And They Shall Never Sever
by Brooke Wonders
She sits in a corner of the junior high lunchroom, a piece of red string looped around her fingers in a catch-cradle. The other kids ignore her, but Ben’s the new kid and doesn’t know any better; besides, he likes the chemtrail streak of orange in her hair, like a warning.
“Put your hand through the middle,” she says, and as he does, she drops the threads and pulls, trapping his wrist. “Now I’ve caught you and you’re mine forever!” She smiles shyly at him, kisses his cheek.
Meli and Ben, sitting in a tree, a girl in a jean-jacket singsongs. The catcall eddies around the lunchroom, the sound of Ben’s cachet plummeting, but he doesn’t care because now he knows her name.
He turns to tell Meli the jean-jacket girl’s a loser not worth her time, but she’s already gone, escaping the lunchroom with her face turned away from him, leaving him to imagine how her spun-silk lips would feel against his. Every day from then on, damn the k-i-s-s-i-n-g, come lunchtime he asks her to teach him a new figure: Two Candles, the Manger, Flying Carpet. At the end of every lesson, she gives him a quick peck and flees.
Until the day he puts his hand through the center of her catch-cradle and it disappears. Within the diamond-shaped hole, reality ripples, involuted. They peer into the unnerving distortion surrounding Ben’s wrist.
“Where’d your hand go?” she asks.
He keeps his voice chipper. “Dunno. Maybe let’s start over?”
So she drops the loops, collapsing the diamond to begin again, and he jerks back, arm ending at the wrist--no blood, just space where skin, bone, and fingertips should be. He backs away from her in horror, and she runs from his gaze, leaving him alone with a cauterized stump.
A few days later he’s back at school, mad at her and also desperately hoping she’ll explain why she hurt him, after all those quicksilver kisses. As he shuffles between classes, he spots other kids with missing limbs—boys who knocked over her lunchbox, girls who put gum in her hair. At lunch, he plops down on the bench next to her, ignoring the hush that wends around them. No one catcalls, no one sings.
“How’d you do it?”
“I told them I’d give them each fifty bucks if they went behind the school and played cat’s cradle with me. That they were chicken if they didn’t.”
“They said nasty things behind your back. They deserved it.” She gestures toward his stump. “But you didn’t.”
She stares at her lap, wrists folded over clasped hands like a mantis, and he notices that two of her fingers stop at the knuckle. “I slipped up; the string got twisted. But it gave me an idea of how to fix this. It’ll take two.” Her pleading eyes weave a net that constricts around him. “Come over to my place after school?”
He doesn’t answer.
She scoots closer to him, their shoulders almost touching. “Ben, I’m so sorry.” It’s the first time she’s said his name, and he’s distracted by way her lips shape each careful consonant. He calls home to say he’s spending the afternoon with a friend.
Together they build a rope of tied-together sheets, toss it over a crossbeam like a Rapunzel tale or a suicide. She twines the red string between his fingers; the other end she loops awkwardly around his stump. Before he can react, she’s grabbed hold of the sheets, dropped into the string-framed space between his hands, and she’s gone.
He keeps perfectly still for hours, until the blood leaves his wrists and he blinks back tears, waiting, numb and anxious, fearing the moment when the sheet-rope snaps back toward the ceiling, their connection severed. At last delicate fingers curl around the edge of twine and she pulls herself up and over. Slung across her back, a sheet-wrapped bundle. She unfurls a pile of limbs, rummages through parts: hands mostly, a few fingers, two arms.
“This one is yours.” She holds out his hand, still twitching as if cut off only yesterday. He feels the uncanny sensation of his fingers held in hers.
“Thanks,” he says. He bangs his long-since-sealed stump against the hand’s wrist. “It’s not working.”
“Let me try,” she says, wrapping thread around his fingers and then her own, two people intertwined to make one catch-cradle. He thrusts his stump into the cradle’s center, and she fits his hand back into its socket. He uses his reattached fingers to stroke her cheek. She doesn’t run away.
The next day, they go around knocking on doors. “Is Ann there? Yes, I’d like to give her this hand. The one she lost—well, the one I took. I apologize.”
“Is that your boyfriend?” one girl scoffs, cracking each knuckle to make sure all are firmly attached. Meli pinks, then nods, and Ben’s so happy he’d give her both arms, and a leg, too.
Once everything’s been reconnected, they go back to her parents’ place and sit on her porch swing, red string coiled between them.
“What should we do with it?”
“I brought a lighter,” he says.
“No!” she says, snatching the thread away. He’s confused; he’d been sure she’d want to destroy it. “I want you to see inside.” Her fingers encircle his wrists.
“You want me to…?”
She nods, and quick as a spindle spun, she’s wound the thread in a crisscross that spiderwebs the swing in red, an undulating gyre open at its center. She extends her hand to him. Silence spools out between them as he weighs his options.
Then he grabs her hand tight. As he does, she sparks the lighter, bends down, and touches flame to the farthest end of string. Together, they dive into the heart of the pattern. Behind them, the red thread lights up like dynamite fuse, curling in on itself, back to the nothing space from whence it came.
Brooke Wonders’ fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Rose Red Review, among other places. She is a graduate of Clarion 2011, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a blogger at girlwonders.com. She recommends you be wary of children bearing dismembering string.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I keep an ever-growing file of bizarre ideas, lines of misheard dialogue, and other observed ephemera. Recent additions to the list include the symbolic economy of the pet, Dulac’s paintings, and lachryma vitrea. Whenever I have spare time, I mash together one or two or five of these--a text-based pet that must be fed new literary forms or it dies; a woman whose body shatters when a precise, low-pitched musical note is played--and let my brain off-leash.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
I’m going to outsource my answer to the poet Kathleen Rooney, who claimed in a recent interview that writing is “a system for getting lost in a flow state and learning stuff.” I love/hate how demanding writing is. It requires boundless curiosity; I’m forever on the alert, hunting down red meat to feed the machine.
What do you think is the most important part of a fantasy story? What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
I’m interested in fantasy (especially of the fabulist, liminal, and/or interstitial variety) because of its ability to defamiliarize, to unmoor us from the ordinary and let us see the world anew. So devices that defamiliarize—an arresting image, an off-kilter allegorical referent, an unusual form—are the most important bits, to me.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
No writing advice will save you. Find those writers whose work you love, and write like they’ll only be friends with you if your own stories are up to snuff.