io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “The Quiet Like a Homecoming” by Cassandra Khaw. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
The Quiet Like a Homecoming
Travel to Scandinavia if you can, the older cats told me, the queens in their raftered kingdoms. The coffee there, they said, is bitter as an old lie. The Norsemen are beautiful, their women even more sublime, but most importantly, they are quiet. Preoccupied only with Nordic things, disinterested in the outside world. This is crucial. This is what makes them safe.
But this is not the only reason I am here.
I shade my eyes against the noon sky, its cerulean without dimension or depth, no gradient of quality; the color is absolute as a rich man’s confidence. Malmo tastes like a memory, like a word misplaced. I can smell the ocean, an afterthought in the air. It is cold and clean and old, so very old. Older even than the myth of marriage, than selkie stories, than Adam, than the Eve-that-never-was and the Eve-who-lives.
I follow the crowd onto the platform and then into the station, pouring through their pale bodies. Everyone looks but no one is gauche enough to comment on the tail that droops from the hem of my black woolen coat, the fur a little ragged. Months ago, I’d have been better groomed, more together, more cognizant of propriety, the profound obscenity of wearing my skin like a point of pride.
Then again, months ago, there would have been nothing to see, nothing but dark hair worn in a long, sleek braid. A smile. Skirt, knee-length. Pastel blouses. Nothing of me. Nothing at all.
“I have a room,” I tell the front desk when I find my way to the hotel at last. I smile at them with sharp little teeth and they smile back, empty.
“Welcome,” they say, not meaning any of it.
I leave pawprints on the stairs, even though I am wearing shoes. It amuses me to do so. The front desk says nothing. Someone in the lounge, a woman with a voice like a broken heart, begins to sing, and it sounds like a story of you and I.
An animal wife is an accessory.
She must be.
A spouse is permitted liberties, the libations of agency. Small things like the right to choose the hue of her hair, to drink the stories decocted by strangers, to sleep on a roof under a damask of stars. A spouse, according to fiction, is equal. They are a partner.
An animal wife is not. She is instead ornamental, constrained by coercion, not choice. She is leashed to a length of flayed skin, tidily folded into a cedar chest. She is pliable, pure, convincingly demure.
And most of all, she is angry.
An animal wife always is.
“You’re too kind.” I accent the smile with a stooping of the head, a crooking of the upper lip. The expression must communicate two things: humility and a sweet bewilderment, as though I couldn’t possibly believe what I’d authored but delight in it all the same. It must look like I’d meant it only for him.
He takes the bait. He flushes prettily and we talk, his eyes unfocused the entire while, reverent. I somnambulate through the motions, the minuet familiar. I’ve rehearsed its choreography so many times before. When we reach the finale, I disengage gracefully and he reluctantly, pressing a card into my grip. “Call me.”
My skin sits unevenly on my shoulders. It pulls. It is heavier than it should be, burdened with the years too. I smile at him.
“I will.” We both know I don’t mean any of it.
Obligations discharged, I escape the throng, cross the bridge, the sun warm on the back of my neck. I want to run. The compulsion scratches beneath my skin, push-pulling at my bones until I am halved by conflicting desires. It’d be so easy. To shuck this body, its responsibilities. To feel the cobblestones beneath paws, not feet. Scale the barbicans of the shops, their eaves and trellises. The plunge of the world from the roofs of their gods now domesticated by academics.
But not yet, not yet.
The road takes me to a square. Restaurants swathe its borders, every one of them pleasingly austere. Sweden disdains excess even in their tourist traps. Everywhere, there are tables, colonized by drunks, by devotees of the rare Nordic sun. Men and women conversing softly, bodies pressed together like hands in prayer.
I push past them to a small café, its exterior crowded with giggling couples and families, the children mesmerized by plates of cream, shaved white chocolate piled atop syrup-drenched cakes. The woman inside is fleecy-haired, exhausted. She scowls a warning. Be quick, her expression says.
I take my time, nonetheless, poring over their cheesecakes and in the end, commit to a slice of their bestseller and a mug of coffee, black as grief.
“Upstairs,” the waitress barks at me and I bob an acknowledgment, darting up a spiralling staircase. The second storey is lonely of people, low-roofed and too hot. I take a seat beside the window and stare, silent. The sun makes everyone beautiful.
We came here once, you and I. I’d clung to your shadow as you steered us to a table, my voice in a box in the basement of your apartment. You ordered—what was it? I don’t remember any specifics anymore, only sweetness and curls of chocolate, too much for either of us. You smiled at me and it was good, and I wish it wasn’t the few moments I loved about us.
I miss that version of us.
But I don’t miss it enough to not rewrite this memory, replace that evening with this one. The light beading on the rim of my mug, on my blue jeans. The quiet like a homecoming. Animal wives are performative, performances, a menagerie of curated expression and long-lashed silences. We exist to accent and accentuate that which makes our husbands impressive.
If you read this one day, darling, go fuck yourself.
I choke down every mouthful, chase every clump of sugar down with another gasp of coffee. I eat until I’m sick. It will not be the best memory, but it will be mine and there will be nothing of you layered in its nuances, no trace of your expressions, no ghost of your voice. When I talk about this memory one day, it’ll be without you in the conversation.
You kept me silent for so long.
It only seems fair.
I remember when I first saw you.
It was on the stoop of an old temple. You’d been crying for hours. Salt seeped between your fingers in glistening rills, like someone’d licked rivers across the back of your palms. You looked like you were praying, had been begging the stars to spill out the love they’d eaten. While the moon glared, you slit your palm—the tiniest notch, like a small red seed—and squeezed until you’d anointed the steps with your blood. Please, you said. Like the word would be enough.
In a way, I suppose, it was.
I came out of the jungle wearing silks the color of muscle, a saucer of bone in my small hands. You laughed when I saw me. I hadn’t expected that. I see, you said before you came to me on your knees, humble as a penitent, and bled your tithe into my bowl. My eyes held no color and yours held no fear, and you watched without flinching as I lapped up your gift.
When I was done, you asked if I was a rib taken from the roof of god’s breast.
No, I said drowsily. But here, darling, here. I’ll grant you a wish, anyway.
You did not hesitate. You asked me to marry you right there and then, my fingers ringed with red, a drop of your blood in the hollow of my throat. I’d kissed you. Do you remember that? You told me I’d tasted like blackberry wine, like honey and aloe, like summer, like the last fine thing to see in this life. I told you not yet, all dowries must be paid in threes, but the truth is this: I loved you from the first heartbeat, was yours before my body could rehearse the next.
I do not restrict myself to the places we’ve seen, the places you’ve stained with your breath and your words, your insouciant description. The day before I leave, I stalk a winding canal along its cobbled path, follow the blue-green water to where it yawns into the ocean. It is a tedious walk. You’d have despised it. No shops, no landmarks to entice the eye, only an endlessness of manicured grass, and long tanned bodies plated on checkered blankets. Unbidden, your voice uncurls like a drag of smoke, resentful: I used to look like that not too long ago.
I take my time. I do not run. I memorize the topography of my silhouette, its unhurried lines, and the sweep of my hair along the meridian of my spine, the sheer audacity of it all. You loved me best when I was exceptional.
But today, I am merely free.
At a bridge, I pause, inhale the air, and Malmo smells like the first day I realized every cloak of feathers and bearskin coat is invaluable, not irreplaceable. A scent of thyme and brisket being smoked, fresh-cut grass, the rain cooling on fresh asphalt. Pre-processed potential, like only spring can articulate it. I lean over the rails until gravity beckons, hungry as a husband: Come to me, trust me, fall into me, I’ll catch you, I love you, I love you, I’ll love you forever.
I laugh into a breeze, who carries my merriment like a boon to a couple lying tangle-limbed on the opposite bank. Step by step, I am erasing you, packing every instance of you into a cardboard box in the attic of my thoughts. Soon, it’d be all gone.
“I can’t wait,” I tell the water and the ghost of you, your eyes old as a wedding vow. My grin is the moon cut in two, incandescent, victorious. Though your memory connives to deter my decision, I shed this poor human façade. It ribbons from my bones, sheets of tissue and hair dip-dyed in emerald, leather and blue jeans. Underneath, I am joy flensed of your petty conditions: basal, bone-deep, breathless.
Three times you came to the temple.
Three times you paid what you owed.
It doesn’t matter except for this:
You lied to me.
You rolled up my skin and locked it into a chest. For safekeeping, you told me, your mouth in my hair. When I stopped looking, you set it all on fire, mixed the ashes with a sip of sweet mead. And I’d cried at its taste and you said I was crazy. There was no salt, no lies, nothing but honey, heady as expensive wine, no life outside of you and I.
I have a cloak again, better than the one you burned.
A stitch of grey mouse fur wreaths my right shoulder; he is too little to give me more. But soon, he’d promised, and I believed him. The trimming is all badger, its span woven from elk. Feathers from a stormcrow, like knife-cuts above my heart. A hellhound’s mane. My mother’s fur, blanched by the years. Souvenirs from a thousand small loves.
The hotel says nothing about my damp attire, the way my hair sticks to my face. Tonight, I will make a bonfire of your gifts. I will drink gin and make haikus of our last conversation. I will wear red. I will climb to the roof and I will rename every star, while Malmo dreams of when its tides seethed with ships.
I will be me again, darling, and you will be nothing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
By day, Cassandra Khaw works as the business developer for Singaporean publisher Ysbryd Games. By night, she moonlights as a freelance technology reporter for places like PC Gamer and The Verge, while still writing exorbitant amounts of fiction. Charles Stross called her novella Hammers on Bone “possibly the most promising horror debut of 2016.” Hammers on Bone was a finalist for the British Fantasy Award and the Locus Award for Best Novella. Rumor has it that Khaw does not sleep and can only be satiated with offerings of fluffy things. You can find her on Twitter.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the February 2018 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Tobias S. Buckell, An Owomoyela, Jeffrey Ford, Rahul Kanakia, Malinda Lo, Nalo Hopkinson & Nisi Shawl, Ashok K. Banker, Bogi Takács, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.