fantasy fiction original story short stories spec fic Tales from the Subcontinent

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In honor of my friend Steve Berman’s birthday, today, I thought I would try something I haven’t done before and am unlikely to do again: Post an original, never-before-published story here at Said story happens to be one Steve’s fond of for reasons I can’t imagine, and I am fond of partly (but not solely) because it was the first written of the tales of the subcontinent. Without further ado.

The Other Bridge

Somebody told me about the other bridge. I don’t remember who. It was a party, one of the parties my new friends insisted I attend although they invariably abandoned me without troubling themselves to present me to the host, a count or baron of the ancien régime. Everybody smoked, which I had not since university in a different country. Hired waiters in antique livery bore trays of glistening flutes filled with bitter sparkling wine from the count’s vineyards in the hinterland. In every other chamber stood a buffet of lavish abundance, either so beautiful nobody cared to spoil the arrangement or already wrecked so that the food appeared to be rotting. In one salon, a string quartet could not be heard over the grumble of conversation and disputation. In the grand ballroom, where dark oil portraits of the count’s ancestors glowered from walls festooned with plaster cornucopias spilling plaster fruit, a deejay programmed hit after hit but nobody danced.

I do remember. It does me no credit to feign otherwise. Likewise, it would do me no credit to record her name. She was a minor aristocrat, her rank indecipherable to the foreigner, not landed or landed only meagerly although her ancient jewels were very fine. In daylight hours she pretended to the civil service, a desk job that afforded her handsome clothes, the latest fashionable devices, the drugs her coterie preferred. And gifts, pretty tokens, flowers, chocolates, for the naïve exotic from the far side of the world.


She offered me one of the glasses she had appropriated from a passing waiter, trailing her fingers across my hand as I accepted it. “Tell me,” she said, “tell me again—no, it’s noisy here—come!”

Across the ballroom I followed the artificial but very beautiful flame color of her hair, through an open door, onto a balcony. The smell of the Sja came up, choking—but not, I reflected, as sickening as Father Bodo’s where he flows through the center of my city. “I didn’t realize Count ______’s house was right on top of the river,” I murmured.

She glanced back. Raised eyebrows above her pale, pale eyes told me the count’s name was exceedingly venerable. The surprise would be if his house stood in one of the pleasant, airy, healthful parvenu quarters. They are slaves to tradition, the Sjolussenes, even now.

Disposing herself decoratively against a column of fluted marble to which clung flowering vines not fragrant enough to dispel the river’s odors, she drew a cigarette from her bag, lit it at the candlestick burning on the balustrade, and beckoned.

“I wish to hear again about your…chowas?”

“The chueie?” I made a false little laugh as I approached, not as closely as she desired. “Not mine.”

“Of course. But your country’s. Chueie? Am I saying it right?”

I was not so naïve as she—as her friends and my friends—believed. Exotic? It was half a century since people of her class had any cause besides curiosity to suffer the inconvenience of a sea or air voyage to my homeland. She was not an overly curious woman. Still, immigrants from former dominions outre-mer were scarcely uncommon in this capital of squandered empire. I had no doubt at all she daily purchased trifles and staples from vendors who resembled me as much as she resembled any of her tall, ungainly fellow citizens of the no-longer-new republic.

But the shopkeepers she patronized were common, she might tactlessly protest…if it were an argument ever conducted except in my own head. Whereas I (the image in my mind’s eye of this deliberately useless woman fluttered prettily), I, she was quite sure, outranked her.

It was possibly true. It had suited Sjolussa’s purposes very well not to dismantle the native hierarchies of annexed realms: my titles, such as they were, and my ancestry were legendary where my erstwhile lover’s were merely historical and now, by republican statute, merely decorative. When the sad, imbecile last Empress of Sjolussa, Katothtet, the Nearer Isles, and Outre-Mer was deposed and the new government renounced her dominions overseas, the apparati of state continued running like balky clockwork in Dothe, in Piq, in U, in my Aveng, in all the others. Suitable candidates of the ancient dynasties had always been ready to dispossess the Sjolussene vicereines. My family stood not within four steps of the Jade Stool in Defre, else I should be at grave risk of betrothal, but within five.

“I am quite certain,” I said, “I told you the chueie were a foolish legend, a tale to frighten stupid girls.”

“Yes,” she breathed. “Tell me. Were you frightened?”

“Of course! More frightened than many girls, I suppose.”

Enthralled, she sucked at her cigarette and breathed out smoke scented with Avengi spices, flicked a coal over the rail. I pretended to imagine I heard its hiss when it struck the Sja’s swift waters, and sipped from my glass.

“Tell me.”

I had told her of the chueie on that first occasion to signal I was not averse to her subtle courtship. Sjolussenes regard desire differently than my nation. The story had continued from the entertainment where we met, to her small, not exquisite apartment, into her bed. I had tired of her perfectly adequate lovemaking almost the moment it commenced. Already, although I found her beautiful, I realized she was relentlessly unfascinating. That was six months before, early in my residence in Sjolussa. Until this night she had appeared content with being my first seducer in her city, unjealous of the more interesting women whose affections succeeded hers, undesirous of repeating the feat. Her occasional gifts were mere trifles.

“When Defre-ua-Bodo was still a very small place, capital of nothing,” I commenced, “long before your people came to us, before we were properly a people, there was a small lake that had no name. Now it does: Kittan-e-Chuei. Now it lies within the royal precinct, but then deep in the forbidding forest, half a day’s walk from Mother Flame’s first shrine. Nobody had cause to visit it. Its waters were stagnant, unwholesome—Father Bodo provided all the water anybody needed, fresh and clean in his hurry from the mountains to the sea.

“There was a girl recently become a woman. She was meant to marry a boy, a playmate of her childhood. His family owned a bull buffalo and two cows, a year’s surplus of rice in their granary—oh, it was an advantageous match, and his mothers and fathers were kind, generous, fond of her. But the girl—shall we call her Naï?—Naï had listened too well to the wrong parts of old stories and never looked around herself at real people: she believed the fairy tale that marriage was the reward for passion.

“Naï loved another girl. Passionately. Alas for Naï, her beloved was sensible. She would have accepted her own betrothal without hesitation unless to haggle a better deal, understanding marriage to be a contract between families, corporate entities. In my country,” I said aside, for I knew it not to be true in Sjolussa, “until quite recently, fidelity, as you call it, was seldom a clause in the contract. Nobody would glance askance if Naï kept her lover after marrying the suitable boy. She would be thought peculiar if she didn’t: flighty, perhaps untrustworthy.

“Naï was peculiar. She waxed eloquent, proclaimed her unequalled love, declared she would die rather than share her beloved or be herself shared: they were one soul!

“The other girl first laughed, astonished by Naï’s ludicrous passion, then quieted. You are not sane, she said, turning away. Then, for she did truly love Naï, the sweet careless girl Naï had been, You must marry the boy. Nothing between us will change, my dear, unless it grow richer, deeper. She saw the incomprehensible horror on Naï’s face and said, her heart closing like a fist, If you choose not to marry him, I will not know you. And then she walked away.

“Betrayed, as she saw it, Naï fell weeping to the ground. Her tears made mud of the street, her cries made the air ring. People passing by glanced aside, for madness is a sad and holy thing. Busybodies, of course, ran at once to her betrothed’s mothers, more compassionate persons to Naï’s.

“Peculiar she was, mad she might be, but Naï was not entirely stupid. As she howled and wept, smeared her face with dirt, pounded her fists against unyielding earth, at a certain point she realized she had made herself a scandal that could not be lived down. The most perfect of all girls would shun her. The suitable boy of whom she had always been fond would not marry her. Her mothers and fathers would not be able to—would not care to protect her. She would be a figure of horror or of fun for the rest of her days.

“If she remained in Defre.

“So she rose to her feet and with all dignity she could muster strode away from the town and our Father Bodo, into the forest. When her mothers came to succor or scold her, she was not to be found.”

My throat was dry. Taking an effervescent sip from my flute, I glanced through lowered lashes at my audience: wide eyed, her lips prettily parted, cigarette smoldering forgotten between her fingers. “Do go on,” she pled.

I sipped again. “This was long ago, you understand. Not so long ago one wasn’t aware there were other towns, other nations in the world, but sufficiently so that one didn’t quite believe it. Only the rare, adventurous person would ever leave the place of her birth, seek out the habitations of strangers—know where to go. Naï had never been adventurous. She entered the forest blind. Once she believed herself out of sight of everybody she had ever known, she began to run.

“The dimness of the forest canopy swallowed her up. Large and small creatures that lived on the ground scattered before her noise. From the tall trees, monkeys and parrots mocked her. She felt too desolate for fear to mean much but she became more and more fearful. Was that tall, bulky shadow a bear? Could that be a leopard reclining at ease but alert on that high bough? Did tall grasses conceal a tiger? She feared, too, a great many spirits, hobgoblins, fabulous beasts it would be tedious to list.

“Hours later, when Naï stumbled upon the shore of the lake we now call Kittan-e-Chuei, there was not much left of her but sorrow, fear, exhaustion. The lake’s waters looked bad, filmed with clouds of green, blue, red-brown, and smelled worse, but she was too parched not to drink. Then she fell precipitately into sleep.

“When she woke, she believed her lover had come to comfort her. The night was dark. On the slimy surface of the lake gleamed reflections of stars like indifferent eyes. Something warm and alive was nudging her shoulder in a rude caress. She rolled over, ready to weep, forgive, be forgiven, but her lover did not embrace her. Even in darkness and the confusion of waking, Naï knew to the center of her being it was nothing human that gently pushed her again. She screamed, tried to scramble away. There was nowhere to flee but into the shallows of the lake.

Wait, said the being.

“Naï shrieked again, trapped between unclean waters whose depth she did not know—not unusually, the girl could not swim—and the…beast. Tapirs were not meant to speak.

“Tapirs are shy, unworldly creatures. They would rather flee than attack. Naï knew this, even in her terror. But they are large, bulkier than the fattest wrestler and more agile, brutal when cornered or provoked. Naï knew that as well, and this beast was monstrous, half again the size of any natural tapir. Monstrously huge and uncanny. Wait, it said again. I am your only friend. Its lambent blue eyes glowed through the darkness. Faint light caught the white tips of its ears as they swivelled toward her, gleamed in the wet nostrils of its seeking trunk. Do not fear. I am here. Its regard steady, the animal settled back on its haunches.

“Naï was not comforted. Go away, she said weakly.

You came to me.

“The moon rose above the trees around the lake and, most unnaturally, the monster reared up on its hind legs like a bear, pawing at the air with the blunt toes of its forefeet. Pale moonlight bathed the tapir’s vast black bulk and it changed.

“Flesh melted from its great belly. The bones of its stubby rear legs lengthened. The creature whined in a thin voice as pelvis, spine, shoulders realigned themselves to support upright carriage and its forelimbs became arms. The shape of its skull deformed, fleshy and cartilaginous features migrated and shrank. The dense pelt that had covered it melted away. In the few moments before the moon slipped entirely free of grasping branches, the giant tapir was transformed utterly. A giant man twice the size of Naï’s betrothed stood on the lakeshore.

“He shook his head as if confused, clenched and unclenched his fists, closed and opened clouded blue eyes. His skin gleamed black as coal tar, black as a tapir’s pelt, except on the rims of his slightly over large ears, white as salt. You came to me, he said again, my lovely bride.

“Ah!” sighed my lovely listener with great satisfaction.

“And then the chuei rushed forward, swift and inescapable as a charging tapir. He grabbed cringing Naï around the waist and threw her over his shoulder. Shrieking, she beat with her fists at the saddle of salt-white skin on his back. He took no notice but strode toward the center of the lake. The unhealthy water rose to his knees, his thighs—the chuei neither halted nor slowed.

“In a matter of a few more strides, the lake lapped at his shoulders and all Naï’s effort went into keeping her head above water, flailing and coughing and screaming. The lake continued to deepen, the chuei to proceed. Tapirs, of course, are very fond of water, capable of holding their breath for a goodly period as they wander about beneath the surface, while uncanny beings such as chueie need not breathe at all unless they choose.

“Disobedient or insane girls are not so made. By the time the chuei of the lake reached his subaqueous home, his lovely bride was quite drowned. Her husband was not dismayed. He pampered Naï’s sodden corpse until her flesh dissolved into the lake’s waters. As years passed, now and then he rearranged the bones of her skeleton into newly decorative attitudes. And all along, since her body had been given neither to Mother Flame nor to the swift currents of Father Bodo, Naï’s soul was trapped in the lake: she would never in all of time reach that deep blue sea which is the sky, where the burning spirits of women and men are forever marked by their descendants on earth as stars.

“No, foolish Naï remains eternally with the chuei and all his subsequent brides, yearning always for the lover she abandoned in her pride, regretting always the husband who might have loved her sincerely, gently, instead of rutting on her like a graceless tapir whenever the desire struck.”

My onetime lover clapped with delight when I finished the tale. “Oh!” she exclaimed as I swallowed wine to soothe my throat, “oh! No wonder you were scared! Is it only girls who prefer girls who become the chueie’s brides?”

“Girls who defy their mothers’ sensible wishes. Girls who run away from home.”

As the woman bent her head to light another cigarette, a lamp within doors made her hair flare up brilliantly. Her eyes caught the light when she raised her face again. “We have a similar monster,” she breathed. “Here—in the city!”

“A tapir?” I asked, amused. Such animals are not to be found at Sjolussa’s latitudes except in the great zoological gardens.

“No,” she said, misunderstanding me. “I have never heard of it taking animal form. It preys on lost women and men.” And she began to tell me of the creature that dwells on the far side of the other bridge.

Perhaps she was simply not a storyteller: it was a confused recitation, lacking narrative or character: a haphazard collection of rumor and legend. Many centuries ago when the river was wider and the two banks of the Sja were separate nations speaking separate languages, if both nominally provinces of Katothtet’s patchwork empire, a person was exiled from the capital so far to the south and west. She did not recall his name or crime, whether he came to Góad, the town on the left bank where the Sja makes its great bend, or Pasna, on the right. She did not recall whether he was an engineer—ancient Katothtet still renowned for its engineers—or merely a visionary. He resolved the river must be bridged.

And so it was done. The logistics of such an immense undertaking were of no interest to the teller—how suspicious native governors on either side of the river were persuaded to sponsor it—how, lacking stonecutters and masons, Pasna and Góad contrived to throw a massive, unprecedented span on six arches across the swift, unforgiving Sja. For a thousand years it remained the river’s sole bridge. As Katothtet lost control of its distant provinces, then the nearer ones, finally was sacked, overrun, and reborn, Góad and Pasna prospered. The peoples and languages on either bank mingled. The separate towns became a single hybrid city, a prosperous entrepôt, Queen of the Sja. Sjolussa.

Naturally, Sjolussa fell within the eye of Owe-ejan-akhar when that monstrous conqueror, having overthrown three eastern empires, turned her attention west. Sjolussa was scarcely the Ejan’s target—grand as the town was, it was a hamlet compared to the imperial capitals she already owned—but its bridge offered the most convenient route into the rich, disunited heartlands of the subcontinent.

Refugees announced the imminent arrival of the Ejan’s hordes. Bearing the bread and salt of submission, the city’s co-princes rode half a day’s journey northeast to meet her. Gracious, she accepted their surrender and their invitation to a banquet in the Pasna prince’s palace across the river to negotiate terms: how much real tribute, how many slaves, how many lives.

It was not meant as a trap. If it had been, the Góad and Pasna princes should not have preceded the Ejan onto the bridge. It was afternoon of an uncommonly warm late-spring day. As often occurred on such days, the chill Sja had birthed a thick fog. Afoot, the co-princes of Sjolussa strode under the Góad gate, onto the bridge, and into the pearl-white mist, followed by the mounted Owe-ejan-akhar, her chief heir and commanders and one tenth of her personal guard, the Thousand Tall Riders.

At the Pasna gate waited the princes’ chamberlains and counsellors, the masters of the guilds that would bear the burden of the Ejan’s tribute. They waited, squinting into the fog rolling down the course of the river. They waited. Of the whole grand party, not a single person ever emerged from the mist.

When word of the Ejan’s vanishing reached her people, the undisciplined horde, loyal only to her, superstitious, long away from home, dissolved into tribal bands and turned east. Her minor heirs and the surviving Nine Hundred Tall Riders naturally laid waste to Góad and massacred its inhabitants. They declined to set foot or hoof on the fateful bridge. Terrible revenge taken, they too turned their horses’ heads toward the dawn and set out to carve up the Ejan’s dominions among themselves.

“You mentioned a monster,” I said. “Which preys on lost women and men.”

My flame-haired acquaintance looked up. Her eyes were glassy: the wine, the hashish and other adulterants in her cigarettes. “Come home with me,” she said, “beauty.”

I was perhaps a little drunk myself—I was flattered. But unmoved. “My dear. I must decline. I have an early appointment. It’s the inconvenient time of the month. Another night.” I made my escape.

The second week after I arrived in Sjolussa and settled into my stark but rather lovely apartment on Av. Heras on the right bank, I purchased a fashionable little motorino. The Métro was inconvenient for my purposes and I had never learned to drive an automobile. Automobiles were in any case frowned upon in the center city and prohibitively taxed. My moto had, in fact, been built in an Avengi factory: built for export, so it was slightly more powerful, slightly less noisy than the one I learned to drive on the clogged streets of Defre. Leaving the count’s house, I waited for some minutes under the porte-cochère for an attendant to fetch the moto. It was late for most citizens but not for the count’s guests. Nobody else waited with me, and the attendant appeared mildly shocked I should depart so early. I tipped him well.

Mounted at last, I drove through the count’s night-obscured gardens to the gate, where another liveried attendant bowed me through. On the narrow street overlooked on one hand by the high walls of the count’s estate, on the other by taller tenements, I thumbed the switch to initiate the navigation system. The left bank was not significantly more chaotic than the right but it was not my territory. (It bemused, almost pleased me to realize I considered any part of the imperial city mine.) The translucent display across the top of the moto’s windscreen directed me upstream.

At one time or another I had crossed and recrossed each of the city’s four bridges. The Half-Centennial, which had opened only two years earlier, was the most beautiful, a white cable-stayed harp designed by the Uvian celebrity engineer Suwin, but it was well out of my way downstream, linking the two halves of the purpose-built business district. The Jubilee, a century older, had once been beautiful, though modern eyes found its agglomeration of industrial lattice and faux-antique ornament grotesque. Av. Etz vaulted the Sja supported by an elegant steel through-arch, while Av. Gruth’s span was unremarkable concrete. As blinking dots and arrows led me on, it occurred to me that none of the extant bridges was the ancient six-arched stone span of the legend I had just heard. I had never seen a trace of it.

I was distracted. I remembered coming across a monument once in a small left-bank plaza, a plain, impassive stela inscribed to the memory of the Góad Slaughter. Another monument I had often seen without properly understanding was the Ejan Pillar, fifty meters of etched steel spiring up from an artificial islet in the river upstream of the Half-Centennial. Plaques in the park at the water’s edge called it a gift to Sjolussa from the government and people of Lararniw. Which windswept, mineral-rich, landlocked nation, I tardily recalled, claimed to be the heartland of Owe-ejan-akhar’s empires. The Ejan’s covetous eyes had never looked as far south as Aveng and our neighbors so she did not so much feature in our mythologies. Perhaps her Pillar marked the site of the old bridge from which, I had just been told, she and her Tall Riders vanished.

Perhaps not.

I steered my moto without thought according to the graphic prompts on the windscreen. There was remarkably little other traffic. I was accustomed to the uneven cobbles of Sjolussa’s surface streets, intended to keep drivers slow, cautious, alert. In the latter purpose, in my case that night, they failed. My moto and I had wobbled well across the river, bathed by its cool, odorous breeze, before it struck me none of the four bridges was cobbled. A wall of curdled fog rose before me, disturbed into eddies and whirlpools by the ancient stone bridge’s low parapets and the squat stone bollards that marked the abutments of the six arches upholding it. The motorino’s engine sputtered, failed. Still more distressing, the headlamp yellowed and went out, the navigation display evaporated.

The brakes had failed as well but I was travelling sedately and was not so incompetent I couldn’t plant both feet on the roadbed before the motorino fell over. Climbing off, I hiked up the rear wheel and kicked down the stand. Stupidly irritated, I glared at my pretty little moto. None of the four bridges I knew was within convenient walking distance of Av. Heras.

This was not any of the bridges I knew.

“Beauty,” said the river purling against the bridge’s piers.

“Beauty,” said the breeze.

“Beauty,” said the fog, something within the fog, striving to take form.

“No, really,” I said, “this will not do.”

I was not beautiful, not in Sjolussene eyes, certainly not beauty. Not even terrifically exotic. Even among the circles in which I moved there were several other expatriate Avengi of rank. There were Dothans, Piquers, who resembled me in being small, dark, more plumply voluptuous than the current subcontinental mode. There were exiles of nations I found exotic, Kyrland, Trebt, Lararniw, distant Haisn, still more distant and strange Yf. Diminished as she is, Sjollusa remains a capital of the world. “No,” I said again.

The figure resolving within the fog, about to become my flame-haired quondam seducer, hesitated. When it took another step, it had grown still taller, still more rangy and angular. It did not call me Beauty again. Instead, in a curiously muffled voice it said, “Come. Your…conveyance does not serve. I will bring you home.” Behind it loomed the indistinct silhouette of an enormous stallion.

“Thank you,” I said politely, reaching into my bag, “but I will manage quite well by myself.”

The being hesitated again.

My ’phone could find no signal—hardly surprising, I suppose, in supernatural circumstances—but its other functions appeared to be unaffected. My thumb found the camera icon, the flash illuminated the fog, the spectral horse reared back against its reins and the Tall Rider—perhaps she meant to be Owe-ejan-akhar herself—turned quickly to calm it.

The image within the ’phone’s glass faceplate was no centuries-dead conquering horse warrior of the steppes. Dead, yes.

I was not a disobedient daughter. Stubborn, surely, headstrong—no doubt my indulgent mothers and fathers simply failed ever to ask of me any action I did not care to perform. Nevertheless.

Nor had I fled Defre and Aveng. There was no scandal to be attached to my or my family’s name. Sjolussa had been my goal since childhood—that fabulous city and nation which gave my own nation and city so much yet took more, before retreating into itself like a sulky tortoise.

“This is unreasonable,” I said as Naï stepped out of the fog. “This is unfair and…unseemly.”

“Beloved,” she said, the dead playmate of school days. My first lover. My dearest friend until she chose to bewitch me. That stupid, stupid girl.

She was of Sjolussene extraction: her grandparents had chosen to stay on after divestiture although the restored government nationalized most of their holdings. Naï was raised in near poverty, circumstances made more unpleasant by bias against scions of the former colonial power. Taller than every other child our age, her hair white-gold and her skin pink, she could not disguise her ancestry. A crowd of unruly boys and girls had driven her to tears in the schoolyard with their insults when with unwarranted noblesse oblige I chased them away and dried her eyes.

As we grew up and I continued her protector, she grew beautiful in my eyes. Had she been born in Sjolussa, I expect, she would have dyed that pale hair any number of colors. I never loved her—have I loved any person?—but desire her I did. I desired several other people as well, a few more suitable than Naï, a few less, but she was nearest by.

By the time we completed our schooling, I was…not weary of her, precisely, but weary of lying to her. Like her namesake in my tale of the chuei, she would not countenance sharing me so I had no choice but to lie. There were other girls momentarily more fascinating. There was the now-and-then-delicious novelty of a handsome boy. There were lies, arguments, tears, more lies, refreshingly savage but ultimately unsatisfying lovemaking. I, of course, would matriculate at university—she, of course, would not. I travelled a distance that was short for me, nearly impossible for her, to Folau, Aveng’s second city, where I discovered, in addition to scholarship, more delicious girls, two or three fascinating boys.

In Defre, Naï pined. For myself, when I returned home on holidays, I delighted in her, her familiar ardor, for it was brief, temporary, bittersweet. And of course I lied to her.

She lied to me.

She had taken a position with a bi-national trading concern. I was not curious enough to ask what goods they traded—motorinos, perhaps—nor what her position entailed. It paid well enough, apparently: her wardrobe improved markedly. Occasionally on my visits she insisted on buying the takeaway meal, cigarettes, bottles of beer we would hurry to my private rooms. She gave me, at the terminal as I was about to board a train back to Folau, a bauble I found inexplicably exquisite when she fastened its cheap silver chain around my neck. The little wooden ball, carved and pierced and polished, tapped against my breastbone when she released it, but immediately I lifted it again to breathe in the muddled fragrances of resins, barks, dried leaves and flowers. The whole way to Folau I cradled the pomander between my palms, gazing blindly out the carriage windows past stretches of forest, past rice fields and wheat fields and corn fields, villages and larger towns, shrines, temples, distant monasteries. “Beloved,” I whispered at the countryside, seeing Naï’s blue eyes only.

At the Folau station, my chief amusement of the previous term met me. I did not recognize him when he called after me as I passed in a daze—a ridiculous happenstance for his family stood on the third step below the Jade Stool, everybody recognized him. As I generally preferred other women, he preferred other men, making us nearly a perfect match if only our ranks matched up more neatly. Put out, he called my name again and grabbed my shoulder. My hands fell from Naï’s pomander. “Oh!” I said.

“What is this ugly thing?” he asked, snapping the chain from my neck.

My eyes had turned at once to his pleasant, familiar brown eyes. I did not wish to look again at Naï’s gift now I knew what it was. “A terrible, terrible, disastrous mistake,” I said, slipping the chain from his fingers without touching its vulgar burden, and tossed the whole wicked thing off the platform onto the tracks. “I’m so sorry, I was distracted. How kind of you to meet me. Shall we go?”

He narrowed his eyes. He knew what it was as well as I now did. “Shall I—?”

“No, it’s nothing, it’s over.”

He knew as well as I we were over, as little as there was between us to be over, no tragedy of any degree. I was drowsy in his arms, content, late that night when my kindest, most tactful father ’phoned with news he understood I would find sorrowful: my old schoolmate Naï, the Sjolussene girl, had run mad, murdered the witch to whom she had apprenticed herself a year before, and drowned herself in Kittan-e-Chuei. I wept a little, not entirely for form’s sake, before asking the sweet boy to comfort me.

Now I looked from the image of Naï on my ’phone to the image of Naï which had solidified from the uncanny fog. “You are not that girl,” I said, firmly and reasonably. “She drowned herself in the lake. She chose to become the chuei’s bride. Her soul, if soul she had, cannot leave her husband’s waters.” I erased the photo.

For an instant the figure appeared worried. Then it changed again. The sweet boy I would have married happily enough if his family asked (it could never happen) gazed at me with yearning eyes. I laughed. Our circles still grazed, I had had drinks with him and his boyfriend not long before: he was no longer a boy. Since his marriage he had devoted a good deal of time, effort (and, I suspected, thaumaturgical intervention) to remaking his body in the mold of a mythic hero or mighty wrestler, nearly unrecognizable except for his eyes, very handsome, undesirable.

I laughed and raised my ’phone again as if to preserve this visitation from a pleasant memory. The thing quailed again, but I saw that I had somehow acquired a strong enough signal, so I ran quickly through the directory until I found the name I choose not to record. She chose not to answer. I left a message: “My dear. I was abrupt, I fear. Shall we meet next week? I’ve discovered a delightful Avengi bistro—allow me to buy you dinner.”

Slipping the ’phone back into my bag, I kicked the moto off its stand, grasped the handlebars, and wheeled it into the thinning, empty fog. I was entirely confident the engine would start up again as soon as I reached the far side of the other bridge. I had every intention of standing the ridiculous woman up.

Copyright © 2013 Alex Jeffers. All rights reserved. As a courtesy to the author, please do not reproduce this story without a link back to

 NB: The second-written tale of the subcontinent, “Three Dead Men,” was first published in Icarus #14, Fall 2012, which may be purchased in print and electronic formats via this link. The third, “The Oily Man,” will appear in Handsome Devil: Tales of Sin and Seduction, an anthology edited by Steve Berman, to be published by Prime Books in February 2014. The fourth, fifth, umpth? Well, I haven’t finished writing them yet.

fantasy fiction historical fantasy magical realism novelette short stories spec fic

stories stories

Parts of June 2013 have been intensely unpleasant but July is my birthday month so it’s got to get better, no? At any rate, I have three original stories and two reprints scheduled for that fateful month.

First, going live at on Monday, 1 July, “A Man Not of Canaan.” This is a work of (not terribly rigorous, I fear) historical fantasy set primarily in the days preceding and following the Bronze Age volcanic eruption of Thira—AKA Santorini—in the Cyclades. Archaeologists presume that catastrophe spelled the end of Minoan civilization and that tales of Thira’s destruction form the foundation of Plato’s Atlantis. “A Man Not of Canaan” reveals for the first time that the eruption was not natural. Rather, it was the deliberate, malicious elimination of a cyclopean city in the depths of Thira’s harbor. I will not (nor will the story) directly reveal the cosmic entity responsible for the eruption but any reader familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos can probably figure it out…and berate me for taking liberties with the canon.


Second, already glimpsed in the wild (a Philadelphia-area Barnes & Noble) by its editor, Bad Seeds: Evil Progeny is apparently available early from Prime Books. Although I’ve not yet received a contributor’s copy. My story “You Deserve” is narrated by teenage Max, recently adopted by Stuart Ackles-Echeverría and Esteban Echeverría-Ackles and visiting for the first time their vacation cottage on a Massachussetts lake. Here he develops a crush on Rory, another summer visitor, and…bad things happen.


Third, another Steve Berman production—this time from his own press—Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe will go into general release around mid-month. Often truncated on line due to an early editorial misstep, the full title of my story therein is “A Portrait in India Ink by Harry Clarke”—Clarke being an Irish illustrator of the early twentieth century known for (among others) the drawings he made for a 1916 London edition of Poe. In an advance review at Ideomancer, Claire Humphrey writes: “Alex Jeffers’ ‘A Portrait in India Ink by Harry Clarke’ is as gorgeous as the picture to which the title refers, limning a young man’s sexual awakening in the fascinating lights of a migraine aura.”


And the reprints. For Best Gay Stories 2013, Berman selected my “Wheat, Barley, Lettuce, Fennel, Salt for Sorrow, Blood for Joy,” previously reprinted in You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home, originally published in Boys of Summer. One reviewer of the collection took me to task for stating flat-out on the back cover that Luke, Our Hero, “meets Adonis on a sailing cruise off the coast of Turkey.” Sorry about that, Sirius. Let’s clarify: Luke encounters variations on and memories of the myth of Adonis, and a young man who may (or may not) embody aspects of that handsome demigod. My contributor’s copy has not yet arrived but I believe the anthology is available for purchase.


And for Wilde Stories 2013: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, the indefatigable Berman chose “Tattooed Love Boys,” likewise reprinted in You Will Meet a Stranger, originally published (in slightly different form) at GigaNotoSaurus in March 2012. A story Berman has loved excessively since I wrote it way back in 2009, in which vacationing Emma and her elder brother Theo get caught up in the schemes of three uncanny, immortal entities who may (or may not) be angels.


(Yes, the weather warmed up and I cut my hair in the two or three weeks between this snapshot and the one above.)

Looking ahead, Prime Books will release Berman’s Zombies: Shambling Through the Ages in August—which is to say, it will probably go into distribution in mid to late July. That mammoth volume includes my “The Hyena’s Blessing,” a tale of an assassin, a caliph, and the shambling undead in eleventh century Cairo. I’m not permitted to speak about another story in Zombies to which I have a troubling connection.


Finally for today, lest you think (as I far too often do) I’ve given up entirely on writing new stories, I will state for the record that I’m presently thisclose to completing a draft of “Lamp Night,” a fearfully long story about heretics, saints, and angels that takes place on Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, in contemporary Pawtucket and Providence, Rhode Island.

awards BrazenHead novella spec fic

a winner (but I knew that already)

I am proud and gratified to announce (if you haven’t heard already) that BrazenHead’s second-published novella, Green Thumb by Tom Cardamone, has received the Lambda Literary Award for GLBT Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror at the 25th annual celebration in New York earlier tonight.

GreenThumbCongratulations to Tom, (to me), and to BrazenHead’s parent Lethe Press, which has now won that award three years running.

BrazenHead: exceptional novellas of queer speculative fiction
BrazenHead: exceptional novellas of queer speculative fiction
fantasy short stories spec fic

demon child

Of the four anthologies Steve Berman is currently putting together for Prime Books, I was to begin with only confident of producing a story for one: Handsome Devil (despite what the announcement on the far side of that first link says, the book was represented to me as concerning incubi). And so I did, “The Oily Man,” a long tale from the subcontinent.

The other three…as noted last week, horror fiction just doesn’t interest me. Ghosts, zombies, evil children, bleah. I refused flat out to consider Shades of Blue and Gray (the mythologizing of the US Civil War, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon, strikes me as problematic). Ultimately, Steve badgered me into writing “The Hyena’s Blessing” for Zombies—a zombie story I suspect no self-respecting horror aficionado will embrace as true-blue horror, though I hope they’ll like it anyway.

Nevertheless, during the four-month struggle to produce “The Oily Man,” I also put a good deal of work into another subcontinental tale, “The Cat in the Moon,” aiming it at Bad Seeds. It grew very complicated. The current draft is hovering around 9,000 words and the evil children have yet to make a proper appearance.

Not precisely despairing of “The Cat” (but not precisely hopeful about it either), in September I put it aside for a bit and started an entirely different subcontinental tale, also to involve evil children, “The Tale of the Ive-ojan-akhar’s Death.” That one’s at 4,500 words around now and, again, the bad seeds are more hinted at than apparent.

Actually despairing by this point, in early October I started a third evil-child subcontinental story, no title yet, which got to 900 words and stalled out. This one I have small expectation of ever completing, a thought that does not leave me distraught. “The Cat” and “The Tale,” though: those I intend to finish one day now that the pressure to make evil children their focus is off.

Because over the two days last week of Hurricane Sandy’s battering at my windows I wrote “You Deserve,” a 6,000-word story set in our own world (it squeaks by as dark fantasy, I think, though not horror), which—after some negotiating and testy revising—Steve has purchased for Bad Seeds: Evil Progeny, to appear from Prime Books next July.


The title is quoted from the lyrics of “Deserve,” a lovely, melancholy electropop track by The ¥oung Professionals, which coincidentally popped up on my iTunes just as I commenced this paragraph.

short stories spec fic Tales from the Subcontinent

news from the subcontinent

It’s just been confirmed that “Two Dead Men,” second-written of my tales from the subcontinent, will appear in the Fall 2012 issue of Icarus alongside a new story by that capricious sodomite Hal Duncan and who knows what all other wonders. Apparently not (yet) the editor/publisher, who a week ago was still scouting to fill the issue. “As soon as the next rejection note comes in,” I told him, “you can have that war story you liked.”

I’ve mentioned the subcontinent a few times—most recently the day before yesterday. It’s a major geographical/cultural/political feature of a secondary world I conceived in primitive form last winter on an early-morning walk through the snow along Blackstone Boulevard in Providence, and continue to develop piecemeal as stories require. I wanted a world much like our own but with more opportunities for the miraculous. In the present day of that world, people use their smartphones to navigate unfamiliar cities, drive cars and motorscooters, read novels (in print and on electronic devices), watch movies…and interact with uncanny forces and beings. The subcontinent serves as an analogue for Europe: a fractured patchwork of small and medium-sized nations that fight far above their weight on the world stage.

“Two Dead Men” takes place in the subcontinental city of Fejz, rebuilt after a devastating civil war (parallels with the Bosnian war obvious and intended). An expatriate survivor of the siege of Fejz returns ten years later, not because he believes in “closure” but because the government and his relatives do. In the unfamiliar new-old city, he discovers something different—better? more valid?—different and personal and numinous.

BrazenHead fantasy novella spec fic

Time Will Be! declares the Head of Brass

An unveiling: The cover of the third BrazenHead novella, due this November, The Grigori by Joshua Skye.

The Grigori is a chilling dark fantasy set in contemporary Pittsburgh, where a good cop and a teenage runaway encounter something, someone, awe-inspiring and terrible in the ruins of a derelict hotel. After reading Josh’s haunting tale, you’ll never feel the same way again about e-mail forwards of saccharine angels or news reports about meth addicts.

BrazenHead fiction novella SF spec fic

Time Is! Proclaims the Head of Brass

A welcome: BrazenHead’s second title, the deceptively simple, intensely peculiar post-apocalyptic fantasia Green Thumb by Tom Cardamone, is now available in print, soon in e-book.

To whet your appetite, three reviews:

Publishers Weekly, 11 June 2012

Benito Corral Reviews, 27 June 2012

Out in Print Queer Book Reviews, 30 July 2012

Further praise from luminaries including Kathe Koja, Gemma Files, W.H. Pugmire, and BrazenHead’s own Dayna Ingram on Green Thumb’s dedicated page. Go. Read. Buy.

short stories spec fic You Will Meet a Stranger…

publication day

And so today, my mumblety-fifth birthday (but more worthy of commemoration as Jane and Charlotte’s eleventh), You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home officially begins its journey into the great world. (The print edition, that is. E-books will become available in a matter of weeks, I expect.) Fare well, little book of wonder stories, fare well!

If you haven’t yet decided whether to buy a copy, how about some encouragement? Here are three favorable reviews: Publishers Weekly and Benito Corral Reviews and Out in Print.

Teasers? Two of the previously published tales are already available on line: A PDF of “Firooz and His Brother” (originally published in F&SF, May 2008) can be downloaded at my publisher’s website (“A Free Gay Story” in the navigation menu). “Tattooed Love Boys” is on line at GigaNotoSaurus (you can also download an e-pub for your e-reader), in a version that differs only slightly from the one in the collection.

Or you can stay right here and read a story originally published two years ago in Icarus. It’s on my mind because I just started constructive thinking about the fourth Liam story. Although there are so many other tasks I ought to be accomplishing instead. Dammit.

Liam and the Wild Fairy

Liam missed the school bus. Deliberately. From the far side of the rutted athletic field, he watched the yellow monster trundle away with its monstrous cargo and pulled out his phone. When he flipped it open, the animated carrousel of tiny family-n-friends photos-n-unassigned-ikons spun for a second before it settled on his dad grinning up at him. Dad #1. They’d been fighting, but still. One kept up the forms or got grounded. Liam thumbed the call key and lifted the phone to his ear.

It went to voicemail, probably not deliberate. Liam waited for the beep, then said with great fake cheer, “Hey, Dad. Missed the bus—” again would be taken as understood—“so I’m walking home. See you in forty-five or so. Love you.”

Folding the phone shut again, he stuffed it back in his pocket and started walking. It was only about a mile and a half, rural roadsides until he reached the park, and he did like to walk. More than he liked trying to ignore Harry and Brandon and Tyler and the hurtful things they said that made the girls giggle meanly and put Joel’s back up. Why the only kid in the freshman class who could make sophomore Harry back down should be bothered Liam didn’t like to think about—he disliked feeling beholden and Joel’s interference just made Harry and his pals more vindictive when he was out of sight.

There was always the worry Harry would get off at Liam’s stop—Harry lived only two lots away—and try to start something. He’d done it before. Harry was a coward and his folks were Christians of the hateful sort who’d been piously gratified when Liam’s dad #2 decided he didn’t like being married or a dad anymore and ran away to California. Except Bryan, Dad #1, didn’t then choose to remove the foul contagion of himself and his son from the Hogans’ neighborhood—Bryan and his former husband had bought their house two years before Harry’s family arrived. Would the Hogans have settled here if they’d known beforehand?

Liam’s phone vibrated against his thigh. He pulled it out again, checked the little display on the outside of the clamshell. “Hey, Dad.” Who else would it be?

“What was it this time, Liam?”

Liam shook his head. It wasn’t like he could be grounded from school. “Just ran a little late.”

“No baroque excuses to entertain your old man this time, huh? It’s not especially convenient for me to come pick you up right now.”

“Better not to spew more climate-change toxins into the air anyway.” Liam shook his head again, determined to take the high road. “It’s a nice walk. I could use the fresh air and I’ll get home long before dark.”

“You want fresh air, join the cross-country squad.”

Liam had a hard-fought exemption from PE. His dad had done most of the fighting.

“Babe—” The ritual endearment sounded inflammatory. “You know Ms Abadi reports you every time you’re not on her bus and I get a call from the principal the next day.”

“What are they worried about?”

“They watch the news. The district’s legally responsible for you till you get home.”

Liam glanced around. Every house within town limits stood on at least an acre. A certain amount of quixotic family agriculture stretched out the distances even further. Visiting friends—if you had friends—you had no choice but to hike or bike (Liam didn’t have a bike) or get your parents to drive you. “Sex criminals can’t afford to live in this town, Dad,” he said, trying to sound reasonable. “Like they’d be interested in me anyway.”

“You might be surprised,” his dad muttered, then more clearly, “I’m actually more concerned about the high-powered jerks who can afford high-powered cars, don’t believe speed limits apply to them, and get distracted when their cell signal drops.”

“You know I’m careful.”

“I know you’re careful. You’re not driving an overclocked SUV.”

“I’ve got eyes in the back of my head.” Not literally, but Liam was fully aware of the three tons of steel coming up behind him even though he couldn’t quite hear it yet. The driver was going slow, would see Liam’s fire-engine-chartreuse backpack in plenty of time. In the far lane, in any case.

“Harry and his bastardy posse again, or was it somebody trying to make friends?”

“Hey, now. They’re not bastards. Their parents were legally married when they spawned.” Liam took a breath and watched where he put his next foot. No way he was going to address the other issue right now. “Look, nothing happened. I just had kind of a long day and didn’t feel like dealing with anybody and it’s a pleasant afternoon for a walk.”

“Liam. It’s high school. Some kids are going to be mean and stupid no matter what. If you had friends—”

“I don’t want friends, Dad.”


“I’m not everybody. You know it as well as I do.”

The truck had sped up. Liam could hear the deep growl of its engine but didn’t look back as it rounded the curve behind him. On the straight, it sped up faster, staying within the speed limit and its own lane. Incurious, he glanced over as it levelled with him, in time to recognize the older brother of one of Harry Hogan’s friends at the wheel of the big black pickup. In time, if there’d been any real chance of it hitting him, to dodge the soda can that came flying out the open window. Liam didn’t break stride. “Fairy!” the kid yelled—your hearing had to be as acute as Liam’s to catch it over the engine noise. He watched the can bounce off tarmac onto the shoulder and roll into the ditch.

“What was that?” his dad asked, jumpy.

“Truck passing. Gave me plenty of room.”

“Why don’t you want friends, babe?”

Halted, Liam regarded the soda can glittering in half an inch of muddy water at the bottom of the ditch. “Dad—” He resolved to ride the bus every afternoon for the rest of the year, no matter what. His dad didn’t understand about not rocking a half-sunken boat. He didn’t want to get into it over the phone—didn’t want to get into it at all but particularly not now. Maybe he was a little jumpy himself. “We can talk about it when I get home.” Again.

“Liam—” Bryan swallowed whatever he meant to say. “We’ll do that.”

“I’ll be there soon.”

“You’d better be, son of mine.”

It would be that conversation again, the one about driving him to and from school every day if the bus and the kids on the bus were so intolerable. Wouldn’t that just improve Liam’s image among his peers. Then the subject of private school would come up. As if his grades were good enough to get him into one. As if prep-school kids were magically less small minded and hateful than other adolescents—as if Liam would magically become a different boy himself, ready and eager to join in. And then, if Liam didn’t nip it right in the bud, there’d be sad musings about sending him to live with Dad #2 and his new boyfriend because surely high-school students in San Francisco were more enlightened. “Their parents voted to repeal gay marriage,” Liam would say (had said), and Bryan would say, “Not San Francisco parents,” and Liam would have to say, “Ricky and his guy don’t want me.” Which was so true it didn’t even hurt anymore but it wasn’t supposed to be spoken aloud. Besides, the prospect of living in a city terrified him.

Liam kicked at grass sprouting at the road’s edge where asphalt crumbled into dirt. Recovering, he noticed the soda can in the ditch again. Feeling virtuous (soda cans were aluminum, safe to touch), he clambered down to pull it out. There were no sidewalk trash cans around—no sidewalks—let alone recycling bins, but he was almost to the park.

Reaching it, he detoured off his regular route to find the bin marked CANS ONLY by the little kids’ playground. When he got there, though, he discovered the battered plastic receptacle had been replaced by one of those high-tech solar-powered compressor bins. The handle you had to pull down to deposit your can had the look of brushed stainless steel. He hesitated a moment before reaching for it. The sting of incipient burn bloomed in his fingertips before they got within three inches and he snatched his hand back. “Dammit,” he said, blowing on his fingers. “Try to be a good citizen….” It wasn’t worth the effort to go digging through his backpack for gloves. Easier just to carry the grotty soda can the rest of the way and drop it in the recycling at home.

Liam started walking again, not really paying attention, holding the can away from himself in case it dripped. He hated the smell of every soda he’d ever encountered—he was pretty much allergic to high-fructose corn syrup and aspartame was worse. The dirt path away from the playground led him under tall trees alive with new leaves. He inhaled the fresh greenness gratefully. Leaves and pollen and damp earth mingled and murmured and calmed him. This was one reason not to ride the bus. The fug of growing boys and girls and their rampaging hormones, the horrible industrial fragrances they felt honor bound to steep themselves in, the horrible foods they ate and the odors the foods caused them to exude…it was difficult enough to withstand in large classrooms with climate control. Concentrated within the vibrating, painfully metallic capsule of the bus, it became unendurable. By the time he got home, always, always, he would be queasy and nearly high.

He suspected it was hormones made big, tough Joel so stupidly protective and friendly. Just today, Joel had barged up to the table in the cafeteria where Liam was eating his home-made lunch to ask about the book he was reading. Liam had to insult him hard to make him go away, and then Joel looked so sad and hurt Liam felt kind of bad. Not bad enough to go after him and apologize, until it was too late to carry through without raising Joel’s expectations. Whatever Liam’s own freaky hormones were doing to him, it didn’t involve irresistible urges to get close to people or find them sexy—whatever that meant. Joel’d been wearing a tight t-shirt, too short so that when he stretched (deliberately, Liam thought) half his taut belly came into view, navel winking: a fool’s errand if the display was meant to get a rise out of Liam.

His dad was naïve and solipsistic to believe all Liam’s problems rose from Bryan’s being gay, having been gay-married and now gay-divorced. Not that it didn’t reflect badly on Liam, but he wouldn’t be less…sensitive if he’d been adopted by a white-bread str8 couple who called him Bill. Actually, the white bread would probably have killed him long ago.

Walking along the path, thinking too freaking hard, he stripped a tender lime-green leaf off a low branch. Bruised by his fingers, it smelled so good that he raised it to his nose and crushed it and then, intoxicated, stuffed it into his mouth. The juices were clear and vivid, more alive than the brightest Florida orange or the pomegranates his dad bought him in the winter. Concentrating on the complex flavors, the textures of the leaf’s fibers mashed and wadded by his teeth, he tripped.

The soda can flew from his hand, tinkling into the underbrush. Liam yelped, more surprise than pain, when one knee and then a palm struck the ground. The lump of masticated leaf had caught in his throat, as minorly distressing as a stone in his shoe. Lying still for a moment on soil that felt chillier than it really was, he became aware of tears starting from his eyes and grunted, “Clumsy.”

“You are bleeding.”

Liam yelped again, startled. The leaf came up, sweet, unexpected, as he imagined bubblegum might taste. He spat it away.

“Please. I can smell it.”

Ready to flee, Liam rolled up to a crouch. The voice didn’t sound human, clear and thin and edgy, like struck crystal.

“Please. I am unwell.”

He hadn’t tripped over his own feet but somebody else’s. Somebody’s long, slender, pale bare feet, protruding onto the path at the ends of skinny, bony bare legs. In mid-April, it was still too chilly to go bare legged, barefoot. The rest of the person, from the knees up, lay hidden by leaf and shadow.


“If I might…taste it. Please.”

The copper and ionized silver that served his cardiovascular system as iron did his dad’s made Liam’s blood pale, greenish and iridescent, difficult to distinguish against his skin under the dirt on his palm. He hadn’t even noticed the smart. “Please,” the other fairy said again.


One bare foot trembled and then both withdrew. Leaves and shadows shivered. A long moment of near silence almost convinced Liam either to run away (he had never encountered another person like himself) or burrow into the bush.

Eyes. Eyes peering through rustling leaves, huge anime eyes with big black pupils that contracted almost to nothing as the face emerged further into light, irises of two distinct colors, crescents of pale gold framing ellipses of silvery green. They were disproportionate to the rest of the face, if you were used to human features, and didn’t blink for the longest time. A pointed tongue licked thin lips. The fairy said, “Only a taste. Please?”

“Who are you?”

“I became lost, disoriented. Now I believe I am ill. This terrible, terrifying place!” The fairy’s chin moved side to side, a wag so rapid it was over before Liam registered it. The skin around his eyes looked bruised, tinted with green and lavender shadows that stylish girls at Liam’s school would emulate if they could. “I sensed you before you fell, before the…blood. Please.”

At the bridge of the fairy’s nose, the inside ends of his thick sable brows, two long filaments trembled like a butterfly’s antennae or cat’s whiskers, seeking, searching. Frightened and excited, Liam moved closer, and they swivelled toward him, still shivering. First his dads and then Liam himself had always trimmed the errant hairs of his own eyebrows—he hadn’t realized how long they would grow nor that at each tip would sprout a tiny gem like a lustrous pearl. “It’s dirty,” he said, offering his open palm.

The fairy grasped his wrist, the fingers with their extra set of knuckles going all the way around. Liam couldn’t tell whether the strength of the grip was innate or desperation. Eyes widened until they appeared to take up a third of the triangular face, then narrowed as the fairy used Liam’s arm to pull himself out of the bush. Like miniature javelins, his antennae went stiff, straight. Light glimmered within the pointy little pearls. “Thank you,” the fairy murmured, but it sounded like a threat and the small teeth behind his narrow lips looked jagged and very sharp. Scared, Liam tried to pull free but the fairy had him. The thin, pointed, whitish tongue lapped at the dirt and blood on his palm.

It wasn’t like a cat’s tongue, prickly and grating but comforting. Liam didn’t think it was like a dog’s but he didn’t know for sure—Ricky’s dog had been afraid of him, resentful, never volunteered any sort of affection. He felt it wasn’t like a human’s tongue either, which always appeared sloppy with saliva and meaty. He supposed it was like his own—they were the same species—neat and pointed and merely damp rather than moist.

Gradually, the fairy rose to his full height, drawing Liam up with him. He was much taller, taller than Joel or Liam’s dad. Liam didn’t notice when he noticed the fairy was nude, something that possibly meant fairy nudity wasn’t anomalous the way human nudity surely was: Liam had never seen a naked woman, unless she was art, the only fleshly naked man his father, accidental glimpses that seemed to unsettle his dad more than him. The fairy hardly resembled Bryan, who looked human, grown up, but Liam almost saw a resemblance to Joel and other lithe, lanky adolescents always taking their shirts off for no reason at all. But Joel’s body hair looked animal, the fairy’s ornamental; Joel’s muscles decorative, the fairy’s feral.

The likeness of the fairy’s body to his own Liam wasn’t ready to consider.

“You said,” he struggled to say, “just a taste.”

He felt a little pang in his palm as if, out of surprise or pique, the fairy had grazed tender flesh with those savage teeth, but a final lap of the tongue soothed it. “Apologies,” the fairy said, sounding cruel, knowing, again. “It was greatly refreshing.” He appeared healthier, the celadon glaze of his skin now opaque. His grip on Liam’s wrist never slackened. “Now we shall go.”

Flinching, Liam attempted again to reclaim his hand. “Go? I don’t know you—I’m not going anywhere with you.” Liam was inhumanly strong (something he never let the school bullies discover) but the adult fairy stronger: he felt the bones of his wrist rub together in the fairy’s grasp. “Let me go!”

“You do not belong here. It is unwholesome for you.” The fairy seemed to be smiling though his eyes had turned away, his gaze turned inward. “Come, it’s not far to the door. We will take you home.”

Liam knew stories about fairyland. He flashed on Harry Hogan and his pals leering at him—on Joel’s big puppy-dog eyes and eager smile—on how much of the world he’d grown up in made him ill, how much he didn’t fit. On his dad’s face, disappointed and angry and hurt. “Let go of me! This is my home.” Too distracted to think of raising his free hand, he twisted and pulled at the other with all his strength.

“Did you believe yourself a man, poor little fellow?” The fairy did something peculiar with the fingers holding Liam’s wrist and abruptly there was no pain—no feeling at all in the limb. “Come now. Mother wishes to welcome you home.”

He had been scared and ambivalent. The word mother enraged Liam. Without conscious intervention, the fist that still worked came up to sock the fairy’s delicate jaw and then his pretty nose, solid, furious blows saved up for years as if the fairy were Harry taking his taunts one step too far. “I don’t have a mother,” Liam was yelling. “I never had a mother. She abandoned me like I was trash—like shit! Like the sorriest piece of shit on earth!”

It seemed the fairy had never learned to defend himself, nor to fight. Releasing Liam’s useless arm, he quailed back without being able to escape the fist that functioned, although Liam had never learned to fight either. His punches and slaps flew wild, some not hitting at all, but the fairy staggered away, making sad whines and chirps of protest. Iridescent blue-green blood spilled from his broken nose. With the enormous eyes clenched shut, his face looked pinched and incomplete. One antenna had broken, its pearly tip swinging wildly as the fairy stumbled.

Pursuing him, Liam stumbled, too, thrown off by the dead weight of his left arm. The next blow to land, a savage slap to the fairy’s lovely whorled and pointed ear, nearly overbalanced him, while the fairy swivelled and ducked, sobbing hoarsely, wordlessly, turning up his shoulder to deflect another punch. Liam saw the fairy’s wings.

He’d never properly seen his own. It required mirrors, or his dad taking photos, a pastime Liam wasn’t morbid enough to encourage. Anyway, Liam’s wings were barely better than vestigial—he had no control over them, useless stumpy appendages of chitin, cartilage, and glassy membrane that chose embarrassing moments to flex. The scholar Bryan occasionally permitted to examine his son opined that they were immature, they would grow and he would grow into them, but nobody knew much about the fairy life cycle and it seemed just as likely inappropriate diet and childhood environment had stunted Liam’s wings.

Folded down his back like quivers of glass arrows, the fairy’s wings extended nearly to his knees, glistening. Even as he wanted to break the fairy’s face or run away, Liam wished to see the wings spread up and out and lift: to see the fairy fly.

But apparently he was too disoriented to think of it, of how easily he might flee Liam’s punishing fist. As he staggered blindly away, the wings bounced and rattled on his back, sounding like distant rain.

Liam lurched after him, panting with fury—too furious to encompass his anger, own it. It had felt good to hit the fairy, good in a despicable way to damage such beauty and cause it pain. It was all mixed up. He’d always believed himself strange, grotesque, ugly—he resembled neither of his handsome dads at all—but he knew the fairy to have been beautiful before Liam broke his nose, knew they looked as like as son and father. He’d often pined to know who he was, how he came to be, but the records of his true parentage were sealed, as far as he knew, and it would hurt his dad, his real dad, if he went digging. Nobody, not even his dad’s professor friend, could tell him (he felt it was could, not would) what it meant to be himself, raised in the human world, a wonder and a freak. All he had was stories, fairy tales.

At the center of the park rose a round hill like an overturned mixing bowl. Its peak stood higher than the crowns of all but the tallest trees so the obelisk honoring the town’s war dead was visible throughout the valley. Over the years, many had believed it to be artificial, remnant of some unknown pre-Columbian culture, but excavation yielded no evidence. The lunatic fringe insisted it was a locus of supernatural influence, a site of magical power. Liam had never noticed anything particularly special about the hill, beyond its oddity. Now they were climbing it, Liam trailing behind the sobbing fairy.

It was not a difficult haul but the fairy was broken and Liam’s dead arm had commenced shooting pings of sensation from wrist to shoulder. He teetered every time they hit and fell behind. In a way, he feared reaching the crown of the hill: there were sure to be people there—admiring the monument, admiring the view—neighbors and tourists. They would see the naked, wounded fairy, see Liam…. He lagged farther behind.

But the fairy halted, scarcely a third of the way up. Unsteady, he merely stood for a moment, but then he looked back over his shoulder, eyes vast, and saw Liam still toiling after. The fairy shuddered. The long wings trailing between his shoulder blades jittered as muscles jumped, then snapped open. Liam caught his breath. Late-afternoon light trapped in the crystal cells within the venous structure of the upper vanes turned them to liquid gold. Around the outer margins clung scales of dense, textured color like scraps of velvet that held the light and made it their own. Below, the blade-shaped hindwings were all translucent, filmy veils of watery blue and green captured for only an instant within branching and rebranching jade veins.

Turning, the fairy faced Liam, looming above him, facing him down. Sunlight made him solid, intimidating, despite the damage to his nose and the liquid stains of blood on chin and chest. He exposed his teeth, not a smile, and his long fingers flexed.

Liam raised his foot, took another step up the slope. The fairy flinched. Behind him, where a moment before had been only grassy hillside, a door stood up from a slab of silvery, polished granite, its frame carpentered into the air. The fairy’s wings cast powdery stained-glass shadows on planed planks fastened together by intricately carved bracing.

Liam ventured another step. The fairy moaned and shut his eyes for an instant. As the door began slowly to open behind him, he fluttered forward and down, horror implicit in every tentative step, head half turned as he watched to ensure the door didn’t catch wings or heels.

Liam grunted, a hard sound in his throat. He had to—what? Punish the fairy more? Prevent his escape? Follow him?

The door stood wide. Frozen like prey, eyes as wide and deep as eternity, the fairy gave Liam a last stricken glance. “You might—” the fairy bleated. His wings beat hard—a noise like approaching thunder and a gale of turbulence bearing scents that made Liam’s heart contract—and whatever else the fairy said was lost as slender toes scrabbled to maintain his balance even as they lifted from the grass.

Liam rushed the last few yards but the fairy was already aloft, suspended from glistening wings like a slaughtered lamb from the cruel iron hook between its shoulders. Leaping, Liam swatted at the sky. Beating wings drunkenly swooped the fairy higher, farther, away. His limbs dangled like a mosquito’s, paddling the air. A drop of cooling fairy blood splatted on Liam’s cheek. Clumsy in the air, the fairy made a slow half circle out over the leafy park, high above Liam sprawled weeping on the stone sill of the magical door, and then half closed his upper wings and darted, a stooping hawkmoth, over Liam and under the lintel.

Staring at endless blue sky through veils of tears, Liam hyperventilated. The wind through the door, brushing coolly over his face, smelled—tasted—like no air he had ever breathed. He had never before been offered fresh air to breathe. Whimpering, he hauled himself to his knees, grabbed the frame of the door to drag himself upright. Shivering against feelings he couldn’t name, he peered through the portal.

A twilight that never ended. White and amethyst and garnet stars sequinned the indigo horizons. It seemed there must be a full moon somewhere but Liam couldn’t find it. Below him fell the spreading skirts of an everlasting antique mountain velveted with forest and meadow every deep shade of green and purple.

Something like a hawk or dragonfly or immense firefly fleeted up a shallow crevasse toward the door, toward Liam, trailing flickering sparks as if the air were so thick with oxygen and vitality that it ignited at the strike of wings. Liam wondered if it was the fairy, his fairy, but then he saw there were many more, flitting or swooping or fluttering above the landscape and high in the sky, each with its comet-tail of sparks. Breath filled his lungs with immeasurable silence and sorrow and he felt the stumps of his own wings fidget, struggling against the weight of shirt, jacket, backpack.

Unthinking, he shrugged the pack off, unhearing, heard it thud to the grass behind him and tumble a way down the hill. Still he stared. His vision was sharpening. He believed he saw a great river wind across a broad plain and a strange obsidian city or palace erupt where river purled into unlimited ocean. He believed he saw a mountain sculpted in the likeness of a sitting leopard, snarling silently at the fairies that circled its head, spritely and unconcerned. He saw a rocky bluff upon which stood the disembodied stone heads of a hundred titanic kings and queens, their blind eyes weeping. His lungs were so full of the air of fairyland he could no longer breathe.

Flexing, writhing, his wings tore through the fabric of shirt and jacket. They vibrated with such intensity that he moaned. If he chose to step across the threshold, he might take nothing of the world he knew with him. Frantic, he ripped the noisome rags from his shoulders and arms. A shred of t-shirt drifted through the door and burst into blue flame before it touched ground. He reached for the brass buckle of his belt.

Unfastening it, his hand brushed the oblong lump of the phone in his pocket. If he were to set a single foot on the soil of fairyland, only for an instant, when he turned back the world he knew would have changed. He would no longer know it. Climate and weather patterns would have shifted in ways no scientist could predict. The sea would have risen to make an island of the distant, enchanted city where his dad #2 had settled, if not drowned it utterly. People, human people, would be half machine. Harry and Brandon and Tyler, even Joel, would be old, bitter old men if they lived at all. Liam’s dad, Dad #1, the only person in the universe who truly cared about him, would be long dead.

Liam sobbed aloud and inhaled another draft of the intoxicating wind. His wings fluttered with contained longing. The closing door nudged his heel.

Clenching his eyes against further sight of the land that called him, he tumbled out of the door’s way, into sun-warm grass that smelled of sour rags and iron rust and plastic. He coughed and coughed and wept until all that marvellous air had dissipated from his system and all that remained was all he had ever known.

The phone vibrated against his thigh. Flailing, he pulled it out. He was weeping too hard to read the name on the display, couldn’t take in sufficient of the foul air to speak when he opened the phone and lifted it to his ear.

“Liam?” The worry in his dad’s voice would have saddened Liam if he could become any sadder. “Liam, are you there? It’s been almost two hours.”

Liam uttered a croak that was meant to be Dad.

“Liam! What’s wrong? What happened?”

Liam coughed. “Daddy.”

“Babe, what is it? What can I do?”

“Daddy, please. I need you. Please come get me.”

“Where are you, Liam? Are you hurt?”

Everything hurt. “I’m all right. But I just need you so much right now, please. I’m in the park, on the west side of the hill. I love you so much, Daddy.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes. Liam, babe, I was so worried. I love you more than anything ever.”

Liam coughed his voice clear again. “Backatcha, Daddio,” he said, and closed the phone. “So very much.”

Slipping the phone back into his pocket, Liam shivered at the cooling air on his bare torso and felt an unfamiliar tug and pull in the center of his back. Craning to look over his shoulder, he saw the jewelled edges of his open wings, straining to catch a vanished wind.

Copyright © 2010 Alex Jeffers. First published in Icarus: The Magazine of Gay Speculative Fiction, Issue 5, Summer 2010.

design fantasy fiction Lethe Press short stories spec fic You Will Meet a Stranger…

to print, to print

Although not officially on sale until the 14th, You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home has gone to press. Primarily so that publisher Steve Berman can schlep printed copies north from New Jersey next week for display on the Lethe Press table at Readercon in Burlington, Mass. (Sell many copies to discerning con-goers, little book!) And drop a few off with the author in Rhode Island along the way.

Just under the wire to appear on the flyleaf, capricious and brilliant author of Lambda Literary Award-winning Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories Sandra McDonald offered up a gobsmacking blurb:

These ten stories transport us in smart, dazzling, and sometimes brutal ways into worlds that are both familiar and unfamiliar, near at hand and far over the horizon.  Alex Jeffers writes like a man with a thousand years of stories to share. Each is like a prism held up to the sun, refracting hard but rewarding truths unlikely to be found in any other place but these beautiful pages.

Tangentially related to You Will Meet a Stranger: At Out in Print Queer Book Reviews this morning, Jerry L. Wheeler posted a review of Steve Berman’s marine anthology The Touch of the Sea, saying extremely flattering things about my “Ban’s Dream of the Sea,” reprinted in the collection.

Also sent early to press today so Steve can promote them at Readercon, two anthologies. Wilde Stories 2012: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, edited by Himself and with fantastic cover art by Ben Baldwin, should be generally available around 1 August.

Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Charles A. Tan, cover artwork/design by Maxie Wei, is scheduled to go on sale 15 August.

fantasy fiction historical fantasy novelette spec fic

out of the bronze age

I am very pleased to report my second sale to that estimable online ’zine dedicated to spec-fic stories of awkward lengths, GigaNotoSaurus. What an excellent message to find when I surfaced from an eighteen-hour bout of copyediting. Editor Ann Leckie has requested small but consequential revisions to the MS but is confident enough of my competence to get them right to project publication next spring, April or May. So, a bit over a year after “Tattooed Love Boys.”

Originally drafted nearly two years ago under a different title and set in the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, “A Man Not of Canaan” is a tale of, among other subjects, BDSM and Lovecraftian Elder Gods. But not, I think, a horror story. I’ve never written a horror story, I don’t think, nor wished to.