Before time began. An island of exiled gods at the edge of the world.
Here, earth is stars unwound.
The god Basari has been here forever and a little more. His crime? Unable to bear the idea of death, he tricked the Queen of the Underworld into a boat that sailed for the end of the universe. The Queen found her way back, of course; she always does. And she returned with a demand for retribution on her tongue.
“Send him to a place where life does not exist,” she said, then paused, wondering if that was enough. The Council of Gods held its breath as galaxies spored and collapsed, spored again.
“Better still: send him to a place where life is uncertain.”
So Basari was banished to a world where he presses the bones of the dead into rock and clay and sand. He breathes softly on the remains of fallen creatures, covers them in peat and layers of time, unsure whether he wants them to be hidden forever or one day found and live again. He does these things without thinking, letting his hands move through the earth and her elements, as though humming a harmony over a bass resonance, unwittingly writing a melancholic tune.
One day, the sun shines a little brighter, the ocean is kinder with her tides, and Basari’s voice finds a different refrain. He doesn’t mean to sing to life a girl from clay and the ribs of giants. Doesn’t mean to take ten millennia of existence and sculpt it into something small and kind and curious. How can he know that he is shaping sadness and searching into flesh and bone? But as his song dies away, there she is.
“Mary,” he calls her, and she answers with a smile. He knows that the more complicated the creation, the simpler the name should be. There are rules around such things that should not be broken. The right name, Basari knows, can contain a creature in its form, within the boundaries to which they are born.
Sometimes the rules are wrong.
At first, Mary is content to walk with her father as he tells her stories of forgotten peoples, galaxies he created and burned, worlds that he will make for her. They speak of smaller things, too—the indigo flowers that open their faces to the sun each morning, the soil of the deadlands that smells of burnt sugarcane at sunset.
Mary is the only constant against Basari’s uncertainty. He clings to her, tries to keep her by his side, but the Council of Gods has done its work well. This is not a place where anyone, least of all the daughter of a god, can settle. Too soon, Basari’s stories are no longer enough.
Mary hears the fungi chanting, far away, and asks her father, “What are those sounds?”
He answers the only way he knows how. Basari sings for his daughter, shimmering tales of love and loss, horror and brightness in all his notes and the spaces in between. It never quite dies, but weaves itself around her, trying to make Basari Mary’s only home. To make her forget the call of places where earth is stars unwound.
Basari cannot see that she is simultaneously too big, and too small for that. As he sleeps, in the wake of the only lullaby his voice will ever know, the mountains and the forest call to Mary. In answer to her father’s song, they cantillate life, life, life across the deadlands, where the fossils of expired gods lie like dying stars, collapsing under the weight of forgetting.
She smiles, laughs a little as she walks toward them; toward the place that begins to unwind into something other. Something more. Where the air is different, crackling with promise.
The rain drizzles through the canopy as she wanders the wildwood that covers the foothills. Beneath her feet, the fungi deep in the earth hums. Its voice is like the beating of an infant’s heart. For a moment, she is back in the beginning, being shaped under Basari’s hands and voice, her bones shining with the cobalt light of new life through eggshell-fine skin.
Mary stops in a clearing, feels the rain on her skin and opens her mouth to catch drops on her tongue. She spins once, twice, an almost dance, and sniffs the air. The smell of rich loam and the ocean-salt tang of rubus-flowers tickle her nose. Yet there is something unsettling. She stands very still, waiting. The beating below the ground quickens and the fungi around her climb the trees, dying off on the forest floor and sporing on the damp bark. As though running from something.
She tenses, her body coiled tight as winter bracken.
A flash of lightning opens the sky, a creator wrapping her arms around the universe. Then another, an arc of wild energy earthing at her feet. Bright, hot pain courses through her and everything goes black.
- Dorset. United Kingdom.
A crack of lightning through the dreary sky and the first fat raindrops. The three women in heavy crinoline skirts, watching the polo match, take shelter under an old elm tree. The youngest holds a toddler in her arms. The child, Mary, blinks placidly as the thunder groans and the storm gathers.
The sky splits again, an arc of electricity striking the highest point; the elm tree. It crackles through the wood, lighting up the trunk from within and setting the leaves aflame. The women do not even have the chance to scream as it blasts them off their feet.
As they lie broken and smouldering, the horsemen shout and dismount, running toward them. They gather the baby from the damp ground onto which she has been flung. She has no pulse. One bolts for the doctor, another cradles her gently, places his fingers at her tiny wrist, her fragile throat. Wait! A flutter, irregular, yes, but there. Steadier now, steady, then the child gasps and opens her eyes.
The lightning has brought something extraordinary with it, across time and space, and fixed it into a different shape. The accidental daughter of a forgotten god who, a few moments and millions of years before, had stood in a forest on the edge of the world, is now a babe in arms. Mary remembers none of that, the time before curled, fossilised, inside her. Unknowing, she stares out upon the strange world into which the lightning had brought her, reborn.
“You’re too rambunctious for a young lady!” Mother says for the umpteenth time, but she smiles all the same, waves to eight-year-old Mary, who dashes along the shoreline, surefooted despite the slippery shale and loose rocks tumbling into the sea. If she could run to the horizon and beyond, she would, to escape everything: her ridiculous skirts and frills; the loneliness of unbelonging (she knows it isn’t a word, but it’s the only one that’s right for how she feels); her very self. The horizon, however, has a most troubling habit of constantly moving away, no matter how fast she chases it.
She skids to a halt, her brother’s frustrated yells as he tries to keep up with her finally fading away. Spying a hidey-hole in the base of the cliffs that hug the beach, Mary scrambles up toward it. It is a shallow cave, just big enough for her to sit in, her head almost touching the roof. She feels like a lost explorer, like those in her brother’s books that she reads secretly in the lavender patch behind their house, until he starts calling her again. Wanting to hide for as long as possible, she lies on her back, pulling her feet up and trying to make herself as small as possible.
Staring up at the ceiling she blinks once, twice, sure that her eyes must be playing tricks on her. Instead of smooth rock, there are indentations: whorled snail shells, delicate fish skeletons, feathers, and peculiar, stick-limbed creatures that are almost familiar. Calmness settles inside her, like nothing she has ever felt before. They are like me, she thinks. Here, yet not here. Like something waiting to be born; for real life to begin.
She reaches out, tracing them with her fingertips. Her touch leaves a trail of faint blue light, like a nebula of dying stars. As she pulls her hand away, it sheds three fingernails; pinky, ring, middle. It does not hurt, or bleed. It is as though she simply does not need them anymore. A roar, primal and uncontrolled, curls from the pit of her belly and she feels as though she might burst out of her very skin.
The roar turns into a yelp as her brother grabs her ankle and pulls her out of the cave that, for a moment, felt like home.
The alleged wisdom of the early nineteenth century is not kind.
Fossil hunting is no decent choice for a woman.
But for Mary, now twenty-nine and constantly combing the seashore for its hidden treasures, it is not a choice, but the very thing that she lives for. She could no more stop this than the ocean could decide it would no longer tide. What does it matter, anyway, whether people think she is respectable? Her parents are both long-passed and her brother has gone to London, from where he sends perhaps a Christmas card or letter, when he thinks of it. There is little to tether her to a world that she does not fit.
Today, dusk has come and gone, and the night is pinned with stars bravely holding back the darkness between worlds. Waves shush upon the shore and, in the moonlight, Mary gently shifts the pieces she has found that day into an endless array of permutations.
coiled shells mathematically precise,
Although she would not speak of this to anyone, she is looking for an answer in the poetry of fossils. She is looking for a way to explain to herself who she is. These remnants of the past speak a language that she understands. Lock them with one another, they sing of a different soul. Unwind, shift into another combination, and they whisper of worlds beyond the wide sky that concertinas and multiplies itself across time and space.
But today the waves continue to shush and the heavens do not open to reveal any secrets to Mary. All she knows is that she does not fit this body, this form, so tiny and insubstantial. She stands, walks to the water’s edge, and howls out to the sea. The only answer is a flutter of memory of dank forests and bones that shine like infinitesimal universes trapped within flesh.
Years pass and Mary writes secret, ephemeral poetry with shells and bones she finds on the shale shores. Once, she thinks she has found what she is looking for. The next morning, she wakes to find her body has shed her ears, in the way it shed her fingernails so long ago. They lie on her pillow like pale pink seashells. Although it doesn’t bother her, she changes her hairstyle to cover that strange absence.
But other than that one time, no matter how hard she tries, the answer is never quite there. Sometimes, she gets close and she thinks she remembers things that can’t possibly be true. A deep voice telling her that the blood of giants runs through her veins. A long-ago lullaby that made the earth tremble beneath her feet. The very first time she awoke, under a pale-gold sky, cradled in impossible arms. A lightning storm that split the world open forever.
Then comes the night of the new storm, fierce enough to uproot trees, and send mud and rocks tumbling down cliffs into the sea below. The landslide is loud enough to wake Mary and she sits up, turns on the gas lamp, listening to the tempest shriek and crash, as though the gods themselves are warring from all corners of the earth. She fights the urge to run outside, to let the gale lash at her. To carry her away.
Dozing, she dreams that she is an enormous creature swimming through the depths, floating in briny currents and diving down to the crushing dark where molten rock bubbles up through the ocean floor. As though, at last, the fossils have formed the ballad that has freed her. Waking just before dawn, as the squall quietens, she is unsurprised to find salt drying on her skin.
She doesn’t bother with her coat when she leaves the house, even though the rain mists and spits. It is still dark, but she wants to get to the shore before anyone else, to comb through the earth the landslide has opened up.
The early, grey light shows that a great chunk of the cliff has given way. Rubble has piled up on the water’s edge and the beach is, for the most part, impassable. She walks toward the site of the slide, heart beating fast. With her gloved hands, she shifts the soil, brushing it away from what lies underneath. Mary works until her fingers are cramped and her knees are bruised from crawling. But, at last, there it is. The skull is long, its elongated bill filled with rows of sharp teeth. The eye sockets the size of both her fists held together. Its spine stretches out behind it, elegant and fine: the ribs are precise and perfect.
Exhausted, exhilarated, Mary removes her gloves and reaches out to gently touch the spindled bones of its flippers. She closes her eyes, imagining—feeling—the creature gliding through the depths, darting from the leviathans of the deep, breaching toward the glittering sunlight.
Should she lie down next to it, it would easily be three times her height. The creature’s size fits the wanting that waits within her. It is part of a world that is constantly remaking itself, but that does not forget. It tells her you are part of something vast and much larger than most can imagine.
She turns toward the horizon. In the moment before the sun spills over, a cobalt aurora blazes across the sky. Mary calls out and it opens like a fan. From far beyond, her brethren call back. She begins to slough off her human form, running her fingertips from collarbone to belly, cutting through the fabric of her clothes and opening a seam in her skin. Unbuttoning her jacket, she reaches inside, peels the seam back, opens up the body in which she has lived for so long. The arms goes limp as she slides along the tendons and muscles fitted to the ulna, the radius, the clavicle, prying apart the rib-cage then reaching out from inside. With that one reach outside her human form, it is as though she can breathe properly, for the first time. Bending, twisting, she slips out of her skin, discards it like the ill-fitted suit it always was, leaving it lying alongside her last and greatest find.
Uncontained, she is as sharp and pale as moonlight, and shines across the ocean to unwind the stars and breathe life into galaxies curled tight inside the fossils of gods.
Suzanne is a Melbourne, Australia-based writer, a graduate of Clarion South and an Aurealis Awards finalist. Her stories have appeared in anthologies by PS Publishing, Prime Books and Falstaff Books, and in Metaphorosis, Mythic Delirium, and Lackington’s, among others. Suzanne’s tales are inspired by fairytales, ghost stories and all things strange, and she can be found online at suzannejwillis.webs.com