Embla’s Ages in Love, Observed—Hanne Larsson


I’d never seen you cry before; I didn’t think fathers cried like that, but you did when she left. Even then I knew she was the love of your life but she’d made you choose between your two girls. It was me: the fire-scarred one, the human one. I tried to wipe away your tears from your granite cheek, but they turned to diamonds, so I hid them under my pillow. I already know what power troll tears possess; you’ll need them returned. 


They bully her. They bully her for being fearless of the sun and she stands there bathed in the warmth because she knows they can’t touch her there. She wishes her best friend could stand beside her, and she looks over to see how he has made a coat of pine branches and mud that casts a shadow for him so that he can stand beside her. He reaches for her hand, stretching out from the shade, his warm grey fingers blistering almost as soon as the sunlight finds them. She beams at him, for the love he’s shown.


I dream of you although your face is fuzzy and your voice mute. I’ve never seen a human boy before, but I wish for pinkish skin and brown hair like the bark of my favourite tree. You would be as warm as the river stones I dry my clothes on. Your skin covered in hairs will sweat when I touch it. My mind goes damp when I try to feel you kiss me. I do not know what to expect, I’m surrounded by greys and granite shapes that love me but can never be my same softness. We shall be so happy together.


Da holds it out to me – this proof he’s finally found, the answer he knows his only daughter has been searching for, been so angry for – the proof I’ve needed above all else, and I just want to envelop him and apologise. I thought nature would answer all my questions, but instead it’s in nurture I should have looked.


You came into my life mewling and crying, and I thought I had known what love was until this moment. Caked in me and already disappointed with the winter darkness I named you Aska and squeezed you until I feared you would break. Your father will not acknowledge either of us, but I will love you doubly, and your grandfather will love you with the strength of mountains behind him. You will not want for love, my daughter. 


I still think of revenge for the way in which they treated you: a returning hero faced with the death squad or Old Sten’s way. The troll law was savage in its ruling. I have gathered an army even though I can hear your voice begging me not to come, but it’s too late, Da, they cannot be alive for this. You would always excuse them, transcending above their pettiness but I cannot let them sully who you are and the love you bore me, for this.


The blood spills from my gut in waves and each breath is full of retch and bile, and I turn my face to the sun hoping that Old Sten will turn me to stone like he did you. I don’t care whether we lost or won. Softly I begin to whisper the words creeping onto my tongue – the trollsong rising from mumble into rumbling – as your diamond tears cut blood into my hands, as I stare up into your gnarled face. Come back unchanged; tell me you’ve forgiven me. You gave up everything for me once, now I return the favour. Old Sten will understand my love for you, even if his priests say a human could never understand his stony ineffableness.

Hanne is a Swedish-British national who longs for the 95% humidity and hawker centre food of her childhood and is still wondering where home is. Her stories are fed by environmental science topics, moss-covered rocks masquerading as trolls and what-if scenarios. Her words can be found in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Common Breath, Lunate Fiction, The Drabble and STORGY, and in anthologies by Green Stories and Hammond House. She is a member of Dahlia Books’ ‘A Brief Pause’ cohort for 2021 and lurks on Twitter: @hannelarsson

photo by Jaanus Jagomägi and Hao Zhang (via unsplash)

Widow of the River—Nick Petrou

Despite the humidity clinging to the timbers of the port, my bones were numb and my hairs stood as stiff as ship masts. We lay in Isabella’s bed, and I rested my head on her breast, certain she held in her all the warmth that was left in the world. Our shadows shuddered in the candlelight, which flashed silver before returning to the colour of mead. My ring finger was starting to go dead.

“John, my love, you will never leave me, no?”

“Leave you?” I said, my words exiting my mouth in whorls of steam. “Isabella, you know I must go home. But I will return, as always. Why are such thoughts on your mind?”

“Tonight, the moon is full,” she said. “Always I think of the Widow of the River when the moon is full. You know this story?”

“Yes,” I said, pulling the blanket up to my chest. “But will you tell it to me anyway?”

She paused. The city was quiet. Sailors did not stagger past the house jesting about fish and the red-light district. Nor did ponies rap their shoes on the cobblestone. Even the bedrooms above and beside us were without their regular commotion. There was only a faint, rhythmic splashing I could not place. I felt uneasy, as if I were on the sea after a year on land. Above my wedding ring, my finger was completely dead. I twisted the ring until it came off, then I reached over Isabella and put it on her nightstand.

After what seemed an eternal silence, she said, “There is a castle on the river and a lady in its tallest tower. She sings out from her window when the moon is mirrored and full. She sings for her husband, who left her for the other family he had made at port. Her voice is a lighthouse. Everywhere else is cold and dark. Can you hear her, my love?”

Isabella started humming a beautiful melody, vibrating my skull like a church bell. Through her rose perfume, I could smell the canals — slightly putrid, as if choked with algae.

“I think this is a different story,” I said. “Was her husband not claimed by the sea?”

Isabella’s humming somehow continued as she said, “This is the story as it was. You must listen, my love.” She rested her arms around my neck. “Her husband has yet to come home. Maybe he never will — who knows? But the lady does not surrender to death, even though she is just hair and bones in a dress. Her desire is strong, and men like her husband must be stronger to escape it.”

Isabella’s arms shut like a pillory around my neck, but I feared to fight her, lest I forfeit her warmth.

“They row to her island on nights as tonight. Their eyes are open, but they see only a dream. Their bodies are… What is this word? Puppet? Yes, something like this. The boats of the men who rowed before them clutter her shores, stinking of bilge water. There are hundreds of them, and as many wives back home, singing for their own loves lost.”

The candle stuttered. The rhythmic splashing grew louder, more determined. I looked out the window and did not see the cobblestone streets nor the ruby brothel glow but a round stone tower with the full moon socketed in its battlement like an imperfect gem.

The candle went out. Moonlight poured into the room, washing away the ceiling and walls. When all that remained was the bed, which somehow hovered over the river, I could see the castle in full, down to the boats and muddy shore. I fell against the headboard. Isabella was gone, her warmth absorbed by the warmth which poured from the tower. A woman’s silhouette stood in the tower window, hair swimming in a dark aura around her shoulder bones. Just below the surface of the river, the mud snaked out towards me, clasping my boat and dragging me to shore. I dropped my oars into the rowlocks and floated gaping-mouthed into the gravity of her voice.

“John, my love, you will never leave me, no?”

“Leave you? I could not.”

Nick Petrou works as a freelance writer out of Perth, Western Australia, where he likes to read unsettling fiction and complain about the sun. His short fiction has been (or will soon be) published by PseudoPod, The Arcanist, Ghost Orchid Press, and others. You can find out lots more about him at nspetrou.com and reach out to him on Twitter @nspetrou.

photo by Pine Watt (via unsplash)

We Could Have Been Witches—Jeanine Skowronski

If we had just listened to Grandma Gigi; stayed away from drafty windows, picked up lost pennies, even when they were showing tails, waited until midnight to open presents on Christmas Eve; if we had kept our combat boots (like we had kept our Mary Janes) off of the dining room table so luck stuck to our soles; if we remembered catching lightning bolts, not lightning bugs, in the Long Island house’s backyard; if I had never lost the family “G” ring and Lizzie hadn’t stopped swimming in skirts and Hartford hadn’t started to ignore Grandpa Gino’s ghost; if we all hadn’t laughed that one time for the first time, at Baby Enzo’s christening, when Second-Cousin Steffie took a ribbon off a centerpiece, wove it through her hair and said “listen, girls, I can see the future whenever I wear stuff on my head”; if we had worn more hats and hair bows, did like the Great Aunts said and hoarded locks of our bleached blonde hair for burning at the first off-beats of a broken heart; if we had kept wearing, kept rubbing our Italian horns, kept away the evil eye, kept away those evil boys, the ones Grandma Gigi told us to tell to go fuck themselves; if we told more boys to go fuck themselves, or if later, when we bottled up telling boys to go fuck themselves, we did it in Mason jars to be sold on Etsy for $10.99 alongside hunks of lavender soap; if our parents had listened to Grandma Gigi and played those numbers she found on a slip of paper next to Uncle Nicky’s grave; if they had passed along that recipe for mixing blood and dirt; if, after we too were parents, we too played those numbers or just-in-case threw handfuls of salt or at least drove to the meat store for meat and the bread store for bread and the tomato store for tomatoes solely because, we knew, like Gigi knew, that some things are truly special; if we had put back on our horns, I’m saying; if we had regained our nerve; if, the second the nights went dull and the mornings lost their lemon-yellow luster, we had dared to leave out a black-flame candle so some long-dormant spell could ignite.

Jeanine Skowronski is a writer based in N.J. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Reflex Press, Tiny Molecules, Complete Sentence, Lunate Fiction, Fewer than 500 and Dwelling Literary. You can follow her on Twitter @JeanineSko.

photo by Jay Heike (via unsplash)

The City on the Wind—Rebecca Harrison

Our wind carried our city through the long nights. So, we sang it songs. And the crystal pieces of our city whirled apart and then joined in new shapes, then whirled apart and joined, on and on. In the time of long nights, we hung shine flakes on our crystal walls, and they lit our wind’s way. I peered out into the dark and I saw the other pieces of the city, floating crystal, lit by shine flakes, and I placed one on our wall and felt its shimmer on my face. 

“Long ago, snowflakes fell from the sky, all in bursts and clumps – so many of them they piled right up until everything was white, white as far as you could see,” Gram said. “Long before we lived in break-apart cities on the winds. When we lived in towns on the backs of running bears, and even longer ago still.” She leaned on her stick and pried herself off the sofa, her gnarled hands quivering. 

“Drina told me we never lived on bears,” I said. “How could we? Look how small they are.” I pointed to the bears running outside in our wind, round and round, the shine flakes lighting their golden fur. “The biggest one could fit next to you on our sofa,” I laughed. 

“The world changes, Pennally,” she said, and she patted my shoulder. I linked my arm in hers and breathed in her scent of wind moss. For even though it hadn’t grown since long before I was born, Gram spent her young years sorting and stewing enough of the stuff to smell of it forever. “Now, to sing,” she said. 

Everybody from our city was already in Gulkanna Hall, their faces bright from waiting. We sang to our wind and the golden bears howled. And our city pulled apart and remade itself and pulled apart again. And our wind moved through the night, over grounds dimmer than the sky. 

“Our wind will carry us home,” we sang as one voice, in a melody that felt like loss. 

“Where is home?” I asked Gram when we were back in our house, eating smoked slices of sky fish. She touched one of our walls to make it vanish. The bears lumbered over, and I fed them flakes of sky fish while she ruffled their golden ears. 

“A green place. The bears are looking for it – that’s why they run around and around. My ma told me, if you lead the golden bears to the ground – they’ll take you there.” One of the bears nudged her with its black nose. “They’re trapped in the wind, you see, and they can’t get down.”

The bears licked our hands. Then Gram touched the side of our house and our wall appeared again. 

“Are we trapped, too?” I asked, but she didn’t answer. 

In the morning, I was alone. I scoured the city, all its pieces, some of them two or three times as the city remade itself and I didn’t know my way, but Gram wasn’t there. When I looked out, the bears had gone, and I knew they were with her in a slow walk to an unknown home, and I wondered why she’d left me up here in the wind. 

Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and her best friend is a dog who can count. 

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

A Well-Adjusted Girl—Naomi Kim

Clara Chae was a well-adjusted girl. That was what everyone said, nodding in approval. There were stories out there of children like her, orphaned by unusual catastrophes, who had grown up to be quite troubled. Like Harold Dunn, whose parents had been killed by rabid werewolves when he was ten. Now he was growing out his unkempt hair, and eating all his meat raw and bloody, and communicating entirely in snarls and howls. Dropping out of college to prowl through the woods and catch rabbits. Getting dirt under his long, jagged fingernails. Everyone shook their heads and clucked their tongues. Poor Harold Dunn. His poor grandparents, too, trying to handle him.

But Clara was a well-adjusted girl. Exceptionally well-adjusted, really, all things considered. Everyone remembered when she had first arrived in town to live with her aunt. Such a skittish little girl, then, and always crying, and only ever calling after her parents, saying umma, appa, as though it would summon them. Well, she had only been six, and it was a terrible thing that had befallen her. No doubt about that. Everyone murmured sympathetically of how she had woken one morning to find that her parents had turned into salt. They said the neighbors had found her hours later, curled on the threshold with the front door wide open, knees pulled up to her chest and her face streaked with tears. Too afraid to stay inside with the salt statues of her mother and her father, too afraid to venture outside alone. They said she had been sitting there so long her own skin had been crusted with salt and sand blown in from the sea.

But now—Clara was a well-adjusted girl. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, and maybe a little shyer than was ideal, but she was pretty enough when she smiled, everyone agreed, and generally well-liked. A decent student to boot. Yes, a well-adjusted girl. What a relief, everyone said, looking at each other knowingly. What a relief she wasn’t like Harold Dunn. It would have been such a shame. 

Clara knew how to be a well-adjusted girl. She smiled, and did her homework, and shopped with her friends, and went on dates to the movies, and let the nicest boys kiss her on the doorstep. Now and then they pulled away a little confused, wondering at the taste of salt on her lips. But Clara only ever shrugged and blushed and looked just as mystified. She knew how to be a well-adjusted girl. And certainly, a well-adjusted girl wouldn’t creep into the kitchen at night. Of course not. A well-adjusted girl wouldn’t throw her head back in the dark and pour salt into her wide open mouth—so much salt that tears burst from her eyes and her tongue writhed with memory, and she dropped the salt shaker, choking, and it spun out on the kitchen floor—no, of course not. No well-adjusted girl would be doing that.

And Clara was very good at being a well-adjusted girl. So good, in fact, that even her aunt, her gomo, was surprised when, on her eighteenth birthday, Clara left home without a word. The only things she took, it was said, were a jar of seashells and a lunch box of rice, kimchi, and Spam. Everyone was shocked—utterly shocked!—that such a well-adjusted girl would up and leave like that. She had no reason to go anywhere, they whispered to one another. No reason! A good girl like that. 

Clara was tired of being the well-adjusted girl. Very tired, in fact. So she pressed her foot down hard on the gas and kept it there all day, and all night. And early the next morning, she was sitting on the cold wet rocks of a jagged shoreline, on the outskirts of the seaside town she had lived in with her parents. She opened her lunch box: rice, kimchi, Spam. Her favorite when she was a little girl, before her parents turned to salt. She ate in silence, listening to the sound of waves crashing against the rocks—the very sound that haunted her dreams. As the sun broke through the horizon, she stood up and spilled the rest of the kimchi into the water to attract the mermaids, and when they came she paid them in seashells to swim her far out into the ocean. Clara was tired of the well-adjusted girl. So tired. Here, she thought to the waves, wash her away. Take her. She dove deeper, the taste of the sea strong and salty in her mouth, like loss, like homecoming. She dove deeper, and the mermaids followed. 

Naomi Kim is a Korean American writer raised in the South, though frequently mistaken for a Midwesterner. A recent graduate of Brown University, she is now a first-year PhD student in English at Washington University in St. Louis. Her writing has previously appeared in Lunch Ticket, Unbroken Journal, Patheos, The Waking: Ruminate Online, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @thisis_naomikim. 

photo by Nikolay Zherdev (via unsplash)

Some Days—Emma Kathryn

Some days, she is a hare. Hopping and leaping and dashing away from me. Ears prick when she hears me approaching. Wide green eyes observe until she decides I am too close for comfort. Then she is gone with a flick of her cotton tail.

Some days, she is a fox. Watching me with a growing boldness as I try to sketch her. It’s definitely her. I could never mistake those eyes. They looked otherworldly in her hare form but today they nestle comfortably like emeralds in her red fox fur. She lets me get about halfway through my sketch before she runs.

Some days, she is a field mouse. I barely even notice her at first. It takes her practically standing on my shoe before I see her there. The green eyes make her look like a tiny ornament and not at all like a real mouse. Whiskers and nose twitch, sniffing me out and working out how much she can trust me. I make the mistake of lowering my hand and she vanishes. At least, I think she does. Before leaving altogether, she stealthily sneaks around me and steals some berries from my lunch pail.

Some days, she is a dog. A strikingly happy border collie. As soon as I enter the field, she barks. Her playful face is all smiles and her tongue lolls out of the side of her mouth, making her look ridiculous. Not knowing which form she would take today, I brought apple slices. I throw one her way and she catches it with glee. Next slice is mine and then we comfortably share a small lunch together. Once the food is gone, she bounds before me and her green eyes glimmer with joy. She eggs me on with yips and howls and I quickly give in. Hitching up my skirts until my legs are mostly free, I grin, knowing that I look just as ridiculous as her. We run through the field without a care in the world. My heart pounds and the fresh air burns at my lungs. But it doesn’t matter and I don’t care. We fall about laughing and she licks my face while I scratch her ears. I feel free. 

She jerks her head up as if she hears something I cannot. Before I can reach out to her again, she scarpers in a panic. 


I sit alone until the farmer calls for me. My lunch break has overrun.

Some days, the farmer does not let me go for a walk at lunch. He makes me sit in the kitchen with the other milk maids, listening to their mindless prattle. It’s so noisy in this bloody kitchen. I while away the time by staring out of the window and nodding whenever they ask me one of their pointless questions. None of them are interested in me, they just like listening to the sound of their own voices. I sigh and hurry through my lunch. I hate it here.

Some days, she does not come alone. 

The farmer has finally started letting me go for walks again. But when I reach the field, there is a great stag waiting down by the river. Waiting for me. It does not have green eyes. 

He looks me up and down and takes all of me in. A snort escapes his huge nostrils, letting me know exactly what he thinks of me. I do not move. He lifts his head high. I see the full glory of his antlers and it is a terrifying beauty. 

For a fleeting moment, I imagine the horror of being impaled on them. My feet stay rooted to the spot, as if that will save me. 

There is a commotion across the field and another deer nears. Green eyes flash with panic. She rushes over and stands between us. She pants as if she has been running for a long time and has come a long way but still, she manages to stand strong. A silent confrontation goes on between stag and doe. It feels like it lasts for an eternity. Eventually, the stag rears up on his hind legs and cries out angrily. Front hooves land with a stomp and he storms off, defeated. This time, at least. I fear he may return. 

She turns to me and lowers her head. I press my forehead to her soft fur and rub her neck. We can only stay like this for a moment before me both must return to our mundane lives.

Most days now, we cannot meet. But on those days when we do – few and far between as they are – we run. And we run. And we run. We treat each meeting as if it is our last.

Those days, we feel alive.

Emma Kathryn is a horror fanatic from Glasgow, Scotland. You can find her on Twitter @girlofgotham. When she’s not scaring herself to death, she is either podcasting as one half of The Yearbook Committee Podcast or she’s streaming indie games on Twitch. 

photo by Elisa Stone (via unsplash)

Lake—Lauren Hunt

Imagine he had shot me. 

I wonder if the crossbow bolt would have cleared me, cleaved my bird body with a butcher’s precision, left only a gaping wound, squirting blood onto my feathers during my slow, floundering descent down. 

Maybe it wouldn’t—maybe it would have stayed, lodged through my long white neck or through my ribs like a crossword column, a horizontal among verticals. Maybe the arrow—still lodged—would have thrown me off balance, sent me tumbling, my tiny black feet kicking uselessly in the air as I went down. 

I imagine the dumb shock on his beautiful face as sun set and I turned into a woman again, curled inward against the killing blow, gasping against a punctured lung, blushing and blanching all at once. 

I’m working on a joke, and I don’t know how it goes, but I know the punch line is “fowl play”. 

“Jesus, it’s not funny,” he says from the kitchen, with a sternness that makes me feel like I am on stage and forgetting all the steps. He doesn’t like it when I joke about it. He’s sensitive, I guess. 

Fact is, he did not shoot me. He hesitated long enough for the magic to wane, for me to flutter down to the earth with long graceful sweeps and shed my magic self like a fur coat with nothing underneath. Surprise! 

As far as first meetings go, it’s relatively unique. I would have rather tried to buy the same fish in the market, but I don’t mind. I love him, and he loves me, and I know because I am not a bird anymore. Dawn comes, and I do not feel that faint prickle of magic under my skin. I lay there with his arm hooked around my waist and the sun rises and I stay. 

I am adjusting to married life, to mortal life, to human life. I am not a wild thing anymore. My hunter-prince broke my curse: loved me enough to rinse the magic away like soap scud, and (maybe most importantly), didn’t shoot me with a crossbow. It’s the little things. I am happy, now that the story is over. I am so happy I think this is the part where I stop existing. 

I miss flying. The wizard’s curse was particularly male logic: punish me for refusing to let him flip me over by turning me into a vessel of flight. That’ll teach her. Idiot. I never felt cursed when I was flying. It felt like that was the best part of me, rising from the earth, my long neck stretching parallel to solid ground. There were moments soaring above the woods, when I felt so triumphant, so victorious, I could have shrieked with laughter. Sometimes I did—a luxuriously ugly HONK that echoed for miles. I was so free then, free from my own beauty, free from loving someone enough that the things I wanted felt small. When I was cursed, I had to come home every night, but love is just like that. 

The first few months, I still found the occasional feather in my hair. I could open the window and listen to the woods wake, still understanding the aubades of scurrying dawn. But I have scrubbed the house clean, and the woods have no words left. Not for me. 

I long for flight. I try to hold the feeling of it in my mind, sharp and clear, but it dulls around the edges. I would rather forget my own name. 

My hunter-prince is still desperately, madly in love with me. I am the thing he almost lost, the mythical woman who spent nights in his bed and disappeared through an open window each morning. He cherishes these days with me, presents me with flowers from the woods, honey, tea, shucks mussels all day until he can give me nine freshwater pearls. He brings me a coat, russet red, lined with soft, creamy baby fur. I gasp, mock horrified. “I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from Fox!”

He laughs, thunder in a canyon. He does not mind if I make jokes about him killing, as long as he is not killing me. That part of our lives is over. We are normal people, good stock, desiring nothing but a simple, grateful life in the country. And I am grateful. I am trying. 

Someday, my hunter-prince will turn over, and I will not be the cursed princess that might disappear before dawn, a puddle of pillowcase feathers where my naked body used to be. He will no longer worry I might slip through his fingers, dissolve into mystery. Someday I will be an ordinary woman, the mother of his cygnets (I am still making bird jokes), and neither of us will remember that I used to be magic. 

Lauren Hunt is a Sales Assistant at a Publishing House in San Francisco. She has a BA in English and Political Science from the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

photo by Dorothea Oldani (via unsplash)

Shedding Skin—Sarah McPherson

A girl who is born by the sea has salt water in her blood. She is nursed by sea foam as well as at her mother’s breast. Her first toys are pearlescent shells, pitted drift glass gems, many-coloured pebbles polished smooth, driftwood shapes that she fits together into odd, twisted figures. She is as happy on sand as on grass, and as nimble on the rocks as a mountain goat, scrambling the cliffs with no fear.

She knows the tides before she can read a clock, knows when the water is safe and when dangerous undercurrents would wash an unwary swimmer far out to sea. She swims like a fish herself, spending more time in the water than out of it. Her hair is rarely free of salt and sand, and her skin is browned by the sun.

Her mother is a child of the city, who ran from civilisation and found the ocean and a man she loved. The girl never knew him; he vanished before she was born and has not returned. Her mother chose to stay, not to wait for him, but to raise her child in the home she had made here on the edge of the land.

A girl who grows up by the sea knows all the creatures that dwell there. She knows tiny shrimp and fish that congregate in the rock pools and shallows. She knows crabs, large and small, insects that burrow in the sands, shellfish that cling to the rocks. She knows the birds, can name them all; gulls and gannets, oystercatchers and curlews. 

She knows the cliffs where puffins nest, and which birds vanish in the autumn, only to reappear with the spring. She knows where, if you take a boat out at the right time, you might be lucky enough to see dolphins, or even whales. She knows the rocky outcrops where the grey seals bask, and the waters where they swim and hunt.

A girl who plays by the sea too long will always hear their call. Of all the sea’s creatures, the seals fascinate her the most. She comes home each night with stories for her mother, who smiles and nods, but there is a sadness in her eyes that the girl does not see. She has never told her daughter what she suspects: where her father came from, and where he went.

Her mother voices no warning. What good would it do, to forbid the girl from the sea that is as vital to her as breathing, to tell her not to watch the seals. It would not stop her, and would cause a gulf between them that might never be bridged. Day after day she watches the girl go back out to the seals and return with eyes shining, and she waits for the inevitable.

A girl who ventures into the waves with the tide tugging at her feet, sucking the sand from under them, is taking a step towards her destiny. She dreams of transformation, longs to dive and roll, swim and play as they do, elegant and fluid in the water as they are fat and lumbering out of it.

She watches them as her mother watches her, eyes dark with longing. Her presence is familiar to them now, and so for the first time she sees them creep from the water in a group. She sees them shed their velvet coats, shuck them off like blankets and pile them in the cove, sees them wash clean the skin underneath, every shade of pink and brown that humans wear, stand tall and walk on two legs.

When they return she watches again as they dress in their grey, wrapping the skins around themselves and taking on the shape of seals once more. Although she does not look away, she fails to determine how this is achieved, or the exact moment of transformation. It is as though her eyes blur and slide off them, or she blinks at the second the change occurs.

She is quiet when she gets home, and her mother does not press her. She lies awake, wondering what magic she might call on to change as they can change, and truly be a creature of the sea. She has no velvet coat to wrap herself in, and even if she did she feels in her heart that a skin taken from another would not work. The skins they wear are their own.

In the darkest part of the night, she finds the answer; the seals can remove the skin they were born in to reveal a human form and walk upon the land. But the skin the girl was born in is a human one.

Dawn still stains the horizon when she takes a kitchen knife down to the ocean. The seals are far out on the rocks, but she fancies she can feel their gaze. She lifts the knife, its edge sharp as the tang of the sea, and nicks the hollow at the base of her throat. Carefully she draws a line with it down across her chest and peels away her skin, piece by piece. Salt tears prick her eyes at the sting of it.

It takes a long time, for she has never shed her skin before, but she perseveres. She does not see the dark shape of her mother standing on the cliff top above, her face a mask of loss and understanding. And when the girl finally discards the last of her human skin and enters the ocean, the water washes away the blood and reveals the new shape underneath.

Sarah McPherson is a Sheffield-based writer and poet, with work published in Ellipsis Zine, Splonk, STORGY, The Cabinet of Heed, and elsewhere. She has been long/shortlisted in competitions including Writers’ HQ, Reflex Fiction and Cranked Anvil, and had a story selected for Best Microfiction 2021. She tweets as @summer_moth and blogs at

photo by Chermiti Mohamed (via unsplash)

Crone Machine—Lorna Dickson Keach

She sat at the head of the table, glowing. (The rest of us sat in shadow. We thought it would have been better to be ghosts.) 

She was tall and bony with spider-gray hair on her head, parted in the center. Her eyes were stone black with drooping eyelids, heavily puckered flesh painted deep purple, the eyeshadow caked in the crevices. Otherwise, her face was the color of curdled milk. She wore scarves, silk things bought on vacation and likely as expensive as our rent. She wore a simple silver band on her wrist, but no other jewelry, nothing so garish. The crones adorned themselves simply, as a rejection of the outward appearance of wealth, ornament as vulgarity. (Unlike the rest of us, who sat in the dark, who craved decoration. We scrambled together bits of paper and stones and broken glass from the gutters to tangle up in our hair. But you couldn’t see how pretty our hair was. The lighting was too awful.)

We all stared at her in silence. What else could we do? There was nothing else in the room. Just the table, the shadows, and the twins.

The twins on either side of the crone were symmetrical, but not beautiful; they were tall and white like her, but smoother, excessively so, their flesh tucked back and pinched with silver clips behind their skull. Their long, thin hair draped over their shoulders in a color that didn’t impress itself on the viewer. It could have been hay brown, hay gold, hay beige. They wore scarves too, albeit bought from stores we recognize, stores on the corner and from strip malls. Their wide-set eyes glittered like painted resin, like dolls. They may have been made. 

We are all here to make things. 

Already, we have made many things, mostly machines. Square and round, small and large. Cubes covered in switches, buttons, lids; spheres with diodes blinking and exposed circuitry. Some machines sang a song, some of them recited the digits of pi, some turned themselves off with a little robot finger. Some ticked like they were about to explode. Our machines sat on the table.

The twins each had a machine, fine-tuned and elaborate. The twin on the right had a sleek black machine, laden with circuits, like a jewelry box, the top adorned with only a single, tiny bulb blinking. The twin on the left had a clear resin machine with the inner workings exposed in and tumbling inside, twinkling but dull. It only reflected. Their fingers clutched their creations (long fingers, we noted, with sharp nails, whereas ours were bitten and scarred from digging around in the rocks for components) and they stared at nothing but the crone and possibly themselves, their reflections cast into the surface of their machines. 

The crone herself had a machine; it was simple, shapeless, and glowing. It was constructed from some rare material the crone had stolen from another place while on vacation buying scarves. The material appeared similar to ivory, like it had been cut off of the face of an ancient, weathered animal and scrubbed clean of blood. It glowed white light, as bright as the flare of an incandescent lightbulb the moment before it burst. 

It, frankly, wasn’t designed to be looked at, we thought. It hurt our eyes. 

It was designed, we thought, to do something to us.

The twins looked at the machine too; we could tell when their dark doll’s eyes fluttered to it. Their eyes round and glittering and slow. No muscles there. Only stone. A soft creak and a clank sounded from their skulls whenever they blinked. (What did our eyes look like, we wondered? In this dark we couldn’t tell.) The crone tightened her grip on her machine while everyone stared at it, entertaining fantasies of snatching it up, kicking open the door to run (maybe screaming) down the hallway outside, passages that might (we dreamed) open up into pastures, night skies, the crash of waves.

We were caught up in our own heads, thinking of running, so we were caught off-guard when the left twin stood up and smashed its machine down on its counterpart’s skull.

Resin shattered. Gears and blood rained on the floor. The right twin collapsed. Fragments of the twin’s skull scattered across the table in broken eggshells. 

We were breathless as the twin battered its companion into a pulp, slamming the machine into their body repeatedly, long after the body components had mashed into a pool of seeping liquid and bone rubble. We closed our eyes, but we could still hear it all: the impact, the squish of fluid and rubbery flesh, the twang of warped springs, the screech of gears jammed. 

Finally, the twin took its seat. (Now the mono, we thought? What was a twin without its twin?) Quiet returned to the room. The smell of oil and seeping hot bowels permeated. Our grips returned to our own machines, but whether we were pulling them back or pushing them away was a question. Our hold was tenuous. Our minds blank. Our hearts slammed against the cages of our chests as we watched the last twin wrap their arms tightly around their now blood-splattered, dented construction. It ticked softly, the gears inside clicking and mis-aligned from the damage. We might have trembled in fear, but thankfully, no one could see. The shadows were too thick around us to give us away.

The crone gave no indication of having noticed anything had changed. 

She picked up her machine and went to work.

Lorna Dickson Keach (she/her) isn’t haunted, but she does read and write about haunted things. Her short fiction has gotten the chance to live with other stories in places like Helen: A Literary Magazine, The Metaworker, and the Green Inferno anthology. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with a degree in English, and she tweets @LornaDKeach. More of her work may be found at lornakeach.com.

photo by Isis França (via unsplash)

Obit—Rebecca Harrison

Welimma Yog was the first Plutonian author and spent her years writing in the leftover light of the solar system. Not for her were the cities gliding Saturn’s rings, nor the ocean at Jupiter’s heart where the old cathedrals of England drift, salt-deep. When she finally left Pluto as a two hundred year old lady, her manuscripts in a battered suitcase with a faulty lock, little could she have anticipated the fame and acclaim – for who among us hasn’t weeped over ‘Stone Skies At Nunpa Dune’? Who didn’t fall asleep from their mother reciting the poem ‘No steps further but just one more’? Could Yog have known that she would never return home to the Plutonian dusk? Or that she would have written her last great work in a batter-craft riding Venus’s lightning? She never learned any other language, preferring the soft gutterings of Plutonian, but her works have been translated many thousands of times. For every time a new world is discovered, we send her works first, so that they will know the best of us. And in this way, Welimma Yog has never died. Some say that if you recite her poem ‘Wind drops on the spullamet’ into the last light of the year, she will appear and write a new tale for you alone. Who among us hasn’t tried?

Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and her best friend is a dog who can count. 

photo by NASA and Justice Dodson (via unsplash)