Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 33
Stories
The Other City
by J.S. Bangs
Small Creatures and Large
by Michael Haynes
Thirteen Words
by J. Deery Wray
IGMS Audio
The Other City by J.S. Bangs
Read by Stuart Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Other City
    by J.S. Bangs

The Other City
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

The man stumbled through the gates of Salem with a bundle in his arms. "Let's eat him," the boys said and scampered down the grassy hill to the wall, hooting and hollering and grabbing sharp sticks and stones as they went.

Jeska picked her way carefully down the slope, and got to the bottom just in time to say, "Wait."

The man cowered beneath the thirty-foot iron wall that guarded Salem. He clutched the blanketed bundle to his chest. The boys threw stones, but held back when Jeska scolded them. They knew to respect her fifteen years. But Little, a boy too young to have earned a real name yet, could not restrain himself, and he threw one last rock that glanced off the man's forehead.

"Ow," the man said, and jerked back. He jostled the bundle, and it let out a plaintive cry.

"Look what you've done," Jeska scolded Little. She smacked him on the cheek, but lightly. Little was her favorite. She walked up to the man and peered over his shoulder at the tiny, pink, squealing baby.

"Where did you get that?" she asked.

"Leave us alone," he said. He fussed with the child to try to calm it, but it only screamed the louder.

"Can we eat him?" one of the boys called out.

"Quiet," Jeska snapped. The man did look like good food, with a healthy face free of cancer and parasites, straight limbs and unscabbed skin. He had a little fat around his waist, which Jeska had never seen before. But he was much taller than Jeska, and looked strong. She could never take him down with the boys, unless they surprised him when he slept. She was more interested in his soft clothing and the belt of precious leather at his waist. And she wanted to hold the baby.

"Do you know the mother of that baby?" she asked.

"Of course I knew the mother of the baby," the man sad. "It's my child."

"What do you mean it's 'your' child? Are you going to eat it?"

"I'm not going to eat him!" He gaped at her with a red, horrified face. The baby wailed.

Jeska was taken aback. She had never seen a man take a child, except for food. "Some wild boys ate my baby four days ago. But what are you doing if you're not going to eat it?"

The man studied Jeska for a very long time, lingering on her swollen breasts and black, callused feet. "Somebody ate your baby?"

"Yes."

The man put his hand to his forehead. "And don't you care?"

"I have other things to worry about." She wasn't prepared to take care of a child right now, with her sisters dead and four little brothers to care for. She comforted herself with this truth in the lonely nights when her breasts ached.

The child's wail rose again. Jeska said, "He's hungry. Let me take him."

She reached for the baby, and the man shrank back. He eyed her with suspicion. "Are you going to -- to hurt him?"

"No. I'm going to feed him."

He cautiously extended the child to her. She held the child to her breast, and he sucked with greedy hunger. It took a little while for her milk to come, but soon the child nursed. The man watched with wonder and relief.

"Where is his mother?" Jeska asked.

"She died giving birth."

"Then why do you have the baby?"

"Because I wouldn't let them kill him."

"Who are they? Did they want to eat him?"

The man laughed bitterly. "Only metaphorically. They are the matrons of Salem. Because the child is deformed, it cannot live in the pure city."

Jeska hadn't noticed that the child was deformed, but she looked again. The right foot was bent in and warped, and the first three toes grown together. "That's all? But every child has something like that." Three fingers of her own left hand were curled and fused.

"But you live in the Polluted. I lived in Salem." He turned to the dull metal walls of the city and shouted, as if hoping the inhabitants would hear. "Salem, the New Garden! Where the water is clean and the earth bears unpoisoned fruit. No place for the deformed, the mutant, the fruit of our forefathers' sins." He slumped against the wall. "When I wouldn't destroy the child, they expelled us. Do you understand?"

She didn't, but she nodded anyway. "What is your name?"

"Danyel."

"I am Jeska. Would you like to join our family?"

"What family?"

"Me and the boys." She tossed her head towards the boys behind her, who had lost interest and started hunting bugs in the grass. She hoped the man would say yes. Since her sisters had died, she desperately needed a big brother or sister.

But Danyel shook his head. "I'm going to the Other City."

"Oh. What's that?"

The man sighed. "Probably a legend. In Salem we have heard of a city to the south, past the desert, where civilization still lives. Sometimes people leave seeking the Other City. But no one ever comes back."

"Oh," Jeska said. "We know about that. We call it the City Without Walls."

Danyel's eyes brightened. "Then you know where it is?"

"Well, no. No one knows where it is. But we have heard the rumor."

"Then I guess you can't help me." The light in his eyes dimmed. "Thank you anyway."

"Let me come with you."

"What?"

Jeska was stunned herself. She had never thought about the City Without Walls before, and had never wanted to look for it. But she would do whatever the man wanted not to lose the infant's pull on her breast again. "I've never seen it," she said, "but we know it's to the south. I'd like to see it. And how else will you feed your baby?" The words "your baby" sounded strange when addressed to a man, but she wanted to impress him.

"Are you serious?"

Jeska nodded.

Danyel looked at her and the suckling baby. "Okay."

"Brothers!" Jeska called out. The boys ran up from their gathering and formed a lopsided circle around her. "Listen! This is Danyel, and he will be our older brother. He will protect us from wild boys. We will not eat him, nor will we eat the baby. This baby will be like my baby, the one the wild boys took. Do you understand?"

The boys muttered assent. "But what will we eat?" Little asked.

"We'll find something."

Jeska counted the days they traveled south up to twenty, then stopped because she didn't know any larger numbers. At first they went very slowly, because Danyel got sick and could barely creep along. He didn't want to eat, even when Jeska showed him the best grubs and bugs, and the grasses growing in unpoisoned earth, and taught him to recognize the mutant strains that could not be eaten. He also didn't want to rut, which perplexed her. Perhaps that was why he got sick.

The baby cried constantly, except when it nursed, and then it sucked with a vigor that made Jeska's nipples hurt. Nonetheless, Jeska considered that she had gotten a fair deal. The wild boys kept far away, frightened by a brother so tall in Jeska's family. Until one day when she saw three together, watching them from a twisted tree.

Wild boys rarely moved in groups. A group of three meant that they were desperate. Jeska pointed them out to Danyel.

"What do they want?" Danyel asked.

"What wild boys always want." She had grown used to explaining things to him. "To eat meat, or to rut me." Danyel hugged the baby to his chest and looked at the far-off boys with sharp determination.

The wild boys spotted the family walking across the plain, and clambered down from the tree. They stalked through the waist-high grass with lithe, hungry strides, saying nothing. When they were a hundred yards from the group, one of them picked up a stone.

Jeska's brothers bunched closer together. "Take the child," Danyel said. He crouched in the grass to intercept the wild boys.

The hunters charged with a holler, and the family bolted. Danyel snagged the first hunter around the waist, and they spun to the ground, wrestling. The baby cried as Jeska sprinted. Her brothers scattered into the grass like mice, but the other two boys were long-legged and fierce. Jeska heard Little scream.

She ran a hundred yards before she looked back. One boy raised a bloody stone to bash in Little's skull. The other pinned down his limbs. They lifted Little's body above their heads and carried it, laughing and hollering, back to their tree. The third one scrambled away from Danyel and ran to join his comrades. The baby wailed in Jeska's arms.

Danyel plodded back to them. The little brothers crawled through the grass and gathered around her, weeping and sobbing and rubbing little hands in their eyes. Jeska patted them on the head and had them sit close to her. Danyel covered his face and breathed deeply. He seemed on the verge of tears. He looked at Jeska, sitting calmly, and suddenly shouted.

"Are you just going to sit there?"

"What am I supposed to do?"

"Don't you ever cry?"

"I am their mother. I cannot cry." The baby whined and grabbed at her breast, and she tisked and let him nurse again.

Danyel looked to where the boys tore the flesh from Little's bones with rocks and sticks and bickered over the scraps. "Don't we need to get away from them?"

"Don't you understand anything? They got what they want. They won't bother us tonight." Jeska pretended to be interested in the nursing child, but she was angry and very sad. Little was the last child born to her older sister. She wanted to cry, but she didn't dare. She hadn't cried when the wild boy stole her own baby, and she would not cry for Little.

They stayed until nightfall. The wild boys moved away. As the sun was setting, they saw three tall figures and four shorter ones moving across the plains to the south. "More wild boys?" Danyel asked.

"No," Jeska said. "A family." She whistled, the sisters of the other family whistled back, and the two families joined for the night. They shared stories and food. The other family had a little meat saved from a dead wild boy they had found, so Jeska's boys got to taste meat for the first time in many days.

Danyel refused to eat. One of the sisters of the other family laughed at him. She was tall like Danyel and very beautiful, and her name was Sar. She watched Danyel with a sly smile.

"Are you from Salem?" she asked.

He shrugged. "How did you know?"

"Because you won't eat human meat. I wouldn't either, at first."

"You came from Salem?"

"Six years ago. I ran away when they paired me to breed with a man I hated. You?"

"My son was born imperfect, and I wouldn't let them destroy him. We're going to the Other City."

Sar laughed again, and this time she sounded bitter. "There is no Other City, Danyel, and no City Without Walls. It's just a legend. There's only Salem with the garden and the walls, and the Polluted with the mutants and the cannibals. The sooner you know that, the sooner you'll be able to survive here." She added, "If you try to cross the desert with that baby, it'll die. You were better off killing it in Salem."

Danyel closed his eyes. "Then at least he'll die in my arms and not at my hand."

Jeska gave him his child, which made him a little happier. He fell asleep with the baby on his chest. Jeska curled next to Sar when the sisters lay down.

"Is it true?" she asked. "Is there no City Without Walls?"

Sar sighed. "I've been all over the Polluted. I've never seen any sign of it."

Jeska thought very hard. She thought of Little. She thought of her remaining brothers, who would die or become wild boys when they grew older. She thought of the baby who had healed her loneliness, who she wanted neither to die nor to become wild. Maybe there was a chance for him, she thought, if they reached the City Without Walls. Then she finally began to cry, because Sar was there and Jeska no longer had to be the oldest.

Sar pulled Jeska into her chest. "Poor girl," she whispered. "Come with us. Be our sister. We're three sisters and only four little ones, so we can take your family into ours." Jeska cried harder and buried her face in Sar's neck.

Sar hushed her, and they slept through the night in each others' arms.

Before the cold dawn, Jeska woke Danyel. While the sisters slept they stole away, just her and Danyel and the child.

Jeska did not count the number of days they traveled across the grassy plains. They met a few families, but never slept more than a night with them, and a few wild boys, who stayed far away. The baby was getting sicker. Jeska nursed him as often as he wanted and tried to comfort him, but things did not get better. Danyel tried carrying the baby, but the boy didn't calm for him, either.

As they went, the grasses grew shorter and the streams fewer, until one day they came to a rocky gully. Beyond the gully there was no more grass: only stones and sand and short, scrubby brush, twisted and hardened by the wind.

"Do we go down?" Jeska asked.

"I always heard that the Other City was across the desert," Danyel said. "So we cross."

They scrambled down the gully, carefully handing the baby back and forth, and trekked into the sand. The sun was harsh and the stones underfoot were hot and burned Jeska's feet. They stopped and took shelter in the shade of a rock, and decided to travel at night.

There was very little food. There found some bugs, but Jeska didn't know how to find grubs in the desert. Sometimes they caught birds or lizards: those were good days. They had to hunt for pools of water to drink from, and they often ended the day thirsty. The baby suckled harder to draw milk from Jeska's drying breasts, and her nipples cracked.

There came a day when the baby's skin was hot to the touch, and he did not howl, but merely whimpered. They had rested near a spring, and all that day Danyel cupped water in his hands and poured it over the baby's head. Jeska tried to nurse him, but he would not suckle. The sun passed overhead with brutal slowness. When sundown came, neither of them had slept since the previous day's dusk. They fell asleep with their bodies touching and the fevered child between them.

In the morning the child was cold.

Danyel dug a pit as deep as his hand. They laid the child in it and covered the body with sand, then piled stones over the place. Danyel stood for a long time and looked at the grave.

Jeska was not sure if she could cry. She did not know if Danyel was older than her, or if a brother counted the same as a sister in deciding whether it was okay to cry. She leaned into his chest, and glanced up at his face.

She was surprised to see his cheeks were wet with tears running silently into his beard. She was also surprised to find she was not lonely. It was strange to feel for a man the way she had felt for her sisters. She had no word for it, but she was glad.

"Danyel?" she said.

"Yes, Jeska."

"Do you think there really is a City Without Walls?"

He took a long time to answer. "It doesn't matter. Better this than . . ."

He fell quiet and looked back towards the Polluted and the iron walls of Salem. Then they turned their faces to the south to find the Other City.


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