TWO NEW STORIES FOR FEBRUARY, EMPIRE STATE BEAUTY, HAPPY THINGS!

It’s currently too cold to go outside, and I’m too deadlined to be in the world, but so far this month has been extraordinary. I went to North Carolina to ABA Winter Institute to talk to a bunch of wonderful independent booksellers about MAGONIA, my soon-to-be-YA-debut, and while I was there I hung out with so many amazing authors I can’t even count them, but they included Nova Ren Suma, Gwenda Bond, Kelly Link, Michele Filgate, and more.

Here’s a photo from Winter Institute, taken by Michele. I look happy because I am levitating. I can’t WAIT for Magonia to be out, and I was having so much damn fun.

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Life is sweet.

Last night I got to do something stunning involving a rooftop covered in snow, champagne and steam, so I’m in a glad mood. Also, the Empire State Building was wearing Valentine’s Day lights, which in this case were red and had heartbeats. Here’s a link to the video I took, and a still as well.

https://www.tumblr.com/video/mariadahvanaheadley/111104785935/500/

image-24

And if you like that, of course, you should look at my last year’s Valentine’s Day story, THE TALLEST DOLL IN NEW YORK CITY. This image of the Empire State Building could be from the story itself.

AND HERE, two new and free stories for February!

The first is a giddy loopy romance for Valentine’s Day, involving snails, mail, mythology, love letters, an albino elephant named Lemon, and me enjoying myself by screwing around with the irritatingly gendered tropes of true love.

IVORY DARTS, GOLDEN ARROWS

“…Embedded in a tree, though, there was an arrow, and this a hundred years past those first wars. Fletched with a red feather, and bearing a golden tip. She tugged it from the bark and considered it. It was very, very sharp.
“I’m the postmistress!” she shouted. “Don’t shoot!”
Miss Kisseal squinted. “You’ve received a letter down in Fley,” she said. “I’m only trying to deliver it to you. You might try to behave yourself, whoever you are.”
Miss Kisseal took a cautious step. Feathers, yes, a mess of them. White, pink, and red, like those accursed lovebirds. The feather wearer raised its face and smiled. It had eyes the shade of violets, and lips the color of roses. It had been made for loving. She’d never seen anything so beautiful.
“What are you, then?” asked Miss Kisseal, somewhat taken aback.
“A monster stranded by snow,” it said, and quick as that it had somehow shot another arrow, this time hitting Miss Kisseal’s mail sack, no doubt spearing X-ray glasses, or damaging someone’s paper crown. She looked at this arrow. Silver tip. Ostrich plume. The creature was showy if nothing else.”

READ IT ALL AT UNCANNY MAGAZINE: http://uncannymagazine.com/ivory-darts-golden-arrows-maria-dahvana-headley/

***

The second story is a love story too, but a sadder one. Water nymph, monster in the ocean, impossible, intoxicating love, and a festival of sacrifices:

AND THE WINNERS WILL BE SWEPT OUT TO SEA

“Sometimes, when I sit out there, I see the monster under the surface, the tension scraping over its scales. It’s big. What I can see of it is only a spine, or a tail, sometimes, and then it’s gone. I sit on that rock, looking over the edge, and think about how I used to love swimming. When I was a girl, I could hold my breath for a month. I’d sit on the bottom of a river in the mud, or on the pebbles, and wait for the season to change. Once I tried to come up but the river had frozen, and I ended up swimming just under the surface for a while, waiting, waiting, until I found a fisherman by seeing his shadow. The fisherman had made a hole in the ice. He was crouched beside it, with a thermos and a fishing pole, and I rose up naked from beneath him. I took him in my arms, and he screamed with such terror that ice cracked elsewhere, a spiderweb of fractures, trees black and leaning, wolves howling, and his blood in my mouth. I was not sorry.”

READ IT ALL AT LIGHTSPEED: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/winners-will-swept-sea/

And here’s an interview I did about the story: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/nonfiction/author-spotlight-maria-davana-headley/

BEST OF EVERYTHING 2014: THE ECSTASTROPHE EDITION

I don’t usually do best of lists, because I love too many categories and because I also have no capacity to declare Favorites. I would be a terrible creature on a prize jury, loudly calling out that I loved all the finalists (and as loudly calling out that there were things I hated on principle that ought never be given prizes). So, this is a Best Of Everything list instead, or, perhaps just a scattershot list of things I loved this year. I spent most of 2014 writing, not reading, which drove me crazy. One of the things I wanted most was time to read, but I’d require an extra month to do it, so on this list are things I fell into reading while on subways. Subways are my Sundays.

This year, my tastes in art ran to the crossed genres, song cycles in which grief creates the ecstatic, books in which death creates space for last bits of beauty. I spent a lot of the year sad, and a lot of it furious, often both at once. I also spent a lot of the year surrounded by love, and impacted by the passion and curiosity of the people I know, the way they engage with their communities, the way they work at changing the world.  It’s been a year of social revelation and revolution in America, much of it painful. We lived this year theoretically in 2014, but much of our custom and action dates to the shivering shit of centuries past. There was injustice, cruelty, and failure to parse even simple truths. There was also passion, bravery, ferocity, and dialogue, all of which are the best parts of living human here on earth. So, some of my favorite things this year were about those topics too.

I’ve been thinking about the old hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing? It’s from 1869, written by the American Baptist Minister Robert Lowry. The original isn’t entirely my sort of thing, because it’s very rooted in Christianity. But it got some new verses in 1950.

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?

Pete Seeger covered it, and made it into a famous folk song. This version is very much my kind of hymn: it acknowledges pain, injustice, and suffering, while also acknowledging the possibility of joy and shifts in current realities. Here is the Springsteen version of it.

I’ve been especially interested this year in traditional narratives given new spins, old materials transformed into new stories set in our present surroundings. I’ve been wrangling with folklore – not fairy tales so much, but stories that are more prosaic, the ones about magic solving nothing, but existing anyway. I spent the year reading a lot of history and a lot of tales categorized as history, but…not.

Here’s a wild-eyed selection, much reduced, of some of my favorite things from 2014.

I’ll put them under the heading ECSTASTROPHE, a combination of ecstasy and catastrophe. That’s what this year has been for me at least, and it’s the art that speaks to me too.

BOOKS

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel rocked my soul.

It’s beautiful writing about (in part) life in the traveling theater post-plague, and given two of my first obsessions as a teenager were rat-borne catastrophic plague and Shakespeare, well, essentially this book was written to my personal specs. It’s elegiac while remaining energetic, which is something I rarely see in contemporary lit. I think we’re all, at this moment  in history, engaged in a state of perpetual goodbye, and this book is about that condition, while also dealing with what it means to begin again with damaged hope in a changed world.

The Book of Miracles, Taschen. I got this as a gift last January, and it inspired me all year.

It’s a facsimile version of a stunningly beautiful illustrated manuscript dating to about 1550, and it depicts apocalyptic weather and eerie celestial phenomena painted in a style that reminds me of the Surrealists mixed with, say, the paintings of William Blake. Rains of blood, and suns like decapitated heads, exuberant colors, naive outlines.

It’s a depiction of shock, and of the creation of beauty in the midst of it. It made me cry the first time I opened it, handed sheepishly across a table to me by someone who said, “I had to buy it for you. There was nothing else to be done.” Yes. And so, everything I wrote all year was ecstatic catastrophe. But that’s about right for this moment.

STORIES

The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Machado in Granta. A ghost story, but much as I said above, it falls into the category of energetic elegy, and it also has a classic feel while being rooted firmly in our world, this moment, the particularities of our present system of injustice and misogyny. My favorite kind of ghost story, this one mourns a life as it is lived. It’s sexy as hell, and complicated as hell, and it has the following line in it, which made me make a noise of empathy for former lives of my own. Maybe this is simply often what it means to live as a woman in this world, with the structure of the world designed to accommodate the needs of men rather than women.

I look at the face of my husband, the beginning and end of his desires all etched there. He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all.

This is a story about how good men can destroy women with their normal desires, their wishes for a life lived to be gloried in by men instead of a life survivable (or perhaps even enjoyable) by women. It’s about living a whole life while being mortally wounded. I’m a Machado fan full stop, but this one is particularly brilliant.

A Girl Who Comes Out Of A Chamber at Regular Intervals by Sofia Samatar in Lackington’s Quarterly. This story is a searingly political and feminist riff on automata. Read in conjunction with the Machado story above, you’ll come out feeling bruised, but renewed by language and content.  This story is an automaton’s dream of the present day, the world consumed in war and vengeance, combined with a list of tasks assigned to a woman made of gears. It’s blistering.

What is the nature of things? The mechanism works perfectly for years; then one day it breaks…That’s how it happens. One day something springs loose, and the clock stops. The clock is bleeding.

I’m a big Samatar fan both personally and professionally. She is simultaneously ferocious and kind, and her work is as well. This story is no exception. I’ve been thinking about it for months.

Polynia by China Miéville at Tor.UK. This one’s a bit of a gimme, because I edited several versions of it. That said, it’s always been exactly the kind of story I love, and it’s on point with my best of Ecstastrophe theme. Because I got to work on it, it also inspired me through months of my own writing this year. It’s a story about icebergs in the sky over London, and an expedition that goes up in an attempt to assess them. It’s also about life on the ground among children. It’s a story about loss and complex resurrection.

In Stepney a newsagent was taking every other publication out of his shop window and filling it with, of all things, copies of New Scientist. ‘I tell them,’ he kept shouting to someone inside. ‘I keep tell them.’ He waved a magazine at me jovially. ‘Look,’ he said.

On the cover were photographs from an arctic mission which took place years before I was born, icebergs rising from the water. Next to each of those images was one of a mass over London. The frozen slopes and slices and cracks were the same. The crags overhead were close to identical to those that had once floated in the Antarctic.

‘Look, they melt!’ he said. ‘First they melt and now look they come back.’

The icebergs are ghostbergs, reconstituted in the air after their disappearance from Earth. And this story, about ice, itself always a potential ghost object, something that can change form and disappear with only a touch of warmth, well, this is a story about everything I’ve been thinking about this year. China often writes about wonder paralysis, the moments in childhood when the world, normal to those who’ve been in it, looks like unspeakable magic to those new to a place or a lifetime. This story is full of that, and is as well a confession of typical cruelties, but done in such a way that it is an earth-wide confession of the accumulation of typical cruelties and the effects of same on, well, life on Earth.

NONFICTION

I read lots of nonfiction this year, and am most annoyed with myself, because I have no idea at this point what I read. It was often frenzied clicking, and so much of it was beautiful and topical. These two things stick in my brain here at the end of the year, but there were many more.

A Resourceful Woman by Jeff Sharlet on Instagram. Hybrid photoessay about Mary Mazur, living in a motel and telling some stories about her life to this point. It’s about America, eating and trying to eat, listening to the people upstairs whether or not they’re real. It hurts. It’s vital.

“They think I can’t do nothing,” says Mary. “But they don’t know.” They: The three brothers she says live upstairs, the three ding dongs, she calls them. Her three children—rather, she insists, the children she bore—gone, but some ghosts won’t leave. “They turn off my lights, they change my channels.” She makes her hands into fists. Grins. Stands on her one good foot

Some Regulations for Your Rage by V.V. Ganeshananthan

I watched this being tweeted last August as Ferguson grieved the murder of Michael Brown. I spent that afternoon feeling a bunch of similar rage and re-tweeting it myself. It’s furious and funny, satiric and so not. It’s a manual for life in this moment, and I love it for its reality as much as I love it for its immediacy, elegantly done in extreme short form.

Your rage should be constructive and look for solutions, rather than simply existing for itself.

Your rage can be something when it grows up.

Please make sure your rage is logical rather than emotional. Your rage will have a hard time if it is overly sensitive.

We would advise your rage that it should bring along a resume and/or CV with a timeline of proof.

If only your rage had had two parents. Think what it could have done!

THEATER

Ghost Quartet by Dave Malloy. This is a song cycle based in old lore, the English murder ballad The Wind and the Rain, much altered. It also mashes a lot of other stuff into its wild couple of hours, including Poe, 1001 Nights, a contemporary subway murder, a story about a bear and an astronomer… Yes. It’s a compendium, with an underlying story about ghosts, guilt, and love, attempts to atone over centuries combined with attempts to avenge over centuries.

I love the way you see the world.

I love the way your soul sings.

I wish that I could sing like you.

I wish that I could feel things.

Part of Ghost Quartet is performed in pitch black. There’s something about listening to a show that way, feeling it move around you, and there were warnings about the dark in the program, but for me, it was an unadulterated joy to feel heavenly song rise around me while I sat on some bleachers on earth, holding hands with a guy with whom I was in the process of drinking some serious whiskey. A sister kills her sister. The dead sister is washed up and her bones are made into a violin. Now let us listen to it play.

Tristan & Yseult by Knee High Theater Company, directed by Emma Rice. Medieval love triangle done with both hilarity and empathy. I’ve never seen something in which a classic story of a cheating bride, a cuckolded husband, and a hot lover is treated with so much love and loyalty for all parties, but it is here. That’s the only way this tragedy works. Everyone has to love everyone else.

This is a story about real love. Also, there’s a rendition of Emily Dickinson’s Wild Nights, done as a song, that could just kill everyone in the theater with its beauty. It’s stunningly staged, and man, it’s very sexy. I love sexy theater.  I love non-naturalistic theater. As time goes by, I find myself increasingly taken with theatrical productions that don’t attempt anything close to echoes of reality, but instead go with swings suspended over audiences, and high notes that, if heard in life, would cause one to call for emergency services (as heard in Ghost Quartet.)

Kontakhof, Tanztheater Wupperthal, Pina Bausch Company. This is a 1978 examination of courtship ritual on a dance floor, love and other humiliations, repetetive acts of hope and violence in human interaction. 

I saw this one twice, actually, once from the floor and once from the balcony. It’s a long show. Sometimes I regretted seeing it twice, because I was driven crazy occasionally, but that was the point. From the floor the show is vastly more playful and sexy than it is when seen from above, from which vantage the movement across the stage looks like pain, high heels look broken, and repetition, purposefully engaged in to examine the pain inherent in pleasure, shows something deeper about aging and attempting to find faith in love. Perhaps this is the difficulty of the god spot. Were we all watching from on high, maybe we’d have more empathy for the ridiculous and kaleidoscopic patterns of attraction, and more than that, even, the similar patterns of warfare. This Pina Bausch piece is a timely view given the last year in crowd-sourced misogyny. There’s a notable long section involving a woman being initially of minor sexual interest, and then of too much interest, poked and prodded by a crowd of men. There’s also lively love, though, a young couple disrobing shyly and slowly from across the stage from one another, again paralyzed by awe in admiration of one another’s stunning flesh. Ultimately, the piece left me twitching with uncertainty, and longing for a dance with clear steps, or an improvisation with follow through, which I think was exactly what it meant to do.

MUSIC

I listen to tons of music while I write, so my appreciation of it is all about whether or not it cues my brain to leap into a writing state, which for me is actually a pretty ecstatic place to be. The perfect writing songs, it follows, are made of distilled emotion. I like many things, though, and have many musician friends, so the distilled emotion ends up being a range from furious feminist rap to peculiar new klezmer songs, at least lately.

Rival Dealer –  Burial. This came out in the last days of 2013, but I didn’t hear it til 2014, so it’s listed here.

A million layers of everything from dreamy electronica to percussion combined with a repetition, over and over in the first song of the phrase “I’m gonna love you more than anyone.” (sampled from…something Gavin DeGraw, but what the hell, we have a theme here). We have sitar and pouring rain and a painful joyful excerpt from Lana Wachowski’s speech about being transgender. The whole thing listens like a broken dream of half-remembered childhood degrading tape deck Mannheim Steamroller run over by a fast car in a thunderstorm and the longed-for sound of a drive in movie screen three miles away playing Golden Age films to an audience of no one. End of the world noises, but full of hope and themes of love. The final song on the EP repeats the phrase “you are not alone.” Basically, it’s just transcendently beautiful.

D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah, Really Love. Whole album, really, but the way this one starts all whispers and Spanish guitar and turns into rapturous declarations of love. Come on. It’s irresistible. The rest of the album is full of fever and spike, and there’s nothing like a voice like this declaring anything. It works. This is more than a sexy album. It’s an angry beautiful album, and that’s the criteria here.

Ben Holmes & Patrick Farrell, Gold Dust - So, yes, an accordion & trumpet duo. Listening to this album in conjunction with this one wrote a very crazy 8000 word story about Bremen for me, basically, and I particularly note the song Black Handkerchief, with which I am obsessed. It starts out slow and mournful and rolls into something that is both a dance and a triumphant arrival of ferocious animals in careful procession. Or so it sounds to me. Before this year, I’d never listened to much in this category, and now I’m not sure what was wrong with me. Lately I’ve been sitting in dark rooms listening to extraordinary musicians playing music drawn from about ten traditions at once, and it’s a pleasure. It’s like reading a great lore anthologies, but the living, breathing, weird-improv version.

Phox – Evil. This is a vengeance song, done sweetly, with brass and flash. It has been a soundtrack, because within its pretty, it contains the words “I know that evil will find its own demise.”

I do. But I always think that evil can be helped along a bit on its way out, by art, by invention, by innovation.

By ecstastrophic creation, making new things in the face of collapse and sorrow. Lighting the world brighter, sharing one’s love. My last few months have been impacted by generous strangers right and left, people taking my hands on the streets of my city. I look around me, at these people I don’t even know, and, here, at the end of 2014, how can I keep from singing?

I look at cruelty being exposed, at injustice being discussed, at some of the wrong assumptions and horrible truths being shown to people who never knew about them before. I look at people marching with their neighbors. I look at people realizing that they are part of the solution.

How can I keep from singing?

I look at this art, on this list and not, things I read and heard and saw and didn’t manage to list here, my friends creating astonishing things all year long, and how can I keep from singing?

Thank you, terribly beautiful world. You are worth living and loving in.

2014 Writing in Review

It’s twitching toward the end of 2014, and so I’m posting this as a clearinghouse of stories and novellas for your reading/ordering pleasure. It’s all the items in print this year. Wheeee! There are many things, in many styles, from dark horror to light comic trilling. What can I tell you? I am a Gemini. I hope you enjoy them – most of them are available with just a click!

It was a terrific year in writing, with a huge highlight in THE END OF THE SENTENCE hitting the NPR Best Books of 2014 list (!!!) and another highlight in the launch of Uncanny Magazine, with If You Were A Tiger I’d Have To Wear White in the inaugural issue.

NOVELLAS

THE END OF THE SENTENCE: A Novella. Subterranean Press. Cowritten with Kat Howard. (33K, October, 2014)

This is a literary horror-fantasy novella published in hardcover by Subterranean Press. It’s a story about ghosts, guilt, and redemption, and it’s set in rural Oregon, stuffed full of a lot of folklore and myth. Kat Howard and I wrote it together. It got lots of lovely reviews, and made NPR’s BEST BOOKS OF 2014 list, which is a glorious surprise!

*

“This novella is as dark and rich as European drinking chocolate, both in the story it tells and in the way it’s written…Kat Howard and Maria Dahvana Headley’s separate styles blend beautifully here, as do myth and folklore, in this intricate and elegantly forged plot.” – K. Tempest Bradford, NPR Best Books of 2014

*

“The End of the Sentence only really represents an evening’s reading, but be prepared to feel the fallout of this fairytale—perfectly formed from a hodgepodge of half-forgotten mythologies—for far longer than the few hours it takes to unfold.”
– Niall Alexander, Tor.com

*

“How to succinctly describe this elegant, eerie, deeply meaningful book? (Or did I just do so?) Dahvana Headley and Howard collaborate so seamlessly that after less than a page I’d completely forgotten there was one author, let alone two: The voice of this mythologically tinged ghostly murder mystery captures the reader immediately, and the rest is less a matter of that voice not letting you go than you holding on for dear life.” - Bethanne Patrick, The Bookmaven

*

EXCERPT:

I didn’t feel alone. The house felt occupied, but I spun, and no one. Paranoid, Malcolm, no sleep since Kansas.

I stepped again into the entryway. I thought about taking my pack and running back down the road to town, the bus, but I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket, and I had nowhere to go. Everything in my life was gone. I opened my hand and uncrumpled the letter.

Here I stay, one hundred and seventeen years after my capture, waiting for release. My sentence was two lifetimes and a day, for the lives they say I took, but I didn’t commit that crime.

 And your crime? Did you commit a crime, Malcolm? Are you running from something? I can help you. Your son is not gone. There is hope.

I rely on you now, Malcolm. You’re my own, as has been everyone who has lived in my house.

With anticipation,

Dusha

 I held my knees and pressed my back against the wall, feeling the house shake with me. There was a sound in the kitchen. The opening of the refrigerator door. The opening of a cupboard. Haunted. My house was haunted. I didn’t look up. I didn’t move. I shut my eyes and listened to liquid pouring into glass. .

 When I opened my eyes again, some time later, there was a glass of pale, yellow wine beside me, and a note in that same shaky hand.

 Drink.

 *

WHAT THERE WAS TO SEE: A Novella – Subterranean Online (Summer, 2014. 19K words)

The unlikely history of the first human corneal transplants,  along with a story about the last wild German bear.  Literary horror and ghosts, along with science. I love this novella, actually. I worked on it for a long time, and it required tons of scientific research, so it was a pleasure to see it out in the world.

*

“This story is based on actual historical events, and I like how Headley blends what little the historical record gives us with her own invented truths. It’s an ode to the many women who have assisted in medical breakthroughs, be it by doing the research and work or being experimented on, and whose names have been erased, accomplishments and assistance reduced, voices silenced.” - K. Tempest Bradford, io9

*

EXCERPT:

“Mother,” Beate said, adjusting her eyeshades, tugging her hair away, seeming to peer out the window. “Stop.”

There was something visible, hanging in the trees, or at least, Beate assumed the unseen things from which the thing dangled were trees. From the way it moved, hanging by its neck from an unseen rope, they might be passing an old gallows. She slid across the leather to get closer to the window, and stretched out a hand to hold herself in place, but it was gone.

“Nearly there, and a time we’ve had,” huffed Johanna. There was a piece of boning stabbing her, just below the left breast, and there was no way to get at it. Instead, she fussed with her daughter’s hair. Fräulein could not be made to care about such things.

Beate was calm. The train wasn’t the worst place. The things she saw were nearly invisible at that speed, most of the time, and they rarely noticed her. Early in the journey, she’d seen a bad one, but it had eventually left her alone, drifting back to the front of the train where it belonged. Beate wasn’t sure if it was male or female. Once it had leapt before the train, and now it was part of it. She could only make out its mouth, and that spoke ceaselessly, a maddened murmur. She could hear it now, though it had returned to its place beside the conductor, watching the snub-nose of the train, opening its mouth from time to time to taste pipe smoke.

The things Beate saw in substitute for what other people saw were much more than just light and dark. She was familiar with faces that had disappeared from flesh a thousand years prior to her birth. Her closest companions had lived in her bedroom since she was seven. The house had been built atop a plague burial. They’d moved house several times because of her affliction. There was no place where the dead were not. Every building, every room, every small garden plot. Everything had something buried beneath it, and if you thought things were green and gold, you were wrong.

The ghost she’d seen first on this journey had curled into her lap in order to whisper. She couldn’t see her own skirts but she could see the stains its blood had left on them. Sometimes the space around her body was defined only by the presence and spoor of ghosts.

Another ghost was sitting beside her mother, looking expectant. She shook her head at it, but it looked at her hungrily anyway.

*

SHORT STORIES

IF YOU WERE A TIGER, I’D HAVE TO WEAR WHITE (Uncanny Magazine, November/December 2014, – 5366 words)

This is a fantasy story about the Jungleland Theme Park in Thousand Oaks, CA. It’s set in the late 60’s, at the very end of the golden era of animal actors, and includes Garbo, Gable, Mabel Stark the tiger trainer, Mr. Ed, and the MGM Lions, among many other things. The animals are sentient, and classically trained actors. A journalist tries to get an interview from the reclusive Leo the lion. I wrote it in the style of Gay Talese interviewing Frank Sinatra. So…it’s a very major oddity! I was lucky – Uncanny came around at the perfect moment, and Lynne and Michael Thomas Uncanny’s editors, bought it!  Reviewers have said many nice things about it, including:

“Like a film from the classic period it portrays, it’s a story both coy and breathtakingly passionate, wringing wonder from bleak, drab despair. There’s magic in the fade of diamante, in the reduction from main-stage to side-show, in going from riches to rags, and Headley captures that mixture of self-destructing desperation perfectly.

- Amal el Mohtar, Rich & Strange, Tor.com

*

“The brutality of the Hollywood machine is part of the allegory, of course, but the story also functions as a piece of realistic narrative itself; though it treads on the surreal in its imagery, the strong emotional undertone keeps it from becoming either a morality play or a flight of fancy.”

- Brit Mandelo, Tor.com

*

EXCERPT:

After a while, I walked back to the lion’s cabana and heard, as though an MGM film was rolling, the song of the Forever Roar. I ran along the edge of the pool, hoping he hadn’t seen me, and I was in luck. Through a cracked window, I could see the lion alone at the microphone. His blondes were nowhere in sight.

I sat down on the pavers and listened to his rendition of a torch song interspersed with quiet roars. He was singing like a radio hero, like a drive–in movie idol. He was singing a song that might make every lover on earth turn their head and kiss the one they were with. It was music to fly by, both feral and beautiful, though something told me the lion would never record it.

The Forever Roar’s voice, though aged, still sounded like he’d eaten a velveteen rabbit, and the song he sang was a heartbreaker of lost love and transgression.

I inhaled and discovered that the air was full of cigarette smoke. He’d attracted everyone, from the hippos to the serpents to the scarlet macaw, and they were, like me, entranced.

*

WHO IS YOUR EXECUTIONER?  (Nightmare Magazine, November 2014 – 7932 words)

A dark horror story about children’s games, resurrections, and time travel over thirty years in the lives of three friends and sometimes lovers.  There are insects in here, if those scare you. Some people ran screaming from them.

EXCERPT:

I look up at her. I’m sweating, like I’ve played another childhood game, a dizzying prelude to a blinded hunt. Her boyish body, her long white throat, her thighs in her cut-offs. Oona’s head is blazed out by the sun behind her, and for a moment it’s like it’s gone. The way I’m seeing her is not the angle I should be seeing her from. I feel like I’m looking up from too low, and from behind myself. I feel like I’m on the ground, and I start to turn to see what’s there.

The next moment, I’m down on my hands and knees, puking in the grass.

“You’re so sensitive,” Oona says, holding back my hair, her fingers on the back of my neck, and I shiver. She got down from that tree faster than she should have. I didn’t hear her land.

There’s something boiling inside her, a kettle left on the fire. I raise my head to look at Oona, and what I see is not Oona but something else.

*

TAXIDERMIST IN THE UNDERWORLD  (Clarkesworld, October 2014, 3957 words)

This is a love story set in the Edwardian era, involving a taxidermist, the Devil, and a collection of hell’s ghosts that need stuffing. Reviewers have said some lovely things about it, including:

“Like many folk tales and songs about golden fiddles where the Devil has sway over the main character, I expected a story of deals, backstabbing, and soul bargaining. But Headley has a different set of surprises lurking under the intentions of her characters. The ride toward the ending is gorgeous and just a little bit cruel.”

- Gillian Daniels, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination

EXCERPT:

Ghosts are the prettiest things in hell, and in that way, they’re like songbirds, but when it comes to skinning and reassembling them, they’re invertebrates. Louis knows that truth, here in his frenzy, attempting to stretch and gentle ghosts onto their forms. No. They refuse him. They collapse, puncture, snag, and tear.

It’s nothing Louis could have known coming in, but they’re boneless and as such, impossible. Were he allowed to embalm them, or to wet mount, yes, but not traditional taxidermy. The specimens refuse.

He tries clay, a heavy, old-fashioned mounting method, but the skin of ghosts is weightless and the clay shows through. He tries a wire armature, wrapped in wads of cotton, but the structure of the ghost, being rhetorical, refuses to commit to the wire, and just as he gets it stitched into position, it shudders and dissolves, leaving him covered in dust, a needle stabbed into his own thumb and out again the other side.

He sits for a moment, head in his hands, trying to calm himself, counting the hours in the waking world. How many years are passing above him as he sits here, trying to stuff spirits with sawdust? There will be Carl, and Carl will be missing him. Carl will be trimming his mustache shorter, and Carl will find someone new to love. Carl will walk with a swagger and then with a stick, and then Carl will die, and Louis will still be down here in hell, trying to preserve ghosts.

*

THE CULL - The Toast (June, 2014. 1800 words.)

A debutante ball goes horribly wrong, and there is a literary assassination. Horror/satiric black comedy. If you want a very short, very fun thing to read during a coffee break, this is the one.

EXCERPT:

From Little Maude’s bunk, at around 10a.m., we heard the sound of a spoon rung against a flask. Some of us giggled, but others pretended not to hear. The smell of the stuff made us sick. One night in March, there’d been a flood, and five of us had drowned before the rest could pull them to safety. The flood was not water but whiskey, and where had it come from? We could not say.

This was our home, this dormitory, and the grounds around it. We had no way off the island. All we could do was wait. We’d managed to keep from trembling as we dressed in our finery and stepped into our pumps, but now that we stood here, in our perfect line, we were in terror. A hundred and one of us were in the room, and this, according to our calculations, was at least ninety too many.

 *

DIM SUN (Lightspeed Magazine, Women Destroy Science Fiction, June, 2014 – 5500 words)

A funny science fiction story that’s part Roald Dahl, part Douglas Adams. A restaurant critic in outer space, and his best friend Rodney, who is the critic’s chosen eating companion. The two men face down the critic’s ex-wife Harriet, who has lately become president of the universe. The story isn’t online – it’s exclusive to the ebook and print editions. Which got named on NPR’s Best Books of 2014 list this year! Yay!

“Hysterically funny stuff, highly inventive, ex-wife’s revenge in a gonzoid universe.”
– Locus Magazine

EXCERPT:

“Rings of Saturn,” the chef says. “Deep-fried, flash drenched in Mars water-ice, and then fried again.”

His assistant is standing by with a fire extinguisher, but this is nothing. The rings are small, a bit blurry, and clearly crisp. They glow a little, which might be worrying for some, but Bert Gold and I are invulnerable. We’re connoisseurs of spice. These rings are fried in some kind of astral napalm. I take one, and crunch into it with my front teeth, feeling it beginning to burn the roof of my mouth. It makes me hard, I’m telling you. I miss onion rings. Back in the day, me and Bert were at a bar one night, and I put seven onion rings around my business. Didn’t end the way I thought it might. I was looking at the ladies. They were laughing at me. People, it turned out, didn’t feel the same way I did about rings. There’s a photo somewhere.

*

THE TALLEST DOLL IN NEW YORK CITY – Tor.com (February, 2014. 2600 words)

I wrote this romantic, funny Damon Runyon riff about two famous buildings in love for Valentine’s Day this year. I went as Guys & Dolls as I could. It’s fantasy, obviously. Liz Gorinsky acquired it for Tor.com on very short notice, and I am so grateful!

EXCERPT:

The Chrysler is a devastating dame, and that’s nothing new. I could assess her for years and never be done. At night we turn her on, and she glows for miles.

I’m saying, the waiters of the Cloud Club should know what kind of doll she is. We work inside her brain.

Our members retreat to the private dining room, the one with the etched glass working class figures on the walls. There, they cower beneath the table, but the waitstaff hangs onto the velvet curtains and watches as the Chrysler walks to Thirty-fourth Street, clicking and jingling all the way.

“We shoulda predicted this, boss,” I say to Valorous.

“Ain’t that the truth,” he says, flicking a napkin over his forearm. “Dames! The Chrysler’s in love.”

For eleven months, from 1930 to 1931, the Chrysler’s the tallest doll in New York City. Then the Empire is spired to surpass her, and winds up taller still. She has a view straight at him, but he ignores her.

At last, it seems, she’s done with his silence. It’s Valentine’s Day.

*

THE BADGER BABY – Glittering Scrivener (June 2014. 2900 words)

Here’s an extra item, which I put it up for free on my own blog! But it’s fun reading. A horror story regarding a real painting of a baby in a lake, by an artist named T.H. Badger. I stumbled on the painting on eBay, and have since been trying to exorcise it from my inbox. This story was an attempt. I put it up on my own blog as a free story, because the exorcism was time sensitive. :)

EXCERPT:

Why had I bought a baby? I could have properly had a baby, with a nice woman, and instead I’d ferretted a baby from a stack of landscapes. I tugged at my earrings, trying to disavow my purchase.

From upstairs, the Badger baby cried again, and my neighbor’s corgi barked a bark of short legs and slow heft. The baby was too old to cry like that. It had hair. It could probably talk in sentences. It was a baby from 1857. I took a slug of bourbon and it cried more. I felt a lullaby roiling inside me. I wanted to give the baby my finger to suckle. I wanted to immerse myself in the lake and walk on the bottom. I wanted to try to breath beneath the water. I thought about the baby floating in its own light, out in the center of the lake, its arms frozen at its sides, its body an unknown shape and size.

TWO NEW STORIES FOR NOVEMBER!

Two new stories in the last two days from me, and they’re both free reading! (Though you should also buy the issues they are in – there is so much awesome there, and you can read it all right now if you buy it, rather than waiting til end of month/December in the case of Uncanny for the full issue.) I’ve been writing a lot of shorts over the past couple of years, and they’ve been kind of killing me with joy. They’re an opportunity to be no-holds-barred peculiar and poetic, in the same way I used to write tiny plays full of screaming choruses and long strange monologues, and talking animals. I still do all that, just in short story form these days. Both of these have elements that came from fact and fiction, and both also have lines in them I dreamed and then woke needing to write. I hope you dig them!

IF YOU WERE A TIGER, I’D HAVE TO WEAR WHITE

The first story is a fantastical Weird item, in the inaugural issue of Uncanny Magazine, edited by Michael Damian Thomas & Lynne Marie Thomas . It’s what happens when I’m thinking about Gay Talese’s Frank Sinatra Has A Cold, while also considering writing an Angela Carter-type riff on a fairy tale, while also thinking about The Jungle Book…and then I get a present of a little extraordinary fact that leads to a million other little facts, about Mabel Stark the tiger trainer, Jungleland, the Thousand Oaks animal-actor theme park where the MGM lions lived (and so did Mabel and so did Mr. Ed!!!). Anyway, the story, IF YOU WERE A TIGER, I’D HAVE TO WEAR WHITE  found a home at Uncanny, and I’m so delighted it’s there! Here’s the story, and here too is a podcast with the audio version fabulously read by Amal El-Mohtar, along with an interview by Deborah Stanish, as well as a written interview which has some crazy amazing photos.  But you have to read the story first, or none of the rest will make sense.

And after you read it, go watch this video of Stark herself.

Mabel Stark and a Tightrope Tiger

OMG, is all I can say about that.

Here, too is a gorgeous review at Tor.com by Amal El-Mohtar. I could not ask for better.  Damn. Life is sweet.

***

WHO IS YOUR EXECUTIONER?

The second story is WHO IS YOUR EXECUTIONER? and it’s horror. It’s up at Nightmare Magazine today, also for free! Three friends, thirty years, and 5 moments over those years. Not a ghost story. More of a tangled time, children’s games, inadvertent conjuring story. I wanted to see if I could write a really scary horror item, so I tried it! It has a lot of different childrens games from all over the world, and it also has a lot of bugs. Eugene Myers did a terrific interview with me over there about the story, and again, if you read it, read it after. It has spoilers.

I’d love it if you read these, and if you’d share them. I write them to be read! It’s a massive pleasure to get these two babies out into the world.

MAGONIA COVER REVEAL!!!

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YES. That, folks, is the Magonia cover. She’s not out til April 28th, so for the the next few months you can look at this, and mutter about how it’s not available yet. At least it’s mouthwatering! Here’s the Magonia page at HarperCollins with links to various pre-order places.

Art is by Craig Shields and cover by the spectacular HarperTeen design team. I’m very lucky to have this particular publisher sharing my imaginary kingdom with me – they totally get it! I love this cover so, SO much.

MAGONIA is my young adult debut, a novel about a badass, broken, deathly ill teenage girl from earth who finds herself in a sky kingdom. Here’s the description:

Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live.

So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.

Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found, by another. Magonia. Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was.

In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—and as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war is coming. Magonia and Earth are on the cusp of a reckoning. And in Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?

The genesis of this book? Peter Pan. Which has always pissed me off. Wendy’s role in that book, the way she gets converted into a mother for Lost Boys while everyone else has legit adventures? No, thank you. And then there’s Tinker Belle, and Tiger Lily, and Mrs. Darling, and all told, COME ON. A bunch of bummer for all the female characters. I spent my childhood wanting to be Peter Pan, but wanting Peter Pan to be a girl, thank you very much. I was an adventurer. I didn’t see why Wendy couldn’t be too. Instead, she’s stuck wearing her nightgown, sewing on buttons, and cleaning up after Lost Boys!  Ack! GRRR. ARRRRGH.

Yeah, I kinda became a writer just so I could furiously revise some of the stories that were already in the world.

So, all that said, a J.M. Barrie riff is not actually what MAGONIA is – it’s not a Neverland situation at all – but it came from my early aggravation, and became something else entirely.

This book is for readers 13 and up, and Aza Ray Boyle, the protagonist, is 16 – but the guts of the story come from me imagining what would happen if a ferocious, firebrand, real person of a teenage girl ended up in a kingdom in the sky, full of ships, pirates, stormsharks, and tiny birds that nest in your lungs and sing with you. And what if that girl actually had power?

So this visual depicts both the earth Aza Ray has been on for 15 years, and the sky she’s heading into, Magonia. The feather is transformation, and depicts the feather of a canwr, one of the lung-singers in the book. There are birds and bats and squallwhales in Magonia, and environmental warfare. There are a whole lot of female ship captains. There’s magic, and there’s weird science.

There’s also sorrow, loss, love, death, and pain. Even though this is an imaginary world, it’s got a lot of real stuff in it, and I think it’ll probably make you cry. This book means a lot to me. I can’t wait for you to read it.

THE END OF THE SENTENCE NOVELLA, AND MAGONIA ARCS

SO many long-gestating writing projects have become reality in the last few days. Updating on the various things, which I know, make me look like I had a perhaps very-crazy writing frenzy, but really are because a couple of years of writing all happen to be getting published at once. Which is not a bummer!

This is what I look like lately. Um, a little bit happy?

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That’s me the other night looking rumpled and grinny in my Brooklyn kitchen, photo by my friend, the musician king Sxip Shirey. I’m wearing an apron that says We Ship, Midnight Galley, which I made a couple years ago. Life is sweet.

THE END OF THE SENTENCE:

Last year, I wrote a little ghost/monster/blacksmithery horror novella with Kat Howard, for Subterranean Press. THE END OF THE SENTENCE is 187 pages, which we passed back and forth for the month we were writing them. It’s semi-epistolary, sad, creepy, romantic, full of myth and folklore from all over the place, as well as fairy-tale elements, and in short, we are SO DAMN PROUD OF IT. It couldn’t have been a smoother or more fruitful collaboration. I’ve never written a book so quickly!! You can read it in an evening, and I suggest you do it right now, because it’s actually set during the month of October, and the first letter in it is dated today.

It’s shipping now in both limited glam and signed editions, and trade editions from Subterranean Press, and you can also get it in ebook, though the hardcopy is wildly gorgeous.

These are some of my author copies, which I got yesterday and whooped over. Plus flowers, knife, and cocktail, because obviously.

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Here’s a page at the Subterranean site, with bits of reviews, and a short interview with us done by the magnificent Gwenda Bond.

Here’s a wonderful little bit of review from Fantasy Literature:

Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard have taken the darker aspects of fairy tales and come up with a new tale set in contemporary America, complete with contemporary American problems of automobiles and broken marriages. These horrors that happen every day are combined with the horrors of a supernatural creature that seems to soothe in order to terrify, to provide for all his victim’s needs so long as that victim might be useful… This is a beautiful novella, a modern fairy tale that any reader of the French tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’ will recognize, but so different from that story that it is something entirely new.

And one from Tor.com

The End of the Sentence only really represents an evening’s reading, but be prepared to feel the fallout of this fairytale—perfectly formed from a hodgepodge of half-forgotten mythologies—for far longer than the few hours it takes to unfold.

Here, if you’re interested in process,  at Kat’s site, is the longer version of that interview, which contains some sweary, brainstormy, giddy backstage emails we sent during the writing process.

And here’s another interview we did, this time with the divine writer Sarah McCarry, for Tor.com.

(You might want to read the novella before you read those interviews – there’s a lot in them, and some of it might want to have context.)

If you read THE END OF THE SENTENCE, hit us up and tell us what you thought, or put a review up in any of the usual places. We’d love to hear from you.  It was a huge pleasure to be invited to write this book together.

AND NOW FOR THE NEXT HUGE ITEM!

TWO BOOKS IN TWO DAYS!

MAGONIA

MAGONIA, my young adult debut, is in Advance Reader Copy Form, and I got the first copies a couple of days ago, as a surprise! It’s not out til May 2015, (which is sooner than you think) but the cover will be revealed on Epic Reads on October 13.

The cover, by the way, is totally amazing. This is the spine. I can’t show you the cover yet! I am dying to. But trust me.

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Skyships, squallwhales, female pirate captains, and a teenage girl at the center of it all who finds herself immersed in a world she’d never imagined – but belongs in.

Magonia is a sky kingdom story, and at its center is Aza Ray Boyle, a teenage girl who has never been able to breathe properly. She has a rare disease – so rare it’s named after her. Sicker and sicker, and finally, one day something goes horribly wrong. Aza dies.

And wakes up far from home. Maybe things aren’t as they seem.

Maybe Aza Ray doesn’t belong on earth at all? But if she doesn’t, if in fact she belongs on a ship in the sky, singing a song that can shift the weather, surrounded by bird people and ferocious warriors, what about her best friend Jason? If the sky is warring with earth, where do Aza and her song fit in? How can she choose?

This is for 13 and up, and frankly, given the people who’ve read it thus far, the up is as far up as you want to take it. I think adults will like this book as much as teenagers will. It’s dark, and sad, and strange, and very full of magic and chaos. This has been a while in the works, and I cried when I saw the ARCS, because man, it’s been a rough and complicated couple of years, and you never know if you’ll get lucky enough to publish a book again, let alone to publish a book you’re this excited about. Magonia is a really personal project for me, and it was scary to write it, but I feel so lucky to be publishing this book with Harper, and my editor there, Kristen Pettit. They are doing amazing things.

I know that I’ll be at ABA Winter Institute in North Carolina in February to talk about Magonia to all, so if you’re a bookseller, put it on your calendar. I’d love to meet you.

2014 Short Stories & Novellas Thus Far – With Teasers for Stories Soon To Come

Note to new followers: This blog is a mashup of my ongoing political opinions, essays and mutterings, as well as a place to keep track of the fiction I write. I write a lot of fiction! If you like my essays, you might like the fiction too. Suffice it to say that my opinions about female heroes and active female characters are reflected in everything I write.

So, a compendium of the short stories and novellas I’ve published and sold to be published thus far in 2014, so I can keep track, and perhaps so you can too.  I’ll keep updating this throughout the year. There are little teasers here for a few things that aren’t live yet, and links for some that are.

The Tallest Doll in New York City – Tor.com (February, 2014. 2600 words)

A Damon Runyonesque riff of a Valentine’s Day fantasy story involving a love affair between a couple of major NYC landmarks. This was exceedingly fun to write – the Runyon style is a challenge, and the idea of two objects falling in love pleased me.

The Cloud Club’s open since before the building got her spire, and the waitstaff in a Member’s Own knows things even a man’s miss doesn’t. Back during Prohibition, we install each of the carved wood lockers at the Cloud Club with a hieroglyphic identification code straight out of ancient Egypt, so our members can keep their bottles safe and sound. Valorous Victor dazzles the police more than once with his rambling explanation of cryptographic complexities, and finally the blue boys just take a drink and call it done. No copper’s going to Rosetta our rigmarole.

 

I’m at the bar mixing a Horse’s Neck for Mr. Condé Nast, but I’ve got my eye on the mass of members staggering out of the elevators with fur coats, necklaces, and parcels of cling & linger, when, at 5:28p.m. precisely, the Chrysler Building steps off her foundation and goes for a walk.

 

Dim Sun: Lightspeed Magazine, Women Destroy Science Fiction (June, 2014. 5500 words)

A politically rageful lark of an SF story involving an insufferable restaurant critic in outer space, and his best friend Rodney, a tag-a-long with a huge appetite. The two men face down the critic’s ex-wife Harriet, who has lately become president of the universe. This one’s a little bit Douglas Adams, a little Roald Dahl. I had unholy amounts of fun writing it. I like to write comic things as much as I like writing terrifying things. The story isn’t online – it’s exclusive to the ebook and print editions. Which are so worth it! The whole volume is awesome. There’s also an author spotlight in there about the story.

“Rings of Saturn,” the chef says. “Deep-fried, flash drenched in Mars water-ice, and then fried again.”

 

His assistant is standing by with a fire extinguisher, but this is nothing. The rings are small, a bit blurry, and clearly crisp. They glow a little, which might be worrying for some, but Bert Gold and I are invulnerable. We’re connoisseurs of spice. These rings are fried in some kind of astral napalm. I take one, and crunch into it with my front teeth, feeling it beginning to burn the roof of my mouth. It makes me hard, I’m telling you. I miss onion rings. Back in the day, me and Bert were at a bar one night, and I put seven onion rings around my business. Didn’t end the way I thought it might. I was looking at the ladies. They were laughing at me. People, it turned out, didn’t feel the same way I did about rings. There’s a photo somewhere.

 

The Badger Baby – Glittering Scrivener (June 2014. 2900 words)

A horror story regarding a real painting of a baby in a lake, by an artist named T.H. Badger. I stumbled on the painting on eBay, and have since been trying to exorcise it from my inbox. This story was an attempt. I put it up on my own blog as a free story, because the exorcism was time sensitive. :)

The baby had been painted in a lake, not in a baptismal way, but in a way that suggested the water was its habitat. It drifted unanchored, surrounded by mist. The portrait depicted only the baby’s upper chest, shoulders, and head. Its arms were at its sides in the lake, which was rendered in lavender and slate, shading to navy at the edges of the oval, a bit of yellow, some grayish pink where the baby’s body presumably was. The baby looked directly out at the viewer, with black-eyed certainty. From certain angles, the baby seemed inhabited by something other than a baby.

 

The Cull - The Toast (June, 2014. 1800 words.)

A debutante ball goes horribly wrong, and there is a literary assassination. Horror/black comedy. If you want a very short, very fun thing to read during a coffee break, this is the one.

It is unclear which of us began the rebellion. Perhaps all of us at once. A glittering, star-shaped pin came unfastened from a bodice. A clutch clicked open and a vial of explosives rolled out. An elastic garter sprang back against a thigh embossed with the outline of a derringer.

 

What There Was To See: Novella – Subterranean Online (Summer, 2014. 19K words)

Link to come when it goes up. The unlikely history of corneal transplants, rabbits, and German bears. Literary horror and ghosts, along with science.

There was something white in the center of the great lawn. She walked toward it, slowly. A chicken, possibly, caught by a fox. Or one of those rabbits.

 

She picked up her husband’s pajama trousers before she knew what they were, and found dirt on them, their edge partially dug into a divet in the grass. Then his shirt. She found, not thinking, no, not thinking, a ragged tear in it. She looked around, turning slowly in a circle. There was nothing else. No one. No Fritz. Here were his slippers, his pajamas, his robe.

 

Johanna turned to run back to the house, to tell someone. What would she tell them? That he’d shed his clothes and run into the forest? She paused, stepping over the place the pajamas had been.

 

There was something watching. She felt it. She looked around frantically, dread rising in her, her throat clenching, her fists closing. Something was all around her. And a horrible smell, dense woods, rotting meat.

 

As she stood, paralyzed, shaking, something tore a slash in her wrapper, long and jagged, and she felt a searing pain in her rib, the flesh opened by something sharp as a knife.

 

And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea (Lightspeed Magazine, 5500 words)

Link to come – it should be up in the next few months. Here is a teaser. A fantastical love story involving two monsters, both water dwellers.

I met you at the end of centuries spent alone. My body has been every decorative lily pool in Japan, and every waterfall in Africa. My body has been the Amazon, full of snakes, thigh-deep wading for explorers, and the Mississippi and her floodplains, spilling out across miles, looping and twisting to surprise the houses. My body was the last moments of the Aral Sea, the final drops drunk by a camel, and carried away. When you found me in that fishtank, I was too lonely to travel.

 

Who is Your Executioner? (Nightmare Magazine – 7400 words)

Link to come, should be up in the next few months. Here’s a teaser for this dark horror story about children’s games and inadvertent conjuring.

On the photo wall as we leave the prom, there’s a fully developed Polaroid of me and of Trev, with Oona between us, looking like a smudge of light, and inside that, the faintest outlines of a little girl, looking straight at the camera, her eyes glowing.

 

Later they tell us that somebody slipped LSD in the punch, but they never figure out who it was. Trevor and I each take her hands and we go out into the night, to Trevor’s car, borrowed from his grandfather. We ignore the sweetish smoky smell. We pretend it’s not there. Oona’s fingers lace into ours. Her hands are always cold.

 

“What was that?” I ask her.

 

“That was nothing,” she says. She looks at me. Her eyes reflect headlights, and then she gets out of the car and takes off running down the highway, five miles from anywhere.

 

The End of the Sentence: A Novella. Subterranean Press. Cowritten with Kat Howard. (33K, September, 2014)

This is a literary horror-fantasy novella published in book form, hardcover and trade paper. Order now! BookRiot says this about the novella – listed on their Best Books We Read in June.

Malcolm Mays flees to rural Oregon after a tragic accident that shatters his life, buying a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and doing his best to leave his past behind. But the house’s former owner, a mysterious and suspiciously prescient entity named Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, has other ideas for Malcolm: claiming he’s been unjustly imprisoned–for 117 years–Chuchonnyhoof demands Malcolm’s assistance with a near-impossible task. As the end of Chuchonnyhoof’s sentence approaches, Malcolm must decide whether he’s helping to free an innocent–or the Devil himself. A deliciously creepy and atmospheric mashup of old myths and new twists, Headley and Howard’s lush, sinister novella is a guaranteed treat for fans of the fantastic. -Sarah McCarry

 

And here’s a little excerpt:

I drove into Ione again, late at night. Moon up, yellow and thin as a toenail clipping. My granddad had been a captain working in the Gulf of Mexico, but early in his career, he’d been second mate on a Norwegian freighter. I thought about a story he’d told me once, about a ship made of the nail clippings of the dead. I heard him again like I was six years old, sitting with him on his porch in New Orleans.

 

“Naglfar, they call it,” said my granddad. “The nailship. At the end of the world, Naglfar comes loose from its mooring. You have to trim the fingernails of the dead, boy, or they go to build that ship. You don’t want to leave a deadman with his fingernails long.”

I saw my granddad’s white beard, his dark skin, and his glittering eyes. He stretched his fingernails out to show me. Trimmed to the rind. He looked at my face, and then laughed.

“Your gran told me not to tell you those stories anymore, or you’ll wet the bed, won’t you?”

 

“Will not,” I said. But I did, later that night, imagining the nail ship making its way through some terrible ocean, an anchor chain made of toenails, and a hull made of fingernails torn from their beds. I had nightmares about Naglfar for years. Now I was having waking nightmares about iron growing out of bones and I couldn’t make sense of them. I imagined nails, iron nails. I’d read a story years before about a woman who grew fingernails instead of hair, and I imagined that for a drunken moment, a miserable creature covered in hard, sharp, scales.

On the steering wheel, I looked at my own fingernails. For the first time in years I’d let them grow beyond their edges. What kind of fool thought he wasn’t five minutes from dying?

 

AND….

COMING UP IN 2015, my young adult novel debut, MAGONIA, from HarperCollins. It grew out of a little piece of folklore from both the 8th and 11th centuries, and involves a sky kingdom.

From Publisher’s Weekly:

 

Kristen Pettit at HarperCollins has acquired two books by Maria Dahvana Headley, author ofThe Year of Yes and Queen of Kings, both for adults. Her YA fantasy, called Magonia, stars a razor-tongued teenage girl caught in a collision of worlds – her familiar home on the Earth’s surface and the desperate, hidden civilizations sailing the “sea” of the earth’s atmosphere. Summer 2015 is the projected pub date.

 

And a little teaser…

 

“Aza Ray,” says someone, way, WAY too loudly. “Aza Ray, wake up.”

I put my head under the covers. Absolutely not. There will be no waking up for me, because it is clearly five AM, and this can only be cruel night phlebotomy. I have a spinny, achy head, leftover from whatever got me here, and yes, I remember some of it, and yes, some of it was bad, but it’s been bad before, but here I still apparently am, so it can’t have been that bad.

 

I’ve been sleeping like the dead. That’s a joke I’m allowed to make. Whatever drug they’ve got me on, it’s working. If they ask me, I can say pain scale zero, which has never happened before, not in my entire history of hospitals.

 

The voice gets sharper. This nurse has no sense of nice. Her voice is both way too loud, and way too high-pitched. I yank the covers higher over my face.

 

“AZA RAY QUEL. It’s time to wake up now!”

 

Something sharp pokes me. My bed shakes.

 

I reluctantly open my eyes and I’m looking at–

 

An owl.

 

A HUMAN SIZED OWL, a, what? WHAT? A WORLD-CLASS HALLUCINATION.

 

The owl stretches long yellow fingers and runs one over my forehead. It clacks its beak at me.

 

“Still fevered,” it says.

 

A SHORT LIST OF MOVIES YOU WILL NEVER SEE

GRAY LINES

Cate Blanchett is a double-dealing politician who is secretly running a drug ring through the maritime trade of her homestate, Louisiana. Lupita Nyong’o is the crack investigative reporter who busts her, setting off a scandal throughout Washington and uncovering layer upon layer of corruption, up to the highest levels.  Federal policy on no-bid contracts is rocked, as are American notions of truth, justice, and blondes.  Best Picture Oscar, and shared wins for both Blanchett & Nyong’o in the Best Actor category. (Yes: Best Actor.) 

Cate Blanchett & Lupita Nyong'o photographed by Cliff Watts for Entertainment Weekly, Feb 2014

Cate Blanchett & Lupita Nyong’o photographed by Cliff Watts for Entertainment Weekly, Feb 2014

****

Late last night I got into a rip-roaring feminist mood, which is not unusual. I am, after all, a woman, and a writer, and I spend a lot of my time looking at heinously genderskewed media, whether it’s film, theater, TV, or books. Most typically, particularly in the Award-Winning Categories, the ones that designate things Serious Stories For The Ages, there are piles of narratives about men changing the world. Check them. Oscars, Emmys, Pulitzers. We’re utterly used to seeing awards ceremonies during which, for example, ten (usually white, naturally) men stand up, and thank an audience for giving awards to their great art, art which almost always features a bunch of male movers and shakers. We’re used to seeing movies and plays about serious topics which have almost entirely male casts. We don’t even blink. Why would we? These are the kinds of stories that mean something. The equivalent movies (or media) with all female casts would almost certainly be marketed as chick flicks, be vigorously less serious, and would contain discussions of weddings and menopause. (How often, in a serious male-cast film have we heard a character say to another guy “I’m really having trouble with my prostate, man. It’s why I can’t focus on shooting that villain.” Things like this, regarding hot flashes, morning sickness and cramps come out of female character’s mouths all the time.)

This is how we’ve been taught to see the world.

These Award Winning films, plays, TV series, etc, are set in the science world, the financial world, the social justice world, the crime world. Sometimes they’re set in the near future, or in critical moments in the past. There are usually a couple of female characters in each of them. They’re always beautiful and young, and also they’re usually secretaries, interns, or cheated-on wives. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they might be dead daughters, which means they’ve got a narrative arc with which to push their grieving fathers into the action that ultimately…changes the world.

Their only means for changing the world are getting injured or killed (to drive male characters toward revelation and revenge), getting married (to achieve “Important Because of the People In This Conversation” status), or getting the right piece of paper just in time to the guy who is ACTUALLY going to change the world, but who probably also has time to take a long look at her ass as she walks out the door, having delivered the missile codes.

This isn’t unusual to see, of course: this is Hollywood, and it is also mass media popular storytelling, which is why I regularly hit critical mass on it. These are the stories young girls are consuming. These are the stories that tell women what they can be. These stories, folks, are fucked up. They break us. Stories are how we learn to live.

Stories which calculatedly and carefully do not include active women tell us that women are not useful parts of society.

Do storytellers not realize that women are impactful parts of the world? 

Do audiences not realize that women are impactful parts of the world? That women change the world? That women are, indeed, as interesting as men are? Why are all the women offstage in the important stories?

Those last are rhetorical questions. The charitable interpretation is that we don’t realize, and that oops, we just need to have it pointed out. (It’s been pointed out. A lot.) The less charitable interpretation is that the system has been fucked for centuries, and that narratives featuring women as impactful characters have always been in short supply.

Oh, are you about to remind me about, say, Lady Macbeth? Okay. Point taken. Lady Macbeth is a complicated female character in a sea of male characters (who are busy changing the world), yes. She’s also a villainess who controls men with her vagina and ambition. She’s powerful. But she’s the dark side of Opinionated Broad. In tons of the kind of story-telling I’m talking about – mass market, mainstream, award winning, there’s a Lady M character, for whom no one really deserves a cookie. Lady M is easy to achieve. I’m going to remind you now that Lady M, opinionated broad that she is, also loses her mind and commits suicide offstage for her sins, late in Act 5.

Impactful female characters should not just be villains and secretaries, and  – category unto themselves – Beautiful Girls. They should also be complicated heroines, changers of policy, battlers against civil wars. But we’re used to putting one woman for every ten men into a story and feeling that we’ve done enough to show that there are women in the world, and that we know it.

Every time I see a story with no impactful female characters, I wonder if the writer notices that indeed, they ARE changing the world. Badly. I suspect many story-creators do not in fact realize this. Because they think of the world in terms of men changing it.

***

WOAD

First century AD, and the world is in turmoil. The Roman Empire seeks to violently colonize the domain of Boadicea (Angelina Jolie), Queen of the Iceni tribe, in Wales. The warrior queen, painted with blue battlepaint, leads a revolt against colonialism, leading 100,000 troops against Rome, and defying the Emperor Nero. She nearly prevails, though in the end she dies heroically on the battlefield defending her country, and raising her fist in the air. She doesn’t have a husband. She leads male troops. In the end, her troops mourn her, and burn her body. The final shot is smoke. 

Angelina_Jolie_2

Angelina Jolie, Date & Photographer unknown, but looking like she could tear Rome with her teeth nonetheless. We’ll just pretend those lips are indigo blue.

***

Films about Boadicea have been in development for years, and regularly seem to collapse. They’re expensive. Conventional wisdom – based on the prevailing myth about what important stories consist of – tells us that audiences will not come to a giant historical action epic focusing on a female hero. Why not? Would you go to see the movie I just described? I would. At this point in human history, we should have Oscar Contender movies about people like Ada Lovelace, Boadicea and many, many others. We need them. The last time there was a major Hollywood movie about Marie Curie, it was 1943. 1943!!!!! Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), often described as the world’s first computer programmer, has never been the subject of a major Hollywood film, though I’m quite sure people have tried. There’s never been a biopic about Josephine Baker, though it’s been mooted and collapsed repeatedly, with stars ranging from Diana Ross to Rihanna. The civil rights leader Diane Nash has never been the subject of a biopic, and indeed, is often edited from the action in larger depictions, despite her radical bravery, ferocious commitment to social change, and clear influence on the action. There are countless other examples of things that should exist…and don’t. Yet the male equivalents do.

Let me be clear here: What. The. Fuck?

Not only does this not make good sense in a There Are Amazing Women in the World context, it does not make sense in a storytelling context.

Perhaps I should point out now that intriguingly, given the many centuries of wrongs done to women, that the stakes are actually HIGHER for heroic female characters than they are for equivalent male characters.

High stakes = better stories, right?

A female character going up against a world of men to fight for justice is more likely to have her life threatened than a male character is. Female characters often are put into stories to disappear. In the real world, women who fight for justice (or walk down the street), in any medium, are likely to be casually threatened with rape and murder. I am. Pretty much daily. Centuries of stories have taught men that it is okay to treat a female character like a walk on, that it is okay to reduce her lines to zero, to reduce her power to pretty, and to reduce her impact to whether or not she is hot enough to walk down the street in front of them. The same is radically not true for most men.

Thus: female characters fighting for justice, doing impactful things? Are actually working harder than than their male equivalents, because the deck is stacked hard against them. Why would we not wish to increase the stakes in our stories by featuring female characters risking EVERYTHING, as opposed to male characters risking their careers, or reputations?  Men typically get threatened with humiliation and loss of material possessions. Women get threatened with violence and loss of life.

The women who have changed the world have done it against significant, intense, life-threatening odds.

If that’s not Great Story, I don’t know what is.

***

I was having a conversation yesterday afternoon with a friend of mine who teaches theater to teenagers. She’d been in a classroom watching group-created performances, seeing them for the first time, and was startled to discover that the teenage girls in the classes had cast themselves in improv roles in which they were nearly all dead or dying, women suffering injuries, raped, murdered, hit by cars, and otherwise destroyed. The only women who spoke tended to talk about men. The other role the teenagers had given themselves was the role of Hot Walk On.

This was, needless to say, not the case with the boys in the class, who all had lines and actions. But everyone had tacitly agreed that the women in the room were more important for their bodies than their brains, and for their capacity to motivate male characters into action, specifically by being sacrificed.

Why? Because these are the kinds of stories we recognize as a society. Because these are our current big stories. Because this is the fucked world we’re living in.

My friend taught her students about the Bechdel Test, and then talked about why female characters should be doing things other than dying. She gave them, it sounds like, the serious gift of revelation: you have a voice. You are impactful. You can play a character who is a whole person, not just a tool to help male characters achieve their goals.

You can change the world. 

***

FALL PHENOMENA

A team of the world’s best scientists (Kerry Washington, Michelle Yeoh, Helen Mirren, Salma Hayek) are recruited to intervene when a meteorite is headed toward Earth. They must find a way to minimize impact – and their skills are put to the test when they discover that the meteorite is not celestial, but engineered material, and that someone on Earth has actually rigged the fall as an act of war. (Note: This is not a world in which all the men are dead. This is simply a world in which the most qualified scientists in this room happen to be women.) Their intern (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) occasionally distracts them with sex appeal, but is largely mute, though in a key moment, he does provide a single, startling line of insight.

credit: Mike McGregor / Contour by Getty Imageswashingtonkerry__130718174844michelle-yeohxn6nh9rx5ljvjlr

 There is no random shot of all these women together, so this is the lineup. Imagine them saving the world. 

***

All these movie scenarios I’m describing are essentially gender-reversed plots of films we’ve felt totally comfortable watching. We’ve become so used to Opinionated, Strategic Woman = Villain, and Beautiful Women = Piece of Ass With Perhaps Secondarily A Surprisingly Good Brain, that it’s hard to imagine an Oscar-style movie in which women like these are heroes, and in which their interactions have nothing at all to do with men. It’s totally rational that in the real world they could be. Women in the real world regularly kick ass in the sciences. They risk their lives photographing warzones. They spend a great deal of their time having nothing to say about men, weddings, menopause, periods, or their vaginas, and often can be found, you know, analyzing medieval marginalia, drafting policy arguments for politicians, and running through the park thinking about string theory.

Really.

Yet the movie versions of us – the mainstream Award Winning versions of us – are more typically found offscreen, coming on to serve the male world changers coffee, tie their neckties, support their ambitions, and look beautiful. We can be found bending over backwards in heels to show men how well we can shake it, while still maintaining the ability to raise small children, which startling capacity will, of course, help the male main character realize that he should be more emotionally available, and that he should also perhaps take some vengeful action against the things that have hurt the woman he loves.

This is pretty crazy.

This is pretty sad.

This leads to female characters whose main event is offstage suicide. This leads to girls who do not realize that their main event can be anything they want, that it does not have to be pretty, nor does it have to be sexy. That it can, in fact, be about nothing but brain.

And…

Lest you think I am trying to create a non-entertaining universe of media, something that is all about politics and nothing to do with fun, I present you in conclusion with the following scenario, which will be familiar to you from years of movies we’ve accepted unblinkingly as popcorn and soda classics, as fun bubblegum, as the stories we want to see when we want our brains to be empty and then filled again with a bunch of pretty things.

***

THE ROLLOVER

Sleek, impeccable and brutally charming, international con-artist Miranda Plaza (Tilda Swinton) violates parole to organize the perfect heist. Together with former partner Rene Lamar (Penelope Cruz) the duo employs 8 of their former heistwoman colleagues to pull off a gigantic multi-national bank robbery. The heistwomen are contortionists, lock picks, munitions experts. None of them use sex appeal to achieve their goals, but they’re smart and skilled, and the dialogue is rapid-fire, stylish, and fun as hell. Plaza’s ex-husband (an unknown) plays a minor role, the only male role in the film. But damn, he’s fine. 

So fine that this film – much as Thelma & Louise made Brad Pitt’s career – makes him famous.

See? I’m fair.

Tilda Swinton & Penelope Cruz at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, 2012

Tilda Swinton & Penelope Cruz at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, 2012 – Do these two women not look like they’d pull off any heists they wanted to?

***

Here’s a storified link to the series of Tweets that inspired this essay: #FeministBecause

 

THE BADGER BABY

 Image

This 1857 painting, by T.H. Badger, is for sale on eBay right now. It haunts me. I had to write a story about it. After eBay listed it, it sent me repeat reminders: “Are you still looking?” “Are you still interested?” all illustrated with this scary baby face. It costs $399. If you want it. If you need it. It waits for you.

This story is free.

 

***

 

THE BADGER BABY

 

I bought the baby because it begged, not because I wanted it. The man I thought I was in love with strenuously protested my acquisition, but I couldn’t help myself.

“I don’t know,” Peter said. “It’s pretty awful. The longer I look at it, the less I want it coming into my house.”

My house,” I said. “I mean, ours. But you’re not there yet, so.”

He’d been in the process of moving in for a while. All he had was a chair leftover from an ex who’d had taste. He claimed he was a minimalist, and the baby wasn’t minimal. The baby was replete. I could see why he didn’t like it. I didn’t like it either.

The baby was life-size, delicately rendered in oil, and framed in a gilded oval of carved wood. It had a round face, with deep pink cheeks, and a fishbelly pale forehead, which took up half its face. It had black hair, parted perfectly in the middle. This hair was out of focus, blurred at the edges, but the baby’s face was finely rendered, as though pushing through a fog which had encompassed the rest of it. The baby’s eyes were also dark, with very little white around the irises. The baby frowned, with lips unnaturally red. The baby was naked but for a fine, lacy froth about the shoulders, where its skin met the water.

This was the other oddity. The baby had been painted in a lake, not in a baptismal way, but in a way that suggested the water was its habitat. It drifted unanchored, surrounded by mist. The portrait depicted only the baby’s upper chest, shoulders, and head. Its arms were at its sides in the lake, which was rendered in lavender and slate, shading to navy at the edges of the oval, a bit of yellow, some grayish pink where the baby’s body presumably was. The baby looked directly out at the viewer, with black-eyed certainty. From certain angles, the baby seemed inhabited by something other than a baby.

I felt nauseated, but it might have been too much coffee, no breakfast. Peter didn’t believe in carbohydrates. He was ginger-haired, and had been bullied.

“Don’t,” said Peter, shuddering as I fumbled for my wallet, and I put my wallet back and said, “I know, I know, I never would, right?”

“Painted by T.H. Badger. Nov. 1857,” the back was marked, in careful indigo block print. The T and the H were outlined, in order to make the letters empty boxes, and 1857 was underlined twice.

I examined the Badger baby for a while, trying not to buy it. Its varnish was severely crazed. That was a reason. Maybe it was damaged. Maybe it had gotten wet. We were at an antique market outside Boston, and there was nothing else terrible there. The usual assortment of figural mugs shaped like revolutionaries, minor etchings. I turned the baby so that it faced the back of the stall. The teenage vendor, daughter of the stall owner sipped wanly at a lemonade, and as I turned, I saw her spike it with vodka.

“You got questions about ‘im?” she asked.

“No,” Peter said.

 “Who is it?” I asked. “Is it a him? I can’t tell. It’s wearing lace.”

“Dunno,” she said, and shrugged. “It’s a baby. My mom’ll give it to you cheap, you wanna.”

“We don’t though,” said Peter, and took my hand, trying to draw me out into the sun.

But as I stepped out into the light, I heard a baby crying. I whipped round, looked at the girl. She was sucking on her straw.

I bought the Badger baby for two hundred dollars while Peter was searching for the bathrooms. I had the girl tie it up in brown paper, and I wrapped a too-expensive log cabin quilt I didn’t want around it, feeling like I was keeping the baby warm. I put it in the back of my pickup, and I said nothing to Peter.

The baby had cried for milk. I felt it in my breasts still, and not only in my breasts. I felt it in the back of my skull. 

On the way home, it started raining, and I pulled over, got out, and brought the baby into the cab. Peter stared at me. 

“I knew it,” he said. “I knew it. You couldn’t leave it there. That’s creepy, you know.” 

“I like creepy,” I said. 

“It’s morbid. I bet it got painted after that baby died or something. That’s what I bet.” Peter downed the rest of his coffee, and shivered. “I’m fucking freezing. It was supposed to be nice today.”

“It is nice,” I said, looking out. “Isn’t this nice?” I could see a rainbow. The baby in my arms was heavy and damp, and I unwrapped it from the quilt and brought it out into the light.

Peter drove us to his apartment, and got out.

“You’re not coming with me?”

 He’d been supposed to stay over, eat dinner, do our usual weekend things. I wasn’t sure I loved him anymore. I’d woken up in his arms that morning, and felt caged.

“It’s him or me,” Peter said, and didn’t succeed in smiling.

 “It’s not a him,” I said, trying to seem funny. “It’s by a painter who’s in books. It might make me thousands of dollars. Have you ever seen those shows?”

Peter kissed me stiffly on the cheek, and went into his apartment to sit, I suspected in his lonely chair. I put the baby in the passenger seat, and drove home, hammered a nail into my entryway, and hung it there for an hour, until I started thinking it needed to go upstairs, to the guestroom. I put it there, and then moved it again, to my bedroom, where the Badger baby stayed, echoing against the wallpaper I’d paid too much for. I’d paid too much for everything, I decided.

 I boiled milk and then poured it down the drain. I had never wanted a baby before. I didn’t want this one. I poured bourbon instead, and sat on my porch.

I heard someone crying from far away, an astonished and ravaged sob, the sob of someone who’d woken alone in the dark. Find me, said the sob.

Clearly I’d lost it. This was what people meant by biological clock, this is what they meant by one day everything will change. I had blue hair. I was not meant to be a mother. It had taken work to achieve, bleach and repeat applications. Peter was an aberration. Why had I bought a baby? I could have properly had a baby, with a nice woman, and instead I’d ferretted a baby from a stack of landscapes. I tugged at my earrings, trying to disavow my purchase.

From upstairs, the Badger baby cried again, and my neighbor’s corgi barked a bark of short legs and slow heft. The baby was too old to cry like that. It had hair. It could probably talk in sentences. It was a baby from 1857. I took a slug of bourbon and it cried more. I felt a lullaby roiling inside me. I wanted to give the baby my finger to suckle. I wanted to immerse myself in the lake and walk on the bottom. I wanted to try to breath beneath the water. I thought about the baby floating in its own light, out in the center of the lake, its arms frozen at its sides, its body an unknown shape and size.

I fell asleep on the uncomfortable Eames knock-off couch. The baby didn’t go with my house either. Maybe babies never matched décor. The gilt frame and the Badger baby waited upstairs til morning, when I had to pass them on my wincing way to the shower. By then, I’d come to my senses. I loaded the baby into my truck and drove to Peter’s place, where I rang the bell and left the baby on the stoop. 

Milk, the baby shouted as I ran down the stairs, and I ignored the pangs. Milk, the baby shouted. Flood. But I was in my truck, driving as fast away as anyone could drive.

 “I’m not your mother,” I said to myself, talking to the radio which sang out ‘hey, I just met you,’ and the passenger seat said nothing, but on Peter’s stoop, the Badger baby waited. I imagined him falling over it as he opened his door. A ginger man, a black-eyed baby not his own. The baby wasn’t mine either. It had only begged me. Not the begging of something vulnerable, but the begging of the kind of busker who might stab you later, in a darker part of the night.

 My phone buzzed.

 I can’t believe you, said the message.

 I don’t want this stupid baby, said the next message.

This isn’t funny, said the last one.

 A couple days later, I was at work, and my phone rang with a number I didn’t know, and someone said they were going to pick me up at my office.

“Who is this?” I asked. My body had gone back to normal. I no longer felt swollen, nor did I feel protective. Remember how you loved him, said my body, a couple of times, but I didn’t choose to remember. My hair was bluer than it had been. I’d tried a new product and now the color crackled through a gleaming varnish, a kind of gel that stiffened everything into a beautiful Chinese pottery sheen.

 The person who picked me up came in a police car, and still I didn’t feel terribly concerned. I was thinking about the way I felt bruised and blue on the inside, like something in me had indigoed, the way I felt made of egg yolk and pigment. At home I’d had to strip the wallpaper, but that was okay. I hadn’t liked it anyway. Now the plaster beneath it was clawed by the tiger tool. I’d looked at myself in the bathroom mirror after showering that morning, seen myself emerging from the steam, my face too pale.

“We’re taking you around to the station,” he said.

 Peter was dead, I thought, and I wondered about myself, at the way that thought could echo inside me, banging around in my head like a bumblebee caught in a basement. I thought of the Badger baby. 1857. Double underline. Now it was a hundred and fifty some years later. I’d done some internet research. TH Badger had painted some other portraits. They came up for auction occasionally, not for high prices. There was one of Longfellow in which the poet looked bulgy-eyed and consumptive, and a set of paintings of a couple in which the woman’s smile lit out from the brushstrokes with a kind of devilish shine, but nothing was like the Badger baby, which was not, it seemed, documented anywhere.

 Peter was at the station. He wasn’t dead. He was pacing, skinny and ginger-bearded in the station waiting room, and when I arrived, he pointed at me.

 “Yes,” he said.

 “Yes, what, Peter?” I said. I’d been fully prepared to identify his body.

 “You have to take the baby back,” he said. His forehead looked higher than it had. He looked like he’d receded five years, and he looked bluish in the temples. He pushed the Badger baby at me. It was wrapped in a black plastic garbage sack.

“But it’s ours,” I said, my tongue feeling strange in my mouth.

 Peter looked at me, and his eyes bulged a little.

 The police officer shrugged.

 “You have to take the item back, ma’am,” he said. “He says it’s your painting.”

“It’s not my painting,” I protested. “It was an accidental, mutual purchase. We’re a couple, did he tell you that? We did this together. Maybe we need to return it to the people we bought it from.”

“I tried,” Peter said and scrubbed at his skull as though it itched. “No phone. Not there. Gone.”

In my hands, the Badger baby felt heavy, and the bag it was in felt waterlogged. The new product in my hair crackled and crazed over the blue. The police officer looked at us both like we were crazy, and we might have been. I could feel us becoming unmatched, the way our bodies twisted away from each other like strands of useless rope. Only days before, we’d sat opposite one another, our coffee cups warming our hands. The bag dripped fluid on my feet and I jolted back, choking.

 Milk shouted the baby.

 I gagged and Peter gagged too.

“It’s not just me, right?” I asked.

 “No,” said Peter, and covered his mouth with his hand.

 “Domestic property dispute,” said the officer, to someone we couldn’t see.

 “Neither of us wants it,” Peter said. “Can we leave it here?”

“There’s no protocol for that,” said the officer.

 MILK shouted the Badger baby, and Peter groaned, holding the back of his skull. I held the back of mine too. There was a migraine brewing like a thunderstorm in there.

“Okay,” said Peter, resigned. “Okay.” He walked out of the station beside me.

 “Okay,” I said. “It’ll be okay.” I was trying to convince us both.

 I drove. The Badger baby dripped and shouted between us, and both of us kept the windows rolled down. It smelled like water and the kind of black mold that sometimes grows behind basement furniture. That kind of mold can kill you, but it just smells old.

 Flood whispered the Badger baby from inside the sack and both of us pretended we didn’t hear it. I drove us first to a hardware store, and then to the lake. When I’d moved here, I’d thought of it as a lovely thing, a wonderful weekend activity location, picnics and swimming out beyond the floats, but now it was only desperation that took me there. Peter nodded, looking straight ahead. We’d canoed on one of our wonderful weekends, and gotten drunk on white wine while we paddled. It was a thing like the flea market, like the farmer’s stands, a thing from a life I didn’t know how to want. Nor did Peter. He had one chair.

Milk said the Badger baby, in a voice that was not at all babyish. The sack was full of water now, and it gushed for a moment, all over my legs and Peter’s too. I heard Peter sob, but I wasn’t sobbing.

“No,” I said. I parked the truck on the ramp that led down to the water, and I heaved the baby up. I turned to look at Peter. His hair was gone now, receded all the way back, and his shoulders were covered in ginger threads. His skin had gone the color of half-cooked egg. I had no idea what I looked like. I felt crackled, like my face was fracturing. In the sack, nothing moved. I put it on the ground and opened it. I brought the Badger baby out.

It looked nearly the same as it had. We stood on the end of the dock together, and the baby’s black eyes looked into mine. There was nothing but black there now, though there had been white to begin with. The Badger baby had the eyes of an animal.

Peter gathered stones on the shore. It was raining now in earnest, and he was drenched, his shirt hanging off his shoulder blades in a way that made it clear what he’d look like when he was old.

The Badger baby looked at me, its eyes gleaming. Inside it, there was something, and I did not want to know what it was. I couldn’t see the Badger baby’s teeth, but I’d woken up with marks around my nipples the night it slept in my bedroom, marks like an eel had fastened on. I was bandaged. There’d been blood. 

Peter put the stones in the garbage sack, and I pressed the Badger baby back in among them. I wrapped duct tape around the package, even though, from inside it, I heard

milk

flood

lake

and finally

mama.

Peter and I picked the Badger baby up together and swung it. One, two, three, and release. The package skipped like a stone over ice, floating for a moment, the mist and twilight fog of the early evening surrounding it. It shone like a dead fish, filled with something other than stones and dark, and then it sank.

The lake water looked lavender and grey, just as it did in the painting, and for a moment it filled with twirling yellow shadows, far enough below the surface that I couldn’t tell what they were, all of them writhing like worms or like tubes. Then the water was black again, dark as the baby’s eyes.

My heart felt cobalt, and my hair broke off, each strand an icicle as I walked away from the lake with the man I’d thought I loved.

Together, our foreheads high and white, our lips red, our bodies full of something other than bodies, Peter and I drove back up the ramp, and home for milk.

MATT POWER: An Appreciation

Yesterday, the internet exploded with tributes to my dear friend Matt, who died in Uganda on Monday (probably of heatstroke), while walking down the Nile on assignment for Men’s Journal. I wrote a couple griefstricken posts on Facebook and a bunch on twitter, but Matt worked best in longform. He deserves as many words as I can give him.

I met Matt in 2004, at Breadloaf. He was 29. He’d just published his first piece in Harper’s and he was very excited about it. So excited that when I met him, this skinny, t-shirted guy in a pair of jeans that he’d bought in maybe 1992,  across a crowded room full of writers, he had a gin and tonic in one hand (for me) and a copy of the Harper’s issue The Poison Stream appeared in, in the other. His enthusiasm was so high that I mistook him for some strange entertainment, perhaps a Breadloaf Welcoming Committee, but no, he was just Matt, and his pleasure in whatever he did radiated from him in all directions.

There was some question over whether he had ideas that I’d read his article right then, in the middle of cocktails, but luckily, I’d already read it, by fluke, on the airplane to Vermont, and so I was happy to crow with him, this total stranger, now my friend. Matt and I became instantly close, though I was in the fiction section and he was in nonfiction, in, as I recall, Ted Conover’s workshop. He had just emerged from living in New Delhi (and I think he might have gone back to India post-Breadloaf) when I first met him, and he was tanned and bony from roaming. He only kind of fit in at Breadloaf, where most people were newly writers and straight out of grad school, or comfortably established with houses, not wandering and already making this kind of career.  People referred to him as “That Harper’s Guy” – but he was also “That Radio Workshop Guy” and “That Guy with the Grin.”  Breadloaf is all cocktails and campfires, swimming holes and late night dance parties in the barn, and I kept seeing Matt whirring through it, in his element, periodically pointing out an obscure constellation, then whooping from somewhere on the other side of the fire.

Obviously, there was no way I was letting Matt out of my life. This was not a conference friend, but a friend for life, and that’s what we did for the next ten years.  The next time I saw him, a few months later, I had just sold the book I’d pitched at Breadloaf, and Matt screamed for celebration. I never heard him, in all the time I knew him, jealous of other writers. He’d smack his lips and generally bellow with laughter, and shout when someone made a big deal, or sold a lot of books, and it wasn’t that he was not paying attention to things like that. He was. He lived on the internet as much as he lived in daily life (recently we had discussions of how Twitter was like a giant party, and thus was irresistible).  It was a mixed bag, though, because not only had I sold my book and come to NYC to meet my publishers, my dad had also committed suicide. So I arrived in NYC three days after my dad’s death, rocked and weird, having not really cried, and came to Matt, who looked at me with one eyebrow up and demanded stories of my weird Idaho childhood, of my dad’s hoarder house. He was willing to hear all the horrible things I couldn’t talk about, until I could finally unknot myself. I’ve been thinking of that this week, the generosity that took. We didn’t know each other well. I told him every weirdness from my sled-dog raising Idaho childhood, and Matt, being Matt, was like, “Nah, that’s not so weird I can’t understand it. Tell me more.” I imagine this must be how it felt to be interviewed by him. He listened calmly to everything, asked questions, and then said, “Damn. Do you need me to go out there and clean up the property? I can get a ticket to Idaho and hitchhike out to your place.”

This was Matt at his brokest. This was Matt to a new friend.  This was Matt making this offer in December, when everything was frozen.

And so nearly ten years passed, in friendship, in celebrating each other’s publications, in sitting over tables muttering over our parallel careers. In me driving Matt over the border to Canada from Seattle a few years ago, because he’d been banned at some point, and was afraid he would get turned away if he flew. He wanted a distraction in the driver’s seat for the border guards. The guard had many questions for Matt – who was still in the system, though he wasn’t supposed to have been – and asked me what I was doing with “this firebrand.”  I said this firebrand was my friend.  I got to dance at Matt and Jess’ wedding. I got to hang out in their backyard, and sometimes, when I came to New York, I never even made it to where I was staying, because I just stayed in their house, sitting in their garden, watching Matt crow over his raspberries, paddling my feet in a wading pool, and talking to all the interesting people who roamed around all the time, living in the house with them, or just hanging out.

I moved back to NYC from Seattle post-divorce a year and a half ago, and purposefully planted myself walking distance from that house, because Matt and Jess were family, and I wanted to live as close to next door to them as I could. Only ten days ago, two days before Matt went to Uganda, I tweeted my joy at texting them that I was cooking, and having them show up half an hour later, bearing wine and warmth. Matt and Jess together were the kind of couple who could make a feast out of a crust of bread and a few olives – not only in their own space, but in anyone’s.  When I moved into my apartment, we sat on the floor amid boxes and ate random items, while Matt inspected every corner of my apartment muttering about holes in the walls and badly done light fixtures. He’d become, in the last few years, with he and Jess’ place in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, a house renovation fiend. He liked the details. A few months ago, he came over to help me hang my taxidermied crocodile on the wall, and we had to call in another friend, because it turned out we couldn’t properly lift and hang a crocodile. Again, we ended up gluing all the rattling furniture, eating 9 hours of meals, and cackling before we flew out to three parties in one evening.

Matt had a personality that was visible from space – but it wasn’t the kind of personality you’d normally think of in those terms. He wasn’t obnoxious, though he could talk, and if you weren’t up to holding up your end of the conversation, he might vaudeville you for a while. He was gleeful, most of the time, and game for anything. He was intrepid. There was a reason he was an adventure writer, but in truth, almost everything he did was adventurous, even if it was just walking from his and his wife Jess’ house a mile north to my apartment. He’d arrive, bouncing on his heels, say “Hello, Sweetheart” at my door, grab me up and hug me, and and then shamble into my kitchen and uncork whatever he had in his hand. We’d commence the real business of breaking the universe down, into not just manageable chunks – that was not Matt’s specialty – but into connect-the-dots narratives, drawing ingredients from all of human history, when we could.

Matt did a lot of reporting over the ten years I knew him, and a lot of living, too. He traveled all over the world, and wrote a ton of pieces, each one fascinating, always gorgeously written, and notable for their empathy, curiosity, and vigor. He climbed mountains, rode motorcycles in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and with Jess on the ring road in Iceland. When he met Jess, he called me and said “I’ve met this girl named Jess, the one. I can’t believe it.” He was so giddy that the three of us drank a bottle of champagne the next day, and he spent the entire time beaming and levitating at his luck.  Jess is worth it. She was his perfect match, and as adventurous, generous, and insightful as he is. Matt got even more thrilled with existence in her presence: he tromped through jungles, and through deserts, and onto the eagles of the Chrysler Building. Matt was also a full-on New Yorker, in the old style. He was an engaged pedestrian, fascinated by small alterations in buildings, new plants in gardens. He talked to every small child he saw, and knew half the people on every street he walked down, in seriously any neighborhood I was ever in with him. When we were hanging out together, I’d often hear him make a sound of delight from another room, only to discover him looking at anything from an interesting bug to a wobbly table leg that he was in the process of fixing, to a photograph on my wall he’d loved before, but happened upon again, and loved as gleefully the second time around.

If you went to a party with Matt – and I did, lots of times, when one or the other of our partners couldn’t attend – you’d see him orbiting the room, and hear his laugh, as he talked to absolutely everyone there. One of the key things about Matt was that there was almost no way to get him to leave a party. Everyone who loved him knows this. Man could stay at a party, getting more and more happy, even until sunrise, if he was allowed. He did not like to leave, not when there were still strangers to meet and friends to greet.

The fact that Matt had to leave this party, this Earth, so fucking early (he was only 39, and every time I see the timeline, 1974-2014 I want to frantically scratch out the last number) breaks my heart.

I knew he was walking the Nile with explorers in Uganda. I’d finally gotten around to not worrying about him every time he traveled – after 10 years of intermittent nerves. We’d talked at dinner about the trek itself, and the kind of terrain, the weight of his pack. We talked about hippos and their ferocity. This was nothing compared to some things he’d done over the years. The first five years I knew him, he’d regularly text or email me on his way to far-flung locales, or from random airports, and it’d be “off to K2,” or “motorcycling to the highest point  in the Himalayas.”  The fact that his life ended while he was walking down the Nile makes a certain kind of narrative sense, but it’s miserable sense. I can’t believe the guy with the grin is gone. He seemed like he’d live forever. He liked a river story. He liked to start at the source, and make his way down. He did versions of this several times, in the Amazon, on the Mississippi, with varying degrees of success, across Nicaragua by boat on the Rio San Juan, following in the path of Mark Twain. Years ago, when he had the idea for Mississippi Drift, the piece he wrote about floating down the Mississippi with a bunch of anarchists on a salvage raft, we talked about the glorious analysis of the American Dream way the piece *could* be structured. Then he actually got on the raft, and it became a stalled-out situation. The piece he ended up writing about the Mississippi was funny and weird, but not noble-glorious. There’s no wham bam American dream in it – unless we’re talking about the American Dream of Walmart and dumpster diving, which in truth was always part of Matt’s assessment of the interesting things about the world, scavenging, selling, seeking, battling with nature and sometimes losing.

Everything he wrote, he wrote with acceptance of situations most people would find hard to place in context – but Matt’s context, for everything he reported on, was humanity and the diverse pleasures of being human. His piece The Magic Mountain, about economics in a Philippine garbage mountain, has haunted me for years, because he describes walking that mountain tremendously viscerally, and also with grace. You can smell the garbage. You can also see a beautiful mountain made by men. Matt, while recently particularly known for his work writing about adventurers-by-choice, also wrote a lot of pieces about the underserved and ill-treated.  I edited a draft of his Pine Ridge piece years ago, as well as one of the piece he initially wrote for the NYT Mag, ultimately for Slate, on the harm-reduction injection drug clinic in Vancouver, moving things around and changing tenses, trying to shrink stories into wordcounts without mangling them, trying to get to the guts of the story without doing disservice to its subjects. Matt was a generous reporter. He reported evil in the world, but not in his subjects. He saw people as complicated, and most of the time, he liked them for their complexity. He wasn’t a naive wanderer – I realize some of this makes Matt sound blind to badness. He wasn’t. If he thought someone had transgressed against one of his close ones, he would offer to punch them for you. If he thought someone had done something morally unsound, he would rant. (Matt and Jess were the good examples of journalists I was thinking of when I wrote this piece on journalistic ethics & the Dr. V. article a couple months back –  we’d just had a dinner conversation about permission, about telling a subject’s secrets, and about the horrible things that can happen when you tell a story and it gets shrunken into a soundbite, or worse, incorrectly rendered once it’s out in the world.) He had a wicked sense of humor right alongside his generosity, and occasionally it would come out and startle you into laughing til you cried.

In 2007 (?) he emailed me a very due –  first draft of Escape to Mount Kenya, from his apartment in Brooklyn, and then got on a train to meet me in Manhattan for dinner. I’d bribed him into Manhattan with my editing services during the 40 minutes he’d be underground, and by the time he arrived, I’d redlined his poor piece into oblivion. He had faith. He accepted all the edits. That is a certain kind of person, a guy who trusts an editor enough to accept all her changes without arguing. Matt was that kind of person with his friends, and I suspect also pretty much that way with his more official editors.

I met a lot of them last night at a bar where we all toasted our friend and told stories. Matt was loved like crazy, by strangers, by people he met once, and by his loved ones.  All those categories were crying at the bar as his obituary was read. There were two walk-in randoms in the bar last night, the only people not there for Matt. One of them asked me “Who was that guy? He sounds like someone from a movie.” And then when Matt’s obituary was read, I saw that stranger crying.

I was standing adrift in the center of the room when Matt and Jess’ friend and former housemate Par Parekh walked in, and beelined at me to hold me tight for the next several minutes. It was the right thing, in saying goodbye to a man who gave hugs that could save a person’s life. I know Matt gave hugs like that to so many people, and standing there last night, these two deep friends  of Matt Power (always referred to by his full name, because come on, he was a superhero) holding onto each other because the guy who was guiding our expedition had died on the river, that was right.

I can’t believe Matt Power died on the river. I can’t believe Matt Power isn’t still trekking and toasting the joy he always had, for everything he did, for his amazing wife, for his amazing life. So many people are grieving him right now, and grieving the words he won’t write, too.  There are a lot of broken hearts all over the world. He was loved.

I believe Matt guided the expedition, though, up mountains and into the sky, across countries, into the unknowns of the human heart. His work was cartographic and compassionate, and every piece I read taught me something new about how to see the world. The last thing we said to each other – in the last few years, we got into this happy habit – was “I love you so much. I’m so glad you exist.”

I’m gonna say it again, right now. And I’m going to remember to say it to the people I love, because frankly, you can never say that enough.

Here, I leave you with some last lines from Matt’s work. From years of taking passes at his drafts, I know how he liked stories to end, with movement and change, with the feeling that everything, while unresolved, was still glorious. That there was room on earth for fascination and for a million stories, and that they were still happening, all around us.

That nothing was ever finished.

The pounding surf of the Caribbean echoes through coconut groves, and where the river meets the sea, the ghosts of a thousand journeys drift on a slight breeze.” – Exploring the New Nicaragua, National Geographic Adventure, September 2006

“All his clothing, his journals, photographs, identification – everything but his life – had been lost, and he found himself in a place he had often been: broke and homeless, coming ashore in a strange city. The river, of course, continued on without him.” – Mississippi Drift, Harper’s, March, 2008

“A cliff swallow glides into the sheltering alcove, and rises on an updraft without a wing beat. It levitates a moment, as if painted into the landscape, before returning to its nest of mud and straw, built just where the Buddha’s head had been.” – The Lost Buddhas of Bamiyan, Harper’s, March 2005. 

“I am nowhere near home. The train is waiting for me, it hasn’t pulled out yet. All the ghosts of the workers who built this railroad, all the people who have, knowingly or not, helped me across this huge continent, all swirl around me in those few moments. This is the great secret of trainhopping. And this is what it means to be alive.” – Trainhopping, A Modern Day Hobo’s Journey across Canada, Blue Magazine, December 2000. 

“The flooded forest is the epitome of all childhood nightmares, and yet I’m not afraid. I now understand the realization Stafford came to while crossing the Napo delta: He learned to let himself float, to feel the tranquillity of the moment he was in. Stafford has a long way to go, perhaps 18 more months, but you can’t rush an expedition like this. It will take as long as it takes.” –  Lost in the Amazon, Men’s Journal, June 2009. 

Read Matthew Power’s work. It’s beautiful. It will be worth your time. He was worth mine. I wish I’d had more of him on this beautiful planet, in my living room, in my kitchen, in my inbox. He was one of the great loves of my life, after all, and how many of those do you get?  There’s no past tense for Matt Power. I love the hell out of him.  I’m going to miss him every day.

You can’t rush an expedition like this. This is what it means to be alive.