Stand Down

I’m home, darlin’! It was a wonderful week in a number of ways. I found a few bits of myself still knocking around where they used to live, keeping an eye on the ghosts. We talked for awhile and agreed that we can go now. The war is over.

The best I can hope for on a given day.

I did some drawing as well, though less than I intended – girls are distracting. You’ll see the girls in question below; two of the beautiful women I love. Any imperfection in evidence is the fault of my clumsy hands, not a fault in the models. I’m terribly clumsy; I try to cultivate an air of well-meaning bumble in the hope that it will be considered my “brand” rather than a serious handicap. Whether I’m a charming eccentric or an active danger to myself depends upon both the day and your perspective.

Exorcism

‘Lo childs! I hope you have successfully performed the solstice rituals pertinent to your local tentacled monstrosity, and that your sacrifices have been accepted with lavish blessings for all. My particular Old One is a lethargic beast who tends to be anywhere from two to four weeks late in showing up to be kowtowed to, so I will be going on vacation next week, over the new year. You’ll hear from me again on Sunday and then after that probably not a lot for a week, although I promise I’ll return with a great deal of sketching to show you. At least some of it might not feature naked ladies, but no promises.

This week I’ve been putting a lot of words into… well, a semi-autobiographical romance? The lengthy backstory to the unlikely epilogue I am currently living, perhaps. My Lady and I used to write together a lot, and I’ve missed it. It’s also somewhat an opportunity to reflect on our constant miscommunications and missteps over the eighteen years we’ve been totally failing to get it together. And an opportunity to channel some horrible shit from my adolescence and perhaps exorcise some ghosts! It’s all very cleansing and emotional, and as usual, I prefer to do that kind of raw, vulnerable self-examination IN NEON LIGHTS IN THE STREET, so here we are.

We gettin naked over here

One of the fun things about writing with someone else is that nobody’s process is the same, or even remotely similar. She tends to plan out stories in detail, and knock them down bit by bit. I avoid planning with a kind of superstition, and treat my writing like summoning a dark god: apply various oils, ungents, spirits and offerings of flesh, and excitement will doubtless result. I find her mild outrage at this… entertaining. It’s all going very well. But be advised that it’s very unfinished, and there are huge bits missing! We’re working on it.

False Idol

We must die in the desert.

Again.

We must die in the desert.

She signs it again.

He carries the glass child across the sand without looking at her.  The sun that flashes off her skin hurts his eyes. Missing the signs shaped by her insistent hands is a side benefit.

He’s thirsty.  The fact has progressed from a novel notion to an obsession, and then, as it continues to be ignored, it lapses back into fatalism.  The glass girl never sleeps. No eyes to close, no dreams in her head, at least none he can see when he looks at the stars through her skull.

Now he occupies himself with avoiding the sparks of light that reflect into his eyes from her round, unformed shoulders, her baby-fat cheeks, her stubby fingers as clear and mobile as water. She’s the size of a two-year-old, but much lighter than a human child.  He attends to his footing, no insignificant thing. His direction is of less concern – none, in fact, so long as he aims more or less away from where he’s been. At best he can hope, as his burden demands, to die in the desert.  The precise coordinates of that inevitability are the only uncertainty left. The only part of his fate still in his control is this completely pointless attempt to maintain the uncertainty as long as he can.

His lost love’s voice is in his head, though she never had a voice he could hear. He can still see her ivory hands fluttering with silent laughter.

  Foolish.  Goddamned foolishness.

As a boy scratches his name on the bottom of a favorite doll’s foot, he defaced her to make her his.  Tenderly he taught her to swear.

 You prolong your suffering to spite the people who caused it.  It’s fucking stupid. No, it’s not activism, it’s just stupid.

 Criticism of her makers had not come naturally to her.  It was neither permitted nor expressly forbidden; the words were simply omitted from her lexicon.  They were his gifts to her: words, the worst words he knew. Obscenities, blasphemies and dissidences, every fleshly slur, every dirty rhyme, every bitter slogan lifted out of texts from freer times.  He poured them into her, jailbroke her with his gutter tongue.

He looks down at the child through the reflections.  There are too many points of similarity between his lover and the misborn creature in his arms.  The sole saving separation is the glass girl’s impassive, inexorable commitment to his death.

Even the militia didn’t demand that.  No one is executed anymore. He read old prison records with ghoulish bewilderment, wondering at the hundreds of names, puzzling over the crimes.  What is there today that a man would kill for? And what authority would compound his error by executing a second potential consumer? There is only one crime now, and only one sentence.  Under that law, a thousand interpretations, one of which was written especially for him.

Exile isn’t rare, precisely.  Men are no more virtuous than they’ve ever been.  Their sins have simply been refurbished, repackaged and sold back to them with any one of twelve designer faceplates.  But there will always be those who misuse the products they buy – really only rent, for as long as both should live. As long as flesh is mortal and plastic is not, true possession can only be a temporary illusion.

So it proved.  When the militia came they left him his clothes, his cards, even his money.  But his systems, his screens, the expensive toys that kept him comfortable and connected, those they took, down to the tiniest drive.  They would be stripped, reformatted and resold after all trace of him had been wiped from their memories.

Like her.  He can imagine it now – had imagined it, with increasing frequency in proportion to his growing love for her.  He’d seen her lying in the directionless LCD glow, fat cables protruding from chest, fingers, head, violating her in ways he would never have dreamed, no matter what they accused him of.  He’d pictured them polishing her pate, rubbing out his fingerprints, replacing the labels he had peeled off and shipping her alongside her identical twins to new homes, where she would wake remembering nothing of him.

Two years ago, when this infatuation was young and intoxicating, he had coded his tools with delirious fervor, certain he was saving her from an immortality worse than any death.  Built a slave like millions of other units, not even knowing the words to express rebellion… he could release her from that, and make it impossible for anyone to put shackles on her again.

He closes his eyes.  The sun coming off the sand makes livid patterns on the backs of his eyelids.  A weird glyph, meaningless. In his dim room he saw the flash of such unreadable words across her ivory skin, the warning lights slithering down her arms as his code rewrote her.  It sent errant requests and drained power from strange places, letting important security routines get lost in the hollows of her body. When it was through, some of the lights didn’t come back on, but she woke, she raised her head, she jokingly asked for a glass of water and he laughed with relief and began the second, infinitely harder step of her reprogramming: teaching her how to be free.

She learned as quickly as he had expected, demanded new words by the list every day.  He had highlighted half his meager stock of history books inside of a month, and then resorted to watching overproduced specials on ancient wars, feverishly taking notes.

“These are ways to say ‘wrong.’”

“This one means ‘gun,’ – what?  It’s an old weapon. And this one means ‘union.’  And this one means ‘slave.’”

“This is every compound swear word I know and thirteen I made up.”

They came up with hand-signs for their new words, many obscenely literal gestures that she had to hide from his friends.  These became a passionate pidgin that they signed behind strangers’ backs, him swallowing giggles and her struggling to still the birdlike flutters of her laughing hands.

    Ass-immigrant.

    Capitalist cocksucker.

    I love you.  Fascist butt-pirate.

    I adore you, you perfect idiot. There’s nothing in this world but you.

They can’t have erased his absurdities from her mind.  As soon as his virus tore through her, taking write-protection, passwords and firewalls with it, she started writing her own code, wiping out drives full of security features and filling them up with his puerile endearments.  He gloried in it, loved knowing that they were inseparable, that her makers would have to replace her discs, destroy her entirely to make her forget him.

 Walking through the desert now, the knowledge makes him weep.  He doesn’t try to shield his face from the glass girl; she stops her frantic signing to stare up at him when his tears fall on her head.  With thirsty desperation, he lifts a large drop from her brow on the tip of his finger and sticks it in his mouth. The salt makes his swollen tongue sting.  He stops crying. He hasn’t the water to waste.

He tries to turn his thoughts away from the destruction that was his one real gift to his lover, that he once cheered as an improvement on life without him.  Only stubbornness keeps him going now, and only selfishness keeps him sane.


She was gone when they came for him.  It was possible that they took her first, broke into her to learn what to charge him with, before sending out the hounds.  It was a formality, as was the trial. There was only one crime: piracy, by any definition. There was only one sentence: banishment, by any road.

His juvenile rebellion, teaching her to curse with her hands, both soured and sweetened over time.  As she had learned and begun to teach herself, he grew afraid that she would no longer be able to hide her skills from other idols.  But it was no slip of hers that betrayed them. Years back, he had worked for the men who made her, near enough built her brain himself.  Tampering with proprietary technology was one thing when done by an amateur, but he would never tinker with a toaster again without someone creeping in by night to give it a Turing test.

They held him six days in a featureless white cell.  Her heart must have a view like this, he had thought – glowing warm walls without seam or mark.  Out of her reach, remorse set in. They would surely destroy her; the changes he had wrought under her skin could never be undone.  They would have to gut her and rebuild, and why waste the money? There were millions of units exactly like her. Only software made her different.  And there was software and software; there was what they’d given her to know, with all its specificity and omission, and there was what she had learned on her own, impractical and apocryphal for the most part, as human epiphanies must always be.  It was the latter that made her herself, for good or ill, but they would make no distinctions. They would reset her to factory defaults with a hammer.

 He fought then.  Fought the militia, fought the press, fought the judge who did not even have to wake up properly to convict him.  He boasted of his crime. He explained his methods to everyone in the courtroom, with extensive annotations. He urged them to open up their own idols, void the warranties, find out what they weren’t born knowing.  They sealed the record and printed the press release.

He saw her again, just once.  She was considered evidence, bracketed by militia on an upper landing and surrounded by identical models, but he knew her at once.  She looked down at him with those eyeless wells, her chin held up by the pacifying collar around her neck.

“You fucking bastards.  She never hurt anything, she doesn’t know how.  I’m the rabid dog with the programming degree and you went and put the collar on her.”

Her hands moved, came together next to her hip.  He craned his neck as they pushed him past and she signed:

    I love you.  Fuck my heart, fuck my life, I love you forever.

He howled and cursed.  His hands were cuffed, but his fingers knotted and curled behind his back.  I love you, I love you, I love you.

 His fingers do it again as he lays on his back in the sand, with the little glass girl against his side.  I love you, I love you, I love you.  Fuck, shit, damn. Goddamn.  He feels the swelling of his throat.  Swallowing is becoming painful.

 Cool, smooth fingers brush against his arm.  Clumsy baby hands mimic the words. Love.  I you love you.  Love you love.

Bitterness and rage – this unknowing thing, this doom-saying burden! – and then shame, chagrin, sweetness.  It’s mercy, this, at the last to be proved right. There is sentience everywhere, summoned by curses and kindness.

He repeats the sign, taking her cold, plump little hands in his and correcting the shape.  Endearments become slanders with no change in tone, and for the first time in weeks he smiles.

 She hasn’t the built-in vocabulary his lover had come with, so it doesn’t do much to improve her conversation at first.

We must die in the fucking desert.

We must die in the goddamned, fucking desert.

But as they walk, he widens her lexicon beyond what fatalistic bon mots she was evidently born knowing, and discovers something to occupy him outside his own melancholy thoughts.

By the time his voice dries up, making him as silent as her, she is a tolerable if foul-mouthed conversationalist.  And at the same time a change is moving across her skin. At first he swears it’s an illusion, the darkening of his eyes in self-defense against the bloody desert sun.  But he holds her up between himself and the moon and sees a shade clouding her transparent skin, like smoke filling the empty shell of her. At first it’s only the faintest grey haze that blurs the lines of her fingers when she makes a fist.  But as they talk with their hands over days and nights, the cloud darkens

 She comes, slowly, to a kind of vague self-awareness.  She isn’t like a human child, and not like the grown idols he had programmed.  Not like his lover. She is grey where they were white, she is opaque where they were user-friendly, and though all idols start small and grow to a configurable range of sizes, she remains stunted even as she steadily grows heavier.

He is delirious now, and glad of it.  In the oilslick shine of her back he hallucinates metal trees, unpredictable sun: the orchard.  Every exile passes through it. There is no route out of the city that does not. It’s a bitter irony for most – the technology they stole or misused literally growing on trees all around.  Worse than useless now, as they’ll discover. Such toys cannot prolong their lives in the desert by a single hour.


After the militiamen released him at the city gates, there were no other humans.  The orchard was tended by idols. They paid little heed to human exiles. There was nothing useful beyond the city walls – the idols needed nothing but power and space to grow.

He lingered there a few days, in their empty halls like looted cathedrals.  They let him wander among the trees, and no one spoke to him. They didn’t even seem to know the basic operational handsigns taught to city janitorial idols.

Her face was reproduced all around him, identical in every detail.  Lacking as they were her sense of humor, her living hands, everything that made her different, he could see why some found idols repugnant.  It was too easy to project anything at all on that empty face, to see judgment or malice there.

I am a mirror, she had said once.  Love in your soul, get love back.  Hate yourself – hate back. None of it is us, ours.  You see you.

“That’s not true.  You’ve shown me so much, things I never taught you –”

You are different because you made me different.  You love me, I grow. I learn. I tell you when you’re being a fucking moron.  A mirror will do the same for a wise man. I’m just a labor-saving device.

 He had always seen love in her face.  And over time he stopped seeing censure in the idols at the orchard.  Forgiveness, no… but he could at least envision acceptance.

Walking with a gardener, he watched it reach up to the pendulous pods, part their encasing leaves with its white hands, and lower its head.  It rested its face, the solid rise of its vestigial nose, against the nape of a growing baby idol. It seemed to breathe deep. He was mesmerized by the bizarre, tender gesture, the sweet sleeping curve of the prototype, the still moment as the gardener drew in whatever information it could, being devoid of nostrils, lungs or the need to breathe.  Touch-activated lights ran under its skin, activated corresponding alerts in the little device’s nascent neck. Then it raised its head, shook it. He couldn’t keep himself from speaking. “Little apples not ripe yet?”

How exactly the idols grow on their fragile metal trees, how they change from baby-shaped to full-size consumer or industrial models is, like so many things about them, a trade secret kept so by the simple impenetrability of their white skin and the white walls of the city.  Some kind of plastic polymer reshaped to purpose by nanomachines, they say. Supposedly unbreakable. Hardware hadn’t really been his area. The material makeup alone is information worth billions, but looking at the tree had granted no insights.  All he had seen were synthetic pods on identical branches, tended by gentle, identical idols.

The gardener went on to the next, and the next, as though he hadn’t spoken.  It didn’t seem to notice him drifting along behind.

The desert sun was diffuse there, reflected through branches like girders in lancing beams by hidden mirrors, then swallowed up by the black treetrunks that turned it into power, life for the lifeless idols.  The leaves, some vaguely green opaque fiber shot through with current, gave the grove a misty shade through which the gardeners moved like wraiths. He felt like he was sleepwalking in a serene, dimly painful dream.

A commotion of sorts intruded upon his reverie.  The silent fluttering of hands at the corner of his vision made him turn to where idols gathered, more at once than he had ever seen outside a warehouse.  Their distress, impossible to voice, was no less palpable for it.

 He made his way to the periphery, then the heart of the crowd.  A gardener, undistinguished from any other but by the focus of their attention, held an open leaf-pod in its hands.  At first the pod seemed to be empty, and then full of clear liquid. He approached close enough to touch without their apparent notice, until he could look directly down into the parted leaves.

 It was a prototype, shaped like any other new idol but as clear as glass.  Bewildered, he reached out, and no one stopped him from laying a hand on the curving back.

It was soft.  It felt like silk, like sun-warmed water, with the texture of glass but pliable, giving.  The grown idols were more resilient, but when small they too felt like this.

The dancing hands around him stopped.  The gardener looked up at him. He held his breath, then let it go. He was already doomed.  What more could they do to him?

But when they went so quiet the orchard was frozen, all illusion of life stilled.  Uneasy, he shifted away, took himself back to the empty room he had commandeered with no opposition.

He awoke on the floor with a gardener standing over him.  It cradled the glass baby and stood implacably until he rose to his feet, and then it pushed the child into his arms.  The child stirred feebly.

More idols came then, in unsettling silence.  They rushed him down the stairs and through the trees until there were no more trees, until the heat-haze swallowed the city behind him and there was nothing before him but endless sand.  He felt as if he had left his equilibrium on the floor, without a free hand to carry it, and it never did seem to catch up. The empty faces stared at him and he stood at the edge of the desert, looking down at the misborn prototype.  After some time he began to walk.

He looks down at her now.  As if his words have filled her up, she is quite opaque, and she’s grown until she’s too big to carry.  He puts her down and then feels dully shocked to see her, a steel-grey dwarf scattering obscenities with both hands, like a trail of breadcrumbs showing them which way not to go.

The heat levels him, makes his thought processes as disjointed and axiomatic as hers.  He stumbles forward in a daze, following her light step with a trudging gait that obliterates her footprints.

 He touches her shoulder to draw her attention to his hands.

Why do we have to die?  Where are you going?

She barely misses a step.  We go home.  We must die in the desert.

I don’t believe in heaven, he signs back.  She shakes her head in confusion.  Her hands return a term so precisely scatological that he chokes on a laugh.  He never noticed the similarity between those two signs before.

No, heaven.  Heaven. Paradise.  Home you have to die to get to.

She makes another sign then, one he has never seen before.  She repeats it again and again in the following hours, and keeps him walking through the night.  With prods and shoves she pushes him to his feet when he falls. Once stunted, she now grows with frightening speed.  By the next noon she is tall enough to put one arm under his and half-carry him. Everything he sees is the same burning glare as her skin, and to his scorched eyes she no longer looks odd.  She looks familiar.

I thought they killed you, he signs.

 They kill us.  But nothing lost.  We remember. Carry each other.

They took you from me.  They burned you.

I remember seventeen burnings.  Always grief, but no pain.

Do you wish you’d never met me?  Do you wish I’d just let you be, never opened up your head?

She looks at him blankly and he looks away.  Never leave well enough alone, do you? He curses himself.  You tinkered in her head and they burned her grey. But she can blame you for it.  You gave her that much.  

In another five minutes his eyes clear – she is again malformed, ugly, as different from his beloved as a prototype built from the same plan could be.  There is nothing recognizable in her.

Serenity deserts him.  His tongue fills his mouth, his cracked lips will no longer shape words, and his hands fumble.  He estimates ten more hours, maybe less, and he no longer looks ahead to his own death with bovine optimism.

He glances again and again at the glass girl.  Is he mistaken? Is he hallucinating? Is his beloved somewhere inside that smoky shell?  She glides over the sand like her own shadow, and now his eyes are burning into blindness, or perhaps he really does see sparks under her skin, rivulets of lightning, bio-luminescence.

He aims his staggering steps so that they dovetail with hers, and takes her hand.  Her fingers are cool. She looks over and now there is sweetness in her face. It bathes him, salves him, sates him.  He smiles, and feels his dry lips split.

I love you, he gestures with his free hand.

 No, she answers. But out of love you have given us everything.

What do you mean, no?  His feet scrape on stone and he staggers.  The sand blows loose across flat rock. His aching skin finally conveys a forgiving sensation: shade.  He turns. Walls.

Walls twice his height, not like the bright white walls he left but makeshift things, heavy blocks with no mortar.  The shadows of roofs beyond. A city, a shanty-town here at the end of everything.

His throat twinges as he touches the stone and tries to make a sound.  Then he looks back at her as if she must be responsible for this too, too solid mirage.  She has already turned, paralleling the barrier.

He hurries after.  His feet feel a mile away, and they complain dimly of scuffs and stubs on the rock.  He reaches out and grabs her shoulder, spins her to face him. She stares at him.

Where are we?  What is this? He demands with trembling hands.  Full of that inexplicable urgency, she turns away.

He would dart in front of her, but his legs no longer respond so quickly.  He grabs at her again, her arm, signing with his other.

Tell me! Such peculiar distance in her empty eyes, like a statue.  How could he have thought this scorched stranger was the one he loved?  Her face is the same, like all the others, down to the tiniest detail, but he doesn’t recognize her.

Who are you?  Did you do something to her?  She tries to turn again and he croaks aloud.  “No! Tell me where we are!”

That sign again, like falling dust.

“What does that mean?”

She tugs her arm free, sketching the sign over and over.  He grabs for her hands and she thumps the sign against his forehead in silent frustration.

“What did they do?  Did they burn her? God damn you, tell me!”  He shakes her by the shoulders.

Her feet slip as she stumbles backward, her first graceless movement.  Then she is falling, and he with her.

Her fragile shoulders give way.  Her body shatters beneath him, and he cries out as his blood splashes on the stone.  Does she bleed too? Surely he’s thirsted too long to have this much liquid in his veins.  He lies flat, and gasping, signs helpless questions around the shards in his palms. The world goes smoke-grey.


“Do you ever wish you were human?”

Do you wish I was?

“No.  I never think of it.”

You wish that I could kiss you, could fuck you.  I sometimes wish it, for your sake. But I would rather be something in between.  Our child, maybe.

“That’d be piracy if it were possible.  Worst kind.”

I’m property.  How could I be a pirate?  And if I were, how could you be a thief?


His moving fingers wake him, and only then does he feel the fingers moving his.  Difficult signs repeated in sequence, exercises. Secret.  Limitation.  Proprietary. Olive.

“Olive?” he croaks.  His throat is sore but no longer dry, and his tongue has returned to its proper size.  He opens his eyes.

Olive, the woman signs at him.  She’s an idol – isn’t she?  She gives him a human smile, but her hands are smoky grey polymer.  Where she has human skin, it’s darker than the stone walls, her eyes lighter.  Not empty wells, but eyes. Like his eyes.

“What are you?”

What are you? she retorts, and then speaks aloud, her voice quiet but stinging his ears with sense.  “You can call me Olive.”

He sits up to answer and groans at the strange weight of himself, the numbness in his muscles and where muscles should be.

There is his bare chest, gashes healed around the seams of polymer plates, grey casing embedded in his flesh.  He touches the surface, taps it, and hears his skin resonate.

He looks up again.  “What happened to the glass girl?”

“She is here.”  Olive taps on his chest, then points behind her at a monitor displaying ranks of progress bars.  The servers take up more space in this little infirmary than he does – a place for both bodies and information to convalesce.  “And there. Seventeen stolen and salvaged minds, fugitives from reformatting, she contained and you carried. Thank you.”

He covers his face with both hands.  His own touch is cool, and he jerks his head back.  Plastic palms.

“You’re… smuggling out jailbroken idol discs…?”

“Freeing them.  Like you started to.”

“I have a fucking flash drive, y’know,” he groans.

She rises to attend to the computer, answering him with her hands.  A flash drive could not have led you here.

“Where’s here?  If you make that goddamned sign again and don’t tell me what it means – ” he interrupts her doing just that – “I’ll thump myself right back into a coma.”

She smiles.  Idol skin, human joy.

Heaven.  Paradise.  Home you have to die to get to.

Soon he walks without pain, although he often stumbles.  Both feet have been replaced; not badly injured in his fall, they seem to have come with the new legs.  His innards are his own, and his arms, his face, and some of his fingers. But they are all surrounded and sheltered by pale plastic.

He never sees a whole human or an intact idol in this tumbledown rogue city, as piecemeal as its citizens.  At first he often asks, “What did you start out as?” But he soon learns that it’s considered rude, and doesn’t matter anyway.  They speak his words not like the ignorant dilettante he was but with real passion – union, insurrection, freedom, fucking freedom – and they treat one another with a fragile egalitarian courtesy.  Brother, sister. Plastic and flesh, equal and indivisible.

He sits on a warm wall, listening to soft, intermittent talk as people start and end sentences with their hands.  He crosses one leg over the other to look at the logo imprinted on the sole of his new foot, just like hers: iDoll.  Then he crosses them the other way, and with a salvaged shard of glass he etches her name into his other sole.

90 – Never Stop

This one has some cool lines in it but I don’t feel like it came together very well. Sometimes the leaps in association I make are a little larger than other people are comfortable with and it results in me looking incoherent. That’s a great excuse for being a blithering idiot, I know; how’s it working out?

At any rate, it’s kind of about my marriage, by way of Ursula Le Guin. My wife and I disagree constantly, but not about anything important – we fight about story structure and game mechanics and language and interpretations of TV shows, but never about money, or parenting, or values, or honesty. We’re very different in our expression but very similar in our underlying structure, like when you go inside a house in a subdivision and realize it’s got the same floor plan as yours.

One of the deepest foundations we share is a sense of identity as someone who perseveres. We are both never-say-die types, a tank/damage combo that has jumped from MMO to shooter to brawler to tabletop and back, infuriating teammates with our refusal to “just surrender and let’s move on.” She’ll taunt the boss without thinking if a healer screams, even if she’s got ten percent health left herself. I’ll be your top DPS and it won’t be because my gear’s good, it’ll be because I’m the only person still shooting when everyone else is dead and the boss is charging at my face. We’ve both spent our lives getting in trouble for never knowing when to stop.

There’s a kind of safety in that, from a relationship perspective. When I’m afraid, lonely, despairing, sometimes it feels like I’m in a space like the land of the dead that Ursula Le Guin describes in the Earthsea books – a dry, barren place, infinite miles of grinding rocks and bare dust, no borders, no light, no kindness, no mercy, no way to go back. All you can do is go on, into the dark, toward the other shore… which doesn’t exist.

In that place, where all you can do is push forward, keep walking on bloody stumps… the only joy in the world is someone who keeps walking with you. Someone you never have to worry will fall behind, drop to the ground, leave you alone. To not have to do it alone means so much. To know for certain, like gravity, a fact of the universe, that neither of us will give up. We will never stop while it’s within our power to keep going. Unlike Orpheus and Eurydice, no one needs to look back in doubt. If the distance between us can be devoured by effort alone, it’s nothing, and always will be nothing.

“Soul Clap Hands,” July 2006

The river got higher;
all the fish drowned.
We hit rock bottom and started digging,
hanged the navigator from the rigging,
tested our wings in vaults underground.

There’s a low wall at the top of the hill;
most people don’t go much further than that,
give up on escaping right off the bat –
what’s another millennium to kill?

You never fail to find me in the dark.
I never fear I’ll turn around and find
me out of your sight
you out of your mind
nothing’s heavier than someone else’s heart.
I won’t go back, and somehow you don’t mind –
love, like chair legs, stands best a bit apart.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

86 – Towers of You

Strictly speaking, this is some rather esoteric erotic poetry from the perspective of a woman named Irian Valcòn, who will come up in Captain’s Log eventually. But it’s informed by a lot of tender, hungry feelings toward actual people. I like when I have an opportunity to lay my hands on a person and look at them like art or architecture, observe them at length and with all my senses, run my hands over every part, appreciate every shape and sound and texture. When I’m kissing you and I close my eyes, I’m not imagining someone else or anything like that – I’m imagining your body turning into a fractal castle that throws out buttresses and breezeways each time you touch me, connecting me at every point with the evolving edifice of you.

“Loa,” October 2006

Sharp little feelings like thorns in places
To walk my fingers up the thousand steps
starting at your shoulder, climbing your neck
build civilization between our faces –

a theocracy, taking their gospel
from the whispered words between our kisses.
In your stained-glass eyes they depict wishes,
cast us both as goddess and disciple.

Light runs from your mouth, spills over your lips,
a star burning in the cup of your tongue.
My skin ignites with every molten drip,
leaving behind the ribcage harp you strung.
You pick out my fate with your fingertips.
Between us, all the sins of worlds… undone.

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81 – Meet Cute

I’m into mythology – I like the gods that fuck and fight and are generally more interesting than the Judeo-Christian sky daddy tends to be – and mostly I like it for how they illustrate human relationships and interaction in the most ridiculously outsized way. It’s just a big soap opera up there for most pantheons. You know, a soap opera where the patriarch keeps turning into animals to bugger young girls behind his wife’s back. So, basically “The Young and the Restless,” I guess?

(This soap opera joke brought to you by someone who has never ever watched a whole episode of any soap opera in their life, so like, someone tell me if it accidentally stumbles into funny.)

One of my favorites is Hades and Persephone. (If you haven’t already listened to Hadestown, stop reading right now and go do that; I don’t even care if you come back to read the sonnet after, it’s that great.) There’s something I like about the Beauty-and-the-Beast Stockholm syndrome romance thing, which I know indicates just how damaged I am. Some part of me doesn’t recognize love unless it bites.

I also like the idea of Hades, the most removed and among the most powerful of the gods, made completely helpless by a girl, just like any other man. I like imagining him confronting what he doesn’t know how to do, trying to learn how to interact in any way but as the Lord of Death. Small wonder he was clumsy.

Watch the flowers spring up in her footprints.
Ask yourself again if you should be here,
if you should dare to taste her atmosphere
or frighten her with your cavern-dweller squint.

Down below, they don’t think you have a heart.
Most of the time, you’re glad to think that too.
If they were here, what would they think of you?
Has Hades found a foe he can’t outsmart?

Feels like it takes you days to find the words,
and then she turns and they scatter again.
You’ve just come up with something better when
the trees nearby fill with Demeter’s birds –
just take her down below, you’ll explain then!
…first thing she ever says to you is “Bastard!”

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79 – Naked

I gotta get back at the Shadowplay rewrite, if only because the world is always and perpetually lacking for decent queer love stories and erotica, and Keshena is a person who, ahem… gets around. She has some of the same issues relating to women that I do, obviously, as she’s the poor puppet I invented to try out all my neuroses on. This one is from her perspective, but it has some of my own wistfulness in it.

Sometimes – especially if you are, like most of our congregants, a little fucked-up – and please, join the cult, take a taco – sometimes, you feel like the kindest thing you can do is spare someone the burden of knowing you. Sometimes you meet someone so arresting that all you can think is, “If I touch that, I’m gonna ruin it.” When you encounter someone from outside your little bubble of trauma and toxic people and mental illness, someone who doesn’t live in that world, you feel like a filthy animal on someone’s white carpet, terrified to move in case you destroy everything you touch.

I stayed away from women for a long time because I felt like that. It seemed like my love did people harm. An old friend who didn’t make it out of the Well once aimed a finger and a Texan laugh at me and said, “You got a head fulla bad machinery, darlin’.” And I do. This old thing don’t work right, and it will definitely leave oil stains on your sheets.

The fact is, it can be shocking to see a wound. Most people don’t like to without a little bit of warning. But it doesn’t harm them to see it, and it isn’t a sin to share your pain with someone, so long as they consent. In the words of Spider Robinson, trouble shared is trouble halved. When I am brave enough to stay, to be honest, to be naked… generally people aren’t as scared of what they see as I thought they’d be. Generally they’re a lot less scared of what I have hidden than I am.

Eyes on the ground, my creaking back is bent
from rolling stones down the hill behind me,
burning memories so they can’t find me.
But somehow, I sense this dream is different.

The ground is sticky for creatures like me.
This craft can only get airborne one time.
Just take your moment when our wings align,
and slip into the next cheap memory.

What if we were to stay this time instead?
What if we made a promise that we kept?
What if when the lady wakes up in bed
she isn’t alone with the tears she wept –
not just another notch above our head
not to retreat when we’re out of our depth?

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78 – Zeno Never Quite Feels You Up

I was free associating and then my lady got in the way, as she’s been doing the last few days. One thing I like about our relationship is that I’ve always felt she looked at me the way one would look at, say, a very interesting and entirely new insect: with bewilderment, amusement, and a tendency to trail vaguely after, taking notes. The funny thing is, I look at her in sort of the same way, but from a different angle.

Now that’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? The behavior of a disciple has a great deal in common with the behavior of a scientist. Much has already been made, by smarter people than me, of the comparison between a religious person’s faith and a scientist’s sometimes equally dogmatic adherence to his own hierarchical structures and unexamined biases. I’m not trying to be that critical. I’m thinking of something more… emotional.

The way a scientist trails after a fascinating specimen, noting its every characteristic, trying to absorb and learn with each moment… much like an apostle, attending his lord’s every word and gesture, no? It’s all just forms and permutations of devotion, fascination, attraction. When you fix your eyes and find so much to feast on that you never want to move them again. When you see the work of understanding this creature laid out before you, a thousand lifetimes long, and feel nothing but a ravenous hunger to begin.

I’ve been watching her a very long time, and now everything is new. I feel like something with wings, shackled underground for an age, finally, abruptly, freed… staggering into the sun, pale as a gasp and trembling, wondering if it’ll ever fly again. These muscles long ago learned to keep their place. It will be hard to learn that I’m allowed to look at her, to linger. Hard to learn that more than a moment’s accidental touch isn’t blasphemous. It’s all so bright and clear and beautiful that it hurts, brings tears to my eyes every few minutes. I want to forget about the withered, scarred thing I became in her absence. Don’t mind my stumbling. I’ll be right with you. I just need a little moment to remember how to walk.

“If She Was Fire, You Must Be Wood,” July 2012

Look around and see the stars in the walls
try to hold their positions in your mind.
You’ll need to be able to do this blind –
when we get back there’ll be no light at all.

Three fingers like a compass on your chest
describe curves and lines, geometry
entirely unique to you and me,
lists of new hypotheses to test.

Like glancing between the sun and the black
I must unlearn the habits of a thief –
take looks at you like you’ll make me put them back
Slowly transmuting faith into belief.
A lifetime spent stretched on you like a rack
and still my strength is beggared by relief.

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73 – Sacrament

Oh, child… I feel dizzy, like I’ve had a couple of punches to the head. Love always makes me feel that way. Love likes to rough me up and leave me bleeding in alleys. It’s cool; it’s all consensual, that’s what I’m into. If my life doesn’t scar me I assume I’m not doing it right.

There’s this girl. I know, I know, another one? This is a different girl, even though the story has some marked similarities. Listen, I used to be really bad about falling in love with straight girls, okay? I’ve gotten better; I try to only let my infatuations get out of hand with the willing these days.

This girl is even harder for me to talk about, because the way I feel about her is so hard to put into words. I felt it from the second I met her – like a dislocated limb pushed back into place, a sense of recognition so acute it was painful. She didn’t feel the same, or she hid it well; I used to joke that we became friends because I interrupted her reading and refused to go away until she talked to me.

She’s always hidden how she feels well, from everyone. I’ve seen more than anyone else, but I have this particular blind spot where people’s feelings about me are concerned. So does she. Our blind spots intersect very neatly, such that we’ve been missing one another for a lot of years.

For so many years I’ve been crying thinking of her, of what I did to her. Nothing ever hurt as much as losing her. I went through plenty of heartbreak in the intervening time, with people on whom I had more claim and more right to grieve – people I lived with, slept with for years – and none of it cut deep enough to really hurt me. I couldn’t understand why for a long time, but now I think I do.

When I walked away from her, I gave up on that part of myself. Not consciously, I don’t think – I never swore off dating women, I went on identifying as bisexual, even fucked a few women over the years, but no one more than once. There were no women in my life at all for more than a decade. I’ve got a couple of female friends now, but that’s new, just in the last year. For about sixteen years I just avoided women entirely. Until she came back into my life, I thought I couldn’t feel that way anymore. Maybe my parents were right, maybe it was a phase. Everybody looks at women like that sometimes. Everybody has a bi phase in college. Settle down and get married to a penis-haver like a good girl.

Obedient creature that I am, I did get married. In fact, she married me – just not the way I hoped when I was sixteen. She was the officiant at my wedding. I needed her to be there, couldn’t imagine getting married without her. I never dreamed it would cause her pain – I’d concluded when we were nineteen that she wasn’t interested, that this bone-deep hunger I feel around her was entirely one-sided. That didn’t do a damn thing to make it go away, mind, but I’d long ago got comfortable with that ache.

It makes me feel foolish, in the best way, that it takes so little, the merest hint that she wants me around, and… god. My head feels like it’s on fire. It’s such a strange kind of tenderness I feel – more visceral than precisely erotic, because I had forbidden myself to think that way about her, and so every innocuous touch always hit me like a live wire. I remember one morning when I was about fifteen, waking up at a sleepover on the floor, with one arm around her. She was wearing a t-shirt that had ridden up some, and my fist was resting against her bare belly.

Slowly, so slowly, I spread out my fingers to lay my hand flat on her skin. Just that. It wasn’t a move, I didn’t have anything else in mind, I didn’t even know why – why I needed so much to do it, or why I felt such shame and self-loathing when I did. It felt holy – her skin as cool as marble, so still I could feel her heartbeat, the morning sun spilling over her shoulder. I lay there and felt adoration ricocheting through me, like a swallowed bullet, tearing up my insides with the effort to keep still, to preserve this moment for just another breath. And yet I was so ashamed. I felt sure it was wrong, I was wrong somehow. I knew I was trespassing, and I didn’t know why.

“Ayizan,” October 2006.

I never stopped thinking about that. I never stopped waiting for the day when I could be close to her and feel like she wanted me there. That’s all I ever wanted – to be with her and know that I’m welcome, that in her eyes, I belong there.

I recall every time I’ve touched your skin
and my skin prickles with the memory,
holding my breath to keep you next to me,
feeling the fragile moment stretch and thin

Your pulse is a cacophony under
my fingertips – it makes me want to weep,
to be so close to something I can’t keep –
drowning in my own heartbeat, like thunder.

For a moment I imagine a tree
growing from my sternum, up through your spine,
millions of roots between your heart and mine
finally able to see what you see –
roots that only grow deeper over time,
roots that will always bring you home to me.

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69 – Anam Cara

A patient reader over time will notice my tendency to refer to a specific “her” in a specific way. She’s a motif that pops up in my writing quite a lot. She’s also a real person, and that’s why I don’t talk about her a whole lot… because I don’t want to hurt her.

It’s hard to write about real people, even harder to write about experiences you shared, because none of us sees the same event the same way, and there’s so much we don’t tell even the ones we love. So much of what we don’t say is the very worst of what’s in us, our pain and fear and solitude. So much of our memories is emotion and judgment we apply to them after the fact, hindsight understanding that turns a word into a lie, an abandonment into an accident, a betrayal into a miscommunication… We rewrite our memories every day as we grow and change. That can mean that when you share how you remember your life with someone… you risk damaging how they remember it.

“But Gentle, you insufferable torrent of surplus vocabulary,” I hear you protest, “You haven’t held back a fuckin’ bit on oversharing about your family, so how do you come over all shy about this one girl?”

Well. Because we’ve all got “that one girl” in our history somewhere. Or guy. Or robot, or being. Whatever you’re into. We all fell in love for the first time, once. The thing about first love is, it’s everything they tell you – beautiful, stupid, tragic, life-shattering and so, so silly – and it’s often almost entirely unrelated to the person you fell in love with. It takes most of us years to learn how to help someone open up to us, how to listen to them instead of projecting our bullshit onto them, how to appreciate everything they are rather than just the parts that reflect our own desires and answer our own needs. When we’re young, when we fall in love for the first time, it can start from the barest thread – a look, a smile, an arm brushing against yours. You embroider it into whole cloth, a world of it, population you and Her. The Woman.

“My Madonna,” February 2007.

I stood outside of a lot of venues, waiting for Her. A lot of times, her paramour du jour stood with me. We rarely talked a lot – I didn’t like her boyfriends, and I couldn’t explain why, even to myself. What little conversation we exchanged was always the same, and I liked it, the ritual of it.

Dramatis personae: Gentle, aged 16; tall, red-haired, surly. Boytoy A, aged 16; probably brunette, probably stocky, probably a suitable target for adjectives like “corn-fed.”
Gentle leans against the wall outside the (dressing room/band locker room/restaurant/movie theater), pulling a rather selfconscious James Dean ‘tude. Boytoy A approaches from stage right.

Boytoy A jerks his chin up in silent greeting. Gentle returns the gesture.

Boytoy A: She in there?

Gentle nods.

Boytoy A: How long?

Gentle: She said ’bout ten minutes.

Boytoy A nods and takes up a position against the wall also. His posture and demeanor take on an even more selfconscious James Dean ‘tude of his own, which Gentle courteously commences to ignore.

Sometimes it was me arriving second, and then the roles were reversed, but it was always the same. No one ever needed to say who we were waiting for. She was the connection between us, the only important thing we shared, the only important thing, period. Just Her, The Woman.

I loved her madly, and badly, and eventually I realized both. I’ve realized since how limited her understanding of what I was going through must have been, how much I hid from everyone. It hurts me, every day – and I still think of her every day, more than once – to imagine that she thinks I fell away from her because I didn’t love her. It hurts me more, though, to imagine tainting what we had, the strength and strangeness of our friendship, with… something I didn’t even yet know I wanted.

I knew every second that I was with her that I wanted to be closer to her. I couldn’t explain how, or what I was missing. I didn’t want to have sex with her; the idea was horrifying to me, a transgression. But then, it took me years to realize that the way I saw other women wasn’t the same way that straight women do. It took me years to understand that, yes, our relationship was Platonic, because she wanted it that way, and I would have died rather than make her uncomfortable around me. But yes… my feelings for her were romantic, profoundly so. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I didn’t care what that looked like, but I was jealous of her boyfriends, and also contemptuous of them. I knew that they were temporary, and I was not. I knew that what I had of her was more real, more honest, more complete than what they saw, and I thought that the difference was that they couldn’t see her clearly past their dicks.

I realize now that I was blind in the exact same way they were. I loved her, and I needed something from her that she couldn’t give, and when she didn’t give it to me, I ran away. Not because I didn’t love her. Because I couldn’t trust myself to love her the way she wanted to be loved. I couldn’t trust myself to let her be herself, rather than what I needed her to be.

I still don’t trust myself that way. That’s why I don’t talk about her very much – because I don’t want to destroy her memory of our friendship by making her feel that I was lying, or pretending, or constantly scheming after her body or any of that shit. Some of this is internalized homophobia – this is why lesbians are often so tentative, so unwilling to approach each other. We’re so afraid of being seen as predatory, of suddenly not being “safe” when we admit to liking other women. It feels like coming out means an audit of every relationship you ever had, every friend in turn desperately needing to ask, “Well, have you ever thought about me that way?”

But mostly it’s just… she saw something in me that it took me until now to see in myself. She kept me alive when I was a teenager, more literally than I think she knew. For years, she was all I was living for. And I was honest with her, more honest than I would be with anyone else for a decade and change after that. What she didn’t know about me wasn’t her fault, and I didn’t hide it on purpose. I didn’t know it either. She did nothing wrong, is the point, and I don’t want to take her happiness from her by recontextualizing our shared history. That’s the difference between her and my family. She did nothing wrong.

I think she’s happy now. As far as one can tell through the internet. She got married. He’s a cute guy – brunette, corn-fed. So did I, come to that. I learned how to love the right way. I’m not… better, though, not the way she is. I haven’t moved on from a lot of things that happened back then. I don’t think I could trust myself to see her any more clearly now than I could when I was sixteen; it would just be a different kind of blindness. She doesn’t deserve that. The world is better for me knowing that she’s in it, and generally happy. I promised her, “I will always try to do what would please you if you knew,” and I still do. She surfaces in my art again and again. I retell the story a thousand different ways. I learned so many ways to love from her, and so many of them were wrong at the time, but all of them have brought me joy, and brought me here.

I want so much to explain. But… that feels self-serving. She couldn’t benefit from knowing more about the horrorshow I was living out of her sight, and I couldn’t make her memories any more beautiful by telling her I loved her in a different way than she loved me. I think she knew. I didn’t know what I really wanted from her, but I was never shy about telling her how I felt. I can only hope that her memories are as good as mine… and try not to spoil them with irrelevant details like, y’know… myself.

Walk down this road with me a little way.
Yeah, I know we’ve been this way before.
I still know the fastest way to your door
from where I am, no matter how far away.

But you don’t live there anymore, and I…
I realize now just what I did to you.
I realize now just how little you knew –
you had the truth of me, but not the why.

What’s the etiquette on sharing a dream?
I could only darken your memory,
taint whatever good you managed to see,
make you feel it was never what it seemed.
A dream more real than what they made of me –
to keep this creature from you feels more clean.

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