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Fiction

Ex Libris Noctis

Beatrice’s heart skipped and skipped again, the tiny pistons clattering in their brassbound prison. Her ribs ached, and there were narrow darts of pain throughout her chest.

She was dying.

Opening her mouth to protest, to call for help, to cry out in the rank darkness that was her small room, Beatrice could not speak. Only a squeak of steam emerged. Then nothing but the bellows of her lungs in time to the errant brasswork of her heart.

Her leering jailor appeared at her door. The guttering flames of his eyes danced in their slits. The gleaming needles of his mouth parted, flexing open like morning’s first flower, as the dark words flowed like wine long gone bitter in winter’s rotted barrel.

“Regret nothing,” the jailor said.

Nox Solis: Out of heaven’s benediction

Traffic was against her at every step. Sidewalks tilted crazily, the concrete decks of the city’s ship tossed on a slow storm of crabgrass and frost heaves. The sun shone bright as the pennies on a dead man’s eyes, cold as his breath.

Beatrice stood at an intersection, waiting to cross against the running tide of steel and chrome and shrieking rubber, the gritty sulphuric belches of a passing bus crowding the air from her lungs. She was late, late, late.

The light changed, the green that was with her stuttering like an automotive disco even as the pedestrian signal faded to black. Two cars crowded close, but the light changed back too quickly, the cross-traffic erupting once more into motion.

“He’s dead,” she shouted at the uncaring streets. Her voice echoed off the rushing tinted safety glass of a limo larger than her apartment. “Let me through!”

Traffic surged in further waves. She would have to make her own crossing. Beatrice hitched up the skirt of her wool suit—her best and only funeral clothing—and charged into the street muttering, “Damn, damn, damn, damn!”

A classic VW Beetle, bright green with one of those Rolls Royce hoods, tried to slide around her in the angry blare of its tinny horn. The engine clattered like a tray of hammers stepping through the gears as it hopped the curb, flattened a newspaper box, and slammed into the light pole.

Beatrice forced herself to look away, racing past the next obstacle—a postal truck. It swerved the other way, knocking down a motorcyclist and setting off a screaming chorus of tires and horns. Running, she took a flying leap over the downed biker.

She did not return promptly to the earth.

Her black pumps—scarred and repolished a dozen times in the years since she had quit college—folded under Beatrice like the feet of a Canada goose. Arms flailing, she crossed over a rusted Pontiac with a homemade sunroof, evidence of patient hours with a Sawzall and way too much beer. A lank-haired man with a sunburnt face and a welder’s cap stared up at her, joint dangling from one slack lip.

After that she was over a TriMet bus, seeing the huge black numbers on the roof. Beatrice nearly caught her skirt on the popped-up air vent.

“Papa, I’m coming,” she shouted, though the dead have ears of stone.

The sidewalk passed beneath her. A skate punk stared up, paperclip earrings dangling down in a chain to meet his nipples at the edge of his leather vest. She waved at him as her smile stretched at the corners of her mouth. He waved back, shouting and pointing at something.

Beatrice flew on, the verdant green around her father’s open grave already glowing in her mind until she crashed headfirst into the limestone facing of the Aladdin Theater. Red fire bloomed in her skull as her teeth cracked together, the blessing of flight become a curse until she tumbled from God’s hard, brassy sky to the unforgiving Earth.

Nox Lunae: Dried butterflies and tomes of casuistry

The largest moth was more than a yard wide from tip to dust-feathered tip. Great steel pins held it directly to the wall. Beatrice had no idea what color the moth had been in life. In eternal, slightly moldering repose, it was a mouse-gray with brown spots on the wings like the lambent eyes of the angel of cockroaches. The antennae curled tightly inward, spiraling in some mournful imitation of the moth’s last flight. The palps and feelers of its face were mirrors of everyday horror.

Brother and sister moths lined the hallway in both directions, some pinned straight on like the enormous specimen before her, others in hand-lacquered frames with deep-cased velvet mountings. Still more were stuck to old shirt cardboard with mucilage, their provenance and Latin binomials recorded in shaky, careless blue biro.

Air moved slow and heavy, stirring the dust at her feet. Beatrice was afraid to turn, afraid to see what waited behind her. She was more afraid not to.

The thought of turning made her think of feet, of wings and flight. She looked down. One scuffed shoe was gone, the left. The right seemed to have broken a heel.

Had she flown? Had she really taken wing and soared over Portland’s summer streets?

“I am a creature of air and light,” Beatrice told the moths, then turned to face whatever had approached her from behind.

Nothing was there. Rather, a wall of books rose before her, towering to a vast height which even a stretch of her neck and squint of her eye could not fully discern. They were for the most part leather-bound, in various colors and textures of cordovan and calfskin. Some were marked with gold-stamped lettering, others with numbers or arcane symbols of perhaps alchemic or astrological provenance. The shelving was occasionally interrupted by mirrors mostly covered with dusty black cloth.

From where had the stirring of the air come?

She reached out, trailed her fingers across the spines of the books. Sparks crackled where the leather met her skin, each tiny jolt carrying with it a fragment of sound.

“De gustibus . . .”

“. . . xiao ren . . .”

“. . . elven hall . . .”

“. . . torn from his . . .”

“. . . omnia . . . ”

“. . . never!”

Beatrice pulled her hand away to examine the tips of her fingers. They were smeared with dust and few flecks of leather. There were red marks—evidence of the sparks?

She reached out again, pulled down a tall, narrow book with a blue spine marked only with numbers. It fell open as if the binding were worn with use, bringing her to a page which seemed almost to glow as if the sun were on the other side of paper.

Gasping out his life, the old man waved the nurse over. Words had long failed him, though the light of sweet reason still gleamed in his filmy eyes. He gripped her sleeve, hands scaly and rough like old claws. There was some wisdom he needed to impart. Some final clarity of perception had been granted him by God in the same blow that had taken his speech. Surely this was proof of the cruel jest that compromised all human

Beatrice slammed the book shut. Her father had died in a hospital, struggling for breath. Her father even now lay in a narrow pinewood box, surrounded by ice blue velvet he would have hated, watched over by some bored attendant to whom he would have had nothing to say, waiting for her, who was . . .

Where?

Here?

Once again, the dust at her feet swirled, the air moved slow and heavy. The moths behind her were readying to take flight, their brown-eyed wings glaring hatred for bell jars and chloroform.

She spun again. The stocking of her shoeless foot snagged on the floorboards.

The moths were silent and dead as ever. Uncaring as stones, just like her father had become.

Beatrice looked up.

There was no ceiling, only a towering cliff of moths facing a towering cliff of books, words and wings in eternal opposition, some wide-gapped Casimir effect siphoning energy from her. She stared into the vanishing point where wall met wall in a profusion of leather and wings.

“Papa?” His hair had been gray and dusty, like a moth’s wing.

The air stirred once more at her feet, bearing with it the scent of harsh chemicals and long-vanished summer days.

“I’m late, Papa.” His skin had been papery and thin.

This time the wing beats were clear, loud as waves. Or was it the riffling of pages?

She ran, her bare foot dragging, splinters tugging at her steps. She was late for the funeral, late for her life.

“Papa!” His eyes had been brown and penny-bright, now and forever unseeing spots encased in velvet darkness.

This hallway might run past the horizon of memory. Beatrice knew that she would never move fast enough to reach the end.

Nox Martis: Smythes or workers of yron . . . lyers, grete swerers

The first candle was almost as tall as Beatrice herself, thin as her index finger. One lacy arch of wax dripped down it. It was zebra striped, divided into light and dark bands. She had once read of keeping time with candles. This must be such a candle, though the bands seemed sufficient to track an infinitude of hours.

Perhaps the hours of a person’s life, numbered and finite though they were.

She turned, then, at the sound of a throat being cleared. Finally, Beatrice thought, an answer, only to face a huge black bird with little jet-beaded eyes.

“Memory,” said the bird.

Hammers fell, a clanging chorus of iron men with iron muscles driving their tools through sweat, gravity, and sheer old-fashioned force. Where there had been one candle there were hundreds now, from tiny votive lights flickering their dim prayers toward Heaven all the way to massive mountains of wax, as filled with wicks as a hive is with bees, glittering constellations along their slumped shoulders. Every smith worked within an enclosure of the candles, a pale, soft prison aglow around each bright forge fire and each carbon-reeking anvil.

Soaring pillars of iron stabbed upward, wrought and ornamented like those old Boston subway stations from a time when even the simplest objects were made with pride and all the world deserved decoration. She looked up, expecting to follow the rose-trimmed iron line to the end of her vision, but the ceiling was there. A clerestory glowed with the light of the unseen moon, silver-edged clouds skating past the narrow line of windows.

“Memory,” said the raven again. A second, twin to it, fluttered out of the darkness. The newcomer’s feathers smoldered, as if it were freshly wrought from one of the forges. Or perhaps had flown through a shower of sparks.

“Thought,” the other raven remarked.

“I will think no more on memories,” Beatrice told the birds. Papa’s eyes had been copper, and gleamed like stars, not iron-dark with a spark of fire. That was someone else’s memory, someone else’s life.

She looked down at herself. Both shoes were gone now, her stockings torn. Sparks from the forges had made little gray holes in her suit and the sheer silk blouse she wore beneath. Or perhaps the pursuing moths had done so.

That she could not remember was a subtle terror Beatrice held at bay by deliberate ignorance.

“Remember.”

“Think.”

Candles. Metal. Fire. Memory came hurtling at her without regard to her ignorance, shattering bliss with the power of the smallest things. An acorn could push through pavement with the patience of evolutionary time and a little water. A memory could do no less.

He was a moral man, her father, never swearing nor bearing false witness. “I have a deal with God,” Papa used to say, sometimes over a glass of whiskey—his one self-proclaimed vice—“I don’t believe in Him and He doesn’t believe in me.” Papa believed that people should do good for their own sakes. Not because somebody wrote it down and pretended God had told them to.

One summer when Beatrice was twelve, she and Papa had gone to visit Uncle Axel on his apple farm somewhere in eastern Washington State. Older than Papa by a span of years Beatrice could not then imagine, Axel was a man of the old country. His voice was thick with a thousand years of European ghetto and half a decade of imprisonment in their shared youth, and he had a beard that struck her as both glorious and frightening. Axel smelled of tobacco and some strong fishy odor that Papa had told her to ignore. Food from the old country that they did not eat in their family.

Axel and Papa got on well, except in the evenings when talk strayed to shul and kaddish and other words Beatrice did not know in a half-familiar language. Then Axel would raise his voice, and he and Papa would argue in that comfortingly strange language, throwing her name around like a curse or a prayer.

The fourth or fifth night of this, Beatrice slipped out to the barn to hide among the feral cats and the patient, whuffling old mule that Axel kept out of pity. The barn smelled comfortable, a stink of animals and hay and mouse pellets so much easier on her nose than the fish-and-paper scents of Axel’s little house. She could lean on the mule and listen to the gurgling of the animal’s gut, like the great affair of pipes and drains that never quite worked in their apartment building back in Portland.

After a while Axel stormed into the barn, muttering still in the private language he and Papa shared. She could not see him, but she heard him rattle tools a while, then light a clicking fire—the paper chatter of the flames was familiar, once they caught—and after a while, begin a metallic ticking and clicking.

Axel was working a mule shoe on his little forge, she realized.

Beatrice awoke much later that night curled next to the old mule and a dozen squirming cats. She found a piece of iron Uncle Axel had left in front of her, still warm to the touch, wrought in a many-legged shape that she knew had to be a word in that language.

It had the power of a prayer, and the pity of a forgotten name.

“Think.” “Remember.”

Amid the smiths and candles, Beatrice remembered one more thing—the brush of a hand, a gentle kiss, her name whispered as the iron clinked on the barn floor.

Papa had kissed her, his lips clean-shaven. Uncle Axel kissed like a holly bush, his beard pushing her face and cutting her chin.

Papa, who held no truck with God, had wrought her the prayer.

The candles dissolved in a blurring mist as the pounding smiths sent forth a maelstrom of sparks that plucked at Beatrice’s arms, her hair, her clothes, setting a new round of tiny fires to smoldering. Though she tried to beat them out, the whir of raven’s wings only fanned the flames until she had to scream.

The fire ran even into her lungs.

Nox Mercuriae: Philosophers, arithmeticians, and divers busie fellowes

Numbers chased Beatrice, shrieking decimals pointing their accusations as zeroes spun on their axes and devilish sixes howled and capered, pretending to be nines. She ran across a pale green expanse, tripping over dark ridges on the ground. Her feet hurt terribly, as if there were razor blades beneath them. No matter how hard she tried, Beatrice could not get her breath.

“Late,” she tried to say, though she only squeaked. Papa waited, late now and forever, bound to rest silently in his box of God-ignorance up on the forested hill among the stone-carved names of the indifferent dead. She was late, too, late for his funeral, late for his memorial, late for sending Papa on his final voyage to nowhere.

And now there was a new army of numbers, red to the black that already pursued her, closing in like a column of ants marching to war.

Beatrice found a double line, tall as a fence, and ducked behind it. For a moment she was out of the way of the towering ones and stabbing fours.

There were half a dozen men sitting back there, most on stools, one on the ground, smoking pipes and cigars and chattering away. As she tumbled into their midst, they all stopped talking.

“If it isn’t Meyer Frank’s little girl Beatrice,” one of them said finally.

Beatrice recognized him, Jacob Whelan, a one-time business partner of Papa’s. Dressed in slacks and Oxford shirt and a bright print tie of questionable taste, he was thin to the point of sparse, eyes sunk deep within the pallid banks of his cheeks. Much as Whelan had looked when dying, still surprised at the news, of colon cancer.

“I went to your funeral in 1994,” she said. Her breath had finally returned, though her throat ached awfully.

Whelan laughed and waved his pipe around. “Would I be here if I were still alive?”

On the other side of the line, the numbers battled with a terrible, riffling growl and the noises of ripped paper.

Beatrice looked around at Whelan’s companions. “You I recognize,” she said to a young black man who resembled that movie star named after some Caribbean island. “And you,” pointing at an older white man who was as fat as Whelan was thin. “Are you all friends of Papa’s?”

Whelan laughed again, joined by the others. “You could say that.”

A jagged section of black flew over the wall, some staff or serif torn off an unlucky five perhaps. Beatrice flinched as it bounced into the paper plain to her left, but Whelan and his group did not even seem to notice.

“Are you all dead?”

They laughed again. “Where do you think you are, Hell?” asked the black man.

“I’m stuck,” Beatrice admitted. “I’m late for Papa’s funeral, and everything I do makes me later.”

“So the old boy finally kicked it, huh?” It was one of the men she didn’t know, small with twisted shoulders and a face locked forever in a grimace by stroke or disease.

“Meyer, Meyer, pants on fire,” said the fat man, still grinning. “He’s gonna burn now.”

“No,” said Beatrice. “Papa made a deal with God.”

“We’re accountants,” hissed the black man. “God isn’t in it for us, any more than He was for your daddy.”

“How do I get out of here?” Beatrice asked.

The black man just looked sad at that. “We don’t know where you’re going. We only know where you’ve been.”

Where had she been? Flying, in dusty halls, standing among sparks and fire. “This does not add up,” Beatrice said.

The accountants all stared at her. The fat man finally spoke. “Tell me you didn’t say that.”

“This is your memory of Papa, not mine. I don’t belong here.”

A spray of mixed black and red shot over the wall, splattering them all. The accountants put away their pipes and cigars, each drawing an old fashioned fountain pen from some pocket or another.

Beatrice backed away, but they stepped forward to follow her. “Meyer cheated me of four hundred dollars in 1973,” said the little man with the twisted shoulder.

“He turned me in to the IRS for a reward in 1984,” said the fat man.

The black man spoke. “He called me a dirty schwarzer and filed grievances with the state until my license was revoked.”

Then they were all talking. “I was robbed by him.” “Deceived.” “Betrayed.” “Crooked.” “Criminal.” “Old Jew bastard, we should all have killed him.”

Beatrice wanted to stand there, wanted to fight for Papa’s honor. He was a good man, a proud man who always did right. He wouldn’t have cheated a one of them, she wanted to scream, but the gleaming nibs of their fountain pens pushed her back.

Finally, she turned and ran, abandoning Papa’s memories in the face of their threats. Beatrice found herself among the battling numbers, dodging lances thrown by mercenary sevens, trying to avoid being crushed by rolling zeroes.

She needed to be out of the battle, away from the numbers that lied about Papa and his life. Beatrice ran again, scrambling on her aching feet, her jacket torn away by the ragged tip of a three, her blouse scarred by a close brush with a battalion of commas and negative signs. Finally a rampaging two stabbed her in her chest, just above the line of her bra, the red tip sinking into her skin like love’s utmost kiss.

Nox Iovis: Lord of Heaven and bringer of light

The boy sat on a wooden throne. There had been gold leaf once, chasing itself across a delirium of carvings, but it was long worn by time and careless fingers to shy gleams among the crevices.

He was beautiful, prettier even than Tommy Masters that she’d had a crush on for three years running until Tommy had come out gay only to be beaten to death by four guys from the varsity football squad. The boy’s legs were long and pale, almost girlish, as were his arms, but his face had a narrow-nosed classical look that would someday grow into the sort of red-tinged crags one saw on the faces of senators and CEOs.

Beatrice tried to look around. Her neck barely moved, the bones popping and grating. She was in a hall, with carved roof beams and pillars along the side, darker alcoves in the low-roofed spaces beyond. There was no one but her and the boy.

“You’re in a great deal of trouble,” he said.

“I know.” Beatrice was surprised at the croak in her voice. She sounded old, almost rusted.

“Your heart is broken, and far from mending.”

She looked down, touched her chest. Her blouse was gone, along with her jacket and skirt, though Beatrice still had her bra and slip. The little burns she had seen on her clothes peppered her skin like buboes heralding the plague. There was a hole in her left breast, just above the edge of her bra, that she could have slid her finger into.

“My Papa is dead,” she said, “and I cannot reach his funeral.”

“My Papa ate most of my brothers and sisters. I danced at his funeral.”

Beatrice felt a welling of sorrow for the boy on the throne. He was beautiful and haughty and no one she would want to know in life, but dancing on your father’s grave spoke of a childhood she could only imagine with horror.

“Your funeral will be soon,” the boy continued. “Unless you fix that.” He nodded vaguely at her.

Beatrice covered the hole with her hand. “Can you help me?”

The boy snapped his fingers and a flame danced between them. “I have some of my Papa’s powers.”

Did she have any of her Papa’s powers? Had she ever tried to understand them?

“You must finish college,” he’d said. There was a look of strain in his eyes that Beatrice tried to put down to Mama’s death that past autumn.

They sat at the kitchen table in the little apartment in northwest Portland. The neighborhood had changed over the years, from a collection of indifferent hourly workers and students living on the cheap to BMWs and Range Rovers and markets selling vegetables she’d never heard the names of before. Rich people ate strangely.

Somehow, their little building had resisted the ravages of gentrification and the lures of selling out. The same indifferent ownership that tolerated bad drains ignored redevelopment grants. Everything in life was a blessing, if you know how to look at it.

Except Mama’s death. Even the refrigerator whined more loudly after her passing, showing the same strains as their pretenses of normalcy.

“I don’t want to, Papa,” Beatrice said, staring at her hands. All ten nails were gnawed ragged, the skin pink and puffy at each tip.

“I had hoped that you might come work with me when you had your education.” His voice was soft, cracking slightly, reinforced by all the sights and smells of her childhood in this kitchen. When he sat in the old chrome-legged dinette chair, Papa spoke ex cathedra as far as her childhood soul was concerned.

“I don’t know anything about imports, Papa.” Her nails were fascinating, Beatrice realized. Their complex patterns of tooth marks and little wounds were much safer than his soft brown eyes. “You buy engines and gears and—”

“Motors, my sweet. Stepper motors. Industrial equipment from Taiwan and Singapore.”

“Motors.” Tears stung her eyes. “What do I know about motors? There’s nothing interesting about motors!”

“Motors paid your rent and sent you to school and buried your Mama,” Papa said. His voice had gone even softer, like a fog wrapped around her.

“No!” She stood so quickly her chair toppled to the floor. “I don’t want—”

“What do you want, Beatrice?”

She’d fled crying, running out into the street to wander the city until hunger drove her home.

“Papa tried to show me his power,” she told the boy. “He wanted me to go into the family business.”

“I know that story.” The boy smiled, closed his fist on the flame, and stood up in front of his throne. Beatrice realized that he truly was a boy, no taller than she, not done growing. That made her self-conscious of her lack of clothes, and she folded her arms over her chest.

The boy smiled, took her hands, and pulled her arms open again. He reached out with a fingertip, brushing the textured cup of her bra as if by accident, to touch the wound in her chest. “I may be able to help. It would send you on your way.”

“I must meet Papa at the cemetery,” she said.

“Will you dance?”

Beatrice had no answer for that, so she shook her head and fought the sting that peppered her eyes.

The boy snapped his fingers again, then opened his palm to reveal a little brass machine. Or perhaps a sculpture. It was an odd shape, sort of a kidney with a dent, studded with tiny rivets, little bumps and divots, pinheads where perhaps internal axles or gears found their center. Various valves and openings emerged from the thing.

“I am not in my full power yet,” the boy said, “but this will work, at least as long as you need it to.” He pushed it into her chest, the hole there widening around the brass heart then swallowing it as a snake might swallow a rat.

Beatrice watched her chest clench shut, a red puckered seam where the wound had been, then felt the clattering as the heart commenced its work.

“Thank you,” she said, but the boy touched her lips.

“Never thank a stranger until you know whether he has granted you a blessing or a curse.”

She smiled, kissed his finger, and turned to walk out of the hall. There was a brass door, a figure beaten into it in low relief, not far ahead. The pain in Beatrice’s feet tore at her, step by bloody step.

Nox Veneris: Ryot and dispense

They had gone to the movies—what all kids do. Some film she could never remember afterward, men with guns and cars doing loud things. Beatrice had discovered kissing that year, and was practicing assiduously in the back row. The warm and salty taste of Frankie Salazar’s mouth was like nothing she’d ever found.

He was cute, too, a dreamboat with angry eyes and the lips of an angel. Plus he was a senior, three years older than her. Frankie was so cool, Sally and Marian and Jeni were jealous.

Three movies, six hours of kissing. She was in heaven. His hands liked to wander, but that was what boys did. The kissing was so good, she didn’t really mind.

Something exploded on the screen, and Frankie’s fingers found the line of her bra beneath the open buttons of her blue and white striped Oxford shirt. Beatrice’s heart raced. She wasn’t supposed to do this. Her mother had always been very clear about boys.

“They are little animals,” Mama would say, then try to hide a smile. “Men are just bigger animals. You can handle them when you’re older, but right now, don’t let the animal out.”

Mama had never explained exactly what letting the animal out entailed, but Beatrice thought she knew.

Frankie’s animal was wandering on fingered feet into the soft valley between her breasts.

Why had she worn a front clasp bra tonight?

Tongue driving hard, he found the clasp and slipped it before she had time to do anything. The faint pressure of the bra straps on her shoulders relaxed and his hand darted in to brush her nipple, cup her left breast.

“No,” she muttered, but Frankie kept the pressure of the kiss on, and he was bigger than her. Beatrice got her hands between them, trying to push him away, but Frankie would not move.

He massaged her breast now, the center of his palm brushing against her nipple, which was stiff as it ever was when she traced lazy circles around it in the bath.

“No,” she said again, still pushing him away. But not too hard.

Then the flashlight glared and the manager’s voice was raised and Beatrice shrieked and tried to close her shirt but somehow it tore on the class ring Frankie already wore even though he hadn’t graduated yet. She wound up out in the lobby, holding her shirt closed, crying, while Papa and the manager talked in low tones.

Somehow Frankie was gone.

Somehow Frankie wasn’t in trouble.

Somehow it was all her fault.

She had to wear Papa’s coat on the bus home, reversed to cover her pale chest and bright white bra. She looked like an umpire, or a mental patient.

“Beatrice,” he said as the bus roared through the metallic growl of its gears. “I am not ashamed of you.”

Which meant he was. She burst into tears. When Papa touched her, tried to hug her, Beatrice pushed him away.

Over time, the push replaced the rest of her love.

Nox Saturnae: Devourer of children

Somewhere in the darkness nearby, a bus rumbled. Beatrice stood on a stone floor, below a high ceiling hung in tattered banners and cobwebs large enough to trap a bird. There were no walls, only floor and ceiling.

A pool of light lay stark before her, the old flowered couch from Papa’s apartment in the center of it, a lamp and end table on one side, his stack of TV Guide magazines on the other.

There was even a circle of the faded blue carpet beneath it, just the size of the light, as if the surrounding darkness were an anti-laser cutting away everything else in their lives. Her heart ticked loud in her chest, the brass-bound pistons extending her life another second with each reciprocation.

“I don’t want to do this,” she said out loud. “I want to go to the funeral, bury my father, and go home.”

She was actually quite well off now. Beatrice had no brothers or sisters, and Papa’s will was clear-cut. A hundred thousand dollars to a charity of his choice, the rest to her. Enough to live, as earlier generations said, off the income.

Money she did not want.

“I’m ready to leave now,” Beatrice said, more loudly this time. Perhaps the ravens were listening, or the boy on his throne. If she could fly now, she would.

Her feet had melded with the stone floor. Beatrice was a chimera of stone and flesh, facing what lay before her.

Papa shuffled into the light. He wore a threadbare terrycloth robe, which dangled open. Beneath, striped boxer shorts and one of those old man undershirts with the ribbed fabric and the narrow shoulder straps. His feet were wrapped in fuzzy slippers off of which Papa had carefully cut the bunny heads long ago.

He sprawled on the couch, something Papa never did. Papa always sat straight, talked straight, looked everyone in the eye. This Papa was a cartoon image of despair, face covered with his hands opened like a prayer book, tears leaking past in a vain appeal to the God of Papa’s lifelong disregard.

Uncle Axel was there, Beatrice knew, but he’d found a temple in which to pray after Papa had forbidden the prayers inside the apartment. Axel would see Mama’s soul laid in restful memory despite his brother’s lapsarian intransigence.

Beatrice saw herself walk to the couch, sit down on the other end. A younger self, soft and round in the face, shoulders hunched a little too far since that night with Frankie. She was a door always on the verge of closing.

That day, Papa was a door cut loose from its wall.

Beatrice watched herself touch Papa’s knee. He reached one hand for her. She took it. No words were needed, no words were said. After a while, she lay across his chest and hugged him for the first time in years.

She could not watch, but had no choice, as her younger self lay curled in her Papa’s arms, his hand stroking farther and farther down her back as his other hand played with her hair and he whispered Mama’s name in her ear.

“No!” Beatrice shouted as her father unbuttoned her blouse. “It never was! It never should have been! It never will be!”

Nox Irae: The end of all things

“Regret nothing,” said the jailor. The needles of his mouth were a terminal fascination of their own. Beatrice focused on them, on the points, each one echoing some dot on the map of her own pain.

“Please,” Beatrice said. “I just want to go to his funeral. You can take me back after that.”

The jailor stared a while, his eerie face as incomprehensible as the leer of some bright-skinned demon god of the farthest east. “I do not hold your keys,” he finally said, his words slow and measured as fat dripping into a cook fire.

“Who does?”

Another silence, the flames of his eyes growing dimmer as they stared across the gulf of comprehension that stretched between them. “You.”

Love, thought Beatrice, was more than cards and flowers. Love was iron, and fire, and dusty memory and arrogant pride and a thousand other things piled like wrack on the seashore. Anger and betrayal were just treasures in the chest. Mistakes and triumphs looked the same from atop a storm-worried cliff.

Love was . . .

. . . what?

“I can be angry,” she told the jailor, her brass heart clattering fit to explode. “I can be angry and still love.”

She stood, intending to head for the door, the stone floor slippery and cold beneath her feet, only to find herself barefoot and silent in the damp grass of a Portland hillside looking down into an open grave. Her black pumps dangled from her left hand, her purse was clutched in her right.

The pinewood coffin lay below, yellow straps still linking it to the pulleyed frame that bordered the grave like some prosthesis for the dead. Dirt was scattered on the coffin, and a torn black ribbon.

“Papa,” Beatrice said, “I still love you.”

The taste of brass lingering in her mouth, Beatrice stepped into the rest of her life.

Jay Lake

Jay Lake

Jay Lake was a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. He lived in Portland, Oregon and lost a six year battle with colon cancer on June 1, 2014. Jay was a prolific writer and editor and blogged regularly about his cancer at his website jlake.com. He was well known for his novels featuring the character Green (Green, Endurance, and Kalimpura, published by Tor Books) as well as several other novels and collections. His final collection The Last Plane to Heaven was released by Tor Books in 2014. His work has been translated into several languages including Czech, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese and Russian.