The Past Laid Out On The Table
by Matt Tighe
The sky above his mother’s house is the bright orange and pink of a frozen dawn when David stops by after work.
‘Mum!’ he yells as he slings the grocery bags at the kitchen bench. They slow to a stop in mid-air. A yellow lemon drops out of one bag and spins lazily, nowhere to go. No when to go.
“Have you looked out the window?” David says, trying to keep the edge from his voice. He wishes she would just leave the past alone.
“Oh, I’ll put it all back,” she says, and of course she will. She was always good like that. Always the ordered one. Always the careful one.
“Do you have time for a cup of tea?” she asks.
He wants to say no. He doesn’t want to be here while she dips into the past again. He wants to say he is too busy, that he has his own family now and doesn’t have time for this, that he won’t have his own kids wondering for one second where he might be. But none of that really holds when time itself in the kitchen is so fractured, so broken into pieces that even the sky overhead is still stuck hours in the past.
There are memories strewn across the kitchen table. He tries not to look, but some are just snippets – really nothing more than harmless little things. There is Horatio the teddy, brown and fuzzy and beady eyed, and there is his first pair of sneakers, ridiculous and tiny. Both of these things are impossibly new and so very there, plucked fresh from almost three decades before. Nearby, deep and dark but polished by so much handling, is the time his father carried his half-sleeping form from the car after late night basketball, his mother tiptoeing by their side. David looks away from that one, swallowing, trying not to remember those arms holding him. Trying not to imagine what either of his own children would think, if that comfort and safety was suddenly gone forever, with no explanation, no hint as to why. He blinks quickly. There is something hard in his chest.
He sits at the kitchen bench with his back to the table and focuses on his mother. She takes the kettle and pushes it forward a few minutes, just until the water is boiling. She can’t do big objects, not like Dad could, but she is very good with the small stuff. She reaches up to the cupboard and back thirty years to where her favourite tea cups are still bright and new. And yet, despite the deep blue rims and shiny white sides, one has a chip on the edge.
“Why don’t you ever go back a little further? To when that cup wasn’t chipped?”
“Oh, you know,” she says as she hands him his tea. He doesn’t know.
“Why do you keep doing this?” he asks.
“Doing what, dear?”
“Breaking things down into all these moments. Going back over the past. Pulling out mementos. I mean Dad could never help fiddling with things, and look what happened.”
She puts down her cup and looks at him, suddenly serious. “And what is it that happened, exactly?”
“Well, we don’t know, do we? But does it matter? He left us, somehow, some when. It’s not like he’s popping up in any of these pieces you like to play with. Not like he just got himself stuck somewhere.”
His mother looks down, her hands gripping her cup much too tightly. He hopes she won’t break it. It would be hard to put something so delicate, from so long ago, back together.
“Is that it, Mum?” he asks, his voice low. “Are you still looking for him?”
“No, dear,” she says softly. “He was always so much better at this than me. I know you are angry with him, but if he was still able to, he would be back. Or he would at least be there in one of our favourites, maybe just needing a little help. But every place, every time I check, he’s not. I mean, of course he is, but he also isn’t. Not in any of them. No, I’m not looking for him anymore.”
Despite everything, David lets himself feel the pieces she has scattered about. Once he drops his guard, they pull at him, insistent. All that time, all those places. The newly handled, the too often handled, both the raw and the worn. Some of them deep and full of want. Full of need. Full of love. He can see her, and him, and them, their little family. Dad, laughing as he holds up David’s first day of school for them all to see. David, bringing home a summer afternoon full of the flash of dragonflies above the little creek behind the house. His mother, taking a pleasant afternoon in the yard and stretching it out, and out, and out, while neither he nor his father really noticed. There is so much there, and so much lost.
“Why do you do it, then? Why do you keep doing it? It’s all broken,” David says, his voice rough. He didn’t need this. He didn’t need to see these things again, feel these things again. He has his own family, now. He doesn’t need to be pulled at like this. He doesn’t want to be reminded of how close everything might be to breaking, no matter how strong, how right things might feel. He looks down at his now blurry tea cup and almost pushes the tears back a few moments. Instead, he lets them fall. That hard thing in his chest is shifting.
His mother touches the chip on the edge of the tea cup lightly.
“Remember?” she asks, and before he can answer she holds up the piece of the past she is talking about. In it he is small, and she is smiling at him. She is wiping away his tears, and pushing her tea cup back a few minutes, to the moment that clumsy, excitable little David had dropped it. She can fix things, is fixing things, and yet she stops before the cup is quite whole. Stops while there is still one chip missing from the rim. Stops, because for her, the chip is more than a chip.
David closes his eyes. He sees the broken cup, and his own tears. He sees his father laughing, holding up that first day of school. His father, carrying him, almost sleeping, from the car. His father, who he has never talked about to his own children. Dad, there, and then gone, gone with no explanation or warning, and yet still there – always there, David realises. The hard thing in his chest comes loose and he cries out, reaching blindly for what was.
His mother catches his hands and holds them tight. David shakes and sobs and feels the past. The want. The need. The love. Slowly, his mother lets go and softly wipes away his tears, just as she had all that time ago.
“Sometimes the broken things are worth keeping too,” she says.
by Riley Neither
Kepstra remembers the old world.
His mothers say he was too young, but he’s dreamed of it all his life. He remembers pink skies and smoke stinging his eyes. He remembers how the portal looked from the other side, a gray arch tall enough to block out the sun, full of rippling blue light.
From this side, his only memories of the portal are of it empty as he sees it every day. His family were among the last refugees to make it through before it shut down fourteen years ago. Lightspeed ships were sent back to the old world, but it will take them two hundred and sixty years to get there.
Kepstra knows less than he likes about the old world. His mothers won’t tell him about it, so he’s had to piece it together from the stories of other elders. This is the world they live in now, Ma Neiska always said, with a look he eventually realized was regret and resolve and grief. This is the world they live in, and there was no point in talking about the old world. It was too painful.
But they never left. A whole planet, and they never left the city around the portal, just in case–
Ma Neiska died yesterday.
This morning they burned her, in the plaza under the center of the arch, because they knew she wouldn’t want to be buried on a foreign world. Ma Jannist will keep her ashes safe.
Kepstra lies on his stomach atop the dead arch, amid hissing greenbelly birds and the laser-stained graffiti of other skyskaters, and looks down at the cremation site from a lofty distance that makes it easier not to cry. The sun is warm on his back.
He doesn’t know what to do with the feelings when they come rushing out of him. It’s easier to hold it all in and let them bake in the sun. He doesn’t want to move.
People as small and dark as tadpoles move below him.
He’s surprised when he hears a muezzin giving the evening call to prayer. He hardly even noticed the sun going down. The greenbelly birds have gone off to nest for the night, and so should he.
He pushes himself up and kicks the anti-grav engine in his skyskate to life. It groans; it’s old.
The rush of wind as he descends chills him. He angles his skyskate into a gentler glide near the base of the arch and flies off over glassy research centers, empty launchpads, and domed mosques and stupas toward home.
Ma Jannist is out in the orchard, sobbing. She wouldn’t be if she knew he was back, but he’s glad to finally hear her cry, to hear how she misses Ma Neiska, too. He follows the sound to her, riding his skate low and slow near the ground. The neon mango trees are night-blooming, clustered buds opening now to fill the air with their sweet scent, breaking up the dark with tiny constellations of pale, luminescent blue. Beneath them, everything is dappled blue, green, brown, and black, and he almost expects Ma Neiska to emerge from the shadows, orbited by a dozen pollinator bots and gliding on her own skyskate to reach the tallest branches, fingers glowing with oily pollen residue.
He finds Ma Jannist sitting cross-legged on the ground with her face in her hands, sobbing between heaving, gasping breaths.
“Ma,” he says.
She jumps. She starts wiping away tears, catching her breath, until he says–
“Stop hiding your grief from me.”
“Kepstra…” she says, standing and reaching toward him.
“It’s mine, too, this time.” His voice cracks, and he starts crying, like whatever the sun baked inside him has shattered in the dark.
Ma Jannist wraps her arms around him. He hugs her tight and can’t stop crying.
“Come on,” she says, rubbing his back. “Let’s get away from here. Let’s fly.”
He thinks he might rather stay, right here where he can imagine Ma Neiska one step away, tutting at the trees and talking about real mangoes, and durians and limes and other old world fruits that won’t grow in this soil. But he nods mutely and steps back onto his skyskate. Ma Jannist moves behind him, hands on his shoulders, just like when he was a kid and his mothers taught him how to fly.
He takes them in a gentle spiral up, brushing his hand through the leaves of a neon mango tree as it passes. The orchard stretches out below them, emitting a faint, diffuse blue light, and beyond it are the brighter yellow lights of the city around the portal. The portal itself is dark, almost invisible.
He lets the skate drift on the cooling night wind. If Ma Jannist wasn’t there with him, he might have started screaming at the wind and the portal and the indigo sky.
“Your other ma loved these clear nights,” Ma Jannist says.
“Yeah.” And she’ll never have another, Kepstra thinks. She’ll never feel this wind again or smell the orchard in bloom. She’ll never sing picking songs with them again or bet on whose hands will glow the brightest when they’re done, or chide him for leaving stains of that residue on the gate or the sink.
He wonders if this is what their grief for the old world felt like–slow, heavy, thinking every minute of just one more little thing that will never happen again.
Or never at all.
He so wanted to hear all the stories Ma Neiska never told. Too painful, she said. Now it’s too late, and that hurts more.
He folds his arms over his stomach and bows his head, looking back down at the orchard they left.
“Kepstra?” Ma Jannist asks.
“There’s so much I want to know!” he says, and he’s crying again before he can help it. “So much I never got to learn from her– It’s, it’s like the old world all over again, I want all of it but all I have is this glimpse of sky–”
Ma Jannist takes her hands off his shoulders. “Please, Kepstra, let’s not do that now.”
“I remember that!” he insists. “Or are you gonna tell me tomorrow that I don’t remember Ma Neiska either? That the orchard planted itself? Are you never gonna talk about her again because it might hurt?”
“Do you want her to be forgotten?” he shouts.
“Of course not!” She shouts, too. “But you–you’re so young. You shouldn’t have to carry this.”
“Well I do, Ma,” he says. “And I want to, I want to remember everything. I don’t care how much it hurts.”
Ma Jannist squeezes her eyes shut, and tears spill out. She puts a hand over her face as her shoulders shake with a silent sob.
“Stop hiding your grief from me,” he says again, “and tell me all the stories you’ve never told me.”
The sob breaks out of her. When she drops her hand, he takes it in his, and waits as she gets a deep breath before looking up at him.
“Once I do,” she says, “you’ll always be carrying it. This is another portal that we only get to walk through one way. Are you so sure you want to be on the other side?”
She pulls him to her and looks out. Kepstra follows her gaze through the dark night to the portal standing over the city.
She tells him. She tells him about Ma Neiska and the old world and the history that still lives in her. Her words carry him like a skyskate, angling down and gaining speed, rushing headlong for the dead arch–until in the last moment, it fills with the blue light of neon mango flowers. Ma Jannist hurls him onto a planet two hundred and sixty lightyears away, and there on the other side is his mother Neiska, smiling under pink skies.
Host commentary from Tanya Aydelott
The first story asks us to consider what memories we hold onto, and why, and how. It asks us what it means to be in one time and place, and to wonder at all the moments that have brought us to our present. Matt’s prose is like a deep breath, wondrous and patient.
In A Portal, we learn of a world that can only be accessed through memories, and meet a grieving child wondering how to bridge that gulf. Riley reminds us that memories are themselves opportunities, and that hope and wonder live in the smallest of moments.
About the Authors
Matt lives on a small farm in south eastern Australia with his amazingly patient wife and kids, Sherlock the dog and Mycroft the cat. He is addicted to listening to audiobooks while running. His short stories can be found in Nature Futures, The NoSleep Podcast, upcoming in Daily Science Fiction and Cossmass Infinities, and elsewhere. He tweets very sporadically at @MKTighewrites.
About the Narrators
Carlo Matos has published 13 books, including WE PREFER THE DAMNED and AS MALCRIADAS OR NAMES WE INHERIT. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in such journals as HOBART, PANK, and ALLIUM, among many others. He is a professor at the City Colleges of Chicago and a former MMA fighter and kickboxer. He blogs at carlomatos.blogspot.com.
Peter Adrian Behravesh is an Iranian-American musician, writer, editor, audio producer, and narrator. For these endeavors, he has won the Miller and British Fantasy Awards, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Ignyte, and Aurora Awards. His interactive novel is forthcoming from Choice of Games, and his essay, “Pearls from a Dark Cloud: Monsters in Persian Myth,” is forthcoming in the OUP Handbook of Monsters in Classical Myth. When he isn’t crafting, crooning, or consuming stories, Peter can usually be found hurtling down a mountain, sipping English Breakfast, and sharpening his Farsi. You can read his sporadic ramblings at peteradrianbehravesh.com, or on Twitter @pabehravesh.