The town of Godshock possessed its own sort of madness. Cats walked telephone wires like tightropes, and books fell open to page thirteen. One October day, as the leaves crackled off the trees, Lilsa walked home from school. The sky, pierced with spires and television aerials and crowded with chimneys scrawling runes of smoke onto the air, cleared as she went from town to field to the dense pine forest.
She stopped as she entered the woods. On the path was a wagon tacked to a bony white horse, so still it might have been dead. Stiff, ruffled curtains hung in the wagon’s windows, and a winking sun, in peeling paint, leered from its wooden side. Something small was ricocheting out the back of the wagon, and the sour smell of tangerines spiked the air.
Lilsa barely paused before she hitched up the books in her arms and headed past the front of the wagon, meeting the horse’s glassy gaze as she went. She was never one to let anything break her stride. She was a hard-faced child, with a nose that cut into the wind, eyes always ready to squint out the sun, and pale brown hair in a single thin braid down her spine.
“Come around, little girl,” a man’s voice said from the back of the wagon, and she did, not out of obedience, but curiosity. She wasn’t aware the wagon’s occupant had seen her at all.
Seated in the open back of the wagon was a man in a purple brocade suit, his form illuminated by the amethyst glow of a lantern beside the door. The buttons of his fur vest strained across his paunch, and a gold turban balanced over his curly dark hair. His face, round and owl-like, was painted with red lips and kohl-rimmed eyes, and white powder crumbled in the folds of his skin.
Lilsa darted to the left to escape an object lobbed right at her chest: a fleck of tangerine rind. The man was peeling a tangerine in a handkerchief with his long, yellowed fingernails, tossing the scraps to the ground.
“Would you like a tangerine, little girl?” he asked.
“All right, then.”
He flicked off the last of the rind, and covered the tangerine with the fabric, as if to polish it, then extended it to Lilsa. But when she unwrapped the handkerchief, an ear lay inside. She jumped back.
The man laughed, picked it up, and tapped it. She knew by the clicking sound it was only plastic, a joke shop toy. He tucked it into a fold of his turban, right above his own ear.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” he said.
“I’ve lived in Godshock all my life. You are the newcomer.”
“Och, I’m very, very old. Let’s tell your fortune, then.”
“I don’t believe in fortunes. And you don’t look like you’d tell me a nice one.”
“I’ll tell the truth, nice or no. If you don’t believe, what’s the harm in hearing nonsense?”
Lilsa clamped her schoolbooks to her chest against the crisp wind. “All right, then.”
The fortune teller produced the tangerine, or a tangerine, from his pocket. He pried the fruit in two and speared one section on a fingernail. He pointed with it to a wooden board painted with a price list, then sank the bite of tangerine into his mouth.
“Ha!” Lilsa said. “The harm in hearing nonsense is you’ll have the last of my pocket money.”
“You underestimate my generosity,” the man said. A white cat, as bony as the horse, sprang from within the darkness of the wagon and landed on his shoulder. He offered it a segment of tangerine. “See—just to prove my heart, I’ll give you a fortune for free.” He closed his eyes, exposing white crusts of makeup in the creases of his lids, and opened them.
“The thing that you’ll realize you need tonight—I have it. You’ll come back for it tomorrow,” he said.
Lilsa scoffed, dug back into the heels of her hard black shoes, pivoted, and walked home.
Lilsa’s mother was in the kitchen, where she always was, so much so that she appeared to wear the room. Her dress was tinted the same yellow-gray as the walls from grease spatters and constant smoke. The newsprint soaking up a spill on the floor was smudged onto her strong red fingers, and her forehead shone like the copper pots dangling at head-height from the ceiling. The cramped space, carved from a corner of the house, closed over her ample shoulders like a shawl.
“Shh, shh, pretty thing, cockles bloom and sparrows sing,” she cooed to the baby in his highchair while she kneaded dough, flour snowing up onto her forearms. “Oh good, you’re here. You can feed Jacob,” she said as Lilsa stomped in, scuffing her shoes on the floor and swiveling her knees together. “He must be hungry, the poor little prince.”
Lilsa took the pot of porridge from the stove and a spoon and raised a glopping spoonful to her brother’s mouth. Jacob’s cornflower eyes widened at the sight, and he curled his pudgy pink hands in delight.
“Test how hot it is first!” her mother scolded. Lilsa put the spoon into her own mouth instead, and buckled as it burned her tongue. She dropped the pot with a clatter as she choked the mouthful down. The swan who roamed their garden squawked outside the window at the noise.
“Och, look what you’ve done!” her mother said, hands flying off the dough and onto her apron.
“It was hot,” said Lilsa.
“Of course it was. It’s a good thing you didn’t feed it to Jacob, ya. Poor little prince,” she sang at the baby.
Lilsa hung her mouth open to ease her raw throat. She stooped to pick up the pot, but her mother shooed her away and went for it instead, spreading the newsprint across the spilled porridge and shaking her head over the remains of the mush.
“This is coming out of your dinner, not his.” Her mother bent over the baby, nodding at him playfully while blowing on a spoonful of porridge, then lowering it towards his mouth. Jacob’s dimpled cheeks reddened, and he began to cry. “Shh, shh. Just a bite, pretty one,” she said, twirling the spoon to catch his eye.
Lilsa’s mother had never taken such efforts to make her eat when she was a baby. Lilsa remembered her own infancy clearly, all the way back to three months old, though her parents insisted she didn’t. She even remembered dreams she’d had, shadowy galloping shapes in black and white. And she remembered how she always ate what she was given, and was always hungry, but always thin. She knocked her heels together now, clunk, clunk, clunk, her skinny braid snapping over her back like a switch.
“Lilsa, please,” her mother said, and she stopped. Her mother’s tone softened. “You’ll have the bread there—enough for all of us.” She turned back to nod at the dough on the counter and saw Lilsa sinking a finger deep into its center. “Lilsa, enough! Go to your room!”
Lilsa’s bedroom was the spiral staircase that led to the house’s pinched little attic, which was filled by a dusty piano. She moved between stations in the window alcoves along the spiraling stair: one alcove held a nest of blankets that was her bed, one held her clothes and shoes, one her toys and books. She curled into the deep ledge of the highest window, which was black now with night, and she sat atop a stack of books, fiddling the knobs of a radio held in her lap, a gift from her grandmother. Lilsa could remember her grandmother too, from before she died when Lilsa was six months old. A strange woman, with a rasping voice and a sharp emerald brooch that scratched Lilsa’s cheek when she held her. But she laughed and played with Lilsa, and looked at the baby like she was spun from magic. Lilsa loved her.
The radio wasn’t real, just a toy, meant to play five different tunes, and the mechanism had long since died. But sometimes, when she twisted the dials, Lilsa heard songs and whispers. She would hold it close to her ear, letting the lilting rhythms soothe her: the whole ocean in a shell, only for her.
Her parents had made it no secret that they yearned for a son. For the first eight years of her life, they were distracted by their quest for another baby, plying doctors with gold watches and priests with winters’ worth of fresh deer meat. Following a neighbor’s advice, Lilsa’s parents buried a long-tailed beet in the ground, wrapped in linen, and watered it with her mother’s spit and her father’s tears. Finally, they had a boy: not just a boy, but a beautiful boy, who was rosy and laughing and everything that Lilsa wasn’t.
At the base of the stairs, in the small living room, her mother and father paced, jiggling the crying baby up and down to lull him. They always got up together in the night when he cried, though one could have stayed in bed to sleep. Lilsa was a troubled sleeper as a baby; she was still a troubled sleeper and spent most of her nights watching the stars glint over the dark distant trees. But she couldn’t remember her parents ever getting up together to soothe her to sleep. She watched their two heads bending over Jacob’s small one to kiss him, his golden curls white in the moonlight.
And she realized what she needed.
The next day, Lilsa left school and cut across town, where silver astrolabes sat on voluptuous red velvet in Mr. Miniver’s storefront, and a Pomeranian nosed a bruised kiwi out of the gutter. She stopped once she reached the forest. An airplane zagged overhead. Today the path was clear. The fortune teller’s wagon was missing. She scowled and struck the toes of her shoes together.
A beating sound was coming from somewhere within the woods. She followed the sound, winding through the trees; the noise seemed to jump around, bouncing off the towering trunks. Finally, she saw light up ahead, and felt a flush of heat, and stepped into a clearing. Here the town erected a giant straw bird for the summer solstice, and strung it with flowers, and for the winter solstice, they hung a tall tree with foil swords and dried figs. But now, for harvest, they kept a bonfire roaring night and day. The fire reached as high as the red and yellow trees, and the hot air shimmered. The fortune teller’s wagon was pulled so close the flames appeared to flick it. He stood beside the wagon, beating a straw mattress with his hand until hundreds of tiny bugs burst out, scattering through the air and across the forest floor. Some fled with the embers into the wavering sky.
The fortune teller ducked around the purple lantern on the wagon’s rear and stuffed the mattress back inside. He picked a bug off his fur vest, ate it, and turned to Lilsa.
“Let’s have it, then,” he said. “You realized what you need.”
“I did, ya.” Lilsa narrowed her sharp eyes against the dry heat. “I need for my parents to love me. The way they do my brother.”
He twirled his hand and bowed, his gold turban flashing in the firelight. “That is correct.”
Lilsa stared, waiting for more. “Well, I came back. Aren’t you going to do something for me now?”
“I already did. I told you you would realize what you need. I gave you a true fortune.”
“But what will happen? Will I ever have their love?”
The white cat brushed Lilsa’s calves, startling her. She jumped, and it glared at her as it slunk to its master.
“I’ll do better than tell you that,” the man said. “I’ll tell you how to get it. But first—”
“Yes, yes.” Lilsa took several coins from her satchel and handed them to the fortune teller. He waved them before his eyes, smelled them, stuck one inside his ear and pulled it out. Satisfied, he tucked them into the pocket of his vest. Then he went to his seat within the wagon. He closed his dark-rimmed eyes, then opened them.
“There’s the bad way, of course—but I’m sure we won’t need to go there,” he said.
Lilsa arched one narrow brow.
“No, no—the thing is to get rid of yourself.”
“But then what will I have left?” Lilsa asked.
“From your parents, silly girl. Hide from them for three days. When you return, they’ll be so happy to have you back that they’ll love you forever.”
The idea seemed good to Lilsa. She’d once thought her favorite salamander was eaten by a dog, and when it returned, she danced with it in her pocket. “Where can I hide? People will be searching.”
“The old, abandoned hunter’s cabin in the woods. On the third night, you must hurt yourself, so it looks like you were taken by force. When you come back, tell the first person you meet that you were kidnapped by a masked group. But remember: not before three days.”
Lilsa packed her satchel that night with bread, marzipan, and bubblegum, along with her favorite book and her toy radio. No one heard when she slipped out of the house and set off for the woods.
The hunter’s cabin had been used for a century’s worth of slaughters, skinnings, and dressings. It smelled of moss and blood. Lilsa lay a blanket on the part of the floor where the ceiling was not caved in and went to sleep. The next day, she tired of reading her book by mid-morning, and amused herself by stacking a dwarf-sized hut out of old antlers. The sun began dipping west. A flock of green parakeets swooped into their nests, chattering. She knew she must stay hidden, but hadn’t heard any sign of a search party, or even hunters or travelers in the forest. So she wandered into the trees, darting behind one to hide at each noise, then returned to the cabin to spend the whole night lying awake, snapping her bubblegum and watching the moon through the roof, holding the radio against her chest so its whispers shook her ribs.
The next day, when Lilsa still had no signs of anyone searching for her, she shoved her things into her bag and tromped from the cabin in the direction of town, until she came to a massive tree, hollowed by lightning. Here, at least, they’d find her faster. She settled into the heart of the tree and lay curled onto her back, rapping the wood with her knuckles. A distant train rattled the ground, vibrating into her skin. When her parents came searching, she’d look up in a daze, and say the masked bandits who took her must have hit her on the head. But no one came.
By the third day, Lilsa ran out of bread, having not truly believed she’d be out for three days. She was queasy from eating nothing but marzipan, and her jaw ached from the bubblegum. She moved from the trunk of the tree up into its knotty branches, where her red dress would act as a flag. She did see people crossing through the forest: three laughing boys leading a cow on a rope, and a bicyclist zigzagging around trees. She could even spot the town in the distance, toy-sized cars and horses winding through its dizzy streets. But no search party, no mention of her name.
Her parents might be looking in the town, she thought, or might have gone out of town to search. She couldn’t see why they wouldn’t seek her. Couldn’t see why, in fact, they wouldn’t love her. Lilsa thought herself rather wonderful and would say as much to anyone if asked. She marveled at how quickly her thin fingers could lash her hair into a braid. She delighted in inventing ghost stories to tell herself and loved to prowl the dark tunnels of her own imagination. She deserved to be sought. Somewhere in the atmosphere was love for her—her radio wouldn’t pick it up if that wasn’t so. She would follow the fortune teller’s plan and return the next morning, and then her parents would see her, and would know at last what an emptiness in their hearts she filled.
The fortune teller had said to hurt herself before returning. So that night, she found a sharp rock and took it back up into the arms of the tree. It flashed in the moonlight, like a wolf’s tooth. She didn’t want to cut into her own flesh. But for her parents to believe her—maybe her mother would even wrap the wound in salved bandages and hug her.
She took the jagged edge of the rock and slashed it across her forehead. More blood than she expected poured out, filming down over her eyelid. She blinked it away, eyes tearing, turning the white moonlight to a blur. The moon looked so close from here, it was almost kissing her. She turned on her radio and held the strange songs by her heart.
On the fourth morning, she climbed down from the tree, stiff and shivering, and walked home. Her parents would be out looking for her, or else both might be at home, hangdog-tired from searching through the nights. But when she got there, her father was at work, and her mother was in the kitchen, stewing milk and rose oil on the stove for the baby. When Lilsa walked in, the woman made a noise like a cat spitting.
“There you are,” she said. “What happened to your dress, and your face? Let’s see, then.”
“It was a band of masked people, in long black cloaks and hoods. They pulled a bag over my head and took me from the woods…”
“What a silly story.” Her mother spit into the hem of her apron and scrubbed at the stinging cut on Lilsa’s face. Jacob looked between them curiously with his round blue eyes. “Always wandering off, you are. Spending Sundays in a bramble patch, dreaming up stories. Taking all the tomatoes from the garden and feeding them to the wild goats.”
“I was gone for three whole days; I wasn’t with the goats.”
“Three whole days I’ve had to worry where you were.” Jacob’s round face contracted, and he began to cry. “See? Sweet Jacob’s been wailing for three days with all the stress in the house.” A tear threw itself from the red rim of her mother’s eye, and she scrubbed Lilsa’s face harder. “I hate that I’ve been crying over you.”
On her way to school through town the next morning, Lilsa stopped and walked backwards. Mr. Miniver’s store, where she used to admire the great wall-high maps, creaking globes, and model towns for sale, had changed. The storefront windows were empty, the glass painted with gold letters: Fortunes Told, Fortunes Sold. Something purple glimmered inside. Lilsa frowned, clicked her heels together, and walked in.
All the shelves and displays had been evacuated, leaving a dark, empty space. In the middle stood the fortune teller’s wagon, its purple lantern lit, and his bony white horse. The fortune teller himself sat in the wagon, dangling his feet down the back steps, warming them over a spitting fire in a brass pot. He curled his bare toes.
“Aha, you’re back,” he said. “Did our little plan work?”
“If you were a true fortune teller, you wouldn’t have to ask me that. And if you were a true fortune teller, it would have worked. But my parents are only angry with me.” Lilsa crossed her arms, her thin mouth creasing.
“Och, child, these things take time,” he said. “Magic doesn’t work in linear ways. It’s crooked and coiled and upside down. It swallows its own head. You can’t expect to charm such a large thing as love in one go.”
“But you said it would work. And I paid you.”
“A few coins—is that a worthy price for your request?”
“It was all I had.”
“All the coins you had, maybe.”
Lilsa bent her knees and swayed forward and back, frustrated. Finally, with a bitter huff, she opened her satchel. “I have my lunch.”
“Let’s see it.” The man held out a hand, and Lilsa gave him a small cotton bundle. He opened it and sniffed the pear and held the hard-boiled egg up to the firelight. “This will do, then,” he said, and ate a bite of cheese, then fed one to his white cat, who had leapt silently into his lap. “Ah, made from goats fed with honey. A favorite of my last cat. A pretty boy, wasn’t he?” he asked, stroking the ginger fur of his vest.
“Well? Out with my fortune. I’m going to be late to school,” Lilsa said.
“Mmmm.” The man grumbled deeply, closing his eyes as he chewed. “You wish to make your parents love you. The thing that will make them do it…”
He opened his eyes. “Take your brother away this time. Hide him here with me, then bring him back in one day. When you return, you’ll be the hero. They’ll love you forever then.”
That night, Lilsa waited until everyone was asleep, then lifted her brother from his crib, as softly as if he were an egg yolk she didn’t want to break. He slept in her arms the whole way to town. But when she entered the fortune teller’s shop, where shadows leapt over the black walls from the little fire in the brass pot, his eyes roved around the room. She left him there with the fortune teller, along with a bottle of milk and a jar of porridge. As she walked away, the fortune teller was playing peekaboo with a crying Jacob in the wagon, baring his ghastly grinning white-painted face in the light of the flames.
When Lilsa snuck back into her window alcove that night, she thought that she should be worried for her brother, spending a day with a strange stranger. But without the baby’s periodic wailing, with just her and her parents in the house wrapped in warm silence, she slept through the night for the first time she could remember.
Lilsa woke the next morning to a scream, which quickly became two screams. As her parents tore through the house, looking for Jacob, they didn’t ask Lilsa if she knew where he was. Her father’s robe whipped air over her face as he dashed past her up the stairs to search the attic. After they had looked through the house, they ran out, leaving the front door open.
When Lilsa collected Jacob from the fortune teller, his golden curls were matted, his nose pink and crusty from crying. “Now remember,” the man said, “the baby must have been taken by the same masked band as you. You found him in the phone booth by Visker’s field, and you hurried him straight back.”
“Will it work this time?” Lilsa asked.
“Of course it will. The gods have moved mountains for an offering like this.” He kissed the baby on his belly, leaving a red gash of lipstick, and tucked a bundle of pungent herbs into the waist of his diaper. “This little innocent.”
Lilsa took Jacob into her knobby arms and rocked him. She spit into the hem of her dress and scrubbed at a smear of soot on the baby’s forehead. He whined, eyes tearing. “Always wandering off, you are,” Lilsa cooed at him. She wondered what her mother felt when she looked at Jacob—what kind of magic that must be. “I hate that I’ve been crying over you.”
When Lilsa went looking for the fortune teller again the next day, there was fire in her feet. Dry leaves shattered beneath her shoes. The shop in town was empty, its windows blank, and the wagon wasn’t in the clearing, or blocking the path where she first saw it. But she walked the whole of Godshock, looking, until her toes cramped.
His purple light caught her eye first, and drew her to him beside the lake, where his wagon was pulled right to the shore at a precarious angle, the rear wheels deep in mud. He sat in the back, a fishing pole clenched between his bare feet, line in the water, his hands working over a whole fish, meticulously picking the flesh off the bones and eating it.
“It didn’t work. Again,” she announced to the fortune teller.
“You didn’t return your brother? You ditched him down a manhole? Tipped him into a stream?”
“No, I returned him, and told my parents what you said. But they didn’t treat me like a hero. They didn’t notice me at all. They and the whole search party just fussed over Jacob. All night, too, my mother and father held him. Once they had the baby back, I may as well have been a stone.”
“Shh, nonsense, that. Ungrateful girl.” He shook his head and swallowed a bite of fish. “Can’t you see we’re getting closer? I told you these things aren’t linear. There are no straight lines in love and magic.” He sucked the last of the meat out from under his long fingernails, then raised the clean filet of bones to the cloudy sky. His cat tensed, watching the prize. Then the fortune teller ate the bones whole himself.
“Mmm.” He smacked his lips, swallowing. “There is—hmmf—one last thing you can try. It is rather a bad one.”
“What is it?”
“Get rid of your brother. Not for a day. Forever. You said as soon as he came back, they ignored you, so don’t bring him back this time. Then all the love they gave to him will land on you.”
“I mustn’t do a thing like that.” Lilsa crossed her arms and wobbled her ankles back and forth, swaying over the soles of her feet. Her shoulder blades and hips were still sore from cold nights sleeping in the cabin and the tree. “But how would I?”
“Just bring him here to me. I’ll take care of it—for the right price.”
“How do I know it will work this time?”
“Come.” He beckoned with a finger, and Lilsa squelched down into the lake’s edge so that she could mount the step into the back of the wagon. He shoved newspapers and batteries and pomade tins off the top of a small table, then lifted something wrapped in canvas from underneath it. He revealed a glass orb. As Lilsa peered at it, it reflected the man’s waistcoat and chin, warped and upside down.
“I don’t believe in crystal balls,” she told him. “I don’t see anything in there but you.”
“Don’t look at it, girl,” he said. “Feel it.”
He took her hands in his, his palms so leathered they almost felt scaly, and wrapped them around the outside of the ball. “Close your eyes,” he whispered.
Lilsa did, and her own palms began to warm. A feeling started, like tears welling in her eyes, but coming from some deeper organ. She became happy and purposeful and aware, and realized she was feeling love. It was the whole sun inside her—all the warmth she had never felt, from outside or from within. She trembled. So this was magic.
That evening, while her mother was bathing Jacob in an old tin tub set on the counter, Lilsa came up behind her and watched her soft, curving back. She wondered how often babies drowned in tubs, and what it would feel like to hug her mother right where her apron string sat—if her mother’s back would feel warm, like the crystal ball. She stretched her arms out and wrapped them around her mother’s waist.
The woman jumped, sending water splashing across the kitchen. “What are you doing?” She whirled toward Lilsa. “You skulking thing! Always noisy except when you’re right behind me.”
Lilsa considered as she sat up in bed that night. It wasn’t that she was inherently unlovable. Even a mean, bony cat can be loved by the right sort of heart. But she was unlovable to her parents, and always would be unless they had no other option.
The forest spread black and endless below her window, and piercing its middle was a purple light. She would have to bring a worthy offering this time, the last time. But she had nothing valuable to give. Except—her hands found the toy radio nested in her blankets, and she lifted it to her ear, spinning the knobs until she heard a woman’s kind voice, soft as fog. She slipped her shoes on and tucked the radio under her arm, peering into her brother’s crib on her way out, his chest rising and falling like the sea. She hated to give it up, but only something so wonderful would do. There was such a high price to pay.
After that night, Lilsa never saw the fortune teller again. Once, she glimpsed a gleam of purple out the window, but when she ran to the garden to look, her mother shooed her inside with a wadded-up apron, then directed her back to the sofa, pressing her solid hands into Lilsa’s sharp shoulders as if setting her there with glue.
Her parents never let Lilsa go outside alone anymore. They marched her to and from school, flanking either side. They had the time without her brother to mind at home. They surprised her often with wind-up ballerinas or little chocolate tigers, searching for her happiness with red, pinched eyes, as if bribing her not to disappear. Their hugs came often too, tight and fierce. When Lilsa bent into her mother’s desperate embrace, she thought how it was okay that this wasn’t quite a human warmth, it was quite all right that it was hard and artificial, like hollow glass warmed by magic.
About the Author
Sarah Archer’s debut novel, The Plus One, was published by Putnam in the US and received a starred review from Booklist. It has also been published in the UK, Germany, and Japan, and is currently in development for television. As a screenwriter, she has developed material for MTV Entertainment, Snapchat, and Comedy Central. She is a Black List Screenwriting Lab fellow who has placed in competitions including the Motion Picture Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship and the Tracking Board’s Launch Pad. Her short stories and poetry have been published in numerous literary magazines, and she has spoken and taught on writing to groups in several states and countries. She is also a co-host of the award-winning Charlotte Readers Podcast. You can find her online at saraharcherwrites.com.