approx 2500 words, ~18 min read time
June huddles in her room, as though grief is a beast she can hide from. Outside, the world is ice, and dark, and dead. Inside, a tear freezes fast to her cheek before it can fall. She licks at it and thinks: there is a spell that can fix this. And there is; her mother taught her. She follows what steps she remembers, cobbles an incantation together.
A prickling golden light seeps from her fingers, from between her gapped teeth.
God, how she misses the sun.
Her skin begins to glow. It is as though the very atoms inside of her are moving faster and faster, red-hot with friction. When the parts of herself become too fast for herself, she—the whirling essence that is June—funnels upwards and inwards, spins wildly on the golden rim of magic. And then, like a coin slipped through a slot, she drops into the middle of—brightness. She knows at once something she never expected: brightness hurts. It is as though the space around her, all of the movement inside of her, has slid into place and locked. The air takes on weight. For the briefest moment she feels held. And then, quite quickly, the embrace is too much. She is squeezed so tightly she cannot breathe, cannot scream, cannot even think. It is not symbolic, this thing that is happening to her; it is not all in her head. Her muscles tear and rupture; her bones crack and shatter. When she is sure that she is going to die, she—the body that is June— is released. It is over.
She looks like melting gold, like a shimmering sun glazing a blistered earth. She touches the new, raw edge of her arm, of what had been, until moments ago, whole. The skin puckers, capping the length of the humerus. The bicep that tapers into nothing. The tricep foreshortened, like it’s been cauterized.
Her room is as empty as ever. The brief heat has fled. Her heart is an aching knot of muscle. Tears and hot anger flirt behind her eyes, and she stumbles through the rooms of her house. She is not sure what she was expecting—for her mother to appear, warm and brown, in the sky? Panic tears through her chest, and threatens to undo her. She reminds herself that magic cannot yield from nothing; unlike life, it has its rulebook. It has always been a fine balance: something taken, something given. Family, she had asked, in her desperation. Take anything. Give me back my family.
She tumbles to sleep, and at least it is dreamless.
When her mother burned out, June thought life might erupt into flames to fill the void. Instead, the world grew dark. Frozen.Grief was a wordless geography, frictionless as ice. Or, grief was a howling wind, screaming senselessly against her bones. Or, grief was a roaming beast, lurking everywhere at once. Alone in her house, surrounded by a wide expanse of blue ice, she slept huddled and covered in bed, the only place that ever felt warm.
Deep into the darkness that is the world outside of June (oh world without end, how long that darkness stretches!), her magic reaches toward a matching longness. It gropes arm-like for something—a handle—in all that formless nothing. Sometime between eons and moments, June’s magic senses some gentle disturbance, like wing-traced patterns in snow. There is, at last, some friction in all this smooth darkness. It calls out to be touched.
Family, the magic sighs. From this, I can make family.
When the boy-who-was-a-friction wakes for the first time, he wakes with a start. “Ah,” he says. Cold air soothes him. Ice caresses his new body. His skin is shiny, smooth as a plate. He stares at the dark landscape—of which he is no longer a part, at which he can now gaze—with rapt, open love. Snowflakes fall like whispered secrets far below him. Each frozen crystal, drifting like pages from a prayer book, slowly papers the ground, and glow in his silver-bright image.
He is a moon-son, cold and round and brilliant.
June wakes with a start, mouth gaping open, missing hand trying to clench at her chest. Outside, it is still dark. But something is shining in the darkness; something that did not exist before. Its cold light moves over a land revealed: over barren fields, over dead stands of trees, over mottled ribcages of rotten wood frame houses.
It was better not to see.
Past the decayed landscape, the air outside June’s window blooms with the smell of clear water, fresh snow, and a hint of flowers. It has been so long since she last smelled…anything. The sensation seizes her, then catapults her from the present into memory. The world, before death and darkness, was golden, warm, bursting with the nectar of dandelion: medallion, honey, butter-colored blooms that covered the fields so thickly you could not step without crushing twenty. She remembers a vibrancy of flowers so profound that the fields quivered with color.
It has been so long since she remembered flowers!
She runs onto her porch and meets—nothing. Or what appears to be nothing. The moon-boy is standing quite still. She does not notice him at first, when she steps off her porch into the dark blue world, searching for color. The boy has pressed himself behind a tree’s thick trunk, the pale globe of his body almost hidden behind its black lines.
It is when the tree’s branches begin to glitter that June turns to look more closely. At first, she thinks she is imagining it. But the thick branches flicker, and then glow steadily. They burst and bloom, bright white moon-flowers on branches that have been bare for months. June’s mouth fills with water, sweet and cool. Her belly cramps with a hunger she hasn’t felt in…weeks. A sweet, faint fragrance tips again onto the breeze. Her arm twitches at her side. She feels her ghost hand open, her fingers stretching wide to cup the air. Bloom, and open, bloom, and open.
And the outline of a boy, white against white flowers, pops from his surroundings.
“Moon,” June gasps, with a sharp shake of her head.
“Moon!” The moon-son replies, beaming.
Since her mother died, instead of warmth, June has pulses of feeling, bright and sharp. She hates the frozen fields, hates the emptied sky, hates the deep, bone cold of life now. And now she hates the moon-boy, silver and bright, who waits to be let in.
“You aren’t what I wanted,” she tells him, coldly. “I wanted warmth. I wanted yellow flowers. I wanted my mother. I wanted sun.”
She appraises him. He is silvery and small and wrong. He smiles faintly.
“I hate you,” June says to the frozen world, to the unreason that came like lightning and took away everything, and to the boy who is far too much a part of this new landscape. Far too little like her, like her mother. “I will never accept you.”
Back alone in her room, shivering and miserable, June tumbles apart like a handful of stones.
She lets him come inside. He shines silver, and asks for ice.
“It’s everywhere,” she says. “You don’t need me to get it for you.”
The moon-and-ice boy laughs. “You’re right,” he says, undaunted. June sucks her teeth, but otherwise ignores him. In the middle of the night, when she is supposed to be asleep, she watches him slip out of bed, climbing up branches until he is way up high in the cold, black sky. His light makes diamonds in the ice fields.
“Beautiful,” June whispers, half-sleeping. And the moon-son, overhead, smiles.
“Stop watching me,” she says, the next night, when she catches him peeking at her while she pretends to be asleep. He grins, unabashed, and continues gazing. She raises herself up on one elbow, and asks him just what he thinks he is looking at. She expects him not to answer.
But he does. He tells her that once he was just the smallest disturbance of texture in a limitless dark potential, a ripple in a stream that could have gone on being nothing. Until her magic found him. Now, he is a moon-bright boy with arms and legs and laughter. He feels strong as a mountain covered in snow. He is brilliant as a glistening sheath of ice with blue-black water gliding beneath his belly. He is possible as a cascading snow shower, a million of him at once, floating silently toward the earth. It takes her a moment to realize that, for just one second, as he talked, she too was enchanted by what the cold, dark world could be.
Through his eyes, the world is not dead, and cold, and dark. It is sparkles and crystals and…alive.
On the table between their beds, the boy has piled a little heap of moon flowers from the tree outside. He watches them glisten and sparkle. As he gazes, they unfold themselves from their crumpled pile, their petals flap like snow cranes, and lift to fly gracefully through the room. June smiles at the novelty, the delight of it. She supposes that he could be beautiful, in his cold, silver way.
But then her mind stutters. It is like catching a toe on the rough edge of memory and she goes tumbling to her knees. She remembers her mother blowing warm breath into a silky cup of petals, remembers the flower hovering delicately above her palm, animated briefly before wilting from the heat. “You can eat these,” her mother said, then. “The taste will transport you to summer.” June’s mouth tugs down, her hand curls into a fist against her side.
“I like being the moon,” the moon son assures her, worried that she thinks he has been complaining. “With my light covering the land, I can be part of everything.”
“Not everything,” June says softly.
June dreams that she is eating flowers.
She feels something soft brush against her lips. Wing, she thinks. She smells clean water, fresh ice. Flower. She smells burning sun and sweet perfume. The flower’s stem is a cord stretched from her chest to the far edge of a blank land. She opens her mouth, takes the petal between her teeth. She chews. It tastes faintly perfumed, slightly bitter. It wilts against her tongue. She swallows. A cool, gentle liquid rises in her stomach, spreads to her chest. Tingles spread up and down her limbs, to her toes, to her cheeks. She stops shivering. The magic in her veins slows, and then stops. There is no pain, this time. There is sweet, unexpected relief.
Her body is not a prisoner, she is no longer tethered.
She wakes, expectation brimming in her like water. She scrambles outside, stumbling down the steps in her haste, and pinches a blossom from the tree. She holds it to her mouth, thinks of her mother, and pushes it between her lips. She chews, and swallows. Liquid fills her stomach, and quickly rises to her throat. She braces herself against the tree, and vomits.
Grief twists her. After her mother died, June had wrapped her arms around her still-warm body, and tried to follow where she’d gone. As the chill set in, then the terrible cold, her mind flew on soft downy wings over an endless, blank, in-between land. Nowhere to perch, nowhere to land. Hovering, exhausted, she beat the air until it formed the shape of a question to resound, over and over, through that empty, dark, unwelcoming space. How do I go on without you?
June sits at the table, and tries to think of a spell that can fix this. She is no closer to making the world be what it used to be, no closer to remembering what it felt like to be whole. Perhaps she has not given enough.
What she loses next is a leg—the bottom half twisted and useless, though not torn away completely. It hurts the same, and she is still not prepared for it.
The star-girls appear quickly, holes punched into the night sky. When June sees them, she trembles with recognition. They are as bright and hot as her mother, and as giant. But when June reaches for them, hungry, greedy, they recede from her. June stumbles, tries to steady herself with a left arm that no longer exists.
“Please,” June says, and tries to find the words to continue. “Why are you so far from me?” June holds her hand up before her. “I can’t feel you.”
The stars twinkle cheerily. Faint voices answer, a harmony reverberating through the heavens:
“We are right here, mother!”
“We are right here, mother!”
“We are right here, mother!”
Rage, unexpected as it is complete, shudders through June. “Please,” she shouts into the sky. “Don’t you know how much I need to feel you?” Magic crackles through her hand. A jolt, heavy with anger, thuds through her. And then grief blunts June’s senses like a cloud of dirt, like a mountain of ash. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t want you if I can’t feel you.”
The stars go on shining, oblivious, twinkling.
Is it worse, she wonders. To have nothing, and no one? Or to have something so different? Brightness hurts, she reminds herself. But it is what she taught me.
The moon-son comes quietly through June’s door, his arms full of white flowers. The star-children peek through her window.
“I’m sorry,” June begins, wanting to apologize for the strange things she has done, for the strange thing she has become.
“Look,” interrupt the stars, pointing to the flowers. “You have been so sad, and we thought that you might like these.”
“Smell them,” says the boy. He shows her a soft petal.
“You can’t eat them,” June says, frowning. “They don’t do anything.”
“No,” agrees the moon-son. “But they make you smile when you look at them.” The moon-son finds a jar, fills it with water, and arranges the flowers carefully.
“It can be hard,” the stars say, “to be alone in the dark.” A simple fact, stated simply. But in their voice, their quiet harmony, June hears all the words of grief.
They climb down from the night, and seat themselves at the table around her. The silver light from the moon and the white light of the stars brighten her room. It is not the world she knew; it is, still, so painfully different. But the flowers shine softly, sweetly. There is a beauty in their whiteness. A sliver of ice breaks from a petal, and June watches it melt into water.
“I can look at these,” June says, “and remember a little bit of summer. I can tell you about it, if you’ll let me.”
The moon and the stars look at her expectantly, waiting for her to teach them. And June feels—not relief, not exactly—but a moment. A moment of something that softens her lips, her heart, the claws of her memory.
Perhaps, June thinks, there is no spell that can fix this. But tonight, there are the moon and the stars who sit with her. There are flowers that look like bright wings lifted.
Endria Isa Richardson is a black, malaysian, and gay american writer from Worcester, Massachusetts. Her stories are in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, FIYAH, Nightmare, and other fantastic/al magazines. In her past life, Endria was a prison abolitionist lawyer. You can find more of her work at www.endriarichardson.com.
Photo by Federico Di Dio photography on Unsplash