Doña Paz

It is quiet when Elena Marín opens her eyes. Her head feels swimmy, untethered from her body, and her vision flashes blue and red in soft focus.

She blinks a few times and concentrates not on the warning lights around her or the deep blue out the window but instead on the message scrolling across her left eye screen. […SpaceCraft Doña Paz 01 update: System malfunction, o2 levels low, ILSA overload, pressure overload…]

Marín curses, but she doesn’t hear the words as she does so. She is certain there are sirens blaring, but they don’t sound either. She reaches her hands up to her ears, making sure they are still attached. They are, but her fingers come away slick with blood.

“Patch audio,” she says, although the words feel cottony in her mouth without the accompanying sounds.

The alarms hit her like a brick as the tinny audio captured by the microphone in her eye connects with her mech-brain interface.

“Calibrate levels,” she half-shouts, and the sirens fade to a quiet buzz as other sounds come to the fore—breathing, light cursing in a language she doesn’t speak.

She reaches down to unclasp her harness and takes a step away from the wall. It’s starting to come back to her. They strapped in once they realized they had steered too close to the wormhole to avoid it, and then they prayed to whatever they each believed in that they would come through fine on the other side.

It didn’t appear they had.

The cruiser is small, designed for two days travel, max. The controls are visible from the sleeper pods and the tiny reclamation bathroom is the only private space onboard. Next to where Marín has just emerged, Ndibe and Rhodes are still strapped in. Ndibe’s chest is falling and rising with regular rhythm, but Rhodes is quite limp and had a nasty gash above his forehead. A’nishi’a and the captive are nowhere to be seen.

Marín sticks her fingers to Rhodes’s neck, feeling for his pulse. His heartbeat is faint but definitely present. He is bleeding profusely—where the blood hits the stubble on his chin it has started to gel, but at the brow it is still flowing, liquid and hot. She unbuckles his harness and lifts him out of it. He is heavy and her muscles are weak from the force of their unexpected wormhole travel and the low oxygen levels, but she manages to lug him to an empty sleeper pod, which doubles as an infirmary bay for ILSA, the ship’s Intelligent Life Support Apparatus.

Once she shuts the pod door, it begins to scan. The swearing gets louder, and Marín finally turns her attention to the controls.

A’nishi’a has all four of her hands on the controls, pressing wildly and releasing a steady stream of filthy words in Olipse, which Marín gathers more from the tone of voice than from any real understanding of the extralunar language.

Outside the window something flashes past, a shark or a three-tailed eel. Marín doesn’t catch a good glimpse.

“Status, soldier,” Marín says as she approaches.

“Comms are down, and so is nav. I don’t know where we are but I do know we’re underwater and losing air fast.”

“Losing air?”

“To cope with the pressure. ILSA is a little overdrawn right now. I’m doing everything I can to stop the release of air and start with the ascent.”

“What’s the atmo like?”

“Unclear, but it’s a safer bet than trying to breathe water, ma’am.”

Marín laughs. The Olipse always sound like they’re being snarky, but once you get to know them you realize they’re just overly earnest. Or maybe it’s only A’nishi’a that’s earnest and the rest really are assholes.

“Do you think it’s doable?”

“It might be. But ILSA took a serious hit through the wormhole and even more when we crashed through the atmosphere.”

“Did you get a good look at the planet while we were descending?”

The Olipse don’t lose consciousness as easily as humans do, which is part of why nearly every ship in the Keppler Alliance keeps one on crew.

“No, General. Just blue.”

That could be anywhere. There are a million trillion water planets, and even more that have liquid oceans of different chemical makeups. Through the wormhole and without nav, they could be anywhere.

“Where’s the traitor?”

“Hiding under one of the sleeper pods. Praying, I think.”

It wouldn’t help her. Whether she died here or onstage as scheduled, Suki Watanabe was going to no one’s heaven. She had betrayed the Kepler Alliance and sold out to the Andromeda Republic. Her own family had been slaughtered on information she’d given, not to mention the plot that killed Marín’s mentor, General Padgett. Dishonored and distraught, she hadn’t even defended herself when Marín had captured her. Just before she delivered the killing blow, the Supreme Cariell of the Republic had surrendered. Watanabe had been taken alive, for later trial and execution.

That was the purpose of this trip in the first place, to deliver her to her public grave. That, and for Marín to be granted the title of General, inherited from and honoring Padgett. The council had sent Ndibe to inform her she had been chosen to succeed her mentor, and that she would have the honor of killing Watanabe publicly after her inevitable guilty conviction.

Marín creeps towards the sleeper pods anyway. It doesn’t seem right to allow Watanabe to take solace in faith. That has to be earned.

“Get out of there,” she barks. It sounds strange to feel her voice reverberating through her skull and hear it through a mic in her eye.

“I’m busy,” Watanabe says back, not turning her head. She lies beneath the lowest pod, her face staring directly up at it and her hands scrunched to her chest, fiddling with something on its underside.

“Sabotaging my ship? If we die you’ll only die quicker.”

“I’m trying to save your ship. Your tech-hands doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of it, and you’re the one trying to get us all killed.”

Marín feels the blood rising to her cheeks. Her abuela always used to tell her that her temper would abate with age, but even at forty-nine she still flushes like a child whenever she’s caught off-guard. It takes every inch of her military training to keep from yelling her response. “Me?”

“You plugged the goner into the system when it was already overtaxed.”

Marín blinks, then looked up at Rhodes’s prone form in the sleeper pod, wires and tubes already extending from his arms.

“What? Was I supposed to let him die?”

“Either he dies now and the rest of us get a fifty-fifty shot of surviving our ascent to the surface, or he dies later when we split the hull on the sea floor and get crushed beneath pressure and salt. Your choice.”

When Marín says nothing, Watanabe continues. “Come on, it’s basic cost-benefit analysis. I know they taught you that at mili school.”

She would know. Before she’d turned on them she had been a rising star at the Kepler Military Academy. Top human in her class.

“Commander! I mean, General! You have to see this,” A’nishi’a calls, with a rare tinge of panic in her voice.

“You’d better decide, and quick,” Watanabe says. Marín looks down and shakes her head. Then she makes her way to A’nishi’a’s place by the ship’s key window.

The ship’s outer lights have caught something. Another structure glints in front of them. It is larger than the cruiser, long and pointed, smooth metal with blooms of rust along the sides. As the cruiser continues to sink they pass more holes eaten into the metal, some irregular where the craft has worn through, some perfectly round as though punctured by cannon fire. Fish swim through it. A pair of eyes watch from one of the holes, she thinks, but they are sinking too quickly for her to tell.

As they near the bottom of the ship they pass the words USS Calvin Coolidge.

Text flashes across the bottom of Marín’s eye. […Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States of America from 1923-1929 Earth Common Era. The USS Calvin Coolidge was commissioned in 2107 ECE at the dawn of the War of Five Powers and was sunk in 2109 ECE in the Pacific Wastes…]

Earth. They are on Earth. No one will be able to rescue them.

There is a dimmed thud as the spacecraft lodges in the ocean floor. It does not seem to have burst. For the time being they are safe as they slowly suffocate to death.

“Do you know what colony this is?” A’nishi’a asks. The Olipse curriculum doesn’t go into distant human history, not to the point of explaining nautical naming conventions. She does not know yet.

Marín does not want to tell her.

This has always been the hardest part of having a position of authority. Marín has a level head in battle, can strategize and lead attacks. She is more than willing to put herself in the line of fire. But the parts of her duties that require her to deliver news of tragedies? She has never been comfortable telling painful truths.

Still, she steels herself. It will only be worse if they don’t know.

As she is about to speak, Ndibe approaches from behind, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. He gapes out the window at the ship, understanding what it means even without a fully functional cyberlink with thousands of terabytes of information downloaded onto it.

“Earth,” he breathes. “We’re on Earth.”

There is silence for a moment. Then A’nishi’a begins to hum a low string of words that might in equal likelihood be curses or prayers.

“We’re dead,” Ndibe says, his voice stony. He turns to Marín and looks her in the eyes, then repeats himself. “We’re dead.”

“Not yet we aren’t,” Watanabe calls from the back of the ship. “Ball’s in your court, Marín. You know what you have to do.”

“What is she talking about?” Ndibe asks.

“Rhodes. I put him in the sleeper pod for ILSA to fix. It’s diverting most of the ship’s power. We might be able to ascend if… if we unplug him.”

“And then what?” A’nishi’a asks. Her skin is flushing green with anger. “It isn’t as though we can breathe up there either.”

“We can,” Marín says. “For a few days. Long enough to fix the comms, to hope a stronger ship can pass through that wormhole and rescue us. It’s a chance.”

“It’s murder,” Ndibe says. “Murder for the tiniest chance that we live instead.”

“So you would have us all suffocate down here?” Watanabe asks.

“We’ll suffocate one way or another.”

Marín pinches the bridge of her nose. There is still blood on her fingers from her ears, from Rhodes’s gash. It’s impossible to think.

“I estimate we have twenty minutes to make the call,” Watanabe says. “Thirty, tops. And we don’t even know if we’re near land. If I were you I’d make up my mind, General.

“Audio off,” Marín says, and the strange closeness of silence returns. She can see the others yelling at her and one another, but her cyberlink doesn’t read lips. She has a moment to think.

She turns her gaze out the window again, and the text in her eye pops up as the camera registers the ship’s name again. […Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States of America from 1923-1929 Earth Common Era. The USS Calvin Coolidge was commissioned in 2107 ECE at the dawn of the War of Five Powers and was sunk in 2109 ECE in the Pacific Wastes, two miles off the coast of the Japanese-Hawaiian Islands…]

They are near land, if her link is right. Her link is always right.

The only question now is Rhodes. She has known him for a long time, but never very well. He was a few years behind her at the academy, not particularly exceptional at anything, but steady. He’d risen through the ranks fairly quickly as the war wound on, and by the time the Andromeda Republic surrendered he and Marín were both lieutenant generals, one step down from Padgett.

She hadn’t particularly liked or disliked him.

Even considering pulling the plug seems wrong. That could well have been her in that sleeper pod. But ILSA is overtaxed and they’d all suffocate if the life support ran out. She has some good carbon filter masks but even she can’t turn seawater to oxygen at an efficient enough rate to keep them all alive.

This is what it is to be a general. To make the hard choices.

Marín walks over to the sleeper. In the blue and red light, Rhodes looks even paler.

“ILSA,” she says, deaf to her own words. “Disconnect sleeper pods.”

The light in the pod goes dim, and the tubes and needles in Rhodes’s arms begin to recede. Marín turns around. A’nishi’a is hammering away at the controls with all four hands. Watanabe stands by, watching, making suggestions. When she feels Marín’s gaze on her she turns and gives a sad little smile. Ndibe is looking at Marín hard. She forces herself to look him in the eyes and nod, then turns back to Rhodes.

She feels it as they began to ascend, the thrusters pushing underneath, hot enough to set the water around them to boil. Rhodes’s breathing slows, becomes more labored. She still cannot hear, but she can see the shake to his chest. She would bet anything he is rasping. She takes his hand in her own, his skin so fair against her star-bronzed tan.

The waves churn as the USS Calvin Coolidge disappears beneath them, as the ship rises and rises. She turns her audio back on when Rhodes’s chest stills, when his hand goes limp in her own, then turns around.

At the window, A’nishi’a is frozen. Watanabe clutches the dash. Ndibe is still fixed on Marín, but when he sees her jaw go slack he turns around as well.

A creature, human in shape but piscine in appearance, has its webbed fingers pressed to the window. Marín shivers. She does not know what this creature is. She thinks rapidly at her mech-brain interface, but all it can come up with is […A Mermaid is a creature from many Earth cultural folktales, with the top half of a Human woman and the bottom half of a Fish…]

The creature presses its face to the window next, mashing its nose against the glass. Its eyes are wide like a human’s, but blank like those of a fish.

It slams its fingers forwards. The glass cracks, and water is gushing in. Marín thinks she sees the creature smile as the cruiser floods before water shorts out her visuals.

Her dying breath tastes like salt.

Nonfiction: Excuse Me

A brief note before the actual text begins: This work received 2nd place for the George M. Lucaci Award at Duke University this year. I wrote it partially because of the anger I was feeling after compiling a list of questions that women ask which men rarely have to consider. I recommend reading that list in tandem with this work. At any rate, let the piece begin.

I.

Excuse me, I know you don’t mean anything by it but I’m just not comfortable with the way your palms are on my shoulders with your fingers trailing down towards my chest because I am a small girl in a foreign country who doesn’t speak the language and you are a grown man some thirty years my senior who owns the restaurant enveloping me and you are talking to my professor across the table like everything’s fine. In a way everything is fine because I’m about to drink this delicious mint lemonade you brought out and chat all night with my friend across the table and nothing will happen after you leave except me scooting forwards in my chair a bit so when you have to lean forward the next time your hands will have hard wood to grip instead of bird-thin bones. But I won’t say anything and you won’t say anything and my friend will say something only after you’re gone and my professor’s husband will say something the next day to another student when I’m not even there to hear it except through the grapevine, which is how these things travel anyway. I know they’re all sorry. I know they froze, we froze. But in this moment with your hands on my shoulders and your warm rough fingers dripping onto my skin I am alone.

I’m sorry but I’m not comfortable watching you become a punchline these next few days because I’m part of the same joke in that case. You’re the reason I flinch when my professor taps me on the shoulder the next day and the reason why I’m so much more tense when a drunk man starts following our whole group because the road to hell is paved with guys who didn’t mean anything by it.

II.

I ate freeze-dried raspberries once while camping in a yurt with my Girl Scout troop, a bunch of rambunctious twelve-year-olds comparing tree bark patterns, led by a woman some nine years our senior, a child herself but eager and bright-smiled and warm. I remember being shocked that the berries were similar in taste and texture to Fruit Loops, and when we tried the freeze-dried edamame I spat them out.

She showed me how to turn a penny from copper to silver to gold, and in turn I let her graduate and move away, and I stopped talking to her as she went on with her life. It’s these little decisions we look back on and question. Fourteen months ago in Kansas she swallowed a bullet put there by an ex-lover. She was not yet twenty-eight.

Sometimes I remember the raspberries but mostly I cry when I eat Thin Mints alone and wonder if I will ever give a little girl the world and rip it away in a long-game, one-two punch.

III.

 If I go to hell I’ll be sure to greet Brett Kavanaugh there with a swift kick to the nuts before I’m dragged away so someone else can take a turn. On the day he gave testimony I called my mother in tears because I knew him, this man who laughed and held women down, by some thirty different names. I knew the many faces of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, knew the flavor of the tears she shed both raw and stewed. I know what it is to hold a woman shaking in my arms as we both hunt for the words to make things right.

I was fourteen the first time I bit my tongue to bleed. A friend—and not even a close one—had made me her first point of contact. I would later discover that this was my talent, inspiring trust—I have a friendly face and a burning spirit. The moment she said the word “rape” I was tight-fisted and shaking.

But she asked me to tape my lips shut, so I became all ears and glares and gentle hugs. I learned well what to do, and the next time I was ready. When another friend came forward, and another, and another, and told me, in a stony-faced Greek chorus, about Persephone, I clenched my mind and loosed my muscles.

IV.

When my sister took a self-defense course in college, they taught her to go for the eyes. As a writer I think that’s a lesson I learned long ago.

V.

I was taught to cross my legs at the ankle like a lady. I was taught to cross my fingers and hope for the best. Never put down my drink at a party. Never look a panhandler in the eye. Keep my neckline high and my hemline low. Keep my gaze low—no, lower. Speak rarely, quietly, shyly. Apologize if I interrupt. Apologize when I’m interrupted. Say no once, then acquiesce.

I found out I was a girl on a mustard-yellow school bus that ferried me from elementary to middle school for algebra classes. I was all elbows and knees, joints wired together with gangling copper and not a hint of spare fat for curves. The six boys I had for company on those rides back and forth would talk to each other and rarely to me, spreading their legs wide to claim entire seats, making fart jokes in August, dick jokes in November, pussy jokes in March. They spoke in tongues too large for their mouths of violent acts and degrading deeds while I shrank in the corner, raised my hand less in class, and stopped outscoring them on tests. It didn’t keep them from turning on me by April. My very presence was an attack.

There are so many rules for being a woman in public, rules that change shape based on the color of your skin or the weight of your body, the prominence of your breasts or the wideness of your eyes. There are so many ways to erase ourselves from hungry eyes that keep uncovering us.

VI.

So when your fingers brush my shoulders, grip my collarbones, graze the skin above my breasts, I cannot breathe because I’m tired of having to make myself small for you but I don’t know how to speak without making you angry and I don’t know how to make you angry without making myself unsafe and I don’t know how to do anything but stiffen and make awkward eye contact with my friend across the table and wait for someone to say something and crumple as you leave.

Fiction: Blanca the Beautiful

Don Carmelo had traveled the land from the arid sands of León to the seas of Cartagena. He was a very vain man, and believed he had seen all that Spain had to offer. He knew well the old mosques of Córdoba and the bustling squares of Madrid, had even ventured to the Galician countryside to look distrustfully at the Portuguese border. But he had never once ventured across the Pyrenees into France.

Don Carmelo was a man of great fashion, and the fashion in those days was to leave one’s homeland and never return, but instead to pine for it from the luxurious prison of Paris. And so, on a whim, he saddled up his strongest stallion and set forth from his estate towards the foothills, leaving behind all of his treasures, save the one he could not bear to part with: a lock of his beloved Blanca’s hair, cut the night she died.

Night fell over Don Carmelo when he was near the peak of the last foothill before the mountains began in earnest. He had just dismounted to tie his steed and make camp when he heard voices nearby. He held the reins steady and listened, but he couldn’t quite make out the words being muttered. It sounded like a gathering some little ways away, and so he remounted his horse and went on through the dark until suddenly the trees stopped growing.

He arrived in a clearing with three squat huts and seven women, all ugly, all identical but for the colors they wore. One was draped in a gown of bloody red, another in bright Valencian orange, the third in mustard yellow, the fourth in darkest green, the fifth in the blue of the seas, the sixth in the violet of distant mountains, and the final in a gown of purest white. As one, the wall of rainbow women looked up, their wrinkled faces pinching together as their yellowed eyes met his.

Buenas noches, damas. My name is Don Carmelo. I seek a place to rest for the night. Do you know where I might find the nearest village?”

“There is no village for miles and miles,” the women say in unison. “You are welcome to stay with us.”

Don Carmelo’s skin prickled at the very thought of it. But he couldn’t rest in the forest nearby knowing that these hags had all seen him. Who knew what they might do if he rejected their charity?

“I wouldn’t want to impose,” he said graciously, but he had already decided that he would rather stay the night here than alone. At least he could hear them this way.

“Stay with us,” said the women in red, orange, and yellow, “and we will ensure your safe passage through the mountains, for a price.”

“Stay with us,” said the women in green, blue, and purple, “and we will ensure your safe return home, for a price.”

“Stay with me,” said the woman in white, “and I will grant your heart’s truest desire, for a price.”

Each set of women looked expectantly at him. He looked back, unsure what to do, then looked down at the lock of Blanca’s hair in his hands, remembering her moon-bright skin, her laughing eyes, her full lips pink as the salmon she once loved to eat.

Dama, I will stay with you,” he said to the woman in white, then turned to the others. “Gracias por todo. Buenas noches, damas.

As he watched, the other women filed back into the first and second huts. The crone in white extended her shaking, gnarled hand to him and he took it, holding fast to Blanca’s hair and the reins of his stallion with the other.

He staked and tied his horse behind the third hut to pasture, and followed the woman inside. The hut was bare of furnishings, but for a small carpet in one corner and a shovel in another. A small fire blazed at the center of the room, held aloft in the air and spending no fuel that Don Carmelo could see.

“What price do you ask, Dama?” Don Carmelo asked once he was finished marveling at the flames. “I have gold and jewels aplenty at my estate.”

“I need nothing of your material wealth,” she said. “I can conjure gold and gems myself.” She pulled a coin from the air, and closed it in her fist. When she opened it again, it was a large, smooth ruby. She placed the gem in the fire, where it disappeared. Her hands came away unburnt. “I will ask you to do three tasks for me. Tell me what it is that your heart desires, that I might make it manifest for you.”

“My beloved Blanca, the beauty I was once betrothed to. She died the night before we were to wed. Bring her back to life and I will do anything you ask of me.”

The hag looked him up and down, evaluating his request, then nodded. “First you must dig a hole, as long and deep as you are tall, and as wide as you are broad.”

“Where?”

“Oh, anywhere outside will do. You must dig it tonight. Use that shovel there.”

And so he took the shovel and he dug a hole behind the house. His hands grew blisters, and splinters from the shovel popped them. He relished the pain, though. It was nothing compared to the joy of regaining Blanca.

When the hole was completed to the hag’s specifications, he returned inside. Hours had passed but the crone still stood waiting.

“Very well,” she said. “For your second task you must give me the lock of Blanca’s hair which you carry with you always.”

Don Carmelo was sad to part with the hair, but he knew it would be worth it to have Blanca back.

“It is yours, Dama, but please be careful with it.”

“I will treat it as though it is my own.” As she said this, the hair began to grow in her hands, upwards towards her scalp. It latched there, and the rest of her white, patchy hair became black and lustrous, just as Blanca’s once was.

Don Carmelo held back a grimace. But this must be to the witch’s plan. He could despise her all he wanted once Blanca was back.

“What is your third task, Dama? I would like to get it over with and see my beloved.”

She smiled, displaying three yellow teeth and many empty gums. “Come outside with me, and Blanca will live again.”

He followed her outside, heart leaping in anticipation. “Andale,” he exclaimed.

She stopped just next to the hole he had dug, and turned to him.

“For your final task, you must die.”

Don Carmelo blinked, certain he had misheard her. But she did not say anything, merely stared at him.

When he finally opened his mouth to protest, she put a haggard finger to his lips.

“It is a side effect of the magic, of sorts. For her to live, you must die.”

Don Carmelo braced himself, then leaned backwards and fell into the grave. As he watched, the witch above him transformed, her face smoothing and paling, her body straightening and filling.

And the last thing he saw was Blanca’s beautiful face, and her long fingers scattering a handful of dirt onto his corpse.

Poem: Charybdis

If you told me you were the ocean I’d believe it,

    Until the tide came in and washed the color from your eyes.

           If I told you I was a mountain you’d laugh and say I’m five-foot-two.

                                                I swallowed the moon

                                    To pull you closer to me,

                        But you ebbed

            When I was waning

So here we are, separated by    so    much    sky.

            I heard you were a waterfall,

            A whirlpool, a torrent,

                        But I believe you are a leaf on the surface

                                    Of a stuck-still pond

                                   With overtaxed veins

                                                            And tender edges.

                                                                        People are quick

                                                            To label quiet men

                                                Mysteries.

                               I know better.

            We’ll build worlds together

                        And tear them down one island at a time,

                                                            Like pirate gods or monsoon spirits

                                                Still at odds,

                                                                 Because I chose the devil

                                                                      And you chose the deep black sea.

Fiction: Canary

When they told me they were getting a divorce, my parents took me to the pet store. I was thirteen by then, and had been waiting for them to figure out how to break the news for two years before they mustered up the nerve. I didn’t need a consolation. Practically none of my friends had married parents, so I knew what divorce really meant—two Christmases and fewer fights. I’d easily trade the mortgage for that. But if they were going to buy me a pet to make themselves feel better, I wasn’t going to stop them.

Dad was pushing the glow-in-the-dark fishes pretty heavily, because he didn’t want any animal that required him to scoop up shit. Mom wanted something cute and conventional that she could show off to her book club friends. I left them arguing by the poodles and went over to the cages where the hamsters and rats were kept.

I didn’t like the way they moved, the rodents, all jittery and anxious like they had coffee in their weird little straw-bottles instead of water. I wondered for a moment if that was something I could do, if I bought one. Get a rat hooked on caffeine and set it loose in the city.

Mom and Dad found me pretty quick, and Dad took one look at the rat and shot his eyebrows into his receding hairline. “What are you doing over here?” he asked, like he was begging me not to say I wanted a rat.

I didn’t, not really, so I made something up quick and pointed across the aisle at the chinchilla. “I think I might like one of those.”

Mom laughed. “That’s not a pet. That’s something you make coats out of.”

That stung a little, but I didn’t actually want a chinchilla so we moved on to the next aisle before they could start bickering again. We were surrounded now by birds, chirping and singing and cooing at one another, pecking at the bars. One was even hanging upside down from the top of its cage like a bat.

They all went quiet out of nowhere, except one. It was yellow, bright, singing at the top of its lungs. I looked at my parents. They looked at each other. We bought the canary.

I called her Calliope because I was deep in that Greek mythology phase you go through in middle school when everything you feel takes place in epic proportions that only old legends have the scope to encapsulate. I carried her cage back and forth every other weekend and cleaned it out myself. Her song sounded a little like a car alarm. Mary Yang told me that only boy birds sing, but I figured it was a bird and as long as it was caged up and alone it didn’t really care one way or another what I called it.

Sometimes I would talk to Calliope in my room at night because I couldn’t really tell Mom or Dad the things I was thinking. I had friends, but the one-layered middle school variety of friends who you knew from algebra or jazz band and you only ever talked to in algebra or jazz band. They didn’t know one another, and they didn’t know about the other facets of my life. I didn’t like my foods to touch.

With Calliope it was different. For one thing, I kept her in a cage so she couldn’t go anywhere. She was a bird, so she couldn’t tell anyone. And when she cocked her head and went quiet it felt like she was listening for real, like she was sympathizing and understanding.

I told her about how embarrassing it was when the teacher paired me and my crush Johnny Cochrane together for a science lab when I had a bad breakout, or how I got my first period in second period and I had to be sent home because I bled through my pants, or how Madison and Kayla were in a huge fight and I couldn’t even say anything about it because they’d accuse me of taking sides and then I’d be the bad guy to both of them somehow. I even told Calliope about how Mom got a new boyfriend she thought I didn’t know about, but how sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear her with him doing it in her room. I wondered if Dad knew she had moved on so fast. I wondered if he would, too.

It was pretty easy to talk to Calliope, and after a while she started kind of cheeping back at me when I spoke like she was commiserating. I tried to show Dad, once, and dragged him to my bedroom to show that Calliope would talk to me, but she didn’t do it with him around. He said something like, “If you wanted a bird that could talk, you should’ve bought a parrot.”

When he left I turned to Calliope and gave her my meanest scowl. “Traitor.”

I flopped onto my bed—less comfortable than the one at Mom’s but with a prettier comforter—and shut my eyes for a few minutes, breathing slow and deep to control myself. I felt like crying suddenly, even though there was no reason to. I didn’t want to cry, and that made it even harder not to.

Suddenly Calliope spoke, but this time it wasn’t just chattering.

“Don’t cry,” she said, and she said it with my voice.

I sat up straight, my eyes suddenly dry, and I opened my mouth to respond, but all that came out was a meek little peep.

“It’s going to be alright,” Calliope said.

I tried to cry out and found myself singing her usual whistling call.

“Open up my cage.”

And I did.

“Now open up your window.”

It was unnerving to watch her talk. She just slightly opened her beak, and didn’t move it at all when the sounds of her speech changed. The words flew out like they’d been recorded, and as I opened my window I cheeped something to that effect.

“It won’t be for long, love,” she said, and suddenly I felt my arms go cold and goose-pimpled.

“I’m going to fly away now,” she said. “And you’ll never see me again. But you’ll have your voice back, and you should really use it to talk to someone other than a bird.”

I twittered indignantly, and she cocked her head to the side a little. “Really. You’re thirteen years old. Have some agency.”

And with that she took flight.

I twittered and cheeped and sang and called until my voice became my own again, yelling, “Wait!”

But she was already out of my sight by then and there was nothing else to do. My father burst in after a moment and took in the scene—the open window, the empty birdcage, the wild, raw look in my eyes—and said, “Oh, honey,” and I ran into his arms and cried.

Poem: The Oracle

I can promise you many things

                        (but the truth is not one of them)

Wouldn’t you like sticky fingers

                        to hold onto life better?

Wouldn’t you like to breathe honey

                        so your words came out sweet?

I built the bones of this city,

            Carved its name with my own beak.

I know a spoon of sugar spoils concrete.

            I have loved the taste of lug nuts.

You will die on a Tuesday

            With fifty dollars to your name,

The same name on the lips of a loved one

            Who you loved second-best.

The pigeons are more afraid of me than you are.

            Crows like shiny things, like tourists.

I ate a rat once, all crunchy bones and street-slime.

            It tasted like the look on your face.

You needn’t pay me with dollars.

            I don’t need the kind of favor you could give.

I want only your eyes, for a moment,

            Your ears, for a moment, your mind.

Haven’t you dreamed that the moths all lost their wings?

            One time you drove a Ferrari that frothed and bit.

Children know things that time should not allow.

            Your father thought you were special, once.

Can you read your future in my feathers?

            Won’t you look inside my amber eyes?

Didn’t your mother tell you not to talk to strangers?

            Haven’t you heard this all before somewhere?

I can promise you the world on a paper plate,

            Or love wrapped in butcher’s twine,

Or gold to encrust your lungs and lips

            (but the truth is not mine to give)

Fiction: Black Cat

We had a cat. She was oil-gushing, midnight-piercing, charcoal-crumbling black, so we called her Black Cat. It was simple, really—no debate or anything.

Sometimes we’d set fires in the backyard. We’d gather up all the twigs in a pile, away from the uncut grass. Black Cat would sit and stare at the fire all glassy-eyed, like she was waiting. Even when the ashes stopped glowing, she’d stay there, watching.

That was how we found her in the first place. It was summer and the sky was stark and starless, and the grass was brown from weeks without a storm. They told us there was a wildfire advisory, so of course we had to set something ablaze. Everything caught just like we’d hoped, and after the smoke and the flare and the fizzle, we saw Black Cat just out of the reach of the light, with her eyes gleaming steady.

We watched her back, playing chicken to see who could go longest without blinking. She won by mere seconds—once we both cracked, she shut her eyes all slow and opened them back up real lazy-like. She followed us into the house when our yawns told us it was curfew, and that was that.

We never saw her eat, but we knew she did. She was lithe, all fur and bones, but when we’d leave out saucers of milk and little dishes of chopped up meat, they’d be empty by morning—licked clean, even. She didn’t seem to like to do a whole lot while we were watching, really. Anytime we were in the room she’d just sort of stop whatever she was doing and curl up. She didn’t even really meow.

She could purr something mighty, though, like a motorcycle engine rumbling in her chest. Sometimes she’d sit in a little patch of sun on the carpet and kind of buzz. Her eyes would always be open, looking right into the light even though we told her it was bad for her vision. She wasn’t much of a listener, that Black Cat.

She definitely didn’t like strangers. One time about a month after she showed up, Mrs. Davenport from next door came over to check on us and was asking all about where our parents had gone. We didn’t really want to tell her the whole thing because we didn’t want her to call Child Services, but lucky for us Black Cat was there and she jumped up and bit Mrs. Davenport right on that wrinkly, flappy skin beneath her arms. We had to say all kinds of sorry and pretend we were mad at Black Cat for show, but it got Mrs. Davenport to leave and stop asking all her nosy questions pretty quick.

The fire we set that night was extra big. We even went out in the woods behind Kevin Rothschild’s house and got some sassafras twigs because he told us sassafras makes real nice-smelling smoke. We made a kind of monster pile of twigs and grass and a few bigger sticks that had fallen down the last time it had stormed—we weren’t so sure about cutting down trees ourselves and anyway our axe was all busted off the handle so it wasn’t much good for anything. We stacked it real tall until it kind of looked like it was gonna fall over, and then we lit a match and threw it in. We didn’t realize Black Cat was outside with us until she bounded over and hunched down real close to the fire like she was gonna pounce on it. The flames were dancing in her eyes, and she looked a little scary right then, real powerful, like a piece of the night sky torn down and brought here to the earth.

The fire started to pop and hiss when the sassafras caught, and Black Cat started her little buzz-purr-rumble so it was competing with the fire. The wind started howling too and it was a kind of eerie little orchestra. We both got goosebumps even with the fire crackling right there in front of us.

We remembered that one time before Mom left when she told us that the night was not a thing to be trifled with. She always liked big words like that, trifled. We knew she was dead serious because her breath smelled like tequila. She only told the truth when she was wasted.

Black Cat kept rumbling something awful, and we didn’t realize it but we’d started shrinking together until our arms were wrapped around each other tight. Black Cat was a feral creature and we couldn’t really own her, we knew that now. She opened her mouth all wide and we could see the little red stains on her teeth where they’d sunk into Mrs. Davenport’s arm earlier. The fire made her tongue look orange.

The wind picked up some more and the fire got real tall all of a sudden, and we wanted to move but were too scared to try it. Next door Mrs. Davenport’s porch light flickered on.

The fire got bigger and bigger and Black Cat got louder and louder and then there was a knock at the gate and everything all stopped. The fire was just embers, and Black Cat was sitting there purring all quiet-like and normal, with her mouth closed and her eyes just yellow-gold again.

We got up after a moment and went to the gate. It was Mrs. Davenport and she insisted on coming into the yard because of course she did. She was always kind of pesky, used to gossip to all the neighbors until they realized she was talking about them behind their backs. Now she was kind of lonely and sad, but still a real busybody with no sense of what was her business and what wasn’t. She came right over to our fire pit and looked right at it with a strange sort of grown-up contempt, the look they get when they think they’re too good for fun things, and we felt something kind of like pity until she opened up her thin little mouth.

“You kids have got to get yourselves under control. Where are your parents? Where’s that deadbeat mother of yours, that trucker father? What kind of people leave two rowdy boys alone in a house like that?”

Those were exactly the kinds of questions we’d been asking ourselves lately but it hit differently to hear her say them out loud. One of us started crying. The other got all jumpy-nerved and tense.

We didn’t have anything to say and she wouldn’t soften just looking at us. Kept muttering to herself as she started to stamp out our fire with her big pink slippers.

“Stupid kids, bastard parents, what do you expect? You can’t have a neighborhood with this kind of riff-raff running around all the time setting fires, of all things.”

She was going and going and we were stuck still in place and Black Cat started rumbling again, loud like before. The wind joined her like they were duet partners and suddenly the fire caught up again. The tops of Mrs. Davenport’s slippers caught, and instead of kicking them off she just sort of yelped and bent down to beat at the flames with her hands. Black Cat leapt up and bit her again, right there in the face, purring all the while, and the fire grew and grew. Now we were both wide-eyed and open-mouthed, but we didn’t say a word as her blood dripped onto the twigs and the orange flames climbed her stupid bathrobe, her ridiculous papery skin. She might have been screaming but the wind carried it away.

The moon emerged from behind a cloud and the trees looked like they were dancing in the gale. We could hear the cicada hum now, and when the fire dipped down again Mrs. Davenport was nowhere to be seen, not even her bones. Black Cat sat licking her bloodied claws and an owl hooted somewhere close by. We pulled apart, looked at one another, looked at Mrs. Davenport’s flickering porch light, gaped at the sky full of stars. When we looked back down, Black Cat was gone, and she had taken the smell of the sassafras with her, leaving only green grass scent and the pines on the breeze.