Never the Sky

I wrote a serial toot fiction for mastodon written in 1 toot a day for every day of October (or that was the plan, anyway!) It was a labour of love, so I wanted to share it here before it disappears into the archives of social media. I hope you like it.

1

I stepped out of the door and into heavy rain. Crushed leaves slushed the streets and the grass was still brittle with the memory of summer.

My boots skidded and slipped on the doorstep. I caught myself and examined the floor.

The culprit was a small blue card, bright against the cement. I picked it up, expecting a business card, but the material was thick and oily.

It read: ‘All water is your water.’

I sighed and binned it. I had no time for junk mail or conspiracies.

2

Eric frowned at me as I let myself into the café. He looked melted with misery, flopped on the counter.

‘Good morning to you, too.’ I smiled as I went in.

‘It’s really over.’ He sighed glumly. ‘No more sunshine. Now it’s rain and mud and cold –‘

‘– And knitwear and soup and hot chocolate.’ I smiled, shrugging off a coat dense and squelchy with rain.

I went to wash my hands before work, but as I turned on the water, the basin filled. Something was clogging the drain.

3

Blue unfolded from the drain like a flower in bloom.

‘All water is your water.’

Irritation stung; I clung to it, using it to cover the deeper sense of unease that threatened to rise up. I peeled the card from the drain, again noting the strangely slick, almost viscous material, and marched back into to the café.

‘You can’t just flush junk down the drain!’

Eric turned his doleful gaze to me. ‘Sorry — what did I do now?’ His gaze moved to the card; his eyebrows pinched.

4

‘Clara … where did you get that?’ Eric’s fingers twitched toward the card, his expression incredulous.

‘The sink!’ I tried to hold on to my annoyance, but his reaction was so unexpected that my unease threatened to overwhelm it.

‘It’s just — don’t get weird on me, or anything, but I got one too.’

My relief quickly soured as he pulled a scarlet card from his pocket. Its colour shimmered and danced like it was made of flame.

‘You wouldn’t believe where I found it.’

5

‘Reborn in fire,’ I read aloud from his card. ‘Is it some kind of cult?’ Normally, I would think nothing of it, but I couldn’t shake the image of the card swirling up from the drain.

‘Not unless they can somehow hide business cards in candles,’ he replied. ‘Which is where I found mine.’ His mouth slid to one side. ‘I googled it, but found nothing. I don’t know anyone else who got one.’

I rubbed the slick blue card between my fingers. ‘What do you think it’s about?’

6

‘I don’t know. It … kind of shook me, you know? When I got it. I’ll check after work.’

‘Me too.’

But neither the internet nor the helpful people at the library yielded me anything.

That night, I stood at the bathroom sink in my small flat, watching the water swirl down the drain. The card sat on the side.

‘All water is my water,’ I murmured. When nothing else came up the drain, I plugged it and dipped my hands in to wash my face, still thinking on the strange phrase.

7

The water in the sink flooded upward though the tap had long since stopped. As it grew, it darkened, over-spilling the sink and pouring onto the tiled floor.

I backed up against the wall, chest tight and breath short. I should run. Get help, get safety from whatever these cards had started.

But the water lapping at my feet was bracingly cold, and a part of me had always yearned for magic.

As I thought it, the water rushed up to engulf me whole. I floated in icy black.

8

I drifted above a black abyss. I wanted to breathe but the water pressed on me, a reminder that to open my mouth was to drown.

I tried to orient myself in the weightless dark. It barely occurred to me how suddenly I had been displaced from my home; my only thought was of the sweetness of indrawn air.

A glimmer of light, distant and rippling. I reached up toward it, kicking my legs. My hair came loose from its tail and swirled around me, growing and engulfing me. Hardening.

9

Flowing hair became reaching tentacles, and my body was consumed by a cavernous maw with rows and rows of teeth. But it wasn’t like being eaten; I felt like a flower in bloom. These tentacles were MY tentacles. This great bulbous head was MY head.

These waters were MY waters.

Now, I propelled myself upwards with one great kick of my many legs, to the warm sun-soaked waters that touched the sky.

I realised that I could breach anywhere with a water vast enough to hold me.

10

I could see each of those waters. See ships cutting through ocean waves. See children paddling in lakes.

I knew, in a surge of black instinct, that I could reach up wrap that ship in my tentacles like a spider’s cocoon and crush it in my grasp. I could loop the fine end of one arm around a swimmer’s ankle and drag them into the deep.

There was a cavernous hunger inside me.

But that wasn’t really me, was it? I drifted upwards, tentacles shrinking and unravelling around me.

11

I closed my eyes against the dazzling light of sun on water.

When I opened them, I was standing in my bathroom. The flood waters that had risen in it before were gone. The floor was bone dry, except where my sodden pyjamas and hair dripped onto the tiles.

I looked at my hands, still remembering the feel of many arms, the fluid grace of that monstrous form.

It had felt more real than this body ever had.

I got my phone and called Eric, the first time I’d used that number.

12

My chest was tight with adrenaline, my hand trembled on the phone.

He picked up on the first ring.

‘Eric? Eric, the cards — they’re real.’ My voice shook, but not with fear. ‘You won’t believe what just happened.’

‘I might.’ He sounded strained. Sirens wailed in the background and I could hear shouting and a constant, sucking roar.

‘Eric?’

‘I think … I think I’ve done something bad.’

I got his address and set out to meet him, my euphoria twisting into anxiety.

13

The road was blocked on the way to his house. I got out, planning to walk, but police warded me off with outstretched hands. ‘You’ll have to stay back.’

I leaned around the officer. Smoke made a great black column in the sky. ‘What happened?’

‘A fire. No entry.’ She ushered me back.

I felt something curdle in my chest. Was Eric somehow at the heart of this?

I remembered his card: ‘Reborn in fire’.

I remembered mine, and my gaze dropped to the rain puddle at my feet.

14

I could feel the water there, sense the deception of its shallow appearance. There were rivers and lakes and oceans in this puddle, only a touch away.

I could find him with this.

A cry from down the road, a familiar voice with an unfamiliar desperation. ‘That’s my friend! Please — I need to speak to her.’

There was Eric, wrapped in a foil blanket, soot smeared across his face and coating his hair.

The officers had a brief conference, and I was let through.

15

‘Clara.’ Eric leaned on a garden wall, pinching the foil blanket at his chest. He’d been my co-worker for two years now, but I’d never seen him like this: shrink-shouldered with darting eyes.

‘How … just how?’ My voice shook. Because I knew the answer would not be simple. Because I knew that MY life was no longer simple, and neither was his.

‘I lit a candle. The fire … spread. Lit up the entire house. Lit up me.’ He finally met my eyes. ‘Clara … I think I died.’

16

I struggled to accept what Eric was saying. He was right in front of me, covered in soot and smoke, but wholly unharmed.

‘Somehow, I don’t think you mean they resuscitated you.’

‘No.’ He took a ragged breath. ‘It was like I became something else. Something new. I had wings. I flew up, and where my wings brushed, the fire only spread. But I felt –‘

‘Free,’ I finished for him.

He nodded.

‘Come on. Let’s get out of here. Somewhere we can really talk.’

17

Later, far from the city lights, where the stars were mirrored on the surface of a glassy lake and barren hills stretched all around us, we got out and sat on the hood of my car.

‘A phoenix,’ I said, looking up from my phone. ‘That’s … that’s you.’

‘And you’re a kraken.’ He turned a picture of an enormous black octopus-like creature toward me. A ship was being crushed in its grip.

We both got the cards out of our pockets.

‘So.’ I tilted my head to the sky. ‘Why us?’

18

Eric looked sidelong at me. ‘What do you mean, “why us?”‘

I brushed my fingers across the hood of the car, where moisture had gathered into a huddle of cool drops. ‘I mean we don’t know why we were chosen. Nobody else has got these cards or had these experiences. There’s not a reddit for people who are can transform into unicorns or dragons.’

‘You think we’re — what? “Chosen Ones”? Special?’

‘I don’t know what we are,’ I say. ‘And that worries me. It doesn’t worry you?’

19

‘Maybe it would worry me more if I couldn’t turn into a giant bird made of fire,’ said Eric. ‘No — don’t look at me like that. You know what I mean. Everything used to be so mundane, you know? So … nothing. I mean, we’ve worked together for a couple years now and I don’t think I’ve ever had a real conversation with you. Now we have this huge secret. These powers. This other life.’

‘I’m not complaining about that,’ I said. ‘But … you DIED, Eric.’

20

‘I can live with that,’ he said, and his smile was quick and crooked and entirely new to me, not the tired, cursory baring of teeth I had come to know.

‘Watch this,’ he said. ‘And stand back.’ He hopped down from the hood and took several long strides away before turning to face me. He pulled a lighter from his pocket.

It sparked, and for a moment he cradled a tiny flame between his hands. Its shadows played strangely over his face. He looked sharper, wilder. Someone new.

21

When the fire spread, I expected it to be beautiful, but it was harrowing.

The fire was hungry and all-consuming, spreading over him and burning until he was a man entirely aflame. But he stood calmly, as if it didn’t hurt.

He spread his arms, and the flames spread with them, and then he was in the air. No longer a man, but a bird whose wings stretched the length of her car and whose flames cast the night red.

Two great beats of his wings sent him soaring to the lake.

22

He tread air over the lake, fire purring. Beneath him the water was red and shifting as the heart of a volcano.

This was an invitation, and one I couldn’t miss. I walked to the edge of the lake, now transformed by the startling creature above it.

But I knew, I KNEW, that beneath it all the water was just as black. Just as cold.

I waded in, fully clothed, until the water was up to my knees, my waist, my eyes.

And then I was in the deep, and I became so much MORE.

23

I stretched my many arms, testing the surface with the curl of a tentacle-tip, eyeing the creature suspended above the lake like a small sun.

I couldn’t speak to him any more, but I still recognised him. Somehow this firebird was still the shape of Eric, even if it was a shape I’d never seen before.

I beckoned with a tentacle, and he dropped in the air. When one of his flaming claws brushed the water’s surface, he darted up into the air, steam hissing all around him.

24

He tried again to touch the water, only to recoil with a screech of pain.

I could feel the endless depths calling to me. I had only to fold myself into the great connected waters to surface anywhere in the world. To play among the watery shadows; to feed the ancient hunger inside me.

But the human part of me continued to fixate on the flaming creature above me. He was the only person in the world who could understand this. I wanted, desperately, to show him my new world.

25

Later, I unspooled from my tentacles and emerged dripping from the lake, and Eric touched down beside me, the earth scorched from the memory of his phoenix form.

‘So we can’t really share this,’ I said. I felt somehow more isolated than if I alone had received the mysterious card.

‘I guess not.’

I nodded and looked away.

‘Clara?’

It took some effort to meet his eyes. He looked sad and earnest and hopeful, a mix close to pain.

26

Hesitantly, he offered me his hand. ‘We can still share this,’ he said, gesturing between us. His voice was thick, as if the words were too large for his throat.

I took his hand in mine. It felt strangely hot, even as a human. He flinched a little from my touch: did it carry the ice of the kraken, I wondered?

But it was bearable and … kind of wonderful.

We had spent so much time together over these years, yet I don’t think we’d ever known each other.

Maybe it was time.

27

We grew closer over the next month, our shared secret drawing us together but our conversations binding us.

I learned about his family, and his art, and the way his dreams had become a melancholy weight on him. I told him about my aimlessness and sense of displacement, how I felt like a piece crammed into the wrong puzzle.

Every week, we went to the lake to practice our other selves. It was what had drawn us together, but it was also a barrier keeping us apart.

28

The water felt like a release. To be a kraken was freedom and power.

Each time I transformed, it was a little harder to change back. The tentacles felt more like my limbs than my arms ever had. The deeps felt more like home.

I knew that Eric was similarly torn. But we kept returning to our human shapes, to talk, to connect. To lean on each other’s shoulders and to sit with fingertips brushing. For those breathless human moments that stretched as eternal as sea or sky.

29

At the end of the month, I found another card floating on the surface of a puddle.

ALL WATER IS YOURS, BUT NEVER THE SKY.

YOUR NEXT TRANSFORMATION WILL BE YOUR LAST.

I showed it to Eric, who mutely handed me his: REBORN IN FIRE BUT NEVER AGAIN.

‘So this is it?’ I said, my voice tight. ‘All along, they were going to make us choose?’ I could feel the truth of it, had been feeling it for days. It was getting harder.

Eric stared hard at his card.

30

‘Eric?’

‘What will you choose?’ he asked me.

I hesitated. ‘I … I don’t know.’

But I did. There was a reason it was easy to sink but hard to surface. At times, the water was my only solace.

I’d thought it was the same as Eric, but all water was my water, and I could see the ocean depths behind his eyes. Then his expression shuttered.

‘The phoenix,’ he said, his voice full of forced cheer. ‘It’s magic, right? We shouldn’t give up magic.’

‘Eric –‘

He strode away.

31

When next my kraken shape unfurled, the human part of me grew smaller. And smaller. Until it was like a childhood memory, all light and colour and hazy emotion. A picture of a different time and a different me.

I enveloped the deep, chasing ships across time and space, exploring the black places no human eye had ever seen. I had become too much the kraken to regret.

But at times, I would see flames above the surface and I would remember:

Always the water. Never the sky.

BONUS:

You slip on your doorstep and find a strange card in shimmering colours beneath your feet, calling you to a life and shape far different than you have ever known.

Will you choose it?

 

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