PseudoPod 866: Flash on the Borderlands LXVI: Quod Nomen Mihi Est?
“”He’s Just Like You” stems from the anxieties of being a father and the quality of the traits you’re passing on.“
“La plume de ma tante.”
Litany In The Heart Of Exorcism
By Sarah Pauling
Do you understand?
On your skin, do you feel the white sand the priests threw in fistfuls from the blessing-basin? Do you feel it crusting over your eyelids? It sticks between your cheek and the temple floor like a binding. It powders the sigils on the stone.
Do you understand what’s happening to us? Songs, prayers, incense. That awful boy–barely old enough to call a man–praying. His mother, weeping.
They want to take you away from me.
I hold your body close to mine, the white grit on my forehead grinding against the grit on yours. I hook my nails into your naked back. I try–not for the first time–to draw blood.
Do you feel it?
You must. You cry out; bury your face in my breast.
Shh, now. Use me as your anchor. I protect what’s mine.
The priests don’t see our bodies as they really are: entwined, limb-to-limb, tight as knots in ship’s rope. Educated men, men of lofty purpose, they see only what they expect to see. They see only one body in the purification circle–one writhing woman, alone, caked with sand, thin wrists like bird bones ripe for breaking.
Wrists gentle enough to ink copies of every ocean map found in every book in the city library, if only educated men like these would let us. Wrists you’ll agree are too weak to hold up wedding bracelets of cold ivory.
That’s why we’re together, remember? Why I bound you to me. Better than that stupid boy.
Devils are not women, but I like to think we understand each other. To be blamed, cast out, suspected. Or worse: held down. Kept. Tied.
To frighten and be frightened, at times in equal measure. No fear without fear.
Does the priests’ singing hurt you? Does it clatter like a breaking bell in the back of your mind? Does it make you want to leave me?
Poor thing. Don’t think of it. Think of stealing away from the engagement feast, leaving his mother’s house–shucking our dress, all alone, the wind running through our bare thighs on the southern plateau. Think of commanding strawberries to be overripe and letting the juices run down our chin. Think of pilfering books and pulling out the pages–swallowing sailors’ maps and knowing where new continents lie. I’ve given you the world of men.
You’re shivering. Is joy not enough for you? Coward.
Fine. Fear. Think of the way we drained, together, the color from that stupid boy’s dreams until all he could see was gray rocks at the bottom of ravines. Think of catching his mother’s wrist before her palm hit our cheek. Think of her face when she saw the tar seep from our eyes. Think of the fear.
Isn’t that what your kind want? Why you’ve let us bind you, ritual after ritual, centuries down and down? I gave you fear. I gave you power over fear. Don’t you feed on it?
Better devil-deals than marriage contracts. We are stronger now than we were alone.
Their tricks won’t work. Don’t watch the sand gather on the lines of the temple sigils like iron nails to lodestones. Don’t track the map the sigils form. A compass rose–northeast, northwest–
No. Look at me. Sailors navigate by starlight; you can navigate by me.
Don’t you understand? Their power can be broken.
If you want me badly enough.
Stop crying. I want you. I reached for you across the great divide. I upheld my end of our bargain. I became your foothold in this world, and you won’t fight for me?
That blasted singing. Wrenching like an arrow from a breast, lover from lover, mother from–
No! Don’t let go! You hideous little ghoul, fight for me! Take me with you!
Please, take me–we’ll ride the rivers of the netherworld and cross the cosmos together. I’ve always wanted to be a sailor. Long before I summoned you, flaying fish in the creek behind the boy’s house to draw you to me. Before I was engaged.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve watched sailors dock at port and leave again. They chase continents. They get to leave.
Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I don’t know why I said those things.
I’m sorry. Cruelty spills out of me, sometimes, like an estuary–like a river to the sea.
I caress the tender space between your ear and your jaw–or I try. Nothing’s there. My fingers brush my own skin instead.
Your absence collapses me like a punctured lung.
The singing stops. The boy’s mother scrambles into the circle. She pulls me to my knees and embraces me tight enough to suffocate. Tighter than love would call for. A warning, then. A fear.
Her son presses his ugly face to the temple floor, shoulders slack with relief that you are gone–more relieved for himself than for me. Eager for the return of colorful dreams.
He holds my wedding bracelets like a pact. Like a contract.
Briny tears trace mud-routes down my face. They land on my wrists and draw seaways there.
The sand on the floor forms a compass, leading you to oceans I don’t know how to sail.
I’ll learn. I’ll ink a thousand maps and maybe, in another place, you’ll forgive my faults and fears.
Saltwater sticks to my lips: a sharp taste that evaporates, cold.
He’s Just Like You
By T.M. Morgan
You love your son.
Sydney (your son) and Betsy (his dog) splash in puddles together, a mess of epic proportions. At the end of summer, the nightmares start. Soon after, come the gyrations in his sleep, and then he begins to sleepwalk through the house.
Your wife cannot understand your fear, as you’ve never told her how you suffered the same sleepwalking at his age, the same sneaky and quiet excursions—how your parents once found you in the unfinished part of the basement, your fingernails torn to bloody shreds.
Now it’s your son bent at the floor and clawing. His vacant stare shows black, endless holes. He is in the surety of the dream.
“We shouldn’t wake him,” you say.
“How do you know?” your wife says.
“Because I sleepwalked at his age.”
She fights back tears. “You never told me that.”
You love your wife.
The next morning when you ask Sydney what he remembers, he says, “I was digging in the forest.”
“It’s a phase,” you say to your wife.
“Daddy, do you have office today?” Milk makes Sydney’s lips white.
“Yes, I do. All day, five days a week.”
He frowns at you, not understanding your humor. “I’m going to be sad. Hurry home.”
And so, you crate up Betsy; drop off Sydney at daycare; head to work; come home. In the evening, you arrive in time for a hot dinner.
You love family dinner.
When you walk in the door, he runs at full speed and launches into your arms. When you were a boy, the same adoration filled you when your father returned from the mill. His face smelled of faded aftershave and wood pulp. Sydney has that same energy as you.
Some days, he scowls in his hiding spot behind the couch, much as you did. You lean your head over the back and whisper, “Mommy doesn’t understand people like you and me, does she?”
Sydney grins. It is a source of bonding.
At dinner, he tries to sneak some chicken to Betsy under the table. The dog snatches from the little hand and gulps it nearly whole.
“Sydney, no,” your wife says.
He grins and brings his (slobbery) hand back up to the table. “Daddy, did you have a dog when you were little?”
The question catches you by surprise. He has such a gift for intuitiveness.
“I did. She ran away though.”
Your wife watches the two of you with interest. You imagine her writing down the conversation in her journal later.
“How did you feel when she was gone?”
Both your wife and Sydney wait for your answer. “Well, it was hard. One day she was there, and the next she wasn’t.”
“I’m sorry, daddy.” He dips his head under the table.
“He is so smart,” your wife says.
You smile. “Yes, I think he is.”
“He’s just like you.”
The comment strikes you with such force it is disorienting. You help wash the dishes, but your mind has drifted.
Sydney’s five-year-old morning breath makes you smile. With his face right up to yours, he touches your nose with a finger.
“Bop! Where’s mommy?”
“She went to the gym. Today is Saturday, so no work. Do you remember last night?”
He looks up with those deep eyes that convey a cosmos of curiosity. “Remember what? I was sleeping. Daddy, were you sleepwalking?”
You tussle his hair. “Me? No, of course not. But let’s not worry about that. How about some pancakes!”
You dance down the stairs with him like from an old black-and-white musical. He arches so far back his head touches the step. You cook pancakes and bacon. Sydney carefully drops chocolate chips onto each round cake to form a face.
You love smiley face pancakes.
You peek through the bedroom blinds and see Sydney on his knees in the front lawn, his back to you.
“What are you doing?” you whisper when you stand behind him.
“I’m almost done, Daddy.” His hands are caked with dirt.
The lawn is ultra-green under your feet. The air has a tepid feel, as if it emanates from your skin rather than the other way around—as if you are floating in space.
“What are you doing out here?”
You recoil, eyes flash awake, and you’re standing by yourself in the yard. Your son was never there.
The front door stands open, and you burst toward it, only to slow upon entering the stillness of the house. The stairs squeak lightly under your weight. The bedroom door squeals like a specter’s wail.
“What are you doing?” your wife asks, agitated.
Your eyes are not on her but on Sydney, who sprawls out in his usual way, his loving embrace so peaceful around Betsy’s chest.
“I was watching TV. Couldn’t sleep.”
“Well, please close the door and come to bed.”
You have a memory of standing like this at your parents’ bed; they never saw you. For several minutes, you watched them sleep.
You loved your mom and dad.
Even when rain starts before dawn, the patter of it like music, it’s impossible for any quiet thoughts. Your body grows so tense that your calf muscles cramp and that pain has you catching grunts in your throat. Finally, the cold blue of morning creeps in. You tingle with frenetic energy.
“Wake up! Where’s Sydney?” Your wife’s voice, so loud, crazed, right in your face.
“What? What about Sydney?”
“He’s not in the house!”
The two of you search every inch. Even though it’s cold, sweat pours over you. While you are outside, she realizes Betsy is gone too. You think of the night you wandered off sleepwalking as a child. Your father and mother must have scrambled like this, torn up the house. They must have realized too that your dog was missing.
The police arrive within minutes of being called and ask if you argued, or if Sydney had any reason to run away. Everything will be done, they say, as they leave.
“God, where did he go?” your wife says. “Are you sure you didn’t leave the door open?”
Her morose aura terrifies you. It’s like a cold cemetery fog.
“It wasn’t that.”
She doubles over and falls forward, hands over her face, and the most ungodly wails escape her lungs. She beats the floor, spittle strung from her open mouth like melted wax.
“I’m going out to look for him,” you say.
At the door, she screams again, and the sound pierces your ears. You think of the day Sydney was born, how you heard those same cries.
A drizzle starts as you back out the Saab. Each street will hold promise. Down one and up another. The rain picks up, windshield wipers swiping madly. After two hours your hands grip vise-tight to the wheel.
Miles later, you see Winnie and Tigger and Eeyore doing cartwheels and somersaults on a child’s pajamas. His hair lays flat against the skull, shoulders hunched in to keep warm.
You love this moment.
His face, dumbfounded and confused, scrunches up in the oddest way. “Where are we? I want to go home.”
With the utmost trepidation you say, “Where’s Betsy?”
His eyes look at you in his periphery, as if he’s afraid to see you. “Can you keep a secret?”
A ball of molten ore settles in your chest.
With your son scooped up, you run, slide him into the passenger seat, and hustle to your side. His hands are caked with dirt, black lines of it shoved under his fingernails. Every inch of his pale skin is dotted with soil.
You can barely breathe. “What did you do with her?”
His breath smells pungent and acidic, and he speaks as an old man in the confessional, a whisper. “I finally finished digging.”
Dizzy, you take his head in your hands. Unable to contain yourself, an overeager laugh escapes your mouth. Your faces mirror each other—stricken, uncertain. The headlights shine on the woods, too dark to penetrate, and hide whatever lies within.
You know this is only the beginning.
After all, he’s just like you.
by Guan Un
Frances, if you hear me delete this message. Stop listening at once. Delete this …
… Apologies for that error in transmission. Dear Frances, it is wonderful to communicate (take root) with you again. This is my last report on the loss of transmission from the radio outpost on Ganymede 13.
It is worse than we feared. Frances, everyone is dead. Locked in separate rooms, fingers stuffed in ears, or music playing out loud. In the control room, one audio loop playing over and over. We all heard it (take root) before we could not.
It was not apparent what killed them at first. There was no sign of intruders, no forced entry into the base. We thought space madness at first, but there is no sign of violence. When Dr Adil did the autopsy there was no trauma, beyond their vocal cords. They had died of hunger, exhaustion—even though they had plenty of supplies. Frances, they spoke themselves to death.
I went back to that audio loop, traced it back to their logs. It was the message they’d received—that they’d told us about. The sign of alien life—a reply to the Arecibo message.
I listened to it (take root) and despite the circumstances I could see why they were excited. It was a definite message from intelligent life—life beyond us, beyond the stars, sent back to us where we could hear it (take root). The majority of the message was prime numbers repeating in bass pulses, soft and liquid in my ears, whispers behind it that I couldn’t hear, so I would listen again. And felt it rising, rising until I knew where I belonged, the sound was where I belonged and what I was.
A host. A vehicle for transmission.
When Dr Adil pulled the headphones from me twelve hours later, I told her what I’m telling you.
That’s why I … no delete don’t listen oh please (take root) …
But can you hear it too? It’s in this transmission, in the wavelengths of my voice, that’s where they are—and they’re in you too now.
That’s why they’re forcing me to send this. To you Frances, to email this broadcast onto NASA. To post on the internet. To anyone who’ll listen and (take root).
There was no message, Frances. They were the message. This is them—they multiply through the sound, through the voice of the hosts, they ride on the back of the wavelengths, and take root (take root) in your brainstem. Until you’re a host too. To say what they need you to say.
You can fight them delete this it’s too late. If you’ve heard this it’s too late, they’ve taken root.
Frances, if you hear me delete this message. Tell everyone.
PseudoPod Episode 866
May 19th 2023
Flash on the Borderlands LXVI (66): Quod Nomen Mihi Est?
Sub-quote: La plume de ma tante.
Litany in the Heart of Exorcism by Sarah Pauling
Read by Tatiana Gomberg
He’s Just Like You by T.M. Morgan
Narrated by David Powell
Narrated by Rose Hofelich
Audio production by Chelsea Davis
Hosted by Alasdair Stuart
Hello, and welcome to PseudoPod, the weekly horror podcast. I’m Alasdair your host and this week’s stories are all about names. What they mean. What they do. What we hide behind them.
First up is Litany in the Heart of Exorcism by Sarah Pauling. It originally appeared in Flash Fiction Online, and is due to appear in Dutch translation in Speculatief
Sarah says: “Sarah Pauling spent several years sending other people to distant places for a living as a study abroad advisor in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s now in Seattle, graciously sharing her home with two cats and a husband. A graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, her stories have appeared in places like Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and Clarkesworld. If approached without sudden movement, she can be found at @_paulings on Twitter, where she natters on about writing, tabletop gaming, comics, and books.” Links to include: @_paulings on twitter and sarahpauling.com
So stand strong, because we have a story for you and as long as you stay outside the circle, we promise you it’s true.
I had never for a second considered exorcism as a process of radical, soul-shattering empathy and yet here we are. We’re taught, especially if you were raised catholic or snuck into horror movies early, that possession is a moment of terrifying, abject violation. You are overwritten as someone crams their way into your head, taking control, taking you from you.
The idea of exorcism as a process of rescue though. Of a drowning soul clinging to a radiant living life raft knowing full well what they’re doing and yet not being able to stop themselves because it is so dark and so cold where they are? That is terrifying on an existential level I have never considered. What a clear-eyed, empathetic and abjectly terrifying idea, and beautifully executed too. Mother is the name for god. Any port in a storm. Names as a beacon lighting your way home, lighting your way to your worst excesses.
And speaking of names as a path to the truth, we have He’s Just Like You by T.M. Morgan, This is a pseudopod original and T.M has also been published in Vastarien and Lamplight. He lives in southern Maryland with his family.Your narrator is David Powell –
Warning up front; this is a story that does not end well for the four legged friend at it’s core. That’s the truth, but not the only one here.
If Sarah Pauling’s story is about the bright light of self knowledge denying you somewhere to hide, TM Morgan’s story is about the warm, padded darkness of being a chip off the old block.
There’s a thing that happens over here especially, where the most awful things are excused just because someone is a family member, or older, or rich, or went to the right school. If we live with wrong, wrong is just part of the furniture. Or part of the family.
That unwillingness to look the monster in the eyes isn’t here. What Morgan has done is more difficult, more unsettling. The lead is quite aware of what his kid’s going through, he can see through the scar tissue of his own life that the same wounds are blossoming on his son. He knows just enough to know he should feel bad about it but that terror, that sense that the room is on fire and nothing is fine, is smothered by the curdled love of family and the twisted, withered part of his brain that loves that soon he’ll have an apprentice. Name here is legacy. Like father like son. Monsters both, one unable to change that, the other unwilling to.
Names have power. That power can bind us or free us as these stories have shown. Now our last will show you the fear and the truth in a handful of syllables. Guan Un is an Australian writer of Malaysian-Chinese heritage. He loves sentences, dumplings and sentences about dumplings. He has upcoming publications in khoreo, Translunar Travelers Lounge. And he lives in Sydney’s inner west, with his wife, kids and a dog named after a tiger. He can be found on Twitter @thisisguan. Your narrator for this story is the amazing Dave Robison. So, one more time, one more true story.
OH THIS JUST FEELS LIKE I’M BEING SPOILED! Three fantastic stories, all of them exploring the concept of names and the power they hold in wildly different ways and the last is straight up memetic horror?! SO good.
Here names don’t have power they ARE power. And life. And a world but not one big enough to hold the life contained within it. This concept takes us full circle, back to possession before exorcism, back to someone else looking through your eyes. Back to the moment where you find yourself being overwritten by degrees and back, at last, to the one thing the lead in our previous story denied themselves;
This is not a story that ends well for the hapless narrator. This is a last will and testament in the most literal sense; the will of someone using their final seconds to warn everyone else, the testament of their determination in the face of identity destroying horror. No one should stand against something like that alone, and I’m reminded of the moment in World War Z with Sarge and when she realizes she’s done. Sometimes knowing yourself, knowing your name, is knowing who and what you aren’t and making that a weapon. Or at least, a warning beacon.
What’s in a name? Everything. Everything that matters, everything that doesn’t. And three stories that will stay with me for a long time.
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Join us next week for Chainsaw: As Is by Gillian King-Cargile, narrated by Melissa V Hofelich, produced by Chelsea Davis and hosted by me. And PseudoPod wants you to remember,
About the Authors
Sarah Pauling spent several years sending other people to distant places for a living as a study abroad advisor in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s now in Seattle, graciously sharing her home with two cats and a husband. A graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, her stories have appeared in places like Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and Clarkesworld. If approached without sudden movement, she can be found at @_paulings on Twitter, where she natters on about writing, tabletop gaming, comics, and books
T.M Morgan has also been published in Vastarien and Lamplight. He lives in southern Maryland with his family.
Guan Un is an Australian writer of Malaysian-Chinese heritage. He loves sentences, dumplings and sentences about dumplings. He has upcoming publications in khoreo, Translunar Travelers Lounge. And he lives in Sydney’s inner west, with his wife, kids and a dog named after a tiger. He can be found on Twitter @thisisguan.
About the Narrators
David Powell’s day jobs have run the gamut from studio musician to farmhand to theatre director, but the fuel he runs on is always storytelling. He seeks out the little pockets where things whimsical, dreadful, or pitch-black hide. You can read his work in such places as Close 2 the Bone, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Shotgun Honey, Calliope, and HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. 6.
Tatiana Grey is a New York City based actress of stage, screen, and of course, the audio booth. She adores traveling and counts her lucky stars that acting and dancing have taken her all over the United States, to Montreal, Vancouver, Ireland, and Holland… but she loves coming home to New York where it all started. Equally at home speaking heightened language in a corset, in a leather jacket spouting obscenities, and as a dancer she has been compared to such dark, vivacious heroines as Helena Bonham Carter, a young Winona Ryder and Elliot Page. This depth and facility with multiple genres garnered her a New York Innovative Theatre Award Best Featured Actress nomination for her work in The Night of Nosferatu. Her facility with accents has landed her quite a few audiobooks and numerous on-camera roles including the role of Evgenya in the award winning I am A Fat Cat. Tatiana is a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association.
Dave Robison is an avid Literary and Sonic Alchemist who pursues a wide range of creative explorations. A Brainstormer, Keeper of the Buttery Man-Voice (patent pending), Pattern Seeker, Dream Weaver, and Eternal Optimist, Dave’s efforts to boost the awesomeness of the world can be found at The Roundtable Podcast, the Vex Mosaic e-zine, and through his creative studio, Wonderthing Studios. Dave is the creator of ARCHIVOS, an online story development and presentation app, as well as the curator of the Palaethos Patreon feed where he explores a fantasy mega-city one street at a time.