Cast of Wonders 447: Candy Wrappers (Staff Picks 2020)
by Kaitlyn Zivanovich
The island is a circle. A magmic glow radiates from the lips of the volcano crater at one end—hot, and alive. On the other end the Visitor compound is white and cold, lit by the new false light. But it is darkness the island child seeks as she sprints through the garden of the dead, cradling her brother’s soul in her hands.
Mikmik dashes from night-shadow to night-shadow. She skirts around overgrown patches of soulseeds, left uncollected by their living. There is no singing in the garden. Jyn chatters and laughs in Mikmik’s palm, completely unchanged for all that he no longer has a body. “Faster!” he cries. The wind rushes over his soulseed. “Run, Mikmik, run!”
“Hush.” Mikmik is not supposed to be on this side of the fence. And the Visitors’ Sweepers see in the dark.
The volcano churns weakly above them, unfed for so many years. Its ruddy light winces off the metal Sweepers on the near-barren slope. They scrape away everything that grows.
“Are we going up?” Jyn asks. Up to the crater, up to rebirth. She can hear his smile and her shoulders drop. She has waited a year for his soulseed to push through the soil, only to disappoint him.
“It’s not allowed,” she says. Her chin juts and her mouth sets in a line. For seven years the Sweepers have been on the slope. But the Visitors’ machines haven’t yet erased the foot-worn path to the top, danced into existence by generations of the living carrying their dead.
“I’m supposed to go up!” Jyn whines, as if stamping a foot he no longer has.
A Sweeper pauses its work of scraping the ground. Its white metal head raises and rotates, scanning for movement with its single, lidless eye. Soil, shrubs and soulseeds spill from its flat blade as it jerks to a halt and stills its engine. Mikmik dives to the ground, flattening her naked body in a patch of shadow.
She lies motionless atop generations of souls. Her shaking breath stirs the dirt. Her stomach clenches and her ears heat.
She did not imagine it. There were soulseeds on the Sweeper’s blade. Mikmik is young, but she knows this is wrong. Souls should never be touched by the lifeless. Mikmik tightens her grip on Jyn until the ridges of the seed cut creases in her palm.
Beneath her, a soul shifts and turns. “Is it time to go up?” it whisper-begs.
“No,” Mikmik says.
“Soon?” asks another.
Mikmik pretends not to hear. She rubs the pad of her thumb across her brother’s soul. The Sweeper’s eye clicks and retracts into its metal head. Its body growls and shakes as it resumes its work of defiling the past. Its tracks leave a trail of lines in the newly barren foothills.
A chorus of worry rises from the untidy, untended garden. They speak, now that there is someone to listen.
“Where is my sister’s soul?” an old seed asks. “Where is my son, to take me up?”
“Why is uncle’s seed silent?”
“Can you find Ami-ja? Where is…”
Where is, where is, where is?
Mikmik stands and runs. Her bare toes tap and slide across the songless seeds of her people. Their questions pierce her just as the Sweeper’s eye will if she stays any longer. The metal fence links bite into her fingers, and the thick soles of her feet. She slides Jyn’s soulseed under her tongue as she climbs. He laughs inside her mouth, delighted with the wetness and warmth.
She drops to the ground on the other side and spits her brother in her palm.
“I have you,” she assures him. “I’m taking you home.”
“But why?” he asks, unassured. “I want to go up. I want to keep playing.”
The nearest Sweeper clinks and spots her. Pistons screech. The monster pushes up on its claws, and shoots her with a beam of new light. Mikmik runs, passing the massive metal sign barring entrance to the garden of the dead.
NO LIFE ALLOWED! it reads in Visitor letters. And: ALWAYS WASH YOUR HANDS!
Night wind slides over Mikmik’s bare chest, wrapping around her legs as her feet pad a soft rhythm in the hardened soil of the village. A moth keeps pace with her for the space of a breath. Powdery wings brush her temple. She lifts Jyn and invites the moth to perch and tickle her brother’s soul. Jyn laughs as tiny feet light upon him. But the wings turn, cutting the air. Three bulbs of new light hang from a chicken coop. The moth flies at the harsh glow, battering its fragile wings and body against the unmoving bulb of glass.
Lightbulbs transform the landscape of the village with side-lit shadows. Mikmik cannot trust the path beneath her feet, or the dark corners beyond huts. The new lights show much but they hide more.
Mikmik’s feet slide on small pebbles. Jyn yelps between her fingers.
“You are naked.”
The Marm stands at the edge of the light. She is a Visitor woman. She is made of bones wrapped in sickly skin. Her dress begins at her neck and ends at her toes. A thin parasol twirls between her gloved fingers. It casts further shadows on the sharp edges of her face. Her smile reveals teeth too small for her mouth. There are shadows in the spaces between. There are shadows wrapped around her words.
She covers her thin dry lips with three straightened fingers and titters like a lorikeet. Jyn grunts, snorts, and Mikmik holds him behind her back. He has no mouth for her to cover.
“Something is wrong with the gar–” she starts.
The Marm covers her ears. “Speak correctly or not at all.”
“Yes, Marm.” Mikmik uses only Visitor words and the Visitor accent.
“Come, girl, sickness will stick to your naked skin. Microbes–germs–flourish in this humidity.” She indulges her with a smile. “Humidity is the wetness in the air. Do you understand?”
“Can you repeat the new word I’ve taught you?”
Mikmik fits her lips and tongue around the strange Visitor sounds. “Humidity.”
“Very good! You children learn so quickly. Education can elevate you, understand?”
Mikmik keeps her face carefully blank. “Yes, Marm.”
“Now that you have a proper teacher, yes?” she prompts.
The Visitor waits and the parasol spins on her shoulder.
Mikmik squeezes her fingers into fists. “Thank you, Marm.”
“Very good. Have a chocolate.” She bends at the waist to bestow a treat wrapped in shiny red paper. Mikmik hesitates. She plucks the chocolate from the Marm’s palm and puts it in the same hand with Jyn. In life he loved to hear the crinkle.
“Cover yourself.” The garment snaps in the air when the Marm pulls it from her bag. It fits tightly around Mikmik’s arms and squeezes her about the middle. There are two pockets in the long skirt and she hides Jyn’s soulseed in one, the chocolate in the other. The Marm sets two pairs of foot clothing on the dirt. “Find your size.”
Mikmik scrunches her nose and pokes a toe at the shoes. “They don’t fit.”
The Marm’s face curdles. She puts on a smile like a mask. “Yes, well. They are made for normal feet.”
“Normal?” Jyn scoffs from her pocket. Mikmik clenches her teeth.
“Yes, normal,” the Marm answers, thinking it was Mikmik who spoke. “Not so flat and wide. Why are you out at night, girl? It is dangerous in the dark.”
“Jyn died, Marm,” Mikmik says.
“I’m sorry, child. Illness spreads so quickly when everyone lives on top of each other like this. So many have died.” The Marm squints at Mikmik’s hair. She steeples her fingers and taps them against her lips. “Come into the light.” She pinches the fabric of Mikmik’s sleeve and tows her to a glass bulb.
Jyn sucks in his breath, like he’s wincing from a sharp pain.
“He died last year,” Mikmik says. The Marm hears but she does not listen. “My brother, Jyn. He sat next to me in school classes.”
“You sit next to Ponji, sweetling.” She produces a ribbon and pokes timidly at Mikmik’s coarse locks. “You have to straighten this. So unkempt. So many tangles.”
“Ponchi sits with her near-sisters,” Mikmik says. “Jyn sat next to me.”
“Oh, sweetling. Are you sure you don’t mean Graji or Ganjin? All the names sound the same. I’m sure it’s easy to become confused.”
The Marm is so thin, and she balances on tiny feet. Mikmik imagines she would snap with one push. “I’m not confused about my brother’s name.”
Jyn’s soul flips about in her pocket. The new light pulses brighter from its bulb.
“There.” The Marm pulls the ribbon tight and wipes her gloved hands on her skirt. “You are prettier with your hair out of your eyes. Have another chocolate.”
“Why is there a fence around the garden?”
The Marm’s eyes are frozen and round. “Did you go near the garden, girl?”
“It’s scuffed. Messy. The dead aren’t singing.”
Three gloved fingers to lips, another titter. “The dead can’t sing, treasure. The dead cannot do anything. Dead means gone.”
Jyn jumps in her pocket and blows a raspberry through phantom lips.
“Dead is just waiting,” Mikmik says. Waiting to go up. Waiting for rebirth. She touches her woven necklace beneath her dress. “It’s not the end, it’s just one point on a circle.”
“Don’t go near that graveyard, girl. Leave the dead alone.”
“Jyn isn’t gone,” Mikmik says. Her hand plunges into her pocket to make sure.
The Marm winces. “Perhaps he should have washed his hands more. Proper hygiene saves lives.”
“He didn’t get sick,” Mikmik says. Fat, hot tears drip in the dust at her feet. “He fell when we were playing!”
“We weren’t done with our game!” Jyn shouts. He hops from Mikmik’s pocket, and she snatches him from the air.
The Marm sees him. The false sympathy sloughs from her face. “Put that down, girl.” Her pointy tongue licks dry lips. “It’s very, very dangerous. Give me the stone.”
“It’s not a stone, it’s a seed. It grows. It begins again!”
Sharp fingers tweak Mikmik’s ear. “It is covered in microbes. It came out of a corpse! Give it to me, before you get everyone sick!”
With her brother’s soul tight in her fist, Mikmik bats the Visitor’s stick-thin hand away from her head. The bony Marm topples like a bundle of kindling. Dust plumes.
“I’m not gone!” Jyn taunts. “I’m here, I’m here!”
The bulb of new light pops and goes dark. Mikmik runs away on bare feet.
The gardener’s hut is in the center of the village–the eye of the island. Mikmik runs along unlit paths, the ones her feet remember. Jyn babbles and crows, unable to be silent even in death. A woven mat covers the gardener’s door, and Mikmik whacks it aside with her arms. She slides across the threshold on the bare calluses of her feet.
“Gardener–aah!” She throws her arm over her eyes. Electric bulbs hang in rows along the thatch perimeter. Jyn cries out against the sharp light, and Mikmik cups her palms to protect him. She blinks rapidly to clear the blindness.
In the center of the room, the gardener is marooned on his cot, surrounded by a sea of electricity. His eyes water and waver above the flickering corners of his mouth. A shaking hand points to a gourd. Mikmik draws a ladle of water. She pauses.
Candy papers line the long wall, tucked into the reeds and secured with tree-sap daubs. They rustle like butterfly wings with each shift of air. Sharp winks of light bounce from the husks of Visitor chocolate. Jyn makes the sound of jealously sucking his teeth.
Mikmik kneels beside the bed pallet and lifts the water to the gardener’s lips. Sparse white hair hangs about his shoulders. He is shrinking and sick, a wilting plant choking amongst weeds.
“Mikmik?” His eyes dart to the bulbs, and he whispers. “I cannot see with so much light.”
Mikmik tips the ladle to his lips a second time.
“Why don’t you tend the garden?”
He cringes. “Find your first language, island child. Don’t talk in that Visitor pidgin.”
“I climbed over the Visitor’s fence. The soulseeds are heaped up. Why did you let them do that?”
“I had to.” He frowns at his hands and chews a lip. “To protect the souls?”
“But the living cannot go inside.”
He swallows with effort. “Neither can the Visitors. I am saving what I can.” Tears tremble at the brink of his lids. His long flat fingers curl around her wrist. He shakes. “It is not simple. And I am losing my senses. My eyes see only what they shine a light upon. My ears hear only their words, their language. They speak so quickly, I cannot be sure what is truth.”
Mikmik untucks her woven necklace from under the ill-fitting Visitor dress. It is an unending circle: one eternal round. Her finger traces it as she recites. “This is truth. Look to the past and remember. Look to the future and hope.”
“Yes.” He touches her necklace, then touches his own. His shoulders relax in the comforting catechism. “And repeat the cycle. Death, rebirth, ascending higher each time. We were made to ascend.” His lip tremble intensifies. “But now we cannot go up.” He covers his face with knotted hands.
Mikmik takes Jyn from her pocket. “Do you remember my brother?”
“Jyn-jyn!” The gardener lovingly rolls Jyn’s soulseed between his palms. The hut’s bulbs brighten with Jyn’s clear, delighted laugh.
“I celebrated your death, little one,” the gardener continues. “I celebrate your new life.”
“The garden is not safe,” Mikmik says. “The souls don’t sing. Some make no sound at all.”
“I want to play again with Mikmik,” Jyn says. “I want to go up.”
The gardener bathes the seed with his tears.
The doorway covering rustles, and Mikmik flinches, fearing the Marm. Instead the gardener’s daughter, Denig, totters across the threshold and drops to a woven mat with a sigh. The new light allows her to work late, building the concrete hospital. “Don’t bother my old father, Mikmik.” She pulls at the tight foot covers on her feet. Pus blooms from broken blisters on the outside toes. She reaches for a salve.
“It is these lights that bother me,” the old man snaps, erasing his tears with the back of his hand. He taps a fingernail against a bulb.
“I feel strange,” Jyn whispers to Mikmik. “My stomach is sour.”
She presses him in the hollow of her throat. “I’ll find a place for you.”
“Hear my father, complaining about light!” Denig kneads the ache from her feet. “Do you think your sister’s son has electricity? Or the storykeeper and her rude little wife? Our hut is one of the few. The light makes it clean, and beautiful.”
“And it smells like chocolates,” Mikmik says. “How’d you get so many?”
“I’m a good citizen, how else? I always wear my shoes and dress. At work I only use the Visitor language. I also have a glass jar,” she boasts, “given to me by the Marm’s own hand.” Denig chuts her chin, and Mikmik helps her unlace the tight Visitor dress collar.
“Do you have a basket, Denig?”
“To carry my brother.” She opens her hand.
“Little one!” Denig reaches for Jyn. She rolls his soul across the tops of her knuckles. She places him on the crown of her head and wobbles it in a rhythm while she taps her toes and hums a child’s song. Jyn laughs in bursts as if he’s being tickled. He sings with Denig, off-key, then rolls down her forehead and nose to land in her skirt.
The gardener is weeping.
“You were always the best dancer,” he says to his daughter. “You tapped a trail through the garden, you struck your heels on the volcano path. How we celebrated you, as you danced for death. As you led the souls to rebirth! The soulseeds sighed with your movements. O daughter! You must dance again.”
Denig’s smile falls into a scowl. She brushes Jyn’s soul from her skirt and rolls heavily to her feet. She crinkles her chocolate papers to reassure herself. “I cannot dance in shoes.”
“Mikmik, I ache a little,” Jyn whispers.
“I’m hurrying.” Mikmik roots under the table. There are bags, the plastic kind made in the Visitors’ facility. She sees the daughter’s glass jar and touches its smooth, thick sides. But these are lifeless materials, and she will not trust her brother’s soul to them.
“You must dance for Jyn’s death, Mikmik,” the gardener says. “Tap your toes and strike your heels. Take him up, so he may be reborn.”
The daughter spins on her wide, flat foot. “We cannot take the soulseeds up, old father! The seeds, they are a clata…catla…”
“Catalyst,” Mikmik supplies. No baskets under the stack of blankets.
“It is only a child’s seed, daughter. What difference could it make?”
“It is not just fire and heat within the crater, there are volatiles. If any more life goes into the volcano, it will erupt! If the Visitors hadn’t arrived when they did, we would have destroyed ourselves, throwing so many soulseeds into that stew of lava.”
“That is the cycle of the island.” The gardener lifts his arms above his head, shaking arthritic fists. “It erupts and is reborn. It has happened before, it will happen again. The island is a circle. The Visitors want us to fear death, but we were made to ascend!”
“Ascend to what? The Visitors have given us education, technology. We write our genealogies instead of passing them from mouth to ear. Concrete buildings survive the storms. And the medicine! Children don’t die when they get sick, not anymore.” Denig turns her back and plants her heavy feet. “Wearing shoes, speaking like them, keeping off the volcano: it is a small price to pay.”
Mikmik turns her head from the gardener to his daughter and back. “Why is there any price at all?”
“I miss my garden,” the gardener says. “Now I must ask permission to go there. In my own garden I am the visitor. Can’t you remember, Denig? Can’t you remember how the soulseeds sang?”
“I remember. I danced that foolish dance every seven-year. I danced to the mouth of an angry god. Then I learned it will only ever reward us with fire and ash.”
“And rebirth.” He pulls at his necklace. “Look to the future and hope.”
“Mikmik,” Jyn moans. “It’s the lights. They’re too bright.”
“You don’t need to hope for the future, old father. You can see it, here! We have ascended through knowledge! Even night no longer rules us.”
“Night and day are also a cycle,” her father says. “We have broken it.”
Denig’s shoulders hunch. Her nostrils flare and her anger clots. Thick fingers pull Jyn’s soulseed from Mikmik’s palm.
“Wait!” Mikmik says, but Denig is proving a point to her father and cannot hear the protestations of a little girl.
“This is the past. A dead stone.”
Mikmik pounds pudgy fists against Denig’s fleshy hip. “You can hear his voice!”
“I am not a stone!”
She lifts Jyn’s soul to the bright white bulb. “This is the future,” Denig says. “Light in darkness!”
“Mikmik!” Jyn whimpers as Denig holds him closer to the lightbulb hanging in the thatch. “It hurts Mikm–”
Electricity sizzles in the air. Light crescendos in the space of a breath. It buzzes like an angry hive and does not abate. They squeeze their eyes and scream.
Denig drops Jyn. She sucks the fingers that held him. They are burned. Her eyes are wide and white.
Mikmik presses Jyn’s soulseed against her beating heart. She feels nothing. He does not answer when she calls his name. “What did you do?”
“I…I…” Denig’s mouth flaps open and shut.
Jyn is silent, like the seeds of the garden. He is silent, as he never was before.
The gardener slips to the floor, white hair splayed across his shoulders. He has realized why so many in the garden cannot sing. The Sweepers on the slopes, edging closer to the fence. The missing, and the silent. The way the Visitor facility glows brighter as each soulseed quiets forever. The Visitors did not fight them for the souls. They took them by degrees.
Where is, where is, where is?
His aged fists pound the dirt floor; an inversion of the death dance.
“We have sold our dead for candy wrappers,” he cries. “For candy wrappers on our walls.”
Mikmik’s dry tongue scrapes the roof of her mouth. “I can’t hear Jyn, gardener. He feels…” She does not say gone. “What do I do?”
“Do?” he says between sobs. “The circle is broken. We have forgotten the past. It’s too late.”
Denig cowers in the pulsing, over-bright light. The burn-out of Jyn’s soul has left blisters on her fingers. Blisters to match the ones on her toes. She screams her guilt and her fevered grief. Her glass jar shatters in her large hands, but the sound is not a song. It will not replace a soul. The chocolate papers mock her from the wall. She has covered her home in trash.
The Marm has come to the Jyn-brightened hut as the moth to the bulb.
“Your lights are so bright, Denig. So lovely to look upon!” Her shadows fill the doorway: a barricade. She first spies Mikmik, and then Jyn’s soulseed against Mikmik’s heart. Shadows sharpen her little teeth.
“There you are, rude girl. Give that to me. It is dirty. And then you must wash your hands.”
“It is my brother.”
“It is a stone. It is nothing. Give it to me.” She takes two steps forward, tiny shoes clicking.
Grief snaps the gardener’s heart. He curls into himself.
Denig is lost. She blinks at the lights, at her chocolate-paper walls.
Jyn makes no answer. He does not laugh, or move.
Mikmik is alone.
Her necklace rasps against her knuckle. It is woven, and worn. But it is endless. How can it be too late? She hears the catechism in her first language. Look to the past and remember. Look to the future and hope.
Dead does not mean gone.
Mikmik shuts her eyes tight. “I have a brother.”
The Marm lunges over the gardener’s weeping form and swipes her gloved claws at Mikmik’s hair. The ribbon comes loose; her mane springs free. Mikmik dives through a curtain of candy papers. She sprints away on flat, wide feet.
“He is Jyn, I have not forgotten his name.” Mikmik runs past lifeless concrete buildings. She does not stop to read the multitude of signs surrounding the village, reminding the Islanders again and again that they are unclean, less than. She shuts her eyes as she passes the new light, shuts them tight so she will be able to see.
Up and over the metal fence of the garden of the dead. She tumbles and spills into the piles of soulseeds. The chocolates fall from her pocket. She leaves them on the ground.
Light floods the mountain and the garden. Sweepers converge to douse this threatening spark of life.
“Jyn is not gone. He wants to go up.” Her voice soars over the screeching and clunking of the Sweepers. It bounces among the soulseeds. It wakes the voices of hundreds. Thousands. They echo, they amplify. Those who still have voice, sing once again.
Metal heads and unblinking eyes follow her movements. Pistons cry and the Sweepers belch clouds of greasy smoke. She overjumps their reaching arms, their three-fingered grabbing hands. Metal digits pinch and rip her dress. She shudders free of the fabric. She is naked again, as she was when she collected her brother’s soulseed. As she was when she was born.
The Sweepers cannot follow her up the slope. Unlike her, they were not made to ascend.
The hungry volcano churns before her. The island is a circle, a wheel, a cycle. Jyn’s silent soulseed is warm in her hand. Death before rebirth. Look to the past and remember. Mikmik remembers her brother.
Look to the future and hope.
“We’ll finish our game, Jyn. I will hear you laugh again.”
She steps into the volcano.
Every lightbulb in the village bursts into shards when the volcano erupts. The Visitor’s facility falls dark. Their signs and fences topple. With no light to blind them, the people can see. They remember the beauty of death and the promise of rebirth. The island is a circle.
Denig uncurls her old father from the floor. They gasp together at the pillar of smoke and fire. Molten death descends, and her father is not afraid. Perhaps, Denig hopes, it is not too late after all. She taps her toes, then strikes her heels.
About the Author
Kaitlyn is a former Marine intelligence officer and current SFF writer living in Japan with her spouse and four kids. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise and an associate editor at PodCastle. Her first story was published in Silk & Steel: A Queer Speculative Adventure Anthology, and you can find more of her work at Cast of Wonders and PseudoPod.
About the Narrator
Cherrae L. Stuart
Cherrae L. Stuart is co-host of the Entertainment News Podcast TCAD and Movie Review Show the Ten Min Take. She’s also the star of the Science Fiction Comedy Podcast Good Morning Antioch. Season Three coming soon!
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.