After the light at the end of the tunnel...
earthy green skin,
worm pink eyes,
and a toothless smile.
Age old hunger
ravenous in expectation,
and always gaping.
Yet she is womblike,
and almost loving.
She accepts all gifts...
and returns none.
I miss you.
There is a girl with dark eyes
and bright ambitions.
I knew her before I was weighed down
by sadder impulses.
There is no one in the mirror anymore.
It’s the opposite of dysmorphia.
I am not bloated,
I am disappeared.
There is no future for invisible girls.
No way home.
Only the hope that that happier self,
might find us again.
That they might say, I miss you too.
The Garden Wall
You have eyes red like roses,
Adam had told her.
A flower named,
a woman still flowered.
Lilith would not bend to him,
nor bear his children.
She would birth shadows instead.
Ephemeral things, too fragile for daylight.
To dull the grief of constant loss,
Lilith would peek over the garden wall
at her golden haired replacement.
A woman as lovely as summer’s Eve.
Her eyes were distant and wide
but always curious.
Her body a reflection,
a distortion of Lilith’s own flesh.
They say a snake tricked this golden girl,
but there was no snake.
Lilith saw all, and knows the truth.
She ate the apple because she wanted.
She ate because she was made empty.
Made to satisfy, without satisfaction.
She ate because she was born hungry,
and knew no other way to fill the void.
Women aren’t supposed to want things.
They aren’t supposed to take things.
Certainly not forbidden fruit, red as roses.
Red as Lilith’s eyes.
Chapter One: Falling Swiftly
It’s startling to look out over the farm and see mist rising from the fields. It’s late-September, and the first day of fall in which a true chill has settled in the air. Even as I know fall is only just beginning, I can’t help the instinctive and encroaching sense of fear. ‘We’re summer people, the Daughters of Persephone,’ my mother liked to say to me when she was feeling nostalgic. Aunt Ester puts it more succinctly: our power fades as the seasons change.
I look away from the window and go back to sorting through Nia’s school books. She is the youngest of my cousins, and the only one in our family who is younger than I am. I sometimes fear she might settle young too, and grow into her immortality before she is ready for it.
She is Aunt Ester’s daughter, but I’ve always thought of her as my own. My second son had been born a month before Nia was, and I had left him with his father as soon as he had been weaned. I still miss him terribly, but I could not make myself keep him after learning of my first son’s death. It isn’t the fashion to keep sons in my family, in any case. Watching your children age past you and wither away is too difficult, and Aunt Ester especially does not like to see any of us unhappy. We are closely linked, and a disruption of one person’s peace of mind can ripple to the rest of us, infecting us with the madness of loss. It’s better this way, and for all her faults, at least Nia has never resented me as my first son did. Has never cursed me for my failure to pass on my longevity.
“Rhiannon,” Nia sings, surprising me as she brushes past my person and falls into her bed. The light blue sheets wrinkle as she rolls into a more comfortable position. She’s really a beautiful young girl, her dark hair cut short and curling into a halo around her head, and her eyes a bright hazel. But it is her smile that ties her face together, transforming her from a beauty to a vision. “First day of high school tomorrow.”
“I know. I bought all your books,” I say. Nia pouts at my lack of enthusiasm. I go back to sorting through Nia’s school supplies, making sure her pencils are sharpened.
“Thanks, by the way,” Nia says. “For convincing Ester.”
Nia will be the first of us in a long time to be educated in a school with outsiders. My mother was the last, and had spent some time studying the classics in a university several decades before I was born. She’d been one of only two women in her class, and she’d never forgotten the way she was treated by the men she studied with. It was what had finally convinced her to settle, something Ester had feared she would refuse to do. Not that settling did her much good. As the seasons change, our power fades, and my mother breathed her last in the dead of winter.
“It was nothing,” I say. Nia smiles more brightly at me and I can’t help smiling back. She’s as comforting to me as the summer sun. “Nia?”
“Uh huh?” she asks, her attention already diverted by her phone. I still haven’t managed to get used to how rapidly the world has changed in such a short time. I was stubborn when technology began to advance and I now sometimes feel outpaced by my cousins who took to the newness with ease. And none took to it like Nia, who at seventeen had grown with the changing times.
“Don’t settle too quickly,” I tell her. That gets her attention. It’s not usual for anyone in our family to tell someone not to settle. Ester wouldn’t care if a girl was twelve, or even younger, and tried. As long as she chose to stay with the family, Ester would be satisfied. “It is a choice. Remember that.”
Nia’s smile dimmed and for once she seemed to turn her attention from herself to me. I don’t like it. It’s not the natural order of things.
“Do you regret it?” she whispers, her eyes sliding towards the door. No one is there, but she’s right to check. Ester would not like this topic of conversation. “Do you wish you could--?”
“I’m glad I made the change,” I tell her hurriedly. It wouldn’t do for her to get the idea that I’m unhappy somehow, or that I mean anything more by telling her this than trying to protect her from living too little before consigning herself to our stagnant existence. “But I’m not proud of why I chose to do so. Be sure, Nia. There’s no shame in living longer before you become one of us.”
“Why did you choose to settle?”
“It seemed like everyone else was waiting for me to. I felt ashamed that hadn’t,” I say. Nia nods. This is understandable. Ester has already begun hinting to her that she should be preparing to make the change soon.
“How long do I wait?”
“I can’t tell you that. You have to make that decision. All I can do is remind you that it is your decision,” I say.
Nia rolls her eyes at me, her previous intensity fading. I see now that there is a wall between her and me that had fallen for a moment, and has quickly been reconstructed. I’ve failed her somehow in my answer, and that disquiets me. Sitting next to Nia on her bed, I try to read her expression as she stares down at her phone.
“What was Daniel like?” she asks me. My muscles stiffen, and only Nia reaching out to take my hand and squeeze it gently prevents me from leaving without another word. “I want to know.”
“Ester should learn to keep things to herself,” I say. Nia has always been more mine than Aunt Ester’s. It’s not surprising Ester would reveal things about my past in an attempt to distance Nia from me. She doesn’t like to be challenged, and the way I handled Daniel’s life is damning. If I could do one thing over again, it would be every word I spoke to him. “Daniel was my first son.”
“I know that,” Nia says. Impatient, as always.
“And I tried to raise him in the family,” I say, though I feel like the words are coming out of someone else’s mouth. “The first boy on the farm in a hundred years. Ester scared away his father soon enough, but Daniel was mine. She didn’t dare touch him.”
Nia doesn’t have to ask why Ester would take care not to cross me if she didn’t have to. I am not as old as her, nor anywhere near as powerful, but I can do things she can’t. Ester may be the one who holds us all together, but I can bend minds if I really want to. I was the baby of the family for a long time before Nia was born, and the others hold more affection for me than they ever will for Ester. Especially after the way we lost my mother. She treads lightly with me, and I do not make it a habit to disobey her openly.
“In the beginning, Daniel was a sweet boy,” I say wistfully. “We all loved him, and me most of all. Some days it seemed to me like I’d lived my life solely so he could live his. But he grew up. I was frozen at twenty five, and suddenly I had a son the same age as me. A son who wanted nothing more than to freeze himself the way I had. I had no way to show him what a future without immortality could look like. I had no hope to offer him. So I stayed young and he aged past me. The idea of escaping death began to consume him. He left home, and cut off contact with me. For years I thought he would come back, if only to say goodbye, but he didn’t. Eventually I found out from his father that he died before he was forty. He’d volunteered for a study to extend his life, and the side effects were… horrific. He must have been in so much pain.”
Nia hugs me as my voice wavers. I swallow hard, committed to finishing all I had to say on the subject now that I’ve started it.
“It’s hard to remember sometimes, that there was something before the bitterness. That he used to look at me like I was the whole world.”
“Was he afraid of you?” Nia asks me.
“I don’t know,” I say. I don’t tell her that this is too much for me, even though I know it is. I am a quiet person. Aunt Ester knows this. She won’t expect me to open up to Nia like this, and that will save me from losing Nia’s trust. There was no way forward but the truth. “I wouldn’t blame him if he was. I failed him. I tried to convince myself the rules could be broken for him. That somehow he could make the change, if I just wanted it enough for him.”
“But he couldn’t,” Nia says. I nod. “Have any men ever actually done it?”
“We think so,” I say. There were rumors that stretched back far farther than I’ve been alive of women who taught their sons or their partners how to settle. Whatever knowledge allowed them to do so has been lost to the ages. “But not in a long time.”
There were children we’d believed to be men who had grown up and made the change on their own and by accident, but each time we’d discovered that these seeming anomalies were women in spirit, even if they did not outwardly appear so. Michelle is the only woman I’ve met like this, but I know there are others in other families, according to Ester.
“Are there any of us who’ve died before they could settle?” asks Nia next.
“You know there are,” I say, the answer coming out hushed and angry. “We lose girls before they can make the change all the time. Lizzie told us about how her family lost Wendy the last time she came to visit. She couldn’t make the change in time, and she bled out after being hit by a car.”
“No, I know, I didn’t mean to bring that up. I’m sorry about what happened to Wendy,” Nia replies quickly. “I mean… does anybody not make the change on purpose? Not because they’re waiting to, but because they don’t want to.”
Oh. Well that is a different matter.
“Very rarely,” I admit. “But it has happened before.”
“What if I didn’t want to change?” asks Nia. “Would you hate me?”
I can’t find an answer to give. Nia senses this and doesn’t demand one from me.
“Someday I might not come back, either,” she tells me instead. “Like Daniel.”
She buries her face into my shoulder to hide from me, or to soften the blow. I’m not sure which. This is the first time I’ve realized that I cannot bear to lose her. She’s the only child I got to raise who didn’t love me less for the experience.
“Please don’t leave,” I whisper into her hair. “I can ask for more free time for you from Ester. Or-“
“Rhia,” she says quietly. Conspiratorially, even. She’s going to tell me something, and I know already it’s something I will have to pretend I didn’t hear. Before she can go on or I can stop her, someone clears their throat from the door. I can tell it’s Kat without looking. I quickly pray that she hasn’t heard too much of our conversation. Kat has never found a secret she could keep to herself, and she is always trying to win favor with Ester. I let go of my death grip on Nia and smile at Kat. She smiles back, but mischievously.
“Michelle wants help with dinner. She asked me to come get Nia,” says Kat. Nia runs out the door without another word, leaving me to stand alone in her room with a Kat who is burning with curiosity. Outside the wind picks up, and I go back to checking over Nia’s books. I jump at the sound of a tree branch knocking against the window.
“It’s cold today,” I say. Kat nods, her eyes flickering to the outdoors before they return to me. she doesn’t ask the questions she’s so clearly thinking, and I don’t provide any answers, much to her disappointment. “Soon the leaves will change.”
“And you won’t be able to keep Nia here,” she says. “Do you think Nia is going to leave us?”
As the seasons change, our powers fade. My persuasion fades. It’s possible that if Nia truly wants to go, Ester might ask for my assistance. Kat is right when she points out this will only work for a while. After a point, my persuasion will be too weak to keep Nia from doing what she wants. Besides, the thought of keeping her in the family against her will makes me sick.
“She’s seventeen. She’ll change her mind about…” I stop speaking. Better not to admit the extent to which I now think Nia has strayed. “She’ll settle when she’s ready, and join the family. There’s no need to mention this to Ester.”
“Are you going to make me keep quiet?” she asks, smiling again. It’s a game to her, all of this. Kat may be much older than I am, but she never really grew up. She sees me shake my head and then runs, taking the stairs two at a time and laughing all the way down. I chase after her, desperate to convince her not to stir up trouble for the sake of her own fun.
If Ester were to find out about this conversation, she might forbid Nia from going to school, or blame me for failing to keep her in line. She might even separate us in order to make sure one of my less free-thinking cousins keeps her in sight until she has settled. You can’t force anyone to make the change, but it happens sooner or later if you don’t die first.
The necessity of settling builds inside of you until it is more effort to deny it than to give in. Before settling, it’s hardest to resist in the summer. Every day is spent with a wordless, tuneless song thrumming inside of you, demanding to be heard. In winter it fades to a dull ache, but as the years go by even that grows more insistent. By the time I turned, it felt more like relief than power filling me.
I race after Kat, hoping to reason with her, or at least slow her down. It’s just my luck that Ester is waiting at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at us both with weary annoyance. One word asking us to explain ourselves is enough for Kat to tell her everything. I can’t make myself move as I see the expression on Ester’s face slowly sour. Even Kat seems to get the hint after a while, and she trails off softly before finishing her story. Her eyes flicker to me, and then back to Ester. But Ester is not looking at her. She only has eyes for me.
One withering glance is enough to knock the breath from my lungs. I stumble and trip, rolling down the last flight of stairs as consciousness is slowly stolen from me. I don’t want to be put to sleep like a child, but Ester only cares what I almost let happen. Or maybe she just hopes that Nia will not leave while I sleep. Just in case.
The last thing I see is Kat’s face and the shocked regret that has frozen her expression. She doesn’t understand that Ester will never love any of us as much as she loves Nia, her first and only daughter. What from anyone else would be a minor offense, something to be laughed off, is a hundred times more serious when Nia is involved. We have all wondered about leaving before, quietly and out of Ester’s ear shot. Ester has even confided in me that this is natural and she does not hold it against us. But this is not just any of us, this is Nia. Ester would rather die than lose her. I know this as surely as I know the sun will rise in the morning, and that I will not.
As I sleep, I dream of my missing boy. My second son, lost to me as my first was lost to me. As Nia soon will be. He tries to speak to me but I cannot hear him. It is as though there is glass between us. He seems to realize this and suddenly there is a notebook in his hands. He draws quickly and with practiced finesse, then turns the notebook to face me. It is only an outline, but it is of my own face. He points at the drawing and then at me. I nod. He smiles at me, that same smile I remember on my newborn boy. I open my mouth to try speaking to him, something that had not occurred to me until now. Just as I am about to, the unexpected happens.
I wake up. It’s late fall now. I know this because I’ve been left in my own bed, which is next to a window, and I can see the violent reds of the maple tree outside. We’ve only lived here a decade, but the view is still familiar enough not to jar me. At first, I don’t remember what has happened, or where the time has gone. I only feel a faint longing for a piece of myself that is missing.
“Nia?” I call out without thinking. The first person at the door is Michelle. She’s wide eyed, and she shakes her head quickly. I shut my mouth.
Michelle is short, but wiry, and keeps her hair cut in an angled bob that makes her face appear rounder. Strangers are sometimes disturbed looking at her, because she carries herself like an old woman while wearing the face of a young girl.
She had settled at fourteen so she could avoid going through the wrong puberty. She’s older than I am, so I only know what she and Ester have told me, but as I understand it, she did this by accident. She was so desperate to avoid her voice deepening and facial hair and other changes she knew were coming that she had accessed the frame of mind needed to change and done so instinctively. It took years for her to realize she wasn’t aging, and it was a miracle Ester had noticed her situation. We still don’t know who Michelle’s mother might be, though Ester has sent out inquiries to various families we know. With nowhere else to go, Michelle has stayed with us since we found her, and we’ve taken to monitoring the children we give up to be certain they are not women after all.
“Michelle, what happened?” I ask her. “I don’t-“
“Nia’s gone missing,” said Michelle. “It’s been two days since we’ve seen her.”
Memories begin to come back to me. Helping Nia prepare for school, hearing her doubts, and making myself a target for Ester’s ire. Michelle waits for me to gather my bearings.
“I was asleep… two months?” I ask her. “Ester’s outdone herself. She must be exhausted after sustaining that. I bet she can barely walk.”
“She would have kept you under until winter,” Michelle says bitterly. “We couldn’t find a way to talk her out of it, she was so angry. But now Nia is missing, and Ester needs you to find her. You’re the only one Nia will trust not to bring her back.”
That I am supposed to betray that trust goes unsaid.
“And Ester chose not to tell me this herself?” I ask, unamused. “Besides, we can’t. Until the change is made, she’s not ours. Which means if she doesn’t want to be here, we have no right to bring her back. Ester knows that, or she wouldn’t be sending me to do it.”
That there are higher powers in the world than Ester is rarely relevant. There are many women like us, throughout the world, but little movement or communication between families, and less so the further the distance between us. Sometimes, if a family is growing too large, a fraction of the group will split off and go elsewhere. That’s what Lizzy did, about thirty years ago. For the most part we are allowed a certain amount of independence as long as worship is offered on the longest day of summer, tithe is paid, and none of our own draw undue attention to themselves. Nia risks the latter, but as long as she is unchanged, the risk is relatively low. Going out into the world by myself is more concerning. I’ve never been good at being inconspicuous.
“Don’t you want her to come home?” Michelle asks me gently.
“Of course I do. But it’s fall, Michelle. By the time I find her, I might not even be able to persuade her,” I say. “I can already feel the fade.”
“Then bring her back in spring,” says Michelle. “Let her have the time she needs away, and be there to protect her. When she’s ready, bring her home. Ester won’t like it, but it will cause less problems in the long run. And besides, there’s only so many strings she can pull until Nia makes the change.”
“What if she doesn’t want to come home?” I ask. Michelle hesitates.
“I don’t know,” she says at last. “What I do know? It’s better here than out there.”
“But I never lived out there.”
Michelle frowns again, looking towards the outside world. It must be hard for her to imagine, my view of the world. I’d always been protected by the family. It hadn’t kept pain away from me, but I know it could have been so much worse. The things Michelle has been through put my pains to shame.
“Then I’ll go too,” she says. “Ester still has Kat, Emily, Adrienne, and Isabel. She’ll be able to manage the winter without us.”
“We’ll miss the harvest. And payment,” I say. Michelle shrugs. “You can’t be this blasé about missing tithe. It’ll draw the wrong kind of attention.”
“It’s one year. Ester can say we were too sick to participate. It is almost winter after all,” says Michelle. “And Nia is more important.”
There are a million more excuses and concerns I could bring up, but I don’t. Michelle’s right. I care about Nia more than anything.
“Where would we even start?” I ask. Michelle smiles and pulls Nia’s phone from her pocket.
“Ester gave up trying to guess the password,” she says sweetly, handing it to me. “It really isn’t as hard to guess as she might think. Nia was never the most creative soul.”
Michelle types in four numbers. It’s Nia’s birthday backwards. I suppress the urge to laugh.
“I take it you have some idea where Nia’s gone,” I say. Michelle smiles wisely, and reaches up to pat my cheek like a grandmother would.
“I know exactly where she is,” she says. “Getting her out is going to be the hard part.”
She shows me a string of texts, and the further I scroll back through them, the more I understand just what difficulties Michelle is talking about.
“She met a boy, and she told him everything,” I realize as I read. “She can’t… she can’t actually think we’re a cult? That we’ve been lying to her? She’s seen what we can do with her own eyes!”
“It doesn’t matter. She said the right words to convince someone else her safety depended on her escaping us. And that’s not the worst part,” Michelle says grimly. “I’ve looked into it, and the boy’s parents could present further issues. He lives with his mother, who is a reasonably well known reporter. And his father has connections in high up places. The boy isn’t close with him from what I’ve seen online, but that doesn’t eliminate the problem. If Nia’s story gets out there-“
“The Mothers might take Ester,” I say. “They’d blame her for everything.”
“Well it is her fault,” says Michelle, not without a trace of bitterness.
“She took you in. Don’t you think you owe her a little loyalty?”
“She put you in a coma,” says Michelle. Which is true, and I am still angry about that, but Ester doesn’t deserve to be punished just because she’s insecure and has a bit of a temper. “I don’t want her to get hurt, but she does not deserve my respect. She’s stepped past too many lines to get that from me.”
“But you’ll still help me find Nia?”
Michelle nods grimly.
“Ester won’t be the only one punished,” she says. It hadn’t occurred to me before this moment that Nia would also bear the weight of her actions. Why should it have? She never did here, with Ester to protect and argue for her. She’d tortured Kat and Michelle on more than one occasion with horrific practical jokes that Ester had seen fit to ignore. But this was different, and much more serious than Nia could know.
“Do you have a plan?” I ask Michelle. She only smiles. Of course she has a plan. She’s always been the most resourceful in our family. She had to be in order to survive in the outside world before we found her. “Then I suppose we should leave as soon as possible.”
“I’ll tell Ester,” says Michelle, bounding from the room. As soon as she’s gone, I begin to gather what I need for the journey. It’s not much.
Once I’m ready, I look out the window again, focusing on the brightly colored leaves. One of the branches tap against the pane of glass again, and for a moment I imagine it’s Death’s hand knocking, warning me of an impending visit.
My mom died in winter, and far away from the family. Fear, wretched fear, had always been with me since then. And so I’d never left Ester’s side, even as she’d grown overbearing and cruel to me. But this was Nia who needed my help, and no fear was more powerful than my love for her. Hopefully that love would be enough to carry me through as the world died around me, and my inner strength faded with it.
The seasons change, and this time I must change with it. When Michelle returns to fetch me, I’ve strengthened my convictions.
I must find my daughter and bring her home.
Two Lovers in Verona
I have nothing better to do. That’s what I tell myself at least, as I scroll through pages and pages of our conversations. Every comment on every picture, every voicemail message, and even that one time you wrote me a letter while I was on a service trip, no wifi allowed. It doesn’t feel like obsession, the way I focus in on each word in turn. I’m not looking for anything in particular, just an escape from a new to me kind of loneliness.
It’s funny in retrospect, how many clues there are in these digital love letters. It’s the kind of obvious that in fiction would be called foreshadowing and in real life is called hindsight. You were so desperate to love me. I can see that now that I’ve taken a step back. Now that I’ve realized that in truth you were desperate to love anybody and be loved in return. I can see it in your excess of italics, exclamation marks, and hyperbole. I love you more than life itself, you told me.
You’re as good as dead to me, but I still feel sorry for you.
It’s hard not to get stuck on the choices I made, and the choices I think I made, and how they’re all wrapped up in the idea of wanting freedom. Freedom from the constraints placed on me by my parents, freedom from my own self-consciousness, freedom from boredom, and on and on. But I was an easy target, and the more I look at the things I’ve done, I know how you’ve used me. Played me like a fiddle. We were helpless both of us, to our true natures. And yet despite the manipulation, I’d still call it love. How’s that for compulsion?
It’s more of a relief than I thought it would be, systematically deleting you from my life. Like it never happened. Like you never dragged me down with you.
This all might sound harsh, like I’m blaming you. I’m not. Fate has a funny way of sorting things out, and I see the strings now. Not cut yet, and still pulling us along. A warning of what happens after you've already found yourself playing with sharp things. A warning that is effectively useless, but appreciated nonetheless.
All this to say that I’ve learned my lesson. I hope you’ve learned yours.
A Contemplation of Power
If the legions bowed
at my feet
and claimed me as both
if divisions collapsed inwards
under their own weight
and left only
free from artifice
and caged by helplessness,
if the world stood silent
at the sound
of my breathing
and declared me
if this happened, all would be lost.
The tides would retreat
into the deep,
leaving the world dry,
and only I
could quench thirst.
Weapons would lose their edge,
and tools their utility.
Under my rein, the fruits of labor
would blossom without toil,
and the people would starve
for want of creativity.
And all the while,
resentment would pass
no living lips.
My ego would allow no
insults or criticisms,
and the wise would learn
to love me.
Love itself would lose meaning,
And I would lose function with it,
trapped under my own importance,
my own omnipotence.
To be a god in the old ways,
but still knowable,
would drive me from my senses,
and leave the world empty of consequences
and me alone and corrupted, absolutely.