LIGHTSPEED Presents: 'One Heart, Lost and Found' by Kat Howard
io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “One Heart, Lost and Found” by Kat Howard. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on LIGHTSPEED’s website. Enjoy!
One Heart, Lost and Found
I came to the city to find an egg. A robin’s egg, to be precise, an oval of pale, perfect blue that echoed the spring sky. Inside, not a robin, but an emerald. Inside the emerald, a wizard’s heart.
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He had decided he missed it, and he wanted it back.
It was the usual sort of thing, or so he had assured me. His heart taken out and stored for safekeeping, a place where his enemies—and certainly there were many, jealous of his power—would never think to look. So well hidden, in fact, that he himself was no longer quite certain where it was.
For someone like me, however—his lips curved in what passed for a smile—well, finding it would be as easy as breathing. Easier.
Wizards, on the whole, are not good at finding things. High-level magic requires so many secrets that even ordinary things fall from memory like leaves in autumn.
I am made of secrets, and so am easily unseen, unheard, unnoticed. I shed names and pasts like a serpent sheds skin, sliding out of an old life once it no longer fits, folding and storing it in case of need. My blood runs with memories and my bones are palimpsests. What is lost fills my lungs like air.
I am very good at finding things.
Standing on a corner, just on the periphery of notice, I take a red feather from a robin’s breast out of my pocket and hold it flat on my palm, waiting until the wind plucks it away from me. It twirls through currents and drafts, floating north until it falls.
The feather’s path is a hook in my heart, leading me. I walk past brownstones, bright flowers in baskets decorating windows and stoops. Past chainlink rattled by basketballs, past a dogwalker deftly managing six—no, seven—leashes. Past forty-seven cents dropped from a careless hand, past a house key half-buried by a three-day-old newspaper, past a ring that slid from a finger grown thin. I walk until the tingle in the bones of my feet that tells me I am going in the right direction fades.
Another feather. A gust tears it from my hand and drops it down the stairs of a subway stop. I shrug—I’ve found things in less likely places—and start after it.
As I step down into the stale heat of the station, the tingle in my feet returns, then roars into an ache in my bones. Longing, set into marrow and joints. The wizard’s heart isn’t here, but it’s close.
The platform is echoing and near empty. An old woman, wrapped in so many layers of clothing it is impossible to tell where they end and she begins, reads futures in small bones scattered across the aged tile in front of her. Rats skitter along a wall, and a hot wind blows the fading scent of rain into the tunnel.
The air on the platform shimmers like a mirror, and a train breaks its surface. Gray like fog, with the same roiling, mistlike quality, and windowless. Soundless, too. No lights, so I can only see a few cars past the first—four, maybe, or five. Shadows obscure the end of the train, making it impossible to see its length. The doors on the car in front of me—and only that car—open. The accompanying inhale pulls the robin’s feather inside. I follow. As the doors shut, I see the woman cast another set of bones, an alternate future, and I wonder who she is reading these omens for.
Stepping through the doors means stepping through an unseen barrier as well, the sharp electricity of magic raising the hair on my arms and the back of my neck. The ache of finding in my bones crescendos and pops, and the pain is replaced by a hollowness like nothing I’ve felt before. Looking around, I understand why.
Under other circumstances, the train’s interior itself might have been the thing that caught my attention. It was exceedingly far from the customary subway interior of dingy floors and orange and yellow plastic seats, decorated along the walls with maps of train lines and ads for plastic surgery behind graffitied covers.
Instead, there hung ornate brass fixtures and red wallpaper, the lights not fluorescents but candle-lit sconces, and the seats carved wooden benches, warmed by beeswax polish, that might have had a former home in a church.
And then: tables, shelves, hooks. Full of what initially looked like a scatter of commonplace things. A variety of briefcases, purses, tote bags. Battered leather, torn fabric, misprinted designer logos and knock-off prints next to their originals, ostrich and alligator skin handbags with tiny locks holding them closed. A drawstring sack, knotted at the top, that shimmers like eelskin and moves as if something might be quietly decomposing inside of it. Looking at it makes me feel sick to my stomach, makes my teeth feel dull and electric with wrongness.
Not eelskin then. Something still partially alive, that shouldn’t have been. Something even worse inside. Magic isn’t always—isn’t even often—as benign as sparkling jewels hidden inside lovely bird’s eggs.
Then there are the shoes. Filthy flip-flops, laceless sneakers, elegant red-soled stilettos. One that looks like shattered glass, bloodstained inside of the heel. Mostly singles, but some in matched pairs. I pick one of them up—a black sandal, one strap broken—and immediately wish I hadn’t. An image flashes through my head of a woman, running. Her heel, this heel, caught in a grate. Shoving hands. Then nothing but a scream and a broken sandal.
I drop the shoe, and scrub my hands against my legs, knowing the image, the horror, will linger but wishing I could cleanse myself of it anyway.
I am almost certain now what this place is, this train full of things lost, abandoned, forgotten. Everything that goes missing winds up somewhere, lost then found. And if no one goes looking for them, things tend to find places for themselves.
The door between the cars slides open. I step through.
And I stop.
“My name is Tanis.” A woman, with a voice like incense and smoke. She is over six feet tall and vaguely serpentine, so much so that the actual snake—iridescent navy, and biting its own tail—that she wears as a necklace seems natural, rather than strange. A collection of rings sparkle on her hands, diamonds and emeralds and rubies and sapphires in rainbow, at least two per finger, and her dress is as mirrored and shimmering as the train itself. “May you find what has been lost.” She gestures, inviting me in. Inviting me to look.
Of course I do. How can I not?
Near the door I had just walked through was a pile of eggs resting in a shallow iridescent bowl. Each was large enough to fill my hand—not that I was planning on picking one up, not after what I had seen when I picked up the shoe—and translucent. They smell of seawrack. Inside each, a mermaid—an actual mermaid—skin like the inside of an oyster shell, lay curled. Sleeping, maybe, or waiting to be born. I stare, wondering if they are lonely, so far away from any ocean, and I hope that someone will find them and bring them home.
A jar of teeth rattles and jumps in a cabinet. Some look human in origin, and some emphatically do not. On the wall, a hat trimmed in phoenix feathers, still burning. The flames do not consume the feathers and the smoke smells like cinnamon and amber. Next to the hat, a stack of three golden apples, fresh and honey-sweet. Just below the apples, faceted emerald scarabs walk slowly across the diamond sand of a glass-walled cage.
I trace their shapes in the air with my hands, reaching but not quite touching. So many lost things, gathered like a lump in a throat.
Tanis stands next to me, and raises her hand to the edges of the burning feathers. The flames spark off the jewels she wears. Her sleeve falls back, showing an arm tattooed in bees. They move on her skin, weaving and turning in a dance that shows the way to something only they know.
“Will you join me in a cup of tea?” she asks.
“I’d like that, thank you.”
There is a sudden heat, as if the necklace snake has a dragon cousin somewhere on the train car, and the bottom of a copper cauldron hanging off the wall opposite us glows warm. Steam, fragrant with cardamom, and clove, and something deeper, rises from the liquid inside.
“Perhaps some honey? I keep my own apiary. The bees seem to find the train relaxing.” She lifts a deep green curtain behind her, revealing a wax frame of bees. I can’t tell whether they look particularly relaxed or not, but I agree to try the honey regardless. It is pink-tinged, a blush caught in a jar.
Tanis pours, then raises her glass: “To what has been lost, and what is yet to be found.”
Images fill my head as the taste of honey and salt fills my mouth.
Tanis, standing alone in a field, arms outstretched. The ghosts of bees, translucent and crystalline, sinking into her skin, one by one. As they do, their memories of air and flight also sink into her skin and then into her self. My own skin buzzes with a not-unpleasant phantom humming.
I drink again.
A train, weaving snake-like through trackless places—below the ocean and above the clouds, in the spaces between shadows, and I feel its path below my feet. Feet that feel like wheels, like rails of iron. The train’s heart burns like a star in a sapphire, like a living coal.
One more sip.
The taste of honey darker this time, an iron shadow beneath the sweetness. Memories of times that I have been lost. Not from myself, but from others. A purposeful hiding in the shadows, the corners, the safe spaces. Praying my breath, my heartbeat would be quiet enough not to betray me, the ache of finding throbbing in my bones as I wish that I could find the thing that will end it, to cut the flaw out of my heart and free myself from things like the commands of wizards.
“I see,” Tanis says as I turn my empty cup over, and set it on its saucer. “Come with me, please.”
I follow her through a door, and into a car lined with maps. Not just lined with—stuffed with. Charts on tables and atlases stacked in tottering heaps and globes spinning in the same orbits as orreries. Not of the kind of locations that you call up on your GPS, but maps of places that never were, maps with old borders, maps to find the capital city of drowned Ys and the bounds of Camelot, maps that would lead you to the top of Mount Qaf, and to the Axis Mundi.
There are windows in this car, though I soon stop trying to look through them. Each holds a different view—here a forest, full of ancient, knotted trees; and there a city, sleek glass, and all underwater; and next a palace of some sort, red domed roofs bright like rubies in the sun. Windows to everywhere and anywhere, the constantly changing view dizzying.
“Where would you go?” Tanis asks. “If you could choose anywhere. To lose yourself. Or, perhaps, to find yourself.”
I do look through the windows then, watching each scene for as long as it lasts, waiting for the sense of “found” to settle into my joints. I flip through maps, hover my finger over borders. The snake raises its head from Tanis’ neck and watches.
“The train,” I say, thinking of that burning sapphire heart. “Could the train choose for me?”
“It can. We will make you a map of desire.” Tanis opens a long, narrow drawer in a mirrored cabinet that I would swear wasn’t there when we first walked into the train car. She sorts through the contents, then sets a blank piece of worn parchment on the cabinet’s top. I can see the shadows of past drawings and words scraped from its surface.
“Set your left hand in the center.”
I do. The snake unwinds from her neck, slithers across the parchment to my hand, and strikes, fangs sinking into my wrist. Fast as breath, they withdraw, spattering my blood across the parchment.
“What is the place you are looking for?” Tanis asks. “Know the truth of it in your heart.”
My blood moves across the parchment. I felt dizzy, watching it. Then it stops. Settles into lines. A map. The snake curves around it once, twice, three times, then winds its way back up Tanis’ arm and to her throat.
The train pauses, shivers, turns. I feel a longing for the place on the map in my bones.
“As a thank you, I won’t ask for the return of the wizard’s heart you wear on your finger,” I say, smiling at the largest of emerald rings she wears.
Tanis laughs, gold and bright as honey. “He knows very well where it is. He’s just afraid to ask for it himself.”
“Then he probably shouldn’t have it back,” I say.
She smiles, and the images in the train’s windows slow, then coalesce, all showing the same view as the train glides to a stop.
The doors open. “Thank you,” I say.
I step off the train, into a place I have never seen before. I am lost.
But there is no answering ache of finding in my bones, no need to cast feathers for paths or search winds for directions. No tingle in my feet that sets the pattern for my steps. Not lost, then: My own.
About the Author
Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who lives and writes in Minnesota. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, was one of NPR’s best books of 2014, and her debut novel, Roses and Rot, was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians was named a best book of 2017 by NPR, and won a 2018 Alex Award. Her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, collects work that has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, performed as part of Selected Shorts, and anthologized in Year’s Best and Best of volumes. She was the writer for the first 18 issues of The Books of Magic, part of DC Comics’ Sandman Universe. Her next novel, A Sleight of Shadows, the sequel to An Unkindness of Magicians, was published in April 2023. You can find her @KatwithSword on Twitter and on Instagram. She talks about books at Epigraph to Epilogue.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the May 2023 issue, which also features work by Natalia Theodoridou, Deborah L. Davitt, Izzy Wasserstein, Wole Talabi, Sharang Biswas, S.L. Harris, Timothy Mudie, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition here.
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