Melya’s voice carried through the firelit clearing, the long-familiar words flowing smoothly.
Emptiness. Darkness. Nothingness. But in the void was an idea, a spark without fire, but a spark nonetheless. The spark was surrounded, nothing above, nothing below, simply nothing.
The spark was bored.
After time unmeasurable, because there was nothing to measure it against, she took a step. Her feet rested on the ground, first one then the other. Feet were new, but with the invention of ground to stand on it was necessary to have something to stand with, and she imagined it so. Feet were a good creation, strong and flexible and able to move as soon as she created somewhere to move to.
The first time she stubbed her toes, the first time in all the vast universe this happened to anyone, she imagined the need for light to illuminate the ground, and eyes to perceive it. What she imagined became so, but the light was not yet pleasing. She lifted her hands overhead, defining the sky and herself simultaneously, and placed two handprints on it. Her left hand she pressed hard and long into the roof of the world, and the handspring shone out brightly. With her right hand she touched the room of the world lightly, and she rocked her palm from one side to the other to see what would happen. And so the sun shines out full and round and strong, and the moon’s dimmer light comes from first one side and then the other. She poked the sky here and there, making stars, and she laughed in delight, the first laugh.
The light that spilled over her spread her shadow out across the barren landscape. She raised her hands, admiring her fine silhouette, then looked directly at herself for the first time. She had imagined well: smooth brown skin, long brown hair, breasts, buttocks, legs that reached all the way to the ground. With, yes, feet at the end of them, and one sore toe.
She looked around at the lumpy brown ground she stood on. It wasn’t nearly fine enough for her, so she imagined it better. She made the grass, the first plant ever to exist and the most important, the plant that feeds our sheep and covers our houses. Greenness spread across the plain. But that wasn’t exciting enough, so she tried out topography, mountains and hills and valleys. To make it more interesting, she put water in some of the valleys, creating lakes and oceans, rivers fast and slow.
She played with the plants then, making some of them into trees that reached for the sky, and some of them into brightly colored flowers like leashed butterflies, though she didn’t know that because she hadn’t invented butterflies yet. She particularly liked the flowers, so she braided some into her hair, a lovely new thing.
There was no one to share her inventions with, and the world was too quiet, so she created people. People who looked just like her, just like our mothers and our sisters. And they laughed to see the flowers and the trees and the stars and the rivers. She made fancier plants, and the women suggested many other things. They all imagined together, and the world was full. Animals ate the plants, and ran among the trees and over the grass. They invented names, and spent a long time arguing and laughing about what to call each plant and animal. The people called her goddess, because she was first.
Once everyone and everything had been named, the goddess looked around. The land was full, the people were happy, and there was nothing left to do. She didn’t enjoy that, so she imagined harder than she ever had before. That’s when she invented sex. There was even more laughing then, and play. The goddess discovered that sex with women was fun, and then she created men for variety, and sex with men was fun too. They all together invented all the games in all the combinations.
But guess what? The goddess got bored again. Yes, even sex gets boring after a while. But what to do? She’d already created everything she could imagine, women and men and plants and animals, birds and butterflies. Even elephants, and they took a great deal of imagining. There wasn’t room for anything more.
She thought and she thought, and she talked to the people, and she watched the butterflies for a long time. Then the goddess had the best idea of all. She invented stories, and she taught us how to tell them and how to create our own. And then? The goddess was never bored again.
The storyteller bowed to her audience, her braids clattering and her shadow in the firelight dipping gracefully. This was her favorite time. Every five years all the clans gathered, everyone who could, to share the old stories, to eat the foods of their civilization’s childhood, to see distant family and friends. Tomorrow they would disperse, back to the ships that carried them here, back to the myriad worlds of the Diaspora, but for tonight she would smell the smoke, feel the ground beneath her feet, and imagine for herself a newborn world full of magic and laughter.
Sarah Goslee relates to the world by figuring things out and writing about them. She writes science fiction and science nonfiction, and has done fieldwork with endophytic fungi.
I am Pirli. You are Oona.
Do not let the rippling of my parasol disturb you. It is large, but I am very old. I’ve been to many worlds and classified many beings, but few comprehend Pirli. Oona, I do not understand what this orifice is for, or why you have more than one. I have only one. Here it is below my resonance filter basket, which I use to catch and sort knowledge. I realize you do not understand me. How could you, with no filter basket? I suspect you have a filter basket analog, beneath this squishy shell. The pulses, waves and tones surrounding us are my language, and my hope is that if I describe what I am doing you will recognize something as communication. Let’s start with this porous layer. It is too soft to be of any use, and I cannot perceive what lies beneath it. I’m just going to peel it back. Hmm. It is quite firmly attached. I will need to begin again.
I am Pirli. You are Oona.
You move around so much, Oona, that I wonder if that is somehow related to your method of communication. These longer appendages, perhaps, ending in a fringe of ten above and below. So adorable that each side mirrors the other. I am going to loosen the bindings on them, and see if I can make sense of you. Maybe more degrees of motion will provide a clue. No no, Oona, remain within the collection net. That area is not safe. Do you not sense the ion curtain? Oh. I suppose not. At least Oona’s are abundant on this world.
I am Pirli. You are Oona.
You have many openings. Some of them are connected. But it is stranger to me that you have so many things in duplicate. I do not understand that. Since this appendage is repeated on the other side, I’m going to assume it is redundant. May I remove it? I know you do not understand me, Oona, but I want to reassure you that I will return it when I am done. Oh, my. You are leaking more than expected. I will reattach it. Oona, stop squirming, you are scattering the sealant. Now, that’s better, Oona. Oona?
I am Pirli. You are Oona.
I have noticed a correlation in your orifices. When these two orbs near the top of the round appendage roll, the tissue around them tenses and a tone emits from the expandable orifice. You are a curious Oona, you have not shown understanding, but I think you are communicating with me. Hmm. A Pirli once told me they breached the gap of understanding by utilizing a rhythmic tone. That gives me an idea. When I spin the interior cups of my parasol I can make a very pleasant hum. It goes like this…Oh, how embarrassing, let me wipe that off. I always spray a little when I first get started. Oh my. I forgot how friable your soft outer shell is. But don’t worry; I have learned that you are not Oona without it. Now, back to the vibration. Yes, you are moving the rounded top appendage, the one I hypothesize houses your filter basket. Does that mean something? Repeat these sounds back to me: plink, pulse pulse tick. No, that is not it. Plink pulse tick. Oona, that is wrong, but your species is clever to alter the tissue around these little holes to produce tones. I will attempt to reproduce them with my resonance filter basket. Hehh..lll…pppuhh…suuttt…aaaa..puh. Such odd sounds, not like communication at all. Wait, Oona. Has the splatter from my interior cups damaged your porous shell?
I am Pirli. You are Oona.
You react in odd ways to the failed Oonas. Perhaps you would prefer to absorb them yourself, rather than let my room dispose of them? Here Oona, I will give one to you. There, go ahead and begin absorption. Wait, now, you cannot bend that way, as I well know, heh. I suppose you are not presently in need of nutrition. I’m sorry, I have a very large parasol so I rarely have to supplement my sustenance, and because of that I often forget the needs of others. Would you like to see my parasol ripple? Oh, heehee you like it too, don’t you, you are opening and closing the stretchy orifice on your filter basket casing. Oops, condensation from my parasol tends to drip. Wait, you like that? Oh you do. More? I love to ripple so this is a happy accident. Is it possible that you feed and communicate from the same place? There now, you have had enough, I see, as you are returning some of it. Let me ponder you, Oona. You are a fantastic puzzle. When I have parsed you I will share the entire contents of my filter basket.
I am Pirli. You are Oona.
I have constructed this tube so that you may control how much you consume of the runoff from my parasol, because I have exhibited poor judgment in that area. No, don’t worry, Oona, it is okay if my parasol caresses you. I have learned to appreciate how easily you can be damaged. What, that sound you are making with the orifice that receives sustenance? It tickles my parasol. Wait. Do that again. Oh my! The frequency is too regular, it can’t be random. No, no, Oona, do not shy away. I will try not to press too hard. Oh, I see. That is ‘yes’ when I give you the condensate but ‘no’ when I make this pressure. I am Pirli, you are Oona. That is yes. You are saying yes, I think. Yes. That is a good place to start.
Sandy Parsons writes in Georgia, USA.
The hollow-eyed priestess led Calamachus to a deep cleft in a rocky outcropping three stadia away from the temple. No altar or statue denoted the unremarkable opening to the underworld. A stack of crude torches and a paltry fire-pit were the only indication that people came there at all. The wind was still and Calamachus, though battle-hardened, shifted uncomfortably in the silence. They said the priestess did not eat, that she lived on wine and visions from the Gods. The silent woman did indeed seem to peer into his soul but she needed no magic to divine the grief of the man in front of her. Calamachus was pale, eyes rimmed in red — broken.
Just ten days before, he stood with his sacred troop of warriors covered in sweat overlooking a battlefield littered with Spartans. The iron reek of their enemy’s blood was a testament to the prowess of Thebes. Celebration was wine-gloried and robust. Ecthion was by his side, their hands clasped, breath hot and quick, their rough bedding a place of complete union. Neither of them gave any thought to a slash on boy’s foot — the perils of battle. But the Fates wove their web of illness around Ecthion until they strangled his life and Calamachus’ heart along with it. He could not accept it. He would not accept it.
He would face death and bring Ecthion back from that dark country.
With trembling hands and a clenched jaw, Calamachus offered the priestess a flask of wine in the purse that dangled from his belt. She shook her head, bowed graciously and retreated toward her hut. He was alone on the grim mountainside. His sandals creaked. His tunic, though light and simple, felt smothering. Calamachus took a deep breath, plucked a small torch from the meager pile nearby, lit it and then squeezed into the rough slash of the cave’s opening. He was greeted with a cool shot of fetid air from the decomposing bodies of sacrificed boars, chickens and lambs. His eyes watered from the stench as he limped down the uneven path and into the earth.
There was a scuttling sound, quick and sinister and Calamachus gripped the short sword strapped to his waist. The beetle was larger than he could have imagined. A stray piece of rotting flesh dangled from its clicking pincers as it rushed towards him. He parried and the monster missed its target, giving the Theban time to counter and drive his blade through the soft flesh below its truncated neck. A black puddle formed on the ground as the beetle struggled fruitlessly for its ugly life. Calamachus sheathed his sword and spat, thanking Athena for his victory — a good omen.
He pressed on, meter after meter, his skin thrashed by unexpected corners while the echoing of his footfalls pursued him like a phantom hunter. Above, clusters of shuddering bats clung to the rock and waited for nightfall.
Calamachus arrived at a thick river where Charon, the ferryman of the dead, stared at him from under a hood. He steadied himself and approached the grinning skeleton with lightless eyes, a gold coin at the ready. Charon’s frigid, gray hand snatched the coin and flung it contemptuously into the depths; he would accept no payment from a living man. He pointed Calamachus toward a decrepit raft moored nearby. He would have to cross the River Styx himself.
The current was unforgiving and Calamachus battled to prevent being swept far downstream by the surging, serpent-infested water. He arrived at the foggy, far shore winded but grateful to be one step closer. He braced himself and bravely plunged into the mist, thinking of his vows. Their vows.
He and Ecthion were bonded on the boy’s 20th birthday by the glow of firelight at the temple of Iolaus. They had been growing in affection for a year and in the strange closeness of training for war, found themselves holding the other’s gaze for long moments. Now, two years later, with blood and love between them, Calamachus stood on the knife’s edge of glory and grief.
The mist thinned but it failed to prevent him from tripping over a massive pile of fur — one of the four paws of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that stood between the worlds of the living and the dead. Calamachus quivered as the fog retreated, revealing a grizzled, fanged beast of extraordinary proportions, its golden eyes alight with anger. The warrior slowly reached for the traditional offering, a honey cake he had kept in his pouch for this very moment — but he never presented it. Cerberus, enraged at the weakened but still living man before him, issued a growl that shook the earth and hurled himself toward his prey. Calamachus stumbled but managed to slash the foreleg of the beast as it lunged toward him. It was a useless wound; unfazed, Cerberus had pinned him to the ground. All Calamachus could see were teeth and all he could feel was shame. He had failed.
He was sure the warmth on his neck was a torrent of his own blood mingled with the hot, menacing breath of the monster but when he opened his eyes, Calamachus saw the sun. He was standing in field of poppies that stretched toward the horizon, their bright, red petals nodding in the breeze. A hand on his back made him swivel, his fear still piqued. In front of him though, stood Ecthion, his tumbling curls and bright smile lit with a radiance that exceeded even his lover’s glorified memory. Ecthion was warm to the touch, his presence a balm for the senses.
“We are not shadows?” Calamachus wondered aloud.
“Mortal life is the true shadow, “ Ecthion said. “And you are a ghost no more.”
The smell of flowers, the hum of honeybees, the touch of understanding skin: perfection in fact, not theory. Eternity lay before them, the cruel losses and vicious desires of men lay behind — the nectar of the gods made manifest. They kissed.
Kevin Thomas Conroy is an aspiring writer living in Los Angeles. By day, he sells antiques and fine art. By night, he thinks about things that make him shiver then writes them down.
Adam woke up late, putting him an hour behind his usual schedule. He put on his designated work shirt and pants, and noticed a trail of brown splatter on the collar. He shrugged. He was an art lecturer, it came with the territory.
He turned to Sarah, who was sleeping soundly on her side, facing him. Her long, golden hair lay neatly covering her ear down to the side of her arm. “I’m sorry I can’t have breakfast with you today. I’ll see you tonight,” whispered Adam as he blew her a kiss before leaving for work.
The traffic was astonishingly smooth this morning. Adam reached the art academy with ample time to prepare for his first class. As he was gathering his materials, a sense of guilt overcame him. He flumped onto his chair and brooded.
He hated missing breakfast with Sarah. They had just moved here a month ago, and she was still adjusting to the new place. Adam knew that relocating would be unnerving for her, but circumstances made it impossible for them to stay. He had made the mistake of welcoming a student into his home, which triggered an internal investigation at his previous university, putting him at risk of losing Sarah. He could never allow that.
Adam was living in inconsolable loneliness until Sarah came along. She fulfilled his every desire and never once criticised his eccentricity. When she first appeared before him, he knew she was born to love him.
She had a nice cozy corner at their old house, where she could be found reading in her favourite purple chair. Now the chair looked different under a new light. It didn’t blend well with the olive green walls in the living area, nor the saffron walls in the bedroom. He wanted to give her a new chair, but he wasn’t sure if erasing her most familiar possession would be wise. It didn’t help that Sarah was also a homebody. She never wandered out of the house. She feared the sun might dull her skin, and Adam shared her concern. He loved her glowing yellow complexion. It was a hue hard to achieve.
He sensed that she had been restless and nervous lately. Last week, she was a redhead. Yesterday, she became a blonde. Her random changes troubled him. He remembered reading somewhere that women tend to experiment with their hair when they are adapting to or desire change. He didn’t want the new environment to change his wife. Also, a Chinese woman looks ridiculous with blonde hair. Adam sighed. He must take control of the situation. He would make her change her hair back to black.
“Hey, Adam, it’s 9 o’clock. Your students are waiting,” said Connie, another art lecturer on her way to her class.
“Oh God!” exclaimed Adam as he scrambled to his feet.
“Are you okay? You look troubled,” asked Connie.
“I’m just a bit scattered today. I was running late and I missed breakfast with my wife. I’m worried she might be upset,” said Adam with sincere concern on his face.
Connie raised her eyebrows wonderingly. “Why would it upset her? She knows you have a job to go to. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
Adam didn’t respond. His face lined with increasing worry.
“Look, I think you’re over-thinking this. I doubt your wife is as fragile as you painted her to be. She’ll be fine eating one breakfast alone. Now go to class.” Connie turned and left.
Adam remained standing at his desk, pondering what his colleague had just said. Maybe she was right. Maybe he was worrying unnecessarily. But Connie didn’t know his wife. Sarah couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without him. She was totally dependent on him. He decided that he would make it up to her with a romantic dinner tonight. He would pick up a bottle of red wine and a tube of black hair dye on the way home. Feeling satisfied, he collected his things and headed to his class.
That evening, Sarah, in her favourite blue sundress and her hair tied up in a pony tail, sat perched on her usual barstool, smiling as she watched him cook. He told her about his day at work and expressed his concern for her. He apologised again for the relocation; for erasing everything she was and had at the old place, and expecting her to start anew inside these unfamiliar walls without complaint. As he continued the conversation, Sarah offered no response. She stayed in the same position as when he first entered the kitchen, never wandered away from the barstool, and her expression remained unchanged. Adam accepted her smile as her forgiveness and winked at her as he went to set the table, after removing some unfinished canvases from the dining chairs.
As Adam approached the dining area, Sarah, adorned in her finest white dress and her hair elegantly coiffed, was already there, rooted to her chair. He filled his plate with his favourite meatball pasta and poured his wine glass to the brim. The table wobbled when he sat down, so he pushed it forward, making sure the opposite end was firmly pressed against the wall, placing Sarah’s empty plate just an inch from it. He raised his glass to her and said, “To you, my perfect wife.”
Sarah’s glass was empty and remained unmoved on the table. She didn’t reply. She never replied. She couldn’t reply. She had lived a life of silence since conception. Her lips always curled into a perfect smile, made to please his eyes, not his ears. She never shed a tear. Her eyes never blinked. Not a wrinkle creased her face. She never aged. She was an immaculate beauty. She was his greatest creation, the face of the murals that graced the walls in every room of his house.
Malaysian-born Michelle Chan has tried her hand at journalism, and is now exploring the realm of fiction as an outlet for her overactive imagination. Her short stories have been published on Many Stories Matter, and Flash Fiction Magazine. She is currently writing her first novel, which she hopes will one day see the light of your bedside table.
I never wanted to visit the Wall. For years Vietnam veterans had only each other; as a memorial the Wall seemed too little, too late. Besides, there were so many names — so many memories. I often dream of one night in August, 1968.
All was black. I rubbed sweat from my eyes. Under the wavering light of a parachute flare squat bunkers and tangles of concertina wire emerged. I smelled blood, hot weapons, burned powder. My back was against a sandbag wall. Someone hunkered down beside me.
“Hey, Teach, I hear the bastards got a piece of you.” It was Doc Wills, platoon medic. He drew a knife and slit my trouser leg. “Hold still.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere. Hurts like all hell when I move.”
“Don’t move then. Damn, Teach. I gotta get a tourniquet on this.”
My head ached. Gingerly I checked it out. Warm blood coated my fingers. “What about my head, Doc?”
He glanced up. “Later. That one ain’t gonna kill you.”
A dull roar filled my head. I drifted into a black tunnel. Sharp pain drew me back.
Wills let go of my shirt. “Don’t drop out on me, man!”
I tried to concentrate. “How bad — we get hit?”
“Danforth took a direct hit from an RPG. Lieutenant Burns got killed. Riley. Miller.”
“Miller? Jesus, he was about to go home.”
“Yeah. Ain’t that the shits?”
Riley was in my platoon. Doc moved my leg. I jerked. “Jesus Christ! That hurts!”
He grinned. “You got one fucked up leg. Surgeons will fix you right up.” He started rigging a blood bag. “I’ll give you some morphine when I get this going.”
I gripped his arm. “I don’t wanna die, Doc.”
“You ain’t gonna die.” He shoved me back against the sandbags. “Get that through your thick head. I ain’t gonna let you die.”
He wiped blood off my face and scalp. “Just a nick, Teach.” Deft fingers secured a bandage. “Relax. Evac choppers are inbound.”
The pain seemed less. He must have injected morphine when I wasn’t looking. “I ain’t gonna die?”
“You ain’t gonna die. Okay? Concentrate on one fucking thing: Doc Wills says I ain’t gonna die.”
Next thing I remember was looking up at the interior of a Huey. A door gunner knelt over me. He held a bag of blood.
“Doc Wills says I ain’t gonna die.”
“Sounds like a good fucking deal.” Dark splotches stained the gunner’s flight suit. He handed the blood bag to a wounded man sitting on a web seat. “Don’t fucking drop it.”
The guy clutched the bag to his chest. “I got it, Teach.” I didn’t recognize him. A field dressing covered half his face.
Engines screamed. Door gunners raked the slope as we took off. Rotor blades pounded a frantic beat. I faded into the dark and awoke to find a man who looked as if he hadn’t slept in a month standing over me.
“Doc Wills promised I wouldn’t die.”
He glanced at me then went back to reading a tag tied to my shirt. “Hold on to that thought.”
They saved my leg, but the muscle damage was permanent. I didn’t see Doc again.
In 2008 my wife persuaded me to attend a unit reunion. In the process of swapping lies, I met the guy who held my blood bag. Hansen was his name. He was a rifleman in third platoon. He told me about Doc Wills.
“I was back with the company about a month after you were hit,” he said. “They gave me a squad.” He paused to sip his beer. “A few weeks later we got into it with an NVA regiment. On the second day we were in a treeline exchanging fire with some bad guys in an abandoned village. You know how it was.”
I did know.
“We started taking mortar fire. One of the new guys got hit. Doc headed down that way. Four or five more rounds came in.” Hansen paused and stared down at the bar. He rubbed the palms of his hands on his jeans. “Doc was kneeling beside the wounded guy. A round hit a couple feet away. He was killed instantly.”
“Damn.” For a long moment we sat in silence.
Hansen coughed. “The reunion committee worked up a list of unit KIA.” He handed me two printed pages. The list had Wall panel numbers beside each name.
A few months later my wife and I went to Washington for a week and toured the usual sites for five days. The morning of the sixth day she handed me the creased casualty list. “We leave tomorrow. If you want to visit the Wall…”
It was time to confront those tall black panels — and all those names. Doc Wills. Riley. I owed them that much. “Yeah. I been thinking about it.” I opened my suitcase. “Couple things I got to take.”
Half a dozen gray-haired men moved along the path below me. Two wore faded boonie hats. One had on an equally worn field jacket. The others wore black Vietnam Veteran caps. For the first time in over forty years I felt out of uniform.
My wife joined two women standing near some statues. Black granite drew me down into the shadows of my past. Panel height increased as I descended the path. A dark weight lodged in my chest.
The panel I sought was near the lowest part of the Wall. High up on the slab I found Burns, Danforth, Miller, and Riley. Doc’s name occupied part of a line halfway down. I touched it, reliving our last conversation.
People leave things at the Wall. Flowers, letters, medals, guilt. I placed a unit patch and one of my dog tags at the base of the slab. “Thanks, Doc.”
Stepping back, I saluted smartly. My old drill sergeant would have been proud.
Then my wife came down and held me while I cried.
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.