There lived a wife at Usher’s well
A wealthy wife was she
She had three stout and stalwart sons
Whom she did send to sea
The pounding at the door was insistent and arrogant, as if the door’s existence was a personal affront to the knocker. I squinted at the timepiece embedded in the muted lavender wall and sighed. Only one person on this godforsaken station could command obedience from metal like that.
I slid back the viewpanel, trying to tuck unruly strands of dark hair behind my ears.
“The well is active again,” said Wife Takasawa. Her perfect, almond eyes, lovingly crafted by tenth generation flesh-surgeons on Beta Centauri Three, registered disapproval. “Get some proper clothes on and meet me at the hangar.”
I blinked into the regulation gray corridor, dream-chill still making me foggy. With corporate-bred dignity, Wife Takasawa waved a dismissal, the precious gems on her manicured hands glinting at me in disdain.
I felt my stomach tighten. After two months I could just barely stand her. Did she think transport pilots like me could pull off a polished look at five in the morning without hordes of Takasawa Corporation servants drawing a true-water bath and arranging a sequined coiffure?
I snorted on the way to the bathroom. Hanging around with Wife Takasawa was getting to me.
I barely remembered to grab the holos of the dead Takasawa heirs before I slapped the door open and walked as briskly as my stubby legs could go down the stationer hallways towards the main hangar.
I didn’t really need the holos. After countless hours of scanning Derrigan’s Well for Takasawa features to coalesce from the mist, I no longer even judged them as handsome or plain. They were an unalterable part of my existence now, like the soft feel of suede in my pilot’s chair, or the brown eyes that greeted me when I stared in the mirror.
The Station employee that jostled me in the ribs didn’t even try to make the apology sound sincere. I decided not to give him the pleasure of a response and continued down the passage, cursing Wife Takasawa’s royal sense of propriety that put me in the employee quarters instead of in the VIP guest quarters with her. It was just like her not to see the misguided animosity her contract pilot suffered.
I snorted for a second time that morning, loud enough to get quirked eyebrows from two sanitary workers just turning the corner ahead of me. I couldn’t blame Wife Takasawa for everything. Her Rosicrucian theories brought me here, true. Yet it was what Tobin called my “iron-pig” pride that kept me from explaining I felt as trapped as the stationers.
It wasn’t my fault the crazy Wife of the most powerful communications corporation in this sector was holding Derrigan’s Well hostage to her grief. I was just unlucky enough to be nearby when her Rosicrucian Guru had his vision.
They hadna been a week from her
A week but barely one
When word came to the carline wife
That her three sons were gone.
There was no talk when I got to the hangar. I suppose Wife Takasawa and her Priest were already concentrating on Yuji, Teruyoshi, and Ken. I made the requisite checks and then signaled to the Silver Arrow through my pilot’s link to take us out through the cycling hangar shield.
The limitless horizon of space I glimpsed through the Arrow’s scope did nothing to lift my spirits. I cursed the three boys for joining the Corporation Navy in the first place and Wife Takasawa for letting them go in the second place. If I had a son, there was no way I would ever put that child in danger-
Without warning, my traitorous memory gave me our empty apartment near the spaceport. Tobin strummed folksongs ’til his fingers bled as I sat in the darkness and cried. I could almost taste the salt against my lips. But you had a son, I told myself bitterly. You didn’t protect him.
I pulled myself out of the memory, concentrating on Arrow’s sleek panels. There were three, hard-won months between that pitiful couple and the present.
Now I was stuck in a backwater galaxy, catering to a crazy Aristocrat. I turned my head to see Wife Takasawa’s impossibly correct carriage and wondered if her three boys had been trying to escape their mother. It isn’t easy to fulfill other’s expectations with our own limited resources and flawed bodies. Brigit knew I understood how escape could seem tempting.
“Pilot Rusk, please turn on your holos.” The Priest was already in full snit.
“We aren’t even close to the Well, yet.”
“Pilot Rusk, your contract explicitly states your willingness to follow Rosicrucian meditative practices to ensure the success of Wife Takasawa’s mission.”
I signaled the Silver Arrow to display the holos onscreen with a little sneer in the Priest’s direction. He was too big for his britches. Not only was he a slimeball for preying on the Wife’s maternal grief, but he was an arrogant slimeball who enjoyed lording the Wife’s trust over the rest of us.
It was getting old.
Who was I kidding? It had been old the first week.
By now the Silver Arrow could pilot itself out to the Well. Of course we didn’t get too close to it, I wasn’t suicidal, just susceptible to a mother’s grief. I was absolutely sure of the boundary where the Silver Arrow’s souped up drive could still escape the Well’s gravity and where we would be black hole bait.
It was the look in her eyes more than anything that did me in. Her violet pupils glistened with some emotion I would be remiss in calling just “grief.” It went well beyond the normal dimensions of that word. That look pulled at me, invoking the geas of Tobin’s now useless rehearsal room expectantly painted pale blue and decorated with monarch butterflies.
That and the quiet way she said “Please.” The first and last time I heard that word from her mouth directed towards me. I suppose I was her last resort. Takasawa Corporation didn’t have any pilots crazy enough to skim the surface of a black hole’s gravity boundaries and keep their mouth shut about it, nor did they have anything like my darling Silver Arrow.
Today Jonathon Derrigan’s Well was as quiet as when the famous explorer found it. That strange, impossible mist he detected at the event horizon of the black hole made him famous, but the shape he claimed to see in the mist made everyone suspect space-sickness. Nobody admitted to believing he saw his recently dead wife’s face. Yet this station existed on the money and hopes the tourists brought clutched in their hands, trying to bend the mist into the face of a dear, departed one.
“It doesn’t seem to be working.”
The Priest almost did a physical double take at the Wife’s pronouncement. Oh ho ho, was the Rosicrucian mystery losing its hold over the Wife?
“We are not concentrating properly,” said the Priest. His tone was just the slightest bit peevish. “The Well is an outlet for the Cosmic. If we do not have the will to shape that Cosmic-”
I would have given a least a hundred bucks to be able to load a quietly spoken word with such command. They didn’t teach that in gutter school, or even in the pilot academy where I had to fake the same arrogance the corporation trainees wore like a second skin. Maybe the Wife finally had enough of the Priest. Maybe the Wife was coming to her senses.
I wish the wind
Would never ever cease
Nor flashes in the flood
’til my three sons return to me
earthly flesh and blood
“I know why the Cosmos is not reacting to our will.” Wife Takasawa’s eyes were fixed on the pale, semi-transparent faces of her dead sons. “When Jonathon Derrigan first discovered the Well he was entirely alone. He saw his dead love in the mist because he, and he alone commanded it. All those people back there at the Station, their desires, their wills are keeping me from my sons.”
Or maybe she was just psycho.
“So what do you want to do? We can’t get any closer to the Well without the risk of tidal forces pulling us apart.” There was no way I was risking my precious Silver Arrow. It was my independence, or my “escape” as Tobin had accused me when I left him, impotent and soul-darkened, at Pictoris Station. “And you can’t send all those grieving tourists, let alone an entire Station full of personnel, away. ”
“Yes,” the Wife said, checking the polish on her intricately painted nails, “I can.”
Barely two minutes after the Silver Arrow glided to her perch inside the Station, Wife Takasawa was invoking the awesome power of her husband’s Corporation.
It only took another day for the sleek Corporation transports with their three-point hollyhock crests to arrive. The backlash followed closely on the Corporation’s heels.
The Station Lieutenant was a sleek-faced blonde from Earth. He must have been all of twelve years old.
“I’m sorry, Pilot Rusk. There really is no evidence of who trashed your room.” The Lieutenant’s downy-soft cheeks did nothing to lend themselves to his barely perceptible air of authority.
“I am going to hold you personally responsible if something happens to my ship.”
“It probably wasn’t even one of my staff!” Now those cheeks were delicately flushed. “Does the Wife understand that the other seekers here share the same grief, have the same hope they might see a loved one’s face? To travel all the way here trying not to doubt the stories, and then be told you have to leave on the whim of a spoiled Aristocrat? It could naturally cause resentment.”
I gritted my teeth in frustration. “Do you think she cares?”
The Lieutenant took refuge behind his shiny, oak desk. There were no personal possessions or holos apparent. It was likely he was a low-level flunky, newly promoted to be scapegoat when the Wife finally realized the Well was a hoax and we all went back to our real lives.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Just tighten up security in the hangars. If the culprits are just grief-stricken civvies, then they won’t be too cold or calculating.”
I suddenly felt bad for the poor boy. We were both flotsam in the wake of those Corporation crests. He had enough to worry about without some Pilot breathing down his neck.
I stood up to leave but the Lieutenant reached across the desk and touched my arm. It was the first human contact I had felt in months. The warmth of his surprisingly callused fingertips confused me for a moment.
“Did you see anything out there, Pilot Rusk? I mean,” his adam’s apple bobbed up and down as the words struggled past the military veneer of his training. “You’ve been out there more times than anyone. I wouldn’t ask, but you see-”
The Lieutenant pulled an old-fashioned locket from underneath his navy uniform jacket. I flinched away, the back of my knees hitting the cold plastic of the chair. Some chill premonition told me I wanted more than anything not to hear what he was going to say.
“-she was only six months old.” The baby in the holo had the Lieutenant’s green eyes and a curl of his soft, gold hair.
My arms curled protectively around a ghost weight, and I could almost smell the sweet, milky scent of newborn skin. I somehow disentangled myself from the chair and the unspeakable hope in the Lieutenant’s eyes and ran.
It wasn’t quick enough to escape the words he threw after me, cutting cleanly through the still-tender wound concealed in my drab coveralls and my flight away from Tobin into the cold void of space.
“I’m sorry. I just hoped my baby…I mean, if I could just see her-”
I stopped just outside the door. I wanted to retch. As the words escaped me, I knew I sounded bitter, dry, and barren as a salt desert.
“Don’t hope. It only makes things worse.”
It fell about the Martinmas,
When nights are long and dark,
The carline wife’s three sons came home,
And their hats were o’ the bark.
This time there was no pounding at the door. This time I was seized roughly by the shoulders and shaken ’til I thought the Irish whiskey still roiling my stomach from the night before would have no choice but to emerge through my flaking lips and splatter all over the Wife’s elegant chiffon.
“Something’s happening. You’ve got to take me to the Well, Julia.”
It hadn’t been a good night. Memories of Brin kept me drinking until well past midnight. Ghost echoes of Tobin’s gently fingered lullabies will-o-the-wisped through my brain. That damn Lieutenant with his damn picture. I pushed the Wife’s hands off my shoulders.
“I quit.” At the moment I couldn’t care less about her maternal grief. I had my own to contend with. “Go find another pilot.”
Wife Takasawa’s eyes grew large. She grabbed my sheet and pulled it hard, dumping me onto the cold, plascrete floor.
“Just what the hell-”
“You,” Wife Takasawa said. “Do not understand the importance of going out to the Well right this minute. ”
“You’re crazy.” I sat up and reached for the coveralls tossed carelessly under the bed.
“Yes, probably.” Wife Takasawa turned away, giving me enough privacy to clip my bra on and pull a shirt over my naked chest and abdominal scars. My stomach didn’t protest.
“I may be crazy, but I’m the only one who can give permission for anyone or anything to leave this station.”
The threat was as clear as the platinum hollyhocks on the lurking behemoths outside the station. If I wanted to leave with the Silver Arrow intact, I had to take the Wife out to Derrigan’s Well.
“This is the last time, ok? I can’t do this anymore. Your money isn’t worth it,” I said. I tried to stare determination at her, instead of the fear and grief I knew mirrored her own gaze.
Slipping into the captain’s seat calmed some of my immediate desire to spew. The familiar caress of suede chased away the lingering traces of dream-silk and sorrow. If I could just get through this last visit to the Well, Silver Arrow and I would find some way to outrun the Corporation ships.
“Wife,” I said, “what’s going on?”
“The long-range scope registered a shape in the mist.”
Some bitter fluid crept up my throat and stung the back of my tongue. Brin. All this time I had refrained from thinking of him, refrained from hoping. I ached, now, to hold his tiny, pudding fingers. Was it possible? Was the Wife not a psycho after all?
“We’re on the way Wife,” I said. I imagined the Silver Arrow streaking closer and closer to the Well, the two of us women muffled in a taut silence, little flares of hope banked against our ribs and threatening to burn hot enough to make ashes of our insides.
When we reached the boundary of safety, I pulled the scopes over to the Wife’s side without being asked. Our heartbeats sounded loud and unwelcome in the confined silence. They beat an intricate rhythm of contractions, the crest of a sweet, bald head glimpsed between sweaty thighs, and the intimate sharing of milk, piss, saliva between mother and child.
“Ken-chan, Omae na no?” Wife Takasawa clenched the scope twin-fisted, blue-veined knuckles turning white with exertion.
Ken-chan, I translated to myself, is it you? I felt the layers of pilot, employee, stranger I used as insulation begin to unpeel, leaving tender, raw skin exposed to the air. I froze; willing myself a part of my ship’s metal hide, willing myself dead steel and plastic. Anything to not feel the hope I saw wracking the Wife’s delicate chest with half-choked sobs.
“Closer, Julia. We have to get closer!” She tore herself away from the scope long enough to press urgency and well-manicured nails into my skin. The nail on her index finger broke, leaving a scratch on my arm that welled red.
“We can’t get any closer.”
“He’s coming, he’s coming. We have to get in range!”
Silver Arrow’s proximity alarm sounded. I watched, my own nails making painful half-moons in my icy palms, as a cloud drifted near enough to touch the Arrow’s hull, a long umbilical of white mist still connected to the Well’s event horizon.
Before I could react, the Wife had ripped herself out of the flightseat’s restraints and ran to the hatch. I hesitated, part of me welcoming the death that would surely come if she opened the pressure lock to welcome in whatever that mist thing was.
Then, in the aftermath of shame following that hesitation, I had a rare moment of crystal clarity. A moment when the complicated layers of Tobin, Brin’s death, my own frozen heart fell from me like melted flakes of snow. I knew I couldn’t die like this. I couldn’t die with the raw wound of Brin’s crib death still bleeding out despair through my veins. I couldn’t die. I didn’t want to die.
I engaged Arrow’s emergency lock down. Wife Takasawa screamed in frustration and somehow was on the pilot’s chair, straddling me, trying to scratch my eyes out.
“Ken-chan,” the Wife cried. “We have to let my baby in! It’s Ken-chan!”
I pushed the Wife’s slight weight off my chair, and she tumbled to the ground in a mass of frantic limbs and tangled robes. Before she could regain her balance, I scrambled off the pilot’s seat and backed up against the control panel.
It neither grew in dyke nor ditch,
Nor yet in any hall,
O but at the gates of Paradise,
This bark grew fair withall.
“Intruder,” said the Silver Arrow’s alarm system. Both our heads swiveled to face the hatch, the last moments of insanity still beating desperate wings in our blood.
“Mother,” said the figure standing there. The baby in his arms gurgled.
Behind him, the umbilical seethed with eldritch wind as Ken Takasawa moved closer to the Wife. I couldn’t move, my eyes were frozen on the child with Brin’s storm-colored eyes and dark, spiky hair.
“But you can’t be you, you’re dead,” I managed to say.
Ken Takasawa smiled. “Yet here I am.” He shifted the baby to one hip and placed an arm around the Wife. “Here I am, okasan.”
I thought the Wife would collapse in hysterical tears, but I was wrong. Here was her pearl; the receptacle for the countless hours of corporate stratagem and self-denial the Wife had endured. As soon as Ken touched his mother, I saw her flesh inflate with power, and her face reclaim the calm lines of a person entwined with Fate. The Wife I had admired before was only a shadow of this magnificence.
“Ken,” she said. “I knew you would come back to me.” She turned to me, irresistible command coating her skin like fine dew. “Take your son, Julia.”
Brigit help me, I wanted to. I wanted to take that thing pretending to be my son and crush him against my heart. I wanted to bury my nose in his silky skin and damn the past months’ lessons about grief, and inner strength, and facing the world with your skin turned inside out.
You are a weak woman, Julia Rusk, I told myself. Then I lifted my arms to Ken, a strange whimper escaping my throat as the welcome wait of the child touched my chest and filled my heart.
“Brin.” The solitary word could not encompass all the should-have-beens Tobin and I dreamed together. I buried my nose in his damp curls. It couldn’t begin to express the cold space I put between me and life starting on that first morning when I found his tiny, blue body, face-down against the cotton quilt.
But the smell of him, the feel of him was enough. Shored up by his physical presence, I acknowledged finally, the deep crevice of my pain, of my loss, of my betrayal by a Fate that would not grant me this simplest, most miraculous boon.
The cock he hadna craw’d but once,
And clapp’d his wings at a’,
When the youngest to the eldest said,
“Brother, we must away.
“Julia,” said the Wife, ever practical, “let’s head back to the station.”
The Wife stood, encircled by her son’s arms, refusing to see his sad smile.
“Yes, it is time to go.” Ken kissed his mother’s cheek, and then bowed very low to her, whispering something in Japanese I couldn’t quite make out.
“No!” The Wife’s word was an explosion. She clutched at Ken’s silk jacket, trying to hold him close. The mist umbilical, though, had already begun to contract, inexorably pulling Ken towards the far side of the Arrow.
I knew with the purging clarity of the damned that I could no longer hold Brin. I pushed him into Ken’s arms and my baby boy left me feather-light and smelling of sweet, baby sweat.
The Wife couldn’t let go. Even as Ken fought to escape her grip, the mist whorling and tightening behind him, the Wife caught him in a fierce grip.
“Let go, Wife, you can’t follow him.”
“I won’t let go! Not ’til my sons return to me!”
Ken argued with her in rapid-fire Japanese, straining against the mist’s pull, but it was no use. As I grabbed for the Wife’s arm, the mist gave one, mighty jerk, and I was suddenly alone in my ship.
I ran to the scope. There was no silhouette, no sign of human form against the finger of swirling white I could see being drawn into the Well.
They were gone; the Wife, Ken, and my baby boy.
The silence inside Arrow was almost more than I could bear. I desperately searched for something to fill it. Through the shocked paralysis, a chorus from one of Tobin’s songs slipped into my throat.
“I wish the wind,” I sang, as Tobin had so many, heart-rending times, “would never ever cease.” I retreated from my last image of the Wife, her arms refusing to let her son go. “Nor flashes in the flood, ’til my downy babe returns to me,” and here my throat closed against long-forbidden tears.
“Earthly flesh and blood,” I whispered to the Well. “Earthly flesh and blood.”
It was a moment before I could bring my heavy limbs to the captain’s seat. I pictured Tobin sitting at our carved, circular breakfast table, looking out over the distracted street. He was sure to be sipping black tea with a dollop of jam. I wondered if I was somewhere in the back of his mind, or if he had given up on me months ago.
There was only one way to find out.