This page contains:
- Child death
Our process with art in Strange Horizons is usually like this: we read all the stories scheduled for the month, then we choose one from the bunch that either has particularly strong imagery or could be well-matched by an accompanying illustration, then choose an artist who we believe matches the story's tone and aesthetics. Sometimes, we choose a story because we already had an illustrator we wanted to work with, and this particular piece fits them like a glove; the famous "eureka!" moment. In other words, the illustrations are made for the story.
In this issue, we wanted to flip that. We bought the reprint rights for a pre-existing illustration that had speculative elements and a sense of narrative, and we invited an author to write a piece of flash fiction inspired by it.
Here, we present "The Harp", by E. A. Petricone, based on "Harpstrings", by Racheal Bruce.
Mirra knew her mother wouldn’t budge, but she argued anyway, wiping spit up from Evie’s small mouth.
“Please,” her mother hissed so Mirra’s grandparents wouldn’t hear.
“Like you’ll get promoted?” Mirra demanded. “You never do.” Her mother’s face fell, but not even that could satiate the vicious part of her. “Some mother,” Mirra taunted, “leaving me with your kid and your crazy parents holding everyone hostage with their PTSD.”
“Just help Nonna do her harp,” her mother snapped. She’d always come home tired but now she came home tired and with no patience.
“Or what? The spirits will carry me off?”
“They believe it,” her mother said dismissively, putting on her work heels. More sympathetically: “We’re doing our best.”
Mirra threw Evie’s spit-up towel at the door as soon as it closed.
Mirra’s grandparents—both frail and minted fall risks—moving in a month ago might have been bearable if Mirra weren’t already the free babysitter for Evie, the surprise baby. When her friends found out she was gaining a little sister Robby said, Wow, your mom’s still got it, huh and everyone started laughing and Mirra could have just died.
And now she was missing Jenn’s birthday for a “spirit concert” while her mother networked. Mirra’s mother didn’t understand, how everything in school was a bubble balanced on a knife’s edge. Especially for Mirra, who was “affectionately” known as one of the poors.
“Mirra-mimmo, did you change the strings?” Nonna asked, clunking her walker to the living room, which housed the harp. Ever since they’d moved in Nonna had tugged Mirra away from whatever she was doing and drilled her mercilessly on harp maintenance, teaching her the tuning key and the anchor knots.
“Yes,” Mirra answered irritably.
“Leave her be,” Poppa said from the recliner. He and Mirra grinned at each other, partners. Despite the humidity he wore long sleeves. “She said she changed them.”
In fact, Mirra had not. She’d dumped the new gut strings straight into the trash. Like Nonna could tell? She could barely see, and the harp strings she plucked with her old fingers looked fine.
The harp in question looked nothing like the pretty gold harps Mirra had seen online with scrolls and flowers. Nonna’s harp curved all plain dark red wood. Like, spray the thing with Pledge and call it a day.
The story Mirra had always heard was this: Poppa provoked some angry spirits, but when they set upon him Nonna bewitched them with her harp and made a deal. On the first night of every month, for the length of a soccer game, Nonna performed a concert for the spirits, and in exchange they left Poppa in this world.
The past was full of dead babies, Mirra wanted to say.
Whenever Mirra pointed out how batshit that was, her mother got defensive. They went through a lot, back then. When Nonna had to carry her dead baby around for three days because she couldn’t bury it, or she didn’t believe it was dead, or something like that.
The past was full of dead babies, Mirra wanted to say. Plus Nonna made more babies after that—Mirra’s mother and some uncle who didn’t talk to them. Like, get therapy?? Get a life??
The women in Mirra’s family all dragged dead weight. Especially her mother, sending Evie’s dad commissary money while supporting two kids and her parents. Nonna too, carrying that dead baby, waiting on Poppa—who Mirra loved, but dude, pick up a friggin dish—hand and foot. Plus her “spirit concert”—which supposedly kept him from getting stolen beyond.
Not Mirra. Second she turned 14 she’d get a job by her rich-people school. Get tips, get money, change her name—her mother gave Mirra the dead baby’s name, which was so morbid Mirra couldn’t even—and get the fuck out when she turned 18. Cut the dead weight off as decidedly as an excess length of string before it could yoke around Mirra’s throat and drag her down too.
Mirra set Evie in the bassinette and turned down the light, hoping the mealy smell around her grandparents wouldn’t stick in her clothes. Poppa leaned back in his recliner as Nonna drew a glissando and made final attunements. Then she began the concert.
Nonna’s songs sounded like spa background music. Gentle. Her fingers moved across the octaves light and sure as bird feet dancing across branches.
So boring, Mirra texted Jenn. Lol, Jenn responded a whole twenty minutes later.
Yawning, Mirra flipped her phone closed, keeping one eye on Evie in case she spit up again. She felt her eyelids drift, drift, drift—
BANG—a sound like a shot, a flare like a flame and a yell from Nonna made Mirra leap from her seat and mantle protectively over Evie. Everything darkened night-sky blue and whirled with shadows as Nonna plucked over a noticeable gap in the spread.
A string snapped, Mirra realized.
And then the spirits stained the room.
Mirra shrieked as sheets of what looked like funeral veils attacked Poppa, submerging his face in a puddle of black and making him resemble an ant with a squished head, limbs still flailing. The sound, putrid as water gurgling and gasping down a drain.
They’re hurting him because I didn’t—
“Fix,” Nonna pleaded, voice choked with terror and fingers in full tremor, struggling to unspool the broken string from the top of the harp.
Your fault. Mirra bolted for the kitchen, ripping the lid from the trash barrel and grabbing the plastic-wrapped strings. Your fault.
Back at the harp Mirra struggled to remember the alphabet, teasing out a coiled white string, tying it to an anchor and handing it to Nonna to slip through the soundbox.
The harp was broad, and Nonna was tiny, but she soon threaded the string through the empty hole. Mirra looked up as she drew the string toward the top pin, and froze at the shadow sitting atop the neck directly over the empty peg.
Mirra recognized her, distinct from the shadows that tormented her grandfather several feet away, with the same instinct as a dove recognizing a hawk’s wing. The shadow locked familiar eyes with hers hungrily.
Mirra. The other Mirra, the first Mirra, perched in wait.
She would have remained petrified as First Mirra slid toward her, if she didn’t spot a black veil descending upon Evie’s bassinette.
“No!” she shouted so loud that First Mirra jumped back. Shoving the string through the peg, Mirra turned the tuning key until it was taut.
Nonna’s fingers stroked one, two, three glissandos, and every spirit halted, raised ears that transformed from wolf to rabbit. Mirra scooped up Evie with a sob as they listened, enchanted. Mirra’s grandfather reentered the world, coughing a lot but nodding and squeezing her hand. The dreadful lapse passed, Nonna still had to finish the concert, shoulders shaking with tears as First Mirra faded back into some elsewhere.
Mirra’s mother found her and Nonna layered like petals, Mirra with her hands still on her head, apologizing over and over, the enormity of what almost happened crashing against her like waves against rock. She shuddered against her mother’s chest, terrified that maybe she should switch with the other Mirra, the possibly better and kinder Mirra who would never throw away her grandmother’s harp strings for spite or be mean to her mother.
“All we can do is our best,” her mother said, and Nonna nodded.
In her mother’s arms Mirra had another pluck of clarity, all thumb: this is how the weight slips over your shoulders, just trying to fix what you’d broken for the people you love.