This month’s stories are by authors Margaret Ronald, Kij Johnson, Brian Slattery, and Tessa Gratton. The first story of the month is free to read, but it’s our paying subscribers who allow us to keep publishing great stories week after week. We are delighted that nine of our 2023 stories appeared on Nerds of a Feather’s Hugo Reading List and seven of our 2023 stories are featured on Locus’ 2023 Recommended Reading List. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up
For February’s second story, we welcome Kij Johnson back with an utterly stunning embodiment of life and the living of it. ~ Julian and Fran, February 11, 2024
by Kij Johnson
You would like to hear how it is in old age?
Certainly, not much is known about that country
Till we land there ourselves, with no right to return.
Four years ago, Jan is awakened by a brilliant flash of gray-white light in her right eye. She is lying on her left side, face half-buried in her pillow, so she thinks nothing of the fact it is only in one eye, instead wondering first about the color, which is more like static on an old television than a flashlight—and then, how someone with a flashlight (for that is what it has to be, a flashlight) was able to shine it into her second-story bedroom, past the heavy curtains, and straight onto her face. She is not afraid. On some level, she knows already that this flash is no outside threat.
But at her age, waking up in the night is followed inevitably by heaving out of bed to pad to the bathroom, and so she sits up. The light is gone (it was only a flash, after all), but as she lifts her head, she feels a sensation as delicate as plucking a petal from a violet. It is inside her eye—at the back of her eye, where the only nerve she knows of is the optic nerve. After that tiny flicker there is no more sensation. But she knows it’s bad.
She does all the appropriate things: right eye covered and her head leaned carefully forward, left eye fixed on the ground at her feet as Dave, her husband, helps her into the empty offices of the eye specialist who meets her early the next morning (a Saturday). And as it happens, it is not the detached retina they all fear. It is only a few blood vessels torn loose from the back of her eye. A retinal tear. It’s a fairly common occurrence, he says, adding some information she misses but Dave gets. This has been scary; thank god for Dave.
“But there’s a blur,” she says. “When I look at the wall.”
The specialist says, “The occlusion is in front of the optic nerve, yes.”
The blur dims one of his eyes as she turns to him. “Is it always going to be there?”
He tips his head to one side, like a sparrow. “Well, it might be. When you’re young, any loose matter in the eye settles to the bottom.” She has a sudden vision of her eyeball’s floor littered with threads and scraps, like a sewing room after a big quilting project. “But in older eyes, the vitreous humor—the fluid in your eye—dehydrates with age. It gets thicker, more like a gel, and things don’t settle as quickly. It might take a while before the occlusion is out of your line of sight.”
“How long?” Jan says. Her pleasures are all pleasures of the eye: bird-watching, cloud-spotting, reading, embroidery.
He says, “Maybe a year or two, but your brain will learn to ignore it before that.”
But it doesn’t settle and her brain doesn’t learn to ignore it. The occlusion remains obstinately in her focal point. If she flicks her eyes to one side, she can evade it for an instant before it slides back into its place. She cannot observe it directly, as it’s inside her eye, where the strange magics of focus and inversion happen, but after she looks at a bright object, it seems clearer. She senses more than sees that it is vertical and branched, bipedal.
A year later, when she is getting her glasses replaced (this thing in her eye has affected her prescription), her optometrist, who is a bit odd and likes science fiction as much as she does, says, “Oh, it’s like you have a tiny alien in there! Nice. Like, it’s got little legs and a head.” And since he is beaming a giant light directly into her dilated pupil, she also sees it sharply for the first time.
“It’s not an alien,” she says. “It’s a bird.”