Yep, you guessed it. Fantasy has occupied the human mind from time immemorial. Not all of it will fit into neat little cubby holes, no matter how many we define. Here's what didn't fit elsewhere.
Yes, it was an obsession. I can date its inception quite precisely: the evening of 15th May 2010, when my latest work was premiered by the Quadrivium Ensemble to critical incomprehension. This soon became, in the prose of those stunted creatures, bile. When even Mario Zucotta, the ensemble's leader, came to me and suggested certain changes to make the work more accessible, I realized that what I was doing was beyond even the most advanced musical intelligences. The only person who could appreciate my work was me. But the flowering of genius requires an audience outside itself. So, I withdrew.
That was when I became obsessed with the Voynich Manuscript. I'd been interested in it ever since I learned of this 16th-century text, composed in a script no one understood, interspersed with obscure drawings and diagrams. The author was unknown and, despite the attentions of the greatest cryptographers in history, its meaning had never been deciphered. Every time the shadow puppets play, someone is saying, goodbye. Someone is saying, please don't go. Someone is saying, if only, please. Someone is saying, I remember when, and laughing.
Every shadow play is a memory. She came into the used bookstore. She didn't know what she was looking for, exactly. She wandered up and down the aisles, through every section from computers to romance. She combed through the clearance section.
At last, something caught her eye. A slim green volume poked out beneath an unwanted encyclopedia. She dug it out, and it felt right in her hands. "Wishes," read the cover. "Fifty cents," read the price tag. Why not? She could afford fifty cents. She took it home with her. Akorsa lurked beyond the reach of the firelight, where darkness swallowed the bold pounding of the villagers' drums. Like the drunken young men who gorged themselves on hunks of meat torn from the harvest festival's spitted lamb, Akorsa watched the unwed women dancing around the bonfire, searching for one who would satisfy the hunger throbbing inside her. But the women passed in a blur, blond hair flaming into red, tanned skin fading to pale, curved hips thinning until svelte--all the same to Akorsa. After a thousand years of roaming the earth, she had tasted every kind of song these women had to offer.
A lifetime ago, villagers like these would have welcomed her to their celebration and extolled her name: Akorsa, immortal oracle to Inamis, goddess of the moon and femininity. Akorsa would have shared the songs of Inamis and filled the people with new knowledge, and they in turn would have offered Akorsa her fill of food and drink and shelter for the night. But in those days of old, the people grew greedy for more than they should know, and the oracles began demanding exorbitant recompense for such songs. "And that will make her love me?"
She turned the head back right side out. She smoothed the features into place as she worked the stuffing in. She positioned the eyes, popped them into place, then adjusted the eyelids and lashes around them. After adding the last of the stuffing, she lined up the edges of what was going to be the final seam and took a deep breath.
This was the last step. True, there was work to be done after the last stitch: cheek and lip shading, hair, and she thought this one might need freckles. But the head seam was the last make-or-break point. Mistakes there could be hidden in the hair well enough to pass a visual scrutiny, but you never knew when a child was going to be tactilely oriented, and once a seam was found, the illusion was destroyed. She knew that firsthand, and she was never going to ruin a childhood the way hers had been. Illness skulked about the village, hiding in the alley fish-rot and grasping at coats in the fog. The sea misted up and smothered the houses, as if already holding the island in its embrace was not enough.
People coughed and hacked and died in their sleep. My father found one elder staring out to the dawn from his bed, one hand reaching toward the window. They buried him and all the rest under the perimeter of church bells, ringing out the chill. Fire sings of pain: the tingling victories and the scorching failure. When Badra calls on fire, her skin lights up in sympathetic memory. When she gets her scars too close to the flame, they prick the way they did the first time they were burned. The scars recall the wound.
Fire is pain, and air does not quench it. Air is a blow from behind, disorienting pressure, empty lungs. Air is so heavy. Badra had no idea. If Gera had lived to teach her air, she'd have been prepared. Instead the air runes fell on her shoulders like boulders, squeezed her life out breath by breath, until she was so weak and so afraid she called back the runes and broke the spell. Air sings of cowardice, because weeks passed before Badra dared to try again. Almost exactly one week after the last day of seventh grade and one week before her thirteenth birthday, Sylvia stomped through the house, flung open the sliding door to the back porch and stood with hands on hips. The Sunday newspaper was not extremely captivating that day, nor were her parents in the practice of ignoring their daughter, but the lawnmower next door was loud enough to mask the impatient tapping of a foot and the flaring lament of teenage nostrils. Finally, Mr. Jera shut off the small motor to empty his grass clippings, and Sylvia said,
"Well?!" Ariana's heartbeat echoed the last word of the spell: dub-dub. The tugging began, as though invisible gremlins had grabbed her arm. Yara's shriek made Ariana swivel her head. Yara was being pulled in the opposite direction.
Cloth ripped as the single dress with two necks was tugged with the girls. Her pulse grew louder. "There are no railways on Ceftanaloña," Isabella the tour guide insisted, cutting the conversation dead.
Rob wondered why her sullen monotone had suddenly erupted into vehemence. "This area is for Transport Museum staff only." She motioned him away from the workshop full of agricultural machinery, a lorry chassis, half-complete cars, even a ship's propeller. A mechanic looked up from the engine he was working on. She pointed to a sign saying "No visitors beyond this point" in English, Spanish, and local dialect. I came in from the snow, curses rolling around in my head. A day didn't go by without me wondering how I'd come to this. A once-upon-a-time god reduced to trolling for humans desperate enough to believe in something that surely sounded crazy.
There was a man sitting at the bar with that look I know well. He didn't feel like the wrong sort. I've gotten good at steering clear of those people through the decades. Call it a self-preservation instinct. I feel the joy--or the pain--which comes out of the relationships I forge. Ron allowed himself one shallow breath before gripping his cane and creaking to his feet. There was no need to rush. More than a century before, he had counted the steps that would take him from his watching-chair, across his living room, through his front door, off the porch, and across the expanse of rock to the cliff. Ron knew, likewise, the number of steps a jumper needed to hike to the top of the rock face they called The Ridge.
Ron had time. When the shaman was done tying his ribbon around the middle of our pig, my father stood and watched the old man doddering off down the lane for a long time. A few months ago I would have expected my father, the notary of our little town, to have berated the old man, but now I was not surprised when he did no such thing. He only leaned on the slats of our fence, pensively watching the shaman depart, uttering not one word: We could neither feed nor water the pig now until the shaman was done with whatever spell it was he had been casting these last few weeks.
"I didn't like the way he tipped his hat to me," my father muttered as he strode past me and back to the house. "That's all." I watched him go into the house, knowing he would be ascending the stairs one last time, before he left for his office, to see to mother. "What's that?" I ask her. We're walking along the beach at the high tide mark and I spot a dark brown rectangle with corners that end in tendrils. I push it with my toe--it's lighter than it looks.
"Do you want science or romance?" she asks, looking up into my eyes. I live and breathe by the crescent moon smile on her face. There was a monster in Hannah's kitchen.
She had invited it in, but that did not make it any more welcome. It leered at her from above a brown paper package, and from within it: a long-faced man presenting her with a lean, red cut of meat. In the beginning of the world, the gods considered all those things which did not have their own gods, to decide who would have responsibility and rulership.
"I will rule all flowers that are sky-blue in colour," said the Sky-Father. When Mom died, I inherited my childhood home.
I have good memories attached to the place: fairy tales and Saturday morning cartoons, tea parties and lightsaber duels. In those days the house felt like a castle, and I imagined dragons in the cellar and elves in the ceiling and magic hidden in every room. But one room was more magical than the others, a guestroom filled with multicolored cloth and the constant hum of a sewing machine. Inside, Mom would sit like a princess in a storybook, handcrafting tiny eveningwear. I remembered every dress and tuxedo. I remembered Mom's satisfied smile. "Come, come!" the attendants at the gate of Tourmaline call to you. "Come and bathe your feet."
The water is refreshing, ice cold, straight from the glaciers on top of the mountains far to the west. You wash away the dust of your long journey across the desert, and marvel at the streets lined with twenty-foot slate slabs, the centers slightly depressed from centuries of traffic. You squint at the bright blue murals depicting rearing elephants and leaping lions in smooth jade and lapis lazuli. "I really hate my job." Arlen stretched his arms and tried to loosen his stiff neck.
"That's nice. I hate my stinking job too." Every "s" the guard spoke came out as a hiss. They come to study us. Not to help. They watch my father struggle his way through his chores and make notes in their notebooks, too busy charting our future to join our present. In any case, I've no reason to believe their help would be of use. Their essence smells different--arid, dusty--and it blisters the leaves it touches.
"It has no life, Mari," my grandmother says. At least she used to, before the day she took to her bed, lay there in her mended sheets, her face crumpling in on itself like an apple gone soft with decay, the threat of losing the land not aging her, merely bringing her years to rest heavy upon her shoulders. She wakes hungry. He knows this, now. He greets her sleepy smile with bread and honey, with blueberry pancakes and salmon jerky, with the last of the jelly made from the wild grapes. He covers the table with food--once, twice, three times--until she groans and pushes it away.
"It's April," she says, looking out the window. There once was a rabbit who had been made of velveteen. For many years now he'd been Real--not just Real in the eyes of the Boy who loved him, but real to the world of grown-ups and rabbits with twitching noses and springy hind legs.
The Rabbit's hind legs weren't as springy as they'd once been. They ached in the wintertime, and he hopped more slowly. He liked nothing better than to lie in a sunny patch by the thicket of overgrown raspberry canes and dream of the days when the Boy had held him close and warm beneath soft blankets. Tom tried to show interest in Miss Collingsworth's flower arranging as she blithered on about some dance in the next county, but he kept finding himself distracted by the statue under the arbor. Bent in a posture of world-weary resignation, the subject did not appear regal or refined; she was dressed in dowdy fashions of the last decade rather than of the classical era. Her face, broad and homely, was ill-cut, but the stone eyes seemed to stare Tom down clear across the garden. He'd heard brilliant things about his new neighbors, the Collingsworths, but if this was a mark of their taste, he wasn't sure he wanted to deepen the acquaintance.
"Mmmhmm," he muttered in Miss Collingsworth's direction, when it seemed there was an appropriate gap in the conversation. "Yes. Of course." "I'll kill him," Helene says. "I'll rip out his heart and throw it to the crows." Autumn winds tear at her hair, lashing her face with black tendrils.
We stand, my sister and I, simultaneously together and apart, her hands clenching the cold stone of the public garden's only bridge and mine worming deeper into the protective pockets of my woolen dress. She, of course, still wears silk, even as our breaths cloud white in the early chill. She gave me the amber right after I had kissed her for the first time, right after I started to confess, well, everything. Nothing. The sort of things you say, or don't say, right after you have just kissed her for the first time, and you are convinced this means something.
"So you can carry my warmth with you," she whispered, tying the piece around my neck. She wakes to find seaweed in her bed.
Never the same, this tangled weave of salt and slime and leaves: sometimes glistening red, sometimes dark green, sometimes dank brown. But always, always, there, entangling her feet, her hands, sometimes even sliding across her mouth, so that she wakes to the taste of salt and the sea. When I was young I dreamed of becoming a lioness, but when the moons turned and I became a woman, the gods made me a mouse. My brother, who had been an antelope (and with those legs, everyone had guessed well beforehand) had laughed and picked me up in his dusty hands. For the first time, his teeth were sharp and dangerous. I squeaked, wishing that I was stalking around the village with golden eyes and a pad full of sharp claws. How many nights had I prayed for that shape? Not to keep forever. Nobody lasted forever when they changed. It was a moon, usually, or three. My Mother had gone a year as a lark, but everyone said that the women in my family were slow to learn. You changed back when you understood and not a day before.
"Keesa! I could eat you in a bite!" And this was my brother, who had once been an eater of grass. I nudged the corpse with the toe of my boot. "Looks like he froze to death, poor sod."
"That's what you get, wandering these mountains unprepared." Ranulf snagged the corpse's rucksack and began rifling through it. The first time her parents left her home alone, Elvira was good. The second time, she managed to behave, too. But the third time, the temptation was too great. That Friday night, the instant her parents were gone, she ran down to the basement and entered the Forbidden Workshop.
Papa's workbench stretched out along an entire wall, covered with power tools and a half-built wooden train that was probably a Christmas present for her little brother. Other tools, so big they had to have their own tables, were pushed up against a second wall. The third and fourth walls were lined with shelves, which were filled with more tools and clear plastic boxes that had tool bits in them. The whole room smelled of freshly cut wood, and she stood in the center of the room, just breathing it in, for a few seconds. The Workshop was just as wonderful as she had imagined it would be. I saw my first deathship when I was only ten migrations old.
Mamma and I had swum up to the ocean's surface to play with a pod of dolphins. We were leaping and spinning and dancing in the waves when she caught sight of white sails on the horizon. The dolphins abandoned us, racing off to ride the waves in front of the ship's bow. I wanted to join them, but Mamma herded me below and told me I was never to approach the deathships. "Don't you ever sleep?" she asked, and he shook his head.
No, she thought. He never will, and he's going to keep you here forever, in this soft white bed, like some fairy princess. Today they will burn our tamarisk trees to the ground. It's a quick, hot fire, and the flames light the sky bright enough to read by. I've seen it before, with other people's trees. But this year, it's mine they're burning.
A few of my yearmates are like me--stupid and sentimental and afraid of what will come after. So we go to the grove and we find our trees and spend a few last moments with them, touching their scaled leaves and their bark and the little scraps of cloth and paper we have tied to them so carefully all our lives. Don had been delivering mail to Ruthetta Bell's house for almost thirty years before she finally asked him inside. It was the day he'd been waiting for, but never had the courage to make happen on his own initiative. Now, though, it wasn't like he imagined. He'd waited too long.
The Snail ride was haunted from the beginning, and what made it worse was that it was the slowest ride in the entire amusement park: an hour and a half of crawling along the track.
The architect had meant it to be a clever postmodern play on a haunted house ride, a deconstructed, ironic ride experience and all that cleverness did, really, was to attract ghosts, who are always drawn by irony. There was a time when the Yakima tribe lived in peace with its surroundings and its neighbors. We welcomed the changing of the seasons, the migration of the birds, the spawning of the fish. We harvested our crops, hunted for meat when we desired it, paid tribute to the sacred tree that protected our people. We had lived this way for many hundreds of years; we expected to live this way for many hundreds more.
Then the white man came. As far as cloaks went, Rall had to admit that Verenisse's were good ones. She had fooled him more than once, and he expected her to walk abroad under guises. One time she'd crept up to him as a barely adolescent boy, all shaggy dark hair and bright curious eyes, and he'd talked with the child for half an hour before realizing that it was her. Verenisse had the talent of bending her voice and her words and her manner to the role she took on. Cloaks tricked the eyes, but there was more to concealment than what people could see or could not see.
And that was the problem right there in a spoonful of words: a cloak did nothing to change a user's smell, or taste. Neither did practice in altering one's voice or stance. She was human, and anything that was not human would be able to smell that, and the Rat Folk in particular had very keen noses. "Don't go," he said. "Please. I'm afraid." Emmett saw a small head hovering where darkness met sunlight filtering through leaves, caught glimpses of pale hands and feet shifting in shadow. He thought these hints of feminine body were simply light itself, figments of his own desires for a world outside of woodsheds and sanding and the lathe. But as he pushed further down the woodland path, further from his father's demands to pound more pine pegs for legs, varnish maple tabletops stretching vast as frozen lakes, a whole girl appeared in front of him, barefoot and wearing a wooden dress.
He blinked, blinked again, and, as the wind changed, saw a girl wearing a dress of the woods itself. When she moved towards him the woods moved with her, yet she was more girl than wood. Holding the laundry basket, Gina paused in the doorway of Adam's room. It looked just like it had the day he hadn't come home for dinner, though the police had combed it for clues. Five years now. She knew she should turn the room into a guest room, but every time she thought about it, her heart turned to lead.
She hadn't even taken down the drawings of the girl with flowers for hair, though they made her skin crawl. The girl was a flowery Medusa, with bluebells and pink and yellow daisies ringing her head. Adam, a budding eight-year-old artist, had been proud of his crayon creations. He claimed he played with her every day after school. Gina hadn't seen any harm in his imaginary friend until the day Adam didn't come home. The police had dutifully photographed the drawings, but the pretend portraits had been no help. For this spell, only the most powerful magic will do.
The glass tubes full of air magic jingle like wind chimes as she takes them off the shelf, the iridescent gases swirling inside. Next she moves the heavy clay pots filled with earth magic and then wrangles the jug of water magic with both hands. Hidden behind it is the keepsake box. She sits in front of the screen long after he disconnects. Her gaze drifts over to the window, to the bubbly city below. Millions of happy citizens are starting their weekends, taking walks, shopping, enjoying leisurely brunches with friends.
She's wearing her nicest clothes, and her fur is neatly brushed. She could still go out--he wouldn't think to cancel the reservations--except she doesn't have money; the apartment is expensive and the relocation swallowed her savings. Plus she doesn't have friends. For three weeks now, all she does is drive a hover-cab, like so many other new New Yorkers, and wait for increasingly sporadic holo-calls, like so many other clueless women before her. Now that they have come for me, banging on the trapdoor above us, there are many things I want to tell you, Son.
Winter came to the mountains, and Xuan walked home through the snow.
Her family lived in a yurt on the northern slopes of Changbai, nestled in the shelter of an overhang. Her father was a fisherman, and spent the winter next to holes carved in the icy river. Her mother was her mother. Xuan loved them both. "Miss Linderman," said the voice--it sounded like the principal's secretary--"there's been an accident. Two of our students were killed driving home from a haunted house. Cathy Jackson and Melinda Cranford."
Miss Linderman held the phone tight in the dark room. On the dresser, her clock's red letters glowed 2:59. "If you think you'll need a substitute, I can arrange one for you." I knew a girl who tied a hot air balloon envelope to her shoulders, just in case her head should ever burst into flames. It was homemade, sewn together from stolen scraps of Dacron, mottled and gaudy. It was as wide as her shoulders and it hung down to the small of her back like a pair of folded oil-slick dragonfly wings. She pierced the thin, tender skin of her shoulders with four strong surgical-steel rings, two just above the delicate cliff of her clavicle and two over the twin plateaus of her shoulder blades, and to these she anchored the envelope.
I used to sneak away from barracks to see her in the wide gray field outside of Courdray. I was nineteen and obsessed with climbing trees. I used to split my brain apart during drills, sink away into the recesses of daydreams to climb imagined redwoods that never ended, and in rare unsupervised moments I would climb the dry and dying cypress out in the field, with the grass twitching and the sky bruising over, and I would sit in the lowest crotch and dangle my arm down. And she would sit at the roots (she never climbed, afraid that she would tear open her precious envelope on a capricious branch, and that her head would explode before she could patch it up), and play with my fingers, never grabbing hold but always dancing across my fingertips with her own. And we would talk. I am in love with a man from the current.
My mother thinks this is foolish. She wants me to settle down with a boy from the still. She doesn't understand. She met my father when they were in the current. Otherwise I wouldn't exist. "Do as I do," Mama tells me, "and you'll be safe. We walk this road together." The road is seven feet wide and four billion years long. All my ancestors walk ahead of me and my progeny follows behind.
Today the road is a pair of tractor ruts in a field of screaming-psychosis grass. The shrill sound makes my head ache, and Mama says if I listen too much longer, it will drive me insane. She plucks a handful of grass from the side of the road. Once picked, the grass is silent. The road is wider, and the psychosis grass is quieter because it has fewer voices with which to scream. A cruel winter wind raged outside the crooked hovel, battering its empty boarded up eyes and howling through its broken stone teeth.
The wizard could hear their impish laughter in that wind, out there in the dark, and he shivered in his bed. They used to keep their distance, whispering and scurrying away like vermin, but they didn't run anymore. He was old and toothless now, no threat to anyone.
Yep, you guessed it. Fantasy has occupied the human mind from time immemorial. Not all of it will fit into neat little cubby holes, no matter how many we define. Here's what didn't fit elsewhere.
by Rigel Ailur
Sisters, they sat across the table from each other. Sendell, younger, meticulous, wise and quietly implacable. Danzor, instinctive, impetuous and charismatic. Lost concentration meant death, the victor winning the queendom of Azencer—and the man. Their hands on the square table top, they watched a knife hover in mid air equidistant between them. Inseparable from childhood, they'd long since become bitter enemies. Their telekinesis focused on the gleaming blade, each woman trying to thrust it into the other. Neither had suggested a non-lethal contest. Neither would have accepted.
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***Editor's Note: This is a story for adult readers***
My mother worshipped the god of rugs, which gave her peculiar powers, and gave me the conviction that I needed to find a god of my own.
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***Editor's Note: This is an adult fable, not for children.***
The boy, who was an old man, did not stay long. As he hobbled out of the forest, the tree, who was only a stump, watched his cane of burnished wood. Her wood.
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