Artificial Nocturne

Issue #126

Rosemary and mint drip from the impossibly long fingers of Maman Floss as she spreads cooling bat grease across my shoulder. I keep my eyes closed, her voice wrapping around me in a contralto so soothing I forget the constant pain that radiates from shoulder to fingertips.

She tells me: If I had broken you earlier, chauve-souris, you would not feel such agony.  I should not have taken you, but sometimes you see a thing and cannot resist. You can see what it should be and make it such. Her fingers slide down my arm, to the elbow where the bones have been separated. One bone is angled down, to support the silken, umber skin Maman Floss stretched into my wing. She holds me by the hand and stretches my wing until I whimper. Only then does she release me. In the right light—the gauzy light at the edge of the sodden marsh that spills above the steel train track—the edges of my wings flare with gold.

Maman Floss was broken before she can remember, changed from what she had been born as to what she would become. Her fingers were opened, spread, and lengthened when young muscles and bones still allowed such ease of puzzle-making. Her legs were unknotted, pulled like the taffies she sometimes brings home from the city.

Her great oblong head brushes the ceilings as she moves through her house and she bends through every doorway, honeyed curls catching at cobwebs. Her figure is perfect, retaining the shape of the hourglass that molded her throughout her youth. The fragments of that hourglass fill a jar that sits on the topmost shelf in the room I like least.

When the body is older, she has told me, it becomes more difficult, less flexible. Flex-e-bull, she says, voice thick with an accent from over the ocean. She wishes every day that she could spare me the pain as she does others in her collection, but she cannot, so we go forward as we are.

She tucks my winged arm against my side and I open my eyes, quivering after the rubdown. Gliding still exhausts me; my muscles are still developing to their form. Maman Floss twists the lid onto the jar of grease and wipes her pale fingers clean on her skirt as she crosses the room. She studies the casks and jars upon the shelves, the forms inside. Small hands press against the jar walls, palms traced with little lines that will never grow larger, grins warped by the ripple in the knee-high glass. Kage raps on his jar lid and Maman Floss goes to him, unscrews the lid and lets him pop his head out . She talks to him in a soothing coo and then it’s back into the jar he goes, content, still adapting his size to its glassy walls.

Of the dwarves, Gordon is my favorite. Maybe it is because I’ve known him the longest. Maybe it is because he holds my hands and dries my face when I am done crying. He doesn’t tell me not to cry but lets me have a proper bawl, understanding the pain that comes from transformation. He’s twenty-nine years old but smaller than even me. I can reach the counters in the kitchen; he has to climb up the stepstool to perch on them, which he has done now, bringing me a pineapple.

He sits beside me, parting the fruit with a knife well suited to his smaller hands, offering me a gold crescent when it breaks free with a wet slurp. Sweetness bursts through the rosemary and mint, obliterating it.

Maman’s father, Lucien Delaunay, requires the best things, even if it means making them himself. He often smells like paints and solvents from hours in his studio painting and creating. He paints our likenesses on broad sheets of crisp paper. Everyone in the house gives him a wide berth but for Maman Floss. He didn’t have to assemble his car, but we treat it as though he did. When the car isn’t being used, it rests under a cloth that reminds me of Maman’s dresses, dark and soft between my fingers.

We don’t do many things together as a family, so when Lucien says we are going to the city, there is a small explosion of excitement in every room of the house, even from those who aren’t going. A trip into the city means we will return with unusual things: caramels, pomegranates, fresh coffee. Solomon whose face has been remade into the likeness of a fish, wants a train; Harriet who looks like she could fold her ears around her face to hide away, wishes for a yoyo. Maman Floss has Gordon make this list, as she cannot write so well with her long fingers.

Last winter, Maman Floss made me a new square-shouldered cape and she drops this over me as the list grows, helping me arrange arms and wings beneath the hound’s-tooth fabric. Coconuts, ropes of garlic; Miriam wants a rocking horse but Lucien says no, absolutely no, because she is being made to tumble not ride, her legs and arms already loose, without joint. Gordon doesn’t add it to the list, though he skips a space, as though it is there.

The grill of the car looks like long chrome teeth in a yawning mouth. Gordon said that once, but Lucien didn’t like it, so Gordon has never said it again. Still, I can’t stop thinking about it as the soft cloth is drawn back. The night-black of the fabric whispers away to reveal the metallic ruby curves and the thing I can never stop looking at, the small naked silver woman who perches at the apex of the hood. She is bent with the wind and a shiver runs through my whole body. I’m still looking at her when I crawl into the backseat. She is a bright speck through the windshield.

I call her Birdie and she sees us safely to the city, even though after a while I cannot see her for the way Maman Floss leans into her father and he wraps his arm around her narrow shoulders. I watch the way his fingers stroke the long line of her neck and the way she stretches in response, a cat about to purr. Her head brushes the ceiling of the cab, honey curls rioting, and I am reminded of the way her mouth moved against his skin in the room where she keeps the fragments of the hourglass that once enclosed her. I feel carsick and look at Gordon who folds his list into triangles, back and forth, opened and closed, like a small blooming flower.

Marshland abruptly gives way to the city, building after building of wonder. Houses, markets, workplaces spreading out in precise rows. Some windows are hidden behind wood shutters whose faded paints have begun to peel from too many scorching summers. Other glass has been fashioned into long rows of thin doors that reflect twisted iron balconies clinging to stucco and brick alike. The two-story balconies with their iron arches are my favorites. Many are hung with gold-trimmed flags: scarlet, grape, the blue of Maman’s Friday dress. These fluttering flags taught me my colors.

I don’t go to the city often; my cape makes little sense in the summer and I cannot go in public without it. It hides my wings, which Maman says will alarm the common folk. They have never seen a wonder such as me, she says, and would hurt me in their excitement. Gordon is less troublesome, she also says; he is only small, often mistaken for a child. People look right past his ordinariness. But Maman Floss knows I love the city and so takes me in the cooler winter nights. It will be Mardi Gras soon, but already the city is illuminated.

We park at the end of the long market. When Lucien sees that I’ve nose-printed the window, that I have left a round of fog from my gaping mouth, he clicks his tongue. He snaps his hand as if he means to hit me but only pulls his handkerchief from his coat pocket, to wipe all trace of me from the glass. Gordon clasps the edge of my cape and we trail after Maman Floss, quickly forgetting Lucien. He will find us or not, but either way, we are already in the market bathing in the scents and sounds.

The market has its own language, a blend of Creole, English, Spanish, French. My first time here it was overwhelming, but now it’s a comfort, a music that rises and floats into the night where I imagine lightning bugs suck it up and glow. The air coming off the river is cool tonight and it smells like mud, the kind I want to squish my toes into, but Gordon is already pulling me toward the heaps of produce. Maman Floss has a basket which we fill with coconuts (three), sausages (four links) and soft apricots (seven, but she gives me one now and I rub its soft hide against my cheek before biting into it). A group of nuns streams past us, black cloaks and white hats that seem to fly up onto the wind.

The earthy scent of mud gives way to fruit and vegetables the deeper into the market we go, but even above that, there is something else. It’s not the boats that line the river docks but the long shadowed train on the tracks in front of them. It smells like a normal train, like oil and coal, but it smells like animals, too. Like lions to start, but then other things I’ve never smelled before. Things that smell like cloud and sky, and only when Maman Floss strokes her fingers down my nose do I realize that I’ve stopped walking and am staring.

She can smell these things, too, because her majestic head turns that way as if she’s following my stare, but I can see the flare of her nose, the rise of her chest as she breathes in the air and knows something unusual has arrived. She continues down the row of vendors, ever closer to the train and its cargoes.

Crates of apples and long strings of bananas lead us toward smaller stands of instruments and books, toys and trinkets. Maman Floss finds a palm-sized train and a yoyo, and there is a rocking horse with a brilliant blue saddle but we leave her there, rocking under the force of a five year old who tackles it with glee. Miriam’s horse, I think but do not say.

We creep toward the train, basket filling with items as we go. I can tell that Maman Floss is distracted when she buys more apricots, when she doesn’t notice that I eat two more and pocket the stones, and I strain to see around her. I think at first that a long string of bananas are somehow sitting on top of the train, and how strange that is, and of course it would catch Maman’s attention, but it’s not bananas. People in the market shift, allowing the light to spill upward, and I easily recognize the line of a wing.

The great bird sits atop the train, its back to the market. It is impossible to tell the color of the wings in the play of light and dark, but they are beautiful, perfectly folded one over the other to mimic the shape of a heart against its back. I have never seen a bird so big; nor likely has Maman Floss, who stops in her tracks. Gordon, watching a line of monkeys being led past on a leash, runs into Maman, and I reach out to keep him from falling.

Scrolling text decorates the train’s engine, gold curling into red and blue. Jackson’s Unreal Circus, it says, with Mobile Marmalade scribbled below. I picture marmalade oozing from the train’s wheels but see instead a small kiosk set up with row upon row of gleaming jars. They are stacked gems in the night, catching all available light, turning it to orange, gold, crimson.

Before I can ask if we can get some marmalade, Maman is moving that direction. It’s rare that we are allowed this treat too, but Gordon and I love marmalade spread on croissants, on baguette, on anything. We would eat it off our fingers—and have.

The bird has eyes as golden as some of those marmalades. I belatedly realize this means the bird is watching me the way I watch it—the way I watch her. As I linger behind Maman Floss, hugging our full basket of purchases against my chest, my eyes are drawn upward to that large shadow which becomes less shadowy as she turns to watch us. It is with a soft cry I realize the bird has no bird’s face.

She— Oh, her face is a human woman’s, as if she has been made the way I have been made, a girl turned into a flying thing, but I can tell she has not been. There are no arms, no legs. From the neck down, she is bird and bird alone but for that face. In this light, no longer blocked by the market stalls, her feathers glisten, seeming black but being red under that, blood trapped under ink.

Maman Floss reaches back, a comforting hand sliding over my shoulder and then away. She murmurs, but it’s the marmalade lady she’s speaking with, buying a jar of lemon and what I hope is cherry. These come into the basket, a solid weight, but I can’t stop looking up at that bird. That beautiful bird.

Lucien finds us eventually and we leave the market as we came, Maman and Lucien exploring the shops she hasn’t yet, me and Gordon trailing behind. I keep stopping, to look at the train and its bird. And strangely, that bird is watching me, head tilted as though she is listening to a song only she can hear. Her immense talons curl against the metal of the train and I am captivated in a way I never have been before.

It’s Gordon’s small hand and whisper that gets me to look away. He pulls my cape hem, guiding me toward a column plastered with papers and posters. Lucien and Maman are haggling over the cost of grapefruits, so we are free to stare at the bulletins and to find amid them our own faces. Gordon’s hand strokes the likeness of my face, my spread bat wings. I last saw this image in Lucien’s studio, paint still gleaming wet. Now, there are words below.

Winter evenings, it says in a careful hand, French Market.

These posters are common in the market; people selling what they will, how they can. And I realize now that while Maman and Lucien might be talking about grapefruits, they look at me and Gordon and to the shop owner again, as though we are the tart round fruits in a bin, ready for inspection. But the shopkeeper says something Lucien doesn’t care for and then we are gone, scooped into his arms basket and all, carried up and out of the market, bundled back into his beautiful car, Birdie guiding us home.

Once home, I cannot stop thinking about two things: the bird and the poster. I am not sure which one disturbs me more. I don’t tell anyone, not even Gordon. He doesn’t speak to me of what we saw either, but there is still a conversation there, every time we look at each other. In his eyes I see the same thing that must linger in mine. Questions and hurts. Have we been made only to be sold?

Of course we wondered what happened to the others that used to live in this house. People as curious as us, usually children but sometimes not, would come and go; Maman Floss said they came for her expertise, and after they got what they needed, they would return to whatever lives they had lived before. I could name them all, but I don’t, because I wonder now if Miriam and Solomon will someday add my name to that list. The Curious Who Used to Live With Maman.

I could ask Maman, but I don’t do that, either. She and Lucien are busy in the coming days and spend time in their room with the door closed. When once I would have sought Maman out for comfort, I now stay as far as I can; wandering the property, watching the trains as they speed past, toward the city and away.

While I wander the marsh and yard, through air that has a presence all its own, the plan begins to take shape in my head. The city is too far for me to reach on my own. I cannot walk there, nor glide all the way. My wings are not strong enough for flying and may never be, Maman Floss has told me; they are artificial, primarily for show, never meant to hold an entire body aloft no matter how skinny I stay. But I could reach the city on those trains, could glide my way to the top of a car and ride until I reached the market, the siren. There are things I want to know—things I know Maman will not tell me. If she would, surely she would have by now.

A bird like the siren? I think of those wings, and the skies, and all she must have seen. All the cities and people, the twisting rivers, some maybe larger than even the Mississippi, and the roads, and where those roads go. What does the world look like from those high places?

Gordon does not tell me no. Much the way he lets me cry, he doesn’t argue when I tell him I mean to go. He does tell me to be careful, that if I want to go to Mardi Gras I won’t be caught, and I very much want to enjoy the parades and spectacle, so I swear to be careful. The trains run like clockwork, he says. I can go and come back and no one will know, because also like clockwork are Maman and Lucien once that door is closed, once the lanterns are lit.

Catching the train is like catching lightning. It’s fast and hot and stinks. From the roof of Maman’s house, I ride an updraft of cool air and ride this west to the tracks but am unprepared for the speed of the train. I think it will be a simple thing to latch onto it—how the siren sat with her beautiful talons curled against her train!—but the train doesn’t care that I am trying to land. It zips past as if I am no more than a speck of moss blown up from the track. I may as well be.

It’s the last coal car I fall into, hard, and I lay there stunned, watching the starry sky unfurl as we move away from the house. By the time we reach the city, I’ve gathered myself enough to realize I have no cape, no protection from common eyes. Before the train can completely slow, I lift my arms to catch the wind, to let it carry me out of the coal and toward flat rooftops.

The wind has its own language. I do not yet know all of the words, but I know enough of them until I reach the edge of the last building. There is an unexpected updraft, the rush of a competing wind from the street, and it buoys me up before dropping me. I tumble into the cobbled street near the empty marmalade stand.

For a little while, it’s quiet. The market is closed and the rumble of that far off train stays far off. If I listen close, there is the sound of the river, but that’s not what I came for. The circus train is still there. I push myself up from the ground, arms held close to my sides to hide my wings as I run to the tracks.

West of the market and running parallel to the river, there is a triangular open space. Circus tents fill this space, striped and not, luminous in the dark. Shadowed figures move inside some while others are still. I can smell wild cats the closer I get and see that they are not caged but prowl the fence that encloses the entire circus. A lioness spies me, a regal head I know only from the one that decorates the wall in Lucien’s studio. The eyes that appraise me are not glass. They hold a hunger I don’t want to see. Even with the fence there, I run.

She bolts alongside me. The fence line blurs between us, my arms and legs pumping. But I am a poor runner, my wings slowing me, and if this fence did not stand between my strides and hers, the lioness would be upon me. Her snarl makes me shriek and then I am airborne. The ground falls away and I seem to be flying but I am not. Hard talons curl over my shoulders, around my arms, mindful of my wings. I look up to see who I came for: the siren.

She carries me over the fence line inside the circus limits and sets me down near a metal barrel that is blazing with warmth and fire. The lioness keeps her distance, but I still stumble backward over a log which has been dragged close to the barrel. I bite my tongue and splutter blood as the siren nears. She strides forward on those talons, takes hold of the log opposite me, and perches.

If beauty were a thing... No. If the impossible was made possible... No.

Just as the wind has its own language, so too must whatever world this siren comes from. I cannot find the words for her. She watches me with her golden eyes, and I think that she must be draped in jewels to gleam the way she does but it is only feathers and firelight. I pick myself up and slide onto the log, wrapping my awkward wings around my shaking body. The siren does not waste time with hellos.

“You are trying to be a bat,” she says.

That isn’t entirely correct and I open my mouth, but the siren lifts a wing before I can speak.

“You have been made into a bat,” she says next, “but were a little girl before this? Are still a little girl... but one with bat’s wings. Who has done this thing to you?”

“Maman saved me.”

The tone in my voice startles me. Startles the siren, too, because her shoulders lift, her head tilts, as if absorbing a blow. But then she smiles, and I am somehow telling her the story, the story of a girl so tiny she could fit through a whisper space between brick buildings if she had to (and she had to), a girl so tiny she could walk through puddles without leaving a ripple. A girl who did not know her parents but had been given up to the city, because the city seemed a kinder mother than one who spent all her money on tobacco and alcohol. This was a girl who was found by Maman Floss shivering in the rain until a velveteen coat was wrapped around her, until she was drawn into a beautiful car and carried away, to a house in the marsh filled with children like her, children who would be remade into things as beautiful as that car.

“You are Gabrielle,” the siren tells me, and from her talon she tosses a scrap of paper, the poster with my face and name. “I am Agnessa.”

Agnessa tells me her own story, about how she lived with others of her kind until one day hunters came, hunters with arrows which sliced the sky apart and sent her sisters to death. She alone survived the slaughter and lived because of the kindness of one man and one woman, these two emerging from a place she can still hardly believe, and at that she gestures to the circus which enfolds us. We are similar creatures, she tells me, having survived the worst things, but the difference is this: she has freedom, I have captivity.

There is a denial in my mouth—it tastes metallic—but I know she is right. I had to sneak away to be here. I could not tell Maman I was coming, but even so, she knows, because Agnessa turns as we hear the crunch of tires over gravel, as that crimson car pulls up outside the line of the circus fence and Maman steps out to regard us.

Maman never yells. She takes me home, pressing fairy-soft apricots into my hands for the ride back. At the house, I worry the storm will come from Lucien but I don’t see him. Maman leads me into the kitchen, sits me on the stool beside the counter, and cleans my face. I am a mess of apricots and coal dust.

Chauve-souris, she whispers. What if someone had seen you? What if someone had taken you from me? And when I don’t answer, she keeps on, her hands as tender as ever as they slide through my wet hair. I can feel each coil spring back as she passes through. I could not bear such a thing ever, ever.

She encourages me to go back, insisting that Gordon accompany me. It will be difficult, she says, because Gordon cannot fly, but go, speak with the siren, learn her ways, test your wings. That same rosemary mint smell falls from her fingers as she strokes a shiver down my arm.

I never dreamed of being allowed to go this way, and though the going is slower with Gordon we find a farmer who makes the trek every day and doesn’t mind a couple curious occasional passengers.

For tales of our lives, he will take us. He thinks every word is a fiction. When I tell him of Maman’s grand head, of the way she lived her earliest years with it pressed between cloth-wrapped boards, he laughs, for the image of this young girl is a strange one. How did she see to walk, the farmer demands. She had no need, I say, because of what had been done to her legs, her arms. She could not walk as she was being remade.

I, too, am being remade. Agnessa welcomes us with open wings. Every time thereafter, it is also a welcome. Gordon and I sit amid the performers as they practice. The gates are closed during the day to allow preparation for the evening shows. They will have a float in the parades, Agnessa tells us. They will shower the crowds with beads, coins, and if someone is very lucky, free tickets to all the circus shows.

The marmalades are sweet and tart both, and while they don’t evoke a response me in other than hunger Gordon is drawn to tears with every bite. It reminds him of Paris, he says as he folds a bit of croissant together with orange marmalade and tears pressed between, and I never knew he was in Paris—don’t even know where that is, but I picture deserts, flowing sand. He says no more, swallowing the bread, tears and all. Beth who makes the marmalades only smiles like she knows. Jackson, who owns the circus, asks about Maman Floss and Lucien. He has seen the posters, he prompts. This reminds me I am to be sold.

Jackson never asks about that. He only smiles like Beth as Agnessa leads me to the main tent and shows me the trapezes. They hang in pairs from the tent ceiling and we watch as the humans swing upon them, and leap, and soar. My heart aches for it and when Agnessa nudges me toward the long rope ladders that lead up, I stumble. I could not—

Mother birds don’t push their young from the nest, Agnessa tells me as she walks me over. But her mother was not precisely a bird and so felt no such need to hold back and shoved her out with one strong wing. Agnessa screamed the whole way down but before she could hit the ground unfurled her wings and flew. Flew away and never looked back, until she was captured.

The ropes sag under my weight, but soon I am at the top and no one there looks at me like I am out of place. They step back and give me the platform, one man holding a trapeze should I decide I want one. But I don’t. I look down at Agnessa and don’t think about anything as I let go and fall.

The air catches me, or I catch the air, and I lift myself up with one stroke and then another. But my body is too heavy for my wings, so I let the air guide me down in slow spirals, until I touch my feet to the dusty ground.

Agnessa beams. If beauty was a thing... No. If the impossible was made possible... No. There are just no words for that, nor when she has us climb upon her broad back and nestle between her wings. She smells like all the high places, where only wind and cloud go, and that’s where she takes us, up and toward Maman’s marsh house, where she leaves us, traces a wide circle in the sky, and is then gone.

Fat Tuesday. Tonight, the nuns stay inside to prepare for the coming of Lent, and even the moon has tucked herself away this year. I cannot see the stars for the amount of light that vomits up from the bedecked streets. So many lights and candles and it doesn’t matter that most people have no money; what little they had was converted to light, just for tonight.

Amid the floats roams the circus and its people. Not creations. They have not been made the way Gordon and I have been and I think my eyes should run green with envy. Each is a natural thing: Agnessa the siren, Delilah the bearded lady, Prancer the man who is somehow as tall as rooftops; Foster who smells like the hot metal of fresh coins, and Sombra, who is a shadow against her sister Gemma until she turns into the light and Gemma the shadow. The lions prowl on leashes of cobweb and mist, and I can hardly stand the wonder. Gordon and I watch from the rooftops, trailing the procession. Maman Floss says she will meet us at the end, with hot cocoa because the night is cooler than any yet.

But she meets us with more than that. I don’t notice until I’m on the ground, because the glide down is what I look forward to. Tonight of all nights, I can be me, because they will mistake me for a thing from the parade, possibly a wonder from the circus, so I need no cloak even though the air is cold. Gordon and I reach the last building and there is a rush of air and I unfurl my wings, to catch this and ride it down. I scoop this invisible air into the skin that Maman so lovingly stretched over my broken arms, the ordinary skin she made into extraordinary wings, and even when my feet touch down, I keep my wings spread. They ruffle like silk.

Gordon takes the fire escape to the ground and he’s clapping for me, clapping and laughing until he sees Maman and the strange man at her side. This man is gaunt, his cheeks hollowed as though someone sucked him empty with a straw. But his coat is the color of Lucien’s car and this draws me forward when perhaps I should show more caution.

Chauve-souris, Maman whispers and she draws me close, a hand under my chin. Her long fingers curl up along the side of my face to lift my gaze to that of the strange man. He looks at me without so much as a smile. He is intent, studious, and smells like dark leaves that have been dried in hot sun. When he takes hold of my hand to draw my wing back out, I pull back, but he doesn’t let me go, and that’s when I know. His eyes narrow and his hand hurts so badly around mine and he pulls me toward him. No.

My time spent with Agnessa and the flyers has served me well. For a moment that lasts too long, I give in to his pull. My feet whisper across the ground, and when he has me closer he eases his touch because he thinks ah, she has understood and given up as the smaller animal will give in to the larger. No.

This close in I tuck my wings and dive for the ground. He does not expect this, so I am gone as he turns, as Maman cries out.

These cries are lost in the sounds of the parade. I run blindly from the man she would sell me to. I picture her mouth on Lucien and stop only once, to vomit every carnival treat I have eaten onto the street which still gleams with gold light. And then, running, flipping into the air when I feel an uprush. Putting more distance between me and everything I know until I stumble against a fabric wall, until I sink into straw and it swallows me and I can only think thank you, thank you, before I sob myself to sleep.

Jackson finds me. I wake to find he has pushed the straw back, enough to allow me to breathe without inhaling it. There’s no panic when I sit up, when I pick straw from my skin. He offers me a wide cup and I drink as if I have roamed the deserts of Paris, and it’s sweet lemonade, the best thing I have ever known. Jackson already seems to know my plight.

“Your bitch maman has my Agnessa,” he says and he brushes his hands together to remove flecks of straw. His fingers are bent as if his muscles seized up on him, as if he knows the pain in my own body from being changed. “You could stay here. Would never sell you.”

He draws a poster from his shirt pocket and his face is a misery as he studies it. “She does this.” It’s not a question. I realize this is partly why they came, why Agnessa took me in. Jackson has known. “She takes children and she...”

I can hear the pain in his voice when he can’t continue. Remakes us, I tell him. Breaks us as she was broken. And I know now it’s not normal, and it is like an awful waterfall through me, the truth rushing. All those children who left the house... where had they gone? I could name them all—but I don’t, because... Because. That Jackson understands this betrayal is plain on his face. He nods, folds the poster back up, slides it back into his shirt pocket.

“Could stay here,” he says again.

Maybe later, I tell myself because like it’s a dream, that idea. But not yet, not while Maman has Agnessa.

Jackson drives me out to the marsh, where the house sits amid the moss-draped cypress, where the crickets’ call is louder than nearly anything. I see Gordon in the yard but no one else. Jackson waits in the truck. Trusting me. Gordon hurries to my side, clutching at me, warning me how angry Maman is and Lucien too and they are looking for me, but they have also—

There is an awful sound from the house, a body screaming like it is being torn in two, and I run because I know the sound a thing makes when it breaks. I don’t care about Maman and Lucien. I don’t even care about me right then because there is this feeling inside like I will die if I stay here, if I am sold, if I am not sold. I have glimpsed awful things—and there is more awful to come, for I can smell the blood—but I have also seen the beauty and the light; I have seen that the train tracks leave this place.

Maman has Agnessa strung up in the room I hate, the walls bright with lanterns. Metal loops now descend from the ceiling, rise from the floor, and even emerge from the walls. Maman has tied Agnessa every which way, with rope that burns into her wings, her legs. I scream my fury at all of them, and Maman and Lucien stare—they have never seen me like this. I have never been like this. Maman tries to talk sense into me, but Lucien approaches with another loop of rope.

This is where things go bad. Agnessa struggles in her bonds, shedding feathers in her fear. The lanterns shake with her fury, light wavering as if in wind. Lucien strides forward and his hands smell like oil, like angry bird. The rope rasps against my cheeks as he drops it over my head, loops it around my throat. I picture Maman bent before him, her own throat held tight in his fist as her mouth moves against him. Chavre-souris, she told me long ago, it is our way. But not mine.

I only go slack enough to draw him in. He smiles—mon petite, he whispers and draws the rope into his fist. I slip forward, looping the rope around his wrists and pulling as I slide between his legs. With a tug, we both go down, and Maman screams. She can hardly stand it, but her nature is two-fold: the breaker, the healer. She staggers, clumsy in her panic, but I am not once loose of that rope.

It’s deliberate when I sweep a wing into a lantern and send it crashing. Oil and flame lick up the wall, across the floor. The ropes which bind Agnessa catch. Maman shrieks and it’s not Agnessa she reaches for, but me. I dance away, throwing shutters open so the air floods in, feeds the flames. I dash more lanterns to the floor. The room is engulfed and the heat is tremendous as Agnessa’s ropes burn apart. She falls and her massive wings calm the fire a second before it surges back up.

Agnessa and I flee the room as the ceiling crumbles and the house is madness around us. Casks and jars explode from heat, sending dwarves sprawling on uncertain legs. Gordon helps them up, small hands clasping small hands that should not be small from now own, lined palms being allowed to finally grow outside glass walls.

This house is ever making things and now makes more Curious Who Used to Live With Maman. They emerge from their hiding places and we save all we can. As the fire consumes the house, the bed of Jackson’s truck becomes an ark for the strange, the misplaced. Gordon huddles in my arms under the canopy of Agnessa’s blood and ink wings, and we leave this place where we were broken and healed, returning to tents and train, and the promise of open skies.

Agnessa shows them to me. One by one, she teaches me the language of the winds.


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E. Catherine Tobler knows something about walking tightropes, working as both an editor and writer. Her fiction has appeared in in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including four stories set in her traveling circus universe. In June, The Kraken Sea, a novella set in this circus universe, will be available from Apex Book Company. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, www.ecatherine.com.

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4 Comments on “Artificial Nocturne”

4 Responses to “Artificial Nocturne”

  1. Jazzlet says:

    Oh,wonder.

  2. Ken says:

    Very nice, loved the mood of this

  3. Joel says:

    Wow…an excellent and eerie bit of storytelling

  4. Award Season says:

    […] Flesh, The Dark #2 The Sea Half-Held By Night, Dead North Once November, Tales of Jack the Ripper Artificial Nocturne, Beneath Ceaseless Skies By the Book, Lamplight IV Inventing Isaac, Gone Lawn (R+D) / I = M, […]

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