, but it looked disgusting when he dragged it out, like a half-rotten creature washed up on some Spanish beach. He suppressed a retch just over that. It’d curled up around the edges. It barely suggested a bird at all, least of all a swan. The resemblance was gone everywhere but the neck, which he’d slit the skin from almost tenderly with the tip of the tanning knife.
He grasped the brittle stained feathers in his fingers, disgusted and fond all at the same time; it repulsed him and, the Devil take it, he was growing attached. Maybe the sorceress had done something to him too. He dismissed the notion as the shadow-boxing it was.
All the same, he sat with his legs crossed on the cold cellar floor and the swanskin in his lap. He found it comforting to have it there. It was comforting to know where it was, of course, given all the sorceress had cautioned, but – there was something comforting about it, too. God, it was perverse. He was embarrassed at his own attachment to it, just as he was embarrassed by how he looked sitting there with a rotting feather pelt falling apart in his lap.
Burying his fingers in the pinions made his breath come slower and calmer. There was something logical about it. It was being degraded the way that matter degraded over time and in a cool place, sealed away from rats.
“Greg,” he heard Richard’s voice above, walking over the hatch to the wine-cellar again without noticing. “Greg? Where’s Greg gotten off to? Ah, never mind! Clare, we’ll go without him; he’ll be sorry when he comes back.” His harmonious laugh travelled off with him out the door. Gregory closed his eyes.
Seated in the drawing-room’s northernmost bay window, Gregory had taught Richard his sums. The governess was always better with the letters, and so was Richard, quickly enough, but Gregory’s head had always been superior for numbers. He took pleasure in it, placing hand over spindly little hand to render the curves of the numeral 3. Back then Richard had even attended to what he was saying, even though it wasn’t very interesting, even when Gregory wasn’t any good at making it interesting. He never was. Clare would teach the children, he’d decided.
Seated in the drawing-room’s northernmost bay window, Gregory sat his brother down with him now, as men, and chose to broach once more the matter of Irene. There was so much bubbling in his mind now that he was dying to say: have you written to Father? What of your post with Wellington, are you considering your career now too? What is he like? Does he need an aide-de-camp? Shall someone write to him? But he schooled himself, restrained himself, and settled on little cousin Irene. A tidy, consistent topic. He’d ascertain if Richard’s mind had truly changed. All in order.
Always, always Richard was faster than him: he leaned on his elbow with his chin in his long, spidery hand. “Is this about Irene again?” he prompted. “Or should I be calling her Miss Tracy now? I suppose she’s not a child any more. Lud, though, ‘Miss Tracy.’ I’ve known Irene since she was born. We’ve known Clare too. It’s so silly. It’s all silly.”
Normally Gregory viewed formality as the only buoy in a vast black sea, and stood upon it accordingly, but in the case of Clare Everett and Irene Tracy, he had to agree with Richard. He supposed this was incidental. He and Richard had never agreed upon much, as men, except by accident. “She’s Irene,” he agreed. “She’d be hurt to hear otherwise, and that settles it, I believe. What of her?” he asked, and couldn’t resist, sardonic, “Have your second thoughts come back for Michaelmas too, then?”
Richard toyed with a strand of his hair. He was an insufferable peacock, Gregory’s brother, and he could never make up his mind whether he liked the colour of his ash-blond hair or despaired that it wasn’t brighter. That was Richard. Mourning for golden hair, of all things. “Do you know, I don’t know,” he said with a frown. “I was opposed to it, I won’t deny that.”
“You were.” Gregory gave the ceiling a look.
“I was opposed to it. Irene is – ”
“Well, do you love her?” Gregory prompted with poor hopes, but hopes nevertheless. Four years ago he wouldn’t even have asked that question. Maybe, though, maybe Richard had – reconsidered his, his feelings, in some way. It was worth hoping for.
Richard frowned. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe. I care a bit for her, you know, I’ve just – known her for such a time, is all.”
That unnerved Gregory, for some reason. That of all things unnerved him. He must’ve shown it in his face, as Richard tilted his head at him. “Is something the matter?”
“You aren’t going to ingratiate yourself to me by lying about Irene,” said Gregory, before he could stop himself. “I’ve run out of favours to give you.”
Richard’s eyes widened. He had big eyes, which still rendered him childlike at his age and height. When he looked stung, openly, like this, it was impossible to not feel guilty. “I’m not lying,” he said. “I’m really not. I just don’t know the contents of my heart.”
When Richard was born Gregory climbed up to his crib and stood on the edge to look at him when he burbled and cried. He’d never loved a kitten. He didn’t even like kittens; they were fast and had sharp little claws and they didn’t care for him at all. He’d never loved a thing, not really, before Richard. Richard was his brother, no one else’s. He’d never had a thing that was just his before, either.
He taught him sums at the bay window. He patched up all his scrapes from trees and kittens, which Richard always loved better than he did. He picked out things for him to wear, until he was a midshipman and couldn’t see Richard any more. He wrote him every day, even when Richard forgot to write back. He never, ever forgot about him, not when Father forgot about them both, not when they were young men; he held fast, and he – he meant well, he knew better – and he feared anyway the day when Richard wouldn’t want him anymore.
Only one vase, ever: there was just one fragile thing Richard ever broke. He wasn’t a breaking sort of boy. He was five, he shattered mother’s china, and ran away in alarm. Gregory caught him in the hall. “It’s all right,” he hissed with a hold on Richard’s sleeves. “Oh, for God’s sake, do you think I’m going to hurt you? I’m not. Pull yourself together.”
Gregory interlaced their fingers and fisted Richard’s hand in his in a deathly grip. He was always holding him that way. This Richard let him.
The Admiralty helped him in Portsmouth. He was Captain Everett, after all, set to become a Commodore, and if he looked a bit more drawn than usual when he asked questions at the offices, they likely assumed he was busy. The Everetts were busy often: the father and the elder son, anyway. Not the younger. No one spoke of the younger.
He found the address and pounded on the double mahogany doors with one fist, then the other, then two until the sorceress called Marceline Despourrins finally admitted him. She looked quite taken aback. She was in her housecoat, which was terribly improper, but he’d taken to thinking of her as an irritating, elderly gentleman with a very particular set of skills and wasn’t interested in changing his conclusion. She looked less scandalised than just surprised by the hour, though, and admitted him to her study while she brewed tea.
“You’ve travelled a ways,” Mlle Despourrins observed. “Oh, dear. Please have a seat.”
“That – is not my brother,” Gregory said in a rattle.
Mlle Despourrins furrowed her brow. “Oh, dear,” she said again, not much upset, and went back to the tea.
Later she gestured to a chair for the fifth time and he ignored her and leaned on her desk with both hands, staring into the knots in the lacquered wood. “I don’t pass judgement, Captain. I’m a mere practitioner. It would have been one thing if he were simply dead,” she said softly behind him, between his back and the snapping fire. “Death is a place far away. Estrangement is another thing entirely.”
Gregory scrutinised his hands. “Estrangement is not the word I would have chosen,” he said.
“Well.” She sniffed. “That’s even worse, then, isn’t it?”
He was quiet for a while, knuckles clenching and unclenching over the hard edge. She came around to her chair and left him be, stirring herself a cup of orangeish tea and tutting over the heat.
“My brother is half a Republican,” Gregory burst out like he had a thrashing beast in his arms again. “He’s sick of the war already; he dislikes anything with too much blood,” he said with a snort, “or too much early rising. He hates Wellington. He calls him Lord Arthur. He wants a captaincy like he wants a plague of boils. He wants a career like he wants the bloody clap.”
Mlle Despourrins stirred her tea and looked down and away.
Gregory heaved a horrible, deep breath. His voice had risen without his realising. He loathed his shouting voice. It was so shrill. “My brother is a God-damned sodomite,” he hissed between his teeth. “And he flaunts it. He’ll never marry Irene. Not in a thousand years. Father turned his back on him in shame.” So had he.
The sorceress was listening. Gregory had the impression that she’d tolerated more than one tirade from a client in her time, and had learnt to listen, lest she be asked to repeat anything back. She yawned and, when she seemed sure he was finished – the word “sodomite” gave her no more trouble than “Republican” – she gave a nod. “I doubt this will reassure you,” she said, “but I do know of the second Everett son and his – escapades. Word does, er, travel.”
He was tempted to throttle her for the way she said escapades. He shook his head instead. “My brother is his own man,” said Gregory Everett with love and contempt. “He’ll have everyone know it. My brother.” It caught in the back of his throat like a bone. “My brother hates me.”
Marceline Despourrins took snuff and looked at him with pity through her bent pince-nez. “Then what on Earth,” said she, “could I have possibly done for you?”
What was left of the swan burned slow in the hearth, filling the drawing-room with acrid-smelling smoke. Gregory tossed it in when the clock struck one and sat in the chair there until it struck two and he was sure it was all burnt away. He had a day’s growth of stubble. He didn’t know when he fell asleep there, exactly, his head at an uncomfortable cramping angle.
He didn’t know what time it was when his brother found him, either, but he woke to the sound of his footsteps. He knew the sound. He would never be able to sleep through those footsteps.
Gregory straightened up to the best of his ability as Richard regarded him with curiosity, then shrugged and took a seat in the bay window, kicking his feet up. The oil in the Dover house lamps was expensive and did not burn out quickly. No one had put out the lights in this room, so Richard’s face was lit well as he closed his eyes and nested himself in the cushions. His boots were still on, resting heel-down on Mother’s embroidered upholstery.
Gregory looked at him a little longer than was polite. Richard smiled back, not kindly. It was that pretty, armoured smile he put on whenever someone found him wanting. This was Richard, after all, to the fey tips of his fingers. He wasn’t grown-up after all. He was young. He’d been in the Peninsula four years and he was so young. He’d stopped writing to Father in the first, when Father never wrote him back. He’d never written to Gregory at all.
He tipped his head back on the cushions but Gregory could see the tension in the arch of his back, the way he looked at his older brother like a distrustful animal. It made Gregory sick. It was the very last thing he wanted in the world.
“Well, should I say something?” Richard interrupted his thoughts. His voice was low and feline and had new gravel in it. “I mean, this is dreadfully awkward. What should we talk about? The weather?”
Gregory closed his eyes.
“Your wedding?” Richard went on idly. He really was self-possessed. With the casual way he went on anyone else might’ve believed he didn’t fear God or his brother. “That’s in May, isn’t it? May, that’s a good month for wedding. For being wed. You should move it up to April: decreases your odds of being sunk in the meantime by a fifth.”
“Shut up, Richard,” said Gregory for the hundred thousandth time.
Richard coughed. It took Gregory a second to realise it was a laugh. “I love you too, Greg. Did you miss me at all?”
When he closed his eyes he didn’t know what he’d do to his brother. When he opened them again he’d taken command of his nerves again. He looked steadily at the fire. That was what people, Father, Indefatigable relied upon him for: steadiness and a firm hand over his own baser nature, and theirs. The world’s axis spun on charmless men. He opened his mouth to answer Richard’s question. The truth was coiled somewhere in his stomach, treacherous and waiting to strike; he knew it, God knew it, in his lowest days he feared Richard knew it too. He wouldn’t let it master him.
“You have to be gone before Father sees you,” he said instead. “You can’t very well put him in that position.”
“I know. Don’t fret so much,” said Richard. “I won’t make a scene.”
Gabriel Murray would probably live in a nicer New York City apartment if he didn’t drink so much espresso. He is a 2007 graduate of the Clarion Writing Workshop with pieces published or forthcoming in We See A Different Frontier and Daily Science Fiction. He also writes reviews and reads submissions for Strange Horizons. He blogs intermittently about interactive fiction and media at Orestes Drunk and Pylades Fasting. He says:
People are always treating with the Devil or the sea witch to bring their loved ones back from the dead: but what of other losses? Homophobic parents and siblings often speak of their estranged queer relatives with bereavement, like they’re mourning the death of a person that never existed. It’s a bit too forgiving to say that these feelings come from genuine love–but it’s a bit too simple to say that they don’t, either.
Illustration is Psyche and Amor by Louis de Silvestre (18th century) and is in the public domain.
These are the scarred faces of lonely moons.
Watch: the gossamer ring, moonlet-ring,
Small artifice, tireless on the long path,
The ochre-hazed orbit-hub owns a world’s weather.
Above the ice of mountains and memory,
Solitary camera-craft, remembering caught light,
never to look back.
Michele Bannister has an uncommon fondness for distant worlds both small and icy. She lives in Australia, where she is working towards her doctorate in astronomy. Her poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, Stone Telling, inkscrawl, and other venues, in the Here, We Cross anthology (Stone Bird Press, 2012), and is forthcoming in Goblin Fruit. She says:
Spacecraft like Cassini are often compared to Odysseus; but we’re never so kind as to find them an Ithaca.
Enceladus, photographed by Cassini, is provided by NASA and is in the public domain.