“Most ghosts, when all is said and done, do not do much harm.”–E.F. Benson, “Caterpillars”

She liked NASCAR via surround-sound speakers:  the rev and whine of engines rattling the china cupboards in their little Italian villa, echoing across the hillside village.  He liked gaudily colored knick-knacks–doilies, cute ceramic dolls, figurines of farmers and barnyard animals.  These held them together because these kept away the ghosts.

It hadn’t always been this way.  As ambitious young sculptors, they attended University of Texas at Austin during the “DotCom” bubble.  They saved enough to sculpt the rest of their lives in Italy, eying quaint villas outside Rome where they’d visit Western society’s greatest works of art at their whim–especially the Italian Renaissance, which they felt they had a foolproof plan to reinvent.  All they had to do was invest aggressively for ten years, and they’d live happily ever after.

In ten years, the housing bubble gobbled up much of their savings.  Enough remained to buy a remote Italian villa, just not near Rome.  “Villa” may have been too kind:  ceramic gargoyles falling off the rooftop at the hint of wind, a battered if tasteless cupid water fountain, moth-eaten draperies, decrepit furnishings–a haven for wandering ghosts.

Into these quarters, ghosts slipped in and tipped over alabaster sculptures or knocked the half-formed granite gulls from a windowsill–how had it gotten there?–or whatever the couple had been working on.  Critics, no doubt.   The car noises and atrocious crafts warded away most ghosts, but not altogether.

The villa’s decay and their art’s attrition infected waning late-night caresses.  They cohabited together alone, in separate bedrooms among the rubble of their sculptures.

One night leaning out on the veranda smoking a cigarette, he spotted something glowing below in the water-fountain’s basin.  He fetched it out and cradled the foot-long, grub-like creature into the light of his wife’s bedroom.  A ghost banging a shutter caught sight of the grub and fled.

He laid the grub upon the sheets between them.  Water slicked it satin carapaced belly.  His wife cooed, stroked its abdomen which squished and sloshed as though it held a chunky, viscous liquid.  Its pincers squeezed his finger hard enough to tickle out a drop of blood.  He babbled in a prehistoric tongue.

She laid a hand on his cheek, brushed his forehead with the backs of her knuckles.  She thought of days soaking up the sun on Padre Island, of blueberry sno-cones and beignés, of ridiculously floppy straw hats, of his warmth next to hers.   He grabbed her hand and kissed its palm.

Another new cabalist joins us today, Jen Larsen, whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Flytrap, and Nimrod International Journal, among other places. Fittingly enough, her first story at the cabal begins with a beginning…

When I was born, my mother tore me open from neck to gut and peeled my  skin away. My slick and bloody pelt hung from her fingers, and I was  left pink and screaming raw. I was born a seal, and she stripped that  from me. My father, in the next room, waited and paced. Terrified. Full of resolve. Or stupid hope.

Survival is a pure and animal instinct.


My father had loved God until he saw my mother. On the deck of Staten Island Ferry, he gripped the rails and focused on the pale skin of his knuckles, the iron smell of the sea. My mother’s face broke like a closed fist through the surface of the water. When she opened her eyes he thought, blacker than the waves. She rested a small white hand on the hull and looked at him with a smile that stripped him bare. She knew all the terrible things he had ever thought, and ever would. His heart broke because she wasn’t real. His heart broke because she was more real than anything he had believed in.


My mother smoothed my pelt down over her knees, and settled me in her arms. Salt water and blood dripped through the bedclothes, and the iron smell of the sea. She called to my father, her voice like the riptide, and he was helpless.

I looked like him. Shock of ginger hair and a knob of a nose. I made tiny fists like he did when he stood in front of his congregation, spread out as far as the horizon, dipping back over the curve of the earth, their faces as remote as the bottom of the ocean. I was quiet in my mother’s arms, so pink and so new. A lighthouse flare of desperate hope. He still believed in Original Sin. He still believed.

My mother said, “Come closer.” She smiled at him with sharp white teeth.

He took a step, and another. He came close enough to touch me. He put out a delicate finger to brush along the arch of my eyebrow. And when I opened my eyes he saw that they were as black as the space around the navigable stars, and he was lost.

I had a dream last night. But Emmot did too, and hers was much stranger; Margery and Constance and I all agreed. I heard it from Emmot at noon, when Maud sent me back to Baker’s, again, for having brought home the wrong kind of bread. I was sore angry, for it’s only Maud’s fussiness that makes the bread wrong. At least this time it gave me the chance to hear Emmot’s dream.

Emmot said: “I dreamed I was in a house, like a lord’s house, only small. There was a window glass, clear as water, and outside snow was falling. But inside it was like summer, though there was never a fire or torch. And such furniture — and everywhere soft pillows.

“Then they brought out strawberries, and oranges — though it was dead winter! — and told me I might have all I wished. And oh, I haven’t said, but there were books in every room. And all the people all had gold and silver on their hands and arms.

“And then… Is this not the strangest part? I asked them who kept the rooms for them, and who did all the cooking. And they said: ‘In this house we have no servants. And everyone has gold and silver, Emmot, and books, and a warm room. And oranges in winter. Even you.’”

“Was it not a strange dream?” she said again. And we all nodded, and went away thinking; or at least I did.

As for my own dream… well, last night I dreamed that my mother was alive again, and the baby too: his face looked like Father’s. My mother laughed and said how tall I had got, and like a woman. She stroked my hair, and said: “Don’t be afraid, my Mariot: I know your secret fear, but put it aside. I shall watch over you, and be your midwife and physician at need, so you and your children will live.”

You see how commonplace it was. We all see our mothers when we’re asleep: Emmot does too, and Margery. (Constance still has her own mother. But she’s supposed to be due again in the summer, so we will see.)

My dream was not like Emmot’s. Mine was only an ordinary thing, with no mystery about it, and none of that strange feeling dreams can give you about how there could be a different world, or what things might be like otherwise. So I know there is no use thinking or talking about it any more.

A girl walks by the water, counting the shells with single-sentence stories inked onto their spirals.

One: A fish wed to a man produced five beautiful children, who each became a queen of the tides – as liminal an area as their own forms.

Two: Around the ancient shipwreck, serpents fail to summon djinn and wishes from barnacle-encrusted amphorae.

Three: The coral palaces went hunting, to snare seahorse finials and eel spires.

In a whole day, only three shells. This is how the girl knows that the squid queen is dying.

She remembers the days when every other shell wore a story, in that strange language that only the girl, of all land creatures, can read. When the stories began to diminish, she reacted like a human: floated out boxes of medicine stolen from her father’s cabinet, scattered the tides with herbs that the internet recommended as general cures.

None of it has worked.

Unable to swim, and too frightened by her father’s tales of rock-smashed fishermen to try, she cannot reach the queen and ask what she needs.

So she counts and hopes. She thinks: surely the queen will find help and recover.

Three. Only three.

And, the next day, none.

Her father laughs. “Finally! No more reason for us to stay by the sea, motherless child, if that creature is gone and can’t curse us anymore.”


The girl refuses to believe in the squid queen’s death.

But, as her father begins travelling inland to view new houses, she realises that the sea will be taken from her.

“I bet the squid queen is getting angry at you,” she says to her father. “You’ll see.”

At night, she sneaks out of their house and writes her own story on the shells. Some she leaves on the shore, to trick her father; others she throws into the waves, in case the squid queen has sisters or cousins. Or other daughters.

Her story: I am at the ocean’s edge, learning how to swim, waiting, if you’ll take me.

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