Claudia was late. Claudia was always late. Sally always saved the seat next to her, and Claudia always pretended to look around for another chair before she lowered herself into it. Doris, who was by far (maybe five years) the oldest, chuckled every single time. Everybody else ignored this ritual, as part of the background as the skeins of yarn spilling from the shelves or the sample sweaters, draped over manikins with notes pinned to the shoulders. Claudia settled in and pulled the yarn from her bag – the bright turquoise tote her granddaughter had given her for Christmas. It was a dep rich burgundy, and it was soft but not fuzzy, just like she liked her yarn.

They were all in the middle of something. Anita was halfway through the baby hat she was making, the pastel colors spilling from the fabric and into the skein. She was beaming and proud of her first grandchild. There was a new round of photos, and everybody cooed dutifully, as they had for the past four Fridays.

Anthony, the only man in the group, was making a cabled scarf, and talking about his girlfriend. At his age, several women thought simultaneously, he really shouldn’t be gadding about with some younger woman anymore. It wasn’t quite decent. He seemed happy though, and he thought she would like the pattern a lot. He could see Sally rolling her eyes, but he was busy managing an extra knitting needle and really didn’t care she thought. She’d probably understand if she met Cynthia – as improbable as that was, since Cynthia wouldn’t be caught dead at a knitting circle.

Sally was working on a hat for her son, whom she’d scolded enough times for a bare head that it would be a good joke as well as a good present. He was awfully busy lately, though she wished he could just pick a nice girl and settle down. He was getting on really, and while he was a very good-looking boy he really didn’t have that much time to fool around anymore. She thought wistfully of that girl he’d dated in college, the quiet one. Sometimes she ached when she heard the others chattering about weddings and grandbabies and their grandchildren already growing up enough to date – though Martha was very firm about her granddaughter staying away from boys for another few years.

Rae was the reserved one at the circle. She liked to sit and listen to the conversations all scrambling along at the same time. The movement of all those fingers, pulling and looping and turning, was always hypnotizing to her. It was so peaceful to sit with her friends, watching all those wrinkled veiny hands turning yarn into something real. Every once in a while, she would venture a comment. They sometimes didn’t hear her, but she didn’t mind. Whenever anyone had a question about something, they usually asked her. Anthony was confused about blocking, and she explained it to him a couple of times. She liked being helpful, and once a week she got to feel useful.

There was a conversation stretched over the table now about kids’ names. Anita’s new grandchild was called Sarah. While Anita denounced boring biblical names several of the others came to the defense of the traditional-sounding ones. In the meantime, the others talked about little things. The weather, grocery shopping, the patterns they were working on. It was somehow comforting to have conversations about the trivial normal things they did in between seeing each other.

Claudia was making a sweater for herself. She’d made things for every family member she had, twice over, and she wanted another sweater in that pattern she’d tried a few years ago. It hadn’t come out quite right, and she’d given it to her daughter-in-law. This one should turn out just fine. Garter stitch was so simple, Claudia thought. You kept up the same movement, over and over, until neat rows of it spilled from your fingers. At the end you had something you could be proud of, in bright colors or soft wool. Or something that was the same as the last thing you’d knitted. That could be good too, even though it was so simple. Sometimes the familiarity of a sweater was the best thing about it. She slipped her needles and half-finished sleeve back into the turquoise bag and stuffed the pattern back on top, ignoring the crinkling paper. She’d done it so many times she didn’t even need the chart anymore, her fingers just moved like they knew what they were doing.


He flickered into existence and the shadows slipped and slithered from the fringe of his shaggy fur and slid from the tips of his horns. He shook off the last traces of the etherworld as a growl thrilled through his lungs and down to the tip of his shivery- shaking long feathery tail. Wings reached from his shoulders and quivered as he stretched far back and felt his muscles unbend. He swung his head from one side to another, chin tracing smooth curves.

He stood there with his square jaw thrust forward, sniffing the air, for a moment, and then he began to walk. His claws clicked against the stone of the road far and long until the pads of his feet began to hurt, and he stopped to sit, twining his limbs together. He leaned back against the rough bark of a tree under the shade and closed his bulbous eyes. The soft swish of the leaves in the wind had nearly lulled him into drowsing when he was startled quite awake by a polite cough. He blinked to see a gray-haired man standing before him, arms crossed. He struggled forward to sit up, still muddled, and the man leaned toward him.

“What are you? I don’t recognize your kind, and you sure are ugly enough I don’t think it can be anything good. You even from here?”

He shook his great shaggy head, bewildered, and the man spat out, “Then you’re from hell. You must be some kind of demon, big ugly creature from hell like you. Get out of my woods, demon!”

The big furred demon scrambled up from his seat at the base of the tree, and sprinted down the rocky path. He ran until he was out of breath and shaking, and the he stopped to put his hands on bony knees and catch his breath. He had just pulled in a huge racking sigh, and pulled himself up to the full height of his frame, when a plump old woman bundled in at least three coats walked up to him. He exhaled gustily, and her chubby wrinkled face crinkled at him and her nose scrunched in distaste, though her eyes were wide and bright and beady with curiosity. She said, in a raspy wheeze, “What are you? There’s stories, you know, stories of the creatures that roam these forests. The eldritch ones, the old ones, the fairy kind. Are you one of them, a fairy? You could be a fairy. Are you from a world of silver shadows and swift arrows and chanting songs?”

He nodded. The tendrils of fur curling down the sides of his faces swayed back and forth. The old woman held up one lined round hand to the level of his chest and held it still in the air. She closed her creased eyes and lifted her chin, and after a moment she turned, still with eyes closed, and started down the path. The fairy watched her departure, curiously, tilting his head after her doddering walk off into the distance. Then, slowly, he began to move again, in the opposite direction.

By the time the sun had vanished into the lacy edges of the trees and the sky was dim, he was hungry. He sat high on the edge of a boulder and ate a sandwich. He finished and licked the crumbs and peanut butter (crunchy, not smooth) from his curved claws. One of them snagged his lip, and in wincing he saw the boy standing on the ground below him. The boy looked up, face smooth and unmarked– fifteen, maybe. He said, “Are you an elf? I’m reading about elves who shoot things and chase people and are friends with dwarves who swing at people with axes and stuff. You look like they look, in my head.”

The elf looking at the teenager in the fading light. He pushed himself off of the boulder, and then he started down the path again, leaving the boy staring after him open mouthed.

The elf was beginning to become disheartened. After nearly two days of walking, he had only seemed to come across more forest. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for, but he was fairly certain it wasn’t trees.
It was somewhat more encouraging when the morning light revealed the lines of a building near the edges of the horizon. He stretched himself out again, from his tail to his wings to his claws to his curved horns, and began to walk again.

The sun shone bright and hard through the pink edges of the clouds shifting shape in the sky. The elf leaned to watch the sunrise dawn. When he tipped his head back, a little girl and boy were holding hands and watching him. The little girl, square-cut bangs dipping over solemn brown eyes, said, “Are you a angel? You look like a angel.” She looked at the unmoving angel seriously, then explained, knowledgeably, “They got wings like that, you know.”

The angel only shrugged, and the sweeping feathered arcs of his wings rustled and glistened in the morning light.

The boy nudged his sister, and said in a whisper—scared or just shy, it was hard to tell, “Don’t be silly. Angels don’t go walking around here. Do you think he’s God?”

She crossed her arms and leveled a gaze at him. “No, that’s silly. Sillier. God doesn’t go walking around neither.” She cocked her head at not-God, considering. “He could be a god, if he’s not the God. Maybe?”
A god’s eyes widened. He coughed, abashed.

The boy frowned. “I bet that means no. I bet he doesn’t want a be a god. Maybe he’s actually an angel like you said.”

The girl had changed her mind, now that her brother agreed. “He is not! He’s definitely something else. I just don’t know what.”

The angel—maybe—listened to them argue for a minute. Then he stepped around them delicately. He patted their heads, gently, with the palms of his clawed hands. They barely noticed, so engrossed were they in contradicting one another. He turned away from them, putting the bulk of his wings between them, and he began to walk again. He walked, claws tapping the stone, until nightfall. His legs were sore and his eyes ached in their sockets and his shoulders hurt from the weight of his wings. He wound his way into the forest he’d reached, which almost looked different from the forests he’d passed through that day. The trees of this one were thicker, darker, and somehow spikier. The angel walked gratefully into the deep dark shade under the tall trees, and found a tree with a conveniently overhanging leafy branch and a trunk that curled in. He folded himself onto the ground and fit himself into the grooves of the tree. He slept, and he dreamed of another world where everybody knew what he was and nobody wanted to know, where he remembered his own name and could say it out loud. Where people knew who he was, and didn’t ask what, and he didn’t inspire curiosity or hatred or disgust or fear or wonder. Where there was no such thing as demon, or fairy, or elf, or angel, or god. There weren’t enough words to bother with naming them all, really. In that world, those he met would eat him much sooner than ask if he was anything edible. He dreamed, wistfully, of home.


What kind of tower is it?

He wondered. It was before him, sudden in a clearing in the forest – he’d been riding by, cantering, watching for any sign of activity or flurry of fur along the leaf-carpeted ground, and had pulled his horse up short at the sight of a tower looming over them. It was stark and regular, after the crookedness of the trees he’d been passing for so long. He sat and gazed, ignoring the mare’s whinny.

The tower was so tall, he could barely see the top of it, up among the treetops that brushed against its sides. It was built in stone cut in chunks and stacked to spiral many stories high, perhaps as wide as an ordinary room. He could see, nearer the turrets of the tower, the indents of windows marking the pale stone. He couldn’t see a door at the bottom, though. He tugged on the reins once more, and walked his horse around the tower, but there were vines twisted and twined into the stones so thickly that their leaves obscured any detail. He slipped off the horse’s back, and tried to venture closer, to look for a door somewhere on its wall, but the underbrush caught at his knees as he struggled closer. The air lay sweet and thick with the scent of honeysuckle, and the spiky yellow flowers poked at his legs. He gave up, after a minute, and returned to his horse, who was nibbling at flowers. He leaned against her warm flank, an arm thrown across her saddle, but he did not mount to leave. She didn’t seem to mind – she looked up for a moment, and returned to pulling blossoms off the twigs with her teeth.

Leaning there, standing planted in the foreign forest ground, he looked up at the tower. It could have been anything, and he speculated. Perhaps it was a wizard’s tower; he imagined an old man, a beard flowing from the wizened face, peering over a cauldron of sizzling spells. Or a witch, with hair that crackled in the heat of her spells and eyes that flashed with magic. He could murmur incantations in a deep cracked voice, growing louder and louder until the words boomed out across the forest dampened by night, which would glint with the hints of magic he’d strewn about. It would be perfect for a wizard’s tower.

But, he thought, it could be something completely different. Perhaps a swarm of creatures—elves, imps, maybe gnomes—was trapped in the room at the very top of the tower, with limbs that arced and bowed in a way no human or animal could. Tiny beasts with bones like birds, all angles poking and blue skin shimmering. They chirped and sighed, staring out at trees they could not touch and a sky that showed itself in glimpses. Perhaps they could see him now, and wished desperately that some human like himself would climb the stones, tearing at the vines with his fingers, scrabbling at the rock, to the top where he would rescue the window with a swoop and a flourish. He could watch them all flutter out on wings that flapped in the wind.

It might not be those creatures unknown, though. Perhaps, rather than a person at all, the tower held a dragon. Right now, even, it could be sleeping, curled up, and head tucked into its tail, the light of gold reflected on its scales from the hoard of riches it had collected. Perhaps each night it rose, straight up from the center of the tower, spinning in the air and unfurling its wings, until with a flick of its tail it swooped off to pluck up livestock from the fields and unsuspecting maidens. It would exhale a cloud of smoke that curled through the air and choked living things.

Yes, he decided, it could very well be a dragon. A tower like this would be perfect for a dragon – or a swarm of strange beasts, true, though a wizard was as likely. It held something of great mystery and importance in its depths. He left his mare, nosing another clump of leaves now, to walk toward the tower once more. He imagined that perhaps the bushes would part as he approached them, like the briars surrounding the sleeping princess, but they did not, and they pushed at him until he stopped just as before. He stood at the side of the tower, glaring up its wall against the brightness of the sun, breathing the perfume of the flowers. The scratches on his shins throbbed, but he was intent on the tower. He listened – was that a roar he heard? He was almost certain of it, a grumble filling the stones from within. No, it couldn’t be – it was the sound of words spoken with solemnity, and a faint boom. Perhaps. He listened harder, and admitted to himself that his ears may have conjured the noise themselves. After a moment, he cocked his head again – was that the sound of sobbing, drifting down from the top of the stony tower? No, it couldn’t be. Whatever the sound was, it had stopped. He stood absolutely still, fingers stretched against the rock. After a moment he lifted his head. He was almost entirely certain that the noise above him was the shrill of a scream, weaving through the thickness of stone. He listened for a moment, waited silent but for his own breath rustling through the air – no, it couldn’t be. His imagination again, surely.

He turned, determinedly, back to the horse yards away, still munching on foliage. He swung himself onto her saddle, and with a twitch of his heels rode away from the tower, not glancing back, chiding himself for wasting time.

Street Musician

Leo looked and saw himself.

A woman was walking down the street, her handbag swinging and her phone buzzing. She was digging into that cavern of notes and Kleenex and old pens, trying to search out the vibration before it stopped. It might be work, and that was important. Worse, it might be her husband, poor man. If she didn’t answer him, he’d definitely be angry. The buzzing was harder to hear over the warbling of a trumpet, wailing up to high notes and swooping down again. It was pretty music, probably, but it was distracting. She had too many things to do today, and her phone was vibrating somewhere in her bag, and trying to find it she’d walk into somebody. The sidewalk was busy at lunch hour, but she stopped dead anyway. Let everybody else shove around her, she was scrabbling for her phone, for a call that might mean more work – either way, more work at the office or more work at home. She had too many things to do and somehow was trying to add to that list. She must be crazy. This was just ridiculous. She’d stopped right in front of the trumpet without noticing. The song was shiny and bright, and when she glanced over she saw the musician looking right at her. He was a young man, in shambling clothes and big brown eyes, and he looked at her imploringly. The last thing she could find now was spare change, couldn’t he see that? She shook her head once, brisk and irritated, and finally her fingers closed around the phone. She snatched it out of her bag and dove into the bustle of the sidewalk again, starting to say hello and to apologize. She was gone in the crowd in seconds, without a glance back.

A man bumped into that woman on her phone, and muttered a “sorry” that she didn’t even hear. He was just strolling, hands in his pockets, looking around him. The city was lively in the middle of the day, and he had another twenty minutes before he had to get back to work. People were interesting, he thought, especially when they didn’t know anyone was noticing. Most of the time they were right, and nobody did notice, but he liked to catch those moments. There was a young woman rushing past with her fingers moving rapid-fire over a touch screen. Her lips were moving as she stared and scurried. A woman going in the opposite direction was striding along with her eyes fixed, as if she were about to get somewhere. There was a strand of hair curling down from the bun coiled on her head. A man was leaning against the side of a building, playing a trumpet. There was a smudged sign at his feet – “please help” or something like that – and the trumpet was letting out actually quite a pretty sound. An old man was dragging himself along with his cane, and he stared up through draped skin at everyone who passed. Everyone was busy, it seemed. It was lucky, the man thought, that he had so much time just to walk around and notice.

A boy was pushing through the grown-ups, coats whipping and legs shuffling past him. His father was somewhere, not too far ahead of him, and he’d be really mad when he realized he was walking all alone. It had only been a second, seriously. He just had paused for a second to look at the guy playing a trumpet, before he realized it was some homeless person and Mom had said not to talk to them. He wasn’t going to talk, anyway. The tune was nice, was all. Maybe he recognized it. It was hard to tell. There are always those songs you just can’t remember, the ones you hear and you know you know it but it’s something, maybe, from that TV show. You can never figure it out and then it bugs you all day. His dad was wearing the blue coat, he thought. It was ahead, he could see it, and he squeezed through a couple people and saw him for sure. That was definitely him, and he wasn’t even walking anymore. He was standing, waiting, and he was going to be so mad.

Leo wondered, when he played, what people saw when they looked at him. He imagined, to pass the time. He wondered if anyone else tried to look at themselves and got distracted by looking instead at all the people in the way.

Thin Ice

The ice was gleaming white under the pale sky, ringed with clumsy snow and crossed with the scars of yesterday’s ice skates. The children were mostly going in circles today, at the other end of the pond. Mary sat, huddled and shivering, on the bench damp with cold, right next to where she’d parked the car. From there she could see all the kids, and hear their voices – not that they were being quiet enough to miss a mile off – and if she needed to, could spring up and run to them if something happened. She didn’t think she could do anything especially useful about it, but at least she was close enough to be on hand when something awful happened. It wasn’t just her kids, too. She imagined knocking on the door of the house down the street, and Laura coming to see, expectant and smiling to greet her son. Her face would freeze and Mary wouldn’t say “They’re in my kitchen, having some hot chocolate, but I’ll get them back by five.” She’d struggle to speak, and watch Laura’s eyes grow worried, and finally burst out that they needed to get to the hospital right away. Just the thought made her shudder, her chest tight and her eyes tearing. She straightened her back, brushed the thought from her mind. In any case, that was a silly scenario. She’d probably call straight from the ambulance, and meet Laura in the emergency room. That made more sense.

Her kids were shouting, “Mom, Mom, look! Watch this!” Her eyes snapped back to them, and she chided herself for letting her gaze drift. Jackie was standing in the middle of their clump, and once they were sure that Mary was looking they all turned to her. The little girl sort of hopped – her breath caught with the movement, watching so far away – and she spun, almost a full rotation before her legs splayed and she landed hard on the ice. Mary jumped from her seat and started to run, until she say Andy hauling Jackie to her feet and the girl trying to laugh instead of cry. It seemed that the breath dissolved in Mary’s lungs, and she wasn’t stiff and bursting with it anymore, a scream waiting to come out. Her shoulders relaxed and she backed to the bench again, feeling a little foolish.

Andy shouted over, “Mama, did you see?”

She stretched her face into a smile for them and nodded, calling out, “Yes, Jackie honey, that was great. Keep practicing!” The ice seemed fine, sturdy. It was certainly cold enough. She couldn’t feel her fingers anymore, or her nose. The kids were whirling and ducking again, playing some game. If one of them fell again, would the ice break? One of them was sure to fall again. Some one of them would fall, and a great crack would open under them. The whole pond would groan with the damage, and then that poor kid would fall through the new wound in the ice into the frozen waters. The other kids would all crowd around, screaming shrilly – or maybe they would fall in after the first one. That seemed possible.

Mary checked her watch again. They had been there just over an hour. The kids, of course, hadn’t been skating that long. There had been the obligatory twenty minutes of sitting in the snow while they stuffed their feet into too-small spaces and argued over whose skates belonged to whom. When they had launched out over the still white pond, she thought she might cry. That nightmare of falling through broken ice must have run through her head sixty times by now. Watching them play sports or climb a jungle gym was nerve-wracking, but this – they’d never skated before. She had hoped they wouldn’t like it, that she wouldn’t have to add hypothermia to her growing list of worries, worries that she picked at in her head like tangled threads, counting them over and over again. Of course, the kids had all taken to skating as if they were born to it. They’d probably want to go again, probably often. She bit her lip, and barely felt it for the cold. At least now they seemed like they’d had enough, they would want to go home soon. That might be exactly the time when disaster struck suddenly. That seemed to be how it worked, spitefully, hitting just when she thought they were safe. She saw Rob start over toward her, arms flailing as if he were trying to propel himself through the air.

In the next five minutes, the kids all followed, shaking the snow from their jackets and bearing broad grins under their rosy cold noses. She ushered them into the car, breath finally coming evenly, and when she got into the driver’s seat she turned to do a head count without even feeling a flutter of panic. For the moment, at least, they were done with skating and they wouldn’t fall through the ice. Maybe when they got back to the house, she’d make them all hot chocolate.

Giselle was frightened when she awoke on the cold stone, almost able to feel it frigid and burning through the white cloth crumpled around her body. Shadows stretched through the trees and as she blinked around her, they began to bloom with pale forms that drifted toward her. She shrank against the headstone, wishing she could shiver. Her head was still spinning.

The shape heading up the flock of ghosts approached her, gliding nearly to her grave, and nodded. Giselle stared up at her, and the woman sighed. The group around them settled like feathers dropping from the grasp of the wind. The woman before Giselle was tall and willowy, with sharp features and hair bound back, her shroud billowing around her frame with eerie grace.

She said, “Welcome, child. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Wilis. Perhaps you have heard the legends. If not, you had better learn.”

The word was familiar but Giselle was so clouded and numb that she could only shake her head, and shuddered as the hair hanging about her face brushed her shoulders with a touch she could not feel.

The woman turned to wave a hand at the others, who began to wander away. Some turned mournful faces to Giselle before leaving, their eyes shadowed and sad. Some grinned, looking as if they would snap at her with wicked teeth. Most bent their heads and did not look at her at all.

Giselle tipped her head up to gaze again at the pale lady, who began to speak again. She said, “To dance, only to dance. I remember you. At least, I remember Bet over there speaking of you when she got here, poor girl, only a few months back. You’re a dancer. This death will at least match your life. I’m Myrtha – queen of these silly geese here.” She jerked her head at the last meandering ghosts.

The night seemed to close in on Giselle like black pressure crushing her. When she gasped for breath, she could not feel the air in her lungs. Her shoulders heaved and her body ached with flesh that could not feel. She crumpled against her headstone, burying her head in her arms and trying to sob.

Hilarion was in the wood. Giselle lifted her head slowly at the crackle of twigs under his feet, and when she saw his face lit by the flicker of candlelight from his lantern, her ghostly heart tried to pound. She tried to shout to him, to say that he should leave. Her voice sailed through the air, she was sure, she could nearly feel it leap from her lips. She could hear herself scream, but he did not see her. He looked through her to the stone pressed against her back, and he leaned in close. His face nearly touched hers, and the heat of his lantern was burning her from its place in her shoulder. His cheeks were wet with tears and he was grimacing, as though in pain. She reached out to touch his face with a hesitant finger, and brushed against the tear beading at the corner of his eye. Hilarion jerked back, fear passing through his eyes. It seemed nearly a miracle, that he had felt something. Giselle leaned toward him, and felt herself pushed to her feet. The wind at her back was Myrtha, who nodded to her.

The moon gleamed between the trees and the sounds of the night played a soft and deadly music. Dance, Myrtha had said. Giselle took a tentative step and straightened her back. Hilarion backed away, looking confused. He stumbled and nearly fell, and then took several careful steps through the trees, keeping the grave in sight. Myrtha’s nod glinted in the corner of Giselle’s vision, but she was already moving. Her muscles could not warm and stretch, and her feet could not bend on solid ground, but still she could dance. She stepped, twirled, dragged her arms around. Hilarion took a step, and she danced to him. She watched her own white body curve toward him, saw her feet flashing. She saw him beginning to dance with her, and she paused. Myrtha called out, “No, child, dance. You have to dance, you must.” Giselle’s restless bones were ready to obey, and she leaped toward the man again. She had never liked dancing with him in life.

She heard another rustle between the trees, and she spun in dance and peered around. Albrecht was pacing toward the grave, his candle guttering and his face contorted in grief. He glanced toward Hilarion, tripping in the clearing ten steps away, and turned toward the grave again. The moonlight slid down the bow of his back and the drape of his cloak, the velvet she had never seen him wear and never known he had. He looked every inch the grieving nobleman, a knight mourning his lady love while the ghost of a peasant girl danced and watched him. Hilarion moaned and the sound sawed against the night, his unsteady steps speeding with her own. She moved under the timid light of the moon, her shroud whirling about her legs and her hair flying. As Hilarion choked with exhaustion her heart was glad, for her feet were moving and she could dance again. The other ghosts began to gather at the edges of the clearing like a quiet audience, and she saw several of them begin to step closer, to move with the rhythm of the night. Giselle ignored them and spun around Hilarion again. She missed the twinge in her muscles and the beating of her heart, but if she could not make her heart beat she could at least remember that it had. When she had danced, she had felt her blood thrumming through her and heat flushing over her skin. When she danced now, she could almost imagine that she felt heat. Almost, she could pretend that sweat was prickling on her skin and that each step pushed weight again onto her feet as her ankles bent. That was gone, but still her feet streaked over the ground in well-remembered steps, still her body moved with the grace and agility that had been the envy of the town. Still she could dance.

Myrtha was smiling, slow steps taking her toward Hilarion, the ghosts around her beginning to fly through spins and dips. Giselle lifted her arms toward the sky, fingertips reaching toward the sky. The queen of the Wilis motioned with one languid hand, and pointed at Albrecht. “Him, darling. Go and dance with your love, and we will dance with this one. Only for a moment longer, but you can dance with the Duke there all by yourself for as long as he holds out.”

Giselle slowed as the words registered, and she flitted over to Albrecht without a thought. She had danced with him in life once, one short time, and the memory was sweet and sharp. The candle was dim, flame clinging to the wick, and Albrecht seemed frozen leaning over the headstone. Giselle whirled to face him, and laid her hands over his shoulders. His face was calm now, eyes gleaming with sorrow but mouth set. How lovely he was, she thought. How beautiful. It seemed very silly now, all the posturing and the confusion. What did his wealth matter to her now? What did her worn fingers and plain clothes mean to him, once she was buried with them? She stepped closer and reached up, lifting herself on pointed feet to bring her face to his, and with her dead lips she kissed him. His face did not change, and his eyes might have showed shock. He was looking at her – nearly. The longing pulled at his face, and Giselle settled back onto her heels, and then she began to lift again. One step, and another, and she pulled at Albrecht.

Slowly they turned, revolving once, long enough for her to see Hilarion fall. Albrecht did not blink at that – he may not have seen. Giselle barely noticed, and then she could not see anything but the duke. Myrtha’s voice nudged at her, “Dance then, child.”

With each of his breaths she took a step, listening to the beat that sounded from his heart. His feet were beginning to move back and forth, from one side to the other, tracing the geometry of a dance she had never learned. It did not matter. She spun, bent, swayed around him as he picked up the rhythm. He had a certain grace, she thought as her turn flung her skirt in a wide circle around her. The Wilis were gathering again, but this time they hung back in a ring that surrounded the two dancers. In the glance of one spin Giselle could see Myrtha, arms folded and face serious. She closed her eyes and danced closer, thinking she could almost feel the heat of his body as his movements mirrored hers.

She opened her eyes again to watch him, his eyes unfocused but his feet sure. She savored the pain as it spread through her, the ache of dancing with her love, following his breaths. She was close enough to touch him, to wind her arms around his neck, and she never would. It hurt, it pierced at her, and she clung to the dream of his warmth on her skin and she danced.

Giselle wondered if he knew she was there. He was not looking at her, and his face was locked in the same grief as before. He was nobility – she had to remind herself of that – so he would not have heard the legends of the Wilis, though she speculated on the possibility of a peasant nursemaid and her stories. The longing twisting his mouth down was for her, but she thought it probably wasn’t for the ghost dancing with him. Probably it was for the body beneath his feet, and he was as unconscious as he seemed to be of his legs’ moving. Nevertheless, they danced. Giselle stared at his eyes looking through her and dreamed that they were dancing. She dreamed she was wearing the white of a wedding and not of death, that the watchers around them were breathing, that he was smiling at her. If she concentrated she could almost believe it for a minute as she danced.

He was slowing now. His steps began to slur, and his head to droop. Her hands on his shoulders shook as she tried to hold him upright, but his body pushed her incorporeal arms aside as he faltered. She tried to stop, forcing her feet to calm, jerking back from her dreaming as she realized that she was killing him.
She shouted to Myrtha, “He’s weak, I have to stop. He could be hurt.”

Myrtha nodded, “Yes, darling. That’s why you’re dancing. He could die. They must, you know.”
The truth was choking her. “He’s supposed to die, you mean. I can’t do that. I can’t. I must stop, he must live.”
Myrtha frowned at her, taking a step forward. “No. Certainly not.”
Giselle could not shiver, could not gasp. Her throat could not swallow past his, and her feet kept moving. She cried out, pain and frustration in her scream. None of the Wilis moved. Their pallid shapes were still against the trees and the shadows that were lightening now as the moon faded into the blanching sky.

The queen spoke again. “Sweetheart, none of us like this,” she gestured to the pale circle waiting. “None of us take real pleasure in dancing our men to death. We have all watched our loves wilt and fall, we’ve all felt this. There’s nothing you can do. Never. All you can do is dance.”

Giselle shook her head, wanting to scream again. It hurt to be unable to cry, and she struggled with her unruly feet. She clasped her white skirts in her arms and bent over, knees folded and head bent toward the ground.

The duke was still dancing around her as she rocked, trying not to move. His footfalls were slow but they had not stopped, and she shrieked at him, “Stop dancing, you fool! Don’t kill yourself with me.”
He stumbled, his expression dissolving into bewilderment. Giselle threw herself down, wrapping her arms around her legs, collapsed at his feet. Albrecht took another unsteady step, and then he stopped. He fell abruptly to his knees and sat back on his heels, putting his hands over his face and breathing in gasps through his fingers.

Myrtha walked forward, irritated, but stopped to glance at the sky. It was shot through with light, the clouds beginning to brighten and faded color filtering through. The moon was brushing the horizon now, and the ghosts drew back into the shadows remaining. Giselle pulled herself up and staggered to her grave, slumping over the headstone. The light was falling through her, making her feel dizzy. Albrecht stood cautiously. He dusted off his trousers – nobleman, she thought wryly, only a noble would think of the dirt on his knees after meeting a ghost. He walked after her, steps steady, and he knelt again before her grave. She tried to reach for him, wanting to feel again the heat of his life. Her limbs would barely move. The first light of the sun was peering through the tangle of trees. Myrtha called, “Our time is the night. Wilis only dance in the dark.”

Giselle stretched still toward Albrecht, straining to reach him. She was still draped over her grave and straining when the sun surged into the sky. Still, when he picked himself up from the ground and began to walk away. Still, when he paused at the clearing and bent over Hilarion’s body. Still, when he was gone and she was frozen in the cold sunlight.

Giselle waited under the sun, unable to feel its touch on her skin. She waited patiently, in dread. That night, she knew, her love would come again. He could not stay away. He would come to her grave, and they would dance once more.


How entirely lovely it was, to be caught up in the small things again. She had made oatmeal that morning, and luxuriated in waiting for the steam to touch her face and the heat to creep up the spoon into her hand. Watching the brown sugar melt and feeling the sweet and the rough on her tongue – oatmeal had never been quite so transcendent before. She thought that, very possibly, breakfast would always be this bright. Even the sun blazing through the windows seemed to agree, stroking the room with pallid warmth and gilding the snow to almost-gold.

After what felt like so much darkness, after shivering and knowing that light would not come, the gleam of her oatmeal under the sun’s rays felt like absolution. Scrubbing the bowl in the sink made her skin tingle and her nose itch with the strength of the detergent, and the sponge rasping against her dry skin crinkled her eyes with delight. It was so perfect, to feel a moment so simple as that. She stood in her small kitchen, the dingy walls huddling over checked linoleum and blue counters, and she wanted to sing as she dried the bowl. Had she ever enjoyed washing a dish, before? She couldn’t remember. It seemed very long ago already.

She was so filled with the hope the sun pushed through the windows that she took a walk. She dragged the lazy dog with her, fixing the leash to his collar as he whined and ruffling his short grey fur. It prickled against her fingers, and as she smiled the poor dog looked up at her, puzzled. He didn’t want to go out in the cold. She took him anyway, and smiled as the air stung her cheeks and hurt the inside of her throat. It was cold and delicious, that winter air, and she tromped through the snow with her clunky boots as if she were remembering how. The dog trundled after her, sniffing pointedly. It was so beautiful, the buildings crusted with white and the sidewalk patched with stubborn snow. The ice where a puddle had frozen was gleaming in the light, and she stopped to look at it as the dog sniffed at a fenced-in tree.

When she got back to the apartment, the warmth rushed into her like soft pain, making her fingers ache as the feeling soaked back into them and her nose drip. She watched the dog curl into his little bed, giving her a reproachful look and burying his nose in his paws. The clock only read 1:33, so it was still early in the afternoon.

The whole day passed like that – reheating lunch and watching mesmerized as the microwave hummed, reading with her back against the smoothness of the wall. When the phone rang it made her jump, breaking the concentration she was focusing on the small things with something big and loud. When she’d thanked the telemarketer politely and hung up, it took her minutes to settle back to that level of attention, where the crack in the ceiling could busy her eyes for a while. It felt so wonderfully familiar and new to be so completely in herself, in the moment, in the place where she was. She had missed it, even though she’d never really noticed it before, like the absence of a clock or picture that becomes part of the background until its absence is suddenly glaring.

When it was nearly 5:00, the room began to dim and the light through the windows edged away. The sun was hiding behind some building she couldn’t see, and once she turned on the lamps the apartment glowed with its own light. It would get dark again, she knew. Eventually her own lights would flicker off as well. For now, she gazed at the cheery bulbs blurred through lampshades with curiosity. She settled a blanket around her shoulders and picked up her book again. The light poured onto the pages and wrapped around her, and she closed her eyes to feel the weak false heat from the lightbulb. Probably eventually the light wouldn’t be there – or she wouldn’t notice it. Probably eventually she would flick on the lamps without seeing them, and barely notice when the sun slipped away. Eventually making breakfast would be a chore again and she would wish for something bigger, something to save her, something to pull her out of her darkness. For the moment, though, she lost herself in the small things instead, so she bent her head over her book and shivered in the yellow light.


I take the subway to work every morning, and back home every evening. Yesterday on the subway ride home, there was a girl sitting down a couple steps from where I clung to the silver pole, swaying.

She wasn’t anything much. Her face was round, eyes lidded and downcast, with a long straight nose and thin lips. Hair swept in wispy strands around her face, escaping from a ponytail. She was sitting next to an old woman in a bright orange hat, who’d fallen asleep and was gently collapsed on the hard plastic seat. The darkness of each tunnel flushed over the car, until it emerged again into the stolid bustling light of a station. I wasn’t getting off until 28th.

The girl was reading something. It was buried in the coat she held in her lap – hardly necessary in the sudden burst of heat that had overtaken us – and the purse clutched close to it. I couldn’t tell what it was, among the folds and edges. Perhaps a book, or a pamphlet, or a magazine. Whatever it was, she was reading it intently, her eyes steady and fixed and her mouth tight with concentration.

I was looking at her idly, and as she bent over the words in her lap she struck me suddenly. She was not pretty, and nothing about her was extraordinary. Still, as she read so carefully, she inclined her head toward what she was reading. It was simply that which was striking. The angle and shadow of her collarbones, and the little hollow made by her tension, and the graceful sloping curve of her neck until it disappeared into that feathery hair.

My stop came up quickly, as it wasn’t a very long subway ride. I got off and walked home, marveling. Even now I cannot forget that ordinary girl, and the very beautiful way she bent so still and quiet. The loveliness, the stark beauty, hasn’t faded. The line of her neck sinking into her shoulder still traces through my mind, and I am awed.

Toasters and Death

The mall was quiet that day. There were only a few people around, sitting on benches or strolling, relaxed and clasping arms, from storefront to storefront. There was a couple, the woman with a red hat and a round face and several shopping bags swinging from her arms, and the man blank-faced as if he would switch back on when they got home. They walked idly past stores, chattering, the woman’s voice eager and sweet as he nodded companionably. The teenagers sitting on a bench nearby snickered at them, but quietly, and the husband’s eyes slid over before he nodded again. The kids were clustered around one, in the center, a tall blond boy who was showing off his new tattoo. Several of them were round-eyed, but a few were biting their lips and glaring behind calm faces.

A man walked through this peaceable crowd briskly, upsetting the gentle waves of shoppers with the wake of his motion, pushing them to the side with his presence. They looked at him a bit oddly. He was frenetic as he walked, and they watched him go with lips parted and eyes puzzled. He needed a toaster – his had broken this morning – and he hurried through the mall with his brow drawn close and worried, his eyes shadowed and his lips tight.

He tried to avoid things like malls at all costs. Crowded areas – even scattered with the remnants of a Tuesday afternoon, like today – and especially streets, and sidewalks. He never ate in restaurants, never went to bars, never had gotten a job in an office, tried to go to supermarkets when they were emptied of harried housewives.

Sometimes it couldn’t be helped. He knew the mall was never quite empty, and it was usually more full than this. Probably everyone would drift away as soon as he left, that was how these things went.
He did his best not to look at anyone though, shielding his eyes from the giggling teenagers and grimacing as he passed the couple, the wife now clinging to her husband’s arm as she pointed to a very pretty dress in a window. The husband patted her elbow absently.

The man pushed on. The woman was going to die quite soon. The visions, though they weren’t truly that, got so much stronger, more distinct – more solid, perhaps – the closer the death was. They weren’t visions only because they didn’t take place in his head; they took place in the world in front of him, the world he could see and hear. The woman’s death was overlaid, blurred atop her form like a transparency roughly pushed in between her body and his eyes. She was there, pointing, but the shifting shape showed her terrified as she was pulled toward the window with the pretty dress, the windshield exploding in her face and the glass sprinkling across her skin. She slumped forward, her neck twisted, on a dashboard that wasn’t there as the husband pulled the reluctant woman toward the next store. He saw this, not sequentially, but over and over, as if each motion was entwined with every other, and as she dragged her feet he saw her sprawled flat, he saw the fragments of glass sparkling in the passing headlights, and quite faintly he heard her wail as the metal twisted and broke around her.
He shuddered and kept walking. The husband’s death was very far away, faint around him, and the old man coughing and hacking into stillness was barely discernible before the young man’s indifferent expression.
The man couldn’t see his own death. It was the only one. He often wished, staring at the mirror and seeing only his own gaze, his own ordinary face, that he could see it. Perhaps he’d know if he died an old man or despaired sooner, the mirror showing him with a pistol in his mouth or a noose tied and yanking before the crow’s feet around his eyes deepened.

He ducked his head as he passed the teenagers. He couldn’t look at them, always tried to hide his eyes from children. It was almost as if his vision ensured their death, as if his knowledge of their impending doom hastened it to them. The blond boy was still holding court on the bench, and he caught only a glimpse of a face twisted with disease before his feet, tripping, took him past them. He wasn’t even sure which child it was. Perhaps it was another one.

This was always the challenge he faced. When he first realized, or first gained this power – though he couldn’t remember a time before it, and he certainly didn’t feel powerful – he puzzled over what it meant. It should have been easier. Death was natural, something he knew must come to all. Even if that was difficult, it should have worn into him, he should have gotten used to the faint screams and the crashes, the cries of rage and fear, and the choking gasps that hadn’t yet been heard. It had never become bearable.
So he hurried through the mall, head down, hoping to be untouched by death. He hunched his back, and winced occasionally, but he kept on. He needed a toaster.

The people at the mall – shopping, sitting with a drink and a pastry, chatting with their friends – looked after him curiously as he pounded across the floor, wondering.

In the Basement

They moved into the house at the end of the street. It looked almost exactly like all the others; the roof was a bit differently shaped, the pieces of wall rearranged, but it was like a picture of house with its pieces mixed up in each green-lawned lot. Their house was almost unique, in that once they moved into it they painted it a cheery spring yellow. All the other houses were painted grey or white or sometimes blue. The houses were probably the same on the inside too, but they didn’t know the neighbors well enough to find out. There were all the necessities for a standard house in the flat middle of suburbia; a kitchen, bedroom, a couple bathrooms and a rather dank basement. There was a tiny room to the side of the basement, right past the stairs to the left. It looked a bit as if the architect hadn’t liked the space jutting out and had closed it off with a wall and door just to have something to do with it.

The room wasn’t really used for anything much. It was small, and had a single lightbulb screwed into the ceiling with a cord hanging down from it, which got progressively grubbier despite rarely being used. There were a few packages of paper napkins and other hefty items that needed storage and weren’t often needed, stacked against one wall. Hanging on the opposite wall was a large rectangular mirror, which the husband — John — had tried half-heartedly to pull off and given up when they were first reorganizing amidst still-unpacked boxes. It had a crack in one corner and a determined mist of dirt that had settled on its surface with serious intent to stay. Every few months the housekeeper ventured into the room to attack it with Lysol and paper towels, and found herself giving up surprisingly quickly at the grime’s refusal to lift.

John had only ever been in the room those few times, stacking packages or prying at the dirty mirror. His wife, Emily, had been there once. She got spooked easily, and the shadows in the corners seemed to flit closer when the door swung closed. She’d run to John a bit pale, barely trembling, and never gone in again.
For the most part, they lived a lovely normal life. They read the papers in the mornings with steaming mugs of coffee. They came home from work and cooked together, or argued over the menu for Chinese takeout.

It was on one of these nights that Emily disappeared. The two of them were sitting at the kitchen table, cartons of wontons and spring rolls and spareribs scattered among crumpled piles of food-stained napkins. They had put a package of napkins that was nearly empty in the middle of the table, and now only the plastic wrapping remained as a centerpiece. Emily put the last morsel of her wonton into her mouth, and said, “Would you go grab some more napkins from the downstairs room, sweetie?” Her fingers were slippery and the sheen of grease on her lips shone as she smiled at him. He pushed himself up from his chair, leaned across the table to kiss her glistening lips, and started down the stairs.

Emily ate two more spareribs, and scraped the sauce from her hands with her scrunched-up napkin. She didn’t hear anything from downstairs. She refilled her glass of water, and bit into a spring roll, and crunched contentedly on it.

After ten minutes and the rest of the spring roll, Emily wandered to the top of the stairs, wondering what was taking John so long. She hung from the doorframe, peering down the staircase, and called, “You need any help with that, John, honey?”

She heard his voice answer back, strained and spiraling from the basement, but she couldn’t distinguish the words. Emily walked down the stairs to the basement room, its door open and casting a shadow that sliced across the neat linoleum floor. She stepped around the door and into the room, hesitantly. She could see only darkness and the dim shadowed corners or the room. Her voice quavered on “John? Love?” and she reached out blindly, swiping at the air, for the cord to the lightbulb.

John dropped the full package of napkins on the table squarely on top of the empty plastic wrapping, which crackled satisfyingly. “Em?” He called out, and ripped open the plastic. There was no answer. He popped half of a wonton into his mouth, crunched. “Em?”

The basement door was still open. Maybe she had gone to look for him. He called down the stairs, but still heard no answer, and shuffled down the staircase to check just in case. The door to the basement room was shut. The knob was cold to the touch and stiff as he tried to—it had turned easily, just twenty minutes before. He wrenched it open and pushed the door forward, which swung silently into the room. He yanked on the overhanging cord, which flashed on to reveal an empty room. He glanced, tugged the light off, and pulled the door closed behind him as he turned to go back up the stairs.

Most of the wontons and the spareribs and the spring rolls disappeared in the next hour, and John called his wife’s name intermittently in increasingly perplexed tones. He checked the garage, where the car was parked, untouched, and the bedroom, undisturbed. After another hour, bewildered and upset, he curled up in bed and stared unseeing toward the blank stretch of wall until he fell into sleep.

Emily didn’t come back. John’s days went as before, but alone. He never saw her again.

Every once in a while, he hoped she was just around the corner. Maybe she was coming up the walk, about to ring the doorbell and fall into his arms again and everything would go back to normal. He would wait and hold his breath and hope, and nothing would happen. She had simply disappeared.

She couldn’t have left the house. The car was there, and he hadn’t heard so much as the slam of a door or the purr of a motor. She was just gone.

He stayed in, mostly. Drank the glass of wine they used to share each night, ordered Chinese until half-full cartons were stacked on each shelf of the refrigerator, filling it with a slow smell of soy sauce and rot. He hit the buzzer on the alarm until he had just enough time to dress for work, and slept early each night.

John almost never went into the basement now. He spent most of his time at home in the kitchen or the bedroom, curled up with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He buried himself in the even black text that told of other people’s tragedies, the things that definitely happened, the hard evidence, the quotations and dates and photographs that marked their pain. He sat each day and leaned into the shelter of the stacks of papers. They stood between his face and the windows and helped somewhat to block the brightness of the light.

The housekeeper stopped coming. She explained, frankly, to John, “Look, sir, I like you and the lady. I don’t know why she’s not around anymore though and I don’t want to get in the middle of nothing. There was a whole mess like that at the last place I worked, and not the kind I’m paid to clean up.” She was chuckling. John nodded dully, pretending he couldn’t hear her. She didn’t say out loud that the odd smell made her nervous, or that she thought to herself once in a while that she didn’t know what she’d do if she came across the wife’s murdered body hidden somewhere and had to call the cops on him, such a nice man. She left, the door clicking closed gently behind her, blotting the sunlight out from the cool shadowed hall. After that, nobody else came to the house.

Six months passed this way. John padded around the house in his socks, read his newspapers, sipped his coffee in the morning without thinking about what it tasted like. He got used to making coffee every morning just for himself. He divided up the packets, shaking half of the powder into the filter from the bag, and tucking the edges neatly over the top and pushing it back into the cabinet. Eventually this was routine. It felt if he’d always shoved the coffee back, half-empty, every morning. He spent the rest of each day struggling to stay awake.

He didn’t see a trace of her. He didn’t hear from her—no phone call, no postcard with a glossy picture of some exotic place, explaining why she’d left so suddenly. The fastest he ever walked was to the mailbox, to check eagerly each day if she was somewhere. She never was.

One night, eating Chinese food with his newspapers as always, John ran out of napkins. He crammed the rest of a wonton into his mouth and swallowed it like a lump of dry dust, and dropped his head into his grease-coated hands. After a long moment, he wiped them off on the one crumpled napkin he’d been using. The door to the basement room swung open easily at his touch. He pulled a dusty package of napkins into his arms, and stopped the door from swinging closed. John flicked tired eyes back into the room and his heart caught on a beat. Echoing, faintly, from the too-close corners there was a sound he thought he could almost hear. It sounded like Emily’s voice. He thought he could hear her calling out, the words blurred together and faded. He paused and listened. The door clicked closed gently, flat with the wall again, and the strains of her voice faded to silence. John listened to it for a second, and then went upstairs with the new napkins.

Twice more in the next few months when he needed more napkins — and once when he’d run out of toilet paper, he heard her voice. Once he thought he saw her out of the corner of his eye, only a flicker that he knew would vanish from his peripheral vision. He held very still and didn’t move so much as an eyeball, so he could keep the impression of her image in the corner of his eye.

Her voice began to echo in his head after the second trip down to that basement room. The second swing shut of the door that blotted the faded notes of her laugh from his ears pushed them into his mind. He heard her when he was drinking his half-packet of coffee in the morning, and when he was trying vainly to be engrossed in breaking news on the front page of the paper. He saw her just out of sight when he was sitting in his swivel chair at work, and when he was trying to sleep he could almost hear her laughing at him.

He stopped visiting the basement room after he couldn’t sleep for the sound of her, for feeling her breath on the side of his neck when he knew it wasn’t there. She was everywhere. All he heard and saw and felt was Emily, and she was gone. Disappeared. He thought, maybe, if he disappeared too, he’d be in the same place. Maybe, somehow, he could see her, and hear her, and feel her, and she would be there again.

He ate Chinese takeout again one night, after long days of sleeplessness and full packets of coffee, torn newspapers and crinkled napkins. He stood, slowly, when he was finished eating, and he walked downstairs to the basement. The door was closed, as always, and he couldn’t see anything but the blank white rectangle before him. He took a tentative step closer, and he thought maybe he could hear her voice. He thought, maybe, it was louder this time. Almost like it was real. He hesitated, and glanced up the stairs as his arm moved almost of his own volition. He turned back to the room, and his hand hovered over the doorknob for a moment – and then he nodded, and smiled, and opened the door.