Norm pays tribute and bids farewell to the greatest unsung hero of the podcast for the past two years: editor Sandra Odell. This fantastic story and many others have been brought to your ears through her hard work!
Our story is another original Drabblecast commissioned story for Women & Aliens month, this week by Darcie Little Badger. Solitude is often a time to help reflect on ourselves, and realize just how wonderfully connected we are to the universe around us. But how do we cope with such inevitably connectivity? What are our responsibilities to those fastened to us or colliding with our destinies us? Grab your kayak, hit the beach and find out…
“The prima donna sun has not yet risen to outshine every other star in the Milky Way. Overhead, a flash of light arcs between Orion and Taurus, the hunter firing at the bull. With a grunt, Mathilda lowers her kayak and admires the streak of light across the sky, thinking of her childhood in Los Angeles. There, shooting stars—most stars, really, except for the terrazzo and brass ones on the Hollywood walk of fame —were rare and wondrous. Things are different now. Mathilda still considers the stars to be wondrous…”
UNLIKE MOST TIDES
by Darcie Little Badger
The prima donna sun has not yet risen to outshine every other star in the Milky Way. Overhead, a flash of light arcs between Orion and Taurus, the hunter firing at the bull. With a grunt, Mathilda lowers her kayak and admires the streak of light across the sky, thinking of her childhood in Los Angeles. There, shooting stars—most stars, really, except for the terrazzo and brass ones on the Hollywood walk of fame—were rare and wondrous. Things are different now. Mathilda still considers the stars to be wondrous. But rare? Not a chance. Living in solitude against the edge of the land, if she ever feels like stargazing, she just has to glance up on a clear night.
Mathilda notices another shooting star, this one low, as if surfing the horizon. Two or more in one night is typical, but two in one minute? Must be a meteor shower. It’s vaguely unsettling. Sure, she can fill several encyclopedias by listing more likely deaths than “flattened by a space rock”, but her cove is well protected from earthly dangers, and she respects the ocean well enough to avoid its violent moods.
Plus, the dinosaurs.
A wave brushes her boots. Mathilda lowers her kayak on the hard, damp sand and settles into the boat. With a few firm scoots, she is in the water and then paddling past the surf, thinking about the falling stars, calculating the likelihood of an unlikely demise. Wondering how quickly it would take for anybody to notice that she’s missing. Days, maybe. Weeks. Depends on the mailman, really.
Maybe she should adopt another dog, one who enjoys swimming and can pull a Lassie if she runs into trouble. It has been three years since Bucky, gray with age from his muzzle to his eyes, passed away in his sleep at the foot of her bed. A good death, but Lord, she misses that fuss bucket of a German shepherd. Bucky was a barker. He barked when the mailman knocked on her door, when a mailman on TV knocked on a door, when anyone looked at him, and when gnats farted. He was a perfect dog for her peace of mind, and the silence of his absence reminds her of the sky above Los Angeles. Both hide so much.
With callused hands and practiced strokes, Mathilda paddles out of the cove. At the cusp of sunrise, she drops weight near a twelve-foot high sea stack, her favorite fishing spot. In no time, she has a fishing line in the water and pours a mug of coffee from her steel thermos. She’ll catch dinner, if she’s lucky. Until then, she settles back to enjoy the sunrise.
Sunlight may hide the stars yet reveals many closer details, including a darkness in the water around the kayak that Mathilda at first mistakes for the shadow of the sea stack. No, the bruise-like patch extends towards the east. She swallows the last bit of her coffee and leans as far as she dares over one side for a better look at the black-gray discoloration. The stuff is too diffuse and uniformly gray-blue to be oil. Has a shoal of squid inked everywhere? No way. She’d absolutely notice a thousand panicked squid.
She must have paddled straight into a red tide. The algae that bloom off her cove are toxic; they kill fish and make seafood unpalatable. Had the bloom been there when she caught and ate the snapper Wednesday? Parasites can be nuked with heat, but toxins are often much more resilient. She felt fine, but any catch today might be contaminated. So much for fresh fish for dinner. “Damn.”
She starts pulling up the anchor line, foot by foot, her calluses resisting the burn of the rope.
A dog barks twice in warning.
Mathilda sits rigidly upright and lets the anchor line slip between her fingers. The water sloshes against her kayak, the morning otherwise silent. No, had to be a seal barking. Had to be.
There is movement in her peripheral vision. Mathilda spins the kayak with a single thrust of the paddle, squinting against the painful brightness of the low sun. A pale mound bobs in the distant water. A body? No. Yes. A dead body, bloodless in death. Mathilda paddles toward the shape with the urgency of a paramedic attempting to save a life. As if she can miraculously rescue the drowned person by reaching them before the current sweeps them into oblivion.
The frenzy of uniformed strangers disperses before suppertime. Alone with her own thoughts and the afternoon calm, Mathilda settles in with a bowl of leftover barley stew and a mug of tea. The gaggle of paramedics, police, and too many others to name are finally gone, but it’s no out-of-sight-out-of-mind situation. Their incessant questions play on mental repeat. She can’t focus on anything else. She’ll finish her stew and then –
She’d left it languishing on the beach, and if she doesn’t bring it up, it will belong to the ocean by flood tide. She balances a plate over her stew to keep the gnats out, shrugs into a windbreaker, and is out the door and rounding her stilt-elevated beach house. Its shade of yellow resembles buttercups when she’s in a glass-half-full mood. Today, it reminds her of piss.
She follows the footpath through the wild grasses and coastal weeds with thick, waxy leaves to the sun-bleached wooden staircase that plunges down the cliffside to the beach. With a hand on the rail, she descends the steep steps. Her kayak is near the landing. She stoops, reaching for the carrying handles, but an incoherent bubble of sound—like a voice half-heard through a wall—swells over the crashing waves. Mathilda straightens. Seeing nobody on the beach, she walks to stand on the crescent-shaped water line. The rising tide, wave by imperceptibly closer wave, is erasing evidence of footsteps and chaos from the sand. Mathilda is grateful for its work but worried that the red tide will be drawn into her cove and trapped. It’s closer now than it was in the morning. A swathe of water between the pillar-shaped sea stack and the land is inky gray.
It’s a shadow, a stain. What else does it carry? Mathilda rubs her face, uneasy, remembering what the body looked like. Bloodless white skin and red hair and golden bracelets tight as manacles around swollen wrists. Wearing jeans and a yellow t-shirt but barefoot: why barefoot? Were her shoes still hidden in the red tide, waiting to drift ashore? What about a purse? A smart phone? A scrunchie? Earrings and socks and a necklace? What else did the ocean take from the woman? Will Mathilda find red hair coiled inside her fish dinner or between grains of sand?
There’s a cliff down the coast, a favorite of college parties and midnight rendezvous. Often, casualties of the parties—empty beer bottles, plastic hot dog wrappers—wash onto her beach. Is that what happened to the woman? Is that where she came from? Did one drunken misstep send her to Mathilda’s cove?
“That’s not what happened.” The voice has a child’s pitch with an adult’s restraint and comes from everywhere.
Mathilda turns a full-circle. Nobody in sight. Not even a gull. “Where are you?”
Who is she talking to? There’s no one there.
The no one answers. “In water.”
“You are not.”
“It wasn’t an accident,” the child insists.
The air stings Mathilda’s nose and esophagus. It’s thick and sits too heavy in her mouth, bitter with metal and brine. She gags, drowning on land. Choking on air. Retching for breath, Mathilda drops to her knees and tries to cough up liquid that does not exist. Her vision blurs, colors fusing into a homogenous gray.
A different voice, a woman’s voice, says, “My ex-boyfriend killed me.”
In an instant, Mathilda can breathe again. She scrambles across the sand and up the wooden staircase. The child shouts, “It wasn’t real! Come back! I’ll explain! She wanted you to know …”
The farther Mathilda runs from the water, the softer the bodiless pleas become.
She falls through the atmosphere of a bright blue planet, her body cocooned by violet flames. The blazing star of her passage is extinguished by the cold abyss of an ocean. There, wisps of gray cells drift among and within creatures as delicate as blown glass. In the murk beneath her naked feet, tentacled arms dance in perfect synchronicity, puppets hopping to the same line.
She is connected to the multitudes within a vast network. The gray cells flow through her, becoming her as she becomes them. The cells carry her soul into the living ocean, neurons in a consciousness that spans galaxies and a billion minds.
Mathilda counts off her symptoms on her fingers. “So the shortness of breath, metallic taste, terrible dreams and voices yammering in my head are … symptoms of stress?”
“Yes,” her physician says. He has a soft voice and crinkles in the corners of his eyes that hint at genuine compassion when he smiles. “Go home, drink plenty of fluids, and rest. If that doesn’t fix you, we’ll re-assess.”
Mathilda asks, adjusting her disposable gown. It keeps slipping down her left shoulder; now, prompted by her impatient tug, it overcompensates and falls down the right. Mathilda looks longingly at her shirt and bra, which are piled on a black chair in the corner of the examination room. “Can I get blood tests now, though? I read online—”
The physician chuckles. “That’s your first mistake.”
“I read that the neurotoxins in red tides affect the human nervous system. My symptoms are the worst near the water. Is it really coincidental that I got sick after paddling into a red tide?”
“You mean on the day you found a poor girl’s corpse?” he asks.
Mathilda hesitates. “Well, yes.”
“Have you vomited at all?”
“Then it’s not plankton, Mathilda.”
She gives her gown another sharp tug. Scowls. “What is it? I’ve dealt with stress before—”
“Of course. Who hasn’t?”
“The point is, I’ve never fainted after having a conversation with nobody.”
The physician folds his hands in his lap and leans back; his office chair creaks, rocks, and bumps the exam room wall. “Have you found a body before? Or spent all day hosting the police?”
She rarely spends all day hosting anyone but does not admit that out loud. People make assumptions when they learn she lives alone. The kind of assumptions that cause a physician to double-down on his “hysteria” diagnosis. “No.”
“As I said. If the symptoms persist, we can reassess.”
Mathilda’s gown slips again. She grits her teeth, recovers her shoulder. “These don’t actually fit anybody, do they?”
The physician shrugs, smiles. “One size fits all.”
On the drive home, Mathilda turns to the radio as a distraction from the forty dollar copay to be told “drink plenty of fluids and to rest.”
The body of a woman was recovered from the ocean on Tuesday morning. We have no further information at th—
She spins the volume dial to zero, a familiar chill returning. The radio has no further information, but she does. Somehow, she does. “Andrea,” Mathilda says.
The woman’s name was Andrea. She had a deep voice and was killed by her ex-boyfriend. The truth settles in her bones.
She grips the steering wheel, trying to remember to breathe.
Waiting out the red tide is like having a staring contest with a shark. Every morning for a week she looks through the attic window with a pair of binoculars and checks the ocean. The gray discoloration orbits the sea stack, as if ensnared by the gravity of the limestone pillar. Its volume has barely decreased; at this rate, it will take months for the red tide to vanish.
The physician was right. Had to be. Toxic plankton cause fish kills, and there aren’t any dead fish washing onto the beach. But stress doesn’t explain the way she feels now. Jumpy, distracted. As if somebody is snapping their fingers next to her ear. Her sleep is deep and uninterrupted, yet her dreams linger vividly in the morning. Swimming through flooded canyons crusted with bioluminescent algae that glow blue, violet, and green. Floating through black pockets of water beneath miles of million-year-old ice, Tumbling down waterfalls that become rivers that become oceans that become waterfalls again. Twirling among chains of diaphanous dancers and through underwater cities built from the silicon bodies of alien ancestors.
Always, at the end of her dreams, Mathilda emerges from the water and steps onto her beach, where a woman, her face concealed behind a curtain of soggy red hair, sits in the abandoned kayak.
“How can I help?” Mathilda asks. “You’re dead.”
“Come closer,” Andrea says. “We can barely hear you. Come closer to the water.”
On the seventh morning of her self-imposed house arrest, Mathilda can’t take it anymore. She blinks, the shark wins.
Mathilda needs to confront the cove.
Bucky used to wear a bouquet of metal tags around his neck that jingled when he ran – rabies vac, name tag, microchip alert. When it became difficult for him to hold his water through the night, he stood beside Mathilda’s bed and shook his head until the jingling collar woke her. As if saying, “Get up! Let’s go!”
Mathilda hears that familiar jingling now. She hurries out of the house, taking the stairs more quickly than is strictly safe, her hand enticing splinters from the wooden railing that lodge painlessly in her calluses. At the bottom of the stairs, she stops on the loose, debris-littered piles of sand near the edge of the cliff. Her kayak sits a foot away, mostly undamaged by seven days of neglect. There’s a spatter of gull droppings on the hull and an inexplicable clump of crispy seaweed draped over one carrying handle.
A majestic black-backed gull perches on the tip of Mathilda’s kayak. It cocks its head first one way then the other. “Hey, you found my body last week.”
Mathilda grabs the kayak paddle in startled self defense. This can’t be happening, but it is. “Andrea? How the fuck are you a seagull?”
The bird caws, sounding suspiciously like a laugh.
“I’m not,” the gull says. “But you freaked out the last time I tried to communicate through the gray matter, so I recruited this bird as a stand-in.”
Mathilda straightens. “Actually, I freaked out because I started drowning on air.”
The gull lifts its wings, mimicking an embarrassed shrug. “My fault. I wanted you to witness my last moments, not feel everything. It’s a learning process.”
Having a conversation with a dead woman through a seagull can’t be happening either. But—again—it is. So Mathilda takes a rule from the kayaking rulebook and goes with the flow. “You did drown.”
The gull bobs its head. “Yeah. And if I hadn’t drowned in the gray matter, I’d be gone for good.”
Mathilda looks toward the stain. “What is it?” she asks. “And what are you now, Andrea? How are you talking to me now?”
This time, the answer comes from the air. It is everything and nothing at once. The child-pitched voice says, “We are …” A pause. “I struggle to explain.”
“I’m struggling to understand,” Mathilda says. “Let’s both do our best, okay?”
Softly, the child continues, “The gray matter is. . .not of your world. It is a medium somewhat like the yarn in your sweater, continuous and malleable. Just as your planet—with its own body—provides the building blocks for trillions of unique lifeforms, the gray matter carries multitudes.”
Mathilda holds her ground. She won’t blink. Not again. “That means my dreams about the oceans—they’re what? Yours?”
She feels a pang of claustrophobia, the near-panic desperation of a fish in a net.
“What do you want from me?”
The gull ruffles its feathers and says with Andrea’s voice, “One favor. Tell the police that my ex, Albren Cross, is the sonofabitch responsible for my death. You were half right. He shoved me off that cliff. He can’t get away with this. He gets away with everything.”
“Why didn’t you tell the police?” Mathilda asks. “There were several here last week.”
The child voice responds, “We cannot communicate with outsiders: minds who are not connected to us.”
“Excuse me?” Mathilda interrupts. “When did I join your transgalactic network?”
“When you ate us,” the child voice explains. “Through the bass you murdered three weeks ago—”
She flinches. “Um. Murdered is a strong word.”
“Don’t worry. The murdered bass lives within our network and is content.
Furthermore, the link between your mind and ours will soon fade. The half-life of gray matter is two hundred days, and we cannot replicate inside your body.”
“Can you replicate in the ocean?” she wonders.
“Not this ocean.”
“Alright.” She does a rough mental calculation. If the volume of the alien tide decreases by fifty percent every two hundred days, it’ll take years for the stain in her water to vanish.
“Will you help me?” Andrea-Bird asks.
If Mathilda reports any of this nonsense, the police will laugh her out of their station. Flag her name as an unreliable source of information. As one of those women.
“It doesn’t have to be your word against his,” Andrea assures her. “There may be evidence. We’ve noticed Albren mucking around near the cliff several times this week. Dragging a net in the shallows. He’s looking for something incriminating. Gotta be. Why else would he return to—”
Mathilda cuts the bird off with a wave of her hand. “Fine, fine, but let’s get some things straight. First, stop fussing around in my brain. If you pull that mind reading shit again, I’m moving to Iowa. Understand?”
The gull bobs its head.
Mathilda takes a deep breath. There’s no turning back now. “Second? I’ll help, but we’re doing this my way. No police. Not yet. The next time your ex starts lurking near the water, give me a sign, but stop using Bucky for that. It’s disrespectful. I loved my dog.”
“What are your plans?” the child voice asks.
“You’ll see,” Mathilda promises. “Just tell me one thing. How well can you control that bird?”
“It’s fairly easy to sway,” the child voice explains.
“Good. I’ll need it to follow me when we act.”
A dog barks right next to her ear, not Bucky, more like Lassie.
Follow me, Timmy.
Mathilda sets down her knitting and glances at the clock beside her. Three-thirty.
“That was fast. He must be desperate.”
She heads to the beach and collects her newly cleaned kayak. The wind darts from east to west and pries at the loose strands of hair in Mathilda’s gray-black braid. Smells of brine and seafoam mingle with the zinc perfume of her sunblock. The gull circles overhead as she pushes past the choppy surf toward the sea stack and then settles on the back carrying handle of the kayak. “Don’t cause a mess,” Mathilda warns. “I just cleaned.”
“I can’t make any promises,” Andrea says. “Birds gotta do what they gotta do.”
“Ugh. Right. Which way am I paddling?”
In response, the alien tide unfurls from the stack and flows smoke-like through the surface ocean. It leads Mathilda south, down the prevailing current, to a rocky strip of land just a half mile away from her cove. A twenty-something man in waders, with a fishing net and a bright orange bait bucket, stands at the shore. Mathilda has never seen him before, wouldn’t know him from Adam, yet she recognizes him through the knee-jerk surge of Andrea’s anger.
“Howdy!” Mathilda shouts. “How are you doing?”
Albren glances up, nods once in greeting, and then starts rolling up his net.
The gull squawks and beats her powerful wings. “He’s getting away!”
“Trust me,” Mathilda mutters to the bird. She waves her paddle in the air. “Hey!
Wait a second! I found something! Is it yours?”
The man pauses, looks at her hard. “Found what?” he calls back.
“What?” Mathilda hollers.
“What did you find?!”
With her free hand, she taps her ear and shrugs apologetically. “Say that again!”
He charges a step into the shallows. “What! Did! You! Find!”
“I put it in this bag!” She holds up a canvas grocery sack filled with rocks. “I’ll throw it to you!”
“No! No, no, no! Don’t throw—”
Even in Mathilda’s days pitching on her college softball team, she couldn’t have made the throw from her kayak to land. The canvas bag plops in the water, sinking six feet and settling on the sand.
“God DAMN!” The man chucks the bucket and net behind him and kicks off his waders. He jogs into the water into the water. The gray tide swirls above the canvas sack, waiting.
“Get the bird ready,” Mathilda says, watching Albren approach. The power of his breaststroke hints at a man who is comfortable in the water.
“Now?” Andrea asks.
“Almost …” Mathilda waits until he’s nearly over the bag. Until the water is deep enough to swallow him from head to toe. “Now!”
The gull dives and plops heavily on Albren’s head. Its pink feet tangle in his dirty blonde hair. Sputtering, he tries to swat the gull away, but it bites at his hand, wings flapping.
Even the best swimmer will choke on a mouth-full of water. The alien tide flows through him.
For a moment, Mathilda can see through Albren’s eyes. A flurry of wings. The silhouette of an old woman on a kayak. Then, understanding. A connection. The realization that Mathilda knows about his crime. He can sense it through the network. Andrea shouts, “I’m still here, motherfucker. Turn yourself in! I’m going to haunt you forever, you fucker!” But he doesn’t seem to hear her.
Why doesn’t he hear her?
Albren dives beneath the water to escape the gull. Mathilda hears his thoughts as if he were right behind her: She can’t tell anyone if she’s dead.
The child voice says, “The man wants you dead, Mathilda. He’s fixated on it. We can’t reach him.”
“I know.” Mathilda stows her paddle and curls her fingers around the heavy steel anchor. “I don’t want to do this. Don’t make me do this.”
Even to herself, the target of her request is unclear. The murderer? The network?
Only one listens. As Albren approaches, his body a blotch of tan under the water, the alien tide contracts around her kayak. It shifts from gray to black, turning a dial in her brain.
Anger burns hot and fast, pulsing through Mathilda’s mind to the gray, alien tide. The violet rage spreads and splinters, reflections in a house of mirrors, projected to every non-human living being on the planet connected by the alien tide: fish, birds, seals.
Albren hesitates. His head bobs above water. “What’s happening?”
Life surges around him, coming on their own alien tide. The razor-sharp edges of salmon, halibut, and sharks gather, circling, a maelstrom of bodies and minds. His eyes widen with a touch of fear. “I don’t understand.”
“You probably never will,” Mathilda tells him.
Albren glances back at land, indecisive. Is it worth it? Can he make it? Mathilda feels something brush his leg and then the adrenaline rush as he swims for the kayak. A canoe won’t save you. A canoe won’t save you. A canoe won’t save you, but it might save me.
The ocean says otherwise. Around him, the surface whips into a froth. Mathilda closes her eyes and sticks her thumbs in her ears, but she can feel the violent ripples of the feeding frenzy as the many made one tear him to pieces.
When her kayak stops rocking, she opens her eyes. All that remains of the murderer is a dispersing cloud of red within the gray alien tide.
The journey home is painfully slow against the current. Her arms and shoulders ache. The rest of her is numb.
The gull hitches a ride on the carry handle, and they travel in silence for a long while. Then, Mathilda asks, “What now?”
The gull tilts its head to one side.
“What will you do?” she clarifies. “Got more unfinished business on Earth?”
“No,” Andrea says. “There’s a place in the dewdrop galaxy. Its peoples live in swimming villages. The planet spins so slowly, they can always remain in the sunshine.”
“That’s where you want to go?”
“For a while. Their scholars enjoy meeting new species.”
A sudden, horrifying thought. “Is your ex now part of the network?”
The gull ruffles its feathers. “No. He chose death.”
Mathilda tries to find comfort in the thought. There isn’t any. “I’m surprised he had a choice.”
“Everyone gets one,” Andrea says. “You can join us, too, Mathilda.”
There it is, the possibility she dreaded. She can see the cove now. Her house is a flash of yellow on the cliff. To Mathilda, today, it is the color of the sun. She nods at her house, her home. “I basically traded my kidney for that place.”
The gull squawks once in laughter.
“Not a joke. My cousin Hilly has it. We were a match.”
The child’s voice sounds from nowhere and everywhere. “You charged your cousin for an organ?”
“No. I’d never.” Mathilda now looks at crescent of sand of her beach, contemplating the time and power it takes to make confetti from rocks. Some grains may even be space dust: dark flecks of ferrous meteorites. What time and power brought those to Earth? “Hilly’s grandfather-in-law put me in his will. The place used to be a bed and breakfast, you know. He probably expected me to inherit both his house and his profession as an innkeeper, but a career in the hospitality industry is my ninth circle of hell. I was going to sell the property instead.”
“Why didn’t you?”
She pauses, spinning her kayak away from the land to face the gray water of the Atlantic which spills beyond the bending horizon. After all these years, the sight takes her breath away. “I saw this.”
“More than that. I’d seen oceans before. My family used to visit the Santa Monica Pier every summer. But do you see any packs of friends in matching bathing suits or surfers or children with big plastic beach balls? Not a soul, birdie. When I witnessed true solitude for the first time, I felt like Superman in the sunshine. Strong, you know?”
The gull tilts its head at her. “Do you hate people?”
She shakes her head. “Nope. They’re mostly fine. Just exhausting.”
“It is what it is.” Mathilda spins the kayak around and heads to shore. “There’s introverts, and then there’s me, and for the longest time, I was happy here.”
“You aren’t happy anymore,” says the child.
Mathilda keeps her gaze on the shore. “When I look east, part of me knows that the Atlantic doesn’t last forever. It ends, and there’s a coast, and there’s people on the coast. Millions of them. But that doesn’t matter. Because I can’t see them, and they can’t see me.”
“You want us out of your head.” The child and the woman speak at once. The gull, freed, alights and flies away.
Mathilda puts her back into every stroke. “More than that. If you carry any of my thoughts, destroy them. Sever every connection between us. I want to be alone.”
“Are you sure?” the child asks. “You’ll have no second chance. Statistically, we may never find your planet again. Certainly not in your lifetime.”
“Thank God,” Mathilda says. “Yes. I’m sure. I’ve always been sure.”
And they are she no more. Mathilda is Mathilda once more. It doesn’t say goodbye, and for that she is grateful.
At her back, the alien tide disperses wisp by delicate wisp.