Voyeur: Or, Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

~ Daniel David Froid

Ernestine told me she had just returned home from her travels. “Just,” she said. “Got back this morning and I haven’t even unpacked.”

We sat inside her grubby kitchen, at a table piled high with junk. I glanced at my sister across the landscape formed by a few weeks’ worth of mail, a pot full of soapy water, another, lidded pot, made of enameled cast iron in pink, several bottles of vitamins and pills, and a couple of boxes of food, with crackers in one and cookies in the other. The boxes were closed, and no food was on offer. A small patch of space had been cleared in one corner. I made a mental catalogue of all this accumulated junk while she moved around the kitchen, making coffee. Her house, in a state of unnerving disorder, could not be blamed on her extensive travels but on her regular habits, ever feeble, as a housekeeper.

She poured a cup of coffee for each of us and sat down. Cheryl, her dog, an elderly Vizsla, brushed past us before perching on a bed in the corner. She—Cheryl—had one in every room.

Ernestine was telling me she had once again gone to the Furono system. “At least that was the plan,” she said. Lately, whenever she returned from one of her trips, she would call me and insist that I visit. Dutifully, I always did; I suppose some shred of sororal devotion lingered on in me. She never used to call me at all, until she had, in her retirement, taken up traveling. Or what she referred to as traveling. I’ll admit that I could never quite say whether, or to what extent, I believed her. And yet, after so many years of silence, silence that at times felt vaguely menacing, I welcomed her gesture. I listened with tolerance to stories I scarcely believed. They seemed to me not far off from the stories she fabricated in our youth, stories in whose telling I once partook, full of magic and secrets, incantations we whispered in the dead of night in the forest just behind the house.

As she spoke, my mind flashed to the face of our brother, who did not like her stories, who did not like to play; quickly, I cut him out of my mind and turned to Ernestine.

“That far?” I asked. “I’m impressed.”

Ernestine chuckled and lit a cigarette.

“Furono’s not my favorite, but I got a good deal. And it’s not so far, you know. Just one system over. But then I ended up going to Videro, and that is a place worth seeing.”

While Ernestine spoke, Cheryl glanced at us with a look I can only describe as beatific: eyes narrowed, gazing toward the heavens and waiting to receive a sign from God. She often looked this way, and I wondered how often she received such signs in return. About as often, I thought, as her human companion traveled among the stars.

I smiled and sipped the coffee, which was rich and strong. In Videro, the coffee is expensive but very fine—or so Ernestine says. I had never been myself. I asked, “This is good. Is it Videran coffee?”

Ernestine smirked. “Yes indeed.”

“But is it actually coffee?” I asked and looked down at the thick, dark liquid, which swirled thickly when I tilted the cup back and forth. “It just occurred to me to wonder. Are we actually talking about the same plant here? I mean, we can’t be.”

Ernestine tutted. “You have such a narrow mind. There are only so many elements in the universe, you know. Here we have a composition that is as close as anything you’d like. Closer than some swill I’ve had on Earth in my time.” Her mug was already empty, and she rose to refill it. Mine remained nearly full.

“Well. Okay then. Tell me about the trip.”

“The plan,” she said. “was to stay in Furono. I had to leave because everything moves too slowly there. And I can’t stand the people. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that, but it’s true. They all sit around and have these lengthy, abstract conversations about what it means to exist. I mean, this is dinner table conversation. This is what they discuss with their kids! There was this little girl in the hotel where I was staying. . . . My first morning, I sit there sipping my coffee and eating some very good pancakes—and yes, pancakes, even if they were not made of good old earth flour and eggs and whatnot.” She raised a finger at me and jabbed it, once, decisively, before continuing: “And this girl comes up to me, and she asks me my name and I tell her, and I ask her hers. It seems like a perfectly pleasant interaction, and I tell her she seems like a very nice little girl, and then she says, in this lisping little-girl voice, ‘Is my niceness your perception or is it a true quality of mine? Is it an essential quality of my being?’ She went on like that, about the inherent nature of qualities, for a few minutes—minutes that felt, I am telling you, like hours. And at last I simply excused myself to use the bathroom and fled to my room. I could not bear it.”

“She was trying to make conversation,” I said, “in the only way she knew how.” My coffee had lasted for this anecdote’s duration, and, now my cup was empty, I wanted more. I stood up, prompting Cheryl to bark, weakly. She lifted her head from its pillowed recline, said her piece, and then let her head drop.

“Forgive her,” Ernestine said. “She doesn’t like sudden movements. Not at her age.” She laughed and said, “I don’t either.” After a pause, she continued, “I personally cannot bear the tedious philosophical speculations of others; I do not care one whit!” Ernestine scrunched up her face in disgust.

“You know who questions like that remind me of,” I said. My sister’s face changed, from disgust to a darker emotion. Something flashed in her eyes. I was the one who said it, yet suddenly I did not want to grant that who a referent. “Our little brother,” I whispered. Pursing her lips, looking away from me, Ernestine said nothing. My cup full once more, I returned to my seat.

“Anyway,” Ernestine said, “when I was there, I heard all about this new interstellar liner that would be swinging by before moving on to Videro. The Voyeur. It was another guest at the hotel who told me, this very tall and very thin hairless man whose name I can’t remember. But he was a human, and quite pleasant, and he said he knew the owner and could get me a discounted ticket. Now, I did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday, Cloris, and ordinarily a bland and pleasant man with such an offer would give me pause. To say the least.”

“I would say so.”

“Yes. Ordinarily the offer of a trip past the edge of the system, on a ship called The Voyeurno less, would be a sign that I should turn tail and run all the way home.” Now she stood up, walked to the fridge, and paused to look back at me. “Are you hungry? I’m starved.”

I demurred with a shake of the head. She busied herself, gathering things—eggs, a green pepper, an onion—to fix herself something to eat.

She said, “So I may have been tempted to see my way out. To flee. Whatever. And yet. What can I say? The devil of curiosity overtook me, and it prompted me to ask him to say a little more. And he did, he went on about how fabulous The Voyeur is. He said, ‘Anything you’d like to take a peek at, you can, if you pay for the pleasure.’ And, anyway, everyone says that Videro will dazzle you. The most spectacular sight in the galaxy.” She paused mid-chop, one hand clutching a knife and hovering over an onion. “A spectacular sight: is that redundant, Cloris? I think it is. Spectacle is inherent to any sight. Or, better: to be worthy of being seen is inherent to a spectacle.”

“Careful, Ernestine. You’re beginning to sound like the little girl from Furono.”

Her eyes glowed; she barked out one singular laugh. “The beaches—in colors you’ve never even dreamed. The cities—as tall as the sky. So he said, and I began to believe him, or perhaps it was only that my travels had left me dazed and debilitated. Interstellar journeys take a lot out of a woman, you know.”

What was there to do but wait, patiently, for her to continue? That these tales seemed to me mendacious has already been noted. The extravagant telling of tales has long been a passion of Ernestine’s—her whole life long. The first time she told me she had just returned from a journey beyond our solar system, I decided neither to argue nor to question her but to take her at her word, just to see what would happen, to see how she would proceed. With plentiful details and a coherent narrative thrust, her tale at least amused me if it did not altogether convince. As then, so now. If what she offered were lies, I accepted them anyway. Now, I waited. Cheryl rustled the blankets as she shifted her slumbrous body. Eggs sizzled in a pan that rested above flames of blue and white. My sister banged the pan against the stove and cursed. I pictured her, sitting glumly on a rocket that rattled through the cosmos, white fire trailing behind it. In my mind, Ernestine in her ratty housecoat, cigarette in one hand, straddled the rocket like a pinup girl riding a bomb as it shot across the sky, smirking and waggling her fingers at me in a patronizing wave.

“And so I went. I boarded The Voyeur.” She sat down, soon, eggs fried hard and doused in hot sauce, the edges crisp if not burnt, and for a long moment she wielded the fork as though she were about to conduct an orchestra.

“That guy, I lost him. I didn’t need him anymore. He seemed like a bit of a shady character, however useful I found his tips. The ship itself was grand. Not a rocket, sister, but a proper starship, enormous, equipped for deep-space flight, and painted the most beautiful shade of red.”

“How did you know I imagined a rocket?”

“The wide and deep grooves of familiarity, worn into the paths that a mind daily treads, may occasionally be mistaken for telepathy.”

“Ah,” I said, and felt faintly embarrassed as the image of Ernestine straddling the rocket flickered in my mind once more. One might have thought, from the look on her face, that she had uttered God’s own word. Even if she had, stubbornness would still forbid me from admitting it. I began to sort the mail on the table by category: bills, circulars that I would take home and recycle myself, and other. Ernestine’s face spasmed for a moment: surprise, irritation, or gratitude? However she felt, I continued my sorting.

“And so I boarded the ship and went straight to my room. Rather small, yes, cramped and dark, but this was an adventure, and adventure often yields privation, which demands fortitude, which I have in abundance. The berth was truly no more than that, a small enclosed bed with scarcely enough room for my trunk. But it met my minimum needs, and what could I do but be grateful? Sleep beckoned, even in those unideal conditions, and I duly gave in. But the next day I awoke ready to take on my favorite role: voyeur!”

I snorted.

“Laugh all you want, Cloris. I have always been a great watcher of people, an outside observer, and relish what I learn from that purview. To board The Voyeur seemed almost too perfect, rather too suited to me, and the gentleman was right that what it offered was, simply, everything: everything you could ever want to see. Now, of course, much that comprises this ‘everything’ was simply shocking, disgusting, crude, and lewd. I did not wish to observe the act of copulation, nor did I wish to glimpse nude bodies writhing to the beat of an unfamiliar music.”

“Ernestine, you boarded a cruise ship—pardon me, a starship—called The Voyeur. It sounds sleazy as hell to me. What would you expect but that sort of thing?” The mail before me lay in three piles. The vertiginous stack of circulars teetered on the verge of collapse. I divided that pile in two and folded my hands before me, awaiting a response.

She glared above her empty plate. I noticed that her housecoat had a yellow stain on its collar but did not dare point it out.

“Oh, Cloris,” she began, settling into a familiar argumentative mode. “You’re a real pill sometimes, you know that? Excuse me, but have you ever bothered exploring the galaxy around us? You’d find that lots of people elsewhere have minds quite a bit broader than yours—less inclined to sleaze. And you will have to take it on faith that there was much else there to draw the eye and mind for us voyeurs of nobler calling, a few of the carnal pleasures notwithstanding. If you don’t want to listen, to give me your attention sans judgment—well, you can feel free to go home and return to your macramé. Or whatever it is you do to fill your time.”

In silence we met each other’s eyes. A long minute passed and then another. I stood up and walked to the sink, where water flowed weakly from a rust-stained faucet, and tried but failed to erase all trace of coffee from my mug. Back at the table, I sighed and waved my hand, prompting her to proceed.

“A zoo full of alien creatures—but you probably wouldn’t care much about that. A library, granting access to the greatest volumes known to the galaxy. I couldn’t help but slip a copy of my own book in there. Fortunately, I rarely leave home without a spare. I could go on, but there was one thing in particular that really drew me in—one thing I wanted to tell you about.” Her voice quavered for a moment, and something in her manner shifted. It seemed that her muscles tensed; she grew defensive or wary. Then she cleared her throat and resumed.

“I spent all day wandering the ship, going in and out of the zoo and the library and the coffee shops and so on. And at the end of the day I wanted a meal, and maybe just a little drink to calm my nerves. So I asked around, and the word was that there was one bar you just couldn’t miss. That’s what they said. The name of this place was Scopophilia. It took me quite a while to find—way at the other end of the ship, the opposite end from the sleeping berths. It looked funny. The lighting was dark, but all the walls and the tables and chairs, everything, were in pastel colors. The pastel and dim lightning made it feel sort of eerie—haunted. It’s been my experience that interior decoration on other planets is often disarming. Really, all judgments of taste—they differ so much from one species to another.

“Anyway, a young person led me to a high, round table near the back. I had to ask to be seated closer to the stage, and she complied but not without a look of disdain. Oh well. I had arrived just in time for the show, and I was not about to miss it because some gaggle of aliens in front of me were blocking my view. Onstage, a heavy black curtain made its squeaking way into a recess in the ceiling. No light shone; whoever stood there stood in shadow. But, soon, a thin trickling spotlight cast the performer’s face in light, and I could see her pale and blue-toned skin, covered in garish makeup; her long flat limp blonde wig; her diaphanous garment, which might have been a sheet, cheaply sewn into a dress. If you could call it a dress. A voice resounded from somewhere behind me; the emcee said, ‘And now, Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.’

“Now, that’s a subjective judgment if ever I’ve heard one, not least because we spectators represented a good number of worlds, all of which, one might think, would have more to offer in the realm of beauty than this bedraggled performer. Nonetheless. We were there to enjoy the pleasure of looking, and I assumed that Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, not only offered a worthy prospect but enjoyed being looked at.”

At this point, Ernestine’s voice began to quaver. Her eyes roved around her kitchen and settled on her dog. Despite her apparent disapproval, despite her terse tone, it was clear that something that night had disturbed her.

“She sang. If you can call it singing. She sang a strange song that seemed a little familiar, though I could not recall having heard it. Something about how magic dances on a clock, how time is the magic length of God.” I murmured “Buffy Sainte-Marie,” but Ernestine ignored me, went on: “She didn’t move at all, really, just barely swayed onstage in her terrible, booming voice. No: she incanted. She was reciting a spell on the unwilling masses. If you have not registered the fact, Cloris, she was a drag queen. And her voice pierced me like a needle, and it stung that badly. Oh my god. The thing is, Cloris, the thing is that I noticed, as she sang, that she looked remarkably like . . . She had blue skin—the slate-blue color of a corpse—and a terrible blond wig, but, when she moved in the spotlight, I saw it. She was the precise likeness, beneath false skin and hair, of him. Branson.”

Ernestine, ever steely, looked suddenly so desperate. As though the cold night had come to claim her and found her bare—defenseless. As though the galactic paths she traveled had been totally evacuated. As though she had seen our brother.

My face must have been a mirror of hers. She said, “I had thought that he was . . .”

I nodded. My mouth felt dry. The room around us contracted, disappeared, and we floated alone with the remains of what we had thought to be unassailable truth.

My sister nodded. “And yet. There he was, I swear it. And doesn’t that name just sound like him? ‘Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.’ The entire epithet, every time; no abbreviations. No compromises!

“Was beauty,” Ernestine asked in a voice that was soft, shorn of its typical brash confidence, “our perception—we in the audience—or was it an essential quality of her being? She looked like a corpse; perhaps she was dead, and her body lived on in some other state we scarcely understand. She. Or he. Branson. I swear it was him. He was singing of the magic length of God and swaying, very gently, on his feet. And it was a very pretty thought to imagine that Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, was looking right at me as she swayed. But such a thought ended in conjunction with the song, and that is when she fled the stage; the lights went up; the show was declared, by that selfsame master of ceremonies, to be over. Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, had departed, and so had he.”

Ernestine clasped her hands before her plate. She sat and said no more. Cheryl stirred behind us. And, after a very long spell of quiet, I said, “Ernestine.”

“Yes, Cloris?”

“Is there more to the story?”

“There is not. The end has come. I retreated to my berth and slept all night. The next day, I found a trader whose little ship would depart that afternoon and bring me very close to Earth. I just got back this morning. Haven’t even unpacked.”

She stood and ambled to the sink, where she deposited plate and fork. From one pocket of her housecoat her hand drew out a purple leash, which she clipped to the collar around Cheryl’s neck. After some exaggerated stretching, Cheryl followed her companion to the door. The thick sourness of dread suffused the air as I sat at the table, looking at the piles of my sister’s mail. She and the dog left me alone with the faint sense that Branson could be here with us, except that I knew that to be impossible. An image surfaced that I would have preferred not to see: his face, his face, his face.

When at last Ernestine and Cheryl returned from their walk, neither of us spoke. Her face looked drawn, nearly corpselike. It seemed to me that her gaze was fixed on a point so distant it might have been that alien sun. For a moment the image occurred to me—a flaming star that sped our way and swallowed us whole, obliterating not just us and the house that held us but the entire wretched planet. And it occurred to me to speak it aloud and allow it to sit there between us, though I did not indulge the impulse.

Of course I did not believe her story. And after Ernestine gave Cheryl a treat and lumbered to her chair and sat down once more, I felt moved to say so. Perhaps the surge of perversity that then pulsed within me should have encouraged me to pursue a line of inquiry or to deny her stories outright, to insist that she was an inveterate liar and charlatan (which she was). But instead it drove me to take a different tack.

Hands clasped, eyes sure, I looked at my sister and said, “Ernestine, what really happened after you returned to your booth? Why don’t you tell me the end of the story?”

She gave one miserable shriek of a laugh. “I gave it to you; you’ve got it!” Her face took on a bleak cast as she sighed and lit a cigarette.

“Couldn’t you have smoked that outside?”

She shook her head, a firm no. “If you want the end of the story, dear sister, then why should I not oblige? Once the show ended, we began to stand up. Some of us, I presumed, would stay to chat and drink and do the other things that patrons do. But self-restraint is my watchword when I travel the galaxy, and no energy remained in me for such leisurely pursuits. My little sleeping chamber beckoned, and in that direction my feet swiftly took me. The halls of The Voyeur are narrow and, at that time, they were dimly lit—evoking the night that did not exist for us, then near no sun. Rather, nothing but night existed. Anyway, scarcely any others traveled those corridors; for a time I had the feeling, stoked by the show at Scopophilia, of having slid into an empty world.

“As I left, I happened to spy the master of ceremonies shuffling away, in the same direction that I was taking. The temptation to follow him rose within me, but a more direct approach seemed wise. I sped up and soon overtook him.

“‘Sir,’” I called, combating distaste at his tiny form, which resembled that of a pill-bug, though he stood as upright as I did. And he evidently possessed vocal cords of some sort or another. Or made use of a technology I could scarcely imagine, which permitted communication, as well as the deception of my senses. Would he—I dared wonder—roll away if frightened? He stopped and waited for me to speak. And I did: ‘Where did Helen of Troy, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, scamper off to? I would like to offer her my deepest and most profound respects.’”

“The pill-bug continued to stare. And I heard a voice, which to my ear now sounded distinctly robotic. He said, ‘Oh. That’s a hologram. We just use her for the shows. There’s no real person.’”

“I said, ‘A hologram? But surely she must be based on a real person—a simulacrum of the real, composed of light and strings of code, no?’”

“The pill-bug replied disappointingly: ‘I don’t know, lady. We’ve used her for years.’ And then he turned and began to walk away, ignoring me as I called after him: ‘But how could I find out?’

“I made my way to the berths. I entered mine and slept. And now. The end. The real end.”

“That’s all, Ernestine?” I asked. I felt ready to stand up and leave.

“That’s all, sister. The genuine end. I am afraid, Cloris, that what I have given you is no more than a shaggy dog story. A tale to entice you—but one that has neither moral nor point. One whose mystery is perhaps irresolvable.”

“Well, that’s true. There was no reason to tell me any of this. To bring up all of this about—about Branson. Completely unnecessary.” I rose and moved to retrieve my coat.

Ernestine had begun to mutter. Perhaps she meant me to hear, but the feeling struck me that I was eavesdropping, intruding on an intense and sudden privacy. She said, “Is it only when we believe ourselves most in control that we are most caught within time’s trap? You see the shadow, the shadow, the beast within the shadow, the undying flame that burns at the heart of the darkest well in the world, and you think a way out is imminent, no? But delusion, utterly absolute, forms a hard and impenetrable shell around the sticky sorrow at the center of every single sorry life. I wonder whether she knew it, whether she understood the fundamental nature of our condition.”

At that point she stopped, and she cleared her throat, and she lit another cigarette and looked my way.

“Do you understand it, Cloris?”

I sighed. “No,” I said. My coat bedecked my shoulders. My bag was in my hand. The front door stood only a meter or so away, as the crow flies, though it suddenly seemed as distant as whatever desolate planet The Voyeur might now idly circle.

Ernestine cleared her throat and said, “I don’t either. Not a whit. I’ll call you after my next trip. I’m sure you’d be eager to hear all about it.”

I smiled, made a gesture with my head that could have indicated yes or no or something altogether ambiguous—even I am not sure where my intentions lay and what it was I wanted her to see—and left her there alone at the table.

Six of Swords


Daniel David Froid is a writer who lives in Arizona and has published fiction in Post Road, Black Warrior Review, Lightspeed, and elsewhere.

 [ issue 9 : spring 2023 ]

The Pack

~ Christi Nogle

I should never have let Lee move us out here. All that time we were hooked into Zillow, I secretly prayed she’d fixate on one with a smaller lot and higher square footage. Instead, we opted for acreage bordering public land, the house little more than an afterthought: one room for living, one for sleeping, one bathroom with the washer and dryer wrenched in, and a sloping lean-to added on to serve as workshop, guest room, storage for dog supplies and yes, kitchen. It was Lee’s choice; I couldn’t deny her.

Oh, but the outside made up for it those first few years. We were happy. Though there was nothing to see in town, Lee would drive in whenever we wanted and then, this: the thriving garden, the new puppy, the picnics and hikes. Lee trained all three dogs to be safe off-leash, which I’d never thought could happen. I planted flowers everywhere and trained morning glories, wisteria and orange-flowering trumpet vines up the walls to cover the ugly lean-to. We brought a tree guy out to prune the little orchard. The trees thanked us with so much fruit we had to take up canning.

Our bodies changed shape. We grew fatter from all the home cooking while our legs narrowed and toned from hiking and our arms grew brawny from woodcutting and gardening.

The truth was we both felt awfully fit up until Lee started getting the breaks. First was the fractured arm—a yellowjacket stung while she was high on a ladder picking apples. That one could have happened to anyone. It healed up right on schedule and then things just seemed to snowball: a fall on a hike and the ankle was screwed up, and it healed, and then a slip in the bathroom shattered her wrist, then the dogs didn’t see Lee while they were running. She took a terrible crash to her ribs. We spent weeks in the city running up bills not just for the treatments and hospital room but also hotels, food, gas, dog boarding. Osteoporosis, the likely cause, was ruled out early. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with Lee’s bones. What was making the accidents happen, then? It seemed like they investigated every little thing, her brain and inner ear to her toe-joints. In the end, all agreed that the series of breaks had been all coincidence.

Only now, between the lingering pain and the fear, Lee just about couldn’t move. I didn’t like to focus on it, but the bills would send me back to work. Not just a job (if indeed I could find one) but a commute. Little traffic, one would hope, but bad roads in the winter and deer shooting into the road.

The place was paid for, but I feared we’d lose it if the debt got too bad. Sometimes I felt we had already lost everything and just didn’t know it yet. Other times I felt that fear was silly, something that could never happen, a sign of my losing it. We were both getting squirrely, but I tried to hide my own irrationality, tried to be strong for Lee.

Nothing got taken care of all that time. Vegetables froze in the garden, and with the thaw, the vines went wild. New ones with white-and-celadon blossoms joined and then overtook the rest. The trees went unpruned, fruit falling onto the ground, drawing wildlife, freezing and thawing to stink.

The dogs were distressed from being boarded and then neglected at home. I felt I didn’t know these creatures who lost their cool chasing things off the property, sending me out into the forest with a flashlight, so helpless and small—scared of falling and breaking something myself, or being shot by a hunter. Even more, I feared that the dogs might be shot or break their legs.

I was always living through worst-case scenes, it seemed.

I hadn’t been afraid of the woods with Lee, but it was different now. The first few times the dogs ran off in the night, I hyperventilated and bawled the whole time I searched. I resolved to chain them, which broke my heart all over again. They sat quietly indoors but would jump up and beg to go out whenever I made a move. They hated the chains but hated more to be inside with us.

Lee stayed in bed sweating and thrashing in terrible nightmares. I slept thinly on the bed’s outer edge until Lee begged me to go elsewhere in case I might break her in my sleep. I carried my pillow into the lean-to and headed for the futon where we’d hoped some wandering relative or old friend might sleep one day. I stopped, gasped.

The vines had come inside the lean-to and made themselves at home, coiling around the futon frame, threading into the stove burners, groping into the bag of dog food with their spiny fingers. I’d heated up something or other on the stove not too long ago, so that infestation was new, but the other encroachments might not have been so new. Who’d been paying attention?

Lee hadn’t come into this room in a while, either. I recalled that just the other day, she’d said she could not stand to be in the lean-to anymore. Maybe it was too cold?

Certainly drafts swirled in the room. The vines must have compromised the windows. I investigated. Yes, and they’d compromised the floor. The dog food was gone, and I had the strange thought that the vines had eaten it. Up close, their veiny green blossoms were formed like the propeller-seeds of maples—or like dragonfly wings. They had that pearly, iridescent sheen. Just now these blossoms riffled in the breeze inside the lean-to.

I stepped outside and hauled the dogs in by their chains. I stoked the fire, layered their beds and all the couch blankets onto the floor and set about bonding with them, stroking their fur and cooing to them. Dogs forgive. Soon we were a pack again, just the four of us. I regretted Lee being apart from this reconciliation, but I was weary. I coiled into the blankets, and we slept into the afternoon.

Lee, all this time, had one arm hanging off the side of the bed. Something hadn’t healed just right, and it eased the pain to get some extra blood into her wrist. The whole arm dangled, tempting the new vines that were just then exploring that space between bed and wall. The vines reached out with grasping tendrils thick as fingers. Thinking of me, Lee held onto a wiry hand, squeezed it in sleep. The hand squeezed back. The hand raked through her sweaty hair on its way to her shoulder. It was afternoon, and my feet hit a creaky spot on the floor. Lee moaned, and the hand slipped back to its protected spot between the bed and wall.

“Dogs are out of food,” I said from the bedroom doorway. I barely saw Lee in the darkened room and caught no hint of the vine. “I’ve got to go to town.”

I didn’t want to drive, didn’t want to leave Lee.

“Can you get ginger ale?” she said.

I nodded. Yes, ginger ale, soup, and ice cream. All the foods for sick folks, though Lee wasn’t sick. Just aching and scared. And heartsick, same as me.

It was sunny with scattered rain. The dogs enjoyed the ride. I did too. While we sped toward town, the vine repeated its travel up Lee’s arm and through her hair, onto her shoulder, over her ribs. Only this time, Lee was awake and staring in awe. Lee’s blood moved faster. Maybe the vine heard that or felt it. Felt it, most probably. A pulsing. The vine pulsed back.

While I trudged through the grocery store, the dogs were good. They paced, protecting the car, barking at shoppers who came close to the windows.

While they paced, the vine pushed against certain parts of Lee’s body, the places where the breaks had been.

While I stood in the checkout line, a strange shiver went through me. Lee—Lee’s in danger. Suddenly I needed to hurry home. I fumbled the change the cashier passed to me and left it scattered on the floor.

Another break, that’s what I feared.

While the dogs pushed their noses out into speeding air, the vine began entry into the bone. Had it gotten a taste for marrow from the dog food? Or did it already know what it needed to form its fruit and its swarms?

This vine that had infiltrated so much else now plowed its slow way into its first human body. Not victim. No one thought of Lee as the victim, neither the vine nor Lee herself. This new thing she hadn’t known to fear was come, and it was gentle. It burrowed deep and lay a seed into a crevice of unmended bone. Another seed, another.

While a Miata tailgated so hard I could barely breathe, the first seed sprouted—or egg hatched. It wasn’t clear which. Lee felt a thrill. New layered blossoms like corsages opened rapidly from her wrist, from her ribs and leg and arm. She tore off her nightgown to see the wonder of them, celadon green but bordered in rose and gold and a hundred different blues, all rainbow-pearly as oil in puddles. They opened so powerfully that she heard another break. She felt nothing.

The convertible kept veering to pass and then tucking back in behind me. Now, finally, a stretch of empty road opened up. I slowed. The convertible came up alongside—just as a truck entered the road. Someone lay on the horn and I veered, praying. The dogs, oh, the dogs.

But we were safe, all of us. We leveled out, slowed onto the shoulder. The red car was far in the distance now. I cried just briefly in relief, the dogs whimpering and licking my neck and face. Dogs have extra senses at times like this.

They felt it, saw it maybe: the anxiety that had held me so long was now dissipated.

While we had our moment on the shoulder, the blossoms grew larger. They grew firm with a lacy coral-like bone. Lee thought of flowers formed of porcelain. The vines that had held her retreated, making her slump and shatter in places. She felt nothing but was aware, watching. Her hand was farther from her body than it had ever been. The wrist was, it seemed, a deep pile of pollen—but animated. Crawling.

Lee was no longer the focus. Whatever happened, on and in her body, was beside the point. One sinewy vine lashed around her mouth, holding her fast to the bedframe, but the rest had moved on, lurking all around the bedroom door, just waiting for the four of us to walk into the room. Maybe the dogs were what it wanted all along, or maybe it would do something novel with my unbroken body. Lee would wait. She would see.

She would speak, soon enough. That last vine would loosen and move on to other entertainments. Later, as I dangled from the ceiling, as the dogs grew their beautiful, terrible wings, as the larval things filled up the air, we would be able to speak, to share notes. What had gone on while I was in town, what would happen next, what did it all mean, how would it end? There was no pain, and so what looked like destruction did not feel like destruction. It felt like a new beginning.

Yes, we would come back together, all five of us now, to share not regret but only wonder.

Six of Swords


Christi Nogle is the author of the novel Beulah (Cemetery Gates Media, 2022) and the collections The Best of Our Past, the Worst of Our Future and Promise (Flame Tree Press, 2023). Her short stories have appeared in over fifty publications including the anthologies XVIII (Eighteen), What One Wouldn’t Do, and Flame Tree’s American Gothic and Chilling Crime.

Follow her at http://christinogle.com and on Twitter @christinogle.

 [ issue 8 : fall 2022 ]

The Dawn Was Gray

~ Nikoline Kaiser

But here’s the irony of life,
His mother thinks he fought and fell
A hero, foremost in the strife.
So she goes proudly; to the strife
Her best, her hero son she gave.
O well for her she does not know
He lies in a deserter’s grave.

‘The Deserter,’ Winifred Mary Letts.


Inanna was tall and strong, with hair the color of ebony and a face that was big and beautiful. Enlil had a crooked back from a life before, spend in fields or chains, but his head was crowned by curls and he had, bit by bit, straightened his spine by sheer force of will and a soldier’s rigid training.

They were, both of them, soldiers. Or at least that’s how they turned out to be. One came from the East, the other from the West, though if you asked them, years later, they would not remember who had gone from where, or whether it was true that they had been born such strangers. Early days are muddled, the past left behind in dark pits of forgetfulness, and little by little, it becomes so forgotten that it ceases to be important. Inanna and Enlil could not be more different, but both were soldiers. And they did not wish to fight.

Whether they were on the same side or different sides, it matters little; they met on the battlefield. And they put down their swords together, though the war was almost over. They could not tell, at this time, which side had won, but they were also no longer sure which side they wanted to win.

They put down their swords, and they left their brethren and enemies behind, still fighting. They went to the sea, where a ship was waiting. They were bid welcome, and then away they sailed, across the seas of the world.


Inanna had not traveled across the sea before, but Enlil had, and he warned her of the journey.

“They are strange, in other lands,” he told her. “They have strange customs.”

“Will they have swords?” Inanna asked, and his silence spoke for him. She drew her fur-cloak around her tighter, though the sun was shining. It was not cold. Her hand trembled.

The sea was rocky and made her sick, but it was also full of life and wonder, and Enlil pointed out the fish to her, and the whales, naming them in lost tongues and tongues to come. She watched the sailors throw spears to catch the sharks for eating. Enlil looked away as the blood filled up the water. They ate well that night.

They spent their days with the sailors, trying to learn the language. Inanna fell half in love with one, strong and swarthy, their eyes nearly black. They held her close at night; when she fell asleep by their side, she forgot about the fighting.

“Do not get attached, sweet Inanna.” Enlil warned her, and Inanna told him it was fine, though already her heart ached with the knowledge that she had to leave. They got better at the languages, at this different tongue. They sailed, for many years.

When they had learned the language properly, they changed their names to fit the new land they were coming to. When Enlil asked the sailors how long they would be sailing, they answered that it would be a while yet. The city still had to be built. When it was done, they would land on its shores.

Inanna called herself Penthesilea. Enlil took the name Mygdon.

The new city was tall, with great walls.

“This will keep the war out,” Penthesilea said, and Mygdon agreed. The city was beautiful, and olive trees grew, and the people were kind and not afraid of strangers. Not yet.

“No war will come here,” Penthesilea repeated, and dared to venture beyond the walls, though Mygdon did not.

“What if they come for us?” he would say, afraid of their old commanders and comrades, still with swords in hand, crossing the seas to slaughter them like sheep.

“If they come for us, we will meet them, unafraid.”

Penthesilea did not mind going outside the walls alone, though she did feel bereft, being so far away from Mygdon. They had not, she mused, been far apart from each other, not since they had different names and were perhaps on opposite sides of a battlefield. No, they had not been far apart at all.

The country surrounding the city with its great walls was beautiful, and as she walked up the hills, it became even more so. She walked up the hills, finding herself in the crests of a mountain. Where was this to where she had been born? She did not know which way to turn. She kept walking, until she met a beautiful shepherd-boy, his curls falling into eyes so bright they hurt to look at.

“Hello, fair lady. Can I be of assistance?”

Penthesilea gave the young boy a smile. “I believe a fox is making off with your dinner.”

The young, beautiful man cursed and ran away. Penthesilea stayed to pet a few sheep, unused to their softness, their gentle sounds, the way they did not care one whit that a stranger was in their midst. Sheep, she thought, did not know anything about wars. They did not need walls around a mighty city to keep them safe. All they needed was a beautiful shepherd-boy.

She met him again on her way down the mountain. He seemed dazed, and she was nearly beside him before he noticed her. For a brief, beautiful moment, Penthesilea thought of her sailor, now far away at sea, and the absence of them ached from her heart to her bones.

The boy’s eyes lit up as he saw her; he was lonely, she realized, and a beautiful woman is a boon to anyone who is lonely.

“You came back.”

His look was leering, but Penthesilea smiled at him, nicely.

“I am on my way back to the city.”

“I am not allowed in there.”

“I see.”

“It is because . . .”

“I did not ask,” she interrupted him. “Some things are better left unspoken. If I am meant to find out, then I will find out.”

The shepherd nodded. “Fate. It rules us.” He grew quiet then, almost taciturn as he turned from her, and stared out over the mountains. If the high hills were not in the way, he would have been looking at the ocean.

“War and conflict are coming soon. It will be a glorious change.”

Penthesilea left him looking to the sea.

When war did come, carried on a thousand ships, Mygdon and Penthesilea had already packed. They were ready, though sneaking out of the city, with its great walls, fortified and prepared for war, proved difficult. Cowards, they were called, though most deemed it fitting that outsiders should leave—they could not be trusted in times of conflict. What if they betrayed the city? They had not been born here, had not even lived here that long. They did not belong here.

Penthesilea cried as they walked across the mountains, and she listened only with half an ear as Mygdon described the battlefields on the beaches, the ships arriving late, the lions clashing under the sun.

“I do not know where to go next,” he told her, but as they arrived on the other side of the mountain a fisherman was waiting for them, and he took them to their ship. Her sailor was still onboard, and they held her tight.

“We’ll sail where there’s no war,” they promised, though they passed many a country before they found such a place.


He called himself Amir the next time they made land, and she had chosen the name Morgiana, though it sat strangely on her tongue at first. This land, old for others, new for them, was warm and comfortable. The cities were smaller, but easier to leave should conflict break out.

They did not accept strangers in the biggest city like they had where they came from, and so they hid in dry oil-barrels, waiting a night and a day until it was safe to crawl out. Morgiana’s legs ached, and once they found a place to sit, Amir massaged them until she could walk without cramping. They were terribly hungry and bought too much food for them to eat or carry, so they spend their last gold on a donkey, and fed it well.

“Do you think he would believe us if we said where we had it from?” Amir asked her, in their old, the oldest of tongues, as the merchant marveled and looked askance that two weather-beaten strangers should have so much wealth all at once.

“You could try telling him,” Morgiana said. They had followed a flaming spirit into a cave, bursting full of fruit-trees. They had eaten their fill, and scavenged the gold from the leaves, and found other fruits, ones made of crystal and sapphire. Morgiana’s arms had become muscled again from climbing the trees; she was glad it was not from swinging a sword. Though, when the spirit had betrayed them and tried to seal them inside the cave, she had wished she still had her old one, wicked and sharp, and ready to cut flesh and flame alike.

When, two months later, word came that that same merchant had perished in a terrible fire, swallowing him and his home and his children whole, Morgiana and Amir looked at each other, and they left the city only an hour later, them and their donkey.

“Were we wrong?” Morgiana asked him, as they traversed the desert. Wind and sun cut into the skin on their faces.

“Wrong how?”

“Should we have picked up arms again? Should we have killed the spirit? It was a deceitful traitor, and that merchant had done nothing wrong. He and his family would still be alive, if only we had killed the spirit. Or if we hadn’t gone into the cave at all to begin with, or . . .”

“We are deceitful traitors too,” Amir interrupted her, and for the rest of the day, they pretended the wind was too shrill for them to talk at all.

They came to a small village, little more than small huts and large tents placed around an old well. The children there showed Amir how to find special stones and throw them into the well over his shoulder, chanting to the gods, to the spirits, to the desert itself for luck. He told her later, in the tent they had borrowed, that he had wished for their happiness.

“Peace and quiet, and a place to stay,” he said.

“In that order?”

“I want it in that order, yes.” His arm snaked around her, his forehead pressing against her collarbone. It was too warm to hold each other when the sun was up, but now, in the night, they huddled together for warmth. Morgiana had faint memories of having done this with someone when she had been a young child, back in their homeland. Perhaps it had been Amir, or perhaps he was just so familiar to her now that every person she met carried a piece of him in them. Except for her sailor, she thought. Her sailor was something else entirely.

“Do you remember what we were fighting about?” she asked. “All the way back then?”

She could feel his hair against her skin as he shook his head.

“Land,” she mused out loud. “Or a woman, or the gods. Do you remember our old gods, Amir?”

“I do.”

“Do you remember their names?”


“No, Amir. That was my name.”

He pressed closer; sleep had almost claimed him.

“That’s right. I forgot.”

“It’s alright. We can bury it with the rest of our past.”

He started snoring gently, the sound drifting into the night.

The next morning, she spoke to the Elder of the village, and he agreed that they could stay. He was an old man, and his son would take over after him, though his son had cruel eyes and Morgiana did not like him. For now, it was fine. She showed the children how to weave small crowns from the cloth left over when their mothers made clothes, and she boiled impure water until it was drinkable, and learned how to catch salamanders with her bare hands. Amir caught rainwater with hollows and rocks in the sand, and sheared sheep until the fluff got caught in his hair and beard. She plucked his curls free in the evening, while he spoke of the two women, older than his mother had been when she died, and how they were teaching him more stories than he thought even existed.

“There is one,” he said. “About a snake and a farmer. And another about a donkey, a donkey like ours, and an oxen. And there’s ones about foxes and wolves, and a bird large enough to catch elephants.”

“Are there any about people, or are they all about oxen and wolves?”

He thought for a moment. “There are some about people, I’m sure.”

“Well, ask them to teach you those tomorrow. I want to hear them.”

She gave up catching all the bits of sheared wool stuck on him, and they went to sleep, holding each other again. She caught a stray thought, and tried to hold onto it for tomorrow, afraid she would forget it. Amir shifted, still awake. She could ask him now.



“What’s an elephant.”

He was silent for a moment. “Go to sleep, it is late.”

“You don’t know either, do you?”

“You cannot stay,” the New Elder told them, with his cruel eyes shining under the hot desert sun. “You are outsiders, and we do not want you here.”

“We want them here,” said the children Morgiana had played with, who were now grown.

“We want them here,” said the women who had taught Amir stories, now old and bent and crooked.

“It’s alright, we will leave,” Amir said, though there were tears in his eyes. Morgiana said nothing, afraid her voice would betray her, and then her fists would betray her, finding their way to the New Elder’s face.

They left, without their donkey, because their donkey had gotten old and died. They travelled through the desert until they came to a river.

The river took them to the sea. The ship, with the sailors, waited for them there.


It grew colder the longer they sailed. Morgiana huddled beneath furs and skins, and the further they got, the more they had to huddle up with each other. No longer was Amir’s heat enough, they all had to lie in a mess of bodies and sweat, or they feared they would die. Most of the nights, Amir cried, and tried to hide it. Morgiana cried too and did not care who saw.

“Don’t you know?” Amir asked her when his tears had dried. “We weren’t supposed to live this long, not at all.”

They arrived in the cold, cold lands, and changed their names ones more. She shed Morgiana like a second skin and became Pyrri, and Amir emerged as Tjalfe, and they walked close to each other, shoulder to shoulder, and covered themselves in furs to shield from the cold. The cold, the cold. Sometimes, the sun never rose at all, and other times it would not go down. War was always on the brinks on these lands. And then, quite suddenly, they were in it. If you asked Pyrri, she thought it was because of the cold. The biting, relentless cold; you had to fight to get away from it. You had to shed blood to feel warm. But at one point, Pyrri woke from a nightmare, and she realised what she was doing, whose blood she had on her, and she was so disgusted she had to cry.

Tjalfe and Pyrri put down their swords when the battle raged at its highest. Pyrri’s was crafted with gold on the hilt. Tjalfe’s had a ruby embedded. They were beautiful weapons, and they sank into the mud freely. The cold blemished their faces and stuck to their skin, and they walked hand in hand, keeping each other up until they came to the longships and sailed, sailed across the wall, to warmer lands, to their old home, and then their even older home. When they came back to the cold lands, spring had come and Pyrri could breathe again.

“Coward,” the villagers spat at them, and they were driven from the towns, driven back to the sea, but their sailors were there now, ready to pick them up. Pyrri’s sailor in particular, though now they had grown gaunt, almost skeletal.

“It’s the cold,” they said to her, and Pyrri agreed. The cold, it got in everywhere. The cold was so horrid.

“It’s too cold to travel far,” Tjalfe said. “But we cannot stay here. I will not even mind the cold, in a new place, only—let us go somewhere they do not hate us.”

Not yet, he did not say, but Pyrri thought it for the both of them.

“I think I know the place,” her sailor said.


They stayed in the next place the longest since the tribe with the New Elder and their little donkey. Pyrri became Branwen, then she was called Elinor. Tjalfe stuck, quite adamantly, to the name Prasutagus, but as a decade passed, and then another, and then the children of their new home started calling him Amleth and there was nothing to be done when the children had decided.

It was by no means peaceful here, but Amleth walked with a limb, fake at first, but then so ingrained that he did not know how to walk without it, and Elinor was a woman not required to fight in this strange land, and so they tended to their chicken coop and they fed the children who came by, and the locals were afraid of them, yes, because they never aged and they never ventured far, and in the deadest, darkest of night, their skin was ebony and gold, and their hair was darker and more beautiful than the universe. But they did not bother them, but came to them for cures instead.

Elinor brewed rose-petals and grass to make a potion that cured lovesickness, and when they vomited it, they spat out their heart and told her they had been cured, though she knew she had given them nothing but a dream. Amleth told stories to the older children, tales of far-away lands that they thought he was making up until he showed them scars, or until the light from the fireplace hit his face, and they saw his features, so unlike their own, and they knew he had come from somewhere far, far away, even if it was the same place they had perhaps come from, once, long ago.

That was a thing Elinor and Amleth learned, in this new land, that everyone had wandered from the same place and stumbled into the world, blind and alone, holding out their hands and hoping someone would take them. Keeping a tight hold when someone did. It was unspoken between them that they would never let go, not ever, because in their hearts they knew that they were different, that they held something within themselves. That, though many others had run from disaster and death, had run from war, they had run the farthest. And they were still running.

It was easy, to gather the things they needed and burn down their cottage when war finally came knocking on their door. Elinor and Amleth did not look back as they put their bags on a pony and started their long trek away from the mainland and towards the ocean. It would take them a long while, they knew, and longer even than most, because when you are fleeing you do not always have the luxury of haste, though that is when you wish for it the most.

“I do not understand how they keep finding things to fight about,” Elinor said, and Amleth did not respond, but she knew he was thinking, of reasons he could give her, and she was sure that they would all be sound, and good reasons, and that he knew them to be good reasons, too. But Amleth said nothing.

It took centuries to reach the shore. The lands they had come to were small here at their heart, but Elinor had to wear long frocks and Amleth had to acquire a hat before they could pass through the nearest port-town. Carriages drove past, polished a shining black, and when Elinor caught her reflection in one, she became confused at the sight, and then she laughed.

“I barely recognize myself. I barely recognize you!”

She turned to him now, standing there in his fine, tall, black hat, and he looked nothing like she had ever seen him before. Was this what it had always been like? She wondered if they were even the same people now, or if they had become strangers wearing familiar disguises.

Amleth’s smile was thin. “I do my best to recognize you. After all, what else do we have left?”

They held hands and walked across the streets, ignoring the boys selling newspapers and the smell of caramel and coal. They reached the sea-side.

But there was no ship to take them, and they had to stay.


His name became far too outdated, and in solidarity, she changed hers too. Richard and Ann they became, and they set up in a small flat by the sea, expensive, but worth it so they could watch out for their ship. It would come soon, it had to, but Ann knew she held more hope than Richard did. Her sailor was still onboard, after all. They had to come for her, they had to. Even now, as she looked so different, and bore a different name too­—it could not hinder them. It never had before.

She re-learned how to sew, and he worked with machines great and big, and she taught classes on proper grammar in a language she had barely known a hundred years ago and kept flowers in a vase by the window facing the sea, roses and lilies when she could get them, and daisies too, in the spring.

They held hands over the dinner-table as a radio full of static announced the start of another war. The laces of her dress were tied so high up her neck she could barely breathe; Ann had been choked before, she had been drowned and she had suffocated, but somehow, her fine lace-bindings were worse. Richard had to help her undo them, her fingers shaking too much, and then, when she could breathe again, he broke down, crying on her shoulder. She held him. She breathed for both of them. He had to go to war, and now the word for it was something ugly and foul, even worse than coward in its simplicity. But it was what they had to do. They packed up, both wearing trousers and low caps to hide their red eyes, and they were both so tired, but it had to be done. The alternative was worse.

“Do you ever see them?” Richard asked as they left their key in their solicitor’s mailbox and walked hand-in-hand to a carriage that would take them farther inland, away from the sea, and perhaps away from the war, if they were lucky.

“My sailor? Only in my dreams.”

“No. I meant . . .”

His eyes were unfocused. He was looking at it over her shoulder. She did not have to look, she did not want to look. She knew what it was. Behind him, War and Death were juggling human heads and human limbs. It was a show they had put on for a thousand years, and they would put it on for a thousand more. Longest-running show on earth. Tickets were always on sale.

She had to guide Richard into the carriage, because he could not look away from it.

The war ended before they had even reached their destination.

And then, it seemed to them it was only the next day, another war began.


They were in the city as it was bombed. Foolishly they had thought to return, thinking it safer and better, staying near where they had left before, still scouting for their ship and for her sailor. They huddled beneath their dinner-table, cradling each other as if each was the babe and each was the mother, and Richard had to rock her to sleep on the fifth night because the sound of the missiles and the screams was too much for her to bear.

When the worst of it cleared, at least for now, they emerged and brewed a pot of tea and sat on their living-room floor, her dress spread out like a carpet, his coattails covered in dust and debris.

“This time is not like the others,” Ann said.

“War is always the same,” Richard said. There was no show on in their flat, but there might as well have been, for as far away as his eyes had gone.

“It is not. I am thinking—if we had . . . if we had not left, that first time. The first war. Or even the one after that, or the one after that . . . perhaps we would have not been like this now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that we would have fought, and we would have died. The suffering would not have been as bad as what we are seeing now.”

He said nothing; she was right. “They must have sent soldiers after us. They did, even then, when someone . . .”

“Please do not say the word.”

Richard, or Tjalfe as he had once been named, or Amleth or Amir stared at her, his eyes defiant, and she knew he was about to break her heart.

“When someone deserted, they send people to kill them. But no one has been sent for us.”

“No—no, there is only our ship, and the sailors.”

“They are fleeing like us.”

She licked her lips. The tea had gone cold. “Then where are they? Is this war too terrible? Has it finally taken them? Are they lost, or imprisoned?”

Richard put down his cup. It clinked against the saucer, such a sharp, prim sound. It made her wince.

“Inanna,” he said, and she almost screamed when she heard that name. “You must know. They are already dead.”


The ship came for them in the night, just on the cusp of dawn. They had built it into a long barge, and her sailor, now it’s captain, stood at its fore with a long stave, pushing it forward against the ocean-ground, deep, deep below. Their teeth were as white as the day they had met, and though their face had sunken in, their eyes hollow, their hands cold—she still loved them.

“We never asked your name,” Richard said. The cup of fine porcelain was still in his hands, and it went to the sailor as if of its own accord, disappearing into their large, black sleeves. They reached out a hand, and Ann was about to find something for them too, a six-pence or a drachma or a krone, but their hand came up and caressed her face instead, and short of ripping out her own, pulsing heart and offering it on a plate, she had nothing better to give. She let her hand drop, and smiled at her sailor, her captain. They smiled in return.

“Charon,” Pentheselia said.

“A Valkyrie,” said Tjalfe.

“Anubis,” said Morgiana.

“You may call me whatever you like,” her sailor said. “Will you board? There are yet more wars to fight. There always will be.”

“We will fight no wars,” said Enlil, an ancient promise. It made her so proud to hear. “You have waited so long for us. It is time we board, I think. For good.”

Enlil squeezed Inanna’s hand, and stopped onboard. It was quite easy to follow the pull. His hand was warm in hers. She stepped onboard the wooden boards, listening to them creak. The gaunt, skeletal crew were all smiling at her, and though she could hear the din of bombs falling in the distance, it was only behind her. Ahead were fields of golden grass, and, she knew, a long, long rest.

“Let us sail,” said her sailor, and pushed the oar into the dark waters of the last river in the world.

Six of Swords


Nikoline Kaiser is the author of several poems and short stories, including “ode to an asexual” published with Strange Horizons and “Last Year’s Water” with Pole to Pole Publishing. Her work focuses on family, feminism and queer themes. She lives in Denmark and has a Masters degree in Comparative Literature from Aarhus University.

When not writing she works on a project communicating knowledge about women authors around the world and haunts the halls of museums in the hopes of getting to stay among the relics. Visit her at www.nikolinekaiser.wordpress.com.

 [ issue 3 :  summer 2021 ]