Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Harry Markov from Bulgaria.
Harry Markov is a writer, reviewer and columnist with a predominant interest in the weird, the fantastic and the horrifying. His non-fiction has appeared in Innsmouth Free Press, Beyond Victoriana, The Portal, Pornokitsch and The World SF blog. Most recently he has become an assistant to US publicist Jaym Gates. Currently he is the assistant editor at the Horror podcast Tales to Terrify. You can follow @HarryMarkov on Twitter and find his personal opinions and updates over at Through a Forest of Ideas.
This is the story’s first publication.
There was once a girl, walking on a road in the desert. Yes, she was a girl and not stars. One human girl, who felt the sand brand her soles and thirst shrivel her throat, and not a constellation. Which constellation, she did not remember, for her time up in the heavens was a haze. They were so indistinct and overdressed in fragments, they seemed imaginary. This, had said the gods, was how it was supposed to be. Which gods, she again could not recall. What she knew was that once, a long time ago, she had belonged to the land, and that now she had come to find love. That she had to remember. Hold on to it, keep it captive, lest it run away from her memory. There was her, the sky and love. Why she chose to find love also strayed from her mind, but the need was there, a dagger slipped between her ribs, cleaving each inhale into tiny halves.
What she did know was that the gods had struck a bargain with her. While everything else blurred like rippled water, the wager with the gods rang with clarity. It was the sole proof of certainty, one which she would not discard as a dream. Her name was one of the things lost in the ripples. Her heritage and the names of her family, she couldn’t mouth, even when their ghosts danced on her tongue. Was she regal or was she common folk? Did her spine, straight as a spear, speak of her high rank? Or did her feet, oblivious to the furnace-hot sand, say otherwise?
She couldn’t know, couldn’t decide, and it gnawed on her. Could she find love, when she didn’t even know herself? Uneasy, uneasy. But this was her choice. Uneasy, but hers alone. Her heart confided so, and it made this choice all the more treasured. She had to find love, the man to pull this dagger from her chest, the one who had promised her happiness with his voice. And she would do that, no matter how long she had to walk on this road, which seemed to tie the world like a ribbon.
Then, while the sky held the colors of ripe peach, a roar stomped the silence. The girl looked up, searching for storm clouds, but every single one cushioned the sky in cheerful hues. The sound rumbled nearer, like thunder.
She turned. Behind her, a cart in green heaved up the road, riding as fast as a doe, but without an animal pulling it. It was made like a box. Foreign. The thunder must be encased within, she thought, with sorcery. She didn’t remember ever seeing sorcery done before her, and it was wondrous.
She watched as the cart approached, made of metal. It crawled to a halt; the train of dust behind it pooled around. A sheet of see-through crystal slid down. Inside, two crones smiled. Cheerful, wizened, clad in colors tight to their bodies, and black eye patches of crystal over both eyes.
“Dear God!” the first crone exclaimed. “What are you doing here half naked in a sheet? In the middle of the desert, of all places!” There was worry in her voice, woven over scolding.
The girl looked at her linen robes and observed the clothing of the crones, which bothered her. It revealed the body, while constricting it all the same.
“Are you in some kind of trouble?” the second crone asked.
“I am searching for a man,” the girl said, hesitant with the new language. The goddesses had parted with this gift to understand the new speech. To talk no matter where her feet would step.
“Aren’t we all, sugar. Hop in the car and we will take you to Reno. There are plenty of men there. And you are so pretty, they’ll all go gaga over you,” the first crone said.
A small door parted in the back and the girl sat in the car. She almost gasped at how cool it was. The witches must have trapped a wind inside this…car.
“That’s how I met my third husband, you know,” the crone continued. “I wanted a man from Reno, and I bagged me one.”
“No, no, Isabelle. That was how I met my third husband. You married your number three, when I divorced my number one,” the second crone corrected her with a tsk and a finger in the air, and the car carried the three onward, smoothly as if on water.
“My name is Margo,” the second crone said and turned around from her right seat, her smile a crack among a web of wrinkles. “And this is Isabelle. We are going to Reno, because the old retirement home is no fun at all. The old people there drive me nuts. Like a hospital. Always moaning.
“I say, it’s not like we are in Purgatory, girls. But they only quiet down when ‘The Bold and The Beautiful’ is on. And who are you, my dear?”
The girl startled. For one, she could not imagine a woman talking so fast. For another, she didn’t even know what name to entitle herself. She didn’t know her own and she did not know the names of this land.
She repeated what she had just heard. “Isabelle.”
“Oh, Izzy, did you hear that? She has the same name as you do. Isn’t that marvelous?” Margo said.
“Yipikaye, Margo. Now zip it. I’m driving here.”
“Don’t mind Izzy, sunshine. She is a bit grouchy when she is behind the wheel. Now, tell me more about that man of yours.”
“He sang to me.” Isabelle started, uncertain at first whether she should be confiding at all. “Promised that his heart is mine. I decided to follow my heart and so I’m here, searching. To sing and find him like he did me.”
“Oh, so lovely. Did you hear that, Izzy? This is like all those love stories Kitty used to read. Sweet on the uptake that one, but dramatic and unstable. An artist, you know.” She pronounced those words as if Kitty had enraptured herself in a mystery, which was permitted to be spoken of only in a whisper.
“Bah, an artist. She drew cartoons, but wanted attention and drama. Now, Isabelle, listen carefully. My seventh said the exact same things to me, but in the end he left me with this Chevy.”
“Oh no, Izzy. Albert never had a dime to begin with. He left you without your silverware and your grandmother’s pearls. The Chevy was from Gideon, number five.”
On it went, almost blindingly fast, the two women caught in their thoughts, too long shared to know which memory belonged to whom. The two women lived as one, grinding the words and sewing fractured stories with their crack-lipped smiles.
And Isabelle listened, hearing about this world as knowledge rose like a tide during a storm. Commonplace tales and objects lapped over each other, or crashed together, blistering to foam, and giving way to new ones. There were cars, TV, Reno, cherry pie, poodles, and someone named Lady Gaga, who according to Izzy needed a stray jacket.
Looking into this world was like peering into the night sky, because it was borderless, because it had no end to its depth. And yes, it even captured a bit of that cosmic chill, because even while people were people, this Earth resembled nothing of the home she had left before she ascended to the stars.
Reno, Isabelle soon learned, was a country of a city and geometry come alive. Houses and buildings of commerce flanked all sides like cinder blocks with outer ribs and windows with light as bright as the sun.
But this was the boring part, Izzy had said.
“Wait till we reach the casinos,” she said, and laughed.
The casinos were downtown and downtown seemed like day, even if they had arrived at night. The buildings were like stars themselves, burning with color, birthing hues as the lights mixed in the space between the buildings. And the buildings themselves looked like hive blocks, lit in honey gold.
Reno swelled with people, none like the other, voices opposed in disharmony, but entangled in one tide of noise that was the city’s heartbeat.
Margo and Izzy wanted to go gambling, but when the guards refused to let Isabelle in with a tunic, they took to the stores. Soon Isabelle wore a pair of jeans, flats, and a loose-fitting silver blouse. ‘To complement your silver hair,’ Margo had said, then winked.
And the night went on, spinning and spinning; Isabelle was a leaf caught in a whirlpool. The noise never slept. Neither did the people. The Peppermill casino hooted owl-like and rustled its doors as if they were feathers, people always entering and leaving. The restlessness caught Isabelle’s heart. She trailed behind Izzy and Margo, drinking in the sights, a luminous tapestry with people laughing, people crying, people kissing, and metal clapping against metal, applauding and consenting to every action.
Izzy and Margo attacked the slot machines, which were treasure chests with levers. Isabelle learned to put in a coin, then pull the lever, and the trickster chest would either swallow or give her treasure. Isabelle found her slot machines generous. Within hours, the sound of coins clacking down like a torrent became a given. ‘Beginner’s luck,’ Izzy had grunted.
The three left the casino with green pieces of paper. “Money,” as Margo had mentioned, “makes the world go round and you, darling, are sitting on the throne of this carousel tonight.”
Before the night ended, all had one more place to go.
“Oh honey, you have to sing and find your man,” Margo chirped. “I hate these karaoke places. The people sound like kittens with bags of dirt tied to their feet, but Westend Bar is the place to be, if you want to sing. Not too crowded and less drunken Germans.”
So, Westend Bar it was.
Isabelle wasn’t sure she could do it; the songs were all foreign. The light that bathed her erased the people in the audience and she was supposed to sing.
Fear patted her chest, but when the music came, it folded its tail and fled. The song “Golden Earrings” was picked by Margo, who informed everyone she begat her third son on it and it felt romantic.
Her lungs filled with air, her mind with the song, and Isabelle hummed along with the melody, which trembled unsteadily. Then the words trickled, drops of sound that fluttered in the microphone.
Isabelle sang and moved as the music coiled, smoky and thick with breath. Word by word, verses trembled into the air, fragile and wanting, full of promise and instruction. Isabelle allowed for the sounds to claim her as the sea did the shore, dragging it into its depth. She spoke of love, of earrings and magic, hoping she could lure such luck to her side with her fingers and voice.
The last note rolled from the speaker and then like a lake the room had stilled. Isabelle breathed in, terrified of letting the breath flee. Terrified that it would be shredded by the dagger in her chest and that silence would answer her pain.
It wasn’t all silence. The audience cried for her, but her love held his mouth tightlipped and wordless. And this is how she lost her first star, leaked into the ether, back to the night sky. It caused no pain of the body, but she did fell less, even if her heart weighed more with sadness.
She had many more stars. The audience loved her, but no love was found.
From scalding Reno, Isabelle traveled West. Paid for buses and poked at destinations on maps. She hiked the highways and scrambled over the stones on dirt roads. The desert ended and forests held the land in their roots.
She sang at village gatherings. Their songs were on her lips lithe and jerking, wild as their hearts were here in the wilderness. She sang as much to find love as to bring joy to others. Her hopes lay on all the young men, but she also listened for when they grabbed a guitar and sang themselves.
When the night was not spent in songs, she worked in the fields as all others had. Work did not befit her, she soon discovered. Her body was soft, beautiful and untaught, made for admiration as it would seem. However, she recognized a connection with the land whenever she breathed in the scent of the fresh soil in the gardens. She often did that, and with no inhibitions, for the inhales brought shadows of memories, the texture of petals on her fingers, and a beat in her ears, which caused her to sway.
She had been in Seattle, city of rains, tailoring her words to frivolous melodies in the city’s streets, casting a net amongst the men. Nimble fingers slinked the music in their hearts and fed the city’s beat with waving threads. It gave her pleasure to twirl in the stranded-in-motion public stage. Music abounded, and her heart did too. So many lyrics, so many notes and genres.
Yes, she allowed the music to rob her of stars, but she possessed numbers beyond what she could count. After all, how large was the world?
And her love was looking for her, too; that was why she listened as much as she sang. She went to concerts, which swallowed her whole, but no man there was her love.
The men on stage entranced and clutched with their biting voices, but their voices ran thin with emotion. Unsubstantial. Tired. Hollow and lost in repetition, meaning long since worn out, but drunken on violence.
After Seattle, Isabelle went to San Francisco, a city of hills, bridges and mists hanging like mantles after dark. It was a city of all kinds of love; men loving women, women loving men, men loving men and women loving women. But even here she could not find her beloved one.
“Go to LA, Bella, darling. That’s where all the stars go,” Jenna, a bar waitress, had said. By then, Isabelle had tried her hand at many a trade. Waitressing seemed the easiest to land. Bars and clubs welcomed her as if she was long lost ilk, and did so without unnecessary paperwork. It seemed paper and proof served as the blood for this world. Squares and rectangles of it preceded or trailed behind a person like ever-knowing ghosts. Nothing was ever forgotten. And everybody wanted to know, to peruse the papers and judge.
In the bars, it seemed the reverse. Hands grabbed her and men whispered obscenities, invitations and compliments, souring her mood, but they never questioned her. Never wanted to know where she came from or, if they did, they didn’t mean it. She never enjoyed it, but she also felt safe.
However, the work brought true merits. Mopping the bar late at night, while the regulars remained like debris after the tide. And when the tide departed, leaving the silence and the hushed music from the speakers, fuzzy with its own drained insomnia, they talked, piecing a mosaic of this world. It was tragic and joyous. Alien, without losing its novelty, and, she finally learned, truly unending in all dimensions. An abyss from people pressed flat and racing with the horizons.
Isablle feared that what she wished for could not be obtained. She moved to LA, doing what she did best. Wait tables, wait on customers, wait for human stars, because her love could only be divine. A man with a voice so pressing it could puncture the skies and seduce a constellation couldn’t be anything else than one of these stars.
Then, one day, a star talked to her.
“Are you the girl I keep hearing about?”
No hellos. No entrée. Straight to the heart of the matter. Stars had no time to spare, Isabelle deduced.
“Could be. What have you heard?” She talked fast. An octave higher. Reflex, habit she had picked up from Jenna, who was adamant: ‘A waitress will avoid any man, if she is a good girl.’ Here Jenna had fanned her hands and wagged them up and down, her way of underlining things of importance. ‘Just be all smiles and they’ll think you are a virgin, a Christian, or both. No one likes those girls.’
Isabelle obeyed, even threw a couple of our Lord and Savior’s into her replies, and her customers wanted nothing more than a friendly ear.
“The girl that sings in the morning traffic jams. An apparition that walks among the cars, covered in exhaust fumes. That you?” He propped an elbow on the counter and bared an ivory-white smile just like a cowboy.
“One and the same. Great attraction for the bar and it’s exercise.”
In her boredom, Isabelle did sing during the morning traffic jam. Just two, three songs from a loudspeaker she had found discarded on the sidewalk one day. With so many cars stalled in one place, who knew, maybe she could find her lover among them. She could not wait any longer. She had to act, and, in a city full of failed dreams and desperation, what other alternatives did she have? As long as it achieved the goal, she didn’t have to like it, or others enjoy it.
“Judging by the empty tables, I assume your voice isn’t that sensational.” The smile never wavered, his humor biting and piquant.
“Hah, well you caught me. I don’t walk around with a company logo. We’re not like Hooters, you know.”
She smiled and waited for the chuckle. It came, and the magic of Hooters had worked again. It stood for something, when men fantasized about it and women acknowledged it without necessary comments.
“You’ll sing for me, right? I am not about to get stuck in traffic for a live performance, you know.”
She turned her back. He was a star among men. She had not heard him sing, but she couldn’t waste a star on one man alone.
“When I sing, I sing for a crowd.”
“Attention whore, then? Heck, I am not surprised. What can a waitress want more?”
The way he talked was generally nauseating. As in pus from a wound nauseating, but there was a charm to his mouth and its slights.
It was a false rejection. This was far from over, and it was simplified enough for him to catch on.
“You know who I am, right?”
She has learned, from the movies, that this is his trump card. The big guns. Something he likes to express with a confidence that is not his.
“Yes.” No, not really.
“Cold.” He paused, and in the meantime she turned with her back to him. “Okay, okay. Let’s rewind a bit. How about a dinner? LA atmosphere to make you reconsider?”
It didn’t take much. The ‘yes’ fluttered out of its own accord. So they went out on the dinner, then he took her back to his hotel suite. There, on the king-sized bed with champagne-stained sheets, he talked and talked.
He was in a band, as Isabelle was certainly aware, but he had decided to crash after touring, because a lead singer slash song writer needed to chill. And finish work on his newest album. He assured her his new songs would make her listen to him, and only him. All of this delivered with words jumping like frogs and hands jerking into a puppet play. She laughed, knowing there was only one voice she would ever listen to. She doubted it was as insecure as his.
They had sex. His fingers snared her waist, pressing, prying, praising. She responded, passive at first, as if she was the shore waiting for the water to lick it. Then attentive, snaking her limbs over his body. Palms on necks and shoulder blades, knees in between thighs or in the air. Quivering spines, fluttering lungs, skin impearled with sweat.
“Was it as good for you as it was for me?” Dealbreaker question, but she didn’t groan.
She didn’t lie. She had enjoyed it. It was the first time she had done it on Earth after her descent, so she had no basis for comparison, but it was nice. The way he kept his body skin to skin with hers, nose harbored in the crook of her neck, and his toe flicking hers.
She wanted the attention, the interest, to give her venues to sing. The bigger the chance to find her love. And what if this man with his greedy hands was her singer?
She knew love didn’t burst in an instant. She watched soaps. It wasn’t a nova. It brewed. It was a star shaping, slow and monolithic. One could learn to love, to take time to recognize it, like fading blindness from watching an eclipse. But this rockstar wasn’t her betrothed. His voice cut and jarred, lacerated and crashed against the ear with cries.
When he touched her, many times again anew, he palmed flesh, stole her heat, swallowed her in his embrace, pickpocketed her breath, but never once did he pry with his soul between her ribs, where the invisible dagger sat lodged, bleeding her feelings into the ether. He didn’t make her gasp and inhale in liberation.
She didn’t protest. Her man wouldn’t come wrapped in silk. Another lesson swiftly learned from TV, from those stories on Hallmark, fleeting articles, and conversations between other waitresses. You had to be proactive. Search, scheme, and fight for your man. However, now, she couldn’t step away, become anonymous, a voice, unattached in the mass. Paparazzi had pegged her. Her life had become immersed in flashes, cameras snapping like turtles and a whirlwind of attention.
She quit her job when he agreed to let her sing on stage. The moment was ripe with opportunity. He held the microphone as Isabelle stepped on the stage, the cable rolled around his fingers like her hair was almost every night. The music came. Intentionally slow, wordless tragedy, caught by vibrations in the air. And there she was to weave a story into royal cloth. The song startled the silence with booming shivers from the speakers, familiar and unknown, like every song she’d sung. The sentiment remained the same.
She was a fisherwoman. The stage her shore. The lights and underlying darkness, the sea. Her voice was the hook, the song the bait. Her heart the line. She was patient, liberated in the euphoria.
The magic dispelled. Final tunes rolled into a resonating quiet, in which a new star floated away from her chest, but no one called back, even if the crowd roared like a waterfall.
Another failed night, but a career was launched. The girl made from stars became a star again. Thousands learned her name, but she forgot that of the rock star, who was soon after no longer a star. Whatever her voice touched turned platinum. Her voice toured the world and she sang, feeding off every genre, hooked on how the crowd cooed after each surprise and how it fulfilled her own pleasure.
But as the songs flocked to the charts, so did the stars fall away from her being. Her nervousness grew to a fever. Where was he? How was she to find her man?
Weren’t her songs snaring the world? Possessing the cables that stringed the horizons, sewing sound to ear? Wasn’t she imbued in the air? How come this was not enough?
She drilled the pavement with her Dior stilettos, haste adding a rattle to her gait. The crowds pushed and pulled, pausing to muse about her, to recognize the star amongst their nameless waves of bodies. Through Moss Lipow sunglasses, she ignored the foam these mundane pale faces made. The lack of eye contact would dissuade passers-by from contact. If not, the bodyguards would.
Fine day to travel by foot. Right. A senseless decission.
“Yes, Amanda. I’ll be there. As I said, I did not choose to walk all the way to the studio. Blasted car choked on me. I’ll refrain from buying Japanese shit again.” She wanted to hiss, but her PR had insisted on no fits in public. The world didn’t need a second Naomi.
Amanda was a good friend. Excellent manager, but a perfectionist right down to her DNA, which triggered heart attacks at every detour and alteration.
Isabelle had to mumble, distract, chop and scatter away the worry. After all, Amanda had a knack for making money and she did it best when she was calm.
“Yes, we’re already in the subway.”
“I don’t mind bumping into people.” She paused when Amanda hummed into the receiver. “Okay, I hate it. Sweat, odor, feels like indigestion. But these are the sacrifices one has to make for the career. See my devotion to you. Now, breathe. Your performance record will be perfect.”
She clamped her cellphone to her ear like a shell, hoping to hear the ocean lost in transmission and was disgusted and scared as memory of the sound came unbidden. She felt trapped and drowning in a box, left to sink. Inside the station, the space flooded in another swirling mass.
But in the cacophony, a song rose. A man dominated the landscape of sounds, acapella. His calloused vocal cords, his husky tones wrapped inside her chest, a steady pull.
She found him in the corner, dressed in rags, but radiant. Singing of a girl in the skies above, a form to be traced in the dark, dotted together by stars.
Isabelle switched to loudspeaker and forwarded the sound for Amanda to hear. It was a trance and a breath of a dream, familiar, almost material, rolling as vibrations on the skin, making her inhale as if the air contained his voice. Deep feeling breath, sealing it inside her chest and not handing it out.
“Your second album would have made music history, if you sounded like that.” Isabelle could imagine Amanda drooling.
“I know,” Isabelle replied, though she wasn’t listening. The lump of pressure in her chest throbbed as if scratched and she still didn’t want to exhale.
“I’d cut his vocal cords, if that would make me sound even remotely like him,” she said, and turned away to catch the train. All the while that voice, now sewn to her memory, nagged as if she was supposed to remember something. As if she had to do something.
And right damn, she had to. She had to climb those charts back to the heavens. Back to stardom. Back to shining oh-so-brightly.
Fantastic, fantastic story.