Before we start, some Unsung news. Dark Star has been long listed for the Guardian Not the Booker prize. The award itself is pretty humble - unlike the £50k that the Man Booker prize winner will get - the winner of Not the Booker gets a Guardian mug. Meh! Money - so vulgar!
Seriously though, we're really chuffed to see lots of people come out of the woodwork to write kind words about Dark Star. These aren't reviewers or industry big wigs but true readers like you. If you have read Dark Star and loved it then all you need to do to vote is write a 100-word review by this Sunday evening.
Bonus: if you haven't read Dark Star then click here and you can download a free PDF extract and work out if it's worth your silver. And now... on to this week's short story.
Charmed and Strange
I sit up coughing, the air in my chest turned to water, again. A hacking, terrible wheeze has kept me awake longer than I’ve been asleep. I should have known. At the foot of the bed and around the baby's cot a grey mist that isn’t a mist has formed, weaving shapes in the moonlight.
'Oh, no you don’t,' I mutter through a basket of kittens. He can hear me. He can always hear me. He just never listens. 'Go away. I just got here. It’s my turn.'
In the grey mist, images flicker: glitter, a B-minor phrase, abstract shapes and fractal geometry say plainly, If you want to stay longer, choose better.
I reach for the inhaler at the side of the bed, and wonder if the short burst of chemicals has any value as a weapon. 'My choices are fine. Go away.'
I’ve never been a mother, he says with a fountain of pink hearts, the scent of baby powder, and a mathematical statement I’m too sick to follow.
'You’ve always been a mother.'
It doesn’t matter, he says, with a stink of cabbage. Your time is still up.
This goes on until the agitation forms a small storm cloud, and a crack of tiny lightning makes the baby cry. I aim the inhaler at the cloud with my thumb on the trigger. Reynaldo—I’m in the mood for exotic names today—Reynaldo flinches. I fire.
The semi-coherent light that is my ancient partner collapses in a puff of awkward sentiment and intimate possibility made up of music, fluid mechanics, and sprinkles. It’s ridiculous, I know, but it cracks me up—figuratively—and he is gone. For now.
I get up to check the baby, knowing her infancy and childhood will pass for me like a busy dream, and the next time I really notice will probably be her wedding, or her daughter’s—assuming Reynaldo gives me that long. I twirl the mobile hanging over the crib, touching each of the planets and stars to set them dancing. One has a peculiarly changeable colour, of rainbows like an opal. Rings circle it like Saturn, carnelian, green, gold-flaked lapis that spin separately. It is not Saturn.
Ordinarily, you’d expect the rings to rotate a couple of times and stop, but at the touch of my brown fingertip they set up a hum, which resolves into a simple G-minor chord. A beam of light catches my daughter’s eye, wakes her, making her burble and laugh. I’ve hidden the catalyst a dozen different ways in this exchange, but this is my favourite. Reynaldo will never guess, and he’ll feel so foolish even if he does.
You can call me Callista, if you like. Back when I was leaving footprints in the Anglian strand, my name was a sort of nasal snort that more or less meant, 'Hey, you with the limp.' Then Reynaldo found me. Happily I changed that inarticulate grunt for the alternating freedom of attenuated electrons, for which I’ve most recently traded bronchitis and a nervous twitch. You might think that less than fair, but it all works out. The truth is I’ve been waking up for weeks with kittens in my lungs or blood in my gums or an itch in some inaccessible place. I’m exhausted and not just because of the baby. Perhaps Reynaldo’s right. I may be over-extended. It is certainly his turn. I hate when he’s right.
Callista can’t come to the podium right now. I located the catalyst, after several set-backs, including one that left me with a singed peripheral concept. Sadly, it was not until I’d caught it, in a noose of ultra-violet and bar 15 of Beethoven’s 'Ode to Joy', that I understood: the child was an extrusion of Callista’s substance, a kind of pseudopod that vanished into complex air when she did. I taught her that. Now I have the bipedal, bilaterally semi-symmetrical form I was after, and am still not a mother. Not even pretend. And she has been almost snowing with laughter—snow shaped by windflowers and birdsong, usually in the bathroom. She taunts me, pleased with herself beyond measure, and strews birdseed in my sleeping bag.
Then she vanishes for weeks at a time. It’s pleasant. I can enjoy myself, and yes, I do enjoy the limitations: thinking in a straight line, employing words, puzzling out cause and effect, action and consequences. Slowing down. I was a temple cat for three years, once, in Egypt; nearly drove her mad until we discovered there are ways we can work together. I wave a wand, she is the 'magic'. Good times. Also, napping.
You will have gathered that only one of us can take shape at a time. The other remains the pure energy form in which Callista—or Tracie, Evangeline, Hatshepsut, Cui Fen the Emerald Fragrance, or whatever—presently frets. The freedom of the cosmos should be more than sufficient compensation for this mayfly life with its passions and frustrations. Should be. Isn’t entirely.
Motherhood denied me, I’ve joined the Air Force and am happily testing fighter jets and impressing all the girls. The food is good, and Callista won’t think of it for ages. In fact, it’s been ages already and frankly, I’m starting to worry. If you become aware of her somehow, if she mistakes you for me in some way, you might mention the catalyst is currently A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III scene 2, line 113-114. In Russian.
That should take her by surprise.
Maggie Secara is a technical writer of Bohemian tendencies whose fiction has most recently appeared in 5Stories and New Realm magazines, as well as the Forest of Dreams and Speculative Valentine Drabbles anthologies. Her latest novel The Mermaid Stair (Crooked Cat 2014) continues the Harper Errant series. Maggie lives in Los Angeles, California.