A Hollow Play
by Amal El-Mohtar
I’m heading out of the flat tonight, for once, since Anna invited me out to a cabaret thing. Funny how it happened — for weeks she’s been casually asking what I’m doing after work, but never following up after I say some variation on “derby practice” or “watching cartoons.” I guess it’s taken her until now to decide I’m someone she’d actually choose to hang out with in her free time. That should make me feel good, right? But I’m actually terrified. Because it’s been so long since — I don’t know, since I’ve had a friend? That sounds horrible. And it’s probably not true, if I sit and think about it properly. What I mean is, since I’ve had a friend the way I had friends in Canada. When it was easy, you know? When I could click with someone and just feel this trust, this knowledge that we both liked each other equally and in the same way, when I could take for granted that I could say things and have them be understood. Like with you. It feels like forever since I’ve had that. A year, at least.
So anyway, I feel like I might have that with Anna — but we’re always at work, and all the conversations we have are sandwiched between people ordering flat whites and the occasional biscuit. When it gets quiet, though, sometimes we really talk, about serious things, heart things. I’ve told her a bit about you. She told me she’s trans — which isn’t a secret, it’s okay that I’m telling you — and we talked about how basically we’re both always coming out, we can never be wholly done coming out.
I guess I’m terrified of messing this up somehow. Being boring. Not being into the show that she’s really excited about. Being — yeah, okay, being an obnoxious North American in the company of British people, even though Glasgow’s about a million times better than London for not making me feel that way.
Right, it’s time to go. I’ll write more later.
Emily stood in the doorway to the Rio Cafe and looked around, half–convinced she had the wrong place. The word “cabaret” had conjured up visions of illicit underground doings populated by white–faced pianists in dark, shabby suits, coaxing notes of tragic joy from their instruments. But this was just a really nice pub, full of comfortable, brightly coloured wooden booths perpendicular to a long bar. There were some smaller tables and chairs to the right and back of it, blackboards with specials written on them, and nothing that looked like it could be turned into a stage.
Make sure you get there early, Anna had said, it fills up fast. Emily shrugged, manoeuvred her way to one of the small tables towards the back, pulled a pen and a leather–bound journal from her bag, and resumed writing.
So, I’m here, but Anna’s not , and I awesomely left Memoirs of a Space Woman at home in spite of knowing I’d have two hours to kill, so I figure I’ll just keep writing to you.
Cabaret! I have no idea what to expect. Have you ever been to a cabaret show? I wasn’t sure how to dress for it either — when I asked Anna she just laughed and told me to use my imagination — so I’m wearing the red top you gave me, the button–down one with the sleeves that flare out and curl from the elbows. I can’t believe I still have it — it’s been, what, ten years, three moves? It’s not fitting so great now — since I started taking derby more seriously, (I’m EMILY THE SLAYER now! Strong like Buffy!) my arms have gotten huge, and you should see the butt on me — but it’s still pretty and I love it, and it still matches my favourite earrings best.
I should probably tell you more about Anna, since obviously there’s more to her than being trans and my co–worker. She’s really great, and really cute — she just cut her hair short last week and dyed it bright orange–red, so she looks kind of like Leeloo from The Fifth Element. She’s vegan(sometimes I swear she likes the fact that I’m not, because it gives her an excuse to play “Meat is Murder” on loop in the cafe for the duration of my lunch break, which no one notices, because it sounds like every other Smiths song except the good ones, which she refuses to accept no matter how many times I explain it), an amazing cosplayer, and getting into burlesque. She hasn’t performed in public yet, just for friends in her living room, but she’s been developing this number that involves a chef’s hat, mixed greens, and oversized serving implements.
We’re not dating or anything. I’ve only known her for about a month, though it feels like way longer — and I refuse to entertain a crush, because she’s been in a closed poly triad for a while and they’re kind of going through a rough patch that she hasn’t told me much about. So I’ll tell you more about this cabaret thing instead.
It’s called SPANGLED CABARET (“spangled” is apparently one of about a million words that also means “wildly drunk” in the west of Scotland) and it happens once a month in this cafe, and Anna’s been coming to it forever, basically. She really wants to perform here sometime once she feels confident enough.
It’s also where she met her partners, Lynette and Kel. Kel’s genderqueer and prefers “they” as a pronoun, so I’ll try to keep this from getting confusing: they work nights at the airport, but Lynette’s a performer, whose stage name is Lynette Byrd; her thing is apparently to dress up like a bird and sing?
Oh, she’s just coming in. I’ll write more later.
“Ooh, well done,” said Anna, grinning, hooking her jacket over a chair. “These are the best seats in the house. Can I get you a drink?”
“The finest wines available to humanity,” Emily declared, capping her pen and shutting the journal. She smiled up at her. “Something red?”
Emily watched her head to the bar. Anna, as usual, looked amazing, in a turquoise chiffon dress with ruffles at the neckline waving their way asymmetrically down the front, cinched at the waist with an orange belt that matched her hair.
She was also alone. When Anna returned with their drinks, Emily asked, “So, where’s Lynette?”
“Oh, she can only hang out after her act. Something about ‘diluting the effect’ —” Anna made air quotes and rolled her eyes, “—if she mingles with people beforehand. I hope that’s okay — I thought we could have a little more time to talk before launching you into poly drama.”
Emily chuckled. “That’s fine. It’s really cool to see you outside of work. You look awesome.”
Anna grinned and tossed her short hair back dramatically. “Why thank you. So do you. That’s a great blouse.”
Emily blushed, looking down at her shirt. “Thanks, it was a gift —”
“It’s very Romantic! Poet sleeves, fountain pen, leather–bound journal — excellent ensemble, though of course leather’s murder too.” Anna’s smile was teasing. “It’s beautiful, though. Where’d you find it?”
“Oh,” she said, blushing hotter. “It was also a gift. From the same person. My best friend. The one I mentioned, Paige.” She paused, uncertain how much more to say. “I write to her in it.”
Anna blinked. “What?”
“You know, instead of letters. We each have one, and we write to each other in them whenever the mood takes us, and when they get full, or half full, we post them to each other. We’ve been doing it for years — ever since she moved out west.” She dropped it into her bag again, zipped it shut.
“That’s so cool.” Anna grinned. “You’ve actually found a way to make snail mail slower.”
“Shut up! Not all of us want to have our phones embedded in our palms.”
“Lies and trickery. You, too, lust for the Singularity in your heart of hearts.”
“Those aren’t even the same thing!”
The wine was good, the conversation easy. Emily felt herself relaxing, becoming aware of how little effort she was making, how unnecessary it felt to play at being wry and unaffected and vaguely disdainful of anything she passionately loved. By the time the lights dimmed and a tall man in red spats and cerulean trousers announced the beginning of the show, she was feeling excited.
The first act was a startling realisation of Emily’s earlier expectations, as a short bearded man unfolded a keyboard, flicked his coat–tails behind him, and sat down to play something melancholically sinister while a young woman in layers of fringed and shimmering fabric, loops of large white beads, and a flapper’s red head scarf expertly drew a violin bow along the edge of a saw. The result was equal parts mournful and uncanny.
“That,” shouted Emily over the subsequent applause, “was amazing. Is it all like this?”
Anna smiled. “Not quite.”
The next act saw Emily covering her face while an attractive young man hammered nails up his nose.
“Come on,” chuckled Anna, “it’s not that bad! It’s mostly tricks, anyway.”
“Anna he’s bleeding! He stuck a needle up his arm and drew blood.”
“He’s a professional!”
“His hands are shaking! This can’t be right!”
“It’s just part of the whole blockhead routine, honest. I’ve watched him do it loads of times.”
“Really?” She dared a peek between her fingers, winced, and covered her eyes again.
“Really. Well. Not the needle, I think that’s new, but the nails are standard. Oh, come on, you can’t miss this, he’s going to swallow those razors and knot them together in his throat —”
“Hey, I need the loo and we should have more drinks. Same again?”
“Sure, sure. Coward.”
Emily stuck her tongue out and beat a hasty retreat.
It was equal parts the half–light, the show, and the wine, but the Rio had clearly slipped somewhere just slant of real. Navigating the distance between table and toilets felt like lucid dreaming. She passed men with moon–white faces in bowler hats; she washed her hands next to a woman in scarlet lingerie with mouse ears and a cheese–grater crotch. It felt like a secret carnival, like a place a runaway could call home.
She sat down again just as the blockhead was taking a bow, thankfully none the worse for wear. Anna looked positively fond as Emily pushed a new glass of wine toward her.
“You’ve got the look,” Anna said, smiling.
“Of the hooked. The enchanted. You’re one of us now.”
“Just like that?” Emily looked dubious. “By running away from the blockhead?”
“It takes all sorts. I can’t wait for you to see Lynette. She’s usually on towards the end.” Anna fiddled with a napkin. “She’s… Something else. I could go on and on about her and not be able to say how.”
“Are things...” Emily hesitated. “I mean, is it okay if I ask...”
Anna shrugged. “Things are things. The weirdness is mainly between Kel and me, but obviously Lynette’s involved too, she can’t not be. But — I can’t really talk about it, sorry.”
“That’s totally fine. I don’t want to pry! I just don’t know what to expect, at all.”
Anna chuckled. “That’s probably for the best.”
Once the applause died down, the emcee stepped forward to announce the final act, and encouraged everyone to stay precisely where they were.
Then the lights went out.
The cafe buzzed for a minute until a spotlight clicked on, shining up from the floor, illuminating a woman seated on a tall stool. But not completely — shadows striped her face and body, and as Emily took the scene in, she saw that the spotlight was shining through an ornate bird cage, projecting its bars against the wall and woman together.
When Anna said Lynette would be dressed as a bird, Emily had imagined something a bit camp, a bit silly, maybe a bit sexy into the bargain. She hadn’t expected this tall, solemn, slender creature of angles and air, delicate golden–brown feathers sprouting from the shoulders, hips, and hem of a long white dress worn over slightly incongruous brown boots. Thick dark curls were piled on top of her head, against which leaned a high, feathered fascinator. There was an air of honey and copper about her, a shimmering sweetness. Emily’s breath caught at the sight.
Lynette Byrd lifted her chin and regarded her audience coolly, head sharply tilted. When she parted her glittering lips and spoke, her voice was a sweep of warm light in the dim.
“Green finch and linnet bird! Nightingale! Blackbird!”
“How is it you sing!” shouted the audience members as one, making Emily jump a little in her seat. Lynette smiled.
“An oft–repeated question. Why does the caged bird sing? Why does it not embrace silence in protest, refusing to give up the thing for which it was imprisoned? Why, day after day, does it warble and sway from perch to perch, trilling its essence out in unrepeatable sequence for the benefit of its captors? I am trusted,” she laughed, suddenly, a sound like glass bursting, “with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage.”
With that she closed her eyes and leaned her cheek against the feathers on her shoulder, looking for all the world like a bird asleep.
Silence, then. Emily looked at Anna uncertainly, wondering if she should clap, but Anna was gazing at Lynette in rapt adoration. No one else seemed to think it was over, either. An uncomfortable minute passed, then two. A few people closed their eyes; a couple were staring intensely at their phones; one man nearby was moving his mouth without making a sound, and Emily realised he was counting. She looked back at the stage. Lynette remained completely immobile. The sound of the bartender wiping crumbs from the counter became noticeable. She heard people shifting a little in their seats, though none spoke.
Emily frowned and looked down at her own phone. Had it been four minutes? Four minutes of —
Her eyes widened in sudden understanding. Before she knew what she was doing, she had gasped “OH!” out loud, to the shock of just about everyone else in the room.
She clapped her hands over her mouth in a panic and looked at the stage, but Lynette hadn’t moved — it was only every other head in the cafe that had swung towards her, some frowning, some biting down a laugh, some laughing outright. Anna stared at her in an astonishment that bordered on reproach. Cheeks flushing, she fixed her eyes on the floor and tried to will it into melting away and taking her with it.
But only for another thirty seconds, as Lynette’s performance of John Cage’s “4’33” came to an end. As people began to clap, Emily raised her head again.
Lynette had opened her eyes and was looking directly at her. She seemed amused.
“The reason, ultimately,” she said, stretching her neck from one side to the other, and rolling back her feathered shoulders, “is that silence is terribly boring, no? Let us jubilate.”
With that, Lynette launched into the most unearthly rendition of Sondheim’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” Emily had ever heard. It was like sugar melting into caramel, hearing that bright, glittering song dimmed into a smoky minor key and twisted, stretched into so unlikely a shape. To listen was to feel her heart dragged over burrs, each turn of lyric snagging and pulling at her. By the time Lynette was asking the birds to teach her to be more adaptive, Emily had a pain in her throat and wet cheeks. Anna was quietly sobbing next to her.
Emily stretched out her hand without a word. Anna took it and squeezed.
It was like nothing else. She broke us open and read our entrails, I swear. It was like her art was a kind of sewing, a stitching together of things you’d never have thought could go together seamlessly. Hah. I just noticed how Seamstress is like a portmanteau of Seam and Mistress. Seam. Seem. Mistress of Seams and Seemings.
I’m pretty drunk right now by the way.
So she’s a Seemstress. She ended the show with a flick of her wrist, throwing a black cloth over the birdcage, and the spotlight clicked off. She didn’t take a bow. She’s drinking with Anna, now, they’re talking, and I’m hiding in the bathroom because I can’t bring myself to look at her even though I really want to talk to her and tell her how amazing it was. She came towards us after, and she looked at me in this way and said “I truly enjoyed your contribution,” and I just clammed up. I was so mortified. I don’t think she even meant it to be mocking but I couldn’t bear it. So I just sat there and got redder and redder and Anna took her attention off me, which is fine but I just felt like I’d failed, made the worst impression, and I just really needed to tell you about this right away, while it’s all still hurting, the good and the bad of it, all together. I needed to tell you. I always need to tell you and you’re not — you’re never —
I wish — I wish you could have been here. Everything would be better if you were. I wish we could be talking about it right now. I wish — God, Paige, I miss you so fucking much. I miss you.
The ceiling came into focus first, and it was wrong: much too high, and the familiar pale orange stain that usually greeted her when she woke wasn’t there. Then the smells: unfamiliar laundry detergent mixing with coffee like her father had it, with cardamom. The sound of water running, one wall over. Suddenly she bolted upright and took stock of the strange room, the strange bed, and the dull orange light coming through unfamiliar window slats from a street lamp outside. Still night time, then.
She felt sick. Still drunk, obviously; the room kept threatening to spin, and her vision was anchored to a slow, awful churning in her belly. Was this Anna’s place? Blearily, she swung her legs out of bed, and saw that she was still dressed. Quietly, she padded her way out of the room and into a dark hallway, toward the sound of water. She was thirsty. Her mouth felt full of sour cotton.
Light slanted into the hall from the half–open door to what she thought must be the bathroom; maybe Anna was brushing her teeth? She pushed it the rest of the way.
Lynette Byrd stood on one foot, lifting the hem of a white nightgown, one knee delicately raised above a bathtub filling with water. But her feet — Emily stared, blinked, shook her head, couldn’t stop staring.
From the ankle down, Lynette’s feet were the leathery, taloned, four–toed feet of a bird.
Lynette’s eyes met hers, and she tilted her head as she had in her performance, but it had the look of a raptor now. Emily staggered back, watching Lynette’s upraised knee lift higher, those talons flexing, swivelling away from the tub and on to the floor, clicking.
“Seemstress,” she gasped, and the room spun faster and faster until she tumbled backwards into the dark.
When Emily woke again, it was to morning light filtering through the blankets over her head and whispering voices in the hall. She ventured a peek over the sheets, and saw Anna and Lynette in animated conversation, while someone who shared Lynette’s height, cheekbones, and colouring stood silently by with arms folded. Kel? They had short–cropped black hair, sharp cheekbones, and human feet.
Lynette’s remained disconcertingly taloned. She hadn’t imagined it.
Emily rolled over and burrowed deeper into the blankets in search of oblivion.
“Hey,” came Anna’s voice, gently, from beyond the duvet. “Morning. How are you feeling?”
Emily tried to part her lips to say something intelligent and managed a tiny croak of misery. Anna patted her shoulder.
“Have some water. Come on, we won’t bite. What do you remember?”
Slowly, Emily sat up, taking in the company. Anna, in pink flannel pajamas, looked concerned. Lynette without her make–up and feathers was still devastatingly beautiful: her black hair was a long sideways braid over her shoulder, and her light brown cheeks still had a hint of glitter to them. Her eyes were as black as her hair. She looked less like a magical bird–woman and more like someone from Emily’s own family now — as did Kel, who was looking at Emily with distrust.
She accepted a glass of water and took small, careful sips. “Lynette has bird feet.”
Anna winced. Kel muttered something under their breath that sounded like it was probably rude. Lynette waved her hand.
“We will speak of that later. I think Anna meant from earlier in the evening.”
“Oh.” She hadn’t given it much thought. “I remember — sitting with you both, and then going to the bathroom, and, um.” The shame of it, locking herself in a stall and crying, washed over her in a nauseous wave. “I guess Anna came in to check on me after a while. I don’t remember much else.”
“You seemed very upset.” Lynette looked at her curiously. “I was concerned that I had said something to hurt you. Then you fell asleep, and Anna didn’t know where you lived, so we brought you here instead.”
Emily bit her lip, stared into her glass. “I’m so, so sorry —”
“It’s no trouble, truly,” said Lynette. Kel snorted at that, and Anna smacked them on the arm and glared. Lynette ignored them, focused on Emily. “Did I hurt you in some way?”
“No, I’m — I was just so embarrassed. About the John Cage thing. Everything had been going so well until that point, and now I’ve fucked everything up, and you — you’re being so nice —”
“Emily.” Anna looked pained. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”
Emily looked at her, and felt something tightly wound in her release. She felt suddenly ragged with relief.
“Really? You’re not angry?”
“Angry?” Anna stared at her. “Emily, you just found out my girlfriend’s part bird and you’re worried about what I think?”
“I think,” said Lynette, “that we should have some coffee. Would you like that, Emily?”
“Yes, please.” She looked at Kel uncertainly. “Are you — are you going to curse me or erase my memory or something?”
Lynette blinked. So did Anna and Kel. All three of them looked at each other. To Emily’s discomfort, they all burst out laughing.
“That,” said Lynette, “would be terrible manners.”
“That’s — not a ‘no,’ though.” Emily had the feeling of being in a dream, of watching herself having this conversation. Lynette only smiled, looking as if she was enjoying herself.
“Emily, if you’ll forgive me the presumption, what is your surname?”
“Then we both hail from places where hospitality is sacrosanct, and one would not offer coffee to a guest to whom one intended any harm. Come. Let us have a sobhiya.”
The coffee tasted of home, of dawns spent with her father in comfort and certainty and safety. Kel remained quiet, and Anna’s focus was on them more than Emily, but Lynette was shockingly easy to talk to. Emily found herself pouring out the history of her last year: the Master’s degree in library sciences in London, how unbearable she’d found life in the city, how brutal the sarcasm that passed for affection, how she only hated herself more for not being able to banter with her colleagues and their friends, how she never felt entirely welcome among them.
“It’s like everything I took for granted about friendship, and language, about what’s polite and what isn’t — it’s not a default. We’re taught — I was taught — that it’s somehow universal, to be kind and open and welcoming and sincere, and it’s not. And worse, it’s not that it’s bad not to be that way, there. There, it makes sense, how closed off and distant and biting everyone is. It’s just a different way of being, that’s all. But it’s hard not to feel like everything about me is wrong — the way I laugh, the things I laugh at or don’t. My words, my accent, the things I think are cruel. It’s like, to live there, I needed to… Tailor myself. Cut off bits that don’t fit, or stuff them away, and sometimes I’d look in a mirror and just not recognize myself for the silence.”
Kel stood up, abruptly.
“I’m going to bed,” they said, gruffly, in a low voice. “Sorry. Long night.”
Emily faltered. “Okay.”
“I’ll join you,” said Anna, getting up. “Just for a bit.”
Kel muttered something by way of assent. Anna looked apologetically at Emily before following Kel and shutting the door behind them.
“So,” said Lynette, sipping her coffee from a tiny porcelain cup, turning her attention back to Emily. “Where were we. You finished your degree, yes? Why not go home to Canada? Why come to Glasgow instead?”
“Oh —” she sighed, swirled her coffee around her cup, watched the patterns the grains made against it. “I love my family, and I miss them. A lot. But — I’m queer, and they’re not okay with that. I mean,” she rushed to say, “they’re not horrible or anything. We’ve had the ‘we’ll still love you no matter what’ talk and whatever. But I just — I never really dated anyone when I was home. At all. And suddenly here, awful as everything else got, I went on dates, I flirted with men and women, and — part of me is more me here, I guess. I’m not done with that yet.”
“Even though everything else feels wrong?”
Emily chuckled, not without bitterness. “Yeah. I’m crying you a river, I know.” She finished the rest of her coffee in a gulp. Lynette leaned forward and poured more.
“It’s the plight of the displaced, Emily. The stuff of song and story. People here are fond of saying that all the most loving songs about Scotland are written by those who left.” Lynette replenished her own cup, and lifted it contemplatively. “One leaves home, one misses it; one makes a home as best one can, with the materials at hand, knowing it will never be what one had; but there are reasons, always good reasons, why one left in the first place.” Before Emily could ask anything, Lynette smiled. “But, Glasgow? Why not stay in London?”
“Honestly?” She smiled a little. “I’d never been to Scotland yet, and I loved the names of Glasgow’s derby teams. Irn Bruisers? Maiden Grrders? Seemed like reason enough.”
Lynette laughed, and Emily found herself thinking of flowers. She took another sip of her coffee, and waited.
“Well,” said Lynette, a touch of amusement still there, “I suppose it’s my turn. Do you know what a Peri is?”
Emily blinked, brain flashing through Patricia McKillip, Doctor Who, and hot sauce. “Er —”
Lynette smiled. “That’s quite all right. Whatever you do, don’t read the Wikipedia entry. Nineteenth century Englishmen with their books and operas did more to secure ignorance about us than the Severing of Seventy Bridges. Suffice to say we are a kind of — what you would call spirit. We are not human, though we sometimes enjoy human form. We have a world, our own world, that overlaps and intersects with yours,” here Lynette clasped her hands together, fingers interweaving, “and in which we are ourselves. But without access to it —” Lynette fixed her gaze on somewhere just over Emily’s shoulder, as if the world she spoke of was just there, “—we are less. We lose our ability to shift our shapes, to fly, to be flame or water. We become solid, locked. We,” she drew her gaze back to Emily, “cut off bits that don’t fit, or stuff them away, and sometimes we look in a mirror and can’t recognize ourselves. We are wrong. We are less.” Lynette paused to sip her coffee, and licked her lips thoughtfully. “Though we are also sometimes more.”
Emily felt a lump rising in her throat. “How?”
Lynette lost, for a moment, the air of knowing amusement she’d worn for most of their acquaintance, and looked only wistful. “I was no performer, back home. I had no art. It was here, in this place, that I found my voice.” When she smiled again, it was soft, and pained. “I did not learn to sing until I was shut in a cage.”
Emily frowned. “Shut? But — didn’t you leave on purpose?”
She shrugged. “To the extent that being forced to flee is ‘on purpose.’ Kel and I — ”
“Wait, Kel’s a Peri too?” Emily stared. “But — Kel’s feet —”
Lynette chuckled. “We all have different tells. Were Kel to show you their back, you would see two lines of black feathers angled along their spine. May I continue?”
She flushed. “Please.”
“We were… ‘Exiled’ is perhaps not the right word. Our country is at war, Emily. We are, in a sense, refugees. We fled, and the door shut behind us. Kel wants nothing so much as to go back, to fight, to die, if necessary. I do not. As much as I long for wings again —” Lynette’s voice caught, and she looked down, and shook her head slowly. “— No. For better or for worse, I am making a life here.” She chuckled. “Though it is difficult not to laugh, or weep, when someone asks me where I am ‘from.’ ”
“I sort of know what that’s like,” Emily murmured. “ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Canada.’ ‘Yeah, yeah, where are your PARENTS from.’ ” Emily mimed throttling an invisible neck, and Lynette chuckled. “It’s not as bad here, actually. Mostly people assume I’m American.” She paused, thoughtful. “So — why doesn’t Kel go back?”
“Ah.” Lynette put down her cup, folded her hands in her lap. “They cannot afford the cost.”
“Indeed. Our world is the source of our power; when the way is open, we can shift our shapes, fly, find things that are hidden or missing, carry our lovers across the world in our arms if we so choose. When the way is shut —” Lynette shrugged, “— there is a cost to open it. At present it is as if Kel and I have been stripped of citizenship, and must apply for visas instead of coming and going as we please. And, as with visas, there is always the chance that after having paid the price and sent in our paperwork, our application will be rejected all the same. …Are you all right?”
Emily nodded, tight–lipped. “Sorry, I just — what do you mean, find things that are hidden or missing?”
“It’s just an ability we possess.” Lynette looked at her curiously. “A function of our nature.”
“Oh.” She nodded again. “Please go on. What is the cost?”
Lynette considered her for a moment longer before answering. “It is… An elaboration of the usual shedding of a form. For us, to open the way, we must give up a whole person. A sacrifice, if you will.”
Emily stared at her. “What, you mean — you have to kill someone?”
Lynette shook her head. “Not kill. Give up. Relinquish. But it only works if the person is precious, beloved. For me — if I were to cut out my tongue, I might be able to open the way back. I would be giving up who I have become here, my art. Once on the other side I might easily choose a different form, one with a tongue, perhaps one with a more beautiful voice — but I would lose Lynette Byrd, whom I have come to love, and I would never have her again. That is if the sacrifice is deemed sufficient.”
“So, Kel —”
“Kel loves nothing about who they are here. Every moment spent in their body is torment. Kel never kept one body for long, understand — if you comprehend gender on a spectrum of male and female, think of us as possessing gender along a spectrum of fluid and fixed. It is agony for Kel to be in one body, to be static, to be observable always in the same way.” Lynette sighed. “It is an exquisitely devised exile. We must love something so much that we could never wish to give it up — and then give it up. So long as Kel despises their body, they cannot shed it, and so long as they cannot shed it, they will always despise their body and the world it is forced to inhabit. The only things they have come to love, while here, are the river Kelvin, from which they take their name — and Anna. But not enough. Kel is too willing to give them up. I had hoped that perhaps with Anna — with someone who understood the pain of a body that feels wrong —” Lynette shook her head. “As soon as Kel began to feel deeper affection for her, they sought to barter it for passage.”
Emily blinked. “Kel tried to give Anna up?”
“Yes.” Lynette looked pained. “There is a ritual we do, by the river, to open the way home. Anna participated, willingly — but it wasn’t enough. The trap works too well. Kel might have once loved me enough for the leaving to hurt sufficiently, but —” she closed her eyes, briefly. “— It is hard for them, that I will not give up myself to pay for the chance of our passage. And so it goes. The magic must be cruel, to work. It must feel like the tearing of a page.”
Emily felt a sudden pang — a tug in her belly, like cresting the topmost hill of a rollercoaster, teetering on the edge of the plunge.
“So, without your powers, you can’t open the way back, and until that way is open, you don’t have your powers?”
Lynette opened her eyes again, and nodded. Emily bit her lip.
“And could — anyone open up the way? By giving something up?”
“In theory.” Emily felt her cheeks flushing beneath the sudden intensity of Lynette’s gaze. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying — suppose someone wanted you to have your powers. For something specific. Would you — could you help them, if the door was open?”
Lynette said nothing for a long moment, while Emily met her eyes. When Lynette finally spoke, it was gentle.
“What have you lost, Emily?”
She pulled her backpack onto her lap, unzipped it, pulled out her journal, and put it on the table between them.
“My best friend.”
I told Lynette about you. It was hard, at first. For so long you’ve felt like a secret I’ve been keeping on your behalf. My best friend, to whom I write — who never writes back. My best friend, whom I’ve known for half my life — but who hasn’t spoken to me in over a year. My best friend, who was going to travel with me, share a home with me, be up against the world with me — who vanished into air and darkness and didn’t tell me where she was going.
It was hard, but it got easier.
I told her how afraid I’ve become for you. I told her about your depression, how you’d been withdrawing for a while, that it got worse once we had extra time zones between us. I told her about the unanswered phone messages, e–mails, postcards. I told her about how I called your work one time just to see if they could tell me you were alive, and how they said they’d laid you off a week earlier, and didn’t know how to answer my question about whether or not you were okay.
She asked me if I was prepared to find out that you’re dead. I told her that I knew you couldn’t be dead, couldn’t possibly be, because I’d know. I’d feel something snap. I’m sure I would.
She told me to prepare for the possibility all the same.
So this is the last I’m writing to you in here. I’m giving you up — sort of — to find you. It may not work. It may not be enough. But I told Lynette that I’m giving up years of myself in here, too — the me who is best friends with Paige, who is happy and secure and confident, who can see friendships come and go because at her core is this one, this unshakeable soul–twin sister–friend who’ll never leave her.
So long as I’ve been writing in here I’ve felt like I could still be that person, because by writing to you I am conjuring you, I am keeping you in existence, and if you exist, so do I. And maybe if I find you — if Lynette can find you — she said Peri magics include carrying people through the air, so — if you’re in trouble, if you’re hurt — I can’t even think about that but I have to trust in something, that this will be okay, somehow. That I can still be some kind of me even without you.
I love you. I’m giving you up.
Lynette and Kel had gone ahead, saying they had preparations to make. Anna watched as Emily laced her boots in the entrance to their flat. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. Why would you do this. You hardly even know them.”
Emily shrugged. “It’s not for them. It’s for Paige. And — for me.”
Emily flinched and looked up, hurt. “What possible other reason could I have?”
Anna folded her arms, looked away. “Whatever, I don’t care.”
“Do you not want me to do this?”
Anna rolled her eyes. “Think about it for two seconds, Emily.”
“But Lynette said you wanted —”
“Fuck Lynette.” Anna brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Look, I just — I love Kel. I fucking love them. And it’s — hard, to make peace with losing someone for their own good, to know that you’re the price of their happiness, and to agree to pay that price and then have it not be enough, because actually they didn’t love you enough, you know?” She exhaled, pushed the heel of her palm into her eye. “And here you are, having only just met them, making some kind of huge weird sacrifice, and if it works —”Anna choked. “— If it works, then I lose Kel, and nothing about it was noble, nothing about it was my sacrifice. I’m just another failed attempt to get home.”
“That’s not true,” said Emily, shocked, standing up so quickly she stumbled. “Anna —”
“Shut up. Go to the river, do whatever needs doing. I get it. Been there, done that.” They looked at each other through tears. “I hope you find your friend.”
Then Anna walked into her bedroom and slammed the door behind her. Emily tried not to cry as she let herself out.
They stood together beneath the Gibson street bridge over the river Kelvin, having climbed over the fence and down to the water’s edge. Emily clutched her journal to her chest and shivered as Kel waded into the water barefoot. Once the river reached their lips, they stopped.
Emily could hear Kel murmuring something into the water. Lynette stood next to her, wearing her cabaret costume and clutching a fistful of flower petals. She spoke quietly.
“You know what you need to do?”
“Very well. Kel is almost finished asking the river’s permission to pass through.” She looked away. “I hope this works. I don’t know how Kel will bear it otherwise.”
Emily swallowed, thinking of Anna. “I hope it works too.”
Kel stopped speaking, and began undressing in the water. As they removed their shirt, Emily saw the two long black lines of feathers running to either side of Kel’s spine like sutures, glinting in the dim light.
Kel turned to look at them, and nodded once. Lynette closed her eyes.
She drew a deep breath, cast the petals into the water, and began singing the Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage.” While she did, Emily took a few steps into the water and opened the journal. She looked down and couldn’t help but read a line — from an early entry, a happy day, speaking of how exciting it was to be in England, how she’d been to the Sir John Soane Museum and tried to count all the busts for science.
As she grasped the page and pulled, she couldn’t tell if it was she or the paper who was tearing.
Then she staggered. The world tilted, and she felt herself struggling to hold her breath. Something was happening to the water — a churning where it had been still, a circling of light flooding upwards around Kel. Emily tore another page, and another, throwing each one into the river, sobs welling up as she did, cutting into her throat every time she read, in spite of herself, a snippet of something Paige would never read, never know — her conviction that a different sun shone over London, made of syrup and smoke; the dream she had on Halloween after her first gin and tonic; her first kiss with a woman. She’d meant to share it all with Paige, had written it all out for her, and if Paige didn’t have them, how could she?
Lynette was still singing — set my spirit free, set my body free — but she sounded farther and farther away. Emily could see the light around Kel brightening, and Kel — Kel was changing. The twin lines of feathers on their back were growing out, covering more and more skin, and Kel’s body was blurring in and out of the water. Could it be working? Was it enough, after all? Would she find —
Lynette’s song ended, and half a beat after the final note Emily heard her say, as if she were shouting from a vast distance away, look into the water.
She looked. In the same brightness she had seen shimmering around Kel, there was Paige.
The sight sank into her like a knife. There was Paige, in a laundromat — she was seeing her from behind, her long pale hair twisted up into a bun. She was taking washing out of one machine and putting it in a dryer. She was humming something, happily.
Overwhelmingly, Emily knew she was happy.
I can bring her to you, thundered Lynette’s voice, if you wish. In half a moment or less.
She did wish. She wanted, so badly, to have her in front of her, to rage and scream how, how could you be happy and all right and not speak to me, why wouldn’t you, what did I do wrong, what.
Paige was happy, washing laundry, and had her back to her. Emily stretched her hand into the water, choking on everything she wanted to say. But she’d said it already, into the river, as Anna had said it to Kel.
She drew her hand back.
“No,” she whispered. “She’s fine where she is.”
Then the light dimmed, the river smoothed, and Emily found herself weeping into the down on Lynette’s shoulder.
This is probably cheating, but you never specified the size of journal required, and a palm–sized Moleskine is still a Moleskine, and that means journal, so. Here I am, writing to you in a journal. My penmanship peaked in Primary 6. I hope you’re happy.
I’m sorry for — well, everything. I hope I didn’t hurt you too badly by keeping away for a while — that’s why I’m writing in here, for now. I figured maybe we both needed a little space after what happened. But — well, I miss you. I miss talking to you. This is a piss–poor substitute, actually. But I guess it’s better than nothing, and I think you might like, maybe, to know that I pay attention to the things you say even if I also tease you about them a little.
So I don’t know how long I’ll keep this up — it’s a small book, and it’s not meant to replace anything, obviously. It couldn’t. I don’t know how you’ll feel about it when I give it to you. I just want you to know, basically, that I still really like you, that I think you’re grand, that I’m grateful you’re not a jerk, and maybe if you’re up for it we could go to Nice N’Sleazy’s sometime for a gig? I think you’d like it, the ceiling lights are covered in paper shades with clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds on them.
Oh, you’re just coming in for your shift. I’ll write more later.