Shelley’s Arm

This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get the full issue for $1.99 at Zoetic Press. 


It was a Tuesday, and I would have to go to town.

I was in abnormally high spirits about the prospect of going into the village that day. I put it off without thought. Bundled in my warm blanket, and with Jonas at my side, I slept away the morning in my hiding place in the woods, the frost beginning to melt and birds chirping and chattering away around me. I woke to find a spiderweb, glistening and silver, stretched across the entrance.

I knew that the web was a very strong protective omen, but I would have to knock it down if I were to get out. “I am very late to go into town, Jonas,” I said. Jonas blinked at me. I reached out to knock it away, but couldn’t bring myself to. “The magic will all be spent if I do it,” I told the cat. He flicked his tail, then stood, walking deliberately through the web.

I went inside and washed my face before starting on my way, as Constance had told me I must, and took the library books off their shelf, carrying them in a bundle at my side.

“Be very careful, my Merricat,” Constance said, her voice like a song. “And don’t take too long.”

“I won’t. I love you, Constance.”

“I love you too, Merricat.”

The library is the first space on the game board of the village. It lies just beyond the black rock and the gate that protects the Blackwood property from the encroaching rot and villainy of the villagers. I climbed the marble steps, went through the door, and lay the old books on the counter, then went about choosing three new ones. A mystery or criminal study for Uncle Julian, of course. Constance preferred romance, or cookbooks. I turned the corner behind a tall shelf, and stopped.

A woman stood before me, with long, auburn hair and a stylish emerald green frock. She was not one of the villagers. She was not ugly and grey and full of rot. She was beautiful, red and brown and green, like the forest. She looked at me, and smiled. I looked away, thinking perhaps she had mistaken me for someone else.

“Hello,” she said. “My name is Shelley. Shelley Banks.”

I nodded politely. “Are you new to the village?” I asked, already knowing the answer. I had never seen her before. It was a very small, very dull village.

Shelley took a book from the shelf, examined it for a moment, then put it back. “I live in the city, actually.”

I let out my breath in relief. Somehow I wanted very much not to hate her as I hated the villagers. Shelley Banks continued. “I’m coming on to teach school here, starting in a week.”

She smiled, and so I smiled back politely, but in my mind, I cursed the devilish brats who would, no doubt, be terrible and wicked to their lovely teacher. It was sad to think of her surrounded by their ugliness, a pretty jewel among the muck.

“I’m terribly indecisive about books,” she said. “Have you any recommendations?”

“Oh,” I said, surprised that she continued to converse with me even in my stunned silence. I looked around. We stood in the “B’s”, and I spotted Wuthering Heights within reaching distance. I plucked it off the shelf and handed it to her.

“I’m very fond of Catherine,” I said. “The first Catherine, that is. There are two.”

“Oh, how confusing,” Shelley Banks said. “Well if you say it is good, I have no doubt I’ll like it, too.” Her cheeks were round and rosy and her face was very pleasant. I felt very warm, as though I were at home in the kitchen and Constance was baking a pie.

I was suddenly aware of the passage of time, and I quickly picked a third book at random from behind me, in the “H” section. “I must be off,” I said, “But it was very nice to meet you.” I was surprised that I actually meant it.

“You never told me your name,” said Shelley Banks, as I turned to hurry off.

I thought very quickly. If I told her that I was Mary Katherine Blackwood, no doubt she would hear all about me from the townsfolk in no time, and I would lose her favor forever. I very much wanted to avoid this, although I did not quite know why. I paused for a moment before answering, “Mary.”

“Good to meet you, Mary,” Shelley Banks said, and smiled at me again, all pink and red and brown and green. My stomach felt something close to queasiness, but not as unpleasant. I hurried to check out my books.

When I left the library again, I felt as though I had left my shimmering house upon the moon and stepped into a squalid swamp. The grey village loomed before me, and I set off, walking deliberately, space by space. I was a metal game piece, and nothing could perturb me. Past the post office, with its windows hiding watchful eyes. The Rochester house, toward which I avoided looking. Across the highway – lose a turn, as there was traffic. I would not stop at Stella’s after buying our groceries today. I had been far too long already.

Finally, the black rock and the gate. End. The wretched game board would remain unplayed again until Friday’s grocery run.

On Wednesday, after I had checked the fences, and mended a few wires which had rusted or become bent out of shape, I got to thinking about the library. Normally I would not go back until the next Tuesday, but something told me the schoolmistress would be there again. I had to come up with a device which would make her warm to me, stop her from being infected by the townspeople and their hatred.

“What would you suggest, Jonas?” Jonas leapt after a grasshopper, catching it in his mouth, then turned and blinked slowly.

“I suppose a book would do nicely,” I said. “She is a teacher, after all.”

I went back to the house, leaving a wild flower near Uncle Julian’s chair by the window and greeting Constance warmly.

“We are having vegetable soup for lunch today,” Constance said, her face flushed from stirring the pot.

I felt a little badly for Constance, keeping something from her as important as my acquaintance with the schoolteacher. I resolved to help her more in the kitchen. I wondered if Constance would get along with Shelley Banks, or whether she would be too frightened to allow her over for tea, even if she wasn’t from the village. I decided that I wouldn’t ask Constance about it until I was sure my new safeguard would work.

After lunch, I took a little leather-bound notebook out of a drawer in my room. I hadn’t used it in quite some time, but when I had, it was used to mark down the names of the villagers who had treated me the worst. Nearly every villager known to me had long since been added to the list. I carefully tore out the pages in the front where the names were written, and set the book on the windowsill. It would be best if the book could sit in the moonlight for three nights; since it was Wednesday and I was going back to the library on Friday, two nights would have to do. It helped that one of the nights was Thursday. Thursdays were my most powerful day, and therefore my most powerful night.

I took the loose pages outside and buried them. The villagers would surely face consequences sooner this way, anyhow, I thought.

Friday came, and although I was nervous about speaking to Shelley Banks again, my thoughts were filled with magic and shining things. We had not yet finished reading the books I had checked out on Tuesday, and so I brought only the notebook with me. The grey-haired librarian looked at me coldly as I passed her desk without returning any books, but I ignored her, as I always did.

Shelley Banks was standing, still in literature, but this time among the “M’s”. She flipped through a volume of Anne Shirley tales, looking amused. I cleared my throat softly, and she looked up, smiling again. The brightest smile, which made her face round and her cheeks sparkle, and my knees ache.

“Mary!” she exclaimed. I was pleased. She did not appear brimming with questions and suspicions just yet. I approached her, holding out the notebook. “What’s this?” she asked.

“I would like you to have it,” I responded, not sure what the protocol was for giving gifts to near-strangers. “It’s for writing in,” I clarified weakly, my head suddenly spinning.

“Oh, lovely,” said Shelley Banks. “What should I write in it?” she asked, turning it over in her hands. “What would you write, Mary?”

“I would write about my life on the moon, and about riding on my winged horse,” I said, not really thinking. She blinked her deep brown eyes at me, and I continued, “And I would write down all the stories my cat, Jonas, tells me.”

Shelley Banks giggled, and for a moment my stomach dropped and her dress lost a bit of color, but then she took my hand and said, “That is truly wonderful, Mary.” My face grew hot as she said, “I will try to write something half as good as that.”

I left the library feeling lighter than air. I am living on the moon, I thought. I am bouncing along the spaces of this imaginary game board of a town. Nothing can get to me when I am so high up.

Constance was ready with a savory egg tart when I got home, and I ate each bite with a twinge of guilt. I had thought of her so little these past few days, my thoughts wholly consumed by the strange—what was it? friendship?—I had struck up with the schoolmistress. Worse, I didn’t feel I could tell Constance about it, not yet. Anyway, I worried I might frighten her if I brought it up too soon. Now was the time to wait.

Constance had begun to suspect something, I gathered, because that night she asked me, “Merricat, did something happen in the village today?”

I was chilled. “No, dear Constance, why would you think so?” I asked, keeping my voice steady.

“Never mind,” Constance said. “It was only a feeling.”

“Silly Constance,” I said.

“Silly Merricat,” said Constance.

*   *   *

Perhaps it was time to think of another safeguard.

I decided that it would be too strange, and too much of a change if Shelley Banks were to come over for tea. I didn’t think poor Constance would like it, and resolved that it was a reckless idea. I went to the cellar, where many generations of Blackwood women’s china sets were kept. I chose a rather ugly beige cup, one from a low shelf, that I was sure Constance would not miss, and I smashed it on the floor. I picked up the pieces carefully and wrapped them up in my dress. I hurried outside with them, and left them in a long trail along the driveway. Now I would not think again of asking Shelley to tea.

Tuesday came again, and in the morning I asked Constance to make a coffee cake. When we finished our breakfast, I broke off an extra piece and wrapped it in parchment paper. I tucked it in the middle of the three books from the previous week (the “H” book I had grabbed by mistake—The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall —I had devoured on Saturday, finding it strange and amusing) and made off toward town.

I am on my winged horse, I thought, I am collecting cinnamon and honey, and deep, dark, topaz, brown and sparkling, and I am bringing them to Shelley Banks in the library.

The grey-haired librarian did not look at me as I returned my books, and I was grateful. Her stare would not have perturbed me much, I imagined, not today. Shelley Banks was in the “W” section, looking at some book with a dull red cover. My heart raced as I approached her, but when she looked at me, everything stopped.

Her face was different, her smile tinged with pity. Her green dress and brown eyes and red hair began to blend together into a featureless grey.

“Hello, Mary,” she said. “May I ask you something?”

I was aware of the air around me, pressing up on my face and hands, pushing me down against the earth. Shelley Banks continued, “Is your name Mary Katherine Blackwood?”

There was a sudden ringing in my ears. I nodded. Though I wanted to cry and scream and run, I did not. I will not run away, I thought, I cannot run away.

“I only ask because, well—the children, they sing this song…” She looked embarrassed. She stopped. “I’m terribly sorry. Children say such awful things sometimes.”

I clung to the piece of coffee cake wrapped in parchment. I wished that I had put death inside of it.

“Mary, please don’t be cross with me,” said Shelley. “Only I’m just so curious.” Her eyes were dull and colorless and I wondered if she had ever had a soul in them at all. “Did she really do it?”

“You shall never be invited for tea,” I said coldly, and spun around, walking quickly (I must not run away) out the door.

I rushed past the post office and the Rochester house. I wanted to smash the coffee cake on the ground and stomp on it. I wanted to stomp on Shelley Banks’s feet, pull at her hair, watch her cry and scream on the ground. I hoped that when she wrote in the leather notebook her long, thin fingers would shrivel up into knots and her hand would fall off. I smiled, picturing her crying over her stump of an arm, no longer able to write on the chalkboard during lectures.

I did the shopping with a sort of dull roar in my ears. The rotten villagers and their watchful eyes and their little whispers followed me until I reached the black rock and the gate. I set down my shopping bag to undo the lock and dropped the package of coffee cake on the ground. I smashed it with my foot, thinking of Shelley’s long, white fingers beneath my mother’s brown shoe.

“Hello Merricat!” Constance sang. She had been waiting for me at the edge of the garden, and I felt the little knot inside my stomach loosen a bit. Constance, her yellow hair and blue eyes and lovely pink dress, her warm smile and musical voice, was the only color I needed in the world. Jonas ran up to me, rubbing his cheek against my ankle.

“Hello, Constance. The village is dreadful, and I’m so happy to be home.”

“Let’s go inside, Merricat,” Constance said with a little laugh.

I waited until Thursday, then dug up the pages which I had torn from the little leather book. I wiped as much dirt from the last page as I could, then wrote another name at the bottom. I would bury them in a different place, this time. I pictured Shelley Banks and her stump of an arm again, and smiled, scooping dirt over the paper with relish.

I heard Constance calling from the back of the house, and wiped my hands together in a futile attempt to rid myself of dirt. Constance would tell me to wash up before we could eat. I thought of Constance, and of Uncle Julian, and our beautiful, lovely house, and Jonas. I was silly to think of bringing someone else, an interloper, into our world. Now, I thought, I will never think of anyone more than I think of Constance; I shall never love anyone as much. We are so, so happy.


Meghan Elaine Bell is a northern California transplant and avid horror lover living in Portland, Oregon, with her girlfriend, Carly, and her cat, Midnight Monster. Her work can be found in the current issue of RFD Magazine

 

On Account of the Living


John Carlyle stood from behind his desk and extended a hand. “Thank you for making time in your schedule to meet with me, Mr. Marinkovic.”

His visitor ignored the handshake offer and sat brusquely. “Save it, please, and let’s cut to the bloody chase. What’s the problem this time?”

Carlyle sat, face sober, and steepled his fingers before him. “It’s not often easy for a parent to hear…”

“Skip the handjob, please.”

“Very well.” He cleared his throat. “Your son does not appear to be cut out for this pre-K school.”

Marinkovic’s expression didn’t change. “Didn’t Ignacio Estrada say something like ‘If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn?’”

Carlyle did not immediately respond, but instead leaned forward for his desktop computer mouse. “Permit me to illustrate the problem?” Without waiting for a reply, he clicked at his computer and a video began playing silently on a television to one side of his desk.

A young boy with mousy brown hair is clearly engrossed in finger painting on beige paper, along with several other children. In walks an older, heavyset woman with her hands cupped together; the children jump up to greet her with excitement and cluster about her. She walks with them to a low table, says something to them, and they respond by moving their things off the table. The woman places what she’s carrying down on the table and removes her hands to reveal a blue jay, its neck clearly broken. The video pauses.

“The bird flew into one of the school windows and died,” Carlyle explained. “Ms. Gordon brought it in to show the children.” He then clicked the mouse.

The video resumes. Children begin to point and speak animatedly…all except for the boy with the mousy brown hair whose lip begins to quiver for some seconds before he begins to cry. The video pauses.

Marinkovic shifted in his seat. “What of it? With no context, Sergei might have…”

Carlyle held up his left hand, palm out, and wordlessly clicked to activate another video.

It is the same room, but the camera shows a different angle. It is darker than in the earlier video because the shades are down. The children lie on mats on the floor in various poses of sleep. The young boy—Sergei—begins to twitch, then grimace. His tiny arms flail, and his feet kick about. He begins to pant, head shaking emphatically back and forth as if forcefully screaming “NO!” The camera zooms to show tears streaking his cheeks, then pans lower to show a wet spot form at the crotch of his blue shorts.

“This? This is what I’m paying for?” Marinkovic stood abruptly.

“He had a nightmare, and wet himself, Mr. Marinkovic.”

“So? Lots of children do when they’re young!”

Carlyle gestured at the screen where the video had paused. “This was the afternoon after seeing the dead bird. Note that the other children are all sleeping soundly.”

“But…!”

“If you’ll calm yourself and be seated, I’ll show you the most significant evidence I have as to why your son doesn’t belong at this special pre-K program.” He studied his computer screen, moved the mouse and double-clicked once more. “Given the above episodes, the following test was absolutely warranted.”

Sergei is alone in a play room, playing with building blocks. The door opens and a young girl with curly blond hair and dark eyes comes in. The boy raises his head and looks to at her, and there is delighted curiosity on his face. He stands up as the girl walks over to the table and says something to her. She glances at the table, then back at Sergei, who smiles and nods. She reaches and takes a block, then adds it to what the boy was building. Soon they are taking turns, and both are laughing.

Suddenly, the girl stops laughing and her eyes go wide. She appears to be choking, struggling for breath. Sergei jumps to his feet, hitting the table, and the blocks fall and scatter everywhere. The girl falls backwards and the boy falls to her knees at her side. The camera zooms in as his lips begin to quiver, and his face screws up and tears begin falling as he starts yelling out loud. The video pauses with him mid-cry.

Marinkovic frowned and glanced at Carlyle with a loathing typically reserved for finding a dead mouse in one’s cupboard. “Just what kind of sick bastard are you?”

“I am the headmaster of the most exclusive pre-Kindergarten school program in the world; I’ll do whatever is necessary to preserve the reputation of this school and its children.” He jutted his chin in the direction of the video screen, his eyes never leaving those of the furious parent before him. “You’re just angry because I’ve forced you to face the fact that your son is simply not suited to this program.”

“His new playmate collapsed in front of him, and….”

Carlyle’s hand slapped the desk with the sound of a gavel banging out a sentence. “Come now, Mr. Marinkovic! You knew the girl was dead the moment she entered the room, even via the film, didn’t you?”

Angry eyes glared back at him, but there was no reply.

“We’ve use her for years to test our students’ aptitudes—she was animated by Ms. Gordon, in fact, in this instance. Do you know what most children do, sir?”
Marinkovic looked away and said nothing.

“Most have the same reaction as when the see the dead animal—the blue jay, in this case. Sometimes it’s a turtle, or a mouse… Regardless, they typically respond with fascination, looking to understand. One in a fifty begins to explore their own abilities at this point; it’s a rarity, but some talent manifests so early and powerfully that they can make ‘Necro Nellie’ twitch, or move her hand.” Carlyle leaned back in his chair and again steepled his fingers. “None who cry, or wet the bed during a nightmare after seeing and touching a dead creature go on to become great necromancers.”

Marinkovic’s face was red when he turned his gaze back to the headmaster, and when he spoke it was through gritted teeth. “I’ll have you know that his grandfather was the scourge of the Ukraine, finally caught and burned to death after the uprising of the cemetery at the St. Peter’s and Paul’s Garrison Church in Lviv! That his father has surpassed even that feat, through the selective animation of historical figures over 500 years old!”

“That may all be true, sir, but…”

“But nothing!” Marinkovic stretched out a hand, fingers rigidly clawed.

“Oh please. I have my own powers, and…erk!” Carlyle’s mouth gaped open and moved silently. He stood abruptly, palms flat on his desk, and struggled for breath. His head snapped up, and his eyes went wide in horror and disbelief. He brought up one hand to his chest, the other curled to gesture, but nothing happened. The headmaster made the gesture again, more frantically, but again nothing happened. He fell back into his chair, back arched, eyes panicked, chest heaving but unable to breathe.

Marinkovic stood slowly, clawed hand turning over, as if he now held something clutched in it. “My son will be a great necromancer, you pissant, self-important little fool,” he snarled as he moved closer. “And do you want to know a secret? Something to which no one else living is privy?”

Carlyle heaved like a fish in air, eyes rolling back in their sockets.

Sergei’s father leaned close and whispered to the dying man. “When I was young, I, too, wet the bed. I grew out of it.” He suddenly squeezed his hand into a fist and the headmaster went absolutely rigid for several seconds before he finally slumped in his chair and did not move again.

“And so will my son.”

* * *

Alina Marinkovic leaned her head back and rested it against her husband’s chest as his arms enfolded her. “Are you certain this is for the best?”

“Of course. Look at how happy he is now.”

She turned within his embrace to gaze up at him. “But what about you? You were so proud to have him in that pre-K.”

Marinkovic smiled at her. “Let’s just say it didn’t quite live up to its reputation. I’m sure he’ll do fine with home-schooling for a while.”

“Well. I will say it’s nice to have him here, and it’s more convenient than having to drive him there and back every day.” She turned once again, and they watched Sergei together wordlessly for a few minutes. “And you’re sure about his tutor?”

“Mr. Carlyle and I spoke at great length, and I’m sure he would rather die than fail our son.”

Alina beamed. “That’s so sweet! What kind of man is he?”

Marinkovic thought for a moment, then kissed his wife on the cheek before replying. “Animated.”


David Hoenig has had stories published in Flame Tree Publishing, Cast of Wonders, Elder Signs Press, Zoetic Press/NonBinary Review, Drunk Monkeys Literary, and Dark Chapter Press. He is working on his first novel.

Get the current issue of NonBinary Review, including this story, for just $1.99 from Zoetic Press! 

Oooo la la or, The Empress Liang Chi’s New Clothes


The plane lands at the Orly Airport and on her way to the fashion runway the New York Photographer thinks she sees The Girl With The Cloak. The dark cloaked shape spins through the river of traffic like a bateau mouche on the Seine.

The Paris fashion hall fills with double-breasted tiers of buyers and photographers positioning, flashing, networking.

A buzz of excitement merges with applause as Ooo la la in a slinky plum sarong takes the mike to introduce her new collection.

“Liang Chi’s Wife was a second century fashion setter,” she announces in flawless FrenChinAnglo. She breathes seductively into the microphone, dancing around the wire in high sling heels. “The Emperor’s wife put the Capital Huan-Ti on the map. She may not have been able to read, like most court concubines, but her compartmentalized make-up box with safflower and cinnabar rouge, rice face powder and blue-black and green for distant mountain eye brows was as dear to her as the scribe’s ink pots.

“‘I am tired of perfectly arched brows,’ she concluded one day. ‘From now on, ladies, we will wear Worried Brows like the peasants. Smiling faces are boring. From now on, as the Emperor’s favorite, I command you to wear Weeping Faces.’”

Ooo la la holds up a little red lacquer box. The New York Photographer flashes a photograph at the moment the box clicks open to display small colorful compartments and mirrors.

Buyers salivate with anticipation, feasting on the cosmetic appetizer. Gold Worried Brow sticks, Silver Weeping Face creams, and opaline Decayed Toothpaste tubes gleam in the spotlight.

Ooo la la adjusts a glittery rose butterfly on her chignon and strikes a pose. Power books click, cell phones ring, flashes burst like fireworks over Versailles.

Ooo la la smiles at the applause and continues with a flutter of lashes.

“Encouraged by the success of her cosmetic creations, Liang Chi turned her considerable talent to hair styling.”

With a dramatic flourish Ooo la la removes the butterfly clip and her waist-long hair falls to one side in lustrous turmoil.

“For centuries men and women had worn the butterfly topknot. The George Lucas of her time, Liang invented a hair style that took the country by storm. Like a floppy-eared Starwars creature, her Horsefall Hairdo fell to one side in lopsided disarray. And when my collection hits New York boutiques. The Horsefall will be as popular in America as the Pony Tail of the 50s!”

“Ooo la! Ooo la ! Ooo la! Ooo la!” they chant from the edges of their red plush seats.

She holds up a tattooed palm and continues.

“Like most women, Liang Chi’s Wife was cradled on the floor. ‘Why must I stand tall and decorous as a bamboo?’ she asked.

“‘See how my old slave bends and creaks. The hump on her back increases her height so that she stands taller than Emperor Liang Chi. I will fashion a hump to rival hers and stoop so low I’ll see the dust she sweeps under the couch!’”

Ooo la la dramatically lowers her voice. “Ladies and Gentlemen of Fashion, this year hems are long in back and short in front.”

Reporters on the fashion beat text, talk, and download with excited frenzy.

“The models you are about to see have been trained by certified dowagers and professional peasants to learn Liang Chi’s Broken Waistwalk. And I’m here to tell you, folks, the Lindy is out and The Broken Waistwalk is in!”

Ooo la la licks her upper lip provocatively with a long tattooed tongue and laughs for the camera. “But I want to assure you my girls have been taking their calcium supplements. The humps in my collection are made of the same dependable dust-mite proof fibers that went into last year’s Glass Ceiling Shoulder Pads patented by Ooo La La Labs.”

A press photographer crouches at her feet. She turns slowly, caressing the mic with rose tattooed lips:

“At the height of Liang Chi’s fashion career, The Instructress of the Women’s Court pronounced a Heavenly Admonition: ‘Your Horsefall Hairdos will tumble down and soldiers will break your backs for good. Women will no longer need to pencil their brows crooked or wear smudges as though they’ve been weeping.’

“‘Nonsense,’ said Liang Chi, ‘my ladies and I shall do as I please.’

“Within a year she and her husband were dead. A few women of her court survived because the soldiers mistook their high padded humps for heads.”

Ooo la la stares wistfully into the hall.

“And so, my friends, Emperors wore new clothes and the Bent Waist Walk was virtually forgotten.”

Not a bulb flashes or beeper beeps. She turns on a high heel, and arches an indicting brow.

“Ooo la. Ooo la. Ooo la!” they chant, with insistent clapping.

The house lights dim. Ooo la la steps into the shadow. “Forgotten, that is, until today.” Her décolleté voice curves through the darkness. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the fashion look of the century—The Liang Chi Collection!”

The New York Photographer points the lens at a model poised for take-off at the end of the foot-lighted runway. Her mouth is down-turned like a sad clown, her eyes blurry as though she has been weeping. She shuffles into the spotlight and leans on a cane; the switch of her hair flowing over a deceptively authentic floating underwired hump. The hunchback shadow on the curtain lurches as she crooks her arm through the sackcloth sleeve of a tugless tunic. “How adorable, yet comfortable and durable. And it comes in three knock-out colors: classic ash, horsetail dung, and blood red.”

Author’s Note: Emperor Liang Chi and his wife’s fashion trends are Ancient Chinese historical record: During the Yuan-chia period (AD 151-153) of Huan-ti, fasionable women in the capital affected the worn postures and appearance of their servants and serfs. The heaveny admonitions of the court Seer predicted that outside armies would breech the capital walls, seize them and truly maim and cripple the women. In the second year of Yen-hsi (AD 158) Liang Chi’s entire clan was executed.


Julia Older is the author of Appalachian Odyssey, and Boris Vian Invents Boris Vian. New essays-stories-poems appear in Uproooted, Poet Showcase, and Zoomorphic.

Get the current issue of NonBinary Review, including this story, for just $1.99 from Zoetic Press! 

I Set My Ship to the Brightest Star


When the Snow Queens took Kai, Grandma warned me not to follow. “Whatever you do, you will lose,” she said to me, just a little girl.

It was too dangerous. Kai had left our home planet of her own accord, with the Snow Queens, those visitors with the icy breath and icicle fingers and cold hearts. Tall and curved and smoke emitting from their mouths when they spoke, they were winter drifting from planet to planet.

Kai was not a prisoner. She went as a friend to the monsters. Or a friend to their sweet serums she shot into her arm.

The Queens pointed to the brightest star when they told Kai where they were from. So I set my ship to the brightest star and I sailed through the dark.

Somewhere along the line in my expedition I lost my way. I found the rebels. I heard their stories about the Snow Queens. All those people they’d carried off with them, so many of them were dead. Or prisoners.

But I know she’s out there. Her name is Kai. She’s alive.

* * *

It’s been forty-five years. I am sixty. I still stand among the stars, only glass and steel between us. There have been other missions. The rebellion against the Queens grew, then rebels got killed, and now we shrink.

But today, a sound arrives. My name through the stars.

I hear her voice over the intercom radio. My name, whispered through the stars. “Gerda,” she says. “Gerda.”

It has been forty-five years since I’ve heard her say my name. It has been forty-five years since I’ve heard her say anything. Now I know for sure: she survived. And it shakes me, because she is worth more than the universe.

Rover watches me closely as I lean over that radio, tracking that voice, that quiet strained voice. And I know Rover can see my usual determination has changed to a quivering fear. She doesn’t know why. She doesn’t know the person on the other end of this blind frequency. After years of telling Kai’s story, no one wanted to hear about Kai anymore. So Rover has never heard the name or the stories.

But Kai isn’t at the brightest star, where the Queens pointed and promised. The frequency puts her somewhere near the star, but in the worst possible place. The Queens’ prison ship, orbiting a cold planet in the oldest district of space.

The prison ship has no windows or day or night. They say the worst things imaginable happen in that place.

I won’t get clearance from the Commander. The rebellion is so small now. In rebel stories, the resistance is a scrappy group that will overcome with some clothespins and rusty ships. All of that is true, except for the overcome part.

“Absolutely not,” the Commander says.

“You don’t get it,” I say. “This is why I found your lot in the first place. I’m willing to risk it.”

“And your crew?” Rover stares at me.

“No,” the Commander says for good measure. And he slams his radio off.

“Who is she?” Rover says. “The voice?”

“Her name’s Kai,” I say. I throw the coordinates plate down. It clatters. “She’s alive,” I say, because I have had dreams about being able to say it, and now that I can, there’s a deep weight off my back. And then there’s an even heavier weight, because now I’m sure she’s out there and I can’t save her.

I can’t save her.

The Commander rejects my proposal. But my crew does not. They’re loyal. They’re young. They’re not making good decisions. Rover looks to me and says, “Like you said, some people are worth more than the universe.”

My crew have all have lost someone. And this one, maybe we can bring them back.

So together, without alerting the Commander, we return to the old solar system. We’re rebels with no silver skin and piercing ice eyes. We still eat chocolate and smuggle music onto their ship. This old solar system is unlike us: sterile, taken care of. We stick out from the moment we arrive. We are probably all going to be killed or worse, and we’re probably never going to escape.

Some people are worth the whole universe.

“If you want to turn back,” I say to them, “you take the ship somewhere safe. I’ll go in alone. You’ve done enough.”

There are six of them. All six say nothing, not even little Rover. I am more frightening than anything orbiting the ice planet. This one-armed grey-haired beast is on their side. And this beast is a damn good Captain who has kept them alive through this war. To leave now would be ungrateful, cowardly.

“No, you don’t understand,” I say. “Where they have her, it’s a death camp. It’s run by the Coat, the worst of all the Queens.”

But the conversation is done. We’re already here. Instead, we quietly watch the red planet grow closer through the windows, a sense of deep mistake settling like thick dust.

She’s in there somewhere, past the Coat, past the nightmare chambers, she’s in the silver ship circling around the ice planet like a loose ribbon on a maypole. And somehow, she got to a radio, and encrypted my name into the stars. If she can find me, I can find her.

So even when those silver ships turn to face us, even when they start shooting and jetting closer through the silence of space, I do not balk.

“They’re going to dock,” I warn my crew. “Don’t fight back. If you fight back, they will shoot you. Raise your arms. Let yourselves be taken.”

They raise their arms as they hear the dock door force itself open. I just raise one arm, the pinned sleeve limp at my side.

The silver soldiers appear. They are younger than I remember soldiers being. They have soft faces and unblemished bodies. So many of them aren’t Snow Queens at all, they’re humans or droids or dothlons or one of a thousand other species that are not who we’re fighting. But they look nothing like the rebels.

Was I that young? “We surrender,” I say.

Then the silver soldiers shoot my crew. Rover screams and runs for it. They grab her and beat her down. They don’t touch me. They know who I am. I am a trophy for their camp. I am the one-armed fury. I deserve more pain than a bullet to the head.

But as they walk Rover and me off the ship, I keep in mind that I would have never shot people with their arms up.

* * *

The death camp is one silver ship the size of seven normal silver ships. But I know I am certainly in the place where Kai is. We are connected now, even if it’s by curving hallways. But if there were no guards or guns or doors, I could take one step and then another and eventually come to Kai’s side. Where I should be. Where she should be.

I know what to expect here. Most rebel Captains don’t know. But when I joined the ranks, one of the first people I admired was an old woman who was the first and only person to escape the death camp. I listened to her stories, just in case I ever needed to become the second person.

“Think,” the old woman told me, “of your worst fears. Think of the worst thing that could happen to you. That is what will happen in that camp. They’ll find a way to break you. Those in charge of that prison are the most ruthless in the whole silver army. The Coat has an active sadistic imagination and not a lot of patience. The prison doesn’t execute you. It doesn’t keep you alive. It rots you.”

I asked her how she escaped.

“I kept one story in my head,” she said. “A story they couldn’t take from me.” She croaked a laugh. “And I made a shiv out of my own teeth, there was that, too.”

I have a story.

They throw Rover and me into a cell, and I’m not surprised when they don’t return for hours. I’m expecting the dinner to be perpetually frozen stuck in a block of ice. Seen but never eaten.

Rover is afraid. All the other prisoners in this ship are afraid. Not me. The silver soldiers shake when they bring the shit food to me. They know me. They know the stories. I’ve fought in the war longer than they’ve been alive. There are books written about me. When I lost my arm, my kill count tripled.

And these guards know what they’ve done. They’ve taken Kai from Gerda. And now Gerda has come. They should be afraid.

“They won’t feed us tonight,” I tell Rover. “They will douse the lights in about an hour. They’ll stay like that all night. You won’t be able to see anything.” I put my back against the wall, getting comfortable and kicking off my boots. “They aren’t here to scare us. They’re here to rot us.”

“What are we going to do, Captain?” Rover asks.

“I’m going to tell you a story.” I hear my voice, and it’s unwavering but it’s old. I wonder if Kai will recognize me. When I lost Kai, I sounded younger than Rover.

The lights power off with a clunk and a guttural thunk as the ship chokes the electricity. The prison cells go blind.

“Stay calm,” I warn. “Keep your mind together. They won’t come on for another two days.”

“You said it would just be overnight!” Rover whispers.

“We’re in space,” I say. “Morning is whenever they decide. Now listen to my story.”

“I don’t want to listen to a story.”

“What else are you gonna do?” I say. “Knit a scarf? Shut up and listen.” I clear my throat.

“We lived on a planet where there was clear blue water and deep green trees on the land. There weren’t big continents like on Earth, only little islands. I lived on an island called Washington. I was an adorable child. You should have seen me, running around causing trouble, always wanting to climb to the top of the island or shake the trees bare or whatever else I could do to make myself laugh. And one day, Kai was there.”

“What’s she like?” Rover says.

“She’s kind,” I say. “She’s funny. I know everyone says that about people, everyone is funny, especially after they die or get lost. She’s so nice and funny. But Kai? She was actually funny. She’d sing songs and throw fruit at people and when anyone started getting too serious, she’d say something so witty and quick, it gave you whiplash.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t tell you, because I’m not as witty and this was half a century ago,” I say. “But let me think of a specific story.” I wander from thought to thought for a moment, trying to find the perfect example. Maybe the elephantianturus? No. The pirate play? No, that wasn’t funny if she wasn’t there. “One time, when the silvers finally made it to our planet, she tricked them into washing their uniforms with some special cleaning elixir so their uniforms turned purple.”

“Ah,” Rover says.

“But it was the way she did it,” I say. “She always made an elaborate stage show out of it. Quite literally. So there I am, walking down the street, and there’s this short man standing on the back of a horsdragoon, this gigantic beard all the way down to his feet, and he’s holding up this potion bottle spitting verses on its great powers. He even made a banner and had one of our friends hold it behind him while singing a theme song. It was Kai, of course, the old man.”

I tell her about the time we faked our deaths so we could see our funerals. I tell her about the submarine we failed to make (it quickly became a fishbowl full of fish and ocean). I tell her about a thousand things we did under a thousand sunrises and sunsets and the space between. And Rover smiles. I can’t see Rover, but she’s laughing and I can always hear when someone’s talking through a smile.

I finally tell her about our garden. Two little girls, sitting in a suspended garden between trees, looking out to the ocean and watching the sun spin around our little planet in the middle of nowhere.

We were going to be a family one day. We were already family.

“What does Kai look like?” she finally asks.

“She’d be taller now,” I say. “Not a shrimp anymore. She’s got big bushy eyebrows. Blue eyes. Black hair. And she’s got a tattoo on her neck. It’s her family’s tattoo. It looks like three sticks bound together.”

Rover says, “You think she has a plan for us? How to get out of here?”

“Sure,” I say. “And if she doesn’t, she’s gotten us this far. We’ll find her.”

Morning still won’t come. I tell her about the time Kai baked a cake but didn’t know she had to add things to chocolate other than cocoa. I tell her about the time Kai wanted to run away, so she tried to ride on the back of a turtleish. It didn’t work.

But my voice becomes hoarse, until Kai can’t light up the room anymore.

Our cell gets too quiet.

Rover starts humming to herself. Then she screams and cries and laughs and sings loud. Then she starts begging people to turn the lights back on.

“Kai sang,” I interrupt her. “Hey, yo, Rover, did you hear me? Kai sang. You want to hear the song?”

“What?”

“Focus, Rover,” I say. “Kai had a good singing voice. She sang ‘up the back crack of oleander,’ which was the name of the cove near the island but also our nickname of our teacher, because our teacher had a gigantic ass.”

Rover is silent. And then she gives a little laugh. “The teacher never caught on?”

“No,” I say. “Kai was cunning. She never sang in front of Oleander. If she did, she’d just hum it or be like, ‘You’ve never heard that song before, Miss? It’s an old traditional tune!’”

Rover laughs.

“At least they didn’t take away the sound,” I say.

Then, without warning, the lights turn on and Rover screams. I cover my face with my arm. I push off the wall, trying not to shake. Rover vomits.

I estimate the time. I’ve taught myself how to do this. In space, you have to have an internal clock, tally marks no one but you can see.

The night has been three days long.

“Calm down,” I say. “Your eyes will adjust. It’s over.”

“Don’t turn off the lights again,” Rover pleads with the walls, with the ceiling, “Please don’t, please please –”

“Rover.” I bark.

The door opens. “Roll call,” a soldier says from the corridor beyond. I stand with a little difficulty. Rover is hysterical.

I shove her against the wall. “You shut the hell up now.” My eyes lock into Rover’s, like two dogs staring each other down. “Roll call is a firing squad if you show you’ve broken. Their goal is to eventually kill you. They want a reason to do it today. So shape the fuck up.”

Rover takes my hand. We walk out into the hall. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the other prisoners. Some don’t have a Gerda to warn them. They’re screaming and crying and holding their faces and falling to the ground like a mental asylum. They’ll be shot.

“Now listen to me,” I say to Rover. “They will come down the line. If you look sick or crazy, they’re going to shoot you. Get yourself together, and start looking at the faces around us. We don’t see the other prisoners that often, and we need to see if she’s here.”

Rover spasms like she’s just been pulled out of an icy lake, but she nods. “Yes, Captain,” she says. And she looks around to the faces, mumbling to herself. “I … I don’t remember what Kai looks like …”

“Dark hair,” I say, collecting myself. “I told you this. Got that tattoo.”

“What if she’s not here?” Rover says. “This is just one little corridor. It’s a big ship.”

“Well, then we’ll know she’s not in this corridor. Check it off the list,” I say.

The roll call begins with the shouts of soldiers down around the corner. Our piece of the hall falls silent as they listen to boots clacking against the grated floor, gathering closer and closer to their huddle. There will be a calm voice, then a plea, and then a scooting of a chair, and then a gunshot. It’s methodical, like killing is as menial as doing the dishes.

It must be the Coat.

The Coat, the mad Queen who runs this camp, is ruthless. If I heard Kai’s voice seven days ago, she may have already been killed. This could be for nothing.

And if that’s so, woe be to the sad sack who did it.

Just as the shooting is about to round the corner, the roll call is cut short for some reason. Rover breaks to her legs and cries. I shuttle her back into our cell before anyone sees her. Anger rolls through me. I was unable to run away, unable to look around to assess. It will be another spell before I make a move, and Kai could have been in that line ahead of us. Kai could already be dead because I’m not smart enough to figure out how to get to her.

That night, they chain the prisoners into headphones. They take away our sound. It never made sense to me the Coat’s obsession in controlling everything, depriving and giving and depriving again. It seemed the whole of the tyranny I’ve seen in the war rooted from here. Here is where the trunk of evil stood taut, and then the branches all spread from this cell, where there was no sound. No sight. No time.

Time dissipates. All that is left is my heartbeat.

“Most of the prisoners’ time is in the cells,” the old lady had told me. “But once in a while, they’ll move you to an interrogation room or to a lab.”

It’s impossible. But the prison underestimates someone like me. “Rover?” I say.

Rover can’t hear me. I can’t hear me. My voice has been snatched from my ears, and I only feel the rumble inside my skull and throat and chest but nothing more than a rumble. But my lips still move. My story is still out there in the air. So I keep speaking it.

“When the Snow Queens first came,” I say, “they didn’t bother with me. They immediately went to the kids who didn’t have parents. Of course Kai always had my grandma, but she didn’t think so. We loved her. But for some reason … the serum they gave her loved her more, I guess.”

I hit the back of my head against the wall behind me. “It didn’t make sense. She was always there for me. When I was drafted by our island to go hunt the big creatures in the water beyond the reef, she came with me. When I got on my ship to go, she was right there behind me to hold my hand. She wasn’t afraid. She was determined. Her mind was made up. But … once she tried that serum, she was gone. And I didn’t see that determination ever again. It was like watching someone disappear right in front of me. Died while still alive. And when the Snow Queens left …”

The night Kai left, the rain came down like knives. Kai didn’t even look at me when she got on the ships to leave. Grandma said it was her choice. Grandma said I was lucky I wasn’t wrapped up in going myself. Grandma said no matter what I did, I would lose.

“Let me tell you more about when we hunted the big creatures in the water,” I said. “That’s a better memory. Now Kai, she made us smoreys right there on the ship. She said, ‘See? No big difference between land and island. Both have land in them. Both have me in them.’ And we kissed that night. And when it started raining, she grabbed my hand and made me dance. She never stopped moving. I finally fell asleep, and when I woke up in the morning, Kai was standing on the edge of the ship, looking out to the big rocks of the reef, facing the green sun and she said, ‘Make way! It’s Kai! Gerda and Kai, make way!’”

Once, she followed me into the universe. There’s a debt to be paid.

The only question left is how to pay that debt.

“At the next roll call,” I say. “At the next roll call, we’re going to break out. We’re going to find her.”

I feel those words vibrate in my body. We’re going to find her.

* * *

The soundless night keeps on for another two days. Finally, the headphones are removed. Lights turn on. Rover rocks, staring at the floor. She says nothing. I spasm, my ears hurting and my brain trying to turn on all the way.

Make way. Make way for Gerda and Kai.

It brings me back, enough to keep Rover on her feet as we head out to roll call, and then who knows where.

“So after Kai left,” I say, getting in line in the hallway, “I hocked a ship. I went out into the world. Ran into a meteor stream, an old hermit woman on a moon all by herself, princesses and princes, and each one of them said it wouldn’t end well. Well I’m still here. Because I found you and the rebels. They all kept me alive, for this one moment. You understand that?”

Rover stares at me. But she’s not listening.

The shots fire again around the corner. The boots clunk closer and closer until they turn the corner.

Rover laughs as the Coat comes into view.

The coat hangs off flat shoulders like a curtain. On a smaller Queen, or maybe even a more timid Queen, the coat would swallow her whole. But on this executioner, the coat is like a part of her being. It curls around her neck, it turns at the ankles when they switch direction to look at a new prisoner in the line. It is immaculate. The Coat’s hat settles on gray hair and shields her brow with a black brim. Her big black boots slam into the grated floor. Her thick black gloves are the only hands she’s known. She looks as if she’s were born in that black uniform. It’s as natural as her tattoo of three sticks bound together.

The only thing Kai does not wear is a smile.

Sound leaves me. My eyes blur.

When did she get old?

When did she turn into ice? When did she melt into snow? When did her body stretch and her face become someone else’s. When did she become a Snow Queen?

The Snow Queens, they were all someone else once. And I can see traces on the Coat’s face. Kai’s eyebrows. Kai’s small freckle on her cheek. Kai’s teeth. And Kai’s tattoo.

Was it the serum?

The Queen soldiers around her step out of her coat’s quake. Her empty eyes dart down on each of the prisoners, still holding a girlhood glimmer. That’s what is eerie about the Coat, she still looks to people as if she’s going to help them. There’s an older man down the way from us, and when the Coat sees the man struggling to stand, her eyes get large and glassy. She offers the man a chair.

And then she shoots the man.

She shoots out of pity, like putting a dying dog out of its misery. And she’s so convincing, for a minute, I even believe she’s doing the right thing.

“Here you are.” She hands the gun to one of her soldiers. She doesn’t hold her own weapon. I remember once, she told me when she was rich, she would have someone else decorate her home because it meant stability. I always wondered why those things mattered.

She goes to the next prisoner, then the next, those glassy eyes smiling and those kind lips asking, “How are you this morning?” “How do you do?” “How was your rest?” Sometimes she just goes past, not saying anything, just making sure everyone is standing. But she strides along in a good mood.

Some of the prisoners are fooled. Most of the prisoners are terrified.

My heart pounds as she comes to see me. I feel that wrench twist in my stomach, just like it did back when I was a little girl. I thought little Gerda had died somewhere along the way, on that moon with the old lady or when I found the rebels, or when the arm was taken. But I’m still here, beating against my ribs and clawing her throat and working my way into my old eyes. All I’ve wanted is to look at her again.

And then she looks at me.

For two seconds, there is once again Gerda and Kai. Gerda and Kai and nothing else.

Two seconds fall flat. The Coat moves to Rover.

“How are you today?” she asks Rover. “You look tired. Would you like a seat?”

“That’s her,” Rover says, ignoring the scary Queen in front of her. “That’s Kai, isn’t it? Yes, I’d love a seat.”

“Don’t take a seat,” I say.

“Go on then,” Kai says, “Soldiers? Can we get this poor girl a seat?”

“We’ve come to save you,” Rover says, too chipper. “Gerda, I found her!”

And before I can move, Kai puts a bullet through Rover’s head. The crew is now wholly dead. Rover twitches, but she’ll stop soon.

And in this heaviness, I wonder if I knew all along.

Her big icy eyes look to me. She looks to me the same way she’s looked at every prisoner who has come before me. A stranger. The bridge between us, the garden suspended by two trees, it’s gone. Erased. It’s as if it was never there.

* * *

They leave the lights on. They give me sound. They put Rover’s rotting body in the middle of our cell and lock the door.

I tell her my favorite story.

The garden in the trees, between our two houses. Kai and Gerda’s place. It’s gone now. I never went back to my home world, because it wasn’t home anymore. Everything has disappeared in one way or another. And everyone let it, and no one cared enough to stop it.

But there were once was a suspended garden on that island, and it smelled like grass and moss and chopped wood and lilacs and fruit. During the day, their green leaves caught the sun and cut the air with great pillars of morning light. During the night, the stars danced between their shadows, tangled up in branches.

Kai loved playing pretend in the garden.

One day, we stood between the trees. I took her hand. We listened to the wind rush between our bodies.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for making this place with me.”

We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the creek below, singing old rhymes and splashing water. We spent the evening eating smoreys. We spent the night in the flowerbeds next to the rutabagas, curled together like two little pups. The next morning, we cooked breakfast and readied to return to town.

“I feel guilty,” she said.

“Why?” I said.

“Cause we didn’t get close until my parents died,” she said. “In order to meet you in this world, my other world had to burn down.”

My least favorite story.

* * *

Every morning, we stand for roll call. They’ve strapped Rover’s body to me.

Every morning, Kai asks how we are all doing.

She kills lots of people. She never kills me.

She just asks me how my morning is going. But she never acknowledges. She never says my name. It’s like she doesn’t recognize me.

Rover is getting disgusting. I still tell her stories. I still sing to myself, the shanties Kai knows. The nights are long the days are short and neither really exist.

Sometimes, when I finally fall asleep, they crawl into our prison cells and they put serum in our veins. I know they’re doing it. I’m starting to lose her, even in my own brain. The serum is starting to matter more than Kai.

But there will be a day she says my name again.

She said it once. She brought me here. And I will wait until she breaks. Just a moment of recognition. Just a moment of admittance. Just one little moment.

It was all real. She was real. She really did love me. I know she did.

I will wait.

Every night for the last lifetime of years, when her message never came, I at least knew this: wherever she was, whatever she may be doing, there was some portion of her brain that still remembered me.

That day, however many days ago, or years … had it been years… I should instead say, that time before coming to the prison when I still had a ship and a crew, that time that was marked with the things I have given up for Kai, I heard her say over the intercom radio: “Gerda. Help.”

My name, whispered through the stars.

Some people are worth more than the universe.


J.R. Dawson is an active SFWA member. She has been seen in Escape Pod, Mothership Zeta, Eclectica, and The MFA Years. Dawson has a forthcoming story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Get the current issue of NonBinary Review, including this story, for just $1.99 from Zoetic Press! 

Red Shoes


I’ve come to tell you bees, your God is dead—
no check or rein to stop you now.
A carnival, a glut awaits us all.

No hands
to empty the dripping combs
and set you to regathering.

No smoke
to calm the moiling nerves
and still the nuptial flights,

to split
and make two hives where there was one.

I should be dancing this,
feet and hips waggling
as I make a wide circle with my arms.
I peer into the future with my right hand over my eyes.

You might rejoice—
to you more heat is better.

But everything races faster and faster,
you work harder, wearier,

as if the pollen
gathered in bundles on your legs
were red shoes,
and though you try
you cannot stop dancing.


Roberta Feins’ poems have appeared in Antioch Review and The Gettysburg Review, among others. Her second chapbook Herald won the 2016 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Contest, and was published by Autumn House Press in 2017.

Get the current issue of NonBinary Review, including this story, for just $1.99 from Zoetic Press! 

Eleven Times Elisa


Since she and her brothers were left (see neglect) to the care of a hateful, envious stepmother (see abuse), Elisa has stepped into the realm of the unspeakable (a quality of experience incompatible with life, thus non expressible).

Survival is dependent on her capacity of neither speaking nor laughing (one word, one giggle, and all will be lost). She needs to give up her mouth.

Not unheard of. It has happened to girls throughout history, has it? Give up their tongue. Cut it, or else sew it to the palate. Seal their lips, wherever located.

Not unheard of.

 

Sewing. She has hands. Hands are powerful. So is the mind when connected to a pair of hands, even in absence of a mouth/tongue. Without needle or thread, Elisa needs to sew a shirt of nettles for each of her brothers.

Think of nettles against her palms—the sting suggests a flayed body’s vulnerability. Clearly, she needs sewing her brothers’ skin—and her own simultaneously. A membrane, a barrier, a form of defense, apt to shield a child from adult envy and meanness. It was not built in proper time, because mothering didn’t happen—Elisa and company were orphaned. She’ll mother her brothers, then, secrete their skin cells from her own. Bleed her substance into theirs.

 

Right now, Elisa’s siblings have a double identity. Swans during the day, at night they depose their feathers and become human. Clandestine. Irregular aliens—the shirts will give them papers, provide them with a lawful status.

Of course there is a catch. The apparel needs to be ready on a deadline. She’s got one year per shirt. Does it mean the girl is sewing time? Clearly. She is sewing days, weeks, months, reconnecting past, present, future. Mending whatever loss has torn, repairing a fractured cycle. She isn’t scared of the task, but she can’t waste a minute, she can’t postpone.

She needs to be tireless. Listen up: resistance, full focus, ability to ignore all kind of distraction or superfluity. Well, Elisa is anorexic. No kidding.

 

Author Cristina Campo defines beauty as “silence, duration, wait.” The same triad defines art. Besides being a mother, Eli is an artist, of course.

Her task also needs secrecy, invisibility. It’s the trick of alchemy, applicable to anything in need of metamorphosis. The athanor can’t be opened. The seed germinates under the soil’s surface. Even a rising loaf, a cake in the oven, asks for privacy. It will flop under curious eyes.

Nettles have to be gathered at night, in the place where they grow thicker—the graveyard. Is she meddling with tombs, corpses, bones? That’s calling for trouble. But she has lost her mother… to elaborate grief, to mourn, literally means to go back and recover lingering pieces of self, still attached to the dead. Also sever chunks of the dead, still glued to her body and soul, bury them at last. She needs to detach, de-fuse, arrange, store. Only thus she can put ghosts to sleep, stop them from eating the living, restore integrity.

 

Here’s another catch. To do what must be done, the girl has to risk her life. If she’s found in the graveyard at night, messing with herbs, she will be called a witch.

And she is caught, and she can’t justify herself, because she can’t speak. If she doesn’t talk she is lost. If she talks all is lost. Her truth can’t be unfolded until the shirts are. If she gets done, though, besides saving her brothers she’ll be rescued as well. Individual versus collective, oh dear… She’s a seamstress. She will hold it together, hold tight. She will not unloop herself.

In her prison cell Elisa keeps her mouth shut. She keeps sewing. Hope doesn’t give up as long as her hands are moving. She doesn’t betray her secret, witch or not. Eli is Joan of Arc, in case you still doubted it.

 

The execution is scheduled for the very day when delivery must occur. About that? But the sleeve of the youngest brother’s shirt isn’t freaking finished. Smallest shirt, smallest sleeve. The hard work has tapered down, gotten thinner and thinner. Elisa is anorexic, we said.

Didn’t say suicidal. She never wanted to die. Her goal wasn’t annihilation, folks, it was life. LIFE. Then the hell with perfection—it wasn’t the deal. Not perfection, but transformation. It is done, give or take a cuff. A small one.

 

Eli throws the eleven shirts in the air from the pyre where she has been enthroned. The green coats fall on a flock of swans, which immediately land—the weight anchoring them. Gravity makes them human.

On that very second, she screams. Or she is screamed. Her mouth has come back. Her lungs have started functioning. It’s the scream of a baby at the end of the uterine channel, when she first meets with oxygen. She was meant to deliver the boys, but she is actually born.

I am innocent. I had a reason for doing what I did. I had a reason for breaking the law. I am not crazy, not evil, not ill. All right, unchain her. Let her come down. She must be dead tired. And she isn’t a child anymore, admitted she ever was. She has gotten her period. She could marry and have kids of her own. Admitted she’d want to.

 

Now, Elisa, about that unfinished sleeve. What did your youngest bro say?

It’s called memory, she answers. It’s called a memento. Or it’s called non-conformity. Its called diversity. It is called “a beautiful scar.”

Then, tell you the truth—if you haven’t figured it out—the eleventh brother is a sister. It is me.


Toti O’Brien’s work has most recently appeared in Masque & Spectacle, Feminine Inquiry, Indiana Voices, and Italian Americana.

Get the current issue of NonBinary Review, including this story, for just $1.99 from Zoetic Press! 

Cut Down the Tall Poppies


The world envied my tail—
elephant tusk, tiger’s pelt.
Green and heavy
and lush with sparkle.

It was the worst thing about me.
I believed them.
A documented federal disability.
Didn’t I want that green growth removed?

They made me weep
because I could not walk
when they were the ones
longing to glide through blue.


Samantha Stiers has published work in Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, and other magazines.

Get the current issue of NonBinary Review, including this story, for just $1.99 from Zoetic Press! 

A Child For Twelve Shillings


People sometimes called her a fairy, when they were trying to be nice, but she was a witch. She preferred accuracy to flattery.

Many people came to her door. The latest customer was a familiar type: broken down, carrying her sorrows with her everywhere. She was good at hiding it. She was well-dressed and well-spoken and you could only tell by a slight stoop to her shoulders and a single tear that hid in the corner of her eye—all the other tears had dried up.

She asked meekly how she could get a child of her own. She was, she said, prepared to pay.

The witch knew a few secrets. She did not sell children (people tended to get tetchy about that kind of thing) but she knew of a dragon that one could slay, and when you devoured its heart—

“I don’t know anything about slaying dragons,” said the woman, with a crease between her eyebrows.

There were other options. She had half a magic apple, but you never wanted to go halves with magic. The other piece of the apple had been eaten by a chicken which went on to produce half an egg—

“I think we’re getting off-topic,” said the woman.

The witch thought about turning her into a toad and decided not to. That kind of thing was bad for business. Instead, she went to the pantry and fetched a jar containing a single barleycorn.

“Do I need to eat it?” said the woman.

“No. Plant it and water it and tend it. Twelve shillings, please.” She added quickly, “No refunds.”

The woman came back some days later, and the witch sighed when she saw her through the window. But when she met her at the door, she saw that the woman was happy. She stood straighter and moved with a purpose and a care, protecting something in her pocket.

“Is she supposed to be this small?” The woman held out something in her hand. The witch looked at it, and then she went and looked at the jar, and went through her books trying to figure out where she’d gotten the jar.

The woman’s barleycorn was now a tiny girl, one inch high. Not even as tall as her thumb. It was like interacting with a flea. The woman hugged her daughter with the crook of a finger. The inch-girl was quite happy to ride in her hand. She seemed too solid to be a fairy, which tended to be ghostly and cold. She danced and gamboled naked, because the woman was still working on clothes for her. The inch-girl would need gossamer-thin material, with stitches smaller than an ant’s head. She could slide her slender hand straight through the stitches of normal fabric.

The original barleycorn had belonged to the witch’s predecessor, and she sorely regretted now that she had never asked about it or studied it. Perhaps its husk had always cradled a fetus the size of a mosquito. Now she’d never know.

“I was wondering if she’d grow,” said the woman.

The witch looked at the inch-girl and said, “Maybe?”

From that point on, the woman and her miniature daughter visited nearly every day. The witch dove into her grimoire, searching for more information, and when that failed her she turned to books of children’s fairy tales. She looked with new eyes at her stale shelves of ingredients. She might have anything in her sea of newts’ eyes and toads’ tails.

But even more than the new draw to her collection, she found herself looking forward to the visits. People usually only came to buy something, or to attempt burning her at the stake. The woman and her daughter came mostly so the woman could sit in the rocking chair and talk, while her daughter played in the field of her lap. The witch held the inch-girl a few times, but it made her nervous. She seemed so fragile, and she never did grow.

And then one day the woman missed a visit. When she did come, the witch could tell immediately that something was wrong. The last tear was missing from the woman’s eye. She’d shed them all and her face was a desert of want.

They looked for the inch-girl. The witch used her scrying-bowl and they scoured the woman’s house and tromped around in her yard, but there was always the fear that their great feet would land in the wrong place, or their booming voices would frighten the inch-girl away. Time went on, but the woman insisted that the inch-girl was still out there—somewhere. The witch had theories. She could have been snapped up by an owl or stolen away for a freak show. Or maybe the fairies had taken her, and she had forgotten living with humans. That happened to people who were fairy-stolen. Even if you got their bodies back, you might not get their minds.

A year passed. The inch-girl had loved flowers, so the woman planted all kinds and the witch did too. All around their houses, marking them out, in case she ever came back and needed a sign. Every morning they sat on a bench in the misty twilight, as the dawn came and the buds opened into an explosion of color.

“She’ll be grown up soon,” the woman said.

“Yes.”

“What do you think she’ll look like?”

“A fairy queen,” said the witch, “made of spun glass, with wings like a fly’s and a train of courtiers dressed like flowers. Or maybe,” she said, “maybe, she’ll come back riding on a swallow, with her skin burned brown, and a cloak of feathers, and a story for us. Such a story as you never heard.”

“I like that one,” said the woman, and they sat and they waited together as the sun burned off the fog.


Sarah Allison is a writer in Florida, currently working on a Masters in Library Science. She enjoys fairy tales and tracking down the origins of folklore. Her short fiction has appeared in Liguorian Magazine.

Get the current issue of NonBinary Review, including this story, for just $1.99 from Zoetic Press! 

The Tin Platoon


Where his number had once been five and twenty, the soldier now awoke to find the spot beside him empty, and his rank now the lowest among his brethren.

As all were in their box when the unipedal soldier first went missing, they initially believed the snuffbox goblin’s story that it must have been the wind that moved him to the windowsill, and onward to further misadventures. Adventures unknown to the soldiers until their wounded comrade returned days later, smelling of the sea and carried by the flustered house cook.

The little boy whose birthday had brought the soldiers to their current station had left them out on the table the night before their compatriot returned, finally giving them a chance to play along with the other toys. The chime of midnight again caused the snuffbox to pop open, and gave the twenty-fourth soldier his first view of the goblin. There was something he didn’t like in the way the goblin stared at the pretty paper castle, or the dainty dancer inside it.

While all the other toys frolicked and enjoyed the wee hours, the twenty-fourth soldier stood silent guard, keeping his eye on the suspicious jack in the box. And when the twenty-fifth member of the platoon returned, and the soldier saw the way his comrade admired the ballerina, he began to suspect that the wind had been a mere excuse.

The goblin’s next move happened too quickly for the soldier to react. The neighbor boy tossed the one-legged figure into the furnace in a fraction of a second, the paper dancer blew in after, and the fire made short work of both. Frozen in place with fear, the soldier could swear he heard manic laughter coming from inside the snuffbox.

None of the other three and twenty had seen the incident, but the soldier knew he would never forget it. When the platoon was put away in its box for the night, he could focus only on the now-permanent empty slot to his left.

Any doubts his fellow troops might have had were erased the following day, when they saw what the maid found in the ashes. Any doubts of his own as to the guilty party fled when he saw the wry smile on the face of the goblin, who pushed up the top of the snuffbox with his head to steal a glance. Nobody else saw it-—they were too busy lamenting the sight of the little tin heart and the seared tinsel rose—but the twenty-fourth soldier noticed.

That night, once he was certain no one would hear, he told the other tin soldiers what he had seen. Their fraternal bond worthy of the St. Crispin’s Day speech, they listened solemnly to the plan he was beginning to hatch…

When the chime struck midnight the next evening, the snuffbox didn’t open. The goblin banged against it as hard as he could, but the jack-in-the-box crank didn’t move, and he found the latch atop the container equally stuck.

Though the goblin tried to command them through the walls of his snuffbox, none of the toys would help him, as the soldiers had spread word of his misdeeds. They simply stood steadfast as the tin platoon avenged its fallen member.

Four and twenty soldiers had carefully wrapped the tinsel ribbon around the crank, over and over, pulling it taut until it secured the gear in place. When done, they lifted the twenty-fourth soldier to the top of the snuffbox, where his two good legs wedged the little tin heart into the gap of the latch.

In the last step of its justice, the platoon pushed the box to a small hiding place in a dark corner of the nursery, where none of the children would find and open it. There it remained until the goblin gave up, and spent the rest of his days in silence, while the tin heart and the tinsel rose stood firm as ever.


Jeff Fleischer’s fiction has appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post, So It Goes by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, Deep South Magazine, East Bay Review, and Steam Ticket.

Get the current issue of NonBinary Review, including this story, for just $1.99 from Zoetic Press! 

Snow Queen


1.
What should stay buried in times like these?
My skin is creased in the new mirror.
I have been kissed to death by too many.
Great and good, small and ugly, wicked and bad.

Snow melts. Steady drip, drip, drip
all day through the heat and light.

2.
Watch how I smooth the boy’s hair,
tender him with tales as if they might
undress his innocence.

My mother did the same.
Dug for something hidden
under the new skin of her young.
An empty chair sits by the window.

Through the little hole, I see him watching.
Snowflakes grow larger and larger.
The moon is lit white gauze.
Soon we will guess at shapes under snow:
the rounded mound of a ball, a garden tool left out.

3.
My father went north looking for someone.
Strangers spoke in soft voices, invited him in.
He ate Kroppkakor on tablecloths
painted with red flowers.
More cold than he ever dreamed.

When he was a boy,
his mother named him
after the girl who died at birth before him.
He tried to reach the high notes just for her.

The thicker the snow, the sharper the squint.
Something struck my eye, I cannot see you.
Glass fell out of the sky of his mother’s eyes,
cloudy full moons. He led her around
on his arm. She sparkled
while her son-daughter
sang the way forward.
Linked together, glittering ice.

 

The past with its dank nest.
My father saved us gifts from the war.
His skin, with its snow and grit,
Sleeping bags full of must.
A small grain of glass in his heart,
A gun.


Tina Carlson has published poems in Dark Mountain Review, Black Lawrence Press, bosque(the magazine), and Blue Mesa Review, among others, and is the author of Ground, Wind, this Body, published March 2017 by UNM Press.

Get the current issue of NonBinary Review, including this story, for just $1.99 from Zoetic Press!