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Heavenly Bodies

Heavenly Bodies
by Allison Epstein

All of Lisbon knew about Emilia before he did. But then, Manuel Santiago had no time for gossip. Hadn’t back when he’d studied at Coimbra, and had even less now, with scholars citing his astronomical research from Wittenberg to Rome. Petty scandals paled in comparison to a perfectly plotted star chart, a predicted eclipse, a glimpse of Mercury cycling backward and sideways around the earth.

He had the stars. He had Emilia. That was enough.

According to his father, however, it most certainly was not.

Luis Santiago’s scorn for Emilia insinuated itself into every conversation, carried by unsubtle looks and cutting remarks. It troubled Manuel, when he thought of it—but one look at Emilia and he could think of nothing but her. He felt alive lying beside her, her olive skin glowing gold in the candlelight, red-brown hair loose to her bare shoulders.

Luis, he knew, would come to his senses when a child came. Until then, Manuel would continue to study the stars and perfect the art of not listening. He would have the heavens, whatever Lisbon said. The heaven above, and the one in Emilia’s eyes as he kissed every inch of her body, the taut drumhead of her belly, the curve of her thigh.

She always laughed, when they made love. He loved that most about her, her inability to fathom a situation in which she should not laugh.

* * *

“I know you love her,” Luis said, “but that woman is lying to you.”

Manuel, from the opposite side of his father’s table, feigned sudden deafness.

“Emilia? A midwife?” Luis pressed, watching the meat on his plate rather than his son. “Nonsense, and you know it. She has no skills. Never studied medicine. My boy, it’s an excuse for her to enter strange men’s bedchambers, nothing more.”

Manuel’s nod did not signify agreement. He trusted his wife as he trusted the planets, to roam within their spheres and return in due time to their appointed place.

* * *

That Sunday, Emilia stood beside Manuel in church, listening to the priest’s swell of Latin rise like a flood to the rafters. Their eyes met—hers shining with the glory of God, his with the glory of her—and he smiled.

If there is another flood, we will be saved, she and I. There can never be another pair like us.

* * *

“Gabriel came again last night,” Emilia said, entering the parlor.

Manuel did not look up from his book. “Velasquez? The tailor?”

Emilia smiled. “Not Velasquez. The angel. Pay attention.”

Abruptly, he was.

He set aside his book—Ptolemy could wait. Emilia’s hair hung loose and tangled down her back. Her posture made her seem too tall for her body.

“Plague is coming, he said,” she went on. “You ought to be careful.”

A shiver furrowed Manuel’s skin. He guided her to the chair opposite him, seeing his wife warped as if through dirty glass. Her hands in his were colder than the winter air outside, and her black eyes glittered icicle-bright.

“Emilia,” he said, “you can’t speak of…of…angels. Like that.”

It isn’t safe. The Inquisition is a hundred years dead, but this is not an age to push one’s luck.

“Tell me you’ll leave this,” he said softly.

She looked at him, expression uncomprehending and uncurious, as if he spoke Russian.

Three weeks later, when news came of the plague bells ringing over Montijo, Manuel coughed, averted his eyes, and pretended to be fascinated by the position of Mercury. Emilia, sensing Manuel’s discomfort, spent more time out of doors or at church, which he had stopped attending altogether.

When she left, he would stare vacantly at his books, reading nothing. Listening for church bells. For the fall of her footsteps against the stone.

Fearing that one day, she would not return.

* * *

The knocking wakened Manuel in the small hours of the morning, a misty January rain falling on Lisbon’s sullen streets.

What in the devil’s name—

He stumbled down the stairs, sleep clouding his eyes. He knew he looked a fright, still in his nightshirt, hair sticking in all directions.

On the other side of the door, Luis’ face shone bronze in the dancing cast of his lantern.

“You must leave,” he said.

Manuel stared. He started to usher his father inside, but Luis shook his head.

“Tonight,” Luis said. “Your witch may go to hell, for all I care”—he spat, the insult landing luminescent against the cobblestones—“but by God, I won’t let the cardinal burn you along with her.”

Witch. A witch.

Gabriel. Her angel. The cardinal must have heard.

Jesus Christ.

Emilia appeared beside Manuel, wakened by the voices. Without thinking, he wrapped one arm around her shoulder, pulling her into the curve of his side.

Luis’ frown etched out a V between his brows. “Manuel, a coach is waiting to take you to the harbor. The next ship leaves for London at daybreak. Be on it.”

“I won’t go without her,” Manuel said, bracing his courage against Emilia’s shoulder. “If she is in danger, she comes with me.”

Emilia looked boldly at Luis, eyes wide, revealing nothing.

Luis stared back for a long moment. “Hurry, then.”

* * *

Not until Manuel saw the Cassiopeia through the coach window, the ship’s gaudy flag limp above the harbor, did the knot of fear ease in his throat. He gripped Emilia’s hand, but she did not respond.

Afraid. Rightly so.

Safety was oceans away. He looked back toward the city, seeing the crimson flash of a cardinal’s hat in every shadow.

The coach rattled to a stop, and Manuel leapt out, extending an arm to help Emilia to the brine-slick cobblestones. His arm hung there, quite alone.

She did not stir.

Fear returned tight as a noose, sending a hangman’s horror to the soles of his feet.

“Emilia,” he said quietly.

She shook her head. “I will not deny Gabriel. If they want to arrest me, let them.”

My wife is mad. The words circled in time with the static shiver of his heart. My wife is mad.

“Emilia, the cardinal—”

“Do you think the cardinal frightens me?” There it was again, the laugh that snaked into places it did not belong. “Go, love. I will meet you in London.”

I will not leave her. I will not.

He threw himself toward the door, but she slammed it against him, gesturing for the driver to move on. The wheels clattered loud against the stone.

Manuel screamed her name into the dark.

* * *

Lisbon faded behind him like a dream at daybreak. Manuel leaned over the rail of the Cassiopeia, sea breeze ruffling his hair, watching the stars.

Emilia is a smart woman. She will be careful.

Even then, he knew this was a lie.

“Senhor?” a voice said from behind him.

Manuel flinched, turning. The young sailor raised his hands in tacit apology.

“Are you all right?” the sailor asked. “You seem…”

“Yes,” Manuel said, not knowing what he agreed to. “Yes.”

He watched from the rail as the smoky night bleached into day, as they rounded Pontevidea and curved into the Bay of Biscay. Watched until the muddy maw of Gravesend welcomed him to the Thames and to London, where, as far as he could tell, there were no stars at all.

* * *

His first three weeks in London, Manuel dreamed each night of flame. Of the cardinal setting his torch to a pyre, of Emilia’s scream rising scorched to the stars.

Dreams, he told himself firmly, only dreams.

She will be careful.

* * *

Midnight, February nineteenth, 1556. Manuel jolted upright in his still-unfamiliar bedchamber with a scream, tears flooding his chest.

He knew, then, she had not been careful.

Luis’ terse letter eleven days later provided confirmation he did not need.

If Emilia had spoken to angels, they had not saved her from burning in the church’s fire.

If the angels had not saved her, he would find a way to ask them why.

* * *

The priest shoved Manuel hard in the back.

“Not in my church! I forbid it!”

Manuel, stumbling, flung out his hands. He caught himself before his chin struck the grimy stones outside Saint Paul’s. Scrambling to his feet, he lunged toward the door. “The books—”

“So you can malign the word of God with black magic?” the priest snarled. “Set foot in this church again, sorcerer, and I’ll report you to the Queen’s justice.”

The door slammed in Manuel’s face. Defeated, he sank to his knees.

My books are in Lisbon. I need the church’s books. How can I learn to reach the angels without books?

He felt tears coming, sharp as the stares of passersby, but willed himself to ignore both.

Emilia would not cry. Neither can you.

“Pardon me,” said a woman’s voice.

Manuel rose from aching knees and turned.

He saw the coach first, at the corner of Carter Lane and St. Andrew’s Hill. An absurd thing, embellished in teal and taupe, more a marzipan sculpture than a means of transportation. It seemed all the more frivolous in comparison to the dark-haired, serious-looking woman within, regarding Manuel appraisingly.

She beckoned him nearer. Disobedience was not an option.

“Manuel Santiago?” she asked through the window. “The astronomer?”

No use denying it, if she knew that much already. “Yes,” he said warily. “And you are…”

“Philippa Russell, Countess of Hereford. And deeply honored to meet you.”

A countess, honored to meet me.

A wisp of academic pride thrust itself forward, whispering in his ear.

Respect, for one of the preeminent astronomers in Portugal—no, be fair, in Europe. Well, of course. What could be more natural?

Manuel drew himself up straighter. “You have read my work?”

Philippa smiled. “Many times. Your Universum Grammatica was a wonder.”

“You flatter me, madam.” Not that Manuel minded.

“I do nothing of the kind, Master Santiago,” Philippa said lightly. “I confess I was surprised to hear you had arrived in London. But then…personal circumstances made your departure somewhat abrupt, did they not?”

The pleasure drained from Manuel’s body.

She knows. The English court must know, too. Nowhere is safe.

He clenched his fists tight, willing himself to channel Emilia’s composure. She could be on the verge of tears and look as if she’d never felt an emotion in her life. He’d never learned the trick of that.

“Yes,” he said tersely. “Somewhat.”

If Philippa noted the chill in Manuel’s voice, she ignored it. “As you are in London, Master Santiago, I imagine you’ll require a new station. And I would be honored to make you an offer of patronage.”

Manuel blinked. She might as well have said she wanted to make him a rhinoceros.

“You would live at court, with a stipend to continue your work in peace,” she continued, brushing off his surprise. “Not Oxford, I’m afraid, but certainly better than nothing.”

He could almost hear Luis’ voice, his father’s exasperation like a slap across the head. Don’t be a fool. You are a foreigner, a Catholic, an academic, a man whose wife was killed for heresy. You think this woman wants to support your work? She wants to have you close, so when you become a liability like your wife, she knows where to find you.

Manuel knew this to be true. Just as he knew, in the end, that he did not care.

“Is there a library at court?”

Philippa smiled. The driver, who must have been listening, hopped down from the box to open the door.

“The largest in England,” she agreed.

Manuel took a deep breath and climbed inside. The driver shut the door behind him, and the coach rattled into motion west along the river.

* * *

September 1561.

Manuel presented his first completed work to the countess, an account of the moon’s varied positions in relation to Mars. Philippa smiled politely, and he smiled back, as insincere as she. He had written the treatise in ninety minutes. Every other waking hour had been spent stealing books from Sir Walter Raleigh’s library, taking frantic notes, copying out every passage containing the word “angel.”

The astronomical treatise, riddled with errors, promptly found its way to the fire.

* * *

January 1572.

Manuel entered his study after supper to find an unfamiliar man inside.

Tall, red-haired, with the strong, ruddy look of a Northman. A shameless smirk on his broad face.

“What are you doing?” Manuel asked, disgusted by his own wavering voice.

“The countess wants to know what you’re working on,” the man said, brandishing a paper he’d taken from the desk.

The back of Manuel’s neck thrilled with fear. From where he stood, he could see the pages copied from Raleigh’s books, the tangles of Latin to summon spirits.

If he’s seen…

“What are you working on?” the spy prompted.

Manuel cleared his throat. “The…the rings of…”

He could not remember which planets even had rings.

“The rings,” he finished lamely.

The spy smirked. “Right. Well, I’ll leave you to that.”

Even after the spy left, Manuel knew he would never feel alone again.

* * *

August 1588.

On Tuesday, the whispers began to grow, stoked by Philippa’s spies. How the countess’ astronomer spent his nights speaking in tongues, runes of black magic chalked across his floor.

By Wednesday, courtiers avoided Manuel, ducking down side corridors when they saw him approach.

Philippa’s patronage was revoked by Thursday.

He could not blame her. She had a reputation to protect. Heresy was contagious, incurable once touched.

He felt Philippa’s spies more sharply than ever. A fleet of faceless men, shadows stitched to his heels. In a last effort to avoid them, Manuel traded his suite of elegant rooms for a lonely study in the east tower, with one narrow window and no keyholes to listen at.

* * *

April 1594.

Again, Manuel—now seventy-four, no less determined—opened his books, lit his candles, and called the angels.

This time, the angels answered.

The voice spoke a single word at first. Direct. Aggrieved, even.


Manuel half-rose from his chair. Excitement rose in his chest, along with a thin tendril of disappointment. He had, naively, imagined an angel would sound like the harp-and-trumpet symphony described by the prophets and apostles. A voice like a pillar of fire, a whirlwind in the desert, one that would strike you blind in a lonely road near Damascus.

The prophets and apostles, apparently, were a pack of liars. The Archangel Uriel sounded a little like the Earl of Bedford. And the Earl of Bedford was an ass.

Manuel searched the room until his eyes ached, willing himself to see. Nothing but the curved walls of his study, shelves teeming with Bibles in all sizes and languages. No wings, no celestial robes. If he could see what Emilia had seen…

Uriel made a sound that might have been laughter.

“You will not see me. Not unless I wish you to.”

Manuel flushed, chastened.

“You called me for a reason, did you not?” asked the angel.

Manuel swallowed, then cleared his throat.

Be strong, Emilia seemed to whisper in his ear.

“Yes. I—”

A shout rose through the open window from the courtyard below, followed by a burst of raucous laughter.

The air shuddered with an inhuman sound of petty irritation, then deadened, stripped of resonance.

“Uriel?” Manuel said in a tiny, childlike voice.

The word hung cold. Manuel remained staring into the center of the room. The Bibles stared back, mocking him.

“Mary, Joseph, and all the saints,” he said aloud. “An angel.”

I told you, Emilia whispered.

* * *

The next six days passed in a frenzy, trying to bring Uriel back into the room. Nothing. Only anxiety rolling into splitting headaches, and Emilia’s voice in the shadows of his study. You are so close, love, so close. Open your eyes. The angels are here. Open your eyes.

And the moment he felt the air begin to ripple, the warmth of Uriel’s presence again sparking through his fingertips—just then, the door opened, and a man strolled in.

Damn it all to hell.

Manuel rose, slamming his book shut. Hair and beard unkempt, eyes wild, he glowered at the intruder. Rage radiated from him like a wakened bear.

“In case you did not notice,” Manuel snarled, “I am working.”

“Apologies,” said the man, in a voice that was not sorry.

Not even a man, Manuel thought, not yet. Barely twenty years old, dark-haired and bright-eyed, dressed like a servant. The intruder leaned against the doorframe, arms folded, both eyebrows lightly raised.

How quaint, Emilia said, drily amused. Your countess has infants spying on you.

“Her Grace the Countess would like a word,” the boy said.

Manuel paused. Philippa’s attention no longer felt flattering.

“That did not sound like a request,” Manuel said.

The boy grinned. It made Manuel want to punch him, but he knew better. The boy had the disreputable air of someone who would bring a knife to a fistfight.

“It wasn’t.”

Manuel felt for the cane leaning against his desk. Wrapped in his thick fur cloak, his white beard braided at the tip and tucked into his belt, he knew he looked like a fanciful old man, like Merlin, like Father Christmas. But he’d be damned if he’d let this arrogant pup make him feel foolish.

“Thank you,” he said smoothly. “I believe I remember the way.”

“I’m sure you do,” the spy said, and winked before turning to go.

Manuel scowled at the boy’s retreating back.

As if I were an old man to be winked at.

You are old, my love,
Emilia reminded him, smirking.

“Be quiet,” Manuel said to the empty room.

* * *

Philippa sat at the large oaken desk beneath the window of her office. Her dark eyes remained locked on a page before her, all ornate handwriting and official seals.

She hasn’t aged half an inch in six years. The length of Manuel’s beard now felt unpardonably self-indulgent.

Without looking up, Philippa fluttered her fingers, indicating Manuel might sit. He considered ignoring the invitation out of pride, but it was two-fifteen in the morning and he was seventy-four years old. He sat.

“You’ve lowered your standards for your staff, I see,” he said.

“Rafe is my most competent associate,” Philippa said to the paper.

“Rafe needs some manners beaten into him.”

A shadow of a smile crossed her face. “Those things are not mutually exclusive.”

Manuel scowled, waiting.

At last, Philippa set aside her pen. She steepled her thin fingers, pointing the resultant triangle at her audience of one.

“Rafe says he heard you speaking to yourself,” she said coolly.

Manuel did not blink. “Did he?” he said carelessly. After all these decades, he had finally learned to lie.

Philippa’s gaze flickered toward the door, a gesture he instantly mistrusted. No reason to look at a door unless you wanted to leave through it, or someone waited on the opposite side.

“He said,” Philippa continued, “that you said the name of an angel.”

Emilia’s voice, a charred coal-raw scream, seemed to hang in the air.

“A man’s beliefs are his own private business,” Manuel said.

Philippa sighed. “Santiago, you’ve been in England too long to believe that.”

Manuel, shivering, looked away. Philippa’s words pulled back the memory of the day the queen’s physician, Roderigo Lopez, had been hanged, two months before. He had not wanted to go, felt sick the whole day thinking of it, but it had seemed an affront to Portugal not to. Manuel had looked away before the hangman gave the final push, but he’d felt the same thrill through his blood then as he felt now, the sensation of being too alive for his own skin.

Quick as it had come, the memory was replaced by one of his own arm around Emilia, an arm that now trembled with age, and alone.

Let her spies listen. Let them.

“I will take your warning under advisement,” he said.

Philippa’s anvil-cold eyes did not blink. “See that you do.”

* * *

The next night, the disheveled study shimmering in candlelight, Manuel closed his eyes and began again. The Latin words came easily now, a rhythm near as familiar as his own name. Almost at once, the light wavered in the gently swirling air, and the stars beyond the window swelled brighter, larger, nearer.

Long before he heard Uriel speak, Manuel knew he was no longer alone.

“You came back,” he breathed.

Though Manuel could not see it, Uriel seemed to smile. “Yes,” the angel said. “You are persistent. This interests me.”

Manuel gripped the arm of his chair. The voice might have been in his head. How many times had he heard Emilia, knowing every word lived in his brain, not his ears?

“May I see you?” he asked.

A pause, another invisible smile. Then a man appeared opposite Manuel’s desk, so suddenly he nearly fell from the chair. A sallow, middle-aged man, with heavy eyebrows and a hooked nose like an Italian banker. He was dressed as a Franciscan, the kind that had not been seen in England since the old king razed and looted the monasteries. The kind Manuel had seen at the cathedral in Lisbon, whose chanting now reminded him of flame. He shivered.

“Could you not take a different form?”

The angel leaned, half-sitting, against Manuel’s desk. “This one pleases me. Now. How did you manage this?”

Manuel, lost for words, looked helplessly at the books and notes sprawled before him. The room looked like Job’s whirlwind had struck the Library of Alexandria.

Uriel nodded. “A scholar. I see.”

“Yes,” Manuel said. Despite himself, he leaned forward, as if to reach out and touch the hem of Uriel’s robe. The angel did not pull away.

“The church will hang you if it finds out what you’ve done,” Uriel said. “But you called me nonetheless. I’m not often curious, but I confess I would like very much to know why.”

Anxiously, Manuel licked his lips. An owl screeched beyond the window, but this time Uriel did not vanish. He waited, patiently, arms folded beneath his vestments.

“My wife,” Manuel said, finding his voice. “Emilia Santiago. In Portugal. She said she spoke to an angel. I thought she was mad.”

“If she was, so are you, I should think,” Uriel said reasonably.

“Did you? Speak to her?”

“I?” Uriel repeated, with a laugh. “No, not personally. Then again, I do not deal with daily correspondences. I leave that to the saints, who have the time. And if you were able to reach us, why not she?”

“Then why didn’t you save her?” Manuel’s words sounded torn from the base of his throat, ragged around the edges. His eyes pricked with the ancestors of tears, but he forbade himself to weep. “Forty years ago, when she went burning to her grave for speaking to you. Why?”

For the first time, Uriel’s detachment faded. He folded his hands and lowered his gaze, a holy man contemplating the stations of the cross. “Ah,” he said. “I see. I understand.”

Manuel did not care if the angel understood. Uriel’s understanding was immaterial. Unless the angel had loved Emilia the way Manuel had loved her, he could never understand.

“Why?” he repeated.

The angel sighed. Manuel could feel him building up to a platitude. It is not for man to question the way, or The movements of the Almighty are unfathomable. Manuel leveled his stare at the beautiful liquid-black eyes dancing in the friar’s sallow face. Daring Uriel to evade the question.

“Why?” he said, a final time.

“I know you want a reason.” Uriel adopted the cadence of the masters at Coimbra, dissecting a philosophical riddle. How many angels on the head of a pin. “But the truest reason I can give is that there is none. Why does a coin fall one way and not another? Because it falls that way. The world was set in motion long, long ago. Now our task is to see that it runs its course. Even I do not understand more than that.”

Manuel’s hands had curled into fists beneath the desk. As he uncurled them, the tension transferred from his hands to his voice. “What will be, shall be. That’s your answer. What kind of doctrine is that?”

Uriel arched his back; Manuel heard the pop of a stiff spine. “Truth. I cannot give you better.”

A creaking floorboard startled Manuel out of his anger. He whipped his eyes up to the door—Uriel, too, glanced over his shoulder in mild curiosity.

Rafe stood in the doorway. Eyes wide, shoulders tense. The spy’s voice sounded like a bowstring pulled three inches too far.

“Who are you speaking to, Santiago?”

Manuel had no words. His eyes darted to Uriel, then back to Rafe. Horror itched his skin.

Witch. The church will hang you if it finds out.

Rafe’s teeth grazed his lower lip. His wolfish eyes took in Manuel, edgy, thinking fast. Looking straight through the angel.

He sees. He must.

“You ought to follow me,” Rafe said.

“I would prefer not to,” Manuel replied.

Rafe shifted his weight to the opposite leg, casting a skittish glance backward. In a moment, four armed guards joined him, fanning out to block the exit. Manuel looked at Uriel—the angel examined a speck of dirt beneath his fingernails.

“Santiago,” Rafe said, “I don’t give a damn what you prefer.”

* * *

Philippa’s once-familiar study looked twisted and foreign through Manuel’s eyes. One guard held Manuel by each arm in front of her desk—their grip ached his thin limbs. With boldness he didn’t recognize, he craned his neck to glare at one.

“I am seventy-four,” he snapped. “If I try to run, I daresay you can catch me.”

“It’s not you running that has me worried, Santiago,” Rafe said grimly. The spy hopped up onto a table along the east wall and sat, legs dangling and hands clasped between his knees. He looked in dire need of a drink, Manuel thought. Out of his depth.

“Thank you, Rafe,” Philippa said. “I can cope with this myself.” She sighed, faint disappointment in her creased eyes.

No, Manuel realized. The past six years had aged her.

“I warned you, Santiago,” she said. “I told you to leave this madness about your imaginary angel behind. Yet you persisted.”

“But—” Manuel began.

I spoke to him. Emilia spoke to him. He’s in my study. Rafe saw him.

Didn’t he?

“I am not mad,” he said—knowing the surest sign of madness was to claim you were not mad.

“I don’t know how things are done in Portugal,” Rafe said, his voice tight, “but in London, pretending to talk to angels is heresy or madness.”

Pretending? He saw nothing. He looked straight at Uriel and saw nothing.

Manuel felt no fear. No anger. Nothing. He felt as Roderigo Lopez must have felt at the scaffold, in the moment between the fall and the stop. Untethered, suddenly able to see everything. His brain buzzed with the stray sparks of a dying fire.

Did Emilia feel this? That she was the only one to see the truth? Did she think of me, through the fire sparking through her brain, at the end?

No voice, true or imagined, came to answer his question.

Philippa sighed. “I am sorry, Santiago,” she said.

Manuel said nothing as the guards removed him from the study. The scent of smoke and charred wood filled his body, his thoughts sputtering in flame. In Rafe’s grave-black eyes, he thought he could see the stars.

* * *

All of London turned out to see the strange foreign astronomer, with his hermit’s beard and his driftwood limbs, hang at Tower Hill. He kept his eyes on the stars until the moment the scaffold dropped beneath his feet.

Those who watched until the end swore he had the strangest expression, as if listening to a voice none of them could hear.

* * *

Rafe stood at the back of the crowd, watching as they cut Santiago’s brittle body down. From that distance, the corpse in the hangman’s arms seemed more a bundle of kindling than a man.

The spy turned away, setting his steps back toward the palace. He rested his hands lazily in the pockets of his doublet as he walked, brushing his fingers against a small leather purse. Probably he should have counted this as a victory. The extra pay suggested as much. But the countess would have a new assignment for him soon. It wouldn’t do to enjoy this too much.

At the corner of Hart Street, Rafe stutter-stepped to a stop.

A man stood in the center of the road, foot traffic washing unperturbed around him. Sallow-faced, wearing a tattered brown robe, brilliant black eyes locked directly on Rafe’s. He graced the spy with a small, detached smile. Made a silent sign of the cross. And then turned away, south, toward the river.

Rafe shivered. The spring air had not seemed so cold a moment before.

* * *

Allison Epstein is a graduate student in Northwestern University’s MFA in creative writing program. Her fiction has been or will be published in journals including Pantheon, Fantasia Divinity, and Metaphorosis, and she is a contributor to the American Book Review. Allison lives in Chicago, where she works as a marketing copywriter. Her interests include musical theater, Diet Coke, and TV historical dramas where aristocrats elope with their servants. Read more of her work at

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

One of my biggest writing frustrations is coming up with ideas, so I try to make myself receptive to them whenever and wherever they strike me. I have a long running list on my phone of phrases and half-ideas from out in the world. A conversation on the train, a line in a book that stuck in my head, something weird I found while procrastinating on Wikipedia. This story, for example, slowly coalesced after I spent an hour reading up on John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s astronomer. (How I ended up in that corner of the internet, I can’t tell you, but the lesson is “follow inspiration however the heck it strikes.”)