Behind the Wainscot: 7 "The Five Senses"
[ Guest editor: Alex Dally MacFarlane ]
Introduction Alex Dally MacFarlane
[Sound] "The Inferno," Yoon Ha Lee
[Touch] "A Soul, Touched," Stephanie Campisi
[Smell] "Time in Aspic," Rudi Dornemann
[Sight] "Refraction," Becca de la Rosa
[Taste] "Bittersweet," Lisa Mantchev
Too often in fiction, the sense of sight overwhelms the other four, which might each merit a mention amid lengthy descriptions of what the character is seeing. Sight is the primary observation sense for most people, but there is more to be learnt from what we hear, smell, taste and feel than much fiction allows. In this issue, I offer a night in which each sense is given its own story. Smell and sound might change the night's events—or they might not. Taste and touch reveal tales that might not otherwise be told. And sight is a beautiful, strange thing. The greater equality of the senses in this issue will, I hope, go a small way towards redressing the balance.
Alex Dally MacFarlane recently graduated from King's College London with a BA in War Studies and History. She is currently working just outside London, proof-reading military specifications. Her short fiction has sold to magazines including Shimmer, Sybil's Garage and Farrago's Wainscot and to the Sporty Spec anthology from Raven Electrick Ink, and a poem is forthcoming in Goblin Fruit. This is the first time she has put her hand to editing, and she does not intend for it to be the last.
[ Yoon Ha Lee ]
Jenna Freeman was beginning to think that she should have listened to her sister before she bought the new viola. It wasn't that she was superstitious. But the instrument had survived two fires—it still had scarring on its ribs—and the last owner had nicknamed it the Inferno. Jenna's sister had said, "Don't you think that's a bad omen? It'll inspire a new category of viola jokes." Only half-listening, Jenna had played a transposed fragment of a Bach partita and was entranced by the Inferno's tone. It sounded like dark chocolate and red satin ribbons and all things shadowy, exactly the way a viola should be. After that, there was no way not to buy the Inferno.
It wasn't until rehearsals for the Twelfth Night Gala that she had an inkling that something was uncanny about the Inferno. Her quartet met in the cellist's drafty living room. The tuning pegs on her old viola had always slid loose in the chill, but the Inferno, once tuned, stayed that way. Jenna didn't think much of it at the time, other than to be grateful.
Once, putting on the shoulder rest, Jenna thought she saw the flicker of fires reflected in the varnish, orange and sweet and unmerciful. It had to be a trick of the light.
Except now they were warming up at the gala and Jenna was beginning to wish she'd brought the old viola instead. She watched the dancers gather, most of them in ruffles or suits, others in sleeker modern wear. Jenna's own dress was a red that showed up brilliantly against her dark brown skin; it had modified sleeves so she could use her bow freely. Some of the dancers swayed, flushed and eager and possibly tipsy. Jenna plucked her strings and frowned. The fifths sounded off, too airy. "I need to retune,” she said.
The first violin, Emily Kim, rolled her eyes and obligingly played a long, full A. "If you're going to do it, do it fast," Emily hissed. The second violin, Rennie Van Dale, only laughed.
Jenna played her A string. The two instruments sounded smooth and silky together, perfect unison without any betraying tremor of a beat frequency. Jenna rapidly tuned the rest of the strings, messing with the fine-tuners more for show than anything else. The off-ness had gone away.
An irrational voice in the back of her head whispered: It's out of tune, and something will go terribly wrong.
It's nothing, she told herself. She forced herself to meet Emily's eyes and smile brightly. The hubbub of people flirting, seeking dance partners, telling jokes—no viola jokes, she hoped—was suddenly unbearably loud.
The cellist, Thomas Latkiewicz, nudged her foot with his bow. Jenna, freed from her reverie, glared at him. He mouthed, "Pay attention!"
Emily raised her bow and made eye contact with each of them in turn. They all nodded at her, then launched into the sustained chord that told the dancers to pair up. When the dancers looked ready, Emily tapped one-two-three-four with her foot and began. Jenna joined in on cue two measures later with a low humming B. For a while, she lost herself in the music's patterns, the way the lacework notes were reflected in the dancers' stately movements. She kept sneaking glances at them over her stand, wishing she were a part of the dance.
Jenna felt strangely flushed as they began the second piece and the dancers paired off for a schottische. She found herself driving harder into the strings than usual. The tone that emerged was not harsh, as she would have expected, but bright, hectic, rich with promised fever. The grace notes felt like sparks, the trills like curling streamers of flame.
Oh, shit, she thought, how do I get out of this one? She willed herself to play more softly, or not to play at all, but her fingers were having none of it.
The horrible part was that she was breathing more rapidly, wondering when they'd pass the tipping-point and everything would cascade into disaster. It would be the best-dressed disaster since the Titanic, she thought.
Emily's brow furrowed. She dipped her head with particular emphasis to get Jenna to stick to the tempo, even if whatever had possessed Jenna's fingers was rhythmically well-behaved. Then Emily got that hell-with-it look that never failed to take Jenna by surprise, no matter how long she'd been playing with the woman. Jenna knew they were lost when they picked up the tempo—just a nudge, but enough for the dancers to notice and respond. Rennie and Thomas were grinning at her.
Is this what it's like to be a conductor? Jenna wondered. To breathe and have everyone in the room respond?
The four of them hit each beat just shy of together. The effect was curiously energetic. The dancers peeled off into clusters; the clusters looked, to Jenna's bewitched eyes, like the shapes of fire, curling and coiling across the dance floor.
And just like that, Jenna missed a note. Normally she would have been mortified, but she understood the real meaning: she had control over her music again.
She had a fraction of a second to decide. She played on. The dance was a dance and a fire at the same time. What were heat or sound, after all, but the excitation of molecules, the dance of matter?
I am the year's fire, she was given to understand, and the days to come. I am the lightning-strike and the summer tempest.
How did a viola survive two fires? Maybe it made a bargain to channel that hectic energy over and over again, dance by dance, in the winter's windings.
Maybe it found a way to do that without setting things literally alight.
The schottische ended. Jenna took a deep breath, resettled the Inferno on her shoulder, and joined the others in returning to the chord between sets. Jenna had her part to play in the great dance, too. The babble of the dancers' voices washed around her. Even if they couldn't name what had happened, they had felt it.
Let's do it again, Jenna thought, and they swept into the night's next dance.
Yoon Ha Lee's fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Helix; she is also a section editor at the Internet Review of Science Fiction. She plays piano and is badly out of practice on her viola.
[ Stephanie Campisi ]
The shivering swell of the music, quivering strings and murmuring bass, tickles against the minute creases of our skin, that which lies over yours, insulating you from the probing fingers, soft-tipped and faintly whorled like the ripples caused by a skipping stone over water, and the lips, parted slightly and exuding warmth, rough at their edges like poorly trimmed paper, that drag in lingering greeting, and we sway in time with it, blanketed amongst the air that hums thick and honey-like with vibrato and tremolando.
We are stickily damp with spilt punch, the sugary remnants stretching over us in a faint new membrane, restraining us slightly and simultaneously daring us to stretch out boldly, our fingers like wingtips hugging the wind.
Then, feathery and thready, the hand of a young man unexpectedly flutters into our velveteen grip, and we blindly seek out its fragile form, offering first curious acknowledgement, then, as it skims like an inaudible breath over our crumpled skin, acceptance. We, and you, trace the outline of his fingers, which are a series of elegant, curvaceous silhouettes, arcing in, then out, and which curl loosely against our palms and then slide between the gaps between our fingers in a crosshatch of warm, inquisitive flesh.
The music has stopped, and the air is lighter for its absence, reconsolidating itself around the retreating curls of sound. Manoeuvred by enthusiastic applause, someone takes a step back, pressing against us, and we are overwhelmed by the cascading fabric that strokes us, sensuously scraping us with the sharp teeth of the underside of a seam and the round, stubborn thrust of a button. The softly probing hand that so beautifully slotted against us is gone, now, and we can feel your sigh in the wistful way you steeple your own hands, and us, together as though you are trying to recreate his touch, the neat jigsaw of the moment.
You bring us to your chest momentarily, and through the dense fabric of your gown, brittlely arrogant and aloof with its clinging constellations of jewels and knobby turns of fabric, we can feel the rise and fall of your chest like it is an echo of the maudlin, melancholy string quartet. As you pull us away, and we swoop in a graceful descent to the cool viciousness of your cutlery, which you turn over and over, their metal hips bruising coldly at our skin, we can feel that something within you has changed, and that there is a touch you long for far more than ours.
The young man comes by several times, presenting himself on each occasion with a fleeting proffering of extended fingers that cup against your own, smaller ones, like a protective nest, and with an almost wary dabbing of his lips against our skin, which he does with such diffident, shy a manner that we long to observe his face with our fingertips, and trace his eyelids to confirm as we suspect that his eyes are averted. There is so much that we learn in these tiny moments of whispered greetings and the bashful stroking of thumb against thumb, and we as your safeguard, your blind, initial, temporary layer of protection against such potentialities, realising the ends to which this might lead, try to absorb the touch, deflect it, so that you might not be affected, afflicted so, but your response to this is defiant, as you remove us and place us by your place setting, where we, lost, embrace the smooth porcelain of your bowl and the smoothly textured cloth, slightly shiny from its new dark dye, that covers the table. And you take the hand of a stranger so that you might feel for yourself, emancipated, free, what it is to be touched and to touch in return.
Stephanie Campisi's work can be found in Fantasy Magazine, Shimmer, Farthing, and in various forthcoming anthologies. You can visit her at misapostrophication.blogspot.com.
[ Rudi Dornemann ]
Breathe me in.
As I melt here on my steep-sided salver, I yield memory into the air. As the dancers pass in their lines and pairs, I eddy out, carrying an hour of a midsummer's afternoon among them. I am fresh-trampled grass still damp with dew that would soon evaporate into the sky's too-wide blue.
"Would you do me the honor . . ." he asks.
"I would," she answers, and they join the lines already forming for the dance.
Do they recall exchanging other, similar words, just days before the moment that I preserve? Do they remember themselves in that time? I am petals fallen from the rose pinned in her hair and from the carnation in the buttonhole of the coat he laid aside. I am the distillation of an hour that trembled between changes, when one future seemed ready to form, only to give way to another, as easily as one cloud-picture gives way to the next, and the first can barely be imagined any longer. I would have them not imagine, but know that time again.
I am the rivery scent of oar-splash spray and the nearly invisible line of spilt pollen the bee left sweet in its wake. His arm behind her waist, they step in careful time with the rest of the circle. As they pass the frost-scribbled window, a gust rattles the pane and I am dispersed, weakened, by the draught. But the dance carries them back into the strength of me and I am the ripe green smell of the still-water oxbow shadowed over by down-reaching willows.
The quadrille regains its name and the circle becomes a square. Sides greet sides with bows and curtsies and the pastorale commences.
I am the violet-powder essence of some other summer brushed onto a hanging withy from her blushing cheek. Now she links arm with the lady opposite, and laughs at the centripetal rapidity of their turning.
I am that same violet-powder transferred by the leaves to his own cheek; a scent that opened memories for him then.
Now, he offers his arm and turns with her, presents her to the gentleman opposite, withdraws. The line retreats, bringing him near the laden tables, where the roast's hearth smell speaks comfort and the wassail spice laughs infectiously.
I eddy out to meet his next approach, but he parries with memories of another ball, him in uniform on the occasion of his commission, a swirl of faces, none of them hers. But I am ready, and I am musty whiff of damp canvas crumpled in the bow of the boat, suggesting a time just hours after my own moment, a moment marked by the scent of wet paper, the letter delivered in the rain, the ink smudged but still clear, his orders, to embark on a ship that leaves in seven month's time (so far from then; so near to now), a ship that will take him to the most distant outpost of the furthest colony, to be his home for years.
His brow creases, even as he smiles at the dancer opposite. The line retreats, and when it advances again, two turns and a joining of hands later, everything within him is closed to me. I have overplayed; I have pressed too hard.
But a promenade brings her forward, and I approach more gently on the breeze-wake of passing dancers. I am the scent of the flag iris he gathered in hasty bouquet before they pushed off from the bank.
She knows me, and holds the moment in memory with the same cautious delicacy as she might a glass slide. It is not me she fears breaking, but her own heart—again—and, after a pause so brief that I might not have noticed, if I had not been watching for such a sign, been hoping for more, she files me back in place, as if I were no more meaningful, no more moving, than a dozen other summer-afternoon outings.
Stepping back into quadrille corners takes her close to the punchbowl's intoxicating swell and the tropic aroma of a platter piled with imported fruit, the—a now, and another now, and I am only insufficient then.
A promenade returns and, through the chance and change of the dance, they are arm in arm. I attenuate to meet them with my last gust. For a moment, for a fleeting fractioned instant, they remember—together, they remember being together: the velvet of her glove, the rumble of his voice, the taste of dry sandwiches and fresh strawberries, the glitter everywhere of sun on water. But that is all of me; I am done.
On my salver on this griffin-legged sideboard, I slump to paste and petals. I am not enough to check their steps. They move together; they move apart; they do not break the dance. I would have them turn to no music but each other. I would have them not only remember, but recreate me. I would have them be again who they were then.
But she moves in time on the arm of her new fiancé, his brother. And he moves, his steps as precise to the tempo as a march.
As the dancers return to their seats, what remains of me is carried out into the hall, mixed with the smells of food and perfume, sweat and winter-frosted stone, shoe leather and floor polish, wassail and gravy, roasts and sweets, and flowers, winter garden pampered but still resplendent, stuff for the chronolfactory adepts to gather later into other aspics, prompts for those who lose this now into memory, second chances stored up against the dance of change that is time.
Rudi's fiction has appeared in such places as Rabid Transit: Menagerie, The Fortean Bureau, Strange Horizons, Flytrap, and Behind the Wainscot. He contributes flash fiction to The Daily Cabal, writes reviews for Rain Taxi and sporadically updates his website. He is aware, however,
that none of this redeems him in the eyes of aficionados of 19th century dance for having foisted an entirely speculative quadrille upon them. Rudi lives, contritely, in Maine.
[ Becca de la Rosa ]
The mirror sits at the place of honour, circled with flowers in the middle of the long table: a butterfly net for candlelight, one wide eye for the blind. Guests in autumn colours slide in to sit around the table, rustling and laughing delicately, small movements, each piece of jewellery one scale on a glittering fish. The mirror has a name, and his name is Pilgrim. Pilgrim has seen many things, and is scarred
with tiny fractures in his glass; he does not believe in this ceremony, the fire and gold.
Somewhere in the hall, a little boy and a wheelbarrow hide inside the seashell of the fireplace and watch the guests come in from dancing, one by one. The little boy's name is Jacob; his wheelbarrow's name is Sweet Apricot, and she has flirtatious wheels, a wide grin, and a mouth full of dried leaves and half-empty tubes of paint, twisted like twigs. Pilgrim thinks that in another life Sweet Apricot was a treehouse. He thinks: no one loves Jacob more.
The dinner table glints with porcelain and fine silverware, candles shining through red wine in thimble glasses. Jacob tucks himself into his wheelbarrow until the two of them are nestled in the fireplace, black-hearted and glowing like two snug coals. Jacob takes off his glasses and carefully places them inside Sweet Apricot's smile.
"Look," he says to her. "There is a woman with antlers on her forehead."
There is a woman with antlers on her forehead. She has icicles in the forest of her hair, and she is tundra, wasteland, an empty cathedral. She licks white ash or powdered sugar from her fingertips with terrible deliberation, one at a time, and her tongue is a map of the sky at night, the pinprick stars and their stories.
"Over there, Sweet," Jacob says. "There's a man with a birdcage in his chest."
There is a man with a birdcage in his chest. His ribs are curlicues of golden wire, and his heart is an aviary: oriole, goldfinch, flame robin. His bloodstream is a rainbow of feathers.
Pilgrim does not see antlers or birds at the dinner table, but sees them reflected in Jacob's eyes, somewhere between the glass and the bone. Pilgrim watches.
Once upon a time Jacob met a witch. The witch wore a lump of blue lace agate next to her heart and drank strong thyme tea with honey. She smashed glass bottles and dangled the shards over her windows on string, so her house was a prism of light. Jacob met her on his way to school, pushing Sweet Apricot in front of him. She sat on a brick wall with her legs swinging. Jacob and the witch studied one another cautiously.
The witch said, "Your eyes are weather vanes without the wind."
Jacob smiled and nodded. "Your eyes are spiders, trying to crawl away," he said.
The witch took Jacob back to her home and gave him cold water in a wooden bowl. Jacob took off his glasses and watched colours ripple through the water: turquoise, magenta, teal, forest fire, conch shell, fever. The witch murmured something polite and scientific. She made him sausages. "You can see inside of people," she told him matter-of-factly, "like still water. You can see the brightest parts, the strangest parts. Those little corners and doorways. It is a rare thing. You are an odd boy, Jacob. You will do one great thing," she said, "before you die."
The witch died. The spiders living in her eye sockets skittered around her kitchen, spinning webs in her honour, and Jacob recited the names of colours like a funeral hymn. He went to her grave in his best clothes. "Dear witch," he said, to the criss-cross marble headstone. "I'm sorry you are dead. Someday when I know all the colours in the world I will make you a new colour, and I will call it Witch. This will be the one great thing I do. Goodbye, witch," he said. The spiders, who had followed him to the graveyard, spun silk in a whir, their tiny bodies whistling, until the headstone had been webbed over and over like the cocoon for a great grey butterfly.
Pilgrim has lived through a hundred years. He never saw Da Vinci write like a spider back-to-front before his face, but he has seen fire and water and death. For a long time Pilgrim lived in a house grown over like a forest: birds in the ribs of the rafters, vines splitting the walls, wild cats stalking every room like kings. Pilgrim lived in a pawn shop with paper tacked over his eye. He fell asleep there, and woke up in a room of colour and light.
In the wrinkle and flash of bodies, blind except for colour, Jacob suddenly meets Pilgrim's eye, and Pilgrim sees the little boy stiffen. They are reflected to one another, back and forth and back, a hundred thousand mirrors and red wheelbarrows and little boys, a thousand thousand diners at the long table, silver spoons and napkin rings. Jacob is stained glass when the light shines through it. To him, Pilgrim is all colours, tarnished with colours, beautiful and unnameable, and somewhere is his one new colour, his one great thing.
Becca De La Rosa's fiction has appeared, among other places, in Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and the Fantasy anthology published by Prime Books. She is currently attending university in Dublin. Stop by her website at www.beccadelarosa.com.
[ Lisa Mantchev ]
He knew the kisses of a hundred willing lips that night: those that rouged in secret and those all the sweeter for their unpainted innocence. Fair hands passed the loving cup tied with ribbons into stronger hands; then the tickle of thin moustaches and the taste of the gentlemen who had sneaked a taste of something more potent.
They sang in his honor:
Wassail! wassail! all o'er the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown.
And they carried bits of him away to burn in their bellies. Their echoes drifted back to him, there in the loving cup, and he reveled in the secret desires of their hearts, shared their small joys and mourned the smothered loneliness that was inevitable with this season.
There was other drink to be had, other treats to tempt the partygoers. The Wassail tasted secondhand the thin golden sunlight of cordial water. Sugar-paste walnuts. Medlar cheese. But still he reigned as a jovial host until a pair of sweethearts bore him from the parlor and into the dimly lit hallway.
"Someone will notice I am gone," said she of the virginal lips and petit four icing.
"One minute more," said the man that tasted of pipe-tobacco and promises. "Now that we are properly engaged, I can be forgiven a kiss or two."
The Wassail's brown-ale depths smiled with indulgence until he realized he sat, unguarded and forgotten as they returned to the party. His spiced depths cooled rapidly and he shivered in the chill air.
"Quiet! Someone will hear you, and Mama said—"
"Mama said you were too young to stay up to supper as well." A startled noise. "Someone's left the wassail cup here."
"Don't you touch that."
A pause as the nightgown-clad ghosts considered him. But the ribbon-bedecked cup proved too great a temptation.
"Mama won't ever know. I just want a taste." Smallish hands lifted it down and bare feet pattered along the carpeted hallway. "Hoo, it smells like Uncle Wellington!" the voice said before partaking of his sugar-and-spiced reek.
"Give it here, let me taste!"
The children tasted of oranges and peppermint, but the Wassail fretted as they bore him away from the whirl of music, away from the glittering spectacle that was the gala of Twelfth Night. This was not the parlor, nor the ballroom but a dark corner near another room he barely remembered . . . ah, yes! The kitchen.
His dark depths remembered his birth with a mixing of ale and sugar. There had been the bite of ginger upon his red cheeks, the gentle croon of cinnamon and nutmeg over his copper-pot cradle with all the songs of the Indies. Then a gentle hand drew up a soft blanket of toast atop him before the punchbowl had been proudly carried to the table.
There were only ghosts here now: the swim of pink salmon on a bed of aspic. A haunch of brown mutton picked a delicate path through rivers of oyster gravy. Chewitts and mince pies bleated and clucked and sang their swansong.
"What are the likes of you doing here?" demanded another voice, a louder voice. Twin shrieks, and the children sat the Wassail down with a thump upon the scarred surface of the table. He trembled, a gentle sloshing of his depths, as the Cook considered him.
"That's not quite finished yet," she said finally. "Here's me alone, and none of the girls able to fetch it back to the parlor. I'll take it out myself, once I get the tortell from the oven."
A moment later, a lovely lady cake sat cooling next to his cup. She was a haughty thing, with lovely brown skin and a marzipan filling. The Wassail could hardly speak for longing. The Tortell turned up her egg-washed nose at him, sure in the knowledge of her hidden bean-and-porcelain-figurine.
"It's a lovely night," the Wassail finally ventured.
A curt nod. "I am for the morrow."
The Wassail swallowed hard, tasting himself all the way down to the dregs. "They are very lucky, to have you grace their table."
A glazed-fruit blush spread over her skin. "You mustn't say such things."
"Why are you not center-stage upon the banquet table?"
"There are ever so many desserts that must come before me," the Tortell said.
"I'm quite sure none could be lovelier than you," the Wassail flattered.
The asparagus-molded ices stood on end, quite offended. "We are both vanilla and pistachio, if you please!"
The Nesselrode glared with disapproving chestnut eyes that had melted about the edges. "And I am studded with cherries!"
"Ah," said the Wassail, "but will either of you crown the King and Queen?"
The rest of the desserts fell into a smarting silence as the cook returned. She muttered to herself as she prepared the almond-flavoured pottage and every dish winced in sympathy as she heated the fire-shovel red hot and seared its surface brown.
"Pomegranate seeds and pistachio nuts," the cook chortled, "and the Hedgehog Soup is done! Eliza! Mary! Take this in at once!"
"They're taking down the Christmas tree," one of the maids reported, and the Wassail remembered her tasting lips, with all the starch of her cap and apron. "Eating all the fruits and nuts hanging on the boughs as though there weren't three dozen dishes or more on the sideboard."
"It's not your place to criticize them!" the cook said, scandalized. She shooed them from the kitchen, flapping her apron all the while.
He was cooler still, but the Wassail yearned for the Tortell with all the fervor of the lovers that he could yet hear, whispering to each other in some unseen, dimly light corner of the house.
My love, he sighed along with them just as the cook reached over the Nesselrode and jostled his cup with her arm.
Crash! went the loving cup.
Splash! as the Wassail spread across the tabletop in a sweet, brown pool so that just as the clock struck midnight, he kissed the Tortell chastely on the cheek and it was an . . .
When not scribbling, Lisa Mantchev can be found on the beach, up a tree, making jam or repairing things with her trusty glue gun. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, Aeon</i>, and Abyss & Apex. More will be appearing soon in Spicy Slipstream Stories, Japanese Dreams, and Electric Velocipede.
She is currently at work on the third novel in the Théâtre Illuminata trilogy. You can Taste the Bad Candy at her website.
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