LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

Love Letters from Velveteen, by M. Raoulee

velveteen_sjgochenour_300[The story of “Velveteen” appears as one of the few surviving narratives of the Late Orb Age. The author’s references to “magic” represent an uncharacteristic literary device for an era known for its fatalistic realism.]

1. Ink on Argentium Foil, Private Collection

“You didn’t tell me she was pregnant.” Captain Moon kicked a dead birdfish along the wharf. She grabbed you by the collar.

You were this spindrift smear of a person back then, salty and ungentle. You let go of my hand and took Captain Moon’s in one liquid motion. “She’s the one taught me how to sail. You’d be best off hiring her instead of me.” You didn’t mention that we’d spent our last chips on cigarettes to smoke while we trawled the wharf for work or that we had nowhere to sleep that night.

Captain Moon started to say something, but a wave ate up her words. One of her crew shouted, “C’mon. She pops the kid out, it’s no different than somebody getting the shits.”

I blushed at the thought. I wasn’t that far along. If I gave birth on the ship, it would be in a miscarriage.

“Fine. You two idiots can share a mattress,” said Captain Moon.

You still held onto her.

I put my hand to your cheek. The lines where my rings used to grow wept blood at your nearness. You turned to kiss it away.

There was one last swig of words from the captain. “And they’re magic!” She put her foot down on the birdfish. I smelled blood besides my own.

Anyway, I love you. I wanted you to remember.

2. Ink on Argentium Foil, Musée Terranoster

The Surfeit rode high on the milk-green sea. Surf stung my ring lines. I could have worn gloves, but I’d gotten used to the pain and the way of wringing the swab out over my bare wrist.

I wouldn’t sail if I minded deck child work. It didn’t matter that Captain Moon wouldn’t let me do much else.

Besides, past the taffrail waited the whole world, the calm of the grey horizon that covers all the oceans. In the salty, electric air I imagined myself surrounded by magic like I had been in the Orb where I was born.

I leaned on the swab, watched waves shatter along our wake.

The crewman who had shouted me aboard patted my shoulders as he passed. “Easy there…” He frowned, tongue slipping into the corner of his mouth. “What’s your go-by, sailor?”

“Velveteen,” I answered.

“Now that’s a sky name if ever I heard one. Dandelion here, but I got that from a magic somebody back in the day.” He sighed, shaking himself out. “Weird business, magic. Gives me the piss shakes, it does.” One careless touch of my hair and he pulled himself away. “No offence to you or your boy-thing.”

“He’s my husband.”

“Like anybody gets married down here.”

“We did,” I said and I […]

3. Ink on Argentium Foil, Musée Terranoster

I should have known by the way the ship twisted on the water that it carried a bell jar. I came across it in the hold, lashed in a chalk circle away from the stores.

I crept over the marks. My ring lines welled and my heartbeat tumbled.

The shell of it towered twice my height. Magic swirled inside, sometimes silvery, sometimes sunshine golden. It tasted after-storm fresh to my nerves as I laid my hand to the glass.

Our child did somersaults at the tickling thrum. I wondered if whoever harvested this magic had pulled it from a broken Orb, from the sea, from dead bodies. I wondered myself back to the last of the cigarettes.

I smoked because I wanted a small baby since she was my first. Thank you for understanding, for kissing me that night after you asked me for a drag and there weren’t any left.

4. Ink on Plasticized Paper, Nirian Metropolitan Collection

We sat together in the saloon. You plucked a strand of my hair, threading it onto the crystal needle you kept in your shirt. Rubbing your fingers together gathered a glint of solid magic between the tips. You passed it onto the thread before starting another.

Captain Moon joined us at the table. Mami the steward and a few of her galley children leaned over.

“Never seen anybody do it that way before,” one of them said.

“It takes a while,” you answered. “I have to make one bead at a time and smaller is better. I can get down to twenty-four aught if I’m alone.”

“Oh. Ah…” Mami slid away. Captain Moon pulled her back.

You beckoned them closer again, your ring lines shining damp in the lamplight. “Stay. You should know. It’s peyote stitch for stability and ndebele for movement.”

“What are you even saying?”

“Those are stitches. I’ll show you.” Before you took another pull of the magic our child and I wore, Mami opened one of the cupboards under the bench. She retrieved a flask of silver liquor that the captain shoved your way.

You drank. The band you were weaving hovered in mid-air as you let it go.

5. Ink on Tarpaulin, Private Collection

Dandelion and I spent our dog watch together chasing rainwater off of the deck. The light on the prow of the Surfeit jittered against the pelting darkness.

“Don’t you ever use your magic?” he asked.

“Mine is different.” I pushed closer to him so he could hear what I asked next. “Do you know where the magic in the hold came from?”

“I don’t ask stuff like that.”

“You just asked me something exactly like that.”

“All I know is where it’s going and that’s all I care to know.” He must have realized at some point that I smoked. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his slicker and dangled it in front of my face.

I didn’t try to take it. I knew he’d only pull it away. We watched each other across the acetylene glow of the night until the waves rocked us together. Then I kissed him, hard as I could. The cigarettes toppled into my waiting palm.

That was where I got the ones I offered you. We shared one, doing our best to make it last. I think you caught Dandelion’s tartness on my lips, the way you smiled after that first kiss.

“Everybody probably thinks the world is over and so what,” you said.

We lay awake for a long while, talking about what could possibly be left.

6. Ink on Plasticized Paper, Nirian Metropolitan Collection

The Surfeit sailed below a hole in the sky. Blue showered through the break in the clouds.

I hadn’t felt sunshine like that in so long. I stood on the prow, my clothes open to the air and you beside me.

The rest of the crew lapsed into quiet behind us. That hole in the sky, it was empty. There should have been an Orb suspended there and parting the air currents, should have been a small moon’s gravity peaking the waves around us.

You and I remembered. Orbs fall. Skies vault. Our child slept inside of me just the same.

A small island floated like another dead birdfish underneath where the Orb should have been. It was spangled with ivory wreckage.

7. Ink on Cotton Fabric, Nirian Metropolitan Collection

Towers of Orb shards creaked in the wind. Vines had grown over them once, but they had withered so thin that I couldn’t tell them from the cracks in the surface unless I put my fingers to them.

Half of the Orb sprawled in the centre. It was a small one, more an asteroid than a moon. Ash stains covered the marks in the hole blasted out of the side.

Its gates lolled open. We crossed them, and inside a forest rioted to life, tropical and vibrant. Plants choked each other along the crystal pathway and the sky spilled down dazzling hot.

It was so quiet there, but it kept this heavy waiting to it, like an empty theatre.

“This place,” said Mami, “it fell decades ago, didn’t it?”

“But then where did the order for all that magic come from?” Dandelion ran his hand over the outline of one of the bromeliads beside the path, careful not to touch. He looked our way across the living, gagging, breathing things.

Captain Moon snatched our last cigarette. She marched to the well in the heart of the Orb. Finding it empty of anything but ferns, she screamed.

8. Ink on Plasticized Paper, Musée Terranoster

[…] metagraph of a love song and the sailors danced on the beach. We tried for a while, but the song played over and over. One of the crew wept in their friend’s arms.

The captain and the steward argued about dinner. The captain wanted to serve everything the galley could manage. The steward said she didn’t dare. That came to blows before one of the galley kids shoved himself and Captain Moon into the water.

She sent him off watch without supper, which was toast and meat with flowers over a campfire.

I said about the can open in my hand, “This has been dead for years.”

You nodded, licking your fingers and then mine with tenderness better slipped through a kiss or […]

[…] strands of my hair. With it, you walked barefoot into the surf.

You wove, pulling magic from the forest in the Orb. Droplets tumbled down your fingers. You drew them one by one onto the starlit thread, your whole body glowing as the tide skimmed and the metagraph ran out of power.

Mami approached you out of the whispers of the others. “How much do those things sell for?” she asked, offering a cup of silver liquor.

“I’ve never sold one. They’re not supposed to be for that, but…here we are.”

The crew’s hush turned to applause.

9. Ink on Tin, Eidel Collection

You didn’t make it to bed until the campfire went out. Then you woke me to take me in your arms. I went as willingly as the magic to your beadwork.

I think I’m the only one who’s ever felt your inspiration in your nearness. I felt with you for a few long moments that night and after we’d finished, we lay together in the comfort of darkness and damp sheets.

As the night watch whispered above us, I lingered on your skin with my teeth, tasting the last of the magic and sweat between us. You laughed. The fuzz on your belly tickled my cheek.

“I love you,” I said.

10. Ink on Cotton Fabric, Eidel Collection

I’d never seen you work such a long band of peyote. A wingspan of stitches streamed through your hands, riding a breeze I felt in the space beneath my skin.

I swayed through the ripples. You switched to scallops and you smiled at me across the twisting glint.

Scallops are for […] love, waste and the things a heart sings out […] Back in the Topaz Orb, I used to wear cloaks of them. I’m not sure you ever saw me that way. If you did, I don’t remember, and I’m sorry, I […]

You stopped to kiss me.

Out in the waiting crew, Mami whistled. “Knock it off, you lovebirds. I wanna go back.”

“If I kiss Velveteen,” you said, “I get a swig of her magic. Do you want me to work faster or not?”

“Faster!” sang the whole shore.

Except for Dandelion. He called back, “You’re surrounded by the stuff already! Why do you need more?”

You pulled the needle off of your thread and brought the magic to him. “Because her magic feels like this.”

His first touch slipped shyly across the beads. Tears leaked down his face and splashed off in the surf.

11. Ink on Rag Paper, Nirian Metropolitan Collection

I cut my hair. Not that you ever plucked it ungently. What pleasure it was to feel the tenderness in the way you chose each strand.

But I couldn’t ask you to wait, not when you were so lost in your stitches, so I chose to give you everything you needed.

I felt impossibly light, cool besides, for the first time since I’d gotten pregnant. I tied the strands with a ribbon from my pack, a very old silk one. Something that came from the Earth, unlike myself.

As I waited for you, I rested beside the bell jar. It seemed strangely liquid against me. I thought it might be my own lightness or our child squirming against my stomach.

Then a few strands of my hair caught alight, shimmering bright blue. The magic spiralled and gathered. I made out an impression of a single eye glancing over my shoulder.

“It’s so my husband can weave,” I told it.

I don’t think it understood, not then, not the way it leaned against the barrier, fluttered and turned over.

Your footsteps followed and I knew they were yours from the surf cadence carried in your movements. I ran to meet you on the deck above and I lost a lock.

12. Ink on Silk Fabric, Private Collection

“Just in case that one doesn’t sell?” You blundered breathless through the words.

Captain Moon nodded. She patted your collar before she stepped off through the drift of silver beadwork suspended around the three of us. “Your boy-thing gets it,” she said. “Just pretend you do too.”

You had fashioned bouquets of stitches pulled together, the sizes of the beads changing so that bubbles formed. In the rope’s shadow, the sound of slow summer storms filled me.

I left you to the rain shower you’d woven, at least for a while.

Since the ship had plenty of meat, I brought you a whole can for lunch. Seeing me standing there, you gave me this pale, dazed look. I held the spoon out. You ate. It took a few bites to lure you out of your tangle of threads.

We spent a quarter hour in the shade before you nuzzled my neck, before you left again. The metaphone played and you worked faster than before, laughing when the sailors hollered your name.

You didn’t realize until later that you had one of the flowers from the tinned meat stuck in your teeth.

13. Ink on Tin, Musée Terranoster

A tension strained over the island. Sailors coupled on the sunwarm Orb shards and gambled for biscuits. I brought you water and the last of the silver liquor.

After, I wandered the forest myself, watching flowers bud and bloom and fade. I saw whole orchestras of them come and go in one afternoon, between moments with you.

Later in the day as the heat settled in, I stretched out in the hold and I told the magic, “It’s strange I’m the only one down here.” It rippled fish scales to the crown of the bell jar. So I tried, “Where did you come from?”

It went so still beside me. I patted the glass, wondering if my question had offended it somehow.

In the middle of this, I thought about Dandelion. I hadn’t heard much from him the past few days. We’d been on different watches.

When I went looking for him, I found him in the arms of one of the ordinary seawomen.

“You cut your hair,” he said.

I shrugged. “It’s cooler this way. So’s the hold, you know.”

The woman pulled him after me. They nested in one another’s arms beneath the restraints for the bell jar. Their touches wandered my way after a while. They ended up stroking my belly at first and then […]

I rested in the thrill of other bodies […]

You called my name before returning […] my arms […]

I […]

14. Ink on Hemp Paper, Private Collection

The colour went out of your skin, down to the tips of your fingers. Even your eyes seemed dimmer. I ran my lips along your lashes, searching for magic, and I found so much that I almost couldn’t recognize your flavour.

Wet hand still on your needle, you draped your arms around me. The stitches you were working circled me, and I tasted sweet wine. “I’m alright. I don’t mind. I haven’t gotten to do this much since we left.”

“You look tired,” I said.

You put your hand to my lips and you pulled the tiniest bead from my skin, a twenty-four aught. You didn’t use it, but pressed it into my hand.

“I am, but that’s part of being magic sometimes, isn’t it?”

As Mami and the captain passed, I asked Mami if she thought this might be true. She indulged me and I led her to you.

I motioned against her as if it was my magic that would let me take a bead from her lips. It never happened, but both of you laughed and that, that was fine.

15. Multicolour Ink and Gilt on Vellum, Eidel Collection

Later in the afternoon, you joined us in the hold. It was only for a short while, but I thought I saw your lips turn pinker.

We tangled together with the others for all the rest of the watch before you drew down against me and we simply rested, close and breathing each other’s breath.

When Captain Moon caught us writhing by the magic, she shed her coat. Underneath, her clothes were sweaty and old. She knelt among her crew and she said, “It won’t be long. You can play like dumb kids if you want, but you know there’s nothing here unless we make it.”

They nodded.

She caught one hand in your hair, tried to put the other in mine but I didn’t have enough for her to grab. “If you’re part of my crew, then my crew is your world and the whole world’s waiting on you.”

You nodded. You kissed me once more. And you left with her, carrying your clothes.

*

It’s first watch now. I’m waiting by the magic in the hold. I don’t know what for, but I know you’re not asleep yet.

I’d be alone with our child if it wasn’t for the magic keeping me awake.

Ah, I think it may be trying to play a lullaby. It’s strange, I can’t really hear it, but I know it’s there and it goes

[…]

[The so-called Eidelian Lacuna. Eidel supposed that the author transcribed the ‘music’ that Velveteen ‘heard’ based on marks along the edge of the manuscript.]

16. Ink on Hemp Paper, Medina Cloister

I saw you last night, somewhere past the seafoam rising over the Surfeit’s flanks.

Two shadows, not more than crescents in the moonlight, strode over the beach. One moved like a suspended droplet of the sea and I knew you, I knew you.

I followed you, holding my night clothes tight to my stomach, as if the pull of the sea I carried might stir the night flowers awake around me.

Closer over the dew-wet crystal path, Captain Moon led you into the forest. “We need you to do this,” she said.

“I can. It’s no problem,” you told her.

“The alternative is we go back empty-handed, you know. It’s like, magic only means stuff when it makes people feel things.”

“Really, it’s fine.” You shrugged. “Velveteen’s just restless. She’s got a whole other world inside her.”

So we were thinking the same thing that shred of the night.

“You didn’t say worried? You people are so weird.”

You spent a few more joking words about what you’d be making tomorrow night. Your path circled back towards the shore. Captain Moon held you by your collar rather than issue you one more reminder. Then she left you.

You told the moon (and me), “It’s really fine.”

But you retched silver and plasma into the leaves before you went back to the ship.

I saw you.

I’m sorry.

I can’t.

I love you so much.

I don’t even know what I wouldn’t give up to keep you.

17. Ink and Bloodstains (?) on Cotton, Nirian Metropolitan Collection

Before dawn blushed, I went to Captain Moon. I offered her my hands and my welling ring marks. She wouldn’t take them.

We moved across the island, deep into the vibrato of all the living things. Even breathing tasted green and heady in the heart of the Orb.

“Look,” she said and she spit into the scintillating jungle. “I have to make sure everyone gets something out of this.”

“That makes sense,” I answered. “But you aren’t us.”

“I’m not magic.”

She stood at the head of a glistening, empty well and she held me in her gaze. “This world’s not going to last. Everybody gets theirs and goes home. It’s fine.” She sighed.

I thought of kissing her, there in the flush of flowers around us. Instead, I asked her, “What if this world is dying because people believe it’s dying?”

18. Ink on Sheet Metal, Composition Indeterminant, Musée Terranoster

[Fragment 18 has been inserted here based on the Terranoster reconstruction. Eidel contended it was properly Fragment 0. Other historians have marked it α or *.]

Even the empty sea seemed so alive from my impossible distance.

I waited at that gate of the Topaz Orb, losing magic to the outside air as if I’d slit a vein. I waited to tear myself away, to see if your shadow would shift before mine.

It never did. There was only the breath of the ocean and the sky, you and I.

I said, “I want to be there. I want to, what’s the word, sail. Like people used to.”

You said, “I want to come with you. Is that alright?” You held your hand out to me.

It was the first time I saw you smile. It put light and gentle weight through my blood.

I didn’t even know your name as I slid my fingers against yours. “What will we do down there? The magic is so thin.”

“Two of us will make it thicker.”

We nodded and we knew. We were enough, there as we cut our rings off for what we thought would be the only time.

19. Ink on Cotton Fabric, Private Collection

Captain Moon’s love for her crew had crossed my love for you at odd angles. That was all it was, the instant where I put my hands to her and I shoved.

It took hours, pains, flights out of myself. It took time enough to make my child curl up against my insides in uneasy slumber, but I used my magic.

Come evening, I returned to the Surfeit, my arms wrapped tight around the tatters of my skirt.

As the crew approached, I offered them, “She fell. The last thing she said before she died was that she wanted you to be happy.”

I showed them the heart. It was the most I could salvage of Captain Moon, a fire of facets crystallized out of her dying desires.

Her crew could not help but caress it. They spoke to it as they had to her, called her name. They told her they were going home and they thanked her until some of them howled with delight in the same breaths they begged to hold her one more time.

You waited on the gangplank. You asked Mami to tell you what the magic looked like and all she knew to say was ‘diamonds.’ As she doffed her hat she wept, leading you to me.

With the remains of Captain Moon clasped between us, we joined her in that.

20. Ink on Cotton Fabric, Musée Terranoster

I did one more thing before the Surfeit set sail.

I lied to Dandelion again.

The first time—we weren’t ever married.

The second—“You’re going to waste time if you carry the bell jar back. It’s fragile and awkward.”

The voyage would be easier.

If he brought the thing ashore.

And left it.

21. Ink on Rag Paper, Eidel Collection

As the crew readied the ship, I slipped away, hurrying through sunshine and stones to the place where they had abandoned the bell jar.

The forest had already grown over its edges. I placed the twenty-four aught you had given me against it. In that moment the bead cut and the glass parted before me.

I took all of the bell jar’s magic. It moved like water, fractured like crystal, flowed and […] of the island.

I spun through it only to find […] you […] my shadows.

“You shouldn’t be out of bed,” I said.

“I wanted to see.” You staggered into my embrace. I moved to catch you even though spindrift is so hard to hold. In that echo of the magic between us, I glimpsed through all of the little things I cherish about you. Your smile and the cadence of your heart. Your […]

[…] kissed like […]

The magic twined up my legs. One pin-prick of fear followed since there was so much of it, but as it wriggled inside of me all I felt was a luminous, soaring joy. Our child thrummed with the same delight there as you placed your hands on my belly to feel the kicks.

The magic went by your mouth. Colour […]

Then everything rushed towards the naked sky and we stood alone once more.

We looked down when it was over and we realized our rings had grown back.

I don’t know where that magic came from, but we set it free and that, that was our wedding, I think.

22. Ink on Cotton Fabric, Private Collection

The voyage back passed hot and long and gleaming with storms. One member of the crew pretended captain each watch, watch after watch, job after job. We played the metagraph sometimes at sunset as the island with the broken Orb receded into our pasts.

Mami told me to climb the rigging if I wanted. I hung there in the glorious softness of the sea-wet air before making my way down to the tangle of lines she had brought us to wind.

“Are you two really married?” she muttered as we began to work.

I know that I answered Dandelion when he asked me much the same, but waiting there with her with the whole world speeding around us, it was all I could do to blush, to look away, to know in and of myself what was true.

Anyway, I thought you’d think it was funny. And I love you.

23. Ink on Polymer Sheeting, Eidel Collection

The heart sold to someone from another Orb. You and I stayed out of the meeting, choosing to keep our fallen selves private from eyes we might know, but I heard shouting and laughter and finally cheering.

We’d already bought cigarettes from the man who sold us the last pack. They were dry and bitter, but they did well enough.

When Dandelion gave us our share of the chips, he shorted us a few dozen, but it was still more money than either of us had seen in years down here in the throes of this planet.

“So,” he said, “that’s it. Mate payment for the both of you. I think it makes sense.”

As he pulled away, we each hurried after to kiss him. He let you in first, running his tongue over your lips and your rings. When he held me, he caressed my stomach and then tasted so long. Then, there were more cigarettes pushed into my hand, three in an old parchment pack left over from sometime when the world was young.

He walked away.

The three of our family headed to the gentle rot of the beach and we watched the day burn itself out. I plucked out two strands of your hair, weaving them together. You spun twenty-four aughts out of the ocean.

24. Ink on Parchment, Nirian Metropolitan Collection

You murmured against me while we tried to sleep. I guessed you were sore from trying to remember how to walk on land again. I was.

Around dawn you reached for the silver liquor on the nightstand. You drank, then sat there toying with the flask until I coaxed you back to bed.

This time, I tasted the magic and you as you breathed and your skin washed against my lips. Traces of metal fire on your hand where we cut your rings away again last night flashed.

You yawned, looking at me across an ocean of tattered blue sheets.

I whispered, “Let my magic tell you something crazy.”

You reached out.

I reached back.

“I want to go back to the broken Orb and have the baby there.”

Our whole existence, all of our magic, tided at the thought. You didn’t have to tell me yes. We were and we slipped together even though we both still wore bruises from our memories of the sea and of elsewhere.

25. “Ivory Island Fragment”: Organic Matter on Crystal Sheeting, Authenticity Disputed, Eidel Collection

When she’s born, our daughter is covered in magic instead of vernix. She cries. So do you. The broken dome chimes and I hear birdfish singing in the distance.

*

Issue 18 (Fall 2018)

Story copyright © 2018 by M. Raoulee

Artwork copyright © 2018 by Sharon J. Gochenour

M. Raoulee is a queer author and artist currently roaming with a pack of coyotes somewhere in Arizona. You may remember her from Broken Metropolis, Robot Dinosaurs!, or other fine venues that have chosen to drag her out of the desert. She has never set an unsatisfactory draft on fire and is not currently drinking a martini.

Sharon J. Gochenour is a writer and illustrator who has gone many places and done many things.

 

 

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This entry was posted on March 14, 2019 by in Stories.
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