by Jess Lewis
Come on, love bugs, and settle down near me. It’s nearly twilight and you know what that means. Don’t worry, the grass ain’t too damp. Y’all are covered in mud anyway! A little more on your overalls won’t hurt and I’ve got a yarn to weave. Ha, that’s what I thought! Lay on down.
Now, look up.
Big, ain’t it? Stretches as far as you can imagine, from the Apalachee Coast to the Blue Ridge Marshes. Alive with the spirits of the twin moons, churning swirls of orange moonlight and acid fog. Through all-a that, the stars prick through. Ya’know, before the Great Sinkin’, people used to say the sky held all sorts-a great beasts – thunderbirds, great bears, kind eagles. Each signified by a set of stars. They’d fly all around up there, watching over us. Ever since I first heard tell of em on a polar vortex afternoon in mid-May, sipping chicory and watching my Zaza haul wood over icy ground, I’ve wondered what they was watching. For generations, you could even navigate by em – tell where you are and get to where you’re going, just by looking up at the right constellation. That’s how unchanging the world was.
Of course, that ain’t the way it is now. There’s some new thing bursting into being every five minutes. And if you try to track a star, you’ll find your eyes crossing cause it shifts through the thick clouds. Here one minute, there the next.
Naw, hon, I’m not sure one’s better than the other. But I know which world I’d choose. And I know what lil Parley chose, near about half a lifetime ago.
Now, Parley bounded into this world bright-eyed and full-a questions. By the time she could walk, she was gathering every rock and piece-a scrap that got her brain a-working with questions. As soon as the day started beaming over New Sun, her and her best friend Rylie would stuff scraps of cornbread in their pockets and run out to the yard, the pathway, the town square, scouring the whole town for strange things that caught their eyes. They’d munch on cornbread, replacing their pockets’ contents over the course of a morning. When they could see orange light burning through the canopy, they’d return to the New Sun Orphans’ Center with pockets as full as when they left. They was practically crows. After climbing the steep, winding stairs to their beds, they’d make piles of what they found: every color-a rock, birds’ bones, slabs of mica, pressed flowers from over near Wayward Forest. The Doulas at the Orphans’ Center told em it looked like piles of junk. Begged em for weeks to clean it all up, but every time they started in, Parley started telling stories she’d made up about how they were part of New Sun’s history. After ten minutes, the Doulas would give up.
Year by year, she expanded to new streets and alleyways, til she knew em by the gifts they’d offer. By the time she counted her age on both hands, she’d begin each day by running down the dirt path to the forest. Those lil bare feet would kick up clouds of dust all the way from the Gathering Center to the cusp of Wayward Forest. She’d stop outside a starbud-spotted cottage with an old-timey solar-thatch roof that shimmered in midmorning sun and a garden that poured outside its fence. Zaza Vex would be picking rosemary beside the front gate, almost like they were a-waiting for their lil friend to come with a basket full of questions. After yelling a toodle-oo at each other, Vex’d brush back Parley’s black bangs and crush the scent of rosemary into her forehead. The oil shined for just a second before Parley raced past Vex and into the kitchen.
The whole afternoon drifted away as Parley asked questions and Vex taught her how to make the spell cakes that people traveled across the Borderlands for. There was so many that Vex kept em on a table that spanned the length of their cottage, from kitchen to entryway. Glass-domed trays and doilies covered the surface, corner to corner. Even though she made em, Parley marveled over the mounds of jewel-colored cakes. Tempors that eased ya for a lil while until you could suss out a better way, Lifers that changed you for as long as ya took em but could always reverse, Seasons which rose and fell in use as the vortex-ways rose and fell. Around mid-afternoon they’d catch the solar flares and their hundred colors radiated across the walls, filling the space, and Parley would imagine it was a dragon’s hoard.
When she turned Giving-age, the Orphan’s Center offered her cowork assignment to Vex. It took less than a week for Parley to start calling em Zaza. They taught Parley everything they knew about medicine and fielded her trill of questions with calm smiles, travel stories, and (Parley’s favorite) dots of lavender meal on the nose. In her young eyes, Zaza could do anything. Those thick arms held Parley through many a sleepless night, and those quick hands guided her through much turmoil. Even though they said they learned medicine from their Gran-Gran, a small part of her was convinced that Zaza Vex actually did fight a dragon with their bare hands and that’s how they got a tome’s-worth of knowledge. How else could one person know enough to fill a whole darn house with magic? Yellow hearts that eased pain, green triangles that revealed the right decision, blue circles that calmed heart palpitations, the tiniest red spheres that eased memory loss.
Day after day, she saw these little bunches of plants that grew right outside the backdoor help people so much. When she thought long and hard about all the kinds of people who came a-knockin, other questions started a-brewing inside her. A year into working alongside Zaza, the questions started to feel different. Sometimes she’d think about how well the people they helped looked, how it was like everyone concealed a thing they wanted to change. Then she’d wonder why she was so confused when she looked in the mirror – when she caught a glance of herself in the glass domes on the way to the garden, she’d let out a little yelp because she thought a stranger wandered in from the forest. When she thought-a that at the working table, she’d grow quiet and stare at her hands, scared of the question that might follow.
“Talk to me,” Zaza Vex would always have to say, trying to keep the chuckle out of their voice.
“Tell me about what we’re helping people with,” Parley would ask as she crushed willow bark or narcis root into a paste while Vex mixed together vinegar and oils. Zaza would hoist theirself off their perch with a grunt. Then they’d crouch down beside her, hold up a vial of fresh-made solute to the light, and tell someone’s tale.
“One day, about near three years ago, a young-un came bursting right through the front door. I could tell they’d ran a long way and they looked like they were about to cry. I’d seen that look plenty before. Went ahead and fixed em a glass of sun tea. As I did, told em to sit down – well, wasn’t a minute later they was crying into the tea, telling me all about how their body felt like someone else’s. We had a nice long talk, then I rang their doctor (all the way over in Forty-Two, if you can believe it) and had a nice long talk. We all figured out a few options and I told em about these little buddies – Ajardee. Take one a week and your body will align with your mind.”
“A big part-a how our body looks is cause of a couple things we can’t see, these random bits of us that’re predetermined. Come out the womb one way, a luck of the draw. But! We don’t have to be that if it don’t feel right. Remember what I always taught you – ain’t never have to do nothin’ that don’t feel right. So, if ya wanna, we tweak those things. Then, bingo. Got a different body. Most of the body mods ain’t surgical anymore, it’s just- ”
“No, no! Not that. How would they know it was for them?”
“That’s a little more complicated, sweetie,” they looked for the answer in the skylight for a few moments, chewing on their cheek. “Sometimes… you’re so used to dealing with being discontent that it feels normal. So, you don’t know what exactly is wrong. You just feel like yourself, but one step to the right, just outta reach. There’s plenty to tweak stuff – hormone patches, skin morphs, body mods – but specific medicine ain’t working for you when you can’t pinpoint what’s off. Some people research it a lot, some people come to a healer like us” – they paused to wink and nudge Parley – “to help em figure it out. Does that make sense?”
Parley would shake her head yes and say thank you Zaza. That time, she didn’t mean it. Zaza Vex bopped her nose with a meal-dusted forefinger and smiled back before returning to the solute that needed mixing. Parley, fifteen now, couldn’t shake the achin’ that blossomed in her when Zaza talked about Ajardee. The sapphire half-spheres made the rest of the world fall away. Asking after em had been a mistake. If she asked any further, she knew that everything in her beautiful life would change. She pushed down the achin’ she couldn’t name and turned back to crushing narcis root and bonemallow.
Soon after, she stopped asking questions and buried her collection on the shores of Toxaway Lake. It took near about ten minutes to wash the sand off her hands. She pushed that achin’ so far down that it only managed to reach out when she didn’t have nothing to distract herself with, which wasn’t often. When she sprawled out on the dewy grass in front of the Orphans’ Center, staring into the silence around the midnight’s stars, a little tendril of pain unfurled and wrapped around her heart. She’d cry until her head hurt and the tears pooled in her ears, but she couldn’t place why she was crying, why it hurt to look in the mirror, why she felt misshapen.
The wavering voice would plead with the forest, the grass, the stars, anyone, to protect her from whatever this achin’ was. She’d beg until she went hoarse. If there was an answer, she never heard it. After awhile, she grew plum tired of tear stains and unanswered questions. When she finally got the New Sun Collective’s approval to live with Zaza, she stopped star-watching altogether. Instead, she busied herself with learning Zaza’s trade, tending the garden, and exploring the forest with Rylie.
On that first night in Zaza’s place, she made a decision. If the world ain’t give her protection, she’d weave a protection spell herself. Under the new moon’s light and the flickering of blue candleflame, she crushed rosemary on her eyelids. She wove her warding-magic as a decree: do not still your hands, do not look in mirrors, do not touch your body more than it takes to wash, do not think what if. The next day she woke up beaming, light as a foxfly mid-flight. It kept her safe and smiling, the ache far away. At least, it did for awhile. Even one crack in a shell makes the whole darn thing fall to pieces. And like all things do, what she buried came a-knocking with time.
On her seventeeth birthday, a bunch-a townfolk and friends gathered at the cottage for a big ole hullabaloo full-a her favorite things: chocolate cake, leaf collages, and a bonfire. After night sighed awake and the bonfire started licking the sky, Parley settled down in a mycovine-woven chair just out of cinder-reach. The duck and weave of unlikely stories circled her as she traced the chair’s weave and smiled up at the moon.
Outta the corner of her eye, she noticed Zaza standing with Amit, a young-un about her age, near the bonemallow vine. Moonlight skimmed their heads, their shoulders, and the tops of bonemallow flowers behind them – a halo of cold light shimmering. Zaza leaned in to listen, nodding, and Amit shifted from one foot to the other. After a breathless pause, Amit followed Zaza into the cottage where kitchen lights flickered on. The blue of biolume pulsed from the windows and leaked through the back door, beckoning Parley. She slinked along the shadows, inching nearer. Beside the doorway, she could hear their low voices.
“Take one of these once a week, at the same time on the same day. You’ll need to keep an eye on how you feel. Keep a journal – here, here’s one,” Zaza said. A pause, then a low voice shook out its reply.
“Are you sure-”
“Trade as you can. I know you ain’t from New Sun, but that’s how we all do it here.”
Through the cracked door, Parley searched for their silhouettes. While Zaza rustled papers inside, Parley wedged open the door with her foot. One inch. Then two. Parley’s heartbeat nearly drowned out their voices. Zaza craned over the heap of Ajardee, putting the jeweled half-spheres of narcis root in a wax cloth. With a flick of the wrist, the cloth tied and landed in Amit’s hand. They stared at it. Parley gasped. Something wet on their cheek caught the biolume. A silence curled between them.
“I’ve wanted this for so long,” Amit whispered. Their full hands shook. Zaza nodded.
“I know, sweetie,” she said. “You deserve to breathe easy.”
Amit collapsed into Zaza, buckling from the weight of something that Parley felt too. The brick scratched her arms as she sank to the ground. The achin’ unfurled so fast she couldn’t stuff it back down. Though it burned a hole right through her, Parley couldn’t look away. Her clammy hands shook.
“Can I take it now?” Amit asked.
“Of course. I’ll sit with you. The changes could happen slow or sudden, and I’ve seen all types, so no matter what happens-“
“Thank you,” Amit murmured over and over like a chant as they took a sphere out of the wax cloth with trembling fingers. It lingered at their lips like it was a prayer. Parley leaned forward, transfixed. When they buckled, Zaza caught em and held their shaking body in the arms that had held Parley so many sleepless nights. Just a few feet away, Parley felt her ward crack.
When they stopped shaking, Amit’s shoulders heaved forward. Zaza leaned towards em and rested a hand on their arm as the skin began to boil. Their body moved like they were feeling it for the first time, the gentle sway of becoming. Their skin settled into the texture of winding roots and their eyes peeled open to reveal two black orbs cradling yellow slits. The smile that split their face held rows and rows of dull teeth. They sighed out a decade of pent-up tension. It poured all over the kitchen, began streaming out the crack in the backdoor, and pooled around Parley.
As soon as she felt its warmth between her toes, she reeled back and ran to the forest on legs she couldn’t feel. Under the starlight, in the middle of Wayward Forest, the adrenaline melted away. Bare tree limbs twisted up to lights that glinted far above, as if to pluck em from their perch, and Parley remembered the stories Rylie told her when they was young. Each constellation held a monster that prowled the skies, looking for lost children. They’d been plucked from the world, way long before the Great Sinkin’, to protect wandering souls that needed their claws, jaws, and shells. Were they watching Parley, now? Would they emerge in a white mist from around a tree and wrap em in talons so it was safe to collapse into the ache that was already taking hold? Parley wished they would. The pool that welled in her was filled with a murky kind-a water she’d never seen before. As she sank to the forest floor and sprawled out to bare her belly to the star monsters, she realized what was overflowing in her. Yearning. Amit’s boiling skin made her yearn. She cried until her head hurt and the tears pooled in her ears, begging the monsters in the stars to take the ache away. When they didn’t, she wondered what it would be like for her body to boil, for her eyes to see through dark voids, for her smile to shine with a hundred teeth. Why did the thought cling to her so close? She’d never even thought about her body that much in the first place. Not enough to be so full of yearning for a thing she didn’t understand. What our lil Parley didn’t realize was that her spell was already coming undone – if she’d-a looked a mite closer, she’d-a seen the pieces of shell flaking away.
By the time she started walking out of them woods, the first streaks of sun started blotting out the stars. She stumbled on the soil she’d turned to clay, and in the coming weeks stumbled over yearning that bubbled up no matter how she tried to push it down. Every midday trip to the Forest Garden Park to pick appleweed, she saw Amit beaming across the town square. Their eyes would lock and they would wave, no matter how much Parley tried to avoid em. In that moment, she would be captured in the sight of their new skin, new eyes, new smile catching sunlight.
All the hairs on her arms stood on end. The ache in her bubbled up. The light stole from her eyes. After a full month, Rylie waited until they was done picking corpseblossom leaves and pulled her to the sittin-rocks at Lake Toxaway’s edge. They set aside their heaping baskets and held hands as Rylie asked what in the heap-a-days was going on.
“You’ve been out of it. I can tell. What’s a-matter?” Rylie said.
“It’s, I-“ Parley started, then stopped, then hung her voice on the wind. She shook her head, unable to form words enough to describe a thing she didn’t understand. But when she looked at Rylie’s face, twisted with concern, she forced out what she could.
“I see Amit. And I – I wonder what it would be like to change, too. I keep having dreams of my skin boiling, of my face changing, of growing wings or scales or – b-but it’s not like I hate my body. I don’t love it either, though. And if I change, what if I don’t like what I become? What if it isn’t right?”
Parley’s hands became still on her knees. Rylie reached out, squeezed em, and pressed her forehead to em.
“That sounds like a really scary place to be,” Rylie said. Parley looked to the water, to the reflection of two lanky teens on river rocks. The ache twisted.
“It is,” Parley barely managed to say. Rylie turned to the water, searching the place where water met land for a scrap of wisdom to offer her friend.
“But wait a minute,” Rylie said, realization unfurling, “Ajardee’s what Amit takes, right? Any meds like that are Lifers, I think. I remember you gabbing about em way back when – three, four years ago, maybe? You can always stop taking Lifers. If ya don’t take it for awhile, it ain’t like you’re gonna die. You just go back to how you was before, eventually. I mean, you gotta ask Vex for sure, but you could just stop taking ‘em if it felt wrong.”
It took near a minute for the words to sink in but once they did Parley couldn’t high-tail it back to the cottage fast enough. Corpseblossom leaves scattered as they ran, Parley forging a trail through fern-frosted underbrush and Rylie struggling to keep up. When they burst through the back door, Zaza let out a holler and leapt back in a cloud of cricket meal.
“Hot damn, child, you about got a pile-a dough in your face. What on earth is the matter?” Vex said, dusting off their arms and apron with dough-coated hands.
“Ajardee – is it a Lifer?” Parley gasped as she leaned against the doorframe. Vex stopped dusting theirself. They turned slow to face Parley head-on, studied her face, then nodded.
“Sit down, darlin. Rylie, you mind?”
“No, I – maybe could you stay outside the door?” Parley asked. Rylie nodded, patted her friend on the shoulder, and closed the door behind her.
Parley turned the chair to face her Zaza and sat down, but could not look her in the eye. The words tried to bubble out of her but evaporated before she could release em.
“Talk to me,” they said, folding their apron over the chairback. Zaza leaned against the chair theu sat on. Curls fell out of their silk kerchief. A warmth wound around em, radiating from Zaza’s curious brown eyes and tilted head.
“I don’t hate myself,” Parley finally blurted out. “I just can’t stop thinking about…”
Zaza waited while Parley found the words, unflinching. Warm silence guided her to them, where they greeted her like birdsong at twilight.
“I can’t stop thinking about the what ifs – what if I could be something else, what if my body could be more. When I see Amit, my heart stops a little, and I feel like I’ve found something out. But I can’t pinpoint what it is. So, if I take Ajardee, I think I’ll find something. I-I don’t know what, and I know it’s different for everyone, but I gotta try.”
Biolume caught her Zaza’s wet eyes. The shadows rested in the lines of their face, showing all the lives they’d lived already. The warm smile set against all-a that lifelining made Parley’s heart skip a beat. The apron strap twisted between Zaza’s hands before they sighed.
“Parley, my sweet little bearfly, I am so proud of you.”
Our hope-jittery Parley held onto the table for dear life to keep from falling over. The crack deepened, splintered, spread.
“So, will you…?” Parley started to say. She couldn’t find the bravery to finish.
“As long as you want me there, I’ll be with you every damn step-a the way.”
In the kaleidoscope glow of biolume catchin’ the jeweled mounds on the long table, they moistened this new path with tears awhile. Then, they made a plan. While Parley led, Zaza guided. Their inspiration took them and a single cake of Ajardee out the backdoor, back down the path, and to a forest clearing where the weeds budded through well-trod ground. They craned upward, searching the stars, and Parley couldn’t help but search em too. The jewel-cake was lead in her hand. It dragged her hand down to the earth, full of the weight of becoming.
Together, they entered the center of the clearing. Pale clouds parted to show the monsters. Parley could almost hear their wailing, even from so far way. She wondered what they were crying about. The hands of the people who cared most about her rested on either shoulder but they did not watch her. Instead, they watched the sky with her even though they weren’t sure what was up there that was so fascinating.
Courage bubbled. The cake paused in front of her lips as her heart beat so loud it drowned out the star monsters.
I can always stop, Parley reminded herself, whatever I become, I don’t have to be forever.
In one bite, an uncharted path emerged from her. She broke clean in two and let all of the pieces of herself she’d hidden over the years pour out. Rylie and Zaza gasped. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw their beaming faces.
A scream echoed across the mountains. The foxbear den on Hamburg Peak shrieked in greeting. The shrill birdsong of the upper canopy followed. One by one, all the creatures of New Sun greeted this strange newcomer. Cicada chirps, birdsong, furrower chatter, bat-o-wallow trills, and the gasps of her friends wound around her, held her close, until she could collapse into herself.
Skin turned to slime. It glowed purple and dripped off in thick strands. Jagged bones wiggled out under shoulder blades. They cracked into place, reaching out and out until they was making two arches over her head. Red welts burned big, then burst into feathers. They started on her arms and creeped up her body, until ya couldn’t see new ones cause the feathers covered em. A violent shake started at her feet and rang out through her body, shaking off the slime like a wet foxbear ready to sun itself. All-a her newness rang out through the world, sang its song triumphant. She stretched every damn thing she could just to feel her new body. New-taloned hands stretched out in front of dark eyes. Her new mouth split into a smile, flashing sharp teeth. She felt so light.
A breeze picked up. A wild hair wound its way into her heart, and she wondered that most sacred of questions: what if? With that question, her self-made spell broke clean in two. She lifted up on new wings and let the wind carry her up and up until she could touch the star monsters that protected her for so long.
Look up. No, look harder. You see those three lil dots of light, floating back and forth like they’re twisting in the wind? Some say that when Parley passed from this world, she rose up on those giant crows’ wings of hers and joined the star monsters to prowl the earth. There she stays forever, one of the beasts that protected her.
If you feel an achin’ start to twist around your heart, don’t bury it.
Instead, ask Parley for protection. Find a forest clearing. Lay down under the forever-reaching sky on a clear night. Find the three stars twisting into themselves. As soon as you found Parley’s Light, cry out as loud as you can, so loud the mountains rumble and the furrowers chatter: what if, what if, what if.
Jess is a trans non-binary and pansexual writer, designer, and organizer who hails from the hollers of Western North Carolina. They currently live in the deep South, where they explore futures of liberation and how to get there.
When they’re not imagining queer utopias, designing future tech, or facilitating capacity-building workshops, they’re organizing programming for The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird.
visit their websites at https://www.quarefutures.com and follow them on Twitter and Instagram @quarefutures
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