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ODDITIES: 22 Stories is on Kindle Preorder worldwide, including in the US, in the UK, Canada, Australia, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, in the Netherlands, Mexico, Brazil, India, and Japan.

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22 Stories
Lisa Mason
Here You Enter
& Fantasy
Coming November 17, 2020 in Print and Ebook

The Garden of Abracadabra Cover Final

Crawl Space” is a spin-off from my urban fantasy novel, THE GARDEN OF ABRACADABRA (in print and an ebook). The book is “fun and enjoyable,” as reviewers have commented, while also teaching serious lessons of Real Magic.
Abby Teller, the heroine of the novel, makes a cameo appearance here as well as Esmeralda Tormenta and her companion, Senor (plot spoilers of the novel appear in this story). Nikki Tesla is a regular in the novel and, most of all, the Garden of Abracadabra, a magical apartment building in Berkeley, California near the campus of the College of Magical Arts and Crafts, where Abby has started attending classes.
I hope you’ll take a peek at the novel, which took me two-and-a-half years to write. And a lovely two-and-a-half years, it was.
Crawl Space
Lisa Mason
People often ask, “Jo, how did you get into the plumbing business?”
If I’m feeling flip, I’ll say, “I’m into pipes. Pipes are a girl thing.” If I want to impress, “My mothers founded the business and handed it over to me when they retired. It’s an honorable family tradition.” For a friendly touch, I may add, “Phil taught me how to use her tools when I was a kid. While other girls were playing with dolls and plush animals, I was messing around with P-trap fittings.” If I’ve just filed my quarterly estimated taxes and feeling some pain, I’ll say, “Everybody needs a plumber. You called me, right? That’ll be two-hundred-fifty an hour plus parts.”
Tonight I’m reflective. “My mothers took me to Rome when I was ten. What a trip! We toured the Baths of Caracalla, the Acqua Vergine aqueduct, the Fontana di Trevi. Made quite an impression, y’know?”
“Yeah, all that feminine elemental water energy,” says Abby Teller, the superintendent of the Garden of Abracadabra. Abby landed herself an ideal part-time gig for a student at the Berkeley College of Magical Arts and Crafts. She’s one hell of a super and a crackerjack fledgling magician.
She figured out how to turn off the building’s incoming main when water began cascading through a crack in the ceiling plaster onto her favorite tenant’s means of a livelihood. Then she placed the emergency call to me at eight in the evening just as I was kicking back with a Bud Lite and some brainless dramedy on TV.
Abby has called me more than once to pinch-hit the plumbing problems of these grand old apartments. The Mediterranean building—a leafy walk away from the Magical Arts and Crafts campus—is an architectural treasure built during the gold-rush days and registered by an historical preservation society.
I love the place but things can get dicey there after sunset. Tonight on my way up to Apartment Thirty-nine, for instance, I ran into two of Abby’s other tenants. Esmeralda Tormenta carried a mason jar with a tiny tornado whirling inside it. Her companion, by day a Great Dane named Senor, walked by her side. Since the sun had set, he was wearing his customary red neckerchief (the Great Dane wears the neckerchief, too) and black leather jeans, resembling a youthful Daniel Craig with a scowl and jet-black hair.
Abby says—and who am I to doubt her?—that every one of her tenants is some stripe of supernatural entity, every apartment some kind of fairyland or hell. She told me this, with a weary sigh, the first time she called me. “Will that be a problem for you?”
“Nah, I’m okay with supernatural entities,” I said, desperate for the business.
Abby always pays my bills on time, never bounces a check. When she calls, I come, any day, any night. Abby and me, we’re good.
The tenant says, “Yeah, the Fontana di Trevi is pretty cool. ‘Three Coins in the Fountain.’”
I glance at him, surprised he’d know vintage movies. He looks like a classic computer nerd—but who knows at the Garden of Abracadabra?—with peculiar eyes glowing in his long, bony face, the irises swirling with color like the splash screen of some exotic software. His black hair, bushy eyebrows, and bushier mustache play up his suspicious pallor.
He looms protectively over his computers, printer-scanners, and a serious router with flashing green lights. He’s draped sheets of painter’s plastic over his expensive equipment.
An errant water-drop drips from the ceiling, splats on the plastic.
“Three coins in what?” says the general contractor standing beside the tenant, perplexity on his beefy face. This is the guy Abby calls for dry-wall patches and paint touch-ups.
“Roman tradition says when you toss three coins in the Trevi Fountain, you’ll fall in love and marry,” I explain.
“’Three Coins’ is a sappy romance flick from the nineteen-fifties,” the tenant adds and looks me over.
I’m decked out in my denim jumpsuit and a tool belt with brass hooks and loops of leather. The belt holds a flashlight, three sizes of wrenches and screwdrivers, a metal file, a tube of caulk and a caulk gun, a spray can of Rustoleum, a ball-peen hammer, and a deluxe Swiss Army knife. Tonight I’ve also got a dielectric union with a neoprene gasket dangling from a hook.
The tenant grins in a way that makes my heart go pitter-pat. Blue electrical sparks crackle from his fingertips.
“I got the ceiling opened up like you asked,” the contractor says to Abby and strides to the tenant’s kitchen. “Could we get a move on, please? I’ve got a nine o’clock call in Emeryville.”
In Rome, I’d wandered with Philippa and Theodora around massive stonework walls, vast ancient baths. Theo had turned to me, tears of pride in her eyes, and said, “Think of it, Jo. Plumbers built this.”
I may have been only ten years old but I knew very well that plumbers hadn’t built the Acqua Vergine. Slaves had built it and a master architect had designed it—some guy with an understanding of pre-Christian-era civic water management. Hardly what you’d call a plumber. But I’d held my tongue.
I’d had to do that a lot—hold my tongue—about my mothers, in spite of living in Berkeley. Hold my tongue around them, too. To their gentle unspoken disappointment, I’d turned out to be boy-crazy.
e all trek to the kitchen where the contractor has set up a step ladder to the three-foot hole he’s cut in the ceiling. The contractor and me, we’re not so good. We started off on the wrong foot two jobs ago when he looked at my tool belt and asked, “So where are your handcuffs?”
Phil and Theo had christened their business, “Dominatrix Plumbing.” I could have changed the name when they retired. But they’d built up a clientele, good will, name recognition, and a Better Business Bureau approval rating. Besides, it’s hard to grab people’s attention in Berkeley. “Frank the Plumber” just doesn’t cut it in this town. Flip open the Berkeley phonebook and you’ll find Peace & Love Plumbing, Progressive Sump Pumps, and my fave, Ganga Drains and Sewers.
I couldn’t really resent the contractor but he’s always got this smirky attitude.
He smirks at me now.
After they’d eliminated other possibilities—a rain leak from the building’s roof, tenants upstairs overflowing a water closet or a bathtub—Abby and the contractor decided the problem lies with an interior pipe. A five-point-five earthquake shook up Berkeley last week, and the building is old. Really, really old. Maybe a fitting in the aging galvanized piping has corroded and loosened?
“Water goes wherever it wants to go,” I concur. A plumber’s homily that either boosts a customer’s confidence or irritates the hell out of them.
Both the tenant and the contractor are looking at me like I’m the sacrificial virgin. The astronaut in 2001 fated to go outside the shuttle and fix the propulsion engine banged up by space junk. Or the coon-capped scout sent through enemy musket-fire to deliver a message to the bewigged general at the embattled fort upriver in The Last of the Mohicans. The chosen one, boldly going where no fool has gone before.
When you think about it, our world is made up of two places—private and public. I fix clogged kitchen sinks and leaky bathroom faucets, so I see a lot of private spaces where people keep the messy detritus of their lives deeply rooted within walls and locked doors. I also fix sewers and main drains and travel in my van from job to job, so I see a lot of public spaces, too, where people and creatures and things indiscriminately mingle.
But between the inner wall of private space and the outer wall of the public lies another dimension. In that interstice, elusive electrical cables take harbor, and secret communication connections, hidden heating ducts. Termites, spiders, centipedes, silverfish all call this place their home.
The crawl space.
I climb up the contractor’s step ladder, crawl through the hole, slide on my belly inside.
I switch on my black-and-yellow Dorcy flashlight, sending a beam through the murk. The crawl space is maybe three by three feet. The space smells of centuries-old dust, a tang of mold, a whiff of wood rot. No water on the floor, so Abby’s theory—an isolated interior pipe got knocked askew—seems a good bet.
I spot pipes of red brass, others of yellow brass, and snippets of copper tubing randomly spliced among them. The Garden of Abracadabra needs a plumbing overhaul, big time. I gleefully start calculating estimates. If Phil taught me tools, Theo instilled horse sense. What every independent businesswoman needs to figure poundage per hoof.
The prospect of a Big Job has me smiling when suddenly I shimmy off the edge of a cliff. I plummet with a yell, head over heels, into a deep, dark valley. I land with a splash in a shallow pool of water.
The scattered water-drops reconstitute themselves into the shape of a transparent woman—a water woman, her features discernable on the translucent tension of her watery surface. She smiles seductively and strokes my arm, drenching the sleeve of my jumpsuit. Startled, I instinctively draw the metal file from my tool belt and swipe the file’s edge through her naked waist.
She backs away with a moist smile, cleaved in two, and instantly reconstitutes herself. With a tinkling laugh, she dives into an abyss yawning open before me.
I glance around at the valley, taking in the expanse of dull silver metal studded with cottages of red and yellow brass. The valley stretches away to another cliff rising up in the twilit distance. As I’m gawking, trying to convince myself I haven’t inexplicably died in the crawl space and gone to some hellish plumber’s purgatory, an imposing metal man marches up to me, his boot heels clanking.
“I am King Gob,” he declares and slams his fist on his majestic brass chest with a mighty clang. “Who art thou, wench?”
For a moment, I think he’s called me a “wrench.” Then I realize that isn’t what he said. I’m about to spill my usual intro, “Hi, I’m Jo from Dominatrix, here to whip your plumbing into submission,” but I bite back my words. Between the metal file gripped in my hand like a sword and the scowl on Gob’s brassy face, I cobble a more appropriate response.
I stand up straight, square my shoulders, and somberly say, “I am Josephine, at your service, King Gob.”
“Have ye come to take command of the breach?” he says with enough skepticism to arouse my routine defenses whenever a customer questions my capabilities as a woman plumber.
“I have,” I reply. “Show it to me at once.”
Gob turns and strides away. I follow, warily stepping around the abyss. I glance down into it. Water women cling to the steep sides, laughing mischievously as they slide to the bottom and out through a narrow jagged aperture.
The crack in the tenant’s ceiling plaster? Got to be.
Little silver- and copper-colored children gather shyly in a giggling group, whispering among themselves and pointing at me, their metallic button-eyes wide with wonder.
“Who are you?” I say, smiling.
A brave copper girl steps forward and says, “We’re gobbins of the Valley of Gob, of course.”
“Of course,” I reply politely. “Pleased to meet you.”
“This way,” King Gob says and leads me to the far cliff where a rusted iron step ladder juts out of the rock and ascends to the height of a one-story structure. At the top is a flat service platform. I point my flashlight, illuminating a main line of pipe.
A yellow brass pipe-man extends his brawny arms toward a copper pipe-man. Their metal hands form a perfect circle meant to grasp, to connect one pipe-man to the other.
But their grip has been shaken askew. Their hands don’t quite meet at the intended junction.
As I watch, a water woman oozes between the copper man’s hands and leaps out, dropping on Gob, splashing all over him. The droplets reconstitute and she clings to him, entwining her watery arms around him, staining his joints with a scrim of rust.
He scowls and shouts. But he doesn’t push her away.
I step forward and wipe her off him with my sleeve. She splats on the valley floor and somersaults down the incline toward the abyss, laughing merrily.
“Cursed, cursed undine,” Gob sputters.
I rub the ridges of my metal file on the rust spots the undine left on his joints, abrading them away. “King Gob, why did you not resist her?”
“Oh, we resist the undines as best we can with the quality of metal we’re made of. We confine them when we can, and channel their movements. But undines go where they will.”
“How well I know,” I whisper.
“We cannot control them when they find a way through our channels and barriers.” Gob looks at me, his brass eyes beseeching. “We need a commander of the world like you, Josephine, who can move among undines and gobbins alike.”
I nod. I never thought of myself—me, a plumber!—like that before. But Gob is right. The elements—and their inhabitants, the elementals—are powerful natural forces. They stay within their nature, within their destined path, blindly helping or hindering each other as need or confrontation arises. It takes the eyes and hands and will of a human being to guide and direct all the elements. A human being to rule all the elementals.
That would be me.
Gob glances up at the pipeline. “Can ye repair the breach, Commander?”
“I can,” I say, “and I will.”
I thrust the metal file in my tool belt, climb the rungs of the ladder to the service platform. I step gingerly onto it—it’s flimsier than it looked at a distance—but it holds my weight well enough. I move to the junction of the yellow brass pipe-man and the copper pipe-man. As I survey the breach between their cupped hands, an undine squeezes out, drenches me, and drops to the valley below.
Another undine oozes out and another and another, smiling that seductive smile and laughing merrily. One undine presses her face to mine, another runs her fingers through my hair, still another slips her hands into the sleeves of my jumpsuit.
A shout rises to my throat. Are the undines trying to drown me?
I gulp air, press my lips tight, pinch my nostrils.
For a moment, I feel as if I am drowning. I cannot, I must not drown under their elemental magic. I yank a cotton handkerchief from my hip pocket and wipe the undines off my face, off my jumpsuit. I twist the handkerchief, wringing the cotton out.
The water women drop down onto the gobbins below, pooling on the valley floor, staining their cottages with rust.
“Onward,” I mutter and pull the dielectric union with a neoprene gasket off my tool belt. I fit the gasket over the yellow brass pipe-man’s hands, shove my shoulder beneath the copper pipe-man’s hands, and push their grip into alignment. With the ball-peen hammer, I tamp their connection tightly together. For good measure, I fit the tube of caulk in the gun and smear a layer of sealant around the union.
I climb down the ladder and step amid a cheering crowd of gobbin women and children in shades of red brass and yellow brass and copper.
King Gob beats his fist on his chest and beams at me.
“The breach is secured, at least for the moment,” I announce.
“Thank ye, Commander, we are most grateful,” King Gob says.
“‘Tis but one battle in an ongoing war,” I answer modestly. “The war between order and chaos, law and anarchy, construction and destruction. I am glad to have been of service.”
“Will we see you again?”
“You can count on it.”
The metal king leads me back to the cliff from which I’d so unceremoniously fallen into the Valley of Gob. I climb up the ladder set in the side of it. At the top, I turn and wave grandly to the cheering crowd below me. I look out at the valley, safe from the wanton water, and imagine Theo’s tears of pride, her gentle voice saying, “A plumber did this.”
Yes, she did.
Then I slide on my belly through the crawl space. A centipede scurries out of my way. I find the hole cut in the kitchen ceiling and climb down the contractor’s ladder.
“Geeze, it’s about time,” the contractor says, tapping his finger on his wristwatch. “What took you so long?”
“Did you find the problem?” Abby Teller says.
“I sure did. Two pipes knocked askew, just as you suspected. Yellow brass and copper pipes. They’re incompatible, basically.”
“Any trouble fixing it?”
“Nah, I installed a standard gasket.”
Abby reaches out, touches my head. “Hey, Jo, your hair is wet.”
“Yeah, there was a bit of water up there. The gasket, it’s only temporary. I’ve got to tell you, Abby, the Garden of Abracadabra badly needs the plumbing replaced. Like, all of it. Good copper tubing and solid fittings.”
“I’ll check my budget and let you know when I can schedule the work.”
“Then I’ve got the job?”
“Absolutely.” She shakes my hand, and my whole arm vibrates with her magician’s power. “Got to go. The tenants in Number Eleven and Number Twelve are flinging hexes at each other again. Rival covens, what a hassle.”
She strides out, a tall, slim woman with russet hair. The superintendent of the Garden of Abracadabra, and a pal of mine.
The contractor folds up his ladder. “I’ll be back on Thursday to patch up the ceiling,” he tells the tenant. “Is eight in the evening good for you?”
“It’s going to have to be,” the tenant says with a sigh. “When my girlfriend Tabitha found me with another witch, she cursed me to work every day for the rest of my life from sunrise to sunset at Computers ‘R’ Us. I can only be here, at the Garden of Abracadabra, after the sun goes down.”
“Yeah, right.” The contractor rolls his eyes at me. “Sheesh, Berkeley. The Land of Oz.” He trudges out, lugging the ladder.
I’m left standing in the kitchen with the tenant. We look at each other. A beanpole, he stands head and shoulders above me. Blue sparks flicker from his hands. Oh, boy.
“Can I get you a drink?” he says. “By the way, I’m Nikki Tesla. I’m an electronics wizard.”
“What have you got, wizard?”
“Two percent milk, spring water, vodka, and tonic.”
“Vodka tonic, no ice. Got a lemon or lime?”
“A twist of lime, comin’ up.” Tesla putters around at the kitchen counter, then hands me a cocktail glass. He clinks his glass against mine.
“Oh, wait.” He digs three pennies out of his jeans pocket and tosses them in my glass. “What did you say your name is?”
I squeeze water from my hair. Water and electricity—a dangerous mix. I smile. “Call me Commander Josephine.”
For a story barely under 4,000 words, “Crawl Space” packs a lot of plot and took some fairly extensive research. First, there’s THE GARDEN OF ABRACADABRA, of course, which explores in more depth the origin of the apartment building.
Then there’s plumbing. I got out my technical books on how to maintain your home, researched the tools Jo would carry and the tasks she was charged with.
Then there’s Italy and its famous fountains and ancient Roman aqueducts. I found my tourist books and got the right spelling and details of the various landmarks.
And then there’s Berkeley, a famously eccentric college town. A cruise through my telephone book (yes, I still have a paper telephone book) gave me some hints of what Jo and her mothers would name their business.
Finally, I consulted Manly P. Hall’s massive treatise, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, for details about elementals, the spirits that inhabit the elements.
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First published in Universe 2

Ed. Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber (Bantam Books, 1992)

Republished in Strange Ladies: 7 Stories

(Bast Books, 2017)

The old wachter peers at the holoid of Sha!n. From the holoid’s ectomurk peeks a cherubic face—shy kid grin, tousled hair, big eyes.

Tatiana’s offspring.

“Yep, I seen ’im,” says the old wachter. Its chrome headpiece wobbles up and down. “Yep, be sure o’ tat.” It spits a drop of oil. With a raspy creak, the old wachter’s armpiece flips up, plucks out its eyeball. It ponderously wipes the acrylic orb on the leg of its dingy uniform, pops the eyeball back in its headpiece. “Purty chil’. Be lookin’ jes like you, hon,” it says to Tatiana.

Tatiana’s backblades flutter hopefully. The whirring of her six stiff wings forms a pearlescent halo behind her delicate pointed face.

“And this man?” asks Dana Anad. He shoves a holoid of Tatiana’s deux-partner, Edstuart (that bastard Eddie, she calls him), in front of the old wachter’s eye.

Dana can see that the greasy smudges dappling the eye before are now smeared all over it. Rust erupts around the old wachter’s joints. And there, through a gap in the old wachter’s control console, surely the quick dart, a tiny gleam of red eyes, betrays some vermin nesting in the warm wires within.

How can a wealthy cityship like Nexus allow wachters patrolling the skin to get so grubby? It’s negligence, an eyesore, not to mention a security risk.

Security risk. The skin holds the world within. From where Dana stands on the avenue of steel strut and blood-gorged bone, the living sphere of skin arches out across an inner horizon.

“Hellya,” says the old wachter. “Him, too. Be wit’ de chil’.”

“Ah!” Tatiana cries out.

Dana takes her by the shoulders, holds her. The slim knobby cords of her wing tendons tremble.

“But ye cain’t go in der after ‘em, bud,” says the old wachter. “Porthandle be closed next six hours. Dey’s openin’ de ports. Cain’t go in der aft’ ‘em, no sirree. Not even ye, bud-oh.”

The old wachter chuckles to itself, tickled by some secret joke of senility or a surreptitious shot of electrolyte in its battery pack.

“It’s right, Tatiana,” Dana whispers in her fluted lavender ear. “Out of the question. We can’t go on.”


“Yes, my love.”

“But I’ve got the injunction. I’ve got a right to my offspring.”

A steelyn sheath surrounds the skin, shielding the living world with a thin atmosphere. The sheath opens directly to space through the ports, apertures inset with plastic diaphragms. When the ports open, the exosphere destabilizes. The living world shivers. Gravitational fields, atmospheric pressure, condensation all askew. The skin has got to maintain. Dermal intruders would be irritants to it. Maybe infection.

“The injunction is just an equitable remedy. Tatiana, please listen,” insists Dana. “The injunction has no authority here. We’ll have to wait.”

Tatiana’s ears are like irises inviting a bee’s tongue.

Dana’s desire for her stings like salt in the wound of his t-burn. Her perfume dizzies him like always, the scented oil she calls amante: ripe peaches, musk, a hint of her flesh. The dazzling scent recalls their stolen nights. He hungers for her touch.

But as soon as he desires her, the t-burn bites him.

Bruises fester under his softening skin. The sour lump on his tongue means the joints are next, each movement soon fraught with the shock of quick cuts deep within his ligaments.

The t-burn is pretty bad this time. Withdrawal from the testosterone he’s megadosed to be a man for her.

Be a man. As if Dana could ever be a man.

Other swings try to deceive themselves. I’m a man inside this body, they say. Or, despite this body, I’m a woman.

Dana knows neither is true.

He is a swing. A mutant. Accursed.

“We can’t wait!” says Tatiana. Her shimmering violet eyes stare up into Dana’s, plumbing his passion for her. “Don’t you see? Eddie’ll stow away on a sunshuttle or a starbarge, and we’ll never find him. He’ll take my Sha!n away for good this time, I know it! Oh please, Dana!”

“All right,” mutters Dana. “All right, all right.”

When the old wachter shuffles back to its post, swiveling its circuit plate for a moment, Dana kicks it in the knee tread, rips out its main cable.

The old wachter clatters to the street like a bag of scrap.

“Damn, Tatiana,” Dana says, feeling like a thug. “The things I do for you.”

He can only hope the fall jams up the old wachter’s memory. Even so, he’ll have to grease some gears next time he wants special access to Porthandle. Acquiring special access takes years on Nexus. Years and favors tendered, the codes on a small cityship broken only by necessity. Vandalizing a dermal wachter could ruin Dana’s reputation.

Damn! The things he does for her.

“My Dana,” Tatiana says, and kisses him. But her lips are cold and dry. Her face, so soft and appealing before, hardens into a mask of such determined fury he can barely stand to look at her. “Come hurry, you must hurry,” she says.

Now an order, not a plea. She shakes his hand away when he reaches for her again.

They slip past the wachter’s post, step onto the inner sky itself. The perspective swings precipitously. The avenue soars above them now, disappearing into the central city. Below their feet, the blue-veined breathing dermis of the world. Epithelial monitors stretch their skinny necks, angling lidless emerald eyespots for a better view.

Dana turns his face away from the monitors, tries to shield Tatiana’s notorious profile with his cloak.

It’s no use. She and Dana will be identified. A stunt like this could get Dana disbarred. The Municipal Bench of Nexus is punctilious with interworld counsel.

Too late to turn back now.

Ahead lies the scarlet tube of a bronchiole overlaid with biotic membrane.

That’s it!

What Dana brought Tatiana to this remote post for. Not the usual way to leave the skin. There are mouths for that, yawning directly into the sheath-ports.

No, this has to be the way. Tatiana’s final bid for her offspring calls for secrecy.

Dana massages the membrane, finds its tough curl of nerve, pinches the nerve firmly, then smooths the membrane open.

He lifts Tatiana, shoves her through.

Wrestles himself past the membrane just before it slaps shut.

Gelatinous walls squeeze all around him, the narrow shoot of the bronchiole.

The air within is putrid, poisonous. These muscular, filament-lined pipes filter the famous fresh atmosphere of Nexus. Millions of them riddle the skin, expelling vapors of the city for dispersion through the sheath.

The bronchiole propels whatever stuff enters it into Porthandle.

That is Dana’s strategy.

But it’s shameful, a Triadian damma and her Nexus counsel, expelled from the world like poison. Isn’t that the truth of their love? Something to be expelled from both their lives?

“Lie quietly,” Dana calls to Tatiana but she’s already careening ahead. The bronchiole grips him in its suckered walls. He fights panic, yields with effort to its repulsive embrace.

Lie quietly.

If only Dana could lie quietly with Tatiana again.

*   *   *

How once he’d lain in his bed, not quietly. He was burning. Burning up.

MU had awakened him out of the sweaty torpor of a ferocious e-burn and informed him that a new client had arrived.

Dana had begged to make a referral. MU had refused. MU was a metaprogram hardwired into Dana’s northside combodominium. MU had priorities. MU flashed Dana’s overdrawn credit accounts across the sleeping cell’s monitor.

“Get the fuck up,” MU said.

Dana groaned.

T-burn was always piercing, brittle. E-burn, heavy and feverish. The e-burn now, aftermath of an estrogen overdose, had fevered him for nearly two hours. Finally his breasts had collapsed. Subcutaneous gristle gripped his sternum. Shrinking hips squeezed his pelvis like an animal hide drying on the shaping rack of a tannery.

No way to lie down that wasn’t excruciating. No energy to get up.

All he deserved, trying to please Lenni.

MU feigned perplexity. “MU cannot assimilate this, Dana Anad. Diagnosed allergic, yet you megadose yourself. MU doesn’t know why you genderize at all when you know hormone withdrawal is going to be so bad.”

“MU should tell me. Then we’ll both know.”

Dana hated it when MU scolded him. There was no evading MU’s view. He slapped at the headboard controls. He succeeded in nicking his wrist.

“Take a V-shot.” Into the bedside serving tray, MU dispensed a hypodermic syringe opaque with a vile yellow opiate.

“No, no. Not another needle.”

Dana recoiled, but there was no escape. Servos snapped out of the carved ebony bed-frame. MU seized Dana’s wrist, plunged the syringe. Dana winced, angry tears starting. “It’s all Lenni’s fault, the treacherous swing. I never want to see—”

Lenni had double-swung him again.

“So don’t see,” said MU. “Now, Dana Anad, there’s someone new to see you.” A lilt and a hum to MU’s voicetape. “She’s beautiful.”

“Beautiful.” Holy suns, his programming. Numbness stole his nerves. Nice. Too nice, a V-shot. Turn to V-shots too often, and he would need the V, day in and day out. “I need beautiful like I need another hole in my arm. Remind me to upgrade MU’s common sense.”

“Pull yourself together, Dana Anad.”

MU flitted away, trailing offended feedback. Dana could hear MU’s deadpan receptionist mode echoing from the office in the east cell of the combodominium. “Madam, if you will wait one moment, please.”

Dana edged out of bed, hobbled across the sleeping cell. The north-bay porthole remodeled its almond-shaped arch as he passed, thrusting out a new arabesque. Although a disciplinarian with his other cells, Dana loved the sleeping cell’s exuberance for life. He freely permitted its erratic transmutations.

An indulgence that intimated a secret hope. That he might one day redeem his life of relentless transmutation.

A touch at the closet door, and his wardrobe presented itself—a meticulous sheaf of pressed garments held by black-gloved servos.

A conservative gray bodysuit stepped out of the wardrobe, zipped itself around him. He strapped around his wrists and neck strips of gold inset with holoids of lapis lazuli cabochons and one-carat diamonds.

Then to the groom-room for a spot of lanolin and a whisk with a teak-handled brush through the hair that fell straight to his cheekbones. Dana replanted his scalp often, favoring silvers, blonds, and lavenders. Pearly planting shafts peeped from the part down the middle of his scalp. He wasn’t sure he still liked the lustrous red he’d chosen for the last swing with Lenni.

Lenni. In boots and britches and a chamois shirt, lean-hipped, a trace of mustache on the lip. Lenni teasing fingernails across Dana’s tender scalp. Lenni seizing a lock of that lustrous red, jerking Dana’s head back. Rough insistent Lenni, demanding Dana submit. Lenni bending over Dana for a kiss.

Then Lenni coming up, full-lipped and full-hipped, laughing falsetto, ripping open the chamois shirt to show new full breasts.

Treacherous Lenni. Genderizing female, just like that. How could Lenni do this to him? Swing fem right in the middle of his own fem manifestation? Double genderizing not less than half an hour into Dana’s swing?

And Dana, he’d injected the estrogen not very willingly. Endured the swell and change of the body, accepted the inevitable agony of e-burn, to please Lenni.

Please, Lenni, for pity’s sake, you can’t do this.

The bastard, the bitch, the treacherous double-crossing swing. Dana never wanted to see—

Dana suffered their mutation. Lenni reveled in it.

He could hear MU in the office cell, making polite conversation.

He stuck his head in the wraparound, watched in the interior mirrors as the air-jets blasted him clean. His face looked like hell. Lips cracked. Eyes drooping, glazed, stained with last night’s mascara.

Steady up, he told himself. Looking like a superannuated whore, and a new client waiting.

He set the wraparound on mist, directed mild electroshock around the eyes. Optic muscles quivered. He wasn’t happy about the eyes. With such eyes, a man might look distinguished, a woman experienced. But a swing, Dana thought, looked like death.

Over his face he sprayed a superfine celluloid powder that sealed in ten seconds into a smooth ivory mask. No beard to contend with this time, thank goodness for small favors.

In the groom-room cabinet lay another syringe filled with the yellow bliss of V. What the hell. The first dose was peeling off the e-burn, laying the ache bare again too soon. He plunged the needle under his tongue.

Taking on a new client implied another tomorrow. Dana wondered if he could stand himself for another tomorrow.

*   *   *

She was Tatiana, a damma from Triad.

From a clannish folk, close-knit and closer-mouthed, not often seen in interworld ports.

Of elegant proportions and regal deportment, she was nevertheless doll-like, quick and charming. Her complexion was lavender jade, fine and translucent, with lines like crackles in glaze fanning up from her eyes and mouth. Her slanting amethyst eyes seemed to regard him askance until he realized they curved around the bilateral sides of her narrow face. A dress of ivory silk fell from her shoulders to a wasp-waist, then flared out around her knees. A latticework of lace across her back permitted six long cartilaginous, oval-tipped wings of shimmering violet to extrude with striking grace.

Beautiful. Good old MU.

But what was beautiful? The first planet from this particular central-sun was beautiful, but not to one dying of thirst. The deep purity of space was beautiful, but not to one shipwrecked.

Who could be beautiful to a swing?

Still, Dana caught himself staring.

Tatiana told him she was united with a permanent partner. “We call it Solemn Deux.”

But she and her partner in deux had divorced. “It’s over,” she said. “I cannot love him anymore, and he certainly doesn’t love me.”

She was bitter. He’d failed her. They had an offspring, Sh!an. “We call the offspring the Point of the Triad.” Triadian law required that the estranged couple share custody of the offspring.

About this, she raged. “Oh, Dana Anad,” she cried, “I never wanted to see him again until I was required to.”

In flagrant violation of their custody agreement, the deux-partner Edstuart had kidnapped Sha!n and disappeared.

She produced documents on interworld disks.

“Repeat offender,” she declared. “Oh, he’s done this before. Not showing up at our appointments. Or showing up, but not with the offspring. Bold as you please, mocking me. That bastard Eddie,” she said, the epithet incongruous in the fluting voice of her folk.

“And now you think they’re on Nexus?” asked Dana.

She was certain. Shortly after he and the offspring disappeared, a luxury cruiser had warped through Triad, bound for Nexus.

She shifted in her seat, seemed restless.

Dana could see that the base of her left fourth finger was surrounded by a cybernetic centipede. Spiky spinal fur glistening like sapphires set in the platinum ribs of its exoskeleton. Silver proboscis plunged in the major blood vessel of her left hand. From the centipede’s neck extruded a razor-thin ridge curved in the shape of a crescent moon.

Dana had seen such parasites before. In exchange for high-grade nourishment in quantities limited only by the host’s vitality, the centipedes constrained certain nervous diseases or maintained artificially induced behaviors better than any drug. Some swings used centipedes when they could get them. But such devices, with their exchange of need, made Dana sick. The sight of its gleaming head buried in her hand repulsed him.

She caught his glance. “Triad attempts to enforce the Vows of Deux this way. I can’t detach it. But I swear to you, it affects me no longer. I don’t seek him out of any induced obsession. I simply need to have my Sha!n returned to me. Dana Anad, you of all men must understand.”

Dana picked uncomfortably at the bodysuit sleeve tormenting his sore arm. You of all men. Always this embarrassment. People’s illusions about him that in due course would require a humiliating disabusement. He never could shake the knee-jerk.

She watched him intently.

“If it’s kidnapping, we should notify the Nexus police,” Dana said.


“Couldn’t the offspring be in jeopardy?”

“No! No Nexus police! No outsiders! This is a matter of Triadian law!” Tatiana rose from her seat, bright-faced with urgency. “We are an old world. A closed world. We have stood aloof from your interworld community. This is shameful for me. You cannot imagine what a disgrace. On Triad, matters of deux are confidential among our people. And me, approaching you, an outsider, like this? Offworld? Oh, Dana Anad! It is forbidden to reveal our ways to anyone, anywhere. Yet I’m begging you, help me.”

She stood, paced around his office. Her silk skirt rustling.

Dana reconsidered the reasonableness of taking on her case, overdrawn credit accounts be damned. “Article Two of the Interworld Code stipulates that no neutral counsel may intervene in matters of parochial jurisprudence, unless the petitioner waives all parochial rights and submits to interworld law. Look here, Tatiana. Do you so submit?”

“I do, yes!” She paused. “Well, why not. I have to, don’t I?”

“Then what would you have me do, if you refuse the protection of the Nexus police?”

“Oh, Dana, if you would just find them. Arrange for a meeting. Do something discreet. Impress Edstuart. Invoke your interworld law, but in a way that won’t expose me. He would listen to you, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, I could obtain an injunction in the Interworld Court requiring him to honor your custody agreement. Confidentiality would apply.”

“Yes! Yes, that’s perfect.”

She turned her narrow back to him so he could see her sinewy shoulder blades, the startling wings, her waist through the lace. She swung her hips in the café dance women do when they want someone to notice them.

Then composed, smile dazzling, she sauntered to where Dana sat and took his hand.

Dana recoiled. E-burn crackled over his skin.

She began to murmur nonsense in the tongue of her folk like a mother baby-talking her child. Her slanting gaze dizzied him. She exuded some kind of power. Her touch and words grew amorous.

“Elegant Dana,” she said. “What is this great pain of yours?” She drew back his bodysuit sleeve, surveyed the new punctures, his scabs, his scars. “Surely not a drug addict?”

“No. No! I am an androgyne,” said Dana. “A swing. Not a man. Not a woman, either. Neither and both. A mutant. Oh, my kind has always known chromosomal jumbling. Women born into men’s bodies. Men into women. Hermaphrodites, with both sexes manifested. But never the true androgyne. Once there was too much radiation. The anarchy of twelve billion matings on our homeworld. Now, here we are on Nexus. Here I am. Please don’t be frightened.”

“I’m not.”

“Right now, I’m particularly neither. I’m in stasis. Undifferentiated male and female. This is my normal state of affairs.” He laughed bitterly. As if anything could be normal about a swing and his/her affairs.

“But you can become a woman? Or a man?”

“Oh, yeah. With injection of the appropriate hormone. Then the gender manifests.”

“The gender manifests. How marvelous!”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Why do you hate yourself so?” she asked tenderly.

He was struck dumb. Then finally, quietly, “The universe is a great duality. Morally, there is good or evil. Physically, light or dark. Sensually, hot or cold. Temporally, now or infinity. There is no third mode that isn’t suspect. Between good and evil lies compromise. Between light and dark lies murk. Between male and female stands the androgyne.”

“Between your dualities lies harmony and balance, too,” she said. “And perhaps whoever you are, whatever you are . . . is your truth?”

“Harmony! Balance! Truth!” He got to his feet, pushed her away. “The truth is my kind is hated and feared throughout the worlds. Rapists of daughters, the lynch mobs call us, sodomists of sons. Yet only when we genderize—conform to the dual world—can we become sexually active. Not when we’re in stasis. So even if I were a sexual psychopath, I’m a hundredth as able as someone normally genderized. Damn absurd, eh?”

“And this great pain of yours,” she persisted, pulling him back to his chair, “it comes when you manifest a gender?”

“During. Mostly after. Before, too, in a way.”

The terrible emptiness of stasis. The sadness. The grief, like a death.

That was why Dana megadosed. Dosed and dosed again, despite the agony of change. He must remember to tell MU. The awful emptiness of stasis.

“My poor darling Dana,” Tatiana murmured. “I have something for your pain.”

From her bodice she withdrew a celadon flask. She twisted the stoppered top and, with an inscrutable look, tipped the flask at him.

The most amazing scent wound around him, a ripe rich lusty odor that so startled him with its blatant allure that he laughed out loud.

“This is amante,” she whispered. “It soothes and heals. We the damma of Triad use it to ease our own particular pain.” Her fingertips poised above his damaged forearm, bearing a drop of the glistening ointment.

Dana struggled to free himself, but she gripped him with surprising strength.

“Please,” he said. “Don’t touch me. Just your touch right now would cause me the most excruciating—”

“Not my touch, Dana Anad,” she said and lowered her hand. “Not my touch.”

He flinched with foreboding, then trembled with disbelief. Warmth at the instant her honeyed hand touched his skin. Then soothing folded over his torment, coolness and warmth, mingling, trading sensations, a minted mist that ticked him. Then an absurd unexpected blossoming of pleasure, an ecstasy rising out of his depths, welling up from unexpected places.

And a vision: Tatiana. Jewel. Lady of ladies. So beautiful.

Distrust seized and shook him. He struggled to throw off the blinding pleasure.

But amante wrapped around him like the legs of a lover.

He thought he saw her watching him, assessing his reaction. Too knowing. Too unpleasantly smug.

Then her radiance blossomed again. The odor of peaches wafted from her fingertips. She stood and seemed to float across the room, trailing mist. She was collecting her things, a gossamer shawl that spilled over her shoulders. With a sorrowful look, she flitted to the door.

He realized she was leaving. Fierce longing to keep her near pierced him.

“So we are agreed?” he heard her ask. “You will do as I wish,” he heard her say, not a question now.

Before he could answer, she was gone.

*   *   *

Tatiana lies where the bronchiole spit her out, pale limbs sprawled amid her scarlet silk.

Dana wrests his ankle from the bronchiole’s orifice, tumbling backward over Tatiana when the sucking lips release him with a sudden pop!

She screams with laughter, tussling with him playfully. Then falls back, silent and weak. Grimaces. Her pain is worsening.

She must find her offspring soon.

Dana grinds his teeth, tasting the blood t-burn loosens from his gums. If only he could return to full stasis, he might risk genderizing into masculine strength again.

“Dana my darling,” she whispers. She touches him tenderly, like she used to. But a spasm shakes her and she growls, “Get me up, get me up. Hurry, damn you!”

Dana lurches to his feet, pulls her up.

They set out across Porthandle.

Beneath the steelyn sheath, the world curves down. Out of the dark floor that is the top of the inner sky spring ten billion shafts of light shining out into the void. Monstrous clanging issues from the ports twisting open and shut overhead, revealing the pitch-black of space. Set against that ebony infinity, the defiant jewel-like sheen of sunshuttles, starbarges, needle-slim scoutships.

Wind howls. Sleet batters them. Dana clicks MU’s portable jack onto one of the transport tracks crisscrossing the exosphere like the silk of a spider web. But for MU’s grip, he and Tatiana would be plucked from the top of the world and flung into the void.

Ahead lies the knobby hulk of a dockworkers’ den. Woozy red lights, rowdy shouts. Dana maneuvers them both through the tattered entry. The den is dim, disheveled, strewn with broken glass and pools of brew. Tatiana spins her wings dry, sending the drenching off her in a brisk whir.

The drunken shouts fall silent at the sight of her. A roomful of eyes turns, sporting silver eye-patches, nictitating lids, plastic-fringed robotic lenses.

“Hey! Whaddaya want here?” yells the den-keeper.

“Have you seen this youngster? This man?” Dana holds up the holoids.

The roomful of eyes isn’t friendly. There are no winged folk among them. A snarl rumbles up from a roomful of whiskeyed throats.

“Hey, seen ‘em?” says the denkeeper. “Buddy, I can’t keep them bugs outta here.” He flicks a towel at an imaginary fly on the bar, stares rudely at Tatiana.

Dana lays a hand on her arm, silencing her retort. “Know where they’re bound?”

“Five’ll get you ten, the starbarge leavin’ for the Coldworld V mines.” The denkeeper can’t resist divulging his speculation. “This bug, he says he don’t have no stash, and he wants to skip Nexus, see, him and the bug kid. So I tell ‘im, the barge is takin’ on labor for an X on the dotted line. That’s where they’re bound, ten’ll get you fifteen. Them and the godzilla what’s askin’ about ‘em, too.” The denkeeper leans toward Dana, lowers his voice. “Now beat it, buddy, if ya know what’s good for ya.”

“The godzilla?”

“Yeah. Guy with wings like her and a temper with a shot of gin in him. Twice her size and a face like a broken plate. Smashed the shot glass. Shoved around a couple o’ customers what got in his way. Got some kind o’ blade as long as my arm. One piece o’ steelyn, man.” The denkeeper leers at Tatiana with a crude admixture of blood-lusty awe and animal fear. “I woulda got the cops, ‘cept he says he is one. A cop. Listen, I don’t like bugs, buddy,” he says to Dana. “Understand? So I don’t mind tellin’ ya, get her out o’ here.”

The snarl deepens to a malevolent roar. Tatiana trembles against him.

“Please,” Dana insists. He has to be sure. “He was Triadian? He said he was a cop?

“Yeah yeah yeah. No offense to ya, buddy, but get the hell out. Now.

They dive through the entry, back into the winds of Porthandle.

“Prefect Tule,” Tatiana whispers. “He’s in Porthandle.”

“Yes,” Dana agrees. One step ahead of them, maybe two. Fear shoots up his spine.

He knows that knife, the sweep of it, the sheen of it. The way it shrieks when it dives to flesh. Prefect Tule promised to use it the next time he and Dana meet.

*   *   *

“Are you happy?” she asked as they lay together, amante rising off their flesh. He answered, happy? No, not happy. The word could not contain the well-being she brought him. His pleasure in her knew no bounds. Every part of her enchanted him. And the whole of her was more than lips and waist and hips.

She was entirely, irrevocably female.

She didn’t change.

When she made it clear she wanted him, Dana had swung stud without hesitation.

Swing stud. Those were Lenni’s words. Swing slang. Vulgar.

But Tatiana laughed when the term tumbled from Dana’s mouth. She helped him with the needle. Watched as his jaw lengthened, beard and chest hair sprouted, arms hardened, hips elongated. She smoothed amante on his ache.

Then she returned his kiss.

“What is this great pain damma suffer?” he asked one night. “It might be worth suffering for this.”

He traced silver veins down the celadon flask. Tatiana said that the perfumed drug-lotion couldn’t be obtained anywhere in the living worlds except on Triad, and Triad didn’t offer it for sale. Only a female of Tatiana’s rank, a damma, was permitted to possess amante.

“Nothing is worth that pain,” she said.

Her cold retort silenced him.

In a while she said, “You want to know about our pain?” Her mouth tightened. “It is the whip. The pain that lashes. The pain of separation. When we damma are young, it comes. This whip drives us to find the deux-partner. We seek and seek until we find the one who will join us in Solemn Deux. And then, after deux, it gets worse, this pain of separation. Then we must have the offspring. If we’re fertile and lucky, and the offspring comes, we are blessed with the Triad. We are blessed with the Point of the Triad, by all of Triad. And the pain that would never cease is gone.”

“What happens when the Triad separates?” Dana asked. “Like you and Eddie and Sha!n?”

“Oh, Dana,” she cried, “I can barely face each day.”

So it was cultural, legal, even moral, the integrity of the Triad. But ultimately it was some kind of physical, instinctual drive, Dana concluded, her urgency to find the offspring.

Dana jacked MU into full telespace embodiment and sent MU with his citizen’s surveillance code through the world brain. All import-export information on Nexus was closely regulated. Declining reciprocity with any other world in exchange for a universal neutral status, the cityship was an interworld haven. Obtaining a universal neutral status, the cityship accepted whatever came to it, subject strictly to cityship regulations, but no more.

Such was Nexus’s interworld position, both privileged and vulnerable.

The world brain, its monitors sprouting at every pore, post, and synapse, saw and stored all that transpired on the cityship.

To a Nexus citizen in good standing, with the right code and a properly formatted request, the brain divulged.

MU duly reported that a male Triadian adult and his offspring had arrived on a luxury cruiser. They’d cleared customs and fled into the city.

But Nexus was a small world. The brain routinely supercopied global memory into high-security subconscious storage. For a Nexus citizen with clearance, anything could be traced.

Dana sent MU on a trace.

Pending some development, Dana showed Tatiana around his world.

Everywhere they went, she provoked excited whispers and awed stares. There were few winged folk on the living worlds. The commotion pleased Dana. Since they’d first made love, she’d taken from wearing white to wearing red: vermilion silk, scarlet sequins, capes of wine-colored velvet.

She was zipped into a fiery red leather jumpsuit the evening they’d supped on rare hydroponic beefsteak anemone, then saw a circus of chimeras from Arkan. She was making arrangements at the front desk to pick up her correspondence at her hotel in the morning when Lenni strolled into the lobby of the club.

Lenni. In heels and jewels and a well-cut dress, sultry, sulky, an escort in a tuxedo in tow. The very picture of a woman about town. Lenni genderized so well, Dana wondered if the escort knew this was just an image. Fake. An imitation. An illusion.


“Dana, baby!” Lenni cried. The escort glowered. “You look wonderful.” A look Dana knew only too well crept across Lenni’s theatrically made-up face. “Suns, it’s been too long.” Then Lenni noticed Tatiana returning to his side. Scrutinized her red leather, her wings. “Who the hell is this?”

“Excuse us, Lenni,” Dana said coldly. “My friend and I are about to leave.” He directed Tatiana to the cloakroom to retrieve their coats.

Us? There’s only one us, Dana. That’s you and me.”

“You’re wrong. It’s over for us.

“You and me, baby, we’re one of a kind. We’re the exciting thing. Oh, we blow hot and cold with each other, but that’s all right. I love the drama.” Lenni dismissed the escort. “It’s so good to see you again. And each of us genderized as the opposite. Just the way you like it. Everything in duality.”

“No. Nothing is in duality.” Anger burst in Dana’s chest. “Nothing is ever in duality with you. You’ll be wearing a beard before the night is out. You won’t be able to go out for morning coffee in those clothes, not because you wouldn’t dare, but because your body won’t fit.”

“You’re so stuck, baby. I’m only trying to set you free. Help you fully realize yourself. Why can’t you let go? Why can’t you accept the changes as they come?”

“Free?” Dana said. “I don’t want to be free. I want to be real. Solid. Something I know that I am, truly, time and time again. Look, Len. I don’t hate you. I just can’t swing with you anymore.”

“Oh, real, baby? You want to be real? What about her? Think it’s real with her? She’s Triadian, isn’t she?”

Dana swallowed hard. He didn’t like Lenni’s tone. Lenni was an interworld statistician. Lenni knew a lot of strange things.

“Oh, yeah, you don’t want to say, huh?” Lenni pressed close. “Let me tell you, they’re ruthless, baby. I mean, ruthless.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Butcher and eat their own kids, that’s the rumor. I mean, the stories I’ve heard? Triadians?”

Dana shoved Lenni away. “She’s a damma. Some kind of great lady on their world. She has principles, Lenni. Something you wouldn’t understand. She retained me as her counsel in pursuit of a just cause. A family law dispute, as a matter of fact. She’s entirely devoted to me.”

“Devoted. There will never be anyone as devoted to you as me. Yeah, go ahead. Walk away. You wait. Wait and see how devoted your little madam butterfly is. Triadians, they don’t give a damn about anyone or anything but their own kind. You’ll see.”

*   *   *

In the morning, Dana took the tram downtown to the Interworld Court. He was exhausted from Tatiana’s insatiable lovemaking and overwrought from the confrontation with Lenni. Tatiana had insisted he take more testosterone and he had, dreading the ferocious t-burn that would surely follow.

The Court shone before him in the morning light, ten thousand colloidal cells in a glass-and-bone tower housing each judge’s quarters and staff. From each tiny cell, litigants jacked into a computer-constructed telespace vaster in mental perception than ten cityships. An appearance in Interworld Court conferred irrefutable authority.

Dana had prepared Tatiana’s request for an injunction, coding for the confidentiality she insisted upon. But tension gnawed at his nerves, his intuition informing him something was wrong. Sure enough, when he jacked into telespace and logged in the injunction, the judge discovered an oversight.

Tatiana wasn’t technically divorced from Edstuart.

Under interworld law, she was only separated. The Triadian documents she’d given him hadn’t been clear, with a muddled usage of the term “Solemn Deux” and an enigmatic reference to the “Holy Triad.” From all Tatiana had told him, Dana had assumed she was divorced for interworld purposes and coded the injunction accordingly.

The judge refused to proceed until the code was correct. Dana jacked out of link, dashed across the hall with the hearing disk in hand, burst into the office of the Clerk of the Interworld Court to use the inputter.

The door slammed and locked behind him.

The knife sliced his exhalation of surprise.

“Stay away from her, counselor,” said the giant in a voice like cracking glass. Asthmatic breath wheezed from his wrinkled snout. Six huge wings buzz-sawed from his back.

“How dare you threaten me. Clerk!” shouted Dana, circumnavigating the Clerk’s cramped quarters as the giant advanced on him. The knife the giant clutched was as thin as a scalpel, shaped like a crescent moon. It flung shimmers of icy light into Dana’s bewildered eyes.

“Give up the case, counselor. She’s my responsibility and mine alone. I am the Enforcer of the Holy Triad and Its Keeper. Get out of here. Go now. Out the door and be gone.”

“No, I won’t! She came to me for help. Retained me. She’s got a right to interworld counsel under Nexus law, you’ve no right to interfere—”

The crescent cut the air.

“It is you who interfere, outsider. This is a matter of Triadian law. Forbidden to you.”

“I don’t understand,” Dana said reasonably. “The deux-partner has breached their joint custody agreement, under your own law. She just wants the offspring returned to her. Because of the deux-partner’s breach, I intend to counsel her to demand full custody and have the divorce finalized.”

The giant emitted a gargle that must have been laughter. “No, you do not understand, counselor. She can never divorce him. Never separate, not for long. She is the initiator of the Holy Triad, bearer of the Mystery. She is damma. And she has deceived you, if you think otherwise.”

Dana darted forward to the Clerk’s desk, seized the comm at last. “I’m calling the police.”

“I am the police.” The giant flicked the comm out of Dana’s fingers with the tip of the knife. “Prefect Tule of Triad. You will cease and desist, counselor. I insist. Triadian law requires it.”

“You’re on Nexus, now, Prefect Tule,” said Dana, emboldened. A cop? At least the monster wasn’t a common criminal. “As an officer of the law, you ought to know you’re bound by the laws of this cityship. You will cease and desist. And I will report you to the Nexus authorities for attacking a citizen.”

Dana seized a steelyn stylus from the Clerk’s desk, fenced the knife-blade away. At impact, the stylus split apart like a stick of warm butter.

Prefect Tule spat on the floor. “That is what I think of your Nexus law.” He sheathed the knife. “Leave her alone, counselor. You have been notified. You interfere with the Holy Triad in any way, next time you will feel the blade of Triadian law.”

*   *   *

Beneath the tempest of Porthandle, Dana catches a sound. There! And again, closer. A rusty whine from somewhere behind his left shoulder. He strains to see.

Suddenly he feels a touch that won’t let go. The handclasps snake out on a steelyn cord, truss up Dana’s wrists. Swift silver figure-eights pin Tatiana’s frail elbows behind her back.

“Yes sirree, bud-oh,” says the old wachter. “Gotchew now.” A wire rat peeks its purple snout out from under the old wachter’s arm-pit, peers at the captives with jet bead eyes. “Tain’t happy wit chew. Tain’t happy a-tall. I be placin’ chew and der lady under arrest. Back to de skin wit’ ye.” The wire rat leaps to the old wachter’s necktube, capers across its shoulder shelf.

Tatiana writhes against the old wachter’s restraints. Her lips curl back from her tiny pointed teeth. “This is all your fault,” she snaps at Dana. “You’ve failed me. Just like everyone else.”

“Tatiana, please! I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? Do something, Dana Anad. We can’t go back to the skin.”

“I’ve got no strength. The t-burn. I can’t even feel the amante anymore.”

“Take a t-shot!”

“I can’t. It could kill me.”

“And what’s your miserable swing life worth? You’re not a man.”

He knows it’s the pain of separation making her cruel. Still.

“No,” he says, struck to his soul. “I’m not a man. And you’re not a woman, either. Not really. Are you.”

“No,” she says bitterly. Tears pool across her cheeks. “I am damma.”

Pride spurs Dana now. From his bound wrists, he flips MU’s portable jack at the old wachter’s control console. The frontal claw of the portable neatly snatches the old wachter’s main cable.

“Override.” Dana voice-activates MU, splicing the command directly into the old wachter’s settings.

“Eh?” The old wachter pulls up, startled. The wire rat chuckles maliciously at Dana. “Cain’t override. This be Security One. Cain’t override, not even fer ye, bud.”

Dana sighs. “All right. But don’t take us back to the skin. Take us to the docks. To the starbarges. You can do that, can’t you?”

“T’well, t’well. To de docks, den.” The old wachter swivels, then lurches into the roiling fog of Porthandle. The wire rat squeals and plunges through a crack into the old wachter’s abdomen.

“One more thing,” Dana says, trudging after the robot. “Who reconnected your main cable? Who sent you after us?”

“Porthandle tain’t a fit place fer man nor beast, eh bud-oh?” the old wachter says by way of an answer. It chuckles to itself. “No sirree, not man nor beast.”

*   *   *

As Dana had requested, MU traced Edstuart and the offspring through a corrupt vascular monitor in the employ of the Nexus eastside district. Edstuart had resorted to immigration racketeers well known to Nexus atmosphere agents. The racketeers had taken them across town, changing transports in an obvious fashion, to a cheap hotel in the slum known as Atro City.

There, amid fugitives from a thousand worlds, Edstuart and the offspring Sha!n hid.

Dana kicked in the flimsy door, burst into the sour room.

“Edstuart of Triad?” he said. “Tatiana’s offspring Sha!n? By this injunction of the Interworld Court, and my citizen’s power of arrest under Nexus law, I demand you come with me.”

The Triadian turned.

Not the brutish playboy Dana had imagined. Nor the embittered ex-partner Tatiana had described.

Edstuart was a frightened man. As elegant as Tatiana, with slim lavender limbs and six graceful wings, Edstuart was—Dana realized with a hopeless stab of jealousy—the perfect mate for her.

“Please, sir,” Edstuart said, trembling.

From a rumpled cot in the corner, the tiny Triadian Dana had seen only in Tatiana’s holoid blinked sleepily up at him, even more endearing than the holoid had been able to convey. The offspring whispered, “Hadda?” and Edstuart answered, “Shush, shush.”

Sha!n yawned ingenuously, revealing two long canine teeth that arched from tiny upper gums. With the gleam of razors. Curved like crescent moons. The offspring’s teeth flung shimmers of ivory light into Dana’s astonished eyes.

“We cannot go with you, sir,” Edstuart said.

“But she wants to see Sha!n. She wants to see you, too. Do you hate her so much?”

“Hate Tatiana?” Edstuart laughed bitterly. “Who could hate her? She’s magnificent! Haven’t you found her so?”

“Yes,” Dana said and turned away, burning with unexpected shame.

How could he tell this elegant Triadian an androgyne was in love with his beautiful wife?

In love. What did in love mean to a swing? It meant Dana wanted her more than he’d ever wanted anyone, even when he was in stasis. It meant Tatiana shared her heart, her body, her amante. She accepted Dana as a man even though she knew he was a swing.

“Then why?” Dana asked gently. “Why run away like this?’

Edstuart bit his fist. “Don’t you know? Ah, I see. No, of course not. She wouldn’t tell you. She’s a true damma. Keeps our secrets.” Edstuart bit his fist again so hard he drew blood from his delicate lavender skin. He grimaced at the sight of it. “Well, sir, I don’t hate her. I’ve loved her. I suppose I love her still. But I can’t take Sha!n back to her. Not now. You see, she can’t help herself. You don’t know what she will do to him.”

“Tatiana? Do to her offspring?”

“Yes. It’s more terrible than I can say.”

And after all her protestations. My little one, I want my little one back. Her entreaties sounded discordant in Dana’s memory.

The offspring cooed, extending a tiny hand toward cockroaches scuttling down the wall.

“Please put away your injunction, sir,” Edstuart said. “Say you never found us. Say we were already gone.”

Sickened, Dana edged out the door. “What will you do now? Where will you go?”

“I don’t know.” Edstuart laughed ruefully. “We left in a bit of a hurry. I didn’t take much.”

Feeling ludicrous, Dana threw down a couple of Nexus bills he had in his pocket. “I suppose I better tell you. Prefect Tule is here.”

“Prefect Tule!” Edstuart turned pale. He darted to the window, seized the shade, yanked it shut.

“Know him?”

“You—you’re not working with him, are you, sir?”

“Suns, no!”

“He didn’t follow you here?”

“I sincerely hope not.”

“You’re sure? You’re sure? You were careful?”

“Very careful. He told me he’s a police officer. Is that true?”

“Yes, yes.” Edstuart sat down heavily on the cot, folded Sha!n in his arms, stroked the offspring’s downy hair. “And it’s true, I am a criminal. I cannot accept your charity, though I thank you.”

Dana picked up the bills, tucked them firmly in Edstuart’s hand. “What possibly could be your crime? If she abuses—” He could not finish.

“I’ve failed the vows of Solemn Deux. I’ve shunned the Mystery. Run away from the duty of the Holy Triad. I love them both so much. Too much. Whatever else has happened and will happen, Tatiana has never run away. She’s never shirked her duty as damma. Ah!” Edstuart brushed tears from his cheeks. The offspring began to whimper. “If Prefect Tule is on Nexus, then truly the time for the Holy Triad is near. Please go, sir, and grace go with you.”

*   *   *

“Dana! Baby, wait!”

The familiar whiskey-and-smoke voice stopped him when he should have hurried on through the alleys of Atro City.

“If you’re following me, Lenni,” Dana said, “cut it out right now.”

“Following you?” In tweeds, with a pipe and a brass-knobbed cane, a salt-and-pepper goatee. “Hey, I love Atro City on a free afternoon, what a surprise,” said Lenni. “Say, Dana, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost. Come here. Sit a minute with me.”

Lenni propelled him to a door stoop. Made Dana sit, unbuttoned Dana’s collar, fussed over him. Fingers through his hair.

Dana sighed. “Thanks, Len.”

“Well, baby. You don’t look so good today.”

“And you look great. I don’t know how you do it.”

“Oh, hell. You do it great, yourself. Don’t kid me.”

“Nope. Swinging isn’t real. It isn’t real for me. Don’t you see?”

“Yeah, I do see. I see you’ve swung stud for weeks now. Weeks and weeks. To please her.”

“What’s it to you?”

“It’s not good for you, baby. With your allergies? You should know better. Getting t-burned, big time?”

“No. Hey, Len, tell me you’re not following me.”

A troupe of chrome-clad gravity dancers who used Arkanian microboosters to defy the local g-force stopped before them, commenced a rollicking kick-and-float routine.

Lenni tossed currency-chips into the scarlet helmet that bobbed before them. “You worry me. You’re getting too wrapped up in the daily grind. You’re working too hard.”

“Because I could be getting in a bad tangle,” persisted Dana. He hated how Lenni always evaded a direct answer to a simple question. “You get in the way, you could get hurt, and not by me.” He met Lenni’s eyes. “I don’t want that.”

A gravity dancer pranced up an invisible one-story stairwell and executed a perfect swan dive off the invisible edge, swooping up from the concrete within millimeters of impact.

Lenni tossed her another currency-chip, then scowled at the troupe, who somersaulted away, cheering and hooting. “It’s your little madam butterfly, isn’t it?”


“Yeah. So I looked up some stats on this world of hers. Want to hear?”

“No, but you’re going to tell me anyway, so get on with it.”

“Don’t be so stubborn, I’m trying to help. Now, listen. Triad’s big, equatorial radius of seventy-five thousand klics. The twelve billion natives aren’t pressed for space like a dozen other worlds I could mention. Very healthy planetary profile. They’ve still got frontiers, habitable areas not yet cultivated. The population enjoys a growth rate of 105 percent. They want to increase that rate, with so much available niche. Boost the citizenry.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Sure. But the demographics puzzled me. Stats show a young adult population of some seven billion. They should be paired off. But they’re not. Oh, I don’t mean permanent pair bonding. You don’t have to have that with 105 percent growth. Although in a frontier society with a stable homebase infrastructure, you tend to see restrictive institutions regulating reproductive functions. You following me?”

“I think so.”

“But we’ve observed no generalized pair-bonding on Triad. At all.”

“Wrong,” Dana said. “What about Tatiana and Edstuart?”

“I said generalized. The population at large is productive, industrious, specialized, inventive. And, to all appearances, neuter. Can you beat that! What a kick in the ass for the likes of you and me!”

“Don’t tempt me to kick you in the ass right now.”

“Bring it on, baby.”

And they were laughing and play-punching each other just like in old times. Till Dana sobered up, sunk back into the seriousness of this puzzling case.

Of Tatiana.

“Okay,” Lenni said, straightening his cravat, “so how to account for a population growth of 105 percent? How to account for your little madam butterfly? Here’s my best guess, since it’s true, they’re very secretive. A small class of Triadians is charged with the reproductive function. I suspect this elite has specialized biological equipment. And they enter into highly regulated reproductive unions.”

“Solemn Deux.”

“You got it. Oh, it’s hush-hush. Members of the reproductive class are of vital importance to the species. But how do they do it? What do they do? Nobody’s talking. High state secret, with religious rhetoric thrown in to keep the outsiders mystified.”

“Tatiana and Edstuart have an offspring, Lenni,” Dana said wearily.

She never had referred to Sha!n as a child. Neither had Edstuart.

“Fine, all right! But that isn’t even zero population growth.” Lenni took on the insistent tone Dana disliked. “The government protects this elite. Honors them. Indulges them. Allows them privileges. You should hear the rumors. Orgies, exotic food, intoxicating drink, aphrodisiacal spices. Amante.

Amante isn’t an aphrodisiac, Lenni. It’s an anesthetic.”

“An anesthetic!” Lenni howled with laughter. “Baby, the stories I’ve heard. Amante?

“An anesthetic lotion,” said Dana, flushing. Kindled with the quick anger of finding out what should have been obvious, and from someone else. Tatiana’s explanations tasted ashy. “Used for medicinal purposes,” he continued, though he sounded lame even to himself. “To ease a certain pain the damma must endure.”

Lenni looked at him. “Oh, my suns. She gave it to you? You’ve tried it?”

“Yes! As a matter of fact, I have.”

Lenni’s gray eyes bored into him. “She’s really gotten to you, hasn’t she.”

“It’s not your business.”

“Yeah, it’s my business. I love you, Dana. You and your fucking real. She’s not what you think, don’t you see? She’s, oh hell, she’s a queen bee. Dedicated to the propagation of her species. There’s no dropping out for her. I’m talking strict behavior modification, baby. She wears a cybernetic centipede, doesn’t she? She’s a lifer.”

Dana’s heart constricted and dropped out of him like a brick striking the concrete, breaking apart in a million pieces. “Is this why you took all the trouble, Len?” He jumped up off the door stoop. “To prove I’m a fool?”

“To prove you can’t think of her as a woman.” Lenni rose unsteadily. “Queen bees, they rip the guts out of their lovers. She’s something else, Dana. Something you can’t conceive of even in a swing’s notion of gender. Something you can’t apply your concepts of family law to. Something you can’t love.

“I don’t want to hear this. Of course she’s got obligations to her offspring and her people. She’s always been frank about that. But don’t tell me I can’t love her. It is real, what’s between us. Tatiana is a great lady. A damma.”

Dana stalked away.

“Yeah, she’s a damma,” Lenni yelled after him. “Closest translation: mother with egg.”

*   *   *

Pale limbs on the red satin dress she shed across the bed. Wings arching up, beating, lifting her in amorous hover and swoop. Tender fingers guided the needle for Dana. She stroked his burgeoning genderization as if she’d invented Man herself.

“Excuse me, Dana Anad,” interrupted MU from the bedroom’s speaker. “That is the last t-shot you’re going to be able to handle.”

Tatiana laughed. She took the flask of amante from between her breasts, uncapped it, scooped up a dewdrop. “I’ll take care of him, MU.”

“The last t-shot for quite a long while,” MU persisted. “You’re going to burn.

Honey and haze flowed over Dana again. He could think of nothing else but her again.

He struggled against the pull of pleasure. He sat up, seized Tatiana’s slender hand. Examined the sapphire-blue spikes of the cybernetic centipede, whose head wriggled deeper into her palm. He cut his finger on the centipede’s razor-edged neckridge. A drop of his blood slid down the crescent moon.

“My darling Tatiana.” He drew a deep breath. “Amante isn’t just an anesthetic, is it? And you found out I was a swing before you came to me, didn’t you? So you knew I had pain. Worse, you knew that I was vulnerable. Yeah, a sophisticated entity would know all about swings, and you’re nothing if not sophisticated. And your affair with me? Has it been a pleasant interlude before you go back to Edstuart? I hope it’s been pleasant. Because you can never divorce him. You can never leave Solemn Deux.” He threw down her hand. “What I don’t understand is why you had to make me love you. I would have found Edstuart and the offspring for you anyway. Your credits would have been good enough. It’s just a job. Why have you done this to me? Why?”

Sorrowfully she arose from the bed, then glanced at him with glittering eyes. “You mean you’ve found them?”

“Of course. MU is the best. Is it because you didn’t know what I’d do when Edstuart told me about you, if you hadn’t secured my loyalty?” Dana wiped the smear of amante off his arm. “So. Am I addicted to this crap? Just what is amante, Tatiana? You tell me.”

“You’re not addicted,” she said hastily. “You’re not Triadian. What did that bastard Eddie tell you?”

“That you’ll do something terrible to Sha!n. I can only assume he means you’ll abuse the offspring. Did you know there’s a rumor Triadians butcher and eat their progeny? Is that why Edstuart took Sha!n and ran away from you, even though it means he’s broken the vows of your precious Solemn Deux?”

“Abuse! Butcher and eat my Sha!n? Oh, I would never do such a thing. Sha!n is the precious one, the Point of the Triad. Eddie is such a coward. Don’t be a fool, Dana! And don’t look at me like that. Your ghastly rumor is pathetic. I would never harm Sha!n, you must believe me.”

“Believe you? You have me code your injunction incorrectly in front of an Interworld judge. Prefect Tule says you’ve deceived me. Lenni, too. Your deux-partner is terrified of you. You’ve done nothing to make me believe you. You’ve done nothing but make love to me, damma of Triad. But that’s your function, isn’t it? Temple whore?”

“I see. Then I need not try to convince you that I really do care for you, counselor of Nexus.”

“That’s right.”

But Dana did want her to try.

“Very well.” She pulled on the red satin dress. “And,” that sideways glance, “you’ve spoken with Prefect Tule?”

“Yes. Are you also a criminal on Triad?”

“I suppose I am. I’ve come too close to revealing the Mystery of the Triad, dear counselor. By coming to you for help. When did you see him?”

“At Interworld Court, before the hearing.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Our introduction was not exactly amicable. He demanded I drop the case. Leave you alone, abandon you. And I. I didn’t want to do that. I thought I was defending your interworld right to neutral counsel.”

“I see, I see. Then truly the time for Holy Triad is near.”

She grew suddenly distracted, withdrawn, pale.

Despite his anger, Dana came to her side and held her.

“Edstuart said that, too. ‘The time is near.’ Tatiana, what is the Holy Triad?”

“It is my duty as damma. Only I can initiate it. Oh, I’m sorry if I’ve wronged you, my sweet Dana. That bungler, Tule.” Her face twisted with contempt. Her voice was harsh. “Tule failed me. He was supposed to enforce our custody agreement. He is the Keeper, you see. He should never have allowed Eddie to get this far. I deny blame for resorting to outsiders.” She turned to him with the shimmering look that always pierced him. “But not you, Dana. You’ve never failed me. You must not fail me now.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“You know how to contact Eddie?”


“Contact him now. Let me speak to him. Maybe we can come to terms.”

MU placed the connection, returned with the response at once. “They’ve gone.”

“Of course!” cried Tatiana. “He knows the Prefect is here? Oh, of course he’ll flee. We’ve got to find them. Please, Dana! They’re leaving Nexus, I know it. How could they get offworld without attracting notice of the world brain?”

Dana said, “They’ll go to Porthandle.”

*   *   *

Porthandle crashes around Dana like a planetary sea. Sleet beats down. A thousand stratospheric voices shout, pressure exploding against pressure. Then abrupt, eerie silence until the living world gasps for breath again.

The old wachter basks in the sensation Tatiana has created. Maybe it deserves some glory. It brought them to the right place.

Lashed to the launch pad, the great silver whale of the starbarge awaits departure. Oscillating green and purple lights ring the loading dock. Plumes of mist twist up.

Grizzled dockworkers stare at them. Indentured laborers make lewd noises. News reporters crowd around, flashing cameras and recorders.

The old wachter beams and preens. The hero who captured the Triadian, an illegal alien once she attempted unauthorized exit from Nexus by tres- passing through the skin.

“In a bronchiole?” exclaim the reporters, furrowing their faces. “During open port?”

But, after all, bronchioles have been used for quick exits before. It’s not such a scandal, Dana thinks, as the hoopla would warrant. Except for Tatiana, the beautiful winged lady. Triadian damma. Butcher of her progeny, the rumor says.

Then Dana glimpses the one who has followed them, the one who has dogged their path and harassed them all this time. Patting the old wachter’s backplate, chucking the wire rat under its scruffy chin.

Lenni. In a dockworker’s jumpsuit, almost frail in stasis, with a pale earnest face. Talking it up with the reporters. Saying who knows what about Tatiana.

Damn you, Lenni, Dana wants to shout. But the shout sticks in his throat. The sour lump on his tongue slides down to his tonsils. He can barely swallow now.

You’re going to burn, MU said.

Exhausted, defeated, aching with serious t-burn, Dana doesn’t know if he can stand himself for another minute, much less another tomorrow. And all because of her.


She kneels in misery. Her chest rattles as if her lungs are crumbling. Sweat slicks the lavender curves of her cheekbones, running in rivulets down her neck. The cybernetic centipede ripples wildly around her finger, sapphire fur clacking. Its bloody head rears and wallows in the palm of her hand. The crescent moon of its neckridge slashes her hand.

Only her wings still arch magnificently above her tiny, crumpled body.

The pain of separation. How could Dana have doubted her?

Lenni was wrong. Whatever else it does, amante is an anesthetic. For the unspeakable pain of the damma of Triad, yes, intended for that. But whatever else she felt or did not feel for Dana, Tatiana had pitied his pain.

The shimmering slanting eyes glance up at him, filled with that piercing look he thought he knew. Then dart away, toward some distant vision.

Prefect Tule.

The monstrous Triadian stands before the dock of the starbarge, brandishing the gleaming crescent moon of his knife. The arrogance of him, the flagrant disregard for interworld law. The terror he strikes in these frail elegant people, his own people, to whom he bears so little resemblance.

Dana despises him.

“Tatiana,” Prefect Tule intones. “The Time is at hand. We cannot wait to veil the Mystery from these outsiders’ eyes. You must do it now. You must initiate the Triad.”

Tatiana gasps. Then, amazingly, stands up, stands tall. An unknown strength visibly tightens her. She brushes sweat and tears from her cheeks with a slender hand.

“How dare you address me so,” she says regally.

“My pardon, Damma. But your duty.”

“I will remind you of your duty, Prefect. Do it, and leave these outsiders alone. I command you not to harm them. Dana,” she says, “tell the wachter to release me.”

MU’s portable jack does its work. The override finally kicks in as the old wachter fields questions from the gathering crowd.

The steelyn cords fall away.

She rubs the circulation back into her arms, finds her celadon flask, pours out the last drops, slathers amante over her throat and breasts.

Then she takes Dana’s shoulders.

“Dana Anad,” she says. “In my pain before, I spoke nonsense. I meant nothing. Do you forgive me?”

He has no answer.

“Please forgive me.” She loosens his own steelyn bonds. “No, you’re not a man. Not a man or a woman, but always my Dana. Find your balance and harmony, my love. Between good and evil lies objectivity. Between light and dark rises the dawn. Between male and female stands Dana, the Loyal One. When everything else changes, the one I will love forever. This is real. This is the truth. Yes?”

Dana sees Edstuart and the offspring at the far side of the dock, huddled together.

“But my Dana,” Taitiana says, “there is another kind of love. Mother love.”

Edstuart is rubbing the offspring’s head, murmuring baby talk. He looks up, sees Dana, and from across the distance, Dana looks into the Triadian’s eyes. In those eyes once filled with bafflement and sorrow, Dana sees terror. Bright brittle terror.

“Don’t go to them,” says Dana, filled with dread.

Sha!n sees her.

“Damma!” A weird shriek issues from the tiny gleaming mouth.

Dana tries to restrain her, but she breaks away.

She runs to the offspring, takes Sha!n into her arms. Their wings buzz joyfully around them, forming a chatoyant halo.

Tatiana rips her bodice down, gives her breast to the offspring.

Sha!n suckles.

At the taste of her, its eyes bulge and its babyish cheeks turn hard. It sinks its long, curved teeth into her. The crescent moons flash, tearing open her chest.

Dana runs to her, but Prefect Tule kicks him aside.

The Prefect advances on Edstuart. Edstuart kneels, trembling violently. At the sight and smell of Sha!n assault, his skin hardens, cracks, splits open like a molting dragonfly. The Prefect swings the knife down Edstuart’s back, hastening that which has begun.

Edstuart in a trance, body split and oozing, stumbles toward Tatiana and Sha!n. He embraces the bloodied couple, then tenderly bites Sha!n’s head off. Blood gushes from the tiny, quivering neck. Tatiana, still moving somehow, reaches around Edstuart’s waist, grips one flap of his split back, pulls the flesh free of his spine.

The three bodies entwine, disintegrate, merge.


The gore speedily coagulates, transmutes, forming a blood-slick veined globe of rippling flesh, over which a thick white skin begins to grow.

“The Holy Triad!” cries Prefect Tule. “The World Egg!”

Dana crumples to the pavement, hand at his throat.

“Dana, baby.” Lenni comes and holds him. “Listen to me. They’re only larvae, swarm-born.”

“Outsider!” Prefect Tule shouts. “Do not denigrate what you do not understand. They are the Chosen of Triad. They sacrifice their puny privileged lives to the World Egg. From this a million new citizens will spring. It is glorious!”

“Please listen,” Lenni says, stroking Dana’s cheek. “Terran bees, ants and termites, certain flies do this. The fertile ones, the reproductive elite of the swarm, produce the offspring that, when ripened, acts as the catalyst. When the time is right, the mother host yields royal nectar. The catalytic agent is stimulated, consumes the mother host, and the male partner completes the synthesis, sacrificing the nutrients of his body. Their union produces that. It’s a pupa, containing genetic material for another swarm. Without the pupa, and the few who must create it, their race would die.”

“Outsiders!” Prefect Tule charges at them, swinging the crescent knife. “See how you try to interfere! Look at your repugnance! You should not have witnessed the great Mystery. No outsider has ever seen the Holy Triad. This is Sacrilege! You must die!”

With a swagger and a sneer, Lenni confronts the bloody edge of the remorseless knife. “Leave us alone, you ugly bastard. Your Damma commanded you.”

The Prefect sheathes the knife. “You are correct,” he concedes. “But begone, outsiders. You’ve seen enough. This is a matter for the Keeper of the Triad now.”

The World Egg rolls fitfully. Odd extrusions thrust here and there through the moist, pale skin.

Prefect Tule fashions a hexagonal box, spitting wax from his mouth. Next he fills the box with dark purple jelly he spurts from an organ in his lower torso. With his huge long forearms, he carefully, laboriously lifts the fitful World Egg and deposits it inside, sealing the box with more wax.

“What about Tatiana?” Dana whispers. “What about her? What about her pain?”

“She has no more pain,” says Prefect Tule. “She has fulfilled her destiny.”

“Come on, Dana,” says Lenni. “Come home with me, baby.”

Dana looks at Lenni, and he sees a face that is neither male nor female, but human. Always human. A face filled with compassion and love. A beautiful face. He takes Lenni’s hand and together they walk down into the dawn.

Afterword: I’m a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, the late eminent feminist science fiction author.

Of her many books, The Left Hand of Darkness is perhaps my favorite. It features a hero who periodically “goes into heat,” becoming a woman.

When Robert Silverberg announced that he was accepting stories for the Universe 2 anthology in 1992, I was eager to write my own gender-bending story.

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We all could use a laugh these days, so I present for your enjoyment “Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis”. The story was commissioned by editor Margaret Weis and published in the anthology Fantastic Alice, New Stories from Wonderland by Ace Books. The story was republished in my first story collection, Strange Ladies: 7 Stories by Bast Books. Here are what of the some of the critics say about the collection:
“Offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.”
—The San Francisco Review of Books
“Lisa Mason might just be the female Philip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….a sci-fi collection of excellent quality….you won’t want to miss it.”
—The Book Brothers Review Blog
“Fantastic book of short stories….Recommended.”
—Reader Review
“I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”
—Amazing Stories
Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis
I want to thank you all for inviting me here tonight to this, the thirtieth anniversary of my Fall into Wonderland. Yes, thank you, thank you very much. I would never have come if the Dodo hadn’t promised there’d be a fat speaker’s fee in it for me.
It’s not as though any of you have kept in touch. It’s not as though you’ve given me a jingle just to say, “How’s tricks, Alice?” It’s not as though you give a sh—oh, I beg your pardon. I don’t mean to offend. It’s not as though you’ve got the slightest notion what I’ve been through all these years.
Whatever happened to Alice, you want to know? She was, after all, such a strange little girl. Ever a scowl. Ever a snippy word. Had herself an attitude.
What could I do, what else was I fit for, after Wonderland? Of course I became a writer as my big sister encouraged me to do. You should see how much money I owe her. Oh, but you’ve never heard of me. You’ve never seen me on the list of the top ten richest writers in the world. You’ve never seen a trilogy of movies based on my books.
What are my books? Surely you’ve read The Shapeshifters, Down and Out in Berkeley and Boston, and TartGate: the Swindle and Tea-tray. Thank you, thank you very much. You congratulate me. How glamorous, Alice, you say. How exciting! What an adventure!
Have you got the slightest notion how the publishing business works these days?
One slaves in solitude over a book for two or three years, compromising health, sanity, and financial security. One’s editor pays an advance that covers the bills for two or three months, not counting food, phone service, and lottery tickets. One’s book gets noticed for two or three weeks. Booklist is snide, TLS brutal. After production costs, printing, paper, binding, marketing expenses, and general overhead to keep the publisher in posh digs, one earns two or three cents in royalties. One’s book is remaindered in two or three days while one’s editor implores one to get off that lazy bum and write ten more before the year-end.
Never mind the fantasies of hanging oneself. These will pass.
Who would ever aspire to a literary career? One would have to be raving mad.
But you don’t care. That’s on me, you say. Get a job. You don’t give a sh—oh, I beg your pardon. I don’t mean to suggest you’re an insensitive dullard who would rather veg out in front of the tellie every night than read a good book now and then. You don’t want to hear about the troubles of a girl of forty. The compulsive weaving of daisy-chains. The soporifics acquired without a prescription. The anonymous encounters in seedy laundromats with persons who refuse to make change. The arrests for disorderly conduct in tony shopping malls during lunch hour. Oh well, you say. You’re an Artist, Alice. Drowning in one’s own sorrow. It’s in the cards.
You want to romanticize Wonderland. You want to hear how cool it was. What a rave. What a romp. What a beneficent influence Falling into Wonderland had on my life. How Wonderland transformed me.
Transformed us all.
Have you got the slightest notion what happened to the White Rabbit? Every advantage, that’s what he had. Got admitted to Harvard Law School. Graduated summa cum laude. Joined the blue-chip law firm of O’Hare & Leporiday. Made partner in five years. White-collar crime and commodities fraud his speciality.
Yet there was always something too precious, too fussbudgety, about him. I suppose we should have seen it coming when the White Rabbit became an animal rights activist. Joined Small Mammals Against Savage Humans. Stands in SMASH picket lines outside Saks Fifth Avenue every Saturday, flinging ketchup on ladies in fur coats. Frequents the petting zoo every Sunday. Travels round the country delivering speeches supporting cruelty-free cosmetics dressed in a Givenchy gown, spike heels, and full makeup.
His poor old mum, whom you never hear about, nearly had a stroke when he posed, shaved bald and nude, for the cover of Vanity Fair. She calls me. “Where did I go wrong?” she wants to know. “Every advantage, that’s what he had.”
“Exactly, mum,” I tell her. “It’s postmodern life. Life after Wonderland. None of us knows who we are anymore.”
You’re silent now. Not chuckling? Not applauding? Do I suggest that the White Rabbit’s youthful experiences underground had some bearing upon his wantonness later in life? Do I suggest that Wonderland was an incitement to explore the dangerous depths of the subconscious mind? An inducement to abandon the moral strictures and conventions that Society, our schools, and our families have struggled so mightily and with the best of intentions to impose upon us?
In exchange for what? Illicit freedom?
Uncommon nonsense, you say? Ridiculous? Paranoid?
Well. It makes no difference to me if the White Rabbit pickets KFC franchises dressed in a chicken suit, but his law partners didn’t feel the same way. Hounded him out of the firm. Of course he’s suing. His mum won’t speak to him. And he still frequents the petting zoo every Sunday. You may draw your own conclusions.
But that’s the White Rabbit, you say. The White Rabbit is a shining example of the Dr. Spock generation. Those coddled Boomer kids. Me yesterday, Me tomorrow, and Me today. Give ‘em what they want when they want it. Every advantage, that’s what they’ve had. And see how they turn out?
Have you got the slightest notion what happened to the Mock Turtle? There’s another casualty. Diagnosed schizophrenic with delusions of bovinity. But since when has mental illness ever interfered with stardom? Since when has delusion ever impeded huge fame?
Those big brown eyes, that throbbing tenor raised in song! The sighs, the sobs. The disingenuous self-pity, the sudden sulking silences. Those maudlin dance tunes! What tabloid on the grocery store checkout stand hasn’t told the tale of how he became the idol of millions overnight? Mock Turtle, the King of Sop.
Of course Wonderland left its mark on him. I only became aware of how deeply damaged he was when we dated ten years later. The Mock Turtle is not exactly a fellow you want to introduce to your mum. But when we met again on the beach at Mazatlan, I fell for him hard. Always was a soft touch for his Poor Me act. One day he took me to a Miami Dolphins game. We stood up for the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and what do you suppose he said?
“A wedge of lemon in my glass
Of salt-rimmed tequila;
And with my French fries dipped in lard,
One burger
In a bun
With mustard and relish for all.”
Eating disorder, nothing. Obsessed with food, he was! Always crooning about soup and fish sticks. A foodaholic, a gourmand in extremis. A skinny reptile struggling to get out of that shell. Food fetishes? Try peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches. Couldn’t get through the day without a box of Ritz crackers. No wonder he packed on the pounds. Heart attack material, that’s what he became. And that’s what did the Mock Turtle in. Right in the middle of a performance on a Las Vegas soundstage. That’s the truth—it was a coronary. Not the booze, the pills, the teenage girls.
Of course everyone knows the consumption of mood-altering substances was commonplace in Wonderland. The mysterious liquids in those little stoppered bottles. The cakes of unknown ingredients left out on a side table. The smoke twisting up from herbaceous tinder. Could one contend that the fungus which induced the sensation of growing larger or smaller actually altered the body, such as steroids do? Or merely altered the mind? Though plenty of body-altering there. Take one’s liver, for starters. Never mind one’s brain cells. But oh so good, as the song goes. Can you imagine enduring the rat race without coke and Jack on the rocks? No wonder so many of us in postmodern society seek consolation in chemicals.
Who can blame us, after Wonderland?
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I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, went to school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and, upon graduation, migrated to San Francisco, California. There I lived for five years and then migrated to the East Bay where I’ve lived ever since.
When I was working in downtown San Francisco, I often saw a punk Chinese-American bicycle messenger, complete with tattoos and a colorful Mohawk. A young woman, no less.
The late, great Herb Caen, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, was fascinated with the bicycle messengers, who had their own subculture. Caen frequently reported on the exploits of his favorite bicycle messenger, which made their way into “The Oniomancer.”
I myself saw a convocation of bicycle messengers outside of a fancy grocery store at a little park behind the Embarcadero Center, a huge office complex built by the Rockefellers and resembling Rockefeller Square in New York City.
So all that detail was brewing in my head. I knew I had a story to tell, but what?
Turns out Tom knew an artist, a kind of down-and-out guy, who had a knack for finding valuable things. Without a metal detector. He would just walk down the city street and—lo!—there would be a diamond brooch at his feet. I’m serious.
After I learned about his amazing gift, I began to find things myself. A fourteen-gold charm of a Chinese ship in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A sterling silver Mercedes Benz car key-ring on Broadway. Really.
I began to research this little-known talent and came across the answer in the Encyclopedia of Occultism: Oniomancer. The talented person is called an Oniomancer.
I knew I had my story, then.
A word about Chinese-Americans (in this troubled time): We’ve had many delightful Chinese-American acquaintances in San Francisco and many delightful neighbors in the East Bay.
But like families of every race and ethnicity (Tom is an eighth Cherokee Indian, I’m a Croatian American), Chinese-American families have their own problems. Around the corner from our apartment on Telegraph Hill lived a traditional Chinese family. At night, we would hear Mom and Dad screaming at the kids and (ahem) beating the crap out of them.
I wondered what sort of serious rebellion the Chinese-American bicycle messenger Girl with the Pink Hair must have gone through.
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The Oniomancer
The Chinadoll denies she’s a thief. She swears she’s never stolen anything. She finds things, that’s all. She’s always found things. From street curbs and trash bins and secret city places, things come to her like hungry cats.
She’s delivering a Priority One Hour to some bigwig at the Hyatt Hotel when she finds the cube. Talking heads from the tube, with their techs and camera crews, are swarming all over the lobby. Craning their necks to get a gander at the headline of the hour.
Fame scenes cut no ice with the Chinadoll. Not when she’s hustling down another zip code. The suits check out her fuchsia croptop, fourteen motley hoops banging down her hearwings. Lone Ranger mask drawn in kohl across her peepers. Beat-around black leather, rude girl rags. Security guards glare at her like she just crawled out from under something.
Then there it is: a small object getting kicked around by all those shuffling feet. Tumbling here, tumbling there across the tessellated marble floor. The Chinadoll can empathize.
So she scoops.
It kind of bounces up into her hand, this perfect cube. Size of a medium Rubik’s. Iridescent like mom o’ pearl. Strung from a stud on its crown on a superfine chain with the high, silvery sheen of platinum. It hums. Not a machine hum, but a soft rolling purr-purr.
Little hungry cats. How the Chinadoll loves you.
Quick as a wink, she stashes the cube in her T-shirt pocket. Dashes across the lobby, takes the elevator upstairs, makes the delivery. The bigwig’s got a girlfriend lounging on the bed, so he doesn’t come on to her like some of the drop-offs do.
Down she goes, zooming through the lobby again, and the scene has suddenly gotten weirder. Everybody jazzed, talking in loud, excited chatter. A voice of authority crackling with feedback issues garbled commands. “Nnnn—stay calm, and proceed in an orderly fashion—eeee!
She doesn’t stick around to find out what’s the hassle.
The cube pokes through her pocket like a Picasso nipple. A Real Find, Chinadoll. Not for nothing is she known as an oniomancer. And she thought she was down on her luck. Knows right away she can’t tell Flash about this. For sure, don’t let Bulldog see it.
Out at the rack, she unlocks her Schwinn.
From inside her pocket, the cube hiccups. The soft little sound of a lost thing that’s been found.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll came to see finding as a gift, though she didn’t always see it that way. She first discovered finding when she was a sorry little five-year-old named Suki Fong. It’s possible she found things before then. But that’s the first time she remembered the finding.
And what came after.
It was a fresh autumn day with a bit of wind, and Mama had come home from shopping on Grant Avenue. Pink cardboard boxes of dim sum and fried rice dangled from one of her hands, a whole roast chicken swung from the other. Papa was in the living room, watching ninja moves on Channel 60. All Chinatown smelled of Sunday supper.
The kids were in their playground: the sidewalk in front of Yick Sing Meat Market. Ben and Jimmy quarreled over a blue paper dragonfly kite. May and Kim whispered over a pocket mirror and a contraband lipstick May had shoplifted from Three Spirits Pharmacy.
Suki, the youngest of them by some years, sat alone on the curb and sniffed roast chicken. “Go away, baby,” May had ordered. Jimmy had pushed her. So she scratched in the gutter by herself, hummed lullabies, picked at scraps. From the TV inside came clatter and shrill sounds. She could hear the bloodcurdling scream of some ninja lopping off a demon’s head, made tinny by Papa’s ancient Sony.
With that thin, scratchy scream, the finding feeling came. Empty cup contentment. Waiting but not waiting. Nothing-full.
A crumpled wad, the soft gray-green of a dried herb, skittered past Suki’s toes. She scooped it, smoothed it flat across her knee. She saw small pictures on the crinkled paper strip. There was a tiny old-fashioned car and tinier pedestrians. A grand building with tall columns. On the other side, a curly-haired grandpa who wouldn’t look at her, but that was okay. Suki knew curly-haired grandpas didn’t look at a Chinese girl like her unless they had some evil on their minds.
She smiled. She smiles to this day at that tiny Model T.
From inside the apartment came Mama’s wail. “Cheat me! Mr. Yee cheat me! And rent due! I go back!” She ran out onto the street, dragon-faced. Stopped short in front of Suki.
“Oy!” Mama said. “What that you got there, girl?”
Suki held up her find.  Grateful for attention, any attention, from Mama.
She snatched the bill from Suki’s hand. “So here my ten dollar. Mr. Yee didn’t cheat me. Where you get this, girl?”
“I found it, Mama.”
Mama jerked Suki up off the curb by her skinny arm and hauled her inside. Suki heard May and Kim giggling.
“I say where you get this, girl?” Mama demanded,
“I found it, Mama. I found it.”
Mama slapped her across the face, one two three times. Suki’s lip stung against her teeth. She tasted shame.
“I teach you not to be a liar,” Mama said. “Youie? Youie?” Papa grunted, tore his eyes away from the TV. “This girl, this runt, this accident, she steal money from her own mama. And rent due. You teach her not to steal.”
“But I found it, Papa. I found it!”
Mama slapped her again. Papa stood, unbuckled his belt, slid the leather strip from his pant loops. Mama wrestled Suki over the kitchen table, pinned her arms down on the greasy oilcloth. Then Papa lashed the belt across her tiny butt, smack smack smack. Suki couldn’t count how many times.
That’s when she learned not to show or tell.
She would have given up finding, if she’d known how. She didn’t try to do it any more than she’d made Mama forget the birth control on the night five years ago when Papa knocked her up with a fifth child. A pinch-faced, unwanted little Suki.
But not long after her first humiliation, some-thing else tumbled into her hands like the temptation of an evil spirit.
Mama sent her out before dark for cooking oil. It was a lovely cool evening, the breezes scented with coming winter. Lipped with arabesques of light, Cathay House Pagoda shone against the scarlet dusk. Suki skipped down Grant Avenue, filled with the unaccountable joy of childhood.
At the edge of her eye, she saw something. A scrap bounding across the concrete like a wind-blown leaf.
The finding feeling came. A ghost push. Seeing and not seeing.
She scooped.
It was another piece of that velvety green paper. This time a cocky, bushy-haired fellow looked her right in the eye. Andy Jackson. A twenty dollar bill! She could hardly believe it, having only just learned the dark passions such velvety green paper inspired.
She carefully folded the bill, tucked it in her jeans pocket. She brought the cooking oil back to Mama. The next day, she bought herself a bag of candied pineapple rings at Mrs. Lee’s sweetmeat shop, a jade ring at Canton Bazaar, a tiny ivory horse at Shanghai Fine Arts, and one of those polyester bags that passes for embroidered silk, all green and purple chrysanthemums. She kept a dollar ninety-seven in change.
And said nothing to anyone.
But secrets can be hard to keep.
*   *   *
The streets around the Hyatt are jumping. State-of-siege cha-cha-cha. The wind socks grit in the Chinadoll’s eyes, sending tear tracks down her facepaint. She dodges cop cars, minding business.
Bucks her bike, rolls onto Drumm Street. Hauls out her cell phone, punches up headquarters. The dispatcher at Speedster & Company has her on for one last pickup at 815 Market.
Shoot! She’ll have to pedal her ass eight blocks west on a slow but steady uphill grade. It’s nearly five o’clock in the p.m. and she’s cat-o-nine-tails beat.
For luck, she fishes the cube from her T-shirt pocket, checks it out. The closure on the clasp is out of whack, so the lock won’t lock. No wonder someone lost it. What a cheap piece of trash, this clasp. She can’t imagine securing a chain of such fine links to hold a cube of such rare beauty with a safety catch that isn’t secure and can’t catch onto anything.
She bites the clasp, shaping the metal with her teeth. There you go, baby.
The cube feels warm, tingling, jingling, like a fistful of hot copper.
Not for the first time, the Chinadoll wonders how things of true value can be treated by the world with such disrespect.
*   *   *
Finding—it was Suki’s pleasure, the search for treasure amid the doldrums of daily life. Just a kid, she stalked the streets alone.
And found things all the time.
Sure, there was junk. She found knuckletop computers the size of a postage stamp. What excuses did the scamps around town tell their lovers when they didn’t message? She found flat plastic rectangles with miniature holograms and necklaces of numbers. How many credit lines got hacked due to lost credit cards? She found Ziploc bags filled with white powder that tasted bitter. What illicit dreams had been abandoned in shadowed alleys?
These things meant nothing to a kid. Just junk.
Some things, though, were truly treasure. She filled soup cans with coins, preferring pennies and dimes. Made a twelve-foot daisy chain out of red and blue rubber bands and paperclips in cool shapes. Stockpiled chewing gum packets and breath mint rolls, hundreds of them perfectly packaged, the safety seals still sealed.
She saw treasure everywhere, the hint of it, the glint of it.
She hid everything in a secret place.
Finding seemed so natural in the free-for-all of the City. Maybe the wrong of it was she got something for nothing. Mama said they had to pay their dues. Papa said they had to work hard. And finding was so easy. Things fell into her hands with no work on her part. No dues paid. That had to be why she couldn’t show or tell.
Too easy. She had to wonder if other people found things, too. Surely they must.
In a bold mood one day, she asked her sister May, “Do you ever, like, find things? You know, on the street?’
“What do you mean, Suki?” May said sharply.
Bad timing. That afternoon, May had seen that Suki had seen her smoking Marlboros with her boyfriend in Washington Square Park.
“Find things on the street? Like some bag lady, some street person, some Vietnamese? You stealing again, Suki? You’re stealing again, you little creep, you spy. Mama!”
Mama searched the bedroom Suki shared with her sisters and found her secret place—two Kinney shoeboxes beneath her underwear and socks. Mama found all things she’d found and took them away. Even the jade ring and the ivory horse and the purple-green bag, pretty things Suki had bought, fair and square. Mama had Papa take off his belt again.
She should have known then she should have given up finding for good. Turn away from the shimmer when she saw it. Finding should have been like any other unhealthy habit, subject to will and discipline.
But Papa’s belt, Mama’s slaps, her brothers’ and sisters’ jeers, they insulted her. Wronged her.
And like a benevolent devil confirming her conviction, not long after Mama took her things away, she found her first Big Find. Lying right in the middle of the sidewalk on Broadway near the corner of Kearny.
From the edge of her eye, she saw the glitter. Gutter-bound daystar. Maybe worthless, maybe wealth. She guzzled the empty cupful. She scooped.
It was a solid silver key with a handle in the shape of a four-leaf clover. Inside one heavy loop, next to the jeweler’s stamp of authentication, was a Tiffany trademark. Inside another loop, the logo of the car the key fit. A Mercedes Benz.
The silver dazzled in the sunlight as she turned the key over in her hand.
Suki knew at once the key was a sign. An omen. A promise that the best revenge would be hers one day. Never mind that the lock the key fit was nowhere in sight.
She walked back through Chinatown in a dream.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll slings the superfine chain over her fuchsia croptop, dropping the cube inside her T-shirt. It nestles against her skin, stinging her cleavage like dry ice. She picks up the package at 815 Market, drops it off at the Civic Center. Then scoots back to the headquarters of Speedster & Company for her daily bread.
She skids Market, slides New Montgomery, bops onto Mission. A ghost-gray candy cotton of fog rolls in from the ocean, chilling her bones. Then her hearwings yow with a bike messenger’s cry, an earsplitting banshee shriek.
“Yee Wee Wing Fooong! Hah Hah Haaah!”
Ain’t he sweet. That’s Flash’s yell for the Chinadoll.
*   *   *
After Suki found the silver key, she started a new stash. She found new secret places. When fall term began at Chang Wo Elementary, she kept her treasure in her school locker where Mama would never find it.
She liked school. She didn’t understand most of what they tried to teach her—having learned words like “rapacious” and “perspicacious” from Jimmy’s Fantastic Four comic books—but she was quiet and did what they told her and kept to herself.
She found lots of things in the school halls. Bottles of Robitussin Extra-Strength Formula; packages of Trojan rubbers; cartons of Camel nonfilters; a pair of soft turquoise mittens spangled with solar chips that kept the winter chill off her hands.
She loved those mittens.
She developed standards. She no longer took the worst junk, baby stuff like rubber bands. She kept three Kinney shoeboxes in her school locker, one for junk worth taking, one for cool things, one for actually valuable things. She carried the silver key in her jeans pocket. But she never showed it to anyone.
And she might have still liked school and done what they told her if she hadn’t found the ball of wastepaper.
It was early March, just before spring break, and the school halls were charged with the tension of tests being taken. There she sat in the girls’ lavatory, perched on a potty after taking a tinky. Pondering how she, of all twelve-year-old people, could possibly write an essay about the doctrine of manifest destiny on her history exam.
Suddenly a ball of wastepaper bounced merrily in, as if someone had flung it under the stall door. She picked it up, smoothed out a sheet filled with teeny, tiny rectangles.
The time was half-past nine. She was half awake. She walked out of the stall, gawking, doing a slow eureka. Then a hall monitor burst in the lavatory before she could think or explain. The monitor dragged her down to the principal’s office.
Then everyone got dragon and talked at her too fast in English.
The ball of wastepaper turned out to be a crib sheet for a test in a class she wasn’t even taking. No one cared. She got detention for the rest of the semester. They couldn’t prove a thing, but a report that she was a cheater went on her permanent record that was transferred when she started Galileo High.
At home, Papa got out the belt. Mama’s face got dragon every time she looked at her. May and Kim, who were prom queens at Galileo, wouldn’t say hi in the halls. Ben, who’d become assistant manager at Chung Quon Imports, declared that everyone in Chinatown knew Suki was a cheater, a liar, and a thief, and took his belt to her for shaming the family. Jimmy, starting at City College in business administration, made her lick his shoes.
She ran away. The cops did their own finding and brought her back. She cut school. The principal put her on probation. She flunked classes. Papa took his belt to her until her back was riddled with scars.
She tried to reform. She did community service at an old people’s home. She ran errands for Mama, cleaned the whole apartment every day after school. But five-dollar cans of litchi nuts, cut-crystal ashtrays, cashmere sweaters kept tumbling mysteriously into her hands, into her backpack, into her shopping bag. Store clerks accused her of shoplifting.
She gave everything back, but it was no use. On her seventeenth birthday, Galileo High expelled her. Mama said out.
Finding—it was Suki’s curse.
But as she trudged past Yick Sing Meat Market for the last time, something beckoned, shiny and sweet, at the curb. She laughed and did not laugh. She wept and did not weep. No one was there to say or not say what she was doing was wrong.
She scooped.
It was a charm, the kind that hooks onto a charm bracelet. A tiny ship of solid gold, three tiny sails unfurled with golden wind.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll spots Flash’s waist-length mane, crowned by the yellow propeller on his beanie, as he ducks down the stairwell into Speedster & Company’s basement digs. She does the duck down, too. The digs are full of razzmatazz and dooby stench and bike messengers yapping it up. Mohawk greased high over his coffee-bean brow, Mug the manager bends over the books of account.
The Chinadoll scores her commissions in cash, considers gourmet for dinner. Maybe a Martinetti dry salami and a bottle of Settler’s Creek Chablis instead of her usual peanuts and a pint of milk. Hey, this babe is rich.
Her whoop-dee-doo must be more than her daily sweat-and-tears ought to merit, because Flash is eyeballing her, grinning his zen grin.
“Hey, Chinadoll,” he says. “You find something today?”
“Nope. Stash your own trash.”
That guy. He of all people would know, just by looking at her, that she Found Major today.
Because Flash is an oniomancer, too.
*   *   *
There’s this poignant word of advice from the I Ching that goes, “It furthers you to cross the great water.” Meaning, move your hindquarters, fool.
Suki’s little golden ship was a sign.
From Chinatown, she fled to North Beach, past the strip joints on Broadway, the Italian eateries on Columbus, the literati cafés on Grant Avenue, and on to where the Tower Hotel crouched halfway up Telegraph Hill.
There Suki leased a room. Once a bohemian hotel, the only beats at the Tower now were dead-, not -nik. On the age-worn front door, someone had taped the sixteenth card of the Tarot. The wicked shrieking, lightning striking, an edifice of madness tumbling down.
Cozy place.
A room the size of Mama’s clothes closet with an odoriferous mattress and an orthopteran zoo, cost fifty George W’s a week. The communal john down the hall boasted special effects.
Then there was her lovely next-door neighbor.
“Hey. Hey. You. Bug,” said a voice like a rusted-out muffler as she lugged her meager possessions into her room.
A bunch of white kids at Galileo High called the Chinese kids that—bug—so she turned, assuming the voice was addressing her.
“Gimme five bucks, bug.”
An ugly hulk blocked her passage in the narrow hall. Her nose came up to the swastika hanging over his leather-vested chest. She gave him three dollars, which was all she had left after the hotel manager had taken two weeks’ in advance.
That was just the beginning. Bulldog bullied her daily. He extorted her money, stole her food, dirtied her clean towels. He hid water balloons over her door, set a mouse loose in her bed.
When she didn’t receive his direct attention, she cringed beneath his constant presence. The heavy-metal rock he blasted. The rattletrap van he parked in the towaway zone and revved up at five in the morning, waking her with its hacking motor, sending noxious fumes in her window. The steady stream of rag-tag women who, for reasons Suki could not fathom, found Bulldog endlessly fascinating. The notorious dealers, bikers, and rowdies who came by to pay their respects and wound up trying to beat Bulldog’s brains out. When the fistfights started around midnight, beefy bodies would crash against her flimsy wall like Godzilla taking on King Kong.
She considered her options. Trap guns, trip wires, poison. A black widow spider set loose in his bed. A pipe bomb under the wheels of his van would do the trick. Kablooey! at five in the morning. Or it was just possible she could electrify the communal shower from the phone booth in the hall.
She plotted how one day Bulldog would get his.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll clears out of Speedster & Company before Flash can case her much longer. The guy has an eye for detail, like any self-respecting oniomancer should. If she sticks around much longer, he’ll spot the cube nestled under her T-shirt, the superfine chain at the back of her neck.
She hightails it out of there. Up Third Street, to Sutter, to Kearny, to Columbus Avenue. Hustles down her humble repast at Rossi’s Market, beelines up Grant Avenue to the Tower. Scoots into her room.
Bulldog is nowhere in sight but through the wall she can hear his rusted-out voice jabbering next door. At least she knows where he is. She deadbolts her door, flops on her mattress, chills out.
Then she flips the superfine chain up off her neck, takes the cube in her fingertips. Gawks at it. Golly, what a Find. What a strange thing. A pretty-pretty, so shimmery. Full of wonder, she strokes the cube’s iridescent flanks. Smiles at its purr-purr.
Suddenly, the cube begins to glow, pale blue at first, then blushing violet. Warm, then hot. Hotter. Oh no! Has she inadvertently turned on some switch? She strokes its flanks again, frantically hoping to undo whatever she just did.
The purr becomes a roar.
The Chinadoll’s fingers sizzle.
*   *   *
Suki would have loved to rely on finding. Make it her career, explore the subtleties, refine her technique until she could call finding an Art. But rent came due, and she hadn’t found so much as a dime in three weeks.
She couldn’t rely on finding, not yet, that much was clear.
As for a regular job, what could she do? She was Suki Fong, high school expellee extraordinaire. She had no credentials, no connections, no confidence.
She found the Help Wanted flier thumb-tacked to a telephone pole on Sutter Street.
Speedster & Company welcomed any body as long as you could perform one simple task—pedal a bike all over town, uphill and down, eight hours a day, and not, repeat not, get yourself killed in traffic. Through the gridlock, in the rush hour, past massive buses and brute trucks, the lonely bike messenger tempted fate with the faith of a zealot.
For despite smart phones and emails, despite microwaves and pixels, the world still required the actual transfer of things. Contracts with original signatures. Computer equipment. Flowers and chocolate. Really hot lingerie.
The urgency of delivery lent drama. A messenger had honor. Responsibility. Gods and human beings have always depended upon messengers.
Suki said as much and more at her interview.
Mug the manager hired her on the spot. Paid a week’s wage in advance so she could eat a little better. “Kid, you gonna need some more meat on them bones,” he said and tucked a Luna bar in her hand.
In no time, Suki learned about Flash, Speedster’s star, the fastest, most reliable bike messenger in town. An urban legend all his own. Every messenger knew and respected him. To every passing messenger, he gave his tribal cry, “Yee Yee Heee! Hah Hah Haaah!”
Even the suits knew him, his waist-length hair, the ferret face with granny glasses, a red-and-yellow beanie with a yellow propeller that told which way his wind blew. Newspaper columnists wrote stories about him. How he’d broken his arm three times, for speed’s sake. How one day, when he’d accidentally locked himself out on the exterior stairwell of a first-floor office, he’d hopped over the railing and dropped to the concrete, only to be arrested by a passing cop.
Suki wasn’t in Flash’s league, not yet, but she was inspired by his example. She razored off all of her black waist-length hair except a strip down the middle of her scalp which she bleached platinum, and streaked broad strokes of fuchsia dye across the remaining crew-cut. She had a skull-and-crossbones set inside the petals of a rose tattooed on her left biceps. She blew the first ten Abe Lincolns she’d earned on kohl, vintage velvet, recycled leather.
She became the Chinadoll. She found face.
*   *   *
The cube turns scarlet neon, red-hot as an explosion. The room vibrates, then lurches crazily.
To read the rest of “The Oniomancer,” and discover what terrible troubles the Chinadoll gets into further with her unusual gift and whether and how she manages to survive, please join my Patreon page at help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted brand-new stories and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie reviews, and more exclusively for my patrons. You can also make a one-time pledge, if you like.
Visit me at for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!
Meanwhile, Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection”—The San Francisco Review of Books), in which “The Oniomancer” also appears, is in print and an ebook in eighteen markets on Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT at

Greetings, my heroic patrons, fans and readers and people considering becoming patrons, and curious visitors!
Please Stay Safe! I don’t need to repeat all the instructions you’ve been given by governments, health officials, and the Internet. You’ve heard enough.
As for me, I can’t go out for exercise, have been using my stepper for physical therapy, and—ow ow ow!—the right hip and leg are much worse with the stepper after the violent criminal Attack on me. But enough about me.
For the April Patreon, I am presenting an exciting April 2020 Excerpt from CHROME, my new speculative five-star-rated novel.
I’ll post a patrons-only full rendition of my delightful story, “The Oniomancer,” about a humble Chinese-American girl who discovers she has a special talent. The story was originally published in 1988 in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, in foreign editions of Asimov’s, and in 2017 in Strange Ladies: 7 Stories.
An Afterword about the inspirations for the story (there are several) and research will be included.
For the April Writing Tip, I’ll discuss the use of metaphor in genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and why you should tread lightly with such “literary” writing in genre fiction.
And I’ll review (and give my recommendation of) a 2004 independent movie, “Sideways,” about a fortyish writer, struggling to get his first novel published, who takes his best friend, about to be married, on a bachelor party in the wine country.
Did you know you can post a one-time pledge on my Patreon page? Or for only two bucks per post, or more if you like, help me recover from the violent criminal Attack on me.
Stay Safe! Did I say that already? People can’t say that enough! Stay Safe!
Join my Patreon page at help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted brand-new stories and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, an offer to edit your writing sample per submission, and more exclusively for my patrons. You can also make a one-time pledge.
Visit me at for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!


East Bay folks (people living in Oakland, Berkeley, and Piedmont), here are five restaurants we really like. They all deliver or you can pick up yourself. Support them! Selfishly, I don’t want them going out of business!
China Garlic on Piedmont Avenue. The best Chinese food I’ve ever had. Shrimp dishes for me, veggie dishes for Tom (and various meat dishes—chicken and pork). The vegetarian egg rolls are so delicious, Tom wants three orders of those the next time we order—which could be this weekend! We live about two miles from the place; the food was delivered, steaming hot, in less than twenty minutes. They also deliver as far as Berkeley.
Miss Saigon on Grand Avenue in Oakland. We’ve been ordering from them for years. They have noodle and rice dishes, shrimp and vegetarian (and various meats—chicken and pork). Their vegetarian egg rolls are so delicious, we already place three orders. They come with a special Vietnamese dipping sauce and fresh mint leaves. They also have a fryer, offer fresh fried fish and fried shrimp. I can live without candy, cookies, cakes, and pies, but every now and then I get a hankering for fried fish.
Barney’s on Piedmont Avenue. This started out as an award-winning beef burger place. Now they also offer turkey burgers, salmon burgers, and vegetarian garden burgers, and whole wheat buns. Their big claim to fame, though, is their fried mushroom and zucchini bowl, their curly French fries, and especially their onion rings. I can live without sweets (see above), but there’s nothing like an expertly cooked onion ring! I think they deliver via Grubhub, we just pick up.
Round Table Pizza on Grand Avenue. Round Table used to be a cheap, undistinguished pizza place. They recently mailed me a coupon. They’re not cheap anymore (no pizza place is) and they’re not low quality. They offer two vegetarian pizzas, one with spicy tomato sauce, one with garlic sauce, and different vegetable toppings, so they’re two distinct pizzas. They deliver throughout the East Bay, but we picked up. It was some of the best pizza I’ve ever had.
And Los Canteros also on Grand Avenue. We love Mexican food–once again fish for me, vegetarian for Tom–and this is some of the best Mexican food ever. They have a salmon dinner and a spicy shrimp dinner for me, which come with a very good green salad–and rice and beans and corn tortillas all of which I give to Tom. Their burritos are enormous (with several options for the kind of tortilla you want, sauce, guacamole, type of beans, cheese), and their veggie-and-cheese quesadilla is wonderful. Our neighborhood Big Market makes the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted, so we usually get a carton of that there, but the restaurant has good guac, too.
Post your favorite local restaurants that deliver here!
Join my Patreon page at help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted brand-new stories and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, an offer to edit your writing sample per submission, and more exclusively for my patrons. You can also make a one-time pledge.
Visit me at for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!

From the author of Summer of Love (a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist and San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. BACK IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
The Gilded Age (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Public Library Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. BACK IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
The Garden of Abracadabra (“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy . . . I want to read more!) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
Arachne (a Locus Hardover Bestseller) is an ebook on US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in France Kindle, Germany Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Spain Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Brazil Kindle, India Kindle, and Japan Kindle. Back in Print! Find the beautiful trade paperback at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
Cyberweb (sequel to Arachne) is on US Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also Kindle worldwide on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Brazil Kindle, France Kindle, Germany Kindle, India Kindle, Italy Kindle, Japan Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, and Spain Kindle. Back in Print at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle world wide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
One Day in the Life of Alexa (“Five stars! An appealing narrator and subtly powerful emotional rhythms”). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. Order the beautiful trade paperback NOW IN PRINT at or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at
Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition, A Lily Modjeska Mystery (Five stars) On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. SOON IN PRINT!
Shaken (in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Hummers (in Fifth Annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Daughter of the Tao (in Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn) on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in AustraliaFrance, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Every Mystery Unexplained (in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Tomorrow’s Child (In Active Development at Universal Pictures) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria (in Full Spectrum 5) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
U F uh-O (Five Stars!) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Tesla, A Screenplay on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
My Charlotte: Patty’s Story on Barnes and Noble, US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Netherlands, and Mexico.
“Illyria, My Love” is on US Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Germany Kindle, France Kindle, Spain Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Japan Kindle, Brazil Kindle, Mexico Kindle, and India Kindle.
Please visit me at Lisa Mason’s Official Website for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, and blogs, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!
And on Lisa Mason’s Blog, on my Facebook Author Page, on my Facebook Profile Page, on Amazon, on Goodreads, on LinkedIn, on Twitter at @lisaSmason, at Smashwords, at Apple, at Kobo, and at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
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This is an ebook adaptation of Lisa Mason’s novelette, “The Sixty-Third Anniversary of Hysteria,” published in Full Spectrum 5 (Bantam). A Postscript and a list of Research Sources follow.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Bast Book
Copyright 2012 by Lisa Mason.
All rights reserved.
Bast Books ebook edition published March 2012
Praise for Books by Lisa Mason
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories
“Offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.”
—The San Francisco Review of Books
“Lisa Mason might just be the female Phillip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….a sci-fi collection of excellent quality….you won’t want to miss it.”
—The Book Brothers Review Blog
“Fantastic book of short stories….Recommended.”
—Reader Review
“I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”
—Amazing Stories
Summer of Love, A Time Travel
A San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book of the Year
A Philip K. Dick Award Finalist
“Remarkable. . . .a whole array of beautifully portrayed characters along the spectrum from outright heroism to villainy. . . .not what you expected of a book with flowers in its hair. . . the intellect on display within these psychedelically packaged pages is clear-sighted, witty, and wise.”
—Locus Magazine
“A fine novel packed with vivid detail, colorful characters, and genuine insight.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Captures the moment perfectly and offers a tantalizing glimpse of its wonderful and terrible consequences.”
—The San Francisco Chronicle
“Brilliantly crafted. . . .An engrossing tale spun round a very clever concept.”
—Katharine Kerr, author of Days of Air and Darkness
“Just imagine The Terminator in love beads, set in the Haight-Ashbury ‘hood of 1967.”
—Entertainment Weekly
“Mason has an astonishing gift. Her characters almost walk off the page. And the story is as significant as anyone could wish. This book will surely be on the prize ballots.”
“A priority purchase.”
—Library Journal
The Gilded Age, A Time Travel
A New York Times Notable Book
A New York Public Library Recommended Book
“A winning mixture of intelligence and passion.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Should both leave the reader wanting more and solidify Mason’s position as one of the most interesting writers in science fiction.”
—Publishers Weekly
“Rollicking. . .Dazzling. . .Mason’s characters are just as endearing as her world.”
—Locus Magazine
“Graceful prose. . . A complex and satisfying plot.”
—Library Journal
Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition (A Lily Modjeska Mystery)
Passionate Historical Romantic Suspense
5 Stars
“I really enjoyed the story and would love to read a sequel! I enjoy living in the 21st century, but this book made me want to visit the Victorian era. The characters were brought to life, a delight to read about. The tasteful sex scenes were very racy….Good Job!”
—Reader Review
The Garden of Abracadabra
“So refreshing! This is Stephanie Plum in the world of Harry Potter.”
—Goodreads Reader
“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy….I want to read more!”
—Reader Review
“I love the writing style and am hungry for more!”
—Goodreads Reader
The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria
6 May 1941.
We’ve arrived at last after months in Casablanca, which I once remembered fondly & now loathe. Sold all my good white linen bed sheets for Moslem shrouds to raise money for our sea passage. The Faithful must meet their Maker wrapt in the colour of purity, but I would’ve slept on straw, on mud, on a bed of nails to leave Africa.
Every day we were in danger. Everyone knows B.B. supported the Loyalists in Spain & wrote editorials for La Revolution Surrealiste & corresponded with Trotsky, for godssake. Fascists in every bar & café. Nazis, too, now that Rommel has taken over the Occupation & his officers carouse their days away. The Soviets will make mincemeat of you within the year, B.B. told anyone who would listen. Didn’t care a fig who listened in. Every night I feared the knock on our door, which thankfully never came.
As for our sea passage, I have little to record. I was sick, B.B. was sick. Everyone sick & absolutely grey with fear. We sailed on a Union Oil tanker, The Montebello. A favorite sport of Nazi U-boats, torpedoing a merchant ship with refugees aboard. No more than a rifle or two to defend us, should we be attacked. Every day the radio told of another sinking–in the Atlantic, in the Caribbean, & all hands lost. Nazi U-boats take no prisoners, save no survivors bobbing amongst the waves. I began to wonder what it must be like to drown. Your hair streaming up into sunlit waters, your feet plunging into blackness below. The fearsome struggle to breathe–would it be swift or slow? Would you notice fish? When would they start nibbling at the lobes of your ears?
I had to set this journal aside. Force myself to stop conjuring up horrors.
When we hobbled ashore at Tampico, I fell on my knees & kissed the beach. I mean literally. B.B. laughing & lurching about on his sea legs. I can still taste the sand on my lips. Filthy, but marvelous. The marvelous taste of our deliverance.
Nothing but the shirts on our backs & two little bags between us. We haven’t got a penny.
It’s completely true what Breton says of our destination.
Mexico is the Surrealist place par excellence. The land blazes with a savage golden light. A tiger light. The jungle spreads its tendrils to the very edge of town & the leaves of certain palms possess a clarified green the like of which I’ve never seen in Britain nor in Europe, save perhaps Tuscany. Blossoms have their wanton way in every window box, on every street corner, through every crevice in the ancient stone walls. Brick & mortar are no match for the lusty thrust of Life. I love the lascivious pinks, the regal purples. I spied a scarlet that actually throbbed, as if the colour of blood was pulsing from a newly opened wound. The natives wear their modernity lightly. As if civilization is but a garment to be donned or disposed of at one’s will.
I should like to feel that unencumbered of my past.
Thanks to the small refugee stipend paid to us by the Mexican government, we have found an apartment on Gabino Barreda, near the Monument to the Revolution (B.B. likes that, a poetic touch). Three horrid little rooms in a decaying stucco tenement. Plaster crumbling off the walls, scorpions in the kitchen. Other vermin, too, I fear. Mother would faint dead away at the sight of the pit in the floor that passes for our indoor plumbing. There is an alcove off the bedroom, though, which has light nearly all day & a terrace overlooking the street, which is delightfully picturesque. B.B. says I may take it for my art studio. The landlady (upon whom B.B. has worked his usual masculine charms) came by with two white, blue-eyed kittens, brushstrokes of fawn on nose & paw. She says they are Sealpoint Siamese such as I have not seen since Mother’s house in London.
Enchanting & I wept, realising how much I’ve left behind. How much the war has taken from us. The simple pleasure of kittens.
How can I not be happy?
Mexico City
“To the late Doctor Sigmund Freud,” says Gunther, raising his shot glass in a toast.
“To the great and monstrous Id,” says Enrique.
“To the Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria,” says Wolfie.
“Hear, hear,” adds B.B., a bit anemically. Poor man, he is not well.
Cheers ring out all round. Nora raises her glass as a courtesy, too weary to cheer. Tequila spills over her fingers, stinging the cut on her thumb she’d got unpacking B.B.’s papers. He needed everything ready by morning so he could start work on his new play. While he’d slept like the dead, she had labored long into the night. Their two bags no longer seeming so little or so sparse of belongings.
Nora knows these three merry fellows from Paris during her café days. Gunther and Wolfie are a pair of Hungarians, Enrique a Greek. Now they are all displaced Surrealists. A new nationality of their own. The tropical climate suits them, Nora is pleased to see. Gunther has grown positively stout on rice and beans, Wolfie sports an alarming mustache, and Enrique, well. Enrique is ever Enrique, a sly smile wrapped around a cigarette. Now he wears a jaunty straw hat and a white linen shirt, having retired his black Basque beret to a drawer along with his black wool scarf.
Exiles in Mexico City they all are, this ragged gang of painters, poets, and pundits. They’ve fled from everyplace a Nazi boot has kicked in a door or threatened to. Hungarians and Swedes, Austrians and Russians, British and Spanish and French. The Mexicans and Peruvians–Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Cesar Moro–serve as centers of gravity for these wayward comets. If not for the war, half these visionaries and rabble-rousers would scarcely be on speaking terms with the other half. But the war, now safely far behind them on the Continent, has taught strange and marvelous tricks to a pack of aging mongrels.
Gunther flings tequila into his throat, chases away the sting with a gulp of black beer. B.B., always one to follow suit around his comrades, flings a shot and gulps, as well, though flamboyant gestures do not become him. Never a robust man, B.B. has weathered the war rather badly. He has been leached and winnowed into something peevish and frail, his finely made face worn-out with worry. His hair has ebbed to the top of his skull, exposing the enigmatic dome of his forehead. Ever the intellectual, B.B. has assumed such an intense introspective air that people pause around him, even when he’s liquored up, and await an oracle.
“To Freud? How passé.” A woman’s voice, ironic, incisive, cuts through the male bombast and swoops into Nora’s eager ear. “Still stuck on nasty old Sigmund, what a pity.”
Valencia sweeps into the parlour of her house, smiling in her ironic way. She plucks the shot glass from Nora’s hand, offers a tumbler rimmed in salt. “Try this instead, cherie. Lime and tonic, with crushed ice. A much better way to sample tequila for the first time. We are not barbarians like Gunther and your poor old B.B.”
Nora, a little nervous, reacquaints herself with another famous face from the Paris days. Valencia, always towering, has transformed herself here into an Amazon queen, voluptuous and formidable. She wears her fiery chestnut hair in an unkempt mane that tumbles around her face and down her shoulders. Her bold Spanish features are much as Nora recalls. The huge dark eyes, the left one slightly askew. The rapier snout of a conquistador. Bee-stung lips of a shady lady. Altogether a splendid face, if not exactly pretty.
“Valencia, hello again,” Nora says, taking the tumbler. “Thanks ever so. You look marvelous.”
“You, too, cherie. Though a little frazzled around the edges, eh? Still, ever our English beauty. Drink up.”
Nora plucks at her threadbare blouse, abashed. You never could tell if Valencia was taking aim or only skewering your own self-doubts. If Valencia is an Amazon, Nora is a fairy-queen. Queen of the gnats. So petite and unassuming, few ever notice her, despite her pretty face and lustrous sable curls. The war has worn her down, too. She is much too thin, much too pale. Bad food, days brooding belowdecks, and despair have bleached all the colour from her English cheeks. Fleeing Fascism is fashionable only in theory. This she has learned the hard way.
Nora slides the tart taste of lime down her throat. Thirsty, so very thirsty. For refreshment. For friendship. Mexico City sits at the top of the world. They say the air is always bone-dry.
They say the Kahlo-Rivera circle is an arid place, too, harboring much public animosity toward correspondents of Trotsky like B.B. Not that Nora ever wrote to the famous revolutionary herself. She’s just an artist. But she shall surely be painted by the same brush by Frida and Diego.
Suddenly B.B. is at her side, gripping her elbow. Solicitous, fatherly, though of course they are lovers, he takes her tumbler. “I don’t think she should,” he says to Valencia.
Who regards his gesture with narrowed, glinting eyes. Tigress eyes.
“You are having a drop yourself, B.B.,” Valencia observes.
“Yes, but I am ever the drunkard. Whereas my little Nora hasn’t touched drink in ages, not the whole time we were exiled in Casablanca.” He sets her tumbler on a side table. And that’s that, in B.B.’s scheme of things. “Be so good as to tell me what is wrong with Freud, Madam Valencia?”
“Hah! Tell me what is right about Freud.”
She sweeps Nora under her arm, reclaiming the tumbler as she goes and restoring it to Nora’s hand. “You must come and see my art studio, cherie.
Nora shrugs and rolls her eyes at B.B., who is scowling. What can she do, swept away by a force of nature?
Valencia and her husband Renato own a house on Via del Rosa Moreno, five blocks west of Nora and B.B.’s apartment. No horrid little rooms or crumbling plaster for Valencia. Renato has money. The place is a palace. Whitewashed ceilings, Moroccan arches, great expanses of floor paved in terra cotta tile. There is an interior garden with a fountain. Valencia’s art studio, which opens onto the garden, has an adobe fireplace and native grotesqueries displayed on the walls. There is an Olinala jaguar mask with genuine fangs. A Michoacán devil mask, post-Cortez, bearing a striking resemblance to a Satan of Catholic inspiration. A Tlacozotitlan bat mask, a jungle nightmare held aloft by carved wood wings.
Nora is dazzled. But then Valencia has always dazzled everyone. They met among the clique surrounding Andre Breton and Yves Tanguy. Valencia slept with the great men, one after another. Breton himself had noticed her since she, sloe-eyed and slender then, was the sort of femme-enfant he craved like candy. Plus, she possessed unbeatable cachet: Valencia was a budding Surrealist artist. She painted interior landscapes. The shadows of the subconscious mind whirled and writhed across her haunting canvases.
Nora had been awed by Valencia then, too, and not a little envious. She had slept with too many of the less-than-great men, with the too-beautiful poet who wound up preferring gin and boys, and she was still painting competent Italian countrysides. Olive trees and Etruscan ruins, what rot. Nora hadn’t yet discovered how to paint past her eye. How to explore the depths of pure imagination.
Now Valencia is the great woman with whom lesser men are privileged to dine in Mexico City. For the great men like Breton and Tanguy have had the means and connections to escape the ravages of Europe in New York City. In the years since Paris, Valencia has become well-known in Surrealist circles, if not to the larger public. Peggy Guggenheim shows her paintings at Guggenheim Jeune Gallery. Valencia has collectors. Not many, but enthusiastic. And rich.
Among the canvases stacked in the studio, Nora spies a painting of a sphinx. She stoops for a closer look. Not the Egyptian monument nor the ripe she-beasts of Louis XIV statuary, but a vixenish creature with tabby-cat’s paws and a child’s face. The creature crouches in a decaying mansion, toying with a human jawbone, broken eggshells, a tidbit of bloody meat.
Something jars Nora, gazing at this strange image. Something takes her back to Mother’s house, the great rooms deserted. Everyone had gone to church, and a cousin, a rawboned boy fifteen years to her ten, stood towering over her. There were eggs. Eggs she’d dropped on the floor beneath her knees, and a whitish scum smeared across the tiles. A whitish scum lingering in her mouth.
No, that didn’t happen. You were dreaming, darling, Mother said when she stammered out her story. Cousin came with us to church. Cook must have dropped the eggs.
“Valencia, this is smashing,” she says, shaken. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Is this a new direction for you?”
Valencia starts to answer, then presses her finger to her lips, for now the men are strolling into the art studio, laughing and bickering. Tequila fumes rise off them, an alcoholic miasma. Nora bites back her words, cut off from further conversation. Well, but of course, it’s a party. B.B. hooks his elbow around her neck, as he often does, dangling his forearm across her collarbone. His hand hanging over her heart.
“So, Valencia, my dear, have you seen much of Frida and Diego lately?” Gunther says.
“No, not much at all. Watch your step, gentlemen, that canvas took me four months of heart-wrenching work. Rivera is in poor health, you know. Frida attends to his every need, as if he were still a little boy in his nappies.”
The men trade uneasy glances. Some of them revere Rivera, some despise him, but all consider the internationally famous, famously charming, and charismatic artist to be some kind of deity visiting this poor mundane world at his leisure. Valencia’s gibe makes them fidget, Nora observes, even if they suspect it’s true. Yet who can object? Valencia knows Kahlo and Rivera better than any of them. She is–what is the American expression?–she is in the know.
“Come now, ma belle, Valencia,” says B.B. Ah, Nora thinks, here it comes. “You have not set out for us your objections to Doctor Freud. The greatest analyst of the human mind in our times.”
“Oh, my, haven’t I?” A wink for Nora. And a little twisting motion with her fingers beside her lip, as if she were a Spanish gentleman adjusting his mustache. Very disconcerting to the gentlemen present.
“You have not,” B.B. asserts, assuming his lordly professorial air. Though he’s weaving on his feet.
“Well, to start, Freud hated women,” Valencia says, laughing as though this is quite a joke.
“Oh, that is not true, Valencia,” Gunther says. “The great doctor spent hours and hours with his madwomen.”
“Didn’t he, though,” says Enrique with his sly smile.
“You are all absurd,” B.B. says in such a commanding, condescending tone that he silences everyone. “It is Freud, madam, who first explicated the existence and causes of l’amour fou attitudes passionelles. The supreme means of ecstatic expression at which you women are so adept.” At that, he peers at the painting of the sphinx.
“Ah, Hysteria,” Valencia says. “The divine madness of women.”
“To the Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria,” Wolfie says, less clearly, and raises another toast of tequila. He cradles the bottle in the crook of his arm.
“Now, Wolfie,” Valencia begins. Taking aim, indeed. “Do you wish to live forever in the shadow of Breton? As for me, I’m still annoyed by the Fiftieth Anniversary of Hysteria. An event rather in questionable taste, even for Surrealists, don’t you think? How like Breton, publishing photographs of those poor lunatics at Salpetriere Hospital. As an artistic statement! All of them women, of course, in psychotic fugue and various stages of undress. You’d rather have your women mad than freethinking, eh, B.B.?”
Nora waits, breathless, for her lover’s answer.
“I agree, the quality of the photographs was rather poor,” he replies in a mild tone. “But Breton’s lack of talent as a publisher is not the point. Come now, admit it, Valencia. Sigmund Freud was the first man in history to truly understand women.”
“And what did Freud understand, pray tell?”
“Why, that women are the link to the subconscious mind.”
“Whose subconscious mind?” Valencia says. She clarifies, “The subconscious mind of whom?”
“Don’t be obtuse, Valencia,” B.B. says. “Freud exalts Woman. She is the link to the Id of the Artist. To the darkness. To the lurking dirtiness. She disturbs the Poet, and She compels him. She penetrates his every inhibition. She unleashes his forbidden desires, oh yes. She is the key, the trigger, the perfumed bomb. She is that onto which his passions may be projected. She is his fantasy, and his fantasy fulfilled.”
“A blank slate, is that what you mean, B.B.? An empty vessel with no thoughts or talents of her own?”
“She is my Muse,” B.B. says. He squeezes Nora’s neck so tightly she winces in pain.
“Dear old B.B. So dependent on women, after all.” Her glinting eyes turn to Nora. “And what about you, cherie? Is he your key, your trigger? How does he compel you when you paint your vision?”
Nora blushes. She has no answer.
“As for me,” Valencia declares, “I am my Muse.”
22 June 1941.
V. has changed my life. We see each other nearly every day. Teacher, soul-sister, friend. Muse, indeed, for she challenges me to look beyond the surface of the world. To look deep within myself & my imagination. To view our Art as a Calling & a Quest, not merely decoration for the rich.
Gossipmonger, too. V. is filled with talk about things going on everywhere. A spider tugging at each strand of her web for juicy morsels. How I adore it! She claims Kahlo has such a mustache on her lip from pleasing Rivera too much. You know what I mean. Certain prostitutes on the Rue de G develop the same problem, she says, with a twist of her imaginary mustache. I don’t know if this could possibly be true, but it makes for an awfully nasty rumor. Kahlo is a tragic figure, of course, with her grievous injury & her beautiful tortured paintings & having to cater to Rivera with his temper & his mistresses. Yet as much as I do truly pity her, I find her theatrical & intimidating & have not sought out her company, nor she mine. In any case, B.B. disapproves of her & Diego, but that’s politics.
V. studies a Swiss psychoanalyst, one Carl Jung. Once Freud’s disciple, Jung was cast out of his circle over theoretical/political dissension. V. adores Jung almost as much as she despises Freud. Jung is on to something when he talks about the subconscious, V. says. Rather than the repository of eroticism & primitivism (as Freud would have it), the subconscious (for Jung) is the repository of occult wisdom & magical powers. “Magical powers” being a metaphor for one’s inner strengths & talents. Jung does not actually believe magical powers exist, does he?
Like Freud, Jung believes the subconscious is essentially female. Intuition feminine, too. If this is so, then Woman is not only erotic, but also occult.
V. is deeply moved by these ideas. I’m much taken, too, but not quite sure what to believe. (I read V.’s books in her art studio. Don’t dare bring them home, should B.B. find them & throw them in the trash.)
Yesterday at the market V. & I found a plant with strange, egg-like fruit. We didn’t know what it was, had never seen such a thing before. V. told me to run & fetch my brushes & bring them to her studio, which I did, posthaste. We placed the plant in her garden & arranged my brushes around it. V. claimed the light of the full moon would fall upon everything & the Alchemical Egg would bless my brushes with creative power. Together we composed & then recited an incantation & danced like dervishes & drank a liter of red wine, all of which I found quite amusing. V. assured me this is not frivolous, this is inspiration. This is Magic. Lord, I will try anything to overcome this block of mine.
On my way home I found a tiny bird’s nest which had fallen to the pavement. A sticky little ball of twigs & spider silk & tucked inside, an egg no larger than a gumdrop. I picked the nest up & placed it in the crotch of a lemon tree next to the sidewalk. The very moment I did this, mother hummingbird flitted up & hovered, as if in thanks, blinking at me with her tiny beady bird eyes. I prayed: Oh Alchemical Egg, give birth to Me.
Silly, I know, but there you are & I was so happy, thinking this is a very good omen.
Started pencil sketches for a new painting tonight. My first work in Mexico City: a woman curled up inside of an egg.
Mexico City
Nora is exhausted by the time she arrives home from the advertising agency. The downtown bus was running late, she’s been running a fever for a week, there is nothing decent in the cupboard for dinner, and, to top it off, B.B. is in a foul mood again.
“Where have you been?” he snaps as she drags in the door.
“At work, of course,” she snaps back.
“At Valencia’s again,” he says. On principle, he cannot object to her friendship with the great Surrealist Artist, but he chafes at her devotion to her friend just the same.
“At work,” she repeats. “And at Valencia’s,” softening her tone, for what is the use of quarreling with B.B.? “I wanted to visit the cats.”
Nora could not afford to keep the Siamese kittens, who have transformed themselves into sleek little chocolate-cheeked panthers. Valencia, who is such a cat lover that friends have nicknamed her Felina, gladly them took in, but it’s discouraging. Nora cannot afford to keep cats. Nora cannot afford much more than their rent, rice, and beans. She cannot afford new shoes. She lines the insides of her once-fine Italian leather pumps with newspaper. She cannot afford a new blouse. She washes perspiration stains out of the weary old cotton with lye soap and a scrub brush. The advertising agency is pleased with her projects, simple but energetic pen-and-ink drawings extolling the virtues of aspirin and hair tonic, but they only pay for piecework, which amounts to little.
B.B., on the other hand, does not work in any gainful way. After losing his family’s house and land in Vienna to the Nazis, he has been paralyzed with grief though–Nora reminds herself–he never worked in any gainful way before then, either. He is unable to face the daily stringency of reporting to an office. He feels he does not speak Spanish well enough to translate or write for a local newspaper.
In any case, he’s started the new play. How can I write for a newspaper, he wants to know, if I’m to write the new play? Sometimes Nora thinks B.B. would be content to live in the streets and beg for food, all for the sake of the new play. Still, the play is his salvation. Everything he lives for. If not for the play, he tells her, I would have hanged myself a year ago.
This frightens her, this talk of hanging himself. Nora has loved B.B. for years. She reveres him. He was a great man, a poet and a playwright respected in Paris, in all of Europe, by Breton himself, an entire decade before she met him. She, his young lover, cannot possibly allow B.B. to live in the streets and beg for food. Let alone hang himself.
Still, there is the troublesome fact that he has written nothing significant in the year after their exile and flight. Oh, a page or two since the day she unpacked his papers upon arriving in Mexico City. She must be patient, she tells herself. He’s returning to his work, thanks to her. You‘re all I have left in the world, he tells her. You are my Muse.
“Did you get cigarettes? Tequila?” he growls now. Tobacco and booze fuel him. He must have cigarettes and tequila if he is to write the new play.
“I forgot we were out.”
Nora has hidden cigarettes in her little art studio for herself, for the hard-won moments when she can be there, painting. Her secret stash, which she refuses to share. Having to work has considerably slowed progress on her new painting. Yet Nora goes to the advertising agency and takes in sewing when she can because she would not be content to live in the streets and beg for food. She must at least have rice and beans. At the least the apartment on Gabino Barreda. She can do without new shoes and new blouses, but she must have paint. She must have canvases.
“Well, give me some money,” he says, “and I’ll go fetch everything.”
She gives him the last of her money for the week, and he goes out in search of cigarettes and tequila. She washes her hands and her face in the washbasin in the corner. Still mopping her neck with a towel, she drifts to his desk.
His work is put away, as usual, or covered up with a sheet of blank paper. He has not felt ready to show her the play, he says, and she respects that, the fragility of a new creation. She twinges with guilt at violating his orders not to disturb his things, but she’s not disturbing anything, she’s merely peeking. She picks up his ashtray, which needs emptying, anyway, and observes he has left a sheet of paper in his typewriter. Out of carelessness, his hangover, or deliberately, she cannot be sure. There, on the half-typed page she reads:
I beg you, Master! Please, not again, I cannot bear it!
(chaining her left ankle to the bedpost)
Yes, again, my little love. One day you will beg me for it.
Nora goes to the kitchen, puts rice on to boil. She heats oil in the skillet and fries the last of the curling tortillas. Hot grease spatters her hands. She feels nothing. Nothing but the anger in her heart. When B.B. strolls in with his cigarettes and tequila, she bangs the skillet down and stomps out to the living room.
“So. The new play,” she says, tapping her toe, crossing her arms, tucking her grease-spattered hands into her armpits. “You are rewriting Marquis de Sade? A new Sade play?”
“I told you to stay away from my desk,” he says mildly.
Ah. Deliberately, then.
“What are you thinking, B.B.? Where is the audience for a new Sade play? Who gives a damn about Sade when Hitler has chained up all of Europe? When he lusts for Russia, for Africa? For the whole world?”
The radio and the newspapers are filled with the news. Hitler’s troops invade Russia! The Wehrmacht deploys two hundred divisions! Aimed at Leningrad, at Moscow, at the Ukraine. The Soviet army stumbles in chaos. Bombs decimate hundreds of Soviet aircraft on the ground. The planes hadn’t even had time to take off. The Stalin Line lies in ruins, Stalin himself is in a stupor.
“On the contrary, the times are exactly right for Sade,” he says, pouring out a shot. His hands shake and he spills tequila on the table. He laps the liquor up like a dog. “Hitler violates in the realm of politics and suppresses the personal.”
“Well! That is hardly a Surrealist revolutionary statement, B.B. That is bloody monstrous.”
“Monstrous! Yes! Exactly right, my little Nora! My play shall prove that violation in the realm of the personal will liberate our politics. When the common man sets out to explore the extremes of his fantasies, his exploration causes his society to become a more liberated and tolerant place.”
“And why, pray, is that?”
“Because the common man need not sublimate his desires and act out those sublimations and suppressions against his fellow citizen, his coworker, and his comrade.”
Nora does not know how to refute this theory.
B.B. grins at her silence. “Marquis de Sade was a great sexual revolutionary, fully conversant with his subconscious mind. A man who penetrated his secret obsessions without the benefit of Freudian psychoanalysis. Breton greatly admires Sade, you know. He says the man was a Surrealist, a pre-Surrealist. I cannot wait to show him my manuscript!”
“Sade and Freud and Breton,” she says. “Such cozy bedfellows. Comrades in despising and degrading women.”
“Oh, I see,” B.B. says coldly.
“You see what?”
“Madam Valencia’s influence has begun to confuse you. Sade, of all men, believed in the liberation of Woman. He believed Woman should be freed of her maternity, of her domesticity. Is that what you really want, Nora? Babies and housework?”
“I don’t know,” she whispers. This is only too true. She fled the bourgeois life long ago, searching for something more.
“No, you don’t, nor should you. Because you are an Artist, my little Nora. Do you really serve me so much? Do I demand a brilliant dinner? A spotless household? Heirs bouncing on my knee? No. I free you, Nora. I give you the key to your freedom so you may pursue your Art.”
The anger in her heart flares hotter. “Dear me, I didn’t realize you held the key to my prison.”
“Of course I do. Men always hold the key. Sade understood this.”
“Sade,” she says, “was a madman.”
“His prose style is exquisite,” B.B. says mildly.
After their rustic dinner, B.B. insists on making love. Nora resists at first, then gulps lime-and-tequila, and lies down on their bed. She does not fear B.B. She may be petite, but she’s stronger than him in many ways and much younger. He has never physically harmed her. She is certain he would never try. Yet she wants to know–how has he changed, if Sade is on his mind? What liberation will he bring her, if the liberation of Woman is the object of his creative inquiry?
But he is tender and respectful, as always, and she is both relieved and inexplicably disappointed. B.B. does not live his Art. His Art does not authenticate his life, his relationship with her, or his reckoning with the world. His Art is no Calling. It’s an entertainment. An entertainment no one will be entertained by. Especially her.
As he strives for his climax, she runs her fingertips down the slope of his back. The little knobs of his spine are so delicate. For a moment she believes she could crush them, like eggshells, with her thumbs.
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