5040 words, short story
Aster's Partialities: Vitri's Best Store for Sundry Antiques
The Unhappy Impetus
If the book had begun differently, perhaps it would have ended. Syd was overconfident. Reckless enough to edge into paranoia. She practiced verbal deflection and kept her notebook on a table rigged with gunpowder. It was not enough. Of course. Every thief knows doors are near useless on good days and secrets are hard to keep when one is simultaneously power drunk and paranoid. The magistrate’s arrival at the Academy’s west tower was unsurprising. His knocking began at ten after three and continued for almost two minutes, gathering intensity when he hollered, “Open the door, bedeviled woman!”
Syd released the nine locks on her door with steady fingers. The magistrate seized her before the ink on the letter ordering her arrest could dry. It is a shame Syd wasn’t suicidal. She might have died quickly. Instead, she was beheaded—hacked in two—by a less-than-adequately-sharp sword. Burned. Her skull lashed to a pole and forced into the sky for crows. Her tower burned. Scribes toiled overnight to scratch her name from the yearly edition of Vitri’s Finest Magicians.
A newspaper headline dated two months before her execution praised her brilliance: Miss Sydney Alting, it read, the Young Magician-Academic Transcending Our Understanding of Space-Time. She was as beloved as anyone with terrible power could be. She was not the kind of magician who pricked fingers for her spells or cleaned skulls and filled them with potions. Her magic relied on belief and a curious mix of book learning, glass flasks and burners, and long walks that often carried her through each of Vitri’s main streets before depositing her back home just as the sun rose. How were people to know she was more than an academic? She played the part with remarkable exactitude.
She slept in stolen moments, ate while consuming books with eyes sharper than any human tooth, and plotted out her days while dressing each morning. She learned all she could to complete her self-assigned quest; little else mattered. What else could matter when she was certain her time in Vitri was finite? It was supposed to be finite. If not for us, it would have been.
Syd underestimated her notebook’s power. If she had not singed her thumb, cut it with her pen-nib, grasped the pen in her mouth as she wrapped her thumb in cloth—hissing out garbled curse words all the while—and dripped blood on the fifth word in the first sentence in the first paragraph of the first page in her notebook, it might have ended. All magic is troublesome: the magic of escape more so than the rest. Death does not count; it equals a circle: a body is spat from a womb, it grows to maturity, dies some horrible or less-than-horrible death, and the cycle repeats. Getting up from an armchair to enter the next room does not count either: it equals a slight shift in locale—perhaps a shift in perspective as well—but that depends entirely on the get-up-and-mover’s mental state and, as anyone knows, human minds are fickle.
Syd sought a sense of complete transportation, of removal from one’s known, constructed world to a form of existence that still contained a vast cavern of malleability. She sought a deathless dismemberment of body and soul capable of undergoing reconstruction. Our selfless, forgiving side may argue that her death was a pity—a pity for knowledge, for human understanding of the universe’s construction, for the poor souls and poorer bodies who attempted to continue her quest long after her execution. Unfortunately, we abhor selflessness. The concept of forgiveness makes us feel weak, and we despise weakness. Unfortunately, the blood Syd spilled on her notebook eighteen days before her execution, and the muddled curses that leaked out around the shaft of her pen, formed a spell that mangled an ending beyond repair. Her death furthered the chain of events. All that blood pouring down her neck created an unhappy accident: us. Our infant self swept in before her bodiless head was launched into the sky and ate her stiff tongue. Now she lives in our mirrors. All fourteen of them.
We began as all living things begin: a bit of matter floating in fluid. Our fluid was deep as a black hole. Our matter equaled one word dribbled in blood: -aster. Aster became our name. Aster, wrapped in Syd’s unintentional spell, pulsing with her death-blood, cloaked in her last words.
“You will remember me!” she had screamed. “Burn my belongings, write over my name, wash your children’s ears if they dare think of me, but you cannot get rid of me. I’ll linger in your court, the corners of your houses, the square you’re bound to burn my body in. I’ll look down on this town even after the crows have picked out my eyes.”
She died and we grew larger with her stiff tongue filling our mouth. What was left of her slowly solidified our crevices like mortar. We were built from bone as all things are built. First: a foundation made of clay and gravel, bones and charred bricks from Syd’s tower. Second: wooden studs like the studs in any building. Third: walls and windows. Paint on the inside. Plaster on the outside. A roof. We contain six rooms, one brick chimney, and enough plumbing for running water. Our doors are thick oak set with iron hinges and handles. Our dark foyer leads into a room that swallows all but a small kitchen alcove on our first floor, occupied only by two floating shelves. Narrow stairs hidden beneath a cabinet we stole from a junkyard lead into a living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom with dry plumbing. Syd is our only occupant. What use do ghosts have for plumbing? We ate a four-poster bed with paisley sheets in shades of sunset orange, a nightstand, a periwinkle couch overflowing with matching cushions, and a table crisscrossed with scars left by butchering knives to furnish our upstairs rooms. Mirrors wink from every wall. Our downstairs lies empty except for a pile of dusty coins and cracked autumn leaves left by our last visitor. He was delicious. His throat hinged with fat, his ribs encased in silky skin, his fingers thin enough to become toothpicks. We used his bones as we have used all the rest: to shore up the weakest crevices in our walls.
Syd battered the inside of the mirrors while we chomped and sucked and gnawed. Our visitor disappeared too quickly. We belched a foul breath through our chimney and settled into our foundations as our stomach rumbled and gurgled to beg for more.
We are perpetually hollow. Unfulfilled. Syd shrieks soundlessly, mouth hanging open, and rushes from one mirror to the next. The city hisses and screams and rumbles and crawls around us. Vitri has grown since we were born: it has sprouted heads that belch smoke whose foulness rivals our own; it has pounded paving stones into the earth; its population has multiplied thrice; its buildings have grown taller than any gallows or tower or turret; its shifting streets forced us to move from one block to the next until we set our foundations down in a grassy plot between brick buildings occupied by people who get up at the same hour every morning, dress in drab uniforms, and stumble off to work with sleep still clouding their eyes.
We are hungry. Aching for nourishment we do not expect to receive. Our walls feel like compressed sand—all too easily knocked down. Syd jostles the mirrors. We cannot free her from her accidental prison. We cannot free ourselves of her. We have tried, but her spells are thick and heavy and wrapped in every scrap of certainty she had while still alive: Vitri will always lie under her gaze. So, she continues bashing against the inside of the mirrors and we continue breathing and eating and wondering where we will move when this street, too, spits us out.
Our front doors open. Slam shut. Our walls shake. We grind our teeth. Surely, we are hallucinating the footsteps pounding over our downstairs floor. Surely, the panting breaths are our own. We crack our eyes open and stare down at the small body crumpled in our first floor alcove. The child reaches a shaking hand into a chestnut-brown coat pocket, heaves a breath, and lets their eyes flutter closed. We lick our lips and think of blood on our tongue, but it has been a long time since a child opened our doors. We are too curious for our stomach’s good. The child’s coat sleeves are filled with patches in mismatching shades of orange and gray. Their short hair sticks up in greasy, sweat-matted clumps. Their oversized, broad-legged pants are cinched with a scratched leather belt and folded up a half-dozen times at the ankles. Holes fill their mass-produced shoes’ peeling soles.
We move our eyes closer, stomach grumbling, and lick our lips. We are hungry. So hungry. We digested our last visitor five days ago. Surely this child will not be dearly missed. We inch our mouth closer, teeth almost poking through our gums—and our floorboards. The child opens their eyes, releases a long breath, and withdraws the hand from their pocket with a thin, glittering silver chain hanging over their fingers and something clutched in their palm.
A glint. We shiver. Inhale through our chimney. No, it’s impossible. Not right.
The child smiles down at their hand, lips peeling back over crooked teeth. A giggle erupts from their throat, course and unused, then so gleeful we find ourselves trembling. We recoil from the child, move our eyes into the ceiling and shove our teeth into our foundation. The child straggles to their feet, tightens their fist around the necklace, and begins to stagger toward our entrance. Syd grows still in the mirror she has been scribbling spells across and tilts her head downward like she can steal our eyes and see the child clutching her necklace—her necklace. We hiss. The necklace’s pendant peeks between the child’s ring and middle fingers: a pearl set in a silver bowl that once hung in the hollow of Syd’s throat.
The magistrate ordered it burned with Syd’s body. Everyone knows a magician’s talisman must be destroyed if they are to be erased from the grounds that felt them die. At least, a magician as powerful as Syd. Perhaps her imprisonment is not entirely our fault. The thought itches, and itches, and itches. We do not care. Do not care. A chortle builds in our walls. The child stumbles the last few feet to our double doors leading out to the street, grasps the doorknobs with sweaty fingers, and shoves themself through. We slam the doors closed behind them and smirk.
We are as asleep as any building can be when the child returns, carrying the scent of rotten leaves. They shut our front doors behind themself, check for a lock, and—finding none—walk to the center of our downstairs. For a moment, they stand still. We hold our breath and wait. For what? We don’t know. Syd twitches inside the mirror carefully situated above the bed. The child turns in a slow circle, heaves a sigh, and slings a tan backpack darned with yarn instead of thread off their shoulder. The backpack falls with a painful thump that reverberates through our floor. Is the child carrying cans? River stones? A collection of petrified heads?
The thought almost makes us scoff. Our stomach grumbles and we tell it to shut up already. We are hungry, but this—this has never happened before. Last time we refrained from eating a visitor, they returned with a real estate agent and city officials with clipboards determined to discover where we came from. Because “houses don’t just appear, you damn idiots,” the real estate agent had said while scuffing the tip of her shoe against the bottom of our very nice front doors. We left to find a different street that night and not even Syd complained when we waded through the sewer’s drainage system. No one we decided not to eat—a decision we have only made twice—has ever returned . . . and with a backpack heavy enough to make us wonder how the child hasn’t crumpled beneath the weight.
The child sets their hands on their hips and turns in a slow circle, “Not bad.”
We bristle. Not bad? Not bad? Upstairs, Syd shakes with a sudden bout of silent laughter. We consider stacking all of her mirrors in the center of the bedroom—facedown, so she will be trapped in darkness. Syd has not laughed for almost eighty years. We know because we heard her laugh her last laugh as the executioner squinted one eye and lined his sword up with the back of her neck. Of course, she did enough damage during her lifetime to earn some degree of post-death misery. And being locked up with us for seventy-nine and three-quarters years would make anyone insane. We reconsider stacking her mirrors in the center of the bedroom—leaving one faceup for a view of the ceiling.
The child kneels in front of their backpack and yanks the main compartment’s rusted zipper pull. The zipper shrieks. Our stomach grinds and gurgles an insistent eat the child already and be done with it. The child opens a round can—at least one can after all—with a faded label, sticks a spoon in the center of it, and gobbles the can’s indiscernible contents with unnecessary slurping. We shift our foundations, grimacing and grinding our teeth until the child wraps the can in a paper bag and washes the spoon with a small bar of soap and water from a metal bottle decorated with pink butterflies. They lie down on their back and tuck the backpack under their head. We quickly close our eyes and move them into a corner of the ceiling. Being seen moving wouldn’t do any good. The child lies still for a minute before their lips twist and they let out a snort of derision at some internal joke. They wipe their cheeks with the backs of their hands, cross their feet at the ankles, and close their eyes.
A few minutes later, they let out a quiet huff and turn onto their side—asleep. We stare, dumbfounded, and slowly creep our eyes closer. Our mouth moves beneath them, tongue sliding along our lips. It would be so easy to open our jaws and swallow. A few crunches. A bit of blood for us to lick off the floor. And the child would be gone. Still, we hesitate and want to slap ourselves. Syd shrieks gleefully. We shake our upstairs walls in warning, but she only tilts her head back and opens her mouth wider. Our eyes snap back to the breathing body stretched out on our downstairs floor as the child rolls onto their other side. A nuisance. That’s what they are. A potentially delicious, strangely tense, infuriatingly mysterious sack of food and building materials sleeping on our floor as if we’re some kind of inn.
The child sleeps past the following morning’s dawn. We do not sleep at all. Not for lack of trying, of course, but the child remains an infuriating mystery lying on our floor and we can’t close our eyes for more than a few seconds. Syd spends the night moving from one mirror to the next, occasionally opening her mouth and grumbling to herself as she tries to find a comfortable spot. We circle our eyes over the ceiling, hunting for silver glinting at the child’s neckline or peeking out from beneath their sleeves. They could not have sold Syd’s necklace without raising questions. A magician’s talisman contains a sort of weight that inherently makes anyone who tries to carry it, except for its rightful owner, queasy. The child must have known that they were picking up something they were not supposed to have—unless they knew and decided not to care. We shiver. It is not a pleasant thought. It would point toward either sheer arrogance or recklessness and we do not know which one we like least.
Arrogance would be painfully familiar. Syd was arrogant, but not without the power to prove most of her claims. Recklessness makes humans difficult to predict—or too easy; it rarely exists alone and it can make people rely on the strangest parts of themselves. Was the child’s first rush through our doors driven by desperation or determination? They shift, roll onto their stomach with a sigh, and wiggle all of their limbs in mockery of an octopus. Finally calm, Syd loiters in a bathroom mirror. Her hand-stitched clothing is unchanged from the day of her execution: a light gray blouse tucked into an ankle length, pastel yellow, pleated wool skirt and a dark-gray waistcoat with three buttons.
Weight settles onto our stairs. We leave Syd alone in the bathroom in favor of peering down at the child slowly creeping up to our second story. Their eyes stretch wide as they survey our living room. After a few minutes, they inch toward the bedroom. Syd tilts her head in the bathroom mirror, lips pursing, and leaps into the living room with a speed we have not seen since the first day she tried to break out of our walls. The child pokes their head into the bedroom, hums, and turns around only to stumble back with a shriek, slip, and land on their butt. Syd blinks at them from the full-length mirror across from the bedroom door. The child’s jaw falls slack, “Um. Hi.” Their voice grates and they wince. “You look—um . . . you look familiar.”
Syd opens her mouth, shuts it, and crosses her arms over her chest, one index finger tapping her elbow. The child swallows and slowly climbs to their feet, “I . . . my name is Mor.”
Mor. How pretty. Get out, impetuous child. We grind our teeth.
Mor runs a hand through their bedraggled hair, “I spent the night downstairs, hope you don’t mind.”
Syd grins. Shakes her head. She might not mind, but we mind. We mind a whole lot. We grind our teeth louder. Mor, oblivious to our grinding, runs a hand through their hair again, “I’m guessing you can’t talk because I haven’t heard you.” They pause. “I hope I can stay a bit longer—”
We bristle. Absolutely not. This Mor has caused enough trouble already. They burst through our doors and disrupted our existence. If they lead people to us, we will be forced to pull our feet out of our foundations and find a new plot. We are hungry. We are tired of being used like a bed and breakfast. We want a good juicy meal and a better night’s sleep. And now that Mor is talking, they haven’t shut up. We want them to shut up.
“—I’m in a bit of trouble. I’m hiding out and all that. I think I found . . . anyway . . . You see, when I said I think you look familiar I really mean that I’ve been researching Vitri’s history—magic, raiders, the whole early-trade-route kerfuffle. I was turned onto it by this old guy at the library who was telling stories about magicians to anyone who’d listen—and a lot of people who didn’t want to. He’s bonkers, off his mind, but I was practically living in the library anyway and I was interested in the whole magician-thing and decided it wouldn’t hurt to do some research, so . . . anyway, you look like one of the magicians who was executed for ‘morally-dubious experiments’ and you’re in a mirror . . . ” Mor clears their throat, “Anyway. Can I stay? Just for a few days. I’ll have my mess straightened out soon, I hope. I bet you haven’t had much company in the last, uh, eighty years?”
Syd breathes a foggy circle onto the mirror and lifts a hand to scribble, “You can stay.”
Traitor. It will not last for long. We have not decided if it will last at all.
“And no,” a wicked grin reveals Syd’s teeth. “I have not had a scratch of good company.”
After giving Syd an awkward wave and hiking downstairs to snatch their backpack, Mor flops onto the couch and tugs off their hole-ridden shoes. Outside, doors open. Footsteps pound the sidewalk. Loose lunch pail handles clang as the neighboring apartments’ occupants march off to work. Mor talks and Syd fogs up the mirrors to answer. We bristle and groan and grit our teeth, but neither Syd nor Mor pay attention. The day passes with the usual humdrum and insufferable clanging caused by people pretending to matter. By the time the apartments’ occupants march back to their homes, down whatever food they have in their pantries, and crawl under their covers, we’re certain both Mor and Syd have successfully communicated their entire life stories.
We drag our eyes away from the ceiling above our front doors where we have pointlessly waited for a morsel—at least one pitiful visitor—to enter and take up posts in the back corners of our living room. Mor lies on their back on the couch and Syd hovers in the mirror fastened to our ceiling above the periwinkle cushions. We shake our floor in annoyance, but they are deep in a lively debate about the possibilities of transportation via magic blah-di-blah and neither of them seem to care. Perhaps it is time for us to rearrange our walls, but Syd is smiling. She scribbles boring words we read and immediately forget. She smiles again. We are tired, and hungry, and we will consider rearranging our walls at some future date.
Mor opens a can of peaches for breakfast. We watch them wave to Syd, shove their backpack under the couch—how dare they—walk down the stairs, open one front door, step outside, close the door, and head down the street with their hands in their pockets. Syd performs her morning stretches and moves to the bathroom to perfect her hair. After tucking the last strand into a low bun, she breaths on the glass to scribble, “I like them.”
We want to be furious. Syd has not talked to us for years. We have lost count of exactly how many.
“Let them stay.”
We despise orders. They make us think of weakness, but Syd has never been weak and perhaps there is little shame in taking orders from her. After all, we are—at the bottom of it all—a sort of unwilling prison. We can choose to be nice. Occasionally.
Syd breathes out another patch of fog, “Please.”
We cannot be furious.
Our front doors slam open. Mor skids across the floor, “Fuck!”
Five people dressed in light gray rush in, steel-toed boots rattling our floorboards. The invaders’ beady eyes are sharp, extended swords grasped in gray-gloved hands, mouths shouting. Their coat collars are stitched with The Historic Preservation Society’s Acquisition Division’s half-moon insignia, but they have the look of mercenaries.
Mor drops into a low stance in the center of the room and turns, fists raised. A smirk settles onto Mor’s lips. They open one hand. Syd’s necklace dangles in their palm, the chin wrapped around their fingers and the pearl pendant glinting, “I have it and I’m not giving it to you. If you want it, you’re going to have to try and take it, you damn bastards.”
The invaders share quick glances and a short, bushy man in front shifts his weight to his back leg. “You’re going to regret saying that.”
Mor’s hand forms a fist with Syd’s necklace in the center, “Less talking and more fighting, please.”
The invaders rush forward: one swipes a sword at Mor’s head, another swipes at their legs. Mor launches a foot into a tall man’s stomach with a yell, spins to duck beneath a sword aiming for their neck, presses themself to the attacker’s chest, and jams fingers in his eyes. Upstairs, Syd bashes against the bathroom mirror, eyes narrowed and tongue clamped between her teeth as she scribbles spells with one hand and pounds the glass with the other. Something lies in the sink. We pull our eyes closer and gasp through our chimney. Syd’s last notebook fills the center of the basin, opened where Syd left off. “When I die,” Syd’s last sentence reads. “I will die knowing, someday, my talisman will find someone worthy of carrying it. When they try to return to it me, I will know.”
Mor found it. They gave it back.
A scream echoes up the stairs. Syd’s scribbling briefly becomes words we recognize, “Help them!” before morphing back into spells. We bristle, clench our teeth, and rush downstairs. The bushy man holds Mor against his chest, one forearm crossed over their throat and the opposite hand wrapped in their hair. Two of the five invaders lie in unconscious heaps. The two still awake and grinning stand in front of Mor, swords aimed for their torso and empty hands folded against their chests. Mor wiggles and winces when the bushy man’s grip tightens. We hiss. Our stomach grumbles. We open our mouth beneath the two grinning men, putrid gray tongue rising to drag them into our mouth. We grind our teeth down, spit the swords out onto our floor—safely away from Mor—and let out a pleased groan as blood washes down our throat.
The bushy man lets out a high-pitched whine, eyes wide and mouth slack as he clenches Mor to his chest. That will bruise. We rumble and lick blood from our lips. We could eat another. We are more satisfied than we have been for years, but we still have space in our gut. It is hard to fill us completely. The man takes a short step back, dragging Mor with him. The forearm against Mor’s neck tightens. He moves his other hand from Mor’s hair and slides it down to grasp the handle of a revolver hanging from his waist.
Dastardly things. We hiss. The barrel aims for our mouth, the trigger pulls. One bullet embeds itself in our tongue. Fluid washes our mouth. We shriek. Duck our mouth beneath the floorboards. The rest of the bullets stick in our wood. We shake and shiver and curse every word we know. The bushy man pulls the trigger again and again. Empty chambers click. Our eyes water. Mor looks up and smiles—smiles. They jam an elbow into the man’s gut, stomp on his foot, hit him in the groin with their forearm, and spin around to knee him in the face when he crumples forward. He falls to our floor with a thunk. We open our mouth and swallow him down, careful not to drag Mor down with him. His blood washes our injured tongue. We pull our mouth into the ceiling. We close our eyes.
Our foundation trembles like so much sand packed into a wobbly wall. We shake like Syd’s body shook while her executioner waited for the blood spraying from her severed neck to cease. If this is dying, we do not like it. A crack echoes upstairs. We barely feel a hand brush the bathroom sink, barely hear pages turning, barely smell familiar blood, barely recognize the solid weight of feet on our bathroom floor, barely notice the sound of a pen scratching old paper. A body crumbles and seeps into our walls, shoring up our crevices like mortar. The tongue we stole all those years ago and buried in our foundation sings. Syd’s hands pluck the bullet from our tongue and fill the hole it leaves with ink-stained fingers. She melts into us, last words sticking in our ears.
“I think I have been here long enough. Goodbye. Take care of Mor. They will need it.”
We shiver. We shake. We promise. Syd’s magic mends our cracks. A parting gift.
Mor flops onto their back in the center of our downstairs, “I like you.”
We crack open an eye. Bare our teeth. Bloody saliva drips from our gums. A drop lands on Mor’s cheek and they wipe it off with their fingers. Their grin widens. “You just saved my life. You!” A laugh rumbles in their belly. “You saved my life!” They splay out their arms and go lax. “Thanks, I thought I was going to die.”
We snap our mouth shut.
39:12:2 . . . a place we belong.
After hauling the dead men’s weapons into our living room, after sweeping the shards of Syd’s bathroom mirror into a box and carrying them outside, after closing Syd’s notebook and placing it on the couch, after washing our bloody saliva from their cheek, Mor wanders our upstairs with the steps of someone whose world has changed. They tug their backpack out from beneath the couch and turn down the stairs. Leaving. We whine and hiss and force the cabinet in front of our stairs to block the way. We made a promise. Mor looks up at our ceiling, “Does this mean you want me to stay?”
We crack our eyes open, pull our mouth into the plaster, and grin. They grin back. Maybe, just maybe, we like them, too.
After Mor returns upstairs, failing to keep a grin off their face, we ripple our floorboards to encourage them to unpack their backpack and rattle our plumbing to see if it will carry water. Mor is not a ghost, but we can become livable. After emptying the backpack on the couch, Mor stands in front of the closet we shoved all our morsels’ junk into and looks up at our blinking eyes, “What do you think about becoming an antique shop?”
We think of Syd melting into us, the odds and ends we have collected, the five bodies moving through our digestive tract. It is unlikely today’s armed invaders will be the last. The Historic Preservation Society has always been tenacious in their quest to find and lock up relics from the magicians’ golden age. But we are tenacious, too. We will need to find a new street tomorrow, but we do not need to be alone. Besides, we made a promise to watch over the child. Yes, we think. Yes, yes, yes.
Tovah Strong is a queer human from a small train town in New Mexico. She is a graduate of Alpha: the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Workshop for Young Writers and a senior in the creative writing department at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction—and she has begun to enter the world of journalism. She cherishes rainstorms and watches ravens whenever possible.