~4,900 words, approx 30 min reading time
Monsters live here.
As do demons. Angels too, though they are more discreet about it.
And, sometimes, even gods.
Ghouls, spirits, stray souls—no matter who you are, Hotel Ze accepts all.
And Momei serves.
The Hotel exists as a luxury for any who seek rest and a little more. Located on a precipice overlooking swirling pools of mist and perpetually canopied in tooth-aching strokes of pinks and oranges, the thousand-room building attracts both weary travelers who stumble through by chance and dedicated regulars alike.
It is a rest stop from the rest of the world; a pause before the next paragraph; the intermission splitting a play.
But the grandeur of the Hotel has long been lost on Momei. From daybreak to sunset, she knocks on a thousand doors framed in gold, their luster long dulled by the film of apathy glazing her eyes. Her steps skid across marble, dodging gaggles of teenage wood spirits still wrapped in pool towels, her heels pressing against cherry walls like a phantasm—subconsciously present but never fully registered.
“Payment collection!” Momei calls, staring at the warped bronze version of herself reflecting in the shiny 388 nailed into the door until it opens to a four-eyed monster swathed in a bathrobe, two of his four pupils warily trailing her up and down.
She checks the notebook log. Of course—a first-time guest.
“We collect any kind of payment from our guests, just as long as something in your possession is relinquished to us for each day of your stay,” she clarifies as she holds out the leather bag sitting against her hip. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be of monetary value, just something that is yours.”
The guest’s contribution is less than illustrious (a dirty arrowhead), but it works, and disappears into folds of leather.
Within the Hotel’s glamour, a foulness crawls. The demon in Room 606 tries to drop an explosive into her leather bag, his ears blooming pink and angry beneath his gel-crunched combover when Momei coolly suggests alternative payments. The low-ranking angel in Room 830 silently deposits her payment with a nose turned so high that Momei checks there is nothing on the ceiling. The swamp ghost in Room 913 launches into a fevered tirade about the subpar quality of last night’s buffet special, and Momei tastes copper as she weathers stormy, misplaced words.
Her fatigue must be apparent. By the time she reaches the ninth and final floor, the guest in Room 995 reaches out and slips something cold and hard into Momei’s hand, even though they had already deposited a gold coin into the leather bag. “For your hard work,” the shawled being whispers, pressing a ringed mahogany finger to their chapped lips.
The marble sits in her hand prettily—almost too prettily, like a false jewel sold by a street vendor, its glossy crimson surface luring in one too many gullible buyers. Momei cannot parse out the guest’s true nature—a god perhaps?—but she glances down at her notebook before saying, “Thank you… Firehe the Eleventh. I’ll use it well.”
Staff members are not allowed to accept personal tokens from guests, but Momei pockets the mysterious marble anyway, patting it as if to reassure the guest of her appreciation.
Firehe the Eleventh tugs their shawl closer around them, nodding before closing the door.
The leather bag, now a hefty sack of assorted items, is deposited at the tenth and topmost floor of Hotel Ze. She leaves it along with the log with the secretary by the Hotelier’s office, then watches as another secretary scurries off to the bell tower to mark the sixth hour of the evening—and the end of her shift. The Night Collector will be waking soon, for the guests who were missed during the day, courtesy of those flimsy OUT EXPLORING signs hung on their doorknobs.
The garden is drenched in muted hues of persimmon when she enters it. Tucked along the edges of the Dusk Wing, this secluded leafy nook has always been, in a way, her own intermission. Here, she returns after the evening chime of the bell and drapes herself over the edge of the garden’s lonely marble fountain, her only companion being the sitting woman shaped in bronze at its center, the statue framed by geometric rivulets and staring over Momei’s shoulder with lackluster eyes.
She peers over the edge at the ripples below. If she looks closely, there are ghosts of shiny offerings at the bottom of the pool. No doubt cast by guests who rub their hands and pray to the bronze statue on the pedestal with hopes that somehow, someone out there will hear them.
Momei knows this because she does the same. The crimson marble is in her hand until it isn’t, plopping into the water like it belonged. Her eyes flutter shut, and her fingers intertwine.
She does not say her wish aloud.
“Don’t you have any friends to eat lunch with?”
Momei jolts, nearly choking on a gut-punch of air, her hair whipping across her face as she searches for the source of the voice. “What—?”
The statue is smiling down at her.
Momei stares. The sculpture looks as it always has—a woman sitting on a stool, loose robes unwinding across narrow shoulders, her arms drawing inwards as if caressing herself—full lines and curves cast eternally in a palette of rustic coppers. The statue blinks.
Nothing else moves except those bronze lips as it says, “Hi. I’m Carthea.”
Several moments too late, Momei tries to reassemble herself into a portrait of serenity, but the hammering in her chest suggests she is not doing a very good job. “Oh. Hello?”
The burnished smile curves in amusement. “Hello to you too. What’s your name?”
Momei tells her. The smile stretches wider.
“Momei,” Carthea repeats, and Momei, the Day Collector, feels a shiver waltz up the nape of her neck. “Lovely name. I’ve always wondered. I see you here. Every day.”
Momei’s cheeks rud. “You’ve been alive here this whole time?” she asks, incredulous. “What exactly—are you a registered guest? If not, I’m afraid you cannot stay here without payment.” She doesn’t know why these words come out with such hostility, but they do, and the statue’s mischievous smile finally disappears.
“Technically, I was,” Carthea says, “but the curse didn’t make my stay exactly voluntary.” Her eyes flutter downward, but the statue’s head does not budge, nor does the rest of her body.
The zest in Momei’s stomach twists. “Curse?” she parrots blankly.
Dull eyes lock onto hers as the smile returns. “But you broke it. Just a tiny bit, but you did. Please, I’m sorry for scaring you earlier. I’m just so excited to finally speak again, and, well, I feel like I almost know you already, watching you eat here every day.”
“Help me understand. Who cursed you? And you said I broke the curse? Then why are you still here?”
Carthea grimaces and recaps a story about a scholar from the Northern University of Dreams, trekking towards the Sandtoothed Jungles in pursuit of academic answers for a thesis on daydreams—supposedly the hardest of all dreams to catch and actualize because of its conception in the realm of consciousness, unlike common dreams of slumber.
(Scholars at the University train to become Dream Saints. Momei has never knowingly met one until now. Nor has she ever wanted to. The art of converting pieces of one’s dreams into reality is impressively difficult and awe-inspiring, she’s sure, but she would very much rather her dreams stay dreams, thank you very much.)
One fateful night of rest at Hotel Ze. A walk for fresh air in the garden. A stranger she befriends under the moonlight.
A drink poured, a drink toasted.
A drink finished.
Then nothing for five years but her own stream of consciousness, a view of the Hotel’s garden she can paint down to the flower by memory alone, and the inescapable bitter smell of bronze encasing the once-supple folds of her skin.
Until a plop of water and a searing pain across her face—the first physical feeling Carthea’s had in years.
“You don’t know who did this to you? Or why?”
Momei feels her ears blaze, livid on the statue’s behalf, but Carthea says, “No. I suppose it was bad luck; right person, wrong time.”
Still— “How? Was it the marble?” Momei strains her neck for the discarded trinket behind the fountain’s bubbling depths. Her efforts are futile; once beyond the cerulean surface, the donations become phantoms, sinking even from memory.
“Where did you get it from?”
“A guest gifted it. A token of their appreciation,” Momei explains. “I suppose it was magical then?”
“I have a hunch,” the statue muses, “but it’s something we’d have to test. That is if you’re willing to help me.”
Momei plants her hands against the cold stone of the fountain’s edge and, slowly, firmly, nods.
Enthusiasm is an ill-fitting mask.
Momei coats her words in syrup, smile gooey in the face of the sharpest jabs.
“It’s not in the object itself,” Carthea had said, her metallic lips twisted thoughtfully. “The magic is in the energy given with the object—and we’re looking for ones given with the intention of kindness. Try being more pleasant with your guests, see if you can receive more of these gifts.”
So Momei acts for an inkling of change, a shift in just a sliver of guests. Dulling a fraction of their usual unpleasantness, their knives reluctantly recoiling, sheathing sticky. She breathes easy as Firehe the Eleventh presses a silver coin into her hand this time. “Keep it up,” the guest whispers, dimpling.
The Hotelier’s secretary blinks at her newfound demeanor but says nothing except, “The Hotelier sends her praise for your progress. A little more effort, and you’ll get there yet.”
The corners of Momei’s mouth wane. She doesn’t know whether to say thanks or to ask how much more is ‘a little more.’
She returns to the garden again that night and unmasks for Carthea.
“Momei!” The statue’s smile is bright against its dull surface. “Did you get anything?”
Momei waves the silver coin triumphantly. “Let’s see if you’re right.” The coin flips in the air, catching the moonlight in glimpses, as it drops into the water.
“Make a wish,” Carthea whispers playfully, but Momei already has her eyes closed.
By the time she opens them, Carthea is laughing.
No, Carthea is moving, throat tipped back in an illusion of levitation as coils of her dark hair ebb against the wind. But her torso, arms, and legs remain as they are, perpetually frozen in bronze.
Carthea beams at Momei, teeth as luminous as her moon-kissed brown skin. “Thank you, Momei. Truly, truly. I would kiss you now if I could.”
Something catches flame at the back of her throat, but Momei swallows, and through the cloud of extinguished char, responds, “But it’s not over. You’re not free yet.”
“No, not yet.”
Firehe the Eleventh’s stay at Hotel Ze ends, but that’s alright; Momei soon finds compassion in a new guest in Room 278, a ghoul with a tendency to wet his sheets.
“Sorry, but could you call for the cleaners again?” the child asks timidly. His sticky hands benevolently gifts her a square piece of wrapped chocolate. “Thanks so much.”
It’s still not enough despite her efforts. The guests of the Hotel do not pay her more than half a glance, much too concerned with ballroom galas or daily buffet specials or personal projects in the privacy of their rooms. It is difficult to blot the spots of a leopard, no matter the method, the dye concentration, or the will.
So it takes much longer than she expects.
A week elapses, there have only been enough gifts to free Carthea of enough bronze to reach her lower ribs. The robes folded against her shoulders emerge the color of polished ivory.
Now that she has fully freed her arms, Carthea is vividly animated—hands in constant movement as she launches into another tale as Momei huffs and sips her lunch, back pressed against the curve of the fountain, stomach warm with diluted bean and root soup. Streams of sunlight punch through the overhead trellis, and their conversations are accompanied by high calls of winged friends and the occasional buzz around blooming daffodils.
At heart, Carthea remains a scholar, and five years of captivity have made her voracious for knowledge of the outside world; Momei’s breaks are kept occupied with questions on the development of technology, prominent news and events, the latest magical discoveries.
And she tries to answer as much as she can. But her answer is often no answer.
“I haven’t left the Hotel in fifteen years,” Momei confesses, the words rolling out like an apology. “And I likely won’t leave until many more.” If ever, but she doesn’t say this.
Carthea has her chin nestled into the palm of her hand. She frowns. “Why not?”
“The Hotelier—my grandmother—says I cannot.” Momei takes a deep breath. “Not by blood; she took me in at a young age. I don’t remember much of where I’m from, but she’s always said it doesn’t matter anyways because my focus should be here. She’s training me to take over the Hotel one day, to be a mage like her, running the family business. This is all part of my training.”
“Being the Day Collector?” Carthea asks, skeptically.
Momei nods. “Got to start from the bottom up.”
“And those random knick-knacks you collect as payment? What does your grandmother do with those?”
Momei picks at a crack running along the fountain’s curve. “She says there’s power transferred through objects—I suppose like the way we’re chipping at your curse. Something about the history of an object is tied with identity: its line of owners, the tears and blood polished from it, its journey from conception to the present.”
Carthea seems to understand. “And that identity holds power, even in fragments.”
Momei nods, surprised, but continues, “But how exactly? I don’t know. The Hotelier says I’m not ready for that part of my training yet.” Fifteen years. A little more.
She tilts her head back, catches Carthea’s dark gaze already spilled upon her. The woman-statue doesn’t look away as she says, “You don’t want to stay.”
Momei cannot look away either, although it’s beginning to strain her neck. “I don’t know.”
“Tell me where you want to go.”
“I can’t. I’m tethered here; it’s my responsibility.”
Carthea tuts, dissatisfied. “Pretend it isn’t. What then?”
No one has ever asked her this before, so Momei thinks deeply before she responds, fingering something from the gentler alcoves of her mind. “They say the Train that Goes Onward will take you anywhere; find a platform, board the Train, and it will take the passenger to any realm, any far off land or underwater forest or sky island they’d like.” A distant place, blooming in pigment like a memory in watercolor, of a life lived long, long ago. Where the doors weren’t rimmed in gold and the people were kind. The muscles in her cheeks begin to strain like her neck.
A sudden nudge against her cheekbone makes her flinch, and Momei nearly rolls into the fountain’s waters. “Carthea!”
The woman in question cackles, her laughter loud and boisterous. She’s holding a long twig, the end of which had just been well-acquainted with Momei’s face. “I think this is the first time I’ve gotten a good look at your teeth.” Carthea grins, baring her own. “You were thinking of a place. Where?”
The bell tolls twelve, saving Momei from a response.
The month passes in howling winds that scatter leaves across marble by day and biting chills that crack teeth by night.
The guests of Hotel Ze are stingy with their warmth.
Carthea is not.
She is freed from the hip up now. Momei drapes blankets over Carthea’s shoulders before dusk and begins to bring bundles for herself for the nights she accidentally lulls off into the realm of unconsciousness mid-conversation, limbs twisted against stone in positions that are likely to bring a doctor of the spine to tears. She never remembers her dreams in the morning.
One night, Carthea asks to braid Momei’s hair. With a short ladder secured between the bottom edge of the fountain and the base of the statue’s platform, Momei delicately balances across the rungs, her back to the woman-statue.
When Carthea’s hands brush through her hair, goosebumps tingle across her arms, haunting as a ghost’s first breath. But Momei closes her eyes and lets herself lean into the nimble fingers combing through the strands, the soft touches grazing her scalp. Carthea multitasks, roping in sections of hair as she talks about her family—her many families, she says, the one she found at the University and the one actually from home. She speaks of another name she had, tickles it into Momei’s ear, sounding out the round syllables until the other woman carves the tones with her tongue correctly.
Momei thinks about what it must be like to have a home that also thinks of her as home.
Without realizing it, Momei turns her head and murmurs a long-lost name like a reply. Its arched, striking sounds whistling across her shoulder, a blade rusted from disuse. When she does, she stills, feeling somehow like she has spoken a lie and waits for the blow across her face, the rings of Hotelier’s hand scratching pink. But then Carthea hums and repeats it, calling her, and Momei is so startled to hear her native name held against another’s tongue that she thinks she’s in a memory.
“There.” Carthea’s hands finally fall away from her head, replaced with an unwelcome feeling of sudden missingness. But Momei peers at her reflection over the water and gasps, admiring the other woman’s handiwork.
“It’s beautiful,” Momei breathes, and she means it. Violets and pink cosmos nestle into the crannies of the braid, and sprinkles of baby’s breath shine like pearls against her ink-black hair. She wonders when Carthea gathered the flowers. She thinks she hears Carthea saying something. “What did you say?”
The other woman coughs—though it sounds suspiciously very much not like a cough—and reaches over to thumb in a loose strand of hair that has fallen across Momei’s face.
After the tide of two more full moons, Carthea is almost free.
The bronze reaches only up to her ankles now.
Their days are numbered, and Momei is reminded of this whenever something grisly begins to broil in her core as she sees the bronze slowly wear away with each new offering to the fountain. But such feelings are childish and fleeting, and she knows she is better than that.
And, of course, Carthea herself is more than ready to go.
“Make a wish,” she says as Momei tosses a glass trinket into the fountain, the phrase now more of an inside joke than anything.
But Momei makes one every time—and this last one is for Carthea to be free.
She opens her eyes to see that her wish has been granted.
Carthea’s feet are no longer bronze but brown. The woman-statue is now, finally, a woman.
But before her mouth can open to celebrate, Momei is doused in a great splash of water, and a hand roughly clamps over her lips.
Momei feels someone pulling her up—and she struggles fiercely. Her legs find purchase around the other person’s body, and she tries to twist free. For a moment, she thinks she’s bested them. But when she finally blinks the water out of her eyes, Momei can see that she is far too high up. They are not on the ground. They are on the statue platform, in the middle of the fountain.
Her daze betrays her. Her opponent overpowers her, flipping their positions and pushing her back against the platform. Momei grapples with the foe, hands slipping and sliding, limbs slick with water. Then she feels something sharp pressing against her neck, and she freezes.
“Please,” Momei finally pleads. “Wait.”
The blade against her throat trembles. A familiar voice says, “I’m sorry.”
It’s unclear if the fluid streaking from her eyes is sourced from the fountain or from within. Perception blurs, then clears, and beyond, haloed by the lune, Carthea looks down at her, her face twisted into uncharacteristic lines. Like the flowers woven into her hair many moons ago, Momei wonders from where Carthea conjured the deadly weapon edged across her throat.
“Why?” It comes out as a croak, barely a sound, but Carthea understands.
“I need to do this. If I don’t … I can’t be free.”
“I thought…” Momei cannot finish her sentence. Her limbs unwind, dropping like stones, undone by betrayal. An intermission for her, a play for Carthea.
The razor ices in harder. Carthea’s breath is hot on her face.
Then Momei hears the clatter of steel against marble.
Instead, something much softer cuts into her neck. Carthea sinks into the crook of her shoulder, quivering lips pressing against her collarbone, her body racking with sobs. “Forgive me,” she cries into the base of Momei’s neck.
Momei lays there, baffled, then asks, “Was this your plan from the beginning?”
Carthea pulls away, her dark eyes shining. Moonlight peeks through her curls. “Let me tell you the truth.”
So she does:
A scholar from the Northern University of Dreams stays at Hotel Ze for a month, a vacation after a productive summer in the Sandtoothed Jungles.
A statue she befriends in the garden. A statue already half-freed by decades and decades of random offerings from guests.
A trick of friendship. A betrayal.
It was never a hunch. She knew what she needed to break free since long ago; she just needed someone to make the first crack in the iced river, the first offering of kindness.
A curse that is not a curse, but rather a centuries-old cry of anguish, dictating that one can only be freed if there is another to take their place.
This statue, this piece of art that has been stolen, art that has been taken by pillaging and force, will no longer stay inanimate, as decided by a talented but beaten artist long ago. It will no longer be ogled at by millions for its otherness in a land far from home—a land that destroyed home but took along only the pretty pieces.
No, it will steal back. A soul for a soul.
Then nothing for five years but the smell of bronze on her skin, until Carthea hears a plop of water and feels a searing across her face. And hears a wish—a daydream, if you will.
I wish this pretty place would rot.
Carthea’s degree from the Northern University of Dreams may still be pending, but she has heard all of Momei’s dreams.
“I was damned from the start,” Carthea says. “But I can’t leave you here—this place you despise so much.” Her voice breaks, and Momei finally pulls her in close, faintly aware of the resistance already gnawing through her bones, her flesh, the dandelion hairs on her arms.
“If only that guest hadn’t given you that marble,” Carthea cries into her hair, “if only you hadn’t offered it to the fountain. Oh, Momei, what were the odds?”
Momei thinks of the pain of the statue’s artist, of his land, and his people who were never given odds.
Night and silver hang above them like props in a play.
“Do it,” she whispers, the words a lump of bronze in her throat, and when Carthea begins to pull away in protest, she clings on. “If not me, then who?” Momei murmurs something into her ear. She feels Carthea’s heart pounding against her own chest. Finally, the other woman’s head nods into her cheek. “This is my last offering. Take it.”
Days quickly press into a week.
There is a new statue above the fountain now—not that anybody notices except the woman pacing in the garden, day and night. She is hardly ever in her room; the Night Collector knows where to find her to collect payment.
The woman has written letters to her friends, who are now full-fledged Dream Saints and to the University, desperate for answers. When she’s not in the garden, she’s at the library in the Half Moon Wing. But when she’s in the garden, she trains until fevers crown her head, and persimmon expires into the plum of twilight.
Nothing has worked.
Every day she is tempted to offer something material to the fountain, to get it over with. But she knows that to finally, truly sever the curse, she must end it a different way.
No more stealing. She hopes to do the statue’s artist justice.
There is a new Day Collector. He has the same ink-black hair as Momei, the same hollowed cheeks.
She wonders one day if the Hotelier knew about the statue all along. She must, the woman thinks. The Hotelier, a mage who built an extravagant dominion upon remnants of identity, yet neglects the willful offerings of kindness glimmering at the bottom of the fountain. The Hotelier, a thief with replaceable heirs, their names stolen and their histories purged, all grinding for an opportunity they’ll never receive.
Perhaps there is more power from things taken, things stripped and coerced and demanded. She thinks of how ugly that power must be, to run a place like Hotel Ze.
She sees the Hotel as it really is, under its stolen beauty. Tally-marked stone concealed behind floral wallpaper. Blood and saltwater mix in the blush dappled across the cheeks of a muraled cherub on the ceiling. Fractured and mangled bones gleam a polished gold.
She sees the Hotel the way Momei saw it.
How does a Dream Saint hear the dreams of the petrified, much less actualize them into fruition in order to bring them back to life? She sits on a ladder stretched between the statue and the water, ruminating, and finally thinks the answer is something like this. Her fingertips stretch, meeting wind. She whispers something about meeting her halfway.
To know someone is to see their longings. Their wishes, their daydreams.
She remembers mouthing a name under rustling leaves and a lazy sun, all arching vowels and striking syllables, and thinks she knows.
Another month crumbles by like stale bread.
The woman knows when she hears it.
She holds on tight and listens, reaching out.
To answer your question.
Her forehead is slick with sweat. A warm drop runs down the length of her nose. She does not let go, straining closer, closer, and please, please, let this be it. She holds a wish in her mind and hopes Momei meets her there.
I wish I could go home.
She tastes salt on her lips as they curve.
They are almost late for their train.
They run across the platform, fingers interlocking, exhilarated giggles escaping into the murmur of the crowd. A daffodil tumbles to the ground in their wake; lips press against where the flower used to sit on her temple.
Sometimes a release is also a return.
The Train that Goes Onwards leaves as the clock chimes twelve.
Sylvia Ho is a writer of speculative fiction who stares at spreadsheets by day and blank Word documents by night. Originally from California, she’s now based in Seattle where she’s perpetually on the hunt for the best boba milk tea in the city. Find her sporadically on Twitter @sylviaistyping.
Author of “She Dreams in Bronze”
What inspired you to write this story?
I wouldn’t consider myself a terribly romantic person, but something must’ve been in the air this year on Valentine’s Day. Somewhere amid the hundreds of miles of couple photos I scrolled past on that day, a drawing of a woman with her arm draped across the shoulder of a marble statue appeared on my feed — presumably a sculptor and her creation. What stood out to me were the woman’s eyes; she was looking up at the statue, her gaze so pleasantly content and adoring upon the artwork. I knew that there was a story there where that gaze could be returned.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
Identity is powerful; that’s why they want to take it away. In many cases, took.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
In total, this story has gone through at least six drafts. After initial drafting and a first round of revisions, it was sent out to beta readers, then revised a few times more before I decided it was ready for submission. Before it finally found its home here, it was rejected a total of four times — one of those times actually by Apparition Lit! It had made the final round of consideration for the magazine’s previous issue, but I was invited to edit and re-submit the story for this issue, as the editors believed it to be a great fit for the theme of Contamination. (They were right!)
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.
For all my fellow fiction writers: I recently read Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses, and his commentary on how culture impacts how we read, write, interpret, and critique stories was incredibly poignant and eye-opening. We’ve all heard to-do’s and not-to-do’s in writing, but who were those “rules” of craft written by and for whom? (I think we all know who.)
As for something I’m excited for: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is my most anticipated read of this year! Pitched as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles, the adult historical fantasy reimagines the story of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor and is, as Parker-Chan said on Twitter, “a queer book, a diaspora book, a book with roots in Marvel as much as the Chinese classics.” Talk about instant pre-order material.