Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 42
Stories
A Dragon's Doula
by M.K. Hutchins
Fire Born, Water Made
by Adria Laycraft
The Burden of Triumph
by Samuel Marzioli
IGMS Audio
Orson Scott Card - Bonus
Visitors, Chapter 1
by Orson Scott Card
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Small Offerings
by Paolo Bacigalupi

A Dragon's Doula
    by M.K. Hutchins

A Dragon's Doula
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

The Crewes' house sat in an isolated field, just like every other house I'd passed, with the Tetons tearing up the horizon behind them. Really, eastern Idaho was the perfect place for a family of dragons to live. Quiet. Open spaces. Ranchers would blame any missing cattle on wolves.

I parked next to a rusty pick-up, then jogged up the porch steps and knocked on the weathered gray door.

A girl, maybe nine, answered. Her freckles and bare feet looked mundane enough, but I caught a whiff of smoldering leaves and burning pine. Definitely dragon.

"Are you the doula mama called?"

I knelt so I was eye-level with her. "Yes, sweetie, I'm here to make sure everything goes smoothly with the birth. What's your name?"

She slammed the door in my face.

Well. What a promising start.

The door opened again. An octogenarian wearing a dress stolen from the 50s stood there, one arm on the girl's shoulder. The old woman's voice creaked, but there was a matronly firmness under it. "Cassie. You need to apologize."

Cassie muttered something at her bare toes, but it satisfied the old woman. "You be a good helper for your mama, understand?" Then she held out a hand. "I'm Lillian, and I'm afraid I was just on my way out."

"I'm Fern." I shook her hand -- she had a good grip for a woman with liver spots, and a warm smile. Not a touch of smoke, though. Lillian smelled like fresh-ground cinnamon.

She got into the pick-up, engine spluttering as she pulled out.

A new voice called from inside, "Come in!"

Cassie folded her arms and glared at me, but I stepped past her.

The front room oozed family. Kid's artwork on the wall, two dirty mugs on the coffee table, some LEGOs scattered on the rug. The decor all looked like it came out of a hokey Western movie -- rustic wood and a coarse-woven blanket thrown over a rocking chair -- but I still ached to see it. I'd never have a home, have roots, like this.

The woman who'd called me inside smiled at me from the kitchen, a half-eaten cookie in her hand. "You must be Fern."

"That's me. I assume you're Allison Crewe, the expectant mother?"

She laughed and patted her round belly. "All dressed up and ready for human visitors." It was a pregnancy suit, of course. Hard to explain a new baby to the neighbors without feigning human gestation. "Would you like a cookie? Something to drink?"

"A cookie sounds great." They smelled great, too. Snickerdoodles. I picked one up. Underneath the pile of cinnamon-laced goodies, I spotted a card. I tilted my head to the side. The shortening-stained picture featured a Nativity. "Isn't it August?"

"Lillian's always shoving plates of goodies at us and being nosy," Cassie sneered from the doorway. "She's a nuisance."

"Cassie!" her mother snapped. "Lillian's a very nice old lady."

"Nosy old lady."

"I already told her to come back tomorrow -- it's nice to have company when your father's gone. Besides, I think baking cookies for others is part of her Mormon Bible. Be respectful."

Given Cassie's glare, I'm not sure she knew what respectful meant. "Your husband's not here?"

"No." Allison sighed. "He's a trucker, and he couldn't get someone else to take this route. He'll be back in three days."

Nothing I could do about that. "Can I see the egg?"

"Just a minute -- let me change out of this."

Allison returned a minute later in a tank top and cut-offs that showed off a tanned midriff. The smell of dirt lingered behind her smokiness -- a gardener, perhaps?

Cassie, despite her protests, had sidled into the kitchen. She tossed the nativity card into the trash and grabbed a Snickerdoodle.

"This way," Allison said, waving me to follow her down the hall.

It'd help to include Cassie -- I turned to her. "I bet you're excited about having a new sibling. Would you like to come see what I'll be doing?"

And then something exploded.

I ducked and covered my eyes, but all the noise came from only one mug -- now mug shards -- across the coffee table. Smoke curled from the ends of Cassie's hair.

She glared at me, then her mother, then stomped to her room.

"Cassie!" Allison called after, but Cassie slammed her door. Allison shook her head and grabbed a rag. The black dregs of the coffee dripped onto the rug.

I picked up porcelain pieces while Allison wiped. She kept her lips pursed in a white line, offering no explanation.

"Is Cassie stressed about the new baby?"

Allison shrugged, and sprayed cleaner onto the rug.

I frowned. An upset dragon is a dangerous thing. Not just because of the fire-breathing and transforming into a winged beast with claws -- though it's prudent to take those into consideration -- but because things randomly explode when they're upset. Starting on the day they're born. "Allison, my job is to create a safe environment for the baby and everyone else."

She nodded dismissively. But this wasn't something she could ignore. Baby dragons mimic the emotional state of those around them. If kiddo #2 hatched in a house with a volatile older sibling, the two of them would turn the place to ashes in less than a week.

Allison led me down a hallway covered in pictures of Cassie -- baby Cassie, toddling Cassie, first-day-of-school Cassie -- and into the nursery. Sheet metal sensibly lined the floor, walls, and ceiling. In the center, on top of a heating blanket, rested the egg.

"May I?"

Allison leaned against the wall. "That's what you're here for."

I knelt and spread my hands over the shell. Leathery, like a turtle egg. The little guy or gal rolled over inside. I pulled a stethoscope from my purse and listened, then I took its temperature.

But the smell was the biggest indicator -- already, the egg shared Cassie and Allison's smoldering leaves smell, mixed with something like burnt popcorn.

"I don't think your husband's going to make it. I think we have one day, maybe two."

Allison's face glowed. "I'm going to be a mother . . ."

Didn't she mean again?

Allison left to work on something for dinner, and I made preparations for the hatching. As I laid out linens and double-checked the burn section of my first-aide kit, my mind rested on Cassie.

A day or two wasn't long enough to teach her calmness.

Dinner was a cheesy bake of garden zucchini, corn, and tomatoes. I ate first -- no need to interrupt a good meal with unpleasant news. Cassie pushed her food around her plate, chin resting on the table, eyes dead. Allison took a few bites, then started folding laundry.

"Allison."

She smiled like nothing was wrong, white teeth in a tan face. "Yes?"

"The baby needs a calm environment. Do you have any relatives living nearby?"

"My husband's brother and his family. But we don't see them often."

I exhaled. "Cassie needs a place to stay for a few days. I need you to call him."

Cassie jerked upright.

"I . . . don't think that's a good idea. Cassie doesn't get along with him."

Allison folded a man's button-up shirt. Something about the smell prickled my nose. "Aren't you concerned about the safety of your baby?"

"Cassie won't be any trouble, will you?" Allison leaned around me to smile at her. "She's just been a bit moody since her grandfather's funeral. It's fine."

I sat down by Allison, intending to talk sense to her, but the laundry-smell overwhelmed me. These shirts smelled like burnt popcorn. But there wasn't a hint of that smell on Cassie. She was all smoldering leaves and burning pine. "Are these your husband's shirts?"

"Yes."

No use to dance around it. "Then you lied to me, in your e-mails."

"I . . . don't understand." How petty of her to feign ignorance.

"The egg smells like you and your husband." I let the remainder -- but Cassie doesn't -- hang unspoken in the air.

Allison stared at me. "You're . . . you're not a real dragon."

"I can't change into dragonform." I focused on not gritting my teeth. On being calm. "But there's nothing wrong with my nose. I can't ease a baby dragon into this world if you're hiding secrets from me."

Allison blinked, then shoved my words aside and kept folding laundry.

"They wouldn't even tell me," Cassie said, voice husky with unshed tears. Her fists trembled in her lap. "I don't know why they'd tell you."

And then something exploded.

This time, it was the coffee table. Spears of wood lodged into the floor, ceiling, and walls. My pulse jumped, but it was over before I had time to flinch. Cassie ran out the back door, leaving it swinging on its hinges.

Allison swallowed hard. "Are you hurt?"

I checked myself. If one of those had struck me, I could have died. "You're going to tell me what's happening. Now."

Worry lines marred her perfect brow. "Fern, I'm dealing with this."

"You're ignoring it."

She glared at me. "If you think talking with Cassie will help, go ahead! But we've tried talking. We've tried a lot of things. The only thing I know how to do for her is to act like everything's normal. And really, nothing has changed. She's still my Cassie."

Allison grabbed her laundry basket, and stalked to her room. That explained where Cassie learned dramatic exits. At least Allison had the composure not to explode anything.

I could follow Allison and try to talk the truth out of her, but she'd already lied to me once.

I grabbed a Snickerdoodle and headed out the back door.

The grasses waved under the setting sun, bringing the smell of spruce and pine from the woods. I jogged across the meadow, under the trees, where tiny white and yellow flowers sprawled across the undergrowth.

I found Cassie's clothes first, her jeans and t-shirt left in a messy heap at the base of a tree. "Cassie!" I called. "Where are you?"

I didn't hear the normal sounds of the woods -- squirrels, birds, and bugs. She was close. I scanned the twilight trees again, and spotted a long tail.

At least I was good at climbing. I scurried up a tree next to her perch. Halfway up, I found myself staring at two luminous, pearl-pink eyes. Sad eyes. Half-closed eyes. Her sinuous body draped over the tree like an abandoned scarf.

I didn't say anything, I just handed her the cookie. A peace offering. She took it gingerly between two claws, licked the sugar and cinnamon off with her curved tongue, then swallowed the rest in a single gulp.

"Want me to get you another one?"

"No. She might come."

"Your mom?"

"She's not my mom. I'm a bastard."

The two weren't mutually exclusive, but correcting children usually didn't invite further conversation. "Who is your mom?"

"Allison's an identical twin. Her sister went to college, got pregnant . . . I was too much to handle so she left me on Allison's doorstop and ran away. Family hasn't seen her since."

I chewed my lip, thinking about what Allison had said earlier. "You just found out at your Grandpa's funeral?"

Cassie nodded, miserable. "My dad's father. Ethan's father," she corrected. "We'd never spent a lot of time with his family. Now I know why."

"Allison and Ethan -- they raised you. They're still your parents."

Cassie snorted, sending two tendrils of smoke into the sky. "Y'know, at funerals, how we all burn the dragon-corpse and eat it?"

My heart twinged. Not all. Some of us couldn't change into dragonform.

"My cousins kept me out. Called me a bastard. They said I didn't deserve to have a piece of Grandpa. Ethan saved me a scale to eat, anyway, but I couldn't. Not after I knew."

"They're idiots."

Cassie blinked at me.

My throat tightened. This wasn't about me, and I didn't want to explain. "Your cousins are idiots. You're part of your family."

"They're right though. I'm not anyone's child."

"If it's Allison's identical twin, Allison is genetically your mother."

"Yeah, but she wasn't there, when . . . y'know. Egg. Sperm. Me."

Awkward. "Allison and Ethan have been there for you your whole life; isn't that more important?"

"It's a lie. And lies never last."

I shifted on my tree branch. "Cassie. Your family's not going to fall apart."

"They have a real baby. Why would they want me?"

I thought of the hallway, full of pictures of Cassie. Of the front room, proudly covered in her artwork. "Your parents love you."

Her eyes filmed over, milky. My first instinct was right. I couldn't help her before the baby hatched. "Is there anyone besides your uncle you can stay with?"

"No. And I'm not staying with him." She glared at me, breath strong with smoke. "He called me a bastard, too."

Resentment burned the back of my throat. Allison should have told me. Should have let us do something to prepare. Arrange for Cassie to be elsewhere. "You have to be calm or you have to go."

And then something exploded.

The branch under me burst into thousands of tiny slivers that needled my skin. I fell, stomach jumping to my throat.

A firm grip snatched me. I floated, feet dangling. Then Cassie set me on the ground. She didn't say anything before flying off, snaking effortlessly through the trees.

I groaned and picked the wood from my skin and clothes. I shouldn't have voiced my frustration. The last thing Cassie needed was hearing she only mattered because of her impact on the baby.

For the thousandth time, I tried to change into dragonform. I imagined my neck lengthening, my head flattening, my arms shrinking and my spine snaking out behind me, my entire body turning light as a balloon. My brain tingled -- something there recognized what I was trying to do -- but nothing happened.

I swallowed the bitter, hollow feeling and trudged back to the house. I couldn't chase a dragon on foot through the woods, after all. I checked the egg, then collapsed on top of the hand-stitched quilt in the guest bedroom.

I checked the egg again in the morning. More movement. Hatching would come soon.

I spent the day checking on the egg and trying to start a conversation with Cassie again, but she sulked in her room. I was afraid talking to her would lead to another explosion. I called the uncle, too, but he laughed and said she wouldn't have that riff-raff staying with him. Idiot. He could have a relationship with his brother, his sister-in-law, and his niece, but he chose to have nothing, instead.

My headed pounded. Maybe I could set up a tent in the back yard for Cassie? It would solve the short-term problem, but I couldn't imagine it being good for her or the family in the long run.

Come evening, someone knocked.

"Fern, could you answer?" Allison called. "I don't have the suit on. Say I'm not feeling well."

I sighed, but went anyway.

Lillian stood on the porch, carrying three foil-covered pans. She smiled, wrinkles creasing around her eyes. "Is Allison here?"

"Ah. I'm afraid she's not up to company."

"Oh my," Lillian's eyes widened. "Is the baby coming?"

"Soon," I said.

"Well. Well I'm glad I came in time." She handed me the pans -- I nearly dropped them.

I peered at her. "What . . . umm . . ."

"Oh, oh," Lillian waved a hand. "No one has time to cook with a new baby on their hands! Lasagna's on top, enchiladas in the middle, and chicken divan casserole on the bottom. You can throw them all in the freezer. Bake at 375 for an hour, and you'll have dinner just like that."

"Umm. Thanks." Isn't that what take-out was for? Maybe there wasn't any of that around here. "That's a lot of cooking."

Something sad edged Lillian's eyes. "I used to cook for eight; this was easy."

"What happened?" It sounded like someone died.

"Oh, nothing dramatic. The children grew up; they all live out east now. We still talk a lot, and they fly in to visit, but it isn't quite the same with just me and my husband puttering around the house." She smiled and shrugged. "Like I said, putting the pans together was nothing. Do call if you need anything."

I almost asked her if Cassie could stay at her house for a week, but given Cassie's animosity towards the old woman, I'd hate to be responsible if they both went up in ashes. Maybe I could just ask Lillian to beat some familial kindness into the uncle.

I sighed, closed the door, and started loading the pans next to the frozen pizzas. At least the lasagna smelled good.

At the bottom of the stack, there was some kind of church magazine. Above a smiling bunch of Samoans, the title read, "Families Can Be Together Forever."

I flipped through it. Lots of pictures -- families from all over the world, smiling, hugging each other. That's exactly what I needed here.

I took it to Cassie's room. It looked like she'd been building castles with her LEGOs, then smashing them. An old dragon instinct, perhaps.

"Look." I tossed it to her.

She wrinkled her nose. "I heard Lillian knock. You didn't have to remind me."

"No, look at the families. Why don't you think you can be like them?"

Cassie kicked some LEGOs across the brown carpet. "This is church-y stuff."

"So? These families are smiling, even though they're all different. One kid. Lots of kids. Adopted kids. Korea, Brazil, England, USA. It doesn't matter. Your family might not be what you thought it was, but I don't see why you can't be happy, too."

Cassie sneered at me. "Have you ever read the Bible? God might love these people, but he doesn't love dragons."

I knew a couple debates to the contrary, but I doubted Cassie wanted a theological lecture. I softened my tone and started picking up LEGOs. "Then tell me about what happens to dragons when they die."

"Some dragons believe in heaven and hell, some believe in reincarnation, some are atheists."

"True, but what happens here when a dragon dies? At their funeral?"

Her eyes pinched. "We lay out the dragon's body. Everyone breathes fire on the dead, then we all eat it, then bury the bones."

"Right. And why do we do that?"

Cassie paused. "We all breathe fire together to hope the departed will remember us. And to show that we loved him."

"Right." I swallowed hard, trying not to think of my grandma's funeral, and standing back while everyone else took dragonform. Everyone else breathed fire while I stood in the cold, rubbing my arms. "And do you know why we eat the body afterwards?"

Cassie tilted her head to the side. "Because . . . we don't let food go to waste?"

"It's to remember the dead. A piece of them lives in us, unites us."

Cassie's brow wrinkled. "I didn't eat any of Grandpa. I just kept the scale Ethan saved for me."

I struggled to keep my voice level. My relatives devoured Grandma without even thinking to save some for me. "Cassie, there's nothing stopping you from being part of this family. You can eat that scale and keep your Grandfather with you. Your parents love you. You can be as happy as the families in those pictures."

"Those families are all perfect," Cassie sneered.

"I don't think there's such a thing as perfect, even among happy families. Lillian wishes her kids all lived a lot closer."

Cassie peered at me. I don't think it occurred to her that the old woman had a life outside of annoying her.

"I bet distance doesn't stop Lillian's family from loving each other. I don't see why a rude uncle or a detail of birth should stop you any more than a few thousand miles. You can choose to make this family work."

"It's not as simple as that."

"Isn't it?" My voice cracked, even though I was trying to focus on the present, not my past. "Maybe they're all humans, but in this house, you're all dragons. What's keeping you apart?"

Cassie paused. She peered at the magazine. Then at me. "You . . . you're not really either. Human or dragon."

She spoke softly, but a slap would have been kinder.

"No. I'm not."

I couldn't continue this conversation. I left and locked myself in the bathroom, washing my face a dozen times and pretending I didn't have a lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit.

Grandma hadn't cared that I had a rare birth defect, that I couldn't change form. She taught me everything she knew about being a doula, anyway.

But I still couldn't participate in her funeral. I'd never participate in any funerals. I couldn't even have kids, because I couldn't change to dragonform to lay the egg -- it would just grow inside of me until its shell crushed all my internal organs. Even if I managed to adopt, no one could hold a dragon's funeral to remember me.

Cassie could be part of a dragon family. I never would.

Allison's voice yanked me from my thoughts. "Fern! Fern! The egg is moving!"

I rushed in. I briefly checked the egg -- one hairline crack, hatching definitely starting -- then soothed Allison. The baby needed a calm mother.

As far as hatchings go, this was textbook. Well, if there was a textbook for dragon doulas, this would have been it. The baby shifted between dragon and human as it kicked and wriggled, eventually settling on dragon to tear the shell apart. The little guy didn't inhale any egg mucous, and waited until there was a sizeable hole to wriggle out.

The baby sniffed, and blindly stumbled toward Allison, half-floating, tail dragging behind on the floor. Once in her arms, he -- it was a boy -- turned human. His tail shrunk. His face broadened. Eight pounds of lithe, airbound dragon became eight pounds of chubby human.

I wiped him down, took his vitals, then paused a moment to watch Allison's face. Such warmth as she smiled down at her infant. Such tenderness. Such family.

I helped her get him situated for nursing, then let them be. A content baby would stay in whatever shape his mother was in -- they'd be fine.

I washed my hands at the kitchen sink. There's something amazing and humbling about helping a new life into this world. And something bitter about knowing I'll never be the mother holding the child.

Through the kitchen window, I glimpsed Cassie, sitting on the porch. My job as doula wasn't done.

I stepped outside and sat next to her. The sun had set, leaving the grass cool and rippling under the stars.

Cassie shifted. She snapped something in half, then handed it to me. It smelled of too many smokes to discern. "Here."

"What's this?" I asked. It was flat, about as wide as an apricot.

Her legs dangled over the edge of the porch. "My grandfather's scale."

"I . . ." my throat tightened. "This isn't mine."

Cassie waved her piece. "I still have some. I think you're right. I think my mom does love me. I'm part of this family. And I have a choice. But I wanted to share it with you. You listened to me . . . you hatched my sibling. You're like family, too."

Cassie munched quietly.

The scale felt gritty against my skin and, oddly, still warm. I felt its round edges, then took a small nibble. Then a bite. It tasted like charred biscuits, but I couldn't imagine a sweeter flavor.

Maybe this didn't link me to my family, but I was part of something larger than myself. Part of a dragon family.

Then nothing exploded. Crickets chirped. The moon glowed over the trees. Other than our crunching, the world lay still.

I let my feet dangle and swing over the porch, just like Cassie's.


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