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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

At last, it’s here!  After literally years of delays, and months of design and composition, The Forms of Things Unknown is ready for sale!  This time there are two stories you haven’t seen; the first, “Trust Exercise”, opens the book and I gave a sneak preview of it back in December.  But the other, “Eight Minute Warning”, concludes the book and isn’t anything like any other story of mine you’ve ever seen (except that a sex worker is mentioned in passing).  If you’re interested, you’ll just have to buy the book!  Another thing you’ll need to buy it to see is the rest of the fantastic cover art by Chester Brown; see, this one’s a wraparound cover, so the image here is only the front.  The rest is a surprise (and yes, I’m teasing you again).  As with Ladies of the Night, I’ll be selling autographed copies here, but if you plan to buy through Amazon I have a special request:  please purchase your copy in the first week of May, in other words from this coming Monday through the following Sunday.  The reason I ask this is that a lot of sales in a short time will trigger Amazon’s algorithms and make the book much more visible to new readers who don’t know about me yet.  Also, if you like the book please write a review; a large number of positive reviews (I believe it takes 30 or so) will trigger yet another algorithm.  By taking these steps, you can help me in two ways:  once by your kind purchase of the book, and again by making it more visible to new readers; many of them may also buy Ladies of the Night!  As always, y’all have my sincere thanks, and I both hope and believe y’all will love the book!

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Dr. Laura Agustín, author of the blog The Naked Anthropologist and the book Sex at the Margins, the seminal work on “sex trafficking” hysteria (in which she coined the term “rescue industry”), has written The Three-Headed Dog, a novel  dramatizing the problems faced by migrants.  It’s another way of introducing readers to the issues the “sex trafficking” paradigm attempts to paper over, which Dr. Agustín has studied for over 20 years and understands in a way very few others do.  I recently read the novel, and Dr. Agustín graciously agreed to answer some questions about it.

MM:  Sex at the Margins has been and continues to be a work of major importance to the sex workers’ rights movement; I know it really helped me to shake off the dualistic thinking about “willing” vs “coerced” sex work, and it’s invaluable in getting people to look at their preconceptions around why people (especially women) leave their original home countries to work.  So why did you decide to write fiction instead of a 10th-anniversary edition?

LA:  The essence of Sex at the Margins doesn’t need updating, by which I mean women’s migration to work as maids or to sell sex, the use of smugglers, the rise of the Rescue Industry.  Someone else can document the growth and proliferation of that last, if they can stomach it, but the core ideas haven’t changed.  I wanted to write stories to reach people who don’t read books like Sex at the Margins and who only hear about the issues from mainstream media reports.  The Three-Headed Dog provides a way to learn about social realities and be gripped by stories at the same time.

MM:  I write fiction myself, so that makes sense to me.  But what made you choose the crime genre?  Why not do a “straight” novel?

LA:  Crime seemed like the right frame, because everyone thinks smuggling and undocumented migration are at least technically crimes – leaving the idea of trafficking out of it.  I am a fan of some kinds of mystery writing, and the formula of a detective who searches for missing migrants provides infinite opportunities for all sorts of stories and characters.

MM:  I think you just started to answer one of my questions!  At the end of the book several questions are unresolved, and I would have liked to know more about Félix, the detective.  Is this the first of a series?

LA:  I’ve got too many stories to tell for one book.  The Dog was getting long and complicated, so I decided to make it the first in a series.  In the detective genre it’s common for some questions to remain dangling, and readers know they can learn more in the next installment.  If I’d been writing 150 years ago I might have done weekly installments in a magazine, as Dickens did with The Pickwick Papers.  In the next book, which I’ve started, Félix’s search takes her to Calais and London.

MM:  I was very intrigued by Félix, and it seems to me that she might be based on you.  Would I be correct?  And are any other characters based on people you know?

LA:  The characters created themselves in my mind out of the many thousands of migrant friends and acquaintances I’ve had in my life.  Including myself.  But they sprang forth and told me who they were.  I identify with much of Félix’s character, but I identify with much of the smuggler Sarac’s character, too.

MM:  I like that Félix has some history of sex work, and that she still seems to be comfortable taking gigs that dip into the edges of sex work.

LA:  She certainly was a sex worker during the European tour she did when younger with her friend Leila, who now lives in Tangier.  I think she still takes sexwork gigs when it suits her. I expect she’ll tell us more about that in the future.

MM:  Not many novels have well-developed and nuanced sex workers as major characters, and when we appear as minor characters we’re mostly there to be rescued or murdered.  But these characters, even the minor ones, are much more developed than that.  There was one character, Marina, who was clearly intending to do sex work, but what about the others?  I couldn’t be sure.

LA:  This is Marina’s second time sexworking in Spain.  Félix looks for two other characters in spas (massage joints) in Madrid, and one of those is adamant about not intending to be a maid.  They’re Latin Americans who belong to a long tradition of working in indoor businesses like bars and flats, or sometimes in the street.  They arrive with contacts and some prior knowledge of what they’re getting into, so it’s a serious problem when the smuggler makes them de-plane in Madrid instead of Málaga.  Of the other characters, Promise, the Nigerian, planned to sexwork in the street, and Eddy, the boy who goes missing, doesn’t intend anything but is moving in that direction.

MM: It seemed to me that their ending up in Madrid was a very big issue, even beyond the lack of connections.  Is Madrid so very different from Málaga?

LA:  Yes, Madrid is a harder place, a capital city and centre of echt-Spanish culture.  Málaga is on the Costa del Sol, crossroads for many kinds of migration, smuggling, tourism and crime.  It’s a long stretch of coast that ends in a point only 32 kilometres from Africa across the Mediterranean Sea.  Nowadays many non-Spanish Europeans from colder climates have homes there in quasi-closed communities.  The coast is by no means a piece of cake, but it’s not a cold, self-important northern city.  Personally I feel a great sense of history there and lived in Granada during the years I worked on Sex at the Margins.

MM:  So it’s a good place to find jobs that aren’t strictly legal?

LA:  This is about informal economies that exist in parallel to formal ones (which means they’re included in government accounting).  Informal economies are even larger than the formal in some developing countries.  In Spain it is not illegal to sell sex, but undocumented migrants have no right to be in the country at all, much less work there.  The same is true when they get jobs in restaurant kitchens, on construction sites, picking fruit and working as maids and cleaners.  The informal economy rolls along, the jobs are available and migrants are more or less glad to get them despite the clandestinity.

MM:  And as you discussed in Sex at the Margins, it’s this informal economy that’s depicted as “trafficking” nowadays, even when there’s no coercion involved per se.

LA:  The group that arrives by plane at the beginning are undocumented migrants.  They’ve got papers to show at the border: passports and tourist visas.  Fakery was involved, and these young people are planning to get paid work, so they’re going to misuse the visas.  A guy who’s part of the smuggling travels with them.  The project is based on the migrants getting jobs and income so they can pay back debts they or their families took on when they bought travel-agency-type services (known in crime-circles as smuggling).  Technically they’re all committing crimes, but to the migrants they feel like minor crimes, given the well-known availability of jobs when they arrive.  Everyone knows people who’ve done it and sent money home.  Do smugglers sometimes resort to nefarious practices?  Of course; it’s an unregulated economy.  But if smugglers want to stay in the business they guard their reputation.  Word spreads.

MM:  I’m sure the rescue industry folks would find fault with the fact that the book isn’t about people “rescuing” these migrants from their smugglers.

LA:  I wrote this book out of love, not as polemic.  I’d have to get paid very well to devote myself for long to analysing moral entrepreneurship; I don’t find crusader-figures interesting.  I don’t see the world in black-and-white, I like ambiguity and shifting ground.  In Félix’s interior life, questions of helping and saving play a part, but she refuses the rescuer-role.

MM:  And really, even the villains aren’t the mustache-twirling cardboard characters so beloved by those who promote the “sex trafficking” narrative.  I’m thinking about Sarac, the smuggler, and Carlos, the sex club owner.

LA:  The smugglers are squabbling amongst themselves and not very appealing, but they aren’t monsters or driving anyone into bondage.  They charge for their services.  Sarac worked as a soldier/mercenary, now does “security” and is involved in people-smuggling.  He wants to do something new, but not pimping.  Carlos operates hostess clubs in Madrid.  Those are not illegal, but he may employ illegal migrants.  He’s part of an established tradition, and he makes good money on the women’s work.

MM:  I think American readers have some very confused ideas about the sex industry and migration in Europe.  Do you think The Three-Headed Dog will appeal to them and help clear up some of those misconceptions?

LA:  Undocumented migration and working in underground economies are worldwide phenomena no matter what local culture or national laws prevail.  Ways to earn money by selling sex vary in the details, but sex workers recognise each other across national borders and talk about the same problems and solutions everywhere.  Sometimes places where laws are uglier provide more opportunities.  Since the migrants are working illegally in Spain they have a lot in common with all sex workers in the USA, right?

MM:  True; all of us are illegal here, whether we were born here or not.  Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers that I haven’t thought of?

LA:  Yes, I want to point out that even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can still buy the Kindle version of The Three-Headed Dog and download a free reading app right there.  And you can read more about sex industry jobs here at my blog.

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I don’t read much recent fiction, so it’s not surprising that I’m unfamiliar with T.J. Corcoran’s work.  He is, however, apparently familiar with mine, and a couple of weeks ago he reached out to me to ask if I’d be willing to host an excerpt from his new book (with a link to his Kickstarter at the end).  The subject matter (an anarchist society & a celebration of the “live and let live” philosophy) certainly fits here, so I said yes; judging by the blurbs he sent along he’s a controversial figure even in libertarian circles, but he isn’t the first controversial guest columnist I’ve hosted and he certainly won’t be the last.   

2064, Morlock Engineering office, Aristillus, Lunar Nearside

Mike groaned. “Wam, I do not need another fucking problem right now.  The Veleka tunnel issue still isn’t resolved, we’re behind schedule on rubble clearance because that last fucking load of bulldozers are somewhere in a orbit instead of down here where I need them, the damned Boardroom group -”

Mike realized that Wam’s eyes were wide and he stumbled to a halt. “I shouldn’t be venting at you. OK, what’s going on?”

“Problems with the Bao Johnson deal. One of the security contracts we own now is Leon’s Poker House.  A few hours ago some Mormons smashed up the place and threatened the working girls.”

“We agreed to defend Leon’s?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Leon’s, right next to all the new Mormon arrivals?”

Wam sigh. “Yeah.”

“Let me guess. We didn’t pick which gigs we took – Bao hand picked them and gave us his dogs?”

Wam winced, embarrassed. “Yes.”

“Fucking great.”

Wam was silent.

Mike sighed. “Not your fault, Wam.  What do you need from me?”

“We signed the version four security contract, so we’re responsible for adjudicating who smashed up the casino and threatened the hookers, then collecting damages.”

“That’s easy enough – the Mormons, right?”

“Yeah, we’ve got video.  But we’re not actually set up as a security firm.  We don’t have an investigator or a negotiator.  There’s no process, Mike.”

Mike rubbed his eyes, then pinched the bridge of his nose.  “You’re too polite to say it, are you?”

Wam held back a smile.  “Say what?”

“Too polite to say that this idea of using the First to pick up a security gig was idiotic.  That I got us in over our heads.”

Wam’s smile started to show. “I wouldn’t say idiotic…”

Mike waited for the other shoe to drop.

“…but I might be persuaded to say ‘not very well thought out’.”

Mike nodded. “Fair enough.”

“…or I might use the phrase ‘spreading yourself too thin’.”

“OK, I get it-”

“…or perhaps ‘a distraction when you should be’-”

Mike raised his hands and feigned warding off blows. “Stop kicking a man when he’s down.  What do I have to do?”

“Watch this video, then go talk to Mark.”

On the screen the virtual camera first focused on the marchers coming down the street, banners high.  The point of view kept retreating as the marchers advanced.  Confused Chinese immigrants stepped out of the way.  The sound slowly ramped up and the chants became louder.

Wam froze the video. “Here, on the left is Mark Soldner, LDS branch president -”

Mike sighed.  “I know Mark.”  He rubbed his eyes.  “Oh, do I know Mark.  Go on.”

“The facial recognition software has names for most of the others in the crowd, and the majority of them are all living in apartments owned by Soldner Apartments or in homes sold by Soldner Homes.”

Wam fast forwarded through twenty minutes of chanting and picketing.  “And here the first rock gets thrown.”  Then the crowd streaming inside and overturning poker tables.  Wam paused the video.  “I’ll give the Mormons one thing, they’re polite even as they’re busting the place up.  Did you catch how they said ‘please’ when they asked the gamblers to step back from the tables?”

“OK, so now what?”

“You’ve got to negotiate with Mark directly.”

“It’s never simple, is it?”  Mike sighed.  “Can you arrange a sitdown with Mark?”

“Already set up.  Three o’clock today, his place.  Address is in your phone.”

2064, Soldner Apartments office, Aristillus, Lunar Nearside

Mike stepped into Mark Soldner’s office.  Mark looked up from a stack of paperwork, saw Mike and smiled.  “Give me just one second?”

Mike nodded and looked around.  The place was nice – nicer than his own office, at least.  Carpeting underfoot, a large walnut desk, three flags on the wall behind.

Mark signed the last sheet, and then stood up and extended a hand.  “Sorry about that, Mike.  Thanks for coming in.”

“I’ll get to the point – ”

“The casino issue.”

Mike nodded.  “Exactly.  We’re insuring them, and the damage you folks caused -”

“Mike, let me cut to the chase.  You and I agree that initiating violence isn’t the right way to settle disputes, right?”

Mike blinked.  Was Mark going to apologize and pay up that easily?  “Right.  So -”

Mark held up a finger.  “This wasn’t our first protest – did you know that?  We’ve been out there every Saturday for three months.  But even after knowing how we feel – about our homes, about our community, they stayed in business.”

Mike’s face clouded and his hope that this was going to be easy disappeared.  “That’s irrelevant, Mark.”

“No, it’s very relevant.”

“The point is that you destroyed someone else’s property.”

Mark shook his head.  “We did a little damage, but it was symbolic.  The important thing, though, is that we did it only after the casino started things.”

Mike narrowed his eyes.  “Started things?”

“High Deseret was a decent neighborhood before the casino moved in -”

“Mark, this is a tangent.  The casino said said you initiated the trouble, and as far as I can tell the video backs them up.  Unless you’re going to suggest that the casino started the violence -”

“Absolutely I am.  They ran a casino in an area where they weren’t wanted.  That disrupted an entire neighborhood.  It’s not physical damage, but the violence to the integrity of a community -”

Mark saw Mike rolling his eyes, and stopped.  “Mike, I give up.  I thought I could talk sense with you, make you understand where our families are coming from, but I see I can’t.”

“That’s right, you can’t.”  He balled one fist.  “So let’s get to the point:  you owe damages.  And you’re going to pay them.”

Mark’s eyes narrowed.  “Mike, you don’t want me to pay up.  What you really want is for your revolution to succeed.”

Mike stared at him.  “What?”

“You’re disgusted with the false authority and socialism that’s been rising on Earth for the past few decades, and you want to start a new society.  A new country.  I’m in agreement with that.  We’re allies here, Mike – with just a few tactical disagreements.  And like all good allies, we can work out those disagreements.”

“What are you saying?”

“The war is here.  We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.  Do you know that quote?”

“Don’t be cute.  What’s your point?”

“My point is that if you and I are in alliance, we can fight a Revolution, and maybe win it.  But if we’re fighting each other over petty stuff like poker and prostitutes…then you and I are not in alliance.”  Mark paused and looked Mike straight in the eye.  “Let’s be brutally honest here.  You need me more than I need you, Mike.”

Mark stood and stuck out his hand.

Mike looked at the proffered hand.  “The cost of you helping out the Revolution is that I let you drive Leon’s Poker House out of business?”

Mark kept his hand out.  “They don’t have to go out of business.  They just have to move somewhere else.”

Mike stared at Mark’s extended hand.  The revolution was probably doomed even with Mark’s help.  But it was almost certainly doomed without it.

Mike hated himself for it, but he started to raise his own hand.

But if he compromised and sold out a small business, then what was he standing for?  Freedom…as long as someone richer, someone more powerful didn’t want the infringe on it?

And what was he compromising?  Not his own freedom.  No.  Someone else’s.  Is that who he was?  Someone who sold out the small fry and gave special privileges to political allies?

He felt his hand falter.

If he didn’t take this deal, he’d probably lose Mark from the Boardroom Group – and he might even have him defect entirely.  The threat to negotiate a separate peace was unlikely – but not impossible.

And if Mark signed a separate peace, the revolution would fail, and he, Javier, Darcy – everyone – would end up dead or imprisoned.

He had to make this deal.

But what precedent did it set?  If Mark had free rein to smash up any bar he didn’t like in his quest to build what he saw as a decent society, where did it end?  Zoning?  Minimum wages?  Undesirable, but people could live with that.  But would it end there?  First one compromise, then another.  How long until drug prohibition?  How long until no-knock raids, email surveillance, confessions under torture, asset forfeiture?

No.

Mike let his hand drop to his side.

“Mike, I’m not asking for much, just -”

“You’re asking for everything.”

Mike pulled out his phone and dialed.  Wam answered on the second ring.  “Wam, I need men outside Leon’s casino.  No, not guards – I want a full fire team.  Armed and armored.  And cut a check to Leon for the damages; we’ll eat this one.”

He hung up.

Mark looked taken aback.  “Mike, let me ask you to reconsider – the Revolution needs us.”

“Yeah, Mark, it does.  But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to sell out someone else’s freedom.”

Sound interesting? You can contribute to his Kickstarter!

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You must be a lost angel
Dressed in your silk lace
Born somewhere between heaven
And hell, I don’t know what place.
  –  Don Felder, “All of You”

“So, how close are you to the end?”  Abe was so startled he almost fell out of his chair; he had been so intent on his work he hadn’t heard Doris come in.  “Oh, shit, Abe, I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean to scare you!”

“It’s all right,” he lied, badly.  “Close to the end of what?”

“It was meant to be a joke; you’ve been staring at that computer screen for so long, I was implying you must be binge-watching a show or playing a video game.  Sorry about that.”  Doris now regretted the inappropriate attempt at levity; Dr. Steiner was a hell of an astronomer and had the most amazing visual memory she’d ever encountered, but he wasn’t much of a “people person” and had very little ability to hide his emotions.  And that included his intense annoyance right now, and something else she couldn’t quite identify. hubble-deep-sky-image

“Since when are you in charge of monitoring productivity?”

“Hey, calm down Abe, I really was just joking.  It hardly matters what you do while that deep-sky program is running; Dr. Wilbur usually just sleeps.”

“Sorry,” he said sharply, then more gently: “I am, honestly.  I’m just trying to solve a problem and I don’t really like what I’m finding.”

“Would another pair of eyes help?”

Steiner looked up at the PhD student; since she arrived at the Urania Project six months ago, she had proven herself both friendly and trustworthy.  And maybe a fresh perspective could make sense out of what he’d discovered; his own conjectures occupied the zone between “disturbing” and “impossible”.  He decided to risk it.  “Can I trust your discretion?”

Doris suppressed the urge to answer with a joke.  “Of course.”

“You have to promise not to tell anyone.”

“You have my word.”

He turned the monitor slightly so she could see it dead-on; it contained a badly-composed picture of this room with Dr. Wilbur and a woman she didn’t recognize.  No, wait…”Isn’t that the representative from the Foundation who was here last week?”

“Yes.”

“Why is this picture so crooked?”

“Because I didn’t want her to see me taking it, so I had to hide the phone and limit myself to a few shots.  This was the best one.”

Doris thought it prudent to let the Director explain things at his own pace; it was clear this picture was somehow very upsetting to him.  So she just remained quiet while he fiddled with the keyboard and mouse, bringing up another image which looked like the same scene from a different angle.  “Do you see what I did here?”

“It looks like you ran it through our image rotation software.”

“Right.  Then I cropped it down and sent it to a friend of mine who works with reconstructing faces from skulls, and he sent me back this.”  The next image was the same woman, but full-face; it was clearly a constructed image rather than a purely photographic one, but a very good one.  “Does that fit your memory of what she looked like?”

Abe didn’t need to ask that; he could sketch objects from memory after seeing them once.  But he clearly wanted her reassurance, so: “Yes.”

A few more clicks, and he removed her glasses, changed the image to black and white and then moved it to the left side of the screen, bringing up another photo on the right; it was an antique photo of a woman dressed in the fashion of over a century ago, and had clearly been run through a program to clean it up and artificially sharpen the resolution.  The two women were both stunningly beautiful and looked virtually identical.  “Well?” he asked, impatiently.

“The resemblance is certainly striking, but both of these images have been considerably enhanced.  We can’t be sure the original subjects bore more than a passing resemblance to one another.”

“Absolutely true.  But I can tell you that this one” – he pointed to the modern woman on the left – “is an exact resemblance of Gabrielle Ealing, whom I spent considerable time with on her visit here last week.  I never forget a face, especially one like hers.  And every biometric measurement I can apply to the older photo matches up with Ealing’s.”

“Who is the woman in the other photo?”

“Don’t you recognize her?”

“I’m afraid not.”

He looked irritated for a second, then softened.  “I forget others don’t have my memory.  Wait here for a minute.”  After he left the room, Doris continued to stare at the two images; they certainly looked a lot alike.  Allowing for the differences in grooming, they even appeared to be about the same age.  A few minutes later Abe returned with a large framed photo which Doris recognized as one of those hanging in the lobby; it had been taken at the dedication of the original observatory out in New Mexico, in 1910.  Abe tapped on one of the figures in the image:  “There.”

It was clearly the photo from which the image on the right had been scanned.  “Who is she?”

“Angela Ealing, wife of Charles Ealing, who made an obscene fortune in mining and banking and was apparently uninterested in women until he met her sometime after he turned 50.  She was the one who convinced him to establish the Foundation, and after he died in 1919 she ran it until her own death in 1980.”

Doris squinted at the picture.  “She looks young enough to be his granddaughter.”

Abe chuckled.  “Now, now, my dear, that was considered far more acceptable in those days.  According to her official biography, she was born in 1888, which makes her 22 in that photo.  He was about 60 then.”

“Still young enough to father heirs, apparently.”

“One, a posthumous son named Michael, a hellion who lived just long enough to beget a son of his own before getting himself killed in some foolishness on V-J Day.  The mother was apparently uninterested in that role, so the boy was raised by Angela.  Gabrielle is supposed to be his granddaughter, thus Angela’s great-great-granddaughter.”

“That’s quite a resemblance for sharing only one-sixteenth of a genome.”

“Indeed.”

“So what, exactly, are you suggesting?”

He sighed deeply.  “I’m a scientist, not a science-fiction writer.”

“Abe, this is just silly.  You’re an extremely rational man; surely you don’t think a remarkable resemblance is anything like evidence that Angela Ealing is still spry, hot as hell and supervising her foundation at the age of 134?”

“Have you ever read the mission statement of the Ealing Foundation?”

“Well, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but no.”

“Its official purpose is to prepare the most comprehensive map and catalog of the universe possible; to that end it has funded telescopes in every part of the electromagnetic spectrum, given scholarships to promising astrophysics students like you, provided grants to develop better imaging software, and awarded prizes to scientists who think up new ways to observe, as the statement puts it, ‘the full extent of Creation, both visible and hidden‘.  For the past 20 years its’ been heavily investing in dark matter research.”deep-sky-dark-matter

“Well, yeah, I knew all that.”

“But do you know who wrote that policy?”

“Angela?”

“Yep.  At the ripe old age of 19.”

“But…she died 42 years ago.”

“As a recluse.  This is the only existing photo of her.  Would you like to see photos of Gabrielle’s mother, who incidentally was an Ealing too?  She was a single mother and supposedly moved to Sydney four years ago.”

“Do I really need to?”

Abe answered with a few mouse clicks, bringing up another enhanced image of what at first glance was exactly the same woman.  “She didn’t like pictures, but this was manipulated from a shot taken at a reception in 1999, the year Gabrielle was supposed to have been born.”

“OK, just for the sake of argument, let’s say I buy all this.  If it’s true, what’s she after?”

Abe pondered for a few minutes, trying to find the right way to express his idea.  “Imagine you’re a traveler; not an explorer or a scientist, just an ordinary tourist.  And let’s say some kind of accident happens, and your pilot or guide or whatever is killed, stranding you in some strange place far from home.  What do you do?”

“Well, obviously try to get home in any way I can.”

“And what if you don’t really know where home is, and neither does anyone in the country where you find yourself?”

Doris looked at the three images on the screen and felt the gooseflesh rise on her arms.  “I’d try to collect as many maps as I could until I saw something I recognized.”

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For a while I was getting nervous that I wouldn’t be able to come up with a good story for the opening position in The Forms of Things Unknown.  But as so often happens, when my Muse was ready she demanded my attention immediately, and within three days “Trust Exercise” was done.  Yes, I said three days; it’s a good bit longer than the short-short stories I typically write, weighing in at about 4000 words.  I think you’ll like it, and it will appear exclusively in the new book (which looks like it will come out on schedule in January).  But because I’m such an awful tease, I can’t resist giving you this sneak peak at what’s in the box; this is from about a third of the way into the story:shadow-woman

“So who is Zoe?”

“Why, I’m surprised at you, Doctor Lang; she’s my imaginary friend.  You know that.”

“That would’ve barely been an acceptable answer when you were ten, much less fourteen.”

“OK, then, let’s call her my spirit guide.  Is that a more palatable response?”

“I’m not your enemy, Dani.  I’m trying to help you.”

“Oh, please.  You’re trying to earn a living, same as everybody else.  You wouldn’t give a damn about me if my dad’s insurance weren’t reimbursing you.”

“It’s true that helping professionals need to earn a living just like everyone else, but that doesn’t mean I don’t genuinely care.  You might think of my income as a subsidy which allows me to do the work I find rewarding, which is helping young people with their difficulties.”

Dani rolled her darkly-lined eyes and sighed theatrically.  “And you’ll still kick me out at the 50-minute mark.”

“Good job trying to make this about me.  Look, I understand why you’re upset; your mom had no right to read your diary, and if I were in your place I’d be angry too.  She didn’t tell me she was going to do it, and I would’ve discouraged her from doing it if she had.  And I really am on your side, so if you’d rather not talk about Zoe we don’t have to.”

“I’d rather not.  Let’s just call her my Jungian shadow and leave it at that, OK?”

“Fair enough.  Do you want to talk about how your mother’s violating your privacy made you feel instead?”

And so they did, and many other topics over the next couple of years.  But Zoe never came up again, because Danielle had learned it was absolutely never a good idea to mention anything about her to anyone else, no matter what their age and relationship to her.  As she had aged the visits had become less frequent but longer, and more likely to occur when she was alone; she was also much better able to answer her shadowy visitor’s questions, and she began to understand that the reason for her confusion in the past was that Zoe and the others had never adapted their questioning to a child’s intellectual level, almost as though they hadn’t understood that she was a child.  But as that aspect of their interaction grew steadily less frustrating, another grew steadily more so:  Zoe absolutely refused to discuss anything about herself and the others, or to answer any of Dani’s questions.  All she ever said in reply was, “I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me.”

And you, dear reader, will have to trust me that the rest won’t disappoint you.  You only have about a month to wait!

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Say to her, “My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here.”
 –  Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Prayer to Persephone”

Every year it’s the same; by the time August rolls around Mother has become so overbearing I can barely stand her, so it’s a good thing that’s the start of her busy season.  By the beginning of October she always turns morose, knowing as she does that I’ll be leaving soon, and on the night before I depart she lets loose with such a lugubrious display that a stranger might be forgiven for thinking that my annual return home was something new rather than a ritual we’ve enacted countless times since my youth.  The part I hate most is the tearful goodbye when the carriage arrives; that’s so awful I once tried to sneak out before dawn so as to avoid it, but Mother carried on so unbearably about it for the next several months that Father asked me to promise never to do it again.

asphodelAt least it’s mercifully short; for all her drama she knows better than to break our pact by excessive delay, and before long we’re past the lake and through the tunnel, and I can really relax for the first time in months.  I nearly always sleep through most of the journey; the pomegranate wine my thoughtful husband always sends along acts as a balm to my frayed nerves, and the gentle rocking of the carriage on the dark, cool, quiet road lulls me into the blessed rest I get so little of in my Mother’s bright, noisy house (where it’s impossible to sleep past dawn).  But after we come down onto the plains the road becomes rougher and the number of stops more frequent, and I remain wakeful the rest of the way home.  The sight of endless fields of asphodel brings peace to my soul, and when at last we reach the river I get out and sit beneath the willows to wait for the ferry.

Sometimes the wait is short, and sometimes long; even my driver, who has made the journey more than anyone else, is unable to predict so as to plan his trip accordingly.  Depending on my mood I’ll read or play solitaire, and if time permits I’ll have the driver go among those on the riverbank who lack the proper fare, and distribute it to them from my own purse.  Sometimes I even speak to the others waiting at the landing, especially if there is some notable thinker or entertainer among their number; on occasion I’ve even invited an especially-interesting person to ride the rest of the way with me, but the offer is rarely accepted.  It seems very few wish to arrive at my house any more quickly than absolutely necessary, and though I certainly understand that it still makes me sad.

Fear of the unknown is, alas, a fact of the human condition, and unlike me most only make this trip once.  Rather, they only recall making the trip once, but that’s a distinction without a difference.  So while I’m always happy and relieved to come home, the vast majority are reluctant or even terrified, and know nothing of my hospitality.  That is not how I would have it; were it up to me, I would periodically invite every poet and philosopher on Earth for a great feast at my mother’s house while I’m there for the summer, and tell them all of the beauty and rest which await them in my husband’s domain.  But the first time I mentioned that idea Mother wailed and tore at her hair, declaring that my beloved had warped my mind and begging Father to have the marriage annulled.  And once again, Father took me aside and asked me never to broach the subject again.

That’s the way it always is when I bring up my real feelings about virtually anything, except when they happen to agree with hers.  Though I’m older now than she was when she bore me, Mother has never actually accepted me as an adult, and I doubt she ever will.  She simply wouldn’t admit that I was not very much like her, and refused to believe that I found every nice boy she tried to fix me up with dreadfully boring.  But when I finally expressed an interest in a tall, dark, handsome, commanding and unbelievably wealthy older man, she suddenly decided that I was too young to be married and totally ignored anything I, my suitor or even Father had to say on the subject.  Eventually, I was so annoyed at being treated like a child that I eloped with Father’s blessing; I guess none of us recognized the depth of Mother’s possessiveness, nor the degree to which she was determined to relive her life through me (correcting every mistake in the process, naturally).  She told everyone who would listen that my husband had “groomed” me, that he had taken advantage of my low self-esteem, that he had plied me with expensive gifts and sweet words, and that he did not “really” love me (as if love were something whose purity could be determined with a touchstone) but only wished to “exploit” me.  When I explained to relatives and other concerned parties that this was not the case, and that I was an adult who could make her own choices, Mother declared that my husband had damaged my mind with hypnotic powers, and that I couldn’t be trusted to know what was best for me.  And when those who knew me found that theory rather dubious, Mother adopted a scorched-earth policy and filed rape charges against my husband, swearing that he had abducted me before the eyes of my horrified playmates.  Yes, she actually used the word “playmates”, as though I were still in the nursery.

Obviously, something had to be done; given Mother’s high position and the damage her extended tantrum was inflicting on everyone, there was no way it could be allowed to continue.  She wouldn’t listen to anything my husband had to say, and Father was stuck in the middle; it was therefore up to me, and despite Mother’s low opinion of my maturity I understood that someone had to be an adult here.  After consulting with my husband we decided that I would offer her a deal:  I would live with her for half the year and my husband for the other half.  Of course, that wasn’t good enough for her, and she demanded and threatened and carried on until we had to call in my great aunt to mediate.  We finally agreed to my living with her from March to Octoberpomegranate and my husband from November to February, and that he would be allowed to visit me periodically while I was at her house.  Of course, she did her best to be inhospitable while he was there, so eventually we decided on the occasional secret tryst at some other locale while she was otherwise occupied.  And in the interest of serenity we didn’t try to counter the silly tale she spread about how I had been “tricked” into staying with my husband even a third of the year; his fearsome reputation would’ve made countering her claims a difficult proposition at best.

So that’s my story; quite different from the version you heard, isn’t it?  I reckon it doesn’t matter; people believe what they want to believe, and some of them even seem wedded to the delusion that they can indefinitely avoid this riverbank, though none ever has since the dawn of the world.  I don’t need to convince them of their folly; like it or not, they’ll know soon enough.  And then they’ll cross on this ferry as we are about to, and come at last to the lovely lands beyond, which they have been taught all their lives to fear.  As for me, I’ll soon alight from this carriage into the waiting arms of my husband, and tonight we will dine together in celebration of my long-anticipated homecoming.

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Five years ago, in the introduction to “Concubine“, I wrote:

I must admit that I’m surprised I’ve been able to deliver [a new story] every month; I always used to say that unlike my dependable and constant Muse of Nonfiction, my Muse of Fiction was like a sulky girlfriend:  when she wanted me she demanded my undivided attention, but when she didn’t want me I couldn’t even get her on the phone.  But ever since “The Trick”, she has visited me without fail at least once per month, usually without my even having to beg her…

ClioI repeated the joke in the foreword to Ladies of the Night, and until last year it was true.  But as my available time shrank and my commitments increased, I found that inspiration often came more slowly, and I had to beg a lot more often.  Fewer of my stories were (in my own opinion) really inspired or especially memorable, and the ones that were revealed a lot more of my soul than was the norm before.  Several of the stories came to me literally hours before publication, then this past February I cheated by letting someone else tell a story, and last month I quietly and unceremoniously slipped another type of essay into the usual story slot.  But if I keep doing that y’all are going to notice, so here we are.  Some ideas were bouncing around my brain, but as of this writing none of them has gelled and I’m very tired and about to go and get myself a milkshake.  So what I’m thinking is, I’m going to take a brief hiatus from fiction; the next story I think of will be an exclusive for my new book, The Forms of Things Unknown, which I plan to start compiling this coming week.  I know this kind of sucks, but consider that I’ve had an almost unbroken run of one story per month for six years; that’s 72 stories in all.  That’s really very damned good; I don’t think many writers are that prolific.  I also don’t think my Muse has really returned to her old sulky ways; she’s probably just tired and wants a little vacation.  Or maybe she’s suffering from PMS, or thinks I’ve been neglecting her.  Maybe this is her way of getting me to do the book.  But one way or another, I’m sure she’ll be sending me inspiration again in short order, and I’ll soon be serving up new tales on a regular basis again.  And if not, it was a good thing while it lasted!

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