Innogen and the Hungry Half: 01 – Not imagined, felt

My father, my dead mother and my two kidnapped brothers stare down at me from the exhibit stall. The Truth Is No Prisoner To Time! proclaims the signage that wreathes them. Dr. Dodson’s Photoplate Wizardry Unlocks The Secret Of Aging!

“Imogen?” Posthumus elbows his way through the crowds to my side. A paper cone full of waffles occupies his hands; pamphlets peep out from his pockets, along with his gloves. He looks to Dr. Dodson’s display. “That seems a bit crass.”

The false photographs are a towering act of imagination. Toddlers have become grown princes at Dr. Dodson’s hand. Have You Seen These Men? Find Lost Loved Ones Among Us! reads one placard; another, Gaze Into The Future, Recreate The Past—See Yourself At Any Age! My likeness has been placed next to the supposed face of Arviragus, my immediate elder. His doctored image borrows generously from mine, for the resemblance is certainly striking. My mother glows; they have used her wedding portrait, specially photographed to send to Augustus Caesar. My father looks pugnacious and regal, as befits a king of the Britons. I shake my head at the waffles Posthumus offers, but glance back at the pictures. “I am not entirely convinced.”

He pushes his spectacles up his nose. “It’s very clever, though, how they’ve done the manipulations.”

“Have you found your profession, then?”

Posthumus smiles and bows his head. “You see me through. I wish to make my name among the ranks of forgers, and all the Empire will fall before me.”

We are in public; I cannot nudge him. “You’d never have known if you hadn’t come.”

“Look who’s talking.” He pulls one of the waffles from his cone, already translucent with grease. “I told you it wouldn’t be so bad here.”

For my part, I am still reserving that answer. Posthumus has been eager for the Minervan Exposition since we learned it would come to Londinium, after an absence of seventeen years. It is a reward for good behavior, one which has already benefitted Belgica, Hispania and Gaul many times over. With the Minervan Exposition come the eyes of the world, along with industry, infrastructure and diplomatic generosity. Britain is still a far edge of the empire; my father considers this quite the coup.

Posthumus loves the machines. All the greatest inventors of the age flock here, to flaunt their wares and creations. It is, as we say in speeches and print, a testament to the ingenuity of our fair isle, to stand alongside the greatness of the continent as equals. Though he has been raised alongside me, Posthumus is the poorest sort of gentleman: an orphan, of Roman and British extraction, and one who has only his good name to support him. He seeks his own way, hoping to use both his intellect and his hands. Here, he is eager as a child at the circus.

The Minervan Exposition fills me with unease. Each device seems an opportunity for something horrible to come of it. I never felt this way as a girl, but since the last time we hosted the imperial fair, few have been my nightmares without some unknowable contraption at their core. Still, I am not here for the machines. I put the doctored family portrait at my back. “Isn’t that demonstration soon?”

“Yes, at three.” Posthumus searches the wall until he finds a clock. “We should hurry! It’s bound to be crowded.”

I check over my shoulder for Helen, my aide. She nods as we make eye contact, and we set off, Helen a few innocuous paces behind us. “I’ve heard Rigantona’s a show-stopper,” Posthumus remarks. A daub of powdered sugar sits at the corner of his lips.

“So you’ve mentioned, several times.”

“Don’t parry me, Imogen. I know you’re interested. Remind me again when she’ll be dining at court.”

“Tomorrow,” I say, and he smiles. “I must line up my compliments!” I insist, and he smirks. I tug at my gloves. “It would not do to meet her unprepared.”

“She’s not a hapless chieftain to cow into voting your way.” He bites into another waffle. “I only wonder why you left it so late.”

“Likewise. You might have come here without me.”

“Some things are best enjoyed shared,” he says archly.

Commensurate with the interest she generates, this Rigantona has a hall far at the back of the exhibition palace. A separate ticket must be purchased to witness her works. The bustle hides us; we pass through the crowds unheeded, as Britons and Romans alike enjoy our latest technical feats. One woman has built a miniature model of a purification system that produces, from the sewers, potable water crisper and fresher than an aquifer’s. Next to the thunderous cooling-bellows which keep the palace bearable is a freestanding room which, if the signs are credible, admits no sound from outside. A Greek fellow with a red cap keeps watch over a table of small automatons; as we pass, one is inking names on scraps of parchment.

Above us, room by room, the watchful gods stand sentry: Ceres over the threshers and catalogs of seeds, Mars by the repeating rifles and plumed helmets, Vulcan with the beaten brass friezes and flickering praxinoscopes. Perched on high, covering every corner, sits proud Minerva herself, her owls adorning all the columns and lampposts. Past her, clouds rush overhead. When this place was new, I loved the greenhouse ceiling crowning it, the iron and glass mosaic mirroring the tiles at our feet. The palace has cleaned up well, after so many years vacant. Every few steps, until I unclench my jaw, I skirt the sensation that I am eight again.

The crowd is thick at the far hall, even with twenty minutes to spare. Flanking the doors stand two canvas banners, hand-painted in a brazenly native style. WIRELESS DEVICES: ON THEIR POWERS AND APPLICATIONS; AN ADVANTAGE FOR AND OF BRITAIN. Beneath this is her name, Rigantona, clarissima femina. I could scoff, but from what I know of her, she is a distinguished woman. The last exposition adored her, and Posthumus has keenly followed talk of her comeback.

Posthumus searches over the hats and heads in the foyer, but the doors aren’t open yet. He sighs, his paper cone empty and crumpled in his hand. I can’t resist how wide open he leaves himself. “Someday you’ll be good at hurry up and wait.” Yet even as I say it, my smile falls away. “Oh no.” Posthumus has enough time to knit his brow; then Iudocus, the chieftain from Sulloniacis, corners us.

“My dear Lady Imogen!” He plucks off his bowler. His drooping mustache flaps as he speaks. “What an excellent surprise.” I have no choice but to wish him well. In an instant, Helen is at my shoulder; I touch her elbow, and she lets us continue. Posthumus I know has melted away — presumably in search of a trash bin, but in truth, he never associates with me when I am on business. Without privacy or anonymity, we are separate. I marvel at whatever gift allows him to become so invisible when he is so very tall.

“I have been meaning to make an appointment with you,” says Iudocus, leaning close. His face is quite red above his collar. “Have you heard the news from Illyria?”

“My lord, while I welcome your company, I’m here as a matter of leisure today.” I stand my ground, but in his attempt to be discreet, Iudocus crowds me just enough to lose my goodwill.

“Quite so, quite so.” His eyes dart around us. “But surely your father the King will have some statement soon.”

I must cut him off. “You know quite well that no one has my father’s ear. What is it you hope I can do for you, sir?”

“You have your channels, my lady.” He shifts his weight. “My people are asking questions. It’s almost unthinkable, rebellion! Against the Romans?”

“Indeed it is, and I appreciate your concern. If I may refer you to Helen, she is the proper channel through which to initiate such a discussion.” He stammers as I excuse myself.

“There hasn’t been more, has there?” Helen murmurs. “Other than Dalmatia and Pannonia?”

“No.” But my father knows of it. He doesn’t seek my counsel, but I have come upon him pouring over maps and telegraphs. The Dalmatians and Pannonians have refused to pay Rome the tribute that is the price of their peace. I must wonder which people Iudocus means who are so concerned. Today we passed a cluster of sign-wavers standing in solidarity within sight of the gates. Some centurion surely made certain those signs were properly disposed of. Far more often such sentiment stays in the public houses, where Cassibelan’s surrender to Julius Caesar moves those deep in their cups.

Posthumus reappears, and Helen hands us both our tickets. At last, the doors swing outward. “Here we go.” Posthumus wags his eyebrows and shoots me a giddy grin.

We swarm into an auditorium, standing room only. The stage glows under a warm, rich light. I almost expect a puppet show or a masque, though the backdrop illustrates the basic principles of waveforms, rather than a pastoral scene. We are not close to the front, but once I am recognized, a few individuals tuck their elbows in, and though I am not so lanky as Posthumus, I have a clear view of the proceedings. Three tables, all on wheels, stand ready at center stage. One holds an array of simple devices, but sheets conceal whatever sits on the other two.

Something in my chest floods me with a chill; I cannot say why. The thrum of the crowd suggests nothing sinister. I take a steadying breath and catch Posthumus’s eye. “In your professional estimation, what do you suppose that could be?”

He glances over the tops of his spectacles and shrugs. “If I’m to be a professional at this, you’ll have to help me.”

His cheek warms me a little. “And here I was about to suggest we approach the lady after her presentation.”

Posthumus laughs. “My ingratitude thwarts me again!”

A fanfare silences the room. From behind the velvet curtains steps Rufus Sergius, one of the curators of the exhibition. “Friends, ladies, gentlemen,” he booms. “It is both my great pleasure and distinct honor to introduce someone who, in truth, needs no introduction.” I glance at the faces in the crowd. Some are more rapt than others, but all are paying attention. Sergius is nearly beside himself. I wonder if he does this every day. “We are so proud to welcome her back so triumphantly to the Minervan Exposition. You may tell your grandchildren how today, you stood in a room with perhaps the greatest mind of our time. May I present to you Britain’s own Rigantona!”

As we applaud, a woman emerges from the wings. She walks with a straight back and an easy smile. A few enthusiasts whistle, perhaps at her high cheekbones and dark eyes. Even Posthumus remarks how he thought she’d look older. I would put her in her middle forties, and congratulate her for her handsomeness.

“My dear Sergius.” She presses her palm to her heart, as they do in the countryside. “Thank you for such kind words.” He bows from the waist and surrenders the floor. The room grows hushed but for the rustling of clothes. Some recollection scratches at the base of my neck, some impression too distant to place. Rigantona clasps her hands. “I will not waste your time: you have all bought your tickets and read the signs at the entrance. I come to you today to shed light on a great opportunity for our island.

“Britain is a rich country, in people and in arts. Our tradition of metalwork is a long and storied one. These very halls speak of our command of iron and bronze.” She nods toward her audience; I find myself watching her more closely. “What you will witness on this stage is entirely ours, from the coal that fueled the forges to the ore that makes the machine. It is my sincerest hope that you leave this room — and indeed, this exhibition itself — with a tenfold appreciation for our national genius.”

At a signal from Rigantona, a page emerges and pushes the uncovered table to the front of the stage. Rigantona begins a slow circuit of the floor. “Right now, the world runs on connection. From our roads to our aqueducts to the imperial network of cables, we are bound together with matter; we live tied to the solid.” She gives us all a knowing, significant look. “But is that life? The most vital connections come to us by speech, which cannot be touched, even if it can be felt.

“I propose a future cut like the Gordian knot. I believe progress means freeing us from the old modes.”

“Are you listening to this?” Helen whispers. I am still thinking on Rigantona’s gesture, and clarissima femina, and how I might place her accent.

Rigantona picks up a pair of boxes and hands one to the page. A long stem sways from the top of each; both stems ends in a light bulb. Rigantona crosses the stage and holds her box high. “This simple device contains a signaling mechanism that emits a wave, like the sound of your voice issuing a command. The other device contains a receiver. Observe the effect when I initiate the wave.”

She flips one of two switches on her box, and the filament at the end of her stem flares on, as it should. She flips the second, and fifteen feet away, untouched, the page’s bulb glows as well. The crowd applauds and murmurs as the page slowly turns his box, revealing no switches or trickery. “They must run on batteries,” Posthumus says. “Will she talk about that, I wonder?”

My eyes stay fixed on the stage. “We may ask her after if she does not.”

Rigantona smiles at us again and sets her box aside. “That is the most basic version of this phenomenon. Everything else is an elaboration. But we can work marvels when we’re freed of wires.” She gestures for the second table, which is brought forth. With a flourish, she reveals a tall glass chamber. She nods to the page, who ducks under the table. On a tier underneath sits a plump generator, perched below the tank. A foot of empty air gapes between its top and the table.

The page yanks a lever, and the whole room gasps. A multitude of shimmering butterflies surge into the glass chamber, their wings clattering against its walls. Rigantona lifts the lid and the butterflies pour out. Cries of alarm turn quickly to delight. Posthumus stretches high and snatches one midair. He laughs and slowly opens his fingers. “They’re mechanical!” He offers it to me; the contraption flutters gently on his palm, its wings stiff paper, its body intricate copper and circuits. When he tips it into my hand, it rights itself with delicate jointed legs.

Rigantona beams. “Keep them, with my compliments!” she calls over the hubbub. “Save one. Who among you caught a green moth?”

A hand shoots up at the back wall of the theater. Rigantona squints into the lights. “Stay right where you are, please. I’d like you to help me with this.” She beckons the page again, and he tugs the final table forward. I watch the covered devices with a sudden twist in my gut. The sound of the audience dies away: in that moment, all I know is how much I don’t want her to unveil that table.

Metal bites into my hand. I open a fist to find the butterfly’s wings crumpled. Posthumus is watching the stage. I tug at Helen’s sleeve; she furrows her brow, and I deposit the souvenir in her pocket.

Rigantona pulls back this cover with less art. Calmly, she lets the room see the wide bell of a gramophone. We watch, I stock-still and the rest enthralled, as she attends to the second machine, a small tower capped with a metal tube: her power source, freestanding. It begins to hum, and she approaches the edge of the stage again.

Dimly I hear her against the thrashing of my heart: “I’m going to ask you a question, madame. Do you have the moth in your hand still?” Everyone else turns: my eye is fixed on the generator. Rigantona smiles and clasps her hands again. “Now, when you answer my question, do not shout, but speak into your hand, to the moth. Ready? Madame, please, what is your favorite meal?”

Helen leans close. “Imogen?”

The generator shimmers. A film of mottled light distorts the air close above it. A terror seizes me; I reach out and grasp Posthumus by the hand. He frowns at me, startled, but his fingers close over mine.

“Roast suckling pig,” says a woman’s voice from the bell onstage. “Oh!”

The room erupts. Rigantona lifts her hands high, drinking in the torrent of cheers. Furious conversation burbles all around us. Above us, the green moth sails back to Rigantona’s shoulder; its wings are a jade epaulet.

Posthumus covers our hands with his own. I search his face, like a silly heroine from a penny dreadful. “I have to leave.” My voice has gone throaty, and unsteady as my knees.

Helen’s arm circles my waist. “Back to the palace, then.”

“You must stay,” I tell Posthumus. “I’m sure this is nothing. It’s so close in here.” He lets go of my hands.

“You’re never unwell.”

My face is finally hot again. “You mustn’t cut short—”

“I would rather come with you,” he says.

*

The nightmare comes more vividly than ever tonight: the maze of equipment, the fear of being found, the smell of ozone and axle grease, the crushing, uncertain quiet. Posthumus and I never stray from each other’s sight. We’re all ages; it never matters when we are.

The dream always ends in the storeroom. We find the machine, smooth and faceless and towering. We feel it thrumming through our feet. The sphere at its top shimmers. We never have any warning. A pearlescent glow engulfs the machine, and it lashes out at us. My vision whites out. I feel the wind sucked from my chest. I’m thrown to the ground. Before I can see, before I can feel my legs, I reach for Posthumus. I grab his wrist and haul us both to our feet.

We run, and never make it home. I never let go of Posthumus. Behind us, caught, his voice persists, screaming and crying out.

home | next: To th’field, to th’field

Hi, and thanks for reading! Got some feelings? I would love to hear your thoughts. All content © Esther Bergdahl, 2011. Thanks again, and hope you enjoy!

Teasing: The second best part

Ironworks over Chicago River

To date, I have attempted five rounds of National Novel Writing Month. I’ve been a winner twice, which came at the heels of a solid month of no socializing; even my parents know I’m usually doing something that requires alone time during Thanksgiving. Last year I decided to stop, because while quickly writing 50,000 or more words of a story you’ve been idly dreaming up is incredibly satisfying, it’s also a recipe for six months of burnout, at least for me.

However, I will always be grateful to NaNo for slapping my fear of the blank page out of me. It’s done marvels for pushing me to stare down a new document and put some words on it. One of the reasons I started “Innogen and the Hungry Half” was because I wanted a big project, something that’s been thin on the ground for me this year. I’m thrilled to share that the first chapter should, barring catastrophic edits, be up for your delectation early next week. (Even if the edits are catastrophic, I’m one of those nerds who lives for editing. I love it. It’s like a puzzle for me.)

As I geared up for putting those first sentences on the page, I could feel NaNo roaring away in the back of my head. It sounded like Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”: Valhalla, I am coming! I’d spent weeks thrashing out reams of notes, going in circles, unable to get the shape of the thing. I tried starting in about three different places, none of them right. In the end, it meant sitting in my chair and telling myself over and over and over again that it didn’t have to be perfect, not yet. On the first day, I got about 500 good words (which became 700 around bedtime, because naturally that’s when lines start to flow); on the second, 700 more. Yesterday, I did a full-on 1700. NaNo has trained me well.

Now, of course, the real work comes, because while I’ve had the beginning minutely envisioned for a while, the lumpy middle now stretches before me. Now comes the fun part! (She says, semi-wretchedly, laughing as she does so.)

In the spirit of experimentation, and also of my love for previews, teasers and trailers, I’m kicking off what should be a weekly feature, in which you all get a glimpse of what’s going into the writing and — oh yes — the seat-of-my-pants research. (Wikipedia, let me love you.)

One song


“One Beat” by Sleater-Kinney [lyrics]

I worked at a student coffee shop in college, and a group on constant rotation with one particular cohort was Sleater-Kinney. I hated them as much as they hated my Bjork, but this track redeemed the shift every time. It’s fierce and beautiful and it’s either about nuclear energy or fractal geometry. Either way, it’s a great thematic pace-setter, which I hope, in a story about Shakespeare, makes you curious!

Two links
I’m a nerd, but I have some big gaps in my knowledge base. The largest of these is anything to do with Ancient Rome. I’ll blame learning to read on Asterix comics: I could never root for the empire! Luckily for me, I not only have Classics-nerd friends to pester for help, if it comes to that, but I also have Roman-Britain.org. It’s not snazzy, but it is informative. I came for the Latin abbreviations (which I find fascinating!), I stayed for the lifeline to world-building.

Another gap in my knowledge base: steampunk everything. I’m skimming through a lot on Tesla coils and the Great Exhibition of 1851, but one of the neatest sidetracks has been learning about early animation — specifically, the praxinoscope. It’s a one-off detail in the story, but I really like how it looks. There’s something sort of eerie and dreamlike and lovely about it.

And, because YouTube contains all things: yes, it comes in the steam-powered flavor too.

Three lines

“But is that life? The most vital connections come to us by speech, which cannot be touched, even if it can be felt.

“I propose a future cut like the Gordian knot.”

So that’s that! Intrigued? I very much hope so. Again, barring catastrophe or natural disaster, the first chapter should be up early next week. You don’t have to know anything about steampunk or Cymbeline to enjoy the story, though of course, if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online. For a lighter, quick summary, you can watch the short video linked at the bottom of this post. I assure you the original text is exactly that ridiculous, wonderful and strange.

Hope you all have a marvelous weekend — catch on the flip side, chapter in hand!

Flash fiction: The Girl Shots of Drexel Tell Us About Each Other

Yesterday on Twitter I was pointed to an excellent group portrait on Shorpy, one of my favorite sites around. One thing led to another, and the 1925 girls’ rifle team of Drexel Institute began talking. You know how it is when ladies get together. From left to right:

Then there was Tess. She was new to Drexel, and sometimes wound up jockeying for power. Dolly always came out on top, but Tess was a good sort, so we kept her around. She made things interesting, particularly with her sweaters. She was a ferocious knitter too.

Bitty, well. We called her that because she told us to. Something about her mother always thought she was too tall. We went along with her.

Alice and Bitty, they were always real close. Alice was old money, but she rebelled by wearing out all her old things until they fell apart.

One time we had to gag Eulalie up to get her to stop talking. You’d think it would be immaterial while shooting, but she was a distraction. She took it pretty well, though. Eulalie was always pretty cheerful about ropes. We blamed it on her being a Girl Guide. Rue wasn’t so sure.

Dolly, she was our leader. She was a natural, with a face that got your trust at once. A fine sniper with a fine coat and great shoes.

Fran rolled her own cigarettes. Her brother ran rum across Lake Superior. She was just in the rifle club for the socializing.

Rue never talked about her husband. We saw what she did to that line-up of soda bottles when Eulalie asked about her ring. Rue had a great laugh, though, when you got it out of her. She and Dolly could really cut a rug after practice.

We kept each other interesting.

All this happened at @magpiewhale. Follow along and see what else happens!

Fiction: Negative Space

A hole opened up in Holly’s torso on Monday. She showed it to her mother after she’d studied it in the mirror a while. The hole was a little right of her bellybutton, like a lopsided cube. She could hold both edges and her knuckles wouldn’t touch.

Her mother sat down on the closed lid of the toilet. “Oh sweetie.” She smiled and petted her hair. “Barney had a good life. It’s okay to be sad that he’s gone.”

Holly couldn’t look at it. “Will it be there forever?”

“Oh.” Her mother leaned forward and curled over the space in her ribs. “No,” she said. “It gets smaller and then you hardly notice it at all.” Holly stole a glance at the smooth absence in her mother’s chest, like someone had forgotten to draw it in. Her mother patted her cheek. “Come on, Holly Golly. We’ve got a busy day to get to.”

Holly pushed down her shirt and watched her mother leave. She shut the door behind her, picked up her toothbrush and turned on the faucet. The other side of the door stayed quiet and still. Holly squeezed her toothpaste onto the bristles and slipped the brush into her mouth. The hole in her torso itched.

They went to the grocery store and ran into Mrs. Thompson. Holly’s mother hugged her to her side. “We had a rough weekend, didn’t we.”

Mrs. Thompson was a friend from Holly’s mother’s office. She wore her hair piled on top of her head, and had peacock-colored glasses. Holly had never seen her without lipstick. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, looking down at Holly.

“I got a hole,” said Holly, pressing her shoulder to her mother’s waist.

“Oh,” said Mrs. Thompson, very understanding. “Your first one?”

Holly nodded.

Mrs. Thompson patted her side. “I keep succulents in mine. A nice little garden I always carry with me. I’m thinking about putting in some ferns as well.” Holly frowned. Mrs. Thompson smiled. “You’ll be fine, dearie.”

They went to the library. Holly’s mother didn’t say anything about Mrs. Thompson. She left Holly to wander while she headed for the audiobooks. Holly meandered through the stacks, reading clusters of titles every few feet. When she turned a corner, Frank the reference librarian was scanning a shelf high above her head. He looked down at her over the tops of his glasses. “Hello, Holly.”

She slowed to a stop. “Hi.”

He turned back to the shelf. “Looking for something in particular today?”

Holly looked around her. They were in the Gardening and Horticulture section. “My dog died this weekend.”

“Oh dear. Barney?” Frank took off his glasses and let them hang from his neck. “I’m sorry.” She nodded and hugged her elbows. “Have you gotten a hole from it?”

“My first one.” She got squirmy for a moment. “Someone else said she kept plants in hers.”

Frank gave her a little smile. He patted his chest, right below his collarbone. “I keep candy there.”

“How does it get smaller, though?” Holly stared at his shoulder. “Don’t you want it to go away?”

“Well.” Frank put his glasses back on. “Sometimes it doesn’t go away. You just learn to live with it.”

Holly turned back to the shelf. “What kind of candy do you keep in there?”

He chuckled. “Not chocolate, I can tell you that.”

Holly didn’t say anything to her mother when they got back in the car. They drove to the pool with the radio on. The lady from NPR described all the horrible things happening in the world in a calm, distracted voice. Holly looked out the window as they drove past the chain stores and pulled in at the city pool.

She told her mother she wanted to change by herself today, and shut herself into the wet stall with her one-piece draped over her wrist. She stepped out of her shoes, into a puddle on the concrete floor. The whole changing room smelled like chlorine and wet towels. Outside, kids shrieked and lifeguards blew their whistles. Holly pulled off her shirt and looked down at the hole again. When she got her suit on, it clung to the edges of the hole. She tried to puff her stomach out, and picked at the fabric of the suit, but the hole wouldn’t be hidden. It stayed weird and flat. She came out of the changing room clutching her clothes to her stomach.

Holly’s mother was wearing her one-piece too. She smiled and held up the sunscreen. “Ready?” They traded off, making sure to get the places neither of them could reach on their own. Holly’s mother slipped Holly’s flamingo sunglasses onto her face. “Okay. Come on, let’s go have some fun.”

Maddy and Trudy were there with their babysitter. They waved Holly over, and she and her mother laid down their towels nearby. Trudy took one look at Holly’s stomach and pointed. “What happened to you?”

The babysitter sat up. “Trudy! Be polite.”

“My dog died,” Holly said, jutting her chin out a little.

Maddy chewed on her thumbnail, her eyes still on the hole. “My brother got one of those when he didn’t get into Emory.”

Holly crossed her arms. “What did he do with it?”

She shrugged. “He got a little shelf put in. He keeps books there now.”

“My cousin has a bird in hers,” Trudy announced. “I like it. It’s always singing. I don’t think she’ll get another one.”

“Sounds noisy,” Holly said. She twisted and looked at her mother, who was stretched out on her stomach with a paperback. Her torso looked whole from this angle. Holly turned back. “You want to go?”

Swimming was a good distraction. The cold water rushed into the new empty space, but Holly shook it off and kept going. Every time she moved, the water swirled between her skin and the swimsuit. She did her best not to feel it.

They went home. Holly helped carry the groceries in. No one tripped them up as they unloaded their bags. “Mom,” Holly said, when they were putting the last cans away, “did you do anything with yours?”

Holly’s mother stopped. She sat down the edge of a chair and looked at Holly. “It’s private, sweetie,” she said. “And you don’t have to do anything with yours. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but it will get smaller if you let it. It won’t be there forever.” Holly didn’t say anything. She looked down at the empty floor. Holly’s mother stroked her cheek. “Holly Golly,” she said softly.

Holly could feel her throat start to get thick. “Is yours getting smaller?”

Her mother rested her palms on her knees. “Bit by bit,” she said, and met Holly’s eye.

Inspired by Eulalia, and the first official bit of creative work completed for this blog. A little melancholy and a lot weird. To be honest, I almost wanted to write up a straight-up Redwall-inspired story, but in improv, they always tell you to go for the lateral inspiration, rather than the literal.

I lost Nora, the basset hound I had desperately wanted and gotten at 7, when I was 21, the night before I came home for Thanksgiving. I had never lost anyone that close to me before, and it hit me really hard. I dreamed about her for months after she was gone, to the point of seeing her at the foot of my bed some nights. Recently I saw a guest strip in The Abominable Charles Christopher that opened up some of those feelings again. I can’t imagine feeling them as a 6- or 7-year-old, which is how I see Holly.

I am a hard griever; I don’t know what I would do if we lived in a world where loss opened up actual holes in us.