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What You Lost in the Wildermere

Things vanish in the Wildermere. The usual, expected things—livestock, the occasional person—but also the less conventional.

The less tangible.

You walk to the border between this world and that, stand in the tangled underbrush, and peer between the gap in the ancient redwood trees. And something is snatched away, leaving only the faintest shadow of a memory and that nagging sense that you’ve left behind something important.

It’s the kind of place where you sign up for a day-walk tour to take photographs to show your coworkers back at the office, the kind of place you’d post selfies on social media from, say you’d been, and that, oh, it was so beautiful (but even for all that beauty, no, you don’t think you’d ever go back). It’s why someone would plan a trip to the coast, even if they only had limited vacation days and didn’t have family in the area (but why would you plan it, if you didn’t have family there?).

It’s the kind of place that has a handful of little, quaint villages whose main source of income, it appears, are tourists staying at the obligatory bed and breakfasts with their hand-painted signs and lovingly trimmed hedges. Tourists who visit the quaint souvenir shops to buy key chains and wood bookmarks and leather-bound journals and t-shirts, stamped, emblazoned, and printed with the word “Wildermere.” By the time the weekend is over and you’re checking out of the B&B, you already have enough Wildermere-branded tchotchkes to stock your own little souvenir shop back home.

But there’s still that feeling—that creeping, twitching, untraceable feeling—that you left something behind. You decide you must’ve lost a sock under the bed (but you always match your socks, clean or otherwise). You settle the bill and drive away in your SUV (which seems so obtuse here in this tiny village with its skinny streets; you wonder why you would ever buy such a large vehicle).

You go home. You unpack. You return to work. Your coworkers greet you with a bright, “So how was your trip?”

“Fine,” you say.

You share your photos. You give away the souvenir key chains.

But something is still wrong. Something is out of place. The outline of the memory is smooth and that, in and of itself, is what begins your questioning.

Memories aren’t smooth. Memories aren’t flawless.

You remember standing on the border of the Wildermere and looking between the trees. You remember the exact way you stood, with one hand in the pocket of your jeans and the other hanging loose at your side (but you never held your hand loose like that, just like you never stand perfectly straight—you’re always leaning, always resting a part of yourself on something else, the table, the wall, as if your legs couldn’t ever support the whole weight of you). You were wearing your favorite pair of waterproofed hiking boots and your fleece-lined raincoat.

You remember the precise angle of the sunlight peeking through the clouds. It had been overcast that morning, and the weather report on the B&B’s dial radio had said there was a forty percent chance of showers. For breakfast, you’d had a cup of strong coffee and a stale croissant with strawberry jam that you microwaved to make more palatable. You remember regretting the coffee; it had upset your stomach, and you kept burping up the flavor of it. There was a breeze from the south that smelled like horse manure.

You remember feeling underwhelmed, and a little irked that you talked yourself into paying for this trip (but you know you would have never picked this place; you’ve always wanted to go hiking in the mountains). You remember wishing it was something more.

So you start making lists. And in those lists, you hope you’ll find something, anything, that doesn’t connect, that doesn’t fit the smooth contours of your memory, because it’ll be the one thing that can confirm your suspicions. It’ll be the frayed end of the cord the Wildermere cut when it stole from you.

You make lists upon lists. You fill the leather-bound journal with Wildermere stamped into its cover with everything you remember, everything you know is true. By the last page, you begin to question even that.

You buy another journal. You start at the beginning.

You write:

I know my name is Ellen.

I know I walked along the borderline of the Wildermere last March.

I know I wasn’t alone.

© 2020 by R. J. Howell

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We Are the Bees

Harris walked into the tent, his sun-burned face wrinkled into a permanent, unconscious frown.

“There aren’t enough bees.”

“Fuck,” Grace muttered. She pushed the monitor back, blanking the screen showing the active bee swarms and the yet-to-be-pollinated flowers, and unhooked herself from the computer. “That means we’ve got to go out there.”

“I’ll get the finger puppets,” Harris said. He spoke slowly and moved slowly, clearly hoping Grace would stop him with an alternative.

There was no alternative.

“Don’t call them that.”

He grunted, unwilling to argue, and equally unwilling to give in to the respect Grace demanded for the job. But as Harris pulled the bee-bodied pollinators from their careful storage bins, she admitted he was right. Finger puppets. They were god-damned finger puppets. She took her two, leaving them in their protective paper sheath, and led the way out of the shelter. The heat was wet, the air sluggish. Summer in Southeast Texas was what she’d always imagined hell to be. She let Harris drive the gyrowheel. Eyes closed and motionless, she enjoyed the air passing over her.

“So we’re doing this ourselves?”

“Team Carpenter is on honey production. Team Bumble is testing substitute bee protein on Summer Tanagers. Team Sweat is out in Tennessee investigating that live hive sighting. And Team Mining is, well…”

Harris snorted. “They still haven’t checked in?”

“They’re fine. Maybe Genever decided they all needed a break. They’re drinking beer at an icehouse because it doesn’t really matter if one team out of hundreds isn’t pollinating.”

“Yeah,” Harris agreed. “But they were supposed to be handling the bees. Right?”

Grace kept her eyes closed. They both knew the score, so there was no point in talking about it. Whatever Team Mining was doing, they weren’t doing their job, which meant she and Harris, who weren’t part of a team themselves, were forced to pick up the slack.

“We’ll hit the closest ones first,” she said. “No need to waste time and effort.”

Harris didn’t argue. If scrappers had hit Team Mining, there wasn’t anything the two of them could do. Not directly. And any government rescue would be too late. The goal wasn’t to protect each other as much as it was to keep the chain intact, because without the bees, they were all nature had. They were the bees.

They stopped at a wild orchard. The surrounding fence had fallen into disrepair. They drove over it to the ruined farm buildings where the field office sat, a dirty black and yellow tent dulled with pollen and wind-borne dirt. Harris slipped on his pollinators and climbed in an auto-ladder. The treads of the vehicle chewed up the wet ground as he, carefully but surely, stuck the pollinators in the flowers, moving quickly from one to the next. The pollinators didn’t have to look anything like bees, but the designers were convinced it helped morale, as though each animal substitute felt better the more fully they embodied their role.

Grace unsealed the tent with a bit of saliva. Cool air rushed past her as she entered, the inside lighting up with computers and sensors coming online. She called up the local bee tracker. The swarm that was supposed to be here flickered, the signals blinking in and out as though they were coming from an electrical storm.

The skies were clear.

Which meant humans. Scrappers. A few disorients spaced around the area and the bees would blunder from one blossom to another without any pattern, reduced to their most basic programming. She took a moment to type out an SOS to the Kludge Factory, then went out to help Harris. There was no telling when or if help would come. They’d have to do this themselves.

Pollination couldn’t be hurried. Grace lost herself in it, enjoying the sun soaking into her dark skin. Though she didn’t worry about burning, she knew she should have put on protection to prevent cancer. Harris was slathered in oxide every day, and still his skin pinked like raw chicken. She even enjoyed the sodden air, which made every breath a mouthful of steam. Pollination was physical work. Necessary work. With the bees gone, she and the rest of her crews had to keep the chain from breaking by fulfilling every aspect of life the bees did. Harris talked about it as though they were fooling mother nature into thinking everything was okay. Deceit appealed to him. For Grace, it was penance.

After the orchard, they headed toward the nearest swarm remnants. Grace held out a jammer, a government issue salve to the scrapper problem. It hadn’t worked. Her staff reported that the jammers fritzed out close to a disorient. Grace suspected they didn’t interfere with disorients so much as get interfered by them.

They found Silas, arm broken, head clubbed in. Maria was breathing, but her pupils were different sizes. They’d come back.

Following the jammer until it was a useless collection of blinking lights and soft whines, they located one of the disorients. It was cobbled together from junk. Grace even noticed bee parts welded into it. No scrappers were around, but she wasn’t surprised, though she was still tense. Meanwhile, Harris was so on edge he refused to leave the gyrowheel.

“For God’s sake, just break it already. Let’s go.”

Even with the bees incapacitated, catching them would be hard work for the scrappers. Destroying the disorient wouldn’t release the entire swarm—it would only prompt their higher functions to kick in. They’d defend themselves. They’d sting. They’d fly down nostrils and throats, burrow into ears. A lot of the scrappers would die.

But the reason she’d taken this job was that humans didn’t matter anymore, not as humans. The scrappers were just trying to survive. The world was, too.

Some things were expendable. Some were not.

She smashed the disorient.

In a few days, they’d come collect the bees from the bodies.

© 2020 by Andrew Kozma
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The Stories of Your Name

If I were Palaeolithic, I would paint your name on sacred stones with ochre and ash.

After a thousand generations archaeologists would discover my work, and would marvel at it. They would protect your name and preserve it, ascribe meaning to it, infer understandings from it, and formulate inadequate hypotheses for its being. Your name would be a clue to their origins. It would lead them to transcend their ephemeral present and connect them to the epoch of their kind.

If I were an Arstesian biosculptor, I would shape your name in tissue and bone.

The flesh-nurses would feed your name nutrients and watch it grow, would monitor its microbiome for disease vectors. They would call surgeons to treat your name, and care for your name in its recovery. When their job was done your name would be exhibited. Arstesian royalty would come to perform conspicuous admirations of it.

If I were an oracle, I would speak your name portentous.

I would gift it to the pilgrim who had climbed to my cliff-top temple, and with it she would return as a saviour to her people. For long years she would remember your name, and those whom she had saved would remember it too, until your name became a part of their language, a synonym for good fortune, for fecund fields and fair winds.

If I were a wrench-head on a Skaralic Starcruiser I would hack the aft plas-cannons while the officers hibernated.

I would blast your name into the flank of an un-named planet as we passed. I would make your name a geomorphic scar, a hemishperic graffito. It would persist for millennia. The planet which I marked would be long distant when the crew woke from their hyper sleep. They would never know your name, but after all of the might of the Skaralic military had been spent in futile and mutually destructive vainglory against the Mercerne System, that planet bearing your name would remain.

If I were a philologist, I would find your name in every tongue and text.

Where people spake riddles, your name would hold the key. It would occur in signs and gestures, in glyphs and runes. I would trace your name diachronically, and with it I would track an Empire’s rise and fall. Your name would be threaded through centuries of expansion and aggression, of colonisation and resistance, of revolution and reparations.

If I were an acolyte, I would make your name my mantra.

Sequestered on an island monastery, I would kneel six times a day with my forehead pressed to the damp stone floor and my lips would silently shape themselves to your syllables. When the fae powers coalesced around me I would gather with my fellows on the shingle beaches and we would pool our magics and call to the Ancient Gods in their benthic crypts. They would rise from the waves, spume-flecked and tentacular, and with your name they would greet us.

If I were a writer I would make a story of your name.

A very short story, perhaps.

I would narrate it in the first person directly to you, the second. I would insist upon the subjunctive mood. I would tell the tale conditionally, never committing to anything more certain than ‘if’… ‘would’. I would share my story with others, for them to make of it what they would, but I would not give them your name.

It is yours, and only you may give it.

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My mother had been dead just a week when a moth flew into my room.

You’re wondering, what’s so special about a moth? I may as well talk about my chipped nails. My nails were black that night, because I was committed to my grief, and the polish was flaking away. I painted them the night after she died, sitting up at 4 a.m. listening to the sound of birds outside my window.

Anyway, my mother was a week dead, my nails were chipped, and a moth flew into my room.

I was sorting through my jewellery collection. By that I mean I was holding a charm bracelet my mother had given me for my thirteenth birthday, and I wasn’t looking at it. I was just holding it. The silver chain was cold when I picked it up, but it had warmed in my hand.

I nearly dropped the bracelet when the moth zinged into the lampshade overhead. It was a big one, and it flapped around like an energetic leaf. I don’t like moths usually, but this one was so big, I gripped the edge of my bedside table as I stared it down. It bumped repeatedly against the ceiling, oblivious.

Then I thought of my mother.

Well, I thought of my mother constantly. She had been alive a week ago, and then she wasn’t, and she’d become a flickering light bulb in my mind. By turns illuminating everything and plunging it all into darkness, and so fucking distracting. It made strange, shivering shadows of all my memories.

In that instance, I was thinking, specifically, of the time a moth landed on her back as we were walking to the columbarium where my grandmother’s ashes were kept. I saw it and reached to brush it off, but hesitated. “There’s something on your back. A moth.”

My mother stopped in the street and looked at me, smiling, creases around her eyes like a soft-worn blanket. “You know what they say about moths.”

I know what they say about moths, mother.

So my mother was dead, and there was a moth in my room, and I thought, that’s my mother.

I ignored that thought. Of course it wasn’t my mother. It was a moth. Those two things might only differ by two letters in English, but in Chinese they weren’t the slightest bit similar.

I slipped the bracelet back into its velvet pouch and put it down. The moth was getting all up in that lampshade. Then it zipped out and flung itself around the room, and it was going to be a racket all night if I didn’t do something about it, but I just stood there.

The window was wide open, and the damp summer air smelled green and deep. The moth didn’t leave. I considered turning the light off.

I sat down on my bed, and the moth landed on the covers. My purple covers, stitched with stars, so that I could sleep in the embrace of the galaxy. My mother’s bed linen was always beige or cream, like cups of tea with varying amounts of milk stirred in. My mother didn’t drink tea.

The moth rested on one of the stars.

I gave in. “Mother?”

No reply.

“Mother, I’m gay.”

I can’t believe that was the first thing I blurted out. I came out to a moth, because I couldn’t come out to my mother. It was so terrible that I slammed my face into one of my pillows, trying to suffocate myself in more embroidered stars. I wished someone could have ejected me into space—the tears would have frozen in my eyes before they could fall.

As it was, I wiped my eyes with my pillowcase. “There’s this girl… We’ve been seeing each other for a few months.”

The moth leapt from the bed and swooped frantically into a wall. I thought that my mother was just reacting really badly to her daughter being a lesbian, but after playing bumper cars all by itself for a minute, it dived down again, this time onto my laptop, which was open next to me.

It hopped around on the keyboard. I gaped at it—it was talking to me! It had to do it over a few times before I calmed enough to read what it was saying as it fluttered from key to key.


So yeah, it turned out the moth wasn’t my mother. You’re thinking duh, you knew that.

“Shit. I thought… Who are you?”


You see, it was a dead person. It just wasn’t the dead person I was looking for. “What’s your name?”


My heart pitched in my chest, more desperate than any moth. “I’m Jessica. How long have you been dead?”


“I’m sorry.” Did the dead forget their own names as soon as they exhaled their last breath? I couldn’t bear the idea.


“Oh. Hi.”

I’ve never liked moths, but I had a whole conversation with this one. She’d forgotten her own name, but over the course of an hour, she spelled out a careful poem about her girlfriend’s brown eyes and freckled nose, and the sweet smell of tamagoyaki and fresh-steamed rice in their flat in the mornings.


I touched the moth before she left; she soothed her powdery wing along my thumb, and then she was gone, leaving only the dust of her scales on my skin.

Every time I’ve seen a moth since, I’ve tried talking to it. It’s stupid, I know. None of them have ever replied. It’s been months. But last night, a moth flew into my room. It wasn’t huge. It was dainty, almost.

“Mother?” I asked.

It didn’t head for my laptop, it didn’t hurl itself around like a ferry in a storm; it just flew around me in gentle circles.

It was quiet, but when I woke up today it was still there, perched on top of the velvet pouch on my bedside table.

My mother and I never did talk much.

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Jiak liu lian

You catch a faint whiff of blood while selecting durians for the buffet.

You smell it, despite the fusion of sweat, lubricant and the sandal-bottom aroma of durian fresh from the tree. You eye the guests Ah Jie guides to the tables, seeking the source of the iron-heavy scent. The ox-like man with a nose ring? The white girl wearing shades and a hoodie? Or the child chewing the plastic wrapper of a sweet–

Ah Jie scolds you for staring. So you take a deep breath, start carving with your knife and call out to the tourists:

“Lai lai D24! Verrrry nice! Verrrry creamy!”

Every weekend the tourists arrive by the busloads from Penang, KL and Singapore. They love the farm-cheap prices and supposedly organic fruit Ah Jie’s family grows. They descend on the all-you-can-makan durian buffet like a monsoon flood.

You’re used to their exciting pawing at every bit of fruit, their gruff demands for more. You do your best to meet their constant demands and sheer amount of durian they consume.

“Eh uncle, more D24 can?”

“You got Black Pearl or not?”

“Why your Mao Shan Wang so sweet one?”

You patrol the shaky wooden tables surrounded by aunties and uncles as they dig into the spread-eagled offerings. You dole out servings of every type of durian the farm grows (and more!) on Styrofoam plates dangling from your hands. The tourists eat, joke, and chase everything down with ABC or Tiger. Nothing remains in their wake save the wreckage of broken husks and balled-up yellow tissue paper.

As you pass Ah Jie, she gives you this exaggerated half-nod in the direction of the farthest table. It’s her sign that she wants you to do something that’s either too troublesome or complicated for her.

Sure enough, at the last table, you see the white girl seated alone, uncertainly looking at a plate of D24.

“Ok, Ah Jie. I handle.”

You step up to the challenge. You ask if you can help. She looks at the durian and shrugs.

The classic beginner’s reluctance, you think. So you set out to find a less creamy or sweeter variant.

“Here, Miss, you should try this Mao Shan Wang—”

Then, the smell again, cloying, close. This time you’re certain it’s coming from this girl with her hoodie, sweating in the afternoon sun. You set the durian in front of her, and as she moves, you almost reel from the images this scent brings: rotting flesh, bones picked clean and deoxygenated blood. When she looks up, you see yourself reflected in her shades, a black island surrounded by unnaturally pale freckles.

Impossible, you think. Especially out here. So you distract yourself by commencing the how-to-appreciate-durian-for-non-Asians talk.

“So, Miss, first time right? I teach you ah. First thing you do, is enjoy the smell.”

You take a bladder-sized helping of durian and inhale. You let the flavour inundate your senses, prepare your palate.

She follows your every move.

“You try,” you say. “This one is Mao Shan Wang, or in English they say, ‘Cat Mountain King’. Very good and high quality!”

She sniffs at the sunshine-yellow lump. It lacks the intensity of a D24, and but it smells of a swampy, isolated hill in Kelantan (probably where Ah Jie got it from).

You hand her a new serving with an exaggerated flourish. “Okay, so now best part. You just take, and taste, like this.”

Hand firmly pressing the flesh, hand to mouth, durian to tongue, senses erupt and taste buds ignite. You bite. You roll the flesh in your tongue. You let it wash over you. With your own hyper-consciousness, you can almost see which plantation, which hill, which tree, which branch this durian came from.

Your pupil imitates your every move, and when she smiles at the end of the entire ritual, you think have converted another white person to the wisdom of durian appreciation.

“See. Good right?”

But she asks, “But the smell?”

“You tahan. Then soon all smell like perfume.”

“This tastes really good.”


She lowers her unfinished piece. Instead of taking a chunk out of the milky flesh, you see just two holes, pinpricks as if made by fangs.

“This is as supple as human flesh,” she says.

Now you understand where the smell’s coming from. You have the barest of glimpses of her smile, bordered by blood-encrusted teeth.

All you can say is: “You compare siao is it?”

When it is time for the tourists to leave, you make sure this one gets on the bus. Her smell–sweet durian mixed with the odour of scabbed over wounds left to rot–follows her all the way out.

“I should come back,” she says.

“Your kind not welcome here.”


“Oh. I mean…you are kindly welcome here. But please book with tour agents so you don’t come during off season.”

Later, Ah Jie asks you to clear the tables. She allows you and the others to help yourselves to the leftovers, before she gathers them to make ice-cream. At the table where you entertained the white girl, you pick up the fruit with two punctured holes in it, and reconsider what she said.

As supple as human flesh. You can’t really compare. You haven’t had soft, blood-pulsing, warm human skin under your tongue for ages.

At the thought, you almost feel an old urge in you rising to fruition. Why not just a bite? Just a bite of flushed, raw meat? Just to sustain you for the next few months working in the middle of nowhere? Why not—

Ah Jie shouts at you to hurry up. So, to suppress the craving, you sink your teeth into a remaining piece. Its flavour washes the chamber of your throat, sweetening it until there’s nothing left to sate your wild appetite but chewed-down paste and shreds of durian flesh.

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The Scarecrows’ Daughter

Our world was dying; that was the excuse anyways. A better life, Dad promised, and Mom followed. But we only traded one wasteland for another. I think I hated them for that. Not just being dramatic “I hate you” anger. Full on hate that lives in the bones. I suppose you never take it straight though. Like salt, you always mix hate with other things.

I ask them sometimes if it was worth it. They don’t answer, of course, but the wind blows through their desiccated bodies, whispers through their lips.

I feed Dad first, even if it’s not actually him that drinks, but the red earth under his feet. Dad’s easy. I never had to say goodbye to him, or see the anger and devastation in his eyes. I feed Mom after.

There’s shame there. A fresh well of it always waiting. This is a good thing, Mom said after my first period. A common miracle. One day you too will be a mother. Somehow, I don’t think this is what she had in mind. The blood’s not much, but it’s enough, so long as it comes every month. Around me, vermilion stalks sway in the breeze, their crimson husks covering hundreds of ruby ears.

But on the edge of the field, there’s a murder. A dozen crows perch along power lines, gazing into the rows and rows of red corn.

Wan’s inside the barn, preparing one of the pigs for roast. The pig hangs from a rope, its blood black against Wan’s skin.

“There’s more of them,” I say.

“More of what?” He sounds annoyed, throwing entrails onto the dry earth with a wet slap.

“The crows.”

He wipes his brow. “The more we thrive, the more they come.” He gestures to the dead pig. “They can’t get us. Not so long as you do your part.”

“I’ve done my part! I’ve done enough…”

“It’s not a one-time thing, Marie. Sacrifice is like forgiveness. You have to do it every day.” He turns from me like that answers all. After all the years we’ve lived together—slept together—still he plays the stranger. He keeps his back to me, focusing on the blade as he cuts.

I’ve grown older, I know. There are only so many more months I can feed the soil, and so many more the soil can feed us. Wan knows this too, though he pretends not to notice.

He doesn’t touch me anymore. When I reach for him, he turns away. “Early morning,” he says. The only time he’s willing is when I’m on my period. A fetish, I thought. But now I wonder.

I was sixteen when he came. He was tall and lean, his skin red as this earth, hair raven-dark. He was danger cloaked in mystery, with eyes full of fire and age. He asked for hospitality, and though we had little enough to feed ourselves, Dad obliged.

Wanderer he called himself.

He said he could make corn grow, explained that where the earth is hard, water’s not enough. The soil requires a hardier draft. Only blood would suffice.

“And where do we get the blood?” Dad asked. Stupid question, in hindsight. That was before Dad’s accident. Before the first stalk rose around his ankles. Before Mom grabbed the rifle for vengeance and I stood in her way.

“Why do we need scarecrows?” I asked as Wan set the first post. “We don’t even have crows.”

“Child, there are crows everywhere things birth and grow and shed their seeds. Where there is life, there is they.”

From one stalk spread one hundred, and we’ve lived plentifully ever since. But one day, the moon will turn her gaze from me. The soil will go unwatered. And then what? Will we find a new way? Or will I too gaze down on him while the wind blows through me? This life he’s given is an ellipsis, counting periods until the end.

These thoughts keep me up. Keep me anxious and turning.

One night I put pig’s blood down between my legs, and tell him the moon came early, as it does sometimes on this world. He’s quick to take me, and quicker to finish. Afterwards he rolls over and withdraws a bowl. “Save the red,” he says. “Don’t let it waste.”

I give them water. I don’t know why. Water makes crops grow back home. Water is life—real life, not this imposter we’ve been playing at. Maybe it does nothing. But Mom and Dad look so thirsty, dried out by the sun.

“I’m sorry,” I tell them. “I miss you…”

My things are packed, light as they are. A few clothes, a few seeds. Some questions and some hopes. I go to say goodbye without saying “goodbye,” but he’s tilling soil, annoyed that I interrupt.

“There’s more of them.”

“Dammit with the crows, Marie. They can’t get in.”

“They need to eat too. That’s the way of it. That’s the balance.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Life and death. Suffering and joy. One without the other is barren. You taught me that.”

“You’re talkin’ nonsense.”

I leave him to his work. I watch and wait, until the crows begin to circle. They’re testing the borders, the magic or mischief that’s kept them out. The air is full of their cawing, like a death rattle, a cough. Wan looks up in shock as shadows dance and dive around him, pecking at cloth and skin. He swats them off, but they keep coming.

Ahead, the road is littered with carmine soil, looking like a swath of rusted iron. I glance back just once to those left behind. Their abandoned posts glare through rustling stalks. Perhaps the crows took them too. But maybe hidden amongst the rows are bodies shambling, searching for vengeance or more peaceful rest.

My belly rumbles and aches. The common miracle, I wonder. I rub it gently—the new life ahead, the question mark following the ellipsis.

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Homebrew Wine Recipes for Favourable Effects, from the Regrettable Life of Mrs Poulman

Dandelion Wine, To Capture the Eye of A Gentleman

5 gill of twinkling dew from the petals of roses, tulips, peonies &c. as available in early Spring. The more admirable the flower, the greater the effect. Only to be collected on a clear morning when the sun shines down, for it is that glimmering essence you require to capture the eye of dashing Mr Poulman as he passes your market stall on a Saturday, and who sends his footman instead to purchase your jams and preserves when you are so anxious for a moment of his time directly.

All the dandelions from your garden, collected on a warm April afternoon, that you may appear wherever Mr Poulman looks and thus be ever in his thoughts. You only require the flowerheads for now, but dry the roots out and keep them safe.

Heat the dew to boiling point till it bubbles with desire, then pour over the dandelion flowers. When cooled, rack into a demijohn with 3 pounds of sugar and the usual ingredients i.e. a squeeze of lemon, a mug of black tea, a teaspoon of yeast.

When primary fermentation has completed and the must has cleared, rack into bottles with a further tablespoon of sugar each. This imparts a sparkle and fizz that will be reflected in your eyes when you drink it one morning, anticipating his patronage at your stall.

Ready almost as fast as new love moves, only four months or so, allowing it to be drunk before summer’s end. This wine is sweet and strong and lively, as you should be when he walks over at last and strikes up a conversation, perhaps even inviting you to attend his estate with a delivery.

Elderberry Wine, To Deepen Love and Turn Courtship to Marriage

5 gill of water from a deep, clear lake, ideally one in the grounds of his family estate, symbolic of the great pool of love you will share in life.

A quart of elderberries. These must be removed fully from the stalks, as any trace will impart a bitter flavour to the resulting wine and thus unto the marriage. This requires a great deal of patience, and is instructive: if you find yourself unable or unwilling to complete the task with the necessary attention to detail, reconsider whether you are truly ready for married life.

Put the elderberries into the water and bring to simmering point. Float the dandelion roots dried in early spring in the water, to turn the initial attraction of the dandelion wine into deep roots of love. Remove from the heat after twenty minutes and strain into a demijohn with three pounds of sugar: this will make the wine strong enough for him to overcome his family’s objections to a common girl. Add the lemon, tea and yeast as usual.

Takes nine months to come into its full dizzying flavour. Share privately with your swain over a week of evenings to bring you together, looking out over the moors at sunset and sharing private jokes.

Brambleberry Wine, To Overcome the Bitterness of Betrayal

5 gill of water from the river by your mother’s home. Draw the water after a downpour as heavy as your tears, when the river is at its fiercest and seeks to pull you under. Collect with an old and loyal friend, who will catch you if you fall.

Three pounds of brambleberries picked from deep within the bush. Pick only the ripest, blackest berries, the ones that leave kisses like blood on your fingers, the ones that hide in the shadows of leaves, behind spiders’ webs you will tangle and destroy in your fury and haste. Your arms will be scratched and thorns will bury themselves in your flesh. Leave them there; they will be a welcome distraction in these torrid times.

Heat the water to a furious boil and pour it over the brambleberries, as scorn was poured on you, the dutiful yet cuckqueaned wife.

Add the yeast, black tea and more bitter lemon juice than usual. Leave it to stew for a week, occasionally stirring to bring everything up again when it seems settled. After this time, strain out the brambleberries, those final glories of summer now drained of sweetness and life, and pour the must into a demijohn on two pounds of sugar.

Ready in six months. Deep and rich and red, like your anger.

Rhubarb Wine, To Find Peace with Oneself and One’s Life

5 gill of water drawn from a deep well, as you will draw on all your years and experiences.

Collect two pounds of spring’s earliest rhubarb, pushing through the muck of soil in defiance of the chill that still clings to the air on waking. Cut away the poisonous leaves, and as you do so cut away your own poisonous thoughts; ultimately they do not harm the targets of your ire but only sicken you. If he has forgotten you, perhaps it is for the best.

Heat the water to boiling and pour gently over the rhubarb, taking care not to splash yourself; you have been hurt enough, and must learn, at last, to care for yourself first and above all else.

Add the yeast and black tea; you do not need the lemon now. Leave for a week before you strain into a demijohn onto two pounds of sugar.

Ready in six months, in time for late summer evenings that lend themselves to contemplation and smiles. Drops clear like the clarity of hindsight, and leaves one clear-headed in the morning, and for all the years after, too.

Best when drunk with that old friend, with whom you have spent so much time of late; and if you laugh overmuch at her jokes with this wine, then perhaps she, too, is laughing overmuch at yours. Perhaps your late mother’s house is set back far enough from the village that no-one will question two ladies living together.

Perhaps you deserve happiness, real happiness, at last.

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Reflected Across the Dark

The portals began appearing four months ago. We were curious, like everyone, but they were rare and strange and didn’t matter. I thought it might be a hoax, but you believed in them. You believe in everything.

We have always been together. Born together, slept in the same crib. Even developed our own language, to Mom and Dad’s distress. Some words survived into adulthood. Ee-ee for happiness. Mrrr for dismay.

About a thousand portals have appeared, the news agencies say. Photos show up regularly on Twitter. Where there was nothing, a flat shape suddenly exists, tall and narrow, like a black mirror, impossibly two-dimensional, a doorway into nothing. Wherever they appear, someone specific senses it and is called. That individual enters and vanishes, and the portal closes.

I don’t think it’s a hoax anymore, but I don’t understand their purpose. Aliens? Some science experiment gone wrong? A spiritual plane? Maybe they were always around and we just started noticing. Everyone has a theory, but there are more guesses than there have been portals, and no answers.

We were inseparable as children, spending every day we could playing together on the porch beneath the dappled shade of the elm tree, with Marbles the beagle snoring in the corner.

One of the earliest portals appeared in Sweden. While walking down a hall of the former Royal Mint building, the first deputy speaker of the Riksdag took a sudden right turn. He stepped into the black rectangle that hadn’t been there a moment before and vanished. Four security cameras captured the event.

Sweden went on full alert, closing the borders and banning air travel. They cut off the internet and readied their armed forces. No one could come up with a reason why anyone would attack Sweden, or why the first deputy speaker was a strategic target, but the 24-hour news channels were happy to speculate endlessly. And by their actions, the Swedes must have known something the rest of us didn’t.

Eventually Swedish hackers broke through the national firewall to find and broadcast videos of other portals appearing in other places. The alert was dropped with very little comment. The first deputy speaker’s wife funded an institute to research the portals.

His father formed a group to help those left behind grieve.

People always commented on our differences: tall and short, serious and impulsive, business savvy and art. But we weren’t different at all, just two halves of the same being. Sometimes we had to part, physically. We took different classes, attended different colleges, got different jobs. But without even thinking about it, we never separated for long. Even the occasional romance didn’t get between us. We had ties that could not be broken.

I began work at the ad agency in Manhattan, and you started tending bar at a dive in Gowanus. We got an apartment together in Park Slope. Slick, clicked-together wood veneer floors, two tiny bedrooms, and a bay window facing the trees of Prospect Park as their leaves changed with the seasons. Green, then flame-colored, then dead and gone. It didn’t matter that I paid most of the rent. You showed me what was worth living for every day. Like how you drew hearts and stars and smiley faces on each drink napkin before serving. At first the ironic hipsters smirked. Then they realized you meant it and turned shy. Your tips began to rival my commissions.

Once, a portal appeared in a lab at Iowa State. The researchers there used every instrument they could to analyze it until an adjunct entered and it vanished. They issued a lot of scientific jargon in their report—multiverses and dimensional planes—but had to admit they weren’t any closer to understanding their purpose. Only that temperature readings and gas samples taken from the far side seemed to indicate a livable environment.

I remember last week. How you bicycled to 7th Avenue Donuts before dawn and bought a full dozen straight out of the fryer. Then you ate every donut, because anything enjoyable is worth enjoying to the maximum. I remember when you threw out my trap and instead started feeding and taming the rat that lives behind the fridge. When you pasted googly eyes onto all the Kleenex boxes in the bodega to cheer up sick people.

I remember yesterday, late, as the sky dimmed, and the clouds shaded to ribbons of crimson and gold. Something not-quite-a-sound filled the apartment, like the fading of a chime.

No one ever mentioned that almost-sound.

Then a sliver of black appeared.

You turned, eyes alight, smiling like the present you’d been waiting for had finally arrived. You set down your phone and walked straight in. You never looked at me. You never explained, or even said goodbye. It closed and you were gone.

How could they take you and not me? How could you go with them—whoever they are—and leave me alone?

I’m going to feed the rat now. Once I can stop crying, I’ll head over to 7th Avenue and get a box of donuts. Then I’ll sit here, eat every one, and wait.

They can’t only want half of us.

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Praying to the God of Small Chances

I meet the god of small chances in a hospital waiting room, amidst the smell of unwashed bodies and overwashed floors. Chairs in cemetery rows, blue plastic headstones each one of them. I’m reading last week’s papers again and munching on a fried pastry: chicken and potato mashed into a slurry of turmeric-stained mush under crisp dough. Oil has already soaked through the paper bag to my fingertips.

Dad’s inside. Doctors have recommended a scorched earth approach: Once a month, they put napalm in a syringe and hope it kills the rogue cells before the rogue cells kill him. We’re still not sure who’s winning.

The god dresses like you’d least expect: knockoff Adventure Time t-shirt, jeans shredded at the knees, deep denim blue bleached to white thread. They notice me staring—gods love attention—and they settle down next to me. Seven studs down one ear, arranged in the colours of the spectrum; hair shaved close to skin on the side, slicked back on top. Their face is perfectly symmetrical, cheek bones high and sharp, lips a full bow. I almost want to reach out to see how soft they are.

“You don’t seem like the praying type,” they say. Their voice is high and piping like a choirboy’s.

“I’m not, and I didn’t call you.” It is unwise to make enemies of a god, even a minor one, but I’m in the mood to spit in the face of a god. I cross my legs. The early morning heat makes my thighs stick to the chair.

My father used to work in the small temples. Buffered by strong drink and delirious with incense, he would whip his back with a flail of knotted rope, tearing his skin to shreds. In his trances he would soothsay or divine the causes of illness. He channeled the gods.

I just see them. Only the small gods of hearth and threshold, of lost possessions and late homework. Of small chances.

“But you did call me,” the god persists. “This is one of my temples, along with the race track, the exam hall, the MMORPG raidzone. Everybody wants something.”

I think of Dad with his booming laugh. Not so chatty now. I haven’t gone into the ward for weeks, but I’ve racked up a fortune in hospital parking all the same. He used to be a pack-a-day smoker. We thought his lungs would go, but no, it was something in the bone, one in a hundred thousand. The gods used to speak through him, but now he’s got new gods: gods in blister packs and little glass vials, gods with names that have too many Xs and Zs, Ys masquerading as vowels like poison masquerading as medicine.

“It’s not you I called. I want someone to make things right. This isn’t fair.”

The god of small chances sits straight, barely tall enough to look me in the chin. I fear only for a moment.

“You’ll find that there are no gods fairer than I. The incidence rate is only one in a hundred thousand. Where are the ninety-nine thousand rejoicing that they aren’t sick? Or your gratitude for not being struck by lightning or a car on the way here? Good things happen to bad people and vice versa. Every entreaty to other gods is for things to go the other way, in this world or the next. That’s not what I do.”

They’re right; maybe I did call them. Since the diagnosis, my last conscious thought every night has been a hope for a miracle: the impossible, the smallest of chances. But now that they’re right here, I can’t admit it. Before I can go, the god reaches out and catches my chin. Their touch is barely enough to dimple skin; I can’t break free.

“Where will you go? Back to your car? Another waiting room? You can go to him.”

“I will.”

“Will you? You’ve been waiting to go into the ward for weeks. Afraid to see what your father has become. Afraid that anything you do together will be the last time you do it and it won’t be how you want to remember it.”

They’re close enough for their breath to tickle my eyelashes, if they had breath. I wonder if anyone is here to see us—me with my chin upturned, the pulse in my neck hard enough to thrum against skin.

They don’t wait for me to answer.

“I can tell you this. I am the god of the dance of electrons, patron of the asteroid that will pass within a fraction of a degree of your planet in a hundred years. I watch the lottery, the meeting of sperm and egg, and I watch you. You pray every night for him, for yourself, but never for the both of you.”

I blink and they’re gone. My skin takes a little longer to register the loss.

Everybody loves a long shot, no matter whether they’ll admit it or not.

I leave the ward just as the nurses serve breakfast. Looking back, I see my father arguing with a nurse about the food. He’ll eat it eventually—he always does. The smile on my face is a stranger returning home after a long hiatus. There are things to be fixed other than sickness. Then the door swings shut and he’s gone.

My pastry is cold and lasts another two bites. I crunch the oil-stained bag into a ball. My underhand throw is clumsy, its arc just shy of horizontal; the paper strikes the lip of the open-mouthed bin, catching on the edge. It navigates the rim with the grace of a drunken acrobat, teetering at the last moment before falling in, a prayer to the god of small chances.

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Not an Ocean, But the Sea

Nadia found the ocean behind the Swedish assholes’ couch during her weekly cleaning. She had followed a small trail of sand grains to the eastern wall with the vacuum, and when she’d moved the couch to clean underneath it, there was an ocean, snuggled right up to the wall. A fresh wind blew off it, stirring the curtains: the smell of salt and mud.

The Swedish assholes’ stupid cat jumped up on the couch that Nadia had moved and stared down at the ocean like he could see beneath the surface: the fish, the plankton, the sharks and all. His tail twitched.

Nadia had dubbed these particular clients “the Swedish assholes” for many reasons, most prominently because they insisted she use their vacuum. Their vacuum was an awful, rattling thing, with a hose that connected directly to air vents installed in the walls of their high-rise. It was nearly impossible to reach every corner of the apartment. But they’d had it mail-ordered from a Swedish design company and insisted it was better than hers, which had been purchased from a cousin’s appliance store and was kept in perfect working order.

The ocean behind the couch, she thought, had probably not been ordered from Ikea or Electrolux.

Nadia cleaned houses because the money was decent, and she could do it alone. She was forty-eight, Ukrainian, had never been very beautiful, and had outlived most of her family. She was proud of all those things. She was not a woman given to romance or fancy.

“Shoo,” Nadia said to the cat. He bent his ears back and glared, and didn’t move until she waved the vacuum’s upholstery attachment at him. Nadia moved the couch back into place and continued vacuuming. There was much left to clean in the Swedish assholes’ apartment. She hadn’t even started on the kitchen, where the many chrome gadgets were always splattered with sauces. God save her from rich people who wanted to cook like Ina Garten.

Nadia mostly forgot about the incident until the next week, when she again had to move the couch to vacuum. This process repeated itself for several months. Nadia would see the sand first, then catch the smell, and remember: of course, the Swedish assholes had the ocean under their couch.

The day that changed, as things must always change, was not very different than the preceding ones. Not unseasonably cold, nor warm. She was still divorced, childless, and an immigrant that lived in an enclave of other immigrants, who understood the true value of things.

Was her back bothering Nadia that day? Yes, but not as much as her knees, her knees were her real problem. All that time spent scrubbing floors, all kinds of floors, tile and linoleum and bamboo and one man who had furnished his children’s playroom with a floor made of pennies. It was ghastly, a nightmare to clean, and she had Abraham Lincoln’s face permanently embedded in her knees now, from that floor.

If we are seeking to place blame for what happened that day, perhaps it should lie on the penny floor. Maybe we can blame the verdigris that crept over Lincoln’s features, and the bright, bloody smell of that room.

On the day, Nadia arrived at the Swedish assholes’ apartment at her normal time. Nadia dropped her purse, then her bucket of cleaning supplies, and then her coat. The stupid cat watched her from the kitchen counter where he was surely forbidden to sit, and she watched him back. Then she strode into the living room, hauled the couch away from the eastern wall, and stared down at the small ocean that hid beneath it.

It looked like the Black Sea, she decided. Not the sea of her memories with its dirty colored sand, and overly tanned men leering at young bikini-clad girls; but the sea of her dreams, with dark water that contained shipwrecks and other unknowable things.

Nadia shed her clothes, placing them on the back of the couch: the old, stained jeans, the cheap and scratchy T-shirt that was emblazoned with the name of the cleaning company; her threadbare bra; her soft panties with the torn lace at the hem. Then she stood at the lip of the sea, of her sea, and dipped into it a toe. She knew that the best way to get into cold water was not to hesitate, not to shriek and to fumble, but to steadily allow oneself to be submerged.

Rather than sinking in, however, the sea rose to meet Nadia, spilling out over the stingy inches of sand that formed its beach, lazily spreading across the floor of the Swedish assholes’ 14th floor apartment. It quickly submerged the mohair rugs and the lower bookshelves, the white lacquer coffee table with its collection of fashion and design magazines. It rose higher than the air vents of the awful vacuum, and salty water quickly began leaking down the pipes. Wavelets lapped against the cream-colored walls.

As for Nadia, she placidly watched the water rise to her ankles, and then her knees. When it was just about thigh-height, she took three deep breaths, and then dove in.

The cat had leapt up onto the couch, perching on Nadia’s clothes. He watched the water with the same fascination he had shown months earlier, but no real concern. Instead, he raised a paw as if to swat at something just under the surface. Then he brought it to his mouth and licked it instead, as if that was what he had meant to do in the first place.

Originally published in The Deadline, 2015.