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And they all knew about it. Gathered at the Green Lane, muttering and smoking while the lights of the city in the valley die out with the glacial slowness of spent stars and the heat at the bar oppressive with the backblown fumes of the fire and the collective human heat and stale breathing and the drunker ones hopping upon the tiny corner stage to roar and slur out their suggestions Lissen, lissen. Hey lissename, kick a few barrels of kerosene downna road. At'd stop five hunnred. At’d buy us time to drink the place dry and the farmers who stood listening, the ones who'd calculated and watched and bided, shook their heads and listened anyway and let the mean speak themselves out and come to naught by themselves without any slight because perhaps most every pair of hands would be needed in the hours to come.

And so the calculations went on, in at the bar where the candles guttered and were relit against the starkening shapes of evening and outside on the rooted oak picnic tables where now the farmers, the realists, were come down prepared, come to chart and plot and have their say once the barkers and the sops were through, were moaned out, now these the planners had come, the ones who understood time beyond that constant present of the animal, the women and men who'd counted stock and watched the news and knew already it was far, far worse than told, the ones who had counted on harvests and watched them fail, who had bought feed when they knew they were being stiffed on both price and weight but it was that or starve the cattle some more, the men and women who'd learned to carve use from the soil, to drag life from dirt, to take the kicks and thorns of government and fate and markets and nature and go on anyway because it could all be planned against or bored beneath, it was nothing that could not be ground down, those were the hard ones left now in the crowded bar, who spoke quietly and unsteadily, though their ideas were strong, thrown to the light for all to inspect for defects like the hooves of livestock at a mart, they spoke their kernels, the north county men and women who knew the ground they walked and the price they'd pay it out at.

A few lights dwindled yet down in Feilston. A map had been produced. Acreages were given up with a word or a nod and the scratch of a pen. Land that had taken seasons of briar slashing and brush burning with hot raw faces to the blaze streaming tears were giving up with a shrug or a joke saying Why not take the whole upper acre too and knowing the upper acre would be where we would hold them, for the people gathered there had become a we now, the quiet spoken definitive ones had been the ones to take things in hand and ignore the gougers and informers, the mood of these farmers was fight and hold, hold or die while the final lights of the city winked a last and died suddenly and finally. The thing was coming to them now and with the comprehension the tension broke and we felt ease in that last hour of preparation, all lines broken but ours and the men and women joking confident as we went about our work. A barricade at either end, a defile to draw them in and thresh them up, the upcountry woods the only blind spot, nothing could make it through that steep acre and climb through four flaming ditches and if it did it'd be speared on the barricades.

Now the sun has set. The pale yellow candlelight shears the picnic tables clean. Once in a while a car lights the distant road before it halts abruptly and oddly motionless, lighting the shapes that surround it. On the wind is woodsmoke and the bite of burning plastic but we women and men up on the barricades can smell the other thing, can hear the trudge of it, can smell the rot of it and joke about not smelling it or of smelling worse in at the bar and denying the heart of it as each prepares for the relentless approach, certain and sure as bad milk and stormy weather.

And at least the village is sealed, at least, perhaps it might pass us like it has not passed all the others, and inside the Lane the homemakers among us, who had years before not given up their younger hopes but had wedded those hopes to the hopes of families and children, these now were the gritted teeth and rigid backbone of us, going about the baking and hearthwork as if it were any holiday with many guests and callers, all glad of the hearth and each other’s company and running out the gadabouts and rounders who came stumbling and groping into the roasting core of the building, the ones too drunk for the barricade, who had been consumed by their own fear and we had slapped them to silence, beaten them from this refuge, knowing the fear traveled quicker than a thought and themselves afraid and knowing enough to shut up about it and hadn’t that split the barricades in the other villages quicker than anything else? The children among their knees as they berated the layabouts back into the night with slaps and cudgels. The finer ones, the delicate and the high strung inside the upper rooms of the Lane peered down from the darkened windows toward the burning barricade and remark on how like a beacon it is, and gaze into the forest.

And cower at the shapes moving there. And cower at the shapes moving there.



Stephen O'Donnell has previously had stories published in Typehouse Magazine, Peregrine, The Minetta Review, Short Fiction, and Five on the Fifth, among others. For more information: http://bit.ly/stizzle0dizzle
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9 May 2022

The star flickered. Then, just for an instant, the flicker lasted a bit too long. Had the star disappeared, or had his tears obscured his view?
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Podcast: 9 May Poetry 
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Ciro Faienza presents the poetry of the 9 May issue.
Issue 2 May 2022
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28 Feb 2022
We would like stories that are joyous, horrific, hopeful, despondent, powerful and subtle. Write something that will take our breath away, make us yell and cry. Write unapologetically in your local patois and basilects in space; make references to local events and memes to your heart’s content. Write something that makes you laugh and cry. Indulge in all the hallmarks of your heritage that you find yourself yearning for in speculative literature, but know that we will not judge you based on your authenticity as a Southeast Asian. 
Issue 28 Feb 2022
Strange Horizons
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