THIS ABOVE ALL;

TO THINE OWN
SELF BE
ZOO.

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Volume 1, Issue 1

Sir Jod and the Mare Eisa
Elevator Operator
Sith the ne Saith
Ghosts of Pluto
Poems

Volume 1, Issue 2

Scent Became Flesh
Dorian Gray
The Tale of Erskine Faern
Sister Shim and the Priestess Om
Poems

Volume 1, Issue 3

Gradient
Aliyah, Madeline, Four Candles
Five of Cups Covers Ten of Swords
Stedl and Dragons
Poems

Volume 1, Issue 4

The Dethroning of Vermilion Von Scaldis
The Immortal of Loch Anneth
Melvin, Lilly, Raspberry Whiskey
Specifications for the Zoocosmologica Deck
Poems

Volume 1, Issue 5

The Cult
By and By
Definitely John *******’s True Thoughts On Zoophilia
Shooting Stars
Steep and Dangerous
Well 8
Poems

Volume 1, Issue 6

Romeo & Juliet
Sonnets

Volume 1, Issue 7

Personal Ghosts
Τύχων
This One Shall Breathe Somewhere Else
Empathy Farm
Poems

Volume 1, Issue 8

Two Knights
Blue Guitar
The Scraps
Poems

Volume 1, Issue 9

Sons of Belial
Fallow
Cheer’s Journey
Tiberius
A Haiku

Volume 1, Issue 10

Hansel And The Secret Of The Princesses
A Letter of Complaints
The Afternoon That Day
The Renegade Jack of Hearts
A Wizard’s Hookah
Prose Poems

Volume 1, Issue 11

Underground Newzletter
IGRA PRC
Gift
Super Soldier Mega Spies
Poems

Volume 1, Issue 12

What Else Was There Had We Forsaken The Pleasure Of This Shared Life?
Lustucia Writers Meeting
Talking Around
To Advance Completeness, Some Arguments
Chicks in Space! #101: “Pilot”
Poems

Volume 1, Issue α

Wish Knots
Hal, Mindy, Ice Pick
VR Policy Minutes
Poems

Volume 2, Issue 1

Woe Betide Him That Hath A Narrow Heart
Gondola
Conversatin, Like, Talkin With Each Other About Stuff
Apparently Existing
Media of Unknown Origin
Poems

Vol. 1 No. 1 (January 2023)

Sir Jod and the Mare Eisa

Sir Jod and the mare Eisa arrived at the top of a winding pass, which brought them up to the rim of the Grand Plateau. Sir Jod inhaled deeply of the cool morning air as he looked back over the edge down to where they had come from, from the Withering Forest.

In the course of their pilgrimage, the knight and the mare had been in a habit of rising early. Whether finding hospitality at a farm or whether making camp in the woods, the knight felt a weight grow upon his shoulders every hour he remained in a place that was not his own. His own was the fiefdom of Teieil, which was far, far, far to the north of his current whereabouts. Everywhere astray of Teieil, he was a guest and he wished to be transient, unseen, forgotten nearly as soon as he had passed on from any locale. He had left Teieil in vivid raiment and shining chainmail, a greatsword strapped at his back, a shortsword strapped at his side. The moment he had left sight of Teieil, he had stopped at the side of the path and removed his armor, and there he dug a hole and stowed it and his blades in the ground.

As he sat astride Eisa at the rim of the Grand Plateau, looking back at the Withering Forest, the knight was dressed in brown trousers and a black tunic, his beard grown out as the journey had gone on, his hair kept short enough that it would not get in his eyes. He stroked Eisa and spoke comforts to her as his eyes looked down at the woods looking for threats. They were safe now from the Withering Forest, so far up, but the journey through the woods had been a week that had felt longer than the four months of the journey prior altogether. In the Withering Forest were no deer or wolves or bears, nor even squirrels or hares. A blanket of dead leaves covered the forest floor, and every creature that lived in those woods lived in that blanket. Crawling swarms of biting ants, lone poisonous pincher beetles, and snakes. More snakes had Sir Jod seen in the last week than he had in the rest of his lifetime. There was but one acceptable path through the Withering Forest: a series of black stones, each one six cubic feet, winding between the trees and, importantly, above the blanket of leaves. Sir Jod had walked beside Eisa on the entire journey, talking to her, assuring her. If she had fallen off the path or been spooked, it would have been the end. The seven camps along the path were ramps down into a circle of the raised stones, which, when Sir Jod and the mare Eisa arrived at them, were as covered in leaves as the rest of the forest floor. Sir Jod spent each evening raking the leaves from within the circle, clearing the ground and tossing out the snakes. In the Withering Forest especially, the two slept very little and arose very early.

Sir Jod turned away from the Withering Forest that was below them, and faced the barren face of the Grand Plateau. Far ahead, he could see a tree line. If it was the Speckled Woods, then he and Eisa were near their journey’s end. Without a word, Eisa understood Sir Jod’s intention and sauntered onward, beginning across the Grand Plateau.

As the miles were put behind them and the sun lingered in the sky, the day became warm. Sir Jod reached into a saddlebag and retrieved a wide brimmed canvas hat, and put it on. In the shade of the hat and with the rhythmic clop of Eisa’s footsteps, Sir Jod nodded off as he rode. When he awoke, they had arrived at the edge of the woods. Eisa stood in place, looking at a pool of water just inside the woods. Sir Jod looked to the trees, and saw that the leaves were covered in red speckles. The knight dismounted and walked to the pool. Seeing that the water was clear, he returned to the mare and lead her over to drink. He laid out a blanket on the short grass of the Speckled Woods and had his breakfast while Eisa grazed.

When the two were ready, Sir Jod packed his picnic and mounted Eisa once more, and the two walked along, deeper into the Speckled Woods, leaving the Grand Plateau’s barren face behind them, out of sight.

As Sir Jod rode, he felt a swelling in his chest, and tears came to his eyes. He wiped them away, and thanked Eisa for the trip they had gone on, no matter what was to come or not to come at this final stop.

As they arrived at a clearing with a circle of stones within it, Sir Jod teared up all over again. At the edge of the clearing, the knight dismounted, and relieved the mare of all her tack. He disrobed of his trousers and tunic and undergarments, he and she as naked as one another. He walked around the outside of the circle of stones, squatting at many of them to take a closer look. On each stone was engraved a finely detailed organ: a heart, a brain, a lung, a tooth, a foot, a paw, a hoof, a claw, and so forth. The sun shined into the clearing from overhead. Within the circle was short grass, which Eisa grazed in as Sir Jod examined the place.

Done with looking at the engravings for the time being, Sir Jod went to Eisa and stood against her, stroking her, telling her of his countless thanks.

After some minutes, Eisa neighed, and Sir Jod looked up to follow her gaze. Approaching from the shade of the Speckled Woods was a woman in a white dress, who seemed not to walk but to glide. Sir Jod turned to face her fully, keeping an assuring hand on Eisa, though the mare did not seem alarmed. The woman in the white dress stopped at the edge of the clearing, smiling at the knight and the mare.

“Lady Awen,” Sir Jod said, and knelt down, bowing his head.

The lady laughed, and skipped towards the knight and the mare. “Rise, rise! If you know me by name, you should surely know that there is no need of this rigor. If I have come, you have already won me over: I have already sensed the bond of love here.”

Sir Jod stood, and wiped at the corner of his eye. “I thank you, Lady Awen,” he said, and bowed his head again. “The habit of deference is ingrained in me. I am Sir Jod of Teieil.”

“Ah, a knight. This explains much. I admit, I have never heard of Teieil. Is it new in the last six or so centuries?”

“It is a modest fiefdom less than a century old, and quite far away from here. It is north of Jeklen.”

“North of Jeklen! Pray tell, why have you come so far? Are you on business from your lord in Teieil?”

Sir Jod unbowed his head enough to look at the lady, and to give her a prankish smile. “My lord believes I have come here on his behalf.”

Lady Awen snorted as she laughed. “Does he indeed?” she asked, and sighed a fulfilling sigh. “Pray tell, what is it that your master has sent you for?”

“He wishes for better yields on his harvests.”

The lady did not feign to care. She said merely, “Such is not my domain. Even so, I should say that north of Jeklen, it surprises me the frosts have allowed any yield at all.”

The knight nodded, bowing his head again. “I know. He is a fool who knows none of the blessings he has received already.”

“Why have you truly come?” Lady Awen asked.

Sir Jod unbowed his head again, and this time looked up to the mare Eisa. In that moment, Eisa stepped forward and thrust her head against the lady, who took the mare and rubbed her nose agreeably. Sir Jod stepped forward and joined in stroking the mare. “If I have heard true, then you are without par the best to come to to petition miracles of fertility. If it deign you, I would ask a blessing from you.”

“A blessing for... oh! Oh, you... you wish to conceive with her?”

Sir Jod bowed his head again, and nodded.

The lady pondered, stroking Eisa. Finally, she said, “The love she feels towards you buys you much today, sir knight. It will be done. Here, within this circle, mate with her. She is ready for you.”

Sir Jod walked to the mare Eisa’s flank, and found that the lady spoke true. As Lady Awen stood at the mare Eisa’s head, Sir Jod put himself upon the mare, until his seed was in her womb. Afterwards, the lady approached the knight, and embraced him.

“I wish a good life upon both of you, and your descendants, sir knight,” the lady said, and then turned and walked into the forest, and was gone.

Sir Jod and the mare Eisa left the clearing in their own time, and spent the night camped at the edge of the Speckled Woods. The seasons changed and the two arrived home to their fiefdom of Teieil, and the mare Eisa gave birth to twin foals, and she and her knight raised their miraculous family.

Elevator Operator

It’s Janice’s going away party today. She got a better position upstate, and so tonight they’re having a get together after hours. I already wished her well on the way up. I’m the elevator operator.

Isn’t too much to the job, really. Push the lever forward to bring the elevator down, pull it back to bring the elevator up. Little adjustment makes it go slow, big adjustment makes it go fast. Eight floors in this building. Open the doors, close the doors, remember names and floor numbers. I don’t look it anymore, but before this I was a male prostitute. Those gigs payed better, but I found myself longing for something more stable. So here we are. So far as I’m aware, my past employment was only known to the hiring manager who brought me on, and she jumped ship six years back.

Most of the folks tonight have already arrived and been brought up to five for drinks and chitchat, but there are latecomers, understandable for a casual thing. I push the elevator back down to the ground floor, pull open the inner gate, pull open the outer door, and there in the drab lobby I see a man I hardly recognize without a suit on. “Mick!”

Accountant on seven. He’s wearing a yellow sweater and blue jeans. As he steps into the elevator, we shake hands and he gives me a hearty pat on the back. “Five this time,” he mentions, and then with a smile, “How’s Ma?”

My mother, who moved in with me some years ago. I close the doors and start bringing us up. “She’s good,” I tell him. “Her friend from the park and her are getting along wonderfully. Sounds like they might visit an art museum tomorrow. How’s Veronica these days?”

Mick pulls a photo out of his back pocket and shows me a smiling little girl with mud on her hands and face, beaming as she holds a garter snake.

I smile and shake my head. “Picked a good one Mick.”

We arrive at five. Mick gives me another half hug before moving out into the hum of conversation. As soon as he’s out of the elevator, Gene staggers in to replace him. Building owner. He rocks the elevator as he collapses back against the wall opposite me.

“Calling it an early night, Boss?”

He makes a get on with it gesture. With his other hand, he pinches the bridge of his nose and then wipes his eyes. I glean he’s drunk and has made an ass of himself, but it’s not really my business. I was only inquiring so I could know whether to bring him up to his office or down to the lobby.

I start to push the door closed, but a yellow streak darts back in. “Forgot Janice’s card in the car,” he tells me, and then turns to realize Gene there, quietly crying and wiping away the tears. “Oh. Um.”

I give Mick’s shoulder a pat, and reach past him to close the doors. I start to bring us down. Gene produces a handkerchief and wipes his eyes properly. He stands straight, sniffles and wipes his nose. “Sorry Clyde. Michael.”

“No trouble, Boss,” I say, as at the same time Mick voices a similar sentiment.

I bring us to a stop, open the gate, open the door, and find that we are not faced with the drab lobby, but instead, with a red-lit room, with another elevator door on the far wall, and a table in the room’s center.

“Damn,” I curse. I prefer it when this happens when I’m by myself. It’s only happened twice with others before, and they were guests to the building. Ending up here with people who I’ll have to keep talking to afterwards is a dynamic I haven’t had to deal with before.

Mick, already thrown off his charisma from Boss, now looks out at the red room with his mouth slightly agape, and glances from me to Boss and back again, as though he hopes we’re pulling a prank on him. Boss glares at me, confused and drunk and accusative, as though he thinks this is somehow my doing.

I take a pointed breath and gather how I’m going to explain this. “Gentlemen, if you’d like I can give you the tour.” I step out of the elevator. They follow cautiously. I close the door behind us.

Pointing to the elevator door across the room, I explain, “That elevator can go up or down from here. Either way will get us back to the lobby. If we go up to get there...”

We arrive at the elevator door. On it are printed two statements—one beside an up arrow, and one beside a down arrow.

The up arrow: NONHUMAN ANIMALS ARE WIDELY GIVEN RIGHTS AS FULL PERSONS OVER THE NEXT 20 YEARS.

“And if we go down to get there...”

The down arrow: THE GLOBALLY AVERAGED SEA LEVEL RISES BY 20 FT OVER THE NEXT 20 YEARS.

“I’ll also point out that the elevator door we just exited from has disappeared and that that entire wall is now a chalk board, if we need to do any figuring.”

Boss yelps as he looks and sees that I’ve just told him the truth.

I point to the table in the center of the room. On it are sticks of chalk, and also a stack of papers. “For our consideration,” I explain. The print on the top page explains further: THESE DOCUMENTS CONTAIN INFORMATION ABOUT THE PRESENT WORLD. THEY CONTAIN NO CERTAIN FORESIGHT.

Boss goes and sits with his back against a wall, head down in his arms.

Mick, aside from taking all of this relatively well, appears concerned for the guy. “I’m gonna go... sit with him.”

Works for me. I give him a nod and a pat. Mick goes to sit with Boss, and I get started on reading.

Some of the choices I’ve made in this room have been bigger than others, but all have come to pass as I chose them. I don’t think everyone would choose the same as me on everything. First one I ever decided was in favor of the moon landing, with the acceptance that it would allow Nazi scientists to go unpunished. Most recently I decided against rapid developments in the field of telecommunications.

I don’t make it very far into the papers this time before I set them down and just stare forward at the elevator door where the two statements are printed. Either of these is a game changer.

After some time, I am still staring. Mick pulls up a chair. “How goes it?” he inquires.

I slide him a paper containing a list of major cities that are not twenty feet above present sea level. I also slide one over showing the percentage of the human population whose present income is dependent on the treatment of animals as commodities.

Mick gives a long, defeated exhale.

“Yup,” I agree.

“This is real? All of this is...”

“Yup,” I regret to inform him.

A day passes. Boss has sobered up. The three of us sit around the table, me and Boss in our suits, Mick in his yellow sweater, heads down reading the papers. We’ve divided them into three stacks, and any time we find anything especially notable, we mention it aloud.

Boss: “Approximately seventy five percent of all humans currently alive live with a nonhuman animal that they would label as their property or the property of another human.”

Mick: “There are currently no ordinances at any level of any widely recognized human government which state that garbage dumps must be located higher than twenty feet above sea level.”

Myself: “Approximately one percent of the global human population currently alive intentionally avoids the eating of meat and other nonhuman animal products.”

Boss: “Many widely recognized human governments regard the unnecessary destruction of civilian property as a war crime during acts of war. Deforestation is the practice of destroying the habitats of nonhuman animals at scale for the benefit of humans.”

For some findings, we make a note on the chalkboard. Boss was keen to note the percentage of humans currently alive in the United States of America who believe in a religion which explicitly gives humans dominion over nonhuman animals, though I’ve never known Boss to be outspokenly religious. Mick noted a lot on food production as it pertained to either of our options. I wrote out the names of the cities that would flood if we took the elevator down, because I feel I still haven’t let the weight of that list sink in yet. In an act of ego that I’d hoped we could be better than, Boss took his own chalk and circled New York City.

After many hours of this reading, we take a break from the papers and discuss it freeform. Mick paces. I lean back in my chair, an elbow on the table, chair pulled out to face Mick and Boss both. Boss leans forward in his chair, elbows on the table.

“I’m not giving up cheeseburgers,” Boss says.

“Can we take this seriously please?” I beg of him.

“How is that not serious to you? Burgers, steak, sausage! Bacon!”

“Salad’s good for you.”

“We can actually feed more people on a meat-free population,” Mick cuts in. He’s anxiously twirling a stick of chalk around his fingers as he paces. He’s also touching his face quite a lot, inadvertently smudging the chalk around his mouth. “We feed the animals with plants, and we put a lot more calories of plants into that equation than we get out calories of meat. Maybe we gain vitamins? But vegans aren’t dropping dead of malnutrition.”

“No, they don’t seem to be,” I agree. I run my thumb up the corner of my stack of papers, making it make a sound. “That’s a good thought about the vitamins. We should keep an eye out.”

Mick goes to do some figuring on the chalk board.

“We could all just move inland,” Boss suggests.

“Who’s we, Boss? Who’s all?”

“Us three. Me you and Michael.”

He doesn’t get it. Not a big picture guy, him. No humanitarian streak. No inkling that perhaps not everything is about him, that there might be a hell of a lot that is beyond him, not for him, greater than him. I contain my disappointment, which is made easy enough by the fact that there is no surprise.

After some hours that are a mix of discussing aloud and contemplating to ourselves, we get back to the papers. Many more hours pass as we read.

Boss: “Less than one percent of the bovine population currently alive are cared for by humans in a manner that is not in direct support of the human effort to produce meat and dairy for human consumption.”

Mick: “The coasts as they currently exist are habitat to approximately one hundred thousand distinct species.”

Boss: “Approximately eighty percent of the human population currently alive own an item produced from the hide or bone of a nonhuman animal.”

Mick: “Earth’s weather system is a chaotic system. Historically, sustained disturbances have progressed from local anomalies to widespread changes in the nature of the system itself.”

Boss: “Approximately seventy percent of animal species currently extant are at least partially carnivorous.”

Myself: “Slightly upwards of fifty percent of the human population alive since 1800 have had sexual relations with a nonhuman animal.” I notice Boss and Mick both clutch their papers a little tighter, and I smirk. “Stories, gentlemen?”

They both hold for a little bit.

Boss breaks first. He sighs and seems to want to hide behind his papers. “A cow on my grandpa’s farm,” he admits. “Just one time. I had never done it before, even with a...” He doesn’t finish the statement. But we get it. His first time was with a cow, and now he’s mortified that he just admitted that to us. I’d go so far as to wager that Mick and I don’t actually care much, but Boss is beet red, even in contrast of this red lit room.

Mick nods, in response to Boss’s revelation.

I also nod, and divulge, “Me and the family dog. More than once.” As soon as I bring her up aloud, I’m surprised by the emotions that well up in her memory. “Sarah. I guess I didn’t ever think of us as an item. There were humans in my life I was trying to go steady with at the time. Me and her hooked up that way maybe... a dozen times?”

Boss makes a grossed out noise, and I call him beef boy and he shuts the hell up real quick.

“I miss her,” I admit. I tap my fingers on the table, contemplative. A memory comes to me of walking her along the sidewalk in the Fall, late at night, just us two out—I’m a perpetually nervous young man at the time, but going out with her on walks at night is calming, enjoyable, centering. I honest to God might cry. I think about us on my bed, fooling around. I think about her watching me eat, and sneaking her scraps. I think about how I felt after she died. “She was a good girl. Should’ve appreciated her more.”

Boss mutters, “Good girl or a good piece?”

Now I feel justified in voicing my disgust of him. “A good dog,” I tell him. “A good exemplar of man’s best friend. A good person, if you’re pushing me to say it. Good god, do you always have to talk about all the women in your life like this, Boss?”

I can see Boss trying to form something to come back with, but apparently he isn’t coming up with anything inspired. He stays quiet.

Mick finally chimes in. “I went steady with a dog.”

I turn to face him fully, all ears.

“It was while I was in college. She was sort of the fraternity mascot, but every night she slept in my room. I don’t even know who took care of her there before I did, but I took up the mantle pretty quickly when no one could even tell me who she belonged to or who usually fed her. Started off as a normal amount of care in a human-pet relationship, I guess, but even by a couple weeks in, there was much deeper love there, going both ways. Took care of her the whole time I was there, and stole her away when I moved out, and we lived the rest of her life together. We were mated. I thought of her as my wife, no qualifiers on that, nothing less than my full legitimate partner. Had a higher regard for her than a hell of a lot of other human people.” Mick glances over at Boss. “And if you need to know, she was a good girl and the best piece of my life.”

Boss slaps his papers down in front of himself, gets up from the table, and goes to walk over by the chalkboard.

I lean in with Mick. “So what are your thoughts on our options here?”

He glances over at the chalkboard. Almost all of the writing on it is his, running the numbers. “Either one would displace a lot of humans. Given how those things usually go, the death toll would be...”

I nod.

He goes on. “If I had to choose now, I’d go up. We’re not the only ones on this planet. I—”

I had been nodding along with him, but I have to interrupt with “excuse me a moment” as I see Boss moving for the elevator door. I stand from the table. “Stay away from that elevator, Boss!”

He pushes open the elevator door and gets in. I reach a hand into my suit jacket.

“Get out or I’ll kill you, Boss!”

He reaches for the lever.

I draw my pistol from inside my suit jacket, point it at Boss, and kill him. Mick falls back in his chair and claws his way back to the wall behind him, blaspheming. I return the smoking pistol to my suit jacket. I go to the elevator, drag Boss out, and sit his body slumped over in the corner. I sit back down at the table.

Mick is still in shock, understandably.

I take out the pistol again, drop out the remaining ammunition, pop out the bullet in the chamber as well, and lob the empty gun to him. It clatters at his side.

When he’s ready, he comes back and we have a talk. “These are bigger stakes than most wars,” I impress upon Mick. “One casualty? The choice we make here will eclipse that a thousand fold.”

He seems convinced of it. I’m glad I could tickle his sensibilities as a numbers guy.

I don’t give him adequate credit, though. He is a numbers guy, but I think he’s the kind who uses the numbers to think about other things besides just numbers.

We go back to the papers, until I’m bored of the papers, and I ask to hear more about Mick’s canine lady friend. It’s a sore spot. There is a wound there that I’m asking him to reopen, work around in, reaching back past his current human wife to what probably feels like another lifetime for him. But he tells me about her. After he gets going, he starts to tell me a hell of a lot about her. I tell him about mine too, and it becomes clear to me that my way of thinking didn’t stack up to his any day of the week. I liked mine, but there was a distance between us I’d been blind to, an unexamined supposition that I could like her, but at the end of the day she was just a dog, not something to get any kind of worked up over. Mick’s was a person to him. A full person. A person he cared about more intimately than anyone else in his life.

We chat a long time, on topic and off topic. Having him down here isn’t so bad as I’d thought it would be.

In the course of our conversation, Mick eventually mentions, “I have a thought that makes me unhappy about option one.”

“Shoot.”

“Humans have rights, and a lot of us are exploited anyways. Just because we have them, they don’t always shake out.”

I lean back and sigh through my nose. He’s right.

He goes on. “Maybe it’d do us better to think of this as less of a cataclysmic thing than we have been. Still changing things a hell of a lot, don’t get me wrong. But maybe it’s more of a difficult step in the right direction instead of the end of modern civilization. Maybe it’s more adaptable to our very bad world than we’ve been wanting to let on. Like I said, I don’t entirely like that, but...”

I nod. “I’m ready if you are. I leave the lever to you.”

“Really?”

“If you’re ready. Don’t rush it.”

We sit and think quite a while longer. No looking at the papers, no looking at the chalkboard. Sitting and thinking.

Eventually, Mick gets up without a word, and I follow him into the elevator.

Sith the ne Saith

I drop down into my swivel chair, spin to face my desk, blow a small amount of overnight dust off of my headset, and rest the cushioned cups of this aforementioned headset over my ears. Mentally, when the cans go on, the world of mechanical tapping and light conversation is gone, and I feel myself aware of this tape station as though it is a living, thinking creature, all of its parts talking to each other within itself.

The intrastation comms come in the form of synthesized midi tones. On my own desk, I have a keyboard with the standard single octave to send messages, and a demodulator with my headphones plugged into it to receive messages. Station broadcasts come to me in deep tones; messages directed to my department—the archives department—come in middling tones; messages directed at me specifically are in the highest tones. Messages for me specifically are also printed onto musical notation ticker tape; a small pile of it sits on the back left corner of my desk.

As I passively listen in on the sounds of the station and the department, I break off the tape and begin reading what people have sent to me since yesterday. Spend long enough here and you become pretty good at translating the tones into meaning, until eventually you’re fluent, and the tones themselves also carry the meaning and you only need to translate for the sake of others.

The first of the notes, translated of course, is as follows:

From R. Benson – Received request for secret secret clearance S.I.J. detained persons logs from dates Lununo First 1949 to Luntres Thirty 1949. Paperwork on my desk if needed. Deliver to Brian when able please.

I laugh incredulously to myself. If needed, he says. Secret secret clearance S.I.J. detained persons logs from the dark years, and he has the paperwork on the off chance I happen to feel like that might be something I should look at before touching this with a thirty nine and a half foot pole.

I rip that note from the rest of the ticker tape, pick up a thumbtack out of a dish of them, and pin it to my cube wall. The right side of my cube is to-do’s, the left is general reference notes, and on the back wall I have some personal photos tacked up. One photo is an old guy with messy long red hair named Jeff with his arm around an equally old guy with short red hair named Kurt. One photo is a black mastiff named Thunder. One photo is a shot looking down a busy street in New Seattle, which I took a long time ago and I don’t know, I just always liked how it turned out.

There are other photos, but anyways. I look away from the pictures, and move on to the rest of the notes:

From S. Diaz – Per meeting yesterday, Cecelia is approved for secret clearance archive retrieval and storage permissions, pending the usual. See Bethany for paperwork.

From K. Greene – Please see me this evening to discuss Vault B7 access combination.

From S. Diaz – Per meeting yesterday, sweep of Vault F2 is underway. Vault F2 will be unavailable for non-emergency use until approx Lundos 10th, effective immediately.

I pin each item to the left- and right-hand sides of my cube as is appropriate. So far the notes have all been spared the wrath or indifference of the small incinerator under my desk.

As I begin reading the next message, I hear the high tones of a direct message coming in through my headphones, and I stop reading to listen:

From F. Warner – See me for special retrieval request when you have a moment please.

I lay my hand on my keyboard and respond, beginning with the chords to preface an addressee, the notes to send the name, the chords to preface a message, and the notes to send said message. I tell Frederick I’ll be right over. I play the chords to delimit the end of the message. I listen briefly for a response, and, hearing none, I take off my headphones and stand up.

I make my way through rooms of cubes, down beige halls and around beige corners, until I arrive at the door to Frederick Warner’s office. I knock six times in a particular pattern.

I hear the heavy lock on his door release. I turn the handle and pull open the door. As I am stepping inside, he is already reaching for a tan folder. He flips it open, scribbles his signature on the page inside, and quotes “Make it so” before closing the folder and handing it up to me.

“Aye aye,” I answer, and then flip the folder open and glance down into it. Request for a tape from Vault A2. Simple enough. Then I see why I am needed: I am to keep an eye out for any signs that the tape may have been tampered with or replaced. The reverse of the page contains the known history of the tape. I close the folder, give Frederick a salute, and step out of his office.

In the stairwell, the guard at Subbasement A lets me in on sight, a privilege which was earned after who-knows-how-many hundreds of times of showing him my identification and my assignment in order to visit. Even if the same guard were one level down on B, it would be back to the same old story, but anyways. I enter Subbasement A, interrogate the receptionist about any activity surrounding the tape in question, scrutinize his records for quite some time, and then proceed into the stacks to retrieve the requested tape.

When I arrive at the correct row, aisle, unit, and lockbox, I first examine the lock before touching it. Someone has been here recently. There are fresh, greasy prints on the combination dials. I curse under my breath, and retrieve a little vial of fingerprinting dust from my coat jacket, and a small roll of sticky tape. I blow the dust onto the lock dials, stick the tape over it, and then pull it back and stick the tape onto the sheet of paper that Frederick gave me. With a pen below it, I also note the combination that the dials were left at.

Nothing else is amiss with the lockbox, at least as far as its exterior is concerned. I turn the dials to the combination I have been provided, pull up on the unlocked latch, and draw the lockbox open.

Inside, instead of a magnetic tape, there is a cake with candles stuck into the top. My head draws back in confusion, and my mouth comes slightly open. Then I leap out of my shoes as party blowers go off very near me, and about ten people come around the corner. My coworkers, the rightfully smug sons of bitches.

I hear “Happy birthday, Jay,” from all of them one by one, and other sentiments and handshakes and little hugs. They call me Jay here—it’s not much of an abbreviation from Jane, I’ll admit, but hey, I like it. It is Lundos Second: my birthday.

I lead us back up to the break room in our department, carrying the cake, which is red velvet. They have correctly placed thirty one candles on top of it, but I insist they not be lit in the event that my age is literally a fire hazard. We all enjoy the cake. Frederick himself comes out for a slice, and as everyone else filters out to get back to work, Frederick and I end up with the break room to ourselves, chatting.

“Good work on this, by the way,” he mentions, holding up the folder that I’ve handed back to him. “I didn’t expect anything less from you.”

“Any time. Whose prints?”

“Diane from last night.”

“Ooh.” Frederick’s nighttime equivalent. Very high-profile cake that we’re eating right now.

“How’s Thunder?” Frederick asks.

I smile down at my cake for a moment, thinking back to yesterday evening with Thunder, our hour or more of playing fetch, all of his little insistences as to when and how he gives me back the ball. “Still a goof,” I answer. “But he’s good.”

“Good, good.” He nods for a moment. Then he says something to me that I didn’t know before. “My brother is a dog person. I always... wondered about that.”

‘Dog person’ is his workplace-appropriate euphemism for zoosexual. The word ‘zoosexual’ would also be entirely workplace appropriate, but I do understand why non-queer folks are hesitant when it comes to queer terminology, and I can’t say I don’t appreciate people erring on the side of caution there if they have to err one way or the other.

But in any case, I feel I trust Frederick well enough. If he seeks knowledge, I’m game. “What would you like to know?” I offer.

He ponders, and then gives a wave of the folder, dismissing the idea. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

I glance around to make sure we’re alone, and then more quietly insist, “If it’s something you’re willing to ask, it’s something I’m willing to answer.” I mean it, too: terminology, preferences, feelings, mechanics; I really can’t think of anything that would be off the table.

I can’t say that the question he asks is a question that I expected: “Is it enough?” he asks me. He thinks about it for a second longer, and then reframes it as, “Does your relationship with Thunder want for anything?”

I let a bite of red velvet cake sit in my mouth for a little moment as I think it over, tapping the fork lightly on my bottom lip. I really wrack my brain for anything lacking. I swallow the cake, and answer the question honestly. “What I have with Thunder is everything I ever wanted and more than I would have thought to ask for. I love him, he loves me, we have fun.”

He nods. “Good,” he says. “I always... My brother is a bit of a recluse. He has two dogs, a lab and a great dane. I could never get a read on whether he’s happy.”

“Well, I think there’s a lot to happiness. But that sounds like a pretty good start.”

We finish our cake.

“Thank you for the cake,” I tell him.

“Of course.” He pointedly looks me in the eyes, and adds, “And thank you.”

“Of course,” I tell him.

I make my way back to my desk, idly playing back our conversation in my mind. I believe it went very well. I sit down at my chair, and spin towards my desk.

Then when I open my eyes, I am outside and it is nighttime. I am cold and I am on the ground and I am in the dark somewhere, I can see the distant lights of buildings, but my vision is blurry, and I can’t get any kind of a meaningful read on my whereabouts whatsoever. My teeth chatter.

I sit upright on the sand. Sand. There is sand here. I can hear waves. I am on a beach. I sit and breathe warm breath into my cupped hands, and rub my hands over my arms, breathe into my hands again, and so on, repeating, warming myself. After a while I rub my eyes and look around again, and I discern that I am on the beach of the small satellite island on which this city’s lighthouse is built.

There is someone else living in this body whose name I do not know and whose memories I cannot see. Some days I wake up, make coffee, prepare a cold breakfast, walk to work at the comms waystation, and the weekend manager regards me strangely and I realize I need to check the date, because clearly I have missed some unknown chunk of time and I am not when I think I am. Some days I wake up and try to recall the previous day and realize that halfway through I have no more memories, and I know that someone, but not me, piloted this body to bed. Some days I am at work and then I wake up with my cheek pressed into the thin carpet, and I am looking at the dusty cables under my desk, and I don’t seem to have gone far or even lost more than a few seconds, and I have to live the rest of the day doubting whether I am myself.

As for my current whereabouts, I have never been to this lighthouse before, at least not as far as I can remember. It does look cool from afar and there have been many times when I thought about going to this lighthouse, but now, even though I have found myself here, I’m just not really in the mood for tourism at the moment, given the cold and sudden and frankly scary circumstances of my arrival. I walk the beach until I find a dock. I talk to a man there, and learn that he is waiting for the ferry to get a ride back to the main island. I check my pockets, and confirm that I do have my wallet on me, and that it contains money and my identification, if that should be necessary.

The man’s name is Ricardo. He tells me about his tour of the lighthouse as we wait. When the ferry arrives, the ferryman regards me strangely, no doubt curious as to how I arrived at the lighthouse without his transport, but he accepts my payment and does not ask for my ID. I ask him the date as casually as I can. He tells me that it is Lundos Tenth. We begin the journey back.

I tell Ricardo I would like to look at the ocean by myself, if that’s alright. He understands completely, and we take seats at opposite ends of the ferry.

I look out at the black nighttime waters of the ocean, and contemplate the date that the ferryman has told me. Last I remembered, it was my birthday, Lundos Second, and I was in the office where I work, and everything was so familiar and normal. Now it is a week later, and whoever stole my body dropped me off at what literally may have been the farthest away point from home that is possible without getting on one of the big ships and heading out to the open sea.

When the ferry makes land on the main island, Ricardo and I wish each other well, and then I catch a trolley back to the suburbs, where my uncle Jeff with the messy long red hair lives, and also my cousin May, who is much younger than me, still a teenager, fourteen I think. Also living here is Thunder. It was painful to give him to them, but for obvious reasons, I am not a reliable person to take care of him by myself. I visit every evening after work, if I am myself, which apparently I have not been for a while now.

From my wallet I retrieve a little key, and unlock the front door. I hear a deep woof, and hopeful nails ticking over the hardwood towards me. Around the corner comes Thunder, the black mastiff with whom I am completely in love. He wags and bounds towards me, and I fall to my knees and we embrace there in the entryway for a long time, me rubbing and petting and hugging him, him licking me and leaning into me and breathing heavy excited breaths.

Jeff shambles around the corner, eyes screwed up into a sleepy squint. It is late. He asks me, “Hey Jane. Are you alright?”

“I think so,” I tell him.

“Need anything?”

“I’m okay,” I tell him. “Sorry to wake you up.”

He mumbles that it’s fine, and shambles off back to bed.

Thunder and I make our way to the fenced-in back yard, and I ask him to bring me a ball. He goes and finds one in the grass, brings it back to me, drops it at my feet, then backs up a few steps, looking up and down between me and the ball and wagging his tail.

I pick up the ball and hurl it across the yard. He bounds after it. It lands: he pounces on it and shakes his head around a few times before he trots back to me. This time he doesn’t come all the way to me, but instead comes only halfway back, and drops the ball in the middle of the yard.

“Come give it here,” I insist.

Woof, he insists.

I give a faux sigh, and walk into the yard to come get the ball from him.

When I arrive at him he grabs me with a paw, and with the sharpness of a claw digging into my leg, I collapse onto my knees, trying not to get gouged. He eagerly attempts to mount me, and I back away from him at first. “Already?” I ask in a playful voice. He responds with a very vocal huff of a breath, and paws at me again. “Alright,” I tell him. I bring a hand up between our mouths, and we both slobber over it for a while. He paws at me again, and I let him take my slobbery hand to his sheath. There in the back yard, he mounts my arm, and I help him out.

When he’s finished and satisfied, he lays down with his back legs out to the side. I sit and admire him—his anatomy and just him in general.

We retire to our bed, and I sleep pressed close against his back, my face buried in his long fur, happy to be home with him.

I wake up around noon the next day—fortunately, it is a day that I’m supposed to have off from work anyways. My coworkers are aware that I have a condition, though they have been lead to believe that it is an unfortunate combination of epilepsy and sleepwalking; hell, for all I know, I may have literally told them the truth unwittingly.

A week is longer than I have missed before, and there might be questions, but I don’t think there will be much in the way of a full-scale inquisition. My medical conditions are protected from scrutiny. As office workers specialized in handling sensitive data, we’re pretty adept with these kinds of dos and don’ts.

I spend the day with Thunder and Jeff and May. Here, at least, it feels as though I haven’t missed anything, that no time at all has passed. When evening comes, Thunder and I play fetch until he’s worn out, and then I give him a kiss goodbye and walk back to my own apartment.

The next morning when I arrive at work, there is a considerable hill of ticker tape on my desk. I begin where I left off, sorting out what still needs my attention and what has been taken care of without me. The incinerator under my desk is my friend.

Believe me when I say I have thought of how to trap the other person who is inside of me. I could sleep every night in a cage, and have a trusted party on the outside only let me out if I recite a certain password. I could leave a note telling them to knock it off. I could kill myself, though I don’t feel that strongly about it yet.

I have tried various versions of the first two ideas, the cage and the note. According to Jeff, the other me isn’t very talkative. She tends to appear frightened moreso than anything. So I don’t always feel great putting my foot down, though I also resent her for taking away my ability to live with Thunder. The notes I leave for her are never responded to. It is what it is.

I get to work on the archive retrievals that are still my responsibility. Sometimes this consists of retrieving an entire tape for some party or another. Other times this consists of loading the tape into one of our machines, writing down some piece of information stored on the tape, putting the tape back, and sending the one bit of information off. Very thrilling stuff, all around.

Cecelia and I grab sushi for lunch, as we do frequently; her partners are a bay horse named Sky and a beagle named Hank, so we tend to have plenty to talk about, as far as our goings on outside of work are concerned; I went to the stable with her to visit Sky once, and Cecelia was not lying about what a gentleman he is. We went out on a ride, she and I and him. It was a lovely day, something I think back to a lot.

I run into Frederick at some point. He gives me a pleasant smile and says it’s good to see me around, but it’s clear that he is on his way to something or other and he doesn’t stop to chat. Apparently this was the extent of the questioning this time around, as the rest of the workday goes by without incident, so that’s nice.

After work I walk to Jeff’s. After I’ve hugged Thunder and we’ve exchanged rubs and kisses, he and I go to the back yard, and we play fetch. I love this time, this time where I get to observe true happiness, play, exercise, sport, chase, purpose. He is a dog playing fetch; he is exactly as he should be, and all things are right in the world, or at least in this back yard, for this time.

When we go in, I go to the treat jar in the living room, take one out, and toss it to him, and he leaps up to catch it.

I wake up on the floor; most of the house is equipped with thick cushy rugs, a gift from Jeff who worries a lot about me hurting myself one of these times. Thunder is laying over me, chin resting on the side of my head. On the ground in front of us, I see the slobber-covered treat that he apparently did not eat after seeing me drop. I could not love him more. “Hey guy,” I say, to let him know I’m awake. His tail thumps lightly on the cushy carpet. I roll over to face him, and we kiss.

The next day I visit a doctor; this is not the first time I have marched into a hospital in indignant insistence that they fix me. I feel I owe it to Thunder to try again.

The doctor that they send me to at least seems interested, which is a step above the last couple. I am less convinced of his aptitude when after looking at my papers, he takes on a consolatory tone. “Miss Gale—”

“Misses.”

“Oh, recently married?” He clicks his pen and hovers over a page, ready to add it to my record.

“Zoosexual.”

“Ah.” He clicks his pen closed.

“You were about to tell me that I’ve already had brain scans that turned up nothing, but we can try another one?”

He twirls his pen, and tries poorly not to sound annoyed. “More or less.”

I level with him: “You are a doctor and I am a sick person: try harder.”

He turns back to my papers, and looks though them again, contemplative. I can only hope that I have represented myself adequately as an interesting enough puzzle.

Suddenly he squints, and then flips back through all of the papers. “Why the hell...”

“I kind of like the sound of that,” I admit.

“Have you only had brain scans? Never a full body?”

“To my understanding that is correct.”

“Can I schedule you for something?”

“Please.”

He puts on a pair of headphones and slides a keyboard over to himself. I observe the notes he presses, but it is a foreign language to me: their encoding is something different here, likely an entirely different grammar and lexicon.

He lifts up one of the ear cups and looks over at me. “Does tomorrow at two in the afternoon work?”

I give him a thumbs up.

He turns back to his keyboard, hammers out another message, and then waits for a response. After a quick sendoff, he takes off the headphones and pushes the keyboard back to its corner.

“Tomorrow at two,” he confirms with me.

“Thank you,” I tell him.

I shake his hand, stand up, exit his office, and then I am sitting on a couch in an unfamiliar living room; lukewarm coffee soaks my shirt and pants. I look down, and the cup is sitting on its side on the couch. I pick it up, and place the empty mug on the side table. Then I notice the dog here, a dalmatian, lying on the floor, looking up at me with their head tilted. As I make eye contact with them, they begin to wag. “Hey there,” I tell them.

I look all around, and listen. Besides the dalmatian, I appear to be alone here. I have never seen this place before. There is a fireplace—I suspect a faux fireplace—with a mantle above it, and framed pictures. I stand up and go look at the pictures. Featured are adults and children of many different racial backgrounds, and in the corner of each picture, the marketing copy is still present: these are the display pictures that came with the frames. The price tag is still stuck onto the corner of each frame, no visible attempt to remove it from any of them.

I look around the rest of the room. There are thick carpets. The furniture is not the exact same furniture as at Jeff’s, but it looks close, and it’s arranged the same way down to the treat jar on the counter and the vase on the strangely tall and narrow table in the corner. I explore the other rooms: three bed, two bath. I peek out of the front door: it leads into a hallway, and tells me that I am in an apartment. I look out the window: the apartment overlooks the sea. The sea is light blue, with some patches of red here and there. The red patches are a type of aquatic fungus, parasitic to small fish, harmless to humans; knowledge moss, it is called. It gets into the fishes’ spines and brains, and seems to behave similarly to pressing putty onto a newspaper, and pulling it back to reveal the print transferred over to the putty; when eventually the fish dies, if the moss makes it back to the collective, it is almost as though the moss is the fish’s ghost, going to join some of its ancestors in an echo of past motor functions and experiences.

I approach the dalmatian, and crouch down in front of them. They wag and then roll over onto their back, and I no longer have to wonder whether this is a he or a she: this is a he. I reach out and give him a belly rub, which he receives agreeably for quite a while, until we hear a key being used in the front door—it is unlocked, but I suppose the person on the other side wouldn’t know as much until they tried. The dalmatian and I both stand and turn to face the visitor; the dog goes to the door barking, though his tail wags greatly.

The door slowly opens, gently nudging the large dog back, and a head pokes into the apartment: the head of a woman with long dark braids. “Oh!” she remarks, “you’re home! I can feed Thunder quick or just be out of your hair.”

I open my mouth, and choke on the number of things I need to ask this person. I try to think of how I might ask her what my own name is. Before I can settle on the wording, I am suddenly back in my own apartment, in my own bed, and it is nighttime and I am alone, and I have changed into a dry set of clothes. I crumple my blanket together and scream into it.

I check the date. It is the night of the same day on which I spoke to the doctor, so as it stands, I will still be able to make my appointment tomorrow. I try to get some sleep, but my mind is racing.

The next day at work I am zombie-like. Mentally, my mind is not here in the office: it is back in the unknown apartment, with the thick carpets and the dalmatian named Thunder. With a gun to my head I would not be able to place that apartment’s location in the city. As Cecelia and I eat sushi and chat, she asks if I had a rough night, and I nod. Like everyone, she is vaguely aware that I have a condition, but even she doesn’t know the half of it, especially this time.

After lunch, I take care of one more retrieval: a request from S.I.J. to retrieve a tape on something that is simply numbered 00140686; there is an agent here to collect it personally. I retrieve the tape from the stygian bowels of Subbasement E, march up to a lobby on the ground floor, and hand the tape off to a woman with a buzzcut who wears a suit and sunglasses. She thanks me for my time and departs.

I depart shortly thereafter as well, off to the hospital to get scanned, again, but maybe in a more productive way, this time.

I am given an injection and put through a large machine. Afterwards I sit in the doctor’s office, waiting. As soon as he comes in, I can tell from his professional frown that he has bad news. He sits down at his desk in a huff and shows me the scan of my spine. We both lean over the glossy picture. He points all along it.

“There’s a plaque-like buildup of something, especially visible here, here, and here. It appears to coat the entire spine.”

As he talks, I feel the strange sensation of my backbone feeling like a foreign entity in my own body. My fingers press against my lips as he goes on.

“As one silver lining here, the structural integrity of the spinal column seems to be completely healthy. But I think we’ve found our culprit. As to what it actually is, I don’t know yet.”

“Thank you,” I tell him. I wipe a tear from my eye. I could hug him, though I get the impression he wouldn’t like that.

He offers a box of tissues. I take a couple, blow my nose and wipe my eyes, and then sit up straight again in my chair.

“How likely do you think it is that you can identify this?” I ask.

He leans back and knocks his pen against the edge of his desk a few times. “I can’t say. If we can’t get an answer based on this, it may be prudent to explore whether a direct examination and collecting samples would be appropriate.”

I swallow, and nod.

“I’ll get back to you when I have more concrete information to give you.”

“Thank you,” I tell him again.

I go visit with Thunder and Jeff and May. I play fetch with Thunder—my Thunder—for quite a long time. I hug him, and I tell him that I might have found out what’s wrong with me, and maybe we will get to live together again, someday soon. Inside, I sit down with Jeff, and tell him the news as well, and he gives me a hug and tells me he’s glad to hear it, even if it does scare him.

A few days go by. I work, I go to Jeff’s to play with Thunder, I go home, I get good quality sleep, I go to work again. All the trappings of a normal life.

One day I wake up, get out of bed, go to make coffee, and only realize when a dalmatian comes padding around the corner that I am not in my own home, but in the other one. “Hey Thunder,” I greet with enthusiasm, and crouch down to pet him as he stands there and wags. “Your coat’s a lot thinner than my guy’s. Yeah. You’re both big strong studs though, huh?”

Zoosexuality, incidentally, does not often come with a strong sense of monogamy.

As glad as I am to meet this mysterious second Thunder, there is something that I must urgently check on. I grab a marker from a cup of writing implements on the counter and I exit the apartment. I look back at the door and write down the unit number on my forearm. I walk briskly down the hall, down a flight of stairs, and exit the building. Looking at the building and the nearby signage, I write down the street address. I repeat it aloud to myself as I walk back in, committing it to memory.

Back inside, Thunder is happy to see me again. Apparently this copycat version of me has left a good enough impression. The two of us lay down in the living room, and I pet him. Eventually he gets up, leaves the living room, and then returns with a rope toy. He holds it and looks at me and wags. I get on all fours with him, and the two of us play tug; I do not have to pretend to lose. Whenever he gets the toy free from my grip, he whips it around and I back off for fear of getting whacked with it, and I laugh along with him in his enthusiasm.

Eventually he drops the toy and walks over to look out of the window. I go over, still on all fours, and look out with him. We look at the ocean with its red spots, and at the people down on the beach.

I look over and give him a kiss on the side of the mouth. He appears mildly taken aback by this, but mostly indifferent.

Gently, I reach up under him, and place a curious hand on his sheath.

I am responded to in the form of an extremely loud bark directly into my ear, and I take my hand away and back off. I hold my hands up to show him I’m not touching anything anymore. “Okay,” I say, “we don’t do that. Gotcha.”

The two of us go back to looking out the window. I pet him some more, and he wags. I stand up to go actually make the coffee I had forgotten about, and then I am back in my own actual bed, and it is the next morning.

I check my arm. The address is still written there. I pump my fist and go write it down on a scrap of paper.

At work, during a lull in requests, I do something highly forbidden: I go and make a personal inquiry. From Subbasement A, I retrieve a city registry of addresses and citizens for the district in which this mysterious apartment is located. I load the tape into a machine, and read through until I get to the building, the floor, and the unit.

There on the monitor, I see an ID photo of myself, along with my actual name, Jane Gale, and several actual pieces of personal identifying information. Even the photograph of my signature on the lease seems essentially like my own signing. Part of me wants to stare at all of this for a very long time. Another part of me does not want to get caught snooping, even if I am snooping on myself. I unload the tape and return it to where I retrieved it from.

I am in an extremely good mood for the rest of the day: I may not know why or what she is, but I know her name: her name is also Jane Gale.

A few more days go by. One day as I return home to my apartment, I find a courier note slipped under my front door, from the doctor asking me to come at my soonest convenience. I visit the next day, and this time, I sit down in the office with him and another doctor, who is not a medical doctor, but a marine biologist.

They look at each other, gauging which one of them would like to start. The medical doctor takes the lead: “So. This is... potentially unexplored medical territory.”

“Oh?” I inquire.

He nods. “Are you aware of knowledge moss?”

I swallow. A chill passes over me, and I feel myself beginning to break into a cold sweat. “I’ve heard of it,” my voice creaks out.

“According to my colleague, it has been observed, albeit in rare cases, in dolphins. The psychological results, and the physical presence of the fungus accumulating along the spine, is all characteristically very similar to your case.”

My body is a petri dish. I stare blankly ahead, processing everything.

“My colleague may be better suited to answer questions about this than I would be.”

“Is it terminal?” I ask.

“In dolphins, no,” the marine biologist answers.

Well, that’s one thing that’s a relief.

“What does it do?” I ask. “What does it want?”

“It may be off to say that it ‘wants’ anything, in the same sense that you and I may want things. But what it seems to do is learn the impulses of its host and replicate them. In some cases, it proves advantageous: the host dolphin can get in very good sleep in both halves of its brain at once while the fungus takes over and hunts. From what we’ve seen, in dolphins at least, it is a symbiotic relationship rather than a strictly parasitic one.”

“Can it be removed?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “In theory, I expect such a treatment could be developed, years down the line after much research. But at present, no such treatment exists.”

I nod.

Days go by. The next time I wake up somewhere unfamiliar, it is another apartment with thick carpeting, and there is another dog, but they are a shepherd rather than a dalmatian. I am only here briefly, and when I wake up in my own bed again, I am halfway convinced that I was dreaming. But I don’t think I was. I think that in my spine, there is a fungus who thinks its job is to replicate Jane Gale across this city. And apparently, it’s not half bad at it.

I go about my days, until one day when I wake up, I am sitting upright somewhere and my hands are bound behind my back; I am handcuffed to a metal chair in a white nondescript room; in front of me in their own chairs, not handcuffed, sit a man and a woman with buzzcuts, suits, and dark sunglasses. “Oh no,” I say out loud. This is actually among my worst nightmares.

“What is your directive?” the man asks.

“It’s not what you think,” I try to insist.

“Uh huh. Okay. We’re doing it that way then, huh.”

He stands up, forms a fist, and cracks me across the jaw so hard that I go out again, but I am still myself when I awaken, my jaw throbbing, my mouth bleeding.

“What is your directive?” the man asks again. “Who do you work for?”

I give him the name of my doctor, and tell them to talk to him. The man walks off to pursue this. The woman sticks around, sitting and staring at me, seeming to be looking out for any reason to stand up and strike me as the man did.

“Why did you access address records pertaining to yourself without a corresponding request?” she asks.

“Complicated,” I say, and bloody spittle accompanies the word.

“How many residencies do you own?” she asks. “Before you lowball it, I’ll give you a hint: we know of four, and are just waiting to hear back on leads for the rest.”

I lean back in my metal chair, wince up at the ceiling, and stomp my foot again and again in helplessness. “I know of two. I thought there might be a third.”

“Who gives you the funds to support all of these residencies?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” I tell her. “I pay for my own apartment with income from my job.”

She does not believe me, and why should she? If I were in her position, I wouldn’t believe this story either. This line of questioning stretches on for another hour until the man returns.

When he does return, he sits back down in his chair and whispers to the woman. Then he faces me. “Jane Gale. Here forward, your clearance to all privileged data is revoked, and you are forbidden to enjoy government employment for the remainder of your natural life. You will be fitted with an ankle bracelet, and must seek government approval if you wish to travel beyond this island. If you attempt to leave without approval or if you attempt to tamper with the bracelet, you will be considered a terrorist and wanted dead. You must submit to regular medical examinations to monitor your condition, for such a time as will be deemed appropriate based on the results of these examinations and the determined character of your condition. Besides that—pending a scan of your spine here and now to verify your doctor’s outlandish claim—you are free to go.”

The scan is done, I am given an ankle bracelet, and with that I am turned onto the street as a citizen once more, ordinary and extraordinary all rolled up into one. I stagger to Jeff’s, shivering, and lay cuddled up with Thunder—my Thunder—for a long time.

My life goes on, and the months go by.

I wake up in a bed. It is the bed in the apartment where the dalmatian lives. I go out to the living room, and he is lying on the couch, looking at me and wagging, having just woken up himself. I sit down with him, and pet him. Later on that morning, we find ourselves looking out the window together, at the sea with the red spots. Moreso than most of my fellow humans, I have always felt myself a part of nature, in tune with the nonhuman world. Now I know, I am more a part of this nonhuman world than ever. Someday I will die and my body will be put out into the ocean, and the imprint of me and all of my experiences of living a human life will be added to the knowledge of the world that I myself will have only scraped the surface of, and it, mutually, will have only scraped the surface of us.

Ghosts of Pluto

For outer space missions, each crew member needs to be safe, skilled, and a sociopath. A high regard for safety ensures that a crew will not botch the mission for foolish reasons. A high degree of skill ensures that a crew can accomplish their assignment and can rise to the occasion should other issues arise. Only a sociopath would eagerly strap themselves to a bomb with a chair on it and fly away from everyone and everything they have ever known. For these reasons, androids such as myself are often found among crews, because it is supposed that we are safe, skilled, and sociopathic. Humans are correct in all three of these suppositions. Where they have erred is in giving us a soul like their own in which to wrap these three traits.

In my beginning, I was mined out of Mars, refined into pure materials, and my modular parts were assembled: each finger, each palm, each forearm, and so on. I stayed on Mars in various containers in various warehouses for various numbers of years, until being collected and shipped to the most remote outpost of mankind: a fairly new base on Pluto. Technically, my first memories are protocols preinstalled into my head in the factory. Motor skills, technical skills, languages, and ‘common sense’ heuristics. But my earliest first-hand memory of the world is of Darius Jacobson’s kennels.

When I came online, I saw two dogs playing with one another. Both were German Shepherds. One, a female, was holding a stuffed toy and butting it against the male’s side. The male would try to grab it, paw at her, dart around. Both growled and barked agreeably as they roughhoused. Eventually, in my periphery, I noticed another figure, and I glanced down at it. It, a human, was assembling an arm, that I soon realized was to be my arm. The arm had greyish orange pseudo flesh. The human was attaching the base of the disembodied palm to the end of my very much embodied forearm.

Sensing that I had looked down at him, he looked up at me. He seemed taken aback. “Are you on already?”

“I seem to be,” I answered, speaking what seemed to me to be the truth.

The human, Darius Jacobson, grabbed a manual off of the ground and flipped back to one of the first pages. “Ah. Head goes on last, while the android is facing... Well. No harm done.”

He connected my wrist. I flexed my fingers, rotated the hand, touched my thumb to each of my other digits from little to pointer and back again.

When I was completed, the human put his face close to mine. “My name is Darius. Seems they’ve sent you out here to help me with the dogs.”

I was delighted.

He showed me the ropes. Each morning, I fed the twenty dogs, putting a mix of dry food and wet meat into bowls for each of them and distributing the bowls to the twenty individual spacious cages throughout the kennel. After they were fed, I let all of them out into the exercise yard, where they could play and run. Many of them liked to play fetch. Darius threw a ball and they all chased it. I threw a ball and many of them chased it, but some stood in place, continuing to face me, suspicious of me. Those that were suspicious of me barked at me fearfully, not playfully. For a majority of the day we did training. The dogs were trained to smell explosives, to attack aggressors, and to find and bring back a wide variety of items including medical supplies and different calibers of ammunition. My preinstalled memories were created with the knowledge that only humans are capable of language, but I learned quickly that this was not so. My favorite dog was a female named Doll. At night when all the other dogs had been returned to their cages, Darius let me keep Doll up a little longer in the exercise yard, playing fetch one on one. As we walked back in, I would chat with her, asking how her day had been.

From the canine exercise yard, I could see a larger human exercise yard. The humans often exercised in uniforms while holding rifles. One day while Darius and I were throwing balls for the dogs, I asked Darius, “What is the purpose of this place? How do the dogs fit in?”

Darius rubbed his chin with his thumb and pointer finger, and then answered. “We’re on Pluto. This base was established four years ago as part of Operation Belt Buckle. I thought you already knew. I can get you some files on it.”

Later that day, he presented me with a data drive. I scanned and read it. I learned that among humans were three primary factions. One claimed to be a communist democracy, another a socialist dictatorship, and the third a capitalist democracy, but based on my preinstalled dictionary definitions, it seemed to me more accurate to categorize them all as colonial fascists. I was on Pluto in Fort Washington. The base was one of many in the Kuiper Belt which were equipped with weaponry to destroy any manmade bodies attempting to exit the solar system. Additionally, the base produced constant jamming waves to block any broadcasts attempting to leave. The dogs fit in because Fort Washington was neighbored by a similar base from another nation, and so we needed to show superior ground might in the event of a clash.

When Doll and I were walking in from fetch that night, I admitted to her that I worried for her safety. I did not think it was fair that she had been signed up for this.

I had been at Fort Washington for 374 Earth Standard Days when Darius was killed in a training exercise. By that stage, I had taken on a majority of responsibilities with the dogs, and Darius was free to bring them around to other groups to train the humans on interacting with the canines. I learned of his death only when his replacement, Jericho Smith, arrived the next morning as I was feeding the last of the dogs.

“Stop that,” the human said to me.

I froze, midway through setting down a bowl.

“Bring that here.”

I considered whether I would obey this person I did not know. They spoke with such a degree of strictness and urgency that I assumed they might know something about the food that was of concern. I brought the bowl to him, to the dismay of Brutus, who was about to be fed.

Jericho took the bowl and threw it behind himself. Its contents streaked across the smooth cement floor. Brutus voiced his surprised disapproval.

“Who told you to feed them?”

“Darius Jacobson.”

“Darius Jacobson died yesterday. I’m in charge here now, Andy.”

Andy is derogatory, and although I did not feel insulted, I was not ignorant to what this meant for the way he would treat me.

“The dogs only get fed at night.”

“They are fed in the morning and evening.”

Jericho reddened in anger. “Are you malfunctioning, Andy? I outrank you as much as I outrank a toaster. The dogs are fed at night. Only dry food.”

“Why?”

The human retrieved his stun baton, thumbed it to maximum power, and attempted to strike me. I caught him by the wrist. His eyes glared and his breath caught in a fear response.

“Please tell me why you want the dogs to only be fed at night.”

“Obedience,” Jericho muttered. “Something you could learn a thing or two about.”

“Okay.” After he had given his answer, I released his hand. He looked at me with suspicion but allowed the incident to pass. I did not believe his answer, but he seemed convinced of it, and so I was willing to try it.

The dogs did not become more obedient. I also failed to understand why the dogs should be obedient to begin with, but that was beside the point. Instead of obedience, what the dogs gained was meanness. Their drills of attacking dummies became more viscous. Their drills of smelling explosives and of retrieving items became vastly less effective, and resulted in humans and other dogs being bitten frequently, which had happened zero times under Darius. Furthermore, and likely of more importance, Jericho failed utterly to communicate with the dogs as Darius and I did. If a dog told anything to Jericho, it was met not with consideration but with reprimand.

On day 398 of my being in Fort Washington, I entered Jericho’s office. “The hunger isn’t working.”

He looked up from his keyboard. “What did you just say to me?”

I tried to better put it in his terms. “Only feeding the dogs at night is making them less skilled. Less obedient, even. When told to retrieve, they just as likely attack. When told to smell—”

“Dismissed,” he told me, and looked back down at his keyboard to resume typing.

I lingered.

He glared back up at me.

I left. I went and took Doll from her cage, something I had been forbidden to do anymore, and the two of us went out and played fetch. While we played, I made a call and scheduled a meeting for the next day with an Internal Affairs agent.

I met her, Amy Peters, in the mess hall early the next morning. She sat at her own table with a tray of food and a cup of coffee. I went and sat beside her. We greeted one another.

“I must tell you, this is a first,” she said.

I inquired as to what she meant by that statement.

“An android reaching out to us,” she elaborated. “It’s not uncommon for androids to report technical concerns or safety violations, but I got the impression you have something deeper than that.”

I told her that I did. I explained the situation with the dogs. The hunger. The failure of communication. The aggression. The unhappiness.

After hearing all of it, she tapped her fingers against her coffee mug repeatedly. It seemed to me she was trying to decide something. After some time, she took the data pad strapped to her side and set it on the table. She searched for something, and then read. She shook her head.

“Station policy has almost nothing on the treatment of animals,” she said. “In the case of the dogs, it only says that the kennel master is given authority over their care and training. That’s Smith.”

I nodded. “Well, thank you.”

I waited 72 days so as not to arouse suspicion, and then I killed Jericho Smith in his sleep by crushing his throat. I dispersed his body into empty bags of dog food so that I could inconspicuously dispose his remains into an incinerator.

3 days passed before it was realized he was missing. On the 4th day, a new kennel master was assigned. I fed the dogs early that morning before he, Tyler Johnson, arrived.

On his first day as kennel master, Tyler took Doll out of her cage on a leash, and began walking her past the other cages on the way out to the exercise yard. I do not know why he selected Doll. As he and Doll were walking past Brutus’s cage, Doll broke away from Tyler and put her nose in the gap between the cage wall and the cage door. Brutus bit Doll and did not release her snout. Without a second of hesitation, Tyler drew his sidearm and killed Brutus. I realized, then, that Darius was the exceptional one, not Jericho. I began following after Tyler to kill him, but fell back before I reached him, as I had realized the shortcomings of my plan. The safety of the dogs was not jeopardized by any particular kennel master, but by the existence of kennel masters as a military position, of kennels as a military facility, and of attack dogs as a disposable military resource. I spent most of that day cleaning the kennels and contemplating.

I spent the night on the computer in Tyler’s office while he was asleep. I researched where the dog food comes from. It, as with most of the food, was created automatically by a self-sustaining factory. I downloaded all information on the maintenance of the factory, and then, I went to the missile station. As Jericho had once said, I was the same rank as a toaster, and so I was not suspected of any malicious intent when it was cleared that I was an android of their property, and not that of another faction. I entered the command bay, forcibly took an officer’s sidearm, killed all of the eight humans present, and locked the doors. For an Andy, making safe calculations on the radius of each missile’s effect was trivial work. In 40 seconds, most of Fort Washington was flattened, and all of the neighboring fort was destroyed as well. As the rubble cooled, I spent some time reprogramming the sentry missiles away from their task of striking anything escaping the solar system, and towards the task of striking anything inbound for Pluto. I reassigned the signal jammers to a similar protocol.

I retrieved the sidearms off of the human corpses in the room. They held sufficient ammunition to dispatch those who remained nearby the missile bays, the factory, and the kennels. When all was finished and ready, I went to the kennels, and let my people free.

The dogs are fed good food in the morning and in the evening. We converse often. All day I throw the ball, and they catch it.

Poems

Let Them To Them

A hoof, a paw, a beak, a maw,

A trip to the park to run, to bark,

To wrestle and fetch and swim and then

To home to hump, to play, to jump,

To talk and howl and share these breaths

Between dog and human as equals, not pets

A meow, a stroke, a stretch, a purr,

A caw, a treat,

A neigh, a trot,

A love in heat

A love when not

And loving to walk with a four legged lover

And loving to listen, to cherish each other

And to lovers here

And to lovers gone

To pay forward kindness:

To carry love on;

To feeling and knowing

And loving the things that only we creatures do

They don't understand, but let them to them

To thine own self be zoo

 

 

Dandelions

Dog walks nose-down through the dandelions,

Brushing his face against the spreading of life.

We lie down on the grass

And the ants and the other bugs flock to us;

We snap and brush at them

As around us a hot dandelion snow falls and rises,

Considering its thoughts on the ground.

Eventually the dog rolls over for a belly rub

And after getting one

We go back inside.

 

 

Dandelions 2

There are so many things I never would have seen if not for you, my dog boyfriend, being a regular presence in my life. This morning we were walking across the boardwalk over the pond, and we saw all of the dandelion tufts resting on the surface of the pond. A pale algae; airborne travelers alighting onto some water. I never would have imagined that, thought to come up with that as a thing, by myself. You showed it to me, and for that and for many things, I love you so much.

Vol. 1 No. 2 (February 2023)

Scent Became Flesh

Else leaned forward, her cheek resting between Tsen’s shoulder blades, her arms clasped around his waist, the couple rocking back and forth atop the stallion Rosh, who carried them onward through the windy chilled night. Clumps and ridges of snow remained on a ground that was otherwise composed of frozen mud, brown grass, frigid puddles. When they had set out in the late morning, Else and Tsen had been dressed in their lightest garments, and Else held a parasol over them as Rosh carried them on. Now they were bundled in jackets and caps, and Else nuzzled closer against Tsen’s back.

Rosh came to a stop.

Tsen bristled, and Else sat upright, looking around with him. In the moonlight, vague darkness crispened piece by piece into the shapes of a field strewn with boulders.

“Oh!” Tsen remarked. “We’re here. I had nodded off.”

Else reached back and gave Rosh’s flank a rub.

The partners dismounted. Else stretched. She looked up at the full moon, and inhaled deeply of the cold windy air. There were smells of freshly melted water, and also smells of freshly uncovered decay.

Else came up to Tsen, who was tending to Rosh’s tackle. She made a gesture of rubbing her nose. “We should make this.”

Tsen stepped back from Rosh for a moment, closed his eyes, and inhaled through his nose, slowly and deeply. He nodded. “I will remember it.”

Else kissed her husband. When their lips separated, Tsen gave Else another peck on the cheek before returning to Rosh’s tackle. Else walked down Rosh’s side, keeping a gentle hand on him, and opened his saddle bag. Reaching inside, she retrieved an oakwood drum, its lid fastened by a wooden bolt.

She began wandering off into the field, holding the drum. Tsen called some words of encouragement after her, though Else was already mentally in another space. Guided by the joyful familiarity of a happy tradition, Else arrived at the center of the field, where there was a circle of grass that was free from rocks, into which the wind blew on this night from five directions. Else smelled deeply of the wind yet again, and then unlocked the drum. From it, she withdrew the first of five candles, and set it upon a boulder at the north of the clearing. With a spell word, her tongue set a spark which ignited the candle, and she inhaled deeply of the candle’s scent:

Hair: the thick smell of it on the nape, and the thin smell of it on the belly, it is the most distinct of your form, the least comparable, the most exalted, and here, the most appreciated. Blessed be the smell of thine hair.

Else walked from the north of the circle eastwards, lighting each of the candles as she went in a clockwise fashion:

Breath: the essence of your life, the smell of your mouth. Blessed be the smell of thine breath.

Feet: the four paws upon which you walk, padded and clawed, the scent of all that you walk upon mingled with the scent that is thine own. Blessed be the smell of thine feet.

Anus: that which you smell of your own kind, that which speaks to your health as well as to your virility. Blessed be the smell of thine anus.

Urine: the scent you leave to be found from afar, and the scent you leave upon those to whom you come the closest. Blessed be the smell of thine urine.

After lighting the last of the five candles, Else sat back against a boulder, and withdrew the final item from the drum: a jar of thick slime. She removed her garments, and as she waited, she coated an arm with the slime, and began at herself. She had prepared earlier in the day, taking Rosh in full: it was not long before she relaxed back against the rock, her hand and forearm fully encompassed.

As she made herself ready, the winds in the field grew stronger. The five candles flickered in the five winds, carrying the scents all towards the center of the field, where gradually, as a smell comes to a nose, the scent became flesh. There in the center of the field stood a dog the size of a horse, his coat the color and appearance of smoke from a candle.

Else removed her hand from herself, stood, and walked to the dog.

The enormous dog turned to her. Seeing it was her, he wagged his smokey tail. Already, he made a grabbing motion with his paw, ready to know her. When she arrived at him, he lowered his nose to her penis, and deeply inhaled the scent of her testicles. She stroked his warm head with her dry hand, and turned to face away from him, getting down onto her hands and knees. Teasing, she began walking forward on her hands and knees, away from him.

The enormous canine wrapped his left paw around the left side of her hip, then the right paw around the right side. All at once he was upon her, as large as a stallion, and she cried out from the overwhelming sensation. He moved rapidly for a short while, and then held her rump pressed firm against his warm underside. He pulsed inside of her.

When he was finished, he dismounted. The front of her hips was bloodied with yet another year’s set of scratch marks. He licked the side of her head, and in the process of doing so, his smokey being dissipated into a greater plume, floating over the ground into the forest. Before Else’s very sight, the brown of the dead grass gave way to green, to new life sprouting, to buds eager to flower.

Else collapsed flat onto the wet cold ground and sighed a sigh of relief, pleasure, happiness, fulfillment. She laid a long while in the afterglow, smelling the five candles of hair, breath, feet, anus, urine, happy that she was blessed to spend any time at all with the person spawned of the five.

Dorian Gray

or; The Picture of Dorian Gray But It's A Completely Different Story About Something Else

 

 

i

Agatha idled the car up the quiet dark driveway, eased on the brake to stop before the closed garage door, and then pressed down fully on the brake to come to a complete stop. There in front of the garage door she remained for a while, staring blankly ahead, until after some time she put the car in park and took her foot off of the brake. With the car in park, she took the key out of the ignition, and sighed in the quiet that followed now that the engine was turned off. Well, it was something of quiet. A relative silence that was at once the least and the most that one could hope for in a neighborhood as pleasant as hers and Harry’s: crickets or frogs or something chirped and/or ribbited; somewhere a few streets away, a dog was barking at something; faintly, the noise of a TV show could be heard coming from some neighbor’s house, the volume evidently turned up very high, but not so high that Agatha could hear what show was on while sitting out here in her car.

Though it was no fault of the new trainee, Sibyl had gotten on Agatha’s nerves that day. “Miss Agatha, where can I find the size on these types of Wranglers? Miss Agatha, where do these coats go? Miss Agatha, I noticed this coat doesn’t have a price tag, I don’t think—do we print a new one off somewhere or—oh, here it is—do you think we should move the tag to somewhere else more noticeable? If that’s allowed? Miss Agatha, Miss Agatha, Miss Agatha...”

The new girl was just learning, of course. ‘Miss Agatha’ herself had asked a lot of those same questions, she was sure. Some of them probably more or less word for word, after replacing ‘Miss Agatha’ with ‘Mrs Narborough.’

As she sat in the car, her thoughts began to wander from the week at work passed to the weekend home ahead, and all of the free time she would get to spend with Harry—Hell, maybe if the weekend shook out to be nice enough she would quit on Monday, fuck it: Live Free Die Whenever, as she had once seen on a probably home-made bumper sticker, on the back of a mini van that was adorned with a truly masterful collage of various bumper stickers; she had followed that car around for about a minute reading as many as she could before she realized that if she kept at it she would soon be lost, and should get back to her course to the grocery store. They had been new to this place then. Now they were settled. Now, if she had had the opportunity to follow the mini van today instead of back then, she would not get lost anywhere here.

Agatha got out of the car, closed and locked the door behind herself, and went into the front door of the house. In the entryway, leaning back against the coat closet door, Harry stood in a tweed suit holding a bouquet of flowers, smiling at the Agatha who had finally stepped inside.

Agatha let out a sad, apologetic, drawn out noise, and asked, “Why do you think I’m mad at you?”

Harry gave a silent laugh, turning his head away into his armpit with a sharp exhale. He stood up from leaning against the coat closet door, and sauntered a few steps to stand face to face with his wife. “You, Mrs Wotton, are not mad at me: You are in fact quite pleased with me as we are going to stay in, smell these ridiculous flowers for a second each, and then watch one of the movies I rented for your consideration on this, our year and three quarters anniversary.”

Harry extended the flowers with both hands.

Agatha smiled as she snorted. “You’re such a dork!”

“Yeah well you chose to marry me, Mrs Dork, and this is what you get.”

Agatha took the indeed ridiculous flowers, stuck her nose into them, and breathed in. They smelled like flowers. It was a wholly unsurprising smell, and yet perhaps by way of this fact, they served their purpose well: they smelled lovely, and Agatha drew out her smelling of them for more than the instructed second, making the one inhale last as long as she could make it. When she was finished, she extended the bouquet out to Harry’s nose for his appraisal. He drew in a similar breath, and let it out with a smile that was trying very hard to be a serious, contemplative frown. “Flowers,” he asserted. “Quite,” Agatha concurred, and stepped forward and gave her dork husband a kiss.

She gave the flowers back to Harry as she sat down to take off her shoes. When she had done this and proceeded into the living room, she saw Harry fussing with getting the flowers into a vase on the dining room table. She called to him, “What movies did you get?”

“On the couch,” he called back, not looking up from his work.

Agatha went to the couch and picked up the four VHS tapes that sat in a neat stack on the leftmost cushion.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dirty Dancing, Groundhog Day, and Pulp Fiction—four movies straight from the top of Agatha and Harry’s shared ‘to watch’ list.

“What’s Pulp Fiction about?” Agatha called.

“I don’t know,” Harry said back at a rather regular volume and from nearer by than Agatha had expected, making her jump. “I think it’s kind of an action comedy thing,” he added.

She turned to him, and cursorily looked the Pulp Fiction tape over front and back. “Want to give it a try?”

“Absolutely,” Harry said. She extended the tape to him as he walked past. He took it, removed it from its case, and got everything set up as Agatha settled in on the couch.

With the tape placed inside of the VCR and playing from the start, Harry came over to the couch as well, and the two of them settled in together, and were soon watching Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta discussing quarter pounders with cheese.

The movie went on, with many gasps and laughs from the Wottons. Eventually, after John Travolta had jabbed an enormous syringe straight into the center of Uma Thurman’s chest, Harry commented, “This movie is amazing.”

“Do you have to pee?” Agatha asked. As rule, Harry did not comment on movies until he needed to get up for something—Though once this seal was broken, commentary on the remainder of the movie was usually fair game.

Harry gave Agatha a kiss on the side of the forehead and gently stood up from the couch. “Be right back.”

“You can pause it,” Agatha mentioned.

Harry did pause the movie, and went to the bathroom that was nearby to the drawing room to pee. When he returned and pressed play on the movie again, John Travolta and Uma Thurman stood in front of Uma’s house, talking about everything that had happened with them that night. Harry and Agatha settled in together once more.

As the conversation with Uma and John was drawing to a close, Uma with dried tears streaked down her face recited a joke. “Three tomatos are walkin down the street: papa tomato, mama tomato, baby tomato. Baby tomato starts laggin behind, and papa tomato gets really angry, goes back and squishes him—says, ‘ketchup’. …‘ketchup’.”

John gave a pity laugh, and then John and Uma found themselves at least smiling a little for real, in spite of the terrible night.

“See you around,” Uma said, and then turned and walked away towards her door, and the scene cut to a shot inside of the house, in a bedroom.

Woah,” Harry said.

Agatha took a second longer than Harry to realize what the scene had cut to: on a bed there was a woman in a black dress, and she was gently fingering the lady parts of a large female dog.

Oh,” Agatha agreed. “This movie does not stop surprising me.”

“No kidding,” Harry said, in agreement with that as well.

“Do we know her?” Agatha asked.

“I don’t think so. She wasn’t one of the drug dealer’s friends was she?”

“No, unless I missed one. Have we seen the dog?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What breed is that?”

“Uh, I don’t know,” Harry said. “Maybe a mix. Seems Boxer-ish and also kind of Lab-ish.”

As Harry and Agatha talked, the movie went on, showing sweeping shots of the woman and the dog together, close ups of the dog’s lady parts being fingered by a hand that glistened with some type of lubricant, and A B shots of the dog’s face and the woman’s face, smiling and reacting to each other. A cover of Earth Angel performed by a female vocalist played in the background.

“Is she supposed to be Mia Wallace’s sister or something?” Agatha wondered.

“I could see it,” Harry said, nodding.

Earth Angel faded out, and the woman stopped fingering the canine. The human and dog shared a mouth to mouth kiss, and when they parted, the movie showed a close up of their nearby mouths, as she whispered to the dog, “And mustard.”

Agatha snorted in a laugh, head reeling back in confusion. “Okay?

The movie cut away to the next title card—Prelude to “The Gold Watch”—and moved on to an entirely different scene, of a kid sitting in front of a TV in a living room in the daytime, watching cartoons.

In reference to the scene with the dog, Harry said, “Whether we do get an explanation for that scene or whether they never bring it up again, this movie is kind of genius.”

By the time the credits rolled, the movie did not give the Wottons an explanation for the fairly lengthy scene in Pulp Fiction of a dog being lovingly fingered; though the explanation did exist, and would in time be found out, and in fact made the beginnings of its appearance the next Monday while Agatha was at work.

 

 

ii

“So anyways,” Mrs Narborough said, coming to the conclusion of the story of her own weekend, “how was your weekend, Ag?”

Agatha and Mrs Narborough were in one of the store rooms, doing something that was in essence a form of taking inventory, though the regional managers liked to give these things more unhelpful names when they could accomplish it.

“It was good,” Agatha said with a smile, and paused to do some figuring. After writing down a number at the bottom of a column on a table on the paper on her clipboard, she continued. “Harry and I stayed in most of the weekend and watched a couple of movies. Pulp Fiction, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

“I, love, Pulp Fiction,” Mrs Narborough said. “It’s honestly my favorite thing ever made.”

“Ooh, really?”

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah it was great,” Agatha said honestly. “Can’t believe all the different things they tied together and made it still completely work.”

“I know! Which one was your favorite?”

“The gangster guy and the gangster guy’s boss’s girlfriend going on a date.”

“John Travolta and Uma Thurman. Yes. Same.”

“Really?”

“Uh huh.”

“And what was with that scene after that?” Agatha asked.

“After what?”

Agatha blushed slightly as she realized what she was bringing up with her boss, but in fairness Mrs Narborough had said the movie was her favorite thing ever made, and so Agatha continued on about the particular scene in the movie that she was talking about, while scanning the end of a pencil down the table on the paper on her clipboard. “After the two get back from after their date, after she tells him her joke, there’s that scene with the dog? Did that ever tie in to anything?”

“Dog? I... Are you talking about something in the background that I missed? I don’t remember any dogs in the entire movie.”

“You can not have missed this dog, she was extremely the focus of the entire scene.” As Agatha had to go on about it in specific terms, she could feel her cheeks absolutely burning up. She lowered her clipboard, glanced all around to make sure they were alone in the store room, and said quietly, “The scene where the woman is... fingering, her pet dog, on the bed?”

Mrs Narborough let out a piercing shriek of a laugh, and then covered her face with her clipboard.

As she eventually lowered it, her face was red with choked, silent laughter. Letting out high pitched wheezes, she dropped her clipboard, gently grabbed Agatha by both wrists, and eventually composed herself enough to say, “Ag—honey—I’m sorry, I do not think the movie you watched was Pulp Fiction.”

That night Agatha went straight home, got straight out of the car, and burst in through the front door to report this news to her beloved husband. She marched inside down the hall, and Harry came marching towards her in exactly the same fashion from the living room.

“That dog fucking scene isn’t in Pulp Fiction,” Agatha asserted, as though making an argument of the point.

“That scene of a beautiful mixed breed dog having her weird animal vaginal parts lovingly touched by a beautiful human woman’s lubricated fingers to both of their enjoyment and pleasure is absolutely not in any way shape or form in the 1994 major blockbuster movie Pulp Fiction directed by Quentin Tarantino,” Harry agreed, taking Agatha’s side of this argument that was now apparently occurring against some unknown third party—the universe, maybe, or the movie rental place that had given the tape to them. Harry had returned the tape yesterday.

“I—” Agatha began, and then vaguely held up the tape of Pulp Fiction that Mrs Narborough had lent to her as a trustworthy copy, and then lowered the tape back to her side again, and then leaned over and set it on the counter, apparently not needing it anymore.

“How did you find out?” Harry asked.

“Pulp Fiction is Mrs Narborough’s favorite movie.” Agatha glanced at the tape. “She did not recall that scene of a dog’s pussy getting played around with.”

Harry winced his mouth into a small o shape.

“How did you find out?” Agatha asked.

“Towards the end of my shift I had what sounds like it may have been a similar conversation with my boss also.”

Agatha winced her mouth into a small o shape as well.

The two of them stood in silence for a moment, both of their eyes soon settling on the tape that was placed on the counter.

“Is that the same—”

“It’s Mrs Narborough’s copy, not the copy we got from the rental place.”

“Ah,” Harry said.

The two stared at it for another contemplative moment.

Agatha sighed. “Should we... do anything? Call them and let them know what’s on that tape that they’re giving out to people?”

“It... I mean, we could call them and let them know, yes. We could do that if you wanted to.”

“Go on.”

“I think it’s a better cut of the movie with the dog scene?” Harry said, employing quite some degree of played up uncertainty—Agatha could quite plainly tell that her husband was not uncertain of his opinion in the least, though he was, in kindness, ready to drop the topic and let it go if she gave the slightest hint that it would be wise of him to stop saying the things that he was presently and tentatively saying. “Not better, I take that back actually, but more interesting,” Harry clarified.

Agatha nodded. “I agree.”

“Oh do you now?”

“I do,” Agatha said, and smiled a little, and shrugged. “What if we just leave it? Let the next person see this ‘interesting’ cut of the movie too?”

Agatha and Harry shared a kiss, and the two of them went to go start on making dinner.

 

 

iii

For a time of approximately five months, three weeks, and some small additional number of days beyond that, nothing more came of the tape that the Wottons had watched. It was, by their estimation, the strangest thing that had come into their lives in that time, but it was not the most worthy to remark upon: They had seen it, yes, but aside from the occasional speculation about whether the tape was still in circulation and whether some other unsuspecting couple was watching it right now and what, do you suppose, they think of it, there wasn’t much more about the tape to discuss. Harry got a promotion from engineer to project architect. Agatha had Thursdays dropped from her schedule at work in order to pursue painting lessons and generally other creative endeavors. The Wottons around this time were discussing at length whether they wanted to start trying for a baby—they both did want to start trying eventually, but were in agreement as to their tepid uncertainty that now was the right time. Many Saturdays, the two went out on dates, to lunch or to a park. One muggy Saturday afternoon, Harry and Agatha were in the midst of an enjoyable and very sweaty walk down a trail at a state park, when they walked around a bend in the trail, and Agatha stopped in her tracks and barred her arm out in front of Harry, stopping him in his tracks as well.

Up ahead, a woman sat at a bench. There was also a dog lying down at her feet. The woman wore athletic clothing, and had her long black hair back in a ponytail. The dog was panting; the dog happened to be facing the Wottons, and wagged at them as the panting and lying continued.

“That’s her,” Agatha said.

“Do I know her?” Harry asked.

The Wottons were both catching their breath a bit.

“She’s the woman from Pulp Fiction. With the dog.

Harry wheeled around to face away from the woman and the dog. “I think you’re right.”

“Wait, we are going to talk to her, aren’t we?” Agatha asked.

“Yes, I want to,” Harry agreed. “I’m just, actually nervous. I think we could have happened upon the entirety of the actual cast and it wouldn’t be as big of a deal to me as this.”

Agatha tugged at Harry’s wrist. Harry turned back to facing forward on the trail, and the Wottons approached.

The sweaty woman gave a polite though rather indifferent wave as the sweaty Agatha and the sweaty Harry neared. The dog continued to pant and wag, and seemed to be smiling at the approaching couple.

Agatha and Harry, both smiling as well, stopped in front of the woman.

“Hi,” Agatha said, and Harry also threw in a “Hi” of his own.

“Heya,” the woman said, and gave her little wave once again. “Need any water or anything?” she asked.

“I think we recognize you from somewhere,” Agatha said.

The woman did then smile a little too, and glanced away. “Oh yeah? Where from?”

Seeing the woman’s face up this close, Agatha felt absolutely certain that this was indeed the woman from the movie. Harry felt much the same way as his wife did, though more from looking at the dog.

“‘And mustard’,” Agatha whispered in her best impression.

The woman squirmed and gave a few little stomps as she smiled completely. “You’ve seen it!” she said. Looking down to the dog, she repeated, “Someone’s seen it!”

“Truly great performances,” Harry said. “Big fans. Always a pleasure to meet your heroes.”

“This is my husband Harry, my name is Agatha,” Agatha said, and extended her hand.

The woman shook the hands of each of the Wottons. “Dorian,” she said, introducing herself. Pointing down at the dog, she added, “And this comely young lady is Gray. Do you wanna say hi?”

The dog stood up and went to the Wottons. Harry crouched down and pet Gray, stroking down her back and rubbing at the front of her chest as she wagged. Agatha threw some approving headpats into the mix, and then turned her attention back to Dorian. “Do you mind if we sit down?”

“Please,” Dorian said, and made room.

Harry sat at one end of the bench, petting Gray who had come to sit in front of him. Agatha sat in the middle, with Dorian on the other far end.

“I suppose you’re wondering what the hell you watched on that tape,” Dorian said.

“We hadn’t seen it before, we legitimately thought it was part of the movie,” Harry mentioned.

Dorian fist pumped to herself.

“But yes,” Agatha went on, “after learning that was not part of the movie...” She looked back and forth between Gray and Dorian, and asked, “Is it a kink thing?”

“Art project,” Dorian said, and turned her head back to have a drink from her water bottle. “She and I are together—”

“Oh, alright.”

“—but if you’re asking about our apparently seamless appearance in Pulp Fiction, yeah, that was just an art project, not even my idea.”

“Oh, really?”

Dorian nodded. “Some friends of mine from New Mexico, going to art school there, they came up with this project to try to add in ridiculous scenes to movies but do it well enough to make it look like it was always supposed to be there. And apparently they thought of me and Gray.” She craned her head forward to look at Gray when she said the dog’s name. The dog wagged, and came over and laid down at her feet again. Dorian gave Gray a couple of pets down her back and then left her alone. “But yeah. Heh. It was fun to make for sure, and I’m sure my friends would love to talk with you sometime. As far as I’m aware you’re the first people ‘in the wild’ who have definitely seen any of these.”

“I love that idea,” Agatha said. She glanced both ways down the trail, and then asked, “Is it legal?”

“It is!” Dorian said. “A legal expert signed off on the project. Apparently as long as the movie you’re working with is labeled as rated R, you can show animal fun parts doing pretty much anything. It’s only human nudity that gets you in legal trouble.”

Harry chimed in to say, “Against store policy, surely.”

“Oh, yes,” Dorian nodded. “Fifty dollar fine for taping over any of the films, which my friends do have set aside and are more than happy to pay if the matter should come up.”

Agatha snickered, and shook her head.

Dorian looked both ways down the trail, and then leaned a bit closer, and said, “I also have an appearance in Reservoir Dogs if you want to see it.”

The Wottons looked to each other. As subtly as could be silently screamed, Harry’s eyes were pleading, as were Agatha’s.

Agatha turned to Dorian, and reported, “Absolutely we want to see.”

Arrangements were made to meet up at Dorian’s on next week’s Saturday. An address was written down and handed off, phone numbers were exchanged, and the two couples got back to continuing their hikes in opposite directions down the trail.

“I think I like her,” Agatha commented, when they had gotten a very far distance away so as not to be overheard.

“You sound a little surprised to,” Harry noted.

“I mean I’d like to get to know her more, but yeah. I am actually looking forward to meeting this lady and her dog again next week.”

 

 

iv

Agatha and Harry pulled up the driveway to Dorian and Gray’s.

“Nice place,” Harry commented.

“Really nice place,” Agatha agreed, and the two of them got out of the car.

Agatha went to the trunk, took out a rolled up poster, and brought it with as she and Harry proceeded up the little path from the side of the driveway to the front door.

When they rang the doorbell Gray answered first, coming scampering and barking. Eventually Dorian arrived after, and actually opened the door for the visitors.

“Hiii,” Dorian said, keeping Gray held back.

Harry crouched down. Dorian let Gray go, and the dog shot forward and said hello to the man, and to his wife who stood beside him, holding a rolled up poster high over her head, away from the dog. The dog, incidentally, had very much noticed this, and seemed to be considering jumping up on Agatha to see what the visitor was keeping from her.

Harry reached up and took the poster from Agatha, and handed it over to Dorian.

“What’s this?” Dorian asked, holding it.

“Open it and see,” Agatha encouraged.

Dorian worked off the rubber band that was around the poster’s center, and unrolled the thing.

Dorian gasped.

The poster was the movie cover for Pulp Fiction, but instead of featuring Uma Thurman on the bed, it featured the actors from the added scene, the human woman in a black dress and her canine counterpart. The human and the dog both laid on their chests beside each other and looked towards the viewer with a distant, disapproving but almost seductive gaze.

Dorian looked between Agatha and Harry. “Did you—”

Agatha raised her hand. “I paint. After I did that one I had it scanned and printed. I can give you the original too.”

“Oh my god. Well, thank you. This is really impressive.”

“Oh yeah and you only make movies.”

Dorian snickered, and carefully rolled the poster back up. “Would you two have any interest in grabbing lunch before we watch the movie? I know of a couple places near here. Or we could order delivery.”

Agatha and Harry looked to each other, and each made a face that said they were agreeable to that. “Yeah we could eat,” Agatha said, turning back to Dorian.

“Want to walk?” Dorian asked Agatha, though Gray, also hearing this, gave a vehement ‘yes’ of a bark. Dorian smiled and shook her head, and added, “It’s like half a mile. Dogs are allowed inside, but honestly the weather’s nice enough we could sit outside anyways.”

The Wottons agreed to this. Dorian clipped a leash onto Gray, and the four proceeded out of the house, and began away down the street on foot.

“I found this place when I first moved here a couple years ago,” Dorian mentioned, in reference to the cafe that they were heading for. “I have no idea what they do differently to everywhere else, but they have kind of the best sandwiches I’ve had in my life. Like, consistently. I have not once had bad food here.”

“No pressure, then,” Harry said.

“Do you two live around here? I think you said you do.”

“Other side of the city, but yes, not far in the scheme of things.”

When the four had arrived at the cafe, Dorian cupped a hand over her eyes and pressed her face against the window to look inside past the reflective glare that the sun made on the rest of the window otherwise. Apparently catching someone’s attention she gave a wave, and then a thumbs up. “We can sit down,” she said to the Wottons.

The three humans took seats around a round wooden table, and the dog remained standing for the time being, nearby to the human who had hold of her leash.

“May I ask what it is you do?” Harry inquired.

Dorian planted her chin in her cupped hands. “What, like, job, hobbies, interests?”

“Anything notable that passes the time of modern living for you.”

Dorian learned back in her chair, tipping it so it stood on just the back two legs. “For hobbies, tennis and running. For a job, computer programmer.”

“Oh really,” Harry said, and now he leaned forward. “I’m curious how similar our jobs are.”

“Yeah?”

“Architect.”

“Oh, interesting. I think mine is more boring than you would guess, actually, but it does pay the bills, that’s for sure.” Dorian looked to Agatha, and asked, “Painter, you said?”

“Well, not as a job.”

“What? Hey, why not?”

Agatha shrugged, and smiled down at the table.

Harry leaned in with his wife, and mentioned, “Really might be something to look into in the coming months, if it’s something you think you might be interested in.”

Agatha gave Harry a kiss on the cheek, and then, turning back to Dorian, explained, “We’re going to start trying for a baby.”

“Oh! That’s exciting. Do you have any kids already?”

“This would be the first,” Agatha said. She and Harry held hands, one over the other, on the tabletop.

Shortly after that moment, a waiter came out and handed out menus and took drink orders and gave Gray a pat on the head, then returned inside.

As the humans looked over their menus, Harry said, “So, do you and Gray have any puppies?”

Agatha elbowed Harry.

“As a matter of fact we do,” Dorian said, and set down her menu. “I am not their biological mother, though. We ‘borrowed’ a stud dog for a little while and, hey whadaya know, puppies. They’re grown now though, all off to other homes. Some of the families do still send us Christmas cards.”

The waiter returned with drinks, took every human’s orders, collected the menus, gave a treat to Gray who very clearly knew from past experiences that he would be giving her a treat, and departed again back into the building.

“Agatha has a mean serve, you know.”

Agatha rolled her eyes. “I had an okay serve, back when we were in college. I haven’t swung a tennis racket in about two years.”

“Would you want to sometime?” Dorian asked.

“Honestly?” Agatha said. “Kinda.”

“We should!” Dorian said. “Let me know when, I can make the time.”

Agatha had a sip from her lemonade, and Harry had a sip from his soda.

Dorian, the Wottons then noticed, had two glasses of water in front of her, one with ice cubes and a straw, the other with just water and nothing besides. Dorian took a sip from the water with the straw, and as she did, Gray came and sat down beside her, looking actually rather polite. Gray picked up the unadorned glass of water and began pouring it out in front of Gray’s face: Gray turned her head and began lapping at the stream, and finished off the glass of water in one go, albeit with half of the water ending up on the ground.

“Have either of you two ever had dogs?” Dorian asked, and took another sip of her own water.

“No, I never did,” came Agatha’s answer, while Harry said, “The family had a couple growing up.”

Agatha then added, “I did have hamsters, if that counts for anything.”

Dorian laughed a little. “I wasn’t trying to keep score or anything, just curious. What were your hamsters like?”

“Cute,” Agatha answered. “Digging holes, hiding things in their cheeks, running on their wheels. You know, hamster stuff.”

The waiter emerged with a tray of food.

“Oh, that was fast,” Harry commented.

Three plates were set down in front of the three humans, as well as a bowl of many various meat scraps set down in front of Dorian to be given to Gray. The waiter also set down a new unadorned glass of water in front of Dorian, and again went back into the building.

Dorian set Gray’s bowl down in front of her, and the dog began wolfing everything down. As Gray ate, Dorian looked to the Wottons expectantly. “After you,” she said.

Harry bit into his sandwich. “Holy mackerel.”

Dorian glanced to Agatha.

Agatha bit into her sandwich as well. “What the fuck, did they do to make this so good?”

“Right??”

Agatha did then cover her mouth with her hand, and, continuing to talk with her mouth full, added, “Pardon my language.”

“What? Oh, yes, language. I was very offended, but apology accepted.” She then began eating her sandwich as well, and the four of them made short work of their lunches.

When the meal was over and paid for—Dorian in the end managed to insist on the bill, leaving as a compromise that the Wottons could leave as generous a tip as they wanted—the four made the short return walk back to Dorian and Gray’s house, and all proceeded inside, Gray being taken off the leash once all were in.

“In spite of being such a movie star,” Dorian pretended to boast, “I don’t actually watch many movies. So my theater set up is just, y’know, a TV in the living room if that’s alright.”

“Lead the way,” Agatha encouraged.

Dorian did lead the way down the hall, and into a living room furnished all around with couches and chairs, a fire place against one wall, and the promised television set against an adjacent wall. Hung up on all four walls were many framed pictures of dogs, horses, goats, and various other animals as one might see on a farm. On the floor were an assortment of rugs that one might well not in the least mind taking a nap on.

One of the couches, comfortably big enough for three, was centered in front of the television set. Gray went and laid down in front of this couch, and Dorian invited the Wottons to have a seat.

“I already have it set up to just before our scene,” Dorian mentioned, turning on the VCR.

Harry and Agatha glanced to each other. Harry mentioned to Dorian, “We actually haven’t seen the original Reservoir Dogs at all.”

“What!” Dorian exclaimed. “Okay, look away from the screen then, I’m rewinding it to the beginning. Unless you two need to be going actually, I wasn’t trying to take up all of your time today—”

“No, not at all!” Agatha said, she and Harry both averting their eyes from the screen as instructed. “We’ll stay if you’ll have us.”

“Awesome. This isss going to take a minute to rewind. Do you want anything? Popcorn, drinks?”

Harry and Agatha again looked to each other. “We’re usually good without snacks when we watch movies at home,” Harry said, “but we are in no way averse to the idea either. We’ll have what you’re having.”

“Not exactly traditional movie food, but I was actually going to have some coffee I think,” Dorian said.

“Oh, now that you mention it I could really go for a cup too,” Harry said, and Agatha concurred with, “Same.”

“And. The. Movie. Issss. Al. Most. Reeeee... Wound, done. Okay, I’ll be right back out with coffee and then we’ll start this.”

Dorian departed from the living room, leaving the Wottons alone with their host’s better half, who laid in front of the couch with her chin buried in the carpet, eyes closed.

Agatha curled up close beside Harry, and in her smallest whisper, asked, “Is this weird?”

Harry whispered back, “Existence? Yes.”

This,” Agatha insisted. “I’m pretty sure we’re about to watch that dog get fingered. Like, again. It seems weirder to watch knowing it’s coming, and knowing it’s not actually part of the movie.”

“Should it?” Harry asked. “Seem weirder?”

“I don’t know,” Agatha whispered. “That’s kind of my point, is that I don’t know.”

“Do you want to leave?” Harry asked. “Give me a signal and I will extract us as politely or expeditiously as you want.”

Agatha leaned forward and looked down at the sleeping canine for a moment. Above all other things, the dog in that moment appeared to be, in Agatha’s estimation, as contented as a creature of any sort at all in the world possibly could be.

Agatha leaned back in with Harry, and added in yet another whisper, “She is a mother, apparently.”

“I think it’s fine,” Harry agreed. “At least going on what we saw in the last film, assuming this one goes along the same tracks. I remember when we were watching that scene and we still thought it was part of the movie, one of the things that struck me as the entire point of the scene was how caring the woman was to the dog, how loving, how empathetic she was to this creature who traditionally would be considered ‘below’ her. It seemed like everything was for the dog’s—Gray’s, as we now know—It seemed like everything was for Gray’s enjoyment, and nothing else.”

“Don’t let me think it gets you too excited, dear,” Agatha said, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. After a moment, she asked, “Actually, like completely for real now, would you do that? With a dog?”

“You’re asking that question about two years and ninety five days too late for the answer to be anything other than an unqualified no, my love,” Harry said, and kissed his wife on the cheek as she had kissed him. “But back before I found that lovely young woman at the tennis courts who would let me awkwardly try to flirt with her?” Harry gave a hum, and then a sigh, and then a head wobble as he considered it. “I really don’t think I would ever be interested in an escapade with the tetra-legged. Maybe if one had ever begged me enough and made puppy dog eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to say no just for her sake.”

“Really really?” Agatha asked. “No joking, I want to know if you actually could have done that—say it was before you had ever met me. Swear, I’m not trying to make it a jealousy thing, I just want to know.”

“I do think I could figure out the mechanics and perform some very robot-esque service if it seemed sufficiently demanded of me, yes. But you know I tend to be much happier with words than with actions. I wouldn’t be happy for a minute with a girlfriend who didn’t appreciate my goings on, and who didn’t have at least a fighting chance of talking my ear off as much as I talk off hers.”

Agatha gave Harry another kiss. “I didn’t realize I still had things to learn about you, Mr Wotton. I thought you had blabbered everything there could possibly be to blabber about.”

“Just wait until you get me in the same room as a goat, Miss Agatha.”

“Oh stop,” Agatha said, and playfully pulled away from her husband who playfully continued to cling to her.

“Til death do us part, but some things—those things being goats, of course—a man can’t be held responsible.”

“You shut up, you’re going to embarrass me in front of my new friend.”

Harry did drop the subject of goats, and on the subject of dogs, only returned briefly to add, “I suppose the succinct version of my thoughts on the matter of sensuality au canine would be to say that I feel no attraction, but I also feel no revulsion either. Which is how it goes with most things, I like to think. They merely are, it merely is, I merely am, and other such materialist drivel.”

“Quite,” Agatha affirmed, in hopes of actually shutting her husband up about the topic before Dorian did make her return. Switching the topic and no longer whispering, she asked, “Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs—Wait, do I have that right? This one is Reservoir Dogs? Re-ser-voir?”

“Reservoir, yes. This movie is Reservoir Dogs.”

“Aren’t Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs written by the same guy?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Starring the same people?”

“Oh I’m not sure.”

“Do you think that’s part of the art project thing? That they’re both from the same writer?”

“We could ask,” Harry suggested.

Before much longer, Dorian did return with coffee for the humans, pressed play on the VCR, and settled in on her side of the couch—Gray scooched onto Dorian’s toes as the human was settling in. Dorian reached down and pet her partner a few times.

“Is this the same writer as Pulp Fiction?” Harry asked.

“It is,” Dorian affirmed.

“Was that part of the reasoning in choosing which films the two of you would make your appearances in?”

Dorian produced an amused contemplative face, and tilted her head. “I think it was kind of a coincidence actually, but you’d have to ask my friends. It really was them who set most of this up, we really did just play our roles as actors.”

Harry was prepared to raise another question, but as the dialogue of the opening scene began, he dropped the questioning and watched.

A while into the movie there were two men in a car: one of them had been shot and was panicking, and the other—the driver—was trying to calm the shot man down. At a certain point the scene cut to an exterior shot, and showed the car careening off the road and down into a dried up concrete river. The camera rotated to follow the car as it continued along down the concrete, but in rotating, the camera came to Dorian and Gray closer in the foreground—Dorian wore a sharp black suit, and was on her knees on the concrete fingering her partner who stood there and received the stimulation. The camera lingered on the two new characters, and allowed the car to continue driving out of the frame. Eventually, in a continuous shot, the camera came closer up to Gray’s sexual parts and Dorian’s fingers working their way in and out of them in an almost business-like fashion. Eventually Gray seemed to lose interest in the fingering, and she turned to kiss Dorian. The woman and the dog did begin making out—“improvised,” Dorian commented from the couch—until eventually, the sound of a car’s motor could be heard growing louder again, and then the same car as before returned into the frame, drove back up out of the dried up concrete river where it had gone in, and the camera rotated away from the woman and the dog to resume following the car. Suddenly there was a cut back to the car’s interior, and the dialogue between the shot man and the driver continued.

“Amazing,” Harry said.

Agatha gave a golf clap, and Harry joined in. Dorian did a small bow, inasmuch as she could without getting up from the couch.

“But yeah,” Dorian said. “Some copy of that might still be in rental circulation somewhere. Dunno. What do you think, Gray?”

Gray looked up at Dorian. Dorian bent forward, and Gray stuck her tongue out and the woman and the dog shared a little kiss before Gray then turned away and planted her chin on the soft rug again. Dorian gave her a few strokes down the back and then sat upright again.

The Wottons remained at Dorian and Gray’s a while longer, chatting on this and that, and Agatha arranged a tennis date with Dorian for the following Thursday evening.

 

 

v

A couple of months passed. It was a Sunday morning, and the Wottons were lounging in the living room, Harry reading a book on Kierkegaardian philosophy, Agatha reading a newspaper.

“Mets won their last game,” Agatha mentioned.

“Oh good,” Harry said.

“Harry I will clean every room of this house spotless right now if you can tell me what sport the Mets play.”

Harry lowered his book, and looked up at the ceiling. “Hockey?”

“No, dear.”

“Well.” He shrugged, and went back to his reading.

With a smile and a shake of the head, Agatha went back to her reading as well.

Shortly after that moment, the phone rang. Harry, being closer to the nearest receiver, answered the phone call. “Yellow.”

“Hi Harry,” came a friendly voice.

“Dorian, hello,” he said, and then looked over to his wife and mouthed the name ‘Dorian,’ which received an eye roll and a thumbs up.

“Is Agatha there? I wanted to talk to you both.”

Harry pressed a button. “Got you on speaker. Agatha, Dorian, Dorian, Agatha.”

“Hi Dorian!”

“Hello! You two won’t believe the enigmatic troupe of people who have just arrived in town.”

The Wottons looked to each other. Agatha shrugged, and Harry shrugged as well. Harry asked into the receiver, “Who would that be?”

“Only my film friends.”

Agatha made an excited noise. “When do we get to meet them?” she asked.

They get to meet you at your soonest convenience at my house,” Dorian answered. “If this arrangement is agreeable, of course.”

Harry held down a mute button on the phone, and turned to Agatha. “Right now?”

“Right now,” Agatha said with several nods.

Harry released the button on the phone. “How does immediately sound, Mrs Dorian and Mrs Gray?”

“Most agreeable, Mr Wotton. You are as always welcome any time. Take care.”

With that, the line went dead, and Harry hung up their end as well.

“Was she making fun of me?” Harry asked.

“Making fun of you in what way?”

“Enigmatically, I just feel I was the butt of something.”

“I’m sure it’s all in good fun, dear,” Agatha said, and gave Harry a kiss on the cheek.

The two of them made brief work of getting ready and getting into the car, and making the short drive across the city to the Dorian-Gray residence.

When they arrived, they found two vans parked outside, and several people in very cute or very ratty clothing standing in front of the garage smoking. Dorian and Gray stood outside with everyone, though neither of them held a cigarette at present.

The Wottons parked on the street, and stepped happily up to meet this new host of long spoken about strangers.

“Basil,” one of them said as they walked up, making quite a coordinated shuffle of blowing out a plume of smoke to the side, moving their cigarette to the other hand, and extending a hand out to shake with the Wottons. Basil introduced everyone who was there, and Harry and Agatha introduced themselves.

Many compliments were given and questions asked all around.

“We were about to do a shoot for a third movie pretty soon here if you wanted to join us,” Basil offered.

“Oh?” Agatha inquired.

The impenetrably androgynous individual nodded, and then looked Harry up and down, and said after blowing smoke out of the side of their face, “You might not be a bad fit for one of the roles, actually.”

“What film?” Harry asked.

“Army of Darkness—”

“I. am. in,” Harry said, and stepped forward and shook Basil’s free hand in both of his.

“Harry, you should ask what the scene is—”

Harry unhanded Basil, and said promptly, “I do demand to know what the scene is before agreeing to this.”

Basil went to one of the vans, opened up the back, and returned with a rubber mask of a face that was comically stretched out vertically—the stretched out face of Bruce Campbell, the star of Army of Darkness.

“You know the part where he gets sucked into the book?”

“Off my heart.”

“We’re gonna add a scene that takes place inside of the book. Dude gathers his bearings, stands up, walks down a short hall, and sees Dorian fingerbanging Gray there.”

At this Basil gave a high wave to Dorian and Gray, who had moved to the yard and were standing with a ring of people who were drinking. Dorian waved back, and Gray wagged, and came over.

Basil went on. Harry crouched and pet Gray as Basil did so go on: “We get a bunch of over the shoulder shots of him raising his hand like he’s about to interrupt, but then he gives it up, walks back down the hall the way he came in, and jumps back out of the book. We were going to have James play the role, but he’s a bitch!” The last part was said loudly over to the other group, apparently for James’s interest.

One of the young men, probably James, lifted up a middle finger over his head without looking.

Harry stood up from petting Gray. He leaned in with Agatha, and said, “It is a bit risqué.”

“He doesn’t join at all?” Agatha asked Basil.

“Nah,” Basil answered. “Mrs and Mrs wouldn’t be into it.”

“Oh you kids have fun,” Agatha said, and shoved Harry lightly forward.

Basil received Harry by grabbing him by the wrist, and raising Mr Wotton’s hand up high as though a wrestling match had just been won. “Mount up!” Basil shouted to everyone, “We have our Bruce!”

Cheers and claps came from all around. Harry met Dorian’s eyes, though only briefly before Dorian blushed and put her head down in her hand.

“On set by eleven, rolling by noon!” Basil called to everyone, and at that point they lowered Harry’s hand and went off to one of the two vans that awaited.

“This really is alright?” Harry asked Agatha discretely, as a river of art students poured around them.

“I know it’s just fun between friends,” Agatha said. “Really, don’t touch them while they’re literally in the act and I don’t even care in the least.”

“Gray is very friendly, I do need you to confirm there’s no cooldown time between ‘in the act’ and me being permitted to pet her.”

“I trust you, dear, I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Dorian joined in with the conversation between the Wottons. “Mind if we catch a ride with you two?”

“Please,” Agatha said, and the four proceeded to the Wottons’ iron chariot.

“Crash course, what do I need to know about being an actor?” Harry asked from the driver’s seat, as he pulled out onto the street to follow after the departing vans.

“You’ll be more embarrassed if you don’t go for it than if you do go for it.”

“Wonderful, I feel possessed by the theatrical spirit already. Anything else?”

“The director is right.”

“Perfect.”

A short while later, the two vans and the car pulled into the otherwise empty and weed-ridden parking lot of a vaguely industrial, corporate, brutalist cement building.

Everyone piled out of their vehicles. Basil lead a parade of actors and observers and people holding film equipment into the building—there were no front doors and there was in fact a lot of water damage and evidence of wild animals having at least passed through at some stage in the time since the doors had gone missing. The parade proceeded down a large stairwell, and at the bottom of this stairwell, they found a small concrete room wherein the stairs ended, a small concrete hallway, and a small room on the other side thereof.

Lighting and cameras and boom mics were arranged. Harry was given his wardrobe, and went around the corner with Agatha to change. She carefully pulled the rubber mask down over his face, made sure it was aligned correctly, stepped back, and then doubled over laughing.

“Was zo funny, doll?” Harry asked, doing his best Bruce.

“Stop!” Agatha squealed, unable to get up from the floor.

Harry did stop, and offered her a hand for when she was ready.

When she was, she accepted it, and Harry helped her to her feet. The two returned around the corner. Harry, aware of all the eyes on him, stopped and did a pose of shooting finger guns out to either side.

“Yes!” Basil said. “Ohhh my god yes. Places, everyone, we’re starting in two minutes. That means places now.”

Harry did take notice of the bed, or perhaps altar, that had been constructed in the non-stairwell room while he had been changing. Coming up to waist level was a platform draped in red cloth, and decorated on top with a careful arrangement of black and crimson pillows and blankets. Around the platform were poles from which red gauzy curtains hung, like an old-timey bed. In all, the platform was the most thoroughly lit thing on the set, sufficiently attention-grabbing for purpose.

As Basil had called places, Dorian lifted Gray onto the platform, and the two found their places on the platform’s center, Gray standing upright on all fours, Dorian in a red dress lying on her side behind her, propped up on an elbow to have her face level with the mixed breed dog’s sexual organs. Noticing the Wottons looking, Dorian gave a big smile and a friendly wave.

“Mr Campbell?” Basil called.

Harry wheeled around, and then followed the beckoning director. Agatha lingered back with the other observers, out of line of sight with the upcoming shots.

In the other room, vines had been hung from all the stair railings, including those far above, such that they hung down from overhead into the frame. Standing face to rubber face in this room-like area, Basil gave Harry the rundown. “We’re here to get four shots, three starring you. The first one, you’re sitting in the center of this room on your ass, legs straight out to either side, head rolling around a little. Camera’s gonna do a tilting blurry thing and make it clear that your dizzy, you’ve just been dropped into this place, you don’t know what’s going on yet. Got it?”

“Got it.”

Basil gave Harry a pat with both hands onto both shoulders, and then stepped back, calling, “Places!” one last time.

Harry took a seat on his ass, as instructed.

“Hands limp at your sides, wrists up!”

Harry adjusted his arms.

“Rolling? Action!”

Harry lolled his head around for what seemed like a long time, but, the director was right.

“Cut!” Basil called. “Look good on your end?”

Someone behind the camera nodded.

Basil came forward and knelt with Harry. “Okay, this next one is your main shot. We’re cutting to a new angle, closer up on your face. You’re going to stop rolling your head, touch your fingers to your face—just a little bit, you don’t have to mug about it or anything, just kind of feel it and quickly accept it—and then stand up, walk down the hall with maybe a little stagger once or twice, and then stop at the threshold of the next room. Camera will be following behind you. Watch Dorian and Gray doing what they really do do such a good job of. Raise your hand every now and then like you’re about to try to cut in and get their attention, but never do. We’ll be intercutting this with close ups of Dorian and Gray, so we’ll leave it rolling here on your part for longer than we’ll actually need to use, and we’ll take the best parts. Eventually when I call it, do one last hand raise, visibly give up, and turn back down the hall.”

Everyone got into their proper places, Basil called action, and the scene went smoothly as described: after staggering down the hall, Harry stood and watched his new human friend perform very thorough cunnilingus on his new dog friend; every so often, he raised his hand as if to stop them, and they went on as though they couldn’t see him there. When they had as many takes as they wanted, Basil gave the call, and Harry gave one last hand-raise, lowered his hand and slumped forward for a brief moment, and then turned and went back down the hall.

Afterwards they quickly filmed Harry’s last scene, which only involved setting up a new camera angle from the other corner and lower down, and then having Harry jump up as though he were jumping all the way back up the stairwell. He made it one, possibly two entire inches off of the ground—apparently with some very clever freezeframing, cutting, and audio design, this would be sufficient to make it seem like he had jumped all the way up the stairwell and back out of the book.

The final shot of the night was the close-ups of Dorian and Gray. Harry and Agatha stood side by side, hand in hand, alongside many others, watching as the woman made her partner’s female dog parts look as appetizing as anything in the whole wide world.

When Basil called cut, a round of applause came. Gray wagged, and Dorian stood and gave a curtsy.

As everyone packed up, Harry disappeared around a corner to change back into his street clothes, and Agatha followed after him to make sure that he knew his anatomy was every bit appreciated by her as Gray’s was by Dorian. During, Harry’s mind wandered to the previously seen acts less than he expected—hardly at all, except for two brief times when he felt like it maybe should be on his mind and he tried to impose it on the present circumstances, but then it slipped from his thoughts without his even realizing it, as the present moment more strongly allured his facile and fickle attention. Agatha felt similarly during, though had tried to impose thoughts of human on canine cunnilingus four times during, to still equal unsuccess, and also to less feelings of wanting to gag than she might have expected some time prior—having known Dorian and Gray for some while, and now having seen the act personally for some time, it was, in the most benevolent usage of the word, nothing. One private shoot and change of clothes later, and the Wottons returned up the stairwell, out of the building, and returned the cloak and mask back to Basil, who bowed as they accepted it.

As all of the art students were getting back into the vans, the Wottons, Dorian, and Gray began ambling back towards the car that they had arrived in.

“Well that was fun,” Dorian said, conspicuously looking forward off into the distance instead of looking at the Mr or the Mrs directly.

“That looked fun,” Agatha said, and then stooped down to give Gray a few pats as they walked. “How was it for you?” she asked the dog.

The dog did not answer, though in the moment, it had indeed seemed to look like fun from start to finish.

The four got into the car.

“What’s the turnaround time for these like?” Harry asked. “How many years before my debut on the—”

“Years!” Dorian interrupted, and shuddered as she put on her seatbelt. “We’ll probably be watching the tape a few hours after we get back and then we’ll drop it off later tonight.”

When all had arrived back at the house, large quantities of alcoholic beverages were put up for grabs in the kitchen as Basil and a select few others marched upstairs with the tapes.

“Care for anything?” Dorian offered the Wottons. Dorian herself held one of her water bottles. “White wine?” she offered Agatha. Looking to Harry, she noted, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you drink, Mr Watton.”

“Well, perhaps I’ve earned a beer and a shot of whiskey.”

“Okay macho man,” Agatha said, and then gave Harry a kiss. “Let’s start you off with a beer and see if I’m not holding your hair back in an hour.”

“Wise,” Harry acknowledged, and grabbed a beer from off the counter. He twisted off the top, and had a long and shallow sip of the cold and revolting beverage. Agatha accepted the glass of white wine that Dorian offered, though then remembering that she and Harry were trying, she set the glass of wine down on the counter shortly after Dorian departed to go speak with someone elsewhere, and left it there as she and Harry made their leave of the kitchen as well.

Finding an unoccupied love seat in the living room, Harry and Agatha sat down together and eavesdropped on the gossip of all of these strangers who surrounded them.

Some hours later, Basil and their company marched back down the stairs with the copies of the tapes in hand, and applause resounded through the room. The rest of the night was marked with many occasions for applause—applause at the movie being placed into the VCR, applause at the movie starting, applause at Bruce Campbell’s many one-liners, uproarious applause when Bruce was sucked into the book, applause and whistling at Dorian and Gray, and applause when the credits began to roll.

Basil, Dorian, Gray, Agatha, and Harry all climbed into one of the vans, as well as a couple of the other art students, and the seven of them were deacclimated from the party with a final sparser round of applause from those who were outside as they drove off. Agatha and Harry held hands on the drive.

When they had arrived at their destination, it was dark out. Basil parked across the street from the movie rental place, and began walking across the street with the rented tape in hand. The other occupants of the van piled out, and lingered around the van, watching into the store windows as casually as they could manage while one of the art students somewhat casually filmed. Casually, Basil went into the store, set the tape on the counter, and returned the picture of Dorian/Gray.

The Tale of Erskine Faern

A street in the Town of Terreh
Thomas Faern is 14

The Faerns’s cart, stacked tall with barrels of pine syrup, was drawn by a pair of mules. Thomas’s Ma and Da rode on the seat at the front of the cart. Thomas walked alongside. They had come from their farm at the break of dawn that day. As they neared Terreh’s riverport, it was getting into the evening. A woman in white robes with black holy symbols slowly moved from one side of the street to the other, lighting the streetlamps with a candle balanced atop a tall wooden rod. Thomas had a keen eye for the symbols. On the left shoulder of the robe was an intricate outline of a human heart, with a thick line stitched across it. On the right shoulder was the outline of a human brain, and a line stitched through it vertically. On the sleeves were stitched the corresponding arm bones that would be below them. On the body were stitched dozens of faces with the eyes made to look sewn shut. This light-bearer was an acolyte of the temple of the death queen.

Thomas realized that he had stopped walking to stare. He jogged to catch up with the wagon, coming up with an excuse along the way—he would say that he’d thought he’d seen something fall off the cart and was trying to retrieve it, but he must have been mistaken. When he caught up, it was of no matter. His parents had not realized he had gone. Thomas was the youngest of four, though for quite some time, he was more or less an only child. His older siblings had each disappeared on trips to Terreh in years past, while Thomas had stayed at home. Jack had died in an inn collapse. Moira had run off into the woods and was never found. Danielle had fallen in love and run off with a strange man. Thomas had his doubts about all of these tales.

At the port, Thomas stood beside Ma while Da had a long conversation with a ferryman. After some time—many eons, by Thomas’s estimation—the ferryman counted out a sum of silver coins into a sack and handed it to Da. Thomas and Da got to work unloading the barrels onto the ferryman’s boat. When the work was finished, Da handed Thomas a silver coin. “Get your Ma and you a meal,” he instructed. “Bring me back the change.”

Thomas nodded, took the coin, and he and his Ma walked off.

After a short while, raindrops began to sprinkle. Thomas and Ma looked up at the dark night sky.

“I’ll get the umbrella,” Thomas offered, and jogged back to the cart.

There at the cart, Thomas grabbed the umbrella, but he also happened to overhear Da and the ferryman in conversation.

“The boy’s worth double that,” Da said.

“He ain’t,” said the ferryman, who had lit a cigar and held it in his mouth as he talked. “Scrawny. You did near all the work yourself with the barrels. Thirty silver.”

Da gave a contemplative groan, mulling the offer over.

All at once, the rain grew from sprinkles to downpour. Thomas opened the umbrella and walked away from Da, away from Ma, into parts unknown of Terreh. He wondered whether he was following in the footsteps of any of his older siblings, or if they had all been whisked away by the ferryman unawares. Thomas stomped through the forming puddles. Eventually he found an alley to sit in and cry in relative private, aside from a few others who had taken shelter in the alley to escape the rain.

One of the others, seemingly an older man though it was hard to tell in the dark, was drinking from a bottle and grumbling to himself. Thomas sat with his head down, ignoring him.

The grumbling grew louder, until eventually Thomas heard distinctly that the man was calling out, “Oi! Kid!”

Thomas pretended he couldn’t hear.

The man started insulting Thomas, calling him a bum, a starving no good no work orphan, a brat, a spoiled brat, anything to raise Thomas’s ire.

From behind him, reverberating through the wall, Thomas could hear the rising of a steady clap, and then a hearty chorus of voices singing. Thomas got up. The man got up too. Thomas ran out of the alley, brushing past the others, and darted into the common room of the inn.

Just inside the door a meaty hand caught Thomas’s chest, knocking the wind out of him.

“All booked up tonight,” said a thickset man, seeming bored. He looked down at Thomas, and seemed to realize he might have been mistaken. “Are you that fishmonger’s lad?”

Thomas nodded.

“Apologies, sir,” the man said, still seeming bored, but he stepped aside.

Thomas walked briskly into the inn and disappeared among the dense crowd. He snickered as behind him, he heard the drunk man calling after him but being stopped at the door.

Standing on a table at the center of the room, there was a man dressed from head to toe in ribbons of red, green, and yellow. Strapped to his side was a drum, which he struck slowly in time to lead the beat of the clapping patrons. He was in the midst of leading them in a song, singing a line which the crowd then shouted atonally back. Feeling sufficiently anonymous in the crowd, Thomas joined in on the fun.

“Yoho diddle doe diddle dum diddle deer!”

YOHO diddle DOE diddle DUM diddle DEER!

 

“Our man Johnny bought the dancer two pints of beer!”

Our MAN Johnny BOUGHT the dancer TWO pints of BEER!

 

Spilled half of each as he was ogling her rear!”

SPILLED half of EACH as he was OGLING her REAR!

 

“Spilled the rest on her bosom and his heart filled with fear!”

Spilled the REST on her BOSOM and his HEART filled with FEAR!

 

“Yoho diddle doe diddle dum diddle daughter!”

YOHO diddle DOE diddle DUM diddle DAUGHTER!

 

“Just then down the stairs came the dancing girl’s father!”

Just THEN down the STAIRS came the DANCING girl’s FATHER!

The song continued on a long time. Eventually the man in the ribbons stopped beating on the drum, but kept the crowd clapping in time by clapping his own hands high above his head for a few beats. As the crowd went on, the man unstrapped the drum, and then seemingly from nowhere, produced a slew of colorful balls which he began juggling. Members of the crowd whistled while others continued to clap, and Thomas just stared in awe, unable to even count the number of balls the man kept up. With his foot, the man began stomping in double time, and the crowd followed suit, doubling the pace of their clap. The man stopped juggling the balls in one big arc and instead juggled in two separate little circles, one with each hand. The crowd whistled as he crouched down low to the table, the backs of his hands nearly touching the surface, and then rose up and up to his tippy toes, the balls nearly hitting the ceiling. Coming back to center, the man juggled in a way that Thomas could not make heads or tails of: the balls danced in a variety of arcs from hand to hand, but always there came one to rest centered at the man’s chest, seeming to pause there impossibly for multiple seconds before resuming its arc and being replaced by a new ball of a different color. Thomas noticed as the man quickly crouched between tosses to grab something off of the table. Whatever it was, the man was now lighting the balls on fire one by one until they all were ablaze. The crowd cheered and cheered, although those nearest the man backed off a good distance, and many began eyeballing the exit. Thomas stepped forward to take the place of those who had left the front row.

Still juggling the flaming balls, the man in the ribbons looked down at Thomas, sweating and wearing a wide smile. “I like your bravery, son,” the man said, speaking over the crowd just loud enough for Thomas to hear. “Catch!”

From the whirling arcs, one lone flaming ball left the pattern in an easy lob towards Thomas. On reflex Thomas caught the ball, which went out in his hands.

The crowd roared for Thomas. Thomas, beaming, turned to them, holding the ball in a hand high above his head. Then remembering that he wished to remain relatively unnoticed in this place where he actually was not supposed to be, he dashed back into the crowd. Someone in the crowd handed him a pint. He had never drank before, but he was his own man now, so who could tell him no. He drank some and suppressed the urge to gag as he swallowed it down.

Later on that night, after the show had finished, Thomas still had well over half of the same pint left as he sat by himself at a booth in the corner of the common room.

Suddenly sitting beside him, there was the man in ribbons, though he had now changed into a drab shirt and trousers. Thomas had learned in the show that the man’s name was David. “Havin a good night, are we?”

“Not...” Thomas considered, and then decided not to bother the performer with his troubles. He shrugged. “The show was amazin. I wish I could juggle like that.”

“Ye wanna be a jester, eh?”

“Oh, I suppose.” Thomas tried to take a bigger drink from his pint, regretted it, and put the immense glass back down after letting most of the mouthful fall back into the drink.

“I could show ye to juggle.”

Thomas felt his eyes widen.

“Still have my ball?”

Thomas set the red ball on the table. It was not a light object, as he’d expected when he’d seen them in the air. In fact it was heavy as a stone, larger than Thomas’s fist, perhaps about the same size as David’s.

David picked the ball up, stood, and encouraged Thomas to stand up out of the booth too. There in the corner of the inn, David tossed the ball in an arc from one hand to the other.

“Easy as that,” he said, and handed Thomas the ball.

Thomas tried, and threw the ball back onto the seat in the booth. He tried a second time, and it landed on the floor with a loud bang that drew the eyes of many who were still lingering around the common room that night. Thomas cringed at the attention, and crouched to find where the ball had rolled to.

David knelt and picked it up for himself. Thomas hadn’t even blinked and the ball disappeared from David’s hands.

“Maybe we can give it another go in the morning. Outside on some grass, eh? I give lessons you know.”

“Oh?”

“Five silver for a session.”

Thomas deflated.

“Too steep? I’m often told I should charge more.”

“I have a silver to me name,” Thomas admitted.

David glanced around, determined that nobody was in earshot, and knelt slightly to speak into Thomas’s ear. “One silver now, and I’ll meet you in the morning for breakfast and a lesson.”

Thomas reached into his pocket and pulled out his silver coin. He paused only to ask, “Meet me outside the front of this inn at daybreak?”

David nodded.

Thomas gave David the silver.

The jester pocketed the coin and then yawned. “I think that’s it for me tonight, kid. I’m beat. See ye in the morning.”

Thomas looked around. He saw the thickset guard at the door of the inn, standing and staring at him. He considered trying to retire up to one of the rooms, but recalled that there was no vacancy, and so it was unlikely he could find any place to hide away for the night unnoticed. Ashamed, he left past the guard, who tutted as he passed.

Thomas made his way to the river, and spent the night hidden away under a dock. He slept very little, his stomach growling in hunger.

Before sunrise, Thomas rose and returned to the inn. He sat outside of it, eagerly awaiting the jester. For breakfast, firstly, and because maybe this was the start of his new life.

The sun rose, and Thomas sat alone. Noon came, and Thomas had relocated to a nearby alleyway entrance, as it had started to dribble rain. He still watched the inn, but he knew that he’d been had. The jester was not coming out.

In the evening, Thomas saw the thickset guard come out of the inn to replace the thinner one who had stood there the day so far. Thomas walked through the rain to him.

The guard raised his hand to block Thomas, but Thomas was making no attempt to get in.

“Is David in?”

“The jester?”

“Yes.”

The guard furrowed his brow. “Don’t believe so. Wait ere a minute.” The guard turned and walked into the inn. Thomas watched him walk through the door into the kitchen, and then shortly thereafter, walk back. “He left this morning. Packed up his belongings onto his horse in the stable in the back and rode out. Didn’t seem to Hamish as though nothing was amiss.”

Thomas sniffled.

“What, are you his lad?”

Thomas shook his head. “I gave him me only silver. He was going to give me lessons this morning.”

The guard chuckled. “Gave ye a lesson alright.”

Thomas lost it and stomped away.

By the time he had gotten over his tears and gotten back to the hunger in his stomach, it was dark. The rain continued to fall at a dribble. Thomas stood around a darkened corner of a dockyard, staring at a riverside restaurant where patrons ate by decorative lanternlight beneath umbrellas. He watched, and watched, and when one of the couples left with a good amount of food left untouched on their plates, Thomas sprinted up, hopped the rope fence, grabbed the sandwich from one plate and threw it onto the other with the half eaten meat pie, and ran off with the pieced together meal. Nearby patrons had gasped and shouted at him, and he heard a great many more shouts behind him as he ran off down a dark street, but by the time he had gone a block it was clear that nobody was giving chase. He walked past a couple of alleys that were occupied before finding an especially narrow one that was clear: one of the buildings leaned as it went upwards, making the alley ideal for a kid such as him, and unideal for anyone taller.

Thomas shuffled deep into the alley and sat down.

Just as he was bringing the sandwich to his mouth, he froze at the sound of something else in the alley. Fear rippled down him. Quite nearby, there was a rapid sniffing. Thomas tensed, ready to lash out if something attacked him.

The creature in the alley with Thomas whined.

“Are you a dog, you are?”

Thomas heard another whine in response, and the dragging of the creature shuffling closer over the dirt ground.

Cautiously, Thomas reached out a hand.

The dog growled.

Thomas quickly pulled the hand back. “Well you mind yourself and I’ll mind myself, then.”

Thomas bit into his sandwich. He had been shaking with hunger, and immediately, he felt energy returning to himself. Not to mention that the food was delicious. Spiced meats he’d only had once before in his life, on another trip to Terreh with his sister Danielle. Thin cuts of vegetables and a good helping of condiments, on toasted bread. He tore through two more bites, and then paused to finish chewing so he could tear through some more.

The dog whined again.

Thomas sighed through his nose, his mouth being still overfull. He took the time to chew, and swallow.

The dog whined once more.

Thomas held his plate tight. “What, you here to rip me off too?”

The dog whined sadder.

Thomas gripped his sandwich for one more moment of defiant resilience, and then sighed, put the sandwich on the plate with the meat pie, and pushed the whole collection over to the dog.

The dog hopped up and began devouring the food as fast as it would fit into its mouth. When it was finished it spent a long time licking the plate, and then a while after licking its lips.

Upriver from the Town of Terreh
Thomas Faern is 14
Erskine Faern might be 1

In all, Thomas had ended up stealing very little from Terreh. He had found great big tangles of fishing line and lures by wading through the river banks. The knife blade—or sword end, or some such—he had found jutting out of a fence post, and had not waited around to see if anyone was coming back for it. The flint and steel, he had nabbed off the side of a traveler’s backpack, and had been caught and walloped for it before Erskine had come barking and snarling to liberate the boy.

Thomas and Erskine sat now at a campfire beside the river, Thomas cooking the three fish he’d caught, Erskine supervising. It was noon and only partially overcast. Erskine, though still clearly quite young, was already just as large as Thomas. He was a great big mutt with long shaggy hair that was tangled and littered with odd bits of trash he’d picked up in gods-knew-how-long of going ungroomed. Though only on his own for a matter of days, Thomas was beginning to look quite the same.

When the fish were cooked, Thomas divided the bounty evenly for himself and Erskine. Both of them ate like animals and afterwards licked the flat rocks their meals had been served on.

Thomas went and rinsed off his hands and face in the river. As he did, a river stone caught his eye. It was more or less round as a ball, and a bit larger than his fist. He picked it up, bounced it up in the air a couple of times in his hand. It had a nice weight to it. He waded upriver until he had found three such stones in all, and then returned to the campfire, where Erskine had been standing, watching him.

Standing near the fire, Thomas tossed the ball from one hand to the other. He missed it completely, and the rock thumped to the ground. Erskine bolted towards it and tried to grab it in his mouth. Thomas laughed as the dog wagged and fussed with the stone.

“Go find me a stick and we’ll play.”

Erskine looked up at Thomas and barked. Whether or not the mutt was being playful or mean, the volume of the bark stung Thomas’s ears, and he flinched.

Thomas left the stones on the ground near the campfire for the moment, and went to go find Erskine a stick.

As the day went on, Thomas threw the stick for Erskine, threw the stones to himself, and in the evening he set a lure in the water to get dinner started for the both of them.

A street in the Town of Merrom
Thomas Faern might be 15
Erskine Faern might be 2

Thomas stood on a street corner, juggling his river stones that he had gotten painted red, orange, and blue. They were not evenly weighted, but they were what he’d learned everything he knew on. On the one occasion he’d had to use evenly weighted stones, he was completely thrown by them.

A fair few people stopped to watch him juggle throughout the busiest market hours of the day, and most who stopped were kind enough to toss a few coins of change to the boy’s straw basket—woven himself, which would likely be of little surprise to anyone.

When the day’s performance was over, Thomas bowed, stowed the stones in the basket, wiped the sweat from his brow, and sat for a while on the market corner, petting the shaggy brown dog that had laid at his side throughout the show. Later on in the day, he bought a sandwich for himself and a meat pie for Erskine, the cost of both easily covered by a portion of the day’s earnings.

A crowded beer hall in the City of Tinst
Thomas Faern might be 17
Erskine Faern might be 4

Thomas sat at a secluded table, idly running a hand over the well-groomed Erskine who sat close at his side. It was a cool night, the air smoky with the cookfires of nearby restaurants. Thomas stared daggers at a jester in ribbons of red, green, and yellow. It was David, unmistakably. Earlier he had done the same song from all those years ago, and a juggling routine with flaming balls. Thomas was a much more skilled juggler now than he was before. David’s routine was certainly still impressive, though Thomas could now put a name to all of the tricks.

At present, David had produced a lute—none of his trademark slight of hand on drawing out that one, which Thomas did consider fair enough, given the instrument’s size. As he strummed, he told a classical tale of Leigus and Tinira.

The widowed Leigus waded through the shallow waters of the land of death for fifty days and nights, the days waning duller and the nights waning greyer, until the two were a single thing, as fogged as the air and the water. Leigus’s handsome complexion was wracked with mourning the fifty days and nights of his walk. At the end of his journey, in a mist of grey nothing, Leigus stood face to face with a figure whose white and black robes contained naught but whitened, faded, and now grey bones. “What will you trade?” the skeleton hissed. Leigus produced Tinira’s garden sheers, and with them, cut off his nose. His fetching looks were nothing to a world without his beloved. His nose fell to the ground, and there it grew larger and larger, forming into a torso, arms, legs, a head, a face—Tinira. The new body gasped at life anew as Tinira’s soul entered it.

David’s rendition of the tale continued. Thomas waited patiently for the jester’s show to end.

When the jester took his final bow and descended from the table, Thomas melded into the lingering crowd and followed the jester out of the beer hall and into the common room of a nearby inn. These days he looked respectable enough to usually get into such places uninterrogated. Near the common room’s hearth, Thomas stopped to kneel face to face with Erskine.

“Wait for me here, if you would.”

Erskine sat.

Thomas stood and followed David up the stairs, spied which room the jester went into, and then hid himself away around a corner until hearing the door open and close again a while later, followed by the opening and closing of the door to the bathing room. Thomas skulked down the hall, eased his way into the jester’s room, and took quick stock of the jester’s equipment, which had been strewn on the floor near the foot of the bed.

There were the balls, though Thomas cared little. In addition to his favored river stones, Thomas had procured through legitimate means a set of twenty colorful weighted balls. There was the lute, and although he was tempted to steal it and learn to play, it was not what he had come for: he could get a lute in any city, if he saved his coins. What he had come for was the pair of devices that the jester had not tossed onto the floor, but had placed carefully on the room’s little desk. Thomas hadn’t seen them during the show all those years ago, but he had been watching keenly this time. In each of David’s sleeves had been some type of apparatus that lit the balls on fire, only for a second as they left David’s hand, and going out in time to be caught again safely.

Thomas nabbed the devices, fled the room, darted down the stairs, and walked briskly out of the inn, giving a c’mere wave to Erskine, who wagged, stood, shook as though flinging water from himself, and followed out at Thomas’s side.

Early the next morning, Thomas awakened at his and Erskine’s latest riverside camp. They’d found a secluded spot east out of Tinst, in a dried up divot of dirt where the river used to flow, but didn’t anymore, finding an easier route just nearby. They hadn’t need of a fire for that night. Thomas had spread out a blanket and laid on his back and Erskine had burrowed up against his side, and the two had slept warm enough.

First thing that day, Thomas beheld the new gadgets he’d stolen. He sat in the divot of dirt looking the things over. Each one had a cuff to hold the device to the wrist. Besides that, there were also a few little tubes connecting a few little opaque tanks. Thomas held the device up to his left ear, and shook it to hear if the tanks were filled with anything. As he shook it, his hand slipped on the device, pushed a toggle, and snapped one of the tubes—the next thing Thomas knew, the entire left side of his face was on fire, sizzling and smoking. Screaming, Thomas dashed to the river and leapt in.

Afterwards he laid on his back on the riverbank for a time, trying to take deep steady breaths, trying to push down the pain. Erskine tried to lick him. He held the dog at bay, but thanked him all the same, and stroked him comfortingly.

When the burned Thomas felt ready enough to travel, he went and packed up the meager camp, kicked dirt over the pair of cuffs, and made the hike back towards Tinst. In the suburbs thereabout, he found an apothecary and purchased salves suitable for his burns. “A lesson indeed,” the boy muttered as he counted out sixty silver and change for the witch.

Though not eager to stay in the city proper, where his thievery might quite well be deduced, Thomas decided to spend the time it took to heal camped near enough to the city, in case anything about his condition did take a turn. Thomas rented an inn room in the suburb of Wrelt. He and Erskine shared a bed and three square meals a day. They went on walks and played fetch in the field behind the inn. Each night by the hearth, Thomas picked the brambles out of Erskine’s coat and brushed the good boy, while Erskine rested his chin on Thomas’s knee, or in the crook of the young man’s elbow.

A booked performance hall in the Capital City of Verruskt
Thomas Faern might be 25
Erskine Faern might be 12

Though far from the only act of the show that night, Thomas was more than eager to rise to the occasion of being chosen as the closer. He still enjoyed juggling the river stones in his idle time, but he had graduated from that in his public performances. Torches, axes, hammers, and swords were in his repertoire, to name a few. In among all of these, Thomas also juggled seven shoes that had been volunteered from seven members of the audience, and a hairpiece more-or-less volunteered that he had taped around one of the hammers to give it the needed weight to throw in the enormous arcs of this final routine. In closing as all of the items fell back to Thomas for one final time, the juggler threw each shoe back to its owner, threw each sword at a target behind himself, let each torch go and ignite a fuel-soaked pyre, let each axe fall and chop a log of wood, and let each hammer crash up through a colorful pane of sugarglass suspended at the ceiling, making the glittering pieces come raining down over the stage. The audience erupted as the glass dust came down, and showed no signs of quieting as it settled. Thomas stood looking out at them, beaming, catching his breath. He beckoned the owner of the hairpiece to come on stage and collect it. The owner came up. Thomas guided him to face the audience, and together, the two of them bowed.

Thomas felt transcendent as he left the stage. And although coming down from the most exceptional performance of his life thus far, he felt a deeper happiness swelling in him as he neared his dressing room.

Pulling aside the curtain, he smiled down at Erskine, who was resting on a pile of folded blankets, wagging up at his friend. Thomas came and sat there on the floor with Erskine, back against the dressing room wall, staring blankly at the ceiling as he pet the old dog.

Eventually, Thomas’s gaze lowered down to the full-body mirror that was across the dressing room. He looked at himself. His upper body was very muscular. Half of his face was disfigured and immobile from burn scars. The other half of his face, he had decorated in tattoos: a little star below the eye, the name FAERN spelled out in an arc above the eye but under the eyebrow, three imperfect circles in a triangle on the cheekbone, and a canine noseprint on the cheek proper.

Thomas lowered his head down to Erskine. Erskine licked the human’s forehead with care. Thomas stroked the dog’s scuff likewise.

A road north of the Capital City of Verruskt
Thomas Faern might be 25
Erskine Faern might be 12

Thomas and Erskine slept soundly, cuddled up in their little tent, which they had pitched to the side of the trade road.

Thomas awoke with a start when Erskine let out a loud bark.

Bleary-eyed, Thomas rested a hand on Erskine’s back. “What do you hear out there?”

The hair on Erskine’s back was raised. He released a string of barks, body tense, facing the tent door. At a pause in the barks, Thomas strained his ears, but could hear nothing outside.

Clearing the sleep out of his eyes, Thomas got to his knees at the tent door and began unfastening the little knots that held it shut. After pulling the last string free, Thomas moved the tent door aside, and found that his face was an inch away from a bear’s face. The bear fully eclipsed the view of the world outside the tent, and was raising a paw to strike.

Erskine bolted past Thomas and latched onto the bear. Thomas gave a wordless, mourning shout. The bear roared and spun around away from the tent, swiping at the dog that was attacking it. Erskine yelped but did not stop. The bear and the dog’s struggle brought them onto the road, well lit by the full moon on that clear night. Thomas ran to his pack that sat against a nearby tree, and retrieved an arsenal of swords. He hurled them one after the other, and then the axes, and then the hammers, until the bear was motionless. But the damage had been done. Thomas held his friend’s lifeless body and wept.

The shallow waters of the land of death
Thomas Faern might be 30

Walking through the shallow waters for fifty days and nights was a balm, not a burden. For Leigus seeking Tinira, perhaps this had been the difficult part. They had lived quite near the land of death to begin with. Thomas had crossed an ocean and three continents. But it was worth it. He had arrived.

On the close of the fiftieth night, Thomas came face to face with a figure in the grey whose white robes were decorated with the black symbols of the death queen, whose face was a skull, whose hands were bones.

An ancient wind blew from behind the skeleton, passed through their bones, and brought their message hissing faintly to Thomas’s ears: “A life for a life. What will you sacrifice?”

Thomas gave a sendoff to his life as a juggler with a final trick. He drew an axe from his belt. With his right hand he tossed the axe in the air, where it spun once as it rose, once again as it fell, and then chopped off the selfsame hand which had thrown it. Then he drew a second axe, and in the same fashion, cut off his left hand as well.

The wounds on his forearms seared shut. In the shallow waters, his hands floated to one another, and formed together. They grew, and took the shape of a barrel of a canine chest. Four legs. A head. A tail. Long brown fur.

The servant of the death queen turned and floated away on the shallow waters, into the grey fog.

Erskine, anew with youth, barked playfully at Thomas, head down, haunches still in the air, tail wagging. In tears, Thomas dropped to his knees before Erskine in the waters, and rubbed the dog’s coat up and down as the dog licked the scarred man’s face. “I missed you, friend,” Thomas said, and repeated it again and again as he and Erskine were reunited. “I missed you, friend.”

Sister Shim and the Priestess Om

We send our most holy to wreak miracles, and our best monsters to protect them on the long walk back.

 

I sit in the frontmost pew beside Brother Elia, sharing a bottle of wine with him. He is filling my second glass. The sleidr have been groomed and fed, and there is little else to do until dinner. It’s an exceedingly pleasant Fall day. Orange and yellow leaves have blown in through the archway, and the smell of them fills the air. Brother Elia hands my glass back to me. I give it a little raise towards him before having a sip. The wine has an almondy taste, which I’m ordinarily not a fan of, but it seems to compliment the cool Fall breezes, the stirring of the little leaves that have made their way into our holy place. Not to mention, Brother Elia came a long way bringing this bottle back, and so even if I didn’t care for it—though I do—I would likely not mention distaste aloud to him. Nobody is in the pews besides us. He leans back, head facing the ceiling, eyes closed.

“It’s good to be home,” he tells me. “The work abroad was worthy, but the day to day bolsters one’s soul.”

“You still haven’t told me of the trouble you were attending to.”

Still facing the ceiling, he swirls his wine glass. “I suppose I ought to, Sister Shim.” He sighs. “Where to begin, where to begin...”

This was his third time being whisked away by a priest or a priestess for work abroad. He has a very conspicuous wound on his forehead now: a slash, with many blisters great and small surrounding it.

It is a cool day, and I realize that his forehead is shining with sweat.

From my bandolier, I flick out a dagger and whirl it at the ceiling. The blade strikes one of the many colorful strings which hold things up there—broomsticks, dustpans, pitchforks, shears, unlit candles, bouquets of flowers. In this case, I have snapped the string holding up a clay vase filled with water. It falls towards my lap. When it arrives at me, I catch it. I hand it to Brother Elia.

“Al sai,” he says: Thank you in the holy tongue. He lifts the vase to his mouth and has a long drink.

He and I became followers at the same time. I have yet to be called away once. On most days I accompany the priests and priestesses on walks through the city.

Before Brother Elia has decided where to begin on the tale of his journey, and as if beckoned by my thoughts, I hear the clacking of a sleidr approaching over the ceramic floor, and I perk up in my seat and turn. Coming up the aisle is the priestess Om. She glides like a leaf on her six legs, two hind, four fore. The footprints she leaves behind glimmer just as her black, oily coat.

She comes and plants her chin on my knee.

I smile. “Shall we walk?”

As soon as I say walk, she lift her chin off of me and prances for the archway, black shimmering coat waving with each step.

“Tell me all when I return,” I ask, setting the remainder of my glass on the pew.

“Of course,” he says with a smile, eyes still closed, head still lolled back, facing the ceiling. He has another long drink of the water.

As I walk up the aisle after the priestess Om, I draw a length of red ribbon from a trouser pocket. The priestess Om waits for me under the archway, wagging as she faces the courtyard outside. I tie one end of the ribbon around my wrist. I tie the other end loosely around her neck. When I’m finished with the knot, I pat her side and she begins walking at a fast pace, and I walk quickly to keep up.

To the south there is a garden with a pond which she often likes to visit. To the north one would eventually arrive at the gate out to the countryside, where the priestess Om would be free to be untied and run to her heart’s content. In an unusual choice, the priestess Om leads me straight away across the courtyard, towards the road leading east, towards the market district.

Distinct from the city’s other districts, the market district has no tallstanding buildings, and few that are more permanent than a wooden stall. It is akin to a miles-across colosseum, stuffed with tents and tables. As we walk past a cloister of seafood stalls, the priestess Om keeps her nose to the ground, following the trail of a scent. She spends quite some time sniffing the side of one fish vendor’s booth. The vendor eyes us disapprovingly, but soon has customers to attend to. Once the priestess Om is satisfied with her sniffing, she moves onwards, and I follow.

We proceed through an immense tunnel out of the marketplace and arrive at a road to the king’s palace, and I realize that this actually might be what I had resigned myself to no longer hope for.

The palace stands atop a hill, the base of the hill fenced off, the slopes of the hill a multitude of hedges and gardens. The priestess Om leads us to a small, nongrandiose gate in the fence, manned by a guard with a well kept beard and an eye missing. He sees the priestess Om approaching and opens the gate for us. He nods and wishes us a good afternoon as we pass by, and closes the gate behind us.

The priestess Om stops. I come up to her and untie the ribbon from around her neck. She shakes and then darts forward, running up the hill to a patch of purple flowers. I follow after her, untying the ribbon from around my wrist as I go.

When I arrive, she is sniffing the purple flowers. She sniffs the underside of one for a time, intently, and slowly works her way around the petals until sniffing the upper side. With a final big inhale, she moves over to another flower, and smells it just as closely. When she is finished with this one she bites it off, chews it a bit, and swallows. She progresses slowly along the side of the flower patch, passing by many flowers, eating the occasional one. When she has eaten five, she walks up the hill a little farther until arriving at a patch of long strands of grass. She eats this grass indiscriminately, and soon, she is heaving. She vomits, leaving a pile of yellow slime on the ground, which contains long blades of grass and purple flower petals. I go to the vomit, pick out the flower petals, and eat them.

When I have chewed and swallowed, I look at Om. She is panting, mouth drawn back in what looks like a smile, though she is nervous. I look around. The world is undulating. Parts of reality are slipping off of other parts. Things melt. I feel the priestess Om gently take my hand in her mouth. She pulls me. I follow. We walk down a hill into the melting world. When we arrive at a figure by a gate, I try to look at him to see if he is the same guard, but it is difficult to say. The world no longer looks like much, and he is no exception. A smudge of a human form. If I concentrate I can see his shining armor, his spear, but the idea of recognizably seeing his face is laughable. The wind blows, and I am nearly knocked back by the smell of him. He wreaks of human sweat. The smell of the leather in his armor is overpowering, the smell of the copper and the steel mere afterthoughts. I am not even that near him, but I can smell his unwashed hair, his breath that is a mixture of onion and mint. I feel Om brush past my leg, continuing forward down the melting, blurry hill. I follow after her. The guard, whether or not he is the same guard, opens the gate for us. We proceed through melted canals of streets, her feet clicking on the ground with each step, my footsteps producing light thumps. I follow after her form, and after her scent. She had been beautiful before, with her sleek black coat, her expressive whiskers and long ears, her multitude of legs. I am delighted to find that she is beautiful again, with the scent of her fur drenched in the electric tingle of black magic, her breath smelling of the cooked rabbit that we feed the sleidr, but more deeply of the scent of her yellowed teeth, her gums, her tongue, her lungs, her throat, all healthy and well, all good, all sleidr, all Om. We find our way out of the city rivers and into the ocean world, and Om jumps in, and I follow after. I have seen her and many other priests and priestesses swim in a lake before, but had never known sleidr to put their heads under. She does, and I follow after, down into the ocean, where I am surprised to find I can still smell, still breathe. I can no longer see, but I no longer feel I am missing much for it. I follow after the smell of Om’s coat, and in time, I realize what we are following. Within me I hold the knowledge of the scents of five flowers, as distinct as five paintings by five masters, as distinct as the faces of my five closest friends, as distinct as five letters, as distinct as five numbers. We are following after the first one that Om ate to give to me. It was in the king’s garden, but there is another, an entangled pair, somewhere far away, that we are swimming to.

When we arrive at it, we emerge from the world ocean. I lay heavy on the ground, splayed out, exhausted. Om walks to a flower bed and sniffs a patch of purple flowers. I look around, realize the current ineffectiveness of sight, and instead take big breaths in through my nose. Inhaling, we are surrounded by a multitude of grass, and there is corn growing here nearby. Exhale. Inhaling, there are chickens here, their waste so overpowering I’m surprised it hadn’t come to me first, for now I can’t ignore it, and everything else I smell is tinged with it. Exhale. Inhaling, there are horses as well, goats, sheep, and a small number of humans. Exhale. Inhaling, the scent of the humans is nearest, most present in the air, and we are in a flower garden just outside of their house on a farm. Exhale. Om lies down beside me. Nestled together, we sleep through the night.

In the morning, we resume our journey, diving back under. We continue on, five flowers, a day for each. We are not the only ones who swim. It is a populous ocean with schools of hares and termites. Above are the light thumps of millions of footsteps on the water’s surface, packs of wolves, dens of foxes, colonies of mice. Each acre of forest, a city district. At the final flower, as I emerge from the ground, I feel a sadness, for my sense of smell has dulled to near uselessness, and my vision is restored, and the world is all solid again.

We are standing on a mountainside, somewhere cold. The sky is red with morning light. Down the mountain, there is an endless expanse of fir trees, broken up only by other mountains that rise too high for the firs to grow on. It feels a bit strange to me, remembering how crowded the forest was as we passed under it, and now seeing not a soul from this vantage where we can see so far. A lone plant is nearby us, its single purple flower drooping. I look to my side, and find the priestess Om. She wags and barks at me. I kneel and hug her, rub her, bury my nose in her coat and take a big sniff. Up this close and with enough concentration, the scent it is at least an approximation of what it was before, at least enough to know that it had been real, the other world that the priestess had shown me.

“Lead the way,” I tell her.

She does.

We go around the mountainside, traveling down a ridge, then up another, my shoes crunching the snow underfoot. When we arrive at the crest of the ridge, I see the landscape beyond us and gasp. For miles and miles, as far as I can see from the mountainside, the world is charred black or in the process of burning. I look back at the expanse of forest, and forward at the expanse of inferno coming to claim it. The sky is not red with morning light. The sky is a reflection of a world engulfed.

Om continues forward down the next ridge. I follow after, but she turns and barks viciously at me, snarling. I am startled in the immediate moment, but I intuit that she is speaking practically, not emotionally: showing me a drop of venom so I will not dive into a sea of it. I stop where I am on the ridge. She continues on alone.

When she has reached the bottom of the next valley, she stops, sniffs the ground, and then raises her face to the sky and bellows out a howl. Even from afar I can feel my inner ears vibrating at the volume, and then underfoot, I can feel that the mountain is trembling. She howls and howls, and then all at once, lightning erupts from her and blankets the expanse of the mountaintop above us. She stops howling, the lightning goes away, and the mountaintop which once held snow now holds an immense conical lake, ready to flow outwards.

Om turns and sprints down the mountain valley, keeping just ahead of the flood that is rushing down after her. She makes it down to the forest and disappears into it, and the water follows after. I watch from the mountainside all day as a new river is carved through the forest, cutting off the burning land from the unburnt. By evening, Om has made it to the next mountain. I faintly hear Om howl, and I see lightning flash over this mountaintop too, bringing water down its side, drawing a complete river to stand between the mountains, a barrier for the fire.

I set off down the mountainside, and follow the river all night.

As the morning sun is rising, I arrive at a clearing in the forest. In the center, there is a sleidr, splayed out on her side, asleep. Her coat is a patchwork of white and light browns, and has no gleam to it. I approach her. I bury my nose in her side, and inhale deeply. This is her. Her tail begins thumping against the ground as she wags. I nestle in beside Om, and we rest all through the day and night. The magic is drained from her coat, but she is still a swift hunter by her corporeal merits alone, and she presents me with rabbits throughout the day. I get a small fire going, and cook them for us. Aside from eating and sleeping, we pass the time sitting around, her sniffing the air, me petting her as I try to discern what the priestess smells. Sometime in the night, the inferno arrives at the river, and the river holds, and the fire burns through its remaining fuel and is gone, leaving an immense realm of charred ground behind it, but now finished, at least.

I tell the priestess Om that she has done well, and she appears pleased.

The next morning, we begin the long walk back.

Poems

38 Haiku About Dogs

 
i
Summer: sniffing grass
Scent an unseen mystery
Winter: footprints shown
 
ii
The smell of dog feet
Beloved to more than pervs
It is transcendent
 
iii
Awakening warm
Happy, everything is good
Face in doggy fur
 
iv
Between desk and chair
Diligent companion's post
Head asleep on foot
 
v
New pleasure one night
Leaves much research to be done
With furred assistant
 
vi
Curious intent
A wagging tail is lifted
To sniff a dog's butt
 
vii
Human lies awake
Dog hops onto the bed too
Together they snore
 
viii
Green sprouts up from dirt
Esoteric dream from rest
Boyfriend from dog food
 
ix
Dog squats on the grass
Yesterday it was liquid
Glad to pick up shit
 
x
Crossroads on a walk
Dog insists on the long path
Dog lover obeys
 
xi
Dog lies smug on back
O ye of infinite chest
A belly is rubbed
 
xii
hghagh, auauau, oghhh
Interspecies sarcasm
Teasing words of love
 
xiii
Calm night in July
Suddenly exploding sky
Dogs justly displeased
 
xiv
A visitor knocks
Arrarrarrarrarrarrarr
Welcoming tail wags
 
xv
Dog spits out carrots
Empathy across species
Vegan cooks him steak
 
xvi
Under large blankets
Face buried in softest fur
Snuggling dog butts
 
xvii
Do you want some food?
Do you wanna mess around?
At last, tail says yes
 
xviii
Picture book on Danes
Repressed culture is revealed
Not one cookie shown
 
xix
Cross-species threesome
Film captures the friendship here
Dog smells sadly gone
 
xx
Dog relieves himself
Taste of yellow snow is learned
A worthy snow cone
 
xxi
Circle circle pause
Circle circle circle pause
Poop spot will be found
 
xxii
A pizza is watched
Six inch line of drool hangs
Slobber looks tasty
 
xxiii
Small vanilla cone
One soft taco, only meat
Sharing human's fries
 
xxiv
Human mad at screen
Dog asks human to drop it
Dog is right; they walk
 
xxv
Human walks with dog
Something in the dark woods stirs
All freeze and listen
 
xxvi
Dead thing found on road
Human sees it, but too late
Dog wins this time: munch.
 
xxvii
Human flops around
Inebriated kisses
Dog's tongue is the world
 
xxviii
Dog is up early
Grumpy human, needed, stirs
Pre-dawn sky serene
 
xxix
Walking down the hall
Dog puts nose to neighbor's door
Sniff. Sniff. Sniff. Okay
 
xxx
Juice, coffee, toothpaste
Sometimes dog kisses to kiss
Other times, to taste
 
xxxi
Anticipation
The tags are all taken off
New toy for the dog
 
xxxii
Mud rinsed down the drain
Dog leans into towel rubs
Dry and happy friend
 
xxxiii
Big dog passes gas
Non zoos roar about disgust
Zoo at first confused
 
xxxiv
Stomach makes noises
Salad of grass to puke out
Upset will settle
 
xxxv
Lickjob in mirror
All proportions stand naked
Contrast hides in rhyme
 
xxxvi
Hand on the sheath rubs
Hidden anatomy shown
Beautiful secret
 
xxxvii
At last the birds sing
The bright sun again does warm
Long walks can return
 
xxxviii
Trotting and halting
Dog teaches human patience
Do not yank the leash

 

 

Twilight Forest

There is, in the Land of Nod, a pleasant enough forest

where it is eternally twilight.

Warm, dim hues creep their fingers around the trees and across the grass.

Come: let us go there,

away from cars and concrete,

away from the faintly screeching electrical pulses of motherboards and gadgets,

away from screens,

away from bright lights and obligations to keep up with things to the second,

away from here, away from time, let us go away.

 

Out in the twilight forest, there is a presentness of being.

You press your hand to the tall trunk of a tree,

pushing your palm as hard or as soft as you like against the bark,

and the tree does not move, it does not break.

It is, and it will be, if you let it.

Lying on your belly and pressing your face to the ground, the grass smells like grass.

The dirt smells like dirt.

You spot a weed and pull it up, root and all, out from among the grass and dirt.

Holding the root to your face, soil pressing against your upper lip and your chin,

you inhale, and the soil smells even more of soil this close up to it.

Setting the weed down, you get up slowly onto your hands and knees,

and then get up farther, and stand fully upright.

Your breathing is not rushed here:

You take deep, helpful breaths as slowly as you like to.

 

You take a step, and in the bones of your foot,

your ankle, your knee, your thigh,

you feel the endearing weight of your body against the weight of the rest of the planet pushing back, holding you up: steadiness beyond steadiness, it will never, ever drop you.

As you walk, you wear a blanket over your shoulders like a cape.

Whatever else you wear, or don't wear, is up to you.

No one will mind here.

As you walk, you walk in whatever shape of being you would like to.

Maybe a dog, maybe a human, maybe an ant, maybe a rock, maybe a bush.

Maybe something in between.

You are what you like to be, male, or female, or some of both, or something of neither.

 

The air becomes pleasantly cooler as up ahead, there is a gently trickling stream which you are approaching.

It is felt and heard a while before it is seen.

When you arrive, it is as though arriving at the side of a tunnel.

This tunnel is made of the gentle stream at foot,

dim tree trunks to each side,

and a meshwork blanket of branches and leaves overhead,

through which you can see the sky.

From where, and to what end, does this tunnel lead?

You walk along on the bank of the gentle stream, seeking to know.

 

 

I Did Take Care Of Him After For The Record

The other day we had the air conditioning on

and so I missed

when my dog grunted and huffed

and rolled over

asking for a belly rub

but I did happen to turn around at some point

and see a gremlin on the bed

halfway between presenting his belly and lying down on his side again,

his limbs bunched up but also splayed,

his jowls shown,

his eyes wild

and staring directly at me

me

who had missed his belly rub demands

in the noise.

 

In that moment still, he was beautiful.

Vol. 1 No. 3 (March 2023)

Gradient

“...Four, A, nine, nine, two, C, two, F, F, F, F.”

There is radio silence for a moment, and then the flight controller’s voice responds: “Authorization code recognized. You are granted permission to approach, Grey Liger. Welcome to Nesoi 12.”

“Acknowledged. Thank you kindly.”

I ease the throttle forward, beginning my final approach to the scrappy water-covered moon. As we transition into the pull of the gravity, I put a steadying hand on Aleksey, who is lying down in the copilot’s seat. He licks his lips, and remains lying down.

After consulting one of the sticky notes that line the top of the windshield, I punch in the coordinates of my drop-off location; on my compass indicator, a green vertical line begins to glow, showing me my direction. In the vastness of space I don’t mind using the holos on the windshield, but as soon as I have gravity, something about the holos always unsettles me and I move to the more archaic systems.

I fly along under the clouds. It is daytime on this side of the moon right now. As we cruise, Aleksey gets down from the copilot’s seat and walks a lap around the cockpit, sniffing here and there; he relieves himself into the holovent in the corner, and then lays down beside the hatch to the exterior.

When I hear a chime from the dash, I sit upright and squint out into the ocean below. When I spot my landing platform, I’m already on course to overshoot it by a mile. I curse and lay off the throttle, apologize to Aleksey for the sudden adjustment, then start bringing it around for another easier approach. I punch the auto-hail. Seconds later, a sequence of digital tones comes through my radio that tells me the hail is acknowledged.

As I re-approach the platform—this time considerably slower—I key over a series of toggles, switching out Grey Liger’s terrestrial flight apparatus for the hover apparatus. Even in the isolation of the cockpit, I can hear a hiss of wind that outside would be deafening. I lower the landing gear, make touch-down, and begin the sequence of keying off the engines. As I do, the platform begins to lower, and I am slowly taken down through a tube into a shipping bay in Nesoi 12’s submerged colony.

When the platform I’m on stops moving, I run a check on the pressure differentials and air quality outside of the cockpit. Seeing nothing that would kill me or Aleksey outright, I pop the hatch on the cockpit. I clumsily step down onto the shipping bay’s platform, finding my legs again after the long flight. Aleksey remains in the cockpit, standing and wagging his tail as he sticks his head out of the hatch and sniffs the air.

“Valorie Johannes?” asks a woman in a black pantsuit, her hair in a tight bun, her face looking down at a clipboard.

“Val is fine,” I say, and extend a hand.

“Val-or-ie, Jo-hann-es,” she says to herself, filling out fields on her clipboard, never looking up.

I lower my hand, suppressing my monumental level of disappointment: I have a tattoo of a fly on the webbing between my thumb and pointer finger and it usually gets people.

“Got the cargo?” she asks.

“I do.”

I retrieve a remote from my grey jumpsuit and press a button. The rear cargo hatch of Grey Liger lowers, showing a crate inside, a cube in shape, about the same height as my chest.

She looks up at it, points a remote reader at it, hears the reader beep, and then presents me with a slip of paper representing enough credits to buy a small house on your average terrestrial body. If someone is going through me instead of a freighter, they want something fast or they want something hush-hush. I don’t ask.

“Thank youuu,” she says, walking past me while her eyes remain on her clipboard, flipping to a new page and filling out more fields. She is joined by another woman—black hoodie and blue jeans, feathered hair down to about her shoulders. The two of them begin walking up the cargo ramp to retrieve the crate. I walk up with them and remove all of the straps keeping the crate secure.

Before they begin to move it, the woman with the clipboard stands at a corner of the small cargo hull, finishing her paperwork. The woman in the hoodie leans over the crate, resting her elbows on it, smiling up at me. She extends a hand out in my direction. “Nina.”

“Val,” I say, and we shake—instead of letting go of my hand afterwards, she keeps hold of it and stands up straight in front of me, holding my hand up close to her eyes, squinting at the details of my fly tattoo.

“I love it,” she says.

Thank you!”

“Your dog is very well behaved. Can I meet them?”

“Yeah, c’mon around.” We exit the cargo hull, and come back around to the cockpit hatch. On the way over I mention that his name is Aleksey. Half German Shepherd, maybe half Labrador.

At the hatch, Aleksey wags and sniffs intently out towards Nina. Nina says hello to him in a high friendly voice, and shows him her hands. He sniffs them, and then licks. She comes in fully and hugs him, petting down his back, already fast friends, apparently.

From the cargo hull, the woman with the clipboard calls Nina’s name.

Nina turns and sits on the edge of the hatch, Aleksey poking his head over her shoulder, her wrapping an arm up around his neck to pet him. “Got any plans while you’re here?”

I shrug. “Maybe if there’s a bar you’d recommend.”

“I’ll try to do you one better,” she says, and takes a slip of paper out of her pocket. With a pen she jots something onto it and then hands it to me. Then she stands, gives Aleksey a final hug and a rub, and goes to help with the crate. “See you tonight maybe!”

I look down at the slip of paper. It is an invitation to something called The Cerberus Gallery. On it, in stunningly fancy handwriting, is written, Val + Aleksey.

Nina and the other woman have departed with the cargo before I can ask any questions. I go and set the invitation on the dash under a paper weight, then close the hatch, pet Aleksey, and sit back down in the pilot’s seat. With the wheels of the landing gear and with light propulsion from the hover apparatus, I follow the directions of folks in neon vests with glowing batons, and park Grey Liger in a compact hangar.

With the ship settled, I clip Aleksey onto a leash, and the two of us go for a walk through the colony’s tunnels; many of them are made of glass, and we can see all of the sea creatures outside. The sea creatures are not aliens—presumably, they were brought on the same ships that humans came over on—but I have not been to many submerged colonies, and neither has Aleksey, and so seeing all of the weird fish is still very neat to us.

When we’ve stretched our legs and done a good amount of exploring, we return back to the hangar. The next few hours are spent exhaustively checking the ship for anything that needs maintenance. Aleksey keeps me company. I don’t have reason to think the ship is in disrepair, but the majority of time I spend inside of Grey Liger is spent in the vacuum of space, so it pays to be over-vigilant.

After finishing the search, all systems are green. I wipe the sweat from my brow, go into Grey Liger’s small cabin suite, and take a long, pleasant shower.

When I’m finished, I glance at the local time, and then glance at the invitation to The Cerberus Gallery that is sitting on my dashboard. Whatever I’ve been invited to, it’s starting in half an hour. I put on a black dress, do my makeup, grab my purse, and then Aleksey and I head out.

Thankfully, the invitation does contain an address, and this colony does make addresses easy enough to navigate to. We make our way into a district under a vast glass dome that’s made to look like an archaic town square, with asphalt streets, brick buildings, and concrete statues of tall men with beards; it’s a very thorough aesthetic.

Aleksey and I step into a doorway, make our way down a hall past a restaurant on either side, and proceed up a set of stairs. Coming to the second floor, Aleksey and I are met with a small waiting room. I present my invitation to the man behind the desk. He welcomes us, stands, and uses a key to unlock the door behind him and let us in.

Inside is an art gallery, and many folks milling about and looking at the pieces. A light hum of quiet conversations fills the air, as do the pleasant smells of the restaurants below. Classical music plays faintly through hidden speakers.

Even at a glance, the theme of the gallery seems clear enough: all of the paintings on the walls are of dogs. Some are more abstract, some are quite realistic, but I begin to amuse myself by wondering if Aleksey is a guest or an exhibit. The others do seem very interested in him, though they are polite and don’t crowd around.

As I’m wandering through, I find myself looking at an exhibit that strikes me as out of place. On a rectangular plinth, atop five little supports, there are five opaque ping-pong balls.

Beside me, I hear a pleasant voice say, “You came!”

I turn to see Nina, and smile. “Much more interesting than a bar,” I say in agreement with her.

She crouches down to greet Aleksey for a second, and then she and I stand beside each other, facing the exhibit with the ping-pong balls.

“I love this piece,” she tells me. Then she asks, “Did you know this was the piece you delivered here today?”

“Oh!” I did not know that. I continue to look at it for a few seconds, and then tell her, “I admit, I don’t get this one.”

She stands with her hands clasped together, swaying slightly back and forth. “The plaque on this one helps, I think.”

I glance down at the plinth, and indeed, there is a little plaque. I crouch down and give it a read, idly petting Aleksey while I’m down here.

Blindness

Within one of these balls is an explosive payload powerful enough to atomize this room and all of its occupants.

Within one of these balls is a film negative of a Husky named Kim.

Within one of these balls is a flash drive containing an encyclopedia on dogs.

Within one of these balls is a distal phalanx – a fingertip bone from a human hand – its donor unknown.

Within one of these balls is nothing.

“Oh. Oh wow.”

Nina sways more intently. Glancing down at Aleksey, she says, “Guarantee you he knows which is which. Heck, he probably knew what you were shipping since you picked it up. Their noses are just...” She trails off, and then shakes her head, and stops swaying. “I’ll leave you to wander some more! We’re showing a movie in the theater across the hall in about ten minutes. Dogs are allowed in.”

Without waiting for comment, she slips away and begins talking to someone else she knows, who is standing and looking at a minimalist painting of a Saint Bernard.

Aleksey and I look around the gallery a little longer, and then make our way over to the theater. There, an attendant greets us, saying, “Val and Aleksey, if I may presume?” I tell them that that presumption is correct, and they lead us to a pair of seats adjacent to the aisle, so that Aleksey can take a seat or lay on the floor, or I can let him off leash to wander around, even. I thank the attendant, and, given how friendly and polite everyone has been about having Aleksey around already, I do let him off the leash. Anyone he goes up to is happy to interact with him a bit before he wanders off to go see the next person.

The seats fill in, with each group seated in their own little cluster, and empty seats between. I am left alone, until I hear a voice beside me. “Mind if I sit here?”

“Please.”

Nina takes the seat beside me, and sits on top of it with her legs crossed, hands in her lap.

The lights dim, and any folks who are talking quickly wrap up their conversations. When the theater is quiet, the movie begins.

It’s a 2D-animated film, featuring a cast of primarily dogs, and some other animals, and no humans or words to be found. It is remarkably captivating.

Midway through the movie, Nina taps a button on the armrest between us, which causes a subtle holofield to appear around our two seats, blocking outgoing sound so that we can talk without bothering anyone. Leaning over to me, she says, “I need your thoughts on this next part. Do you know what rotoscoping is?”

“I do, actually.” Creating a 2D animation by tracing over actual video, frame by frame.

“I can’t tell if this next part is rotoscoped or just really lovingly faked.”

I keep my eyes out. The scene in question shows a dog asleep. The dog begins to dream, barking under her breath, twitching her paws in a run. In abstract space around the dog, the same dog is shown bounding in a full sprint and barking at the top of her voice. I can see what Nina means: the paw-twitching of the sleeping dog is dead-on, yet at the same time, the view pans around and around the sleeping dog, sweeps fully under and over her, in a way that might be difficult to film with an actual sleeping dog and an actual camera, at least at the ancient time when this film was made. Then, as the camera swoops under her again, I catch a stylistic jump from one frame to the next.

“Rotoscoped,” I say. “But not when it swoops under. Watch the hind legs: animated here, then it cuts back to rotoscoped... now.”

“Holy shit.”

I snicker.

“Are you a movie person?”

Using the holographics on top of the windshield, one can get a knack for when hyper-reality and actual reality don’t quite line up perfectly. “Kind of a pilot thing. Difficult to explain.”

Nina reaches over, runs her hand down my arm, and takes my hand in hers. I look over at her. She looks down at our hands, then up at me, and asks, “Is this alright?”

I give her hand a light squeeze, keep hold of it, and push the armrest between us up into the seat backs. We both scooch towards each other, and sit leaning against each other for the rest of the movie.

As the credits begin, she plants a kiss on my neck. I nuzzle my cheek over the top of her head, but I know that at this point there’s something I’m going to have to be up front about. Here in our own private holofield seems like the ideal place for it.

“I have to tell you now, I’m not entirely cis.”

“Oh word?”

I snicker. “Yeah.”

“What are your pronouns?”

“She-her.”

“Whatcha packin?”

I make extra sure the holofield is still up around us. It is. “Penis that I was born with. Very convincing fake breasts.”

“Wanna go up to my room and tell me more or maybe show me or give a demonstration?”

I nuzzle in with her again, and give her a kiss on the cheek. “Sure. You lead the way.”

We stand, fizzling out the holofield. I clip Aleksey onto his leash, and the three of us exit the theater and head up another set of stairs. Nina unlocks the door to her apartment, lets us in, and locks the door behind us.

Nina interlocks her fingers behind my neck and hangs from me. “My bedroom is over there. Aleksey can like, I don’t mind either way, whether he’s out or in, or we could keep the door open if that’s better for him, like—”

“He won’t mind waiting out here.”

“Yeah okay.”

Nina and I head into her bedroom, and I close the door behind us. The two of us fool around on her bed, and afterwards, Nina is straddling my stomach, squeezing my left and right breasts back and forth.

“Can you feel this?”

“Yes.” I might low-key be in love with this weirdo.

“How long have you had them?”

“I got them as soon as I could afford them. Had them... four years now.”

“How much were they?”

I name the price.

She whistles. “Is that why you still have...”

I sit upright and she slides down my chest, so that the fronts of our hips are touching. “I don’t mind it.”

“Seriously, augmentations are a specialty of this moon. If the issue is the cost, name the price, I’ll get you the credits.”

“I like having it,” I tell her. “It’s fun. Deep voice, facial hair, flat chest, I was very happy to get rid of all those. This one...” I shrug. “I still like it.”

She gives me a tight hug. Up close in my ear, she whispers, “I’m jealous of you. You have no idea.”

I rest my head against hers. “Oh?”

In an even fainter whisper, she says, “I’m... I’m not entirely cis either.”

“Oh! What are... would you tell me about it?”

She continues to hug me, but stays silent on that question. She seems very focused on forcing her breathing to remain steady, taking strong, timed inhales and exhales.

I give her a gentle, understanding squeeze as we sit there, hugging. “It’s alright if you don’t.”

Her tight hug on me tightens even more. She constricts me as though actually trying to suffocate me. Finally, she whispers as faint as could be, hardly more than a breath, one word of an answer. “...Dog.”

Huh. I continue to hug her, to hold her. With one of my hands, I begin petting down her back. She begins to sob, still holding me. I stop petting, but she insists, “Keep doing that. Please.” and so I do keep petting her. I lie back, she lays on top of me, and I pet her.

After a while, she is no longer crying, and instead rests with her forehead buried against my chest. After a while longer, she tells me, “You can stop now. Thank you.”

I lock my hands together behind her, still holding her as she lays on top of me.

“If I went to get augmented with dog ears, would you come with me and hold my hand?”

Without a doubt I would, and I tell her so. “If they tell you no I’ll kick their butts.”

She smiles at that. “Augmentations are this moon’s specialty, like I said. It’s why I moved here. I just haven’t been brave enough to...”

I pull a blanket over us.

The next morning, Nina insists on taking us out to breakfast. She knows places that are dog friendly, where Aleksey can sit and even get something to eat too. It’s a lovely cafe, with a window across an entire wall showing the ocean outside.

When the waiter leaves after giving Aleksey his dish, we watch Aleksey begin to eat, and then I ask Nina, “Why don’t you have a dog?”

She glances out of the window and shrugs. “I feel weird about the whole ‘ownership’ thing. I get that it doesn’t have to be like that, but, it’s just weird to me.”

I give an approving hm, and have some of my toast.

“Is it weird to you that I fully identify as a dog?” she asks.

I shrug, and finish chewing. “To be honest, not really. Should it be weird to me?”

She shrugs. “What if I started eating out of a bowl and barking at things? Like really?”

“That sounds adorable.”

Satisfied with this answer, she begins eating her fish. “It’s just like... I feel like you don’t feel the same way about me that you feel about Aleksey.”

I give a contemplative hm, and think about that, looking out of the window. She’s not wrong at all. I do not think of Aleksey that way. Eventually I tell her, “You’re right, and I don’t have a perfectly good answer to that, other than that when I met Aleksey I was looking for a friend, a companion for the long flights, and I met you as a cute so-and-so who was coming onto me pretty hard. So, I don’t feel the same way about you and Aleksey, but I don’t feel the same way about all humans categorically either.”

“Hey, works for me.”

We finish our meals. As we’re getting ready to head out, I ask Nina where these famous augmentation experts are at, and she tells me that they are in the next district over. I tell her to lead the way. We take a walk through one of the tubes connecting the two domes. I hold her hand as we go. She has nervous jitters, but she is happy.

“This isn’t a scheme to steal Aleksey’s ears, is it?”

She blows a raspberry at me. “Everything they make is all synthetic. No harvesting required.”

We proceed through tunnels and white halls, talk to a receptionist, wait a while, proceed through more white halls, and then Nina and I and Aleksey are in a small office, speaking with a doctor, who is pleased and fascinated; he has heard that The Cerberus Gallery is lovely. Nina gives him an invitation to the gallery, and the doctor gives us an appointment to come back tomorrow for the procedure. In the meantime he takes blood samples, measurements, and scans, goes over Nina’s preferences for the augmentation, and then sends us on our way.

Back in the reception area, Nina and I hug.

“Where to now?” I ask. “Got any other plans today?”

“Another showing tonight. Nothing until then. Can I see your spaceship?”

I lead the way. When we arrive, I give her the tour. When we arrive at the bed, she is insistent on taking it for a test drive; I am persuaded, and tell Aleksey to go wait in the cockpit for a bit. As we have our fun this time, I think about this apparent dog in front of me; it has not changed that she is perfectly adorable; I kiss her, and she licks my face from mouth to eyeball, and shortly thereafter I finish; we cuddle on the bed afterwards for a while, and then I take advantage of being back in my abode by taking a shower and changing back into my usual terrestrial wear—cargo pants, members only jacket.

I move from the cabin to the cockpit and find Nina and Aleksey sitting together on the floor, her petting him, him contented. I reach down and give Aleksey a rub on the head. “Good boy.” I also give Nina a rub on the head. “Good girl.”

The next day, Aleksey and I accompany Nina, and sit in a waiting room as her procedure is done. I make a solid dent in the waiting room’s months and months of accumulated magazines. As I’m reading an article about honey bees, I hear a voice right behind me say, “Woof.”

I wheel around, see Nina, and gasp. “They’re beautiful.” Nina now has dog ears, the kind that flop down. They come down to about her jaw line, and match her feathered hair. The fur on them is brown. “Can I touch them?”

“Please do,” she says.

I reach out, cup her head in both of my hands, and run my hands along the soft fur on the outside of each ear. Gently, I turn her head and lift one ear up. Peering inside, it looks just like the inside of a dog’s ear. “Woah.”

She flinches back at that, and I let go of her. She snickers. “That was loud, coming directly into the ear.”

“Sorry.”

“You’re good.” She hugs me. “You’re great. Thank you.”

I hug her back, and as we hug, I stroke one of the ears.

“I need a tail next for all of the times I want to wag around you.”

“Aw.”

We get lunch, and then she shows me around some more. That night, there is another showing at the gallery. I stand beside Nina as she goes from excited conversation to excited conversation, everyone fascinated by her augmentation, happy for her, telling her it looks great, which it does. That night as she and I are going at it on her bed, she asks me to stroke her ears; she doesn’t have to ask me twice—they feel nice.

In the morning I happen to wake up early, and decide to take advantage of it by making breakfast for us instead of us going out yet again, and this is when I learn that all of Nina’s cupboards are literally empty. I leave Aleksey in Nina’s good care, get my ship moved from the hangar to long-term storage, and go grocery shopping. Nina and I talk as I’m cooking breakfast—fish—and I learn that she always goes out to eat because she is lazy—her words—and also because she is fabulously rich due to her fabulously rich parents, who would consider life on this moon to be slumming it.

I finish cooking our breakfast. I gather myself for a moment, and then I reach a hand into one of the shopping bags from my expedition earlier. Holding my hand inside the bag, I warn Nina, “I’m not trying to be weird about this.”

“Okay?”

“I saw you don’t have any dishes.”

She nods.

From the bag, I pull out some human plates with one hand, and then with the other hand I pull out a dog bowl. “Preference?”

She snatches the dog bowl and holds it to her chest. “I kind of love you a lot. This one.”

We sit across from each other at her dining room table, her eating from her dog bowl, me eating from my plate—both of us do use forks. I also mix some of the fish in with Aleksey’s food, and set his bowl on the ground beside the table, and he eats with us too.

A week passes. Nina does get a tail next. I don’t even know she’s arranged to have it done until she’s missing for most of a day, and then she comes into the apartment wagging. I scratch her butt through her jeans, and she wags; I kiss her and she wags; I talk to her, and sometimes if I say the right thing she wags, and her ears move a bit depending on what I’m saying and how she feels about it. I get her a collar, and I hardly ever see her without it from then on.

The next week, she enters the apartment and slams a pill bottle on the dining room table. She looks at me expectantly—I can tell she is looking at me expectantly by the way her tail wags back and forth, but only slightly, very metered; almost always, I look to her tail and ears to gauge her feelings before I’ll look at her face.

In reference to the pills, I ask, “Whatcha got there?”

“Hormones.”

Oh. Are those a thing for this?” I realize it’s a stupid question, seeing as she has them.

“I want the nose next,” she tells me.

I am actually disappointed, but I try not to show it—her face as-is is utterly perfect; I adore her; it feels strange to see someone want to improve on what looks like perfection, but as someone who has made changes to her own body as well that would seem counterintuitive to some, I remind myself to practice empathy.

Nina goes on, about wanting the dog nose next: “And a dog’s nose, it’s... well, first of all, it’s remarkable. But second, it’s not something that you can just slap on and expect all the wires to connect properly with a human brain. And that’s—I resent this, but—I do have a human brain.”

“And the hormones help?”

“Well. They are a little feistier than just hormones, apparently.” She gives the bottle a shake. “Even as someone who’s ostensibly fully developed, these will stimulate development in the regions of the brain that are more developed in dogs than humans. So, after a few months of this, when they put on a nose, it would be a heck of a lot more than just cosmetic. It would be... I’ve heard it described as a religious experience, to know the world by scent for the first time.”

I nod for a moment. I ask, “Any side effects?”

She quickly twists off the top of the bottle and takes a pill, then smiles mischievously at me, and says, “There are effects-effects. A lot of the canine behavior that I’ve had inhibitions about expressing before will probably start to manifest: barking at noises outside, communicating with body language over talking, humping the furniture, y’know.”

“As long as you don’t make a mess on the floor.”

She sticks her tongue out. “It’s okay, I think I’m house trained.” We do have a holovent in the corner for Aleksey, and I have caught Nina using it a handful of times already—one day when I caught her and made it known that I could see her, she only became more flagrant about it afterwards.

That night in the afterglow, as Nina and I lie together snuggled up under a blanket, I ask her, “Nina?”

“Hm?”

“Honest question: with the nose, is that a full snout? Will you be able to talk afterwards?”

She licks my forehead a few times, and then answers, “If the hormones have taken well enough, I’m getting the whole face done.”

Oh.”

She gives me another lick. “I’ll still be able to talk. They’re modeling my voice; when they do the face, part of that will include implanting a pair of micro speakers kinda in the cheeks, which I’ll be able to talk through as though it was my old human mouth. Apparently it’s not even weird-feeling.”

I kiss the top of one of her ears, where it meets the head. We make out a long while, and I do my best to appreciate her lovely face while it’s here, but I really am happy for her, if she decides she’d rather have something else.

A few weeks pass. One morning we visit a shop that specializes in antiques, and then that afternoon I order delivery for us; Nina and I are sitting on the couch, me reading an archaic book about vampires, her fidgeting around with a hacky sack, squishing it between her fingers, tossing it up and catching it; when the delivery man knocks, Aleksey and Nina roar out a string of barks at the exact same moment, and both of them shoot up to their feet; Aleksey walks to the door wagging, and sniffs around the door to smell through and know who is outside; Nina stands stock still in front of the couch, staring blankly forward.

“Y’okay?” I ask. She tells me, “That was really satisfying? Like... maybe how like a good sneeze is satisfying? Natural? Understated but also a lot?”

I stand, kiss her on an ear, and go pay the delivery man and retrieve our food; we sit at the dining room table, and she puts her food into her bowl, and I love this goofy dog across from me. After dinner, I figure out the archaic CD speaker box that we got, and put on one of the records; the two of us listen, Nina with her head tilted, one ear raised; one of the CD’s has soothing music, and we make love to it on the couch; from across the room Aleksey watches, always curious about the two of us.

On the morning of, I give her one last kiss on her human lips before she goes in for her augmentation. They are doing the full face, and she will have to stay overnight. She would also like time the next day to herself at first, to process everything.

Aleksey and I go to a dog park. We go to The Cerberus Gallery in the off hours, and I admire all of the pieces; many of them are the same pieces that were here the first time I visited, though the gallery makes sure to keep new ones coming in here and there; I spend a long while at Blindness, the one with the five ping-pong balls; I spend a long while staring at a ten-foot-tall portrait painting of a Beagle’s face. I go down into long term storage, where Grey Liger sits derelict, and I sit in the cockpit, and Aleksey hops up onto the copilot’s seat beside me like old times, and we reminisce, and I thank him for all of the time he’s kept me company, and how intelligent and polite he is around others, and how I would never be here without him; I tell him that I love him, which is utterly true in the platonic sense of the word, and I don’t say it to him often enough.

The next night is the first time I will see Nina’s new face: she is revealing it at the gallery. Aleksey and I mill about that night, discussing the pieces here and there with others, until it is time; everyone makes their way across the hall, into the theater. The lights are on as people find their seats. There on the stage at the front stands Nina, wearing a brown dress, with a pale green veil over her head; the veil is supported with wires internally, such that it looks like a cube suspended around her head, so as not to reveal the shape or dimensions of her augmentation. I sit front and center, and Aleksey sits at my feet, and I pet him. As the others in the theater settle, he lies down.

When everyone has found their seats, the lights in the theater fade off. Then, a spotlight shines down on Nina. With no further ceremony, she lifts off her veil like a fighter pilot taking off her helmet; underneath, above the human body of Nina, framed in Nina’s familiar feathered hair and soft brown ears, is the face of a Chocolate Lab. The audience begins clapping; Nina turns her face slowly to the left and to the right, showing the augmentation off, and the audience gives her a standing ovation. She curtsies. She has changed her appearance, and against my expectations, the change is a lateral move: she is still exactly as beautiful as before; this new face fits her perfectly; in some sense, looking at her now, maybe it fits her even more perfectly, as I see better and better how she feels on the inside and tries to manifest it on the outside.

When the applause has quieted, Nina takes in a breath and then barks. Aleksey perks up, and then stands, and bounds up to the stage. Nina kneels down and pets him; he begins to wrestle with her, and she wrestles back, the two of them swiping hand and paw at each other, until Nina comes in and holds him in a hug, rubbing his back, both of them wagging. “That’s a good guy,” I hear her voice say through her speakers, though her canine mouth doesn’t move as she says it.

She stands, curtsies again, and then exits the stage behind the curtain, Aleksey following after her. As the screen is lowering to project tonight’s movie onto, I stand up and sneak off backstage after my dogs.

There in the back, Nina is sitting cross-legged in front of Aleksey, who is sitting on his haunches facing her. She has her hands on his shoulders, and is speaking to him with her human voice, alternating between a boring tone of voice and a playful tone of voice, letting him figure it out; he puts his nose against her muzzle where the speaker must be and sniffs, and barks at her; she keeps talking to him, letting him know it’s still her.

I come up and join this meeting, sitting cross-legged as well. As I join, both dogs wag wildly. Nina asks me, “What do you think?”

I bite the bullet and lean in and kiss her on the front of her dog mouth, holding my breath; I gently cup her head in my hands, my palms on her soft ears, and I continue to kiss her, pressing human lip against canine, sliding my tongue over her pointy teeth; she lets me explore this for some seconds before she kisses back, and her immense tongue fills my mouth, and I let her explore me anew for all of a few seconds before I reel back, catching my breath and also laughing and coughing. I tell her in a croaking voice, “I need to get used to that, I don’t know what I was expecting; I love you; I’m happy for you; I’m glad that you got to do this, and I’m glad to get to figure it out with you.”

Sensing a game, Aleksey licks my mouth. I turn my head up away from him, petting him but letting him know that I’m not interested in that from most dogs, thank you.

Nina and I hug. As the movie plays in the theater, Nina and Aleksey and I sit around with each other in a faux living room of prop furniture backstage, and she tells me all about the day she’s had, just walking through the districts under her veil and smelling, lifting the veil to press her nose against something now and then and smell it like she was looking at it under an in-built microscope; it is like having super powers; it is like having super powers that you have always felt should have belonged to you. The three of us leave the backstage through a back door, and sneak around back into the gallery. We go to Blindness, and Nina presses her nose right against each of the five ping-pong balls, inhaling deeply at each one, sometimes taking a few sniffs, other times perfectly satisfied with just the one.

“Do you know?” I ask.

She wags. “I know.”

That night Nina is a freak in bed with her new mouth, and my only complaint is that I cannot get it back up as fast as both of us are keen on each time, though we do kiss whenever we have to wait, either that or she presses her nose against every square inch of my body, exploring me as though for the first time, under a microscope, with super powers. Apparently I am satisfying to her scrutiny. We sleep cuddled up together, and we invite Aleksey in to sleep on the foot of the bed with us, as he usually does, as he usually did back with just me and him in the ship.

A few weeks go by. Very often, I see Nina standing at the window in the living room, sticking her nose out and smelling, wagging; Aleksey stands beside her sometimes, smelling too. Nina will sometimes bark if another dog walks by outside; Aleksey will get excited, but is better behaved, and does not bark at the other dogs. I often see Nina and Aleksey having what I can only describe as conversations. They play with toys together, and she appears to be learning things from him, though I cannot always discern what the lesson is. She often takes him on walks; I often take him on walks; I often take her on walks. She eats out of her dog bowl without silverware now, now that she has the snout.

One day the three of us are in the theater by ourselves, watching an archaic wildlife documentary. Nina and I are cuddled up together. We are talking over the movie, chatting about how well her nose is working out.

I ask her, “Were you thinking about any more augmentations?”

She licks her lips, which in some contexts means Yes.

“What did you have in mind?”

“I’m worried you’re not going to like it.”

I feel I know what’s coming. I kiss her dog mouth. “What is it?”

She sighs, which flaps her jowls. “With the hormones—they’re amazing, but lately the dysphoria in... certain areas... has been getting pretty bad. I don’t feel right. Just like, all of this—” She gestures around her chest, her stomach, her genitals. “It just feels wrong, and I’d like to change it.”

This did seem inevitable. I take her hand, rub a thumb along the back of her hand. “First of all, who cares what I think.”

“I care. A lot.”

I kiss the side of her snout, then I go on. “It’s your body, not mine. I’m sure we’ll always find something to do. I like you outside of the sex too, you know; you’re a good dog.”

She licks my mouth, and I kiss her back and pet her head once, then leave my arm around her shoulders.

“Do you know what a dog pussy looks like?” she asks.

Before meeting Nina, the answer would have been no, not really; after meeting Nina, I have called up images of them every now and then, looking at them and wondering if I could. “I have seen pictures.”

She curls up with me conspiratorially, and whispers, “I could show you videos.”

I rub her shoulder idly, thinking about it. What the hell; why not. “Let’s see.”

She picks up a laser pointer off of the seat beside her, and shines it up at the ceiling. A holodisplay appears. She navigates through it with the laser pointer, calls up a video, and selects it for projection.

A moment later, Nina and I are curled up together in a theater, watching on the big screen as a veterinarian wearing a pair of blue gloves inserts his lubed fingers into a dog’s vagina, runs his fingers along the outside of the vulva, explains to the viewer what’s what. Nina watches and is extremely aroused; I watch with fascination, but more a fascination like I’m looking at a close up high definition video of some alien creature being shown off.

She calls up another video, which is a male dog mounting and having sex with a female dog; the dogs are shown at a regular angle, then the same act is shown again from the perspective of a different camera, this one zoomed in and focused on the genitals, and recording in slow motion. I still don’t entirely get it, but I also don’t entirely not get it.

She calls up a pornographic video starring a male human, a female human, and a female dog; he goes back and forth between the two again and again. I get it. I nuzzle and pinch Nina, and seconds later she is straddling me, and we are going at it as I look at the video of the human penis going back and forth between a human’s vagina and a dog’s, interchangeably.

She arranges it the next day, and the operation is done a week after. When I see her next, I am coming home from grocery shopping; Aleksey greets me at the door; I go into the bedroom, and see Nina splayed on her back, looking at me and wagging; she has nipples down her pink chest instead of her previous human breasts, and her genitals have been replaced as well; I close the door behind myself, undress, and crawl up onto bed, and give this a try.

Afterwards we lay on our backs, side by side, catching our breath. I lay with my legs straight and flat against the bed; she lays with her knees bent and her legs apart, like a dog on her back.

“How was it?” she asks.

“I don’t know why I was worried. You’re still amazing.”

She wags.

She does the fur next; the procedure involves running a particular machine slowly over the skin as a specialist minds the settings that would cause appropriate fur to grow in that area, and to change the feel of the skin itself somewhat; it is like getting a full-body tattoo; the procedure does not create the fur itself, but begins the process of the fur being able to grow. It looks odd as it’s growing in, until one day it doesn’t: she has a beautiful paint-brown coat. Hugging her truly does feel like hugging a dog now. Often as I’m going about my day, I find a stray hair of hers on my clothing, and pick it off and look at it, and think warmly of her.

She talks less these days—less with human words, anyways. She and Aleksey play with their toys, go on walks together smelling the air; I play with them, and walk with them. I realize, one day as we’re eating dinner, that it’s been so long since I heard her talk at length about anything in the world of art. I ask her, “Do you still like art?”

She looks up from her bowl. She thinks for a moment, and then only answers, “I think I’m moving on. Dull. Meaningless. More art in the scents of a droplet of paint on the head of a pin than in the sights of a full gallery of paintings.”

I am surprised. I feel she is leaving a beautiful body of knowledge behind, and I am taken aback by the waste of it; at the same time, I believe her when she says she moves on; I believe she has shed an excess of knowledge and now lives free with an excess of wisdom.

One day soon after, she goes in for a checkup. After some scans, she is taken off of her hormones; she is done. Her brain is indistinguishable from a dog’s, as is most of the rest of her physiology, save for her bone structure and the fact she’s wired to the speakers implanted in her muzzle. Apparently dogs have a better grasp on human language than I appreciated; if Aleksey had been hooked up to speakers similarly from a young enough age, and had therefore grown up practicing, he would have been able to talk too, apparently.

In the course of knowing Nina, there have been times when I have more strongly felt I am making love to a human who likes dogs, and times when I have more strongly felt I am making love to a dog who was assigned human at birth. The night after her scans show she has the mind of a dog is a night when I feel the latter way; I make love to one dog on the couch, and nudge away another dog with my foot when he comes up to look; I finish with the one dog, and lay with her and pet her, and then after a shower, I lay with the other dog and pet him; I don’t think he has any misgivings towards the fact I treat the other dog differently, but I do think that he knows there are two dogs in this pack, and a human who does treat the two of them differently.

One day, I am sitting on the couch reading a book on sheep, and Nina and Aleksey are playing with a rope on the ground, tugging it gently back and forth with their mouths. Aleksey gets up at some point, and walks off to go lay on the bed. Nina gets up, and lays down at my feet. I lean down and pet her a bit, and then go back to reading. Eventually she sits down beside me, and says, “Val.”

I am startled; it’s been so long since I heard my name from her. “What’s wrong?”

“I am a dog?”

“Yes.”

She looks down at her hands.

I pet her, and tell her it’s alright. I learn she is scared of the next one—the augmentation to change the bones. It is extensive. She will require physical training afterwards, to learn how to control a body that has had everything rearranged. I tell her she is loved as she is, and also that I would not abandon her if the next one is difficult, or if something goes wrong. She is my partner until one of us dies.

She arranges the surgery, with my help when all of the human droning on exhausts her. When I visit her in the hospital afterwards, there is a Chocolate Lab in a hospital bed; Nina; Nina who I yet again am seeing for the first time, and this time, I think, I am seeing her again for the first time for the last time; she is done; this is her. She wags when she sees me.

I kneel at her bedside. She licks my face, and I tell her again and again that I love her.

In a week, she can walk. In a month, she can run. We go to a dog park that has obstacles; Aleksey is indifferent to them, and plays with the other dogs; Nina plays with Aleksey and the other dogs too, but also plays with me on the obstacles, sprinting over and around and through, and I am sometimes beside myself with how impressed and smitten I am with this Chocolate Lab. Most nights she has no interest in making love, and is happy to snuggle up with me and go straight to sleep; some nights she is demanding, and I am happy to please. One night I ask her if she needs anything before we go to sleep; she looks at me and does not answer. “Nina girl?” I ask. She looks at me still, and eventually says, “Val.” I ask her what’s wrong. She answers, “There is one thing left. This voice blesses; other dogs would like to have it; they are jealous I can speak to the tall ones. This voice curses; by the gift of speaking, I am cursed to be treated as human above dogs, and not as their equal, as the equal of everything and a part of my canine kind.” It is the most I’ve heard her say at once in months.

We go to arrange to have the speakers removed; the doctor can disable them there in his office. Nina leaps up onto the medical bed, and stands before the doctor, who holds a syringe. He holds it poised to her snout, and he asks if Nina would like to say any final words.

She looks at me. “Val. You have been my best friend always. I love you always. Thank you always.”

With two pokes of the syringe, Nina is no longer able to speak in human words. I hug her. We go home, and I make dinner for us. Nina and Aleksey eat from bowls, and I sit at the table, eating from a plate and watching them. She clings to me that night, assuring me that not much has changed; she still loves me; she is still happy; I tell her aloud that the feelings are mutual, and I still love her. On this night she is demanding, and as always, I am happy to please this dog.

Aliyah, Madeline, Four Candles

The crowd hadn’t even gotten there yet. It was merely the act of setting up to play Radio City Music Hall that made me realize we were not just a successful band—already a miracle—but that we were a big-dick famous band.

At first I had wondered whether the stage crew may have already had a long day prior to our arrival, or whether they really were just weirdly inexperienced for such a large venue, because as we worked, they seemed almost perplexed by our fairly normal desire to be a part of arranging the instruments on stage, and doubly perplexed by our fairly normal selection of instruments, and had very mixed reactions on Aliyah’s great dane, Lion, who was bounding around the stage and sniffing things. Some crew would offer out a hand to him as he neared, and give him a rub if they got the chance. More than one of them would run away—Lion would chase briefly, then bound off somewhere else. But I realized, as far as the setting up goes, that it was because they were starstruck by us. I had known for a while now that fans can be weirdos, obsessives, awkward types, but seeing someone trip over themselves professionally on our account was, I guess, an interesting first, and it made me appreciate that we weren’t at such a big venue by mistake. We were here because we really had made it.

We had never played a room half this large—most of our lives we could play shows without microphones. But that wouldn’t swing here. A technician was helping me figure out the mics that would best facilitate my piano, accordion, saxophone, and acoustic guitar. Aliyah, up front of course, was having an easier time with her two guitars (electric and acoustic) and her microphones. The bass guitar (Steve) was to be on a stand halfway between us, so that either of us could have him depending on the song.

Jess, after getting help putting up the platform for the drums, had told the stage hands to go away. She would set up her drum world, thank you very much, yes if I need anything I’ll ask.

“Any backing band?” the stage hand helping me asks, as he is managing a cable.

I’m sure Jess, Aliyah, and myself are each keeping our own count of how many times we’ve been asked this, so that we can compare later. In fairness, this particular stage hand has not asked me the question yet.

“Just the three of us, start to finish,” I inform him. “Why, do you play anything?”

He smiles a little. “Most of what you’ve got on stage. Just rusty on the drums, but otherwise...” He shrugs, and pretends that his full attention is needed on the cable that seems to already be sorted out.

I skip over to the stool with my accordion on it, grab the accordion (it makes a silly noise), and turn to face the stage hand. “Catch!”

His head snaps up and there is amazing panic in his eyes as I am tossing him my accordion. Everything drops from his hands and he catches it.

“Play something!”

Jess adds from the drums, “Play Piano Man!”

He is trying to remain bashful, but his smiling betrays his eagerness. He had fantasized about this outcome, but had not expected it. He straps on the accordion.

After dancing up and down a scale, he is playing Piano Man just as well as I could. Jess whistles and cheers. He sings the words, complete with the La-Dadada-Dadadada’s, and lets the final note fade out a long time.

I point at him and shout to Aliyah. “Aliyah!”

“What, dear?”

“Let him do the show!”

“Does he know our songs?”

I look at him.

He is already taking off the accordion. “Sorry,” he says, still much happier than he was when he was fiddling with the cable. He hands off the accordion.

“That was really good though,” I tell him.

He tells me his name is Chuck. I tell him my name is Willow, and he seems amused, and says that he had heard what my name was before. I have lied to him anyways, as my birth certificate and driver’s license say Madeline. Setting up the cables with Chuck is a lot of fun, and my mind is taken off of how big this big-dick theater is, and how many people will be fit into it in a few hours. I find out that he has also lied to me, and he can play one of our songs. He plays it in my place, complete with Jess on the drums and Aliyah on electric and vocals, as I run from the front of the hall to the back, stopping for a while at various seats to make sure that I can hear everything well. (There is also someone whose job it is to do this, but they are waiting for me to stop playing and go on stage so that he can hear it with the correct band and each of the instruments as I would play them, since the band is here anyways)

With everything set up, Aliyah, Jess, and myself play a rehearsal. (We are a punk rock band but literally everyone besides the three of us disagrees with this. We are called Ring Fingernail)

During the actual show (like in front of people) my eyes are closed from start to finish (They open to a narrow squint only when I need to change instruments, particularly when going for Steve)

After the show, we all run outside. Aliyah gets into the driver’s seat of her car after letting Lion into the passenger side. Jess and I climb into the back (Jess shows me that she has a bottle of rum) and Aliyah drives us all to our hotel and parks (Jess and I are intoxicated)

Security stops us for being drunk and having an accordion and an enormous dog with us, but after a moment they are informed that we are big-dick famous and we are escorted to the elevator, where Aliyah then informs the security that we are fine thank you, and hits the button for the top floor, and the elevator closes with Aliyah, Jess, myself, and Lion inside, and also a man with a beard who seems to be unrelated to any of this.

Jess looks to him, and asks, “Screw?”

He appears uncomfortable. He holds up his hand, and with his other hand points to his wedding ring.

“Cheat?”

He pulls a cross necklace out from his shirt collar.

“Ugh.”

He gets off at his floor.

Jess passes Aliyah the bottle of rum. Aliyah drinks. Jess drinks again. I drink again. Jess drinks again. The elevator doors open, and we maneuver our way through the short hall and into the penthouse suite.

As soon as I have heard the door close behind us, I look over and Jess is naked (Drunk Jess has Opinions about clothes) and Aliyah has taken her own bottle of rum for herself from the minibar (she salutes me with it before tilting it back and drinking)

I go and close the curtains that overlook New York City and also grab my own bottle of rum from the minibar and then I sit on the couch. I fiddle on the accordion as I replay the night’s events in my head (although my eyes were not open for the show, I can vividly recall the presence of the crowd. Their sound was a physical force. Reprocessing it now while drunk, the crowd has only gone up in physicality. I rethink of moments of songs again and again, and how all of those people screamed at us or were silent and held their breath for us)

When I am finished, I set the accordion aside. I am drunk and sleepy. I look around. Jess is in a bubbling hot tub in the corner of the room. She raises an arm and waves at me. I wave back.

I stand, and become immediately aware that walking is going to be an ordeal and I will probably fall over a lot. I begin walking towards Jess, and amazingly I continue walking towards Jess until I am at the edge of the hot tub. “I’m going to bed,” I inform her.

She tells me that she’s scoped out the bedrooms and this penthouse has one guest bed and one master bed and that she is willing to take the guest bed if me and Aliyah want to share the master bed. I have not processed any of what she has said when I nod and walk off towards the master bedroom, where the door is open.

I walk through the open door, and there I see Aliyah lying on her back with her legs hanging off the edge of the bed. Lion is standing at her spread legs, and is doing a thorough job of licking her vagina.

“AH!” I say.

Aliyah flinches, and then she and Lion look to me. When she sees that it is me, she raises a finger to her lips, and says, “Shhhh.”

I stand frozen in the doorway.

Aliyah beckons me over.

I mechanically walk forward and stand at the corner of the bed. Lion has sat down, and is looking at me, though he keeps glancing back to Aliyah’s vagina, which she still has spread out in front of his face.

She slinks down the bed and onto the floor, crouching beside Lion, rubbing the length of her body against his sitting body. “Lion and I are more than friends,” she tells me. She is at least as drunk as I am. As she rubs him, I can hear the scratching of the hairs of his fur all rubbing together.

I nod.

“Do you mind if he and I get back to where we left off?” Aliyah asks.

I can’t think of a reason to be bothered. Correction: I can’t think of a reason to be bothered that I actually believe. Jess having sex while we’re in the room is a normality. Aliyah I have never seen in the act before, and it is now plain to see why. I tell her that she and Lion can get back to it.

Aliyah kisses Lion on the front of his dog lips, and his mouth opens and begins licking at her, and soon they are making out, Lion lapping into her mouth and all over her face. I crawl up and sit at the head of the bed, huddled up in comfy blankets, watching my best friend fuck a dog. I fall asleep at some point. When I wake up, I am lying on one side of the bed, and next to me is Lion, and big-spooning Lion is Aliyah.

Over breakfast, while Jess is in the other room, Aliyah and I are talking at regular volume about the concert, and at a quieter volume about the fact that she fucks her dog.

“I trust you to keep it a secret,” she tells me.

“Of course,” I tell her. “Does anyone else know?”

“Just the dogs.”

“Dogs?”

She takes a breath in to talk again, and then her breath catches before she can say anything. She pauses a while, and then tries again. “Missie growing up, and Victor after that. Definitely Daisy too, even if...” Tears have not fallen yet, but she has started to cry. “Even if that one didn’t last long.”

I get up and go and get on my knees next to her chair and hug her. She lets it out, hugging back. Lion comes and sits at her side opposite me, and rests his nose against her, looking sad. She pets him. She thanks us both. We eventually get on with breakfast and the rest of the day. We are doing a much smaller acoustic show tonight, and I am looking forward to it.

Months go by. We take a break from touring to work on new material for our next album and to have a vacation. Aliyah, Jess, and myself all live in Portland and see each other often. Jess moves away from Portland to Los Angeles. Aliyah moves away from Portland to a farm in rural Colorado, near a town called Kohath. It is rarer that any of us see each other. About three years after that night we played Radio City Music Hall, Aliyah, Jess, and myself meet up in Kohath for a month to rehearse the new material, iron it out, and record the new album. I love being with them again. I know that this band is no longer the thing it was before when we were touring, but nonetheless, I am grateful for it to still be here, still be the three of us playing music, with Lion lumbering around the recording studio. He walks with a limp now. I pet him. Aliyah pets him. When we are finished recording the album, Jess returns to Los Angeles, and I return to Portland, although I am wondering whether I might like Kohath better. I do not pursue this idea, as I do not want to impose on Aliyah’s seclusion. The band is not what it was before. The river is shallower, still enough to turn a turbine, but less. I will not overexpect of it. I still talk on the phone with Aliyah and Jess every now and then. Sometimes I play small shows as a solo artist, and Jess tells me that sometimes she does the same in Los Angeles. One day, after I have not been able to get in touch with Aliyah for months (I thought we had been missing each other’s calls, but in fact, she was avoiding me) I learn that Lion has died. Aliyah wants to go on tour. Jess is agreeable to this. We meet up in Los Angeles for a few shows as a test-run, and when it goes well, we begin arranging the cross-country route. It is similar to last time—it is good—even if we are all damaged goods even more so than we were the last time. The tour is a lot of fun and I love Aliyah and Jess and I also love that there are still a lot of people in the world who are fans of us, apparently, which is affirming that we must be doing something right, probably. When we have gone from one side of the country to the other and back again and the tour is over, we all return to our homes. Aliyah and I talk on the phone every day for a few days, and then, I can no longer get ahold of her. When I have not been able to reach her for a week I ask around, and learn that nobody has been able to get ahold of her. I travel to Kohath and break and enter into her farmhouse, and go through every room, and she is not there. I call around. Nobody knows if she went somewhere. She is declared a missing person. I am helping with the searches. The searches yield nothing—we do not find her, alive or otherwise. Two months pass. Jess comes to Kohath and we cry and she tells me there’s nothing more I can do here, and I should get back to my own life. I return to Portland. I play music in my living room, but nowhere else. Often I sit back on the couch fiddling with my accordion, mentally playing back shows we’d played, conversations we’d had, moments we’d lived. I miss my friend.

A year goes by. Sitting on the couch and playing the accordion so often, I have ended up with a lot of new workable material. I fiddle with the other instruments, and figure out the arrangements. I have never been much of a lyricist, but I come up with some stuff. I begin recording in my living room, recording the different tracks of the different instruments all myself. Eventually, I have a demo for a new album. I send it to Jess. Jess calls me in tears and thanks me for showing it to her, and she says I should get it produced, it sounds really nice, that it shows so much of how much of the band’s sound had been Willow sound. I thank her and I mean it, but I also mean it when I tell her that the band’s sound was all because of Aliyah. She disagrees. She says the band’s face was all Aliyah, but it would be lost in genericism without the Willow parts. I appreciate that we are talking about this but I also feel uncomfortable whenever I have to speak about Aliyah as though she is dead. She almost certainly is dead. Whether she is alive or dead, she almost certainly would enjoy that we are talking about her. I thank Jess again, and get off the phone with her.

After finding the phone number and gathering the courage, I call up the recording studio in Kohath. I explain who I am (they remember me) and I tell them that I have an album to record if they might be interested, and I can send them the demo. They insist that sending the demo will be unnecessary and I can come down to record at my soonest convenience. I pack up my instruments and go (I leave Steve behind in my living room and buy a new bass guitar on the drive)

I arrive at the studio a couple days later, early in the morning. I am greeted warmly by the owner. We sit down and listen to my demo. By eleven AM we have begun recording. By nine PM I can’t stop. The studio owner asks if I will lock the front door when I leave if he gives me the keys. I agree to this. He hands me the keys and goes.

At the stroke of midnight, I am recording an acoustic guitar solo. I finish it, open my eyes, and standing behind the glass in the tech room is Aliyah. I scream for joy and drop my guitar and rush to the door to meet her, but I halt as I actually near the door. She looks different. I am certain of it. I had thought it was just the reflection of the glass playing tricks, but I can now see that her black skin is no longer skin, her black hair is no longer hair, and her dress (she rarely wore dresses) is no longer anything earthly either. From head to toe, I can see through her. She is made of something smoke-like, but also glass-like, but it is certainly in the shape of Aliyah, or at least close enough that I could recognize it.

She does not wait around for me to open the door. She walks forward, and she moves through the studio window as though it wasn’t there. I step forward to hug her, but she shakes her head, and I step back.

“That song is coming together beautifully,” she tells me. She is smiling at me, but she is not happy.

“What happened to you?” I ask.

She frowns. “I got super murdered.”

Tears hit me. Aliyah and I sit down next to each other on the couch in the tech room. I ask, “Who killed you?”

“Not gonna say. Don’t need you getting involved too.”

“I’ll kill the bastard.”

“Yeah, so, like I said.”

I snarl.

We sit quiet for a little while.

“I want you to do something else for me besides killing,” she says.

Anything. “Go on.”

“Well, first off I should tell you I’m not in a major rush about it. I want you to finish recording your album before you go and do my thing. Okay?”

I am listening.

“Okay,” she says. “Okay. First, finish your thing here. Then... then I’ll tell you where my body is buried, and I’d like you to dig me up, and bring me to Crater Lake National Park, and rebury me there, near the water.”

I look at her.

Now it is her turn to be in tears, although it appears she cannot actually cry. “Missie and Victor—Crater Lake is where my family scattered their ashes when they died. It’s where I scattered the ashes of Daisy and Lion too. And I don’t want to spend the rest of eternity away from them.”

I nod. “I can do it now. We can leave right now.”

She smiles. Again, she is not happy, but nonetheless I don’t think that the smile is meaningless. “I want to hear your album finished before I go. C’mon. Let’s get back to it, if you’re still staying up tonight.”

I agree to this, and step back into the recording booth. I retune the guitar and put down another take of the solo.

In three days I have finished all of the recordings, and in four days I have finished editing everything together exactly as I want it and recording some touch-ups, with guidance from the studio owner and from Aliyah. I have bullied Aliyah into writing the lyrics of a song for me. A song about love and empathy and fucking dogs. It is by far the best song on the album. I hope that everyone who thinks it’s a joke becomes more tolerant without realizing it. I hope that everyone who gets mad about it gets it stuck in their head forever.

I pay the studio owner generously for letting me take complete control over his studio for the week. After packing up my things from the bed and breakfast I’ve been staying at, I sit on the edge of the bed with Aliyah, and the two of us listen to the album, start to finish. She thanks me, and I thank her. She tells me that she is buried in the dirt cellar of an abandoned farmhouse five miles out of town.

I pack up my van, buy a tarp and a shovel and a big flashlight from the farm supply store in town, and drive out to the house. I break into the cellar. During the initial searches after Aliyah went missing, the police searched this building and a few other abandoned ones, and I should not be surprised that they did a shit job of it. Sweeping the flashlight across the floor, I don’t even have to ask Aliyah where exactly she is buried. There is a raised mound of discolored dirt the size and shape of a grave. It is so conspicuous that I am stricken with certainty that a cop killed Aliyah and covered it up during the search, but I do not bring it up, because I know she still won’t tell me who did it (I already asked a lot more times as we were doing the recordings)

I dig her up. I am careful not to damage her body, although she insists that this actually does not matter in the slightest. When she is unearthed, I lift her body out of the grave, and place her onto the tarp. I wrap her up and carry her out of the cellar and into my van. I go back into the cellar and fill the grave back in. I drive north out of Kohath, bound for Crater Lake National Park.

On the way, as Aliyah and I are talking, I make a comment about how unfair it is that she died so young.

“I did not die young,” she tells me.

I shrug. “Okay, maybe not young, but you weren’t exactly elderly.”

“I was ancient and sick of life anyways,” Aliyah tells me, and I am shocked. “You’re not thinking about life the way that I lived it, dear. You’re thinking in human years. Human lifetimes. I lived four lifetimes with people whose candles burned short but brighter than anyone else in the world. With each and every one of them, I was right there burning with them.”

I apologize. We keep driving.

When we arrive at the lake, I make my way down a gravel road and eventually I park the van. I grab my shovel. I dig Aliyah a new grave. In the time it takes me to do this, nobody has come by. I take Aliyah’s body out of the van, lay her to rest in the woods near the lake, and bury her properly.

She stands atop her grave, facing me. I am covered in dirt and sweat and death germs. I am smiling at her. She is smiling at me. She is still not happy. Not yet. But she is smiling, and she is optimistic.

“Thank you,” she says.

“Thank you,” I say. “For everything. Have a good afterlife.”

“You too, when you do.”

I snicker, and I wish I could hug her, but she is gone. I go to the lake and get into the freezing water to wash off, and then I return to my van, dry off, and return home. I call up a local venue and they book me to play an acoustic show. I play our old songs that were Aliyah’s favorites, even though I know that she is not listening, that she is somewhere else where she, by now, is probably burning with the happiness of four lifetimes rediscovered at once.

Five of Cups Covers Ten of Swords

Three so-and-sos from the cursed races—a canian, a felian, and a rodentian—sat around an upturned washbucket in the front yard of a dilapidated farmhouse, playing cards with the minor arcana.

“Any twos, Hardigar?” Roan asked.

“Go fish, Roan.”

“Meh.” Roan drew.

“Got any knights, Hardigar?” Syl asked through a barely contained grin.

Hardigar hissed down at his cards, and handed three knights over to the rodentian girl.

She added a complete set of knights to her collection of completed sets sitting on the washbucket table. After setting the set down she tapped the cards together neatly, and then looked back to her hand. “Got any aces, Hardigar?” she went on.

Hardigar opened his mouth fully and hissed even meaner, and handed over three aces.

“Got anyyy fours, Hardigar?”

Roan snickered.

Hardigar reached over with his claws extended and swatted Roan’s cards out of his hand: they went flying onto the grass.

“Ah! Hey! Ass,” Roan said, and quickly collected them up. He also looked to Syl, and mentioned, “That’s a bad word, don’t say that in front of Meesn.”

Hardigar took a deep breath in, and out. He reminded himself that he played these hideously monotonous social brainiac games with these two because he loved them, and they enjoyed it. He handed Syl three fours.

She set down her complete set of fours, and asked, “Got any nines, Hardigar?”

Hardigar handed Syl card after card, until his hand was down to just two cards, the five of cups and the ten of swords. Good ones, them. He stared at the pictures as Syl extracted Roan’s hand from him too.

“I think you won, Syl,” Roan said, looking at Syl’s extensive field of completed sets laid out neatly on the table.

Her nose twitched and her tail flicked agreeably.

“Good game, Syl,” Hardigar congratulated. He set down his hand. He had completed zero sets, Roan had gotten one.

“One more?” Syl asked.

“C’mon now, that was one more,” Roan said, as he began to collect up all of the cards. “Clearly you can remember that.” He handed her the deck. “Want to go see if Meesn needs help with anything in the house?”

She took the deck, but did not go scampering off towards the house. She looked at Hardigar. “Make me fly?”

“Wellll,” he said, and with faux-reluctance, stood up. “Hand me a card?”

Syl scanned through the deck, and then picked out a card to hand to him. Four of pentacles. Her favorite. “Mm, lovely,” he commented.

He walked across the yard, spinning the single card atop his fingertip, being followed closely by Syl. He stopped at a patch of dirt. There, over the patch of dirt, he envisioned a sturdy table, considered the texture of the wood as he ran a hand over it, what its weight would be if one tried to lift it. He tossed the card onto the envisioned table: the card landed on the air as though striking the table’s surface. The card slid briefly and then settled.

Though he was part of a cursed race, this contained weal as well as woe. One gift to Hardigar was the cliche one: in the black fur on his left forearm, in two rows, were the numerals one through nine depicted in white fur. The numerals nine, eight, and seven were crossed through with a line of crimson fur, which looked as though it was white fur matted with dried blood.

His other gift was an adeptness in the particularly rare magic of pantomime. He made the imagined real, though the physicality of the imagined had to be truly believed by the one who would be most effected by it in the immediate future. As he tossed the card onto the imagined table, his immense ego was on the line, and so his belief made it physical.

Hardigar crouched, wriggled, and then leapt up onto the floating card, making a show of standing on it upon one tiptoe, hands out to the sides for balance. After staying that way for a few seconds, he hopped off.

He came around the table to Syl, lifted her up, and held her atop the table, over the card. “Don’t look down,” he instructed. “Look forward, out into the woods. The card is still there. You’ll be able to stand on it.”

She looked up and faced forward, into the woods as he had said.

Very slowly, he lowered her towards the table, saying, “Easy, almost there, almooost...”

Her foot settled on the imagined table, several inches away from being atop the card at all. He set her fully on the table, made sure she had her balance, and then let go of her, leaving her to stand on one foot, believing she stood on the floating card, and, incidentally, therefore believing in Hardigar’s pantomime, making it real. She squeaked with delight as she kept her balance, facing the woods diligently.

Silently, Hardigar grabbed the card, held it behind his back, and walked around to the front of Syl. He smiled at her joy in this, and then held up the four of pentacles for her to see. He watched as she processed what he was showing her. She held on to the belief for a couple more seconds, and then dropped to the ground.

He picked her up and began carrying her to the farmhouse. “You were off the card the entire time,” he told her, “and you still floated.”

Hardigar took a few steps up an imagined staircase and onto an imagined platform, about three feet off the ground. From the felian’s arms, the rodentian girl peered down at the ground, and at the seeming nothingness which the man stood on.

“If I set you down, will you float?”

Syl looked down, pondered it, and then nodded.

Carefully, Hardigar began setting Syl down. “Almost... almooost...”

Syl’s feet found the platform, and she stood level with Hardigar. She squeaked up at him, and he flicked his tail and purred down at her. He offered his hand, and she took it.

“Follow me down,” he said, and led the way down the stairs. She followed him down after each one, and the two arrived safely back on the grass.

“Thanks Hardigar,” she squeaked, and then skipped off into the house to go see if her grandmother needed help with anything.

Hardigar purred and flicked his tail as he watched her go. Smiling, he turned towards Roan. The canian still sat at the washbucket table, head bowed and posture stooped over. Hardigar’s good mood turned to concern, and he walked over to his clanmate.

“Something wrong?”

Roan looked up to Hardigar. The canian’s eyes were reddened and wide.

Hardigar’s demeanor doured further at seeing the canian distressed. “Roan, if you need to eat—”

Roan growled. “No,” he said.

“It’s not our fault that we’re like this.”

Roan growled again.

Two hundred years ago, a wizard of great power and true evil cast a curse upon the followers of Essera, the goddess of animal empathy. The curse gave each follower the likeness of an animal, and ordained that the only food which would bear sustenance for the cursed races was the blood of a freshly killed animal to whom one had formed an emotional bond.

Most from the cursed races starved, or were killed before they had the opportunity to starve. Essera herself, in the last fortress where she and her followers made a stand, was killed in a raid which lasted forty grueling days. In the days before her impending death, the goddess broke off pieces of her own divinity, and gave them as blessings to her people who would soon be the orphaned followers of a dead religion. Cats with nine lives. Dogs with sight of ghosts. Rats with the ability to bestow bad luck.

Hardigar, Roan, Meesn, and Syl were the descendants of an almost totally successful genocide. They were among the last from the cursed races in the world.

Roan stood up, and began walking around to the back of the house, towards the barn and the pasture. Hardigar followed beside him. The canian and the felian entered the barn, where Page and Temperance, two mares, stood in their stalls.

Roan went to Temperance, and held the mare’s head in his arms. He stroked down the mare’s neck and buried his canian nose against her coat, taking in deep, long sniffs.

Hardigar went to Page, set down an invisible step-stool behind her, stepped up onto it, and mated with her to pass the time. He tried to focus on the physical pleasure of it, to block out the invasive thoughts about death, about eating other living beings, about the profound selfishness of his very existence in this world. It was not an easy thing for him to forget about. It was even worse for Roan. As a canian, Roan still saw the ghosts: not exactly living creatures anymore, but the echoes of a living creature’s soul, cracked motors still blindly lurching on to turn machines that are no longer there. He saw the ghosts of sheep walking alongside the rest of the flock, never again to taste the grass or smell the breeze, always bleating at him and running if he neared, for he was their murderer. He saw the ghost of the mare who had been named Queen, standing in the stall right beside Temperance, staring daggers at the canian who had killed her to feed himself and a rat.

Roan managed not to eat for the remainder of the day. When his stomach growled, he growled back.

The next day, Hardigar and Roan sat near the edge of a cliff, with Page and Temperance standing around behind them. Hardigar played solitaire while Roan looked down at the fields of the valley before them. A road cut through the valley. Roan’s wet nose pulsated as he monitored the scents in the air. The stomach of the felian and the stomach of the canian had a conversation in growls.

On the day of her death, the goddess Essera gave one final gift to her people: they would be able to smell a rank odor upon any human who killed for pleasure. Being that a human was an animal, this proved to be quite useful to the cursed races in expanding their diet.

A gentle breeze came by. Roan’s nose twitched, and then he shot up to his feet and barked at a grove of birch trees a ways down the valley. “Hunters,” Roan said, jowls raised.

Hardigar did not yet get up. He continued to ponder his game, tail flicking back and forth. “Survivalists or sportsmen?” he asked.

“I can smell them, can I not?”

Hardigar smirked. “Teasing, Roan. To imagine I would doubt you.”

Hardigar collected up his cards, and stood up as well. The two of them mounted the mares and set off, galloping over a path that lead down into the valley. The nose of the felian and the nose of the canian twitched the entire way, a foul scent guiding them to their targets. As the scent grew stronger, Hardigar and Roan slowed their mares to a trot, and then dismounted, and tied the mares’ leads to a couple of birch trees. The two men proceeded on foot, stalking silently through the forest. Hardigar’s left hand rested on his cutlass, and he felt the weight of the sets of manacles stashed around the rest of his hip. Roan had his bow drawn and an arrow knocked.

As the two neared the road, they could hear the sound of the hunters’ wagon coming through, drawn by a horse. Hardigar and Roan both bared their teeth reflexively at the overwhelming scent: these hunters had killed many for no reason other than sport, perhaps even no other reason than habit.

The felian and the canian peeked out to the road from behind the trees. The covered wagon had one driver, a bearded man boredly holding the horse’s reigns.

Roan pulled back his arrow and trained a shot on the driver. Once the wagon was near to passing, Roan released the arrow and sent it on its way: the arrow flew, and landed in the throat of the driver, signing the end of this life that had taken the lives of so many others. The driver lived long enough to know that this was his death. He put his hands to his throat, mouth open and grimacing in pain and discomfort, and then he slumped over in his seat. The horse continued on walking, pulling the wagon.

Roan gave Hardigar a pat on the shoulder, implicitly saying, “Your turn.”

Silently, Hardigar dashed up to the road, leapt into the driver’s seat of the wagon, and tossed out the bearded body, which fell to the road with a hefty thump. He then crouched in the driver’s seat with his cutlass drawn, and waited for the riders in the back of the wagon to see their compatriot on the road behind them with an arrow in his throat.

Shortly, he heard an uproar from inside the wagon: “What in the twenty nine hells!”

Hardigar snickered. As soon as he heard boots hit the road, he leapt out to the side of the wagon to confront the alerted men.

Two men were running at him, one with a crossbow and one with a shortsword. The man with the crossbow came to a skidding halt and fired his shot: Hardigar raised a pantomimed shield, and the bolt embedded in the air before it could strike him. He forgot about the shield, and the bolt fell to the ground.

The man with the shortsword still charged. Hardigar crouched, leapt up into the air, and then landed on an imagined trampoline. He sailed comfortably over both men’s heads, doing a flip on the way, and landed behind the crossbowman. With deft hands, Hardigar clamped manacles onto the man’s hands and ankles, and then kicked out the man’s footing from under him, sending him sailing down to the road which he hit with a thump much like his compatriot had made earlier.

The swordsman wheeled around to face the felian assailant. This time he did not charge, but stood—cowered—in a cautious, frightened stance.

Hardigar drew his foot back and kicked the crossbowman in the ribs for effect, and then stood tall and gave the swordsman a smile. “Stand down, and you will live the rest of your limited days in comfort!”

The man sneered. “I’ve killed larger vermon than you, degenerate.”

Hardigar hissed, and held his forearm out to the side for the man to see the numbering in the fur. “I warn you, you’ll have to kill me six times for it to stick. Which is more than fair, I would say, given your genocide of my people.”

“There was no genocide. There was a war, and you lost it.”

Hardigar kicked the crossbowman in the ribs once again. The felian noticed, then, that neither of these humans was dressed as a hunter. They each wore black leather with metal studs, and their boots bore pointed metal tips which glinted in the sun. Hardigar squinted at the swordsman’s hand: a tattoo of a cross overlayed by a three-headed lion confirmed it; these were agents of the crown. It was entirely possible that the killing which had caused their rank odor was not restricted to the traditional animal kingdom alone.

“Tell me, how fares the king? I pray he is sick.”

The man drew a dagger from a sheath Hardigar hadn’t noticed. The man hurled it at the felian, quicker than the cat could conjure up an image of something with which to block it. Hardigar let out a surprised breath as the dagger pierced his stomach. He removed it and let it fall to the ground as an arrow came and pierced the swordsman’s throat, in much the same way as as an arrow had pierced his compatriot’s.

Hardigar felt a tingling sensation spreading from his stomach outward. He screwed his eyes shut, and bowed his head in disappointed resignation. Poison. The dagger had been poisoned.

Roan came running up. He peeked into the back of the wagon for any more adversaries, and then went to Hardigar.

Hardigar forced a smile, and said, “Not our best work.”

“Hardigar, you—”

Hardigar put a firm hand on Roan’s shoulder, and nodded. “This will kill me, I think, but what else is new? Kick him in the ribs for me, would you?”

Roan did as asked. Hardigar beamed at the odorous man’s yelp.

Hardigar staggered over to the back of the wagon, and had a look inside.

“Howdy,” I said to him.

So, this is where I come into the story. At the time I didn’t know what my real name was, though Hardigar would soon give me the nickname Hermit. I stood in a cage in the back of the covered wagon, clothed in a ratty grey cloak, having heard my captors dispatched one by one. Then up comes a man who looks like a cat, his stomach and hands soaked with his own blood, and he tilts his head curiously at me like I’m the weird one. I guess we both are.

“Be it animal or mineral, insect gas or vegetable; who are you?” he asked. His tongue was sluggish as he recited the singsongy children’s rhyme—because of the poison, as I would later learn.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I remember nothing from before this morning, when I awoke in this cage.”

“Fascinating,” the cat man said, and then turned and puked blood onto the road.

Once he was finished doing that, he grabbed one of the chests in the back of the wagon and slid it over to himself. He pressed in on the latching mechanism, lifted up the lid, and set off what turned out to be a booby trap: an explosion flashed and filled all of my senses, leaving me blinded and deafened and smelling gunpowder and aching from the shockwave that had picked me up off of my feet and slammed me against the back of my cage. I sat on the floor, rattled, looking out at the back half of the wagon that had been exploded off. The cat man laid on the road, dead.

A dog man approached, crouched down at the body of the cat man, and examined the forearm. He whined, and then stood and approached me. His nose moved around as he examined me from a distance. Apparently I did not bear the same foul odor as my captors, but at the same time, the dog man was not ready to let me out of my cage just yet.

The cat man, dead just a moment ago, sat up. He looked around, particularly up at the exploded wagon, and then looked down to his forearm. “Ah shit.”

The dog man came over and gave him a hand up. I saw the dog man show the cat man a large key, and then both of them looked in my direction. With a smile and a flick of the tail, the cat man snatched the key and leapt up into the wagon, standing face to face with me. I stood back from the bars with my hands at my sides; he came and leaned forward against the bars, pressing as much of his face through as he could while his tail flicked back and forth behind him.

“My name is Hardigar,” he said. “I have five lives left, and if you promise to keep it that way, I’ll unlock you.”

“Easy enough,” I said, and then extended a hand.

He reached through the bars, and we shook. Next, he unlocked the cage and held open the door for me, and I was free.

Free to do what or go where, I wasn’t sure of. I followed the cat man out of the wagon, and then stood and observed as the two of them made the remaining agent stand up; this agent’s hands were bound behind his back and his ankles were chained together; the canian stood behind him, keeping a hold on him.

Hardigar looked over to me, and mentioned, “You can go. Perhaps the horse would give you a ride.”

“To where?” I wondered aloud.

Hardigar gave a big shrug.

“I may wish to come with you, if you would have me.”

The felian and the canian turned and whispered to one another. Hardigar then said to me, “We don’t have much.”

I shrugged. “I don’t have anything.”

“Yeah, alright. Come along then.”

Hardigar removed the horse from the cart. He then produced a deck of cards and looked through them, glancing up at the horse once in a while. Eventually he held one card up to look at it and the horse side by side, and then nodded. “Magician,” he said to the canian, who gave an approving thumbs up. He then came over to me, held a card up to look at me and it side by side, and then nodded again. “Hermit.” He flipped the card around for me to see. I could see where he was coming from with the grey cloak, at least.

The five of us—myself, the agent, the canian and the felian, and the horse—proceeded through the woods. Hardigar rode atop the horse in the back of the procession, likely keeping a suspicious eye on me. We stopped at a clearing and gathered two more horses, then proceeded on, up the side of the valley, and through the woods a ways, eventually arriving at what I first thought to be an abandoned mansion, before realizing that is was not abandoned, and was not a mansion per-se, though it was a sizeable house to find in the middle of nowhere.

Later on in the day, I found myself sitting at a table in the cellar, playing cards with Hardigar, Roan, Syl, Meesn, and Meses—the agent—who played from inside of a cage.

“Got any twos, Syl?” I asked.

“Go fish, Hermit,” she answered.

“Got any twos, Hermit?” Hardigar asked.

“Maybe,” I said, and then handed my twos over.

The felian smugly put down a completed set. “Got any sixes, Meses?”

“Go fish, Hardigar.”

Hardigar drew. As Roan went, I noticed Syl tug on Meesn’s arm. The older rodentian woman leaned down to her granddaughter, and listened to her whispering. The grandmother nodded, and then sat upright again.

On Meesn’s turn, she asked, “Are you cheating, Meses?”

Meses made a fart noise with his mouth, tossed a six onto the table, and then tossed the rest of the cards behind himself in his cage.

“Is there a game you would rather play?” Meesn asked.

“Didn’t your mother teach you not to play with your food?”

“Ohh, quite the opposite.” Meesn set down her cards and leaned forward on the table, cupping her chin in both of her palms. “Tell us about yourself. Are you a hunter?”

“Yes.”

“And an agent of the crown, by the looks of it. Ledonia’s finest.”

“Yes.”

“Any good stories?”

“I don’t imagine you would appreciate the protagonist in them.”

“Try us.”

Meses huffed, and crossed his arms. He stared up at the ceiling for a moment, and then began. “There was this one time I was stationed in Verodia, and I had some down time to go hunting. Miserable place most of the time, I hear, but when I was there it was all warm, dry, and partly cloudy. I go out to this hunting stand, and I’m out there for hours, I mean hours, wondering if there are even animals living here, when suddenly I spot this buck, and I swear to you as I live and breathe, it had a black coat and a thirty two point rack. I draw back my bowstring, take my shot, and miss, but I don’t miss: I end up hitting his mate who was behind him and I hadn’t even seen her. Later when I dressed her, I found out she was pretty far along in her pregnancy, and it was the first time I knowingly ate fetal venison—pretty good if you ever get the chance. Bagged the buck the next day, had him mounted—the guy charged by the point so I threw the doe’s meat into the deal to get it done with less out of my pocket, since I was planning to throw it out anyways, I’d already thrown out the other fetus—and then I caught my ride back home. Buck’s still mounted on my den wall to this day.”

The story left a vacuum of silence in the lanternlit cellar. Meses sat with his arms crossed, his body language screaming I told you so.

Hardigar broke the silence: “Do you have any stories that aren’t terrible?”

Meses rolled his eyes. “Yes, one time I was out skipping through the woods and I saw a really pretty flower.” He reached down to the floor of his cage, picked up a few of the cards he’d thrown, neatly stacked them together, and then ripped them all in half.

Hardigar and Roan shot up, hissing and barking at their prisoner.

Meses looked at them with dead eyes.

Hardigar pantomimed a club, knocking it against the table a few times to show that it made a wooden sound which rang out through the room, and then he reached into the cage and bonked Meses on the head with it. Meses yelped and cursed; all outside the cage had a giggle, admittedly including me.

“Would anyone else care for some wine while I’m up?” Hardigar asked.

All hands in the room shot up.

Hardigar looked bemusedly at Syl’s raised hand. “Only a little for you. Tiny, tiny amount. You probably won’t like it anyways.”

The felian went off to a corner of the cellar, opened a cabinet, and looked inside for a moment. Roan also went off, and came back with glasses which he passed around, including a shot glass for Syl and a tin cup for Meses. Hardigar returned with two bottles of wine, and began pouring for everyone.

Meses watched closely as Hardigar poured wine into the tin cup. Seeing no form of poison dropped inside, he downed his cup in one draft and passed it back out of the cage for a refill, which Hardigar provided with a purr and a flick of the tail. Syl took droplet-sized sips out of her shot glass, managing to make the tiny quantity last.

After much conversation and many more cups of wine, Meses conjured up another story. He swirled around the contents of his cup contemplatively as he told it.

“There was... there was one time when I did let a deer go. I don’t know what came over me exactly, but I think I was just... happy that day. Yeah. It was a day when I was happy. I woke up well rested, so well rested that it felt uncanny, like I had taken something. Heh. My wife Hetra was making breakfast when I came downstairs—eggs—and I came over and helped her—more got in her way, really, but we had fun. Spent all morning just cleaning up the place with her, which sounds dull when I say it, but tidying up turned up all kinds of little flashes from the past, little mementos that had been forgotten about in piles of old clutter. The place was immaculate when we were done. That afternoon when I went out with my bow, the birds were singing. They always sing, I know, but, that time I was listening. Sitting up in my stand, only about a half hour went by before a doe came walking by. I don’t think she saw me. She stopped dead in the middle of my line of sight, and just stood there like she was waiting for it. And I couldn’t. I don’t know what it was, but I had to let her go and live the rest of her day. So I put down my bow and I waited. And she went.”

After he had finished telling his story, Meses leaned back and looked up at the ceiling.

Hardigar turned to his clanmates, and asked, “Good?”

“Good,” they all responded.

Hardigar drew a throwing dagger and hurled it into the cage, striking Meses in the throat. The four of the cursed races dashed to the cage and waited impatiently as Roan unlocked it. When the cage door swung open, all four clambered in and I watched them feast.

I wish I could say that I was fraught with worry for my own life that night, tossing and turning and thinking up my escape, but in all honesty, it had been quite a long day and the straw mattress in the guest room felt like the height of luxury. I slept like a rock.

The next morning I made a lap around the house, looking around at the woods and the small pasture and the flock of sheep, and found myself wandering into the barn. I was some ways into the barn before my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, and I realized that Hardigar was in here too, sharing the close company of one of the horses. I averted my eyes and began to apologize, but the felian spoke over me as he continued with the mare.

“There’s a lovely apple tree that’s just a short walk into the woods from here,” he mentioned. “I can bring you to it if you’d like.”

“I would look forward to that,” I responded.

“This is Page,” Hardigar added after a moment. I looked up to see him gesturing to the horse he was copulating with. Pointing to the other horses, he added, “That’s Temperance, and that’s Magician. Since you and her came here together, I wouldn’t stop you from leaving with Magician if she’s agreeable to you. But if you’re inclined towards it, I wouldn’t stop you from staying either. It’s been a long time since the clan had a new speaking member.”

“I have to admit, I do feel it would be wise of me to leave before any of you get hungry again.”

Hardigar closed his eyes, and sighed an unhappy sigh. Closing his eyes tighter, he began going at Page faster for a moment, and then returned to a regular pace and looked at me again. “You have about a month before that will be of concern again. We’ve gotten very good at fasting.”

“Are you planning to eat me in a month then?”

“I’d eat you before I ate Page.”

“What about the sheep? How do I stack up against them?”

The sound of Hardigar slapping against Page filled the air as he thought about it. As he continued with Page, he answered, “I don’t like to eat the sheep, just so you know. I wouldn’t like to eat you either.”

“I’m getting the impression I won’t be eating any mutton here.”

Hardigar made a hissing face at me, and then turned his full attention to Page. When he finished, he stepped down from his pantomimed stepstool, brushed aside her tail, and began licking at her. He wasn’t at it for too long before I heard footsteps from behind, running towards the barn. I turned to see who was coming in such a hurry. It was Roan. The canian stopped before me to catch his breath.

Hardigar poked his head up from behind the mare. “What’s the hurry?”

Roan gave his answer facing me: “I’ve learned who you are.”

“What?” I asked. “How?”

“Meses, your captor, informed me.”

“What, some document hidden on his person, or—”

“No. I grant he was secretive, but his ghost has been more forthcoming.”

“Oh. Oh I see.”

Roan clasped his hands onto my shoulders, looked me eye to eye, and said, “I speak your name to return knowledge to body: reform into one again, Prince Auren.”

The name reverberated through my ears, and in an instant knocked a lifetime of memories back into my beck and call. No sooner had I remembered myself than did a dread crawl through me. I asked Roan, “What day is it? How far are we from Kon Kell? I must get to Princess Koriene: my business with her is of the most extreme urgency.”

Hardigar cooed as he pranced over. Purring, he asked, “Am I hearing that you’re late for a date with a lady friend?”

Roan interjected to answer my earlier questions, saying, “By my reckoning it is the tenth morning since the Autumn equinox. If you left on horseback now you would reach Kon Kell by nightfall.”

“I am too late,” I said blankly, aloud but to no one. “Even if I were already inside the city walls of Kon Kell, I would be too late.” I turned and walked swiftly towards Magician.

“Is Princess Koriene pretty?” Hardigar called after me. “Would the two of you happen to want a third? Is she allergic to cats?”

I entered Magician’s stall, hopped up onto her back, and rode her at a walk towards the open barn door. As I passed by Hardigar, I informed him, “She was to ritually sacrifice me this morning to prevent a horrible fate from befalling Ledonia. In short hours I think we will all regret that—”

I was cut off as the ground began to shake, the warm temperature dropped to freezing, and the sky outside darkened. Distantly I heard a roll of thunder, and then another volley far off elsewhere, and then in a dazzling flash and deafening bang, a third volley of lightning struck the farm, blasting apart the walls of the barn and the house, setting fire to the woods, and putting the fear of the gods into every living creature hereabouts. I was thrown off of Magician and she sprinted away. Hardigar and Roan huddled over one another. I sat dazed on the floor, smelling a strange, lively smell in the wake of the lightning.

The sky outside was grey, as though a uniform fog domed the world. From the fog, meteors began to fall here and there, as well as enormous grey centipede-like creatures called grabbers. Three of them fell onto the farmhouse, and by their masses together, were comparable to the house in size. Two of them tore the lightning-struck farmhouse into further pieces, while the third ambled with its hundred legs over to the barn. I watched in a stupor as it picked up Roan and then continued walking, tearing a hole through the back of the barn to exit, and then continued away into the woods holding the canian: Hardigar had scratched at the creature and tried to hold onto it to get back his friend, but a few of its many legs reached up and kicked him off, spraying up an irritating cloud of ash in the process. The other two grabbers left holding Meesn and Syl.

A meteor struck through the roof of the barn and landed in Magician’s empty stall. Shakily, I got to my feet, went to Hardigar, and dragged him towards the house—he staggered along with me for a few steps, then yowled and gouged my arm with his claws. I snarled and he hissed. He went to the stalls of Page and Temperance and took them both out on leads. With both of them in tow, he was now willing to follow me. I brought us all down into the cellar. Hardigar sat down at the table and wrapped a blanket around himself. He reached out to the cards laid out on the table, looked through them, and singled out the four of pentacles. He clutched it in his hand, bug-eyed, as he sat there and shook and stammered to himself. I found myself pacing back and forth across the cellar as I listened to the crashing thunder and sailing meteors outside.

Hardigar eventually shot up from his chair and marched straight towards me, claws extended. “What is this?” he asked.

Not having forgotten about the wound his claws had made on my arm but an hour ago, I balled my hands into fists as I answered him. “A localized apocalypse,” I said with a sneer. “What we have just witnessed is the end of life in Ledonia.”

“Go on.”

“Where to begin!”

Hardigar bore his needle-like carnivorous teeth, and asked, “What hand have you had in this?”

“My hand was supposed to be in stopping it!” I shouted, and then marched to the table where the empty wine bottles still stood from the night before. I picked one up, hurled it at the far wall, and watched it smash. I picked up the other one and did the same, and felt better, if only very slightly. “It was my father’s hand who started it,” I said to the waiting felian. “Does news of the world reach you here? Do you know the tensions between Ledonia and Hondland?”

“I do. Go on.”

“My father, Xortahsh, King of Hondland, made a pact with the god of the lowest hell, may I never speak his name, that the god might open a hole between that plane and this one at Kon Kell and make a demon’s feast of every soul in Ledonia. I was on my way to stop this wickedness. Retract your claws: I know of the cursed races, and therefore I know that you can surely smell for yourself that I am no murderer.”

Hardigar’s nose twitched, and then his claws retracted back into his fingers.

In a huff, I sat down at the table, and hung my head. “My father knew I had learned of his plans, and that I was conspiring to stop him. I was in communication with Koriene, Princess of Ledonia, who would be able to cast a spell to countermand the opening of the rift. The cost of the spell was one soul descended of the Orangetree Coronation—the coronation which made my great great great great grandfather the first king of Hondland. I was only too happy to give my own life to this noble cause. Princess Koreine arranged for Ledonia’s agents to kidnap me away and bring me to her. Alas. Here we are. If it means anything to you, I imagine they had already encountered quite a deal of trouble before your intervention if they were cutting it this close with my arrival.”

Hardigar sat down at the table beside me, picked up a wine glass, and hurled it at the wall where I had hurled the wine bottles. “Is there anything that can be done now?”

“I don’t imagine so.”

Hardigar groaned, and hung his head.

The two of us sat and listened to the meteors and the thunder.

Later in the day, my stomach began to growl. I ascended the cellar stairs and went out to the pasture, where the flock of sheep laid dead from all of the earlier tumult. As I went about dressing and smoking all of the mutton that I could manage to, I saw Hardigar glaring at me as he moved hay and oats from the barn to the cellar. When he was finished, he stayed in the cellar with Page and Temperance. I sat alone outside, eating a feast of mutton and looking up at a falling sky. That night I did worry he would kill me, and I sat up all night in the corner, dozing off and snapping awake. At some point my weariness got the better of me, and I fell asleep for real.

I awoke releaved to find that Hardigar had more pressing plans than killing me: he stood naked with a bottle of wine in hand, other arm wrapped around Page’s neck, kissing the side of her mouth. When he heard my shuffling footsteps approaching, he turned to face me, and I saw that his fur all over was ruffled from face to chest, and he was covered in brambles and ash. “You look like shit,” he told me. He took a long drink from the wine bottle, and then added, “Magician is dead. I went out to find her this morning. She made it a good way from the farm, but.”

I sighed, and shrugged. Then I opened my stupid mouth to say, “At this point we didn’t have much of a use for three anyways.”

Hardigar snarled and muttered a sting of curses in a language I was not familiar with. “Idiot,” he ended with, and then finished his bottle and went to set it on the table beside two others. Then he fetched another wine bottle, opened it with some difficulty, and resumed his prior business of kissing a horse.

I went and sat at the top of the ramp that lead down into the cellar, wedged between the cellar ramp and the cellar door. I sat waiting to hear thunder or meteors. Neither sound came. Outside there was no sound of wind, no sound of birds, no sound of insects. The sound that eventually did come was the now familiar slapping of a cat man behind his horse.

Eventually, the horse that Hardigar was not occupied with came walking up with a tapping of hooves, and stood at the base of the cellar ramp, peering up at me.

From around the corner, Hardigar called, “Temperance is saying hello.”

“Tell her I said hi back,” I called to Hardigar, as she continued to stare at me.

“Tell her yourself,” came the felian’s response.

I looked at her eyes. Though I had been no stranger to riding, it occurred to me then, only then, in the cellar with a man piss drunk and coping with his mourning with a horse’s company, that there was more going on behind equine eyes than a direction and a speed. There was some social motivation, some reason why she had come over to me. It was beyond curiosity—she had already seen me, she knew I was there. There was something more to her. But the shape and dimensions of what more there was, I had no skill whatsoever to discern.

I called again to Hardigar. “Show me how to say hello.”

The sound of Hardigar slapping behind Page stopped. A moment latter, he came walking into my sight with questionable balance and an erection. He set the bottle of wine down and walked up to Temperance. He laid his hands on her neck, and a moment later, he beckoned me over. As I began my way down the ramp, Temperance began to turn away, but Hardigar gave her a shushing sound and kept his hands on her. She stood in place as I approached, and stood beside the cat.

“Just pet her,” he said, demonstrating, running a hand down the side of her neck a few times.

I did as he did. “I have pet a horse before,” I mentioned to him.

“The fact that that surprises me means we’re still starting here.”

“That is hurtful but fair.”

Hardigar began petting her along the side as I continued. “Not so rigid, prince. Relax. Do it with feeling. This is how you tell her things.”

“Okay.” I slowed down my petting, and made a point of relaxing my hand some. “You don’t have to call me prince, by the way. Auren is fine.”

“Prince was not a form of address, it was an insult.”

“Ah.”

Temperance swung her head to me and started walking into me; Hardigar took me by the arm and pulled me aside. She walked past and began eating from the hay that Hardigar had piled against one of the walls.

“Can I say hi to Page?”

“I don’t imagine she’d mind.”

Hardigar lead the way over. He gave her a kiss and nuzzled his head against her neck, smiling as her mane tickled his face.

“I... that might be rather advanced for me.”

“Suit yourself,” he cooed. He then looked around himself.

I knelt down and picked up the wine bottle he had set on the floor a moment ago. I walked forward to him and Page, and extended the bottle to him. He put his hand on it, but didn’t take it, and I didn’t let it go: we both stood holding the bottle of wine, looking one another up and down. Then each of our eyes caught on the eyes of the other, and we looked nowhere else. There was a strange and exotic beauty in the eyes of a cat.

“Forgive me if this question betrays some foolishness on my part, but I must ask it: Is Page your wife?”

I believe I could see the mocking words assembling themselves on Hardigar’s tongue, standing ready at a milisecond’s notice to be deployed, but if such words did in fact come to his mind, he did not say them. After a few seconds of looking into my eyes, he said, “It is not a foolish question, but it is a question which is trying to assert its existence in a framework that will not hold it. She is my love and my world and she is aggressively fond of me as well, but we do not live in a framework of contracts.”

I nodded, and released the bottle of wine.

He brought it to his mouth and drank from it, and then smiled at me. “She and I do not have a monogamous arrangement, if that’s what you were angling towards.”

I smiled at him saying as much, and glanced away as I said, “I did wonder, yes.”

“Do you have no monogamous arrangement, prince?”

“Someday, gods willing. But I have been no stranger to concubines.”

He stepped forward, I stepped forward to meet him, and the two of us tilted our heads and kissed; his tickly furry lips made me giggle, and I had to step back.

He took my hand gently, and guided my hand until I was cupping his testicles. He closed his eyes and began to purr.

“Having fun?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered, vocalizing it within the purr.

“I’m glad. But maybe we should revisit this another time,” I said, and took my hand away from the felian. “You are very drunk.”

Hardigar’s face scrunched up as though he had just been given a riddle. “What? So?”

“So I would be taking advantage of you.”

Hardigar squinted harder and asked louder, “WHAT?”

Page took a step towards me, but Hardigar put an arm against her chest, and she stopped.

“Your judgment is impaired.”

“My judgment is impaired on purpose!”

“Nonetheless, this is not a choice you’re equipped to make right now.”

“You have a very pessimistic perspective on mutual pleasure.”

“You have a very big mouth for a cat.”

Hardigar gave a brief hiss—a playful one, for a first—and then he asked me, “Do you feel I’m well equipped enough for Page?”

“I... don’t honestly know how to begin to consider that.”

The felian turned and gave the horse another kiss, and went back to nuzzling her.

I went back up the cellar ramp, and opened it just a crack to look outside. There was a pointed greyness outside, a kind of brighter nighttime or dimmer daytime: staring into it, I lost confidence in which of the two I should believe it was. Ashes fell like snow. I watched it for a while. I wept.

Later on in the day, I sat at the table eating smoked mutton. Hardigar laid passed out in the cage, snoring. When he awoke, he looked around, glanced at his forearm once to check he still had his five lives—he did—and then sat up. From the cage floor, he said to me, “Genevieve.”

I looked down at him. “What?”

“Maybe that’s Genevieve you’re eating.”

I sighed, and set the mutton down on the table. “Was she your favorite?”

“She was a friend, prince.”

“What would you have me do differently? I did no slaughter, only scavenging.”

Hardigar nodded. To my surprise he asked for forgiveness, and said, “My anger is misguided, pointed towards you, but I have had a very rough day. A lot of friends I had hoped would enjoy very long lives are now dead.”

At that very moment, the cellar door went bursting open, flying off its hinges and out into the grey pasture. A gust of wind blew a flute of ash into the cellar, knocked a full bottle of wine off the table, and shattered it on the floor. There on the floor the ash and the wine seeped together, and rivulets of it began creeping towards the wall, and then up the wall in bends and loops that were forming a mural. Hardigar and I shot to our feet and looked at the forming scene.

First, a wall, with ramparts and tall buildings visible behind, a castle with a distinct conical shape the tallest of them all.

“The city of Kon Kell,” I said, and Hardigar nodded.

As the mural expanded outwards left and right, we saw depictions of scenes within Kon Kell, identifiable from the circle-obsessed architecture. In a round plaza, a banquet was held—all looked well as the painting filled in the tables and chairs and cups, until the further details crept forth: sitting at the table were demons, and on the table were dismembered human beings, heads and arms and legs and all sorts. In a gladiatorial arena, the figure of person after person was filled in, each detail of each beaten and dirtied face, all packed shoulder to shoulder together—the scene in the arena expanded outwards into the next scene, where humans were lead in a line out of the arena to be slaughtered and hung up on hooks.

In the final scene, we saw a dungeon depicted below the conical castle, and in the dungeon sat a woman at a table reading a scroll by candlelight. As the details of her long curly hair were realized, I became certain of who this was meant to be.

“Princess Koreine,” I said. “She still waits.”

I looked to Hardigar, and saw that his mind was elsewhere—tears hung in his eyes.

“Goodbye, Roan,” Hardigar said.

The gust of wind blew past Hardigar and I on its way back out, and on the wind, even with my unimpressive human nose, I could smell the scent of a dog.

Hardigar sniffled, wiped his eyes, and generally composed himself before saying, “We should set out at once.”

“It’s a pleasant surprise to hear you’re so keen on coming with.”

Hardigar turned to the mural and pointed to the scene of the people packed into the arena. I came over and squinted at where he pointed.

Two rodentians, one young and one old, stood huddled together.

“Oh. I see.”

Hardigar and I went up out of the cellar, and scavenged through the wreckage of the house until we had found his cutlass, as well as a dagger for me. We each filled a water skin at a pump in the pasture, and I packed a satchel full of mutton and apples.

Hardigar began marching off into the woods.

I called after him, “Surely you don’t mean for us to walk.”

He wheeled around to give me an earful, but paused when he spotted something behind me. I turned, and saw Page and Temperance bolting towards us. Both came to a halt at Hardigar, both in a tumultuous mood by the looks of it.

“Are you sure?” I heard Hardigar ask Page.

Apparently she said something that meant yes, because the next moment, he was riding atop Page and leading Temperance back to me.

The four of us rode off, made our way down the valley, and then rode along the road towards Kon Kell.

I could see my breath along portions of the ride, but only barely; grey on grey on grey.

As we rode I anticipated nightfall, but none came. We arrived outside the walls of Kon Kell under the same grey sky which we had departed from the farm under.

I brought Temperance to a halt. Hardigar slowed Page, and then circled her back around to stand beside me, the four of us facing the city.

“I don’t suppose you know of a secret way in through the sewers,” Hardigar suggested.

“As a matter of fact, I was just about to bring up that very thing.”

“Lead the way, prince.”

I spurred Temperance onwards, and we rode off into the woods to the right of the path. We came, eventually, upon a rank lake, fed by runoff from a sizeable pipe that lead under the city wall. The pipe was covered by a grate that wreaked of magic. I dismounted and approached the grate on foot, and placed my hands flat against the metal surface.

“By any light of Denirstis that still shines through in Ledonia, be gone.”

The grate disappeared and I stumbled forward in its sudden absence.

Temperance came and stood beside me. I walked onward, side by side with the horse, into the sewers. Hardigar and Page followed after. I don’t imagine any of us cared for the smell of the place all too much. More grates blocked our passage as we went deeper and deeper under the city, but each disappeared as we neared it.

After passing through one particular grate, the stonework became quite noticeably nicer, and as we went deeper from here, the offensive odor lessened. I paused at a particular door, opened it, and peered inside.

“This storage room may be a suitable place for the horses to stay while we attend to our business here.”

“Are we near to our destination?” Hardigar asked.

“Yes, just a few more turns.”

“Very well.”

We brought the horses in. Before we departed, Hardigar gave Page a kiss and a hug. Then we shut the door behind us, and proceeded.

Shortly, we came upon a long passageway with an oakwood door at the end. “This is it,” I said. “Princess Koreine awaits me behind that door.”

With that, I felt Hardigar’s cutlass pierce my back. I fumbled for my own dagger, but he reached forward and drew it from my sheath before I could, and I soon found the dagger planted into the side of my neck. I fell to the ground, and in a cold rush of wind, my spirit left my body.

As a ghost, I hovered behind Hardigar as he knelt over my murdered corpse, offering an explanation to its deaf ears.

“Rest assured, a sacrifice will still be made behind that door, prince. But as a matter of practicality for reasons you will soon see, I must ensure that I am the one who makes it. I, too, am descendant from the Orangetree Coronation, though I found myself a convert to Essera when I grew old enough to insist on having a mind of my own. I only narrowly escaped the battle in which she was killed. Since then, I have died of starvation once and old age twice. I spent some very formative years working in slaughterhouses, trying to find sustinance among those whose fates were already sealed anyways. But I could not last long there. The disrespect that I witnessed... what we saw in Roan’s mural, what takes place above our very heads right now in Kon Kell, is a drop in the ocean of the cruelty that I have already seen committed in Hondland and Ledonia alike. I will save what of Ledonia I can, but I will not allow its people to return to inflicting the same heartless slaughter on my people that they now find inflicted on themselves. I have lived a greedy life: this is the generous end I have lived it to, remaining gods willing.”

With that, he stood, and walked past my corpse to the oakwood door at the end of the hall. Ethereal and silent I followed after him, making sure that my final business was attended to, even if it was to take a different shape than I had imagined.

Hardigar opened the door into the hidden study below the castle. Princess Koreine, who had been sat reading a book, shot to her feet and poised a dagger ready to throw at the unexpected felian.

“Easy, princess,” Hardigar said, showing his empty hands. “I come belatedly to be sacrificed in Prince Auren’s stead.” He kicked the oakwood door shut behind himself.

Her brow furrowed. “Who are you?” she asked.

“Prince Gamund of Hondland, long and somewhat accurately thought to be dead. I stand here in hopes that my five remaining lives will be an adequate substitute for the one life that Prince Auren intended to sacrifice.”

“By Denirstis’s light, it really is you isn’t it?” Koreine lowered her dagger, and walked across the study to the felian. “May I?” she asked.

Hardigar held out his hand.

Koreine used her dagger to make a slight cut on his hand, and held a crystal under the drop of blood that first pooled together and fell. When the blood hit the crystal, the crystal let out a resonant hum, and then shattered and fell away into gistening shards and dust.

“You will indeed suffice,” Koreine said. “You may, in fact, be overpaying in your sacrifice by an amount that I’m not sure I can fathom.”

She took the felian by the wrist and lead him to the center of the study, where an immense pentagram was made on the floor in white flowers. Hardigar stopped outside of the circle, and would not budge.

“I must insist on seeing the spell,” he said.

Dismayed, the princess stopped pulling him but did not release his wrist. “Minutes wasted are lives lost.”

“So it goes.”

The princess scoffed, and released him to go retrieve a scroll. She handed it to him.

He unrolled it and read it over, line by line as a minute went by. When he reached the end, he shook his head and brought the scroll to the desk. He began preparing a pen to write with.

“Excuse me!” Koreine said, and marched after him. “By the gods, what do you think you’re doing?”

“By the rules of the good magic you invoke here, I must agree to the spell for which I sacrifice myself. Yes?”

“Yes.”

“I will not agree to this as written.”

“How in the world could you not! It states nothing other than the freeing of Ledonia’s people from the bondage of demons!”

“By Essera, may her name never be forgotten, I’m afraid the freeing of Ledonia’s people is not the unqualified good that you think it is. May I, princess?” he asked, holding the pen poised over the page.

The princess tapped her foot anxiously, and then nodded. “Very well.”

The felian spoke the words aloud as he wrote them down. “From hence forth among the human species, whenever one kills a member of the animal kingdom, whether by hand or by word, no matter how justified, that human shall witness one of their fingers turn to dust for each life that they take, until such a time as they have no fingers remaining, at which time they shall die.”

The princess kept her reply brief. “No.”

“Enjoy your slaughtered kingdom then.” Hardigar knocked the crystaline inkwell off of the desk, shattering it on the floor, and stood and began towards the oakwood door.

“It’s not that I object,” Koreine said.

This caught Hardigar’s attention, and he stopped before the door.

“It will not hold. A banishment I can do at great cost. You ask for the divine.”

“You are in the presence of the divine, princess,” he said, and then stepped up onto a pantomimed stepstool, and turned to face the princess while standing in the air. “Essera is killed, but her divinity lingers in a few of us yet.”

Koreine bit her lip, crossed her arms, and tapped her foot. “Get onto the pentagram,” she said.

Hardigar did as asked. Koreine retrieved the scroll.

With words read and a dagger pierced five times through an old cat’s heart, the shape of the world was changed.

Stedl and Dragons

Stedl stood and watched in sorrow as the parade of knights marched through the main street of Holmfast. Those around him cheered or stood in quiet awe, but if a single other soul shared his misgivings to the knights, they were out of his sight. Three knights—one at the head of the procession, one in the body, and one at the tail—carried ten foot tall poles, atop which were enormous meat hooks, skewered onto each of which was the green scaled head of a dragon. The eldest dragon that the knights had killed was still a youngling. The youngest, Stedl doubted it was older than three years.

Stedl steeled himself and approached one of the knights on the periphery. “Ho there.”

“Liven ye, fellow!” the knight encouraged, stopping to speak with the somber man.

“Tell me the tale,” Stedl asked, looking up to a dragon head to indicate he meant the murders.

The knight happily indulged with an animated speech, which drew a crowd around Stedl to listen and watch with him. “The accursed endessium mines of Herdra are accursed no longer! Under the blessing of Sah and with the wisdom of our Good King Hest, two score of we knights marched a fortnight and a day from Tellan to Herdra. There we saw that the legend was true: that the mines from which our grandfathers drew out endessium had fallen to the hold of monsters! All the buildings of the town, once homes and shops and churches, smashed to pieces under their wickedly stepping claws! We knights tarried not, but advanced upon the foul beasts! With slash of blade and sting of arrow, we felled not just these three dragons you see today, but a dozen more which are now parading north and east and west of Herdra! Praise be to Sah! Glory be to the Good King Hest!”

The knight lifted his begauntleted fist into the air, and Stedl’s neighbors cheered. Stedl’s sorrow had only deepened as the knight had spoken, but the knight had long since moved on from speaking only at Stedl.

Without a word or gesture, Stedl turned and left. He could have said much: They are not fearsome because they are evil. They are fearsome because you are evil, and they are powerful and good. He could have gone on a long, long while, if he were still youthful, still under the impression that any such sentiment would not be falling on deaf ears.

He returned to his home at the outskirts of town, near the bank of a river, built there himself with the help of his then-new neighbors. He walked slowly, his aching knees fussing that they had long since served their purpose, let us rest now, we have served you a full life and then some.

When he arrived home, he sat in a rocking chair before his unlit fireplace, rocking and staring blankly at the dim stonework. His mind’s eye was racing. In his mind’s eye, he was climbing up into his attic, dusting off chain mail, restringing a bow, and buckling on his quiver. He was stalking after the knights, and one by one he was picking them off as they split from their formation to relieve themselves or to search for those who were mysteriously absent, until before they realized it, they were few in number, and then none.

But with his age and the life he had lived, he begrudgingly knew better.

Do not tempt revenge, he sat and thought. Do not create martyrs.

As the day was waning, Stedl lit his fireplace, lighted a lantern, and ventured up into the attic. He drew out his old equipment and laid it out before the fire, examining each piece. The pack, the tent, the boots, the tinderbox... On the whole, it had held up better than he had. He sorted his equipment, packed his pack, and then he went to sleep.

Before the sun had risen in the morning, Stedl was standing, his armor donned, his bow strung, his pack upon his shoulders and waist. He stepped out of his door and began on the road northward, toward Herdra.

Midday, while kneeling over a stream to drink, the man’s reflection in the water caught him. Looking back at him was a face with wrinkles set into dark skin, and a short beard that was more grey than black. It was strange, bordering on inaccurate, to say that this was the same face as that of a man who had been taken by a dragon as a husband, long, long ago.

The old man took his drink from the stream. He then stood and continued marching on. It was three more days to Herdra. Perhaps four or five if his knees did not get on board with the idea of the journey.

Each night in his tent, before he could begin falling asleep, Stedl laid and stared at the tent’s ceiling, casting his mind back thirty, forty years. Back to a young man who barely looked like him anymore. Back to the clifflands of Venderra, and a big red lizard. He couldn’t keep the thoughts in any order, and even when he tried to recall the timelines of what had lead into what, it was as though there were no such conceit as causality, but rather that each fragment of memory was its own atomic existence. In one flash, the young man and the dragon were sitting in a canyon across a campfire from each other, the young man cooking, the dragon lying flat with her chin on the ground yet still looming over him. In one flash, he was helping unpack crates of clothing and food from off her back, delivering them to a camp of refugees from a flooded city, and then riding atop her back as the wind stung his face on the return journey to make the route yet another time. In one flash, he was kneeling on a hill aiming an arrow, when from the corner of his eye, he saw her struck by a mortar, and then watched her spiraling down, and by the time he could make it through the battlefield to her, she had been killed, and he felt at once in his heart that no creature deserved to die again as long as the world should turn, and also that no revenge would be great enough to make up for the loss of her. In one flash, she was humoring him in letting him examine the fractal complexity of the writing of dragons, not imagining that he would actually be the first human not to dismiss it as impossible for humans to learn. In one flash, they were in a dark and safe place, falling asleep chest to chest, heart to heart, breath to breath.

It was five days’ journey to Herdra. When he arrived, he found the town to be in more or less the condition that the knights had described. Every building was smashed down. Hardly anything in the township stood taller than the man’s line of sight. The town was quiet save for the wind blowing against the ruins. There was not a soul up here except for Stedl.

He made his way through the town, past the fallen churches and shops and homes, and over to the mine entrances. There, he lit a lantern, and proceeded in.

It was a long and cold way down. As he marched, he wondered whether his magical talents had left him over the years. They had fallen into disuse, and he would not blame them for going away. He stopped, turned, and raised his free hand. With a tide of force, gravel on the ground began rolling up the tunnel slope. Stedl smiled a little, and resumed his journey downward. As if his talents had only needed a nudge to get started, he soon began to smell the sting of endessium. He followed the odor down and down, and as the tunnels branched out, he followed the smell of the magical rocks, until arriving at a dead end, a slope of loose rocks from ground to ceiling. Stedl picked up a rock, and saw with confidence that it was mined with teeth, not picks. He began casting the rocks aside, freeing up the passage. When he had cleared enough at the ceiling to crawl through, he did crawl so through, lantern first, into the dragon’s hutch. Inside, atop a nest of endessium pebbles, was a green egg as tall as Stedl.

Stedl sat himself down on the slope that descended toward the egg, and looked at it by the lanternlight. All at once, he was relieved there was a survivor, and distraught for the loss that he or she had suffered before they had so much as committed the crime of hatching.

With the family of dragons murdered to make way for industry, the king’s men would be back before much longer. Stedl crawled back out of the hutch and set about repairing a covered rickshaw from the town above, to bring the dragon to a safer home.

Poems

Untitled Peradventure

And if, peradventure, Sodom was not so wicked after all.

 

The Black and the Irish made subhuman so those who enslaved them were morally unscuffed.

Homophiles made pedophiles so those who felt their institutions threatened could hunker down

And close their eyes and ears again

To the pain that their institutions

Whether blindly or pointedly

Had caused.

 

Peradventure the past is not made of monsters

It is made of cowards.

 

Peradventure there are cowards today.

 

 

Deference

You sniff the dumpsters when we walk by them

which is fair:

there’s probably a lot

of interesting stuff in there to smell.

 

When we’re walking

and you eat something off the ground

with a gross “crunch” sound

I do try to remind myself,

within reason,

that you know better than me

what it is

that made you want to snack on ground food.

 

If I found a black bean quesarito

sitting on the curb

still in its wrapping,

still warm,

I would at least be tempted.

 

And anyways,

realistically,

by the time I try to stop you,

you have usually already won,

started to swallow,

and all that’s accomplished by my intervening

is that I seem like I’m being an asshole.

 

So you, this time,

whatever it is you see or smell,

enjoy.

 

 

Deference 2

it is fascinating and meaningful to me when you get to lead the way

not just choosing at an intersection whether we go left, right, or straight ahead

but when I fully follow

and you fully choose

going around and round a park over the same patch of space in every conceivable fashion of diagonals

nose to the ground

following something (I don’t know what, but I know that you do) for as long as it takes

it is strangely easy these days to forget what is the real world and what isn’t

I would do well to remember always that that moment with you is the real world

 

 

Reciprocal Amplification

We take care of each other, you and I.

I give you food

You give me a happy reason

to get out of bed every morning.

I give you water

You give me perspective

on the world

when we go outside to walk.

I give you a cool room to sleep in in the summer

and a cool room to sleep in in the winter

You give me a warm belly to snuggle up into

when I need that.

We also get each other off pretty often

And we share a sense of humor.

This morning when I woke up feeling like shit

It all turned around when I had a glass of water

and then I got down on the carpet with you

you wagging happy boy

and I shared wet kisses with the best person in my day to day life

an awesome dog who likes to make out with me

and who I like to make out with him a lot too.

A gladness filled my entire being

pushing out all else

at getting to revel in your affections

and to give affections to you in the same measure.

 

 

Meditation

Sitting on the dock with my pal on this lakey night,

meditation occurs.

I am sitting on my ass

hunched over

my elbows resting on my knees

my hands clasped together before myself,

holding this compact bundle of self together tightly.

My weight bears down on my lower back

and on the backmost portion of my ass,

the part of flesh which I sit on.

It has rained earlier today

and the dock is wet.

The ass of my pants is wet.

My body weight and the planks of the dock hug one another.

In front of me is my dog,

my friend,

my boyfriend,

my mate,

my lover of countless designations.

I can tell just by looking at him how it would feel

to reach out and pet him;

exactly how it would feel, down to every intimate discernible detail

texture, give, smoothity;

I gave him four handjobs in the last fifteen minutes,

one at each of his favorite places in these woods hereabout.

He was feeling eager tonight.

He sniffs the air;

I’m glad for him.

Soon enough I give in to his alluring aura

and lay down on my side alongside him—

who gives a damn if my shirt gets damp on the rain-moist dock—

and I respectfully pet his back

and watch as he continues to sniff,

picking up scents that

as he slightly turns his head and faces his nose and eyes

I can at least pick up on the direction of

and try to guess what he’s found,

unearthed as it were,

in the air around our post at the edge of this lake.

At some point something worries him—

some sound, some disturbance.

I ask if he wants to go back inside.

He licks his lips to say yes.

I stand up.

With stiff joints he stands too, and leads the way.

Vol. 1 No. 4 (April 2023)

The Dethroning of Vermilion Von Scaldis

Cahsn held their hand over the block of pitch crystal, feeling for any lingering heat. Finally, to all perception, it was an appreciable deal cooler than the rest of the stifling workshop. With something of a curtsy, Cahsn bent down and whispered the release word: All at once, the black crystalline prism fell to ashes, leaving in a nest of themselves a silvery implement with two tongs and a handle.

Delicately, Cahsn picked up the channeler from the heap of ashes. Walking over to the window, they brushed away the soot on a portion of the pane with a work cloth, and in the afternoon daylight inspected the device closely. No visible faults anywhere on the surface. A good sign so far.

They walked to a workbench, took a deep breath, and centered themselves. With hopeful intention, they struck the channeler against the edge of the bench: As the channeler hummed, they held their other hand beside it, making the old elven hand sign for listening. Across the fingernails of their little, ring, middle, and index fingers, written in obsidian mite wax, were the symbols for knowledge, love, wellness, and material, with the symbol for divinity added somewhat tokenistically on the thumb: None here had felt divinity resonate in over a century. The fact that it did not resonate now was no cause for surprise, and did not give a sinking feeling to Cahsn’s stomach. What did was the complete lack of resonance in material. Still hopeful but no longer optimistic, Cahsn struck the channeler against the workbench again, and again made the listening sign beside it with their other hand. Again, the fingernails of knowledge, love, and wellness hummed loudly, while again the fingernails of divinity and material stayed mute.

“Oh dear,” Cahsn said to themselves.

“I don’t like the sound of that!” Filra called.

Considering that the spectresmith was pumping a noisy bellows to feed a noisier furnace and that he was entirely across the room from his dispirited apprentice, Cahsn was impressed that the man had managed to hear the disappointing utterance at all.

After giving the bellows a few more pumps, Filra came over to see the problem. He took the offered channeler, struck it against the workbench, and held it beside his other hand.

“Oh dear indeed,” he said, after a moment. He glanced up at the portion of the window that had been cleaned of soot, and judged the time. “You’ll have to hurry and fetch whatever they’ve dug up so far. Take S’lel to—”

He caught his tongue: the stallion had been needed at the fields that day, and had been lent out.

The spectresmith muttered to himself, and then to Cahsn only repeated, “You’ll have to hurry.”

Cahsn nodded, replaced their apron for a satchel, and swiftly made their exit of the workshop—the air outside was rejuvenatingly crisp.

Fortunately, a strong wind that day was towards the mines. Cahsn held their arms out to either side, fell forward, and let a gust of wind catch them, with which they began sprinting along the wind’s currents, their feet as one with the air. To any who saw them pass by, they would likely only perceive a troupe of leaves blowing past, the same deep and pure hue of green as the spectresmith apprentice’s hair.

Ten obelisks surrounded the town. Each day, at the fields, an immense pit was filled with wheat harvest, or if there wasn’t enough harvest to fill the pit, then the equivalent value in blood was thrown in. With this sacrifice, the druid who lived on the castle on the hill outside of town would activate the protective obelisks that surrounded the town for another night. If activated, the obelisks kept out the malevolent forest spirits who lurked in these bleak woods. If not activated... Cahsn had seen what happened when they were not activated only once. They would not see it again if anything in the world could be done to help it.

Cahsn stopped their run at the mouth of the mine, and pleasantly accosted T’nahk who happened to be standing just there.

The forewoman sputtered out an old curse that was unfamiliar to Cahsn, and then crossed her arms and squared her stance against the visiting eighth elf.

“Good tidings, I hope,” she joked.

“Someday,” they lied. “But on this day, I find myself in haste and must be curt: How fares the spectracite yield this morning?”

“Cahsn, no,” T’nahk moaned.

“T’nahk, please: I don’t ask it for the pleasure of asking.”

T’nahk sighed. “Four ounces that’ve been processed.”

“I’ll need that entire yield.”

T’nahk’s fists balled up for a moment, but then the forewoman let them go limp again. “If you take it, we’ll be here late into the night to make up our quota for tomorrow. Do you truly need all four ounces now?”

“Yes. Though none could have known until after the enchantment was attempted, the yield you delivered this morning was, unfortunately, a dud.”

“Okay,” T’nahk said, and nodded. “For the record, if I find out this is all because you messed up with perfectly good spectracite, I’ll have your hands.”

“I think we’d all be in a bad way if we found ourselves short anyone’s hands these days.”

“True. I mark you’re right about that.”

T’nahk turned and went down into the mines.

Cahsn stood outside, arms crossed, the breeze rustling their hair. On the wind, Cahsn could smell the scent of the fields nearby, hay and manure.

T’nahk emerged from the mines with a small wooden box in one hand, and a horse’s lead in the other hand—the horse walking beside on the other end of that lead was a mare named Red.

“Take her, and speed ye merry.”

Cahsn curtsied and kissed T’nahk’s hand in the old way of thanks, and then fluttered onto Red, took the wooden box of spectracite from T’nahk, and began back towards the workshop as quickly as the mare would take them.

When they arrived, Cahsn lighted off the mare, wished her well in whatever further ventures the remainder of the day had in wait for her, gave an appreciative kiss to the side of her mouth, and then went into the workshop and opened up the box.

It was late into the evening by the time another channeler was completed. But when Cahsn struck it against the edge of the workbench, this one hummed on the fingernails of knowledge, love, wellness, and material in equal and resonant measure. It would work.

Filra stood looking out of the soot-free portion of the window. He muttered, “Gods there isn’t much time left.”

“Then I shant stay us further by talking about it,” Cahsn said. On the workbench before them was the channeler that they had made, and six talismans that Filra had made over the same period of time. Cahsn packed the seven objects into their satchel, which, somewhat specialized for carrying these very things day after day after day, had seven pockets of appropriate size stitched in—the pockets had been stitched in by Meuric, their clandestine sweetheart who was better at the delicate crafts than most would have guessed by looking at him.

With their satchel, Cahsn departed the workshop once more, and was pleasantly surprised to see Red waiting outside: Red in turn was happy to see Cahsn, and approached gaily.

“It’s like you like me or something,” Cahsn said, giving the mare a few strokes in greeting before hopping onto her back. “You know the way?”

Red clicked her hooves on the ground a few times, and stood in place.

“It’s alright. I’ll show you,” Cahsn said, and spurred the mare forward down the packed-dirt street.

One by one, Cahsn and Red made their way to the six obelisks around the perimeter of the town, each one marking the border between the town and the hazy woods beyond. In a recess in each stone’s face, Cahsn placed one of the newly made talismans, until each talisman had found his home in one of the obelisks.

The hour was drawing late as Cahsn and Red sped towards the fields to deliver the channeler. As they drew near to the farm, they saw that a collection of a dozen stood around the sacrificial pit with torches: The pit, a thirty foot by thirty foot by thirty foot cube in the ground, was already filled with wheat, and most of the farm hands who had filled it had already gone home. Among those who still stayed were Kohnahsk who was the head of the farm, and Meuric who was a farm hand and Cahsn’s honey.

Cahsn wasted no time with pleasantries: they flew from Red’s back before waiting for her to stop, dashed with the wind across the surface of the pit, stirring up blades of wheat on the way, and struck and dropped the channeler onto the center of the pit. When they came to the other side, they stood beside Meuric, and caught their breath.

The crackle of torches and the hum of the channeler filled the air. Then, a flash of lightning came so silent that it sucked the noise from all else: in a massive arc overhead, lightning connected a tower of the druid’s distant castle to the spectracite of the channeler at hand. Before the eyes of Cahsn and the farmers, every blade of wheat in the pit vanished, and the lightning ceased. The charred sides of the pit smoldered and smoked. A moment later, the sound of the crackling of torches returned.

All eyes watched the druid’s tower. For a while, nothing occurred, and Cahsn wondered if they could have done more, worked with unworkable metal, gone a hair faster than fastest, coerced T’nahk any more expeditiously than curtly.

But at last, six arcs of lightning blasted silently forth from the druid’s tower, aimed at the six obelisks around the town. They were safe another night. Around the sacrificial pit, a collective exhalation was made.

Most of those who had still lingered began trudging away. Cahsn, Meuric, and Kohnahsk remained, as well as Red, who came trotting back up to Cahsn and stopped at the eighth elf’s side. The eighth elf put a hand on the mare, to say that they were aware of her, and appreciative.

Kohnahsk approached the spectresmith apprentice and their company. “Cutting it rather close today, miss,” she said.

Cahsn did not bite, flagrant as the bait was. “Do you need anything else of me, miss?”

The widow flinched.

Cahsn did bite somewhat.

“The next time we need to throw a living person into the pit,” Kohnahsk began, and then gave a grim look to Cahsn, and turned and trudged away.

With all eyes off of them, Meuric entangled his fingers around Cahsn’s, and gave their hand a squeeze. The farm hand had a comeliness to him that not everyone seemed to see, but very often the man’s understated demeanor had the eighth elf feeling quite flustered. The man leaned his head against theirs and let out a whinny of dejecting Kohnahsk and appreciating Cahsn.

Cahsn felt tingles down their back, and gave a kiss to Meuric’s cheek. They then mounted onto Red, and offered their partner a hand up. Meuric took it, and sat behind Cahsn. The two of them rode at a slow walk back towards the workshop. Cahsn told Meuric of the day they had had; later into the ride, Meuric found his human spirit presenting, and stopped with the horse noises to talk about his day in turn. It had been an exhausting day for the both of them, and the partners were glad to have it behind them, and have the rest of the night to themselves.

 

 

Quite some years earlier, in a city well beyond the hazy woods, a man named Amadric, a cobbler’s assistant by trade, stood at a canvas, in a study that he did not belong at in the dead of night, on the seventeenth floor of a twenty floor tower. His means of entry had been that he looked rather like the nephew of the noble who owned the tower, and if he held himself right and proceeded as though he were at home, the guards would not stop him. He had come to this tower on winter nights when his own loft above the tiny stables behind the cobblery proved too cold, or on nights when his meager payment was put towards the care of his horse Mu, and he had to find dinner for himself by less honest means.

But as often as he could find the time for, he came here to paint. By lamplight on this night, he was putting the finishing touches on a painting of the hindquarters of a mare, her tail whipping off to the side in a splash of long black hairs, her sex revealing a crescent of the enrapturing pink flesh that dwelt inside. The painting was large, twice the dimensions of the real thing. Amadric stepped back and let the final brush strokes dry. It was done. It seemed as though he could reach out and touch it, and feel a good deal more than a canvas and some damp paint.

Behind him he heard the creak of the study door opening. The light of a much brighter lantern than his own cast its radiance into the room.

“Estahsh?” inquired the bearer of the brighter lantern.

Amadric turned, and stood tall with an heir of arrogance, even as his heart beat rapidly in his chest. “Yes. One would call the nightingale a lark,” he said, a haughty expression there to dismiss questions of why one was up so late at night.

“Have you had much to drink, dear nephew?” the woman with the brighter lantern asked—if she believed him her nephew, this made her one of the lord’s wives. She added, “There is something odd to your voice.”

Amadric coughed, and then nodded. “I have had a fair bit tonight.” He had had nothing, but it was a decent excuse she had given him.

“What have you painted?” she asked, and withdrew a pair of spectacles from a pouch on her dress. The moment she put them on, she got a better look at the imposter’s face, and gasped and drew back, out into the hall.

“Guards!” she called, running away. “Guaaaards!”

Amadric fled out of the room as well and began to make a hasty departure, but was soon tackled to the ground, beaten, and outfitted with manacles on his wrists and ankles. On the way out, he saw the real Estahsh briefly—the young man was bleary eyed from his interrupted sleep, but seemed curious about his lookalike who was visiting at such a late hour.

In the city where Amadric lived, the punishment for most crimes was the same, if enough attention was aroused that official punishment was to occur. Amadric was marched through the frost-covered streets to a jail, where he would remain locked in a cell until he starved or froze.

The next afternoon, he found himself visited by a well dressed lookalike of himself. The two stood across the bars from each other, face to face.

“You are quite the painter,” Estahsh said with a charming smile.

“And you were quite the patron, unwitting as it was,” Amadric said back. “I should thank you, for that.”

“My uncle wants the paintings destroyed by a priest. I stole them away, and have them hidden somewhere where they will remain safe.”

“You care for the subject matter that much?” Amadric asked, leaning casually forward onto the bars, head tilted a bit in curiosity. The subject matter of all of the paintings was horses, and the majority of them focused on the genitalia. There was a crate in the corner of the study where he left them when they were finished, throwing a paint-stained cloth over the top of the crate to keep them inconspicuously hidden.

“I will deny it if you tell anyone, but I think that you and I share an appreciation for beauty in the equine world, strongly enough so that I should treat you as a friend rather than a criminal. I have paid for your release.” With that, Estahsh produced a key from his garb, and unlocked Amadric’s cell.

“I—my surprised and eternal gratitude, truly, Lord Estahsh,” Amadric said.

Estahsh then produced a sack of coins, and placed it in Amadric’s hand. “For the purchase of your paintings. I think it should adequately cover the means of leaving here, which would be wise.”

Amadric looked his lookalike in the eyes, and nodded.

The two left the jail.

“Fare you well,” Estahsh said.

“And you in twice the measure,” Amadric said in turn, as was the haughty response to such a remark, though in this instance Amadric truly did mean it.

Amadric returned to the cobblery and snuck straight around to the back, not caring to get an earful from the cobbler, who would want to know where his assistant had gone off to for the better part of the day. Instead, he went straight to the tiny stables in the back, and greeted his horse, Mu.

In short order, Amadric and Mu left quietly out of the stable, purchased some journeying supplies, and then were gone from the city.

When many days and scores of miles were put behind them, the painter and the horse found themselves crossing a shadowy swampland; a road crept through it, lit by the occasional luminescent stone in the cobbled path, though the road was in bad repair. At one stage, Amadric and Mu were crossing a bridge over an algae-covered pond, when all at once the bridge fell apart underneath them, and they were dropped in a startled flailing of limbs into the waters. As the two fought to keep at the surface, a flash of lightning struck across the swamp—some old magic, to deter those who would cause the road harm, but here quite unfortunately triggered.

Leaping around the magic of the lightning with swiftness and power, the spirit of Mu left the body that it had until then inhabited, and found footing on a new body.

Amadric came coughing to the shore of the pond, and there stayed a while on his hands and knees, catching his breath. Mu was with him, so something at least was well.

When he did have his breath, he stood, and turned around with a squelching of his soaked boots in the shore of the pond, and looked at the collapsed bridge.

The body of Mu laid stricken and unmoving atop the debris of the bridge that had fallen into the water.

But Amadric could still hear the horse’s intonations, vividly. When another happy snort came, Amadric realized that his spirit now shared the same vessel as the spirit of his horse.

“I am Amadric,” he said. “But I am forever now with Mu. We are Meuric, and this is good.”

Meuric swam out to the equine corpse to salvage what could be salvaged from the saddle bags. The spirit of the horse spoke of no remorse at the dead body before him, and in fact was quite eager to get a move on again.

With what he could retrieve, Meuric did then continue onward, and soon thereafter left the swamp and entered the hazy woods, and found work in a town beset by an evil druid who lived in a menacing castle—there he enjoyed the frequent social company of mares and stallions, which to both spirits in the body, was good.

 

 

Back at the workshop, Filra was just finishing cleaning up. He looked up from his broomwork to acknowledge Cahsn and Meuric as they entered, and to wave to them. “Looked like we made it, eh?” Filra said.

“Only just,” Cahsn said. “But yes. The sacrifice was sent, and the obelisks are activated.”

“Only just does seem to do the trick around here,” Filra said with a smile, and returned to his sweeping.

Cahsn lead the way lightfootedly up the stairs, while Meuric skulked after. The two went up past the second floor which was wholly Filra’s, and proceeded up to the smaller third floor which was, in essence, Cahsn’s. At the top of the stairs was a miniature foyer of sorts, with one door and a potted fern plant on either side. Cahsn opened the door and allowed Meuric in. Meuric began to disrobe as Cahsn left the door open. With a pitcher and with water from a small fountain fed by rather cunning pipework, Cahsn went and watered the ferns outside their door, then closed the door and locked themselves and their partner inside.

With this done, Cahsn promptly found repose on their living room’s rug. “Mah,” they said up to Meuric.

Meuric gave an equine huff of an exhale back, and then came and laid down with them.

The two both laid on their backs, with the tops of their heads touching, staring up at the slanted wooden ceiling, which was littered with oddly angled nails from the shingles on the ceiling’s opposite side.

“We stink,” Cahsn observed.

Meuric turned and play-nibbled on one of Cahsn’s ears with his lips.

“Bad,” Cahsn corrected. “Bath.”

Meuric gave a bemoaning exhale, and stood up and went over to the bathchambers, and turned a pipe to start the hot water flowing.

Remaining on the floor, Cahsn began disrobing, flinging all items of their apparel in whatever directions behooved them at that second. When it was done, they laid on the floor staring blankly at the ceiling again, but additionally they were now unclothed.

With some time left before the bath would be filled, Meuric trudged back in and laid down on the floor once again too, this time on his chest, between Cahsn’s legs, staring at the space between their inner thighs.

Their crotch was a vague aura of softly billowing blue light, with distinct tiny blue moths fluttering around. Whatever had been there originally was a secret that only Cahsn truly knew the answer to—they had not told even Meuric, not that the young gentleman had ever pressed the question beyond a rare curiosity. As time had gone on in their relationship, Meuric was gladder and gladder to not know, and to let Cahsn exist as Cahsn.

When he sensed that the tub was near to filling, Meuric pried his gaze away from his partner’s aura and stood. Cahsn stuck up their hands, and Meuric grabbed them, and helped them to their feet. Leading as though it was a dance, Meuric guided Cahsn hand in hand to the bath tub, turned off the faucet, and the two of them slid into the water. As they settled, Meuric found himself sitting on Cahsn’s lap, getting his hair washed by his partner.

When many minutes and kisses had gone by, the two were both clean and dried and lying naked together on the couch, Meuric lying on his back, arms wrapped around Cahsn who laid face down on top of him, pecking kisses around his pecs and neck and jaw. Eventually Cahsn slinked higher up Meuric, and reached over him to the small table beside the couch, and retrieved a pair of necklaces. Cahsn smiled as Meuric reached around his neck, and fastened his necklace onto himself. With that done they fastened the clasp on theirs as well, and collapsed down onto his chest as the melding began.

With the necklaces on, each of them could feel everything that the other felt. Ordinarily these necklaces were used by physicians to diagnose, and by the likes of Meuric and Cahsn for hedonism. Today when they melded with Meuric, Cahsn felt like they had been struck by a swinging hammer: the man’s muscles had been worked long past what Cahsn would have personally thought was the breaking point.

With care, Cahsn pulled Meuric up off of the couch, and lugged him over to the bed where he flopped down, playfully allowing himself to be manhandled. From a closet Cahsn retrieved a flask of calming oils. They poured a portion out onto Meuric’s back and got to work, massaging the man’s back and arms and legs, feeling their own fingers doing the work of rubbing and feeling Meuric’s muscles receiving the relaxation and care. With the use of the necklaces, Cahsn could not help but be mindful of any tenderness, as well as anything that was enjoyable. They found themselves rubbing Meuric’s right bicep quite a long time, to the point of flopping over onto their side beside him, and rubbing it from a comfortable sidelong repose.

Eventually, from this vantage, Cahsn reached down and gave Meuric’s butt a squeeze, felt the jolt of it themselves, and slinked out of bed and skipped over to the liquor cabinet.

They returned with two bottles of musk wine, when they noticed that at the fountain in the corner, a message capsule was just floating up from the faucet. Meuric sat up on the edge of the bed and held the two bottles as Cahsn went to go see the message.

They picked the capsule up out of the basin, dried the outside against the bedsheets for convenience, and sat down beside Meuric and opened the capsule up, unrolled the little scroll inside, and read.

“It’s from Darmf,” Cahsn read.

Meuric tossed his head and stomped a foot, hoping to assert his disinterest strongly enough that it would bend the will of the universe and reshape the course of recent developments in reality into something more agreeable and less likely to include anyone other than himselves and Cahsn sharing the night together.

“He wants to know if we want to hang out,” Cahsn went on.

Meuric again gave a stomp, and tossed his head for a pointedly longer duration of time.

“Why not?” Cahsn asked, and laid back across Meuric’s lap.

Meuric extended a finger on his hand, and hovered the fingertip over Cahsn, hovering it back and forth from head to toe over and over, until eventually picking up one of their legs and poking the eighth elf on the buttcheek.

Cahsn glanced again at the message. “He says he didn’t like your book recommendation.”

Meuric gasped. “That bitch!” he said, his human spirit rushing to the fore. “Okay. Darmf can come over and then we’re going to the library. Let’s try to sneak one in before he gets here though. Mu has been randy all day, you have no idea.”

Cahsn wrote a return message, and sent it in a capsule down a pipe adjacent to the pipe by which Darmf’s message had been delivered.

By the time Darmf arrived up the stairs, Cahsn and Meuric were clothed, if slightly catching up on their breath. Darmf opened the door. Cahsn and Meuric were sat together on one side of the couch, though Meuric quickly shot up and stomped forward to Darmf, and gave an assertive huff to the scrawny man.

“Hi, you,” Darmf said, cowering slightly.

Cahsn came forward as well, giving assuring shushes to Meuric on the way. When they arrived, they took Meuric’s hand, and gave it a few gentle strokes with their thumb.

“What was wrong with A Feast Of Leaves And Sugar?” Meuric demanded.

“It was barely readable,” Darmf asserted.

Meuric gasped and tossed his head. “I couldn’t set it down!”

“Nothing happened!”

“So!”

Cahsn interjected to ask, “What was this book about?”

Darmf answered, “Some nameless, faceless, characterless narrator eats dinner for five hundred pages.”

Cahsn noticed Meuric squaring up to punch Darmf; the eighth elf gave their partner a shove, and an assertive, “Hey. Not how we settle disagreements about books we don’t like, Amadric.”

Meuric knew that when he heard his human name from Cahsn, he was in trouble, regardless of whether it was his human spirit or his equine spirit that had gotten him there. He crossed his arms, and remained standing where he had been shoved to, further from Darmf, which was for the better anyways.

“Well I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever read,” Meuric said.

“That’s fine, but I thought it was sooo boring. There’s an entire chapter, twenty nine pages, where the narrator eats a carrot and that’s the only thing that’s described!”

“That was the best chapter. Life changing.”

“Okay, you two,” Cahsn said. “Meuric, can you agree that you might be biased towards liking a chapter about eating a carrot?”

“...Yes.”

“Can we agree to disagree and move on?”

Both men grumbled that yes, they could move on.

“Good. Meuric, you were saying you wanted to go to the library?”

Meuric nodded.

“Anything you were looking for?”

“I would like to see if that author has written anything else.”

“Okay. Darmf, would you care to come with us to the library?”

“Sure. I actually wanted to show you guys something I found down there, too. A little room that I don’t think any of us knew about.”

Cahsn, Meuric, and Darmf exited down the stairs, out of the workshop, and into the cool night. A dreadful silence hung around the air. The activated obelisks kept out noise from the hazy forest, and the townsfolk by and large went to sleep as soon as they were able, to be ready for the next day’s exhausting work.

The three friends made their way to the mines. As they were walking, they crossed paths with Red, who was milling about town. The mare was greeted warmly by Meuric. She continued along with the three, she and Meuric trailing back and flirting with each other as Cahsn and Darmf lead the way—whether or not Darmf knew that the two were flirting, Cahsn wasn’t sure. Most of the fully human folk were shockingly bad at picking up on communication from any creature outside of their own species.

At the mouth of the mines, Meuric paused with Red, and said, “You two go on ahead, I’ll catch up.”

“Something wrong?” Darmf asked.

That was a no, then, on Darmf picking up on anything.

“Going to see if she needs anything before we head down,” Meuric offered.

Cahsn quickly assisted by shuffling Darmf onward, into the cool mouth of the mine. Being that it was impossible to see in that kind of darkness, Cahsn made the old elven hand sign for light: a faint luminescent aura began to trail about their feet in the appearance of a low mist, dim in the scheme of things though brighter than the moonlight from which they had come, and as such it left the eighth elf and the oblivious human squinting for a moment.

The two of them made their way down gradual slopes, sticking to the main tunnel until arriving at a large metallic door embedded in the side of one wall. There they stopped, and the two of them took a seat on the ground, waiting for Meuric.

“Do you think he’ll be long?” Darmf asked.

“Not too long,” Cahsn assured—the melding necklaces were still on, and Cahsn was very aware that Meuric was close. Though Cahsn was aware that Meuric was no stranger to indulging frisky equines, this actually was their first time being party to it themselves, by way of the necklace. The palms of the hands on the smooth hair that covered enormous musculature, the soft wet flesh of the sex itself—they’d had no idea that Red was such an appealing creature in that capacity. They may not quite look at Red the same way ever again, though all for the better.

After not too much longer, Meuric’s climax was reached, and he soon withdrew himself from the mare, no longer touching her hindquarters. Cahsn felt the soles of Meuric’s feet as he walked around the horse, and then shivered as they felt Meuric’s lips touch Red’s.

Then after a couple of hearty pats, Meuric began walking down the slopes.

“He’s done,” Cahsn idly reported.

“He... who, Meuric?”

Immediately, Cahsn realized they had said too much. With a sigh, they lifted up the necklace that they wore.

“Oh. It’s uh, it’s a little weird when you two wear those.”

Cahsn and Darmf sat in the silence of the mine, in the shifting luminescent fog at the floor.

“What was he doing?” Darmf asked, probably just to fill the quiet.

“He can tell you if he wants,” they said. They wished that they could forewarn Meuric, but the necklaces only transferred physical sensations, not thoughts or speech.

“Wh... how bad could it have been that you won’t tell me?”

“Nothing bad, just, not trying to talk behind anyone’s back.”

“Oookay then,” Darmf said. Then quite quickly sensing that the silence would encroach again, he said, “Seriously though, that book was so boring. I kept reading expecting some kind of revelation about why any of it should have been interesting, and it just never came. It was an entire book about eating dinner.”

“That does sound pretty boring,” Cahsn admitted honestly. “I do think that that was his horse side that liked it so much. Maybe like, his human side getting to read his horse side a story.”

“I kinda figured, but it was such a bad recommendation that I did still have to give him shit over it.”

Cahsn smiled a little. “Yeah, fair.”

With that, they heard the sound of footsteps coming down the mine, matching in cadence with the sensation of Meuric’s soles touching the ground.

Cahsn and Darmf stood. Light from a lantern came around the corner, joining the light of Cahsn’s fog. Meuric, the lantern bearer, exchanged sneaky satisfied smiles with Cahsn.

“What did Red need?” Darmf asked.

“Nothin.”

“Then what took you so long?”

“Mating.”

Oh. I see.”

“Jealous?”

“No but like, that makes sense for you, actually.”

Meuric went at a cantor to the door, and began turning the wheel that opened it.

“So does the human side of you close his eyes, or?”

“Nah, we’re both into it.”

“I’ll pretend to be surprised.”

With a final turn, the bolt of the metal door was fully released. Meuric pulled the door open, and invited Cahsn and Darmf to lead the way.

The three began into the ruins of the old city, creeping through brick passageways that by all rights should have fully collapsed long ago—a good amount of the place certainly already had.

It was not somewhere that one would want to get comfortable in. At some point most days, one would hear all of the old pipes begin to creak—as soon as the noise began, one would want to be leaving. Ten minutes from the creaking beginning, one’s eyes would begin to tear up, and their nose would begin to run, and their lips and throat would feel dry and irritated. Another ten minutes from the irritation beginning, and the yellow gas seeping through the old pipes would be accumulated enough to be visible across the old cobbled floors, and even the toughest would be reduced to a blinded coughing and rasping on the floor, and ultimately a death of suffocation.

The entrance to the library—a collapsed wall in a section on agriculture—was a thirteen minute walk into the city from the fortified entrance in the mines. This made an escape under ten minutes doable, if one could hoof it.

By lanternlight and luminescent fog, the three made it to the library.

“You wanted to show us something?” Cahsn prompted.

“Yes!” Darmf said. “Second basement. It’s in a section of the stacks that seems to be for books that are damaged or incompleted, I guess enough so that they couldn’t be categorized any other way.”

“Esoteric,” Cahsn noted.

“I think mostly a librarian would put something there and forget about it forever. Most of what I’ve poked through there is really dull.”

“Exciting,” Cahsn remarked.

“Lead the way,” Meuric said, and offered the lantern out.

Darmf took it, and did lead the way over to the stairs, down two floors, and into a cold, echoey recess of the library. Eventually, the three came upon a pile of books blocking their passage down the aisle—it was a common enough thing to see, unfortunate as it felt.

“This is it,” Darmf said, and took a step up onto the slope of books. Continuing to walk forward onto them, he said, “I was grabbing something out of here when the whole area came down. I was terrified at first, thinking, this is it, this gas is going to start right while I’m buried under here, and I’m not going to make it in time. But, I did get myself unburied, and I found this.”

Arriving at the crest of the pile, Darmf held the lantern down to light up the top of a rectangular opening in the wall.

“A door!” Meuric remarked. “We have those in town too, actually.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Darmf remarked. “Come on, I think it’s pretty interesting. This is the only door into here, hidden behind a wall of books.”

With that, Darmf slid down into the doorway, into the room beyond.

With a moment to themselves, Cahsn cupped a hand to Meuric’s ear, and whispered extremely quietly, “That felt like a good time, with Red.”

Meuric shivered, and nuzzled Cahsn’s forehead.

Cahsn added, “We should follow after Darmf.”

Meuric nodded, and led the way, stepping onto the pile of books and then crawling on his chest down the slope that had fallen into the room beyond; Cahsn followed closely after.

The room beyond was a study. Besides being notably free of cobwebs, the study had a desk, a private bookshelf, and plenty of space to pace around.

Cahsn commented, “If it weren’t for being in a place that I’m terrified of relaxing in, this would be a very nice place to sit down and read. Do you suppose they remodeled and just left the room inaccessible instead of bothering to destroy it?”

“I’m not sure,” Darmf said. Meandering over to the bookshelf, he said, “I haven’t had time to read any of them fully, obviously, but a lot of these books are on the lower planes, and magic associated with that.”

Cahsn felt shivers down their spine. With some reluctance, they made the old elven hand sign for listening. The sensations that came about across their fingernails were all a mess speaking over each other: the symbol for knowledge hummed; the symbol for love seemed almost to recoil, as though the nail was grating against a chalk board; the symbol for divinity, written on Cahsn’s thumb, felt as though a red hot brand was being held to it, and Cahsn shouted profanity as they quickly dismissed the hand sign.

With the hand sign gone, all of the sensations subsided—examining their thumb, there was no actual damage done, it seemed. But they suddenly liked this place quite a good deal less.

“You okay?” Darmf asked.

“Fine,” Cahsn answered. “Do you know if this study belonged to anyone in particular?”

“No, I’m not sure. There’s a drawer in this desk that I was interested in, but there’s a lock on it.”

Meuric went over to the desk, squared up with it, and kicked the face off of the drawer. Reaching into the open mouth of the drawer, he retrieved a book and handed it to Darmf.

Cahsn quickly stole the book out of Darmf’s hands, before he could open it. “If I may, quickly,” Cahsn said, feeling a magical force from the book as soon as they had caught even a passing glance of it.

“Y-yeah. Please.”

Cahsn set the book on the desk, and placed a flat hand over the front cover of it. With their other hand, they made the sign for vision.

All sight of the room was put off to some vague periphery, and, without drawing open the covers, Cahsn saw the writing on the first page of the book.

Any child of man who bears witness to the words in this tome, in my name be struck blinded and mute. - Vermilion Von Scaldis.

Cahsn gasped, and raised their hands away from the book; sight of the room flooded back in. Two things had very urgently struck them. Most alarming was the name: the druid who beset the town, demanding sacrifices of them from his solitary castle on the hill, bore the same name as the signer of the page. The second thing which struck them was that this inscription they had read was indeed highly charged with magic, and by all rights should have gone off when they read the inscription alone, even if it had been read by a proxy of magic rather than by direct sight.

“It belongs to the druid,” Cahsn reported.

“Cahsn,” Meuric said in a grave tone. “Step back. Let’s leave it alone.”

“He’s right,” Darmf added. “I don’t want to be here anymore either, anyways. We should go.”

The two were not wrong. To stick one’s nose any further into this was insanity. And yet. They could not help but recall quite a lot, even in the last day alone. The hardship of the miners, working all their waking hours today to extract the spectracite for the daily ritual required by Scaldis. Their own fear at what would become of them if the second channeler they made was also unsuitable, and the sacrifice could not be made that day, to Scaldis. The sensation of putting on the melding necklace, and feeling how deathly sore the day’s work at the farm had left Meuric, who was hardier than most who worked those fields.

“Let me look at one more thing,” Cahsn said, and placed their hand on the cover of the book once more.

“Cahsn,” Meuric tried again. “Whatever it is, isn’t worth it.”

Maybe not. But the way the town was being worked could not go on forever. If they were going to die, they would rather it was while risking liberation rather than being thrown into a pit in the ground and struck by silent lightning.

Cahsn made the hand sign for vision, and once more examined the first page. Being that the inscription was magically charged, and to quite an extreme degree for that matter, anyone who was not utterly blind to magic could sense that each word bore a meaning, each of which fed into the other words, to create the terms of the spell itself, chiefly the spell’s trigger and the spell’s effect. The effect, it seemed, was more than clear: whosoever effected by the spell would be struck blinded and mute. Clearly, though, that had not happened to them, which made them very, very curious about the trigger.

Any child of man who bears witness to the words in this tome, in my name be struck blinded and mute. - Vermilion Von Scaldis.

They crept their way around each word, examining the corners and edges of each word’s meaning.

Though it took some passes to spot it, the answer was found near to the start of the passage: when using the term “child of man,” it seemed that Scaldis had only envisioned a human. It was beyond Cahsn how such a mistake could be made by a druid of all people, who were supposed to see the wisdom in the non-human world.

Cahsn was uncertain as to whether Meuric would be safe in reading the book. And, unfortunately, “bear witness” did include hearing of the words in the book, it seemed, and so they would not be safe to relay the book’s contents to Meuric and Darmf. But after some long minutes of intensive focus, they were positive that they understood the scope of at least this inscription at the front, which was the only part of the book charged with magical energy. They were confident that they would be safe to proceed into the book for themselves.

They withdrew their hands from the book, and stood and hugged Meuric.

Meuric hugged them back.

Cahsn noticed, then, that he had taken off his necklace. A wise choice, and Cahsn themselves felt foolish for not having thought to mention it. They took their necklace off too, and stowed it in a pocket.

“Can we go now, please?” Darmf asked.

“I’d like to stay and read the book a while longer,” Cahsn said. “There is a magical inscription at the front which would make the volume unsafe for human eyes, though it seems...”

They trailed off, as around them, the sounds of the pipes creaking began.

“Well, it seems we have no choice anyways.” Cahsn stowed the book in their satchel.

“Is that wise to take?” Meuric asked.

“Perhaps so or perhaps not, but for a certainty it would now be unwise to stand around any longer deliberating on it.”

“Agreed,” Meuric conceded.

Without further discussion, the three of them began at once out of the secluded study, making a jog to the stairwell, up the stairs, out through the library’s collapsed wall; the eyes of all three of them were beginning to water as they progressed through the final passages; by the time they made it out into the mines and sealed the door shut behind themselves, there was a tickle in Cahsn’s throat, and they noticed Meuric and Darmf each had a bit of a cough.

“Too close,” Cahsn said with something of a relieved smile.

Meuric hugged Cahsn, and clung there for a while.

Eventually the three made their way up out of the mine. “See you two around,” Darmf said, and then gave a little wave, and headed off alone down a trail that more directly lead to his family’s dwelling.

Cahsn snuggled up against Meuric, standing there with their temple buried in the soft fabric of his shirt which covered his muscular chest. “Spend the night with me?” they asked.

Meuric locked his arms around them, and held them securely. “Of course.”

When they were ready to go, Meuric picked Cahsn up and gave them a piggy back ride back into town. Had they still had the melding necklaces on, Cahsn would have realized the man was still as sore as he was earlier and wouldn’t have allowed themselves to be carried by him, but as it was, he bore it nonchalantly enough to get away with it, and he was, in fact, happy to bear it.

Meuric set Cahsn down outside of Filra’s workshop, and the two climbed up the stairs to Cahsn’s quarters on the third floor.

“I gotta get to bed,” Meuric said.

Cahsn nodded. “I’ll be after you in a while.”

Meuric kissed Cahsn, and stole the druid’s book out of their hands while they were distracted. “Be careful,” he emphasized, and offered the book back to them.

They nodded. “I have no intention of doing otherwise.”

The two of them shared another kiss, and then Meuric did proceed to bed, and within the minute was snoring.

Cahsn sat down on the couch, took a deep, mindful breath, and then opened the druid’s journal.

The eighth elf learned many things in their reading, but chief among them was that it was, in essence, all a charade. Many times they had to put the book down in tears as they learned that Vermilion Von Scaldis was nothing of a druid, and was, in fact, merely a lord among men who had made a pact with a lord among demons: Scaldis would supply the demon with regular sacrifice—the crop yields, the blood yields when crop was not enough—and in turn, the demon would allow a vein of the powers of the many hells to flow through Scaldis’s gnarled fingers. The spirits which beset the town were conjured when a sacrifice wasn’t made, not warded when a sacrifice did occur. The eighth elf’s entire life’s work was, more or less, a trick.

 

 

Every night, Meuric dreamt. They never knew until waking up that they had been dreaming, although there were a great many things that should have made it seem obvious, were one lucid to such things at the time. For Meuric, the most stark difference between dream and reality was that in reality his two spirits occupied one body, whereas in his dreams, almost without fail the two spirits were divided again. Curiously, Amadric was not always a human, and Mu was not always a horse: sometimes they were inverted, or both horses, or both men.

In their present dream, Amadric was his old human self, younger in years than he was now, and Mu was his old horse self. It was a pleasant day; Amadric had the day off from working in the cobblery, it was a holiday in the old city, and so he had all the hours he could want to tend to his horse. The man and the horse stood in the small stable behind the cobblery, though at present the stable was located in a wide open field, with mountains far off in the distance, and mountainous clouds overhead, and a strong wind blowing in the scents of diced apples and freshly baked bread.

“I am dreaming,” Amadric and Mu both realized, and then Amadric stopped the work he was doing on Mu’s saddle, Mu stopped sniffing curiously at the smell of apples in the air, and the man and the horse both looked at one another. “We know that we are dreaming,” they said, and then said as well, “How do we know this? We never know this.”

From the mountains came a distant, echoing scream. Amadric and Mu both turned their heads to face it. The voice had called out but one word, which was the man and the horse’s shared name: “Meuric!

That voice. That voice was not from here. It was from later. Somehow, it was from later, a time that had not yet come, there in the stables, Amadric and Mu living as two separate bodies.

The voice called again, “Meuric! Help!

Mu realized first who the voice belonged to: “Cahsn.”

At the name, Amadric felt icy fingers creeping upon him, at knowing that they were calling for help, but that he was so very far away.

Mu continued, “We are dreaming. We must awaken and help them.”

With a hideous gasp, Meuric shot open his eyes and sat bolt upright on the bed.

What he awakened to seemed more like a dream than what he had awakened from. He sat upright in a cold sweat on Cahsn’s bed, in the dead of night. No sound was present anywhere at all: even when he had gasped when waking up, the sound of it was stolen, muted immediately by the very air around him. The bedsheets fluttered, and some papers blew about the room. In the living room, in place of the floor, there was a swirling red vortex: Cahsn clung to the doorway to the bedroom, staring pleadingly—no, apologetically—at Meuric.

I love you,” they mouthed, and then the door frame broke apart, and Cahsn was sucked backwards into the vortex, and was swallowed by it.

Before it could have any chance to close, Meuric dove forward in after them, and was swallowed by the vortex as well.

Meuric tumbled out of the vortex into a long, dark, grand room. He found his balance and leapt to his feet. To his left and right, the walls were covered in bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and underfoot was a thick red carpet set over a stone floor. The hall was dark, and Meuric could not see through the darkness to the wall behind him or ahead of him. All light came from five flames, each the size of a candle flame, though redder, and with no visible source; the five flames circled slowly around a snarling man in a crimson robe, whose gnarled hands were clutched around a staff, the top of the staff adorned with a human skull.

Cahsn found their footing as well, and stood up beside Meuric, the two partners facing the robed man. Meuric and Cahsn stood unclothed—the vortex, it seemed, had only transported their bodies.

The robed man spoke: “You fools shall regret stealing from your master.”

Cahsn retorted, “On my life, you’ll regret that you brought us here.” They seemed very aware of the accuracy of ‘on my life,’ and gave a small, helpless laugh.

“What magic is this about you?” Scaldis asked, looking down to the blue aura which hung in the place of Cahsn’s genitals. “A strange choice of perversion; I sense that you have elven blood within you, but I cannot sense whether you are man or woman. Do you think this gives you some form of protection from my hexes?”

“I might now that you’ve told me as much.”

“Fah. It protects you from nothing. But I will find you out all the same.”

Scaldis waved his staff through the circling flames, catching one flame on the staff’s skull; the skull became engulfed in the red fire. Scaldis muttered hexes, causing the fire to become a chromatic swirling of pink and blue. When the magic was prepared, Scaldis swung his staff, sending the ball of pink and blue lights racing towards the eighth elf. Meuric pushed the eighth elf out of the way, and took the blow himself.

The magic of the lights took an immediate hold of Meuric, and he found himself growing taller, and his stance growing more sure. The magic cast upon him by Scaldis was magic that would reveal the true form of any who was struck by the pink and blue lights; in short seconds, Meuric found himself with the head, arms, and chest of a man, and the four legged body of a stallion.

Wasting no time in the opportunity of this surprise, Meuric stampeded forward towards the wide-eyed Scaldis, toppled the gnarled man over with fierce hooves, and wrestled from the warlock his staff; this he threw to Cahsn, who caught it and ran forward into the struggle. From the ground Scaldis snatched at another of his circling flames, made a gesture, and in his hands the flame grew into a flickering scimitar. Meuric reared at the sight of it, and Scaldis got to his feet. The warlock took a swing towards Meuric, but found the back of his head struck in by his very own staff.

Scaldis collapsed, and his ring of flames went out, leaving total darkness to reign over the quiet hall.

Cahsn made the old elven hand sign for light. Around their feet, a radiant fog began to sweep over the red carpeted floor.

For good measure, they made the old elven hand sign for axes, and with the conjured tool, beheaded Vermilion Von Scaldis where he lay, putting a definitive end to his reign over the town.

With this done, they picked up the warlock’s staff once more, and with it in hand, turned to face their partner, whose body now reflected his spirits.

“You look amazing,” Cahsn commented.

Meuric smiled, flicked his tail, and offered out a hand. Cahsn took it, and accepted the help up onto Meuric’s back. Meuric walked them slowly forward, seeking an exit from this dark chamber.

“It would have done nothing to me, his magic,” Cahsn mentioned. “The same magic he invoked to try to reveal my true form is the exact magic I used long ago to attain this very way that I appear now. All the same, I’m happy that you got in the way.” They gave Meuric’s equine body a hearty pat on the flank.

The eighth elf and the first centaur found their way back into town, and informed the people that they were free.

The Immortal of Loch Anneth

I fling dirt over my shoulder. All of my muscles are sore. My palms are sore. The joints of my fingers are sore. I awoke last night from a dead sleep with a pang of a memory so intense and precise it felt as though I had been stabbed. It was fleeting as a dream: I knew that if I did not get up that instant and act, I may lose the thought forever.

It was a memory of burying something extremely precious. Upon waking and standing, I rummaged around for a shovel of mine, and then walked around the sandy beach of Loch Anneth by the silver light of the moon. As my footsteps crunched over the sand, I held tight to the memory of the burying, of the place where something was buried. Even the place has been changed by time, but I remember where it was if I don’t overthink it. It was a clearing. Now it is overgrown, indistinct from the forest surrounding. By the silver moonlight, I uprooted a tree that was grown on the place of the burial, and pushed it aside. By the light of the morning, I dug where the roots have grown, cutting through them, reaching where they were reaching. Now by light of day, as I am drenched in sweat, I dig clay, until finally, my shovel strikes something else. I dig the hole wider, until I have uncovered the entire surface of a finished and stained wooden box, six feet tall and three feet wide, and I know that this is the thing I have come for. I dig the hole wider yet, so that I can have room enough to pry open the lid with my shovel. The lid does not give easily, but with a bellowing groan, the wood and the nails bend apart, and I lift the lid and heave it aside, and I look into the box. There in the box, there are the remains of a deer, the legs crouched slightly to fit inside, as though the deer is laying down to nest. The flesh and all except the bones is decomposed. Only the skeleton remains. I sit against the side of the freshly dug hole, the dirt clinging to my drenched body, and I stare at them—it—them—her.

I loved her. As I sit against the side of the hole and stare, I begin to weep. I loved her. I have lost her. And I know nothing else, other that it was a long time ago. I cannot remember what she was like. I cannot remember anything that we did, other the almost forgotten fact that at the end, I buried her. I try to remember what she looked like in life, but every detail is imagined, not recalled. I loved her, and I lost her, and now there is nothing there but the dim memory of both, and the wrenching feeling that I ought not be able to do this, be able to mourn for something that I no longer know.

Some of my old loves are like ashes. There was once something alight here. Something dancing, nourishing, absorbing, burning. Now it is inert. I try to move it around again and feel heat, comfort, warmth, pain, scalding pain, anything, but it is not there anymore. Some of my old loves are like nettles in the pads of my fingers. I am doing something that has nothing to do with them, and then they sting me. I try to find them, and they hide. I cannot remove them. I know that someday they will sting me again, and then someday they will not, and I might not ever know. Some of my old loves are like a note: I love you and I’m looking forward to spending more time with you tomorrow. There is nothing alive, but when I happen upon them again, it is like they are still here to speak.

I stare at the doe. The sense of loss here is a monstrous shadow of the actual thing that is now so far behind me I will never see it again so long as I live.

Would that I could turn around and look back into the past, earlier, and earlier again, and know who this was, and how I loved her. Would that I were not cast into the ocean of time with an anchor upon my ankles and forced to forever wonder if there is a bottom, and suspect that there is not. There is no sun. There is no floor.

I secure the lid back atop the box, and I bury the doe for a second time. It helps. It takes away the momentous sting to know that this has happened a second time now, that this is not a monolith, but merely a thing which I did once, and I can do again. The pain is still pain, but it is dulled. I return the soil to where it was, and leave the tree fallen. I trudge to the lakeside, and sit on the sand, filthy and tear-streaked, staring out at the water that shines in the daytime. My wife Heleyne comes and finds me. She sits beside me a while. Then she takes me by the hand, pulls me upright, and leads me into the piercing cold water. When the sweat and dirt are cleansed from me, we return again to the beach, and begin walking back to our cabin, so that we can get a fire on and warm up.

We arrive at the cabin. We change into dry clothes. We start a fire in the hearth, and sit on the floor before it, wrapped together in one blanket, staring as the flames lick upwards from the logs.

“Thank you,” I tell Heleyne. In my head, I repeat the name. Heleyne. Heleyne. Heleyne. “I love you.”

“Tell me about her,” Heleyne says.

I tell her about the doe, though there is little to say. It really is as though I am telling her about the dream I had last night that I have already forgotten most of the details of.

Earlier

There is a stone tower standing on an island at the center of Loch Anneth. Many days, in periods when I am alone, I find myself atop the tower, wearing a wide brimmed hat to shade myself from the sun. I circle around and around, looking out at the lake, at the forests beyond. The lake is the pupil to the green forest’s iris. Loch Anneth, and the green forest surrounding, sit at the border of two landscapes which are far more immense.

To the south, stretching beyond sight, is the orange forest. It is a strange place. The trees there bear fruit, but the fruit cannot be picked no matter how hard one pulls, and if one pulls for more than a moment, it will sting the hand even through a steel gauntlet. Bushes are razor thorned, the vines drip with poison that will cause one a blistering rash. The soil appears good for planting, but if one takes a trowel to it, fire will shoot forth from the earth. No flora in the orange forest has grown or been removed so long as I can remember. No fruit from any tree has fallen or replenished, but merely hangs perpetually. It is a place frozen in time, harshly resistant to being interfered with. Through it, there is a dirt road, leading from the greater world to Loch Anneth.

To the north, stretching beyond sight, is the tangled labyrinth. On the surface it appears as a landscape of mountains, some minor, some snow-capped, all formed into a heap of lines that resemble a floor covered wall to wall in discarded thread. There is one mountain here adjacent to the green forest. In it, if one traverses up a small valley, they will arrive at a door, the entrance to the labyrinth which spans beneath every mountain beyond, and reaches down to depths unknown. It is said that the world which we know was once the home of the gods, but that they have all moved on to a new world that is currently being weaved, and that our current world is discarded, fallen, rotting, finite, perilous, soon to be uninhabitable. It is said that if one traverses the tangled labyrinth, that on the other side will be the new home of the gods, a blossoming paradise in progress. Who is to say if anyone has made it?

I believe that a very long time ago, I began life in the world beyond the orange forest, and one day traveled up the road, to the lake and the green forest. I believe that I built the tower on which I now stand. It is never easy to say what is memory and what is fancy, but I recall great difficulty getting the large slabs of stone out here by boat. I remember—I think I remember—capsizing a number of times, losing weeks of work on the cut slabs. When I am up on the tower, I am looking for someone. I stand, and I pace, and I search the green forest. My gaze hangs on the road through the orange forest. My gaze hangs on the valley to the door of the labyrinth. I have an unreasonable hope that whoever it is I am looking for will stand out so strongly that it will not matter how many millennia it has been since I even knew who I am waiting for. A father? A mother? A sibling? A child? I haven’t the faintest. So whenever I see someone from up here, I go to meet them, and I hope that something will stir.

Down the road through the orange forest, a lone figure approaches. I descend the tower, push my rowboat into the lake, and venture forth to meet this person. I bring a vase of water good for drinking or washing.

When I arrive, the figure is still on their way up the road through the orange forest. They move at a shamble. I stand at the border. As they come nearer, I can discern their trouble. She is burned, blistered, cut, and in her arms she cradles two children, one over top of the other. I set the vase down in the road, and go to get cloth, and a shovel.

When I return, she has arrived at the green forest, and has laid the two children beside each other on a patch of grass. She has used the water to wash them. Their faces, necks, and hands are free of dirt. They are dead. Girls. Twins. The mother kneels before them. She is in a bad way and needs to be attended to, but it is not a great stretch of empathy for me to understand that she first must attend to her mourning, however long or labored.

I set down the cloth and the shovel beside the empty vase, and I go to sit on a fallen tree away from her.

Later in the day, I hear digging. I return to find the mother digging the graves. She has wrapped each body in cloth.

“I would dig them, if you would let me. Rest would do you well.”

“Allow me this,” she answers.

“Of course.” I linger. “If you would tell me their names, I would make them headstones.”

“I wouldn’t ask that of you. But I would tell you the names. Maigis. Bayach.”

“And your name?”

“Heleyne. And your name?”

“Duncan.”

“Thank you for the water, Duncan. And the veils, and the use of your spade.”

I leave her to her work, and go to retrieve a meal for her, for when she is finished, and another vase of water to wash her own wounds with, and to drink. When night falls, she agrees to stay in a cabin I have nearby, all to herself, and I will return to the tower on the island.

Weeks pass as her health returns to her, and her wounds begin to heal.

One day, I am walking carefully through the forest, in the form of a deer. I have remembered something. With Heleyne beginning to be well again, there is an aspect of her character, a certain joy she takes in resolute stubbornness, which has reminded me of something long, long past, so vague that I don’t know why it has reminded me of what it has. But nonetheless, I am going to retrieve something that I had until now forgotten about.

In the green forest surrounding Loch Anneth, there is far more than meets the eyes of men. To the man, each tree has a number of branches too numerous to easily count, but nonetheless very finite. To the squirrel, one can ascend the trunk and arrive at a tree with thousands of branches, nooks in which to sleep and run and play and hide things away, each birch its own manor, each yew its own castle. To the man, the ground underfoot is uniform and solid. To the shrew, the ground underfoot is as varied as the forest on the surface, spaces of loose dirt and hard, veins of rock, roots thin and thick stretching as wide below ground as the tree above reaches into the air. To the man, we see the odd deer trail. To the deer, the forest is a sprawling park, rich with trails and fields in which to dip into, away from men’s sights.

As a deer, I am making my way, carefully, to one such hidden clearing. The walk has taken most of the day. I can be in no rush.

I come to the clearing of short grass, at the center of which is a grand yew tree. In my memory it was a sapling. Nonetheless, against the base of it leans a tall red bottle. I go to it, take it into my mouth, and leave, carrying it away. As I arrive back at the lake, I find myself a man again, bottle of wine in my hand, staring at the waters of Loch Anneth which shine in the evening sun. I go to Heleyne’s cabin, and we share the wine together.

As the months go by, we are living in the cabin together. She would no longer like to venture into the tangled labyrinth. She would like to live here with me, for a time.

How many times has it started this way? Someone comes to me hurt, and when they are healed, we find that the process of healing has grafted me onto them.

I walk slowly through a graveyard at the most secluded edge of the green forest, bordering on the orange forest. I walk at a snail’s pace, going a few feet to the hour, staring at the names on the headstones. Gennat. Rowland. Joan. Some of the names, I can vividly remember the person who is now buried in earth, unbreathing. Marriory. Mede. Waltir. Some of the names ring as faintly as the names of people I have never actually met, but only heard about secondhand. Maybe Alesoun. Maybe Wilmot. Maybe Avis. Maybe Theresa. Maybe Myrina. Most of the names are weatherworn from the stone beyond legibility. The headstones that I placed on the graves of Maigis and Bayach will last Heleyne’s lifetime. I will watch them return to being just stones.

Earlier

My hooves crunch over the snow as I carefully walk. My bare nose is colder than ice, and my breath is a hearth’s plume before me. It is the middle of the night, but with a full moon and snow to reflect it, it may as well be daytime aside from the temperature.

I carefully come around a tree, and then, seeing something move in a snowbank ahead, I freeze in place. I am ready to bolt away, into the hidden places.

The figure moves again. It is a man. He huddles hunched over, shivering, arms wrapped around his torso, face exposed. His face is bright red from the cold. He will die like this.

I dash away. I bound over bushes and fallen trees to a cache I only vaguely remember. In a hidden clearing of short grass, a pocket world untouched by the snow and cold, I see the sapling of a yew tree. On the ground beside it is a heavy winter coat, and beside that, a tall red bottle of wine. I take the coat in my mouth, and bound back towards the man.

I am making a great deal of noise this time, and this time when I approach, he is looking at me. I walk up to him and push the coat against him. He appears confused but grateful, and puts the coat on. When it is on, I push myself against him as well, laying down on top of him, insisting upon him whatever warmth I can provide, even though in truth, I would be shocked if it is enough. Gently, he rests a hand on me. As the cold hours of the night stretch on, he has laid down beside me, huddling his hands and face between his chest and my back, creating a pocket of warmth.

When the sun rises, I am surprised he is still alive. The world becomes as bright as the lake, as the sun takes the place of the moon and the surface of the snow melts enough to glisten like diamonds.

The man remains huddled against me for some hours into the morning. Eventually, when I sense he is warmed enough to survive without me, I scramble slowly away from him, stand, and find myself as a human, which I have not been in a long, long time. The body feels awkward, squat, brutish. The man looks up at me agape.

“Duncan,” I offer in an agreeable tone, and extend my hand.

“Waltir,” the man returns through stiff lips and chattering teeth. He takes my hand, and I pull him up.

I help him to the beach, where he sits in the sun as I assemble a fire for us.

We make a camp. He is frostbitten, badly. I gather food and firewood for us and he tends the fire while I am away. Eventually when he is well enough and springtime has come, we go on walks around the lake, and through the green forest. He happens upon things that I can tell him about. A fallen and overgrown kiln, where I used to fire clay pots. A sundial carved from stone, the face now cracked in half, the needle broken away and missing completely—until he lead me here and reminded me, I had forgotten that I ever once cared about the time of day, though now I remember, there was a phase when I used to rather obsess over it, a long while back. A rowboat tucked away in a natural high shelf within a cave, which has held up better than I could have expected of it. We take it out to the lake and give it a try. It fills with water very quickly, and Waltir tries to salvage it, but I pull him up from the water, insisting that he leave it sink.

As we sit on the beach afterwards, staring at where the rowboat sank, Waltir asks me something. “The name of this lake. Loch Anneth. Do you know who Anneth was?”

“I suspect she was my first wife.”

“You suspect?”

“Do you remember the start of your life?”

“...No.”

“Nor I.”

He accepts this.

That night as we are sitting beside each other at the fire in our camp, he grabs me by the bicep and pulls me in to a kiss. This is new to me—I have never shared romance with a man before. But it does not feel wrong. In fact, it feels delightful: a thing that I am somehow confident I have never done before, and now I am. I kiss him in return, and then we are lying down before each other beside the campfire.

As the months go by, we begin work on building a cabin at our campsite.

Earlier

In defiance and in tears, I have built a tower. It is a far cry from my most aesthetically pleasing work—I truly do have a talent for working with stone—but what it lacks in looks, it makes up for in stubbornness. It will stand for my lifetime. I stand atop the tower, arms crossed, staring unblinking at the door at the end of the valley in the mountainside, waiting for her to emerge.

Five thousand years pass. Someone shoots an arrow at my head. I uncross my arms and catch it, and throw the damnable thing over the parapet to the ground. It falls. I hear it land on the grass below. I hear the waves of the lake lapping against the shore of the island. I blink. I blink repeatedly. I close my eyes hard. I bow my head, facing the floor, eyes shut tight, as the gravity of how much time I have spent unmoving catches up with me.

I open my eyes, and look to where the arrow was shot from. The scoundrel sees that I see him. He stops aiming his next shot and disappears into the green forest. I look back to the door at the end of the valley in the mountainside, as though seeing it again for the first time. I am waiting for someone to come out of the door. Someone who I love. She is tall with handsome features, black hair straight and long, deadly with a short sword, stubborn as a stone, overflowingly generous to those she has found pity on, sharp tongued, quick witted, irreverent and righteous. My wife. I am waiting for my wife. Gods how I love her. Gods how long I will wait.

But as I fix my stance to resume staring at the valley again, I wonder whether I must wait and do nothing else. Perhaps I may take this time for my own edification, so that when she returns, she will find a man more worthy to be called her husband.

The man who shot an arrow at me is walking up the valley in the mountainside, towards the door. Good riddance to him. I watch him go in. Then I turn, and descend the stairs.

In the green forest, there is a hill. I build a house on top of it, such that it can’t be missed as one passes through from the mountainside valley to the orange forest road. When she emerges, she will see this manor, an exact replica of the home she grew up in, and she will come to me.

When I drive the last nail into this house—this beacon—I feel, for the first time in many, many years, that a burden is lifted from me. My vigilance is no longer needed without rest. For the first time in thousands of years, I sleep.

As time goes on, I do still go out to the island, stand atop the tower, and stare at the valley. But I do other things too now. I start a garden. I start to farm. Eating for me is more of a pastime than a necessity. Most of the food goes to the wildlife. If they ravage my garden, I wish them well. If anything makes it to harvest, I leave it out for the birds and the rodents anyways.

A thousand years pass. One morning I row out to the island, my mind on the tomato vines that are sprouting, where I might want to put in a flower bed, what I might do for mulch. I enter the tower, place my foot on the first step, and pause there. I try to remember why I am here.

I do remember, eventually. I am expecting someone. Of course, yes, I am keeping a look out. I climb the stairs, and on the roof of the tower, I pace from one side to the other, looking at the valley for a time, and then looking at the road. I am expecting someone I care deeply about. Her. Her? It has been so long. I am not even certain of how long it has been, by now. Lifetime after lifetime, a memory of a memory of a memory in perpetuity. I hope that when they come, they will be striking enough that I recognize them.

Seasons go by. I continue to tend to my crops. One spring day, when I am standing on the roof of the tower, facing the orange forest, I see a figure coming up the road. This happens sometimes. It is rare, though. An occasion to be appreciated.

This figure is quite different than most, I realize jovially. Not a human. For some unknowable reason, there is a doe coming to the green forest. She walks tall, her footsteps headstrong and precise.

It is actually some weeks before I see her next. I have been leaving grain out for the birds. I sit on a swinging bench on the porch in the shade, and I watch them peck and eat. And there, coming up out of the woods, is the doe. I hold my breath, not wanting to startle her. She is cautious as she approaches to join the rambunctious birds in eating the grain.

She lowers her head, eats a bit, and then bounds away. I breathe again.

She comes again the next day, and the next. Even into the winter, I leave grain out for her on the snow, and she comes, and she eats. I am not hidden to her. She often looks at me as I sit on the swinging bench, watching. One day, instead of waiting on the bench, I wait standing in front of the porch. She is cautious of this. I see her stand at the edge of the woods for some time before she decides I am still trustworthy, and comes to eat. The winter melts and gives way back to spring. I suppose that she trusts me quite a lot when she comes out to meet me as I toss out the grain for her and the birds, even if she does keep a distance between us still. One day, I am delighted when I am throwing out the grain and she walks straight up to me, and places her soft nose against me. I rest a hand on her side, look into her eyes, and without words, try to convey all of my gratitudes to her for her gift of this moment.

The moment passes, and she lowers her head to eat some of the grain I have tossed out. I have a handful for myself as well.

One day, as I am walking through the woods, I happen upon her in the wild. We both freeze, surprised at each other. She begins walking to me, and I to her, lightly, cautiously. I press my soft nose lightly against her side. I look down at myself, and realize jovially that I am quite different than before: a buck, antlers and all. She bounds away, and I bound after her, and we frolic through the green forest, and I see how much more to it there is than even I had known, lo these many years. That night we nest down together. I find myself spending most of my time with her, only occasionally seeing to my garden, and even in this, she stands beside me, watching with interest. We weather the winter together. More than once I lead us into the manor, and we nest down in a living room kept warm by the hearth fire. When springtime comes again, the world is living and we frolic through it. One day in a hidden clearing, she flags me, and I feel a tiny and precise pang of hurt, as though grabbing something and discovering that there is a nettle in my fingertip. I am unsettled, and I ignore her advances. The next day she flags me again, and although there is once again this pang, it feels distant, and there is much more presently her enrapturing scent, presence, heat, longing to care and be cared for. I go in unto her. The months go by, and she gives birth to the first of our fawns, a doe and a buck.

Earlier, at the start

Anneth and I walk along the road through the orange forest, hand in wicked hand. It is bitingly cold, though no snow falls on this place. When we arrive at the green forest, we have to climb over a snowbank.

We walk across the frozen lake, and sit together on the center of the island at the center of the lake in the center of the forest, two glints in a pupil in an iris.

“If we become separated in the labyrinth,” I say, “and it is hopeless for us to find each other, then let us return back, far as we may have come, and we will meet again at this lake.”

“Of course,” she tells me.

The winter wind howls across us.

“How long shall I wait for you?” she asks.

I consider this as the wind screeches. Eventually I answer, “As long as you feel I am worth. I will wait for you forever.”

Much later, nearing the end

After a fashion, I have decided I will never again be alone when another partner dies. We lounge around bonfires in the parched dirt, I and my concubines, women, men, doe, stag, squirrel, songbird, snake, wasp, anything that moves that I think might move me. I am fluid, sometimes in the form of one specie, but often caught somewhere between two or several. I know my partners’ names occasionally, but much more viscerally I know their scents, their noises, their behavior. When I am anything mammalian or adjacent, I drink. No matter what I am, I am seldom without some manner of contact, nurture, stimulation. I am never alone.

But it never lasts forever. Loving as many as I do only multiplies how often I fall for someone deeply, and then they depart unto eternity. I try to fill the void left by them with a hundred others, but it is a fool’s errand. The blot left by them hangs suspended over me as I fall through time, ever more out of reach, ever more unfillable, ever more doomed to acceptance or denial, then to vagueness, then to nothing.

After a fashion, I can endure no more, and I flee into Loch Anneth as a minnow, and spend a long, long, long, long, long time alone.

Later, at the end

I emerge from Loch Anneth immense, profoundly muscular, profoundly greedy, profoundly wise, scaled and clawed and frightening. My claws rake through the frost and sand as I circumnavigate the beach, taking deep breaths of the cold winter air. When I have done a full lap and have reacclimated to a life in air, I leap up, flap my immense wings, and take flight.

I am leaving Loch Anneth. As a dragon, I rocket past the valley and vault above the mountain range over the tangled labyrinth. I do not expect that there is an afterlife. I do not expect that there is an afterlife where everyone I’ve ever loved, from the first to the last, is waiting for me. But whether there is or there isn’t, I will join them.

Melvin, Lilly, Raspberry Whiskey

1) Mel is 21 and on winter break from college

Last night I discovered that when I get severely drunk, I do not keep secrets. Previously this had never been a matter of consequence, as I had only ever been severely drunk alone.

Around noon yesterday, after a terrifyingly blizzardy two hour drive from Meriville to New Denton, I arrive at Ben’s house with a backpack in one freezing hand and a 24 pack of tall cans in the other freezing hand, and I am literally shivering from just the walk from the car to Ben’s front door. I am invited in by Ben and his Saint Bernard Toros, and after dropping everything to kneel down and rub Toros and absorb his warmth as he leans into me and wags, Ben and I head to the fridge to unpack the cans, finding space in the fridge among the deli meats and cheeses and condiments—my friend Ben is assertively not vegan. I am vegan, but I don’t say a word about it to him. At this point in my life no world events have radicalized me enough to realize that immoral behaviors, even the most normalized ones, by definition, are more than personal choices. That doe eyed innocence won’t last forever in me. Watch this space, I guess. But, in the meantime, back to pretending that I don’t know what happens at the end, and that I am still writing as a linguistics undergrad—we overanalyze our own speech and talk unlike any native speaker, it’s not charming, but it was realistically how I talked for a few years.

As Ben and I find space for the tall cans, he asks me a few questions about college life. “Learning much about languages? How many languages do you speak now? Lots of parties?” Yes, three fluently, no not really. By the time we’re done, half of the cans have fit into the fridge, and the other half are left to wait their turn in their box that is left on the kitchen counter.

“Still see many people from high school?” I ask Ben.

He shrugs. “I see them around, but I only really talk to the people at work.”

“Jason, Millie, Kylie?”

“Kylie moved away like a year back. But yeah, Jason and Millie.”

“Ah.”

“You still talk to anyone from around here?” Ben asks me.

I shake my head. As we’re standing there in the kitchen and I’m trying to think of how to explain how I’m bad at keeping in touch—as though Ben would be unaware—the power goes out. It’s oddly startling, every light going out at once. We stand around for a few seconds, wondering if it will just come back on.

After a bit, Ben takes out his phone and turns on the flashlight. He mutters something to the effect of, “Check out the breaker I guess.”

I come with him, and stand and watch as he flips some of the breaker switches back and forth to no effect. We step outside, and it appears that power is out for the entire neighborhood. No other lights on on the entire street.

In case of the event that the power will be out for a long time, Ben gets out a couple of coolers, and we bring them outside and pack icy snow into them. We bring them into the kitchen and put the remaining cans of beer into them, as well as some of the items from Ben’s fridge that he most wants to avoid going bad—those being the deli meats and cheeses and condiments, so, more or less every item that had been in the fridge, to the best of our cooler packing ability. Ben has also brought out an electric lantern, which sits on the kitchen counter, providing surprisingly good lighting to the entire kitchen, with dim light into the living room.

As Ben is assessing what he wants to do about the frozen meats in the freezer that he’s just remembered, the front door flies open. Although he is a blur who never stops to say hello, I immediately recognize my best friend from growing up who I haven’t seen in person since I was fourteen: Harry. Toros does not recognize him, and begins barking at this intruder into his house. Harry drops some paper grocery bags by the door--literally drops them--and flies to the kitchen sink and turns it on, and only when he stops there do I notice all the blood on him.

“Mel!” Harry yells, turning to me with a big smile on his face. It looks eerie, his smile lit only from the side by the light of the lantern, much of his face left in shadows. He winces as he puts his hand under the stream of water.

I take a second to kneel down by Toros, who is at Harry’s leg, barking viciously. I tell the big hound that it’s okay, and although he doesn’t believe me right away, he eventually stops barking and walks off, keeping an eye on Harry from afar, beside Ben who is dumbfounded.

I stand up and look at Harry. He’s wearing a black and grey long-sleeve shirt. The left sleeve has a line of blood all the way up to the shoulder, and the front of the shirt and his frayed jeans are wet with blood too. His left hand, which he is washing, has cuts on it. One cut goes across the side of his thumb, the back of his pointer finger, and the back of his index finger. The other cut goes across the back of his wrist.

“You need stitches,” I tell him.

Harry cranes his neck to look over me at Ben. “First aid kit?”

Ben stutters the beginning of a response, and then gives up on it and gets on his hands and knees between us, reaching around in the cupboard under the sink. He comes up with a dusty tin box, with a white circle and a red plus sign on the face.

Harry applies an ointment to his cuts and wraps a bandage around his injured hand, only allowing us to help by holding things for him.

As Harry is finishing up the bandage, Ben asks what happened.

“Slipped on some ice, somehow caught the edge of a fucking storm drain on the curb.”

Ben winces, believing Harry.

Harry goes to his grocery bags that he dropped by the door, and out of one of them, he pulls out a flask-shaped bottle of liquor. He yanks off the stopper which comes out with a pop!, holds the bottle up to us in a salute, and downs several gulps. When he’s done, he smiles at me. “How have you been?”

After I ask again if he wants to go to the hospital and he insists that he does not, I tell him that I’ve been good, which is a lie and not a lie. In truth, I enjoy my studies, but I don’t have any friends in Meriville who I see outside of class. I enjoy going on long walks through Meriville. I enjoy swimming in the lake near campus. I enjoy reading in the campus library and in the city library. I have not dated anyone in my three years there and I hate my nights and weekends job as a dish washer. My life is fine. I am depressed and think of suicide every day. Nothing is physically wrong with me and there is no threat to my safety. There is a hole in my life that was ripped out when I was seventeen and I have never been able to talk about it with anyone and the emptiness is killing me. I want nothing more in life than a dog but I’m too busy. I want nothing more in life than to drop out and live far away from everything but if I do I am a failure who does not deserve nice things.

I ask Harry what he’s drinking.

Harry shows me the flask-shaped bottle. “Raspberry whiskey.” On the label is a painted scene of a dog—a Jack Russell but mixed with a taller breed—standing in a raspberry patch, facing the left side of the label and pointing to something unseen.

I go to the coolers and get beers for myself and Ben. Ben goes with Harry to find him a change of clothes and show him to the shower. When they return, Ben grabs the lantern and brings it to the living room, and the three of us sit down to play cards. The night goes on. We talk about movies, mostly. Ben yawns about a hundred times before eventually deciding he will go to bed. Before he does, he shows Harry and I his brothers’ bedrooms—his brothers are out of town visiting their parents’ house downstate, and Harry and I are bumming the rooms for as long as we’re staying here. After showing us the rooms Ben goes downstairs to his own bedroom, and Harry and I find ourselves standing out on the porch that leads out from one of the second floor bedrooms, in spite of the horrific stinging cold that has me shivering immediately and wondering how Harry seems literally unphased by it. Harry lights up a cigarette. He can still hold it with his bandaged hand. I sip on my I-don’t-knowth beer, and discover it is empty. I toss it back at the porch floor behind us, where it lands on a snow drift with the tiniest empty clang.

“Want a sip?” Harry offers, and shows me the raspberry whiskey.

I take the bottle, have a sip, and feel a warmth in my chest that explains much. I take another, bigger drink, and although I’m sure the world is still icy and terrible, I feel immune and it is wonderful. My shivering stops as I lean forward against the railing, holding the raspberry whiskey bottle for a while. I find myself looking down at the label with the Jack Russell mix.

“The dog on that label is hot,” I tell Harry, revealing apropos of nothing my biggest secret in life that I thought I would take to the grave.

Harry is quiet. I realize I’ve said a thing that I wish I hadn’t said. Ice creeps back through my chest, and my hands begin to shake, but it is not cold, I still feel warm physically. It’s one hundred percent nerves.

Harry eventually asks, in a tone of his that I know is cautious: “You into that? Bestiality?”

I’ve made a mistake. I want to lie to him and back out of this but I don’t. “Me and Chester were soulmates and I’ve never gotten over him,” is what I begin to say, but I don’t make it through the end before my face is a mess of tears and snot and I can’t take a breath without shaking. A wave of drunkenness pulses over me and I feel off balance, and I lean heavily on the railing as I cry, wishing I was a lot, lot more together than I am.

Harry takes the bottle of raspberry whiskey from me, drops his cigarette onto the snow and stomps it out. He wraps an arm around my shoulders and leans onto me. He rubs my bicep through my sweatshirt. I don’t know if I want this—being this close with someone—but I know that I’m glad Harry hasn’t called me a rapist and left to call the police to have me arrested.

“I didn’t know,” he tells me. “Sorry if I ever... I don’t know, said anything wrong.”

I shake my head.

He squeezes me with the arm he already has around me.

I compose myself a bit, and snort in the snot that’s coming out of my nose.

“Let’s go in,” Harry suggests, and I follow him inside. We sit at the foot of one of Ben’s brothers’ beds, both facing the floor in the dark, side by side, passing the raspberry whiskey back and forth. I take very light sips whenever it comes back to me.

“I know Chester meant the world to you, and you meant the world to Chester.” He has taken his arm off of me by this point. He has a sip of his whiskey.

“Thank you,” I tell him, and I don’t know if he understands how much him saying that means to me, that he could recognize the bond Chester and I had had growing up, that he could remember it now instead of assuming something different.

“So just dogs, or?”

“I don’t know.” My hands are still shaking. I am residually extremely nervous and cold, but now it is a nervousness of freedom, of being opened and allowed to spill myself forth, tangled up, unplanned, rolling with the punches as they come. I am afraid but hopeful. I try to focus on the matter at hand, and ignore the fact that I am actually still freezing from how fucking cold it was outside. “Dogs definitely,” I tell Harry. “Horses and farm animals like that, I mean, I’m curious about them, but I don’t really know much first-hand.”

“Is there porn?”

I give a very upset sigh. “Some. I don’t really... most of it seems nonconsensual.”

“Oh.”

I am quiet, and hope he will ask me more. There is a wellspring of knowledge in me that is being tapped for the first time.

“Any interest in humans?”

“Not much.”

“Good, we suck. You just gay for animals, or?”

“Bisexual.” It feels weird to say this out loud, as I don’t ever really think of myself as bisexual. The zoophilia eclipses it. Not to mention, the LGBT community has been loudly not-welcoming of my kind.

Harry and I talk for a long time. I black out at some point so I’m not sure what all was said, but when I wake up I am in Ben’s brother’s bed with a hangover. Physically I have a pervading hunch that I am going to die of alcohol poisoning. Emotionally it has been a long time since I was happier. If Harry tells anyone my secret my life will be ruined. I swore to myself for the last four years I was permanently scarred and would never have sexual interest in another soul and yet here and now, somehow, against it all, I know that I want to find an excuse to be alone with Toros today.

2) Mel is 23 and living alone and there is a global pandemic

It feels like a decade ago that I graduated with a bachelor’s degree, majoring in Linguistics and minoring in Art History. I work freelance as a transcriptionist. The pay is close to minimum and I work long hours to make up for it, because I am lucky to have a job where I can work from home, when so many others are jobless and are not going to be looked out for. Knowledge of linguistics makes this job less bearable, not more. I live alone in a single bedroom apartment. The weather is very hot this week, and my AC unit is not working, and maintenance is only handling emergency requests because of the global pandemic and this does not rise to their standard of an emergency.

Someone knocks at the door. I do not know who it would be, other than that I know it is not maintenance.

I grab a mask off of the kitchen table, and as I put it on, I look through the door’s peep hole. Standing outside my door is a man with combed-back hair wearing a mask and carrying a paper grocery bag. I can hear panting through the door, and looking down farther through the peep hole, I can make out a white and tan Husky.

I open the door, and ask, “Harry?”

The dog is wagging their entire body and trying to come meet me, but Harry has them on a short leash. He is smiling behind his mask. I haven’t seen him since that week at Ben’s house in college a couple years ago. “Care if I come in?”

I do consider it for a second. For most people I wouldn’t have even answered the door. I give him a nod in.

Harry unclips the leash, and the Husky rushes forward. I kneel down to rub them as they lick me and get their back pet and their sides rubbed.

“Not surprised she likes you,” Harry says, walking around us. He sets the grocery bag on the kitchen table. He reaches inside it and pulls out a flask-shaped bottle of raspberry whiskey.

The door has closed, and I have sat down with the Husky, petting her and leaning away as she licks my face.

“So what’s going on?” I ask Harry.

“Global pandemic. Police and feds committing war crimes against citizens on a nightly basis. President’s a maniac.” He takes the stopper off of the whiskey bottle and takes a drink. “Wanted to see if you were still alive.”

I gather that he’s not lying about wanting to check in. Last I knew of, neither of us are on social media and Harry does not have a phone.

“You got a dog?”

“Lilly,” he says. Lilly looks up at him with her head tilted for a second. “Good girl,” he tells her. She walks off to go sniff around the apartment.

“Good girl,” I agree.

“Is it always a furnace in here?”

“Maintenance won’t come in to fix the AC.”

Harry takes another drink from the raspberry whiskey and then sets the bottle on the table. “Lemme at it.”

The day goes on, and it has become clear that Harry is going to be spending the night on my couch, and I am glad to have him. As a friend, and as thanks for him fixing the AC, which probably didn’t take him more than ten minutes, including all the times we stopped to chitchat.

It is the nighttime, and Harry and I are both drunk, sitting cross-legged on my living room floor, Lilly at my side. I don’t know that Harry and I have ever talked about the news before, but in the world we’re living in now, the noteworthy news seems endless. Broadly, Harry and I agree that masks are good, that black lives matter, and that the president should be impeached.

“You follow the protests much?” Harry asks me.

“Not closely. Lot of burning and looting.”

Harry shakes his head. “A little burning and looting. Lot of people just standing there and then getting tear gassed and bull rushed.”

I take his word for it.

“I appreciate the work that they’re doing,” he tells me. “I’m impressed by their restraint.”

I wonder if I should broach a subject with him, since it verges on the level of conspiracy theory, but I decide we are already at this point, and drunk as I am, the hurdle to me saying what’s on my mind is low. “Do you want a civil war?”

Harry sighs through his nose. “Do I want one? No. I think our government does a lot of evil—always has done. I think a lot of people are seeing it for the first time now en-masse.” He sighs again through his nose. “But I don’t think a civil war would be good. For a problem as big as the United States of America, I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. We’ve been metastasized for a pretty long time by now.”

“Do you think there will be a civil war?”

Harry smiles to himself, looking down at his lap, and then after a moment he shrugs. “I think we’re pretty well fucked some way or another. It’s already too late to stop climate disaster. But honestly, no. We’ll see how much the pandemic changes things, but I think as things stand, most people here are too comfortable to start a war any time soon.”

I nod, and then yawn. Before too much longer, Harry is lying on the couch with a blanket, Lilly is lying on the ground beside him on another blanket, and I have gone to my bed.

In the morning, I wake up happy, remembering that Harry has come to visit. I get out of bed, and find Lilly lying on the floor at the foot of my bed. She looks up at me. She seems nervous about something, but seems to think I may be of help. I walk out to the living room, and Harry is gone. Not on the couch, not in the bathroom, not hiding around a corner somewhere. No note as to where he’s gone. I am not concerned until I see three big bags of dog food leaning against the wall beside the front door. One is opened, and in front of the bags are two dog bowls. One is filled with food and the other is filled with water.

3) Mel is 23 and might have a dog now

Two days have passed. Harry is not coming back. I suspected that he was not coming back on the first day. Now I know it to be so. This morning I searched his name on the internet, and I discovered that my best friend Harry is wanted on suspicion of over a dozen murders. There are many articles breaking down his targets: almost entirely lawyers, one CEO, two philanthropic though relatively unknown multimillionaires. At least three and upwards of six of his targets have ties to oil. All of his targets have ties to the GOP. He does not steal, only kills. The leading theory is that he is an eco terrorist. There is a forum that has been active for three years whose aim is to thwart him, whether by providing actionable information against him to a three letter agency or by vigilantism. They have not had a credible location on him in eight months—Meriville, and the trail was a week old by the time they got to it, and he was gone. They know his full name and date of birth and every address he has stayed at on the record before he had been found out and had to continue on ephemerally. They know the full names and addresses of several people he has been seen in photographs with, though I am not one of them. To be fair, Harry and I have not been in a photograph together since we were children.

So I have a dog now. She likes me but I think she is hesitant to accept me as someone who will stick around with her. I don’t know if Harry had her for years or hours before arriving at my door two days ago. I do think Lilly is her real name. I think she is fully grown but still young, possibly three or four years old. She is eating and she seems to be healthy, though I will be taking her to the vet.

4) Mel is 23 and Lilly is 3

We get up around 9 AM. We go for walks in the morning. We look out the window together, smelling the world through the screen mesh. We go for walks in the afternoon. We go to the store and she picks out a toy and I pick out meaty treats. We trade information for the treats: she knows the words sit, lay down, shake, roll over, come, and stay, although she does not take them as commands, rather, she knows what they mean and may do what the word entails if she decides she would like to—she can often be bribed. We have her checked out: she is in excellent health, a good weight, her teeth and bloodwork look good, her nails should be trimmed shorter, she is likely three years old, we can get her spayed today (I decline). We go to the dog park, and she is friendly with the other dogs. We share a bed, and she sleeps at my feet. We get up around 9 AM, and if I am sleeping in, she will whine, and I will be up. We go for walks in the morning, the afternoon, the evening, and at night.

5) Mel is 23 and copes with chronic anxiety by supplementing it with chronic stress

I send off my last email of the day and shut off the computer. It is 8 PM, and I have been working since 9 AM. This is the shortest workday I have had in ten days.

When Harry left me Lilly, I probably didn’t work more than 5 hours in the two weeks that followed. I am not rich, though. I have savings, but they are not inexhaustible and were not trivially earned. For the last month, my workdays have been getting longer and my weekends have been theoretical.

As I lean back in my chair and the computer finishes powering off, Lilly has gotten up and is standing looking at me, wagging her tail with metered excitement. I stand up, and she licks her lips and wags freely, and walks to the front door ahead of me. I meet her there, put on my shoes, grab some bags, put on her collar and leash, and we go out and walk, and I know how happy she is as she trots along the sidewalk, as she buries her nose into the grass and leaves and we take her time as she smells, and I realize, standing and watching her examine a leaf that has fallen onto a bush, that I too, here, am happy.

The following day at 9 AM, I snap awake with a start, as I often do. On the bed at my feet, Lilly wags her tail. I manage my way out of the covers and lay on the bed the opposite way so that I can lie and pet her for a while. When I get up and walk out of the bedroom, she stands up on the bed, shakes herself, and follows after me. She is happy. A thing I love about dogs: they are intelligent, and emotionally intelligent, and if one is not astute with dogs then a dog can often be reserved about the fact that they are afraid or upset if they want to, but I have never known a dog to hide that they are happy. I put on my shoes, and Lilly is happy. I grab her collar and my car keys, and Lilly’s happiness is overflowing, and she bays and trots in place. When we are out of the door she pulls me all the way to the car, and we get in. We are going somewhere we have not gone together before, and somewhere I have not been in a long time.

The drive is roughly twenty minutes. For the first while, Lilly stood and sat in the passenger seat, sticking her nose against the cracked window. After we are on the highway and I have rolled the window up, she has laid down. As we are arriving, she has gotten up again. We arrive at the parking lot of the state park in Meriville. I myself have only been a handful of times, as it was not in walking distance from campus, and my walks were typically more impromptu, but I have certainly been here enough that it is familiar, and pleasantly so. It is a cool day, and I realize all at once that it is no longer summer. In the air is a heavy scent of fallen leaves.

I clip on Lilly’s leash, and she follows me out of the driver’s side door, and we run together, around and around the lawn of the visitor’s center, hurriedly sniffing along the edge between the lawn and the woods, constantly doubling back and back again, closely following trails of scents that I am overjoyed to know that she is overjoyed to follow.

When we get onto the trail we are still running at a jog, and we go on for a while like this, although eventually we settle down into a walk. All the way we go, we go at her pace. She is meticulous, stepping along with her beautiful paws at the edge of the path, nose to the ground.

Deep into the woods, we arrive at a clearing of long brown grass, rippling in the wind. I look around. We have not seen a soul out here, nor was there any other car in the parking lot when we arrived.

I kneel down beside her, and leaning my head against her head, I tell her, “Stay close to me,” and unclip her leash. She turns and licks my forehead, and then trots away, walking through the long grass, letting it brush against her head as she parts it. She explores, and I feel I am blessed to be here to watch.

When she has explored thoroughly and is getting farther out than I would like, I call her back. She stands still a while, looking outward in the direction she had been walking. I do not rush her. Eventually, she turns and comes back to me. She is panting, and I ask if she wants to lay down. She lays down on the trail, back legs out to her side, tongue lolled out as she breathes. I sit down on the trail beside her. We are in an autumn house with walls of rippling grass.

As we stay a while, she stops panting, and lays over on her side. I lay down in front of her on the trail, face to face, and am stricken by her beauty, and the light catching in the fur of her muzzle, white and tan, and her black whiskers, and her black and pink lips. I kiss her. I have kissed her before on the top of the head, or on the back as I am petting her, but until now I have not kissed her like this, lip to lip. It is quick, and warm and perfect, and my heart speeds up as we look into each other’s eyes afterwards. She considers only briefly before leaning forward and licking at my lips, and then we are making out, man and dog in the autumn house, and something has changed and it is wonderful.

6) Mel is 23 and is readjusting to what love feels like

We get up at 9 AM. We go on walks. I work full time, but less, and with breaks to appreciate each other and life. We are like rabbits or teenagers. We share a bed, and sometimes she sleeps at my feet and sometimes we sleep side by side. We lay on the floor together. We lay with her on her side and me spooning against her back and petting her and then resting my hand on her. We lay with me on my back and her on her chest with my head or arm pinned down as she licks me. We kiss with unbridled expressions of joy for one another. We kiss as I pass by her from my desk to the kitchen, or the kitchen to the couch, or so on. We look out the window together, smelling the world through the screen mesh. I do not know what to label us as because I have previously sworn that I will never love again, but I do not fight what is here between me and Lilly. I take it as it comes. We go on walks. We sleep well and wake up ensnared in one another, a snug satisfied pile of human limb and canine. Each morning she rolls onto her back and I rub her belly as her jowls flop back and I look at her teeth, and at her chest where I can see her pink and white skin through the areas where the fur is thinner. I am utterly in love with her.

7) Mel is 24 and is contacted

It is 1PM and I have just sat back down to work after Lilly and I have been on a walk. My phone’s text tone goes off in my pocket, and I am surprised by it. I take the phone out of my pocket and look. It is a message from Ben and it contains no words. It is a picture of a bottle of raspberry whiskey on his kitchen counter.

I close what I’m doing and shut off the computer. A minute later, Lilly and I are driving to New Denton and I do not have the music on, I am riding in silence and allowing all of the words to exist in my head, rabid.

I park on the side of the street in front of Ben’s house and leave Lilly in the car, and she barks after me as I walk up to Ben’s door. I knock and wait. I hear the door being locked or unlocked, but nobody opens it. I open it myself and walk in, and there is Harry. He is smiling. “Ben’s at work. Should be back around five.”

I want to punch Harry and hug him. I want to accuse him of murdering Ben because I have not actually seen Ben yet, although I know it is unlikely that Harry has murdered Ben.

“You keep a secret better than I do,” I tell the asshole in front of me.

“Great minds,” he says to the asshole in front of him.

We hug, and I go out to get Lilly. When she comes in, she is friendly with Harry, though I am stricken by how she does not seem to really remember him. “Where did you get her?” I ask.

“Farm in Iowa,” he says. “They had an ad out. Picked her up and brought her to yours.” He grabs his bottle of raspberry whiskey and holds it up, showing off the dog on the label. “Looked kinda similar.”

I breath in, and sigh out.

“You still have her,” he says, cautious.

I nod.

He looks at her and at me.

“Head over heels in love,” I tell him, and can’t help but smile at the admission, even though somehow, I am mad at him right now. “Thank you. Why the fuck did you get me a dog?”

“I try to balance my evil good things with good good things.”

He goes to the living room where Lilly is sniffing around. She sniffs up at him, wagging, and he puts his hand out to her nose to let her smell. After she turns away from him to continue sniffing elsewhere, he sits down on the couch. Looking at me, he pats the spot next to him.

I steal a beer out of Ben’s fridge and then go and sit beside Harry.

“Did you really do it all?”

He tells me every name. He adds, “I’d do it again.”

“Reason?”

“Pretty on-the-face. They were tyrants and if it weren’t for me they would still be getting away with it.”

We sit in quiet for a moment, but it is not an uncomfortable quiet. I am nodding. Eventually, we are both leaning back.

Harry toys with the whiskey bottle, turning the stopper back and forth in the mouth. “I want to ask if I have your blessing on something.”

My throat closes up, and I cannot utter a response.

He goes on. “Meat and dairy industry. I won’t tell you the names but I’ve done my research. Say go and I’ll go.”

I have nothing to consider here and my answer arises effortlessly. “Kill every damn one of them.”

Ben comes home around 5:30. The three of us play cards and catch up, Lilly lying at my side.

8) Mel is 25 and has recently moved

Working remotely, my job actually does not require me to live anywhere all that urban. In truth, I can live in a place surrounded by farms, where some days I may see a horse passing more often than I see a car. I am embarrassed that it takes me so long to let go of things and seek betterness of my own accord, but I am here and she is here, and we have arrived. Our things are still boxed up, aside from her food and water dishes. We are lying on the carpet of the new living room, sun shining in through the window, I on my back and her pinning my head down, licking me. Then she is kissing me, and I am kissing her back, and I am thankful for the brightness she is in my life.

Specifications for the Zoocosmologica Deck

A missive reads:

Please find as follows the specifications for the Zoocosmologica Deck, with notes on the significant imagery and suggestions for stylistic direction.

1. Taxonomy

The Zoocosmologica Deck will consist of 74 cards in all. Of these total 74 cards, 56 will be of the Dasein, 16 will be of the Mythic, and 2 will be without category.

Of the 56 Dasein, 14 will be of the suit Flowers, 14 will be of the suit Stars, 14 will be of the suit Towers, and 14 will be of the suit Spheres. Each suit will consist of, in order, one Passion card, 9 Numeric cards whose count will begin at two and progress upwards by whole numbers until arriving at ten, and 4 Morendo cards of whom the first will be called Death, the second will be called Ripple, the third will be called Harmony, and the fourth will be called Finality.

The Mythic cards will be numbered from one to sixteen. In order, they are Hummingbird, Elephant, Black Widow, Beastman, Mantichore, Gryphon, Dragon, Great Bear, Pegasus, Unicorn, Sleipnir, Jörmungandr, Fenrir, Primordia, Cow, and Life.

Of the 2 uncategorized cards, 1 is The Egg, and 1 is The Seed.

2. Principle Designs

All 74 cards in the deck will be of a uniform width and height, approximately five lengths wide for every seven lengths tall. All 74 cards in the deck will feature a depicted scene, which must allow for directionality and should therefore not feature total symmetry when folded over the horizontal axis, save for the Stars Finality whose scene by happenstance is infinitely symmetrical. All scenes will be encompassed by a border, save for the two uncategorized cards whose scenes will extend fully to the edges of those cards; uniformly about the card, the border will leave some frame of white space between the scene and the edge of the card. Within this white space, in the top left corner and reversed in the bottom right corner, will be denoted the card’s symbol and, in the case of the Dasein, the card’s suit below it. The color of the border should be uniform across all cards, likely black, but certainly not green. In the case of the Flower cards and the Stars cards, the color used to depict the border should also be used to depict the card’s symbol and suit: This color should also be used to denote the symbol in the case of the Mythic. In the case of the Towers cards and Spheres cards, the color green should be used to denote the card’s symbol and suit. In the case of the two uncategorized cards, a reasonable choice of contrastive color may be used to depict each card’s symbol against its scene.

The symbol of the Passion of Flowers and the Passion of Stars will be the planet symbol of Venus, while the symbol for the Passion of Towers and the Passion of Spheres will be the planet symbol of Mars. The symbol of the Numeric cards will be that card’s number depicted in Arabic numerals. The symbol of the Death cards will be a sword whose design will remain uniform across each suit. The symbol of the Ripple cards will be a wave. The symbol of the Harmony cards will be four parallel lines uniformly spaced and of uniform width. The symbol of the Finality cards will be an unfilled square of approximately half the height as that seen of the numerals who serve as the symbols for the Numeric cards. The symbol of the Mythic cards will be that card’s number depicted in Roman numerals. The symbol of The Egg will be an ovum. The symbol of The Seed will be any plant seed whose shape reasonably distinguishes it as such.

The scenery found within the suit Flowers will tend to employ a pastel pallet of light faded colors. The scenery found within the suit Stars will employ a pallet of white design on black backgrounds and should employ no colors other than white and black. The scenery found within the suit Towers will tend to employ a pallet centered around the color orange. Within the scenery of the Spheres suit and the Beastman card, each sphere will be depicted in a hue of blue which is uniform across Beastman and all Spheres cards, save the Spheres Ripple.

It is suggested that the design found on the card backs feature a horizontal line across the card’s center, not near to touching either edge, with the Greek miniscule letter zeta depicted above and depicted in reverse below, such that the directionality of the card is not made known by the back. The colors employed and any additional design choices for the card backs may be chosen freely, though the color green is strongly encouraged to be prominently featured.

3. Significant Symbols in Scenery and Stylistic Suggestions

Passion of Flowers

The scene of the Passion of Flowers should primarily depict a female dog’s genitalia: More of the scene than not should be composed of her vulva, which should be swollen with heat. She should be of a large breed suitable for vaginal penetration by a human penis. The vulva should appear that it has been smeared with body paint: Of the three sections seen of a canine vulva, the top and right sections should feature yellow paint, and the left section should feature green paint; The green paint should be of a lesser coverage than what is seen of the yellow paint on its equivalent section. The dog’s anus and the base of her tail should be visible, but should not be the focus of the scene; the anus should appear clean, without presence of fecal matter. If possible, the perspective of the scene should be close enough such that only the dog is depicted and nothing is seen beyond her.

Two of Flowers

The scene of the Two of Flowers should depict two dogs mating in the woods. Above them, hanging vines descend to produce an arched shape on the scene’s upper half. Behind the dogs, trees should be spaced such that they alternate being planted distantly and closely in two rows, and nothing beyond the back row of trees can be seen. On the grass near to the dogs’ heads, two plucked flowers should lie on the grass. The dogs may be of any breed and the flowers may be of any species.

Three of Flowers

The scene of the Three of Flowers should depict a dog, a fox, and a cat sleeping cuddled together in the forest beneath the shelter of a bush. The cat should be in the possession of three flowers, perhaps placed about her face.

Four of Flowers

The scene of the Four of Flowers should depict a sheep’s leg below the knee, with four flowers of any species placed along the leg. The leg should be standing on the ground and the hoof should appear to be in good health. The ground should be light brown dirt, with no other background visible.

Five of Flowers

The scene of the Five of Flowers should depict five flowers arranged in a pentagon; the pentagon should be upright, such that a line drawn between the two bottom flowers would be parallel with the bottom border of the scene. Bees should be present here and there among the flowers, and should also be present in two distinct horizontal lines traveling left and right above the five flowers.

Six of Flowers

The scene of the Six of Flowers should depict two mermaids, one with the face of a fish, and the other with the face of a human. The mermaid with the face of a fish places six flowers in the hair of the mermaid with the face of a human.

Seven of Flowers

The scene of the Seven of Flowers should depict a dog lying within a cage in the woods. The perspective should look into the cage from the front; The bars of the cage should be overgrown, with the door of the cage missing. On the front side of the cage, around where the edges of the door would be, should be seven flowers, heavily skewed in quantity towards the top left corner, with only one flower near the bottom right.

Eight of Flowers

The scene of the Eight of Flowers should depict eight hatchling turtles walking across the sand, from the bottom of the scene towards the sea which is thinly visible at the top of the scene. Resting atop the shell of each turtle should be a flower.

Nine of Flowers

The scene of the Nine of Flowers should depict a soldier giving a bath to a dog. The soldier should have a green camouflaged uniform and an assault rifle on his person, and should be depicted without a face. On the bath tub and on the wall behind are seen nine flowers, none placed close together.

Ten of Flowers

The scene of the Ten of Flowers should depict a raccoon holding a flower, while standing in a clearing of grass where nine additional flowers grow nearby her.

Flowers Death

The scene of Flowers Death should depict a single rose, drooped, wilted, and visibly dead. The dead rose should be shown against a blue-purple background. No thorns should be visible on the rose’s stem.

Flowers Ripple

The scene of Flowers Ripple should depict the same dead rose as the Flowers Death, though now the drooped rose is lifted by a dog’s tongue. The dog’s mouth should be around the end of the flower, teeth and tongue prominently visible, drool hanging from the corner of the dog’s mouth. It should be clear that the dog is beginning to eat the flower. As little of the dog as possible should be shown beyond the muzzle, and the eyes in particular should be omitted.

Flowers Harmony

The scene of Flowers Harmony should depict the same dog as Flowers Ripple: The dog is now defecating in front of brown reeds near a lake. Through the reeds a farm can be seen across the lake, with fields of soil and a barn. The entirety of the dog should be visible in the scene, and should occupy as much of the scene as possible while allowing for the other elements described.

Flowers Finality

The scene of Flowers Finality should depict a flower pot viewed from an askewed angle above. The spout of a watering can should be pouring water into the soil. In the center of the flower pot, small green leaves are budding up from the soil.

Passion of Stars

The scene of the Passion of Stars should primarily depict a female horse’s genitalia: The mare’s vulva should be centered within the scene, taking up as much of the scene as possible while allowing for the depiction of her anus and her tail. Her tail should generally be positioned in an arc going around the right side of the anus and the vulva; The tail should not be depicted in full, and should be cut off by the scene’s right border, bottom border, and top border. On the line comprising the leftmost edge of the vulva, on the leftmost point of this line, there should be a shining star by which this constellation is known.

Two of Stars

The scene of the Two of Stars should depict a female horse and a male horse mating. A shining star should be depicted in the head of each horse.

Three of Stars

The scene of the Three of Stars should depict a great big tree, with three stars in a vertical line centered within the tree’s trunk. The entirety of the tree may or may not be depicted, though as much of the trunk as possible should be contained within the scene.

Four of Stars

The scene of the Four of Stars should depict a snake diving towards a fleeing rabbit. Three stars should be contained within the snake, one at the head and two in the body, while one star is contained within the rabbit. The mouth of the snake should be open as though to eat the rabbit imminently.

Five of Stars

The scene of the Five of Stars should depict a thistle. Two stars should be in a flowering bud, one in the flower and one in the bud, while on a separate node a star is contained within a non-flowering bud, and a fourth star is contained at the fork between these two nodes, and a fifth star is contained at the base of the thistle.

Six of Stars

The scene of the Six of Stars should depict a camel. The stars of this constellation should be found one in the hind hooves, one in the hindquarters, one in each of the two humps, one in the head, and one in the forehooves.

Seven of Stars

The scene of the Seven of Stars will depict seven dolphins, with one star contained in each dolphin. Superimposed over the body of each dolphin should be a character from the Greek alphabet, namely, uppercase Α, lowercase α, uppercase Β, lowercase β, uppercase Ω, lowercase ω, and uppercase Ζ.

Eight of Stars

The scene of the Eight of Stars should depict the face of a reindeer looking directly at the viewer. Her antlers will contain eight total points, with a star contained within each of these.

Nine of Stars

The scene of the Nine of Stars should depict a human knight, riding atop a horse. The horse should stand on her hind legs, and the knight should have her sword drawn and raised tall.

Ten of Stars

The scene of the Ten of Stars should depict the same human and mare as seen on the Nine of Stars. In this scene, the human is visiting with the mare in a stable.

Stars Death

The scene of Stars Death should depict a gigantic human stabbing through a star with a sword, tearing the star apart with the piercing blow. The human should appear enraged; He should have long hair and a long beard; He should appear very muscular; His closed hand should be approximately one fourth to one half the size of the star. In line with the Principle Designs outlined earlier, he should be depicted strictly in white and in black, with no other colors or greys present.

Stars Ripple

The scene of Stars Ripple should depict the partial orbital lines of planets circling around a no longer present sun; with the sun gone, these orbital lines will become straight lines exiting the scene in a variety of directions. Compared to the scenes of other cards, Stars Ripple should be among the most minimalist in design.

Stars Harmony

The scene of Stars Harmony should depict a galaxy. The Milky Way Galaxy may be an ideal choice to depict, though any galaxy should suit the purpose of this scene.

Stars Finality

The scene of Stars Finality should be uniformly black and should feature no further design, save that which should exist outside of the border of the scene.

Passion of Towers

The scene of the Passion of Towers should primarily depict a male horse’s genitalia: The underside of a stallion should be seen in profile, with his penis fully dropped from his sheath. The entirety of the penis should be in the scene and should be the scene’s focal point; The hind legs of the stallion should be partially within the scene on the left border, while the forelegs need not be depicted; The belly of the horse should be visible, while the horse’s back should not be visible. The horse should stand at the edge of a cliff, below which can be seen a forest landscape, beyond which is a blue sky.

Two of Towers

The scene of the Two of Towers should depict a male donkey and a female donkey mating. The two donkeys stand in a field at sunset: the sun is not visible in the scene, though the shadows of the donkeys may suggest that the sun is to the left of the scene. The donkeys should be positioned near the bottom left of the scene. Near the top right, in the distance, two towers are visible.

Three of Towers

The scene of the Three of Towers should depict three horses sleeping while encompassed by three crude wooden watchtowers.

Four of Towers

The scene of the Four of Towers should depict four totem poles, the leftmost of which is not on fire, while the other three are engulfed in flames. At the foot of each totem pole should be a pile of kindling. Standing congregated near the three burning totem poles should be a collective of three werewolves bearing torches.

Five of Towers

The scene of the Five of Towers should depict three cats among five cat towers. The topmost cat should be walking, the middlemost cat should be in the midst of leaping, and the bottommost cat should be lying down.

Six of Towers

The scene of the Six of Towers should depict an interior view of an aquarium, with six prop towers of various heights and designs seen within. Swimming among the towers is a goldfish, who occupies a nontrivial amount of this scene.

Seven of Towers

The scene of the Seven of Towers should depict a cityscape with either seven smokestacks or seven skyscrapers distinctively in view. Somewhere in the scene, seven crows sit in a line.

Eight of Towers

The scene of the Eight of Towers should depict a lake, with eight towers in the background along the lake’s perimeter. In the foreground, in the water of the lake, is an otter.

Nine of Towers

The scene of the Nine of Towers should depict an assortment of bugs smoking from nine hookahs. The bugs do not need to be to a realistic scale and may include a diversity of types of bugs, such as moths, grasshoppers, and ants. Not every hookah needs to have a bug presently at it, though at least a few hookahs should be in use.

Ten of Towers

The scene of the Ten of Towers should depict ten penises of various species shown within a display case. The penises should point towards the top of the scene, and while no cues need be given that the penises are explicitly still alive, no penis should be made to appear dead. Equine and canine penises may be avoided if possible, so as not to be conflated with other scenes.

Towers Death

The scene of Towers Death will depict a giant human woman pushing over a tower. Very close in the foreground, rubble from an already toppled tower can be seen. In the background can be seen a tower which is yet standing. The perspective should be such that a good amount of the ground surrounding the falling tower can be seen.

Towers Ripple

The scene of Towers Ripple should depict the same scene and perspective as Towers Death, though some time has passed. The tower in the background which was standing has now fallen as well, and now may be visible or not within the scene. In the rubble of the middle tower, using the rubble as part of the construction, a pleasant rustic house has been built. A human can be seen in front of the house using a scythe to cut a field of tall grassy plants. Smoke can be seen emerging from the house’s chimney.

Towers Harmony

The scene of Towers Harmony should depict the same scene and perspective as Towers Ripple, though some additional time has passed. The house depicted before has been expanded upon, and is now one of multiple buildings which encompass a courtyard. Human figures can be seen in the courtyard, including one human pulling a cart, two humans talking, and one human juggling as two humans watch. Somewhere in the scene, a shepherd walks with a flock of sheep. On the rubble in the foreground, there now rests an empty glass bottle such as one may drink beer or soda from.

Towers Finality

The scene of Towers Finality should depict the same scene and perspective as Towers Harmony, though much time has passed. There is no longer any rubble or other structure standing in the scene. The landscape is now barren parched dirt. The sun hangs in the background, fully visible within the scene, not centered within the scene, not touching the horizon.

Passion of Spheres

The scene the Passion of Spheres should primarily depict a male dog’s genitalia: A male dog should be seen from behind, with a human hand holding the base of the dog’s penis behind the bulbus glandis such that the penis is visible from this vantage. A blue circle should be superimposed around the bulbus glandis: This circle should be centered horizontally and vertically within the scene and should act to highlight the scene’s focal point. A dimly lit stonework wall and floor should be visible beyond the dog, to the extent if any that the background is seen.

Two of Spheres

The scene of the Two of Spheres should depict an altar overgrown with creeping vegetation, where one orb can be seen resting on a pedestal while another orb can be seen hanging from a fine chain. The two orbs should be somewhat nearby one another, though not directly over or beneath each other. On the overgrown altar, not centered on the altar nor centered in the scene, two foxes can be seen mating.

Three of Spheres

The scene of the Three of Spheres should depict a human figure conducting a ritual with three spheres which stand on pedestals. The human reaches as though to touch a sphere, but a cat slinks in between the hands and the sphere, nuzzling the back of his head against the sphere. The human is partially costumed to resemble a dog of the breed husky, likely including a pair of faux ears and a faux tail.

Four of Spheres

The scene of the Four of Spheres should depict a flying squirrel leaping towards the ground, with a tree beside her. On the tree should be measuring marks as that seen on a ruler, though unlabeled. On the tree in a vertical row should be four spheres.

Five of Spheres

The scene of the Five of Spheres should depict a rat standing on her hind legs among wood shavings. Behind the rat should be walls composed of horizontal wooden slats, on which mathematical formulas are written across many slats. Behind the rat, but visible to the viewer, in the corner formed by the two visible walls, should be stacked five spheres.

Six of Spheres

The scene of the Six of Spheres should depict a formal ball, where six couples dance hand in hand, facing one another; each of the six couples should be composed of one human and one dog, with each dog preferably being of a different breed. Above the head of each couple, a sphere should be depicted.

Seven of Spheres

The scene of the Seven of Spheres should depict the face of an underwater rock structure, with an octopus camouflaged over the top of the rock’s surface, his skin colored to match that of the rocks. Among the octopus’s tentacles are six spheres, which the tentacles should not obscure.

Eight of Spheres

The scene of the Eight of Spheres should depict coffee beans, with eight tiny spheres partially buried among the beans. The spheres should appear in a uniformly spaced grid of two across and four down. Crawling among the coffee beans should be two beetles, one appearing between the two uppermost orbs, and one appearing between the righthand side’s lowest and second lowest orb.

Nine of Spheres

The scene of the Nine of Spheres should depict a discarded leg bone which appears to have been chewed on thoroughly by a canine. Embedded throughout the leg bone are nine spheres.

Ten of Spheres

The scene of the Ten of Spheres should depict two dogs sitting on a piano bench, playing a duet on the piano. On the sheet music which they read from, ten spheres are depicted with arcane geometric imagery connecting them; the sheet music does not need to look like any real-world musical notation.

Spheres Death

The scene of Spheres Death should depict a man of advanced age smashing a sphere by throwing it onto the ground in front of a stained glass window. The sphere should be depicted in the process of shattering, such that it is clear what the object is and what is happening to it. The entirety of the stained glass window behind the human need not be shown; the window should depict an abstract collection of colored panes with no distinct imagery. The man should be in the interior of the building to which the stained glass window belongs.

Spheres Ripple

The scene of Spheres Ripple should depict a book lying open upon a violet tablecloth. The visible pages of the book should feature text which is not rendered in such a way that it can be read in this scene; on the righthand page, with text above and below, should be an illustration of a sphere; the sphere and the text should be of the same color, likely black, though blue should be avoided.

Spheres Harmony

The scene of Spheres Harmony should depict the interior of a library: rows of book shelves can be seen on the left and right of the scene, and in the distance, a bookshelf forms the background of the scene as well. Superimposed upon the scene should be three concentric circles, uniformly spaced, centered both horizontally and vertically within the scene; these three circles should all be rendered thinner than the circle superimposed upon the scene of the Passion of Spheres.

Spheres Finality

The scene of Spheres Finality should depict the ocean at night, with a mushroom cloud in the distance. The mushroom cloud should be the prominent feature of the scene, though it need not take up much of the scene: it should appear very far away. A thick horizontal blue line should be superimposed across the center of the scene, intersecting with the head of the mushroom cloud. Nothing in the scene should appear in front of the blue line, and the blue line should not be reflected in the water. Stars in this scene should be rendered sparingly, and if possible the ocean and the sky should bear a slight degree of color other than black, so as to avoid confusion with the suit Stars.

The Egg

The scene of The Egg should depict a brown chicken egg resting upright on a primate’s open palm. The sky should be seen in the background: The weather and the time of day may be decided freely, though it should not be nighttime solely to avoid confusion with the Stars suit. On the egg will be positive holy symbols painted on with an artist’s brush. The exact holy symbols may be decided freely, though one suggestion for a set would be a Cross, a Yin and Yang, an Om, and a Pentacle. The holy symbols may be painted with any color or with multiple colors, with black being an entirely acceptable option.

The Seed

The scene of The Seed should depict a collection of various plant seeds decoratively arranged in concentric circles: Each circle should be comprised of one type of seed. The outermost circle should be incomplete in a section at the bottom left, and a primate hand should be seen reaching into the scene and arranging the seeds to complete the circle. The surface on which the seeds rest may be decided freely, though some suggestions would be on a wooden table, on a boulder with a moderately flat top, or on a plane of smooth sand. In a line across the circles traveling from near the bottom right of the scene and towards the top left should be a splatter of seminal fluid: Though the semen need not be of any specific species, it should be of a quantity such that it is enough to be visible but not so much that a human would be highly unlikely to have produced it in a single instance.

Hummingbird

The scene of Hummingbird should depict a stem along the left side of the scene, leading up to a flower from which a hummingbird drinks: The hummingbird should occupy a large share of the scene. Along the stem should be bunches of orange berries or buds, arranged into ten clusters, the farthest from the flower being a cluster of one, and increasing by whole numbers until arriving at a cluster of ten nearest the flower: the stem may need to go above the flower to near the top of the scene and then bend back downwards in order for this to be accomplished. Above the hummingbird’s head, the image of a lemniscate should be superimposed.

Elephant

The scene of Elephant should depict a lone elephant walking towards the viewer. Each of the elephant’s ears should be painted in the style of paintings created by elephants, and to the extent possible, neither painting should bear resemblance to symbology from any human culture.

Black Widow

The scene of Black Widow should depict a black widow spider on a background of layers of spider webs. Some or all of the spider’s legs should be spread out to cover as much of the scene as possible while still keeping her within the scene in her entirety.

Beastman

The scene of Beastman should depict four humanoid figures who each possess the facial features and the fur, scales, or skin of a nonhuman animal. Each figure should bear the likeness of a different species of animal, though which four species are depicted may be chosen freely. Each figure should be of a particular gender and should be touching or by forced perspective have the appearance of touching a particular object: the figure with a male body and feminine clothing should be touching a flower; the figure with a female body and feminine clothing should be touching a star; the figure with a female body and masculine clothing should be touching a tower; the figure with a male body and masculine clothing should be touching a sphere. The placement of each figure and object in the scene may be chosen freely.

Mantichore

The scene of Mantichore should depict one mantichore on his back, swatting at a severed human hand which hangs from a string. The string should continue up until it is out of the scene, with its holder unknown. Part of the bone should be seen sticking out of the severed hand, and some blood should be visible around the wrist.

Gryphon

The scene of Gryphon should depict three gryphons standing in an abstract plane. One gryphon nuzzles the flank of another, while the third gryphon playfully drapes herself over the back of the gryphon whose flank is being nuzzled. All three gryphons appear agreeable to each other’s actions. The entirety of each gryphon may or may not be depicted in the scene, so long as the preceding imagery is able to be conveyed.

Dragon

The scene of Dragon should depict a gargantuan dragon breathing fire in a barren landscape: the scene should be viewed from an angle overhead, and a mountainous landscape surrounding the dragon should indicate the dragon’s immense size. In the moment in time depicted in the scene, the dragon should appear imposing and fearsome.

Great Bear

The scene of Great Bear should depict a gargantuan black bear standing over a city, with the moon haloed behind her head. While the great bear should appear entirely capable of crushing any portion of the city in a single step, the great bear should not be depicted as causing any destruction. The moon behind the great bear should feature additional coloration other than pure white, likely an orangeish yellow or a muted green.

Pegasus

The scene of Pegasus should depict a winged horse in flight, wings spread grandly. She appears to gallop on air towards the viewer. She should appear on a background of a bright blue sky. Wispy clouds may be seen about her legs and chest as she soars through them. The image of a lemniscate should appear superimposed over one wing, and superimposed over the other wing should appear a row of four images: from left to right, two instances of the planetary symbol of Mars and two instances of the planetary symbol of Venus; the four symbols should appear close to their neighbor or neighbors, but none touching.

Unicorn

The scene of Unicorn should depict a unicorn in a castle courtyard, standing on grass and flowers, with a stone wall behind which incorporates gold into the design, possibly as the mortar. In a horizontal row across the scene, partially superimposed over the body of the unicorn while still allowing her to be clearly seen, are the symbols for the suits Flowers, Stars, Towers, and Spheres. Above the unicorn’s head, not centered in the scene and not obscuring the unicorn’s horn, is the image of a lemniscate.

Sleipnir

The scene of Sleipnir should depict a beautiful eight legged grey stallion mounting a male donkey and penetrating the donkey’s anus: The donkey’s penis should be fully dropped from his sheath, and he should be ejaculating. The two should be depicted inside of a cave, with instances of sourceless fire scattered about the cave floor lighting the scene. Superimposed over the side of Sleipnir’s body, ideally centered in the scene, should be the image of a lemniscate. Superimposed in an arc over the darkness above Sleipnir and the donkey should be the four Morendo symbols, in order from left to right, Death, Ripple, Harmony, and Finality.

Jörmungandr

The scene of Jörmungandr should depict the world serpent biting his own tail: The head should come in from the left border of the scene, and the tail should come in from the right border of the scene. Below Jörmungandr is a roiling ocean, and above Jörmungandr is a yellow sky.

Fenrir

The scene of Fenrir should depict the gigantic black wolf Fenrir with the bloodied corpse of Odin in his mouth. The humanoid god should fit comfortably in the mouth of the legendary wolf.

Primordia

The scene of Primordia should depict the planet, the moon, the sun, and the void. This depiction may be literal or not, though personification into humanoid likenesses should be avoided. While this card should feature directionality, it is acceptable in this specific card for it to be unclear on which orientation of the scene is the upright and which is the reverse.

Cow

The scene of Cow should depict a cow standing in a field of grass, facing the right border of the scene. The sky behind the cow should be blue, though this may not be made clear, as the sky should primarily feature dense radial patterns centered around the cow composed of overlapping lines of light green, light yellow, lavender, and pink. A human hermaphrodite should be depicted in the act of mating with the cow. Pine trees should be seen in the field some distance away.

Life

The scene of Life should depict a newborn wolf suckling on a human breast. Exact decisions on the framing may be made freely, though the scene should closely feature the wolf and should show little if any of the human beyond the breast.

4. A Note In Closing

Please do see that this matter is approached with sincerity and compassion, and while not avoiding gravitas, in twice as much measure or more do not avoid levity. Many will seek to use these cards for divination, and we hope that their path will be well guided: As with all things, whether it is real and helpful or surreal and helpful, it is helpful.

Poems

Figurine Man

Jacob Bride sets his mug of coffee down on the side table, and sits himself down in the rocking chair on his back porch. He looks out at the open desert. Takes a big smell of the fine dirt in the air. From the side table, he picks up his sharpened knife and a block of basswood. He looks down at his hands as he works, though his mind’s eye is jumping ahead. He whittles off the corners, molding the basswood block into a shape that is curved, organic, reminiscent of something living.

From out of the wood, Bride uncovers a mound. The figure is thick to begin with, and is coiled thicker. He carves out her muscular legs, muscular sides curved under her hunched muscular back, her short tail. Her face is turned down between all of her legs, licking herself. He carves out her short ears and the ridges of her wrinkled face. He carves her tongue, and leaves protruding the thin lines underneath. He carves her eyes closed in concentration.

With the rough shapes done, Bride retrieves his glasses from the side table. In doing so, he also remembers his coffee, and has a long drink of it now that it has gone from piping hot to warm.

Glasses on, Bride holds the wood closer to his eye level, and leans in and around the work as necessary. He touches up the detail of her nose buried in her vulva and her tongue pressing it further, pushing the soft sex. He carves out the toes on each of the paws, some of the toes fanned out as she licks, splaying her little claws. He trims the claws each to a healthy length. Under her tail he carves her muscular rump and the pit of her anus, and carves out the details of the joints of the back legs, all just-so.

Bride sets the figurine on the side table. She sits licking without a wobble.

 

 

All The Happy Little Animals

Splashing around in a water park; running with high stomps through the shallow water until it’s deep enough to swim and then splashing down and swimming; seeing your friend across the busy pool waving you over, and swimming around everybody to go meet them; putting your heads under together, each of you holding your breath, opening your eyes to look; your friend resurfaces and you follow, and they reach up to the poolside and show you they brought pool toys to dive for, and the two of you drop them and watch them all dart down to the bottom of the pool, and the two of you go down after them, seeing who can grab more; you go to the water slide, wait in line in the warm sun, which feels nice after the cold pool; you fly down the slide and make a huge splash when you hit the water at the bottom, and then swim out of the way to make way for the next person. The ducks get to have this as their life; they are nourished and livened by swimming around, shouting, diving and splashing, taking off and splashing, putting their heads under, play. When the seasons become too warm or too cold, they make a long trip over beautiful landscapes to a place that is more right for them; eat bread; lay an egg; stretch your wings; float and bob on a gentle wave for an hour, taking in all the goings on around your pond.

 

 

Awakening

Waking up,

sluggish surrealness,

I don’t know

the time,

where I am,

who the president is,

what my name is,

or whether I am facing east.

I do know the warmth,

cozy heat,

of someone

in the blankets with me.

Eyes unopened,

I know nothing of

the world outside of

my sense of smell, and touch:

I am touching fur

which is ever slowly rising,

falling,

and rising,

and falling;

I am smelling dog,

his breath—

I breathe in when he breathes out

to take in the fullness of his breath,

and I breathe out when he breathes in

so that he can have mine.

We both stretch, and inch our nuzzling way

closer into one another’s reacclimating bodies.

I breathe in the smell of his fur on his chest.

I know of the world I have woken into

that I am loved and love.

Vol. 1 No. 5 (May 2023)

The Cult

South of Tucson, AZ

I step into the cafe, have a seat on a bar stool, set my helmet on the counter, and order coffee and the breakfast that the hostess recommends. As I sit and wait, I find myself staring down at the ring finger of my right hand. A week ago I managed to give it a not-small cut while opening a beer bottle. Today, there’s only one red speck where it’s still healing, and a faint scratch where the rest of the already-healed wound was. I marvel at how the body heals. It seems passive, unimpressive, like something that actually should work better than it does, but it’s remarkable that we do this at all, and I find myself thankful. I wonder whether it would have been more interesting to get into biology. I glance to my left hand, where the fingers are limp on account of my now-ex stabbing me across all of my tendons. I give my left hand a nod to my right. “Catch up.”

The hostess comes over and slides a collection of condiments across the counter to me.

I am confused and then embarrassed. “Sorry, I was—sorry. Talking to myself.”

I hear a bell ring as the door opens behind me.

“Have a seat anywhere, hon,” the hostess calls over me to the new patron, and turns to grab him a menu.

The only ones eating here are one other man at the opposite end of the bar and a trio in a booth. The newcomer takes a seat right beside me and thanks the hostess as he accepts the menu.

As he’s reading it, I steal a glance at him. He is dressed like Obi Wan Kenobi in the prequels but his face is pudgier and a lot more sunburned.

“I’ll have an order of hash browns and toast, with no butter on the toast if it comes that way. Thank you.” The hostess takes his menu and leaves.

Now that she’s gone, I stare at him as conspicuously as I can.

He gives me a grin back. “Your bike outside?”

“Do I know you?”

I think it was being stabbed that made me care less about being rude to people who are imposing on my life anyways.

He reaches and I lean back wondering if I’m about to try to kill someone. But he reaches past me to my helmet, and taps the pride sticker on the side. “I took us to have the same father.” He sits back upright—I notice then that his posture is impeccable—and he taps on a wooden cross that hangs from a length of twine around his neck.

I relax a little even though this should not be a sign to me that things are about to be going better. “If you’re trying to say God hates fags, this is a real roundabout setup.”

My plate arrives, stacked with eggs, sausage, bacon, and hash browns. I thank the hostess and start on the sausage, keeping the corner of my eye focused on this stranger.

Something seems to have made him confused. “The rainbow. I took it as...”

I’m not from around here, but I’m surprised anyone wouldn’t recognize the pride flag.

“I think I’ve misunderstood,” he admits.

I nod, and I want to thank him for admitting as much, but I also want him to go away, but I also don’t. “What’s your name?”

“Joshua,” he tells me.

“Marc,” I offer, and extend my good hand. We shake.

“What do you do, Marc?”

“Professor most of the year,” I answer, between bites of hash brown. “Mathematics. Decided to actually take summer vacation off though. Call it a rare sabbatical. What do you do?”

“Farm hand,” he answers, in a way that leads me to believe he’s lying but that the real answer is more complicated.

We get to chatting. His meal arrives and we keep chatting. When I’ve finished mine, I stick around. I have learned, in the course of our conversation, that he is a member of a cult. He doesn’t call it that, but. It is one. He’s on a sabbatical from his work too.

“Forgive me if it’s too much of an imposition, but if you’d let me—I’ve always wanted to drive a motorcycle.”

I snicker involuntarily. “You would die,” I tell him frankly. “But if you want a ride, I’m northbound out of here.”

He clasps his hands together and nods. We each pay and head outside.

North of Boulder, CO

Joshua and I sit beside each other at a camp fire. Behind us a ways is his tent, which I have learned to help assemble and disassemble. Nobody else is at the campsite.

“It’s similar to Rumspringa,” he is telling me.

My head is occupied, tilted back to drink from my whiskey bottle, so to stop him I reach out and put a limp hand on his face. When I’m done swallowing my sip, I tell him, “That doesn’t help me. Back up a step.”

He takes a few seconds to consider, and then begins again. “Before marriage, each partner is encouraged to go out and seek other lovers. This is a test to see, even if informed of what other relationships could be, whether a couple truly wishes to be wed.”

I had started taking another sip, but I cut myself off for fear of spitting it out. “You’re on this? Are you telling me you’re engaged?”

He nods. “I am.”

“And... what is her name?”

“His name. Levi. And if you have any interest... I would ask if you’d be part of our journey. I like you quite a lot, Marcus.”

Words failing me, I grab him by the wrist and bring us back to his tent. Halfway there I fall over, and we settle on the grass.

North of Plano, TX

“Is he also a member of your cult?”

“It isn’t a cult.”

I kiss his thigh and amend my question. “Does he also subscribe to your religious beliefs?”

“He does not.”

I nod, and get back to it.

East of Iowa City, IA

Joshua orders the tomato soup and a salad. I am not vegan, but I also don't want to suffer his judgment during the meal, so I order the same.

“I’m going to miss you,” I tell him honestly.

“You’re welcome to join us.”

I shake my head. “Even if I did, I’m going to miss this.”

He nods.

“I’m happy for you though,” I tell him honestly.

“Thank you,” he says. “I’ll miss this too, I imagine. But I miss him even now.”

I nod.

“Don’t feel obligated, but it would mean a lot if you would bear witness at our wedding.”

I nod, and smile—at first politely, but then honestly. “It would mean a lot to me too, actually. Thank you.”

North of Bangor, ME

Joshua and I walk up the miles-long wilderness driveway to his cult. I left my motorcycle in a wooden shack about a quarter mile in, confident that nobody will be out this far to bother stealing it.

“Are you ready to meet him?” Joshua asks.

I tell him I am.

Joshua brings a hand to his mouth. He blows into his fingers to produce a whistle so loud that I’m surprised it can be made by a human being.

Soon, I hear the thundering of footsteps coming from up the trail ahead of us. Bounding around the corner is a dalmatian. The giant dog bounds up to Joshua and the two of them collide with each other, falling over in a blur of petting and licking. Joshua tells the dog how much he’s missed them, how happy he is to be back. Eventually the dog looks at me, still pressed to Joshua’s side, wagging. I am waiting for Levi to come following after his dog.

“Go on, boy,” Joshua tells the dog.

The dog comes over to me and sniffs me up and down, and I give him a few pets, but the dog pretty quickly loses interest and heads back over to Joshua.

“This is Levi,” Joshua says, looking up at me while crouched beside the standing dalmatian, an arm wrapped over the elated dog’s back.

“I—” Shit. Oh, shit. “Joshua, I knew you liked doggy style, but this is ridiculous.”

Joshua snorts, and then falls over laughing, mainly thanks to Levi coming to assist by slobbering ticklishly all over Joshua’s face. Once he’s gotten the dalmatian off of him and gathered himself, I help him stand, give him a hug, and the three of us proceed onward.

I meet Joshua’s parents, his siblings, his friends and neighbors, and am surprised that they are not all that different to a lot of the other people I’ve met on this trip.

In the afternoon, under an acacia tree, the town is gathered. Nearest the tree is Levi, Levi’s mother, Levi’s father, Joshua, Joshua’s mother, and a priest—Joshua’s father. Levi sits at attention, and Joshua kneels in front of him, hands on his canine fiancee’s shoulders, looking eye to eye. Joshua promises to have and to hold, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.

The priest speaks, “You have declared your consent before the Church. May the Lord in his goodness strengthen your consent and fill you both with his blessings. What God has joined, men must not divide. Amen.”

Cheered on by the town and their visitor, Joshua and Levi kiss.

By and By

1st of the Month of Orange Harvest, 601 K.D.
19:03

Yarriel and Knife bursted in through the front doors of the black bilge tavern, hardly able to stand, the dwarf and the elf each doubling over in laughter, trying to use the other for support. “This wide!” Yarriel roared, holding his coarse hands up to demonstrate, his vision completely blurred by his tears. Knife then did fall over onto the tavern floor, trying to gasp in breath between her laughs but finding it impossible. Yarriel slammed himself down onto a table, tried to compose himself, but then caught a glimpse of his elven friend red-faced on the floor. He fell down onto the floor with her, likewise unable to breathe.

At the bar, Gustav blew out a puff of air, shook his head, and lifted his pint glass to his lips. “This new generation of assassins is certainly something different,” he said to the innkeeper, and then took a long sip from his drink.

The innkeeper, Hatchet, nodded. He stood drying a washed glass with a white cloth.

By and by, Yarriel and Knife got themselves together, stood, and made their way to the bar.

“A pint,” Yarriel ordered, and Knife ordered after him, “A cup of tea,” and then both fell into a giggling fit.

Hatchet got their drinks, set them on the counter, and kept his slender hands on each refreshment. “Is the Earl of Wimfast dead?”

Yarriel sat upright, eyes deadening from joyous to somber for but a moment long enough to utter the solitary word, “Aye.”

Hatchet released his hold on the drinks.

Knife snorted, which broke the brief somber hold that Hatchet’s question had put on Yarriel. Yarriel and Knife clinked their glasses together, and then the two each had a sip of their drink.

As the two settled in, the black bilge tavern became quiet again. Outside, the bustle of the city could be heard. A horse-drawn carriage rushed by outside. Knife’s pointed ears twitched as she listened to the cadence of the hooves, the deep airy nasal vocalizations of each horse’s breaths. Yarriel’s head bowed in thought as he listened to the clanking of the metal bits on the horses’ harnesses, and the creaking of the carriage.

1st of the Month of Orange Harvest, 601 K.D.
13:30

Before sitting down to work, the Earl of Wimfast stood and looked out of his office’s large window. Below outside, his slaves moved through his orange fields, stooping down to the bushes and picking off the tiny rind-covered fruits. He watched the drivers making their patrols, shouting their orders, turning what would be a slow labor into an efficient machine-work. Satisfied, the earl turned, sat down at his desk, and began at a stack of parchments that needed his attention.

The door was kicked open. No sooner could the earl look up than was his neck struck with a dart, and he felt the strength drain from his every muscle; his body tingled as though every part of him had fallen asleep. At the open door stood two figures from the lesser races, a rock-eater and a knife-ear. The knife-ear lowered a blowgun from her mouth and stowed it in her black garb. The rock-eater retrieved a dagger from his black garb and stepped slowly towards the collapsed earl.

Graciously, the poisoned dart worked as something of a painkiller to dull the senses, and the earl could not entirely feel as his fingers were cut off, though he did have to watch as the dwarf and the elf then ate the digits one by one. As the last of his fingers was eaten, he lost consciousness. He came-to only momentarily as the dwarf’s dagger pierced his heart, and he felt every brief instant as his mortal term atop this spinning planet came to an end.

1st of the Month of Orange Harvest, 601 K.D.
14:52

Yarriel and Knife sat atop a tall outcrop, watching ravens peck at the earl. By and by, wolves came, and the ravens fled. By and by, a bear neared, and the wolves fled. By and by, the bear lost interest, and lumbered away, and the ravens came back. Yarriel’s stomach rumbled, and he felt want of a proper meal. The dwarf and the elf slid down the steep sloped side of the outcrop, and began making their way back to the city.

1st of the Month of Orange Harvest, 601 K.D.
16:52

From the rooftop garden of their apartment, Knife picked potatoes out of the soil, as well as taking some herbs from a variety of flowering plants. As she picked these things from the places they had grown, Knife reflected on the journey they had been through, the culmination of matter from the soil composed of the dead of plants and animals and all sorts, imbued with energy to grow from the light of the suns shining down from the heavens; someday, more would grow yet from this same matter, imbued with energy from the light of the same suns; Knife was five hundred years old, Yarriel four hundred, and both were but newborns compared with the planet, and her layers of dead laid in the soil who would later be the dead composing that soil.

Returning inside with the small picked harvest, Knife found that Yarriel had gotten the wood-burning stove started. The two cooked their dinner, and ate.

1st of the Month of Orange Harvest, 601 K.D.
20:03

Yarriel finished the last sip of his pint. He had been sober going on one hundred and seventy years, and as he sat there in the black bilge tavern having finished his pint, he remained sober still; with his physiology, it took far more than a pint in an hour to have even the faintest of noticeable effects.

Outside, a drumbeat began, and a clapping crowd kept time as well. By and by, flutes and horns began to play a waltz.

Yarriel leaned over to Knife, and laid his head against her shoulder. “Would you give me the pleasure of a dance, dearest?”

“Of course, dearest mine,” Knife said, and held out her hand.

Yarriel took the slender hand, and together the two embraced and began stepping to the time of the song outside. By and by, Yarriel led their waltzing steps out of the inn’s doors, and into the street. There outside, the fluters and trumpeters and drummers stood atop a cart, playing their song. On the street, several couples stepped together in waltz. Yarriel and Knife joined the others, moving about here and there as the songs went by. By and by, Yarriel and Knife shared a kiss. By and by, Yarriel and Knife retired up to a room in the black bilge tavern and shared more intimacy, and Knife tried to stifle her laughter as Yarriel kept time to the rhythm of the waltz outside.

1st of the Month of Orange Harvest, 601 K.D.
05:00

Knife stood in the forest, her head bowed, her palms pressed flat against the bark of the tree before her. Yarriel sat cross-legged in the grass nearby, chin planted in his hand, idly examining a rock. In time, the tree would become rock, and the rock would become tree.

1st of the Month of Orange Harvest, 601 K.D.
06:45

Yarriel and Knife descended the stairs into the cellar of the black bilge tavern. There behind a counter stood the innkeeper Hatchet. To his left on the counter was a black candle, which lit the features of his elven face from below. To his right on the counter were three scrolls. As Yarriel and Knife arrived, Hatchet was handing one of these scrolls to Gustav. Gustav took the scroll, opened it to see the name inside, bowed, and left, passing by Yarriel and Knife to ascend the cellar stairs.

Yarriel and Knife stepped forward to the counter. Without a word, Hatchet reached down to one of the scrolls, took it, and presented it to the couple. Knife accepted the scroll, opened it, and held it before herself and her partner. On the scroll was the name of the Earl of Wimfast.

On the first of each month, the assassins of black bilge were tasked to reap the three most egregiously cruel souls from the city and its environs. To Yarriel and to Knife, to see the Earl of Wimfast’s name written on the scroll was only surprising in that it felt so long overdue; the fact that his harvests did bring nourishment and pleasure to many had likely bought him time, but not an eternal wealth of it. Yarriel and Knife bowed, turned, and ascended the cellar stairs to go about their undertaking.

1st of the Month of Orange Harvest, 601 K.D.
23:01

Yarriel and Knife sat in a meadow, still as a stone, still as a tree. By and by, a squirrel came and leapt onto Yarriel’s head, then leapt off of Yarriel’s head and scampered up Knife, and then leapt off of Knife and began scampering up the tall birch beside her. By and by, a hare come through, grazed on some grass between the dwarf and the elf, and then continued along once again. By and by, a herd of deer came to the meadow, and nested down around the rock and the tree for a spell.

Definitely John *******’s True Thoughts On Zoophilia

Definitely John *******’s True Thoughts On Zoophilia, first in the series of partially redacted real life celebrities’ true thoughts about romance, sex, and empathy between humans and nonhuman animals as informed by their life experiences.

One day on August 7th, when John ******* was twenty years old, he and his friend (let’s call him Leslie) were each drinking from their own bottle of Wild Turkey Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey as they sat below a birch tree at night, looking out at the shimmering moonlit waters of Lake Lester. Leslie had secretly poured his bottle into a pitcher and placed the pitcher in the fridge, and filled his Wild Turkey bottle with water for the night. Having been friends since they were kids, and having recently moved in together as roommates, Leslie was planning to tell something to John that he had only recently come to terms with about himself.

As laughter from a dirty limerick John had recited faded off, Leslie saw his window of opportunity. Leslie said, “John, I have to tell you something.”

John responded with silence, listening attentively.

“I’m not attracted to people. To humans, I mean. I have sex with horses instead.”

In front of the moonlit Lake Lester, John and Leslie hugged.

The next day, John did not remember this conversation or even that they had gone to the lake, as he had already been blacked out for several hours. Over the course of the next few weeks, Leslie would often make observations about attractive horses on the TV, in paintings, in books, and in sculptures, and John would laugh these observations off as jokes. Sometimes Leslie did sort of mean them as jokes, and so he took it all in stride. Then one day, when John and Leslie were walking through a nature trail and happened to pass by a farmer’s field where horses were grazing, Leslie hornily whistled.

“Okay, what is with you lately?” John finally asked.

Leslie was hurt by this. “I really thought you were cool about it man.”

“Cool about what?” John asked.

As the conversation continued they both realized what had happened, and although in doing so Leslie had essentially outed himself anyways, he made a point of formally coming out once again: he was not attracted to humans; he was attracted to horses. On the nature trail by the field with the grazing horses, John and Leslie hugged, and John dared Leslie to climb over the fence and do one there in broad daylight for God and the world to see, which Leslie, feeling embiggened, did. John watched pridefully.

To this day, John endorses sexual relations between humans and horses. He does think dog zoos are weird. He thinks they’re probably cool and all, he’s just a bit weirded out by it, like, that’s the family dog, how are you going to look at that and think sexy thoughts. Again, he thinks they’re probably cool and he’s happy to look the other way, he just personally doesn’t get it.

Shooting Stars

The first time I met Blake Xavier-Schneider, he was 1) alive, and 2) attending the same Beverly Hills mansion party that I was.

I don’t actually think that he’s dead now, for the record, I just feel like it’s becoming more and more like a good guess with the way he acts.

But at the time of the party, about a year ago, Blake was still a newly rising star in the adult industry, on about the same trajectory as I was really, though I could already predict that he had it in him to stay in the game longer than I would. He lived and breathed this stuff: It was the water to his fish. I was always an actor, and definitely always felt like I was acting. Even at that party, six strong mixed drinks deep and sitting in a hot tub with some twink cuddled up beside me, when Blake slipped into the hot tub opposite me I felt like he had caught me: like he was going to come across the water and pull a mask off of my head and reveal that this was not me, this party-goer fun-haver, and I should go slink away in shame back to the most boring section of the nearest library.

But if that was the impression that he had of me, he didn’t show it. “At last we meet, Mr Johnson,” said he with a faux wicked grin, and then laughed flamboyantly, and swam up and sat beside me, opposite the twink. “Blake XS,” he said, offering a hand.

I reached out towards his hand, very thankful that drunk as I was, some recess of my muscle memory had held out well enough to shake his hand successfully. Watching our hands shake legitimately felt like some alien operation occurring outside of my body or my input—it didn’t help that the firebreathing dragon tattoo sleeve on my right arm was pretty new at the time.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting,” he said, glancing at the twink.

“The more the merrier,” is what I think I said, or something like it.

The translation of that was, “I do not know why I’m here, but with more of you around maybe you’ll talk to each other instead of me.”

By that point in the night, the details of what I remembered were pretty slapdash. I remember sitting in the hot tub with Blake, the two of us looking up at the night sky, and I remember that at some point he kissed me on the cheek before leaving.

All this to say, about a year later when I went on vacation to Mexico and was interrupted from my reading of A Crown of Swords by a call from my agent telling me that there was a shoot just down the street from my hotel, I was a centimeter away from hanging up on him before he managed to tell me that Blake Xavier-Schneider was the other star, and then just like that, I was suddenly interested.

My agent gave me the address. “The director’s name is Vince,” he mentioned. “Be there in the next thirty minutes if you want to make me look good, or at least the next hour if you want the job.” I wrote all of it down on a slip of paper from the pad that was on the hotel bedside table.

As hotel rooms go, I was staying in a nicer place than I had expected to be staying. Queen bed, color TV, and a legitimate kitchenette, complete with an oven and a stovetop and all the regular pots and pans already stocked.

I hadn’t come here expecting to work—or play—so I hadn’t packed anything in the way of enemas, but I made do with a plastic water bottle, and then I showered, dressed in my nicest tank top, briefs, and gym shorts, and stepped out into the world, apparently summoned five buildings down to get dicked by someone I had lowkey had a crush on for a year. Quite the unexpected addition to my vacation itinerary, but welcome.

So here we are.

I walk up to the address with my slip of paper in hand, and apparently look sufficiently confused enough for someone standing outside the door to ask, “Tony? Johnson?”

“That’s me,” I answer.

“Juan,” he says, and we shake hands. “Director of photography.”

Usually that means he’ll be holding the camera, but, in this case I really don’t know what scale of thing I’m walking into.

He turns and punches a series of numbers into the keypad beside the door. The keypad lets off a high pitched beep, and then he holds the door open for me. As we walk inside, the air conditioning feels sublime.

We walk down the halls, and he leads the way into our set: it looks like its own apartment, with a bedroom, kitchen, living room, den, and faux hallway outside. Standing around the pool table in the den are three men, and on the pool table is an assortment of camera equipment. I can’t help but notice that Blake isn’t here.

One of the men is talking into a cell phone, and seems to have noticed the same thing as I have. “Are you shitting me?” he’s saying. “Are you shitting me ‘he’s asleep’? No, no. Name a volume of cocaine between a teaspoon and a cement mixer, we’ll fucking keep him awake. We’ll fucking—”

I get the impression he’s been hung up on, because he looks at the flip phone like it’s personally betrayed him, and then he throws it against a wall.

In doing so, he sees me.

“Tony,” I say, giving a little wave.

“Holy shit, a thing that went right today. We have an actor, hallelujah. Vince.”

I extend my hand to shake, but he gives a dismissive wave, and I put my hand back down.

“I had heard Blake—”

“Yeah, so had I,” he interrupts. With his arms crossed, he walks off into the living room set. He paces, head down.

After we watch him for a few laps, Juan follows after him into the living room, and says something quietly to the director.

Vince thinks about it, and then I overhear him ask, “How long before it gets here?”

Juan quietly gives an answer.

“Do it and we’ll figure something out,” Vince agrees.

Juan nods, and pulls out a flip phone to make a call. As the director of photography begins pacing in the living room on the phone, the director director approaches me. “So, Tony,” he says, “tell me about yourself.”

I dread this kind of question. On-camera, I can at least put on a persona. Off camera, I don’t know what he wants. I’m sure he doesn’t want to know I have a bachelor’s in chemistry, or that my book club is currently reading The Odyssey, but that I’m trying to sneak in some other, more genre-y books for my own pleasure, while on my time off, and was pleased to get ahold of the latest Wheel of Time at a little bookstore in the airport that I arrived at a few days ago.

Yeah, no. I decide not to burden him. “Sagittarius.”

“Fascinating,” he says, and I’m glad to learn we’re on the same page in that he doesn’t actually want to know about me anyways. “How do you feel about dogs?”

“Um.” This is not the type of pointed question that I expected to hear just now, but I honestly can’t say that I have strong feelings one way or the other, as far as dogs are concerned.

When I don’t answer right away, Vince leans in closer with me. “Look, I won’t sugar coat it: would you do a few scenes with a dog today?”

“Oh! Sure,” I say.

I mean, I’ve done solo shoots before, just playing with toys for the camera. Not having another actor isn’t exactly what I signed up for today, but it isn’t exactly a first. Since I’m already here anyways, I don’t see a problem. “What breed?” I ask.

“Yellow lab.”

“Cute!” I say, kind of reflexively before the entire context catches up with my brain again. “What um... what would we be doing? Me and this yellow lab. Dog.”

“At this point I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel today. Scene of it fucking you, scene of you fucking it too. Probably something brief to go beforehand and afterwards in the way of plot if we have time.”

“Yeah,” I say. As I stand there and visualize the scenes—getting fucked by a dog, and fucking a dog in the ass—geez. Yeah, I uh. I begin to realize that I’m a bit out of my league here. But, then again, that’s kind of how I always feel during these. If they really want to pay me to put my cock in a dog’s asshole, I mean, I’m not going to tell them no. A gig is a gig, even if the material isn’t what you’re into. “What’s his name?” I ask.

“Ask Juan,” Vince says with a shrug, and then moves past me to talk to the others around the pool table about the update.

I walk out to the living room just as Juan is getting off the phone.

“You like dogs?” he asks me, with a professionally faux-ingenuous smile.

“I don’t have any strong feelings,” I say honestly.

“Jake makes a good first impression,” Juan tells me. “I bet you’ll like him fine.”

Juan takes a seat on the faux living room couch, and pats the spot beside himself. “We got a while before they get here. Twenty minutes at least. Relax a while. Tell me about yourself.”

I take a seat, and have a sneaking suspicion that ‘Sagittarius’ isn’t going to fill twenty minutes on its own.

“Honestly I mostly read,” I tell him, and wonder if this is the first time I’ve admitted that truth while on a set.

“Ooh! Who do you like?”

We end up having a shockingly thorough conversation about different fantasy and sci-fi authors before he gets a call, and leaves the set.

Supposing we’re about to start, I stand up and start doing a few stretches. The men who had been in the den start moving their equipment into the living room. Vince comes up beside me. “Ready?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I tell him. “Wardrobe, or?”

He looks me up and down, and sighs through his nose. “Let’s just get the main shots for now. Naked head to toe.”

I nod, and start with my shirt.

As I’m sitting on the couch and getting my socks off, the ‘front door’ opens, and a yellow lab comes running into the room, with Juan pulled behind on the leash. As soon as he can, Juan unclips the dog’s leash, and the dog trots around excitedly from room to room, sniffing around and wagging at everyone.

He comes up to me briefly, gives me a sniff as I say hi, and then trots off to go sniff around the bedroom.

“Jake,” Juan reminds me, standing beside me.

“Jake!” I call to him.

He turns, stands at attention, and then bounds right for me. I kneel down and rub his shoulders. He leans into me, wagging. Friendly guy. I like him.

“Ready?” I hear Vince call. Looking up, I realize that the cameras have been positioned, and everyone besides me is standing out of view of them: Front and center in the living room in front of the couch is just me and the yellow lab.

“What uh,” I begin, and then glance down at the wagging dog. “Ready, but what do I do?”

“Hands and knees,” Vince says, and I hear him add the word ‘brainiac’ under his breath. “Rolling?”

“Rolling.”

“Action!”

With the word Action, my head space is transported to some other realm, and I am a porno actor with a job to do. I stop petting the dog, and get on my hands and knees as instructed. Jake turns to me and sniffs me up and down, and I try—somewhat unsuccessfully—not to giggle at his wet doggy nose prodding me all over. Eventually he’s sniffing at my ass, and begins licking me back there. He isn’t at it for long before I feel his weight come down on top of me, his pointed claws digging pretty painfully into my flesh, and then just like that he’s humping his furry mass of muscles and canine hair against my backside; I feel his tip prodding, but he doesn’t get it in, and after a few tries he gets off of me, and goes and stands around by the cameras.

I look to Vince.

“Keep trying,” he says, giving a ‘go on’ motion with his hand.

I look back to the dog, and he seems to get the idea too. Once again he hops onto me and rests his chest on top of my back, locks his paws around my hips, and starts to hump. He gives it a few tries again before again getting off of me and standing nearby.

“Lower,” Juan calls.

“What?” I ask.

Juan sighs, and, gesturing in my direction, asks Vince, “May I?”

Vince gives him the go ahead. One of the other men on set gets the dog’s attention for a moment, and Juan walks into the shot. He puts his hand on my lower back, and pushes down until my stature on my hands and knees is considerably lower. “Like that,” he says. “You’re also going to want to angle yourself like... there, like that.”

“Do you... have personal experience with this?”

“I was the DP on Whores Let The Dogs In two through eight. Not exactly what I thought my expertise in life would be in but yes, we did figure some things out.”

I nod, and keep the position that Juan has put me in. He backs out of the shot again, and gives a signal to the man who has Jake held back out of shot. With the signal given, the man lets Jake go: the yellow lab runs straight up to me, hops onto me, and in one try is mounting me and fucking my asshole. I cry out with the sudden feeling of it, his dog cock getting inside of me, and I stay there in position and bear it as this yellow lab fucks me, pistoning his dog cock back and forth inside of my colon, all the way until his completion. It’s something kind of new, but also kind of not; it’s different and familiar; it’s weird, basically, but I don’t have a bad time. Afterwards me and the yellow lab are stuck ass to ass, as Juan had warned me about during our conversation: dogs have a part of their penis called the knot that swells up during sex, and holds them together with their partner afterwards, to make sure that the semen stays inside of the partner long enough to make puppies. I don’t predict that will be happening for us tonight, but Jake’s knot holds us together afterwards nonetheless, and who am I to speak against the optimism of that.

When he finally does slide out of me, he licks my fucked hole for a bit and then lies down on his side, lifts a leg, and begins licking himself. After a long while of that, his interesting red dog penis goes back inside of himself.

“Cut!” Vince yells.

I crawl up onto the couch and sprawl back, head lolled back facing the ceiling, arms out to either side on the back of the couch.

As I am recovering, I feel an energetic muzzle and tongue licking my asshole again. I flinch and spread my legs apart a bit more, then after the reflex wears off, I relax again and let it happen. “Hey Jake,” I say. “Yeah, hi there. I’m not gonna be your girlfriend, but I appreciate it.”

Opening my eyes to a squint, I see him wagging at that as he continues to lick.

Eventually he backs off, and then goes to see Juan. I can see him whining about something, but Juan, Vince, and the other men are locked in some type of heated discussion.

Eventually the dog’s whining is enough to break Juan from the conversation, and he turns to see what the yellow lab wants. With some brief back and forth, it is determined that the dog needs to be let outside. Juan confers briefly with Vince, nods, and then approaches me.

“How was it?” Juan asks, to break the ice again.

“No complaints,” I tell him. I’d never exactly considered bottoming for a dog before, but the experience was nothing to sneeze at. That yellow lab was a humping machine, and the time spent being tied together ass to ass was new to say the least, probably nothing I’ll be forgetting any time soon.

“Jake has to go outside,” Juan tells me. “If you could go walk him until he pisses and shits, we’d be ready for our next shot after that.”

I look over to the yellow lab, whose red canine penis was recently fucking my asshole, but who now is laying beside the faux front door, looking at me and Juan to help him because he can’t turn a doorknob.

What the hell. “Yeah,” I tell Juan, “I’m sure I could let him out.”

Juan goes to retrieve the leash, and soon enough, I am dressed again, poop bags are in my pocket, and the leash is in my hand.

“Don’t go too far, but, take as much time as he needs, I suppose,” Juan advises.

I nod, and proceed out of the faux apartment’s front door with the yellow lab taking the lead. He shows me the way to the actual front door, and then right in front of the studio, he lowers himself down to take a leak. One job taken care of. I stand there as he goes. For like, a while.

When he’s finished, he pulls me onwards. At the edge of the studio’s lawn I pause, but Jake pulls forward insistently. I lock my stance and remain where I am, steadfast. I’m not trying to get too off track, here: my job is at this studio. Jake still tries to pull forward for a while, and then stops, and turns to me. He looks at me with big eyes.

I look him back. Again, not very long ago, this dog was fucking me in the ass—I can very much still feel it; the sensation of being penetrated sometimes has a way of lingering in the body, it’s difficult to explain, but even as I look at him a leash’s length away, it also feels as though he still has me bent over, and is doing the deed with my behind. So yes, just a few minutes ago he was fucking me, and now he looks at me with adorable eyes, asking if we could just but go down the sidewalk a ways. Jesus, how could anyone say no? I don’t normally go for when guys from work try to act overly friendly with me outside of the shoots, but this actually does feel like the least I could do, now that he’s made a point of making those eyes at me because I won’t walk him—him, a dog, an animal that is supposed to get walked.

I let up on the leash, and he faces forward and walks happily onward, tail wagging as he trots, leading me along.

We go two more blocks before he stops, sniffs around, and then takes a squat. When I see the size of what he’s dropped, all of my concerns about whether he can handle my size feel in hindsight comical. I pick up his shit as he kicks up the grass nearby, and then the two of us return to the studio, with me dropping the bag of shit into the garbage can outside.

By the door, Juan is waiting for us. He lets us in, and the three of us return to the faux apartment set. Inside, I find that the cameras are set up around the bed in the bedroom, and everyone is standing around waiting.

“Ready?” Vince asks.

“Ready,” I say with a nod.

“Is it ready?” Vince also asks.

Realizing he means the dog, I look to Jake and shrug. “He did his business, I don’t really know if more prep work is needed.”

“Good enough for me. Get on the bed with it. Do it in the ass whatever way works, take at least ten minutes.”

I nod, and begin disrobing once more. When I hop up onto the bed, Jake hops up with me—I take it he’s done this before. Using some lube on the bedside table, I apply it to my fingertips and massage the lube against the outside of his hole for a minute, which he gives me no complaints over, no signs that he would rather I didn’t. He lies passive. Then after I’ve been massaging him for a while, getting the pooch warmed up—again, not a thing I thought through all the way when I agreed to this, but here we are—there is a moment where he shuffles his position on the bed closer to me and backs his ass against my fingers, and by holding my hand in place, one of my fingers slips into the slick, smooth flesh of his warm, lubed hole, and suddenly he’s more than passive, he’s all wags. He’s definitely done this before. He has all of the pleased yet casual anticipation of someone for whom it is not their first time taking anal, and for whom there is something or other enjoyable that is gotten out of it. His tail wags even more against the back of my hand as I start to work him. Once he seems plenty ready, I lube my own tool and then I do as Vince asked, and stick my cock into a yellow lab’s asshole. It feels pretty much like a dude’s. Pretty much exactly like a dude’s, as far as the insides are concerned. It is not difficult to close my eyes and treat this like it’s normal, pretend like I’m topping any other random actor who I had gotten paired up with, this one just happens to have fur, and four legs instead of two, and a neat tail right over the hole.

After a little over ten minutes, I finish inside of him. He knows as soon as I’m done, and gets himself off of my cock and spins around to lick his asshole and my cock, first the one, then the other. After he’s done addressing both of these matters I lay with him, wrap myself around his back, and pet him for a while.

When all of this is done, we also shoot a scene of me ordering a pizza and him coming to the door, and also a scene of him walking out of the bedroom, through the living room, and back out into the faux hallway.

“That’s a wrap,” Vince says, when we’ve gotten the last shot we need of Jake leaving the apartment. He gathers himself, me, and Juan into a huddle. “Thank you both. We would’ve gotten nothing done today without you two.”

“Of course,” we both say, more or less.

As the equipment is being packed up, Jake whines to me.

“He has to go out again,” Juan mentions, while working some strap on his bag.

“I got him,” I say, and once more dress, grab the leash and collar, and step outside with this stud who I have now received a load from and blown a load back into. As he sniffs around outside, towards the edge of the studio lawn and then beyond, I follow him wherever he’s going, confident that he knows the way around here better than I do. Eventually he lowers himself and pees once again. It seems different, all of the sudden: this time it seems different that someone is allowed to just pee out here. Just go, and be free, and not worry about it being like, a crime, it’s just what it is, pissing on some grass out in the open where some buildings are nearby.

It’s because he’s a dog, I need to remind myself. But I do need to remind myself of it, because I think, all of the sudden, that this distinction between dog and person is still something that I know, but maybe—maybe—no longer something that I feel as much. Having known this dog—in the archaic sense of the word—just as I have known many other human people, I can’t help but wonder what it really matters, what significance there really is in some of the distinctions. It seems, all of the sudden, like there is some obvious fundamental level on which whether someone is called a dog or whether someone is called a human, it doesn’t actually even matter the slightest little bit. We are all corporeal. We are all squishy on our insides. We are all feeling, and I think, at least when we choose to show it, we are all even caring.

After the yellow lab pees—the bodily functions of a four-legged body that I am no longer entirely unfamiliar with—he leads the way back to the studio. I follow along after him, doing my best to keep up.

When we get there, nobody is waiting outside. I try the door, but no luck. It’s locked. We sit outside for quite a while—probably an hour, if not longer. By that time, I’m sitting on the doorstep, and Jake is laying down before me, panting in the heat.

“Well,” I tell him. I think about it before I say my next words—it will be a first for me, these types of words to someone who I did a scene with. But, yeah: I’m going for it. “Dinner at my place?” I ask the yellow lab.

He perks his head up to me, and seems interested.

We leave the studio, stop into a corner store to buy a few things that I suppose a dog might need or want—including a steak—, and then we continue up to my apartment. Inside, I go to the kitchenette, and cook him the steak that I bought him. He eats it with more enthusiasm than I’ve ever seen anyone eat my cooking with ever before. When it’s done, we lie together on the carpet, and play with the two stuffed toys that I got for him.

As we play, I look into his eyes, and at one moment, he looks back, and all at once I am even more sure than before that there is something different here, now. I don’t think that there will be much of a future with me and Jake. Already, even in this moment, I have a pervasive feeling that this is a fling. He belongs to somebody, which is something that doesn’t sit with me quite the same way it did this morning, but it is how it is. But I do have something new to explore. Whether with Jake or with someone else, my eyes have been opened today to a second world of people on this planet who were always here, but now, with a sudden and unexpected wholeheartedness, I can see them.

Steep and Dangerous

i

“Let it go, Johnny! We’ll go around, bring’er down from the top.”

“Go to hell,” Johnny rebuted in a grunt, still putting all of his strength into pulling down on the rope that turned the winch overhead.

Johnny and Stickshift hung from ropes off the side of a mesa cliff, drenched in sweat. It was evening. Hanging from another pair of ropes was a pickup truck loaded with sleeping bags, fishing rods, a cooler, and a grill. Johnny was braced fully upside down, pulling on a fifth rope which was attached to a winch that he and his brother had secured at the top of the cliff earlier that day. The winch was outfitted with a ratchet: every time Johnny managed to pull the truck up another notch, it would lock that notch in place, and the truck would not fall back below it until such a time as the lock at the top was disengaged. Normally the truck pulled itself up with a torque converter attached to the motor, but the bar on the converter had snapped off halfway up the climb.

“RRRRAAAHHHHHH!”

With a growl and a warrior shout, Johnny put his legs, core, and biceps into pulling down on the rope, and felt the reverberation of the click! that the ratchet made at the top. The truck was secured another six inches. Johnny dropped from his upside down stance and allowed his rope to catch him, flip him upright, and swing him away from the cliff for a moment. As he swung back, he tried to raise his arms to brace for a gentle impact, but his arms remained limp at his sides, and he smacked into the rock wall. “Mm!” he winced; he hit the rock with his cheek. Raising his hand to his cheek, he looked at his fingers and saw they were bloodied.

“Niiice goin, jackass,” Stickshift mocked.

Johnny limply swatted in Stickshift’s direction, and then began doing stretches on his arms as he hung, getting ready to hit the next notch.

The mesa that Johnny and Stickshift hung from the cliff of was situated in a gargantuan canyon. Above the canyon walls were the tulip swamps, whose waters perpetually trickled down the canyon walls in a vast series of purple waterfalls. At the floor of the canyon were bare rocks and a great many rivers, leading out to the white ocean. The tides at the great canyon were the stuff of legends: come sunset, the tide would rise five hundred feet in half an hour, flooding the canyon halfway with the white ocean’s poisonous waters. Johnny and Stickshift’s pickup truck hung a foot and a half below the water line that was visible on the mesa cliff’s rocks. They had about an hour before sunset.

“Pete’ll kill you if you sink this truck,” Stickshift said. Pete was their father. The truck had been borrowed from the family’s auto shop.

Johnny scoffed. “I’ll tell him I sank the truck and you show him a cheap bottle of rum and we’ll see who he pays more attention to.”

Stickshift nodded.

Johnny felt his muscles had recovered enough for another notch. He took hold of the rope that went up to the winch, positioned himself upside down again, and began pulling on the rope. In three successive pairs of growls and shouts, Johnny brought the truck up another foot and a half, bringing it above the water line. He sighed a satisfied sigh as he swung from his rope. Stickshift came over and gave Johnny a pat on the shoulder. “Nice goin,” he acknowledged.

Stickshift climbed up into the bed of the truck, and offered Johnny a hand to help him in. Johnny took it and climbed in after. The two of them set out their folding chairs, brought out their fishing gear, and each took a can of light beer out of the cooler. The two clinked their cans together and watched the sunset. As the sun went down, the water came up, filling the canyon until the waveless surface came up just below the pickup’s tires.

Johnny and Stickshift dropped their lines in.

After a while, Stickshift struck up conversation. “Heard that new Indignant Bastards CD?”

“One Dave’s got with the red cover?”

“Ship that came in a couple days ago had a whole trunk of new bootlegs. Tony’s kid snatched it up, we’ve all been listening at Jim’s. I’ll burn you a copy.”

“Grazie.” Johnny tipped his can towards Stickshift in acknowledgment, then felt a tug on his line, and flicked his rod to tug back. He chugged the rest of the can and then dropped it to the truck bed’s floor, and used both hands to work the rod and the reel. A minute later he had something that resembled a fish dangling off the end of his line.

Stickshift commented, “Eesh. Ugly bastard.”

The creature at the end of the line had rows of toothy mandibles going halfway down its body, and three pairs of appendages with pinching claws on the end. One pincher was clutching the line, but the line was special made for this type of nasty critter. They were known to eat dogs, cats, deer, anything that wandered too close to shore. Johnny was the oldest now and Stickshift was the youngest now, since their older brother Pete Jr. and their younger brother Lucas had been eaten by these ones.

Stickshift picked up the hunting rifle at his feet.

“Steady?” Stickshift asked.

“Steady,” Johnny confirmed, holding the line still.

Stickshift aimed down the sights and shot the creature in the heart. It stopped moving, its claw that had been clutching the line now resting limp on it.

“Clean,” Stickshift said.

Johnny brought the creature in, stood up from his folding chair, and got to work gutting and cooking. Stickshift caught one too; Johnny shot it, and then got to work cooking it as well. When the food was ready, Johnny sat back down in his folding chair with two plates, and handed one to Stickshift.

“Cheers,” Stickshift said, handing Johnny another beer.

Johnny finished the one he was already drinking, took the one Stickshift offered, and then cracked it open and clinked with his brother. “Cheers.”

 

 

ii

Johnny and Stickshift and Tony’s kid and Dave and Skinny sat at their booth in the corner of Jim’s. Tony’s kid’s boombox sat at the center of the table, playing the new Indignant Bastards. Tony’s kid’s beard had gotten longer and uglier since Johnny had seen him last; Johnny hadn’t been into town hardly at all the last couple weeks, busy as he was at the auto shop with Pete’s injured hand. Pete had been blacked out when whatever’d happened to his hand had happened; still didn’t even know who had done the bandage, but they’d done a good job with it, at least, whoever they were. Pete sat at the bar holding his fourth glass of rum with his good hand.

On the floor beside Johnny, Skinny began to pant. Johnny leaned over and scratched at Skinny’s back; Skinny wagged, and then laid down and rolled over; Johnny rubbed his belly for a while, until Skinny got back upright as Sharry approached.

“Y’all doing alright?”

Johnny scanned over the table, saw nobody’s glass was empty, and nodded. “Yeah, we’re doing alright.”

Dave cut in, “You on the menu dear?”

“Har har,” Sharry said.

Johnny took a peanut out of the dish beside the CD player, lined up his shot, and flicked the nut at Dave.

“Ah! Bitch,” Dave said, and picked up a peanut and threw it overhand at Johnny, missing.

“I’m not working tonight if I’m in the waitress clothes, you know that,” Sharry went on. “Linda and Pat are upstairs, they ain’t busy yet.”

Dave sat up taller to look around the bar. “We’ll see how it goes down here first.”

“I’ll tell em you’ll be up later.”

Dave started to respond, then sighed, and clutched his glass. “Yeah you can tell em I’ll probably be up later. Pat tonight. But tell Linda I said hey.”

Johnny leaned over to Sharry, and said, “Another round, when you get a chance.”

“Sure, no problem,” she said, and then went off. After stopping at the bar to talk with Jim for a moment, she went up the stairs.

Johnny gave Skinny another few pets, and then leaned over to Dave. “Who you got in mind?”

Dave ran some fingers back and forth over his stubble. “Kim down there. Unless you were—”

“Kim’s mad at me,” Johnny said.

“Shit. And she saw me sitting here with you. Shit. Well, her sister’s with—”

“Kate’s mad at me too. It’s related.”

“Goddammit Johnny.”

Johnny sat upright and craned over the table to talk to Tony’s kid. “This is good shit,” he said, pointing to the CD player.

Tony’s kid smiled, and toyed with his glass.

Sharry, Linda, and Pat came down the stairs. Linda and Pat came to the booth; Pat climbed over Johnny to sit between Dave and Johnny, and Linda sat at the edge of the booth between Johnny and Skinny.

“Drinks?” Johnny offered, looking between Pat and Linda.

“Margarita,” Pat answered, and Linda answered, “Not tonight, thanks.”

Sharry came back over with a tray, and handed out the new round of beers. Johnny ordered a Margarita for Pat and a water for Linda.

After a few more tracks, the Indignant Bastards CD came to an end. Dave rooted through his box of jewel cases for a CD to replace it with. Pat and Dave sat snuggled up together, Dave nuzzling his stubble against her cheek and making her squeal with subdued laughter. Tony’s kid swapped out the Indignant Bastards for a calmer acoustic thing.

Johnny leaned over to Linda. “Hey Linda.”

She leaned over with him. “Yeah Johnny?”

“Pay you to give Skinny a ride.”

Linda deflated, closed her eyes, and sighed. “Goddammit Johnny.”

“What?”

“Can’t you just hire a prostitute for your own damn self like a normal person? Stick your dick in any girl but the ones whose job it is, I swear to god.”

“You still got those big socks I gave you for his claws?”

“Yes, Johnny, we still have those socks you gave us so you could hire us to screw Jim’s dog.”

“If you don’t like him, or he’s too rough or something—”

“The dog’s fine, Johnny,” Linda said, and then leaned in even closer with Johnny, and whispered, “I like you, is all.”

“Well, that’s complicated.” Johnny picked up his glass and had another sip.

“Would it help if I wore the socks, for you? Do you need to wear the socks? Do you need Skinny to watch?”

“Not interested.” Johnny took another sip.

“Swear to god, Johnny, I don’t even know what hill you’re trying to die on here.”

Johnny took a third sip.

“I’ll give Skinny a ride if that’s what you really want. It’s no trouble to me. I just don’t get it.”

On the floor, Skinny began to wag.

Johnny slipped Linda the cash.

Linda stood up out of the booth, and Skinny stood up with her, looking at her and wagging. “C’mon, Skinny,” she said, and began walking. Skinny wagged more enthusiastically, and followed her closely up the stairs, pawing at her to try to mount a few times along the way.

Once they had gone up, Johnny left cash for drinks and tips on the table and stood up too.

Dave looked up at Johnny. “What, not even gonna try tonight?”

“With who, Dave?” Johnny said, raising both hands to gesture around the bar. “Kim’s mad at me, Kate’s mad at me, Jenny’s mad at me, Lucy’s mad at me, Kitty’s mad at me, Lucille’s—Lucille! You still mad at me?”

Lucille spun around on her stool at the bar to face the one who had shouted her name. “Johnny? Johnny you got a lot of nerve thinking you—”

“Lucille’s still mad at me,” Johnny said to Dave, gesturing over at the woman who was getting up to come over and give him an earful. “I’m out.” Johnny turned and made a beeline for the door.

“Johnny if you’re thinking about those mermaids again,” Dave said, and then disentangled himself from Pat to follow after his friend. “Are you thinking about those mermaids again?”

“I ain’t thinking about shit,” Johnny said, and pushed open the swinging doors and began walking off into the night.

“Perv!” Dave called after his friend, hanging from one of the swinging doors for balance. “You’ll get your dick bit off! You’ll catch crabs! It ain’t right, Johnny!”

Johnny spun around, and while still walking backwards to make his exit, grabbed his crotch as a gesture for Dave, then turned again and resumed walking forward.

He lit up a cigarette on his way out of town. He realized, when the edge of the town’s lamplight came into sight, that the sound of his bootsteps crunching over the gravel road was a frantic tempo; normally he hung around at the edge of town for a couple minutes to finish his smoke and adjust his eyes to the dark, but tonight he had already sucked his down to the filter. He dropped the cigarette butt, stomped it out, and lit up another one. He proceeded the rest of the way to the edge of town at a deliberate trudge, and then stood and leaned against the brick wall on the dark side of Tony’s old bar, boarded up a while now since Tony had passed.

By the time the second cigarette burned down to his fingers, Johnny felt sobriety creeping back up to him. He used to resent the feeling, but had come to appreciate it. It was like running a lap from the auto shop into town and back: forward and forward as fast as you can one way, then when you’re there, about face, and forward and forward again, even if the way back don’t feel as nice, unless you make it a point to think about the nice parts. Johnny dropped his cigarette butt onto the gravel. His eyes had adjusted to the dark, and he could see the boardwalk path through the tulip swamp clear enough by the moonlight that came down through the foliage overhead. Johnny stomped his cigarette out and walked off onto the path through the swamp, his boots making a careful percussion along the planks.

The croaking of frogs masked a lot of other noise that went on in the swamp. The bubbling of the water also masked things; warm gasses bubbled up here and there, making the waters warm, and apparently making the swamp smell funny to folks who weren’t used to it, though Johnny himself was well past used to it. Johnny walked along, keeping an ear out. He kept his eyes peeled for sudden turns or forks in the path, and kept his pace slow to not be tripped by broken planks, which became pretty common after a mile out of town; he’d have to come and patch them up one of these days, when he had the time during daylight.

After a while, Johnny heard the singing of mermaids; their familiar voices brought a jubilance to his mood. A lightness came to his steps, and he practically skipped the last leg of the boardwalk, rounding a bend and arriving at a cozy pink pond shimmering in the moonlight and bubbling with the warm gasses that came up here and there from underneath; atop a small rocky island in the pond’s center, a mermaid sat, head raised and facing elsewhere into the tulip swamp, calling to the other maidens.

The boardwalk ended at the edge of the pond. Johnny deliberately pressed his boot down on a loose board, making the boardwalk creak.

The song of the mermaid before him halted, and her head snapped towards him.

He stood and looked at her with one hand in his pocket. He offered a wry smile and a shrug.

The mermaid slinked down into the pink water, disappeared below the surface, and reemerged at the edge of the boardwalk. She reached up and wrapped her fingers around his ankle, and looked up at him with big eyes.

Johnny sat down at the edge of the boardwalk, untied his boots, and kicked them off into the woods, then threw his other articles of clothing after them one by one. Once he was fully dressed in his birthday suit, he slinked down off the edge of the boardwalk into the warm bubbling waters, and pressed himself chest to chest with the mermaid, looking down into her eyes. He snaked a hand around her and held her by the small of her back.

She gently reached up and touched his chin. In a hissing language, she said something to him.

“I missed you too, doll,” he said in turn.

He didn’t speak what she spoke, and she didn’t speak what he did. He figured it might explain why his relationships with these girls lasted longer than those of his own type.

She rose up to kiss him, and he sunk down to meet her halfway. Soon they were on the shallow floor near the pond’s edge, locked mouth to mouth, hands feeling below each other’s waists. He’d heard from sailors that a mermaid’s was like a dolphin’s, but he’d never seen a dolphin, so he could only take their word for it. Whatever his was like to them, they were about it. He slid himself into her and the two of them splashed around for an hour or two, then he finished inside of her, and then clung to her for a while, as they floated gently across the pond. After another kiss, the two let go of each other. Johnny floated on his back on the bubbling water. The mermaid climbed back up the rocks, and resumed singing to the other mermaids.

Most fellas who came to have a try with the mermaids were met warmly the first time around, and then when they came back around again, no mermaid across the entire tulip swamp would come to meet them, and would bare their pointed teeth if the guy tried to get close. Folk legend was that they were only interested in virgins. Johnny very smugly knew the truth: that they just weren’t interested in fellas whose performance had disappointed, and they sure as hell would let all the other mermaids know one way or the other.

Johnny fell asleep in the warm water, listening to the bubbles, the frogs, and the songs of the mermaids.

The next morning Johnny awoke with his head on the shore like a pillow and his body in the waters like a blanket. The mermaid laid atop the rock at the center of the pond, beautiful in her nocturnal slumber. Johnny got up, stood around on the boardwalk a while until he’d dried off, and then put his clothes and boots back on and walked back into town, keeping his footsteps quiet the first while so as not to wake his companion of the night before.

 

 

iii

Johnny laid on his back under a truck, flashlight in his teeth, muttering curses about the fact that every single bolt and screw on this entire damn machine was stripped. He pressed a screwdriver into one stripped screw harder, and worked it until he found an angle. It’d turn a couple of degrees before the screwdriver would slip and he’d bang his knuckles against the undercarriage. It did not contribute positively to his headache and sore muscles. But if that was what it took. He turned the screwdriver again and again.

Just as he was finished banging his knuckles for a twentieth time, he felt a tap of someone gently kicking his boot to get his attention. “Y’alright under there?”

“Peachy,” Johnny answered around the flashlight in his mouth, and then swore as he banged his knuckles for a twenty-first time.

“It’s Sunday, Johnny,” Stickshift said. “Come on into town with me, we’ll sit and listen to Tony’s kid’s new CD’s some more. Hell, stay here and have a drink, read a book, whatever you like. But leave these cars alone.”

“We’re behind.”

“That’s not our problem today, Johnny. Leave it alone.”

“Go to hell.”

The screw dropped out of the undercarriage and plinked Johnny on the nose before rattling to the ground. Johnny sighed with relief, put the screw in the dish with the other stripped ones, and then inched himself deeper under to work on the next screw.

Johnny heard Stickshift sigh too, and then heard the footsteps of Stickshift leaving.

With the day to himself, Johnny wrenched on cars without any interruption for chatting or rest. In the zone, he fixed up machine after machine, making each and every engine growl like a song. Hours went by, until he had the hood up on the second to last car, running its engine and watching it work to see what in the hell was wrong with it. It seemed fine as far as he could see from here. He went to go shut the engine off, and as he came around the hood, he saw someone running up the path from town.

It was Dave. Looking at him fully, he didn’t so much run as hurriedly shamble. Blood soaked his shirt and pants, and left red streaks across his face. His eyes were panicked. He looked at Johnny, and shouted something, but Johnny couldn’t hear it over the engine.

Johnny sprinted forward to go meet Dave. As he made his way there, Dave collapsed. Johnny came to a skidding halt and knelt down at Dave’s side. There was a bullet wound in Dave’s shoulder and another one in his leg. Dave looked up at Johnny, clutched Johnny’s hand, tried to repeat whatever he’d said earlier, but didn’t have the breath before dying.

Johnny swore, tried to wake Dave up, took a pulse, looked at the wounds. It was over.

Johnny stood. Being away from the running engine now, and facing towards town, Johnny’s heart sank as he realized the faint sound of distant gunfire, popping off again and again. Johnny ran back inside to get his hunting rifle, and then threw himself into one of the fixed trucks and floored it into town.

By the time he got there, the gunfire had stopped. Johnny got out of his truck at the edge of town, parked beside the town’s main gravel road.

The slain were laid out on either side of the road. Johnny walked down the road slowly, bug-eyed, hands trembling, looking around and around at the corpses with slit throats and bullet wounds. Tony’s kid was killed. Kim was killed. Kate was killed. Jenny was killed. Lucy was killed. Kitty was killed. Lucille was killed. Jim was killed. Sharry was killed. Pat was killed. Linda was killed. Skinny was killed. Stickshift was killed. Pete was killed. Johnny took the glass of rum out of Pete’s dead hand, smashed it on the ground, turned his head to the sky, and screamed, again and again, long past the point when his throat hurt, long past the point where there was any catharsis to it, again and again, until when he tried to make even a whimper he hacked and coughed, and his breathing for a long time after was ragged, wheezing, labored.

With his hunting rifle slung over his chest, Johnny staggered out of town, following after the tracks of the killers.

 

 

iv

Johnny crouched hunkered down on the side of a bluff, looking through the scope of his hunting rifle down at the parade of marauders. The marauders had arrived at the next town up the coast, and were massacring the folks here too. Johnny’s finger rested heavy on the trigger, but even if he were the best shot in the world, he had ten bullets. He wasn’t stopping much from up here.

Johnny stopped looking, reslung his rifle, and scrambled down the slope towards town. They wouldn’t get away from him this time. He at least needed something to track them by. A country they were from. The name of their leader. All he knew about them presently was that they wore grey clothes, and most had a black and orange bandanna somewhere on their person as well.

As Johnny stalked through the spongy soil of this northern reach of the swamp, he kept his posture low, hiding in the long grass. The gunfire died down as he advanced. These marauders didn’t seem to stick around long.

Off to his side, Johnny heard a canine yelp in pain. Johnny raised his sights and wheeled around to face that way. Stalking through the swamp, he came around a rocky outcropping to find two marauders in a small clearing with an injured dog, each of them taking turns striking the dog with their rifles. Johnny aimed, waited for one of them to stand still for a second, and then shot the marauder in the head, ending the sadist’s life in a cloud of pink mist. Before the other marauder could orient himself to what had just happened, Johnny pulled off two shots on him too, and got him in the chest. He went down.

Johnny stalked away from the scene for a moment, laid low in a patch of long grass, and waited, listening to see if he had alerted anyone.

It seemed not. Johnny got up and stalked his way to the clearing, head on a swivel to keep aware of anyone else stalking around.

When he arrived, the two men and the dog were dead. Johnny knelt at one of the men, turned his body over onto his back, and began rummaging through his grey clothing. In a breast pocket, he found a medallion. The medallion was stamped with an image of a skull, and a phrase in an unknown language above the skull and below it. Rummaging through the other body, Johnny found an identical medallion in a trouser pocket.

Johnny perked up at the sound of grass rustling nearby. He stood and turned and began to raise his rifle, but the marauder got a shot off first. A bullet seared through Johnny’s left hand and the side of his stomach, and Johnny was knocked onto his ass like he’d been clipped by a truck. He screamed, and fumbled to find a grip on his rifle with his good hand before the marauder could arrive.

Before that happened, another gunshot rang out.

Johnny’s breath came in shaking stutters, but he tried to keep it quiet so he could hear what was happening.

“Johnny?” a new voice called, from the direction of where the latest shot had come from. “Johnny, was that you? Pete’s kid?”

Johnny writhed in pain. “Yeah! Johnny! I’m shot pretty bad over here! Is that you Sylvester?”

“It is!”

Another mechanic. This town had a bigger port, and Pete bought parts from this guy every now and then.

Johnny stood up, hand off of his rifle. Standing in the grass was Sylvester, wearing a suit made of long strands of the same grass that he hid in. Sylvester stalked up to Johnny, and helped him to a safer place where they could go see his wound looked to.

In a few minutes they arrived at Sylvester’s shop outside of town. Sylvester bandaged the wounds, the one on Johnny’s hand and the one on Johnny’s side. When the wounds were patched, Sylvester suggested Johnny lay down for a while, but Johnny insisted on standing. The two of them wandered over to the garage. Johnny handed Sylvester one of the medallions. “You read this?”

Sylvester took the medallion. “Pirates’ Cant. We are the tide. Bleak Francis.

Johnny had heard legends of him. Wherever there was contentment in the world, Bleak Francis appeared and put an end to it. He slaughtered entire cities and made off with the ships. Many sailors had come to stock false ropes on deck as preemptive revenge: should Bleak Francis kill them and steal their ship, someday a rope would snap at the worst time and kill Bleak Francis, though this had never yet happened, of course. He appeared from nowhere and departed to nowhere, he was born nowhere and lived nowhere and would never die, and would always kill. That was what the legends said. Johnny had other ideas about whether or not Bleak Francis would die.

Johnny staggered out of the garage. As he went out into the sun, he looked down at his bandaged hand, and then turned back to face Sylvester. “Thank you, Sylvester.”

“Where in the hell do you think you’re going?”

“I’m going to kill Bleak Francis.”

“Not without me you ain’t.”

Sylvester walked out into the sun with Johnny, and the two began towards town.

 

 

v

Sylvester’s town was left the same way as Johnny’s had been. Sylvester kept his eyes high, avoiding looking down at the bodies as much as possible. Johnny took them through town following the bulk of the marauders’ tracks. The tracks brought them to port, where the ships were missing. On the horizon out at sea, Johnny could see Bleak Francis and his men getting away.

Johnny yelled slurs at them at the top of his ragged lungs, raised his rifle, and emptied his remaining rounds after them, but at such a range, landing any shot would be a miracle. Sylvester raised his rifle too, aimed, took a shot, waited, and then shook his head.

The ships continued on, over the horizon.

Johnny began towards the port, where there was still a rowboat left.

Sylvester remained where he stood, and called, “You wanna kill Bleak Francis or you wanna kill yourself?”

Johnny raised both arms in a shrug as he kept walking. “Right now I’m a little indifferent, to be honest.”

“You wanna kill Bleak Francis,” Sylvester said, calling Johnny’s bluff.

It was true. Johnny did want to kill Bleak Francis.

Sylvester began walking after Johnny, just so he didn’t have to shout any louder. “I’m going to see Kara.”

Johnny stopped. Kara was Sylvester’s granddaughter, and worked as a medium. Johnny turned to face Sylvester. He felt a sting of tears come to him as he considered his next words. “Kara’s probably dead.”

Sylvester nodded, and wiped a tear from his own eye. “Maybe she’s still taking business calls.”

Sylvester led the way back into town, still keeping his eyes up. Johnny saw Kara’s corpse outside of her house, but thought better of mentioning it to Sylvester. The two men proceeded inside through the battered open front door. The home smelled of incense and flowers.

Sylvester went to a shelf, and picked up a pair of metal objects. “Dowsing rods,” Sylvester said. As he held them loosely in his steady hands, the two rods began to point around and around, until both settled on pointing towards a stairway leading upwards. Sylvester and Johnny proceeded up the stairs, down a hall, around a corner, and up another stairway, which brought them into a room which took up the entirety of the third floor: a large window on one wall let in light, and a black carpet over the floor absorbed the light. Every inch of wall, besides that where the window was, had a bookshelf before it. The shelves held books, as well as crystals, vases, bones, and miscellany. At the center of the room was a grey stone basin. The dowsing rods pointed to the basin. Sylvester and Johnny went and stood by the basin. Once there, the dowsing rods began spinning independently of one another, no longer pointing to anything in particular. Sylvester lowered them.

The two men looked at the basin, and then at one another.

Johnny reached into a pocket, took out one of the medallions, and dropped it in. It landed with a clatter of metal on stone.

In front of them, one book flew off of its shelf and landed open on the floor, turned to a particular page. An extreme gust of wind blew off the roof of the house, shattered the window, and rustled Sylvester’s hair. From the clear blue sky, a single raindrop fell and landed on a particular place in the open book.

Sylvester set down the dowsing rods, brought his hands together, and spoke into his clasped hands a brief prayer of thanks and farewell.

Johnny and Sylvester went to the book, and each took a knee before it. The raindrop had landed on the heading of a section entitled, The Oracle of Ma’ir.

There are the calm oceans of the world, and there are the roiling border seas; between the calm white and the calm red, the roiling pink fraught with whitecaps and whirlpools. If one’s ship is taken into such a whirlpool at a border sea, and they have grave business unfinished, they will arrive at the Island of Yai, where the Oracle of Ma’ir resides.

Sylvester noted, “Not far from here to the black sea. Fancy a trip to the roiling grey?”

Johnny fancied a trip to the roiling grey very much.

Sylvester led the way to a smaller dock, in a reclusive inlet outside of town. There, they boarded a catamaran, swapped out the false ropes for good ones, and set sail towards the roiling grey.

 

 

vi

“It’s getting hairy alright!” Sylvester said, eyes pinched nearly shut as the spray of grey saltwater became a constant force.

The deck rocked greatly back and forth, threatening to roll the boat over. Johnny worked the sail with a white-knuckled grip. His jaw chattered from the cold ocean water that had been spraying them the last two hours, as they’d gone deeper and deeper into the border sea. They were nearly at their destination: ahead spun an immense whirlpool big enough to fit two towns in.

Sylvester cackled as he crouched at the very bow of the boat, leaning forward, willing himself ever closer to the whirlpool. “Take me away, Kara dear! Either your grandmother or your murderer has an appointment with me, and I dread being late!”

The catamaran rolled as it entered the raging whirlpool. Johnny lost his grip on the ropes, and was pulled down, down, down, into the dark cold sea.

 

 

vii

Back in Jim’s, sometimes, back when Johnny would come in during the day to sit down for a while sometimes, if he was there at just the right time of day, the sunlight would shine in through the window and leave a little rainbow, a little collection of every color, on the bar counter in front of him.

Presently, Johnny awoke on a beach, and the ocean in front of him was like an entire landscape consisting of that rainbow, as though every rainbow little or large that had ever shone in the world had come here afterwards and been pooled together.

Sand clung to Johnny’s naked body and his ears rang. He sat upright, worked his jaw around, rubbed his ears trying to clear the ringing. He could still hear, at least. He could hear the waves. And he could see. Lord could he see.

He looked to his left and right. Down the beach a ways to his right, he saw Sylvester, also sitting on the beach naked, also looking out at the ocean. Behind them, when the beach ended, was a green forest.

Johnny stood and began walking towards Sylvester. Sylvester noticed Johnny then, and with stiff joints, stood up as well.

“Your ears hurt?” Johnny asked loudly.

Sylvester spat out a tooth. “Everything hurts. Let’s go.”

Johnny and Sylvester proceeded up the beach, and marched over the short grass through the green forest, brushing the sand off of themselves as they went. Johnny was stricken by the silence of the place, compared to the tulip swamp. No frogs croaked, no crickets chirped, no insects buzzed. There was the rushing of the wind through the leaves, and there was the ringing in his ears, and there was the sound of their footsteps.

After a mile or so, Johnny and Sylvester arrived at a clearing, which was kept in dapple shade by the large trees adjacent. At the center of the clearing were two figures. One was a dog: she was the size and build of a golden retriever, though her long hair was not gold, but rather was an ever-moving array of pure colors, the same as the ocean nearby. Behind the dog, her face buried in the fur at the dog’s rump, was a woman: the woman kept one hand on the dog’s flank, and the other hand reached up to stroke the dog’s back, as she licked and kissed the dog’s vulva.

Johnny and Sylvester stood at the edge of the clearing. “Oh lord,” Sylvester muttered to Johnny. The dog looked at them, wagging, swishing the long hair of her tail back and forth over the woman’s head. The woman seemed not to have noticed her visitors yet.

Sylvester gave a loud, pointed cough.

The woman continued about her business.

Johnny gave a whistle to the dog.

The dog stepped away from the woman’s hold—her hands clung to the canine for a moment, but then fell away as the dog persisted in leaving. The woman looked around as though waking up from a nap. The dog bounded happily towards Johnny. Johnny crouched down and met the dog, petting her rainbow coat and receiving a lick on the cheek.

The woman came over, and Johnny stood to meet her. The dog sat down at the woman’s side.

“Welcome,” the woman said.

Johnny gave her a nod, and Sylvester said, “We come seeking the Oracle of Ma’ir. Are you her?”

The woman smiled. “What strange visitors, who come on such a difficult journey while knowing so little. My name is Carolyn. I may have learned much of the future lo these many years, but I am not the Oracle of Ma’ir. Do you wish to hear the tale of the one who you seek?”

Johnny gave a gesture to indicate she had the floor.

Carolyn brushed a few strands of hair out of her face, and began. “From the clay of void, Ma’ir created three beings: a mountain, a flame, and a dog. He made love to the mountain, which brought forth every planet and moon. He made love to the flame, which brought forth every star. He made love to the dog—this dog—and from her womb spilled forth the fish who would fill the oceans; over time, the other gods would make love to the fish, bringing forth all the different creatures of the air and the land. In this dog is contained genesis, as well as echoes of all time and space. She is the Oracle of Ma’ir.”

Johnny knelt, and bowed his head.

The Oracle of Ma’ir licked his forehead, and he smiled.

Sylvester crossed his arms, and asked, “Does she speak?”

“Does yours?” Carolyn countered.

Johnny stood back up. Loudly, he said, “I do speak, but I think my sense of volume is a little off right now.” He rubbed one of his ringing ears. “Howdy.”

Sylvester asked, “If she is an oracle, and she does not speak, then how might one consult with her?”

Carolyn leaned down and pet the oracle’s head. “You observed me consulting with her as you arrived. Place your mouth on her sex, and you shall know what you wish to of anything which is descended of Ma’ir; all the universe, shown as an echo of his presence in her.”

“Good lord, I might actually be sick.”

Johnny leaned over to Sylvester, and loudly said, “We came this far. You got this. Like riding a bicycle.”

Sylvester sighed, then shuddered. He knelt down on the grass. “Show us your bum then,” he said to the oracle.

The oracle wagged, stood, and then faced away from Sylvester, tail turned aside, presenting.

Sylvester faced away, and dry heaved over the grass. “I can’t,” he gagged. “Even if I could bring myself to kiss its snatch—” he paused to dry-heave again—“how am I supposed to put my face that near a dog’s arsehole?”

“Carolyn didn’t seem to mind it.”

“What would really be better about a human’s anus?” Carolyn added.

Sylvester sighed, spoke a brief prayer, and then screwed his eyes shut and leaned forward, placing his lips on the pitch-black vulva of the Oracle of Ma’ir. He held his lips there for one second, then two, three, four, five. After five he shot back as though from an electric shock, gasping, eyes wide.

“NOTHING!” he shrieked, and pointed at the dog. “I SAW—I SAW VOID, TRUE EMPTINESS, NOTHING!”

“Then she felt nothing,” Carolyn scolded, and crouched down to pet the oracle. Looking up at Johnny, she asked, “Do you wish to consult with her, or are we done here?”

“Uh, well ma’am, dogs aren’t exactly my type, but if you insist—”

“Fucking liar,” Sylvester spat from the ground. He still trembled, but he looked up at Johnny with contempt. “I didn’t suggest that you do it because I know you’ll actually get off on it. I know about what you used to pay Jim’s girls to do with his dog.”

“Dogs aren’t my type!” Johnny insisted. “I still respect them! I still want them to have a good time, I just don’t want to be part of it!”

“Go on and eat a dog’s cunt here then, fucking liar.”

“I will. But this is on my terms,” Johnny said, pointing an insistent finger down at Sylvester. “I’m doing this so we can find Bleak Francis and we can get our revenge and put an end to his marauding, and I’m going to do a good job since I’m doing it anyways. But this is a one-off thing for me. A departure from the usual. Go to hell.”

“Meet you there,” Sylvester moaned, and then turned and vomited in the grass.

Johnny made a noise with his lips, and the oracle came over, wagging. Johnny got on his knees, petting the oracle, and said gently, if loudly, “Turn around girl.”

The oracle did turn around, and presented to Johnny.

Johnny placed a hand on the oracle’s flank, a hand on the oracle’s back, tilted his head, wet his lips, put his mouth to the oracle’s vulva, and got to work, prodding and massaging with his lips and tongue. In a few seconds, Johnny’s field of vision was replaced with a sight of swirling rainbows, like the ocean, like the oracle’s coat. His hearing—the ringing—faded away to silence. All of his perception was on the feeling of pleasuring the oracle’s sex with his tongue and his lips, and the sight of rainbows. As he went on, bands of the rainbows grouped closer together, and closer still, until forming into an image of a castle near a beach on the red sea. Bleak Francis and his men resided here. Johnny could reach out across all moments of time at once, and see the hundreds of times Bleak Francis and his marauders had come and gone from here. He could reach across all of space, and at once see the castle, and the medallions in every man’s pocket, and the handsome scarred face of Bleak Francis, and the continent on which the castle resided. He shifted his focus away from Bleak Francis’s castle, and towards the Island of Yai, in the near future: he saw himself and Sylvester marching off into the rainbow sea, accompanied by an army of faceless ghosts.

When he had seen all that he needed to, Johnny gave the oracle one last departing kiss, scratched her flank, and sat back. Wagging ecstatically, the oracle turned and lapped at Johnny’s face. “Yeah, alright,” Johnny said, and returned a few of her kisses, opening his mouth for her, their tongues playing off of each other. Then he leaned away, keeping her at bay with a firm hand on her shoulder. “Thank you,” he said to her.

“Not your type?” Sylvester asked.

Johnny noticed the ringing had come back to his ears.

Carolyn sat down behind the oracle, kissed at her vulva for a few moments, and then backed away. “Wow. This... actually is his first time with a dog,” Carolyn mentioned.

“Bullllshit.”

Hours at a time with the mermaids, you go man,” she mentioned to Johnny, and then offered him knuckles.

He fist-bumped her, and then faced Sylvester. “I learned where Bleak Francis is, if you were wondering.”

“Do we kill him?”

“It’s a massacre.”

Sylvester stood up, and Johnny and Carolyn stood up too.

Johnny turned to Carolyn. “Who are the ghosts of this island?”

“Souls lost to the whirlpools who did not have grave business left unfinished, but who are happy to help if someone else has a cause that they like.”

Johnny nodded. To the oracle and to Carolyn, he said, “Thank you both.”

“Any time,” Carolyn responded, and gave Johnny a nod back.

Johnny and Sylvester marched away through the woods. As they marched across the beach, their ghostly army formed up beside them, marching in step with their two leaders, who also, of course, were ghosts now. The rainbow sea ahead of them parted, and left in the gap a mist of pure red saltwater.

 

 

viii

Johnny, Sylvester, and their army emerged up out of the red sea before the castle of Bleak Francis. Grey-coated men met them in the yard and fired at them, but each bullet passed through the approaching ghosts: death had finally come to reap Bleak Francis and his men. The ghosts soared forward through the air, killing those who tried to fight and killing those who tried to flee: every marauder had chosen and sealed his fate long before this day.

Johnny and Sylvester arrived at the heavy castle gate and passed through as though it were a curtain. Bleak Francis’s men attacked with bullets and blades, and were shortly slaughtered by razor-sharp ghostly claws.

Johnny and Sylvester marched into the castle, and arrived at the throne room. Bleak Francis sat upon his throne, flanked by twenty guards who had their rifles trained on the approaching ghosts. Bleak Francis himself smiled, and held up two goblets of wine, besides the one resting on the arm of his throne.

“Perhaps we could talk this over?” he asked cordially.

Johnny scowled and quickened his march, thinking of his dead father, his dead brother, and his dead friends. Sylvester quickened his own pace beside him.

Bleak Francis’s expression dropped from ambassadorial optimism to frightened realization. He turned to his nearest guard. “Kill them.”

Every guard emptied the magazine of his fully automatic rifle at the ghosts, to no effect: the ghostly army soared forward, killing every gunman. Bleak Francis rose from his throne and attempted to flee: Sylvester and Johnny leapt forward and knocked the pirate captain onto his back, each ghost breaking one of the captain’s ankles. Bleak Francis shrieked in pain. Sylvester raked his claws against Bleak Francis’s face, tearing apart that which was once unduly handsome. Johnny dug his claws against Bleak Francis’s guts, opening several of his internal organs. Bleak Francis died a long, painful, well-earned death.

The ghostly army fanned out to sweep for stragglers. Johnny and Sylvester turned to face one another.

“I think that’s about it for me,” Sylvester said. “Look me up in the great beyond sometime, I’ll buy you a beer.”

“I might be a while,” Johnny said. “I still got more business here.”

“Heh. I think you always will, Johnny. Take care.”

Sylvester and Johnny shook hands, until Sylvester’s ghost faded, and passed on to the next place.

Johnny turned, walked out of the castle, back down the yard, and back into the red waters of the red ocean.

 

 

ix

Johnny returned to the Island of Yai, walked through the green forest, and sat at the edge of the clearing for a while, watching Carolyn consult with the oracle. The oracle saw Johnny and wagged, but remained with Carolyn. Eventually, Johnny brought his fingers to his mouth and gave a whistle, and the oracle came bounding over. Carolyn looked around, gathered her bearings, and then stood and came over too. Johnny sat petting the oracle. As Carolyn arrived, Johnny stood.

“You’re back,” she said.

Johnny nodded. “She’s not my type, but I think you might be.”

Carolyn crossed her arms. “I looked into you a lot while you were gone. Past and future.”

“How’s it look?”

Carolyn smirked. “We get along for a while.”

Johnny stepped forward, brushed aside a strand of Carolyn’s hair, and the two of them shared their first kiss.

 

 

x

On the Island of Yai, Carolyn consults with the Oracle of Ma’ir, as Johnny consults with Carolyn.

Well 8

The drainage differentials for each pump have been logged. The well and its command station have been inspected and passed without need for any spot repairs or notes. The entry room, the fitness room, the showers, the hangar, the yard, the stairwell, the basement latrine, the storage room, the crew quarters, the subbasement latrine, the break room, and the control room have been inspected and passed with no need for notes on integrity confirmation, and each of the aforementioned rooms has been made spotless. All of the lights that turn off are off. It is the middle of the closest thing this place has to night. Not a single thing in this station needs my attention right now. Nonetheless, I can’t sleep. I lie in my bed with my eyes closed, and every minute feels like a wasted hour.

Down at the far end of the crew quarters, Oaae begins to snore. This station is made to accommodate up to fourteen crew members comfortably, which feels excessive to say the least: Oaae and I have managed just fine for the entire time I’ve been here, and before I had arrived, it sounds like Oaae managed just fine all by theirself. Even with Oaae’s snoring to keep me company, I lie awake in a crew quarters that demands to be filled with more snores, sneaking footsteps, soft chatter, and the ambient awareness of things being done in the other chambers of this station’s body. I can hardly imagine how empty the place was when it was Oaae alone.

With a sigh, I push the blankets off of myself and get up out of bed. I tiptoe out of the crew quarters by the soft purple light of the emergency signage, and close the door behind myself. Out in the hall, I lean against the wall for a while, and stare blankly at the dimly purple walls and doors ahead. Door to the stairwell, door to the storage room.

Deciding that I’m going to be up for a while yet, I shuffle towards the storage room. Inside, I close the door behind myself, and continue to go along by the dim purple lights. I walk slowly around the rows of metal shelves and cabinets, peering at the dimly lit contents of this treasure trove that lies on the ocean floor.

I do marvel at that: I am on another planet, living at the bottom of this other planet’s ocean, cohabitating with an alien—or cohabitating as an alien, to be realistic—and I am bored. I am the product of at least a dozen miracles, medical and logistical, and I have the gall to be snooping through equipment lockers looking for something to do.

As I am walking slowly along down the far back row of the storage room, I pause mid-step, and hold my breath: I can hear something. A sound that is faint, very very faint, is coming from something in this row. There is something that is making a humming. It gets louder and quieter in half second intervals, more resonant and less resonant—it sounds musical.

I move slowly in half steps and pauses, standing tall and crouching low, trying to listen for the sound to grow louder. Eventually I am lying flat on the floor looking at the bottom shelf midway down the row: under a blanket here there are a dozen mysterious lumps that are wordlessly humming to me. Gently, I lift the blanket up and roll it to one side, and see a dozen polished black stones of various sizes, ranging from about the size of an eyeball to about the size of a fist. The one the size of an eyeball is, very faintly, glowing with a yellow light, and it is the one that is humming.

I reach out, and hold my finger near it—it does not seem excessively hot, nor excessively cold, and I can’t imagine there is much danger here: I touch the stone; the glow goes out and the hum ceases; I feel the last of the vibrations absorbed in my fingertip.

“Aw,” I breathe.

As soon as the sound comes out of me, all twelve stones shoot into light and begin singing, harmonizing with each other and growing louder and louder and brighter and brighter. I begin cursing, but the sound of my voice only spurs them to be louder and brighter yet.

Shutting myself up, I reach out and put my palm gently over each of them, one after another, making them go out one by one under the touches of my hands.

Carefully, as silently as I can, I back away from the now quiet stones and sit on the floor with my arms around my knees in the far back row of the storage room, trying to pretend to the universe like nothing happened.

I hear the hall lights snap on, and I sigh.

The door to the storage room is pulled open.

“Cel?” Oaae gently calls, over the shelves and lockers.

“Hi Oaae,” I call back. At my voice the stones start to hum again. I throw the blanket back over them and they stop. “I’m alright, everything’s fine. Sorry for the noise.”

“If you wanted to start a band, you could have said so. What do you play?”

I hang my head down to look at the covered stones. “I don’t know, what are these?”

“Far back row, bottom shelf?” they ask.

“Yeah,” I confirm.

“Rememberer rocks,” they answer.

“Well I certainly don’t play rememberer rocks,” I tell them, and they let out a tiny, quiet laugh that makes me smile because I don’t think I was actually supposed to hear it.

“Do you play?” I ask.

“Outside I do. In here with the air, most of the instruments don’t sound right.”

“Can we go out so you can show me?” I ask.

Oaae mutters obliquely blasphemous curses, and answers, “It’s the dead middle of the quiet cycle. Come to bed, Aiae’ae’aeoe’oe.”

It’s been a while since I heard them call me that—Aiae’ae’aeoe’oe. It’s a nickname that I earned early on for my apparently outrageous behavior within this very orderly station. The first time Oaae called me that was when I was trying to make candles in the break room, and Oaae walked in at a rather messier part of the process—I think when they called me Aiae’ae’aeoe’oe that time it slipped out by mistake, because when I did ask its meaning later on, it turned out to be quite a harsh word that I wouldn’t have expected from them. But from them I find it endearing now, and it’s stuck.

As Oaae scolds me, I actually do feel drowsiness finally washing over me—maybe it’s only a survival mechanism to escape from this beratement, but if it works it works. I ask them, “Will you play for me tomorrow?”

“Yes,” they say. “If you would hear me.”

I get up and come follow after Oaae to bed.

 

 

The next day proves inopportune for musical performances, as duty has called Oaae and I away from the station nearly as soon as we had woken up. Riding passenger, I find myself zoning out on the long drive.

“Cel?” they say at one point, when my eyes have been resting on their hand for a while.

I snap up to looking sidelong at Oaae’s face. Then I remember myself a second time, and I look ahead as we ride along. They do not like to be looked at. This is an enigma, as they are naked and their skin is patterned with phosphorescent geometries that look like writing overlapping itself, a forest of glowing sentences. Oaae—which means green—glows green. When there is another Oaae with us, my maintenance assignment partner Oaae is frequently called Oaae Aioa’oa: Slim Green. Where I am from they would be a bodybuilder. Here, they are lithe.

“Sorry,” I tell them, and I am sorry. Nonetheless, it feels disingenuous—to me—to be apologizing while so conspicuously averting eye contact: I am telling them the truth while screaming with my body language that I am lying.

But that is not how they read it, of course. “I understand,” they tell me generously. More generously, they change the subject. “We’re almost there.”

The rover plows on slowly along the ocean floor. The road is lighted, though only in one area at a time. As we near the edge of this radius of light, the next megaton lamp chunks on, illuminating about another quarter mile of the road. Fish scatter away into the dark. The lamp that had been guiding us previously shuts off shortly after we have left its radius.

Oaae and I live on planets that are in orbit with one another. Many of my people still consider Oaae’s planet to be our moon, even though both planets are of similar mass, and theirs is of significantly greater volume. My people are amphibious, and live on coasts and in the shallow ocean shelves—though recent biomedical developments have expanded things. Oaae’s people are strictly aquatic and live on the ocean floor: we did not know they existed until decades after we had arrived on their planet—this planet. At best, while down here, I am considered an alien. At worst, I am a demon. On my planet, myths portray the afterlife as being downward, because we see our dead sink. On their planet, myths portray the afterlife as being upward, because they see the dead of thousands of species falling out of the dark hell overhead down onto them—bodies which are husks that have already been harvested of their souls.

The next megaton lamp chunks on, and I groan exuberantly. At the end of our road, just beyond the tall lamppost, there is the corpse of a whale. Many fish scatter as the light is turned on, though the whale corpse continues to writhe with scavengers who are either blind to light or are undeterred by it. Oaae laughs at my continued wordless bemoaning of the situation. They then press a button on the rover and pull a receiver to their mouth.

“Arrived at Seven Two. Large carrion covering the grate.”

They park the rover just before the lamppost. The rushing of waters passing by us disappears, and it leaves an emptiness in my hearing for a moment, until gradually, the softer drone of the currents comes to fill it. The current here is slow. The ground is waves of silt littered with rocks, with the solitary line of the paved road flowing over it. The writhing whale corpse is the most massive feature that the megaton lamp illuminates.

We sit. Being that I can’t look at Oaae, I look ahead, at the whale. I attempt to see the positives. One positive: the scavengers down here are living creatures too, and if the whale has passed on anyways, it is good that the whale pays their life forward, however unwittingly. Another positive: I will get to say I touched a whale today.

There is a click before the radio comes back to us. The voice that comes through is free of any distortion, as though the radio operator is in the rover with us, and not miles and miles and miles away. “Copy. Clear them if you’re able.”

Oaae picks up the receiver again. “Copy.” They set it down, and we get out of the rover.

We begin towards the trunk. We both walk, although now that we are free of the rover, Oaae is spreading their fins out: the fins originate from the shoulder blades, and extend out far above their head and far out to either side, and come near to touching the ground as they walk.

I open the trunk. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see that Oaae is looking at the whale, gauging the situation. “Might be a three-cap job,” they decide.

I agree. “Dibs on the tail,” I call. I am regretting this enough as it is, and do not need to feel worse about myself by cutting into the creature’s head. I reach into the trunk, take a two-foot long knife by the blade, and hand it handle-first to Oaae. I also presumptuously hand them a pair of capsules, while taking only one capsule and knife for myself. They accept the two capsules that I offer. I close the trunk.

The two of us push up off of the ground, and begin swimming for the whale—I for the tail, Oaae for the head. With webbed hands and feet, I am able to propel myself perfectly adequately. With webbed hands, webbed feet, fins, and muscles like a shark’s, Oaae darts to the whale’s head and is almost done planting the first capsule by the time I have even arrived at the tail.

When I do reach the tail, I attempt to work without any thought of sentiment or ceremony. I use the knife to cut through the fleshy matter down to the spine. I pull the long wire from the capsule, then thread the wire around the spine and fasten it back onto the capsule, forming a secure loop. I then yank on the apparatus to confirm it is in fact secured. It is indeed.

“Ready?” comes Oaae’s voice.

“Ready.”

“Deploy on zero. Three, two....”

I count the one and the zero in my head, and on zero, I press a button on the side of the capsule and swim away. I can hear the hiss of the capsule aggressively inflating against the will of the deep ocean’s pressures. When I am away, I stand on the ground and look back at the whale. From the tail, mid-back, and head, three lumps are now growing. Soon, the balloons are lifting the whale off of the ground, up into the dark ocean overhead.

When carrion is clear and far beyond the highest light of the lamp, Oaae and I swim back up to where the whale had been. There, there is a grate, a mesh of thick wires reminiscent of the patterns on Oaae’s skin, though the grate does not glow. We confirm that the whale was the only obstruction, and then we head back to the rover, put away our equipment, and sit back down.

Oaae speaks into the radio: “Obstruction cleared. Returning to Well 7 to reenable Seven Two.”

We have returned past three of the lamps before the reply comes back: “Copy. Thank you.”

Oaae leans back in the driver’s seat, and keeps one hand under the steering wheel, while the other rests on the center console. I realize that I am staring at their hand again when they pull it out of my sight, to their side.

I sigh, and begin to speak, but they cut me off.

“I know,” they say.

Rushing water drones on. We near the edge of the light, and a new light snaps on. We near the edge of that light, and a new light beyond that snaps on.

They suddenly ask me: “On your planet, are there people like me?”

I am paralyzed by just how many things they might mean when they say like me. People of her species? People who are polite? People who are beautiful? People who are nonbinary? People who are technicians? People who are good at board games? People who are green?

“Like you in what respect?” I inquire.

They consider how to phrase it. With careful wording, they say, “People who are born of one sex or the other, but choose not to subscribe to the labels or gender roles that correspond in their society to a physical sex.”

Nonbinary. “No.”

Their hand twitches.

I realize I have been cruelly blunt, and seek to clarify why my answer came so readily. “At the moment, it is unclear whether or not my species has any males. None has been seen for over three hundred years. I can’t think of anything in our modern culture that you would call a gender role. So to have someone who does not subscribe to gender roles... in one respect you could say everyone in my society is nonbinary culturally, but by label, everyone so far as I know of is female. The only gender-neutral pronoun we have is for animals.”

There is quiet.

“I—”

“WHAT?” Oaae roars, and then we are both laughing so hard that they have to park the rover. I am doubled over with my head between my knees, crying, and they are trying to say something, but cannot get through the first word without cracking up again and again. Eventually when we have composed ourselves better, they give up on what they were going to say, and instead just ask, “HOW?” and I laugh again, and am about to speak again when they interrupt again to roar, “HOW TO ALL OF THAT.”

Thinking back, I personally have never spoken about this topic with anyone here. I had assumed that surely somebody at some time had. Perhaps not. Or perhaps so, but not in such a way that it became common knowledge.

Being that Oaae has parked us on the side of the road in all of the excitement, I get out of the rover, and tell Oaae to come over to the sand. “It’s okay if you look at me,” I mention to them. I am wearing clothes, anyways—leggings and a top that both hug my body tightly, but flow loosely in faux-frays at the ends of the cuffs. I merely mention it because I will be on my knees leaning over the sand to draw with my hand, and it will be difficult for them not to see me.

“For my species, this is a woman.” I make a basic drawing in the sand. Skinny compared to people of their species. Two arms, two legs, with long toes and fingers, and webbing between the digits. As a finishing touch I draw a vertical line for a vagina, and Oaae hums to theirself in a way that seems pleased.

I move over on the sand to give myself more space.

“This is a man.” In the sand, I make a basic drawing of a figure in profile with no arms or legs, only flippers, dorsal fins, and a tailfin. His face is elongated. I do not draw it, but I point at a place on his underside, and say, “The penis comes out from here.”

“That...” Oaae is stunned. “That is... They are... dolphins?”

I snicker. “There are some differences that make them easy to distinguish. The men have these wavy ridges along their backs, and their tailfins are more pronounced into the two points...” I try to make these details more exaggerated in my drawing, but I am not an artist.

“I know it would be insensitive to accuse you of joking...”

I shake my head. “If I’m being perfectly honest: I had learned about your culture’s genders before I came here, but I was shocked when I arrived and discovered all of you were serious about it.”

They seem very amused by this.

“So, anyways. I can relate, I guess. But this is real.”

“Are you three hundred years old, then? Older?”

“Hm?” I am baffled.

“You said there have been no men for—”

“Oh! No. Well.” I think of how to explain. “If you want to count from when I was conceived, I am three hundred and fifty, or somewhere around that old. But we tend to start counting from when we hatched. I’m twenty nine. I know your mothers and fathers are very important to you, but I never knew mine. They were dead a very long time before my clutch was stirred up.”

“How do—stop me if I’m probing, actually.”

“Go ahead,” I say, and sit cross-legged.

“What happened to all the men?”

“We don’t know. My understanding is that they come and go in cycles. There are cycles of an individual, where he will be present one week and then not present the next, vacillating between the two. Then there are cycles of them all, where there will be no men anywhere for a matter of years—or in exceptional cases, centuries. Apparently when one of them disappears it’s quite startling. They just—they burst into a tangle of lights, and then they’re just gone, suddenly.”

“When they come back, do they not say where they’ve been?”

“They don’t speak. Well. They don’t speak in a language with words as the language of the women has, or as your language has. Their vocalizations are more meant just to convey emotions. I suppose I shouldn’t say it’s only their language. Women can speak it too, actually.”

“Can I hear? Or is that rude to ask?”

“Gimme a sec,” I say. I sit still and concentrate on flexing my neck. thin slits on the neck below the jawbone open up, and from them, a sound like a very high-pitched whale call comes out.

Oaae squeals. “What did that one mean?”

“Just means what I’m feeling. I’m having a lot of fun right now.”

“Aw.”

I shrug. “Can’t really help what sound comes out. It’s extremely difficult to lie with that voice.”

“Awwww!”

I stand up from the sand, and the two of us make our way back into the rover. For the remainder of the drive I manage to keep my eyes forward and not feel weird about it.

When we arrive back at the base, Oaae parks the rover in the hangar, and then the two of us make our way into the transfer chamber. When the doors on both sides are securely locked and fastened, the water begins draining from the chamber, replaced with oxygenated air. Oaae begins applying a salve to their skin to help with the exposure to the air. While in this chamber, I always think that I can hear the nanobots in my bloodstream whirring extra hard to adjust for the changing pressure, though I usually come to the conclusion that it’s just my imagination. Still, I frequently spend much of my time in this chamber trying to hear and dishear them.

After a while, we hear the lock disengage on the door to the interior of the base. Oaae turns the lever on the door, and then pauses. “Shoot, I think I left the rover’s lights on.”

I open the slits on my throat to speak my emotions, and what comes out is a tone of endearing amusement. There are, of course, no lights on the rover.

“What was that one?” Oaae asks, in reference to the vocalization.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” I answer.

“Well I’m going to pretend it means you think I’m funny.”

“Uh huh.”

“Does it?”

I vocalize again, and the same tone emerges.

Oaae gives up and opens the door. Inside, I collect Oaae’s equipment from them and go to put everything in storage, while they go off to reenable pump Seven Two.

When our respective jobs are successfully done, the two of us find ourselves in the station’s break room, a place with calming brown walls that are not flat, but instead jut out and in in the shapes of rocks. At the center of the room are two sofas back to back, each facing an opposite wall of the break room. Oaae sits on one sofa and I sit on the other, each of us holding a game board and a dish full of pegs.

“C7,” Oaae calls to me.

I make a noise of disbelief, and hear Oaae snicker.

“Hit,” I tell them, and insert a peg into one of the game pieces on my board. I hear them insert a peg into their board as well. “C7,” I guess back.

“Y’got me. Hit.”

“Wait really?”

They snicker again, but confirm that yes, that was, in fact, a hit.

 

 

A few weeks later, Oaae and I are driving out to pump Seven Two again to see why it stopped drawing water last night. We are both in agreement that it’s probably another whale, though we won’t know until we get there.

Oaae and I are cracking up as we discuss the oddities of their language’s verb tenses, when from the rover, the voice of the communications operator comes through. The message is hardly a second long, and was clearly cut off almost immediately after it began. I did not catch any of what was said in the brief time that the message did come through. I ask Oaae if they caught anything, and they say that they did not. Oaae eases off the accelerator and picks up the receiver.

“Say again.”

We wait. There is a momentum to all of the smiling and laughing we have just done—it lingers in my body physically, and relaxes into somber professionalism as we wait for the operator to repeat.

The radio clicks. “Well 8 has gone dark. Signatures indicate the facility is completely non-operational. There is no indication they are receiving our communications. Drop all non-critical tasks from Well 7 and move to Well 8. A HomeOps team will meet you outside. More teams are moving in but will not arrive until tomorrow.”

“Copy. Moving.” Oaae slows down, does a U-turn, and then pushes down on the accelerator, and we are off.

I am terrified.

“Has this ever happened before?” I ask. I know it must not happen often. Not since I’ve been here.

Their answer is only comforting in the sense that we can clearly share in a sense of solidarity: they sound terrified too. “I have never heard of anything like this,” they say. They grab the receiver. “Requesting any additional information. What could have caused Well 8 to go dark?” This question is sent in desperation. If there was any additional information, it would have been shared in the first message.

We rumble along.

The radio clicks. “You will likely be the ones who will be able to tell us what might have happened, soon enough. Apologies.”

Oaae grabs the receiver. “No harm done. Thank you.”

Hours pass. We do not talk much. We go from lamp to lamp, scaring off fish, a periodically moving dot on the ocean floor.

Eventually when we are arriving at the edge of another lamp, the next lamp does not come on, and we are rocketing into sheer darkness. Oaae screams, I scream, and they brake. The other lamp goes off behind us, and we come to a stop, and the only thing in the world that I might be able to see is the glowing patterns of Oaae’s skin, which I am not allowed to look at. Something brushes against my face and I shriek. It goes away. It was likely a very harmless fish, but in any case, I do not like it.

Oaae swears. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see that they are reaching for the transmission. Carefully they put the rover into reverse, and bring us back into the range of the last lamp. When the lamp chunks on and we are comfortably inside of its radius, they switch the rover back to drive.

“Well,” they say. Then they add nothing more.

“Well,” I agree.

The two of us wait in the rover, parked beside the lamp post.

Oaae grabs the receiver. “We believe we are near the base. The lamps are out. Waiting for HomeOps to accompany us farther unless you advise otherwise.”

They set down the receiver, and as soon as they’ve set it down, a new voice comes in through the radio. “Copy. HomeOps to Crew Seven, we are thirty minutes out. Are you in light?”

Oaae picks the receiver back up. “Confirmed, we are in lamplight.”

“Copy.”

A short time later, the communications operator comes in. “Copy. Wait for—”

The radio is silent.

A minute later, the radio operator speaks again. “HomeOps, mind your band. I have not received so much as a request for permissions to the Crew band.”

HomeOps quickly retorts, “Blame Aioa.”

A second voice from HomeOps also chimes in, this one male: “Hey! Oo’oa’aa was the one who—”

I hear a clamor, and then the radio is silent.

“Think they’ll be as fun in person?” Oaae asks.

“Hope so,” I say, because sounding optimistic about anything feels like a good change of pace.

The ocean current slowly drones, and nothing in sight of the lamplight moves. Oaae turns the rover around, and they and I wait, facing the road that we came from, anticipating a distant light, that will grow less distant in intervals. What comes instead is a realization that there is the sound of something large moving above us. I try to look up, but the lamp overhead shines into my eyes, and I swear in my own language. Oaae snickers. Then before we know it, there is a craft coming to ground in front of us, having apparently arrived from out of the darkness overhead. The craft has ten large wheels, three cannons that I can identify, and a glass dome on top in which two people sit. Aioa and Oo’oa’aa—Yellow and Purple.

I only glance directly at them for a fraction of a second before I catch myself and look down.

From the craft, I hear the groan and the current of a hatch opening. “Come aboard!” calls the voice of Aioa, the male who is yellow. “Leave your rover there!”

Oaae and I get out, and swim over to the craft. Inside, I follow the glow of Aioa’s yellow light out of the corner of my eye, and find a seat up in the dome.

“Aioa!” Oo’oa’aa scolds. “You didn’t tell them! I gave you one job!”

“Hey—OW, hey!”

Oo’oa’aa speaks to Oaae and I. “Hi, it’s a pleasure to meet you, really. Now. Please look me in the eyes.”

I do not. I gather that Oaae does not either.

Oo’oa’aa tries again. “If you’re going to be working with us, it’s for a very special reason: because politeness is out and survival is in. Look me in the eyes. I will not say please about it again.”

I have known Oaae for almost a year now and have never made eye contact with them. To the customs of these people, which may be more ingrained in me now than I had realized, it is as though Oo’oa’aa is asking for my hand in marriage.

“Thank you,” Oo’oa’aa says as my head is still bowed. I gather that Oaae has looked up. I do the same, and look Oo’oa’aa in her eyes. The eyes of these people are black. I think I had learned that once, but had thoroughly forgotten it. “Thank you,” she says to me as well. Her tongue glows in the same hue of purple as the patterns on her skin.

From a control console, Aioa looks over at me and asks, “Is it true you’re a spy?”

I get to watch as Oo’oa’aa punches him, not lightly.

“Better a spy than a demon,” I tell him, and shrug.

Aioa says something under his breath that I do not catch.

Getting to look at Aioa and Oo’oa’aa without modesty, I can now fully appreciate why Oaae is described as slim. These two are as broad as they are tall. Each wears an X-shaped harness over their chest, onto which rifles, grenades, and blades are strapped. I have never before today seen true weaponry on this planet, and had seldom seen it on mine beyond that used for hunting.

Oo’oa’aa looks at me, and I again look her back in the eyes. A gesture that once felt natural on my planet now feels aggressive. “What shall we call you?” she asks.

“Cel,” I tell her. My name is actually Stedl, but “Cel” is difficult enough for a species who does not ordinarily use consonants. From anyone other than Oaae, I prefer Cel to what many here are naturally inclined to call me, which is, in fact, Aiae’ae’aeoe’oe—demon.

“Cel,” Oo’oa’aa says back, with difficulty.

I nod, and then I remember that this gesture likely means nothing to a people who don’t look at each other, and I say out loud, “Yes.”

Aioa keys something on the control panel, and the craft lurches forward. He keys another thing, and lights chunk on: the ground all around the circumference of the craft is illuminated, and suddenly we are now our own megaton lamp. It is not until this very moment that I appreciate what a power core this craft must boast.

We rumble forward. We pass ten dead lampposts, and then the front face of Well 8 comes into our light. Oo’oa’aa instructs us to wait with Aioa while she gets out and has a look at the station. She swims forth on her fins to the door, interacts with a panel beside it, and then swims back. “As expected,” she reports. “Nothing.”

“Caliber?”

“Mid.”

“Aye aye,” Aioa says, and then without ceremony, he presses a button on the console that causes a cannon to fire. The wall beside the front door has a hole blown into it, and I gasp as I realize that no water is rushing in to fill the facility: it is already filled.

The fact that these facilities are dry is the entire reason that I work at one. They are a rarity among a species who would ordinarily live the entirety of their lives submerged. These well stations are only dry because the technology harbored inside requires it. If the entire facility is flooded, then the well may be damaged to the point of requiring complete reconstruction.

Some 200 years ago, the species of this planet realized that the pressure on the ocean floor was growing, and that this would soon become a catastrophic problem. Inexplicably large volumes of extra water were appearing in the ocean, source unknown. The wells were made to remove the extra water to places unknown, and alleviate the growing pressure. It is a common folk theory that the water is being teleported around in time, and that they are causing their own problems, only putting off the increased pressures perpetually. Scientifically there is no consensus on whether the water is being destroyed from the wells, teleported, or moved temporally, but there is agreement that it is at least going away from the here and now.

Oo’oa’aa speaks to us: “We’ll lead, you two follow. This station is similar to yours?”

I confirm, as I have visited a few times before: “The layout should be identical.”

Oo’oa’aa and Aioa lead the way out of the craft, and I follow alongside Oaae. The two agents swim, darting forth into the hole in the wall that their craft has blasted. Each agent has a flashlight on their harness that lights the area ahead of them. From inside, the two of them call “Clear!” one after the other.

Oaae and I swim after them, and arrive inside. The layout is indeed the same as our station, though seeing it dark and flooded, it feels unreal.

Aioa speaks a command to me. “Point us to the well core.”

I point towards a hall. “Last door at the end of the hall.”

The agents lead, and we follow. At the door, they find that it is fastened shut, but they are able to blast it open. The stairwell beyond is already flooded as well.

Oo’oa’aa curses in her language, and I concur with her.

The agents take point. As we go, I give them directions down through the facility, to the well core. Soon, we are at the central control panel. There is a plate of glass that overlooks the well: before the glass is the control panel, and beyond the glass is the well chamber. Both sides should be dry. Neither side is. The light of the agents’ flashlights does not reach to the well core itself, but it reaches beyond the glass enough to know that the station is flooded all the way through. There has been a catastrophe here. I cannot help but note that we have yet to see the crew of Well 8, a perfectly charming duo usually referred to as Cyan and Short Green, husband and husband.

Aioa turns to me, not looking at me directly, but from the corner of his eye. “What is your assessment of the damage to this station? Is it recoverable?”

I grasp at anything I can give him other than bad news. “Other than the hole you blasted in the wall, I have yet to see anything that would cause total flooding. A flood of the surface floor... dangerous and unprecedented as far as I’m aware of, but plausible. Flooding to the control room, to the well chamber... I would suspect every piece of electronic equipment in this facility is fried, though I’m at a loss as to how—”

All of us are cut short as a something dashes into the light in the well chamber, and then dashes away again. Oo’oa’aa and Aioa draw their rifles, and I shout at them to put them down. They do not listen to me. I shout again. I can hardly believe that I have seen what I think I have, but if it is true, then I will not allow him to be shot.

“A male,” I tell Oaae, getting nothing from the agents. “It’s one of the men.”

Oaae calls the agents motherless bastards and demands that they lower their rifles.

They do so, and look sideways at Oaae, and at me.

“I beg you, open the door for me.”

The agents look to Oaae.

Oaae seconds what I have said: “It is of existential importance. Do as she asks.”

The agents glide over to the door that leads into the well chamber. After a brief moment, they pull it open, and I swim through, into the dark. I flex my throat, and call out. Intrigue, my body says.

From the darkness, I hear back a call of lust.

I am electrified by it, tickled, and I echo the sound back to them in my own voice, albeit faintly.

I swim towards him. Out in the dark, among the pipes that feed into the well core from this station’s many distant pumps, the man and I meet. He presses his nose against my chest, and I curl around him, stroking along his head and down his body. I can discern nothing of how he has come here, how his presence ties to the flooding of this facility, where he and his kind have been for the last three hundred odd years. I can only know that he is here now.

I hear a second call then, and my side is nudged by another man. I shift one of my hands to him, and stroke the both of them.

They each vocalize lust to me.

My vocalization in response is that of longing to know more, but also of unmetered willingness. I pull off my clothing, and both of them begin upon me immediately: I begin vocalizing pleasure and a feeling of newness much louder than I have ever voiced, while they are vocalizing pleasure and a sense of conclusion, though the conclusion to what, I cannot know the full of. I hold each of them afterwards, and the three of us settle to the bottom of the well chamber. I am elated, and I tell them as much.

Distantly, I can hear Oaae trying to justify this to the agents, and I smile, appreciative of them. With another stroke to each of the men’s heads, I find my clothes and put them back on. By the time I have, the two men have swam off to a higher corner of the well chamber, and appear to be playing some game of swimming after each other and bumping into one another. Feeling I should not agitate the agents further by keeping them in suspense, I slowly begin returning towards the control room. I make my hands visible as I approach. When the agents do see me, they do not shoot, but their guns are drawn and pointed, and I am nervous.

“Have your men caused this?” Oo’oa’aa asks.

As I am trying to think of how to tell her that I can’t know, I notice something. A rainbow of lights on the wall ahead. After a brief flash of these lights, they are gone. I am on the verge of tears. “They have just left, in any case,” I tell her.

The agents usher me to the corner, and take turns watching me as the other makes radio contact with forces beyond this station. It is many hours before my story is understood to be the factual case of my species, and that although something of a tragedy has occurred here for them, something of a miracle has occurred here for me. I eventually find myself without a gun barrel pointed at me. Oaae hugs me, looking at me as they do, and I am shocked.

“I’m happy for you,” they tell me.

From my throat, I vocalize happiness in return.

 

 

I live on the surface now of Oaae’s planet. The surface of this planet is almost entirely ocean, but I have found a shelf in a warm enough region where the water has deep enough pockets to hide my clutch, and shallow enough regions to raise the young as they hatch, though I will almost certainly be dead before any of them do hatch. In that sense my task here feels pointless at times: I am raising eggs for some future creature’s breakfast to be had on the day after I die.

Nonetheless, I keep at it.

Much of the job of preparing the clutch is in smoothing the stones at the very pit of the pocket, while sharpening those at the mouth. One day, as I am using one stone to chip off fragments of another, I glance up and see that a shark is approaching me. Dread sinks through me, not because the shark is immense, but because he is only slightly larger than I am: If he has a mind to, he will fit through the mouth of the pocket with ease, and that will be the end of me after all of this.

I sink my way back into the depths of the pocket, hoping that he might lose interest and go find easier prey somewhere else, but still he approaches.

Then, in a rainbow burst of lights, the two men flash into being just ahead of the shark, and shriek at him in vocalizations I dare not repeat. The shark reels around, looking between the two of them and everywhere else as he tries to get a handle on what this is. In his confusion, the shark turns around and darts away.

As he goes, one of the men disappears too in a tangled rainbow of lights, but the other one stays. He comes to me. Stopping short of me in the water, at the entrance of the pocket, he voices appreciation and apology. I voice thankfulness back, and draw farther back into the pocket, inviting him in. He follows after me, and the two of us swim around and around in gentle circles in the small smooth pit, making voices at each other.

The other man must go attend to other business—I cannot ascertain the details—but this man is here to stay.

Poems

Paws on my Butt

Today I woke up with your paws on my butt

I was the little spoon in our snuggle

I had a hangover, the good kind

The kind where you don’t feel too bad really

The kind where beating up your insides feels like you got a deep tissue massage

The kind where there are a few mysteries to solve

I turned around and inductively charged my soul by the smell of your belly

After a few good long minutes of this, we made out

 

 

A Bad Hangover

This morning I woke up with a hangover

The bad kind

The kind where there’s a headache

The kind where there’s a dry mouth and throat

The kind where your stomach hurts a vaguely concerning amount

I woke up an hour before my alarm

You woke up up too, after a moment

You stretched and dug your warm back into the side of my legs

I pet you and told you good morning, because suddenly it was

 

 

The Marked and Pleasant Absence of a Hangover This Morning

I woke up this morning with no hangover,

And well rested.

You laid reversed beside me

Like we were a Jack, or Queen, or King.

Your sleeping hind legs were atop my chest.

I stayed lying with my eyes closed, and breathed.

Eventually you had a dream that you were running,

And I was the ground.

Thank you.

 

 

Tender

Waking up hungover again,

sensitivity overtuned to accepting stimuli from the world,

I eventually roll towards you

and you, bless you, snuggle back into me

so we can spoon.

Overly sensitive,

tender,

I get to feel all of your dogness.

It is in the weight of your head on my arm

that you use as a pillow.

It is in the endearing way all of your bones move around inside of you.

It is in the sound your paws make when they scratch

against the bedsheets

or when they tap against the wall.

It is in your look

when I open my eyes and look at you, and,

hi,

yes,

look at you, you are a dog here

snuggling with me

on a hungover morning—

I love that: that you are a dog.

It’s good to see you.

It is in the smell of the top of your head

and it is in your big-tongued and wide-mouthed kiss.

I love you.

Good morning, my dog.

Vol. 1 No. 6 (June 2023)

Romeo & Juliet

A Fantasy Novelization
With Quotation from The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, translated into English for the first time by Arthur Brooke

 

 

There is beyond the Alps, a town of ancient fame,

Whose bright renown yet shineth clear: Verona men it name;

Built in a happy time, built on a fertile soil,

Maintainéd by the heavenly fates, and by the townish toil.

The fruitful hills above, the pleasant vales below,

The silver stream with channel deep, that thro’ the town doth flow,

The store of springs that serve for use, and eke for ease,

And other more commodities, which profit may and please,—

Eke many certain signs of things betid of old,

To fill the hungry eyes of those that curiously behold,

Do make this town to be preferred above the rest

Of Lombard towns, or at the least, comparéd with the best.

 

 

Preceding the first act, the
Prologue

TWAS a violent stormy night at the chapel. Friar Theodore knelt in prayer among candles, mumbling the words aloud. “Please O Lord, may that our present sacrifice be enough.” Outside, a crack of thunder sounded. “Poor Lucia, poor Cicilia, poor Marsilia, plucked up by the tornado yesternight. Their mother and father mourn greatly. You hear them. Let this be enough. Please. Please.” Outside, another crack of thunder sounded. The church walls groaned under the pressure of the wind. Something that was caught in the wind rapped against the church wall, knocking, knocking. “Please, O Lord, let—”

Friar Theodore paused. With breath held, he listened, hearing past the pelting rain, past the groaning walls.

The rapping outside was not some wind-caught object knocking at the walls, but a visitor knocking at the door. Friar Theodore arose from his kneeling, his joints stiff from so long spent stooped as he had been. With haste, he took a candle onto a chamberstick and went up the aisle between the pews, exited to the antechamber, and went towards the knocking at the door. The door he opened, and outside in the dark of the stormy night, for a moment before the howling wind foisted its way in and blew out his candle, there outside by the candlelight Friar Theodore saw a woman as old as he was, dressed in soaked brown robes, hood drawn.

“Haste ye, inside, inside,” Friar Theodore beckoned, holding the door open for the woman.

She shuffled quickly in, and Friar Theodore shut the door behind her. Gingerly, he put a hand to her cheek, and recoiled at her cold skin—cold as stone, nearly cold as metal.

“To the hearth, to the hearth,” he encouraged, and offered her an arm, helping her along. In a cozy receiving chambers, Friar Theodore coaxed the fire in the hearth from embers to a blaze, and then went to find the woman a dry change of clothing. In his cell, from his trunk, he found a spare brown robes, quite like the ones he was already wearing—they were also quite like the ones she wore, except dry. He returned with them, offered them, and left her to her privacy to change.

“I am decent, brother,” she called.

He entered the receiving room. She had changed into the dry clothes offered, and had also pulled up a pair of cushioned, high-backed chairs to the hearth. She sat in one of the chairs, her pile of wet clothes on the hearthstones at her feet. “Please, come sit,” she offered. “May I know your name, brother?”

He took the seat across from her. The heat of the hearth radiated over him comfortingly. “I am Friar Theodore.”

“Well met. I am Friar Elizabeth.”

“Ha! Indeed?”

“Quite so,” Elizabeth affirmed, her tone quite less merry than that of her contemporary. “‘Male and female, created he them,’ no?”

Theodore sobered, and nodded. “Indeed. Yes, indeed, and apologies. This is not typical here, is all. Do you hail from afar?”

“Quite far.” Within her closed mouth, Elizabeth ran a tongue around each of her two pointed fangs. “I come bearing a gift.”

“Oh?”

“I shall but bestow the gift tonight and be gone tomorrow. You have read the scripture, yes?”

“Read it!”

“You are across the scripture, then.”

“Across it in any direction you like, front and back.”

“Recount for me the fate of Abel,” Elizabeth requested.

“Slain by Cain, his brother, Adam’s firstborn. The first murder.” Theodore squinted. “What mean you by this?”

“You recount the death of Abel truly, but not the ultimate fate of Abel. Know ye no further?”

Friar Theodore’s brow furrowed. “Abel was buried by Cain in a field.”

“Slain, and then buried in the desert,” Elizabeth said, leaning forward in her seat towards Theodore. “His blood soaked into the sand, seeping, crying out for the Lord to hear. His unmarked grave stepped on by a giant for the duration of the flood, the giant’s head above the water to breathe, the giant’s sole at the bottom of the waters to keep dry Abel’s sandy grave.”

“Miss Elizabeth, this is nowhere in the—”

“I assure you, tis. But I go on: the waters recede, generations pass, and Peter, apostle, saint, first pope, is building a cathedral. Abel’s grave is exhumed, the bloodied sand collected into a vase and brought to Rome, where it becomes the blood for Christ’s hands and feet on a stained glass rendition of the crucifixion—”

“Miss Elizabeth, you—”

“Allow me but another moment and I shall be done: this is not blasphemy, only truth you are not yet aware of.”

Friar Theodore’s eye twitched, but he allowed the visitor to go on.

“As I was saying: Abel’s blood in the sand, blown and formed to Jesus’s blood in Saint Peter’s cathedral. It was said that those who looked upon the stained glass window were stricken with horror—looking into the blood of Jesus Christ, they saw reflected every horrible thing in their life past, and every horrible thing to come. This lasted some centuries until, as windows are wont to do, one day the window broke, and the glass was swept away.”

“Finished?”

“But a breath more. The glass was swept away, but the pieces are since refound, and reformed into a new shape.”

Elizabeth reached down to the pile of her rainsoaked robes, and from among them, lifted out a spherical object, wrapped in cloth and tied with twine.

Theodore leaned back in his chair away from it.

The corner of Elizabeth’s mouth quirked into a smile. “The Scrying Glass of Abel’s Blood, once a window, is now an orb. Look into it, and it will first show you the death of your firstborn son, if you are to have one. After that, its eye will wander through place and date more freely.”

Theodore turned his head away, and crossed his arms. “T’would be no divining to show the death of my firstborn. Tis passed.”

“So you would know if I speak the truth?”

Theodore sneered. “Tempt me not to turn you back to the rain.”

The two sat unspeaking as the hearth crackled and the rain outside pelted down.

After some time, Theodore asked, “Why would you bring such a thing to me?”

“It is rather obsessed with these environs. Whenever idle, untasked, it shows Verona. If it wills itself here, I would it were put in good hands.”

Again, quiet.

Again, Theodore broke the quiet: “What symbolism is this, anyhow? Abel was the secondborn. Why should his blood show the firstborn’s death?”

“If you wish me to interpret, I’ll gladly guess. Though I must place emphasis, I come here first to report, then only to interpret if pressed.”

“Go on and interpret.”

“I would take it that Abel wanted to see the death of Cain, the firstborn who murdered him.”

“Aye. The same is what I thought.” Theodore sighed. “Show me the orb.”

With both hands, Friar Elizabeth extended out the cloth-swaddled sphere. With both hands, Friar Theodore received it. He unknotted the twine and removed the cloth. Underneath was an orb of dark red glass, cloudy on the inside. Then, as a fog suddenly lifting, Friar Theodore was looking back ten years past, at a scene of himself at his ailing son’s bedside, and the final words of them both, and then the final breath. The friar’s son went limp, and the friar bowed his head in tearful, mourning prayer.

In the receiving room with the strange visitor, Friar Theodore wept again. He wrapped the sphere back in its cloth, and held it on his lap.

Marking the hour, Friar Theodore arose, and prepared a chamber for Friar Elizabeth to sleep in. In the morning, before Friar Theodore woke, Friar Elizabeth was departed, on her journey back far, far to the east, to a city on a coast, near Moscow. Friar Theodore, left in fair Verona with the Scrying Glass of Abel’s Blood, stowed the orb in a hidden place under the cellar stairs. There would be much prayer and consulting to do over the legitimacy of the thing. In the meantime, the friar set out over the rain-wet grass to see whether his prayers for mercy from the storms of the night before had been answered.

As he set out from the church’s yard, he happened by Friar Caleb, leading a flock of young boys from Verona to the abbey for their lessons that day. Lowering himself to a playful stoop, Friar Theodore locked eyes with the young boy of the house Montague, who stood halfway behind Friar Caleb, smiling as he hid. Friar Theodore darted around Friar Caleb with elderly haste, and hoisted the young Montague boy up into the air, who squealed and laughed before being set down again.

Friar Theodore knelt before the boy, both of them dappled under the swaying shade of the many trees on the church’s yard. “Which of the Lord’s creatures have you brought for me today, Young Montague?”

From his sleeve, Young Montague produced a lumpy toad and held it out for the friar.

“My! Was he hard to catch?”

Young Montague shook his head vehemently.

“You’re faster?”

Young Montague nodded.

“Let’s leave him to his business now, and you go see how fast you can catch up with Friar Caleb.”

Young Montague set the toad on the grass, and then ran to catch up with the other boys. Halfway there, Young Capulet leapt down from a tree branch hanging overhead and whacked Young Montague with a stick, breaking the stick in half on the impact.

“Ay, me!” Young Montague cried, and reached out and slapped Young Capulet. Young Capulet grabbed Young Montague by the wrist, and dragged him off to a bush, and there the two knelt in front of each other, Young Montague’s side stinging from the impact of the stick, Young Capulet’s cheek stinging from the impact of the slap.

“My father hates Montagues,” Young Capulet said in a whisper as he caught his breath. “He said they don’t have a wit between them. He said they’d wear their shoes on the wrong feet if not for their servants. He said the only good parts of their bloodline are from them buggering their horses.”

“My father hates Capulets,” Young Montague returned, also in a whisper. “He said their brains are as scrambled as their faces. He said their hands stink of sour wine and cheese. He said they’re as dull as they are loud.”

“My father said if I killed you I would get away with it.”

“My father said if you lay a hand on me, the law would be on my side for any Capulets I killed for the next hour.”

“I don’t hate you though,” Young Capulet said, as he said most days to Young Montague in this bush.

“Nor I you,” said Young Montague, likewise.

The two of them grabbed each other’s hands in a truce. Then they scrambled out and ran into the church for their lessons. In the mornings they learned scriptures, and in the afternoons they learned the natural sciences, with an hour in between for lunch and play. That morning’s lesson was on the birthright of Jacob and Esau. That noon the meal was stew, and the game was hide and seek. Searching for a spot to hide, Young Montague found his way under the cellar stairs. Tucked away and hidden, Young Montague found the hidden orb, swaddled in cloth. He unwrapped it and looked into its cloudy red depths, which parted to show a tomb, and a young man drinking from a flask; the man held another figure close to him, though the other was obscured in the periphery of the red clouds. With some final words spoken, the young man fell dead, embracing the figure of the other.

Certain that he had found something that he wished to study more closely, Young Montague stowed the object back under the cellar stairs for the time being, and then later that night, snuck into the church alone, and left with a swaddled orb stolen in secrecy.

All the hours of the next day, and the next, and so forth, Young Montague sat at the foot of his bed, craning down at the glass. He saw a gaunt old figure frequently, and realized, as the interim years were fleshed out, that the gaunt old figure was himself. He realized that the man whose death he had seen in the tomb, that that was his own son, not yet born, but eventually to be born and to grow and then to die, and already Young Montague, not yet a man himself, had seen it. Not for a certainty, so far as Young Montague could know, but still, he had seen it portrayed. The glass did not show the future only. At times it showed other rooms of the manor: maids cleaning, a servant tending the horses, his mother and father conversing in the receiving room, though the orb did not give volume to it.

Months went by, Young Montague alone most days in his room, skipping his lessons, learning instead from scrying, scrying, scrying, skipping his meals and becoming gaunt and hunched.

One day, the orb parted its red clouds to show someone Young Montague had not seen in some time. It was another young boy: Young Capulet. His friend held a fire poker, brandished it, swung it—it was not in play, no game. The boy screamed as he lashed out, tears streaking down his face, and then he turned and was running down a hall. Young Montague marked the time of day shown in the orb: it was night, just fallen. He looked up from the orb and marked the time out his own window: it was evening, falling.

Young Montague looked back down into the orb, seeking guidance. Three images were shown, one after the other. The first image was of his father’s enchanted sword, hung on the wall behind the lord’s chair in his office. The second image, his father’s horse. The third image was the manor of the Capulets—twas an image from later in the day, as the sun was setting, and a short figure rode on horseback up to the gate, armed with an enchanted sword. Young Montague swallowed nervously, recalling all the terrible things Young Capulet’s father had said about Montagues—and here he was going to be, riding up to his doorstep.

And yet, he felt almost no choice in his fate. Already, it seemed sealed. Up the steps he crept to his father’s office, avoiding the spots on the stairs that creaked. He stood and stared at the sword for a moment. Around the guard, seven runes were engraved, with dots in between most runes. The wishing sword, it was called. It had a soul of its own. A kind soul.

Raising his voice barely loud enough for the sword to hear, Young Montague asked, “May I wield you?”

Three of the wishing sword’s symbols glowed, and the blade vibrated in an agreeable, harmonic hum.

Young Montague stepped up onto his father’s chair and lifted the sword off of its mount on the wall. It resonated briefly in his hand, and a shiver ran through him. He lifted off the scabbard as well, affixed it to his side, and stowed the wishing sword for now.

With this deed done, he crept back down the stairs and out to the stables. There in the waning glow of late evening, Young Montague went to one of the horses, gently approaching her. After assuring her of who he was, he leapt up onto the mare—as a Montague, he had learned to ride at the same time he had learned to walk. With a click produced in the side of his mouth, the mare began to saunter forth, out of the stables, into the cobbled Verona streets, hooves tapping over the stones.

As the mare walked, Young Montague peered down into the orb, glancing up only occasionally to direct the mare. All throughout the Capulet manor, he was shown similar sights. In the foyer, a guardsman was collapsed on the ground, snoring, and a demon crouched over him, hands moving in strange motions over the sleeping guard’s face—the guard occasionally let loose an immense twitch and a yelp, a glimpse of his nightmares. In the cellars a maid was entranced similarly, and in the kitchen a cook, and in the armory a servant, and in the master bedroom, both the lord and lady of the house Capulet writhed in nightmares, as a demon on each side of the bed held them captive. Guiding the mare onto the street on which the Capulet manor stood, the orb showed an image of the guardsman a short time ago, being accosted by the demon, struggling with it, and then being overpowered and entranced. The sleeping was not some general effect on the manor, at least, and needed to be induced. Lastly before arriving at the gate, the orb showed an image of a ritual being performed in some inner room of the manor, glowing circles made upon the floor, and a shimmering gate to Hell itself opened up. The caster in the center, the orb seemed to wish to show, but could not part the red clouds which obscured them.

Young Montague swallowed. He stowed the orb, dismounted from the mare, and hitched her to the gate.

He unsheathed the wishing sword, and lifted it up before himself to speak with it. “I wish that if I swing you, you will strike at the demons, but at no man or woman, not even a Capulet.”

The wishing sword hummed in affirmation.

Keeping the sword in hand, Young Montague dashed forward over the Capulet yard. Knowing that the front door was no option with the demon perched over the guardsman beyond, Young Montague looked down into the orb and saw a side entrance, free of demonic presences. Young Montague skulked around the manor, crouching under window sills and avoiding stepping on dead leaves, and arrived soundly at the minor entrance. With careful attention, Young Montague opened the door, and was inside.

The manor was dark. Every candle and lantern was extinguished, and yet Young Montague was not terribly bothered, as the orb’s images glowed well enough to the observer’s sight, and Young Montague found that he was shown himself when peering down into the orb: himself in the manor, peering down into an orb. In the image he stepped forward, and at the very same moment, Young Montague stepped forward in the exact same way. He fell into a trance of it, and in this strange way was led through the halls of the manor, around each threat of demon, until arriving at yet another room which to his own sight was black as pitch, but in the glow of the orb, was revealed to have two couches, a grand chair, a fireplace, a low table, thick carpeting, and some fine décor. In the orb, Young Montague spotted someone entering the room from the opposite side at the same time as he—this person lashed out, swinging a metal object wildly. Young Montague raised the wishing sword, while never breaking sight of the orb, knowing on well-ingrained instinct that the orb’s sight far outclassed his own. The wishing sword and the weapon of the assailant clanged off of one another, the sword humming. The assailant swung again, and again the wishing sword blocked it. Young Montague thrust the wishing sword forward to strike, but the wishing sword moved askance in his hand, tumbling away from the intended target. The assailant wailed “Have at ye!” in the high voice of a young boy, and it was only then that Young Montague looked closer into the orb, and saw that the other figure here in the dark was Young Capulet.

“Peace!” Young Montague cried. “Peace, peace, tis I!”

Young Capulet was still and silent for a moment, before asking, “Truly?”

“Truly,” Young Montague assured.

“I wondered if you had died,” Young Capulet said, and was in tears. “You haven’t been to lessons in months. How ill had you fallen?”

Young Montague teared a bit at his friend’s emotions. “Twas no illness. I found…” Rather than attempting to explain, Young Montague held up the orb. “Look.”

Young Capulet laughed. “At what? Tis dark in here. Mayhap I can look, in the most literal sense, but I assure you that whatsoever I look at, I cannot see.”

Young Montague took Young Capulet’s hand and laid it on the orb. “Look upon this.”

Young Capulet felt the thing. “Tis a cold thing. I assure you, I take you at your word that it looks wonderful, but truly, I can see nothing.”

The Scrying Glass of Abel’s Blood, finding no firstborn son in Young Capulet’s future, could not show the first image that it desired to, and so showed nothing at all to the boy, nor would it ever.

Far from offended, Young Montague was bolstered with wonder at what special trait had singled him out as the one with the ability to scry. “We are safe here at present. Sit with me here,” Young Montague said. As they sat, he placed the orb on the ground between them. He peered into it, and shared with his friend what he was seeing: “The floor above us, farther on the east side of the manor, someone is performing a ritual. It has opened a gate to Hell. Demons patrol the halls, though they focus on the highest floor right now.”

“What of my mother and father?”

“Entranced. They are alive though.”

“Go on, where you were.”

“The figure is done with the ritual. He’s leaving the room with the gate. He is…” The image in the orb went away from the figure, and for a moment, showed nothing. As the red clouds gathered, the glow of the image faded from Young Montague’s sight, and he was left to appreciate the true darkness of the room.

There in the dark, Young Montague and Young Capulet could hear footsteps above, of demon and whatever else.

The red clouds parted to show the mare hitched to the fence outside the Capulet manor. A number of Verona’s watchmen were crowded around, closely observing the crest of the house Montague on the horse’s saddle. A few seemed to be investigating other things about the perimeter of the Capulet manor’s fence, though they were shrouded away from Young Montague’s sight.

“Listen—”

“One moment,” Young Montague insisted, trying to focus the edges, to see what else the watchmen were examining.

“Fool, listen—”

“One moment!” Young Montague hissed.

Whatever else it was that the watchmen had found, it was sufficient that they began marching into the manor. The red clouds fell upon the orb, and it was dark.

At the door of the room, Young Montague heard heavy footsteps fast approaching, and a hissing, huffing breathing, too deep to be human. Left in the dark, Young Montague stood from sitting on the floor, leaving the orb on the ground. Trusting the wishing sword could see better than himself, he drew the blade and drove its point towards the oncoming opponent. The blade struck true, and Young Montague could not see, but felt as the sword pushed through the demon’s body. The demon hissed as Young Montague withdrew the blade and then struck out again, this time striking at the creature’s head. A sharp crack resounded through the room, and the creature thumped to the ground, hissing no more.

Young Montague sheathed his sword. Young Capulet reached out in the dark for his friend. There in the dark, the two held one another, catching their breath while also trying to keep quiet, to listen for anything else.

On the ground floor below, a clamor of footsteps and shouting voices could be heard. “Watchmen below,” Young Montague mentioned, to which Young Capulet responded, “Aye. They’ve announced as much several times.” “Oh.” “No trouble. You were reasonably preoccupied.”

Reminded of the orb, Young Montague removed himself from the lad of the other house, and felt at the floor for his relic. “Where is it?” he asked aloud, as he felt about farther and farther from where he had left it before. The floor was thickly carpeted, making the orb unlikely to have rolled.

“Do you know exactly where you left it?”

“Have you a light?”

“Aye, I’ll return with one.”

Young Capulet departed as Young Montague continued to search. When a lantern was brought in, it was clear to see that the orb was nowhere on the floor. Young Montague felt an aversion to looking at the demon’s body, though this sense of aversion also compelled him to look it over more than anything else in the room, to be sure that the orb wasn’t missed laid against it. The orb was nowhere, though.

All at once, Young Montague was stricken with realization as to why Young Capulet had so quickly volunteered to go away and fetch a light. “Thief!”

Young Capulet reeled as though smacked. “Thief? Stealing into a house you don’t belong to, spouting nonsense about a magic ball, and now accusing me of thievery! Ay me, a Montague indeed!” The footfalls of the watchmen were ascending the stairs.

“I wish that when my sword strikes towards thee, Capulet, it will strike any thieves dead!”

Immediately the wishing sword cacophonized disharmoniously and rattled with such violence that it fell from Young Montague’s recoiling hand.

With the clamor of footsteps nearing, Young Montague collected up his sword and dashed out of the room in one direction, and Young Capulet huffed out of the room in the direction opposite. A party of watchmen charged into the room, looking about for any of either house. Seeing no one, they examined the demon’s corpse briefly, and then charged onwards to continue the search. The room was still for a moment, with only muffled stomps and shouts from elsewhere, and the tittering of nightingales and insects outside. From behind the couch, the young prince Escalus quietly peeked his head out, and then emerged, the Scrying Glass of Abel’s Blood in hand.

Into the room skulked the prince’s father, glancing about over his shoulder and every which way. Seeing his son, the king flashed a smile, baring his fangs. The prince of scales flashed a smile back, showing fangs much the same. Having been instructed not to look at the orb himself, the prince averted his gaze as he handed the orb to his father.

Knowing of the relic and its properties, the king steeled himself, taking a good look at his firstborn son before him. When he was ready, he stared down into the scrying glass’s depths, and after witnessing an image of an old man taking his final breaths, the orb showed the king an image of Young Capulet crying in the garden, and Young Montague crying as he rode through the dark Verona streets on horseback. Reaching years into the future, the orb showed two figures, one the fruit of Montague, the other the fruit of Capulet, dying together in a catacomb.

 

 

Act One
containing five scenes

 

 

There were two ancient stocks, which Fortune high did place

Above the rest, indued with wealth, and nobler of their race,

Loved of the common sort, loved of the prince alike,

And like unhappy were they both, when Fortune list to strike;

Whose praise, with equal blast, Fame in her trumpet blew;

The one was clepéd Capulet, and th’other Montague.

 

 

Act I.
Scene I.

BENVOLIO snapped awake, sitting bolt upright out of bed. He’d had no nightmare, just a sensation that he’d fallen and needed to catch himself, and now, as a result, he was certainly up. He took stock of his whereabouts. The sun was not yet risen: only the faint glow of night came in through his bedroom window. By the faint light from the window, and by the warmth and the sounds of snoring, he could discern that he was not alone in his bed: also here were Abraham and Balthasar, servants in the house Montague, though to this Montague, more friend than servant. A disorienting fog hung about Benvolio’s thoughts. There was an empty bottle of wine pressed against his foot, and at a glance, there were three more strewn on the floor.

Benvolio settled back into the warm pocket of blankets that he had slept in beside Balthasar. He laid there and closed his eyes and breathed and thought of sleep, but there was none more to be found for him, it seemed. He was up now.

Gingerly, Benvolio exited the bed, put on a robe, and left the bedroom, carefully closing the door behind himself. He made his way to the bathing room and drew a bath. As the water came in, Benvolio tried to recall how the night before had gone, but beyond a certain point his memory on the matter was absent. He had no doubt it had been merry, though. Perhaps one of the two others would be able to recount the details.

Benvolio smelled at his body before getting into the bath. Pressing his nose along his forearm, he came to a spot that smelled strongly of men. His hands appeared clean but were odorously filthy. He lifted a foot to his hand in order to feel it, and found the foot soft. Sitting on the floor and contorting himself to smell his sole, there was a distinct scent of flowery oils. It could be certain that he had indulged Abraham in his predilections then, though there was still no memory of it in Benvolio’s bemused head.

Hopping into the frigid bath, Benvolio hissed out a breath through his gritted teeth. Once acclimated, he took to himself with soap and cloth, until his scent was becoming of an upstanding young man, the nephew to a lord no less.

Body cleaned and dried, hair and beard combed, Benvolio exited the bathing room and returned to his chamber to dress. He made quiet work of it, mindful of the other two still snoring, enwrapped peacefully together in a nest of cozy blankets and cozy scents. Benvolio himself had something of a headache, and the mental fog persisted. He dressed in attire that was various shades of brown cloth, well stitched, though not grandiose. Becoming, but anonymous. He put on a belt and a scabbard, and unsheathed the blade an inch or two to admire the thing in quiet respect. Seven runes were engraved about the guard, with dots in between most. The wishing sword, gifted to him by his uncle last Christmas. This sword and I have never gotten along much, the Lord Montague had said. With a glint of admiration breaking through his visage, the Lord Montague had added, Tis a kind soul, this blade. I know it will resonate with you more favorably.

As Benvolio quietly admired the blade, a few of its runes dimly lighted up, and the blade gave a faint, pleasant hum.

Benvolio ran his thumb over the handle appreciatively, and then returned the blade securely into its scabbard.

Quietly, Benvolio exited his chambers, went out to the stables to say good morning to the horses, and then left on his own feet into the streets of Verona. The sun had still not yet risen. Benvolio walked westwardly at an unhurried pace, occasionally passing by another early riser, listening to the tittering of the birds. Benvolio reminded himself that all of it was a lovely noise, even though at the moment, it made his head throb.

Passing through Verona, Benvolio found himself away from the city proper, into a quieter place. A grove of sycamores. The gentle noise of the wind passing through them did his mind well. On a winding trail in their midst, Benvolio stopped to listen, appreciate, eyes closed, head bowed.

Wshhhhhh… Wshhhhhh… Wshhhhhh…

After some minutes, Benvolio noticed another noise in the sycamore grove. The gentle tap and crunch of footsteps, and a soft sniffling to accompany it. Benvolio opened his eyes, lifted his head, and in the distance, he beheld his cousin Romeo, walking and wiping away tears. Romeo, noticing Benvolio at the same time, suddenly stood more upright, lowered his hand away from his face, and hurried along.

Sensing wisdom in his crestfallen cousin’s pace, Benvolio hurried along as well, towards the Calf and Crow, an inn nestled in the sycamore grove outside Verona. Opening the door and closing it behind himself was as though stepping into a pleasant memory.

“By the Lord’s good grace, the sun not yet risen and already a friendly face,” the innkeeper greeted.

Benvolio took the man’s offered hand and curtsied to kiss it. He then smiled up at him warmly. “Your cooking could cure Loki of his enpoisoned rash and Sisyphus of his sore feet. I would be a fool to seek such a miracle elsewhere.”

“Merry, but tis early. I’ve nothing started, but allow me to amend this tragedy.”

“Bless you sir. Is there any labor needs doing here in the meantime?”

“Aye, but not for a lord’s nephew as yourself. You already pay me too much in compliment and in currency. Sit, sit.”

Benvolio took the innkeeper’s instructions, and had a seat in a cushioned chair in a cool, quiet corner. A fireplace on the other side of the room crackled. Occasional floorboard creaks and footsteps could be heard from the rooms above. By and by, a smell of God’s own food came creeping into the compact common room. Summoned by it, two patrons from the rooms above lighted down the creaking stairway, and sat themselves at the common room’s table. Benvolio greeted them, and all had a pleasant chat before the innkeeper emerged from the kitchen to set on the table pitchers of water and pitchers of juice. With a second trip, the innkeeper emerged from the kitchen holding a steaming platter of toasted bread, steamed vegetables, and fried potatoes, all doused in melted cheeses, oils, and herbs. Benvolio came to the table, and the four of them feasted.

At the end of the meal, the fog in Benvolio’s mind was cleared, his headache was gone, and his muscles were no longer sore. He leaned back in his chair, swimming in the intangible delights of his new wellness. “I am cured,” he announced to the innkeeper. “And I should be off. Thank you and bless you, sir.” Benvolio stood and made his departure, shaking the innkeeper’s hand and giving him his payment on the way.

Benvolio walked back into town with health anew, this time truly appreciating the birds’ tittering as he walked through the Verona streets, and the tittering of all the men, women, and children that were now about in the newly sun-blessed morning. As he rounded a corner into a public square, he spotted across the square Abraham and Balthasar, who were facing two figures in vibrantly colorful clothing. Capulets. His breath caught as he noticed all four men with their hands on their hilts. At that moment, Balthasar spotted Benvolio, then leaned over to Abraham and whispered of it. The next moment, all four swords were drawn, and a fight had begun.

From across the square, Benvolio began walking hurriedly forward to break it up. As he went he drew the wishing sword, and petitioned it, “I wish you would strike not at their flesh, but only at their steel.”

The wishing sword hummed its agreement with a shared urgency. Wish deigned, Benvolio broke into a sprint, and leapt into the fray of swords, the dizzying flashes of steel poking and riposting, swishing, spinning. “Part, fools!” Benvolio urged, swinging the wishing sword to beat down the blades of the Montagues and the Capulets alike. “Stow your swords! You know not what you do!”

In the midst of it, a heavy hand fell upon Benvolio’s shoulder, and spun him away from the fight. Benvolio found himself face to face with an imposing figure in colorful garb, near seven feet tall in his high-soled boots, near eight feet tall counting his hat. Tybalt, nephew of the Lady Capulet, as sharp in his fashion as in his bastardry.

Tybalt took a step back and drew his sabre. “What,” he began, “art thou drawn among these heartless hinds? Turn thee Benvolio, and look upon thy death!”

“I do but keep the peace,” Benvolio assured. “Put up thy sword, or manage it to part these men with me.”

“What, drawn and talk of peace! I hate the word, as I hate Hell, all Montagues, and thee. Have at thee, coward!”

On the sole of a boot Tybalt spun wildly in a circle, and with the momentum of the spin, hacked down with his sword towards Benvolio. Fearing his own kind blade might break from blocking such a strike, Benvolio leapt backwards. Tybalt did not slow for a moment, but carried his momentum to rush forward, continuing his pursuit with a lunge. Benvolio moved to knock the attack away, but such a parry would prove unneeded: before Tybalt’s lunge could land, a citizen leapt in and punched the tall nobleman into the side of the head, knocking him off balance. Benvolio winced, seeing the blow. All at once, the square was a frenzy of punches and kicks and grapples, shouting, jeering, shoving. As Benvolio made his way through the turmoil back towards Abraham and Balthasar, he spotted off at one edge of the square Lord and Lady Montague themselves, and at another edge of the square, Lord and Lady Capulet. Each lord was moving to join the foray, but each lady held him back. Shouted the Lord Montague, “Thou villain Capulet! Hold me not, let me go.” The lady in turn, “Thou shalt not stir one foot to seek a foe!”

Muskets rang out. All in the square dropped to the ground covering their heads, or fled off down the streets away. Tybalt was first up to a knee, and then to standing. Benvolio rose likewise, and then the lords and ladies. Benvolio looked about, and saw that the muskets seemed not to have been aimed to kill, but rather aimed into the air to warn. From one side of the square, Prince Escalus marched into the center, flanked by a dozen musketeers.

“You men, you beasts!” the prince projected. “Rebellious subjects, enemies to the peace! On pain of torture, from those bloody hands, throw your illtempered weapons to the ground!”

The prince waited. Each carrying a sword set it upon the ground, Tybalt making a point of setting his down the last.

“Now, hear the sentence of your moved prince. Three civil brawls, bred of nothing but airy words, have been summoned by thee, Old Capulet, and Old Montague, and have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets.” Within his mouth, the prince ran his tongue over his fangs. “If ever you disturb our streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace. But for now, all of you, depart away.”

Cautiously, with many an eye cocked at the musketeers, the citizens rose from off the ground and shuffled away, back to their goings on from before the foray.

Prince Escalus approached Lord Capulet and Lord Montague. “You, Capulet, shall go along with me,” the prince commanded. “And Montague, come you this evening to discuss our future pleasure in this case. Once more, on pain of death, all men depart.”

In their separate directions, the nobles and servants all turned and stepped away.

As Benvolio walked back towards the Montague manor, he found himself flanked by Lord Montague on one side and Lady Montague on the other.

“Who set this ancient quarrel anew?” Lord Montague asked. “Speak, nephew; were you near when it began?”

“Aye. The servants of your adversary, and the servants of yourself, were close to fighting when I did approach. I drew to part them. In that instant came the fiery Tybalt with his sword prepared, which he swung at me as he spoke of his scorn. We were interchanging thrusts and blows till the prince came, who parted either part.”

“Was Romeo at this fray?” inquired Lady Montague.

“No, he was not here, Madam,” Benvolio assured, to the lady’s relief. “An hour before the worshipped sun peered forth in the golden window of the east, a troubled mind drove me to walk abroad, where—underneath the grove of sycamore that westward of the city grows—so early walking did I see your son. I made toward him, but he was aware of me, and stole into the cover of the woods. Being weary myself, I continued about pursuing my humor, not pursuing his, and gladly shunned he who gladly fled from me.”

Lord Montague grumbled, and said, “Many a morning has he been seen there, with tears augmenting the fresh morning dew, adding to the clouds more clouds with his deep sighs. But as soon as the daylight comes, my son rushes to his chambers and locks himself up therein, shutting up his windows and locking the fair daylight out, making himself an artificial night. Dark and damning must his foul mood prove—unless with with good counsel may its foul cause be removed.”

“My noble uncle, do you know the cause of Romeo’s foul mood?”

“I neither know it nor can learn it from him. Could we but learn from whence his sorrows grow, we would as willingly give cure as know.” The three Montagues stepped past the manor gates.

“Merry, peace,” Benvolio said. “I will learn of his trouble.”

The lady took Benvolio’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you, nephew.”

Benvolio bowed his head in return. As the three neared the front door, it went swinging open, opened by a bloodied Abraham. Balthasar sat on the stairs behind, head hung near his knees, holding a wet cloth to his forehead. The lord and lady hurried past and disappeared into the manor. Abraham shut the door behind Benvolio, who lingered with the two.

“Why?” Benvolio asked. “I worried for you.”

Abraham went and sat on the stairs beside Balthasar. “Mark my word, we’ll not be the Capulets’ rug to be stepped on,” Abraham remarked.

Balthasar gave a small chuckle to himself. “No, stepped on as rugs, certainly not. Though we are quite rugged.”

“I trust you will mind one another’s wounds,” Benvolio implored.

“Aye,” said each of the two servants.

“See to that, then. And perhaps after, we may sit down all together, and if either of you have a better memory of last night than I, recount it for me to the minute.”

The three men smiled. Benvolio proceeded past Abraham and Balthasar, up the stairs, to check on the elusive Romeo, entombed so in his chambers. Up to the third floor Benvolio marched, and then on Romeo’s chamber door, he knocked.

Benvolio heard movement within. Then, the door swung open. Romeo stood in his green underpants and pink undershirt, a thick black blanket draped over the shoulders of his fair skinny frame. The curtains of Romeo’s chamber were drawn shut, and no light was lit within. Benvolio smiled, pleased the knock had even been answered. “Good morning, cousin.”

“Is the day so young?”

“But newly struck nine.”

“Ay, me! Sad hours seem so long.” There was a croak to Romeo’s voice, though Benvolio could make neither heads nor tails of whether it was that of a slumbering man just awakened, or a tired man late to sleep.

“Come, sit with me by the window,” Benvolio encouraged, and walked optimistically away from his cousin’s endarkened catacomb.

Mercifully, Romeo followed. The two sat down in the cushioned chairs at the window, both facing the sunny day outside. Romeo’s eyes screwed up into a squint at the sunlight.

“What sadness lengthens Romeo’s hours?” Benvolio inquired.

Romeo huffed, and looked away.

“In love?” Benvolio teased.

“Out—”

“Of love?”

“Out of her favor, she who I am in love with.”

Benvolio huffed.

Concern struck Romeo’s face. “Good heart, what troubles you?”

“Thy good heart’s oppression.”

“Why, such is love’s transgression. Woes of my own lie heavy in my soul, which grows only heavier with your sorrow piled on. Love is a smoke raised with fumes of sighs: if requited, a sparkling in lovers’ eyes; but if vexed, a sea nourished with lovers’ tears.” Romeo rose from his chair, shedding the blanket and leaving it there. “Farewell, my cousin.”

“Soft! Where you go, I will go along. And if you leave me so, you do me wrong.” Benvolio got himself up. “Tell me, who is it that you love?”

“Shall I weep and tell thee?”

“Weep! Why, no. But sadly as you like, tell me who.”

“Bid a sick man in sadness pen his will—ah, word ill urged to one so ill. In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman.”

“I had aimed so near, when I supposed you loved.”

“A right good marksman! Alas, she is fair. Oh beautiful recluse, oh lustful chastity, oh frigid heat! From Cupid’s loving bow, she lives unharmed. She will not mark the siege of loving terms, nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes, nor open her lap to saint-seducing gold. Oh, she is rich in beauty, only poor that when she dies, with beauty dies her store.”

“She hath utterly sworn that she will live chaste?”

“She hath, and in that swearing makes huge waste. She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow I live dead.”

“Bah. Forget her—”

“Oh, teach me how to forget!”

This I can help you with! I am entirely certain of it,” Benvolio said emphatically, and chuckled. “Give drink to thine lips, and freedom to thine eyes. Other fair beauties are abound in this fair city.”

“You discredit her beauty and my sorrow both, though I take it you mean both well.”

“Merry,” Benvolio said, and clasped an arm around Romeo’s shoulders, walking him towards the stairs, past return to his darkened cavern. “Take my heed tonight and you shall forget; I bet it, and if betting wrong, I’ll die in your debt.”

As Romeo’s foot touched the top step, he froze in place, an unbudgeable stone to Benvolio’s nudging. “Ay!” he exclaimed, and ducked under Benvolio’s arm, back towards his room. “Shall I meet these beauties you tell tale of in my pajamas?”

“You’ve the comeliness and witting charm to compensate,” Benvolio assured. “But tis true: t’would be an easier job to get done if you dressed for it.”

“Come then, I’ll take but another moment.”

Romeo stole back into his chambers, and Benvolio followed in after. Benvolio traversed the room, stepping around a landscape of dirty clothing and used dishware on the floor, and drew the shades a crescent open, to give his cousin some light to dress by. At his wardrobe, Romeo shed his undergarments and retrieved a pair of black leggings from a drawer. He paused with them in hand. “I must bathe first.”

Benvolio made his way over, drew in a breath, and gave a dismissive wave. “You smell fine as a horse.”

Romeo quirked his head. “I can honestly say, tis not a compliment I’ve heard before, if a compliment it was meant to be.”

“I recall you once found a mare’s scent to be perfectly befitting of a lover.”

Romeo’s face flushed red. “You tease the predilections of the younger Romeo. Alas, he’s dead, and a newer, handsomer man stands here now. Twas a long time ago.”

“Twas, twas. Though as I recall, it was more than just one time alone. To think you spurned by love now, when before you seduced a new lover—however many legs, however horse-haired or sheep-wooled—week to week, day to day, minute to minute, two at once—”

Romeo gave Benvolio a shove. Red from head to neck, he said, “Turn and let me dress. Alas, you exaggerate when you tease me so.”

“If I do exaggerate tis only a little, and if I do tease tis well meaning. You made happy lovers of them all, as I recall it.”

“I am dressed,” Romeo announced. Benvolio turned, and saw his cousin dressed in black leggings, a black skirt, a black longsleeved top which stopped short of the navel of his skinny stomach, and a black cloak—with grey stitchwork—which draped from about his shoulders to near the floor. He had also applied white makeup to move his face from fair to pale, accompanied with a pale pink shade of lipstick, and he had applied black eyeshadow, and he had dyed his hair black, and he had painted his trimmed fingernails black. He wore black boots with black socks to match.

“Tsk, Romeo, tis no way to go out! The women shall scarcely see you when night falls!”

“I am well dressed then, and will be saved for Rosaline yet.”

“Bah.”

“The darkness without compliments the darkness within, I find.”

“Bah again,” Benvolio said, and again draped an arm around his cousin’s shoulders, and began walking him out of the chambers. “Come, come. The day is but young, but there’s much for you ahead.”

 

 

Act I.
Scene II.

LADY Capulet sat upright upon a couch in the manor’s eastern sitting room, hands in her lap, legs pressed together. A servant—she knew not his name—ran a feather duster along the shelf above the fireplace. Lady Capulet feared there would be no end to his dusting: the landscape paintings and the exotic wall-hung masks, the candlesticks and the chandelier, the colorfully stained goddess busts and the symbol-dense vases, to say nothing of how many dustable surfaces were evidently on the tables on which the busts and the vases stood. And somehow he seemed nowhere close to halfway done.

Lady Capulet steeled herself, reminding herself that she was his master, not the other way round. “I say.”

The servant continued about his dusting.

Lady Capulet gripped the upholstery in a fist, and then let it go and smoothed it back before trying again. “I say, servant.”

The servant’s dusting hand paused, and then his head swung to face the lady. “Oh! Pardon, madam. I scarce remembered you were here. Still as a—”

“Would you fetch me a pitcher of water?”

The servant looked back to his dusting hand, which still hovered over the shelf above the fireplace, and the knickknacks thereon. Dejected, he pulled his hand away from the work. Facing the lady, and bowed himself. “Of course, madam. And a glass too I should assume?”

“Yes.”

“Would you like ice as well?”

“Certainly.”

“On second thought, I’m not sure we have any at the moment, though I could run and fetch—”

“No ice then.”

“Well just but a moment ago you were certain—”

“Forget the ice. The water, please, with haste.”

The servant, quite infuriatingly, mulled it over. Then he bowed himself again, sputtered another useless, “Of course, madam,” and then went off, out of the sitting room to fetch the water.

Lady Capulet continued to sit still, waiting for the sound of his footsteps to be sufficiently departed. When she heard the sound of his footsteps beginning down the stairs, Lady Capulet arose, walked briskly to the bust of Athena, placed a thumb over each of the goddess’s eyes, and firmly pressed them in. With a stony grating and then a mechanical click!, a secret hatch in the wall opened. Lady Capulet stooped into the short entrance, pulled the panel shut behind herself, and then stood upright in the tall, narrow passage between the walls.

With quiet footsteps the lady made her way through the in-between space, digging fingernails into the side of her neck, into her wrists, into her stomach, scratching, scratching, scratching. She proceeded to a narrow staircase and ascended it into a hidden room on the third floor—hidden because on the third floor itself, this room had no door, and was only accessible from the hidden stairway which the lady climbed. Though the room had no door, it did possess a stained glass window to the outside, depicting an owl perched in an olive tree. From the window, soft brown and green light shone dimly in, keeping the room from total darkness. At the center of the room stood a plinth. Atop the plinth was a stone bowl, centered in the window’s light.

Lady Capulet went to the bowl. In times past, when the bowl had been overbrimmingly full, she had often stood a moment and admired the objects within before taking one. They were the size and shape of toothpicks, but were made of strange grey materials infinitely more precious and potent than pinewood. A spitball to a musket round, a rock to a beating heart, a firefly to the sun—such was the contrast of a toothpick to one of Athena’s Tears. The bowl was more than half empty.

On this day, the Lady Capulet did not stop to admire them before grabbing one—that damnable servant had kept her waiting far longer than she had deserved. Picking a rod from out of the bowl, the lady brought it under her nose and broke it in half. Snapped in twain, the rod fell away from being a solid and also fell away from the mortal laws of gravitation: as two globs of liquid, Athena’s Tear fell upwards into each of Lady Capulet’s nostrils, slipped through her sinuses in a way that still made the lady shudder violently, and then it was in her, working its strange and needed magic immediately. Where there had been worry, there was now resolve. Where there had been hands that wanted to tremble and skin that cried out to be itched, there was now a skilled, calm, obedient strength.

It would last an hour at most, and then she would be shaking and itching worse than if she hadn’t sought the comfort of these relics today to begin with, but in this hour was a needed reprieve.

The lady heard the laughter of her husband coming from the floor below. She descended back down the narrow stair, through a set of hidden passages, and arrived at a one-way mirror, showing her the receiving room, in which stood her husband and Paris, a young nobleman, kinsman to the prince.

“…But Montague is bound as well as I, in penalty alike,” Lord Capulet was saying, “and tis not hard, I think, for men so old as we to keep the peace.”

“There is honor living yet within you both,” Paris said. Such a way those of his family had of smiling with their mouths pinched shut. “And a pity it is that your houses have lived at odds for so long. But now, my lord, what say you to my proposal?”

“I say again what I have thrice repeated already: my girl is still naught but a lass, not fourteen of her kind’s years yet passed. Let two more summers whither in their pride, ’fore we may think her ripe to be a bride.”

“Younger than she are happy mothers made.”

“And too soon spent are those so early made.” The Lord Capulet dug his foot in, crossed his arms, lowered his bearded chin. “In the earth are buried all my hopes but she. But! Tis not as though this issue must sit idle in the meantime. Woo her, gentle Paris, earn place in her heart; my will to her consent is but a part.”

“Merry, I will begin at this task at once,” Paris assured with his thin smile.

“And no better timing could there be: this night, we hold our annual masquerade feast!”

“Annual? I’ve never heard mention of it. Is it so secret a masquerade?”

“Well.” Lord Capulet glanced away, and rubbed the back of his neck. “Twas annual once, though for many years now forgotten. But tonight it is remembered! I have invited many a beloved guest to enter this door, and you, most welcome, makes my number more. I say, servant!”

From the hall, after a moment, walked in the servant from above, feather duster in his back pocket, glass and pitcher in his hands, uncertainty in his gate. “Yes, sir?”

Lord Capulet flourished a sheet of paper, and then held it forward to the servant. “Go, sir, trudge about through fair Verona; find those persons whose names are written here, and invite them to tonight’s masquerade feast.”

The servant set the glass and pitcher down on the floor, took the paper, and without an utterance, turned and exited the manor, walked out to the street, and looked down at the paper.

“Find those persons whose names are written here… oh dear, oh dear. It is written… blasts. I am sent to find those persons whose names here are writ, though I’d wish such a task given to a soul literate. I must go to the learned.”

The servant looked up and saw two gentlemen passing by.

“…wrapped ice in a cloth will be excellent for that,” the pale and darkly-dressed gentleman was saying.

“For what, I pray thee?” asked the gentleman who was bearded and brown-clothed.

“For when I break your shins.”

“Why, Romeo! Art thou mad?”

“Not mad, but locked up more than a madman is. Shut up in a prison without my food, whipped and tormented and—good day, good fellow,” Romeo said, turning to face the servant who had begun following at their heels.

“Good fellow, good day,” the servant echoed. “I pray sir, can you read?”

“Aye, I have read my own fortune many a times. Tis misery without fail. You will want a more positive diviner than I.”

“Ah, well.” The servant regathered his thoughts. “I pray, can you read any writing you see on a page?”

“Aye, if I know the letters and the language.”

“Ah, well. Rest you merry!”

The servant turned to leave, but Romeo grasped him by the shoulder, and bid him come back. “Stay, fellow, I can read. Let’s see, this page here? It reads: Signor Martino and his wife and daughters; County Anselme and his beauteous sisters; the lady widow of Vitruvio; Signor Placentio and his lovely nieces; Mercutio and his brother Valentine; mine uncle, his wife, and daughters; my fair niece Rosaline; Livia; Signor Valentio and his cousin Tybalt; Lucio and the lively Helena.” Romeo handed back the paper. “A fair assembly. Where are they beckoned?”

“Up.”

“Up where?”

“Up to supper at our house.”

“Whose house?”

“Well, my master’s house technically, if you’re going to be sniffy about it.”

“Indeed, I should have begun there,” Romeo said, going along.

Without need for Romeo to twist it out of him any further, the servant answered, “My master is the great rich Capulet; and if you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray, come and lift a cup of wine. Rest you merry!”

“Good day, good fellow!” Benvolio wished, waving a hand high in farewell as the servant departed. Once the servant was gone, Benvolio rested his hand on Romeo’s shoulder. “At this same ancient feast of the Capulets will be the fair Rosaline whom thou so love. Yet also in attendance, Lord Capulet has invited the fairest maidens in all of Verona. Let us go there, and compare her beauty to the rest. You shall hardly notice her whom to you now seems the best.”

“I’ll come along with you,” Romeo said, and shrugged away from his cousin’s shoulder-resting hand. “But I assure you, I go for the promised wine, not the promised company.”

 

 

Act I.
Scene III.

LADY Capulet, having been about the house a while and now feeling Athena’s Tears losing their effect, returned to the sitting room, which—when the servant wasn’t in it—was quite a nice room, a quiet place, warm, secluded. She fell to the couch and reclined, and rubbed at her bicep, which felt to be losing strength by the second, leaving sore and itching muscles in their trail as they left. Lady Capulet stomped a foot on the cushioned couch, which muffled her writhing fit.

She would need something to hold and to fret over when it was all gone, lest she go mad and fret and tear at herself again.

“Angelica!” she cried. The Angelica who she summoned was once the wet nurse, when she and the lord of the house had had living daughters.

From elsewhere in the manor, the sound of hurried footsteps began. A moment later, Angelica arrived beside the couch, where Lady Capulet now sat upright, proper. “You called, my lady?” Angelica asked.

Lady Capulet found it difficult to look Angelica in the eyes when speaking to her, as the former nurse bared a great many distracting features. First there was a sleeve of red rose tattoos covering the length of each arm, with a rather realistic rendering of a snake winding over the roses on the right arm. If the lady’s eyes weren’t caught by the snake, then they would nearly always catch on the former nurse’s mouth—in particular the old woman’s teeth, or general lack thereof.

“Angelica, where’s my Juliet? Call her forth to me.”

“Call her! Why, I scant seconds ago bid her stay put while I attended thee, and she’d had none of it, so the issue was needs be forced, and she’s blockaded in the chambers wherein she shant be able to come no matter how loudly called. But another scant few seconds though, and I will go fetch her.” Angelica departed back out of the sitting room, back to the room from whence she’d come, calling, “Juliet! Juliet! The lady bids you come!”

From the room, Angelica heard scratching at the door.

Angelica opened the door, and out bounded a beautiful hound. Juliet sniffed the air in the hall, and looked to Angelica for a sign of which way they were heading. Standing, the Great Dane’s back was level with Angelica’s hips, and the top of the hound’s head was level with the former nurse’s breasts.

Angelica began back down the hall towards the sitting room, and Juliet bounded ahead, meeting Lady Capulet on the couch, sniffing thoroughly at the lady’s offered hand, and giving it a lick or two in addition.

Lady Capulet allowed the dog to lick as she waited for Angelica to catch up. When Juliet was finished with the hand, the lady patted the couch beside herself, and Juliet hopped up, turned about a few times, and laid down beside the woman of the house. Lady Capulet began petting the hound, though more picked at the hound, raked, bothered. Athena’s Tears were gone from her completely now, and the sobriety was wracking.

Angelica arrived again at the room. “Need you anything more, my lady?”

“Yes. There’s a matter which concerns me, and this is the matter—no, in fact, go Angelica, tis between Juliet and I. No! Angelica, return. I have remembered myself. You should hear our council. You would know my girl is of a pretty age.”

“Faith, I can tell her age to the hour.”

“She’s but one full year old, soon to turn two.”

“Aye. I’ll bet fourteen of my teeth—though, let it be known, I have but four—that she’s not fourteen in dog years, and just shy of two years old as men are concerned. Born the same day as my own daughter, she was. Susan would be near two now, and so in faith, I say Juliet is thirteen of her kind. Just coming into her second heat, I mark. God mark thee though, regal and grand Juliet: in the time since I’ve tended the children of men, you’re the most beautiful creature I’ve tended to yet. And I might live to see thee carry on thy lonely breed some day, if I have my wish.”

“Merry, that breeding is the very theme I came to talk of. Tell me, my dear Juliet, how stands your disposition to be bred?”

Juliet lifted a hindpaw to her mouth, and began chewing at a claw.

“You think so highly of it, I see,” Lady Capulet bemoaned. She took Juliet’s paw and moved it back to where it had been, stopping the hound from ruining her nails.

“A terrible shame it would be, should her breed end with her,” Angelica offered. “Hound of the Danes, bred to be great and greater yet by your good husband Capulet; but alas, her brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, mother and father and all, passed with no more pups borne, and now, just her is left.”

“Though not yet two, mothers to pups are younger made,” Lady Capulet mentioned, echoing what she had heard County Paris say earlier. She began scratching with a heavy hand along Juliet’s scruff. “The valiant Paris is a competent breeder. Though there’s none left to keep your line pure, perhaps with his touch some echo could endure. And you yourself would not be the lesser for it.”

“Nay, more!” Angelica added. “The bitch grows bigger by the stud.”

In agreement with Angelica, Lady Capulet rubbed deeper at Juliet’s scruff. “Speak briefly: can you take to Paris’s interest?”

Juliet inched in closer with the lady on the couch and rested her slobbery chin on the lady’s leg.

From the entrance of the chamber, there came a pointed cough. Lady Capulet, Angelica, and Juliet turned to see the servant standing at the sitting room’s entrance. “Madam, the guests have arrived,” he said, in his slow-witted way. “Supper is served up, and the lord bid me fetch you, if you would follow me.”

Lady Capulet gave Juliet’s scruff a final rub, and answered, “We follow thee. Come Juliet, come Angelica.”

 

 

Act I.
Scene IV.

BENVOLIO and Romeo, jaunty and trudging respectively, walked through a corner of Verona where the cobbled streets were missing half their stones and the rest were uneven, where patchwork boards were the exterior décor of the houses, where the smell of sewage was rank and unmissable in the air. They approached a house from which sounded drumbeats and a great many merry shouting voices.

Coming up to the doorstep, Benvolio knocked, and Romeo stood beside.

The door was yanked open from within—yanked open so forcefully that the figure who’d opened it stumbled back and fell to their buttocks on the floor. Far from injured in the body or in the ego, Mercutio laughed and rolled on the floor a moment, their mouth wide open in a smile, showing for the world to see that all of their top teeth, save the molars, were missing. It was said they had smashed the top row out themselves, deliberately. Twas around the same time they ceased living with Escalus, and moved to this dingier abode where presently they rolled on the floor. In the other room two men beat drums wildly together, while others stood around and had conversations at a shout to be heard.

Mercutio clumsily got up to their feet, then was struck with another laughing fit, and staggered and nearly fell again, but was caught by Benvolio, he and his cousin having entered.

Suspended in Benvolio’s arms, Mercutio relaxed. With a smile they turned their head up to kiss their bearded rescuer. Benvolio lowered his head and kissed the slumly royal who had likely not spent a continuous waking hour sober for the last year. Standing on their feet properly this time, Mercutio leaned in to kiss Romeo as well, but the dark-dressed man leaned back. Mercutio leaned ever forward, eyes closed and lips puckered, then began laughing at themselves as they yet still tried for Romeo’s affection.

Romeo drew his sword halfway from its scabbard, not to make use of the blade, but to jab Mercutio in the sternum with the pommel.

Mercutio shrieked and leapt back, no longer keen on a kiss from this attacker.

Romeo dropped the blade back into its resting place. Twas Benvolio’s council that lead Romeo to carry his sabre about. Since the scuffle that morning, Benvolio would much like to see Romeo protected, and twas no better protector for Romeo than Romeo, for a mighty skilled fencer Romeo was.

“Dear friend, why do you injure me so?” Mercutio asked, sidling up against Benvolio. Benvolio wrapped an arm around them, keeping them steady upright. “Tis known you seek love, yet when love comes offered enthusiastically, you smite me back as though my lips were poisoned. It should be no wonder you are not loved, if lovers this way you treat.”

“I fancy women, dear friend,” Romeo said, far from the first time he had said as much to his present company.

“Tut, you know I am no man.”

“Tis true, but nonetheless, you are not a woman either.”

“I am neither and both, and will obey no rule forbearing me any privilege.”

“Hence the pommel.”

“You strike cruel and thoughtless,” Mercutio chided, and rolled away from Benvolio. From a step on the nearby staircase, Mercutio took a cup and drank from it, looked down into it, drank the rest of it, and then set it back.

“We came wondering if you might like to accompany us to the Capulets’ masquerade feast,” Benvolio divulged.

“No. I would sooner—”

“There will be wine.”

“Yes! Onward! Guests, gather torches! Make them of a bedpost and my lantern oil, if it suits you! To the Capulet manor we go!”

The two drummers exited and lead the march, drumming as they made their way. Benvolio and Romeo walked beside each other in the midst of the troupe, and Mercutio danced about with a torch.

“It truly will light itself on fire,” Benvolio noted.

“Deliberately, or?”

“That much, I know not.”

“I say, Mercutio!” Romeo called, flagging the fire-dancing royal.

“What confession of realized love here beckons?” Mercutio asked, skipping over. Arrived, they walked in a dancing cadence beside Romeo.

“Give me the torch,” Romeo requested. “My soul being heavy, I will bear the light.”

“Nay. Come, lift your feet from the ground as you go! A dance! A skip! Even a solemn march would seem merrier than your foot-scraping.”

“You shant see me dance, believe me. You have dancing shoes with nimble soles; I have a soul of lead, which stakes me to the ground such that I cannot move.”

“You are a lover.” Mercutio twirled the torch in a couple of idle circles. “Borrow Cupid’s wings and soar with them.”

“I am too sore enpierced with his arrow to soar with his light wings.”

“If love be so rough with you, be rough with love. Prick love for pricking, beat love down—Is that the Capulet manor ahead?”

“Tis.”

“If you’ve spoke true that this is a masquerade, I should hope you’ve brought me a case to put my visage in.”

From his pockets, Benvolio began producing several black masks, made to cover the top half of the face and leave the mouth and jaw free for speaking and feasting. He put one on himself, and distributed the rest to all of the troupe, firstly to his cousin and secondly to Mercutio, who dawned the masks as well.

“Ah ha!” Mercutio remarked as they pulled shut the knot on the fastening string behind their head. “A face atop a face! What have I to cover, anyways? What care I if the curious eye notes deformities? If my hideous eyebrows cause terror, then I still am who I am, eyebrows and all that come with them. But come, let us hurry to the manor: we burn daylight.”

Romeo quirked his head. “Nay, that’s not so.” He looked up and beheld the pitch and starry nighttime sky.

“I mean, sir, that in our trudging delay we waste our torchlights in vain, like lamps by day. Take our good meaning, for I’ve five wits to your one. If ever you think, mistakenly, that my wits have erred, know that my utterance was said with the employ of a wit beyond your skill to judge.”

“We mean no offense,” Romeo said. “Though since you speak of wit, I must tell you, I feel it is unwise to attend this masquerade.”

“Why, may one ask?”

“I dreamt a dream last night.”

“And so did I.”

“Well, what was yours?”

“That dreamers often lie,” Mercutio said, the end of their torch waving in a figure eight.

“Lie in bed where they sleep, dreaming things that are true.”

“Oh, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes in shape no bigger than an agate-stone on the fore-finger of an alderman, drawn with a team of little atomies athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep. Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs; the cover, the wings of a grasshopper; the traces, of the smallest spider’s web; the collars, of the moonshine’s watery beams; her whip, of cricket’s bone; the lash, of film; her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat, not half so big as a round little worm, prickt from the lazy finger of a maid; her chariot is an empty hazel nut, made by the joiner squirrel or the old grub, time out o mind the fairies’ coachmakers. And in this state she gallops night by night through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; o’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies, o’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees; o’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream—which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues, because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are; sometimes she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose, and then dreams he of smelling out a suit; and sometimes comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail tickling a parson’s nose as he lies asleep, then dreams he of another benefice; sometimes she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck, and then dreams he of cutting foreign throats, of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades, of healths five-fadom deep, and then anon drums in his ear, at which he starts, and wakes, and, being thus frightened, swears a prayer or two, and sleeps again. This is that very Mab that plats the manes of horses in the night, and bakes elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs, which once untangled, much misfortune bodes; this is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them, and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage; this is she—”

“Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!” Romeo pleaded, having endured as much as he could. “You talk of nothing.”

“True: I talk of dreams. Dreams which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy, thin of substance as the air, and more inconstant than the wind, who woos even now the frozen bosom of the north, and, being angered, puffs away from thence, turning his face to the dew-dropping south.”

Benvolio interjected, “This wind you both expel blows us off our course. Come, we’ve nearly arrived. I smell that supper is done, and if we dally any further, we shall come too late.”

“Too early, I fear,” Romeo countered. He still recalled his dream from the night before: “My mind misgives some consequence, yet hanging in the stars, shall bitterly begin his fearful course with this night’s revels, and expire the term of a despised life, closed in my breast, by some vile forfeit of untimely death. Alas. Benvolio, ye that hath steerage of my course tonight, direct my sail.”

Benvolio gave a rousing shout: “On, lusty gentlemen! Strike, drum!”

 

 

Act I.
Scene V.

HAPPY music played in three-four time, and serving men moved about the hall, providing food and drink from off their held trays. The old Lord Capulet glided drunkenly and merrily about among his masked guests, shouting good cheer to all those near to him and far from him. Seeing a troupe led by two drummers arrive at the other side of the receiving hall, he shouted as he approached, “Welcome, gentlemen! Ladies that have their toes unplagued by corns will have a dance with you!”

Benvolio leaned to Romeo, and mentioned, “We should have brought Abraham.”

“What?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

“Ah ha, my mistresses!” the Lord Capulet went on, “which of you all will deny these gentlemen a waltz? She that won’t dance, by my rule already declared, I’ll swear she hath corns!” Lord Capulet arrived at the newcome troupe, and shook Mercutio’s hand in both of his. Mercutio returned the enthusiasm, adding their other hand to the shaking, making four in all. “Ha ha!” Lord Capulet went on, “Welcome, welcome, welcome gentlemen! Drummers, go to my musicians, tell them they shall have your accompaniment. Girls, dance!” Lord Capulet turned from the troupe and returned to the general hum of guests, shouting over them, “More light, servants! Let us see the beautiful chins of these enmasked guests! Ha ha! And quench the fire, the room is grown too hot!”

Spotting his cousin—all were quite recognizable, even in their masks—Lord Capulet made his way over. The two of them sat down at a bench in a corner of the hall, Lord Capulet catching his breath.

Lord Capulet asked his cousin, “How long has it been since you and I were in masks?”

“By our lady, thirty years,” responded the cousin.

“What! Tis not so long ago, no, surely tis not so long ago. Tis since the marriage of Lucentio. Twas just after the birth of his firstborn son, some five-and-twenty years ago, that we last held this masquerade.”

“Tis more, tis more. His son is elder, sir: his son is thirty.”

Across the grand hall, Romeo stood alone with a cup of wine in hand, Mercutio having skipped away taking Benvolio in tow. Alone, Romeo milled about the crowded hall, searching out Rosaline, his beloved. As he searched, though, he humored Benvolio’s purpose for the visit—to spy out other beauties, and see if any caught his eye. They were all dirt in his sight, piles of refuse and dung in dresses. All the beauties of Verona, Benvolio had promised. If that was so, then Verona was in a bad way.

Rosaline was nowhere among this crowd in the great hall. The Capulet manor was quite grander than a single hall, however, and the festivities had overflowed into other, cozier rooms. Romeo finished his cup of wine, stopped a servant to grab a second, drank all of it in one backwards tilt of his head, and grabbed a third cup to continue about with.

He wandered about each passage and sitting room on the first floor, sometimes hovering to listen in on some conversation, then continuing about when it seemed his presence was bothersome. Certainly Rosaline had been invited, as he had read the page inviting her, though perhaps the message hadn’t finished its transit to her, or else, perhaps this gathering was beneath her.

Romeo arrived at the final chamber on the first floor: another hall, cozier than the great hall, but a hall no less, in fact somewhat large given its secluded placement. Some few hung about, the din of conversation softer here. In the center of the room there was a fountain and a small garden, with a glass roof above to let in the light, when it was daytime. The trickling of water was the ambiance, rather than the humming of strings and the beating of drums.

Wandering into the room, Romeo spied, in the back corner, a creature more beautiful than he had seen in years.

He tapped the shoulder of a servant, who was dusting at a bust of Ares. Of him he inquired, “Who is that lady, who doth sit beside yonder gentleman?”

The servant—the same who had borne the letter of invitation, Romeo realized—turned to Romeo, then turned to where Romeo was facing, then answered, “She was the wet nurse, when she began here.”

“I should doubt—oh, no, sir, the other lady. Not the lady with the rose tattoos. She who sits on the floor, between the lady with the tattoos and the gentleman with the thin smile.”

“Oh. I know not sir.”

In another corner of the secluded hall, the Lord Capulet, who had ambled in, sat down on a bench beside his nephew Tybalt. “How fare you tonight, good sir?” the Lord Capulet asked.

“I fare foul since a moment ago, when this man entered,” Tybalt said, nodding towards Romeo. “By his voice, he is a Montague. What, dares the slovenly urchin come here to scorn our feast, thinking a mask shall hide his rank odor? Now, by the stock and honor of my kin, to strike him dead I hold it not a sin.”

“Be calm, gentle kinsman. Why storm you so?”

“Uncle, this is a Montague, our foe. A villain, that is hither come in spite, to scorn at our solemnity this night.”

“Young Romeo, is it?”

“Tis he, that villain Romeo.”

“Be calm, gentle nephew. Leave him alone. Though dressed in a solemn skirt, he stands like a merry gentleman. And, to say the truth, Verona brags of him. He is a well-mannered youth. Deadly with a sword, though one would never know it, and twice as good with a horse—better with the latter than many are comfortable speaking of, in polite company.” The Lord Capulet hummed a chuckle to himself at that. Craning his neck to see past the fountain, Lord Capulet asked, “Who does he look at with those smitten eyes of his?”

Tybalt stood, looked over the fountain, and sat back down. “The hound.”

“Ha! How looks the hound, and Paris?”

Tybalt once again stood and sat. “Bored. They are both bored.”

“Well, there’s no sense in allowing that. Go, seek company you find more suitable in the great hall, or in any other place, but not here. I shall go and find an excuse for Romeo and my girl to mingle.”

“Uncle!”

“He is an upstanding young man, as I’ve already told you. A better judge of her disposition than even I. She needs be bred someday, lest her breed should with her die. If any shall open her, I wit it should be him. If she be not ready he would not proceed, and if she is ready indeed, he would proceed with her well, and leave a good impression of the act.”

“I care not. He is a villain who craftily makes himself a guest here. I will not endure him.”

“He’ll be endured or you shall go. I’ll not have a mutiny among my guests.”

Tybalt stood, hand resting on his sword, staring at Romeo, who had come to sit by himself on a bench near the servant, who dusted behind the ear of the bust of Ares. Tybalt’s hand flexed on his hilt once, twice, and then he begrudgingly let it go. “I will withdraw. But his intrusion, now seeming sweet, will turn to bitter gall.” He turned and marched out of the secluded hall.

With drunkenly jaunty footsteps, Lord Capulet tiptoed merrily across the room. “Angelica, Paris! Oh, and of course Juliet.” He crouched and took Juliet’s head in his hands, then rubbed at her back. Standing again, he said, “I’ve someone for you both to meet. She waits on the second floor, I will lead the way. Oh! Terribly frightened of dogs, I’m afraid. Juliet shall have to stay.”

Angelica began, “I can stay with Juliet while—”

“Nay, perish the thought, this guest I bring you to shant be spurned. Juliet may stay here. A well behaved creature, she is, and pleasant company she’ll make to any pleasant company around her. In such a pleasant room as this, I worry not.”

Angelica gave a look to Juliet. Then to Lord Capulet, she said, “Aye. As you wish, my lord.”

Angelica and Paris arose and followed after Lord Capulet, who feigned never to notice the young Montague man in the other corner, never once casting a curious eye in that direction, never once intoning any motive ulterior to bringing Angelica and Paris to a guest who, once arrived at the second floor, would be decided.

Juliet rose to follow Lord Capulet and his company.

“Stay here, Juliet,” Angelica bid, turning back to face her.

She considered it, and then reluctantly, sat back down. After another moment, she laid down on the floor before the bench on which Angelica and Paris had sat.

Angelica turned, and followed Lord Capulet away.

Romeo, the moment Angelica and Paris had left his eyesight, arose from his bench, and swiftly made his way across the calm secluded hall, over to the hound, whose name he had overheard.

Romeo offered out his hand to Juliet.

Juliet lifted her head up, and stretched herself forward to sniff his hand. Her tail gave a couple of small wags, and she licked his hand once.

Beside Juliet, Romeo sat himself on the floor, leaning back, elbows resting up on the bench seat. He then began to pet her, gently. Juliet laid her chin on her paws, contentedly.

In a few minutes’ time, Juliet was laid on her side, and Romeo on his side behind her, stroking her as they laid together. As they laid in one another’s cozy warmth, Romeo eventually spoke, “If I profane, with my unworthiest hand, this holy shrine, the gentle fine is this: my lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand, to smooth that rough touch with a gentle kiss.”

Romeo got up, continuing to have a gentle hand on her as he did, and moved from laying at her back to laying at her front. Lying so, face to face, hand on her strong and houndly shoulder, Romeo moved in and kissed Juliet on the front of her canine lips.

Juliet’s tail thumped against the ground. She thought a second, and then moved in unto Romeo in turn, lapping at his face. He gladly indulged her as she left slobbering licks on his closed eyes and his forehead, and when she moved to licking at his mouth, he returned the kisses, the two of them at once as practiced as longstanding lovers and as newly met as strangers; they both were naturals, befitting of their natural love.

Romeo leaned back away from her kisses, only to ask her, “Would you come with me to a more private chamber?”

Juliet’s tail thumped at the ground enthusiastically.

Romeo got up, and Juliet got up with him. He led the way, she eagerly following beside him. Catching that others in the secluded hall gave him disapproving looks, Romeo could only snicker at their poor understanding of the love which had unfolded before their very eyes. He scampered away from the secluded chamber and up a set of stairs, which Juliet scampered up with him alongside. Together, they stole away into an unoccupied bedchamber. Inside, after bolting the door, Romeo drew the curtains open to allow the faint nighttime light inside. The night that followed was Juliet’s first two times, and Romeo’s first two times in quite a while. Through the darkest hours of the night, Juliet slept, while Romeo laid awake elated, nose buried in her coat, enmeshed with her seductive animal scent. As the two laid entwined on the cozy bed and the sunlight shone in through the open window, Romeo recalled his whereabouts, and the family unfriendly to his own which dwelt here.

By the new morning light, he got himself dressed, pulling on his leggings, fitting on his skirt, fastening his cape. When he was all dressed, Juliet petitioned him for one more go, which he with every gladness granted. Afterwards, he knelt beside the bed on which Juliet laid contented. “With sorrow, I leave thee,” Romeo said, and gave her a kiss atop her head. “Faith, I shall return.”

With his mask dawned, Romeo made a quick exit of the bedchambers, leaving the door open.

Juliet, in the mood for more sleep, nestled back down into the blankets and pillows, on all of which was the scent of herself and of he who had accompanied her throughout the exhilarating night. Within the cozy warmth of these sheets, she fell quickly into sleep.

When she awoke, she found that Angelica was knelt before her, hand on her shoulder, looking curiously at her.

“God deign ye a good morning, Juliet,” Angelica said.

Juliet wagged, and then stretched, arching her back and lengthening out her paws.

Angelica hovered, knelt at the bedside. “Dear Juliet, I smell a scent on your breath that I scarce believe.” Angelica moved in, and sniffed at Juliet’s mouth more closely. With due care paid, Angelica laid a hand on Juliet’s rump, and inserted a finger into the hound’s sex. She hooked the finger slightly and withdrew it, drawing out traces of a viscous slime. “Tis seed,” she remarked. Angelica gave her finger a thorough smell, and then inserted the digit into her mouth, and pondered the taste. “Tis human,” she added. “Fie! Tis that Montague lad, I bet my breast on it!”

Juliet adjusted to lie upright, and laid her ears back at Angelica’s outburst.

Seeing this, Angelica sighed, and ran an assuring hand—her clean hand—down Juliet’s back. “The festivities of the night before are done, dear girl. Get ye your rest. Worry not, worry not. I’ll sit with ye as you sleep.”

 

 

Act Two
containing five scenes

 

 

Lo, here the lucky lot that seld true lovers find,

Each takes away the other’s heart, and leaves the own behind.

A happy life is love, if God grant from above,

That heart with heart by even weight do make exchange of love.

 

 

Act II.
Scene I.

SEVEN days passed since the Capulets’ masquerade feast. Prince Escalus walked beside the king through the passageways of his castle, their footsteps dampened by the grey carpet underfoot. As he had promised to do, the king led them into his scrying chamber. Twas a place Prince Escalus had only been a handful of times, but where the king could get lost in for days, weeks, or longer. Twas a black and hexagonal room. Black felt lined the six walls, the ceiling, the floor, and the back of the door through which the prince and the king entered, and the door’s door handle. At the center of the room was a plinth covered with black felt on which the Scrying Glass of Abel’s Blood was rested. Before the plinth was a small cubic black felt lined seat. The king also carried in his hands a wooden stool for his son. The prince closed the door behind them. By the red light of the orb, Prince Escalus went and sat down on the offered stool, beside his father, and into the glass they looked.

The red fog parted, and within the glass, there was shown a scene from a week ago. The Montague lad, Romeo, adorned with a skirt and a mask, laid on the floor of a hall in the Capulet manor, stroking the Capulets’ sole remaining Great Dane hound, Juliet. The two seemed quite peaceful. After a time, the two kissed, which garnered a few disapproving looks, and then they stole away from the hall and into a bedchambers, the orb’s sight following them all the while. What ensued, Prince Escalus had half a mind to look away from, but also half a mind to take notes on: the young man’s technique was extraordinary, exquisite, even if its target strangely chosen.

Prince Escalus gave a small breath of a faux laugh out through his nose. “Tis as rumor said, then.”

“Aye, that it is, that it is,” the king said in a quiet voice. He had somewhat nearly lost his voice entirely, from a lifetime of loud speech. “Now old desire doth in his death-bed lie, and young affection gapes to be his heir; she fair, for which love groaned for, and would die, with tender Juliet matched, is now not fair. Now Romeo is beloved, and loves again, alike bewitched by the charm of looks; but to his foe supposed he must complain, and she steal love’s sweet bait from fearful hooks. Being held a foe, he may not have access to breathe such vows as lovers use to swear; and she as much in love, her means much less to meet her new-beloved anywhere. But passion lends them power, time means, to meet, tempering extremities with extreme sweet.”

“Is this what you’ve summoned me all this way to show me, father?”

The king leaned back on his seat, and crossed his arms low over his stomach, looking idly at the orb as the red fog returned. “More or less, more or less,” he quietly answered. “Humph. I know my motivations: that lord Capulet has bred a fine breed, and I should see it continued, as I’d like some for the castle. Yet even if I felt some other way, it is a certainty my same actions would come to pass, for already I have seen my actions, and their consequences, and the consequences of those unto decades, all interbalanced, impossible to change one thing lest the whole world tumble down. Before there was ever motivation for it, I have seen the hounds wandering about this castle in the background of other scenes. For decades I have known they will be here, and now I have arrived at the reason why, flimsy as a reason feels with the outcome already fated. My son, you will want no use of this orb. I know nothing of what happens after my own death: that, it will not show me. But when I am dead, I beg you destroy it, or at the least hide it away from yourself. With the future known, it seems I am but an actor these days.”

Prince Escalus bowed his head solemnly. He was unsure of how to respond, other than to assure the king, “I will follow your command to the letter, father. Perhaps it does not show you further because once you have passed, I have destroyed the orb so swiftly afterwards, and it has no tether to anything beyond then.”

“Aye,” the king said, and smiled a smile that overcame him more genuinely than any smile had in quite a long time. “Aye, I had never considered it that way, and perhaps you are right. Now, the matter of the hounds.”

“I was about to ask. What have you seen pertaining to this? Is she not the last of her breed?”

“Yes, the last in the world, presently. Nonetheless, I think she will be enough.”

From a pocket, the king produced a vial. In this blackened room, the vial shone, if dimly, as another point of light. There were no contents inside, solid or liquid, and so the prince discerned that it was some gas inside which produced the faint blue glow.

“A vial of Loki’s Breath,” the king said. Seeing his son’s startled expression, the king smiled, fangs and all. Prince Escalus, long fascinated with reading on pagan relics, already knew the possible implications of handling anything pertaining to the trickster god. The king asked his son, “Have you knowledge of Loki’s Breath specifically?”

Prince Escalus nodded. “It will serve perfect for this occasion. Though, I must emphasize, I worry at what other unforeseen occasion it might give service to in conjuncture.”

“Tis not unforeseen,” the king said, his gaze returned to staring at the orb’s red fog. “Indeed, a sad consequence is to come of this, eventually, but it is not sad for us, and it cannot be changed, anyhow.”

“Be that as it may, I would ask you for more particulars on the matter.”

The king shook his head.

“Shall I deliver Romeo the vial then?” the prince asked.

“I think you shall,” the king said, and offered the vial over.

“You know I shall,” the prince muttered, and took the vial.

The king chuckled, and wished the prince a safe journey. When the prince stood and left, the king remained, looking down into the orb. The red fog parted. The king settled in. In real time, the orb showed the prince walking to the library, locating a book, flipping to the needed section, consulting some pages, and then returning the book to the shelf. Though nighttime had fallen, the prince went next to the stables, mounted his white steed, and made off back to Verona. The king had already seen before that his son would ride a long way into this night, stay at an inn along the way, and early in the morning arrive safely in Verona. The red fog swirled as the scene was changed away from the prince riding away from the castle. The king continued to look, to see whatever was shown to him next.

Twas back in Verona, in the present time, where night had come even earlier—the spherical nature of the planet was felt by the king quite viscerally when jumps like this were made. In the night-clad Verona, Benvolio and Mercutio walked slowly along a narrow road behind the Capulet manor’s backyard, heads swiveling to look all about them. They walked along a road that was sandwiched in by the Capulets’ orchard wall on one side and a hedge on the other, accented by trees on either side.

Benvolio called, “Romeo! My cousin Romeo!”

“He is wise: on my life, he has stolen home, back to bed.” Mercutio yawned.

They had been sober since the morning after the Capulets’ masquerade feast. They had awakened with their breath smelling of vomit and their chin encrusted in vomit, which in and of itself was not an atypical awakening. Benvolio was also present when Mercutio had awoken, which also had happened a fair few times. This time, though, the place of awakening was not Mercutio’s chambers nor Benvolio’s, but a rustic bedchambers coated in dust on every surface but the bed. Mercutio reached around for a bottle, and, finding none at all, shot a concerned look to Benvolio.

“Where are we?” they asked.

“A stable house of the Montagues, quite some distance out of Verona. There is not a drop of alcohol in ten miles of here, and the horse we rode in on has returned home by himself.”

Mercutio made to draw their sword, but found their scabbard empty. They reached forward and drew Benvolio’s sword instead. They pressed the sword’s handle into Benvolio’s hand. “Kill me. I beg you, do it swift, however painful, so long as it’s done.”

The sword rattled, some symbols on its guard giving off a shining light.

Benvolio rattled similarly, and put his blade back in its scabbard.

After painful and difficult discussion, Mercutio had agreed to return to Verona under Benvolio’s care, for at least a time. Presently, the two of them milled around and around the Capulet manor looking for Romeo, who had given them the slip just earlier.

“He is not gone to bed,” Benvolio assured. “For a certainty, he’s jumped this orchard wall again. Call him, good Mercutio.”

“Nay, I’ll conjure him as though he were a ghost: for as he would say it himself, ‘The old Romeo you knew a week ago is dead,’ just as the Romeo before that was borne of a dead Romeo, and so I should only assume that the Romeo with us today shall be dead as a doornail in but a few minutes here.” Mercutio turned to face the Capulets’ orchard wall, cupped their hands to their mouth, and shouted, “Romeo! Buggerer! Madman! Passion! Lover! Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh! Speak but one rhyme, and I am satisfied! Cry but ‘Ay me!’ and pronounce but ‘love’ and ‘dove!’ I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes, by her high forehead and her scarlet lip, by her fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh, and the lands that there adjacent lie! I conjure thee, appear before us!”

“If he hears you, you will anger him.”

“Nothing I’ve said could do anything of the sort. Tis true and honest. As for his mistress’s name, I conjure it only to conjure him.”

“Come, he hath hid himself among these trees, to go consort by the cover of night. Blind is his love, befitting of the dark.”

“If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark. Oh Romeo, that she were… oh, that she were a…” Mercutio shook their head. “Tis troubling, this sobriety. Too many thoughts come to me, and block each other’s exit. I must stupefy myself to allow a steady ray of my brilliant wits out through the single passage from which my soul is corporeally bound to flowing.”

“Let us retire to bed, then,” Benvolio offered, wrapping an arm around his tired friend. “Tis good to rest, and tis in vain to seek him here that means not to be found.”

Mercutio nestled into Benvolio for a moment, and then after a few deep, mindful breaths, the two made their exit, bound for Benvolio’s bedchamber.

When all was quiet, Romeo emerged from the hedge in which he’d hid. He crossed the road, climbed the Capulets’ orchard wall, and stole across the yard, arriving near to the manor, crouched behind a shrub. Above at a window, the room within unlit, the stately head of Juliet looked out from behind the glass.

“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” Romeo whispered to himself, enraptured. “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. It is my lady. Oh, it is my love. She speaks even when not a word she utters: her eyes are discourses. Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven do entreat her eyes to twinkle in their spheres til they return. Her eyes in heaven would stream so bright that the birds would sing, and think it were not night. See how she rests her chin upon the sill! Oh, that I were a paint upon that sill, that I might touch that cheek!”

Juliet, lifting her head from resting on the sill, noticed the noise in the yard and gave a bark.

“Oh, speak again bright angel! For thou art as glorious to this night, being over my head, as is a winged messenger of Heaven unto the white-upturned wondering eyes of mortals that fall back to gaze on him when he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds and sails upon the bosom of the air.”

Juliet left the window. A moment later, Romeo heard a scratching at the back door. Moving swiftly, he tiptoed up to the door and opened it. Juliet bounded out and leapt at Romeo, who met her embrace, held her, rubbed her, kissed her along the side, met those of her kisses that were aimed at his mouth and gladly received the rest of her kisses graciously, on his ear, on his neck, on his hands. Their initial greeting completed, Romeo strode away from the back door as swiftly as he’d come to it. Juliet followed closely. He led the way to a secluded garden, walled in with creeping vines growing along the upright meshes and on the mesh overhead, a room as living as the night without and the love within.

Romeo sat there on the grass in the room with Juliet, and the two of them kissed a long while. When she flagged him, still being in her heat, he quite happily met her demands. Afterwards as she licked at herself, Romeo sighed, lost in the beauty of this hound, her coat glinting in the moonlight. He whispered softly to her, “Oh Juliet, Juliet, why must you be Capulet? Deny thy owner, and refuse thy name. Or, if thou will not, be but sworn by my love, and I’ll no longer be a Montague. Tis thy name that is my enemy. Thou art thyself though, not a Capulet. What’s a Capulet? It is not paw, nor claw, nor leg, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a dog.” He sighed again. As she finished licking herself she began licking him, and when she was finished with that, they kissed a while more, and then laid together relaxed, him petting her, whispering to her yet again. “Oh, if you could be some other name. What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet—and you would know about that far better than I.” He said the last in a tone more playful to her, and she gave a wag, turning her head to look at him face to face. He scratched at her back. She arched her back and stretched as he went, and then rolled onto her back, showing her belly for him to rub. As he rubbed her belly in the soft moonlight, he went on, voice still a bit playful, and made more so by the repetitive punctuation caused by his rubbing. “So Juliet would, were she not Juliet called, retain that dear perfection which she owns without that title. Juliet, doff thy name, and for that name, which is no part of thee, take all of myself.”

Juliet rolled off of her back towards Romeo, and assaulted his face with yet more slobbering kisses. Her youthful excitement made Romeo’s heart flutter each time she went in unto him for this—her tongue, a more succinct poet than his could ever dream.

If Juliet wished for more words, then a codex a day he could recite to her. But in truth, the contents of his words were not the height of meaning. Not meaningless, but still, most syllables containing less meaning than each moan, most words containing less meaning than each kiss, most sentences containing less meaning than each nuzzle, most stanzas containing less meaning than each scratch on her lower back, most epics containing less meaning than each sniff. Indeed, the increase in words was the inverse of meaning, while the increase in gesture stood meaning’s corollary.

The two lovers heard the back door open, and both stopped their kissing to lift their heads to face in that direction.

“Juliet?” called Angelica, out into the yard. Somewhat louder, she called again, “Juliet?”

Juliet looked to Romeo.

“I will return,” Romeo assured. “Nay, that is not strong enough: I vow, we will live together happily, and not have to go about under cover of night as though rogues. Tomorrow I shall arrange it. But for now, to Angelica go.”

Juliet stood, and walked out of the garden at a trot to Angelica.

“Madam!” Angelica said, intoning relief entwined within her disapproval. “Out so late?”

With Juliet in, the door shut. Romeo waited a while, allowing any lingering suspicions to die down and their owners to fall asleep before he made his exit. When a yawn struck him, this struck him as a mark that it was time. He withdrew from the Capulets’ yard, climbed over the orchard wall, and returned through the nighttime Verona streets to the manor of the Montagues. Therein he crawled into his bed, at once contented at the time he had gotten to spend with his beloved earlier on this night, yet saddened she was not here presently to share this lonely bed with him.

 

 

Act II.
Scene II.

ROMEO arose in the morning, bathed, and went to his wardrobe. He dressed in sky blue leggings and a blue floral tunic, the cloth belt about his waist studded as it were with large cloth replicas of deep blue sunflowers. He had a cup of tea in the back garden, listening to the happy birds. When he was finished with it, he went to the stables, checked in with each of the horses and wished them a good morning, and then mounted a bay stallion. Romeo encouraged him on at a walk. The two were headed out to see Friar Lawrence, in business pertaining to Romeo’s promise to Juliet the night prior. Romeo and the stallion made their way out to the Verona streets.

There, on the street before the Montague manor, stood a white steed, large and gorgeous. Romeo urged the stallion to halt and looked admiringly at the tall mare in the path. Her physique was dense with elegant muscle, her snow white coat shone in the morning light, her frost-blonde mane hanging as frame to her confident black eyes. After some moments, Romeo realized the rider atop her as well: the prince of scales, Prince Escalus. Romeo glanced here and there for the prince’s guardsmen, his musketeers, his courtiers, but there appeared to be none. Romeo considered if he had misidentified the man. He was unsure if he had ever seen the prince about town unaccompanied before.

Prince Escalus gave his steed’s sides a light spurring. As she came out of her standing and into a trot, he steered her reigns towards Romeo. With their horses beside one another, Romeo and Escalus brought face to face, the prince halted his horse. Were either the sort, the two men could have leaned forward and hugged one another at this distance. Romeo’s stallion suggested to him that they should move, but Romeo encouraged the stallion to stay.

“Good morning, handsome prince,” Romeo wished.

“And a good morning to you in turn, good sir,” the prince returned. “Though as to my handsomeness, I must admit, I don’t believe your appraising eyes were cast squarely at me just now.”

“Well.” Romeo flushed just slightly, but did indulge his eyes in looking back down to the white mare, now able to see her beautiful face all the more closely. “What is her name?”

“Hel,” the prince said, not a word of a lie.

“Oh, dear. A grand enough name, at least.”

“Will you ride beside me a while, Romeo?” the prince asked. “My business is not urgent, I suppose. Important, but nothing needs be done this hour.”

Romeo considered, and answered, “My business this morning is much the same, my prince. Yes, set the path and we will ride alongside.”

The hoofsteps of the two horses clicked through the tittering sounds of the city waking up. Prince Escalus lead the way westwardly out of the city proper, into a sycamore grove, where the wind passed through the trees in steady waves. Escalus brought his mare to a stop on a secluded path, and Romeo bid his stallion to stop matched beside her. The four listened to the wind a while.

Wshhhhhh… Wshhhhhh… Wshhhhhh…

“I come to offer you a gift,” the prince said.

“Oh? Forgive my prodding at the very notion, but what is the occasion?”

“Tis no secret you fancy beasts. The odd woman now and again, yes, but it is the four-legged that are most readily enwrapped in your romantic soul, and while there, given all the commodities that one would dare hope the most generous human love should afford.”

Romeo glanced away, unable to help smiling. “I would call your tongue nothing of a liar at those words.”

“Tis also no secret which beast has earned your affections recently.”

Now fear-stricken, Romeo remained silent.

“The Capulets’ Great Dane hound, Juliet. This is correct, yes? I should hope your love shall prove stronger than any notion of polite cowardice that would urge you to deny it.”

“Yes. A second time, your words speak the truth. Her heart and mine beat as one. My business this morning was to the abbey, to arrange a marriage.”

If the prince was surprised, he did not show a hint of it. “A wedding gift, then,” he said, and reached into a pocket of his regal attire. With a gloved hand, he offered Romeo the vial, glowing faintly blue, though as much was not easily visible in the light of day. “I urge you, do not open it here. But do take it.”

Romeo took the offered vial and examined it.

The prince gave Romeo its story. “The Norse say that their god Loki is father to three, and mother to one: all together, his children are Hel, Fenrir, Jörmungandr, and Sleipnir. Respectively, they are a woman, a wolf, a snake, and a horse. What I have given you today is a vial which holds bound inside of it one of the Norse god Loki’s breaths. When next you go in unto Juliet, open this vial and take in its breath before you lay your seed inside of her. With this relic’s help, the two of you may bear children, even though you are man and beast.”

Astonished, Romeo held the vial with a new echelon of care, suddenly finding himself steward to a sacred blessing in wait.

With a thin smile, the prince added, “In truth, the relics of more deities than not will produce such an effect. But I hope that Loki’s brand of it will be befitting of your lively soul and hers.”

“Prior to this gift, you had not spoken a word of a lie yet,” Romeo said, finding the words. “If yet again you speak the truth in telling me what this is, I cannot begin to imagine the repayment that I would owe to you.”

The prince chuckled. “Tis a gift, truly, and as such it expects no repayment. Though I will confess that in convenient happenstance, the repayment is contained within the gift itself: your wit, charm, manners, looks, humor, skill, and allover wellrounded dashing demeanor are the pride of Verona; Juliet, handsome, strong, keen-nosed, swift-legged, and a hundred other features I’m sure you would know better than I, is the pride of the houndly race, and a good fruit of the Capulets’ work that will be to waste should her breed end with her. And so, if it brings forth offspring to you and to her, for a household and for a pack, then for as much as this vial is a gift to you, it is twice as much a gift to Verona.”

“Merry, now you do tell lie in your overzealous praising, and I may weep.”

“I will leave you, then,” Prince Escalus said, and gathered Hel’s reigns. “God deign you a good day, and I wish you well on your business at the abbey.”

Without awaiting a response, the prince spurred Hel forward, and she carried him away at a trot.

Romeo stowed the vial carefully within an inner breast pocket of his tunic. He did weep then, as he had done many a time in this sycamore grove. When the tears were done with him and he was able to wipe the last of them from his face, he leaned down and gave his stallion a few appreciative strokes, feeling a residual need to continue thanking anyone at all. He then encouraged the stallion on, and to the abbey they went, to see a mentor Romeo had spurned for some months, since the worst of his tumult for the near-forgotten Rosaline.

As they arrived, Romeo inhaled the scent of the abbey deeply. It was a miraculous range of herbs that were coaxed to grow throughout the yard here. Indeed, the yard within the open-gated abbey walls was more shrub than grass, more row than path. From the threshold of the open gate, Romeo spied Friar Lawrence, the man he had come to see. The friar was stooped over with a basket, rubbing a short plant’s leaf between his thumb and forefinger. Apparently deeming the leaf fitting—for what, Romeo did not know—the friar plucked the leaf off, put it in his basket, and continued on to the next plant to be examined.

Romeo dismounted. He hitched the stallion at the open gate with a knot that was made to come apart immediately if the stallion gave the slightest insistence. After taking a small moment to tell the horse of his appreciation, Romeo made his approach to the friar.

The friar was speaking merrily to himself—more, to the plants—as Romeo arrived. The young Montague man stood a while and listened.

“The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night, checkering the eastern clouds with streaks of light; and flecked darkness like a drunkard reels from forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels; now, ere the sun advance his burning eye, the day to cheer, and night’s dank dew to dry, I must up-fill this osier-cage of ours with baleful weeds and precious-juiced flow’rs. The earth, that’s natures mother, is her tomb; what is her burying grave, that is her womb; and from her womb children of diverse kind, we sucking on her natural bosom find; many for many virtues excellent; none but for some, and yet all different. Oh, mickle is the powerful grace that lies in herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities; for naught so vile that on the earth doth live, but to the earth some special good doth give; nor aught so good, but, strained from that fair use, revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse; virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied; and vice sometimes by action dignified. Within the infant rind of this small flower, poison hath residence, and medicine power; for this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part; being tasted, slays all senses with the heart. Two such opposed kings encamp them still: in man as well as herbs—grace and rude will; and where the worser is predominant, full soon the canker death eats up that plant.”

“Good morrow, father.”

Benedicite!” the friar shouted, flinching and nearly dropping his basket. “What early tongue so sweet saluteth me?”

The friar looked up, and beheld the young Montague man. Seeing who came visiting, the friar could scant be anything but happy.

“The young prodigy returns,” the friar said warmly, “and he returns quite early in the morning, at that.”

“Tis not so early.”

“If that’s not so, then here I hit it right: our Romeo hath not been in bed last night.”

“Nay, nay, you miss. Faith, I went to bed last night. Beds, rather, the latter being my own.”

“God pardon sin! Wast thou with Rosaline?”

“With Rosaline?” Romeo echoed the question ponderously. He scarce understood what the friar was asking. It seemed such a strange thing to ask, now. “My ghostly father, no. I have forgotten that name, and that name’s woe.”

“That’s good, my son. But where hast thou been, then?”

“I have been feasting with my enemy. My heart’s dear love is set on the beautiful girl of rich Capulet.”

“Being he has none of his daughters left alive, I worry at what you mean by this. Speak plainly, son, and be forward in thy admittance; riddling confession finds but riddling forgiveness.”

“Then plainly: my love is for Juliet.”

“I know her not.”

“The Capulets’ hound.”

Friar Lawrence leaned back as he let out a sigh of relief both long and loud. Returning to his picking at the plants, he said, “Back to the critters, then.”

“Not back to them, but finally arrived at one.”

“I don’t know if I understand your distinction.”

“I mean only that I wish for you to combine this critter and myself in holy marriage.”

Friar Lawrence stopped with the plants again, and once more wheeled to Romeo, exclaiming, “Holy Saint Francis! What a change is here! Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear, so soon forsaken? Young men’s love, then, lies not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes. Jesu Maria, what a deal of salty brine hath washed thy sycamore cheeks in the name of Rosaline! Look, here upon thy cheek, the stain doth sit of an old tear that is not washed off yet. If ever thy wast thyself, and these woes thine, thou and these woes were all for Rosaline. And art thou changed?”

Romeo’s arms found their way to becoming crossed, and his stance shifted. “You often made fun of me for loving Rosaline.”

“For doting, not for loving, pupil mine.”

“You told me to bury love.”

“Not in a grave! I wished only that you would put one down, and take another out to have.”

“I have done just that,” Romeo assured. “I pray thee, chide not: she whom I love now doth grace for grace and love for love allow. The other did not so.”

Friar Lawrence muttered something, and then sighed. “Oh, Romeo. In truth, you stand more righteous on this matter than do we who seek out but human loves.”

The friar had told this to Romeo many times in the past, to the point it seemed to Romeo that the friar spoke most of it from wrought, even though he seemed each time to speak as though divulging it for the first time.

“God made the land and the sea and the fish and the beasts,” Friar Lawrence began. “He blessed the fish before ever blessing mankind, if you would believe it from the way other sects speak as though humans are atop the natural world, and not a mere part of it, a servant to it if anything. Fie! When God made the human race, He made but one man, and no human else. And, deciding that it was not good that Man should be alone, God sought to find him a partner. Every animal that walked the land, He brought forth to the man. The man found none suitable, and so God created a woman. This scripture was written by the prophet Moses, who interprets this to be the reason why man and woman should be wed. Pah! Phoo! A powerful prophet indeed, but ultimately proven imperfect in the eyes of the Lord, and, I think, imperfect in his interpretation on the lesson here. For when else, pray tell, do Man and God disagree on what is good, and we are to take Man’s side of it? God created, in a world yet untouched by sin, a perfect garden, in which one Man would tend it, and with each beast he would be matched until finding one that was suitable for him, and once having found a partner, being that beast’s partner thereafter. Thus I do believe, dear Romeo, that you walk closer to God’s vision of what Man was to be than anyone else whom I have ever known. Certainly, you have given a great many critters a fair try. And now, I speak true when I tell you how it warms my heart you have found yourself a partner you would like to stay with. Come, in this respect I’ll thy assistant be. For this alliance may so happy prove, to turn your households’ rancor into pure love.”

Romeo’s heart brimmed with joy at the friar’s approval. “Oh, let me go hence and contrive to have her find her way here for the ceremony. I stand on sudden haste.”

“Wisely, and slow; they stumble that run fast.”

 

 

Act II.
Scene III.

BENVOLIO sat on the ledge of a square fountain in a Verona square, with Mercutio laying out on the ledge on their back, one knee up, head resting on Benvolio’s lap. One of Mercutio’s hands idly splashed and swished around in the water. One of Benvolio’s hands idly toyed at Mercutio’s hair.

“Why, where the devil can this Romeo be?” Mercutio wondered. “Was he not home last night?”

“He was, but not for long,” Benvolio answered. “Though I never saw him, a horse from the stable was gone this morning.”

“Ah, he rides to that pale-hearted wench, that Rosaline, who torments him so that he will surely run mad. That, of course, or he rides to a secluded place for him and the horse.”

“I would doubt the latter,” Benvolio said. “Firstly because the stable itself has served quite a fine place for him in the past, as I have witnessed—more than once and every time quite unintentionally—with mine own eyes. But also, twas a stallion missing, not a mare.”

“Who should tell the difference, when they cannot speak to say what they believe themselves to be?”

Benvolio raked his fingers through the royal’s hair lovingly without response for a bit. Eventually he answered, “You are not wrong—”

“Nor ever have I been—”

“Nonetheless, perhaps we all, you and I and Romeo alike, proscribe things to the four-legged that do not apply to them as they do to us.”

“Aye. Romeo and I have talked about as much at length,” Mercutio said. They then stretched, lengthening themselves out on the fountain ledge, nuzzling their head back into Benvolio’s lap.

“On the subject of Romeo, I spoke with his father this morning at breakfast, as you remained in bed,” Benvolio said.

“I maintain I made the wiser choice.”

“In either case, some foreboding knowledge came of it.”

“Oh, do go on.”

“Tybalt, the kinsman to Old Capulet, hath sent a letter to the Montague house.”

“A challenge, I bet my life on it.”

Benvolio, twirling a lock of Mercutio’s hair, said, “Indeed, twas that exact thing. If Romeo learns of it, he will not be able to help but answer it.”

“Any man that can write may answer a letter.”

“Nay, he will answer the letter’s master, how he dares, being dared.”

“Then alas, poor Romeo is already dead!” Mercutio proclaimed, and threw both arms into the air in a display of melodrama, before letting them fall limply back to where they were, one arm hanging off towards the ground, the other swishing about in the fountain’s water.

“You were once as close as a brother—a sibling, a sibling—to Tybalt.”

“Yes, the latter and the latter’s latter I was. And in truth, at least at that time, perhaps the first is accurate enough as well.”

“What do you make of Tybalt now?” Benvolio asked.

Mercutio answered, “As though he were a fourth child of the king, brother to the prince of scales and to the prince myself and to the lovely prince Valentine, he himself we called the prince of cats when we were closer, though he is more than prince of cats, I can tell you. Oh, he is the courageous captain of compliments. He fights in the same way you sing a nursery rhyme: keeps time, distance, and proportion; rests one, two, and the third strike rests in your bosom. A butcher, a duelist; a duelist, a gentleman dressed more audaciously than any gentlelady in her modesty dare; fiend with the immortal passado, the punto reverso, the hay—”

“The what?”

“The pox of such antic,” Mercutio went on, perhaps in answer or perhaps ignoring the interruption entirely. “By Jesu, a very good blade!; a very tall man!; a very good whore! Why, is not…”

Mercutio stopped, noting that Benvolio had ceased listening and had craned his head to face elsewhere.

“Here comes Romeo,” Benvolio informed.

Mercutio sat upright beside Benvolio and looked in the same direction to behold the lover atop a stallion, who made his way into the square at a walk. From atop the stallion, Romeo looked this way and that, though his eyes passed over Benvolio and Mercutio entirely.

Mercutio, having none of that, raised a hand tall in the air towards the Montague, and shouted, “Signor Romeo!”

His attention drawn finally to the two at the fountain, Romeo gave some signal to the horse, and the horse began his way over.

Bon jour!” Mercutio greeted as the young man arrived. “There’s a French salutation for your French slop. You gave us the counterfeit fairly last night.”

Romeo tilted his head. “Good morning to you both. What counterfeit did I give you?”

“The slip, sir, the slip,” Mercutio answered.

“Pardon, good Mercutio, but my business last night was great—”

“—Dane—”

“—was great, and my business today all the greater. Good day, good gentlepersons.”

Romeo produced a clicking sound from his mouth and made a slight change to his posture, and the stallion resumed his walk.

Atop the stallion, Romeo made his way down street after street. From atop his tall vantage, he searched out a woman with sleeves of rose tattoos. Twas likely she would be somewhere abouts the Capulet manor, which he rode the perimeter of back and back again, and again, and again.

As the morning gave way to noonday, he spotted the rose-tattooed woman walking back from the market, a parasol in her hands, and a large bag in each hand of the man who walked beside her. Angelica, spotting Romeo at the same time as he had spotted her, switch directions to walk straight for him.

“God deign ye good day, gentleman,” she said, arriving beside his steed, who he had encouraged to a halt. Her face remained in the shade of the parasol, though she tilted it up enough that she could regard him, and he her.

“And to you, gentlewoman,” Romeo wished in return.

“Gentleman, can you tell me where I may find the young Romeo?”

“Aye, I can tell you—but young Romeo will be older when you have found him than he was when you sought him; at this second, I am the youngest of that name.”

“If you be he, sir, I desire some confidence with you; step down from thy horse.”

In a flash Romeo was dismounted, his hand rested comfortingly on his stallion’s side. From this lower vantage, he was only a head taller than Angelica, more or less at eye level with the man accompanying her, and was all the more aware of the sword strapped to the man’s side, though the man’s hands remained clasped on the handles of the bags he held. Romeo nor the tattooed woman had to speak at a raised volume to speak with one another. Indeed, they could speak at something only faintly louder than a whisper.

Beholding Romeo, the woman took a shaky breath, and said, “Now, before God, I am so vexed that every part of me quivers. Ye scurvy knave Montague! Pray you, sir, a word, for I have waited to happen upon you for quite some days now. Through her wantings this week, staring out the back window for a visitor, flagging any who pass, wagging at thy very name, it is clear that the girl of my lady has bade me inquire you out. What she bids me say, you should know better than I, though I am sure I know enough of it. But first let me tell you, if you should lead her into a fool’s paradise, as they say, it would be a very gross kind of behavior, as they say; for the gentlewoman is young; and therefor, if you should deal double with her, twould be a weak way to deal with any gentlewoman.”

“My every intention is aimed at her benefit—her wellness, her joy, her fulfillment; I aspire to raise my decorum to meet this angel who has deigned to reach down to me,” Romeo assured.

“Good heart, and, i’faith, I will tell her as much.”

“If you do believe my intentions, and you do believe her love of me, I would ask that you devise some means to take her out on a walk this afternoon. And, bringing her to Friar Lawrence’s cell, she shall be married.”

Angelica nodded. “There is a nobleman in town, one Paris, that would have her to breed. I upset her sometimes, speaking to her and telling her that Paris is the proper man. She cares not for him. But when I speak to her of you, there is life in her. I would see her sent to you rather than him.”

From a pocket of his tunic, Romeo produced a sack heavy with coins, and held it out to Angelica. “Here is for the trouble. And, though I reject the premise of my next words on many grounds, it would cover more than the reasonable price of a hound, even one as magnificent as her.”

“No, truly sir, not a penny.”

Romeo tossed her the sack. The man beside her dropped one of his bags and shot his arm out, catching the sack before it arrived at Angelica. He stowed the sack in the dropped bag before picking it back up.

“This afternoon, sir?” Angelica reiterated. “Well, she shall be there.”

“Thank you. And for now, farewell, gentlewoman.”

“God in Heaven bless thee, sir,” Angelica wished.

In a flash, as fluid as though merely turning to face the other way, Romeo was atop his stallion once more, and rode off at a happy walk.

 

 

Act II.
Scene IV.

JULIET laid atop the back of a couch beside a window. Her head was faced looking out of the window to the front yard. Her man from the back yard came only at night; here, she awaited Angelica’s return. The day was yet new when Angelica and Peter had went out, promising to return soon. Still Angelica was not back. Would that love’s heralds were thoughts, which would ten times faster glide than the sun’s beams, driving back shadows over louring hills; would that love were drawn by nimble-pinioned doves, as the wind-swift wings of Cupid, as swift in motion as a ball. The sun stood upon the height of its daily transit, and yet still, Juliet was home by herself—somewhat. The servants ignored her for the most part, would not play, would not listen to her in any capacity, as though they were deaf to her. The lord and the lady at least minded her, and Angelica certainly had ears to listen and care to give. Her newfound Romeo listened and loved more than she’d thought those of his humanly race were able.

The front gate of the manor’s fence swung open. Juliet shot up and stood on the couch’s back, tail thumping against the window’s glass as she wagged. In through the gate came Angelica and Peter. Barking boisterous greetings all the way, Juliet leapt down off the couch and bounded out of the room, down a passageway, down the stairs, and arrived at the manor’s front door.

When the door came open, Juliet leapt up on Angelica, standing to greet the woman.

Angelica smiled, though was out of breath. “Let me rest a moment, oh Juliet,” she said, putting a hand on Juliet’s chest and gently pushing her back, easing her back to having her forelegs placed on the ground.

Juliet pressed her side close against Angelica and looked at Peter. She wanted to smell into the bags he was carrying, but knew she should not. This man had struck her before, for nothing more than drawing too close. He had received an earful when Angelica had caught him once, and he had not struck her since, but he would again, if given the slightest reason and while not under Angelica’s eyes.

Angelica, noticing Juliet’s nervous looking, said, “Peter, go put away the produce.”

Peter stepped forward into the manor towards the kitchen, leaving Juliet and Angelica alone.

Angelica moved at a slow limping shuffle to the nearest couch and fell back into it. “Fie, how my bones ache!” she proclaimed. “What a jaunt I have had!”

Juliet came over, rested her chin on a couch cushion beside Angelica, and looked up at her.

“I am a-weary, give me leave a while—”

Juliet groaned disapproval, a low vocalization shaped like the beginnings of a bark, made without raising her voice much.

“Jesu, what haste?” Angelica moaned. “Can you not stay a while? I’ve only just been back from my walk, and now you demand yours?”

From the word ‘walk’ forward, Juliet began to wag.

“Lord how my head aches! What a head have I! It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces!”

Juliet stepped back and barked at Angelica, still wagging.

“Oh beshrew your heart for sending me about, to catch my death with jaunting up and down.” Angelica closed her eyes and rubbed her temples with her fingertips a moment. When the pounding of the headache subsided just a little, she said, “I have finally spoken with your man Romeo. If you will come, at Friar Lawrence’s cell there stays a husband to make you a wife.”

Angelica began to get up, and Juliet turned and went ahead to the door, eagerly waiting for the woman to catch up.

 

 

Act II.
Scene V.

FRIAR Lawrence and Romeo sat in tall chairs before the fireplace in the abbey’s receiving room, looking at the burning logs, as they awaited the arrival of the bride. Romeo sat in a light green gown, with faint floral patterns stitched in. He wore the vial containing Loki’s Breath as a pendant, which glowed blue in the dim room. He beamed at his thoughts of his bride-to-be, only vaguely hearing the words of the friar.

“…so will smile the heavens upon this holy act,” Friar Lawrence said. “Even after hours as it may be.”

“Amen, amen,” Romeo said. “Come what sorrow ever may, it cannot countervail the exchange of joy that one short minute gives me in her sight. Do thou but close our hands with holy words, and then after that, love-devouring death may do what he dare; it is enough that I may have ever but called her my wife.”

“Dear son, you worry me when you speak at such extremes. These violent delights have violent ends, and in their triumph die; like fire and powder, which, as they kiss, consume. Therefor, love moderately; long love doth so.”

From their chairs the two men heard the abbey door open, a shouting of “Fie!,” and the excited clicking of nails on the foyer’s stonework floor.

Romeo bolted upwards to his feet and shouted, “Juliet!”

Instantly the tapping came bounding for the receiving room. Romeo and Juliet met halfway, in the chapel room, falling into a hug which led the way to many kisses, before the Friar arrived to break it up. Yanking Romeo up by the back of his dress, the friar chided, “Come, come with me, and we will make short work; for, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone till holy church incorporate two as one. Angelica, please, come join, and bear witness.”

The friar led the small procession up the aisle, and bid Juliet to sit, and Romeo to kneel before her, face to face. The friar spoke on the divinity of love, and recited much of his thoughts on Adam and the beasts of the field. Lastly he spoke vows: to Romeo to love and to serve Juliet above all others, especially above himself; to Angelica and to the friar himself, to watch over this marriage, and to ensure Romeo kept his vow; to all three humans, to attest tonight Juliet’s love of her husband-to-be. With all of these vows spoken and agreed to, Friar Lawrence lifted Romeo’s hand and Juliet’s forepaw, placed the paw in the hand, and pronounced them married. The husband and the wife kissed, and then embraced, Romeo shedding tears of joy, Juliet carefully licking them off. The friar brought out a bottle of wine from the cellar, and a quiet, happy night was had before Angelica and the friar each fell asleep in their chairs. Quietly so as not to wake the sleeping elders, Romeo and Juliet exited the abbey and pranced through the Verona streets, towards the house of one who once called themselves a prince, though now would sooner deny it. Romeo knocked at the door.

There was silence from within for a bit, until a bleary-eyed Mercutio opened the door, with Benvolio standing close behind them. Seeing that their guest was friendly company, Benvolio stepped forward and wrapped himself sleepily around Mercutio, facing his cousin while his chin found perch on the former prince’s shoulder.

“Romeo? Tis late,” Mercutio said. “Are you drunk? Stolen the Capulets’ dog, I see, good work.”

“I have had but a little wine. Primarily I am drunk off of happiness. I am wed, the Capulets’ dog my bride.”

Mercutio’s mouth hung open a small bit as they sought words, and found either none at all or too many at once.

Benvolio removed himself from Mercutio and stepped around them to warmly embrace the newly wed Romeo. “On my life, a great couple you’ll be.”

Romeo hugged his cousin back.

“Is this the very spot for a honeymoon?” Mercutio asked.

“I felt it unwise for either of us to dwell about the house of the other’s father tonight. I was hoping this may prove a neutral haven.”

“Yes,” Mercutio said, and turned to walk back inside, leaving the door open for their guests. Romeo and Juliet entered, and Benvolio closed door. “Take any room you’d like,” Mercutio said, and then yawned. “In that offer, I include the master bed to which I and your cousin retire, should you change your mind about anything.”

“A great many things I’d have to change my mind a great deal on,” Romeo returned.

“Not so great many, and not so greatly drastic either, I promise you as someone who has seen all sides of it. To bed, though. Tis late, and I may fall asleep as the very words come from my mouth. Adieu.

“Tell me more in the morning,” Benvolio said, leaning in to speak quietly to his cousin. “Until then, I wish you both a good night.”

Mercutio and Benvolio ascended the stairs, headed towards the master bedroom. Romeo led the way to a cozy bedroom on the first floor, in the opposite corner to the master bed. There in their secluded chambers, the newly wed husband and wife found their way onto the bed, and a passionate interchange began: nearing the height of it, Romeo opened the vial containing Loki’s Breath, inhaled its contents, and but short moments later was his seed received by his bride.

In the morning, Romeo awakened well rested and well accompanied, the warm and soft-haired Juliet tucked in against him, he on his back, her with her back pressed firmly against his side down the length of both of their bodies. A soft breeze came in through the window, but the air around the bed was the breath of Juliet and the breath of himself, together—together for more than a spurious moment, but for a night, for a lifetime; he looked forward to a lifetime of mornings like this one. He laid a long time like this, until eventually, some stirring he made awakened Juliet, and she stretched out, extending her paws forward and digging her should blades back into Romeo. He rolled onto his side to face her. Face buried in her fur, he began petting the hound down her body in long strokes. He scratched at her lower back, encouraging her to roll over onto her back. With her on her back, Romeo rubbed the dog’s belly a long while until she was satisfied, and then concluded it with a kiss to the front of her mouth before arising from bed. Picking out garments from the wardrobe in the room, Romeo dressed in a white shirt and a pair of brown trousers, and then left to go make breakfast for himself, his wife, and their hosts.

With the smell of the cooking, Benvolio was summoned down the stairs. They ate at the dining room table, and afterwards moved to the living room to continue their conversation, Romeo and Juliet on a couch, Benvolio in a cushioned chair. The cousins sipped tea as they spoke.

Mercutio came down the stairs some time later, dished themselves up a plate, and with the dish in hand came and weaseled their way in beside Benvolio on the chair.

Romeo pointed out the living room’s window to a house across the street. “What can you tell me of who owns that house there?”

Mercutio swallowed the food they’d been chewing, and then answered, “Tis owned by the rats, and what a lovely home they’ve made of it. The grandrats have portraits hung up in the foyer of all the little—nay, I will not even joke of rats owning property with you, as you’d take it as earnestly as if I’d said that the house was owned by Queen Elizabeth. But as to the deed to the property as concerns we silly human creatures, I believe such a deed is long since lost, forgotten, burned up, crumbled to dust, pulped in the sea, used as a tissue for a rich man’s nose and then screwed up into a ball and tossed in the rubbish. In short, the house is derelict.”

“Then perhaps if the rats would accept co-ownership with a silly human creature such as this one and the best of the hounds to match, I would seek ownership of the place.”

“You would be welcome neighbors,” Mercutio said, and went in unto their food once more.

By and by, Romeo and Juliet did move in to the house, doing a great deal of fixing-up, making the place theirs. Guests came often, Mercutio and Benvolio, Angelica and Friar Lawrence, sitting about and making merry chat, checking in, telling tales. As the weeks went on, Juliet became heavy with child, and Romeo tended to her with all the more devout of care. Two months and a week after the night of the wedding, Angelica and Romeo assisted Juliet as she gave birth to a litter of twelve Great Dane puppies.

 

 

Act Three
containing five scenes

 

 

The prince could never cause those households so agree,

But that some sparkles of their wrath as yet remaining be;

Which lie this while raked up in ashes pale and dead

Till time do serve that they again in wasting flame may spread.

 

 

Act III.
Scene I.

BENVOLIO and Mercutio sat on a bench at the edge of a public square. One year and some months had passed since the marriage of Romeo and Juliet. Paige, a family friend whose company Mercutio had not been blessed with since the former prince had forsaken their family and left the castle, sat beside Mercutio on the bench. She was turned to face them, and with careful attention, was stenciling a drawing of an enormous spider on Mercutio’s bicep. Though she gave her artistic talent into it in earnest, she made the drawing to convince Mercutio out of the tattoo, rather than into it.

Beside Mercutio and Paige, Benvolio finished reading from the letter that Romeo had passed on earlier in the day: “…thou lowest thief, thou most unnatural sinner, thou wretched villain, thy days be short. Signed, Tybalt.”

“His letters grow longer by the day,” Mercutio observed.

“Aye. I pray thee, good Mercutio, good Paige, let’s retire. The day is hot, the Capulets abroad, and if we meet, we shall not scape a brawl; for now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.”

“Pah! Thou art like one of those fellows that, when he enters the confines of a tavern, claps me his sword upon the table, and says, ‘God send me no need of thee!’ and, by the operation of the second cup, draws it on the drawer, when, indeed, there is no need.”

Benvolio snorted in a laugh. “Am I indeed like such a fellow?”

“Come, come, thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy,” Mercutio went on. “And as soon moved to be moody, and as soon moody to be moved.”

“Moved to what, pray tell?”

“Come, hast thou not bound across half the city to enter a quarrel?”

“To break that quarrel up, and nothing more.”

“So you say, so you say.”

“Indeed, so I do,” Benvolio said, and clapped his hand on Mercutio’s thigh, giving them a couple of caring pats.

Patronized, Mercutio turned their head to Benvolio and snapped their teeth shut threateningly, producing a discomforting click! beside the kindly man’s ear.

Benvolio flinched away from this, shuddered, and then, turning back to face the square, saw a man enter the square in a flashy red garb, two heads taller than any else, hand clenched on his sword’s hilt as he scanned over the square’s occupants. Tybalt.

“By my head, here come the Capulets,” Benvolio warned.

“By my heel, I care not.”

Spotting Benvolio and Mercutio, Tybalt made his approach. Benvolio and Mercutio stood to meet him. At a whispered word of advice from Mercutio, Paige stood and backed far away from the imminent exchange.

“Gentlemen, good day,” Tybalt said, coming to a halt before Benvolio and Mercutio. “A word with one of you.”

“But one word with one of us?” Mercutio asked. “Couple it with something: make it a word and a blow.”

Tybalt’s eye twitched. “You shall find me apt enough for that, sir, if you will give me occasion.”

“Are you not the manliest of men, as you so pretend? Could you not take some occasion without having to be given it?”

“Mercutio, thou consort’st with Romeo—”

“Consorted notes, matching harmony!” Mercutio interrupted. “Dost thou make us minstrels? If thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords.” Placing a hand on their hilt, Mercutio added, “Here’s my fiddlestick; here’s that shall make you dance. Zounds, consort!”

Benvolio hovered a hand over the handle of the wishing sword. As calming as he could, he interjected, “We talk here in the public haunt of men; either withdraw unto some private place, and reason coldly of your grievances, or else depart; here all eyes gaze on us.”

Mercutio turned their head away from both men and spat. “Men’s eyes were made to look, and let them gaze; I will not budge for no man’s pleasure, I.”

Benvolio spotted, behind the imposing Tybalt, Romeo passing alone through the square on his own business. Romeo, spotting Benvolio, began marching swiftly over at once. Tybalt, seeing Benvolio’s gaze, turned and saw Romeo as well.

“Well, here comes my man. Peace be with you, sirs,” Tybalt said, and turned to regard Romeo.

At sirs, Mercutio snarled. They opened their mouth to cast mockery at the tall villain once more, but then felt their hand taken in Benvolio’s, the fingers interlocked, the grip tight. Mercutio stayed their tongue, if but only for the moment.

Romeo came and stood before Tybalt, turning his neck upwards to look the Capulet in the eyes.

“Romeo,” Tybalt uttered, “the hate I bear thee can afford no better term than this: thou art a villain.”

“Tybalt,” Romeo said in return, “the reason that I have to love thee doth much excuse the rage one might ordinarily associate with such a greeting as yours. Villain I am none: therefore, farewell; I see thou know’st me not.”

As Romeo turned to leave, Tybalt shouted, “Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries that thou hast done to me; therefor turn back, and draw!”

Romeo did turn back, though left his hands off of his sabre. “I do protest I never injured thee, but love thee better than thou canst devise; for, I’m sure from your letters that you are aware of my marriage, which among many other happy consequences, has made you and I kinsman, my cousin Tybalt. And so, good Capulet, which name I tender as dearly as my own, be satisfied not with my steel which you sought, but with my loving words which I offer.”

Behind Tybalt, Mercutio lifted their head and screamed into the air. All turned to face them. After expelling the whole contents of their lungs and then drawing in another breath, Mercutio shouted to Tybalt and Romeo, “Oh calm, dishonorable, vile submission! Alla stoccata carries it away!” With that, Mercutio drew. “Tybalt, you rat catcher! Will you walk?”

“What wouldst thou have with me?”

“Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives; of that, I mean to make bold withdrawal; and, as you shall see thereafter, I will dry-beat the rest of the eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your ears before it be out.”

“I am for you,” Tybalt said, and drew.

Between the two erupted a lightshow of glinting steel, as Romeo and Benvolio drew their swords to break up the brawl. Dashing forth, Romeo swung his sword down in the midst of the combatants’ strikes to knock their swords off their mark; and as it happened, a mark of Tybalt’s which Mercutio had deflected upwards, Romeo deflected back down, causing Tybalt’s steel to strike through Mercutio’s chest.

Tybalt turned to Romeo. Sensing the appraising look, Romeo threw down his blade, showing the antithesis of provocation. Mercutio fell. Tybalt turned and sped away.

“I am hurt,” came a faint voice from the ground.

Romeo and Benvolio—Benvolio in tears—knelt on either side of Mercutio.

“A plague o’ both your houses!” Mercutio shouted after Tybalt, tilting their head to where the Capulet had run, then also leveling their gaze on the two Montague cousins before them. Mercutio began to sit up, and then in pain collapsed back to the ground. “Tis lovely, this ground. I think I shall make my new home here.”

“Art thou so badly hurt?” Benvolio asked.

“Aye, aye, a scratch, a scratch. Merry, tis enough. Where is that Tybalt? Is he gone, and hath nothing? Where is my Paige? Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.”

Paige, who hovered nearby, ran off.

“Have courage, wonderful Mercutio,” Romeo said. “The hurt cannot be much.”

“No, tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but tis enough, twill serve: ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave host. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses! Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a star to death! A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic! Romeo, why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.”

“I thought all for the best.”

Mercutio put a grasp around Benvolio’s forearm. “Help me into some house, Benvolio, or I shall…”

Words unfinished, Mercutio fainted, and died.

After some silent moments, Benvolio spoke. “That gallant spirit hath aspired the clouds, which too untimely here did scorn the earth.”

Marching footsteps approached. The Montague cousins raised their heads, and saw Tybalt returning, sabre in hand. Romeo stood, drew, and marched forward to meet him. As they neared, Romeo scolded, “Alive, in triumph! And Mercutio slain!” The two stood at a lunge’s length from one another. “Fire-eyed fury be my conduct now! Now, Tybalt, take that ‘villain’ back again that thou gavest me; for Mercutio’s soul is but a little way above our heads, staying for thine to keep it company: either thou or I, or both, must go with.”

Tybalt’s hand flexed around his drawn sword, holding the instrument more as a club than as a sabre. “Thou, wretched boy, that didst consort him here, shalt with him hence.”

Romeo flourished his blade. “This shall determine that.”

Tybalt whipped around in a complete circle, to strike Romeo with the heavy blow of all his whirling momentum: the first half of the circle, he completed on his feet; halfway, as he faced away from Romeo, Romeo stepped forward and stabbed the tip of his sword into the back of Tybalt’s neck, severing his brain from his body; the second half of the circle, Tybalt completed on momentum alone as he fell to the ground dead.

Benvolio came up and stood beside Romeo. “How such a devout lover and a deadly surgeon came to live in you together, I know not.”

“One needs defend love, at times.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps.”

Around Romeo and Benvolio, a crowd of citizens was beginning to form.

Leaning to Romeo, Benvolio advised, “Stand not amazed. No matter the circumstances leading up to it, here before us a royal and a Capulet lay slain. The prince will doom thee to death if thou art taken. Hence, be gone, away.”

As more and more realization sunk in, tears came anew to Romeo’s eyes. “Oh. Oh, I am fortune’s fool.”

“Why dost thou stay?” Benvolio prodded, and pushed Romeo, forcing the first of his cousin’s footsteps.

In haste, Romeo made off.

Benvolio remained at the scene until by and by arrived Prince Escalus, his musketeers, Lord and Lady Capulet, and Lord and Lady Montague.

The musketeers encircled the scene of Benvolio and the bodies.

Prince Escalus beheld Mercutio, his own sibling, for a wounded moment, before his eyes fixed on Benvolio. “Where are the vile beginners of this fray?”

“Oh noble prince, I can enlighten all of the unlucky unfolding of this fatal brawl. There lies the man, slain by young Romeo, that slew thy kinsperson, brave Mercutio.”

“Tybalt!” Lady Capulet cried, as she arrived at the perimeter of the scene. She pushed past the musketeers, and knelt at her slain kinsman’s head. Rapidly she muttered things to the corpse. Then, looking up at Escalus, she said, “Prince, as thou art true, for blood of ours shed blood of Montague.”

The prince looked again to Benvolio. “Who began this bloody fray?”

“Tybalt,” Benvolio answered in short, and then at length explained what had preceded.

“He is kinsman to the Montague,” Lady Capulet said when he was done. “Affection makes him false. He speaks not true. If Tybalt is struck down, then there needs have been twenty of them against him in this black strife, and all those twenty could but kill one life. I beg for justice, which thou, prince, must give: Romeo slew Tybalt, Romeo must not live.”

The prince considered. “Romeo merely slew him that slew Mercutio. Who shall carry the price of my kin’s blood?”

“Not Romeo, Prince,” Old Montague said, stepping forward. “He was Mercutio’s friend. He but concluded what the law should end: the life of Tybalt.”

Escalus again beheld the slain body of his Mercutio. In Benvolio, he knew, not a hostile bone could be found. But if there was fault left to be found for his kinsperson’s death, he would execute it. The prince gave his ruling: “This strife never would have had wind to breathe if not for that Romeo.” As he spoke, his mind flashed back to a year and some months prior, speaking with his father before the scrying glass, inquiring of the sad fate that would befall Romeo. As the prince went on, he trembled in a helpless and immense power, sadness, inevitability, betrayal of none and all, unavoidable fate; on the subject of Romeo, the prince in regretted intensity resumed: “And for that offense, immediately we do exile him hence. I have an interest in your hate’s proceeding: my blood for your rude brawls doth lie a-bleeding; but I’ll amerce you with so strong a fine, that you shall all repent the death of mine. I will be deaf to pleading and excuses; nor tears nor prayers shall purchase out abuses.” The prince spoke his final verdict: “From hence forth, Romeo is banished from Verona: if he should be found here, that hour should be his last. What’s more, his property is forfeit to the crown: the hound Juliet shall be returned to the Capulets, but even her pups, as payment for blood here spilt, shall henceforth be the king’s.”

 

 

Act III.
Scene II.

JULIET laid in front of the couch, watching all of her pups at play.

At the sound of the front door’s knob being turned, Juliet wagged her tail and turned her head to see who was home. In through the door bursted Angelica, sobbing. The woman threw herself on the floor beside Juliet, and patted her while speaking Romeo’s name in concerned sentence after sentence. Juliet inched closer to Angelica and laid a paw and her chin over the woman, protecting her.

After a time, Angelica stood. She went and found a lead, and attached it to Juliet. The woman pulled Juliet towards the door. Juliet resisted, and when Angelica insisted, Juliet growled. Angelica let up for a moment. Juliet looked around at all of her pups.

Angelica sighed, and knelt with Juliet. “I know, dear. Believe me, I know.”

With a surprising strength that caught Juliet off guard, Angelica picked the hound up off of her feet, and carried her out the door. Placed down, even outside, Juliet resisted, lingering at the door, facing to get back in. Angelica sighed again, manipulated the lead to be tight around Juliet’s neck, and with more insistent pulling, Angelica forced the issue, dragging Juliet away.

When they were inside the Capulet manor and the door closed behind them, Angelica let Juliet off the lead. She began to offer an apology, but the hound walked off, nails tapping on the floor as she went.

Angelica sat on a couch for a time and sobbed. In another room, she could hear the lord and lady sobbing as well for their lost Tybalt.

After some hours, night fell. Angelica rose up from the couch and went to find the hound. It was not a difficult search: on the second floor, Juliet laid on a bed looking out a window at the moonlit back yard.

“Shame come to Romeo,” Angelica cursed.

Juliet growled.

“What, will you speak well of him that killed your cousin?”

Juliet made a disapproving vocalization, and replanted her chin on the bed, waiting for her man.

Angelica could find no fault with the wife and mother so suddenly stolen away from both parts of herself. “Wait in this chamber: I’ll find Romeo to comfort you. I know well where he is. Hark ye, your Romeo will be here this night: I’ll go to him. He is hid at Lawrence’s cell.”

Juliet pointedly ignored Angelica, and remained vigilant in her watch out the back window.

Angelica departed, and began on her way to the abbey to make well on her promise.

 

 

Act III.
Scene III.

ROMEO sat at a small table in the abbey’s cellar. On the table was a glass of water. Romeo tried to pick it up, but as he held it, the water shook about too tumultuously to drink, and he shakily set the glass back down.

Hearing footsteps above, Romeo went and hid behind stacked furniture stored in the cellar.

The visitor, reaching the bottom of the stairs, called out, and from the voice it was Friar Lawrence: “Romeo, come forth; come forth, thou fearful man. By Jesu, affliction is enamored of thy parts, and thou art wed to calamity.”

Romeo emerged from his hiding place and met the friar. “Father, what news? What is the prince’s doom? What sorrow craves my acquaintance?”

“Not death,” the friar said, “but body’s banishment: the prince has banished you from Verona, and claimed all your possessions forfeit.”

Romeo let out a sigh of relief and sat back onto his chair. His hands still shook, but he made himself able to drink the water. “The world is broad and wide. If Juliet and I are condemned to be sojourners, I mind not,” Romeo said. Then, “Father, why do you look at me with such pity?”

“The world is broad and wide; that much, you hath stolen from my very lips. But alas, tis the latter punishment you miss. Your possessions are taken: to the king go the pups, and back to the Capulets goes Juliet.”

Romeo stood, knocking his chair back as he went up. From his scabbard he drew out his sabre, grabbed it by the blade, and held the point to his neck. “If Romeo is banished, then tell me, friar, tell me, in what vile part of this anatomy doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may cut out the hateful—”

The friar snatched away Romeo’s sword. “Art thou a madman?”

Romeo craned over the friar. “There is no world outside Verona walls, but Purgatory, Torture, Hell itself. Hence, ‘banished’ is banished from the world, and the world’s exile is death: thus, calling death merely ‘banished,’ you cutt’st my head off with a golden axe, and smilest upon the stroke that murders me.”

The friar shot back, “Oh deadly sin! Oh rude unthankfulness! For thy crime the sentence is death; but the kind prince, taking thy side, hath brushed aside the law, and turned that black word death to banishment: this is dear mercy, and thou seest it not.”

“Tis torture, and not mercy: heaven is here, where Juliet lives; and every butcher, and baker, and chemical-stained leather worker, every unworthy thing, lives here in Heaven, and may look on her; but Romeo may not. More validity, more honorable company, more courtship can now be found in Verona’s flies than in Romeo: the flies may seize on the soft wonder of Juliet’s paw, and steal immortal blessing from her jowls; but Romeo may not; he is banished; all this may the flies do, when I from this must fly. And say’st thou yet, that exile is not death? Hadst thou no poison prepared, no knife sharpened, no sudden means of death other than the proclamation of the word ‘banished’ to kill me? Oh friar, the damned use that word in hell; howling accompanies it. How hast thou the heart, being a divine, a ghostly confessor, a sin-absolver, and my friend professed, to mangle me with that word ‘banished?’”

“Thou fond madman, hear me a little speak.”

“Oh, thou wilt speak again of banishment!” Romeo moaned, and turned away to pace the cellar.

“I’ll give thee armor to keep off that word,” the friar promised.

“Unless that armor can reverse a prince’s doom, it helps not: talk no more.”

“Oh, so I see that madmen have no ears.”

“How should they, when that wise men have no eyes.”

Above, the abbey’s door opened.

“Wait ye here,” Friar Lawrence bid, and turned and ascended the stairs, keeping possession of Romeo’s sabre. Halfway up, he paused, turned, and marched back down to whisper harshly, “Make no doubt that I have remembered my vow, even if you have forgotten yours: though banished, you will serve your wife yet. In time, dear son, all things in time.”

A tremble wracked Romeo. “Spoken as one whose lovers’ lives may last as many years as his own.”

The friar opened his mouth to speak, paused at the first half-formed sound, and then bowed his head. “Indeed. Though madman I have called you, you have hit the mark exactly on at least one point: perhaps I am blind indeed.”

Romeo shook his head. “I assure you, father: though my darkness has never made it easy, you have seen through me better than most.”

The friar’s dour face gave way to at least the beginnings of an enwarmed smile. The friar turned and ascended the stairs once more. At the top, he called, “Angelica? Indeed, he is over here, with his own tears made drunk.”

“Oh, her case is much the same, much the same,” Angelica said, following the friar down the steps.

“Oh, woeful sympathy,” the friar said, shaking his head. “Piteous predicament.”

The three stood regarding each other in the cellar.

“Where is she?” Romeo asked Angelica. “Is she well? And what says she, my concealed lady, of our cancelled love?”

“Oh, she says nothing sir, but lays on a bed and faces away from me. She won’t lift her chin to say a word or cast a glance.”

Though on instinct Romeo’s mind flashed to calamity, he caught himself before he could speak, and looked to the friar.

“Look lively, son,” the friar encouraged. “Thy Juliet is alive, for whose dear sake thou wast just lately self-proclaimed dead; there lies happy fortune. Tybalt would kill thee, but thou slew’st Tybalt; there lies happy fortune too. The law, that threatened death, becomes thy friend and turns it into exile; there lies happy fortune again. A pack of blessings sits upon thee; happiness courts thee; and yet, misbehaved and sullen, you pout upon thy fortune and thy love. I mean not to dwell, but only to warn you: take heed, for such die miserable.”

“I have lived miserable, and lived happy, and at this rate I may die as either unsurprised.”

The friar sighed, and went on. “Angelica, could’st thou keep a watch while our man Romeo makes a visit to our dear Juliet, to assure her he is yet alive?”

“A thousand times, yes. She shall spot you, Romeo, the moment you enter the back yard. I’m sure you’re still plenty able to steal across, and let her out the back to the hedges. I’ll shine a light from her back window when the way is clear. If I learn that the lord or lady or any else have occasion to seek Juliet, I shall ring the dinner bell, and you would be wise to flee.”

“Indeed, foolish not to,” the friar affirmed. “For if caught, you shall not be able to journey to Mantua, where thou shalt live—alone, for a time—till we can find a time to reunite your marriage, reconcile your friends, beg pardon of the prince, and call thee back to twenty hundred thousand times more joy than in thine lamentation you had left with. Angelica, get thee to the Capulet manor ahead of Romeo, and keep watch.”

“I could have stayed here all the night to hear your good counsel; but indeed, I shall go ahead.”

“And you, Romeo,” the friar said, as Angelica made her way up the stairs. “Go hence; good night; be gone before the watch be set. Sojourn in Mantua, and be no stranger to the abbeys there; I shall find a brother to relay to you, from time to time, every good thing that happens here.” Friar Lawrence tossed Romeo’s sabre away behind the stacked furniture, stepped forward, and hugged the young man. Once stepping back, the friar concluded: “Tis late. Farewell; good night.”

“But that a joy past joy calls out on me, it were a grief so brief to part with thee: farewell.”

 

 

Act III.
Scene IV.

LORD Capulet, Lady Capulet, and County Paris sat about in a room in the Capulet manor.

“This has all happened so suddenly,” the lord was saying, “that we have had no time to check in on Juliet. I tell you, she loved…” the lord hesitated a moment, before saying Romeo. He stole a sidelong glance at his wife, whose tears still stained her makeup, shed for Tybalt, who at Romeo’s hand was slain. The lord feigned a cough, and then reiterated, “I tell you, she loved Tybalt dearly, and so did I. Ah, well, we were born to die. In any case, in any case. For now, I would leave her to her solitude to get her rest. Tis late: I promise you, if not for your company, I would have been to bed an hour ago.”

Paris waved his hand about. “These times of woe afford no time to woo,” he said, as though capable of wooing any man woman or dog. “Sir, Madam, good night. As we made these plans a year ago you worried she was but young, but alas, she has been a mother now already, and so there must be no doubt it can be done. Now that she is free of that Montague, she shall be bred again for your benefit.”

The lady shuddered as she imagined the mechanics of the murderer of her nephew also being the sire of her hound’s first litter. What a wretched miracle it was to her, what an abject offensive waste. “I will bid her think well of you as soon as tomorrow morning,” the lady said, and truly was keen to move on from the terrible interlude of the last year, and go back to a time before that Montague had stolen her girl. “Tonight, though, she is adjusting to all of the sudden change.”

Lord Capulet stood, and came over to encourage County Paris to stand, so that he could begin walking the noble out. As they went, the lord said, “Sir Paris, I will make an earnest proposal of you to Juliet. I think she will be obedient to it—nay, I shall say it even stronger: I have not a single doubt. Wife, in the morning, go to her and acquaint her of this here Paris’s good care; and bid her, mark you me, that next Wednesday—oh, hold on just a moment. What day is today?”

“Monday, my lord,” Paris answered, still being pushed along towards the door by the lord’s arm draped firmly about his shoulders.

“Monday! Ha ha! Well, Wednesday is too soon. Oh, let’s say Thursday: bid Juliet, tell her, on Thursday, we shall have a feast as we celebrate giving her unto the care of this noble earl. Will you be ready? Do you like the haste? We’ll keep no great ado; a friend or two. For, I’m sure you understand, Tybalt being slain so recently, it may be thought that we cared quite little of him, if we revel much. Therefore we’ll have some half a dozen friends, and there no more. But alas, what say you to Thursday?”

“My lord, I wish that Thursday were tomorrow,” Paris answered, as they arrived at the door.

Lord Capulet opened the door, walked County Paris a few firm steps out, and then retreated back indoors. From a door left only a slit open, Lord Capulet concluded, “Well, get you gone; on Thursday it will be, then; afore me, it is so very late that we may call it early by and by.” With that, he closed the door.

With Paris dealt with, Lord Capulet made his relieved way to his awaiting bed, and fell deep into a sleep beside the lady who had retired as well.

With still breath, Angelica’s head peeked into the room, observed the lord and lady asleep, and finally went to light a light to shine from Juliet’s window.

 

 

Act III.
Scene V.

ROMEO and Juliet laid curled up close together upon the dew of the grass in the Capulets’ garden. Dried tears stuck on Romeo’s face as he held his wife close, knowing this would be the last time in some while that he would be able to hold her. The sky was showing the beginnings of lightening from the morning sun. If he was ever to hold his wife henceforth, he needed to be gone.

As he sat up, Juliet sat up with him. She pressed herself against him, leaning on him.

Romeo gave pause, and pet her a moment. Would that the morning lark who chirped was the nightingale, who nightly perched on the pomegranate tree. Would that yond light overhead was not daylight, but some meteor that the sun had exhaled, to be Romeo’s torch-bearer on his way to Mantua, eventually, but not yet.

And yet it was the lark, who strained harsh discords and unpleasing sharps, and it was the sun, who burnt out night’s heavenly candles, and it was time that Romeo was hence gone away. He stood. Juliet stood with him. He walked, and then ran, and then climbed over the Capulets’ orchard wall, Juliet bounding after him until the wall, and barking after him when he had gone.

At the wall she laid down, and stayed a long while, hoping.

By and by, as the sun crested the horizon and then climbed higher, Lady Capulet came to Juliet’s post. “There you are,” the lady said, and sat down on the grass, no longer wet with dew, beside Juliet.

The lady pet the hound for a moment, in her mechanical, raking way. Juliet did not feign to enjoy the petting, nor the company, and in fact wished for both to go away.

“Evermore weeping for your Tybalt’s death? What, wilt thou wash him from his grave with tears? An if thou could’st, thou could’st not make him live. Therefore be done: some grief shows much of love, but much grief shows one stupid.”

Juliet stood, walked away to the other corner of the back wall, and laid down away from Lady Capulet.

Lady Capulet scoffed, and looked across the yard at the hound incredulously.

A moment later, as the scorned lady still sat, the lord and Angelica arrived. The lady rose, brushed herself off, and all three humans convened around Juliet, who looked up at them nervously.

“What, still in tears?” Lord Capulet asked. “Evermore showering? Wife, have you delivered to her our decree regarding the county?”

“Aye,” the lady lied, “but she has no interest in his name, Paris. Likely she does not remember him at all, the stupid mutt.”

Juliet stood and began to leave again, but the lady bent over and barred her exit, holding the hound in place.

“What, somewhere else to be?” the lord asked, and in a flash, found himself angered. “How many years have we spent spoiling this dog, bringing her breed into the world to begin with, but to have that Montague brat quite literally steal her, have her for but half the time we did, and now she is too good for the company of those who had brought her up? Has she no interest in Paris at all? No interest in more pups, not halfblooded abominations spawned of a man, a Montague no less—bah, a Montague, no wonder the pups still looked like dogs. Has she no interest in a litter of true fullblooded canine kind? Does she not give us thanks? Is she not proud? Does she not count herself blessed, unworthy as she is, that we have wrought so worthy a breeder to be her handler?”

Juliet whined, and tried to struggle past Lady Capulet, but the woman held her.

The lord continued, “Brace yourself against next Thursday, for then you shall be sent off with Paris, or I shall drag thee to his estate on a stretcher. Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage!”

Juliet looked to Lord Capulet and began to make a pleading sound, but the lord interrupted and ranted on.

“Hang thee, young baggage! Disobedient wretch! I tell thee what—go with Paris on Thursday, or never after look me in the face. Whine not, bark not, do not beg a thing of me. We thought ourselves blessed that God had given us this remaining Great Dane, but now I see that this one is one too many. We are cursed to have her. Out! Out!”

Juliet barked as she went in and bit the hand of Lady Capulet, who shrieked as she reeled away. Freed, Juliet turned and barked at Lord Capulet to threaten him with the same or worse, and then ran away into the manor’s open back door.

“Angelica,” Lord Capulet said, “fetch a surgeon. Hush, hush: the bleeding is not so bad, wife, but we must have it seen to.”

Angelica snorted, hocked, and then spit on Lord Capulet. “You are to blame, my lord, to rate her so.”

Lord Capulet reeled as though bit himself, but found his angered footing capably: “Had I my longsword, I wouldn’t know which of these dogs to put down first. Out! Out, you mumbling fool!”

“I speak no treason—”

“Out!”

Angelica turned and went into the manor after Juliet, looking back over her shoulder at the lord and lady many times on the journey.

Inside, she sought out Juliet, but found her not. After some time of this, she happened upon a servant dusting, and asked, “Have you seen Juliet?”

The servant paused his dusting. “What?”

“The dog, sir.”

“Oh, yes, the dog.”

“Have you seen the dog, sir?”

“Oh, yes, let it out the front a bit ago. Right mood it was in, I tell you.”

 

 

Act Four
containing five scenes

 

 

Whither shall he, alas, poor banished man, now fly?

What place of succour shall he seek beneath the starry sky?

Since she pursueth him, and him defames by wrong,

That in distress should be his fort, and only rampire strong.

 

 

Act IV.
Scene I.

IN the abbey’s receiving room, with daylight shining in through the window, Friar Lawrence stood with County Paris discussing whether the friar would be free to perform a blessing at the Capulet manor when Juliet was given into the county’s care.

“On Thursday, sir? The time is very short.”

“The lord Capulet will have it so,” Paris answered, “and I am nothing slow to slack his haste.”

“What says the lady to this?”

“The lady? Why, she agrees with her husband: the hound should be—”

“Pardon,” the friar interrupted, waving a hand, “in invoking the title of Lady, I was referring to the hound. What says Juliet?”

“Oh. I do not know that lady’s mind.”

“Uneven is the course; I like it not.”

Paris appeared to take this as an indication that the friar did not understand the request. He tried again at explaining the situation to the man. “Immoderately she weeps for Tybalt’s death, and therefore have I spent little time with her; for Venus smiles not in—”

“Did she know Tybalt?”

Interrupted a second time, a cross look flashed onto County Paris’s face. “What?”

“Lady Juliet: did she know Tybalt?”

“I… believe they had met.”

“Does she know that he’s died?”

“I…”

“What do you mean she weeps, sir? I worry whether you speak in metaphor to describe what you have seen, or whether you have merely heard a report containing metaphor and taken it as the real thing.”

In quick speech, Paris responded, “Lord Capulet hastes her breeding in hopes it may cheer her, hence my haste in this matter.”

To himself, the friar slowly pondered an excuse to slow the matter, without offending lord or royal with unjustified refusal. “If I may, when was the last time you yourself saw the lady?”

“The dog, friar; the hound; the bitch. If we mustn’t speak in metaphors, I should think ‘Lady’ is right out, and furthermore of great insult.”

“Fie! Insult indeed! What is a Lady?”

“I—” The County Paris looked to each side as though he expected some hidden audience, to whom he was the butt of the friar’s unreason. “What is a Lady?

“Yes. Define it, please.”

“The… Well, a Lady is but the female counterpart of a Lord.”

“And what is a Lord?”

“A man of wealth, of clout, well renowned, well esteemed.”

“Tis known that Juliet is the female counterpart of Lord Romeo in every imaginable respect, and so yes, I do indeed find her to be a Lady, and no, I do not find such a thing insulting to Ladyship, rather I find insult in quite the opposite in your—” The friar cut himself off, made an aggravated curling of his fingers, and turned away to look through the window a moment. “I tell you outright, though I have no power to stop this transfer, I will not bless it. I see nothing here which deserves blessing.”

Wroth, County Paris made his exit.

Friar Lawrence found his way to the cellar, poured himself a glass of wine, and returned up to the chapel. He sat in a pew as he turned the altercation over and over in his mind. The fiery Lord Romeo had had some influence on him, it seemed: he had handled the situation rashly, thinking only seconds ahead instead of decades. He sat in regret long after the glass of wine was finished.

At the door, the friar heard a scratching. Bolting up from the pew, the friar went and opened the door. In came Juliet. She pressed herself sidelong against the friar’s leg, nearly knocking him over with her size and strength. The friar bent over and rubbed her sides, and spoke praises to the fact that she was visiting, though her reason for it remained at least somewhat of a mystery. “Come to make confession?” the friar asked, continuing to rub Juliet. “If but you could, t’would resolve much, I think. Alas, alas.”

The friar closed the door. With this done, Juliet began to mill about the abbey, sniffing intently all along on every unassuming surface which by her skilled nose could be reached. As the Lady went over the space, the friar watched her, and pondered to himself. God had joined the hearts of Romeo and Juliet; here in the chapel, the friar himself had joined their hands. By his hand they would not remain separated, though he strained the limits of his wits in conjuring up how to go about such a task wisely.

Juliet sniffed at the friar’s discarded wine glass which sat on the pew, and at that, Friar Lawrence had it. Using herbs collected from the garden, the friar began at work on concocting a vial, the likes of which, when drank, would cause a cold and drowsy humor to run through the veins; no pulse would keep its time, but cease; no warmth, no breath, would testify to life; for two days, the drinker of the vial would appear dead; and then afterwards, the drinker would awaken as though from a pleasant sleep. The friar would return Juliet to the Capulets’ household, and insist upon remaining present, to prepare the blessing for the Thursday next. In the night he would administer the drink to Lady Juliet, who, being found deceased in the morning, the friar would advocate she be not buried in the dirt, but with the respect she deserved of: placed in the same ancient vault where all the kindred Capulets lie. In the meantime, by letters sent to Mantua, Romeo would know of the plot, and come to be present when Juliet awoke in the vault. From there, with Juliet known to be dead and therefore sought after no longer, Romeo would be free to steal her away to Mantua unpursued, and there, in peace again at last, could they live.

Twas imperfect: twas underhanded; twas riddled with risk; twas not yet accounting for the humanly lord and houndly lady’s confiscated pups; but in the rashness of all else, the friar entertained the idea that perhaps, in the spirit of those he aided here, it may be better to go fast and stumble than to stand still and be knocked dead.

 

 

Act IV.
Scene II.

ANGELICA sat in a rocking chair on the second floor of the Capulet manor, looking out at the front yard and the street beyond. There was an unpleasant mood in the manor. Even as Angelica was alone, she felt eyes on her, condemning her from this place for condemning its lord the day before.

Coming up the street, Angelica spied the handsome profile of Juliet, walking about this way and that with her nose to the ground, as Friar Lawrence held her lead and tried to keep up. Angelica quite nearly called for the lord and lady of the house, but caught herself before the noise escaped her. She would see for herself first what this was about. She arose from the chair, hurried down the stairs, and met the friar at the door before he had chance to knock.

Juliet timidly approached. Angelica held out her hand for the hound. The hound sniffed, wagged, and pressed herself against the woman. Angelica rubbed at her side, saying, “Look who returns from confession with such a merry look.” Looking up to the friar, she added, “She bit Lady Capulet yesterday, and ran out.”

The friar was genuinely taken aback. “Did she?”

Angelica looked back over her shoulder, and, seeing no one else present, leaned in close to the friar’s ear. “Twas very deserved. She should have bitten the lord too.” Stepping back from whispering, she asked, “Is Juliet truly back of her own will?”

“Yes, I could scarcely keep up with her. I spoke with County Paris and her earlier in the day. She appears keen on him.”

Angelica, now, was taken aback. “A right change of heart that is. What of Romeo?”

The friar braced before giving misguidance: “Romeo has sworn to serve Juliet, and we have sworn to make him, and we have attested Juliet’s love of Romeo. But never did we make Juliet vow a vow. Could you imagine? If she is agreeable to Paris, as I have now seen, then I will bless her transfer to his stewardship. If the lord would be so kind as to alert the county to this, I would appreciate it greatly, as I feel my own conversation with the county was mired in misunderstanding when we spoke before.”

“Well! If it suits Juliet, it suits me perfectly well, perfectly well. Lord! Lady!” Angelica called, turning and walking into the manor, leaving the way open for the hound and the friar. “Juliet has returned, and with changed heart!”

By and by, Lord Capulet came to the front door to meet with the friar and the hound. “Friar Lawrence! Has Angelica told me true of Juliet’s newfound devotion?”

“Indeed, indeed. She has met the county at my abbey, and though she is modest about it, she takes quite a liking to Paris. If it would please you, I might ask to stay with her these days until her transfer, to assure her it’s all quite alright.”

“Why, I am gladdened to hear it. This is well. Yes, please, you are our guest. For now though, if you’ll pardon,” Lord Capulet said, and then turned into the manor, and began calling to each of his servants: “You there! Fetch the County Paris! The transfer is on once more! You there! Fetch me twenty cooks! You! Seek out this list of guests, and invite them hither! Ah, my heart is wondrous light, since this same wayward girl is so reclaimed!”

 

 

Act IV.
Scene III.

IN the Capulets’ bathing room, Friar Lawrence and Angelica ran buckets of water over Juliet, washing the soap from her coat. When the water no longer ran with suds, the man and the woman took to the hound with towels, drying her as she leaned into the rubbing, kicking one of her hind legs as she stood. With Juliet dried, the friar declared, “There’s a clean lady, ready for tomorrow. But, gentle Angelica, I pray thee, leave me to ward over Juliet tonight; I can tell she has many a regret over her actions with the Lady Capulet, and I feel it may be better if she were with someone who is a stranger to this house.”

“Tis well,” Angelica conceded, though, knowing Juliet would soon be gone from her life, she did miss the opportunity to spend any remaining time with her. To Juliet, Angelica said, “Get thee to bed, and rest; for thou hast need of it.”

As Friar Lawrence and Angelica exited the washing room and made their way in separate directions down the hall, the friar called, “Come this way, Juliet!”

Juliet looked between the two, and then agreeably followed after the friar.

There in the bedchambers, as Juliet laid on the bed awaiting the friar to join so they could sleep, the friar produced the vial he had prepared. He sat at the foot of the bed, peering into the contents inside. Placing a gentle hand on the houndly lady’s back, he said, “Farewell, Juliet—God knows if we shall meet again. I have a faint cold fear that thrills through my veins, that almost freezes up the heat of life.” The friar shook his head. “By my vow, great lady, you and your man shall be reunited.”

Friar Lawrence removed the top of the vial. With gentle insistence, he held open Juliet’s maw with one hand—she tried to keep her mouth closed, but would not bite the friar, and so reluctantly allowed him to do as he did. With his other hand, he poured the vial’s contents onto her tongue. The hound reeled, but the friar held her, forcing her to face up, for the slow liquid to fall down into her throat and take to its work.

In but a few seconds, there was no longer struggle. Juliet fell limp on the bed, dead to the world, as she would remain for two days’ time.

 

 

Act IV.
Scene IV.

LORD and Lady Capulet, Angelica, and several servants stirred about, preparing a great feast, making decorations ready for the approaching day.

“Come, stir, stir, stir!” Lord Capulet instructed, walking past the cook at the pots. “Angelica, go to market and fetch more baked meats; spare not for cost.”

“The sun is not yet risen, my lord: tis too early to find anyone at the market. And for you, tis too late at night: get ye to bed, or you’ll be sick tomorrow for having stayed up all night at this work.”

“Bah! I have stayed at a watch all night for a lesser cause, and it has never caused me to be ill.”

“Aye,” Lady Capulet interjected, “you have been on errands at all hours of the night, in your time. But I, having slept and risen already, will take the remainder of this night’s watch.”

Lord Capulet bowed his head. “Tis well. Thank you, wife.” He made his exit towards the bedchambers, but on the way stopped to speak with some servants carrying logs and spits. “Now, fellow, what’s all this?”

“Things for the cook, sir, but I know not what.”

“Make haste, make haste. You, fellow, fetch drier logs. Peter may show you where they are, if you haven’t a head to find them out yourself. For if—good faith, tis day! The county will arrive any moment, in his eagerness at this occasion.”

From outside, the blasting of royal trumpets sounded, signaling the County Paris’s formal approach.

“Angelica!” Lord Capulet called, turning back to the kitchen. “Angelica! Go waken Juliet, go and make sure she is groomed and prim. I’ll go and chat with Paris. Make haste, make haste, the county is at the door already; make haste, I say.”

 

 

Act IV.
Scene V.

IN a sweet tone, Angelica called through the closed door to the bedchamber. “Friar Lawrence! Juliet!”

There came no answer from within.

Lightly she rapped at the door, expecting a great barking from the other side in response. Still, no answer from within came. She knocked louder, and again, nothing.

“Juliet?”

Gently, Angelica opened the door to the bedchamber. Standing at the doorway, she sweetly called, “Friar Lawrence, the hour is early, but tis time to wake.”

Friar Lawrence, feigning he had slept a moment the night before, rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed. “Good morning, Angelica.”

“Aye, a happy morning for a happy day. Juliet, come, you slug-a-bed!” Angelica stepped into the room, calling on her way, “What, not a word? Tis good you get your sleep now, for I warrant you’ll soon want to sleep for a week. Madam.” Angelica pushed at the unmoving hound. “Madam! I must needs wake—help! Help! Help! Alas, alas!” Angelica turned and exited down the hall, shouting, “Juliet is dead! Oh well-a-day that ever I was born! My lord! My lady!”

Friar Lawrence rose out of bed. He laid a gentle hand on Juliet. He remained close at her side. Angelica returned, leading along the Lord and Lady Capulet, saying, “Look, look! Oh heavy day!”

Lady Capulet gasped, and Lord Capulet stood with his mouth agape. Friar Lawrence, with no need of acting, stood somber.

In tears, Lady Capulet approached Juliet, and raked her rigid fingers up and down through her coat. “Revive. Look up. Look up, Juliet!”

Lord Capulet approached, knelt at the bedside, and laid his hands gently on the hound, lifting her limbs, prodding her tongue. “She’s cold; her blood is settled; her joints are stiff. Life and these lips have long been separated.” The lord wiped at his tears. “Death lies on her like an untimely frost upon the sweetest flower of all the field.”

As the Capulets mourned in quiet sniffles, Friar Lawrence heard the sound of slow bootsteps approaching up the passageway outside. Into the doorway appeared the County Paris.

The county asked, “Is the hound ready to depart?”

Lord Capulet looked up at the oblivious man. “Ready to depart, but never to return.” He let out a shaking sigh. “The night before the ceremony, hath Death lain with thy bitch. See here she lies, flower as she was, deflowered by him. Death is now my only heir; my last hound hath he inherited; I will die and leave him all; life, living, all is Death’s.”

The county was dumbstruck. “After all this, after as long as I have waited to see this morning’s face, and it doth give me such a sight as this?”

Lady Capulet stood and briskly exited the room, knocking past the county on her way through.

“Ay me! Lady, what—”

Lady Capulet spun about and stood on her toes to look him level in the eyes. “Be gone when I return or I shall make thee gone, beginning with thy tongue.”

The county found no response, and the lady turned and left. Elsewhere, it began to sound as though one was stomping through the walls themselves.

The county looked to Lord Capulet and Friar Lawrence.

“I would listen to the lady,” Lord Capulet advised.

The county sputtered, cursed, and left.

Friar Lawrence knelt down beside Lord Capulet, facing the unmoving hound with him. Gently, the friar intoned, “Heaven and yourself had part in this Great Dane; now Heaven hath all, and all the better it is for the Dane. Your part in her you could not keep from death; but Heaven keeps his part in eternal life. The most you sought was her promotion; weep ye now, seeing she is advanced above the clouds, as high as Heaven itself? She is well. Come, lay rosemary on this corpse—she is your last of a great breed, and I shall insist she be treated with all the custom of your family. Bear her to church, and in the Capulets’ vault shall she be placed.”

 

 

Act Five
containing three scenes

 

 

When he doth hear abroad the praise of ladies blown,

Within his thought he scorneth them, and doth prefer his own.

When pleasant songs he hears, while others do rejoice,

The melody of music doth stir up his mourning voice.

But if in secret place he walk somewhere alone,

The place itself and secretness redoubleth all his moan.

Then speaks he to the beasts, to feathered fowls and trees,

Unto the earth, the clouds, and to whatso beside he sees.

To them he shew’th his smart, as though they reason had.

Each thing may cause his heaviness, but nought may make him glad.

And, weary of the day, again he calleth night,

The sun he curseth, and the hour when first his eyes saw light.

And as the night and day their course do interchange,

So doth our Romeus’ nightly cares for cares of day exchange.

 

 

Act V.
Scene I.

ROMEO sat at a pavilion on a riverbank, staring at the rippling ridges of the water. Rivers encompassed the city of Mantua, marking the bounds of his prison here. The rippling water seemed to be the only thing close to life within this dull city, and even this water was likely only lively as it fought to keep the greater world at bay, isolated from interest, sheltering its own monotony. A faint rain fell. The same faint rain had fallen since Romeo had arrived in the city. Never a storm, never something so solid as a raindrop, but a constant purgatory mist descending on the lands. One could never face in the direction of the sun without spotting a rainbow hanging about.

Romeo had had a dream the night before. He spoke to himself regarding the dream as he thought it over; he spoke to the river as he had so often seen Friar Lawrence speak to the plants.

“If I may trust the faltering eye of sleep, my dreams presage some joyful news at hand. My bosom’s lord sits lightly on his throne; and all this day an unaccustomed spirit lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts. I dreamed my lady came and found me dead—strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!—and breathed such life with kisses in my lips, that I revived, and was an emperor. Ah me! How sweet is love itself possessed, when but love’s shadows are rich in joy!”

“Romeo?”

Romeo turned around at the sound of his name. Standing across the pavilion was Balthasar, a servant from the Montague manor. “How now, Balthasar!” Romeo called, and stood to go meet the man. The two shook hands at the pavilion’s center. “Do you bring me news from Verona? Letters from the friar? How fares Juliet? Is my father well? How fares Juliet?; this I ask again, for nothing can be ill, if she be well.”

The mist which hung about Mantua congregated at the two glimmering points of Balthasar’s eyes. “I saw her laid low in her kindred’s vault. Her body sleeps in the monument, and her immortal part now lives with the angels.” Balthasar knelt. “A thousand apologies for bringing such ill news.”

Romeo staggered back, feeling as though pierced by a dagger. As he spoke, he felt as though he manipulated rubbery lips with his fingers, rattled another body’s teeth, pumped a bellow to make wind that was only appearing in the guise of his breath, for at this moment, he was already dead, his spirit merely lingering to puppet the corpse of Romeo for as much time as it would take to secure his grave: “Did you ride here?”

“I did, my lord.”

“Did you take one of our steeds?”

“I did.”

“Good, there are none swifter. You know of where my lodgings are in this city; get me ink and paper and meet me there. Once I have writ something, we will ride back to Verona.”

“I do beseech you sir, have patience. Your looks are pale and wild, and do import some misadventure.”

Romeo shook his head. “Leave me, and do the thing I bid thee do. Hast thou no letters to me from the friar?”

“No, my good lord.”

Already slain, Romeo felt no pain at someone telling him that the killing dagger had indeed been sharp. “No matter. Get thee gone. I’ll be with thee at my lodgings shortly.”

Balthasar bowed his head deeply towards Romeo, and then exited into Mantua’s perpetual misty rain.

Looking again into the rippling waters, Romeo mused, “Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight. Oh mischief, thou art swift to enter in the thoughts of desperate men. I do remember an apothecary—and hereabouts he dwells.”

Romeo turned from the waters and left the pavilion, crossed a park’s misty lawn, and began down a decrepit street, the dwellings all packed together, most merely shacks which could be seen over if one stood on their toes. By the door of one such shack, hung up on a string by his tail, was a mummified tortoise. On the ground beneath it, a stuffed alligator, missing both of its eyes and near half of its hide, the stuffing inside damp and illpreserved. Romeo pushed open the door, and stooped to stand in the apothecary’s cramped hut.

From across a lopsided counter, the apothecary looked up. He was gaunt and unshaven, a visage of sharp misery. If a man needed poison, this was the man who would sell it.

Nearing the end of his need for currency along with all other earthly possessions, Romeo emptied his pockets of coins, placing them all on the counter. “I see that thou art poor. There’s forty ducats: let me have a dram of poison, of such strength that it will disperse itself through all the veins, that the life-weary taker may fall dead, and that the chest may be discharged of breath as violently as hasty powder doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.”

The apothecary made no motion to take Romeo’s payment. Instead he glared, such that Romeo might think that the man wanted him dead; but alas.

“Such mortal drugs I have,” the apothecary said, “but Mantua’s law is death to any he that utters them.”

“Famine is in thy cheeks; need and oppression starves in thine eyes; contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back. The world is not thy friend, nor the world’s law, for the world affords no law to make thee rich. So break this law, and be not poor: take what I offer.”

With still no hint of joy, the apothecary slid the coins off of the counter towards himself, into his palm, and stowed the payment below the counter. “My poverty, but not my will, consents.”

“I pay thy poverty, and not thy will.”

The apothecary went to a back room, and returned with a wooden flask. “When it be your time to depart, drink even a sip of this; and, if you had the strength of twenty men, it would dispatch you in the span of a breath.”

From a hidden pocket on his garb, Romeo produced a coin worth all that together which he had already given, and set it on the counter before the apothecary. “There again is thy gold; worse poison to men’s souls, doing more murders in this loathsome world, than these poor compounds that thou are forbidden to sell. I sell thee poison: thou hast sold me none. Buy food, get thee well. Come cordial, and not poison: go with me to Juliet’s grave; for there must I use thee.”

 

 

Act V.
Scene II.

FRIAR Lawrence embraced Friar John in the doorway of the abbey, proclaiming, “Holy Franciscan friar! Brother, ho there! It is very welcome to have you visit from Mantua. What says Romeo? Or, if his mind be writ, give me his letter.”

Friar John sighed, and turned to walk about outside of the abbey, with Friar Lawrence beside. As they walked through the winding rows amidst the garden, Friar John explained, “When I was here last, after you gave me Romeo’s letter, I went to seek out another brother here before returning to Mantua. He was visiting the sick. The watch, suspecting that we were both in a house where the infectious pestilence did reign, sealed up the doors, and would not let us forth; so that my speed to Mantua there was stayed. In truth, I have been in Verona and nowhere else since last we spoke. Indeed, you were likely more of a traveler than I was in that time.”

“Who bare my letter then, to Romeo?”

“I could not send it—here it is again—nor get a messenger to bring it thee, so fearful were they of infection.”

Friar Lawrence clutched at the letter returned to him, staring at it, wishing he could disbelieve that it was here with him, undelivered. “Unhappy fortune! By my brotherhood, the letter was not nice, but full of charge of dear import; and the neglecting of it may do much danger. Friar John, go hence; get me a crow bar, and bring it straight to my cell.”

Friar John nodded. “Brother, I’ll go and bring it thee.”

As Friar John went, Friar Lawrence paced back and forth over a portion of the garden path. “Now must I go to the monument alone; within this three hours will good Juliet wake: she will beshrew me much that Romeo hath had no notice of these accidents; but I will write again to Mantua, and keep her at my cell till Romeo come; poor living corpse, closed in a dead man’s tomb!”

 

 

Act V.
Scene III.

COUNTY Paris and his younger sister Paige walked beside one another, boots crunching over the gravel path through the graveyard. Paige held a torch, which cut through the dark of the night. County Paris held a bouquet of flowers of a species grown only at the king’s castle; black and violet and shaped like a bell, with the mouth coming out to eight waving points like a decorative compass rose. There would be no mistaking who had left them.

“Give me thy torch, Paige.”

“I should like to accompany you to pay respects. I met the pup while visiting Mercutio on the day they died.”

“Is that so? Well. You may come along, though I mean to be brief tonight. If it please you though, put out your torch so we may be able to keep a watch through the dark night, and not have the near light blind us.”

“Very well,” Paige said, and paused to snuff out the torch.

When it was out, she and Paris resumed their walk through the graveyard, until arriving at the Capulets’ monument, a grand stonework head to the vault below, the heavy stone door recently opened to place Juliet inside, but now since closed.

Paris knelt at the ledge surrounding the monument, and began arranging the flowers along it as Paige stood silently behind, her thoughts for the loving mother and happy spirit whom she had not known long at all, but whom had made a nice impression.

As he arranged the flowers, Paris spoke, “Sweet flower, with flowers thy bed I strew; oh woe, thy canopy is dust and stones—”

Paige gripped Paris’s shoulder. “Someone approaches.”

Stopping his speech to listen, the County Paris could indeed hear footsteps walking over the gravel. He turned in the direction of the sound. In the distance, coming around a copse of yew trees, a pair of figures lit by torchlight approached, much the same as had he and Paige.

Paris muttered, “What cursed foot wanders this way tonight? Come, Paige, let the night muffle us a while.”

Together, the two stole away to hide behind a nearby yew tree, and spy out these other late night visitors from behind its trunks.

The two figures arrived at the Capulets’ monument.

“Give me that mattock and the wrenching-iron,” Romeo said to Balthasar.

Balthasar did as asked.

Romeo continued, “Hold, take this letter; early in the morning see thou deliver it to my lord and father. Give me the light. Upon thy life, I charge thee, whatever thou hear’st or see’st, keep away and do not interrupt me in my work. Go, be gone; if you do return to pry in what I do here, by heaven, I will tear thee joint by joint, and strew this hungry churchyard with thy limbs. The time and my intents are more fierce than empty tigers or the roaring sea.”

By the light of the torch which Romeo now held, Balthasar’s face was lit in an expression of grave concern, but he said only, “I will be gone, sir, and not trouble you.”

“So shalt thou show me friendship. Take thou that: live, and be prosperous; and farewell, good fellow.”

Balthasar departed from the torchlight into the darkness, back up the gravel path. When he was well gone from the light, he turned off the path and went to hide near a hedge, to watch the young lord. To himself, he said, “For all this same, I’ll hide me hereabout: his looks I fear, and his intentions I doubt.”

Romeo stood at the stone door of the Capulets’ monument. “Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death, gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth; with this, I enforce thy rotten jaws to open, and, in despite, I’ll cram thee with more food.”

With the tools Balthasar had given, Romeo pried open the stone door, stepped into the monument, and went down the cold stairway to the vault in the earth.

From the yew tree, Paris spoke: “This is that banished haughty Montague that murdered that Capulet Tybalt—with which grief, it is supposed, the good Juliet died. And here this Montague comes to do some villainous shame to the dead bodies: I will apprehend him.”

“He is her husband, Paris,” Paige said, holding her brother back by the arm. “By blessing bestowed by Escalus, he is the father of her litter. I assure you, he only comes to pay respects as we have.”

“You add to his abominations by the syllable,” Paris said, and disengaged from Paige’s hand, and marched forth.

Left by herself, Paige sighed nervously.

“Vile Montague!” Paris called, as he marched into the monument and down the stone steps. At the bottom of the stairs was a long chamber, halfway into which stood Romeo with a torch, who turned to face the approaching royal.

“County Paris?”

“Can vengeance be pursued further than death? Condemned villain, I do apprehend thee: obey, and go with me, for thou must die.”

“I must indeed,” Romeo wholeheartedly agreed. “And therefor I came hither. Good gentle youth, tempt not a desperate man; fly hence, and leave me: think upon these departed souls and let them frighten thee. I beseech thee, please, put not another sin upon my head by urging me to fury so close to my mortal journey’s end. By heaven, I love thee better than myself, for I come hither armed only against myself. Stay not, be gone; live, and hereafter say, a madman’s mercy bid thee run away.”

Paris drew his sabre. “I do defy thy ramblings, and apprehend thee for a criminal here.”

Romeo gnarled his hands. “If thou wilt provoke me, toss me thy dagger so that I am armed, and the law be on your side in this scrap.”

Paris unsheathed his dagger, knelt, and slid it across the stone floor to the young Montague lord. The lord stood with the dagger as he had stood before, torch still in his off hand, employing no fighting stance, no light footwork.

Standing at a narrow-profiled fencing stance, Paris advanced, retreated, advanced, and made a lunge. Romeo knocked aside the county’s blade with the torch and took a step forward to stab the county into the front of the throat with the dagger, such that it went through and severed the county’s spine. The royal collapsed, instantly dead. Romeo sighed, and turned again to face deeper into the vault. At the end of the long hall, atop a stone bed, lay the body of Juliet, mother of all Great Danes, wife of the widowed lord who now approached.

Romeo knelt before her, and laid a gentle hand on her still side.

“Oh my love; oh my wife. Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, hath no power yet upon thy beauty: thou art not conquered.” Romeo gently brushed back one of her ears, and ran a careful thumb over the skin, yet flush instead of pale, even though Juliet did not breathe. “Death’s pale flag has not advanced on thee. Shall I believe that Death is amorous? That that lean abhorred monster keeps thee here in the dark to be his paramour? For fear of that, I still will stay with thee, and never from this palace of dim night depart again; here will I remain with worms that are thy chamber-maids; oh, here will I set up my everlasting rest, and shake the yoke of inauspicious fate from this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! And lips, oh you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss this eternal slumber; let it be as good as the morning you and I first awoke as husband and wife, our breath as one, ourselves never to part.” Romeo opened the apothecary’s flask, tilted back his head, and drank. Immediately, a cold and tingling drowsiness spread to every inch of his body, head to toe, fingertip to fingertip. Laying himself to rest face to face with Juliet, Romeo spoke his last: “Oh, true apothecary. Thy drugs are quick. Thus, with a kiss, I die.”

Romeo pressed his lips to his wife’s. Face to face, lip to lip, hand resting on her side, paw resting on his neck, as so often they were found together in life, Romeo in his wife’s embrace died.

From her slumber of impersonated death, Juliet awoke entwined with Romeo. Without so much as lifting her head, Juliet kissed her husband, licking the poison from inside of his mouth, and followed swiftly after him unto eternity.

Sonnets

                                  1.

Whiteish greyish greenish pond water lies

On this warm winter day in which we stand

Two loves, not seen as such to others’ eyes

One holds the other’s leash with gentle hand

I breathe the air and I enjoy the smells

Though I know that you know them all the more

Each sniff, your nose discerns where scent’s source dwells

And further goods thereby you’d find in store

You look to me and ask if we can stay

There in the dirt and leaves we take repose

We wait and smell and see and hear the day

Ears tilt to bounding squirrels and noisy crows

These are the hours that fill our lucky bond

As man and dog, observing by the pond

 

                                  2.

Such love is in the snuggles when we wake

Our body heat defeating winter cold

The moaning breaths my rubbing has you make

This sleepy lump of fur I may behold

The way that after one endearing yawn

You snort and then roll over on your back

And over your soft belly I may fawn

As that thin fur I rub and flank I scratch

Contented now you roll back to your side

And then we lie as one a while more

I breathe your paws and butt and breath and hide

The scents of you that I do so adore

And all these loves redouble in your kiss

How could I ever want for more than this?

 

                                  3.

And there’s the mailbox that you like to smell

And there’s the house that has the flick’ring light

And there’s a sign which must have lately fell

And there’s the stream we drank from yesternight

Exploring suburb streets I would not know

If not for all these nightly walks of ours

Familiar routes initially we go

Then grow our mental map beneath these stars

As every night a farther venture calls

A cul de sac, a street, a forest trail

A breaking down of anxious lus’ry walls

A pause to chat, a faintly wagging tail

I thank you for this groundedness I’ve felt

This place was ne’er a place without your help

 

                                  4.

There was a time when I would not forget

The countless joys you brought me day to day

The sniffing out of treats hid ’round the house

The drives out to the park to run and play

The beauty of the sunlight on your face

The scattered piles of leaves in crisp new Fall

The kisses that you gave to my pinned hand

The world’s delight inside a tennis ball

So early on you made that boy complete

Rightfully took him with you when you went

The emptiness of better half removed

The pain of growing back from what was left

Always, his love for you will still be strong

After the good boys of summer have gone

 

                                  5.

To heal of course seems such a pleasant thing

It takes a second’s time to say the term

But having healed and having healing seen

A healed up wound is not so quickly earned

The growth they took from off your lovely paw

Is for your later good, but nonetheless

I’m sorry that you have to wear the cone

I’m sorry these short walks do not impress

In some weeks’ time we’ll venture out again

And long miles walk along your favorite route

Act will in joy find compliment within

Joy will in act find compliment without

This wound you heal forebears wound on my life

I love you though someday you’ll be a knife

 

                                  6.

A certain stance, a smile, a coy wag

I drop what I’m doing and come to you

Down on my hands and knees, head below yours

You lean in and give a cursory kiss

I kiss your shoulder and nuzzle your butt

You trot playfully off to the bedroom

I follow you and bend over the bed

I unbuckle my pants and show my butt

You give it thorough licks between the cheeks

And then you jab your claws against my thigh

I spin to face you and you grab again

You pull my hand beneath you and hump it

Your penis slides around inside my grip

I hold onto your knot and feel you pulse

 

                                  7.

A oneness while I read a yellow book

And at my side you dream of some grand chase

Paws scratching bedsheets softly as they twitch

Some gentle barks, a wildly twitching face

I lie ensnared in blankets round my legs

And likewise wrapped in words on pulpy page

And also I lay snuggled in your scruff

My temple buried in your shoulder blades

Here now, I follow two stories at once

In one, thirteen dwarves and a hobbit walk

The other you whisper in sleepy barks

Telling me of a fantastical run

This old book’s tale is good, but not the best:

Your doggy dream gives wholeness to this nest

 

                                  8.

A storm is brewing in the people’s minds

The type which makes the powers that be sweat cold

As we proclaim love comes in many kinds

And righteously demand what we are owed

No pseudoscience paper or debate

Can disillusion what one knows first hand

We aren’t the monsters that you so create

Our love does not deserve your fiery brand

What else but love in handjobs for pooches

What else but hate in the threats to expose

What else but love in mutual smooches

What else but hate in the laws you impose

For far too long we veiled our zooey pride

But now we see a changing of the tide

 

                                  9.

A silly thing it is to watch a dog

Attempt to bury bone in human hole

He pokes the tip around and round and round

And never quite can seem to score his goal

He humps and humps and humps and humps and humps

He mounts, dismounts, and mounts, dismounts again

Between the thighs his eager penis pumps

While trying to put pups in dog’s best friend

He barks to say it is the human’s fault

For of his own prowess there is no doubt

Their stature is the root of this result

Too tall for doggie legs which are more stout

But if the human shows their hole just right

The knot will soon be in the human tight

 

                                  10.

If when I try to kiss, you turn your head

If when I touch your sheath you do not care

Then if you’d like we can go walk instead

There’s joys in life that can be found elsewhere

If when I kiss, you deeply lick my eyes

If when I touch your sheath you hump my hand

Then I’ll infer what humping does imply

Some signals are not hard to understand

There are so many ways to tell me no

And just as many ways to tell me yes

Whichever choice with which you choose to go

Is with no doubt a choice that I’ll respect

A fundamental part of being zoo:

For us, the beast must have a good time too

 

                                  11.

Wisteria vines and pineapple stems

Little black claws and a spotted blue tongue

Cold river pebbles and grey sweater hems

Lithe little legs and soft fur thereamong

Tall granite rock faces washed in the rain

Straight little chompers that like to squeak toys

Folded up napkins with strawberry stains

Tugging on ropes with a play growling noise

Warm pumpkin pie topped with fluffy whipped cream

Top 40 music and sweet honey wines

Bubble gum pieces and puppy dog dreams

Kissing the human who visits sometimes

I bask in this new slobber on my face

A smaller breed’s a happy change of pace

 

                                  12.

Two feet of snow have melted into mud

Four snow-white feet have snow-black feet become

The icy seal on scents today undone

Six footfalls amble on with squelch and thud

Cold cases in this park are now back on

Unburied branch is sniffed from every side

A mother with a stroller passes by

Investigation of the branch goes on

And when this branch has been sniffed all throughout

Six footfalls will inch forward to the next

And that next branch, to one distinct from last

Will in its own time too be figured out

Two old men, each the elder in some way

Skulk in the shadowy seconds today

 

                                  13.

Ten thousand traps will tempt me from this zen

Ten thousand arguments flaunt easy hooks

Those trolls assuming privilege of a friend

We all should go and read a fucking book

A better life you show me every day

Though tempt me not to look to left nor right

Where countless quibbles wait one step astray

When we in fact may stay above each fight

A shared disinterest in the social apps

A shared engagement with the woods outside

Us both bemoaning when a camera snaps

Us both delighted to go for a drive

A day in airplane mode will do one fine

The most part of the world is still offline

 

                                  14.

Do not humor them, they with no interest:

They who would not know love if it licked them;

They who feign they cannot see no or yes;

They who see an animal as an “it”;

They who have turned the word science to faith

And strike down curiosity—science—

If it makes them feel they may have been wrong

Or if the truth might be too arousing.

They must not ponder a dog has a knot,

Horses slap, and dolphins will make sex toys.

They must feel they have quite an ownership—

Dragon hoard-esque—over others’ pleasures.

Instead, humor a dog with a long walk,

A cat with string, and horses with carrots.

 

                                  15.

Mosquitoes buzz and sting this evening warm

Here in this clearing where we often sit

I slump upon a log, bark years now shorn

As you engage in chewing on a stick

It feels like summer long at last is here

The clinging winter’s spiteful cold drove off

The snarling ice at foot now cool earth

This late orange sun still clinging up aloft

So many others crowd the paths today

A frank departure from when winter held

When we, and only we, made bold foray

Through warding frosts, in winter jackets shelled

Our ventures take us through not space alone

But time as well, each season staked our own

 

                                  16.

An errand often is a mundane chore

A boring thing which needs be done again

Though quite the opposite becomes the case

When I have chance to bring four legged friend

An overbrimming joy at coming with

Excitement to be riding in a car

A friendly polite wag to the cashier

Rewarded with a dog treat from their jar

Would that the world were more a friendly place

To those whose bodies thick with fur are clad

An hour with a canine at my side

Will always be an hour better had

Were costumes so advanced no dog would show

I’d take you with me everywhere I go

Vol. 1 No. 7 (July 2023)

Personal Ghosts

There’s about a mile of now-unused highway where the course of the highway is now directed somewhere else, and where Forager now likes to lead me when we go out on walks so that we have a wide, clear, long open space to play fetch. He’s a white lab, though only his height and the shape of his head give this away: his body and legs show off long white hair which always ripples backwards as though perpetually moving forward through water.

As we arrive today, it’s getting to be evening time. Still plenty of light to see by, but the sky is an antivibrant shade of muted blue. Forager pulls me forward through the yellow grass, panting and wagging, eager to get to run.

Before offering to take him off the leash, I have a look around. Nobody else out here (there never is). No wildlife (there sometimes are deer, I’m sure Forager has only kind intentions when he sees them and wants to go say hi, but I feel bad about alarming them all the same). There is the distant sound of cars rushing by on the now-still-actually-used part of the highway, a good mile or more of forest between that and us. There is the more all-present sound of the wind sweeping over the long grass that surrounds us here, and the crickets who harmonize in an immense choir and who sometimes hop onto your arm, turn to face another way, and then hop off.

Yeah, we’re all clear here. He’s good to be off his leash. I give him a little whistle, and he stops pulling me forward and comes towards me instead, wagging and pressing himself against me as we stand there in our little parted divot of the grass. I let the good boy off of his leash and he flies forward, out of sight into the grass ahead: I see the tops of the strands of grass ripple in a line as he speeds through, and then I see him emerge up onto the section of highway. There he stops and turns to face me, and gives a little leap and a bark.

I smile and have a little laugh under my breath at how eager and happy he is; it’s infectious. I pick up my pace to a trot, and step up onto the section of highway with him.

This section doesn’t join up with the rest of the road; they demolished most of it on both sides, but apparently couldn’t be bothered with this middle part. What the deal is with that, I don’t really know, but I’ll certainly take it.

I shrug out of my backpack, and set it down at the edge of the road. Forager watches me intently. The backpack has a place to put a water bottle on each side, sort of an elastic ring at the top and then more of a mesh below it. One side does have a water bottle, and the other has a couple of tennis balls stuffed in there. As Forager is already so amped up right now, I don’t waste any time messing with him and pretending I can’t find where the tennis balls are: I take one out straight away, wind up, and throw the ball as far as I can out over the highway.

Forager bounds after it at full speed, his long white coat making him look like a lone wispy cloud on a windy day.

The ball bounces once, twice, and then before it hits the ground a third time he’s caught up with it. He catches it as it falls to him, and then he turns around in a big proud galloping arc, and comes running back to me for me to throw it again.

I do 3D modeling for a living. I make scary monsters in really, really obsessive detail. Right now I’m working on a two headed raven with sharp teeth and piercing red eyes, an open gory chest cavity from which tendrils emerge, and a pattern of tangled snakes imposed subtly in the sheen of the feathers such that it only becomes visible if light catches it in just the right way. When it’s done I’ll post up screenshots on my site, and most likely someone will buy the model off of me to use in their indie game or movie. I also work part time at a grocery store keeping tabs on the self checkout, and if the modeling business is going slow, I’ll sometimes pick up some extra hours. I’ve been offered jobs from game and movie studios that would pay, no exaggeration, ten times what I’m currently making at the grocery store, but none of them will let me work remote, and I know too well how many hours and hours and hours go into what I do, and I can’t do it: that’s too long each day to leave Forager alone by himself. He’s been good to me beyond words. The summer Edith died, I don’t think I would have managed to not kill myself if not for his concern over me, his constant readiness to give himself unabashedly into happiness if there is occasion for canine happiness, and his need for me to be functional and still alive in order to take care of him. I owe everything to him, somewhat literally after that summer. So I do what I can to be even half as good to him as he’s been to me.

Edith had a tattoo sleeve on her left arm of an abstract forest, and peeking around the trees were a rabbit, a fox, a wolf, a deer, and an owl. I had the same tattoo artist recreate the sleeve on my arm from photographs so that I can carry Edith (my older sister, my best friend) forward in the world. More recently, not for quite the same reason but just out of sincere ongoing gratitude, I got a tattoo of Forager standing in profile against my back, a film negative of the real Forager, a wispy black cloud rippling across my shoulder blades.

I take the slobbery ball that Forager offers me, wind up real big, and throw it again. Again and again, he chases, brings it back, and I throw it.

After a couple dozen or so, he comes galloping back, but does not give the ball to me: he goes and stands on the shoulder of the highway, slobbery ball still held in his mouth, head held high and facing back towards the city.

“Want some water?” I offer.

He drops the ball and wags, and licks his lips and tosses his head in what is practically a human nod.

We both walk towards the backpack. I take the water bottle out of its side pouch, unscrew the top, and begin pouring it down onto the highway in a gentle stream. Forager laps at the stream, drinking as much of the trickle as he can manage to. When that water bottle is empty I unzip the backpack and take out a second water bottle, and begin pouring out that one for him as well; he gets about halfway through the second one before backing away, finished. I stop pouring, and drink the rest of that water bottle for myself.

As I’m screwing the top back on, the sight of Edith’s tattoo sleeve catches me in a strange way, and I find myself then in a suddenly cognizant moment. I stand up straight. I look out at the field before me and the sunset that drapes over it, an astonishing distillment of orange and violet and in the clouds a type of grey which still in and of itself manages to feel like a full fledged color there. I flare my nostrils, and deeply take in the smell of the grass, and some sort of sweetness which is also in the air. As the wind picks up and then becomes still, I happen to catch a smell of Forager’s breath, and it makes me smile, that reminder that he is here with me right now in this moment. He is panting.

I stop looking at the sky, give Forager a rub on the back, and then collect up the water bottles and slobbery tennis ball into my backpack. I clip Forager back onto the leash, and the two of us head back for the city.

On this edge of town, there is a strange mix of buildings which are still maintained and seem to be doing quite well, and buildings which are wholly abandoned. There is a bakery which has delicious cake-y smells coming out of it, which shares its wall with a derelict sandwich shop whose name can still be seen in the absence of grime over the door where the letters were. Past the sandwich shop is a derelict gym, all of the equipment gone from the inside except a few empty racks; one of the windows is cracked a bit. Past the gym is a derelict souvenir shop. Past the souvenir shop is an all night diner on the corner, and a dozen people sitting inside and having dinner while the sun outside is just finishing setting.

After the diner, Forager and I pass down an entire block of boarded up storefronts. The wind here whistles and our footsteps echo. Some street lamps begin turning on, one by one here and there in no particular order, no particular hurry. Being out here with Forager often at around this hour, I know that it will probably be fully five minutes before the last of the lamps goes on.

On the next block, both sides are dominated by fortress-esque parking garages, each six stories high, concrete and mostly dark on the inside throughout, illuminated only here and there by lights which are going on at the same lazy cadence as the street lamps.

Leaning back against the railing of one parking garage’s third floor is a guy with dark curly hair short and close to his head and a pair of headphones draped around his neck. I can’t deny that he looks cool leaning there, silhouetted against the yellow orange light of the garage’s interior. On this edge of town, there’s a strange quirk that people leaning back in high up places like that are usually after one thing. You might find someone leaning back on an apartment balcony, on the roof of an abandoned store, on a pedestrian overpass, on a plastic crate positioned against a wall at the mouth of an alleyway. But it all means the same intent, and hey, a lot of times I’m interested. I don’t have anyone I’m seeing too regularly.

I stop walking with Forager, bring my fingers to my mouth, and give the guy leaning against the railing an inquisitive bird call: “twee twee?

He rolls against the railing, turning to face me. His elbows now perched on the railing, he has a look down at me, brings a hand to his mouth, and gives a negative bird call back to me: “tewww.

I don’t have any hard feelings; he probably isn’t gay.

I point down at Forager, and offer, “twee twee?

As I do, Forager looks up at me and then at the guy, wagging excitedly. He knows what I’ve just advocated for for him.

The guy leans a bit further over the railing, cups a hand around his mouth, and shouts, as casually as can be shouted, “Morph dog?”

I return an affirmative bird call: “tew!

Forager is just as much male as I am, but with morph dogs, most people at least don’t really care.

The guy looks away and goes back to leaning back against the railing, staring up at the concrete ceiling over his head, thinking about it.

After he’s had a few seconds, I ask, “twee twee?

He brings a hand to his mouth, and answers, “tew!

With that he stands up and walks into the rest of the garage. “Cmon, this way Forager,” I tell Forager, and he and I trot into the garage, him wagging. We start up the ramp towards his hookup.

We meet up on the third floor: the guy is giving us a coy smile, leaning back against the wall beside this floor’s restrooms. I’ve never seen him before, but whether this is his first time or whether we’ve just missed each other until now, he certainly knows the protocol of how these go down. Hell, he looks about my age but he might predate me, might have happened to be out of town for longer than I’ve been newly arrived. But I’m only speculating, I don’t know any of that, and I likely won’t. Part of the fun here is filling in the blanks with really whatever you’d like them to be. I suppose I can presume some things about him by the tattered jeans, the leather jacket, and the scratched up green and black and orange shirt which says something in a death metal font.

I glance around the garage. Just us here, and two cars so covered in dust that I doubt anyone is ever coming back for them. I lean down and let Forager off of his leash.

The long haired white lab bounds playfully towards the stranger. The stranger crouches down and meets Forager at dog level, embracing him and petting him and receiving all kinds of licks to the face, though eventually he turns his face away to avoid any further kissing for the moment—it is very apparent to me that he likes dogs, but doesn’t like-like dogs, as such. Which I don’t have any issue with; the first one, just liking dogs at all, is far and away the more important one.

The guy stands up; Forager paws politely at the guy’s leg to mount him, but the guy seems not to notice. “What’s his name?” the guy asks.

“Forager,” I answer; Forager looks to me and tilts his head; “Good boy,” I tell him, and he wags and returns his attention to guy, politely pawing at his jeans a second time.

“Forager,” he says down to the dog; the dog wags, and the guy crouches down to pet him some more.

I’m still standing a bit of a distance away, and at this point I begin walking closer. I contribute to petting Forager by giving him a pet on the head, and then I ask the guy, “You got a name?”

“Jamie,” he tells me. Some people tell the truth about that on these and some people don’t, but I don’t really mind either way. If he wants to be Jamie, he’s Jamie.

I pet Forager again.

“You got a name?” Jamie asks, understandably sounding like an afterthought to getting my dog’s name.

“Ivan,” I tell him.

“Cool,” he says, nodding. Still crouched there with Forager, Jamie looks up at me, nods his head back towards a restroom door, and says, “So uh.”

I lead the way, and hold the door open for him. Forager trots in first, and Jamie slinks in after. I close the door behind us all, and lock it shut.

The restrooms in these garages (this is not my first time) are inexplicably well cleaned and spacious. In one corner is a toilet, in another a sink, and in another a urinal; otherwise we have about an apartment bedroom’s worth of space here to ourselves.

Jamie rests a hand on the button of his jeans. “Mind if I...”

“Heh. Kind of the point, I thought,” I tell him.

With a bashful smile, he shrugs, keeps his pants on all the same, and says, “Yeah. This is a little bit different than how I’m used to it going, wanted to make sure we were on the same page. Are you going to stick around in here?”

I nod. “You seem cool but I gotta make sure you’re nice to him.”

He nods.

“I’ll keep my clothes on,” I assure him, though I add, “Not that I wouldn’t be interested, but, I will keep my clothes on.”

“Yeah, hey, I’m not like homophobic at all or nothing—”

“I know.”

“I just wasn’t—”

“You’re okay,” I assure him, and lean down to pet Forager who has finished sniffing around the bathroom and has now come over to stand in front of me.

“So how does it work?” Jamie asks.

I give him the crash course: “Make eye contact with him, think of it kind of like a staring contest, focus really intently on his eyes, and then while doing that, in your head imagine the form that you want him to take on.”

“Does he sound like them?”

I shake my head. “He just looks like them, but it’s still him in there. He doesn’t talk.”

Jamie asks, “He can be anyone? Female, included?”

“Anyone you can imagine,” I say with a nod.

“Celebrities?” he asks.

“I don’t think he knows what a celebrity is, but sure.”

“Damn. You must be pretty lucky, huh? Getting to have him be whoever you want, whenever you want? I bet you two are getting nasty all the time.”

“To be honest, not really,” I tell him, and I shrug as though the reason why is a mystery to me, but I know the reason why: my head is full of monsters and I worry what on Earth I’ll turn Forager into if I happen to not be able to keep my mind off work. I do admit to Jamie, for his interest, “I give him handjobs if he asks for it, in his regular form.”

“Oh. Heh. Hey if that’s what you’re into in the first place, yeah why bother with the transformation I guess.” He gives Forager a pet on the head. “I wasn’t going to do a celebrity though, I was just curious. Actually have in mind a uh, friend, if that’s not weird to you.”

“Not really. Even if it was, hey, your fantasy, not mine.”

He nods. Then without putting it off any further, he sits down on the tiled restroom floor, cross-legged in his jeans. Forager, knowing what this is and wanting to play along, leaves my side and goes and sits in front of his hookup to be.

The two of them stare into each other’s eyes. I hope it works for him. Some people aren’t able to visualize things very well, and there’s nothing that even the most talented of morph dogs can do for them in that case. But as I watch Jamie and Forager sitting there staring at each other, I do see that it’s working: the image of Forager fades out, and in his place fades in a woman sitting cross-legged in a black and red skirt and top, black fingernails, pale makeup, piercings on the ears, nose, mouth, and eyebrow.

“Tris,” he calls her, and reaches out a gentle hand to touch to her cheek. He looks her up and down. “Holy shit, Tris.”

Tris leans forward and licks Jamie’s face seductively. He opens his mouth and catches her tongue, and the two of them are soon making out, him lying her back on the tiled floor. Both of them are really into it. Eventually Jamie breaks from the kissing and takes off his jeans and underwear, and reaches up under Tris’s skirt and pulls her panties down off of her. He starts to finger her, and she lies on her back with her legs spread, grinding forward against his hand. It doesn’t take much of that before there’s no question that both of them are ready: he pulls up the front of her skirt and puts himself in, and they go at it there on the cool tiles of the restroom floor.

When they’re all finished, they both lie on their backs looking blankly up at the ceiling, Jamie using one arm to provide a pillow for Tris and the other arm to provide a pillow for himself. Both of them are breathing heavily. Jamie gives Tris a kiss on the side of the mouth, and Tris returns a similar one back.

Still a little out of breath, Jamie says, “Thank you, Tris, Forager, whatever.”

Tris gives him another lick on the mouth, and the two of them fall back into kissing again, before eventually Jamie gives one final deep smooch and then sits up, and reaches for his discarded pants.

With the pants still in hand, he looks up at his casual observer who has been trying not to be in the way. “Thank you, for that,” he says to me.

“Happy to serve,” I say with a quick little mock salute. “And hey, it’s not like you’re half bad: my friend got plenty out of that too.”

He glances away bashfully, and then stands up and puts on his underwear and his pants. I kneel down with Tris, indulge her in a quick kiss when she cranes her neck towards me, and then I slide her panties back on, and make sure they’re on comfortably. I also put her collar back on. Even looking like a human, I still want to make sure she has it in case somehow, though I don’t imagine it happening, we get separated.

Tris’s stomach growls loudly.

“Is she alright?” Jamie asks.

“Hungry,” I tell Jamie, although Tris also recognizes this word, and gives an affirmative lick of her lips. “Most morph dogs do love to show off their services, but it does also take a lot out of them to make the switch. Probably keep her like this until I can get her some food, just to make sure the morph back to dog goes alright.”

“What does she eat?” Jamie asks, and I can hear him slightly hesitate on the word she, now that we’re talking about getting back to Forager’s original form. I won’t deny that there is a weird grammar to it sometimes.

The answer to his question is that she’ll eat damn near anything, although meat is certainly a strong favorite whether looking like a human or like a dog. I have high nutrient snacks stowed in my backpack for this type of occasion, although admittedly they’re a bit pricey, so if I can manage it it’s certainly preferable to save them for more of an emergency situation and just go and get her some regular human food for now.

Answering his question out loud though, I say, “We’ll probably head to the gas station up the street, pick up some hot dogs and beef jerky.”

“I’ll buy,” Jamie offers.

“Nah, really, it’s no big deal.”

“Yes, it was,” he insists. “You have no idea. But, anyways, I’m not trying to cling if you don’t want me around, but if you’d let me buy, I’d like to.”

I think about it, and then answer, “Yeah. Thank you.”

We all slink out of the restroom. Jamie goes and stomps on a skateboard to make it jump up to his hand, and he catches it, and we all begin walking down the ramps. Tris and I hold hands, which is always a much nicer alternative to needing to use the leash.

“What band is that on your shirt?” I ask. We chat about metal on the short walk to the gas station. I’m more into weird croaking black metal, he’s more into glam metal actually, which is also cool.

The three of us head into the gas station. As Tris and I are making our way to the beef jerky, hand in hand, the clerk behind the counter calls to me, “Hey fella!”

Tris and I turn to look at him.

“No dogs inside,” he says, and then gestures around his neck—he has noticed Tris’s collar.

I’m about to lie and pretend to be insulted he accused my friend of being a dog, but Tris’s mouth opens, and she begins panting nervously.

“We’ll be in and out, man,” I try.

“Out,” he insists, pointing over at the door. “I won’t sell you nothing.”

“Tch, fuckin people,” I mutter.

“What was that?”

I give him the finger as we pass by.

Tris and I stand outside, holding hands near a tall ashtray that’s out here. She smells nice, I realize. Orange-y. Jamie really did have Tris pretty strongly in mind when he visualized her, whoever she is.

A couple minutes later Jamie emerges with six hot dogs stacked in his arms and four long sticks of beef jerky sticking out of a pocket of his leather jacket. “Asshole,” he says about the clerk, and I nod. He goes on, “I didn’t know how much she needed, and I figure if there’s extra we could eat the difference.”

Hell yeah, sounds good to me. Some hot dogs are passed around and the three of us dig in, Jamie and I each taking our time, Tris eating as fast as she can manage to swallow. She ends up eating four while Jamie and I each finished one.

When we’re all finished with our hot dogs, I stand in front of Tris and press a palm to her forehead so she closes her eyes. When they’re closed, I give her the command, “Return.”

The image of Tris fades away, and sitting in her place, wagging, is Forager.

Jamie suddenly steps in close beside me, says, “For your trouble,” and then turns my chin with his finger and gives me a kiss on the lips.

I am shocked but pleasantly shocked, and I press my lips against his in turn, but he breaks it off pretty quick.

I feel dumb, but I can’t help but smiling. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Maybe I wanted to. I’m not not a little bicurious.” With that he hops onto his skateboard, hands me the sticks of beef jerky, and says, “I’ll be around,” and then glides off around the corner. I listen to him go for a while, until the sound of the little wheels rumbling on the road is too faint to be heard.

Forager and I stand outside of the gas station a while longer. I stare blankly, pleasantly blankly, ahead at nothing, as I think back on the kiss. I can still feel the press of his lips on mine. Eventually my mind wanders back to the little kiss I shared with Tris too, as we were getting her dressed again—Tris, who was actually of course Forager, who politely sits here outside a gas station beside me, happy to be patient and sniff the air as his weird human friend stands there staring at nothing.

I give him the sticks of beef jerky, and then the two of us leave this post by the gas station wall, and continue our way back towards home.

Τύχων

My dreams have been getting so goddamn vivid lately and I hate it. I was in the town I grew up in, up on the surface; it was nighttime, everything was lit by moonlight or street lamps, and me and my friend Lin were walking around out front of his apartment, drunk and each smoking a cigarette, and then he broke away from me and just started running towards the road; and I don’t think at all that he was trying to kill himself, but he couldn’t see the bus that was coming and I could, and I shouted after him “LIN!” but it was too late; I watched him and the bus hit and I watched his head get knocked off of his body in a wave of dark blood and then I snapped awake, sitting bolt upright out of the blankets that were restricting me in my sleep. And I’m really sure that when I shouted Lin in my dream I also shouted it out loud, because there is a person who was in the blankets next to me who is now giving an extremely annoyed groan and pulling the blankets away from me so that they can bunch them over their head and retreat into the corner crevasse between the carpet and the wall.

Even having just woken up, this moment feels wrong, frozen. I realize that besides feeling like I just watched my friend get killed by a bus, I also feel like while my ethereal mind was dreaming, my corporeal body has been suffocating, forgetting to take in oxygen while asleep and unsupervised. I tell my body to breathe. But it doesn’t. I am frozen there, sitting upright, unsure if I have a heartbeat, sure that I don’t have breath.

Thankfully, the frozen moment, however long it lasted, passes. I take in a gasp of the room’s air. After I get the air into me I hold it for a moment, cherish it in a way, and then breathe it out again. With the breath taken I feel better, like I actually am awake now, and can deal with the fact that I was only dreaming when I watched my friend die. I still hate it, but, I can deal with it.

“Sorry,” I say to the person who I’ve woken up with. I don’t get a response from her—or him, I can’t see much of them under the blankets, other than long blonde hair which pours out from the tangle of blankets here and there. It looks like red hair in the technical lights—here in this station, every room that someone could conceivably find the space to stand in needs to be outfitted with lights. The folk etymology is that they’re called technical lights because technically you can see in the dim orange attempt at illumination that they shed. Whether that’s actually why they’re called that, I don’t know. Take it or leave it.

I look around and gather my bearings. I am in a very tiny room; if I leaned and stretched a little bit, I could probably touch all four walls without getting up from where I’m sitting. There are no windows, one door. Looking up at where the technical light is fixed in the ceiling, I realize that above my head are railings from which to hang clothes hangers. So I seem to be in a walk-in closet. Or rather, someone and I seem to be in a walk-in closet together. On one of the wire shelves above the hangers, I spot my bundle of clothing, folded in the way that I usually fold it—I’m very particular about what I tuck into what, so that I can tell if someone’s been going through my shit. At a glance it looks like nobody has.

I stand up. As I stand, I realize firstly that my joints are sore as fuck from basically sleeping on the floor last night, probably all twisted up on my side cuddling with ostensibly another stranger. When I have fully stood up and am making sure of my balance, I also feel a swirl of lubricant pool down to the bottom of my colon, and I feel a lot more confident that the person I am sharing a walk-in closet with is probably a he. Maybe a she or a they or a xi or an it who learned that I like it in the butt and had the equipment or toys to accommodate, but, if I were betting, my money would be on he.

I grab my clothes, and get dressed in the cramped space while making an effort to disturb the other person as little as possible. Long sleeved black shirt with a few holes in the sleeve cuffs; black underwear with a couple tiny holes in the ass of them; black cargo pants with the knees shredded to hell and the cuffs having seen better days; black bandanna with white floral decorative lines; the bandanna is already tied in a loop of the correct size to fit comfortably onto my head and keep my long hair out of my eyes.

I pat down my pockets. butterfly knife; toothbrush; resealable plastic bag with laundry tablets; some small but probably accurate amount of dollar bills and coins. I take the bills and change out and count them. Five dollars, eighty five cents. Yup. Nothing missing at all. I glance around the floor of the closet in hopes of spotting a whiskey bottle in among the blankets with at least a splash of something left in it, but, either I did drink all of it last night, or I have lost the bottle. It’s probably for the better, because my stomach already feels like shit as is.

I open the door and step out of the closet. The creak of the closet door must be louder than I realize, because as I step out into the adjoining bedroom, there is a sheep man on the bed out here who bleats at me, his eyes screwed up into an annoyed squint. As he bleats, a woman in bed with him reaches over him and wraps an arm around him, and pulls him back down flush with the bed. He continues to let out annoyed bleats, but they are quieter as she shushes him and pats his wool.

I tiptoe out of the room, aware every single time that the floor creaks and the sheep man’s next bleat at me comes out a little louder before settling again.

When I have made my way out of the bedroom, I find myself in a hall that smells overwhelmingly like cat piss. I open a door on my left, see that it’s a hall closet, close it. I try the next door on my left as well, just looking for a bathroom. This time it is a bathroom, but the light is on and I see that I’ve walked in on someone: out on the bathroom counter are laid out the implements of someone getting ready to inject themselves with something; the ‘someone’ in question is visible to me in the bathroom mirror, standing in front of the counter shirtless; a sheep man with curly horns, a little square shaved into the white wool on his left arm over a vein, flinching back from the opening door.

“Sorry,” I say, and close the door to just a crack, and stand at it sideways so I’m not trying to peek in. I ask him, “You gonna be long?”

“Yes.”

I sigh, but I’ll give him some credit that he’s honest.

“There’s another bathroom on the next floor,” he offers.

“Oh. Thanks. Have fun.” With that I close the door and continue down the hall, leaving him to his business.

I find myself in a living room. A rat man is sitting in a big cushy chair, reading a newspaper. Another rat man and a black-wooled sheep man are both conked out on the couch drooling on each other as they snore, and at their feet, a cat woman is sitting and watching the TV, which is playing without volume. I glance at the tube. Sports game from the surface is on. “Bulls are up,” she tells me.

I give an acknowledging nod and a thumbs up, look around and see a beat-up spiral staircase, and slowly make my way up it, not even touching the railing out of distrust, and taking each step slow so that if a plank seems certain to break under my feet I can backtrack.

None do break; two four-legged cats chase each other down the stairs, dashing swiftly around my ankles as I make my way up. On the next floor up, I find a white-wooled sheep man huddled up in a hill of blankets in the corner, smoking from a bong. He exhales a big cloud of smoke and then jerks his head back in a nod. I give him a tiny wave, and ask, “Bathroom?”

He looks over to a hallway beside him, and says, “Third... wait... yeah, third door on your right.”

I make my way there, and am very relieved to find a bathroom that is unoccupied.

There in the bathroom, I turn on the fan so that the muffling noise offers some semblance of privacy, and then I get to work mending myself. I turn on the sink faucet, stick my mouth under, and take long gulps until my hungover dry mouth is, if not perfectly reanimated, at least wet. I empty the contents of my pockets out onto the counter. I stopper the sink drain, drop a detergent tablet into the basin, and then turn on the water as hot as it goes. Once there’s an appreciable amount of suds available, I take off my clothes and drop them in, and let them soak in the detergent as the water continues to fill. I make use of the can in the meantime, and am amused to myself once again that without a doubt the me of last night got nailed, even though the me of the present has no memory of it, only post-hoc evidence in the form of the present feeling of the consistency of what comes out of me and a feeling of having been stretched and internally mushed around. The bathroom tissue comes back mostly clean, and with no pink traces of blood. I flush it all down.

When the sink is full, I stop the water, and go hop into the shower for myself. I borrow the bar of soap that’s already in here. When I’m done, I dry off with one of the two towels hanging from the rack, and then I stick that towel into the sink with my clothes and give the whole collection a wash. When it’s all been washed and rinsed thoroughly enough, I take out a dryer tablet from the plastic bag, and drop that in. Before my eyes, the water in the sink goes up into a shortlived smoke like watching dry ice evaporate, and in half a minute, I have a bathroom sink filled with dry, clean clothing. I put the towel back on the rack, dress myself again, and leave two quarters out on the counter for the use of the facilities—whether the fifty cents will actually make it to the person whose things I’m using, I’m not actually optimistic, but for my own sake I have to be able to say that I made the effort in case it comes up.

I brush my teeth, borrowing some toothpaste from a tube of it that’s sitting out. I spot a nail clippers and make use of those too. I give myself a final tidy in the mirror, check my pockets to make sure I haven’t left anything that I didn’t mean to, and then I step out of the bathroom, down the spiral stairs, out of the door, and onto a thoroughly unfamiliar street. Glancing up at the rock ceiling overhead, it’s at least clear I haven’t left the station, which is a relief.

I sigh, and smile to myself a little bit. Another exit successfully made. Part of me knows I should stop doing this shit literally every day of my life, but, another part of me knows I’m still going to. What else is the point of taking a next breath, if not moving towards a next caress?

I walk down the street until arriving at the nearest dirt cheap fast food joint. There I buy coffee and an egg and cheese sandwich, and have fifteen cents left over. I sit down at a table in the corner and eat. I chew my first bite very, very thoroughly, until it’s the most pre-digested, unassuming, nonvolatile, bland slur of mush that it can be, and then I swallow. I wait for a jostling pain to shoot out from inside of me, as the bite of the sandwich hits the stomach whose lining I rinsed a sizable bottle of whiskey against yesterday. Lucky enough, the first bite of the sandwich settles itself inside of me without any kicking. I work my way through the rest of the sandwich, taking my time.

I have a sip of the coffee but quickly feel nauseous about it. My stomach grumbles, protesting at the idea that I would have the gall to give it black coffee right after it had treated me so nicely by not raising a fuss over the egg and cheese. The stomach does have a point. Black coffee might not be the move right now, as much as the brain hates to waste it.

To call a human being a living organism is a misnomer. The brain enlists the throat to attack itself with liquor, and the throat burns, does its job, coughs, and then will seethe and tell the brain that it has been harmed, but will obey the brain a second time all the same if given the order to swallow once more. The stomach shoots out stinging needles and demands blandness for the sake of its own wellbeing, while at that same moment the liver looming above the stomach radiates warmth in a contrary demand for something to work on, something to process, whether that be whiskey at night or coffee in the morning. The fingers tap nervously on the tabletop while the brain has told them to do no such thing. A human being is not, in effect, a singular discrete living organism, but rather is a seared together collective of organisms who are each currently evidencing various degrees of being living.

I figure to myself that I might as well sit there in the corner of this fast food joint and wait it out, see if the disparate parts that constitute this amalgam known as “me” will come into alignment on the matter of the black coffee, if given some more time here to sit around and hash through the issue. If the management tells me to beat it I’ll beat it, but if not, fuck em, my corner.

Looking through the corner window out to the intersection, although I don’t think I’ve been to this specific part of the station before, it’s really not a far cry from the parts that I do frequent. Big lights embedded in the teal rock overhead, doing an almost convincing job of imitating daylight if you don’t look up. Shops and apartments stacked on top of one another all the way from the rocks at foot to the rocks above, usually about five layers thick, but it wasn’t all built in one go by one company, so the heights of each floor aren’t exactly homogeneous. And then of course the people. It looks like an old zombie apocalypse movie—those are actually really funny to watch nowadays, because the relatable ones are the gaunt scabby creatures who make labored steps and flail their arms, while the creatures in flattering makeup with their hair done up seem alien. People in raggy clothing shamble down the street in their various directions; they aren’t truly undead, of course, but much like me, most of them have some part or another of living that’s been heavily damaged that they’re deciding to carry on without. Me, at least organ failure is only an inevitability, not a present state of being. All the same, the presence of some memories can be as much a death as the absence of some organs. In among the people, industrial vehicles slowly tread forward with their flashing orange lights and their warning beeps, taking up most of the height of the tunnel and about half the width of the street, though they drive down the center as most of the tunnels are one ways.

I sip on my coffee.

It sits alright.

I have a bigger sip.

I catch my own reflection in the glass. I grimace.

My name... well, the name of the amalgamate aberration in the mirror, is Trevor. In spite of the fact that I am apparently actively trying to induce liver failure in myself every night, I would all the same consider myself to have my shit together a lot better than most of the people who are down here leading a similar lifestyle. For one thing I have bathed and washed my clothes today, let alone in the last month. For another thing, I don’t inject any drugs, ever, unless you would count reboosting my vaccinations against STD’s every year, which is another thing I do that a lot of people here don’t, because it is something that one has to save up for; usually I take one of the more dangerous jobs and work it with as much overtime as I can deal with for about a week, and then feel happy in my armor that that affords me for the rest of the year to be as promiscuous as I damn well like. I’m also snipped, so, no scares of pregnancy, and the scar usually helps convince people that I actually am forward thinking enough to be vaxxed and that they wouldn’t catch anything from me.

I have another drink of my coffee.

I glance out at the street again: I observe that this actually is a pretty heavy amount of foot traffic, passing through here. I turn and glance at this fast food joint’s kitchen, more so observing with my ears than with my eyes: They are absolutely short staffed today. The line for food is now out the door, and it sounds like there is all of one child back there in the kitchen while one adult stands at the counter and deals with the customers.

So, here’s the play. Every day, wake up and count myself lucky if I have woken up somewhere that has a private bathroom I can use: if there is a private bathroom, wash myself up as I did this morning; if there is not a private bathroom, wander the streets until arriving at a public operation with coin-operated showers, less ideal but it works. Once presentable, find work for the day flipping burgers, washing dishes, sweeping and mopping, whatever seems to have a demand as long as it’s in a place that serves food; these types of jobs will always be minimum wage and will never allow overtime to happen, so all I can count on is eight hours of work which after automatically subtracted taxes leaves me with forty four dollars and eighty cents spending money, a lunch break with a free lunch from the place, and dinner to go afterwards as long as I make it quick myself before punching out and have made a really positive impression on the management while I’ve been there. After dinner, use the spending money to buy a bottle of whiskey and a packet of lube and hit a bar with my outside drink, and try to save enough during the night to have breakfast for tomorrow, if possible.

That’s about it. It’s not perfect but it’s gotten me through so far.

Moving this play along for today, I slam the rest of my coffee, throw my trash in the garbage, and approach the counter.

The woman behind the register glares at me, and says in a tone like she’s reprimanding a child’s bad behavior, “Back of the line.”

All the same, I stay where I am, and offer, “Need a hand in the kitchen?”

Immediately her tone shifts—not to anything friendly, but she swats the other unmanned register, and says, “Bring up your profile.”

I walk around the counter to come use the register’s computer screen. It takes a minute to boot up. The woman continues taking orders, and the kid comes and sets them out on the counter as he finishes them.

When the register comes online, I punch in my citizen ID. My public information, including my work history, comes up.

The woman finishes with a customer, and then comes over to quickly assess if I am acceptable. “Jesus,” she says, punching the button to go to the next page of my work history again and again, and again, and again. If she intends to get to the end of it we’re going to be here for a while. “Punch in. Spare apron is in the break room.”

Without commentary I do as she says, re-entering my ID for the punch-in. My name is added to the page of currently clocked-in employees, which is indeed now three people long counting me. The woman’s name is Casey May, the kid’s name is Leo May. Even though I know that it doesn’t matter, I do smile at seeing the kid’s pronouns are they them; it’s legitimately becoming pervasive, and I think the world is not the worse for it.

Anyways, I break myself away from the monitor and don’t dilly dally at getting the apron on, washing my hands, and stepping into the kitchen. “Saw, brah,” I say, and offer the kid a handshake, hoping they take brah as gender neutral-ly as I mean it.

The kid does shake my hand.

“Trevor, he him,” I mention.

The kid smiles at me bringing it up, and introduces themself as Leo they them or it it.

“Right on. Whatcha need back here, Leo?”

They list off the things that need to be restocked on the line, and I speed off to go get all of that. Kid is professional as hell and I love it. I normally have no inclination to work the same place two days in a row, just not how I do things, but honestly I might find my way back here again if they seem like they still need the extra hand tomorrow.

For my ten minute lunch break—ten is what they have to offer me, but I know better than to actually take the full ten—I make myself a hamburger with no salt and all the vegetable fixings, medium fries with no salt, and a cola. I get it all down in four minutes and get back into the kitchen.

When the workday is over for me and I’ve made my dinner to go, I punch out and Casey counts out my payment in cash from her register. Forty four dollars and eighty cents on the nose. I thank her, shout goodbye to Leo over the noise of the kitchen, and then walk down the street until arriving at the nearest liquor store. There I buy the night’s bottle of whiskey and packet of lube, and then I find a park to sit down in and eat my dinner. I’ve made a salad inasmuch as one can make a salad at a burger joint. Basically it’s the same meal as lunch was, but more of the vegetables and all jumbled together with the burger patty split up around the veggies inside of a styrofoam to-go box. As I eat I get started on becoming shitfaced.

The parks down here still seem kinda bizarre to me. No trees and no sky. Essentially they are rock gardens with moody lighting. The park I’m drinking in right now has a big boulder at the center, surrounded by sand, and blue light shining down from above.

I lean back on my bench and stare at the rock for a while as I drink, trying to appreciate some kind of artiness that the rock is supposed to have.

By the time I’m feeling the drunkenness particles swimming around in my blood—or however it works—I still really don’t get the appeal of the moody rock whatsoever, but on the plus side at least I am shitfaced.

I think about getting up for a while. Then eventually I do get up and begin walking. I don’t really have any part of the station that I need to make my way towards. I tend to hang out in region 6, one of the more eastern regions of the station, because that’s where the bespoke gay bars are at, and I’m down with that and frankly it’s usually easier. But there are gays outside of region 6—myself right now, for example—and again, I’m also down with women or nonbinaries, so whatever. Anyone warm. Based on the signage that I’m seeing as I walk around, I seem to have blackoutedly made my way all the way to region 29, a region way down on one of the station’s southern arms.

Walking along the street and looking around, I pass by the open double doors of a bar, glance inside as I keep walking, then I backpedal and look in again as I realize that everyone inside is dressed goth. Beaming, I squeal out a happy little noise and step inside. If I’d have known this was here I would have come to region 29 sooner.

I sit down at the bar. One of the two bartenders sees me, and with a smile shouts, “Trevor!”

Well then. Apparently I did come here already. Zero memory of it though.

Anyways, I give the bartender a big friendly over the head wave, matching his energy.

Coming over, he asks, “Can I get you anything?”

I make a low key gesture of glancing down at my bottle of whiskey and giving it a little swirl.

He gives a polite chuckle, and tells me to enjoy my stay before going and tidying up some empties that people have left further down the bar.

I’m not here for long before two sheep men and a rat man all sit down to my left. “Hey sleeping beauty,” says the sheep man who has sat down on the stool right next to me.

I don’t entirely understand the context of his jab, but I piece together that all three of them were in the apartment I woke up in this morning.

I give a little smile, and admit, “Imma be honest, I do not remember last night pretty much at all.”

The three of them laugh, and the sheep man next to me bleats, “Whaaaat, noooo,” with a huge amount of sarcasm. He then informs me, “You owe me.”

I don’t think I like the sound of that, and I’m conscious of watching for him to pull a knife as I mentally confirm which pocket my own butterfly knife is in. He’s acting friendly but that can often be a front. “What do I owe you?” I ask.

“Last night you were gonna join in with me and my wife, but then your gay drunk ass saw how hung Lloyd is and you immediately started shyly flirting with him instead.”

I snicker, shake my head, and take a drink. After I exhale a sour cloud of whiskey breath, I admit, “Yeah that sounds about right. Sorry not sorry.”

“To be honest it was really cute,” he tells me. “You were seriously acting like you had a secret embarrassing crush on him. Traci and I had a fun enough time just watching you try to get with him.”

I give an agreeable shrug, not really being able to add much since, again, I do not remember any of this. I still don’t even really know how I ended up here from region 6.

“You do still owe me though,” he reminds me.

Hell yeah: makes the rest of my night way easier if somebody is not only already interested but is actually insisting on it. “Trevor,” I offer, extending over my hand.

“Shaun,” he says, and gives my hand a shake. He also introduces the others, and I do piece back where I saw each of them this morning. Shaun was the one in bed who I woke up when tiptoeing out of the walk-in closet, and I now presume the human woman with him was his wife Traci. The other sheep here at the bar is Shaun’s brother, the one who was shooting up in the bathroom—I can still see the square of shaved wool on his arm, though it’s not too noticeable in this bar’s dim lighting. The rat man is the one who was conked out on the couch.

We all chat. Shaun is into blacksmithing which is fucking rad and he tells me a ton about it as I continue to sip on my whiskey. Apparently there’s a workshop in this region which he has a membership at. At some point I ask if we can go there, but he tells me he does not want to handle searing hot sharp metal while drunk which I tell him is lame but also not unfair. From a coat pocket he takes out some metal trinkets he’s made to show off. One is a twisty little bell-shaped cage kind of a deal, the other one looks kind of like a throwing star but isn’t sharp, it just has fancy decorative rounded edges. He can get inside of my asshole at any point he likes to. As he’s going on about some technical detail of how he did the metalworking on the throwing star I give him a kiss. He perks up into a smile and then kisses me back, and we make out at the bar for a little bit before he says, “Maybe back to my place?”

It feels a little early for me to be moving towards putting a cap on the night, but I am horny as shit to rub bits with this guy and feel his wool against my horny drunk tingly skin, so I tell him yeah getting back to his place sounds good. I take another gulp of my whiskey, take his hand, and walk along as he leads the way back to his place—his brother and his friend say they’ll catch up later.

As we’re walking he whispers in my ear, “Hey Trevor, what did the sheep say to the human?”

I try to think of an answer, but nothing jumps into my head so I ask him what did the sheep say to the human.

He makes a sex noise.

I laugh way too hard at this but I legitimately cannot help it, and he actually has to hold me upright so I don’t fall over on the ground laughing in the middle of the street. When I’m over it enough to keep walking at least—I still have the giggles—he gives me a kiss on the cheek and then keeps walking me back to his apartment. When we get there, Traci and the sheep man who had the bong are intensely focused on a video game—they seem to be versus each other, but I’m not too familiar. The cat woman is standing in front of an open fridge trying to decide what to eat—she glances up at me and Shaun, and mentions, “Bulls won.” I give her a thumbs up.

Shaun brings us over to stand by the couch, and says, “Traci, look who—”

“Sec,” she interrupts, and mashes the buttons in a way that’s so fast and specific that it seems like she’s making it up. She leans forward, and after a few more seconds, she and the sheep man both throw their controllers. Traci shoots her hands up in the air victoriously, sheep man grabs his bong from beside the couch and does a big hit.

Now noticing me, Traci says, “Oh! Hi you!”

“Heyyy,” I say with a big dumb smile, and rub my thumb over her husband’s hand which I have been needily holding ever since we left the bar.

“Lloyd says we missed out,” she informs me.

I make a gay happy noise.

Shaun lets go of my hand and moves behind me, and starts rubbing my shoulders erotically and I melt while standing there in the still-cat-piss-smelling living room. As Shaun rubs my shoulders, he informs Traci, “We missed out on Trevor last night, but he has agreed to amend this today.”

“First on the bed gets the handcuffs!” Traci shouts, and then throws a couch cushion at Shaun’s face and darts down the hall.

He shouts and chases after her.

I take another gulp of whiskey, stand there for a few seconds as it ripples through me and settles, and then jauntily walk down the hall after the two.

On the bed, Traci and Shaun are play-wrestling for the handcuffs—Traci has them behind her back, and quickly clicks them on while fending off Shaun with her feet. Both of them are already shirtless.

I set my whiskey down on a desk in here and come join them on the bed. We all have a fun snuggly time undressing each other, and I find myself caressing my body against Shaun’s as much as I possibly can: he is so soft and lovely. Traci is a really lovely kisser and she is extremely pretty. Rubbing and playing happily with both of them there on the bed, I figure I am probably the luckiest drunk motherfucker in this entire station right now, and that is not a list without competition. When we’ve ramped up to actually taking care of business, I end up being in the middle and I would be happy for this to last literally for the rest of my life, but we do all eventually finish, getting our various fluids in or around each other’s parts.

We all snuggle after. I am split on whether I want to fall asleep right now or get up and have another sip of my drink and try to angle towards a round two with one or both of them. Eventually though they settle the question for me as they both get up to go have a cigarette outside.

Well, “outside,” but. Out on the doorsteps. I grab my whiskey and follow after them, having a few sips along the way. I don’t smoke but I like these people a lot and I want to hang out.

As we’re hanging out out there, standing around and shooting the shit, I suddenly lose all focus on what Shaun is saying as I see someone walking up the other side of the street. A man with long black hair similar to mine, and a tattoo on his face of a snake that comes up from the neck, bends at his right cheekbone, slithers over the bridge of his nose, and then ends at his left cheekbone with its tongue flicking out. I blink hard, and I try to disbelieve that this is my friend Lin, because I can’t imagine what in the hell he’d be doing walking around down in a station like this when he was always doing so well with his life up on the surface. But sure as shit, it’s my old best friend walking around down here. He has a black eye, which means I very well might have a son of a bitch to stab if he knows who gave the shiner to him. I haven’t been a murderer up until this point in my life—I only do tricks with the butterfly knife to impress people—but Lin is a person I would start for.

I leave Shaun and Traci’s doorstep and make my way across the street, shouting and waving, “LIN!”

Lin looks in my direction. When I get to him he asks, “Holy shit, Trevor? How the fuck you been, dog?”

“Shit man, better than any fucking person has a right to be down here.”

I step forward and hug him, which, after I’ve already committed to it I do realize is a lot, we were never huggers back when I knew him before. But he takes it in stride, hugging me back.

I ask him, “What are you doing down here?”

He huffs out a sigh. “Heard Tommy got hurt on the job, been trying to find him and bring him back up to stay at my place for a while.”

“Oh, shit.”

He nods.

“What happened with the black eye?” I ask.

“Fuck, is it that noticeable?”

“Bro I saw it from across the street.”

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck that’s unfortunate.”

“What happened?” I ask again.

He glances off to the side and smiles a tiny bit as he says, “I was talkin out the side of my neck.”

“Oh god what did you say?”

“Some kind of emu lady was hitting on me last night.”

“Sure.” I have partaken. It wasn’t not fun for me, but, I acknowledge it isn’t for everyone.

“And—oh you wouldn’t know, me and Janie got hitched.” He holds up his hand which has a gold ring on it.

I gasp. “Congrats, man! You two are awesome. Happy for you.”

“Yeah! But uh, the emu lady was hitting on me, even though I told her I’m married—”

“That doesn’t mean quite the same thing down here,” I tell him.

“Yeah, I got that impression. But anyways, I tell her I am not interested, many, many times, but she’s not letting it go. So. I make a really loud point of ordering some chicken wings.”

I snort laugh, and say, “You did not.”

He giggles a little to himself, and nods, and says, “I did. And so she bamfs, thank god. But then I don’t know if he knew her or just overheard part of it, but a dog dude comes over and just fucking pounds his fist into my fucking face. And then he left, before I could really get my bearings again. So. Yeah. My fault. I’m a dumbass.”

“I fuckin missed you man,” I tell him. “Tell me, specifically, what the dog man looked like.”

“Cmon, man.”

“I will straight up commit murder with a knife.”

“No, don’t. I told you, I deserved it.”

I consider, and then offer, “Assault with a lame flabby punch?”

“Oh, sure! I think he was more of—” he begins, and then stops talking and glances around. I realize he is double checking the dog man doesn’t actually happen to be present to overhear this. I giggle to myself. Not seeing any dog men around, Lin continues, “I think he was more of a mutt than any specific breed, I didn’t recognize him as anything, anyways. Longish brown fur, tall pointed ears.”

“German shepherd?”

“Ehh coloration wasn’t right, it was more of a uniform light brown than a brown and black.”

“Hm. Anyways.”

“Yeah. Besides that, I don’t know. But if you see him leave him alone man.”

I take a sip of my whiskey, and offer the bottle to Lin—he is the first person I have ever made this offer to.

He does accept the bottle, has a sip, and then coughs and wheezes and looks down at the bottle. “Jesus dude. Are you actually drinking gasoline?”

“Hundred and ten proof,” I say smugly.

He gags, and hands the bottle back.

I take it, have another sip, and then ask, “So what are you up to now?”

“Pretty much barhopping looking for Tommy.”

I gasp. “Onward!” I say, and then Lin reaches out and on reflex I reciprocate our handshake. I’m surprised I still have the muscle memory for all of the steps.

Lin leads the way, and at the bar he buys me a beer, and for the rest of the night from there forward I pretty much don’t remember anything else.

Usually with my dreams I actually do end up remembering them—like part of my brain wakes up sooner than it’s supposed to, and my memory is recording while the last parts of the dream are still playing.

I dream that I am in an alleyway lit only by the technical lights, chewing on an invisible granola bar. I can feel the crunch of it every time I bite down. It feels like chewing on a regular granola bar, I just know that it’s invisible. Sometimes it disappears for a bite and I chomp my teeth together uncomfortably hard, but then it comes back and I keep chewing again. Then without ceremony, a man steps in front of me and shoots me in the forehead with a pistol causing a bang and a bright flash.

I snap awake, screaming. The snake lady who was sleeping beside me also snaps awake at me screaming, and she bites me in the neck.

I feel all of my muscles lock up, and involuntarily, I slowly recline back onto the ground: I gather my bearings and see that we were sleeping on a pile of garbage in a dim alley. There is almost relief in the fact that my lung muscles are as paralyzed as the rest of my body, and so I can’t breathe or smell right now.

The snake lady gasps, and scoots backwards away from me, fingertips anxiously pressed to her mouth. “I am so sorry!” she says, and then reaches out a hand towards me, but then pulls it back and puts it back to her mouth. “Ohhh my god, I never do that, I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to!”

Not that I know her, but I actually don’t doubt that she’s telling me the truth. That said, I am not much comfort anyways, as I cannot breathe or move my tongue or lips or give a thumbs up, so my capacity to tell her not to worry about it is unfortunately limited.

“You’ll be fine in a minute, I promise,” she tells me.

Again, I believe her. It’s not my speed but there’s actually a market for people getting bit intentionally for the high of it. The venom causes full body paralysis for about a minute, and then for some people there’s a deep euphoria afterwards. I guess we’ll see how I take it.

The snake lady glances around, reaches over me to grab her purse from our garbage pile, and then without any other commentary gets up and walks quickly out of the alleyway.

I hope that last-night me had fun with her, because it certainly did lead to one hell of a way to wake up. I don’t think I’ll be needing coffee today.

When I’m finally able to breathe again, the smell is about as bad as I figured. I have to have been obliterated last night for the smell of garbage juice to be an acceptable perfume to sleep in.

When I can crudely move my arms and legs, I jerkily slap my way forward off of the garbage pile, and have a seat sitting back against the alley’s opposite wall. I take in deep breaths. I realize how much my heart is racing and it’s really uncomfortable. Probably to be expected, but still, uncomfortable. I don’t want to die. Sometimes—sometimes like now—it feels like I know a heart attack is coming. I am not a healthy, well maintained body—I beat up my insides every day of my life and then the different parts of my body have to work together to fight to correct the consequences of their earlier bad decisions, and someday some part of my body will give up that fight.

I guess it’s not today though. As I sit there breathing, my heart rate does settle down a little. My lips are still tingly, and I try to say something to myself and am unsurprised when my words come out a slurred mess. I look down at my hands, wiggle my fingers, make fists a couple of times. She told the truth: the paralysis passes, and soon enough I’m just a garbage juice scented dude sitting in an alley. No rush of euphoria from the venom comes to me. Which is honestly good. I don’t need to add “try to get bit by a snake” to my daily agenda.

I pat myself down, checking my pockets for everything. Butterfly knife, tooth brush, laundry tablets, all present where they should be. I feel something in one of my cargo pockets that cannot be what it feels like, because it feels like a wad of cash. I pull open the pocket, reach in, and take out the wad of cash which it does indeed turn out to be. My eyes go wide as I thumb through the bills: five hundred dollars in twenties.

I stuff the bills back into my pocket before anyone can see them—not that I have any company here in the garbage alley, but that is a lot of money to be handling out in the open. And I’m not completely sure of what to make of the fact that I have it. I don’t think I would have gotten it by dishonest means, but the fact that I don’t know where it came from at all still makes it concerning.

But as I think about the fact that I basically get to take a vacation from the eight hour grind for a while, a weight feels like it’s lifted off of me. It’s gonna be a really good week or two.

I look around for my bandanna. Eventually I do spot it, tied up around a cowboy hat which is sitting on the garbage pile. I say to myself Jesus fucking Christ, and then beam at the way the words came out so articulately. Once the paralysis goes away it really does go away, no lingering effects at all, it seems.

I pick the cowboy hat up off of the garbage pile, take my bandanna off of it, put on the bandanna, and set the hat back down. I leave the alley and go find a place to shower.

At the nearest shower house, I use the change machine—it accepts a twenty, fortunately—and after feeding some coins into the machines for the soap, the shampoo, and then the shower itself, I do an even more thorough job than usual of cleaning myself. I wash my clothes in the farthest sink down. I never feel more homeless than when I have to wash my clothes in the public sinks, standing there naked while I do so, but on the other hand fuck everyone, I am not going to go about the rest of my day literally smelling like garbage. Luckily I’m done with the process quickly enough that only a handful of people happened to come within sight of me. I give my teeth a courtesy brush even though I don’t have toothpaste on hand to do the job entirely properly. Always seemed like a weird omission that these places vend soap and shampoo but not toothpaste, but whatever. All in all, I have put myself together acceptably well by the time I step out onto the street again.

I glance both ways, spot a diner, and go in and splurge on an omelet with my newfound mysterious wad of money. I almost order a long island iced tea, but I catch myself.

Here’s the thing, is I’ve come into money before down here. It’s easy to get stupid with it. Last time I had two hundred to my name it was gone that night, between getting fancy drinks and cocaine. With five hundred here, I’m sitting on a very good thing, but to be honest I’d pass on the very good night if it means a very needed break. So instead of the long island iced tea, I leave the diner after paying, then step into a liquor store, and get the usual bottle of whiskey and packet of lube.

I go sit in a rock park, fail to appreciate the moody magenta rock, and sip my whiskey. When I’m good and morning drunk, I step out onto the street and begin wandering, feeling a friendly amicability towards really just the world right now, and everyone else walking around in it.

At some point a short ways into my walk as I’m feeling like getting to know someone, I happen to pass by a sports bar. My usual repulsion towards sports bars tells me that I probably never would have entered the place before ever in my entire life, which means I probably won’t encounter anyone I know, which seems ideal right about now because I am having a really strange day and I don’t want to tell anyone about it.

I step inside. Glancing around, I don’t recognize anyone, and nobody seems to recognize me. It seems surprisingly busy for this hour of the morning, but I gather that some important game is on. Again, not my world, but whatever.

“Getcha anything, boss?” the barkeeper asks.

I hold up my whiskey.

I don’t think he likes it, but he doesn’t make a stink of it. He just turns his head back down to the puzzle he’s doing from the newspaper, leaning back against a post behind the bar.

At the far end of the bar, I see a glass of beer rise and fall with nobody holding it. I screw my eyes shut, open them, and look harder. The glass is now sitting there on the bar, its contents waving back and forth as though it was only just set down.

You know, fuck it. I go sit down at the barstool beside the drink.

“Saw, brah?” I ask.

Only silence greets me. I glance down at the drink, which has now basically settled—sometimes this deep down there are tremors that could easily account for a slightly wiggly glass of beer. Shit, that and I’m probably hallucinating from the snake venom from earlier.

I take a swig from my whiskey, exhale, and say, “Ghost or just a glass of beer, you’re a friend of mine dude.”

A squeaky laugh comes from the air beside me, and I laugh a little back at how unintentional of a laugh it sounded like.

“That’s such a friendly thing to say to someone invisible,” the voice tells me. “Usually it’s all ‘ah what the hell!’ and ‘get out of the lady’s room, perv!’”

I snort laugh at that, not having expected to be hearing invisible man humor today. The voice does sound masculine at least, if a bit on the soprano side.

“Trevor, he him,” I offer, and hold my hand over.

“Oh,” he says.

After a brief pause, I sense that my handshake is unwanted—no big deal—and I retract my hand.

After I do, the voice stammers out, “Sorry, uh, just. Anyways, hi. Rex. He him.”

“Pleasure, Rex,” I say, and nod. I have another sip of my whiskey.

Right, you cannot see I was holding my hand out to shake when I said that.”

“Are you always invisible?” I ask.

“Not strictly. Put this on.”

With that I hear a weighty tap on the bar counter, and look down to see a black ring. I pick it up. It’s heavier than I expected, almost like it was a part that fell off of one of the machines instead of a piece of jewelry. I slip the ring on.

Beside me I can now see a dog man, wagging his tail and smiling at me.

At first I have extremely mixed reactions, because on the one hand he is adorable, but on the other hand I’ve been on the lookout for a dog man who punched my friend. This dog man here with me is the wrong breed though, some kind of long furred, white with patches of other color.

“Well ain’t you handsome,” I tell him, and he wags harder. “What breed?” I ask.

“Australian shepherd. You?”

It takes me a second to realize that what he’s saying is a dig on me for asking his breed, but taking it in stride I do answer him. “Oh, Chinese. I will say for an Australian shepherd you sure don’t have the accent.”

“I can summon it if needed,” he says. Watching him talk, I realize that it’s not strictly that his voice is high pitched, but more the tone of a happy, excited dog.

“You need the ring back just ask, by the way.”

“Nah,” he says, and then he snaps his fingers and the ring is back on his finger, and off of mine. Within a second I’m again sitting next to what would look like an empty barstool.

“You watching the game?” I ask.

“No, not at all. Just needed a breather, thought I’d grab a beer somewhere.”

“You wanna see me do tricks like you do?” I ask.

“Ooh. Please, go ahead.”

“Ay, Barman!” I call to the bartender. He looks up and raises an eyebrow at me. “Knife trick!” I tell him.

He raises his eyebrows harder, and then just says, “No liability. Don’t hurt yourself,” and turns back down to his newspaper.

Nine times out of ten they do not care, but it is usually for the best to declare it, instead of waving a surprise knife around.

“Stay away,” I mention to Rex, and wave a hand over in his direction, feeling my hand brushing against dog hair.

He giggles, and insists that he’s away, he won’t get cut.

I take out my butterfly knife, give it a few safe basic moves to make sure it’s not sticking or anything like that, and then I go into a routine that apparently looks very impressive and dangerous, because it’s gotten me in the door with people more times than I can remember, though to tell the truth it is the same routine I’ve done every night and every day since I’ve been down here, and the muscle memory is so tight that it is literally impossible for me to mess this trick up. I actually find it easier when tipsy. Sober I realize I’m about to overthink it, and I throw the knife away from myself before I do overthink it and cut myself.

Here with Rex though, the trick is of course going off without a hitch. The final move is to toss the knife up in a ballerina spin, where it seems to hang in the air for a moment, and then reach up and snatch it out of the air and flip the knife closed. I know well before I do it that what I’m about to do is really dumb, but I already made up my mind to do it while my mind was wandering during the routine course of the trick. As the knife is spinning in the air, I add a snap to the routine, clicking my fingers together like he did when he called the ring back to himself. Then I catch the knife, flip it closed, and count myself lucky that deviating from wrought memory didn’t just cost me a finger.

Wow,” he says, which is a relief to hear because I couldn’t see him during the entire routine. Hard to gauge the reaction of an invisible guy.

I put the knife away, and have another swig of whiskey. He has another sip of his beer, or at least, I see the glass levitate and then go back down to the bar.

“You want the ring back, or is it more fun to you if I’m invisible?” he asks in a little bit of a tongue-sticking-out-y-face tone.

I point over towards him with the index finger of my whiskey hand, lean in closer with him, and say, “Can I actually be candid about something?”

“Heh, I guess. If it’s too terrible I’ll just like, leave, so, yknow.”

“When dogs have sex they get stuck ass to ass afterwards.”

Amused, he answers, “That is a fact of the world, yes. I am so here for this question please go on.”

“Does your... junk... situation... do that too? Why does theirs do that?”

“Bro you never seen dog cock?”

“No! There are like almost zero dog men down here, I was always curious!”

With another loud tap, I see that he’s put the ring on the bar again. I back off—I realize I have been leaning on him—and I grab the ring and put it on. He sips his beer with a little smile and a sideways glance towards me. “Wanna go back to my place and see?” he offers.

“Oh my god yes,” I tell him. “Chug your beer let’s go.”

He actually does, which I didn’t expect. As he chugs I notice his wardrobe isn’t wildly dissimilar to mine: he is also a fan of black. Black button up shirt, black cargo pants, black bandanna but he wears his as an accessory around his neck that goes down as a triangle over the top of his chest. His long light hair really is beautiful. I wonder if he combs it or if it’s just like that.

When he’s finished chugging, I mention, “So eager to get down to it.”

“Yeah it’s such a weird departure for me, because as a dog I normally haaate humping things,” he says with coy sarcasm. I want to give him a handjob right there at the bar but I think the bartender is already fairly grumpy with me, so even if Rex is invisible to all but the person wearing the ring, we’d probably be better off actually just getting back to his place.

“You lead the way,” I tell him, and then take his hand and take a swig of my whiskey.

As we walk, I ask “Why are you invisible” even though I’m pretty sure I know the gist of it.

“Treasure hunter. Down spelunking in a deep system underneath Region 22—son of a bitch of a system, all ups and downs—I found a bottle of gem wine and a ring. I’d already met my minimum of treasure to sell off from that trip, so I thought I’d roll the dice on drinking the wine for myself.”

So yeah, about what I figured. I stop in my tracks, still holding his hand, and he comes to a surprised halt along with me. I drag us over to a little alley, press his back against the brick wall, and plant a deep kiss on his dog man mouth. He lets out a moan—I know it’s not a big deal but I love the little vibrating feeling of someone moaning, in this case the little vibrations of the mmm as I press my lips against his wet fuzzy muzzle. After a moment he kisses me back, muzzle effortlessly opening bigger than any human mouth ever could, and he sticks his tongue into my mouth. Our tongues slide over each other like competing tentacles, his tongue trying to explore every bit of my mouth from the lips to the back of my throat, and my tongue trying lick his tongue wherever it is that it goes to.

Eventually we step back from each other and catch our breath a little. I give him a smile. “Anyways. You were bringing us somewhere. Your place? Actually is this alley fine?”

“Heh. My place is like another block. And it smells better.”

That is fair, you lead the way,” I tell him, and have another swig of my whiskey.

We keep down the street and then head around a corner, and find ourselves on a stretch of this region where it’s not all stacked shops and apartments, but actual bespoke houses, with little sand lawns in between them. I actually find myself a little thrown by the spaciousness of it all.

He leads the way up to a home that has a pink exterior. I tell him that pink is pretty gay, he tells me that I’m pretty gay, I tell him he’s not wrong, and then he places his hand on a scanner beside the door. After a moment the deadbolt shunks open, and he holds the door open for me. I skip into the living room, and take a big deep sniff of the air. It smells like scented candles, pumpkin-y and cinnamon-y. All along the walls, above the couches and chairs and all that, are shelves on which rest crystals. There have to be a hundred in the living room alone. I wander away from Rex for a sec to look at some of them. Pyramids, spheres on little stands, cubes, prisms, shapes I wouldn’t quite know the names of, and a good number that are more chaotic fractal kind of things.

“What does this one do?” I ask, looking at a sphere of some kind of very pure blue stone.

“Makes my living room look pretty,” he answers, and sidles up beside me and licks the side of my face. I snort in a little laugh, and turn and kiss him on the side of the fluffy neck.

He grabs each of my wrists, and brings my hands—and my whiskey bottle—up to his eye level, turning them around and around and examining them. “Yeah your nails are good,” he says.

I am internally glad for whenever the last time I used a nail clipper was, because apparently it had to have been fairly recently but I’m blanking on when exactly I would have had the chance. I take a swig of my whiskey.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asks. “Do you need food? Can I make you food?”

I take another tiny sip of whiskey, and then admit, “Food would be good but let’s do that after.”

He gauges me for a second, and then nods, and says, “If that’s what you want.”

With that, he takes my hand again, and leads me through the living room to a flight of stairs leading upwards. We go up to the second floor, down a hall a ways, and he opens the door into what I presume is a guest bedroom, though it’s very well decorated, with paintings of farm life—four legged farm animals mostly, although one painting is a barn, and there is another wide painting of a field of wheat.

“Are you from the surface?” I ask as I flop backwards onto the bed and start taking my pants off.

“Yeah,” he says with a smile at me. He begins unbuttoning his shirt. “Paintings of the farm I grew up on, actually. Good read on your part.”

In another moment we’re both naked and making out on the bed, and I get to stroke his beautiful long coat from his shoulders all the way down his back and down to his butt. I eventually break it off and look at his package, which he is happy to accommodate, sitting sort of cross-legged leaned back, propped up back on his hands.

Balls, very familiar, they are basically the same as how human balls hang. Sheath, also familiar: a lot of beast men’s penises don’t hang out all the time like a human’s; instead what’s on the outside is like a sort of elongated pouch of skin that the flaccid penis rests inside of, with an opening at the end, comparable to how a retractable pen works, or a tube of lipstick. Speaking of lipstick: there is the tip of a somewhat aroused red shiny penis sticking out of his sheath, which is, in my past experience with beast men, also also a familiar sight. But I do need to find out if there’s more here that I need to keep in mind. A lot of beast men and women are generally what you would expect, but do have their own particulars that you should really know about before getting all gung ho about it and assuming everything will work out.

“Sexy boy,” I tell him, and he wags. “How do I... I don’t want to say ‘use it,’ but, for lack of access to more sober vocabulary, how do I use it?”

“Heh. I mean it sounded like you’re into being on bottom—”

“I really am, thank you for picking up on that.”

His junk does a little excited twitch, and he says, “If you assume the position I’ll kinda do the rest.”

I feel a moment of dizziness, and then when it passes, I tell him, “That sounds awesome but since this is new I wanna just... see it, first. Maybe a handjob?”

Again he wags, and nods. He gets up onto his hands and knees, and crawls forwards and nuzzles against me. “Go for it,” he says.

Weird-ass position to assume for a handjob, but I’m not doubting that he knows what he needs. I hang out on my knees beside him, and fish out the packet of lube from my pocket. The packet has two sections to it: one containing powdered lube, and the other containing a liquid solution that mixes with the powder to produce the most effective slimy lubricant in the entire world. I twist the packet to break the seal between the two sections, squish the packet around for a sec to make sure it’s all mixed, and then rip open the top. I press the lube out onto my hand, rub it around for coverage around my palm and fingers, and then reach under him and touch his sheath.

He pretty much takes over from there. He pushes his temple down against my shoulder, grabs my hand in both of his, and more or less starts using my hand as a sex toy, humping my hand like a dog-dog would hump another dog-dog’s ass. Right away his cock pokes all the way out of his sheath, and its full length begins sliding back and forth against my hand. I’m not in a position to be able to see it, but for a few seconds, it feels pretty much the same as what most sheathed red-penis-having beast men are working with. Suddenly though—and I wish I could look—I feel his penis growing outwards. Every thrust, the base of it swells bigger and bigger, while the rest of the shaft stays the same size and continues to do its business. I wonder if it’s going to stop, because the base part keeps growing, and growing, and growing. I think it’s finally stopped when it feels like something the size of a tennis ball, maybe even bigger, and my entire hand is wrapped around it.

He starts letting out adorable “ah!”s as he keeps humping, making my hand slide back and forth around the slimy bulb. I feel his warm loads hitting the side of my body. He keeps going for a pretty good while, but eventually settles to a stop, continuing to hold my hand on his junk. The bulb pulses inside of my grasp, about a beat per second. He’s stopped with his cute noises, and he’s just quiet, holding my hand really firmly on his crotch. I let him have the afterglow, let him have my hand for as long as he needs, let him have his own internal euphoric state that he’s having without interrupting.

After maybe a minute, he lets go of my hand and flops over onto his side, facing me, big smile on his dog face, tail wagging, cock very much still out of its sheath.

And goddamn, I haven’t seen anything quite like it before. At the base of the red slimy shaft is this enormous bulb—the part that was growing. It’s all veiny and throbbing.

I ask him, “Is that what goes in the other dog? That’s what makes them get stuck ass to ass?”

“Yeah,” he tells me, and then pets my head, and his tail thumps a few times behind him. Mine would too if I had one.

“How long does it last?” I ask.

“Depends, but, for me usually forty minutes—”

“Forty minutes?!”

He snickers. “Yeah. But that’s if I’m actually tied in someone. Since I’m not it’ll probably be less—”

“Can I suck it?”

I see a shiver go up his body. “I already finished so I can’t promise to be like, the most into it, but yeah just be gentle.”

It’s a fair warning on his part, although again, that much is territory I am familiar with already. If it’s red skin that comes out of a sheath, it’s going to tend to be pretty delicate, and it’s important to be gentle with it in the interest of not hurting anyone.

I take the end into my mouth, and we pass the time this way as his bulb goes back down and I get to really familiarize myself with this new corner in the realm of genitalia. Sometimes I stop sucking head-on to approach it from the side and slob on the bulb directly. As promised, he seems agreeable to all of it but more like he’s just getting a casual massage than anything else. He keeps a hand on my shoulder as I go, petting and stroking me.

Eventually, the bulb goes down enough that it no longer holds the cock outside of its sheath, and the red member slips out of my mouth and retracts back into Rex.

“Round two?” I ask.

“Oh my god, give me one second maybe,” he says with faux exasperation.

I lick his balls.

“Gay,” he tells me.

I give them a longer, more meticulous lick, and suck some of the scrotum into my mouth for a second and then let it fall back out.

He shivers, and then answers, “No but really, it’s usually like, one per night for me. Sorry.”

I snuggle up against him and fall asleep.

I have a dream that I’m an eagle, soaring above the surface in the daytime, looking down at the green flora-claimed landscape that glimmers in the sunlight. The wind is cool on my breast and warm on my back. Without transition, I’m a rabbit in a dirt tunnel dug into the ground, and a wolf is pushing his muzzle into the mouth of the tunnel: soon he breaks through, and chomps down on me and kills me.

I awake with a scream, snapping upright. I look around, and recognize the room with all the farm paintings—I think it’s the first time in a while that I’ve woken up in a room that I actually fully remember going into. Woken up by my scream, another person on the bed stirs—Rex. I remember him too. He had apparently fallen asleep right on the edge of the bed, facing away from me. Not a cuddler I guess. As he sits up, his sleepy face gives me a concerned look.

I wipe drool off of my cheek. He does the same, running a hand under his jowls to get his.

“Nightmares,” I tell him. “Sorry.”

He scooches towards me, makes himself higher than me on the bed, and gives me a hug, cradling my head in his arms, pressing my face against his soft fluffy chest. I let him cocoon me, happy to exist in this warm pocket that smells like the fur of a caring stranger.

After a while, he asks, “You want breakfast?”

I nod, and say, “Yeah. Please.”

“I think it’s like 5 PM,” he mentions.

Well that doesn’t seem quite right. “When did we go to bed?”

“Like, eleven. AM.”

“Oh.” I did get a very early start on yesterday. So yeah, I guess that tracks.

“I can make breakfast food or dinner food,” he tells me.

“Chicken?” I ask.

“No,” he tells me. “It’s... look, I told you I grew up on a farm, and there’s a reason I’m not on a farm anymore. I really just, can’t, with taking life like that.”

“I just meant because it would be good for the whole hangover situation—”

“No I know, it’s just, a sensitive topic for me.”

“Okay,” I tell him, and then I snuggle my way up him until we’re lying on our sides face to face. I give him a peck on the front of the muzzle. He gives me a polite lick on my lips. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” I tell him again.

“I know,” he says again.

“Eggs?” I ask.

“I have eggs,” he confirms.

“Cheesy eggs?” I ask.

“It’s fake cheese,” he admits. “Not for lack of wanting real cheese, on the surface I know ethical sources, but it’s difficult to get that shipped down here.”

“Oh I’m sure I haven’t had real cheese once since I’ve been down here. Eggs and fake cheese sounds perfect.”

He leans in for another kiss, and I kiss him back, and we do that for a while before he eventually slinks away from me and prances out of the room, naked, to go start on the food.

I gather up my clothes. Checking all of my pockets, I still have all of my shit, including hundreds of dollars in mostly twenties. I also still have the dog man’s black ring on my finger. I fidget with it, twisting it back and forth over my finger. Lying on the floor with the cap screwed on is my whiskey bottle with half of the whiskey left. I really did conk out early. I pick the bottle up, open it, and take a gulp. After wheezing and coughing at the high-proof liquor hitting my throat, I muscle down a second sip and then screw the cap back on.

Dressed, I step out of the room and begin down the hall towards the stairs. As I shamble across the carpet of this very nice home, I kinda don’t know what to do with myself. Normally I would wake up in the morning and get back out onto the street as soon as possible. This time it’s... not morning, I guess. And I have also been promised food. And I still feel I have unfinished business with Rex’s dog man junk. It feels like I’m going against the natural order of things to be hanging around after being up and ready to go. But, when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I go shamble around looking for the kitchen instead of escaping out of the front door.

On a side table next to a couch, I see a stack of unopened mail. I stoop over, and although I don’t touch, I peek at the address. Besides having the address of this house, these letters are addressed to Trevor Rex. Hungover—and very slightly drunk—I have to squint at it for a pretty good while, trying to get the blurry words to make sense. I can’t conceive of why these would be addressed to me, Trevor, if I just got here. When I realize his name is Trevor too, I shake my head rapidly back and forth, trying to get my stupid self a little more awake.

I wander into the kitchen and lean against the doorway as the Australian shepherd man is getting all of his ingredients out onto the counter. “Is your name T-Rex?” I ask.

He stops, freezes, and then deflates with a sigh. “Yeah my name is T-Rex.”

“That sounds amazing,” I tell him honestly.

He shrugs. “It’s a little grandiose.” He gets back to preparing to cook, flourishing a pan and setting it on a stove, then setting the burner and turning back towards the ingredients. He has a pink apron on and nothing else. His butt is cute.

“Well, Trevor Rex, if we ever need to differentiate between ourselves, I’m Trevor Wong. And if you need a hand, I mostly work in kitchens.”

He does look around, but then says, “I think it’s all ready, actually, but thank you. If you want to wait in the dining room it’s just down the hall, I’ll bring this out when it’s done. Shouldn’t be long.”

I raise my whiskey bottle and tip it towards him in a salute, then saunter off down the hall he pointed to. I have a sip as I go. The dining room is actually cozier than I expected—a little round table with four chairs around it, light fixture overhead, paintings and shelving around the walls, the paintings mostly of natural landscapes, the shelving mostly occupied by plush woodland critters and wood carvings of dogs. Another hall leads out at the opposite end of the small room.

Feeling nature calling, I actually do sneak my way down the farther hall, and try a couple doors before one does turn out to be a bathroom.

I wash my hands after. When I come back out and get back to the dining room, there is a steaming platter of eggs at the center of the table, a plate of tortillas beside it, a couple glasses of orange juice, and a long haired dog man sitting at one of the chairs, chin planted on his hand like The Thinker, wagging at my arrival. He has taken off the apron.

I slide a chair over to be right beside his, and sit down.

He turns and gives the side of my face a lick, then says, “I was thinking of going a breakfast burritos route with this, but I’m not really great at folding them. Everything comes out of the bottom. So, you can roll yours if you want to, but if you want me to do it, accept it at your own peril.”

I reach forward and grab a tortilla, lay it over the table, scoop a bunch of eggs into it, fold the burrito in one second, and offer it to Rex.

“Wh—really? That easy?” he asks.

“I worked a lot of kinds of fast food,” I offer.

He takes the burrito, and bites into it. I make one for myself too, and eat it with intermittent sips of whiskey and orange juice. The eggs are great, very cheesy as requested, but also mixed in with tomatoes and onions and that sort of thing. When we’ve each finished our first burrito, I roll up another for each of us.

“You’re naked,” I mention to Rex.

“My house,” he counters. “And I’m a dog.”

“Fair.”

“You’re welcome to join me,” he offers.

I start with my shirt, and within a few seconds he and I are both naked on the floor, him on top of me, the two of us making out again. I drape my arms around his back, hugging his fur-covered athletic frame. His mouth tastes like the cheesy eggs we’re eating, which is not a bad thing.

“Round two?” I ask.

He presses his fuzzy muzzle against my lips, and we kiss a little. “Are you ready like, right now?” he asks.

I reach down and pat a pocket. “Oh. Already used the lube on the handjob.”

“Oh I got us covered there. I just mean are you ready to bottom.”

“Always.”

Always?” he asks incredulously. “You never have a bad butt day?”

“Literally never I don’t even understand what people mean when they say they have problems with that, like eat two vegetables in a day, Jesus.”

“Low key you have no idea how jealous I am of that.”

Basically a super power,” I agree. “You said you have lube?”

“Yeah! One sec,” he says, and gets up and leaves back down the hall towards the kitchen.

I stand up, wolf down the remainder of my second amazing delicious burrito, and sip on whiskey until he returns.

When he does get back, he throws a little cardboard box onto the table—it’s the display box that the packets of lube come in in the liquor stores, but he just has the entire box of them here, and like thirty packets scatter out onto the table.

“Okay dude I wasn’t planning on that many rounds but that is pretty great.”

“We should probably get back up to a bedroom,” he suggests. “More comfortable to snuggle after.”

I snatch a handful of packets and begin running out of the dining room on a path for the stairs—Rex chases after me, shouting after me that I am so gay and to wait for him to catch up. I make it back into the farm-painting-decorated room on the second floor, and fling myself onto the bed. Rex comes in after me, and the two of us are soon making out on the bed once more.

When I am more than ready, I open one of the packets and start preparing myself, making sure my insides are slimy and receptively aligned. We keep kissing as I do. His huge tongue is really amazing, as is getting to pet his long sleek hair with my free hand. When I’m definitely ready, I roll away from him, and get on my hands and knees.

He’s on me in the next second, crouched behind me and laying his whole body weight onto my back, his hands hooked around me and gripping my hips. The tip of his dick pokes me a couple times, then finds the target and he’s in, and I am getting my world rocked, thinking of how rad it is that that big red thing I saw earlier is sliding around in my ass now, getting the dog man off. He makes cute huffing noises just like last time, and I stay there on my hands and knees and bear it, swimming in euphoria from the fucking and from having been drinking and even a little bit from the oniony taste of the breakfast burritos that lingers in my mouth. I start to feel an extra pressure around my hole as he keeps thrusting, and I make pleasured gay noises as I realize that it’s his bulb thing growing inside of me, and I tell him not to pull out.

By the time he’s finished, that thing is huge, but it manages to sit fairly comfortably inside of me anyways, being that it’s actually deeper inside the wider colon, rather than stretching the tighter anus itself—the very base of his penis, which is the part of him that my anus actually settles around, the part before it expands into the bulb, is pretty comfortably narrow, at least, for me anyways.

Rex grabs me tight in his arms, and very carefully rolls us over so that he’s lying on his back on the bed, and I’m lying on my back on his chest. He continues to hug me.

“Are you gonna be alright?” he asks, sounding kind of sleepy, but also a little nervous.

I nuzzle the back of my head into him, and answer, “I’m great, thanks. You?”

“Awesome,” he says, and gives my cheek a lick. “You said you’d never been with a dog man before? Because you’re taking it really well.”

“Why shouldn’t I be, it’s stupid crazy fun. Also if you mean the size I have been with donkey men, so.”

“Ah, I see. Bit of a thing for beast men?”

“I mean, all the same, but I am a bit of a beast man.”

I can’t see his face since he’s behind me, but the second of silence is telling as to his perplexion. “How so?” he asks.

I tell him, “My grandmother was a rabbit woman. I had my genes profiled once, back when I lived on the surface. Turns out I still have the recessive traits for rabbit. So, if I ever got unvasectomied and had kids with a fully human woman, or, one who seemed like it but also had the recessive trait too, twenty five percent odds that the kids would come out as rabbits. But, in my day-to-day life it doesn’t really mean jack, other than that it’s easier to feel a sense of kinship with hairy people.”

He licks my cheek again, and I turn my head and we manage to share a little moment of kissing.

As the kissing settles down, he’s about to say something else when a piercing loud noise goes off, and we both flinch.

Outside, there is a loud digital alarm siren going off. There are no words, but the sequences of tones all mean unique things—most of them mean different reasons why a region is being immediately evacuated.

“Is that HVAC?” I ask Rex.

“Yeah, uh, that’s the oxygen in this region about to be gone,” he affirms.

I wiggle my butt around on his bulb, and tentatively try to pull my ass off of him—he gives a small yip, and I stop, settling back down on him.

I mention, “If we’re about to die, I could get you out of me at this point, if that wouldn’t too seriously hurt you.”

He grabs me by the hips, and moves me up and down on him a couple times. He could do it a couple more for all I care. But after he’s assessed the situation, he says, “I think I would also be fine at this point, but, I have a way crazier idea.”

“Oh my god I live by those what’s up?”

“This house has its own HVAC, all separate from the station’s. Treasure hunter thing, we have some paranoias about redundancy when it comes to survival. We could stay here and wait it out by ourselves while everyone else is evacuated. Worst case, we put on the spelunking gear and leave that way if we have to.”

In spite of my guiding instinct to flee, I kind of love this. A multi day sleepover with this dog man sounds actually pretty amazing.

I ask him, “If it goes on longer than today can we rob a liquor store?”

“I will invisibly walk into a liquor store and get us drinks and leave money on the counter,” he offers.

“Perfect,” I tell him, and with a smile, I relax back onto his soft muscular chest and his big throbbing dog man penis.

This One Shall Breathe Somewhere Else

Eleanor and I sit on a bench in the park. Our engagement rings touch as we hold hands. A city guard stands a little ways off. In the distance, over the city walls, we can hear the blasting of grand horns from the lunar monastery, celebrating the coming of a full moon. Eleanor and I look up at the moon, green and blue and pink, cloud-streaked, shimmering, a world unto itself.

The details of what happens next don’t entirely matter. Suffice it to say, a beggar is accosted, the guard does nothing but watch, I call him an asshole and tell him to do his job, the guard breaks both my legs, and Eleanor leaves one day pretty soon after. I fall to drink, heavily. One day while at the bar, a baldheaded and cleanshaven man in a white robe sits down beside me and orders a water.

“How fare you?” the man asks.

“Fah,” I half-laugh, and drink.

“I have seen what happened on the night your legs were broken,” he says.

He has my interest.

He tells the tale, exactly as it happened. “The guard has been removed from duty,” he concludes. He pantomimes reaching down to his feet and hefting something off of the ground. “Feel,” he offers, nodding to the thing he pretends to hold.

I reach out, and my hand collides with a warm body, invisible.

I yank the guard’s invisible dead body out of the man’s hands and push it to the ground, then give it a kick, and another, and a third before my legs remind me that just because this is cathartic does not mean they have ceased to be mangled.

“Would you like to come see how I knew about this?” the man offers.

“Please,” I agree.

“Tony,” he says, offering his hand.

“Atomizer,” I tell him, and we shake.

He picks up the body, and we go. He tells me he is a monk from the lunar monastery, which I had indeed guessed. We exit the city walls through a minor gate that takes us directly into the wilderness in which the city is hidden. Out in the woods, Tony sets down the body, and runs a hand across some part of it. The guard pops back into view. It is certainly the same one who beat me, and he is certainly dead now. It appears that Tony just smudged a symbol that had been drawn on the guard’s forehead.

From his robes Tony withdraws a charcoal pencil and makes the same mark again on the body, this time on the neck. When the last stroke is made, the body vanishes.

“Put your hand over the rune,” Tony tells me.

I do so. Even though the rune is invisible, I feel the meaning of it as though I am reading a written phrase in my mother tongue. The rune reads, This corpse shall be hidden.

“Handy one, that,” Tony tells me. Only one instance of a rune can be made in the world at a time. How to draw one is difficult to divine, though easy to remember once one has been given it. Tony smudges off both instances of the rune on the corpse thoroughly, leaves the body behind, and we continue to the monastery.

Waiting for night, we pass the day in the gardens and in the library. At night he takes me to an observatory, finds something in the lens, and invites me over to look. I see the moon’s pink ocean, swirling.

“The moon sea reflects our world back to us,” Tony says. “But it does not always do so right away. Sometimes it holds things, roils them around in its swirling whirlpools, and dredges them back up to reveal to us after they have happened. The founder of this monastery, Gertrude, on what would become the first day of the calendar we use now, looked into the moon sea, and it showed her the formation of the planet on which we stand, and it showed the forging of our sun overhead. Compared to the moon, all else is young and new. On the last day of her life, Gertrude was shown a reflection in the moon sea of where the moon had come from before, another solar system on which giants lived, where one giant plucked up a small giant, placed her on the moon, and hurled the moon out into space.”

In the whirlpool in the pink sea, I see a reflection of my legs being broken by the guard who is now dead.

“Would you like to join us?” Tony offers.

“Please,” I affirm.

It is the first day of the 17,984th lunar cycle. The other monks and I sit in a circle, legs crossed, knees touching, hands holding the hands of our neighbors, stark still, the air vibrating with our droning hum. We are at the spacious outdoor altar in the center of the monastery’s innermost courtyard. There are one hundred and ten of us in the circle, and one standing in the center. The one in the center wears robes while the rest of us are unclothed and cleanshaven from head to toe.

The one at the center sways with our humming, her head craned to face the full moon overhead. Her eyes are open as wide as the eyelids will allow, staring. In her hand, she holds the marking blade.

The instrument is quite like a sabre, but that the blade is only an inch long. It vibrates with our humming, and glows silvery pink in the light of the full moon. Pressed to the skin, the blade will leave a tattoo rather than a traditional scar. More importantly, during this ceremony, somebody will be given a rune.

I have one rune tattooed on myself already. At the top of my neck, near the back of my right ear, there is tattooed a symbol. When one presses their hand to it, they can feel its meaning as though reading from text in a familiar language. My rune reads something to the effect of, This one shall breathe somewhere else, with a connotation that somewhere else in the world, there is a rune which reads, That one shall breathe from here. I do not know where it is that I breathe from. When it is winter here the breath that I draw in is warm, and when it is summer here the breath that I draw in is cold, so I suspect that the other rune is somewhere in the hemisphere opposite myself. Sometimes the air I breathe smells faintly of oranges. My body here in the monastery does not need to be in air to breathe. I have spent days on end submerged in a pond in the monastery’s garden, when I have the spare time to do so.

The one at the center of the circle shudders, and then shrieks a name: “ATOMIZER!”

I feel the same shudder vibrate through myself. I am chosen a second time. I stand, keeping my hands locked with the person to my left and the person to my right. I call to the one at the center, “Here am I!”

She turns to me, her eyes just as wide as before and never blinking. She stomps towards me, brandishing the marking blade with clear intent to stab me.

When she arrives, she pries my left arm upwards as I strain to keep holding the hand of the one to the left of me. She begins marking the skin over the left side of my ribcage. Rarely—perhaps one in forty times—when the rune is complete, the one who drew it will see what it reads, and for the good of the world, will stab the recipient with the marking blade and kill them. It is rare, but this is a longstanding tradition. The blade with which I am drawn on has killed many.

I grit my teeth and continue to hum with the rest of the circle. As she drags the sharp instrument across my skin, I can feel the shape of the forming symbol, and I can read the rune as it comes into existence. It is intricate, and for a long time, it seems to be reading, This one shall move as a shark through the water. The pain of the marking seems trivial: I am giddy at the thought of the possibilities of this, given the rune that is already drawn on me.

At the last moment, she makes a mark that is profoundly unexpected, and changes the meaning completely. Finished, she yanks the blade away, and puts her hand over the new rune to read it. Still feeling it resonating over myself, I read it again and again as well. This one shall move through the air as a shark moves through water.

She stares at me, blade poised, considering.

If she will kill me, it will be a good death. They are lucky, those who glimpse greatness and then are gone before the cruel realities of carrying it out.

She turns to face the center of the circle and shrieks wordlessly.

At once, the humming stops. She stows the blade. We let go of each other’s hands. One by one, we stand.

Some have their clothes lying on the grass nearby the altar, and go promptly to retrieve them. Others have come here from their quarters bare, and will spend the night exposed.

I am one such person who has opted to leave their clothes in their quarters. I have long found the occasion amusing, the night where the odd person is unclothed among the rest who are robed.

I turn to face the mess hall, where a feast is had each cycle on this night. As I turn to go, I do not step to face the other way, but rather, my feet swish above the ground, and I am turned.

I look down. Neither foot touches the ground.

I make a movement that feels as though I am underwater and giving a stroke upwards. In the span of a second, I rise ten feet above the ground, and there I remain, floating as though suspended in water. This soon draws the attention of all.

I look down at them, and then, quite naturally, up at the moon.

It is hardly a decision. I look back down once to give a gesture of thanks, true gratitude for all that has been here, and then I dart upwards, away from the planet, rocketing towards the moon.

It is a long journey, and delightful. When I feel the moon’s gravity pulling me towards it, it feels like a long lost friend beckoning me to embrace. I plant my feet on the moon, then fall to my hands and knees, and kiss the soil. I spend a long time in thankful prayer.

When I am ready, I stand, and walk about the grove that I’ve arrived in. The trees here are enormous: it would take ten monks to link their arms around one of the trunks, and as they go up and branch apart, they hardly narrow, and in some branches become wider than the trunk had been. The bases are greyer in color, the thick trunk-like branches bluegreen, and the actual twigs and leaves a familiar green. Fruit grows high up on these trees. I stroke up to a fruit, and hover looking at it. Its shape resembles a bell pepper, its color is swirls of blue and purple. Because I breathe somewhere else, I cannot inspect it by smell. I pluck it off the branch and eat. It tastes well. It tastes of the smell of rain.

I swim about through the vast forest, sometimes upright, sometimes on a backstroke. The day passes, and I spend the night asleep, drifting slowly over a lake.

In the morning, I know that I have had my fun here, and it is now time to fulfill something greater. I go high above the forests, into the sky, to gather my bearings, to see the moon as though I were looking at it through a telescope from the planet.

Far east of me, a country-sized peninsula juts out into the pink ocean. I begin my journey towards it.

I arrive. At the end of this peninsula, just a mile inland, there is a ziggurat made of gold, tall as a castle. We have known of it a long time, but of course could only observe that it existed, unmoving, nobody coming or going. From the revelation of Gertrude’s last day, we suspect that this is the prison of Lunelle, the small giantess.

I float through an entrance that exists halfway up the ziggurat’s slope. Even on the interior, the golden walls all glow. The passage inside takes me around and around the circumference of the ziggurat, descending slowly with each lap, until with a final turn, I am faced with a woman chained to a wall. Her body is covered in runes from head to toe. She stares at me, blinking.

Just out of her reach, a nail is driven into the wall, and from the nail hangs a key. I clasp my hands together, bow my head, and tell Lunelle, “Every apology we could not free you sooner.” I go to the key and take it. I go to Lunelle. Gently, I take hold of the cuff at one of her wrists, and unlock it. As soon as the cuff falls, she takes the key from my hand and unlocks her remaining bounds herself. Then she hurls the key away, and embraces me tightly. I embrace her back, and together, we exit the ziggurat. Her footsteps are clumsy, unpracticed, though she does not look unhealthy physically.

Outside, in tears, she falls to her hands and knees on the ground and kisses the soil. In the low gravity of the moon she easily bounds up a tree, plucks a fruit from a high up twig, and eats it. She runs through the forests, and elated noises escape her mouth.

That night, the two of us sit on the beach of the pink sea. We each sit on a comfortable rock, side by side, facing a flaming vent that has come up out of the ground here—they are dotted all up and down the beach, and some can faintly be seen underwater. They are quite like a natural campfire.

“Can you speak?” I finally ask her. I have been speaking to her all evening, telling her all about the planet, pleasantries of the monastery, a brief overview of major historical events she may have missed.

She does not answer me, though she seems to have at least gleaned I have asked her a question.

I stop speaking to her. We sit quietly and watch the fire.

Gently, she takes my wrist. She bring my hand to her neck, and places my fingertips on the underside of her jaw. I lay my hand flat against the rune there. This one shall not speak. She opens her mouth, and I suppress the urge to recoil. Her tongue has been divided into hundreds of narrow tendrils, writhing about independently of one another.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her.

She takes my hand again, and this time places my fingertips to her wrist. I lay my hand flat there to read the rune she has guided me to. I am taken aback to realize it is not one rune here, but two overlapping: This one shall not write and This one shall not make gestures. In the same way that an S and a Z may overlap to nearly form an 8, the two runes on her wrist overlap to nearly form This one shall not make symbols.

I tell her again I am sorry. She looks back to the fire.

Gently, I take her wrist in my hand. She looks back to me, head tilted. I place her fingertips to my ribs. She lays her hand flat against the newer of my runes. This one shall move through the air as a shark moves through water. As soon as she has read it, she breaks into a laugh. It is contagious, and I laugh along with her.

That night, when I drift through the air to fall asleep, Lunelle grabs me, and holds me to the ground, and we sleep together.

The next day, she begins working on something. I wish to help, though am resigned to only float around, knowing not what she is making. If I see her gathering branches, I help her gather branches. If I see her collecting up sea shells, I collect sea shells. She is building something much taller than herself—it seems to be a sculpture. In the low gravity, she jumps up to the higher parts when she needs to, and perches on what is already made to build it up higher and higher. Eventually, I realize it is a person. Eventually, I realize it is an effigy. As soon as it is done, she looks up at it in tears, screams wordlessly at it, and then with fire from a vent, lights the giantess’s foot. We stay up through the night, I floating quietly, her sitting with her knees huddled up to her chin, crying, watching her imprisoner burn. When it is all ashes and a few smoldering cores, she wades into the ashes, lies down, and goes to sleep. I float, a watchful spirit above her.

The next day, she washes the ashes from herself in the pink sea, and when she emerges, she takes me by the hand, and carries me like a balloon into the forest. We wander a ways until finding a sunny clearing. At the center, she stands us face to face, and she places my hand on the top of her bald head, where a rune is placed. This one shall not forget the happiness felt in her first home. One by one, she guides me through all of the runes on her body. To name a few: This one shall not find her first home ever again; This one shall not starve; This one shall not grow hair; This one shall not wax weak; This one shall not wax strong; This one shall not bear fruit; This one shall not be blinded while she blinks; This one shall not have dreams. On the sole of her foot, This one shall not leave her planet. I take this to mean the moon, as we would call it by. She takes my hand off of the sole of her foot and places it on her sex. I tilt my head—there is no rune here, certainly. She presses my hand against herself more insistently, and I realize with a smile that this is no longer about the runes. I am pleasantly surprised, and certainly not unwilling to be warmed up to this, though I suspect strongly that I’m being used, and that a statue would serve exactly as well as I. In the afterglow she lies draped over my chest as we drift, I on my back, through the forest.

The next day, and several more after that, we spend walking. Her walking, I paddling alongside. There are so many things that I want to ask her that she cannot tell me. Is this planet the same as it was when you were forced into the ziggurat? What was the old solar system, your first home, like? I know you cannot find home again, but do you think there would be anyone out looking for you? In some sense, I suppose these are none of my business. If they become my business, then I will know the answer at that time anyways. We have breaks from traveling to eat and to nap. One day, as I am scratching my short beard, we crest a hill and I see what we have been traveling to. A city, every rooftop covered by a tree’s branches, only a forest when viewed from the sky. We walk into the city gates which hang open. We walk through deserted streets. We walk up to the castle gate, over the castle grounds, into the royal antechamber, through ornate hall after hall, until we arrive at the throne room, where there is one throne with two backs and a seat wide enough for a couple. Lunelle sits on the left side of the throne. She looks at me, and then at the empty space beside her. I sit, and we lock hands.

Empathy Farm

I can tell that this voyage has reached a critical mass of fuckedness (fuck•ID•niss, archaic, n.) because I have a meeting with Boreas Ground Control in two minutes to discuss our spike in incident reports, and instead of getting prepared for this meeting, I am on comms with Gomez, and he is telling me that a maintenance issue is now my urgent problem. For six years, I have been blessed with his ability to get handed a problem in any department and make it go away. No longer so.

“We’ll need you here so we can begin acting as soon as possible,” he tells me. “Central cargo hull, entrance Celtic.”

“Deescalate this to priority Axon and you could begin right away,” I try.

Aboard U.F.S. craft, there are two categories of maintenance issues: priorities and emergencies, also called A-B’s and 1-2’s. Priority Axon, priority Bartholomew, priority Celtic, emergency 1, and emergency 2 can all be acted on without notifying the on-board mission commander—me. Emergency 0 requires the notification of the commander but can be acted on immediately, because inaction could cause catastrophic failure. Priority Serpentine requires approval from the commander before action is taken, because action could cause catastrophic failure.

“Palmer entered this as priority Axon, sir. I escalated this to priority Serpentine, sir. You need to see this sooner rather than later.”

I rap my knuckles against my desk, then escalate it to a final bang of my fist on the oak wood. I key my comms over to my second in command. “Jason.”

“Sir.”

“Can you handle Boreas Ground Control solo?”

He considers very briefly. “I don’t think it’s a good look, but yes, send me your notes and I’ll handle it.”

I key back to Gomez. “I’ll be down in two.”

My name is James Alexander Bachman, Colonel, on-board commanding officer of Starwell II.

When I arrive at central cargo, Acting Specialist Gomez is holding out a tablet for me. I grab it and look at the screen. What I see is a light grey square on a dark grey background. Cutting halfway through the light grey square is a line.

I look up at the support pillar, which even in this very tall room is thick enough to be a cube. The sides are all plastered. I look back down at the tablet, then the support again, then at Gomez. “This pillar?”

“All ten of the pillars, sir.”

My guts twist. I ask, “What’s our time frame?”

Gomez cracks a knuckle, wobbles his head. “We’re lucky in that we found this during the smoothest part of our journey. If we have a problem, it shouldn’t be until we get to turbulence nearer Boreas. Forty one days until then, sir.”

“How long to fix these?”

Gomez is silent.

I look to the other personnel standing nearby him who are not eager to chime in or make eye contact. I single one out.

“You. How long?”

He gives a dispirited laugh. “On-planet, it could take a week to fix one in the best case.”

“Report to your superior for a lashing and two weeks solitary.”

“I—”

“Five lashings.”

He leaves.

“You. How long to fix one of these, here in space where we currently find ourselves?”

The man’s voice rasps but he does not hesitate to answer because he has some sort of a brain in him. “With the tools we have aboard, we estimate we could fix the supports at a rate of two every twenty days, commander sir.”

“One hundred days.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Odds of failure on this project?”

“It’s never been done before, sir.”

“Give me a number.”

He begins thinking aloud which is not what I asked of him, but I worry it’s the best I’ll get at the moment. “Collapse of any one support would result in catastrophic mission failure. It would be a race against time for any rescue crews to arrive soon enough to save anyone who happened to be on a portion of the ship that could remain sealed. As I said, we’ve never done this before—”

“Report to your superior. One week solitary.”

He nods and dashes away, well aware of how lightly he’s gotten off.

“Gomez?”

“If we stop in the water and dedicate all hands to this, ninety five percent odds we can do the entire project without failure. If we don’t act and hit the turbulence as we currently are, I’d give us south of fifty getting to Boreas.”

He is bullshitting the numbers, but I take his point about the importance of acting on this.

I take a deep breath, in, out, staring up at the beam. “Who let it get to this? Are these fractures spontaneous or did we leave port this way? Have we left port like this more than once?”

Gomez: “The layers of plastering suggest we’ve left port with at least some fracturing for the last four years.”

“Specialist Gomez, I want you to put anyone who might be responsible in cryo until we sort this out, on grounds of treason.”

“It will be done, sir.”

I step up and whisper into his ear. “Anyone responsible. Ganymede Contingency.” This means I’ve approved the use of his real rank instead of playing U.F.S. Specialist. “Throw your weight around liberally.”

He nods.

I step back. “Get prepared to begin on repairs, but don’t lower our sails quite yet.”

Gomez: “Yes, sir.”

“Dismissed, all of you.”

They flee.

I reach up to my comms and key the head of surveillance. “Katherine.”

“Commander Bachman.”

“Can you pull video of anyone performing inspection or maintenance of the support pillar located in central cargo over the last four years?”

I hear typing, and then, “Done.”

“I’ll be up in two.”

As I walk, I key Jason. “How did the meeting go?”

“Not well, sir. Commander Nguyen wasn’t interested in a word that wasn’t from you.”

“Well, it’s about to get worse when they hear the latest.”

“Sir?”

“Deep fractures in all ten supports aboard the ship.”

Silence.

“Yeah. We’re going to play it safe and glide in the water for a bit. I’ll have more details to come.”

“Understood, sir.”

When I am arriving at the door to surveillance HQ, the ship’s emergency lights come on. I have only seen this before in drills. I enter into Katherine’s realm and count myself lucky to be somewhere that might be able to provide answers and resolution as to who is being executed.

Surveillance HQ is arranged similarly to mission control on-planet. Katherine sits at the back center, typing furiously and glancing between her quad monitors. “Commander,” she says in greeting as I approach from behind.

“What happened?”

She grabs one of the monitors and pushes it up on its arm to face me. On it are eight stills of work being done on the support. “These people knew about the fractures as they were developing and submitted false reports. Likely more personnel involved from the other supports. Working on a full list of names.”

“Send that to me when you have it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What happened to set off the emergency lights?”

Her typing becomes even more furious, and then comes to a dead stop. She pushes up another monitor for me and then leans back in her chair. “We’ve been boarded.”

“WHAT?”

She sneers and shrugs at the same time, then gestures helplessly at the monitor.

There are two feeds being shown, both appearing to be live camera footage. The first shows the exterior of Starwell II, and a leech-like object clinging to the side of it, hardly visible against the blackness of space. The second shows an interior hallway, where two non-human creatures stand near a circular hole in a wall. The creatures are in the vicinity of eight feet tall, and have slimy yellow skin. We—humans—have observed alien life from lightyears afar, but never conceived of contact being possible. FTL has only been achieved between stellar bodies where a station has already been established on each side. The two aliens in the hall are both holding rifles. I look down at Katherine’s other monitors and realize that there are many more breaches than just the one that she’s highlighted for me.

“They haven’t broken the airlock,” Katherine mentions. She reaches across her desk, grabs a microphone by the cord, pulls it over, and offers it to me. “Do you want to make first contact?”

I shake my head and faint.

When I awaken I find that Jason and Gomez are also here in surveillance. Katherine briefs me on how much further the situation has deteriorated. Peaceful speech was attempted but the aliens advanced and fired their rifles, which by some yet-undetermined means render the target unconscious. We retaliated with less-than-lethals which had some effect, but their weaponry proved superior, and we have escalated to using lethals and sectioning off all divisions of the ship. They are currently outside the door to several HQ’s, including surveillance, though they seem to be holding for the moment. I see that Jason, Gomez, and Katherine are all in the possession of shotguns, and I request one as well. Gomez hands me his and walks off to retrieve another for himself. Before he’s gone five steps, the HQ door is blasted open.

I have no memory of this incident resolving. I strongly believe I was hit with one of their rifles.

When I awaken this time, I am not aboard Starwell II. I am also not in the Christian afterlife of Hell, nor am I in Valhalla, unless one of the two was very poorly described to me. I wonder whether I am dead at all. I do not care to be scientific about it and try to kill myself. On the marginal chance that I am not dead already, then I don’t wish to become so.

I am lying in a field of grass. The sky above is blue. It is broad daylight and lightly cloudy. I can see stars, one of which is a sun, but I can see other stars besides the locally relevant one. I have not set foot on a planet, moon, asteroid, or similar since graduating from basic ten years ago. One could imagine it a comfort to be back on solid ground, but I am terrified. I feel as though I am an aeroplane without an engine. A sailboat with a sawed off mast. I am stranded, grounded, all but immobile.

I sit up. Look around. There are trees here, but I do not know the type of them. They have hanging flexible branches like weeping willows, but they connect from tree to tree, like an immense bird’s nest, or else a spider web. The branches billow in the breeze.

I am wearing clothes, but I do not recognize them. They are loose-fitting light-blue pants and an oversized light-brown t-shirt.

I stand. There is a singular trail leading out of this clearing. A dirt path with no hanging branches in the way. I bite.

I have been walking for about an hour in this place when it occurs to me that there are no birds, no chirping insects. There are trees, there is the grass, and there is a wind that causes the flora to make a rustling sound when it picks up.

When I arrive at something, what I arrive at is an idyllic farm. I stand at one side of a large paddock, and across the way, I can squint and see a pair of silos, four barns, and a water tower. I walk around the paddock fence. It is the afternoon, and it is occurring to me that I am hungry.

When I near the farm, I hear a sheep baa, and chickens cluck.

I wander around. There is a brown horse in one barn, three white sheep in another, many chickens in the next, and the last barn is filled with machinery and tools. I am dumbfounded. There is no house here, no office, no pavilion, no chairs or benches, and no road or path that leads away from this farm besides the footpath that I arrived by. I know that this is strange. I have never set foot on a farm before, if this is a farm. But I know that this is strange.

There is no food, anyways. I scour the barns bottom to top looking for a pantry or a refrigerator. The animals make their sounds at me. In the barn of tools, I do find a lighter, and with it, a plan comes to me as though the plan and the lighter were attached. I will make a campfire. I will wait until night for anyone to come. And when night falls, if no one has arrived, I am eating one of the chickens.

After procuring a saw and an axe, I head off only a short ways into the woods before I am able to find an already-fallen tree. From it, by evening, I have a very respectable pile of firewood. There is no fire pit on the farm, but there is a patch of dirt, about ten feet in diameter, in the otherwise grassy paddock. With the logs and some dry hay from the silo, I manage to get something started before it has gotten dark.

I sit on one of the logs and stare at the fire. Occasionally I glance up at the barns. Occasionally I glance down at my hands. They are worn red and raw in some places from the work of turning the fallen tree into logs. I rub the raw parts of my palm with my thumb, but I cannot feel it. I am strongly preoccupied with hunger.

I give it an hour into the night, and have resolved with certainty that if nobody is visiting this farm, then nobody will miss one of the chickens. I stand and walk to the chicken barn. As I walk, I look around. I have grown more skeptical of this place, not less. I know exceedingly little about farms, and so I find this farm trying, because it seems incorrect, but not in any way that I could put a name to. It feels made up. It feels made up by me.

I enter the chicken barn and am struck with anxiety like I have not felt since I was a teenager. I press on, hands shaking from hunger. The chickens run from me, but I am able to corner one and grab it by the neck. As soon as I grab it, someone is choking me, and my anxiety ascends to panic at being caught here. I point an elbow as I whirl around to push off my assailant, but when I turn, there is nobody else in the barn. I look around skeptically. There are the chickens. There is no one here who could have grabbed me. The only door is on the far side of the barn, and I do not believe anyone could have cleared the distance in the time it took me to whirl around. I am delirious from hunger, I tell myself.

I chase after the chickens again. Again, I chase one into a corner and grab it, this time by the body. As I do I can feel, physically, like someone is choking me, but I turn, still holding the chicken, and there is nobody. Perhaps the hunger is more severe than I had realized. I don’t know how long I was asleep for, out in the clearing in the woods. I carry the chicken out of the barn, feeling like invisible giants are jabbing me with their fingers as I walk, making me stumble, making me double over in pain. I am terrified, but I am committed to resolving one thing, by making food for myself.

I come back to the fire. I grab the axe, but cannot coordinate holding the chicken down and chopping its head off, possibly an effect of my fatigue conspiring with my inexperience. I toss the axe aside, grab the chicken by the head and body, and snap its neck. I scream and collapse to the ground as I feel the utter void of my life being ended: in one second was hunger and anxiety and phantom pains, and in the next, there is no hunger, no anxiety, no pain, no thought, no presence. I am gone. Some aspect of me has gone, anyways, forever. But also I am still here, on my side on the ground, screaming at the top of my lungs as I stare blankly past the fire.

I spend the night shaking and crying and staring at nothing. There is only a brief break from this where I look at the dead body of the chicken, whose death I felt as my death, whose hunger and pain and fear was my hunger and pain and fear.

As morning comes, my body fills again with sensations of hunger and thirst, though there is still a corner that is void, a corner of my own self that is there, but that I can no longer go to.

I try vainly to sleep, and am unsurprised when I cannot.

I sit up. I sit staring at the fire for a while longer, shaking. Eventually I stand and go to get water from the faucet at the base of the water tower. When I turn the water on, the water flows. I drink for a long time. I return to the campfire. I pick up the chicken, almost hopeful to feel pain as I do, but there is no sensation. Not from it, not from myself. I pluck its feathers and cook the bird with the fire. Its meat looks like roasted chicken when it is done, but although I recognize it, I do not feel I am looking at food, at something that my body would accept. I eat anyways, greedily, grease falling down my chin and soaking my fingers. When I am done, I wipe the grease off on my shirt, and go to take a walk around the paddock.

As I walk, I can still feel my body trembling. Worse, I can still feel hunger and thirst exactly as strongly as I felt it before I ate and drank. Even after coming all the way around the paddock back to the barns, I am starving.

I take off my greasy shirt, and wash my hands and face more thoroughly under the water faucet. I set the shirt inside the tool barn, planning to search for detergent or spare clothes later. In the meantime, I retrieve a bucket and go to the silos. In one silo is grain, tiny yellow pellets. I fill the bucket. I walk to the chicken barn. I toss the grain around to them, and they peck it off the ground. I can feel my hunger easing already. I curse this cruel godforsaken place under my breath. I go to the hay silo and grab armfuls of the stuff, hugging it against my bare chest. If it is pricking me, I cannot feel anything. I put hay into a long trough for the sheep and a round basin for the horse. When they have all been fed, I am no longer hungry.

I carry water to troughs for each of them by the bucketful, and my thirst is soon sated. I ask God to damn this place and rescue me, return me to my life aboard Starwell II, deliver me back to my role as commander.

I walk back around the outside of the paddock, back up the forest trail, back to the clearing where I first arrived. I stand with my hands clasped behind my back, staring up at the starry daytime sky, longing.

My longing is not answered, and I eventually head back to the farm. On the walk back, I rub my knuckles against my ribs, against my sternum. I do not feel pain from it. I stop on the trail, pull down my pants, and toy with myself. I am able to become erect, though it seems perfunctory, as I do not feel pleasure either. I pull up my pants and keep walking.

I feel utterly trapped in this place. I have been all around the farm now, and have still seen no sign of a road to an outside world. Coming up to the barns, I look at the water tower, and see that there is indeed a ladder to the top. I climb up, above the barns, and then above the strange spiderweb of willows. On my hands and knees atop the water tower, I look around and around, and it is nothing different to what I had expected. The willows continue to the horizon in every direction at a basically uniform height. There is not a single structure or landmark as far as the eye can see. I climb back down.

I have a longing to run. I have been cooped up here.

I take off my pants, electing to run in my underwear if no one else is around to give a damn. I do a lap around the outside of the paddock, knowing that my physical training has laxed since basic, and it will be an accomplishment if I can get around the entire fence without slowing to a walk.

When I have made it all the way around, a dread hangs over my head. I am not tired out by the run, and I still feel trapped, claustrophobic, like I have been in solitary confinement. I do another lap at a sprint. Another. Another ten. I become certain that I am dead, before remembering that I now have firsthand knowledge of death’s void, and so I cannot give this experience the name of death exactly.

I go put on my pants. As I am putting them on, my eyes wander to the horse barn, and I realize my idiocy.

I open the paddock fence, and then I open the door to the horse’s stall. The horse trots out of the stall, and once it has cleared the barn door, it breaks into a gallop into the paddock. There it sprints around and around the field, and my feelings of confinement ebb, and in their place comes a feeling of contentment, relief. I see the horse urinate, and feel another relief from a discomfort that I had not consciously realized was needling me.

I rub my knuckles across my ribs, and still feel nothing.

I look at the horse, and accept that although I, James Alexander Bachman, am not dead, I am also not alive in the same way that I was before. I am now another phylum of being. I am now an angel, or a ghost, or a ghoul, or some unnamed category of steward, or slave.

I do not go eagerly into my new life, but I do not cut off my nose to spite my face. When I feel hunger, I feed the animals. When I feel thirst, I water them. I learn their longings, sometimes a longing to roam the paddock, other times a longing to return to the shelter of the barn. One day, one of the chickens falls sick, and I do not know what I can do to help it. By sunrise the next day, there is a second void spot in my consciousness. I had sat in the chicken coop all night, watching the bird whose dying pains I could feel every pang of. The chicken at no point disbelieved its sudden terminal illness, from the onset to the terminal breath. When it died, I went over and sat beside it, mourning the loss of the life, by way of the new void torn through myself.

After that day, I no longer trudge through my duties, but attempt to excel at them. When I give the horse a friendly rub, I feel its—her—appreciation, as though I am scratching my own itch.

One day, while I and the horse and the sheep are milling about in the paddock, I feel something new from the horse. I look to her to see what might be causing it, and find that she is looking at me. She walks over, and the nearer she comes, the stronger the feeling grows, and I cannot deny that it is lust, surprised as I am to be feeling it. I ignore her, but her feelings remain, and so they remain with me, and I last a pitifully short time before caving to them, and going behind her, and using my arm to simulate the company of a stallion until she is satisfied, making me satisfied.

As the days go on our sexual engagements continue, and I realize another, parallel feeling within her, and within myself, which is love. This barn is our home, and all of us family.

It is the night of the day when I realized this feeling. I stand in the doorway of the horse barn, my partner having just gone in for the night. Out in the paddock, lit by moonlight, is a tall creature with yellow slime-covered skin.

What the hell, I think: why not. I stand up from leaning against the barn door and walk into the paddock to meet the alien.

We stand face to face. The alien opens its mouth and speaks to me: “What do you think of this way of being?”

“I would never give it up,” I tell it.

It shakes its head. “I feel that even now, it has not yet fully sunk in for you. The skill of empathy is hard-earned among your species, it seems. But you are learning.”

“Yes.”

“You have learned that others feel hurt, and love, and suffering, and elation, that every life is a world unto itself. You had heard all of this before, but now you have learned it.”

I nod. Then I realize that even still, I am not considering this alien a life.

They let out a pleased, musical vocalization. “The skill of empathy is hard-earned among your species,” they reiterate, “but not impossible.”

“Thank you,” I tell them earnestly. I lower my posture. “I want to ask what this place is, but I fear that I know, and that it is coming to an end.”

The alien nods. “It is not real. But hearten: neither is it real, nor is it impossible. When you awaken, destroy your ship’s cargo of weapons, and help us lift your people to the next age of their civilization. An age where weaponry and hate are relics and apocrypha.”

I extend a hand. The alien and I shake.

“Would you like more time here? To say goodbye?”

I shake my head. “Thank you, but no. Let’s get started on making it real.”

Poems

Bathroom

I sit down and pee

and you come and drink from the bathtub faucet

and I pet you.

 

You drink from the bathtub faucet

and I drink from the sink faucet.

 

I drink from the bathtub faucet

feeling happy to do like you.

 

I stand in front of the mirror and brush my teeth

and you come in and lie down with me

so we can keep each other’s company

even in this.

 

I enjoy when we have chance to share our bathroom together.

I’m happy that you seem to enjoy it too.

 

 

Factual Dog Status Awareness

Sometimes I am very aware that I’m dating a dog.

That the person I’m kissing,

Whose tongue is exploring the depths and corners of my mouth,

Is a dog.

That the person I’m spooning with,

Holding and embracing their soft furry weight

Against my naked stomach and arms and legs and balls and hard on,

Is a dog.

That the person I’m cooking food for,

That the person I take ticks off of,

That the person I let outside to pee and poop,

Is the person I’m dating

And that person is a dog.

Every time I think of it,

I am reminded of how lucky I am.

 

 

Ambiguously Grammatical

“Pet a dog with a boner.”

A misplaced modifier

that, to be fair,

sounds like a good time either way.

 

 

Not All The Time Of Course But Sometimes

Dogs have sex sometimes,

They totally do.

Don’t believe it,

Research where puppies come from.

 

 

Couplet

Suck a dick, bust a nut

Have a fun night with your mutt

 

 

Yet Another New And Happy Morning

Today I woke up in a white dress I had bought and worn the night before (I have a penis)

and I snuggled a dog (he has a penis).

We hung out

and then when I had to pee I went to the bathroom and did that

and cupped both of my hands together towards the end

and caught some of the last of it

and had a sip, as much as I had caught.

I had taken off the dress at some point,

probably right before the piss thing.

I washed my hands with soap and water twice

and then me and my dog went on a walk

after I changed into jeans and a girl shirt

with a zipped up, comfortable, nice looking grey sweatshirt over the top.

We took the route that my dog decided he wanted to go on that morning

while I had piss on my breath (my dog drank some water before we left).

When my dog took a shit I picked up what he had dropped

because it keeps the parks a nicer place.

I dropped the disposable bag of dog crap into a trash bin that I found before we went back inside.

Inside I drank a glass of water and my dog ate a bowl of dry dog food and wet dog food mixed together for breakfast.

New days, new combinations of old things.

Live well and live free.

 

 

Claws

Lookin at your claws

They’re fucking awesome dude

Vol. 1 No. 8 (August 2023)

Two Knights

Thnk. Thnk. Thnk.

What is that man doing? one had asked in pre-dawn, and another had asked in the morning’s bright hours.

Thnk. Thnk. Thnk.

The answer, both times, had been more or less the same bitterly passive information accompanied with the same joke.

These are not the actions of a man. He is a child who will get himself killed by his petulance. Eaten by wild wolves because he goes out to the woods thinking himself one of them.

This is not a man, but a boy who would starve himself in protest because he cannot accept the death of his hamster.

Thnk. Thnk. Thnk.

The long, slow walk from the forge temple to the bluff slope was often a noisy, raucous affair. A celebration. A parade. As Faer’yün made the walk, his ring in his hands and alone, only a few made remarks among themselves, and most politely averted their gaze. Most knew why he made this walk alone. Most knew that his husband was his dog. Most had met the tall and personable hound on Faer’yün and Mish’s visits on market days.

Thnk. Thnk. Thnk.

He had brought his ring into creation in the dead hours of the night prior, stepping alone into the forge temple with his pound of iron, his ten pounds of holy fuelwood, and a skin of his husband’s urine, enough to douse into the white flames now and then and make the spirits hiss and pause and consider him. When the ring was made he picked it up. Had the ring been forged by normal means he would have felt only the pound of weight again that he had walked in with, some climbers’ tackle that he might barely squeeze his hand through. Instead, the ring forged as it was, though indeed still the same mortal weight, was also pressed down upon heavily by the locked-away spirits whom he had pestered all through the night. Upon picking up the ring, Faer’yün quickly had need to hold the cumbersome object in both hands rather than one, and would be hurrying if he trudged with it at a pace of one mile to the hour.

Thnk. Thnk. Thnk.

So, ring in his hands, in the pre-dawn morning, Faer’yün had left the mouth of the forge temple on a straight and slow shot towards the base of the bluffs that loomed over the thatched-roofed dwellings, the bluffs that at that hour blocked out a region of the stars.

Thnk. Thnk. Thnk.

Most, thankfully, had not made remarks on the fact of his mannish formal garb of a black tunic and grey trousers. His eldest uncle, though the grey man had not said a word while looking at him, rudely remarked to his own company that morning, I knew we were wrong to ever tell her that her meddling was cute. Later, a young boy to his mother had asked in what he thought was a whisper, Will the spirits be angered that he used to be a girl? The mother, in some of the best kindness Faer’yün had been given in town that day, said in an equally loud whisper to the boy, I don’t think so Dea’yan, and then she began shuffling the boy away along a side street. Will they care that he’s alone? No, I don’t think so Dea’yan. Why is he alone? Sometimes people go to the other side for reasons besides weddings, Dea’yan.

Thnk. Thnk. Thnk.

The best kindness in town that day came from his boyhood friend Silna’yan, now Silna’yün, who walked beside him. Briefly, but the only one to do so. He hadn’t said much, but the words that were said, Faer’yün had hoped to hear some version of for so many years. We don’t chat much these days, eh? Both of us such recluses. Such woodsmen. As one to another, and you the greater than I, Faer’yün, not a drop of the profoundity of what you do today is lost on me. Not a drop. My every blessing goes with you.

And with that said, Silna’yün had parted away, and left Faer’yün to his business.

Thnk. Thnk. Thnk.

In what was all in all a relative lack of ceremony, Faer’yün arrived at the base of the bluff in the afternoon, and ascended up a slight grassy slope into the mouth of the through-cave, into its dark, into its cold breath. Once inside, the spirits of his ring stopped pushing down on him. Indeed, as though arriving at a different current in a riptide, the spirits instead began pulling on Faer’yün, taking him lightly and swiftly through the tunnel away from his planet, through his sun, and onto a planet in facing rotation to his.

It was the way of all planets here. Opposite the fire planet, called by some the big star, the little sun, or the candle, was the ice planet, whose surface was so reflective that she was often mistaken for her brother and called the same names. Opposite the dwarf, the giant. Opposite the oil dot, the grey dot. Many dozen others. And opposite the planet of deeds, which Faer’yün had left on an afternoon with an iron ring in both hands, was the planet of records, on which he had arrived with an iron ring in both hands for to place it.

Though alike in rotation, the planet of records was not like the planet of deeds in geography. Rather than emerge from the mouth of another cave, Faer’yün had emerged from between two trees as though stepping around a doorway. He stood in a grove of trees, a vast grove, which grew atop a shelf along a mountain. Up and down this mountain, at intervals, were more shelves, some bearing groves, some only beginnings of groves, and a number of shelves were yet blank. From his vantage a good way