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The Antidote

Arsenika would like to thank the following people for their support on Patreon. You make this magazine possible!

Arsenika
Ranjan

Phosphora
Metaphorosis, Alasdair Stuart, Maria Haskins

Nitrogena
Naomi C, Cast of Wonders, Rose Lemberg, Margaret Wack, Erin Hartshorn, TJ Berry, Dave, Mel G. Cabral

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White Herons

Love is a canvas with salt stains
on the wrist, hard wind nursed in
serpentine surfs, tuft of herons
turned white knitting rain to sails.
You tapered skin to vibrations
of tourniquet limbs, ghost ached
like a foam foaming over, self-wisp
rippled in glass and emblematic
folds of sundown. Heart stretched
monarch butterflies up the dark
of your collar, seeding aster chirps
like whispers woke and smoked,
tumbling smooth as the heron calls
around your heartbreak wound.

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the lagahoo speaks for itself

you think I is the monster?
nah—I is just a funeral procession
with canine teeth.
I does keep the lists when
you forget your children’s names,
I growl them low in the night.
I am a rabid memorial—
one that does snatch the mournless from their beds,
one with breath that stink like remorse
I know the scent of every dead girl’s close male relatives
I could sense the sour of trigger fingers
in the alleys at the edges of hotspots
and the sticky-sweet of six figures
in the conference rooms with the hotshots
and all of them left residue on the dead,
still fresh-wet on the bones,
stones slick with your wickedness.
you think I is the monster?
I don’t eat my young.
I will, however, feast on the
tight-fisted and apathetic how I please,
calling their names over the dinner plate,
breaking all your headstones into my palms,
picking my teeth with the memory of your name.

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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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Poison-Pen Letters

The response to the first submissions period for Arsenika was massive—we received over 800 submissions from more than 35 countries. Many of the pieces were excellent, and it was difficult to make the final decisions. But ultimately we culled the issue down to the six pieces here, with authors representing five different countries.

Laurel Amberdine’s “Reflected Across the Dark” is a glimpse into a world devastated by a supernatural phenomenon; Tlotlo Tsamaase’s “Mirror, Reflect Our Unknown Selves” underscores the themes of sisterhood that Amberdine initially explores while commenting on beauty standards and personhood. “White Herons” by Lana Bella is gorgeous, a delight of complex imagery and grace.

L Chan’s “Praying to the God of Small Chances” offers us a different window into a loss that hasn’t yet come to pass, that might not come to pass. “the lagahoo speaks for itself” by Brandon O’Brien offers a voice to the monstrous, and “if ink could flow backward” by M. Darusha Wehm is our first interactive piece, one that speculates on possible futures, alternate presents.

All of the authors in this issue have done a wonderful job of taking the broadness of the term “speculative” and spinning it in their own ways. From the global scale of “Reflected Across the Dark” to the intimacy of “Praying to the God of Small Chances,” the authors in this issue each bring their own perspectives to their stories that make them their own.

As we continue to grow, I hope to keep prioritizing diversity both within the stories and among the authors. We thank you for all the support you’ve shown us so far and hope you enjoy this issue.

S. Qiouyi Lu's signature
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Mirror, Reflect Our Unknown Selves

I recall lying next to my sister, saying,
“Those with machine lungs don’t know how to exhale love.
Why do they come here to us?”
She peeled off her face and said, “I’m tired of living.”
Encouraged, I peeled mine, too.
We walked naked, our bones knocking against each other.
The job of the dead is easier
Than the job of the living.
But
That was not the beginning of the self.

I.

A sad night; moon heavy for sky’s black.
Her afro traced her scalp
Like patterns of poetry.
She dug her nails deep
To carve out the self
And lay herself in a cloak of snow.
She/me
I tell myself/her:
My beauty is my own.
It is your ugly thought that curls around my hand, trying to be a friend.
I will not care.
I will practice to not cocoon myself for your pleasure.
But in the mirror:
Her make-up, a ghost’s mask,
Buries ethni-cities in layers of bone
’Cause isn’t it so tidy to be the color of bone
Unwrapped of skin
Instead of the color of sin—
Skin?
Sternum shivers at lungs patting it dry,
Stale air curdles cold in chest,
As panic mounts the spine.

II.

My belly is full of unborn worlds, unseen things, unknown selves.
Before sleep, thoughts awake as wolves thirsty for peace.
Fear is selfish; it breeds on my breaths to fill its lungs.
The world, a womb where oceans beg to seal earth with sea-skin.

III.

I’m a girl searching for love
Thinking it hid in phallic caves.
Carved in lifelines, laugh lines, hands,
Who are all these names in the sky?
She pointed to the skies, but I only saw her eyes.
“You’re beautiful,” she repeated.
My lips were fences keeping words penned in, bulleted to my sanity.
I’m only as right or wrong as my brain tells me.
Guilt drew its nail to my neck, pulled the marbles from my face,
Masking grenades in words, the barometer of hatred.
Her life became a lit cigarette placed between my teeth.

IV.

A strange night; two men drove her home.
She was a drop-off package.
He was a sex digger, mining her loins.
So:
What’s your favorite color?
She said, “Blood, because it’s so alive.”

V.

When you see the scene,
Your knees bend into the veld
Dismembering your bones to find Him.
I am moon bleeding like sun;
You pinch my uterus, begging the blood to stop:
“Go back. No, we don’t want children.”
For we were buried in ethnicities of snow
You lay back, afro wilting, sick of non-seeing mirrors.
You peeled your mask off. “I’m tired of unbeing.”
Encouraged, I peeled mine, too.
We walked naked, our bones knocking against each other
Like drums of the night.

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if ink could flow backward

separating what is from what could be
I’d erase all the borders
I would melt the walls
edit history for you
if I could change time
who would you be
your name is not who you are
I will never know your name
yet you’d enrich my world by your presence anyway
you would never know me
a stranger
what if you were
a surgeon
would you save my life
a confidant
would you stand by my side
would you love me
who would you be
breathing next to me
there is another reality
not imprisoned by closed minds
one where you are welcomed with open arms
one where no one is hampered by hate
in another future
who would you be
if ink could flow backward
who would you be
one pen stroke
changes everything
one eyeblink in time

one eyeblink in time
changes everything
one pen stroke
who would you be
if ink could flow backward
who would you be
in another future
one where no one is hampered by hate
one where you are welcomed with open arms
not imprisoned by closed minds
there is another reality
breathing next to me
who would you be
would you love me
would you stand by my side
a confidant
would you save my life
a surgeon
what if you were
a stranger
you would never know me
yet you’d enrich my world by your presence anyway
I will never know your name
your name is not who you are
who would you be
if I could change time
edit history for you
I would melt the walls
I’d erase all the borders
separating what is from what could be