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Reprint Series

Arachne & Medusa Jump Athena by Sheree Renée Thomas

October’s story is from Sheree Renée Thomas! Sheree is the editor of the groundbreaking Dark Matter anthologies, but she is also the author of many wonderful short stories and poems, with two collections published to date: Shotgun Lullabies and Sleeping Under the Tree of Life, both from Aqueduct Press.

This story has originally been published in Circe’s Lament: Anthology of Wild Women Poetry (ed. Bianca Lynne Spriggs and Katerina Stoykova-Klemer) and Revenge: An Anthology (ed. Tamryn Spruill) , but I came across it in Sleeping Under the Tree of Life. It has been reprinted a few times, but never before online – and I knew I wanted to share it as widely as I could. There has been a lot of discussion lately about how when people say ‘X, Y, Z topics have been done too many times in speculative fiction’, usually we find that this means that non-marginalized authors have done X, Y, Z a lot, and there are still many perspectives that could be presented. I always feel I am hard to surprise when it comes to new takes on Greek myth; but this flash story, this surprised me. (Another one that surprised me was the poem marsyas by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun, which I had the honor of publishing in inkscrawl.)

Enjoy reading this tale of revenge on a schoolyard bully — or a Greek deity…

– Bogi.

Arachne & Medusa Jump Athena by Sheree Renée Thomas

And it’s about time, ain’t it?

That girl always kept up some kind of trouble, always starting up some mess. They say trouble don’t last always but with Miss Athena, trouble was a never ending story. What can I say? Some folks like misery and stress. Athena was that way, always up to no good, like to twist and turn things so that everything was about her. Had a real thing for victimhood. Don’t get me started on Athena’s tears.

Always got to be the finest one in the room. If you didn’t know, you better ask somebody. Can’t let nobody else shine. See you beaming, she gon’ shade and block the sun. See you sipping cool waters, she gon’ steal the drops off your thirsting tongue. Athena got to have the last taste—and hers better be sweeter. Or she gon’ dry the well with barren sand, and raid the river with a bitter dam. Poison is what she was. Killjoy, ain’t got a single sister friend, the first. Only thing worse than a jealous heart is a wounded mind, evil enough to act on it.

First, she see Arachne, my right side, my bestest friend, minding her own natural business, weaving like she do. Spinning nothing but love. Arachne spins you dreams you want to follow, braid your whole life through. Hope in every glistening thread and strand, her splendid tapestries the work of a master’s hand. But Athena can’t stand to see nobody else’s beauty but her own. She see mine and tried to take it. Thought a head full of snakes would erase it. Talking ‘bout, see who gon’ want you now.

Hmpf. Athena always been simple minded. Her aim is sure but her vision unclear. She see what she want to see and what she want is pain. Seem like everywhere she gaze, she see lack in herself, instead of looming possibility. She thinks beauty is what you see. She never bothered to look inside, to seek within, or she would know beauty is not where you’ve been, it’s where you’re going. Beauty is the life you make be.

So Arachne and me come up with a master plan. Athena was always terrorizing the land, ripping and running so, through the woods taking lives with her tainted arrows. Talking ‘bout, bow down to the queen. We wait ‘til she deep dark in the woods. We wait ‘til she can’t see her way out, ‘til she standing right where we stood. Arachne spins a web so pretty, it look like starlight, like great heaven above moonshine. A great silver mirror, glistening and shimmering in the shadowy night even the fireflies stop blinking and hover in the hushed air, admiring its light.

Athena stops to stare. Now, she’s the one that started that whole mirror, mirror on the wall, fairest one of them all mess, ratchet folks been trying it ever since. While she stunting and staring, Arachne’s magic threads reflect the huntress’ best self. I sneak out from my hiding place behind the elder tree, unwrap my hair ‘cuz now it’s all eyes on me.

We leave Athena there, a century or two, frozen in her vanity. Arachne gathers her webs and threads. I retie my headwrap and don my shades, while we laugh and laugh, dragging her name in the dust.

_______
Sheree Renée Thomas is a Memphis-based writer, poet, and editor whose “black pot mojo” creative work explores ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. She is the author of Sleeping Under the Tree of Life (Aqueduct Press), honored with a Publishers Weekly Starred Review and longlisted for the 2016 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and of Shotgun Lullabies (2011), described as “a revelatory work like Jean Toomer’s Cane.” Thomas’s Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative from the African Diaspora won the 2001 World Fantasy Award and introduced W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Comet” as science fiction. Dark Matter: Reading the Bones won the 2005 World Fantasy Award. In 2017 Thomas was honored with the L. A. Banks Award for Outstanding Contribution to Speculative Fiction. She has been awarded writing fellowships from Bread Loaf Environmental, the Millay Colony of the Arts, the Cave Canem Foundation, VCCA, Blue Mountain Center, Art Omi/Ledig House, the New York Foundation of the Arts, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. She has received Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror and in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 and 2018. Her work appears in anthologies and literary journals, including Apex Magazine, FIYAH, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Memphis Noir, An Alphabet of Embers, The Moment of Change, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy, Obsidian II, Stories for Chip, Revise the Psalm, Jalada, Circe’s Lament, African Voices, An Alphabet of Embers, Blacktasticon, Mojo Rising, Callaloo, Sycorax’s Daughters, and Harvard’s Transition. She has guest edited special issues of Apex Magazine and Strange Horizons, and she is the Associate Editor of Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora (Illinois State University, Normal) and the founder of Black Pot Mojo Arts and BSAM Memphis (Black Speculative Arts Movement), a festival held in the historic South Main Arts District that celebrates Afrofuturism art, music, artivism, and scholarship. Follow her @blackpotmojo on Twitter and on Instagram and Facebook @shereereneethomas

Call for Submissions

Call For Submissions: Rosalind’s Siblings

Deadline extended to December 31 2018!

Rosalind’s Siblings is an anthology of speculative stories about people of marginalized genders/sexes who are scientists: scientists doing good, changing the world, or just getting on with their work of expanding human knowledge in a speculative context, presented in a positive light. This anthology is named for Rosalind Franklin, the so-called Dark Lady of DNA, one of the most famously erased female scientists in history, and a direct relation of the founder of Galli Books. The anthology is being edited by Bogi Takács.

The stories do not need to problematize gender/sex, though this is also welcome, and we would like to publish a mix of approaches. We are generally interested in positive portrayals of science and the protagonists doing research, but this can include a critical reappraisal. (E.g., we would very much like to see stories in which science is decolonized and/or Indigenized, or in some other ways incorporates approaches beyond Western neo-positivism.) We are not interested in “mad scientist” tropes or “evil science.” We are also not interested in disability cure narratives and related tropes, unless they are actively subverted / deconstructed.

Stories must contain a speculative element. We are happy to read works from any speculative subgenre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate history, magical realism, fabulism, mythic work, Weird fiction and so on. Any amount of science detail is welcome with thoughtful engagement.

Protagonists can be trans and/or nonbinary people, women (trans or cis), intersex people, genderqueer or gender-nonconforming people, people of culturally specific genders/sexes, and any combinations thereof. They do not need to identify as women, feminine or femme specifically, but those stories are particularly welcome; as are stories with trans, nonbinary and/or intersex men or masculine protagonists. Protagonists can have any sexual orientation and gender presentation (e.g., we would love to receive stories with butch trans women or femme trans men protagonists, and so on).

You do not need to belong to any marginalized group to submit, but we are very happy to consider submissions from people who belong to underrepresented / marginalized groups in speculative fiction, including Black, Indigenous people and/or people of color, non-Western and/or non-Anglophonic people, migrants, QUILTBAG+ people, disabled, chronically ill and/or neuroatypical people. We welcome people from all letters of the QUILTBAG+, including trans (transfeminine, transmasculine and any kind of trans), intersex, asexual, aromantic and bisexual people, who are more commonly ignored. It is not a requirement for stories to be #ownvoices (i.e., about your own marginalization), but we are very happy to read your #ownvoices stories.  Please don’t self-reject!

You do not need to disclose your marginalizations in your cover letter, but you are welcome to do so. Please send submissions to galli-books@galli-books.co.uk with “ROSALIND” in the subject line and the story title. Format submissions reasonably close to Standard Manuscript Format, and send them in .doc, .odt, .rtf formats, or .pdf if the story has unusual formatting that needs to be preserved. Please do NOT send .docx files.

Submissions open on 1st November and close on the 31st of December. Please do not submit outside that window.

We pay £0.08/word upon signed contract and are interested in previously unpublished short stories between 500 and 7500 words, nonfiction essays, and poetry on our theme. We pay a flat rate of £50 per poem.

We do not accept simultaneous submissions. First-round responses will go out in December 2018, at which point authors whose stories are held for final consideration will also be notified. Limited multiple submissions: you are welcome to submit one of each kind of material (one poem, one essay, one short story), but no more than that.

Reprint Series

fallenangel.dll by Brandon O’Brien

Our December story is by Brandon O’Brien, a writer of fiction and poetry from Trinidad & Tobago, and the poetry editor of FIYAH. Brandon is one of my favorite new SFF writers, and his work has an impressively wide range. You can find a lot of his pieces online, but for the reprints series, I picked one of his stories that was previously only available in print, in the anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean (edited by Karen Lord, Peekash Press, 2016).

To me, fallenangel.dll is one of those stories that can only be written by someone from a non-Anglo-Western country (being someone from a very different non-Anglo-Western country myself). It’s not about the setting, it is just as much about the perspective. Read it and see! I also wanted to pick a longer story for December, so that you have something to read over the holiday break – fallenangel.dll is almost novelette length. Happy holidays!

– Bogi.

Content notice: the story includes depictions of police violence, including drug arrests on false charges.

fallenangel.dll by Brandon O’Brien

“Didn’t have any problems getting back?”

Imtiaz stretched on the couch and sighed. “Nah,” he called back to the kitchen. “Traffic was remarkably light today. You know how it is – takes a while for everyone to find their rhythm.”

“I don’t know how it is, actually,” Tevin shouted from the kitchen. There was a rustle of plastic bags, and then he poked his head from the door. “I never experienced a state of emergency before.”

“A blessing for which you should thank God,” Imtiaz said. “I would’ve killed for the chance to study abroad when the last one happened. Worst three months of our lives.”

After even more shuffling from the kitchen, Tevin came into the living room, a cold bottle of beer in each hand, and kissed Imtiaz on the cheek. “And was there a good reason for the last one?”

“Just as good a reason as this one.”

Tevin sighed and handed his partner a bottle. “I guess I should have gotten more beer then.”

Imtiaz chuckled. “Slow down, hoss. Since when you turn big drinker, anyway?”

“Country gone to the dogs? No better time, I figure.” Tevin raised his bottle before him as a toast.

“To the dogs. Now they get to see us trapped at home.” He brought his bottle to Tevin’s with a soft clink, and then put it to his lips and took a long swig. It had only been three days so far since the Prime Minister had declared the country under lockdown, and everyone knew what a joke looked like when they saw it. It had been seven years at least since the last time he’d been in one, and the excuse was the same. “We are working hard with the Armed Forces,” the Prime Minister would say, “to curtail the growing crime rate in this country, and we ask only that the citizens of this great twin-island state be patient in this effort.”

The first thing that popped up on social media was also the most accurate: “How you does curtail crime by simply asking criminals to stay inside?”

Imtiaz felt a vibrating in his pocket, and reached into it for his cell phone. Almost as soon as he saw the text on his screen, he shoved it back into his pocket.

“Everything okay?” Tevin asked.

“Yeah.” A long sigh, then Imtiaz took another, longer gulp of beer.

“Im?”

“… It’s nothing.”

“If I have to ask what nothing is –”

Imtiaz frowned and put his drink down. “I just might have to head out in a bit.”

Tevin squinted. Imtiaz didn’t like getting in fights, least of all with Tevin, whose disappointed glares had the power to make him feel ashamed for days afterward. “I don’t want to, but I kinda promised –”

“Promised who?”

“A friend of mine wanted help moving something. She doesn’t want to talk about it.” He got up and walked slowly to his bedroom. “I wish I didn’t have to, but I promised before this was a thing-”

“But you can say no? It’s minutes past six. You can’t just head back out –”

“I promised,” Imtiaz called back. “And I swear, it’s not a big deal. Lemme just take care of it, and I’ll be back before you miss me.” He took the phone back out and opened the text this time: so im at uwi, can you meet me at the gate?

“Im.” When he turned to the door, Tevin was already in the walkway, arms folded. “Come nah man. You wanna break curfew and not even tell me why?”

Imtiaz reached for a shirt hanging on the door of his wardrobe and put it over his grey tee. “It’s Shelly. She said she needed someone with a car to help her move something two weeks ago, and now is the only day it can happen. I volunteered.”

“‘Move something’? What?”

“One of her projects. I dunno what yet.”

There it was – Tevin’s dreaded glare, as he tapped his foot on the white tile of the walkway. “A’right. A project. But if the police hold you, you’re out of luck. And don’t play like you taking your time to answer the phone if I call. You hear?”

“Yes, boss,” Imtiaz said, a small smirk on his face. It was his only line of defence against Tevin’s sternness. It didn’t succeed often, but when it did, it did so well.

Tevin tried to fight the grin spreading over his face, and lost. “Be safe, Im. Please. Promise me that. Since you insist on keeping promises.”

Imtiaz walked up to him, still slipping the last buttons into their holes, and kissed his partner softly on the lips. “I absolutely positively promise. I’ll be fine.”

“You bet your ass you’ll be fine,” Tevin whispered. “Play you’re not going and be fine, see what I go do to you.”

*

Imtiaz sped down the highway at sixty, seventy miles an hour, past the three or four motorists still making their way back home who glanced at him with fear. A dusty navy-blue Nissan rushing past in the dark night blaring circa-2007 noise rock does that to people.

He made sure to call before he took off. He’d meet Shelly at the South Gate and take off immediately. She asked if the back seat was empty, and if his husband knew what they were going to pick up. Imtiaz reminded her that he didn’t know either, to which she replied, “Oho, right – well, see you just-now,” and hung up. This wasn’t a good sign, but the volatile mix of curiosity and dedication to keeping his promises got the better of him.

It was twenty to seven when he pulled up, screeching to a halt right in front of the short Indian girl in the brown cargo pants and black t-shirt. She took the lollipop out of her mouth and peeped through the open driver-side window, putting a finger of her free hand into her ear to block out the music.

“You just always wanted to do that, right?”

“Get the hell in,” he sneered.

“Alright, alright,” Shelly said. She lifted a black duffel bag off the ground beside her and got in the back.

“Wait.” Imtiaz turned back to face her. “What’s in the bag?”

“Tools.” She patted it gently as she said it, looking right at him, sporting a smug grin.

“Tools? Open it, lemme see.”

“What, you think I selling drugs or somet’ing?”

“I t’ink if you weren’t selling drugs, you’d be able to open the blasted bag.”

Shelly slapped the bag even harder, just so he could hear the clanging of metal within. Her hand recoiled painfully. “Happy now?”

“No.” He faced front and slowly got back on the road. “Where are we heading?”

“Eh… Just keep going west, I’ll let you know.”

“That isn’t how you ask people to give you a lift.”

Shelly sighed, rolling the lollipop from one side of her mouth to the next. “Would you get nervous if I said Laventi–”

“Laventille?” he shouted. “You want to go to Laventille at minutes to seven on the third night of a curfew? What, not being arrested or murdered is boring?”

“Trust me, when you see it, you’ll be glad you came.” Shelly grinned even wider. “Something you couldn’t imagine. I could’ve gone myself, but didn’t you wonder why I asked if you could do it? Not because I needed a car.” She shrugged. “Although we will.”

“Are you gonna tell me what it is?”

“Shh. You go see it.” She shifted the duffel bag and lay across the length of the seat. “I dare you to tell me you not impressed when we reach there.” She winced, turning to face the stereo deck. “How you could listen to this?”

Imtiaz couldn’t help but smirk. They’d spent many an afternoon debating the musical value of his thrashing, clanging metal music. At her most annoying, he wasn’t beyond blasting it just to get on her nerves. Today felt as good a time as any.

“It calms me,” he replied. It did. He imagined his thoughts dancing to it, his large sweaty moshpit of anxieties.

“I don’t see how this could calm anyone, Im. It sounds like two backhoes gettin’ in a fight.”

“If you say so.” He would have liked to describe the meaning of the present song at length – about rebellion, about sticking it to the man and rising above oppression and propaganda to finally live in a land where you were a free and equal citizen – but he had been Shelly’s friend long enough to know that she didn’t care. She appreciated that she had friends like Imtiaz who thought as deeply about the things they loved as she did about her own loves, but she never really wanted to know what those deep thoughts were. That would involve caring about the things they loved as well. She often didn’t. Passionate people were more interesting to her than their passions.

He glanced at his watch, and panic shot through him. “Shit!” He swerved, aiming for an exit into a side street in San Juan.

“What the –?” Shelly bumped her head on the door, then straightened up.

“Why did I do this?” Imtiaz’s eyes opened wide. “We going to get arrested!”

“Whoa!” Shelly put up her hands. “Don’t panic. We came off the bus route, no one going to see us now. I go give you directions, okay?”

He lowered the volume on the stereo. “I don’t like any of this, Michelle.”

She winced at the sound of her whole first name. “I know. I should’ve say something before. But would you have come if I didn’t?”

“What could be so important?”

“You really have to see it.”

She pointed out the route, giving vague directions as if she were guessing at them, only appearing to get a better sense of where they were going as they got closer to the house. Shelly said she often passed through this area to look for the person they were meeting. She had met the man on a forum early last year. He was one of the few seemingly deluded souls to believe the government rumours of drones and police riot-suppression bots. This interested her less for anarchist, anti-establishment reasons, and more because this was her only chance to get to see a bot up close – if the rumours were true. Almost every month her friend would have some evidence, and almost every week he’d need to be bailed out of Golden Grove Prison for a heroin possession that wouldn’t stick. Imtiaz asked if she trusted her friend, and she shook her head.

“That is why we going.” Shelly was still focusing on the road when she said it.

Imtiaz focused on the road, too. Along the way, he had noticed at least three police jeeps. It looked like they were circling the area. He swore, too, that he’d heard a helicopter above, after leaving the San Juan border, but he couldn’t hear it any more.

“We almost there,” Shelly said, pointing at a rusted shack of galvanised sheeting, with a glittering lime-green sedan parked outside. “By that car.” Imtiaz nodded, parked behind it, unplugged his phone, and got out. Shelly shuffled a bit inside before taking up her bag and opening the door. “Follow me. Lemme do the talking.”

Imtiaz closed the door behind her and gestured for her to lead the way, past the car, past the front door to the side entrance. Shelly knocked three times, and a stern woman’s voice shouted, “Just come inside, nah!”

The door swung open with a creak and Shelly stepped in, Imtiaz following close behind. He was hypervigilant, even to the point of being aware of his awareness, of whether he’d come across as nervous even as he glanced around for the faintest sign of threat. They were in the kitchen, which was better furnished than the outside of the house suggested – stainless steel sink, tiled countertop, the best dishwasher money could buy, even two double-door fridges.

A tall, dark woman was at the counter, dicing a tomato with a chef’s knife. She looked fit, with beautiful soft features, with skin that wrinkled almost imperceptibly at the corners of her lips and near her eyes. Imtiaz guessed she was around her late fifties.

“Ey, it’s Shelly!” the woman said, smiling but not taking her eyes off the tomato. “And who’s your friend?”

“Missus Atwell, this is Imtiaz. You know how your son and I like putting together puzzles. Imtiaz likes that sort of thing, so I invited him to help.”

“Ah, yes…” Ms. Atwell put down the knife and stared wistfully off into the TV room, where some soap opera was playing on mute. “Runako and his blasted puzzles. He does still never let me see them, you know. Even when the police take him, he insist – nobody mus’ go back in his room an’ look for anyt’ing.”

“Yeah, the puzzles are kinda important, miss.”

Ms. Atwell continued gazing distantly for a beat or two, and then went back to her tomato. “Well, just try not to stay too late. You getting a ride out of here after?”

“Yes, miss,” Shelly said, nodding as she left the kitchen, gesturing for Imtiaz to follow down the short hallway to a dark brown door. Shelly rapped on it three times. They could hear the sound of large containers being dragged across the floor, and then one, two, three bolt locks being opened.

The door opened a crack, and a dark-skinned face poked through. His eyes were wide at first, but then he glanced at Shelly and sighed calmly, pulling the door open slowly. “Oh, it’s you. Thanks for passing through.”

“Of course I must pass through,” she said as she entered, Imtiaz behind her. “You say you had something for me to see. I saw the picture. I just want to make sure.”

Runako was a tall black man, perfectly baldheaded, in a white Jointpop t-shirt and black sweatpants. When he noticed Imtiaz looking at him, he nudged Shelly and stepped back, leaning on the wall nervously. “Who is this? Your friend?”

“Yeah. Runako, meet Imtiaz. He’s the one going to help me put this back together. If you didn’t set me up like all the other times.”

He folded his arms. “Okay. But I telling you, too many times I get hold, I get lock up, because somebody tell somebody and the police hear. This is probably my last chance for somebody to see it.”

Imtiaz had focused on an odd shape in the corner of the room under a sheet of grey vinyl. When he turned back to the other two, they were glancing at it too. “This is it?” he asked.

Runako nodded. “Look at it, nah, Shelly? Exactly as I promised.”

She stepped toward it and pulled the dusty vinyl off. In a coughing fit, her eyes widened as she looked at it. When she got her breath back, she turned to Runako. “Really?”

“See?!” Runako grinned. “I is not no liar.”

“Imtiaz, come!” She waved to her friend to come closer, and he stepped up beside her. It was a robot with a matte black shell and glossy black joints. It had suffered severe damage; frayed wires poked out of an arm, its chestplate had a fist-sized hole in it. Imtiaz noticed that on its back were a pair of camouflage-green retractable wings; they looked as if they would span half the room when opened, maybe even wider. On its neck was a serial number painted in white stencil: TTPS-8103-X79I.

“TTPS?” Imtiaz said, almost at a whisper. “As in –”

“Yeah, man,” Runako said behind them.

“A real live police bot…” Shelly straightened up slowly, dusting herself off. “This is the riot team model?”

“Yeah. The mark-two, in fact. Tear gas and pepper spray nozzles in the arm, but they not full, and stun gun charges; thrusters under the wings so it could dispense over crowds by flying overhead. Recording cam in one of the eyes – can’t remember which, supposed to be forty megapixels. And some other things, but I didn’t open it up yet. I was waiting for you.”

Shelly rubbed her hands and reached down beside her to open the duffel bag and take out a long, flat-head screwdriver. “Why, thank you, kind sir. Now, gimme my music there. Time to start.”

Runako nodded and stepped over to a stereo at the corner of the room. Shelly took a USB drive out of her back pocket and tossed it at him. He caught it, slotted it in a back port, and pressed a couple of buttons. He stepped back as something haunting and atmospheric played, the lyrics lo-fi and echoing, the instrumental thumping and dark. Shelly swayed a little as the sound rumbled through the room, eyes closed, facing the ceiling, as if taken briefly by some heavenly rapture. Then she straightened and pointed her screwdriver at Imtiaz. “You hear that, Immy? Now that is music to calm you. Not whatever wildness you does listen to.”

Imtiaz squinted, eager to ask what made her witchy-sounding, incomprehensible music better than his tastes, but he kept his question to himself.

Shelly knelt before the thing and started unscrewing the outer panels, observing the wiring as it snaked across its chest and limbs, leading to each gear or tool it powered. Imtiaz pulled up a chair by the wall so he could see, but not so close as to disturb her.

Her hands moved as if she were in a trance. Gently, screws would slowly wind out of their places, plating would fall into her hands, she would gently place it beside her on a sheet of newspaper on the floor. She would follow the lines of red and green and purple wire from the processor in its headpiece to the battery supply in its centre and then out to the extremities, to its tear gas canister launchers, its sensory databases. Imtiaz thought that they looked like the veins of… Of course they did. Of course they looked like veins, like nerves, like sinews. What else could a man do but copy?

He stared at the serial number on a sheet of plate on the floor. A police riot bot. Here, in Laventille. On a night of curfew. He went from peacefully admiring Shelly’s diligence right back into panic.

Shelly said softly, “You’re gonna be checking the BIOS after this is done, by the way. So get a laptop ready. Runako?”

Runako snapped a finger, then picked up a dusty grey notebook near the stereo. “Here, boss.” He took a couple of long steps to get to Imtiaz and rested it in his lap.

As Imtiaz opened it, he could hear Shelly mumbling to herself about “not that much damage”, and the bot being “up and running in an hour”. He glanced up to see that most of the outer shell, save for the wings, were gone, the bot’s innards entirely visible. He could see past them to the bedroom wall. It was almost a work of art as it was.

He opened a guest profile on the laptop and launched a web browser. “How you paying for this, again?” he said.

“‘You’?” Shelly chuckled. “You mean we.”

“What?” He froze for a moment. “No. No, I don’t. Trus’ me, I don’t.”

“So… I forgot to mention…” She had a pair of pliers in hand now, stripping some of the power-supply wires with them.

“Mention what?”

“I promised Runako we would come back if he needed anything. In exchange for this.”

“Wha–” He wanted to shout, but he glanced at Runako and decided against it. He didn’t know what kind of person he was dealing with. As the host folded his arms, Imtiaz cleared his throat. “You didn’t think this was probably worth sharing with me first? Before even asking me to come here?”

“I figured it wasn’t going and be a problem. You like them kinda thing.”

“But I don’t like doing it for free for people I don’t know.

Shelly gestured to the robot with a free hand. “Look – it already open. We already here. I asking nicely. This is too big an opportunity.”

He didn’t answer right away, but he wanted to say no. This was the neighbourhood where strangers got shot. He wasn’t planning to come back, national lockdown or not. “How much something like this supposed to cost?”

Shelly had already returned her focus on the wiring. “This is seven figures at least.”

Runako chimed in. “Black market is nine hundred fifty thousand.”

Imtiaz sighed as softly as he could, too softly for them to hear. He couldn’t do it. His skin felt tight against him, his palms clammy and warm. He logged into Facebook in the hope of finding something silly and distracting while Shelly tended to the robot.

The very first shared link on his feed read Sources Warn of Police Raids in Hotspots to Curb Crime During Curfew. He opened it in another tab: “Residents in several so-called ‘crime hotspots’ across the island have claimed that their areas are being targeted by police officers who, as part of their crackdown on crime, are performing random house searches for illegal contraband…”

Imtiaz felt his chest get tight. He glanced at the window and was sure he could see flashing blue lights several streets away. He glanced back at the article: “Several Western areas, such as Belmont and Laventille, are due for their own random searches at the time of posting, sources say.” He heard a siren blare suddenly, and just as suddenly, silence. He was sure.

“You nervous or what, man?” Runako said sternly.

“What?” Imtiaz turned to face him. “Nah, I good.”

“You sure? Like you freaking out about the deal.”

He looked away, hoping to hide whatever signs of fear were on his face. “I just could’ve been told before, that’s all.”

“Ey.” Runako snapped his fingers, and Imtiaz twitched. “What? You is another one of them who feel they too good for Laventille?”

“I didn’t say that.” Imtiaz got out of his seat and walked to the bedroom window, pulling the curtains open only enough to get a good view. The street was empty and dimly lit. “Although you can’t blame a guy, can you?”

“What that supposed to mean?”

“It supposed to mean people don’t like coming to places and being afraid they not going and make it back home after.”

“Really?” Runako folded his arms. “This is the fool you go look to bring in my house, Shelly? During de curfew, no less, a man going and tell me the whole of Laventille not safe for nobody?”

“You hear me say –”

Shelly whistled, still not looking up from the robot. “Fellas, I like a good rousing sociopolitical debate just like everybody else, but we on a clock, right? So cool it.”

Runako backed off, but Imtiaz kept looking out of the window. This time he was positive – a police jeep stopping at the top of the street, one man coming out of the back seat and shouting at the window of a house. “I don’t like this.”

Shelly was already taping over some exposed wires, and taping around them all to keep them in place. “I’m almost done, Im. You’ll just check the firmware quick, help me load it into the car, and that’s it. We almost finished.”

Imtiaz saw the officer beat on the door of the house until a woman came out, and then grab her by the neck and throw her out onto the street. He shouted again. Another officer came out from the driver’s side door, a pistol already in his hand.

“Stop almost-finishing and finish, then,” he said nervously. “Trouble up the street.”

She looked over the inside of the shell again, tracing her hands along all the snaking wires, trying to find a spot she had overlooked. When she couldn’t find one, she shrugged, beginning to screw each plate of its iron skin back together. “We could deal with the outer damage when we take it home, I guess. Your turn.”

It took Imtiaz a moment to peel away from the window. The second officer had just struck a small child in the head with his handgun, and his partner was already barging into the house. Imtiaz sighed and got back to his chair. “You have a Type C cable?”

For a moment, Shelly was confused. “I might…” she rummaged in her toolbag for one, a couple seconds longer than her still-tense friend could handle.

He snapped his fingers. “It really can’t wait. We don’t have time.”

Over Imtiaz’s shoulder, Runako held a long looped black cable, its connectors seemingly brand new. “Don’t bother. One right here.”

“Thank you,” Imtiaz said, snatching it from him, tossing one end of it to Shelly. She slid a panel to the side of the robot’s head – one of the few parts of it still covered – and inserted it.

Imtiaz opened a command console and began his wizardry. He had learned a couple of tricks online ever since robots came in vogue, but they were light reading. He never anticipated actually having to apply them. There were never supposed to actually have any on his island. They were too expensive for leisure, save for the wealthiest corners of Cascade or Westmoorings where some fair-skinned grandfather with an Irish last name lived out his lonely retirement.

The government swore against them for public sector purposes, citing price mostly, but police bots were a particularly hot topic. They weren’t just costly to most leaders. They were problematic – too much power for anyone in office to hold. Leaders of the opposition for the last few years milked that argument in the parliament house – “Do you want our Prime Minister having full rein over armed machines? With no consciences? Wandering our streets under the guise of law and order, but really, she’s asking the people to pay for her own personal hit squad!” Another oft-milked idea – they called it the ‘flying squad’ – was a rumoured group of non-robotic policemen with a license to kill and a direct line to the Minister. Putting those two ideas together was a good way to whip up a panic.

But then again, here was proof of one of the claims being true. A police bot. Number and all. The first known sighting – if only they survived the night.

A couple lines of code later, a small window popped up – the bot’s application screen. Reboot Y/N? He pressed the Y key, and another line of text appeared: Rebooting… They could hear a low whirring from the gears near the battery, and the robot’s LED eyes began to slowly fade in and out in a bright blue.

“Hurry up, nah, you dotish robot,” Imtiaz muttered. A sliver of him had all but given up that they would make it back out unnoticed with the robot in tow. But he had already begun. There was nothing left but to soldier on.

The robot’s head slowly tilted up, and a gentle, melodious bootup theme played from its neck, a little louder now without some of the plating to muffle it. Shelly’s hands shot up in triumph as she waited to hear it greet itself. The robot opened its dull-grey mouth and spoke:

“Здравствуйте. Я модель Mинерва, серийный номер TTPS-8103-X791. Я могу чем-нибудь помочь?”

“What?” Runako scratched his head. “What kinda language is that?”

“I don’t know, boy.” Shelly finished screwing the final plate, and then inched closer to Imtiaz. “Im, something wrong with the language options or what?”

“Maybe…” He went back into command prompt, typing in more code to get access to its folders. “But if it’s a neural wiring problem –”

“I just looked at it, Im. Everything in order. Don’t blame it on –”

“I not blaming anybody. I just saying we can’t solve this now. Police all over. We have to take this home and troubleshoot it there.”

“Nah. I can’t wait. I need to be sure Runako not setting me up.”

“Even if we make jail?” Imtiaz turned to her in panic.

Shelly pointed at his laptop screen. “Face front. If you don’t want to make jail, work faster. We getting out of here, and we getting out of here with this robot.”

Imtiaz rubbed his eyes anxiously before pressing the Enter key. There was a briefer, louder whir, and then the bot powered down, its folders spilling onto the screen in a small cascade. “Okay, the root is here…” He fished around for the language base. “Um… all I see here is Russian and Japanese. I can’t even find its preferred warning phrases document.” He put a few more lines in the command box to update its language files. “Okay, two minutes at least that’s fixed. I’ll have to reboot it again first.”

“Alright, what about everything else? Optical recording? Ear-side microphones? The riot gear?”

Imtiaz squinted at the rest of files and folders. “They all look fine here. Due for updates, but they could run fine till we get back home. So?” He gestured sternly to the window? “Can we?”

“Make sure for me, please?”

At this point, he was sweating. He couldn’t see through the window. At least seeing outside confirmed his fears. Now, worry just ran amok in his mind. He was sure he had just heard a gunshot higher up the street. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath, and then opened them again, scanning the filenames for anything missing. Instead, he found new ones.

“When you find this?” he said.

Runako shifted, rubbing his hand over the top of his shiny bald head. “Who, me? Like, some weeks. Why?”

He turned to Shelly, eyes wide, beads of sweat falling down his cheeks. “Because it still have recordings, Shell.”

She straightened up, leaning closer to see the screen. A folder headed GATHER had reams of voice notes and video, most of which were so badly corrupted that their file types were missing, surely a result of whatever damage the bot had received. All of them were titled with numbers, and they had even more text files with the same kind of file name.

Shelly pointed to one at random, a text file. “Twelve oh nine, twenty twenty-three, sixteen thirty-four forty-one, oh thirty-nine? What that mean?”

“Most likely date and time, and… the last three, a place? Number of files on that day? I don’t know.” He opened it and read aloud. “‘Event log, September 12th 2023’ – wait, nah, that was just the other day? – ‘deployed on raid procedure in Arima area, address 34 Lime Avenue. Related files withheld by Winged Cpt. Sean Alexander.’ It have the number of people in the house, outstanding warrant info… it says, ‘Winged Det. Dexter Sandy, in compliance with Winged Cpt. Alexander, found previously tagged evidence 46859 in previously sealed case Trinidad & Tobago vs. Kareem Jones, which led to the arrest of –”

“Wait!” Runako stood behind Imtiaz, his hands pressed firmly on the back of the chair. “Previously tagged? You getting this, Shelly?”

“What? I don’t follow.” She hadn’t turned to face either of them, still reading the file. Imtiaz stared at it with a mild confusion.

“That evidence! Kareem Jones was in the papers months now for weed possession. He already in jail! How would they find already-seized weed in Arima from a case in Carenage, on the west side?”

“And what is a ‘winged’ officer?” Shelly made scare-quotes with her fingers as she said it.

“I was wondering the same thing,” Imtiaz said. “What kind of designation is that? It sure doesn’t sound official.”

“I could damn well tell you what it is –”

“I don’t want to believe it…” Shelly turned back to the robot, as if taking it in. It wasn’t just an illegal bot – it was a flying squad bot. A metal goon for the Prime Minister. It took a moment too long for Imtiaz to put it all together, but the moment he had, the back of his neck felt warm.

“It have video for that day here?” Runako put his hands on Imtiaz’s shoulders – and it made him even tenser still.

“L-lemme see.” He scrolled through them to find a video with the exact same title. He double-clicked it, and it loaded in his media player, a four-minute recording starting with the camera – the bot – leaving a police vehicle.

*

“Ey! Open up! Police!” A gruff man’s voice shouted from outside of view. The bot looked directly at the door of an apple-white house as it slowly opened, a short brown girl looking out timidly.

“Where your parents, girl?” another, softer, male voice said, still in a raised voice. The girl shook her head in reply, stepping back into the house, but a heavy-set officer ran up to the door and held it open.

They could hear someone else shouting inside. The officer at the door, the gruff one, shouted, “Ey! We reach, so don’t play like you’re hiding nothing!” Two other officers came to the door and they entered, the robot behind them in the tight, dim walkway.

The robot glanced everywhere, and was making readings of everything. It tried to scan for the name of the girl, but couldn’t find it; it calculated live on screen the percentage of threat posed by stray breadknives on the kitchen counter as they passed it, or of a cricket bat near the living-room window – low, it supposed, being sized for a primary school child, easy to deal with by a carbon-plated police bot.

It saw a man it identified at David Sellers, raising his voice at an officer, asking how they could barge into the house without a warrant.

It saw Sparkle Sellers, and brought up the recent date of their marriage beneath her name as she pulled David back, trying to calm him down.

It saw an officer pull a bag as big as his palm out of his side pocket while no one was looking. It tagged the bag “E-46859”, and followed awkwardly, focusing on it as the officer dropped it behind a plastic chair in the dining room. The officer nudged his partner and whispered, audibly enough for the robot, “It there, eh?” It saw him gesture with his elbow to the chair.

“What?” David shouted. “What where? What’s going on here?”

“Sir, you are under arrest for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute,” the gruff man said, reaching past Mrs. Sellers and grabbing David by his shoulder.

“Weed? You for real, officer? It have no weed here!”

He threw David on the brownish carpet, inches from the chair where they had dropped it, turning his head to face it as they put on the cuffs. “So what is that?”

The video stuttered here, playing that one moment repeatedly – of David Sellers’ frightened gaze, fixed on the clear package on his floor, looping the very moment when his eyes widened with fear, and then relaxed again in sad resignation, over and over and over…

*

For a moment, the three of them stared silently at the screen. Imtiaz’s hands were on his mouth.

Suddenly, Runako and Imtiaz jumped in unison. There was a loud rapping at the outermost door.

“Shit,” Runako whispered, beginning to pace in confused panic. “They catch we, fellas. That is it.”

“Wait, stop freaking out, guys,” Shelly said, getting up slowly.

Imtiaz still couldn’t find the words. This was it. They were done. They had in front of them what was probably an illegally sourced repository of evidence of police impropriety in the house of a career criminal drug offender. They were done for.

“Okay,” Shelly added. “We keeping the files, for sure.”

“How we going to keep what we can’t leave the house with?”

“Easy. We leave the house.”

Imtiaz wanted to shout, if not for the fear of police. “How?”

“Boot up the bot. We flying out.”

Runako started mumbling to himself. “We backing up everything. Four or five copies. And you going to take them. Don’t get catch, eh?”

“Wait, no, stop – how this supposed to work?” Imtiaz put his hands out to Shelly. “This is nonsense. How we flying out with the robot? It can’t even speak English yet!”

“It don’t need to. It just need to be able to fly.”

He checked the download – just complete. The flight module seemed to be fine in software, but he wasn’t convinced that Shelly had it all worked out on the hardware end. He didn’t like this idea at all. “Can we just think this over for –”

Outside, they heard someone tapping on the door. “Excuse me, this is the police –”

The three of them froze, their voice down to whispers. Imtiaz pointed at Shelly. “Okay, but let it be known I think this is craziness.”

“Foolish is fine once it works –” She gripped the robot’s left arm firmly, then leaned over to the keyboard to begin another reboot sequence. “You better had grab hold of something. Runako, you coming with us?”

“Nah. Somebody have to take the licks,” he whispered. He was standing at the door now, facing it at attention. “Just get out quick.”

Shelly nodded, then looked sternly at Imtiaz, who shot her a confused look. The moment the robot’s boot sound sprung to life, he suddenly grabbed hold of its free arm.

“Hello,” it said. “I am model Minerva, serial number TTPS-8103-X79I. How may I help you?”

“By getting airborne,” Shelly whispered. “Uh… Hostiles en route, or whatever.”

“Understood.” Suddenly, its wings spread open with a tinny, rusty clang. Its edges hit both walls without even opening fully, and then it just as suddenly retracted them. “Wingspan obstacle issue.” It turned to Shelly. “Primary launch will include thrusters only. Will that be a problem?”

“Nah, you do what you have to do, man.” The moment Shelly said this was when Imtiaz realized he was about to do something well and truly foolish.

The knocking at the door became more insistent, and the officer’s voice harsher. “You better open up right now before I have to kick this blasted –”

The bot’s thrusters thrummed to life, warm air gushing from it. It turned to Imtiaz. “Please hold on to my arms with both hands. Flight may often be turbulent and dangerous.”

“No shit –” Shelly nearly exclaimed it, but another persistent knock at the door brought her back to whispers. “We should go now, you know.”

“Understood,” the bot replied.

A louder, harder purr of wind and heat flooded out of the thrusters, and the bot sprang up with its two parcels on each side, through the galvanised sheet roof with enough force to push it clean off. They didn’t have enough time to ready themselves; Imtiaz would have slid all the way off its arm if it hadn’t swivelled its palm to grab his belt buckle. Shelly responded by wrapping her limbs around its arm for more support.

The robot spread its wings, and the thrusters let out an even harder gust. “Clearing distance. What is our destination?”

“Take me to San Juan,” Shelly shouted into its microphoned ear.

“Understood.” It flapped its chrome-feathered wings once, and then sped east with a force Imtiaz swore would tear his flesh from the rest of him.

Imtiaz looked down to see three police officers rush through the door, one of them already pinning Runako to the wall. Another reached for his pistol and let out one shot, narrowly missing the robot’s forehead, and by extension, Imtiaz.

*

Shelly would later spring Runako from prison with the spoils of her newfound publicity. Runako’s charge, again, was drug pushing, until the real news broke. Shelly sent a compact disc to every major television station as soon as she had watched all of the video herself – hours of ‘winged’ officers kicking in doors, windows, and the occasional civilian’s face; dozens of false arrests and misappropriations, with all the officers’ faces on screen. Imtiaz refused to look at them. They both spent their quiet moments trembling at the thought of what must have been on the videos that were lost to hard drive damage and time. The Prime Minister resigned two nights after, owning up to the whole flying squad programme. The new hot topic on the web, though, was that till the snap election was done, the citizens would be under a state of emergency anyway.

As for the bot, Shelly put it to work helping her mother around the house on her behalf. She had tinkered with it so intensively that it had taken to cooking their dinner and tending to their herb garden with near-mathematical accuracy. On weekends, she strapped a bespoke harness around its wings and learned to fly with it for fun, a hobby which frightened her mother every single time.

“What’s next for the girl who blew the whistle on the Flying Squad fiasco?” the press would ask her every other day in the papers.

“Graduate from UWI?” she’d reply, shrugging, looking away from the cameras like she was already bored with it all.

Imtiaz managed to keep his face out of the papers, for his own sake. Even his husband had yet to hear of the drama of that night. He’d have the occasional paranoid episode coming from work, though, looking in his rearview mirror for flashing blue lights as he hurried down the highway. Whenever he found himself panicking, he raised the volume on his industrial-rock driving music just a little higher.

Imtiaz grew to enjoy the safety of his house. He held on to Tevin a little tighter every day. He’d even find himself grinning like a fool at the simplest, most mundane questions, simply because he was still around to answer them.

“Didn’t have any problems getting back?” Tevin would ask.

“Nah,” Imtiaz would reply. “Traffic was light today. You know how it is.”

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad and Tobago. His work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions, and is published in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Reckoning, Fireside Magazine, Arsenika, and Ride The Star Wind, among others. He is also a performing and teaching artist with The 2 Cents Movement, and the poetry editor of FIYAH: A Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction.

 

Reprint Series

Sin embargo by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Dear readers, welcome to this month’s Galli Books story reprint: Sin embargo by Sabrina Vourvoulias!

I first read this story in the anthology Latin@ Rising (edited by Matthew David Goodwin), where it originally appeared, and it made such a strong impression on me that I had to stop reading and take a break. This is a story about migration that captures so much subtlety, in so many ways. My own migration background is very different both from the author’s and the characters’, but this story spoke to me, directly to the heart  — as it will hopefully speak to you too.

This is not a lightweight story by any means. The protagonist works with migrant survivors of persecution and genocide. I will not say it is “timely,” because it has been timely for the entirety of human history. Instead, I will say that it is a really important read.

It is also concurrently being reprinted in the international, multicultural anthology Sunspot Jungle, edited by Bill Campbell of Rosarium Press. Sunspot Jungle has two volumes, both coming this month, and I strongly encourage you to check it out. (I also have a reprint in the second volume.) Look at the awesome covers — art by John Ira Jennings:

I personally really enjoy Rosarium books and would like to take this opportunity to warmly recommend them 🙂 I hope Sabrina’s story will also further increase your interest!

Good reading!
— Bogi.

Content notices: immigration trauma, genocide, ableism. Mentions of torture and sexual assault.

Sin embargo by Sabrina Vourvoulias

1.

Nevertheless.

That is the word that starts nearly every statement I make to my clients as I’m detailing what they can expect during treatment, or during a forensic evaluation should they ever be permitted to witness in court.

I say it in Spanish because though many of them have been here for decades and no longer speak first in Spanish, most of them still think first in it. Their children, when and if they accompany them to the First State Survivors Center, roll their eyes at me.

Nevertheless. Sin embargo.

Now say it with an English accent and an American reading of the interlingual homographs — sin embargo — and it becomes policy. Banned and barricaded, it says, because of transgression. Your transgression, your community’s, your state’s.

For the Guatemalans and Hondurans; the Salvadorans and Colombians; the Cubans and Venezuelans I work with, each originating transgressive circumstance may be as distinct as an owl is from a hummingbird. But the sin embargo falls on their head the same way, righteous as a curse.

Is your fear credible?

Do you (who got away with no more than the breath in your chest) have documentation?

And how is it, anyway, that you got away?

The First State Survivor Center is privately funded. We treat both immigrant and asylum-seeker, because immigration trauma can manifest in ways remarkably similar to survivor trauma. Also because the government’s designation of which countries produce refugees and which produce immigrants is a lesson in politics, not psychology.

Anyway. You know (or if you don’t know, you can guess) there is more than one way to translate “sin embargo” from Spanish to English. Sometimes instead of nevertheless, I go for this: the fact remains.

The fact of report; of U.N. statistics and special procedures; of federal applications, deferred action and memoranda.

There is fact of flesh, too. Here, by Istambul Protocols: thickened plantar fascia; perforated tympanic membrane; rectal tearing; keloids and hyperpigmentation; chronic lung problems. I know how to translate these flesh facts into words, even when the government claims it cannot: bastinado; teléfono; rape; necklacing; wet submarino and waterboarding.

Sin embargo, sin embargo, sin embargo — the fact remains. In Spanish, in English, in the hauntingly untranslated gulf between.

2.

Someone famous, I can’t remember who, once said that when a language dies, so does memory.

I wonder about that whenever María José Manrique comes to the center and sits across the desk from me. She doesn’t come regularly, and no longer makes the impression she once did. In the early days of her counseling, she not only wore her traditional blouse and skirt, she wound a bright, twenty-meter ribbon around her head in imitation of the sun.

The headdress is called a tocoyal in Tz’utijil, but it’s been at least a decade since she’s spoken it. And today, when I ask her why she doesn’t wear the headpiece anymore, she refers to it by the Guatemalan Spanish word for all such ornamentation — tocado — then skillfully avoids answering my question.

Tocado, in case you were wondering, also means “touched.” Touched has an odd set of meanings in English. Those seven letters convey the straightforward tactile, intangible compassion, and assumed mental illness or incompetence all at once. Survivors of torture, no matter how touching their testimony, are often written off as touched.

Last year’s genocide trial in Guatemala is a good example. The Ixil women who stood and recounted gang rapes and massacres that wiped out full villages, were discredited with arguments of hysteria, of confabulation, of the childish inability to distinguish protective action from oppressive.

María José and I watched some of the live-stream of the trial together in my office while it was happening. My client sat dry-eyed and unmoving even when one of the testimonies — recounted in a different indigenous language and translated into Spanish — was remarkably similar to her own story.

The live-stream winked in and out, and each time it did, I studied la Marijoe (as she’s come to be known after so many years in the United States).

“¿Qué buscas?” she had finally asked when she noticed my scrutiny. What are you looking for? As if that wasn’t a question to be answered in a lifetime instead of a 50-minute session.

“I guess I’m looking for a reaction,” I had said. “I want to know if this serves as proxy justice for you.”

What you’ve got to understand about la Marijoe is that she smiles a lot. A wide rictus of a smile that you can never be sure is about something good. She hadn’t answered my question that day, just smiled and smiled, and months later, after the genocide verdict was vacated and we all understood that no one was going to be serving a sentence for crimes against humanity, her only comment was that smile.

I can’t remember if I smiled on that rescinded verdict day. Maybe later, at home, as I was carving a figure from an apple I had on hand. Maybe when I bored a hole through its chest with the tip of my paring knife. Maybe every time I hear that the tough, old ex-president and military man from Guatemala has started having some trouble breathing.

3.

I’ll be having pie de pie.

Pronounce the first pie in that sentence in English, the second in Spanish.

It means I will be eating pie standing up. Although … I could be telling you I’m going to be eating foot pie.

But, I’m not. I’m going to be telling you about my girlfriend, Daiana, who is a pastry chef and makes the best pie. Never foot pie, just so-good-I-can’t-even-wait-to-sit-down-to-eat-it pie.

Right now she is flattening dough with an antique glass roller she fills with ice water. And raising her perfect, threaded eyebrows at me. It’s not the fact I’m talking into empty space (she believes in the paranormal, as do many of her fellow immigrants from San Mateo Ozolco) it’s just this monologue-ish style that bothers her.

It sounds like I’m chiding, she tells me. Her convos with ghosts and ancestors and saints are always a back-and-forth, and as she tells me this, her words adopt the rhythm of the roller over dough, smooth but firm, perfecting everything beneath it.

After an hour, when the oven buzzer goes off, she looks at me before opening the door. Her eyes are what I first loved about her: letter Ds resting belly-up and barely containing the Abuelita-chocolate-discs of her irises.

“Magic,” she says. “Pay.” And hands me a perfect slice.

P-a-y is how we transcribe the English word “pie” so Spanish speakers know we don’t mean foot. And so we create yet another homograph, thorny and confusing for the translator. Do we mean pay or pay?

“You can’t get a loan to eat.”

When I first met Daiana this was the way she explained her decision to immigrate. Now that she has her green card and works at the top boutique bakery in Philly, she and her cohorts (“The Bank of Puebla” they call themselves) leave sunken brioches and imperfect cannoli on the loading dock where those whose credit is hunger know to seek them out.

I’m not chiding now. Consider this a benediction instead. There are many innate, unschooled magicks — love, food, compassion, solidarity. May your mouth fill with them.

4.

My grandparents were Nipo-peruanos, which is how I come to speak some Japanese, and Spanish as well as I do. Not a native speaker, by any stretch, but good enough to confuse. Before you mistake this for boasting, know that in addition to French, my colleagues at the Survivors Center collectively speak Tigrinya, Amharic, Zigula, Khmer, Nepali, Arabic, Cantonese and Kreyòl. I am clearly the underachiever of the bunch.

My boss, a chino-cubano whose years as an imprisoned dissident have left him with limited movement in his shoulders, tells me that the fact I’ve just turned thirty but look eighteen, more than makes up for my unexceptional Spanish or contextually useless Japanese language skills.

Many of the survivors I work with are older — think the first wave of Central Americans fleeing torture and civil war in the 1970s and ‘80s — and the fact I look to be the same age as their grandchildren are (or would be) makes most of them warm quickly to me.

Most of them.

Today, la Marijoe comes in unscheduled, storms past the gatekeepers at registration, and upturns her handbag on my desk. A flood of scraps torn from matchbook covers, business cards, receipts and lined notebook paper streams out. No wallet, no sunglasses, nothing else.

I poke at one of the scraps, flip it over. There is a name written on it.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“Each is a child detained at the border,” she says. “The ones you want to deport.”

“You know I don’t want to repatriate them,” I say. I play with the bits of paper; they all have different names written in pencil, in pen, in something that looks like it might be halfway between a crayon and brow pencil. “Anyway, how can you know their names?”

“People have names,” she says. Then she turns her back and leaves before I can say anything else.

I sweep the paper bits into plastic baggies. I count some of them at the break room as I eat the empanadas Daiana has packed for my lunch. My colleagues help me count, even without an explanation. And later, at home, Daiana does the same.

There are 60,000 scraps of name.

Magic isn’t instinctive, at least not for me. I have had to learn it as carefully as at one time I learned the alphabet and vowel sounds in Spanish. A-E-I-O-U.

And in English, A-E-I owe you.

Sale, as Daiana says.

It is slang, in Mexico, for “agreed.” In other Spanish-speaking countries it means “to leave,” and you already know its definition in English.

Which do I mean?

The translator’s dilemma.

5.

I go get la Marijoe a full two hours before our appointment, because PTSD makes survivors unreliable about keeping time. Plus, we’re taking public transit.

She comes out of her apartment wearing new plastic shoes and a fuschia-print dress. The mostly grey hair she usually pins high on her neck is loose and falls heavy past her shoulders. The smell of almond oil wafts up from it. Before almond oil hair treatments became hipster, they were old school. This I know from my own mother.

Today there is a creature riding la Marijoe’s shoulders. It is a man-bird, ungainly despite the strong, wide wings it extends. Its long toenails puncture the skin just above la Marijoe’s clavicles and sink straight through muscle to bone. The creature’s ugly pin head turns to meet my gaze.

“Vamos, pues,” la Marijoe says to me.

She knows I see the creature, have seen it from the first day she became my client. If I’ve earned any respect from her it is because I didn’t run out of the office screaming that day.

Marijoe calls it her zope — after zopilote, vernacular for the vulture from which the creature takes its shape — and these days I only see it riding her when something has pushed her beyond survival and deep into her core, where fear still lives.

It is the appointment that’s done it. The notice that perhaps they’ve located her brother living in a small town in Oaxaca these 30 plus years he’s been disappeared and she’s believed him dead. This is why I’m accompanying her. To help her through her first meeting with him, via internet hangout, at the State Department office.

That’s why her zope comes too.

The past is carrion memory, and the three of us — client, shrink, the monster given vulture shape by survivor guilt — live by picking at it.

6.

Voice comes before image.

The community library in Juchitán has broadband, but the image of the librarian leaning into the computer freezes with Rolando just a shadowed bit of background pixelation, even as the sound comes through. The librarian nods at me, then tries adjusting on that end, while the State Department functionary and I make strained conversation, and la Marijoe and her brother repeat each other’s names in a circlet of syllable and breath.

Rolando’s voice through the monitor is soft and sibilant; he still sounds like the youngster orphaned, then separated from his older sister and forced to find his way out of a place of fantastic, inconceivable violence alone, first by trailing after scavenger birds, then following migratory ones as he made his way north.

The internet coughs up a perfect image. The librarian seated at the computer is a muxe dressed in the huipil of the indigenous population of the town. Standing behind her, in western wear and twisting his hands in expectation, is Rolando. He looks much older than his voice, older even than la Marijoe. It is a quick impression, really, because our screen goes to black as the feed buffers, and this time the sound cuts out too.

The zope fans its huge wings, digs its claws deeper into la Marijoe’s flesh. In fact, I see the wicked ends poking all the way through her back; dark, blackish blood caught in the tips. I wonder about the State Department guy — Frank — and whether he sees something because every time the zope moves its wings, he seems to flinch.

The computer screen in front of la Marijoe lightens again, then fills with smoke.

I can smell it. Wood smoke. Pine, resiny and hot. Frank grabs my shoulder, crushes it in his grip. The smoke on screen clears after a second, two, three … and then we stare at a stand of pinabetes — Christmasy, quick-growing trees prone to lightening strikes — rooted in a ground of charred bodies.

There is a child, maybe six, standing in front of the pile. His eyes dart from the corpses to whomever is holding the recording device from our point of view. La Marijoe puts her hand to the screen and the small one on the other side meets it. She says one word in that language she hasn’t spoken in a decade, and even though the glottals are foreign to my ear, I understand the word means hide.

The child scoots toward the bodies. He picks his way gingerly among them, drops to his knees, then to his back. He grabs an arm to pull the body closer to him. The flesh comes off the bone as if it were a glove, but the torso doesn’t budge. He drops the mass of charred skin and semi-liquid tissue, and starts inching his body closer to the body on his other side. He whimpers a bit as he pushes under it, and I wonder how long a burnt body holds the heat that killed it; and if the child, too, will be singed while hiding beneath it.

The child is completely hidden by the burnt corpses when we hear the crack of gunfire. The image shakes violently, dives, captures a minute of tilted ground then fades to black. The hangout site pops up a static image onscreen to indicate the connection has dropped.

“Rolando,” la Marijoe says one last time, then goes silent as the zope’s huge, dark wings curve forward to cover her eyes.

Frank lets go of my hand at the same time as the zope plunges its curved beak into the crown of la Marijoe’s head. The monstrous creature pushes its ugly head so deep inside the old woman, its beak temporarily bulges out a spot on her neck.

“Marijoe?”

She turns to me. Zope feathers are coming through the skin beneath her eyebrows and behind her ears, but it’s what’s happening on her forehead, cheeks and chin that gets my attention. Fine particles of whatever powder or foundation makeup she’s been wearing slough off from the pressure of feathers prodding at the skin from within. Under the flaking cover-up, la Marijoe’s face is hyperpigmented, shiny, and her skin is too thick for even the big vulture quills to get through.

Like my girlfriend Daiana’s wrist, where a third-degree burn from one of the bakery’s commercial ovens has healed into a bracelet of contracted skin.

By Istambul Protocols ….

“We can try this again a different day,” Frank says.

“No,” la Marijoe answers. “I see Rolando is alive. That is enough.”

Frank stops me on our way out. “I can’t begin to understand what happened here today. But if you convince her to come back and try this again, make sure the appointment is with me.”

I nod.

After a moment he adds, “Was the librarian with Rolando—” but I stop him before he can say anything else. “I’ve got to catch up with my client.”

“You’ve been telling tales,” I say to la Marijoe when we’re on the bus. “All these years in treatment, you’ve been lying to me.”

“No,” she answers. “Everything I told you happened exactly as I recounted it.”

“But not to you. Rolando’s sister was shot dead if that digital translation of memory is to be believed.”

She smiles. “You should know better than to trust a translation.”

“If you are not Rolando’s sister, who are you? Why search for him, to what purpose? And what’s your real name anyway?”

She doesn’t answer, doesn’t speak, until her stop. “So, now that you know, will you still see me?” she asks as she gets to her feet after signaling the busdriver.

“Of course,” I answer. “I’ve got an opening Tuesday, I’ll pencil you in.”

7.

She doesn’t show that week. In fact, she doesn’t show at the First State Survivors Center ever again.

A month into her absence, I set aside my injured professional pride, and go to her apartment to talk to her. After I knock, a young woman with three children clinging to her legs opens the door. I give her my name and ask about la Marijoe and she invites me in, offers me a lemonade.

“I’ve always wondered about her,” Anabelle — that’s the new tenant — says as she mixes tap water with the drink mix, then puts the can of mix back into a cupboard that holds just it and four tins of evaporated milk. “I found something of hers jammed up behind the pipe under the sink in the kitchen when I moved in. I thought she’d come back for it. I’ll go fetch it.”

She disappears into the next room and one of the toddlers trots after her, but the other two stay and watch me with big, wary eyes. It takes Anabelle a long time — long enough for me to notice that there isn’t much furniture in the apartment, and that what is here has the look of hand-me-down or Goodwill.

She comes back with a cigar box which she hands to me. Inside is about $1,000 in crisply folded bills and a sealed envelope with my name on it. When I open it, a torn matchbook cover with the words “sin embargo” and a string of what look like library call numbers written in grease pencil flutters out, followed by the primary feather of a vulture.

“A mystery wrapped in an enigma,” Anabelle says with a shrug when I look back at her. “But that’s definitely a turkey buzzard feather.”

Never underestimate people. Never figure that the young, or the poor, or the humble don’t have something important to teach you about your own assumptions. I stay long enough to find out that the public library is Anabelle’s favorite haunt, and that she can not only paraphrase Churchill and quote chapter and verse of the Stokes’ Field Guide to North American Birds, but knows that if the numbers are Dewey call numbers, they are all over the place — from occult to salvation, psychology to philosophy.

I go back to my office, put the feather in my pencil cup and stare at it for a while. Then I dial Frank’s number.

The hangout connection is much better this time.

“Where is my sister?” Rolando says when he sees only us onscreen.

“Let me ask you something, Rolando,” I say. “So many years have passed, how can you be sure the woman sitting in front of the monitor last time we talked is really your sister?”

He looks confused for a few moments, then gives us a smile. It is so like la Marijoe’s it lands a punch to my gut.

“I could never confuse her voice for another’s,” he says finally. “I still have dreams about being buried under bodies. It was my sister’s voice that reminded me I wasn’t dead. Then and now.”

“All those years ago … was she there when you ventured out from your hiding place?”

He shakes his head. “Nobody was there. Just the burnt bodies and the vultures feasting on them. But I knew my sister would find me. I knew that she would never stop looking for me.”

He sounds just like the other survivors I treat, whose hopes — no matter how infinitesimal — cling like a burr. Just last week, when there was news that one of the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina had been reunited with a grandson missing since the dirty war, all of my clients spoke again about their own disappeared loved ones, their own future reunification days. One spoke of that to me even though we both know her husband was pushed out of a helicopter over open sea.

“Are you sure all of the burnt bodies were dead?” I ask Rolando, picturing la Marijoe’s contracted skin as I say it.

“Yes,” Rolando says. “All of them.”

Frank clears his throat. “Last time we tried the hangout, what did you see when the video part wasn’t working?”

I translate the question into Spanish.

“What do you mean ‘what did I see?’ A dark screen. My own reflection, and la Tere, the librarian, reflected on it too. May I talk to my sister now?”

“She’s disappeared,” I say, before I can reconsider my word choice. “I don’t know where.”

“At least I know she is alive,” he says after a moment. “That big empty space her disappearance left in my life can fill up now. I imagine it is the same for her.” He starts to get up to leave.

“Wait,” I say, fishing the scrap of paper out of my pocket. I hold it as close to the computer’s camera as I can. “Do you have any idea what this number is?”

I hear him call the librarian closer to the computer, and then their quick consultation in a Zapotecan language quite different than the Tz’utijil he and la Marijoe spoke together. Not for the first time I feel dazed by the sheer number of languages in the world, the sheer number of opportunities for translation to leave out that one element that gives real meaning to what is being said.

“We don’t have any idea. But we’ll think about it some more,” Rolando says as the librarian writes down the numbers in a spiral-bound pad.

“She hid some money away,” I say then. “I figure she’d want you to have it. Tell me where we can wire it to you—”

He puts his hand up to stop me. “I don’t want it. I have what I need,” he says, then signs off so quickly I can’t argue it with him.

“That’s it, then,” Frank says. He takes the scrap out of my hand, squints at what’s written on it: b52:b122:b131:b211:b215:b501:d150:e234.

“Looks like an i-p-v-six number,” he says. When I shake my head, he adds, “Internet protocol version six, which is what currently routes all the traffic over the web. Could be what you have is a location and i.d. number tied to some service provider. Is Marijoe tech savvy?”

I snort, which prompts a smile. “Well, I hope you figure it out,” he says handing back the scrap.

I can tell he thinks it is an intellectual puzzle to be pieced together and solved, but it’s not. It is another translation calling for memory, ear and soul to complete.

8.

Will you still see me?

Those were la Marijoe’s last words to me, and I understand them differently now.

I try, I really try. She may not be who I thought she was, but she is la Marijoe, and she is someone. Someone tied — however tenuously or fantastically — to massacre victims from an ossuary that the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation has probably already exhumed and catalogued.

So, that’s my first step. I call the tech our Center has worked with before, and read him the numbers I want him to check against their registrar’s catalogue. The quantity of pieces they’ve catalogued is huge — every bone chip, every piece of tooth — and includes not only the victims of the genocide and three decades of armed internal conflict, but the remains of the more than 6,000 migrants dead last year alone. Many of the old and the new don’t have names, but some do, and maybe hope clings to me like a burr too.

The second step I take is to get Frank to ply his government muscle and find out if the numbers are, in fact, IPv6 numbers and, if so, which provider bills them, and to whom.

Third step: After I chance upon Anabelle in the stacks of the Ramonita de Rodriguez branch of the Free Library, I enlist her help in searching through all the books under the call numbers that coincide with la Marijoe’s sequence. I pay her a bit of a stipend, so her lunch and bus fare doesn’t tip her budget into deficit, and once a week she brings me what she finds stuck between the pages. A prayer card of St. Gall; the yellowed clipping from a newspaper from 1974; an Amtrak ticket stub, round-trip to New York City; a small feather from a cedar waxwing — a bird, Anabelle further informs me — she has never seen in the city.

The objects don’t all — or any? — belong to la Marijoe, she knows it and I know it. But it is a catalogue anyway, and I treat the objects with the respect my friends at the Forensic Foundation accord their remains.

Anabelle comes to the apartment to deliver the items to me because if I went off to see another woman on a regular basis, Daiana would see red. Another homograph, by the way. In Spanish, red means net or web, and that is what is being woven every time Anabelle — kids in tow — stops by the apartment. Daiana has started baking special treats to coincide with the delivery of book findings.

The fourth step I take in trying to figure out la Marijoe and the clues she’s left me, is actually taken for me not by me. The Juchitán librarian emails me an invitation to a private hangout — no Frank, no Rolando. She sends it to my work email because that’s the one attached to my digital footprint. I’m actually not that easy to find, but she is a librarian, after all.

I don’t respond right away, and not only because the Center’s emails are automatically saved and archived for accountability and transparency. I think I know why Tere-the-librarian has contacted me privately, and it has nothing to do with my quest to find la Marijoe. I believe it is curiosity that has prompted it. The desire of a muxe in Juchitán to understand the life of a trans man in Philly; the desire to confirm that her small, indigenous community is — and always has been — less hesitant about the everydayness of transgender folk than any U.S. metropolis.

I let Daiana know I’ll be staying late at work, and she’s fine with it, mostly because it’s an evening Anabelle and her brood are scheduled to stop by. Daiana is making the kids the new cake she just introduced at the bakery, flavored with dragon fruit and iced in the fruit’s distinctive dark pink hue. For the children’s sake she’s going to try baking it in shape of a flying dragon.

When the hangout window on the computer opens up, Tere looks around with interest. “So that’s what the inside of a psychiatrist’s office looks like,” she says.

“I’m a clinical psychologist,” I say, “but, yeah.”

“You need more colorful artwork.”

I smile a bit, wait.

“So I wanted to talk to you,” she says, “about the numbers. I found something that if not significant is at least interesting. Have you ever heard of the Aarne-Thompson Index?”

“No.”

“It categorizes folk and fairy tale types and motifs that recur in mostly Indo-European folktales,” she says. “Though I think it has started including stories from other cultures as well. Anyway, most of them are two, three or four digit numbers preceded by an AT.”

“Well that doesn’t fit.”

She makes an exasperated noise. “But some of them are instead subcategorized with the letters A, B, C, and so forth, to indicate that they are tales that involve mythological motifs, or animals, or tabus.”

“Okay,” I say, “cut to the chase — which do our numbers coincide with?” I don’t know if she knows that expression, but she does what I ask.

“B 52 is under the general bird-men category of tale, but is specifically about harpies, or bird-women.”

So, I’ll be honest, this seems an unlikely concordance for la Marijoe’s numbers, but that doesn’t keep me from feeling a weird sort of unease. I don’t have much of a classical education, but I kind of remember that harpies chased one of the Greek heroes to his death.

“B 122 is code for tales of birds with magic, and B 131 is all truth-telling birds,” Tere continues. “B 211 and 215 are both tied to animal languages and animals that can speak. B 501 is a category of tales where an animal gives part of its body to a human as a magical talisman.”

“Jesus,” I say. I tell her about la Marijoe then, including what we saw during the half-failed hangout, the bit about her sprouting feathers and even that she left me one of those feathers in a cigar box she could have no certainty I’d ever find. Of course I sound like a nutburger as I recount it. Tere doesn’t say anything for a while, then drops her eyes to the spiral-bound notebook open in front of her.

“So, maybe I copied one of the other numbers down wrong,” she says finally. “Is it really D 150 not D 152?”

I pull out la Marijoe’s scrap of paper. “Yeah. 150. Why?”

“Because D 150 stories are about humans transforming into birds; D 152 tales are about birds transforming into humans,” she says. “Given what all the other numbers are keyed to, I think the latter would better fit the narrative we’re piecing together.”

“You can’t really mean to tell me you think that la Marijoe is a bird turned human.”

She laughs at me. “Because a human turning into a bird is easier to accept?”

“I do deal with the most inventive forms of human denial at my job.”

The laugh is genuine this time. Then she grows serious. “You don’t think even a vulture can grow weary of the dead we leave for them to clean up? You don’t think a great mother bird might adopt another’s fledgling found living among the hundreds, the thousands of corpses?”

She sighs. “Is there a difference really? Whether one of the vultures at the massacre site took pity on Rolando and magically turned itself human for him, or his sister’s dying spirit hopped into the body of one of the birds that was already there, it was to the same end. To protect him.”

“Nice thought, bad job.”

She shrugs. “He got out of there alive.”

“Luck.”

“Magic.”

“Fairy tale magic,” I say. “Not the kind I believe in.”

She grins. “No? Me, I believe in every kind. I couldn’t be a librarian otherwise.”

When it’s clear that’s all she has for me, I thank her and sign off quickly, then sit in the quiet of the Survivors Center emptied of survivors and staff. I don’t want to go home yet, I can’t go home yet, and I’m not sure why. I wander out to the break room and let my eyes rest on the world map that takes up one full wall. There are pins color coded for each of our clients at their country of origin, and then at every country they’ve landed for a time on their journey here, to us. I find la Marijoe’s pin in Guatemala and trace the unbroken line to the one in Delaware.

Thousands of miles as the crow — or vulture — flies.

There’s another homograph for you. Miles means thousands in Spanish. I go back into my office and get back on the internet. I search for the Aarne-Thompson index and look for the last number on la Marijoe’s string, the one Tere-the-librarian had forgotten to translate for me.

Am I surprised when I read the description of the motif that ties together the E 234 tales? Not really. Nations are built on bones, so is it any wonder there are so many stories that revolve around those who return from death to avenge it?

Guatemala, Syria, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, East Timor, Angola, Kurdistan and all the other genocides I know about from the Center’s clients: there must be miles of E234 tales waiting to be found.

9.

The past is never as simple as we’ve been told it is. In some languages there is an admission of this in a verb aspect without any certainty of completion.

La Marijoe is my past imperfect.

My friend at the Forensic Foundation finds a match for the numbers I’ve given him, identifying an ossuary and the date of exhumation. It is one of several mass graves that have been tied to the massacre that left María José and Rolando orphaned and on the run, but barring further identification by the FAFG, we can never know if the specific numbers are keyed to the Manrique family members they lost.

Neither can I tell you if la Marijoe’s numbers are what Frank believes they are, or what Tere-the-librarian does, or even what Anabelle thinks them, as she collects her evidence of life in books from every library branch in the city.

Perhaps the numbers are all of these, or none.

I mail the vulture feather to Rolando care of the Juchitán library. The $1,000 from the cigar box I give to Anabelle because I know she’s hurting enough that even that little bit will seem a godsend, and hey, she’s got fledglings too, so I think la Marijoe would have approved.

And one weekend when Daiana is working a double in preparation for the Fat Tuesday before Lent, I rent a car and drive about forty-five miles out of Philadelphia, to a little town — the internet is my informant — where there are four trees that hold near as many turkey vultures as leaves.

I watch the birds for hours, riding thermals, landing and hopping from branch to branch. They watch me too, and despite the sympathetic magic I attempt in their language of whines and gutteral hisses, I get no answer.

Because there are no answers in this tiempo, this time, this present tense. It is filled with infinitives instead — absolutes and constructs; marked and unmarked; active and elliptical.

Today, Jamila, who speaks the best Arabic at the Center, finagles shelter and the promise of a job for a Middle-Eastern client so her hand can heal from its session in a meat grinder.

Today, my boss brings the staff a coconut pound cake baked by a client who has finally set up the dessert shop he dreamed about during his years at a Cambodian refugee camp. When my boss sets the cake on the break room table, he tells us we’re totally worth the two-hour drive to go get it.

Today, the DART train comes exactly three minutes late so I am able to catch it and get back to the apartment in Philly before Daiana comes home. I place some flowers in a vase so they are the first thing she sees when she opens the door.

Today, she tells me that although she is mexicana, someone assumes she’s Asian while she’s in line at Hai Street Kitchen and asks her to check the status of their order.

Today, I tell her I don’t see it, that she’ll never look like me, and we bicker about whether I’m Latino or sansei or both or none and I tell her that what I am is a trilingual homograph, and let’s leave it at that.

Today, she rolls her eyes at my verbal conceit, and we lounge on the couch eating Hai Street’s expensive sushi burritos and rub our feet together, watching reality TV neither of us can relate to because it has nothing to do with what’s real.

Today, I remember that the word relate is another homograph.

Today, I weigh credible fears, burden of proof, deportation orders, detainers and directives against several plastic baggies filled with 60,000 scraps of paper.

Today, the names are an incantation as they leave my lips.

Today, I feel the feathers pushing their way through the walls of my heart.

Author biography

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning Latina news editor, writer and digital storyteller.

An American citizen from birth, she grew up in Guatemala during the armed internal conflict and moved to the United States when she was 15.

Her news stories have been published at The Guardian US, Philly.com, Public Radio International’s Global Voices, NBC10/Telemundo62, Philadelphia Weekly, Philadelphia Magazine, City and State PA, and Al Día News, among others. Her journalism and editing have garnered Edward R. Murrow, José Martí, Keystone, Pen & Pencil Club of Philadelphia, and New York Press Association awards.

Her short fiction has been published by Tor.com, Strange Horizons, PodCastle and Uncanny, Mithila, GUD, and Crossed Genres magazines, as well as in multiple anthologies, including Kaiju Rising II, Sweet and Sugar Tooth, the Latinx Archive and Sunspot Jungle — all upcoming in 2018 and 2019.

She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede and Facebook @officialsabrinavourvoulias.

Dreaming Anthologies

Dreaming Anthologies: To Wreck and Reign by Liz Bourke

In addition to our regular reprint series curated by Bogi Takacs, we here at Galli Books are always interested in seeing what people have been reading and enjoying elseweb. In the wake of a particularly interesting table of contents for a theoretical reprint anthology tweeted by Liz Bourke, we decided to seize on the concept: Dreaming Anthologies, a series of occasional essays by critics, writers, editors and more, telling us about their dream reprint anthologies made up of fiction that you can read online. If you’d like to pitch your own essay to us, just use the contact form on the website!

Our first Dreaming Anthologies column is by the formidable and beloved genre critic Liz Bourke herself. Without further ado, over to her…
~~~~~
This anthology doesn’t exist. I’ve composed it from eight stories, all available freely online — though one takes a little looking, since the late and lamented Ideomancer has since gone defunct. If I were to title it, I’d probably call it To Wreck and Reign, but then, I’m a) terrible at titles, and b) never could resist a bad pun.

All the stories in this anthology deal with love, in some form or other: with love and with power, and with the inevitable costs of our choices. None of the stories in this anthology are particularly romantic, but several of them are epic, despite their short length. Their themes includes difficult questions of identity, loyalty, grief and survival. Their worldbuilding is precise and gloriously sharp. Some of them are batshit fun. Most of them are bittersweet, complicated gems.

Let’s open with Arkady Martine’s “All the Colors You Thought Were Kings.” Originally published in Shimmer Magazine in 2016 (Issue 31), this gorgeous and painful science fiction story is a paean to loyalty, (half-doomed) idealism, and sacrifice told in the second-person present tense. An unusual choice of perspective, but it really works.

“You wish so much it were that simple. You also wish it weren’t true. You’d like it if you could ever feel all one way about a thing.”

Then we’ll swoop along to Aliette de Bodard’s “A Salvaging of Ghosts,” first published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, also in 2016 (Issue 195). Set in de Bodard’s Xuya continuity, it features Thuy, a woman who’s lost her daughter and grieves her deeply. Like her daughter, Thuy is a deep-space salvager, diving wrecks in the deep spaces where humans can’t long survive even with the aid of technology. “A Salvaging of Ghosts” is a story about grief and the temptations of self-destruction — and the possibility, too, of carrying on.

The third entry on our Table of Contents is Elizabeth Bear’s “She Still Loves The Dragon” (Uncanny Magazine, 2018: Issue 20). This is a story about love and pain and choices, and the fact that even the things (the people) you love can hurt you — but you can choose what to do with your hurt, afterwards.

“Everything is pain.

Beneath the pain is freedom.”

If we go past the dragon, we come to “ζῆ καὶ βασιλεύει,” by Sonya Taaffe. Published in Ideomancer in 2015 (Vol 14 Issue 1), it is a story of a sister of Alexander the Great — a world-conqueror in her own right, besieging the city of Tyre and making bargains with a goddess.

“The sea will take you, in the end. The sea of salt or the sea of sand, the sea of forgetfulness and the sea of time.” For a moment the goddess’ eyes were empty as a toppled statue, her palms cracked ochre. The sphinx’s shadow looked like a larnax, lid open, awaiting its bequest of ash. Then the tent walls rippled with a sea-wind; the lapis inlays of the flowers around ‘Aštart’s throat gleamed like phosphorescence on the silky black sea-swell and she looked like a living woman again, or near enough that Eurydike could look at her, potent and perilous as dusk and dawn. “I cannot make you unperishing” — the heroic word, aphthita. “I would see more of you before then.”

“Then, yes,” said the woman who was Kynnane to her lovers and her mother’s shade, Eurydike the third of that name in Makedonia.

Then a slightly lighter note, Yoon Ha Lee’s “Extracurricular Activities” (Tor.com, 2017). Set in Lee’s hexarchate (or heptarchate) universe, the same setting as Ninefox Gambit and its sequels. In this story, a much younger Shuos Jedao has to go behind enemy lines and figure out what’s going on before everything explodes — and there’s a very attractive nice young man who’s interested in him for added flavour.

JY Yang’s “Waiting on a Bright Moon” (Tor.com, 2017) is a very accomplished novelette. It’s a story about revolution and repression, about prejudice and murder and unlikely connections. It, too, is told in the second-person present tense (I may have a slight weakness for this style in stories of a certain cast). Yang is an excellent writer, as their several award nominations bear out: this story is a bright and precise argument about choices and consequences.

“You study her face, noting how sharp and bright it is. She is as young as you are, perhaps younger. A terrible burden to carry, the title of starmage. You wonder if she ever tires of it.”

Our penultimate story is the award-winning “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by the brilliant and talented Amal El-Mohtar. Available online at Uncanny Magazine, it was first published in The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales (Saga Press, 2016). It is about cruelty and loyalty and the slow blossom of friendship and love between women, and it is the kind of story I fall back into again and again, every time I read it.

“Tabitha”—and Amira does not know what to do except to reach for her hand, clutch it, look at her in the way she looks at the geese, longing to speak and be understood—“you did nothing wrong.”

Tabitha holds Amira’s gaze. “Neither did you.”

And going out with a meditation on monsterhood, with nuclear explosions and desperate last stands, we finally come to Seth Dickinson’s “Morrigan in Shadow” (Clarkesword, 2015, Issue 111), full of bombs and pain and love and loss and striving. I think it’s a high note.

Laporte doesn’t know what to say to that. She has been a monster. But she’s going to see Simms again, and when they’re together, she won’t feel like anything but a happy woman. Is monsterhood conditional? Like a mirror you hold up to the war around you, just long enough to win?

Everything dies. Even humanity, Laporte supposes. Maybe how you live should count for more than how long you last.

~~~~~

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

Reprint Series

To Follow the Waves by Amal El-Mohtar

This month’s story reprint is from multi-award-winning author Amal El-Mohtar, and it originally appeared in Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, ed. JoSelle Vanderhooft (Torquere Press, 2011).

This was one of the first steampunk stories I ever read which buckled the genre trend of white, Anglo colonialism. The author’s programmatic essay Towards a Steampunk Without Steam, from 2010, created controversy simply by pointing out that steampunk could be more than Victorian England. Then this following story illustrated how it could be done. Now there are diverse steampunk anthologies, websites, cosplay and more. But this story was at the forefront of the change, and it stayed with me ever since.

I am happy to say that there is a free audio podcast of To Follow the Waves in Podcastle, but I was surprised to learn when I wanted to link it that the text itself was not available anywhere online. This reprint will hopefully fill that longstanding gap.

– Bogi
To Follow the Waves by Amal El-Mohtar

Hessa’s legs ached. She knew she ought to stand, stretch them, but only gritted her teeth and glared at the clear lump of quartz on the table before her. To rise now would be to concede defeat—but to lean back, lift her goggles and rub her eyes was, she reasoned, an adequate compromise.

Her braids weighed on her, and she scratched the back of her head, where they pulled tightest above her nape. To receive a commission from Sitt Warda Al-Attrash was a great honour, one that would secure her reputation as a fixed star among Dimashq’s dream-crafters. She could not afford to fail. Worse, the dream Sitt Warda desired was simple, as dreams went: to be a young woman again, bathing her limbs by moonlight in the Mediterranean with a young man who, judging by her half-spoken, half-murmured description, was not precisely her husband.

But Hessa had never been to the sea.

She had heard it spoken of, naturally, and read hundreds of lines of poetry extolling its many virtues. Yet it held little wonder for her; what pleasure could be found in stinging salt, scratching sand, burning sun reflected from the water’s mirror-surface? Nor did swimming hold any appeal; she had heard pearl divers boast of their exploits, speak of how the blood beat between their eyes until they felt their heads might burst like over-ripe tomatoes, how their lungs ached with the effort for hours afterwards, how sometimes they would feel as if thousands of ants were marching along their skin, and though they scratched until blood bloomed beneath their fingernails, could never reach them.

None of this did anything to endear the idea of the sea to her. And yet, to carve the dream out of the quartz, she had to find its beauty. Sighing, she picked up the dopstick again, tapped the quartz to make sure it was securely fastened, lowered her goggles, and tried again.

#

Hessa’s mother was a mathematician, renowned well beyond the gates of Dimashq for her theorems. Her father was a poet, better-known for his abilities as an artisanal cook than for his verse, though as the latter was full of the scents and flavours of the former, much appreciated all the same. Hessa’s father taught her to contemplate what was pleasing to the senses, while her mother taught her geometry and algebra. She loved both as she loved them, with her whole heart.

Salma Najjar had knocked at the door of the Ghaflan family in the spring of Hessa’s seventh year. She was a small woman, wrinkled as a wasp’s nest, with eyes hard and bright as chips of tourmaline. Her greying hair was knotted and bound in the intricate patterns of a jeweller or gem-cutter—perhaps some combination of the two. Hessa’s parents welcomed her into their home, led her to a divan and offered her tea, but she refused to drink or eat until she had told them her errand.

“I need a child of numbers and letters to learn my trade,” she had said, in the gruff, clipped accent of the Northern cities. “It is a good trade, one that will demand the use of all her abilities. I have heard that your daughter is such a child.”

“And what is your trade?” Hessa’s father asked, intrigued, but wary.

“To sculpt fantasies in the stone of the mind and the mind of the stone. To grant wishes.”

“You propose to raise our daughter as djinn?” Hessa’s mother raised an eyebrow.

Salma smiled, showing a row of perfect teeth. “Far better. Djinn do not get paid.”

#

Building a dream was as complex as building a temple, and required knowledge of almost as many trades—a fact reflected in the complexity of the braid-pattern in which Hessa wore her hair. Each pull and plait showed an intersection of gem-crafting, metal-working, architecture and storytelling, to say nothing of the thousand twisting strands representing the many kinds of knowledge necessary to a story’s success. As a child, Hessa had spent hours with the archivists in Al-Zahiriyya Library, learning from them the art of constructing memory palaces within her mind, layering the marble, glass, and mosaics of her imagination with reams of poetry, important historical dates, dozens of musical maqaamat, names of stars and ancestors. Hessa bint Aliyah bint Qamar bint Widad…

She learned to carry each name, note, number like a jewel to tuck into a drawer here, hang above a mirror there, for ease of finding later on. She knew whole geographies, scriptures, story cycles, as intimately as she knew her mother’s house, and drew on them whenever she received a commission. Though the only saleable part of her craft was the device she built with her hands, its true value lay in using the materials of her mind: she could not grind quartz to the shape and tune of her dream, could not set it into the copper coronet studded with amber, until she had fixed it into her thoughts as firmly as she fixed the stone to her amber dopstick.

#

“Every stone,” Salma said, tossing her a piece of rough quartz, “knows how to sing. Can you hear it?”

Frowning, Hessa held it up to her ear, but Salma laughed. “No, no. It is not a shell from the sea, singing the absence of its creature. You cannot hear the stone’s song with the ear alone. Look at it; feel it under your hand; you must learn its song, its language, before you can teach it your own. You must learn, too, to tell the stones apart; those that sing loudest do not always have the best memories, and it is memory that is most important. Easier to teach it to sing one song beautifully than to teach it to remember; some stones can sing nothing but their own tunes.”

Dream-crafting was still a new art then; Salma was among its pioneers. But she knew that she did not have within herself what it would take to excel at it. Having discovered a new instrument, she found it unsuited to her fingers, awkward to rest against her heart; she could produce sound, but not music.

For that, she had to teach others to play.

First, she taught Hessa to cut gems. That had been Salma’s own trade, and Hessa could see that it was still her chief love: the way she smiled as she turned a piece of rough crystal in her hands, learning its angles and texture, was very much the way Hessa’s parents smiled at each other. She taught her how to pick the best stones, cleave away their grossest imperfections; she taught her to attach the gem to a dopstick with hot wax, at precise angles, taught her the delicate dance of holding it against a grinding lathe with even greater precision while operating the pedal. She taught her to calculate the axes that would unlock needles of light from the stone, kindle fire in its heart. Only once Hessa could grind a cabochon blindfolded, once she learned to see with the tips of her fingers, did Salma explain the rest.

“This is how you will teach songs to the stone.” She held up a delicate amber wand, at the end of which was affixed a small copper vice. Hessa watched as Salma placed a cloudy piece of quartz inside and adjusted the vice around it before lowering her goggles over her eyes. “The amber catches your thoughts and speaks them to the copper; the copper translates them to the quartz. But just as you build your memory palace in your mind, so must you build the dream you want to teach it; first in your thoughts, then in the stone. You must cut the quartz while fixing the dream firmly in your mind, that you may cut the dream into the stone, cut it so that the dream blooms from it like light. Then, you must fix it into copper and amber again, that the dream may be translated into the mind of the dreamer.

“Tonight,” she murmured quietly, grinding edges into the stone, “you will dream of horses. You will stand by a river and they will run past you, but one will slow to a stop. It will approach you, and nuzzle your cheek.”

“What colour will it be?”

Salma blinked behind her goggles, and the lathe slowed to a stop as she looked at her. “What colour would you like it to be?”

“Blue,” said Hessa, firmly. It was her favourite colour.

Salma frowned. “There are no blue horses, child.”

“But this is a dream! Couldn’t I see one in a dream?”

Hessa wasn’t sure why Salma was looking at her with quite such intensity, or why it took her so long a moment to answer. But finally, she smiled—in the gentle, quiet way she smiled at her gems—and said, “yes, my heart. You could.”

Once the quartz was cut, Salma fixed it into the centre of a copper circlet, its length prettily decorated with drops of amber, and fitted it around Hessa’s head before giving her chamomile tea to drink and sending her to bed. Hessa dreamed just as Salma said she would: the horse that approached her was blue as the turquoise she had shaped for a potter’s husband a few nights earlier. But when the horse touched her, its nose was dry and cold as quartz, its cheeks hard and smooth as cabochon.

Salma sighed when Hessa told her as much the next day. “You see, this is why I teach you, Hessa. I have been so long in the country of stones, speaking their language and learning their songs, I have little to teach them of our own; I speak everything to them in facets and brilliance, culets and crowns. But you, my dear, you are learning many languages all at once; you have your father’s tasting tongue, your mother’s speech of angles and air. I have been speaking nothing but adamant for most of my life, and grow more and more deaf to the desires of dreamers.”

#

Try as she might, Hessa could not coordinate her knowledge of the sea with the love, the longing, the pleasure needed to build Sitt Warda’s dream. She had mixed salt and water, touched it to her lips, and found it unpleasant; she had watched the moon tremble in the waters of her courtyard’s fountain without being able to stitch its beauty to a horizon. She tried, now, to summon those poor attempts to mind, but was keenly aware that if she began grinding the quartz in her present state, Sitt Warda would wake from her dream as tired and frustrated as she herself presently felt.

Giving in, she put down the quartz, removed her goggles, rose from her seat and turned her back on her workshop. There were some problems only coffee and ice cream could fix.

#

Qahwat al Adraj was one of her favourite places to sit and do the opposite of think. Outside the bustle of the Hamadiyyah market, too small and plain to be patronised by obnoxious tourists, it was a well-kept secret tucked beneath a dusty stone staircase: the servers were beautiful, the coffee exquisite, and the iced treats in summer particularly fine. As she closed the short distance between it and her workshop, she tried to force her gaze up from the dusty path her feet had long ago memorised, tried to empty herself of the day’s frustrations to make room for her city’s beauties.

There: a young man with dark skin and a dazzling smile, his tight-knotted braids declaring him a merchant-inventor, addressing a gathering crowd to display his newest brass automata. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he called, “the British Chef!” and demonstrated how with a few cranks and a minimum of preparation, the long-faced machine could knife carrots into twisting orange garlands, slice cucumbers into lace. And not far from him, drawn to the promise of a building audience, a beautiful mechanical, her head sculpted to look like an amira’s head-dress, serving coffee from the heated cone of it by tipping forward in an elegant bow before the cup, an act that could not help but make every customer feel as if they were sipping the gift of a cardamom-laced dance.

Hessa smiled to them, but frowned to herself. She had seen them all many times before. Today she was conscious, to her shame, of a bitterness towards them: what business had they being beautiful to her when they were not the sea?

Arriving, she took her usual seat by a window that looked out to Touma’s Gate, sipped her own coffee, and tried not to brood.

She knew what Salma would have said. Go to the sea, she would have urged, bathe in it! Or, if you cannot, read the thousands of poems written to it! Write a poem yourself! Or, slyly, then, only think of something you yourself find beautiful—horses, berries, books—and hide it beneath layers and layers of desire until the thing you love is itself obscured. Every pearl has a grain of sand at its heart, no? Be cunning. You cannot know all the world, my dear, as intimately as you know your stones.

But she couldn’t. She had experimented with such dreams, crafted them for herself; they came out wrapped in cotton wool, provoking feeling without vision, touch, scent. Any would-be dream crafter could do as well. No, for Sitt Warda, who had already patronised four of the city’s crafters before her, it would never do. She had to produce something exquisite, unique. She had to know the sea as Sitt Warda knew it, as she wanted it.

She reached for a newspaper, seeking distraction. Lately it was all airships and trade agreements surrounding their construction and deployment, the merchant fleets’ complaints and clamour for restrictions on allowable cargo to protect their own interests. Hessa had a moment of smirking at the sea-riding curmudgeons before realising that she had succumbed, again, to the trap of her knotting thoughts. Perhaps if the sea was seen from a great height? But that would provoke the sensation of falling, and Sitt Warda did not want a flying dream…

Gritting her teeth, she buried her face in her hands—until she heard someone step through the doorway, sounding the hollow glass chimes in so doing. Hessa looked up.

A woman stood there, looking around, the early afternoon light casting a faint nimbus around her, shadowing her face. She was tall, and wore a long, simple dark blue coat over a white dress, its embroidery too plain to declare a regional origin. Hessa could see she had beautiful hands, the gold in them drawn out by the midnight of the blue, but it was not these at which she found herself staring. It was the woman’s hair.

Unbound, it rippled.

There was shame in that, Hessa had always felt, always been taught. To wear one’s hair so free in public was to proclaim oneself unbound to a trade, useless; even the travellers that passed through the city bound knots into their hair out of respect for custom, the five braids of travellers and visitors who wished themselves known as such above anything else, needing hospitality or good directions. The strangeness of it thrilled and stung her.

It would perhaps not have been so shocking were it one long unbroken sheet of silk, a sleek spill of ink with no light in it. But it rippled, as if just released from many braids, as if fingers had already tangled there, as if hot breath had moistened it to curling waves. Brazen, thought Hessa, the word snagging on half-remembered lines of English poetry, brazen greaves, brazen hooves. Unfamiliar words, strange, like a spell—and suddenly it was a torrent of images, of rivers and aching and spilling and immensity, because she wanted that hair in her own hand, wanted to see her skin vanish into its blackness, wanted it to swallow her while she swallowed it—

It took her a moment to notice the woman was looking at her. It took another for Hessa to flush with the understanding that she was staring rudely before dropping her gaze back to her coffee. She counted to seventy in her head before daring to look up again: by the time she did, the woman was seated, a server half hiding her from Hessa’s view. Hessa laid money on the table and rose to leave, taking slow, deliberate steps towards the door. As soon as she was outside the coffee house, she broke into a run.

Two nights later, with a piece of finely shaped quartz pulsing against her brow, Sitt Warda Al-Attrash dreamed of her former lover with honeysuckle sweetness, and if the waves that rose and fell around them were black and soft as hair, she was too enraptured to notice.

#

Hessa could not stop thinking of the woman. She took to eating most of her meals at Qahwat al Adraj, hoping to see her again—to speak, apologise for what must have seemed appalling behaviour, buy her a drink—but the woman did not return. When she wasn’t working, Hessa found her fingertips tracing delicate, undulating lines through the gem dust that coated her table, thighs tightly clenched, biting her lip with longing. Her work did not suffer for it—if anything, it improved tremendously. The need to craft flooded her, pushed her to pour the aching out into copper and crystal.

Meantime, Sitt Warda could not stop speaking of Hessa, glowing in her praise; she told all her wealthy friends of the gem among dream-crafters who dimmed all others to ash, insisting they sample her wares. Where before Hessa might have had one or two commissions a week, she began to receive a dozen a day, and found herself in a position to pick and choose among them. This she did—but it took several commissions before she saw what was guiding her choice.

“Craft me a dream of the ruins of Baalbek,” said one kind-eyed gentleman with skin like star-struck sand, “those tall, staggering remnants, those sloping columns of sunset!” Hessa ground them just shy of twilight, that the dreamt columns might be dimmed to the colour of skin darkened by the light behind it, and if they looked like slender necks, the fallen ones angled slant as a clavicle, the kind-eyed gentleman did not complain.

“Craft me a dream of wings and flight,” murmured a shy young woman with gold-studded ears, “that I might soar above the desert and kiss the moon.” Hessa ground a cabochon with her right hand while her left slid between her legs, rocking her to the memory of long fingers she built into feathers, sprouted to wings just as she moaned a spill of warm honey and weightlessness.

Afterwards, she felt ashamed. She thought, surely someone would notice—surely, some dreamer would part the veils of ecstasy in their sleep and find her burning behind them. It felt, awkwardly, like trespass, but not because of the dreamers; rather, it seemed wrong to sculpt her nameless, braidless woman into the circlets she sold for crass money. It felt like theft, absurd though it was, and in the aftermath of her release, she felt guilty, too.

But she could not find her; she hardly knew how to begin to look. Perhaps she had been a traveller, after all, merely releasing her hair from a five-braided itch in the late afternoon; perhaps she had left the city, wandered to wherever it was she came from, some strange land where women wore their hair long and wild and lived lives of savage indolence, stretching out beneath fruit trees, naked as the sky—

The flush in her cheeks decided her. If she couldn’t find her woman while waking, then what in the seven skies was her craft for, if not to find her in sleep?

#

Hessa had never crafted a dream for her own use. She tested her commissions, sometimes, to ensure their quality or correct an error, but she always re-cast the dream in fresh quartz and discarded the test-stone immediately, throwing it into the bath of saltwater-steam that would purify it for re-working into simple jewellery. It would not do, after all, for a silver necklace or brass ring to bear in it the echo of a stranger’s lust. Working the hours she did, her sleep was most often profound and refreshing; if she dreamt naturally, she hardly ever remembered.

She did not expect to sleep well through the dream she purposed.

She closed shop for a week, took on no new commissions. She hesitated over the choice of stone; a dream crafted in white quartz could last for up to three uses, depending on the clarity of the crystal and the time she took in grinding it. But a dream crafted in amethyst could last indefinitely—could belong to her forever, as long as she wanted it, renewing itself to the rhythm of her thoughts, modulating its song to harmonise with her dream-desires. She had only ever crafted two dreams in amethyst, a matched set to be given as a wedding gift, and the sum she commanded for the task had financed a year’s worth of materials and bought her a new lathe.

Reluctantly, she chose the white quartz. Three nights, that was all she would allow herself; three nights for a week’s careful, loving labour, and perhaps then this obsession would burn itself out, would leave her sated. Three nights, and then no more.

She wondered if Salma had ever done anything of the sort.

#

For three days, she studied her only memory of the woman, of her standing framed in the doorway of Qahwat al Adraj, awash in dusty light; she remembered the cut of her coat, its colour, and the woman’s eyes focusing on her, narrowing, quizzical. They were almost black, she thought, or so the light made them. And her hair, of course, her endless, splendid, dreadful hair, curling around her slim neck like a hand; she remembered the height of her, the narrowness that made her think of a sheathed sword, of a buried root, only her hair declaring her to be wild, impossible, strange.

Once the woman’s image was perfectly fixed in her thoughts, Hessa began to change it.

Her stern mouth softened into hesitation, almost a smile; her lips parted as if to speak. Hessa wished she had heard her voice that day—she did not want to imagine a sound that was not truly hers, that was false. She wanted to shift, to shape, not to invent. Better to leave her silent.

Her mouth, then, and her height; she was probably taller than Hessa, but not in the dream, no. She had to be able to look into her eyes, to reach for her cheeks, to brush her thumb over the fullness of her lips before kissing them. Her mouth would be warm, she knew, and taste—

Here, again, she faltered. She would taste, Hessa, decided, of ripe mulberries, and her mouth would be stained with the juice. She would have fed them to her, after laughing over a shared joke—no, she would have placed a mulberry in her own mouth and then kissed her, yes, lain it on her tongue as a gift from her own, and that is why she would taste of mulberries while Hessa pressed a hand to the small of her back and gathered her slenderness against herself, crushed their hips together…

It took her five days to build the dream in her thoughts, repeating the sequence of her imagined pleasures until they wore grooved agonies into her mind, until she could almost savour the dream through her sleep without the aid of stone or circlet. She took a full day to cast the latter, and a full day to grind the stone to the axes of her dream, careful not to miss a single desired sensation; she set it carefully into its copper circlet.

Her fingers only trembled when she lifted it onto her head.

#

The first night left her in tears. She had never been so thoroughly immersed in her art, and it had been long, so long since anyone had approached her with a desire she could answer in kisses rather than craft. She ached for it; the braidless woman’s body was like warm water on her skin, surrounded her in the scent of jasmine. The tenderness between them was unbearable, for all that she thirsted for a voice, for small sighs and gasps to twine with her own. Her hair was down-soft, and the pleasure she took in wrapping it around her fingers left her breathless. She woke tasting mulberries, removed the circlet, and promptly slept until the afternoon.

The second night, she nestled into her lover’s body with the ease of old habit, and found herself murmuring poetry into her neck, old poems in antique meters, rhythms rising and falling like the galloping warhorses they described. “I wish,” she whispered, pressed against her afterwards, raising her hand to her lips, “I could take you riding—I used to, when I was little. I would go riding to Maaloula with my family, where almond trees grow from holy caves, and where the wine is so black and sweet it is rumoured that each grape must have been kissed before being plucked to make it. I wish,” and she sighed, feeling the dream leaving her, feeling the stone-sung harmony of it fading, “I wish I knew your name.”

Strangeness, then—a shifting in the dream, a jolt, as the walls of the bedroom she had imagined for them fell away, as she found she could look at nothing but her woman’s eyes, seeing wine in them, suddenly, and something else, as she opened her mulberry mouth to speak.

“Nahla,” she said, in a voice like a granite wall. “My name is—”

Hessa woke with the sensation of falling from a great height, too shocked to move. Finally, with great effort, she removed the circlet, and gripped it in her hands for a long time, staring at the quartz. She had not given her a name. Was her desire for one strong enough to change the dream from within? All her dream-devices were interactive to a small degree, but she always planned them that way, allowing room, pauses in the stone’s song which the dreamer’s mind could fill—but she had not done so with her own, so certain of what she wanted, of her own needs. She had decided firmly against giving her a name, wanting so keenly to know the truth—and that voice, so harsh. That was not how she would have imagined her voice…

She put the circlet aside and rose to dress herself. She would try to understand it later that night. It would be her final one; she would ask another question, and see what tricks her mind played on her then.

But there would be no third night.

That afternoon, as Hessa opened her door to step out for an early dinner at Qahwat al Adraj, firm hands grasped her by the shoulders and shoved her back inside. Before she could protest or grasp what was happening, her braidless woman stood before her, so radiant with fury that Hessa could hardly speak for the pain it brought her.

“Nahla?” she managed.

“Hessa,” she threw back in a snarl. “Hessa Ghaflan bint Aliyah bint Qamar bint Widad. Crafter of dreams. Ask me how I am here.”

There were knives in Hessa’s throat—she felt it would bleed if she swallowed, if she tried to speak. “…How?”

“Do you know,” she was walking, now, walking a very slow circle around her, “what it is like,”—no, not quite around, she was coming towards her but as wolves did, never in a straight line before they attacked, always slant, “to find your dreams are no longer your own? Answer me.”

Hessa could not. This, now, felt like a dream that was no longer her own. Nahla’s voice left her nowhere to hide, allowed her no possibility of movement. Finally, she managed something that must have looked enough like a shake of her head for Nahla to continue.

“Of course you wouldn’t. You are the mistress here, the maker of worlds. I shall tell you. It is fascinating, at first—like being in another country. You observe, for it is strange to not be at the centre of your own story, strange to see a landscape, a city, an ocean, bending its familiarity towards someone not yourself. But then—then, Hessa—”

Nahla’s voice was an ocean, Hessa decided, dimly. It was worse than the sea—it was the vastness that drowned ships and hid monsters beneath its sparkling calm. She wished she could stop staring at her mouth.

“—Then, you understand that the landscapes, the cities, the oceans, these things are you. They are built out of you, and it is you who is bending, you who is changing for the eyes of these strangers. It is your hands in their wings, your neck in their ruins, your hair in which they laugh and make love—”

Her voice broke, there, and Hessa had a tiny instant’s relief as Nahla turned away from her, eyes screwed shut. Only an instant, though, before Nahla laughed in a way that was sand in her own eyes, hot and stinging and sharp.

“And then you see them! You see them in waking, these people who bathed in you and climbed atop you, you recognise their faces and think you have gone mad, because those were only dreams, surely, and you are more than that! But you aren’t, because the way they look at you, Hessa, their heads tilted in fond curiosity, as if they’ve found a pet they would like to keep—you are nothing but the grist for their fantasy mills, and even if they do not understand that, you do. And you wonder, why, why is this happening? Why now, what have I done—”

She gripped Hessa’s chin and forced it upward, pushing her against one of her work tables, scattering a rainfall of rough-cut gems to the stone floor and slamming agony into her hip. Hessa did not resist anything but the urge to scream.

“And then,” stroking her cheek in a mockery of tenderness, “you see a face in your dreams that you first knew outside them. A small, tired-looking thing you saw in a coffee house, who looked at you as if you were the only thing in the world worth looking at—but who now is taking off your clothes, is filling your mouth with berries and poems and won’t let you speak, and Hessa, it is so much worse.”

“I didn’t know!” It was a sob, finally, stabbing at her as she forced it out. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—I didn’t know, Nahla, that isn’t how it works—”

“You made me into your doll.” Another shove sent Hessa crumpling to the floor, pieces of quartz marking her skin with bruises and cuts. “Better I be an ancient city or the means to flight than your toy, Hessa! Do you know the worst of it?” Nahla knelt down next to her, and Hessa knew that it would not matter to her that she was crying, now, but she offered her tears up as penance all the same.

“The worst of it,” she whispered, now, forefinger tracing one of Hessa’s braids, “is that, in the dream, I wanted you. And I could not tell if it was because I found you beautiful, or because that is what you wanted me to do.”

They stayed like that for some time, Hessa breathing through slow, ragged sobs while Nahla touched her head. She could not bring herself to ask, do you still want me now?

“How could you not know?” Nahla murmured, as she touched her, as if she could read the answer in Hessa’s hair. “How could you not know what you were doing to me?”

“I don’t control anything but the stone, I swear to you, Nahla, I promise,” she could hear herself babbling, her words slick with tears, blurry and indistinct as her vision. “When I grind the dream into the quartz, it is like pressing a shape into wet clay, like sculpture, like carpentry—the quartz, the wax, the dopstick, the grinding plate, the copper and amber, these are my materials, Nahla! These and my mind. I don’t know how this happened, it is impossible—”

“That I should be in your mind?”

“That I, or anyone else, should be in yours. You aren’t a material, you were only an image—it was never you, it couldn’t have been, it was only—”

“Your longing,” Nahla said, flatly. “Your wanting of me.”

“Yes.” Silence between them, then a long-drawn breath. “You believe me?”

A longer silence, while Nahla’s fingers sank into the braids tight against Hessa’s scalp, scratching it while clutching at a plaited line. “Yes.”

“Do you forgive me?”

Slowly, Nahla released her, withdrew her hand, and said nothing. Hessa sighed, and hugged her knees to her chest. Another moment passed; finally, thinking she might as well ask, since she was certain never to see Nahla again, she said, “Why do you wear your hair like that?”

“That,” said Nahla, coldly, “is none of your business.”

Hessa looked at the ground, feeling a numbness settle into her chest, and focused on swallowing her throat-thorns, quieting her breathing. Let her go, then. Let her go, and find a way to forget this—although a panic rose in her, that after a lifetime of being taught how to remember, she had forgotten how to forget.

“Unless,” Nahla continued, thoughtful, “you intend to make it your business.”

Hessa looked up, startled. While she stared at her in confusion, Nahla seemed to make up her mind.

“Yes.” She smirked, and there was something cruel in the bright twist of it. “I would be your apprentice! You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To make my hair like yours?”

“No!” Hessa was horrified. “I don’t—I mean—no, I wouldn’t like that at all.” Nahla raised an eyebrow as she babbled, “I’ve never had an apprentice. I was one only four years ago. It would not—it would not be seemly.”

“Hessa.” Nahla stood, now, and Hessa rose with her, knees shaky and sore. “I want to know how this happened. I want to learn—” she narrowed her eyes, and Hessa recoiled from what she saw there, but forgot it the instant Nahla smiled. “—how to do it to you. Perhaps then, when I can teach you what it felt like, when I can silence you and bind you in all the ways I find delicious without asking your leave—perhaps then, I can forgive you.”

They looked at each other for what seemed an age. Then, slowly, drawing a long, deep breath, Hessa reached for a large piece of rough quartz, and put it in Nahla’s hand, gently closing her fingers over it.

“Every stone,” she said, quietly, looking into her wine-dark eyes, “knows how to sing. Can you hear it?”

As she watched, Nahla frowned, and raised the quartz to her ear.

~~~~~

Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning author and critic: her short fiction has won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and her poetry has won the Rhysling award three times. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies including The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories, and The New Voices of Fantasy, as well as in magazines such as Tor.com, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Fireside, as well as in her own collection of poems and very short stories, The Honey Month (Papaveria Press, 2009).

She also writes the Otherworldly column for the New York Times, reviews books for NPR, plays the harp, and lives in Ottawa with her spouse and two cats, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa. This is How You Lose the Time War, a novella co-written with Max Gladstone, is forthcoming in 2019 from Saga Press. Find her online at amalelmohtar.com or on Twitter @tithenai.