At the Edge of a Human Path28 min read

By Stewart C Baker

The man, when he finally appeared over a rise in the mountain path, had a beauty as unsettling as her mother’s words, all angles and hard lines. He stopped his horse at a fork in the path and looked both ways. If K had not been waiting for him, she might have thought he was a traveller, come to admire the brilliant autumn foliage of Mount Ibuki. But he was of the Yamato, and sent by her mother.

Off in the bushes at the side of the path, K dashed in circles, nipping at her tail with her teeth until it could not be seen; she shivered the fur from her body. Her paws she scratched in dirt until they grew to human hands, and these she used to pull and pinch her face and legs and arms into a show of porcelain beauty. Finally, she rolled in the wet autumn leaves until she wore a twenty-layered robe of many brilliant colours.

But when she was done, the road was empty–the man had already nudged his horse in the other direction, south towards Mikawa province and the sea. Irritated, K turned back to a fox and dashed away through the undergrowth to the Yamato lord’s estate.

*

The Yamato had hewed a great road through the trees, which had been pulled back on both sides to allow for paddies and fields. The sounds of the forest were still present, but they were subdued, partially masked by the songs of farmers and other human noises.

K wanted nothing more than to slip through the village in her native skin, but the Yamato had little love for foxes. Besides, even if she succeeded in sneaking through the wooden palisades which enclosed the lord’s mansion, her mother, in the guise of Lady Yunaga, was constantly surrounded by attendants, maids and maidens with lustrous black hair and pale, elegant make-up. K disguised herself in the dull robes and plain looks of a middle-aged mountain ascetic and walked up to the gate.

The guards let her through without comment–Lady Yunaga’s eccentric habits were well known–and she strode through the austere wooden halls of the estate’s main house until she reached her mother’s quarters.

Outside her mother’s quarters, K raised one hand to clap at the wood-and-paper latticework door, but after a moment’s consideration slid it open without prior notice and stepped inside. Perhaps such disregard for human ritual would remind her mother of her native skin, and stop her from speaking of domination, submission, and all those human words which made K’s heart fill and empty in uncomfortable frissons of thrumming blood.

The attendants gasped as K entered, but her mother laughed high and clear as a mountain stream, with a sudden stop that reminded K of water tumbling from the rocks.

“Why, kit of mine,” her mother said. “Whatever is the matter?”

“The ritual did not go as planned,” K replied, only remembering to add “my lady” when her mother’s eyes narrowed.

With her own eyes, and with the other subtle signs that only foxes knew, K spoke her mind: The man you sent did not approach me.

Her mother replied in kind, aloud and with fox-sign. K ignored her words, which were meaningless, and focused on the latter.

I had a more amusing idea.

More excuses, Mother?  You have forgotten what we agreed, I fear. The time you have spent amongst the Yamato has blinded you to the threat they pose. They will drive the deer from the forests and kill the trees with ax-blows; they will turn our livelihood to dust and ash and shattered, brittle bone.

Her mother’s eyes sparkled with laughter. Such presumption, little kit. Such melodrama.

The iron trap, Mother!

At that, her mother’s jaw set. Be at ease—I have not forgotten. But these Yamato will pose no threat to us this next six-month. Your mark will return before then. Go, now, and wait until I call you.

You give me orders, Mother?  We are foxes, not men.

Without waiting for a reply, K stormed from the room.

Too long, she thought. Too long amidst the Yamato, living their dead-wood lives.

She stalked back down the hallway, out past the guards and the farmers, and into the forest at the side of the path, where she turned back into a fox and rubbed all over in the leaves to get rid of the stink of people.

*

K had been just past her seventh year when she and her mother came across a stranger caught in an iron-toothed hunting trap. His tail was wet and scraggly; his side heaved with deep and desperate breaths. Along one leg, K could see jagged red-white blotches where he had tried to gnaw himself to freedom.

Her mother dashed straight to the stranger’s side, shifting into human form so quickly that K almost fled.

The human-mother wrapped her hands in leaves so the skin was covered and gently prized the jaws of the trap apart, then snapped her teeth at K. Drag him free, kit, hurry!

Once the stranger was out, her mother returned to fox form. She licked the stranger’s leg until the bleeding stopped, and helped him to a makeshift den in the bole of a nearby oak.

Once they had left him, K asked her mother why. Always before they had left the trapped to die.

This trap was different, kit. It was set by the Yamato, and made of iron.

But do not the Yamato too deserve to eat, mother?  Are they not also part of the balance of the land?

They do, and they are, but iron traps are set only for foxes. The Yamato fear us, and know that metal robs us of our magic. Whenever they spot us on their hunts, they leave a trap like that one.

So . . . not all traps are for hunting? 

No, little kit. Iron is only ever for killing.

Young as she was then, K had not been able to grasp it.

*

K did not appear before Lady Yunaga again, just as her mother had ordered. Neither was she idle, though; she kept close watch, hiding in bushes near the farthest rice paddies and eavesdropping on village gossip, or skulking into the kitchens disguised as a kitchen maid.

Her mother’s demands on the Yamato grew daily more ludicrous. K did not laugh with the others at the brazen advances her mother made on her husband’s men, which turned icy cold in a heartbeat before she chased them out into the darkness with nothing but their skins and the winter moon to warm them. But it was not until she heard two farmer’s wives describe of a game of potent sake and heated blades which Lady Yunaga herself had named skin the fox that K felt fear.

The feeling drove her from the woods she knew and out into the deep forest, where even foxes rarely tread. She ran until the scents of humus and mildew changed to stone and fire, the birdsong to echoing silence. She ran until the stars thinned out and vanished behind a sky of black-green pine. Finally, paws aching, she stopped before a lake that rippled with the image of a gravid, timeless moon.

It was here the formless spirits lived. One could contact them, ask them questions, if one knew how. K bent her head to her left forepaw and nipped it open, trickling blood onto the lake. The moon shimmered, then exploded, a river of white dripping upwards and over the winnowing red.

K bowed her head in supplication and asked for lore of changes too long kept.

The spirits swarmed across her body, and as they did so images flashed through her mind. She saw merchant-clad racoons gone to fat with too much liquor, beating their distended bellies with drum-like madness. She saw cats turn to cowardice and anger, killing pregnant rats with yellowed human teeth and leaving them to rot in the packed dirt streets of Yamato towns. She heard monkeys’ cries change into the wailing of human babes and stay there forty months, until their changeling parents flung them in despair and hopeless fury into canyon rivers flecked with white. 

She shivered to know these things, but did not falter. She needed more. Struggling against the whip-strikes of a non-existent wind, she worried a strip of skin from her shoulder and tossed it to the lake. The swarm of white became a cascade, and the wind that wasn’t there howled until K thought she would lose her ears, as well. Images and fox-scent poured into her mind: half-mad man-fox eyes; tails all scraggled with blood and faeces and rot, which craggy human hands caressed as though they were beautiful; men and war and death and gold and finery.

Was this what came of foxes living as men?

The images spun her over and down until she was lost to empty black. She awoke at the edge of a human path, her skin chilled from the darkness and damp of the spirits’ domain.

*

After K returned to the Yamato, she spread subtle rumours of her own. Her mother rarely set foot beyond her quarters, but K still masked her tracks with deft cancellations and clumsy human noises.

When the six-month was almost over, her mother’s fox-sign reached her in the patterns of the smoke which lifted into the sky above the estate. K assumed once more the form of the mountain ascetic. Seated in the hallway outside Lady Yunaga’s quarters, K watched the shifts in the shadow her mother cast on the screen she sat behind, and listened to the pauses in her words.

The warrior’s name is Soga no Yoshitsuki, and he had a great reputation as a lover of women before I intervened. When he returns, you are to appear before him, beautiful and young as before, and serve as his salvation and reward.

K shifted uncomfortably.

Do you wish to stop the Yamato or not, little Kit?  You must be ready to make sacrifices, to act against your own best interest. I know you think I do nothing but live in luxury here, but I too have a role to play.

Of course, Mother. I apologize.

Still, she was uneasy, remembering the rumours.

Her mother laughed, low and in the back of her throat, as she explained.

I forced my affections upon this Soga, and then cast the blame on his own youthful folly. He was eager then to do my bidding. “You must find,” I told him, “the secret truth all women want alike, despite their status and their age and their station in life.”

You should have seen the look on his face!  Oh, it was glorious, the confusion that crept into his eyes, the way he shook his head side to side, slowly, like a deer that has been shot by arrow and does not yet know it is dead.

“If you do not return with the answer in six months’ time,” I finished, “I will bend my husband’s ear against you, and send you to the wastes of the north, where you die, cold and forgotten.”

K sat silent. What could she say?  Her mother had been playing games, abusing her power for no good ends—for no ends at all.

Yes, her mother said, it is a wonderful plan.

The words sent a thick spike of fear up the back of K’s neck. If her mother was misinterpreting fox-sign, things were worse than she’d thought. Making each sign deliberate, exaggerated, she feigned willingness.

What am I to do, mother, when he returns?  What am I to say?

*

The forest near Mount Ibuki seemed much the same as it had been half a year prior, but K knew it had changed. The Yamato had razed the forest a few miles distant, creating plains and paddies they used for crops. Although the new farms were not visible, K felt them in the subtle changes in the air, heard them in the way the animals called out to each other in the middle distance.

And her mother had said they posed no danger. K clad herself once more in the guise of a lovely young woman. When the man appeared over the gentle rise of the mountain path, she began to dance in the way that only foxes can, all wild suddenness and smooth caresses of the air.

She kept one eye on the man’s distant form as she danced, smiling at the interest that made itself clear in the tension of his shoulders, the whiteness of his eyes. His clothes were smudged by months of travel, but he pressed his horse forwards with a ‘ya!’ 

When the path took him briefly out of view, K retreated to the edge of the forest. She would win this human—she had decided on that—but not as her mother commanded. Closing her eyes, she transformed again, this time into a grotesque mockery of age. She lengthened her lips until they looked like two halves of a sweet potato. Her eyes she fashioned after toads’, bulbous and yellowing, filled with a dazing stupor. She pulled two breasts out until they hung, lopsided, below her fat-lumped stomach, and tugged her clothes into disarray.

She coughed her voice into haggard roughness, then creaked back onto the path, reaching the middle just as Yoshitsuki approached. She cackled as he pulled his horse to a stop.

“Hag,” he said. “Where is the girl I saw dancing?  She was as fair as you are foul, and moved with the grace of a heavenly maiden.”

“Never you mind, Soga no Yoshitsuki,” K replied, cackling anew as the colour drained from his face. “Oh, yes, I know you, warrior—you and this quest you have failed.”

“A fool’s quest, by a fool of a woman,” he spat. “But I have not failed. Ten times a dozen answers I have gathered, and—”

“Ten times a dozen, and all of them wrong!” K snapped. “But I can still save you, for I know the right.”

“And why should your answer stand where those I have gathered will fall?”

“I know your name and your quest, and the name of she who sent you,” K said. “Why should I not know the answer she seeks?”

“Tell it to me, then, hag, and have my gratitude.”

K shuffled towards him, stretching her lips in a smile as his horse shied away. “It is not so easy as that, warrior. You must give me something in return.”

He grunted, nudged his horse to stillness. “What would you have?”

“Ah ah ah. You must promise me my boon without knowing—only then will I give you your answer. What I ask is not criminal or wrong, but nothing else will you hear from me until I have your word. Or do you long for the wastes of the north?  I hear the women there are strong as oxen, and that the men bed down with bears. Is that your wish, warrior, to take a bear to bride?”

Yoshitsuki scowled, but K could tell he was hiding his fear. He did not believe what she had said, but neither did he want to be sent from his land.

“Very well,” she said, when he did not respond. “If that is your desire . . .”

She had taken only a few steps towards the forest when he spoke.

“Stop, hag. I will grant your request, whatever it should be.”

“Swear it, warrior,” she hissed without facing him. “Swear it by the holy light of your goddess’s sun.”

“I do so swear.”

K smiled. She had him.

“Sovereignty. That is what all women want—or at least it is what your mistress is expecting to hear.”

“And you, hag?” Yoshitsuki’s voice was calm, as flat as a river. “What do you want from me?”

She turned back to face him, reading the changes that swarmed across his features:  fear, and loathing, relief and . . . anticipation. Not for her those last two, she was sure, but for the sight of his home after so long away.

Behind her, a bush warbler sang, breaking the quiet of the path with its trills. Beyond the smell of the Yamato farms and the heat of the man and his horse, the scent of the deep forest called out to her.

Damn her mother.

“My desire is a smaller thing,” she said, stretching her lips in another hag-smile, “yet harder to grant for all that. I am hoar with age, and it has been long since I felt the arms of a man.”

Yoshitsuki stiffened, the heft of this shoulders and the set of his jaw so tight he resembled a boulder.

“Yes, warrior, you guess right. I would have your pillow next to mine, and sway towards your side like a slender, storm-tossed pine. I would have you marry me.”

*

They rode back to the Yamato estate astride Yoshitsuki’s horse, K sitting quiet in her hag-form behind him. She watched for fox-sign in the clouds, listened for news in the sudden absences of birdsong.

After a time, Yoshitsuki spoke. “Hag, tell me truly. Why have you sought me out? Surely one who knows so much as you cannot want only the embrace of a man.”

K listened for lies in his voice, watched for scorn along the contours of his back, but she found only mindfulness and wondering.

This warrior had been thinking; he had picked apart the tiny inconsistencies of her ruse. Could her mother have misjudged him as badly as she had K’s fox-sign?  Surely not all men were driven by lust and anger, even among the Yamato. If he would aid her willingly. . .

“Very well, Soga no Yoshitsuki,” she said. “I will tell you truly. But you must not question my actions, must take no act against me. You must give me your trust.”

He paused, and for a moment the only sound was hoof beats, distant smoke the only scent in her nostrils.

“It is yours already,” he said, “as I am. I have sworn by Amaterasu’s heavenly light.”

K’s ears prickled with the power of his words.

“The woman you call Lady Yunaga,” she said, “is no more than a fox. She is power-mad, her mind inflamed with the trappings of man. She will drive you Yamato on into the free countries, and build you up an edifice of conquest there. Then, when you are at your zenith, she will pull it all down. She will kill you all, destroy the balance of this land.”

“And you, hag? Why would you save us?”

K did not reply. She closed her eyes to the muscles of his neck, trying to remember the feel of sunlight dripping down through oak leaves and catching in her fur.

The rest of the ride passed in silence.

*

The main hall of the estate filled with noise and colour as all the men and women who served the Yamato lord gathered to see the end of Yoshitsuki’s quest. K and the warrior stood on a raised dais next to the lord and her mother. In the faces of the lord’s retainers, disgust and astonishment fought with—and often lost to—hilarity.

Her mother was not so amused, though K doubted any knew it but her. She could see it in the slightest tilt of her high, fine-trimmed eyebrows, in the posture of her back.

You disobeyed, her mother said. How will you gain him with such hideous looks?

Patience, K signed back. I have found a more amusing way. She disliked the lie, but could hardly tell her mother the truth.

At length, the lord bade Yoshitsuki speak. The warrior told of his trials among those in the various states that paid tribute to Yamato’s court, of the ladies he had questioned and the answers—or rebuffs—he had received. K paid it little mind until the warrior paused and looked towards her, uneasy.

“Then,” he said, “on the path near Mount Ibuki this aged woman appeared before me with one final answer. It is hers I wish to give you, my Lady Yunaga, for I feel it is truest.”

He said nothing of the bargain. K had counselled him not to, on the ride back to the lord’s estate, and told him ghastly stories of what would befall if he broke his word or tried to be rid of her.

“And this answer?” her mother asked, eyes narrowed. “If it is incorrect, my lord husband will send you to the northern wastes.”

Yoshitsuki grimaced, but he did not hesitate. “I trust her word. Indeed, I have given her my hand in marriage.”

Perfect, K thought. She staggered forward, letting out a screech which quickly rose beyond the register of human hearing. Putting all her powers of illusion into a yellow-brown screen of smoke, she transformed one last time to her form of perfect youth and beauty.

The crowd, too dumbstruck to speak, stared as the smoke slowly revealed her. Yoshitsuki and the lord too gaped, looking for all the world like salmon in the jaws of a bear. Before her mother could act, K took two steps towards Yoshitsuki and half-collapsed against him, the very image of a Yamato maiden’s demure thankfulness.

“How I have longed to hear those words,” she said. “They have freed me and returned me to my self!”

“Bu– bu–” Yoshitsuki stammered. For all that he had suspected her motives, he surely could not have foreseen this.

“Ask me how,” K hissed under her breath.

“How?” he finally managed.

“The one you call Lady Yunaga,” she said. “She is a foul trickster, a fox bent on our deaths and destruction.”

I am sorry, mother.

“A fox?” the lord shouted. He turned from her mother to the audience to K and back again. “That cannot be! What madness does this girl speak, my lady?”

K’s mother’s face was pale, her lips drawn. You should not have done this, little kit. I will destroy you now. I must.

“I do not know, my lord,” she said aloud. “Perhaps it is she who is a fox. After all, she has just changed form.”

“Yes,” the lord said, collapsing onto his cushion. “Yes, of course. Yoshitsuki, be rid of her at once.”

Yoshitsuki looked down at her, his eyes reluctant. The sharpness of his face was smoothed here in the hall. It took on a pleasing affect that sent a subtle thrill through K’s chest.

“The fox’s magic formed me as you saw,” K said, “and forced me to act as I did. Only through the trust and care of this brave warrior have I been returned to my natural body and mind.”

The audience murmured. K could tell they were halfway hers—her mother’s erratic behaviour and dangerous games had seen to that.

“She is lying,” her mother hissed. Her eyes were narrowed, her cheeks flushed.

“No fox can withstand the touch of iron,” K continued, as if her mother had not spoken. “If she is pierced by iron and does not transform, I will gladly submit to the test myself.”

A great bustle went up from the crowd, and one of the handmaidens produced an iron needle. K’s mother sat tight-faced next to the lord, and for a moment K thought she would submit, that it was over, that she had won. But as the handmaiden approached, the lord raised his hand.

“No,” he said. “I will not have my lady suffer this indignity. The fox-girl surely lies. Prick her with the needle. I command it.”

K turned to Yoshitsuki, but he stepped away from her and would not meet her gaze.

“My lord,” he said, his voice as cold as mountain. “Let me wield the needle. I fear you are right: this fox has bewitched me. Here, in front of so many, she has lost her hold, and I would prove my loyalty.”

“It is well,” the lord replied.

K closed her eyes as the warrior took the iron in his hand. Her mother had been right after all.

A single tear trickled down the slope of her cheek. She wondered at its coolness—foxes could not cry—and remembered the spirits’ barrage. Had she, as well, been too long amongst the Yamato?  Perhaps her mother was in the right, and she had sabotaged it.

The brush of Yoshitsuki’s skin as he placed his hand on her arm brought her back to herself. As he turned her palm up, K resigned herself to the bite of the needle. At least as a fox, she could die in her own skin, her own mind.

She waited, but the prick of iron did not come; all she felt was the warmth of Yoshitsuki’s hand, and the tiniest drop of liquid on her finger. He had pricked himself instead of her.

“She bleeds, my lord,” Yoshitsuki said. “She is human.”

K’s mother did not wait for Yoshitsuki to approach her with the needle, or for K to press her case. As the warrior stepped towards her, she hissed with anger, her tongue pulling her lips out into a vulpine snout, and then shifted the rest of her body from human to fox, hiding nothing.

Even K cringed at the sight of it. Her mother’s flesh mottled, then dripped away to reveal patches of wiry red fur slick with blood. Her eyes popped from their sockets, then shrivelled to small black beads, malevolent and darting as they pulled back inside her skull.

The scream was the worst. It lingered in the air of the hall long after her mother, red fur flashing against the beige woods and dark brown lacquers of the hall, ducked through the legs of the watching crowd and vanished in the direction of the outer wall.

The lord let out a wail, as though he had been stabbed clean through, and collapsed on the floor of the dais. Yoshitsuki and the rest of the men stood still as mice in the presence of a cat until the transformation was complete, and then leapt to action all in a riotous instant, grabbing their arrows and their bamboo-fronted bows and running for their horses.

Hours passed, and the servants and handmaids returned to their work. The lord, insensate with grief, retreated to his quarters. K and the women remained in the hall. The women clustered around her, mouthing platitudes which only made K feel closed in, and more of a deceiver than her mother. Her skin itched. She longed to cast it off, to show the Yamato her true form, as well, and then escape to the forest and leave them to their own devices.

The guards at the gate, pricked to attentiveness by guilty consciences, might kill her, but at least that would be clean.

What could be said of her mother’s way?  Of that staggering stride into madness and abhorrence?  She shuddered, remembering the harsh flatness in the eyes of the fox the spirits had shown her.

Somewhere at the edge of hearing, rain began to patter on the early spring foliage, carrying fox-sign:  If you think these men will cease with my flight, you are wrong. They thirst for conquest, and I will lead them to the wilderness, to gentler tribes of man. I will use them as a hammer on the forge of your dreams.

And if I ever meet you on the forest trails, little kit . . .

*

K was still thinking how best to reveal herself when Yoshitsuki returned to the hall the next day, followed by the lord’s other men. They cast off their armour and bows, the clatter drowned out by their boisterous grumbling. Yoshitsuki’s eyes were lit with anger as he recounted tracking the fox to Mount Ibuki before losing it as it fled to the North.

K quaked to hear him speak. With relief? With fear? She did not know. If the spirits had shown her true visions, perhaps she should prefer her mother dead.

On the dais, the blubbering form of the Yamato lord asked all who would listen for advice and guidance. No wonder, K thought, her mother had so easily controlled him.

As she heard the men discuss iron traps, K knew what she must do. No matter how much she wished it, flight was no option; left to their own, these Yamato would be more dangerous than ever. Her mother had seen to that.

She would have to remain, to guide them herself as best she could. She would stay the path to madness as long as she could, foster in the Yamato an impulse to kindness and introspection. She would meet and cancel out her mother’s push for blood and conquest, teach them to appreciate the stillness of the forest, the calm beauty to be found in a field of wind-swayed grass.

K stepped forward and, as she did so, caught Yoshitsuki’s eye. A half-smile, incongruous amidst the men’s martial fervour, crossed his face, and she felt one cross her own in return.

He knew, she thought, or at least suspected, and yet he did not act. Nowhere in the visions of the spirits had she encountered this. Always, the human and the animal had been in conflict with one another. Perhaps, she thought, that would make a difference.

The other men quieted as Yoshitsuki strode through them towards her, and K felt her heartstrings fill with light. There was no perhaps. It would work—they could make it, at least for a while.

She did not need fox-sign to be sure of that.

© Copyright 2020 Stewart C Baker

Author’s Note

“At the Edge of a Human Path” is set in something like mid-Yamato period Japan (around 500 AD), although to be honest it’s closer to what people in early modern Japan thought the Yamato period was like than historically accurate.

I’ve studied the Japanese language, as well as Japanese history and culture, for close to twenty years now, and fox spirits have always had a special place in my heart—especially the ones who take on human form and play pranks on people. One memorable example which is very different from my story is Ishikawa Jun’s 1956 short novel, Asters, where the governor of a province becomes enmeshed with a girl who’s the embodiment of a fox he shot with an arrow.  

Even though the setting and characters of “At the Edge of a Human Path” come from Japan, I feel like I should let you in on a secret: the plot is straight out of medieval Europe. Specifically, it’s my take on the Loathly Lady motif. In these tales, a knight is forced to marry a woman who magically transforms into both a beautiful young maiden and a hideous hag.

The most famous Loathly Lady story is Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale,written in the late 1300s as part of The Canterbury Tales. My personal favourite, though, is the anonymous early 15th century poem The Wedding of Sir Gawaine and Dame Ragnelle. This version of the story has a lot of over-the-top detail about Ragnelle’s ugliness, and Sir Gawain and King Arthur both act in a ridiculous manner throughout. At the beginning of the story, for example, the king and his purest knight spend a year questing, asking everyone they meet “Whate wemen desyred moste dere”—in other words, what exactly it is women want. 

If you’re interested in medieval English Arthurian parodies of knightly valour (and why wouldn’t you be?!) you can read Dame Ragnelle for free online in the TEAMS archive of medieval texts at https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hahn-sir-gawain-wedding-of-sir-gawain-and-dame-ragnelle-introduction.

What’s most interesting to me about both of these supernatural beings—the loathly lady and the fox-spirit in a woman’s form—is the way they present male anxieties about powerful women. In my own story, I hope it’s clear that I think women are at least as good as men at ruling, and that K’s mother’s destabilizing effect on the Yamato has nothing to do with her being a female fox-woman and everything to do with a lust for conquest and death that she’s learned from the human men she seeks to rule over.

Although witches and fox spirits are often viewed as monstrous, in other words, it’s usually us humans who are the real monsters.

As a final note, I would like to thank Charlotte Ashley and the judges of the 2017 Friends of the Merril contest (Alyx Dellamonica, Kelley Armstrong, and Indrapramit Das), who selected this story as that year’s contest winner. To learn more about the Merril Collection, a public access SFF collection in Ontario, Canada, check them out at https://friendsofmerril.org or on Twitter as @friendsofmerril.

Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer and poet, and the editor-in-chief of sub-Q Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and currently resides in Oregon with his family­­—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet, where you can find him at https://infomancy.net.

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