A 2021 Finalist for the WSFA Small Press Award
From the Thirty Years’ War, sung as a lullaby to orphans:
Der Vater ist im Krieg,
Die Mutter ist im Pulverland,
Pulverland ist abgebrannt.
Fly, ladybug, fly!
Your father went away,
Your mother died in the pulver’ed lands,
Those pulver’ed lands have burned to ash.
Fly, ladybug, fly…
Chiron in the First House
Féli wanted the pain to end. She looked over to where the soldiers had left her mother dead, skirt torn, blood on white skin.
Féli wanted the pain to end. Why was the strange melody, that strange song, echoing around in her head? She’d heard it sung before, to a small child wrapped in dirty rags and clutched to a trembling breast.
“Ah, Liebelein.” The voice was smoke, like the smoke licking the sky at the corners of Féli’s vision, where something in the distance had been set aflame—a plundered house back in Magdeburg, perhaps. Sometimes, it seemed like all the world was fire. “You poor darling mine.”
Voices were not like smoke, but this one was. Féli turned her head to see it, even if she hurt, even if she bled onto the dry grass that cradled her; even if she could still smell them all over her.
A man stood at the opposite corner of Féli’s vision, dressed in clean clothes. He looked like he’d had enough to eat all his life, but like a man who fidgeted and never put on too much weight as a result. Féli tried to speak, but the noises came out garbled. They had beaten her when she’d resisted, and her face was blood, her teeth rattling and broken, and something was wrong with her jaw.
“Liebelein, would you like to bargain with me? I imagine you might desire vengeance.” He took a step toward the center of Féli’s vision and wrapped the scene in a gesture: Féli’s mother, Féli herself, the broken, torn things; discarded rags, used like the axeman’s block. “You cannot speak. I’ll call the deal complete if you nod, and do not worry about suffering; they’ll receive it, tenfold. Double that, if I am feeling leisurely.”
Féli knew she was dead meat, precious meat in this time of hunger. Féli wanted the pain to end. She swallowed, tasted the color of her own blood. Behind the taste, behind the pain, Féli glimpsed a want, drawn in blood on white skin.
She nodded. His voice covered her like smoke as he sang her a lullaby.
Féli was healing. She felt her body, its bright rage at having to mend everything that had been severed, but the flesh obeyed, the bones obeyed.
Her eyes obeyed as well, and she opened them to see.
“Muhneküpchen,” said the voice of smoke. “You are back with the living.” He walked into her field of vision and filled it, just like he had done before with his smoky voice. He held a cup of wine in his hand, drank. “Well, not quite with the living. We’re in Hel, and there are few alive here, but it’ll do.”
Féli jolted upright, and the taste of color blurred her vision. Around the stranger, she saw a room, lavish, stone-cut edges whose straightness was smoothed with brocade draperies in sweet cream and chocolaty purple. The colors tasted like confections on Féli’s tongue, and the dark, green-veined stone was charred sugar with a sprinkling of salt.
This did not look like Satan’s realm.
“You’re the devil?” It came out less as a question and more as a fear. He had horns, this man who was no man. The horns coiled against his skull from under lush locks, dark and smooth as polished steel. Féli wondered why she hadn’t noticed them when she lay bleeding. “Did you cause the war?”
He stared at her, drank more wine. “I’m Zagreus. The devil doesn’t exist, but humans can worship shit like flies and act no better than worms. And this is Hel, named for the mistress of the dead, the lady whose face is half in shadow even when she walks in light. Once, she passed into this world by sacrificing seven parts of her self to open seven doors carved from bone, and now she never leaves.” He sat down on Féli’s bed. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d slept in a bed after they had fled Magdeburg. “You remind me of her, Muhneküpchen.”
“That’s not right,” Féli said. “It’s called a Muhküpchen, and it’s not my name. And you have horns and you blaspheme, so—”
“Muhne means moon, little ladybug. And don’t call me the devil because of the horns, that’s offensive. Here.” He handed her his wineglass. “This is divine.”
Féli took the cup, and as she did, she recalled he’d promised vengeance.
“The men,” she said, not sure how to speak more of them. Her body ached at just that, her body shivered. She took the wineglass to her lips and drank, and the shaking stopped.
“Come,” he said. “I’ll show you.”
They were lying on slabs of stone like altars, naked. Féli trembled, and her heart raced. She didn’t even remember all their faces properly, or remembered them too well.
“Don’t fear them. They don’t deserve that,” Zagreus said and took Féli’s hand.
“What have you done with them?”
“They are suffering countless terrors in their minds. I know they seem still and at peace, but look at their faces.”
Féli did. They were edged with fear and horror. Sometimes, there was just a shadow of movement, but it was gone before Féli could be sure it had ever really been there.
“Here,” Zagreus said. He held out a knife to her.
He shrugged. “I’m feeling leisurely. Isn’t there something in that book of yours about cutting off offending limbs?”
Féli looked from the knife to Zagreus, from his handsome face back to the knife. Then she looked at the men.
“You said this is where the dead are,” she said. “Is my mother here?”
Zagreus nodded. “She is with my mother, which means she is at peace. But she would not still your hand.”
“I know,” Féli said and took the knife and walked toward the first man. His face she remembered. His face festered like a sickness in her memory, a tumor, a blister filled with pus. Blood on white skin.
Féli hadn’t died, and yet she had. The knife was steady in her hand.
Venus in Opposition
Times had changed, and the war had finally ended after three long decades, and that had been decades ago. Féli hadn’t changed, at least not on the outside. Paris was a city alive with aspiration, with Louis the Beloved reigning it and all of France, and Féli loved it here, loved that she could forget how easily cities could fall.
“Lift your chin, chérie,” Louis said, auspiciously named like the king. But Louis was a painter, and his studio, the tall walls and stucco ceiling, it was a palace of sorts, but not Versailles.
“You like putting me on canvas,” Féli said. She lifted her chin and shifted her thighs.
Louis bent past the canvas to grin at her, something roguish in his eyes. “I do. You are beautiful.” His eyes dropped from her chin to her thighs, and Féli sighed. She hated that Zagreus had sent her to Louis, to help him paint, to help him reach that transcendental place in his art that he had bargained for with Zagreus.
Louis dipped his brush into green paint, and Féli could taste it, the freshness, the earthiness of the color. She could also see Louis react to her in other ways. She remembered the ease of a blade, and her heartbeat slowed again. Decades. Zagreus had given her vengeance for decades. But it was still there, blood on white skin.
Féli hadn’t changed in all those years after she should have died, raped and left for dead.
Then again, she had.
“Come, let me show you how I see you,” Louis told her as falling night bruised the horizon in the most delicious dustings of pinks and purples, berry tastes and thinned wine.
Féli reached for her robe and walked to the painter, his hands stained with all the color between mint and dust and uncooked meat.
Louis was good. After a bargain with Zagreus, there was no way he wouldn’t be, but for Zagreus to bargain in the first place, there had to have been some talent there. Féli fancied that she saw it, in the lines and curves of her face, her hips, her breasts.
“Aren’t you beautiful,” he said. Then, as if he had a right, he put his arms around her, rested his hands on her breasts.
“Let go,” Féli said. Blood on white skin.
She tried to shake him off, but Louis laughed in her ear. “You’ve been teasing me, chérie, ever since you came to me. I won’t be teased anymore.” One of his hands dropped from her breasts to glide down, but before he could touch her, Féli reached for what Zagreus had given her, just like she’d reached for the knife he’d offered her.
She was wild only in the sense that vines alone could hold her, and she was ruthless only in the sense that she moved as if the wine controlled her limbs.
She was faster than Louis could have been, faster than he could understand. She had claws now, and teeth, she alone could have torn to shreds any bard who came floating upward from the underworld and refused her his song. Féli tore out Louis’s throat with her claws and let her voice ring through the studio like so many silver bells.
When it was done, she stood there in the taste of peeled apple skins, breathing slowly. Her robe hung open over one shoulder, and the hem trailed wetly on the ground.
“Muhneküpchen, look at you,” Zagreus said. His voice was smoke, and his form detached itself from the nightly shadows that had fallen. “I had such hopes for this one to make his name known all over the world.”
“He was rotten,” Féli said.
Zagreus looked at her, her skin marked with the spatters of tart apple peel. He examined her, but Zagreus’s eyes never looked at Féli with the wrong thirst the likes of which Louis’s gaze had held.
Then, Zagreus’s eyes looked to the canvas. He examined Louis’s work. After a long moment, he nodded. “He was rotten. He never deserved to drink my wine. I hear there is a circus in town. Would you accompany me, Muhneküpchen?”
Féli brushed the apple taste off of her. “First, I need a bath.”
She went to find a servant, and behind her, Zagreus tore through her image painted by Louis’s selfish desire.
A Trine of Sun and Moon and Jupiter, the Luminaries
Féli remembered the circus in Paris while she sat in a café by the ocean with Emma. Emma didn’t paint; Emma was a writer for the pictures. When Zagreus had exchanged cups with her, when he’d returned to Hel, he hadn’t been able to stop himself from talking about her. If Féli didn’t know better, she’d have proclaimed Zagreus in love.
“Tell me what it was like, the circus, I mean,” Emma asked. She wore pants and bright red lipstick. Her nails were painted the same color, but the polish was chipped where the typewriter nipped at her fingers.
“The smells come to mind, but you cannot show them. Sweat, sun-warmed skin, beer on the workers’ breath.” Féli closed her eyes while Emma began jotting down notes in a small volume that went everywhere with her. “The fabrics were rough, the wood of the benches grainy. There was a ringmaster in red, wearing a fake beard, and a harlequin looked at me as if she knew me from a former life.”
Féli could scarcely remember why they had started talking about the circus in Paris. Zagreus had taken Féli a few times, and Féli had thought he’d spotted something in one of the artists, but eventually, they had just returned to Hel.
“Were there lions?” Emma asked.
Féli considered this while she reached for her cup and took a sip. “There are always lions, Emma.”
Emma wrote, sometimes through the night. All that she needed of Féli was conversation and that Féli be there as the ink poured out of Emma.
Féli enjoyed this part, the part where she was at the center of something that she was really no part of. The artists created, and their faces showed how the birthing of the art pained them, moved them, rattled through them like wind through dry bones. Féli was a glowing silence that did nothing while all of that happened.
Emma wrote from dusk to morning and from there almost to midday. When she was done, Féli couldn’t see what Emma was typing, but Féli tasted it in the smooth, licorice-like sound of the typewriter: THE END.
Emma put that last page on the pile of her work and went to bed, dropped near dead from the long birth of her creation. Emma always slept alone and always wanted to sleep alone. The only comfort that she sought was perhaps Féli’s arm around her shoulder, but that was as physical as her attraction to Féli—or anyone, for that matter—would ever go.
As Emma slept, Féli read the screenplay. It was called The Lions in the Ring. It was perfect.
Emma, who had completed over thirty screenplays before she was given suffrage, kept shelves lined with prestigious awards. The Lions in the Ring, the recognition it had attracted with magnetic force, had its own corner where the original leaned bound, pages yellowed with age. But recently, the shelves grew no more. Emma had not managed to sell any of her screenplays in a long time.
After the war, increasingly, Emma’s sex had been judged, not her words.
“I cannot do it anymore,” Emma confessed, sitting in front of the same old typewriter that had always ruined her nail polish. “I just can’t. Tell him I need this to be over.”
Féli rolled the black beads of her necklace, a gift Zagreus had given her, between her fingers. A Muhneküpchen needs her black spots, after all, enough that counting them brings luck, he had said, and fastened the clasp under Féli’s hair.
As Emma bent her head in front of her typewriter, Zagreus appeared, almost as if he’d always been there, listening from the shadows.
“I tried,” Féli told him, and she had. She liked Emma, because Emma never tried to make Féli hers or make her into something that she wasn’t. “I tried everything.”
Zagreus nodded. He pulled open a book that appeared in his hand much like he appeared in the world, a shadow woven into reality like an afterthought of a capricious god. He made a note, the noise of pen against page smooth as silk on skin. Féli could taste the ash in the swirls of ink, the cooling cinders underneath.
“It’s done,” he told Emma. “Our deal is concluded.”
Emma nodded and finally looked up at him. “I thought you were the devil, you know. But this—” she indicated all her achievements, all the words that bent her shelves, “—this has been the greatest time.”
Zagreus smiled. “I agree.”
“I have to go now,” Féli said, and it was in equal parts apology and question, a plea for the contrary to be true, and a regret. But once Zagreus made the entry in the book and marked the exchange as concluded, Féli had to leave.
The room was silent for long minutes while Zagreus stood like harvest cooling under the moon, while the writer sat and regretted how the world had changed, while Féli wanted time to stop.
It ended when Zagreus clapped his hands.
“Maikäfer flieg…” he sang with his smoky voice, and took Féli’s hand, and walked with her, toward seven gates carved from bone that stood open now for all that needed them, gates Féli could walk through when Zagreus guided her.
Saturn in the Twelfth House
In a time when air travel and space exploration had become normal, Thea was a wonder. When Féli first saw her, after the painter had finished two whole cups of wine with Zagreus, Thea tasted of fruit and bark and water and grass, because paint clung to her. Thea was never clean, and her atelier, a minimalist room with large windows and the ashen taste of white walls, was surprisingly spotless in comparison to its artist.
Thea had painted a marvel in the space of a few hours after her head was still heavy with Zagreus’s wine, after Féli had walked into the painter’s atelier.
“I call it Shadow of Winged Insects before a Flame,” Thea told Féli.
Féli got up from the uncomfortable chair she had been sitting in to look at the canvas. Ladybugs and maybugs, Féli thought, her jaw going slack in surprise.
“I don’t know what came over me,” Thea said. “Fuck. Has anyone ever told you how hot you are?”
“You painted ladybugs,” Féli said.
“Yeah. And you’re hot. Or do you not do that? Flirt with your… what am I even to you, the chick you inspire?”
“Why did you do that?” Féli asked.
“Be specific,” Thea said. “And if you don’t want me to keep on trying to hit on you—”
“I don’t mind that,” Féli said. “But why ladybugs and maybugs?”
Thea shrugged. “I was looking into your eyes.”
“Will you call me Féli?” Féli said on a whim. She’d never given anyone her real name, and Zagreus had warned her about that, about tying her name to the artist’s lips, the tips of their brushes, to the echoes of their hearts.
“Féli. Suits you, lucky girl. So do you want to come to bed with me?”
Féli wasn’t sure she wanted to, and she wasn’t sure she didn’t want to. She examined the ladybugs, their dark spots like beaded luck against the fire. She decided she wanted to try.
Thea filled canvas after canvas, and she slept with the sickly sweetness and the drying salt of the colors sticking to her skin. Thea pulled things onto the canvas that Féli had never told anyone, including Zagreus, and Thea made these things real once more.
The Anatomy Lesson was the first painting that reached for too much. It showed several stone slabs, bodies on them. Bodies that had once been whole, but no more. Féli knew the scene Thea had painted, knew it intimately, because she had created it while Zagreus had been there to hold her when she shook with emotion, when she thinned the apple-peel-red taste of everything with her own tears. She had remembered it again, blood on white skin.
Thea had painted the ledge of a building, a view of a city Féli had recognized. The sight rattled Féli so deeply that she looked up Emma on the internet; the screenwriter, unable to write and no longer willing to live, had flown into the underworld from the ledge of her building, and Thea had painted the sight just before the fall.
“How are you doing this?” Féli asked one morning, dressed while Thea was still in her underwear but painting. It was a harlequin this time, and she had Thea’s features under the mask of a different age, a different place.
Thea made it to the atelier only rarely these days, and so her apartment tasted of lavender and mint and coal, and the canvases kept piling up.
“Doing what?” Thea said. Before the harlequin she had just finished a painting of Féli herself, sitting on the beach, a beach Féli had visited with Emma. Next to Féli’s knee on the beach towel, there lay the music box Emma’s mother had given her, and as she saw it, Féli knew Emma had let it play when she prepared to jump, had wanted that melody to be the last thing she ever heard.
“Thea, you shouldn’t be painting half the things you’re painting,” Féli said.
The shadows shifted, and smoke filled Féli’s mouth. “I agree,” Zagreus said. He walked toward the painter as the shadows let go of him, but Thea barely even acknowledged him.
Halfway, he looked Féli up and down, then half-naked Thea. He knew the single-minded frenzy a cup of his wine could induce, and Zagreus without a doubt knew desire. Féli had no doubt he knew also what she and Thea had done all night.
“Why is she painting like this?” Féli asked. “I am not making her do it.”
“No,” Zagreus agreed. Then he shrugged. “You see, I am not sure, but Thea seems to know how to look at the world clearly, see the scars behind the smiles we draw to hide them.”
“And what does that mean?” Féli asked.
“It means she paints what she sees.” Zagreus put a hand on Thea’s shoulder. “If you could stop, that would be best for you. You will exhaust yourself.”
“I don’t want to stop,” Thea said. She signed her name to the painting and exchanged the finished canvas for a blank one. Then she picked out a brush and dipped it in a sweet caramel hue and began anew.
Zagreus sighed. “Well, this is less than ideal.”
“Emma killed herself,” Féli said.
Zagreus looked at her. “I know.”
“And why didn’t you tell me?”
Zagreus walked to her and reached for her hands. “Because you hate to see something you care about die even if you know few things will ever survive you.”
“He’s a beast, that one,” Thea said, but Féli wasn’t sure who she meant; Thea was painting lions.
Féli had convinced Thea to go to the atelier, even if Thea had been reluctant to leave her apartment for the past few weeks. Zagreus, all shadow and smoke, had followed.
The rules of the bargain were simple, yet total. Féli had to stay while Thea painted, truth onto stretched cotton, truth distorted in dried apple rinds and strong sage, in rose and rich raspberry.
“Does she sleep still?” Zagreus asked. He had brought wine. They sat on the floor in front of Thea and her canvas as she worked, drinking as the artist painted and ignored their presence.
“She doesn’t anymore. What if I did this?” Féli asked.
Zagreus tilted his head, the ridges of his horns shifting the light reflected off of them. “Oh, Muhneküpchen, have you become a witch?”
Féli looked at the ground. “Zagreus, what if my loving her did this?”
He laughed, loud as bells, and the smoke of his voice filled the room. “Muhneküpchen, you are as the moon; you love nothing and no one.”
Féli snorted. “Like you?”
At that, he stilled. He said nothing.
“I was just supposed to inspire her,” Féli said.
“And you did.” He drank more wine. “And Emma jumping was her decision. Some of us need to fly, sometimes.”
“You sang to me of flying, Zagreus.”
He nodded. “And I meant it, and you did. Now look at you, my ladybug. Your face has moved the ages.”
“You gave them wine, because they bargained for words or the perfect picture, the perfect lick of brush against canvas.”
Zagreus nodded. “And yet, they needed you to steer that, which you did.”
Féli stilled. She thought about lions. “You knew what Thea could do when you gave her your wine, when you put her name in your book.”
Zagreus shrugged. “I guessed.”
“Because you hate to see things that you care about die.”
Zagreus stood as if roused from anger, but Zagreus had never shown anger. “She bargained for her art, but she also bargained for a sturdier heart. So that she’d have more time to paint, Maikäfer. Thea was about to die when I first met her.”
Thea, as if she had only now realized that things were happening outside of her canvas, got up from her stool. “I didn’t want to die, but he told me he could only give me so much time.” Thea pulled an envelope from the pocket of her jeans and handed it to Féli. “I wrote you a letter. As a goodbye. I wrote it a while ago.” She handed the letter to Féli, who took it.
“We should go,” Zagreus said.
“No,” Féli said.
“There isn’t much more time, and I need to finish the painting,” Thea said, and sat back down, sticky with custard and beetroot, with rhubarb and lemon.
“No,” Féli said.
“I’ll stay with you, Muhneküpchen.”
Féli touched the black dots of her beads, counting them, for luck. She hadn’t cried in ages, and doing so now hurt. The letter in the envelope soaked up the wetness even as she bruised the paper in her crushing palm.
When Thea died, her work just barely finished, Féli raged, and Zagreus let her. Féli raged against the skin that held only death, hoping against hope that the love she had would birth another maenad from a corpse. After all, Féli had been more dead than living, and she had healed into her being. But that didn’t happen for Thea. Thea was just dead. She’d broken all the fingers in her painting hand herself, so as not to leave anything unfinished, she had said, so as not to start anything she couldn’t finish. Her eyes had been heavy with apology.
“Why do you call me that?” she asked Zagreus after a long silence over Thea’s cooling corpse, torn by Féli’s rage. By her grief.
“Muhneküpchen? Because the moon knows no pain,” Zagreus said.
“You always take me back through the gates when we return to Hel,” Féli said. “What if I went alone?”
Zagreus walked toward her, took her hand. “You’d have to sacrifice seven parts of your self, one thing at each gate, to make the journey. But I can’t promise one of them will be your memory of her. I can’t promise it won’t be.”
“You’ll be waiting?”
“You called for me when you were dying, and I came, did I not, Muhneküpchen? Yes, I will be waiting, if you want to walk alone this time.”
Seven gates, and seven parts of her self. Féli nodded. She took the first step.
It had been only six. The last gate had been open, just a crack, open like Thea’s coffin when Féli had come to say goodbye for the last time. Féli had sacrificed the letter, placed it in Thea’s cold and broken hand, because she didn’t need the words. Féli knew.
“You have the beads still,” Zagreus had said when he had offered her his wine on that side of the seventh gate.
Féli had reached for her neck, and indeed, the dark orbs were still there. “I guess I still have my luck.”
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Lighter,” Féli said. “The pain of the memories is gone, even if the memories are still there.” They were, red and white, but they no longer rotted inside her, no longer festered.
Zagreus nodded. “A weighty sacrifice.”
“It was,” she said. “One part of it on each of the six gates.”
“And the largest for the seventh,” Zagreus said.
“The seventh gate stood open,” Féli said.
Zagreus opened his mouth to respond, then closed it, shaking his head. “Ah, Muhneküpchen.”
Féli kissed his cheek. “Thank you,” she said. Then she sang.
Féli picked her mother’s tongue. She was an orphan after all, and the song hers. Hearing it no longer pained her. After all, she felt light enough to fly.
Der Vater ist im Krieg,
Die Mutter ist im Pommernland,
Pommernland ist abgebrannt,
Alexandra Seidel writes strange little stories while drinking a lot of coffee (too much, some say). Her writing has appeared in Future SF, Cossmass Infinities, and Fireside Magazine among others. You can follow her on Twitter @Alexa_Seidel or like her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AlexaSeidelWrites/), and find out what she’s up to at alexandraseidel.com. As Alexa Piper, she writes paranormal romance books which have been rumored to make people laugh out loud in public. Such rumors please this author.