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 “See the Unseeable, Know the Unknowable” by Maria Dahvana Headley. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast. Enjoy!
There are woods, and the woods are dark, though there are lights hung from the trees. Many of the lights no longer light up. Around the edge of the clearing, someone has strung a long chain of origami animals on barbed wire, some gilded paper and some newsprint, some pages torn out of books, some photographs, each animal snagged on its own spike. The animals have been rained on, and more than once. Not all of them are animals, not exactly. There are some shapes unknown here. The grass is trampled down in the center of the clearing, and there are muddy swathes deep enough to drown in.
We know things. We know that there are some things which possibly shouldn’t be written about any longer. Possibly shouldn’t be done any longer. The golden ages. They’ve been written, and better, performed, and better. A stranger, for example, comes to town and changes everything. Not a single stranger, but a troupe of strangers, spangled, striped, trapezed.
But we love a circus.
We know it’s old-fashioned, but we can’t resist it. That is the smell of greasepaint. We know it by now, though it still sings to us. We know how the roar of the crowd sounds. We know what the carnival refreshments taste like. We know the door that takes us to the sideshow. We’ve slept on the bed of nails, and maybe, though we won’t admit it, we’ve fucked the two-headed goatgirl. And, yes, we know the important lessons, too.
We know never to run away to join the circus. There are circus people in the real world, on the run from circuses, escaped and fled, trying to pretend they never flung themselves in to begin with. Sometimes people get away from the thing they wanted. People like that could tell you stories.
In the world down here, there’s a man with a belly full of flames who sometimes chokes on smoke; a tattooed lady with the universe, nebulas and black holes, comets and constellations, and all the words for light and dark that have thus far been invented, hidden up her sleeves. There’s a strong man pushing a pencil across a desk.
A sword swallower steps through a metal detector and raises his hands in preemptive apology for the blade he’s substituted for his spine. An acrobat climbs through a window and into a museum’s upstairs bathroom looking for something that will fix the ache inside him, an elephant charges a train calling for its mate. Circuses dissolve. Carnivals collapse. Things get broken.
We have always come here, when we’re in the area. Every seventy-six years or so, we visit, and the place has always forgotten us by the time we come again, but that doesn’t mean we have difficulty with our methods. We’ve been doing this for centuries, and we’re skilled.
At the end of the summer, here in this town at the edge of the woods, there’s a day on which broadsheets fly in the form of paper airplanes, landing on doorsteps, catching in trees. The townspeople open the flyers and consider the date of the show with some annoyance.
Inside one flyer, there’s an advertisement for a performance fifty years in the future. In the next, a performance fifty years in the past.
See the Unseeable, all the flyers read, and the townspeople grumble at the litter. The next batch are printed Know the Unknowable.
No one on Earth wants to know the unknowable anymore. There are plenty of things to know already. The world is too full and brains can only hold so much. Headlines flash across foreheads. Sometimes the guilt of information is too much to bear, and people hide inside their houses, burrowing under the covers, trying not to listen to the news. Whole countries are dying out there. The sky is falling. Some of the birds have stopped singing, and no one knows whether that’s been true for years, or has only just happened. There is too much noise, and it’s hard to tell who hasn’t been heard from in a while.
There is an ailment moving from continent to continent, these days, and its symptoms include spontaneous deafness and blindness, and finally, in its last stages, spontaneous and permanent silence, without even any satisfying last words. A person might ask for a refill of coffee, and that will be all. Some people try to expose themselves to the disease. The quiet calls to them.
In this town, no one has the disease yet, for which we are grateful. Everyone can hear the flyers flying. Occasionally, one of them makes a trill, and townspeople look up, frustrated, snatch the flyer from the air, and stomp on it, feeling assaulted by whimsy, or possibly spied upon by their government.
On each broadsheet there’s a simple drawing: a large black box in the center of a circle of trees. Maybe it isn’t a box. Maybe it’s a door. And maybe there is something, far off in the blackness inside it, something. But maybe not. Probably not. It’s a blotchy drawing, and unsatisfying. It seems to have been done by a child, not by any real artist. Fingerpaints on paper. Each one is hand drawn, not printed. Whoever did them doesn’t know much about much.
Nothing’s made of paper now. There are better things to write on. Paper melts in rain. Paper turns to ragged slushy nothing. Even folded paper animals eventually disintegrate.
But we like them.
Old-fashioned paper ticket stubs pour down one afternoon in a swift yellow storm. The Show Happened Before You Were Born, they are printed, and on the other side, The Show Will Start After You Are Dead.
It isn’t the children who pick them up. The children are busy, and things like this are beneath them. The town’s janitor uses a snowplow to gather the drifts and then to pile them at the edge of town. He sets them on fire with a single quick breath. Then he sits down in some satisfaction, and roasts a hotdog.
Nothing has come to the town that hasn’t always been there. This isn’t new. The janitor has seen weather like this before. It always passes, and if it doesn’t pass, there’s the end of the world to consider.
He has a menagerie of tin cans, and plenty of ammunition. He has some hounds. One day, he suspects he’ll need them, but he’s lived in proximity to the possible end for long enough that he’s used to it. If it gets him, it does. Everyone dies. He keeps things clean, and that’s his job. Clean doesn’t always mean things are safe. There might be lights on every corner, and there will still be shadows. There’s nothing the janitor can do about that, save setting the town on fire, and even then, light only lasts so long. He’s only one person here, cleaning up at the edge of the woods, and he works from nine at night till five in the morning. He’d been doing this job for centuries, in this part of the country, which is a notorious part of the country. Everybody knows it is. People live here anyway.
There is, as it happens, one stranger in town. The woman moved here recently, from a much larger city. She isn’t officially a resident, though she’s rented a tiny house near the place where the forest starts. She owns a gray cat named Susurrus, remnant of a relationship, and a small roll of money that won’t take her far.
She left her last place in the middle of the night, as the ambulances were coming, and there was no time to pack up more than the cat, who prowls now, joyful but for his bell, stalking the edge of the woods where the songbirds don’t sing.
The woman has used up the name she had before, and now she doesn’t have one. She opens the flyer stuck in her screen door, and finds her old name written across it in a filthy blot, as though by a thumb pressed in ink.
She crumples up the paper, tears it into tiny pieces, and then buries it in the back garden, but two hours later, she feels the need to dig it up and put it in the oven on broil, until it’s ashes. She realizes only after she’s burnt the broadsheet that she has looked at the drawing underneath her name. When she shuts her eyes that night, she can see the dark, smudgy rectangle at the center of the trees, and she can see something inside it, far off in the black, something moving. The date on her flyer, the only one like this, is neither in the past nor in the future.
She opens her eyes and pours herself a drink. It’s four in the morning. She pours herself another. It isn’t as though she’s going to this performance. She’ll get drunk instead, and maybe drinking will put her to sleep.
Outside the window, she can see that it’s started to snow. It’s summer, not winter. At last, she goes out in her underwear and discovers that the snow isn’t snow, but popcorn. She picks up a kernel. It’s cold and flat, muddied. Whoever made it doesn’t know much about popcorn. That, or it’s been falling a long time.
She hears a machine start up, and a moment later, the janitor drives by, pushing the popcorn ahead of him, a rolling wave, a dry tsunami.
“Strange weather,” she ventures, calling out to him from her steps, but if he hears her, he doesn’t have a reply. Maybe it isn’t strange at all. She doesn’t know. She’s new to town. She can’t tell how people speak to one another here. He hasn’t even looked at her, and here she is, standing outdoors, the better part of naked.
For the past week, since she arrived on foot from the bus station, she’s been either naked in her house, or wearing the same thing: a pair of torn up jeans that don’t belong to her, picked up from the floor of the last place, and a t-shirt covered in black and red blotches like some kind of accidental Rorschach. In her old life, she would never have gone outside like this, but this is her new life.
She puts on the jeans and t-shirt, scrapes her hair up into a ponytail and goes out barefoot into the drifts of popcorn. There are ashes smeared on her face from the burning of the flyer, but she doesn’t care about that either. She takes the bottle with her.
She can hear her cat’s bell and so she walks toward that, into the trees, where the storm abruptly stops. Now it’s dark and all there is to hear is the sound of the bell cheerfully jingling. Sometimes she wants to give up and let Susurrus catch birds, just to see if they sing as he kills them, if what she hears as singing are actually birds screaming. She wonders if their lack of song is a choice, if they, too, are tired of the noise. She wonders if birds ever get tired of Earth.
Her feet on the ground feel suddenly like the cat’s paws, and she looks down, strangely certain, expecting to be startled by something unholy. No. She’s half drunk, is all, and sleep deprived. There isn’t enough sleep lately. She’s due a rest. She’s here to sleep, and to dream, and to forget, and to be forgotten about. Faint hope, but it’s a place near the woods, and that’s been her plan. Screen door and little porch. She hasn’t even been into the trees yet. Somehow everything else takes up her time. She’s scrubbed the house three times already, trying to wash away the blood that isn’t there, and never has been. On her knees, she realized what she was doing, and she was bewildered. Her mind had been telling her a story about something that had never happened here.
She stood up, yes, and put the scrubbing brush back into the bucket, bucket into the closet, closet locked. All the closets have locks, each one with a key of its own. She has all the keys. She’s counted and tested them. There are no extra keys on the ring. The house is tiny, but she has eleven keys, enough that she can wear the ring as a bracelet. She has it on now as she walks deeper into the woods, and the little skeletons are cold against her wrist.
The bell isn’t as close as it was, and she isn’t really looking for the cat anyway. She leans against a tree and drinks from the bottle. She feels bad about the way she used her old name. It’s wrung out. She doesn’t want it back, even as she’s sorry for it. It belonged to a nicer person, a quiet person, a person who missed things when she looked at other people.
Then, suddenly, her name was everywhere, out of control, surging up in front of her as she drove, flashing across the bottoms of screens.
Someone calling her by name from out of the car radio, telling her to turn herself in.
Turn yourself inside out, she thought, in a fucked up singsong. Things had happened, and she’d lived through them.
For the past week, she’s taken to calling herself a less used name, the one that belonged to her sister before her sister died, falling into a well while in the process of poisoning someone’s water.
The motives of the dead are often unclear. Wren floated up with the fingers of one hand shoved through the handle of a jug of drain cleaner. Whatever mistake she made to cause herself to fall, the poison was on purpose. The neighbors died, and so did Wren, but Wren was born to die in the dark. It was a miracle she’d made it so long.
The second Wren, though, has thus far been a good enough person. A week in, and all she’s done wrong is steal a can of tomatoes from the store. She considers her credentials. Starting over shortens the list of sins. She’s innocent all over again, of crimes, of sorrows, of history, of stupidity.
The t-shirt feels stiff where the blotches are. She needs to steal something reasonable to wear. The only other thing she has is a short green dress, not appropriate for anything but the middle of the night and a dance floor. She found it in her purse along with her high heels, leftovers from the last night of her past, sprinting naked from the house, grabbing clothes from the floor as she went.
Sometimes she hates Earth.
She walks deeper into the dark, the jingling far away still. She feels an object touch her face, and she slaps it away. A bat or bird. It swings back, though, and hits her again, and this time, she sees that it isn’t alive.
It’s a paper animal on a string. A bear. She brings it close to her face and looks at it. Nothing to be afraid of. A tiny cut-out grizzly, rearing up on its haunches, hanging from a string.
There’s a dim light here, in this clearing, and she can see other paper creatures, with light bulbs strung between them. The clearing is large. She can see the lights on the other side, but only barely. She can tell there’s a breeze by the way the lights bounce. There’s a paper lion, and an elephant made of newsprint striped with old headlines. How long has this been here? The animals are the worse for the wear.
She follows the barbed wire around the outer edge, touching each animal in turn. Some of them she doesn’t recognize. There’s a horse with the body of a snake, and a couple of the animals are nothing more than crumpled balls of pointed folds, carefully done, but nothing she’s seen before.
There’s something made of an old photograph, folded and sliced into long arms, many of them, and jaws. She can’t quite see what the photograph was, but it seems to be a family portrait, the kind you’d get taken at a shopping mall. There are grins in it, and the unmistakable alligator emblem of a polo shirt.
The string of lights shakes as Wren ducks under it, not thinking about it. She’s always ducked under fences. Her childhood was rural. There’s nothing here, no beehives, no barbed wire to keep the bears out. She still has her bottle. She has another drink. The cat mews from somewhere quite close, and she looks around.
“Come on,” she says. “Come here,” but the cat refuses. It’s on the other side of the wire. She can see the animals moving where the cat bats at them.
There’s a strange noise, then, and a bright light goes on, from somewhere high above her. A helicopter, and here she is, in the open. This is a mistake made by her old self. The first Wren would never have made this kind of error.
There’s no place on Earth a person can be invisible forever, not anymore. Maybe there never has been. It’s only been a week, but a week is long enough for her face to be everywhere, projected onto buildings, blinking on in the middle of phone calls.
She crouches lower to the ground, her knees nearly touching the mud, and keeps her head down. She closes her eyes, wondering if it will be guns or ropes. She clenches the bottle in her hand in case they come down beside her and she has a chance. There is no chance with a chance like that. At least she’ll fight.
But there are no sounds of helicopter blades. There are no sounds at all, beyond those of the cat hitting the paper animals with his paws and chirruping when they return to him.
There is a feeling. A vibration, a hum, a whirr, and she opens her eyes, blinded by the light around her. Light and movement. Something’s spinning and she’s at the center of it. Something’s rising and she’s part of it. The cat hisses and spits outside the circle of light, and Wren lurches to her feet, feeling the sky shifting above her.
She hears a clicking, looks up and sees dark things against the brightness, but that is all. There’s nothing certain up there, nothing but sparks and flickers. The clearing is entirely bathed in white, but outside it, there’s night on all sides. She spins slowly, trying to see, but there’s nothing to be seen.
We are the ones above her.
We know better than to be visible, not at this point.
There’s a huffing sound, and a shrill whirring, metallic. There’s a sound like something stretching, another like the pages of an encyclopedia being ruffled. There’s a sound like something landing from a height, and trying to be quiet. There’s a sound like something cracking.
Wren wonders if she’s the one cracking.
She clutches the bottle more tightly. If she could leave the center of the light, she could break the bottle’s neck, and then it could be used, but she can’t move. There’s something about the edge of the spotlight. It’s not a clean circle any longer. There are things out there.
Wren can see shadows, cast inward toward her. Spiny shadows, antlers, horns, fur. Tails. Something lashing and coiled. She hears her cat again, yowling, and she clucks for him to come to her. Susurrus bolts out of the dark, running, fur on end, ears flattened.
The shadows move nearer. One of them leaps over another. Something rears up on its hind legs, and another something rolls and begins to unfold. The shadows are growing larger.
We have our ways of testing, our ways of seeing if someone is ready.
The circle is smaller now. There are things coming closer to her. The cat hoops its back and howls, and Wren catches the faint echo of tinny piano.
She can smell burning popcorn. She can hear a crowd, but the crowd isn’t even whispering. They’re just breathing in, breathing out as something tumbles down to her, shining, twisting, a metal bar suspended on thin chains.
In the space between the chains, in the rectangle outlined by the bar and the links, is darkness. She tries to look through it, to the other side of the circle, but there’s nothing. Now it’s on the ground just before her, the bar nearly under her bare toes.
She can hear the string of lights creaking. She can hear something growling. Oh, she is tired of Earth. Oh, she is tired of the things outside the light, the way they are always circling. This has not been an easy ever after, not since the beginning, and not since last week. Her life has always been larger in the rearview than it appears. There have always been terrible things in the blind spots.
When she turns her head, she sees eyes, flashing in the dark, but nothing else. There’s a heavy sigh from the silence. Somewhere far away, there’s a brass band, but it sounds like music from a television set, wrong slightly, missing notes. Her cat is wrapped around her ankles, tightly curled, hissing. She shivers, and laces her fingers through the chains to steady herself. She can smell her own skin now, the blood on her shirt, the way her hair reeks of cigarettes, and she can smell pipe smoke, too, and something brighter and stranger.
A shadow stretches from the edge of the remaining light, extending itself elegantly over her foot. Susurrus spits and claws and the shadow stretches again, extending its paw, unfurling, until it moves away from the edge of the circle entirely, and arrives before her, a bulk, a shape made of silhouette.
She can feel the crowd waiting. The air hums with a collective intake of breath as she kneels down before the shadow.
We rejoice. She is the one we’ve been calling to. She’s the one we dropped the fliers to find.
It opens its jaws, and she looks into its mouth. There’s nothing there, nothing but her head in the teeth of a shadow, but all around the clearing the trees quiver, and for a moment, she feels the invisible crowd, applauding her bravery. The shadow shakes itself and then leaps through the chains, into the dark suspended above the trapeze.
The cat purrs in greeting and follows it, and Wren jolts forward, shocked, reaching. She can’t see him anymore. His gray shape is gone, like that, not falling, but gone completely.
There’s a strip of black stretching up from her toes, and into the sky, and she stands on the edge of it and stares into it. Something is there, but it isn’t the cat. Something pale, a disc or orb. It’s far away.
She can’t tell what it is, nor how it moves, but it is better than anything she has found here. She blinks, and it’s gone, then returned, then gone again.
It is glad. It is entertained.
Wren can feel the invisible crowd leaning in, watching her. There’s a gasp, an intake, an unbreath, as she puts one foot onto the bar. The ring of keys on her wrist rattles against the metal links suspending the dark. She can feel their cold lips. Little skeletons, married to locks that have nothing to guard.
She thinks of her sister falling face first into oblivion, poison in her hands, ruined by one mistake piled onto too many others. She thinks of the first Wren as the trapeze begins to rise. The first Wren started wrong and got worse. The second Wren is better than the first. She’s sure she must be. She will keep going. Things have happened, but things happen to everyone.
This isn’t how she planned to run away, running up instead of out. This was not what she’d imagined. She is running away to join something. She is running away from the ground.
The trapeze begins to rise, suspended from the night.
The town, now, is visible below her, like something carved out of salt, the buildings covered in pale drifts of popcorn and ticket stubs, our circus flyers in the wind, drifting down like provisions over a warzone. The piano’s faint, playing from the trees and the earth, from the mud, and the shadow animals circle the clearing, doing their tricks in darkness.
The second Wren stretches her toes on the trapeze, and extends a foot into the air. She arches her spine and leans back, looking at the Earth from upside down. She can see the snow plow driven by the janitor, pushing another load of ticket stubs out of the streets and into the fire. She’s not frightened, no, not anymore, though she’s spent her life feeling frightened.
She is glad. She is entertained.
Wren clasps the chains hard in her hands, and dangles in the splits, upside down under the sky. She points her toes, and the trapeze spins as she dances in space, a woman hanging in thin air.
We know that everyone loves a circus. The smell of the greasepaint, we know the recipe. The rolls of tickets, printed in a small machine we purchased at auction. The two-headed goatgirl and the tattooed lady, the fire swallower, all persons we found lost and bewildered, persons looking up. Persons who’d grown exhausted of Earth.
We know that no one can resist popcorn, and so we pop it here. They used to come from miles around, baited by the show, tickets clutched in grubby fists. Families, and single men looking for the carnival strippers. Women used to arrive in groups, holding hands in the dark, fearful, but ready. Grandfathers with their grandchildren. There are fewer now than there were.
We are not a stranger coming to town. We were up here before the town was here.
The second Wren is on the trapeze, her clothing turns to a tutu and a glittering cape. All around her are hoops and balls made of fire, and through them the shadows put on a show.
We’ve been bringing new performers into our circus for a century. Sometimes one doesn’t work out. We lower the trapeze and leave those on the ground, in the center of a clearing that once glowed white with our tent lights. Sometimes they stagger back to town, trying to tell the rest of the people about what they saw when they went into the sky.
“Did you die?” people ask them, and they say they did, or that they saw something they can’t explain. It doesn’t matter which. Dying and returning to life never make most people believe in anything more than their own private glories. One can drop into a well or rise into the light.
It’s always the same, we make sure of that. White glow, a tunnel, a levitation. The sound of our piano and our popcorn machine, the barkers around the edge of the world. We bring performers up, and we treat them well, better than they’d be treated on the ground. All of them are on the run from something. All of them are lost and lonely.
On the trapeze, Wren remembers everything that’s ever happened, a shining rush of color and touch, warbling birds and dishwashers. A whisper of someone in a movie theater, the sound of an arrow leaving a bow and piercing an apple, a balloon popping.
Susurrus leaps out of the dark as she rises, into her arms, and the cat—-we have always enjoyed cats—-comes with our new performer, into the hold of our ship.
We’re not looking for the things people think we are. We’re searching for echoes, for light that has traveled a century, the pale ripplings of Charlie Chaplin, bouncing out and up to us, the songs we heard when we were tiny things traveling between far-flung destinations. We are looking for wonders, just as everyone else is looking for wonders. We are looking for the glory of flight.
On the trapeze, the girl and her cat spin, and as we watch, she glitters, she shines, she is our winged wonder, she is our newest act.
See the Unseeable, Wren whispers as she spins, Know the Unknowable.
She swings on the trapeze, and we see the wings we knew were always there. We watch the wonder of her running away to join us, and far below her, far below our vantage of bleachers and sawdust, of striped tent—-we can make anything we wish seem true—-we can see the janitor looking up.
He points at us as he drives the snowplow, pushing a mile of popcorn, and behind him our animals gallop, a string of horses with feathered headdresses, an elephant made of mist, a visitation from something that exists at the edge of the light.
As the janitor watches, pointing up for no one but himself, though perhaps there are others from this town watching this, too, the girl in our spotlight rises, and rises, a spinning performer in a tutu, hanging from nothing.
At last, she disappears.
Out of the gloom and into the dazzle, into the sawdust ring with her tremendous cat and her bare feet, with the air full of flowers as she takes her bow.
The janitor doesn’t see that part. The town doesn’t see it. But all over the woods, the ticket stubs blaze for a moment for all the people we’ve taken up.
Then we’re gone, a comet, a wonder, a hoax, and the piano fades and the brass band quiets, and our animals run trumpeting and nickering, roaring and singing, all in their formations, dancing across the dark face of the Earth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the young adult sky ship fantasy Magonia, from HarperCollins, the novel Queen of Kings, the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes, and The End of the Sentence, a novella co-written with Kat Howard, from Subterranean. With Neil Gaiman, she’s The New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the anthology Unnatural Creatures. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards, and has recently appeared at Uncanny Magazine, Tor.com, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Apex, Subterranean Online, The Lowest Heaven, The Book of the Dead, and many more. It’s anthologized in Glitter & Mayhem, Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction 2012 & 2013, Paula Guran’s 2013 The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and Laird Barron’s The Year’s Best Weird Fiction.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the September 2016 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Charlie Jane Anders, Tim Pratt, Sean Williams, Jaymee Goh, Alec Nevala-Lee, Christopher Barzak, An Owomoyela , 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.