From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

Arenous

It starts with the patch of skin behind her right ear, where her too-large turquoise glasses frame sits awkwardly, an unbalanced seesaw upon her nose. While finishing a requisition report, she scratches there unconsciously, and her nails catch on something hard and thin, coming back with a flimsy yellow patch the size of her nail, translucent and slightly elastic.

Huh. Her first thought is the favorite sandbox of her childhood. Or perhaps spun sugar, like the swans she saw on a cooking show last week. She sweeps once more and a few more particles come off, crude flimsies nothing like those television-beautiful candy arabesques. And then the phone rings, and she returns to the world of scheduling meetings.

The sand doesn’t make itself known again until she is making dinner in the kitchen and looks up to see one of her two housemates appear in the space between the counters. She stops humming the pesky bubblegum pop song that’s been stuck in her head all day. Lydia, she thinks. Lydia is the one with the button nose.

“It’s braised eggplant,” she offers a smile until she notices the awkward expression on Lydia’s face and drops her spatula back in the pot a little too loudly. Not here to praise her cooking, then.

“Um,” her housemate shifts her weight from one foot to the other and twirls a lock of her hair. “Did you leave your hairbrush on the sink? The purple handle one?”

“Oh. Yeah, I’m sorry. I’ll put it away.” Seriously? It was seven in the freaking morning and it’s a freaking hairbrush.

“Sorry for making it a big deal. Thanks!”

A toss of brown hair and she’s left staring at the mush in front of her, with the insane notion that she just hallucinated an awkward encounter with a patch of air. She hefts her stew onto an unoccupied burner and marches into the bathroom. What did Lydia really mean? Had she done something wrong already? She’s only had a week to learn the intra-domiciliary politics and has no idea what this is code for. Not until she sees her hairbrush sitting there at the sink, covered by some kind of foreign substance that resembles sawdust.

She picks it up and the world sway a little. In front of her is the center of a mutant sunflower, pale yellow pollen radiating in a hypnotizing pattern, that feeling of vertigo when you squint at far too much detail and it threatens to pull you in indefinitely.

She rakes a shaking hand through her hair and comes away with a palmful of sand.

• • • •

“You’re here for a…skin problem?” The doctor flips his chart.

She picks a clod—a corn kernel chunk—off her head and shows it to him.

“Bad dandruff. You should use a shampoo,” he drawls.

She transfers the clod to her other hand and reaches behind her right ear to peel off a large yellow flake, thick and pliable like a tasteful business card.

He does not take it from her. “Seborrhea. A common condition in skin folds.”

“On the internet, it says—”

“The internet has lots of misinformation. There’s nothing to be concerned about.”

“Would getting contacts help?” The glasses, that’s what started it all.

“You’ll have to talk to your ophthalmologist about that.”

She tries one last time. “I’m shedding all over my room. I just moved here from Arizona. Do you think there’s any—”

“Get a vacuum. Is there anything else?”

“No,” she sighs.

The doctor’s eyes narrow, probably trying to decide what kind of idiot would wait two hours in a coffin of a waiting room because of flaky skin. She feels her insides clench and shift, a jagged puzzle trying to fit impossible pieces together. Maybe he should be happy that she has no gushing wounds, no deadly mystery diseases, so he can pocket the visit fee and move on to whatever non-issue he has to see next.

She doesn’t realize she’s run her hand through her hair again until she feels the coat of dust on her fingers as she fumbles for her subway card. She’s just endlessly dirty now, like grimy mushrooms from the grocery store that she can never fully clean.

Only when she’s home does she realize a piece of her, the one the doctor called s-something, is still tucked neatly in the creases of her left hand.

• • • •

“Look, look.” She runs her nails across the packed silt of her back and presses crescents of yellow into the cocktail napkin, one below the other like a perverse collection of fossilized larvae.

“Wow. Bodies are weird, man.” Rich continues sipping his margarita, as if she’d just showed him a new mole.

“Sure, but making sand weird? It’s like my scalp spread to the rest of my body.” A week after the disastrous doctor visit and she is already a seasoned field researcher on the morphology of her evolving landscape of soils. The clay on her scalp, the salt shaker whitehead sites on her nose, the gritty chalk clinging to the soft inner surface of her thighs, the moist, non-Newtonian bouncy putty from her armpits.

“Have you ever seen My Crazy Body? Some real freaks out there, like the guy with the cauliflower pe—”

“Ew, no thanks.”

“Just get a dandruff shampoo and use it everywhere.”

She resists the urge to upend her drink on his head. “You don’t think I’ve tried that already?”

He pats her on the shoulder and she can feel a sheet sloughing off. “Don’t worry so much, Sarah. It’ll get better.”

• • • •

You haven’t had a period in two months, her phone chirps one morning. Did you miss reporting one?

She rolls over and wipes trails of grit from her eyes. Every night she walks around her dream apartment and taps each appliance, like duck-duck-goose-sand, finally sitting down on her couch and collapsing it into a sea of yellow. She runs down the sidewalk, arms stretched to fingertips to transmute every tree and pedestrian into dust, cackling helplessly. This dream has sound effects, too: a whoosh for each explosion of yellow, like the pounding of the surf, in time with her pulse.

“Whoa, what happened?”

She blinks to clear fine-grained pinpricks of light from her field of vision. She’s in the office lounge, somehow, standing next to a mound of dust all around her mug.

“Nothing!” She looks for an excuse and sees white packets right next to the coffee machine. “I spilled salt. So clumsy, heh.”

Another question handled. Not enough that she’s freaked out about herself, she has to pretend everything is fine, too. In her waking days she leaves a trail on every surface: door handles, reports, computer keys. She wears a full-body sheer nylon stocking, from the feet up to her neck, under her clothes and does not take it off. She no longer sweats or smells, so there is no need to shower and unclog the drain afterwards. And she hasn’t shit or pissed in at least a week, but she still drinks water as a force of habit: she’s not sure where it goes, but it makes her feel a little more substantial. Three days ago she stopped feeling hunger entirely after seeing her other housemate—name escapes her—eat sesame halva in the living room. She can’t even think about it, the smooth-sandy texture, the flashes of greedy teeth gaps lined with beige grout, the way it splinters then crumbles just like—

She picks up a salt packet and carefully saws a small hole on the side with a plastic knife, pinching the opening to make a spout for every grain to flow into the water in one seamless white flurry.

It tastes like the sea. Achingly, inexplicably familiar. Delicious.

• • • •

“This report”—papers wave in the air—“makes no sense at all. What have you been doing, Sarah?”

Why does she even work? Work is for pounding her fingers to dust atop square pyramids. No, it is for money and food and roof, but she doesn’t need any of that now. Sand just sits on mountains of itself, content to exist. Sand is for her and her alone.

She stands and walks out the door while laughing inside at her new freedom. Flurries of non-sand people push around her, all in great hurry. She was like this once, too, but it’s better now.

“Sarah? Sarah! Do you remember me? Shoshanna, from Holly Hall?”

She does not. She cringes as she is being hugged from the side on the street and hugs back as lightly as possible. As she is released, she sees a fine dusting on Shoshanna’s face and neck, as if pollinated by a monstrous bee.

Shoshanna’s forehead shifts and reforms. “Oh my god, you look amazing! What’s your secret?”

I’m turning into sand.

“I’ve been trying this new diet.” She feels the shape of each word churning around her cavern of a mouth. When’s the last time she even tried to talk? The people around her are almost always content with her silence. Shoshanna peppers her with more questions, seemingly satisfied with perfunctory nods, then disappears into the milling crowd.

There is a ghost of something like relief. For a while she continues to be a lone boulder fording the streams of people going to and fro, until someone bashes her with their briefcase, gashing her side deep like the moat for a sandcastle, and continues without even noticing. She puts two fingers in the wound, half expecting water to froth out and round her shapes into something gentler, but nothing comes out. It gives her an idea.

• • • •

“You need to see a doctor.”

At the sound of those last two hard syllables, her body involuntarily stiffens inside the loving embrace of an invisible boa constrictor. Her knee whaps the table and dust showers down her feet. Is it dust when it’s yourself? Can you shower in yourself?

“I’m fine.”

The person across from her—her mother, that’s right—narrows her eyes, a familiar pattern in her memory, now a collection of longstanding truths like the striated rocks that hold millions of years of history in their bands. Human-scale instances no longer register: she does not know why her mother is in front of her, only that she usually isn’t.

“You talk so slowly, Sarah. And you look different. Almost…blurry. Did you do something to your face?”

She had. That day after she lost her job and a chunk of her, she decided to scratch off the mole on her cheek. One, two digs and it vanished in the mirror, replaced by an obvious groove. She packed some of the sand back in, smoothing the contour, just like something else she used to put on her face but doesn’t any more.

That night she waited until her housemates left for a party to line the bathtub with a large plastic tarp. Gingerly she peeled the stocking from her body with eyes closed, studiously ignoring the very long fffff of a large sack being emptied of sand. She picked up the hand mirror and fruit peeler she placed on the sink and shaped herself into what she always wanted to look like, instructions tucked inside her from long-ago nights poring over glossy pictures of her favorite celebrities. Nose a little thinner, tummy tucked in, armpit sculpted like a Grecian hero. It didn’t hurt at all, only the sensation of pressure and then freeing lightness, what she imagines an apple would feel being skinned.

When she finished, she turned the peeler in her hand and smoothed all of her new edges with the curved handle, the other end cutting deeper into her palm with each stroke. Blending is important, as her mother always said.

Her mother. The person in front of her with the narrowed eyes. The person who birthed her, but isn’t turning into sand. Dully, she ponders why this is happening to her.

“You didn’t need to change yourself. I know surgery’s all the rage these days, but you looked just fine, Sarah.”

Maybe I’m a golem. Was I always a golem?

The why isn’t important, really. There’s something else that clings to her like water beading around fine sand. “Did we ever go to the beach?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“I want to know,” she pushes each sound out clearly, “if we’ve ever been to the beach. I want to go back.”

“Sarah, please. You’re not making any sense. Do you want me to take you to the hospital?”

Another truth in her record is that they have always been like this, impossibly out of sync like the sun and moon. She shakes her head, heedless of the rain.

“I’m so worried. How can you not be?”

Worry? She has long ceased feeling that. Why would sand be worried?

She leaves, ignoring the voice behind her rising and rising like the tides. At night she goes back to the tarp. She dips two fingers in water and runs a trail from eye to chin. She rakes a long line from the tip of her left middle finger down to the end of the elbow and draws a swirl at the end, like a garden she saw once that was patient sepia instead of green.

She likes the swirl. She makes them on her cheek, big and small, across the plains of her neck, around her breasts, up and down her legs. It isn’t enough.

She pushes the peeler through what used to be her belly button, slowly and deliberately until it comes out the other side, then rotates the sharp side of the peeler to widen the pit of her cavity, a vulture at her own funeral. Didn’t she used to have a heart? Lungs? Coils and coils of tubes where food goes, isn’t that what she learned in school? She digs and digs, looking for something, anything, buried pieces of her old self, broken shells, small crabs, but all she finds is homogenous beige, packed tight.

Then a crack appears on her left side, snaking all the way to the edge. A tremendous nothingness overtakes her until she feels the peeler sink into her hand and looks down to the gaping hole in her middle. She stops at the precipice, particles trembling down her sides. With great effort she swings her legs out of the tub, holding them over the edge then step by step into her bed, both puppeteer and puppet. She stares at the random pattern of dots on the ceiling. Surely she doesn’t have much left to go.

• • • •

It’s not surprising when her eyes fail to work, but it’s terrifying nonetheless. She reaches for something at her bedside out of instinct and hears a clatter. That’s it, then. Slowly she folds her arm back on her chest and waits until she forgets even fear, and just is.

She knows someone has found her when she feels the scant sensation of an arm separating. She tries to make a sound with her mouth over and over, not knowing whether it has been heard.

• • • •

There is a new feeling of coming and going. She lets it wash her in rhythmic pulses until it is categorized: the rush of water, flowing over her and then back out again. Sea. Yes. Sea.

She has the tiniest mote inside her of the last time she was at the beach. She would have been young, with her parents. Sandcastles and buckets. Sea spray. Maybe roar and fervor of the waves, but she doesn’t know what sounds are any more.

She doesn’t have to wait long. The next wave pulls off her feet and legs, then her chest, and then she feels nothing at all.

Hal Y. Zhang

Hal Y. Zhang

Hal Y. Zhang is a lapsed physicist who splits her time between the east coast of the United States and the Internet, where she writes at halyzhang.com. Her speculative poetry and prose is in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Fireside. Aqueduct Press published her women-with-sharp-things collection, Goddess Bandit of the Thousand Arms.