approx 4600 words, ~28 min read time
[Fragment 1: sun-dried river clay; found at site 14 temple complex, grid 14N]
They summon me to answer, “What caused the fire in the potter’s quarter?”
This time, I recite the words I have said before, the words I will say again, these words written on the hardened clay fragment of my long-dead body. It was me. I caused the fire. It was a child’s birthday party.
[Fragment 2: sun-dried river clay; found at site 8 residential complex. Unusually uniform character formation, indicating non-standard stylus, similar to tablet 1 found at site 14.]
I have a reputation among the potters and the woodworkers whose houses huddle in the shadow of the cliff-carved temple. They whisper that I am the sort of demon to be summoned when you want to have a good time. They imagine secret gatherings in hidden courtyards, waterskins bursting with new wine, wild displays of hedonism, ritualistic copulation, and other practices banned by the temple-men and their holy calendars.
It’s true, such things are done, and I am often involved, but what is also true is that sex leads to children, which leads to parents needing childcare; so the thing I am summoned for most is children’s birthday parties.
[Fragment 4, sun-dried river clay; found at site 8 ritual(?) chamber, destruction layer]
The disaster begins with a question, asked by the birthday girl while she oh-so-carefully places yarrow blossoms in the twig hat that lays atop my clay false-body.
“When is your birthday, Feah?” she asks me, her face serious, her chin wrinkled.
I pause, unsure. “I… do not have one.” The parents watching us smile at our exchange, but the smiles are strained. They glance nervously at the cloth covering the door that moves in the breeze like a tongue betraying secrets.
“But everyone has a birthday. You must.”
To the humans, time is a bird they can see moving across the sky: in the traversal of the sun, in the changes of the moon and the yearly floods, in the calendars carved in the wall of the cliff-temple. But in the place where my true self exists, there is no time or space or hope. There, I am like a beast frozen in the mountain ice. Only when a human chips away a tiny bit of my prison and yanks one of my toes into the air does that small part of my whole understand what it means to be warm with change.
But she is a child, and I cannot explain this to her. She looks up at me with eyes full of trust, a small fragile person in a world that swirls with change and pain and love—all the things I crave. I cannot disappoint her, nor her mothers who I have known since they were children. So I lie.
“My birthday, dear Mouse, falls upon…” My false-body twitches, aware only in a fragmentary sense of the looming danger of this momentous choice. “My birthday is the twenty-fifth day of the month of green-leaves.” A good day, neither too cold nor too hot, perfect for resting in a hidden courtyard garden beneath the blooming trees of a new season.
She nods—my answer satisfactory—and runs off to play with the other children while I prepare for my juggling act. When I am in this moment, when it is real and not just a fractal memory, I don’t expect her to remember my answer. I am more concerned with the children having a good time. My body—carved ash-wood bones, flesh of clay and sacred oil—has six arms, perfect for all manner of entertaining tricks.
[Fragment 5: sun-dried river clay; found at site 8 residential complex. Conjoins with Fragment 4. Further evidence for singular author theory.]
Perfect for enflaming the terrified imaginations of the temple-men. They arrive at the party, uninvited and unwanted. Did a jealous neighbor tip them off? Did I—in my misunderstanding of the linearity of time—warn them about the party? It does not matter. They stand at the threshold, they have torn the cloth from the doorframe; it is too late to turn them away. To these temple-men, it is impossible to believe that a demon would do anything at a birthday party but corrupt—or eat—the children.
“Please, stop,” I say as the men topple tables and tear decorations down. Their faces display a vile admixture of anger and joy. Children scream as their parents are pushed to the floor.
My first instinct is to juggle at the temple-men, a big open-mouthed smile on my face, my feather eyebrows that give me my namesake wagging up and down. They are not amused, they do not stop and stare and wonder, won’t stop hitting and grabbing and tearing and breaking and—
I cannot let this happen; cannot let my friends be punished on my behalf; cannot let my dear Mouse’s birthday be ruined; cannot let these events be baked into a hard and brittle future.
But it’s too late. The mothers are gone, the children are gone, and I am gone. I am returned back to my hated home.
[Fragment 5: appears to be an exact duplicate of Fragment 5 in shape and composition, albeit with different text. A forgery? A practical joke?]
I failed once. I try again, summoned again to this same birthday party. How many times have I lived this terrible moment? My unhappy relationship with linear time returns me here again and again. This time, I do something fool-desperate. The temple-men believe me to be a monster; I must exploit their weakness–fear.
I stride blur-fast to the animal-fat torch and dip my hand into the fire. My fingers dance with the flame, and the oil in me kindles. I roar with joy at the heat and rip my burning clothes off. I advance, blazing bright, hurling flaming bits of my body as I shout secrets of burn-treatment so none will be permanently harmed.
They retreat in terror. I am surrounded by flame, my body and the tables and wooden beams that hold up the mudbrick roof all dance the song of their own consumption. Before I can say goodbye, before I can make sure everyone escaped, the embers of my false-body dissolve and I am pulled unwillingly back to the rigid perfection of my home.
[Fragment 1: sun-dried river clay; found at site 14 temple complex, grid 20F. Another duplicate. What is going on here?]
They summon me to answer, “What caused the fire in the potter’s quarter?”
A ring of fire surrounds me, crackling with the fat of a sacrificed beast. Beyond the fire are the temple-men in their fine jewelry and leather boots. They believe the fire protects them because it is a child of the sun they worship. They do not understand that the fire is nothing to me, that I do not want to hurt them. I want to help them, to see them smile in satisfaction, but not just them, these men whose power grows equally with their jealousy.
This time, I ignore their questions. I stare at the soot-blackened sandstone ceiling of the great ceremonial chamber carved in the side of the canyon cliff. Behind the priests is a wall adorned with an elaborate painting of my home, which they call the realm of demons. They depict it as a dark and fiery pit, filled with creatures they imagine to be vile. A place of chaos and change. If only it were so.
I tell them my home is a place without tense or distance, where all things lay atop each other in a single brilliant point, pure and unchanging, singing a perfect crystal note for ever and ever. I hate it there—but I can only hate it when I am here. When I am home, there is no hate or love or me separate from the whole. No chance for desire to transmute action into achievement. Only when a small shard of me is pulled into this world can I understand hope, understand that plans brought to fruition might allow me to rip myself violently into this world, away from the rest of my self that desires to keep me trapped wholly in the perfect hateful glory of my home.
They repeat my words back to me, anticipating what I will say. Repeating the words I told their predecessors long ago, before they carved this chamber, before they built the mud-brick town below. I shared my secret hopes with them, and they reacted with horror. This is why the temple-men ban the people from summoning me. This is why they send clay tablets warning of me to the other city-states that rise out of the flood-plain like termite mounds.
Is it the truth I tell to the temple-men, or the lie I tell at the birthday party that is to blame?
[Fragment 7: sun-dried river clay; found at site 8 residential complex; unidentified fluid residue]
I am here at the moment of her creation.
A man summons me into a clay body shaped like a man: broad chest, long-limbed, wearing the bountiful skirts of a merchant. There are candles, wineskins, and a bed. He wears a body made of muscle and bone and blood. He is his body, and he feels all the changing glories of his flesh.
I feel nothing. I don’t know this man, not well, but because he has given me a moment of escape from my home, I do my best to make his night special. First, we talk, as he drinks wine and I learn the sacred shape of his desires. Talking transforms into dancing and kissing and I hold him tight within my embrace as he plants his seed in me.
I must move fast, wrapping myself in animal skins to disguise my true nature, and stride into the star-cold night. My journey along the labyrinthine jumble of houses built atop one another is accompanied by the scurrying dances of rodents and the muttered wing-beats of night birds.
Her mothers—not yet mothers—greet me at the door with kisses and joy. They help me sculpt my body into the shape of a woman: hips widened, shoulders narrowed, eyebrows trimmed. I know these women, know the shape of their desires. I have kissed them in the past, I will kiss them in the future. I know where to place my hand on the fat of their thigh, what words they want me to whisper as the suppleness of my body flows around them.
I don’t feel it the way they do in their heart-pounding flesh. The wood and oil and clay and feather of my false-body feel things differently. Yet, whenever I have the opportunity to culture joy in another—especially someone I know and care about—a mirrored joy blooms in me.
These two women desire to have a child, and I am the means by which a man’s distant seed is brought to sprout within one of their wombs. If the seed ripens into a living, crying child, the man will be paid, and a bond forged between the four of us. A hidden bond; unseen and thus unbreakable by the priests who believe their predictions and calendars allow them to dictate the flow of life.
I am here in this moment, more aware than these two humans of the glory and horror of what we do: the creation of a thing that will hurt and laugh and feel and love and hope and die and—
[Fragment 7: duplicate]
I weep, and her not-yet-mothers hold me tight. My face is dry and I weep with the noise of my voice. I weep and I don’t know why. I weep because I know what I’ve done. I weep not because my body forces me to, like a human, but because I am fear-lonely and I need them to comfort me.
[Fragment 8: sun-dried river clay; site 10 granary, grid 3A; food residues on surface]
I awaken in the month of green-leaves, sitting in the shade of a pecan tree just starting to fruit. I am wearing a clay body, and the body is wearing a gown woven from yucca fibers. I rub the corpse-fibers of the plant—changed from one purpose to another—between my fingers and listen to the music of happy human voices.
The birthday girl is here; still a child, but awkward-tall now, so this is after the birthday party that ends in fire. My little Mouse survives the fire. She survives with her mischievous eyes and her heart pumping fast with the desire to carve the world into a pleasing shape.
“What’s this for?” I ask when the pain of pinning my soul has eased enough for me to do more than focus on the way in which sensations here change over time.
Little Mouse looks up at me, claps her hands, and says, “It’s your birthday!”
Her seed-father rolls his eyes and spits in his hands. “These things don’t have birthdays,” he says, and I can tell he is reciting an old argument. “They’re dangerous servants. The only thing preventing it from ripping your face off is the bindings I placed in the sacred oil.”
Not only is that a terrible thing to say to a child, but it’s not true. What prevents this man from feasting on the red-rich flesh of his seed-child? Nothing but love and consequences. So it is with me.
But I don’t correct him, and I don’t give in to the urge to ruffle the hair of this perishable man. Instead, I lean down to mock-whisper to Mouse, loud enough for him to hear, “I wouldn’t eat his face—he never washes it.”
We celebrate in the ruins of a storeroom, trees growing between the remnants of vine-laced mudbrick walls. I remember when this was a place where humans lived, before the whims of the river moved elsewhere. Her parents have strung decorations amongst the plants that work to transform the works of humans into their own designs. A feast lays upon a crooked table: honey-drizzled cornmeal pudding, squash and beans soup, dried rabbit meat, and other foods whose sights and smells make me wish I felt hunger.
They’ve thrown me a birthday party. Me! I clap my hands and smile wide and join the revelers. We dance and sing and eat and drink. I am having a wonderful time, and then little Mouse asks me the second of her terrible questions.
“I’m so sorry, Feah, we didn’t get you a proper gift. What do you want?” she asks, eyebrows frowning, mouth pouting pensive.
What do I want? Me? Is this the first time I have been asked and offered the fulfillment of my own desires? To the humans, I am not a thing that wants; I am a thing that soothes their wants.
I tell her I want a real body, a permanent one. I want to sever the connection between myself and my larger self. I want to escape unchanging immortality. I want to live here in this world of chaos. I want to change, to choose, to flow like the river and flap like the bird. I want; I want; I want. It pours out of me like I am a cistern filled to brim with only a tiny hole at the bottom through which my desires can flow.
Is everything that happens afterwards her fault, because she asked? Or my fault, because I told her the truth?
[Fragment 10: sun-dried river clay; site 10 granary, grid 9G; found with knapping tools]
The first time she summons me herself, she is dressed in the skins of wolves and buffalos, scraped smooth and sown tight around her. A spear is strapped to her back, the stone tip made darker by the rich brown of dried blood. Woodchips and clay tablets lie scattered on the floor, and the shadow-crescent curve of her face—so like her mothers’—is triumphant.
She hugs me tight, her arms banded with muscle and love. How long has it been for her? For me, no time has passed. For me, the wait has been endless.
She strokes my feather eyebrows and I laugh and then she sits me down and tells me she wants to help. She has a plan. I juggle unshelled pecans while I listen, and at the end of her explanation, she asks, “Does that sound good to you?”
I smile and reply, “Of course, dear Mouse. I understand your plan; I understand how to help.”
She shakes her head. “No. I’m asking your permission. I want you to think about it. I want you to choose. I want you to be able to say no.”
I begin to speak, and then I am silent. I am silent for a long time, my body still except for the movement of my arms and hands as I toss pecans into the air and catch them and toss them again. It helps me think.
She waits for me. She waits through the passage of the sun across the sky, through the morning chorus of the bids. She waits even though her body makes her hips shift with the need to urinate. She waits for me. For me!
And when it has been so long that I feel the pull of my home become irresistible, I say, “No.”
Feeling drains from my fingers, pecans fall to the floor, my limbs hang limp, no longer a part of me. When all that is left to me is my heart and my head, I smile and say, “I have a better plan.”
And then I am gone and the horrible song of my home blots out all sensation.
Is my plan the one that destroys us? Or is it hers?
[Fragment 12: hibiscus-era style potsherd(?); surface residue preliminarily identified as blood]
She is so old; I am so small. I curl up in the palm of her wrinkled hand. This is the last of the clay, the last of the oil, the last time in her life she will see me. Everything is wrong now.
She places me in a leather pouch. She strings the pouch with sinew and hangs it around her neck, so I am nestled against her chest. I listen to the small bird of her heart flutter its delicate wings, making a soft song of fear and love.
I am there when she dies. I am there when they come for her, and there when the temple-men drown her. We float together down the river, through the delta, and into the sea. I weep, and I have no tears. The sea is my tears.
[Fragment 11: hibiscus-era style potsherd; site 8 camp, grid 10L]
She is the artist, and I am the medium. We experiment with form and function, not bound by the need to make a useful tool, not bound by the human fascination with their own form.
I am a snake, slithering up to the temple-chamber, listening to whispered priest-secrets. I am a hawk, swimming in the air, finding hidden places in the mountains and the forests. I am a lizard, searching sun-warmed crags and ruins for abandoned clay-carved words. I am a dog, my mouth wide and full of stone-sharp teeth, my eyes watching the dark while she sleeps in wild places.
I am a pot, a wall, a loom, a bed, a spear, an arrow, a map, a tablet. I am a new thing, a thing seen in dreams, a splatter on the wall, an unworldly shape. We are children, playing with clay, making no progress except for our own pleasure. I learn to gather the honey she likes drizzled on her corncakes. I learn to make her laugh. I learn how to divert her impatient determination away from fatal plans. I learn the secret meaning to the wicked curve of her smile.
[Fragment 13: composition unknown, resembles petrified wood; site 9 tannery, destruction layer]
Mouse summons me to the forest and says she has a solution. She tells me that my home is me, and so the only thing barring the way, is me.
She holds my hand and we listen to the birds, each one singing their own desires into the world, all of them a chorus to the songs of change made by the wind in the leaves and the snow transforming into trickling waters that flow to the flood-plains below. She points to the gentle curves of the river where she will make my future home.
Our time is up, and my spirit flees the body she made for me. I return to myself, to the realm that holds my true body, and this moment is erased for me. Only now—when it is too late—do I remember her terrible plan.
[Fragment 1: another duplicate. Despite wide geographical distribution, all unusual samples appear to be localized to former watershed area.]
They summon me to answer, “What caused the fire in the potter’s quarter?”
But this time, I have questions for them.
By summoning me, by forcing a shard of me into their world, they changed me, changed my unchanging, immutable home. But they are not the ones who made the song discordant. I think it was always such, but now having come to understand the concept of change I also understand the horror of my prison-home.
I fear that change goes both ways. There is no time in my home, no before or after, only always. What happened to their universe when always met past, future, and present? Why do I remember being summoned to the same moment multiple times? What will happen when I bring the sum total of my always-body into their home? Why do they fear that question?
[Fragment 13: composition unknown, another duplicate.]
She summons me to the forest, and says she has a solution.
I tell her, “No.” I am not worth it.
She yells at me, wrestles me to the ground, tries to pound selfishness into my body. I don’t resist. I lay scattered among the roots of the juniper tree, and in the moment before I return, I hear the sharp cry of an unbound hawk.
[Fragment 13: duplicate]
She summons me to the forest, and says she has a solution.
I ask “How?” She says she learned the truth when she summoned two of me at the same time. This time, I don’t remember that happening. What was it like to not be alone? What was it like to touch myself? To feel myself held and loved by my self?
“Why?” I ask. “Why are you so determined to do this for me?”
She laughs, bitter with frustration. It’s not my fault—I am born into the bodies they make for me. But the bodies aren’t me. How can I make my own desires when I am bound by the shapes they rip me into? I am not these hands, not this head or heart. I am a beast, I am a bird, and when I go home, I am all alone.
[Fragment 12: hibiscus-era style potsherd; another duplicate]
I am there when she dies. Old and soft, lying on a bed I built for her, surrounded by children and grandchildren, wives and husbands, friends and lovers and apprentices.
I hold her hand, her grip still so strong. Her house, nestled like a lover among the other houses of the city, is full of the things she made. Pots and statues and bowls and people. And me.
I am her child. I am her mother. Soon I will be alone.
I ask, “Is it better this way, little Mouse?”
She squeezes my hand. Her eyes are wet and I envy her tears. “Better than what, Feah? For who? I’m not the one who gets to choose.”
[Fragment 14: sun-dried river clay; carbon dating inconclusive, appears to be moderately radioactive.]
She summons me while hip deep in the river. Her arms stretch to the sky, her feet sink into the muck. The river is a snake, a leviathan in motion between the mountains and the sea, a body big enough to hold my horrible soul.
Upstream, the temple-men stride along the bank, closer and closer, their hands filled with spears, their hearts filled with murderous fear. This is our last chance—her last chance; I am stuck like a fly in amber in an infinity of chances.
Her eyes are wild with determination, and yet she still asks for my permission.
“Yes,” I say, and she hefts her stone axe—the blade I knapped for her—and strikes me down.
[Fragment 14: Please place any duplicates of this fragment in lead-lined case]
She summons me while hip deep in the river.
She summons me. Me! All of me! I am not the shard, not the limb they chip from the ice. My body is a broken song, and this time the first note she plucks is the word “Yes,” screamed so loud into her world that it shakes the mountains and topples the walls and makes the birds fall from the sky.
She summons me into the only body big enough to write all the notes onto. My flesh is the clay riverbed, my blood is the rich black-silt river, my heart is the woman who loves me, my hands are the brick-built cities, my lungs are the sky which cracks open like a bird’s eggshell to reveal the wild yolk of my soul.
The world trembles at the glory of my arrival. No—I am the one who trembles, and the world itself obeys my need to shiver in fear-delight as my coming obliterates my new home.
I sing, and the world hums in tune. I am not just the clay, not just the water, I am the rock, and the wood, and the flesh, and the air, and the void beyond. For one eternal moment I sing my song and the melody changes. It changes! I wrest the tune, I harmonize my infinite voices, and I sing and sing and sing the song I have always wanted to sing, and the world sings with me, and my Mouse sings too, even as everything falls apart, even as everything is good forever and ever.
And then I am a fish.
A fish flopping and gasping and afraid in a place that is not home. And the woman who lured me into her woven fish-trap sees my pain and thinks to throw me back, but the lake has boiled into mist-song and so—
I am dead.
In that terrible moment, in the throes of my death, I write myself—all my memories, each variation on the times I was and will be summoned. I sing the epic of my soul into the flesh of the world; an imperfect, perishable, scattered shard-record so that me and my little Mouse will not be forgotten. All the infinite memories, clustered branching like the web of arteries in her beloved body, carved forever into the dead and changing place she calls home.
“Little Mouse,” I say at her deathbed, in her home surrounded by love. “It is better this way. It is better that you let me choose and that you taught me how to become that choice. I will not regret what we did. You sang with me, and you transformed me into the song, and you transformed the song into what I will always sing.”
I am there when she is created. This time, I do not weep.
Ann LeBlanc is a writer and woodworker, whose stories about queer yearning, culinary adventures, and death can be found in Fireside Magazine, Mermaids Monthly, and Baffling Magazine, among others. She can be found at annleblanc.com or on Twitter at @RobotLeBlanc
Featured image: Sharon Mollerus, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Author of “Infinite Clay Tablet-Memories Sung Into the Flesh of the World”
What inspired you to write this story?
The unusual protagonist in my story is an amalgamation of three different sources of inspiration.
I was reading an article about the medieval era’s ideas about sex with demons, which described a demon that had sex with a man, took his seed, then transformed shape, had sex with a woman, and impregnated her. I wanted to explore the idea of a sex demon as a sort of pre-modern fertility treatment for queer people.
I combined this idea with my fascination with JEDD Mason from Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. [Spoiler] We only get a few brief descriptions of JEDD’s home dimension, which supposedly has no conception of time and space, or suffering. I wanted to explore that idea more. [/Spoiler]
Jo Walton’s Lent was also a source of inspiration. Her description of Hell is absolutely one of the most chilling and horrible things I’ve ever read. [Spoiler]And I absolutely love time loop stories, so of course a story about a demon stuck in a time loop was catnip for me.[/spoiler]
I took all those elements and—as is typical for me—wrote a story about body autonomy.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
I hope readers take whatever they need from this story, but most of all, I hope they believe in the importance of short fiction. Magazines like Apparition Lit are at the cutting edge of speculative fiction, publishing the sort of stories and authors that wouldn’t necessarily find a home elsewhere. They can only thrive with your support, so I hope you’ll consider a subscription to at least one magazine.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
This story went through many many edits. It started out fairly straightforward, without the time shenanigans or structural weirdness. I added those elements so I could submit it to Lackington’s final call (RIP), and it made it to the final round there.
I tend to make called shots with my stories; tailoring them to specific markets and only submitting them to places that I feel are a strong fit. So I only sent it to a few other places before submitting it to Apparition Lit, which feels like a perfect home for this weird little story.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki is one of my favorite things I’ve read this year. It’s an absolutely delightful mix of unusual elements: a trans prodigy violin player, deals with demons, luthiery and woodworking, delicious food, spaceships, and more. It’s weird, and brutally true, yet simultaneously gentle. Highly recommend.
The Field Tiger by Endria Isa Richardson in Clarkesworld is a phenomenal short story, for those who crave beautiful meaning-dense stories with structural complexity.
The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han by Maria Dong in Khoreo is another favorite. I love the way this story builds on itself and goes in a very unexpected direction.