A youthful artist is possessed by both his painting and his muse. Seductive travelers from the sea arrive to enrapture distant lovers. A temporary moon goddess inhabits the statue of a mermaid. After paying an unusual toll, a couple is transfixed at a haunted estate.
Bestselling author Patricia A. McKillip (The Riddle-Master of Hed) is one of the most lyrical and powerful writers gracing the fantasy genre. With the debut of a brand-new work, Dreams of Distant Shores is a true ode to her many talents. Fans of McKillip’s ethereal fiction will delight in these previously-uncollected tales; those new to her work will find much here to enchant them.
“What’s the weirdest thing that ever happened to you?” he asked.
“Weird,” she repeated. “You mean like weird funny? Weird spooky?”
“Just weird.” He brushed the crook of her elbow, the little hollow there, with one finger, lightly. “As in: for which there is no other word.”
She thought. “You mean like the time I got swept up into an alien spaceship and examined by doctors who looked like talking iguanas wearing surgery gowns?”
He shook his head. “No. That’s just silly. True weird.”
“Well.” She paused, lips parted, eyes dazzled by light, feeling his warm lips burrow into the hollow, leave a kiss that lingered there, an echo, a memory. “That would have to be what happened at my cousin Delaney’s wedding when the shoe landed in the wedding cake.”
He lay back, one hand under his head, the other touching, just barely with the tips of his fingers, the underside of her wrist. “Did it happen to you?”
“Not really. Except it being my shoe that landed in the cake. But it wasn’t personal.”
“That doesn’t count.”
She thought again. They were lying on every bath towel they could find. The bathroom floor was white and green tile, hard and cold but generously wide. They had piled hand towels under their heads, and used the bath sheets for blankets. The pretty gold wire wastebasket was filled with fruit, both fresh and dried, some Italian salami, packets of water crackers and digestive biscuits, a little jar of Kalamata olives, another of gourmet mustard, individually wrapped wedges of mushroom Brie, a bar of hazelnut chocolate, and a small vacuum pack of smoked, peppered salmon, along with the considerable length of purple ribbon that had been wrapped around the gift tray. The tray itself, a very nice bamboo hors d’oeuvres board, had gone out the window just before she slammed it shut and locked it.
They had water; they had plumbing; they were a little short on utensils, but, as he pointed out, they could use toothbrush handles, and the little files that slid in and out of nail clippers.
She remembered something suddenly. “Oh. My grandfather Pippin’s funeral.”
“Yeah. Like the apple. He was ninety-two. He wore leather bedroom slippers for twenty years because he kept his money in his shoes.”
“Again,” he said patiently, “is this about you?”
“No,” she said. “But it is weird. The slippers seemed to have melted into his feet. In later years, they guessed, he showered in them. I won’t even mention what state his toenails were in. They were sort of woven together —”
“You’re making this up!”
She gave a little, liquid chuckle, like a pipe’s gurgle. “Just the toenail part. Sorry. I got carried away. But the weird thing was, after they got him safely underground and came back to his house to clean it out, they found those slippers, a little worse for the wear, you know, bits of dirt and grass on them, right beside his bed, as if they had walked there after the funeral.”
“You are so inventing this,” he groaned. “And it’s not even very good. Concentrate. The weirdest thing that happened to you. Not your cousin or heaven help us your demented grandfather or your pet tortoise —” The howling started; he had to raise his voice a little, close as they were, to be heard over it. “You do know what weird means.”
She turned her head, shouted into his ear. “Fate. It’s one of the earliest meanings. I learned that when —” The menacing, furious, strangely desperate racket ceased as abruptly as it had begun; her own yelling softened into laughter. “Sorry. Anyway. Speaking of which —”
“Macbeth. The three weird sisters. I did meet a witch once — a real one.”
He sat up indignantly, sending hand towels rolling. Leaning on one arm, looking down at her, he demanded, “Are you making this up, too?”
“No. This is true.” She paused, admiring the honey-amber glow of his skin; she held the back of her wrist against his breast, her ivory on his rich warmth. “Come back down. I’ll tell you. And, yes, it happened to me.”
She waited while he piled the hand towels again for his head, sank back down beside her. Then they both had to wait during the thundering clatter, like some gigantic backhoe scooping up a hundred old-fashioned metal garbage cans into its vast maw and dropping them from a great height onto a street jammed with empty cars, trucks, buses. She could feel the floor vibrate slightly under the appalling din. Her own voice sounded small, diminished, in the silence that followed.
“Her name was Jehane. She had long, wild, curly red hair and the most lovely, wicked smile, even though she had lost one eyetooth, maybe during an initiation ceremony or something.” She felt him shift, but he didn’t question the tale, not yet. “She told me she lived in an RV with a cat, a raven, and a snake, all with bizarre names. I mean, who would name a cat Tisiphone?”
“You,” he said. “Where are you in this?”
“I met her in a bar where my crazy boyfriend at the time played bass in a band. Concert bass, not electric. She was drinking a mojito and writing a spell on a napkin when I came up and accidently knocked her glass over onto the napkin. Well, I thought it was an accident. But when I apologized, she said, ‘There are no accidents.’ She had an odd accent. Portuguese, maybe, or something Balkan. Ancient Irish? Anyway, I bought her another drink and she invited me to sit beside her. No. It was more like a command than an invitation. She told me that my boyfriend played the bass very well, and that he would dump me before the year ended for a singer-songwriter who wore only black.”
“Did you still pay for her drink?”
“The witch offered to sell me a spell to keep him from leaving. She smiled her charming smile, which was itself a spell, and we both laughed. I didn’t think about it again until he did leave me, a few weeks later, for a little whey-faced musician with a skinny voice who wrote morose songs on her acoustic guitar. I remembered then that there was no way for the witch to have known the bass player was my boyfriend, when she said what she said. No explicable way, I mean. Except that she was a witch.”
“Is that as weird as it gets?”
She shook her head. “Not even close.”
Someone or something pounded ferociously on the bathroom door. The door rattled and shook; the glass holding the toothbrushes clattered into the sink; her bathrobe fell off the hook on the door. The banging, fierce and energetic, was accompanied by deep, barking shouts in an unfamiliar language. Their hands shifted under the towels, seeking each other; their eyes locked. One final, exasperated pound was accompanied by a more familiar word, “Shit!” They waited; the silence held.
He said finally, “Go on.”
She drew a breath. “Well. The real weirdness started that first night. The bartender mopped up the puddle I made and threw the mojito-soaked spell away. I was about to stop him, but the witch said before I could speak, ‘Don’t bother. The spell hasn’t gone anywhere.’ Like she read my mind.”
“Then why was she writing it down?”
“I asked her that. Someone at the bar had requested it, then left after paying for it and hadn’t returned. I asked her what the spell had been for. She only told me, ‘Spells are alive. Spoken about, they find carriers and travel like rumor until they reach the one who craves that particular spell and will pay for it. The spell will be turned into words, and therein lies its terrible and wonderful power.’ Really. That’s what she said. ‘Therein.’ Then the band took a break and my boyfriend came to the bar. I introduced them.”
She paused. He said, “Go on.”
“I still wonder why she bothered to wait through his affair with the singer-songwriter. I mean, she knew it would happen, so why didn’t she cast a spell over the girl and make her lose interest in him?”
She heard him take a breath, hesitate. “You mean —”
“Yes. I mean. Far as I know, they’re still together. The witch and my bass player.”
He laughed a little, softly. “I didn’t expect that. But the unexpected isn’t necessarily weird. Complications and ironies in relationships happen to everyone.”
She raised her head to look into his eyes. “Do they happen to you?”
His eyes flickered. But it could have been the lights going out, not in a normal blink into darkness, but vanishing more slowly, accompanied by a long, deep, growling, indrawn breath that seemed to suck the light into itself, swallow it whole.
She stared back at the absolute black. She couldn’t even see the faint glow of city lights behind the window curtain; the entire planet had disappeared. Then the light came back in a stunning sheet, as though a gigantic eyelid had lifted to reveal the white of a monster’s eye.
She blinked until she could see his face again behind the prickling dazzle of aftershocks across her vision.
“Parts of your witch story were weird,” he admitted. A star gleamed in his nostril, went out; another flared and faded under his eye. “But as a whole, commonplace. Not truly weird.”
She heaved a sigh. “True weird.” She was silent, digging deep into memory. He got up after a time, rummaged through the wastebasket and pulled out the mushroom Brie. He rinsed the soap dish, a pretentious little rectangle with curved edges. He dried it, unwrapped the Brie and laid it on the dish. Then he found the fingernail clippers in his bathroom bag, rinsed and dried the little nail file tucked under the upper blade. She watched while he cut the pale, oozing cheese into chunks, wiping the file with a tissue when it got too sticky. He sat beside her on the towels, set the dish between them.
“True weird,” he said inflexibly. “Try again.”
She chose a piece from the soap dish, ate it dreamily, licked her fingers when it was gone. She settled back again. “This was when I was very young,” she said slowly.
“I knew how to read a few words; I might have started school. Maybe not. Young enough that everything was new. I had no concept of history, and of course my past was very short. I used to sit and try very hard to remember where I had been before I became myself. I thought there must be some kind of before, before — you know. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t remember very far back. It was before I learned that there was nothing of me before I began. It was very strange.”
“But not weird,” he said, swallowing Brie.
“No,” she said softly. “Not. Anyway, I was living overseas then. I had no idea what weird meant. Everything was, or nothing was. I had no context.”
He nodded, hooked a bite of cheese on the tiny curved tip of the file and fed it to her. He watched the movements of her full lips, her throat as she swallowed. “Go on,” he said.
“We lived in a small town, in a house so old that parts of the floor were slabs of stone. Milk was delivered in glass bottles, with the cream floating on top, so you had to shake it before you used it. A man drove floating on top, so you had to shake it before you used it. A man drove a horse-drawn wagon down our street once a week. He had a strange, piercing cry, more like a bird than a person. He was called the Rag-and-Bone man. That’s what he shouted, I was told. People gave him their garbage. His horse was slow and placid. I didn’t know then, but now I know that I was seeing something out of a distant past that would one day ride out of the world and only exist in memory.” She paused, reminiscing. “But that’s not the weirdness, because nobody back then would have called it that.”
“No,” he said, though he sounded, she thought, not entirely certain. She smiled, a quick, private smile of satisfaction while he speared another piece of Brie.
“One day I decided I wanted to ride with him on his wagon, see where he went. I filled a paper bag with odd things I found around the house that I thought nobody would miss: a chipped coffee mug, a doll missing one arm and most of her hair, a mangy teddy bear with the stuffing coming out of its seams, an old pipe of my father’s that had been lying on a windowsill for months, a pair of bedroom slippers my mother never wore — things like that. And since I thought he wouldn’t accept the bag without them, I put a rag and a bone on top of the bag. The rag was a skirt with a torn pocket that didn’t fit me anymore. The bone was something I’d found in the garden, a little hollow thing that had belonged to some bird or animal. I kept it because I liked the sound it made when I blew into it. I waited with my bag on the sidewalk until I saw the wagon coming. Then I walked into the middle of the street in front of the horse.
“It didn’t stop until it was almost on top of me. The Rag-and-Bone man was making his bird cries, high and harsh and eerie, in the quiet street. He might have been telling me to move, but I never understood anything he said. The horse —”
There was an immense thump over their heads, as though a gigantic fist had punched the roof of the building. They both jumped. The walls shuddered around them; the floor seemed to undulate. They clung to it, as to a raft on a violent sea. In the room beyond the door something hit the floor and shattered.
They waited, silent, motionless. Nothing more happened. She cleared her throat finally; he eased upright again, reaching for the Brie.
“The horse loomed over me. It seemed nothing like the slow, placid animal I expected. It was massive; it exuded darkness. Its nostrils were huge, its eyes unrelentingly black. I stood transfixed under it, holding the paper bag in my arms, unable to speak or look away from its shadowy gaze. From very far away, from another world, I heard the Rag-and-Bone man’s voice. The horse moved its head finally. I felt its nostrils whuff at my hair. Then it lowered its great head to the bag in my arms and whuffed at that.
“It opened its great, blocky teeth, picked the bone out of the bag and ate it. I heard it crunch. The Rag-and-Bone man gave a sharp cry. My legs refused to hold me; I toppled down in the middle of the street under the horse’s nose. It shouted, then, a great, fierce blare that I swear blew the hair back from my face.
“Then it somehow slipped its traces and leaped over me. I smelled it, felt its bulk, its enormous hooves clearing my head. The Rag-and-Bone man jumped into the street. For a moment I heard hooves galloping down the cobblestones. The Rag-and-Bone man ran after them. I turned, scared and astonished, just as I realized that the sound of the hooves had stopped. I saw a barefoot boy with wild black hair turn a corner with the Rag-and-Bone man running after him, and bending now and then, as he ran, to try to catch the boy’s shadow.
“They both disappeared around the corner. I scrambled to my feet, hurled the bag onto the hillock of trash in the wagon, then I ran as fast as I could back into the house and hid in the coat closet for the rest of the afternoon. When I finally peeked outside at twilight, the wagon was gone. I never saw the Rag-and-Bone man again.” She looked at the soap dish, then at him, as he sat propped on one hand, motionless, gazing at her. She said reproachfully, “You finished the Brie.”
He swallowed. “Did I?”
“Was that weird or what?”
He shook his head slowly, still holding her eyes. She felt the floor lurch again, or maybe it was her thoughts skittering over something that had suddenly loomed out of nowhere.
“Do you know,” he began. His voice had gone somewhere; it was thin, hollow, like the note blown out of a bone. “What’s even weirder?”
She tried to speak, could only shake her head in a no that turned by imperceptible degrees into a nod.
“You left your skirt with him. Your doll. Your bear. You left him things of yours to recognize you.”
“It was you,” she whispered, recognizing his dark hair, his black, black eyes.
“It was you. In trouble and hiding in a closet then. Now you’re in —”
Their heads turned toward the bathroom door, as though they could see through it to the raging menace beyond. She began to laugh softly, weakly, until her laughter brought tears; she brushed at them as they fell, and then he did, his hand warm, very gentle. When she finally stopped, he moved the soap dish aside and lay back, shoulder touching hers, his hand finding hers.
“Is that,” she said shakily, “what on earth all this fuss is about? It’s your turn, now, you know. Was that the weirdest thing that ever happened to you?”
Excerpted from Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip. Copyright © 2016 Patricia A. McKillip. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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