Marginalia

Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti

There is a crush of Storm Troopers, Men of Steel, and Optimus Primes milling around the cavernous confines of the Javits Center. Surrounded by freaks and geeks, Astrid Atangana wonders how she and her friends—the self-styled Nyanga Girlz—come across to the Comic Con crowd. Mbola, rocking grills and street gear, calling herself “Fly Girl: Superman’s dope-ass cousin from the hood;” Mimi, in the Psylocke cosplay costume, pre-ordered from China a full month in advance; and her, a too tall black girl in a too short red kimono. Wearing bifocals, no less. She takes off her glasses. She cringes, thinking about the Princeton admissions letter, secreted away in a notebook, in the far reaches of her knapsack, then secures the bag’s straps, along with the side slung holster of her katana, for what feels like the kajillionth time.

“Batman has a nice booty,” Mimi opines, twirling an eely, purple hair strand that slithers and coils around her index finger. Her flinty eyes are fixated. Medusan, Astrid thinks, filled with equal parts fascination and disgust, watching her friend watching yet another guy.

“Which Batman?” Mbola asks. “There are like a billion Dark Knight wannabes up in this piece.”

Mimi is jerking her head to their left, whispering rapid-fire, “It’s the retro, Adam West-y one, over there, over by the Halo booth,” then loudly, “Oh my God, Astrid! Don’t look right at him.”

Astrid is already looking right at him. Staring, in fact. Mbola rolls her eyes in exasperation, yet all too soon she is staring too. Batman catches their gaze and gives them all an even-toothed, Tic Tac grin. Mimi denies him a smile. Instead she turns away, flips her synthetic tresses, then tosses him a knowing, coquettish look over her shoulder. Classic Mimi. Astrid hopes he’s worth it; hopes she gets a bang for her buck. The girl spent two weeks’ worth of pay to buy her wig—its shock of violet locks had to be the exact shade of purple as her costume; the cheapo wigs at the beauty supply in the West Orange mall where they all worked were deemed insufficiently “Con-worthy.”

A schlubby, East Asian Boy Wonder sidles over and palms Batman’s left butt cheek, his lingering hand partially obscured by a waterfall of midnight blue polyester. Manhandling, Astrid thinks, her brain continuing a week-long streak of randomly churning out “M” words, morphing her into some Tourette tic-ish freak. It was weird but strangely familiar, like the month after their class trip to see Hamilton on Broadway when quotidian conversations tempted her to segue into song. That month, talk of Batman’s heinie might have triggered wordless humming of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ’90s throwback hit “Baby Got Back” under her breath. Or at least some bars from the Nicki Minaj remix.

Mimi is glaring at the Dynamic Duo now. “Look Astrid. It’s one of your fairy tale up-the-rear endings.”

Mbola sniggers her approval of the diss.

Maleficents, Astrid thinks. She mentally kicks herself, again, for ever, EVER sharing her slash fan-fiction with these so-called friends. For months, they had cracked on her about Luke Skywalker letting Han Solo stroke his light saber during long and lonely desert nights on “Brokeback Tatooine.” She had almost given up on writing before she met Young Yoon at the comic book store. He was the one—the only one—who hadn’t laughed. Instead, he had pulled out a sketchpad and shown her his storyboards, shared panel upon panel of darkly rendered swordplay. The only text was his name in Hangul: 영윤. They’re pretty much just mimes right now. I need someone to give them a voice. Can you help with that, Astrid? And Astrid, knowing what it was like to be kept mute, had said yes. He was upstairs right now, manning their spot in artists’ alley. The one they had spent months scrap-ing together funds for in hopes that they could really make a go of all this.

Silently, Astrid packs up her ever-growing collection of Jetstream uni-ball pens, her glasses, and finally her notebook, its pages full of secret letters, story scribblings, and haiku descriptions of pass-ersby: Rotund Robin comes/Caped Crusader smiles, grateful/ Their night play begins.

“Where you goin’?” Mimi demands.

“The booth,” says Astrid. A misnomer really, it was just a table they were sharing with some other dude hawking a cheesy, bootleg comic about homicidal bees called Stinger.

“Yeah, tell the booth I said hi,” Mbola says, then turns to Mimi. “’cause that booth is fine as shit.”

Mbola has a crush on Young Yoon. An insistent one. She thinks he looks like Night—the humanoid robot cum heartthrob from her fave Japanese soap opera, Zettai Kareshi. She also thinks Astrid is secretly dating him. She is a dim bulb: her belief in Astrid’s fre-quent assertions that they are “just friends” flickers off, and on, and off again, fickly.

“You hear me, Astrid?” asks Mbola. “I said tell Young Money I said ‘make that paper.’ Get that shmoney. Get it. Get it.” She’s dancing and dipping low as she chants the last of it. Laughter wild, feral.

“Shut up, Mbola.” Mimi commands. “Come on Astrid . . . don’t get mad, girl. You promised. The panel, remember? The open buffet of K-town hotties.”

The panel that afternoon featured stars from Boys Over Flowers, Mimi’s fave Korean soap. Astrid was supposed to be Mimi’s Rosetta Stone wing-woman, pulling guys with the few Korean phrases Young had taught her. Simple stuff, really, like ‘hello,’ annyeong and ‘goodbye,’ annyeong.

Annyeong,” Astrid says, fidgeting with her katana strap, looking at the growing frown on Mimi’s face. “I’ll be back. Just going to check in, see if we sold anything.”

She doesn’t want to come back, doesn’t want to return to the cutting laughter and faux camaraderie of these frenemies, but she knows she will. She is “Elasti-Girl,” (cue sad trombones) bending and contorting to the will of others in a single fold. She hates this about herself, knowing that she will give up all this comic book mishegoss and cave under seismic maternal pressures to head off to an Ivy far, far away, leaving Young in the way more experienced hands of Mbola. It doesn’t take x-ray vision to see this. But for now, in this fantasy land, nothing is decided. She is surrounded by mild-mannered accountants, data entry specialists, computer analysts—all shedding their daytime skins. They thrill to their secret identities in a dreamscape free from the mundanities of rumored downsizings, late mortgage payments, and vacant relationships. For a brief time, they all are heroes. Her too.

#

That morning, Astrid had marveled at the surprising ease of her escape from home. As strongholds go, the Atangana household is rather well fortified, its days regimented by a rigorously upheld agenda of activities sanctioned by her mother. The totemic family calendar marks them all: “Saturday, October 27, 10am-2pm: Mrs. Atangana—church dinner planning meeting // Mr. Atangana—golf with colleagues at Fairlawn // Astrid—college prep with M.F.” M.F. is Mimi, with whom she is supposedly prepping for next week’s college campus tour. As alibis go, Mimi is pretty ideal. She is a play-cousin, from a suitable Cameroonian family that attends the same church as her own and who, above all, possesses the same immigrant values: education and hard work. The Forjindams own a similar beige-painted-by-numbers, prefab mansion a few blocks away from the Atanganas. Both families stoically take their steep suburban tax lumps so that their kids can grow up in nice homes, with really nice neighbors and even nicer school districts.

Mimi never makes straight As like Astrid in said schools, but she does sing in their church’s youth choir, the ultimate imprimatur of a “good girl.” With a thrill, Astrid sometimes likes to imagine the look on her mother’s face if she ever found out that Mimi had had her purity ring resized so she could slip it off effortlessly when she went out on dates. She knows what her mother’s face looks like around Mbola already: the upturned nose, the repeated sniffing. Mbola is a distant relative of the Forjindams. She lives in East Orange, the bizarro West Orange, where her asylum-seeker parents braid hair, tend other people’s lawns, and receive ill-con-sidered hand-me-downs and hand-outs from their West Orange kin. Even further removed from making straight A’s than Mimi, Mbola teases Astrid for “talking white” and attends a crowded high school with metal detectors and girls named after luxury cars and liqueurs like Alizé or Lexus. Astrid’s mother thinks Mbola is an unsavory influence. “Unsavory” like corrupt food left too long on a countertop.

“…And make sure you remind Mrs. Forjindam to bring her okra stew to the church dinner this Sunday, Astrid,” said her mother that morning, cleaving through the family room and its stuffy coterie of plastic-covered couches on her way to the garage. Astrid, her proximity alert blinking rapidly, had hurried in from the kitchen, only three steps behind the hull of her mother’s retreating form.

“Astrid! See me trouble, oh. Where is that girl?” Her mother had stopped, mid-stride, suddenly sensing that perhaps she hadn’t been automatically attended to.

“I’m here, Mummy,” Astrid said.

“Yes, you are. Don’t forget what I told you about the dinner,” said her mother, charging forward once more. Into the garage, then hiking up into her towering Benz M-Class; her mother ticked through her checklist: put dishes in washer, Astrid (garage remote in hand, slow mechanized garage door lifting with the creak of an outdated android), call your grandmother, Astrid (keys turn in the ignition, the craft readies for departure).

“Yes, Mummy,” said Astrid, then again, “yes, Mummy.” The last said to empty air. Her mother had finally taken off.

#

On the PATH train platform into the city, Young, Mimi, and Mbola had assessed Astrid’s costume.

“What are you supposed to be?” Mbola had finally asked, her voice filled with no small amount of suspicion.

“What she is is highly ‘sketch,’” Young answered, giving her his highest praise in a worldview filled with two types of people: those noteworthy enough to be “sketch,” and all the rest who were just plain old “unsketchable.”

“She’s that ninja superhero chick from their comic book,” said Mimi.

“She’s a samurai. And it’s a graphic novel,” said Young.

“Whatevs, superheroes don’t wear glasses,” said Mimi, with finality.

“What about Clark Kent or Beast?” Mbola said, eager to support her wished-for future baby daddy.

“And Cyclops wears that visor thingy so he don’t burn folk up with his eyes. Ooh, ooh, and what ‘bout your girl Wonder Woman, Mimi, what about her?”

“Alter egos don’t count,” Mimi said. “When she’s Wonder Woman, she’s perfect.”

The two girls bickered as Young and Astrid swapped home evasion stories involving synchronized watches and draconian parental curfews.

At the mention of his father, Young sighed repeatedly, running charcoal-stained fingers through his crazed, anime hair, its spiky tufts defiant, jabbing the air excitedly like inky exclamation points. His Dad, senior pastor at the biggest Korean Presbyterian church in Central Jersey, bowed a head full of gelled, upstanding Kim Jong-Il hair in prayer every Sunday morning at 8 am, 10 am and 12 o’clock services. The right Reverend Yoon had serious hair and serious plans for his son to be leader of his flock someday.

Plans that did not involve Young’s blind older brother Park or having his youngest son succumb to a life of frivolous etching.

“You’re going to have to tell him about the letter sooner or later,” Astrid said. “You have to speak up for yourself someday, senpai.”

“Right back at you, kōhai.”

There were two letters actually: Young’s acceptance to a fine arts program at Pratt and Astrid’s to Princeton. Hers was in the note-book she carried everywhere, kept close to her chest like a breath or a promise. Young’s was tucked away, alongside his art supplies, in a hidey hole at school. Both were safeguarded from mothers who “accidentally” read your diary or fathers who sprinkled your “heathenish” art work with holy water.

Young had sighed once again. “Look, tell her you don’t want to go to Princeton. What’s your mother gonna do? Whip out The Photo again?”

The Photo was legendary among her friends, holding sway in their collective imaginations like lore of the One Ring or the Sorcerer’s Stone. Astrid had first seen The Photo when she was ten years old, slipping peas to their dog, Ahidjo under the dining room table. Her mother put her fork down and left the room. She returned with a photo—it was not The Photo yet—but her mother held it up to her face with all the import that it would soon come to hold. You see, Astrid had grown up listening to her classmates’ stories of how tricky parents guilted them into eating liver, Brussels sprouts, and the like with tales of all the little children starving in Africa. Except for Astrid, there was no mystery mal-nourished African child behind door number two.

That child was real.

That child was a relative.

This is your cousin Adama,” her mother had said, pushing the photo even closer to her face, “Look at her! Do you think she can refuse food? Do you?” And Astrid had looked at the little girl standing barefoot in a blush of red dust, yet improbably clean; clad only in a trophy-shiny Super Bowl T-shirt, donation bin-wear from a team that had lost the championship. Adama stood there smiling, a mud brick hut behind her, an uncertain future ahead of her, and the photo became The Photo: her mother’s insurance for her good grades—Adama’s parents could barely afford her school fees—and good behavior—if Adama misbehaved, she was disciplined with a caning. It had worked for a longer time than Astrid was willing to own up to, even to herself.

“I can’t tell my mother anything,” Astrid said. “She’ll kill me.”

“Sure, she will.”

“No, I mean it.” Suddenly, Astrid had a vision, so vivid—Mittyesque her mind supplies. God, she wished her life was that Technicolor, or un-life, as it were. There she lay, her lifeless body prone with arms akimbo in a ghoulish foxtrot, in a photo labeled “Exhibit A.” There was Gwendolyn, her somber older sis the attorney—African parent-approved career #1—defending her mother in court as her brother Elias, the doctor—African parent-approved career #2—testified about “mental duress” and “temporary insanity.”

“If only she had gone to Princeton and become an engineer!” Her mother wailed as a jury of sympathetic peers nodded in understanding. Lawyer, doctor, engineer—the high holy trinity of professions blessed by African parents. Writing graphic novels? No. Friggin’. Way.

#

Astrid and Young “Money” Yoon’s table is at the tail end of a striv-ers’ row of indie comic labels, one-off prints, and handmade fabulist’s figurines. For a moment, Astrid is hopeful when she sees Young talking to a guy who is leafing through their dwindling maybe? stack of merchandise, but then she puts her glasses back on and realizes it’s no customer, just Abel—the skeevy owner of the comic book store at their mall.

“How big was your print run?” Astrid hears Abel ask, as she steps up to the pair, lychee bubble tea in hand.

“’Bout 1000,” Young says.

Astrid nearly spit-takes her boba at Young’s inventive salesmanship. They had really only printed 300 copies of The Seer: The Tales of Augur Brown, a blind swordswoman—Zatoichi meets Cleopatra Jones. Augur had an eerie ability to see inside evildoer’s souls and dispensed a blade-based justice, according to a personal ethos loosely derived from bushido code and the laws of the street.

“Wow, you mean business, dude. I thought this was some sorta vanity project.”

“We told you we were serious about this,” Young says.

Astrid smirks at his emphasis, she can’t help herself.

“Tell you what. I’ll display a coupla copies on my shelves and go in 50/50 on the sales price. Deal?” says Abel, head bobbing in emphasis. His graying ponytail practically wagged with excitement at the thought of profits.

“I’ve got to discuss it with my business partner.” Young looks at Astrid.

“Sure, sure. You do that,” Abel says, then turning to Astrid, says, “Nice get-up.”

Astrid looks at his retreating Hawaiian-shirted bulk, then at Young. She raises an eyebrow.

“I know, I know. He’s a chauvinist ass, who only likes his girls chesty and splayed across comic book covers. Blah, blah, you said it already. Now get over it.” He smiles.

They both knew about Abel’s collection of hentai back in his store room; his top shelf titles held for special clientele with a taste for saucer-eyed dakimakura girls, kitted out in abbreviated plaid minis with Hello Kitty backpacks, and being ravaged by slimy tentacles in every orifice.

“Whatevs,” says Astrid, turning to go. She smiles sweetly. “BTDubz, your girl Mbola says ’Hi’.”

“She’s sooo not sketch,” Young replies.

The first time Young had called Astrid “sketch,” she had kept quiet. She’d just shown him the first draft of her script for Augur Brown’s next installment. They were sitting together on a tweedy brown sofa in a tucked-by corner of the library, their legs inches apart but no actual contact ever made. Astrid found herself wiping suddenly-clammy hands and then her glasses on the hem of her flowery summer dress. Daffodil petals swept clean one lens then the other. Young was silent, poring through her work. When he looked up his eyes seemed to pinball all over her. What was he thinking?What was she thinking? She wrote stories in the margins of textbooks: tales of a father killing his infant son to end a family curse unfolded alongside tangents and quadrants in Bittinger’s Algebra and Trigonometry: Seventh Edition with enhanced study guide: a tale of two sisters on a Jack Sprat spectrum of eating disorders: one anorexic, the other obese, was in the paginated sidelines of Essential Physics by E. W. Rockswold. A niggling shame began coursing its way through her body, burrowing in deep like a chigger, down, down, down. Young finally looked her in the eye, then cast his gaze on the page, then on her again.

“Thank you,” he said simply, pulling out a vast, world-building expanse of drawing paper. He drew her. It had taken all of five minutes but when he finished it felt like the first time, in a long while, that anyone had ever seen her, the real her. Not the “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” or the “damn you tall, shorty” regard that made her feel like some gawky girl Groot.

Young found her lovely. He found her, like he had set sail that day and miraculously discovered her, landing, wide-eyed and intrepid on uncharted shores.

That night she went home. Said the proper “yes, Mummys” at the dinner table and dutifully passed the egusi stew when prompted, all the while this new awareness surging inside like a secret superpower, tingling through her. She looked up sharply. Had her mother just given her a look from across the gari? She gulped the rest of her food as quietly as possible.

Later, in the dark of her room, she was glowing. A thousand Christmas lights flashing and manic, just under her skin. The sensation only just bearable. She knew how to be quiet about relieving the tension, no telltale rustling of bed sheets, no sighs—just a long pillow held tight between the soft V of her thighs, then a squeeze, a squeeze, a squeeze.

#

After way too many texts—where u at? /getting sumthin 2 eat/by auditorium/naw, by Spidey statue/huh?—Astrid finds Mimi in a clutch of adoring fans posing for photos. Mbola is ringside, holding Mimi’s Gucci purse. Astrid supposes all the attention is partly the novelty of Mimi as a “black girl Psylocke,” but most probably because her costume is basically a leotard and some strategically placed purple scarves which barely conceal her massive boobs. Mammaries, Astrid thinks. Mammaries.

Back home in Cameroon, some tribes iron girls’ breasts when they develop too fast. Wooden pestles pounded foufou and flesh alike, anything that was sharp or unyielding would do really: a grinding stone, a coconut shell, a hammer held steady-handed over hot coals. Mothers beat down their daughters’ breasts to keep them safe from come-too-quick womanhood, from the lingering gazes of that older Uncle, that school master, that strapping boy in the classroom’s corner desk at their secondary school. Her mother was born of this tradition. Astrid sometimes caught her mother eyeing her long, wayward limbs in exasperation, as if her growth spurt was somehow a calculated rebellion. Astrid tries to be good, she does, but the harder she tries the harder her mother becomes, still. Her sister Gwendolyn had tried to explain it once, stuff about Astrid being the “last cocoa,” the late-life child their flagging mother tried doubly hard to keep in line yada, yada, yada. It was all so exhausting—her mother’s worries, her nameless fears—but Astrid supposed this was why her mother had lied about The Photo.

A week ago, Astrid had learned the truth, surrounded by dark Twilight poster boys vamping at her from the walls of Mimi’s bedroom. She was checking her Facebook page: scrolling past four pokes, two event invites, and then onto three friend requests. Two were easily dismissed but the third was from some girl she vaguely felt she should know. Someone from summer camp, a Sugar Pine alum maybe? No, the girl listed her hometown as Bamenda, Cameroon. She almost asked her girls if they knew her, but they were busy: Mimi, supposedly studying but in actual truth, instant messaging with a Parisian bodybuilder on Snapchat and a Filipino Tinderoni in BK; Mbola, checking out YouTube tutorials, how-to vids by Ms. D. Vine on the best way to install your own lace front weave. She looked at the girl’s warm, glossy-lipped smile again and stopped cold. It was Adama. As in her cousin, Adama. Adama with 579 friends. Astrid had 32. Adama in dozens of duck-faced selfies and ussies. Astrid had a grainy, class photo as her profile pic. Wearing bifocals, no less. There was Adama with a braided faux-hawk, with kinky twists, in an Escalade, on a merry-go-round, with a cleft-chinned guy tagged as Okono Tambe and a barrel-chested footballer, a Mark Konwifo. What the–?

Astrid jumped up, stumbled to the bathroom, and promptly threw up.

How lame is my life? She thought, then dry heaved once more. Twice more. What life?

Two days later she got her acceptance letter to Princeton, its words standing dark and ominous against the creamy paper. It was official. The reality of that almost made her throw up again. She felt ridiculous for dreaming beyond the picture-perfect life her family wanted for her: nice cars, nice houses, nice husbands, nice jobs. All so tidy. So prefab. Sometimes she went to the mall to get messy, to fuck things up. To pocket pens behind the cashier’s back and fill that well inside herself. Why? Why did she have to make such a mess of things and want more?

“Ouch. What the–?”

Someone just stepped on Astrid’s big toe. Post-photo-op, there is some slight jostling and jockeying for position among the tight band of young men—some spandexed, some not, some with eager lenses jutting, some with limp camera straps dangling and tangling as they pressed in close to her friend. Astrid moves back a bit and her sheathed katana pokes a guy in the belly.

“Sorry,” she mumbles.

“No worries,” he says, looking her over as he rubs his deflated paunch. “Who are you supposed to be?”

“I’m still trying to figure that one out,” Astrid replies.

#

Astrid stares down at the NYC subway bench with its ritual scar-ifications, its palimpsest of celebrity memorials: Tupac 4 Life, R.I.P. Biggie, Forever Whitney. On their trek back to Jersey, Mbola and Astrid sit together silently for a number of reasons.

First, their mouths are full. Astrid is chewing wasabi nuts; Mbola is sucking on sunflower seeds, spitting their recently desalinated husks in a long trail that makes Astrid think of children lost in fairytale woodlands.

Second, they are exhausted. The rest of the afternoon had surged forward in a blur: an advance screening of a new Whedonverse TV show; Mimi’s “honorable mention” in a cosplay contest; a pretty informative panel on how to survive the impending zombie apocalypse. While the “panelists”—three guys in fatigues toting Day-Glo orange rifles—handed out copies of an actual Center for Disease Control zombie-preparedness guide, Mimi and Mbola argued survival scenarios, should an outbreak happen in Africa. Mimi figured high body counts: They can’t even cure Ebola, let alone some zombie virus. Mbola was a tad more optimistic: Stop playing. They would ether them zombie mofos. Them motherland Africans stay packing machetes. Astrid tuned them out and took detailed notes, research for her lemony Richonne one shots, on the instruction drills for how to kill or successfully elude the walking dead. Differentiating, of course, between Romero’s slow, lurching Dawn of the Dead revenants and the fast-moving undead “zoombies” of 28 Days and its ilk. Kill shots to the head were deemed universally appropriate.

Third, and most importantly, Astrid and Mbola are silent because they are alone. Mimi, their buffer, had decamped to a cousin’s house in the Bronx, leaving them in one of those awkward moments when their simmering dislike—usually confined to the occasional whitehead flare-up—now took on a life its own, gained sentience, planned world domination.

Mbola spit out another sunflower seed, breaking the silence, saying, “I read your stuff today. It’s mad dark.”

“Yeah, that’s Young’s style,” says Astrid. Young was crazy for chiaroscuro—all inky blacks, bone-whites with the occasional splash of red in a flagrant homage to his idol, Frank Miller. Her story lines fit the tone.

“You know just what his style is, don’t chu?” Mbola says. “The way you be all up on him, all the time.”

Astrid knows that Mbola is decidedly not Young’s style. He had dismissed the idea of dating her in less than a minute.

Mbola? I’d rather date a Japanese body pillow—better personality.

She’s not all that bad.

She’s crazy, and loud, and –

Whatevs, date the pillow chick. I’m sure you and Keiko-tan will have a nice life together.

Damn straight. Once you go moe you never go back.

Mmmhmm. Better not honeymoon in Paris though.

Astrid had dropped an imaginary mic as she said this, then threw her hands in the air for that burn to end all burns. Shinnichis that they were, that Sunday night’s viewing pleasure had been a docu-mentary on the frequent mental breakdowns of Japanese tourists in the land of croissants and vin rouge.

Alright, alright. I gotta give it up for a PBS snap. Young said, laughing.

“Astrid! Is you listening? You don’t got nothing to say? You too good to talk to me?” Rat-a-tat questions from Mbola, who was working herself into a state, firing up.

“No, I just–”

“Yes, you. You always looking at people and writin’. What you got in that pad about me? You know you ain’t better than nobody. You ain’t no hero.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Tahlmbout you, bitch. You s’posed to be that blind ninja chick, Blue Ivy, Augur Blue–”

“Brown.”

“Blue-black, doodoo brown, whateva . . . You ain’t her, you weak,” says Mbola, poking a long acrylic talon at Astrid’s face. “She can’t see but at least she can open her damn mouth to talk. More than your ass can do.”

“Get your finger out my face,” Astrid claps back, refusing to step away, to cower, but then she falls silent. She always falls. The platform is hollow with her silence till the homeless man slumped over three benches away lets out a random fart. Till Astrid hears the muffled rumble of a train approaching on the opposite track. No more, no more, no more, no more, she thinks, feeling a pounding in her blood as the train, and Mbola draw nearer. No more, no more, no more, no more!

Astrid flashes to a vivid scene, another vision. Her katana slashes at air and sinew and bone. Blood blossoms from jagged platform cracks like vengeful roses. All that is left of Mbola, and her scorn, lies ruined at her feet.

Art Credit: Rossowinch Art

“Hey! I’m talking to you!” Mbola’s strident voice zaps Augur/Astrid back to reality.

“Yeah, get all quiet again, smart-girl,” Mbola continues. “You so smart, why come you got to sneak out your house? Why you stay lying to your Momz all the time?”

Mbola pushes her then. And for the first time in her life, Astrid pushes back.

She slaps, she jabs, she dodges Mbola’s left hook. In their tussle, Mbola grabs her knapsack. Pulls away, panting and triumphant, holding it over the tracks.

“I’ll drop it, bee-yatch,” Mbola snarls through a bloodied, already swelling lip.

“Just try it,” Astrid says, slowly unsheathing her katana. It’s a dull replica really, but she knows if she puts enough force behind a blow, it will hurt like a motherfucker. Her mind fills with chiaroscuro, a darkness of slashing things: Mbola, Abel, her mother, and finally The Photo—nearly bowling her over, nauseous with a need to hurt something. But then suddenly there is a lightness. She feels freed, and is filled with an awareness of her life beyond this moment, a future that is hers to choose, so she hopes. And there’s that tingling again, the itching, sticky glow of it under her skin. She knows the truth of it now.

Mojo, Astrid thinks. Mojo.

She lifts her chin high, lowering her sword to her side as she walks towards Mbola.

“Just try me,” she says.

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Nana Nkweti is a Cameroonian-American writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was the Fall 2017 Phillip Roth Writer-in-Residence at the Stadler Center for Poetry and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Ucross, Byrdcliffe, Kimbilio, Hub City Writers, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Clarion West Writers Workshop. Nana’s writing has been published and is forthcoming in journals and magazines such as Brittle Paper, New Orleans Review, Masters Review, and The Baffler, amongst others.

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Objects of Unexpected Beauty

Lara Ehrlich

My father sits at the kitchen table with his shoulders hunched, staring at a feather cupped in his rough carpenter’s hands. Its barbs are clean and white. The table is bare except for the wooden box still encrusted with dirt. It has no latch, no key. My mother had to bash it open.

The kitchen is cold, and there is no dinner. Seventh grade ended today, so there is no homework. We sit across from each other in silence. I’m often restless, though I try not to be. “Young ladies should not fidget,” my father always says. I will never be a lady.

I try not to fidget tonight, and even sit up straight. There is dirt under my fingernails. I hide my hands in my lap so my father won’t see, but he has forgotten I’m here. He just stares at the feather and doesn’t say goodnight when I go upstairs, my stomach growling.

In my room, there is a feather on my pillow. It glows white in the dark; the special kind of dark that makes you worry you’ve gone blind. When I was little and still afraid, my mother would lie with me, telling me story after story. Little girls who fell in love turned into sea foam or wind. They walked as if on knives, kept silent for seven years, wove thistle shirts until their fingers bled. They never learned to leave locked doors alone. Hunters and thieves and kings pursued them, carved out their hearts, scooped out their eyes, and snipped off their tongues. She told her own story like a fairy tale.

I do not brush my teeth tonight, since she is not here to make me. I cannot hear my father. Maybe he has fallen asleep at the kitchen table. The only sound is the house groaning as it settles.

My father built this house with his own hands. He learned to build from his father, who learned from his father, who made whaling ships. People came from miles around to watch my great-grandfather erect giant ribcages on the shore. He sliced the trees into wide planks and laid them side-by-side. He ran rope between the boards so when they swelled with water, they wouldn’t crack.

My father makes houses like boats, with wood and rope. He built our house for my mother over the pond where they met. He filled the pond with stones, a foundation for their love.

#

There are scraping noises below my window. It is still dark, but I can just make out my father at the edge of the yard by the woods. He digs up the grass from the back door to the edge of the forest. He digs until our yard is a pit of stones surrounded by mountains of dirt.

My father thrusts his shovel under each stone and leans on the handle, so hard it creaks. Finally, the stone sighs a puff of dirt and my father picks it up, bending his knees and keeping his back straight the way we learned how to lift weights in gym class. It was the only useful thing I learned in gym class. He heaves the stones to the side along the tree line until they make a wall around the hole.

My father does not eat the sandwich I make for him. When I ask what he’s doing, he just shakes his head, so I do not ask again. He doesn’t seem to remember that he signed me up for ballet this summer, and I am not going to remind him. I pack my compass and canteen, and slip into the woods.

My mother used to send me searching for what she called “objects of unexpected beauty,” as though she didn’t expect me to find beauty in Stone. But it is here, in the wide fields with crisscrossing stone walls—and the stones themselves. They seem so plain at first, but upon closer inspection, there are threads of quartz glimmering through the granite. It’s true that there’s only so much to Stone, but I have walked the perimeter exactly two hundred and ninety-nine times and I’ve discovered something new on every journey.

I used to bring my treasures to my mother—a stuffed bear with one eye, an hourglass with no sand. In the beginning, she pretended to admire my treasures, but as time passed, she stopped looking, until I no longer brought her anything. The box was different. When I offered it to my mother, her hands shook.

My mother said girls have to take care of themselves. That’s how we avoid turning into sea foam and falling down wells. That’s how we escape hunters and kings who chop and carve and snip and steal. That’s why I practice punching every afternoon.

I got my boxing pad from Old Bob Brick, who works at the deli counter. The veins on the backs of his hands bulge like roots. He was a boxer, and his knuckles are calloused from breaking noses. I like to stare at them while he carefully slices the deli meat. One day, I will have hands like his.

There is a nail on the side of the house where I can hang my pad at punching level. The ground is eroded at the base of the wall here, like gums worn away at a tooth’s root. The box was wedged between two exposed foundation stones.

I do one hundred punches on one side, then a hundred more on the other. The first few weeks of training, my arms ached after twenty punches. Then fifty. Then seventy-five. Now I have calluses on the first two knuckles of each hand.

My father does not like the calluses. He says my bones are still growing. He does not understand that I have to take care of myself. “That’s my job,” he says, while he combs the tangles from my hair.

He has not combed my hair since the night before last, and the tangles may never come out. He has been digging without rest. His palms are blistered and bleeding. He’s tired, but he is not weak. When David Redd pushed me into the deep end and I couldn’t make it to the edge, my father dragged me out. He threatened to kill David if he ever touched me again. David tripped me in gym the next day, but I didn’t tell my father. I just punched him in the stomach, and he hasn’t bothered me since.

When my knuckles are sore, I make my three-hundredth journey around Stone. It feels like time should have stopped when my mother left, but the town continues without us. People go about their lives, shopping for groceries and discussing car repairs in loud voices. The sidewalks and shop windows are too bright, as if it’s just rained.

I return to the dirt and the stone walls and my father’s silence. I help dig.

Digging is useful. I can feel my muscles tearing and reknitting stronger than before. I pretend I’m searching for treasure. I find a trove of shells that gleam in the sun. I find a skeleton with wing bones folded tight around a hollow heart space. The swan’s long notched neck is graceful even in death.

My father won’t let me keep it. He lifts it with his shovel and deposits it gently in the woods.

#

When the wall of stones has reached my waist, my father pries up a rock, and the earth below it becomes wet, the way blood wells up after a tooth is pulled. He shouts, and I drop my shovel. He spins me in circles, slipping in the mud. He has never had trouble lifting me before. His eyes are wide and his mouth is open as if he might laugh.

He digs with renewed purpose, though he will not say why. Blood runs down the shovel handle. I help him dig into the damp space, and by evening, a pocket of what used to be our backyard is filled with water.

My father is still digging when I go up to bed without brushing my teeth. I haven’t brushed them in three days, since my mother left. I lie on top of the sheets, guarding my treasures. It is too hot to sleep, and the shovel scrapes below my window.

Sometimes, when my mother did not feel like telling stories, she would ask what I wanted to be when I grow up. An archaeologist. Geologist. Anthropologist. “What else?” she asked. Architect. Historian. “What else?”

She would lament that she had never accomplished anything, except having me. She wanted to be an artist, but had nothing to paint. My father suggested art classes at the community college, but the house would fall apart without her, she said.

She’d lie in bed beside me in the dark, and as she drew one finger between my eyes, she’d say, “You’re the best thing in my life.”

#

My father is asleep on the steps with his head resting against the house. His legs are outstretched, his feet submerged in the pond that has conquered our backyard. His face is tipped to the sun. His nose is peeling, and his cheeks are shadowed with stubble. When I sit beside him, he drags his eyes open, as if they are made of iron.

“Now she’ll come home.” His voice is rusty.

My father knows better than that. He knows my mother’s stories as well as I do. One task is not enough to win her back. He must move a mountain with a silver spoon. Or plant an orchard in a single day. And when he finally finds my mother, he must keep his arms around her, even when she turns into a viper or fire or cloud of wasps. He must prove he deserves her.

The totems that help a hero along a magical quest are as elusive as breadcrumbs. Knotholes disguise entries to other worlds. Wooden shoes take the hero bounding across the ocean. I keep my powers of observation sharp so I won’t miss something and end up spitting toads.

Armed with my compass and canteen, and my mother’s feather in the pouch around my neck, I scour the woods for enchantments. While my father is resting, I will discover the next task. It’s my fault she left, after all.

I’m concentrating so hard I trip over the swan skeleton tangled in a nest of vines. Its neck bones have tumbled into a heap. They are smooth, as if worn by waves. I arrange them like a puzzle, except for the one I slip into the pouch with the feather.

A pebble glances off the top of my head, and a boy laughs in the branches. Though he is very high, I can see that when he laughs, the corners of his eyes crinkle.

“Who are you?” he calls down to me.

“Alex.”

“That’s a boy’s name.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s short for Alexandra.”

He looks at me thoughtfully, without blinking.

“I’m Amir,” he says. “You can come up, if you want.”

I don’t need his permission, but I’m good at climbing trees. I know just where to put my feet. And a tree is almost as good as a roof for searching out secrets. The light sifts through the branches as though I’m underwater, climbing toward the sun.

Amir slides back on his branch to let me sit beside him.

“Most girls can’t climb that well,” he says.

His voice rises and falls. I know all about how boys’ voices fly out of their control, which must be embarrassing.

“They could if they trained.”

He raises one eyebrow, as if he’s practiced in front of the mirror.

I can see everything from here: my father’s pond, my father on the steps, the road running out to the highway. I can see all the secrets in a town that says it has no secrets.

“Did you hear about the bear bullet?” Amir asks. “Last week on I-90, two cars were driving from opposite directions, both going about eighty miles an hour—”

“Is this a math problem?” It’s rude to interrupt, but I don’t like math. I don’t like questions about two trains coming from opposite directions and what time they would reach the station. In the real world, you’d just check the train schedule.

“Two cars were coming from opposite directions,” he says, as if he hadn’t heard me, “and a bear came loping out of the woods. One car hit it—whack!—and sent it flying like a bullet right through the windshield of the other car.” He slams his palms together. “A bear bullet.”

“Was the bear okay?”

“Of course not.”

His smugness is annoying, but my father says it’s not polite for a young lady to point out other people’s faults, especially when she has so many of her own.

“Have I disturbed you?” He looks a little nervous, as if I might cry. So I tell him one of my mother’s stories, about the Marsh King who dragged a maiden down into the deep, black mud to be his bride.

A smile cracks across his face. He unwinds a rope from the trunk, and a basket descends from the branches. He is well fortified. There are other ropes leading to a box of cookies, a flashlight, a bucket of rocks he calls missiles. He even has a net to trap intruders. He says I am lucky he didn’t use his net on me because he made it himself and it’s strong enough to capture a full-grown man. He could live up here, if he had to.

Across the pond, my father stands and steadies himself against the house. His ribs poke through his shirt. He rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms like a little boy, but no one would dare to pity him.

“What’s wrong with him?” Amir asks, his eyes gentle with concern, as if he pities me.

“Nothing’s wrong with him.” I have my father’s temper. My eyes bug out and a vein in my forehead twitches like a worm on a hook. Sometimes, I make myself mad on purpose, just to watch my face change.

“We’re on a quest, and you’re wasting my time.” I shove back on the branch so fast I upset one of his baskets, and missiles rain to the ground. Amir grabs my wrist.

“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice soaring out of reach. “If you tell me about it, I can help. I can teach you to make nets and launch missiles.”

His fingers are hot. His eyes are blue. My mother warned me not to trust boys; they will take what they want without asking. But Amir can’t take anything from me. I have calluses on my knuckles and scabs on my knees. I’ve made it to one hundred and ten punches without getting tired.

“I don’t need help.” I leap from the tree in a single bound.

#

How My Parents Met, my father’s story:

He was putting a roof on Old Bob Brick’s house. You can see everything from a roof, like how the forest around Stone goes on forever. You can see all the secrets in a town that says it has no secrets.

From the roofs of Stone, my father saw Mrs. Milne the librarian kissing Mrs. Fuste the pharmacist behind the grocery store. He saw Millie Rosewood sneak a cigar out of Old Bob Brick’s pocket while he napped in his backyard. He saw Marcus White’s fiancée break his heart, and he saw Marcus walk into the woods without a compass or a canteen. My father watched and watched, but Marcus never returned.

My father saw many other fascinating things—but by far, the most fascinating was my mother. He was sitting on the roof, eating his supper and looking for secrets, when he saw her, bathing in the pond.

My father stole through the trees to the water’s edge. My mother had left her dress on the ground, and he picked it up so it wouldn’t get wet. He stood there, holding my mother’s dress.

He says she wasn’t embarrassed. She waded from the pond and held out her hand. And that is how my parents met.

How My Parents Met, my mother’s story:

She would say nothing, only sigh.

#

My stomach groans in my sleep. The house groans too, shuddering away from the water that laps at its sides. A film is closing over my father’s pond, and mosquitoes hum above it like a storm cloud. My father waits on the back steps. He waits for the king of the birds, or the wise fish, or the wind. He waits for someone to tell him what’s next.

He doesn’t answer when I ask why he’s not eating his sandwich. He just stands in the shadow of the house, staring at the pond. Maybe he has sold his voice to the sea witch, or taken a vow of silence.

He has deep wells below his eyes. I wrap my arms around his waist like I did when I was little. The mosquitoes whine above the pond. My father’s heart beats against my cheek. I used to find his hug reassuring.

He breaks free of my arms and staggers inside as if he has never walked before. The hallway light gleams off his scalp where his dark hair is wearing away. At the end of the hall behind the staircase, he shifts aside the chair that guards my mother’s studio. It was a storage room until one day he covered my mother’s eyes and led her inside. He’d exchanged the boxes and cleaning supplies for a couch and an easel with a fresh canvas. He’d hung her favorite picture on the wall. In it, a woman stands at a window with her hips cocked, one foot tipped behind her. Her hair is tousled like she just woke up. All you can see out the window is water, as if the house is floating on the ocean.

My mother flung her arms around my father’s neck, her dark hair falling loose. My father dipped his hands into it, as she looked up at him, smiling. I remember that smile because I saw it so rarely—when I asked for another bedtime story, when I brought her my first treasure.

My father closes the door behind him. The flies circle his uneaten sandwich. I should have kept my arms around him.

I won’t let the house fall apart. I wash my father’s dish and sweep the dirt from the doorway. There is nothing left to do, and yet my mother was always harried. She washed the dishes and the laundry, and when the dishes and the laundry were finished, she mopped the floor. By the time the floor was dry, there was more laundry, and then dinner and more dishes. Endless chores kept her from leaving the house, until her skin was so pale her veins shone through it like rivers.

A plank jumps beneath my feet. A moan shakes the foundation. The floorboards ripple from wall to wall, but the straining ropes hold them in place as they crack like knuckles. I press my eye to a knothole. Water glimmers below the floorboards. The spark of golden fish. The Marsh King’s milky eyes glowing in the gloom. A knock so loud I thump my forehead on the floor.

It’s just Amir on the front steps. He holds out a bag of powdered donuts and asks if I’ll teach him how to punch. The Marsh King moans deep under the house.

#

Amir’s fingers are long and narrow, and his nails are bitten down. My hands are not as quick—but they are stronger. He admires my calluses, and I teach him to keep his thumb folded over his knuckles as he punches. He leaves streaks of blood on my punching pad. When sweat runs into his eyes, he asks me to tie a bandana around his forehead. My fingers fumble in his hair as I pull the knot tight.

While my father sews robes from thistles or spins flax into gold, Amir and I collect missiles. He shows me how to weave a net that can capture a full-grown man. He doesn’t tease me like the boys at school, or tell me I don’t act like a girl. He doesn’t care that I haven’t brushed my teeth in days. And he is a good audience for my mother’s stories. He likes their darkness, full of wind and stolen voices.

Amir has heard the same stories—except the versions he knows have been milked of their poison. They have cartoon villains and happy endings. He likes mine better, he says, while his fi ngers knot the twine. In my mother’s stories, the monsters are real.

The trunk warms my back. The branch grazes my thighs. My legs hang in the hot air as Amir pulls a picnic basket up through the branches. Sandwiches and lemonade and chocolate chip cookies. He smells like chalk on hot pavement.

“Do you believe in monsters?” he asks. His hands tighten on the rope. Our picnic swings in the sun.

“Of course.”

“The Marsh King and the troll at the bridge, Rumpelstiltskin and the Undertoad—they’re all the same,” he says.

“I guess they could be.”

When I close my eyes, the sun glows through my eyelids. I practice heightening my other senses. The hairs on my arms lift as the wind swings to the east. I feel the warmth of Amir’s legs, so close to mine but not quite touching. If I listen hard enough, I might hear what the wind is saying.

“I’ve seen him,” Amir says, hugging the branch with his knees as if afraid he’ll fall.

“Who?”

“The Marsh King. He’s as big as a bull and covered in warts. He eats children and pets, and his mouth is so wide he could swallow you whole. He waits below your bed, and under the stairs, and in the pool to drag you down by the ankles. And he’s not always hiding. Sometimes, he’ll sit at the kitchen table with a newspaper. Or wait in the truck, listening to the radio. He could be anywhere.”

He weighs a missile in his palm.

The missiles are chunks of granite mottled with quartz. I slip one into my pouch with the feather and the bone. It knocks heavy against my chest.

I let him hold the feather, burning white against his sun-dark hands. He strokes the barbs with his fingertip so they separate and reseal in a neat row. He listens as I tell him the one story I’ve held back, the one that bound my mother to Stone, to my father and me.

Amir spins the feather between his fingertips. He is silent so long I wish I hadn’t said anything. Then he tucks the feather behind my ear.

#

Cracks spider up the walls. The Marsh King’s milky eyes glow beneath the floorboards. He will not answer my questions.

Amir and I search for entrances to other worlds and the wooden shoes that take the hero bounding across the ocean. We trace the same old paths through the woods and collect missiles and weave nets, but nothing happens.

We wait on the back steps for the king of the birds, or the wise fish, or the wind. I don’t know what’s next. The day is empty and heavy. Amir stirs the water with his toes, sending sluggish ripples against the house. My knee sweats where it presses against his, and our feet are ghostlike beneath the water. A mosquito alights on my wrist. Amir brushes it away, and the pressure of his fingers remains long after his touch.

The studio door is locked. I press my ear to the wood, and though I can’t hear my father, I know he is still hard at work. But he needs to act faster. Soon, she will forget us.

#

The darkness is so thick my eyes ache. My bed skates across the floorboards. My pictures tip off the walls as the house keels like a ship on a rough sea.

The water ripples from my steps in oily rings. Here, at the spot where I found my mother’s box, the house rises off its foundation. The pond has reclaimed the land beneath it. Between the house and the pond there is a sliver of space like a cavern at low tide. All this time, I’ve been peering into knotholes, while this must be the entrance to my mother’s world. The cavern is just high enough for me to crawl inside.

“What are you doing?” Amir kneels beside me. He peers under the house, the planes of his shoulder blades lifting beneath his shirt. The mosquitoes swarm around us. The water soaks up my legs as I crawl into the cavern.

Amir grabs me around the waist. My shirt rides up, and his hands skid across the bare skin of my hips.

“Please.” His fingers hook onto my hipbones. Everything rocks above me, open and ravaged. My mother warned me.

“Let’s do something else,” Amir says. “Something normal. We could go to a movie.”

“No.” Like knuckles on a punching pad. That’s how it starts: movie, then house and child, laundry and dishes and more laundry. Amir releases my waist.

The pond is black and still as pavement. I almost apologize, but I’m not sure I should be sorry.

“I saw her,” he says. His voice is thick, as if he’s struggling against a spell compelling him to spit words like toads. “I was in the tree and I saw her, days ago. She came out of the house with a suitcase and got into a car on the corner, and she drove away. Your mother left, and you know it. Grow up, Alex.”

A cloud of mosquitoes lifts around him as he splashes away, and I kneel in the greasy pond until he is gone.

A moan ripples through the water, more a vibration than a sound. The Marsh King crouches below the house. His milky eyes glow in the gloom. His hide quivers with anticipation. He could swallow me whole.

#

My father does not answer my knock. The key to my mother’s room still hangs on the kitchen hook. When I open the door, dust sifts through the air and settles over him. He is lying on my mother’s couch with his face to the wall. The curtains are drawn. He does not move an inch. He does not make a sound. I hold my breath, afraid he might be dead, but I can just barely hear him breathing. The easel stands empty in the corner. My mother never bought paint.

There are no thistle shirts, no skeins of gold, no boots that take the hero bounding across the sea. There is nothing except a sad man in a quiet room. All this time, my mother has been waiting, while my father has been lying here. And instead of helping, I was playing with a boy.

The blood rushes in my ears. The vein in my forehead throbs. I press my hands against his back. He does not turn away from the wall.

“What about the quest?”

My voice hangs empty in the air.

#

In my mother’s stories, the maiden sinks through the swamp, through the ceiling of a crystal palace where toad servants clothe her in silken gowns. She tumbles down a well into a golden forest. She walks for seven days that feel like seven minutes. Oceans peel back like orange rinds. Her dress always stays clean.

The ground slopes and the water deepens. I am not afraid. I have calluses on my knuckles and scabs on my knees. I’ve made it to one hundred and twenty punches without getting tired. I have trained for this.

The ground drops away beneath my feet. It’s so dark I can’t tell whether my eyes are open or closed. The water slides against my lips. My legs tingle with the brush of darting fish. Moss seeps from the house’s belly, and the water trapped here is sluggish. Wood rasps the top of my head. The water is rising—or the house is sinking.

One last gasp of air, and then nothing but the weight of water on all sides. I hold my breath, pushing through the quiet and the cold. Oily bubbles erupt against my cheeks. Though I kick, I’m no longer sure I’m moving, and there’s no space to turn around. My lungs ache. No one knows I’m here.

The treasure pouch knocks against my chest. I fumble at the swollen knot. The feather, the missile—the bone. I put the bone between my lips, and air trickles into my throat.

Moans swell around me like whale calls. The Marsh King crouches below, milky eyes glowing in the gloom, greasy hide quivering with anticipation. His talons dig into my ankle, and he yanks me down, tearing at my legs. He spins me like an alligator rolls its prey. My head slams the underside of the house. Colors burst behind my eyes. I grip the bone between my teeth and wrestle Amir’s missile from the pouch.

I draw my knees to my chest, making myself small, and smash the missile hard between my feet. A groan thrums through my bones. The shock of it jumps in my eyes like tears, and the grip on my ankle loosens. I strike again and again, turning the water coppery, kicking until his grip releases. His groans thunder through my stomach. Water pours up my nose, burning my throat. My heart drums in my ears. My knees scrape stone.

The ground slants upward. The water lowers, and I breathe deeply again, emerging onto the bank of a lake surrounded by pines as tall as masts. Stars peer through branches. The night smells like pine, rainwater, the musk of bears. When I wade from the lake, my clothes are dry. The sun hangs in the treetops, turning the forest gold.

A blizzard of feathers darkens the sky. Twelve swans swarm the bank of the lake, their eyes sharp with suspicion. They circle me, swiping at my ankles with their beaks.

I should recognize her by the way she holds her head or by the slant of her eyes. They fix me with an unblinking gaze, their necks weaving like snakes. But I do not know her. I don’t know what she wanted before she met my father, or why she stayed with us so long. I don’t know who she would have been, or what she would have painted.

They crowd me, striking my sides, my arms, my thighs, leaving angry stripes on my skin. One rears back, revealing a bare patch just inside her left wing.

The feather is still in my pouch. Its barbs are clean and white. I place it before her, pointed at her breast.

The swans fall still. My skin throbs where the marks are turning blue. The swans enfold me and press their bodies close. The one with the bare patch lays her head in my lap. I curl my fingers around her neck and close my eyes.

“I came to bring you home,” I say.

She turns cold, contracting into coils sliding around my waist. Then she expands, her scales shifting to thick, hot fur. She grows until my arms cannot reach around her. She thrashes and bites, slicing my skin, but I cling to her and do not cry out. She breaks into a swarm of hornets, and I gather them in my arms, even as they drive their needles into my chest and neck and cheeks.

The hornets collapse in on themselves. The sting dissolves. My arms are empty.

Fingers trace my forehead, my eyelids, my tears. I was the best thing in her life, she said. I keep my eyes closed tight, memorizing her touch even as it fades.

The beat of wings forces me to kneel among the leaves churning across the forest floor. The trees thrash in anger. The wind rebels on my behalf, but the swans are stronger. They rise, sweeping toward the pines. Her long neck arches as if in pain. Her mournful call shivers, as it is whipped away by the wind.

The sun casts her shadow on the pond. Her feathers stand out in relief, like the prints I used to make in school by resting an object—a coin, a key—on paper. The sun burns the world away around each feather, leaving it imprinted in negative space.

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Lara Ehrlich’s writing appears or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, The Columbia Review, The Normal School, The Minnesota Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and River Styx, among others, and she is working on a short story collection. To learn more, visit www.LaraEhrlichWrites.com.

Nike sneakers | Air Jordan

Honey and Cold Stars

Amy Rose Capetta

One day Megi asked me how the third faerie war started, and I worried that if I gave the wrong answer, she would devour me.

A lot of our friendship was like that.

We were sitting on a picnic table near the park, our butts on the tabletop, our feet on the bench. Everywhere my body touched the table I felt like a cold plank, and everywhere I pressed against Megi was warm and melting. Our arms had been linked for at least an hour, our legs lined up ankle to thigh. I thought if anyone spotted us from far away, we would have looked like one creature, a tangle of human and faerie.

“Ummm,” I said. “The third faerie war, like all wars, had a tangled set of causes…” This sounded like the start of a bad essay for World History. “Why do you think I can tell you anything new? I’m not an expert on human-faerie relations.”

“You seem pretty advanced to me,” Megi said in a whisper that would have made the word sultry pack up and go home.

I kept my eyes in front of me. The woods were broken up by the remains of a mall. Trees sprouted off the top of a Macy’s at one end as if the store were a giant planter. The sunset raged red and purple, and Megi and I might have been the only human and faerie in the whole world watching it together. I tried not to let my worries about that spike into panic.

“Come on,” Megi said. I caught the corner of her smile without turning to face her. “Play with me.”

“What can I win?” I asked, my voice crackling over the words.

I wondered, for the billionth time, what would happen if I kissed her. Would my solemn lips cancel out Megi’s smile? Or would her smile drip into me, one slow drop at a time, until I was grinning wide?

I packed up my anger at faeries and humans and the whole broken world, packed it up tight enough that I could keep carrying it.

“I don’t remember that much about the war starting,” I lied. I remembered the exact day; I could crawl back into it, sitting in eighth grade homeroom, listening to other people stumble over the first reports, try to wrap them up in words that made sense, even if it was the worst possible kind. Attack. Invasion. Terrorism. But it wasn’t really any of those things.

I remembered the school closing, but that was later, right after the Great Planting.

“We didn’t have homework that first day.” I’d always been one of those kids who liked school, who craved books. Mostly fantasy. Megi told me that anything with faeries in it gets read at Court while everybody laughs at how wrong we got it and drinks honey spiked with whiskey and moonbeams.

Megi took an axe out of her leather shoulder bag. It had six identi-cal blades. A snowflake axe. She went to work sharpening it against her fingernails.

“It started with global warming,” I said. It felt good to be talking, even about this, because it meant I wasn’t just staring at Megi as she took me by the shoulders and turned me to face her. She had a broad face and a broad curving body. The sunset lit her edges on fire. Her garment of leaves and leather constantly shifted, as if some wind was rustling it, exposing new patches of skin. “Humans screwed up the planet so hard that it was never going to recover. And the faeries, ummm, they’d been hiding out since the Industrial Revolution. Before that, humans could talk to them, and sometimes they made out with each other.” This was starting to feel like a tangent. I circled back to the main point. “The faeries came out of hiding because the world was about to be unlivable, and taking over from the humans was pretty much the only way to save it. Well, first you tried to leave Earth, and then you came back. That’s when the battles started. Humans outnumbered faeries a thousand to one, and we still thought guns and tanks and bombs were a big deal back then.”

“And yet, here we are.” The blade sparked against Megi’s nails. “Babysitting the human species is not really fun for us, Ayla. In a few generations, if the balance is right again, I’ll get to be a seam of crystal in a rock.” Megi’s smile was so full and bright that it felt dangerous—like the kind of moon my gran always said made people do strange things. Deeds that glistened at the edges with wildness.

I looked away, toward the woods.

When I was a kid, I lived in a suburb where I had to walk half a mile to the lot behind the CVS to reach the only thing that looked like real woods. I spent hours back there finding things. Moon-colored rocks and tightly curled ferns. Scoops of dark earth or mirror-water that sat perfectly in my hands.

I wanted to ask Megi if those had been faeries, too. But she got to the asking first. “Who started the war?”

“Why do you care about this all of a sudden?” We had known each other for years and we’d never talked about what happened before we were friends. Maybe that was how we stayed friends.

“Who. Started. The. War.”

“Humans did,” I said, because that’s how I felt most days. “We started it without meaning to.”

Megi didn’t tell me if I was right or wrong. But she didn’t devour me either.

She slid down one strap of my tank top, baring my shoulder to the cool air. She trailed a finger down it. That quick, sliding motion reminded me of a single tear running down someone’s face.

And then she went to work on me. She took out a small tin of bright blue powder and spat in it. Dipping the snowflake axe into the dye, she laced the edge with color. Then she set the blade to my shoulder. Lightly.

“Humans didn’t make out with faeries,” she corrected, her whisper hitting my bare shoulder. “They made love. Long and slow and languorous.”

If talking about sex was a path in the woods, Megi was always veering onto it. Not that I didn’t think about sex. I just didn’t tellher I was thinking about it. “Sadly, we don’t do that anymore.” Her whisper was closer to my ear this time. Her breath stayed on my skin, but the words went right to my brain.

I wondered what color my face was. It probably matched the red-purple sunset. That was probably what she wanted. “Yeah,” I said. “Tragic.”

She swirled the blade against my skin.

“Why don’t do they do that anymore?” I asked. It was the first question I’d managed. Any little skitter of triumph I felt disappeared as she frowned at my shoulder and answered me with a deep, deep silence.

“Do you want to go to Court with me tonight?” she finally asked, her voice as edgy as the axe on my skin. Megi asking me to go to Court was like being invited to prom by the prettiest girl in school, and also to meet ten generations of her family at the same time.

“Is that…allowed?” I asked.

Megi clapped a hard look over her face. “It is if I want it to be.”

I looked down at my arms and found them slick with spirals—shells, or maybe galaxies. She had been painting me so I could go to Court. That had been her plan the whole time. I was probably the first human who’d been asked in at least a hundred years. “Of course I’ll go with you, Megi.”

She smiled, her face spiky with pain. “Of course.”

“What?” I hated how clumsy I was with her. It felt impossible to say the right thing. When I managed, there was this beautiful humming balance, and then somehow I would crumble it.

Megi leapt off the picnic table, and the light took hold of her hair, which was multi-colored like an autumn morning—red, brown, and the smoky blue that rose from chimneys. Her hair was also a mess, and it writhed around her shoulders as she paced. “You don’t think you can say no to me. You know I would never turn you into a tree, right?”

“It’s hard not to think about sometimes,” I muttered.

The war had started out in favor of the humans, rumbling along victory after victory, as our weapons did exactly what they were designed to do. But we forgot about magic, and desperation, and then in a single week, faeries turned ninety-five percent of the human population into oaks and birches and maples. Of course, the types of trees were different depending on which ones were native to that part of the world. Faeries would never magic someone into an invasive species. But the main point was that so many trees were now people we used to know. There was no way of being sure who had started out as a conifer and who was your old history teacher. It was smart. It kept us from cutting anybody down.

I looked out at the woods and tried to see them the way I was supposed to—as the end of some glorious era of humanity. All I could remember was the oily stomachache I got after eating McDonald’s, the hours spent filling in test bubbles, the way Mom couldn’t stop worrying about getting the best price on car insurance. “I don’t think it would be terrible to be a tree,” I whispered.

Megi ran her fingers through my hair, all the way from the roots to the messy tips, tugging gently when she reached the ends beneath my chin. “That’s why I like you, Ayla. You think about these things.”

#

My family lived inside a hill, which was better than a cave, because frankly, bats are disgusting. It wasn’t as good as a cliffside or a treetop village, but by the time we resettled, those were all taken.

Mom had gone out, probably tracking a deer or something, but Dad was in the kitchen stabbing at his dead calculator. The batteries had been out of juice for over a year, but he still tried it every day. He was adding up columns of numbers he’d carved into the table with a tiny knife. Before the third faerie war, Dad was an accountant. He thought that staying an accountant made him a rebel. I thought it made him sad and a little bit squinty.

I passed through the earth-walled room, picking up a candle on the way. It would be dark soon, and I wanted to see as well as I could while I got dressed in the little nook we called my room. “Going out,” I said.

Dad didn’t look up from his dead slab of plastic. “With Rob? Gustavo?”

I made a noise that wasn’t a yes or a no. Sort of a hmhmpfh.

Let Dad think I was going on a date and repopulating the earth.

He had told me once that it was my rebel destiny to have babies. Lots and lots of human babies. Mom didn’t care about rising up—she just wanted to live a quiet life as far away from the faeries as she could get. They had turned her parents and brother and nieces and nephew into Douglas firs. She didn’t like Christmas anymore. She said that the overlap of good memories and bad ones made her brain swirl.

“I’ll be back before dawn,” I said.

“Good,” Dad said. “Sounds good.” Then he threw the calculator at the dirt wall and a clod of dirt exploded.

With no school to take attendance and no phones to check up on us, it was shockingly easy to sneak around with Megi. Most of the teenagers I knew were taking full advantage of this in their own ways—they just weren’t spending time with faeries.

I wanted to explain to Dad that I’d tried to hang out with humans. And then Megi showed up at my elbow one day, bright and chattering. She looked more nervous than I felt, worries writhing on her face like freshly caught fish. I liked that I could see exactly what she was feeling, even when it was bad. I liked that my own feelings doubled, then tripled, as I walked next to her through the quiet woods.

Within an hour, she’d told me that she was an outcast among the faeries. “I’m pretty much reviled.”

“Why?” I asked, way too fascinated.

“Oh, you know, I think we should be making some kind of patch-work future with the humans.”

“I would sleep under that quilt,” I said. “But it might give me weird dreams.”

Her wide lips split into a grin, and then she laughed, and the earth under our feet cracked slightly. I stepped back, almost ran into a tree, and then whirled around to apologize to the person who was probably trapped inside. “Sorry, sorry,” I said, backing away from the trunk.

When I looked back at Megi, she was staring at the ground. Right where her laugh had fallen, a starry white patch of Queen Anne’s lace had burst into flower.

I was down on my knees as quickly as Megi. She studied the flowers intently. I’d never seen a faerie actually use magic before, and it made breathing feel new and complicated. She pinched her fingers and ran them up the stem of a flower, and I wondered if any human would have felt their blood sliding around in response, or if that was just me. Then she plucked the flower and was leaning forward to slide it behind my ear before I could even think about how close that put us.

Her body, my space.

Her frown, my smile.

“No one has ever made me laugh before,” she said, her lips offset with mine, but only slightly. If I pressed forward an inch, and then another, I would catch the edge of her mouth with mine.

“You mean… today?” I asked.

“I mean ever,” she said.

“I wasn’t alive for most of ever,” I said. “But if I’m the funniest thing so far, it must have been grim.”

She laughed again, and the ground beneath us grew snowy with white flowers.

“Aren’t faeries clever?” I asked. “They must laugh all the time.”

“Clever and funny aren’t the same thing,” Megi said. “One is all about amusing yourself, it’s a sort of trinket for your brain to play with. Faeries are very fond of trinkets. They’re less interested in jokes.”

“I’m not a stand-up comedian or anything,” I said, which felt strange as soon as it came out of my mouth. That profession had gone extinct.

Megi ran one hand down her throat. “I can’t laugh unless I’m in this body, and it feels so strange.”

It didn’t look strange to me. It looked glorious. Maybe that wasn’t how it felt from the inside, though. She twirled a piece of her hair around her fi nger, tighter and tighter, until a curl of smoke spiraled into the air. I snatched her hand away.

“Sorry,” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said, even though my fingers were throbbing. A blister rose where I’d touched her. “Only you can prevent forest fires,” I muttered.She didn’t laugh at that one. Too human, I guess.

Megi looked at my bright red hand. “You’ll never speak to me again,” she intoned, each word like dire prophecy. I must have given her what my mother calls A Look, because she added, “None of the other humans will speak to me more than once.”

“Maybe I can help with that,” I said, even though most humans barely talked to me.

“Maaaaybe,” Megi said, the word flaring with possibility. “Or it could just be you and me for a while.”

I nodded a little too eagerly.

After that, Megi showed up a few times a month, only when I was alone. She never had to tell me we were a secret. Until today, I thought we would stay a secret forever.

#

When I left the hill currently known as home, electric blue dusk had already fallen. It saturated me fast. I wondered if it made me look slightly more magical in my best shorts and a shirt made of scraps from the shirts I’d outgrown, sewed back together. Going to Faerie Court probably required something better, finer, more enchanted, but this was all I had.

I stood in the nearest moon-brushed field and waited. Megi loved entrances. I loved watching them. This time she floated in on a sort of armchair made of clouds, wearing a cobweb dress that didn’t cover much.

Megi was young for a faerie, which meant she had been around for only a hundred years. But she hadn’t been alive in the human sense. Most of that time had been spent as a rock at the bottom of a river, a grain of sand off the coast of Maine, a white dwarf star. So many nights, she’d laid on the ground, our heads touching, our bodies pointed in opposite directions. She told me about the few times she’d been in a human body, to dance in honeysuckle rain or to test what a storm felt like against her skin. I loved all of her stories, except for the star ones. They were too lonely for me. When she told them, I ached cold for hours.

“Oh,” she said, running her hand down the veinwork of my shirt. “All of your seams are on the outside.”

“Is that a bad thing?” I asked, shivering.

“It’s an Ayla thing,” she said. Which didn’t really answer my question.

She stepped down from the cloud chair, patted it like an obedient dog, and it dissolved. She offered me her arm, and I noticed that her arms and legs were painted with the swirls she had put on me, except hers were shimmering green to go with my blue.

Megi led me into the woods. We walked through the woodsy silence, which is actually full of sounds—cracking branches and tree whispers and insects trying to hook up.

“Watch this,” Megi said. I turned to face her. She held up her thumb and forefinger and rubbed them together. A blue-green wisp rose from her fingertips. I heard the small but satisfying crack of a nutshell coming apart.

“What was that?” I asked.

“A second,” Megi said. “It was closed up tight, so I opened it. I wanted to feel like we had more time together, just the two of us, before we got to Court.”

I nodded, secretly thrilled. I tightened my arm around hers. She smelled like the world’s best apple cider, sharp and sweet with twelve distracting spices. I wanted as much time with her as I could get. And then I thought—maybe she was just afraid of what would happen when we made it to Court. Maybe I should be more afraid.

I followed Megi further into the forest. In a little while, we came to a clearing with a shiny hill in the center, pushing up toward the canopy. I walked over to it and slid my fingers along the metal. It was as warm as skin, etched with the sort of markings Megi had put on our arms. She opened a door that I never would have noticed, and fog rolled out. I stepped back to get a better look at the whole thing.

“Faerie spaceship?” I asked, to be one hundred percent sure.

“Faerie spaceship,” Megi confirmed. She shrugged like it was no big deal. “They make great ballrooms.”

I had always wanted to see one of these up close. The year when I was thirteen, the planet was ringed with faerie spaceships. We wasted a lot of time thinking it was an alien invasion. The humans had never considered that there may have been creatures on our own planet that were highly intelligent and also highly interested in escaping our mess. In the end they came back, though. Megi told me they couldn’t stand being away from everything they had loved for so long.

#

Inside the spaceship, the faeries were brilliant and gorgeous and perfect and everywhere. It was like staring into a kaleidoscope that had come to life. I had to blink a lot and rub my eyes. The whole body of the ship was curved and open, filled with hanging plants that had long spiky tendrils and didn’t need soil to grow. The floor was covered with earthy-colored tiles in organic shapes that fitted together snugly.

“Do you want something to eat?” Megi asked, turning us toward a room that seemed to be a dedicated feasting area. There were tables heaped with roasted meat, shining fruit, oozing honeycomb. I thought I saw someone biting into a live peacock. Megi shook her head, the exact same way I would if I took her home and Dad did something embarrassing, like showing her his calculator. “Let me get you a drink,” she said. “I would stay away from the moonbrew. But everything else should be safe.”

“I don’t think any of this is safe,” I whispered.

Megi stared at me. Sometimes it felt like her stare could slice through me without any help from an axe. “Do you want to dance?”

“Ummmm,” I said. “Okay.”

Yes, I meant. Yes.

I had gotten so good at hiding the truth, or maybe just the magnitude of it. Megi would press herself close to me some days, but the next time I saw her, she would be as distant as a long-dead star. I thought if she knew, if she felt what I wanted, I would blink twice and she’d be gone.

Megi pulled me out to the center of the floor, which was also the center of the ship. I took a single nervous breath before the music started. The band stood above us on a little platform, clutching instruments I knew—fiddles, flutes, guitars. I wondered if we had stolen those from the faeries, or if they had stolen a few things from us.

Megi nodded to me as the dance started, and I nodded back. The fiddle slurred high and lonely. When the drums leapt in, we stomped and spun and clapped so fast that the room sounded like rain.

I knew the steps. I could feel them without thinking.

“Hey!” I yelled as I spun with Megi. “Did you implant these dances in my head?”

“I can’t do that,” she said. “You’re not mine to touch.”

I heard someone laugh, high-pitched and shattering. It didn’t sound anything like Megi’s laugh. She and I twisted and swam and touched each other’s waists with little darts of our hands.

“How do I know how to do this?” I asked.

Megi yelled, “You’ve always known.”

My feet worked faster, heels tapping strange rhythms. The dance formation broke, and other faeries passed me in and out of their arms, as strong as metal bars and supple as spring branches. I fought my way back to Megi.

“You’re not telling me I’m a faerie, right?” I whispered.

“Some things have always been inside of you,” she said, “waiting in your cells, caught in the spirals of a helix.” She traced the lines she’d painted on my shoulder. “It’s one of the reasons humans and faeries keep separate. Even in the old stories they were never together for more than a minute, an hour, a carefully bounded set of days.” Her voice threaded itself into the song—I didn’t hear them as two separate things. “You and I are more alike than we are different. They don’t want us to remember that.”

“Why not?” I asked. “Faeries don’t want humans on their genetic turf?”

“No.” Megi’s hands found my waist. “We know that we can cross a line, too. Become more human.”

The room split into a formation I didn’t know, everyone stream-ing as Megi and I stayed put. There were wicked smiles, stony faces, moving fast. And then the faeries whirled into place, as if this had always been part of the dance. A circle formed around us, weapons pointed inward like a mouth full of sharp, mismatched teeth.

Some of the things they were brandishing looked like thorns grown long enough to be daggers. Others were staffs made of moonglow, hooks carved from silvery ice. No snowflake axes, though. That must have been Megi’s special thing.

“Thank you for having me,” I said. “Now I’ll just…go.” I resisted the urge to back away, because there were pointy objects behind me. I spun around, but the door that had allowed me into the Faerie Court had vanished back into the seamless metal walls.

One of the faeries stepped forward and took Megi’s chin in her hand. She forced Megi’s face toward me. “What will you do? Turn her into a sapling and plant her in your courtyard? You can make love in her shade. The human will have to watch it until she withers.”

The faeries laughed and laughed, and the sound was so cold that ice crystals splayed across Megi’s cheeks.

“Is that why you brought me?” I asked in a crumbling voice.

The faeries laughed harder.

Was that the point of all this—was I Megi’s human weakness? Did she bring me to the Faerie Court to come clean?

“That’s not what I want,” Megi said, and I knew from the look on her face that she wasn’t lying. But that didn’t mean we were out of the woods. The faeries pressed in tighter. The points of their weapons paled in comparison to the stab of anger in their eyes. My heart froze and then melted, and the feelings I had for Megi, the feelings I’d been holding back for over a year, finally spilled out.

I cried. The spaceship cracked at the seams as the sky above us poured stars. The faeries gasped and screeched, their voices tearing at the night. My blurry vision swam all the way to Megi. She was crying, too—a single tear dropping off the cliff of her high-boned cheek. But it didn’t do anything. It didn’t change anything.

She was just a girl leaking saltwater.

Megi looked into my eyes and for the first time I didn’t worry if they were pretty enough. I wasn’t afraid of saying something stupid. But I was afraid.

So was she. I had never noticed it.

“Tell me about the third faerie war,” she said, thickly, urgently.

I could see what she was doing now—what she was desperate for. Megi wanted me to remind her that we were enemies. But I didn’t want to, and the not-wanting was so deep and heavy that I became immovable. The moment flowed around us. I was a rock at the bottom of a river.

And then we took a breath at the same time, to the exact same depth, a sort of music that we both knew, and when we exhaled the entire court was gone. Megi and I were sitting on the cold dirt of a bare hill, our legs splayed out in front of us. The only proof that the Faerie Court had been there a moment before was the char of roasted meat and a final strain of music.

“They’re not coming back, are they?” I asked.

Megi shook her head.

“I can’t…I can’t bring you home.”

Megi nodded. She already knew that.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

Megi pulled me closer, until we were as close as two people could possibly get, until our skin ran together like rivers. I closed my eyes—the darkness behind them was warm and ripe. She kissed me, and it tasted like salt and skin. I kissed her back, and it tasted like honey and cold stars.

We left the dark mound where the court used to be, the galaxies on our arms pressed together, our faces close enough for whispering. We didn’t care about being quiet, though. We laughed our defiance until I felt sure that humans could hear it, miles away in their hills, living inside of their new tree-bodies. Megi rubbed her fingers together and with a wisp of blue-green, another second split apart.

We found a perfect spot in the woods. And then we devoured each other.

 

Art by Maggie Nowinski.

Amy Rose Capetta is an alum of the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at VCFA. She is the author of three YA novels, most recently ECHO AFTER ECHO, a queer love story wrapped in a murder mystery set on Broadway. Her five forthcoming novels all feature queerness and magic, from an Italian-inspired fantasy (THE BRILLIANT DEATH) to a gender bent Arthurian space fantasy (ONCE AND FUTURE) co-authored with the scoundrel of her heart, Cori McCarthy. Amy Rose lives in Vermont.

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