Vast Enough to Swallow the Sky

~ Michelle Muenzler

The world was never so blessed as when my brother was born. At least that’s what our mother always told us growing up, despite us being twins and looking near the same.

“More tea?” my brother asks, his hand sliding to the enameled pot he inherited from her recent death.

I blink, unable to speak. Speaking has been difficult since she died. Words so . . . lacking.

My brother’s eyes are fever-bright as he tops off my tea, unconcerned by my lack of answer. “You’ve heard the news, yes?”

I nod, slowly.

“Good, good. It’ll be a terrible storm,” he says. “My first!”

I’m not sure what’s so good about it. I glance outside the gardens of the estate­—also his, thanks to our mother—and watch as green waves lap at the ancient seawall.

It’s only with great struggle I find my voice. “The wall won’t hold.”

He laughs. “It will hold. It always has.”

His confidence is maddening. Just like everything else about him. He’s only a handful minutes older than me, but those few minutes are enough.

“It won’t,” I say again. Insistent that he listen.

But it doesn’t matter what I say. He’s my brother, the favored child and our mother’s successor, and he’s always done as he wills.

 

I remember the first time our mother let us watch a godstorm roll in. It crashed against the seawall, whipping strands of power in every direction.

“They’re angry today,” our mother said, and laughed. As if the anger of the gods was nothing but a trifle.

She held my brother by the hand, and my brother held me by mine, and my free hand squirmed, wishing for something of its own to grasp onto. Something to cling to and make sense of the cacophony of color and sound assaulting the air around us.

When our mother stepped onto the ancient platform that was her right—that great stone tongue jutting from the seawall to just above the raging waters—my brother quickly followed. I, on the other hand, balked.

Progress interrupted, our mother frowned. After a carefully considered moment, she nodded down at my brother and said, “Let him go. If your younger brother isn’t brave enough to face the gods, he’ll just have to stand with the rest of the powerless.”

I like to think my brother paused before releasing my hand, but memory is a slippery serpent. What is real and what is remembered are not always the same thing.

I do know that I was left behind, though. Crying there on the beach behind the seawall until the villagers dragged me into their huddling mass to wait out our mother’s miracle. And a miracle it was, like everything our mother did.

No godstorm ever survived her touch.

 

By morning, the skies have darkened to the color of peat, and rot stink rides heavy atop the heaving waves. The water is a brown churn, its bright green lost to the growing godstorm. It’s difficult to breathe with the weight of the heavens pressed against my lungs. I don’t think anyone has been struck by a godstorm this big in nearly a century.

My brother, however, doesn’t cower. He stands midst the villagers at the lower seawall while hungry waves assault the barrier, intent on consuming the village and everything surrounding. Villagers touch my brother’s robes. Whisper blessings as he passes. Next to them, the seawall shudders at the sea’s wrath.

How like our mother he is in this moment. So bold, so sure of himself.

She would be proud.

The incessant knot in my chest burns, but I push my way through the crowds nonetheless and grab my brother’s hand. “May you bring peace once more to the gods,” I say, wind-swept grit scouring my face.

He pats me on the shoulder with his free hand. “Don’t worry, I will.”

I swallow my frown and instead inspect the adoration-filled faces surrounding him. Despite their watching eyes, I lean into him and whisper. “About the wall—”

He yanks me into a hug then, his mouth against my ear. “I said not to worry. Now hush before you ruin the big moment.”

In his arms, with the entire village staring and the gods beating at our shore, I force a smile onto my face. “Of course. My apologies.”

He slaps me on the back, then with a small shove returns me to the crowd.

A few moments later, storm winds lashing at his robe, he ascends the platform.

 

Nobody truly knows why godstorms form.

We speculate, of course, and pass down our speculations to the next generation. And over time, such things are considered lore, or truth. But what is truth? What could possibly be the meaning of such terrible storms?

I will tell you what they say.

The sea is a fragile vessel, like a ceramic cup. Fill it with enough anger, and eventually that anger must overflow, or else the cup crack.

And so the gods gather up all the hate and anger that has sunk into the depths, and when it becomes too much, they spin it into a godstorm that it might vent its rage elsewhere. That the cup may remain whole.

That elsewhere, of course, is us.

It’s a pretty story, in its own way. Makes us feel like we’re a part of the gods’ plans. As though however overwhelming the storm, we have been gifted the power necessary to stand before it. Because what kind of gods would they be, otherwise?

What kind of gods indeed.

 

My brother stands on the stone platform, exposed to the waters whipping below. Rings of concentration spark around him as he attempts to harness the storm’s frenzy and unravel it. Of all the people watching, though, only I can see his rings of power. Only I can feel the intense rage of the waters clutching at his feet, hungry to drag him into the godstorm’s heart and drown the defiance from him.

I am my mother’s child as well, after all. My blood as strong as his.

The sky howls as he starts funneling the storm’s hatred away. I even begin to think that maybe I was wrong, maybe the seawall is not as weak as I feared. But then my brother pauses his work for the barest of moments. Turns his head toward me as if to say, Do you see this? Is this not glorious?

That moment of inattention is all the godstorm needs.

A fist-like wave pummels, not the platform upon which he stands, but the battered wall upon which it rests. And that is enough, for the seawall is indeed weak with age. Has grown weaker every storm.

The stones of the seawall crumple beneath him, and with it the platform he stands upon.

He wobbles a moment, his mouth a surprised ‘o’ and the rings of his power flailing for purchase to keep him from plunging into the godstorm’s wrath.

And then my brother is gone.

 

When our mother still lived, I used to dream of her death.

I pictured her, always at the lip of the storm, laughing at what the gods had flung in our direction. And while she laughed, I could feel the incoming waves, so intent on devouring her they shuddered through my bones. Such monstrosities, those waves. Vast enough to swallow the entire sky.

But it was only a dream. And no matter how many times I woke up screaming, our mother still stood against the next storm. And the next. And the next. Shaking her head in disappointment at my grasping hands, at my cracked voice begging her not to take those final steps up the platform.

And yet, in the end, it wasn’t a storm that took her.

No, it was a bee. Minding its own business until the moment it wasn’t.

She didn’t know she was allergic until it stung her on the cheek.

And then . . . well, like so many moments in life, then it was too late.

 

One moment, my brother is there. The next, he is gone.

Terrified villagers scream as waves spill through the seawall breach and snatch them toward the sea. So much screaming, and yet I can barely hear it past the ringing in my ears.

My brother . . . is gone.

A dozen hands shake at me. Thrust me forward, pull me back.

Someone yells, “Save us, damn you! Save us!”

And like that, my focus snaps into place.

The godstorm is terrible, the sky spitting in my face, the sea gnashing at my legs. Rage begets rage begets rage, the fetid mass of it geysering from the godstorm’s heart. A rotting boulder of a storm, its ugliness crashing into the shore.

And yet, a thousand colors still split the air. Power lights up the sky in whipping strands.

My brother, trying to stop the storm even as it swallows him whole.

I thrust away the hands. The voices. Everything.

“Save yourselves,” I snarl as the starving waves reach out once more for them. For me. And thrusting all my power forward like an arrow, I leap into the howling sea with but one purpose.

To take back my brother from its grasp.

 

I don’t pretend to know the will of the gods.

Blessings and curses, trust and fate. Love and hate and fear and all the mess between.

It’s the day before the godstorm still, and our tea is growing cold. And as my brother stares past the garden at the darkening sky, his hand trembles just a bit, dropping the ancient tea cup like bones against its saucer.

“Ah, damn,” he says, staring at the cup. At the fresh spiderline crack snaking up its side. “I’ve broken it. Mother would kill me if she were still here . . .”

I nudge my cup in his direction. “Take mine”, I say. “I never much liked tea anyway. Reminds me too much of the sea gone bad.”

It’s not until I notice him staring that I realize it’s the most words I’ve strung together since our mother’s death.

He accepts the cup with a slight nod, though. Returns to watching the sea. To watching the sky.

I, on the other hand, watch him. Try to remember that little boy who once held my hand, until the moment he did not. Try to discern if he is still in there, hiding somewhere beneath our mother’s commands. Beneath her expectations. Or if we will forever be this—two brothers occupying the same space, together yet so terribly, terribly apart.

But all I can see are waves—those monstrous fists of the sea that have haunted my dreams for as long as I can remember. That haunt me now awake.

Rising, ever rising . . .

Seven of Cups

 

Michelle Muenzler is an author of the weird and sometimes poet who writes things both dark and strange to counterbalance the sweetness of her baking. Her short fiction and poetry can be read in numerous magazines.

Check out michellemuenzler.com for links to the rest of her work (and her convention cookie recipes!).

 [ issue 8 : fall 2022 ]

Small Packages

~ Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Sarah opened the new box of Cheerios and worked the waxed bag open.  Lo and behold, there was a small package inside amongst the honey-nut goodness.

Cereal boxes hadn’t had prizes in them in decades, but Sarah lived in hope.  She had been waiting twenty-five years for a decoder ring.  She couldn’t read the messages the aliens sent through her email.  She printed them out and kept them in a file folder, waiting for this day.

She snipped off the end of the prize package and shook the prize out onto the turquoise kitchen table of her small condo.

Not a decoder ring.  It was a red plastic heart.

Frowning, she opened the heart.  It had a message inside:

“Meet me at Burrows Coffee Shop at 5:30.”

No signature.

She figured aliens would be able to beam a decoder ring into the exact cereal box she had plucked from a wall of cereal boxes at the SuperMart.  They knew where to find her.

But no, some rando had put a message in a cereal box, not knowing who was going to open it.  Or when.  Or where.  Had this come from the General Mills factory?  Were they talking about a coffee shop in wherever General Mills was?

There was a Burrows Coffee Shop two blocks from the library where Sarah worked, and she got off at five.  Couldn’t hurt to drop by.  She got coffee there all the time anyway.

She picked up the message and sniffed it.  It smelled like lavender, her least favorite essential oil.

Could she like anybody who sent a lavender-scented note?

It was only a day until Valentine’s Day.  If a boyfriend had sent her a plastic heart, she would wonder.  A cheap and easily breakable heart didn’t bode well for a relationship.  Then again, she’d never even had a boyfriend, so maybe a bad one was better than nothing.

She liked the school-kid Valentines they sold at supermarkets, cartoon characters and superheroes talking about friendship.  She bought a package every year to hand out to everybody at the library. She still remembered how sad she’d been in grade school when she only got a Valentine from her best friend Basima, and other people were getting sacks of them.  Sarah always bought a Valentine for everybody in her class, but other people didn’t.

Everybody should get a little Valentine’s magic.

Other people at the library had started passing out kid Valentines, too, following her lead.  Basima, who worked at the library too, was the first, but not the only.

Sarah poured out a bowl of Cheerios, added milk, and took a bite.  She tucked the message back in the heart and put the heart in her giant green purse, with all the other things she might possibly need in the course of her day —protein bars, a pretend ray gun she sometimes waved at noisy children in the storytelling circle to make them settle down, a first aid kit, a phone charger, a small pad of colored paper so she could write notes to people who misbehaved, a roll of tape to tape the notes up with, Sharpies, assorted fountain pens, Tampax, her wallet and keys.

She had just rinsed out her cereal bowl when she noticed an alien on the kitchen table.  It looked like a cockroach, but its wildly waving antennae were golden, and its wing cases had symbols on them in gold — she recognized the glyphs from the alien emails, which she had studied without success.

“Hello,” she said.  “I hope you come in peace.”  She opened the Cheerios box and took out three Cheerios.  She put them on the table in front of the bug.

Its metallic antennae waved independently of each other.  She wished she knew cockroach or alien sign language.  It fell on the Cheerios and ate them.

She put down five more before she rerolled the bag and closed the box.  As much as she longed for alien contact, she didn’t want things eating her food before she could.

The roach ate three more Cheerios, then waved its antennae and bobbed its head at her.  She wasn’t sure what that meant. She left the last two Cheerios on the table for the alien to snack on later.  “Do you have anything to tell me?” she asked.

The roach bobbed its head.

“Oh!  That’s interesting!  But I don’t speak your language, and I have to get to work.  Maybe we can work out a code later?”

It bobbed again.

She left it and headed for the library.

After work, she stood in the door of Burrows and looked around.  How was she supposed to recognize the person who’d sent her the message?

How likely was it that the message was a prank, and there would never be anyone waiting in a coffee shop for her?  About ninety-eight point five percent.  Still, Burrows had the best Danish in town.  She could get a raspberry Danish and maybe share it with the alien roach when she went home.

Only one person sat at a table.  Basima, her best friend.  Basima lifted a hand and wiggled fingers at Sarah.

Sarah went to the counter and ordered a latte and a Danish, then joined Basima at the table.  “Did you send me a message?” Sarah asked.

“Maybe.”

Sarah dug around in her purse and found the heart.  “Was it this?”

Basima had been at her house on New Year’s Eve. They always celebrated together by watching old movies and toasting with Martinelli’s cider at midnight.  Basima knew her way around Sarah’s kitchenette.  She could have put the heart in the cereal then.

Basima smiled at her.  “How long have we been friends?”

“Since we were six,” Sarah said.  They had met in kindergarten, and gone through grade school, middle school, and high school together.  They had gone to college together to get their degrees in library science.  They had roomed together all four years of the undergraduate program, and then Basima had gone for her Master’s, while Sarah went to work.

“Have you ever felt a spark between us?” asked Basima.

“What?” Sarah said.  She had had crushes on boys all her life, and never acted on them.  She lifted a finger and held it out to Basima, who lifted her own index finger and reached toward Sarah.  She stopped half an inch from Sarah’s finger, and Sarah brought her finger closer.  A spark jumped between them. “Whoa!”

“I got tired of waiting for you to figure it out,” Basima said, and then blushed and stared at the table top.

Sarah bit her lip.  Here was Basima, her best friend, finally letting her know something new to Sarah.  Sarah, who could talk to cockroaches, but was often tongue-tied when it came to people.  Things would be so much easier if Basima was an alien.

“Do you have a decoder ring?” Sarah asked.

Basima blinked, then looked up at her, wide-eyed.  “As a matter of fact,” she said, reaching into her giant orange purse, “I do.”

“Wanna come home and meet my alien cockroach?” asked Sarah.

Seven of Cups

 

Over the past four decades, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and young adult novels and more than 350 short stories.  Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her novel The Thread that Binds the Bones won a Horror Writers Association Stoker Award, and her short story “Trophy Wives” won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award.

Nina does production work for the The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  She teaches short story classes through Lane Community College, Wordcrafters in Eugene, and Fairfield County Writers’ Studio. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

For a list of Nina’s publications, check out: http://ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.

 [ issue 5 : winter 2022 ]