Kiss, Don’t Tell
by Cassandra Khaw
You never told me she’d be so human, so sweet. Marzipan bones and caramel hair, latte skin stretched taut over a face still new to wanting. Just a mouthful, really, a morsel, her eyes brittle as she watches us flit by, heartbeats sliding between the ribs of time.
In Europe, no one believes in kismet, but who needs faith to author fact?
Later, you joke about serendipity. I nod in silence, my fingers still glazed with her cells and her atoms, the taste of her bitter with ghosts of Sunday afternoon pasts. How many street corners have you kissed on? How many does she remember? How many times has she sat coiled by her phone, waiting, waiting, thumbing through pictures of you together, a patchwork of possibilities that should have spelled out a future?
I don’t sleep that night. Instead, I sit and watch the Parisian skyline, dreaming of penanggalans in waltz.
Pontianak, huli jing, rakshaka. You called me from a country of monsters, serpent-haired, dagger-teethed, skin hot as kiamat. Nothing like her, nothing like the women that slither through London, Berlin, Paris; their bones Abrahamic, their minds agnostic, mouths full with the gospel of Apple. Was it the novelty that enticed you, or the reflection of teeth? Because I can smell it on you, your flesh, your smile; ocean salt, hydra blood, a thousand ancient wars in a thousand new molecules. We’re monsters, you and I.
I can tell she’s a good girl, always has been, always will be, even though her dreams cup a fading memory of black leather and black lashes, whiplash-promises on her skin. Not a monster, even though she’s sometimes pretends, armoring herself with lipgloss and suits cut sharp as suicide.
Langsuir, jiangshi, ngu tinh. I pull myself onto the window sill, feel cartilage bulge and vertebrae give. The air burns cold. Egui, preta, desire, hunger. My blood is singing, so loud that it amazes that you can sleep. I wonder what you’d say if you woke and found me framed in the moonlight, flesh and bone turned protean, amoebic.
I wonder what you’d think if you saw my wings: knucklebones strung together like rosaries, membranous skin, tendons to tether. Nothing like your angels, darling. Nothing so sweet.
I wonder what you’d do if I told you I’d chased her scent across the city, her a ghost, me a knot of entrails and superstition, invisible to rational men. Because under her skin, I tasted the salt of your old desires, coiling with hers, an ouroboros of mouth and grasping hands and moans. And nothing, darling, displeases me more.
I wonder, I wonder.
Would you beg me to stop, darling? As I stole across the skyline of her sleeping body, over hip and thigh and sternum, to stop a breath from her mouth, would you shout out no?
I imagine not. Women break like surf on the hearts of men, foam and whispers, frothing to nothing. You remember us for as long as we are there, stretched like cats in your beds, our flesh warm, our arms patient. No more, no less. And when we are gone, you write us into an inventory of conquests. Another notch, another monster taken by the smoke in your smile, the teeth in your eyes.
Darling, can I tell you a secret?
It would be so easy. To sip chi from her lips, to empty her like a broken heart, to leave her skin and only skin, like gauze or yesterday’s drunken lovemaking. Until all that is left but the instinct to walk, to breathe, to hold on, hold on, hold on.
But should I?
All monsters must eat, whether they are men or myth, fabrications of fear or consequences of nurture. We find our prey where we may. You in the unguarded, I in the broken, the worn-down, the street-side prayer, the alleyway fighter. But if you still cared, still held her wellbeing suspended like a prize in your consciousness, I might consider mercy.
If you were awake, darling, if you were standing framed in the moonlight, your lips stitched shut with veins, your eyes closed with red string, I would come to your ears and whisper, “What do you think will happen next?”
Will I write my hurts into doa selamats, a hundred invocations against a thousand new anguishes? Will I graze my tongue across hers, calling the monsters in her blood. Douen, Jumbie, Loogaroo. Will I tell them to keep her safe, keep her safe from men who only have eyes for themselves, who keep their hearts locked behind doors while they hold out their hands for yours?
Or will I dig through spine and brain, guzze blood and lymph? Will I gorge myself on lung fibrous and vein intricate, on intestines still warm with animal heat, on a brain still shuddering with a memory of you? Darling, do you see me keeping the best parts of her for myself, those things that made you love her for more years than you’ve known I? Or do you see it pulped into energy, into fuel for flight, inconsequential as the names of all the women you never loved, only lusted for?
One wonders, but it does not matter. When you wake up tomorrow, you won’t find me slathered in gore, throat bulging, belly heavy with meat and muscle. Instead, you will see me as you’ve always seen me, a fascination, a novelty, a hope.
When we kiss, when we trade affection like tokens of power, it’s possible that she will just be awaking, lungs inflamed with myth, and confused, move to sit at her parents’ balustrade, wondering why she had ever wasted time on you at all. Tomorrow, it’s possible too that her parents might awake and find her ribs in her bed, cracked open for marrow, licked completely clean, her finger-bones rattling like dice in her ribs. Tomorrow, they might scream and all of Paris will wake, wondering, wondering how this disaster came to be.
Who knows? You’ll never ask, and I’ll never tell.
by Getty Hesse
It has been six days since the fourteen of us sloughed off our skin. We have abandoned distinctions between adult and adolescent, between caretaker and patient. Our corded muscles glimmer under the fluorescent lights. Blood vessels snake our bodies. Bones peek out. We should feel pain, the sting of the air against our flesh, but we don’t. Without the isolation of our skin we should be vulnerable to infection, and yet we are not. We do not hunger; we do not thirst.
We finger under each others’ muscles and blood vessels. We tongue them. We enter each other in every possible way until I cannot tell my appendages from any of the others’, until the others cannot tell their own appendages from mine. The boundaries of our bodies seem to shrivel away.
Before, those of us who were adolescents couldn’t leave until we were deemed not a threat to ourselves or others. But this little world had still been permeable. Parents would visit and call. The staff would leave after their shifts or come in to take over. New patients would be admitted. Old patients were discharged. Carts carrying trays of food would be brought in three times a day and taken out again with the remains.
Now, the one door out is locked, even to those who were once adults. The keys don’t work. No one comes in; we hear nothing from the other side of the door. The faucets no longer spout water. The phone does not even produce static. The windows, through which we once caught our only glimpses of the city outside, of ambulances and helicopters, are fogged to opacity. The gnashing of drills and jackhammers that spilled from one of the upper floors no longer jolts us awake in the morning, no longer deafens us. Not that we sleep anymore, or struggle hearing.
It is as if nothing exists outside our confines. Not that we mind. Our world, little though it is, is big enough for us.
We snap veins and arteries and muscles but they don’t hurt and they heal within moments. We did it by accident, at first, and then we did it for fun. We saw how much we could break without it being permanent.
On the third day we picked Latisha apart, carefully, unthreading her arteries and veins and capillaries from each other and from her tissue, separating the tendons of muscle and the bones, laying the organs out over the floor of the hall. I held her still-beating heart, the veins and arteries neatly snipped off by scissors from the front desk, and felt the life of it in my hand. Blood pooled across the floor, through open doors to what were once our bedrooms. The sticky warmth of it lapped against our feet.
As we watched, Latisha’s body stitched itself together, though the assorted parts seemed static. We would see her leg rebuilt, and have no recollection of how it occurred. We sifted through our memories and knew that time had passed and matter moved but could not make the two cohere, could not attribute one to the other.
When she was whole again she was laughing in ecstasy.
“What was it like?” Genevieve asked.
“It felt like being laid bare before God.”
I think I was a patient here, an adolescent, but I cannot remember anymore. I remember singing in the shower and on the toilet, learning to meditate, learning yoga, whispering to others about things that were not supposed to be spoken. I remember the ravening hollow, the ulcer through which my soul bled out like stomach acid, which is why I think I was one of the adolescents, but perhaps some of the adults had the same. Perhaps I was an adult who taught children how to deal with their hollows because I had learned how to deal with my own.
Of the other thirteen, I cannot remember who was a teen and who was an adult. It doesn’t matter, anyway. We are all the same now, separated only by names and space.
“Do you remember the hollow?” I ask.
“The hollow?” The nook where Genevieve’s nose once was glistens. We are lying upon one of the couches in the central room, her face nuzzled up against mine. I stick my tongue into the nook and lick the walls inside. She giggles.
As she licks inside the nook where my nose once was, I struggle to describe the hollow. “The feeling… that you can’t reach anyone else. That you can touch them, be inside them, speak to them, yet they’re too far away. That you’re all alone and always will be.”
“Oh,” Genevieve says. Her tongue recedes back into her mouth. She shivers.
“I remember that,” Jonathan says. He and José are making love, tangled over the arms of one of the chairs.
Everyone remembers, all fourteen of us.
When I first realized my hollow had vanished, my freshly shed skin was lying tattered on the floor before me. Air kissed my veins, arteries, muscles, flesh, as it might have before through a scrape or a cut. But I felt no pain. I felt only ecstasy, and something where once the nothing tormented me.
“Do you feel that?” I cried. I picked up my skin, tied it around my neck. I danced, laughing, and it billowed around me. “Do you feel that?”
Everyone stared, uncomprehending, at the skins fallen before them, their flesh glimmering with fresh freedom. Slowly, each of them smiled.
“Yes,” murmured Genevieve, and she tilted her head back and laughed in ecstasy. I kissed her brow, and kissed it and kissed it, and embraced her and felt her hot flesh against mine. She tied her skin about her neck and we danced, and the others followed suit. We whirled about each other in jubilant chaos and kissed each other on the forehead, lips, shoulder, chest; we touched each other in every way we could.
We lie about the floor and on the couch, panting, in a momentary lull. I’m leaning against the wall. Genevieve’s head is in my lap. I stroke the top of her head, where once there was scalp and hair. I think the hair was long and dark and curly, but my memory is vague and that hair might have belonged to someone else.
Genevieve extends her leg up to Latisha on the edge of the couch, and Latisha begins to suck Genevieve’s toes, tonguing the strips of muscle. I watch as José tickles Jonathan’s flaccid penis with his tongue.
I look down at the beautiful strips of muscle that extend from Genevieve’s skull to grip her jaw. “Why do you think this happened to us?” I ask.
She gazes up at me. She strokes my face. “God,” she says. “Or as good as. Only a perfect being could create such a perfect existence.”
Sometimes, I wonder what exists now outside the confines of our little world. Is our newfound heaven a miniature of a much larger miracle? Has the larger universe ceased to exist, replaced only by a nothing impossible to imagine? Or has the world continued on as it always has, with the ravening hollows at the core of every skin-constrained soul?
I wonder if the people outside are trying to get into our ward, or if they see it’s closed off but don’t try to enter for some reason beyond their grasp, or if they can’t see it, or if it’s gone. It’s possible they’re watching everything we’re doing, through windows we can’t see, that we’re some sort of science experiment or quarantine. I wonder, would others see us and know we’re blessed, or would they think us cursed?
I can’t remember names anymore, or genders. Almost without realizing it, I have stopped thinking of anyone as anything but a “they.” The concepts themselves, names and genders, corrode.
We don’t remember where one of us once ended and the others began. Our veins and arteries all bleed into each other, bones fuse, the borders of our minds dissolve until our thoughts do not come from one of us or another but from us all. Our many eyes take in the fractured all-sided view of our perfect, red, glistening bulb of a body, the many protruding limbs corded in veins and muscles.
We throw ourselves against the door, we tear at it, we smash our elbows and arms and heads against the black windows, bones breaking, skulls caving in, only to reassemble. If the people outside are still constricted in their skins, separated no matter how they try to fuse together, we want to save them, bring them into our amoebic, painless mass. If the people have formed their own amorphous multi-self, then we want to join them. Either way, it would be so beautiful, to have every human in the world together at last, to be many in one, for pain and loneliness to vanish.
The people outside could be gone, of course, in which case we could be at peace in our current body. We would mourn them, the humans who never experienced a life without pain, who were disconnected from all other beings from the snipping of their umbilical cords to the cessation of their senses. But the mourning would not last long, and would be followed by an eternity of joy.
We beat against the door and the windows, to no avail. We start beating against the walls, trying to find someplace, anyplace weak enough to cave in. Finally we collapse on the floor. Our bulbous body alters to accommodate it.
We cry for the possibility of people still tortured by hollows, still chained within the confines of the self. Our tears slip down twenty-eight cheeks of red muscle and veins. Some of the tears fall into open air, onto the tile floor. Others fall within our body, nestle upon hearts and lungs, trickle down the outer curves of arteries.
We stop crying after a while and get up, our body changing shape once again. We cannot at this moment save those outside, if they still need saving, if they still exist. But we can wait. We can love ourselves. We can hope that the door will eventually open, or a wall or window will become breakable once more.
We beat again against the walls, windows, door. But we do this without desperation. We smile with our fourteen mouths. We may break through, or we may not.
We are truly together, as one. That is what matters. We love ourselves. We will never be alone. We remember the ghost of pain but it no longer has any force. It is something we as good as never had.
The Corpse Child
By Chris Kuriata
Along the shores of Shipman’s Corner, a macabre belief quickly gained currency, which claimed most fatal childhood illnesses (scarlet fever, measles) could be cured by having the infected party sleep over the corpse of a young child.
The origin of this belief remains undiscovered. Condemned from the pulpit, the treatment was rarely applied. According to the tales, the corpse child must not have died from illness. Only a healthy body stopped by unnatural means (crushed in an avalanche of hay bales, say, or kicked in the head by an ornery horse) would do. Accident-made bodies became highly valued, meaning patients of “the corpse treatment” came exclusively from families of means.
“Momma, am I dreaming? Is that a scarecrow the servants are placing beneath my bed?”
“Lie back and go to sleep, my darling. In the morning, you will be made strong again.”
“Am I to share my room with a strange corpse?”
“Shhh… there is nothing to fear. He is where you cannot even see him.”
Two servants slid the corpse child into place before hurrying the young boy’s parents out of the room. Once the bedroom door was sealed, everyone removed the cloth masks covering their mouths. With heavy hearts, the young boy’s parents retired to their own chamber, praying for the blasphemous (and expensive) treatment to cleanse the threatening red boils sprouting across their beloved son’s tiny body.
The feverish boy awoke in the middle of the night, drawn back to consciousness by the stirrings beneath his mattress. Small fingers raked across the wooden support beams, echoing in the empty room like someone prematurely buried scratching the lid of their coffin.
“It is too cold down here,” a hollow voice whispered from under the bed. “Let us switch places.”
“I do not think that is a good idea.”
“Just for an hour, so I may warm up.”
“If I lie under the bed, the draught will only make me sicker.”
“Please, you can’t imagine how wet and chilled I am.”
“Forgive my thoughtlessness. I will call for the servants and they will bring you blankets.”
The corpse child sighed, making the water in his lungs bubble. “You are very wise, boy. I was actually trying to trick you.”
“Oh, yes. If you had switched places with me, I wouldn’t have traded back. In the morning, when your parents unsealed the room, I would have leapt up with my arms spread wide, shouting, ‘Momma! Poppa! I’m cured!’ They would have hugged me, tears streaming down their cheeks. You would have tried to call out from under the bed, but your sick tongue would’ve swollen up like a black eel and left you unable to speak. You would only be able to bray like a donkey, ‘Eee orr, eee orr!’ Believing you to be me, the servants would ram hooks into your legs and drag you outside to the pyre and set you aflame. Did you know a person’s head is too dense to burn? The servants would use a big rock to smash your skull into smaller pieces. And all the while, I would sit at the breakfast table, listening to you go up in smoke.”
This admission horrified the boy. “That is terrible. Shame on you for trying to trick me.”
“You can’t blame me for wanting to avoid such an awful fate myself. I may be dead but I do not wish to burn.”
The boy understood. He felt sympathy for the corpse child, who, after all, was going to make him well again. “Listen to me, when morning comes, I will insist Mother and Father not burn you.”
“That is very kind, but I shouldn’t want you to worry about my disposal.”
“I insist. Tell me what you would prefer.”
The corpse child thought hard. “Well, I have always been fond of the funny paintings in the museum; the look of agony on the faces of the condemned, the peasants tumbling beneath the swords of the King’s guard. When I was alive, it used to make me laugh to see the strokes of crimson paint gushing from swaddled babes in their mother’s arms. I think I should like to be buried on the grounds of the museum. They have a glorious courtyard where I will be able to hear the visitors laughing at the funny paintings. Such a reminder of joy will make my dark, lonely grave bearable.”
“It is settled. I promise, I will insist my parents not burn you but instead bury you at the museum.”
Moved by such a generous offer, the corpse child shook beneath the bed, making the caster wheels squeak. When he spoke next, he sounded as though he were holding back tears (though his speech impediment could also have been caused by lazy muscles in his dead throat). “You are very kind. So kind, I cannot hold my tongue. Though it would benefit me to keep quiet, I must warn you that you are in danger.”
“Being wise people, your parents fully expect me to try and trick you into switching places. Come morning, they will assume the boy in the bed is not their son, but the skullduggerous corpse child attempting to take his place. Mark my words, whichever boy is lying on top of the bed will be seized by hooks and dragged outside and thrown in the fire and have his skull crushed so it will burn.”
“My parents will make no such mistake. Surely they will recognize me.”
“In the dim morning light? Why, the disciples could not recognize the resurrected Son that early in the morning. How will your parents recognize you?”
“I can easily prove who I am. I know the name of my young brother Jonathan, and our baby sister Rebecca. I know Mother is terrified of boat crossings. I know Father relies on me to wind his watch.”
“All trifle information I could have wheedled out of you while pretending to be your friend. You must believe me; under the bed is the only safe place. Come morning, your parents will destroy you.”
“I cannot believe my parents will be so blinded by suspicion they cannot tell the difference between their beloved son and a rotting corpse child. Your wretched stink alone makes evident who is who.”
“Please, you must let me help you.”
“No. I will stay on top of the bed and you will stay below. And you will be quiet, or else I will not tell my parents to bury you in the museum courtyard and you will be seized by hooks and thrown on the fire and have your skull crushed.”
Silence. Satisfied to have settled the matter, the boy turned over and sank his feverish cheek into the cool pillow, longing for the sweet relief of sleep to spread through his aching body.
He didn’t rest for long. Cold breath soon lashed the soles of his bare feet. The boy sat up, and through the murky blackness watched the corpse child pull himself over the foot of the bed, clinging to the sheets like a sailor hauling himself from the ocean. The corpse child’s fat, water logged lips pulled back in a snarl.
“This foolish conversation has gone on long enough. Get under the bed where it is safe, or else I will crawl under the covers and make you smell of rot and death. In the morning, your parents will be unable to tell the difference between the two of us and we will both be doomed.”
“I will not say another word to you. Goodnight.”
Growling like a trapped fox, the corpse child slipped deftly beneath the sheets and tunneled towards the boy. His cold, clammy hands seized the boy’s knees, and slowly dragged his dead weight over the boy’s body. Struggling to get away, the boy threw over the covers, only to find the corpse child’s twisted face resting on his chest. Their eyes locked.
The boy remained calm. His father once instructed him the most vulnerable part of a wild animal was their nose, so if he ever found himself face to face with a snarling beast, his best chance for survival was to aim for the snout. The boy raised his weakened hand and made a fist, but before he could strike, the corpse child grabbed him by the ears and forced their mouths together. Hot and cold noses mashed against one another as the corpse child breathed putrid gas from his abdomen down the boy’s throat. The boy gagged and retched. The two began to wrestle, each trying to toss the other over the side of the bed into the black ocean of the cold floor. The squeaking of the caster wheels echoed through the house.
First thing next morning, with the light still dim, the boy’s parents unsealed the room. They held their breath, fearing the worst—that the legends of the healing properties of child corpses were greatly exaggerated and their son’s bedroom would no longer be occupied by one corpse, but two.
The bed covers stirred, thrashing about like foam on an angry sea. The boy sprang forth, fully cured, his arms spread wide.
The relieved parents rushed to his bedside, wrapping their arms around him, ignoring the foul smell tainting his bed clothes.
“Our darling. Thank heavens you are well again.”
“Oh Mother, the corpse boy under the bed spoke to me in the night! He tried to trick me into switching places with him!”
“Yes, dear. We thought he might.”
“He told me you wouldn’t be able to tell him apart from your true son.”
“Oh dear heart, that was all wicked chicanery. Of course we know you’re our true son.”
The boy’s father signaled the two servants waiting in the doorway, each holding a sharp, metal hook which they thrust under the bed, piercing the legs of the corpse boy and dragging him out. The corpse boy made horrible noises, braying like a donkey, “Eee orr, eee orr!” The crackle of a roaring fire came through the open window, hungry for more fuel.
“Wait!” the boy said. “This wicked corpse boy may have tried to trick me, but I made a promise. Even though he is a lesser being without honour, I intend to keep my vow.”
“I am pleased, son. A righteous man always honours his vows, even those made to dishonest beings who mean to betray him.”
“I promised the corpse boy I would implore you not to throw him on the fire, but instead grant him his burial wish.”
“And so we shall. Tell us what he desires.”
“He confessed to me feeling envious of our loving household; such a cautious Mother who protects her children from unnecessary sea crossings, and a wise Father who teaches the value of responsibility by entrusting me to wind his watch each day, and the delight of my younger brother Jonathan and my baby sister Rebecca.”
The boy’s parents couldn’t help but preen from the flattering words the corpse child had spoken of them in the night. “Yes, son, you have been blessed with a loving household. One can hardly fault the corpse boy for scheming to join us.”
“Indeed. As such, he told me he wishes to be buried feet down and head up on the hill overlooking our home, close enough where he can hear our evening laughter. It would please him greatly to be buried where he can keep watch over us, and perhaps, once a year, we will trek up the hill to visit his grave and give thanks to him for making this new day possible. Yes, I think he would like that very much. Such a reminder of joy will make his dark, lonely grave bearable.”
Once again, great happiness filled the family home. While the servants stuffed the corpse boy into a sack for transport to his final resting place, the cured boy dressed and wandered the manor house. Along the way, he emptied the last of the lake water from his lungs into a large potted plant, giggling when the putrid water wilted the healthy palm fronds. Soon, the smell of fresh breakfast filled the air, guiding him to the dining room, where brother and sister flanked his new seat at his new table.
About the Authors
Getty Hesse is an alum of the Alpha Writer’s Workshop and has been previously published in Daily Science Fiction. He wrote this story as a high school senior.
Cassandra Khaw is the business developer for Singaporean video games publisher Ysbryd Games. She also writes for Ars Technica UK whenever possible. When not doing either of those things, she practices muay thai, tries to find time to dance, and reads voraciously. She also writes a variety of fiction, and has a novella entitled Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef out with Abaddon Books.
About the Narrators
Mae Zarris-Heaney is originally from Manila, Philippines and currently lives in Melbourne, Australia where she met her better Irish half. She is an IT professional who once briefly dabbled in theater, loves extreme sports like running after her two young kids and rescuing cakes from burning in the oven. Her blog celticpinaymom.blogspot.com needs updating, but she’s busy telling the laundry to fold itself.
Maui Threv was born in the swamps of south Georgia where he was orphaned as a child by a pack of wild dawgs. He was adopted by a family of gators who named him Maui Threv which in their language means mechanical frog music. He was taught the ways of swamp music and the moog synthesizer by a razorback and a panther. His own music has been featured over in episodes of Pseudopod. He provided music for the second episode ever released across the PseudoPod feed: Waiting up for Father. He also is responsible for the outro music for the Lavie Tidhar story Set Down This. He has expanded his sonic territory across all 100,000 watts of WREK in Atlanta where you can listen to the Mobius every Wednesday night. It is available to stream via the internet as well, and Threv never stops in the middle of a hoedown.