A Winter’s Tale – a short story by Sarah Singleton

All rights remain with the author

A mountain of ice from the northern ocean – all blue-glittering towers and turrets, high valleys and plunging chasms – followed a steam ship to the city. It floated in the harbour for a night, a restless Arctic monster harnessed with spikes and ropes and chains. In the morning a team of twenty horses dragged it to the city park for the winter festival. The horses sweated and struggled, hooves slipping on the churned snow. Drivers tugged at bridles, clung to leather collars, urged and coaxed and cursed, cracking long whips. Inch by inch, the iceberg climbed the slipway, lurched onto wooden rollers and along the harbour road. People stood and stared.

After midnight, officials, sightseers and horses long gone, the ice stood monumentally still. It was blue-striped, like a sweet-shop lozenge. The shape of the ice had captured the motion of the sea – the surge of deep currents, the ramps and troughs of waves. The polished surface glittered.

The city’s church bells, in succession, chimed the single hour. Frost sealed the surface of the ice and in its salt heart, like a knot of moonlight, something moved. A curling, like a white tadpole sewed up tight in its ghostly jelly. A twist and wriggle. The ice flexed, softened, creating a smooth aperture. 

A girl stepped out.

Her skin was translucent – a freakish sapphire blue. Her hair, black as the deep ocean, flowed over her as smooth and glossy as sealskin. She brushed a lingering powder of ice from her narrow, newly-formed body. Then she placed her tiny feet one in front of the other, leaving footprints in the snow. First steps.

At the park gates a chestnut seller slept in his booth, back against the brazier, head muffled against the winter weather. The girl was drawn to him – to the heat of the dying embers and the salt-heat of his blood. His eyes opened as her hand stole through the canvas opening. He made an odd sound, query or protest perhaps. Moonlight passed through the girl’s ice face. The old man crossed himself, trying to speak, but the face moved towards him. Her kiss burned his forehead. When she walked into the street her transparent blue had become a soft white.

The city lay all around. Snowy roofs rose and fell like billows on the sea. Here and there, a church spire stabbed and in the west, the cathedral dome curved like a whale’s belly.

The tidal river, black and serpentine, held the scent of the sea in its breath, along with rot and sewage and the chemical tang of effluent from city factories. A hotchpotch of tethered vessels jostled along the banks, some beached and tilting: coal-dusted barges, battered rowing boats, residences from which beads of yellow light gleamed. She followed the river upstream. Docks and warehouses gave way to teetering residences, tenements that leaned over soiled lanes. The sound of voices strayed from shuttered windows. Yellowed posters, like the wings of dead moths, peeled from wooden walls.

            A door opened beneath a painted mermaid on a shabby sign. A young man stumbled out. Angry words followed him but the man shrugged them off and pulled together his long, tattered coat against the cold. When he passed beneath the streetlamp, she saw the copper hair curling over his collar. He looked back once as the pub door slammed shut, sniffed loudly, and set off with an uneven stride along an alleyway away from the river.

            The girl followed. He left a trail of warmth and scent behind him like a ribbon fading on the winter air. His heat drew her, perfumed with gin, tobacco and the complex olfactory signature of his body: blood, perspiration, red wine and the partially digested meat he’d eaten two hours before, now passing through the organic machinery of his guts. Beneath a second, lonely streetlamp the young man halted and looked back, perhaps sensing his follower. The girl retreated into the shadows. She was close enough to see the scattering of freckles on his face and paint stains on his tapering fingers. The man shook his head, wiped his nose on the back of his hand and crossed to a door. It wasn’t locked because he opened it without a key and stepped inside.

              David Newton pushed the door to and climbed three flights of bare wooden stairs to his attic room. He fumbled with matches to light the oil lamp waiting inside the door. A daubed canvas stood in front of him. He was so drunk the colours swam in an ugly, angry cloud. A cold wind rattled the window and he swore out loud when the door banged against his back. He’d been uneasy all day: the frustration of painting, the row in the pub and then the paranoid suspicion Albert had followed him into the street. It persisted still, this sense of a pursuer.

            Too late to set a fire. He sat heavily on his bed behind the screen in the corner of the room. The water in the jug had frozen. Ornate coils of ice furnished the window panes. He should remove his coat at least, but drink and fatigue had the better of him so he pushed off his boots, curled up under the blankets and plunged into a drink- sodden sleep.

            David woke suddenly. White light filled the room, morning sun filtering through the frosted windows. It was late, wasn’t it? Midwinter, the sun didn’t rise till eight. His mouth was sour and dry; his body ached. He heaved himself out of bed.

            He’d forgotten to lock the door and it gaped, revealing the tiny landing and the stairs descending into shadow. A thin, needling draft whistled through the room. He pushed the door to and turned to look at the painting again.

Curled like an ammonite, white as a pearl, a woman lay on the floor beneath the canvas with its swirls of cobalt and turquoise and aquamarine. At first he thought she was dead – stiff and chilly, like a piece of marble. She had her back to him, the spine visible like a string of beads. Pale skin skimmed narrow hips and small, boyish buttocks. A flood of glossy black hair streamed over the bare boards.

David blinked. He was holding his breath. He stepped towards the woman – a girl, she was young, surely? –  and reached out his hand. Remarkably, a delicate veil of snow lay on the skin. But as soon as his fingers brushed the apex of her bony shoulder the girl twisted towards him, opened her eyes and stared into his face.

Such eyes! Crystalline prisms of jade and moss and bottle green – the colour altered as the light moved on her face. David drew back his hand and they stared at each other. Her arm lay across her chest and though her gaze did not invite, it held no embarrassment either. His heart thrummed against his ribs. Something about this face filled him with a visceral unease – her eyes – the sense that the presence behind them was a blank nothing, or else vast beyond imagining. Limitless in either case. Inhuman, certainly.

“What are you?” he said. What, not who. “Why are you here?” He heard the edge of anxiety to his voice, a show of bravado. Inhuman? What was he thinking? Some slattern from the streets who’d broken into his room.

The girl sat up. The sleek wash of hair hung over her shoulders. David shook his head and strode over to the screen where he scooped up his second shirt and best jacket for the girl to put on. He lit the fire and ushered her into the single chair by its side. Perversely she started to shiver, soaking up the fire’s heat, this swan with her black hair and jewelled eyes.

“I’ll make us some tea. Then you’ll have to go.” He was brusque, putting aside his earlier misapprehension. He didn’t want to get saddled. She seemed more ordinary, covered in his clothes. How to be rid of her? He couldn’t let her leave dressed as she was. He’d have to find her something more suitable even to get her out of his room. That would take money, and bother.

“What’s your name? Where are your people?”

The girl didn’t speak. She stared at him like an imbecile. Was that the reason for the vacancy he’d noticed before? Perhaps she’d escaped from somewhere. He should just throw her out.

But… but what? Something inside him resisted. The image of her coiled beneath the painting burned in his imagination like a white-hot coal. He could use her couldn’t he? Place her in the picture, the figure his painting so sorely missed.

“What’s your name?” he repeated. Still no answer. Perhaps she was mute.

“Well I’ll call you Blanche. I’ll get us something to eat. Would you like that?”

David hurried to the bakers and bought hot rolls. The idea had caught hold of him. He would use her as a model. She was a gift, wasn’t she? Once in the street anxiety overcame him. What if she slipped away while he was gone? He should have locked the door behind him.

But she hadn’t gone. She was as he had left her, sitting on the chair by the fire.

“Here, have something to eat. You must be hungry.” He buttered the roll and passed it to her on a plate. The girl picked up the bread but she didn’t bite it. Instead she cradled it in her hands. David ate hungrily and drank a cup of tea though he hardly tasted it, his mind fired up with idea of what he would paint. As soon as he’d finished he jumped to his feet.

“I’d like to paint you,” he said. “I’d like you to be my model. Do you understand?” He moved from foot to foot, energy brimming over. “You can stay here as long as I need you. And I shall pay you of course. Some shillings, you’d like that wouldn’t you?”

Blanche was immune to his enthusiasm but she seemed to understand. She placed the bread roll on the hearth and rose to her feet.

“Take off the jacket,” David commanded. “Here – put it here. And stand so. Can you turn? Yes, like that.” He took out his paper and charcoal and began to draw.

He worked all day in a pleasurable fever. Blanche was patient and compliant, seemingly impervious to the cold. When darkness fell he relit the lamp and a host of candles so the work could continue.

 Later, exhausted, he locked her into the room and went out into the city. He stopped at the Mermaid to see his friends Albert and Claude, fellow artists. He fell on a meal of beef pie and boiled potatoes. They drank beer in the pleasurable fug of the pub and David, tongue loosened by drink and the euphoria of his day’s work, confided he’d found a new model. The picture he’d been struggling with for half a year was going to be a triumph.

When he returned, half drunk, Blanche was asleep in the chair by the fire, lying under his best jacket. The bread roll he’d given her that morning still waited, uneaten, on the hearth but evidently she had boiled a kettle and made herself a hot drink. Should he give up his bed? Ah, why disturb her? She was asleep already. He undressed quickly and slid under the blankets.

He dreamed of the sea, of drifting in black, arctic waters under mountainous waves and above immeasurable, abysmal depths. The weight of the sea pressed against him and the endless cold sucked heat from his body. He seemed to be dissolving, losing himself, as flesh and bones melted and blood seeped into the circulating currents of the sea. David woke a little, slowly, slowly surfacing from sleep. He became aware, distantly, that he was no longer alone in the bed. Blanche had climbed in and lay curled against him with her arms around his neck, seeming to hang from him, dragging him down. The room was black, except for the hanging square of the frost encrusted window. David shivered, hands and feet like blocks of stone, but Blanche was fever-hot, her skin burning. He put his fingertips on her face, feeling the closed eyes, the curves of nose and brows, the soft mouth. She stirred sleepily and moved against him, shallow breasts brushing against his chest, narrow legs slipping between his own icy thighs. Her face reached up and she pressed her mouth against his, a curiously cool, salty tongue pushing between his lips. Her hands tightened around his neck and his pulse thundered, desire like a furnace blazing to life in the pit of his belly, sending out ropes of renewed heat through his shivering limbs. She didn’t make a sound but she clung to him, half choked him, stopping his breath. He tried to release himself, to unwrap her arms from his neck but she was tenacious, stronger than he would have credited. He rolled over onto his back, gripped her bony behind and slid inside her while she thrashed and struggled on top of him like a huge, white bird, making odd guttural noises that didn’t stop till he’d spent inside her. Then, in a moment, her body relaxed and she folded over, pressing her face into his chest.

When David woke, the room was light and he was cold again. Blanche lay next to him, spread-eagled over the bed. Her skin had lost its unnatural pallor and her lips, partly open, were a dark, fleshy red. He leaned over, smelled the stale salt and iron perfume of her breath. An intricate lacing of veins was visible through the translucent skin on her neck and shoulders. His appetite stirred a little, but not enough. He clambered out of bed and tugged on his clothes, shaking and desperate to be warm. He set a fire and heated water for tea, glancing at the numerous sketches from the previous day. He sucked his lip, tasting blood. The lust to paint burned up and he forgot tea and cold, snatching up his brushes and stirring sluggish paints to embroider the figure of his new model in the vortex of blue on the canvas.

It was midwinter’s eve – the night of the Winter Festival. The shops and banks closed early.

A night of perfect black and white. The day’s new snow lay over the city, the sky a black lake swimming with stars. A narrow moon swung above the cathedral dome.

Blanche walked beside David. She was dressed in a long, velvet coat with a spiral of ivy pinned to the lapel, a black fur hat on her head. David had procured these items from a second hand clothes shop in one of the many unpromising alleys near the river several days before but their shabbiness faded when Blanche put them on, and under the cover of glamorous night.

In the Regent’s Park, not far from the harbour, the darkness of the longest night was broken by a hundred burning torches.

Thousands of feet had churned the snow into a muddy slush, here and there covered by pathways of hemp carpet where the ladies walked to save their hems. So many people. It seemed the entire city had arrived for the festival – the rich, dressed in furs, sitting around braziers in armchairs in canvas pavilions, the traders with barrows of chestnuts, sausages, mulled wine, spiced potatoes, the working men and women released from the factories.

Blanche’s eyes widened as they made their way among the crowd to the arena.  They moved through a stew of sound – laughing and talking, the shouts of children, stray notes from the barrel organ and the deeper tones of the city band playing Christmas carols. David took her arm and kept her close beside him but he’d nothing to worry about. She seemed fearless – exultant almost – soaking up the atmosphere of the event, watching everything.

Then – at the heart of the festival – a glittering winter palace.

The city’s sculptors had carved the monstrous iceberg into an elaborate fairy castle, phantasmagoric in the blaze of torch light, fit for the Snow Queen herself. How many men, how much work, to carve this fantasy of ice? The mountain had been hollowed out and embellished. Towers and turrets, arched doorways, glistening gargoyles – ice dragons – throwing themselves from embellished parapets, spires leaping from spires, and a huge silver dome held up by fluted columns.

Festival goers wandered like children through arched corridors, in blue-icy cloisters and shining hallways, the most marvellous thing they’d ever seen.

Blanche stared and gripped David’s arm.

“So you want to go inside?” he said. Blanche didn’t answer but her eyes widened. They stepped through a gateway beneath battlements.

The stars blazed, bright and distorted, through transparent ice-windows. The warm breath of so many wondering visitors filled the rooms like a mist. At the heart of the palace they stepped into a courtyard where ice tumbled silently from a fountain beneath the central dome.

“Do you like it?” David said. Blanche raised her face, reached for him, pressed her lips against his. There they stood, surrounded by revellers, in the heart of the palace of ice.

“David! David!” A commotion broke out on the other side of the hall, young men’s voices, a woman’s shrill complaint.

“It’s Claude and Albert,” David said. He hadn’t seen them for days. Time had blurred, becoming a sequence of light and dark during which he either he painted and lay in bed with the girl.

Two young men ran over to him, faces bright with drink and excitement.

“David, where have you been? You’ve been working haven’t you? The picture, it’s taken you away from us.” Albert glanced at Blanche, and glanced again.

“Well, won’t you introduce us?” A sly smile crept across his face.

“Yes, of course. This is Blanche, my new model. Blanche, this is Albert, and Claude.”

Lanky Claude frowned. He was less drunk than Albert; he reached out to pat David’s arm and said: “My god, what’s happened to you? You look dreadful.”

“Oh, working like a demon. You know how it is.”

Claude shook his head. His eyes searched David’s face. “It’s more than that,” he said. “Have you seen yourself? You look sick to death. Have you been eating?”

David brushed it off. “Another few days, the picture will be finished. Then I can rest.”

“Come with us, come and have a drink,” Albert urged, clutching David’s sleeve and jumping up and down. “I’ll buy you one! I’ll buy us all drinks.”

“He sold a picture, the money’s burning holes in his pockets,” Claude said, over his friend’s head. “I can’t stop him. He’s been drinking for three days straight.” He rested a friendly arm on David shoulder. “But you, what have you been doing with yourself? And the girl, where did you find her? She’s quite something.”

David shrugged.

“She came to my studio, looking for work,” he said. “Just what I needed. Come and see it, Claude. The picture is nearly finished. It’s the best I’ve ever done.”

A brace of fireworks exploded in the sky, releasing plumes of blue and silver. David gripped Blanche’s gloved hand as he followed Albert through the crowd to the Albatross, a sunken pub off a narrow walkway near the park. Inside a fire burned in a huge hearth. They sat together at a table crammed in the corner of the room. Swags of holly and ivy hung from the rafters. Albert called for drinks. Blanche took off her hat and her hair, never bound nor pinned, poured over her shoulders in two long, black stripes. Albert stared, mesmerised.

“You look like a fairy,” he said. “Doesn’t she Claude? La Belle Dame Sans Mercy. I should like to paint you too. May I borrow her, David, when you’ve finished?”

David, overwhelmed by the heat of the fire, had slumped into his seat as though Claude’s concern about his health had made the symptoms manifest. He barely shook his head at Albert’s suggestion.

“Well, girl, Blanche – La Belle Dame. What do you think? She doesn’t say much, does she?” Albert wriggled in his seat. A girl deposited cups of hot spiced wine on the table.

“She doesn’t speak at all,” David said. Albert was beginning to annoy him. He wished he wouldn’t stare at Blanche.

“Doesn’t speak? Why, the perfect model. No moaning, eh? In fact, the perfect woman.” His eyes continued to feed on Blanche and David felt a rising desire to smash his fist into his friend’s face. Why had he taken her to the festival?

“I need to go out,” he said, rising abruptly from the chair. He pushed his way through the bar and out of the door into the tart winter air. It was better here, in the cold: at least he could breathe. David took a cigarette from the case in his pocket and began to smoke. A further banner of fireworks hung in the sky. Distantly he heard the noise of the crowds in the park, stray notes of music from the brass band. He shouldn’t be too long. God only knew what Albert was saying to Blanche. They’d shared models before, of course. They were a loose bunch, the girls who hung around the artists’ studios, always on the make, looking for the best chance. Blanche was not like them. He had no intention of letting her go, not even when the picture was complete. He would paint her again. Besides, he had grown accustomed to having her in his bed at night.

He dropped his cigarette into the churned snow and took a deep breath. He was never cold now. On the contrary, the bitter night air sustained him and the prospect of the pub’s close, overheated interior was not a pleasant one. Perhaps he should simply retrieve Blanche and they could walk home together. Three men barrelled out of the door as he made his way back inside. His eye caught the reflection in the fly-blown, gilt-framed mirror hanging over the fireplace – and he stopped short. He saw a man standing among the oblivious carousing crowd, so gaunt his clothes hung from him like a scarecrow, face hollow and dead-white, mauve and grey shadows under red-rimmed eyes and around his mouth, like three-day-old bruises. David stared. Did he look so bad? No wonder Claude was worried. He took a long, slow breath, and then he put his hands on his chest, and his belly, and his thighs, feeling the tenderness of his flesh. Were there other bruises? How could he have paid such little attention to himself that he hadn’t noticed the wreckage of his body? It was the picture of course, the work consuming him. Well it was nearly finished. What did it matter if he pushed himself to the edge?

He sat down again, beside Blanche, and took a mouthful of hot wine.

“Your hands are shaking,” Claude observed. “You’re sick, David. You should go to the hospital.”

David lowered the cup to the table. He shook his head. “I’m fine. Tired, that’s all. You know how it is, you forget to eat. I’m nearly done now.”

The ice palace took weeks to melt in the long, hard winter. It decayed in slow increments, sliding bit by bit into ruin, melting in the sunny days, freezing again in each cold snap. As time went by, respect and wonder dissolved too. Soot and graffiti spoiled the walls. Youths loitered in the marvellous halls, lit bonfires and kicked at the walls. Silver-blue ice became grey and soiled. Melt water lay in a lake in the park.

The days lengthened. The first frail blossoms of jasmine appeared on the trees. Snowdrops broke the icy soil, then waves of gold and mauve crocuses. These impressions of spring David saw vaguely. He strayed from the apartment only briefly, consumed by his work, painting, scraping the canvas, painting again. The white figure emerged from the coil of water, arms uplifted, the cloud of black hair swirling from her head into the sea, while above, just a line above the mass of water, loured a stormy grey-blue sky.

Blanche stood before him as he painted. She hadn’t tired of her role, never fussed or sulked as any other model would. She had altered over the weeks, the boyish slenderness becoming sleek and womanly though she ate little. She didn’t ask to go out, but sometimes, as the spring drew on, she would stand at the dusty window staring out at the city, watching the pigeons and sparrows on the rooftops, listening to the voices on the pavements below. She was waiting for something. What was it? Perhaps he delayed the completion of the painting because he was afraid that once the picture was done, she would be gone. Somehow, alchemically, he was binding her in cords of paint and colour, making her his own, creating a trap. What would he do when she left him? When the picture was finished? The prospect was unbearable. His life had contracted to the twin obsessions, the girl and the mass of paint spreading over the canvas. Nothing else mattered.

The moon rose, slight and pink over a skyline of roofs and spires. The evening sky glowed with the day’s last light. David put down his brush. Blanche lay on the bed, her eyes focussed on some indeterminable distance, making an odd, tuneful humming noise.

“I’m done,” he said. “No more work today. You’re getting bored I think. D’you want to go out?”

She shook her head. David sat on the bed beside, stretched out a paint and oil-stained hand to touch her face.

“Good, I’m glad. I don’t want to go out either.” He stared into her eyes, the witch’s brew of greens he’d seen that first night now flat and solid. A wave of desolation passed through him, an aching premonition of loss. Shaking it away he slid his hand down into the front of her dress, reaching for her breast, wanting the heat of her. For the first time Blanche didn’t respond. He pressed a kiss on her face and pushed her back on the pillow. He laid his head on her chest, beneath her throat but the pulse he felt was slow and level. He kissed her again.

“You don’t want me now?”

She turned her face away from him, green eyes still open. Wordless, entirely still, she was casting him off. Her body had closed itself against him, like a locked door. David stood up and pulled on his coat, sick to death. He hurried out of the studio, strode into the city and didn’t return till the small hours. Drunk and stumbling, he crashed through the room and collapsed on the bed, wine-sodden, head reeling. He woke in the hour before sunrise. A narrow white shape moved through the swimming light. David squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. Was it Blanche? He was dreaming. The figure before the window turned and raised its arms, a milky, opalescent shape with long, inhuman limbs. He blinked again, wanting to clear the mist from his mind.

The sun rose above the roof tops and its first rays pierced her, the translucent woman. He couldn’t see well, blinded by the sun’s dazzle and the curious fog in the room but like a piece of moonstone she stood before him. Within her belly, at the root of her, hung a blood-red purse. Inside it, a foetus curved like a fossil.

Blanche – except that she was no longer Blanche, shedding the limitations of a name – placed a protective hand over her womb. She turned her face to David on the bed but her features had smoothed away. Then, fluid as molten glass, she moved to the open door and disappeared into the shadows of the stairway.   

Claude walked through Regent’s Park, past the lake of salt water and the last, sad stumps of the ice palace. Spring sunshine has released the suppressed perfume of the city, garbage and horse manure, the river’s stink, the breath of cherry blossom. He headed through the maze of narrow streets to his friend’s studio. He hadn’t seen David for weeks, and he’d looked so ill during winter. The girl he’d picked up hadn’t been taking care of him. Clearly David had been working too hard, not eating or keeping himself warm. No doubt the girl had been taking all his money, sucking him dry. Well, Claude had some money now. He’d take David out for dinner and buy him a few drinks, check out the painting David had been raving about.

The sun was warm on his face and he hummed as he walked along the pavement. He turned into the tenement and climbed the stairs to the top floor.

“David?” he called. When he knocked, the door swung open. “David?” he said again. The place was quiet. A draught from the room carried a peculiar odour. Stricken with unease, Claude stepped inside.

A huge painted canvas dominated the room. A mass of swirling blue and green in which a pale female figure twisted, arms outstretched, face tipped back exposing the line of a long, pearly throat. A spray of foam leapt from the sea’s surface into a narrow strip of stormy sky. Energy burned in the picture, in the sea and sky, and in the strained, exultant torso of the woman whose motion seemed to generate the stirring of the elements, like nothing Claude had seen before. No wonder David had been consumed by it. 

Claude stepped closer. David had scrawled his name in uneven letters in the bottom right corner of the picture. On the other side, he’d written: Undine.

But where was David? Claude poked around the room. It didn’t look as though anyone had lived in the room for days. The fire was cold and dead. A stone-hard loaf rested on the tabletop. He peered behind the screen.

A figure lay on the bed. Famished, face blackened, already caving in on itself. Claude’s breath choked in his throat. He let out a shocked, inadvertent moan. It was David, wasn’t it? The clothes were David’s but impossible to recognise his face. Claude rallied, calming himself then stepping closer. What had happened? The body resembled the mummy he’d seen at the museum, except for the horrible frostbitten blackness on the face and hands. Had he died of cold and starvation?

And the girl – the girl was long gone.

Sarah Singleton is the author of The Crow Maiden (Wildside Press) and eight novels for young adults, including Century (2005), Heretic (2006) and The Amethyst Child (2008), all published by Simon & Schuster UK. Century won the Booktrust Teen Award and was short-listed for the Branford Boase Award. Her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, including Interzone and The Third Alternative. Sarah has worked as a journalist and, currently, as an English teacher at a comprehensive school in Wiltshire, where she lives. A Winter’s Tale was originally published in a Newcon Press anthology called The Bitten Word (2010).

According to Paracelsus, an undine is a water spirit that can gain a soul only if it bears a child to a human husband.

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Being Human by Wenonah Lyon

Human Beings are Human Beings. Biologically, more or less melanin, taller or shorter, eye shape,  are trivial. They reflect the long-term adaptations to different locations and climates. There were additional adaptations: language, society, culture. Diversity and similarity are part of the human experience. Anthropology  studies all of them – or, at least, individual anthropologists study aspects of all of them.

Anthropology is like a curious little bird, pecking and hoarding shiny, spangly bits.

When my husband took a job at the University of Kent, I worked as a temporary typist. Generally, anthropologists study down rather than up. Go into the field; the anthropologist has more education, status, and usually a lot more money, than the people studied.

Working as a temporary typist is different. No status and not much money. Lowest of the low. For a change, I was down looking up.

In one office, I met a woman from a Travelling Family. Her parents wanted her to get a good education, so they settled. She started first grade. The teacher put her desk in the hall, where she could see the blackboard, hear the teacher. Everyone knew gypsies had lice.

In another office, the three women working there corrected their boss’s mistakes, covered his incompetency. They despised him. He was rude, unappreciative, expected them to get his coffee and sometimes even pay for it.  They covered for him anyway.No choice. Success flows up; blame tumbles down.

I made a friend in a third office. She had started work at fourteen. I said, “But I wasn’t even allowed to date when I was fourteen.” She laughed and said she wasn’t either. She had to wait until she was sixteen to go out with a boy.

I earned about similarity and difference in a non-fieldwork setting.

I did fieldwork in South Asia, in Lahore, and travelled in India. England, at least the Southeast, was as ranked and hierarchical as Delhi or Sindh. Unlike South Asia, there was not even a pretense of reciprocity.  A villager in Punjab gets sick and the landlord is expected to drive him to the hospital. Not in Kent.

Entitlement: some have a right to their position. Ability is irrelevant. No obligation implied.

One thing all these people, places, had in common: they spoke nostaligically of World War II.  It was a time they all fought together, were united. Afterwards, things like the National Health Service, establishing  safety net for the poor, recognized this.

I think one reason for their nostalgia was the sense of community, commonality. Even those who exploit lose by their separation. Anthropology can offer an explanation. But sometimes I don’t want an explanation. I just want to mourn things as they are and wish they were different.

Wenonah Lyon is a retired anthropologist.. In addition to academic publications, she has published short fiction in In Posse, Dead Mule, Quantum Muse, Maps, flashquake, Unlikely 2.0 and other online and print journals. (The essay in Unlikely 2.0 has been included in cityLit Berlin.) Dream Nexus, YA fiction, will be published by Dreaming Big Publications.

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On Becoming a Science Fiction Character by Dr David Clements

I’m pretty sure I’ve read a hard SF book where a diverse group of plucky scientists have a wacky idea to look for life on a nearby planet, put it into effect not really hoping to get anything positive, and then find that their results show something utterly surprising and unexpected. They then face the slings and arrows of more staid and establishment scientists, fighting them off with skill and ingenuity to finally win the day by showing that they were incontrovertibly right.

In fact, I think I’ve probably read that basic plot many times over the years in various different forms and by multiple different authors.

But this has also been a big part of my working life over the last 18 months.

I have become a character in that very science fiction story.

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I’ve always been interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life – what SF fan or writer isn’t? – but at the time I started working in astrophysics research we didn’t even know that planets existed around other stars. I got involved with astronomy on the largest scales, looking at distant galaxies and working on observations of the cosmic microwave background. I was thus a spectator when the exoplanet revolution arrived, and we found handfuls, then hundreds, and then thousands of planets orbiting other stars. This is now a huge industry, with space missions and huge amounts of time on ground-based telescopes dedicated to the study of exoplanets, their atmospheres and, eventually, the search for signs of life.

Life searches closer to home were dominated by large NASA and ESA missions to Mars which seemed to be the only hope for finding signs of life in our own Solar System. Not having any background in biology, geology, or chemistry, there wasn’t a lot I could contribute to such work.

Then things got more interesting.

The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn discovered plumes of water vapour emerging from the interior of the moon Enceladus. The possibility of liquid water lying beneath the icy surface of gas giant moons was something for which science fiction had prepared me, most notably in 2010: Odyssey 2. The idea that some of this interior material might leak out, allowing it to be studied for signs of biological activity, was not something I, or I think anybody else, had considered. It also provided a way for me to get into this game.

My introduction to astrobiology in the Solar System took place in a bar in Hilo, the largest town on the Big Island of Hawaii, and a home from home for many observational astronomers on their way up to, or down from, the observatories on Maunakea. I was heading up the mountain when I bumped into a colleague, Prof Jane Greaves, in Uncle Billy’s hotel bar. Prof Greaves had just been observing at the James Clerk Maxwell telescope with Dr Helen Fraser. They had been observing Enceladus, looking to confirm earlier observations that had found methane in the plumes of material being emitted by the planet. We had a good discussion about this, and came up with the idea of using the yet-to-be-launched far-infrared space telescope Herschel, which I was working on at the time, to look for more molecular species in the Enceladus plumes, searching for signs of biological activity. To cut a long story short, we never got the Herschel time, and the methanol they had detected was actually the result of chemistry in the plumes driven by UV light from the Sun, rather than anything taking place inside Enceladus. Claims that biochemistry and even life is present inside Enceladus, though, persist, but remain controversial.

Enceladus

Time moves on, Herschel launches and is a great success. I move on to a permanent academic post and become the UK project scientist for SPICA, a proposed followup mission to Herschel. As part of this project I organise several meetings to get UK scientists involved, and to look at the scientific potential of the mission. At one of these I challenge Prof Greaves to come up with some interesting ideas for SPICA in our own Solar System. Most of what she came up with had to do with the outer Solar System, but the final slide of her talk raised the possibility of looking for phosphine, PH3, in the atmosphere of Venus.

Phosphine had been found in the atmospheres of the gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn by ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) back in the 1990s. In gas giants the compound is produced deep in their atmospheres, where it is very hot and atmospheric pressure is millions of times of that of Earth at sea level. Gas giant atmosphere are also full of hydrogen, so pretty much everything is combined with this element. If you apply that principle to phosphorous you get phosphine. What Prof Greaves was suggesting, though, was to look for a far-IR line of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus, which is dominated by oxygen compounds, not hydrogen compounds. Phosphine would have no right to be there, leading to the possibility that, if detected, it might be a biomarker – a sign that life might exist on Venus.

Of course every SF fan knows that Venus is hell – Carl Sagan told us! It is the victim of a runaway greenhouse effect with a thick carbon dioxide dominated atmosphere that has a surface pressure 90 times that of the Earth at sea level, and surface temperatures that are high enough to melt lead. Why would anybody think there might be life on Venus?

But Carl Sagan also told us about the clouds. About 55 km above the surface of Venus the atmospheric pressure is comparable to sea level on Earth, and the temperatures have fallen to a balmy 40 C or so. Liquid water can thus persist, and exsts in droplet form in the permanent cloud layer at this height. It’s not a bed of roses though. The environment is still forty times drier than the driest place on Earth, and those droplets are only 10% water, with the remaining 90% acid. But there is liquid water and, to an astrobiologist, liquid water means there might be life. And, unlike other locations in the Solar System with liquid water, it isn’t hiding beneath many kilometres of ice.

So Prof Greaves presented the possibility of looking for phosphine on Venus with SPICA. There were several problems with this idea. Firstly, as a cryogenic space telescope that has to be kept with a few degrees of absolute zero to operate, SPICA could never be pointed close enough to the Sun to be able to observe Venus. And, secondly, as a candidate mission, there was no guarantee it would fly [it has in fact since been unceremoniously cancelled by ESA – but that is another story], and even if it did, it would not be until the mid 2030s.

Prof Greaves, and the rest of us who were interested in this idea, thus had to look elsewhere.

Fortunately the far-IR isn’t the only place where phosphine transitions are found. There is another at a wavelength just over 1mm that can be observed from the ground. We thus proposed to look for phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT). We weren’t expecting to detect anything, but we could demonstrate the feasibility and then ask for more time to set a useful upper limit.

We were awarded about 8 hours of telescope time spread over several different mornings,  when Venus was going to be visible. The data were taken and, over several months, were analysed by Prof Greaves, Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder and others. The data were not very nice since Venus is a very bright source, far brighter than the faint galactic and extragalactic sources that the JCMT is usually used to observe. This brightness produces ripples in the data that vary with time and the position of Venus on the sky. These have to be measured and removed before we can look for any sign of the weak absorption feature at a specific wavelength that would indicate the presence of phosphine.

We were thus very surprised when Prof Greaves told us she thought we had a detection, indicating about 20 parts per billion of phosphine at an altitude of about 55km in the atmosphere of Venus.

This left us with two problems.

Firstly, if we were going to claim something as surprising as the detection of a possible biomarker in the atmosphere of Venus we had to be very sure that it was real. The best way to do this is to get an independent observation with a different instrument. The obvious instrument for this was ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array, so we applied for time there and got rejected.

Secondly, while it is easy to discuss the implications of a non-detection, the interpretation of a detection is a lot harder. You need to analyse how phosphine might be produced by normal chemical processes taking place on Venus. This is not a simple proposition – Venus is a complicated place, with volcanoes, lightening, multiple layers of atmosphere and more. We had a couple of Venus experts on the team, but nobody who was an expert on the chemistry that might produce phosphine in this environment. The fact that we couldn’t say anything definitive about the chemical processes that might be behind the presence of phosphine on Venus was one of the reasons we didn’t get time on ALMA.

So we were all left scratching our heads, until I attended an astrophysics group seminar at Imperial one Wednesday afternoon. This was a talk on looking for biosignatures on exoplanets and possible scenarios for the origin of life elsewhere. The speaker was Dr William Bains, and I have to say it was an excellent talk. After he had finished, I somewhat sheepishly approached him and said, “Do you think phosphine could be a biomarker, because we think we’ve found some on Venus?” This was something of a lightbulb moment, and I very soon realised I was talking to almost exactly the right person. It turned out that William had been working with a group at MIT under Prof Sara Seager looking at potential biomarkers on exoplanets. One of the molecules they had identified as such was phosphine, and they had Dr Clara Sousa-Silva (who uses the twitter handle @drphosphine), possibly the world’s greatest expert on phosphine, as part of their team.

By the end of the week I had put Prof Greaves and the MIT group in contact and things started moving much faster.

The chemistry details all came together, and we submitted a much improved proposal to ALMA for immediate observation, since Venus would be unobservable for much of the rest of the year. We got the time in March 2019 and the data arrived very quickly. A friend, ALMA expert and SF fan, Dr Anita Richards worked to reduce the ALMA data and, by July 2019, it looked as if we had strong confirmation of the presence of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus.

It took some time for us to get these results published – we bounced off the journal Science but then moved to Nature Astronomy who accepted the paper with some pleasantly enthusiastic referees comments. The paper was published to media fanfare in September 2020. They even delayed Sky at Night by a day so they could cover our results.

It was at that point I really began to feel like a character in an SF novel.

Needless to say there has been some controversy. Various authors have taken pot shots at our data analysis and, to be fair, some problems in the ALMA observatory pipeline were found. This means that the ALMA results, while still confirming the presence of phosphine, were not as strong as we thought, and there are indications that the amount of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus is probably varying with time and position.

There was also a possible confirmation of our result from data from Pioneer Venus Probe, a mission that sent a descent stage into the atmosphere of Venus in 1978. The mass spectrometer on board has a weak signal at the right molecular mass to be phosphine, though this would require as much as 100 parts per billion if it is correct.

Venus

We’re now at the point where the scientific world has had several months to look at our data. Despite some sniping the result seems to be standing up and, despite the expectations of our chemists, no cunning non-biological route to producing phosphine has been found. We ourselves (Dr William Bains in fact) had produced a huge paper looking at all the possible routes to phosphine production through non-biological processes (including volcanoes, lightening, infalling meteors, solar UV driven photochemistry and more) and found them all lacking, but you always wonder what you might have missed.

We are now getting more data from the ground, and looking at other ways to find out more about phosphine on Venus. This includes flyby observations by spacecraft en route to Mercury and Jupiter, and future missions to Venus itself.

All of this is going much slower than the plot of an SF novel. It’s taken 3 years to get to where we are from our first JCMT observations, and it will take many more before there can be a dedicated mission to seek confirmation. We’ve had some interesting controversies, which have resulted in us getting apologies from the IAU Astrobiology Commission, some of whose leadership didn’t like our press briefings (or rather what some of the press did with them), and from the lead author of one of the critical papers, who got a bit over enthusiastic in calling for our results to be retracted.

I’m pretty sure we’ve put a lot of noses out of joint in the Solar System and astrobiology communities, at least partly because we’re largely outside these communities and have come up with results that they would like to have come up with themselves.

Have we found life on Venus? I really don’t know. I would like it to be true – it would be the closest I’m likely to get to a Nobel Prize – but at this stage I really can’t tell. William thinks there’s a 90% chance it’s some kind of photochemistry that he hasn’t thought of, but I think he’s selling himself a bit short.

At this point only time and more data will tell us the truth. Until then, I get to be a character in an SF novel where we have discovered signs of life on Venus.

David l Clements is a Reader in astrophysics at Imperial College London where, among other things, he runs the annual Science for Fiction writers’ briefing on the latest science. He is also a science fiction writer, with publications in Analog, Nature, Clarkesword, Shoreline of Infinity and numerous anthologies. His first short story collection Disturbed Universes was published by Newcon Press in 2016. His non-fiction book Infrared Astronomy: Seeing the Heat was published in 2014.

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Strawberries in the Snow – a short story by Sandra Unerman

First published in Three Drops from the Cauldron, December 2016.
All rights remain with the author

I’ve eaten true winter strawberries. Not the tasteless kind you can buy in a supermarket but true, wild strawberries dug from under the snow in January. Those you have to hunt for yourself. I can’t describe the taste, which is like nothing but itself. Imagine if you had never tasted any fruit and you had your first bite, rich and sweet, with a tang that made you want to dance in your snow boots.

I’ll tell you how to find them, though you won’t thank me in the end. First you must steal the strawberry leaves from a ducal coronet. Plain gold is best, though one studded with pearls will do. Most are kept in bank vaults these days, so you just have to wait your chance to snatch one.

Then you need a bear who understands human speech. Not many of them survive, even in the forests of Russia, or at least, not many who will admit to their talent. I found mine in the north of Norway, not a polar bear but a brown cub in his first season away from his mother. He wasn’t lonely: bears like to be alone. But he was curious. He listened while I told him of the songs I would make about him, if our hunt succeeded. But it was the strawberries that tempted him: I knew that all along.

You need a fire hot enough to melt gold, a smith’s forge for preference. You put the ducal strawberry leaves into a pot, with seven drops of your own blood, seven from the bear, a lock of hair from your true love, a feather from a white owl and petals from a rowan tree which blooms in December. No, it won’t work if you have no true love. The strawberries must be for sharing with her – didn’t I say? You stir the pot all night long. In the morning, if you’ve done everything right, a stream of smoke rises up and escapes through the door you’ve left open. The bear chases it through the forest and into the mountains. He’ll go so fast, you’ll be hard pressed to keep up with him. High up, in a cranny where the sun glitters on the snow and the air is so cold it hurts to breathe, that’s where he’ll dig. When he finds the berries, you’ll both be drunk on the scent of them. That’s when you have to be quick. If you don’t snatch your share, the bear will take them all and run off before you can fight him for them. One little mouthful was all I got, just enough to make me crave for more. Then the bear scooped the rest before I could count them and he was gone. One mouthful and none for my true love. She has never forgiven me.

Sandra Unerman is the author of two novels of historical fantasy, Spellhaven and Ghosts and Exiles. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Frostfire Worlds and Writers’ Café Magazine, both in November 2019. She lives in London and is a member of Clockhouse London Writers. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Middlesex University.

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Seeing Mars by Matt Colborn

EPSON MFP image

Mars, the god of war, presides over a tumultuous year. Mars the planet had its closest approach to Earth on October 6th, coming into opposition on the 18th. Although fading at the time of writing, it remains a welcome sight in the evening sky. At its closest, Mars was only 38.57 million miles (62.07 million km) from Earth.

On the clearest autumn nights it almost seemed almost possible to reach out and touch the fiery red eye of light. The telescope revealed a hypnotic, blurry pinkish, marked disk. It’s quite something to think of the probes and rovers we’ve already sent there. The thought of human footprints on the planet is something else again.

A human colony on Mars is today the prime ambition of Elon Musk, who discussed his plans at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico in September 2016. Musk wants to build a city on Mars that will function as a ‘backup drive’ for humanity. Other advocates like Bob Zubrin, the engineer who proposed the Mars Direct mission plan and founded the Mars society, sees settlement of the Red Planet as essential to fend off social, cultural and technological stagnation.[i]

From Dream to Landscape

The little boy in me completely sympathises with Musk and Zubrin’s ambitions. That little boy grew up in the 1980s, in the long wake of Apollo, watching the shuttle program and reading books like Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Then, Mars was a playground of the imagination. I knew the old stories were factually inaccurate, and that the Viking landers had suppled a far bleaker vision. But that didn’t matter. A ‘double vision’ was possible, with fact and fantasy co-existing in the imagination.

Decades later, my outlook has evolved. A significant trigger for this shift is the flotilla of uncrewed probes that has been sent to the Red Planet, starting with the NASA Pathfinder mission in 1997. These probes have revealed Mars in unprecedented, topographic detail. The significance of this mapping was brought home to me by the Natural History Museum’s Otherworlds exhibition in 2016. The exhibition presented large, back lit images from throughout the solar system. The surface of Mars was on display in high resolution. For the first time, I felt as if I was standing on an alien world.

The images have also prompted doubts about the space entrepreneurs’ logic. My problem is that Mars is essentially seen as a resource for the exclusive use of human advancement. This seems a terribly human-centred viewpoint. In conservation science a contrast is made between what are called the instrumental and intrinsic values of something.[ii] According to philosophy professor Ronald Sandler, the instrumental value is ‘the value that something has as a means to a desired or valued end (op. cit).’

Intrinsic values, he says, come in two stripes. The first is subjective intrinsic value, where something has intrinsic value if it is valued by human beings in itself, perhaps for its beauty or aesthetic worth. So when artists and writers project their fantasies on Mars, they’re giving it subjective intrinsic value. A more radical possibility is that something has an objective intrinsic value. According to Sandler:

objective intrinsic value is not humanly conferred. If something has objective intrinsic value, it has properties or features [that are valuable] independent of anyone’s attitudes or judgments (op. cit).

This is a radical position because it forces us to think beyond human dreams and needs. Perhaps Mars has a value in itself that is not humanly conferred. So it might be ethically questionable to use — abuse? — the world for our own ends.

Space Art

With this shift in values came a need to know our neighbouring world better. In 2007, I joined the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA). I discovered the organisation through David Hardy’s book Visions of Space, which showcased the awe-inspiring work of many space artists. The book described the workshops that the IAAA had undertaken to what are called Earth analogues. These are Earthly landscapes that resemble extraterrestrial ones. The IAAA had visited places like Iceland, Death Valley and Arizona in search of Mars-like landscapes.

It became a long term ambition of mine to visit an Earth analogue, in lieu of actually going to Mars. The opportunity arose in 2018, with an expedition to Teide National Park in Tenerife. This is a volcanic landscape inside a caldera, and is centred around Mount Teide, a volcano that’s 3,718 metres high. Its bona fides as an Earth analogue is confirmed by the fact that in 2010 a team tested an instrument that was to be used in the ESA-NASA ExoMars expedition to Mars at the Las Cañadas del Teide.

During the visit, we trekked past lava flows, volcanic cones, varicoloured dunes and boulders. The landscape was primordial. I found myself wandering over the basalt landscapes with a kind of double vision. On the one hand, the interior of the caldera was awe-inspiring in itself. On the other, you could see echoes of Mars all around. The paintings should speak for themselves.

Mars, in the end, remains a place that resides for most of us in the imagination. Despite this, the reams of data from the probes and rovers have opened windows into a wider, cosmic habitat. These windows suggest the need for a revisioning of human engagement with Mars, away from notions of ‘conquest’ or instrumental value. This needs to be a piece with revisioning our relationship to Earth. The intrinsic value of the planet must be honoured. So the most difficult challenge ahead is perhaps not the technical one of ‘footprints on Mars,’ but evolving the wisdom and vision to honour and preserve the Red Planet as well as our own.

Note: a selection of these images are available in the IAAA book The Beauty of Space (2nd ed.) edited by Jon Ramer and Ron Miller (Springer, 2020).


[i] Zubrin, B. (2011) The Case for Mars. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[ii] Sandler, R. (2012) Intrinsic Value, Ecology, and Conservation. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):4

Matt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a doctorate in cognitive science. He has written for the Guardian as well as SFX and Interzone magazines. He writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction. He published a collection of short fiction, ‘City in the Dusk and Other Stories,’ in 2013 and is currently completing a novel. His website is at http://mattcolbornwriter.blogspot.co.uk

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My Writing by Wenonah Lyon

Since my last Milford attendance, I’ve retired and spent more time writing. I have had short fiction and poetry accepted by online and print publications. (A partial list is available on my website at www.wenonahlyon.com

I have two hobbies: writing and politics. The writing is fun; the politics depressing. 

I joined Zoetrope.com, a writers’ site. Critique five short stories or flash fiction pieces and post your own. I strongly recommend Zoe – I learned a lot about writing by looking at other people’s work, at what worked and what didn’t. I also made some very good online friends.  

Then my YA novel, Dream Nexus, was accepted by Dreaming Big Publications, an independent press. 

Dream Nexus compares two times, two places, and the possibilities structured by time and place.

Jeannette and Stephen are in a hospital ward in London,  recovering from polio. It is the beginning of WWII. Jeannette has been abandoned by her family, and hopes she never has to leave the hospital: she has nowhere to go. Stephen, exceptionally intelligent,  has a scholarship to a private school for boys from the East End of London. 

Jean Marie, in modern Houston, lives with her single parent mother. Her best friend, Sophie, several years younger than Jean Marie,  lives in a trailer park with her mother. Sophie doesn’t fit in because of her intelligence, poverty. 

Separated by time and space, Jeannette and Jean Marie dream of each other’s lives. As they learn to communicate intentionally, they realise that the characters and conflicts in Jeannette’s past are re-created in Jean Marie’s present. Jean Marie’s knowledge of the past allows her warnings to be used to change Jeannette’s present. How does this influence Jean Marie’s present?

The time and place where someone lives is as important as more unique, individual, qualities. I’m a retired anthropologist, and on tests I gave students a question for extra credit. I asked them to choose any of the different groups and cultures we had studied and write a first person account describing their life. Students always wrote the “extra question” and wanted to talk about it in class the next day. 

I didn’t learn to swim until I was an adult. My mother was terrified of polio. Swimming pools were a place where the disease spread. So I didn’t go swimming. Then Jonas Salk developed a vaccine and polio slowly disappeared. (Salk did not patent it – anyone could make it. I saw an estimate that he could have been a billionaire.) 

Swimming pools became very different places, post Salk. 

Today, we are in the middle of a pandemic. We cherry pick science just as we cherry pick religion.

Some assume that people working in laboratories somewhere will find something that will fix everything. They still ignore everything scientists say about cutting the spread of the disease. They also ignore warnings about subsequent pandemics, global warming, deforestation, and the possibility of a Sixth Mass Extinction.

Others assume a deus ex machina, where something crashes in and solves everything. It’s as if human beings, around 1995, gave up on human ability to take care of problems. Instead, something or someone would save us all.  It’s an interesting plot device for fiction but, like many fictional solutions, better not relied on. 

Science fiction takes science and extrapolates: if we know this, what are future possible consequences? Science fantasy looks at ethical questions. 

Ultimately, in Dream Nexus, Jeannette and Jean Marie must make an ethical decision. And, ultimately, we as a species are forced to react to this pandemic by making vaccinations possible for everyone – poor countries that cannot afford it. Global warming has resulted in creating deserts, fires. Will we attempt to feed people? Allow immigration?

Corvid 19: we’ve seen the best and the worst of what human beings can do. Other pandemics will come. We’ve had extreme weather. Will the rich north share with the poor south? 

The next ten years will be interesting.

I’m looking forward to writing about it. 

Wenonah Lyon is a retired anthropologist.. In addition to academic publications, she has published short fiction in In Posse, Dead Mule, Quantum Muse, Maps, flashquake, Unlikely 2.0 and other online and print journals. (The essay in Unlikely 2.0 has been included in cityLit Berlin.) Dream Nexus, YA fiction, will be published by Dreaming Big Publications.

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Why Stories? by Jim Anderson

I love to read, and not merely as a means of procrastination from the other things that need sometimes to get done.  And neither part of this, I know, is unique to me. But I’ve never ever explored the question, why do I love to read?  I grew up in a house with lots of books and some of the earliest things I did when I had money in my pocket, burning a hole to escape, was to prowl through the shelves of used book stores, looking for yet more new worlds to explore.  Beyond just the love of reading, I sometimes find myself speculating on the extent to which my reading is sufficient to balance my tendency towards tsundoku, but that’s a question to explore another day.

In a world where we are taught to read from an early age and where literacy is almost taken for granted, it’s a strange question to ask, why do I love to read?  But if we remember that reading is a recent innovation of humankind, going back just a few thousand years, then we can shift the question to, why do I love stories and more widely, why do I love fiction?  I’ll admit that this is an equally strange question, but it is one that we all will have encountered at some point.  One can, with some work, almost imagine a world in which there was no fiction, though such a world is not one that I can see humans inhabiting, at least not happily.  

For me, this question hit me between the eyes, going from one that had stalked me from just beyond the edges of the campfire to one that I couldn’t ignore, when I read the cover article from the 7 November issue of the New Scientist, How the Strangeness of our Dream Reveals their True Purpose by Dr Erik Hoel.  Dr Hoel is a neuroscientist (and novelist) who describes a theory he’s working on as part of his research.  I won’t try to provide the details here, beyond noting that his focus is primarily on understanding why we dream, but part of the idea is that perhaps, just perhaps, the stories we tell each other in our waking lives, whether face to face or through the books we write and read, have a similar function for the maintenance of the human brain as dreams perform in our sleeping lives, namely that they help the brain from becoming too set in its ways of processing the world.  What is clear is that we don’t have a sharp understanding of how our brains work, though our understanding is getting better over time, but the core of this idea, that the stories we tell each other are a critical part of being human, in a physical way as well a a cultural way, is a captivating idea.

What I do know, as speculative as this idea is, is that this idea has spent the past month bouncing off other ideas that I’ve written down in the FILE OF MANY IDEAS and these collisions are starting to generate a bit of light and heat, much to the dismay of the other projects that have been (less and less) patiently waiting their turn.  But who knows, maybe a fire will catch and sometime will find its way to a future Milford.

Jim Anderson  is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.

Jim is on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com

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First Foot – a short story by Deborah Walker

First published in Nature’s Future
All rights remain with the author.

New Year’s Eve, and it’s snowing outside. Of course, it is. They switched on the weather machines on December 1st. Snow for the holidays. We’re in the living room, waiting for the first foot. The first person through the door will bring our luck for the year.

Uncle Milo’s dozing in his chair. He’s as drunk as a skunk. He was never a heavy drinker. But we all have our quotas.

Uncle Milo and Aunty Val live with us. They used to have a nice retirement flat overlooking the harbour. But families should live together.

The lights are dim. The red fairy lights on the Christmas tree are winking and recording, checking that the traditions are being upheld. I wonder if any observers are tuned in. Are we providing good entertainment?

I go to the window and stare out into the street. There’s a hundred families, a hundred houses in a circle. A hundred houses with no back doors or windows. There are lights in every sitting room. We’re all waiting for our first foot. I can see them, tall dark figures in the cold, waiting to bring our luck.

With a peal of bells from a non-existent church, the year turns.

“Happy New Year,” shouts Mother. When the twins jump up and down, shouting in excitement, Mother looks relieved. She’d spent all afternoon coaching them. I smile at her, trying to tell her that I understand. I really do.

She pats my cheek. “Happy New Year, Brenna.”

Aunty Val rouses Uncle Milo. We link hands and sing Auld Lang Syne

Mother looks towards the door. “Where is he? Where is he?” she whispers.

“It’s all nonsense.” Uncle Milo’s eyes are red and bleary. He strides towards the Christmas tree and glares at it. “It’s all nonsense.” His words fall like the heavy snow.

I pull the twins closer to me. They’re still bewildered, after seeing Santa delivering the presents. Santa shouldn’t ooze down the chimney. Sometimes the enforcers get things wrong. But it’s no good complaining.

“Is it going to be all right?” asks Corey. Jane buries her face into my shoulder. No, I feel like saying. It’s not going to be all right. How can it be? But it’s not fair to them. I smile and tell them that it’s going to be fine. They should be allowed to hope. They’re only kiddies.  

 Aunty Val is trying to calm Uncle Milo. “Hush now,” she says, laying a hand on his shoulder. Aunty Val looks so frail. Since the abduction, she’s grown smaller and smaller, despite all the food she’s had to eat during the season’s celebrations. I’m worried about Aunty. I’m worried about us all. I’m all worn out with the worry. Worry is a knife, and it’s whittled me hollow.  

“I won’t be hushed.” Uncle Milo’s voice grows louder, accumulating like a rolling snowball. “We. Can’t. Live. Like. This. You can’t force us to enjoy ourselves.” He takes a swing at the tree. The red fairy lights flash. Uncle stumbles. Mother gives a little gasp. We both reach out to try to catch him. But we’re too slow. He falls to the floor, landing badly on the wooden abattoir that Santa bought Corey for Christmas.

“I’m okay. I’m okay,” he says. “Don’t fuss so. Don’t,” he says, shaking off Aunty Val’s offer of help. He sounds as if he hates her.  

Aunty Val begins to cry. So do the twins.

“Unseasonal behaviour won’t be tolerated.” The enforcer’s voice fills the room.

Mother says quickly, “But it’s traditional for people to lose their rag at this time of year.”

“Ensure that it’s an isolated incident.”

“I will, thank you.”

There’s a knock at the door.

“Answer it, Brenna,” says Mother.

I open the door. He’s tall and he’s dark. Father smiles at me, but he looks puzzled. I feel uneasy. Usually Father’s so good at playing his part. 

“Where were you?” hisses Mother. “Uncle Milo’s had a turn.”

 Uncle’s still on the floor, sobbing.

“I . . .  met someone.”

“Just get it over with,” says Mother.

Father holds a handful of silver coins, a lump of coal and a twist of salt. He shouts out, “Happy New Year t’ye! God send ye plenty! Where ye have one pound note, I wish ye have twenty.” He passes out the gifts, giving me the salt twist.

I unwrap it and taste the salt with the tip of my finger. Then I let the salt fall to the floor, and quickly shove the wrapper into my pocket. The paper’s printed with a red circle: the sign of the resistance.  I’d heard rumours, but I never thought they could be true. Can anyone fight the enforcers? Can anyone escape this zoo?

Mother gives Father a mince pie. It’s dusted with blue sugar. Father looks at it for a moment, before eating it with two quick bites.

Mother sighs. “That’s it, then. Let’s get to bed.”

“Happy New Year, Mother.” I hug her.

“Happy New Year, darling.” I help the twins to bed, thinking about the first foot who brings the luck for the New Year. And I’m thinking about the resistance. The New Year brings hope.

Deborah Walker is self-publishing in 2021. Finally. Finally. Maybe a little too late. But who cares? Should be fun. Sign up to her newsletter to find out more.
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A Christmas-ish Miscellany from Marion Pitman, Vaughan Stanger, Molly Brown and David Turnbull

Christmas Present – a short story by Marion Pitman

Doris heard the slight plip of the cat flap, followed by the scrutch scrutch of claws at work in the doormat. There was a pause, then the plink of the name tag on a collar against the rim of the food bowl. After a while she heard the claws in the carpet behind the sofa, a pause, and the air was enriched by the fishy aroma of a well-timed feline fart.

Doris smiled and shook her head. She must start tidying the house – it would be Christmas Eve tomorrow, and Norman and Christine would be round early.

Doris wondered where she had gone wrong with Norman. He wasn’t a bad son; but one of the things that were immutable in Doris’s universe was that you didn’t leave your old mother all on her own at Christmas. They would come round, exchange presents, have a drink and a mince pie, and then move on. Perhaps it was her fault to some extent…when the children had come to Norman’s for Christmas, Doris had joined them – it wasn’t far; but then Catherine had married, and the family centre of gravity had moved with her to Nottingham; that meant at least two nights away, and Doris had demurred at leaving Charlie. The next year Doris had hinted heavily that they should all come to her, but they had all said, oh no, it would be too much work for her, and Norman had pointed out that the bungalow wasn’t big enough for the Nottingham contingent to stay. Doris was sure they’d have managed somehow; but after all Catherine had the new house, and then next year she had the baby… Still, thought Doris, they didn’t have to stop asking her, even if they thought she’d say no. She sighed. She didn’t, in all honesty, really mind being on her own, but it was the principle of the thing…

#

The bungalow was spotless by the time Norman and Christine arrived (Doris heard the outbound flup of the cat flap as the car drew up). They brought in two big bags of brightly wrapped parcels, ceremonially exchanged them for one biggish bag from Doris, and then sat down, at her insistence, while she made tea and coffee. She knew Norman would have preferred whisky, but Christine insisted he share the driving. Doris liked Christine, they understood one another. How she put up with Norman all these years…

There was a plate full of home made mince pies, and some biscuits shaped like Christmas trees that Doris had bought at the church bazaar.

Doris said, “You shouldn’t have got me all those presents, it’s very sweet of you, but it’s very naughty, spending money on an old woman like me.” This was meant to provoke a protest that they couldn’t do enough for her, that Christmas presents in abundance were the least they could offer, but Norman just said,

“They’re not all from us of course; Catherine gave us theirs when we were up there three weeks ago, and Stuart came down from Leeds on Tuesday, so there’s his as well. And a couple from Mrs. Abernethy next door.”

“That’s nice of her.”

“I think she’s starting to fail, her memory’s going.”

Christine put in hastily, “She’s always had a soft spot for you, Doris. Always asks after you when I see her.”

“I must give her a ring.”

Norman said, “She asked after Charlie the other day. You know, Mother, Christine wouldn’t let me get the present I wanted for you, but I do wish you’d think about it.”

“Norman! I wish you’d stop. When Doris is ready for a kitten, she’ll say so.”

“Oh!” This had come up before, but Doris wasn’t expecting it now. “Yes,” she said, “yes, I’m not sure about a kitten.”

“Look, mother, I know you always said they wouldn’t get on, but – “

“Well, you know, I think a kitten might be a bit too much work. I’m not as spry as I was.”

“Perhaps an older cat, then? or a budgie, or something? You need company.”

“Not a budgie – all right, Norman, I’ll think about it. Really I will.”

Norman was beginning to look stubborn, as he did when he was sure he knew what was good for you, and Christine hurried to turn the conversation, via a mince pie, towards cooking, for which Doris was thankful. She didn’t want to have to talk about kittens, or budgies. Obviously, Norman couldn’t understand, but a more sensitive person would pick up that she didn’t want to talk about it, and leave it at that. Oh well. He did take after his father, but without her late husband’s saving grace of wit…

They each had one mince pie and one biscuit, gently but firmly refused a second drink, and said, Well, well, they’d better get on. She saw them off, poured herself another cup of tea, and looked at the bag of presents. There was a card from Mrs Abernethy, and two small parcels. She opened the card, put it on the mantelpiece, and examined the parcels – one was addressed to her, and was obviously talc; the other was addressed to Charlie, and was probably a catnip mouse…she hadn’t seen Mrs Abernethy for months. She must ring her. Dear dear. She felt quite tired; Norman often had that effect on her. She had another mince pie. They really were rather good.

Yes. A kitten or a budgie. Goodness knows. It might be perfectly all right, but… On the one hand, the kitten or the budgie might get the fright of its life; on the other, they might drive Charlie away, and she wasn’t quite ready for that yet. But there was no way to explain to Norman. She wasn’t ready to be put in a home either.

The cat flap plipped, and she heard the claws in the mat; she reached for another mince pie and settled back on the sofa. In a minute or two she heard a soft landing on the sofa, and felt, but did not see, Charlie settling down on her lap. She wrinkled her nose. Who would have guessed, she thought, that a ghost could still fart.

Marion Pitman
www.marionpitman.co.uk
http://andallshallbewelldotcom.wordpress.com

Story collection, Music in the Bone, is now available from Alchemy Press.

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Peace on Earth – a short story by Vaughan Stanger

On Christmas Day 2019, billions of Hildreth fell like snowflakes from their orbiting bauble-ships. Summoned from their homes, most of Earth’s population floated up into the sky without saying farewell. Abandoned by his wife and daughters, Bill Dennison contemplated a life as vacant as the chairs surrounding his dining table.

One year on and Christmas Day delivered sporadic gunfire, also a knock at Bill’s door. Lonely enough to accept the risk, he tugged back the bolts. Three Hildreth stood on the doorstep: the tallest chin-high to him, its companions identically shorter. Golden skin notwithstanding, the trio resembled his family closely enough to make him shudder. “Merry Christmas!” echoed in his skull as he slammed the door. He dismissed subsequent visitations from the sanctuary of his armchair.

On the fifth anniversary of his family’s departure, Bill noted the lack of gunfire and his depleted stock of food. The knock came. He heaved a sigh and opened the door.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

The twins’ smiles set off fireworks in his head.

“Please come in.”

Bill began spooning beans onto biscuits.

The twins spoke in unison. “We’ve something for you, Daddy!”

Hearing another knock, Bill shuffled to the door with tears prickling his eyes. He knew what to expect. Finally, it was his turn.

Having trained as an astronomer and subsequently managed an industrial research group, Vaughan Stanger now writes SF and fantasy fiction full-time. His short stories have appeared in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Postscripts, and Nature Futures, among others, and have been collected in Moondust Memories, Sons of the Earth & Other Stories, and The Last Moonshot & Other Stories. Follow his writing adventures at http://www.vaughanstanger.com or @VaughanStanger.

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A Christmas Message – by Molly Brown

Molly Brown is a widely-published fiction author who started teaching herself video editing about ten years ago. In that time she has made nearly one hundred zero-budget short films and/or animations, with her work included in more than 400 screenings, including Official Selections in film festivals in the U.K., Germany, Austria, Canada, the U.S., Australia, Serbia, Italy, and France, and winning awards including the Golden Trellick for Best Comedy at the 2018 Portobello Film Festival.

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Confessions of a Pest Controller by David Turnbull

Fairies are no damn good. Vermin. An infestation. Mean, spiteful little creatures. The root cause of so many mishaps and misfortunes.

I am driven by the urge to eradicate them completely. I hunt them in woodland glades. Wrap their tiny corpses in clingfilm and store them in the freezer. At Christmas I hang them by the neck from the boughs of my tree on tiny tinsel nooses. Then I clap my hands and yell “I believe in fairies!”
What delicious joy it is to see them resurrect and jig and twitch and die all over again.

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A Molly Brown short video

People are always asking me when I’m going to start ‘writing’ again, to which I invariably reply: “Who do you think writes my films?” I’m still writing, it’s just that I’m currently doing a different type of writing.

I have a brand new animation – finished on Monday – which I thought might be of interest because it is very much hot-off-the-press and topical.

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Molly Brown is a widely-published fiction author who started teaching herself video editing about ten years ago. In that time she has made nearly one hundred zero-budget short films and/or animations, with her work included in more than 400 screenings, including Official Selections in film festivals in the U.K., Germany, Austria, Canada, the U.S., Australia, Serbia, Italy, and France, and winning awards including the Golden Trellick for Best Comedy at the 2018 Portobello Film Festival. Her work has also been included in the “Housewarming Party” at Tate Britain, London, in 2013; an installation of one-minute films at the Stadtmuseum Aarau in Aarau, Switzerland in 2015; the Art All Night festival in Trenton, New Jersey, U.S.A., in 2015 and again in 2017; the “Usurp Art” Event at the Experimental Art Gallery at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, India, March, 2016; the Two Minute Film Festival at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, U.S.A., July, 2016; and an exhibition of video art at the OGA Gallery in Rome, Italy, July-August, 2018. In March, 2019, she became the first recipient of the “Kino Independent Achievement Award” at The People’s Film Festival in London, and in 2020 two of her shorts were broadcast on London Live TV.



You can find her on twitter at: https://twitter.com/mollybrainz

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