Science Fiction & Fantasy

FEAR CITY by F. Paul Wilson

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Fiction

Breaking the Frame

Breaking the Frame by Kat Howard (illustration by Galen Dara)

“Escape”

The photograph is of a woman at the center of a forest. She is slim and tall and pale as the birches she stands among. The shadows turn her ribs and spine into branches, into knots in the wood. Around her arms, the peeling white bark of the birches, curved in bracelets. Between her thighs, the hair is dense and springy like moss.

She is turning into a tree.

All the stories tell us that this sort of transformation is the kind of thing that used to happen all the time, when maidens fled—good, virtuous girls—before the rampant desires of the gods. When they could run no more, they stopped, put down roots, raised up branches, and made themselves inviolate. Very nearly always a god will prefer warm, wet flesh to splinters.

To escape a god, a woman must lose her self.

The wood closes around her.

***

It was the first photograph he took of her.

***

“I need a model,” he said. “For an ongoing series of work. Photographs.”

Francesca sighed, and sipped her coffee. “And I’m sure it’s very legit, really, and any nudity will only be tasteful and artistic, and—what are you doing?”

He had set a laptop on the table next to her, and was opening files. “Here’s my portfolio. My agent’s card, and the information of the last gallery where I showed. Call them. Google me. Talk to anyone. Then call me.”

The photos on the screen were good. If he was a creep, at least he was a talented one.

“And who do I ask for, if I decide I’m saying yes?” Her voice was warm at the end of the question, an answer already implied in the asking.

“You mean when?” He smiled, and he was gorgeous. “Vaughan. Vaughan Matthews.”

***

She said yes. Of course she said yes. There are no stories when people say no.

***

“Six Seeds from a Pomegranate”

At the center of the photograph is a pomegranate, torn open. Seeds are scattered everywhere. At the right edge of the image is a young woman, hair tangled and eyes soft, as if she has just woken from a lover’s bed. Her hands are stained red.

Between her lips is a pomegranate seed.

***

That was the first time they slept together. Francesca’s hands were still sticky from the pomegranate’s juice, and she left red smears across the white cotton of Vaughan’s sheets. When they kissed, their mouths tasted of the wine-dark fruit, simultaneously sweet and tart, of desire so great that a person might consign herself to the underworld in order to satiate it.

After, she sat up, the red-smeared sheets pooled around her waist. “You realize the only way this would be more of a fucking cliché would be if I asked you for a cigarette right now.”

“What’s wrong with being a cliché?” Vaughan asked. “There’s truth in them. They wouldn’t last so long otherwise.”

He tugged the sheet from her fingers, then laced his hand with hers. Tenderness, not lust.

This, Francesca thought. This was going to be trouble.

***

“Delilah”

The woman is shot from behind, thick, tangled hair streaming down her back. She is barefoot, in a thin white dress. Held lightly in her left hand is a pair of scissors, blades open.

***

Transformation is a magic that becomes more natural with repetition. It is difficult at first, to slide behind someone’s eyes, to pull their skin up and over yours. The seams show. The fit isn’t quite.

The next time is easier, and then the next, until becoming a new person takes no more work than buttoning on a new shirt.

The thing about changing into someone else, inhabiting their life, even if only briefly, is that each time it takes a heartbeat longer to remember who you were. One more breath before your soul returns to yourself. You are never quite the person you were before.

Perhaps not pearl-eyed, but sea-changed. Something strange.

***

“I want to try the shot with you completely submerged.”

“Vaughan. The water is cold. Not lukewarm. Not tepid. But freezing-my-tits-off cold.”

“It’s making the blue tone in your skin fantastic. I’ll get some close-ups, too.”

Francesca stared at him, then climbed back into the lake. The layers of skirts she was wearing clung to her legs, weighing her down, and the flowers that had been strewn across the surface of the water were bedraggled and worse for wear.

She supposed she was, too.

In and out of the water she climbed, Ophelia rescuing herself, only to drown again at her lover’s request.

Vaughan showed her the digital shots as he worked, and he was right—of course he was—about what the cold water was doing to the color of her skin: bluing her lips and shadowing her eyes in ways that makeup never could.

Francesca looked haunted, broken, dead.

The photographs were gorgeous.

“One more, as the sun sets.”

So numb she couldn’t shiver any more, Francesca slid back into the water. And she slid beneath the surface, and she slid into darkness.

***

“Pray You Love, Remember”

Taken as the sun sets, the living fire on the surface of the lake is a stark contrast to the drowned woman floating beneath it.

This photograph was only exhibited once, and Matthews has said he will never sell it. Speculation in the art world suggests this decision is due to the circumstances under which the shot was taken. The model, Francesca Ward, nearly died, and then fell ill due to pneumonia.

Matthews did no new work during her illness.

***

Francesca fell in love with Vaughan when he brought a book of fairy tales to read to her while she was sick.

That’s not quite true.

But she felt an ache inside her chest as Vaughan’s voice broke over Beauty leaving her family and running back to the side of the ailing Beast, and the ache turned to warm honey as his hand fell from the page to hold hers.

It was safe then, his hand on hers, to say the word “love.”

But really, the falling had been a foregone conclusion from the moment he showed her his photos and asked her to be in them.

Vaughan captured pieces of the world—never as it was, but as it could have been, as it almost was. As it might actually be, if we just looked around the edges and noticed the magic.

That was how he saw her, too, Francesca thought. As if she might be magic around the edges.

When someone sees you like that, falling in love is always only a question of when.

***

“Beauty and—”

In the foreground of the photograph is a rose on top of a cracked mirror. There are clocks everywhere, fallen, tilted, askew, and all with their hands fixed at three minutes to twelve. Given the shadows in the picture, one assumes the hour being chased is midnight.

At the left is a woman in a ruined ball gown. She holds the head of a beast.

***

There is a thing that happens to stories, when you try to change them. Narrative is resistant to change. It clings to its themes, its arcs, its tropes.

If you find the fault lines along the story’s center and apply pressure, you can expose the pulse of its bloody heart. You can drawn your pen through its entrails and read the signs within.

But once you have, once you have gazed upon the heart of a story, your changes will be woven into its fabric, embraced as a variant text. The story will reshape itself around what you have written, will scar over the wounds that you have so carefully made.

You can change it, but the thing you loved in the story will always look different to you, after.

***

“Look back in—”

The woman is shot from the back, and there is a bright light before her, so we see her only in outline. She is climbing up a set of steps hewn into rock, climbing out of somewhere.

Or perhaps not.

A hand reaches through the light toward her. Instead of reaching for it, she looks over her shoulder, turning back.

***

“That wasn’t the photograph I took. You saw the finished shot. You know.”

“I was there, Vaughan. I know that’s not the shot. I didn’t turn my head, never looked back.”

Why would she have, Francesca thought. She knew the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was Orpheus who looked back, and Eurydice who disappeared, returned to death. She trusted him enough to follow him out of the darkness, but he had no faith in her silent footsteps.

“I didn’t look back,” she repeated.

“I know,” said Vaughan.

“But I thought about it.”

“What?”

“I thought about what it would be like, walking out of death, and back in to life, and how my feet would ache from walking, and how the sun would hurt my eyes, and what if I didn’t want to go with him?”

“What?”

“I mean, we assume Eurydice loved Orpheus because of the story, and how he goes down to Hades for her and everything, but no one ever asked her if she loved him. No one asked her if she wanted to go back.”

“So you did.”

Francesca laughed. “I guess I did. I’m sorry if I fucked up your picture.”

“I’m not. And you didn’t. It isn’t what I thought I was getting, but it’s good.”

***

The problem with wonders is their duplication. When something happens once, it is a miracle. When the miracle recurs, it must be renamed.

Language is not meant to contain miracles. To manifest, they require somewhat else.

***

“Subtext”

The photograph is a nude. The model’s body is entirely covered by lines of text. The quotations are taken from fairy tale and myth, romance and fantasy, and they turn the model’s body into a palimpsest from a commonplace book.

However, if the text on the body is read carefully, it becomes clear that certain of the stories have been altered from their known forms.

Which ones have been so rewritten is a matter for debate.

***

Shadows of words remained on Francesca’s skin, ghost-tattoos of stories that almost were.

She had asked Vaughan not to tell her the lines he chose, not to say which stories he was inscribing on her skin. She had kept her eyes closed, had not read what was written on her body.

And still.

“Some of them changed,” he said. “Like this one: ‘“Find me,” she said, and stepped out of her shoes of glass.’”

“It makes the story better,” Francesca said, “if it’s told like that.”

“How so?”

“Well, isn’t it more fun to think of them in conspiracy together? Instead of the Prince being some kind of foot fetishist and Cinderella just waiting around, happy to marry whoever shows up with her shoe?”

“When you put it like that, yes.” Vaughan traced the words braceleting Francesca’s wrist, words he had written there: and only in the mirror to see the other. The phrase was unchanged on her skin, unchanged in the photograph. Others weren’t and his skin prickled as he read them. “Francesca, I don’t think it’s my camera doing these things.”

“No. I don’t, either.”

***

“Every Maze has a Monster”

This is a triptych of photographs, done in sepia. The first two are cross sections of a labyrinth, old, with crumbling rock walls. At the bottom, running through the twists of the maze, is a golden thread.

In the third photograph, there is the same labyrinth, the same thread, but now we are in its center. A woman stands there. She holds a spool of golden thread in one hand, and she is smiling.

It is impossible to tell if she is unwinding the thread, or gathering it back up.

***

Stories change. They become unexpected, and require a braver sort of belief. Not belief in what is, but belief in what could be.

Possibility.

Power.

***

“The picture didn’t change,” Francesca said.

“Did you expect it to?” asked Vaughan.

She thought of the cool air, the dry scent of dust, the strength of the cord she had wound through her fingers. “No. No, I didn’t. The way you composed the shot, Ariadne was making her own choice.”

“You’re still not going to tell me what direction you were winding the thread, are you?”

“What direction do you think I was winding it?” Francesca smiled.

***

“Half Sick of Shadows”

A boat rests beneath a willow tree.

Scattered near the boat are pieces of discarded armor. Among them, the white shield, three bends gules, of Sir Lancelot.

A white dress drapes the armor.

The lady is in the water, not drowned, but smiling.

The light on the water is brilliant, bright glints like scattered diamonds. Like the pieces of a shattered mirror.

***

“Have you ever,” Vaughan asked, “thought about taking your own pictures?”

“Actually, yes. I know exactly the one I want to start with.”

***

“Freedom”

Francesca Ward’s photograph is composed in a manner that echoes “Escape,” by Matthews. But while the two images are in dialogue, “Freedom” is no mere imitation.

Rather, Ward’s self-portrait is a reimagining. The strong lines of her body, the frank gaze with which she looks out from the photograph makes clear that this is the story of a woman, not of some thwarted god’s prize.

The tree is split, and she is stepping out of it.

© 2012 Kat Howard

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Kat Howard

Kat Howard

Kat Howard is the World Fantasy Award-nominated author of over 25 pieces of short fiction. Her work has been performed on NPR as part of Selected Shorts, and has appeared in magazines including Nightmare, Clarkesworld, and the Journal of Unlikely Cartography, and a variety of anthologies. Her novella, “The End of the Sentence,” written with Maria Dahvana Headley, is available from Subterranean Press, and her debut novel, Roses and Rot, will be out in 2016 from Saga Press. You can find her on twitter as @KatWithSword and she blogs at strangeink.blogspot.com.