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Luba bent over her daughter’s bed, under the apartment’s single window. The setting sun wove Maya’s sleeping face into the shadows. Her little fingers, listless upon the faded blanket, reminded Luba of baby rainworms decaying by the roadside in the spring. The room smelled of pond scum, the air occluded by greyness, invisible mould, choking tears. Luba’s own eyes itched dry.

It was quiet. Only Gramma’s rocker scraped the floor, like an ancient cello bow without its rosin. Gramma’s watery eyes blinked, and Luba spoke to answer the unasked, the invisible nudging cacophony.


Yes, she was going.

Her voice circled inside her head, as if inside a conch, growing dimmer and dimmer with each iteration, sapping her even of false confidence.

If she didn’t go, Maya would die.

She rubbed her dry eyes, turned away from Gramma’s worried face to stare instead at the bare, sea-stained walls. Even these walls could weep until they weren’t dull anymore. Streaked with moisture, they became colourful—dusty tuberose and grey of the predawn hours.

She would not be the same when she returned.

The money spent five years ago on hopeless physicians had emptied the room, leaving only Gramma’s rocker and a little table where they cracked shells for food and where Luba wrote. Beneath the table there was a threadbare, once-blue rug nobody had wanted to buy. It covered a secret door to the Undersea, invisible even to Gramma, invisible to Luba on Maya’s healthy days, in Maya’s healthy world. But when Maya lay dying Luba knew again.

These nights, when Gramma fell asleep in her rocker, Luba knelt on all fours to press her ear to the rug; she heard the Undersea rising, the roar of the sea-lions, a faint song of sirens luring ships to invisible rocks. And just last night she heard beneath the rug the faint deep sound of a cello. Something new, unusual. A story. What story would she tell? It’d be about a man, she thought, on the deck of a ship searching for the shining city—and his cello a protection, a shield, a song to match the siren song and veer away, a song to spin a shimmering rope out of all promise, of all sorrow. She yearned to tell this to Maya, and more—how, woven of his music and of Luba’s story, the rope would pull the man to shore. How he would disembark, his eyes taking in the city for the first time. And Maya would tell the story with her, she would say, she would say—

But her little girl lay unmoving, her eyes closed to these shining threads.

Nobody knew what went wrong, why every year Maya faded slowly until no speech and movement were left to her, while Luba recovered from her journey. Her daughter would want to know then, later, want to talk to her, but in Maya’s healthy world Luba’s world would be lost.

Every day she wondered if killing herself would break the cycle—but what if she had nothing to do with her daughter’s sickness, what if Maya got worse again, regressing over time, losing the light of her eyes first, then movement, then speech—and there would be no Luba, and thus no medicine. Someone must know the answer, she thought. The pearl merchant knew, behind his varnished smile, his greasy eyes.

Gramma, she wanted to ask, what will happen to you if I die? She said instead, “Maya will grow out of it, don’t you think? Slowly, over the years …”

Gramma said nothing.

“Listen,” Luba said, “can you keep something for me?”

Gramma nodded, her eyes water-bright. Luba rummaged for a piece of paper and a short pencil in her pocket, leaned over the little table and wrote, There is a sea underneath the rug.

She crossed that out.

There is an octopus in the heart of the Undersea; its every tentacle carries a street, a city, and at night when its people light their reading lamps the octopus shimmers. Sated with shining and the sound of the waves it floats in the centre of the sea, and one day a ship will come to it, tugged to shore by the struggling music of my heart. This ship will carry a hope …

She crumpled the page, pushed the paper into Gramma’s fist, and the old woman nodded and turned her head away from Luba, from the table, from the rug.

If she stopped to think, she’d lose her courage. Luba knelt and rolled the discoloured material back. The trapdoor fitted the floor so well it was barely visible, an eyelash-thin circle without a handle. She pushed it in, and the trapdoor turned and disappeared. A simple hemp ladder, woven by Gramma these five years ago, dangled from the edge of the opening. Luba closed her eyes tightly and started descending against the fear of it all, melting into the darkness and the susurrus of the invisible waves below.

Luba didn’t know how long the climbing held against the night behind her eyes.

At last her feet hit heated stone. She opened her eyes to find herself standing by her house—a tall block of seaside limestone into which apartment-caves were carved, and dainty balconies, and stairs with railings of wrought-iron roses. Luba couldn’t remember why she didn’t simply walk down these steps.

The city glowed burnished red under the sea-rimmed sky. This was the fifth time she was making the journey. Step after step. The sun-bird fell bright on her head, an avalanche of fiery feathers dusting her free of doubt, of that dreadful feeling inside her stomach. Maya would smile again, get up from her bed, beg Gramma to let her sit in the rocker.

I can do it, Luba thought, I’ve done it before. Such a small price to pay for these two or three months when Maya was almost healthy, and Luba almost hale, these months when they would share a world. Yes, she would do it. Sell her pearl. Her hand touched her heart, her eyes—the pearl was lodged there, sweet shimmer over her eyelashes, not painful at all. It made her eyes distend like starlight over emptiness. She touched her eyes again, and an invisible glove of black spidersilk wove itself around her fingers, delicate as crocheted darkness, embroidered by drops of emerald water.

Through her spidersilk fingers she watched the glowing pier. A tentacle curved up, carrying a slender lighthouse of spun abalone. The light was latent now, waiting for midnight’s permission to shine the ships home.

She turned around, walked away from the seaside where the poor people lived in caves dug in great limestone rock pillars that broke the surf. Farther inland, in richer neighbourhoods, the houses grew like coral. Some had six stories, some eight. The houses were bright red and windowed, and inside every window she saw a happy girl-child cradling a bird. A faint feather-like music ruffled the curtains. Trees lined the streets, and if she licked the trunks of oaks she’d taste chocolate wood that didn’t melt in the heat, and sample the edible cookie and latte leaves. Along the curb the slender birch trees sprouted high-heeled shoes, their heels tied together with grosgrain ribbon flowers. The lindens swarmed with titmice and cardinals that pecked at dainty purses, studding them with rhinestone seeds. Between their feathers music soared and swooned, and sounds slid off the air and drained through ornate sewer grates.

That wouldn’t do. She was wasting time in the glowing city staring at purses and shoes, when Maya could not walk, could not even lift an eyelid. There was a way to fix this, the only way. Her pearl. The pearl merchant. The powder.

She edged towards her destination, shoes tapping the onyx-stone pavement, their old worn leather a palimpsest of poem lines she could almost remember. The tapping grew into a slow, steady knocking—alongside her, to the side.

She turned her head.

He was tall. His olive skin parched to the darkest green of predawn, to the hour of sleepless anguish when colours were only hinted at, like hope that hope is possible. He held a single oar, its wood bleached white and shining. He knocked the onyx pavement with the butt of the oar, almost absent-mindedly, as his dark eyes watched her. His mouth twitched in a smile.

Luba stood silent, confused that this man would approach her.

The man gave one last tap with his oar, and the polished pavement cracked. The oar sprung roots that grasped the ground, its blade burst into branches, spinning around and upward, sprouting yet smaller branches. He went on one knee under the canopy of new leaves, heart-shaped, shining grey. From behind his back he drew a patchwork knapsack. Its contents bulged and muttered and sighed against the drawstring.

“I am Höjn,” he said, as if expecting she would recognize the name.

She looked down at his upturned face beneath the oar-tree, not knowing what to do or say. His smell was sea and amber, nutmeg and salt and warm rough stone.

“And even if you did not know,” he said, as if continuing a conversation, “tell me a story if you please, a story of your shining city, so I can tell you something in return.” Höjn’s hand caressed the knapsack, and she knew without knowing that the bag contained living stories that murmured and shifted about, waiting to be told, to be exchanged for others.

Luba struggled for words. Images, words scurried in her mind like mice afraid and eager for their cheese. Her mouth opened, and she found herself speaking. “I do not know the city well. I only come here to sell my pearl.” She brought her hand again to touch her eyes, but the glove of spidersilk had melted. Her flesh, too, seemed translucent, and through it she could see her own fingerbones promising an archeology of touch even after death’s thieving. “My daughter cannot live without the medicine.”

He waited, but she spoke no more. At last he pulled at the drawstring of his patchwork knapsack. “I understand. Without the pearl, you cannot come here. Without the pearl, there are no stories, Luba. You called me here. You are my kind. Please do not give it away—”

She shook her head again, not daring to ask how he knew her name, or the kind of which he spoke. I do not know you. And you are alone, she thought. It’s different, and free, to roam between the pavement and the sky without a pain, without a need. “Are you a parent?”

“No,” he said.

Of course not.

He bent his head. “I do not know a story like this, not that ends well. But it must live somewhere. Inside your eyes. Inside the dreams that make your pearl. Sprouted from the fabric of this city.”

He pulled the bag open, but instead of stories Luba saw emerge the long dark neck of a musical instrument. He lowered the fabric around the body of a cello, certainly too large to fit in any knapsack, big or small. The cello’s wood was pale and polished, like the oar had been. “I do not know a story like this,” he repeated, “and I have carried stories over sand-covered lands that rested upon turtles. I have told stories to the flying fish of the Ocean Above, and to kings, to musicians, to paupers, to the silt on the shores of indifferent rivers in my need. There must be another way to tell this, Luba, and once you tell it, it is true, if you—”

“I have to go.” Wasn’t that what they always said to parents of sick children?

There’s nothing wrong.

Refusing to see. Refusing to help.

Change your story. Change it.

But no matter how you hammered at the words, the illness stayed. There was no other story. No other way. Maya needed her, a desperate need unknown to this man. “Forgive me.”

She fled as his hand glided over the cello. The bow he held was air and horsehair, polished by the rosin of mellow morning stars. The time for stories melted, but the wordless melody wove through the heat. Luba hurried on, eyes half-lidded against the lingering gossamer of the music, until it faded to nothing.

Years or hours or half-days later she finally spotted the circumspect sign that declared, “Mr. F. Tommogan, Dealer.” A perfectly round pearl glowed beneath the square black lettering. When had she first seen the sign? Her heart balked and recoiled like a caterpillar that had reached the end of its leaf. She tried to remember—but her memory was bleached of images, only a feeling—that suffocating feeling. Maya had been very sick. She couldn’t even talk then. Just like now.

Luba knocked.

A half-remembered boy with a rooster-like crown of tawny hair escorted her inside. Would you care for a water or a pasty, a beastly day, and Mr. Tommogan will see you in his office. Her palimpsest shoes faded to dusty brown as she tiptoed across the rugs and slipped through the polished mahogany door.

Mr. Tommogan waited for her behind a mahogany desk large as a raft and polished to majesty. He wore a green velvet vest over a crisp white shirt over a distinguished belly. A burlwood box lay half-open on the desk, and Luba knew only too well what was inside: a stethoscope with its looking-glass made of amber that had trapped a little ancient bird (with scales and keen eyes), and a scalpel of moonlight, and a little terrycloth woven by enchanted spiders out of tears.

Nothing here smelled of the sea.

“Luba! My girl! I was wondering when I would see you next.”

Mr. Tommogan rubbed his hands and motioned her to sit opposite him in a white easy-chair. She knew the chair had been a pig once, a magic white pig with burning ears that ran free in some northern forest, leading dogs and princes astray. Now only the pig-shaped iron feet of the chair hinted at its story. Luba sat gingerly, not wanting to offend.

“But I am in fact happy that you wait so long.” Mr. Tommogan nodded to himself. “Others come too soon, their pearls pretty enough, but small. It will, of course, be much more painful for you to have it removed …”

Fear finally blossomed inside Luba, the sticky rime of it freezing her to the white pigskin. But she had to go through with it. What other choice was there? She blotted the image of Höjn’s face away.

“But you, my girl, you wait until it’s nice and large, one wonders how you do not go insane with the feeling of it.” She wouldn’t listen to his blathering, twisted tongue. The pearl was never painful, never a burden. Höjn had said—

“Are you addicted to the dreams? Are they too sweet to give up?”

She rubbed her fingers against each other—sticky with sweat, soiled and furtive and dumb under Mr. Tommogan’s gaze.

He raised his stethoscope and looked through the amber. His eye, amplified by the ancient bird’s petrified shape, shone like her fear. Too late to run.

“Oh, yes. Beautiful, simply beautiful.” Luba saw the dead bird’s conspiratorial blink as Mr. Tommogan reached for the scalpel.

“Here it comes, baby …”

Piercing light reached behind her eyes.

It hurt—oh, Gramma, like a thousand suns inside the sharpness of the surf exploding in her head—

It didn’t hurt at all. She watched without interest as Mr. Tommogan held out his hand. There was no tool in it, only a large round shape between his thumb and index finger. It had a pretty glow. There were once metaphors to describe it. Pictures in words. On reflex she probed that place, the neat little incision, the empty cavity. Then she didn’t remember how or why she probed.

“Behold the dreaming pearl.” Mr. Tommogan reached into his box and took out something—in fact, it was nothing at all, but he made a motion as if to wipe the glowing shape. Frivolous rich man.

He said, “I hope you will be back. Believe me when I say I would take care of you, but dreaming pearls cannot be grown in captivity.”

The Naugahyde chair she sat on was uncomfortable and sweaty, so she rose, shrugged off his incomprehensible small talk. “My medicine?”

“Oh yes, the powder.” Mr. Tommogan shuffled to a cupboard, produced a small black box. In the earlier years, she’d asked him to grind her own pearl, but of course he refused. Grinding her pearl would destroy its value, so she would be getting the dust of a lesser pearl. A good trade, he’d said; after all, she couldn’t very well cut herself open and grind it herself now, could she?

Luba heard Mr. Tommogan murmur, understood enough. He thought her addicted, resisting removal and yet yearning for the snuff and the money. What a pity—such a pretty figure. She couldn’t muster enough care to explain herself.

He shook his head and handed her the box, and a tight wad of bills. “Here. And be careful, yes?”

She shrugged and headed for the exit. Mr. Tommogan cried something after her. “The only one who can cut it out so gently that it can regrow—”

Luba closed the door behind her.

The city streets were dull and smelled of heated concrete, the pavement corroded by pigeon guano. Grey apartment buildings leaned over the streets and obscured the sky. It would be a relief if they fell. Buried her. Mr. Tommogan thought her an addict, but she was not. She was only a person with a headache and a wad of cash and a box of snuff. She staggered into a decrepit coffee shop squeezed between a lingerie shop and a large empty storefront. She bought food—a limp sandwich of bacon and tomato trapped in a soggy bun—and a cup of coffee that smelled of dishwashing liquid. She couldn’t walk to find a respectable place to sit down, so she crouched in front of the empty storefront, her back pressed to a large faded mural. Luba’s fingers caressed the lid of the black box. Just one pinch of snuff would bring back that something which made her that woman who used to see all kinds of things she could not remember, that woman who would want her old self back. The now-Luba could only want to want that.

But no, she couldn’t use the snuff. There might not be enough for Maya.

Maya existed—a nine-year-old girl with a ponytail who was sick. She must get the box back to Maya. But there was no feeling behind these words. The words were screens to emptiness. She didn’t want to bring the box to Maya. She didn’t want anything, not even to open the box and sniff.

She fell asleep with her back against the mural. She couldn’t bother to move. In the early morning, she gathered herself enough to hail a taxi-cab. The driver charged her a fortune, muttering about her sour smell and dirt-stained clothes. She stared listlessly out of the window, tracing the rainclouds that peeked between skyscrapers. Her eyes followed the single-minded flight of pigeons, their feathers dull against the grey of the buildings that reflected the jaded sky.

The driver dropped her off at the tenement building she half-remembered, its once-yellow walls stained by generations of grime. Even as a new building it had never been respectable, built decades ago to house immigrants, and their children, and now their children’s children. Socks and underwear flapped on laundry lines between the windows. Luba stood at the bottom of the stairs for what must have been hours, inhaling the smell of vomit and rat droppings. The disapproving neighbours must have told Gramma at last, because the old woman limped down and painfully dragged her upstairs.

Luba resented Gramma’s too-familial touch, the dryness of her wrinkled and calloused hands; she wriggled away as soon as they were through the door. Gramma pried the black box from her fingers.

The half-remembered single room was beaten up, bare. The old woman leaned over a small bed under the apartment’s single window, obscuring it from Luba. In the middle of the room there was a small table with heaps of things on it—papers, plates, feathers, empty cans, shells. She would clean it later, throw the clutter away—but even after she cleaned up, it wouldn’t look half as nice as Mr. Tommogan’s. Luba tried to remember what his room looked like, recalled only glitter and mystery and a smell of polished wood. Nobody was sick in his family, nobody cried or fell asleep without waking or lay awake with battered hearts all night. Perhaps he didn’t have a family, only powdered dreams in snuffboxes that he would never use.

She heard laughter from the window, and a girl ran up to her—sallow-cheeked and thin, arms spread wide. Luba recoiled from the touch.

Maya stood on one leg, eyes downcast, biting her lip. Gramma came after her, patted the girl’s unruly hair. She frowned at Luba, then shoved something into her hands. A piece of dirty, crumpled paper.

She straightened it without interest.

There is an octopus in the heart of the Undersea …

It didn’t make sense, so she read it out loud.

… its every tentacle carries a street, a city, and at night when its people light their reading lamps the octopus shimmers …

“How can a tentacle carry a street?” Luba’s voice sounded harsh to her own ears.

“There was an evil wizard,” Maya said quickly, “who didn’t know what to do with this octopus, so when the octopus was asleep the wizard sprinkled it with powder. He thought the powder would kill it, but instead it woke up and a city grew on it.”


She read on.

… sated with shining and the sound of the waves it floats in the centre of the sea, and one day a ship will come to it, tugged to shore by the struggling music of my heart. This ship will carry a hope …

“There is no sea anywhere near this city,” she said.

“No, Mommy, it’s right here.” Her daughter’s warm hand touched hers again, but this time Luba didn’t recoil. Maya knelt by the dusty blue rug, under the table. “If you put your ear to the carpet you can hear it, the Undersea …”

Luba knelt. Pressed her ear to the rug’s edge. There was a faint sound, like a very small wave; the lonely voice of a cello rose and filled the chambers of her chest. Its wood was polished pale, Luba suddenly remembered, reflecting his eyes, anxious, shining dark.

“Maya, would you like—” Would this help? How could this help? What hope could there ever be, what glistening wave would carry ships to shore, only to crush them against the tenement rocks of her life and grow quiet?

Luba took a breath. “Would you like me to tell you a story?”

Maya nodded, her face serious, her little hand still caressing her mother’s. Inside Luba’s heart, a grit of sand stirred.


(First published in Lackington's, 2014.)

R.B. Lemberg (they/them) is a queer, bigender immigrant originally from L’viv, Ukraine. R.B.’s work set in their fantastical Birdverse has been a finalist for the Nebula, Ignyte, World Fantasy, Locus, Crawford, and other awards. R.B.’s Birdverse collection Geometries of Belonging is currently shortlisted for the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction. You can find R.B. on Instagram and Bluesky, on Patreon, and at
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I can’t say any of this to the man next to me because he is wearing a tie
Language blasts through the malicious intentions and blows them to ash. Language rises triumphant over fangs and claws. Language, in other words, is presented as something more than a medium for communication. Language, regardless of how it is purposed, must be recognized as a weapon.
verb 4 [C] to constantly be at war, spill your blood and drink. to faint and revive yourself. to brag of your scars.
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