Thursday, 16 July 2020

WILD THINGS

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Ah, love. A many splendored thing. Here is a rather unusual love story, sweet and strange as could only happen in the post-magical reality of the Indigo Springs “event.” Blue Magic, the sequel to Indigo Springs was published in April and here's a tasty tale from that world to tickle a reader's fancy.

This short story was edited and acquired for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Jim Frenkel.

 

My swamp man wasn’t what you’d call a sexy beast, though I found his skin strangely beautiful. It was birch bark: tender, onion-thin, chalk white in color, with hints of almond and apricot. He was easily bruised, attracted lichens, and when he got too dry, he peeled.

Instead of hair, he grew whisper-thin stems. Every morning we made a ritual of shaving his scalp, breaking those new-grown shoots. Once when time got away from us and they were left to grow a couple days, he broke out in catkins, a crown of fuzzy, pollen-laden locks of gold.

He was always cold. I had to keep him out of the rain so he wouldn’t dissolve into the ecosystem, rooting in whatever soil was closest, erupting in clumps of moss while salmonberry runners snagged him, tearing him with their thorns. The bog (and Vancouver is surprisingly boggy, though you might not think it) wanted him back.

But when it was dry and summer-hot, Aidan stood with a man’s firmness and spoke with a voice deep as a drum, and he could almost pass for normal.

I first saw him standing in a streamer of dawn mist rising off the surface of Burnaby Lake.

I was running a loop around the park, fighting to pass the fitness exam for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted anymore, one my lungs had about given up on. I was gasping for wind on a narrow stub of beach when I spotted him, still as a stump in the slate water, thigh deep and surrounded by paddling mallards and their ducklings. The sun had only just crested the treetops behind him and he was just a well-formed shadow.

Wheezing, I raised my phone, taking a snap for Cutemeat. The blog was my friend June’s idea: join an online community, she’d said, show that department-appointed therapist you’re still interested in boys. Sign of mental health, right?

“Adonis, fishing without a pole,” I captioned the shot, hitting SEND.

Then I thought: And without hip waders. Isn’t he cold?

I looked closely. No sign of rubber boots or any other water gear. I squirmed involuntarily, imagining cold water lapping at the join of his legs.

The sunlight brightened and I realized I was looking at his bare ass. The phone bleeped, loudly, to say it had sent the photo. Startled, I dropped it on the sand.

“Don’t be afraid.” Bass voice, fog-cool, lapped across the lake. “Please . . .  ma’am . . .”

Just when did I become a ma’am?I scrabbled for a hefty branch, in case he came after me with a machete.

A machete hidden where? He’s got no pants!

But it had all been an illusion. As the mist gusted away I saw his limbs were wood, his nose a curl of bark. The ducks were gone.

“Who said that?” I shouted. The sound vanished into the brush.

I circled, club raised, then retrieved the phone, checking to see if someone had called, trying to explain the trick. But no. Apparently I was having a nervous breakdown.

Or was I? A year earlier, a couple witches in Oregon had spilled (or unveiled or unleashed, depending on whose spin you were buying) magic into the U.S. Actual friggin’ magic, as June puts it: flying carpets, people wielding lightning bolts, monster fish in Puget Sound, the whole nine yards. Mount St. Helens erupted and terrorist wizards sank a U.S. aircraft carrier. The forest north of Portland overgrew and jammed up with trees—weird, enchanted, supertall trees—and monsters too.

But Canada was supposed to be mostly clean: the government had gone to the expense of posting signs at Burnaby Lake, promising it was safe.

Would it be better if I was insane?

Maybe we were all a little crazy now. Last Christmas our biggest problems had been climate change, the recession, and war in the Middle East. Now it was glowing rabid raccoons sneaking around Seattle, magic-wielding cults fighting the FBI, refugees, missing persons by the thousands, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, quakes in the news every week, and people turning into animals.

Plusclimate change, war, and an even worse recession.

I ran on. By the time I’d got as far as Piper Spit, it was obvious something was wrong with my phone. Sap caked the memory card slot, and the whole thing was cold, cold enough that water beaded on it, running down the screen. I pulled it apart, extracting the card, disconnecting the battery, and giving all the pieces a fierce rub with toilet paper cadged from the bathroom at the nature center. The sap tore at the tissue while sticking the paper to the phone itself. All I achieved was getting goo and paper stuck in the burn scars on my palms.

Magic it is, I thought. I stuffed the bits of the phone in my day pack, then shared out my granola bar with the ducks, starlings, and Canada geese mooching after handouts on Piper Spit. There were a couple of birders out with big cameras, seated under little neoprene sheets of camouflage-patterned plastic, breath puffing as they waited, waited, for the perfect shot to come along.

I picked at the sap on my palms, in the scars.

“Okay, this is good. It’s better if it’s magic,” I told the birds. “I can still pass that physical, show the doctor I got mental health by the truckload and a strong libido too, and get back into the firehouse.”

They scrabbled at my feet, in single-minded pursuit of my crumbs.

 

“Sometimes I ask myself, why do I feel this way? Why does it feel like my heart’s beating for us both? What’s this tie between us I can’t imagine cutting?”

“I wonder why you feel this way too,” Aidan said, in his syrupy Georgia drawl. “Lovin’ someone with my limitations . . .”

“I hate it when you get all ‘I don’t deserve you.’”

“Just not sure I do,” he said.

“Everyone has limitations,” I said—that much, I knew for sure. “Everyone’s a lot of work.”

“One good pourdown and I may yet fall apart. I get chilled, I stiffen up—”

“I’ll try to keep you warm.”

“I’ve got no papers, Calla, I’m in the country illegally. I should be under magical quarantine.”

“Shut up,” I replied. I’d man-napped him away from the bog, to a rented trailer in the heart of wine country, in the desert town of Oliver, near Lake Okanagan. Fleeing east down the highway, a six-hour drive from Vancouver, to a climate where it was drier and hotter and hopefully safer, had seemed like a great idea at the time. “Anyway, I’m contaminated now too.”

“Because of me.”

I waved that off. “My point is: why you? Why you and me, why this thing? We’ve both had lovers before. We worked at it, I know. When it ended, all those other times, I didn’t shrug it off, did you?”

“No, you’re right. I’ve had my heart broke.”

“I never had this feeling before, that cheesy teen romance thing where if you died, I feel like I would too. I’m a practical person, not some doe-eyed movie heroine.”

It was almost dawn. Aidan had found work making buns and custard cakes in the scorching heat, cash under the table, in a bakery that purported to be Portuguese. Now he was out on his break, in the alley. We’d missed each other too much to wait the six hours until his shift ended.

He said: “Maybe the clichés were true all along. Maybe there is one perfect soul mate for everyone.”

“Not a bunch of people who’ll do?”

“I didn’t believe either—I was a scientist, Calla.” He pulled me close and my heart trip-hammered. He had come straight from the kitchen, and his skin lacked its usual chill. He was almost as warm as a man. “Love at first sight . . . I never bought into that.”

“Maybe it wasn’t true all along,” I said. “Maybe when all that horror-movie stuff escaped near Portland, fairy-tale things came too—”

“Things,” he teased.

“Love at first sight, like you said.” I poked him in what should have been his ribs. “Someday my damn prince will come.”

“One glass slipper, one foot to fit? Happily ever after?”

Nose to nose, we giggled nervously. If we got caught we’d be separated, locked away just for being freaks. Maybe all this nigh-painful joy was just the knife edge of secrecy, the intensity of being cut off from normal life. We had to be everything to each other; we couldn’t trust anyone else. “We’re not Cinderella and Prince Charming, Aidan. More . . . Bonnie and Clyde.”

“Without the guns,” he said, and I found myself wishing he’d denied it. “Thelma and Louise.”

“Without the big kersplat?”

“Let’s hope.” He kissed me and I savored those lips, that warmth. “My break’s over.”

One more squeeze and he was gone, with a blast of hot air from the baking ovens and the clang of a fire door. I was alone in the alley with a couple of hopeful, garbage-seeking grackles and my thoughts, which tended to the grim.

 

My swamp man made love more or less as a man did. He was shaped right, even if the feel of him against my skin lacked an animal’s heat. I had to learn not to bite him, ever, because the marks lasted for weeks, and the acrid tang of plant juice on my tongue was too much of a reminder of how far removed from human he had become.

I couldn’t think about his swampy self, about what he was like in the rain. Instead I watched his face as I moved over him, his expressions twisting in normal, undignified, apelike contortions of pleasure. He groaned and shuddered and came like any man, and sometimes when he did, there was a rush of sound, wind through poplar leaves, and I’d feel something titanic, an internal battering wind, irresistible, pleasure so intense it was as though it might fling me across the room. I’d feel him and me, locked around each other, and our problems became as ephemeral as tissue paper.

Also, he wasn’t uptight: he let me name that part of him Woody.

We kept to ourselves out of necessity, playing hermit to protect our secret, and so we made love a lot. Our days in the desert were sex and TV, book reading and naps, walks together in the heat, sleeping odd hours and as much cash work as we could get. Warmth and sunshine for him, food for me, all the money we could squirrel away. We were always poised to flee: cash in the truck, a packed suitcase, full tank of gas and the endless speculating. Where next?

“Alberta’s dry,” he said one day as we were strolling through an orchard, six-foot trees laden with green, rock-hard apricots.

“The winters are cold,” I said. “You’ll stiffen up.”

“You’ll keep me warm.”

“If I can.”

“We don’t know that you’ll hibernate.”

“We don’t know that I won’t. We should try to get into the States, Aidan. Hotter country and more people to hide among. A whole culture of illegal migrants. I could be someone’s nanny.”

“How would you get me through the border?” He was American, but he was on the missing list. The bog, ever a jealous lover, had eaten his ID along with his clothes and his research team.

“I’ve already seen the Prairies. I want—”

“Just one winter. Longer we’re loose, the better our chances are,” he said. This was his mantra, that thread of hope I didn’t quite believe in. If the mystical apocalypse kept getting worse, he thought, governments might run out of resources for chasing those of us who’d been contaminated by magic.

I took a long whiff of the sandy air, trying to dry the tears that threatened whenever we had these conversations. As long as we didn’t look at it square, I wasn’t unhappy. When we did, I got to thinking: is it really going to be marginal jobs and fear of the cops and the packed truck ready to go, for as long as we live?

Aidan must have sensed the storm building in me, because he changed the subject. “What happened that day in Vancouver? The day you lit out for here? You’d kicked me out of your place, told me to get lost. Why’d you change your mind?”

“I can’t get out of the habit of rescuing people?”

“Don’t be glib.” He adjusted his glasses on his nose; he didn’t need them anymore, but somehow he’d hung on to them through it all: they were the only past he had left.

I thought back to the storm: standing on my back porch with a paper birthday hat melting on my head in all that warm, pouring rain. Aidan had been hunched in a corner, semiconscious, obviously hurting. Cedars and maple saplings were sprouting on his legs, using him as a nurse tree. Black slugs and leopard slugs pooled in his elbows and in the hollow of his neck. A stack of shelf fungus was fluting out on his rib cage.

It was an unsettling, unpleasant memory; this was what I screwed every day, after all, this guy who just needed a good soaker to reduce him to a spongy mass of rotten vegetation.

If I’d left him where he was that night, he’d be gone, absorbed back into a forest that wanted its mind back.

“Calla?”

“I was trying to get back on the job. There was the physical stuff, with my lungs.”

“Which are improving.”

“Love heals,” I said.

“Not the dry air? Or the magical contamination?”

“Love,” I insisted. “There was this physical I had to pass, and the therapist with her questions. Why’d I go into that building again when I knew it was unsafe, why did I risk myself and the guys from my firehouse? How’d I feel about the civilian dying? Civilian, she’d say, like he wasn’t even a person. How’d I feel about being burned? She seemed to think I needed friends and hobbies . . .”

“Friends and hobbies and a normal life?” he asked, a little wistfully.

“It was stupid, I told her. Plenty of time to putter in the garden and go for drinks with the guys: give me my job back. Who am I if I’m not a firefighter?”

“Who are you now? A fugitive.”

“I’m yours.” I wrapped my arms around him, locking eyes until the sadness went, until he nodded that I should go on with the tale.

“You kissed me, Aidan, and we argued. You didn’t square with getting my job back, and I was scared. So I forced myself to tell you to clear off.”

“You stormed out,” he remembered. “‘Be gone ’fore I’m back from physio,’ you hollered.”

I’d never made it to the physiotherapist’s: I’d gone down the road to the public library, locked myself in the women’s bathroom and sobbed until they kicked me out. Instead of telling him that, I said: “My friend June had hatched this plan to show my shrink I had a social life on the go. A surprise party, for my birthday. She’d been waiting for me to leave for physio.”

“She had a key to your place.” Aidan nodded. “I was about to leave when she came into the house with a dozen people. The decorating committee for the birthday party. I had to sneak upstairs.”

He’d been cowering in the closet when I finally made it up there, hours later. Safe enough, but miserable. And I was so relieved. “Don’t go, don’t leave, I’m sorry,” I had begged him, and we ended up necking like horny teenagers. I remember that crazed teen romance part of me thinking it was capital-D Destiny, that June had saved me from a terrible mistake.

Destiny was nosy. She set me to cutting a cake and went up to investigate what her guest of honor had gotten up to. It all turned a bit French farce, after that: Aidan had to climb out the window and down to the porch to escape her, and that’s when it started to pour.

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