Saturday Storytime: Goddess, Worm

Sometimes you choke on a single line in a story. Just one, that’s all it takes to bring it home and make it take up residence. I won’t tell you which line it was in this story from Cassandra Khaw, but it was there.


Flinch. Eyes dilate. Her look is not the frightened regard of a hare, but a broken–backed glare of a thing defeated but undiminished.

“Don’t call me that.” When she speaks, she can taste silk, like strands of damp hair but more viscous still, a choking flavor, semen–salty, spuming from her lungs.

“Goddess—” Flinch again. “—we are sorry. It’s just we—”

“Leave.” Snapped, the word, and jagged with teeth. Her retainers—a spirit of ink and courtly poetry, a guzheng turned maiden—comply, bowing, bowing again, before they exit with a hiss of silk. She shivers. She loathes the sound.

Cotton is the only material she can tolerate on her bare flesh, cotton and nothing else. Not even wool, which reminds her too much of—she rips herself from the memory, begins to pace the dimensions of her room.

In the last few weeks, Heaven has lost its understanding of her and gained instead a kind of pity, not selfless as it should be, but rooted in accusation. Poor child, they say. Broken child. Ruined child. Stupid, ungrateful child. How hard others have fought to earn this status, giving away breath and bone and blood, all for a sliver of place in these courts of undying jade. And yet, she would slough it away, like a snake that had tired of its skin, and take him with her too.

A sigh escapes, coils into a growl.

Him. Always him. As though she was extraneous, a cancer grown on the face of a god.

They can all go to hell, she thinks, savage. She does not care. But there is one thing she does miss, does long for: her name. Only the shape of it remains now, winnowed to nothing by the passing millenias, a ghost of syllables. Occasionally, she wonders if she might compromise, might beg to be returned the appellation that Heaven had endowed in that fugue when she was merely function, neither woman nor worm nor horse.

Her lips, blood–red, curl into a sneer. No, she thinks. Never again. Even if they make her remain nameless forever, rootless, like the spectre she’s become.

Double doors open. Light cuts through the room’s penumbra, spills white–gold across her simple dress, its pattern borrowed from peasantry. She tips her chin up, unbowed. They will not have her pain.

The figure silhouetted in heaven’s radiance is new, cadaverous, unmistakably male, arms bent in the manner of a mantis. “It is time, Goddess.”

Flinch. Snarl. She provides no rebuke, chooses instead to spin a fantasy where she devours him, a piece at a time, mandibles cracking bone. She thinks of brain matter, of how it must taste, jewelled softness glimmering pink in the bowl of his skull.

A deep breath. Drawn, held, surrendered.

“I am ready.”

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: Goddess, Worm

Saturday Storytime: The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society

I treasure fantasies of manners when I find them. Science fiction of manners is far more rare these days, but this story by Henry Lien certainly qualifies. It was nominated for this year’s Nebula Awards.

Mrs. Howland-Thorpe vs. Mrs. Fleming, Battle One
In Which Mrs. Howland-Thorpe Loses Her Seating
At Supper Four Seats from Mrs. Vanderbilt and Blames That Italienne Creature, Mrs. Fleming.
Mrs. Fleming Prevails.

     Good sense advises that it is not prudent to make war against the garden of a lady of breeding and society with words, moles and voles, or combustibles, for she shall grow cross and vengeful.

Mrs. Honoria Orrington Howland-Thorpe came of family of no particular distinction. The Orringtons had once begun to build some beginning towards a fortune in whaling but that was gone now and long ago, after the carcass of one specimen was left too long unbutchered on the dock and the foetid gases growing in its belly as it decayed caused it to explode all over the street, resulting in a series of lawsuits that were small in value but legion in number and unending in appearance, which eventually reduced the Orrington business and family name to nothing worth noting. They were now far from among the first families in Boston. They saw in Honoria, possessed of an unearthly beauty and famed for her complexion, the last great hope of their line and did all in their power to send her to Farmington for the finishing of her education, though it caused them to have to repair to a house in the Fens to pay for it. Honoria made good return on the investment and married Tiberius Howland-Thorpe, as much for his railway fortune as for his relations, and thought well of the placement, although looking at his features produced in her a state of mild but constant irritation that continued without cease for the next 50 years. Together, they managed to keep themselves on the invitation list to sup at Marble House with Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt and her husband each summer at Newport.

Mrs. Cecilia Contarini Fleming was a great beauty of foreign extraction. She was the last of a noble Italian family that could trace its lineage back to ancient Etruscan lines but whose prospects had grown more modest with each successive generation. She married Patrick Fleming, an industrialist of humble origins who made his fortune importing combustibles from the Orient and selling them to interests who employed them in the laying of railways and the hollowing of mines. Mrs. Fleming had been among the first women to study at Newnham College at Cambridge and had followed her education not with the customary Grand Tour Abroad, for, being an Italienne, she was from abroad, but with several years in Japan studying lacquerie, gardening, and poetry, and then a brief tour traveling with missionaries in Africa. She could dance, sew, sing, play the pianoforte, draw, paint, compose poetry, compose music, ride, fence, perform archery, and read and speak Greek, Latin, Italian, French, English, and Japonais. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society”

Saturday Storytime: The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society

Saturday Storytime: La beauté sans virtu

I don’t often repeat authors for Saturday Storytime, but oh, I do like what Genevieve Valentine does when she’s writing about fashion. Though, maybe, “like” is not quite always the right word.

The Old Baroque Concert Hall is on the edge of town, and only the House of Centifolia’s long history and Rhea’s name could get anyone from the industry crowd to come out this far.

The runway snakes across most of the derelict space, weaving back in on itself in a pattern that came to Rhea in a dream—it reminded her of the journey through life, and of the detox trip she took to Austria.

The narrow walkway crosses itself at different sloping elevations to mimic the mountain trails; the oily pool sliding beneath it all reflects the muted tones of this season’s collection, and pays homage to the foot-buckets of cold and hot water in the Austrian spa that drained lipids and negative thoughts from the body.

With thirty-five looks in the fall collection and six points of varying heights across which the meandering runway connects—“It’s more of a maze than a trail,” Rhea explains to potential choreographers, “it’s very spiritual”—the timing has to be precise, but there are only two windows in which the girls are available to practice: once during the fitting the day before, and once mere hours before the show.

Three of the models have to be fired for having scheduled another show the day before this one, which makes them traitors to the House (you don’t book something else without permission, rookie mistake, Rhea cuts them so fast one of them gets thrown out of a cab), and the three alternates have to be called up and fitted. It means six hours of all the girls standing in the unheated warehouse, loose-limbed and pliant as they’re ordered to be for fittings, while assistants yank them in and out of outfits and take snapshots until the new assignments emerge and they’re allowed to go rehearse.

The choreographer—he has a name, but no one dares use it when speaking of him, lest he appear before they’ve corrected their posture—thinks carefully for a long time. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: La beauté sans virtu”

Saturday Storytime: La beauté sans virtu

Saturday Storytime: A Deeper Green

Sometimes you just have to find a way to say, “No.” Enjoy this story from Samantha Murray.

Davvi was not happy. Juvianna could read it in the tension in his stride, the small crease lodged between his brows.

“This does not feel right,” he said finally, as they neared Hensson’s hut, way down close to the shore of the Odaay.

Juvianna kept walking. “Oh really?” she said, glaring at him.

“No, it doesn’t. Ju—” He grabbed her arm and stopped her. “There are a lot of people who are not too happy about this.”

She had been at the public audience. She had heard the rumble of concern, of dissent, passing through the crowd, like low-key thunder grumbling on the horizon, when the mair had spoken of Juvianna using her gift as a preventative measure rather than just a reactive one. But the mair, by pure force of personality coming through his cool and persuasive words, had led the colony back around, gentled their protests before they could build into a storm. He had spoken to their need to feel safe. At the back of their minds, they all knew winter would return. How the darkness would worm its way into the minds of people they knew as their neighbors and friends when they were too long without a glimpse of the sun.

“They listened to the mair,” she said. “If I could save someone… Losing one—”

“—diminishes us all. Yes, yes we all know that, Ju. These people haven’t done anything. Going hunting in their minds…”

“They haven’t done anything—yet,” countered Juvianna. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: A Deeper Green”

Saturday Storytime: A Deeper Green

Saturday Storytime: Trip Trap

Sometimes you fight the monsters. Sometimes you are the monster. Sometimes you fight anyway, as in this story from Kevin J. Anderson and Sherrilyn Kenyon.

“My brother says you’re a troll, ’cause trolls live under bridges. You’re living under a bridge,” the girl said. “So, are you a troll?”

Yes, he was, but she didn’t know that. In fact, no one was allowed to know that. “No. Not a troll,” he lied.

She smelled tender, savory, juicy.

“Come closer.”

The girl was intrigued by him, but she hesitated. She was smart enough for that at least.

Skari squeezed his eyes shut and drove his head back against the concrete abutment of the bridge. Again. The pain was like a gunshot through his skull, but at least it drove away the dark thoughts. Sometimes it just got so lonely, and he got so hungry here. He’d been thinking about eating children, tasty children . . . thinking about it altogether too much.

With a crash through the underbrush, a boy came down the embankment. Her brother. He looked about nine, a year or two older than the girl. Both were scrawny, their clothes hand-me-downs but still in much better condition than Skari’s. The children did have a raggedness about them, though, a touch of loss that had not yet grown into desperation. That would come in time, Skari knew, unless he ate them first.

Next to his sister, the boy made a grimace and said with a taunting bravery that only fools and children could manage, “I think you’re a troll. You smell like a troll!”

Skari leaned forward, lurched closer to the edge of the shadow, and the children drew back, but remained close, staring. “Methinks you smell yourself, boy.”

Rather than hearing the threat, the boy giggled. “Methinks? What kind of word is methinks?” He added in a singsong voice, “Methinks ‘methinks’ is a stupid word.”

Skari grumbled, ground his teeth together. His gums were sore. He picked at them with a yellowed fingernail. No wonder witches ate children. It was sounding like a better and better idea to him. His stomach rumbled. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Trip Trap”

Saturday Storytime: Trip Trap

Saturday Storytime: The Plague Givers

This story from Kameron Hurley asks whether it’s better to do the necessary but painful thing or not. I’m not entirely sure it answers its own question.

She kept her machete up. “I’m called Bet, out here,” she said. “And what are you? If you’re dressing up as Plague Hunters, I’ll have some identification before you go pontificating all over my porch.”

“Abrimet,” the shoman said, holding up their right hand. The broad sleeve fell back, exposing a dark arm crawling in glowing green tattoos: the double ivy circle of the Order, and three triangles, one for every Plague Hunter the shoman had dispatched. Evidence enough the shoman was what was claimed. “This is Lealez,” the shoman said of the other one.

“Lealez,” Bet said. “You a shoman or a neuter? Can’t tell at this distance, I’m afraid. We used to dress as our gender, in my day.”

The person made a face. “Dress as my gender? The way you do? Shall I call you man, with that hair?” Bet wore nothing but a man’s veshti, sour and damp with sweat, and she had not cut or washed her hair in some time, let alone styled her brows to match her pronouns.

“It is not I knocking about on stranger’s doors, requesting favors,” Bet said. “What am I dealing with?”

“I’m a pan.”

“That’s what I thought I was saying. What, is saying neuter instead of pan a common slur now?”

“It’s archaic.”

“We are in a desperate situation,” Abrimet said, clearly the elder, experienced one here, trying to wrest back control of the dialogue. “The Order sent us to call in your oath.” Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: The Plague Givers”

Saturday Storytime: The Plague Givers

Saturday Storytime: Traumphysik

This is fine. I’m okay with the events that are currently unfolding, as is the protagonist of this story from Monica Byrne.

When I was finished cataloging everything, I did something I now regret. I carried one of the little pigs—a female, who was quite docile, and seemed happy to go for a ride—into the surf. I wanted to see if it could swim. I thought it must be able to swim, the species being so proximate to water, even though its ancestors were likely ship-borne vermin.

So I carried it down into the surf until I was knee-deep. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have gone so far out. I let it down into the water. At that moment, a wave of unusual force slapped my midsection and I fell into the water. I lost sight of the little pig. Then I glimpsed it again, underwater, twitching and writhing and sinking, clearly unable to swim. I reached for it but just then, another wave slapped me back, leaving me even more disoriented than before. I lost sight of it altogether this time. I didn’t recover it, or even see it again.

I felt quite bad. Maybe I should stick to physics.

In my dream last night, I managed to stand up in front of the full-length mirror I’d positioned at the foot of my mat. (The Navy sent it with me. Of course I must have a full-length mirror. God forbid I should be unaware of my appearance.) I was very intrigued to see that my image was not inverted—the MIT insignia on my nightshirt read MIT, not TIM as it does normally in waking life. I remember receiving that nightshirt my sophomore year; it was a gift from Professor Gaertner—-the wife Sofia, not the husband Bernhard; I should clarify, as they both bear that title—who thought I might be lonely as one of the only coeds at the Institute. I appreciated that.

And now here I stood, wearing the same nightshirt, noticing how MIT stayed MIT. This is the first deviation from known physics in waking reality.

In honor of the Gaertners’ German heritage, I’ve decided to call my experiment (and the universe it elucidates and its attendant systems) Traumphysik, which sounds more rigorous than “dream-physics.” Everything sounds more rigorous in German. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Traumphysik”

Saturday Storytime: Traumphysik

Saturday Storytime: The Words on My Skin

Stories are largely about the choices we make and their consequences, intended and unintended. This story by Caroline Yoachim distills that dynamic to its essence.

In theory, it was a good system, having only a handful of families responsible for all the pens. Skinwriters filled out piles of paperwork and endured random inspections. There were supposed to be harsh penalties for those who disobeyed the rules. In practice, no one looked at the paperwork, and the inspectors were more interested in bribes than rules. By the time I was ten, I was sneaking words onto my skin a couple times a month—clever, stealthy, independent—and I never once got caught.

One night when I was fourteen, I stayed up late and wrote words on my inner thigh—passionate, sensitive, flirty. Mother hadn’t put a word on me for years, but when she found out she added three new adjectives to my back—responsible, practical, prudent. Irritated that she would treat me like a child, I retaliated by filling my entire left shin with words. Artistic and sassy. Ambitious, playful, outgoing, strong. Mother pretended not to notice. She didn’t want to escalate the conflict, or maybe she approved of my new choices.

I moved out when I was eighteen, and I wrote myself confident and sexy. I started dating an older man, and I fancied myself in love with him. He didn’t come from a family of skinwriters and words were expensive, so he only had three—brave, athletic, and charming. Everything was going well until I discovered he was cheating. I did an unthinkable thing. I wrote on him while he was sleeping, on the back of his neck, near his hairline so he would never see the words—loyal, faithful, honest, loving. He left the next morning and never came back. I hadn’t specified who he should be loyal to. It clearly wasn’t me.

Keep reading.

Uncanny Magazine, which published this story and is the magazine to which I turn most frequently for stories for this feature, is holding its annual Kickstarter. They’ve hit their first funding goal, but in order to Uncanny to continue at its current scope, they have several stretch goals to hit. If you like the stories I share here, consider helping to fund their work. One of the backer rewards is a blog post from me on their site on a topic of your choosing.

Saturday Storytime: The Words on My Skin

Saturday Storytime: Water, Birch, and Blood

This story from Sara Norja makes me wonder what I’d find if I returned to the lakes and forests of my childhood. I mean, I know, all impaired memory aside, but it still makes me wonder.

“A magpie laughing in front of a house,” mutters Kristiina, “means bad things are coming. Old things.”

“Old superstitions!” My father laughs. “Have some more cake, Mother.”

The magpie shimmers in the sun, its feathers gleaming blue-metallic. I can’t keep my eyes off it. Only when it takes off and flies into the forest, towards the lake, do I come back to this world.

The white stone is still clutched in my hand. It should be hot and sweaty from contact with my skin, but it’s cold. As if it had that moment appeared from the bottom of a lake. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Water, Birch, and Blood”

Saturday Storytime: Water, Birch, and Blood

Saturday Storytime: El Cantar of Rising Sun

In most of our fantasy stories, the magic works to make things better, even if it’s a dangerous force. Then there’s this story from Sabrina Vourvoulias.

Before the candles, before the stoles and bells, before the cop—I get the call.

Every people to their duty.

This is an epic written in collective, changing every time the street tells it.

This is a vernacular cantar de gesta.

This is the legend of son, brother, daughter, sister, over whose broken body we spill words and tears.

This is, today at St. William, the story of one who lived two decades in the six–eight time of bachata, rumba clave, and gunfire. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: El Cantar of Rising Sun”

Saturday Storytime: El Cantar of Rising Sun