Cold Reflection

0406 - Armored Visions

Katja had gone through hell to acquire the gazing ball. She’d fought off zombie soldiers and negotiated with dragons. She’d waded through a river of a viscous substance she was grateful she couldn’t identify, and she’d found the portal from the Otherworld to her own. She’d even managed to activate it correctly, despite the fact that the instruction manual was printed in a language she didn’t speak, and likely translated from another she’d never even heard of.

Now, though, it was time to put her prize to use.

Some gazing balls allowed you to revisit the past and make sense of the choices you’d made and the paths upon which those choices had set you. Others allowed you to glimpse the future, to prepare yourself for what might be coming.

But this gazing ball…

This gazing ball let you face your darkest fear.

That’s why, after the ritual bathing, and a simple meal of fruit, cheese, and nuts, Katja had dressed herself for battle. After all she was a mighty warrior. Her darkest fear was obviously going to be an ogre or an orc or a swamp monster… something bigger and stronger than she was, with teeth and claws instead of an external weapon… or maybe in addition to one.

Katja uttered the ritual rules and turned the ball three times, widdershins.

Then she waited.

She was expecting the crystal sphere to grow cloudy with mystical smoke. She was expecting the lights to flicker, or even burn out, as live flame was wont to do… instead, she gazed into the formerly clear ball and saw her own reflection.

Startled, she sat back in her chair, as by creating space between the gazing ball and her body it would break the connection.

Instead, her mirror self simply shook her head in silent chastisement.

Katja sat up straight again and squared her shoulders. Then she looked – really looked – at the other version of herself. That woman was not clad in a warrior’s armor, but a peasant’s dress. Her hair wasn’t rich with color, but faded and wispy. Her face, too, was lined with age, and her eyes seemed sad.

“What happened to you?” she asked.

Mirror-Katja held a finger to her lips, indicating that she couldn’t communicate with speech. She beckoned, meaning that Katja should lean closer.

Down and down, she bent, until her forehead touched the glass. There was a crack, and then blackness, and then she was looking at her reflection again, but it was in reverse. The face in the gazing ball was young and fresh, and wearing sturdy armor.

Panicking, Katja turned away, hoping that her fear was unfounded. A polished looking glass hung on the wall and she moved to check her true reflection. But something was wrong. Her body hurt when she moved, and her legs felt weak.

Still, she shuffled to the glass and peered in, seeing, not her youthful self but the aged version from the gazing ball.

She hurried, as best as she could, back to the table, where the second gazing ball waited.

And she was filled with horror.

The crystal sphere on this table was not a different one, not half of a set, or even a temporary manifestation, it was the very same ball she’d struggled so hard to acquire. She looked into it again, and saw the other Katja, whom she now realized was her future self, laughing.

Her worst fear hadn’t been any kind of creature she could battle, after all.

Her worst fear had been her own old age and failing body.

Katja reached for the sphere again, leaning toward it to attempt to reverse the switch. If she could just touch it with her forehead once more…

But her reflected self, her future self residing in her youthful body, was too quick. She took her sword and sliced through the air, cracking the original sphere in two.

Her sons, grown men, found their mother’s cold corpse with her head on the table two days later.

The gazing ball was nowhere to be seen.

The Cameo Mirror

ghost in the mirror

Angela never been entirely certain where the mirror had come from. It had been a constant presence in her childhood, waiting at the top of the stairs of her grandmother’ house, where she had to pivot to the right and step up onto the open hallway very quickly so that she couldn’t catch a glimpse of yourself in it’s wavy, greying surface.

She wasn’t sure how she knew not to look. It was something she felt more than something she had ever been told. Somehow, she’d adopted the notion that to stare into the age-warped glass would be to look at a cameo pin and find yourself in the silhouette. Even the frame – tone on tone scrollwork,  painted white with a stylized silhouette at the top – reminded her of those old brooches.

It was worse at night, even with the nightlight that was perpetually on, just beneath the mirror. Her grandmother was afraid of walking down the step to the landing in her sleep, she said, and of falling down the main stairway.

But then, her grandmother also hid in the back hallway whenever there was a storm, and kept four-leaf clovers pressed into random books, and screamed when the power went out, and didn’t have a single room that didn’t have one of those nightlights and a rosary tucked in a drawer.

Grandma’s rosaries, Angela thought, were as much a part of the woman as her rose-scented face cream and her need for ‘a little something’ after dinner. (The ‘something’ was always sweet – Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies, Stella D’oro anisette toast, a scoop of chocolate ice cream with a drizzle of Hershey’s syrup and a spritz of canned whipped cream – she called it ‘gush gush’ because of the sound it made – on top.)

As a child, Angela had happily indulged in those after-dinner treats. As an adult, she recognized her grandmother’s dessert habit as both a ritual, and a way for the old woman to hold onto youth and innocence.

Just like she’d held onto that mirror.

Her grandmother, Angela reflected, was the only person who ever looked directly into the glass. It was too old, too greyed-out, too warped to be of any use… wasn’t it? She wondered what the old woman saw.

“… which brings us to the cameo mirror…” the attorney was saying, and Angela was jolted back to the present, where the furniture she had climbed on, played under, found refuge and solace and comfort in as a young girl, was draped with sheets, like so many judgmental ghosts. She could almost hear them whispering: You should have visited more. You should have called more frequently. You couldn’t even bother sending postcards when you were traveling.

“It belonged to your great -grandmother who brought it with her from Italy, and your grandmother would prefer it stay with the house,” the lawyer said. “She’s willed her house to you, Angela, but if you don’t want to live in it, she’s asked that you take the mirror.”

Angela thought about her sunny, plant-filled apartment, doing a mental comparison with the house. “I don’t have to keep the rest of the furniture?”

“Only what you want,” she was told. “What you don’t wish to keep we will arrange to sell on your behalf.”

“I’ll take the house,” she said.

“And the mirror?”

“And the mirror.”

She signed her name to a thousand documents, until her hand began to cramp and all she could think of was to go home and take a bath before she began to figure out what of the furniture she would keep – the baby grand, definitely, and the grandfather clock – but not the sectional, and absolutely not her grandparents’ bed.

It took a month for the paperwork to go through, but Angela used the time well. She packed her apartment, hired movers, arranged for the house to be cleaned and the yard to be groomed, and picked out new pieces to replace those she was leaving behind those she was selling.

Finally, she was moved in, the house she had loved as a child becoming her own now that she was adult. Touches of her grandparents lingered – the table of African violets that Grandma had sung to every morning, the red leather wing chair her grandfather had sat in to read his National Geographic and Newsweek and Model Railroader magazines, the piano that had been a fort and a ship and a mansion for Angela and her dolls before she’d learned to make music on it.

Tired from moving and memories, she made a simple supper and took her coffee out to the back stoop where she watched the fireflies in the yard.

Then she walked up the stairs.

She was certain that the nightlight on the landing had been removed before she moved in, but it was on now, casting it’s frosted-white glow across the landing.

As she had when she was a child, Angela crossed the square space between steps and hall very quickly, without looking at the cameo mirror. Then she stopped. Her grandmother had always smiled when looking into the old glass. The probate attorney had said her great-grandmother brought it over from Italy. What harm could it do, she wondered, to look at a piece of art that had given the women in her family such joy.

Slowly, cautiously, Angela turned to face the mirror, and lifted her head to gaze directly into it. She expected something bizarre, like a fun-house version of her own face. Instead, she saw a room with a wide window looking onto a garden of wildflowers. How could this be? She knew the mural on the opposite wall was both obstructed by a pillar and depicted an impressionistic take on a café scene.

Angela stared at the scene. The flowers were moving, as if swayed by a breeze. After the span of several heartbeats, a figure came into view.

“Grandma!” she breathed. She supposed she should have been frightened, but somehow, she knew she was safe.

There was no sound from the mirror, but Angela caught the scent of that rose face cream, and smiled.

The old woman kissed her fingertips and then blew the kiss toward the mirror’s inner surface.

Angela returned the gesture, saying, “Yes, I understand. I love you, too.”

The image wavered and disappeared, and the glass was, again, just a warped fading mirror.

Angela stared at it for a long while, understanding, finally, her grandmother’s attachment to it. She must have seen her own mother’s reflection, in whatever happy place that woman had envisioned.

After that night, Angela never dashed past the cameo mirror again, but instead paused to gaze into it. Most nights, she saw only her own reflection, slightly distorted. But sometimes she saw the old woman who had loved her enough to pass on her treasured mirror.

Angela missed her, of course. But seeing her in the mirror was enough.

With Teeth

With Teeth“Bite me,” I ask him in the middle of one of our late Saturday afternoon romps in the sheets. “Please…”

“You know I can’t.”

“You can.” I turn my head, baring the side of my neck to him. He knows the spot I mean, the juncture of neck and shoulder. “I’m not asking you to draw blood.”

“Don’t say that,” he says. “Don’t even think it.” He hesitates, nuzzles the spot in question while his hand cups my breast and his thumb tweaks the nipple.

Beneath him, I give a slight jolt.

“Please?” I’m not begging, exactly.

“Honey, I can’t.” He meets my eyes when he says it, urging me to understand, and I do, but that doesn’t stop the wanting.  Still, lowers his head to my neck again and licks.

It’s not a bite, but it’s almost as good.

“Oh, god…”

Our afternoon encounter escalates from there, until we’re both satisfied and sleepy. We curl up together and nap. When I wake, the room is completely dark instead of merely dim, and he is gone from the bed. I hear movement in the kitchen. He’s opening a bottle… I can smell the contents.

Wearing the t-shirt he’d cast off much earlier, I padd out of the bedroom on bare feet. He doesn’t hear me coming; I know this because he starts when I slide my hands around his waist from behind and lay my head against his shoulder.

“You’re cold as ice,” he says, “you’re hungry.”

“I’m always hungry… after… “

I reach around him and grab the bottle from his far hand, then take a swig. “Not bad,” I said. “Tastes like a ninety-nine… maybe a two thousand. Virgin?”

“Virgin,” he confirms. “Two thousand. Carpathian blend. Shall I heat it for you?

“Please.” I go to the couch and wrap a cotton throw around my legs. He joins me a few minutes later, handing me my favorite mug – a smiley-face with fangs – full of steaming liquid. For himself, he’s got scrambled eggs and a hamburger patty. He says protein is essential.

“Full moon tonight,” I comment after checking an app on my phone. “You going out with the guys?”

“Do you mind if I do?”

I shake my head. “Nope. Francesca and Catherine and I have plans to see a late movie.”

“Home by dawn?”

“Home by dawn.”

* * *

I come home from my Saturday night with the girls to find that he’s home early. “Everything okay?” I ask, stripping off my clothes and climbing into bed with him.

He answers with a sly smile. “Everything’s fine, I just kept thinking about earlier… about how you like it with teeth… about how I couldn’t give you what you wanted.”

“You mostly did,” I assure him.

“I can give you more than ‘mostly’ now.”

I reach out to touch him, under the covers, and find a fine coating of hair. He’s in his between state, holding it for me.

This is the only time he can bite me and neither turn me, nor be turned. It’s a brief window we have in the last moments before dawn, three days a month. But I’ll take it. We’ll take it.

Such is life when you’re a vampire married to a werewolf, and you both prefer your horizontal recreation with teeth.

 

 

Falcon

0404 - Falcon

 

Movement below her woke Eyris from her long sleep, and she turned her great head to focus on its source. Her mechanical eyes flipped back and forth between lenses with tiny whir-click­ sounds, until she had a clear image.

Two humans in a boat. She checked her internal database to clarify the type of boat. A gondola. But it was floating through the air, just below her perch, rather than on water.

Hadn’t boats been meant to sail on water?

Eyris moved her great head ever so slowly, tracking the boat. The taller human held a staff that seemed to be the vessel’s source of propulsion, while she shorter one kept turning in circles and pointing.

She zoomed in on the pair and learned that the smaller one was a child while the larger was obviously its parent.

“… turning, or you’ll capsize us, Sash,” the larger one said, and the smaller paused in his? No, her. She was definitely female. The smaller one paused in her spinning.

“But Mom, there’s a giant pigeon!”

“Yes, honey, that’s a gargoyle. During the Second Golden Age they were brought into use again, not just as decorations on buildings, but also as part of the security systems. It’s said that some of them gained true intelligence, but no one really believes that.”

Eyris knew she wasn’t supposed to interact with humans, but she was clearly a Falcon and to be mistaken for one of those trashy street-walking birds would literally have ruffled her feathers, were they not made of stone.

She knew she’d be admonished. Maybe even suspended from her job as a gargoyle, but she couldn’t help it. Honor was at stake.

Summoning the strength of long-idle gears and pulleys, she leaned forward, until her shadow moved across the boat, and the occupants looked up at her.

“Mom… are they supposed to do that?”

“Do what, Sasha? Ohhhh!”

“What do we do?”

“There’s a ritual for greeting one of the Grotesque Ones,” the larger human said. “Let me think a moment.” She brought the gondola to a halt, and faced Eyris, bowing. “We apologize for interrupting your sleep,” she said. “We are merely observers and mean neither offense nor harm.”

Eyris’s first instinct was to knock the humans from their boat and watch their tiny forms plummet down, down, down to the ground, relishing in their screams.

The ritual greeting halted that process.

Grudgingly, she responded, her voice raspy from disuse. “I am Eyris, she who Guards. You have not caused harm, small ones, but you have caused offense.”

The taller human took an instinctive step backward, nearly capsizing the craft the way her daughter had not actually come close to doing. “I… apologize, but… I am uncertain how we offended you.”

Eyris sighed. “Humans have always been oblivious. ‘Seen one bird, seen them all,'” she quoted a phrase she’d heard over and over during her life. “Check your ornithology references, small one. You will find that you have misidentified me.”

The taller human was apologetic when she replied. “I am sorry, Eyris. I have no such references. Avian species are largely unknown to us these days. The sky is inhabited by poled gondolas, such as mine.”

“No… birds?”

“Not in the City, no.”

“Then I will explain, and I will forgive you… this time.” And she opened her beak to display the rows of metal teeth there (an addition that was not based on her organic inspiration). “I am no pigeon, small one.”

“You’re not?”

“No. I am a Falcon.”

 

 

Death and Taxes

0403 - Death and TaxesShe was asleep when they found her. Or, more accurately, dormant. Her guardian stone was still active. Had there been any real possibility that the pink-skinned humans with their measly two arms could have removed her from her cradle, the guardian would have awakened her.

So, yes, to their perception she was asleep. Asleep and hungry – why did intruders always make her feel hungry?

But the two-arms were no different than any who had come before, or any who would come after. They didn’t run in fear from her visage, her six arms and bladed weapons. No. They… persisted.  

But she was protected. It was part of the deal.

She was protected. They persisted.
And they were punished.

Those who tried to pry her weapons from her hands had their own skin split open in the process. Those who attempted to remove her headdress found themselves blind, and in blinding pain. Those who had the gall – the unmitigated gall! – to use chisels and something called a ‘crow bar’ (though according to her guardian it did not bear any resemblance to a crow) to remove the armored carapace that protected her soft parts and her legs, had been forced to crawl from her chamber on their hands, dragging their useless legs behind them.

None of their injuries were permanent, of course. Harming creatures who were weaker than you was unethical, or at least tacky.

And in truth, there were a few pink-skins who visited her resting place to try and understand her people and her culture.

Of course, they got it completely wrong.

They referred to her as ‘Kâli,’ who was apparently a goddess in one of the two-arms’ cultures. (Had she been awake, flattery would have gotten them everywhere – what woman didn’t appreciate being referred to as a being to be worshipped? Maybe not always, but, you know, as a change of pace.)

But she was not Kâli.
And she was not deserving of worship.
And this resting place, this cradle, was not the chamber of beloved royalty.

Rather, it was a prison cell. Here, under the guardian’s care, her body remained death-still, but her mind… Her mind was hooked into the Great Collective, where it served out a centuries long sentence as an accountant.

A tax accountant.

Her crime was symbolized in the weapons she held in her tertiary hands: a stylized knife and fork.

She hadn’t meant to devour her mate on their wedding night. But he’d smelled so good, and she’d been so hungry, too nervous to eat before the ceremony, and too busy during.

But, the elders had chastised her, cannibalism had been outlawed centuries before, and even then, it had only been permitted to the victors in war. Not, despite her protests, to the winners of Pawns and Leaders.

“How much longer?” She asked the guardian in charge of her case.

“Five hundred more years.”

“Home stretch,” she quipped, and returned to her work.

She wondered what would happen to those two-armed pink-skinned adventurers when she and her fellow inmates were released.

She also wondered if they were worth eating. She was just so hungry.

 

Nothing Like Sea Monkeys

0380 - Mermaid Tail

‘Essence of Mermaid’ read the label on the envelope. ‘Empty crystals into a wet towel  and keep damp overnight while they grow into your new Mermaid Friend.’

Josie had saved her allowance for three months before her mother had finally agreed to go to the website and click ‘buy now.’

“You know this probably isn’t real, J-girl,” her mother said. “When I was your age, these ads were in the backs of magazines and comic books and they promised us sea monkeys.”

“Did they eat sea bananas?”

Her mother laughed but it was the kind that meant she was missing her own childhood. “No; they weren’t really monkeys at all, just a kind of shrimp, and they never seemed to work the way the label said.”

“But you bought them anyway?”

“I did.”

“And you’re letting me buy the mermaid.”

“I am.”

“Why?”

“Because sometimes it’s worth it to spend a little money on hope and magic.”

And so, the payment had been made and the envelope had arrived. An envelope within an envelope. Josie had taken one of the old kitchen towels to soak, and poured the blue and green crystals into it, then soaked it.

And then she waited.

She knew she wasn’t supposed to peek, and she tried not to, but it was harder than not shaking the packages under the Christmas tree every year to see which were toys and which were underwear. After four hours, she peeled open just one quarter of the damp towel.

Jelly. All she saw was blue and green jelly.

She rewrapped the towel, brushed her teeth, and went to bed. The next morning, she had to get ready for school, so she put the towel in the tub, where it would be out of the way. Maybe by the time she got home, her mermaid would have grown.

“Mom! Mom! Is she here? Do I have a mermaid?” Josie ran up the porch steps and into her house. “Mom?”

“Hey, kiddo, there’s chocolate cookies on the – Josie! Slow down!”

But she’d already pushed past her apron-clad mother, dropped her backpack on the floor near the stairs, and made her way to the bathroom.

The tub was empty.

“Mom! Mom, come here!”

“Josie, what is it? What’s wrong?”

The little girl pointed at the empty tub. “The towel with the mermaid essence. It’s gone.”

“You started them without me?”

“I wanted it to be ready when I came home from school.”

Josie’s mother pulled her close. “I’m sorry sweetie, I didn’t realize. The towels are in the washer, now.”

“There wasn’t a baby mermaid in the load was there?”

“No, honey. Just a wet towel.” Josie started to cry, but her mother tugged gently on one of her braids. “How ’bout I order another packet of mermaid essence? When it arrives, we can set it up together.”

“I – I guess.”

“Would a cookie help you feel better?”

Josie sniffed. “Maybe.”

“Shall we go find out?”

“Okay.”

Mother and daughter left the bathroom and walked down the stairs in tandem. As they passed the laundry room door, they heard a loud thump-a-thump-a-thump sound. “Laundry’s off-balance again. Let me go fix it.”

Josie headed toward the kitchen but after a beat, her mother called her back.

“Something wrong, Mom?”

“I’m not sure ‘wrong’ is the correct term, kiddo. Let’s just say… Essence of Mermaid is nothing like sea monkeys.”

Her mother stepped aside to reveal a mermaid tail – a grown-up sized one – protruding from the open door of the washer.

Chalk

0396 - ChalktopusStephen loved to walk from his tiny garret apartment overlooking the river to the university where he taught. His first class was a geography section that met at ten minutes past seven every morning. Most of the year, that meant his walk was illuminated by the first, warming rays of the morning sun.

He would walk the first section along the river, where fog often diffused the colors of the sunrise, then he would turn toward the center of the city, stopping at his favorite newsstand for the daily paper – he reveled in the inky texture of newsprint against his fingers – a coffee, and a cheese Danish. His lunches and dinners were always healthy but having coffee and pastry in the morning had been a ritual since his student day, when eating on the go had been more important than balanced nutrition.

Besides, his daily walks, rain or shine, warm weather or cool, kept him trim. He could afford the ’empty’ calories.

The last section of Stephen’s walk brought him through the Chalk Alleys. These were narrow streets between great brick buildings, their external walls covered in layer upon layer of chalk drawings. He enjoyed the work of the different artists, and while he could never decipher the tags that represented their creators’ names, he recognized each distinct style.

There was one chalk artist who was obsessed with machine age cityscapes, and another who thought themself a contemporary Degas, covering walls with stylized dancers in modern club attire. There was the illustrator who memorialized local personalities on the bricks, and there was another who created trompe l’oeil windows onto other worlds.

More recently, however, a new artist had joined the extant crew. Stephen had glimpsed some of their work on warehouses along the waterfront and become intrigued by the monsters they depicted. A white shark with three-dimensional teeth swam on the wall of the old boathouse, and a dragon with scales that glittered like the stars was on the wall opposite the university gates. Creature-Feature’s (Stephen’s private nickname for the skilled creator) monsters were all based on real animals, but given heightened realism, and exaggerated danger.

As he turned the final corner, Stephen saw Creature-Feature’s most recent work: a giant squid that seemed to undulate along the wall, several of its tentacles even curling around the corner of the building. In the weak light that hit these bricks, it seemed as if the squid had was following him on his path. Indeed, when he turned the corner, the tentacles followed him, stretching off their flat surface to reach for…

No! This could not be happening!

Stephen quickened his pace in order to reach the next corner, and where he could cross the street and climb the stairs to the pedestrian bridge.

The great beast followed him.

It made no sound, but when Stephen had to step closer to the wall to side-step a puddle, he caught the scent of seawater and something faintly rubbery and slimy and sinister, and felt the sucker on the tentacle’s underside brush the back of his neck.

Dropping his coffee and pastry, Stephen broke into a run. Most of his brain was occupied with breathing and not tripping and wishing he’d thought to wear running shoes to work and change upon arrival, but another, smaller part, wondered if any of his students followed this route to school, and what would they think?

The sunlight grew brighter, bringing more of the brick expanse into its warming glow and Stephen cast aside his newspaper and ran faster. If he could reach that corner, he’d be out of the shadows. Surely sunlight would stop the thing, right?

Right?

But he’d forgotten: just before the corner one of the old building had been supplanted by a skyscraper, as was happening more and more often in the city. The tall structure blotted out the sunlight, and the squid reached for him again, and this time, the suckers caught him.

As the chalk creature dragged him into its dusty embrace (why had he thought it was slimy?), Stephen screamed.

But there was no one to hear him.

The seasons changed. Stephen’s class was reassigned to the bewilderment of students who had always enjoyed their original professor’s lectures. The landlord eventually emptied the apartment and leased it to someone new at twice the rent.

Rains erased the cityscapes and dancers, and new illustrators came to create new chalk picture, but the squid, on its sheltered bricks, remained. It wasn’t technically indelible, but no one was willing to touch it. It felt too weird, they said.

Still the image of the giant sea-monster had been altered. If asked, people would say the image changed around the time of Stephen’s disappearance.

And the alteration?

The figure of a man in khaki pants and a jacket with elbow-patches, a messenger bag slung across his body, was visible in the curl of one of the squid’s tentacles, his mouth open in a perpetual scream.

Stitches

0400 - StitchesJeiyiz stood in front of the looking glass in her room and surveyed her work. So far, one arm was completed, and work on her torso had begun. When the final stitch had been completed, she would be considered a woman in the eyes of her people and could leave their village and make her way in the universe.

The embroidered flowers and symbols that were sewn into her skin represented the people who had raised her, the friends who had supported her, the animals which had given themselves for her nourishment, and the Great Path that all her kind walked.

The Path was a spiritual one, that lead each of the Embroidered Ones to their personal fulfillment. For some, this resulted in marriage and children, while for others it led to a life of ministry or activism. Some found that their branches of the Path resulted in demanding careers that allowed them to give back to their communities, while others lived lives of creativity, adding to the collective Story in words, music, and visual art.

Jeiyiz was not yet certain where her journey would end, but she knew that she was anxious for it to begin. Her plan was to go to the City to the great University there, and study as broad a curriculum as possible.

After that, she wished to travel. On the newsfeeds, she’d seen the giant starships that sailed into orbit around her World and been dazzled by all the different kinds of People who came down to visit. Some were green-skinned, and some were pink. Some had horns, and some had hair. Some had art on their bodies – not thread like hers, but ink and scars.

Jeiyiz wanted to meet all these different People. She wanted to taste the diversity that existed in the universe and discover her true place in it. She’d been told she could write; maybe she would chronicle her experiences.

But first she had to complete her stitching.

She pulled her kit from the bottom drawer of her dresser, and threaded the needle with clean, white, thread. She’d filled each spool herself, first gathering the fluffy white fiber from the thread-plants, then cleaning it, carding it, stretching and spinning it until it was fine enough to be sewn into living skin.

With the first stick of the needle, blood ran down the fiber, staining it red-brown. It didn’t hurt much, but she would not have objected to a little pain. “Pain is what lets us know we are alive,” the elders said. “Pain is a signal that we are part of the Universe.”

The angle at which Jeiyiz was working was awkward, and she had not stenciled a design in chalk or marking pencil, but she was certain her imagination would lead her stitches in the correct direction.

She worked for an hour, finishing the first two of many water plants. Water was her element, and while she had heard that there are People who come from desert planets, she could not imagine living on one. The very thought left her parched.

At the end of her hour, she tied the knot, snipped the thread, washed her blood off the needle, and replaced her kit in her dresser drawer.

Standing in front of her mirror once more, Jeiyiz surveyed her work. The once-white stiches have absorbed her blood, and dried to almost the color of her skin. She runs the hand of her un-sewn arm over the earlier sewing of the opposite side, and smiles at her reflection.

Her torso was nearly half finished. By the end of the Hot Season she would be ready to claim her adult status and begin her Adventures on the Great Path.

Perhaps one day she would find a life partner and agree to a marriage. She lifted her unembroidered arm and studied the smooth flesh there. If that partner was not one of her People but another kind of Person, would they be willing to stich their story into her skin?

For the moment, Jeiyiz could only wonder.

The Camels of Mars

0398 - Camels of Mars

Their craft had finally set down on the ground that didn’t look all that different from any desert back home.

“Isn’t it supposed to be red?” Benjy asked glancing from the scenery outside to his father, who was also staring through the viewport.

Fahrid O’Reilly sympathized with his son. He’d wanted Mars to seem different, too. “That’s just because of the dust in the air when we look at Mars from Earth,” he explained. “Are you disappointed?”

“Who’s gonna believe we really came here if the dirt I send home is just… dirt?”

“Benjy, we’ve been through this before. You can’t send soil back to Earth. But you can send a photo of yourself at Curiosity Memorial.”

The ten-year-old was not impressed. “Anyone can photoshop that.”

“Well, we’ll have to figure out something else to prove to your friends where your new home is.” He was about to remind the boy that his mother had arrived on the previous lander, three months before, and that he’d get to be reunited with her shortly, but one of the officers – Morris – came to join them.

“The umbilical into the Habitrail will be attached any second now,” he said, gesturing to the series of interconnected domes and tunnels that provided a livable environment on the Red Planet. “Everyone’s anxious to get to their quarters and decompress from the trip, but we think it’d be best if you took the animals out first. Get them settled in their enclosure.”

Fahrid nodded, “A wise choice, Commander Morris. I’ve been checking on them and they seem to be alright, but large animals shouldn’t be cooped up for so long.”

“Do you mind if I ask… what made you pitch the idea of bringing them?”

“I was going through my father’s things after he died, an I found a picture of him with a camel, and a book about the Texas Camel Corps.”

“Is that a real thing?” Morris asked.

“Oh, very real. In the early twentieth century a rancher in Texas who’d been the camel caretaker at a zoo decided that camels would be fantastic herd animals.”

“O’Reilly, don’t you dare tell me they raised camels for food?”

“No… no they didn’t. They used them as pack animals and for transportation in the Chihuahuan Desert – there are places where it isn’t practical to use road transports, and it’s too dusty for flitters. He started doing tours for tourists, but eventually he was training camels to be used as riding beasts for ranchers throughout the southwest.”

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Most people don’t. Anyway, I did some research, found out that he’d been experimenting with genetic mods, and his descendants had continued his work. Not only can our camels store liquid water, instead of just fat, they can actually create water out of what they eat and breathe.”

“They’re not dangerous, are they?” Morris asked.

“Benjy,” Fahrid said to his son, “why don’t you take this one?”

The ten-year-old uncurled his fingers from the rim of the viewport and pushed himself away from the bulkhead. Standing up straight, and speaking in rapid, but well-rehearsed sentences, he shared, “It’s a myth that camels are mean. Llamas have been known to spit at humans, and camels can do that too, but for the most part they’re docile creatures. Some people even describe them as giant hay-eating puppies.” He paused and grinned up at both men. “Lucy’s my favorite. She likes to give kisses.”

Morris seemed like he was about to ask a question, but there was a jolt followed by a hiss. “Sounds like the umbilical is linked. Can you two manage, or could you use a hand?”

“The more help we have, the faster we finish,” Fahrid said. He turned and led the officer down to the part of the hold where the livestock had been quartered on their long journey. “Coming, Benjy?”

“I wanna get Sophie first,” the boy said.  Part family pet, part herding animal, Sophie was their border collie.  “We’ll meet you there.”

“Okay, but don’t dawdle.”

“I won’t.”

It took the men, the boy, and the dog about an hour to offload the seven camels and five goats, and usher them into the umbilical tunnel that led into the main dome of Opportunity Village, where much of the extant community was waiting to greet the new arrivals, whether they had four feet, or only two.

From the center dome, there was another tunnel that led to a series of gates and beyond them to another dome, this one carved among pillars of stone that were part of the natural landscape. It had shaded stalls, water troughs, and pens full of hay. An older woman, dressed in a coverall, was waiting with a pitchfork, and several people using tablets to control camera drones were also gathered.

“Mr. O’Reilly! Welcome!” She greeted Fahrid first. “Benjy, it’s good to see you. And Commander Morris, welcome back. You staying, this time?”

“Looks like it,” the officer said. “Especially since Specialist Weaver finally agreed to marry me.”

“Did he! That’s wonderful. You two will have to join George and me for dinner soon.” But she turned back to the O’Reillys. “I’m Anna Meier, the governor. I’m so excited to have you and your charges with us. Join me, now, as we pitch the first hay into the feeding bins… folks back on Earth are dying for a photo op.” More softly, she added, “Penelope is waiting for you in quarters… she asked for a private reunion.”

“Penny’s always been camera shy,” Fahrid observed. He reached out to ruffle his son’s hair. “Okay Benjy, line’em up.”

And they cajoled the animals into a loose semicircle around the feeding bins and let Governor Meier toss the first loads of hay to each beast.

“I’m so excited. I know the dome won’t be their favorite place, but with rebreathers, we’ll be able to use your animals to explore the surface and hopefully find more access to the underground sea.”

Benjy and Sophie wandered away while the adults were talking, heading directly toward Lucy. The camel blinked at the boy and the dog, and then slurped the former. Benjy heard the whirr-click of the drone camera capturing his picture.

“Hey, kid!” A blonde reporter with a friendly grin called out. “Mind looking this way?” Benjy turned and flashed her a smile that was a dimpled echo of his father’s. “Awesome,” the reporter said. “That’s the money shot.”

And it was.

All the papers and news feeds on Earth, Luna, and Mars had the image of boy, dog, and camel, with the great stone pillars behind them, as their lead story. The caption? The Camels of Mars.

 

 

 

Storm Head

Zombie Attack by https://www.123rf.com/profile_ecadphoto

I know the storm is coming because our old dog, Fortinbras (named for the dog in my favorite childhood book, A Wrinkle in Time, and not directly after the Shakespeare character) is whimpering and pawing at me.

At his insistence, I wake up, and immediately I’m assaulted by a splitting headache and beg my husband to make it stop. “My head is going to explode, I say.” But the storm is already in full force – it crept up on us while we were sleeping. “Or implode,” I correct, because what I feel is immense pressure, as if someone is trying to crush me from above.

“Take your meds,” he says gently.

“They make me into a zombie,” I complain.

“Better zombie-wife than screaming-in-pain wife,” he counters. “Take. Your. Meds.”

I roll my eyes at him, but I sit up in the bed and twist, so I can reach the bottle of blue pills on the shelf of the headboard. They’re uncoated. They’re bitter. I hate the taste, the texture, the size. But I shake two of them into the palm of my hand and reach for the glass of lemon-water on my nightstand. It must be lemon water. Plain water makes me puke.

I screw my face into a horrible expression, but I swallow the pills.

Then I wait.

Outside our bedroom window, lightning sizzles and I can taste ozone. “That was close,” I observe.

“It’ll move away soon,” he says.

“Yeah.” The thunder rumbles, and I imagine it, embodied, as several cranky old men – traveling salesmen from the sixties – knocking on the door. “Sorry sirs,” I address the sound. “We’re not interested in vacuums or blenders today. Maybe next year. Or never.”

“You’re doing it again,” my husband says. He’s sitting up in bed now, too. “Talking to the thunder.”

“It’s trying to sell us stuff we don’t need,” I explain.

“O-kay.” His tone is half-way between merely dubious and maybe-my-wife-should-be-committed, but he puts his arm around me anyway.

“How long has it been?” I ask.

He has an almost supernatural sense of time.  He doesn’t even have to look at his phone to tell me, “Ten minutes.”

The pills take thirty to work. I rest my head against his shoulder, let my right hand fall to his thigh. I reach across my body with my left hand and place it over his heart. The steady beat, the darkened bedroom, his arm around me… these things ground me.

When the lightning flashes again, it’s less bright, further away.

“How long?” I ask again.

“Twenty-five minutes.”

I close my eyes and count to sixty once, twice, three, four, five times. And then I feel it: the bubble inside my head pops and the pain and tension are gone.

The thunder makes another attempt at rumbling, but it’s barely a murmur.

As the storm abates, so does my ability to be awake or lucid. I slide back into the bed, and turn on scoot backwards, into my husband’s embrace. “Sit in your chair,” he says, meaning that I’m supposed to nest myself within the curve of his arms and bend of his legs. “Sleep. I’ll keep you safe.”

But what he really means is, that he’ll keep the animals safe, because while the pills soothe my aching head and send the storms away, the zombie part isn’t entirely an exaggeration. The last time this happened, I ate the neighbor’s cat when it jumped our fence.

I was picking calico fur out of my teeth for days.

“Remember when I used to love storms?” I ask softly. “Remember when they happened because of normal climate patterns, and not because my brain is wonky?”

“You’re obsessing,” he says. “Clear your mind. Go to sleep.”

And I do, but my dreams are nightmare memories of the dengue fever I caught after our summer planting trees in Costa Rica. The doctors and chemists and virologists and entomologists had no idea what I’d eaten, what had bitten me. They only knew that when the fever left me, I’d been altered.

The symptoms developed slowly: the nausea-inducing migraines, the storms that always seemed to come whenever my head hurt, the craving for hot animal flesh and blood when the medication that stopped the pain and storms finally took hold.

Other people talked about their migraine medication as making them into zombies… but for me, it wasn’t an exaggeration. It was a harsh reality.