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Nick DiChario is a Hugo, Campbell, and a World Fantasy Award nominee, as well as the author of two award-nominated novels. This is his third appearance in Galaxy’s Edge, the first in a new series of modern-day Italian folktales he’s been writing.

 STITCHES
by
Nicholas A. DiChario

Mara and Odo married when they were sixteen years old in the small Italian village known as il villaggio di Ombri.

Mara was a childish romantic who dreamed of love, one of seven children who wanted to be swept away to a castle on the sea. Odo was an only child who had come late to his parents—strong, confident, mature for his age, eager to start his own family and prove himself capable in the world.

Odo, like his father, like many of the other men in the village, grew up fishing on the Mediterranean at his father's side. Now that he was married, he needed to borrow money from the bank to buy his first dory, one of the small fishing boats the locals called le pescherecce. So one day Odo and his father walked into the bank while the other fishermen in town gathered outside on the sidewalk and waited.

When the two men emerged, Odo's loan secured, the men patted him on the back and led him to the tavern for his first official tankard of birra as a man. It was a ritual all the young fishermen went through. They cared little for the sports and games, music, dancing, parties, and fast cars that seemed to captivate the young people in other towns. It was dories they wanted—le pescherecce. In il villaggio di Ombri, it was not the signorine who turned boys into men, but rather the bankers who gave them the loans for their first boats. So it was with Odo.

*

The young couple moved into Odo’s grandfather’s house, which had been empty since the old man died. Although it was little more than a shack, to Mara it was the castle she’d always dreamed of, and Odo saw it as the foundation of his new life. They did what they could to make the house their own. Mara and her mother fashioned new drapes and curtains, and coverings for the musty old furniture, while Odo and his father repaired shutters, loose boards, and replaced the sagging shingles on the roof.

Mara was an excellent seamstress. Her mother had begun teaching her to sew from the moment Mara could hold a needle and thread in her tiny fingers. Now she would be expected to make money and contribute a small amount to the household income as Odo struggled to earn a wage from his daily catch.

One afternoon while working, Odo and his father found Grandfather’s old fishing net in the ramshackle shed behind the house. Odo was excited to discover it and promised to begin patching and knotting the ancient nettle-hemp rope. “Nonno would be proud of you,” Odo’s father said. “As I am.”

*

One might think that the life of fishing families was the same for everyone, wrought with the daily demands of a fishing economy, up before dawn, catching fish at sea in the morning and selling their catch at the market in the afternoon, and then cleaning and maintaining boats and equipment until nightfall. But the families that shared these lives filled them with small rituals that made their days unique, personal, and special unto themselves.

Mara and Odo woke together each morning and dressed in the darkness of their small bedroom, the smell of brine and ancient wood in the air. Mara prepared breakfast while Odo made coffee on the stove. After breakfast they went out together to launch the dory. Mara carried an old fishing rod she’d found among Odo’s grandfather’s belongings, and Odo carried the gear he would need for the day.

When they reached the dock, Mara baited the hook and cast the line in a graceful, sweeping arc into the sea. If she caught two fish in the morning for their supper, Odo wouldn’t need to take two fish out of his nets before he went to the market.

“Happy fishing,” Odo said to Mara.

“Happy fishing,” Mara answered.

Then they kissed lightly on the lips and separated.

But here, too, is where their hearts divided—Mara the romantic and Odo the conqueror. Mara’s lips trembled for fear that she might never see him again. This kiss, on this morning, she couldn’t help thinking, might be the last. A storm or some other horror at sea could steal my Odo away forever.

“Don’t worry,” Odo said, tasting her fear. “There’s no danger for a good fisherman on the sea. No matter what happens out there,” he motioned vaguely at the line where the sea met the horizon, “I will always come home to you. I promise.” Then he took her hand and placed it over his chest where she could feel the steady, reassuring beat of his heart.

The kiss shared, the promise delivered, their ritual complete, Odo climbed aboard his dory and shoved off.

But the last part of the ritual belonged to Mara alone. She held Odo’s heartbeat in her hand long after they waved goodbye. She squeezed it down so far into the palm of her hand that she would be able to hold it there all day, feel it beating gently under her skin, until Odo returned safely home. This was how she knew he was alive and well even when they were apart, separated by the sea.

*

One day a storm blew in while the men were out fishing. As soon as the sky darkened and the rain began to fall, the women ran to shore to wait for their husbands to return home. They clutched each other’s hands and shivered as thunder sounded and lightning struck, as gusts of wind blew back their hair in swirling strands and snapped their skirts like flags.

Slowly the dories returned, one by one, bobbing like drunken buoys on the chopping waters. One by one the wives broke the chain of hands, ran to their husbands, hugged them and wept with relief as the men stepped out of their boats. All the other couples walked away until only Mara and her mother-in-law remained gazing out at the crashing waves.

Finally, another dot appeared on the water, laboring its way to shore, listing drunkenly. By the time the dory reached the dock, Mara could see there was only one man aboard.

Exhausted and drenched, her father-in-law stumbled forward. His wife ran to him and helped him walk up the shore while Mara, wringing her hands, stood and watched. The old man came to her and stood unsteadily in the wind. He was a broken mast, his face grim and sad, longer and older than she’d ever seen it.

“Daughter,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know how to tell you. Odo. The fishing was bad in the harbor. He went farther out than anyone else hoping to fill his nets. He knew better, but he was fearless. My Odo. I tried to hail him when the sky darkened, but he was too far out. I went after him, but the storm blew me back in. I couldn’t reach him. I’m sorry.”

Mara allowed herself to be led back to her house, where her in-laws wanted to stay with her and comfort her in her grief, and perhaps be comforted themselves, but she asked them to leave after a time.

“Don’t worry,” Mara said, hoping to reassure them. “My Odo is not dead.”

“You must face the truth,” the old man said. “It will be easier for you if you do.”

“Did you see his boat go down?” she asked. “Did you see him drown?”

He shook his head sadly. “No, but I’m no stranger to storms on the Mediterranean. The sea has taken him. We take what we want from the sea, and then there comes a time when the sea takes what it wants from us. This is the way of things. You’re not the first wife to suffer such a loss, and you won’t be the last.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” she said. Mara knew what her in-laws could not have known, what she could not begin to explain to them. She still felt the soft beat of Odo’s heart in the palm of her hand. Odo was alive. “Odo promised me he’d always come home no matter what happened at sea. I believe him. He’ll be back.”

*

That night, Mara slept the deep and dreamless sleep of the dead, il sonno dei morti, and woke before dawn with the thump of Odo’s heart still in her hand. She decided to keep their rituals as much as she could and carried the grandfather’s fishing rod to shore. She baited her hook and cast the line out to sea. The storm had passed. The sky was clear. She could see for miles. She watched the fishermen launch their dories one at a time into the soft blue waves. There was no sign of Odo, but Mara was not worried.

For three mornings it went like this. She woke with Odo’s heartbeat in her hand, set out before dawn to cast her line, watched the boats come and go, and caught nothing. Her mother visited bearing food and more sewing work than usual to help Mara keep her mind off the tragedy. But there was no tragedy in Mara’s mind, and she was happy for the extra work. Odo would be pleased when he returned to find that she’d earned some money for the household while he was away. She looked forward to showing him her full purse.

Her in-laws came to check on her, their eyes red with strain, their faces lined with grief, urging her to leave the house on the seashore and return to her parents’ home where she could get on with her life. The rescuers had found no sign of Odo or his dory and had given up the search.

“It’s over,” her father-in-law said. For the first time Mara noticed how the sea and the wind had hardened his face, how thin and tough was his brow, the roughly tanned neck and ears, the deep crows’ nests at the corners of his eyes, his hard, dry lips and tawny complexion. The fisherman’s life had made him so handsome! Odo will look like this someday, she thought, hiding her smile.

On the third day, Mara caught three fish. This was a good omen. If the fish were returning to the harbor, Odo might be, too. She went back to the house to clean the fish and prepare a meal just in case Odo was home in time for dinner. But when she gutted the belly of the first fish, a human toe fell out.

She recoiled from it. The toe looked like Odo’s big left toe, large-knuckled and bent slightly inward. No. It couldn’t be. Could it? She looked down at her palm, felt Odo’s heartbeat there, thumping gently just under the surface of her skin. Alive. He was still alive. He must be!

She wiped her brow and went to work on the second fish. And an ear fell out. That could be anyone’s ear, she thought, although the lobe was long, like Odo’s. When she gutted the third fish, a human finger fell out. It was Odo’s finger. His wedding ring was still wrapped around it.

Her hands trembled. She dropped the knife. How does one make sense of a thing like this? The mind begins to construct scenarios. Mara’s mind went swiftly to work. Perhaps things were not as bad as they seemed. Odo had told her that he would return to her no matter what happened at sea. Maybe he was trying to come home inside the fish.

Mara ran to shore with the rod, cast the line again, and in a short time caught more fish. She brought them inside and cut them open and found Odo’s ear and kidney. She ran out again, cast her line, but no more fish would bite.

She began to fear that the fish with Odo inside would escape her—she would never be able to catch them all with a single line—so she went to the grandfather’s shed and dragged out his tattered old fishing net. There were gaping holes in it, but Odo had begun repairing it using the clove-hitch and sheet-bend knots his father had taught him, and she was sure she could catch many fish in it.

She hauled the heavy net out to the dock and cast it into the sea. Its stone sinkers and thick ropes weighed it down. It took all her strength to throw it out and tow it back in. But she was determined.

Mara caught dozens of fish this way. Frantically cut them open. Found pieces of her husband’s arms and legs and torso. Found his lips and nose and elbows. All day long she sliced open fish after fish and ran out to catch more. She set the pieces of Odo out on her worktable like a puzzle waiting to be assembled.

She dragged in as many fish as she could, worked tirelessly through the night, searching for more of her husband, finding his eyes and neck and ankles and feet, finding bits of flesh and bone. While she worked, tiny fish bones pricked her fingers, turning her hands into crimson pincushions. By the end of the night, she reeked of fish and was sodden with blood and guts and scales.

Finally, her adrenaline spent, she collapsed from exhaustion and slept for a long time.

And then, when she woke, she began stitching.

*

There would be no hiding the stitches, of course. There were so many pieces of Odo, and none of his parts fit as well as they had before, the fish having taken so much and returned so little. In many places, Mara’s seams were deep and wide and, for lack of a better word, grisly. But when Mara finished her work, there was no doubt it was Odo. The round cheeks. The sunken, serious eyes. The thin lips and strong chin. His chest and back and legs were mostly ragged thread, although she’d done her best to weave in his flesh and bones where she could. The legs were uneven (she’d caught only one knee). He would walk with a limp, no doubt.

She was sorry about the stitches in his head, which made his face look a bit like a patchwork quilt, but there was no helping it considering what she’d had to work with. Anyone who knew good sewing would understand what a difficult job it had been and how well she’d done putting Odo back together.

But how to make him rise? He lay on her worktable no more animated than a slab of meat. She hadn’t caught his heart, but she could still feel his heartbeat in her palm, so she knew he was alive. How was she to get Odo’s heart from her hand into his body?

She lifted her husband’s hand and squeezed it. “Odo, please, tell me what to do!”

That was when he moved. His eyes blinked, his legs twitched, and his muscles rippled and popped.

“Odo!” Mara cried. “You’re alive! I knew you were alive!”

But when she let go of his hand to hug him, he fell dead again. She snatched up his hand once more and watched the life flow back into his body. She had to hold his hand, press his heart into his palm, to make him come alive. That was the secret! That was the key! Each morning Odo had handed his heart to her for safekeeping, so she could hand it back to him if he ever needed it again. Now that time had come. Hand to hand. Heart to heart. Amore a amore.

Mara helped Odo sit up, and then stand, and then walk. He seemed to understand her when she spoke, although there was no expression on his face, no sparkle in his cold, steady eyes, and he could not answer her. All he could do was move his jaw slowly, uselessly mimicking her.

No matter. Odo was alive. And Mara had given him life. He’d tried so hard to come home to her, just as he’d promised, and now they were reunited. Surely he would get better in time. She couldn’t wait for her mother to see him, and Odo’s parents, and the people in the village.

*

Mara dressed Odo in his finest clothes. She wanted him to look his best when they walked together hand-in-hand into il villaggio di Ombri. She could not wash the stink of rotting fish from his body, but she didn’t think that anyone would care about that once they saw him. Wasn’t it more important that he’d returned? A little stink would be nothing to the people of the village, who were accustomed to the smell of fish and rot.

As they made their way down Main Street, windows and doors flew open, people gawked, parents gasped and hid their children, shopkeepers talked in hushed, urgent tones. Word spread quickly through the village.

While Mara went about her shopping in the market, she smiled and talked to her husband as she bought squash and potatoes and flour, handing bags to Odo to carry, failing to notice the horror etched in the eyes of others, all the while holding her husband’s hand to keep his heart beating.

Odo, with his cold, dead gaze and lifeless motions, looked no more alive than a marionette. The stall-keepers turned their noses at his horrible stench. The same people who spent all day with the smell of decapitated fish filling their nostrils, with overflowing buckets of viscera spilling from their carrettini into the gutters at their feet, their aprons soaked in blood, how could they turn up their noses at Odo?

Odo’s parents had heard the news and arrived at the market just as Mara finished filling her bags. They rushed over to her.

“Daughter,” Odo’s father said, grabbing her shoulders. “What have you done?”

“Isn’t it wonderful? Odo lives!”

“Dear God,” Odo’s mother said. “That’s not Odo. Whatever it is, it’s not alive. It’s a monster. Can’t you see that?”

Mara shook her head. What’s wrong with these people? “I thought you would be pleased. This is your son. My husband. Don’t you recognize him? You should be grateful he’s come back from the sea.”

“He hasn’t come back from the sea,” her father-in-law said, tears clouding his eyes. “He’s come back from the dead. It’s not natural. It’s not right. I don’t know how you’ve done it, but this...this...thing is not our son. Can’t you smell it? You must return it to the sea.”

“No! How can you say that?” She jerked away, tugging Odo along with her. “Come, Odo.”

The other people began to scold her. “You blind fool!” they shouted. “He belongs to the dead! Give him back!”

She started to run. Odo stumbled. His legs were stiff and uneven, and he didn’t seem to understand her urgency. “Hurry!” she cried. Odo dropped the bags. The potatoes rolled out onto the street. The flour bag broke into a mound of snow.

The people shouted after her: “Wicked girl! Ragazza malvagia! Stop them! Don’t let them get away!”

The villagers rushed her and yanked her husband’s hand out of her grip. Odo fell limp, as boneless as an eel. She screamed, but they held her down as the men carried Odo to the docks, laid him in a dory, and sailed him out to sea. The same men who once congratulated him when he’d secured the loan for his dory. The same men who once patted him on the back and bought him his first tankard of birra. Now they took him out to bury him at sea.

Her in-laws tried to calm her, but she was hysterical until a doctor arrived with a syringe and gave her a shot. Then the world spun out from under her in a dark, shadowy wave, and pulled her down into unconsciousness.

*

Mara woke in her old bed at her parents’ house, in the room she once shared with her two younger sisters. Her mother was watching over her, a look of kind concern on her face. She might have been crying. It was hard to tell. People who lived by the sea always looked as if their eyes were damp.

She brushed back Mara’s hair and forced a weak smile. “Welcome home, mia figlia. You’ll live with us now. We’ve moved your sisters upstairs so you can have this room to yourself.”

Mara didn’t answer. The house was too crowded before she’d married Odo. Giving her a room of her own was a burden to the family. But she didn’t care. It wouldn’t be for long. Her life was over. Odo’s heartbeat was gone from her hand. It was the first thing she’d noticed upon waking. There was no chance of his coming back to her again. It was too late. He was dead.

“You’re a young girl,” her mother went on. “You have a long life ahead of you. Odo would have wanted you to be strong and carry on.”

Not true. Odo would have wanted her to be with him, or he would never have tried so hard to come back to her. It was the outside world that had kept them apart. What was left for her now? She would be no more than a stray dog in this village, shunned and pitied. Mara had no intention of living in a world where Odo’s heart no longer beat for her.

That night, she waited until everyone fell asleep, and then she slipped out of the house and returned to her castle by the seashore. She put on her wedding dress, went to the ramshackle shed, and hauled the grandfather’s old fishing net onto the dock. There she wrapped the net around her shoulders and gazed up at the luminous moon glow that set the water unnaturally afire. She looked down at her hand one last time. Squeezed it into a fist. Closed her eyes. Waited to feel the beat of Odo’s heart.

Nothing.

There was no more for her to do, then, but go to her husband.

She jumped into the sea. The stone sinkers and heavy ropes dragged her down to the bottom and trapped her under the net. Mara felt much like she did when she’d been drugged at the market, only this time it was the shadow of the Mediterranean that closed in over her head, and she would not be waking in her old bedroom ever again.

*

The next day, a freighter picked up Odo out in the shipping channel. He clung, barely breathing, to a buoy as the sea captain hauled him aboard. It was a miracle he’d been found at all let alone found alive. His head was badly cut, his body bleeding from horrible gashes, and he fell in and out of consciousness as the ship’s doctor tended his wounds.

Odo’s rescue was, at first, joyous news to everyone in il villaggio di Ombri, but when Mara’s body was discovered under the dock, it quickly became an impossible tragedy to bear. By mutual and silent consent, the villagers chose not to speak of the day Mara brought Odo’s ghoul to the market, thinking it would be better for Odo never to hear such a story, and, no doubt, frightened at how much the stitches in Odo’s head resembled those Mara had given him.

When he was well enough, Odo returned to fishing. Because he no longer had a dory of his own, he’d go out each morning with his father. They’d sell their catch in the afternoon, and work together until nightfall. Life must go on. Life did go on. Odo was a practical man by nature. Soon, when his father was ready to retire, he purchased the dory and married Mara’s sister, Mina.

Mina was a year younger and looked very much like Mara. But the differences soon became apparent to Odo. Mina was a size smaller than Mara in all aspects—eyes, nose, ears, mouth, body, and spirit. She was neither as quick-witted nor as interested in the personal rituals that had been so important to Mara. Although Mina was a good cook, and adept with a broom, she had no facility with needle and thread.

Odo missed Mara’s childlike attachment to romance, which Mina did not possess. He yearned for the taste of fear on Mara’s trembling lips. Mina had neither the imagination nor inspiration to fear. It was Mara, he realized, who’d possessed the secrets in her heart that made him want to rise out of bed every morning and fight for their lives together rather than just live another day of it.

As the days and months and years marched on, Odo began to wonder if he was somehow living a diminished copy of his life, just as he’d acquired a diminished copy of Mara. Each morning during the first few seconds of wakefulness, he felt as if he were on the cusp of rising into a new reality. This new reality was a kind of enlightenment waiting for him, an explanation that would reveal the grand delusion he’d been laboring under for so long. In these moments, he was sure he was about to wake not from sleep, but from death itself into the truth of all existence. But the moments always passed quickly, a mere whisper away.

Such flashes continued to haunt him as the children grew, as he walked his son to the bank to secure the loan for his first dory, and as he married off his daughters one by one. The moments continued to haunt him as the grandchildren visited and scrabbled about the house like stone crabs, and Mina grew stooped and round of shoulder, and Odo became too old to fish on the sea. For whatever reason, he was living a shadow of his life, and the people in it were silhouettes, while his true life waited just out of reach.

Eventually, Odo took to sitting for long hours on the dock, his grandfather’s fishing rod perched beside him, waiting for the fish to bite. As time went on he’d sit longer and longer into the night, hypnotized by the constellations and the sound of the sea sloshing dark circles around him, convincing him to fall asleep until morning. During his darkest moments, Odo could feel the barest hint of a heartbeat in the palm of his hand, and he often wondered if it was Mara somehow calling to him.

Then, one lonely night, as the sun fell into the Mediterranean, as the moon climbed high above it, as the fog rolled in, Odo heard a soft creaking sound echo across the water. He knew the sound of a dory better than any other sound in the world, but it was unusual for a fisherman to be out so late at night, especially without a lamp. He peered into the darkness for a while but could see nothing through the fog, so he finally stood and walked to the edge of the dock.

A man never forgets his first dory, no more than he forgets his first love. The curve of its spine, the way the prow breaks the waves, the flaking patches of paint on the hull, even the sound it makes in the water. Each dory speaks its own language. There was no doubt in Odo’s mind. This was his first beloved il peschereccio.

The dory crept closer, seeming to move of its own will. There was no motor propelling it, no oars lapping in the waves. But he saw someone sitting tall, still as a ghost, draped in the chill night fog. Odo stared at the figure through the gloom until he was sure his vision hadn’t betrayed him. Then the strength drained from his legs, and he dropped to his knees. The dory slid gently, silently to the dock and stopped in front of him.

“Mara, is that you?” Odo asked, his voice trembling. “Dear God, is it really you? How can it be?”

Mara stood and stared into his eyes. She was as young and beautiful as the day they’d married. In fact, she was wearing her wedding dress. But there was something different about her, too. Her face was expressionless. She seemed little more than a body, a fluid statuette, and her eyes were cold, dark, deep, and empty, like the sea itself. And she carried the faint but unmistakable odor of death.

Mara reached out and took Odo’s hand in hers. Her touch chilled him to the bone and sent him shivering, and then Odo felt the heartbeat in his palm come alive and throb wildly under his skin.

“Come with me, Odo,” she said in her watery voice. “It’s time for us to be together again.”

My love, Odo thought, my true life has come for me at last.

*

In il villaggio di Ombri, it’s said that when the people take what they want from the sea, there comes a time when the sea takes what it wants from the people. So no one was surprised when, one morning after the fog lifted from the shores of the Mediterranean, Odo was gone from the dock, never to be seen again.

Copyright © 2016 Nicholas A. DiChario

 

LIMITS
Larry Niven

An extraordinary mix of fantasy and science fiction from one of the masters of science fiction, Larry Niven.

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Lord of the Cul-de-Sac
by Auston Habershaw

Ponies

by Kij Johnson
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by George R. R. Martin

Just Another Night at the Abandoned Draft Bar and Grill
by Stewart C Baker

The Gettysburg Game
by Jeff Calhoun
Henry James, This One's For You
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by Jean-Claude Dunyach
The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side

by Paul Di Filippo

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by Sheila Finch

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by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
The Long Tomorrow (Part 3)
by Leigh Brackett

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From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
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by Gregory Benford

Book Reviews
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

Loosely based on Larry Niven's 1973 novella "Flash Crowd," Red Tide continues to examine the social consequences of the impact of having instantaneous teleportation, where humans can instantly travel long distances in milliseconds.

This is a theme that has fascinated the author throughout his career and even appears in his seminal work Ringworld, where the central character celebrates his birthday by instantly teleporting himself to different time zones, extending his birthday. The author also discussed the impact of such instantaneous transportation in his essay, "Exercise in Speculation: The Theory and Practice of Teleportation."

Larry Niven is joined by two younger writers, Brad R. Torgersen and Matthew J. Harrington, as they take on this challenging idea and further develop the theories and concepts that Niven originally presented in "Flash Crowd."

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To accommodate the huge demand (from readers as well as writers who wanted to write stories set in the universe), Eric created an online periodical called the Grantville Gazette which publishes stories set in the 1632 universe.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2016 All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.